Senauer

The Stranger - A short "The Long Dark" story

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      It was only four days ago that the silhouette of the unlit lighthouse appeared astern within the light fog. A shipwreck stood impaled on a sharp rock next to it. Afar, the ghostly mass of a whale processing station rose silent on the frozen shore. I approached the derelict plant and docked the ship on the edge of an ice platform. After securing her, I took my time to go through my supplies and equipment, selecting what I deemed appropriate for the trek ahead. Then I jumped overboard without much hesitation and at last set foot on firm ground.

      When I had embarked towards Great Bear Island I was not certain if the old 20-feet sailing boat would take me safely across the first leg of my journey. I had sailed blindly with neither compass nor electronic navigational aids, following the coast line, getting my bearings from landmarks and seeking guidance in the stars, as our ancestors had done centuries ago. And yet against wind and tides both the ship and I stoically withstood the crossing.

      She had been a present from my daughter when her mother passed away. So I named the small boat after the latter. Aurora. Even though I had never been too much into sailing, it should have helped me to ease the mourning of the loss. Or at least that was what my therapist had suggested. Screw him. Looking back now I realize that I was missing the proper motivation. I guess the Great Collapse didn’t help either. By the time I tried to sell the ship the crisis had rendered money utterly useless, so I had no chance but to leave the cursed thing to rust and rot in the dark corner of a barn, a dirty plastic blanket as shroud, like a long treasured memory vanishing slowly into oblivion. A couple of years later the name Aurora acquired, ironically, a whole new significance. And the Event forced me to set sail once again.

      The Event. I cannot believe that six months have already gone by. The First Flare, as a handful of scholars from the scientific community happened to call it, was only that. The first geomagnetic storm of many more that would come after. The night set ablaze with the burning colors of a thousand aurorae, mesmerizing bands of glowing green and purple that caressed the infinite starlit sky, while sparkling waves of static energy filled the air with eerie sounds. Then, just silence. It only took the lapse of a few heartbeats to send a hyper-connected world back into the Middle Ages, and we were all given front-row seats to the beautiful spectacle that the apocalypse turned out to be. Before, the Great Collapse had fatally wounded our economic and social structures. The Event was only finishing the job by hammering the first nail in our technological coffin.

      My train of thoughts makes me lose focus and stumble. I slip upon the rail tracks and almost sprain my ankle. Damn it. I cannot afford an injury right now. I should not let my situational awareness drop. It’s heavily snowing since night fell, roughly half an hour ago, when I was walking by the outer fence of an abandoned dam. Visibility isn’t good and wind is raising. I have been following this railway line for two days, hoping it will bring me closer to my destination. At first I tried to make progress along the coastal road but landslides blocked constantly the way. I was forced then to detour and eventually did find the rail tracks. What I haven’t found so far is a single soul. It seems that in the absence of humans wild animals have seized the opportunity to take over the land. To claim their rights to what once was solely theirs.

      It’s getting colder out here. My hands are numb and holding straight the rifle is becoming an arduous task. I don’t even recall when I stopped feeling my toes. In fact I can barely see them with the snowfall becoming more intense. I must soon find a place to warm myself up. I come across a derailed car but it’s too exposed to windchill. If I was to set camp inside I would probably freeze during my sleep. Several steps away from the derailment I make out the shape of an electricity pole. A cable connects it to a second pole down the tracks, and then to a third one, before disappearing into the darkness beyond. I immediately follow the cable and pray it will lead me to shelter. After drifting through deep snow for what resembles an eternity, I reach a lamp post standing over a worn sign. Mystery Lake-Lac Mystère. Behind, a wooden two-story cabin stares at me, its hollow windows two questioning eyes. Again no lights, no welcoming hearth fire, no signs of life. The wind starts to howl. Or something that sounds like the wind, I’m not sure. What I know is that the weather is turning to worse and I will be soon engulfed by a blizzard. So let’s check if anybody’s home.

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     The intense and long forgotten smell of freshly made coffee scents the room. Fire crackles in a pot belly stove while I sip the black liquid from a recycled can that serves the purpose of a cup. The dancing flame of a storm lantern gives the atmosphere a surreal sensation, projecting elusive shadows on the walls and ceiling. I lean on the counter and once more revise the unfolded map. Tomorrow I will deviate from the rail tracks and hike to a cave entrance half a day to the north. It supposedly leads to an underground passage traversing the mountains. From the other end it shouldn’t take more than a two-day trek to reach at last the town of Milton.

      I remember when my daughter told me she was leaving. Some of the scientific outposts ran by her team had transmitted unusual readings along a vast region of the northern Canadian coast. The institute had asked both her and her husband to set base in Great Bear Island and lead an investigation effort on the findings. She sounded so excited on the phone that I didn’t dare to stop her from talking about the project implications for nearly an hour straight. I knew that she had already accepted and nothing would change her mind. Even though I never understood much about her work, the way she was explaining everything back then to a hard head like me left no room for doubt. Something big was cooking, and she was resolute to reach the heart of the matter. She was as stubborn as her mother had been, which often helped her to be successful in life and achieve any goal she would pursue. And made me, incidentally, a proud mother.

      Shortly after she settled in Milton, modern society went down the drain. Many experts had identified the meltdown symptoms in advance. They shared their concerns but were however ignored, so alarms never went off in good time. What ensued didn’t happen in a matter of hours or days, even months. It had been incubating unnoticed for years. The seed of the crisis had grown so subtly that people did not see what was upon them until it was right under their nose. Our ignorance, greediness and pride allowed the Great Collapse to hit with impunity the very basic foundations of our world. A financial recession brought down economies and politics in a global scale. Social and cultural values were questioned. Humanist voices standing up for righteousness were silenced. Environmental policies were abused and neglected. Any trace of critical thinking disappeared, thanks to the passive complicity of the majority of the public, while opportunistic powers would rise and fall to seize the remnants of the initial chaos.

      And yet, my daughter never gave up on her investigation. Even with their institute cutting on research funds, both her and Dave managed to conduct self-sufficient studies and tests. They were convinced to be doing the right thing. She thought someone had to. So in spite of most of the island’s population fleeing in the aftermath of the crisis, and with resources seriously dwindling, she committed herself to proof her theories to the last of consequences. That was what she would tell me when we occasionally spoke on the phone and, to be honest, that was what really freaked me out. Now it haunts me every single day. I should have gotten to her by then.

      But the First Flare came before me. Communications broke down. And it’s in these times, wandering through the darkness that's been with me ever since, that I find myself looking for her.

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      I shut the cabin door behind me and from the porch I gaze at the sky. I take a deep breath and let the cold early morning air fill my lungs and wake my senses up. The first lights of a new dawn play timidly among the shreds of the clouds, a palette of grey and indigo giving way to warmer watercolors that augur weather will improve. There’s nearly no trace from last night’s storm. The sun won’t rise completely for at least a couple of hours, but if I leave now I'll be able to make the most of the day. From the handrail I stare at a frozen lake nestled between the slopes of a forest. Two fishing huts stand out on the icy surface. It’s a stunning sight for sore eyes.

      I hear the crows even before I see them. The squawks seem to come from somewhere within the lake. I slowly approach the shore and scrutinize into the distance. There they are, circling above one of the fishing huts. Gently, I draw the rifle and chamber a round with the bolt, then I venture on the ice. I feel it cracking slightly beneath my boots. It appears to hold, though. Treading with great caution I head towards the hut, keeping a vigilant eye on my surroundings. No movement whatsoever. I remain quiet for a second and listen carefully. Nothing but the complaints of the crows growing stronger, and the dull sound of blood pumping in my ears.

      As I finally advance on the hut an unsettling scene comes to view. Two corpses rest a few steps from each other. No, wait. One is an animal carcass. A wolf. I kneel down and inspect the pool of frozen blood where it fell dead. A rotten hunting knife lays beside its eviscerated bowels. I raise my head and glance at the trees and vegetation line by the lake shore. Still nothing. I come to my feet and move toward the human body. Male. From his clothes and equipment he was probably a hunter. He is covered in bite marks. A bow and a couple of arrows sit on the ice within his reach. The struggle must have been brutal. It looks like the wolf took him by surprise and he was forced to a hand-to-hand fight. But the beast had found a worthy foe and it had paid dearly such a defiance.

      An extinguished campfire stands between both adversaries. Next to it, a magnifying glass is the only witness to the tragedy. I peek into the hut to find the hunter’s backpack and some firewood. Harnessing the first rays of the rising sun, I use the lens and the acquired fuel to set alight the campfire. A funeral pyre as a silent tribute to the hunter. And more, it will help me to stay warm as I examine the rucksack. The majority of his food and supplies are either expired or ruined. However, I discover something unexpected. A little notebook with a pencil strapped to it. His diary.

      He was a pilot. He flew over Great Bear Island when the Event rendered his plane’s instruments useless and made him crash. He survived the hard landing only to face a harsher survival. At first he was compelled to scavenge, gambling daily with his fate. But he learned and adapted. He dared to look at death straight in the eye. And ultimately, he became the hunter. He endured through a hundred days, isolated, nomadic, never finding a living person in his travels. Not a single soul except for his prey. Oh, crap. One hundred days after the Event I had not even set sail, and the hunter had not come across anyone during that whole time.

      I suddenly feel a vast emptiness in the stomach. The urge to get to my daughter is more pressing than ever, pushing other ideas aside and sending bothersome shivers down my spine. I must get going right away. I use one of the hunter’s pelts to cover his body and arrange his tools and weapons close to him. Who knows, he could need them wherever he may go now. I leave the fire to burn and consume itself, a beacon to guide him in his final journey. Then, I dedicate one comforting thought to him and, eventually, I bid farewell.

      It’s only when I set off that I notice the bright morning sun has risen completely. Its soothing light bathes the snowy peaks in the far horizon. The cloudless deep-blue sky reassures me. My determination for the decisive stage of my trip grows strong. I look back one last time. Good bye, stranger. Until we meet again. I raise the flaps of my coat and, securing my headgear, I hasten the pace. I must get to Milton as soon as possible. I hope Katie’s okay.

Edited by Senauer
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I hope Katie didn't have a secluded corner she used to go to with Dave near the Lighthouse.

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On 11/22/2018 at 6:09 PM, BareSkin said:

I hope Katie didn't have a secluded corner she used to go to with Dave near the Lighthouse.

Well... let's say that they loved to spend their spare time between such corner and a quiet clearing in the woods around Mistery Lake. ;)

7 hours ago, romerabr said:

Just excelent! 

Thanks! If you want to know more about the stranger's adventure, which originally inspired this short story, I suggest you visit the thread below:

If you don't know them already, the BareSkins series are a blast and a great read!

The stranger's journey begins in page 2 of these "are dying" series. Also, you may find in page 9 a post where I shared some of the screenshots I took while writing the story. In principle I had in mind to use such screenshots to illustrate the narration, but then I thought to do without them to give the writing some kind of a "novel" feeling.

So all in all, I'm glad you enjoyed it! Sometimes I think about posting some "Survival Stories" series just like @BareSkin and many other good writers in the forums do, but I do have a tendency to overextend myself with too much detail and I guess they might end up being a bit dense to digest. One thing I've seen is that the most successful threads in the "Survival Stories" subforum are quick-paced, adrenaline-pumping journals, which deliver just the right amount of information in such a light and entertaining way that you get totally sucked in and always waiting for the next installment.

I may give it a try in a future (I'm even planning to give Sleepwalking a go), but at the moment our baby does not give too much room to combine playing with journal writing!

In the meantime, keep surviving and stay warm out there. :):coffee:

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2 hours ago, Senauer said:

I do have a tendency to overextend myself with too much detail and I guess they might end up being a bit dense to digest. One thing I've seen is that the most successful threads in the "Survival Stories" subforum are quick-paced, adrenaline-pumping journals, which deliver just the right amount of information in such a light and entertaining way that you get totally sucked in and always waiting for the next installment.

Well I used to think like that: I keep a lot of details, and I'm not that good in written English to be honest, but still, some people are reading it, and it even appears you liked it :D Yes, the fast-paced style is predominant, but there are several audiences. I'd be reading your stories for sure, and the "slow" pace would be a plus for me. What I'm looking for in survival stories (when they are not performance-oriented) is the decision making process of the player, the first days mental struggle.

2 hours ago, Senauer said:

I'm even planning to give Sleepwalking a go

I would be honored ;)

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