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Part 3


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Chapter 2: Routines


    Even in the darkness of the hallway, the safehouse doorway managed to look ominous. He braced himself for an attack, ready to face down whatever threat presented itself.

    The door stopped moving. Nothing sprang out, there was no cry of triumph or rage, nothing at all. But he didn't move. He just listened, eyes probing the darkness warily.

    Idiot. He cursed himself. He knew what safehouses looked like after they'd been found, and this wasn't it. But that wasn't enough. He had to be sure. As far as he was concerned, no room would ever be safe again until he'd checked it himself.

    He took one final look down the hall, drew the ragged-bladed knife he kept on his belt, and stepped into the darkness, closing the door with a snap, behind himself. A thick smell filled his nostrils as he breathed in the unventilated air, cringing at the concentration of his own, musty unwashed scent, mixed with mildew and sweat, urine, and wood smoke, and even a little long-gone food. He'd get used to it.

    As quietly as he could, Garret set his spear against one of the walls. In close quarters, blinded as he was by the darkness, the nearly-six foot staff would be almost entirely useless, and he'd had the bad experiences to prove it. Of course, a knife wouldn't be much better against one of them, he thought as he stepped forward but at least it was something.

    As he walked, his foot fell on something soft. He hesitated for an instance, but he knew what it was. The old towel he used to cover the large gap at the bottom of the door, right where it was supposed to be. He paused and kicked it back against the panel, before reaching up to the strap of his backpack, where he unhooked the little flashlight which dangled there. Clutching it with one sweating hand, he slid the switch forward and cast a sharp, white light into the little room.

    The light seared his eyes after so long in the darkness, but all he could do was to hope that any of phantom threat sharing the room with him would be as stunned as he was. It only took a moment for his eyes to adjust, but it felt far longer. Slowly, the cluttered interior of the safehouse came into focus.

    It was empty.

    He took a breath, then moved quickly on. Lists of tasks were already running through his mind and he set about completing them.

    The door wasn't really sealed yet, and he couldn't afford to give himself away, not now. Just the same, he took a moment to check the narrow room thoroughly, more to show himself that he was safe than anything else.

    Then he turned off the light.

    Garret hated not being able to see his surroundings, hated being trapped with all the horrors his imagination could concoct, but he fought it back as he reached clumsily out and caught the heavy wood plank he'd rigged as a makeshift deadbolt. Part of his mind screamed at him to turn the light back on, but he trusted in all his senses, especially on bad days like this one, and the sounds and smells told him that the room was empty, told him he was alone, even if he couldn't bring himself to trust the memory of a moment before.

    He swung the board down until it was cradled between the frame and the brackets he'd mounted on the inside of the door itself. The key he'd used couldn't unlock it permanently, it just locked again as soon as it shut, which suited him just fine, but he would never trust his life to it entirely, not if he could break in, as he had before he had a key. If they picked the lock, he wanted something standing between them and himself while he slept.

    When the door was as secured as he could get it, he pulled his gloves off and felt his way to the top of the frame, where a thick blanket was rolled tightly and tied with twine. With fumbling hands, he worked the knots loose, pulling the blanket down and hooking the loops tied along its edges to the screws and nails hammered into the cement beside the door frame.

    There was a slight sound in the room with him; a tiny tap, like a drop of water falling from the ceiling, or a tick of the building shifting on its rotten walls. He knew there weren't any others in the safehouse, but it made no difference. He whirled as soon as the blanket was down, the knife spinning through his fingers until he was holding it readily, the bright glare of the flashlight casting the room into sharp shadows again.

    Garret breathed out slowly, almost embarrassedly, when his eyes had adjusted again. He busied himself with inspecting the covered door, taking care to keep the light pointed away from the blanket and towels. Then he crossed to the workbench, sheathed his knife, and carefully lit the crude stump of a homemade candle using the lighter in his pocket.

    The yellow glow was easier on his eyes than the white light, and the narrow room took on a sinister, familiar look in the flickering light of the smoking candle. It was a ragged, dirty looking place, his little den; the walls and concrete ceiling were covered in a leprous patchwork of aged and dirty papers; wires and cords ran hither and yon in a tangled, suspended network, each with a specific purpose, – often tied into the building's remaining systems – and every flat surface, from the adjustable, sheet metal shelves to the wide workbench, were covered by the thousands of relics of his last three years, like the detritus of the forest floor outside. Tools, provisions, and half-finished projects were scattered and mixed indistinguishably with trash and raw materials. Wires, rope, and clothing hung from the towering shelves like moss and vines, nearly obscuring the contents of every shelf but the bottom one in the back, where a neatly-folded pile of blankets and sheets served as a bed, raised on wooden planks to avoid the occasional flood of rainwater through the building.

    Garret looked over it all for a moment, from the chipped and rusting enameled sink to the char-crusted homemade stove, to the cluttered workbench, and he did something he hadn't done in days. He smiled, and there was no cruelty or bitterness in the look. The room would have appalled him years ago, he knew, but he felt safe behind these thick walls and barricades now, surrounded by his cameras and sensors and even the occasional trap of his own. He inhaled deeply, taking in the waxy smell of the candle as it mixed with the thick scent of his own permeating stink and the that of the small, moldering space, with something approaching relish as he looked around the place which had become his sanctuary – his home.

    Still breathing in the familiar place, Garret unbuckled his backpack, set the radio on the bench, and tiredly shrugged his way out of the straps of the pack. After wearing it for so long he felt strange without it, not that he missed its weight hauling down on him. He worked his shoulders for a moment, listening to the pop and creak of his bones as he began his nightly routine. He filled a plastic jar with water from a jug labeled 'Boiled Flood Water – Do Not Drink” in his childlike hand, and began the process of removing the leafy branches from the velcro on his clothes and pack, so he could save them for the morning. It was good to have a routine, he thought. The last few days had been heavy on planning and worrying, and light on the routines that kept him sane.

    When he was done, he pulled off his outermost layer, and checked them for blood. After three years, it was more of a ritual at this point than a real precaution. He'd found plenty of records from during the war in that time: notes, logs, messages, all written in plaintext because the soldiers knew better than to trust their devices. They were jumbled messes of code, jargon, and missing context, but he'd still managed to glean a few things from the time. And from the contradictory orders, the incoherent ramblings, and the hasty notes, written for a posterity they never found, one fact had emerged. Whatever caused the collapse was, amongst other things, fluid transmissible.

    He'd had never seen it himself of course, not even on the other survivors he'd met and lost over the years. He wasn't even sure it was a risk in his case... but he'd gotten in the habit of checking for contamination, and washing whenever possible, and that had probably been for the best. After all, even with those habits, he'd long since passed the point where he actually felt dirty, and forcing himself to wash when he had the chance had probably helped to keep him alive.

    He found one blood spot on the sleeve of his sweatshirt. It didn't look like it had soaked through, but he turned on the flashlight, and checked the stained, coarse, blue and white material of his armor for any sign of the blood, just the same.

    It couldn't have come from the other in the hallway, he decided. He'd been careful with it, and the spots were too old besides.

    No, it had to have come from one of the ones he'd crossed earlier in the day, on his way to the garden. There'd been a few dicey moments that morning, he thought with a faraway look, but he'd done what he did best. He'd survived. He'd always checked himself afterwards, of course, but there hadn't been much time for careful inspection between all the hiding and running and misdirection, and it was very possible that he'd missed something.

    Garret shook his head and blew out his breath out slowly. He would never have risked something like that for so little payout a year ago. Part of him said that he hadn't been as desperate then, but that wasn't entirely true. Sure, finding supplies had been easier, but then he'd had very little in terms of a useful and accessible stockpile. It had taken every day of the last few years to get where he was now, and there had been many long and hungry days and nights back then. He'd gone days, sometimes weeks without a scrap of real food, and had slept for scarce minutes at a time out, exposed in the ruins. But still, there had been something different then.

    He thought for a moment, looking at the backpack. No, he decided finally, the problem wasn't the fact that between the others and people like him, everything of value had been squirreled away... it was that he was loosing hope.

    There's nothing left to do.

    His face took on an expression that was almost a smile. The last few days had been hard, between the planning and the preparation, and the payoff was hardly worth it, but it had been something.

    He didn't know who had built the rooftop garden. It had been quite impressive really, raised beds built from second-hand, paint-peeling lumber and filled with pounds and pounds of soil. Getting to it had been hard, and taken a fair bit of planning, but he couldn't keep watching the campus from on high, stealing glances at it, wondering if today would be the day someone or something had picked it clean.

    Of course, if there was one thing he'd learned the hard way over the years, it was that even his best plans faild during their implementation, and between the six overlapping traps and the weirdly-alert patrols, things had gone bad very fast.

    He gave the backpack an annoyed look.

    Maybe it had been stupid, going after the garden maybe he had let boredom and lack of purpose overcome his better judgment. Or maybe he'd gathered food when food was scarce, and broken, however briefly, from a dangerous routine – after all, the others were just as good at pattern recognition as the unchanged survivors. Better, even.

    The little routines keep you sane. The big ones get you killed.

    What mattered in the end was that he'd survived, and gotten something to show for all that work, so if he made it through tonight, it might not be worth it, but it'd have to be good enough.

    And with that, he closed that line of thought.

    Having a pack full of fresh food was one of those little luxuries Garret treasured, but he'd spent too much time thinking about blood and contamination, so he made himself clean up before he handled the food.

    One of the nice things about this safehouse, and one of the things he normally looked for when scouting a new location, was the sink. Specifically, its drain. Having a means to dispose of waste without alerting the others was important enough, but he'd been here long enough to have rigged up a crude shower some time before. It wasn't much, just plastic tubing and a lever valve connected to an old cooler on a high shelf, but he liked having running water when he needed it, and the folded length of stiff residential wire he'd used to mount it to the wall made it somewhat adjustable, so he could use it as a sink or shower.

    He adjusted the faucet, filled the cooler with boiled floodwater and tested the flow through the tube.

    The armor he wore beneath his clothes didn't look like much: the overlapping sheets and sections he'd made for flexibility had left the fibered edges frayed and sharp, rounded since with tape, covering the uneven strands he'd had to sever with bolt cutters and occasionally a hatchet. The material he'd used, however, more than made up for the ugly results.

    His eyes flickered involuntarily to the remains of a CDF greatcoat hanging half from a shelf onto the workbench as he unlaced the different parts of his armor in a detached, automatic sort of way. Even after hacking and cutting enough material from it to cover himself thoroughly, there was still a few feet left, for the protective coat had been designed to cover the armor frame of a Civil Defense Force trooper. Not that it had done much good, judging from the ruined frame lying half buried out in the woods which it had been wrapped around. The dirt-stained, blue and white patterned reactive armorcloth had been long dead when he dug it out; the usually-flexible material was designed to stiffen upon impact, flexing until it was strong enough to stop most bullets and certainly shrapnel, but the damage it had received, and the long months or years it had spent lying in the mud, had killed its onboard power, leaving it stuck somewhere in-between.

    Garret had seen the potential in a lightweight, strong but still-somewhat-flexible material almost immediately, however, and, though it had taken a fair amount of time and labor, the end result was well worth it. After so long, he couldn't hazard a guess as to the number of times it had saved his life, whether from one of their attacks, or from something as small as a rusted piece of metal or a bad fall.

    His eyes trailed around the room as he pulled the piece which covered his shoulders over his head, and began unlacing a sheet which hinged around his upper torso. The signature blue and white of the CDF showed in many places around the little room, scattered at random amongst the civilian goods, blankets, soap, tools, cleaning agents and pesticides.

    The supplies the CDF had distributed during the war had kept him alive in the aftermath, providing him with at least some nutrient-rich food and medicine in a time when he was surviving on tiny scraps of raw meat, leaves pulled from trees, and blades of grass. He'd found some of the plastic cases and foil-wrapped packs on the wrecked CDF vehicles and armor frames on the edge of his territory, and in some homes, but getting most of it had required a withdrawal from one of the others' stockpiles, as they had seen the value in the rations as clearly as he had, and had the manpower to hoard them. Doing so had saved his life in the long term, though, thinking back, he decided he'd prefer not to have them as mad at him again as they had been after that.

    Without the bulk of the clothes and armor, his lean build looked less rawboned and dangerous and more sickly and starved, all protruding bones and bandy muscle, nearly lost beneath the many interwoven scars which nearly covered him almost from head to toe.

    He opened the faucet and washed up as quickly and quietly as he could.

    He knew he'd changed in many ways over the last few years, both mentally and physically. Some of them were hard to gauge for a man who'd been alone for years and had no mirror, for the others seemed to take offense at the sight of their own image and went out of their way to destroy them, but he didn't need one to track most of the ways this place had altered him.

    He might not have been able to see his face except for what he could make out in the glossy screen of an old phone, or the polished blade of a knife, but he knew there were clawmarks across it, where a creature with long fingernails had tried to blind him after knocking him to the ground, and that his nose had a slight jut in the middle, where it had been broken twice, once when another survivor leveled him with a crude club, and again when one of the others, a Generation-3 or 4 modded soldier punched him straight-on, almost knocking him unconscious. One of his teeth, a molar on the bottom right was missing, pulled out by someone he'd known, after it became impacted, while a top incisor was chipped from where he'd bitten someone else on the arm, though he couldn't remember why.

    He looked down at his calloused and dirt-ground hands. The ring and middle finger of his right hand were each slightly crooked, the first and second bones broken and mis-set after one of them stomped on the digits to force him to release his grip on his spear. His arms and torso were the worst though, covered in interlacing scars from a dozen different sources; brush, thorns, broken glass, rusty nails, even knife, saw, and shiv wounds, and many more which he couldn't identify, all overlapping each other until even the time of their making was obscured. Over them, slightly lighter, were the wide swathes of callused skin rubbed raw by the armor and healed again and again over the years since he started wearing it, trading the many little hurts for a handful of larger, less dangerous ones.

    His legs were barely any better, and one knee still twinged painfully whenever he stressed it, a memento from a fast exit from the third floor of a building.

    He shrugged as the water ran out and he tilted the cooler to drain it. He might not have been in the best of conditions, but he'd survived it all, and, luck permitting, he'd continue to for some time yet.

    He rummaged through the over-filled shelves, and produced a set of fresh clothes surprisingly quickly. The jeans were patched and stitched a long time ago, not his best work if he was honest, but they were comfortable. The sweatshirt was thicker, and smelled marginally cleaner. All in all, he felt better than he had in days.

    He hung his armor above the bed, on a handful of hooks fashioned from age-greened copper wire, where he'd be able to pull it on fairly quickly during the night. Some of the straps and lacing might be difficult, but he'd managed in the past. After so long, it was like tying his boots.

    As he worked, the shrill, three-note alarm sounded in his ear and he stopped to listen carefully. He knew from the pattern that it was the one he'd left near the body of the other he'd killed an hour or so ago, and, by the way it was repeating, he was pretty sure he knew which direction it was going, but he had to be sure.

    The beep pattern sounded continuously for several long minutes, and he waited, until, finally the alarm notes began to stop and go, the space between them growing as the sensor struggled to spot the vanishing form. It was moving away.

    He breathed a sigh of relief. If it had been coming toward him, its pattern would have started haltingly and ended abruptly, as it walked towards the sensor and then stepped outside its view, not the other way around.

    He unpacked his backpack quickly after that, scattering most of the day's loot around the shelves and workbench in a system of organization only he could understand. There wasn't much, mostly just incidental things he'd picked up on his way, but passing through an unexplored area always seemed to yield something he couldn't find in his own territory.

    Then he came to the old CDF case he'd been keeping the food inside. The inside smelled a bit like the raw meat he sometimes brought back, but right now, it was full of vegetables, mostly peppers and slightly unripe tomatoes, though there was a pair of little cucumbers and a few yellow beans there too. He looked happily at the little feast for a brief moment, before sitting on the bed and tearing in, eating the raw vegetables as slowly as he could manage, picking out any seeds where he could, setting them inside the lid of the plastic box.

    He looked at the seeds as he ate; twenty or so mismatched little things, floating on a bit of liquid in the lid of the box. With any luck, some of them would grow in his own scattered gardens. His plants didn't do as well, hidden as they were inside cars and rooms and gutters and drainpipes, but then again, he never lost whole crops to the others, or to other survivors for that matter.

    When he'd finished the last pepper, Garret repacked his backpack for the morning, or in case something found him during the night, laid out his weapons where he could reach them easily, his knife under his pillow, his spear lying across the ground, pointing towards the door so he could bring it up quickly should one of them somehow burst into the room. He set his pack at the foot of his bed and peeled the remains of his boots back off, wiggling his toes through the threadbare socks as he inspected the soles of the tattered footwear for any leaks or cracks that could make tricks like leaving bloody prints a deadly mistake. He even checked his armor, made sure he knew exactly where it would be, before returning to the bed with the candle, his radio, and what he suspected to be the last uncorrupted phone in the entire world.

    The single plate of smooth black glass was cracked in the middle, but it still worked, and somehow managed to hold a charge after all this time, though never a very good one. Most of the software took too much power to use, and he could never justify the expense of charging it enough for them, but sanity often came with a cost all its own, he thought, looking around the papers clinging to the celling and walls, exhaustively marked with notes about the words printed there, and he'd kept it charged well enough to run one particular program.

    He drew another cabled earbud from his pocket and plugged it in, taping the power icon and watching the dead glass come to life, the screen managing a degree of depth and realism which was uncanny, even after the damage it had suffered. His fingers moved automatically, opening an old textbook and keying the text rec software to read it aloud.

    Garret snuffed the candle between his finger and thumb as the reader began, pulling a blanket over himself as he rested back comfortably. He didn't care much about which book it read, there were only four of them – the last surviving copies, as far as he knew – and he'd listened to them all so many times that he'd long since stopped hearing the words. It was the voice he listened to. When he closed his eyes in the darkness, the dim screen of the phone feebly lighting the room, he could almost pretend that it was another person talking to him, that they were having a conversation; that he wasn't alone.

     The reading was good, for something that hadn't been recorded in advance. The words flowed naturally, in a neutral, forgettable sort of way, with only the occasional pause or jarring change of inflection, but after hearing them so many times, he'd grown to expect them, like a song sung in a certain voice.

    Between the thick walls of the safehouse muffling the noise outside, and the steady voice in his ear, Garret could almost pretend he was someplace else. Someplace safe.

***


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