By: Jason Cline
18:12 February 27, 2058 – UCAS Reintegration checkpoint, Former Chicago Containment Zone
What do you say to a ghost?
That was the question that kept running through Nick Muldoon's mind as he sat in the hard plastic chair and watched Melissa type information into the terminal in front of her. Melissa Simmons…Nick's ex-girlfriend…a woman he thought died in the early days of the Containment, only to turn up here at Camp Refugee sitting behind a government terminal keying in the magic code needed to reactive Nick's SIN and essentially bring him back from the dead.
Melissa looked expectantly at Nick and he realized that she had asked him a question, "Sorry…what?" Emotion flashed quickly across Melissa's face but she composed herself, "I asked if you would like something to drink." Nick shook his head, "I'm fine" His voice sounded hollow even to his own ears and once again Melissa had a pained look but she composed herself quickly and smiled, "You sure? We've got real coffee. I remember how much you love real coffee." Nick nodded and gave her a smile of his own, "That would be great, thanks." Melissa's smile deepened and she nodded, "Coming right up."
As she walked out of the makeshift cubicle Nick couldn't help but notice how clean she looked. Her business suite was only slightly rumpled after a full day of data entry, her hair was neat and looked professionally styled; she was even wearing makeup. Nick looked around the spartan cubicle; there was nothing to distinguish it from any other cubicle in this make-shift office building. It was all so…clean. After three years in the Zone sleeping in abandoned apartments or sometimes out on the streets with nothing between you and the elements but a sythboard box, the sterile government building seemed alien to him. The harsh smell of disinfectant stung his nose and the scavenger in him couldn't help but feel like a test subject in some corporate research facility.
Nick jumped slightly in his chair as Melissa returned with two steaming mugs of coffee in her hands. The scavenger's hand darted towards the left sleeve of his jacket where he had hidden the sharpened rebar shiv he had fashioned for himself, but stopped just short of pulling the weapon free. Melissa started visibly at his reaction but quickly softened her face and smiled, "Here you go, two creams two sugars just the way you like it." She set the steaming mug down on the desk in front of Nick and settled herself in front of her terminal once again. "So," Melissa began, "I just have a few routine questions to ask you, most of them I think I already know but I want to make sure that we get you processed as fast as possible." Nick nodded, Zoners were being processed in order of their SIN and Nick shouldn't have been here nearly this early but he suspected that Melissa had pulled some strings to move him up in the queue.
As Melissa began asking him questions designed to verify his identity Nick just kept staring at her face. She looked almost exactly as he remembered her, though she was wearing her hair differently and she had removed some of the extra piercings she had in her ears. The scavenger wondered what she saw when she looked at him. Where physically Melissa looked the same as always; it was hard to believe that anyone who knew Nick before the walls went up would recognize him now. Before the Zone Nick had never been particularly athletic, and while he wasn't exactly overweight…he wasn't in shape either. He wore his hair short then, and rarely went more than a day without shaving. Now his hair was a shaggy mess and he had at least a week's growth on his face. Three years of catch as you can nutrition had left the scavenger lean and muscular. It had been at least 72 hours since he last bathed and Nick was absolutely certain he smelled like a mixture of wood smoke and B.O.
And then of course there was his eye.
Melissa hadn't said anything about it, but Nick had noticed her glancing more than once at the black canvas patch that covered the ruins of his left eye. Most of the people Nick knew from the Zone met him after he lost his eye so after the first meeting they didn't seem to pay much attention to his patch, but as he sat there answering her questions Melissa seemed to find it harder and harder to look away from it.
"Just ask me." Nick said finally. "I'm sorry?" Melissa said looking up from her terminal. "Just ask me what happened to my eye." Nick said. Melissa flushed slightly and said, "I'm sorry I didn't mean to…" but Nick held up a hand to cut her off. Melissa nodded and asked, "What happened to your eye?"
"I lost it in a fight with a Bug…'bout two years ago." Melissa nodded uncomfortably and Nick continued, "I get along fine without it." Melissa turned back to her terminal and continued her work in silence. Finally the silence seemed to be too much for her and she blurted out, "I'm sorry Nick…I tried to find you but there was so much confusion at first. And then the wall went up and…I just assumed…" Nick smiled ruefully, "You assumed I was dead." Melissa closed her eyes and nodded.
Nick picked up the coffee cup she had laid before him and took a sip. The coffee didn't taste right; it was too rich, too sweet. Real coffee was unheard of in the Zone and Nick had taken to drinking his soykaff black since cream and sugar were usually extra. Nick sat the cup down and smiled, "Of course you did. I though the same thing when I couldn't find you. What else were we supposed to think?" Melissa opened her eyes and they were red with tears, "Nick I…I'm engaged." Nick's jaw clenched, "Brad?" Melissa nodded, "After the wall went up we got…closer. He got me a job with the city and over Christmas he popped the question." Nick wasn't sure how to respond so he just nodded. Melissa searched his face in silence for a few minutes then dried her eyes and coughed, "Right…back to the questions."
Forty-five minutes later the procedure was complete and Nick was led through the back of the facility to a bus terminal. Melissa had arranged temporary housing for Nick at a half-way house that was taking on Zoners. She had also assigned herself as his caseworker and promised to do everything in her power to help him get back on his feet. As Nick had left her office Melissa had shoved a piece of paper with her new comm number on it into his hand and hugged him once again, tears streaming down her face. Nick knew he should feel something…elation that Melissa was alive…grief that she was now engaged to Brad…relief that at long last he was out of the Zone…but he didn't. Mostly the scavenger felt tired and hungry. So Nick sat down on the metal slat bench of the bus terminal and looked out at the Chicago Sprawl and wondered…what now?
07:25 March 11, 2058 – Lakeview Center for Psychotherapy, Chicago Metroplex
Nick sat in a corner of the waiting room watching the other patients. He was surprised to see so many people had scheduled appointments this early on a Monday morning but perhaps they, like he, had no say in the matter. Nick watched a little elven girl probably no more than eight playing with a doll while her mother sat next to her jacked into a cyberdeck that was plugged into the wall. No doubt another corporate wage-slave that was able to get the time off to take her daughter to therapy but not get an extension on whatever project she was working so diligently on. Since the two had arrived, the little girl had been stealing glances at Nick when she thought he wouldn't notice, this time however he caught her eye and gave her a wink. The child gave a little start and became instantly consumed with her dolly.
Nick chuckled, he had gotten used to that sort of reaction. Clean shaven, hair trimmed and dressed in clean new clothing Nick still drew looks from passersby. With cybernetic replacement so readily available it was unheard of for someone to wear a patch these days. Hell with enough money you could vatgrow another organic eyeball from a DNA sample if you wanted to. But Nick had politely refused Melissa's attempt to schedule a consult with The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Nick hadn't explained his reasons and Melissa hadn't pushed but it was long after that she informed him of his meeting today with a psychiatrist. The appointment had been set for 07:00 but apparently so had everyone else's because the lobby was half full when Nick arrived and more people had been turning up ever since.
As Nick tried in vain to catch the eye of the little elven girl who was the only one brave enough to look directly at him a nurse called his name. He stood and nodded, tossing another wink at the girl and followed the nurse into the back. The nurse led Nick into a comfortable sitting room and informed him that the doctor would see him shortly. The room was small, with four plush armchairs and a small bookshelf that held actual books. A window looked out on Chicago and Nick took a few moments to gaze down on the street below, before he heard footsteps in the hall. Nick turned away from the window as the doctor entered; he appeared to be in his early forties with close cut brown hair and a well-trimmed beard. He was dressed very casually in a V-neck sweater over a plain white shirt and slacks; Nick suspected his style of dress was meant to put his patients at ease. The doctor smiled as he entered but did not offer his hand, "Good morning Mr. Muldoon, my name is Doctor Nadir. Please have a seat." Nick did so, choosing a chair that was close to the door but did not leave his back to the window. "So, I understand that you are having a little trouble readjusting to life outside the Containment Zone." Nick shrugged, "Yeah I guess so." Dr. Nadir sat forward slightly in his chair, "Why don't you tell me about it."
"It's too loud."
"What is too loud?" the doctor asked. Nick snorted, "Everything. Cars on the street…people talking into their comms…music blaring from everywhere. I never noticed it before but everywhere you go is noise. And we just block it out, ignore it, wander the streets oblivious to the world around us. On the way here today I saw a man just step out into the street in front of a bus. He was totally absorbed in something only he could see and just didn't pay attention."
"Was he hit?" the doctor asked with a note of concern. Nick snorted again, "No…that's the worst part. The bus came to a screeching halt, throwing all the passengers around and they guy just wandered off. The bus driver honked the horn at him and the guy just looked at him like the bus shouldn't have been in the way." Dr. Nadir frowned, "How is that a bad thing Mr. Muldoon?" Nick stood up and started pacing angrily, "Because there was no consequence for his action. In the Zone when you screw up your dead. But out here it's always someone else's fault. And the excess…my god! I was at a restaurant yesterday and a couple of girls were seated next to me. They both ordered sandwiches and soup and when they left half the damn meal was sitting on the table. They just threw it away. There are people out there that are lucky to get one solid meal a day and those kids just threw it away." Dr. Nadir watched as Nick paced for a few moments and then dropping back into his chair. "People in the Zone valued what they had." Nick said, "They looked out for each other."
"It seems to me that you are glamorizing your time spent in the Containment Zone Mr. Muldoon." Dr. Nadir said, "I have spoken to several individuals who were trapped in the Zone and they paint a very different picture. Fear and violence…gangs of monsters roaming the streets…never knowing when some one or some thing will break down your door or snatch you right off the street. Many called it hell on earth." Nick clenched his jaw. Silence stretched out between the two men.
Finally Dr. Nadir spoke, "Do you know why you are here Mr. Muldoon?" Nick chuckled, "Yeah, I'm here because a psych eval is one of the requirements for government assistance." The doctor nodded, "In part…but your case worker is very concerned about your mental well-being. In her notes she stated that she fears you may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." Nick laughed, "Imagine that…"
"She is especially concerned by your reluctance to address your medical condition." Nick frowned in confusion. "Your eye Mr. Muldoon." Nick grit his teeth again but did not comment. Dr. Nadir leaned back in his chair, "I have been asked to assess your mental fitness to determine if you are indeed suffering from PTSD. To do this I am going to need to administer a number of tests. If you are willing."
Nick smiled, "What the hell…I got nothin better to do today."
17:08 March 11, 2058 – UCAS Halfway House, Chicago Metroplex
Nick stepped off the bus on the corner of Lawrence and Western and headed up the street to the halfway house. The halfway house was run by the Salvation Army and was used to help criminals who were recently released from prison to re-integrate into society. Nick imagined that the former inmates must have seen it as not much of a step up from prison. The rooms were small dorm-style affairs that housed two people. The cafeteria was the kind Nick imagined you would find in a lock-up. Still, Nick had spent time in much worse places over the last few years. Instead of walking up the concrete steps to the building however, Nick kept walking past the entrance and turned down a small alley beside the building. Someone had been following Nick since he left the psychiatrist earlier that afternoon and it was time to find out who.
As Nick ducked into the alleyway he stepped into a shadowed alcove and waited, trusting his magic to help hide him from whoever was following him. Back in the Zone Nick would never have confronted someone who was tailing him, he would have just disappeared. But Nick sensed no danger from whoever was following him and that made him curious. A few moments passed and a man dressed in non-descript clothing and a light jacket walked into the alley. He looked around confused for a few seconds then started walking further into the alleyway. Nick let the man get about half way down the alley before he stepped out of the shadows and leveled a Cavalier Scout palm pistol at the man.
"Why are you following me?"
The figure jumped in surprise and spun around, his right hand diving for a pistol concealed under his jacket. "Don't…" Nick warned, "You're not fast enough." The man froze when he saw that Nick had the drop on him and slowly raised his hands above his head. "Easy now…" the man began.
"Two fingers…pistol on the ground and kick it under the dumpster."
The man complied without complaining and once the gun had clattered across the alley floor Nick asked again, "Why are you following me?" The man slowly lowered his hands, "I was asked to deliver a message to you…discretely." Nick made a show of looking around the alley, "This is a pretty discrete location. What's the message?" The man put his hands in his pockets and slowly pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Taking a deep drag he replied, "My employer wants to meet with you." Nick narrowed his eyes, "Who's your employer?" Another drag, "Elaine Kingston." Nick shook his head, "Never heard of her." The man smiled, "That's because you don't know her. But you do know her daughter…Kaitlyn Henricht."
19:00 March 11, 2058 – Mezzanine level of the Chicago Hilton, Chicago Metroplex
As Nick climbed the stairs from the lobby he spotted his contact standing by a secluded table near the indoor pool. The mezzanine level boasted two indoor pools, an upscale restaurant and a nightclub where guests of the hotel received discounted drinks until midnight. Mr. Morrigan, Nick's contact from the alley earlier that night, had chosen a small table out of the way of the swimming pool but close to the tikki bar. There were two other people seated at the table, a middle-aged woman and a young man. Nick assumed the woman was Elaine Kingston who he had been invited to meet; the young man appeared to be a business man of some kind based on his well-tailored clothing but other than that Nick couldn't say.
Morrigan caught sight of Nick as he made his way around the pool and leaned in to say something to Mrs. Kingston. She looked over and nodded, drawing herself up a bit straighter in her chair and putting on a plastic smile. As Nick closed within a few meters she stood and offered a hand, "Mr. Muldoon thank you for coming." Nick took the offered hand and shook it, "Your welcome." Mrs. Kingston indicated the man still seated at the table, "Allow me to introduce Michael Stratton, a friend of the family." Michael rose and shook Nick's hand in a practiced move; grip firm but not challenging, holding the handshake for just a few seconds and looking Nick in the eye the entire time. "Nice to meet you." Michael said.
Nick took a seat at the table, "So Mrs. Kingston, what can I do for you?" Mrs. Kingston slid a holopic across the table and replied, "I understand you met my daughter Kaitlyn in the Containment Zone?" Nick looked at the holopic and there was Katie Henricht probably all of fourteen years old dressed in some sort of evening gown. The holo must have been taken in early '55 right before she came to Chicago. Nick felt a momentary twinge and grit his teeth, "Yeah I know her, but her father called her Kate." Mrs. Kingston brightened, "So you do know her! Oh this is good news…when was the last time you saw her?" Nick rubbed his chin in thought, "I donno…maybe six months ago at the Sanctuary." Mrs. Kingston's expression fell slightly, "But you haven't seen her since? She didn't contact you after she left the Containment Zone."
Nick felt another twinge but kept his expression neutral, "We uh…we had a bit of a falling out." Mrs. Kingston frowned slightly, "Can you think of anyone else she would have contacted." Something about Mrs. Kingston's icy demeanor was really starting to get on Nick's nerves so he snapped back, "Well her father's dead and she never really talked about anyone outside the Zone. I would suggest Two Spirits." Mrs. Kingston's expression remained unchanged, "Unfortunately no one has been able to locate Jason Two Spirits." Nick snorted, "Well that's not surprising."
No one spoke for a few seconds then Michael asked, "Is it possible that she never left the Zone." Nick shook his head, "Nah, if she'd died I would have heard about it." Michael held up his hand, "You misunderstand. Is it possible that she is still in the Zone somewhere?" Nick frowned and rubbed his chin in thought, "I suppose it's possible. I would have thought they had processed everyone through by now but she could be stuck in a camp somewhere." Michael shook his head, "Again you misunderstand. Is it possible that she chose to stay in the Zone?"
Nick laughed…he couldn't help himself, "No one would choose to stay in the Zone." But as the thought sunk in he frowned and finally muttered, "God damn it Katie. Yeah I suppose it is possible that she stayed behind. Especially if you say that no one can find Two Spirits. If he stayed then she stayed." Michael turned to Mrs. Kingston and blurted, "I told you…she's still in there." Mrs. Kingston sighed and nodded, Michael continued "We need to go get her."
Nick laughed for a second time, a sharp bark of laughter that drew everyone's gaze, "You're going to go get her from the Zone are you Mikey?" Michael's eyes narrowed slightly, "That's right." Nick made a show of looking the suit up and down and shook his head, "You'd never make it." Color rose to Michael's cheeks and he spat, "The Zone is no more dangerous than the Aztlan border in Austin now that the Bugs are gone." Nick just smiled, "Sure kid…whatever you say." Michael looked like he wanted to respond but Mrs. Kingston cut him off, "Be that as it may, we have no choice. If my daughter is still in there somewhere I have to get her out."
Nick studied the woman across the table from him. There was no doubt that this was Kate Henricht's mother. She had the same beautiful blue eyes and the same heart shaped face, but there was something more. Elaine Kingston had the same annoyingly stubborn look on her face that Nick had seen countless times on Kate's face. A look that told him in no uncertain terms that what she wanted she was going to get. Nick closed his eyes and sighed, "It won't be easy getting back into the Zone. The wall is still up and I hear that some concerned citizens have taken it upon themselves to man the walls themselves to make sure no more Zoners get out. But I might have a way."
Mrs. Kingston nodded as though Nick's assistance had never been in doubt, but Michael was noticeably less excited. Mrs. Kingston rose from her chair and indicated Morrigan, "Mr. Morrigan will sort out the remaining details, I would like daughter returned to me by the end of the week. If you present her to me by Sunday I will pay you five thousand nuyen in certified credsicks." Nick found himself negotiating out of habit as though Mrs. Kingston had asked him to recover a piece of salvage instead of her daughter, "End of the week is a pretty tight deadline, how about ten days."
Too bad Nick was completely out of his league.
Mrs. Kingston smiled sweetly, "You take as long as you need to. But every day after Sunday I knock a thousand yen off your pay." Her smile faded, "Mr. Muldoon I want you to fully understand me. My daughter has been taken from me and I want her back…now. If you can't get her out then I will find someone else who can." Without another word Mrs. Kingston turned and walked toward the main building of the hotel.
00:00 March 13, 2058 – Harrington Park, Chicago Metroplex
Nick squatted at the edge of the brush line and scanned the guard tower for any hint of movement. Across ten meters of open land stood the wall that marked the border of the CZ. The western wall had been one of the first to go up and was originally just a chain-link fence topped with razor wire along the eastern edge of Harlem Avenue and patrolled by UCAS troops in APCs. Within a week of the containment UCAS troops had bulldozed all the buildings on either side of Harlem Avenue and piled the debris along the roadway. Roughly every one hundred meters the military put up a guard tower, a raised steel platform with flood lights and chest high walls where the guards can seek cover as needed. During the containment the towers were manned twenty four hours a day by UCAS troops to prevent anyone from climbing the wall. Even though the western wall was the longest it was the least heavily fortified, the walls on 115th and Irving Park Road boasted far more towers than the Harlem wall and Nick knew of at least one tower near the lakefront that had a missile launcher; that was why the scavenger had chosen the western wall in the first place.
Nick pulled a small flashlight out of his pocket and flicked it on and off three times. After a few seconds a light flared on top of the tower, the light flashed twice then the scavenger began counting seconds, after ten the light flashed again. Nick turned away from the wall and made his way silently back to where Morrigan and Michael were hunched over an outdated map of Chicago. Nick gave a low whistle as he entered camp drawing Morrigan's attention. The company man turned and gave Nick a short nod of acknowledgement before turning back to the map. Nick snagged his new pack from the pile of supplies and announced, "We've got ten minutes. I suggest we hurry."
Morrigan geared up in silence but Michael asked, "Do you really trust this ganger? How do we know he isn't setting us up?" Nick settled his pack on his shoulders and started back towards the wall, "First of all he's a militia member not a ganger, there's a world of difference. And second no I don't trust him but I trust the five hundred yen bribe that Morrigan gave him." As the trio made the brush line Michael started to speak again but Nick held up his hand. Scanning the tower again Nick opened up his senses, testing the night for hidden dangers. Satisfied the scavenger waved Morrigan ahead.
The company man darted across the ten meter space in a near silent sprint and came to a stop directly beneath the guard tower. Morrigan crouched down by the ladder to the tower and waved the others across. Michael crossed first then Nick, by the time the scavenger arrived the two men were pulling on rough leather gloves in anticipation of climbing the debris wall. "All this goes tits up if your buddy was lying to ya." Morrigan said blandly. Nick smiled, "Trust me, the Blythe Park Militia control this section of the wall. Conrad may be a paranoid son of a bitch but he'll stick to the deal. Besides he's much more worried about keeping people in than out."
Like so many Chicagoans west of the CZ the residents of Blythe Park had their homes and businesses either ruined, commandeered or simply demolished by the UCAS military during the Containment. Over the last two years most of the residents moved away but those that either couldn't afford to or had nowhere else to go banded together to form a sort of neighborhood watch under the leadership of Conrad Fulton, a local business owner. After the military pulled out Conrad became convinced that Zoners would flood into Blythe Park and prevent the original inhabitants from returning. So the watch scraped together what firearms they could and took up positions on the towers to ensure that the "infected" wouldn't cross the wall. The Zoners took to calling them the Blythe Park Militia and the name stuck. Blythe Park had been a pleasant middle class community before the walls went up but as Nick made his way through the deserted streets of demolished homes and businesses earlier that night it reminded him of countless neighborhoods within the Zone itself.
Nick pulled his own pair of gloves out of his pack, "Once we're over the wall we make for the Elevated, it's the safest way to get to the Sanctuary. The Angels will charge us to use the L of course but they trade fair so that shouldn't be a problem. I wanna hit an old stash of mine before we make the L and see if I can scrounge up a few weapons. Best case scenario we'll make the Sanctuary by dawn." Morrigan nodded by Michael asked, "And what if Kaitlyn isn't there?" Nick rubbed his forehead in annoyance, "Then we'll catch a few hours sleep at the Sanctuary and start looking for her."
The three men started climbing the pile of rubble. Morrigan was content to climb in silence but Michael it seemed wasn't done with his questions. "What makes you think you can find her?" Michael whispered loudly as the trio slowly and gingerly sought out handholds in the industrial rubble. "She won't hide from me." Nick replied pulling himself up onto a large slab of reinforced ferrocrete. "Yeah? What makes you so special?" Michael asked then hissed in pain as he scraped his left arm on an exposed piece of rebar. Nick slid through the shattered remnants of an office window and over the top of the wall before responding, "Do you really want me to answer that or are you just trying to push my buttons?" Morrigan scrambled to the foot of the wall on the other side and spat, "Will you two shut up?! Jesus it's like I'm back in high school. Stop measuring your dicks and let's get a move on." Michael finished the rest of the climb in silence and by the time he touched down on the other side whatever questions he had about Nick's competence he kept to himself.
Nick set out west along 35th street into the Zone. As he moved further away from the wall the familiar sights and sounds of the Containment Zone greeted him like a long lost friend. The smell of smoke and dust and just a hint of decomposition, the distant sounds of Chicago slowly fading into the background, the slight tightening of his chest to let him know that his supernatural senses were probing the area for any hint of danger; for the first time in weeks Nick felt at peace again. It was a strange kind of peace; it wasn't restful or comforting, if anything the scavenger was more alert here than he had been a day before on the streets of Chicago. But somehow life inside the Zone made more sense to Nick then life on the outside. Inside the Zone he fit. He was the scavenger, an integral part of the CZ ecology. But outside the Zone what was he? A college drop-out with PTSD and a missing eye? One of thousands of disenfranchised citizens trying desperately to return to their old lives while swallowing pills by the handful in the hopes that they can forget the life they left behind in the Zone. Nick shook his head to clear his thoughts as he turned north onto South Oak. Now wasn't the time for an epiphany. The scavenger was back in the Zone and that meant that he needed to keep his wits about him.
Over a year ago Nick had been hired to recover some medical equipment from MacNeal Hospital for the medicos over at Cook County Hospital. It ended up being a good haul even though a nest Fireflies had set up in the upper two floors, and while he had been doing surveillance Nick stumbled upon a plumbing store a few blocks down the road that actually had an old floor safe from pre-Matrix days. It had taken the scavenger over a week to drill out and repair the safe but in the end he had a secure cache in a mostly deserted part of the Zone. With any luck the cache was still intact and the scavenger could use some of the goods stored there to barter for passage across the L.
06:42 March 13, 2058 – The Sanctuary, Former Chicago Containment Zone
As dawn's light began to peak over the horizon Nick studied the unmanned gun nest near the front entrance of Sanctuary. Nick had led the trio through the Zone to his old stash which remained untouched despite the signs of a massive battle between Aries and the Fireflies that had infested the hospital. High caliber bullet holes pockmarked the buildings up and down the street and something had completely demolished the old bank across from the hospital. Nick had been surprised at the destruction; Fireflies weren't known to put up much of a fight. Guess if you back something into a corner no matter what it is it'll come out swinging.
The Angles still manned their posts at the entrance ramp to the Elevated, but there were fewer of them than Nick had seen in the past and they seemed almost desperate when Nick was bartering for passage. In the end they agreed to allow the three men access to the L for six MREs, a box of factory 9mm rounds and a box of water purifying tablets. Nick probably could have talked them down to 3 MREs but they seemed so desperate for food he couldn't bring himself to. Now that the Containment Zone had been officially abolished there were no more food drops, which meant that anyone still living in the Zone had to fend for themselves. Judging from the empty cook pots it appeared the Angels weren't doing so well.
After a long but uneventful trudge along the Elevated, Nick led them back down to street level at the Roosevelt station. For the first couple of years of the Containment the Angels would run actual train cars along the Elevated, heavily armored and run on generator power. But as the Containment stretched on and the Angels had more and more run-ins with gangs who would block the tracks to demand 'tolls' the Angels cut back to just securing the line against opportunistic gangers and the various Bugs who wanted to nest on the tracks. Occasionally Angels would offer to escort Zoners along the L but Nick had never really trusted that arrangement. The Angels had a good rep but life in the Zone can cause even good people to do bad things.
Roosevelt was always a heavily guarded station, owning to the fact that it connected the elevated which was relatively safe with the subway which was anything but. The Roosevelt Transfer Tunnel was completed in the early years of the twenty-first century and had been intended as a convenient and comfortable way for Chicagoans to transfer from the Subway line to the Elevated. Because of its close proximity to the Museum the aesthetic concept for the tunnel was a timeline of history from the Big Bang to then present day. The walls of the Tunnel were covered with a large mural composed over thousands of colored tiles created by visitors to the museum at the turn of the century and put together by a local artist to symbolize the hopes and dreams of the new century. It wasn't long before those hopes and dreams succumbed to harsh reality.
Within a year of opening the Chicago Transit Authority announced the installation of dozens of security cameras in the Tunnel to help prevent crime, most notably vandalism to the Tunnel itself. The cameras helped to deter some crime but in the end more and more security measures were needed. After Alamos brought down the Sears tower in 2039 security ramped up again; chem sniffers were installed in the walls as well as heat sensitive cameras and physical checkpoints. When the walls went up around the Zone several of the Eagle Security personnel responsible for the safety of the Tunnel thought they could ride out the quarantine there. Unfortunately the subways became a breeding ground for Roaches, Beetles and other vermin. After several nocturnal attacks the guards initiated lock down mode, slamming the security gate shut on the Tunnel and cutting it off from the world above.
The transit guards, who took to calling themselves The Angels though Nick had no idea why, have repaired the security gate numerous times over the years as the various denizens of the underground probed it for weaknesses and now it resembled a metal quilt with all manner of metal patches welded on haphazardly. Even with the security gate, guards were always posted at the station to keep an eye on the Tunnel entrance and generally let the Zoners know who was in charge of the L. There were only two guards present now, yet another sign of the Angels' declining power in the Zone.
Nick's thoughts drift back to the present and he sighed, realizing he had stalled long enough. Giving Morrigan a quick nod he broke cover and headed slowly towards the Sanctuary. It had been over a year since Nick set foot in the Sanctuary and his heart beat fast in his chest as he pulled open the door.
He knew as soon as the door opened that there was no one there. The Sanctuary used to literally hum with magical energy, a low tone that Nick could feel more than hear, and now nothing. No people…no foci…nothing. A quick check of the living quarters showed that the occupants hadn't been rushed to leave. Dressers had been cleared out and closed; nothing had been left behind in haste. Whatever had prompted the residents of the Sanctuary to leave they had plenty of warning first. Nick's heart sunk as he approached Kate's door. He pushed it open to find another empty room. "Shit…" he muttered and stepped back into the hall. Michael turned at the sound from where he was inspecting an old oil painting that had been left behind. "What is it?"
Nick jerked his thumb over his shoulder, "That's Kate's room but there's nothing there. No clue where she and the others have gone." Michael brushed past him as Nick made his way out to the atrium and dropped down onto a battered folding chair. Michael wandered out a few minutes later looking dejected. For a second Nick was lost in the irony of the moment. Here he was in the atrium of the Sanctuary in almost the same spot where he sat nearly three years ago; only this time instead of hoping to leave Kate here for her own good he was hoping to drag Kate away from here for her own good.
Nick looked up as Morrigan joined them. "The upper level is cleared out as well." The company man reported. Nick nodded. "So what do we do now?" Michael asked. "Now…" Nick answered, "I am going to go lie down in Kate's old room and sleep for a few hours." As Nick rose from the chair Michael stood in front of him, "Hold on a second. Where do we go from here?" The scavenger shot him an annoyed look and said wearily, "I donno." Nick tried to step around the man but Michael cut him off again, "You don't know? You told us you could find her. You said she wouldn't hide from you."
Nick grit his teeth in annoyance, "Look I don't know where she is…but we'll find her. I have some contacts I can check with…" But Michael cut him off, "Bullshit! You have no idea where she is…you never did! I told Elaine he was a waste of time." The last comment was directed at Morrigan, who held up his hands indicating that he was staying out of the whole thing. When Michael turned to look at Morrigan the scavenger stepped around him and headed toward the hall. "Hey we're not done here." Michael protested.
Nick stopped and turned to look at him. "Yeah we are. It's late and I'm tired. I am going to get some sleep. If you don't like the way I do things leave. Otherwise shut the fuck up and let me sleep." Nick doubted Michael's hearing was sharp enough to detect the faint chuckle from Morrigan, more a slightly jovial intake of breath really, but the rising color in the man's cheeks told him that Michael wouldn't soon forget the insult. That was fine with Nick as long as it meant he could get a bit of shut eye.
Four hours later Nick awoke from a dead sleep. Someone had just opened the door to the room he was sleeping in. Whoever had decided to disturb his sleep had gone to great pains to make sure that the door made almost no noise as it opened, almost being the key word. The scavenger lay still in his bed, eye closed and trying to keep his breathing as even as possible. Opening up his other senses the room came alive with sounds and smells, the light shuffle of a person moving slowly across industrial grade carpet and a familiar scent: apples and cinnamon mixed with wood-smoke and the particular personal scent he had known so intimately at one time. He sat up in bed and put his Cavalier Scout back under his pillow, "Fuckin hell Katie you tryin to get yourself shot?"
13:06 March 13, 2058 – Little Branch Café, Former Chicago Containment Zone
Nick, Morrigan and Michael sat in uncomfortable silence around a large circular table outside the Café as Kate disappeared inside to collect their order. Kate's appearance at the Sanctuary that morning had caused quite a stir. When Kate and Nick had woken the two men up Michael had immediately given the girl an enthusiastic hug which she had returned somewhat awkwardly. Refusing to answer any questions until she had eaten, Kate led the three to the Café.
Nick was honestly surprised the Café was even open. Bitterleaf, the old elven hippie who owned the place had never struck Nick as much of a survivor but she cast her lot in with Two-Spirits early on and the Café became a sort of neutral ground where people would meet with Two-Spirits or his followers to ask for help or trade. Two-Spirits collected as much of the magical foci as he or his followers could find in the Zone to use against the Insects and he always offered better than far goods in return for any foci a scavenger could bring to him. But with Two-Spirits gone the scavenger would have expected Bitterleaf to be back in Chicago already.
"I can't believe how different she looks." Michael's statement broke Nick's idle ponderings and the scavenger turned to face the man who wore a complex expression on his face. "I mean I know it's been four years but still." Michael turned to look through the mostly intact doors of the Café, "The last time I saw Kaitlyn we were going to the winter formal. She wore an evening dress and her hair was done up in some sort of elaborate braids. She was short and a bit pudgy and had freckles…and now." And now she was beautiful. Creamy white skin after the long winter but it would be a rich light brown soon, cornflower blue eyes that seemed almost too large for her face, wheat blonde hair framing her heart shaped face. She was still short, standing just a hair under 1.6 meters, but she was far from pudgy. The freckles were still there, scattered across the bridge of her nose and along her shoulders and the tops of her...
Nick clenched his jaw forcing his thoughts back to the present, "It's not just four years…it's four years in the Zone." Michael frowned, "What's that supposed to mean?" But Morrigan gave a little nod of understanding. Life in a warzone changes people, a fact the company man seemed to know too well. Kate pushed her way through the doors at that moment sparing Nick from having to explain his statement. The girl had a large plastic tray piled high with food expertly balanced in one hand and four actual glass mugs barely clenched in her other.
Michael sprung to his feet to try to help but he was too late, Kate slid the tray onto the table and set the mugs down next to it. "Dig in." she offered, her southern accent playing with the syllables of the words. Nick pulled over a plate of food and was happy to see that the lack of food drops hadn't affected the menu much. A fluffy white omelet mixed with whatever veggies Bitterleaf had on hand, covered in a chunky salsa of her own making and washed down with a mug of homemade root beer. Nick smiled a bit as he took the first bite, two weeks outside the Zone and nothing he had eaten could compare with this.
No one spoke during the meal, and once it was over Kate took away the dishes and returned with four steaming mugs of soykaff. Nick sipped his 'kaff in silence wondering who would be the first to speak. It was no surprise to the scavenger when Michael broke the silence, "I'm so glad you're safe Kaitlyn. I can't imagine what it must have been like being trapped in here." He placed his hand over hers on the table and smiled gently.
"Where's Two-Spirits?" Nick asked abruptly.
Kate pulled her hand out from under Michael's and cut her eyes at Nick, "Gone." Nick's eyes narrowed as well, "Gone where?" Kate favored the scavenger with a smile, "I don't know." Nick snorted, "Bullshit." The girls smile hardened, "Fine, how about I'm not telling." Nick sighed in frustration and rubbed his forehead, "C'mon Katie don't be like this." The girl smiled; her eyes sparkling, "Be like what?" she asked sweetly. Michael blurted in, "Who cares about the Shaman. We came here for Kaitlyn not Two-Spirits."
Kate looked back to Michael, her playful demeanor gone, "What do you mean you came for me?" Morrigan spoke up for the first time all morning, "Your mother hired this man to find you and bring you back home." Kate's eyes widened and she turned on Nick, "You're on a job?! What I'm some kind of salvage now is that it?!" Nick sipped his 'kaff.
"When the quarantine was lifted your mother sent people to search the camps for you." Michael added. "We were so worried and when they couldn't find you we got desperate. Someone mentioned Nick and your mother hired him to find you." Kate looked back to Nick, "Should'a known the only way you'd come lookin for me was on a job." Nick's face remained wooden but his jaw clenched slightly at the venom in her words. "Thing is…I'm not just a piece of salvage. What if I don't wanna go?"
Nick sighed…there it was. He was afraid it would end up this way as soon as he heard that Kate hadn't processed out. The Sanctuary empty and Kate's evasiveness about Two-Spirits; something was going on, some grand crusade the girl was wrapped up in and there was no way Nick was going to convince Kate to abandon it.
Michael obviously had not come to the same conclusion.
"What do you mean you don't want to go? Kaitlyn the containment is over. You don't have to stay here anymore." Kate turned to face him, "What if I want to stay?" Michael's eyebrows shot up in surprise, "Want to stay? Why would anyone want to stay here? Look around you Kaitlyn this place is a disaster area! No running water, spotty electricity, the buildings in shambles. When was the last time you had a good night's sleep? Or a hot shower? You can't possibly expect me to believe that you would rather live here than back in Austin." Kate arched an eyebrow, "Back in Austin? When did that become the plan?"
Morrigan spoke up, "Your mother has arranged for you to be enrolled at Texas A&M in the fall. They have an excellent thaumaturgy program there and you can commute quite easily from the city." Kate chuckled darkly, "How nice of her." Nick saw Morrigan tense slightly and inch his hand closer to a pouch on his belt. Nick caught the man's eye and shook his head slightly, whatever the company man was thinking it wouldn't work. Even though she was still young, Kate was a powerful Raccoon Shaman. Even if Morrigan was fast enough to taze her or sedate her or whatever he was planning; as soon as she woke up she would disappear, cloaking herself in an illusion that Nick wasn't sure he would be able to see through.
Kate spun on Nick, "And what about you? No words of wisdom from the great Hunter?" Nick sighed and rubbed his forehead again, "You have a life to go back to Katie. A mother who loves you and wants the best for you. At A&M you can continue your studies; it's not like Raccoon cares if you live in a penthouse or a cardboard box right?" Kate laughed, "Yeah? And how's the outside world workin out for you?" Nick flinched at her words, "That's different." He said in a low voice. "Is it?" She asked, "Just cause you wear your scars on the outside don't mean you're the only one with scars remember?" Nick's composure cracked. "What do you want from me?" he shot back heatedly.
"Nothing!" Kate shot back, jabbing her finger in his chest. "You made it pretty damn clear when you left what I could expect from you. So I moved on. And now here you are again trying to do what's 'best for me'. You fucking coward. So afraid to lose something you throw it away first. Well guess what I decide what's best for me, not you and not my mother!" Kate turned on her heel and stormed back into the Café.
No one followed.
16:35 March 13, 2058 – The Box, Former Chicago Containment Zone
Nick dropped a few notes on the bar and gathered up the bottles in front of him. The scavenger returned to his table and passed out the unmarked bottles to Michael and Morrigan, "My treat." Michael continued to stare off into space as Morrigan took a long pull, "Thanks. Pretty generous for a man who just lost a five K bounty." Nick shrugged, "Jobs come and go." The three men sat in silence for a few moments the Michael asked, "So you and Kaitlyn…"
The scavenger nodded, "Yeah."
"Was it serious?"
Nick took a sip from his beer.
"How did it end?"
"I left remember?"
Michael got a curious look on his face; somewhere between curiosity and disgust, "But she was just a kid." Nick put his beer down, "It was last year you idiot…she was seventeen. And I'm not as old as you think I am." The scavenger took a drink and added, "And I wasn't her first by a long shot…" Michael frowned and took a drink, condemnation seeming to radiate from his very being. "Look things are different in the Zone. Kids don't grow up slowly around here, hell most of them don't grow up at all. While you were at your Junior Prom, Katie was pushing someone's guts back in and holding them still while Two-Spirits healed him. You had to worry about picking the right college; she had to worry about Bugs biting her head off. So be too quick to judge her." The scavenger took an angry pull and spat, "Or me…she was the one doing the seducing for your information."
Silence streaked until Morrigan idly commented, "Doesn't sound like you put up much of a fight…" Nick studied his beer, "Cut me some slack man. I may have lost one eye…but the other one see's just fine." Michael laughed, a quick bark of laughter that caught him completely by surprise. Nick smiled and took another sip of his beer. The table was silent again for a time before Morrigan asked, "Now what?" Nick put his beer down, "We wait until nightfall and head up Lakeshore to the Wall. I spoke with Pendleton and he was able to get me a few 'passes' through the blockade. That section of wall is still controlled by the city and they are allowing relief workers to come and go. We flash our credentials and we walk right through. Once we cross the river we hail a cab and give Ms. Kingston the bad news."
"And that's it? You just tell her that Kaitlyn doesn't want to come home and you thing that's the end of the story?" Michael asked? Nick shrugged, "It is for me." Michael shot the scavenger an incredulous look, "This is her daughter we're talking about. She said it herself; if you can't find Kaitlyn she'll find someone who can." Nick took another slow pull on his beer, "How she spends her money is none of my business, but you might want to tell her that if Katie doesn't want to be found no one she hires is gonna find her. Trust me kid…she's in the wind."
"I wouldn't be so sure." Morrigan said and pointed to the door where Kate was passing through the metal detector and having her belongings checked by the door guard. Nick watched in stunned silence as she made her way through the Box, pausing to greet a few people before dropping her pack on the floor next to his and pulling up a chair. "After all that…" the scavenger said, "After all the arguing and stubbornness…after all that you just show up here packed and ready to go?" Kate favored him with a devilish smile, "Yep."
"Why?" Michael asked, watching her like some sort of love-struck puppy.
"Because it's my decision. Not my mothers and not his." she said, indicating Nick with a withering look. Nick closed his eyes and shook his head, "I swear to God…for as long as I live I will *never* understand women."
Four hours later found the group crossing the Chicago River. Pendleton had been true to his word and the aid worker passes he provided stood up to the superficial glance the gate guard gave them. It was obvious to Nick that the Eagle Security that manned the gates were more for show than anything else, a political statement from the Mayor's office to the returning citizens that the neighborhood was safe and they had nothing to fear from the former Containment Zone.
Once outside the Zone and away from the remnants of the Wall it was fairly easy to flag down a cab, even at this time of night. The four piled into a converted step-van and the driver, a dusky skinned Ork with a Jamaican accent so thick that the scavenger was sure it was affected, began not so subtlely offering to 'enhance your experience' with some custom made pharmaceuticals. Nick hated riding in cars since the loss of his eye and being crammed in the backseat with his former lover, her jealous childhood boyfriend and a corporate mercenary ranked in his top three most uncomfortable car rides ever. After what seemed like an eternity the cab pulled up in front of the Hilton and the scavenger was able to make his escape.
As Morrigan paid the fare Nick watched Kate out of the corner of his eye. She seemed to be completely at peace despite the noise and lights. Nick remembered his first couple of nights on this side of the Wall. He had to black out the windows of his room with aluminum foil and shove a blanket under the door to block out all the sound just to get to sleep. And even when he did finally fall asleep he would wake up every time a car rode by with the music too loud or someone walked past his door. It was at least four days before the sounds of vehicles on the street started to seem normal again and the rush of people passing by didn't feel so alien.
But Kate was…fine.
Maybe Dr. Nadir was right. Maybe Nick really was suffering from PTSD with delusions of alienation and survivor's guilt. Maybe Nick's refusal to reintegrate with society was a result of relying on his Id-based survival instincts for so long that he no longer knew or cared to know how to function in normal society. Maybe he had bottled up his emotions to numb himself to the loss and pain he saw every day. The doctor had offered to help him, to prescribe drugs for the depression and counseling for the feelings of alienation and loss. Maybe the scars weren't just on the outside.
"Hey you comin? Time for your big payday remember?"
Kate's words brought him back to the world. Nick realized he had been standing by the stairs to the hotel gazing off into space, though he had subconsciously positioned himself with his back to one of the walls and clear avenues of escape in two directions. He nodded and followed the group up to the Mezzanine where he watched a tearful reunion between mother and daughter. He nodded and smiled and spoke mindless platitudes and in the end he was left alone, sitting by the pool with five certified credsticks in his pocket.
After the third time the waitress came by his table to ask if he wanted to order anything and was met with silence a large man in a well-tailored suit came over and politely asked Nick to leave. The scavenger collected his pack and left without a fuss. Nick spent the next few hours wandering the streets of Chicago aimlessly, lost in thought. Several times he veered off in a completely different direction than the one he had been heading in response to a tightening in his chest or the sounds of an altercation. Around midnight he returned to the halfway house and signed in. When the attendant asked where he had been Nick favored the man with a blank stare and muttered, "Scavenging…" then proceeded to his room.
11:30 March 17, 2058 – Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago Metroplex
Nick bent down and righted the potted flower next to the gravestone. The plastic flowers were sun scorched and faded after three years of exposure to Chicago's more than slightly acidic rain. The stone was plain, one of hundreds just like it in this particular section of the graveyard. Set close together to save space but that didn't matter, there was no body in this grave. The inscription read William Burns, beloved son. It was one of hundreds of graves put up by loved ones of those trapped in the Containment Zone. As Nick straightened and brushed some dirt off the top of the gravestone he was struck with a thought, somewhere in Boston there was a matching gravestone with his name engraved on it.
Nick pulled a small container out of his pocket and stared at it for a moment. It wasn't fancy, just a hard plastic box used for holding datachips, but it was the only thing he had left from his time with Burner. Inside was an old MPCP chip from one of Burner's decks. The chip was fried, burnt out when the Ork overclocked his deck without properly cooling it. Burner had given it to Nick as a joke saying that the data on that chip represented who he truly was, his decker persona not his meat body. Burner wanted so much to make a difference in the world; he saw deckers as the voice of Truth crying out in the Matrix.
And now he's dead. With only this non-descript grave to act as a memorial. His physical remains scattered somewhere in the former Containment Zone that took first his dreams and finally his life. Nick dug a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it. The clean white paper bore the letterhead of the Lakeview Center for Psychotherapy. It was Nick's follow up appointment reminder; he was scheduled to meet with Dr. Nadir at 07:00 on March 18 to begin his Post Traumatic Stress Counseling.
Nick folded the paper up as small as he could and slipped it into the chip holder along with the burnt out MPCP chip. Then he bent down and dug a little hole in front of the gravestone and buried it. He couldn't find the right words so he just stood in silence as tears began to well up in his good eye. Finally he turned away from the gravestone and shouldered his new hardpack.
A warm breeze blew the scent of cinnamon and apples and Nick looked up to see Kate stepping out of a cab at the entrance to the graveyard. Nick leaned up against a tree and waited until she got close to ask, "How did you find me?" The girl laughed, "I'm a Shaman silly…I sent a spirit to find you." Nick nodded, "Thought you'd have left town by now." Kate stepped a little closer, "Could say the same for you…" she searched his face. "I'm broken." Nick said without preamble. "And I'm sorry if I hurt you." The young shaman smiled and shook her head dismissively. "So what are you gonna do?"
"Nothin…" Nick said with a shrug.
That drew a surprised look from Kate but he continued before she could speak. "I broke for a good reason. Being broken kept me alive. I may not fit in out here…" he spread his arms to indicate the city around him. "But I fit just fine back there." Nick pointed over the girls shoulder towards the lake at the shattered landscape of the Zone. Staring off to the southwest he continued, "There's still plenty of Zoners left, and with the UCAS pulling out that means no more supply drops. Seems like there'll be more work than ever for a scavenger."
Kate reached up and turned him to face her, "Good." She left her hand on his cheek a little longer than was necessary as he gazed intensely at her beautiful face. She turned away as the color began to creep onto her cheeks and Nick smiled. "So…you gonna tell me where Two-Spirits is?"
Kaitlyn Henricht turned back with a mischievous glint in her eyes, "No…but I'll show you."