EPISODE 4: Christopher Troy Myers
April 8th, 2028
LYING AGAINST THE SUN-BAKED asphalt of Peachtree Industrial Parkway, Troy’s face, chest, and stomach burned.
Screaming all around him.
The sun was high in a clear sky that morning.
Gunfire. Glass shattering—
Gusts of wind swept trash bags and tufts of dead dog fur through the streets; the barbed wire that stretched between unpowered lampposts and traffic signs and signals groaned. Glaring sunlight bounced off of the circle of cars. The vehicles had been arranged to form a barricade, transforming this major intersection into a defensible forward outpost of the Atlanta Militia.
—the blast of grenades.
Twenty feet away from Troy, the last of the ragtag band of people of all ages maintained a loose line, returning fire as the enemy closed the gap.
Someone hollering “Sniper!” several seconds too late for it to matter for the dying woman who lay on top of Troy—or for anyone else.
The enemy combatants, men dressed in fatigues and combat armor (both hastily spray-painted white), advanced inch by inch, knifing their wounded adversaries as they passed. Soon, they reached that loose line held by the squad of the Atlanta Militia.
Skulls bludgeoned by clubs.
Bullets whizzed over Troy’s head; he watched blood dribble out of the exit wound on the skull of the woman (Georgina? Was that her name?) who’d pinned him down. He couldn’t see much of anything else besides her slack-jawed, crazed expression. The middle-aged white woman who’d been shouting orders at him had suddenly fallen forward, landing on top of him. Now, her breath hot on his mouth, she babbled nonsense as her eyes rolled farther and farther back.
Troy desperately wriggled his shoulders, knees, and elbows, trying to crawl out from under her. He needed to get on his feet and find his gun.
Managing to roll onto his side, he got a better view of the situation unraveling around him: militiamen shot to pieces, blood misting as bullets pierced them; women hacked to bits on the spot. The ground around their bodies was covered in dewy red residue.
Basically, the battle was over in a flash. They had won the day.
Troy was defenseless. And they were coming for him; the forces of Great Titan Brownlee pounded the pavement toward him, firing at the last few fighters as they dashed.
They were coming to finish Troy off.
He hadn’t had much to eat in the past three days, or else he might have had the strength to buck the dead weight that was Georgina—or whatever her name had been—off of himself.
(Joining the Atlanta Militia had seemed like a much better idea last week. Carry a gun, patrol the streets in shifts. Get fed and clothed in exchange. Have a roof over your head. Protection against the gangs. Safety in numbers.
The body was lifted from him, then. This was it. This was his only chance. He shot to his feet, making a break for freedom. Direction didn’t matter yet. All that mattered was getting gone. He pumped his legs like he were riding his bike up the world’s steepest hill. Everything was a blur of color and white light. He couldn’t think. He could hardly breathe. If he could just make it to the alley—
Heavy footsteps behind him. Someone sprinting after him, catching up… Caught up; a rough hand snatched his bicep, and another his shoulder.
Those hands whipped him around and he came face-to-face with two sweaty Wonderbread-looking motherfuckers. They wore combat armor that had been sloppily spray-painted white.
“Well, well, well. What’s this shit?” said the one restraining Troy.
“The Top Bitch getting so desperate now that she’s giving guns to the likes of you?” said the other one, jabbing his gun against Troy’s chin.
The other members of the Klan Wrecking Crew busied themselves popping rounds into the heads of the downed Militia men and women. Including Georgina, or whatever.
After they blew her brains out, Troy felt bad for not remembering her name. But he hadn’t yet been with the militia for a week, even. It was all so new and scary. And he was just a kid.
As if reading his thoughts, the burly white ginger asked him, “How old are you?”
Troy was shaking.
The gun-toting Klansman pistol-whipped Troy across the cheek. “You’ll answer your new master, you little shit-smear.”
“Look at this dumb bitch,” said one of the other Wrecking Crewmen, referring to Georgina-or-whatever. “Race traitors is the worst of all, really. Good riddance.”
“Why are you doing this?” said one of the Atlanta Militiamen, who went by TJ. They had him on his knees, sobbing, in the middle of a circle of Klansmen. “The world’s over,” he said. “Everything’s over. Done. Why are you killing us? We’re just trying to hang on.”
The Wrecking Crew laughed on cue. The last, distant gunshots died down.
The one holding Troy handed him off to another Klansman, saying, “It’s your fault this has happened, all o’ ya. I ain’t got enough time in the world to list all the shit-stains who spit in the face of the old Red, White, and Blue, always thinking they could get away with it.” He stomped over and shoved his gun in TJ’s face. “It’s ’cause of dirt like you that this country was destroyed for Good, God-fearing Patriots like us. Why are we doing this, huh? To save our country, that’s thy. We’re performing the work of cleaning up the government by taking out the trash.”
“There is no more government, and no more country,” said TJ.
“You shut your mouth. America is the single best and greatest nation on God’s Green Earth. All we have to do is cut away the stain of your kind. Then it’ll—yeah, then it’ll all be good again.”
“Can’t you see that you’re actually fighting against the last part of ‘the country’ left on the East Coast? We might be the last piece of America. We’re trying to save America. Save it! Governor Torres is trying to preserve democracy and the American way.”
“I said, shut up.”
“You aren’t patriots. You’re fucking rebels.”
“Yeah,” the Klansman puffed up his chest, “in the proud tradition of the Confederate South.”
“And just like them, you’re going to fucking lose. You stupid cocksuckers.” TJ spat. “Long live Governor Kate Torres! Long live Atl—”
The Klansman pushed the barrel of his handgun into TJ’s mouth. He squeezed the trigger. TJ fell onto his back.
As the blood pooled around the dead man’s head, the Klansman said, loud enough for the three or four remaining captives, including Troy, to hear, “The name’s Patrick Kelleher, and I run the crew that owns you now. Here’s what’s gonna happen next: we’ll be taking you back to our base, where a Klonvocation will decide what happens to you. I’ll be honest… you’re flipping a coin between slavery and death. But you don’t deserve any better. First you let the non-whites destroy the world. Then you side with them and the Top Bitch? Yeah, it’s way too late for y’all. At least you’ll die in service of Great Titan Jonathan Brownlee. That’s something. Not enough to redeem your asses, though. Now, men,” he raised his pistol, “let’s give it a one-two-three for the salvation of the Dominion of Atlanta.”
The streets of Atlanta carried the echo of their simultaneous three shots, as it carried the echo of their triumphant roar.
Firing into the air to celebrate another victory—a victory that represented a crushing defeat for Atlanta. Another several major cross-sections of the city lost to the Ku Klux Klan.
Know what, though? The way things were going, tomorrow it’d probably be raided by the gangs. The next day, once the gangs moved out to terrorize other parts of town, the Militia might move right back in. (Assuming there would be anything left of them, by then.) Owning Atlanta was basically a deadly game of Rock-paper-scissors. It didn’t really matter as far as Troy was concerned. He knew that he wouldn’t be around to see the next battle.
Patrick Kelleher came over to him and said, “Some of these people here could be useful, cleaning, digging trenches, maybe eventually even serving in those trenches, if they reform, and if the Grand Wizard sees fit to have ’em. You are gonna die, though. Everybody knows who brought Atlanta and the whole country to their knees. Everybody knows who to blame. Ain’t a single clean Colored out there.” He hawked a string of phlegm onto Troy’s shoe. “I known it for years. And, look: it only took the end of the fuckin’ world for people to wise up. If only they’d listened, if only they’d read the signs on the Internet, on the news. Maybe my family wouldn’t have been blasted to pieces. Maybe we wouldn’t be fighting over this bombed-out city.” He grinned. “But it’s too late for that. Just like it’s too late for you.” Kelleher’s liquor-soaked breath funneled through the gap left by his missing tooth. That sickly warmth spread over Troy’s face, coating his skin in a balmy film. Kelleher said, “I’m gonna beat you to death with my own two hands, you’ll see.”
One of the Klansmen walked up to him, giving him a thumbs up, saying, “An honest day’s work.”
January 24th, 2070
Dara Meadowlark, Army Scout for the Republic of Sacramento, never would’ve signed up for her current station had she known what it would entail. She wasn’t a stranger to killing, and she was well-acquainted with blinding, shapeless fear—the kind of terror you can only feel when you’re sure you’re going to die but can’t imagine how. These concerns were, if anything, normal in a world that had abandoned decency forty years ago, a world whose population had since conspired to destroy every last humanitarian that had ever lived. Killing, maiming, brutalizing… these were part and parcel of the life of a wastelander. These Dara could handle, as she had handled them since she’d been a little girl. But what she couldn’t abide was this… feeling. It was new and hard to define; whatever it was, it didn’t have sharp or even tangible edges. It didn’t make her bleed. It only made her—what? Empty, maybe.
Her current mission was only her second Run outside of Republican territory, and she already felt this crushing weight bearing down on her, stifling her. Hard to breathe.
She wasn’t cut out for this gig.
Sitting on her knees, she stared out of the window for most of that night, wondering.
Of course, there was no turning back now; Resurrection City or bust, she thought to herself, fidgeting with her black-rimmed glasses. No matter the cost.
Dara’s attention snapped back to Sergeant Christopher Troy Myers as he shot upright. He gasped and searched the darkness with unseeing eyes.
Mere seconds ago, his face had been a mask of peaceful slumber.
He panted for a few moments and then flopped backward, asleep again.
Troy Myers. Sergeant. Lifelong survivor. Dara sighed. Bad dreams, ya human train wreck? She blinked away her own encroaching sleepiness. When that didn’t work, she knuckled her eyes.
Part of the beauty of being human, she mused, is asking yourself contradicting questions—and never getting any answers.
So. Why are we still here? On the one hand, she couldn’t understand why she and her two fellow citizens of Sacramento hadn’t pushed onward yet. On the other, she dreaded the idea of leaving this little town of Fortaleza at all. It was a good place. People seemed happy here. Sure, the world around them hadn’t gotten any less bone-chillingly evil, but… you could see the joy here, if you looked.
Leave at dawn or stay longer, it wasn’t up to her anyway. Her boss, Sacramento Bureau of Public Health Agent Bernard Morris, had decided to allow himself, Myers, and Dara another day’s respite in Fortaleza. And that was that. You didn’t argue with an Agent.
Led by Hector Catolico, Fortaleza had long been an ally of the Republic of Sacramento. Dara was fuzzy on the details, but the warm relationship was tied up with the personal history between Catolico and Sergeant Myers. Though neither of them was keen to dish about the circumstances under which they’d met. And what was up with Catolico, anyway? He acted like he was something halfway between a sheriff and a priest. Yeah, there’s a story there, alright. Mysterious mystery is mysterious, Dara scoffed.
Pressing anyone for their life stories wasn’t in Dara’s playbook, though. People had their reasons for keeping to themselves, for not dredging up the past. Sometimes they couldn’t handle the heartbreak of losing someone close to them; sometimes it was what they themselves had had to do; usually, the two cases met in the middle. At any rate, Dara wasn’t planning to ask Catolico or Myers to shine a light on every nook and cranny of the torture cellars that were his mind. She only needed to know if she was risking anything by hanging around them.
All her life, she’d stayed alive by deciding, on her own terms, who to travel, bunk, sleep, and eat with. That meant having some idea about the likelihood that the guy or gal in question might snap like a twig because Dara had triggered some PTSD shit she couldn’t possibly have seen coming. The risk of a violent episode was usually much more likely with these Lifers. Sad, but true.
“Lifers,” that’s what Dara called people of Myers’ and Catolico’s generation, also known as “Gen D”—“Dicked Hard by Life.” Dara had had it really bad as a kid. As bad as anyone, really. But, from what she’d learned through oral histories and the written accounts set down in the Sac Public Library, living in the world right after it went to the dogs must have been the worst sort of punishment. At least these days, she’d tell herself, you could pretend that there were civil people out there, that not everyone was a lying, wheeling, dealing, stealing sack of—You could pretend for even minutes at a time. And that was something.
Pretend long enough and, eventually, the mask might just stick to your face.
She hadn’t been alive to see firsthand those earliest years after Shit Hit The Fan, but, given how harsh her own life had been and how things were now, Dara felt she could imagine some fraction of the horrors Myers grew up knowing. Weaned on blood, screams were his lullabies. He must have been only ten years old when it all went really, really bad.
What had he had to do to preserve his own life?
Dara called him, and those like him, Lifers, because the world was their sentence. There were only two options for those who were old enough to remember what human civilization—what “America”—had been like: you could take “the easy way out,” or suffer on forever. The latter choice locked you into solitary confinement, only the size of the cell had expanded to encompass the vastest wilderness ever, along with all of the wild things in it—human and other. You were alone, always. You had to run for your life every day. And living usually meant making sure someone else didn’t. To that much, Dara could relate.
For chrissakes, just getting to Fortaleza, this small oasis in the Mojave, they’d had to kill something like fifteen people. Maybe more. You lost count, after a few dozen. You lost count of the lives you were forced to take to make certain you’d wake up the next day.
And that was two days ago. What challenge would today bring?
All of these thoughts swirled through Dara’s mind in the fractured seconds before Myers eyes flashed open again. He sprung to his knees.
He asked her, “Where are we?”
She forced herself to speak calmly, to reassure him: “Fortaleza. Hector Catolico set us up in the police station. There’s thick bars between us and whatever might be out there. We’re safe.”
He grunted and said, “Ain’t nobody safe, rookie. Ever.”
Clenching her teeth, she thought, You know what I meant. Jesus.
“What time is it?”
“About four in the morning, Sarge.”
He stood up, a bit shaky at first, then fine. “You let me sleep too long, Corporal.”
“I really don’t mind.” She added, to herself, I’m not sure I want you watching over me as I sleep.
“You’re driving today.” Myers wriggled out of his sleeping back and came to his knees. “Get yourself a couple hours, so you don’t crash and kill us all.”
Yeah, yeah. Dick.
Getting up from her seat at the window so she could flop onto her cot, Dara tried to remain sympathetic, tried give him a little leeway, in light of how long he’d been alive and all he’d been through. Respect your elders, they said, and Myers happened to be the oldest guy she’d met. He was probably one of the oldest people alive.
She reverted back to thinking, Old fart says whatever he wants.
She fell asleep and dreamed that her friend Larissa pleaded with her to grab the keys to the Humvee parked outside the police station.
“Steal it for us, yo,” Larissa said. “Just grab up and let’s hit the open road. Come on, Dar.”
“Um, no,” said Dara. “We’re not—how did you even get here?”
But Larissa said only, “Roadtrip, whoo!” And Dara’s rebuttal was cut off by another extended, “Whoooo!”
So Dara asked, “Where to?”
“Ugh.” She rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe you don’t remember our intimate, detailed plans, Dar. Seriously, like, what the fuck and oh my god?”
Then, in that special way that dreams work, Larissa was both herself and Tony at the same time.
“You look terrible,” said Dara’s ex, a smug grin on his fat lips.
Dara pulled a shotgun out of thin air and blew him half to hell. As he lay writhing on the ground, she supposed she was murdering Larissa right along with him. And she felt really bad—immeasurably bad, suddenly. But then she saw that Tony was clutching the keys to the Humvee in his bloodied fist. She took them, got in, and revved the engine before running him over.
She shifted into reverse and backed over him for good measure. The tire treads popped his stomach like a balloon.
He kept getting up, every time she killed him.
Now, he wore the faces of all of their old mutual friends from Washington State. All those who, a few years before, had failed to reach Sacramento.
She killed him, again and again, but he kept getting up.
An hour or so after dawn, Myers nudged her awake for breakfast. She suppressed the shiver that ran down her spine at his touch.
Running her fingers through her hair, she trailed after him and both were enveloped in the blinding brightness of a California morning as they stepped outside. Even after five years, she still occasionally found herself marveling at how stunning, sometimes literally, the sun could be down here.
Simple one- or two-storey buildings lining what Sac historians might have called “the classic American Main Street,” that was Fortaleza for you. The serenity was only enhanced by a young mother pushing a stroller along and a group of five children playing nearby.
“What are they doing?” Dara asked, pointing out the kids.
Myers glanced at them. “Hopscotch,” he said.
“Oh, okay,” she said, none the wiser.
Almost drunkenly, she ambled into Fortaleza’s dining hall. The townspeople had never bothered to remove the sign denoting that this once had been a restaurant called A Cut Above. Myers claimed it’d been a “Tex-Mex” joint once, but Dara had no idea what that meant, so she assumed he was just making stuff up to screw with her.
The kitchen lay opposite the front entrance and was separated from the restaurant by a half-wall. You could see the upper halves of the two burly cooks as they slaved away over big steaming pots. There were plenty of other people in the dining hall at that hour. From thirty-somethings to five-year-olds, they all lined up at the counter to collect their allotment of food. For the most part, they wolfed down their food and disappeared outside again. There were a few exceptions: Hector and a couple of his daughters, for instance.
Dara got in line at its end and, for five minutes or so, waddled closer and closer to the promise of nourishment. Grabbing her bowl and tray, she skirted the metal tables and chairs until she found a seat she liked (that kept her back to the wall).
She looked down. Breakfast that morning was a thin, sloppy gruel with a side of goat cheese. Not bad.
“Don’t eat any of that,” said Agent Morris from over her shoulder.
She spread her palms to indicate her half-finished bowl of gruel and rind remnant of cheese. “Too late.”
Morris sat down across from her at the tiny, two-person table. “That’s mighty incautious of you, Corporal. We don’t know what’s been done to this food.”
“We all ate with them yesterday. Including you. Twice.”
He shook his head, saying, “I did no such thing. I ate my own rations, dumping the crap on my plate for the dogs outside.”
Remaining courteous and professional in the face of Morris’ cryptic paranoia was difficult. She thought about what to say, settling on, “Why?”
Agent Bernard H. Morris was about twenty-three years old. Dara, who’d been born seven years after Shit Hit The Fan, thought of him as her much younger idiot brother. She had to. After all, he grated on her nerves just like Clara had done. And, just like with family, Dara had to deal with him because of their respective posts; were that not the case, she’d never choose to associate with such a pedantic, up-tight, condescending prick again.
See, despite being a civilian, Morris was her superior, and Myers’, too. That’s because the governmental branch for which he worked, the Sacramento Bureau of Public Health (SAC BPH), was a super-agency with unlimited power and absolutely zero jurisdictional restrictions within Sac and its territories—collectively known as The Republic. SAC BPH was staffed by these Agents—some field-, others home-based—who were, for all intents and purposes, detective-doctors with a smattering of Spec Ops thrown in. The overwhelming authority vested in each of the Bureau’s Agents had been deemed necessary by the Republican Government. The BPH and the Government were closely tied, primarily because curbing the spread of the Vox Humana Virus (VHV) was the single greatest responsibility of “the people’s representatives.” That’s what they said, and it seemed obvious—to anyone who hadn’t completely cracked under the strain of simply living in the wasteland. The citizens of Sac seemed to have forgotten, or they never really learned, just how ruthless people could be. The Sleepers were terrifying, sure. But there were a thousand ways to die beyond Sacramento’s walls; Sleepers made the list, but they didn’t monopolize it.
The power of life and death at the flick of a pen on paper… What did that kind of authority do to people? The BPH elevated certain “exceptional” young people to the status of Agent, training them for any and every contingency, transforming them into shields against the darkness. The recruitment process, Dara had been assured when she’d dug deeper than her better judgment had advised, was complex and highly logical and methodical. When she’d heard that, Dara had nodded along. But she couldn’t help but shake the idea that, in the end, despite all the flowery talk, individual human beings were still the enforcers of the supposedly impartial law. And as Dara stared at Bernard Morris, she wondered what kind of a kid he’d been, or how far he’d had to push himself away from who he wanted to be in order to become the cutthroat lawman he was now.
“Why?” Morris repeated, rolling his eyes. He said, in hushed tones, ending in a hiss, “Why not eat food from strangers in a strange land? No wonder you people need me. Nobody else seems to take VHV contamination risks fucking seriously.”
Dara lowered her own voice. “You think Fortaleza’s been contaminated?” Her stomach drop-kicked her throat.
“I’m not sure.” Morris broke open the plastic seal on his container of government-sanctioned, perfectly designed protein bars.
The secret ingredient is love. And bug guts. That was another thing Dara still had to accustom herself to: bug protein was the staple food source in Sac. High in protein, extremely low in production cost, and engineered to contain every trace of nutrition the human body needed to keep going another day or more.
Dara waited for Morris to take a bite.
He said, “All I know is, Hector’s daughter made a pass at me.”
Narrowing her eyes, Dara said, “Good for you?”
“As charming as I might be, Corporal Meadowlark, I am under no illusions. Sure, anyone’d wanna get on this.” He rubbed his palm up and down the length of his none-too-impressive pecs. “But I have not turned on the love magnet that is my combined wit and sex appeal. Out of respect for Mr. Catolico and his generous hospitality, of course. Thus, I can only be suspicious as to the motivations of,” he waved a hand dismissively, “what’s-her-face.”
“Which one?” said Dara.
“Which daughter was it?”
“Hell if I know.”
She mumbled. “Yeah, you’re some charmer, sir.”
“Hah. That’s what they tell me.”
Watching him tear apart that protein bar with his large front teeth, Dara thought again about how easy it had been for him to kill five people just the day before yesterday. They’d “likely” been infected. One of them had been for sure, but who knew about the others? It had definitely made an impression when Morris, without so much as blinking, put a bullet through the heads of one vector and four human beings.
On the flipside, he could also, without warning, transform into this stunted man-child Dara saw before her now: cracking lousy, unfunny jokes about the most serious subjects. This was the man that she and Sergeant Myers were sworn to protect, with their own lives if they (or he) determined that sacrifice necessary.
Given the chance, however small, that she’d become infected by eating the watery gruel and smelly cheese, Dara had to ask again, “Sir, I know you told me to drop it last night, but what about the Sergeant?”
“I’m sorry, Corporal,” he said, mouth full. “I can’t hear you over the sound of me enjoying my soulless but adequate daily nutrition.”
“What about the Sergeant? If we’re talking about potential vectors, he’s been showing a couple really troublesome signs.”
Morris snapped his plastic, airtight container shut. “You’re worried over nothing. Besides, I’m handling it.”
Are you hearing me, kid? Aloud, she said, “Which one is it, then? Are you handling something I should worry about, or are you not worried? I am concerned about him. Sir. Before we left, I did a little digging.”
“Commendable as your initiative might be deemed under different circumstances, I assure you, I don’t need to hear whatever you’re about to say.” He muttered, “But you’re going to tell me, anyway, I’m sure.”
She stifled an exasperated groan. “He was with Dr. Byrd. He was a patient for months prior to Byrd being ID’d as a carrier, and continued to attend sessions up until the man’s incineration.”
“As did a couple dozen other soldiers and civilians alike.” Morris shifted his chair back. “Your point?”
She couldn’t believe she had to spell it out for him like this. “As a Scout, he leaves the Republic for long periods of time. Sometimes days, or a week, or a month. That means, with his position, that he could miss a screening. Or even two.”
“With your position, too, you admit,” said Morris. He smiled like a horned imp who’d managed to crawl his way out of the maw of some lesser Hell to finally delight in the torment of mortals.
She bristled. “I’ve made it a point to schedule private screenings whenever necessary. My records will prove it.”
“Excellent. Great work, there.”
“With all due respect granted the Sergeant—” she slapped the table top—“my record may be shorter, but his isn’t as clean or consistent. Sir.”
Morris yawned, rising from his chair. “Your insubordination is really aggravating, Corporal. You have disrespected both your immediate superior and, more importantly, me.” He leaned in close. “Trust me when I say I have taken all necessary precautions. I have made all necessary inquiries. Let’s not forget that I’m a fucking Bag Man, lady. It’s my job, and I’ve got it covered.”
Morris left her alone at the table.
Reassured in no way whatsoever, Dara stared at her gruel. Deciding the damage had been done, she slurped up the rest of it.
This is a baby-sitting job, she realized. I’m the caretaker for a damaged post-teen and a middle-aged whack-job.
Myers could be infected. Why wasn’t Morris taking this seriously? What was she not being told, dammit?
She set her spoon down on her bowl. Then Hector took the seat Morris had just abandoned.
Without preamble, he said, “I really don’t like that guy.”
Dara let out a startled half-laugh. “You mean Agent Morris.”
“Yeah, the wormy little kid who thinks he’s king of the big shots. The diaper boy with scrawny legs.” Hector scratched his bald crown. “It’s enough to make a man ask what the bosses in Sacramento are thinking, giving a chicken-armed baby that amount of power.”
Dara said, “You know about Bag Men? What they do?”
Hector nodded. “All about it. My boy Troy comes through here like twice a year. Been doing it for the past twenty. We known each other before then, too. Anyway, my bro gives me the latest whenever he passes through.” He snapped his fingers, and one of the dining hall cooks came over to collect Dara’s plate, water glass, and spoon. Hector continued, “I know what you’re really asking, by the way. I may be old as dirt, but I’m not dumb. To answer: I ain’t gotta believe in Sleepers, as you call them. I seen ’em for myself.” He pointed his middle and index fingers at his eyes. “I put a couple down, even.”
“So you haven’t had any problems lately?”
“No, not lately.”
“Do you conduct blood tests?”
He gave her a funny look. “Nah. Ain’t gotta.”
“What do you mean?”
“Because Sleepers,” Hector said, tapping his nose, “I can smell ’em. I could smell ’em when they were Shufflers. I could smell ’em when they turned into Runners and Hunters. How you think I stayed alive so long? We’re a dying breed, us fifty-somethings.” He chuckled. “Literally. Anyone makes it to my age, they just gotta be built of something strong as stone. That’s why you should trust that nose on Troy. He’s like me, a survivor.”
Dara figured suggesting that he and Myers were as susceptible to infection as anyone else would be pointless. Instead, she said, “Got any words of advice about the road between here and Resurrection?”
Hector raised an eyebrow. “Resurrection?”
“Resurrection City?” Dara said. Shit. Had she just dropped some information she wasn’t supposed to be sharing?
“Ah.” Hector clapped his hands together. “You mean Phoenix. Or what used to be Phoenix, Arizona.”
“I guess so.” Dara had never heard either of those names before, but she assumed Hector knew what he was talking about.
The man bowed his head, running his hands over the browning tablecloth. “My advice, you ask? Here it is: ‘Don’t go there.’”
Great. Fantastic. “Why’s that?”
“They were big when we arrived on the scene, years and years ago. Gathering up people from all over, recruiting them to join ‘The Miracle’ or whatever they were calling it. Then, one day, they clammed up. No contact. Thought they’d been wiped out by war with El Azteca, until one of our junkers was out scavenging for parts and saw the lights.”
Paola, one of Hector’s daughters, brought him a cup of coffee. She leaned in for a peck on the cheek before bowing her head and walking to the kitchen.
Hector sipped the deep, black brew. “Ahh. Homegrown and bitter.” He paused, savoring the taste. Then: “So, about five years ago, we learn they’re still around—after fifteen years of assuming they’d been wiped out like roaches by those Mexican conchas.” He quirked an eyebrow at her. “And, before you get cute, I’m Argentinian.”
“I don’t know what that means, sorry,” said Dara.
“Good. Better that way. I guess the old rules don’t apply no more, and they haven’t for a long-ass time, but I still can’t stand being confused for one of those ruthless cutters by dumb white trash.” He smiled. “I naturally don’t think of you as such, my dear.” Grumbling into his cup, he said, “El Azteca. Big man stomping throats right after the world ends. Pinche cabron.” He looked up at her. “What was I saying?”
“You were talking about Resurrection City. Phoenix, you called it.”
“Yeah, yeah. Right. Damn cult, apparently.” He slurped a mouthful of the coffee. “As if what we known already wasn’t creepy enough, we got one of them in here, last year: Edwin, this kid who run away. Had ‘scared shitless’ written all over his face.”
“What did he tell you?”
“See that’s exactly it. He didn’t say nothing. He was too afraid to.”
“Or he was looking to get asylum?” The subtext of Dara’s statement: I’ve witnessed the hurt bunny routine too often to forget that—nine times outta ten—it ends in someone’s blood because the ‘bunny’ is actually an axe-murderer.
Hector shrugged. “Hey, you asked me.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” She stared at the table. “You never tried pressing him for more intel, though? Knowing what’s on your borders is a huge part of—”
Hector jerked forward. “You don’t think I know how to keep my community safe?” His cross had slipped out of his off-white wife-beater. He rubbed the gold between thumb and forefinger, lifted the chain, and dropped it back to where it had nestled between fabric and skin. “I like you, Dara, so I’m gonna tell you one more thing. Something only I and a couple others know about. One of the few juicy pieces of information that Edwin did let slip was about who runs shit down in Phoenix, or Resurrection, or whatever anyone wants to call it. Edwin said the city is holy. God rules it. God made flesh.”
Dara couldn’t help but smirk. “And do you really believe that me, Sergeant Myers, and Agent Morris, are headed to the City of God?”
“Eh…” Hector thought about it. “There’s a reason I’m called ‘The Catholic,’ you know.” He sighed. “I was sixteen when the world went bad. I saw brother kill brother. Mothers strangled their babies in cribs and called it ‘mercy.’ And, after the world ended, living in this dry shit-storm that seems to go on forever, I seen all sorts of messed up murder, rape, and everything that would drive a man away from believing in God. But I think you just gotta know where to look for Him. I believe you can find the work of a loving God, even inside all this—in the kindness of strangers, and the help we give to our fellow men.” Throwing his head back, he downed the last of his coffee. “The end of the world was made by Man. But God was the one to help us come to a rebirth. Do I know if Resurrection City is ruled by God? No. But I know God is everywhere. Here—” he touched the fold in his shirt where his cross hung—“here—” he made the sign of the cross on his forehead—“and all around.” He flung a hand out to indicate the dining hall and the rest of Fortaleza beyond it. “Personally, I don’t think God needs to sit on Earth. He’s a bit bigger than all that. So, I wouldn’t trust no one calling their home ‘The City of God.’ And I might watch them extra close for a bit before gettin’ cozy.”
“You are a priest, then,” said Dara, smiling at the passion Hector had shown her.
He appeared shy, suddenly. “As much as anyone can be, in our time.”
“Could I speak with Edwin, do you think?”
“I won’t stop you, but that might not be the best idea.”
“Aren’t you trying to get an impartial picture of where you’re going? Isn’t that the mission?”
“Well,” Hector said, and he cracked his knuckles, “even if you could get anything much out of him, you can be sure Edwin ain’t gonna be impartial.”
“I’ll take that into consideration. I’m only looking to get a more complete picture. His opinion will help.”
“Isn’t that that Morris guy’s job? Forgive me for saying it, but ain’t you just a guard dog, basically?”
Dara leaned back. “Yeah. You’re right. But the best guard dog doesn’t let her master walk into a trap.”
Hector chuckled. “Sure. Good one. Okay, go talk to Edwin. You have my blessing. On one condition: don’t screw with the guy. On top of being the holy man, here, I’m also the sheriff. I’m good at my job because I look out for my own. Edwin’s been here a year. He’s earned his place.”
“I won’t badger him, I promise.” Dara got up. “Do you mind me asking a personal question?”
“How does it work, being a priest and a sheriff? You’d think those two would contradict each other. At least a little.”
“Isaiah 11:4.” Hector Catolico’s eyes drifted to the ceiling as he summoned the verse. “‘But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.’ The law can still be the most powerful weapon against injustice. But people gotta believe in it first. Same with God. I can’t speak for Him, but I gotta think He’d be okay with me. I’m trying to save people. With words first. With other methods, if words ain’t enough.”
Dara thanked him and excused herself.
In the crisp air outside A Cut Above, she thought about what she’d learned in that dining hall. Was Resurrection City a trap? A message reaching Sac from some place no one had ever heard of. Being hailed by radio after years and years of static. Just a bit too convenient, or so Dara felt about it.
But how many groups, settlements, and even cities had said the same of Sacramento’s own broadcast over time? Played on loop forever, it told of the evolution of the plague that had wiped out most of humanity and all of human civilization. And it told of hope, of new beginnings, of the Republic of Sacramento, where anyone had a chance to start again. How many people had said to themselves, or their families, “Bullshit!” and lived or died out in the wide world beyond the Republic’s relatively safe walls?
Wasn’t it about time that Sacramento connected with a larger network of people beyond its own borders, and the few allied settlements (like Sanfran and Fortaleza) that represented a handful of bastions against the dozens of ever-encroaching, interlocking, man-killer threats? Sleepers, Wild-Childs, the Kingdom of Yuma—there was so much to fear, but there was also so much to aspire to.
The only way out of this subsistence living, Dara had been told over and over again as she went through basic training in Sac, was for the remaining forces of good to band together for the benefit of humanity as a whole. Civilization could be recouped, piece by piece. It was happening in Sac, so why couldn’t it happen in other places, too?
Resurrection City, to BPH HQ, must have represented a spark of hope. A couple weeks ago, in the barracks in Sac, Sergeant Myers had compared the possibility of connecting with another fledgling nation to how people thought about extraterrestrials back in his day. “Whenever movies about aliens were made,” he’d said, “people were supposed to be happy. ‘We’re not alone,’ someone would say. The universe isn’t just a whole lotta empty. ‘We’re not alone’; that’s what it’s like when we find another bunch of drifters, or a small village somewhere out there. ‘We are not alone.’” He’d lost himself in the tangent, then, saying: “Then there were the movies where the aliens invade and it looks pretty bad for us for a bit. Until we wipe our asses with them, because humanity, fuck yeah.”
Humanity. It was really hard, sometimes, to think about the people on this planet that way: as one unit in a grander universe. The lens of Dara’s focus, for instance, had never expanded its range beyond the West Coast of what was once a nation called America. In fact, it hadn’t been too long ago that she’d first learned about “The United States,” a country whose ideals all sounded really good on paper. But she’d also learned about the America that couldn’t bear the weight of the multiple disasters that had rebooted civilization. Dark America, if you will.
Dara couldn’t blame them. By the same token, she felt like it’d be unfair to simply credit the people who came to life on the pages of those history textbooks in the Washington State University Library with the higher ideals they supposedly espoused and then move on with her life. You couldn’t have the praise without the condemnation, and vice versa. To Dara—who’d been self-taught, who had spent the first half of her life on the run from men who were worse than beasts—the elevation of mankind seemed a ridiculously distant, preposterous pipedream.
There is no ‘humanity.’ There are only people. Good or bad, nomadic or settled. There are only people. And they fight with others or each other every day.
But Sacramento had opened her eyes to another angle. The government there really did seem to man the proverbial trenches twenty-four hours per day, three hundred and sixty-five days per year, in the name of something greater than themselves or even the citizens they served. What had started as the drive to survive had evolved into a question, the very question that Dara had been asked when she’d first convinced herself to volunteer for the army: “What if we could bring it back?”
“Bring what back?” Dara had asked the recruitment officer.
The officer’s answer: “A humanity united. A humanity bold enough to forge a nation built upon brotherhood, peace, and the pursuit of happiness. A race of men and women strong and secure enough to look beyond ourselves to the rest of the world and to the stars beyond.”
It was a really solid speech, Dara had admitted, as she scratched her name in ink onto the dotted line.
Later, she’d reexamined her initial excitement, and the zeal dripping from the words of that middle-aged recruitment officer. That woman had, in hindsight, seemed a little tired and worn. Maybe Dara’s imagination had supplied the energy that accompanied the buzzwords thrown her way.
Her memory was too fuzzy and red-washed to be reliable. That day, when she’d signed her life away, she’d been angry about losing Larissa, Tony, and the others. She’d wanted blood and revenge.
And, yet, she’d also wanted for it to mean something more. And that “something more” was Sacramento’s most enticing promise.
Hunting Sleepers alone, survivalist-style, would be a regression. She didn’t want to go back to how she remembered her earliest years. The running, the sweating, the fear. Hiding in crawl spaces. Boots crushing her leg. Laughter and men covering their faces with masks and scarves.
For these reasons, she chose—consciously chose—to believe in Sacramento. She did so every day. Probably along the same lines as Hector seemed to choose to believe in God. A power beyond your own that you could lean on when you doubted, when you were afraid—that was an attractive prospect.
And Sacramento, thinking about the Republic as a body of sorts, a collection of cells—well, even the BPH needed to believe in something. The Bureau, the Government, and military command each chose to rely on the survival of decent, honest people. They were out there, somewhere, and Sac would call out to them and bring them back.
Some nights, when Dara couldn’t find the courage to let her guard down long enough to sleep, she would ask herself, “What if we could bring it all back?” And she trusted in her fellow soldiers to uphold that same question.
What was Resurrection City to Sacramento? A chance. Another chance. After many long years of radio silence, of abortive attempts to round up and save stragglers, of finding people Dead on Arrival, Resurrection City represented another chance to be “something more” again. To start building a ladder out of the chasm humanity had fallen into.
So, it didn’t matter, really, if Resurrection City was a trap or not. Not knowing was what would eat at you and leave you sleepless. Which was why Dara planned on getting a bit of inside information first. Boldly going into the dark didn’t mean you were contractually obligated to step on a landmine.
Time to find this Edwin kid.
After asking around the kitchens and the local (literal) watering hole, Dara was led by Christina, one of Hector’s granddaughters, to the newest newcomer to Fortaleza: Edwin Grady.
He was a ginger, tall and lanky, and moved like he was struggling to escape a skin-tight bag. Even standing under the canopy, stretched over a workbench, he gave himself away as too tall for his own good. In one hand he held a polishing cloth, in the other a silencer. The various parts of a stripped-down assault rifle lay scattered in front of him. His forlorn frown was perpetual.
Thanking Christina for her help, Dara ventured, “Edwin?”
He turned sharply and, when he saw her, clasped his chest with the hand that held the cloth. “Please, ma’am, don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“Sorry. Being a Scout must have really done a number on me. I’m quiet by default.”
She tried to laugh it off, but Edwin kept looking at her with those watery, green eyes like she was trying to sell him something. “You northerners sure have a funny way of saying ‘hello,’” he said, returning his attention to his work.
Pink fingers twitching, eyes narrowed, he pressed his lips until they whitened and left only a thin slit out of which poked the tip of his tongue. Watching him for a minute, she decided that he obviously didn’t know what he was doing with those gun parts.
“Here,” she stepped to his side, “let me help.”
He squirmed away from her reaching fingers. “I don’t need your help.”
“Did you disassemble this gun?”
“Yeah. Dominga showed me how.”
“But not how to reassemble it, I’m guessing.”
He stopped polishing the silencer and set it and the cloth down. “How did you know?”
Dara told him, “Every one of those parts is spotless. But you keep polishing. Stalling for time until I left you alone was the only reasonable explanation.”
Exhaling, he said, “What are you, some kind of detective?”
“No, that’d be my boss, Agent Morris. I’m just a soldier who got put through the ringer herself, not that long ago. So I know what it’s like to want someone to give you the rundown, but have no one able or willing to do it.” She took the cloth from him. “Here, let me give it a try.”
Dara spent the next forty seconds expertly reassembling the firearm. From the corner of her eye, she noticed Edwin gawking at the deftness of her movements.
“I’m pretty slow,” she said, when finished. “I know a guy who can disassemble-reassemble in twenty seconds, give or take.”
“Holy heck,” he said. He clapped a hand to his mouth. “Pardon my language.”
She laughed, thinking he was joking. He wasn’t.
“Um.” Dara gently set the rifle down. “That’s quite the powerful internal censor you got, there.”
Edwin seemed genuinely ashamed. “I just spoke an oath. I cussed. It was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
“What? What are you talking about? Have you heard how people talk these days?”
“That’s not the point.” Under his breath, he muttered something like, “Sick,” or “Wicked,” or “Sin.” Hard to tell which.
“I don’t get it.” Dara combed a hand through her hair. “I mean, since the end of the world, we haven’t had much need for polite conversation. At least, not as it used to be.” She thought twice about what she’d said and, as a result, added, “Well, I’m not speaking from personal experience. I wasn’t born yet when, you know—but my parents talked about those years so often that I feel like I sorta was there, I guess. Anyway, ‘gosh,’ ‘darn,’ and ‘heck’ are cute, more than anything else. People have done a lot worse.”
Edwin blushed, his expression still a mask of deathly sobriety. “It doesn’t matter what others say, ma’am. I have to be good. It’s what I was taught. I have to be good.”
This conversation was beginning to make Dara’s skin crawl, her curiosity grew. She asked, “Who taught you that you couldn’t say something as harmless as ‘heck’?”
“In school. The Mistress made it clear we weren’t to use the Lord’s name in vain, or speak any other oath, on account of Him watching us every day and every night.”
“I don’t think God probably cares what you say or don’t say. Far as I can tell. Though he might care about the meaning and actions behind your words. Or how you say them.”
“No, no. No.” He was trembling, just a little, and repressing it as best as he could. “I know for a fact He doesn’t abide cussing, ma’am.”
“Alright, I’ll bite. How can you be so sure?”
“I heard Him say so myself.”
Um.Okay. Now you have my attention, Dara thought.
Pressing on, Edwin’s eyes glazed over. “He spoke to the crowd gathered in the amphitheatre, passing down His edicts to one and all. The news was received to the clearing of trumpets. Glorious.”
A feeling of unease, like nausea, simmered in Dara’s gut. “Guessing this was in Resurrection City?”
“You grew up there?”
Polite kid, I’ll give him that. But anyone can smile to your face.
Something was very much rubbing Dara the wrong way.
Over her years as a drifter, she’d run into many different types of people, including a whole bunch of supposed prophets, mystics, seers, magicians, and so on. After SHTF, what was left of the world was practically crawling with those men and women willing to guide the wayward to a spiritual reward.
There’s always a price, though.
Most, if not every last one, of these self-proclaimed god-sends turned out to be total, raging lunatics. Obviously, right? But, in most cases, clarity came only with the benefit of hindsight. When you’re on the run from the horde, and you and your family are starving to death, and anyone with a weapon is killing other survivors on sight rather than taking chances… well, what would you be ready and willing to believe?
Dara had found that the only difference worth noting on a case by case basis was the intent of the seller of bullshit. The degree of malice behind the lunacy was all that mattered. Some millennial preachers actually told their lies long and well enough that they took to believing their own knock-off gospels. Some even convinced themselves they were telling the truth from the start. The mind is a sturdy crutch that can take you miles in any direction.
In her own experience, Dara knew there were plenty of evil people. Then you had crazy people, and you would every now and then even stumble upon crazy evil people, from time to time. Caught in the middle all too often, however, were the simpler sorts, those who had been indoctrinated from birth into a belief system they couldn’t shake. No matter how far they ran. These were the proverbial good sheep of the good shepherd.
That was another shitty truth about the world into which Dara had been born: the next generation had to be raised by the same gun-crazed, holy book-toting, shrieking, running, hiding psychopaths that had somehow endured the apocalypse. These survivors had been so obsessed with “The End” that they’d never managed to make a new beginning, a lot of them. Even after they had kids. They didn’t know how to be human parents anymore, many of them. So many pre-apocalypse “normals” stayed stuck in kill-or-be-killed mode that it’s no wonder that their children were mostly doomed to regurgitate these ideologies—hybrids of old world religion and new world order.
Curing this inborn insanity wasn’t hopeless, not for all of them. It was only mostly hopeless for most of them.
Where did Edwin fall on Dara’s Personal Madness Scale? Could he be brought back, like she’d been? Had he run far and fast enough from Resurrection City, and whoever had damaged him there, to leave it behind in the darkest corners of his mind?
Am I speaking to a crazy person? she asked herself. Or does he just not know any better?
Having reached that perfect conversational chokepoint where you want to know more but also feel the urge to back away not-so-slowly, Dara considered how she might proceed. Then she said, “I’ve never had the honor of talking to God and having him answer. What was it like? A voice in your head?”
Ewin frowned at her like she was the loopy one. “No, of course not. I saw Him on stage. He looked into the crowd and told us all of these things.” He hurriedly added, “He may appear to be of flesh and blood, like you and me, but He’s much more.”
Uh-huh. Whatever you say.
Dara was just about to shove him into the Totally Screwed folder of her Madness Files when he said, “I had to get out.”
Right. Why did you leave? She asked him, “Why?”
“I could feel Him watching, all the time. Things started happening. People were talking. He got angry and punished them. My uncle was one. Uncle Tobias dared to question the teachings. He uttered the taboo. And God’s servants disappeared him. Like he had always been nothing.” A tear dribbled from Edwin’s filmy eye. “I had to go. I had to. Because I was so angry that I wanted vengeance. And to feel vengeance in your heart is to be cursed. That’s what the Lord said. And I wanted to hurt Him, who is blessed above all. Only for a second.” He sobbed into his polishing cloth. “I’d lost my mind. I had to leave.”
Edwin hunched over. His blubbering was so pathetic that Dara felt compelled to put a hand on his shoulder, saying, “There, there. You got out. That’s what’s important. It’s all over now.” They were empty platitudes, but they were all she had.
“You don’t understand.” He pushed her away. “I left her there.”
“My aunt.” He dragged his sleeve across his nose. The edges came away wet and sticky. “I only saved myself. I’m a coward. Cowardice is a sin, says the Lord.”
The Lord says a lot of junk, apparently. She continued to try to sound reassuring. “It’s going to be okay, Edwin. You know that me and my friends are heading to Resurrection City soon, right? Maybe we could help your aunt…?”
“Moira. We can find her, maybe. Just tell us where to look. Tell us about the city, as much as you can remember.”
In times of crisis, there was a side to Dara that would spring to the surface and assume control of everything she was. That part of her came from Clara, who’d always said, “There are two ways to survive: rely on someone strong, or be strong yourself.” That simple statement broke down all of post-apocalyptic Mankind into two groups: those who clung to the legs of a leader, evil or not-totally-evil, and those who were the leaders—or the loners, as the case may be. Clara had been of that last breed, tough as nails and counting on no one.
It had got her far. Not far enough. Though, that hadn’t been Clara’s fault, but Dara’s. Clara didn’t make it to Washington State. Maybe that was just as well, considering what had happened there.
The past was past.
Anyway, she’d taught Dara to smell danger like a sour fart. (What? That image had been the easiest way to teach a crying seven-year-old.) She’d said, “Dara, you sniff the air, and if you don’t like what you’re smelling, you leave the room. You walk the fuck the other way, and you don’t look back except to check nothing’s following.”
Right now, looking at Edwin, thinking about the mission to Resurrection City, all of Dara’s alarm bells were ringing.
She tapped Edwin on the back, waved a quick two-fingered “see ya later” at him, and jogged away.
We’re walking into a trap.
Back when it had just been her and Clara—hell, even at Washington State, when it had effectively just been her—Dara could have stepped off the metaphorical bus anytime she wanted. No one owned her, back then.
This time around, though, she had orders, superiors, something much like a home, and so many other concerns. She couldn’t back out of the room and walk away like Clara had taught her.
She was scared shitless.
And all she could think was, We’re walking into a trap.