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.


  1. Fascinating! Can't wait to read the next! I'm hooked, man - and I DON'T follow this genre! Give me more ... :D

  2. Thanks Mark. I have enjoyed writing it. Appreciate you reading and commenting.