Author:  eastbay [ Mon Jul 08, 2013 12:17 pm ]
Blog Subject:  Book IV: Stone Warriors

I hope you enjoy this excerpt from Chapter Three of Book IV, "Stone Warriors."

He told CJ the story of that day in early March when six brave explorers from Corbett walked up the Columbia River Gorge to meet the people living by Bonneville Dam. It was during the fourth winter after civilization fell apart. The cliffs lining the mighty river were topped with the white remnants of the recent fierce early February snowstorm. It was a rare sunny day, yet the air was cool, not quite freezing, with a typical yet annoying sharp wind whipping down the river from the east.

The brilliant late morning sun was now tucked away, barely hidden behind the bluffs to their right, trying unsuccessfully to shine on the damp, mossy lanes of the shaded freeway, which traced the south side of the riverbank. Near the shore, a hungry sea lion feasted on a sturgeon, attracting a flock of sea gulls to scavenge the remains. Three young eagles circled above, their wings barely moving as they surveyed their territory.
Pockets of dissipating fog clung to distant hills. Thin cirrus clouds slowly drifted by miles overhead, the parallel waves they made in the sky reminiscent of windswept sand dunes or even the contrails of high-flying jets, which hadn’t left their fuzzy white crisscross etchings in the skies for four years, since the last airplane flew overhead.
The Columbia River, a stone’s throw or two to the north of the freeway, appeared here and there between the thick trees, its windswept waves sparkling brightly in the sunlight. The stone cliffs above the opposite side of the river stared back in silence as if wondering why anyone would bother walking past.

Before civilization ground to a halt, powerful tugboats had pushed a steady stream of heavily loaded barges up and down the river, each filled with the assorted materials needed to feed the industrial machines of the past. Mile-long trains had transported goods east and west from each side of the river on now-rusting tracks. Trucks and cars used to roar back and forth along the concrete strips bordering each side of the mighty waterway, jockeying for position as if in a race against time itself. The gorge was once filled with the sounds of the Industrial Age, but the endless revving of the internal combustion engines of man’s ever so brief fuel-burning fling were gone forever, a distant memory lost to the past.

It wasn’t something even somewhat expected by academics, such as an incurable communicable disease, a nuclear war, an electromagnetic pulse from a distant galaxy, a stray comet or an asteroid strike that extinguished the waning flame of the Age of Oil. It wasn’t even the burning and clear cutting of the world’s tropical rainforests, which once contributed nearly all of the planet’s biodiversity. Just prior to the end they had been stripped of life and converted into coast-to-coast bio-fuel plantations, monoculture rows of sugarcane and palm oil grown by madmen and promoted by renewable energy fanatics in an attempt to satisfy humanity’s insatiable hunger for fuel.
In fact, what ended it all was a blindsiding surprise to most. What shut civilization down was the failure of the fragile financial infrastructure. It brought humanity to its knees in an instant one hot July morning. But a future historian digging into the root cause would discover it was really man’s inexhaustible hunger to consume a rapidly depleted world that was the true cause of the digital disaster.

In the years leading up to that last day, resource wars, religious wars, small wars, big wars, cold wars, hot wars, wars for no reason whatsoever and wars for so many reasons no one could possibly count them all, had raged here and there in all corners of the globe, bleeding the bodies and finances of humanity. The world’s economy, once electronically interconnected as if it had been tightly managed by an unseen, one-world government, had been ravaged by the corrosive impact of high unemployment, sovereign fiscal irresponsibility, peak oil, overpopulation and an ever-looming host of other social, political, resource and economic catastrophes. All of them had converged one morning four years earlier, collapsing the previous civilization like a gust of wind striking a delicately balanced house of cards.

The shutdown of mankind’s glittering electronically managed plastic, glass and steel creations occurred fast that terrifying summer day. It hit as if someone had simply walked up and pushed the big red “OFF” emergency button alongside an automobile assembly line.

When the machines ground to a halt, unimaginable chaos swept across the entire planet. As that horrible day wore on, the fate of humanity was forever sealed. By sunset it was all over. What remained was a three-week feeding frenzy, and after that, the carcass of everything humans ever built was handed to nature to decompose, as all things eventually must.

The great structures built by humanity were decaying fast. The metal corroded, the wood rotted and the ever-present concrete cracked. Everything fell into disrepair without the constant care of people. The scattered surviving remnant populations, who had other, more pressing concerns, watched the plants and animals fill the gaps.
Like ancient Roman ruins the magnificent constructions offered unmistakable evidence that an incredibly creative and powerful people once occupied the land and that at some point something had gone terribly wrong. Much like the ruins of Rome, the magnificent remains of the recently deceased civilization were found everywhere.
The evidence of the past civilization appeared up close as they hiked into the tree-filled and cliff-walled Columbia River Gorge. Along the dust-strewn, vehicle-littered eastbound lanes of Interstate Eighty-four, grass, weeds, blackberry vines and young trees reached up and pushed up through every possible crack in the concrete. With the coming spring the new growth would drink the rainwater, bask in the sunshine and grow strong, tearing the cracks wider and wider at an astonishingly fast pace.

Rusting cars and trucks sat along the darker asphalt emergency lane or off in the bushes stripped of tires, wires, batteries and anything else passersby found useful. Seven military vehicles were lined up in the slow lane just east of Multnomah Falls. The soldiers who last operated them were apparently ambushed while heading west, into the city. Their bullet-hole riddled windows and their dark-smeared interiors told the story of a mission cut short. Clearly the young National Guard soldiers, their bodies decayed into broken skeletons, hadn’t stood a chance.

The six men hiked past the ruins of vacant homes, all of them long ago ransacked, some burned down. Wherever the terrain and zoning authorities had allowed, wide view-homes faced them, either alone or in small clusters. Their broken windows stared at them like shattered dead eyes as they passed by.

Snaking alongside the freeway, the rusting railroad tracks, once guiding long lines of freight cars into and out of the gorge, were now silent and still. Other burned or abandoned steel, wood and concrete remains of the past civilization appeared here and there, but no ruin was as stark and empty as the south powerhouse at Bonneville Dam. That was their goal, contacting the people there the mission’s objective. The primal drive to explore, to discover all that can be known about their surroundings, powered this mission, much as it had the exploration into the ruins of Portland, weeks earlier, during which the town’s beloved deaf and mute explorer, Clapper Jackson, was tragically killed.
From milepost thirty-nine the Soviet-style concrete monolith loomed a mile ahead like a giant ancient weather-beaten tombstone warning all who approached to do so at their peril. The queue of men paused a moment, each one gazing in awe at this crumbling symbol of humanity’s brief, ill-conceived attempt to tame the river and secure its mastery over nature. Then they marched directly toward it.

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