The men’s breakfast seemed to take forever, Einar lying immobile beneath his mat of evergreen groundcover, breathing slowly and trying very hard not to start shivering while they sat on their fallen log not five yards from him, eating. Muninn, fortunately, appeared far too preoccupied with attempting to secure for himself as many fragments of that feast as possible to bother with Einar in the least or to so much as acknowledge his presence, a trend Einar greatly hoped might continue, as his avenues of retreat were at the moment quite limited should the bird begin making a fuss over him and attract the attention of Kilgore and the others. Quiet as they ate--simply existing at altitude and in the cold can really work up an appetite in folks who aren’t used to such living, and even in those who are, Einar’s hunger-cramping stomach reminded him as he tried to focus his mind on something other than the smell of fried bacon and coal-roasted potatoes and cheese--the three of them conversed quietly as the meal wound down, one of the younger men tossing part of his potato peel to Muninn, who quickly snatched it up and--first glancing carefully about to make sure no one was watching--hid it in a little hollow behind a spruce, which already contained three strips of bacon and a mess kit spoon that the men didn’t even know they were missing.
“Bears or not, I don’t like the odds,” the cook began, rising from his seat and beginning to clean up the breakfast things. “Something’s been tearing down our cameras out there, and it seems too systematic, too thorough to be curious bears. Or hungry ones, even.”
“But we’ve seen the tracks on some of them,” Kilgore countered. “In the mud around the camera sites. Bears, alright. Others may have been coons, some other critter that just couldn’t resist the look of the things, something different to look at and tear apart. Don’t think there’s much to see up in here really, aside from bears. And they’re gonna be hibernating pretty soon.”
“Good. Then they won’t be out here messing with our cameras, and maybe it’ll become more clear what’s going on. Even though we haven’t picked anything up on our cameras or sensors to indicate that he’s in this immediate area, there have just been too many reports of strange sightings, smoke in an odd place here and there, hunters getting a glimpse of something now and then that just doesn’t fit in, and I’m not ready to move on to the next sector until we’ve made a more thorough examination of this one. It’s a big place out here. Lots of spots to hide, but with winter coming that’s bound to get more difficult, weather putting pressure on him, scarcity of game…well, you know what I’m talking about.”
Kilgore did indeed know, was somewhat concerned for the pair in that regard, particularly considering the state Asmundson had been in at their last parting, but of far more concern to him just then was how he was to manipulate his three-man team and ultimately, the wider search into entirely avoiding the danger area. He had a number of ideas, hoped very much as he sat finishing the last bites of his breakfast that one or more of them might provide the measure of success demanded by the situation.
Waiting in his barely-adequate hiding place beneath the evergreen mat, Einar could not help but think the men seemed to be taking a very long time getting going that morning, laying all sorts of electronic equipment out on a small tarp and inspecting it, making adjustments here and there before beginning to stash it away securely in packs, moving on to another pile of the stuff and starting all over again, and all that time Einar waited, watching, catching as much of the conversation as he could and trying to prevent his mind wandering into less useful areas of thought… Kilgore. The man’s presence raised almost inevitably memories of their last meeting, of the things discussed and…done at that time, and Einar wished very much that he might not have been reminded of it all, not just then. Not on that day.
He only knew for sure which day it was in the first place because of Liz’s insistence on marking the passage of days, keeping track of the date with her improvised calendar--an effort that she insisted had more to do with knowing when, approximately, the baby ought to be expected than it did with maintaining some frail tie to civilization, though he believed it to be both--but the growing sense of unease which he had been experiencing for the past days, a certain press of memory and time and a raw, choking dread that no amount of years seemed entirely able to mitigate would have heralded for him the approach of that time, even without the calendar. Most years he had been able to glance at the thing, push it aside and keep on with whatever he had been doing, had forced himself at first to do so until it became unshakable habit but something had changed during his time on the run, the careful walls he’d built around that part of his past crumbling somewhat and with his partial telling of the thing to Liz and then to Kilgore, the memories had come back in full force, details he hadn’t even known he remembered becoming a part of his daily existence and haunting his dreams until at times he hardly dared allow himself sleep.
Now here it was the middle of October again, the time when, so many years before, he’d made his escape from the vile, stinking confinement of the cramped bamboo enclosure in which his captors had spent so many days doing their level best to extract from him information he hadn’t even possessed--and a good bit that he had, too, but they hadn’t got it from him, hadn’t got anything they could use--and he should for all practical purposes have died in there, died the way that kid Andy had the week after he’d left of starvation and lack of water and the sheer weight of the treatment they’d been enduring. But he hadn’t. Which ought to make this a happy time, he supposed; he had, after all, lived, had successfully escaped against all odds and somehow pressed his broken body into carrying him day after day while he evaded and made it back--eventually, barely; it had been a near thing and the effort had almost cost him his life, compromised as he had already been by the long days spent enjoying the finest hospitality his captors had to offer--to friendly territory. A hollow victory, and he wanted to go back there, suddenly wanted it so badly he could smell the place, its smothering stink enveloping him, searing his lungs and the bile rising at the back of his throat at the familiar feeling of those hard bamboo ridges pressed painfully up against the unprotected slats of his ribs and then his limbs were drawn back behind him and up, the position cutting off most of his air and leaving all of his joints after a time in a white-hot screaming agony that made him want to scream, too, but he didn’t, bit his tongue until the blood came and kept quiet because this time he wanted it, all of it, had to do it all over again because only in the doing was there any hope of setting things right, seeing them come out differently one way or another, and this time he would endure, wouldn’t go anywhere, would keep it up until the last, until…
Beginning to get lost, losing himself and knowing it was terribly dangerous to go down that road while in the presence of his enemies, lying practically in their camp, Einar badly needed to turn his mind another direction but it was seeming a bit late for that as he found himself already covered in sweat, shaking, struggling for breath and fully in the grip of the thing, needing so badly to get up and move that he felt his head would burst if he kept still for another moment. Had to keep still though, and he managed it, pressing his face down into the soil until the good damp living smells of the forest floor began to bring him back a bit more fully to the present, and when finally he came out of it and was able to look up at the world with clear eyes he found himself to have grown ferociously cold, wondering a bit frantically just how much time might have passed.
Not much. Not nearly as much as he’d thought, by the looks of things, for the three men still crouched around their tarp down there in camp, sorting, loading, discussing the day’s plans and he breathed a ragged sigh of relief, thank You… Now. No more of this, not until you’re good and far away from here, and from them. For now your focus needs to be on watching these folks, seeing what they intend with all that electronic gear and making sure Kilgore’s got a handle on it…