The day began and ended with heat. They huddled in their claimed kingdom, a gray structure that stored the source of their survival.
Matthias joined with the others in the morning prayer towards the orange-red basin in the ground, the heat source stumbled upon some years ago by the tribe's explorer and ever after defended by Matthias and his people. The short chants were led by a weathered woman whose name, now, was Teresa Wayne, CEO.
She wore the found badge on her thick robes, as did everyone, whose names had been found amid the structure and its surrounding compound. That mad discovery turned the tribe from a wandering collection to a solid collective.
One that still needed food every day.
Matthias, after sucking down gruel and boiled bone, set out with three others in his hunting party. Each carried a sharpened scrap bar and other tools they had scavenged for themselves, though only Matthias had tied a strap to a curved orange piece, giving him something to use as a shield.
Outside the structure, the day proved to be a glorious one. The near-constant whipping snow subsided to the sun, its morning rays casting about their home and promising a blue sky ahead. As the tribe exploded into its day, Matthias and his crew headed for the northern exit, the one closest to the forest where some fresh game might yet be found.
"Did he try for you again last night, Sofia?" Richard Burkes, Project Manager asked as they clomped along the snow heading for the hole-filled fence marking the compound's end.
"Told him off direct this time," Sofia DeAnn, VP of Human Resources, replied. "I don't think he'll be making the approach again."
"Told him off?" Dayton Carns, Customer Service cracked. "He's still nursing his stomach this morning."
The foursome laughed. Sofia's punch to Gilbert Grayson, R&D, had been yesterday's highlight. The man's endless courting amused Matthias to no end, even though Gilbert's efforts to hunt the biggest game to impress Sofia no doubt helped the tribe. When Sofia rejected every offered trophy, everyone else cheered and found a place for the beast on the basin-spanning spits.
As they neared the forest, Matthias and Richard split left while Sofia and Dayton went right. Conversation died as their surroundings swam with trees, ears pressed for the sounds of some animal out for a winter's stroll. Some days, the hunt lasted an hour before the group tasted victory.
Others, by dark's arrival they had nothing but empty hands and growling stomachs.
Matthias felt the snow crunch beneath his boots. Crusty today, and not the best for a quiet approach. Frigid branches cracked in the breeze, proving the sun a liar for its promised warmth. A cursed crow flew overhead, cawing to its fellows. Would that the bird descended to their level: Matthias would take a shot at it. Someone would devour the carrion creature.
His own skin protected by a long, scraggly beard whose itch Matthias had long learned to ignore, the hunter and his robes ignored the chill. Before the find, when their home remained a question after every morning's breaking, such cold would bring worry, the creeping dread of an icy night and the frozen dead that would come with it.
Now, Matthias embraced the chill and knew its defeat would come that very evening. Nothing, not even the greatest of winter storms, had defeated the basin yet. So far as Matthias chose to believe, nothing ever would.
A single tap on Matthias's shoulder paused the hunter. A look back to catch Richard's nod turned his eyes to the right. There, loping from one tree to the next in search of something, stood the largest moose Matthias had ever seen.
"Use the weapon," Richard whispered.
Matthias hesitated. The moose could feed the whole tribe for days alone, but the weapon, the found treasure, did not have many more uses. Spending them on food when they could be used to frighten off another tribe . . .
"Not yet," Matthias replied. "First, we try the traditional way."
Richard, who split his own beard into two twin tufts, shrugged, "Your call, Matthias."
The hunt leader cupped his hands around his lips and hooted out a pale imitation of an owl's cry. The moose, standing distant, looked up and peered their way. The call did not frighten the beast from its apparent discovery, however, and its antlers soon lowered for another snack.
Matthias ran the count in his head while he and Richard, keeping their distance, put a straight run between themselves and the moose. At the right time, a hooting call came in reply from the moose's far side. Raising the scrap bar as the signal, Matthias and Richard closed on the moose.
The beast had its suspicions, but its decision whether to fight or flee came in a rush when the two approaching humans broke into a run, shouting as they charged holding their jagged weapons. Spooked, the moose turned and belted the opposite way. The forest ahead seemed clear, and with four strong legs, the moose had little concerns about outrunning the humans.
It never saw the two waiting above, ready in the branches as the moose crossed beneath.
Dayton's sled, tied across his back, proved enough to carry most of the prize home. The others each took their share, and together the hunting party started back, ready to declare the day a victory before the sun even approached noon.
The forest gave way to blue sky, and to smoke. The curling black stunned the four. The tribe would light fires from time to time outside, but never this early in the day. Black smoke, too, came with its own warning: things were burning that shouldn't be burned.
"Keep the meat, but move," Matthias said, the party's celebration dying in an instant. "Weapons ready."
The foursome picked up their pace, jogging as best they could through the snow, through the fence and into the compound. Rounding a shelled out building, they came to the basin's home. A crowd stood outside it, ringed where the smoke rose. With many of the hunters gone, the people remaining numbered among the old, the very young, and those charged to care for them.
Not, in other words, a force meant for action.
Drawing grateful and concerned eyes as his party approached, Matthias and the others pawned off their prize and made their way through the crowd. In the center ground, where that morning had been nothing more than hard soil, sat now a pit. The smoke rose from it, reaching into the sky.
"It appeared," Teresa Wayne, CEO, said to Matthias as he pushed through. "The ground rumbled. The earth sank. The smoke rose."
"Inside?" Matthias asked, pointing to the pit.
Teresa shook her head, "Nobody has dared to look. Without the hunters, we are--"
"Defenseless," Matthias finished. He gathered his party, waved the crowd to step back from the pit. "We go together."
No fear, no doubt crossed his companion's eyes. They knew as well as Matthias that to lose the basin was to lose the tribe.
Together, the foursome approached the pit, scrap bars in hand. Matthias raised his orange shield as he looked over the pit's edge, staring through the smoke. A gnashing, grinding noise rose from below, but the smoke grew too thick to see what lay at the bottom.
"Been too long, I'm telling you. She's broken now," said a voice deep down, its words cutting a strange accent but familiar nonetheless. "We should've investigated weeks ago."
"You know the rules. We're breaking them already by opening at all."
Matthias crouched, tried to get closer. At the pit's edge, his bar clacked against something hard, cold. His hands felt around the curved top, found a bar connecting to another curve. A ladder.
"You're saying that like you don't know damn well what'd happen if crap keeps falling down the well," the first voice growled. "Rules don't do any good if we die followin' them."
Waving his bar, Matthias drew the others around. Without speaking, he pointed to the ladder. As the patrol's leader, it fell to him to lead, so he slipped the shield over his shoulder. With one hand still on his bar, with Sofia, Richard, and Dayton watching, Matthias began the descent.
The smoke choked his lungs, but Matthias refused to cough, refused to sneeze. A control honed by years on quiet hunts kept him quiet as he descended down the pit. The grinding noise grew, and with it grew the strange fear of something alien in Matthias's breast. His hands, strong as they might be, grew clammy and his smoke-filled mouth went dry.
Still, he climbed. For the tribe.
"We're through anyhow now. Is the group ready to be going?" The first voice spat at the end, a move Matthias heard clear, and close. "Don't tell me they're being lazy about the first venture in a hundred years."
"They'll be here on time. You went too fast, Fred."
The smoke narrowed and Matthias now could see its source. A snarling thing, as big as the moose. It had strange tubes connecting to the walls, vanishing inside them. The walls themselves matched the basin's building, a straight shiny gray. And the base where Matthias set his feet?
A black grating.
Stepping off the ladder, swinging his shield around, Matthias looked down the one corridor available to him. Its alien glow came white, its air tasted nothing like the fresh breeze up above. And the two figures, both now turning to see who had intruded on their conversation, wore smooth things like nothing Matthias had seen before.
"Well," said the gravel-voiced one, Fred. "Either we're looking at a ghost, or we've been living a hard life under these rocks for no reason."
"Who are you?" asked the other, a tall, thin man.
The other hunters were still out. These people had strange devices. Matthias could not afford a fight, not if peace could be found. Lowering his scrap bar, hoping he was about to do the best by his people, Matthias made an offer.
"I am Matthias Baros, IT Supervisor," Matthias said, pointing to his name badge. "We have moose to share."
The trio stared at each other for a long moment. Fred, then, took a step forward, stuck out a hand and cracked a grizzly grin.
"The name's Fred, and I think we'll have a lot more than moose to share."
Story by A.R. Knight
Art by grandfailure