An Eye for an Eye
By: Jason Cline
07:00 February 27, 2058 – UCAS Reintegration checkpoint, Chicago Containment Zone
Nick Muldoon sat at a metal picnic table and watched as two men argued heatedly in the middle of a growing crowd. The remains of his breakfast and his steaming cup of soykaff were all forgotten as Nick felt the tension in the air steadily rising. Nick's hand dropped instinctually to his right hip and he clenched his jaw in frustration when he remembered that he had been forced to part with his pistol upon entering the camp. One of the men, a broad shouldered human dressed in layers of mix-matched clothing common in the Zone in wintertime, made a remark that his opponent a portly ork with a chipped lower canine wearing the regalia of the Raging Horde must have taken offense to because the ork took as swing at the human. Pandemonium erupted as the crowd thickened and taunts and cheers began to fill the air. From his vantage point Nick couldn't make out who was winning but it didn't really matter. This was not the first fight to break out at Camp Refugee, and it wouldn't be the last.
Two days ago Nick and his friend Rusty had led a convoy of Zoners from the Haymarket Nation to the checkpoint in the hopes that they would be able to safely leave the Containment Zone once and for all. The convoy met little resistance as it passed through the territory of King Vlad and his Raging Horde, but once they reached the remains of the wall that had been erected around the Containment Zone they found a makeshift camp that had been set up by UCAS military forces and the Red Cross to serve as a staging ground for citizens of the CZ to reintegrate into society. UCAS soldiers stripped them of their firearms and led them into a large camp where they were to wait for processing.
The idea was simple. Once the Containment Zone had been established the System Identification Numbers of all the residents who lived in the affected area had been flagged. Now that the quarantine was lifted the UCAS government was working to reactivate the survivors' SINs and find temporary housing for them so they could resume their lives. Simple right?
The government wasn't prepared for the amount of people who came flooding into the checkpoints, or the mass of people who just fled the Zone any way they could. Flagged SINs were popping up all over Chicago causing system problems within the city. To make matters worse the residents of Chicago outside the Zone weren't very happy about the idea of a bunch of people who could be infected with spirits knew what coming to live in their neighborhoods. Much of the outside world still thought the Containment Zone had been established due to a viral outbreak and no one wanted Typhoid Mary living on their block. Word had already reached Camp Refugee that several neighborhoods in Chicago had hired armed guards to insure that no one from the Zone was allowed to settle there. There were reports of firefights between Zoners who had escaped and security guards that had ended in several fatalities. Two of the ten checkpoints that the government had set up had already been forced to close due to staffing and Camp Refugee, as the Zoners called it, was taking up the slack.
Judging from the cries of the crowd the fight was escalating and Nick was unsurprised when UCAS military personnel rushed towards the combatants and tried to disperse the crowd. The camp was full to bursting with people from all over the Zone. Old scores were being settled and slights real or imagined could erupt in violence at any moment. And there was Nick in the middle of it all just trying to get through processing and get back to the world, whether he wanted to or not. After the convoy reached Camp Refugee Nick had tried to return to the Zone and he had been stopped by armed soldiers. Apparently once you entered the camp the only way out was to be processed out. Nick hadn't argued too much, but he didn't like the idea of being trapped in the camp. Camp Refugee was a powder keg waiting for a spark.
Nick's dark musings were interrupted when Rusty dropped down at the picnic table across from him and dug into his breakfast. Nick watched in amazement as Rusty sat there eating his reconstituted scrambled eggs with his back to the crowd. "How did you survive this long?" Nick asked in an exasperated voice. Rusty frowned, "What?" Nick shook his head, "Nevermind. What did you find out?" Rusty shoveled more food in his mouth and spoke while chewing, "There half way through the twos and should be starting on the threes tomorrow if everything goes right." Zoners were processed based on the numbers in their SIN. The camp had been open three days running around the clock and had only managed to process the first of nine groups.
Rusty continued, "I'm a three what about you?" Nick shrugged, "I'm a five." Rusty winced, "Tough luck chummer. You better get comfortable." The ork returned to his breakfast and Nick took a swig of his now lukewarm soykaff. System Identification Numbers were assigned when you were born. They consisted of twelve alpha numeric digits in three blocks of four. The first block was your country code, the second your city code and the third was individualized. Nick had been born in Boston so he had a five thousand city code whereas Chicago was a three thousand city code. Given that most of the people who lived in the Zone were likely from Chicago, Nick was looking at a very lengthy stay in Camp Refugee.
"So Nick, what's the first thing you're gonna do when you get outta the Zone?" Rusty asked. Nick took a sip of his kaff, "I'm gonna take a long hot shower and try to wash off three years' worth of grime." Rusty laughed. "No really? Whatcha gonna do? I mean now that we're free we got the whole world right? I think I'm gonna go back to school. Get my mechanic's license and set up an auto shop. Maybe I'll get lucky an Eagle will let me work on their units. Once they see what I did with Gwendolyn I bet they'll be impressed." Nick was quiet. The scavenger had spent the last two years carving out a life for himself in the harshness of the Zone, making a name as the guy who could get any part you needed, no matter how dangerous the area might be. Nick had never looked much past survival and now that it was all over he felt…unsure. "I don't know Rusty. I haven't really given it much thought."
Rusty laughed, "Haven't given it much thought? You kill me Nick. But hey…at least you can get your eye fixed now eh? Gotta be a pain in the hoop not bein' able to see right." Nick smiled, "I've gotten used to it." Rusty stared at the scavenger for a second, "You know. I've never really asked what happened." Nick nodded, "No you haven't." The scavenger sipped at his kaff, the unspoken question hanging in the air. Rusty looked at him expectantly and Nick sighed, "A bug took it." Rusty nodded somberly, "Yeah I kinda though so. But hey, from what I hear you've done your fair share a' damage to them too. So I guess it's really an eye for an eye." Nick smiled, "Yeah I guess so." The scavenger's thoughts drifted back to the winter of fifty-five and how close he had come to losing it all.
17:12 November 3, 2055 – 1083 West Roosevelt Road, Chicago Containment Zone
Nick sat in a corner booth of what was left of Dot's Diner reading a schematic by the light of a propane lantern. The schematic was for an industrial heating unit and the blower motor was circled in red. Nick sat the schematic down on the table in front of him and looked evenly at the dwarf seated across from him, "One thousand." The dwarf laughed once, "Not a chance, six fifty." Nick narrowed his eyes, "Nine hundred." The dwarf frowned, "Seven fifty and I'll throw in a new winter jacket." Nick nodded and offered his hand, "Done." The dwarf took the scavenger's hand and said, "We need the blower by the end of the week. Cold fronts moving in and without heat some of the elderly might not make it." Nick frowned, "Now you're rushing me too? I tell ya Father, this charity work is gonna be the ruin of me. You know how much I could get for a blower motor?" Father O'Malley smiled, "Yes I do…seven fifty and a jacket." Nick snorted, "Yeah right, try fifteen hundred if the client is desperate enough." The priest laughed, "Save the curmudgeon act for someone else boy-o. If you were so worried about making a profit you'd have opened with two thousand instead of just one."
Nick waved him off, but a smile was creeping over the scavenger's face. Nick couldn't help but like Father O'Malley. The dwarf was one of the few people that Nick had heard of that had actually come into the CZ instead of being stuck there. After word had spread of a new VITAS plague in the Chicago, Father O'Malley had petitioned the UCAS to allow him to tend to the victims trapped behind the wall. Of course the UCAS denied his request but somehow the stubborn priest got behind the wall anyway. Of course by the time Father O'Malley realized that the plague was just a farce he was already stuck in the CZ. Undeterred, Father O'Malley had set up a shelter for the elderly in the Holy Family Church and the St. Ignatius Prep School it supported. Nick had never worked with Father O'Malley directly so when he answered the priest's post on the BBS the meet had been set for the ruins of the diner across the street from the church. It was a smart play and one that only served to elevate Father O'Malley in Nick's eyes.
Nick tapped the schematic on the table in front of him, "I know a few places where I can get you this part, but if you need it by the end of the week that is gonna complicate things. That blower ain't light so I'm gonna need some wheels; that means either you loan me a vehicle or I got to find one on my own, which will take more time." Father O'Malley's smile faded slightly, "So not only do I have to pay you, you expect me to loan you a vehicle to pick the part up as well? How do I know you won't just take the car and leg it?"
Nick settled back in his booth, "I guess you really don't, but it'd be pretty stupid of me to do it. I'd get what…a new jacket and whatever heap you give me to pick up the part, and you would immediately hit the boards and tell everyone in the Zone that I can't be trusted. Not really a smart play for me." The dwarf sat back in his booth as well and rubbed his chin for a moment, "Fine, we got an old beat up truck you can use. But one of mine goes with you." Nick smiled, "Works for me, less heavy lifting I have to do." Nick stood and left the booth, "I'll meet your guy in front of the church at oh seven hundred tomorrow, I like to get an early start. If everything goes right we will be back tomorrow evening with your part. Have the jacket waiting in the truck as a down payment." Father O'Malley said nothing as Nick left only smiled and shook his head mirthfully. Nick scooped up his bow from where he had left it and pushed his way through the door.
As Nick left the remains of the diner he turned up the collar of his light syth-leather jacket against the cold wind blowing in from the Lake. As much as he hated to admit it he really did need a better jacket and seven hundred and fifty nuyen wouldn't hurt either. Nick shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket and headed up Roosevelt. A few blocks up Roosevelt Nick turned on South Throop Street and soon he found himself in a residential area. Nick circled the block twice before entering the small three-story apartment building that he had spent the previous night in. Nick climbed to the second floor and paused outside 4B searching for any sign that the apartment had been entered since he left that morning. When Nick was satisfied the apartment was clean he opened the door into a single bedroom apartment with worn furniture and a huge fish tank that had once held tropical fish.
Since the tragic incident in September Nick had established a few safe houses around the Zone but this was his newest. Nick bought the keys off another scavenger two days ago and he wasn't really certain what had happened to the previous owner. Since the scavenger he bought the keys from was whispered to deal with the Fleshmongers from time to time Nick wasn't sure he really wanted to know what happened to the previous owner. This was the first time Nick had ever paid for a place to doss down but given that his other safe houses were little more than rooms in abandoned buildings that he was able to reinforce Nick considered this a good investment. The building was located in a section of the Zone that wasn't controlled by any of the various warlords, gangs or protection groups and it was fairly centrally located making it idea for a scavenger on the go. The apartment was also close to The Sanctuary and Kate Henricht, but Nick would never admit that had anything to do with his selection.
Nick locked the door behind him and by the dim light of the glow sticks hung around the apartment he made his way into the microscopic kitchen to start dinner. The apartment had no electricity which Nick suspected had greatly impacted the price he had paid for it, but that didn't really bother Nick. The scavenger had learned over the past few months to forgo the niceties of electricity. The apartment had thick walls with good insulation and running water which was a luxury for Nick who had spent the past month having to scrounge for water almost daily. Being an interior unit the apartment had no windows but it did have a small balcony that opened off of the living room with a sliding glass door. Nick had already covered half of the sliding glass door with drywall that he had removed from the bedroom closet while opening up a space he intended to convert into a secret compartment. The chalky building material wouldn't offer much protection but it did a good job of blocking any light from an outside observer. The balcony provided a second point of entry which was a double edged sword; on the one hand Nick had a quick escape route if someone came to the front door but on the other hand someone could climb up to the balcony and smash their way through the glass and into the apartment. Nick had been pondering various solutions to the balcony problem in his spare time but so far he hadn't decided which one he liked best.
Nick cut open the plastic exterior of his Humanitarian Aid Packet and spilled the contents onto the small counter in front of him. Thanks to his magically enhanced sight the sparse light provided by the glow sticks provided enough illumination for him to read the various cardboard boxes that constituted his meal for the night. Spaghetti with meat sauce and beans for an entrée, lintels for a side dish, crackers and cheese from a tube and a cinnamon toaster pastry for desert. What was it with beans? Every meal either had beans in the entrée or beans as a side dish, or in this case both. Did the Red Cross get a kick-back from bean farmers or something? Nick poured the required amount of water into the heating pouch and dropped in his entrée. Nick disliked the smell of the chemical reaction between the heating packet and the water so always tried to cook outside, having no better place to do so Nick opened the door to the balcony and stepped outside.
Nick sat the heating pouch down and leaned against the railing looking out over the Containment Zone. Darkness surrounded Nick in a way that most city dwellers never experience. All of the streetlights in this neighborhood had been smashed, either by gangers or Bugs, and all the windows were dark. Citizens of the Zone learned early on that a light at night attracted the wrong kind of attention so windows in inhabited buildings were always covered. On the plus side that made it easy for scavengers, if you saw a building where the widows were uncovered you could assume that they were uninhabited thus free game. At the edge of the horizon Nick could see the glow of Chicago and one or two of the larger skyscrapers could just be made out, a thin line of light visible between the black silhouettes of their darkened cousins. Nick thought back to the early days when he would catch Burner sitting in his tree house staring at the lights beyond the wall and crying. Nick clenched his jaw in anger and scooped up the heating pouch which had finished turning room temperature spaghetti and beans into slightly above room temperature spaghetti and beans and returned to the apartment, shutting the door on the glow of Chicago and all the memories it stirred.
06:55 November 4, 2055 – Holy Family Church, Chicago Containment Zone
Nick arrived at the church to find a battered mid-sized truck parked on the street. Nick passed by the passenger's side and saw a fur-collared navy blue bomber's jacket on the passenger's seat. Nick hung his bow in the gun rack behind the seat under a pump action shotgun, snagged the jacket and headed to the front door of the church. The door opened into a small room where parishioners would drop off their coats and umbrellas before entering the nave. The sturdy wooden doors leading to the nave were closed and Father O'Malley was seated at a small bench talking with a young boy barely into his teens. When Nick entered the dwarf looked up and smiled, "Ah Nick right on time. This is Richard; he will be your driver." Nick looked the youth over. He still had some growing to do that was for certain, the kid only stood a bit over one hundred and sixty centimeters and he was lanky. His brown hair was cut unevenly and gave him a disheveled look which was popular with teens these days. His eyes were brown and his skin was smooth making him look younger than Nick imagined he was. "You're kidding me right? What is he…twelve?"
Richard stiffened, "I'm fourteen." Nick snorted, "Oh, well that's all right then." Richard started to respond but Father O'Malley talked over him, "Richard is very capable Nick. I trust him and you should too. Besides all he is doing is driving a truck right? You're doing all the work aren't you?" the priest asked sweetly. Nick laughed and shook his head, "I guess I am now. Okay fine but the kid stays with the truck." Again Richard started to object but this time Nick talked over him, "This ain't a discussion kid. You stay with the truck or the deals off." Richard looked to Father O'Malley for support but the priest nodded. Reluctantly Richard agreed, "Fine. I'll stay with the truck." Nick nodded, "Good. Now that that's settled we need to go. I want to get this job over with by nightfall." Nick turned and left the church, not bothering to see if Richard was following.
By the time Richard reached the car Nick was already seated on the passenger's side and belted in. You young man got in the cab of the truck and fired it up, "Where we headed?" Nick pointed out the window, "Head up Roosevelt till you hit Halsted and take a right. We're heading for an abandoned shopping center off thirty-fifth. They have a unit similar to the one in the school and we should be able to find at least one blower that will work." Richard nodded and pulled out onto the street. The two sat in silence for several minutes before Richard said, "You know I was the one that suggested to Father O'Malley that we hire you." Nick turned his head and looked at the boy out of the corner of his eye, "Really? And why would you do that?" Richard watched the road intently, "We had several people respond to the post and the Father asked me to check everyone out. Father O'Malley is a great man but he's kinda a Luddite." Richard chuckled. "Anyway, I asked around about you. Is it true you're friends with Two-Spirits?" Nick shrugged, "I met him once. We got along. I wouldn't exactly say we're friends."
Richard looked over for a second then back to the road, "When I asked him about you he said you were a 'True Hunter' whatever that means." Nick chuckled, "Yeah that sounds like something he would say." Richard was quiet for a minute then added, "They also say you had a run in with Catherine the Terrible." Nick chose his words carefully, "She and I had…a disagreement." Now it was Richard's turn to chuckle, "I heard she put a price on your head." Nick said nothing. After a few seconds Richard shrugged, "She's a cunt anyway."
"Watch your mouth kid." Nick said dryly. "Catherine is a Warlord and a very dangerous woman. You don't want to get sideways of her. She accused me of cheating her in a trade and things got tense for a while, but that's ancient history. We got an agreement, I don't scavenge in her territory and she leaves me alone and drops the bounty." Nick didn't mention the bounty hunter who had been sent to collect him or his narrow escape from said bounty hunter. The whole affair had taught Nick a very important lesson; never get involved with politics, especially gang politics.
Richard drove on in silence for a few more minutes then asked, "So how do you know about this place?" Nick answered, "I ran across the center a few weeks ago while I was out scouting the area. Looters have picked it over pretty good but the difference between a looter and a scavenger is a looter takes things of value to themselves whereas a scavenger is always on the lookout for something of value to someone else." Richard nodded and asked casually, "Any chance you could teach me to be a scavenger?" Nick smiled to himself; things were finally starting to make sense. "I don't know kid; you're a little young to be a scavenger." Undaunted Richard replied, "What about when I'm older?" Nick's smile faded slightly and he said, "Hopefully when you're older we won't need scavengers anymore." Richard started to protest but Nick cut him off, "Tell you what kid. Let's just get through this job and we'll see. Maybe I can give you a few pointers." Richard beamed and sat up a little straighter in the driver's seat. Nick chuckled to himself and shook his head…kids.
Thirty-five minutes later Nick directed Richard around the back of a derelict mini-mall on East 35th Street. The shopping center had once housed a sporting goods store, a shoe store and two department stores. The parking lot was littered with trash, rusting shopping carts and less savory debris. Nick ran across the shopping center a few weeks ago and discovered a few terrific finds, among them the hard pack he was currently wearing as well as several bottles of propane he had traded for food and sundries the same week. Nick had Richard bring the truck around behind the mall and back up to a metal ladder that led up to the roof. "With luck the blowers are mounted to the compressor on the roof. If not we have to find the maintenance office inside." Nick explained. Nick tied his bow to the hard pack using two straps that were originally intended for a sleeping bag and headed up the ladder.
After a frustrating fifteen minutes of work, Nick realized that there was no way for him to remove the blowers from the roof. He was going to have to head inside. Normally that wouldn't have been a big deal, but Nick had noticed a tightening in his chest as soon as they pulled around behind the shopping center. Danger was nearby and Nick didn't relish the idea of having to leave Richard alone while he went searching for the blower. As Nick descended the ladder he weighed his options, when his feet hit ground he had chosen the lesser of two evils. "Can you use that thing?" Nick asked pointing at the shotgun behind Richard's head. "Of course." The teen replied, but Richard's wide eyes betrayed him. Nick rubbed his chin in annoyance, "Here's the deal kid. I can't get the part I need from the roof. That means I gotta go inside. I know the deal was you stay in the truck, but I think it would be better if you came with me." Richard's eyes widened even more and he smiled, proving to Nick that the kid had no idea the danger he was in, "Sure." Richard pulled the shotgun out of the rack and worked the lever. The move looked practiced but Richard held the gun awkwardly, Nick imagined that Richard had been taught the basics but had little to no practice with the shotgun.
Nick took the lead, not liking the idea of an inexperienced kid with a scattergun at his back but liking the idea of Richard blundering into an ambush even less. Nick led them to a metal door that had been kicked open sometime in the past. Pausing just outside the door Nick searched for any sign of danger and cautiously made his way into the stock room of the shoe store. Empty shoe boxes littered the floor and it appeared as though every shoe that the store had once had was now gone. Nick nocked an arrow and moved quietly through the storeroom and out into the sales floor. This was uncomfortable territory for Nick. The scavenger normally worked alone and favored stealth over combat. Nick was much more comfortable running from a fight then wading in, but having Richard along with him made retreat not an option. If things went south Nick would have to fight his way out and somehow try to protect the kid as well.
Nick moved slowly and quietly through the shoe store and into the mini-mall, he imagined that the maintenance area would probably be near the food court based on past experience so he headed in that direction. Richard moved as quietly as possible behind him but that didn't stop Nick from wincing at the noise the teenager was making. Nick hugged the left wall and moved cautiously but the pressure in his chest had not intensified since they entered the mall, whatever danger was present was no closer now than when he was on the roof. As the scavenger entered the food court he saw a sign indicating the restrooms were down a side corridor, playing a hunch Nick decided to check the hallway. It turned out that his hunch was correct because along with the restrooms Nick found a door marked Maintenance. Nick locked eyes with Richard for a second and nodded then put a boot to the door.
The door opened into a medium sized room with a small desk opposite the entrance. There was a time-clock on the wall to the left of the door and a set of lockers took up most of the wall to the right. A small smile lit Nick's face when he noticed a door behind the desk labeled HVAC. Nick turned to Richard, "You cover the door. I'll work on removing the blower." The teen nodded and took up position behind the desk to watch the front door. Nick headed through the door and found himself in a small room almost completely filled with four massive HVAC units. It took Nick a few minutes but he was able to locate the blower unit for the HVAC. Unrolling his tools the scavenger set to work removing the blower, all the while trying to keep his attention focused on the room beyond where Richard was standing guard. It was painstaking work, Nick was more of an electrician than an AC repairman, but eventually Nick was able to pry the blower from its casing.
Nick returned to the maintenance office with the part, it was not as heavy as he had expected but it wasn't exactly light. Nick sat the blower on the desk, "We need to find something to carry this in." Richard said, "Maybe we can find a backpack or something at the Urban Outfitter." Nick smiled, "Good thinking kid." Richard beamed and headed for the exit but Nick stopped him, "Hold up a sec. You take the blower I need to keep my hands free." Richard frowned puzzled, "Why don't we just leave it here?" Nick shook his head, "Scavenging 101 kid, once you have your part never let it out of your sight. Too much can go wrong. This way if we have to bail we don't lose the prize, get it?" Richard nodded his head slowly in understanding and slug the shotgun over his shoulder, lifting the blower he tried not to show the strain he was under but Nick could tell he wouldn't be able to run with it in his arms.
Nick took the lead, nocking an arrow and moving through the food court and further into the mall. Urban Outfitters was an anchor store for the mall boasting an impressive selection of outdoor and camping gear and a seven meter climbing wall for the kids. The open air sales floor once had miscellaneous sporting gear hanging from the ceiling but extensive looting had left only a large tent and a kayak that was hanging vertically from only one support wire. As Nick led the way through the ransacked store the tightness in his chest intensified, the scavenger pulled up about to suggest that they try one of the department stores when Richard pointed awkwardly at a pile of backpacks under a toppled shelf. Nick nodded and covered Richard as the teen sifted through the canvas backpacks to find one large enough to hold the blower.
As Richard was zipping the bag shut Nick heard the faint scratching of movement coming from near the entrance to the mall, they were not alone. Nick's chest tightened and he knew that the danger he had been sensing was between him and the mall exit. Nick turned to cover the exit and whispered, "Head for the front entrance. Keep moving no matter what and if I say run you run got it?" Richard nodded and shouldered his pack, the teen picked up his shotgun from the floor and Nick noticed the barrel was shaking. Nick grit his teeth but managed to say in a calm voice, "Hey…don't worry about it kid. We'll get outta this. Just keep close and keep moving." Richard's shaking lessened and Nick set off through the remains of the sporting goods store towards the glass storefront.
Nick and Richard were half way to the entrance and the scavenger was starting to think they would get out of this without a fight when an inhuman scream of rage sounded from their right. A monstrous form erupted from an isle across the store and charged towards them. It was a troll once, now it was a twisted amalgamation of insect and troll. The merging of Insect Spirit and flesh was so sloppy that it was impossible to tell what sort of spirit even inhabited the two meter tall creature that was charging them. The creature's body was misshapen, one leg was obviously larger than the other and one arm had been twisted into barely more than a thin layer of flesh over the bone ending in a three clawed appendage with no opposable thumb.
Nick took in the creature's appearance and fired an arrow into the monster's chest. The beast never flinched as the broad tipped arrow sunk deep in its left pectoral it simply charged on. Nick's eyes widened for a second and he shouted, "Run!" The scavenger turned and ran for the glass storefront. Richard was having trouble keeping up so Nick skidded to a halt to fire another arrow into the charging thing but it failed to connect, whizzing harmlessly over its right shoulder. Despite the Flesh Forms obvious deformity the monster was steadily gaining on Nick and Richard, escape wouldn't be an option. "Get to the truck!" Nick yelled as he pulled a third arrow from the quiver mounted on his bow and drew a bead on the Bug. This time his arrow connected though not where Nick intended, winging the creature's abdomen and getting caught in the tattered remains of its jacket.
"Shit!" Nick exclaimed. Firing at a stationary target was completely different than firing at something that was moving, especially when that something was a creature straight out of a horror trid and it was charging right for you. Nick nocked a fourth arrow and ran out to the right hoping to draw the monster after him and not Richard, he fired and his arrow found some purchase in the beast's mutilated right thigh. For some reason this got a response from the creature, another roar as it twisted its head and found Nick. The scavenger had used up half of the arrows in his quiver and he would soon have to resort to his back-up weapon, a Walther Palm Pistol in his right pocket. Nick drew another arrow and moved to the right to line up his shot, that's when he lost his footing and went down in a pile of camping gear.
Nick struggled to get free of the sleeping bags and unfolded tents that had snared him but by the time he fought free the Bug was upon him. The scavenger raised his bow only to have it splintered by a powerful blow from the creature's still normal left arm; the arm struck Nick and smashed him into the shelving unit. Nick ducked under the next blow and struggled to pull the pistol out of his pocket, the hammer caught on the fabric of his pants and Nick had to dive to the floor to avoid being gutted by the Bugs claw. Nick forced the pistol out of his pocket ripping the side of his pants and dodged backwards to avoid another blow from his opponent but got his foot caught in the fabric of a tent. Nick fell backwards onto the pile of camping gear and fired both barrels at point blank range into the monster's belly.
The light slugs flattened on the dermal armor that covered the creature's chest and abdomen, the troll had been cyberneticly modified before he had been forced to play host to an insect spirit. The monster raised its massive left arm and brought it down to crush Nick's skull. Nick kicked out at the creature's knee and heard a satisfying crunch as his boot connected, propelling him forward across the ground and throwing off the beasts attack. Nick scrambled to his feet and turned to face his attacker…too slowly. The Bug lashed out with its mutated right arm and the claws caught Nick across the side of his face. White hot agony burned across the left side of Nick's face as the claw pierced his left eye and traced three lines of fire from the scavenger's eyebrow ridge to his nose. Nick fell to the ground with a scream, hands clamped over the ruined remains of his left eye as the monster stepped in for the kill.
The full throated boom of a shotgun cut through the haze of pain and Nick felt the air disturbance as the lead pellets from the blast cut through the air above him and hammered into the monster. The shot staggered the monster but the fight was not over, the Bug spun and launched itself towards its new attacker. As the beast closed on Richard the teen tried to work the slide of the shotgun but his fingers were numb with fear, the Bug closed the distance and swatted the gun out of the boy's hands. As the monster raised its right claw to dispatch the boy Nick tackled it from behind, riding the creature to the ground and plunging his knife into the Bugs body over and over again until it stopped twitching.
Nick rolled off the creature and his Fineblade clattered to the ground, he was covered in blood his own and the Bugs and he was starting to feel faint. Richard stumbled over to him and Nick could smell that the teen had pissed himself. "Are you okay?" the boy asked. Nick's limbs felt very heavy and all he wanted to do was sleep but he forced himself upright, rekindling the fire burning where his left eye had once been. "We gotta go." The scavenger said weekly. "There might be more of them. You got the part?" Nick asked. Richard nodded and Nick reached for his knife. The world didn't work right and his body was swaying so it took Nick a few tries to retrieve the Fineblade. Rising unsteadily to his feet Nick repeated, "We gotta go." Nick took a few steps towards the exit and stumbled, his body wasn't responding and he was slipping into shock. Richard pulled Nick's arm over his shoulder and the two of them stumbled out into the parking lot. Nick slumped down against the building as Richard ran to get the truck; the scavenger closed his one good eye and succumbed to the darkness.
10:43 November 5, 2055 – Holy Family Church, Chicago Containment Zone
Nick returned slowly to consciousness, drifting gently back to the waking world as though he had just taken an afternoon nap. The first thing he realized was that his left eye was bandaged, the second was that he was lying on a hard mattress in an unfamiliar room with a white tiled ceiling, the third was that he was naked. Nick sat up in the bed to take in the room and found that he was in a makeshift hospital, his 'room' was separated from the rest by a shower curtain hung on what looked like a clothesline. Nick could hear voices from the other side of the curtain. A female voice asked, "So what exactly do you want me to do?" The deep voice of Father O'Malley answered, "I would like for you to take him with you to Little Earth." The woman laughed but the priest continued, "I think that the residents there would be able to help him."
"We don't just take any busted up scavenger off the streets." The woman said in a hard voice. "And I am not sending you any busted up scavenger off the streets." The priest replied in an equally hard voice. "Nick Muldoon has power, I have seen it, and I feel your Sifu can help. Like he helped you." The two were quiet for a moment before Father O'Malley said, "If it wasn't for Nick your brother would be dead Jessica." Jessica actually growled before saying, "Fine! I'll make the introduction but no promises. Sifu will decide if this scavenger is worthy of training or not." Without another word the woman, Jessica, pulled aside the sheet to find Nick sitting up in his bed.
Jessica was beautiful in a primal sort of way. She stood a hair over 1.7 meters tall with a thick mane of golden brown hair and huge feral looking green eyes. Her skin was lightly tanned and corded with muscle; she wore loose fitting clothing and tennis shoes obviously meant for ease of movement. Jessica exuded confidence and Nick was immediately certain that he did not want to make an enemy of this woman. From the look on her face Jessica was not nearly as impressed with what she saw, "We leave in an hour. Be ready." With that the woman turned and pushed her way past Father O'Malley who was still standing in the doorway with an amused smirk on his face.
"Charming." Nick said as Father O'Malley stepped into the room and pulled the curtain shut behind him. The priest nodded, "Jessica is somewhat intense isn't she? How are you feeling?" Nick sighed, "Except for the fact that I can't see outta my left eye I'm good. How long till the bandage is off?" Father O'Malley looked uncomfortable for a second, "Nick…there is no easy way to tell you this. Your eye was too damaged for me to heal." A black hole opened up in Nick's chest, "What do you mean?" The priest smiled sadly and put his hand on Nick's shoulder, "I'm afraid you're now blind in your left eye." Nick sank back down to the bed as the reality set in, Father O'Malley continued, "You have to understand Nick that when Richard got you back here you were on death's door. Bear and I were able to save you but that much damage takes its toll on the body." Nick nodded dumbly as Father O'Malley talked but then his brain latched on to something the priest said.
"Wait…Bear, what?" Nick asked. The priest blushed slightly and said, "Yes, my totem." Nick blinked in surprise, "You're a Shaman?! But I thought you were Catholic?" Father O'Malley drew himself up proudly, "There is no reason I cannot be both. The Catholic faith has always prayed to the Saints to intercede on our behalf, what makes a totem so different?" Nick shook his head speechless, the shaman-priest continued, "Together we were able to call you back from the brink of death, but it was beyond our power to restore your eye. There are of course medical options but none of them were available to me." Nick felt a little hope return, surgery would be expensive but eye replacement was practically an out-patient procedure these days. "Of course cybernetic replacement will have a negative effect on the amount of magic you have to fuel your extraordinary abilities, but perhaps there is an alternative."
Nick's face took on a hard expression; while he wasn't exactly keeping his supernatural abilities a secret he wasn't broadcasting them either. The scavenger didn't fully understand his abilities and Nick hadn't yet found anyone he trusted enough to discuss them with. Henricht had mentioned once that he suspected Nick was a physical adept but that was as much information as the scavenger had. "What sort of alternative?" Nick asked suspiciously. Father O'Malley shrugged, "Before the walls went up there was a place outside UC where many of the magically active residents of Chicago lived. The residents of this area dubbed it Little Earth." Nick nodded, "Yeah I've heard of it." The priest began to pace, "After the Zone was established the residents of Little Earth banded together as a sort of magical enclave if you will. Several of my friends are members of this enclave as well as Richard's sister Jessica. I think they could help you to overcome your handicap."
"How much?" The question startled Father O'Malley and he turned with a puzzled expression on his face, "I beg your pardon?" Nick leaned forward, "Nothing's free in the Zone Father. How much is there help going to cost me?" The dwarf frowned, "There are those of us who are motivated by more than profit young man. You would do well to remember that." The two stared at each other for a second then Nick relented, "I didn't mean to offend you, I just wanted to know if I could afford their help is all. So who do I need to talk to when I get there?" Father O'Malley walked to the curtain, "Jessica will introduce you to Sifu Tagashi. If Tagashi thinks you are worthy he will train you, if not there are other adepts in Little Earth who may help. Your best bet is Tagashi though." The priest pulled aside the curtain.
"Hey! Where are my clothes?" Nick called as the priest closed the curtain behind himself. "They were disgusting so we threw them away. You better get washed up, Jessica won't wait. Bathroom's down the hall." Father O'Malley replied. Nick snorted and shook his head. Lost his eye, lost his bow, lost his pistol, now he even lost his clothes; not his finest performance. Nick reached up to touch the bandage that covered the left side of his head and his good humor faded. His eye was gone. He would be half blind until he could figure out a way to have his eye replaced. Nick hadn't heard of any hospitals still running in the Zone, and even if there were how could he expect to pay for a new eye. Nick climbed awkwardly out of bed and staggered across the room and pushed open the curtain.
Walking was proving difficult, without his eye his depth perception was off. Nick staggered down a hallway to his right and found a small bathroom. Once inside Nick found a new set of clothes laid out for him beside his hardpack and Cougar Fineblade. At least the scavenger wouldn't have to replace all his weapons. As Nick started the water running in the tub he paused to look himself over in the mirror. Nick had never been particularly vain but the sight of himself in the mirror depressed him. His head had been wrapped in gauze covering the left side of his face and his remaining eye was bruised and swollen. Three days growth of hair stood out against the skin of his cheeks and jaw-line and it was obvious that he hadn't bathed in some time. Slowly…trepidatiously, Nick began to unwrap the gauze around his head. His black hair was plastered to his skull, crusted with blood and other less pleasant excretions from the Bug he had killed. When the time came to uncover his eye Nick paused and took a deep breath.
As the bandage fell away it revealed three jagged red scars passing through Nick's eyebrow, bisecting his eye at an angle and cutting into his nose and cheek. The eye itself was still intact though the iris has faded from emerald green to corpse-white and the eyeball showed evidence of scarring from the attack. Nick let out the breath he was holding; all in all it could have been much worse. The eye itself could have ruptured and left nothing but a fleshy hole or the attack could have done more than cosmetic damage to his nose. Nick knew he should be relieved but he just kept staring at his milky white eye as the bitterness in his chest grew. Finally the scavenger turned away from the mirror.
As Nick sunk himself into the bathtub some of his stress began to melt away, he quickly cleaned himself feeling strangely skittish about touching the left side of his face. He dressed awkwardly, once again finding mundane tasks more difficult due to his lack of depth perception, and strapped on his Fineblade feeling oddly comforted by the presence of the weapon. Shouldering his pack Nick left the bathroom and followed the sounds of voices to a small kitchen where he found Jessica, Richard and Father O'Malley seated around a small table enjoying a light lunch. Jessica's head turned immediately as Nick entered the room and her smile disappeared but Father O'Malley stood and said, "Nick, you're looking much better now that you're all cleaned up. Care to join us?" The scavenger shrugged, "Sure why not." Father O'Malley helped Nick to the table and as the scavenger sat down he noticed Richard sneaking glances at him. For a moment Nick was confused and then realization dawned and he felt a slight blush rising to his skin.
"Hey Father, you wouldn't happen to have an eye-patch would ya? I can't imagine this is really appetizing." Nick indicated his left eye and tried to keep his tone light. Father O'Malley rubbed his chin, "No I don't think I do, but come with me and we'll find something." The priest stood and guided Nick to a first aid kit where Father O'Malley redressed his wound though this time the dwarf refrained from wrapping Nick's entire head. When the two returned it was obvious that a conversation had taken place between Jessica and Richard; irritation was plain on the woman's face and the teen was red eyed as though he were about to cry. As soon as Nick entered the room Jessica practically jumped out of her chair and snarled, "We're late. Get your gear and meet me out front." Without another word the woman stormed out of the kitchen leaving Nick staring after her in confusion. The scavenger turned to Father O'Malley but the priest just shook his head, "Good luck son, you may well need it." Nick turned to Richard and offered his hand; the teen looked at it confused.
"Just wanted to say thanks kid, if you hadn't shot that thing when you did it would have taken my head off. You saved my life." Richard looked at Nick's hand blankly, turning he ran out of the room and the scavenger could make out the sound of sobbing in his wake. Nick turned back Father O'Malley as confused as before but the dwarf just smiled kindly, "You need to go Nick. Jessica will not wait for you." The priest helped Nick to the door and handed him an envelope, "Here you are, seven hundred and fifty nuyen as agreed." Nick looked at the envelope in surprise, "You're paying me?" Father O'Malley seemed taken aback, "Of course I'm paying you, you got the part." Nick continued to look at the envelope in his hand, "But…you saved my life. Shouldn't I be paying you?" The dwarf smiled, "I told you before Nick, some of us doing things without thought of reward. Now you really should get a move on, Jessica is practically revving the engine out there." Nick stuffed the envelope in his pocket and make his way shakily to where Jessica was waiting in the same truck the scavenger had used to retrieve the part the day before.
As Nick closed the passenger side door and belted himself in he couldn't help but notice the smell of his own blood. The truck had been hosed off but the scavenger's sensitive nose could still detect the smell of blood coming from the bed of the truck. Nick wondered how Richard had managed to haul him up and dump him in the bed of the truck, the teen wasn't strong enough to have done it by himself and Nick was unconscious so how did he get in the back of the truck. Nick turned in his seat so he could see Jessica, "You were there." Jessica continued to watch the road, "No. But I was close. Richard called me panicked and said he needed my help. He told me that he had been scavenging with a friend and that friend was hurt. I was furious! Richard is fourteen years old; he has no business scavenging parts in the Zone." Jessica shot Nick a venomous look, "When I got there and saw how badly you were hurt I told him to leave you but of course he wouldn't. So I helped him drag your sorry ass into the back of the truck and drove him back to the church to give that priest a piece of my mind." Nick nodded; on some level the scavenger was sure he was supposed to be mad that Jessica wanted to leave him behind but Nick knew that if he had been in her shoes he would have done the exact same thing. "When we got you to the church I was sure you were meat but somehow that crazy priest brought you back." The woman looked over at Nick, "Personally I don't see what all the fuss was about." Nick smiled sweetly and the rest of the ride was spent in silence.
Jessica drove them up Roosevelt until they reached the lake then turned onto Lakeshore heading south. They passed within sight of The Sanctuary and Nick got a twinge in his stomach wondering what how Kate would react to the loss of his eye, he hadn't seen her since he left her in Two-Spirits' care months ago but he had checked up on her a few times. Apparently the young shaman's training was going well and she was happy in her new home, or at least as happy as anyone in the Zone could really be. As Nick watched the Sanctuary disappear in the rear view mirror he wondered if he should actually check in on Kate in person, would she be happy to see him or would he just be another reminder that her father was dead. Shaking his head Nick decided he had enough problems of his own right now, if he managed to make it through the winter he would pay her a visit in the spring.
Jessica continued down Lakeshore until they reached Jackson Park. As they crossed into the park Nick could feel the difference, the sounds around him became slightly distorted and he could feel an odd prickling on his skin that he had only felt once before. Nick turned his head from side to side as he scanned the area, though he couldn't see anyone the scavenger was sure that someone was watching the truck as it entered the park. Jessica seemed completely at ease which only confirmed to Nick that someone was watching them. Jessica drove the truck through the park past the bowling green and up to a small bridge onto an area of the park known as Wooded Island. Jessica pulled the truck into the parking lot and got out setting off immediately for the bridge and leaving Nick scrambling to keep up.
Jessica set a brisk pace as she led Nick over the bridge and down an asphalt path to the Osaka Gardens. Nick struggled to keep up, and ended up stumbling over half exposed roots and other minor topography that had never presented a problem before. Jessica was forced to slow down and at one point even stop as Nick tripped and fell. Impatience radiated from the woman as she helped Nick to his feet and in the end she held Nick's arm and walked him down the path. At the entrance to the gardens Jessica abruptly stopped and bowed then set out again pulling a puzzled Nick along in her wake. Jessica led Nick through the gardens to a small pond with yet another bridge crossing it then she slowed and turned to Nick, "You wait here until you are summoned." Without further instruction she walked over the bridge towards a figure seated under a nearby tree. The figure was seated with his back to the tree facing away from Nick and the scavenger could hear a deep voice chanting in some foreign language. Jessica paused a few meters from the seated figure and waited. Whether he had sensed her presence or merely finished what he was doing, the figure stood, turned, and bowed to Jessica who returned the bow before launching into a heated exchange with the man in a language that sounded Asian to Nick. Or rather Jessica was heated, the man simply stood there and smiled as Jessica chattered away indicating Nick with her hands and giving the scavenger the distinct impression that she would love to see him turned away. Catching sight of Nick the man held up a hand and spoke with a surprisingly unaccented voice, "Please Jessica, we are being quite rude to our guest. Welcome Mr. Muldoon, please join us. I must say that Father O'Malley speaks quite highly of you." The comment surprised Nick but he kept his opinion to himself as he walked unsteadily across the bridge to join them. Along the way Nick studied the man.
He was short; about the same size as Richard but where the teen had been lanky the man before him had the smooth musculature of a lifelong athlete. His age was impossible for Nick to guess but his hair was grey though still showing a few hints of the black it had once been. He had predominant Asian features but his eyes were crystal blue. His face was wrinkled but no more so than could be expected of a man in his late forties. He was dressed in loose fitting black clothing that looked a great deal like the ones Jessica was wearing but whereas she had no jewelry the Asian wore a beaded necklace that Nick was fairly certain belonged to the Buddhist faith. "You must be Tagashi." Nick said offering his hand. Tagashi's grip was firm and his hands were calloused, "I am. I understand you are looking for a teacher."
"I guess so. Father O'Malley thought you might be able to help me with this." Nick tapped the bandage over his left eye. Tagashi nodded and studied Nick in a way that reminded him of how Two Spirits had studied him. Once again Nick got the feeling that someone was looking into his very soul, and once again Nick didn't really care. Nick stood in silence as the Asian sized him up, the scavenger imagined that Tagashi was trying to get a rise out of him but he had always been a patient man. Besides at least here he was pretty sure that nothing was going to eat him unlike when he was scavenging in the Zone where Nick would often lie silently for hours to make sure an area was safe before entering. After a full two minutes Tagashi announced, "I can teach you, but can you learn?"
Great! What is it with these mystic types that everything has to be a riddle? "Look, all I want is to figure out a way to deal with this." Nick said as he once again tapped his bandaged eye. "Until I can get it replaced, if you can teach me that then I can learn." Tagashi looked saddened by Nick's words and the scavenger thought for a moment that the Asian would turn him away but instead he placed his hands together in front of him almost like he was praying and bowed. "Then I welcome you as my student. Jessica will show you to your lodgings and we will speak again once you are settled in." Nick got some small amusement in the look of disbelief on Jessica's face, it was obvious that the woman expected Tagashi to turn him away as well, but surprisingly she didn't argue. Jessica turned to Nick and spat, "Come on." Jessica took Nick's arm once again and her grip was like an iron vice. Jessica practically drug Nick back to the truck and then drove them to the Museum of Science and Industry, fuming the entire way.
Jessica parked the truck in front of the Henry Crown Space Center, Nick noticed that the parking lot was full of dozens of cars and the scavenger wondered exactly how many people lived in Little Earth. Jessica led him around to the main building and through the main entrance then she turned to Nick and said, "This is where most of us live. We all try to get together for meals three times a day. The menu is simple, take it or leave it. You'll need to find bedding yourself though someone here might have some extra you can trade for. You're welcome to purchase anything you can afford from the market run outta the Space center but don't expect a discount; everyone here is tryin to make ends meat just like you." Jessica started to leave but paused and turned, "This is where I live scavenger, these people are my friends. If you start any trouble you'll have to deal with me. So Ka?" Nick nodded, the woman held his gaze for a few moments and then Jessica turned and made her way up the stairs to the museum proper. Nick stood in silence staring at the escalators that would take him to the upper floors of the museum as a myriad of thoughts and emotions vied for his attention. After a few moments the scavenger slowly climbed the stairs and set out to find a place to sleep.
08:04 November 8, 2055 – Little Earth, Chicago Containment Zone
A light snow fell as Nick labored to unload the supplies that had just arrived from the latest UCAS air drop. Tony, an enormous troll shaman, worked alongside the scavenger as Nick did his best to unload the crates of foodstuffs, blankets, clothing and insect repellent that that UCAS government had dropped from a cargo plane earlier that morning. Nick stumbled as he tripped over the small curb leading up from the parking lot. The scavenger failed to regain his balance and went down on all fours on the concrete, scraping both his hands and spilling canned goods all over the sidewalk. "God damnit!" Nick swore as he pushed himself up from the concrete and inspected his bloodied hands.
Tony set down the boxes he was carrying and took a look at Nick's hands. Tony was a Dog shaman that had been living in Little Earth for years before the walls went up. Before the CZ Tony had worked with at risk youth trying to keep them in school and off the streets, now he was the leader of the Hyde Park Stompers, a group of Earthlings who struck back at the Bugs in the Zone. Tony and his Stompers also handled supply runs for the Earthlings and for some reason he had taken a liking to Nick. Tony often paid the scavenger to help unload supplies when he and his team returned to the museum.
"Don't be such a baby." The troll said as he dropped the scavenger's hands. Nick sighed, "I'm not hurt…I'm mad. I'm so fucking tired of falling all the time! I came here to find someone to help me with this." Nick flicked the leather patch that covered his left eye. "And so far all Tagashi has taught me is how to sit on my ass and chant Sanskrit! I'm tellin ya Tony…I'm about to lose it man." Nick took a deep breath to calm himself and Tony smiled, "Nothin worth doin was ever easy chummer. Tagashi's a good man and one of the leading experts in physical adepts in Chicago. He's trained dozens of adepts in his time, if anyone can help you it's him." The shaman clapped Nick on the back nearly knocking the wind out of him, "Buck up chummer, it'll all work out. Now pick up all these cans you dropped an get that food inside, I ain't payin you to stand around." Nick chuckled and shook his head.
An hour later Nick had finished unloading the supplies and collected his meager earnings from Tony; twenty-five nuyen wasn't much but Nick didn't do it for the money. At Tagashi's urging Nick had been trying to engage in as much physical activity as possible, varying the types of hand eye coordination needed for each task. So far Nick had been frustrated with the results but Tagashi had urged him to be patient saying, "Even the smallest flame can boil water if given time." Nick made his way to the room that used to be the Group Center but now served as living space for four separate families and one currently very grouchy scavenger. Nick's 'room' such as it was; was a six meter square area cordoned off by office partitions that stood only a few meters high. While the 'walls' provided a sense of privacy they did little to block noise as Nick was painfully aware of each night as he tried to block out the sounds of his neighbors so he could sleep. The room did have a door with a lock on it but Nick didn't have the key and any determined thief would be able to force the door open anyway. Not that Nick had anything to steal, or that any of the Earthlings would stoop to stealing from one another in the first place.
The residents of Little Earth were almost exclusively awakened; in fact the only Earthlings that were mundane were the occasional spouse or child of an awakened. Since most everyone was magically active there was a strange unspoken bond among them that seemed to keep everyone honest. That's not to say that everyone got along, far from it. As the saying goes ask two magicians about magic and you'll get six different answers. Every day Nick was besieged by the constant philosophical discourse, respectful disagreement and flat out bickering that filled the halls of the Museum. Luckily Nick was able to establish early on that he had no background or interest in metaphysics so the Earthlings mostly ignored him when they were discussing the "deeper mysteries".
As Nick approached the door to his room he saw a folded piece of paper sticking out of the doorjamb. Nick pulled the paper free and unfolded it; the message was simple as the scavenger knew it would be, "Osaka - 11:00" It seems that Sifu Tagashi had found a little time for his newest student. Nick put the paper in his pocket and opened the door to his lodgings. Habit held Nick in the doorway while he scanned his small room to make sure no one had disturbed his carefully arranged tells. The pile of clothing was exactly as he had left it in front of his bed, the seemingly random dishes on top of his trunk were undisturbed, and the precariously balanced notebook was right where he had left it on the top bunk. Feeling confident that no one had entered his room while he was gone, Nick stepped in and closed the door behind him. Nick pulled his bunk bed out from the wall slightly and removed the cover to a hollowed out compartment he had carved into the wood. Inside was a roll of bills that was getting smaller far faster than the scavenger liked, adding his meager wage from the morning to his cache Nick replaced the false front and moved the bed back into place.
Next Nick opened the cheap trunk that had come with the room and pulled out the clothing inside so he could reach the bottom. Pulling up the false bottom, Nick pulled out his battered pocket secretary so he could check the local BBS for news. Even though Nick was currently sidelined he liked to keep up with events in the Zone, especially jobs for scavengers. Nick plugged the secretary up to a jury-rigged jackpoint hanging from a wire that passed along the 'ceiling' of his residence. One of Tony's Stompers had rigged matrix access for everyone in the Museum and though the all shared the same line it seemed to work out fine. It was raw feed, absolutely no simsense but again that was just fine with the awakened populous of Little Earth, magic and the Matrix doesn't mix well. Nick scanned the BBS for about a half an hour, occasionally lamenting as a particularly good salvage job was picked up by someone else, then he disconnected the pocket secretary and returned it to its hiding place under the false floor of the trunk. As Nick returned the clothing to the trunk the scavenger wondered if he was being overly paranoid. The Earthlings had been very welcoming and Nick had never once felt threatened by any of them. Still habits, even new ones, die hard and Nick hadn't survived this long in the Zone by taking unnecessary risks.
Nick's watch read 09:48 so having nothing better to do the scavenger changed clothes into the black sweat suit that Tagashi had provided for him and set off for Osaka Gardens. The air was pleasantly crisp as Nick exited the Museum and the sky was a deep blue, the brief snow flurry had passed and though there was obviously a wind at higher altitudes, for once the Windy City didn't live up to its name. The Gardens weren't far from the Museum and Nick had over an hour to get there so the scavenger set a very leisurely pace through the park. As he walked, Nick marveled at how peaceful everything seemed. The scavenger knew that it was just an illusion, at any minute the peace could be shattered in any number of ways; but for right now Nick tried to enjoy the moment.
Mindfulness Tagashi called it, paying attention to where you were and what you were doing to paraphrase a lovable green puppet from the last century. It was a core teaching of Buddhism as well as numerous self-help programs and psychological treatments. The idea was simple, focus on what was happening right now and think about how each of your actions will affect the world around you. Of course like everything that seems simple it was almost impossible. The human mind is like a little yappy dog on speed, thoughts jump from where you are and what you are doing to a song you heard on the radio to your first high school crush to what you plan to eat for dinner that night all in the space of ten seconds. Tagashi had been teaching Nick a simple Buddhist meditation where the scavenger would concentrate on only his breathing for five minutes and thus far Nick was lucky if he could keep his thoughts focused for forty-five seconds. Still Nick had to admit; even though he had a long way to go a week ago the scavenger never would have taken the time to just enjoy this moment of peace. Maybe there was something to this Mindfulness thing after all.
Nick entered the Gardens and found Tagashi meditating in his usual spot under a tree on a small island in a little decretive pond that fed off the East Lagoon. This was unsurprising, what was surprising however was the fact that Jessica was meditating with him. Nick hadn't spoken to Jessica since she dropped him at the foot of the stair in the Museum and though the scavenger had become quite active in the daily routines of Little Earth he and the woman had managed not to cross paths. Nick suspected that it might not be merely coincidence that he and Jessica had not crossed paths over the last few days, the woman certainly didn't seem to care much for him and the scavenger got the sense that she would be much happier once he was gone. Nick took a deep breath and braced himself before walking over to the tree.
As Nick approached Tagashi finished his chanting and rang a small bell that was arranged on the portable alter before him. The alter held the bell, an incense burner and a small scroll of paper with Sanskrit characters written on it. Tagashi had once explained the significance of the three items but Nick couldn't remember what it was, something to do with the three jewels of the Buddhist faith or some such. As Tagashi struck the bell again he said, "Any merit I may have gained by the chanting of these mantras I give freely to all who suffer in the six worlds." Opening his hands, which were wrapped in his prayer beads, Tagashi extended them outwards as though he were giving the universe a gift; which to his mind he was. Tagashi wrapped the beads around his left wrist and smiled at Nick, "Welcome Nick, I'm glad you were able to join us today." Nick bowed to Tagashi as he had been taught to do and looked over at Jessica who was still chanting, "I take it she's not just here to watch."
"Very astute of you." Tagashi said as he led Nick to a clearing nearby. "I've spent the last few days observing you in an attempt to understand how you use your magic." Nick frowned in confusion and the Asian chuckled, "Each Awakened uses their magic in a unique way, even magicians of the same tradition often have display subtle differences in the way that they shape mana. With adepts it is often even more diverse. There are a few established paths but for the most part each adept naturally channels their magic based upon their personality and often their martial training."
"I don't have any martial arts training." Nick blurted out. Tagashi nodded, "That's true, but I've been thinking about the story you told me about the Roach in the girl's bedroom. That was the first time you noticed your enhanced senses correct?" Nick's jaw tightened instinctually but he nodded. Tagashi continued, "I believe that it was the presence of real danger that brought you to a state where you recognized what you have subconsciously always perceived. I had hoped that through meditation you could train your mind and thus gain greater access to your power, but I am afraid that will take many years before you see results." The sound of Jessica's bell announced that she was done with her meditation; Tagashi looked over at her, "Jessica had another idea and she has offered to help me with your training." Jessica set off down the path toward the bridge without a word; Nick looked to Tagashi who merely indicated the path, "Shall we?" Nick shrugged and followed.
Tagashi continued, "As I said I have been trying to decide what would be the best way to train you and I think I have come up with a solution. It is impossible for me to know for certain, but from viewing your aura I believe that you have not yet harnessed your current magical potential. This is good because it means that you can tap the unused magic inside you to overcome the limits of your monocular vision." Nick nodded. "From your accounts you have developed your abilities by participating in very stressful events where your survival instinct took over and you tapped into your magical potential. I propose that we simulate several stressful events where your monocular vision is a weakness and your survival instincts will take over and tap into your currently unused magic." Nick had a bad feeling he knew the answer but he asked, "And how do you plan to do that?" Tagashi smiled as the two turned a bend in the road and found Jessica standing in a clearing holding two bamboo practice swords, "By letting Jessica beat the shit out of you."
15:37 November 27, 2055 – Little Earth, Chicago Containment Zone
Nick's heart beat fast and sweat stung his good eye as he ran the Gauntlet one last time before calling it a day. The Gauntlet was the final stage of Tagashi's training; a three kilometer obstacle course set up on Wooded Island and designed to force the scavenger to overcome his monocular vision while taxing him physically as well. The scavenger's first time had been twenty-five minutes, but after three days Nick had gotten that time down to around seventeen minutes. As Nick approached the last obstacle, two padded poles set across the path at an odd angle, he put on a burst of speed. Pivoting as his left foot hit the ground, the scavenger rotated his body a full three hundred and sixty degrees, spinning through the obstacle without breaking his stride. Nick's newly enhanced sense of spatial awareness allowed him to 'feel' the area in close proximity to him, thus overcoming the need for binocular vision. As an added bonus his new sense gave the scavenger eyes in the back of his head, allowing Nick to feel people standing up to a meter behind him. Nick now had total spatial awareness of anything within arm's length of his body.
As Nick crossed the finish line he slapped the stopwatch on his wrist to stop the count. Skidding to a halt Nick bent over at the waist with his hands on his knees and gulped in air for a few seconds. Slowly Nick straightened and looked at his stopwatch…fifteen minutes and fifty-seven seconds! "Yes!" Nick shouted and punched the air. Nick grabbed his empty water bottle and draped a towel over his head; under sixteen minutes, that should impress even Jessica. Over the last few days of training some of the friction between the two of them had disappeared, probably due to the fact that Jessica's main function in his early training was sneaking up from Nick's blind side and bashing him over the head with a stick. They were far from friends but Nick seemed to have earned a begrudging respect from Jessica, especially now that she wasn't able to trounce him quite so easily in their sparring matches.
Nick set out for Osaka Gardens where he was to meet with Tagashi and together return to the Museum for dinner. Nick was feeling three meters tall and bulletproof after his last run through the Gauntlet so when the scavenger saw Jessica and Tagashi talking together under the meditation tree he actually relished the idea of a sparring match with the woman. Not that Nick stood much of a chance really; Jessica had honed her martial arts skills to the point where no one else in Little Earth could match her. The speed at which Jessica moved made Nick's cybernetically modified mentor Henricht look like a geriatric turtle. Nick had once seen Jessica hit a sparring partner ten times in the space of a second, her arms moving so quickly that they were only a blur of motion. The only thing that gave Nick a fighting chance when he was sparring with her was that he could sense her attacks before she moved, but even though he knew the attack was coming he could rarely avoid it. A few steps closer and Nick's excitement began to fade. It was obvious by her stance that Jessica was in a foul mood and though he did not do so consciously, Nick's hearing enhanced enough for him to pick up the conversation.
"Rumor has it that another three people have gone missing in the area." Jessica's voice was hard, almost accusatory. "We don't know for certain that the Foul One is responsible." Tagashi replied in a voice Nick had heard him use many times when attempting to calm a situation. "I do." The woman said holding Tagashi's gaze in an almost challenging manner. After a few moments Tagashi sighed and looked away, catching sight of Nick for the first time. A strange almost calculating look crossed the Asian's face as he waved Nick over, "Nick…finished already? I apologize; I must have lost track of the time. Please join us." Jessica looked over and frowned slightly but unlike the past she didn't walk away, Nick wasn't sure if that meant that he had finally earned the woman's respect or that she wasn't done arguing with Tagashi. Probably the latter Nick thought as the woman tore into Tagashi again, "While we waste time he gets stronger, we need to attack." Tagashi sighed wearily, "You know that isn't my decision Jessica." The woman snorted and walked away.
"What was that all about?" Nick asked. Tagashi turned to regard Nick; once again a calculating look crossed his face, "Jessica believes that a great evil has taken up residence in the Calumet Dump. Tony and his Stompers have investigated and found the entire area to be a toxic swamp patrolled by a gang calling themselves the Swamp Things." Nick rubbed his jaw, "Never heard of em." Tagashi nodded, "No one has, but rumors of disappearances around the dump have put everyone in Little Earth on edge." Nick shrugged, "Disappearances aren't that uncommon in the Zone, what makes this so different?" Tagashi seemed to choose his words carefully, "Jessica suspects that the disappearances are the work of The Foul One. If she is right then we could all be in very grave danger." Nick frowned skeptically, "No offense, but this is the Containment Zone. We're surrounded by Bugs, ghouls, wannabe Warlords and god knows what else. How is the Foul One gonna make it any worse?"
Tagashi indicated the path that Jessica had taken and the two men set out after her. As they walked Tagashi continued, "The Foul One is most likely the last remaining insect shaman alive in the Zone. We thought he died not long after the walls went up but it looks like we were wrong." Nick nodded, "Okay, so he's a powerful shaman I get that. But why are you so worried about one shaman?" Tagashi chuckled, "Sometimes I forget that your new to all this. Insect shamans are not the same as traditional shamans; or rather insect spirits are not the same as traditional spirits. Most spirits can only manifest in the physical world for a limited amount of time but insect shaman found a way around that limitation. Working in conjunction with a Queen Spirit the shaman is able to implant an insect spirit directly into a host. Once the spirit matures it consumes the host's energy and the result is the Flesh Forms and True Forms that now roam the Zone. These manifest spirits have very little free will of their own, unlike more traditional spirits, and they need a Queen or a Shaman to guide them." Nick held up his hand, "So what you're saying is we got all these manifest spirits running around the Zone with no Queens or Shaman to guide them, up pops The Foul One and bingo we got an instant insect army." Tagashi nodded grimly, "That is our fear." Nick nodded slowly in understanding but narrowed his gaze and said, "Yeah…but there's something you're not telling me."
Tagashi smiled, "Very good…very perceptive. Yes there is something else. The Foul One used to be one of us, a resident of Little Earth. He lived among us for years and many people considered him a friend. Then a few days before the Zone was established Jessica discovered what he truly was and he fled. We thought he died in the early days but it appears that we were wrong." Nick nodded, "And that's where I come in. He knows all of you so no one will be able to get close enough to I.D. him, but since he's never met me I can get in, find out what's goin on and get out; right?" Tagashi nodded, "If you're willing."
Again Nick rubbed his chin. It would be dangerous, but not significantly more dangerous than any other job he'd taken. The dump was an unknown area for him but in some ways that only excited Nick more, it would be one more piece of the Zone that he had scavenged. Nick had never tangled with a shaman before and that did worry him but when it came right down to it the scavenger felt he owed it to Tagashi to try. Tagashi had taken Nick in and helped him asking for nothing in return, now Nick had a chance to pay Tagashi back. Still it couldn't hurt to negotiate terms.
"I'll need a new bow, and I got some ideas on how I can treat my arrows to be more efficient against True Forms. I'll need a pistol too, preferably something with an extended clip. If you can get me that then…yeah I'm willing." Tagashi smiled and offered his hand, "Deal." The two shook and Nick said, "I need to know a bit more about the area before I go in so I'll need to scout it out a bit first, maybe talk to the Stompers as well. Once you get my gear lined up just have someone deliver it to my room in the Museum. I'm gonna track down Tony and see what he can tell me about the area around the swamp." Tagashi nodded and he and Nick parted ways. The scavenger was starting to feel like his old self again, it had taken him almost a month to recover but finally Nick Muldoon was back!
19:10 November 29, 2055 – Little Earth, Chicago Containment Zone
"I'll pick up their patrol here." Nick tapped a section of the battered street map that lay on top of the trunk he had used to store his clothes. The scavenger had spent most of the day scouting out the area of the Zone that had been claimed by the Swamp Things and now he and Tony were in his room at the Museum discussing the best point of entry into Swamp Thing territory. Nick had chosen to cross over Torrence Ave on 106th and hide himself in the Trumbull Park neighborhood until he spotted a patrol; then shadow them until they led him to the hive, if one existed at all.
Tony leaned over the map and nodded his approval, "Yeah that looks good. That far into their turf they should let their guard down some." Nick studied the map in silence committing it to memory before he folded it up and stowed it in his hardpack. Nick turned to his bunk and picked up his new bow lovingly, "I gotta hand it to ya Tony, this is a thing of beauty." The scavenger pulled the string of the Ranger X hunting bow back to his chin and nodded approvingly. The troll chuckled, "You sure you can still hit anything there Cyclops?" Nick laughed, "I could barely hit anything before, can't see how losin' my eye could make it much worse. Besides, that's what these babies are for." Nick lifted one of his homemade arrows off the bench and waved it at the Dog Shaman. Tony looked skeptically at the arrow, "A deflated balloon on the end of a stick is your secret weapon?"
"Exactly!" Nick answered. The scavenger had spent several hours that morning working on his new arrows. Nick filled balloons with gel insecticide then carefully slid the balloon over the end of an arrow with a target tip on it and wrapped the whole thing with airplane tape. In theory when the arrow struck a Bug the force of the impact would cause the tip to rip through the balloon spilling the insecticide on the target. So Nick didn't have to hit the Bug in a vital spot just hit it hard enough to pierce the exoskeleton and let the poison do its work.
Tony laughed and pulled a holstered pistol out of his jacket pocket, "Gotcha this too, Fichetti 500a with extended magazine complete with a double retention holster…the rent-a-cop special." Nick took the offered weapon and threaded his belt through the holster's grooves positioning it on his right hip. The scavenger took a few minutes to adjust the position of the holster so that he could easily draw the pistol as well as his Fineblade which took up its usual spot behind his back then shouldered his pack and offered Tony his hand. The troll encased Nick's hand in his own, "All we need are a few good shots of the man in charge. That camera has a decent zoom but your still gonna have to get close." Nick nodded, "Got it."
Troll and human left the room and made their way through the Museum. Nick caught snippets of hushed conversations from the people around him; everyone knew where he was going and why he was going there. The two made it to the main entrance and that was where Tony left, peeling away and heading to the Space center and the market inside and Nick pushed his way out the doors to the snow covered parking lot. Winter was in full effect in Chicago and the landscape was dusted with five or so centimeters of snow. Nick zipped up his battered bomber jacket and started walking, half way through the parking lot he noticed a figure leaning up against a truck dressed in a green army jacket, thick looking jeans and hiking boots. As the figure pushed itself off the truck and started walking towards Nick he was surprised to see that it was Jessica.
"I'm pretty sure you're not here to wish me luck" Nick said as Jessica fell in step beside him. "I'm coming with you." Jessica replied in a matter-of-fact tone. Nick looked the woman over for a second, "Don't suppose I can talk you out of this." Jessica's jaw tightened, "This job is too important to leave to an outsider." Nick thought about arguing; Jessica possessed inhuman combat skills but when it came to stealth she was no more gifted than anyone else and this was definitely a scouting mission. One look in Jessica's eyes however and the scavenger knew that nothing he said would make a difference. "All right then, we're heading for a deserted home at the end of Calhoun Avenue." Nick set a brisk pace and soon he and Jessica were clear of the park and making good time down Jeffery Boulevard towards 106th.
One of the things that Nick liked the best about Jessica was that she did not feel the need to pass the time with idle chatter; the two walked in silence for hours before Nick spotted the abandoned building he had chosen as his hidey hole. The scavenger pointed the building out to Jessica but shook his head when she turned toward it, jerking his head to the left he led her on a surreptitious route around the building for a few minutes as he checked to make sure it was still uninhabited. Finally when he was satisfied, Nick led Jessica into the building through a hole in the back wall he had discovered during his initial scouting of the location. The inside of the abandoned house was in shambles and had been looted long ago, but the large street front windows made it the perfect place to observe the street without being seen.
Nick sat his hardpack on the ground and began unloading his overnight supplies, "The only securable area in the building is an upstairs bathroom. I hadn't planned on company so we'll just have to make due. We eat downstairs and stow the garbage up the street a ways." Jessica nodded absently as she pulled a MRE out of her pack and pulled the plastic outer container open. As Nick pulled open his own container he asked the question that had been eating away at him, "So, you wanna tell me why you're really here?" Emotion registered on Jessica's face but Nick couldn't tell if it was surprise or annoyance, "I told you, this mission is too important to be left to an outsider." Nick snorted, "If that were it then Tony would be coming with me, try again." This time Nick was sure it was annoyance, "It's personal." Nick's gaze narrowed, "Yeah I figured that. What I want to know is why I shouldn't just sneak off in the middle of the night and leave you here." Jessica growled, "You wouldn't dare." The two locked eyes but for the first time Nick didn't back down, "Try me…" The scavenger was in his element and Jessica knew it; eventually she relented, "He tried to implant my brother."
"The Foul One?" Nick asked, though it couldn't have been anyone else. Jessica nodded, "Of course we didn't call him that at the time. His name was Bennett Johnson but we all called him Bennie. Everyone knew him though no one really knew him well; we've always been a pretty close knit group in Little Earth. I remember he would walk his dog every morning and he was always smiling and greeting everyone by name. It was only me and Richard since our dad died and I had to work two jobs just to keep a roof over our head. Richard was failing chemistry and Bennie offered to tutor him. Bennie was a chemistry professor at the college so I didn't really think anything of it." Jessica gave a little laugh, "Stupid me." Jessica started to pace, "One day I got cut early from a shift at the Slaughterhouse so I rushed home hoping I could take Richard to a movie or something, but when I got home I found a note from Richard saying that he was at Bennie's for tutoring. So I walked to Bennie's place and knocked on the door. No one answered. I knocked again, even rang the bell but still no answer. I could tell that something was wrong so I kicked in the door. There was no one in the living room but I heard noises from the cellar."
Jessica stopped and looked at Nick; her face was hard and her eyes were hollow, "Have you ever seen an implanting ritual?" The scavenger shook his head and Jessica turned away, "As I pushed through the half-closed door to the cellar a smell like yeasty bread hit me, almost made me gag. The walls were damp and almost squishy like the bowls of a living thing. As I snuck down the stairs I could hear chanting, but in a language I did not recognize. I turned the corner to find Richard lying naked on a strange stone alter with Bennie standing over him chanting. I ran forward and two Roach spirits appeared out of nowhere. As we fought Bennie continued to chant and soon I could see some sort of glowing egg appear in his hands. He lowered his hands towards Richard and I tackled him. We skidded across the floor and I slammed him with my forearm, he was out but the Roaches were still there and Richard was helpless. I scooped up my brother and ran."
"August twenty third?" Nick guessed. Jessica nodded, "August twenty third, the day everything went to shit. We tried calling Eagle when we got back to the house but they were swamped, so I took Richard and we ran. We met up with Sifu Tagashi and the rest and we fled to the park. After a while we met Father O'Malley and he agreed to watch over Richard at the church. Richard didn't want to go but he's safer there." Nick frowned, "How is he safer at the church then surrounded by all the magically active of Little Earth?"
"Because the Earthlings are fighting back." Jessica said with pride. "We're not hiding away hoping someone will save us, we are fighting the Bugs with everything we've got. And eventually our enemy will find us and when they do I want Richard as far away as possible. Bennie chose him for a reason and I don't want to find out what the reason was. At least at the church he is hidden; Father O'Malley isn't interested in fighting only protecting his flock, and he has the mojo and the spirits to do it." Nick nodded, "So that's why you were so pissed when he went scavenging. You figure the only place he's safe is at the church." Jessica started to speak but Nick waved her off, "No I get, you want to keep your brother safe. Believe me I understand, but this right here; this is exactly why Tagashi sent me to do this and not you."
"You're too emotionally involved. If it does turn out that The Foul One is Bennie are you really gonna be able to just take a few pictures and report back? Or are you gonna charge in fists flyin and attack?" Jessica grit her teeth, "I can get the job done." Nick snorted, "Yeah…bullshit. You couldn't walk away from a fight with him if you wanted to. The guy that tried to turn your brother into a Bug? You wanted to kill me just for takin your brother on a little salvage job, no way you walk away from a chance to kill Bennie." Jessica's cheeks began to redden and she settled into a fighting stance, "You can't stop me." Nick shrugged, "You're right I can't. But I'm sure as hell not gonna help you throw your life away on a suicide run." Jessica snarled, "So what then you just expect me to walk away? Leave this to you? He tried to turn my brother into a host for spirits only know what kind of monster and I'm supposed to do nothing?"
"And what happens if you do attack him?" Nick fired back, "In his lair, with shit for intel on how many Bugs he has workin for him or even how much firepower his gang has. What then huh? Your dead that's what. What happens to Richard then? Who gets to tell him that his sister is dead because she was a dumb ass? Not me that's for damn sure, you hose this job I'm in the wind. I'm not dying for you or anyone." Jessica sneered, "I never expected you to. It's obvious you're no hero." Nick laughed, "Hero? Lady take a look around you. This aint no place for a hero. This is the Containment Zone not some fantasy trid and none of us are White Knights riding in to save the day. We all do what we have to to survive and hope that someone on the outside is gonna figure out a way to fix all this."
Now it was Jessica's turn to laugh, "Someone on the outside? Who's living in a fantasy world now Nick? No one out there give's a shit about us! The only way this is gonna get fixed is if we fix it ourselves. That's why the Stompers go out hunting…that's why the Earthlings set up shop offering magical protection and aid…that's why I'm here now. If we don't stop The Foul One who will? Who can? And if The Foul One or any shaman gets control of the Bugs in the Zone they could threaten everyone not just the Zoners." Nick threw up his hands in exasperation, "Oh my god would you listen to yourself? 'We're the only ones who can stop this menace.' I mean really…you sound like a comic book character. You know what…fine! You wanna throw your life away goin to war with the Bugs that's your choice but don't drag me into it. I got one job to do, take pictures of this guy and bring them back to Tony. After that's done you can feel free to kick in his door and go out in a blaze of glory but until I get those photos you follow my lead understood?"
"Who do you…?" Jessica started but Nick jabbed his finger at her. "NO! No arguing…you either do things my way or get the fuck outta here you understand?!" Color creeped up Jessica's face and Nick was certain he had pushed it too far. The scavenger adjusted his stance slightly preparing for the inevitable thrashing he was about to receive but to his surprise Jessica just spat, "Fine! You're in charge." Without another word Jessica scooped up her MRE and began shoveling the food into her mouth. Nick sat down in a corner and began to eat himself and the rest of the night was spent in uncomfortable silence.
14:25 November 30, 2055 – Calumet Swamp, Chicago Containment Zone
Nick help up his left hand calling for Jessica to stop and motioned her over to the burnt out husk of a towncar half submerged in the muck and refuse that made up the Calumet Swamp. Nick wasn't sure how it happened, but somehow the Calumet Dump had flooded and leaked out into the surrounding area and now a fifty square block area of the Containment Zone had been turned into a disgusting mixture of garbage, toxic chemicals and water from Lake Michigan. As Nick joined Jessica behind the towncar he pointed off to the left and whispered, "Another patrol, four men with rifles." That was the third patrol the two had encountered since entering the swamp earlier that afternoon, and while they had proven easy enough to avoid the deeper they went into the swamp the more Nick's feeling of apprehension grew. It wasn't danger exactly, but Nick's magically enhanced senses were on edge; something was definitely not right about this swamp and the sooner the scavenger could get what he came for and get out the better he would feel.
Jessica poked her head around the car and spotted the group, "They seem to be heading in the same direction as the others; we must be getting close." Nick nodded. The two waited a full minute to let the patrol move out of sight then set out toward the ruins of the old dump. Picking their way through the swamp was slow going and their forward progress was further impeded by the need to stop ever fifteen minutes or so to duck out of sight of a wandering patrol. So by the time Nick and Jessica made it to the outer retaining wall of the old dump the sun was starting to sink on the horizon. Cold water sloshed into his boot as Nick hunkered down in the half flooded remains of a gatehouse on the main road that led into the dump. Jessica quietly shut the door behind her and took up a position where she could watch the outside through the windows, "Not much time left until sunset." Nick nodded, "Yeah. This camera has a flash but I really don't want to use it. We need to move faster." Jessica nodded. Nick knew what needed to be done but it surprised him that Jessica suggested it first, "You need to go on without me." Again Nick nodded, "Hang tight. If I'm not back in an hour leave without me." A look crossed Jessica's face briefly that Nick couldn't read but she didn't argue she just nodded. The scavenger slipped out the door and into the old dump.
The general feeling of unease that had been plaguing Nick as he slogged through the swamp outside intensified as soon as he crossed the threshold into the dump. Along with the feeling of dread came the familiar tightness in Nick's chest that signaled danger. Nick opened up his senses and a flood of scents and sounds nearly overwhelmed him. The rancid scent of the dump caused the scavenger to gag and he had to blunt his sense of smell or risk losing his lunch. After a moment Nick adjusted to the new sensory input and set out slowly to find the source of all the guard patrols.
Like all dumps, Calumet was little more than huge piles of garbage with various cranes for transporting the refuse from the trucks that haul it to the piles of slowly decomposing matter scattered around the walled structure. At some point in the mid-forties some politician had decided to implement a 'Green Initiative' and built a multi-level processing plant in the heart of the dump to separate the trash into recyclables, biodegradable material, potentially toxic material like battery acid and everything else. Given that it was the only structure still standing Nick assumed that was the Swamp Things' base of operations.
As Nick slowly picked his way through the mounds of trash he started to detect the sounds of a large group of people nearby. Using the sound as a guide Nick struggled his way through the rotting piles of garbage until he came to the recycling center. Taking a position mid way up a massive pile trash the scavenger fished out the camera and zoomed in on the activity taking place inside the center. The recycling center itself seemed to have weathered the flooding quite well and though the bottom floor had never been cleaned up, the upper floors appeared to have been converted into living space. A gigantic conveyer belt led into the ground floor of the building and where once piles of trash would have rolled in for processing, it now appeared to be used as some sort of gathering area for the gang complete with battered couches and burn barrels.
As Nick scanned the area with the camera he picked out over twenty gangers scattered around the outside of the recycling center clustered in little groups. As the scavenger began planning a way to get a better look at the inside of the building, a commotion at the far end of the conveyor belt caught his attention. Nick zoomed the camera in and saw one of the patrols he had encountered earlier that day leading a girl in her late teens or early twenties into the yard. The girl was dressed in ragged mix-matched clothing and her hands were tied together in front of her. One of the gangers from the patrol, a morbidly obese human with a shiny bald head held a rope that was attached to the girl's bound wrists.
The girl struggled and pulled at the rope, for all the good it did her, and eventually the ganger pulled hard on the leash yanking the girl forward and causing her to lose her balance and fall. Laughter erupted as the girl scrambled to her feet and a crowd began to form around her. Nick clenched his jaw in anticipation of what would come next. But the laughter stopped immediately as a voice barked an order that Nick couldn't quite make out. The crowd backed away from the girl as every ganger turned to look at the recycling center. Nick turned as well and zoomed the camera in on the slightly past his prime man in the tweed jacket that stepped out onto the conveyor belt.
The Foul One.
He had never seen him before, but Nick was certain. Something about the man bespoke corruption and rot. Maybe it was his newly awakened senses, or maybe it was something anyone could feel, but Nick knew without a shadow of a doubt that the man walking briskly down the conveyor belt towards the crowd was the one he had been sent here to find. Immediately the scavenger began taking pictures, trying to get as clear a view of the man's face as possible. He was probably in his mid to late forties, and he wore a tweed sport coat with patches at the elbow that remained untouched by the garbage all around him. His hair was dirty blonde and slightly shaggy and he had a stubbly beard but he appeared far cleaner than he should for someone who lives in a garbage dump. He kind of reminded Nick of a kindly professor, the sort that used to come into the bookstore looking for research text or pre-Matrix mysteries and science fiction novels. The scavenger wondered if he smoked a pipe and sipped brandy from a big glass as his monsters scoured the Zone every night.
As the Foul One approached burley gangers scattered, the man hustled up to the girl digging in his jacket pocket with his right hand and waving the remaining gangers away with his left. The girl attempted to step back but the Foul One flung out his right hand containing whatever he had dug out of his pocket and she froze. Nick switched the camera to video and zoomed in as far as possible in an attempt to see what the Foul One was doing but he couldn't quite make it out. The Foul One seemed to be examining the girl but whatever he was looking for he must not have found for after a minute or so he shook his head, turned around and stormed back towards the recycling plant leaving the girl behind.
A crowd began to form around the girl again and Nick had no intention of staying for what came next. As the girl's screams of protest began to echo around the mounds of garbage the scavenger slipped off into the growing night to retrieve Jessica and get as far away from this cesspool as he possibly could.
10:03 December 3, 2055 – Little Earth, Chicago Containment Zone
Nick shoved the last of his meager belongings into his hardpack and settled it on his back. Fastening the various straps the scavenger took a final look around the small room he had occupied for the last month. Nondescript…spartan…once he walked out the makeshift door there would be no indication that Nick Muldoon had ever lived there. Nodding his head with a rueful smile the scavenger turned and left, closing the door behind him.
He would have been gone sooner but a snowstorm kept Nick from leaving until today. Tony had tried to talk him into staying the winter but Nick could tell his heart really wasn't in it. When Tagashi accepted the camera from Nick and declared that his debt was paid, the big troll must have known it was only a matter of time before Nick left. Nick passed silently through the Museum, since his return with the footage of the Foul One the Museum seemed much quieter, like everyone was afraid to be too loud or he might hear them. Nick passed by a half-closed door and he could hear several voices, Tony's included, discussing new security measures that should be taken to insure Little Earth's safety.
As he pushed through the door Nick's eyes were drawn to the battered old pickup that Jessica had brought him to Little Earth in not even a month ago. He remembered the look in her eyes as she watched the footage of the Foul One's meeting with the girl, how she had turned to him with a look of disgust and said "You left her…you left her there to die." then got up and walked out of the room. Nick hadn't seen Jessica since. He could have argued, told Jessica that if he had tried to save the girl he would have been throwing his life away. He could have pointed out that there were twenty of them and only one of him. He could even have pointed out that if he had died no one would have returned to confirm that the Foul One was indeed Bennett Johnson. But Nick didn't say any of those things, because even though they were all true in the end Jessica was right.
Nick left that girl to die.
Tagashi had tried to explain to Nick that what he was feeling was a form of survivor's guilt. That he should not beat himself up over the difficult choice he had to make. Tagashi had urged Nick to stay, confront his guilt and move past it. But Nick had declined and here he was a few days later walking away again.
Because the terrible secret Nick couldn't share with anyone was that he didn't feel guilty for leaving that girl to die. He wanted to…he knew that he probably should…but he didn't. What Nick really felt was tired. Tired of watching the Zone chew up and spit out the innocent. Tired of watching metahumans committing more atrocities than the Bugs could ever hope to. Mostly Nick felt tired, but there was one other emotion bubbling under the surface. It hadn't quite taken hold yet but in the coming months it would.
17:45 February 27, 2058 – UCAS Reintegration checkpoint, Chicago Containment Zone
As darkness settled over Camp Refugee Nick returned to the tent he shared with a small family of orks. Originally Nick had been assigned a different tent but he offered to switch with a shell shocked wage slave from Truman Corp who had somehow survived the CZ by taking shelter in the Dome but couldn't bear the thought of spending a few days with a family of orks who worked in Blood Town. The trade suited Nick just fine; Mr. and Mrs. Bailey were good people who had heard of Nick by reputation and the four kids who ranged in age from three to thirteen were polite enough not to poke through the scavenger's things while he was out.
As Nick pushed the heavy flap aside and entered the tent he found Mrs. Bailey heating a small pot of soup on an electric hot plate. Mrs. Bailey tensed as the flap was pushed aside but calmed when Nick entered, like all Zoners Mrs. Bailey had become skittish after three years in the CZ and Nick noticed her hand drift away from a homemade club she had fashioned out of a discarded length of plastic pipe. Nick smiled and stepped carefully around the mounds of blankets piled up in the center of the tent.
The tents had been an afterthought. The UCAS had never expected to house the Zoners but after hundreds of people had to spend the first night huddled together around makeshift fires while dozens of news drones buzzed overhead streaming the whole thing over the Matrix for the world to see, the next morning saw UCAS troops setting up tents for people to stay in. Each tent was supposed to house four people, and came with four cots a space heater and an electric plate for warming food.
Of course like everything else in Camp Refugee, what was supposed to happen and what did happen were two different things. Everything was organized at first, people were assigned sleeping spaces and family units were placed together. But half way through the assignment process it became painfully obvious that there weren't enough tents. So people just started cramming in wherever they could find space. Mr. and Mrs. Bailey were one of the lucky few families that were together in one tent, and even then Mrs. Bailey's brother was in a tent on the other side of the Camp.
Same thing happened with the rations. At first everyone would line up in the morning to get the days rations. A quartermaster would key the person's SIN into a wrist computer and they would be issued an MRE. Problems started immediately when the computer didn't recognize the SIN that was entered. Sometimes it was a legitimate SIN that had just been deactivated in the system; sometimes the person was SINless to begin with. Either way it caused major headaches and almost led to a riot before the base commander, Lt. Cook ordered the quartermaster to give everyone a ration that came through the line. That worked for a while but soon enterprising Zoners began passing back through the line hours later for another food ration. Nick suspected that UCAS troops would soon be searching tents looking for food hoarders and when that happened tensions were sure to rise even further. The sooner Nick could get out of Camp Refugee the better.
Nick settled down onto his cot and pulled his own makeshift weapon, a cast off piece of rebar that he had sharpened into a shiv, out of the sleeve of his jacket. Nick had pushed his cot over into a corner as far away from the entrance as possible, that way the Baileys could have more space around the heater in the center of the tent and if any trouble came through the front door it would have to wade through one hundred and fifty kilos of ork defending their young.
The flap of the tent pushed open again, but instead of Mr. Bailey who Nick expected a UCAS trooper stepped in. Mrs. Bailey covered her club and Nick scooted over until he was sitting on his shiv. Camp Refugee had a zero tolerance policy for weapons and anyone found with a weapon in their possession had their weapon confiscated and was moved three steps back in the processing queue. While no one wanted to spend any longer in Camp than they had to, this policy didn't really deter people whose survival had depended for the last three years on being armed at all times.
Luckily the trooper either didn't see or didn't care about the weapons. The man's silver cybereyes gleamed in the light from the electric lamp as he announced, "I am looking for a man named Nicholas Muldoon. I was told that he is bunked here." Nick stood up keeping his body between the trooper and his cot, "I'm Nick Muldoon." The trooper stared at him for a moment possibly accessing some internal cyberware and tilted his head towards the door, "Come with me." Without another word the trooper pushed his way out of the tent. Nick exchanged a glance with Mrs. Bailey and shrugged. Stuffing his shiv back in the sleeve of his jacket the scavenger followed the trooper out into the night.
The trooper led Nick through the camp and up to the processing center. A huge line led into the center and UCAS government officials worked around the clock to try to process everyone as quickly as possible. Several of the people he passed in the line shot Nick angry looks but the trooper led him straight to the temporary office building that had been erected and through the doors. The building was essentially a big box which had been carved up into work stations by temporary patricians. Inside each of the cubicles was a desk with a terminal on top. In each cubicle he passed, Nick saw a different version of the same scene. On one side of the desk a UCAS wage-slave in a crisp clean uniform asks a set of standard questions to a disheveled Zoner on the other side of the desk. The Zoner does his or her best to answer the questions but cannot help looking over their shoulder or flinching every time someone walks past the cubicle. Or even worse the Zoner just sits and stares, answering questions in a monotone voice that seems to come from a thousand kilometers away.
Finally the trooper led the scavenger through a door in the back to an enclosed office where Nick saw something that stopped him dead in his tracks.
Melissa Simmons…his ex-girlfriend…alive and running forward to hug him.