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Part 2


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Chapter 1 Part 2


    Garret watched as it fell back into the pool of blood, gasping and covering its throat, eyeing it warily until its head fell back and its chest stopped moving entirely. Only then did he look up, very aware of just how much noise the two of them had made, now that the immediate threat was dead. There was a faintly wild look in his eyes as he stumbled back into the corner, melting in with the heaped debris and the shadows, eyeing the halls warily, the soft sounds of the ruins, and the other's music, lost to the rasping of his breath and the thumping of his pulse in his ears.

    The entire encounter, from when he caught the thing's attention to the point where it was laying, gurgling and bleeding out on the dirty tile floor, had taken perhaps five seconds all told, but in his experience that was more than enough.

    But no one came.

    Slowly, the fear he felt receded, becoming a sort of sick dread which he forced down with the ease of long practice. Slowly, his ragged breathing softened, became steady, and his pulse slowed, his usual cold calculation smoothly covering the terrible emotions which has shown so clearly before. Slowly, he sifted out from behind the dry-rotted boards and rusted metal bands propped in the corner, the branches bound to his equipment and clothing brushing softly against the debris. He'd have to fix this hiding place some time; he couldn't afford to leave ambush-worthy spots like this scattered around, but there was no time for that now. There probably wouldn't be time for quite a while.

    He avoided looking at the once-man, and the pool of blood, black in the darkness, spreading around it. Dead, it's features had softened, and it looked more like an unchanged human than Garret liked to consider. He shook his head and buried that chain of thought. There wasn't much time before the rest woke up, and he had to fix this before he left, lest it lead them to his safehouse.

    Crude tricks like covering his old tracks in the dust, and laying a false trail through the blood bordered on overselling it, but he didn't have time for subtle, and it had worked before. It'd have to; there was no time and no place to dispose of the body, and no hiding a mess like that from the others anyways. They were too good at tracking to miss the blood or the signs of a cleanup.

    He stopped to set up one of his early warning sensors first though – if he was unlucky enough to have a good tracker examine his work, he didn't want it following the real tracks back to the device. Set back in the rubble piled up in the corner, it would probably go unnoticed unless someone looked for it.

    If he angled it right, it would let him know if anything was following his rout before they turned the corner, giving him plenty of time to hide, and it was close enough that he could pick it up on his way out in the morning without going too far out of his way.

    Cradling his spear in the crook of his arm, he held one of the motion sensors in one hand and drew a folded sheet of paper from his back pocket with the other. He squinted at the note in the darkness as he followed the instructions he'd written for himself, mostly using the pictures he'd drawn beside each step. A month ago, on one of his good days, he'd known exactly how this little device worked – he'd made it himself almost a year before from parts he'd scavenged around the ruins. Now it was all he could do to trust that it would work and to deploy it properly.

    Soon he knew he'd see no use for it at all.

    He set the tiny switches and dial to match the instructions, tucked the earbud from the radio on his belt into his ear, switched the comm on and waved his hand in front of the sensor. The speaker beeped a three-tone warning and he smiled with relief. [maybe introduce some superstition that things will go well if the tech works] At least something still worked.

    He stood and adjusted the cable running from his belt to his head so it wouldn't get in his way or pull the earbud free when he moved. He'd cut the speaker out of the hand comm for safety's sake, relying instead on the old-fashioned, cabled earbud. It was finicky, but he tended to prefer electronics that didn't need their own power sources these days. Keeping them all charged separately was becoming something of a nightmare.

    Once he was certain the sensor was hidden well enough, he set about the somewhat easier task of dealing with the body. He checked his boot, and stepped partially into the blood pooling beside the corpse with one foot, walking, then running back the way he had come until his tracks were no longer visible. It wasn't a great ploy, but it had worked before. With any luck, the first ones to find and follow the tracks would destroy any evidence he left behind, and the pheromone trails or cached signals or whatever they used to communicate would lead others in that direction.

    The body would be gone the next time he came here, – he didn't know what they did with them, or how they had always managed to find their dead, no matter how well he hid them, and he didn't want to.

    When his feet were dry, he continued for a few paces, taking care to step hard and scuff the often-crusted-on dust off the floor, before stepping lightly to the side and reaching into a small cloth pouch which dangled from his hip strap, beside his bag of tricks. It was filled with a mixture of dust and soot, gathered here and there in the ruins and from the homemade stoves in his safehouses, and he tossed it in the air over his new tracks as he walked back past his bloody bootprints, taking care to throw some low over the corner beside the motion sensor. The dust didn't hide the prints he'd left behind, but it did age them, and that would help.

    For a moment, he stopped and examined his handiwork, both the corpse and the revised tracks with a certain professional satisfaction, then he started toward the safehouse, walking backwards for a few paces, before turning lightly and resuming his usual, careful pace. It took several steps before the slight adrenalin high and anxiousness gave way to the weight of this place.

    He hated this part of the building. It wasn't dead the way the rest of it was, it hadn't given up. The past clung to the wires and nodes and rotten structures, and he was more than happy to avoid it when he could, unless he needed a shortcut or power. Not even the others could kill it, and they'd sure as hell tried.

    The walls looked dead here, killed along with the rest of the infrastructure, but now and then, some slow trickle of power tripped a node somewhere and they'd flicker on, dancing brokenly with error messages, gibberish color patterns, or images of whatever they'd been displaying when the attack hit so long ago. It always managed to surprise him, – though they hadn't activated since he slipped into the building – but that wasn't what he feared.

    An old helmet lay on the ground not far ahead. He didn't look at it.

    Scanner's Red! Masks! Masks! Masks!” someone shouted, jolting him violently to the side.

    The feral part of him took control momentarily, whirled to face the threat, but he knew better. There was nothing here but him.

    Steady now. It's not far. Not far. Not real. He repeated. Just an old recording. Though he didn't believe that for a minute.

    Garret gritted his teeth and forced himself to step forwards. And again. He hated this hallway. It was a bad place, full of old echoes. The campus was littered with places like this, places where he...

    Just stress. Stress and echoes. You're not insane yet. Keep walking.

    It started simple. Always did. Mixed in with the noise from outside and the other's music, he heard the faint echoes of long gone voices, screams and shouted orders and war songs, the shriek and patter of gunfire, and the static roar of explosions. Then it was gone. Then it got worse.

    There were shadows in some rooms that stood and moved like soldiers in full kit, tall and broad within the bulk of their armor, too fast and too big to be so silent, they weren't really there. He couldn't ignore them, – there were many kinds of threats in this place, – but he was smart enough to know there were some he couldn't do a thing about.

    He tried not to hear them, shook his head and told himself that sound travelled strangely in the ruins, the hard surfaces channeled it, and it was easy to ascribe meaning to broken noise. He told himself so as many times as it took. He didn't have time for this right now. There were too many other threats to deal with, without confronting shadows of the past.

    Ahead of him, the last sunset light, passing over distant trees, glimmered through the remains of the glass canopy in the roof of the foyer, refracting across the balcony of the second floor, and the demolished lobby below it, and he had to fight not to hurry towards it. The double doors to either side had been knocked down, the glass broken and the metal shredded, and the tiled floor had been crushed in long, straight swaths which matched the meter-deep grooves of treaded tracks dug into the forest floor outside.

    He kept walking, and somewhere, the old noises faded into new. The world outside was more active as the others awoke, but at least it was full of threats he could face. He began to breath easier as his world centered itself again. He could hear the other's phone on the other side, still faintly playing what was probably the very last copy of some song with too many drums.

    Garret stopped at the threshold, looking out into the woods to either side, trying to catch any movement in the narrow, overgrown paths as they faded into the gloom. He didn't see anything, but that didn't mean much.

    Still, it was the only way to the safe house, and lingering here was only going to get more dangerous, so, with one more quick look to the left and right, he stepped gingerly across the mossy broken tile and ducked into cover in the deeper darkness on the other side.

    Nothing moved out in the brush. Nothing moved ahead of him. And the motion sensor behind him said silently that nothing was following in his tracks. That was about as good as he could get.

    He stopped before the nearly-finished painting, just inside the hallway. It was familiar, two images jammed together, complete with carefully-painted file corruption. He read the text carefully, because it kept him sane, knowing that the symbols had meaning that went back... before. He couldn't have made up the meaning, so someone had taught him. And if he remembered that, if he'd learned that, then the rest of the bits and pieces he remembered had to be true as well. It was easy to doubt yourself when you were all alone, and Garret was very alone.

    His eyes scanned the bold text. 'The Union will never die.' Who knew where they still found usable paint.

    He looked down at the phone for a moment. Just a faintly glowing piece of glass. He raised his spear and drove the blunt end of the staff down onto it. There was a crunch, and the noise stopped.

    Garret made sure it was dead before he picked it up by one corner, and tossed it up into a gap in the ceiling tiles as he walked. If they didn't destroy a device, you didn't want it around.

    There were more sounds outside now, new ones – heavy crashes and distant, guttural voices, snarls and screams. The sounds of night activity which had lulled him to sleep for the last three years. Distances and sources were deceptive here, the sound echoed from the cement and the tile, sometimes traveling for hundreds of yards before attenuating. It was easy to feel like you'd been surrounded, that there were thousands of them out there in the forests.

    There weren't, but there were enough that their actual numbers made no difference, at least to him.

    He stopped a few doors before the end of the hallway and peered into the room to his right. It looked like all the others, just another ruined classroom, dusty, broken tables, pockmarked, flickering walls, barricades at the windows. But it was different. A room with power but without the past. This was the room where he'd set up a charging station, where he'd spliced into one of the few surviving parts of the building, tapping it for power like a tree for sap.

    The action that rolled through here had knocked the once-smart infrastructure back to the stone age, physically reducing most devices to slag, but some systems limped along under their own trickles of power, not usually enough to do anything worthwhile on their own, but they provided enough for him, where he managed to put them to use. In addition to controlling a great many things, he had close to a dozen such stations set up through his territory in the ruins, and though he lost a tremendous amount of power to the aging batteries and his own poorly-made, jury-rigged connections, they still provided just enough of a charge to run the motion sensors, and a small handful of other things. At least when they weren't being found and trashed by the others, that was.

    He hesitated for a moment. There wasn't enough of a charge in the sensor at the end of the hall to last all night, he knew, and even with all the batteries he had with him, he couldn't set up another sensor outside the safehouse door and keep the hand comm running all night long.

    The splice was right there, and it would only take a second to grab the batteries and leave some dead ones in their place. Once he'd done that, he could split them between the two remaining devices, in parallel with what there attached now. That would last the night and then some. Probably.

    He listened to the sounds in the building and the woods outside. There was plenty to hear.

    His safehouse was only a few feet away. He could see the old metal door, with its flaking paint and the sign that had read 'Janitor' before he switched it with the sign from a data closet, in the darkness at the end of the hall. After everything that had happened today, he'd still managed to make it this far, and he doubted that his luck was going to appreciate him stretching it any further.

    But he hadn't survived this long by focusing only on the immediate future either. Over the years he'd spent scavenging, he'd found the corpses of a few survivors sealed into locked rooms, killed not just by starvation or thirst, but by their own refusal to step foot outside until they were too sick or weak to do so.

    Garret shook his head in defeat. He'd already made his decision – he was just rationalizing it now.

    He needed the motion sensors to work all night long. He needed to know if something was approaching his room before it got close, needed time to rouse himself from sleep and to prepare himself for an attack. But most of all, he needed to make sure they didn't get within earshot while he slept. He slept lightly, always had, but he still, sometimes, dreamed of a reality worse than this, and the thought of talking while he slept, of giving himself away without realizing it, was a fear which had plagued him for a long, long time.

    Garret survived by small routines, techniques he'd worked out over the last few years, for almost every situation, especially familiar things like working in a room with one exit. Not too different from training, he supposed, except that he'd had to figure it out for himself. He set his other two sensors from memory, unable to read his notes in the darkness, tested them, and positioned them so they covered both approaches.

    He put his back to the wall beside the door as soon as he was inside, eyes searching the silhouettes of the furniture and debris in what little, purple-gray evening light made it though the boarded-up windows. There weren't many hiding places in this room – most of the furniture had been either smashed or converted to barricades years ago, and what remained, he'd adjusted until that there were only a few hiding places available, all of which he knew about. He checked those, walking softly, keeping the serrated blade of his spear moving, sweeping towards all the spots he hadn't checked yet, though he was just as ready to jab or check with the staff itself, should something manage to surprise him.

    The room was empty. He breathed a little easier once he was sure, but he'd checked every space, even the ones which were too small for anything but a child, and he was certain. He walked along the workbench which spanned the back wall, under the window, counted five cabinets from the right side, and pulled out the drawer above it until he could unlatch the catch and remove it from its rails entirely. The little bundle of batteries and the charging cable were tied to an eye loop on the back.

    Garret removed a glove and dragged a finger down the screen on one of the batteries, and a dim bar appeared, glowing a faint yellow, showing about half capacity and a warning that the battery was damaged or otherwise under-preforming. He smiled with relief in the darkness. Half was as full as they ever got on the trickle of power from the solglass, and they seldom lasted as long as that much of a charge should have been able to.

    Scanning the room out of habit, he unslung his backpack, adjusting the earbud wire so he could still hear the sensors, and rummaged though the second pouch for the nearly-dead bundle of batteries he had been saving for recharge for the last few days.

    He'd just found the smooth, squarish shape in the pack when a crunch of footsteps outside the windows, closer than any of the others, froze him in his place. He looked up, wary fear in his eyes as he watched the silhouette of the other through the gaps and cracks in the boarded windows. The sound of small rocks shifting underfoot echoed loudly in the dark room as it trudged along the stone drip-line of the roof, where the brush was thinner. It was carrying a service rifle – that was less common in here. Union weapons were notoriously finicky, so the remaining ones were usually issued out on the 'front,' but they always kept a few guards around.

    Very slowly, Garret withdrew his hand from his pack, wrapping his fingers around the spear staff as he shifted his weight, ready to move in an instant, either to attack or to escape. His eyes searched the barricade for gaps and breaks, for any place he could strike though if the changed-man should sense him and raise the alarm, but, at the same time, he took a quick inventory, carefully considering every step, from closing and donning his backpack, to possibly replacing the drawer and scooping up the motion sensors, that he would have to do if he chose to flee.

    But the shadow trudged on, following the wall until it was out of sight. From the distance, he heard it whistle a half-forgotten tune. It reminded him unpleasantly of the bad places further back.

    Garret waited, frozen for a heartbeat, until he was sure it wasn't going to double back, and then he bolted into movement, rushing through the process of switching the batteries, replacing the drawer, and stepping away from the windows. As he went, he scooped a handful of dust and ash from the small bag and threw it low in the air over where he knew his tracks would be.

    The motion sensors were still silent, but he checked the hallway carefully just the same, peering out into the deeper darkness and letting his eyes adjust, spear held ready in his grip. Nothing moved, so he stooped, gathered his sensors, and started walking.

    He had to fight himself to keep from rushing through the last, short stretch of the hallway. In his mind, he kept seeing one of the others turning the corner up ahead, stopping between him and his safehouse before calling its brethren to swarm him and drag him away.

    But none appeared.

    He stopped at the corner, leaned out and peered into the east wing. Garret never ventured into there. Like the rooms further back, it was a Bad Place, only bigger and worse. The once-men tended to gravitate towards the echoes, and any place they wanted to go was somewhere he wanted to avoid.

    He watched for a moment, to be sure they wouldn't see him through the narrow windows in the doors, then fumblingly attached the charged batteries to one of the motion sensors.

    It wasn't easy. The battery packs were fastened with two loops made from zip ties, and the wires from the sensors were held to the battery contacts with tape, and keeping track of them all in the darkness, as he tried to get everything positioned properly, was difficult.

    He kept looking up as he worked, listening to the noises outside, to the sounds of the hunting packs, the snarls, the screams, the crashing in the trees and brush, the smash and creak of the ancient barricades being torn from the older ruins. It hammered on him from all sides, prickling his back with sweat and making his hands tremble as he worked.

    He had just gotten the battery hooked through the loops, and the first wire fastened when he felt it approaching. His stomach churned, and his head spun. Faintly, he heard the first weak hiss of static in both ears.

    No no no no! Not now! Not now!

    His hands shook as his mind fought for control, but he managed to find his hat before the motion could give him away. He'd ripped the mesh from the walls of a secure lab years ago, and stitched it inside the knit watch cap; it scratched something fierce, but with his armor already lined with the stuff, his head was the only part left unprotected.

    He pulled it down low, almost over his eyes, and covered his lower face with his gloved hands, hunkering down into the darkness as the other strode into the foyer. It was further away than he'd thought. It was either stronger than normal, or too clever for his liking.

    He watched through his fingers, fighting the sick feelings, and struggling to pull his thoughts back into something coherent, something sane, as it walk across the broken floor.

    It had that DIY-cyborg-monstrosity look he'd grown to hate and fear – electrical components, boards and glossy, nobby capacitors sprouted thick from its scalp and neck like fungus, and dipole antenna wires and data cables hung tangled with its greasy strands of hair, vanishing into its uniform.

    It moved confidently, not like a Leader, but it knew it was important. It knew what it could do. When it was halfway across, it stopped and looked to either side.

    Its eyes were lost in the darkness, but he could feel it looking right at him.

    Then it turned and checked the other hall, and walked the rest of the way out the front door of the building.

    Garret rocked back on his heels, his back resting against the wall, and drew in a ragged breath. He hadn't realized he'd been holding it. The same dread he'd felt before tried to return, as he realized just how badly that could have gone, but it was overpowered by the aftereffects.

    He waited until he was more or less himself and pulled the hat off his head. If there was a nice part of winter, it was that the damn cold meant he     could wear the thing without sweating and itching all the time, and wouldn't have to deal with these headaches. He almost smiled at that, then he gritted his teeth, and forced himself to focus on the sensor. He was almost through this.

    He managed the last wire in short order, and tested the sensor with a wave of his hand. A three-tone beep pattern, different than the first one, sounded in his ear and he breathed a sigh of relief.

    More than any item he carried, the ring of keys he carried marked the sum total of his work for the last three years. A tiny network of hidden dens, hoards of supplies, tools, clothing, food, water, weapons – enough to live on for perhaps a full month if he stopped searching today. He leafed through the keys, recognizing each by feel.

    His fingers worked across the sharp edges of the homemade sheet-metal cutouts, each crafted through trial and error, ran over the smooth forms of smart keys, the hard ridges of near-identical campus master keys and a smattering of uneven house keys and flat, stamped locker keys. Three long years of endless work, amassing access and territory, carving out little pieces of this changed world.

    He found the one he wanted, one of the many identical ones made by the school, the grip wrapped in denim to keep it from jangling against its fellows.

    The rattle of the tumblers riding up over the key's teeth sounded terribly loud to his ears. He swore he could feel it all the way up in his teeth, but he just braced himself, took one last look down the hallway, and turned the key.

    The bolt clacked open and he stepped back, pushing the handle down with one hand before snapping it back to brace his spear, levelling it at the door as the panel swung open on greased hinges.


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