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Part 1


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Chapter 0


    They had a chess board resting crookedly across a dining hall table, in amongst the saplings and the tall grass, though only a handful of the pieces on it had come from that game. 

    That wasn’t a problem, for chess wasn’t their game. No, theirs was much more difficult. It was quick and complex, so complex that an observer, perhaps one in that peculiar state of shock, where one notices such things when they should be running for their life, would think it to be purely random. But it wasn’t. Too complex for a human player, perhaps, but then, that wasn't a problem.

    They were an odd pair, the men sitting at the table, thriving on the complexity. The first sat backwards on an aluminum chair from the cafeteria, with his arms draped across the back. He wore a threadbare suit, though the pinstripes on the pants didn’t match the ones on the jacket, and the bulk of armor beneath it fit better with his weathered combat boots. He smiled as he lifted a salt shaker and toppled a pile of milscrip chits.
    The other man wore a uniform, or rather, parts of three different ones, from both sides of the war, all scavenged from the mud, though they were clean now. He sat atop the chest of a shredded armor frame lying half-buried and gathering moss on the floor of the small clearing. He collected the chits, redistributed them, and moved a plastic toy soldier back a space.

    There was a slight sound in the brush, a specific sound, and they both smiled. Another of their games had just resumed.

    “Right on time.” said the man in the suit.

    The man who slunk silently out of the brush looked half dead. He was clearly exhausted and didn't see them for a minute, for the pair was sitting in the shadows, and the clearing was bright with the afternoon light.

    He didn’t look like them. Physically, – and that was certainly part of it – he was scraggly, lean to the point of starvation, garbed in ragged and patched clothing which hid the armor that helped to hide him. But it was more than that. There was something in the way he moved, something in his eyes that made him look haunted, almost feral. As he walked, he leaned tiredly on the crude spear he carried; a rough wooden staff with a steak knife blade, painted black to hide the reflection.

    Then he saw them.

    A split second of shock ran across his face, as he fumblingly pulled an old knit watch cap over his head and seemed to... fade from what they called their vision. Then resignation surfaced in his expression, as he got a better look at them... at their game. His shoulders slumped and he rolled his head in a wordless, almost theatrical expression of 'Oh not this again...'

    Then he ran. As fast as he could, all hurts and thoughts of rest forgotten.
    The man in the uniform smiled. “Not much for conversation, that one.”

    “Too true. Not like some of them.” He watched the swaying brush where the man had bolted, for a moment. “They all cope with going insane differently, I suppose.”

    They'd give him a few minutes head start, before they resumed the chase. This one was difficult, a thorn in the Movement's side for a long time, but the challenge was what made it interesting. They always caught them, in the end, and they'd learned to savor the excitement. There were precious few left to chase these days.



Chapter 1 Part 1: A Night in the Ruins


    Garret stepped carefully in the darkness, glass crunching softly beneath his duct-taped boots. It was always dark in here, the remains of the barricades at the windows, and the sapling forest outside saw to that, but the sun had just sunk below the treetops, and the perpetual gloom inside the building had deepened until he could barely see the uneven ground beneath his feet.

    He never spoke aloud, but he cursed his luck, his mistakes, and the coming darkness just the same. His life was hard enough while the others pretended they were normal; if they found him now, after the sun had set and they'd dropped the act...

    He'd seen what they did to 'deserters.' The fear of those corrections colored his entire life, such as it was here.

    It had been three years since he awoke to this hell, and he was as canny a survivor of it as there had ever been – the only one left, so far as he knew, and if there was one thing he'd learned, it was to stay hidden at night.

    He scanned the hall. It wasn't far now. He could still make it if he hurried.

    Here and there, the last few rays of orange light reached through the leaves and boards and into the dusty blackness to flicker against the rubble, thinly illuminating the classrooms and hallways to either side of him. He checked each room as he passed, peering into them from the deeper gloom of the main hallway, eyes scanning warily, but never long enough for his night-vision to fade in the faint light.

    He was alone, though he'd lost time to the backtracking and false trails he'd had to leave after they found him.

    The floor of the hall was covered in uneven heaps of loose concrete and sheetrock, broken furniture, and the ever-prevalent shards of glass, but he traversed it with a practiced, careful stride, bearing his heavy backpack, equipment, armor, and spear almost silently in the growing dark.

    He cut a strange figure, he knew, but years of living alone in this place had a way of aligning one's priorities, and every habit he'd formed, every trick he'd learned, and every piece of equipment he carried had been earned and proven through painful experience.

    He just hoped he wouldn't need them to survive tonight.

    When the light fell across him, it caught a tall and lanky form, thin to the point of emaciation, wreathed with a simple camouflage of leafy sapling branches and festooned with weapons, armor, and cables. His ragged sweatshirt and jeans, both stained an almost colorless brown with mud and soot, covered the crude armor he'd made from overlapping strips and sheets of what looked like thick, stiff felt cloth, colored in a blue and white camouflage pattern, but which was actually much, much stronger. The knuckles of his mismatched work gloves were armored with sheet-metal plates and the tops of his crumbling, tape-mended hiking boots were reinforced from the inside, the metal poking up through cracks in the rough leather.

    What was visible of his face in the darkness, framed by the long greasy strands of his black hair and beard, was marred by vertical claw marks and cold, calculating eyes. And in his hands he held the five-and-a-half-foot spear he had carried every day of what had become his new life.

    Sometimes, if he moved just right, the dying light glimmered across one of the old-fashioned solar plates strapped to his backpack, nested in the tangle of wires he'd used to connect them to the batteries, and the radio he'd taken from an abandoned CDF truck. He hadn't heard voices over it for years, but early on, on one of his good days, when he could call upon some of his older skills, he'd managed to tie it into an early warning system crafted from dead parts scavenged in the ruins. It had saved his life enough times to justify the work he had to do to keep the various parts charged, though the extra risks which came with doing so sometimes made him wonder.

    Something Garret couldn't quite name caught his attention then, breaking him from his thoughts. He looked down expectantly, nodded to himself in a self-satisfied sort of way, and stepped a little further than usual, lifting his feet a little higher off the ground. There were tripwires stretched through the ruins in many places, hidden amongst the crushed, loose cement and the broken furniture, and he looked thoughtfully at the length of knotted string and strands of wire for a brief moment, before moving on.

    His ability to spot their traps was getting better. He decided. That was a bad sign. There was no denying that he was good at it, years of constantly watching for tripwires, pungi sticks, pitfalls, and all manner of other traps had sharpened his instincts and taught him to recognize the signs, but something, ever so subtly, had changed. His understanding of where the traps would be was slowly moving past what could be accomplished with a careful eye and good instincts. He knew where the others would set them, or at least he was starting to. And that worried him.

    There was something inhuman in the others' thought processes, a strange sort of logic which swerved and melted around the unchanged survivors' attempts to catalog and anchor and predict it. But there were times, when his bad days began, when he got close to understanding them.

    Garret froze suddenly, eyes alert as he sank into the deeper shadows of the rubble, settling until he looked like a part of it, every sense straining to find the source of a sound so faint it had brushed the outer range of his hearing. The campus was full of distant sounds, but something about this one worried him.

    A cold fear swept through him as he waited, sweat prickling his skin despite the chill, late-summer air. He watched the doorways around him, listening in the stillness over the pounding of his pulse in his ears, searching for even a single clue that they had found him.

    Praying all the while that they hadn't.

    God damn, he was tired.

    The regular patrols were bad enough, and he could deal with the erratic, sometimes friendly, sometimes violently hostile behavior the rank and file displayed, but this... he hated this.

    They'd sent specialists after him before, whenever he made enough of a nuisance of himself, whenever supplies got scarce or the area became crowded, and he'd always dealt with them, but these two were different.

    For someone who survived by always staying two steps ahead, by always having a trick or a plan, or a place to hide, they were terrifying.

    A minute crept by.

    Getting paranoid. He thought with a faint, bitter smirk. They didn't bother sneaking around; they'd wait for him to come to them.

    He leaned on his spear and pushed himself to his feet, tired muscles and a long-gone injury making the movements difficult, and for a moment, he looked much older than he was.

    He heard the noise a few more times as he walked, mixed in with the blanket of sounds that came with the new growth forest outside, and its many, varied inhabitants. It was coming from up ahead, further into the building, and he approached it carefully. Part of him wanted to simply leave it be, but he didn't have any other safehouses nearby, and going outside so late was dangerous. The patrols wouldn't come inside his buildings until they had the numbers to overwhelm any Federal ambush, and they had to wait for more of their brethren to snap out of their dormancy before they'd be any use, but there was no doubt they'd be active out there this late in the day.

    He could see the old double doors now, where this wing of the building met the main structure. The portals hung open, one crookedly, where the bottom hinges had been snapped. The remains of the barricades were still screwed and welded to the metal panels. He eased past the closest one and stepped into the deeper gloom of the last stretch of the hall between the doors and the corner. As he crept forward, he found himself checking the long, dark hallway behind him, silently reassuring himself that any remaining threats lay ahead of him, not behind.

    The noise was louder now. Recognizable. Faint, distant music, still barely audible.

    Garret pressed himself up against the smooth concrete-block wall. The other hall came into view a little at a time as he peered around the corner, his eyes scanning the broken doors, the concrete, and the rubble, before reaching the open space of the foyer, where the afternoon light glitzed through the shattered glass of the second-floor skylights. His eyes worked their way down. There, in the shadows where the sun had already set, he saw it.

    He examined it carefully and glowered. It had line of sight on the door to his safehouse.

    It wasn't on patrol – it wasn't even armed, as far as he could see – in fact, it appeared to be painting something on the wall with a roller and brush. Old-war propaganda, probably. One of the six or so images their inflexible, per-arranged minds brokenly repeated. Chances were, he could walk right past it and it wouldn't pay him any mind.

    But it would see where he went. And it would remember.

    Night wasn't far. They wouldn't be dormant much longer.

    Garret avoided combat where he could. He'd learned long ago that real fights were brutal, uncoordinated, and won by the combatant who cared more about hurting their opponent than their own preservation. The starved, alone survivor, whose entire purpose had slowly been stripped down to living through the next week, or hour, or minute, didn't fit into that. Not against the others' training, their vicious speed and strength, and their numbers.

    But where other people had been killed, or taken, he'd gotten smart. When hiding and running weren't enough, he'd killed, he'd experimented, and he'd learned how to fight back. After three years, he wasn't without tricks, or his own wells of strength. And to those who wandered into his territory alone and unarmed, he was exactly the kind of threat they'd hunted him like long ago.

    Garret leaned back around the corner; said a prayer he didn't believe was heard.

    There was a pouch fastened to the right hip strap of his backpack, full of little things that he used to survive, nasty little tricks and traps he'd made and tested over the years. Most of them were situational at best, but several of them had potential here, could even mean the difference between success and death, but as he took inventory of them, he noticed a rough chunk of cement laying on the tiled floor not far from his feet, blown or kicked there from one of holes knocked through the wall further back.

    And he smiled. Sometimes the old tricks worked best.

    He picked it up with one hand and set it quietly down between himself and the corner of the hallway, watching the other carefully as he did so.

***

    The other was technically dormant, but that was more of a spectrum than a binary switch. During the night, he fought with his comrades, ranging out and staging attacks against the invaders, sabotaging infrastructure, recruiting from the civilian population. During the day, he played the role of a citizen under the occupation, he acted as normal as he could while running on autopilot, a sort of waking sleep.

    Business hours had almost ended, though. He was becoming more alert, watching for opportunities, targets, threats. Enemies. Just like he was supposed to. He'd meet with his squad as soon as he finished this painting. One of thousands he'd made over the years.

    He turned when he sensed something in the distant darkness.

    “Well, well. We have a volunteer.” he said, recognizing the man. Then he charged.


***

    Garret scrambled across the hall as if he'd just spotted the other, leaving just enough time for his knee to 'give out' so he could clamber back to his feet. He caught a glimpse of the changed man as he started to run, moving with a fluid grace and speed which surprised the survivor even after all this time.

    It. he corrected himself firmly. Some faint analytical part of his mind smirked at old habits. Dehumanizing the enemy. Not so difficult, in this situation, perhaps, though he wondered where he'd learned to do that.

    He made as if he was going to run down the hallway, but put his back to the wall as soon as he was out of view.

    Hidden there, he had to strain to hear its approach, for it's footfalls were terribly soft, despite the inhuman speed with which it moved.

    He tightened his grip on his spear.

    He had scant seconds before it reached him.

    Garret managed to take two calm breaths before the sounds told him it was time, and he made his move. With one smooth motion, he kicked the cement block out across the floor in front of the creature, stepped, pivoted, and swung the spear staff as hard as he could at what he knew would be its head level.

    And it worked. Thank god it worked.

    Despite it's excitement, the changed man was still transitioning from its dormant state, and, just for a moment, it turned its head reflexively to follow the cement block as it skittered across the floor, just as the survivor leveled the two-inch-thick oak staff at a point some two feet behind the creature's head, three hard years worth of muscle, fear, desperation, and no small amount of anger driving the blow.

    The crack of wood against bone resonated through the ruined halls, and the creature bucked up off the ground as its momentum reversed itself, it's feet kicking up as it flipped onto its back.

    It landed with a dull thud that likely drove the air from its lungs.

    Blood streamed from the changed man's nose and mouth and left eye, but it wasn't dead, and it wasn't unconscious. It would only be down for a short moment, and Garret made the most of that time while he had it.

    He stepped closer as it rolled onto its side and tried to push itself up with one arm. The survivor kicked it down with the heel of his boot, reversed his spear, and slashed the thin metal blade through its throat, using his leverage to saw through everything he could.

    It took a substantial amount of damage to keep them down, but between the bleeding and the drowning, Garret was pretty sure this would be enough.

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