DISCOVERY PART 3A
Day ???; ???? (???)
Man: "We should be close."
A father of three, in his 50s, spoke as the group neared their destination. He was driving the family van towards the local park to meet-up with a few close friends. Their intentions were to relax and enjoy the warm, summer day.
Sitting in the front passenger seat, giving directions to his father, was a young man in his mid-twenties. His long sleeve, button-up shirt had been intentionally rolled-up to display his muscular forearms -- ones he had sculpted over the years.
Looking-out from the passenger-side window, the familiar streets, landmarks, and buildings, felt strangely reminiscent to the young man, though he knew not why.
The unique scent of vehicle exhaust, fast-food, and freshly cut grass wafting in the air, gave-off a strong feeling of nostalgia.
If it weren't for the young man's 2-year old niece acting cute, he might have been lost in his own world of delusions and endless remembrance.
Niece: "We hea', Gran-papa?"
The 2 year-old enchantingly asked the driver of the van.
Grand Papa: "Yes, we are here!"
The little girl screamed in excitement as she buried herself in her mother's arms, prompting the young man's older brother -- the father of the young girl -- to voice a valid complaint.
Older Brother: "Why don't you ever do that to me, baby girl?!"
Niece: "Papa's face is a cac-cus!"
The girl gleefully exclaimed before retreating into her mother's arms once more.
Young Man: "Haha. Did you forget to shave again?!"
The young man mocked his older brother, eliciting a scornful, but pitiable look from the father of the 2-year old.
The atmosphere was dizzyingly comfortable for the young man. It was a high that he never wanted to get off-of; it was a moment in time that he never wanted to end.
As the family reached the park, the young man, his older brother, and his father unloaded the van while his mother, older sister, and sister-in-law took turns pushing his 2-year old niece around on her small bicycle.
The warmth exuded by the little girl spread to everyone as the entire family was full of smiles.
Once everything had been unloaded and the lounging area set-up, the young man took a long, deep breath of fresh, clean air. Surprisingly, the smells of city life did not linger near the park, which made the family trip all-the-more worthwhile.
The sound of laughter rang in the air as amusement was shared by everyone around. The young man, alongside his large group of family and close friends, spent the entire morning enjoying themselves at the park.
By lunch time, the group retreated to a nearby rest area that had a large fast-food restaurant built inside. As the group took their seats, they started ordering one-by-one.
Sister-In-Law: "Hey ******, what are you ordering?"
The young man's sister-in-law asked, curious what he might be interested in.
It was strange that he couldn't hear the sound of his own name, but he quickly dismissed the issue, believing that his hearing was just acting-up.
Young Man: "Ah, one of those."
Replied the young man, with fingers spread-out pointing at different parts of the menu.
Sister-In-Law: "Tch. Why do you always have to do that?"
The sister-in-law pouted.
Young Man: "Hahaha. Sorry, I'll probably order anything with chicken."
Admitted the young man, leading his sister-in-law to gently smile.
Sister-In-Law: "Good! I was thinking the same!"
Turning to her husband, the sister-in-law asked what the older brother had planned to order.
Sister-In-Law: "Honey, what do you want?"
Older Brother: "Eh, I'm good with whatever."
The older brother responded as he played with his daughter, who mischievously squirmed in her booster seat.
As the rest of the group finished ordering their food, the feeling of immense satisfaction overcame the young man. Following that, came inescapable fatigue.
Not quite sure how to comprehend such clashing sensitivities, the young man searched for a safe place to sit down. The very moment his body relaxed, he succumbed to sleep.
When the young man woke-up, he found himself lying on his side, atop an empty bench located towards the back of the restaurant.
[Crap, did I really fall asleep?] Grumbled the young man, as he rubbed his blurry eyes.
Surrounding him, the once packed restaurant had now emptied, and his large group of family and friends had disappeared from the scenery. As he looked around the restaurant, bewildered by the unique circumstance, he managed to locate his older sister, who sat on an adjacent bench, to the right of him. She was listening to her K-Pop music while wearing large headphones that covered her ears. As he continued his search, he eventually spotted his older brother, who was sitting one table in-front of him. His brother appeared to be eating the food he had ordered earlier with the group.
As the young man's eyes wandered onto the table his brother sat at, he sighted a large to-go bag pushed-off to the side, and smiled.
[Oh, cool. That to-go bag must be mine.] Thought the young man, while staring at his brother back.
Sitting-up, the young man felt embarrassed by what he had done -- to fall asleep in such a place was...not ideal. In his shame, he lightly scratched his head and let out a nervous laugh -- one that only he could hear.
Looking down at himself, he noticed that the clothing he had worn earlier that morning had mysteriously been swapped-out to a faded graphic t-shirt, sweatpants, and tennis shoes.
Young Man: "What the…"
Shaking his head, he turned his attention back to his two family members.
Although there were inconsistencies with his current situation, he felt that as long as he was near his family, everything would work-out just fine. His family was all that mattered.
Standing-up, the young man approached his two siblings. The two, who also made it known that they were ready to depart, neither looked nor revealed their faces to him.
The young man found this particular treatment by his family to be oddly cruel. But again, he dismissed the irregularity. This time, believing the uncharacteristic behavior of his siblings to be rooted in some form of intricate prank.
Older Brother: "C'mon dude, let's go."
His older brother called-out in a monotone, almost robotic voice.
Still willfully oblivious, the young man diligently followed behind his siblings as they led the way out of the rest area, towards the parking lot.
Their movements were fluid and eerily quick.
Although they appeared to be walking, their elongated, uncanny strides gradually forced the young man to run after them, fearing that he'd be left behind.
As the older siblings turned the corner, the young man continued his chase. Upon reaching that same corner, the young man's heart skipped-a-beat.
The distance between the corner and the exit leading outside was ten meters, but his siblings were nowhere to be found. Instead, the only indication that his siblings were ever there were a pair of glass doors, noisily creaking as they swung back-and-forth, aggressively pushed open and closed by some invisible force.
Undoubtedly, the situation was unsettling. However, bystanders around the rest area had taken no notice of the oddity.
This perceived fact caused the young man to grow paranoid, believing that he alone was imagining things.
Shaking his head to clear his muddled mind, the young man proceeded outside. Once there, he caught-up to his siblings, both of which were now waiting at the edge of the sidewalk.
The young man smiled, seeing that his siblings were okay, but something caused him to panic.
The lighting...it was all wrong.
The once bright summer sky was now pitch-dark and absent of starlight.
This drastic change in ambiance led the young man to quickly check his wrist watch in disbelief.
[Damn, 10 PM already?] He thought to himself. Then, looking back at his siblings, the following thought came to mind. [What about my family?]
Young Man: "Hey, where's mom and dad? I haven't seen them since I woke-up."
Older Brother: "Oh, they already left."
Replied the older brother, in the same robotic, monotone voice.
Young Man: "Shit! Really?"
Older Brother: "Yeah."
Young Man: "How bout' Bryan, Melanie, and the rest of them?"
Asked the young man, while searching for his friends.
Older Brother: "They left an hour ago."
The older brother replied, making the young man feel guilty for not sending them off.
During the exchange, the older brother never once looked at the young man, which unnerved him.
[Damn, it's my fault. Are they both angry?] Questioned the young man as he stared at the ground, feeling too ashamed to look at his siblings.
Time passed in silence as the young man waited for the conversation to continue.
Convinced he was the reason for the awkward situation, he quickly glanced-up at his older brother to get answers, but received no response. He then looked towards his older sister, who was still listening to her music. She too did not bother acknowledging his anxious looks.
He then focused his attention to the parking lot.
He wanted to see if he could spot the family van amongst the sea of cars, hoping that his parents were still in the area. To his surprise, the cars and people that were once present when he first exited the rest area, had all drastically changed.
Young Man: "..."
Alarmed, he turned around to say something to his older brother, but the place where his older brother had once stood was now empty. Confused, he quickly turned towards his older sister, but sadly, she too was gone.
Young Man: "Wh-what!?"
The beat of his heart quickened as his anxiety grew. He had no idea what was happening, but every abnormality he had willfully ignored since waking-up came to the forefront of his mind.
As his wandering gaze landed back on the parking lot, his heart broke. The parking lot, which was once filled with cars and people, was now empty and overgrown with plant life.
He became dazed and mortified at the sight.
Hesitant, he slowly turned around to check the state of the rest area. To his dismay, it too had gone to ruin -- no longer displaying the bright lights it once had that attracted customers.
Then, he checked himself…
Strangely, he still wore the odd clothing he woke-up wearing that night. However, his clothes had aged with time and were now tattered and deeply stained with sweat and filth. His already worn-out tennis shoes were nothing more than sandals held together by a few stitchings.
As he looked at his own body, his once muscular forearms were now dried-up and boney.
He then lifted-up his tattered shirt...
Underneath, was an emaciated body, riddled with scars and lesions.
Then, time seemed to stop.
He was frozen.
He was terrified.
[What about my family? What about my friends?] Worried the young man.
The warmth that he felt from those closest to him; their smiles; their happiness; their joy...it was the only thing he cared about; it was the only thing he longed for.
While thinking of this, a large lump formed in the young man's throat. The lump was like a ball of yarn that closed-off his airways and tugged at his heartstrings.
To him, the lump was the culmination of all the sadness; the anxiety; the loneliness; the guilt -- it was every emotion that he felt at that singular moment. And in that moment, his whole existence crashed into oblivion.
His world turned black.
His emotions remained; his feelings remained; his vague memories remained…but he did not.
He felt helpless.
His despair deepened.
He was alone.
Day 426; 0613 (Morning)
513 eyes slowly rolled open as he sluggishly sat-up from his bed.
513: "...another one, huh?"
He gloomily murmured to himself.
His dreams over the past few days had been extremely vivid and convoluted. Although they were not as clear as the dreamscape responsible for Trauma Healing, he felt that these recent dreams served as some form of warning -- a prediction of what was to come.
513: "Wha...what is the purpose? What is the goal? What is my mind telling me?"
He rattled to himself as-if defeat had already consumed him.
513: "I don't understand…"
He continued as he rubbed his temples to comfort the frustration he felt.
Eventually, he got out-of bed and began his daily routine of inspecting equipment, tools, weapons, armors, hoarded materials, food stocks, water supply, building maintenance, and so-on.
He still had many unanswered questions he wanted to resolve, but he couldn't afford to spend too much time contemplating. More pressing matters were at-hand. Matters such as the expansion of the basecamp's defenses and the construction of anti-air weapons.
Initially, he had been concerned with his overall investment into the basecamp, believing that he had spent too much time and effort building-up the temporary home. But after his encounter with the Winged Kitten, his concerns reversed. Now, he felt that he had not invested enough.
[It might take a while to reach civilization, but right now, my pure focus should be on surviving.] He thought, rationalizing his decision to anchor down. [Once the weather brightens-up, I'll extend my excursions into the wilderness by a few days. I'll need to set-up way-stations and rest areas on the way, just as before, so that follow-up expeditions will go smoothly...a supply chain with defensible positions is essential.]
He knew how perilous this new world was. So, rushing ahead of his steadily made progress could only be seen as foolish.
513: "Slow and steady."
Muttered 513, as he equipped a new set of armor, a weighted practice spear, and a thick, fur cloak.
After completing his preparations, he left his living quarters and started his inspections of the basecamp's outer defenses.
Day 426; 1244 (Early Afternoon)
*SIZZLE* *SIZZLE* *SIZZLE*
While 513 butchered and dismantled the fresh prey he had collected earlier that morning, the searing sounds of meat cooking slowly over hot coals, gradually engulfed the basecamp.
The heavy scent of rendered fat assaulted the cool, crisp winter air, as-if fighting to take control of the senses.
Catching a whiff of the glorious scent, an expectant smile appeared on 513’s face.
Licking his lips, he silently mused to himself. [It wouldn't hurt to have a second lunch, would it?]
After a long time of pondering, he shook his head and returned to his routine; a second lunch was not necessary, but a light snack would be no problem.
A decent layer of snow, enough to bury his feet, had accumulated earlier that morning. It had been left untouched in areas of the basecamp unoccupied by pathways and structures. It left the entire area looking rather rustic and distinguished.
Staring at the scene, with eyes full of wonder, 513 agreed to himself that he preferred this picturesque look of the basecamp. It was natural, yet unnatural. It was the hypocrisy that made the scene more beautiful than it clearly was -- a location that appeared serene, yet occupied.
*SIZZLE* *SIZZLE* *SIZZLE*
The harmonious tune of sizzling meat inside the smoke pit continued as 513 moved-on from butchering and into combat drills.
The wide patch of land designation for such drills, was completely void of any snow, providing quite the visual contrast to the surrounding environment.
Heat generated from his footwork and dashes were the reason behind the lack of snow on the drill yard. In some areas, the ground had even turned into mud. However, he didn’t mind the change. The mud served to constrain his movements which further enhanced his training.
Feeling content with the progress of his combat skills, 513 decided to take a short break from his drills. Just as he kneeled-down to rest, a familiar phenomenon struck his basecamp.
*WOOOSH* *CLUD* *CLUD* *CLUD*
A strong gust of wind blew away the fresh layer of snow that had piled-up and triggered row-upon-row of bone chimes.
Hearing this, 513 went on high alert. He interpreted the strong gust to be the clever greetings of an unwanted guest.
Believing this, he yelled-out into the wind.
513: "Come out! There's no point in hiding. I know it's you, WOLF!"