July 2071 AD
The Trossachs National Park
The forest was alive with the sounds and signs of life—wildlife. The presence of insects and birds were the obvious inhabitants but other creatures were sure to be among the natural selection of species.
At the front of the small group of explorers was Norman, the big man whose profession had once been the maintenance of forestry. “I can’t believe the speed of recovery here,” he murmured.
“In what way?” Bill asked. “Do you mean how well the trees have flourished?”
“No, mate,” Norman said quietly and pointed ahead. “I mean that what we’re walking along now would have been a forest trail five years ago.”
“Let me have a look, please,” Victoria said and brushed past to squat down and look through the heavy, overhanging foliage. “Norman’s quite right, guys. You can see where there is almost a corridor of slightly differing undergrowth.”
“We’ve only just entered the forest.” Flint, the fourth member of the group looked around one more time before moving forward among the trees to join the others. He still kept his laser rifle in a position ready to bring up for defence.
“What do you think they are?” Victoria said and pointed at a widespread but obvious growth of strong greenery.
Bill and Flint exchanged a look and both turned to the forester and the botanist.
Norman caressed the upper leaves of a sapling. “Gents, this is a sign that the forest is alive and healthy. A young birch tree.” He pointed. “That one over there is beech and from here I can see a couple of different pine trees.”
“Wait a minute,” Bill said, “you said a little while ago that this was a forest trail.”
“It was,” Norman said and pointed to a well-established tree a few yards away. “You see that small yellow sign about fifteen feet up … that’s a forestry route sign and it tells me two things. Firstly that this was at one time a forest trail and secondly that the tree is doing well because that sign ought to be quite a bit lower.”
Victoria, being a botanist was quicker to see Norman’s real point. “Not only has the forest started to reclaim the area, but it also seems to be flourishing.”
Flint was looking around in wonder. “I thought Harry told us that the layers up in the sky would prevent natural light and growth or whatever.”
“Harry was quite right in what he told us,” Victoria said. “Think back to when we were coming down the mountainside. We could see massive holes in the darkness up above and the sky looked normal.”
Bill said, “I thought we agreed that large holes might gradually appear in the cloud base left by the nuclear explosions?”
“Yes, we did,” Victoria said. “Harry didn’t want to build up anybody’s hopes but before we left this morning he told me certain signs to look for to help with his theories.”
The three men listened intently so as not to miss anything important. Flint was still on edge and he occasionally looked around, his military training making him suspicious of every new sound.
“Right,” Victoria said. “you’ll all understand that by being inside the mountain for so long, all we’ve ever seen of the outside was the view from the glass balcony. We’ve watched and noted that generally to the south the sky has remained darker than it should and all below has been in a state of being semi-frozen.”
Norman said, “Yes, it’s looked like two separate climates. We could see that most of the area in view was wasteland but until we left this morning we’d never seen the size of the hole in the cloud.”
“Precisely,” Victoria said. “We’ve been inside the mountain for five years and what might have been a large gap in the dirty atmosphere has been affected by two main factors; sunlight and the natural gases given off from what had survived.”
“I really want to keep up,” Flint said, “but you guys are gonna have to break this down for me.”
“Thanks for asking, mate.” Bill winked at him.
Victoria smiled. “When the nuclear explosions polluted the atmosphere all around the globe there were two possibilities. The most disastrous scenario would be that the multiple explosions would create an all-encompassing black nuclear cloud.”
Flint nodded excitedly, finally on territory he understood. “Like, completely wrapping the planet in radioactive particles?”
Victoria nodded. “In such a circumstance we might not have survived much longer even inside the mountain because it would have brought about a nuclear winter. Without sunshine—natural light, everything would start dying due to the decreasing temperatures. Those temperatures would eventually have pervaded the mountains too—including ours.”
“Okay,” Bill said, “I think I’m on the same page now, so what was the other scenario?”
“I’m pleased to report that the other scenario is what we seem to have now. We’ve seen that there is a huge pocket of natural light above and beyond our mountain range and this forest. Without exploration on foot, it would be difficult to assess but I would suggest that the Scottish Highlands are safe.”
“I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.” Norman walked out to the edge of the tree-line and strolled back. “I’ve just looked at the general size and shape of that hole in the cloud base.” He grinned. “Judging from what Victoria has just explained I think I know the extent of our local safe territory.”
While the botanist smiled, the two ex-Serviceman exchanged a glance and turned to Norman.
“If you think of how much forestry we have across Scotland, we have a hole which is being enlarged very gradually and the poisoned cloud is being kept at bay.” He turned to Victoria for confirmation.
Victoria nodded. “As I said, other than an extensive patrol on foot it will be difficult to confirm but on the way back up the mountain if we look in every direction we ought to see holes in the sky above any area where there is a substantial forest.”
Norman said, “If the theory turns out to be true there might be pockets of survival in other parts of the world.”
“Where do you think?” Flint was shrugging off any negativity in the hope of more good news.
“Well,” Bill said, “Harry is still in touch with Marianne in Bolivia. If you remember the size of the Amazon rain forests, that means that parts of South America stand a good chance of recovery.”
Norman said, “I know we think that Benji was lost because Africa was hammered from different directions according to his final broadcasts. Is the signal still coming from New Zealand?”
“Yes,” Bill said. “We lost touch with Jacob when he set sail from Australia but his radio signal has continued to transmit. We’ve tried to work out what the hell is allowing it to continue but there are too many theories.”
Victoria said, “Are we ready to venture farther into the—”
The unmistakable howl of a wolf sounded in the depths of the forest and the explorers all stood still, listening and glancing at each other. The birds still chirped and there was no panic among the trees but it had been a timely warning that these four people were not the only creatures in the forest.
“Are we still ready to go deeper?” Bill looked around the three faces.
All three nodded. They’d survived a global catastrophe and had lived inside a mountain for five years so the threat of wildlife wasn’t holding them back.
Bill pulled the laser pistol from the holster he was wearing. “Okay, Norman, I’ll take point and you stay close behind to keep me heading in the right direction. You behind me, Victoria and Flint will continue as Tail-end Charlie.”
They set off again with no more than a few paces between each of them.
Flint muttered, “What the hell ….”
“What’s up?” Victoria said.
“Oh, nothing,” Flint laughed. “I’m probably seeing things in the trees.”
“Well, you’re bound to see something in the trees because the level of noise indicates life.”
For an hour they penetrated the forest and apart from brief stops to sip water from one of their containers they kept up a steady pace, each filled with a sense of wonder, excitement and barely-concealed joy. A piece of the planet had survived and they were determined to continue with their exploration.
Bill stopped and raised his left hand. The signal was seen and obeyed by his companions who each stopped and squatted low but remained quiet. Bill turned and when they met his gaze he pointed first to his eyes and then he indicated for the others to look ahead.
In a clearing no farther than twenty metres away was a natural, almost circular pond. A magnificent red deer stag stood, occasionally stooping to drink before resuming his alert pose, head-turning slightly this way and that, his ears twitching to pick up the slightest sign of a threat. Around the edge of the pond were six hinds and three fawns. The fawns lapped at the water without a care while the hinds appeared to take turns at drinking and listening like their monarch.
The four humans remained in position, transfixed by such a wonderful sight. For ten minutes the deer drank and enjoyed the peacefulness of the clearing and then after a snort from the big stag they all trotted off among the trees and disappeared like wraiths into the undergrowth.
When the small Auchcarn group arrived at the pond, Victoria opened her backpack and lifted out a bottle to fill with a sample of the water. She capped it and held it up. “It’s almost as clear as tap water.”
“How can that be?” Flint said, “we’re in a forest.”
“It could be a spring,” Victoria said, “just like the one inside the mountain that feeds all our accommodation along the tunnel. Invariably, when there is a massive underground activity like the minor earthquakes created a few years ago, new water sources might have been initiated.”
Norman said, “I know it’s been a while since I’ve done any work in the forests around here but we only had one or two ponds and I don’t recall any natural springs in the midst of the woodland.”
“Well,” Bill said, “it’s good to know that the wildlife has a source of water.”
Victoria said, “Once we’ve analysed this back at Auchcarn it will be handy to know if we have drinking water available while we’re out and about like today.”
They moved on in what appeared to be the old trail which was all heavily overgrown. They marvelled at how nature had stepped in and reclaimed the entire forest floor.
“That’s about five miles we’ve covered through the forest now,” Norman said.
“Are you sure?” Flint said. “It feels like more for some reason.”
“It was around two miles to reach the forest after we exited the mountain. Between the trees, up ahead I can see a grey area which must be a road. I’m trying to remember if there might be anything significant nearby when we leave this section of forest.”
Ten minutes later they stepped out of the woodland to see a minor road. The four of them stood line abreast along the edge of the tarmac surface, looking in wonder at how greenery had crept up over the edges of what would have been a minor road—no white paint or cat’s eyes studs which designated it as a ‘C’ class route. In some places the tarmac had given up the fight and nature was taking advantage of the cracks to strive for a crossing in both directions.
Victoria squatted to check the strength of the vegetation. “This stuff has a firm hold, guys. I’d say another couple of years without traffic along this route and we’ll be looking at another aspect of our old world disappearing.”
“Could it really take over in a couple of years?” Flint squatted to mimic Victoria’s tugging motion to test the strength of the roots and stems in the cracks.
“Flint, if it can do this in five years, this road will all but disappear in the next five years. It will be more like the trail we’d have expected to find in the depths of the forest.”
“Wow, that is bloody impressive.”
Bill and Norman had walked away a short distance from the others. They were in a serious conversation about something as they walked back.
Victoria stood. “Have you found something interesting guys?”
“Interesting is a good description,” Norman said as he turned and pointed. “Can you see where there is a road junction about one hundred metres away on that bend?”
“Yes,” Victoria and Flint chorused as they stared in the direction of the bend in the road.
Norman seemed preoccupied as he looked around. “There is a road sign lying on the grass verge which confirms that my guess at distance was pretty accurate.”
“Why, what’s the sign?” Flint said and laughed.
“West Highland Wildlife Sanctuary and Reserve,” Norman said.
“Oh shit,” Flint said. “What did they normally have in there?”
“As you’ll recall, Scotland was one of the first places in the British Isles to abolish zoos, but up here we were heavily into the idea of a massive reserve.” He paused.
“What was in there, Norman?” Flint said, with less amusement in his tone.
“Alpacas, bison, wild horses, wildcats, a few species of apes and then the more dangerous species like brown bears, wolves and lynx.”
Flint looked up and down the edge of the overgrown road. “That changes my view of a walk in the forest.”
Norman said, “We can’t be sure what survived and what didn’t but not long before our world leaders turned the planet to rubble, the reserve also had a couple of exotic species but we’re not going to know unless we check it out.”
“Check it out?” Victoria said and was suddenly as alert as Flint. “Apart from not being sure about their survival, isn’t this a normal habitat for bears, wolves and lynx?”
“It is,” Norman agreed, “but we don’t know how many of those animals might still be around.”
Bill had remained quiet while Norman delivered the news. “As we were walking back along the road there we were discussing the options.”
“Which options?” Victoria said and looked from Bill to Norman.
“We could head back through the forest and up the hill back inside the mountain or we could go a little bit farther.”
“Whoa,” Flint said. “Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”
Bill nodded. “I am if you think I’m suggesting going ahead to check out the condition of the reserve.”
“It would take us hours,” Flint said. “Surely the place is massive … it would be a few miles square?”
Norman said, “I suggested to Bill that it would be better if we knew for sure. We’ve heard wolves howling in recent months but that’s a sound that carries for miles.”
Victoria said, “Have you guys got a plan?”
Bill said, “We were thinking about going straight to the reserve entrance which is the most logical thing to do. If we do that we’ll get some idea of the condition of the place. As Flint said, the place will be massive but if we can see the visitor’s area it will tell us something at least.”
Victoria said, “While we have this open area of the roadway, how about taking time out for a few minutes to snack and have a drink?”
“Good plan,” Norman said and pulled off his backpack before sitting on the road.
All four of them enjoyed the water and the baked cereal bars that Ramona had made for them. They sat together having their surreal lunch-break in the middle of the overgrown road.
“Before we go on, I think you ought to know something,” Flint said and sipped his water.
The others all turned to him.
“A long way back through the forest I thought I saw something—”
“I remember,” Victoria said, “and I joked about the noise level of nature.”
“Yeah, well I thought I saw a … monkey.”
Nobody laughed which was what he might have expected.
“Go on, mate,” Bill said. “Can you remember any details?”
“It was mainly brown and had a bright pink face … like a human who was blushing.”
“Was it large or small?” Norman said.
“Small, I suppose … does it make any difference?”
“It sounds like a capuchin but if it were something bigger there are a couple of species we’d be best to avoid.”
“Well, boys,” Victoria said as she stood, “if we’re going to put our lives at risk to check out this wildlife reserve I think we ought to do it while it’s daylight.”
Flint said, “At least I’ll know what I’m shooting at if it’s necessary.”
Bill slapped him on the shoulder. “If we have to, mate, let’s try to frighten wildlife instead of killing any.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Flint laughed.
The minor road they’d arrived at outside the forest had appeared in bad condition but the road which led to the reserve was almost completely green. Patches of tarmac could be seen where it was cracked and warped, standing up in small lumps as if it had been raked over with a giant claw. Most of the surface was green but in many places, young trees were striving to gain more height.
“The gates are open,” Norman said.
Bill said, “In that case, I think we need a strategy before we go inside.”
“What do you propose?”
“I’ll take point with the handheld laser and Flint should continue to cover our backs so you other two guys stay between us.”
“I’m happy with that,” Victoria said, turning to look around as they approached the broken and dangling high wire-mesh gates.
“Me too,” Norman said.
“Whatever we come across now,” Bill said, “it’s important that we don’t run away.” He looked at all three of their faces in turn. “There aren’t many wild animals that we could outrun and if we stay still it will give Flint and me the opportunity to frighten off anything with big ideas.”
He got three nods and they set off through the gate. Being a wildlife reserve, the grounds would have been laid out to give the impression of freedom and the narrow road for visitors blended well among the trees and bushes. Now, five years after being abandoned, the road was no more than a narrow track which wound its way through heavy batches of foliage where hedgerows and undergrowth had assumed control.
The noise of wildlife in the local area increased which was a subtle warning. Whichever animals and birds had left, a few of them had not only survived but had opted to stay in the vicinity. It was a half-mile trek along the green carpet of the narrow track before they arrived at the car parking and reception areas.
In keeping with the theme of a nature reserve, the few buildings were made of timber rather than steel or concrete. What had been the main reception, cafe and souvenir shop now resembled an African safari camp which had been overrun by elephants. Before reaching the building the team stopped to decipher a large sign which had fortunately fallen forward at an angle so the information was still intact.
Being a big, muscular man, Norman opted to lift the sign so that they could all read.
“It looks like you remembered it well,” Bill said and turned to Norman. “Alpacas, bison, wild horses, wildcats, apes, bears, wolves and lynx.”
Victoria leant forward and pulled away a large clinging plant to uncover more information. “Not to mention elk, camels, Arctic foxes, polar bears, snow leopards and tigers.”
“Polar bears, snow leopards and tigers?” Flint said and his alert level rose again. “Jeezuss.”
A loud screech came from the main building not far away which had no glass remaining in the windows or doors. All four of the team crouched back among nearby bushes as a small group of primates raced from he building to disappear among the nearby trees.
“And baboons,” Victoria said.