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Part 5


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Chapter 2 Part 3


    Garret rummaged frantically through his bag of tricks as he ran, considering and discarding options as he went. He needed something to slow them down, anything that could help him open the distance, or they'd snag him at the first turn and just bear him to the ground. His knuckles came down painfully on an open canister of homemade jacks, and he considered them momentarily. The barbed tripods were one of his favorites, though he seldom had occasion to use them, thank God; still, the damage they could do to anyone unfortunate enough to step on one appealed to the vindictive nature which fueled so many of his creative projects.

    The others were too close though, he knew. They'd probably clear the vicious little spikes without even realizing he'd even thrown them down. But he smiled as he realized he had something just as mean, and much more effective at this range. Searching again, he grabbed a big handful of a fine powdery mixture from an inner pocket of the bag, checked the ground ahead of himself, and threw it over his opposite shoulder, holding his breath and squinting his eyes tightly shut as he did so.

    The careful blend of cleaning products, metal shavings, and ground glass blossomed into the air behind him at head level, the particles finding easy purchase in the wide eyes and open, panting mouths and nostrils of his pursuers.

    There were chokes and gasps and a pained yelp behind him, and Garret grinned darkly as he threw what strength he had in reserve into a sprint. He could hear them coughing and stumbling behind him, but they'd recover fast, they always did, and they'd be... irritable when they caught up to him.

    And they did catch up. Through careful maneuvering, he managed to keep enough of the lead he'd gained, but even distracted and hurt as they were, the others were faster than him. They ate better than he did, they weren't as burdened with equipment or weapons, and their shoes were in better condition. If it had been a chase on level, open ground, he would have been dead in seconds.

    But it wasn't open ground. They were in his territory, his building. And the warren of rubble-strewn, booby-trapped ruins was permanently etched in his brain, easily recognizable, even in the moonlit darkness.

    What he lacked in speed and endurance, Garret made up for with desperate agility and an elaborate, unpredictable, fluid, and, if he said so himself, hellishly annoying escape route. Once you accounted for the holes blasted through the walls here and there, the building was really quite navigable, and the occasional barricade, collapse, or trap made alternate routes uncertain at best.

    Especially since even he didn't know where he was planning to go.

    He lead them through side hallways, classrooms, labs, lounges, and walk-through storage areas, their labored, gasping breath and snarls of pain and frustration close in his ears.

    It was just a matter of time before someone made a mistake.

    He killed the first of his pursuers with one of their traps, vaulting carefully through the narrow end of a wedge-shaped gap between two stout beams, which had once supported a barricade. His pack scraped against the splintered, nail-studded length of the bottom post, and his spear thumped again the top, but he slipped through, and his boots slammed into the gritty cement on the other side, just a foot or so from a tripwire concealed beneath a tippy chunk of rock.

    He didn't stop – the others were through seconds after he was, but either they didn't know the traps in this building, or the one in the lead had let its excitement, or the pain in its eyes and throat distract it, because its foot came down on the rock, which tilted forward obligingly, jerking the cord beneath it, just as the bar from a CDF half-track spring assembly snapped across, catching it in its gut and doubling it over backwards. Two rows of nails tied to the metal with wire perforated it across its midsection.

    The wounded one's fellows ripped it off and shoved it out of the way, but Garret was still running, and he had gained a couple seconds.

    The second one was more or less an accident. He'd been running for less than a minute before he realized that there was only one set of footsteps behind him. It rounded a corner a moment later, appearing from a side hallway, just as Garret, acting on pure, surprise-driven instinct, ducked his head and lashed out with his spear. The staff missed the other's crude cudgel by mere inches and connected with something soft.

    The repurposed, serrated steak knife sliced into the creature's throat, driven by Garret's momentum and the spear's leverage across his body, while the nail-studded club in the changed-man's hand glanced more or less harmlessly against his far shoulder.

    Something hard, the handle perhaps caught the survivor square on the forehead, purple-black fog swirling in front of his eyes, but he bulled past it and kept running, glancing off a wall in his daze. Only when he was sure of his lead again, did he look back. Unlike the tracker, the other he'd stabbed had stumbled and fallen against the wall, clutching its wound weakly as blood sprayed across the bricks and rubble on the floor.

    Huh. That'll save some time. He thought.

Garret was looking for a good place to stop, someplace the last remaining one, – who was only a pace or two behind him now – couldn't use its momentum to just barrel into him, when he rounded the next corner. If he was lucky, he'd be able to kill it and get outside, and hopefully hidden, before reinforcements showed up.

    He might have been grinning as he ran. Things were far from perfect, at the moment, but given what he'd managed so far, and the damage they'd done, he was pretty pleased with himself.

    Two down... he was thinking when he approached one of the few unbarricaded doors to the overgrown sapling-forest-lawn outside, his mind finally catching up enough to put words to the scattered impressions he normally used as thoughts. It seemed like as good a place as he was likely to get for a final confrontation, and he had to get outside soon anyways.

    He skidded to a stop, braced his right foot against a chunk of cement, planted the butt of his staff against the side of his boot, and brought the point up under his left forearm. It was an awkward position and an awkward grip, but the sudden movement surprised his pursuer, who charged right onto the point before it even knew what had happened, planting the blade squarely between its ribs before slamming into the top of the staff.

    Garret wasn't looking at it, though. As he'd aimed the spear, the survivor had squared himself with the door, and just before the impact, he caught a good look at what was outside.

    There was a patrol trooping past.

    For a fraction of a second, the dozen or so others shared a look of mutual astonishment with the survivor. Then, as the one he'd impaled snarled at him, everyone moved at once.

    Oh Goddammit! He though, his mind still a tad slower than his reactions, as he jerked the spear free, jabbed at the other's throat, and ran like hell.

    Back into the fire.

    He was a dead man. Garret knew, – no – he believed that with absolute certainty, but he kept running anyways, for he was nothing if not stubborn. The others as a whole would kill him sooner or later, they were, after all, damn near a force of nature, but it wouldn't happen right this minute, and it wouldn't be the closest one, nor the one behind it, nor any others in this pack, that did him in. They were just individuals, and he'd killed plenty of others just like them.

    He thought as quickly as he could. There were some traps he might be able to lead them into, maybe that would...

    Then the radio started chirping in his ear.

    The motion sensors. Figures. He couldn't tell which one it was from the wrong channel; probably just the one beside the safehouse, though that had ceased when the tracker went inside to ransack the place, but the chance that there were more of them somewhere ahead of him wasn't exactly a comforting thought. Not that there was much he could do about it, he knew.

    A flying rock hit his calf, bruising him nicely through the armor, which thankfully took the brunt of the impact. He was limping and angry though, as he swerved through a lab, into a lounge area, and back into a hallway.

    Maybe it was time to start paying them back. Garret opened his bag of tricks and worked the plastic cylinder of jacks loose. He launched himself into a ragged sprint until he found a relatively clear stretch of floor – someplace where the traps wouldn't just fall uselessly into the rubble, – and flung about half the container under his arm, sending dozens of barbed four-pointed tripod-spikes, along with a healthy collection of roofing nails and carpet tacks, skittering across the floor.

    There was the briefest stretch of silence, then a pained gasp and an almost canine yelp, then others, coupled with the tumble thump of someone, no, several someones, hitting the ground. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder and caught a scattered impression of uncoordinated movement, as several of the others scrambled and leaped over their wounded, who lay sprawled across the traps, or curled up, trying to rip the awkward, barbed things from the soles of their shoes and feet, and from wherever else they'd stuck.

    Then one of the outsiders' voices came over the comm.

    “Darren?” the girl from before said.

    Now?! Of all the times...

    “I think we found something... there's something lying on the ground up ahead.”

    “What do you got?” the deeper voiced man, Darren, asked.

    “It looks like a body.”

    That gave Garret pause. Could it be one of his? He thought about the beeping sensor for a moment.

    He slammed a door shut in the face of one of the others, and fumbled with the controls on the radio on his hip as he ran, hearing the door crash open again behind him. He managed to hit the right channel. It was all frantic beeps, but it was coming from the one he'd left near the body in the corner...

    What were the chances?

    He switched back.

    “Are you sure it's dead?” Darren asked.

    “Trust me.” the man he'd heard called Mac, said.

    “We should be the only team here. Can you figure the cause of death?”

    The woman gave a little laugh. " Yeah. If I had to guess, I'd say it looks like a terminal case of blood-all-on-the-outside. Someone slashed it's throat.”

    No shit. When his luck reversed itself, it didn't kid around.

    Any surprise he should have felt died then, strangled by a pragmatic part of him that wanted very much to stay alive.

    He could work with this. Maybe.

    “'It?' You sure it's a drone?” Darren asked.

    “Yeah, pretty sure. It's got that weird look they have here.”

    “Be careful around it, ya hear? If it's like the others...”

    A plan was forming in his frantic mind. Garret was very close to reaching true exhaustion; he wasn't built for endurance anymore, and he hadn't gotten much rest. He was already gasping for breath, sweat soaked his clothes and armor, and his legs were getting weak. If he could have removed his pack, he would have, only the difficulty of doing so, and the time it might cost him, kept him from throwing it to the others in the hopes that they would trip over it.

    But now he had an idea, a chance. That was enough to keep him going, at least for the moment.

    Garret threw himself to the left, into a side hall, rebounded off a wall, and pounded down to the main hallway. He couldn't take the time, on the uneven floor, to look behind him, but he knew they were just outside arm's reach, and would close fairly soon.

    “I gotcha boss. Damn, what a mess.” the girl was saying.

    “Any idea who killed it?”

    “No, the cut's pretty ragged. There's some tracks going back the way we came, but I don't know what made them. There's no tread but it's not barefoot.”

     “Could it be another one like our friend?”

    “I dunno. I think we got enough of them for one day, don't you?”

    “Heh.” he gave a little laugh. “If there's nothing else around, move on, we got a lot of rooms to check. Just keep an eye out behind you.”

    “Gotcha. Any more clues?”

    “She says it's in a room with a wood desk. She's pretty sure it's here in the south wing, just, keep an eye out, I don't want to have to waste time looking for it if her memory's off.”

    “Sounds good. You're sure it's this floor?”

    “Yep. Ground floor. She was sure of that, at least. Be careful in those rooms. We tripped like, ten traps on this side. If it wasn't for the armor...”

    “I know.”

    There was a pause as Garret rounded the corner into the main hallway and threw the last of his strength into a dead sprint. The calm, rational part of his mind found it somewhat funny that with all this running and maneuvering, he had ended up right back in the same hall as his safehouse, the tracker, and now the outsiders, only a few hundred feet further away and much more tired.

    The rest of him was running.

    There was a specific spot he was looking for, a three-foot diameter hole blown clean through every wall in the building, but specifically into a lab with only one other door, off into a side hallway. There was a spike trap just inside the breach, but he knew he could avoid it if he just had a couple seconds to maneuver.

    He would have gone there next anyways, but if he was lucky... he'd either give the others a more interesting type of prey, or he'd get them all shot. It depended on what the outsiders were capable of, but either way, it was a chance. Of course, that still put him on open ground between the hunting pack and a pair of well-armed strangers, so his chances were probably worse overall.

    One of the others managed a weak grasp on his pack, ripping off a solar plate when he shook himself free. He was past changing his mind now, the doors in this stretch were barricaded, albeit poorly, just enough to delay someone in a serious hurry that critical few seconds.

    He hoped that would work in his favor in the next few minutes.

    He didn't know if the outsiders could hear the clap of a dozen shoes in the rubble from where they stood, or the occasional clatter of cement he and the others knocked loose, but he was betting he didn't have much time left. He just hoped they didn't shoot until...

    There it was. A darker spot in a faintly moonlit wall.

    “What the hell?” the girl asked softly, sounding concerned. He was briefly elated that they were really there, in his building, so close. Then he was terrified. It was too soon. He still had another twenty feet.

     “Huh?” Mac asked, perhaps still engrossed with the body.

    “There's something... oh shit!

    Garret dove for the hole in the wall. He grabbed the rough cement as his shoulder hit the far edge, the weight of his pack pulling him through. He rolled over his shoulder, pulling his legs up and through, his spear clacking against the wall on the outside of the hole, halting his momentum nicely.

    The survivor's heels and the side of his shin slammed into the concrete on the other side, his body half supported by his feet and half hanging by his arm.

    The spike trap sat set just beneath him.

    There was a hiss of breath on the comm, and an electronic wine from the end of the hall, and the clap of feet running past, as the lead others swarmed towards what was apparently a more appealing, or more hateful target.

    Then there was a pattering sound. Dull, wet thuds smacked above him, and the crack of shattering cement split the air further back the way he had come. Some concrete or rock shards hit the back of his head and the gloved knuckles on his right hand. He could hear the dozens of rounds as they pierced the air behind him.

    Then it stopped.

    Garret waited for a moment, but the hallway was terribly silent.

    Very carefully, he worked his legs back until they were crouched beneath him. Then he turned, relieving the strain on his arm, and peered out. The hallway was littered with bodies and moonlight reflected wetly from the blood pooling between them.

    Damn. Garret drew in a shaky breath, then let it out. Part of him was elated at his own survival, but he hadn't seen such a thorough slaughter in a long, long time. He hadn't expected anything close to this. The outsiders' reaction had surpassed even his best and his worst expectations, and the fact that he'd very nearly been killed there, along with all of them, left him feeling giddy and cold.

    He peered to either side as much as he could, but he wasn't about to stick his head out there. He extended the spear slightly to fit one end through the hole, and the motion elicited another another electronic whine from the end of the hall.

     Cement exploded a few feet down in a sharp burst, and a single round punched through the wall and a foot or so above and to the left of his head. Garret snatched his hand and spear through the hole and stumbled backwards fearfully, dropping to the ground. It would probably be best to get out of this room before they showed up, he decided.

     “What happened?” the leader with the deep voice was asking.

    Whew. Sorry about that. We ran into maybe twenty. Or I guess they ran into us, I didn't think we'd see them charge like that here.”

    “You okay?”

    “Yeah. They should have waited until we were closer.”

    “Heh. Be sure to tell any survivors that.”

    “No thanks.”

    Garret was already moving. He had to put as much distance between this place and himself before they swept the area, or before any others showed up. The gunfire hadn't been nearly as loud as he'd been expecting, but there had still been plenty of noise, both high and low pitched, – not to mention the small explosion he'd caused earlier – so he was sure at least a few were on their way to investigate. The further away he got in the next few minutes, the looser the net would be when he reached it.

    It took a moment for his mind to realize that he was no longer in immediate danger, but once that thought finally sank in, and the adrenalin faded, he finally started to really notice the burning, almost numb ache in his muscles, the spasms in his legs, the pain in his chest, his heart and his lungs, and the chill sweat soaking the inner layers of his clothing and the inside of his armor. Damn. He was tired. So tired that it took him a while to sort the exhaustion from the many bruises which came from running blindly through ruins while being pelted and hit with various objects.

    Garret blinked hard a few times and forced himself to focus. He was far, far from safe at the moment, and eluding death once was hardly a preventative measure for the next few hours. He scanned the room carefully as he walked to the door, the renewed, grating ache in his knee, and the new, large bruise forming on his calf making his usual limp more pronounced.

    In the hallway outside, a body was draped halfway through a barricade, nestled in the broken, dry rotted boards. It had flung itself through them with some force, but a few sharp pieces had impeded its progress just long enough. He watched it for a moment to be sure it was dead, then he went the other way, working his way around this lab back towards...

    Towards what?

    Garret stopped. His goal until now had been to shake his pursuers and find somewhere to hide far from the compromised safehouse, preferably after backtracking and circling until his tracks were a tangled mess not worth pursuing, but that was before the very well armed strangers sauntered into his territory and casually killed a dozen others. That changed things more than he would have liked.

    He thought for a moment, about what he had seen and heard. He'd seen other survivors over the years, he'd even traded and worked with some of the saner ones. But these people were different.

    They were from someplace else, someplace... safer. They had to be. Their behavior didn't fit here, their tactics were all wrong – just from what he'd seen so far, the amount of force they'd used would have posed a threat that would have drawn every one of the others from miles around into a concerted effort to wipe them out. Garret's very existence warranted the others' hostility, but for three years he'd managed to remain a local threat, just dangerous enough when cornered to warrant a bit of respect, but small enough that they never bothered to put forth a major effort to kill him. These people should have been dead years ago.

    And what was worse, he knew, was that the slaughter they'd caused would draw hundreds of others, right into his territory. And while they were here, finding and killing a certain survivor while they were at it would be the kind of makework the local leaders would assign. Hell, even without orders, they'd have a hard time not finding him, or his supply caches. At the very best, he'd had to leave the small parcel of land he'd spent years learning, moving into unfamiliar territory, filled with threats all its own. With no supplies of his own save what he carried now, or could recover, and likely nothing new to be found out there...

    Or...

    He looked in the direction of the outsiders and almost groaned. They were dangerous in so many ways he was sure he hadn't even considered them all yet. Their very existence was a threat and they'd probably kill him as quickly as any of the others.

    But still... everything he'd seen of them so far displayed a lack of experience that told him they had somehow survived without learning the same lessons he had. They were from someplace... better than here. It was just a chance, built on what little he'd seen... but it had to be worth something, right?

    Someplace safe. He turned the words over in his mind for a moment. If there was even one place out there that the others hadn't conquered... someplace where people like these could survive while blundering around like murderous idiots... that was huge. Even if it wasn't truly safe, if it was even just a little bit better than the places he'd seen over the years... hell, someone had sent these people all this way, sent them to find something that people who already had guns and armor would risk loosing those things to get. Could there really be some kind of organization left? People who hadn't been overwhelmed or changed?

    Garret drew in a slightly shaky breath, and sighed noiselessly. He shook his head. He was making too many guesses here, pondering the motivations and histories of people who would just as soon shoot him as one of the others. He had no idea where they were from, how far away it was, or what their organization, if there even was one, was like. He'd let blind hope get him into trouble before, and he knew better than to test his luck again, especially in the condition he was in now.

    He hadn't spent three years surviving here, carving out territory and building up supplies, just to throw it all away trying to follow provenly dangerous strangers – who were now, or soon would be surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands of others – into unfamiliar territory without any proof that their destination would be better. Hell, even if he could manage to follow them all that way without getting caught and shot to death, surviving the night anywhere near them would be damn near impossible. Everything from the racket they made to the threat they posed seemed calculated to draw as many others towards them as possible.

    He started walking again, forcing himself back to something approaching his normal level of awareness, eyes scanning the darkness, ears straining to hear the slightest sound, even going so far as to smell and taste the musty air for some sign of danger through the iron scent of fresh blood. He kept his spear aimed towards the openings to either side as he walked, eying each door and crater warily. This was how he'd survived, and it was what would keep him alive for the foreseeable future.

    There was an external door up ahead, leading to the narrow sidewalk beneath the overhanging second floor. He checked it carefully this time, and then stopped.

    How many more years would there be? He wondered. How many more could he survive? The available supplies were dwindling and his stockpiles would soon be raided, and his own collection of injuries were slowly dragging him into infirmity. How much longer could he really delay the inevitable?

    He lowered himself into the rubble, resting against the wall. He'd been surviving for a reason once; just staying alive until he could find a way to fight back, until he could find other people, or find a safe haven. Until things could get better somehow.

    One by one, every one of those reasons, – though he'd never really admitted them to himself, – had fallen apart: there was no single effective way to fight back, no kill-all tactic, and the cost of confronting them was always great. The few other people he encountered were all like him: hostile, distrustful, and brutally self-motivated; And no matter how many times he'd tried to move, he'd always ended up worse for the lost supplies and knowledge of his surroundings.

    Eventually, he'd simply thrown himself into surviving here. Finding projects, building up a better life. It wasn't the best location, but it was what he had. He'd never prospered, but he'd managed. He probably would for a long time yet.

     But he'd given up. He didn't know when, exactly, but somewhere along the line...

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

    Garret looked out the door for a moment, into the sapling forest, which was no doubt alive with others by now, and he made a decision. It was a terrible one, a choice so stupid he could only shake his head with disgust at it as he levered himself to his feet and started walking, but it was made, and he seldom let himself change his mind once he'd committed to a calculated risk. He couldn't afford to. Like the garden, he'd go through with it.

    He'd take the long view tonight. He only hoped that this risk would work out better than the last one had.

***

    Garret felt a bit different after making peace with the decision. He was more alert now, more focused. He padded through the hallways softly, careful to keep a couple walls between himself and where he thought the outsiders would be. They were closer now – he could hear them moving in the main hallway, tripping and stumbling now and then like dormant others, and he regretted his decision again.

    If this doesn't get me killed... He didn't even know why he was following them; whether he wanted to join them, or trail them all the way there, or if he was hunting them, to take a prisoner to tell him the way to safety. Still, this was an chance he'd never seen before, and he doubted he would again. He pictured himself in the morning light, emerging from whatever hiding place he'd found to pick up the pieces left by this night, knowing in the back of his mind that the outsiders had come and gone, or been killed, and that his chance to escape, to learn who they were, or even just to steal one of their weapons, had gone with them. It reassured him a little.

    “You sure-” Darren's voice came over the comm. “Okay, hey guys, we found it.”

    “The safe?” the woman's voice came back, guarded.

    “Yeah. Oh! Sorry if I got your hopes up.”

    “No problem.” she said, a little flatly. She put some more enthusiasm into her voice. “How's it look?”

    Iiiitttt's promising.” he sounded a bit hesitant.

    “Good? Hey, do we still need to check the rest of this wing?”

    “Um.... I guess not, why?”

    “No reason, I'm just not crazy about walking over all those bodies, and seeing what else is waiting for us in there. Plus I want to get some footage of you guys opening it up. You know, just in case.”

    “It looks like there's a door to the courtyard coming up.” the other man said. “We could probably cut across and catch up.”

    “Heh. We'll try not to make any record-breaking discoveries until you guys get here then.” the leader replied.

    “Thanks.” the girl said.

    Garret through about that for a moment, plotting their route, then he turned towards the main hallway. It was probably best to keep line of sight on these two out there, especially while there were at least three other outsiders somewhere nearby. The last thing he needed was for some of them to get behind him.

    He was near the foyer now, he'd been moving away from the safe house almost automatically, even before he'd decided to cast his lot with the outsiders, and he could hear them up ahead, soft footsteps on cement, and then the crunch of broken tile. That noise doubled, then faded as they moved towards the door.

    Garret leaned out a couple inches as the first moonlit silhouette vanished around the corner. The second one made one last sweep with its boxy rifle, ending with the weapon pointed in roughly Garret's direction, and the survivor froze, hoping the man didn't have anything on that gun that could read him. If he did, the outsider didn't notice.

    Garret waited for a moment for them to move on, then he stepped out, looked back towards the safehouse, his safehouse, lost in the darkness behind him, then he turned and started silently after the outsiders.




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