Homunculus: Chapter 20: Fire

“Here you go,” Liz said, holding a pair of sticks in front of her.

“What are those for?” Douglas asked.

“So you can start the campfire. It’s going to be dark soon.”

Douglas hesitantly took the sticks and looked at them. “I’m pretty sure the whole rub-two-sticks-to-make-fire thing is an urban legend.”

“An urban legend,” Liz said doubtfully.

“Right. Urban. People in cities. People who have never actually tried to do this and seen what a ridiculous idea it is.”

“Come on, man up. Cavemen did it, I’m pretty sure you can figure it out.”

“Actually,” Douglas continued as he crouched in front of the pile of kindling, “I think cavemen used flint for this. And even then, they’re all dead now, so look where that got them.”

“Don’t start whining now,” Liz teased, “Mr. Authentic Camping Experience.”

“All I asked,” Douglas replied, feeling the sticks and finding that the friction had barely even started to warm them, “was what kind of campsite has a functioning toilet and sink in its outhouse.”

“Yet I don’t see you going into the woods.”

“Well, if someone bothered to run plumbing all the way out here, it would be rude of me not to make use of it.”

Douglas frowned at the lack of progress he was making. Merely rubbing the sticks against each other clearly wasn’t going to do it. There had to be some kind of particular technique that he was supposed to use but clearly didn’t know.

“Trade?” Liz asked, standing behind him.

Douglas turned around. Now she was offering him a lighter.

“Why didn’t you tell me you had a lighter?” Douglas asked, swapping his sticks for her lighter.

“Because I wanted to see if you could actually do it. And,” she smiled, “it was kind of funny watching you struggle with it.”

“Ha ha,” Douglas replied. “There, we have fire, and just in time, too.” The sun had long since disappeared behind the treeline surrounding the clearing, and the sky towards the west was steadily turning a darker shade of red. He sat down on one of the logs arrayed around the growing fire.

“Excellent,” Liz said, dropping a bag of marshmallows and a longer stick in his lab as she sat down next to him. “I upgraded your stick, by the way. I figured you might not want to get your hand too close to the fire, unless you want to find out how good I am at treating first-degree burns. Spoiler alert: probably not very.”

Douglas held the new stick in his hands, twisting it slowly.

“Don’t tell me I need to tell you how this is supposed to work too,” Liz said.

“Sticking food on a stick you found in the woods doesn’t seem particularly… sanitary.”

“You’re sticking it in a fire. Anything crawling around on it isn’t going to last long.”

“What about dirt? You can’t kill dirt. It’s not alive in the first place.”

“So don’t drop the stick, then. It’s clean, trust me, I snapped it off the tree myself. Besides, Mr. A. C. Experience, toasting marshmallows over the campfire is a mandatory part of camping.”

Douglas pulled a pair of marshmallows out of the bag and handed it to Liz. He skewered them on the stick and held it out above the fire, where they were soon joined by Liz’s.

“So what else do we do with the fire, Miss Camping Expert?” he asked.

“That’s Ms. Camping Expert to you,” Liz said, lightly punching him in the shoulder. “Looks like there isn’t going to be a moon tonight, so I guess the thing to do would be to tell each other scary stories. I’m not sure what kind of scary stories security professions know, though.”

“You probably have good reason to be afraid.”

“Come on, do your worst.”

Douglas thought for a moment, twisting the stick to brown — or rather, blacken, at this point — his marshmallows evenly. “OK, there once was a web server driving through the woods late at night. Suddenly, he came across a shadowy figure standing by the road. The web server slammed on the brakes. The figure approached him. ‘SYN,’ the figure said, ‘my name is 49.135.27.58. My car broke down; could you give me a lift to my home network? It’s just up ahead.’ The web server replied, ‘SYN ACK, of course I can, just get in the back seat.’ The figure climbed in, and the two drove on in silence for half an hour before the car arrived at its destination. The web server turned around to tell the guest they had arrived, but he was gone, without so much as an ACK or RST. Curious, the web server got out of the car and found an inn that still had its lights on. The server asked the innkeeper if he had ever heard of someone named 49.135.27.58. ’49.135.27.58?’ the innkeeper replied, ‘there’s no one here by that name. Never has been.’ ‘How can you be so sure?’ the server asked. ‘Because,’ the innkeeper replied, ‘IANA has never allocated the 49.0.0.0/8 prefix!’”

Liz stared at him blankly, chewing on a marshmallow. “So, it was a ghost?”

“It was a spoofed packet!” Douglas declared, drawing out the “oo” sound in a spooky a voice as he could manage.

Liz continued staring.

“You see, because the SYN packet was using 49.135.27.58 as a fake source address, the server thought–”

“Douglas?” Liz interrupted.

“Yes?”

“I think I did the right thing pulling you away from work for a few days.”

“Ah,” Douglas said.

Douglas pulled the stick in towards him. The marshmallows, or at least the parts that hadn’t yet melted off and fallen into the fire, had long since passed the “salvageable” phase and were well on their way to “charcoal”. He tossed the stick, marshmallow remnants and all, into the fire to let it finish the job.

Liz leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder. He took his arm and put it around her, pulling her a little closer to him.

“Liz?” he said.

“Yes?”

“Thanks for dragging me out here today.”

“Any time.”

They stayed like that for a while, staring into the fire and listening to the sounds of the insects and wildlife in the forest around them. The stars shone above them on the moonless night. When Douglas looked up, he saw hundreds of times as many stars as he was used to. Out here, away from civilization, the only thing to hide them in the night sky was the light of the dying fire in front of them.

Liz yawned.

“Sorry if this isn’t exciting enough for you,” Douglas joked.

He felt Liz shake her head. “I’m exhausted. Doing all that hiking this afternoon maybe wasn’t such a good idea. I’m going to be all stiff and sore in the morning.”

“Do you want to go to bed? Or, um, sleeping bags, I guess?”

Liz yawned again. “That sounds like a good idea.”

“OK, you go on ahead. I’ll take the first watch.”

Liz nodded, got up, and took a few steps towards the tent before she stopped and turned around. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I said I’ll take first watch. Don’t worry about it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” Douglas said, pointing towards the tent, “it’s not like that’s going to give us any protection if someone or something comes and attacks us during the night. Someone has to stay up and stand guard.”

“It’s a campsite.”

“Surrounded by who knows what living in the woods.”

“It’s not dangerous. Cub scouts camp around here all the time, and you never hear of anything happening to them.”

“Bear attacks aren’t really the kind of thing the campsite’s website would be advertising.”

“There aren’t even bears in this state!”

“None that you know of, at least. Besides, it’s not just bears. What if someone drives up and robs us while we’re asleep?”

“Do you really think someone is going to drive out here in the middle of the night and steal… what, exactly?”

“It could happen.”

“Do you want me to park the car on the road to block it?”

“It’s really more of a pair of wheel ruts than a road. And yeah, it might help slow anyone coming up on it down.”

Liz slowly shook her head in disbelief. “You know, I really thought bringing you out here would… that maybe getting a little fresh air… I don’t know, I guess I thought you’d stop being so paranoid.”

“I’m not being paranoid,” Douglas said. He was in a completely unknown threat environment. He had to assume the worst. Otherwise…. “If something happened to you while we were out here, I’d feel responsible.”

“I’m a big girl. I don’t need you to protect me. I can take care of myself.”

“That doesn’t change the way I feel.”

“Good night, Douglas.” Liz vanished behind the door to the tent. Douglas heard it zip shut behind her.

Douglas turned to watch what was left of the fire as it started to burn itself out. Defeat from the jaws of victory, Douglas thought to himself. Was he just being paranoid. It was a very real possibility. For his adult life, he worked to protect people who, quite frankly, did have the rest of the world out to get them; Medimetics was no different. But that kind of thinking had a way of seeping down into one’s brain and coloring everything.

Trust no one. It was an easy aphorism to say, but difficult to apply, and not just because you couldn’t get through life truly trusting nobody. But it also meant that you also couldn’t trust yourself. You always had to consider that you yourself were wrong, that sometimes even your gut instinct would lead you astray. You needed to have some kind of external sanity check to be able to notice when you were starting to veer a little too far off course.

Douglas was hoping that Liz could be that for him.

Liz was normal. At least, as normal as a person could be. Normal was, by definition, average. It was a statistical construct, what you get when you add everyone up and divide by n. No one was truly normal, but at least Liz was normal enough in the ways that mattered, especially to himself. Normal people blundered through life underestimating the real threats they faced, but someone like that could help him tell when he overshot the other way. Someone like Liz.

Douglas groaned. Like she had just tried to do, and that he had dismissed her for. He needed to trust her judgment more.

The fire was down to its last embers. Douglas got up and walked slowly over to the end. He listened for the sounds of movement coming from inside, and did his best to knock at the shut tent flaps before entering. Inside, in the meager amount of light from the fire and the night sky, he could see a silhouette of Liz in her sleeping bag. He sat down on the bag next to it.

“Liz?” he whispered. “Are you awake?”

Liz didn’t say anything, but Douglas thought he saw her move slightly. It was hard to tell.

“Well, if you are awake, I’m… I’m sorry.”

“Douglas?” she mumbled.

“Yes?”

“Go to sleep.”

He did.


Chapter word count: 1,891 (+224)
Total word count: 35,419 / 50,000 (70.838%)

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