Chapter Two: Pyrrhian WastelandEdit
“What world do you live in? Out here in the real world, blood flows, little fox. Blood flows...”
My first several seconds outside were a heart-bursting eternity of paw-pounding terror! The story had been right! All that was outside was a great black nothingness! It surrounded me, suffocating. If I had been able to draw breath, I would have screamed.
And then my eyes started to adjust to the darkness. I began to calm, gasping, feeling weak (and not just a little foolish). In my defense, I had never experienced night before. Not really. Sure, I’d always turned off the lights before curling into bed, but that darkness was small, confined to my little room. And there was always the glow from under the door. The hall lights of Den Sixteen were eternal.
This was different. A cool air, quite unlike anything within the Den, tickled my coat and chilled my skin beneath. It bore smells that were dank and rotting, dusty and alien. I could hear the sounds of night insects, creaking of wood and a far-off sloshing... but I was struck more by what I couldn’t hear -- the constant low hum of the Den’s generators and the ever-present high whine of the lights were gone -- so powerful in their absence that I first mistook the outside as silent. I could feel dirt and broken stone beneath my paws, so unlike the smooth and sterile floors I had trotted all my life. And though I could not see much or far, I could see further than I had ever seen before, and there were no walls to mark the end of the room. I was staring into a horizontal abyss that stretched out from me in every direction.
An entirely new panic began to form within me. My hind legs went out from under me and I sat, stunned. I turned my gaze to the ground, breathing deeply, thanking it not only for holding me up, but being a visual endpoint. Then I made the mistake of looking up into the sky, and the absolute endless up-ness of it sent my head spinning and my stomach lurching. Great masses of clouds rolled over most of the sky; but there were gaps through which soft light poured and through those I could see the up went on forever. Insanely, I thought of the clouds as a great net, made to catch me if I fell from the earth into the yawning gulf above; but if I slipped through the holes, I would just fall up forever.
I clenched my eyes shut and tried to keep from vomiting.
The fear and queasiness was intense but passing. Once my faculties returned, I began to notice those things that had escaped me in my initial panic. The surrounding terrain was becoming evident. The world around me did not stretch out evenly; the ground heaved and rolled -- hills creeping towards mountains. The earth was punctured by the upthrusting black fingers of long-dead trees. Along distant hilltops, I could see the swaying, leaf-shrouded branches of healthier woods, but the living trees near Den Sixteen were few, scattered and sickly.
Second, I noticed that my PipDog was flashing with a host of alerts. The map-maker was already beginning to do its work on my new and unfamiliar surroundings, and to my surprise had already pulled a label from the ether: Queen Glacier's Palace.
Turning around to get my bearings, my eyes were drawn to the large, hollowed husk of what I assumed had once been a magnificent castle. Now, it creaked and swayed in the breeze as if threatening to collapse.
Looking to my PipDog again, I noticed that it was picking up several radio transmissions. The radio broadcast from Den Sixteen was dark, but new stations had taken its place. My heart leapt, for it was the first indication that there might be fox life out here after all. I nudged my PipDog to start playing the first station on the list.
“...still sealed up. There is no way inside. My son, he ate one of the apples from those damned apple trees up near the Den, and now he’s terribly sick. Too sick to move. We’ve holed up in the cistern near the old memorial. We’re running out of food and medical supplies. Please, if anyfox hears this, help us... Message repeats. Hello? Is there anyfox out there? Please, we need help! I was bringing my family to the Den up near Glacier's Palace when we were attacked by raiders. Only my son and I survived. We made it to the Den, but it’s still sealed up. There is no way inside. My son, he ate one of the apples from those damned apple trees up near the Den, and now he’s terribly sick. Too sick to move. We’ve holed up in the cistern near the old memorial. We’re running out of food and medical supplies. Please, if anyfox hears this, help us... Message repeats. Hello?...”
A voice was filled with a terrible resignation, as if the fox had already given up hope and was just going through the motions. Shaken, I turned it off. I didn’t think I could bear to hear it again. That is when I noticed the soft ticking from my PipFox. Checking it over, I discovered that its radiation detector -- a feature I had never known to be used, had self-activated. The cute little rainbow dial had always been planted firmly in the green. It was still there, but edging discreetly towards the yellow.
I couldn’t just stand here beside what had long, long ago been the door to a simple apple cellar for the rest of my life. Well, I could, but it would be a relatively short and miserable life. A realization was dawning on me: with so many directions to go, what was the likelihood that I would chose the path that Lilac had followed? Even though she only had a few hours head start, the prospect of finding her was bleak.
But I had to start somewhere. And the best chance I had was to get up high and have a look around. The ruins near me rose higher than any of the nearby trees, and the sheered-off roof of its upper tower was probably the best vantage point I could hope for. I closed my eyes, steadied myself, and went inside.
What was left of the castle proved sturdier than it looked (or sounded). It was also almost barren, anything of value that had survived had been looted, leaving only scraps that nobody wanted but that time itself seemed unable to erase. Rusted shoes, boxes of soaps for cleaning dresses that no longer existed, a pitchfork with a shattered handle, a rake.
I began up the stairs. My eyes were alerted to a feeble glow, the soft green color of a poisoned apple, bathing the room above. The glow came from the screen of an old terminal, a device of vulpine science identical to the ones used throughout Den Sixteen. It seemed miraculous that it still worked after centuries on the outside. When Den-Tec built something, they built it to last.
Curiosity lured me to it, and my wonder was quickly replaced with understanding. It was no coincidence that this particular terminal was live, for on it was a fresh message:
To anyfox who has left Den Sixteen in search of me:
Please, go home. I am doing what I have to do. The Overfox understands, even if she can never agree, and I hope one day you will to. I will not be back. Do not look for me. Do not endanger yourself further for my sake. Please forgive me.
I searched the terminal for more, but all the other messages were ancient and corrupted save for one. And that one had a rather unique encryption, something I had heard of but never seen before -- a binary encryption such that in order to decrypt it, I would first have to download the message into my Pipdog from both the terminal which had been used to send it and the one upon which it was received.
Having nothing better to do with the vast amounts of storage my PipDog was capable of, I downloaded it. In reality, I knew that the chances that I would ever come across the companion terminal, much less that it would be functional, were overwhelmingly against me. Nor did I have any reason to believe a message centuries old would be of any significance.
More importantly, I now had to face that outside was my new home. Even if I found Lilac, it was unlikely that she would accompany me back. I’ll admit, I had been subtly entertaining a fantasy where the Overfox would be so delighted with Lilac’s return that she would embrace us both back into the pack. Maybe even throw me a party. Now, I was forced to admit how foolish that vision was.
Thinking upon this made my head fill with black clouds. But as I reached the top of the ruins and looked out over the wasteland, a bright light, feeble as it was, flickered in that darkness... just as the light from the campfire, not half an hour’s trot distant, poked an orange hole in the night.
As I approached the circle of firelight, I knew something was off. Something about the way the dusty beige dog fox was laying on his mat of straw, legs curled up under him. Some tenseness in his body language. But it wasn’t until I stepped paw into the light and got a good look -- a warm “Hello” dying on my lips -- that I saw he was gagged, and caught the glint of the flames against a few exposed links in the chains binding his paws.
“Well lookee here! Walked up all nice and pleasant, didn’t she?” A large gray fox emerged from the shadows of a nearby rock. His paws clacked metallically against the rocky ground, shod in cruelly spiked foxshoes. Two more foxes slid out of hiding on opposite sides -- one another gray fox holding a shovel whose blade had been lethally sharpened, the other an arctic fox who pointed towards me a short instrument of wood and metal with two barrels. Each fox wore barding made from thick hide. Much like night, I had never seen a firearm before, save for pictures in books. But those books were more than explicit enough for me to recognize the mortal threat.
The bound fox on the mat shook his head with a sad yet derisive look and began trying the scrape the gag away with a forepaw, no longer making effort to keep the chains secret. The three foxes menacing me spared him only the occasional glance.
“Might as well have trussed herself up for us,” the gun-wielding fox snickered. Then, addressing me, “You wouldn’t mind, would you?”
Laughter. “She’ll fetch a pretty price, this one.”
Fetch a price for what? And from whom?
The one holding the shovel-spear in his mouth mumbled something incomprehensible. Then, apparently deciding the gun was sufficient deterrent, spat out his weapon and re-iterated, “By Din... I mean, look at her! I think she’s taken a bath!”
I was suddenly and bizarrely aware of how filthy all four of the foxes were, and how foul they smelled. I managed to cover a gag with a sneeze.
“What’s going on?” I asked. Of the emotions battling for supremacy in my head, confusion had clawed its way to victory.
The captive fox finally succeeded in pulling the filthy gag free. “They’re slavers, you idiot.”
Monterey, the dirty beige dog fox with the dour expression, followed behind me as we trudged alongside our captors, walking a broken path that once was a road. My legs were in chains, making walking difficult and anything more speedy than a trot impossible. My PipDog had stymied the slavers efforts to bind my forelegs, eventually forcing them to chain me above the knees. Had the one with the shovel-spear not been holding its point dangerously against my throat, the other two would have gotten a few paws to tender places for their efforts. As it was, they made short work of me.
I was not gagged, but Monterey had convinced me early that unnecessary chatter from the slaves-to-be would likely result in the loss of my tongue. Not that I had much to say to these brutes anyway aside from my repertoire of colorful metaphors. I didn’t expect they would answer my questions, even if my tongue should survive the asking, and they were being chatty enough with each other to suffice.
“Hate thef fart,” grumbled the gray fox through the spear clenched in his teeth.
“Well then, if you would just learn to swim, we could take the long way, couldn’t we?” suggested the arctic fox with poisoned sweetness.
“Hate fuffen sweffey.” By his smell, decidedly more pungent than the others, I guessed he just hated water in general.
“How about you stop complaining and I’ll let you sample one of the slaves before we get to the forest.” Their leader, the gray fox named Cracker with the spiked shoes, turned back towards Monterey and I with a filthy smile.
I looked away. They laughed.
Through their disgusting dialogue, I could hear a liquid sound ahead. Not like a burbling water fountain but closer to a sloughing muck. And... something else. A distant sound, getting closer. Music? Yes, music. Slightly tinny yet... triumphant? Regal? I couldn’t put my paw on exactly what feeling the music was trying to inspire, but it was brightly out-of-place.
Cracker took note of my expression and smirked. “You look like you’ve never heard that before. What, did you live your life in a Den? If you’re hoping for the cavalry, that ain’t it filly. That’s just one of those sprite-bots.”
The music cut out with a sharp twang.
The arctic fox slaver, Hawk, trotted ahead a bit, peering down the path ahead. Turning back to the rest of us, he smirked. “Think one of the radigators got it?”
Cracker suggested it flew into somefox’s booby trap. The other gray fox suggested a mouthful of spear-mangled mumbling. The arctic fox turned forward again and the glow from my PipDog illuminated the machine -- a metal ball about the size of a kit’s head floating on four silently flapping wings – hovering silently right in front of his face. No animus magic this, I could tell; it was pure fox engineering.
“F***!” Hawk leapt back a full fox’s length in surprise. Then swung his shotgun to bear and fired it at the sprite-bot. The sound was like a metal plate falling from the ceiling, and it echoed through the night-darkened hills. Sparks specked the metal ball as it was peppered with scattershot. It let out an electric whine and darted into the darkness.
The arctic fox almost took off after it, but Cracker’s voice cut the distance between them, “That’s enough, Hawk. Save your ammo.”
“Dammit, I hate when they pull that stealthy s***. It’s a flying f***ing radio; it’s not supposed to sneak up on foxes.”
My ears were burning from the free flow of crude profanity, but I didn’t mind. I was mulling over what I had just seen.
“Idiot,” muttered Monterey under his breath. “They heard that all the way in Polarville...”
Unlike my fellow slave, I was pleased to have witnessed the arctic fox firing off his weapon. Because now I knew how it worked.
“...What kind of damned fool,” Monterey grumbled, “announces his presence this close to raider territory.”
A river slithered across our path, its waters slipping and oozing along its banks, half-stagnant. The water lapped and sucked at the supports of a bridge, making the wet sounds I had been hearing. Beyond the bridge lurked the shattered remains of a pre-war town.
The bridge was a maze of barricades. Dark shadows of foxes moved about it. Briefly I may have made the mistake of hoping for rescue; but my eyes were drawn to the spiked poles that lined the bridge, and the still rotting heads of decapitated foxes that adorned two of them.
I tasted bile. The sight was horrific.
“Lemon, stay here,” Cracker said, finally putting a name to the spear-wielding slaver fox. “Hawk, let’s go hear what the toll is this time.”
Monterey lowered his head and looked balefully towards the bridge. I moved closer to him, following his example, and hoping that I had positioned myself so Lemon couldn’t see the dip of my muzzle as I slipped my screwdriver and a bobby pin from my den utility barding. Like all of the slavers’ equipment, the manacles on my legs were crude and of low quality. As Cracker and Hawk argued with the bridge foxes, I focused on picking the first lock. I was rewarded with a soft click as it sprung open, releasing my PipDog foreleg. The manacle fell to the ground with a little thump.
“Hhu!” Lemon’s ears had shot up, and now he moved around to see me. Swiftly, I lifted my snout, dropping the screwdriver and bobby pin into the dirt, and hoped that in the darkness the slaver couldn’t see the change in my chains.
“Wuf hoo uf foo?” Lemon growled dangerously. The nasty sharp edge of the shovel hovered inches from my eyes.
Lemon turned abruptly, the spear-shovel slashing close enough to my face that I shrieked. The gunshot was from the bridge. It didn’t sound like Hawk’s shotgun. But the second shot did.
It took Lemon a breath to recognize that crossing the bridge had become a bloody affair. Glowering back at us, his posture threatening, he started to say... something. I suspect he was warning us to stay put, but I’ll never know. His head exploded, showering me with gore.
I stood there, eyes wide, shaking with shock. Blood, warm and sticky, ran down my forehead and into my left eye, oozed into my coat and mane.
In the growing list of things I’d not seen before this night, the death of another fox ranked at the top. I blinked, feeling the blood on my eyelid. Lemon was dead! And I had Lemon all over me!!
The urge to throw myself into the river was overwhelming. But I wouldn’t get to it like this. Pushed by something more than determination now, my snout once again reached down and I and began to unlock the rest of my manacles.
I spared a glance towards the bridge, seeing Hawk hunkering down beside one of the barricades as he magically pulled his shotgun open, stuffing in more ammo. Two shots, I realized. One at the sprite-bot, one just now. Two shots, and then reload. Closing the weapon, he levitated it up above the barricade and shot blindly into the violent milieu, spraying an already wounded raider fox with scattershot. The fox staggered and fell.
Unfortunately for Hawk, the raider behind him had a different kind of shotgun, one that was faster and not limited to two shots, that fired slugs which tore great holes in the arctic fox slaver’s body the moment he looked up to see the results of his effort.
I turned away, cringing from the nightmare playing out before me. I focused on the locks.
I had freed myself and was beginning to free Monterey when two raider foxes trotted off the bridge towards us, stepping over the battle-mutilated corpses of Cracker, Hawk and the raiders they had taken down with them. One of those approaching was the fennec fox raider wielding the devastating combat shotgun. The other, a red fox with a sledgehammer in its teeth. The fennec was laughing. Not the mean laugh of Cracker, but a crazed laugh that sent chills down the back of my neck.
“Looks like we got ourselves some prizes!”
The red fox chortled as the fennec looked us over appraisingly. The two were somehow even filthier than the slavers. The fennec bore jagged scars across her face and flanks, several freshly bleeding. The red fox was hairless and painfully burned over much of her left side. Both wore barding that looked ragged and cobbled together.
“help us?” I suggested weakly.
“Oh, I’ll help myself to you, all right!” The fennec reared up and gave me a kick, her paw striking hard into my side. Pain exploded and I dropped, gasping. Rearing up again, she brought her full weight down on me. I howled.
Near me, Monterey let out a wet grunt of pain as the red fox gave him a taste of her sledgehammer. Leaving me in a crying huddle, the fennec also turned her attention to the still-chained Monterey. In moments it became clear they intended to beat and bludgeon him until he was another lifeless corpse. And probably not stop then.
“Hold his leg out. I’m gonna shoot his paws off!” The fennec fox raider pointed the combat shotgun a foot from Monterey’s splayed left hindleg, the only one I had freed from its manacle.
Ignoring the pain, I leapt up, closing the distance and spinning as I gave a fierce back-kick. My paws connected with the shotgun, sending it flying. It clattered onto the bridge beyond. A moment later, I was pointing the shovel-spear at the two raider foxes who stood facing me with gleeful expressions. Two against one, and both of them were experienced fighters. The one with the sledgehammer stepped closer, as if eager to see if hammer beat knife.
Monterey was on her in an instant, throwing his forelegs over her head, pulling the chain between them across her neck. The sledgehammer fell from her mouth as the raider fox choked.
The fennec turned, surprised by the sudden change in odds. I could have attacked her then, but threatening a fox is much different than actually attacking one. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to slash at another fox, to draw her blood. To maim, or possibly kill.
The fennec fox kicked up the fallen sledgehammer and turned to face me with it, murder in her eyes. And suddenly, I found it easy to thrust the shovel-spear forward. I was no longer struggling with following through on a threat; this was survival. Self-preservation is instinctual; it clears away the moral hesitations. And while I did not have the fighting skills of my opponent, I did have an advantage all my own. D.A.T.S.
Aided by the targeting system of my PipDog, I sent the spear slashing across her knees, hobbling her. A second slash, this time across her face, relieved her of her weapon. The third would be a killing blow...
...except I wasn’t ready to do that. Not yet. Instead, I swung the spear around, cracking her across the head with its handle, hard enough to splinter the wood. The fennec fox raider fell at my feet, unconscious.
I looked up. Monterey was standing, chest heaving, over the body of the red fox raider, the life choked out of her. He was staring at me quietly. Then finally raised a forepaw, only for the chain to clank tight before he had it more than a few inches off the ground.
“Oh!” Dropping the shovel-spear, I turned on the light of my PipDog and searched about for my screwdriver. I had lost the bobby pin; there was no chance of finding it in the dirt at night. But I had more.
Once we were both free, Monterey limped slowly over to the bridge. A moment later, he returned. Hawk’s shotgun followed him. Before I could react, he aimed it at the head of the unconscious fennec raider and fired.
Her blood began to seep across the ground towards my paws. I watched in stunned silence as he turned and began prodding at the bodies, tugging items from them.
Finally, I found my voice. “What are you doing?”
He looked at me as if I was stupid. “Checking to see if they have anything valuable on them. With luck, food.” I nodded, watching him move to the bodies at this end of the bridge. Looting the bodies of the dead felt wrong; but a cold, rational part of me murmured that it was a qualm I would have to get over in order to survive. And imagine how embarrassed I'd be if I starved to death out here because I'd been too shy to check a dead fox's bag for a pouch of beef or a can of old applesauce? I moved a bit further down the bridge.
I looked over the body of a dead raider, his face bloody and torn from Cracker’s foxshoes. I started to go through the pockets of his barding, but my stomach rebelled, and I flung myself to the railing, heaving my lunch into the foul river below. A large break in the clouds brought a soft and silvery light to everything, and I could see my reflection in the water, still covered with Lemon’s drying blood.
Then I saw hawk’s shotgun hovering in the air behind my head.
“I’ll be taking what you have too,” Monterey informed me with a bored drawl.
“w-What?” I turned slowly to see him standing on the bridge, bathed in moonlight. The shotgun hovered between us, pointed at me.
“b-But I just saved you!”
“Yeah. And for that, I’m not going to kill you.” His eyes narrowed. “Unless, of course, you do something stupid right now.”
“But I just saved you!”
“Aren’t you top of your class,” he said snidely.
“We should work together! Travel together!”
Monterey snorted. “And split our limited provisions? Go to sleep with one eye open each night, hoping to catch you when you try to stab me in the back. No thanks.”
My righteous disbelief stopped short of denial. Suddenly, I was so very weary. Nodding, I lowered my head and let my two canteens slip free. I then backed up so he could approach them. I turned my head to start unclasping my bags.
I saw it on the bridge, just beyond my tail.
Turning back to Monterey, I kicked out a hindleg and dragged the gun back towards me, flipping it into my mouth. For a long moment, we stood there, two red foxes on a bridge, surrounded by bodies, shotguns floating between us, aimed at each other. Moonlight shone down on us from the break in the clouds.
Monterey broke the silence, “You’re not going to use that. I saw you spare that raider. If you couldn’t kill a fox like that, you don’t have it in you to kill me.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I’m a quick study.”
He huffed, but didn’t move. “Do you even know how to use that thing?”
I forced a smile across my face. “Do you know that you only have one shot left? And judging by the sprite-bot, that gun is in such poor repair I’ll survive being shot with it. Will you survive being shot with this as many times as I can move the trigger while you try to reload?”
Monterey took a step back. And with that falter, my smile was no longer forced. “And I’ll be taking my canteens back.”
Polarville. I wondered just how my PipDog knew the names of places before I did. It even named the wreckage of a building that I had just slipped into. Polarville was raider territory. I just hoped this place, this “Carol Boutique”, was not crawling with them.
Monterey and I had barely parted ways when the railing of the bridge exploded next to me. A sniper! The same fox, I presumed, who had turned Lemon’s head to applesauce. I fled into the town, keeping to what cover there was. Few of the buildings were intact enough to hide in. This was the closest.
Fortunately, I was alone. I waited for nearly an hour, curled up in a shadow near the door; but the sniper pony seemed uninspired to follow me. No, she or he could just wait until I came out.
Fatigue washed over me. I had stayed up all the night before, and this night’s events were a strain on both body and spirit. My muscles were weak and achy. My body hurt from the kicks I had taken. I felt emotionally played-out. I needed to sleep. Sleeping here was probably a horrible idea. If I woke up at all, it could be in the paws of slavers, raiders or possibly worse. But going back outside, finding someplace better, it just wasn’t on the table. I was in no shape to test my wits against the sniper again.
Carol Boutique was quite similar in condition to the building up at Queen Glacier's Palace, only the looting was more destructive. The walls had been painted with crude images of violence and cruder swear words. A pile of torn-up cloth rotted in a corner, smelling foul, like foxes had urinated on it repeatedly. There were two beds, one of which was stained deeply with blood (and probably more vile things). The other was smaller, a kit’s bed, nothing but a mattress on a crushed frame. In my state, I felt it would do wonderfully.
The Carol Boutique offered two more treasures, a locked chest and another terminal, identical to the one at Queen Glacier's Palace. This one too was still functional, again to my surprise. It was locked; slipping out my access tool, I went to work. These terminals were crafted by some of the same foxes who later made the PipDogs, and the encryptions and locks were similar enough that my tools allowed me to get partway through the security. What remained was a puzzle, finding the password within strands of code that my access tool laid bare. In my fried mental state, it was probably a small miracle that I was able to parse the code and find the password.
Or possibly not. The password was “glacier”.
I laughed aloud, catching myself when I heard the volume of my own voice in the stillness of the decrepit boutique, as I realized that, beyond all realistic chance, this was the computer that the message had been sent to. With an unwarranted feeling of accomplishment, I downloaded it, and let my PipDog do the rest.
Age had damaged the recording, but there was enough audible for me to recognize that same female voice, kinda sweet and with an odd accent, that had many hours before revealed to me the code that lead me out of my old life and into this new and horrible one.
“...special instructions for Den Sixteen... ...that’s muh family down there! Until the poison is gone from up here, that door doesn’t open for anyfox!” The voice faded in and out of static. “...know you hate this, Mediterranean, but you’re an Overfox now. The Overfox of the most important Den in all of Pyrrhia. I need you to do this for me... ...to keep them safe... ...lovers forever, remember?...”
The sound file died with a whimper. I had been right -- there was really no value in a two-century old message. I left the chest for the morning, curled up, and went to sleep.