A children's book for grown-ups by Jon Evans

July 19, 2007

4. In the Mountains

Patch stood beneath the tree that marked the absolute edge of the Center Kingdom and stared horrified at the wasteland between himself and the nearest mountain. Death machines hurtled past in both directions, roaring and snarling, zooming by at speeds so great that Patch could feel the wind of their slipstreams. Sometimes they stopped for a few moments to gather in packs; then they all leapt into motion at once. On either side of the wasteland, metal tree trunks protruded from the concrete, and from their glistening branches hung ever-changing lights. Patch knew from previous experimentation that he could not climb these metal trees. Even a squirrel's claws found no purchase on their shining smooth bark.

At least he saw no dogs, and only a few humans. But from where he stood his intent seemed not just dangerous but actually insane. Surely it was better to abandon the Treetops and swear allegiance to the Meadow than to leap into the certain death of the wasteland. Patch turned around and took a few steps back towards Tuft's drey.

Then he stopped, turned back, cocked his head, and looked once more at the wasteland. He had just realized there was something rhythmic about the way the death machines moved. There was a pattern. The same pattern as that of the changing lights in the sky.

He thought of what Toro had told him. Heaps and rivers of food, waiting to be eaten. Patch couldn't smell any food. He could hardly smell anything over the foul belches of the death machines. The death machines that stopped when the lights changed, maybe, just maybe, long enough for a squirrel to scamper across the wasteland.

Hunger plays tricks on the mind. By the time Patch realized he was actually running for the mountain, and not merely considering it, he was already halfway across the wasteland. The concrete beneath his paws was hard and cold. The several humans on the mountain side of the wasteland had ceased their motion and turned their heads to look at Patch. That wasn't good. But he had gone too far to turn back. The death machines would crush him if he did. His only hope was to keep running. He ran so hard and so fast that after crossing the wasteland he very nearly ran headfirst into the mountain.

Patch stopped just in time and looked around, breathless, amazed at what he had just done. Having reached his destination he did not know what to do next. This was a new and alien world. The ground was entirely concrete; he couldn't see a single blade of grass on this side of the wasteland. The mountain before him was a perfectly vertical wall of rock that reared into the sky far higher than any tree. There was wasteland on two sides; behind him, the wide barrier he had just crossed, teeming with death machines, and to his right, a narrower offshoot that ran deeper into the mountains, occupied only by stationary death machines along its edges. Patch wondered if they were dead, or only sleeping. He hoped for dead. At least there were a few trees along the side of this narrow wasteland, although they were small and withered, their trunks were caged with bricks, and they were spaced so far apart there was no sky-road. Between some of the trees, in the distance, Patch saw a few piles of what looked like big, shiny black rocks.

There were no other animals, only a few passing humans. But while these humans did not approach Patch, they seemed to be directing their attention towards him. This made him very nervous. Humans were huge and unpredictable. Some humans who entered the Center Kingdom spilled food all around them, but the younger ones often tried to attack squirrels, and all of them smelled extraordinarily strange.

Patch sniffed the air. Beneath the thick acrid fumes of the death machines and the alien scent of humanity, he smelled danger. He smelled dogs. Upwind, to the north, across the narrow wasteland, three large dogs leashed to an old human were approaching. Patch hoped the wasteland would forestall them – but as he watched, the dogs began to cross. And then the lead dog saw Patch, and its eyes lit up like flames.

"Kill you and eat you!" it howled ecstatically. "Kill you and eat you!"

The other dogs joined in. "Kill you and eat you! Kill you and eat you! Kill you and eat you!"

Patch didn't stop to listen. Dog conversation was always the same. Patch scrambled for the nearest scrawny tree, and raced right up to its crown.

"Kill you and eat you, kill you and eat you, kill you and eat you!" the dogs howled at him, while they tried to pull their human towards the tree. But the human, while old, was still a massive creature, and to Patch's relief it pulled the homicidal dogs along until they vanished behind the corner of the mountain.

Patch looked around. He stood atop a sickly tree, surrounded by mountains and wasteland. Beneath him, a death machine shuddered into motion and roared forward, and Patch realized to his horror that all those machines that were not moving were not dead, only sleeping, and might come to life at any moment.

Patch was starving, but worse, he was so terrified he could hardly move. He wished with all his heart he had never crossed the wasteland into the mountains. He saw and smelled no food here. And he did not dare descend from this scrawny tree. There was no safety below. Between the mountains and the line of death machines beneath him there was a slightly raised strip of concrete, in which the trees were set; but it was perfectly apparent to Patch that the death machines, with their terrible rolling feet, could easily rampage down this narrow strip too if they so desired. Nowhere and nothing in the mountains was safe.


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Jon Evans is the award-winning author of the thrillers Invisible Armies, Dark Places (aka Trail of the Dead), and The Blood Price. See his web site rezendi.com.

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