Grunt, Chapter 35: Winnow

JULIA

Graveyard Mesa looked surprisingly peaceful. The weather was warming up noticeably, even thawing a bit in this midafternoon sunshine. Snow covered the tops of the gravestones and most of the ground as well, with patches of dried winter grass and what must have once been ornamental shrubs poking through here and there. True, the place lacked reason. How could millions–billions?–of Before humans have wasted so much space, using the bones and flesh of their departed loved ones to nourish nothing more than a crop of concrete? Our Fort 24 system of planting our corpses below and seedlings above made so much more sense.

Yet here it was possible to comprehend what the old saying meant, R.I.P., Rest In Peace. Especially for the Catholics who believed we didn’t go on until the last trumpet, at which time we rose in glorious new bodies.

Or something like that. Religion in general had never seemed logical to anybody named Gunderson. Theological experts, we were not.

“I don’t like it.”

Michael’s remark jolted me out of my reverie. “Specifically?”

“Hon, there’s no way we can leave the pack string here. No protection if the wolves show up, no concealment if a Steelie swings by. Nothing.”

A Steelie? Oh. Somebody from Fort Steel. “So…now what?” It was good, being able to rely on my mate for the tough decisions. Yeah, I could track and cook and kill if needed, wrangle horses, jump tall Dawgs in a single bound–he was getting taller, wasn’t he? His buckskins were riding up on his boots a bit more than I remembered. Where was I? Ah. Yes. I was all that and a red hot strawberry blonde to boot, but I was no leader.

“So now we have no choice. We have to take the critters with us, packs and all, into the city. Taking the whole bunch into the belly of the Beast, unknown monster as it is…I don’t like it. But it’s got to be done.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky. Find an old stable still mostly standing, like we found our honeymoon house.”

“Let’s hope.” He lifted the reins, clucked Roan into a left turn, and headed straight for the ruins of the former metropolis. Despite his warning that we’d need to rely on bladed weapons as our first line of defense, it was the lever action rifle he pulled from its scabbard to check the load, leaving it across his lap in the saddle as we prepared to break our culture’s greatest taboo.

I took his cue and did likewise with my own long gun. Once inside the city, we’d at least be safe from Fort Steel patrols. They might be alerted to our presence but they’d never dare follow. Or so I hoped.

The city proper began roughly half a mile north of Graveyard Mesa, mostly sprawling over every square foot of a valley both wide and long, a mile or two to our right and several miles to our left, stretching toward the mountains as far as the eye could see. Even under the snow cover, stark skeletons of buildings spiked skyward everywhere, black and ragged reminders of the death-rage that had driven a fantastic society to burn everything they could. This had happened worldwide, according to the lore handed down from our grandparents, but seeing it up close and personal was horrifying. Where the ruined skeletons were not charred remains of timbers too thick to be entirely consumed by the flames, even higher, towering, twisted sculptures of rusted steel leaned, loomed, threatened.

Our horses, strangely enough, didn’t seem to mind. Which was odd, since they were in general such sensitive creatures. Perhaps only attuned to dangers they knew well, like predators seeking to rend their flesh?

I didn’t know. It was, in fact, hard to think.

We passed piles of unidentifiable junk that must have been machines of some sort, individual things that had to be the fabled cars and trucks of Before. Fabled, but no more than metal detritus now. Michael remained silent, stopping only once to point out a danger underfoot. He’d spotted a jagged something jutting up from the snow and halted Roan before the horse could impale a hoof.

From that point forward, we walked, leading the horses, testing each step with our boots before asking our equine friends to risk their frogs. One slice into the tender part of an animal’s hoof could cost us all our lives. This place gave a whole new meaning to the word “shard.”

=====================================================

MICHAEL

The taboo against entering the ruins of any Before city had never made sense to me.

It did now.

Overhead, the blue sky mocked us, its cerulean hue pierced on every side by thousands of twisted, drooping, slanted girders rusted like dried blood. The foundry at Fort Steel had stacks of steel that resembled those, had they somehow been cut into lengths like trees sawn into logs. A chill worked its way down my spine and back up again. That had to be where the foundry had been getting its steel all along, not mined as iron ore and wizardly crafted into alloys but salvaged from the bones of the civilization that came Before.

Which meant we were not the first to break taboo.

There were others out there, possibly even working through the winter, looting the remains of fallen civilization. The Steelies had to know what they were buying. Not scavenging on their own initiative; the community of 250 souls, give or take, could not have hidden such an activity from we slaves. From the regular citizens, yes, but slaves notice things others do not. Their lives depend upon it. Those of us strong enough to be put to the work had helped unload many a Trader’s super-wagon over the years. The supes, basically half a wagon up front with a heavy duty axle and oversized wheels, all connected to an extra long tongue in front and a thirty foot beam leading to a similar axle-and-wheels set in back, came in from the southeast trail. Their great weight gouged ruts worthy of the original Oregon Trail during 19th century pioneer days; there was no way anybody in his right mind could have missed seeing them if they looped in so close as this. You wouldn’t need to be a tracker to recognize their route; you’d simply have to avoid tripping in the ruts and breaking a leg. Or two.

But they had to know about the Beast. Everybody did. So why had they not sent looters to ravage the bones? It might have taken a good deal of time and effort to build around their bases a forge fire hot enough to melt the girders, tumbling them to the ground so that they could be melted in more places, reduced in length until they were short enough to haul to the fort. That much was obvious. Yet it was also obvious that steel obtained in this way, so close to the foundry, would still be far cheaper than that purchased from Traders who had to haul their massive loads from locations a month away or more.

Not knowing the reason the Beast had been left alone–for it clearly had–scared me half to death.

Still, practical considerations had to remain uppermost in my mind. That blue sky wouldn’t be there for long. A stiff breeze had come up, winding through the miles and miles of ruins, finding holes to blow through that produced a low, wailing howl, a chorus of lost souls. Now at last the horses were beginning to get nervous; they didn’t like that sound any more than we humans did. But most of all, the sun would be setting soon. Shadows were reaching from one side of the street to the other; we rode in striped sunlight, cold shade, and back again.

We needed to find a place to camp for the night and there was no such place. I should never have led us in here so late in the day.

“Hunh!” Julia’s exclamation from behind was not loud, but enough to startle me. Neither of us had spoken since leaving Graveyard Mesa.

I wasn’t about to ask. Nothing worse than looking ignorant in front of your woman. Instead, my vigilance increased. I glanced back at her, saw her gaze fixed straight ahead, and determined to see what had elicited her little exclamation of surprise.

And there it was, but…what was it? I walked on, ever wary of the sometimes unsafe street we trod, listening through the clip-clop of our horses’ hooves, straining my eyes in a vain attempt to figure it out. Ever so slowly, the dark slash ahead of us came into focus, a wide, hard-surface street without a flake of snow. Our street flowed into it, curving as it had curved for the last mile. Across that street, trees and grass survived more or less as nature intended, acres free of debris, surrounded by a tall fence of presumably…wrought iron?

We stopped at the junction, bemused and amazed. What on Earth?

Julia stepped up beside me, so close that the stirrups on our two saddle mounts touched. One corner of a brick building still stood to our right; it had obscured the ancient sign. We stared at its message, a barely decipherable silver on green.

Welco*e To
WINNOW
pop. 253,109

Across the broad, black, snowless ribbon, a much smaller sign hung by one corner, still desperately attached to the gates that were secured with chain and padlock. Many of the letters had rusted to oblivion.

*ill*** *o*n**n S***nk
*e**r*** *ark

“Is it safe?” Julia asked. I was pretty sure she meant the road surface.

“Probably the safest thing in this nest of mysteries,” I replied. My voice came out as a croak worthy of a sick bullfrog. Stress much, Dawg? “Let’s see if I can bust that padlock off of there with the camp axe. It’s going to be noisy, but I don’t see any better choice. You stay here, watch my back for me, okay?”

“Okay.”

=====================================================

JULIA

Michael looked a little stiff as he gathered wood for the fire. Little wonder; the stress of walking point these what? Two…more like three miles from Graveyard Mesa to this park. That must have equaled a good day’s hard labor in any man’s language.

And what a man. Did he realize his own strength? The hammer side of the single bit axe had arced high up over his head, powering down in a two handed strike that shot the bolt free of its shackle with a single blow. Never mind that he’d been a bit sheepish when he inspected the remains. “It wasn’t locked. Just stuck together to look like it was, nothing but rust holding the two parts together.” I dared chuckle now, with our campsite secured in the midst of a sizeable copse that provided perfect cover.

“Share the joke?” My man set his last necessary load of wood down carefully, snapping a few branches here and there to shorten them sufficiently for our temporary home sweet home.

“Just thinking.” Thinking fast, too. I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit I was still amused by the look on his face when he’d slaughtered an unlocked lock. “Folks back home wouldn’t believe us if we told them we’d found a perfect wilderness campsite inside the notorious Beast itself.”

“Hunh. Got that right. Not sure I believe it myself.” We were situated more than 150 yards inside the gate, well past the great crypt that stood tall, dark, and monolithic. Solid granite, we thought, with an archway on the street side that led deep into the darkness. Writing on there, too, etched into the stone, but no way to read it until daylight.

Unless we held a torch aloft, making ourselves perfect targets for whatever boogeyman might be out there. No thank you, bub.

“We read about these in school.”

“Read about what, Jules?”

“These parks. I mean, not exactly like this one. Most of them Before were open to the public, not fenced in by eight foot high wrought iron.”

Michael thought about that a bit, watching me prepare supper. We’d decided there wasn’t much point in standing watch until one of us was ready for sleep. This stand of trees covered a couple of acres at most, with stark white snow providing great visibility all the way to the distant fence. Especially with the moon already up tonight. I’d taken a turn around the perimeter before starting supper and hadn’t found a track of anything dangerous.

Dangerous to us, that is. There were small predators here, hunting small game. Rabbits and squirrels for sure. The rabbits had gone into hiding and the squirrels had given us holy what-for.

“I’m not sure it’s a park,” Michael said at last. “Seems more like a giant graveyard devoted to just one grave. Or crypt, I guess the right word would be. Or maybe it was both, with rich folks allowed here or something. I just don’t see it likely the unwashed masses were allowed to carouse in the area.”

“Unwashed masses? Like us, you mean?”

“Pretty much. But honey, there’s more to think about than that. You do realize what that Winnow sign means? It means we’re only now at the edge of the city. All those other ruins, they’re nothing but what they called the berbs, if I remember my schooling right.”

The pot was simmering. I parked my butt on a log piece across the fire from my partner, glad to have a chance to learn a bit more. “We haven’t talked much about your early life. Did you get some of your education there? Before the Steelies came?”

“Ha!” He picked up a wrist-thick piece of wood, pulled out his belt knife, and began whittling. The shavings would go into our pockets, one step beyond tinder the next time we needed to start a fire. “You know I was only nine when that happened. Before that, I never realized just how goofy my parents were–heck, all of Fort Confluence was made up of airheads. Not speaking ill of the dead, mind you, but what sort of people build a town they call a fort and then don’t even fortify the place? You know how Grunt and the others got together to found Fort 24?”

Hm. “I know he started the whole thing, gathered like-minded individuals when he could find them, until they decided they were strong enough, with enough skills and determination between them, to go ahead and get the job done.”

“Right. That’s the way it was told to me, too.” He grinned mirthlessly. “But not so with Fort Confluence. Babe, they didn’t even call it Fort Confluence at first. That name was pressed on them by the Traders who came through, insisting that everybody after the Fall was calling their towns Fort This or Fort That. No, you know what it’s real name was, back before reality slapped the bunch of them upside the head one last time? The called it New Day.”

“New Day?” I hadn’t heard that.

“New Day. Because they were all airy-fairy, pie in the sky, a wolf will never hurt you and God protects the true believers and oh aren’t we special ’cause we were chosen to survive the winnowing?”

My blood ran cold. “The…winnowing?” As in Winnow, the city we’d now invaded?

“Yeah.” Michael lifted his gaze to look me in the eye. I looked at him, and the Grim Reaper looked back. “This place we’re in right now, they talked about it. At that age, I had no clue it was a lousy two days’ ride from my childhood home. But I did know they worshiped this place, or close to it. And worse, they worshipped the man who’d built the city. A billionaire he was, rolling in money he’d made in all sorts of questionable endeavors, pharmaceuticals that killed more people than they helped, fertilizers that made toxic grain that made toxic bread, a brand of religion that was more cult than anything else, high level politicians bought and paid for, construction companies building with weird concrete that made apartment dwellers sick in their lungs, the list goes on and on. The only good thing he ever developed, at least that I was taught about, is the pavement we crossed coming in here. Forget what it was called, but the stuff hardly ever froze up–snow and ice just melted right off it–and it was next thing to indestructible. Only a few cities had tried it when the Blackface came, but it looked promising.

“But the worst thing was–want to know what the worst thing about this man was?”

I was pretty sure that was a rhetorical question, but I nodded anyway.

“The worst thing was…it was a story whispered among the adults at night, a dark thing we little ones weren’t supposed to hear. You know about Capriosi vilify, right? Of course you do, the virus that brought humanity to the brink of extinction worldwide. He financed that research. Single handedly underwrote the research of the two scientists who both came up with the concept and perfected the weapon. His name was William Johnson Schenk, and without him society would not have fallen, at least not in the way and to the extent that it did at the time that it did.”

My mouth was open, my breath laboring. That meant–“That’s his name on the gate, isn’t it? Before it rusted, it said,

William Johnson Schenk
Memorial Park

“Right?”

“Right. This is his city, his park, probably his mausoleum or crypt or whatever the right term is for it. The adults of New Day, my parents included, whispered his name in reverence. He was a god to them, Julia. The few Survivors still living preached his gospel, and the younger generations worshiped as they were taught. And before you ask if I’m really sure I’m right, consider the numbers. A quarter million people in this one city. Only one in five thousand escaped death by Blackface, leaving fifty or so Survivors. Those fifty undoubtedly warred against each other, reducing the final number to maybe half of that, twenty-five or so. Those final Survivors, ironically similar in number to the Founders of Fort 24, bypassed what is now Fort Steel right next door, then founded their New Day settlement a mere two days’ march farther down the line. Schenk had been their guiding star when Winnow existed, the name brazenly declaring the very project he had undertaken, winnowing mankind. He’d been their idol, and they did not abandon him.

“He died just three years into the eleven year Fall, declaring to his followers even on his deathbed that he had performed the greatest possible service to planet Earth and was content. The people here aided and abetted him in his efforts, many perhaps beguiled by his money but many more declaring themselves as true believers.

“Sweetheart, I am descended from monsters, and I now sit in the head monster’s personal Garden of Doom, preparing to consume venison stew as the Devil himself laughs in his tomb not forty yards away. This is not a good day.”

Michael’s eyes were dark hollows in his face. He sat listless, unmoving, the knife in his hand unmoving, a small pile of shavings at his feet.

“Well,” I said quietly, “at least now we know why it’s called the Beast.”