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Part 4


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Chapter 2 Part 2


    Garret was sleeping as soundly as he ever did when the new noise began. It was the third time he'd been woken this night, the last time being a few minutes ago, but this time was different. Something was wrong.

    He jolted awake instantly, his eyes snapped open in the darkness, and, slowly at first, the front half of his brain started to work. He listened intently, already half out of bed, his hand wrapped around the handle of his ragged knife, for the sound that had shaken him out of the numb black fog of sleep. The room was silent for a long moment, then he heard it again.

    It was coming from his radio, but it wasn't the alarm.

    Garret sat up and stared hard at the plastic device as it made the electronic chirping sound again. He hadn't used it for anything besides listening to his motion sensors for more than a year now, but he'd played with it some a long while back, and he'd gotten a good sense of the audio warning tones it used to indicate power failure or software errors, and this wasn't one of them. Carefully, he peeled the duct tape strip from across the screen, the old tape leaving a sticky residue.

    The faint blue glow was easy on his eyes, but he squinted at it just the same, trying not to look directly into the light. He couldn't risk loosing his night vision now. There was an option to set it to a low impact red scheme, but he couldn't remember where at the moment. He'd just have to make do.

    A tiny icon in the bottom right indicated 'friendly' and he starred at it numbly, his mind working slower than he would have liked, whether from the sleep or because his mind was still changing, and the old device seemed faintly nonsensical now. He tapped the icon finally, and a readout identifying a transmission on a CDF band appeared.

    Garret looked at the readout for a long moment. Then he blinked.

    It was still there. The frequency, the unit identifiers... The others didn't use comm systems; they didn't need them.

    It wasn't them.

    He blinked again.

    There was no way... no way, that someone was out there. Other people... survivors. Humans. His thoughts came in fragments, and he forced his breathing slower, calmer, as he watched the hand comm slowly identify the other units. Seven of them. Seven? That didn't seem like that many. Where could they have come from? How had they survived?

    He shook his head. It had to be some sort of trick, or experiment – maybe a new game from the specialists.

    He was just beginning to truly focus on the puzzle at hand when the closest sensor's alarm shrilled in his ear. He jolted involuntarily, hitting the top of his head against the cloth-wrapped frame of the shelf.

    Well, he was definitely awake now.

    The sound began haltingly, with long gaps between alarm cycles, which grew shorter as the other... or others moved towards it. Towards him.

    The specialists. He cringed. It could be a regular tracker, he knew, following up on the corpse he'd left nearly on his own doorstep. Perhaps the sensor he'd left over it had run out of power and it had just walked past without alerting him. Hell, it could just be a patrol preforming a normal sweep of the building. But he wasn't about to hope for that. Chances were, those two had finally dropped the pretense of waiting for him to come to them, and had gotten around to making house calls. Or perhaps they just wanted to chase him around the campus at night while their cohorts ransacked his safehouse.

    He looked up at the piles of munitions he seldom used, for fear of posing too much of a threat and glowered. They wouldn't live to keep anything they took.

    Only one way to be sure, though. He felt his way to the cable he wanted and pulled it down, fumblingly connecting the spliced datacord to the phone.

    It took a moment for the phone's limited power to start the camera hidden up above what was left of the lowered ceiling in the hallway; it wasn't the highest quality camera he had access to, but the few living systems placed far too much of a drain on the little device to justify their use for mere reconnaissance.

    The spinning, swirling, loading lines vanished a moment later, replaced with a grainy, low-light image looking down at the hallway. He couldn't see much, but the moonlight outside streamed through the slatted windows in the classrooms, giving him enough to see the others as they prowled down the hallway.

    He counted four. They moved carefully, checking every step for traps, and every doorway, recess, and section of ceiling for ambush. Three of them looked like they'd been chosen hastily – none of them had firearms that he could see, though some carried clubs; whether they were unarmed for lack of time, or simply because they didn't think they'd need them, he wasn't sure.

    Their leader strode along in front of them with confidence, pausing occasionally to examine the floor and walls. Garret ground his teeth. Either this one was stranger than he'd expected, or the building had flooded and washed away one of his precautions, and he hadn't noticed, or had forgotten to fix it. He normally kept the place dusted with a bit of the stuff he'd found in one of the buried out APCs out in the woods. They'd always lost his trail around the vehicles, and it hadn't taken him long to realize the stuff ruined their senses nicely. He suspected that it was supposed to; the CDF units with the funny camouflage always seemed to have things on them that turned out useful in the survivor's world.

    As it got closer, he was able to make out more details. The dark clothes resolved themselves into the expected dark suit, with a white shirt and a black tie. The pants he'd hoped were uniform trousers, tucked into boots, proved to be pinstriped and neatly creased. It was the one from before.

    What other advantages do you have? Garret wondered. Most everyone here could heal quicker than they should have, even Garret, he admitted, but he'd seen some of the others do things that, looking back, he couldn't convince himself had been real. One had flipped a car, single handedly, to get at a survivor hiding beneath it. Another had survived a ten-story fall, seemingly unhurt, though none too pleased.

    Spotting the ones that had been heavily changed, back when, was hard, he had his tricks, but it was a large part of why he stayed hidden. The best way to survive was not to draw their attention at all.

    The old trackers had made that difficult. They had some tricks that he didn't understand. He couldn't fool them, couldn't avoid them, they took his safe houses, his supplies, cut off more and more of his territory. So he'd made plans, set ambushes, and killed them in ways even their freakish recuperative abilities couldn't stop. After that, things had been guardedly peaceful. Most of them left him alone, unless they had the numbers to cause trouble.

    Apparently, they weren't content to leave it at that though. They still planned to fix him. Killing the old ones just antagonized them enough to send someone special.

     I wonder who they'll send next. He thought, with less confidence than he'd have liked.

    He checked the power on the phone and started switching cables. The first linked to a low-level, backup control node on the other end of the building. It was supposed to be administered from a central management system, but he'd ran and spliced his own cables when he found it. He reversed his own changes and released the power he'd had it storing up, cascading to other systems, closer ones he couldn't reach, and lighting up the walls up and down the building for a few minutes. Two of the others stopped when they saw it, glaring at the building around them, still mocking them with its life. Garret grinned and switched to a different cable, authenticating and sending a lifelike recording of a long-dead survivor running through the broken images back towards the main doors. One of them lashed out at it as it flickered past, almost following it into another room before the leader snapped at it. Another managed to trip on a spring-loaded trap as it watched the flickering light, not that it minded the spiked bands closing around its leg as much as Garret would have liked.

    Most of the close walls died quickly, and if the specialist had held less control over its men, they may have chased the remaining ones back the way they'd come. Unfortunately, they trudged along, after it, albeit with many a backwards glance.

    Garret tried a few other tricks, sounds from other rooms, even a few traps, but they were a delaying tactic at best. The further they walked, the more sure he was that they knew exactly where he was, and wouldn't be led astray.

    That left him with quite a problem. There was a reason he didn't use this safehouse often, several in fact. It was remote to most of his other locations, poorly hidden, at least by comparison, and, worst of all, it had one door in a dead end hallway, and the others already had line of sight. If it hadn't been the closest one when it got late, and if he hadn't suspected that the specialists were watching the others, he would have passed it over.

    But here he was. They'd already cut him off from the warren of passages closer to the foyer, where the war had provided him with a great many escapes and hiding places. Near his safehouse, the rooms and walls were intact, and provided little more than dead-ends. If he ran out there now, they'd have more than enough time to see him and back him into a corner.

    He left the phone cycling through the noises in a handful of rooms, and started the next stage of preparations.

    He took what he could, looking around the near-lightness room with a sort of sad nostalgia from time to time as he hastily gathered the supplies and weapons he would need tonight, the tools, materials, and devices he couldn't replace, and all the food, medicine and purifiers he could carry, before he set the traps that would destroy it, and anyone who tried to loot his sanctuary. He worked his way through the ration kits he couldn't carry, slashing them open with his knife – just in case things didn't go as planned. It was stupid he knew – it wasn't even for spite; it took more than torn wrappers to ruin the 'food' inside – it was just another ritual, another homemade superstition, but he did it just the same.

    He was setting the last of the tripwires when the radio chirped. He looked down at it, remembering the signals from earlier.

    Oh, right. He hooked the wire to its pin, and pulled the radio off his belt and looked at the screen.

    The readout's status had changed to read 'Authorized' while he was busy with the suit man and the safe house. That was suspicious in and of itself. Whoever was using it would have had to misconfigure their commnet horribly if whatever certs some unnamed lieutenant had left in this Garret's device were enough to authenticate it. Then again, her unit had been one of those strange, not-quite-normal-CDF types, so maybe the passive discovery option he'd left running years ago included some additional capabilities.

    Garret's hand hovered over the current channel button. He looked at the phone, watched as the others picked their way past some traps, still heading infallibly towards his safehouse. He smiled. What did he have to loose? They already knew where he was, and if they did manage to compromise the comm, it wasn't like he couldn't find another.

    He hit the button before he could change his mind.

    There was a beep.

    “Anyone hear that?” a man's voice asked in a tight whisper.

    “This might have escaped your notice, Ev, but we aren't actually over there with you.” another, deeper voice replied. He was also whispering, but he didn't sound particularly concerned. Lucky him.

    Thanks, Mac. It was on the radio.”

    “Wha'd it sound like?”

    “Like a beep.”

    “Huh. Probably another error or something. We seem to be having a lot of those lately.”

    These people did not sound like others.

    “What are you looking at me like that for?” a woman's voice cut in, a faint, hard edge in her voice.

    There was a pause. Garret imagined someone was glaring at someone else.

     “You're the one who wanted to restart everything.” the second man reminded her mildly. “Watch your step there.”

    “Thanks... It got rid of the feedback, didn't it?” she said.

    “Along with half of Matt's mods.”

    “How was I supposed to know he didn't script it all for startup?”

    “Do you guys mind?” a deeper, more resonate voice asked painedly.

    “What?”

    Cut the f'kin' comm chatter!

    There was another pause.

    “Sorry boss.”

    Garret listened for a moment, trying to ignore the chirping sound reminding him that the alarm was blaring incessantly over the other channel, but there was nothing else. His mind reeled at the idea of people, unchanged people wandering through his territory, at night, talking over an badly secured commnet, but if it was some sort of trick, he didn't see the payoff. And more than that, they didn't sound like others. Too uncoordinated. No hard-coded loyalties or command trees.

    He wasn't sure if the idea of seven strangers wandering within range of his battered, nearly-dead hand comm, possibly inside his territory, at night, bickering, was better or worse than it simply being an incomprehensible trap.

    If it is a trap, your timing sucks. He thought. And if it isn't, it's even worse. Hell, it was the kind of thing he might have investigated if he hadn't had a pack of enemies bearing down on him, but as things were, he had his own, immediate survival to consider.

    The specialist knelt by the doorway where Garret had stopped to exchange batteries. It looked inside for a moment, then stood and flicked its hand in a follow me gesture. The others formed up behind it and together they vanished under the cable conduit the camera was attached to.

    Live or die time.

    Garret unplugged the cord and put the phone in his pocket. He checked the room one last time.

    The suit man knocked, very politely on the door.

    Garret pulled on his backpack, and picked up his spear.

    “I always hate showing up unannounced.” the suit man said, faintly, smugly, his voice muffled by the panel.

    “He doesn't strike me as being terribly partial to formalities, himself,” someone replied. “So I'm sure he won't mind.”

    “You're probably right.”

    The suit man kicked the door hard enough to dent the panel and shift its frame in the wall. Garret ripped down the blanket, kicked the towel aside, and lifted the board from the door carefully, silently. Then he waited until it drew its foot back for another kick, took one last breath, and he threw the door open, full into it's unbalanced body.

    The door stopped about halfway with a solid thud.

    Garret's eyes went wide, his face hardened and he changed tactics, spinning hastily around the panel, his spear still held low in his left hand, his knife ice-picking across in his right.

    More blind luck than skill, the ragged blade caught the once-man right in the neck.

    Garret had heard that things seemed to slow down in extreme circumstances, but he'd been in a great many scrapes and he'd never noticed it. If anything, that moment seemed to happen too fast to fully process, but something about the jarring wrongness of the suit man's look hit him in the core of his very being, right as the knife slammed home.

    Garret started to jerk away from the creature, the ragged-edged knife tearing its way out, but the suit man caught him with a backhand that send him sprawling away from his safe house and into the doors to the south wing.

    “Hello Garret.” it managed to rasp, a faintly smug, unimpressed smile on its face as it placed a palm over the deep, night-black gash in its neck. The sheet of blood streaming down sealed itself and began to diminish.

    Fear hammering through him, Garret cast about as he scrambled to his feet and blinked his vision clear, looking from the suit man to the other three. Gaugeing distances. Gaugeing threats. The other one, the one that always wore the patchwork uniform was missing. All of them were closing in.

    “We're here to help, man. Put down the spear.” one of them said. The suit man started towards him, still smiling. A few more paces and he'd have the survivor trapped between himself and the chained doors to the south wing.

    Garret hadn't lived this long by being stupid. He nodded, stropped his knife against his pant leg, and sheathed it.

    He waited half a heartbeat, watching their reaction with practiced eyes. Just as the suit man opened its mouth to speak, Garret grabbed something from his bag of tricks, winged it towards him, and bolted past, towards the other three.

    Eyes closed eyes closed eyes closed!

    The ration bar – the first thing he'd been able to grab – sailed past the tracker and into the safehouse. It landed right where he'd aimed it, on the workbench, where it knocked into some coffee cans and set a tripwire loose. There was a brief snick of cord retracting into a detonator, and a milspec incendiary grenade, stolen long ago from the others, whooshed into terrible life.

     A gout of flame shot out of the door, catching the suit man in a sudden furnace blast, and the sudden light lit up Garret's eyelids.

    Good bye night vision! He grinned viciously.

    He slammed into the three of them while they were blind and flatfooted. He pinwheeled his spear as he ran, catching the one on his left on its temple with the bottom corner of the staff, and the one directly ahead of him with the length, just beneath the blade, where he'd fitted a metal pipe over the wood for support.

    Both of them staggered as he ducked low, leaping past them and beneath the grasping hand of the third, some sort of club cracking numbly against his shoulder armor. Garret staggered a little, his balance too far forward, before getting his legs beneath him and sprinting as fast as he could manage away from them.

***

    Behind them, the specialist slowly pushed himself into a sitting position. He looked at the burned-out, barely-smoldering closet and sighed.

    “You're going to need a new suit.” the uniformed one remarked, leaning in a nearby classroom door.

    “So it would seem.” the suit man mumbled, eying his burnt jacket with his now-only-good eye. “Some help you were, by the way.”

     “And have you complaining that I ruined your turn? I'd sooner die.”

    “Hmm. And how are you planning to bring him in?”

    “Oh no, I want it to be a surprise. Don't suppose I'll let him throw food at me though. Think we'll mark that one under 'life lessons.'”


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