Chapter One: Mateo In The Woods
“Did someone die or something?”
Mateo made his way through the unmarked forest. Even after all this time, he still loved exploring the ever-shifting topography of the woods. Life be praised, he loved his job. There was no better thrill as a scout than experiencing a place for the first time, untouched by the many hands of his herd. He basked in the divine experience of being immersed in this sea of green, surrounded by the scraggly pitch pines and black and white oaks that protected the Cod Archipelago from further erosion.
There were no stone or concrete paths here. No metal beams that cut across the forest like silver wounds, as you would see in one of the Fallen’s many city ruins. High tides had caused the fools that lived here to move inward, abandoning their seaside homes to falling cliffs and collapsing dunes. These trees had not seen humans since before the Fall, well, unless you counted Herd Salem, that is. And those reclaimers didn’t count.
Yet Mateo had to admit to himself that Salem had done a good job here. There was no Fallen trash in sight, and there had to have been plenty when Salem began their work. He had seen the Confeds report. This was a former vacation town, a place of beauty, where Fallen had traveled to from far and wide to consume it, like sucking the marrow from a bone. They had left trash in its place, filling the sands and waters with plastic and metal that stayed here for hundreds of years.
And now that was all gone, and there were only pitch pines and tall grasses in their stead. This place was a Fallen-loving paradise.
“Damn witches,” he muttered under his breath, cursing Salem for their efforts. They had preceded El Paso for five years now, at the bottom of the cycle as reclaimers, but they were too good at their jobs. Shepherd Úna would probably be able to negotiate with the Confeds for a better schedule or a more favored position, and that might push El Paso down to another role. Would they have to become reclaimers too? Would Mateo have to give up scouting potential planting locations for the work of a trash collector?
He didn’t have to do anything, he supposed. He could move to another herd or even a collective, but just the thought of the latter option caused him to shudder. To be stationary when all he wanted to do was move about in this world. A collective was the last thing he would sign up for. And besides, El Paso was his home. Moving to another herd just didn’t feel right to him.
Mateo eventually discovered the tracks of a herdsperson pressed into the sandy soil of the Cods. He followed the trail until it led to a footpath and then two herdspeople gathering sticks and moss, presumably for a biomass converter or composting pen. Or maybe, they just really liked sticks. All herds were different.
“Greetings,” Mateo waved. “Name’s Mateo. Here from El Paso, about the Cods handoff.” He didn’t recognize these two, but his name or, at the very least, his role should be understood.
They were silent for a moment. The two of them were both much taller than Mateo and had pinker skin. They shared a look before the more feminine of the two said nervously: “You’ll want to speak to Úna about that. But now’s not the best time. Can you come back later? Is that a thing you can do?”
“Sam, that’s illegal,” their more masculine friend chided. “You can’t stop a, you know,” they whispered, gesturing to Mateo, “this.”
“I didn’t know that. Sorry.” Sam turned to Mateo. “I’m Sam. This dude is Marx. We’ll take you to Chief Shepherd Úna then.”
The three of them were mostly silent on the way to their camp. Mateo would try to start a conversation, but it would awkwardly die out a couple of replies in. The whole situation felt off. It was clear that something had happened, but whatever it was, neither Sam nor Marx was in a sharing mood.
“Okay, I’m sorry, but this is strange. You all should know I’m coming. Did someone die or something?” Mateo blurted out.
“Ummm,” Marx stumbled tellingly.
“Wait, seriously?” Mateo asked.
There was no answer. “We are here,” Sam deflected.
They had arrived at the outskirts of a large clearing where over a hundred people were standing about in various states of packing or maybe unpacking. Mateo couldn’t quite tell.
Carts had been loaded up with all the things that made this existence possible. He spotted a biomass converter close to him. Its metallic funnel was inactive and silent. And in the distance, he could see a nano weave, its gray pincers pulsating even in standby mode. The herd hadn’t finished dissembling this equipment, which told Mateo that perfect Salem was off schedule, maybe due to some accident. The death Marx and Sam had alluded to, perhaps?
They guided Mateo to a huddle of people in the center of the camp. There were two people arguing, who Mateo immediately recognized as Chief Shepherd Úna and her wife Rowan. And between them was a body laying on a pile of sticks. Sam laid some sticks on the pile and then cleared their throat.
“I don’t care if it goes against the rites of Gaia, we have a duty to the Confederacy…what?” Úna shouted, turning mid-conversation to face Sam.
“El Paso’s scout is here, Úna.” She pointed to Mateo.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Úna,” Mateo said instinctually. “I’m sure our herd will be happy to delay the handoff while you do funeral rites.”
“How dare you patronize us,” Rowan huffed.”
“Let me handle this,” Úna chastised before moving back to Mateo.” Mateo, there’s not going to be a handoff, at least not for a while.”
“Úna, what you’re saying, it’s against the law.”
“Not when there’s been extenuating circumstances there isn’t. And, you see, we’ve had a murder.”
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