I hope you’re reading this.
Episode 61: letters.
I don’t know if you’ll ever read this. I don’t know how it would get to you. I think I’m mostly just writing this for myself. They won’t tell me anything. I don’t even know if they know anything. I don’t know when I am in time. I don’t know anything and I’m scared. But if you’re reading this, it’s almost definitely too late to worry about me. Either I am fine or I’m not and worrying will not make the difference between the two. It has already happened. We might even be together, cuddled up on the sofa, reading these together. Likewise, I know that you are either alive or dead and I know that worrying will not change that, but I worry all the same. I am a hypocrite. You knew that about me already.
Hunter said that he wasn’t going to kill me, but once I figured out where I was, I wasn’t sure that he was telling the truth. I was surrounded by forest on all sides– tall, skinny birch trees in all directions, no roads in sight. It is common knowledge that if you end up lost in the woods, you are supposed to stay where you are and wait for help to arrive. This advice assumes that other people know what continent you are on, what year you are in, and that anyone that you know is alive and available to come to your rescue. None of that seemed immediately relevant to my situation. I was in a makeshift green oubliette, sent away by Hunter to a forgotten place to be forgotten about. If I were going to live, I would have to start walking.
I decided to walk downhill, because I remembered hearing that was the direction that you should walk if you are trying to find civilization. Civilization is usually built around water and water tends to flow downhill, due to gravity. I walked for some time, hours perhaps, eventually realizing a few things that were making this less productive an effort than it should have been: I had no real sense of direction and hadn’t been keeping adequate track of which direction was I was going, it was getting dark and cold and I realized that I had no method of building a shelter or a fire, and my head was still clouded and racing from what had just happened to me. I would walk for awhile, only to realize that I wasn’t paying any attention to where I was going. I was thinking about what Hunter had said to me, what he had done right before he transported me to where I was. At one point, I tripped over a log and stayed on the ground, unable to will myself upright again.
I relived that moment inside of O.V.E.R. again and again. I would relive it once and then immediately start over. I didn’t think about anything else. Base was gone. That’s what Hunter wanted me to know before he transported me. He had posed as Innocent Hunter to get the information he wanted or needed and he and the people working with him destroyed it. I didn’t know if that meant that he was working with just the other 2 Hunters or if there were more people that I didn’t know about.
But… the Base was empty, wasn’t it? Anne was out on some other mission. I didn’t remember if she told me what that mission was, but she wasn’t at Base. Edgar was at O.V.E.R. with Charlie. He brought her the picture of Berzina to see if she recognized him. Marissa had left the base to go get a snack while she was waiting for us to return to O.V.E.R. And, of course, Hunter was in the middle of double-crossing me. It only came as an afterthought who was left at Base with everyone gone. The hamsters. Just another kick in the teeth. The Calculators were there too, presumably, and, while not alive, were vital assets to the Base and would be necessary in order to launch any mission to rescue me. I’m sure that collecting them was part of Hunter’s plan.
Then why would Hunter choose that moment to destroy the Base? He knew as well as I did that no one was there. He said that he was the one dissenting voice in whether or not I should be killed. Perhaps he was the only one of the Hunters that knew that we would all survive and planned it such that we could all have a chance to get to safety. Or maybe they tracked everyone else down and killed them. My imagination was adept at describing those scenarios, the ones where the rest of Base were hunted down and killed like animals. I convinced myself this was the more likely of the two options.
I nearly froze to death that first night. I managed to make a small shelter out of fallen branches and leaves, but that just meant that I was still freezing to death and there were some branches over my head. The ground and the branches were damp, which meant that, even if I knew how to start a fire with just some kindling and a stick, it wasn’t going to happen that night. I sat in my shelter, too cold to sleep, as grief shifted into dread, then into panic, back into dread, and then into numbness by morning. I had become severely dehydrated and needed to find a water source to drink from. If not, I could wring out the moisture in my clothes and get what I could from the ground. And, after that, I could die of dehydration. Or starvation if I managed to last that long.
“Just don’t die,” a voice in my head said, meekly. It was dying, too.
The sun was high overhead the next day when I found a stream. The warm sun and the plentiful water did not feel like a relief. They felt like warm sun and running water, nothing more. Still, my body acted automatically and greedily. I hunched over the stream for what felt like lifetimes, unable to compel my body to do anything but drink from it. I drank until I felt nourished– not only hydrated but full, for a fleeting moment– and then lay on my back in the grass beside the stream. Sleep crept in without my permission. I remember fighting it. I was in the middle of a clearing in a strange place. I was literally on my back with my belly exposed. It was not safe here. I was exposed. It did not matter. I was full. I was warm. I fell asleep.
“Just don’t die.” The voice was getting stronger but it was tired, too.
I have to go for now, Edgar. I’ll write you again soon. I want to tell you everything.
I’m sorry I had to leave you on a cliffhanger, Panther. I ran out of time. I have to keep doing things that I don’t want to do. If you’re reading this, you already know about them. You knew about them before, but now we both know that it’s me that did them. I’m sorry. They aren’t giving me any choices. I actually stole this pen and pad off of a table when nobody was looking. I don’t know if I’ll get in any trouble for stealing them if I get caught. It’s not like there’s any way for me to actually send you these letters. I wouldn’t even know how to start hatching a plan to do that. If things get interrupted in my story, you’ll know that something happened. I’m sorry. I’ll keep going.
I woke up in the warm sun and rolled to my side. Immediately, I was met with shrub-like branches in my face. As I went to bat them away, I noticed that they had berries on them. Surprised, I immediately sat up and examined them. They looked like blueberries, but they weren’t blueberries. They were dark on the inside and otherwise looked a little bit off. Having had time to think about it, I think that they were bilberries, though I had never seen bilberries before or after this encounter with them. Had I been sleeping beside them the whole time, too consumed in my quest for water to notice them? They weren’t on the bush. It was as though someone had ripped off a bunch of branches from a bush and had left them by the side of the stream. I didn’t do my due diligence as to whether or not they were safe to eat. They looked like food. I was hungry and had no idea when my next meal would come. I ate just as greedily as I had drank from the stream. They tasted like blueberries but stronger, wilder.
“Just don’t die.” The voice was getting stronger, but it was hungry, too.
The world inside my head was considerably calmer after having some of my needs met. Sleep had put some much needed distance between myself and what had happened to me. I was finally able to take a deep breath and look around. I was in a clearing in the forest, at an idyllic stream. The stream wasn’t massive, but it was somewhat bigger than a creek and was flowing downhill. Much of my energy had returned. I began to walk down the gentle hill and hopefully toward civilization.
Following the stream was promising for awhile, but after a couple hours of walking, it led back into the forest. I didn’t want to return to the forest, but there was nowhere else to go. The clearing had ended. I needed to keep following the water. It was the only hope that I had. It had been a full day since arriving in the forest at that point and my body was starting to understand that there were only so many days that I could sustain myself on water and berries. I hadn’t seen any animals, likely due to my loud presence in the woods. I wasn’t hopeful that I could kill any of them even if I had seen them. I had no idea how to set a trap and most animals were smart and fast enough to get away from someone with a sharp stick who’s getting increasingly slower and weaker as he starves.
Compounding this problem was that I failed to build a fire for the second night in a row. That night, I made a real attempt. I knew the basic idea: you twirl a stick into a piece of woods with your hands while pressing down and creating as much friction as possible, eventually generating a spark that you can use to light tinder. My attempts were in vain. My bad hand hurt too much after a few attempts and I wasn’t even sure that I was doing it right to begin with. I switched focus to building a larger shelter with better cover than the night before. I ended up with something commendable, in my opinion. It was large and well-covered, mostly dry and mostly closed off. I did a better job of clearing the floor of the shelter and had a bed of leaves to lay on to keep my body heat from going directly into the ground.
I slept so well that I actually had a dream. I dreamed I was at Matt’s house, the one in Vancouver. You and I took a vacation to see him. It was the only time that I hadn’t been there either to kill him or to hide from the world. It was summer and he had cleaned it up a lot. He greeted us like family and welcomed us inside. The sequence of events gets iffy from there, you know how dreams are. We were watching a movie, I think? I mean, that definitely sounds like something I would suggest, even in a dream. Then the next thing I know, Matt pulled out a gun and shot you. I don’t think you died. I don’t think that it worked that cleanly in the dream logic, but that was definitely the idea. I jumped up and screamed at Matt. “Why did you do this?” That kind of stuff. I remember the feeling of screaming, really screaming, raw screaming.
Matt looked at me, puzzled. “What do you mean?” Matt asked. “Isn’t that why you brought him here? Base was going to kill you and you needed my help. This is what you came here to do, Mike.” He said it casually, as though killing you didn’t mean a thing to him. He went back to watching the movie. I don’t remember the rest.
There’s a hypothesis that dreams (and especially nightmares) happen when we sleep because they keep our minds alert, just in case they need to wake up quickly, for instance, if a predator shows up and we have to defend ourselves. If this is true, this nightmare certainly had the intended effect. I jolted awake to the feeling of something in my face. It was a branch, which I brushed away. I bolted upright, hitting my head on the top of the shelter, causing part of it to fall apart. I looked at the branch. It had berries on it.
I looked out of the opening of the shelter. It was dawn, the sun’s light visible but the sun itself still behind the horizon. There was a pile of branches stacked sloppily in front of my shelter. It wasn’t from the kindling that I had gathered for the fire or the branches that I had gathered for the shelter. I stepped outside and inspected them. Bilberries again.
I shouted out to anyone who could hear me. “Hey! Hello!? Whoever is doing this, help me! I don’t need berries, I need to get the hell out of here. Who are you?” My voice echoed through the forest. It seemed like only the trees heard me.
“Just don’t die.” The voice felt like my own again, but it still demanded answers.
I ate the berries. I was starving. The berries weren’t going to be enough, but they were something. I could not physically refrain from eating them. If this was someone’s trick, I had resigned myself to falling for it. I could die with indignity, poisoned by who-knows in a forest in who-knows-where, fine. It was the alternative to starving and the voice in my head that was so insistent that I don’t die was not going to allow that.
I have to go again, Edgar. I’m so sorry. I barely have time to finish this up. I don’t make my own schedule, as you might imagine. I don’t know what I’m going to have to do next. Everything so far has been awful. Sometimes I wonder if I could have got Hunter to spare everyone and the Base if he could kill me and know that it was for the final time. I think about that a lot. But that didn’t happen. I’ll write again soon.
I said in my first letter that if you were reading these, we were probably cuddled up on the sofa together reading them. After what I had to do today, I can’t be so sure. I know that you are stronger than me and possess a much larger capacity for forgiveness, but I don’t want to be forgiven. Not right now. Maybe by the next time that we see each other I will have worked that muscle enough to attempt to seek forgiveness from you. That I am but a mere pawn taking orders from someone under threat of violence does not bring me any solace. I am going to take a deep breath, then I am going to tell you about the third day in the forest.
I did some more yelling after eating the berries. I had convinced myself that there was someone in the forest with me who was either fucking with me or, frankly, wasn’t being helpful enough. I hate to sound ungrateful. Had those berries not appeared right in front of me, I would have been dead before the events I am about to describe to you. But the berries merely caused me to die slower. Dying is painful and I hate doing it. It is only now that I can say that I am glad that I lived, now that I know that there is food and water waiting for me, assuming that I do my awful deeds for the day. I didn’t want to live when I was in the forest. My body was compelled to live. And the more I lived, the louder the compulsion to live got. I drank my fill of water and kept walking along the stream.
That afternoon was a massive disappointment. I could see the stream getting weaker and weaker. I could tell that it was going to eventually turn into a trickle and then into nothing at all. I had no way to fill up on water and carry it with me. It wasn’t directing me towards civilization. It was going to die before I ever saw civilization. I had walked for days in a direction on a gamble and it didn’t end up paying off.
I stood there, looking over the muddy bank of the diminishing stream. It was small enough at that point that I could jump over it without getting my shoes wet. I stared blankly into the water. There was a chance that I was even farther from civilization at that point. There was certainly no guarantee that I was closer.
There’s no telling how long I was standing there, zoned out, regretting everything that I had ever done. After so many months of plotting the exact seconds that something happened, the forest gave everything a looseness. There was the sun and that was it. The sun hadn’t moved very far from where it started when I heard a branch snap behind me. I jumped and turned in surprise. It was the first time that I had heard something on the ground since I started walking. Until then, I had only heard birdsong.
I turned to see a large brown bear about 50 feet away from me, standing in the forest, looking directly at me. It was sauntering forward towards me, unafraid, perhaps curious. I hadn’t encountered another human in that forest, its possible that the bear hadn’t either and was trying to figure out what I was (and maybe what I tasted like). I do not have a healthy fear of bears instilled in me by a respect for their power and intelligence. I have a flight response informed by multiple near-death incidents involving a brown bear. I leaped over what was left of the small stream without consciously deciding to do so. The bear would have to decide whether it was worth it to come across the creek for me. It kept approaching.
“Just don’t die.” The voice was louder than my own for the first time in a long time.
I ran perpendicular to the stream away from the bear as far as I could until I couldn’t catch my breath enough to run anymore. I didn’t look back to see if the bear was chasing me until I couldn’t run any longer. When I had run away from Marissa when she thought that I was the bear, I had run straight into a tree and injured myself. I was not going to risk missing something in my path and tripping over it. If I broke my leg out there, it was a certain death sentence, just as much as getting mauled by a bear. When I turned back, I couldn’t see the bear. If it had wanted to chase me down, it would have. I was not running fast. Even if I had been running fast, a bear can run much faster than I can. Still, I felt like I had dodged a bullet.
I didn’t have a direction to go in anymore. The stream was a bust. I kept walking in the direction that I had run from the bear. It was as good a direction as any. It was forest for as far as the eye could see. It was demoralizing. It felt infinite.
I seriously considered whether Hunter had managed to send me to a time in the past before the huge population boom of humans and the growth of cities. Maybe there were no people to head towards. Maybe I was the only person alive. The Calculators had parameters that were locked into a certain time frame both in the past and the future that I didn’t know how to get around, but that didn’t mean that Hunter couldn’t have gotten around them. Who’s to say that I hadn’t been sent back a million years into the past, before anything resembling a human set foot this far north? I had no way of knowing.
It feels silly now, but I tried to dismiss those thoughts because I thought I was going to die. I didn’t want to be thinking about Hunter and what he had done to me as I died. It felt wrong. It felt like I was letting him defeat me, even though he had already clearly defeated me. It was silly. It was something that would matter only to me. But I have died a few times before and that is more deaths than anyone else on Earth has experienced to my knowledge, so if I was going to kick the bucket and maybe for good this time, I didn’t want my final thoughts to be about Dexter. I had made that mistake before and I was learning from it.
I wanted to think about you, Edgar. I wanted to remember your face. I wanted to think about the life that we never had, the life that I don’t think we could ever have. I wouldn’t have met you if I hadn’t been wrapped up in circumstances that ensured that we would never be able to have that life. Me and you, Panther, alone. Peaceful. A roaring fireplace. Just us. No Base, no WOE.BEGONE, just us. A moment where neither of us was planning something. A moment where neither of us were scared, were in pain. Something that we would never have because I was going to die out there in that wretched wilderness. Something we can’t have because I am trapped here. Something we will never have because, even if I escape, we are the architects of a world in which that is never possible. If I were going to die, I wanted to imagine us together.
It rained hard that afternoon and into the night. I didn’t have time to make a shelter before everything got wet. My weak, shivering hands made a shelter that didn’t keep the water out. I shook with cold all night on the wet ground. I finally fell asleep late at night, after the rain stopped and the temperature rose a bit. I actually thought I was dying. I was so weak. I was freezing and starving, there was no way that I was actually falling asleep. I thought that I must be dying. I didn’t fight it. I had done all of my fighting already. I gave in.
It turned out that I was just sleeping. Day 4 was the hottest day yet. I woke up to my makeshift shelter being hot and humid. I felt like I was being steamed. Everything felt sealed shut. When I opened my eyes, I realized that everything had been sealed shut. There were branches covering the front of my shelter, covering the top of it where the holes had been. Bilberries. More than I could count. If I didn’t care where they came from before, I sure as hell didn’t care where they came from now. I ate, fist over fist of berries. I ate my way out of the shelter. I didn’t stop to question why or who was doing it. I was too hungry to care. I ate until I couldn’t bear to eat any more. I stuffed my pockets with what remained and got out of my shelter.
I barely had time to stretch and yawn before I heard yet another twig snap behind me. I jolted and turned around and, sure enough, there was another bear in the distance, watching me. I wasn’t as afraid this time. The other bear hadn’t chased me down. I was in their territory making a racket. It seemed as though they just wanted to know what was going on. I stared at the bear for a minute or two. It did not move towards me. I slowly began backing away and then turned and walked away from the bear after another minute or two of making sure that it wasn’t following me. I needed to walk anyway and I hadn’t picked a direction yet. Away from the bear was as good a direction as any.
It only took a couple of hours of walking in that direction before the forest ended. It opened up into a clearing that went on as far as I could see. The landscape suddenly went straight down a steep hill. I was at a high vantage point. Looking over the edge I could see it: civilization. Or, a set of buildings, rather. It wasn’t a city, but it was a place. I could see people. They were moving about, going on with what I could only assume was their work day.
I bolted. I don’t know how I managed to run that fast. I was running on berries and adrenaline. I ran faster than I have ever ran before. I could feel the wind wooshing around me. The buildings were far away, down the hill. I ran until I was out of breath and I kept running. Eventually, I made it to the front of the compound.
The guard at the entrance immediately pointed a gun at me. Well, shit. No, no. That’s fine. I put my hands up. He handcuffed me. I tried to explain that I didn’t know where I was, that I had been lost in the woods, that we could get this all figured out. I worked for the government, too. I didn’t have any ID but I could get in contact with O.V.E.R. and get them to verify who I was. The guard didn’t respond. He led me further into the compound. That was fine with me. Prisoners get food and sometimes they get released. That was a much better set of circumstances than the one that I had been in.
He lead me into a room, commanded me to sit in a chair, and left me there. I sat there for an incalculable amount of time. I was having trouble telling time in the forest, but it was even harder in a room with no windows. I was uncomfortable, sitting in a chair with my hands cuffed behind my back, but I felt optimistic. You have to care for and feed a hostage. It’s actually a huge pain in the ass. I learned that the hard way. You have to feed them and make sure they don’t hurt themselves or sit for one way too long and make it so they have access to clean water and restrooms. Frankly, it’s too much work for too little profit. Maybe if I was too much work, they’d let me go.
Eventually, the door to the room opened again.
“Mike Walters? I just got out of a meeting with you. What are you doing here?”
Fuck, I recognized the voice. That’s no good. It was better when it was a group of strangers who didn’t know who I was.
“Goddammit, I’m at the Flinchite compound,” I said, not so much to Ty Betteridge, who was standing in front of me with a pen and pad, but more as an exclamation into the air.
“I’m genuinely curious as to how you got here,” he said. “We did not send for you. You look rough.”
“I was in the forest,” I explained. “I ended up here running away from a bear.”
“A bear?” Ty asked. “I don’t think there are any bears in Latvia anymore, especially this far west. I think they got hunted to extinction decades ago.”
And that lead to the state of affairs as they are today. You can imagine the rest. I don’t think I’ll ever write to you about what they’ve made me do here. I was just as soon forget, though I know that neither of us will ever be able to. It weighs heavy on my soul.
I have to go again. It’s never good when I have to go. But I’ll write again soon. I hope that one day you will read this. I love you, Panther. No matter what happens, remember that. I love you. I hope that you’re still alive. I hope that I’ll see you again. I hope that I don’t end up hurting you too badly. I love you.