by Alex C. Tiemen
Markov woke and got out of the metal cot in the center room of the once trendy loft apartment that overlooked the river to the west. He opened the balcony door and took in a breath of fresh, late-summer air. You would never know by the look of the slow-moving clouds, the creeping sun coming up over the back of the building and casting cool shadows below, that anything in this world had changed for the worse. But it had. Everything had changed and much of it for the worse.
Markov was one of those souls that believed maybe something good could come of this change, that something beautiful would be possible out of the decay. But he wasn’t sure of anything. The world was new. The world was now what people made of it, what they scavenged from the old world or created fresh. The game had changed. It was a new sandbox. Markov knew this much.
As he breathed he could feel the warmth from the beige colored walls of the apartment radiate outwards onto the deck and at the same moment thought of the faces of all of his loved ones, friends and family that did not make it; that died with fever, rash, bleeding, with the eventual bronchial constriction, suffocation and cardiac arrest. The ones that died early had it easier maybe, they did not witness or live through the complete chaos of the complete collapse. He almost felt guilty for feeling something good from the sun. But he had no choice. He was left in this world with only a small percentage of survivors. He would go on living.
He walked back into the apartment to check his computer. The grid had remained sporadically on in R_ thanks to a nuclear power plant that was still fusing. There were so few people and demands left that the weak output was enough to keep a computer going, lights, a radio with only a few signals. He always wondered who had lived in this apartment before it happened. What their lives were like. There is something base and animalistic in the human mind and psyche. What we are closest to we feel the most. He felt close to the phantoms of the apartment, to their lives, the things left behind that Markov kept, as they were, a living museum to the antediluvian.
His eyes crossed the living room and their posters that still lined part of the wall. Ownership meant very little now. There was food if you could find it, there was gas, there was medicine. Markov thought the population had been reduced by 98%. A mathematician he listened to on the radio at night said 99%.
The power grid kept working, on stand-by, is what someone called it and then that became popular. Everything was on stand-by.
In the country, a 40 minute drive from Markov’s apartment and the city center lived Phillip. Phillip was Ivy League educated from an old East Coast family that had married enough times beneath itself to keep itself going that it no longer mattered about the Mayflower, or the Land Buys or whatever. And he was a bit of a jerk but he had a soft spot where it mattered and he was intelligent and a good person to know, he still had means, he knew his way around, he knew history and people, he could plot a little bit. He and Markov were sharp contrasts and they would come to know this.
Phillip had first learned of the possibility of a map in one of the abandoned bars, on the East side, over drinks. He really should have been preoccupied by life’s little necessities, like food, fuel for the coming winter, attempting to find any old friends or family that may have survived but were not in the vicinity of R_.
Markov has the map.
Markov might have the solution.
He lived high, is what they told Phillip, not drugs, Up, on the buildings, the only safe spot in the city. You either lived high or you lived in the country. He had insight, he had books, he knew how to get into the libraries everyone talked about but no one had seen, the ones the government, in their one possible act of beneficence, had kept for a scenario like this, the end of the world, the beginning of what Phillip (trained, educated, pessimistic) thought was probably the start of nothing.
You have to find Markov. Adamson had a thick beard, never bathed, no one was in the Temples anymore. Phillip respected him after initially detesting him. His fingernails were long and dirty and he always chose this bar, the one on the east side of town where he bartered with the proprietor, if that is what you called it, the man who lived in the back and had a gun and who like Adamson, like the Jews that survived for the most part, most of them didn’t drink but Adamson did, bourbon, splash of water, chain smoked his own hand rolled cigarettes, the orange stain on his thumb and forefinger pulling at his black beard, his hand running through his long hair.
Lilly came out from the back. Phillip figured they were both running girls, dirt bags he thought, fucking scum of the earth. But who was Phillip to judge. He drank and destroyed two perfectly good and beautiful families. Maybe this was how you did it, you got rid of your vices in the daytime, at work, through business, to stay clean at night. The bar smelled of fain mildew and mold out of the north corner that remained dark all day, no light from the street windows hitting it at all. The owners dog sat all day by the front door, only occasionally stepping out to pee or to move behind the bar to drink out of its water bowl. No one ever saw it eat.
There was a faint smell of wood smoke coming in from the door.
Fires. Adamson said.
If the wind is right. Phillip said.
Have you been?
I live in that direction, but no, never been.
There was supposedly a colony of wild men, scalps, that lived on the other side of the river valley, maybe a hundred miles from the city, and they burned forests for fuel and the forests sometimes got out of control with great swaths, hundreds of acres burned across the valley to the river. It was better not to go there is what everyone said.
Phillip looked at the wall behind Adamson’s back. There were rock and roll posters, the bar must have had live music at one time, there was an old stage floor facing the back wall and it looked like old amplifiers and microphone stands stored in the back.
ACDC Phillip said quietly.
Adamson turned around. I never listened to that stuff.
We must be about the same age though. Really? Phillip was incredulous. He looked at Adamson’s eyes for a quick second. They were a sharp blue, hard to see behind the thick glasses, handsome eyes and clear.
Phillip took a final sip of his whiskey, it was safer than water he thought. He looked at the piece of paper in his hand. You sure this is it? It was a street address, it was going to get him to Markov and to the map.
The Territory has no Map. Adamson looked at Phillip.
What did you say? Phillip asked.
I mean it is what you want it to be. As above, below. You’re looking for the map but you have to create the map. Adamson laughed. Phillip understood he had been sitting there well before he had entered and was well on his way to getting drunk.
That’s not gonna create a map. Phillip stood up. All 6 feet 4 inches and leaned down over the table and Adamson’s head pointing at Adamson’s drink. Phillip put his baseball cap back on and walked out, bending slightly as he exited the doorframe into the late summer sun, a slight breeze from the northwest. Savages he thought. On both sides of the river. Before the fall and after.
–Markov and Phillip meet–
As Phillip made his way into the City Center, the streets were deserted.
The tall building all needed their windows cleaned and their facades sprayed down. Because of the layer of dirt and grime the windows only reflected half of the sun’s rays. Everything was muted. A day could go by without even a single car passing through. Phillip felt for his gun deep in his front pocket where he liked it. He felt his back pocket for his knife and turned around. He saw someone standing across the adjacent square, the grass overgrown into tall weeds. The man gave a hand sign and Phillip answered. The signs were the same everywhere in the Territory.
There wasn’t a garbage problem because there weren’t enough people to create the garbage in the first place. Center City was quiet near Markov’s apartment, he knew everyone on the street, all the locals knew the hand-signs to give from a distance but for the most part the area was safe. Markov had a gun like everyone else, but it wasn’t kept under his bed anymore. He couldn’t remember the last time he needed it.
Phillip looked at the address he was given. It was in penhan shorthand, which people in R_ used as code to keep information away from possible enemies. After the event, secret groups started to form, people that could trust one another met in secret locations and started using secret codes to keep criminals and enemies away from their goals. Society spilled into the base childhood imaginary of invented games, selected groups and controlled hierarchies. A network of bartering and currency formed. Makeshift militias were set-up to protect farmer’s crops and livestock. Energy facilities were protected. Remaining pharmacy supplies were protected and controlled. Schools reopened to teach the children that had survived. Doctors and nurses were of the utmost importance to any community
Phillip knew to take a roundabout way, that it was easier to spot criminals, ‘slaps’, as they were often called, and that there were people at this moment watching out for him from the apartment buildings, rooftops, or parking garages. Decent people were protected. It was the scalps
that were often the victim of violence before ever perpetrating a crime, run out of city neighborhoods and small town streets before they ever had a chance to do anything.
Phillip crossed the river West once and then circled around and crossed back over the next bridge to the East. He saw two men walk North toward what he knew to be in the direction of the bad part of the city, the part you didn’t want to enter and that was guarded by vigilantes preventing scraps from entering the center. He looked up and put his hand to his face as he saw someone do the same in the office building across the street.
Markov met Phillip at the ground floor door in the back and showed him up the 5 flights of stairs. As they were stepping onto the final set of stairs a door opened off the staircase and a man could be seen peering through the opening in the door. Markov gave Phillip a wave to say it was ok and then the man shut the door as they both passed.
They went out onto the balcony. Markov asked if Phillip wanted a drink.
Why not. He answered looking out toward the river and then stepping out onto the balcony with Markov as Markov handed him a drink with ice.
The ice is a nice touch. Phillip said and raised his glass.
“Cheers”, said Markov. No one was out on the streets below or across the river.
“So you’re the famous Markov,” Phillip said. He seemed either annoyed in the trouble it was to find him or unimpressed with what he had found. The tone was not lost on Markov.
“Did Adamson tell you I was coming?” Phillip asked.
“Something like that.” Markov said and took a sip thinking that Phillip was older and to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was a hard slog, getting into the city safely. He minded his manners as he was brought up to do.
“This is quite good.” Phillip said holding up the glass.
“Local whiskey,” said Markov. “A distillery on the border. Phillip, though from the country, knew that he meant the city border with the scalp area. “Distillery and fortress.” Markov laughed.
Phillip sensed Markov’s magnanimity. He didn’t get the reputation he had by being an asshole and he wanted to at least be respectful, age and background meant very little now and old habits indeed did die hard.
“How is it living in the city?” Phillip asked.
“It’s what I’m used to now. Open spaces now make me uneasy.” Markov looked at Phillip then looked away. “I was in the South a couple years ago and felt like I was lucky getting back.”
“I live in the South.” Phillip replied. “You just have to know which roads to use, which ones to avoid.” He laughed. They both looked across to the empty apartment buildings and one of the old office buildings that had partially burned down, one of the top floors exposed to the weather.
Markov felt like it was the time to get to business. “As far as any information, I know someone who knows someone in New York-”
Nervously, knowing Markov was opening-up, Phillip interrupted. “The Map!” And he nervously laughed.
There was a cool breeze out of the northwest that crossed the river and swept over the half desiccated blacktop up to the fourth floor balcony. What the weather, the time of the year, the vision of the emptied expanse across the river meant to Phillip now he did not completely know. He tried not to think of the past and the future was the next moment. He was Harvard educated. A successful lawyer. All that meant something now to the wrong people trying to resurrect something that should never be resurrected. Phillip knew it from experience, from dealing with sentries after the collapse and knowing finally, that it was useless. The ontology of the sentry was a failed ontology. Markov was a prole. So be it. The prole was on to something. Phillip looked at the fingers holding the glass over the railing of the balcony, how the nails had become dirtied, and he looked at Markov.
“The map.” Markov said. “The map, if it exists, opens a whole new reality.”
They went inside and sat by the tv that turned on with one accessible channel that wasn’t broadcasting at the moment. Markov had found an older tv with an antenna hook-up.
“We are supposed to find Dr. Lowell.” Markov said. “I was supposed to find you and together we were to get access to him. Now we’ve met so the location of his place in the country will be given to us.”
“He is a bit of a nut is what I have heard.” Phillip looked around the apartment. He felt vulnerable with so many large windows facing in three directions. What was luxury now often represented vulnerability. He picked-up an old smartphone.
“Is this your’s.”
“No. But it’s like a novel or a movie. I can play back video, see contact info, he had a lot of notes and saved emails in a document folder. I feel like I know the guy. He was a graduate student in the city.”
“A little creepy.” Phillip said.
“Maybe. I felt bad throwing it away so when I’m bored I’ll look through it. I have become kind of attached. I don’t know, maybe he is still live or some of his family is still alive.”
“I think we should leave today.” Phillip said, changing the subject.
Phillip didn’t respond but thumbed through the phots on the smartphone. The man seemed to have a perfect life, a beautiful wife and kids and a beautiful home. They looked happy thought Phillip.
Phillip looked up. “What did you do before the storm?”
“Computers. Math mostly. Helping software people. First in California then with a start-up here purchased by a California company. And I liked it here.” Markov laughed.
“We all seemed to like it here after the fact.” Phillip said. Phillip picked-up what looked like a photocopied journal article.
“What did you do?” Markov sipped his whiskey and looked at Phillip politely.
“Lawyer. Budding sentry. Harvard grad. Spoiled brat is I guess what you would call it. Only cared about myself. And my family as a reflection of myself I guess.”
“And you quit the sentry is what Adamson said.”
“I don’t know if you can quit but not interested. Not interested in what they have.”
Markov got up and walked into the other room to pack his things for the trip to the country. Phillip started reading the journal article. Layered Encryption with Photochemical Storage. There was a picture of text, the letter “T” and then what looked like code and then a picture of a movie screen. “Photochemical print can now be used with this method to store and link large sources of data. Within the microscopic layers of the chemical properties are the data storage units that keep their electrical charge indefinitely…This has been modeled on work done by Johnson, Reese and Markov…He looked to the end where the citations were, Markov had written a paper on the Diffuse uses of photochemical micro-processing with electrical charge. The bastards a famous scientist thought Phillip and then realized it wasn’t an accident that he was going to be informed of the possibilities in New York. They probably needed him as badly as we needed them. And what was his own use, what was an aged, overweight, hard drinking lawyer to anyone left that mattered?
Markov came back into the room and saw Phillip putting down the article.
“Interesting.” Phillip said. “What does it all mean?”
“It’s basically a liquid or liquid dried computer. A computer stored in ink or liquid.”
“And it works?”
“It works.” Markov thought Phillip might as well know more than less. “The religious guys in New York think their map exists in text somewhere, embedded in the text. Not necessarily as gematria, you know Jewish code that is prophetic, but as this form of computer storage maybe.” Markov started to put on his jacket.
“And that’s why Adamson knew about you.”
“I think we have to be careful.” Markov said.
“I think I can agree with you.” Phillip stood up and somehow, briefly, Markov was reassured by Phillip’s intelligence and the fact that even past middle age he would be a hard man to beat in a fistfight.
Bilty Farm was set back a mile from the main road. It was well known to everyone who remained in the area as one of the only working farms left. The farm fed lots of people in a hundred mile radius and it was fiercely protected by Lowell and those who lived and worked on the property. It’s exact location was known only to locals and even for them it was hard to find, they main driveways and extension roads intentionally hidden and destroyed for privacy and defense.
It was a three hour drive for Phillip and Markov, with three pre-determined markers along the way, that would tell Phillip and Markov if it was ok to continue. If one of the markers was down, it meant trouble and to abort the meeting.
Bilty had been attacked and raided numerous times in the few years since the deluge. Dozens of vigilantes kept their eyes open for trouble and had developed a unique and efficient marking system to warn of possible enemies approaching.
At one marker there was a makeshift check-point and search of their bodies and car. Phillip was not pleased being manhandled by “country bumpkins” in old pick-up trucks carrying rusted rifles.
‘Mr. Lowell’s orders.” Is all they would reply with as they went through the trunk of the once new, now old Mercedes wagon, picking through clothes, sleeping bags, a collection of small pistols remaining hidden beneath the base board.
“Nothing there boys.” Phillip said. Markov thought about some form of defense if things went wrong and the boys weren’t friendly after all. After a few minutes they were allowed to travel the remaining 30 or so miles.
The farm had been in the Lowell family for generations and after the event, as the cataclysm was euphemistically called by many now, Lowell was the only surviving relative to retreat there. It was ironic, considering that the farm had been the property of the other, ‘good’ side of the family, the one’s that kept pastoral roots, not the city side Lowell belonged to.
Driving off the main road and into the property – the narrow dirt drive lined with carefully kept and vintage English hedges blocking the view from outside, the well-maintained white fences, quarter horses that looked muscular and well-bred, the neatly maintained fields of wheat and corn, a large cow barn half way up a hill to the West partially hidden by the edge of a pine forest, past a swimming hole with brightly painted and optimistic lawn chairs politely positioned around it, all of this, – for a moment made both Phillip and Markov forget about where they had come from, about the difficulty of finding enough clean drinking water, enough meat to eat, toilet paper, electricity and the never ending weight of not knowing who or how many had, like them, survived.
They drove past a collection of ponds, neatly maintained low-brick guest houses, and the gardens that surrounded the main house. The house itself dated to the 1700s, when the Lowell family had originally settled in the area, one of the first settlers in the State.
“Jesus.” Phillip said as he leaned forward with one hand on the wheel turning the wheel slowly to his left around the main circle in front of the brick and stone house painted white. “This guy is living in a dream world I think.”
“You think he’s delusional?” Markov asked and laughed.
“I think this is all too much and can’t end well.” Phillip coughed as he slowed put the car in park and reached below the seat for one of his many pistols. “It’s too hard to live up to.”
“It’s a working farm. We get some of the corn in R_ from here supposedly, and eggs.” Markov was attempting to improve the mood before the two met each other.
“Every Utopia fails.” Phillip laughed and then coughed as his tall frame exited the car.
Lowell was as imposing a figure as Phillip. He was as tall, 6’4” and 250lbs, around the same age as Phillip but with a full head of white hair and a strong, clean-shaven face, tanned from farm work and a life outside. He had been a successful orthopedic surgeon living in the Midwest before the trouble, as it was sometimes called by people near the farm, before he made his way to Bilty and reclaimed what was his, as he liked to say. “If no one else is left then I guess it is my duty to run the place.”
He walked out into the circle drive and stopped in front of Phillip’s old Mercedes.
He raised both arms and smiled, “Boys, welcome to Bilty Farm!”
end of part I
This is Alex Tiemen’s second story in Rundelania.