A Place to Call Home
By: Jason Cline
06:28 February 24, 2058 – The Box, Chicago's Containment Zone
Nick Muldoon sat in a deck chair at the bow of what had been a beautiful yacht named 401K and watched the sun rise over Lake Michigan. As the sun topped the horizon Nick saw something he hadn't seen in over two years…boats on the lake. Nick sipped at his soykaff and watched the boats in wonder expecting them to explode at any minute. But this section of the Lake wasn't off limits anymore, not after President Haeffner's State of the Union last night. President Haeffner, Nick was still getting used to the idea that Haeffner was president, much less that the Zone was abolished.
It seemed so strange that life had gone on outside of the Zone. The last two and a half years had been a constant struggle just to survive for the citizens of the Zone. The idea that the rest of the world had just moved on without him made Nick feel...something. Everything was moving too quickly for Nick to sort out his emotions but he knew one thing for sure. He wasn't very happy.
Nick drained his 'kaff and went below deck to gather his things. Check out was at noon but Rusty would undoubtedly be chomping at the bit to get on the road sooner. Nick's pack lay open on the bed and his freshly laundered clothes lay where he had set them this morning. Nick took a lukewarm shower in the miniscule bathroom and changed into his clean clothes; he briefly considered shaving but since he lost his left eye shaving had become too much hassle. Nick stowed his dirty clothes slung his pack over one shoulder and his gun belt over the other; he was as ready as he was going to get.
As Nick disembarked from the yacht the sun had fully risen and reflected off the light dusting of snow that had fallen overnight. Nick walked with ease over the frozen pier and made his way into The Box to turn in his key. After dropping his gun belt at hat check Nick sat his pack in front of Carlos, a young ork who was standing guard at the door that morning. After a half-hearted job of checking his pack Carlos asked, "Is it true Nick? You an Rusty headin to the Wall today?" Nick nodded and Carlos whistled, "Wish it were me chummer. I got no SIN to be reactivated me. You one lucky fragger omae." Nick shouldered his pack without comment and headed to the bar.
At the bar Nick was surprised to see Pendleton himself with a ledger spread out in front of him. The dwarf looked up as Nick placed the key on the bar and smiled. "You settlin up Nick?" Out of habit Nick replied, "Nah, just put it on my tab Pen." Nick had a long standing tab at The Box which he periodically worked off by scavenging various odds and ends that Pendleton either couldn't get from the Smugglers he traded with or wouldn't pay the exorbitant price they wanted for whatever it was the dwarf needed.
Pendleton put down his pencil and gave Nick a hard look, "Not sure that's a good idea chummer." Nick returned his gaze for a few seconds before he replied, "Yeah, I guess you're right. What do I own ya?" Without even looking at the ledger Pendleton replied, "Sixteen twenty-five." Though he couldn't see him Nick could smell Hughes nearby, probably somewhere in his blind spot having come in from the kitchen and taken up position where he wouldn't be seen. At the moment Hughes meant Nick no harm but the scavenger knew if he caused any trouble about his tab Hughes wouldn't hesitate to take him down hard. Nick and Hughes didn't exactly like one another, but they did respect one another.
Nick smiled in a way he hoped was disarming, "That much eh? Didn't realize I was in that deep." Nick dipped into his pocket and pulled out a money clip. It took almost everything he had with him but he paid Pendleton off. As soon as the debt was paid Pendleton was all smiles; he asked, "So I hear you an Rusty are heading for the Wall today eh?" Nick nodded, "That's the plan. What about you Pen? You heading out?" Pendleton's expression became a bit more guarded and he replied, "I guess I will eventually, but for now I have customers who need me." Nick smiled and nodded, so he wasn't the only one who thought this was all just a little too good to be true. Nick's smile faded slightly as he said, "See you soon Pen." The dwarf's eyes held just a hint of sadness as he replied, "Yeah Nick...it wouldn't surprise me if you do."
07:43 February 24, 2058 – Haymarket Nation, Chicago's Containment Zone
As Nick turned south on Columbus and hugged the wall that had been constructed by the members of the Nation he could already hear the commotion from the crowd gathering at Petrillo Music Shell. Most of the members of the Nation had System Identification Numbers and the Nation Elders, as the leaders of the Nation were referred to, had decided that the safest thing to do would be to form a caravan and all travel to the Irving Park check-point. The idea was to travel up Roosevelt to Cicero and take it all the way up to Irving Park. It was a solid plan but it did have one little drawback. Upper Cicero was the territory of the Raging Horde. That was where Rusty came in.
Back in '55 Rusty used to run with the Horde and he still knew enough Horde members that he was certain he would be able to steer the convoy around the patrols or talk his way through any blockades they might come across. Nick had his reservations but he kept them to himself, while he was allied with the Nation he had never really joined with them and the Elders didn't always like having him around. Rusty had never offered why he left the Horde and Nick had never asked but he suspected from what he knew of the Horde that leaving hadn't been Rusty's choice.
As Nick passed through the gate leading into the Nation he nodded at the two Panthers with assault rifles standing guard. The Panthers were the loose knit security force that protected Haymarket Nation. Nick was a known ally of the Nation so they let him through without a word but had he been lesser known they would have detained him for a bit to determine if it was safe to let him in. Already the caravan was lining up and Nick passed all manner of cars as he made his way to the Shell. When Nick spotted Gwendolyn he knew that Rusty had arrived before him.
Gwendolyn was Rusty's pride and joy, a cherry red Ares Citymaster complete with turret mounted light machine gun that Rusty had obtained by unknown means. In fact it was because of Gwendolyn that Rusty and Nick met. Back in '56 Nick had heard a rumor that some crazy ork was offering good trade for any radio parts. Turned out that Nick was trying to refurbish Gwendolyn's busted radio in an attempt to get a signal out of the Zone. Nick came up with the parts and even helped Rusty repair the unit but they were never able to get a signal past the jammers. Rusty himself was in the center of the Shell in a heated discussion with the Elders. Nick slowed his steps and focused on listening in.
"Look if we're gonna have a shot at this we need to take everyone and leave now." Rusty said. A middle aged man with salt and pepper hair fired back, "And what if it doesn't work? What if the check point has closed down? Then the every citizen of the Nation is stuck in the middle of Horde territory. We would be torn to pieces before we could make it back to the park." Rusty turned to look at the nay sayer and replied, "I'll get us through Jerry, you just have to trust me." The middle aged man drew himself up a little straighter and replied, "That's Elder Garry to you boy. And unlike you I have more to think about than my own desires. We Elders are responsible for the fate of everyone in the Nation. So you'll forgive me if I find it hard to…trust you" the last bit was put in air quotes.
"The route's good." Nick added. Having approached the group unseen Nick got a childish thrill out of watching Elder Garry jump. Recovering himself the Elder turned to Nick with a frown, "Oh yes the scavenger, I was wondering when you would turn up." Turning to address the other two Elders he asked, "Do we really want to take his advice? We all remember what happened last time we listened to him."
"Yes…we do. My son gave his life for the safety of the Nation." A middle aged woman replied. Nick wasn't sure if it was pride or anger that he heard in Elder Cole's voice but the steel in her words ended the discussion immediately. Elder Cole was a talented combat mage who had joined the Elders in early '57 after Elder McTheron headed out to the Box one night but never made it. Nick shrugged, "Look do whatever you want but no one knows the Zone better than me. I'm telling you that's the best route. Word is the Horde tried to hit some of the towers after Ares pulled out lookin to resupply; they got beat up pretty bad. Now is the time to make a run through their turf, while they are licking their wounds." A beautiful elven woman spoke up, "Thank you both for your advice. We need to discuss it amongst ourselves before we make a decision." Though the Elders did not have a leader per say, if they did it would be Elder Laurenson. As the trio departed, Elder Garry shot Rusty a nasty look.
"I hate that prick." Rusty said. "Pretty sure the feelings mutual." Nick replied. Rusty turned to look at Nick, "He ant no fan of yours either." The scavenger smiled, "Damn sure the feelings mutual." That earned a smile from Rusty and the ork shook his head, "Ah…frag 'em. Come on, let's load up. Unless Jerry gets his way were outta here in less than an hour. "As Rusty turned away he muttered to himself, "Jerry Garry…with a name like that no wonder the guy's an asshole."
Twenty minutes later the decision had been made and everyone was lining up. That the caravan would leave was never in debate, the only debate was if the Panthers were coming with it. The Haymarket Nation had always been a group of individualist who had banded together for mutual survival. Early on after the Nation was founded it was decided that three individuals would serve as Elders: one magician, one metahuman and one mundane. The Elder's only job was coordinating the Panthers and insuring that outside problems stayed outside. Any problems inside the Nation were up to the citizens to solve themselves. If a problem got too out of hand the Elders could step in and evict the troublemaker if at least two out of the three Elders deemed it appropriate, but that had only happened twice in the Nation's two and a half years.
The system worked, but only because the threat of being expelled from the Nation kept everyone in line. Some people, like Elder Garry, truly believed in the system but Nick wasn't so sure the Nation would last now that the Bug threat was gone. Still, a quarter of the citizens of the Nation were staying behind either due to a lack of SIN or a criminal record. Nick guessed that even the Zone was better than a UCAS prison, especially if the Bugs really were gone. Nick was happy to see that half of the Panthers were accompanying the caravan. Most of the citizens of the Nation were armed, you kinda had to be these days, but that didn't mean they had any real experience dealing with the dangers of the Zone.
Rusty and Gwendolyn had taken position at the head of the caravan and as Nick walked the line of vehicles he noticed the Panthers taking positions either on foot or on motorcycles on either side of the caravan. Rear guard fell to Elder Cole who had taken her position in a late model Ford Americar that had sections of metal welded to the frame to provide armor. Something about the work told Nick Rusty had modified the Americar which really wasn't much of a surprise. Rusty was the best mechanic in the Nation, possibly in the Zone itself. Most of the vehicles in the caravan had been modified or repaired by Rusty at some point over the last few years. Nick exchanged nods with Cole and turned to make his way back to Gwendolyn when he heard Cole's voice behind him. "Scavenger…a moment please."
Nick turned with a frown. He walked over to where Cole was making her final preparations and loading her vehicle. The mage turned to face Nick and seemed to be searching for the right words. Finally Cole said, "These people are counting on us scavenger. We cannot let them down." Nick nodded, unsure where she was going with this. Cole continued, "I know what people say about you. I also know that your magic allows you to sense danger. We need you to make this happen…don't let us down." Nick clinched his jaw and nodded turning again. "Nick…" Cole called from behind him. "I don't blame you for Brandon." Nick stopped, without turning he responded.
10:27 February 24, 2058 – Corner of Halstead and Roosevelt, Chicago Containment Zone
Ever since he lost his eye Nick had avoided vehicles, they were just too uncomfortable. Driving was out of the question with his blind spot and as a passenger that same blind spot made him feel awkward and vulnerable all at the same time. Nick and Rusty had made the ride down Roosevelt in silence but that silence was taking its toll on the ork. His time scavenging in the Zone had taught Nick the value of silence, but Rusty had never learned that particular lesson. Finally Rusty just couldn't take it anymore. "Nick where's your bow? I don't think I've ever seen you without it?" Nick replied, "I left it behind. Wouldn't do me much good in this situation anyway." Rusty nodded, "What's the deal with that anyway? You Amerindian or something?" Nick stole a glance at himself in the side mirror before he returned to scanning the neighborhood beyond.
Nick supposed he could be mistaken for Amerindian; he had the black hair and tanned skin. His eye color didn't fit, being a bright green, but this was 2058…not everyone had the same eyes they were born with. Truth was Nick was your typical UCAS mutt with no real discernible heritage one way or the other. Rusty was still waiting for an answer so Nick said, "It's quiet. When your scavenging quiet is a good thing." If Rusty got the subtext of that statement he ignored it, "Yeah I don't really do quiet." Rusty patted Gwendolyn's steering wheel lovingly.
Rusty was quiet for a moment and then, "Hey Nick…I was wondering. Why didn't you ever join Haymarket Nation? I mean you trade with us all the time, why didn't you just set up a home in the park? You and Pendleton are tight you probably could have gotten one of the yachts cheap." And there it was...the real question Rusty wanted to ask. Nick turned in his seat so he could see the ork and replied, "I don't like to stay in one place too long." Rusty nodded as though he expected the answer. "Still Nick…everyone needs a place to call home chummer." Nick shrugged but didn't reply. Nick had thought the same thing once, but the Zone had taught him otherwise.
9:43 September 3, 2055 – 6654 W. Armitage Avenue, Chicago Containment Zone
Nick released the sting and his arrow flew towards the target, burying itself deep in the wood of the target but missing the handmade rings entirely. "Damnit!" Nick swore, he had been practicing with the bow for two days now and he didn't seem to be getting noticeably better. Nick freed another arrow from the quiver attached to the bow and pulled the string back to his cheek. Sighting down the arrow Nick fired at the center of his homemade target. The arrow sunk deep in the second ring; better but still not encouraging. Nick wasn't looking to hit the bull's eye every time he just wanted to put his arrow on the target every time.
Nick freed another arrow but before he could nock it he heard the back door of the house open. Pushing the arrow back into the quiver Nick turned and was surprised to see Burner coming across the yard towards him. The young ork had changed in the days since the Containment Zone had been established. William Burns had never been what you would call social, but over the last few days he had practically become a shut in; not even willing to venture into his own back yard. Things had gotten steadily worse since Ares detonated the nuke in Cermak; Nick was beginning to think the only way Burner would leave the house is if it was on fire.
Burner made his way quickly across the back yard constantly looking up as though he expected the Bugs to appear at any minute. Of course that was a legitimate fear for anyone who lived in the Zone. Burner hurried up to Nick as he was working an arrow out of his target and said; "Dude come quick. The Noose is back up. People are posting again." The Noose was the only LTG in the Zone that was still operating. The EMP from the nuke put it out of commission but apparently SYStem 05 had gotten it back online. Without waiting for a response Burner turned and almost ran back into the house. Nick worked the other three arrows from the mornings target practice out of his target and joined Burner inside.
Burner's house had undergone almost as extreme a transformation as the ork himself. The ranch style three bedroom had belonged to Burner's grandmother before she died and she had willed it to him. Burner's mother had been raised in that home and it showed all the dings and nicks of a house that had seen four children grow up inside it. Once the house had been warm and inviting but not anymore. All the windows had been reinforced with iron bars, the front door had three deadbolts on it as well as a brace on the inside to reinforce the door in case anyone tried to break it down, Nick had wired alarm systems with motion sensors and cameras along the exterior of the house. What had been a modest family home now looked more like a fortress.
Nick paused to close the door behind him and saw a note tacked to the board near the door reminding him to try to trade for some gas the next time he was out. Fearful that the power would eventually be cut to the Zone, Burner had insisted that they find two generators to keep the house electrified in the case of an emergency. Surprisingly it wasn't too difficult to get their hands on a couple of generators, many of the abandoned houses had them, it was gasoline that was sparse. Not many households still owned gas powered cars and therefore gas stations were almost a thing of the past. It was going to be a tough trade, but Nick was finding himself to be quite the negotiator.
Nick made his way into the Lair and found Burner already seated in front of the massive main monitor typing away. As text filled the screen Burner's mood lightened, this was the ork's domain and Nick hoped that the return of what little Matrix access that was available in the Zone would be good for his friend. Without turning Burner announced, "Teig didn't make it. He was too close to the blast." Nick put his hand on Burner's shoulder, "Sorry. I know he was a friend of yours." Burner nodded and kept typing. "Well…" Nick said awkwardly, "Tell everyone I said hi." Nick left the Lair intent on returning to the back yard for more target practice when Burner's voice came over the intercom Nick had installed in the house back when Burner lived there watching over his grandmother, "Two bipeds at the back fence." Burner had stopped referring to people by their metatype, to Burner there were only two types of beings; Bugs and bipeds. Nick grabbed the shotgun from the hall closet and stepped out the door to greet their visitors.
The back yard was spacious and backed up onto the rail line. A large oak tree dominated one side of the yard and at one point someone had built a tree house. That was where Nick headed, climbing the ladder silently and taking up position where he could see the two but was difficult to be seen in return. The two bipeds appeared to be human, but Nick had seen enough to know that appearances could be deceiving. Nick focused on the two figures and his senses sharpened.
The bipeds' scents seemed human enough; a mixture of sweat, grime and clothing that had gone too long between washing. Nick couldn't smell any blood or rot on either of them which were usually a giveaway that something was a threat. As the two came closer Nick picked up on their conversation. A man's voice said, "You're sure that you saw someone living back here?" The man's voice was rich and carried just a hint of a southern accent. "I'm sure." A female voice replied. The girl's voice, and Nick was certain the voice couldn't possibly belong to anyone out of their teens, wavered ever so slightly like she was afraid. Nick briefly entertained the notion of letting them pass by as he had done so many others but one thing prevented him. The man had already mentioned that he suspected someone lived here and Nick got the impression that this one wouldn't stop until he knew for sure.
Nick racked his shotgun and called out, "That's far enough!" The man moved faster than Nick's eyes could follow. One minute he was walking, the next minute he had pushed the girl behind him and pulled a pistol. The man was now alertly scanning the branches of the tree trying to locate Nick. "I don't want any trouble." Nick shouted, and he meant it. Nick had never seen anything move as fast as that man had just done and Nick had no intention of tangling with him. "Neither do we." The man replied, turning his head to look directly at Nick as he continued. "My daughter saw lights in your windows last night and we decided to come over today and investigate." Nick could see the barrel of the man's gun pointing directly at him and he wondered if he would be able to pull the trigger before this man shot him out of the tree.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Nick knew the man meant him no harm. Nick sat the shotgun on the floor of the tree house and raised his hands. "Okay." Nick offered, "Why don't we put our guns away and talk?" The man nodded and smoothly holstered his pistol. Nick said, "It's probably safer to talk inside, meet me at the front door and I'll let you in." The man hesitated for a second and then nodded again. Turning he and the girl continued down the street towards the front of the house. Nick noticed that even though the man had agreed to meet inside he had positioned himself so that any incoming fire from the back yard would hit him and not the girl.
A half an hour later Nick, Burner and the two humans who had introduced themselves as Robert and Kate Henricht, sat around the table in Burner's dining area enjoying a meal. Burner had nearly melted down when Nick announced they had company and locked himself in the Lair, but by the time the chicken was done his overactive metabolism forced him to be social. Henricht, as he preferred to be called, was actually a citizen of the CAS who worked security at the embassy in the O'Hare Sub-Sprawl. Kate still lived with her mother in Austin but had been accepted into the summer arts program for high school students. The program was highly competitive and the fact that a sophomore was allowed in was obviously a source of pride to Henricht.
"When we got the word to start evacuating VIPs at the embassy I knew something was up. I tried to call Kate but it kept ringing to voicemail. So in all the confusion I just slipped away. I didn't really have any idea what was happening, I just figured my badge would get me a free pass." Henricht shook his head sadly. "I managed to make it to the dorms no problem but when we tried to leave Eagle opened fire on us." Henricht's eyes hardened. "You're shittin me?" Nick said in disbelief.
"Wish I were kid." Henricht replied. "We were hauling it along I-55 when we came up on a blockade. Two APCs parked across the interstate. I figured I could talk our way through but when I got in range they opened up on us. Car's armor is the only reason we're still here. I spun it around and tore outta there taking the first exit I could. They chewed the car up pretty good so we took refuge at the train yard. While I was tryin to figure out our next move I heard some chatter on the radio. Turns out the UCAS was only interested in blocking signal coming into or out of the Zone, anyone inside can chat to their heart's delight. Anyway, I heard a few handles I recognized so I broke in and gave a sitrep. Everyone echoed my report that the area was locked down so I gave my twenty and we met up at the train yard. We've been there ever since."
"What about the Bugs?" Burner asked. Nick was shocked to hear his voice, Burner had been silent the entire time Henricht and his daughter had been in the house.
Henricht smiled, "They leave us alone for the most part. There have been a few attempts but some of my boys are UCAS National Guard, we hit their post early on to supply. We've been pretty successful keepin the bugs out of the yard."
Kate returned from the kitchen where she had offered to clean the dishes in thanks for the meal. Henricht's eyes lit up as she entered the room and he offered his hand to Nick. "Thanks for the chicken, though I'm not sure I want to know how you got it." Nick shook his hand and Henricht told Kate. "It's time to go Katie." The girl blushed slightly and threw her father a look of embarrassment that only a girl in her teens can manage. As Henricht was walking down the step he turned with a thoughtful expression.
"You know Nick. The boys and I are tryin to better fortify the rail yard. Who knows how long this thing is gonna last and there are some holes in our security that we want to shore up. You and your buddy did a fine job on the house here. Maybe you'd consider givin us a hand?" Nick felt a surge of pride but tried to play it cool. "Yeah sure…we could work something out." Henricht smiled again, "Great. Come by tomorrow and we'll put you to work."
As soon as the door was closed and the locks reengaged Burner said. "I don't trust em." Nick sighed, "Come on Burner. You just met em." Without further comment Burner disappeared into the Lair and shut the door. With nothing else to do, Nick pulled his bow from the closet and went back to target practice.
07:34 September 4, 2055 – Mars Metrorail Station, Chicago Containment Zone
When Nick arrived at the station at the crack of dawn he was surprised to see a dozen men dressed in various uniforms standing in formation. Henricht was walking down the line issuing orders to each of the twelve men standing before him. As Nick drew closer Henricht said, "Dismissed." In near perfect unison all twelve men saluted him and disappeared in different directions to begin the tasks they had been assigned. Henricht caught sight of Nick and came started walking toward him.
"Nick." Henricht said, smiling and offering his hand. "Glad you could make it." Nick shook his hand then nodded his head in the direction the uniforms had disappeared to. "Should I salute?" Henricht laughed, "Only if you want to kid." Henricht turned and made a gesture that encompassed the station. "Welcome to our humble home." Nick looked at the tiny station that had been converted into a barracks and chuckled. "Humble is right." Henricht laughed again, "Hey, I've lived in worse believe me." Placing his hand on Nick's shoulder Henricht guided him towards a huge tent that had been set up nearby. "Come on, let's get some kaff and talk about how you can help us."
"So what's with all the saluting?" Nick asked as a man in uniform ran past giving Henricht a sharp salute as he did so. "Soldiers need a leader Nick. It's how they were trained. Each one of these boys served in some form of Military, UCAS mostly." Henricht paused and turned to look at Nick.
"The first few nights were pure chaos, everyone was afraid; no one knew what to do. So my training kicked in and I just stared ordering everyone around. I don't know who was more surprised; me or them, but they all started listening." Henricht laughed again, "I guess you never really stop being a Drill Sargent. Anyway, we established a routine and people just stared saluting me. Anyway, it's not like there is anyone else stepping up to take charge. When your knee deep in shit everyone seems to wait for someone else to start shoveling."
They were moving again and Henricht led Nick through the door of the army tent into what appeared to be a command center of some type. Henricht stopped at a soykaff machine and poured out two cups then sat down at a table with a rough map of the area. "First things first." Henricht said, "We gotta get you a sidearm. No one works outside Command without a weapon. So when we're done go to the quartermaster here." Henricht indicated another tent on the map, "We have a crate of nines and a few tens still available. Which do you prefer?" Nick fidgeted uncomfortably for a second and admitted, "I don't really know. I've never fired a gun before."
Henricht's explosive burst of laughter caused everyone in the room to jump. "You're shitting me right? You've never fired a gun before?" Nick's face went red but he shot back, "Hey this isn't the Confederation okay. We don't all chew tobacco and shoot things for fun." Henricht waved his hands in surrender. "Okay…okay sorry. Look we'll set you up with a nine millimeter and I'll see if I can fit some time in to take you to the range so you don't end up blowing your own foot off on accident. Deal?" Nick calmed but his face still burned, "Deal. So what do you need me to do?"
"Well," Henricht said turning back to the map at the table. "We put up cameras here and here, but we're having trouble getting a good signal. I noticed that you had cameras at your place. Think you could figure out what's wrong and fix it?" Nick smiled, "No problem." Henricht slapped him on the back, "Great! I knew I could count on you." Draining his 'kaff, Henricht stood. "Well I got about fifty fires to put out before lunch so you scoot over to Corporal Jackson at the Quartermaster's tent and get to work." Nick gave Henricht a mock salute, "Aye, aye sir!"
Four hours later Nick had isolated the problem with the cameras and created a workaround. It wasn't really a big deal, a few wires had been set too close to each other during install and it was causing feedback that blocked the signal to the main tent. A rookie mistake but Nick figured the grunt that installed the cameras wasn't a three semester electrical engineering student like himself. As the board lit up green in the Command tent, Henricht tapped Nick on the shoulder and motioned for him to follow.
When they got outside Henricht said, "A deals a deal kid. You fixed my cameras so I'm gonna teach you to shoot. Follow me." Henricht led Nick through the camp and out to a single passenger car that was riddled with bullet holes. Nick waited as Henricht hung a silhouette target on the side of the car and walked up to Nick holding out a noise cancelling ear muffs. Nick put the muffs on and noticed that he could still hear, he turned to look at Henricht with a puzzled expression and the man just clapped. As soon as Henrichts hands struck each other the dampeners in the muffs kicked on muting the sound. Nick smiled and nodded.
"So…" Henricht started, "Have you ever shot anything before in your life? A spit-ball…a rubber band…anything?" Nick gave him the finger and replied, "Actually I have been working with a bow in my back yard for a week now." Henricht frowned, "A bow? Why the fuck would you want a bow? You playin Cowboys and Indians?" Nick felt color rising to his cheeks again but he replied, "I just thought that I could practice with it in the back yard and no one would hear me." Henricht straightened slightly with a thoughtful expression and smiled, "Actually that's pretty good thinkin kid." Nick felt another rush of pride and he smiled. Henricht nodded to the gun on Nick's hip and said, "But play times over, now I'm going to teach you how to use a real weapon."
Henricht moved around behind Nick and said, "Okay now I want you to place your feet like this, and hold the pistol with both hands. It's important to make sure that both of your palms are in contact with the butt of the gun or you'll pull to the left. Good…good. Now take a shot." Nick's first shot went wide and Henricht nodded. "That's fine, no one hits with their first shot. Try again." Nick fired again, and again he shot wide. Henricht said, "Keep your focus on the front sight, don't look at the target. The bullet is gonna follow that front sight so keep it in focus. Again…" Nick fired and this time a hole appeared on the target. Nick felt a rush of pride and Henricht said, "Well done. Now that you know you can do it…let's work on putting that hole center mass."
The sun was just setting as Nick opened the door to Burner's house. He had spent the remainder of the day on the range with Henricht and though he was nowhere near proficient he was getting better with a pistol. After some urging from Nick, Henricht had agreed to take a few shots himself and Nick was amazed at his marksmanship. Standing, kneeling, walking…no matter the range Henricht was able to put two rounds center mass every time. It was only at the end that Henricht let Nick in on his secret. "I'm wired." Henricht had told him, "Smartlink two…makes it a lot easier when you got crosshairs showing you where your bullets are gonna go, especially on moving targets. But that don't mean you can get away from the range. Everyone needs to practice, even me."
Nick was exhausted but exhilarated at the same time. As he closed the door and threw the locks he saw Burner leaving the kitchen. "Hey Burner…" the ork stopped and turned to look at him. Nick was taken aback by the hurt look in Burner's eyes. "What's up dude?" he asked. "You didn't come home." Burner said matter-of-factly. Nick shook his head with a look of confusion and asked, "What?" Burner continued in a small voice. "You left this morning and said you were gonna do a job for Henricht but you didn't come home. I didn't know where you were." Burner's eyes filled with tears and he ran into the Lair and slammed the door.
Sighing in exasperation Nick walked over and knocked on the door of the Lair. "Go away!" Burner shouted from the other side. Nick clenched his jaw and opened the door. Burner had been spending every waking moment in the Lair watching the BBS that SYStem 05 had set up. Used food cartons littered the floor and the entire room reeked of unwashed clothing. Burner sat huddled in the corner crying. Guilt washed over Nick as he looked at the ork. For all his size, Burner was still a teenager, something Nick often forgot. With a soft tone Nick said, "Dude I'm sorry…I shouldn't have left you all day like that. Henricht took me to the range and was teaching me how to shoot and I just lost track of time." Burner didn't reply but his crying appeared to have stopped.
Looking around the room Nick said, "But dude really, you need to get out of this house once an a while. It's not healthy to sit in hear all day and read the boards. All they ever post is the bad shit anyway." Burner raised his head to look at Nick with reddened eyes and said, "I'm scared…" Nick smiled kindly and said, "I'm scared too Burner but if you just…" Burner uncoiled and shot to his feet pointing an accusing finger at Nick. "No you're not! I've watched you for the past few weeks Nick…you don't see it but I do. You stand straighter, you speak with more confidence, ever since the walls went up you're a different person…a stronger person. But not me. Every second of every day I live in fear that something will break down that door and drag me off. I can't do what you do Nick. This is all I've got." Burner gestured to his deck lying on the table. Nick noticed that Burner had been doing some upgrades to the deck and again guilt washed over him. "One day you're gonna walk out that door and not come back. What happens to me then Nick? Who's gonna protect me when you're gone huh?"
Nick put a hand on Burner's shoulder. "Look I know your scared, but we're gonna make it through this okay. If it will make you feel better I'll talk with Henricht and see if maybe we can move into the train yard where it's safer." Burner pulled away, "Henricht again. I told you I don't trust him dude. You know that they're charging people to set up homes in the rail yard right?" Nick frowned, "What…no that can't be right." Burner stood up and hit a few keys on his cyberdeck. Text scrolled across the main screen and then stopped. One section enlarged to take up the whole screen. The text read:
Citizens of the Zone. If you are reading this and seek shelter come to the Mars metro. We offer safety and food for a marginal fee.
Nick read the post again and replied. "Well maybe that's not a bad thing dude. I mean space is limited, we can't take in everyone." Burner shook his head. "Will you listen to yourself Nick? If this was anyone else but Henricht you would be the first to call him an opportunistic bastard. But because it's him your cool with it." Nick held up his hands, "Okay I admit the money thing was a dick move. But dude look, I've been over there they've got supplies and soldiers; it's probably the safest place in the Zone. Henricht has seen what I can do and once he sees you work your magic I'm sure I'll be able to talk him into letting us stay." Burner's voice took on a steel Nick had never heard before, "No. I told you before I'm not leaving. This is my home…it's all I have left. A man needs a place to call home."
Nick clenched his jaw and nodded. "Okay, fine we're not leaving. But I'm learning a lot from Henricht that I'm gonna need to know if we're gonna survive this. So I'm not cutting my ties with him. Your just gonna have to deal with that Burner." The hurt in the young ork's eyes broke Nick's heart. "Fine." Burner said and turned his back on Nick to work on his cyberdeck.
10:13 September 7, 2055 – Shriner Children's Hospital – Chicago Containment Zone
Crouched opposite of the door to the seventh floor of the hospital, Nick made eye contact with Henricht and help up three fingers. Nick ticked off three seconds and pushed open the door, Henricht moved through it like a blur; not nearly as quickly Nick followed breaking right to cover that section of hallway. "Clear." Henricht proclaimed. "Clear." Nick confirmed. Henricht turned toward Nick and waited. "The parts I need will be at the nurse's station." Nick said in a low voice. Henricht nodded and the two made their way quietly down the hall following the signs to the nurse's station.
As they passed through the halls Nick noticed very few signs of scavenging. This high up that wasn't surprising, most scavengers avoided buildings more than three stories high because they were favored by Wasps. Nick had watched the hospital for two full days and seen no evidence of Wasps but Henricht wasn't taking any chances. The hospital was less than a block from the Mars Metro Station so Nick assumed that any scavenging had been done by Henricht's people.
The two turned a corner and came to the nurse's station. Henricht took up a position where he could watch both hallways as Nick moved behind the counter and unrolled his tools. As Nick bent to his task Henricht asked, "Tell me again how this is gonna work." Nick replied without looking up, "This is the telemetry floor, so each room has a heart monitor. Each monitor sends a signal back to this box. I am gonna remove the receiver from the main monitor here and the transmitters from each of the rooms. Then I am gonna use the transmitters to create proximity sensors and set up a monitor at your command tent. That way any time something trips the sensor it will send a signal to your command tent. Even better you will get a specific ping for each location."
A few seconds passed and Henricht asked, "What kind of range?" Nick thought about it for a second and replied, "Don't know yet. But if we can't get a decent range all I have to do is attach a few signal boosters. I should be able to find something to fit the bill in any media hub." Henricht was quiet again. Nick finished removing the receiver and stashed it in his bag. "Okay, one down. Now we need to get as many transmitters as we can." Henricht nodded and they headed into the first room. As Nick began taking apart the heart monitor Henricht said, "You know this is a really good idea kid. I'm glad you came to me with it." Nick smiled but continued working, "Don't worry...I'm gonna bill you for it." Henricht laughed and turned back to watch the hallway.
Four hours later the scavenging was complete. Nick had been able to recover twelve transmitters and he was feeling really good about himself. Henricht and Nick were making their way back down the stairwell to the main floor when Nick's chest tightened. Nick stopped immediately and grabbed Henricht's shoulder. Henricht froze and pulled his gun dropping into a crouch, he turned to Nick who was scanning the stairway searching for the source of his growing unease. As the sounds and smells of the world around him became more distinct Nick began to detect a faint scratching sound coming from behind the door to the ground floor of the hospital.
Nick caught Henricht's eye and pointed at the door. Henricht nodded and moved to cover the door as Nick passed by him. Just as Nick had cleared the line of fire the door burst open and a shambling creature lunged for Henricht. Henricht put two rounds in the creature's chest and one in its head before Nick could pull his sidearm. The heavy rounds from Henricht's Predator slammed the creature back into the wall and it collapsed to the floor in a heap. The concussion from the blasts hammered at Nick's body in the small space and he felt like his head was going to explode from the noise. The smell of the body and the pain in his head took their toll and Nick vomited on the stairs.
Henricht disappeared through the door as Nick recovered. When Henricht returned Nick asked in a weak voice, "Bug?" Henricht shook his head and spoke directly into Nick's ear, "Ghoul." Nick pushed his way up to his feet using the wall as support and looked at the crumpled form. Nick had never really seen a ghoul before and didn't really know what to expect. The creature was the sickly pale of a corpse and though Nick's senses had faded back to normal the smell coming from the creature was almost unbearable. It was tall and thin with fingers much longer than a human's and a jaw that jutted out from its head. Jagged shark-like teeth filled the creature's mouth designed for ripping flesh from corpses and black talons grew from each of the fingers. Looking at the creature Nick couldn't help but shudder, as if the Bugs weren't enough now he had to contend with flesh-eating zombies from some horror vid.
Henricht looked down at the ghoul and shook his head. "Came to the hospital to find food. Must have been starving to go out in the sun like that." Nick looked at him and said, "You sound sorry for him?" Henricht shrugged, "Ghouls are metahumans just like all the rest of us, they just got the short end of the stick. It's not their fault they got sick, just the hand life dealt them." Henricht clapped Nick on the shoulder and made his way through the door. Nick looked down on the ghoul once more and tried to imagine what life would be like for someone who had to feed on corpses. Shaking his head Nick left the gristly scene behind him and followed Henricht out into the fading light. Taking in big gulps of air Nick felt his headache start to recede and the nausea in his stomach settle. Henricht turned to him with a smile and said, "Now if you're done pukin how about we head back to camp and see if you can really set me up a security system or if you're just talkin out your ass?"
As the sun began to set Nick flipped a switch on the main monitor at the Command Tent and smiled as his contraption showed green across the board. Nick had only set up two transmitters for this trial run but he was happy to see he wouldn't need a signal booster for either of the locations he had chosen. Henricht smiled and said, "I'll be damned, you might not be all talk after all." Nick felt a rush of pride and said, "I'll come by tomorrow and set up the other four transmitters. That should give you a good perimeter. As payment I want the other six transmitters." Henricht's smile went wooden. Nick laughed, "I told you I'd bill you. You didn't think I was workin for free did you?" Henricht laughed, "Next time I'll let the ghoul eat you." Nick fired back, "Yeah and who would set up your perimeter then?" Henricht shook his head and his smile returned, "Fine, you keep the transmitters." The two shook on it and the transaction was complete. Nick stashed the other four transmitters in his pack and left the Command Tent.
As Nick made his way through the camp he happened to spot Henricht's daughter Kate and two of the new teenaged residents of the camp coming back from retrieving a supply drop. Nick hadn't seen much of Kate since she and her father had eaten with them almost a week ago so he decided to say hi. As Nick approached the teens they were seated in the main square talking about the supply run they had just gone on. Apparently it had been quite the adventure.
"I'm tellin you Kate, that weird Amerind was staring at you the whole time." A teen girl with short cut midnight black hair and a well-worn Concrete Dreams tee shirt. A tall boy with a face full of acne asked, "What did he say to you anyway?" Kate just shrugged and muttered something that Nick couldn't hear but obviously ticked the teens because they burst out laughing. As Nick approached the group they were joined by an adult dressed in the surprisingly well kept robes of a preacher.
Nick had seen the Reverend around the camp before and wasn't really thrilled to run into him. Reverend Jeddah Alexander had been one of the first to arrive after Henricht's post went up, along with fifteen of his followers. The Reverend's followers, or the Volk as they called themselves, had immediately set about building homes for themselves with scrap found around the yard. They even converted one of the old passenger cars into a church, which the Reverend gave sermons out of every night.
The Reverend spotted him and smiled. "Nick, so good to see you. I hope you have time to attend our service tonight, I think you will find it especially poignant. We will be exploring Abraham's trials in the desert and how only his faith in the Lord allowed his people to survive." Nick forced a smile and lied, "Sorry Reverend I have other plans tonight." The Reverend raised an eyebrow, "Something more important than the word of our Lord?" Nick's mind raced to come up with something that sounded plausible, but he was spared.
"Actually Nick is joining Kate and I for dinner tonight." Henricht said as he joined the group. "I owe this man my life; he saved me from a ghoul in the hospital today." Nick shrugged sheepishly, "Well it was really more of a mutual saving…but who am I to turn down a free dinner." The Reverend's eyes narrowed slightly as he looked at Henricht but a crowd had formed after the announcement that Nick had saved Henricht's life, so Reverend Alexander smiled brightly and clapped Nick on the shoulder. "Well done my son, one less abomination in the world. Truly the Lord blessed you this day."
The Reverend departed and the crowd clamored for Henricht to tell the story. Henricht recounted the encounter with the ghoul without too much embellishment and the tactful omission the part where Nick chummed the stairs. After several claps on the back the crowd dispersed. Henricht smiled at Nick, "Sorry about that but you didn't seem too excited about attending church tonight. The offer for dinner was legit though, if you can leave Burner for the night."
"Actually," Nick replied. "I wasn't really sure how long the salvage job would take so Burner doesn't expect me home until after dinner." Henricht nodded, "It's settled then. I can't promise you chicken or anything but Katie has learned how to turn the crap they give us in the supply drops into a pretty good meal, and I have a bit of whiskey I've been saving for a special occasion." Nick turned to look at Kate who blushed slightly and punched her father in the arm. Nick smiled and nodded, "All right then."
Henricht had been true to his word, the dinner had been quite good. Kate had taken some soy paste, packaged cheese, and preserved flatbread and turned it into a surprisingly good quesadilla. The teen wouldn't tell Nick exactly what was in it, but she did confess that it was her father's recipe. Nick shot Henricht an incredulous look and the man said, "Best piece of advice my Captain ever gave me was learn how to cook. You never know where your next assignment will be and if you can learn to turn crap into cuisine then you become a very popular grunt." Henricht nodded at Nick, "Words to live by kid."
After dinner was over and the plates had been cleared, Henricht brought out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. Nick tried to turn it down but Henricht insisted, "Drink it kid, you never know when you'll get the chance again." Nick accepted the glass and took a sip, the liquor was smooth and with a start Nick realized that this was the first drop of alcohol he had drunk since the walls went up. It wasn't that Nick didn't drink, in fact he had been quite the partier before the world went to shit, it was just that since the walls went up Nick had never let his guard down enough to have a drink. As Nick savored the flavor of the whiskey he started to realize all the things he had taken for granted in his old life.
Nick's thoughts were interrupted by a question from left field. "Nick, how did you know about the ghoul?" Nick turned to look at Henricht and saw the man staring intently at him. Nick fidgeted with his glass but eventually decided that Henricht deserved the truth, "I really don't know. Sometimes I can just…feel things. I know when someone is there, or I sense danger. I know it sounds crazy but it's true, sometimes the Zone just speaks to me." Henricht nodded as though Nick's statement and confirmed something he already suspected. "It doesn't sound that crazy. I've worked with adepts before."
Nick frowned, "Adepts?" Henricht nodded and continued, "Yeah adepts. My guess is you got the mojo in ya kid. When all this blows over you should enroll in UC like Katie is. I hear they got some real good magical programs at that school." Nick shrugged thoughtfully, "Maybe I will." But Henricht continued before Nick could really explore the thought, "Nick I want you to join us." Nick blinked in surprise, "What?"
"I want you to join us." Henricht repeated. "I need someone with your skills to help me keep these people safe." Nick frowned, "I'm no soldier Henricht." The man laughed, "You're tellin me! You can't shoot for shit and you puke every time you see a dead body." Nick flipped him the bird but Henricht continued, "Nick I have a dozen men at my disposal, hard men who can hold our lines against the Bugs. But not one of them can do what you do. You know the Zone, hell you just told me it speaks to you. And you can sense danger; that could prove invaluable. You've already proven that you're the best scavenger we work with. I'm not lookin for another soldier Nick, what I really need is a scout. Someone I can send out to get information on the potential threats and report back. Someone who's going to think his way out of a situation not shoot his way out. I need you Nick."
Nick took a sip of his whiskey and asked, "What about Burner?" Henricht offered, "Burner gets the same benefits you do. Our protection as well as a share of our supplies, and if he ever decides that he wants to help out he will be compensated for his work just like you were. So what do you say Nick, can I count on you to help me keep these people safe?" Henricht extended his hand. Nick drained his whiskey and shook the man's hand, "You got yourself a deal."
11:16 September 18, 2055 - Mars Metrorail Station, Chicago Containment Zone
Nick nodded to the unfamiliar solder manning the gate to the Command Center. There had been more and more new faces over the last few weeks and Nick was having trouble keeping up with the new arrivals. Luckily his uniform identified him as a member of Henricht's staff so he was given free reign of the facility. He made his way into the Command tent, pausing to return a salute sent his way by a fresh recruit. Nick was surprised at how unconscious the action was. When Henricht had first convinced Nick to start wearing a uniform he had felt silly every time someone saluted him, now it was as normal to him as his daily PT. Nick drew up short behind Henricht where he was hunched over a map of the city talking with one of the civilians and gave a small cough to announce himself.
Henricht turned and Nick fired off a salute of his own. Henricht returned the salute and clapped Nick on the shoulder. "Nick, good to see you kid. Come take a look." Henricht led Nick over to the map where a red X had been marked five blocks west of Rutherford Sayre Park on West Palmer Street. Henricht indicated the civilian and said, "Nick this is Linda." Nick smiled, "Ma'am."
"Linda was out toward the wall this morning and she saw something that she felt we needed to know about." Turning to the woman Henricht asked, "You said it was a church right?" Linda nodded, "Yes sir. I was coming back from collecting a supply drop near the wall when I saw strange figures going into the church. I've been collecting on Palmer for days now and I've never seen anyone in the church so I went over to see who they were. When I came to the door I heard a terrible screaming coming from the inside." Linda began to shake. "I ran for my life." Henricht lay a comforting hand on her shoulder, "That was the right thing to do Linda. We'll take it from here." The woman smiled and her shaking stopped. Henricht looked over and asked, "Whadda think Nick?" Nick shrugged, "Could be Bugs…could be something else." Henricht nodded, "Still. It's pretty close to us. Might be best if we check it out."
"This affront to our All Mighty Lord cannot stand!" a voice boomed from the entrance of the tent. Henricht turned with a sour look on his face. "Ah Reverend. So nice of you to join us." The Reverend strode through the Command Tent and up to Henricht without anyone moving to stop him. Henricht's look grew angry and he said, "How many times do I have to tell you not to storm into my Command Center. If you have a concern you can send word like everyone else." The Reverend waved him off, "We don't have time for that now! I demand to know what you are going to do about this!" The Reverend stabbed the map with his finger and glared at Henricht.
Nick didn't waste time wondering how the Reverend had learned about the church. Reverend Alexander had become every bit as important a figure recently as Henricht. Henricht's jaw tightened but he managed to reply in an even voice. "Actually, Nick and I were just talking about that. We were planning on taking a little look-see tonight if you would care to tag along." The Reverend sneered, "You know well that I have a sermon tonight. As much as it pains me I must leave this matter in your godless hands." Reverend Alexander turned and stalked towards the entrance, but turned at the last minute and spat. "Be on your guard tonight Henricht, I hear that the church you are visiting allowed magicians to worship among them. God only knows what heathen practices they may have introduced to the pure work of our Lord."
When the Reverend was gone Henricht said, "I really don't like that man." Nick smiled and replied, "I really don't blame you. But he is right about one thing, we should be on our guard tonight." Henricht nodded, "Shall we talk logistics?" Nick shook his head, "Can't. I promised Burner I would be home for lunch at noon." Henricht snorted, "Well better hurry then, wouldn't want to keep the wife waiting." He other solders laughed and Nick flipped Henricht the bird. "Bite me" Nick said as he turned to leave. Henricht called after him, "Get some sleep Nick, I wanna hit the church just after dawn."
As Nick entered the house he was greeted by the smell of frying bacon, which came as a shock because he was pretty sure they had used up the bacon long ago. Nick made his way into the dining room and found Burner already there. "The Phillips are gone." Burner announced without preamble. Nick frowned, "What do you mean there gone, I just talked to Jim two days ago." Burner shook his head, "Some of the Volk had been hassling the kids for a couple of days. When Lynn came home with a black eye they figured enough was enough. I think they headed east to meet up with some warlord." Nick frowned, "Well that doesn't make any sense. Why would Jim move his whole family?"
"Cause their orks dumbass." Burner spat back. "And the Volk don't like orks, or trolls, or dwarves, or anyone who isn't a God-fearing white-bred human. Open your eyes Nick, these bigoted assholes are running out all the metas." Nick sighed. "Look, I'll talk to Henricht about this maybe…" Burner stood up and shouted, "Henricht isn't in charge anymore Nick…can't you see that. He's done. The Volk are in charge now, plain and simple." Nick wanted to argue but he could see Burner's point. The Volk numbered twice as many as Henricht's men. Most of the buildings belonged to the Volk and all of the supplies coming in were brought in by the Volk. The only thing Henricht had were his soldiers and if this afternoon was any indication they wouldn't stand up to the Reverend either. Nick spread his arms and asked, "So wadda you wanna do?"
"I wanna leave." Burner said.
Nick was brought up short, he never expected Burner to say that. Nick was quiet for a long time before he said, "Okay…fine…we'll leave. Just let me finish my thing with Henricht tonight and were outta here." Burner nodded. As Nick sat down to enjoy a bacon sandwich he asked, "Where do you wanna go, not to the warlord surely?" Burner shook his head, "No I've been talking with this shaman on the boards, his name is Two-Spirits and he runs the haven at the Natural History Museum. I've check him out and he's solid. I think we should go there." Nick chewed his sandwich and considered. "It's a haul but we could probably make it in about three hours on foot, call it five if we move cautiously. Not a lot between us and them, if we walk the L-track we should be safe enough. We'd have to travel light but once we got set up we could come back for anything we had to leave behind. It'd be easier if we had a vehicle but trading for one is like buying a plane ticket out of the Zone. Still I think it's doable."
Burner's face brightened and Nick continued. "Okay let's pack up tonight, just the essentials. I gotta meet with Henricht tomorrow at dawn but our thing's close and shouldn't take more than an hour or two. We can leave at noon tomorrow and make it to the Museum before dinner." Burner's smile faded a notch, "Can't we just go now?" Nick studied Burner's face, the ork's skin was pale and he looked slightly more malnourished than usual. "Henricht's been good to me. He's been good to us. He needs my help." Nick watched as emotions swirled over Burner's face but finally the ork relented, "Okay. But please hurry Nick. I don't feel safe here." Nick nodded and stood, clapping Burner on the shoulder he said, "We'll be quick." Nick headed for his room to gather his things and get some sleep, tomorrow was going to be a long day.
06:00 September 19, 2055 – Corner of Noridica and Palmer, Chicago Containment Zone
As Nick arrived at the designated area he noticed that Henricht was already on site, hunkered down with a clear line of sight on the church. Nick approached silently and when he was close enough he clicked his tongue to let Henricht know he was there. Henricht pulled back behind the building he had been using to observe the church unseen and smiled at Nick, "Glad you decided to join me." Nick smirked, "Hey my watch reads 06:00. I'm not late your just early." Henricht nodded towards the church, "Everything's quiet." Henricht handed Nick a pair of binoculars and Nick surveyed the church. The building was plain with only one floor, but it obviously had high ceilings. The outside was a grey stone façade with a sharply arched roof, more like an A frame. A non-descript sign identified the building as The Gnostic Church of Chicago. Nick studied the building for a few minutes but nothing jumped out at him so he handed the binoculars back to Henricht.
"Okay," Henricht said, "If there are Bugs in there things might get nasty fast so take these." Henricht handed Nick a massive knife and an aerosol can. "There are two types of Bugs Nick, Flesh Forms and True Forms. Flesh Forms are the monsters you hear about dragging people back to the hive or just basically making life hell for the inhabitants of the Zone. They usually look like a mix of metahuman and insect, but some of them still look metahuman enough and there the really dangerous ones. Even though there's a Bug inside them, Flesh Forms are still basically meta, so bullets work just fine on them. True Forms on the other hand are basically manifest spirits. True Forms are the giant bugs you see crawling all over the place. Manifest spirits are basically bulletproof. Oh if you unload enough firepower into them you can take one down but you need a Panther Assault Cannon to really have a chance. Best thing to use on a True Form is a knife, or maybe your bow, cause what really hurts them is the force of your will not the weapon itself."
"How the hell do you know all this?" Nick interrupted. Henricht frowned, "Don't worry about how I know this; just make sure you know this. One more thing and this could save your life one day. For some reason True Forms are hurt by pesticides just like a real insect would be. Don't ask me why, I don't know and I really don't care; it works that's all that matters. So this…" Henricht tapped the can he had handed to Nick. "…is a pressurized can of exterminator grade insecticide. If something big comes crawling out of that church we pop the top and run like hell. Copy?"
"Copy." Nick said as he slid the blade free of its sheath. It was a Cougar Fineblade, one of the best knives in the world according to Burner who had a thing for knives. Nick slid the knife back in the sheath and undid his belt to loop it on his left hip. Henricht stopped him, "Reaching across your torso for a blade is a bad idea; takes too long. Hang it behind your back, blade up, so you can pull it in a hurry. Put the insecticide on your right hip so you can throw it easily." Nick strapped on his new equipment, securing the insecticide in a leather cup holder. Nick took a few seconds to get used to where everything sat, walking around in a circle and putting his hands on both his knife and the aerosol can.
Henricht clicked his tongue to draw Nick's attention and nodded. It was go time. Nick snatched up his bow from where he had set it when Henricht offered him the binoculars. Despite Henricht's constant teasing, Nick had returned to his bow after the incident with the ghoul at the hospital. Quiet was preferable to macho as far as Nick was concerned. In deference to Nick's "poor widdle ears" as he put it the HK Henricht was carried today had been fitted with a suppresser. Henricht took point as the two started to move cautiously towards the church.
As Nick followed behind Henricht he agonized over what he should do. Last night it all seemed so simple, Burner didn't feel safe so they were leaving. But as dawn broke over the Zone Nick realized something. Burner was right. Nick wasn't afraid…not the way he used to be. Before the Zone Nick had drifted through life without purpose; a college dropout with a dead end job at a book store that barely kept afloat in a world where books were almost obsolete. But here he was now, a well-known scavenger with sought after skills who had earned the respect of a career military man. And if Henricht was right he might be an adept as well. Was he really willing to give all that up…to run and hide?
As Henricht reached the stairs leading up to the church Nick made a decision. He would take Burner to the Haven at the Museum, but after that he was coming back to help Henricht. Burner would take it hard but Nick didn't care. It was time for Burner to stand on his own, and time for Nick to focus on what Nick wanted for a change. Nodding to himself, Nick returned to the task at hand and finally noticed that his chest had been growing steadily tighter as they approached the church.
Several things happened all at once. Henricht stopped on the last step and turned to wave Nick forward to check the door, Nick took a breath to call Henricht off and a woman screamed from inside the church. Henricht's body blurred as he surged forward, kicking the door open as he went. Nick rushed forward to try to stop Henricht as an explosion blew the front of the building outward. Acting on instinct, Nick twisted his body as the explosion hit him and he was blown through the picket fence surrounding the church and out into the street. Everything went dark.
A few minutes later Nick woke with a groan. Everything hurt, his arms and face were covered with cuts and scrapes where debris had pelted him and the world around him swam like he had been drinking. Struggling to his feet Nick staggered forward and began searching for Henricht. He found him under the collapsed wreckage of the front porch. Henricht looked like processed meat, every inch of exposed skin was red and bloody and a section of rebar had imbedded itself in his right shoulder. Remarkably he was alive.
Henricht's eyes flew open and then squinted shut immediately form the pain. Nick put a hand on his left shoulder gently and Henricht opened his eyes again. "Trauma patch…right breast pocket." Henricht managed to say. Nick shifted the debris as gently as possible and was able to uncover the pocket in question. Nick pulled the patch free. Henricht's eyes were closing again, "No, no, no…stay with me. I got the patch…where do I put it?" Henricht's eyes continued to dip but he managed to say, "Heart" before he passed out. Nick ripped Henricht's shirt open and attached the trauma patch over the man's heart.
Nick didn't know what to expect so he waited. Slowly Henricht's breathing became more normal and he opened his eyes again. "Welcome back." Nick said, Henricht just groaned. "Come on." Nick continued, "That blast will attract predators and we don't want to be here when they show up." Nick helped Henricht to his feet and the two stumbled up Palmer a ways before cutting down an alley to find a place to lay up. The second door Nick pushed on opened and the two tumbled into a small storefront. The shop had probably sold clothing at one point but the windows had been smashed in and everything of value had been scavenged long ago.
There was a small office in the back and that suited Nick just fine, he and Henricht limped over and pushed their way inside. Nick lowered Henricht gently to the floor and pushed the office chair in front of the door to make the place a tiny bit more secure. Nick staggered over to Henricht and sat down beside him. Henricht looked over and commented, "You look like a bucket of shit kid." Nick chuckled then winced as his ribs ached from the strain, "You don't look so hot yourself. What the hell happened?" Henricht winced as a shot of pain ran through him, "Personnel mine. Rigged to the door, anyone steps through it goes boom."
"And the girl?" Nick asked. Henricht shook his head, "No one there. Musta been a recording." Nick's jaw clenched, someone had set a trap for them. "So what now?" Nick asked. Henricht closed his eyes and said, "Now we lay up and wait to see who comes to make sure we're dead." Nick nodded. Henricht winced again and Nick reached for the rebar in his shoulder, "Let's get this out of you." Henricht waved him off, "Leave it in. You pull it out you'll do more harm than good. I got a medkit on my belt, if it isn't blown to hell pull out some gauze and help me stabilize it." Nick fished out the pack and followed Henricht's directions on how to wrap the rebar so it wouldn't do further damage. The medkit also had three low dose tranq patches to use for pain. Henricht slapped one on his neck and within seconds he sighed in relief.
"Okay we'll watch in shifts." Henricht said as he positioned himself where he could see out through the ruined sales floor and out onto the street. "You get some sleep. I'll wake you if I see anyone or when the anesthetic wears off." Nick could barely stay on his feet so Henricht got no argument from him. As Nick tried to find a position that didn't cause shooting pain throughout his body one thought kept surfacing. If the trap had been set for them, then who knew they would be there this morning?
17:47 September 19, 2055 – Ruined Storefront, Chicago's Containment Zone
Nick woke with a start. The light playing across the ceiling had changed and when he checked his watch he sat bolt upright. Henricht was sitting right where he had been when Nick went to sleep and Nick frowned. "What happened to watching in shifts?" Henricht turned a pale face to Nick and smiled. "Had to tell you somethin." Nick crawled over to Henricht and said, "You should have woke me." Henricht smiled and shook his head. "Don't be stupid Nick. I'm not gonna make it, we both know that. Least I could do was watch over you while you slept." Nick frowned, "Don't talk like that. We'll get you back, get you all patched up."
"Who do you think set that bomb Nick?" Henricht interrupted. "Could have been anyone." Nick answered carefully. "Could have been, but it wasn't." Henricht continued. "It was the Volk Nick, no one else it could have been." Nick opened his mouth to argue but Henricht talked over him, "Think about it. Who else knew we would be here today? No one. We didn't know we would be here until Linda told us about this place."
"You think Linda set us up?" Nick asked astonished. Nick had never really met Linda before the other day but he found it hard to think of her as a master tactician. "Nah probably not." Henricht replied. "I think Linda saw some people going into the church and heard the screams just like she said. And came running to us just like the Reverend knew she would." Nick clenched his jaw. The Reverend; there was someone he could see setting a bomb. "I still don't understand why he did it? Without the soldiers the Volk are sitting ducks."
"Control." Henricht answered. "The Volk want control of the yard. Right now everyone listens to me, but if I were gone." Henricht shrugged then winced in pain. "Without me the soldiers will follow the Reverend. You've seen yourself how everyone listens to him." Nick wanted to argue, but he couldn't. Henricht saw the defeat in Nick's eyes and said, "I don't have much longer til my last patch wears off so I need you to listen. There's a guy called Two-Spirits, runs the Haven in the Museum." Nick felt embarrassed to be talking with Henricht about the Haven he had planned to run away to only twenty-four hours earlier but he said, "Yeah I've heard of him." Henricht nodded, "Good. I want you to gather up Burner and Kate and I want you to take them there."
"But what about the Reverend." Nick asked but Henricht cut him off. "Now you listen, and listen good. Revenge is stupid, you understand me! You go after the Reverend and you're gonna end up dead. And what good does that do?" Nick turned away but Henricht grabbed his face and forced him to look. "You wanna avenge me? Keep my daughter safe." Nick nodded and Henricht released his face. "It's only a matter of time before the Reverend realizes what she is."
Nick frowned puzzled and Henricht laughed. "She's a shaman Nick, couldn't you tell? She sure as hell knew what you were." Nick blinked, "A shaman?" "Yeah. Cat we think but the totem hasn't really revealed itself to her. She hears her totem singing in her dreams but she can't make out what it is yet." Henricht's voice was filled with pride.
Henricht winced in pain and nodded at Nick, "Now go on. Your best shot is to hit them after dark. There'll be confusion already since we never showed up, you should be able to get in and get Kate before any of the Volk can notice you. I wouldn't trust the other soldiers, don't know who's with the Volk and who isn't. Best to just do what you do best, sneak in and sneak out." Henricht smiled but Nick could see the strain in his face, the pain meds were wearing off.
"Get outa here kid. I know what I need to do and I don't really what you here when I do it." Nick started to say something but couldn't find his voice, he nodded instead. As Nick made the door Henricht called for him and he turned. "You're a survivor Nick. I knew that the first time I laid eyes on you. You're gonna make it through this. Believe in yourself kid." Nick looked at the man who had been his teacher, his employer and his friend and tears started to form in his eyes. Nick took a breath and said, "I'll get Kate to Two Spirits." Henricht nodded and Nick left. As Nick made his way through the darkening streets he couldn't help straining his ears for the sound he knew was coming but didn't want to hear. Just as the fence surrounding the rail yard came in view Nick heard a single gunshot ring out in the night. Henricht was gone. It was up to him now.
Nick ran along the fence in the growing darkness until he located one of only a handful of areas that were not wired into the proximity alarm. These blind spots had always been a bone of contention between Henricht and Nick but as Nick pointed out only the two of them knew the blinds spots existed so where was the harm. Nick shimmed over the fence with a speed born of lots of practice and made his way silently through the camp to Henricht's house. 'House' was really to kind a term for the steel box that they lived in but as Henricht was fond of telling Nick, "It keeps the rain off." At one time the box had been a freight container of some kind but Henricht had cleared it out and converted it into living space. There were no window so Nick had no way of knowing if Kate was at home. Nick crept to the front door and tapped as loudly as he dared.
The door open and Nick rushed inside as quickly as possible shutting the door behind him. "Nick…oh thank god it's you." Kate said. Nick had never really paid much attention to Kate. Most of the time he was in the rail yard she wasn't around and the few times that she had been all he really remembered was a Henricht's shy daughter. Henricht was so loud and charismatic that any time he was around you practically had to pay attention to him. Now that Nick saw Kate on her own he was surprised to find that she was actually quite pretty. Kate had shoulder length blonde hair that seemed to be naturally wavy and cornflower blue eyes. With a spattering of freckles across her nose and her southern accent Kate was practically the stereotypical southern girl.
Those blue eyes were staring at Nick now and Kate shook slightly. "Nick…where's my father?" Nick pushed away from the door and headed for the section of the house that had been designated Kate's room. Since Henricht's skills didn't include carpentry he hadn't bothered trying for inside walls. The house was divided by hung sheets to designate rooms. Nick pushed aside the sheet leading to Kate's room and hunted around for something to pack her things in. Spying a school backpack with a teddy bear on front that probably belonged to a much younger Kate, Nick scooped it up and dropped it on the army cot the Henrichts had used as beds. Kate pushed aside the curtain and said, "Nick what's going on?"
Nick turned, "Kate I don't have time to explain everything to you right now but you have to trust me. We need to get you out of here right now. Pack up everything you can't live without. Once we leave we're not coming back." Nick moved towards Henricht's room looking for supplies but Kate pulled on his shoulder. "Nick, what happened to my father?" Nick turned with sad eyes and said, "He's dead Kate. I'm so sorry." Kate's eyes shone slightly in the darkness but she held herself together. "How did it happen" Kate asked. Nick turned away and tried again for Henricht's room, "We don't have time for this now Kate. We need…" But Kate's grip tightened as she said, "Tell me how my father died Nick." Kate's voice was strong, with only a hint of emotion.
Nick didn't turn but he said, "It was a trap. The Volk set a bomb at the church and your father walked right into it." Nick turned to look Kate in the eye, "I didn't catch it. I'm sorry." Kate closed her eyes and turned away as tears began to fall. Nick hated himself for what came next but they were running out of time. "Kate. I need you to pull yourself together. Any minute now the Volk will be coming and we need to be gone when they get here." Kate opened her eyes and nodded. Nick nodded back. "Good. Now grab your stuff. I'm gonna grab anything you Dad left that we could use then we need to haul ass to my place and pick up Burner." Kate's grip tightened again, "Oh god Nick you didn't hear." A cold feeling was growing in Nick's stomach. "Hear what?" he asked. "Burner's dead." Kate whispered.
Nick felt nothing. Part of him realized that he was in shock, that the news of his friend's death had been the proverbial straw that drove him into some sort of fugue state meant to protect him from the fact that the world was crashing down around him. "What happened?" Nick asked in a hollow voice. "No one knows for sure." Kate said. "When you and my father didn't come back Burner came to the Command Tent looking for you. Somehow after he left he had a run in with the Volk. They claim that he attacked them but no one was there to prove otherwise. They chased him to your house and then an angry mob lit it on fire. He burned to death before we could put the fire out." Nick closed his eyes and though about Burner. The ork had begged him to leave yesterday, if Nick had only listened Burner would be alive right now. Nick clenched his jaw and looked at Kate, "Pack."
He pulled his arm free and headed into Henricht's 'room' to rummage for supplies. Henricht kept most of his weapons at the quartermasters but Nick was able to come up with a few magazines for Henricht's Predator and an Ares Lightfire 70 that Henricht had hidden under his nightstand. Nick checked the pistol and found a full magazine with one other secured in the holster. Nick stuffed the Predator mags in his pocket; bullets were not exactly hard to come by in the Zone but everyone wanted them and they were incredibly portable so they were good trade. Nick grabbed the pistol and made for the 'doorway' but paused before pushing through the curtain. It galled Nick that some Volk would probably take over this place after Kate was gone; sleep in Henricht's bed, eat at Henricht's table, trade away Henricht's possessions. Nick considered finding a pack somewhere and loading up everything he could find but he heard Kate push through the curtain to her room and say, "I'm ready."
Nick turned to see Kate standing in front of him with the pack set over her shoulders. Kate's eyes still showed evidence of tears but she stood straight and the trembling had stopped. A look of determination was set on her face. Nick nodded and tossed the Lightfire to Kate, who caught it awkwardly. "You know how to shoot?" Kate shot Nick a look he had seen her turn on her father so many times and he laughed, "Sorry, for a second I forgot who your father is." Kate clipped the holster at her abdomen and pulled the pistol smoothly, sighting down the barrel and ejecting the magazine to check the load. "It's a little light." Kate sniffed, "I usually prefer a nine but it'll do."
"All right Jammer Jane." Nick said, referencing a popular female action hero from prime time trideo. Kate smiled for the first time that night. "Okay here's the plan. Over the fence and make for the Elevated. Once we're up top we make for the lake, there's a guy at the Museum that your father wanted me to take you to." Kate nodded, "Two-Spirits." Nick smiled, "Yeah shaman girl, Two-Spirits." Kate blushed. "Okay once we're out that door we gotta move quick. I need you to keep up with me." Kate nodded and took a steading breath.
Nick cracked the door and checked the area. No one was around. Pushing the door open he led Kate quickly through the camp. All the Volk would be attending services at this time but Nick was still worried about being spotted by the soldiers on watch. Hot anger burned through Nick's numb mind as he thought about the Reverend's service tonight. No doubt the man was on the pulpit right now lamenting the loss of a brave man. Nick's hand clenched around his bow and very briefly he considered making a run on the church. Nick imagined the satisfaction of putting an arrow in the Reverend's chest as the bastard delivered his eulogy. But Henricht was right, revenge was stupid. The smart play was to use this time to get Kate as far away as possible before someone came looking for her.
Everything was going great until Nick and Kate hit the fence. As Nick was directing Kate to the section of fence that was un-monitored a voice behind him called, "Freeze!" Nick raised his hands in the air, positioning his body so that he shielded Kate from view. "Lose the bow." The voice, which Nick had identified as Corporal Jackson the quartermaster, commanded. Nick leaned the bow against the fence and shook his head as Kate reached for her pistol. "Turn around." Jackson ordered. Nick obeyed and found himself staring down the barrel of a combat shotgun.
"Evening Jackson." Nick said. Jackson's shotgun never wavered, "Where you goin Nick?" Nick shrugged, "Oh I just thought I'd take a walk. It's a beautiful night." A red dot appeared on Nick's chest as Jackson placed his finger on the trigger of his shotgun, "Why'd you do it Nick?" Nick frowned, "Do what?" Jackson took a step closer and spat, "Why'd you kill him? Henricht trusted you, he took you in and made you one of us. Why'd you turn on him." Nick should have been shocked at the accusation but it all made too much sense. Obviously someone had recovered Henricht's body and noticed that Nick wasn't dead. The Reverend needed an angle and casting Nick as the bad guy was perfect for his agenda. If Nick decided to come back the Reverend had already discredited him. Smart. Evil, but smart. "I didn't kill Henricht Jackson, why would I? He was my mentor and my friend, why would I want him dead?"
Jackson lowered the shotgun from his shoulder but held the barrel locked on Nick's chest. "Reverend says you're a Bug Nick, you and Burner both. That you lured Henricht into an ambush and when that didn't work you shot him in the head with his own gun." Nick's eyes narrowed but he held his cool. Being called a Bug was the worst insult anyone in the Zone could receive. Nick had seen men pull guns after someone make such an accusation. "I'm not a Bug Jackson." Nick said as evenly as possible. The only way he was going to make it out of this is to keep his temper.
The shotgun flew back to Jackson's shoulder, "Of course you would say that. But how can I trust you?" The angry red dot appeared on Nick's chest again and he said, "You can't, I know that. But if you can't trust me then trust Henricht. Trust that he would know if I were a Bug. He spent more time with me than anyone here and as you said he trusted me. You've seen both of us at the range Jackson. Even wounded to you really think I could have taken him?" Jackson said nothing but the red dot disappeared. Nick took a slow step to the right and the dot reappeared. "Hold on. I just want to show you something." Nick said. Jackson's eyes cut slightly to the right and he saw Kate for the first time. A look of confusion crossed the quartermaster's face, "Kate?"
Kate took a step forward with her hands out, "Jackson Nick's telling the truth." Jackson frowned and Kate continued, "Please you have to let us leave." Nick felt a curious prickling sensation in his head. Nick had never been around a magician when they cast a spell, at least not that he knew of, but somehow he knew that Kate was casting one now. Slowly Jackson lowered his shotgun and nodded, "Go."
Nick didn't waste any more time, he boosted Kate up over the fence then scooped up his bow and scrambled over himself as fast as he could. As soon as his feet hit ground Nick bounded off into the night with Kate in tow, he had no idea what magic the girl had used against Jackson but he didn't want to be there when the spell wore off.
00:13 September 20, 2055 – The Sanctum, Chicago Containment Zone
Nick sat in the massive atrium that served as the entrance to the Chicago Field History Museum. The last five hours had passed in a blur for Nick; the hectic escape from the rail yard, running with Kate in tow through the Zone, bartering his way past the latest group of opportunist who had set up a barricade to the elevated track. And once they had made the track, the seemly endless trudge along the rail to the Lakefront, all the while feeling exposed on the blank track with sounds of the various predators who stalked the darkened streets of the Zone drifting up to him. When he and Kate finally found the Sanctum, Nick was greeted by two guards in a machine gun nest positioned by the front door. Nick had been wary but Kate and simply walked up to the guards and asked to speak with Two-Spirits.
Now Nick sat uncomfortably in the main hall while Kate had been summoned to speak with Two-Spirits in private. No one seemed to be watching Nick overtly, but he could feel eyes on him none the less. Nick couldn't sense any immediate danger but it was obvious that if he stepped out of line half a dozen gunmen would teach him the error of his ways. Two-Spirits stepped out of the Crown Family PlayLab where he and Kate had been speaking and approached Nick with a smile. "The young lady is sleeping. She has had quite a night as you well know." Nick nodded as he studied the man before him.
Two-Spirits was probably middle aged, with black hair that fell loose to his chin and was only beginning to show streaks of grey. His face showed his Amerindian heritage with strong cheekbones and light brown eyes. Despite the hour, Two-Spirits had found the time to dress himself in a three-piece business suit complete with vest and tie, though the tie was loose around his neck and the top button of his coal grey shirt undone. Or perhaps Two-Spirits had still been up when the too arrived, for Nick saw dark circles under the shaman's eyes and he moved slowly as though he were exhausted.
"So I guess she told you our story?" Nick asked as Two-Spirits pulled over a chair from the Information Desk and sat across from him. Two-Spirits nodded, "It was quite a tale, full of betrayal and monsters, better suited for an afternoon holo-drama I would think." Nick shrugged, "Whose tale isn't these days?" Two-Spirits laughed a deep rich sound and said, "Indeed." Nick let the unspoken question of Kate's fate hang in the air. Two-Spirits studied Nick in silence, the shaman had a way of looking at people that Nick guessed most would find unsettling; like he was looking into your soul. Nick was too tired to be unsettled so after a half a minute of silence he asked. "So can she stay or what?"
Two-Spirits smiled warmly, "Of course she can stay. The Sanctum is open to anyone who will pledge themselves to the fight against the Insects, or aid those who do. In truth I approached Kate and her father once already inviting them to join our struggle but they turned me down. I am saddened that her father has died but I welcome the Masked One's aid in our struggles." Nick frowned, "Masked One?" Two-Spirits became more animated as he talked, "The Masked One. Raccoon, Kate's Totem; he who's nimble hands …" but Nick waved him off, "Okay, okay, I got it; Katie's a Raccoon Shaman. Fine, great, beautiful; she can stay. That's all you had to say." Nick felt a knot unclench in his stomach, Kate was safe and he had honored Henricht's wish.
If Nick's abruptness had offended Two-Spirits he gave no indication just continued to watch Nick intensely. Again Nick got the feeling that Two-Spirits was staring into his soul but just like before he found that it didn't concern him overmuch. Nick and Two-Spirits sat in silence for a full minute before the Shaman asked, "Is there a reason that you have not asked for sanctuary yourself?" A dozen different answers vied for Nick's attention but he decided for the honest one, "I'm not sure I want to stay." Two-Spirits smiled kindly, "I would be very much surprised if you did."
Two-Spirits stood and looked out the front doors to the machinegun nest beyond, "In my tribe the Warriors hold a place of honor, they are respected and their council sought by chiefs and shaman alike. But held higher than even they are our Hunters; those brave men and women who travel alone into the Wilderness in search of that which the tribe needs to survive." Two-Spirits turned to look at Nick again. Nick snorted, "So I'm a Hunter then?"
"You…" Two-Spirits replied placing a hand on Nick's shoulder, "are whatever you choose to be, and far more than you know." Nick looked Two-Spirits full in the face and asked, "Do you always talk in riddles?" Two-Spirits laughed again and Nick got the impression that the shaman didn't have a lot of time for laughing these days. "Your friend Henricht once asked me the same thing." Two-Spirits answered. "And in his honor I will give you the same answer that I gave him." Two-Spirits paused for effect, "No."
Now it was Nick's turn to laugh, it didn't come out as rich as Two-Spirits but it felt good. Two-Spirits offered Nick his hand and Nick shook it. "How long will you stay?" Two-Spirits asked. "A day, maybe two." Nick replied, "I need to rest up and clean my wounds then I have something I need to do." Two-Spirits nodded, "And what will you tell the girl?" Nick thought about Kate who had just lost her father and left everything they had built together after the wall went up to settle with a bunch of strangers, now the only face that she knew was about to leave as well. "I don't know." Nick answered honestly.
Two days later Nick left the Sanctum in a fresh set of clothes and carrying two weeks' worth of food and supplies. Kate had taken his decision hard, and locked herself in her room refusing to come out to see him go. Nick had promised the girl that he would be back to see her soon but they both knew that was a lie. Two-Spirits assured him that Kate would be well tended to and that Two-Spirits himself would instruct her in the shamanic arts, that made Nick feel better about leaving but only just. As Two-Spirits shook his hand he asked Nick, "Where will you go?" Nick thought for a moment and replied, "I don't think I'll stay in any one place too long. I'm starting to make a name for myself as a scavenger so I think I'll stick to that." Two-Spirits nodded, "You will always be welcome at the Sanctum." Nick nodded, "I might take you up on that a time or two."
As Nick walked down the steps of the Museum he felt the familiar presence of the Zone settle around him; the sounds of rats and other creatures scuttling through the debris that lined the streets, the ever present smell of smoke and dust in the air, the constant thrum in his mind that Nick had come to associate with his innate sense for danger…and he smiled to himself. Be it ever so horrible…Nick was home.
Six hours later found Nick lying in a pile of trash and debris across from the burnt remains of the home he and Burner had shared. The roof had collapsed into the living room and through the holes in the walls Nick could see that someone had looted the place of anything left of value. As he lay motionless Nick thought about Burner and allowed himself to mourn for his friend. Part of Nick wanted to find Burners remains and give him a proper burial but he knew that would be dangerous if not impossible. The Volk had taken over the rail yard. That much was evident by the sign posted over Mars station proclaiming the area to be Volkville.
As silent tears traced down Nick's face he found himself thinking about what Two-Spirits had said to him. Nick always thought of himself as a scavenger but maybe in the Zone a scavenger and a Hunter was the same thing. Looking at Burner's final resting place Nick knew he had failed his friend. If Nick had really put Burner's needs above his own like he kept telling himself he was he would have left as soon as Burner asked him to. Nick had to admit to himself that it had never been about what Burner wanted; they had stayed because Nick wanted to. Nick thought about Henricht and what he had said about Nick being a survivor. Nick knew that the death of his friends could either destroy him or harden him. As Nick maintained his silent vigil through the night he chose the latter.
11:41 February 24, 2058 - Territory of the Raging Horde, Chicago Containment Zone
Nick's thoughts came back to the present as two Panthers on motorcycles passed Gwendolyn on either side. The Panthers had moved into outrider position, which was the signal that the caravan was entering the territory of King Vlad and his Raging Horde. From this point on the Panthers and everyone else in the caravan would be on high alert.
Nick unbuckled his seat belt and said, "I'm going up." Rusty was busy relaying information to the rest of the caravan on the short wave radios that he and Nick had installed in all the vehicles so he only nodded to show he had heard. Nick left the cockpit of the vehicle and hit a button on the right hand side to lower the ladder up to the turret. As the ladder clicked in place Nick climbed up into the cramped quarters above.
The turret wasn't much more than a swivel with a light machine gun on it. There was an armored pill-box over it and at one time Gwendolyn had been fitted with a riot control hose on her turret as well. Nick never asked Rusty what happened to it, but he imagined it was missing when Rusty acquired her. The gun could track a little less than 180 degrees in front of the vehicle but that would be enough for Nick to clear any major obstructions from the roadway. Nick pulled the two levers on the turret to make sure everything was operational and when he was satisfied he hit the comm button and said, "Mike check."
"Roger. All clear." Rusty responded. Nick smiled to himself. Since he had left his home that early morning in '55 he had never spent more than a couple of weeks in any one place, with one obvious exception Nick thought as he felt the rough fabric of his eye patch against his skin. But all that wandering had allowed him to make contacts with every major group in the Zone, and several of the smaller ones. Some had turned out to be friends like the Haymarket Nation, and some bitter enemies like the Volk. But love him or hate him one thing was for certain, like Hughes they all respected him. Nick wasn't sure what he expected to find outside the walls but he was sure of one thing. Henricht had been right, he was a survivor and he had seen the end of the quarantine. Some might say that wasn't much considering everything he had lost, but to Nick it was enough.
Nick hit the comm again and said, "Come on Rusty. Let's see if your friends are home."