Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Table of Contents

1.      Apostate (Fiction). Messing a Mesolithic message. Set in Anatolia 12,000 years ago. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2018/02/apostate.html
2.      Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Fiction). Prepper gets a chance to use his hideaway when the Calamity happens. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2017/07/smoke-gets-in-your-eyes.html
3.      Gladys All Over (Fiction). Man plays with matches when he hires detective R Farkas to    find an old flame. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2017/02/gladys-all-over.html
4.      Trick (Fiction). Father/son activity on Halloween. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2016/11/trick.html
5.      What the Devolved Hominid Is Wearing (Fiction). Woman investigates the disappearance of her sister, a tabloid journalist with a theory about Bigfoot. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2016/08/what-devolved-hominid-is-wearing.html
6.      Bequest (Fiction). High school senior gets an unusual tip after giving a man a ride. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2016/04/bequest.html
7.      Circuits Circus (SF). Humans prefer AI robots to each other. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2015/11/circuits-circus.html
8.      The Longest Date (Fiction). Encounter with an old flame at a speed dating event. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-longest-date.html
9.      Higgs Boat (SF). An experiment with altering the Higgs field goes badly. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2015/06/higgs-boat.html
10.  Higher Education (Fiction). Prep school students ruthlessly plan their futures. For one a sense of history proves useful http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-saturnine-solution.html
11.  The Saturnine Solution (SF). During a political revolution on Titan in the distant future, humans question their origins on that world http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-saturnine-solution.html
12.  Cosmic Intruder (SF). Hooligans invade an old man’s home on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, but don’t get paid off as they intend. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2014/12/cosmic-intruder.html
13.  Tropic Freeze (SF). During a new Ice Age, a denizen of the snowy north reluctantly sails south with three young charges. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2014/09/tropic-freeze.html
14.  Cold Dishes (Fiction). A bachelor Great Uncle suddenly marries, and the motive is vengeance. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2014/04/cold-dishes.html
15.  Lanamite (SF). A playful adventure story of anti-gravity and an unlikely alien invasion. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2014/02/lanamite.html
16.  The Reptile Way (SF). There are people who argue in all seriousness (see David Icke The Reptilian Conspiracy) that the world is run by interdimensional reptiles through human puppets who belong to a particular bloodline. What if they’re right? http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-reptile-way.html
17.  Sidewalk Love (Fiction). A period piece set in 1976 about a boy and his tart. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2013/10/sidewalk-love.html
18.  Fault Lines (SF). In a near-future of multi-sided civil disturbances and home-printed weapons, rioters consistently blame their victims. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2013/06/fault-lines.html
19.  Graduation Day (SF/Paranormal). Headmaster of private school in Georgia has transferred consciousness into select students since 1871 in order to recover youth time and again. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2013/04/graduation-day.html
20.  Through the Looking Glasses (Fiction). In a near-future of universal Virtiglasses (internet-connected glasses with heads-up displays), a suburban high school clique exploits their weaknesses and practices thuggery. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2013/03/through-looking-glasses.html
21.  Horse Sense (Non-Fiction). Wipe-Out on horseback. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/horse-sense.html
22.  The Lion’s Share (SF). On distant world, riding the local fauna is a dangerous sport. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-lions-share.html
23.  How to Avoid Work and Flirt with the Butcher (Nonfiction). In 1910 my 10-y.o. grandfather acquires a race horse for $10. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/how-to-avoid-work-and-flirt-with-butcher.html
24.  Model ET (SF). In 1910 boys discover a vehicle unlike any car they had seen before. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/model-et.html
25.  The Roxy Caution (Nonfiction). A lass and a loss on Esplanade. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-roxy-caution.html
26.  Ghillie Suit (SF). A young man in New Orleans learns to be invisible. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/ghillie-suit.html
27.  22 October (Nonfiction). Schooltime bomb drill and the Cuban Missile Crisis. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/october-22-1962.html
28.  Reap the Whirlwind (Fiction). Schooltime bomb drill and the Cuban Missile Crisis. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/reap-whirlwind.html
29.  Wings (SF). Observer created reality. A man conjures up a pterodactyl. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/wings.html
30.  The Final Conquest (Nonfiction). Prep school hijinks: the 1970 raid on the Senior Porch. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-final-conquest.html
31.  Nondomestic (Fiction). Smarter than your average cat. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/nondomestic.html
32.  Wake Up Call (Nonfiction). Learning of the death of an ex. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/wake-up-call.html
33.  Going through the Motions (SF). Love with the perfect robot is disrupted by a crime. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/going-through-motions.html
34.  The Driving Lesson (Nonfiction). New driver fails to distinguish between the brake and the accelerator. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-driving-lesson.html
35.  By the Sound of It (SF). Private space flight and a reluctant pilot. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/by-sound-of-it.html
36.  Window of Opportunity (Fiction). A gruesome accident with a pop star gives a young man a ghoulish opportunity. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/window-of-opportunity.html
37.  Straitened Circumstances (PaleoFiction). Modern humans exit Africa c. 70,000BC for less than noble reasons. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/09/straitened-circumstances.html
38.  Dressed to the Nineveh (Historical fiction). Student scribe unexpectedly finds himself in intrigue with the Assyrian throne at stake. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/05/dressed-to-nineveh.html
39.  Charley’s InQuanto (SF). Afterlife inside a VR game. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012_02_01_archive.html
40.  Living in Clovis (SF/PaleoFiction). Accidental time travel to prehistoric North America. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011_12_01_archive.html
41.  Sky Wheels (or Old Derby Girls Never Die) (SF). Mystery involving roller derby on a space station – a stand-alone sequel to Return of the Judi below. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011_10_01_archive.html
42.  The Long Wait (SF). Genetically modified human lives on Mars. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011_08_01_archive.html
43.  Temporary Lodgings (SF/Paranormal). Desperate man learns to project his identity into another person. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011_07_01_archive.html
44.  Afterglow (SF). 19th century scientist discovers how to extend life through suspended animation. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011_06_01_archive.html
45.  Dancing on a Slab (Fiction). Go-go dancer struggles with an abusive relationship. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/05/dancing-on-slab.html
46.  Lucky (SF/Paranormal). Young man is convinced he is a jinx. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/05/lucky.html
47.  Soot (SF). Surviving in New Hampshire the day after an asteroid strikes earth. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/05/soot.html
48.  Unravel (SF). Dilettante scientist tries to exploit genetic engineering (and a genetic engineer). http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/04/unravel.html
49.  Blow (Fiction). A night out includes dust-ups involving cocaine. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011_04_01_archive.html
50.  Homework (SF). Student essay written on a moon in a distant star system on the topic of alien life. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/03/homework.html
51.  Brown Acid (Fiction). Psychedelic artist takes the brown acid at Woodstock and flows with the times. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/03/brown-acid.html
52.  Scum (SF). Cynical host of a TV show about UFOs and the paranormal gets a surprise. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/03/scum.html
53.  Not Just for Breakfast (Fiction). Woman tries to free herself from mysterious abductor. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/03/not-just-for-breakfast.html
54.  Snug as a Bug (SF). A remote viewing invention opens a dimensional door. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/02/snug-as-bug_27.html
55.  Deep Fried (Satire). Illegal trade in baked goods. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/02/deep-fried.html
56.  Modern Times (PaleoFiction). Life in southern Africa 100,000 BC. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/01/modern-times.html
57.  Close Counts in Horseshoes (Fiction). Dangerous love in Reno NV. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/01/close-counts-in-horseshoes.html
58.  Return of the Judi (SF). Security Chief on an orbiting hotel recognizes a guest and investigates a death. A prequel to Sky Wheels (or Old Derby Girls Never Die). http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/01/second-best.html
59.  Alyusha (Historical Fiction). Elderly former WW2 merchant sailor returns to Murmansk on cruise ship. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/01/alyusha.html
60.  Neander Valley Girl (or Cavemen Behaving Badly) (PaleoFiction). In 35,000 BC a young teen girl flees her family and encounters Neanderthals. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2010/12/neander-valley-girl-or-cavemen-behaving.html
61.  The Great Gaffe (Fiction). [with apologies to Fitzgerald]. Con man has brief success. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2010/12/short-fiction-with-apologies-to.html
62.  Slaying the Blues (Fiction). Blues singer believes she can identify vampires when she drinks. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2010_11_01_archive.html


[Preface: The elaborate and massive megalithic complex at in southern Turkey turned the accepted story of the Mesolithic to Neolithic upside down when they were discovered in 1995. Archaeologists and historians formerly presumed farming and pastoralism preceded the construction of large structures because the work force needed to be fed. Yet Gobekli Tepe was built by hunter-gatherers 12,000 years ago: construction might have sparked farming rather than the other way around. Along with other foundations, the complex contains stones are over 6 meters tall and weighing more than 20 tons in circular stone structures that apparently are temples; whether or not they were roofed is debated. For unknown reasons the site was deliberately filled in and abandoned.] 

Pride welled in Saiga in spite of herself as she approached the knoll dominating the windswept plateau. The complexity and scale of the structures on the site were unlike anything else in the known world. Her own ancestors had organized the construction of the temples, halls, and warehouses. New methods of quarrying and leverage on a grand scale had been invented for the task. The challenge of feeding the workforces in a land increasingly picked clean of game and grain had been faced and met by long-distance sourcing and increasingly successful attempts to breed milder Aurochs, boars, and mouflon that could be kept instead of hunted wild. Warehouses stored nuts and grains for the future and some fields were deliberately set aside for grain-bearing grasses for animal grazing and beer-making. She had come to regard the whole project as a crime against nature, but it was a splendid crime.
The temples were concentric stone walls containing towering stones carved in the symbols of bands and clans of the Peoples. The Peoples were all the tribes, bands, and clans who recognized the Grand Shaman. They participated in the Great Gatherings at the equinoxes and solstices. The outer rings each temples was roofed but the centers were left open to the sky, thereby enhancing the experience of the Mysteries. The Mysteries gave the Peoples a broader sense of identity than in past times. They once had warred constantly, but now the Grand Shaman was able to mediate most disputes among them peaceably. The barbarian heathen outsiders, of course, remained fair game. The internal peace crowded the lands of the Peoples  as the natural life of nomads gave way to permanent settlements.
Saiga’s father was the current Grand Shaman. He had been chosen by her mother, the daughter of the previous Shaman. Rights to land, including this site, passed through women, as they did among the barbarians. Saiga in turn should choose the next Shaman, perhaps marrying him, perhaps not. But events had taken an improper turn.
The dogs picking at the bones left on the campgrounds ignored Saiga. The clans always left detritus behind after Grand Gatherings, but dogs, birds, and other scavengers always cleaned up before a moon cycle was complete. Jerboa waited for her by the entrance to the Grand Temple. Jerboa had married her father a year ago, scarcely two years after Saiga’s mother died. Jerboa was the improper turn of events that threatened the succession.
“I need to see my father,” said Saiga coolly.
“Is that the first thing you have to say? I haven’t seen you in months. We feared you were dead.”
“Feared or hoped?”
“Be pleasant, and I’m well, thank you for asking. Where are Marten and Lynx?” asked Jerboa.
Marten and Lynx were traveling companions from the temple staff. When Saiga’s father could not dissuade her from her journey, he had insisted she bring them along as guards. She hadn’t objected. Both young men had ambitions to be Grand Shaman one day and therefore were eager to ingratiate themselves with her. They accordingly were easy to manipulate.
“They remained among the Sparrowhawks until we get back.”
“Sparrowhawks are what the people you recruited call themselves, I presume. So you left Marten and Lynx as hostages with barbarians.”
“I left them as guests of a people seeking our enlightenment. Both agreed to stay when I asked them.”
“I imagine they did.”
“It’s a normal precaution for the Sparrowhawks to take, after all. They don’t know us and have no reason to trust us. Their only contact with any of the Peoples until now has been war,” said Saiga.
“We received word of your approach from runners. Why do only young men accompany you?” asked Jerboa.
“As I said, they have no reason to trust us. You don’t expect them to bring their families into potentially hostile territory on their first visit.”
“But who are these people? You didn’t go to the northern shore where you said you were going.”
“No, I didn’t. That was my precaution. I need to see my father.”
Jerboa sighed. “Go on in. He is in the grand circle.”
She entered the structure and wound her way through the interior. Even without the rituals of the Mysteries, Saiga could feel the power of the architecture and carvings. During the Mysteries, initiates intoxicated with beer, mushrooms, herbs, and the smoke of special plants navigated this interior maze to the sounds of drums and chants by flickering torchlight. They emerged into the open sky in the center amid towering slabs of stones that reached up to the heavens like giant men. The Grand Shaman would anoint them and explain the symbolism of their simulated death and rebirth and the promise of the sky: an afterlife of bliss or pain governed, as this life, by sky gods. Peoples versed in the Mysteries regarded the typical beliefs of outsiders in irascible earthy spirits with no moral code as foolish superstition.
She found the Shaman in the center as Jerboa had said. He was checking the straps on a ladder that led up to the roof.
“Hello father,” said Saiga.
“Saiga! I’m pleased and relieved you are back.” A hint of motion betrayed the Shaman’s desire to give Saiga a hug, but he refrained.
“You are one of the few, I think,” said Saiga. “Why the ladder? Are you making roof repairs?”
“Yes, but I’m also considering altering the Mystery. Instead of returning initiates back the way they came, leading them out over the roof might better represent the ascent to the afterlife.”
Saiga looked up at the open sky, which continued to darken as dusk edged toward night.
“I see. That seems contrived if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“I don’t mind, and I tend to agree now that I look at it. Tell me about your adventure! Where did you go? Who are these people you led here?” asked the Shaman.
“They call themselves Sparrowhawks. They are from the eastern mountains beyond the last settlements. It is where I knew there still were people who live as nature intended.”
“I don’t think nature intends anything. You are verging on heresy daughter.”
“Only verging? The Sparrowhawks still live like humans. They move with game and the seasons without walling themselves in dirt and rocks. They revere the earth mother. They make figurines of her. They hunt game and they collect what earth provides.”
“As we all do,” said the Shaman.
“Do we? Is that what we are doing? We dishonor the game we herd. We dishonor people like Sparrowhawks, calling them savages. We call them evil for not following our doctrines. They don’t understand the word evil.  They raid neighbors without disrespecting them.”
“By which you mean they raid and kill their neighbors mindlessly.”
“Not mindlessly: for loot, mates, and sport.”
“You approve of this?”
 “I approve of them acting without hatred. Sparrowhawks do not justify themselves with some made-up philosophy. They do not hate their enemies. They have taught me that much,” said Saiga. “They don’t know the word ‘heresy’ either.”
“Saiga, we have brought peace throughout the region of the Peoples”
“We haven’t brought peace. We’ve made war more malicious – and directed it mostly against people like the Sparrowhawks.”
“They are welcome to experience the Mysteries and join the Peoples. Isn’t that why you have led them here?”
“I had serious doubts about it.”
“Did you? Yet here you are, so I can’t be angry with you. I think this outburst of yours is really about Jerboa,” he said.
“The succession should be my choice! Jerboa will usurp my rights in favor of her daughter.”
“She hasn’t a daughter. We haven’t one.”
“She will.”
“As the gods will. But she can usurp no rights while you live.”
“Which is why I traveled somewhere beyond her range of influence.”
“You do her injustice with your suspicions.”
“I don’t think so.”
Dusk had crossed the boundary to night. Her father transitioned to a silhouette. Saiga once again felt the power of the place. She couldn’t allow another people to be corrupted by it.
“Since you bring new initiates with you,” said her father, “I’ll let your heresy pass. They missed the Great Mystery at the equinox, but we can initiate them anyway with a special Little Mystery. It was wise to give me a day to prepare. The solstice is only a few moons away, and they can return then for trade and spouses with the rest of the Peoples.”
Saiga smelled smoke. She looked up and could see stars visible overhead. The air filled with shouts. A scream that Saiga recognized as Jerboa’s was cut short.
“Saiga, what have you done?”
“Restored the world. The Sparrowhawk people will sing about this raid for generations – how they openly strode up to the heart of the Peoples and cut it out.”
“They’ll be slaughtered on their trip back to the mountains.”
“Perhaps. I’ve warned them to withdraw quickly. They might outpace word about what happened here. If they don’t, they don’t.”
The megaliths flickered orange.
“Then the Peoples will take vengeance on you.”
“Not against me. I’ll tell a convincing tale of betrayal. They’ll believe it of ‘savages.’ This is my land now. I’m deposing you by the way. I’ll tell the Peoples this site has been defiled and they need to bury it in order to purify it. Within a few years they’ll revert to their old natural ways.”
 “I think you are wrong,” he said. “You can’t reverse the direction of the sun. There are too many living in this land to live as wanderers as the Sparrowhawks do. The skills that made this place will not vanish. Even if you destroy this place, something like this will arise again.”
“Maybe. But not now. Please come with me so I can protect you.”
He shook his head. “Protect yourself.”
“As you wish.”
She climbed the ladder onto the roof. From the top of the ladder she could see mayhem by the light of burning buildings. A Sparrowhawk threw a torch on the thatch roof of the Grand Temple. She slid down the side away from the flames.
She knew her father was right. Bound plants, bound animals, and bound people were the future. But not yet. She would hold it back a little longer. And Jerboa was not present to interfere.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Smoke Gets in your Eyes

“I’ll take point,” said Victor, “and you can ‘lead from the rear.’” Bryce let it pass because this was no time for petty posturing, however much Victor thought it was. At least the hindmost position let him discreetly admire the two young women between Victor and him as their horses climbed the wooded hillside.

“Take the trail to the left!” called out Bryce.

Victor pulled hard on his left rein. Beneath his bravado, Victor was a novice rider who barely could control his animal. A part of Bryce regretted having provided him with a good-natured roan tolerant of neophytes. Bryce knew one mare that liked to scrape riders off against trees. It was a pleasant mental image.

All his adult life people had laughed at Bryce for being a prepper, but he was right and they were wrong. Despite his years of preparation however, the ascent up Black Birch Mountain wasn’t going at all as he had planned. His longstanding evacuation scheme had been simple: stop for no one, hightail it up to his shelter, hunker down, and wait it out – whatever “it” might happen to be. But, no, when the crunch finally crunched he failed to think with his head. Instead, like some hormone-fueled teenager, he delayed his escape to stop at Ella’s house and urge her to come. He barely knew the sandy-haired grad student, but she had caught his fancy the few times they had spent time hanging out at clubs in the company of mutual friends. She had been sociable, but he had no reason to assume she felt any attraction to him. Nonetheless, he had convinced to flee with him. The pungent odor in the air did most of the persuading for him. Then it got complicated. First Ella brought her sister Zoey, who was two years younger. Bryce hadn’t been aware “Zoey” existed. Then Ella insisted on stopping for her boyfriend Victor. Bryce knew Victor existed, but he didn’t know he was Ella’s boyfriend. This must have been a recent development. Victor was a well-muscled good-looking fellow with an annoyingly degree of self-confidence. Bryce knew he should have refused to include him, but his distaste for seeming churlish to Ella delayed his response for so long that a refusal became too socially awkward for him to manage.

As he had expected no one was at the stables. The manager and employees had heeded the civil defense warnings to get inside and stay inside. The horses had been left out in the pastures. The four Bryce chose – his own horse and three others with which he was familiar – didn’t avoid being caught as they commonly did. They smelled something wrong in the air and were ready for human assistance. Victor volunteered to stand watch as Bryce tacked up the horses. The air noticeably worsened in the time this took. It already was burning his lungs when they finally mounted and left for the mountain trails. The delay very nearly had been fatal.

 “Keep to the left,” Bryce called out referring to a large rock outcrop ahead.

“I think we’re better to the right. The trail is better. The left will take us along the cliff,” said Victor.

“Yes, I know! That’s the idea. We want to avoid other people. If there are any, they’ll go right. I’ve been up this way a hundred times. I know the best way to go. Stay left.”

Victor went right. Bryce wasn’t sure it was deliberate defiance. It was possible the horse had chosen for Victor and he didn’t want to appear not to be in command.

“I’m only doing this at all because I’m not letting Ella run off with alone you,” said Victor.

“I thought I brought you,” said Ella.

“I’m here because I don’t trust him,” responded Victor. “The radio stations told us to stay put.”

“While the authorities who delivered that message get out of town or hole up in fortified bunkers with air exchangers,” said Bryce.

“Why do you think you know anything about it?” Victor challenged.

“Because I read.”

“You mean your crazy conspiracy websites.”

“The conspiracy has arrived, hasn’t it?”

“It’s some stinky fumes, that’s all. The radio said they were mildly toxic but survivable if we just stay inside or dampen some cloth to put over our mouths.”

“That won’t help!” insisted Bryce. “They just didn’t want us clogging the roads and choking to death in a big traffic jam. It’s poison gas. It’s not a nerve gas or we’d already be writhing on the ground in our death throes. But it will burn out your lungs and blind you if you stay in it too long. Didn’t you hear what happened in Japan?”

“Won’t it just dissipate?” asked Zoey. “I’m mean, how big a gas bomb could it have been?”

“It’s not a gas bomb,” said Bryce. “I’ve been reading rumors about this stuff on those ‘crazy conspiracy websites’ that explain what that crazy cult set off in Okayama and Okinawa.”

“You mean ‘wildly speculate,’ not ‘explain,’” said Victor.

“I mean ‘explain.’  It’s a catalyst bomb. Some maniac chemists found a way to spread airborne nanoparticles that catalyze atmospheric nitrogen and other atmosphere components to form a poisonous black smog that destroys organic materials. The fairly simple method of manufacturing the nanoparticles was published on the internet, so now the stuff is in the hands of rogue states, terrorists, and apocalyptic cults. Striking back is pretty impossible. Strike back at whom and where? The gas will linger until the catalysts themselves break down.”

“How long will that be?” asked Zoey.

“I don’t know. But the at least the gas is heavy and will cling to the lowlands. My cabin is plenty high enough and it is only accessible by horseback or on foot. Not even an ATV can get there. I brought the construction materials up there piece by piece over the past 10 years. We should have gone to the left.”

“My nose is running,” said Ella.

“It’s the gas. We barely made it out in time.”

“I think this is a mistake,” said Victor

“So, you’ve said repeatedly, said Bryce. “If you insist on going back I won’t stop you.”

“Don’t, Victor,” said Ella. “I’m not going back down there. What if he’s right?”

“Then I’m definitely going with you,” said Victor, immediately re-establishing himself as alpha male. “How long is this foolishness going to take?”

“If by that you mean ‘Are we there yet?’ it will be sunset because we delayed our start,” said Bryce. “If you mean ‘How long will we have to stay on the mountain?’ I don’t know. Weeks at least. Maybe months.

“You expect us to camp out for months?” Victor asked.

“It is not ‘camping out.’ I’ve told you it’s a cabin. It’s not big but it is sturdy and defensible with solar electric panels and water from a mountain spring.”

“What about food?” Ella asked.

“I have supplies for six months… well, a month or two with the four of us. After that there is game and edible plants on the mountain.”

“You are going to hunt game? With what?” asked Victor derisively.

“I have firearms there. They are hidden under floorboards so if any hiker stumble on the place they won’t steal them. But as far as I know no one but me has visited the cabin.”

“Doesn’t sound like you have many friends.”

A bullet sprayed splinters from a tree next to Victor. Victor disappeared from view as his horse had run away with him. Whatever value he might have brought to the group as a bodyguard went with him.

A man in hunter’s camouflage emerged from the woods. He was not armed, which indicated at least one companion remained hidden. “So we’re not the only ones with the brains to head for high ground after all,” he said. “Hello ladies.”

“What do you want?” asked Ella. Bryce could see Zoey eyeing possible escape routes. Bryce scanned the shadows for the sniper.

“To get out of the stink, of course. The mountain is too thickly wooded to drive up, but I hadn’t thought of horses.”

“Sorry we can’t help,” said Bryce.

“I think you mean you won’t help. Now that’s very inhospitable. Bad karma. Charlie, show him what happens to the inhospitable.”

The bullet felt like a sledge hammer to the chest as Bryce dropped to the ground.

“So where are you ladies going?” the fellow asked.

“To his cabin up the mountain,” said Ella pointing back to Bryce.

Bryce’ efforts to inhale were meeting with little success. His vision was oddly fuzzy.

“Really? How convenient. Charlie search him for keys and keep your eye out for the other one.”

“Oh, he is long gone,” said Charlie as he emerged from the woods with a Remington 700.

As his vision faded, Bryce could feel someone rummage through his pockets.

**** ****

The brush of a leafy twig against his face brought Bryce out of his reverie. The gelding surefootedly followed the narrow path to the left of the outcrop as he had done so many every Saturday for the past year in sun, rain or snow. The Big Crunch could arrive in any weather, so Bryce had practiced the ascent in every type. This was an endless source of amusement to the few people who knew of his prepper ways. He had trusted none of them with the precise location of his hideaway, and none had ever pressed him about it. Today was warm and cloudless. Bryce caught a seasonal whiff of honeysuckle. Bryce shook his head at his own sour imagination.

“Damn,” he spoke to himself. “Even in my daydreams I don’t catch a break.” Bryce did not Ella from casual meetings with friends. He had no idea if Ella had a sister, but the fantasy of including one at first had been pleasant. His natural pessimism couldn’t leave it at that, of course. He had to put Victor in the mix and then a couple of random psychopaths until the trail led to the sort of dark place his fantasies usually went. On the other hand, Bryce reminded himself, his pessimism was what had prompted him to build a prep shelter in the first place. It is also what stopped him ever from having invited Ella to join him for real.

Alone, as in every past climb, Bryce prompted his horse through the last row of bushes before his cabin. There were no solar panels, though Bryce often had contemplated installing them. It was a bleak room log cabin with a rudimentary fireplace. There was an intermittent fresh water spring and an outhouse. The cabin overlooked the valley and the town below. The black smoke was thinning but he expected it would linger. No one below the smoke line would survive. That included Ella and Victor. It would be a long six months on the mountain alone.