1. Quarantine [Tall Pines Underground #1]

Tall Pines Underground is a novel long in development that I am finally giving a final edit, making it look all pretty, and kicking it out the door.  It’s a post-apocalyptic novel focusing on Susan Soza, a mother who brings her two sons and ex-husband to a subscription-funded refuge, hidden in the mountains and designed to weather the collapse of civilization.

It has been described as “cli-fi” which is apparently short for science fiction that focuses on climate change and its consequences.  I like to think of it in a more solarpunk lens, but the bright and hopeful aspects of that genre take a long while to kick in.  This is solarpunk that still has to struggle to be born.

I do think I’ve got some good character portraits in here, and the plot unfolds nicely, even if it takes its sweet time in doing so.  This chonky boi of a manuscript weighs in at over 150,000 words.

And of course it’s queer.  The protagonist is bisexual, there’s also some polyamory sprinkled in, and there’s a little light trans rep (I wrote most of this pre-egg crack).

I do love this novel, and I hope you’ll enjoy it, too.  I’ll be posting chapters as I finish pummelling them with the edit stick—my goal is one a month at minimum.

1. Quarantine

Dear Susan Soza:

If this email reaches you, I am glad. It will not be mirrored by a physical letter as with most of our prior correspondence; the mail system is no longer reliable. Most of the trappings of the civilized world are no longer reliable. The water supply, the police, and the roads have all turned dangerous. Civilization as we know it is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Which means your long subscription to Tall Pines Security Refuge was a wise investment.

This letter is to inform you that earlier today, Tall Pines Security Refuge entered Full Lockdown. The front gate and all other entrances have been closed and barricaded. Armed subscribers are on patrol along the walls. If you choose to join us at the Refuge, please approach the front gate carefully: in PLAIN SIGHT and UNARMED. Do not under any circumstances approach the gate at night.

As a subscriber in good standing, you and your family will be admitted to the Refuge upon request. After a brief quarantine period, you can enjoy all the benefits of Tall Pines membership, prime among them the safety of our walls and the bounty of our stockpiles.

Your subscription package provides for no more than four admissions. Please understand that this is an iron-clad restriction. Food, water, beds, and other necessities are meticulously rationed during lockdown. Admitting more refugees than we have resources puts everyone in the Refuge in danger.

We can not and will not admit more than four persons on your request.

If you choose to travel to Tall Pines, please remember that the Refuge’s existence and location are carefully cultivated secrets. Do not tell anyone you meet where you are going. Do not give anyone directions. Do not accept a ride to the trailhead. This includes law enforcement personnel. These precautions are for the safety of your family and everyone in the Refuge. We have no way of knowing exactly how bad it will get or how long it will take for order to be restored. Raiding parties looking to pillage the Refuge may seem a ludicrous nightmare, but such extreme behavior is becoming a distinct possibility.

Your passcode is GREEN ELK DANCING. This passcode will be current through the end of the month, and will identify you as a subscribed member eligible for entry. Present it at the front gate when challenged.

We look forward to seeing you safely arrived here. Failing that, we wish you all the luck to be had in this collapsing world.

— Gregory Cole

Director, Tall Pines Security Refuge

The email was still on the screen when I turned my phone back on. I scanned over it until I got to the passcode, which was exactly as I remembered. But best not to chance it.

In front of us was the broad front gate of Tall Pines Security Refuge, looking like nothing less than a wild west fort or a castle made out of tree trunks with the bark still on them. The gate itself was twelve feet tall, and above that loomed the gatehouse. Four rifle barrels poked out of the slit windows, trained on my family.

“Green Elk Dancing!” I shouted up at the gatehouse, as deliberately and clearly as I could. “My name is Susan Soza, and I’m here with my family. We’re subscribed members.”

“That’s last month’s passcode,” came the response from an anonymous voice above.

I spat out a curse. “It’s May?” I asked. “We lost track.” I looked down at my phone by reflex. It was still searching for a signal. It would be searching for a long time.

“It’s May second,” they told me. “Hold on. Stay there. No sudden movement.”

I looked back at my two boys and Arthur. Jackson and Caden stood tall under the weight of their backpacks, their thumbs casually looped through the straps. They looked like we’d left the car a hundred meters back, when in fact it was more like twenty kilometers. Arthur was much worse for wear, leaning heavily on Jackson. His backpack sat skewed on his back, half-emptied into our own packs. His right leg was soaked copper with caked blood; the bandage on his thigh was in the process of falling off again.

“Ms. Soza?” came a new voice, weighty with authority, from the gatehouse. “Your passcode is out of date. Is there anyone inside who can vouch for you? Who might recognize you?”

I smoothed my hair back towards the ponytail keeping it under control. “If Mister Abernathy is inside, he’ll recognize me. He’s our Lodge Host.”

There was no immediate response from above; a moment later came a mutter, and then a muffled sound like a derisive snort. “I’ve sent a runner to fetch the Host, ma’am,” the officious voice finally said. “It may be a little while. Stay there. No sudden movement.”

“Suze,” Arthur stage-whispered, planting a heavy hand on Jackson’s shoulder and leaning forward precipitously. “I don’t know if I can stand much longer. Ask if—”

I hissed sharply at him, a short little sound meant to quash conversation before it blossomed. He didn’t know these people like I did. At least that was my thought, outside the front gate, when I still thought I knew them.

It took nearly twenty minutes for Abernathy to appear. The shutter over one of the gatehouse windows swung open, and the greying head of our Lodge Host thrust out into the open air.

“Mister Abernathy,” I said. The hopeful smile that came unbidden to my lips was entirely genuine. “It’s Susan Soza. Apparently our passcode is old.”

The man who I had worked side-by-side digging trenches and pouring concrete a dozen times squinted down at me with no look of recognition on his face. “Soza?” he repeated as if saying it for the first time.

“From Ponderosa Lodge,” I supplied helpfully. My smile was starting to crumble.

Abernathy pointed at Arthur. “What happened to your husband?”

“Ex-husband,” both I and Arthur said automatically. I continued, “We ran into some trouble down in the valley.”

“Looks bad,” our Lodge Host observed without emotion.

“It is,” Arthur groaned, shifting his feet with the help of Jackson’s shoulder. “I don’t know how I made it all the way here.”

“And I can’t imagine he’ll make it back out,” I added. “Mister Abernathy, surely you recognize me.”

“Of course, Miss Soza,” he said reluctantly, meeting my eyes for the first time. “I recognize you.” He made it sound like an apology.

A few minutes later there was a rattle behind the doors as the lock cycled. The rustic logs swung open, revealing the steel reinforced backing that they concealed. Men and women with automatic rifles slid alongside the opening doors to escort us in.

A broad-shouldered woman stepped outside along with them. Her own dark green camouflage matched theirs exactly. When she spoke, I recognized the voice of authority from before. “I trust you and your family are unarmed, Miss Soza?”

I tipped my head back at the treeline. “Our guns are back there. Piled up on a flat rock.”

At a nod from the woman, an underling slung his rifle over his shoulder and strode off in the direction we’d come in. She watched him go, and then rumbled, “Follow me.”

They escorted us just inside the gate, where we unslung our packs against the gatehouse wall. The runner with our weapons caught up with us and neatly stacked them next to the packs. “This way,” the commander directed, striding away as the door thundered closed behind us.

The inside of the Refuge, or at least the portion that we could see from just inside the wall, was strangely both familiar and changed from my last visit mere months ago. The gravel paths were the same, although much worse for wear with furrows worn down their centers. Crates sat on wooden pallets and under tarps festooned with green rags: home-made anti-air camouflage. There were fewer trees. A handful of men and women dressed in what I now recognized as guard uniforms attended to various tasks. There were no other people in sight, although most would be deeper inside the Refuge, in the cluster of lodges at the top of the hill.

We were shown into a building new to me, a long, low affair constructed out of local lumber. On top it sported what we’d called a “green roof” in the city, a spread of soil, scrub, and bushes. The intent here wasn’t environmentally friendly; it was yet more camouflage. But the red cross at the door was a welcome sight, and a team of medics poured out to lift Arthur off of our son’s shoulder and take him inside.

The interior was a no-frills medical station, complete with a front desk and a row of examination rooms. A young lady stood up from the desk. “Newcomers. Welcome to Quarantine.”

We were shown to examination rooms and instructed to strip down. After a week in the same clothes, the white linen hospital gown seemed a luxury. I did not wait long before a medic stepped into my room. I recognized her immediately. “Aubrey. Nice to see a friendly face.”

But the face she turned on me was anything but friendly. Her full lips were drawn down to a tight moue. She would not look me in the eye, and kept a few feet away from me as she spoke. “Miss Soza. This is a quarantine situation, so let’s try to limit contact as much as possible. Please step outside to the scales.”

“Is everything okay?” I asked, suddenly concerned that the quarantine, which I had assumed was a overvigilant precaution, was something more serious. Did the Refuge know about a contagion running rampant outside the walls? Had public health deteriorated that far, that fast? Aubrey waited, stone-faced, for me to step outside and weigh in.

I’d lost about ten pounds in the last twelve days, which I attributed to eating on the run and stress. Aubrey noted aloud, “Overweight,” and marked something on her clipboard.

When we returned to the examination room, the pile of my mud- and blood-caked clothing was gone. When asked, Aubrey shrugged it off and explained it had been collected for the laundry. “My phone was in there,” I said lamely, “and my keys and… my ID.”

“I don’t think you’ll be needing those for the rest of the day, Ms. Soza,” the medic said with a sigh. “Please run this swab along the inside of your mouth. Then you’ll need to take off the gown and I’ll make a visual examination for cuts, contusions, and infections.”

Aubrey was thorough but quick, almost desperately efficient. She wanted out of that room. Out of my presence. When she was through, she dropped a set of rough beige clothes on the examination table and disappeared out the door.

When I stepped into the hallway, Jackson and Caden were seated along the wall, wearing the same beige pants and shirt I’d been given. I put a hand out onto both their shoulders. “How are you guys holding up?”

“This is weird,” Caden said, pursing his lips. “This place used to be vacation, you know?”

I laughed. “Pouring concrete, learning auto repair, and shooting guns up in the mountains is your idea of vacation? I may have failed you, kid.”

“Do you have any idea how jealous the kids at school were?” he grinned. A moment later that grin faltered. Who knows what condition his friends from school were in.

“Is dad going to be all right?” Jackson asked suddenly.

“He’ll be fine,” I answered automatically, then grimaced. “I think he’ll be fine. It was a shallow gash and we kept it clean.” I waved at the lady behind the desk down the hall. “And I’m sure they’ll tell us as soon as they know.”

“You sure about that?” he answered, looking up at me frankly. “Something’s weird here. Something’s wrong.”

I looked down at my eldest, very nearly a grown man, and no more fooled than I what was happening. We had been herded along for the past hour, placated and guided, into an alarmingly vulnerable situation. We were unarmed, had no means of communication, and no way to prove our identities. After a week of scrupulously guarding our safety and liberty, it had taken sixty minutes to put us entirely at their mercy.

“Something’s off,” I agreed with a slow nod. “Aubrey was… I don’t know, acting odd.”

Caden gave me a blank look. “Aubrey?”

“Oh, the nurse,” I explained, unnecessarily waving a hand. “Well, she’s an EMT, technically. But the black lady in scrubs you just met. I met her at the last work day. You guys elected not to go. Track meet and a party. You missed out, it was a great weekend. Campfire and marshmallows and—”

Jackson lifted an eyebrow. “Mom. You’re babbling.”

“I am?” I asked, and could feel my face growing hot.

“Holy shit,” Caden exclaimed, turning in his seat to stare at me. “You’re beet red.”

Jackson watched me for a long moment, then smirked. “Must have been a fun weekend. You know, Mom, if you wanted me and Caden to skip more often, we could have.”

“What?” asked Caden. He looked from me to Jackson and back, uncertain what he had missed.

Jackson settled back in his chair. “Mom had a hookup,” he declared.

Caden looked at me, eyes wide. “With her?” He hooked a thumb at the closed infirmary door. “She’s hot. And young.”

I snorted. “You don’t have to act all surprised.”

“No, I mean… nice job,” he moderated. “Well done.”

“Because that’s not weird, my son complimenting me on the quality of my…”

“Hookup,” Jackson supplied. “And what Caden means is he’s happy for you.”

My younger boy brightened. “Yeah, mom. That’s cool.”

I looked hesitantly from one son to the other. “Really?”

Both of them assured me that was the case, and hugged me. I’m not in the habit of turning down affection from my teenaged boys. The trick is not luxuriating in it as much as I want to, lest they stop. “Sometimes we worry about you,” Caden explained. “Dating sucks.”

“Certain,” Jackson agreed, burrowed again against the wall.

“Miss Soza?” I turned to see the tall, whip-lean form of Director Gregory Cole at the opposite end of the hall. He afforded me a small, tight, and very brief smile of recognition. “May I speak with you in here?”

The room he had indicated was not an examination room, but a cramped office with an empty desk and a single chair. He settled into the desk, laying out a manilla folder on the blotter. “Miss Soza, you’ve been a subscriber for nearly fifteen years and I don’t think you’ve missed a single Volunteer Day.”

I sat down opposite him. “I managed to convince the boys they were vacations. The seminars on guns and bow hunting probably didn’t hurt. They were fond of those.”

He paused and looked at me, then abruptly smiled. “Me, too. I’ve got to say, Miss Soza, we are very glad you made it to us. You’re the kind of person we want on this side of the wall. Not afraid to get your hands dirty. Eager to pitch in when it contributes to the collective good. And two sturdy young men instilled with your work ethic, to boot.”

“Unfortunately I’ve also brought my ex-husband,” I laughed, hoping my mirth would spread over to his face. It didn’t.

Cole shifted a piece of paper on the desk before him. “Yes, I was… a little surprised to hear about that. Of course I remember your face from so many Volunteer Days. I don’t recall your husband’s.”

Ex-husband, I corrected silently, but forced a smile instead. “You wouldn’t. He’s never been up here. I started the subscription when we were still married. He thought I was being irrational. After the divorce, I kept the four-person subscription because… I suppose I was hoping there’d be somebody else I wanted to bring along to the end of the world.”

“But you got your ex-husband, instead.”

I rubbed my nose. “The boys very politely suggested we pick up their father on the way here. It wasn’t not something I could say no to.”

He paused again and considered me for a long moment. “How was the trip here?”

I nodded my head before answering. “It was hard. Normally it takes a full day of driving to get here, but it took us over a week. The freeway we usually take isn’t safe. Gang turf war, apparently. The highways we did take were more circuitous, and took us through some… interesting towns.”

“Interesting?” he prompted, then planted a hand, spider-like, across the papers before him. “I should note, this is a debriefing. Your sons and your ex-husband will also be debriefed. We need every shred of information we can get our hands on.”

“Of course,” I answered, imagining how Jackson and Caden would respond to pointed questions. Jackson would clam up; hopefully they would not press him until he exploded. Caden would talk a blue streak until they gave up listening. Whether they’d get any actionable information would be another question entirely.

“So,” said Cole. “Interesting towns.”

I roused myself from my reverie. “Yes. Interesting. No way to know if around the next turn you’ll find a protection racket run by the local P.D. or a greasy spoon diner still open for business. Or if they’ll take cash for payment, for that matter. Some portions of the highway are now toll roads, by order of various city councils. One town wouldn’t let us come down the offramp.”

I told him everything, seeing little reason to hold information back. At some point he produced a map, and I outlined the threats and safe havens we’d encountered as we approached the mountains. I told him about the bridge that was out, and the dirt road detour a local woman had directed us to.

“And that’s where they ambushed us.” I’d sketched the dirt road onto his map, and now drew a circle where it rejoined the highway. “Pretty sure they piled sand on the dirt road. We got no traction, nearly buried the wheels trying to get away. Jackson and Arthur had to get out and push. That’s when Arthur got shot.”

“Well at least he’s brave,” Cole nodded meditatively. “Does he have any appreciable skills I should know about?”

“He’s a television producer,” I supplied, but at his blank look, I clarified, “Which is to say, no, not really.”

“And you’re an Economics professor,” he said, tugging one paper out from under the rest.

“I was an Economics professor. I don’t think anybody’s going to be hiring faculty for a while.”

He lifted up the piece of paper. I could see my printed picture, reversed through the paper grain, at the top of it. “Hydroponics weekends. Construction seminar. Self-defense. Hunting weekends. Survival challenge. Automotive repair. You seem to have completed every seminar we’ve ever offered.”

“Not all,” I demurred. “Like I said, the kids thought they were fun vacations.”

“Most of our subscribers just sent us a check,” the Director explained. “They didn’t come see the place, didn’t get to know it. Didn’t come to the survival skills seminars that we told them they’d need if it ever came to this.”

I put a short, polite smile on my face.

“To them, we were an insurance policy,” Cole said, disappointment etched in his voice. “They imagined that if the end of the world came, they’d be whisked away to a secret four-star resort hidden in the mountains, where they could wait out the apocalypse sipping craft wine and getting facials.”

“That’s unfortunate.”

“So you’ll understand that we have had to make some changes to the subscription agreement.” Here it was. “Some of our subscribers bring us essential skills. Doctors. Engineers. And we have a number of clear-eyed survivalists like yourself.”

I blushed as if receiving a compliment. A year ago, ‘clear-eyed survivalist’ would have been a description I’d find revolting.

Cole went on. “The vast majority, though…” he raised both hands as if grasping for words adequate to his disdain. “Useless for anything outside of unskilled labor. And even then, some of them are so out of shape, they can hardly put in a full day of work.”

I realized I should say something. “I imagine they complain about having to do the work, too,” I prompted. Work that their original subscription agreement never mentioned. Work that the original agreements might have explicitly proscribed.

The Director rolled his eyes. “You have no idea how much they can bitch.”

I rediscovered my short, polite smile. “I raised two kids. I know.”

“Exactly.” This seemed to give him pause. His eyes fell onto the files before him again, and he frowned down at one page, mostly blank. “I hope your ex won’t be a problem in this regard?”

“I’ll talk to him,” I promised. “Make sure he understands. We’re here for the duration, we’ll do our part.”

He nodded slowly. “That’s the kind of perspective I wish was more common among our… subscribers. We all need to pitch in. For everyone’s sake.”

I nodded stupidly, not sure what else to say. How complicit did I want to make myself sound? “I’m surprised they stay,” I said without thinking.

Cole slapped three fingers against the edge of the desk. “Nobody leaves,” he intoned. “This place is safe because it’s secret. We let them loose and they’ll go crying to the first local P.D. they can find. One of those police departments which has set itself up as a protection racket. And then it’s all over. So nobody leaves.”

Nobody leaves. And in the mean time, forced manual labor. What had I delivered my family into?

Later that day, another worker at the infirmary–not Aubrey–came to tell us that Arthur was out of surgery and mostly lucid. I let the boys go sit with him and visit for an hour and change before I went in. Something about my demeanor sent them both skittering out of the room. The divorce was almost a decade past, but they still recognize the look on my face when a storm is brewing.

“The bullet went through-and-through,” he explained with a giddy grin on his face. “And then they gave me some very powerful drugs.”

His infirmary room, set aside for serious recovery stays, was pleasant enough, if bare. The bed was an old electric adjustable from some hospital thirty years ago. There were two wooden chairs for visitors. A bank of cupboards lined one wall. His sole window looked out on an earthen embankment covered in pine needles.

“How long until you’re back on your feet?”

He shook his head. “They didn’t say. But they said it shouldn’t be long.”

I nodded as if he’d given me new information to consider. Then I launched into it. “So things are going to be pretty different here, Arthur.”

He smiled blearily at me. “Oh yeah?”

“This is a small community of very serious people. We are all in here–locked in here–to ride out the storm together.” I watched him as I spoke, but didn’t look like he was getting it. “Everyone has to contribute. Everyone works for the survival of all. And that’s going to mean you, too.”

He snorted softly. “Is that why we sent them all that money? So we could come work?”

“I sent them money,” I stressed, “so we’d have a place to go if things went south. And this place requires everybody to work. Heavy, physical work. We’re farmers now, Arthur, and we will be for the foreseeable future.”

“We sent them enough to buy a house,” he protested, rolling his eyes.

I nodded. “More like a condo, but yes. So we have a place to sleep. But we’ve got to work to eat. And we’re going to work alongside the other people here.”

He was quiet. Was he thinking about what I’d said or was he just blissed out on the oxycodone? That was a question I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about again.

“Arthur.” I drew in a deep breath. “I need you to behave yourself here.”

He wrinkled his nose at me. “Suze, you don’t—”

I laid my hand on his. “There’s only a few hundred people here, Arthur. And your behavior is going to reflect on all of us. Your behavior is going to reflect on the boys. A community this small, it’s easy to get sidelined, shunned, ostracized. Which could be the difference between survival and starvation.”

He scoffed at that. “They’ll get things back on track out there in six weeks. We’ll be out of here by Christmas.”

“And if they don’t?” I asked, ignoring his math. “There is a not-insignificant chance that we will be in here for a year or more. It may be multiple years before things settle enough to go back down the mountain.” I squeezed his hand once, then folded my hands in my lap. “You need to play nice, and work nice, with everyone in here, so that your sons can walk out those gates when it’s safe again.”

Arthur blinked a few times, squinting down at his toes. “You think it’s that bad?”

I sat back in my chair, exhaled. At least I’d impressed the gravity of the situation upon him. “I’m pretty sure, yeah. Two years of failed harvests for rice and corn, the petroleum market eating itself up, and too many brush wars across the planet to count–its not just the stock collapse, Arthur. The bottom’s fallen out of the whole system. It’s going to take a long time to rebuild the global economy, and–” I could tell I was losing him again. “It’s bad, Arthur, and governments are going to topple before it’s over. Quite possibly ours, included.”

He didn’t say anything for a while, and I let him stew. Sometimes that worked. Finally he rubbed his face with his hands. “So tell me what I’ll be expected to do. Plow fields till the cows come home?”

My heart leapt despite his sarcasm. I smiled. “No cows, but we do have goats. And all the fields are enclosed in–well, they’re called walipinis, but they’re sort of half-sunken greenhouses. That way they survive the winters. We’ll probably be putting in our hours there. Think of it as gardening. Lots and lots of gardening.”

“I hate gardening.”

I took his hand again. “I know. Which is why I came in to steel you against the upcoming shock.” I heaved a sigh. “But some dirt underneath your fingernails is a pretty good price for safety and three square meals a day.”

“What’s our condo like?” he asked next, and it took me a moment to understand what he was asking.

“Oh. There are five lodges, and they all have about ten suites. Nothing elaborate, mind. Two bedrooms, a little sitting room, a bathroom.” I paused, and then added, “One of the bedrooms has bunk beds for four. So you and the boys can sleep there.”

He looked at me with a goofy grin that I’m sure he thought was saucy. “If you’re sure you want to be all alone.”

I gave him a flat look. “You’re doped up right now, so I’m giving you a pass. You sleep with the boys.”

Arthur nodded, eyes half-lidded: his patented “we’ll see about that” expression that I’d grown tired of years ago. But he agreed to the arrangement, and to the work requirements, and promised to behave himself, a few times over. The drugs were making him talkative even as he drifted towards sleep.

I squeezed his hand once more and left him to recover.

That night we were served a filling but simple meal: rice balls stuffed with beans, bok choy and other greens, and berry compote. The beds were simple but more comfortable than sleeping in the car was, and the rooms were climate controlled. As much as I wanted to relax into this relative luxury, a voice in the back of my head kept noting details that were off.

We had no visitors, not even through a window. I knew other subscribers from seminar weekends; did they not want to see me? Did they not know I had arrived? Were they even here?

The infirmary staff were distant, and deflected any questions about the refuge. Aubrey didn’t show her face a second time that night.

When I asked how long quarantine would last, the only response I got was “not long now.” An understatement: it didn’t even last 24 hours.

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