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Middle of Nowhere

By D.G. Swain All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Scifi

Blurb

Rachel stared out across the Wastes from under her wide-brimmed leather hat, a necessary accessory for any traveler. She wondered, for perhaps the hundred-thousandth time if there would ever be real life out there again. An instinctive thought that clung to an event in the recesses of her brain, eating away at her like a cancer of the mind. Only the far flung memory of farmers going about their business, tilling the soil, harvesting crops, came to her as delicately as the scent of cut grass, ever so poignant, ever so transient, almost lost in the middle of nowhere…

Chapter 1

If there was ever a place where Man first suspected that the world was flat, it would have been from the exact spot where Rachel stood. The vast expanse of nothingness stretched out in all directions, the graying tan and brown landscape extending with impossible featurelessness, broken here and there by the distant remains of a destroyed farmhouse or the occasional wandering tree. The dust around her boots kicked up in small, unmotivated whirls amid the dry, crackling air, itself begging for rains that rarely came from the impossibly blue electric sky, still oppressive in its presence instead of a respite from the colorless earth.

Rachel stared out across the Wastes from under her wide-brimmed leather hat, a necessary accessory for any traveler, and wondered, for perhaps the hundred-thousandth time, if there would ever be real life out there again. It was an instinctive thought, one that was barely connected to an actual event. The far-flung memory of farmers going about their business, of large machines tilling and planting the soil, and harvesting food that grew out in the open, came to her as a phantom whiff of cut grass, and was gone just as quickly. Its transience was as heartbreaking as its poignancy.

Shaking off the aberrant sentimentality, she turned to regard her destination – a Safe House. In some nearly forgotten past, it had been a farmhouse, but time and luck had converted it into a combination general store, bar, and inn. Tinny notes of music floated out from the door periodically into the darkening day, and while Rachel had her doubts about the place – she always had doubts – this was her mission, to make sure it was as “safe” as rumor suggested. Leaving the harsh sky and dead terrain behind her, she hoisted her worn backpack onto her shoulder and climbed the battle-scarred stone stairs.

It would have been more appropriate if, as she’d entered, the music had stopped with the sound of scratched vinyl from a phonograph instead of the piano player merely pausing his off-tune entertainment. She smiled at the private joke, knowing she would have been the only one to understand it.

Every eye in the room – sometimes even two from the same face – turned to look at her, the tallish woman of young countenance with flashing dark eyes and the stance and gear of a seasoned Waste traveler. Tall once-black boots, pale canvas trousers, a dingy white wide-sleeved shirt, and a dark leather pocketed vest were all normal attire, but the holsters were more than they might’ve been accustomed to seeing. It’s not that guns weren’t carried, but they were rarely slung in plain sight, and definitely not in such finely crafted pieces of leather.

She surveyed the surroundings quickly yet carefully. There were ten people that she could see, various ages, more than half under blankets or ponchos, and their positions suggested that they were at least personally armed. The two-eyes faced her, and the likelihood that the rest were one-eyes was reasonable. The walls, doors, and window sills all showed the scores of metal plating used regularly, and the remaining wooden walls had frequent holes and breaks from outside attacks when those metal plates were active.

All very good signs.

Rachel started over to the bar in easy steps as the piano player began again, trying not to step in time to the crude country anthem. She sat down on the stool and slung her bag between her knees, then pulled her hat off and put it on the counter, her dark auburn hair spilling in wide curls from where they’d been held.

“What’ll it be?” the one-eyed bartender asked. His empty socket was covered with a hand-tooled leather patch that was a sharply elegant contrast to his muted and muddied lost cotton shirt. The puckered scars still peeked around the edges of the skin that showed, but the patch was pretty enough to distract from them, which was probably the point.

“I need safe haven,” she said, her rich voice touched with the vague whisper of an exotic accent, “and a drink.”

“Safe haven’s a no-brainer,” he said, and he and several other people chuckled. Rachel rolled her eyes – as though that joke hadn’t been driven into the ground violently so very many times before. “But we ain’t a free house. You gotta pay.”

Rachel gave him a roguish half-smile that implied with absolute certainty that her offer to trade was not going to match his potential intentions. It was a guarantee to any traveling woman that whatever she had on her was exactly the kind of currency that wasn’t accepted, and they’d insist on “something else”. Rachel did not like “something else” and on at least one occasion in the past considered taking her chances outside at night in the Wastes, but she didn’t figure this for one of those occasions.

She dug in her pocket, pulled out a battered old United States twenty-dollar bill and laid it on the table, still folded.

The bartender was trying to wear a poker face. “We don’t take antiques here,” he said gruffly, but his voice cracked just a bit and his eye didn’t leave the bill.

“Don’t bullshit me, king,” Rachel said. “Even at top rate, that bill can pay for a month in at any safe house. Food and drink, too.” She slapped her hand down on top of it. “Maybe I can get a ride to the basement on the far side of the prairie if you’re not willing to play…” She rose just a little and started to swing her gaze around at the other travelers.

The bartender slapped his hand down over hers – albeit with less force than it appeared he might have – and he stopped her as she started to get up.

“No!” he said quickly. “We’ll talk turkey.” He slid his hand away slowly and almost sheepishly added, “Plus, there’s no way to get to the basement a'fore sundown.” His eye wandered back to Rachel’s hand.

“We’ll talk turkey,” Rachel agreed, and she put the bill back in her pocket. “And just so we all know it,” she said a little louder, “I got eyes.”

There was a slight rustling of clothing and the scraping of chairs on old wooden floors as everyone’s attention fled off of her and back to their own business, the piano music suddenly remembering its lost cadence.

The bartender pulled out a small glass and filled it with clean-looking water. He slid it across the bar to Rachel.

Until that moment, she didn’t realize how thirsty she was, and she fought herself to grab it and slug it back like a shot of rye whiskey. She’d seen too many people fall with that kind of reckless abandon. She pulled a little flat vial out of the pocket above her left breast and shook it a couple of times. One, two drops were added to the little glass. She watched it swirl green and then blue, and then it turned clear. She didn’t realize that she’d been holding her breath.

She sipped the water first and then took it all in a gulp. Checking for poison was necessary, but it made the water taste like shit.

“How long you been out in the world, little girl?” the bartender asked casually as he wiped the counter, his “bartering voice” having given way to his “friendly way” that all keepers of liquor had.

Rachel tried not to snort derisively. “Sixty years,” she replied, sliding the glass back over to him for a refill.

The bartender’s one eye narrowed as he filled the glass again, his shoulders shifting ever so slightly away from her. “Oh,” he said, a slight tone of contempt or maybe envy creeping into his voice, “you’re one of them.”

“’Reckon so,” Rachel replied, weary with the response. “Not like I have a choice, but I reckon so.”

Superstitions were a wonderful thing to play on, she’d learned long ago. Long-timers such as herself were rare in the Wastes (or anywhere, really), and their invisible power of just not getting old often grew through whispers to other attributes: invulnerability, mind control, shooting beams of fire from their eyes. Superstitions didn’t make many her friends, but they also discouraged people trying to make her an enemy.

The sun had already touched the horizon, chased from the unforgiving azure down to the muddied slop of the warped atmosphere. It was rushing away from sight, darkness falling like a heavy suffocating blanket over a stark and naked land, the day running scared from what the night held. The wind picked up and whistled high and loud in the distance to the east where the dark had already fallen, except there was nothing for it to whistle against besides the house itself.

Something was starting to stir in the shadow of the Waste.

The bartender told one of the patrons to stick his head out and yell last-call. Reluctantly, he did. As he scuttled away from the door, someone tall, thin, and dirty managed to make it just inside before the bartender hit the button to close the metal shell.

Like a round of bells that had been battered and knock out of tune over centuries, the steel shutters of the windows and doors on the upper and lower levels of the house slammed into place, cocooning the inhabitants with the impression of safety. The floor shook slightly with the recoil, and Rachel exhaled briefly before renewing her assessment of the situation.

Every eye moved to the newcomer. Whacks, the shambling undead remains of humans, were rumored to sometimes get an early start from the shadows and get into safe houses for their own all-night buffet, so without discussion or provocation (one could never be too cautious), a weapon for every eye was trained on the fellow, including Rachel’s.

“Man,” he said, his hands up in the air suddenly. “I’m a man!”

“Prove it!” a nervous patron said.

Everyone looked at the patron suddenly, and he shrank back in embarrassment. A number of guns dropped. Rachel’s didn’t, and a few others took a cue from her. She knew damn well and good that there was no chance of a whack getting a “head start” – they just didn’t work that way – but there are things just as dangerous in the day-world as in the night. It served just as well to let the rumors run and force people into a higher level of cautiousness then to dispel them and find out that maybe whacks weren’t the worst things ever.

“Let’s see your face,” she said.

The man removed the worn knit hood and pushed back the hair from his face. Both clear dark eyes shone out, but a large scar – probably gotten in the last few months, maybe a year at the most – covered the left half of his face in long puckered veins and disappeared down beneath the top of his clothes. He’d seen loss, and his eyes – though both present and relatively clear – were empty like a soul.

“Fair enough. Have a seat,” she offered, waving him to a stool. He was going to have to be watched.

“I’m not yer fekkin’ dog,” he snapped.

She sneered back at him but slid her gun back to its holster.

“Is this house safe?” he barked at the bartender.

“Watch yer tongue or it won’t be,” the bartender replied. “Just ‘cause you a man doesn’t mean yer safe. You cause a problem,” his eye narrowed, “an’ I got solutions.”

“I’m sure you do,” the man said and stalked over to the bar to take a seat at the end. “You got food an' water?”

“You got trade? This ain’t no free house.”

The man paused, and Rachel considered him out of the corner of her eye. If his hell hadn’t been recent, it had certainly been deep. He had scars, sure, but who knew what else the world had taken from him? He’d run into the whacks, sure – those scars were unmistakable, the strange property of the skin made the healing process twisted and weird – but perhaps they took one of his organs, or maybe his girlfriend or family. Or maybe it wasn't whacks at all that did the most damage but one of the other monsters or, worst of all, men. Whatever it was, it hit him deep, and a man carrying that much hurt didn’t often care who else he hurt in return or on the by-and-by.

“I got trade,” he said sullenly.

“Whatcha got?”

The man started digging in his pockets here and there. “I got… some coin,” he said, dropping a few pieces onto the bar, “and a few other things.”

The bartender approached cautiously and eyed the coins. He regarded the man again, then collected a nickel and a dime from the pile.

“This’ll getcha the night an' a meal,” he said.

“Water,” the man said. “I want water.”

The bartender’s eye narrowed a little, and then his gaze shot to Rachel for a fraction of a second, then back to the newcomer. “Sure, kid,” he replied.

Rachel watched the bartender pouring the water and noticed that it didn’t come from the same tap that he’d served her from before. She said nothing.

The man drank the water without preamble or caution. He was truly a man who no longer cared.

“When’s dinner?” he said.

“When I serve it,” the bartender said. “Go get a table.” The man shuffled off of the stool and took a seat at a small table away from the rest of the people. He flipped his hood back up atop his head and crossed his arms over his chest, trying to appear relaxed while positioned to presumably watch everyone in the room at the same time.

Rachel pondered philosophically how it was always the last one in that garnered the most distrust. No matter how many times it came out that a thief or rapist or murdering bastard had been staying in the Safe House for a week casing it out, it was always the last to arrive that got fingered as a suspect first when something terrible happened. In seconds, she had gone from being the one they were no doubt all plotting against – she was the one with the antique bill, after all – to being “one of the gang”, drawing weapons alongside everyone else versus the unknown threat.

“I’m Bill,” the bartender said, oddly matching her thought with an action.

“Rachel,” she replied. “What’s for dinner?”

Bill gave a wry half-grimace that in a previous life might have been a smile. “A succulent arrangement of subterranean delicacies, prepared in a rich béchamel and served with leavened scones.”

Rachel smiled a little in return, honestly entertained. “So, root stew with biscuits?”

“Sure,” Bill said with a weird chuckle, “but I like my way better.” He finished cleaning the last of his daytime dishes and wiped his hands on a gray rag. “Got me a fancy book fer cookin', an' speaking of, I’d better git to it.” He disappeared through the side door into what was likely the kitchen.

Rachel smiled a bit to herself, noting that her opinion of the place went up several points knowing that the proprietor could read. People didn’t use words like “béchamel” unless they’d read it in a book, and while the literacy rate in places like Emerald City might be as high as fifteen percent, out in the scattered toeholds of humanity in its last gasp, a body could go days, weeks, or months without running into a single person of letters.

This was what the world had come to: A person could only get to any given place that was within a day’s travel during light. At night, the world outside became a dangerous landscape of ravenous beasts, undead once-humans (the whacks), and all manner of monsters that defied description. Something had happened to the world decades before – a virus or plague, an alien invasion, or maybe some kind of twisted supernatural event – and, to the day, no one knew exactly what.  Despite nearly complete annihilation, humanity somehow managed to barely stave off extinction. They huddled together in boarded-up houses and make-shift towns, often reduced to nothing more than empty lives of stalling death a day at a time, slowing the rate of starvation where possible or else becoming fodder and playthings for sadistic night-creatures whose motivation was beyond normal comprehension. The human spirit, once fierce and indomitable, seemed to have met its match: the land that had once fed millions upon millions of people grew nothing but bitter lichen and stones, any attempts to seed or sow again resulted only in stunted, sad specimens, only then to be destroyed nightly by the beasts.

In some places like the cities, people managed to band together to keep each other relatively safe. Walled towns kept plots of soil free from the weird poisons that crept into the water systems, and folks relied on each other. At least, that’s what it looked like to the outside observer, which was why so many tried to make it to a city if they could. Rachel knew the truth, though, that the cities were more often the fantasy kingdoms of thugs and warlords, people who fancied themselves more powerful than their peers in this world of power vacuums. Women were kept as whores or breeders, men were worked like slaves, children were ignored until old enough to be useful except in the towns that preferred that kind of sick entertainment. There were exceptions, to be fair, but they were few and far between. Wherever the strong could subjugate the weak, they tried and usually succeeded.

The Wastes – or any in-between place away from the cities – were not immune. The people who had been lucky enough to salvage what they could to fortify their own isolated houses (or the houses of nearby and deceased neighbors) early on had often accepted strangers and travelers without question, having an uncanny faith in the higher good of humanity. Most of those first kind-hearted people had been wiped out, victimized by those hell-bent on seizing power in a sudden absence of authority. Rachel’s mother, in fact, was among the kind-hearted open-house type, but unlike those first-round victims, she also did not mind burying those that thought they could take away the hard-earned security from honest folk. She was, to Rachel’s knowledge, the oldest Safe House owner in the land.

If her mother had been there at that moment, Rachel thought, she’d already have put a merciful bullet in at least half the folks in the room. There had been six men when she arrived, including the piano player but not counting Bill, and there were seven now. There were also three women, one of whom had two children, and they’d only come out after the steel walls had shut. The kids were dressed in such a way that their features and gender were completely obscured. Showing off your kids was often taken as showing off something you had to trade. A lot of people did it, unfortunately, and Rachel was a little glad in her heart that this woman didn’t. The other two women, however… she wasn’t sure which one was supposed to be “in charge”, but she didn’t have a lot of faith in the long-term survivability of either one. The latecomer had turned and was hunkered over his small table, leaning against the wall. He hugged himself close and seemed to be relaxing at least a little for the night.

The howling that had begun earlier had grown much, much closer. With the windows shut, there was no direct way to tell if the sun had made its final escape, but the distant skittering of unnatural claws and unnamed appendages on the hardened earth and small patches of remaining concrete road told the inhabitants of the Safe House that night had definitely come. Something rumbled past maybe two or three miles away.

“What kind was that one?” one of the children asked.

Rachel winced. It was definitely a little girl. One of the men – the one with a wide-brimmed hat that completely obscured his eyes – stirred ever so slightly at the sound of the child’s voice. She made a note of him.

“It’s not one,” Rachel said by way of letting the man know that she was paying attention to the room, “it’s a herd. We call ‘em peeds, like centipedes or millipedes.” She turned a little on her seat and crossed her arms over her chest, getting a little more comfortable. “Each one has anywhere from two to ten legs, a huge mouth with sharp teeth, a massive appetite and nothing else. They all move as one, a hundred to a thousand in a stam, in one direction and towards one place, and that’s what makes them sound like a train.”

The girl, her smudged face and wide eyes smiling slightly from beneath locks of dirty hair, was obviously delighted for the explanation, excited that someone had an answer at all, and the mother’s dull face said that she couldn’t have answered honestly if she wanted to. The girl pressed on, “What’s a train?”

Sometimes Rachel forgot how far removed she was from most people. It was easy to forget, and she liked to forget. “A train,” she said, dusting off the memory from the back of her mind, “was a giant vehicle like a great big coach that only traveled on special roads made from two strips of iron to fit their special wheels. One big engine at the front pulled dozens of boxes – also on wheels – and they went huge distances like big metal snakes.”

“Wow,” the little girl said. “How far could they go in a day?”

Rachel shrugged a little. “They were so big that they could go all night and all day, sometimes covering thousands of miles before anything stopped them.”

The little girl’s brow furrowed a little. “Nu-uh,” she said. “Yer tellin' stories. No one travels at night.”

Rachel frowned back at her. “That was before,” she said.

“Before what?”

Rachel paused. It always took her aback to be reminded that newer generations had no concept that the world had ever been any different from this desolate hell. How did you explain to someone that there was a world before the one you knew, that fifty years ago there were no whacks or peeds or monsters of any kind? How do you describe to someone what a sunset really looks like after the sun had dipped below the horizon, or what stars are? If she had allowed herself a brief feeling of belonging when the latecomer arrived, it was gone in that instant.

“Before the Night Fell,” Rachel said, hoping the child had some familiarity with the recent history of the world to know what she was talking about. “The world was not always this scary. You won’t remember, and your mom probably won’t remember.”

“Do you?” she asked.

Rachel nodded.

“How?”

Rachel paused.

“Don’t matter,” Bill said as he came through the door from the kitchen with a pot of steaming “subterranean delicacies”. He put it on a service at the end of the room. “Y’all come an' gitcher bowls an' spoons.”

Unlike the rest of the baser nature of humanity, food now demanded a gentler manner and respect from everyone, regardless of age, gender, or pecking order. A tale had been circulating for years about a town that had had some problems with their crops. No one was sure if some bad water got into their supply or if it had been the cold season or what. The fact was that there wasn’t enough to go around unless everyone pooled their resources and worked with rations until some of their travelers could come back across the lands to bring new seeds or fresh filters or something. Some folks had gotten scared at the idea of going without, of starving to death, and even though the town leaders had worked out a great system for everyone to get fed, those folks started a riot. Not only did most of the people in the town end up getting killed but the food was ruined in the process. When the travelers came back, the town was empty of life, everyone who had not died violently presumably starving to death, and all the bones had been picked clean.

This cautionary tale passed from safe house to safe house and through every type of settlement. Rachel didn’t know if it was true, but the effect was certainly well felt – no one ever fought around (or even near) the dinner table.

Everyone lined up single-file, with the children first, for Bill to serve them. The latecomer did not get up to join them.

“He’s prolly jus' tired,” Bill said to her, and she imagined that the hidden eye was winking at her. “You know how it is, all those late nights o' watchin' yer back an' long days o' travel have ta catch up sometime. We’ll save 'im some.”

Rachel was served in turn and decided to sit at the table with the mother and children. “If you don’t mind,” she asked.

“More'n welcome,” the mother replied. “I’m Tanya, an' this is Gwen an' Justin.” She gestured to them each in turn with small, limited movements from beneath the thick felt blanket she hunkered under. With a quick look, Rachel saw that the whacks had taken a big piece of flesh from her right side. Her clothes hung at weird angles where her body should have been and the jagged puckered tendrils of those unique scars showed on the inside of her arm. Her short motions were probably a combination of reduced range and self-consciousness.

“Pleased to meet you,” she said. She slung her backpack under the table and between her boots as she sat down in the chair. “I’m Rachel.”

Tanya’s eyes flashed around quickly. “Rachel?”

She nodded. “It’s a common name,” she said without batting an eyelash.

“Oh,” Tanya said, relaxing a little. Tanya had already decided from the explanation of the peeds that Rachel knew much more about the world than she did, and she seemed content to trust her on any number of points.

Dinner was eaten in relative peace, but Rachel could feel the man with the wide-brimmed hat glancing their way frequently.

More than once, she wondered why the demise of humanity had been so random and why they hadn’t used it as an opportunity to cull the demented from the species. She reminded herself that not every human was a beast in disguise, though there were days when she was hard-pressed to prove it.

“I’m guessing that you already have a room?” Rachel asked. Tanya nodded. “Mind if I dorm with you?” Tanya shook her head and tried to say something unintelligible around a mouth of half-chewed carrots, which sprayed suddenly. Rachel tried not to make a face, but then Justin laughed.

It was a sudden, alien sound, like water going over rounded rock chimes, and it became as infectious as it was strange. Rachel found herself laughing a little, too, and then Gwen joined in. A few chuckles were heard around the room, and the entire feel of the room lightened considerably for those few seconds. Even the two grim women on the other side of the room glanced over in surprise and even exchanged smiles.

The moment passed quickly, and just as quick, dinner was done. The two women – the shorter, stouter one was definitely the dominant of the two – got up and took everyone’s bowls, and then they retreated to the kitchen, presumably to wash up. In the world of the Wastes, there was no such thing as a “guest”.

The latecomer still had not gotten his dinner, although Rachel did notice that some food had been left in the pot. She got up to check on him, keeping her hands in his presumed sight.

She tapped him on the shoulder.

He didn’t move.

She slipped her fingers quietly to his neck and found no pulse.

So that was the way of it.

She sighed and flicked his chin a little as she pulled her hand back to make it look like he’d flinched a bit.

“Is he okay?” Tanya asked, a little wariness showing in her voice.

“He’s sleeping deep,” Rachel replied. “Bill’s right. Sometimes, all the long nights of one-eye-open catch up.”

“That must be rough if you have only one eye to start with,” Justin said.

He looked up a little more, and Rachel was a bit surprised that where his right eye should have been was covered over with smooth skin. As common as it was to have only one eye, most of them were plucked by whacks, and with the sockets open and dry plus whatever strange property was transmitted from their skin, the wound built that unique vein-like tendril scarring. Rachel tried to recall a time she'd seen something like this, though, and couldn't. Was it taken from him young and just healed over? Did things like that even happen? She made a note of it and filed it away to ask about later.

Since Rachel was clearly the most well-traveled and well-spoken of the denizens of the Safe House, she was pressed for information and news immediately after dinner. They were just far away enough that if any of the transports had a hard time getting ready on time in the morning, there was no chance of anyone leaving that day to go east. There weren’t any proper townships of interest within a day’s travel west, so many of the people there had probably not left it in some time.

“Well, I’m not sure where you are all from,” she said, “so you’re going to have to ask by name.”

“Anything about Philadelphia?” the taller woman asked. She was dressed in a grungy tank top and old army pants, and her dark hair hadn’t seen a brush probably since she was born. Her right eye was gone along with part of her cheekbone, which was probably why she didn’t wear a patch and just tried to hide it a little under her mat of hair.

“The one up north, or the one just on the other side of the river east of here?”

“On the other side of the river,” she said.

“They got hit with a flyer pack after a whack raid,” Rachel informed her, turning off her feelings suddenly before the lump jumped to her throat. There was rarely good news to share, and it was better to just get it out and let the listeners deal with the emotions on their own. “It wasn’t bad – I think only a couple of people were taken, plus a couple of bodies – but it was kinda their own fault. They started leaving the gate open after dark to let the dawdlers get in, and some people tried to say that it had been so long since they’d seen a beast that they could start using the streets at night again instead of the tunnels. Well, you know how those things go.”

“Do you know who got taken?” she asked, her agitation growing. The shorter woman, also in a tank and army pants, kicked the taller girl’s shin with her fat boots as she glared up at her. The taller girl cowed a little and stared at her own bare feet.

“It’s a big town,” Rachel replied, “and I don’t actually know anyone there.”

The shorter woman grimaced. Clearly the person she was questioning about was a point of contention. “Better not to,” the short woman said, “and be done with it altogether.”

“What about Fort Collins, up in the mountains?” someone else asked.

“I haven’t been out that way in a while myself,” Rachel admitted slowly, “but the last time I was there, they had their tunnels done and their doors finished. They’d managed to get the worst of the radiation from the uranium mine out of the second well, but they were also talking about moving the whole town further west into the mountains proper.” Rachel did not mention that the last time she’d been there was probably longer than five years before. “I heard a rumor that things had gone a little bad after they found the radiation, but they did say they wanted to spruce it up and repopulate.”

The man’s face fell. Repopulation meant usually that few people were left, if anyone at all.

“How bad was it?”

Rachel didn’t say anything.

The moment lengthened uncomfortably, and he slowly rose and climbed the stairs.

Just then, a horrible grating sound resonated through the house, the sound of hardened claws against steel. The monsters were letting everyone know that they were there. Those inside probably would have worried more if they hadn’t heard that assurance at least once because a monster that shows where it is on the outside is not smart enough to try to find another way in, or so the wisdom went.

It was mostly quiet then, though the skittering and clawing sounds were heard from various directions. Rachel reasoned that the house had managed to stay safe for this long, and tonight was probably not the night that it would become un-safe. Events like that usually involved sabotage.

There were more questions, more stories, and the night dragged on. Rachel could feel in her bones that it was getting to be very late. She finally called a stop to it and took Tanya and the kids up to their room – all the while keeping her backpack on her person. In such a comparatively small house, no one should bother them knowing that Rachel had “claimed” them, and to mess with the children was to mess with her. A person who had all of their vital organs and parts was very young, very sheltered, or very skilled. They would have been wrong to figure her for the first two.

Once her new bunkmates were settled in, she went back downstairs as Bill was regarding the latecomer. Bill was taller now that she could see him proper, and though he was not a large man, his dungarees and vest showed wear across muscle instead of bone. Rachel stood next to him and folded her arms across her chest.

“I’d like to put my bag in your safe,” she said.

“What makes you think I got a safe?” Bill replied without looking over at her.

“You do,” she said, “there’s no thinking to it.”

He grunted, a rough half-smile twitching across his rougher face. “It’s in the basement.”

“With the cooler,” Rachel said. Most Safe Houses had coolers run by batteries, charged either by solar panels from the daylight or pedaled dynamos. This one was too well organized to not have one. “Want some help getting Bones here down the stairs?”

“Always grateful fer a hand.”

With practiced ease, Bill and Rachel managed to wrangle the dead body down the stairs and into the walk-in freezer. Bill stripped him of his clothes, preserving what he could so as to maybe pass them on to strangers later if needed, and dumped the contents of his pockets into a box while Rachel opened the safe with Bill’s key and deposited her backpack inside.

“Too bad,” Bill said about the body. “I hate havin' ta jump the gun like that.”

“He was going bad anyway,” Rachel said. “What you did was a mercy.”

Bill nodded and hooked the shackles onto the body’s feet, tied the hands to the shackles with aging rope, and then hung him upside down. “In a couple of days, this’ll make some fine eating.” A quick slice sent the cooling blood trickling out of his neck and into a large trough that ran along the whole wall. The blood would later be used as fertilizer.

Rachel shrugged. She’d had her share of “unfortunate meat”, but she didn’t much enjoy it. There was still something of the memory of the world before the Night Fell that suggested that this wasn’t the way to properly handle the dead, that there were more options than eating them before something else did.

A good portion of the basement was taken up with shelves of soil, each with their own grow lights – again powered by panels or dynamos – patiently making food. Tubers did best under those conditions, but Bill had managed to coax out a few tomatoes and peppers, too. Some of them were even ripe.

“Want one?” he asked, noticing Rachel’s wistful gaze. She smiled and nodded gratefully.

He picked a couple and handed one to her. She bit into the tomato, enjoying the soft juicy flesh as it oozed out of the fruit.

“It’s a rare thing,” she said, “getting fruit to grow down here.”

“I’m jus’ lucky,” Bill said. “Back a’fore things got bad, my daddy said he was a farmer. I guess he passed it along to me without knowin' it.”

“Your daddy was around before things got bad?” she asked.

“He was just a kid, maybe twelve, thirteen, when it happened here.” Bill sat down on an old wooden box and gestured for Rachel to do the same on another one.

“Was this his house?”

“Naw. He lived out near Little Rock. He and his daddy did okay, but his momma didn’t. That’s all they said about it. I think she went whack on account that Daddy didn’t like shootin’ whacks, no matter what.” Bill tapped his eye. “Something got Daddy twenty years ago, I guess I mighta been ten or eleven m’self. I hooked up with some hoodlums for a while in Little Rock, then New Okay, and then I ended up making it out here and finding this place.”

“Where were the owners?” Rachel asked.

Bill stiffened. “Don’t you go thinkin’ I’m a cold-blooded murderer just ‘cause of that guy,” he said, jabbing a finger towards the cooler. “There was good folks here, and I kept with ‘em as well as I could, but they let a bad seed in an' that was the end of 'em. Course, then I took care of the bad seed, an' I’ve been runnin’ it ever since.”

“How long’s that been?”

Bill thought for a moment and rubbed his stubbly chin. “Oh, maybe two, three years. Hard to tell, I guess. It’s not like we got calendars or nothing.” He bit the tomato and chewed thoughtfully, then said, “What year is it, anyway?”

Rachel paused. “I don’t recall, and it don’t matter,” she said. “All that matters is keepin’ on.”

They finished their midnight snack and went back up to the common room.

The man who had asked about Fort Collins was waiting at the bar.

Rachel examined his face carefully, and though it was evident that he’d been crying, there was far deeper sadness etched into his face.

“How bad?” he asked her, his eyes searching for her to give him some kind of answer, some kind of hope.

She sat down on the stool next to him while Bill went around through the kitchen and behind the bar.

“Bad,” she said, slowly exhaling as she prepared to tell the painful truth. “The radiation made most of the people on the east side sick, and while they were slowly going down, someone forgot to close the big gates.” The man closed his eyes, knowing what that meant. “Beasts got in and took most of the folk out of their misery, but then the beasts died right after. Poison meat is poison meat, no matter you’re man or beast. The folks on the west managed to get a door shut, so they made the night, but the next day, about a third of them decided to try their luck over land to the next Safe House. It had already been ransacked by vandals and all the doors and windows taken. Most of them made it that first night, but they lost their way going to the next house and no one’s heard from them since.

“The folks that stayed in Fort Collins West holed up for a while, some trying to make it out, some even succeeding, but no one’s heard from them in a couple of years that I know.”

The man’s face, already wrought with worry, turned ashen with grief. Fresh tears wore new rivers through the grime on his face.

“My wife,” he said around a choking throat, “and my kids… they were all waitin' fer me.”

Rachel said nothing, kept her gaze steady.

“I hope they were on the east… makin' for an easier passin' and all…” he whispered.

Bill waited patiently. The man looked up at him, and his eyes were starting to go wide. “I’d sure love to see them again, Bill.”

Bill nodded and poured him a small glass of water.

“Let’s go downstairs, Jerry,” he said.

Rachel watched the two men disappear down the stairs.

Without the company – and knowing full well that they were going to be down there for at least a little while – Rachel made her way back to her room.

As she approached the door, she heard muffled high-pitched yells and a man’s voice.

Her hairs pricked on end and her body flooded with adrenaline. Without a pause or thought, Rachel burst into the room, ready for the worst.

In a flash of a fraction of a second, she took in the scene. Tanya and Gwen were huddled in the corner on the bed, Tanya trying vainly to keep Gwen from rushing towards her brother who was pinned facedown by the man from downstairs. His wide-brimmed hat was lying on the floor next to him, and he held the boy’s arm cocked up at a horrible angle behind his back. The man had been, up to that moment, trying to wrestle with his own pants.

He did not get very far.

With a guttural, animalistic growl, Rachel grabbed the man by the long shanks of greasy hair on the back of his head and yanked him backwards, throwing him out of the room and into the hallway. His back and head hit the far wall with a loud thud. He shook his head a little and then tried to focus on Rachel with a hard stare, his eyes wild with lust and aggression. He sneered at her with an animal’s abandon even while she launched herself at him, too slow or stunned to move out of the way, and she knocked him across the mouth with a rounding elbow, the blow sending him down the stairs head-first behind what few teeth he had had left previous to that.

As he hit the first landing, she took a great leap down and planted one boot firmly on his chest and the other under his chin, crushing his jaw and breaking his neck with a sickening wet crunch.

A moment passed, and the adrenaline wore off a little. She finally became aware of the familiar pounding of her heart in her chest, and she tried to slow her breathing.

At this rate, she was never going to get enough rest to make it to the next house the following day.

She turned and climbed the stairs wearily and went back into her room. Tanya and the children were crying, huddled in the same corner, but Justin’s arm was hanging at a bad angle and his face was ashen.

Rachel reached into another pocket from her vest and pulled out a small piece of something wrapped in foil. Good travelers kept medical supplies with them always, and chocolate – or what was as close to chocolate as anyone could remember – was indispensable as a calming agent, an excellent remedy against shock. In fairness, it wasn’t real chocolate (that was a bittersweet memory that Rachel held onto jealously), but it performed the same function, albeit with a chalkier and less distinctive taste.

“Eat this,” she instructed him. He looked up at her, already starting to get the idea to never trust anyone ever again. “Eat it,” she said again. “It’s chocolate. You’re in shock, and it’ll help.” She sat down on the bed and looked at the arm. “It’s probably broken,” she decided. “I can set it.”

“Don’t,” Tanya said. “It’ll hurt.”

“I have to,” Rachel insisted. “If it doesn’t get set, it'll heal wrong and he won’t be able to use it, or worse, he’ll get an infection and die.”

It was clear that Tanya had never heard of these things, or even that there was any other danger than bad men and monsters. Rachel could feel her patience growing thin. She looked at Justin.

“Yes, it’s true,” she told him, “it will hurt to fix it, but only for a short while. After that, it won’t hurt anymore and your arm will be good as new. Would you like me to fix it?”

Color was coming back to his cheeks a little, and that color was green. Gwen nodded for him.

“You should let her,” the little girl said. “Rachel knows lots of things.”

Justin nodded timidly and started to climb off of the bed. Tanya seemed about to hang onto him for just a second, but as her blanket started sliding, she pulled her hand back and covered herself again.

“Look, Tanya,” Rachel said, “I’m not gonna take your son away. I’m just gonna fix his arm, put it into a brace so it’ll heal right, and maybe give him some medicine for the pain. I’ll bring him right back.”

Rachel picked the boy up gingerly and left the room. Gwen followed closely behind her and they both maneuvered around the prone body on the landing. Rachel put the boy in a chair facing the bar – no need for the kids to see more than one body at a time – and told Gwen to keep an eye on him.

“He’s not her son, you know,” Gwen said as Rachel turned to go to the basement.

“Excuse me?” Rachel asked.

“He’s not her son,” Gwen repeated. “Justin is my brother, but Tanya picked us up in New Okay just a few months ago.”

“Where’s your mother?”

Gwen shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess she’s dead. She left us a couple of years ago to get some food an' we never saw her again.” Rachel had figured Gwen for only five or six years old, but looking at her then, she decided that she might’ve been eight or even older. Malnutrition and the harshness of the times took its toll on both the body and the mind, making one younger and the other older than they should have been. The child’s hair might’ve been blonde under the dirt, and her muddy blue eyes suggested a quickness that Rachel had not noticed before.

Rachel frowned a little. “I’ll be right back.”

Down in the basement, Jerry had already passed on and was hanging next to the first man. Rachel took the key and opened the safe, grabbing a few things from her backpack and then locking it up again.

“There’s another one on the stair landing,” Rachel said.

“What? What the hell happened?!”

Rachel sighed. “He tried to rape the little boy.”

“Oh,” Bill replied, then he shrugged with the acceptance of one who was ultimately pragmatic. “Well, at least we’ll be eatin' good for a while.”

“I gotta fix the kid’s arm. Can you get the body down here yourself?”

“Sure, do it all the time. ‘Course, with this much meat, you’ve kept your twenty. S'more than enough to pay yer room an' board for a month an’ then some.”

Rachel returned upstairs to the common room, still sometimes baffled at the odd sense of efficiency that Mankind had sunk to.

She got Justin out of his jacket and shirt as tenderly as she could and decided as the stench made her eyes water that the boy definitely needed a bath at the next opportunity. His hair was a little lighter than Gwen’s, and his remaining eye was a little more green. Upon looking at his face closely, Rachel wondered if maybe his other eye hadn’t been born that way instead of just having had it taken. The smooth skin was seamless and without so much as a pock or faded scar. He was thin like Gwen was, but neither of them looked particularly frail.

The arm was not as bad as it looked – only had a dislocated shoulder – but putting it back in its place was painful, and Justin yelped loudly. After Rachel had it bandaged to his side so that it would heal more comfortably, she sat in a chair, put him in her lap and rocked him gently, soothing the hurt and worry as best she could. Old habits, even decades gone, still died hard, and she swallowed hard trying to fight those ancient feelings back down. Kids were attachments, attachments were weaknesses, weaknesses got people killed…

Bill dragged the body of the would-be rapist downstairs and returned a few minutes later with a blanket.

“Kid’s shivering,” he said, draping it over the little shoulders, “gotta keep 'im warm.”

Rachel wrapped it around the small boy and coaxed him around his justified whimpering into taking some of the painkillers that she gotten from her backpack, little herbal pressed pills from the apothecaries in Emerald City. She rocked him in her lap and hushed him softly with fragments of a long-forgotten lullaby, and finally after several long minutes, he fell into a deep sleep. Rachel herself was becoming so tired with the adrenaline crash and late hour that she wasn’t sure she could carry him back upstairs.

Gwen sitting at a table, her chin resting on her scrawny little arms, regarded the two of them for a long time. Finally, she said, “Do you have any kids, Rachel?”

Rachel shook her head. “Not anymore. My kids are all grown and gone.”

“Want some?”

Rachel cocked at eyebrow at the young girl. “Won’t Tanya be upset?”

Gwen shrugged. “Maybe, but that’s pro’ly just as well. She got trade for what that guy almost did to Justin. She’s not very good at takin' care of kids, but you seem to know what you’re doin'.”

Rachel smiled a little despite herself. “Do I?” Was this kid seriously trying to sweet talk her?

“Sure. It’s a free world, they say, so we should get to choose who we go with.”

Rachel pondered it for a little while, but sleep inched into her mind more and more. It had been a long time since she’d taken care of kids, but that was by design. Traveling was a lot harder, and her work was too important. It’s always more difficult to take care of little ones in addition to yourself – it was a walking vulnerability for everyone to see – and they became the priority, even when logic said that the rest of the world was more important. There were no safe places, even in houses like this, except for rare pockets of civilization that were always limited in space and resources.

Still, little Gwen was pragmatic, a definite product of the age. If she had managed to keep herself and her brother alive and relatively in one piece for the last few years after their mother disappeared, maybe they wouldn’t be such a trial…

Nonsense, Rachel told herself harshly. Children had no business in her line of work, and they would only get in the way of her missions. Even if they weren't a complete annoyance – and children invariably were at some point – they were always a liability. They were walking targets, victims waiting to happen, and worrying about a child was sometimes in and of itself enough to get a person killed. It happened too often, happened before…

It was a shame, though, to just walk away from them, a wrongness... Gwen and Justin both seemed to be such promising little humans, and if children weren't protected long enough to be promising adults, what was really the point? What kind of world was she trying to save if not for that?

A thought flickered across her mind that maybe she could change her plans a little. Maybe she could take them back to her home in Emerald City, let them stay with her lab assistant Molly while Rachel herself went out on the missions. Or maybe Peggy and Lance would be willing to find a place for them in Paratale. Their compound was always safe, always made room for children…

It was an issue that Rachel struggled with, but not one that she felt she was going to resolve that night. The tiny innocent cradled in her arms, surrendered as he was to a restful sleep, gave her the illusion for a moment that maybe she wasn’t a complete failure as a person. Even as a mother, Rachel never felt she’d had maternal instincts as such, but there was a primal urge when someone abandoned fear and trusted so completely. A person that didn’t rise to that moment wasn’t much of a human…

She should put him down, she thought, and go to sleep in her own bunk. Any moment, she'd have to get up, carry him up the stairs, and deposit him in a different bed so that she could get her own rest. She still needed to try to get out into the world as early as possible the next morning…

Before that manifested, however, Rachel herself had nodded off in the chair, the child nestled into her body as naturally as if he’d always been there.

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