Authors: A.G. Wyatt
Book 1 of the MoonFall Series
a start, one hand going for his revolver and the other for the ground beneath him, fumbling in the dark for a reminder of where he was. Even before he’d registered the feel of bark beneath his fingers, the sight of leaves all around clued him into where he was.
He paused, Bourne half-way out of its holster, and listened for what had torn him from his sleep. Not another meteorite crashing down into the woods. That noise would still be ringing in his ears and all the way down the valley for that matter. No, this was something softer, more subtle.
Right hand still resting on Bourne’s handle, Noah carefully started unfastening the straps used to tie himself to the tree. Years ago he’d fastened himself in place with all sorts of ropes and haphazard knots, but not after the forest fire back in Tennessee that left his skin dappled by scars. Embers had flown at him on the wind as flames erupted through undergrowth dried out by one long damn summer. The tree beneath him had charred and twisted as he struggled to get loose of his self-imposed restraints. Now pale patches of flesh on his arm and around the older scar on his chest reminded him of the lesson learned.
He paused. It rustled again. A crackling in the treetops, something or someone coming towards him.
He unfastened the last strap, grabbed the branch above him and hauled himself to his feet. The branch beneath him was sturdy, but still sagged a little as he shifted his weight.
By now he had Bourne unholstered. A glint off the revolver’s well-oiled body reflected the light of the stars, or of the debris belt that glowed across the southern stretch of sky. Between the rippling leaves the belt appeared even more fractured than usual, a dapple of light against the midnight sky, a haze where the moon had once been.
The rustling came closer. Noah raised Bourne, clicked back the hammer. Of course, there weren’t no bullets in the chamber, but whoever was coming didn’t know that. Better hollow threats than no threats at all out here where the wild things roamed.
Even better than threats was not being seen. Noah drew himself against the tree, a knot pressing into his back as he descended into the deepest shadows. Movement now accompanied the approach of his unwelcomed company, a body swinging slowly but confidently through the foliage, pausing every few branches to look around for threats. As it leapt from one treetop to another, Noah caught a glimpse of gray-brown fur and long teeth. He swallowed, stayed calm. Up close he’d stand little chance against something so confident in the treetops. He was a hell of a climber, but even he couldn’t swing from branch to branch like that. And those teeth… If this was some kind of maniac dressed in furs and ferocity, then he’d be cannibal chow long before he reached the ground.
The stranger reached the tree-top opposite Noah and paused. A shadow against the dimly lit trunk of the tree, Noah could make out its head turning from side to side. Then it stopped, hunched suddenly forward and prowled along the branch. It emerged from the shadows, staring straight at him with beady red eyes.
Noah almost laughed. A baboon. A long-faced, big-assed baboon. Then it bared its teeth and hissed at him, and the humor drained away. Weird as it was to see a baboon swinging through rural Virginia, up close a baboon stopped being funny and became a wide barrel chest, long strong fingers and deadly looking teeth. What did baboons eat? Were they carnivores? Was it cannibalism if an animal ate a human?
He raised Bourne more confidently, pointed the gun straight at the baboon’s face and hoped it had seen one before. It paused, then made a strange rasping sound.
Was a damned baboon laughing at him?
Noah thought about how he must look and almost burst out laughing himself. A human, one of nature’s lousiest climbers despite all his years in the wild, dangling from a tree branch like some kid on a rope swing, dressed in patched jeans and a raggedy old coat, his beard as wild as his hair, waving a revolver that didn’t even hold the threat of bullets. Man, once the master of the Earth, nothing more than supper for a ridiculous damned ape.
Worse, not even worthy of being supper for an ape. The baboon turned, exposing its big bare ass to Noah like a final insult, and swung away through the trees.
Noah sagged, all the tension draining out of him, and settled back onto his branch. He holstered Bourne and one by one began fastening the buckles on his harness.
Strangest damn thing, he thought, a baboon wild in Virginia. Then he looked down at his harness and back up at the pale, hazy band splitting the darkness of the sky.
Maybe not the strangest thing. Not by any sane standard.
The next day Noah awoke with the dawn, the only alarm clock he needed...even before the world had fallen apart. At least some things remained the same. He knew some folks considered the way the world was to be a blessing, folks who might be surprised he was not one of them. After all, he had always been an outdoors kind of guy raised on hunting, fishing, and trekking in the wild. Turned out to be a lot less fun when you didn’t have a bottle of whiskey for around the campfire, a soft bed at the end of it, or central heating when winter came.
If winter decided to come this time around.
He pulled a cloth pouch from his coat pocket, opened it and tore a strip of jerky from the lump inside. A trade from a farmer out west, a man who had somehow hung on to a small herd of cattle through the past twenty years. It wasn’t the best jerky Noah had ever tasted, but it was the best thing he had on him and he chewed it with relish, the salt flavor making his mouth water.
While he chewed, he looked around, checking for threats and regaining his bearings. No sign of the baboon from the previous night, and the only critter moving along the forest floor was a rabbit. That was a good sign, maybe there would be something in his snares. Maybe he would have fresh meat tonight.
He unbuckled himself from the harness, untied it from the tree, then opened his rucksack and carefully stowed the collection of straps and ropes away inside. After untying the bag itself, he settled it over his shoulders. Having checked that Bourne was securely in place, he took one more look around and scrambled down the tree.
Not many people, or animals, came through this part of the forest. Leaf mulch had gone undisturbed all winter, slowly rotting into the ground, leaving a soft surface that put a spring in his step. Violets and dandelions poked their heads through the rotting mulch, bright blues and yellows amid the spring greenery breaking out all around. He had never been much for flowers, but seeing them now gave him a little hope, and wasn’t life meant to bring hope?
All Noah hoped for was to find something decent to scavenge in the stores down the highway, maybe canned food that had lasted or some meds.
He took a quick lap through the surrounding trees, retrieving his snares from the previous night. Two held rabbits, which he dropped into a tow sack tied to his belt. He’d deal with the skinning later, for now he kept the fur on, packaging wrapped around meat from God’s own grocery store.
They had been called grocery stores, right? Noah thought so, but childhood memories were fading, and a man’s recollections could get hazy out here on his own.
“Course I ain’t ever alone when I’ve got you,” he said, patting Bourne.
He pulled a cluster of dandelions and added the leaves to his sack. Greens to help keep his body together. They were still young and tender as they should be at this stage of growth – not that you ever knew when you’d find them anymore, seeing as the seasons were shot to hell and the weather with them.
A stream nearby was a bonus, the water running fresh and clear. The broken outline of his reflection stared back as he stooped to drink. The beard was almost ZZ Top caliber now, long and pointed, though dark like the rest of his hair. It showed less age than his skin. Worn and leathery hands, like he’d borrowed off some old man, scooped up the water. He drank deeply, sighing with satisfaction at the crisp, clear taste, then filled his canteens for later.
Half a mile north of the tree he had spent the night in, Noah found the highway again. The signs had all been ripped up for their metal years ago, but he guessed from an old map he’d found in a car that it was 81. The highway number mattered far less than what he could scavenge along the route. But he figured if he kept following this one north-east, it should take him to the towns around D.C. full of old deserted shops and fancy houses. Maybe, if he got lucky, he would find some government building or long abandoned supply depot, the jackpot for any scavenging nomad. Somewhere with blankets and medicine, canned goods still edible after twenty years, water bottles, new pants, bullets even…
So busy dreaming of what he might find, he almost stepped out of the woods and onto the broken asphalt. A wagon or horse on the road might be exposed, but at least it was moving fast. A man, trudging mile after mile out in the open for all to see, that man was just asking for trouble.
Keeping the road in sight, Noah walked through the woods south of the highway. The remnants of a wreck caught his attention. Two cars that had long ago collided, then later been dragged off by some good citizen keeping the roads clear or maybe just some convoy doing what was needed so they could keep moving. Either way, the cars had been there long enough for the soot to wash away and be replaced by rust.
Noah crawled inside the more intact car, rummaging around in the floorboard and glove compartment. But all he found was rabbit droppings, charred bones and the dead plastic brick of a slightly melted reading tablet. In the early wilderness days he might have gotten his hopes up with a thing like that, thinking about all the books he could read on these dark, lonely nights. He’d learned his lesson. Even if he could have found a power supply, the tablet would have been fried when the moon exploded, just like every other electronic device on the planet.
Another flash blazed across the sky and a meteorite crashed into the hills to the west. It hadn’t even been a dot on the distant horizon when he arrived, and there was no good reason to delay like that. Time to get moving again.
An intense, dry heat made the air fizz off the road and sweat run down Noah’s back. His exposed skin roasted, as if he weren’t already well browned and weather wrinkled enough. He’d taken off his coat, leaving his stained, frayed shirt exposed to the air, but still his body wept at the heat.
He paused before the overpass. Places like this could be dangerous. Worse if you were traveling the road underneath, unable to see who might be lurking above, ready to leap out on you. Bandits or local militias or worse. But even from his perspective traveling over the top, it was an exposed place to be. It hung above the road below, a raised, open space that offered no shelter and no place to hide. You could be seen for miles in either direction.
Pausing in the woods overlooking the overpass, he gathered old dried leaves and sticks, carefully arranged them in a sheltered spot and used flint and steel to start a fire. He skinned the rabbits and set them to roasting, all the while watching the road. There were risks in lighting a fire when there might be other people hidden nearby, but it was better than doing it wherever he stayed the night. If there were ambushers, maybe this would draw them out.
An hour later the only thing that had moved was the sun, creeping across the empty blue heavens. Noah sucked the last juices from the first rabbit’s bones, stowed the second in his sack and kicked dirt over the fire. The overpass was clear as it would ever be.
One last look around and Noah walked out of the woods, onto the road, and towards the overpass. He moved on, well rested after his break, feet ready rather than weary. But tension knotted his gut. He strode as fast as he could along the highway, past another overturned car and towards the midway point.
A roar exploded from the road off to his left and Noah leapt back into cover behind the car.
In the distance, something was tearing down the other highway out of the north, heading straight towards the overpass.
Someone was coming.
to be an understatement. As Noah watched from behind the car, the sound of motorbikes roared out of the distance and down the highway. They skirted around a line of abandoned cars just before the overpass, the riders shouting to each other. One turned back while the other continued down the road. Noah watched the half skull painted across the back of his old biker leathers fade as he disappeared into the south.
The bikes were barely out of sight when another vehicle appeared, bigger and louder, grumbling its way from the north like it had suffered years of abuse by a harsh world and harsher home-brewed fuel. The red blob appearing around the bend emerged into view as a tow truck, windows covered with wire grills and metal plates, three passengers hanging onto the winch at the back. The first biker was with them, gesturing again at the blockage in the road, but he roared on beneath the overpass while the truck and its crew stopped and began clearing the road.