It was unusual, in this part of the forest, to see a ridge of land with little scrub or trees on it. But a few decades ago a virus had killed the two oaks that had stood there for centuries. They stood for years after they died, and eventually toppled from their roots. The trunks became home to numerous animals and insects. The ridge where they had stood slowly softened as the dead roots rotted away. Rain and wind worked at the ridge as it always had, and the still-forested edges of the ridge stood their ground against the natural assault. But on the part of the ridge where the two trees had fallen, the ground was cut away, reshaped, until a precarious mix of dirt and rock hung above the flatter areas below.
One day, the ground simply could not support its own weight. With no perceptible warning, the dirt gave way. Soil and rock tumbled down the steep slope, taking some of the dirt and soil below with it, and created a small but formidable avalanche in the otherwise quiet forest. The rockslide ran its course down the slope of the ridge, and soon came to rest against trees, large rocks, groundswells, and its own mass.
The forest became silent then. Slowly, the startled animals in the area began to resume their wanderings, foragings and twitterings, and the forest returned to life as usual.
Soon afterward, the single animal that had been caught by the avalanche, began to stir.
There was a sizeable bump on the back of her head, and it contained a lot of pain. This was her first realization, as she slowly regained consciousness. She slid a hand to the back of her head, to touch the spot. More pain erupted when she came in contact with it, but pulling the hand away revealed there was no blood coming out of it. She levered the hand to the ground, to help her rise.
Her second realization was that something was keeping her from rising, when she found she could not sit up. She lowered herself back down and pushed her hands forward, as she waited for her vision to clear. Her hands came to rest, just beyond her waist, on something soft, hard, and cold. Soft and hard?
She coughed. She realized there was a lot of dust in the air, which was partially why she couldn’t see… she hoped. She waited until her vision cleared enough to make out her situation.
When she could see, she knew she was in a bad way. She was staring at fully a ton of dirt and rock, which lay in a mound across the trail she had been on. The mound had her buried almost up to her waist, pinning her to the ground. She experienced a moment of fear, which she applied to pulling herself free of the rockslide. Her first effort had no effect, which caused panic. She doubled her efforts, straining to get free.
She was rewarded by lancing pain, in her left leg, all but blinding her. She cried out in agony, and stopped pushing against the rocks. After a few moments, she slumped back onto the ground, panting from the pain and the exertion. Somewhere under all that dirt and rock was probably a broken leg, she thought. It may be bleeding, although the dirt may be keeping it from bleeding. And she had no way of knowing while she was half-buried… unless, of course, she went into shock.
“Oh, God, I can’t believe this,” she mumbled to herself. She pictured her Mother and Father, as she had seen them last, in her bedroom just a week ago.
“It’s just that, I don’t like you to go off by yourself.” Mother was not crying, but she could tell by the way she worked her hands together that she was very agitated. “What if something happens while you’re out there?”
“Your Mother’s right.” Father didn’t wring his hands like Mother, but he didn’t have to. His worry was all over his face like a red sign. “Anything can happen out there, hon. You know that. You really should go with someone.”
“Come on, will you both relax?” She continued packing, as she spoke to them. “You know I know how to take care of myself on the frontier. I’ve sure spent enough time there.”
“Yes,” her Father said, “but that was with landers.”
“Dad, when you live with landers, you learn how to do things on your own. You have to. Everyone is self-sufficient out there, because they have to be.”
“But even they have the others to help them, if something does happen,” her Mother pressed.
“Look, Mom, nothing’s going to happen. I’m just going to go camping for a few weeks. I’ve been camping plenty of times.”
“But why won’t you take a sec?”
“I don’t want to take a sec,” she insisted. “I want to enjoy the experience. I want to be one with the land. I don’t need a sec for that. Look.” She pulled a small device from the smaller belt pack on the bed. “I’m taking a beacon with me. If I get in trouble, the PK’s will come running. It’ll only be for a couple of weeks. I’ll be fine.”
Irony bites, she reflected. She reached for her belt pack, where the beacon was packed, but realized it had been twisted around, apparently when she fell, and was now resting under her. She tried to reach around and grasp it, but her own pinned-down body prevented her from pulling it free.
“Damn.” She’d have to free herself first, which was going to be tough… and painful. But it was better than just lying there.
She realized only then the significance of the fact that she was lying flat on her back: Her pack wasn’t on her back anymore. A new wave of panic swept her, and she threw her head about wildly, giving rise to a severe headache, until she spied the pack just above her head on the ground. Sighing heavily, she reached out and pulled it alongside her. She examined the pack: The straps seemed to be strong, although one of them was half-torn from the pack… she had apparently knocked it free when she fell. But it seemed to be otherwise intact.
Then she went about opening one of the side pouches. First she removed the first aid kit, and extracted a container of painkillers. She took one pill, and washed it down with a single gulp from her canteen. Then she pulled a small plastic container from the pouch, containing a quick-energy food supplement, which she was afraid she was going to need. The soft dirt coating her fingers made it too hard for her to open the packet, so she dug into a half-buried pants pocket, and eventually freed a medium-sized pocketknife from within. She thumbed open the well-used but sharp knife, and used it to cut the packet open. Then, being careful to hold the packet to avoid getting dirt on the food bars inside, she took a bite out of a bar and settled back on the ground.
She was feeling better after the first swallow of food. After a moment, she found herself looking at the knife in her other hand, and thinking of the person who gave it to her.
David Spring was much older than her—probably older than twenty!—when she’d first met him. He was the lander who regularly took their Frontier troop outside of Midland on camping trips. He was slim, but well built, with straight hair that hung just above the base of his neck. He could handle packs so large that the other girls would sigh, and the boys would gape like idiots.
And he knew the land. He had spent most of his life on the frontier, mostly near Midland, occasionally in other territories. He often visited Midland to trade or buy tools or supplies for other landers, and while he was there, he frequently volunteered to take any Frontier club groups on camping trips. Every Frontier club wanted their children to learn from David, because they knew he lived off the land the way Man was meant to. Everyone in Midland who had a child in a Frontier club knew David Spring.
She still remembered the first trip she’d taken with David Spring and the rest of her troop. They had traveled about the forest outside of Midland, sleeping under the open stars, catching fish and picking fruits and vegetables for food. David told them about all the things they came in contact with, either entertaining stories, or important details that could mean their survival. And he had an uncanny way of holding the children’s attention when he spoke… he was a natural-born storyteller, if not an outright hypnotist. If he told you, you remembered. She’d never forgotten a single lesson he’d taught her.
After a perfect four days of camping and hiking, she’d watched as he showed them how to break up a camp. He spent an amazingly short amount of time spreading fire ashes, burying food scraps and bones, collecting the small amount of waste they had generated into a single small bag, and generally making the clearing they had just spent four days in look like they had only just found it, using just a knife and a collapsible shovel. When he was through, he smiled at the clearing, then turned to the children.
“This land has now been restored to the condition in which we found it. The Earth gave of itself… the land for us to sleep on, the fire we burned for heat and light, the fish we caught for food… all so we could stay here. Now that we are leaving, we must give something back. The bones and scraps we buried will fertilize the soil and make the plants grow, which will feed the animals that come here to stay like we did. The ashes will also fertilize the ground here. And we leave the clearing the way we found it, so the animals who come here after us will not be disturbed about our visit. In this way, we confirm our place in nature, as a part of it all.
“We are no greater and no less than all of this wonderful world around us. When you are out here, you must be aware of that. You must live as though you are physically connected to nature. My people call this, ‘being One with the land’. When you are One with the land, you understand your place in nature. You understand when you must give, and when you may receive.”
She reached into another pouch on her pack, and took out her hand shovel. She reached out and tried to dig into the dirt covering her legs, but it was heavy, and full of rocks. The exertion, the awkward angle, and the pain in her leg caused by the strain, proved to be too much for her, and she could only manage to dig for a minute or so before she collapsed in pain and exhaustion. Then she would lay there for long minutes before she could muster up the strength to try again.
She managed to get through four sessions of digging like this, before she gave up in tears. She jammed the shovel against the ground next to her, and tried again to pull the waist bag out from behind her. But she was still too tired to manage that, and again she collapsed, fighting tears of pain and frustration.
She realized it was already getting dark… indeed, would be dark as pitch in about ten minutes without a fire or appreciable moonlight. She wrestled with fear of being exposed and helpless all night, but despite her anxiety, her sheer exhaustion eventually won out, and soon she was fast asleep.
She dreamed of last year. She was in camp with four of her friends, who had all hiked up with her. Some of them had brought secs, and she used one to call home. She assured her worried but loving parents that she was all right.
The entire camping trip seemed to repeat itself for her. She remembered swimming in the nearby lake, realizing with delight that she was swimming amongst schools of fish. She felt part of the environment then, she knew, and it had been an exhilarating experience. She remembered the sunrise they watched, before setting out for their next camp. The relaxed pace of setting up camp came back to her, the joking they had done during, the playing afterward. They had caught some fowl along the way, and prepared it over the fire. She sat down to eat hers, and looked up to see David there.
But David had not been with them last year. Yet here he was now, and in typical dream fashion, it was not at all strange or surprising to her. He sat across the fire, holding a piece of bird in one hand. He was young and beautiful, and at that moment, she adored him. He took a bite from the meat in his hand, and regarded her, chewing.
“You know,” he said, “when the natives of this land killed game for food, they apologized to it for having to take its life, and explained that they were all part of the life cycle of the land; that, someday, they too would die and in so doing, feed another. Then, when they ate, they would thank the game for nourishing them, as they would someday nourish the animals that would survive them. Most natives who led a full life did not mind dying, because they expected their spirit to go to a better place, just as they knew their bodies would return to the earth and continue the food cycle. They knew they were all part of a larger whole.”
She remembered hearing this story from David many times, when she was growing up, and she nodded. “They knew they were One with the land.”
David stood up, and held out a hand to her. She stood up and put her hand in his, and they walked through the dark paths of the forest. Soon, they came to a break in the trees. When she looked up, she saw what looked to her like a river flowing upside-down through the sky, as wide as the sky itself. The incredible river seemed to bend down far in the distance, and touch the land beyond. Then the river flowed across the land, coming in contact with the everything on the Earth. She looked to the other horizon, to see the river rise up from the Earth and meet itself, in a loop that encompassed the entire Earth and sky.
She could clearly see that the river was filled with life, not water. It was the everlasting cycle of life that David had described to her many times, that the native Namericans had always known about, that she had never before seen until just now. It seemed infinitely large, larger than the Earth itself. This was the true scale of Nature. And she realized she was standing deep within its gently meandering current. She could see the lives flowing past her, all around her. One of them looked up at her, and she recognized it as the fowl she had just eaten. It looked at her calmly, expectantly, knowing someday she would understand, when it was her time to surrender to the current of lives and become part of the cycle… One with the land.
She awoke with an appetite, having eaten little the day before. She reached for her backpack, hoping she hadn’t already eaten the…
…and realized the backpack had moved.
She fought down momentary panic, as she twisted painfully about to find the pack. There it was, still in reach, but barely. She could see it had been torn roughly open, and some of its contents lay scattered around it. She managed to get a hand on it and pull it to her. She discovered the well-wrapped food had not been found, and she held the pack close against her as she ate, surveying the woods around her.
When she was through eating, she put the pack aside and, still watching the shadows, took her shovel in hand and began working at the dirt and rocks still pinning her. She felt only slightly stronger than yesterday, and found herself making the same kind of progress she had made then, alternating between a few seconds’ work and a few minutes’ rest.
She was aware that she could hear very little in the forest around her, save the few birds that flew among the trees, crickets, and a distant cicada somewhere. She felt very lonely all of a sudden, but the sudden melancholy seemed to calm her, and she kept digging.
Suddenly she felt a shift in the dirt. She stopped, considered for a moment, then pulled. Her leg moved! She dropped the shovel and used her hands to pull at the dirt still covering her lower body. When she knew she was free of enough dirt, she shoved her hands into the ground on either side of her and pushed. She barely moved at first, and she could feel the protest in her broken leg, but adrenaline spurred her on. All at once, she started slowly sliding out from the dirt. She cried out in pain from her leg, but kept pulling. When her leg finally emerged, it was badly emasculated and turned wickedly to one side, now bleeding profusely with no dirt holding back the flow.
The mere sight of it caused her to pause, and in that moment, all her drive seemed to ebb. She suddenly slumped back onto her back, staring at the bloody leg. Then strain, shock and blood loss took their toll: Her vision blurred, dimmed, and went black. Her consciousness followed a second later, and she passed out.
She hadn’t known what time it was when she blacked out, so when she came to, she didn’t know how long she’d been out. Her head throbbed, not much less painfully than her leg. She knew she had probably lost a lot of blood, and she needed to bandage and immobilize her leg. She reached for her backpack.
It had moved again. If she had still been buried, she would never be able to reach it where it was now. It had been manhandled worse than before, this time, and she could see a number of the food packets had been torn open, their contents eaten. She lifted up on her arms, and started to drag herself toward the pack.
A nearby growl stopped her cold. She slowly turned her head to the right, peering into the dark of the brush beyond her. At first she could see nothing. Then, a shape moved, a shadow against a shadow. Wolf. Once she knew what to look for, she made out a pair of eyes, staring steadily back at her. Then she realized there was two pair of eyes. Maybe more… she knew wolves usually traveled in packs.
She suddenly felt very weary. Suddenly remembering the belt pack, she reached behind her and pulled it around to the front. She extracted the small radio beacon from the pack, and regarded it silently. At that moment, she heard another growl. She looked over. The two wolves had moved into the clearing, and were slowly approaching her. She regarded the beacon again. It would never bring anyone to her in time. Slowly, she placed it on the ground, and settled back down on her side. As she relaxed and laid back, she saw the wolves approach.
David would understand. She would receive nothing more from this life. It was time, finally, for her to give.
Just before she blacked out, she thought she had said aloud, “Apology accepted. And, you’re welcome.”
He fired off a screamer that he had pulled out of the cycle, and the remaining wolf at the bottom of the rockslide yelped and ran off. Thomas Beak carefully worked his way down the slope adjacent the rockslide, keeping the object of his attention in sight. He reached the level where the rockslide ended, and approached the edge of it, keeping a wary eye out for wolves that weren’t chased away by the screamer.
He could tell it was a corpse from the top of the ridge, but only now that he was up close could he tell that it had been a young woman. One leg was clearly broken, and the signs around it suggested that she might have been caught under the rockslide nearby. Doubtless the girl that he and the rest of the Peacekeepers had been searching for, although her body had been so severely torn up by the wolves that visual identification would now be impossible. He had expected that, and had also brought a DNA sampler from the cycle, just in case. After all, there was a good chance this was an unregistered lander… Thomas knew there had to be quite a few in a territory this size.
He dropped down to one knee, searched out a relatively clean spot on what was left of the body, and pushed the sampler against it. It would take quite a while to make a remote identification, and it would only be considered 60% correct out in the field, so he would have to arrange to have the body shipped back to Midland for proper identification. He didn’t look forward to calling the parents, and informing them of their loss. Just before he rose, he noticed a small object about a meter from the body. It was an emergency beacon, unused. Thomas took a small pouch out of a pocket and, using a stick, pushed the beacon into the pouch. The subject might have fingerprints on file, in case a clean DNA scan proved impossible, so it was worth holding onto.
Thomas stood up and surveyed the scene. Thomas had seen enough kills like this one to recognize certain signs. The landslide had, of course, caught her, and it was most certainly the cause of the broken leg. She had eventually managed to dig herself free with a hand shovel, but probably not before being discovered by the wolves. They had probably taken their liberties on her backpack, before going after her. It was clear from the condition of the body, and its position, that she hadn’t put up a fight with the wolves. That could mean she was already dead when they reached her. But the unused beacon, so far from the body, puzzled him. She could have dropped it had she been surprised… but somehow, he didn’t believe she had been. And just a few second’s warning would have been enough time to press the red stud on the beacon.
Unless she knew there was no point. Thomas nodded to himself. She must have known that it was too late for her. She must have been weak from her leg injury, possibly semi-conscious. She knew she wasn’t going to get home on her own, and that the beacon wouldn’t have summoned anyone fast enough. She had apparently accepted her death, possibly even welcomed it, and let it take her.
Although his official report would not reflect it, he would have called it a “natural death.” It was, in fact, a death that anyone in his tribe would have been proud of. But the Guard didn’t see it quite the same way as his tribe would have, so it would have to be “Death by animal attack.” Somehow, Thomas didn’t think she’d want it to read that way, either.
He keyed his sec and brought it up close to his mouth. “Peacekeepers, this is Beak. Call off the search and home in on my signal. I’ve found her.”
A moment later, Frank DeJay’s voice came over the sec. “This is Frank… I see your cycle from here, and I’ll be right there. Is she all right?”
“She’s dead. Killed by wolves.”
“Damn. I was hoping we’d get lucky. Hope she didn’t suffer too much.”
Thomas shook his head, though no one could see it. “No, I don’t think she suffered. She was One with the land.”
Thomas searched for another way to put it. “She knew it was her time,” he said finally, and switched off his sec. “I should be so at-peace when I go,” he said to himself.