Saturday, February 19, 2011

Story Update

Thank you to everyone who has been reading my story. I've gotten positive feedback on it and appreciate all comments. There will be a new installment up sometime tomorrow night... a full day of working and other projects has forced me to write tomorrow but the tale will continue.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Part Two:Night People

Less than a month in the  Oklahoma City ruins and I have already obligated myself to another human being…three of them,  in fact.
I have promised this Peter Janson I will help him search the city for his two foster children who snuck off Tinker military base to set out for a religious commune in the Pacific Northwest.
I think it impossible that two children could survive overnight out here with the Night People.
What's more, I don't even know whether or not my promised reward of admittance to the base will even pan out, but I have counted the slim possibility that it will as sufficiently worth the risk of aiding Janson.
We have been walking  north for nearly three hours since I met the old man.
Turns out the kids had an aunt who had lived in some loft apartments near here before The End. She died in the wars, but the kids had been very attached to her and Janson thinks they may return to her home for sentimental reasons. Several times in the past, Robert has mentioned that she had a lot of old family photo albums and that when he got older he wanted to see if they were still there.
Janson knows the kid better than I do and it’s the only lead so I follow.
 I notice right away that the old man tires easily and it slows us down far more than I would like. My usual modus operandi is to find a fortified position an hour or so before dusk and start digging in for the night, so we've got to cover as much ground as possible…
My rifle is at the ready now as I eye the doorways and windows of the ghostly tenements and malls. A familiar claustrophobic feeling settles on me as we walk, stretching my nerves taut.
I permit the old man the quiet small talk he tries to make with me as we walk. In spite of my worry of being overheard, the sound of another human voice after so long on my own has a strangely soothing effect, and although I reply sparingly, I listen to him ramble.
He is a medical doctor…worked at the base before the End, and now he helps out in the militia-ville's infirmary, which is why he is somewhat connected to Commander Villeneuve. Janson's wife died in the wars…he doesn't say how. He never had any kids.
"What about you," he asks. "Where's home, originally?"
"Washington State," I reply. "Yakima area."
"Beautiful place," he says. "Do you still have any family alive?"
The question evokes a sudden image…my mother, lying on a filthy mattress in our fortified basement, dying of a fever,  unattended by any physician.

 Suddenly, for a brief second, I am there again, holding her hand as she passes, hearing her tell me that she loves even me as she dies, my own words of love lost in the gulf that separates the dead from the living. 

And outside the barred window, the sound of claws scrabbling and inhuman growls…my terror mixed with despair because I know whose hands those are, seeking entrance frantically, seeking to rend the life from my body.

Those hands had once been human.

They were the very hands that had built the very shelter in which we cowered.

They were the hands that had held my own when I was a little boy and I was afraid of the dark...
Why am I even still sane?
 I push the memory from my thoughts.
"No," I reply. "They're all dead."
"I'm sorry," Janson says. Then, after a pause: "Where you ever married?"
Another memory is prompted by his question, but this one is not buried and locked inside like the other one.

This one I try to take out and look at every day, usually when I am sitting by a fire in a remote mountain campsite or watching the sun come up.
A pretty face, smiling at me. Soft brown hair and intelligent green eyes, washed in sunlight.
I can see us again, together.
We're at the university library. It's before the End, before the virus and the Night People were even a rumor.
The sun is shining through a nearby window and we are half heartedly searching through books of old poetry,  supposedly studying for Jan's literature class. Really we are just enjoying being around each other, laughing at little nothing  things and pretending we don't notice the disapproving glares of the old librarian woman.
We'd talked politics that day…Jan liked to do that.

 I just liked to listen to her talk.

 I'd teased her that day about being a liberal because she'd voted for Obama, and she'd chastised me for not voting at all, and for being incurably cynical about all politics.
"How's everything going to change if you don't use the system?" she'd asked. "In spite of everything, I believe it's going to get better someday."
Usually, Jan was always right and I was always wrong.
Not this time, Janice.
Emotions rush within me…I remember everything about her face and personality in the most intricate detail.
The book of Emily Dickinson poems she gave me, inscribed with the last note she wrote to me, is still in my pack, worn with use but still intact.


I can remember the day that she died as though it was yesterday.
"No," I answer Janson at last. "No, I was never married.  We'd better stop talking now. They're out there."
We reach the apartments at last…and discover that they no longer exist.
A fire has gutted them, maybe in the wars.
"I'm at a loss, then" Janson says. "Perhaps they took refuge in a nearby building."
"I don't think so," I reply, pointing.  His eyes follow mine.
Tall grass, trampled down at the edges of a vacant lot at the edge of the burned out tenements.
The city cleanup crews have been a little behind schedule since the End.  The resultant four years of unchecked urban vegetation springing up everywhere often provides the tracker a record of when and where people have passed by. Thanks to a  battered Boy Scout Field Handbook I fished from a corner book dumpster two years ago, and lots of patience, I have learned to notice and interpret signs in the growth  and the dirt  from travelers human and animal…and the in-between.
We carefully inspect the growth.

The impressions are recent, since the rainfall two days ago.

The direction in which the grass is bent indicates an eastward direction, and the marks reveal that more than one person but not more than three made them.

And they were not heavy.
Now it is Janson's turn to follow me.
The trail leads us to a train track running east and west.  Around us are the backs of a bunch of old warehouses built in the sixties and seventies. Eastward, a few feet away, my eye catches a gleam.  I go to it, stooping to retrieve it...a piece of trash.
A foil wrapper from a military ration, the stain of relatively fresh chocolate on the inside.
Janson becomes excited.
"MRE mint cookie," he says.

 MRE--Meal Ready to Eat.

Army jargon.

"Jessica took a stack of them from our flat the day they ran away!  You've found the trail, alright. But it looks like they're headed to Midwest City, if they're following the tracks--why would they go there?"
I don't know, and at the moment I don't really care.

For the last thirty minutes, the skies have been clouding, hinting at the chance of a sudden spring storm.

They're common in the the Midwest.

 The Night People sometimes come out during storms when the sun is hidden.
"Let's get moving," I say, uneasy.

We begin to walk down the tracks, watching the light of day quickly fade to the gray hue of approaching rain.
Suddenly the city's silence is shattered.
A blood curdling scream, echoing out of one of the abandoned warehouses.
The scream has the sound in it of an animal, perhaps that of a great wild cat.

And yet, within its depths is something remotely human, something lonely, at once full of both despair and rage
A second later, an answering cry rises from somewhere, also muffled by the confines of a building.

A chorus of howls and screams go up, coming from what seems like every building around us and lasting for several seconds that feel like an eternity.
Then all is silent again, except for the pounding of my blood in my ears.
"My God!" Janson says, his face etched with fear. "They can't be more than a hundred yards away!"
"They know we're here," I say, fighting down my own panic. "And it's getting darker...they'll be coming out soon. Go!"
We begin to run, or jog, actually, since Janson can't keep pace with me.

We have not gone far as I realize that the sudden onset of a storm has indeed begun.

The landscape begins to darken..the sun is creeping behind the clouds, and a peal of thunder booms.
I am suddenly and acutely aware that we have no safe shelter.

 I am not about to look for one in the old warehouses.

I begin to scour the area with my eyes, searching desperately for an out.

Only one thing catches my eye…an old metal water tower, rising high above a line of trees, a quarter mile away perhaps.
"The tower," I say.
Janson follows and we are soon running through empty lots and side streets. 

Lightning flashes to the east, and  thunder rumbles again. The sun is hiding now, and we are in bi chromatic shadows of silver and gray.

The water tower will not be the ideal place to make a stand, but it is the only place that offers even a ray of hope.

It's a vantage point they won't easily take, and I'll be able to pick my shots, saving on ammunition.

I just want to get up there before they emerge...but, I realize quickly...that's not going to happen.
As we are about cross a side street directly adjacent to the tower, a manhole cover in the street suddenly pops off, and clawed hands appear, followed by a head that resembles nothing so much as that of the infamous Orlock from F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu film. The virus that took away the creature's mind also has a deforming effect upon the features over time, creating a truly hideous aspect.
A hiss erupts form the thing as it bounds out of the hole, then a howl of rage as it sees us, its arms waving wildly.
A second later it sees nothing more.
The AR-15 spits fire into the gloom.

Three shots, and all connect.

I know the Night People enough by now to know that one shot alone will not bring them down.

Nosferatu howls, then pitches forward in his own black blood, dead.

I run to the manhole and peer down. Screams, hisses, growling echoing  from some tunnel, getting closer.
"What are you doing!?" Janson asks.
"Keep going," I say, swinging my rucksack down from my back and fishing from it a sealed leather bag.
Janson continues to run as I unzip the bag and remove the contents…a bundled petrol bomb made from gas, oil and an old wine bottle.

The smell of the gas soaked white rag reaches my nostrils as the first drops of rain begin to fall.  I fish my Zippo from my pants pocket and light it..the screams are getting closer now.
Below me I see shapes in the black pit...shadows moving up the iron rungs in the manhole, coming for me.
I drop  the petrol bomb.
I see it fall past the first figure on the rungs….his eyes are like two glittering rubies beaming hate at me from the darkness, briefly illumined in the light of the burning rag.
Suddenly, there is the sound of breaking glass and a soft whooosh noise.
The manhole shaft has become a blazing pit--agonized animal howls erupt from the depths of the city. Figures wreathed in yellow flames writhe in torment as they fall back into the tunnels, their death wails turning my blood to ice.
Now I begin to run after Janson, knowing that any who were not killed in the blast will turn back…the Night People hate and fear fire as much as the fiery orb of the sun itself.

I glance over my shoulder and see one lone figure emerge from the pit, engulfed in flames and running wildly in no particular direction at all.

Even in the midst of panic, the thought is clear: I have done him a favor.
In minutes, I am the base of the tower. Janson is stuck…the ladder begins some eight feet above us, meant only to be accessed by city service crews.

We have no foot ladder to span the difference.

More howling.
From the direction we just came, an army of shadows has materialized, running towards us.
Wildly, I look about for some means of egress to the ladder rungs above us…and see it in the form of the dead and fallen trunk of a smaller tree.
"Help me with this!" I shout at Janson. He obeys and within a few minutes the beam is in place.
The Night People are getting closer--glancing back, I can see their eyes now, red and malevolent in the gathering shade.

"Up! Now!" I yell.
I hold the beam in place as Janson begins to scramble up.
 His weight almost dislodges it--the iron legs of the water tower are now slick with rain, and he is an awkward climber... but by some miracle, my strength keeps it in place.

I spare another look back towards the tracks.

Death, flying towards me.
The ghouls will be upon me in minutes.

"C'mon, c'mon," I yell. "Step on it, Janson!"

Janson has stepped off of the timber and is now moving up the rungs of the service ladder.

Please don't let him slip, I pray.

I wedge the beam as tightly against the tower leg as I can and step back.
I hear the sound of animal screams behind me, yards away perhaps.
I put my rifle back on my back, move backward a space, and with a few steps running start  I leap for all I am worth.

I land on the beam, feel it giving, and leap again.

The timber falls away from beneath my feet and I am in midair, my hands grasping for the bottom rung.
They close on slips off again again from the rain on the steel, and I twist wildly for a moment, straining to hang on with my remaining grip.
I feel a hand brush my left combat boot, and I pluck it up--I coil my legs upwards and blindly smash them down again.
I feel a head go down underneath, followed by a howl.
Using every bit of strength I have within me, I regain the run with both hands and do the biggest pull up I have ever done in my life, heaving myself upward, reaching for another rung as for life itself, bending my knees upward to get them out of reach.

Slowly, I begin to ascend.
A glance below me shows a swarm of Night People spilling around the tower leg, leaping, howling, screaming.

Within minutes, the base of the tower is engulfed in a tide of them, and they are after our blood.

I know that the Night People are not intelligent enough to repeat my action with the timber.
The contagion that changed them into the monsters they have become took away all semblance of human reason and replaced it with only animal like cunning.

They do not think.

But they do possess  an inhuman strength  that is in accordance with their bestial nature.

Something in the virus gives them that.
It will be only minutes before one of them makes a lucky bound and grasps the bottom run of the tower ladder.
We've got to reach the top.
"Move it, old man!" I bellow, coming up underneath him and fighting down the urge to climb around him, even knock him aside.

My survival instinct is that strong.
Janson is panting, groaning, in a state of abject terror.

"I-I'm trying," he wheezes.
Rain and wind pelt us as we ascend the rungs, our ears blasted with the cacophony of growling and screaming.

Within fifteen minutes we have reached the catwalk that circles the tower.

Janson is almost unable to pull himself up, but I use my remaining strength to give him a push, and when is up and over, I fairly fly up after him, spinning around to protect our rear.

We have gained the high ground.

I scramble backwards on my rear end and thrust the barrel of the rifle downwards, ready to blast the first ghoul that mounts the tower.

Rain is now pouring down on us, and lightening flashes overhead, bringing home the added threat of electrocution.

I look below and see the army of Night People surging in upon itself, swirling around the base our fortress.

There must be a couple hundred of them, I think to myself, my breath coming out in ragged gasps from fear and the shock of the rain.

As I gaze upon the mass of twisted humanity, a shadow springs up from the ranks and catches onto the service ladder, pulling itself up.

Cat like, it begins to climb, moving faster and with far more agility than Janson and I possess between the two of us combined.

It has not even climbed ten feet before another figure vaults upward from the masses, catching hold and following its kin.

I reach into my holster and yank the .45 out, handing it to the old man.

"You know how to use it?" I yell above the rain.

He nods, pulling the slide back.

"Don't shoot until I tell you to, got it?"

He nods again, the water streaming down his pinched up face.

I glance down and see two more ruby eyes burning holes in mine.

A bruised and swollen face.

Bluish skin, matted hair, and glistening fangs.

Yellow nails filled with plague.

It hisses triumphantly at me...within minutes it will be where we are.

I knew I was going to regret this.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Part One: Playing Nanny

The illusion out here is that the entire world belongs to you.

At least, during the day, that is.

The entire United States of America is nothing but your own giant, personal playground and you don't  have to share it with anyone.

You feel that way because it all seems so empty,  so silent, so still. 
Ugly as the wars left everything,   the kiss of wind and sunlight somehow scour the abandoned buildings  and barren streets, giving them a peaceful aspect, like statues of angels lining graves in an old cemetery.
That's how the ruins of Oklahoma City look this morning as I walk towards them from the east,  striding through the grass on the hills below the free way pillars. The sun had just been rising when I slipped out of my night shelter in an old electrical transformer building I had fortified at dusk the night before. The sun and the birds had been there to greet me, the remaining buildings of the city gleaming in the dawn like the memorial walls of a crypt. 

The people might all be gone, but the birds still come, and they always give me a peaceful feeling.

Sunrise. It's the only time I ever get a peaceful feeling, and I savor it each and every morning, holding that soft light show in my soul for as long as I can, tasting every drop of its rare sweetness, even though I know that this feeling of serenity is nothing but  a lie.
It's a lie because there is no peace here, and the world is not really empty, and  even if the people abandoned the old cities during The End, down there in those buildings, under those streets, are other things....things that are waiting for the sun to go down, waiting for me to run out of food or ammo or luck because when I run out of these commodities, they will kill me.

They will not kill me with a quick shot to the head, a simple mercy which I extend to my own enemies when necessity dictates that I must kill to survive.

No, they will suck at my blood and devour my flesh, gouging my eyes from the sockets as I scream for help that never comes, and tomorrow's dawn will find nothing left of me but scattered bones and red stains on the concrete.

I've seen a lot of people die that way.
They are watching me now, I think to myself as I walk from the freeway towards the edges of an area that used to be called Bricktown.

I can feel them.

Crimson eyes peering hungrily from shattered windows and from under burned out cars.  I can almost hear and smell their fetid breath, almost feel their red nails upon my skin, clawing at my throat.

They can't come to me now because the sun hurts them, and they detest its light, but when that hated eye of day descends they will erupt from the ruins like a swarm of bats, and they will have only one feed. And then they will hunt me as owls hunt vermin.
I begin every morning with this realization, and it stays with me every moment of every day and's why I'm still alive.

It is this realization that keeps me moving all day, keeps me aware of every sound, every smell, every minuscule change of light. And so far, I have eluded the Night People. I have always found a hiding place, or an exit from danger, or a place in the wilderness  where they do not come.
Tonight must not be any different.
My gait is steady and I don't mind the bump of my rucksack against my hip or the bite of the rifle's strap in my shoulder--those are things I learned to ignore a long time ago. A sharpened hunting knife in scabbard is at my belt, and in an under shoulder holster is a gleaming .45. It's a warm spring day and the bandanna over my eyes keeps the sweat from them. A pair of  Oakley mirror shades I found thirty miles back on a skeleton in a house block the sun's rays from my vision as I scan the rubble ahead.
It was before The End, last time I was here, visiting family--that was almost ten years ago, but it all mostly looks the same. 

A business park. When the OKC Metro area was still alive, this area was a part of Bricktown, a tourist attraction with lots of clubs and eateries, a stadium, some high end shopping stores. 

It had all survived the wars relatively intact.

For that matter, the entire Midwest had escaped the total nuclear devastation that cratered other parts of the country.

Turns out that the USA had a fully developed "Star Wars" defense system in place since the seventies. As far as the public knew, the idea was just a political carrot on a stick dating back to Kennedy's administration, a little more controversial during the Reagan years, but the Pentagon had been way ahead of the game the whole time.  When The End came, the surviving defense systems had managed to protect some places, and the result was that none of the popular endgame projections of the think tanks had proven accurate.

Tinker Air Force Base had been a high priority so the outer space shields had intercepted the nukes that would have otherwise turned the area into slag.

The shields hadn't protected the area from more conventional means of warfare, though, and after the initial strikes, destruction had still come  to the Heartland.... in the form of enemy migs.

And even before the nukes and the migs, there had come the Contagion.

That had been the worst thing of all.

It had been what created the first Night People.

The Contagion had been the reason for everything else.

When it first appeared, civil chaos followed in its wake on a scale that can only be described as total collapse. A lot of damage had been done then, too, even before the wars.

But biological agents don't destroy infrastructure, so there was still a shell of a nation bequeathed to the survivors,  those unfortunate souls now left to wander the wastes of America like ants haunting the husk of a piece of  rotten fruit in a Salvador Dali painting.

What had happened overseas in Europe and Asia was all a matter of speculation since all communications and Internet went dead from the electromagnetic pulse bombs. Television went out forever like a burned out light bulb.

 Who says nothing good came from the End?

I survey the old office buildings, --an I-Hop  coproration whose blue sign hangs broken and askew... a Sonic headquarters whose courtyard fountain is dry ,  parking lots overgrown with four years of unchecked growth.

And, scattered here and there amongst the tall weeds and grasses pushing there way up through cracked cement,  the remains of the wars' first victims.

Skeletons lying in neat little piles.

No matter where you go, you find these.

Bones picked clean by time and the elements and vermin, lying where they fell four years ago.
I no longer shudder when I see the skeletons lying on  broken pavement. Big ones, little ones…they move me no more than a pile of animal bones now.

I'm only here to find what I can find and move on.
As I come up to the first burned out hulk of a car, I grip the door window edge and lean down to peer inside, my eyes occasionally flickering back to the doorways and upper story windows of the silent buildings even as I scan the seats and dash of the wreck.
Pay dirt.
Lying on the seat beside the skeletal remains of the driver is a metal box, the fireproof kind. It's big enough to hold something is good only for fire starter now... and I'm surprised another traveler hasn't already found it. Retrieving it, I discover it is fairly heavy for its size, and I hear something metal move around inside it. Upon examination I realize that the lock is rusted beyond the use of any key, so there is no need to search for one.

 No matter,  I'll open it later.
I pull my pack off and deposit the box within it, carefully refastening the straps and resuming my search of the car, exhilarated by my find. There seems to be nothing else, and I start for the next car.
Before I reach it, I hear the sound of a shard of glass cracking under someones foot.
My blood congeals and my breath quickens.

The rifle is off my back in a second and swinging as one with me as I turn towards the direction of the sound.
In the shadows between two buildings I glimpse a figure, there for a moment, then gone in hasty retreat.

Another traveler. Watching me.
My heart begins to pound with the old familiar terror.
A few seconds deliberation with myself ensues.

It can't be one of the Night People, I think. Sun's high.

If it was a Raider, I'd already be dead. Besides, Raiders travel in packs, they don't utilize scouts very effectively, and they don't run away.

I  learned long ago, though, that Raiders and Night People aren't the only ones you have to watch out for out here.
I think  for a second about letting the watcher go--maybe he or she is as scared of me as I am of them, and just as anxious to avoid an encounter.
But I can't take that chance. It could be a trap, and the first rule I learned on my own out here is Be Proactive.
I sprint towards the buildings as quietly as possible, knowing that my quarry might be expecting me to go for the alley in direct pursuit.

I don't.

 Instead, I take a gamble and pick the direction where they will most likely appear from around the building's other side if their intent is to head deeper into the metro. I round the building and press myself next to an open doorway, wary of the darkness at my back.

The gamble pays off.
An older man, maybe sixty, tall and gangly, comes puffing around the corner as though headed right for the door I'm crouched next to.
Instead of escape, he finds himself staring into the muzzle of my AR-15. The look of surprise on his face is almost funny.
"Hold it," I warn, chambering a round with a sharp click.
He freezes in place, terrified.
"P-please," he says…"Don't shoot--I'm unarmed!"
The old man is telling the truth far as I can see. No visible weapons. He's dressed in a dirty sweater,  filthy casual pants and worn combat boots like mine, only older. His skin and eyes show no signs of the Contagion, even in early stages. If he had that he'd be balled up witha fever somewhere... until the Change.  My guess is, he's not infected. His graying hair is as dirty and unkempt as the rest of him, but he looks only comical... not threatening.
But looks can be deceiving, as they say.
"What are you doing out here?" I ask him. "Not afraid of the ghouls?"
"Y-yes," he stammers, nodding. " I am. Terribly. I'm from Tinker Town, and I hope to be back there by sundown."
I knew where Tinker was. It was one of the reasons I'd come to Oklahoma in the first place.

The famous airbase had been reclaimed  and fortified with concrete barriers after the wars, turned into a militia-ville by a survivalist group.

I had gone there twice in the past week and both times been turned away at the gates to die on my own. That was one gated community that wasn't letting any more people join the neighbor's association.

I was now heading out of the OKC area, and I had no intention of knocking on their door again.
"Good luck with that," I say. "You've got a pretty good walk, and no offence, but at your age, I don't see you making it before dark."
"I know. I'm afraid it was a mistake to believe I could make it on my own, but I had to come here."
"There are two children who snuck out of the base--a boy and his sister. I must find them... they're all alone."
My belly turns a little cold at the thought of kids wandering around in the domain of the Night People. I give them less odds than the old man.
"When?" I ask.
"Last night. About nine o'clock."
"How old?"
"The boy is thirteen…his sister is nine. They were the children of a friend of mine  who died in the Wars. I've looked after them these four years. They heard some wild tales from a traveling preacher about a place of refuge in the northwest and they took some ridiculous notion about finding it. I had reason to believe they might come here before leaving."

"The base didn't send a rescue team?" I ask.

"Noone could be spared," he says. "I risked coming on my own. I used to live in this area..I know some hiding places."
"Forget it," I say. "If they were out here last night, they're gone."
"Don't say that, please," the old man says in pleading voice. "The boy is very resourceful and brave-he adores his sister. He's very special--they might be still alive. I had to try. Please…lower the gun."
I size him up again.

I'm a fast draw--if he reaches for a weapon, I can beat him, and unarmed he is no match for me. At twenty six, I'm slender and wiry and fast..and he's certainly no  Raider.

Slowly, I lower my rifle and sling it, ready to reach for my pistol if the need arises.
"Thank you,"  he says. "I'm Peter Janson. What is your name?"
"Samuels.  Jack Samuels."
"Extremely pleased to meet you, Mr. Samuels," he replies. "Could you please...could you help me find Jessica and Robert?"
I shake my head.
"But," he stammers, "They're only children. We've got to find them."
"I told you, old man---they're dead. These ruins are crawling with ghouls according to everything I've heard on the road, and they're like hounds on the trail of a rabbit come nightfall. I'm sorry, I really am--but your kids are finished."
He looks around desperately, his lip trembling as he searches for words. Finally, he speaks.
"Listen, if you help me find them.. or at least confirm that they're dead…I'll take you back to Tinker Town and I can assure you will be recompensed.  I know the Commander personally…Commander Villeneuve is his name. He will be very appreciative of your efforts."
I smile grimly.
"Villeneuve," I say. "That's the guy that told me to jump in a lake when I tried to get in the gate last time. Threatened to shoot me, in fact."
Janson smiles, wringing his hands together. "Commander Villeneuve is very protective of the base people," he says, nodding. "He doesn't trust lone scavengers….no offence."
"None taken,"  I say, turning as if to leave while still keeping an eye on the old man. I wonder how protective this Villenueve could be if he couldn't even send a patrol after two little kids. But that isn't my problem, and it's time to go.
"Wait," he says, following me. "If you're with me, I can guarantee he'll let you in, welcome you in fact. He might even grant you citizenship."

He looks at me as though I'm a dog that's just been offered a steak.
I laugh, a genuine belly laugh.
"The last thing I care about is joining a militia-ville," I say. "Half of em' are nothing but a glorified cult. All I want is a rack for a few weeks, some decent food, some supplies, and a talk with people who know the area."
"You'll get all of that," Janson says, his eyes filled with emotion. "Please, just help me find the children."
I find myself considering his offer, and silently berate myself for it.

Only twice before have I ever hooked up with other survivors, and both times nearly proved fatal.

I'll probably regret this too, I think.

But the thought of gaining access to Tinker, both now and in the future if the need ever arises, that's worth at least a little trouble. Militia-villes  usually have clean water, medical supplies, and good maps. Sometimes even vehicles. There's little chance we'll find the kids, but the possibility of a permanent welcome at the base is too tempting to pass on.

My old man used to tell me I was a sucker. He was right.
"Alright," I say. "One night out here, that's it. We look today and tomorrow, and then we call it quits, comprende? And whether we find them or not... or their bodies...the offer is still good?"

"Yes. Of course," he replies.

"And I call the shots. You do exactly what I tell you to do or I ditch your sorry hide in three seconds. I'm not gonna wind up ghoul food for anyone, you understand?"
"Of course," he says, nodding rapidly. "Oh thank you. Thank God I met you!"
I shake my head. Yeah, I'm gonna regret this.
"Let's go," I say, and we head into the ruins.