The place was on the shore of a frozen lake south of the Canadian border, abandoned after a band of Federalist militia took over the compound that had encircled it just a few weeks earlier. You had no quarrel with the Federalists; you were just passing through their territory. But the fact that you and your wife spoke Spanish, with corresponding accents in the way you spoke English, made you tempting targets among their hit squads, who were incapable of appreciating the distinctions between Argentinians and Mexicans.
Raquette Lake, it was called. The entire place had been fenced off for the private use of whichever megacorp owned the compound. Then the Federalists "liberated" it, but had no further use for it, as it was but one of many such lakes in a region studded with them. The snows were deep here, the nearest settlements many miles away. It was the perfect place to hide.
Marisol wasn't very talkative that year. Her hair was still shorn after that incident down on the coast, and whatever she had experienced had been too painful to share, even with you. But she was physically strong, and bore the journey well. You had come up in November, before the worst of the snows, following an abandoned autocar highway through the endless ranges of small mountains. The pavement was ribbed from many seasons of frost heave and root growth, and the years' worth of leaves that had drifted in from the sides had rotted into soil and now sprouted plants and small trees of their own, like a small ecosystem floating over the ancient asphalt. Only the rusting guard rails bore witness to the original edges of the road.
Many of the buildings that you had passed along the way were too dilapidated to be of much use to you, and they had long since been looted of any useful provisions. They were nothing more than rodent shelters now. You passed through places that had once been towns, later converted into shopping outlets filled with useless boutiques, making them veritable deserts for your purposes. These had been abandoned too.
This would have been an unlikely environment to seek refuge for the winter, except for the news you had heard about the recently liberated compound. The militias were nothing if not predictable, and having driven out the corporate security forces they would have quickly retreated themselves back to the comfort of their own encampments in the surrounding lowlands. They were raiders, not occupiers. You figured you would get a solid three months of peace there, four if spring didn't arrive too soon, deep within the former American state but in a part no one cared too much about.
You knew you had arrived at the right spot when you came to the busted-down chain-link fence. MERCorp had built a checkpoint straddling the old highway, but the former guard station was now a charred ruin, with bits of wood and sheet metal strewn across the pavement. The lake was just beyond, not yet frozen but gray and choppy under the clouds and wind. There was a marina nearby, and boats that appeared to be in working order, but the water looked wild and restless. So instead you walked.
The heart of the compound was not hard to find, although the way was long. A narrow road led along the western shore, past narrow bays and out onto a hook-shaped peninsula, to the sprawling main lodge near the tip. Large pines still graced the shoreline, probably holdovers from when all this had been a wilderness preserve in a bygone era. The building itself seemed to be laid out like a bird of prey, its wings extended forward in a symbolic show of power for anyone viewing it from above. It matched the MERCorp logo itself, as stamped on all of the directional signs you had passed. The entire structure appeared to be constructed with unpeeled logs, but upon closer inspection this was just a facade meant to evoke a frontier memory; inside, the structure was steel and glass and plaster, as sanitary and elegant as such a place needed to be to flatter the executives and board members who vacationed here.
The militiamen had been relatively gentle with the place, leaving few signs of damage. There was a busted-down door to the manager's office, a string of bullet holes in the wall behind the desk, and knocked-over flower vases in the main lobby. Most likely, there was nobody here at the time of the liberación other than the staff, and after the manager was subdued (executed?) the rest of the employees fell in line. Otherwise, the lodge was empty. Nevertheless, you rejected this as being the place you wanted to spend the winter, as it was too ostentatious, too cold and impersonal to spend so long a time. But it was well stocked with canned food, and so you set Marisol up in some modest staff quarters near the main kitchen while you continued to explore the compound.
An offshoot of the main service road led around the tip of the next bay to a cluster of smaller cabins on the northwest shore. These were far less showy, probably intended as rewards for mid-level managers who had been smart enough to hide their resumés — lest they appear disloyal to the company, ready to jump ship and go work for a more lucrative position at a rival corporation. MERCorp had not been one of the bigger megacorps so far as you knew — at least, you had never heard of it until you came to this place — and so as big as this compound seemed, it was middling compared to others you'd heard about.
Much of America had been partitioned off just like this, with the megacorps brandishing their wealth as a form of unassailable power. The Federalists claimed to be a populist movement intent on restoring the old republic, but no one outside of the militias believed in their ability to do anything other than play with their arsenals from time to time, capable only of mischief. A remote compound like Raquette Lake would have been an easy target, but New York? Illinois? The California Coast? Fat chance. The version of America fetishized by the militias had long since been bought and paid for. E pluribus nihil.
Once you had found a cabin that suited your needs, you returned to the abandoned lodge to retrieve your wife. Marisol was silent as she walked beside you to the cabin you had chosen. This one was genuinely made of wood, and its walls were weather-tight. A good supply of firewood had once been laid up, and although some of this was starting to rot around the edges most of it was still in perfect shape for fuel. Some mice had taken up residence on the second floor, but you had already put out traps for them. There was not much for food, but you could fix that problem later by hauling down supplies from the main lodge. And at any rate, you had already figured out these woods contained deer, moose, hare, and pheasant. You would get by quite well in a place like this.
Your wife flashed a weak smile when she first saw the place. Before returning to the lodge to fetch her, you had lit a fire on the hearth and set two propane lamps a-glowing in the front room, and so even in the dim late-afternoon light the cabin had a homey appearance. Neither of you had ever known such a place; back in Argentina the options for most people were either cramped apartments or crumbling shanties, and ever since you fled South America it seems like the two of you had never slept in the same borrowed shelter for more than two nights in a row.
But this looked like a home; even if you would be lucky to last the winter here, this was more personal space than either of you had known since your marriage last year. Marisol stepped through the doorway first, spun around in the cozy den, and then buried her face in your chest as she embraced you.
You did well, Manny, she said. It was the most she had spoken in a month.
When the snows came, they accumulated incrementally: a few inches there, a brief thaw and a retreat to rain, then a day when it stormed for thirteen hours and left several feet of powder in the woods. Fortunately there was a pair of antique snowshoes hung as ornaments above the fireplace, with what looked like vinyl stretched across a thin steel frame. The rubber bindings were rotten and shot, but you were able to rig a satisfactory replacement with some cord that you found. With the snowshoes you were able to trudge for miles through the surrounding wilderness, where there was no further development beyond the lakeshore.
MERCorp had stocked their fenced-in compound with not only deer, but also elk. The perimeter may have been breached, but the herd had yet to figure that out, and so supplying your little household with fresh meat was turning out not to be a problem. Maybe the cabin wasn't well-stocked in terms of non-perishable food, but it was a boundless source of useful implements. One such item was a brown knife with a solid, six-inch blade you found in a random drawer. On those days when you were able to take down a deer or an elk — which for the first few weeks was any day you wanted to — the knife got a lot of mileage as you field dressed each animal.
It had never been your intention to take anything from the cabin. After all, this had been somebody's personal retreat, and in the back of your mind was the distant notion that whoever had once summered here would someday be coming back to the lake, as if the militia raid had never happened. But this was such a good knife that you kept it close to you at all times. After a while you forgot that it wasn't yours.
Marisol was content to spend her time in the cabin, availing herself of the stash of novels she found in a trunk in the upstairs bunkroom. They were in English of course, and for both of you this was still a language you were struggling to learn. Speaking it was one thing, reading it was quite another, but your wife set to the task in quiet contemplation. Her favorite spot was at a small table that had been set up in front of a picture window overlooking the lake, where light was plentiful. The cabin was not very big, and so no spot in the main room was more than a few meters from the fireplace. Every day when you left, you made sure there was an ample supply of wood stacked up beside the hearth, and more on the front porch just outside the door.
Yourself, you were too restless to remain in one spot all day long. Unless the weather was howling outside — and it did seem like there was at least one day of horrific weather every week — the lure of the woods compelled you to don those silly snowshoes and go exploring. Perhaps it was in your nature to do so. Maybe it was because you knew of no other lifestyle, having recently been on the run to evade those who would try to enslave you in debt. Just as likely it was because you found it difficult to believe that you wouldn't be discovered, even here. Rather than be caught by a Federalist patrol while napping in a warm bunk, you would rather be outdoors on your own two feet, struggling to take down your would-be captors before they found Marisol.
Always as you wandered, your rifle was close at hand. But so too was the knife; much better to slit the throat of an attacker in silence than to blow his brains out and attract all his buddies. If it came to that, of course.
But after a while, this paranoia of yours seemed like just that, an irrational fear. You wandered the shoreline of the bay, never seeing other tracks, nor any movement down the lake. You explored the perimeter of the compound, finding most of the fencing to still be intact. The enclosed area included not just the big lake, but an area of about fifty square kilometers, give or take. On one point you found a cluster of log lean-tos, a type of shelter that until that winter you had never seen before. To the east of them was a large, round pond that you assumed must have been a favorite fishing place.
The most intriguing place on the compound, however, was a small mountain to the northwest of the lake. A trail began not far from your cabin and led to a steel watchtower on the summit. You had no idea it was even there until one of your wanderings across the frozen lake, when you saw it gleaming on the near horizon. The mountain had a few small patches of bare rock, but no natural views. From the top of the tower, however, you could see for miles in every direction. Raquette Lake was at the heart of a vast forest, with a range of larger peaks to the northeast. Dozens of smaller lakes and ponds could be glimpsed here and there in almost every valley.
What did you find today? Marisol asked one afternoon when you returned to the cabin, just days after you had first climbed to the tower.
More snow, you replied.
Comedy doesn't suit you, my husband.
She stood up and entered the kitchen, returning with a steaming kettle. I made some coffee. Would you like some?
Very much, please, you said.
Marisol turned over a white porcelain cup from the table; it had been rinsed, but not cleaned. It was just the two of you here, and it was just coffee, so why waste soap after every use?
Did I miss anything here? you asked after the first sip warmed your throat.
Let me see. Your mother stopped by, said she misses you. Then my friends Loísa and Esmeralda came and took me shopping. There was a cute puppy and I almost bought it! But of course I couldn't do such a thing without asking you first.
I'm afraid comedy suits you no better, my wife. But in reality, you were heartened to see that her shell was softening, and that this time alone was doing her good. Yes, you had saved her life a few months ago in New Jersey, but you had been afraid a large part of her had died anyway.
Then I guess it's a good thing that neither of us are comics, she said.
You will be happy to know that I climbed the mountain again today, and there is no one else for miles around. The same as yesterday.
And the day before, Marisol added. You tell me this like it is good news.
I don't really want to be alone, Manny.
You mean you don't want me to go off and leave you during the day?
No, it's not that. I mean, I don't always want to live in a place with no people in it.
You stood up from the table by the window, then took a seat with your coffee beside the fireplace. Even if there were people here, they would not be friendly, you said.
But imagine if they were. Imagine they were like us, sick of running all their lives, from one place that has nothing to another place that people say is better only because it has a little bit less nothing.
Yes, I know, Canada, she said. But imagine if they were here. During the day, when I want a little exercise, I explore this little cottage colony. None of the doors are locked, and I look around inside the other houses. I imagine that there are people living in them, and that we are all eating the food we grew in our own gardens, and the meat that you brought to us from the woods.
You listened intently, but you had no idea how to respond. Any expression of your pragmatic side would have almost certainly crushed this first expression of hope she had shown in a long time.
You're going to tell me this is impossible, she said anyway. I admit I have no idea how to make it work. But aren't there people setting off into space every year to do just what I am daydreaming about, on some new world?
Other people, yes, you said. Corporate employees, loyalists, investors. Even if we could get hired by an outfit like Tyuu-Amcorp, I would be cleaning the toilets and you would be stuffing empanadas in the cafeteria.
So what is our plan, then? How do we get to Canada, and what's waiting for us when we get there?
Those were good questions, and ones to which you didn't have a ready answer. In terms of getting to Canada, the easy answer was to go north, as the land border was not far from the northern foothills of these mountains. And there was always the possibility that this part of the border might get shifted south, as Canada was eager to expand its territory and there was now nothing to block its military progress but a band of barely regulated militia outfits. The country you were seeking to enter may very well have been coming to you.
Let's have this discussion another day, you said.
Marisol set a level gaze into your eyes from across the room. All right, another day, then. But we will have that discussion. Spring will be here soon, and I assume you will want to be on the move again.
Her assumption was correct. Except that before spring could arrive, there was a mid-February freeze that you had to endure, with temperatures dropping down to -40° three nights in a row. By day, the warmest thermometer reading was -15° Celsius, or 5° Fahrenheit on these American instruments. Trees popped in the woods as if entire branches were snapping off in the cold, and the joists of the cabin shifted and moaned, making it seem like the cabin might violently shatter and tumble around you as its component parts expanded beyond their design tolerances.
On the second night of this cold snap, there was a distant sound of thunder. It was not a jetdrone, as you knew well enough what those sounded like, and it was not actual thunder, because there could be no such storms at this time of year. When the sound persisted, you were drawn from the warmth of the covers to look out the windows.
What is it? Marisol said from the futon you had placed in front of the hearth, a generous stack of wood between it and the fire.
I'm not sure, you said. The sky to the northeast was glowing bright orange, as if the sun were rising on the wrong part of the horizon, at 1:30 in the morning.
There was no further information you could glean from the window, so you bundled up and trudged down to the lake. The view was no more conclusive there, and you couldn't bear the cold for more than a few seconds. But even in that brief time, you were able to postulate a disturbing theory: there had been an explosion. A big one, in the general direction of Canada.
The distant but thunderous sound took many hours to fade away; even in the embrace of the futon you could hear the noise lingering in the mountain like a trapped beast. In the morning the sound was gone, and so was the orange glow. In its place was an enormous black smudge rising high into the sky.
I need to see what that was, you told Marisol as you stood side by side on the frozen bay.
From the tower? she said.
Yes. I'm not sure what I'll see, but the view is a little more clearer up there.
The climb up the mountain was invigorating, as it pumped your body full of warmth. But the cold was stinging when you ascended the steps of the tower. The day was not clear — it rarely ever was here — but the clouds were high, obscuring none of the distant peaks. From this additional elevation, the black smudge you had seen from the lake was now more clearly seen as a massive column of smoke, as if a volcano had erupted from the midst of the frosty wilderness. The source was somewhere just beyond those high peaks, out of your field of vision, but the smoke seemed to rise straight to the stratosphere.
The only likely explanation was that someone had detonated a nuclear warhead. Militias could only dream of being so well armed, so this was clearly a military campaign. Canada versus… some well-funded corporate security brigade? Maybe. But who had nuked who, and why there in the mountains?
Frostbite would have been forthcoming had you remained on the tower, so you dashed down the mountain back to the cabin. But as you sat on the edge of the futon to be near the fire, your imagination ran wild, envisioning troops dispersing into these same hills as the skirmish expanded, or simply to escape annihilation. So later that same afternoon you climbed the mountain a second time, frustrated that the landscape still appeared unpopulated. Was it really that way, or was it just concealing potential threats as well as it was concealing you?
The weather broke the next day, with the temperature climbing to something that seemed far less life-threatening. You were able to linger on the tower for a longer period of time, but still you saw nothing.
On the third day, a front was moving in from the west, promising a new wave of snow. You could see it like an approaching plague of locusts, fifty kilometers long and just thirty kilometers distant. Ahead of the front, low clouds were descending like fog over the range of high peaks. Therefore it was easy to miss the column of smoke that was rising from one of the neighboring lakes, maybe twenty or twenty-five kilometers away — nothing on the scale from the other day, but a simple plume of grayish-white, just like the one emanating from your own chimney. It would be an ordinary sight, except that months had recently passed with no evidence that anyone had been dwelling in that direction.
Being February, with winter still very much in control of the wilderness and several feet of snow to contend with, you were not quite sure what you were supposed to be doing with this information. Ignoring it, however, could prove fatal.
Once again you rushed down the mountain, trying to devise a plan as you followed your snowshoe trail through the woods. Fleeing seemed impossible, so the only other option was to make yourself invisible: extinguish the fire in the cabin, close the curtains, never turn on any lights — not until you could verify you were alone again, or that the other party was content to stay put on their own lake.
How are we going to keep ourselves warm without a fire? Marisol said when she saw you were serious about dousing the life-sustaining blaze in your fireplace.
This cabin is full of winter clothes. Just be thankful the cold snap has passed.
Your wife acted as though she wasn't convinced there was a threat, but that didn't prevent her from assisting in your efforts that morning. And if she needed proof that she was wrong, she didn't have to wait long.
What is that sound? she said, cracking back open the curtains covering the picture window.
It sounded as if a horde of banshees had descended on the lake, but you recognized it immediately as the high-pitched whine of motors built for speed. You joined Marisol as she peeked out the window, seeing a column of snowmachines zipping across the lake. Dozens of them, operated by people wearing the same drab-green parkas.
Federalists, you said.
Where are they all going?
Getting out of the mountains, I imagine. That nuclear blast was more than they could handle.
Your wife tensed at your side; the gang that had cornered her in Newark had claimed to be Federalists, although to you they just looked like punks with chips on their shoulders. Not that the real Federalists were any less loathsome; they claimed to be idealists, but were really just opportunists not above destroying things they didn't own, and killing people they didn't know.
You were right about putting out the fire, Marisol whispered. I don't think they can see us.
Not directly, no, you thought. The militia column seemed to be heading down the length of the lake, toward that highway you followed into the mountains back in November. If they kept to that course, they would pass you by at a safe distance. However… however. No smoke may have been rising from your chimney, but you had been leaving tracks across the lake all season long as you explored its far-flung parts. Some had been filled in by drifts, but others were still comparatively fresh. And of course, all those snowshoe tracks led back to one place: the cabin.
So it came as no surprise when a squad of four snowmachines slowed to a halt on the lake, the riders disembarking their noisy mounts to examine something in the snow. Then you saw what looked like one man pointing in your direction.
A moment later, the four riders got back on their sleds and steered themselves into the bay, away from the main column. As you and Marisol watched from the picture window, they zoomed across the ice straight toward you.