Past

Title: Past
Time Period: January 29, 135 A.E.
Characters Appearing:

Summary: is prologue.

The reason wasn't included when Algernon was told he'd have to forgo his usual spot on the graveyard shift. This is actually informative in and of itself. It suggests the dictate's origin. Duncan has an irritating habit of not giving reasons. Duncan has a lot of irritating habits.

Knocking with the insistent hammer of the arriving law on your door, for example.

It's early, farmer's rise early, when dawn just starts to lance from the horizon, that blinding first cusp. Duncan has two horses tied up outside, their haunches half draped with large saddlebags - no typical patrol fitting, this. The man himself looks wide awake, even restless, glancing down along the inn's narrow hall, expecting no one, but still looking.

Algernon looks somewhat worse-for-wear when he turns the lock and then the handle a moment later, bruised and bandaged beneath the rise of his collar and around his left palm. Dapper. Keeping busy.

He is awake and dressed, late in the last stretch of his scheduled shift. Behind him, his room is as warmly furnished and lit as all the others, made bed and dresser and desk. A book lies open on the last, next to bowler and a corked bottle of red that doesn't look to have been touched recently. There's no accompanying glass, anyway.

Not so much surprised to see Duncan at his doorstep as he is blandly curious at the unannounced intrusion, he looks the younger man over as if expecting to see an explanation written out on his shirt. A small selection of things to say sorted through and discarded, he's a little slow to go with an even, "Morning."

The visitor is dressed for the weather - thick jacket lined with fur that looks older than he who wears it. Still, it fits, and shields him up to his neck, and down to his worn leather gloves. Armed, but that's no surprise - two handguns worn in open lawman fashion.

"Yes," Duncan says, the affirmative just direct enough not to be totally perfunctory. He makes eye contact for it, a single brief assessment of the state of the man before him. Composed. "Ready for a ride. The mountains." So prepare accordingly.

"Bring something to drink." Not a permission, even, but a requirement.

Well of course, the mountains. Where else, unexpectedly and at this hour? Algernon does not have to school himself to remain impassive, for all that he seems a little slow in pulling back into his quarters to comply.

Under the bed, a wildcat bunched into a dusty brown ball of muscle and pelt assumes enough of a dour look of feline annoyance to cover them both.

"Shall I meet you outside, then?" is polite enough to be a request. It shouldn't be long. The list of requirements is short and he is already drawing his coat thick off the back of the desk chair.

The answer is yes, or must be, since Duncan steps out of the doorway and disappears from view. His tread is audible until it is not, and then the outer door is audible as it slams shut behind him. And then it is simple faith (though really just easy expectation) that promises he'll be waiting out there, astride his horse.

What may not be so expected, and what faith cannot account for, is his hat. A fur lined cap with a slightly crooked brim rests snugly atop his ruddy head with a certain heir of improbability.

Wool jacket on, military styling cut and dried lapel to cuff, Algernon puts on his hat, acquires a scarf and tucks a speed loader into his pocket on his way to opening the window. A little flinch bustles irritably out into the bitter cold.

Window closed and latched, flask acquired, along with spare ammunition, Algernon stops by the bar to pull on his gloves and to have his flask filled with extremely boring water.

If Duncan's hat gives him any pause once he's stepped outside, it's contained to a flicker of a second glance as he paces for the spare horse. He's clearly mad, Forge opines from on high (possibly regarding the proof the hat represents) as Fogg draws himself stiffly up into the saddle, sore back. Sore hip. Sore everything. He draws his scarf up over his nose once he's settled, breath filtered thin after the turn of the horse beneath him.

Aren't we all.

A madman with guns isn't such an uncommon or even ineffective way to start to an army, or start a civilization, or end one. Heavy is the crown, and fuzzy the cap, with the one often designed to be set upon the other.

"We ride fast out the gates," Duncan says, first step in what must be some larger program of directions, but he doesn't divulge the rest of it. Frankly, though, up until a certain point, directions are mostly moot. Towards the mountains is a general enough direction at first, with a horizon-scissoring landmark to help direct.

And so they do, and the whistle of the wind in their ears enforces silence, and their horses are sweating by the time they approach the first clear landmark, a small waterfall, turned into a strange confabulation of glass by the grip of winter. Duncan slows to a canter, then a trot, and by the time his horses hooves have found the frozen ford below the falls the horse is at an easy walk, though stiff huffing great plumes of white, as if the beast had a belly of steam.

The Rowntree man takes out a canteen, lifts it, visible. A sign to follow suit.

Algernon follows along in silence save for the break of hooves to snow and ice beneath him, indifferent to the cold and indifferent to the distance and more than anything indifferent to the cramp in his left leg borne of holding himself as steadily as possible to muffle whatever lingering pain the cold hasn't soaked out've him yet.

The bind of his scarf makes it more difficult to read his expression than usual, but he does draw his canteen out of the warmth of his coat in mirror once he's realized that is what he is meant to do. Question is contained to a cinch at the corners of his eyes.

Duncan takes a first drink. The walk continues, as they easy across the ice. The horses tread gingerly - this path isn't taken enough to shatter out the sheen.

He takes another drink, a swig really. Moderate.

"I make assumptions, about a man like you," he says, at length, "you demand a story because you suggest no trade. What must a man like you have done to survive? No twenty, thirty years, clutching the plough."

This he addresses to the morning air. It's only now he turns to Algernon directly. Quiverfull of questions.

"What sort of story, though? A fable? Has your life ever seemed to have a moral?"

Ah. Algernon's lapels lift over a sigh that he has the manners to muffle into the hand he lifts to push his scarf down around his neck, easing up room for conversation. And flask.

He's looking at Duncan when Duncan turns to look at him, evenly reflected regard devoid of curiosity. And most other feeling, for that matter. "I'm not sure lives are meant to," he decides, not long after he's asked. Long enough to give it some thought, and a beat before he adds the requisite, "sir."

"True enough," Duncan concedes, smiling a little with a hint of despite, "but we still see clouds and claim they look like dragons. Or anvils. Or heavenly mountains." He cants a faint brow. "We make sense of nonsense as we eat, breath, fuck-" a huff of breath, his now, not the horses, "whether we want to or not."

Looking at clouds and claiming they look like dragons does not seem like something Algernon would do. He listens, though, short on options. Where they are, how they are. Alone as they are. Possibly waiting for the original question to be rephrased or further emphasized if Duncan is really intent upon having it answered in some form or fashion, he sits patiently. Passively. Reins and canteen and muttonchops somewhere in between.

Duncan shifts registers, into wryness. This is a sort of concession, and he's not a big fan of those as a general rule, but Algernon's impassivity isn't something he can't dismiss. It may even be grounds for respect, whatever that word really means. So he asks: "Where were you born? What sort of place?"

"England," says Algernon, softer and saw-toothed, in the face of persistance overcoming pride. "It was warmer."

Another, deeper drawn breath steels his remove out some, rendering him at least slightly more present than he's been thus far. "Has it occurred to you that this may be a sore subject?" is not actually rhetorical, for all that inflection and press of one brow might suggest otherwise. "Has my behavior or my service been unsatisfactory?" he continues, upon further curiosity. "Have I put in too many appearances at The Dovetail? Or too few?"

"The alternative being, that I don't give a shit?" Duncan says, the interrogative lilt merely formal; he gives a sardonic chuckle, "politeness alone can account for your even asking."

Another drink, the ta-tunk of the liquor in the container a kind of double punctuation.

"A dragon, a bear and a near-public stabbing," Duncan lists - testaments to Algernon's satisfactoriness, "did I omit? You're a man of great capacity. This is good, but it can also be bad. Thus, I want to have a better reckoning of you."

Resignation takes the edge out of the flat affect Algernon assumes round abouts no shits given. The kind of look school age nerds adopt when openly, 'jokingly' teased by football players three times their size. Which is to say, the look of a man who considers himself capable and intelligent, and more or less at the mercy of another despite it.

Somewhere in this, he has decided to look at the mountains instead of at Duncan. They are gentler on his temper.

"No past then," Duncan says, sounding unperturbed. Most like a census taker, checking an item off a list. It's with a similar air that he caps his canteen and deposits it safely, before urging his horse into a trot. "We're gathering salvage," he says, as he lurches ahead of Algernon for a fraction and a moment.

So, over his shoulder. "The past still has uses. The guns of our fathers."

Algernon's eyes tick immediately to focus on Duncan's turned back, the fringe at his jaw bristled terse on either side of a hollow clamp.

Then they're off to gather salvage.

A turn of his heel urges his mount to match pace and he draws his scarf back up again, quiet now indistinguishable from the quiet before.

The ascent is made easier for the presence of a road, from back when they had them. Over a century of neglect, however, still manage to make it an occasionally treacherous enterprise, especially on horseback, but no slide or collapse is enough to deny them progress, however tight some of the transitions.

Their destination hails them with a great metal arm, bent at the elbow - a crisscross of mangled metal beams, a silent cry that could be heart for kilometers, back when the air was thick with electric voices.

Duncan dismounts. The wind is harsher here. The snow is thicker. He winds the reins and leads his horse towards the waiting shelter of a small building, the epaulet of that steel salute.

Long, crooked struts of steel cast long, crooked shadows and Algernon's horse balks at a strip of darkness across otherwise clean snow.

Just once.

A cut of heel to rib and a saw at the reins straightens him out before he can sidestep off the road, and on they follow. Into the ruin and further into shelter, where Fogg dismounts with care for the stiffness in his side, glove braced to equine flank for as long as it takes him to get his bearings. A wary look swept around and up into the interior of the structure accomplishes little; only Duncan knows where they are and where they are going and what for.

So it's Duncan that he looks to for direction in the gloom.

Duncan alternates between leading by example and leading through explication. The former must be preferable, requiring fewer words and more simple accomplishment, and more preferable still when it involves the retrieval of his canteen. One swig is taken, and the cap left off, before Duncan leads the way into the building's interior.

History lies in such bits and pieces, it is impossible to say just how 'old' this building is. But the defunct radio tower places it within a discrete technological milieu - more importantly, a cusp. The ragged edge of the new world's enforcement.

"Have an eye for sheen," Duncan says, brushing at the corner of his mouth in the wake of another quick drink, "glass, plastic, metal that's lasted." He moves deeper into the building. After some initial adjustment, it's not so hard to see in this place. The rising sun, its climb steady through their ride, beams luminance through the southern windows, filling much of the space with at least gray half-light.

Up in this biome, there's less of the overgrowth one sees below the tree line. This place has a neglected, unclaimed look. The floor is ragged with scraps of papers long ago pulped by time and natural inclemency. Rusty ghosts mark the places where file cabinets once stood. A lone chair and desk stand in an improbable place of shelter, looking starkly alone in its endurance. An old computer sits atop it, its face veiled in beetle black.

Algernon seems more out of place against a backdrop of tooth rotten technology than he does in the typical settlement of today, thrown back a century or two too far. Looking more the part of Wells' Time Traveler than a post-apocalyptic jackal scrounging for scrap, he sizes up the computer monitor's black screen with a touch of unfamiliar unease.

"Is this a task you often see to personally?" he asks at length, skeptical in a trace of fingertips to block of lighter wall where a picture was once framed.

His profile tilts down once he's asked, accommodating of orders for all that he doesn't. Appear to be trying very hard. Like being dragged into an art museum and told to look for trash on the floor.

"You've seen our radios," Duncan says, "that's not magic. No- glamour or supplication. We were capable of much more. We covered this whole earth."

The grandeur of this statement serves mostly to contrast with the banality of his action. He rifles through the desk's drawers. Pulls out a stapler. Examines it, though briefly.

"This is the dust of an empire. Not just any idiot ought to sift through it."

"Yes, but to what end." The absence of a lilt makes it an observation rather than a question; all that power and grandeur boiled down into Rowntree and Fogg and — all the Jains and Mariahs and Cruikshanks of the world.

With Duncan at an advantage in the field of scavenging, Algernon proceeds alone into the next room, where he'll presumably have less competition for bits of crap. Upon crouching close to the floor, his first selection is a floppy, dirt-crusted mess that was likely once a magazine. He drops it, upon confirming that there is nothing worth seeing within the pages, and stands instead to proceed over to a computer monitor identical to the one nextdoor. Eventually, his squinting at his own muddy reflection yields a glimpse of exposed wiring.

Left hand to belt to unfold his knife, he feels the right along the monitor's hind side until he has a sound enough grip on the dusty cable to yank it loose. "From what I gather," on a more polite track, he peels back cracked plastic with the edge of his knife, "Dornie owes a fair amount of its prosperity to technology."

"It is that, or spears and slings, and darkness," Duncan says, setting the stapler back from whence it came, "not to speak too little of those things. Everything in its place."

The next drawers yield nothing of interest, and he goes for the computer with an air of slight disappointment. He must expect something, though who knows what that might be. He goes for the speakers first. He uses a chisel for this, which he brought with him apparently, kept stashed in his coat.

"I've only ever known Dornie," Duncan admits, "but I've seen other ways of life. Walls and laws have value to anyone who can stand to stay within them."

The indistinct noise Algernon makes the next room over is close enough to agreement to pass for it, however unenthusiastic. His progress in stripping the cable is slow, with care taken for his already bandaged left hand.

"Not that walls and law are a necessary compliment," Duncan amends, "but they must be, if they're to do any real good."

The dark discs, dangling wires, slip into a jacket pocket. The case is cracked open further, revealing the rows of circuitry, a cityscape in miniature. It's useless, of course. He goes for the fan instead, prying it free with a few seesawing motions. This, too, is pocketed. He moves on, chisel still in hand, tip tapping against the wall here and there, the sound communicating something or other to the man.

His eyes are momentarily caught by a faded black scrawl in paint. LAIKA COME HOME. Duncan reads once. Twice. Turns away, spots a stout dark slab with strangely ordered protrusions. A transmitter console. He smiles. "The scouts spotted this only recently." He has to lift his voice a bit for it to carry. But he must be heard. "How far do you think this thing could sing out? Could they hear us back there in Britain?"

"I wouldn't know, sir." Quieter, for all that his voice has a way of getting there, Algernon gives up stripping the cable in poor light and winds it unwieldy in his hand. Someone else can sort it out later. He takes to opening desk drawers next, combing through the contents with a casually familiar stir of his hand. A ceramic mug is extracted from one ("World's Best Dad") and he peers dimly down into the empty bottom for a few seconds before replacing it. The drawer is closed; he trails back into Duncan's territory with his cable to peer at whatever it is he's busy being proud of.

He's crouched down, following wires into the wall. A series of rapid blows with the chisel and he's able to chase those wires further. He pokes through them with the edge, then pins the wires to the ground and severs them with a blow from his hand. He stands, applies light pressure to the console, testing its weight. "Better we both take it," Duncan says, "may need something to lash it if it doesn't fit. If it's not rotted out, it'd be a burden lifted." Evidently someone has had radio parts on his wishlist for some time.

As unimpressed by a box with protrusions as should probably be expected, Algernon looks it over in the background, posture upright, expression remarkably similar to that of his familiar's just prior to their departure. Duncan's made a terrible mess of the wall as well, which seems rude somehow.

A beat later he moves forward nonetheless, accommodating for all that he doesn’t reach to take hold just yet. Waiting to see how Duncan goes about it first.

He motions for Algernon to mirror him, hands set high and low, easing it onto a corner then lifting from a grip on the bottom. It's heavy, but not so heavy as to present much of a problem for the two men. It is unwieldy perhaps - not made for mobility - but its shortly out into the cold air that would seem to have preserved it, if Duncan's conception of 'rot' carries any further. In truth, it's hard to know how these things work, when they work at all.

It just barely fits, and the horse - Duncan's - is clearly uncomfortable with the lopsidedness of the burden, and Duncan makes what adjustments he can to ease the asymmetry. Still, he frowns. "Did you see anything else? Spare him a limp." He frowns slightly. "Any books?"

"You could center it," Algernon says after a long moment of careful consideration, once the box-thing is in place. The lifting and moving hasn't harried him overmuch despite whatever pain might have been involved — a deep breath sees him right enough to do some critical thinking, obviously.

"And we could ride the other one back together."

It is extremely difficult to discern whether or not he's serious.

There's a space of some seconds before Duncan breaks out into a laugh. It starts in a series of splutters before releasing into proper exhalation, sharp and lough and coarse.

"We traveled all this way," Duncan says, one the sound is suppressed and he lifts the console free, giving his ride home a rest while he can. "It would be a waste not to strip this bitch bare."

He motions for Algernon to follow as he heads back inside.

Algernon's smile is obsidian thin in return, brows tilted into an easy angle — one that says he is pleased with himself. Laugh or no, he's always been his own sense of humor's biggest fan.

Someone has to be.

Then Duncan turns back inside and he nods bland concession on his way to following, his found cable still in tow. There are more of them in there, no doubt.

Hours pass in tearing and shearing, breaking and prying, Duncan's reverence for the achievements of the past like that a vulture's has for the magnificent ribcage of a fallen bison. When they've picked the place more or less clean, and the bags bulge with untimely contraband, Duncan beats the plaster dust and pulverized mortar from himself and adds his weight to his horse's burden. The poor beast of labor shifts between its legs, burdened by history.

Duncan tips his canteen back, the bottom tilted skyward like a warning alarum. The last drops of liquor trickle out onto his tongue.

So bolstered, he follows the path home.