After this lovely introduction to Outworld, the other man turned and began making his way back into the forest, away from the clearing. I considered letting him leave, but he seemed to have a vague idea of where we were. That was more than I had. Ignoring the growls now coming from my stomach, I began hiking after him.
We proceeded a couple hundred feet before he turned to look back at me. His expression was unreadable, but he seemed to be waiting for me to get closer. I made my way to his side, trying to keep down my panting. The man moved surprisingly fast for his bulk and load of weapons.
“Do you mind if I accompany you?” I asked, once I had regained some semblance of breath. “Sorry to impose, but I don’t have any real idea where I’m going.”
“No one does,” the man scoffed, but there didn’t seem to be any malice behind the retort. “Yeah, try to keep up. I’ll take it a little easier, maybe try to explain this place a little.” I nodded, and thus began my first primer on Outworld.
The man introduced himself offhandedly as Cain. When I asked if it was his real name, he smiled humorlessly.
“First rule of Outworld,” he said, sticking up a stubby finger. “Whatever you were before here, it doesn’t matter. Not that anyone has a clue. None of us remember our past, or anything beyond this place. And knowing what I can do, I don’t think I want to remember,” he added, looking down at the ground. I wisely didn’t probe this topic.
“Us?” I asked instead. “Are there other people here?”
My newfound companion started to nod, changed it to a shake of his head, but ended with a shrug. “There’s a few,” he said. “Outworld turns you into a survivor pretty fast. I bet there were probably more out there at first, but most of them don’t survive the first encounter with the wildlife.” He winked sardonically at me, and I remembered the horror that had been disguised as a little girl.
“But there are some that manage to get by, fight them off,” he continued. “Take me. And a few of them have tried to settle down, make some sort of settlement, but those don’t often last too long. A Stomper comes wandering by, that’s the end of that.” I wondered what a Stomper was, but I was fairly sure I would be more distressed by the answer than by not knowing. “I come across newbies like you, occasionally. Most of the time, they’re already face down in the dirt, though.”
“Well, thank you for saving me,” I responded automatically.
He shrugged one shoulder. “Just delaying the inevitable,” he said. “This place gets everyone, eventually. ‘Outworld – where you’re already on the way out.’ But it does get lonely out here, with everything always being foreign. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone to talk to.”
He sounded uncomfortable about expressing so much sentiment. I decided that it was time to change the subject. “So, where did you get those?” I asked, gesturing to the rifle slung over his shoulder and the automatic strapped to his leg.
Cain ran a hand over the butt of his pistol. “Found them,” he replied. “Salvage. There’s a lot of that out here. Probably the best way to get your hands on things in Outworld, at least if you don’t want strings attached.”
I was about to inquire what he meant by salvage, but then I remembered the half of the sailing ship where I had first awoken. I mentally kicked myself for not searching the wreckage for a weapon. “Are they all boats?” I asked instead.
“Boats?” Cain glanced back at me, surprised.
“Yeah. I woke up on a boat. Well, half of a boat. An old sailing ship, I think.”
To my surprise, Cain chuckled. “Man, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” he commented, his voice taking on a Western drawl. “Eventually, everything ends up here in Outworld. Most of it I don’t remember until I’ve found it, but we get it all. In fact, you’ll see in just a few minutes for yourself.”
What? I looked at him, puzzled, but he merely nodded forward. I pulled my gaze up from the path to look ahead. I had become accustomed to the sight of the gigantic trees, stretching on endlessly into the gloom in all directions, but in front of us they seemed thinner, and rays of light were shining through. We were reaching the edge of the forest.
We climbed one last ridge, stepping around the large boulders sunk deep into the mossy peat, and the landscape opened up in front of me. At the ridge’s top, Cain paused, gazing forward expressionlessly. Hands on my knees and sucking in breaths of air, I blinked as I stared into the brightness, trying to understand.
On the far side of the ridge, the mossy earth gave way to sand, and rolling dunes stretched out towards the horizon. From where we stood, it looked almost like an ocean of sand, shimmering in the sunlight. Scattered among the dunes were the wrecks of dozens of ships of all sizes and types. Off to our right, I could see the stern of an aircraft carrier, rusting and half-buried in the sand. Atop another dune stood a lighthouse. It was listing alarmingly and the red barber-pole stripes painted on it were so faded as to be nearly indistinguishable, but the building was still unmistakable.
Beside me, Cain chuckled dryly. “Outworld,” he said simply. He waited a minute longer, and then began slowly descending into the dry ocean. I followed carefully, trying to keep my footing in the treacherous sand.