"What's the future of mankind?
How do I know?
I got left behind."
--Recorded Wisdom of Before, vol. 5, Ch. 3
The howling echoed through the hills around him as Eldar scrambled up the slope. Leaves, sticks and scrub slid downward beneath him and he began to feel like he was moving in place. His hands slipped and he fell flat on his face and slid down the slope a few feet. Exhaustion reverberated through him and took its hold.
Four days the hounds had ghosted them, stalked them, probed them at night and traced their movements in the day. At first they seemed to just be scavengers looking for any leavings. Then last night the pack seemed to make its decision. They knew that the pack had grown but it seemed that the hounds were actually hiding their numbers. They never saw more than a few at the same time. When they came there were so many more of them than Eldar had imagined.
Tarrelson had tried to fight them off. When they had left Shelter all those long weeks ago Tarrelson had sworn to make sure that Eldar made it all the way. He was young, but so full of hope. Eldar could only believe his earnest promise to Elia to get the “Old Man" there. Elia had laughed and kissed Tarrelson in a more than friendly way, and shrugged off her Father's raised eyebrow. She would lead the Shelter out once they had word of the journey’s success. Eldar could see those moments clearly as he watched the hounds gauge the young man and the burning brand he swung at them. Three had stayed in front of him, snarling and nipping at him so that he never saw the two that circled behind. They came on him from his blind spot and tore out the back of his legs. As soon as he was down they were on him. His struggling only lasted a few more seconds. Eldar winced at the image of the man's limbs becoming still beneath the wagging tails of the large hounds. He knew that image would be with him the rest of his days, however many more of them he had left.
The howling struck up again, closer now, as if to punctuate that thought.
Eldar pounded the ground. There had been seven of them. It was a good number, a fortuitous number. They had all agreed upon that. As they ran from the hounds into these forsaken mountains there were only five left. The pack continued to stalk them. They did not attack again en masse but rather seemed content to pick off the group one by one. Any hesitation, any slip or fall, any lack of strength and the hounds took you. Eldar was the last and only because Tok and Clutch had turned to try and fight. Exhaustion was taking its toll and the two men hoped to scare the hounds off. Eldar could hear the snarling of the hounds and the gunshots. He ran for high ground hoping to find a place to hide and that the two men might fight them off. It had only been a few minutes before the guns went silent. Shortly after that the howling started. It surrounded him and he drove harder up the wooded slopes. He tried to choose paths that would be harder for the pack to traverse. These were also hard on him, but he hoped to gain some space to be able to find a good place to hide. Or even to fight, but most likely to die. The howling echoed from all around him. They were communicating to one another and sharing his location across the pack. They moved to channel him to where they could surround him.
Despite his fear and exhaustion, something would not let him stop. Somehow he knew that if he just kept going a little longer he would survive. He pounded the ground again.
They had been seven!
Now…it was just him.
Slowly, his hands reached up and grabbed an exposed root on the hillside.
Somehow his grip was strong and he pulled himself up.
Somehow his feet found purchase on a rock slightly jutting from the loose ground of the slope.
Somehow he pulled…
And scratched his way up.
At the top of the hill side Eldar found a gravel trail cutting across the slope and somehow he knew to follow it. Staggering, scrambling, crawling and running he made his way along the trail. Trees rose alongside the trail like ancient sentinels. Branches that reached out into the trail clutched and pulled at him, but he was not even aware of them. His mind had devolved into just one thought: take the next step. Keep moving. There was no room in his mind for anything beyond the effort it took to drive his hands and feet forward. The howling struck up again and seemed to be everywhere. Eldar pushed through a bramble and stepped over something. He had no mind for what it was, but the post with writing from Before rocked back and forth as he stepped across it. His foot caught on the post and he tripped and fell forward. The gravel cut into his skin and he collapsed on the path, losing the will to move.
The howling erupted again and Eldar looked about in panic. Shadows moved in the trees around him. He knew they were taking their time assessing him, circling him, and surrounding him. Somehow he pushed himself to move. Rolling off the path, he crawled towards a depression in the ground. It would be his grave he knew. As he started down into the shallow in the ground he began to slip on wet grass that lined the depression. He panicked as the strength that had possessed him for the last few minutes fled and he slid down the slope. The crunch of gravel alerted him to several of the hounds racing after him. He looked back as he slid and saw their over-large torsos appear at the top of the pit he was falling into. They were silhouetted against the twilight sky and the sentinel trees that surrounded them.
The ground fell away from him. He felt weightless for a second before another surface slammed into him. The air exploded from his lungs as he lay on his back looking up out of the pit he had fallen into. He collected his breath again in huge gasps and the world stopped blinking before his eyes. Now he could hear the whining and growling from the pack above. They were assessing the slope and how best to get at their prey. As air heaved into him, he started to realize that the ground he was on was flat; perfectly, unnaturally flat. It was also hard and cold. He ran his hand over it and felt its smoothness. He had felt this sort of material a few times in his life and knew this was a thing from Before. No one After could make a surface this perfect.
Eldar turned and pushed himself up to his knees looking around. He was about ten feet down in some sort of silo. Above he could see the sky and the branches of the trees overhead. He could not see the hounds but he heard them moving around the edges of the slope. They had shown uncanny intelligence up to this point. Eldar was not surprised and more than a little thankful they had not tried the slope yet. He had no doubt that they would slip as he had and it would rain immense, ferocious, man-eating hounds on him. It was only a matter of time though, so he needed to figure out where he was.
Reaching his hands out Eldar felt walls of the same smoothness as the floor under him. Slowly his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he could make out the confines of the broad shaft he was in. There was enough room for several men to stand shoulder to shoulder without touching the walls. It was deep enough that he had no hope of reaching the top, even if he still had the strength to jump. He did not see any way back up. There was no ladder or hand holds of any sort. It looked as if there was an alcove in the wall to his left and he reached toward that. He did not have the strength to stand and so he crawled towards the deeper darkness of the alcove.
A scrambling sound from above preceded a whine from one of the hounds and a rain of dirt from above. They were getting adventurous. He knew the lure of their prey would override any fear of the strange terrain very soon.
Eldar lurched forward and his hand pressed against a firm surface inset a few hand widths inside the alcove. The metal ring on his finger connected with the new surface in a resounding metal on metal ping. A metal door? Eldar was amazed as he ran his hands over the surface.
There was a sudden snap-hiss and blinding light flooded the silo from the alcove. Eldar's eyes tried reversed their adjustments to accommodate as he shielded them. A low hum resonated from the door and a green light flashed over the inside of the silo. What Eldar could only describe as a beam scanned down the interior of the silo. It passed down over him, and then back up and snapped off as the hum faded.
"Please identify yourself for admittance beyond this point." a warm female voice spoke from seemingly everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Eldar coughed and tried to speak but could not find his voice.
"Please try again. Please identify yourself for admittance beyond this point." the voice intoned again. "Are you in need of assistance?" it continued in an almost too solicitous voice.
"Yes! Yes! Let me in please! By the light of Before!" Eldar croaked in the raw voice that the last few days had left him with.
"No Match. Please try a secondary biometric identity scan for admittance beyond this point. Please be advised that unauthorized access is subject to, but not limited to, significant fines and may result in imprisonment and, in rare cases, execution." Eldar thought he heard anticipation when the warm voice politely spoke of executing him. As his exhausted mind raced to process what was happening, Eldar saw a green square light up. It was on the wall of the alcove at about his shoulder height had he been standing. The image of a hand began to pulse brighter and darker upon the square.
Eldar tried to pull himself up. There were no hand holds in the smooth silo that he was beginning to think would be his tomb. So far he had come, and so hard he had struggled these last few days and now all he had to do was stand up, but he could not.
"Do you require assistance?" the warm voice inquired again. Was there a hint of superiority in her tone? Eldar thought maybe he had finally snapped. Was he dreaming this?
"Yes! Damn you, please!" he croaked.
"Please do not be perturbed. What is the nature of your distress so that the proper assistance can be given?"
Eldar stared at the green blinking hand and loathed the voice with the deepest part of his being. He pulled in what remaining strength he had and lunged at that green hand.
Three things then happened near to simultaneously. Eldar's hand slapped onto the green square with a wet smack. The blood and grime on his hands left a distinct shape on the glass. The force of his slap spiked back through him as pain shot up his arm. Then there was a scrambling from above that turned into a rain of dirt and the howling yip of one of the hounds. Then several hundred pounds of snarling beast came slamming to floor of the silo. Finally, the warm female voice intoned, "Positive Identification. Welcome Maintenance Worker number seven-four-two-four." Then, and Eldar later would swear there had been a tone of sarcasm, "Was that so hard?"
Eldar stared at the green pad incredulously. Somehow the smear of his handprint had registered with the disembodied voice.
A growl filled the silo.
Eldar turned to look at the hound raising up on its legs and shaking the fall from itself. He fell back against the metal wall of the alcove and stared at the hound. He memorized every detail of its snarling visage. From the wet gleam of its nose to the saliva lining its jowls as it exposed its reddish yellow fangs to him. The movement of each muscle as it moved forward. It was the last sight he would see so he absorbed its every nuance.
The hound stepped forward again and crossed some threshold within the silo. The hum and green beam came to life again. It ran down over the beast and then back up again. The hound blinked at the light but was not put off from its prey and stepped forward one more time.
"Security override Seven-Nine-Delta-One. Assume BF mode alpha." The female voice spoke with sharp authority. Eldar believed he saw a green flash deep within the hound's eyes, but he could not be sure. The effect of the command was immediate. The hound lay down on the floor of the silo. Its head was up and attentive, tongue protruding from the side of its mouth as it panted lightly. There was no trace of aggression left at all.
Eldar stared at the docile hound in amazement. He missed the vibration in the metal wall he leaned against. It was only for a second, then the wall shot up and out from behind him. Eldar promptly fell back into what he now understood was a doorway. He slammed his head on another perfectly smooth floor. One that was also exceptionally hard.
As the world dimmed around him and Eldar felt consciousness slipping away from him he heard the too warm and too polite female voice.
"Leaning on blast doors is not recommended. This is a dangerous practice that can result in loss of limb or other serious injury. Safety mechanisms should have prevented this door from opening when it was leaned upon. Please report this to maintenance referencing error ID 10 T."
And then, with a distinct touch of smugness, "Thank you for your assistance."
Then all went dark.