Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tropic Freeze

Lucius whiffed the rich floral aroma of land long before the island came into sight. Prior to a few weeks earlier, his only exposure to vegetation other than seaweed had been grasses during his brief sojourn to the tundra. That was a rawer and simpler smell than this. He looked up at Cygnus in the clear moonless sky. The bright stars were all the light he needed. He scanned the horizon until he spotted the dark line of an island. Lucius had touched upon two isles already, but they proved to be too small and they had lacked fresh water. This one appeared larger. Lucius tacked to port toward the dark line.
As the distance shrank he could see this island was definitely larger than the others. Given the island’s low elevation, Lucius guessed it had emerged from the ocean only after sea levels fell in the Freeze. This increased the odds that it was uninhabited, though it was possible some people fleeing disease and disorder on the mainland had stumbled on it just as he had. On near approach, he could see no signs of habitation. This was good. Very possibly no human ever had stepped foot on the place. As he paralleled the shore a line of bushes bisecting the beach caught his eye. He turned the sailing yacht toward the shore.
Lucius held himself steady against the deceleration as the yacht’s hissed onto the beach. There was no stirring of the kids below though the lurch should have awakened them. Lucius tied one end of a rope to a gunwale and looped the rest of it over his shoulder. He lowered himself over the side above shallow water. By instinct he braced himself for biting cold. The warmth of the water that enveloped his feet was just as shocking even though he intellectually expected it. He waded out of the water and crossed the beach to a young palm. There he tied the rope with a mooring hitch knot. He walked to the line of bushes had interested him. It ran from the island’s interior across the beach to the waterline. He endured the scratches as he pushed through the brush. He discovered the treasure for which he had hoped. The trickle barely deserved to be called a stream, but, when he tasted it, it was fresh.
He emerged from the brush and sat down on the sand. The white hull of the boat seemed to glow. The brass and teak trim looked black at night. A gentle breeze caused some hardware to ping against the mast. The kids either were still asleep below deck or pretending to be. He chose not to arouse them yet. Making them safe was all he had left. He thought back to his first encounter with them only weeks before. They had been anything but endearing.

The grey clouds in the west threatened snow for the next day but at least promised a rise in temperature. Tonight, though, was bitter cold. Lyla was snoring peacefully. Lucius accepted her disinterest in him, but would have preferred it otherwise. The tent offered only limited protection against the wind, but their mukluks provided adequate insulation to prevent hypothermia. He hoped the frozen caribou carcasses on the sledges outside didn’t attract bears. Still, he’d rather face a bear than the Tundrites.
Lucius and Lyla been twice lucky in their expedition south of the ice line to the tundra. They had traversed the tundra for weeks and had found a caribou herd without ever encountering Tundrites. Tundrites killed poachers, and they regarded all hunters other than themselves to be poachers. A larger expedition could have taken scores of the beasts. Lucius and Lyla had taken only two. They had no way to transport more. The two carcasses would be a great coup for Lyla and he back at the Village even so. No hoofed meat had been seen there in more than a year. Lucius drifted off to sleep dreaming of caribou and bears.
Emerging from a dream in which a bear’s claw touched his throat, Lucius lay still as he felt a real point pressing on his larynx. He hoped the bear just would sniff and then turn its attention to the carcasses outside. He heard no sound from Lyla. As the fog of sleep lifted more fully from his mind he realized the modest weight on top of him could not be a bear. In the trifling moonlight leaking through a displaced tent flap he could see only a dark silhouette. It was humanlike but small with huge eyes. He could discern another figure like it atop Lyla. He guessed the point at his throat was a knife, though a claw was still a possibility.
“Don’t move,” said a voice that was pitched on the high side.
“Are you ghouls?” Lucius croaked.
“Is that a nice thing to say?” said the silhouette.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he heard Lyla say. “They’re children.”
The flap of the tent opened wider and a shape there asked, “Everything under control?”
“Yes, so far,” said the figure atop Lucius. “You two: get up and come outside. No weapons. I don’t want to kill you.”
“Glad to hear it,” said Lucius.
The knife point withdrew. Lucius and Lyla crawled out of the tent behind the two smallish figures. Outside in the moonlight Lucius could see they really were kids. There were three of them. Ski masks and goggles accounted for the illusion of big eyes. The one who hadn’t entered the tent was holding a rifle. Lucius hadn’t seen a functional firearm since he was a boy. Ammunition was dug out occasionally, but long burial in the ice did something to it that made it unreliable. He hunted with bow and harpoon. The kids’ clothes looked like synthetic simulated fur.
“Does that rifle work?” asked Lucius. “Where did you get the clothes?”
“Yes, of course the rifle works. The clothes are from Saks, or what’s left of it.”
Lucius didn’t know what Saks were, but let it pass. “Who are you?”
“I’m Meiling,” said the one who had sat astride Lucius. “This is Carrick and Ruben. We’re from New York.”
No one called the Ruins “New York” anymore. Most of the old city had been scraped over by the advancing ice wall. The portion of lower Manhattan not yet overtaken by the glacial cliff looming above it was nonetheless embedded in ice deep enough to bury all but the stories of the few skyscrapers still standing. All but the most adventurous Villagers avoided the place despite the ripe opportunities for salvage. Prospectors had a way of not coming back. According to folk legend the Ruins were home to ghouls who ate trespassers. Polar bears were not a mere legend. They made homes within the artificial caves of the surviving structures and posed a factual danger. Perhaps Meiling’s people did too. In a way, his first question had been on the mark.
“I’m Lyla, that’s Lucius,” said Lyla.
“You live with the… bears?” Lucius checked himself from saying “ghouls” once more.
“Under, not with,” said Meiling. Or we did. In the tunnels and subways mostly. Some buildings completely imbedded in snow are still accessible from below. Natural geothermal heat keeps the tunnels above freezing and the heat difference with the surface can power electric generators. We knew we’d have to leave eventually because the ice wall advances every year, but we expected more time.”
“How many of you are there?” asked Lucius.
“There were a lot. Now it’s just us. We’re all that are left. I see you’ve been hunting somewhere to the south. How long have you been away?”
“We left the Village almost months ago,” said Lyla. “We’re headed back. Could you ask that young man – Carrick is it? – to point the gun another direction?”
“I could,” said Meiling. “We need your help. Can you sail?”
“What has that to do with anything?” asked Lucius.
“Just answer the question,” said Carrick.
“I go fishing sometimes. But none of our boats could carry all five of us.”
“Ours can. And that’s more experience than we have, so we need you.”
“Well, that’s too bad, because we’re not sailing anywhere,” said Lyla. “We’re going back to the Village. You’re welcome to come with us. We can take you in. There’s room for three more. There are hundreds us at the Village. I haven’t counted lately.”
“Counting will be a lot easier now.”
“The plague.”

Lucius lay back on the sand and stared at the sky. Sitting bare-chested in the warm night air was a surreal experience he couldn’t have imagined such a short time ago.
Meiling’s head popped above the rail. The kids were awake. Meiling was a strange girl seemingly twelve going on forty. She was calculating and ruthless, but in a way that wasn’t adult. Lucius still had trouble understanding her. She gave the two younger boys their best odds of survival, however. Even so, he assumed those odds were long. There was every reason to believe the plague still raged on the mainland in these climes. Yet, the disease was so deadly that it would have to burn itself out eventually. There wouldn’t be enough people to maintain a chain of infection. If the kids could stay isolated until then they would be alright. Eventually they even could make the trip to the mainland or big islands. For now they were safer here. He wished Lyla could be here too.
Wearing shorts and a tee shit she had found stored on the boat, Meiling lowered herself to the beach and approached him.
“I think this is the spot,” Lucius said to her when she stopped several feet from him. “We may have to stay here for years. The plague could take that long to end.”
“Yeah, well I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. The only one at risk is you.”

 “What plague?” asked Lyla.
“Fugitives brought it up from the south. They boated to NYC hoping someone still lived there. They told us all about the plague – just before their own symptoms appeared. They were from the Carolinas but said the disease originally had crossed the Atlantic with someone who had got an old seaplane to fly. So, the whole world is shot. More than it was, I mean. If you catch it you will die. It spreads like fire.”
“But you don’t have it?” said Lucius.
“We don’t.”
“Then maybe there are others...”
“Everyone in New York caught it.”
“Is that why we saw no Tundrites” asked Lyla.
“I don’t know what Tundrites are, but if they’re people I’d say yes. We need to leave this place. The fugitives’ yacht is moored by the ocean.”
“Isn’t it infected?” asked Lucius.
“I’m sure the cold has sterilized it,” said Meiling. “The fugitives said it spreads easily person to person but doesn’t survive long outside people. Besides, we can’t stay here.”
“We’re going to the Village first,” said Lyla.
“No! Some of our people left New York when the plague was spreading. They went to your Village. We need you to sail us away from here.”
“Then you can’t afford to kill us,” said Lyla. “You’re just going to have to shoot us if you want to stop us from going home.”
Lucius hadn’t asked to be included in Lyla’s ultimatum, but he chose not to challenge it.
Meiling went silent for a few moments but then acquiesced quicker than Lucius expected. “OK, you can look,” she said, “but don’t touch anyone. Don’t even expose yourself to their breath.”
“How old are you?” asked Lucius.
“You don’t talk like you’re twelve.”
“The ones who acted twelve didn’t make it out of New York.”
Lucius suspected she was right.
They left the caribou carcasses behind to speed their hike to the Village. Meiling and Lyla walked in front. Carrick, rifle still in hand, brought up the rear.
Two hours passed before Ruben, the smaller of the two boys, spoke to Lucius in a soft voice not meant to be overheard.
“Are you two married?”
“Lyla and I? No. We’re not even a couple.”
“She prefers Jack – that’s the chief’s youngest son.”
“So he’s a prince.”
“I guess you could look at it that way.”
“Are you a prince?”
“I didn’t think so. But you’d like to be a couple with her?”
“We don’t always get what we like. What about you and Meiling?” Lucius asked mischievously.
Ruben nodded his head back toward Carrick.
“Ah, I see.”
The eastern sky was red behind them but the west was dark and overcast as they topped a rise overlooking the Village. Nestled in a glen, the village had a ramshackle appearance. The houses were built from lumber and rubble excavated from the ice. All manufactured tools were mined in the same way. No one was in sight and there was no smoke from cooking fires, but the wailing of children could be heard.
Lyla rushed forward in the direction of her cabin. “Samantha!” she called out to her little sister.
Lucius began to run after her but Carrick blocked his path.
“Don’t go!” said Meiling. “I told you, you can’t touch anyone. They’re all infected. She is a dead woman as soon does it.”
“I’m going to help her. You’ll have to shoot me.”
“No, I’ll tell Carrick to shoot her.”
“You’re an evil little girl.”
“Am I?” She didn’t sound too concerned with the answer.
“Don’t you two ever override her?” Lucius asked the boys.
“Not when she is right,” said Carrick.
Lyla emerged from her cabin carrying ten-year-old Samantha. Samantha was coughing.
“That’s it, we go now or I’ll tell Carrick to shoot them both,” ordered Meiling. “Don’t think he won’t. They’re both doomed anyway, but I’m guessing you don’t want to see it.”

“What do you mean the only one at risk is me?” asked Lucius.
“The plague kills adults. Nearly all kids who get it survive, and they never get it again. We three all have had it.”
“We could have saved those kids from the Village!”
“There wasn’t room on the boat. I didn’t know if we could feed them. And there was you to consider.”
“Lyla and Samantha followed us to the water’s edge! They called to us as we disappeared into the fog! We at least could have taken Samantha.”
“Lyla was already a goner. If Samantha had come with us she’d have infected you and you’d be dead by now. I saved your life.”
“You all are fine specimens of humanity and I have no doubt you’ll recreate the world that existed before the Freeze,” he said sardonically. “I’ll leave you to yourselves.”
“Leave? Don’t be silly. Where are you going to go? You can’t risk meeting anyone else.”
“I can live alone.”
“Nonsense. We need you here. Besides, maybe in 10 years or so we can snare a wife for you from the mainland. The plague should be gone by then, and the survivors will be old enough.”
“Kidnapping isn’t my preferred style.”
“Suit yourself. But we can’t let you take the boat.”
He noticed her bodyguard Carrick standing on deck. No doubt he was armed as a precaution against any hostile reaction on his part. Lucius knew the girl was right, but, despite the heat, he felt cold.