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Part 6


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Chapter 3


    They were moving faster than he'd expected, slipping through the thick brush and traversing the rough terrain with something approaching real skill. They were, however, still following the broken remains of the old paved path which had stretched through the courtyard once upon a time. Whatever vehicle had torn across that ground here before the trees had grown had been heavy, and the broken, twisted cement panels it left in its wake made the footing treacherous there, and, because the old walkway was still somewhat more open than its surroundings, it was littered with traps.

    Garret watched them trip a few of them from the relative safety of a narrow, winding trail worn into the forest nearby. He couldn't always see the outsiders, but he knew their destination, and they still made enough noise that he could keep track of their position as he worked his way through the maze of thin paths and low open spaces trampled into the sapling forest by the passage of the others, and even survivors like him.

    The trails were part of an extensive network which, as far as he could tell, stretched more or less unbroken in every direction, though perhaps not as much near major roads. It divided the dense new growth forest in his territory into many small sections, winding and doubling back, branching and intersecting wherever it was convenient, though it sometimes went out of its way to circumvent abandoned, overgrown trails which had been set with traps that the others weren't sure had been tripped. Garret had a few of those to himself now, as long as he masked signs of his passage.

    He followed the trails here easily, even in the darkness, picking out landmarks with every step and shift of perspective. It was harder to find his way at night, and to avoid the traps, but in his territory he would find his way.

    There was a loud scrape and a thwack sound from their direction, and Garret crouched down to see them, peering through the thinner growth just above the ground.

    The bigger outsider, the one he'd hear called Mac, had slid down a tilted slab of cement, a lighter swath scraped into the wet layer of dead leaves and topsoil by his boot. He was grunting and swearing as he worked his way around, so he could use his other foot to push back the narrow, nail-studded log which had pinned his leg against the rock. His pants had kept him from injury, the reactive armor no doubt turning the nails more or less painlessly, but they snagged on the metal spines nicely, making escape difficult.

    Garret watched them for a moment, trying to make sense of them.

    Their armor was old, older even than the CDF and military gear he was used to seeing. It hadn't been made for the kind of war the greatcoat he'd cut his armor from had been. There was no single large, shielded layer to shrug off the fallout dust and to brush aside most of the gases, and no seals in the fatigues to keep out the machines. They wore it loose, with the trousers tucked into their boots and their armor open in the front, though the early-model reactive cloth would have worked better had it been fitted closer. He supposed getting it tailored would have been difficult, and loose was better than too tight in the wrong places.

    The static digital camouflage pattern cycled through several color schemes as they walked, adjusting to better fit its surroundings, though most of the schemes were made for urban environments. He wondered where they'd gotten it, and why they were using it.

     There was a faint ringing sound coming from somewhere down the trail, and Garret worked his way towards it. There was a bell tied to a branch, shaking as a cord tied to it jerked back and forth with the outsiders' movements. Eying it warily, Garret closed his hand around the bell and snapped it off the half-rotten strings.

    The outsider finally managed to drag himself up while the girl covered him, sweeping back and forth with her rifle, and they resumed their course. Garret watched for a moment, to make sure they didn't trip anything else, then he used his spear to push himself to his feet.

    He froze. There was someone standing in the trail.

    It was too late to hide, it was obviously watching him. Garret glared at it in the darkness, waiting to see what it would do. He risked a glance towards the outsiders, but he couldn't see them from here.

    The other man started purposefully towards him. Garret scanned the area as quickly as he could for a sign of any more of them, then he took a few steps forward, into a slightly more open space, where he could maneuver a bit better with his spear. He wasn't going to run from just one of them. Not now.

    The creature stopped just out of reach of his spear. It was a thin, spindly thing, all long limbs and whipcord muscle, and it appeared to be unarmed. It regarded him carefully for a moment.

    Finally, it opened its mouth, giving him a cheerful smile which clashed sharply with its twisted features.

    “You're going to die.” it crooned, it's voice very clear on the quiet.

    A moment passed. Garret took a breath, exhaled through his nose. He didn't say anything.

    The other man smiled for a moment, then it feinted left and launched itself forward.

    And Garret went to work.

    The other managed to grab a hold of the spear almost immediately in the close quarters, but Garret had been expecting that, and he dropped it as soon as the creature put itself off balance, letting it stumble as he ice picked across with his knife, the ragged blade scouring a shallow, bloody line across the creature's chest and shoulder.

    It managed to block his next jabs and slashes more or less unharmed, and punched him twice, but he caught it between the legs with a good kick when it was deflecting his knife, and he wrecked its knee with a stomp to the inside that broke the joint with a loud pop. It gasped, for they never screamed aloud in pain, and surprised the survivor by piling into him, slamming them both to the ground. The creature's hands curved into vicious claws as it tried to tear at his face and neck.

    The fact that he was still wearing his backpack was probably the only thing that saved him from having the air driven from his lungs by their landing, though the clatter of the tools in his pack didn't reassure him.

    “We've got you now, deserter!” it hissed, catching a clumsy stab and pinning the knife in his hand by his wrist. “They'll fix you right this time! Make you something simple. A sniffer maybe. Too dumb to break.” it smiled down at him then. “But hey, maybe they'll teach you to talk this time.”

    It drew back its hand to strike downwards, and Garret let go of the knife, grabbed the creature's wrist as well as he could, hooked one of its feet, bucked and rolled them over its ruined knee, eliciting another gasp as he came up on top.

    He punched it and went for the blade.

    It managed one giddy word. “Surrounded.”

    His ragged-edged knife flashed sliver, then black in the moonlight as it slammed again and again into the other's chest.


***


    Garret sat back when he was sure it was dead. He regarded it carefully for a moment, then got up on one knee and stropped the blade of his knife against a clean spot on the other's bloody shirt.

    Surrounded. Somehow, he knew it was telling the truth. He'd been stupid to follow the outsiders. They were as good as dead, had been before they even came here. Between the physical sound, and the radio noise, they broadcast their every step to the others.

    And he'd let them flush him out.

    Garret wondered for a moment if he would have sought them out had the specialists never found him. He thought back to the hope he'd felt, at hearing human voices over the radio, through the ceaseless painful noise. He would have, if just to see that they were real.

     The noise of the campus had taken on a hostile silence all around him. He could hear them prowling closer, feel their nonsense signals buzzing in the air. Time to go.

    “Flank left” somebody said, right beside him, and Garret whirled to face them. His realization that the voice had just been the comm in his ear was cut short when he came face to face with a man in antiquated armor and a blank-faced mask, standing in the brush not ten feet away.

    Goddamnit.

    So much for that plan.

    For the briefest fraction of a second, both men stood transfixed by their mutual surprise. Garret's mouth opened, but he couldn't find his voice. A year and a half of silence made it a conscious effort and before he could speak, the man's brain reached his body, and he stepped back, startled, and raised his boxy, compact rifle. “Radiohead!” he snapped, and Garret caught a glimpse of motion as the other outsider aimed her weapon.

    “Wait!” Garret said, desperation forming the word. He held up a hand as if to stay the bullets he'd seen tear through flesh and concrete. “I'm not one of them.” he rasped, in a voice rusty from long disuse. “I'm human.” he pulled his radio from his belt and held it up, peeling back the tape with his thumb so they could see the glowing screen.

    There was a half-second pause.

    “Ha!” the woman said, turning to her compatriot. “Told you.”

    They hadn't shot him yet, so the survivor risked a look around. He couldn't see any of the others; they must have started with a wide area, maybe the whole courtyard, sweeping steadily in. That meant they didn't know exactly where to find their prey, and that meant he had a chance. But he had to move quickly, before their perimeter got too tight.

    “Need to go. Now” he whispered.

    “No. You need to answer some questions.” the man said, punctuating the sentence with a jab of the rifle. “Who are you?”

    Something snapped back across the trail. Garret shook his head.

    “We're surrounded. Look around.” their visors must have had something besides night vision, if they'd managed to find him during that fight. He looked quickly from them to his surroundings. “Questions later; we need to go now. Turn off your radios, you're flagging us.” Goddamn idiots using default Union ICE. If he could get into their net with an old comm he stole from a truck, the others sure as hell could. If the devices thought you were friendly, they'd answer system queries – make enough low-level traffic to track them by.

    “W-” the outsider began, but the woman waved him into silence and turned in a slow circle, surveying the woods with her scope.

    She nodded once to her compatriot and turned to Garret. “You know this area?”

    “I live here.”

    She looked him up and down. Looked again at the dead other.

    “Then lead on.”

    He waited until he was up ahead and they were moving before he breathed a sigh of relief.

    In a voice he probably didn't think Garret could hear, the tall outsider said “Great. Another one.”

***

    Walking with other humans proved to be difficult for reasons Garret had never anticipated. He'd expected them to be loud and clumsy – he'd even considered ditching them, through violence if necessary, before trying to slip past the other search line, but they were actually fairly comfortable in the thick brush, and moved with quiet ease, and handled their close calls with some degree of discipline.

     If they had a problem, it was that they didn't trust him in the slightest, and tended to rely on whatever 'experience' had gotten them into this situation in the first place. But even that was manageable. They didn't trust him not to lead them into a trap, but they weren't willing to let him out of sight either, and couldn't risk killing him, lest they leave a clue for the others. He had no such reservations about splitting their hastily-formed alliance if it would keep him alive, so he tended to win any argument by just doing what he wanted and keeping his spear between himself and them. After going a while without running into others or stepping in traps, they started to defer, grudgingly, to his decisions.

    No, the things that bothered him were smaller, but almost as bad. Quiet though they were, the outsiders still added to the noise he made, grating echoes to the sounds he expected, and the soft clamor behind him ate at his nerves as he slunk through the brush, convinced that the others were closing in on them.

    Other times, his fears were less rational. Their footfalls, their silhouettes in his peripheral vision, jarred him almost every time they caught his attention. After two years without seeing a friendly humanoid form, standing so close to other people terrified him on some primal level. He gritted his teeth with frustration but spent as much time watching them as he did his surroundings, and found himself instinctively moving away whenever one of them got too close. Part of him knew it probably wasn't making a good impression, but the rest was annoyed by the way they lurked over him, as if afraid he'd bolt.

    When they drew near the others' search line, Garret pulled on his hat and checked his gloves. The outsiders didn't seem to need any preparation, and he decided to chalk that up to the quality of their gear, rather than think about it too hard.

    They weathered the others' search in a thick grove on the edge of a crater. It had been a courtyard once – there were blocks of granite and cement scattered haphazardly across the forest floor, and the woods were dense and old here, grown from the decorative trees that had survived the war.

    Garret curled up in the deep furrow of a tank track, amongst weathered blast debris and new tree trunks. He watched through the thin space in the brush just above the ground, as booted feet crept past. If he turned his head slightly, past the beams of light flitting through the leaves overhead, he could see the one of the outsiders, her antiquated armor slowly shifting its urban cammo patterns, doing its best to blend in. She'd set down the long-barrelled rifle she normally carried and drawn her sidearm, some sort of short automatic rifle with a folded-up wire stock.

    He didn't like the look of it; too compact. Probably propellant-driven, just like most of the weapons here. Irredeemably loud, unstable after all this time. He spent the wait watching his surroundings and alternating between prayers that the others wouldn't find them, and that she wouldn't open fire.

    When the last set of footfalls had passed, they waited in silence for for any sign of a second group of searchers. It seemed like hours before anyone moved, but Garret only counted ten minutes before he eased himself up out of the ditch. He checked the area. The girl swept it with her scope. Then they moved out.

    They found the few remaining sentries a few minutes later, and slipped past without incident. It seemed the others hadn't fully mobilized yet – this wasn't much more than a few hunting packs. He wondered if they'd even seen the massacre inside the building yet.

    Still, he breathed a little easier once he'd put some distance between himself and the searchers. He contemplated his options as he walked– which safe houses and hiding places were usable, which routes he could take, whether he could make it through the minefield at the other side of the courtyard with the outsiders following him.

    The buildings were out, he decided. It was backwards, he knew, but now that he was outside, he didn't want to go back in. The darkness behind the windows and blast marks, barricaded like broken teeth... it made him afraid. It held the possibility of things he feared more than the others. That rational part of his mind said those things weren't here. Not in these buildings, save perhaps, for the south wing. But the rest of him made excuses; the others had had all night – those ruins were occupied by now, or at least guarded at the entrance points. It would be all too easy to get trapped in there. He survived by staying hidden. By slipping away. That made the minefield the better choice.

    The others were afraid of it. They had one cleared path, and they guarded it day and night. They couldn't do anything about the mines – they were too simple for them to manipulate. Crude analogue. Late-war union tech.

    In his earlier days, when he first wandered here, he'd needed the explosives to fight the specialists. Cut a sharp line between earning a hint of respect and becoming a worthwhile threat. He'd found his own paths.

    “Hey!” someone whispered from behind him.

    Garret dropped instinctively into a crouch, whirled to face the threat. His spear came up, ready to slash or stab or club. In that moment, looking up at the hunched, armored figures, he knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that he'd been insane. What had he been thinking? How far had he walked with the others following on his heels? They were right there!

    He stumbled before he started his lunge, though. Part of his mind righted itself, made him hesitate. He watched them for a moment, taking note of details. Everything matched, but he couldn't be sure which way he'd been wrong. Then the woman spoke again.

    “You're going the wrong way.” she whispered. She cocked her head. “Are you okay?”

    Garret nodded. Reality had chosen a path. They were human.

    “The door's that way.” she pointed towards the south wing.

    Something clicked in the survivor's mind, and he felt a chill. They couldn't still be planning...”

     “Can't go in there.” He shook his head. “It's dangerous.”

    “Dangerous out here too.” the man said, looking out into the brush.

     The woman started to say something, then she paused. After a moment, she flipped her visor up. There was a brief, faint white light, then darkness as she the screen clicked into place. She took off the helmet and set it down on the ground, kneeling down to his current eye level as she did so.

    “Hi.” she smiled cheerfully. “I'm Anna. This is Bryce.” she smacked the other outsider in the stomach with the back of her hand and he gave a small wave.

    Garret nodded his understanding at their names, his brow furrowing only momentarily at hearing the Bryce's. Maybe there were two outsiders with a similar voice. There was a long pause as he realized Anna was waiting for him to introduce himself.

    “Garret.” he whispered finally.

    “Pleased ta'meetcha, Garret. Thanks for helping us out back there, we owe you one.”

    Garret nodded, warily. This could not be the best time for introductions. There had to be some of the others within listening distance. Still, his curiosity got the better of him.

    “Who are you people?” he asked.

    The girl smiled. “I'm Anna. That's Bryce.”

    "Could have sworn we covered that."

    The survivor shook his head. “Where are you from? Why are you here?”


    “Um... our team's been operating out of Belltower for the last few months. We're... looking for something. Trying to figure our what happened.”

    He tried to hide the fear and urgency in his voice before he spoke. “Is it safe there?”

    “Belltower? Uh, yeah, I guess. For a given value of 'safe.'”

    Bryce spoke up. “What are you doing out here, man?”

    Garret looked at him for a moment. The answer seemed obvious to him, but he tried to be diplomatic. “I live here.”

    “Um... for how long?” Anna asked.

    “Since Activation.” he lied.

    The outsiders exchanged a look. “Is there anyone else like you out here? Do you have a... team? Friends?”

    The survivor shook his head warily. His hand tightened on the spear staff. I'm alone.

    Anna smiled broadly. It was cheerful, pleasant, but a little too much like one of the others' for Garret's peace of mind. “Great! How'd you like to join us?”

    “What?” Garret was pretty sure he'd asked the question the same time Bryce did.

    “We could use another local expert. If you help us out, I'm sure we can find a way to pay you.”

    They were both watching him now. He looked off to the side, then back again.

    “We need to get out of here. When they see the hallway... see what you did... things will get... bad. We need to get away before then.” He made himself look them in the eye. “You promise to bring me where it's safe – I'll try to keep you alive. But we need to leave now.”

    Her brow furrowed. She looked back the way they had come. “We can't cut and run just yet. This might be our only shot... but if you help us, we'll escort you wherever you want. And if things are going to get as bad as you said, we'll rendezvous with the rest of the team and pass the word. Try to put down some distance.”

    Garret tried to argue. After all, he'd have a better chance of making it through the next couple days if he only brought two of them, but it didn't take him long to realize that convincing them was as impossible as it was pointless – they wouldn't do anything else without their team.

    He wondered if they'd shoot him if he tried to part ways. He wondered how far he'd go to keep this hope alive. Was he really going to try to work with these people? He wondered if he could capture just one of them, and make them bring him back wherever they came from.

    He wondered why he agreed.

    Sunk cost fallacy. Was what he came up with.

    They were real. They were really from someplace safe.

    “Where's your next rally point? After the south wing?” he asked.

    “What's it matter? The door's right there.” Bryce said.

    “We can't go in there. It's...” Bad. “Dangerous.” It's a bad place. Its where the new ones come from.

    “The team's already cleared it.”

    Reality seemed to pause while that sank in.

    Oh hell.

    He wondered if he'd go in there.

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