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 Post subject: ZPAW
PostPosted: Sun Jul 24, 2011 8:03 pm 
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[This story will be uploaded chapter by chapter. I will make a new post to each chapter but will also add them to the first post to make it easier for people who have not yet read the whole thing. Feedback appreciated! Enjoy!]

When the infection hit, the world was not prepared. In a few short years, governments toppled, and the world's population was devestated. In the chaos, the few governments that had managed to remain in power were faced with global crisis, failed economies, and anarchic revolutions on all fronts. Nearly a century after the outbreak, even the educated cannot imagine the way the world used to be. The new generation of humanity has congregated in walled city-states, soverign by themselves, sheltered from the undead and the wild outside world by massive guarded fortifications. With very little contact from city to city, the world's only option to deliver various supplies and packages from one place to another was to send men into the harsh world that most hid from. These men were called Runners; in addition to their job being one of the most lucritive of all, it was also the most dangerous.
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CHAPTER 1

The destroyed highway provided a good means of transportation to the nimble. Much of the highway was littered with destitute cars, most of which were stripped clean decades ago. Now, the cars provided a slightly elevated position for a perceptive Runner, looking to see a little bit more than his six feet of height allowed him to. After hopping onto the frame of a car, step by step, the agile young man pressed binoculars to his sharp eyes and peered over the distant grassy ridge beyond the bend of the highway. There was no movement ahead-- that was both good and bad. Nothing humanoid was naturally a good thing, but the absolute lack of wildlife meant that there may be something unpleasant awaiting him ahead. He tucked the binoculars into the side pouch on his bag, tightly buckling the strap to secure them before hopping down from the frame of the destroyed vehicle. Placing sunglasses beneath the brim of his cap to shield the glare from his eyes, he began down the cracked asphalt, preparing to vault the railing and hike through the grass, all the while deciding if he was being overcautious or if his concern for the area ahead was just.

Nothing set him on edge more than trudging through tall grass. It slowed him down, it made him more vulnerable, and it was just plain uncomfortable. There were a number of dangers as well, and he hated putting himself more at risk than he already was. On occasion, however, there was no better way; for now, he was stuck with the route before him. He idly tapped his finger on the trigger guard of his carbine as he moved, his eyes cautiously scanning his surroundings.

Moving beyond the rusted guard rail that lined the side of the road, he stepped into the grass with a soft sigh. After taking a few steps, he felt reasonably certain that there was no imminent danger present, but remained on high alert. His steps became heavier as he scaled a gradual incline, and soon found himself peering over the peak of a hill. In the distance, he spotted his destination: the city-state of Constitution, protected by a massive concrete wall. Another quick peek into his binoculars allowed him to scan the area and see that there was no danger anywhere obvious between him and the city gates.

After replacing the binoculars back into their safe place, he began down the hill. Being so close to his destination-- close, but not yet there-- made him very nervous; he pulled his carbine to his shoulder and moved quietly down the hill. His eyes kept moving, always watching the ground ahead of him, occasionally taking a moment to check his blind spots. He listened for anything other than his own movements, his ears vigilantly noting every sound the grass made as it swayed in the wind. Nothing unusual reached his senses. On he moved, growing closer to Constitution with each step, until the downhill walk became an uphill climb, and the city walls loomed over him.

Soon, he stood before the city gates. As he approached, he heard the sound of chains rattling and observed as the thick steel bars of the gate elevated before him. It reminded him of the old castles he had seen in books; the gatehouse of a castle was built to complicate attacking armies, and the outermost defense was a portcullis. The portcullis, typically made of mesh of wood and wrought iron, was a massive gate that often lifted vertically into the interior of the gatehouse. All that was needed was a few chains and wenches to lift the gate, making it a very reliable and simple operation. It was likely that this was the very reason the gatehouse of Constitution used that particular setup.
By the time he reached the gatehouse, the portcullis was fully lifted. He quickly moved into it and stopped with a heavy sigh of relief as the gate lowered before him. Quickly, he pulled the magazine free from his carbine and tucked it into his chest rig, before pulling back the charging handle and ejecting the loaded round. He picked it up from the ground and slipped it into his pocket, and then let the carbine hang over his chest as hand.

Moments later, doors on either side of the gatehouse opened. Men wearing gear similar to his, carrying weapons equally as serious, moved from the room with their rifles trained on him. Uncomfortable, he shifted slightly, but said nothing. The doors closed, leaving five relatively-uniform men standing before him, four of them armed and ready to fire. The fifth man, unarmed, stepped toward the Runner and cleared his throat.

"Afternoon," the Runner said.

"Afternoon, Runner. Do you have any papers?" the man said, as he slipped on a pair of cloth gloves.

"None valid for Constitution. The last time I was here, my papers were stolen."

"I see. Without your papers, we are required to search you and your gear. A medical exam is also required before entrance to the city is permitted. Do you consent?"

"Yes," the Runner sighed, "I consent."

The man made a motion to the others standing by, who lowered their rifles and stood in a relaxed military stance. One of the doors opened again, and a young fellow trotted out to hand the unarmed man a clipboard. The young one then disappeared behind the door again.

"Are you familiar with Constitution Entrance Approval Form 1.2A?" the man asked.

"Yes," he replied. He had been through this routine more times than he could recall.

"Then state your information, in order, as appears on the form."

"Parker Oliver Mason, of Louisville. Age, twenty-seven. Born April 6th, 2064. Ethnicity, white. Eyes, brown. Hair, black. Five foot ten; one hundred, seventy pounds. No militia experience. Runner, certified by the Louisville Runner Agency."

As he man scribbled away on his clipboard, Parker watched two men step from the side rooms, one of which approached and reached for Parker's bags. With an annoyed sigh, Parker unclasped the buckle for his rucksack, and lowered the pack to the dirty ground. His secondary pack, containing the items he was running, came next. After that, his belt and chest rig, which carried his loaded pistol and much of his ammunition. Now, without his gear, he submitted himself to the other man who patted him down as the first fellow searched through his bags and equipment.

While they conducted their search, the man with the clipboard began sounding off Parker's rights while in Constitution. It was a formality, but an unnecessary one; Parker made it his prerogative to be extensively familiar with the laws of Constitution.

"Follow Common Moral Law. Do not use narcotics or alcohol in public. Carry your firearm how you see fit, but load only expanding or frangible ammunition; use of full metal jacket ammunition is punishable by expulsion, exile, and execution depending on the circumstances. Discharging your weapon is legal only in the instances of self-defense, defense of another, defense of property, or defense of the common good of Constitution. Do you understand and submit to the laws and their parameters?"

"Yes," Parker answered simply.

Moments later, the man handed the clipboard and pen to him. "Please sign on the bottom line."

With a smirk, Parker signed his name. The whole process was bullshit-- none of this paperwork went anywhere but to the file cabinet. He had undergone all of this so many times that he knew it did not matter if he had his papers or not, as he would probably have to do it all again anyway. The filing system was a disaster and nobody seemed to be able to keep track of Runners' information as they passed through.

He glanced over to see his gear being repacked just as it had been. He had to give that much to the men conducting the search: for as thorough as they were, they always seemed to get everything packed in just about exactly the way it had been when they started. They acknowledged that he had nothing troubling, and allowed Parker to take his gear as he was led to the door on the east side of the room. Parker knew the medical exam was next.

Soon, he was standing in a white room with a man that claimed to be a doctor. Parker was required to strip down and be physically inspected everywhere on his body. Standing bare before the man, who was slightly shorter than Parker and wore eyeglasses as he tapped a pen to his notebook, felt all kinds of wrong. This was Parker's least favorite part of his job.

"When was your last encounter with the nonmortuis?"

Parker groaned. He hated that phrase. "Less than two days ago."

"Was there any physical contact between you and the nonmortuis?"

"None whatsoever."

The doctor nodded and began to inspect Parker's body. As awkward as it felt, he knew it was necessary; he had seen the effects of not having these procedures on less-organized cities. If a Runner or a Scout returns to his city after having been bitten, but is not screened, the city would be doomed. The individual would die, turn, and then bite someone else. Suddenly the inhabitants of the city, who live in the city to escape the dead that own the wilderness, would be faced with an overnight outbreak of the very creatures they had already been hiding from. For Constitution, the walls would then serve not to keep the dead out, but only to keep the doomed in.

Some time later, the exam was over. After Parker had gathered his gear and reequipped everything, he moved toward the end of the gatehouse that led inside the city. The guards, still standing along the walls of the room, watched him as the large metal doors opened inward, and he stepped out into the city of Constitution.

The first thing he did was pull the 5.56x45mm round from his pocket and press it into the magazine he had pulled from his carbine. He replaced the magazine into the pouch and pulled another free-- one loaded with hollow point rounds-- and slipped it into its rightful place, before pulling the charging handle on the weapon, satisfied by the report the mechanism gave him. He glanced about him, checking his surroundings to ensure that he was no longer being watched, before clicking the fire-selector on his carbine into the 'safe' position. He let the carbine hang over his chest as he began down the dirty, cracked street. On either side of him stood burned out homes, all of them one story and none of them with an intact window. Most of the abodes showed signs of habitation; the flicker of lantern light, the smoke from a controlled fire, the sound of people talking, or even just the way the property itself looked. Parker felt sad in the realization that his trade made him essentially wealthier than the entire neighborhood combined; it was likely that his carbine alone was probably worth more than the value of any one of the properties. He had entered on the impoverished side of Constitution, but he had logically reasoned that it was safer to move through the ghetto than to try and walk through the wilderness around the city to get to the other gate. He chose the less dangerous of the two paths.

To the people around him, he was quite a sight; everyone knew he was a Runner just by one look at him. It was not his carbine or his gear, or even his look of experience that kept the thugs from trying to rob him-- it was the fact that everyone knew a Runner was more capable of killing someone than any walking corpse ever could be. Generally, nobody wanted to take the chance of picking a fight with a Runner, because unless that person was a Scout or another Runner themselves, the odds were not in their favor.

Parker tried to ignore the eyes that burned holes in him, but could not. He found himself glancing to every person that stopped to look at him as he passed. His skin crawling, he quickened his pace to get out of the neighborhood. After taking a swift left turn, he found himself approaching much more comforting territory: farmland. Constitution was entirely self-sufficient, including its own farms and ranches to supply the city with food.

The city-state of Constitution was one of a waning number of cities that still thrived under the use of capitalism. The farmers produced the food that was either sold directly to consumer, or sold in bulk to a vendor in the market district for a discount in price to the vendor and in tax to the city. Tax was rarely disputed, because the percentages was voted into process by land-owners among the working class of Constitution; it was a flat rate for everyone, although the rates for some goods were higher than others. It was the city-state's primary source of revenue; it kept the militia armed and trained, and the walls thick and strong. No one could argue with that.

His time in the farmlands was short. After the road deteriorated beneath his footsteps into a dirty path, he followed a fork to the right that led him back into a more industrial setting. He knew he had entered the wealthier part of Constitution, where the hum of generators could be heard while passing the well-lit properties. Most of the houses were fixed up, some even painted to look nice. Some had lawns, and even gardens, around their front doors; fences lined the properties and a few had decorative doorways installed into the gates. Parker caught himself wishing he had a property like those. He knew it would be pointless, though, to spend the amount of money or barter the amount of goods needed to acquire one when he would always be off in the wilderness doing his job.

"Maybe when I retire," he told himself.

For a moment, his vision lingered on one of the properties as he passed. It was then that he noticed a man trailing some distance behind him. Only observing him from the corner of his eye, and only for a fleeting moment, Parker observed that the individual wore a bulky pack, and noticed the distinct shape of the stock of an unidentifiable rifle sticking out from over the man's shoulder. More than this, Parker was unable to discern from his point of view; from what he knew, however, it was logical to assume the man was a fellow Runner. He took careful mental note of the man, and looked ahead again, feeling confident that the follower did not know he had been noticed. Looking to the ground, he watched his shadow; since it was cast in front of him, he would be able to see another shadow cast by someone approaching from behind. He kept his hands idly resting on his carbine, ready to respond to a threat if necessary.

Soon, he came to his appointed destination; a fenced manor, significantly larger than most of the others in the area. He studied it for a moment, also contemplating the man who seemed to be following him, before deciding his best course of action was simply to enter and turn in the package. The gate was unlocked, so he unlatched it and nudged it open, closing it behind him. He cast a nonchalant look over his shoulder as he ascended the several steps that led onto the porch. The man he had seen was nowhere obvious; this was unnerving. Stopping at the door, he knocked solidly four times. Moments later, a woman answered.

Immediately, as though it had leapt up and slapped Parker across the face, he recognized the look burned into the woman's face: fear. It was out of the question that this would be her response to seeing him-- Runners were intimidating, but not so terrifying as to put such a look on a young woman. Parker noted that she was attractive, standing average height with long black hair and fair skin, but her gentle grey eyes were glazed with fright. Parker observed for a moment, but just before he spoke, she said, "You're the Runner?"

"Yes," he replied after brief hesitation.

"Please, come in," she said, her voice cracking slightly as she spoke the last word. "My husband is in the den."

Apprehensive, Parker cleared his throat and said, "Ma'am, why can't I just hand it to you here? It isn't heavy or anything."

"N-no, my husband was very clear that he get the package directly."

"Then call him to the door?"

The woman bit her lip but showed signs of annoyance. "He can't really get around... Please, just come in and give it to him."

Parker began to put it together. The overweight abusive husband with a temper problem probably just got done screaming at his wife, and now she struggled to compose herself in front of a stranger. Imagined images of a broken home-life leapt to his mind and he suddenly pitied the woman. With a sigh, he caved, and stepped through the door, which the woman closed behind him. He moved with her through the foyer into what he presumed was the den. In the center was a couch and a table, a fireplace set before it, and lining the room beyond that was a balcony that led to rooms on the second floor, protected by a railing and reachable via two stairways on opposite sides of the room. A man, presumably the woman's husband, sat on the couch in the dimly lit room. She urged Parker forward, and so he approached, until he was close enough to see the man clearly; he was badly beaten, with spots of blood here and there and massive bruising all over his face. There were large bruises and lacerations all over his arms, which were exposed by his white tank top. Alarms in Parker's mind went haywire, and he turned to look at the woman expecting some form of explanation.

Instead, he saw a man emerge from behind the door, and grab the woman by the hair. She was forced to her knees, just as Parker clicked the selector switch on his carbine to firing position. Before he could pull his rifle to his shoulder, the man had produced a pistol and had it firmly placed against the back of the woman's head. Parker's stomach sank; he knew he could take the man out, but only at the expense of the woman's life, because the man could pull the trigger faster than Parker could level his sights on target. the sound of activity attracted Parker's attention, and he glanced behind him to see another man with a carbine pointed at the badly-hurt husband. Lifting his gaze, he also noticed several other men-- he counted at least three-- on the balcony, with carbines and assault rifles at the ready. Because he was still breathing, Parker knew these people obviously desired something from him.

"What the fuck do you want?" he demanded.

The assailant that stood behind the woman spoke, saying, "Your bags. Drop them."

Reluctantly, Parker removed his left hand from the guard of the carbine and removed his pack, lowering it to the ground. On top of that, he lowered his second bag-- the one containing the delivery-- before standing full measure and replacing his hand on the carbine again. His mind searched desperately for a strategy, but he found none that ended in his survival. He was outnumbered, outgunned, surrounded, and his escape route was cut off. If these men wanted him dead, the best he could hope for was to die fighting.

"Kick them to me."

An opportunity.

"Kick them to me, now," the man reaffirmed.

Parker leaned down slowly and grabbed the bag with his left hand.

"I said 'kick,' you piece of shit!" the man snarled.

Disregarding the response, Parker prepared to toss the bag instead of kicking it. He knew he had precious seconds to act; his plan was simple; throw the bag at the man, make him flinch, giving him time to bolt for the door while firing from the hip in hopes of killing only that man to open his escape route. It was probable that he would take fire and likely be killed in the attempt, but it was even more probable that he would have no further opportunity to escape, and there was nothing stopping these men from killing him whenever they saw fit.. A tinge of guilt stung his heart as he concluded that the woman and her husband were doomed, but he knew they most likely were from the beginning.

The bag had just left his hand, sailing toward the man who stood roughly ten feet away, when Parker heard the distinct pop of a suppressed firearm. He quickly lifted his carbine and fired, two rounds ripping through the surprised man's chest. The assailant discharged his handgun twice as well, the first bullet tearing through the screaming woman's thigh, the second hitting only the floor. The woman rolled to the ground in agony as the man behind her slumped against the wall, failing in attempts to breath. A cacophony of gunfire reverberated through the building as Parker charged for the door, snatching his bags with his left hand before skidding to a stop near the front door. The men were still firing, even though he was no longer in their line of sight. He shuddered at the idea of the hostages being executed. But it sounded more like an exchange; every few shots, a suppressed firearm could be heard. Seconds later, two more suppressed shots finalized the situation, and no more gunfire could be heard. The woman still cried, shrieking on the floor. Parker was prepared to leave, until he heard the woman, through her hysterics, shouting nameless thanks to someone in the room.

The suppressed shots, the apparent gunfight that only briefly involved him, the fact that all the targets appeared to be dead-- Parker realized there was another shooter in the room.

Moving back to the doorway into the den, he called into the room, "Who are you?"

At first there was no answer.

"Who are you and what the fuck just happened?"

It was risky, making contact this way. He had no idea who he was dealing with, or even if there was more than one of them. He bit his lip nervously as no response came for several seconds, but then, he heard a man's voice.

"A Runner. And I think I just saved your life."

"And the woman's," Parker hollered out with a chuckle. "You're a real fucking hero, aren't you?" He heard the man laugh lightly, over the woman's sobs. It was reassuring to hear. "Look," Parker said, "If you're a friend, then we need to get the hell out of here before the militia shows up.

"Copy," the man replied, before what sounded like him vaulting the railing down to the first floor. "Meet me at the north gate. I'll have the woman with me. You already know what I look like."

This confirmed Parker's suspicion that this fellow was indeed the Runner he had noticed following him. Full of questions, but also wary of the approaching law, he readied to leave before noticing the pistol discarded in the doorway-- a token from the man he had shot. He snatched it, reasoning that it did not weigh much and could easily be sold, before he rushed past the front door and into whatever room was on the other side of the foyer. He followed the hallway away from the foyer until he saw a back door, bursting through it. He was in the cramped back yard of the manor, also fenced in; after hopping the fence and moving beyond the next property, he found himself in an alleyway that led to the street from which he had come. He took it, and began to make his way north.

The streets were pretty barren, probably in reaction to the gunfire that erupted inside the manor. Uncertain if he should be expecting more hostiles, he kept his rifle live, but left it laying lax over his chest in a calm fashion so as not to inspire suspicion. He could hear shouting down the street-- likely the militia arriving on the scene, he reasoned. For all its niceties and freedoms, Constitution, like most other cities, was under martial law. Any form of criminal activity was met harshly and mercilessly, with no exceptions. Most felt that it was the only way to maintain peace, security, and order. Careless criminals did not last long; if they were not shot by their victim, they would be shot by the militia.

Parker kept expecting to hear gunfire behind him, the sound of the militia engaging the other Runner. He heard no such noise. After walking hurriedly for over a mile, with the manor out of earshot, he felt confident that the Runner had made it out. He continued on his path, unfaltering.

Roughly half an hour later, he arrived at the north gate. The Runner and the young woman were nowhere to be seen. Uneasy, he took in the entirety of his surroundings. There was a crowd of working-class individuals bustling about, most likely because of the north gate's proximity to the market district, which always saw a hefty amount of foot traffic. Moving to the wall, he waited until he was certain that no one was watching him before taking a moment to slip out the partially-used magazine and press a fresh one securely into place. It was an old habit; insurance, to make absolutely sure he was never caught off his guard and killed because he only needed one more round. He leaned idly against the wall, waiting, watching.

Inside of ten minutes, Parker spotted them. His attention was nabbed by the woman's rather loud sobbing, which rang out subtly over the bustle of the nearby crowd. Drawing too much attention was not good. Still, Parker's heart ached for the woman; her husband apparently did not make it out. He was certain that her tears were not for the bullet wound in her leg but for the loss of her partner. That was a wound Parker hoped never to have, because he knew it was one that never completely healed.
Behind her, pushing and urging her to keep moving, was the Runner. He wore a black vest adorned with magazine pouches, partially obstructed from view by the thick straps to the pack he carried on his back. Parker noted the pistol strapped to his thigh, which appeared to have a suppressor installed on it, and the stock of a rifle between his body and his pack. A moment later they stood before him, the woman leaning heavily on the Runner for support. Parker noticed that the bullet wound was covered with what appeared to be a wadded-up shirt, probably both to stop the bleeding and to keep the public from seeing blood.

"We need to get out of here," Parker said immediately.

"I know," replied the Runner in his gruff voice, "But it's too hot right now. And we can't take a wounded civie out into the wilderness or we could all get killed."

Parker wanted to object to his steadfast desire to bring the woman along, but held his tongue. "Then what are we gonna do?"

"I have a friend just outside the market district, right down that street. She'll put us up for the night. In the morning, we can sort things out."

The situation was out of control. Parker did not like being out of control. He came here to deliver a package like any other, and ended up in a firefight. Now he was tied down to this man and some bleeding civie woman. "Why shouldn't I leave right fucking now?"

"Because you have no clue what's going on and it would only be a matter of time before you walk into another trap. This lady might have some answers, so swallow your fucking pride and let's get moving."

The Runner made a good point, and Parker had to respect his no-bullshit attitude. Nodding stoically, he simply replied, "Lead the way."


CHAPTER 2

The familiar click of each fresh round being pressed into the magazine satisfied Parker. He set the magazine beside the freshly-cleaned carbine that laid on the floor next to him, looking up to see his new friend entering the room. He had set up his bedroll in the corner of the den, but being in such an unfamiliar setting made him feel as though he would probably spend most of his night laying with his eyes open and his pistol loaded.

"Loading up?" the Runner said.

Nodding, Parker responded by saying, "I never caught your name."

"Reuben," he replied, before moving to sit on the floor, extending his hand, which Parker shook.

"Parker," he said, introducing himself. "Thanks for the assist back there, Reuben. You probably saved my ass."

"Maybe. But I didn't save everyone."

"Her husband?" Parker said with a sigh.

"Yeah. Apparently his name was Max. She told me about how they tortured him and forced her to watch. She said they planned on raping her and making him watch, when you showed up."

A shudder passed through Parker's spine as he thought about that. Despite the death that occurred, he was at least thankful that he arrived before anything more could happen. "Who the fuck were they?"

"Hell if I know. We might get more out of her, when she wakes up. But given her state, I don't think she or her husband was the objective, and I don't think she sold you out. I think someone wants you, and they used her and her husband to get you where they wanted you."

"God damn," Parker muttered, leaning back against the wall. That was all he seemed to be able to say.

"Look," Reuben said, scooting closer. "She's pretty damaged by what she saw. It could be a while, a couple days maybe, before we get anything useful out of her. Still, I really think you should stick around. Whatever she knows, if anything, it could make a big difference to you."

"What about your friend? She doesn't care if we stay?"

"Nah," Reuben replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Sal is cool. She'll put us up as long as we need."

Parker did not care for all the 'us' and 'we' he had been hearing lately. He typically preferred to travel alone, but if he was going to have a traveling partner, it at least needed to be someone he knew he could trust. Reuben seemed nice enough, but just because he did some nice things did not make him trustworthy.

"Bravo Company, huh?"

Looking to Reuben for a moment, Parker realized he was referring to the brand of the carbine that sat beside him. He patted the side of the weapon and replied, "Yeah, mostly-- there are some other parts in there, too."

"With a compact ACOG from--" Reuben leaned over to get a better look before adding. "God damn, is that a Trijicon?"

"It is, actually. You know your builds?"

"I used to own a gun shop in Louisville. I did a lot of AR-15s like yours. Specialized in old tech, and even had a stock of those old powered optics-- not that they sold often. Where are you gonna find batteries for those, you know?"

Before Parker could get into the gun talk, Sal entered the den and looked to them both. She had straight blonde hair that hung over her shoulders, covering the spaghetti straps to her red blouse. Over her legs was a flared brown skirt that hugged around her waist and curves. The skirt, although somewhat tattered, lured Parker's mind to fowl places, and he looked away as quickly as he had glanced to her.

"Well," she said with an exasperated sigh. It was then that Parker looked once more, and noticed she was wiping blood from her hands with a washcloth. "Your lady friend in there should be fine. The bullet didn't hit anything severe. But it will be a while before she can really walk again-- at least a week, probably more." She looked over to Parker and said, "Do you know how long you're staying?"
Pausing a moment, he cleared his throat and responded, "Uh, no, not really. I'm not imposing, am I?"

"No," she said with a suddenly-bright smile. "A friend of Reuben is a friend of mine. He's got solid judgment. This house is too big for me, anyway. Stay as long as you like. I'll be sure to let you know if you become a pain in my ass."

All three of them laughed lightly before Sal mentioned something about dinner being ready shortly. As she exited, Reuben gave Parker a sly look, to which Parker was unsure how to respond. "What?" he asked.

"I saw the way you looked at her," he said. “You're interested, aren't you?"

"What the fuck?" Parker said with a surprised expression. In reality, it was a cop-out response to buy himself time, because internally he was asking himself the same think.

"No need to get defensive. She's available. Hasn't had a man in more than a year."

"Stop."

"What's with you?" Reuben asked indignantly. He quickly followed up by saying, "Either you've already got a girl, or you're queer. Those are the only options. Nobody could not be attracted to Sal unless they were loyal to a fault, or queer."

Unable to keep from laughing, Parker nodded, and replied, "You might be right about that one. Sure, I've got a woman, and I'm loyal as a dog. End of discussion."

"Touchy, aren't we?"

"About detailing my relationships to a stranger? You bet."

"Alright then, I know when to back off. Sorry I asked," Reuben conceded.

Feeling guilty about being so blunt, Parker waved it off and said, "Hey, don't worry about it. Sorry I got snippy. Just been a rough day."

With a chuckle, Reuben nodded and replied. "Yeah, I hear that." He stood and moved toward the door, turning to ask, "You want a drink?"

"No thanks."

"Suit yourself." Disappearing through the doorway, Reuben spoke to Sal too quietly for Parker to hear. Left alone to his thoughts for a few moments, Parker considered what he would do now; he could get back to business and risk the pursuit of whomever had sent those men, or he could investigate it with Reuben and try to figure out what the attack was all about. It made him consider his stance with Reuben; the fellow seemed like the kind of guy Parker could really get along with. The possibility of making a friend occurred to him, and it scared him half to death. He had grown so used to relying on so few people that the concept of learning to trust seemed alien to him. Reuben was more than just a helpful companion-- he was a crash course in learning to let down apprehensive walls.

Parker was glad to realize that the ringing in his ears was finally gone. It was something to which he had grown accustomed over the years; he found earplugs to be too stifling for his hearing to wear all the time, and preferred to simply deal with the effects of gunfire on his ears. If he had time to put them in before an encounter, he would, but that was rarely the case. In the open, it was not a big issue; in an enclosed space, however, such as the home that the firefight had occurred in, the sound of gunfire still hurt his ears. Once the ringing started, it was easy enough to ignore; he was used to living with it. Still, it was an annoyance he was glad to be rid of now.

Reuben stepped back into the room with a smile on his face and a bottle in his hand. Parker saw no label and figured it was probably something distilled locally or by Sal herself. Whatever it was, the smell of the alcohol was quite potent, and it reminded Parker of a time when he could let his guard down and have a drink. He recalled so faintly what it was like to enjoy himself. The smell made him feel a little more comfortable with Reuben, if only because he knew Reuben had let his guard down a bit. It also made him miss what he called a home-- or rather, the person who made it feel like home.

"So how come you don't go after Sal?" Parker said suddenly.

With a surprised blink, Reuben paused to figure the best way to put it. "Well," he said with a sigh, "A couple reasons, I guess. First of all, it'd be like sleeping with my sister, and that's just weird. It's one of those situations where you just know the person too long and too well, you know?"

Parker chuckled and shook his head. "Not really, no. I never really understood that logic before, but I‘ll take your word for it. What about your other reasons?"

Lifting the bottle to his lips, Reuben spoke, almost speaking into the bottle itself. "Tried it, didn't work out."

Parker sat up straighter and grinned. "What? You two were together?"

"Yeah, for a while. So what?"

"Nothing, it's just surprising. You guys don't act like... Well, like a parted couple acts."

"It was complicated, and it was a long time ago. The fuck makes you so curious all of a sudden anyway, Mr. Mysterious? I thought you were all business and no questions."

"You thought wrong, I guess. I'm making friends here,-- what do you want?"

The two laughed, before Reuben took another swig from the bottle and said, "Alright then, since you're so friendly all of a sudden, what's with your woman? I told you about one of my relationships, so now it's your turn."

Parker groaned and leaned back again, folding his arms. He thought a moment, sorting his words out in his head before he cast Reuben a contemplative look and said, "You ever heard of the Washington County Widow?"

"Yeah,” he replied, scratching his chin as he recalled the story. “She was that crazy broad who murdered her husband some years ago then skipped town. Some of the militias in Washington County figured she'd killed two or three other guys, too, all lovers of hers from what I hear. They even had posters of her distributed to some of the surrounding cities with a sketch of her description on it. Even offered a reward for a while, but now it seems like nobody really cares anymore."

"She's not as crazy as you've heard," Parker said with a chuckle.

Reuben was at first confused by the statement, but when he realized what Parker meant, he set the bottle aside and leaned forward. "Wait a minute, wait a minute-- you're with her? You're fucking joking, right?"

No response; Parker just chuckled and shook his head.

"You're with the Washington County Widow? You're out of your fucking head! No wonder you're so paranoid-- even your girlfriend tries to kill you!"

With a laugh, he waved his hand at Reuben and said, "Nah, she loves me to death. We’re perfect for each other.”

“You mean because you’re both insane?”

Parker chuckled and said, “You’re awfully gullible for a Runner.”

Narrowing his eyes, Reuben got the idea that he was not really with the Widow and he let out a sigh. “Oh, I get it. Another defense mechanism. Well, whoever your woman is, I can’t help but wonder why you hate talking about her. None of my business, though.” Falling quiet, he took another swig of the bottle before commenting, “It’s nice to see you screwing with me, though. It’s a good change-up from your normal somber self, even if I’m the patsy.”

"Yeah, I'll keep you on your toes."

The two were distracted by Sal's soft voice announcing that the food was ready and that it was waiting for them. Eagerly, the two stood and moved into the kitchen to get their meals.

Parker slept more peaceably than he expected to that night. He still kept his .45 pistol close at hand the entire night, and routinely awakened to check his surroundings as had become habit over the course of his life; still, never before had he slept in a place for the first time, and actually found rest. He did not like that at all, because with peace came false security, and that brought mistakes. Even with a well-placed sense of security came the danger of complacency, which had taken more lives than all the shots he had ever fired. Parker refused to feel secure so that he would never become complacent; but when he felt at peace, that became much harder.


He awoke to the sound of a teapot whistling. By the time he opened his eyes, whomever was managing it had quickly snuffed the sound out. Early morning sunlight splashed through the barred window into the den, and Parker judged it to be around six in the morning. He sat up and rubbed his head, clearing his vision for a moment before standing and moving past Reuben, who was still soundly sleeping, and into the kitchen.

Surprise colored his face when he saw the black-haired woman steadying herself on a crutch as she dunked a few teabags into the teapot. She had not yet noticed him. He observed her for a moment; her black hair was somewhat matted with blood and sweat, but her clothes were clean-- probably fresh from Sal's closet. She wore a light blue button-up shirt and a knee-length brown skirt similar to the one Sal herself was wearing the night before. The woman's left leg was bandaged down to the knee; the bottom hem of the bandage was visible beneath the edge of the skirt

The muffled sound of her sniffle tugged at Parker's heart. He quickly did his best to straighten himself up a little bit before clearing his throat softly. She turned to look at him, and he noticed her eyes were red with tears. Only able to muster a gentle smile to her, she smiled hollowly and looked back to her teapot.

"You're the runner, aren't you?" she said quietly. Her voice sounded as though it would be smooth any other time, but it was hoarse and pitiful from the screaming and sobbing the day before.

"One of them, yes. I'm Parker."

She turned with a mug of tea and set it on the small kitchen table, sliding it his way. Parker did not realize it was for him until she returned to the teapot to pour a second cup. He muttered gratitude to her but she dismissed it by not acknowledging it. "I guess I should thank you," she said, turning with her cup. She hobbled to the chair and slipped clumsily into it, but Parker reacted quickly to grab the back of the chair to steady it for her. When she was situated, he sat as well. He turned the chair angled to the table so that he could face her better, and took a sip of the tea.

After setting the mug back down, he replied, "I didn't do anything but blunder into a trap. Reuben was the one who saved our asses, yours and mine."

"That bastard had a gun to my head," she objected. "You were the one that shot him. Not Reuben."

Parker could have argued that although he killed that man, the other men would have mowed them down without Reuben's intervention, but he chose to leave it alone. Taking another sip, he looked away from the woman, unsure of what to say.

"Look, it wasn't your fault." Parker looked up to her, surprised by her words. Not his fault? That made no sense. She went on, adding, "I'm sure you feel guilty. Please, don't blame yourself. What happened had nothing to do with you."

Watching her for a moment, he got the feeling that she knew more about the situation than he did. "Well if it wasn't about me, than what was it about?" he asked. "That was no average robbery."

"Do you still have the package?"

Leaning back in his chair, he sighed and said, "Yeah, I've still got it. You're telling me that God damn package is what this is all about?"

"Probably," she replied, before taking a sip of her tea. She cleared some of the coarseness from her throat, looking up to him. "It's a very important parcel."

"Well what the hell do I do with it now? Give it to you?"

"No," she objected quickly. "No, I can't do anything with it without..." She paused for a moment, clearing her throat again and looking away as she finished. "Without Max. But I can tell you where to take it from here, and it's very important that you do."

"You know I have to report the change of destination back to the agency, right?"

"You can't." she stated bluntly.

Confused, Parker said, "Come again?"

"If you do, whoever sent those men may be able to track you down. You might get reprimanded for it but believe me, you will be fantastically compensated."

Parker nodded, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table. "What the hell is in this damn box anyway?"

The woman looked away and said simply, "I can't tell you. If you knew, there would be many more problems than there are now. For once, your agency's protocol is necessary-- you can't know what's in the box. Just deliver it as soon as you can."

Sighing heavily, he scratched his forehead and considered what she was telling him. "Where do I have to take it?"

"Shepherdsville. Take it to 122 Dale Avenue-- a man named Clyde lives there and he will take it from you and give you payment."

Parker committed the information to memory until he would have an opportunity later to write it down. "This better be good money," he commented. "That's several days away."

"Fifty thousand in paper."

Unsure if he had heard her correctly, he leaned forward and stared at her. The words echoed in his head and he replied with a simple, "No shit? Where is all that money coming from?"

"My employer has deep pockets and really needs that parcel. That's the most we can offer so don't try to haggle. Just get it there and don't tell anyone where you're going."

Fifty thousand dollars was enough to purchase the home he longed to retire in. It was enough to set him for a long time, and he could see that on his horizon now. He could collect the payment, purchase a home, and settle down. He could plant his subsistence farm right there in Constitution just like he had always wanted to, and he could live the rest of his years in peace without worrying about wandering the wastes or being ripped apart by the undead.

"Fair enough," he said with a contemplative nod. "I'll do it."

The woman smiled warmly, and looked very relieved. She leaned her elbow on the table and rested her cheek on her hand, before saying, "I'm glad. By the way, my name is Laura."

Parker smiled softly and nodded in reply, before saying, "Well, Laura, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go catch a little more sleep before the day really starts."

The two exchanged brief goodnights before Parker moved into the den once more. Laura sat in the dimly-lit kitchen and finished her tea, her thoughts traveling back to her late husband and the situation from which she had so narrowly escaped. Despite the pain and the horror of what she had gone through, she felt at peace knowing the package would be safely delivered. She was confident in Parker.
After slipping away from the kitchen, Parker returned to his bedding for the night. Trying as he had, he found himself unable to return to sleep. Instead, he pulled free the bag that contained the parcel he was running. Opening the sack, he pulled the box out and studied it. It was roughly twelve inches by eight inches, and looked to be about six inches deep. It was made out of thick, solid metal-- Parker guessed titanium or tungsten. All he really knew was that it was the most secure box the agency had to offer, and it was phenomenally expensive to order for parcel delivery. Whatever was inside must have been priority one for the customer.

It was also one of the few pieces of technology preserved from the old world. Parker had no clue how it worked, but the lock did not accept a key like normal packages. Instead it bore a small keypad with the numbers zero through nine displayed on it, each on its own button. The paint on the numbers looked like it had been gone for years, but the etching was still quite clear.

With a sigh, he tucked the box back into the bag and set it aside. As he laid the bag over his pack, he noticed the pistol laying next to it. It was the piece he had recovered from the man that head taken Laura hostage. He picked it up and looked it over with curiosity; he recognized it as a Beretta 92FS, a 9mm handgun that he liked for the magazine capacity. Reaching over to his pistol belt, he drew his traditional sidearm, a Glock 21, and compared the two. Both were in savage condition; the metal was heavily battered and badly discolored, but both looked serviceable. Neither had any internal issues, as he ensured through a quick field strip and inspection. He preferred the Beretta's eighteen-round magazine to his Springfield's thirteen, and also generally preferred 9mm to .45 simply for the purpose of recoil; less recoil meant shorter time between target acquisitions, and more control for follow-up shots. Still, while the Beretta was a solid weapon, his Glock was equipped with 'night-sights'-- reflective fiber optic sights that made it easy to aim in low-light conditions. He needed those too badly to make the Beretta his sidearm. Besides, he had no 9mm ammunition, except for the one loaded magazine that was recovered with the weapon.

Tucking the Glock back into its holster, and stowing the unloaded Beretta into his pack, he leaned back to lay on his bedroll, mulling over what the coming day had in store for him. With Laura’s new instructions, at lest he knew where he was going, but suddenly it did not feel right to just get up and leave. He hurt for Laura, and he was growing attached to Reuben and Sal. He reminded himself that doing that was a dangerous business; having friends and known connections was a liability. But then he recalled that he had told Reuben about his significant other, callously referred to as the Washington County Widow, and sighed. This was why he tried to avoid people he could trust; once the trust started, he often trusted too much too quickly. Now he had told someone he hardly knew one of his biggest secrets. For his own security, he felt that he should stick around Reuben for a while. If he bolted and left them behind. Reuben might want to make some money with that information. At least if Parker was there with him, he could kill Reuben before word got out.

Finally, Parker managed to fall asleep. The morning came swiftly after that; when he opened his eyes, the sun was peeking through the windows, and the morning market bustle could be heard down the street. People came to the market in the early hours to get the first picks from shops with new stock; every day, there was a shop somewhere in the market with the newest stock that just came into town of this or that, all based on what was selling best. Runners came from all over to supply the market districts in towns like Constitution; it did not pay as well as running private or corporate parcels, but it was much more consistent, and there was no danger from the human element. But in Parker’s line of work, taking packages from anyone to anyone, people could be just as dangerous than the undead outside the walls.

Sitting up in his bedroll, he listened for a moment to see if he could hear anyone else who might have gotten up before him. He heard nothing. Quickly but quietly, he stood and changed clothes, packing his dirty clothing into a small, tightly-tied bag in a separate pouch of his pack. He donned his pistol belt but left everything else for now. Leaving his room, he stepped through the empty kitchen and into the living room. Sitting in one of the stuffed chairs was Reuben; at first, Parker thought he was asleep. But Reuben looked up at him, smiling, and said quietly, “Good morning, sunshine. Sleep well?”

“As well as is normal,” he said blandly. “Are the ladies up yet?”

“Sal is. She went to market. Laura is still sleeping.”

“She needs it,” Parker said with a sigh, moving to the couch beside the chair in which Reuben sat. After taking a seat, Reuben leaned forward, and motioned for Parker to lean in.

“I head you and her talking last night,” Reuben said quietly. “Didn’t hear what you two said, but thought I’d ask if it was anything important.”

Parker wondered how much of that was true. Did Reuben already know what was said, but was asking so that he could pretend to learn it without Parker knowing he was eavesdropping? Or was he really just being curious? “Yeah, pretty important,” Parker replied, deciding that Reuben’s motives did not matter for the moment. “She gave me an address and told me it’s urgent that I get the package there. She told me not to contact the agency.”

Casting him a wary glance, Reuben stated, “That could get you suspended. Even fired. Or charged, if she suddenly claims she never got the package.”

“I know,” he said. “But you wouldn’t believe the amount of money she said is coming my way if I do this.”

“How much?”

“A lot.”

“What, five thou? Ten thou?” Reuben guessed.

Parker pursed his lips. “Something like that.”

“Sounds a little shady, man. Why’s this package so damn important?”

“She wouldn’t say. But I gather it’s more than a letter from mom.”

Reuben grinned, and said, “Well it could be a trick, Parker. You’d be walking right into it, unless you had a brave companion watching your back.”

“Yeah, I’ve thought about that. But why would you want to play bodyguard when this isn’t even your delivery?”

“For the greater good,” he replied. “And for a cut of the pot, of course.”

“Right. And why should I trust you?”

Reuben leaned back in his seat, and sighed. “After all we’ve been through,” he said sardonically. “Well, I don’t suppose you’ll accept ‘because I’m handsome’ as an appropriate answer?”

“Try again,” Parker said, working to resist cracking a smile.

“I’m not going to beg you to let me tag along, if that’s what you’re looking for. Maybe you should trust me for the same reason I jumped in on that trap you wandered into in the rich district: because you need someone to watch your back. Two heads are better than one, and all that. If you want to go it alone, fine, but your big reward won’t mean much after you get yourself shot or eaten.” Pushing up from his seat and moving toward the kitchen. Brushing past Parker, he added over his shoulder as he left the room, “It’s up to you, Parker. If you want to be a lone wolf, have at it.”

Left alone to his thoughts, Parker let out a sigh and mulled over the ultimatum. He did not care much for the way Reuben seemed to think he was incapable of handling things on his own, but the man made a point-- he did save their lives when he intervened in Laura’s manor. Maybe Parker was not giving him enough credit.

Parker moved over to the chair in which Reuben had been sitting, and plopped down, peering out the barred window beside him in thought.

_________________
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Tribunal Power's Zombie Fiction

My Trunk Bag/GHB/BOB for a Tight Budget


Last edited by Tribunal Power on Mon Jul 25, 2011 4:39 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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 Post subject: Re: ZPAW
PostPosted: Sun Jul 24, 2011 8:04 pm 
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CHAPTER 3

It felt good to walk around town without his pack on. Without it, he could comfortably sling his rifle on his back, keeping it out of the way as he moved. His chest rig rattled slightly with each step-- magazines inside his pouches lightly hitting one another-- as he moved down the street of Constitution’s market district. Occasionally, someone would stop and stare; a little boy noticed him and pointed, tugging on his mother’s hand as he asked, “is he a Runner?” It was the kind of attention Runners gathered within the walls, from people who either dreamed of being one or dreamed of having the money that comes with it. At first, when Parker had first joined the agency and survived his first few deliveries, the attention was inflating to his ego. Now, it just annoyed him. He looked at the people around him; depressed bags of emotions, living day to day on scraps and letting their children live on one meal a day. He never understood why, when Runner agencies were always looking for new agents. It did not take a special man, just a man willing to train, willing to risk. Maybe that’s all that made men special anymore.

Soon, the market district was behind him. Passing beneath a decorative arch, possibly the only purposeless decoration in the city, Parker entered the industrial district. It was where Constitution manufactured the goods it sold in the markets, other than the food stalls; clothes, tools, utensils, even weapons had to come from somewhere. There were no caravans to take large shipments of goods from one city to another. Runners could deliver packages, but a convoy of runners with a shipment of goods was nothing more than a slow-moving feast. In the wilds, traveling with others meant making more noise, and that meant attracting attention. That attention could get someone killed.

Parker passed a factory, glancing over to see the door open with a large fan blowing through it. It was a hot day, probably around ninety degrees, and Parker wondered how people could stand factory labor. But then, he recalled a conversation he had with someone in the manor district once, who could not fathom sleeping in makeshift shelter and eating bush berries in the wilds. Parker stopped being judgmental and moved on.

He was a good fifteen or twenty minutes away from Sal’s house, now, where Reuben had remained Parker told them he needed some air, some time to think. That was not his purpose. Ahead, at the fork in the road, stood Constitution’s radio tower; that was his destination. Most of the large cities had radio towers, said to be maintained from the old world or built using old world technology. Parker knew how to operate a HAM radio, but those were rare; most of the radio work was done from station to station within cities. Runners often used to send word to their agency that they hit a snag in their delivery, or that their destination had changed. That was only part of why Parker was headed there.

Pushing open the door, he was noticed by an attractive blonde woman sitting at a desk, presumably the receptionist. The radio stations always got a lot of people who wanted to use it to contact family, but that was not what it was for. Apparently the sign on the front door that read “NOT FOR CIVILIAN USE” was not clear enough-- although, in all fairness, most of the people that frequented the industrial district were illiterate.

“Good afternoon. How can I help you?”

Parker pulled his Constitution papers from his back pocket-- proof that he was a Runner-- and handed them to the woman. “I need to send a message to the Louisville Runner Agency.”

The woman glanced over the papers for a moment before handing them back to him. “Alright,” she said as she opened the ledger on her desk. She wrote his name in the ledger, along with the time of his arrival, before saying, “Please, follow me.”

He nodded with a smile, and fell in behind her as she stood from the desk. She guided him through a solid wooden door that separated the foyer from the rest of the building, and then through a lobby, finally moving up a flight of stairs. She opened the door at the top, holding it for him, allowing him to step into the broadcasting room. There was a long hallway stretching before him, with multiple rooms on either side; the doors were numbered, and accompanied by a thick glass window into the room. The woman closed the door behind him and moved on ahead once more, before stopping at the first room with the door open, the second door on the left.

Inside it was a large man in clean, fine clothing; he wore a collared shirt with slacks and black suspenders. He looked to be in his forties, with thinning black hair and recently-shaven stubble. In his left hand was a paperback book, and in his right was a piece of bread that he was dunking into a cup of coffee on his desk. Behind him was a large terminal installed into the wall, with wires running to a small brown box on his desk.

“Roger, you have a Runner here,” the young woman said, seemingly a little annoyed.

“Hm? Oh, thanks doll,” he replied dismissively to her. The woman sighed and walked away without another word. “Take a seat, champ.” Parker moved to his desk and sat in the wooden chair on the opposing side from the man. After taking a bite of his soaked bread, he said with a full mouth, “What agency you contacting?”

“LRA,” Parker replied, shifting so that his rifle was not gouging him in the back while he sat.

“LRA it is.” The man turned his chair to type at the terminal behind him, before reaching over to grab what looked like a pair of earmuffs, as well as a black metal receiver. Parker recalled the first message he sent, and how confused he was about the technology he was using. This time, it was nothing new.

“Sound comes out of these,” the man said, laying the headphones on the desk. “And you talk into this.” He laid the microphone beside them and turned back to the terminal. “You’re all dialed in. Just say when.”

Grabbing the headphones and slipping them on, he motioned to the man to start the broadcast. Picking up the microphone, Parker took a deep breath, just as the light on the wall that read “BROADCASTING” illuminated.

“ Parker Mason, LRA 1031, to Director Garret Freeman. Current delivery destination moved. Original recipient killed by attempted robbery. All assailants killed by Runner. Will submit report upon completion of deliver. Will divulge new destination upon contact from Director Freeman. Currently residing at 71 Arming Street, Constitution. Please send liaison. Over.”

“Alright,” the man said, flipping down a few switches. “Looks like it all got through just fine. Sounds like you had quite a day, I might add.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

“No prob. You take care.”

Parker dismissed himself and followed the way back downstairs, smiling to the woman as he departed. But he did not return to Sal’s, not yet; he went to the address he had given in the transmission. Arming Street was in the industrial district; the address he gave was one of the warehouses that clustered the area. He chose it because there was another warehouse directly across the street, and that was where he would be.

In a few minutes, he was looking at the only entrance of 71 Arming Street; a small wooden door with a window that was painted to conceal squatters from prying eyes. It was not uncommon for Runners to squat inside warehouses when in large cities; seeking residence at inns or taverns often resulted in altercations with resentful locals. Warehouses were free, and although it was illegal, Runners were normally very good at remaining unseen.

Leaving the street, Parker entered the warehouse directly across the street from the address he had given. He made a note of how heavy his footfall had to be to make an echo inside the deserted warehouse, and committed it to memory. Making his way upstairs, he climbed the ladder to an elevated loft and carefully crawled to the small window nearby. The window overlooked the street, and provided a perfect view of the warehouse Parker claimed to be residing in.

His plan was to send the transmission and watch carefully to see what took place. If armed men came in looking for Parker and the package, then he knew beyond a doubt that the agency was compromised in some way, either with a mole or with someone intercepting transmissions. But if the proper LRA liaison came, then he knew the LRA had nothing to do with whatever was going on and that he should report as usual.

Hours passed, and night fell in Constitution. Parker passed the time by scrawling in a small book of crosswords that he always kept on him for time that required patience. He consumed one of his individually-wrapped wheat bars to keep his stomach from giving away his position, and washed it down with water from his hydration pack. But eventually, Parker’s patience paid off.

He spotted five men coming down the street. The size of the group is what grabbed his attention, and although he could not yet make out details about them, he knew they were there for him. Soon they stepped under one of the streetlights and Parker noticed that the gear they wore looked like what a Runner would wear. It was a disguise, he reasoned, so that no one would question why five men were walking down the street with rifles. But Parker knew that no Runner would want to be in such a large group; his suspicions were confirmed when they all stopped about ten feet from the door to the warehouse across the street. He could not hear the words, but he saw one of them motion two to the front door, before turning to look around the street. He pointed to one of the other man and then to the rear of the warehouse-- probably telling him to look for a back door. Then, to Parker’s horror, he pointed to the last man and then across the street to the warehouse Parker was in. The five separated to do their jobs.

Quickly but quietly, Parker scrambled up and moved down the ladder. He could hear the door opening down the stairs below him. Adrenaline surged through his veins as he quickly decided what to do-- try to circumnavigate the man, or set an ambush. The decision was quick: there was a hostile threat between him and an escape. The threat had to be dealt with.

Parker minded his footfalls, recalling how light he had to tread to keep from making noise. As he moved, he silently pulled his knife from his belt. There were a stack of crates just in front of the stairs-- it was close to Parker, and he knew the man would have to come up the steps. It would have to work.

Blade in hand, Parker slinked into position, behind the stacked crates. The sound of the man digging around downstairs was grating at the Runner’s nerves. There, in the dark, he wondered if his hands were shaking because of the adrenaline, or because of fear. Then he heard the first footstep on the stairs, a loud and creaky press into the aged wood. The man stopped for a moment, probably kicking himself for being so loud, and then proceeded at a much slower pace. Soon, Parker felt the wooden floor beneath him shift ever so slightly. There was another person standing on the same planks, just on the other side of the boxes. He heard light footsteps moving past, then around the railing of the stairs.

Parker realized the man was checking the crates on the other end of the room. That meant the target’s back was exposed, but that he was quickly putting distance between the two of them. Parker had to act, and he had to act now.

Taking a fast breath, Parker surged from around the corner of the box. In two long strides-- one quiet, and one very fast-- he was upon the man. His left hand wrapped over the man’s shoulder and grabbed at the trigger guard of the rifle, which was successful; he was able to jam his pinky finger behind the trigger, making it unable to fire. His blade flashed into the man, but not as aimed; the thrust was meant for the soft spot behind the jaw but instead struck the neck, nearly in the shoulder. Just as the man began to shout, Parker gasped and yanked the blade free, slamming it into his neck again and again. The man writhed, the rifle swung back and forth, and Parker felt his finger twist, feeling a pop that reverberated through his whole body. He, too, grunted in agony, before slamming the blade into the man the last few times. Coughing and wheezing, the man slammed an elbow into Parker’s chin, which knocked him away, but Parker came away with the man’s rifle in hand. When the Runner recovered, dropping the knife as he lifted the rifle to swing it like a bat, he saw that the man had collapsed, and was slowly crawling away.

Parker discarded the rifle and recovered the knife, dropping it into the back of the man’s neck to touch into the spine. The man no longer moved.

Moments later, Parker hastily crept through the door. Knife still in hand, he broke into a sprint, burning through the street to get away from the industrial district. He made the twenty minute walk back to Sal’s in less than ten, only taking time to ensure that he was not followed. When he reached her house, he exploded through the door, and saw more than he expected to.

Bullet holes pocked the wall facing the front door. There was blood on the floor, leading into the kitchen. Parker quickly pulled his pistol and leveled it before him as he approached the entry way into the kitchen. Collapsed against the wall was another man that looked like a runner. He had been shot several times in the torso, and once in the head. Satisfied he was not getting up, Parker followed the smear of blood into the kitchen. Laura was lying on the floor, and the trail of blood led to her.

Swallowing, Parker noted that she had been shot at least twice in the chest, maybe more. He moved past her, before hearing movement in the bedroom. Quickly turning in that direction, he saw Reuben leaning out of the door; his face changed when he saw Parker.

“Oh, thank God,” Reuben said.

“What the fuck happened here?”

“Those guys just kicked in the door and started searching,” Reuben said. “I went for the guns, and Laura started yelling and grabbed a knife. She… Well, she took one down. I took the rest.”

“How many?” Parker asked.

“Three. One on the living room, one in the kitchen, one in here.”

Parker pushed past him into the bedroom. He cast a glance to the body in the corner, a man with only half a head, before snatching his bag up from the ground. “We have to go. Right now.”

“What about Sal?” Reuben asked, his voice flexed with stress.

“This isn’t about her. They want the package. They only attacked you because you two were in their way. I’m sure she’s fine.”

Reuben grabbed his bag as well and let out a heavy sigh. For the first time, Parker saw Reuben’s rifle-- a relatively small Kalashnikov with wood furniture and a long magazine. But it was not the time to admire a weapon-- they had to leave.

On the way out, Parker stopped for a moment at Laura’s body. Three shots-- two to the chest, one to the right bicep. Beside her was the kitchen knife she had grabbed. He looked over to see the dead man, and noticed that the trail of blood Parker had followed actually seemed to belong to the man; his throat was cut open, and he was lying in a massive pool that had spread nearly to Laura’s body. What happened seemed clear; he came in, Laura grabbed a knife and started slashing. She took a chunk out of his throat, he shot her, then collapsed and bled out. Parker cast a gaze of admiration to Laura.

“I guess she was tired of being the victim,” Reuben commented, moving past Parker.

“She never should have known what being a victim was like in the first place.”

“Cruel world,” replied Reuben as he knelt down by the dead man, looking over his belongings.

“No,” corrected Parker. “Cruel men.”

“Maybe.” Looking over to Parker, Reuben sighed and said, “Jesus, what happened to you anyway?”

Unsure what he meant, Parker looked down to see that he was covered in blood from the man he had killed. It was all over his shirt and his chest rig, soaked deeply into the rolled up sleeve on his right arm. “They found me, too,” he said simply. “I’ll explain later.”

Reuben shook his head with a sigh, as he helped himself to a few things on the man’s corpse. Parker took the unspoken advice and moved to the one in the living room, quickly looting a few pieces of candy and a granola bar. He noticed that the man carried a Glock, and checked the magazine. It was a 9mm, and had several full magazines. He grabbed them all, and the pistol, stuffing them into his bag for now; later, he would decide if they were worth the weight.

With that, the two departed from the house, keeping to alleys and staying as close to the city walls as they could as they made their way to the gate.

CHAPTER 4

Parker took a moment to towel off the blood that splotched his skin and shirt before entering the gatehouse. Once dark red stains were less noticeable, he discarded the rag he had taken from his pack into a shrub just before the gatehouse. The sound of rattling chains and squeaking pulleys came through the wood and iron portcullis as it began to lift. The inner portcullis was identical to the outer; the two gates formed the front and back walls of the gatehouse, which acted like an airlock to travelers and intruders alike. Once the portcullis was open enough, the two Runners quickly scuttled beneath it. The gate slid closed behind them, and the two followed protocol, stepping away from each other and facing the outside wall, popping the magazines from their weapons and extracting the rounds from the chamber. Once their weapons were effectively disengaged, a trio of men emerged from the side doors, one with a clipboard flanked by two with rifles.

“On your way out, boys?” the man said, approaching in a friendly demeanor.

“Yep,” Parker stated. “Delivery was declined. Gotta head elsewhere now.”

“Sounds like a headache,” the man said. “Mind if I see your papers?”

Parker and Reuben both reached into their packs, slowly, with their off-hand open and palms facing the guards. The two of then unsheathed their credentials and offered them to the man. He nodded in thanks as he graciously took both of them, unfolding the papers and reading them over. “Parker Mason and Reuben Santiago. Well, you gentlemen be careful out there, hm?”

“All day, every day,” Parker quipped, watching the man cross their names off the check-out list.

The cities kept a record of the Runners that came through their gates separately from the guest ledger of other individuals; this made it easier to find a name when the agency disperses transmissions requesting information on runners that have disappeared. The cities that have the name on their ledgers transmit the Runner’s name and the date and time of their entry and exit. With this process, the agencies could deduce where the Runner had been last before he disappeared, and decide whether or not to pursue an investigation; if the Runner vanished in the city, investigations were usually conducted, but if the Runner was last seen exiting a city and never entered another, then the agency presumed him dead.

With their names marked off and the time recorded, the man handed their credentials back and turned away from them. “There was a nonmortuis sighting west of here, about ten miles,” he warned. “Looked about ten miles away. Only a few of them, though there might be more nearby we can’t see. Don’t know where you’re headed out there, but take care.”

“Thanks,” Parker said, folding his papers and slipping them back into his pack.

With no further words, the man returned through the side door along with the guard. Parker and Reuben stepped to the front portcullis, and proceeded to load their weapons-- each of them loading full metal jacket rounds, rather than hollow point-- before the portcullis began to open. The only time a loaded weapon was allowed in a gatehouse wielded by someone other than militia was when preparing to deploy back into the wilds, after all others cleared the room. Parker and Reuben both pulled the charging handles on their rifles as the chains began to move, hoisting the heavy gate.

By the time it opened, the two Runners had their rifles pressed to their shoulders and were watching through their sights. After satisfying their caution that their immediate area was not hostile, they relaxed slightly just in front of the gate, and stepped closer together.

“Tie everything down,” Parker said, as he checked over his gear. “Make sure that if something comes looks while you’re trucking, it’s tied to something that won’t.”

“I know, Parker. I’m a Runner too, remember?”

“Right. I’m just not used to--”

“Partners?” Reuben let out a soft chuckle and replied, “Yeah, I kinda got that impression from you.”

“We head north,” said Parker, forgoing the previous subject. “We’ll see if we can find a way around the walkers to the west.”

By saying nothing, Reuben agreed. The two set off north, breaking away from the hills that surrounded Constitution and entering into densely vegetated fields. The foliage through which they soon waded forced them to hack their way through, Parker with his machete and Reuben with his kukri. This did not last long, as Parker quickly mentioned to Reuben that it was a bad idea to stomp through a jungle in the middle of the night with very little light. The two agreed that it would be best to navigate their way to the edge of the foliage and find a suitable place for a camp.

Setting up the campsite took several hours. Once they escaped the vegetation and found suitable, flat ground with the necessary accommodations for shelter, the two separated and performed a meticulous sweep and inspection of the area to ensure their safety. Once completed, Parker suggested they move slightly into the foliage so that they could use some of the trees and bushes for perimeter security, and Reuben deferred to Parker’s knowledge on the matter. Using fishing line and small bells, Parker outlined their campsite’s borders; this would give them some warning if something or someone touched it on their way in or out of the campsite.

At the foot of each tree, Parker set up snares and traps for small game, such as squirrels or chipmunks. During their search, neither of them found edible berries, but Reuben noted that it was too dark to confidently pick the non-poisonous berries and be certain of them.

Finally, with perimeter security established, some traps laid, and their shelter pitched-- both of them having small single-man tents, separate from one another-- they were prepared to retire. Not bothering with a fire that night, the two went to their tents; Parker passed some time by eating a few of the granola bars he had recovered earlier in the day, and inspecting the weapons in his gear. He concluded that the Glock he salvaged, along with the ammunition and magazines, was worth its weight because of the possibility of his sidearm being lost during combat. He counted the ammunition that remained for his rifle and for his current sidearm, and then doused his gas lantern and fell into a light sleep.


A gentle shade of dawn shone through the top of Parker’s tent, but it was not sunlight that awakened him, nor was it the early morning hours that caused him to snatch his pistol and bound from his tent. It was the sound of one of the bells ringing, clattering as though something had stumbled through his tripwire. He leapt from his tent, pistol leveled and aimed, when he saw a chilling sight. Reuben emerged from his tent seconds after.

The west perimeter, formed by two large trees with a long stretch of fishing line and two bells clamped to it, was broken. One bell lay on the ground. The other was jingling sporadically, as an undead fiend nonchalantly kicked it repeatedly. It would bump the bell with its foot, and then be startled and attracted by the noise it made, turning around only to bump the bell again and make another noise. It was a precarious cycle that the creature had been snagged in, and for a moment, Parker watched in quiet surprise, and even a morbid sense of amusement. Reuben, staring down the sights of his suppressed Walther P99, felt no such thing.

“Real quiet,” Parker whispered in a nearly inaudible voice. “Quieter than a suppressed shot.”

Reuben nodded, before offering the pistol to Parker. Holstering his own, Parker took the weapon, before Reuben reached into his tent and unsheathed his kukri. While Parker kept the suppressed pistol trained on the creature’s head, Reuben sidled up on its flank with the blade. He took a deep breath and drew his arm back, before heaving a heavy swing into the unsuspecting creature’s neck. The first cut seemed to chop about halfway through its neck; the beast collapsed and twitched, writhing back and forth, before suddenly clawing at the ground to get to Reuben. Parker stepped forward and put his boot on it, pinning it for a moment while Reuben landed one last blow into the neck. Decapitated, the body lay motionless, but the head continued to function, eyes and jaw moving in an unholy search for flesh. Parker was considering how to end this monstrosity when Reuben surprised him by producing an ice pick, delivering a swift jab into the eye socket of the undead head. There was no more movement.

“Well, not exactly a morning cup of coffee,” Reuben commented with a sigh.

“Our friend attracted attention,” Parker said, nudging his companion and pointing westward. There were several more undead stragglers meandering about, but all were gradually milling toward them. “I think we need to go.”

“Seems that way.”

The stench was overpowering. Before heading back to his tent, Parker glanced over the creature. Mostly naked, it looked like it had been decaying for a few weeks in humid heat. Its clothes were reduced to tattered rags and it was missing several fingers. No hair, peeling scalp, and a large portion of its body was missing skin-- excessive movement after all the skin died often caused the flesh to be jarred off. Feeling sick, Parker retreated.

The two rapidly dismantled their site and erased any trace of their presence, including picking up their empty snares and recoiling the fishing line. In ten minutes, the camp that had taken three hours to establish was completely gone. With their rucks on their backs, Parker and Reuben set off; because of the dense foliage to the north, the Runners weighed their options and decided to head west to test their luck at circumnavigating the undead that were seen there. Carefully and quietly, they maneuvered around the stragglers that were to the west of their camp, but were prepared to face them full force if necessary.

After successfully avoiding the small group, they kept heading west, with Parker occasionally checking his compass to keep them on track. For hours they walked, barely saying a word to one another. Parker knew that talking was among the greatest dangers of traveling with a partner; it was impossible to know with certainty if there was a living corpse listening, attracted by the sounds of human speech.

It was late afternoon when Parker stopped. “That’s I-65 right there,” he commented, pointing to it. It was just barely visible, snaking its way over the hills and clouded with the surrounding vegetation. “If we follow that north, in a couple days we’ll run right into Shepherdsville.”

Reuben nodded, before pulling a pair of aged binoculars from his pack and pulling them to his eyes. “Looks pretty clear,” he commented. “The zombies are mostly to the south now. I can see a few down that way on the highway, but they’re out of earshot. We should be fine if…”

Parker paused a moment, turning to him and asking, “If what?”

“There’s someone down there,” Reuben said quickly. “Not a zombie, a person.”

“What’s he doing?”

“He’s… Waving.”

Parker pulled his own binoculars from their pouch on his pack and peered through them, struggling at first to find the man. But after a brief search over the highway, he saw the man standing in one place, waving one arm at them. Parker took a quick note the man’s appearance; he was wearing camouflage and had a relatively small pack on his back. He wore an olive drab scarf around his neck and a patrol cap of the same color. But by far the most interesting feature of his attire was his weaponry; over his chest lied a Stone-2070, a rifle that used the same design as the AR-15 but began manufacture in 2070, long after the end of the old world. It had an optic mounted to it that Parker knew was powered-- generally, powered optics were bought at very high cost by a city-state to better equip their militia.

“He must be a Runner,” Reuben commented.

“No,” replied Parker. “He’s a Scout.”

Watching through his binoculars, Reuben simply said, “Hm. No shit.”

“Scouts always travel in pairs. Sniper and spotter.”

“So you can bet the other one is holed up right now?” Reuben asked, pulling his attention away from the man to look elsewhere for his partner.

“We’re probably being watched through a scope as we speak.” Reluctantly, Parker lifted his arm and waved back to the man. The man stopped waving, but did not move from his spot. “He wants us to meet with him.”

“Not like this, we’re not-- not on his terms.”

“We’ll even it up a little,” Parker commented, taking a few steps back from the hill upon which he stood. He knelt down and lifted his AR, before laying prone on the ground. “If you go meet with him, I’ll stay here and watch your back.”

“Jesus,” he remarked, “that’s a long way. Are you sure you can make the shot?”

“Looks like around 250 yards. With elevation, yes, I can make that shot.”

Reuben sighed, and conceded. “Alright, I’ll go. I’ll try to be diplomatic. What do you think a Scout wants with us?”

“Who knows? We might have just stepped into his expedition, or maybe he’s looking to trade. His overwatch could just be insurance.”

“Yeah, I hope so,” Reuben muttered as he turned away. Stopping, he looked over his shoulder and added, “If you have to shoot, don’t miss.”

Parker did not reply. As Reuben tromped down the hill, Parker took in a deep breath and peered through his short-range ACOG scope. It helped significantly, but it was not an easy shot; if the man moved or sought cover, it would be an extremely difficult target to hit. Parker was a good practical marksman, but he was no sniper, and he was not used to engaging at such extended distances. He knew his weapon was more suited for this task than Reuben’s Kalashnikov, which was generally less accurate and lacked optics of any kind, but as his partner approached the strange Scout on the highway, Parker suddenly felt doubt in his own plan. He hoped earnestly, for Reuben’s sake, that he would not have to shoot at all.

CHAPTER 5

Seeing a Scout in the wilds was a rare thing. They were not like Runners, always moving along the roads or over the hills to get from city to city. Scouts were the highest tier of city militia, engineered specifically for outland expeditions. Reconnaissance, exploration, and occasionally even intercity intelligence were the jobs that only Scouts could accomplish. When a city had problems outside of its walls, problems beyond riots or crime, the militia would stay home while a pair of Scouts were sent to make the problem go away. So as Rueben moved down the hill, alone, his eyes fixed on the armed scout that waited for him on the road, he was understandably uncomfortable and wondered what in the world could be going on so far from any city that would attract a Scout. They were a day away from Constitution and at least two days from Shepherdsville; why would a pair of Scouts come out so far?

Reuben took a moment to observe the area around the Scout. The man stood between two burned-out cars, positioned roughly twenty feet apart, almost forming a clear section of pavement on the two-lane road. As Reuben approached, he kept his hand on his lax rifle, finger outside the trigger guard, until he saw the Scout remove his hands from his own rifle and lay them limp at his sides. Obliging the subtle move towards parlay, Reuben did the same. Soon, he stood on the road, a mere ten feet from the man.

“Good afternoon,” said the Scout.

“Hi. What can we do for you?”

“Well, you can make my job a hell of a lot easier. Maybe yours, too.”

“Oh?” Reuben replied, growing increasingly uneasy. “Howso?”

“Before I say anything, I want to make it clear that I am not here on hostile terms. I want to treat you like a human being and I want to do so in a fair way. So instead of going on dim commands and vague instructions, which seems so popular these days, I’m going to hand you the truth and see what you do with it.”

For a moment, no one said anything.

“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that you are being watched by my partner. In addition to being an excellent shot, he is also a very good judge of character and body language. If you make a move, I promise you that you will expire before you hear his shot. I will operate under the assumption that your companion on that hill has the same level of expertise. Regardless of what you do here, as long as it is nonviolent, we will both walk away from this.”

Reuben nodded slowly and silently.

The Scout took a deep breath. “My partner and I have been sent for a mister Parker Mason. We were instructed to find him and acquire from him the package that he carries. Our CO gave us no further information, other than the fact that he would be traveling from Constitution to Shepherdsville. We figured I-65 was a likely spot to encounter him, and set up camp. We have been here for just over twenty-four hours. Although I had no further information, being assigned to track down a Runner-- and being told that killing him was fine if necessary-- is a rather unusual task. I had some friends look into it and I discovered some things that you and Parker Mason need to know.”

Reuben wondered briefly how the Scout knew that he was not Parker. The only answer that came to mind was the fact that the agency kept a picture on file of each Runner. Was the agency involved?

“That package you carry,” the Scout continued, “could be the most important delivery in the history of the world. The decisions you two make can and will affect the rest of the world in very defined and profound ways.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Reuben asked indignantly. It all seemed awfully melodramatic.

The Scout shifted slightly, as if uncomfortable with the information he knew.


Parker could only wonder what they were talking about as he watched through his ACOG scope, with his fiber optic crosshairs laid roughly six inches over the Scout’s head. The two seemed to be getting along alright so far-- no sudden movements or confusing gestures. The situation still seemed so alien to him-- being approached in the wild at all was rare, but a sniper standoff with a pair of Scouts was absolutely unheard of. The Scouts had to have been searching for them specifically, or they never would have crossed paths. The thought led Parker’s finger inside the trigger guard, a hair’s width away from the trigger. If he was being followed by Scouts, the only possible conclusion is that it was somehow connected to the package he carried-- the package that had already caused so much trouble and death. He caught himself wondering yet again what could possibly be in the lockbox that was so important for all of this.

The two continued to converse, and Parker was beginning to feel confident that the man was not planning on attacking. Several minutes of peaceful conversation had taken place now, and so instead of needlessly holding his target over the Scout’s head, he began to slowly scan the area. He looked atop the hill on the opposing side of the highway, hoping to see the Scout sniper, but did not. His scope lowered back to I-65 as he looked first to the right, northbound, and then to the left, southbound. At first, it looked clear in both directions, but just as he was about to look away from the southbound highway, he spotted movement. Steadying his aim, he watched for a moment, before seeing it again; a woman, beaten and bloodied and mangled and rotted, making her way toward Reuben and the Scout.

“Oh, fuck.”

There was roughly thirty yards between the two and the shambling horror, but the distance was closing. He trained his crosshairs at an appropriate height above the undead woman to hit her from his distance, but hesitated. Clearly, neither Reuben nor the Scout had noticed the woman yet; if he fired, and they did not know he had shot a zombie, then his gunshot might make the Scouts think they were being attacked-- undoubtedly their sniper would then take his shot at Reuben, and was probably much better equipped for such ranges. He shuddered to realize that shooting the zombie could cost Reuben his life.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he murmured through clenched teeth.

Behind the woman were three more just like her. Parker decided it was probably the tip of the cluster they had bypassed earlier in the day’s travels. Either the horde covered a large span of territory, or Parker and Reuben were followed by them.

Details aside, Parker was still at a loss for what to do. The shambling woman had a line of sight on the two now, and was beginning to pick up speed. They still did not seem to notice. There was not much time.

Cursing under his breath, Parker shoved off of the ground and took off down the hill. Hopefully he could warn them-- get their attention in time to point out the oncoming trouble. His feet carried him swiftly down the grassy hill, his gear shifting back and forth as he sprinted toward them. Finally, within earshot, he hollered out to them.

“Reuben! Nine o’clock! Nine o’clock!” he screamed.

Reuben’s head whirled back to see him, a befuddled look on his distant face. He did not seem to hear.

“Reub--”

Parker’s voice was cut short by the crack of a high-caliber weapon. He felt his heart jump, his gut lurch. For a moment, a brief hazy second in time, he wondered if he had been hit. But he was still running, his feet still carrying him over the ground at an impressive speed, and he felt no pain. No, he was not hit. He looked to Reuben, diving for cover; he saw the Scout, rushing to a nearby car to protect himself. Looking over, he saw two stragglers where there had been three; on the ground in a heap lied the undead woman, sans most of her head. It must have been the Scout sniper-- he must have seen them too.

Then, the second horror’s chest erupted; collapsing into a moaning and writhing pile, the zombie crawled toward Reuben and the Scout, dragging its broken body behind it. Then Parker heard the crack again; the sniper had to be distant.

There was still so much space between he and Reuben-- he felt like he was walking rather than sprinting. Adrenaline surged through him, and he pushed himself to move faster, when suddenly he found himself no longer touching the ground. He felt the residual impact of something that had slapped into his shoulder, but hardly even noticed it at the time of impact; airborne for a moment, he had time enough to catch his breath in his chest before slamming into the dirt.

He landed on his shoulder, rolling onto his pack. He heard things crunch beneath him, and prayed that it was nonessentials in his pack rather than his own ribs. Rolling at a dizzying speed, he instinctively tried to reach out to stop himself, but as a result, his carbine’s barrel jammed into the dirt, the stock jabbing into his chest, pushing the breath from him. His head snapped back and his left hand struck the ground, a jolt of pain ripping through him from his already-wounded finger. Finally, filthy and bleeding from who knows where, he skidded to a stop at the bottom of the hill. He lifted his head in a daze.

He could hear a cacophony of gunfire, loud enough to be within fifty yards. His dizzy and blurry vision focused on a figure approaching him, flanked by another figure. He was relieved to think that it was Reuben and the Scout coming to his aid, but logic denied him that relief; if the gunfire was some fifty yards away, these figures could not be his allies. His heartbeat surged in anxiety and he rapidly drew his pistol.

His vision came clear and he saw that the two figures were indeed bony, rotted corpses rushing toward him. He caught himself just as he let out a scream of shock, before he squeezed the trigger of his Glock 21 as many times as he could stay on target. One round shredded the zombie’s shoulder, another through its chin, the third and forth blasting chunks from the side of its head. The second creature let out a blood-curdling roar just before Parker let a more calm shot rip through its head.

Wide-open eyes took in his surroundings as he struggled to get his bearings. He hastily got to his feet and swirled around to make sure he was clear. He looked down to the highway and his gut sank-- the horde made it before he did. Where Reuben and the Scout once stood, dozens of zombies now walked and ran. He could hear gunfire down the northbound highway, and he wanted to go aid them, but he had problems of his own.

Looking back to his own surroundings, he counted four more coming his way from the horde itself, and two flanking him from the south. He backpedaled as he holstered his pistol and lifted his carbine, only to see the grass and dirt packed into the barrel as he aimed through his scope. Cursing, he dropped it back over his chest, leaving the inoperable weapon in favor of his pistol yet again. The nearest zombie caught a .45 caliber round to the face before Parker turned around and took off yet again.

His speed was lacking this time, as he found himself limping with a pain in his right foot. Still, he hurried on, headed north in hopes of linking up with Reuben. But as more and more zombies broke away from the group to pursue him, he quickly shifted priorities into simply making it out alive. The undead were to the west, and to the south, all moving north; with no other option, he turned east and began to move uphill.

The difficulty of movement was wearing on him. There were a handful of undead men and women closing in and he knew he could not make it to the top of the hill-- it was too steep. He had to clear his immediate area before trying to get to the top of the hill or they would simply attack him from behind. Steeling his resolve, he stopped and turned, slamming his back against the steep hill, leveling his pistol. His first round went wild, driven off-target by his trembling hands. The lead corpse was less than ten yards out now, and he let out a breath to steady himself. His next shot was true, dropping the zombie in its tracks. He struggled to recall how many shots he had used as the others closed in; growing nervous, he fired another two rounds, both striking the second zombie in the head.

There were two more from the west, and two more further out from the south. Lining up his sights carefully, he squeezed off one round, catching the nearest zombie in the eye. But the other was right behind it, and taking his time to line up a shot had cost him precious seconds. Growing intimidated, Parker fired one shot, missing wildly. With the zombie only ten feet away, he pulled the trigger three times.

There were two loud bangs, followed by the heart-stopping click of the slide locking back. His thirteen round magazine was spent.

Parker gasped in relief that the zombie had been killed on the second shot, but the last two that were approaching were too close to allow him time to reload. He swallowed, and actively chose to drop his handgun onto his lap, pulling his knife from his belt. He tightened his body and prepared to catch the corpse as it dove for him. Lifting his left arm, he knocked the bony fingers away that tried to grab him, and his right arm slammed the knife into the corpse’s body. It was enough to keep the maw of the beast away from him long enough to grab it by its rotted clothing, yank the blade free, and shove it into the creature’s temple. Limp, the body rested over his legs as the final monster approached; this time, Parker was able to drop the knife and quickly reload his Glock, before firing two quick shots that toppled the beast.

Leaned against the hill, mostly obscured by bodies, Parker knew that to try and make an escape was too likely to draw attention. He was in too deep now. The stench of the body that lied over his waste was overpowering; he felt vomit rising up in him and did his best to contain it. When he realized that the rest of the large group was still moving north, ignoring him, he realized that staying perfectly still to blend in with the dead bodies around him might keep him alive. Sweat soaked his clothing as he struggled to keep from gasping breath, a combination of the physical exertion and the noxious aroma coming from the corpses around him making it hard to draw air. His rapid heartbeat sounded like gunshots in his ringing, nearly deafened ears, and although he lied still with the corpses around him, covered by their image and their smell, he knew he was trembling with terror.

Silent, still, and scared, Parker remained beneath the bodies until the horde had passed him by.

CHAPTER 6

The cool nighttime breeze blew over the grass and dirt, and over the small fire Parker had built. It was a welcome change of pace from the sweltering temperatures that had been common, and Parker found it relaxing. Despite how well his fire was burning, he took no pride in it, because amidst the coals and kindling was a set of perfectly good clothing that he had to burn due to its exposure to the undead. It was covered in gore from the earlier skirmish, and the stench would never come out. He was running low on good sets of clothing now-- he noted that he may need to purchase more upon arriving at Shepherdsville.

His shoulder ached terribly. Of the many scrapes and bruises he obtained earlier in the day, the most painful was the long gash on his right shoulder, which he likely received from his fall. He also twisted his ankle-- a very bothersome injury for a swift traveler-- as well as a more troubling injury that resulted in red-tinged urine. He had tried to relax since he made it away from the scene of the fight to give his body time to recuperate; his kidney had probably taken a knock and he was unsure as to whether or not he had broken anything. His left pinky finger, previously injured during the scuffle in the warehouse in Constitution, was now badly bruised and swollen; he wondered if he dislocated it more severely this time, or even fractured it.

With the bleeding wounds sanitized and bandaged, all he could do was maintain his gear. He had pitched camp a ways to the east from the highway, and would continue on in the morning. The night was spent cleaning and inspecting his weapons and reloading his magazines, trying not to think about whether or not Reuben survived the horde. He ate a meager meal, rationed from his few remaining packets of dehydrated foods; he had been unable to replenish his supplies in Constitution, which left him dangerously low for the journey to Shepherdsville. If he tarried too long, he would run out of food. Without more rations, he could not afford to prolong the trip.

After packing his gear together rinsing out his eating utensils with some of his drinking water, he fell into an uneasy slumber on a hammock tied between two trees, sheltered by a tarp strung overhead in the same fashion. Sleep was difficult; the pain from his injuries and the troubles on his mind kept him too disturbed for an invigorating rest. But in time, his mental and physical exhaustion caught up with him, and he relaxed into his slumber where he was met with dreams even more disturbing than the reality he faced.


When Parker opened his eyes again, the smell of an oncoming storm filled his nostrils. He lifted his head only to feel a stabbing pain in his neck and shoulder, and quickly reclined once more. Dull aches resonated all over his body, sore and beaten from the previous day’s combat. For a time, he remained in his knit hammock, gently swaying in the cool breeze, unwilling to force his pained body to stand. Eventually, he mustered the strength and the resolve to lift, no matter the pains, and sat up with a clenched jaw and a stifled groan. He kicked his throbbing legs out of the hammock and took to his feet, catching his balance a moment before letting out a long and painful stretch.

After brushing his teeth, he found a suitable bush a short distance away into which he emptied his bladder. His urine still showed an orange tinge, and he let out a troubled sigh. As he returned to his site he lifted his shirt to check his body over; as he suspected, a massive bruise had formed on his right side, directly over his kidney. With the shades of purple, grey, and yellow that decorated his flesh, he knew he had bruised the kidney during his scuffle. As long as it was no worse than that, it would clear up in a few days; otherwise, he had a serious problem.

He took an extra dose in vitamins to provide his body with the extra energy it would need for the journey. After a quick breakfast of dehydrated fruits, jerky, and a granola bar, he began to tear down camp. First he packed up his water pot and utensils, followed by unstringing his hammock, and lastly the tarp. Once everything was shoved into his noticeably-lighter pack, he hefted it onto his shoulders. A sharp pain tore through him as he remembered the bandaged wound on the back of his right shoulder; he was forced to let the pack down and loosen the right strap. He dreaded the trip ahead; two days walking with wounds and a ruck on his back would not be a pleasant experience. Still, he had to hurry in hopes of beating the storm.

In a short amount of time, he reached I-65 again, and was staggered by the carnage he saw. Dozens of corpses lay in the street, motionless, truly dead; stragglers wandered amidst the bodies, still shambling and searching for the meal that had eluded them. Parker decided that it would be best to avoid the interstate for a few miles; perhaps further down the road the highway would be clear. To lift his spirits, he continuously reminded himself that Reuben’s body was nowhere in sight.

Travel was slow. Parker’s injuries were taking their toll on him. His shoulder wound made it difficult to maintain a steady pace while carrying his pack, and his sprained ankle ensured that every other step he took was gradual and painful. As he walked, he wrapped his pinky finger tightly with medical tape to help compress the swelling. In order to keep himself distracted from both the situation and the pain, he took peeks at his book of crossword puzzles every now and then; he would focus on a particularly difficult clue, put the book away, and ponder it as he traveled. This allowed him to keep his mind actively engaged without stopping or compromising his awareness. It was effective; two crossword puzzles later, Parker realized the sun was beginning to set. He adjusted his course to approach the highway.

By his estimates, he had traveled roughly twenty miles in ten hours. It was a painstakingly slow pace, but he successfully passed the storm, and had not seen any walkers since he first looked at the interstate. After confirming that the highway was clear, he branched off to prepare a campsite for his second night alone in the wilds.

Before all else, he set his catches. Squirrel snares had always been his favorite; the most effective way in his experience was to find a long branch from one tree and break it off, placing several squirrel snares on it. Leaning this branch against another tree made squirrels curious about it; squirrels that investigated were often caught by the wire snares, and hanged. Once the squirrel snares were in place by the trees, he began a small fire beneath his overhead tarp and put some water to boil. By nightfall, he was peacefully enjoying a cup of hot tea and finishing off the remainder of the crossword puzzle that he had left incomplete. He urinated in a nearby bush, satisfied to see his kidney injury had not worsened, before managing his dental hygiene. Satisfied and exhausted, he stamped out the fire and buried the coals to keep them hot for the morning before tucking into his hammock and pulling his hat over his eyes.


Another uneventful night passed. Parker awoke to shooting pains and stiff aches, but none as bad as the previous morning. He rose, cleaned, and urinated again; much to his relief, the color was improving gradually. Then he was off to check his snares and traps; he could see from the distance that one of his snares had caught its prey. Upon closer inspection, he saw that two snares were occupied at one tree, and one at another. This was a victory-- three squirrels would be enough for a whole day of traveling. He retrieved all of the snares as well as the small game and returned to his camp site.

After packing the snares, he uncovered the coals he had buried the night before and prepared for the morning’s fire. From his pack he pulled a small pouch filled with dead grass and straw and laid it around the coals before laying thin branches in a piled pyramid around them. The coals heated quickly as he blew on them, soon growing hot enough to light the tinder. He left the fire to build while he prepared to boil his water.

Soon, all three of the squirrels were boiling whole in the pot. After a few minutes, the boiling water had removed the hair from the creatures, and Parker begrudgingly discarded the water; although he hated to lose good water, doing this was much easier than singing the hair off. He then skinned and gutted the squirrels one by one, dismembered the meat and dropped it into a pan coated with a small amount of oil. As they cooked, he prepared the salt and pepper seasoning-- heavy on the salt, to preserve what he did not eat. A few minutes later he was contentedly eating a high-protein breakfast of seasoned squirrel strips. The rest was dried over the fire to remove excess oil, covered with a bit of tinfoil, put into a cloth bag and tied tightly. After he packed the meat into his ruck and tore down the campsite, Parker set off again, hoping he could close the last bit of the journey and reach Shepherdsville before nightfall.


When Parker saw Shepherdsville sitting on top of the highway, he felt a wave of relief wash over him. The road was broken and destroyed, ending abruptly at the wall of the city; it gave the illusion that the walls had burst from the earth and risen through the ground beneath the road. The newly-risen moon reminded Parker that he was extremely behind schedule, and he hurried towards the city.

As he neared the gatehouse, his heart stopped in his chest. The exterior portcullis was open. The only time he had ever seen a city’s exterior portcullis standing open was when he saw Elizabethtown falling to a ferocious onslaught of the undead several years earlier; the gatekeepers did not live long enough to close the gates. The thought that Shepherdsville could be suffering the same fate sent shivers of dread through him. But there were no such noises coming from beyond the walls, nothing like the wails of agony and screams of horror he heard in Elizabethtown. Gradually, his weapon raised and aimed, he put one foot in front of the other, his mind flexing beneath the dread of what he might see.

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Tribunal Power's Zombie Fiction

My Trunk Bag/GHB/BOB for a Tight Budget


Last edited by Tribunal Power on Thu Aug 25, 2011 5:13 am, edited 4 times in total.

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CHAPTER 7

The gatehouse was devoid of any movement at all. The interior portcullis was closed, the exterior open, the two doors on either side of the room shut. As Parker crept inside, he spotted the bodies lying on the floor, their blood soaked into the dirt beneath them. There were three bodies total, lying very near to one another, all militia. Parker ensured the room was clear before lowering his weapon and kneeling down to look over the bodies. Each of them had been shot several times, mostly in the chest, with one of them showing a fatal shot to the side of the head.

His eyes trailed away to the spent casings on the ground. He picked one up and inspected it. It was a 5.56 casing, the same cartridge his AR-15 was chambered in, as well as the Stone-2070s the militia carried. Curious, Parker inspected their weaponry. Two of them carried the Stone-2070 carbines, while the third one left a discarded old world HK USP45 handgun just a few inches from his hand. Parker checked the magazines of all of their weapons; the nearest Stone-2070 was missing seven rounds. The HK USP was missing one. A quick glance around showed a spent casing for each bullet missing, and for each bullet wound. Could these men really have slaughtered each other, and left the gate open?

Parker sighed and shook his head. If it could happen anywhere, it would be Shepherdsville; in a city with such high crime rates, even the militia did crazy things. Still, it did not feel right. Standing up and moving away from the bodies, returning them to the same manner in which he found them, he moved to the side doors. One was locked, the other unlocked. Why had no one come for these soldiers? Were the walls empty now, no longer guarded? Someone must have heard the gunshots.

Deciding the good of the city was more important than preserving the crime scene, Parker worked the lever winch to close the portcullis. But opening the inner portcullis could attract a lot of attention, so instead, he moved cautiously through the side door. He popped the magazine from his AR-15 and retrieved the chambered round, shoving it back into its place in the magazine which he tucked into his vest. His hand stayed very near his sidearm as he moved through the poorly-lit hall, searching for a door into the city. Eventually, without seeing another soul anywhere inside, he found one unlocked. He opened it and stepped into the market district.

He remembered hearing about the huge overhaul Shepherdsville had some years ago. The market district was moved from the center of the city to the front, because the crime had become so frequent that the militia grew tired of crossing the city to get to it. When a shop was robbed or someone was mugged or even murdered, the militia would get there to clean up the mess but never to find the culprit. The overtaxed militia rarely had time for investigations, so rather than allow it to continue, the city decreed that the shops must be moved closer to the gate where the militia would be able to respond more promptly. It worked; crime in the market district was, from that point forward, the lowest in the city.

As Parker moved into the market proper and saw that the streets were abnormally empty, he wondered what had happened that would clean the local riffraff so thoroughly from the shops. Even when there were no customers in the market, there was always a high volume of beggars, but even they were absent. Not wanting to linger there, Parker hastened his way to his lodging: a tavern called ‘Queen’s Council’.

The wooden door to the tavern creaked as he pushed it open, and he was relieved to see some activity within. The people inside seemed normal enough; folks laughing and spilling alcohol on the floor, a few tired old men yelling at each other in the corner, a beautiful woman chatting up one of the bartenders, and the poorly-concealed smell of sex and narcotics. Briefly, Parker wondered what it was like to be one of these people, worried only about whether or not their paycheck from the farm or factory would cover the booze, drugs, and cheap women for the week. Still, whether or not he liked it, it was the best lodging in Shepherdsville; being in the market district meant the odds for a burglary or some such thing were comparatively low, and the respectively high prices kept the lowest thugs from coming around too much.

Casually, Parker strolled to the counter. Most of the congregation was too drunk to notice him. He tapped on the counter, and a large middle-aged man with a scraggly brown beard and a tattered bandanna turned to him with a wide smile.

“Oh, a Runner,” the man commented in a delighted voice. Parker knew he was excited because, to a proprietor of a business in the market district, Runners meant big money. “You don’t look drunk or high yet-- or sexed up, for that matter. Can I get you something?”

“Maybe later,” Parker said dismissively. “I need a room for a few nights. One with a widow facing the alley.”

“Of course, of course. Let me see here,” said the barkeep, peeking beneath the counter. He pulled a key from a hook and said, “Room Two sounds right for you.”

Parker smiled as the man handed him the key, and in return handed him thirty dollars. The man happily took it, but hesitated when Parker laid a ten on the table. “Is that for me too?” joked the man.

“Not yet,” Parker replied. “I need some information.”

As the man leaned down to put the thirty dollars into a wooden case beneath the bar, he grabbed the guest book and set it on the counter. “What about?”

“What’s going on around here lately? The market seemed a little empty and I’ve noticed a lack of militia near the gate.”

The man shook his head and said, “It’s those damn riots.”

“Riots? What riots?”

“Something about a medical plant downtown, right past the factory district. See, it started when their plant security got hit by some terrorist group or something, and it’s been chaos ever since. The militia got involved yesterday to try to contain it and a couple of honest folk got killed in the crossfire. Terrible thing.”

“How long has this been going on?” Parker asked.

“Not long. Three, maybe four days. The terrorist thing wasn’t big news-- in that part of town, you hear about shootings and little bombings all the time. Lots of gangs over there. But it’s never gotten this bad before-- I heard the militia was pulling soldiers off of the wall because they needed every body they had to fight over there. It’s a war zone-- lots of the folk you see here tonight are here because they couldn’t go to work, thanks to all that.”

With a nod, Parker slid the ten dollar bill across the bar. The man was ecstatic to pick it up. “That’s the best tip I’ve had all day,” he commented.

“You earned it.”

The man smiled and tucked it into his pocket, before picking up the pen and opening the guest book. “Can I take your name?” the man said, as he wrote down the entry time.

“Reuben Santiago,” Parker stated blandly. He was not so foolhardy as to use his real name, and he hoped that if Reuben came by to take up residence he might see the name.

The man scribbled it into the book and closed it, setting it back beneath the counter. “Hey,” the man said, leaning closer. “If you’re looking for any company tonight, I’ll be sure to cut you in on a discount. Any girl with a purple scarf is yours, half price.” The barkeep gave a wide smile and a bright wink, before leaning away. “And I promise you, we’ve got the best Scarves in town.”

Parker forced a smile and nodded, replying, “Thank you, that’s very kind of you. But if you don’t mind, I’m going to go get adjusted to my room.”

“Of course, Mr. Santiago. Have a good evening now.”

Giving the man a brisk nod, Parker moved away from the counter with the key in hand. He bounded through the tavern, squeezing past the patrons as he made his way up the steps to the second floor where the rooms were. He glanced to the letters carved and painted on the doors; when he found room two, he unlocked it and stepped in. His window was nice and large-- a valuable escape route if necessary. Letting down his pack, he let out a heavy sigh of relief to take pressure off of his shoulder. Taking a seat on the bed, he opened the side pouch of his pack and pulled free a length of rope. He tied it securely as he knew how to the leg of the bed nearest the window, and tucked the rope between the head of the bed and the wall. If trouble came along and he had to flee quickly, he would toss the rope out the window and climb down.

Pausing a moment, he rested his head in his hands to take a few minutes of rest. It was a long, tiring, stressful trek from Constitution and he was in desperate need of relaxation. He could feel both the physical exhaustion and the mental duress affecting his body; it left him feeling sluggish. He did not like feeling any less than one hundred percent. He undressed, washed himself with a wet rag, and put on his last set of clean clothes. Taking a seat on the bed again, he felt his body slouch, and his eyes leveled on the floor. At that moment, he realized it was not physical pain or trails that were affecting him so much. He was mentally vexed on all spectrums of the scale. Fear plagued him for Reuben’s sake, for his own life, and for the lives of those around him. Confusion had set in because of his inability to understand what had happened to the soldiers in the gatehouse. And the trauma from the undead ambush on the highway still lingered freshly in his mind; whenever he closed his eyes, he saw the horde running past him, his vision partially obscured by the rotting corpse that laid over him. He thought about every movement the horde made, every subtle jerk and garish stumble, panicked that one might look over and see him or take a gasp and smell him. He recalled with vivid clarity how his fingers dug into his thigh in anxiety as he lied there, bleeding and pained, covered in sweat and stench, watching and praying that he could live another minute.

And he was terribly lonely. That was something he had always struggled with; too lonely to be a loner, too mistrusting to trust for friends. He had never really found the right balance of seclusion and exposure to others. But now, after having a friend he believe he could trust, after breaking past some of his own trust barriers, he felt the impression that Reuben had left on him like a hole in his body. His mind recalled the offer the bartender left him, about the girls that stayed here. Suddenly he felt wrong for judging the people that paid for their services. Suddenly it made sense why someone would spend good money for one night of company. Suddenly Parker considered heading downstairs with his wallet, laying money on the table and bringing the most beautiful Scarf in the building up to his room. Who would judge him? Who would think it was odd? No one, because everyone else did the same thing. He would be blending in, to go down and pick out the cutest Scarf of the bunch. Besides, those purple scarves of theirs probably looked a lot better at the foot of the bed.

As Parker sat there, seriously considering the proposition, he let out a sigh and took a step back. Maybe it would bring the relaxation he needed, but he still did not feel comfortable dropping his guard. Not while he still had the package. He looked over to his bag, in which the packages was hidden, and rubbed his forehead. So much trouble over such a small little box. What could possibly be inside that would be worth a fifty thousand dollar delivery fee-- not to mention all the lives lost during the process?

There was a knock at his door. Parker jumped at the sudden sound. Caught deep in his thoughts, he scrambled to prepare for a visitor, friendly or not. He opened the window and tossed the rope out, set his carbine and chest rig right beside it, and drew his pistol. Carefully, he moved toward the door pulled it open, but it stopped when the chain lock was pulled taut. His curious eyes peered through the crack.

“Sal?” he said, shocked.

Her eyes widened slightly as she took a close look at his barely-exposed face. “Parker?”

So much for the Scarves-- the most beautiful women he knew just came knocking on his door. He was stunned to see her, and she looked pretty surprised too. Parker realized she must have been expecting Reuben since he had used his name for the registry. Considering a moment whether or not he could trust her, he decided to allow her entry and pulled the chain lock away. The door opened, and she quickly stepped inside.

Parker closed the door behind her, and when he turned to speak, an open hand flashed across his cheek. His reaction was hostile; he backed up and resisted the urge to level his pistol on her. Instead, before her arm had a chance to retract completely, his free hand lashed out and grabbed her wrist, pulling it back and locking her arm into his. She struggled, but did not strike at him again, although she could have with her other arm.

“What the hell was that for?” said Parker through clenched teeth.

“For leaving my fucking home in rubble!” She jerked away from him a few times, and finally, Parker released her arm and she took a step back with a sigh.

Parker was silent for a moment. “Fair enough,” he said. “I’m sorry. But we couldn’t control it. Some guys came looking for us and--”

“Yeah, I noticed that much,” she said, folding her arms.

“Enough attitude. What are you doing here?”

“I couldn’t stay there,” she replied matter-of-factly. “I had no idea if more goons would show up or not. I grabbed my go-bag and I took off.”

“How did you survive?” Parker asked incredulously. “It’s a two or three day journey from Constitution.”

“I know how to get by. And I got here before you did, apparently. Why weren’t you with Reuben?”

Parker perked up as if he had just been given some hope. “Have you seen him? We got separated in the wilds.”

“Yeah,” she said in confusion, “I saw him this morning. I spotted him in the market but there was a big rush because some shooting started downtown, and I lost track of him. I’ve been trying to find him all day. I came here, they said his name was in the guest book, and instead I find you. Why use his name?”

“Because dropping my name seems to be a good way to get shot at lately.” Parker sighed and holstered his pistol, moving to take a seat at the foot of the bed. “Look, I’m really sorry about your place. If I had know you’d get dragged into it, I wouldn’t have stayed there.”

For a moment, Sal looked at him silently. When she realized he was not being sarcastic or witty, that there was no snappy comeback, her eyes softened. “That’s… Sweet of you to say. I’ve moved around a lot in my life-- I’ll get used to it. Sorry I hit you-- I just needed someone to blame, I guess.”

“I understand.”

“So,” she said, “You don’t know where Reuben is, then?”

“No. We got split up during an attack two days ago. If he got in this morning, he made decent time in the travel. Means he probably wasn’t hurt.”

“What about you? The bartender said you just checked in a few hours ago-- what took you so long?”

“I took a few knocks. Nothing serious.” Sal gave him an unconvinced look, but said nothing further. Parker glanced up to her and went on to say, “Why did you come to Shepherdsville? Why not just another place in Constitution?”

“I didn’t know if it was safe there. I had heard you and Laura talking one night about the delivery and she mentioned Shepherdsville, so I figured I’d have the best luck finding the two of you here. Turns our I was right.”

“Eavesdropping,” Parker remarked. “Figures.”

At first, Sal thought he was being insulting, but Parker grinned and she couldn’t help but do the same. Parker felt comfortable in knowing that maybe Reuben was not his only friend. He watched Sal for a moment as she glanced around the room, taking in her surroundings; he noted the way she monitored the things around her, just like he did. He recorded her mannerisms in his head like a scientist would an experiment for later study. The way she moved might offer insight about her personality, about things he could not learn otherwise. And it was fair to say that she was easy to watch; as Parker observed her for a brief moment, he realized just how attracted to her he was, and decided to cut himself off at the start. He had enough on his mind without adding relationship emotions to it.

Deciding to shift gears to keep his mind straight, Parker said, “Tell me how you survived the trip.”

Sal looked up at him, and smiled.

CHAPTER 8

“I used to be in the militia, you know,” she said as she took a sip from her fresh goblet of wine. “In fact I was a rising star in the forces. I used to outshoot the marksmen on rifle exams and outscore the eggheads on the written tests.”

Parker looked impressed. He folded his arms and leaned back against the headrest of the bed. “Really? I can’t picture you doing fighting drills.”

“I did them like I invented them,” she said plainly. “When I had a few years of militia service behind me, I signed up for Scout classes. I nailed the preliminary exams and flew right into training. My CO said I was a prodigy.”

There was a pause, and Parker watched as her eyes fell away. She took a drink of the wine, and eventually Parker broke the silence. “So what happened?”

“This happened.” Sal lifted her shirt above her stomach, revealing a massive scarred dimple just above her naval. Her otherwise flat stomach concaved with a downward accent, leaving an indented scar in the shape of a large teardrop. Parker looked at it and his brows furrowed with concern. “I was on the range testing out one of the new bullpup sniper rifles they brought in. I couldn’t get the scope zeroed, so I handed it off to my spotter to see if he could do better. When I handed it to him, he squeezed the trigger. Since he was behind me, the barrel happened to pass over my body when I gave it to him, and the round tore through me. I don’t remember very much about it.”

“I can’t believe you survived that,” Parker said in dismay.

“If it happened anywhere else, I wouldn’t have. But there were some very good combat medics there to keep me taped shut until the surgeons could do their thing. Anyway, I was expelled from Scout school for failing to clear my weapon and failing to follow safety protocols, and he was dismissed from the service completely for pulling the trigger. It was a dark day for me.”

As she lowered her shirt, Parker looked back up to her and sighed. “That must have been horrible.”

“It was. But after a lot of physical therapy, I recovered. Reuben was there the whole time, making sure I was taken care of. He took leave from work just to baby-sit me.”

“So that’s where you got your survival know-how. Where did you meet Reuben?”

Sal laughed lightly and lifted a hand to her forehead. “I arrested him, actually. When I was still in the militia, I took him in for starting up a bar brawl. He wouldn’t pay the fine. Eventually he convinced me to drop it, and what can I say? I was charmed. Actually, after I recovered from my injury, I joined the LRA for a while.”

Parker looked on in surprise, yet again. “You were a Runner?”

“For a while, yeah. Reuben and I did some jobs together. But things got complicated between us and I didn’t like being forced to move around so much, so I left that-- and him-- behind.”

Parker nodded softly, but chose to keep from asking what happened between them. It was not his business. “So what happened when you returned home the other night? What did you do from there?”

Sal took another drink, setting the emptied wooden goblet on the nightstand. “I grabbed my go-bag from the rear cellar, snatched my guns from the bedroom and got the hell out of there. The gate watch told me there was a horde forming in the west, so I stayed north enough to get around it.”

“That same horde ambushed us when we were half-way here.” Parker commented. “We got stopped by a couple of Scouts. Reuben went to go talk to them and I played overwatch. The undead came by the dozens and I got pushed east. If Reuben made it here, I want to know what happened to the Scouts.”

“Wow,” Sal uttered. “You’re lucky to be alive. What did the Scouts want?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to ask Reuben.” Parker sighed and looked toward the window. In the brief pause in their conversation, the sound of gunshots could be heard downtown. The fighting must have started up again. “What about when you arrived here?”

“That was last night. I showed up, they opened the gate, I signed in, and got a room. Why?”

“When I came in earlier, the outer portcullis was open. I came into the gatehouse to find three militiamen dead. It looked like they shot each other.”

Sal fell quiet, and looked him blankly in the eyes. “Tell me you’re joking.”

“No. I lowered the portcullis and snuck in through the side doors. I didn’t call it in because I didn’t want to be implicated.”

“Those men are dead, Parker,” she said in frustration, “and calling it in is what’s right, whether or not it makes you look bad.”

“I can’t risk that kind of exposure right now. I need to keep my head low and my name out of people’s ears, or someone might come shoot up this place just like they did yours.”

Sal’s eyes trailed away. She knew he was right.

“Besides, who would investigate? There aren’t even any militiamen on the walls right now because everyone is so wrapped up in those riots, or whatever they are,” Parker added.

“Then we’ll investigate,” she said.

Parker blinked, and replied, “Woah, I’ve got a very expensive package to deliver. I can’t run around solving crimes right now.”

“Where is your package headed?”

“The address is 122 Dale Avenue. You know where it is?”

Again, Sal quieted for a moment. She let out a heavy breath before saying, “Yeah, I know where it is. Just follow the gunshots.” Parker said nothing, and so she elaborated. “That’s the address to the medical facility, Parker. The one that’s under siege right now-- it’s a three-way war between the militia, the local gangs and the facility security.”

Parker closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. “Well that’s fucking fantastic.”

“On the bright side, looks like you’ve got some spare time while you wait for everyone over there to die. There are three good men dead in that gatehouse and you and I are going to find out why.”

Parker could not help but be impressed by her persuasive skills. He leaned forward and rubbed his eyes, replying, “Alright, fine. I’ll help you figure out what happened if you’ll help me get into that facility somehow. Deal?”

Sal stood and replied, “Deal. I know where to start.”

Pushing off the bed, Parker moved toward his gear with a heavy exhale. “Good, because I sure as hell don’t.”

The two prepared to leave, and moments later they were walking down the dimly-lit midnight streets. Parker brought with him his chest rig and his carbine; normally he may have considered leaving it behind, but with all that had happened lately he thought that would be foolish. Sal brought with her a small backpack and a pistol on her right thigh.

When they came to the gatehouse, Sal led him back to the door he had sneaked through, and pulled it open to step into the hallway. It was still quiet and empty. The two of them moved down the hall toward the gates, but turned before reaching the door that led into the gatehouse. With another turn, Sal opened a door that led to a small office. The two stepped in and she closed the door behind them.

“Is that what I think it is?” Parker asked.

“Yeah, it probably is,” Sal said, moving over to the desk. She sat down, peering at the large black monitor before her. “Most people don’t know the militia uses computers for security. It’s better that way. A lot of people are afraid of this technology.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a working computer before,” Parker said, his tone dripping with intrigue.

“This is a relatively cheap one, it looks like. The militia here probably can’t afford better.” She punched a few keys with lithe and grace, and Parker watched in admiration. The screen flickered on and a white cursor appeared over a black backdrop. “Damn,” she remarked, “they don’t even have a real operating system. Probably couldn’t afford that either.”

She began to type on the keyboard, her fingers flying swiftly from key to key. Parker could not imagine being so quick with that kind of technology. Soon, another screen popped up on the monitor, and Sal used the arrow keys to make a selection of the things displayed onscreen. Parker gleaned that it was the security logs of the gatehouse. Prior to this experience, he had no idea the gatehouses were filmed.

“Here it is,” she stated, and the grainy image of the gatehouse filling the screen.

There was no sound, just a flickering black and white image of a man that appeared to be a Runner standing in the gatehouse. Three men emerged in the typical fashion; two with rifles, one with a clipboard. They stood for a moment, presumably speaking back and forth, before all of them approached each other. The Runner leaned over and pointed at something on the clipboard-- everyone leaned in. As they did, he jerked his left elbow into one of the soldiers’ face. The Runner swiftly grabbed the stunned man and struck him again in the temple with his elbow, rendering him seemingly unconscious. Wrapping his arm around the man’s neck, he stood behind him and snatched up the rifle that hung over the soldier’s chest. By now the other two men had taken arms, but had no shot. The man with the clipboard tossed it down and drew his sidearm, and just as he did so, the Runner fired. Three shots tore through the officer’s chest, and four through the other soldier. As the two men fell, the Runner dropped the unconscious man only to move over and grab the pistol, then putting a single round into the still-living soldier’s head. He discarded the weapon moved to the exterior gate, pulling the winch to open it. Then he moved to the lever for the interior gate, but stopped. The man cast a look over his shoulder, before dashing to one of the corpses to grab the keys and bolting through the side door.

“What the hell is going on?” Sal murmured.

A moment later, three men came running into the gatehouse through the open portcullis. Two of them leapt over the bodies and sprinted through the side door. One stopped and knelt by the dead men.

“That’s Reuben,” Parker gasped. “What the fuck is he doing?”

“My God, it is.” Sal paused a moment and observed Reuben’s actions before saying, “It looks like he’s just looking over the bodies.”

“He can’t be involved in this.” Although Parker said it as a statement, it sounded more like a question.

“No, no way. He was probably chasing that son of a bitch.”

Reuben stood from the bodies and ran through the side door.

“Yeah, he had to be. Those other two men-- they were the Scout, and probably his spotter, that we met in the wilds. The three of them must have traveled together.”

“Scouts and Runners traveling together. Never thought I’d see the day.”

Parker pushed away from the computer, and sighed. “Well, now we know what happened. These militiamen were slaughtered by some highly-trained Runner with an unknown and probably evil agenda. Unfortunately just about everyone in Shepherdsville has an unknown and probably evil agenda, so what are we gonna do about this?”

“I don’t know,” Sal said, standing from the chair and shutting the computer down. “But we can’t do anything else here. Let’s go.”

The two emerged into the streets, Sal’s expression contemplative and Parker’s destitute. The sullen expression on his face did not go unnoticed by the intuitive woman, who turned and asked, “What’s wrong?”

Parker stoutly shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Bullshit. It’s more obvious than you think. Spill.”

Letting out a defeated sigh, Parker said, “That guy that took out those soldiers-- what if he’s here for me? He has to be.”

“How do you figure?”

“There are a lot of bad-asses in Shepherdsville, Parker. It’s a tough town. The world doesn’t revolve around you.”

“Seems like it has lately,” Parker commented. “Everywhere I go, the shit hits the fan and someone gets killed because of that damn package.”

Sal stepped in front of him to get the door to the Queen’s Council. Parker brushed her hand away from the door and pulled it open for her. A smile crossed Sal’s lips, and she replied, “It must be something worth dying for.”

“Nothing is worth dying for.”

“Awfully bold words for such a good man,” Sal joked. “There are things worth dying for, and killing for. Survival, happiness, shit like that.”

“What could possibly fit in a ten inch box that would ruin someone’s happiness or chances for survival?” Parker asked, moving through the tavern.

They began up the stairs, and Sal shrugged. “Who knows? It must be something that threatens to ruin the people that are coming after you. Something incriminating, maybe. Something that would upset some powerful people.”

Parker took that in and thought for a moment. He got the feeling she was on the right track. “Still, it doesn’t change the fact that everywhere I go, someone gets killed over it. It has to stop.” Parker opened the door to his room, and Sal stepped in before him.

“Then deliver it,” she said. “As soon as the gunfire stops, I’ll take you through the alleys and get you right to the medical facility. After that, it’s up to you.”

Setting his rifle against his pack near the window, Parker nodded to her before taking off his chest rig. He opened the window and sighed, hearing the echoing cracks of gunfire across the city. “They’re not even slowing down out there,” he commented.

“War is a fulltime job.” She sighed and took a seat on the bed, rubbing her forehead. “I remember when Reuben fought at E-Town. I thought he’d be gone a couple days-- he didn’t come back for a month.” She chuckled lightly and shook her head, adding, “I was naïve, I guess.”

“Reuben fought at Elizabethtown?” Parker said, turning to her. “I was there. I fought, too.”

“Yeah, I remember Reuben telling me that all of the Runners in the area came in to help push the undead from the city. A lot of good men died there.”

Parker set his gaze back to the window. A lot of good men indeed. “What happened to the two of you, anyway?” he inquired, his eyes turning to her once more.

Suddenly nervous, she shifted slightly in her seat and cleared her throat. “Well,” she began, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it.” Parker quirked a brow, intrigued. “See, he and I are two very different people, but we made a good match. But Reuben was just… Greedy. He wanted everything. He wanted me, he wanted money, he wanted to fight, he wanted to roam. What was I supposed to do? He loved his life, and I couldn’t add much to it. We stuck it out for a long time, but eventually things were just too painful and too complicated, and we agreed it was better to split.”

“I’m sorry,” Parker said sympathetically. His facial expression told her that he really meant it, that it was more than just a friendly sentiment.

“Don’t be,” she said dismissively. “What I lost in a lover, I gained in a friend. Reuben and I have honestly become much closer since then. It’s easier to get to know someone without the pressure of a relationship.”

“Sometimes that pressure is the best motivation to get to know someone,” Parker commented.

Sal watched him for a moment, before a wry grin came over her face. “You don’t say,” she commented, before standing up. “I just realized I’m not drinking. That’s not gonna work out. I’ll be back, with booze. You want anything?”

A breath nearly left Parker’s lips to decline, but he stopped and let out an exhale. The gunfire outside was steady as ever. Locking his jaw in contemplation, he looked up to her and nodded. “Yeah, sure. I’ll have whatever you’re having.”

Sal kept that grin of hers, and turned to leave. Parker was left to his thoughts. What was the sudden change in her demeanor? Was she flirting? Just playful in a friendly way? Seconds after she left, he regretted his decision to have a drink. It was a terrible idea, he told himself, to drink when things were the way they were. He tried so hard to care, doing all he could to berate himself, but he could not make himself reconsider drinking. He realized it was because he had not had a way to unwind in days. The pressure was too much and he was buckling, but a relaxing night with alcohol and a friend would do him well. Maybe it would help keep him going.

When Sal returned, Parker was smiling. She smiled too, lifting a dark bottle in her left hand and two wooden goblets in her right. “Elk Grove,” she said, moving over to him. “It’s a ‘76, fifteen years on the shelf. Quite a treat.”

“Wow,” Parker remarked. “How did you get that?”

“You know the barkeep downstairs? Ephram?” Parker nodded, gleaning about whom she was speaking. “I showed him my tits.”

Parker laughed, as did she, as she unscrewed the cap and popped the cork out along with it. He couldn’t help but wonder if she really had done what she said-- aged wine was a true rarity. Soon his cup was filled with a deep cherry red wine, the refined aroma of blackberries and alcohol. It had been a long time since he really enjoyed alcohol, and even longer since he had found an alcohol worth enjoying; with high hopes, he lifted the cup to click against hers, before taking a sip. He was pleasantly surprised.

“Wow,” he commented, lowering the goblet. “Your tits really paid off.”

She shoved him with a light laugh, and he smiled bright. “You’re suddenly in a good mood,” she commented. “You haven’t cracked wise all night.”

“It’s nice to unwind a bit. I’ve been so uptight lately, it’s good to do something other than stress or run or fight.”

Sal watched him for a moment, and as he looked up, he saw her eyes observing him the way he had observed her several times before. For a moment, they sat there quietly, watching each other, and the longer it went on, the more Parker felt like it was more than just a staring contest. Nervous and awkward, he looked away and took another drink of the wine. Sal looked elsewhere as well.

“Tonight is my night to relax,” Parker declared. “It’s a good time for it.”

“Every night is a good time for it,” Sal said with that clever smile of hers.


Parker rolled over in his bed, his hand striking a hard object, waking him. He blinked his eyes open and looked down to see the empty wine bottle beneath his hand, and let out a soft groan. Glancing over, he saw Sal laying beneath the covers, cradling his arm. She wore nothing but the sheet they lied beneath. Swallowing, he struggled to formulate an explanation. He looked to the window to see the dark sky, and resolved that he was dreaming.

The glass of the window suddenly shattered. Shards flew inward and struck him, shortly before he was spontaneously crushed with some invisible force that swept both his body and Sal’s off the bed and onto the glass-covered floor. His head struck the carpet in a daze, and as he tried to understand what happened, the entire sky lit up outside, flashing through the window.

Then came the sound. Another force smashed into him; it felt like someone slammed the world’s largest drum right next to his body. He felt the vibrations tear through his uncovered body with such force that it made it hard to breath, hard to think, hard to see. He felt his head pounding and heard nothing else after that but the ringing of his ears, coupled with the muddled mute that one would hear inside a sea shell or a discarded can. When his vision straightened, he tilted his head to see Sal sitting up from the floor, face shocked and dazed.

Grit fell from the ceiling. The world gradually came back into realism, and Parker felt the pain from the crash. He knew now that he was not dreaming. It was a struggle to slowly lift, trying to sit up; the noise of the world rolled into his ears. Screams, shouts, and the sound of an inferno touched his ears, and smell of fire filled his nostrils.

He looked to the window to see Sal, still unclothed, peering through it into the street. His head still spinning, he took a moment to catch his breath, unable to keep from marveling at her slender, petite frame and desirable body. Snapping back to the confusion of the situation, he said in slurred speech, “What happened?”

Sal stammered, but her head turned quickly to him. “Explosion” was the only word he could make out.

“Where?” he demanded, weakly climbing to his feet. At first, he wondered if he was drunk, but he did not recall having that much to drink; he reasoned that he was just in a daze from the shockwave.

Sal looked back out the window, saying nothing. Making his way to her, he placed one hand on the window frame and the other on her shoulder, peering into the illuminated night. Flames and rubble were cast everywhere; people ran through the streets to get deeper into town. Parker narrowed his eyes to peer down the street, where he identified ground zero of the explosion.

A massive chunk of the city’s wall had been reduced to singed rubble, and Parker knew what came next.

CHAPTER 9

Along the streets of Shepherdsville, small red lights flickered on. Every ten feet, imbedded in the ground along the edges of the road, the red lights illuminated. Along the inside of the city walls, large spotlights burned brightly, some pointed into the city and some into the wilderness around it. Only a few hours before sunrise, the dark city came to life in a flash. In a single moment, the war downtown stopped and all able-bodied militiamen were headed to the wall. Among them was every Runner and Scout within the city, and anyone willing and capable of defending the city.

Parker rushed down the red-lit street, freshly dressed and rapidly aware of what was going on. Neither of them spoke a word about the night prior, but they had no time to concern themselves with it. As soon as he and Sal realized what had happened, they had thrown on clothes and equipped their fighting gear, wasting no time in bolting through the door. Parker had dressed in snug cargo pants and a long-sleeve collared shirt in earth-tone colors, with his chest rig and combat belt equipped. He swapped his magazines to full-metal jacket, knowing the undead would soon be there to take advantage of the broken wall. Sal had donned similar attire, with an AR-15 and a chest rig of her own. Several other men from the tavern followed them out of the tavern; Parker was grateful to see to many responding to the threat.

The gunfire deep in the city had all but stopped. The militia had undoubtedly retreated to respond to the much greater threat while the other parties in the firefight were probably fortifying or fleeing town. Parker could already see militiamen forming on and around the broken wall ahead, and he imagined it would only be a short time before the militia in its entirety had responded to the breach in the city’s security. With them would come any responsible man that could fight, including Runners within the city.

Side by side, Parker and Sal reached the group of warriors that had congregated near the rip in the wall. There was no organization yet, save for the front line of militiamen just on the outside of the wall; using large stones left from the wall, they were building barriers to make it more difficult for the undead to get through. The tops of the walls were again populated by the militia, armed with heavier weaponry such as belt-fed machine guns and long-engagement sniper rifles.

Anxious, Parker pulled the charging handle on his AR-15, chambering a round. At that time, amidst the noise of the crowd, he distinctly heard his name called.

“Parker!”

Turning to look in the direction from which it had come, Parker scanned the faces of the strangers nearby before spotting an image that brought a smile to his face: Reuben running toward him, dodging the others in the crowd. Sal turned to see him as well. She and Parker exchanged uncertain looks, which left Parker satisfied that he was not the only one vexed about the night they shared. He felt a cringe of guilt as he realized how his actions might hurt Reuben.

“God damn, it’s about fucking time I found you,” Reuben said as he came closer. He thrust his hand into Parker’s and they shook, before slamming chests together for a fast embrace. The two laughed lightly, but it quickly died as they got to business.

“Parker, there’s so much I have to tell you,” Reuben started.

“I could say the same.”

“No, Parker, you need to hear me before anything else happens. And you have to trust me completely here, okay?” Parker cast him an uneasy look, but Reuben continued. “We can’t fight here today. We have to get your package delivered, and we have to do it right now, while there’s a break in the war back there at the facility.”

If nothing else, Parker was relieved that Reuben was up to speed on what was going on in the city. Still, his words bothered him. “Reuben, we have to fight here. There’s no choice in it. They need every single person here to--”

“What you have is more important!” Reuben exclaimed, grabbing Parker by the shoulders. “I’m telling you, buddy, you have to trust me, and we have to go right now.”

Parker pushed Reuben’s hands away and said, “How the hell do you know what I’ve got? How would you know what’s in that box?”

“Damn it, Parker! Just trust me!” Reuben demanded.

“No.” Parker stepped away from him, pointing to the wall. “That right there is the most important thing in the world right now. You were at Elizabethtown, Reuben-- don’t you remember what it was like? All of those people, gone so quickly-- you want that here, too?”

“You’re not Jesus Christ!” Reuben shouted in anger. “You weren’t sent here to save Shepherdsville from damnation! You’re not here to sacrifice yourself for the good of man!” The both of them took a deep breath, before Reuben went on to say in a calm voice, “Parker, I can’t explain here, but that package can change all of this. It can change the world, make humanity stronger again. The militia here is stronger than in E-Town, and they can handle a breach. But us, we need to do this. And we need to do it right now. Please.”

Parker gritted his teeth, looking at Rueben before turning his eyes to the breach. He noted that there were indeed more militiamen here than there had been in Elizabethtown, despite it being a smaller city. He glanced to Sal, who gave him a silently reassuring look. “Fine,” he agreed with a sigh, “but you better explain on the way.”

Reuben nodded quickly and turned away. “Thank God. Go grab your package and meet me by the entrance to the industrial district. I have to find the Scouts.”

Reuben took off, and Parker did as well with Sal short behind. The two of them rushed back to the Queen’s Council and burst through the door, moving quickly through the deserted tavern and up the stairs to Parker’s room. Parker immediately went into the bathroom and knelt down by the bathtub, reaching his arm underneath of it. He had stashed the package in the corner, completely concealed from view by the bathtub and difficult to reach. Grasping the strap of the bag, he pulled it out and stood. The package was inside, still safe.

Looking to Sal, Parker realized they might not get another chance to talk. “What happened last night?” he said suddenly.

She looked up at him and shifted nervously, saying, “We had a lot to drink.”

“I’m not saying I don’t remember. I’m asking what it means.”

Sal paused, and turned toward the window. “I guess I hadn’t thought that far yet.”

“Now is a good time,” Parker stated. “As good as it’s going to get, anyway.”

“I don’t have an answer, Parker. I’m sorry.” Sal fell quiet as Parker began for the door, but she spoke before he reached it, saying, “What about you? What do you want it to mean?”

Parker had moved to his bag to retrieve a few supplies, but when she spoke, he stopped, hesitated, and cleared his throat. “Maybe it wasn’t the most responsible way to get started, but I don’t want it to be just one night. There was more to last night that just wine.” After grabbing a modular section of his pack, designed as an emergency sustenance bag in a very small package, he stood and moved away from his ruck. With a disdainful look, he opened the door and stepped out, before adding over his shoulder, “For me, anyway.”

He hoped to hear a ‘me too’ from Sal, but she said nothing. When Parker reached the bottom of the stairs, he heard her following behind him, and let out a soft sigh; he desperately hoped that he had not just made things awkward between them.

With no further words, the two returned to the streets and headed toward the gate that led deeper into the city.


When Parker saw Reuben standing with the two Scouts near the gateway, he took note of the way Reuben oriented himself toward them. The two Scouts hardly seemed to notice that Reuben often left his back to them, a sign that there was trust between them. Parker assumed this was because of whatever they went through between and the current activity. Hopefully it was indicative of their character, that they were trustworthy, rather than being indicative of Reuben’s character, that he was naïve to trust them. Parker supposed that he would know which in due time.

When the two groups came close enough, Reuben stepped forward and introduced them all. “This is Noric,” he said, motioning to the Scout, before pointing to the spotter and saying, “and this is Drew.” He then turned to the Scouts and said, “This is Parker and Sal.”

“It’s about time we meet,” said Noric, offering his hand to Parker, who reluctantly shook it.

“Right,” Parker said passively. “Are we going, then?”

“You bet,” Reuben said. He began through the gate, and soon the group of five was moving hastily down the streets toward the industrial district. Just as they passed through the gate, they heard gunfire from the walls. Parker swallowed, knowing the undead had now begun to assault the walls, drawn by the deafening explosion. He felt a sting of unshakable guilt as he thought about the fight at the walls and how far from it he was. Every death would be, in a small way, partially his fault. Although it was a negligible level of responsibility, and one could easily argue that one more Runner would make no difference, the fact that he was not there assisting nagged him.

“You have some explaining to do,” reminded Parker.

Reuben cast him a nod. “It’s time you learn what’s in that little box of yours, Parker.”

CHAPTER 10

The shots fired in the distance quickly became more frequent. The wall was under siege by the time the time the group reached the industrial district, but Parker had to put that out of his mind if he was going to concentrate. Reuben had been filling him in on the details of what happened between the ambush on the highway and their regroup after the explosion, but Parker found it difficult to stay focused.

“Once we got separated,” Reuben explained, “the Scouts and I agreed that it was more important to get to Shepherdsville than to pursue the typical Scout-Runner rivalry, so the three of us grouped up and hauled here. When we arrived, we saw another Runner opening the outer portcullis, with the bodies of the gatehouse guards behind him. We tried to catch him, but he got away.”

“Do you know what he was doing?” inquired Parker.

“I know exactly what he was doing,” Reuben replied. “He was going to leave the doors open and hope that the gunfire from the assault on the medical facility would draw in the undead.”

Parker looked to Sal, who looked just as vexed. “And when you interrupted him, he decided to blow a hole in the wall instead. I get it. But why?”

“Because they were losing the fight here. They needed to get the militia away from the medical facility so they could invade.”

“Woah woah woah,” Parker said, grabbing Reuben’s arm. “What the hell do you mean ‘they’? What is it, an army?”

“Almost. A large group of Runners. The same ones that have been attacking you, Parker. They’re all Runners.”

All Runners. They weren’t disguised as Runners in Constitution like Parker had suspected, nor were they faking their credentials-- they truly were Runners. “But why? Runners aren’t a private army. What the hell are they doing?”

“I can’t tell you that just yet, Parker. I still need you to trust me. Once you turn in that box, everything-- and I mean everything-- will be laid out for you.”

“When did you become the narrator?” Parker demanded. “How the hell do you know so much?”

“Because the same exact thing happened in E-Town.”

Parker stopped in his tracks. “What? You’re saying Elizabethtown fell because someone blew open the walls? That it was all intentional?”

“Same exact thing. The Runners wanted the med facility shut down and destroyed. When the militia proved to be too strong, they set off explosives throughout the city. The gates were standing wide open-- they didn’t need to blow open the walls. By the time the militia realized the undead had entered the city, there weren’t enough of them left to save E-Town. The Runners destroyed the facility and scattered, and over the course of a few weeks, the city fell. That’s what they want here-- to destroy the facility. Now that the militia is completely distracted, they’ll be able to get in.”

Parker remembered seeing the gates standing open wide in the Elizabethtown gatehouse. He remembered entering the city, confused by the lack of activity in the gate, before the gunfire and screams reached his ears. He entered the city just in time to witness the undead swarming the unprotected market district; by the time the militia got there, everyone was dead. He probably used more ammunition that day trying to defend the city than in all his years as a Runner combined-- it seemed like the sea of undead never stopped. At the end of his week in Elizabethtown, he was a broken man who barely escaped with his life, fleeing the falling city with his pride choked down and his ammunition spent.

“Where do I fit into this?” Parker asked wearily.

“You were the only other Runner available who had defended E-Town,” Reuben stated.

“I don’t follow.”

Reuben urged him to start walking again, and so they did, speaking as they moved through the red-lit streets. Every so often, someone would run past them, fleeing something or another, possibly leaving the city or trying to find a loved one. The screams of terror and the gunshots were easily tuned out now that Parker knew he was getting to the bottom of the situation. “When I fought at E-Town, I fought to defend the med facility. When it became clear that the Runners were the real threat, not the undead, I coordinated with the security forces to try to fend them off. Eventually, the battle was a loss, and I was commissioned with a different task: to find Dr. Maxwell Orton and Dr. Laura Hurst, and get some documents from them. I did so, and they told me to take it to a man in Louisville. They entrusted me with the documents out of necessity, and I figured it was their dying wish, so I obliged. When it became clear all was lost for the med facility, and soon after for the whole city, I split and returned to Louisville, where I handed the documents over to a scientist there.”

“Maxwell Orton and Laura Hurst,” Reuben repeated.

“As in Laura? And her husband, Max?” Sal inquired suddenly.

Reuben nodded gravely. “Apparently they escaped, and married at some point. That was the big break; they were the only people who knew the research. When they emerged from the chaos as survivors, they contacted the scientist in Louisville and had him prepare a runner to send the documents back to them. Apparently they were the leading experts for that kind of work; the documents contained old world references that not many people could understand these days.”

“So the scientist in Louisville took the documents to the LRA, got the strongest box they had, and hired me,” Parker concluded.

“He wanted me, but I was already in Constitution on another delivery. When he saw your name on the roster, he recognized it from a list that had been compiled of the Runners that helped defend the E-Town. You were his second pick. After he hired you, he sent a transmission to me in Constitution telling me to look out for you, that you had the documents.”

Parker nodded deeply, as if everything made sense. “That’s why you were there to save my ass in Laura’s manor. I knew you were following me.”

“I was. I had to make sure you delivered those papers. Then everything went to shit in the manor, and suddenly I became your bodyguard. Everything after that was done on the fly. No one expected the Runners to know where Max and Laura had resurfaced. We were fortunate that Laura survived long enough to give us our next destination. Without that, we would have been stuck.”

“What about you two?” Parker said, turning to Noric and Drew. “Where do you guys come in?”

Noric glanced to him and spoke in his deep and clear voice, “We were dispatched by the Louisville Militia to track you down and recover your package. It was to be returned to the Militia Office immediately.”

“Normally, we aren’t hitmen,” Drew commented, “so we were a little suspicious.”

Noric spoke again, directing his eyes forward. “We did some digging. When we discovered what the documents were by tracking down the scientist using the LRA’s package records, we decided our orders were not worth following. We came to find you, to warn you about the danger you were in and, most importantly, to make damn sure that package reached its intended destination. After we heard what happened to the two doctors in Constitution, we learned you’d be heading to Shepherdsville, and set up along I-65 to catch you.”

Parker nodded, before turning to Sal and saying, “Please tell me you’re as ignorant to all of this as I have been.” Sal smiled lightly and nodded.

“What matters now is defending the med facility,” Reuben stated. “The militia here tops E-Town’s by a mile, same for the med plant’s security. The Runners have been badly outgunned and were losing fast. But now that the militia is gone, they might be able to sneak into the plant. Don’t worry about the city-- the militia can handle it. We need to make sure that facility doesn’t fall. Once it’s secure, we take the package to the recipient inside. Until then, we hang onto it, incase the shit hits the fan and we have to bug out.”

“Good idea,” Parker commented, nodding along with it. “How many Runners are we dealing with?”

“I don’t know,” Reuben said with a sigh.

“Maybe twenty,” interjected Noric, going on to say, “but they wouldn’t risk a frontal assault. They tried that and lost terribly. It’s more likely they’ll try to infiltrate quietly, maybe plant some explosives, and blow the place. They just don’t have the numbers to take on the security force and still be able to crash the whole plant. I think they know that.”

Parker nodded to him, turning his attention back to Reuben. “So if they sneak in, how will we know where they’re headed?”

“The facility is walled,” Reuben replied, “and they haven’t breached it yet. When they do, we’ll know. There are cams and lookouts everywhere. If they’re smart, they’ll pick a spot that would make it difficult for us to hit them right away.”

“Are there any underground entrances? Tunnels, maybe a cellar? Or even a storm drain under the walls?”

“Yeah, I think there’s a cellar underneath the facility, but I have no if it has an outside entrance.”

Just as Reuben finished his sentence, more gunfire echoed into the cacophony; it was much closer, and ahead of them. It was not from the wall-- it was from the facility. The group all looked to one another before breaking into a run toward the plant, everyone arming their weapons and preparing for a firefight.

“They aren’t expecting us,” Reuben stated as he rushed toward the sounds.

“We’ll flank them,” Parker stated.

Noric bumped Reuben’s shoulder and pointed to an alleyway, saying, “This will take us a street over-- it sounds like the gunfire is coming from the east side of the plant gates. Maybe we can find another alley on the next street to take us further east, to come in behind them.”

Silently agreeing, the group rushed through the alleyway and into the street, before Noric again spotted another alley. The five of them soon emerged several blocks east of the gates, the gunfire ahead very close, and they knew they would soon be upon the Runners. The five of them stacked up against the wall of a factory building neighboring the walled plant, while Reuben peeked around the corner.

“There’s a large group of them laying heavy fire on the watch towers,” Reuben stated as quietly as he could over the gunfire. Parker could barely hear him through his earplugs. “They must be clearing the area for an infiltration.”

Parker nodded, before motioning across the street and saying, “I’ll go around that building and hit them from the right. You come in behind and we’ll pinch them at the same time.”

“I’ll wait for your shot,” Reuben agreed.

Sal fell in line behind Parker as he quietly hurried across the road, avoiding detection from the Runners roughly a hundred yards away. He glanced over his shoulder to see her offer a reassuring look, and sighed softly. He did not want to see her go into combat-- he was not sure he could handle seeing her take a hit. Still, he had to play with the hand he was dealt, so with a deep breath he whipped around the corner of the building and rushed along the wall, turning the final corner. It was distant, but he had a clear line of sight on the group of Runners. They were tucked into a trench dug several feet into the ground, with piles of dirt lining the ridge of the hole. It provided excellent frontal cover and their muted clothing blended well with the earth.

“It’s vulnerable from four o’clock to eight o’clock,” Parker commented to Sal. “I’ll take the first shot. After that, weapons-free. Take the easy shots first-- they might not stay easy for long.”

With no sign of hesitation or reluctance, Sal nodded and tightened the grip on her AR. Parker glanced to around the corner to look for closer cover, but saw nothing reliable. He estimated the distance being somewhere just short of seventy-five yards from his spot to the enemy. It was not a difficult distance. He knelt down and lied prone on his stomach, angling his body so that he was in cover still with his rifle leaned around the corner, his eye peering through the scope. Sal stepped over him, leaning against the corner of the building, resting her arm against a nook in the brick building as she sighted in.

“I’ll take the black shirt on the far right,” Parker stated, calling his shot.

“I got the cargo pants with the sniper in the corner,” Sal replied.

That satisfied him-- those two men seemed to have the only long-distance weapons, which were doing the majority of the killing in the watch towers of the medical facility. Taking a deep breath, Parker slowed his heartbeat a bit and placed the crosshairs directly on the Runner’s black shirt. Seeing the man from a profile view, Parker knew all he had to do was send a round into his ribcage and it was a kill-shot-- at least one lung would be pierced, if not both, as well as the chance of hitting the heart if he aimed high-chest. Adrenaline pumped through his veins as he tried to control his breathing and his heart rate.

He let out a slow, hot breath, and the trigger eased back. His earplugs muted the crack of his carbine’s report, and the man in his crosshairs buckled rapidly, disappearing into the trench.

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Tribunal Power's Zombie Fiction

My Trunk Bag/GHB/BOB for a Tight Budget


Last edited by Tribunal Power on Fri Sep 02, 2011 5:05 am, edited 8 times in total.

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CHAPTER 11

By the time the group of insurgents realized they were flanked, it was almost over. The two snipers went down almost simultaneously, both taken down by Parker and Sal’s first shots. The rest of the targets responded slowly, beginning by looking around and poorly ducking for cover, when Reuben led the others into the their rear. In seconds, all but two or three of the most deeply entrenched enemies were down. Parker could see one peeking his rifle over the dirt, pointed toward Reuben’s group; steadying his aim, he waited a moment for the man to pop his head up, but the moment did not come. Instead, he squeezed off a round directly into the weapon; the bulled struck the side of the rifle very near the man’s fingers, causing him to jump back slightly. The startle was all it took to emerge from cover, and Parker quickly fired two follow-up rounds; at least one of them struck the man somewhere above the shoulders, and he dropped. Soon, the gunfire had stopped and Parker heard Reuben shout out the ‘all clear’ call.

Gradually, Parker stood and Sal moved from cover, creeping along the side of the building, watching for more contacts. They found none, and no more shots were fired; soon the groups met near the trenches, and all five individuals were relieved to see that everyone had come out unscathed. Parker peered into the trench to count seven bodies, all completely still. Such a waste.

“If we’re heading for the gates, now is the time,” Reuben said, “before the others realize what happened and organize.”

“Who knows where they are. They could be watching the gate,” Noric stated.

“I doubt it” Reuben replied. “They’re probably trying to find another way in. They wouldn‘t waste their time waiting by the door when they‘re on a tight schedule-- the militia will only be preoccupied for so long before they send men back here.”

“Alright then,” Parker said, looking toward the gates. “Let’s get going.”

The gates were up a slight hill, around the corner of the wall. The group moved back into the streets away from the trenches and into an alley that took them back toward the front end of the facility, before taking the road that led directly to the gates. As they moved up the road, Reuben pulled a white shirt from his pack and held it high over his head, at the front of the group. Then, together, they all ran down the road toward the gate, hoping earnestly that the security that manned the towers by the gate would respect their white flag. Soon they arrived unharmed at the gates, and called up to the guards on the wall.

“We have the package! Let us in!” Reuben hollered. The guard on the wall quickly vanished, and moments later, the gate opened.

The group stepped in through the massive doors, which closed behind them, into a cement-walled room. Behind cement cover on all sides were men wearing black battle gear with all manners of firearms aimed directly at the group. There was an awkward silence before Parker stepped forward, hands up and open until he pointed to his pack.

“Who is the package for?” asked the lead security officer, still peering down the sights of his rifle.

Parker replied confidently, saying, “Originally it was for Max Orton. Upon his death, I was instructed to take it to a man named Clyde, who I was told would be here.”

“You are the original Runner?” the man asked.

“That would be me,” Reuben interjected. “ Reuben Santiago. I recovered the package from E-Town. When it was resubmitted to the agency, I was already on a run, so it was given to this man.”

The officer nodded. “And what is your name?”

“Parker Mason. Please, take me to Clyde and let me get rid of this damn thing.”

“Alright then, let me see your papers. And who are your friends?”

Everyone seemed to relax slightly as Parker and Reuben handed their papers in. “Reinforcements,” Parker stated as he handed his to the officer. “The trip was dangerous, as you can imagine.”

“I’m sure,” said the man as he read their paperwork. A moment later, he handed the papers back and, much to everyone’s relief, waved for the rest of the security to lower their weapons. “Follow me.”

The group stepped in line quickly to follow the man as he turned toward the door that led deeper into the facility. The steel twin doors opened at some unspoken command, and swung outward, revealing a pastel white hallway with windows on either side. The group moved in, flanked by the better part of the security force, and the doors quietly closed behind them. Parker looked from side to side, seeing scientists and doctors inside clean white rooms, some wearing biohazard suits and some in lab coats. All of them seemed to stop what they were doing when they noticed their entourage being led through the hallway. Parker wondered if they knew what he carried, before realizing that he still did not have the answer.

They were led down the hall, around the corner, and into a small office at the end of the corridor. Inside, standing over a white table, was a balding middle-aged man with thick glasses and a careless come-over. He looked up as the group entered and stopped his work, setting his papers aside to face them.

“So you’re finally here,” he said with a heavy, exasperated sigh. Parker said nothing. “I’m Dr. Clyde Horton. You must be Parker Mason. You have no idea how eagerly I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“Yeah, same here,” Parker said, before reaching into his bag. His eyes glanced over the doctor’s name badge which agreed with his introduction, and so Parker finally pulled the metal box from its place in his ruck.

This was it, the moment he had longed for. The moment he could unload the package and be done with the whole mess, cut his ties to the box and just let everything go. He could take his money and leave, buy his manor in Constitution and never worry again. He would fill his life with subsistence farming and range shooting, rather than bare-bonds wilderness survival and undead marksmanship. He held the package in front of him and said, “Do you have the sum I was promised?”

The doctor took a step back, turning toward the safe implanted in the wall. It had a similar keypad lock to the one on the box, the same old world technology; he punched in a six-digit number and pulled from the large safe a black suitcase. He laid it on the table and popped it open, turning it toward him. “Fifty thousand, just as promised. Now, please, the package.”

Parker stared at the money in wonder, and everyone else did the same. Reuben suddenly jabbed Parker in the side, and Parker recalled why: he had implied it was only five or ten thousand. Smiling inwardly, Parker handed the box over to the eager doctor’s hands.

“Thank God,” he said, moving quickly to his desk in the corner. Parker rapidly grabbed the suitcase and set his pack down, shifting things around inside of it to make room for the suitcase. Moments later, he had it crammed into the back of his pack and contentedly slipped it back onto his back. “So, are we done?” Parker asked.

“That depends on you,” the doctor said.

“How so?”

“I think you want to know who has been trying to kill you. I think you want to know why this delivery wasn’t as simple as dropping it off. And I think you want to know what’s in this box, if you don’t already.”

Parker wanted to say ‘nope’ and walk right out the door. But unfortunately the doctor was right-- the curiosity was eating at him. “And I think you’re going to tell me in exchange for something else,” Parker replied.

“Sort of,” said Clyde. “I need you to stay here until the remaining Runners are found and taken care of. Until that happens, this package is still in danger.”

“Why should I care?”

“Because this package is the key to producing a cure, Parker. A cure that could restore humanity’s dominance in the world.”

At first, Parker just let out a light laugh. “A cure? You’re joking, right?” He folded his arms over his carbine and said, “What, so I’ve been carrying around a magic vial that can turn walking corpses back into mom and dad?”

“While I find your disbelief charming, Parker, I’m really not in the mood for cynicism. The box contains documents that belonged to a very gifted scientist, Dr. Maxwell Orton. He discovered some old world information somehow and amongst it was a formula that he couldn’t understand. For a long time, it was incomplete, and it became his obsession. But when Dr. Laura Hurst helped him complete the formula, preliminary tests helped to confirm that it was originally being engineered as a method of slowing the virus that reanimates the host. After years of work, the two discovered that with a few adjustments, it could be used to vaccinate humans and even cure the early onset of the virus. Before they could complete the final stages of their experiments, somehow word got out about it and their facility came under attack.”

Parker realized now that the doctor was serious, and that a cure was possible. Gravely, he moved closer to the doctor. “How does it work?” he asked in a shocked tone.

“It isn’t a miracle drug,” Clyde said. “We still think it can be used to vaccinate, but we can’t be sure yet. We have proven in previous tests, though, that it can completely eradicate the virus if administered directly into the bloodstream within an hour of contact. That is the only thing we are certain of, although we speculate that as long as the host has not expired, the drug should work. But at this point, that is the best hope we have-- that alone is more than all of the research we’ve done without this formula. And the formula would have been lost had it not been for you.”

“So you really think you can make a real cure?” Reuben asked, stepping forward to watch as the doctor punched in the code to open the box.

“Yes,” Clyde replied confidently. “Yes, I know we can. In a year’s time, I’m sure we’ll have turned this into something even more effective.”

“So why would anyone want to stop this from making it to you?” asked Parker. “Why would someone want to stop a cure?”

“Think about it, son. Who stands to lose the most if there were no more nonmortuis? Who would be ruined?”

Parker thought for a moment, but it quickly clicked. His face drained as he looked to his group, and then back to the doctor. “The LRA.”

Clyde nodded. “Yes. The LRA ordered these Runners to get the package, because if a cure was ever manufactured and the undead scourge done away with, the entire Runner operation would be unnecessary.”

The realization hung over the room and the group was silent for a moment. Then, Parker spoke, saying, “So why give me the package at all? Why didn’t they just kill the guy that brought it into the LRA and take it?”

“Probably because they didn’t know what it was until the pencil-pushers approved the form,” Reuben answered. “No one takes those forms seriously-- it’s pretty standard to ship out the product before the form is actually approved. This time, the LRA cutting corners really worked in favor for everyone else.”

“That’s probable,” the doctor commented. “But all of this can wait. Right now, we need to find the other Runners and make sure they haven’t compromised this facility. Please, Parker, I beg you to stay here and help secure this plant.”

“Alright,” Parker replied quickly. Now that he knew what was at stake, it required little thought to make a decision. Looking back to his group, he stated, “None of you have to stay.”

No one left. Parker smiled slightly, nodding, and looked from each one of them. His eyes lingered on Sal, who smiled reassuringly to him and he smiled back, before looking to Reuben, who nodded confidently to him. Parker looked back to the doctor and asked, “What should we do?”

The doctor gave him instructions, but Parker knew what came next. Once the facility was secure, it would not yet be time to buy his manor and settle down. The simple life would have to wait. He was a man who believed that the world should follow moral law, and the LRA had not. They needed to answer for it. Parker wanted his new life, the life of a farmer with a wife and land, but more than that he wanted the LRA to pay, not just for what they had already done, but for the world they would have made had they succeeded. Once the facility was locked down and the package was safe, he would personally make sure the people that made the orders took responsibility for them. This fight was not over.

CHAPTER 12

The cellar beneath the facility was cold, leaving Parker feeling clammy beneath his clothes. A day of fighting and running worked up a terrible sweat, and with his ruck safely stashed in the hallway behind them, his clothes were more open to the chill in the air. There were electric coolers everywhere, no doubt housing sorts of chemical agents or test specimens of some kind.

"Hey, check it out," Sal said, nudging Parker. He looked over to see her motion towards a relatively tucked-away wooden shelf that housed a dozen bottles of wine. She smiled coyly up at him and said, "Elk Grove."

Parker gave her a subdued grin, his normally-focused mind fraying at the edges with the heated memories of what they had done only one night earlier. Being reminded of his attraction to her only served to distract him, so he gave her a soft jab in the arm and returned his attention promptly to the cellar. "Find anything?" he asked, turning to look toward the others.

"Nothing yet," Reuben said, poking his head out from behind some metal shelves that lined the walls. He looked toward Noric and Drew, calling out, "How about you two?"

Shaking his head, Noric simply replied, "Nope."

"They won't be coming this way," Drew stated. "No doors or hatches anywhere in here. We should be out by the wall helping keep watch."

"No, it's been too quiet," Reuben commented with a sigh. "And since I doubt they ran off, I bet they've found a way to get past the wall."

No one responded, partially because they hoped that it was as ridiculous as it sounded. If they had blown their way through the wall, everyone would know. Otherwise, they would have to get through the gate, which was too heavily guarded. With no explosions or nearby gunshots in the past hour, nobody truly believed they had gotten past the wall.

Suddenly, the ground overhead rattled and shook. There was a terribly loud bang, muddled by several feet of concrete on all sides. Everyone in the cellar stumbled beneath the tremor it caused; Sal was pushed to the ground by the shock, while Reuben was pushed off balance and fell. The others were lucky enough to have been near something sturdy and withstood the blast mostly on their feet. Parker had been knocked to his knees, and looked up with slightly fuzzed vision to see Sal struggling to stand.

"Another explosion?" he heard Reuben call out. It sounded like he was hundreds of feet away, rather than an arm's reacg.

Parker hurried with crooked steps to Sal's side, grasping her hand and helping her to her feet. She was dizzy as well, but once again was unharmed.

"Anyone hurt?" Parker asked, looking about. There was a general murmur of a negative response.

"That sounded really fucking close," Reuben said.

Noric got to his feet, leaning against the cement wall. He took a deep breath and rubbed his pounding head, "Definitely the facility wall. The attack has started."

"Should we get upstairs then? Help them fight?" Drew inquired.

Reuben held up a finger, listening. Parker listened also, and noted immediately that there were no gunshots. If they had just breached the wall and were infiltrating, the guards on duty would be firing at them. Something was definitely wrong.

"It's a diversion," Parker said, looking to Reuben. The two exchanged looks of agreement, before Parker turned to face the others. "Be prepared. There will be more explosions if that was a diversion. If I were them, I'd be trying to distract the guards so that I could blow my way into the cellar."

"You really think they can blow through all this concrete?" Sal asked.

Noric chimed in, saying, "I've seen it done before. The militia have explosives that can cause that kind of damage. Judging by the amount of damage done to the city wall, I'd say these Runners stole some militia ordnance."

"If they do set off a bomb to get into the cellar," Parker said, "we can't let it surprise us or we'll be dead. This fight will be on their terms and we aren't even sure how many we're up against. Find some decent cover, but make damn sure your back is facing the hallway. Who knows which wall they'll take down."

Everyone shifted to find reliable cover in the cellar. After a brief discussion, they rearranged the metal coolers to form a barrier twenty feet inside of the mouth of the long hallway that led to the cellar. This left them with a narrow field of fire with clear view into the cellar, and a funnel that would push their enemies into the hallway, as well as a barrier to slow the enemy down if they made it past them. It also left them with a clear sprint to their escape route, making their possible retreat much easier. Once the barrier was made, Parker began pulling metal coolers down the hall, stacked two high and two thick from the perspective of the cellar; this would allow them to cover each other in bounds without leaving themselves in the open if they had to flee.

The others had all drawn aim on various parts of the walls in the cellar. They were prepared.

It was only a matter of minutes after their fortification was established that gunfire sounded overhead. For a moment, everyone thought they had guessed wrong, that the battle indeed was upstairs. But before anyone could open their mouths to speak, the world erupted like a volcano. There was a white hot fire that ripped through the cellar and blinded like the sun, reaching its tendrils several feet into the hallway before quickly dissipating. Simultaneously, an explosion to put all others to shame shattered the walls of the cellar, tossing massive chunks of rebar-laden concrete about like popcorn.

Parker had tried to assume a mostly low position to keep from being blow away when the blast struck, but the magnitude of the blast was far beyond what he had anticipated. He was slammed in the chest by one of the metal coolers and hurled backwards by the force of the blast, leaving him spread on the floor with a body of agony. He heard nothing but a stinging high-pitched tone once again, but could vaguely make out the flashes of gunfire flashing against the ceiling at which his confused eyes had focused. He struggled to move, the flashes of war growing brighter and more frequent. Summoning all the strength he had, he shoved to his feet. Pain shot through him and he screamed in pained but determined will, pushing to his knees. He grasped his rifle and crawled back to the barrier. He could see Reuben, up and crouched over the barrier, firing into the cellar. Sal was sitting, leaned against the wall. Drew and Noric were also firing, although Parker noticed Drew’s face covered in blood. He tried to focus his vision and lifted his rifle wearily, looking for a target.

There were two bodies lying in the mouth of the hallway, For a moment, there was a lull. Then Parker spotted movement, seeing a man run for cover in the hallway behind a waist-high chunk of concrete. Parker frantically fired a few shots, managing to strike the man once in the shoulder. His companions fired as well, tagging the man several times in the upper torso. Parker put an extra two shots into him to make a point and watched him collapse, soon replaced by two more enemies swinging around the corners of the hallway and laying down fully-automatic fire.

Parker’s heart jumped into his throat and he slammed himself onto the ground as the top of the metal cooler behind which he was hiding shredded into steel confetti. “Fuck!” he screamed, his heart perpetually skipping beats.

“LMG!” Reuben shouted from the prone position he’d been forced to take. Parker looked over Reuben’s shoulder to see Drew thrashing on the ground.

As soon as he spotted him, he heard Noric shout, “Drew’s hit!”

Frantically, Parker looked back to Sal to see her still sitting against the wall, as if there was no war at all. Why wasn’t she moving? Parker reached a hand out to her leg to shake her, and she lifted her head to give him a blank and expressionless look. He did not know what was wrong with her, but he felt sick.

There was a break in the gunfire, and Reuben tossed the barrel of his rifle over the top of their barrier and blind-fired to suppress them. Parker heard Noric chime some shots in, and shoved off the ground, ignoring the shooting pain that coursed through him. He looked down his ACOG scope to see one man, carrying an LMG with the breach pulled open, being dragged by the other man carrying a similar weapon. Parker did not hesitate to put the walking man in his crosshairs, drilling him with five rounds before putting three more into the already-grounded man. Clearly the first man had run dry and tried to reload, only to be hit in the process; the other man must have tried to drag him to cover, but in doing so, exposed himself too much. Just as Parker verified the two were dead, two Runners leaned out from behind the large chunk of cement and fired. Again, Parker had to duck down, and a moment later, the automatic fire started again. Another Runner must have taken the chance to snag one of the LMGs.’

From his spot on the ground, Parker noticed a small crack of space between two of the coolers they had set up. He crawled forward a bit and gently pushed them apart, making just enough space for the scope and barrel of his AR-15. The poorly-lit hallway made for good concealment from his unconventional position. Laying on his stomach with his body angled away from the gap, he rested the magazine of his rifle on the ground and steadied it with his left hand as he took careful aim. His weapon cracked out a shot, and the Runner with the LMG snapped his head to the side, collapsing. The other two men ducked into cover in response. Parker felt the agony in his pinky as his weapon rocked from the recoil; the finger was still swollen from his previous scuffle, and it seemed to hurt so much more with everything else added to it.

One of the men leaned out, and Parker watched the barrel of the man’s carbine drag right across him. Parker was stunned he did not get spotted, knowing the man had looked right at him. Hastily, he took aim and pulled the trigger. There was no report.

For a moment, Parker felt time freeze. He realized his weapon had failed, and time was no longer frozen, but moving ten times faster than normal. It felt like it took him a hundred years to get away from the exposed gap through which he was shooting. He cursed loudly and shoved away from the coolers, yanking his weapon back. After ripping back the charging handle, a dead bullet yanked out of the chamber and chimed to the ground. As the bolt moved forward again, the rounds double-fed into the chamber and the bolt jammed, at which point Parker realized he failed to eject the magazine. “Fucking jam!” he shouted out, tearing the magazine from the rifle and dropping it to the ground. He yanked the bolt back as hard as it could, but it was stuck; the round was lodged.

He had no time for this. Dropping the weapon to lay beside him, he pulled his Glock from his hip and crawled back to his gap. He peered through to see where the enemies were, and gasped when he saw them running for the barrier.

His eyes shot to Reuben-- reloading. Then to Noric-- on the ground, possibly hit. Parker felt terror grasp him as he shoved away from the barrier. He fired three fast rounds through the gap, and heard a yelp, before scrambling to his feet. When he stood full height, he lifted his pistol on target, and lost count of how many times he had pulled the trigger.

It was all a blur. There were so many gunshots, the flashes were so bright, the noise so muddled. Parker realized his earplugs had fallen out, probably during the blast. Had he not had them this whole time? He could hear to little, everything was so faint; he could feel the vibrations, the concussion of each gunshot. There were so many bodies, so many dead men in the hallway; sparks scatted off the walls all around him as bullets, coming and going, glanced here or there. Still standing, still pulling that trigger, still defending and fighting and killing, Parker staggered if only from the weight of the amount of death that would take place if these men were allowed down the hallway.

When Parker realized how delirious he felt, everything was so quiet. He was still standing. The slide was locked back on his pistol. The hallway was littered with corpses, some shifting slightly as the last bit of life bled from them. Guttural moans of death bounced like ricocheting bullets off of the pockmarked cement walls. Parker’s weary eyes looked down to see the figure of Reuben clambering to his feet, rifle in hand. He felt a hand clasp his shoulder, Reuben’s hand, and saw his lips move. What was he saying? Thanks? Maybe congratulations? Parker could not hear it.

His eyes fell to Drew, lying in blood. His head and arms moved pointlessly back and forth, as if he were trying to complete some task that no one else understood. Noric, covered in Drew’s blood or his own, knelt over his companion. To his left, he saw Sal, still against the wall. His feet shuffled him to her side, where he fell to the ground far harder than he intended.

His hand found hers, the slick feeling of blood between their palms. He looked her over, but saw no bleeding wounds. Where was the blood coming from? He followed the blood from his left hand, trailing up his wrist to his forearm just forward of his elbow, where he saw a gorge carved into his flesh. The blood drained from his face.

“I’m-- I’m hit!” he called out. His own voice seemed so far away. Why could he not feel it? All he felt was a dull ache caressing up and down his spine, maybe a tingling in his shoulder and his elbow. Should he be in pain? Suddenly, Noric was there, his blood-smeared hands digging through a medical pound. Parker looked up to see that Reuben was beyond the barrier, putting the final bullets into the men that still held onto life. Looking back to Noric, Parker muttered, “Sal! Check Sal! Check her!”

He used his good arm to shove Noric away. It satisfied him to see Noric quickly inspect Sal, before shrugging and returning to him. “What’s wrong?” Parker asked earnestly, the words coming out awkward and haggard. Noric spoke, but Parker could only see his lips move, gleaning that he had said ‘nothing’.

Sound slowly returned to the world, and with it came incredible agony. As the adrenaline fled from his veins, he felt every damage done to his body since the moment the fight began. He could hear echoes of his heavy groans bouncing back at him as he shut his eyes tightly. He felt the touch of icy cold steel in the flesh of his arm, then agony the likes of which he had never before felt. His screams echoed further and further into the distance, until suddenly, he was wreathed in a peaceful, calming silence.

CHAPTER 13

That stench, that overpowering stench, made the vomit finally spurt form Parker's tightly closed lips. Even with the hot acidic substance dripping down his chin, he knew he could not move or the passing undead would identify him. He watched through wide-open, terror-struck eyes as more than a score of corpses ran, walked, crawled past him, no more than ten feet away from him. They all moved north, all groaning and screaming, chasing after Reuben and the Scouts. He could not even decipher his own thoughts; there were too many thoughts occurring too quickly. But as he looked at each walker, unable to keep from inspecting and memorizing their faces, he did see one thought very clearly; he pictured the undead spotting him, turning and attacking, leaving him too mired by the corpses on top of him to effectively fight back. He could almost feel the monsters ripping into him, consuming chunks of him, as he struggled to fight them off. The weariness he felt was made murky by the fear and adrenaline, but he was not unaware of it.

Parker's eyes shot open, and he took in a gasp of crisp air, suddenly staring at a white ceiling. He was laying on his back, and could hear voices around him. Alarmed, he quickly lifted his head, seeing the vaguely familiar walls of the medical facility around him. There were people around him he did not recognize, many wearing white coats. He was not the only person laid on a cot; he was surrounded by others, some moaning and squirming, some still and silent. Memories of the firefight in the cellar flooded back to him, and he realized that the scene he had just witnessed was only a nightmare, a flashback of just how close his call was that day.

A man approached quickly, wearing glasses and a white coat. More features than that, Parker could hardly distinguish. "Welcome back, son," the man said, his voice revealing his older age. Parker guessed mid-fifties.

"Where am I?" Parker mumbled.

"The resting room of the med labs. You're all taken care of."

Parker lifted his head wearily to look at his arm. It was covered in a thick bandage. It hurt to move his elbow and wrist, so he let his arm lay slack on the cot again, and leaned his head back. "How bad was it?"

"Well," the man sighed, "it certainly wasn't good. You took a shot that, thank God, was only a little more than a glance. But it was a high-caliber round, so it definitely took a piece of you with it. We have a few men here that were able to dress it for you. Other than that, it was just scrapes and deep bruises-- your friend mentioned an explosion, which was probably to blame for all that."

"How long have I been out?" Parker asked, again looking to his bandaged arm. He lifted his other hand to his face as he sat up, rubbing his sore eyes.

"About eight hours, I think. I don't think it was from blood loss-- probably a combination of severe mental stress and extreme exhaustion. I understand you and your group have been pushing yourselves pretty hard the past week. You're going to need to take it easy for a day or so and drink a lot of water."

Parker groaned a bit and said, "Noted. Where's Sal? The woman that was with us?"

"Resting, down the hall. She took a bad knock to the head."

A wave of relief washed over Parker. He was sure she had some serious injury with the way she had been acting during the fight. He swing his legs from the table, and the man helped him to his feet before turning to speak with someone else. Parker wearily put one weak, wobbling foot in front of the other until he reached the exit, moving through the doorway and into the hall. A short ways down the hall, he looked into a room to see a small break room, complete with a couch and a refrigerator. Wrapped in a blanket on the couch was Sal, laying on her side with her face obscured by the book she was reading. Parker took a step into the room and leaned against the wall. "Hey," he said.

Sal pulled the book away and looked up at him. Her mouth fell open and she sat quickly. "Parker," she gasped. "Good God, you look like shit."

"Yeah, nice to see you too," he chuckled, wandering over to the newly-freed seat on her couch. He plopped down with a grunt and leaned back into the cushy rest. "How are you doing?"

"I'm alright," she sighed. "My memory is a little spotty. I remember the blast, and little bits and pieces of the firefight. Then I heard the automatic fire, and that's all I remember. After that, all I can recall is waking up here, confused and tired. They said I could have a concussion." Sal's eyes looked him over, settling on his arm. Her cold fingers touched his wrist as she said, "Jesus, what happened to you?"

"I took a shot," he said simply.

"You were hit? God-- how bad was it?"

Parker chose dismissive downplay. "Not bad. Just a glancing shot, no fragmentation. Not much trauma, just a gash and a bandage."

The two sat quietly for a moment, Sal's fingers still lingering on his wrist. Parker let out a heavy breath, his eyes meeting hers. At first, Parker got the impression that she was not comfortable, and wanted to shift and look away, but she did not. He wondered what was going through her head, or if she understood what he was feeling. He barely understood the feelings himself. But a moment later, Sal scooted slightly closer to him, her leaning her pounding head onto his shoulder with a drawn sigh.

"I'm glad you're okay," Sal said.

Affection. Parker was unsure how to approach it. He smiled and said, "Better be careful, or I might get the impression that you care about me." Wit was his strongest-- and his only-- defense against Sal.

She let out a soft chuckle, which died away to silence. After brief hesitation, she said quietly, "I'm tired of being careful."

The words meant more to Parker than they should have. Swallowing nervously, he lifted his wounded arm to drape around her, grimacing at the ache it caused. Sal did not object. Parker finally felt some closure about what had happened between them-- maybe it was no mistake after all.

"I'm really glad you're alright, too," Parker said. He did not admit that she had him terribly worried and scared during the fight. Some things did not need sharing.

After a few peaceful minutes, Reuben entered the room. Parker and Sal both looked up at him. He looked mostly untouched from the fight, but he stopped in his tracks when he entered to see the two of then huddled together on the couch. A bolt of anxiety struck Parker as he thought about what Reuben must have been thinking.

"Reuben," Sal said, lifting her head. Her hand slipped into Parker's, giving him a silently reassuring squeeze. "How are you?"

"Been better," Reuben said, taking a few slow steps into the room. "Parker, I saw you take your hit. How you holding up?"

"I'm alright. So you came out untouched, huh?"

Shrugging, Reuben sighed and said, "Yeah, I'm the lucky one. Noric cracked a rib in the explosion. Other than that, he's fine, but he's in a lot of pain." Taking in a deep breath, Reuben spat out the following words like he had a bad taste in his mouth: "Drew didn't make it."

Parker felt his blood turn cold for a moment as he received the news. He glanced to Sal to see her head down, biting her lip. "Fuck," Parker murmured. "How did he go?"

"Two rounds to the chest," Reuben stated with a scowl. "There was nothing we could have done. He was gone before the shooting even stopped. Noric is taking it hard."

Parker realized that meant Noric probably would not accompany him to Louisville after they had recovered. With a sigh, he scolded himself for considering asking Noric to come with after the man had lost his partner. He looked away, eyes trailing to the floor, still weighted with the gravity of losing a man in their group. He idly wondered what form of respect they would pay him. Losing a man within a city at least meant the body could he respectfully disposed of, rather than simply abandoned in the wild as would be necessary if on the move.

"So," Reuben said, changing the subject, "You two, huh?" His eyes leveled on Parker more than on Sal.

But it was Sal that spoke. "Is that a problem?" Parker grimaced at her choice of words; it seemed awfully confrontational. He blamed himself for not having taken Reuben aside and discussed it with him, as would have been the decent thing to do, but then recalled that he had no such time since his night with Sal at the inn.

"No no, not at all," Reuben defended, lifting his hands in surrender. "I'm just... Well, surprised is all."

"I think we were pretty surprised too," said Parker, hoping to diffuse any tension between the three of them.

Reuben smiled, and clasped his hands together. "Well," he said with a heavy exhale, "best of luck to the both of you." He turned for the exit, before stopping and saying, "By the way, Parker, I grabbed your pack and left it for you in the living quarters, where I've been told we'll be staying for a couple days. Also, Clyde tells me we're all having a dinner in a couple hours in the main lab. Should be some decent food for once."

Giving a nod, Parker watched silently as Reuben vanished through the door. He looked to Sal with a sigh, but she just offered a fearless smile and squeezed his hand again. His eyes glanced down to their joined fingers, and he said, "You're sure about this, Sal? This is what you want?"

"Shut up," she said, shifting to face him better. She leaned forward, her other hand moving to the collar of his shirt, pulling him toward her. "You think to much," she murmured just before their lips met.

Surprised, but not resistant, Parker felt his heart jump at the warmth of her lips. Unsure what to do with his hands, he left his injured arm around her, and pulled his hand from hers to set it at the back of her neck. Not both enveloped in each other's arms, the kiss felt like what Parker had always imagined it would feel like, even if the circumstances were unconventional.

Their lips broke apart, and Sal let out a shaky exhale. Parker admired her perfectly-shaped lips and the slope to her chin, savoring the way it felt to feel her pressed against him. The sound of her breath made him smile, because it sounded so similar to his; he could tell he had gotten to her just the same as she had gotten to him.


After some time spent together, Parker and Sal separated to manage some of their more menial tasks before dinner. Parker went to the living quarters to collect his pack, and was very relieved to find the case that enclosed his payment still tucked safely inside. He went to work disassembling his AR-15, dislodging the jammed-up chamber and restoring the weapon's functionality. He reloaded his magazines, dreading how low he was on ammunition, and took his time meticulously cleaning every moving part of his rifle and his pistol. After his effects were managed, he inquired about bathing and was directed to some rudimentary showers just beyond the living quarters of the facility. He bathed and relaxed in a hot shower, and redressed his wound after the bandage became wet. The pain from the wound was creeping up on him and he made a mental note to dig the painkillers out of his first aid kit.

After his shower, he realized he had exhausted his supply of clean clothes, and returned to the showers to clean his dirty laundry. After thorough cleaning, he left his clothes spread beneath some heat lamps in the lab to dry quickly.

Soon it was time for a dinner, and Parker attended smelling fresh, with a set of clean and mostly-dry clothes. It was a rare situation in his life.

CHAPTER 14

Fresh potatoes. Salted pork. Crisp cucumber. The food laid before Parker and his group was unprecedented in quality. It was the finest the city had to offer; the best produce from the best gardens, the best cuts from the best ranches. The scientists even had their own little victory garden, their own slice of subsistence farming just for the workers and their kin.

That was a realization that Parker had come to in his few spare hours on the facility: most of the scientists lived there, and many had families. These men were neither the working class, nor the aristocrats of the city. They were, for all intents and purposes, monastic by nature, forsaking things like property ownership. They had truly dedicated their lives to science. Parker admired their commitment.

The dinner was served at a massive table that stretched more than twenty feet long. Folding chairs were set up to accommodate more than were present. Upon entering the dining room, Parker was introduced through Reuben to the head of the facility security team, a man who was referred to as Commander Hatch. He was in his late thirties or early forties with salt and pepper colored hair and a matching beard. He wore clothes that screamed private military; black BDUs and lightweight ceramic and Kevlar armor. Very expensive, but sometimes very worthwhile. His armor was, in a way, a trademark of a position of authority; no ordinary grunt would be wearing such costly protection.

After everyone sat down, but before the food was served, Commander Hatch announced that he had conferred with the leadership of the facility, and that they agreed that the post-action meeting should include the newcomers rather than be held in private. Parker and his entourage were then regaled with every detail of the battle from twelve hours prior.

"The insurgents blew a hole in the exterior wall on the west side," Hatch stated, pointing to the corresponding location on a map of the facility that stretched over the table. "We believe they used militia explosives pilfered from the city within the past few days. The brunt of my force assembled to meet then but was surprised to find only a few men. They were armed with LMGs that were mounted and entrenched not far from the wall, and their fortified position made it difficult to neutralize them quickly. Eventually we were able to flank them and shut them down. During the firefight, we heard another blast, and I sent a handful of men to investigate. By the time they reached the cellar, the fight there was over. They helped get everyone into recovery and when everything was secured as best as possible, we began to dispose of the bodies. We have confirmed twenty-two insurgents killed. Casualties on our side have now reached ten."

That's all Drew was now. The tenth casualty. Parker glanced to Noric to see him looking down into his hands, folded on the table.

"What about the city?" Reuben inquired. "How did the fight go for the militia?"

Hatch nodded to him obligingly and replied, "The all-clear was sounded last night, not long after our battle had ended. Rebuilding has begun. Casualties were very minor and the nonmortuis were mercilessly eradicated with no intrusions beyond the breached wall."

After that, Hatch began into a speech about how those that died would be remembered for their sacrifice. It turned Parker's stomach. What had they died for? What had Drew died for? For the LRA's business plan? He could feel that red hot anger inside him again and tried to set those thoughts from his mind. Soon, Hatch's words had concluded and supper was served.

The table was loaded up with food and everyone enjoyed their victory feast. The dinner conversation ranged from mildly awkward to uproarious laughter. At one point, Reuben made a joke at the expense of Parker and Sal; although Sal looked upset, Parker was relieved to see his companion approaching the situation with humor rather than with insult. It made him feel as though Reuben had been speaking the truth when he said he was okay with the two of them being together.

When Parker finished his food, he was slightly embarrassed to see that he was first. He politely excused himself from the table to find the restroom. Roaming down the dimly-lit and occasionally unlit hallways toward the only restrooms he knew of in the facility, he had some time to think. He considered his approach to the LRA, and what his course of action would be when he got there. A sinking feeling churned in his gut as he mulled over the possible outcomes of the situation. No matter how noble, Parker was not interested in a suicide mission; he had fifty thousand dollars in his pack, and he fully intended to live life in his dream home until he died at seventy without ever having to earn another dollar. On his return from the restroom, he daydreamed of his future life in the Constitution manor district, living in a nice home and learning to manage a subsistence farm.

As his feet carried him quietly through the halls, he glanced up to see that he was near Clyde's office. He heard movement inside, and furrowed his brow, wondering if Clyde had come back from dinner already. Moving to the doorway, he peered inside to see a man hunched over the desk. He wore Runner clothes, but carried no rifle; he wore a light chest rig with a pistol strapped within, and another on his hip. Parker recognized his haircut and facial features-- it was the man he and Sal had seen in the security video from the Gatehouse.

The Runner pushed away from the desk after apparently having read something, and moved to the safe. With his back to the door through which Parker watched, he was as vulnerable as could be hoped for. Parker unclasped the thumb break of his holster and swiftly drew his Glock 21, lining the sights dead on the man's back.


"I'm not sure what Parker intends to do," Reuben explained to the others at the table, "but I know that fire in his eyes. He wants to dismantle the entire LRA."

"And what about you?" Hatch asked. "Are you going with him?"

Reuben fell quiet, reaching for his glass. He took a sip of the wine, rescued from one of the bottles that survived the cellar fight, and let out a sigh. "Yeah, I'll be there," he stated simple.

"Sounds like a hopeless fight," Clyde chimed in. "The LRA has hundreds of Runners under its thumb, and a premium security task force. What does Parker plan on doing against all that?"

Sal interjected before Reuben could answer, saying, "We'll figure something out. We always do."

Clyde was not convinced. "That's not a very promising strategy, ma'am."

"Every fortress has a cornerstone," Reuben stated. There was a silence, and Reuben felt the need to lighten the mood with humor. "Unless it's made of poured concrete. Does anyone know if the LRA building is made of poured concrete?"

There were a few chuckles form here and there, but the sense of dread still hung in the air. Clyde, Hatch, and the few others at the table that were not part of Parker's group seemed to legitimately fear for their wellbeing. Reuben wondered if they should be flattered.

Noric was dead silent. His abdomen was bandaged as was necessary to suit his injuries, and he seemed to be a statue of stoic emotion. Reuben had not seen him this way before. He could tell that Drew's death was hitting hard. The relationship between the Scout and his spotter reminded him of his relationship with Parker. There was a trust forged in the fight that could not be emulated any other way.

The dinner was suddenly disrupted by Parker's voice. "Reuben!" he shouted from the hall. Jumping from his chair, Reuben had hardly made it around the edge of the table before Parker came into the room, shoving another man inside. The man had his hands raised in the air and wore an empty holster on his chest rig, and another on his hip. Parker was behind him with his sidearm pointed squarely at his back. When he stepped into the room, he tossed one of the confiscated pistols to Reuben, and the other to Sal when she had stood to her feet.

"What the hell is this?" Hatch demanded.

Sal stepped toward the man. "Parker, is that the Runner?"

"It is," he replied. Looking to Clyde, he stated, "I found this asshole rummaging around your office. It looked like he was trying to get into the safe." Then, turning his attention to Hatch, he explained, "Sal and I saw a recording of this man murdering the gatehouse guards and registration officer in what we think was an attempt to open the gate for the horde. Since he escaped through the door that leads to the militia base, I bet he's also the one that stole militia explosives and used them on the walls."

Reuben suddenly realized the man was the same one he had seen in the gatehouse two days earlier, and leveled the pistol on him. "You!" he remarked, moving closer. "You son of a bitch! I knew something was going down as soon as I saw you! Hey Noric, this is the guy!"

The destitute Scout stood painstakingly from his seat and stared silently at the captive. He said nothing.

"What should we do with him?" asked Parker.

Reuben was the first to reply. "We shoot him like a shuffler right fucking here, that's what."

But Parker disagreed, saying, "I think we should hang on to him. He might know something about the LRA."

"I agree with this guy," the Runner said. Parker considered bashing his head with his handgun for speaking, but decided it was best to keep his distance for now. What the Runner had done in the video haunted Parker; if he could kill three armed guards without even drawing his weapon, a safe distance definitely needed to be maintained. Still, after he spoke, everyone in the room shot him a fiery glare.

"We have detention cells," Hatch stated. "We'll stash him there, for now."

Parker nodded to him, before motioning for Parker and Sal to help him keep the man contained. Hatch stood and led them down the hall toward the detention cells, not far from the living quarters within the facility. The cells looked like a typical prison; there were a few cells with steel bar doors anchored in the concrete, and one with a large sliding steel door.

"We'll toss him in solitary," Hatch said, motioning to the cell with the solid door.

Parker found the term amusing; with no one else in the cells, every cell was solitary. "No," he said, "because if we decide we just want to kill him, we'd have to open the door to shoot him. That gives him a chance. Toss him in a cell and let's see if we can find someone to keep an eye on him."

Begrudgingly, Hatch obliged and opened a cell door. The Runner reluctantly stepped inside, before the cell door was closed behind him. Parker observed him for a moment, before letting out a sigh. He was not satisfied with the security.

"Take off your clothes," Parker demanded. The others gave him looks for the request. Still peering down the sights of his pistol, Parker said again, "Take your fucking clothes off or I put a round in your leg, and then make you do it anyway."

The man let out a heavy sigh and began to disrobe. Soon, he stood bare before the group, his clothes littered on the floor. Parker made him slide his belongings through the bars, and had him turn around fully for visual inspection. When satisfied that the man had absolutely nothing on him that could be used to escape or resist, Parker gathered up the belongings and left the man to himself inside his musty cell.

"Well that was awkward," commented Reuben as they departed.

"It may not be glamorous," Parker responded, "but it's practical. I've seen what that bastard is capable of. He's not getting any mercy from me."

The group returned to the dining room, where Hatch instructed two of his men to watch over their new captive. After they had gone to tend their task, everyone took a seat to discuss their next course of action. Hatch was extremely curious in how they planned on taking down the LRA.

Parker simply told him he was open to suggestions.

_________________
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Tribunal Power's Zombie Fiction

My Trunk Bag/GHB/BOB for a Tight Budget


Last edited by Tribunal Power on Thu Dec 08, 2011 4:53 am, edited 5 times in total.

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CHAPTER 15

Parker did not get much sleep after the dinner, his mind too active for him to rest well. He thought about Sal, about their budding relationship and how out of place it was in the chaos of his life. He tried to think of what to do with the Runner they had in captivity; killing him would be just, but Parker could not shake the nagging feeling that the Runner knew something. He remembered his dwindling supplies and tried to burn into his mind that he needed to restock before leaving for Louisville.

But more than anything, he thought about the dreadful fight that he had committed to. The LRA building was huge, with a well equipped security force and complete support from the Louisville militia and the other players in the city. It seemed like a hopeless effort.

The pain in his arm made it hard to get comfortable on his cot. Eventually, his mind fell silent and the pain became dull enough for him to fall into a light, uneasy slumber. When he awoke in the early morning, he felt the full force of all his injuries weighing on him. He felt physically exhausted, his entire body pulsating with an ache that refused to subside. For some time, he simply laid in his cot and hurt, waiting for a break in the pain to stand. When he realized that there would be no break, he let out a heavy groan and forced himself to his feet.

He cast his eyes over the other cots. Noric was still asleep, propped up with pillows to keep comfortable with his broken rib. Sal and Reuben’s cots were empty, probably already eating breakfast with the staff. He grabbed his pistol belt and buckled it around his hips, grimacing at the light use of his wounded arm. The pain from the gunshot wound stretched all the way into his back, just between his shoulder blades. Every movement caused a sharp shooting pain through his arm. He worried he would have to swallow his pride and ask for a sling, and maybe break open his first aid pouch for a few painkillers.

After hitting the restrooms, he stepped into the dining room in which they had eaten the night before. Sal and Reuben were sitting together with empty plates in front of them. They both glanced up when he entered the room, and Parker was pleased to see a warming smile on Sal’s lips.

“Morning,” Reuben greeted. “How’s the arm?”

“Just grand. How’s the breakfast?” Parker replied.

“Beats the hell out of dried fruits. You know how long it’s been since I had fresh eggs? Years.”

They all smiled and nodded along with him. City food was something they had grown to miss. Still, Parker did not want to get too acquainted with eating well, as it would make it that much harder to go back to strict, calorie-regulated daily rations.

“Did you get any sleep?” Sal asked. When Parker shrugged dismissively, she responded with a sigh, saying, “Yeah, me neither. Got one hell of a headache today, too. I don’t think I like being blown up.”

Parker chuckled at her choice of words and shook his head. “Could have been a lot worse,” he reminded her. There wasn’t really a fair response to that, so for a moment, no one spoke. “Do you know where Clyde went?” he asked, interrupting the uncomfortable silence.

Reuben shrugged and said, “Try his office.”

With a nod, Parker departed, casting back a glance and a smile to Sal. He stepped into the corridor to head towards the scientist‘s office, his sore feet carrying him hurriedly down the hall. When he rounded the corner to Clyde’s study, he saw him sitting behind his desk, with Hatch and another man he did not recognize standing beside him. All three had mugs of fragrant coffee in their hands and appeared to be having a serious discussion. Parker quietly entered their presence.

The conversation stopped temporarily as Clyde and Commander Hatch offered friendly smiles to Parker. “Good morning,” said Clyde, standing to his relatively short stature from behind his desk.

“And to you,” Parker replied, feigning a smile despite the pain he was in.

Clyde wasted no time introducing the new face. “This is Vice Captain Jefferson Rowe, from the city militia. He’s here regarding the official report of what took place over the past few days. Vice Captain, this is Parker Mason, the man that very well may have saved our species.”

Parker blinked at the rather dramatic introduction. He idly wondered what kind of an angle Clyde was working on the Vice Captain. The man wore interesting garb; while he wore the same gear as the Shepherdsville militia, with a dark earth chest rig and olive drab BDUs, his attire differed in that he wore a patrol cap rather than a helmet and he carried a large pouch on his hip that standard militia did not have, presumably containing administrative equipment. Over his chest, dangling from a single-point sling, was a Stone-2070 rifle bearing rare optics that Parker did not recognize and a pair of taped magazines for quick swapping. He was tall with Caucasian skin and short cropped brown hair, and the remnant stubble of facial hair covered his chin and cheeks. Over the brim of his patrol cap was a pair of tinted goggles, and wrapped under the collar of his shirt was the mouth tube of a hydration bladder. His sleeves were rolled up, his pants were bloused into his boots, and in his gloved hands was a clipboard and a pen, which were both held in the left hand as he offered the right to Parker.

“The Captain apologizes that he couldn’t be here,” the man said as Parker shook his hand. “He wanted to be present at the wall while it was being rebuilt. I’m honored to be here in his stead. It’s a real pleasure, Parker. You’ve done a great thing here.”

All the praise was difficult to respond to. Parker just smiled dumbly and chuckled, stammering, “Yeah, well, you know…”

Clyde and the Vice Captain smiled slightly, before the doctor motioned to the chairs nearby. “Please, sit down, the everyone.”

Parker, Clyde, Vice Captain Jefferson, and Commander Hatch all scooted their chairs up to the desk, and Parker prepared himself for what seemed to be a very important conversation.

“The official capacity for which the Vice Captain is here has already been concluded,” Clyde stated matter-of-factly. “That fact that he remains here is a gracious acquiescence on his part. It’s a very beneficial thing that the Vice Captain came here today rather than his superior, because he and I have had a conversation that would not have taken place with the Captain. It’s something that concerns all of us.”

“Well, what is it?” Parker asked impatiently.

Hatch replied instead. “It started because I asked Clyde’s permission to accompany you on your trip to Louisville. I requested leave for myself and a small party of my preferred security officers.”

Parker’s eyes widened. “What? You want to come with us?”

This time, Clyde responded. “The LRA’s corruption is not something we can check off as someone else’s problem, Parker. Their attack failed this time, but they’ve attacked before. They’ll attack again-- unless you stop them. This is an immediate and pressing matter that must be dealt with swiftly and decisively. I told the Commander that he was to take whom he desired and go with you, with pay.”

“And then I had a thought,” Hatch stated. “I gave my buddy Jefferson over here a visit and asked him to come by for the report. We took care of that and then got down to business.”

“Woah woah,” Parker said, holding up his hands. “You’re not thinking of sending militia with me, are you?”

There was a brief and uncomfortable quiet in the room. The Vice Captain leaned forward, folding his hands. “This isn’t just your fight, Parker. The LRA didn’t just attack the med center. They killed my men, blew a hole in my wall, endangered my city. Good militiamen and innocent citizens have been killed because of the LRA’s greed. It’s my fight, too. So, yes, there will be a party of militiamen sent to Louisville, and I will lead them. I will personally see to it that the LRA is held accountable for the lives they’ve cost us.”

“You’re going to lead a group of militiamen through the deadly wilderness all the way to Louisville?” Parker reiterated. “Are you fucking insane? Don’t you have any idea how much attention that will attract from the dead?”

“Yes, and we will deal with that. We are prepared to fight them.”

With a scoff, Parker shook his head and leaned back in his seat. “You’re going to lose every man before you even get to the Louisville gate.”

The Vice Captain wore a scowl that made Parker reconsider his tone. “I don’t think you understand just how much of a badass each and every one of my soldiers can be,” he replied stoically. “They grew up fighting the gangs of Shepherdsville just for the right to close their eyes when they sleep. They fight and die every day to keep the gangs from getting too powerful and to keep the dead outside the city. My men are used to living off of the essentials and killing what poses a threat. We’ll be just fine, and when we get to Louisville, they’ll have a serious problem to face.”

With a defeated sigh, Parker submitted. “Fine. So you’re sending an army to Louisville. What does the leadership there think of that?”

Clyde responded, saying, “A radio transmission was sent to Louisville only hours ago, informing them of the LRA’s treachery and explaining the recourse that is taking place. We are awaiting a response.”

“You told them we’re coming for the LRA? What if they’re harboring them?” Parker asked indignantly.

“They wouldn’t,” Commander Hatch stated. “The governor of Louisville might be stubborn, but he’s not a criminal. He’ll turn them over or deal with them himself.”

Parker sighed, shaking his head as he replied, “It must be nice to be so sure.” Standing from his chair, he summarized the conversation, saying, “So I’ll be traveling with a militia and a security detail. At least the fight with the LRA’s security won’t be so one-sided now.”

“One last thing,” the Vice Captain said. “Your prisoner will be under our custody by tonight. He will most likely be executed by the city for what he’s done. If there’s anything you needed from him, I suggest you start getting it.”

Parker nodded wordlessly, and dismissed himself from the conversation. With an aggravated sigh, he headed back into the dining room and explained the sudden turn of events with Sal and Reuben, who were just as surprised and befuddled as he was. Knowing that time was short, the three took a moment to debate whether or not to interrogate the captive Runner, concluding that it was worth it to ask a few questions.

CHAPTER 16

A guard stood faithfully at the end of the hallway, blocking any entrance or exit from the room that contained the holding cells. There was only one occupant, and Parker was certain he had information that would be vital to their upcoming operation. Deep down, Parker knew that the man very well could be clueless to the big picture of what the LRA wanted, and his certainty that the man knew something was likely just a projection of his hope that there was some tidbit of intelligence that would save them from having to run a desperate attack through two days of travel through deadly wilderness. the very thought of this mission made his gut turn. For so long he had been trained by the trials of his trade that to travel in numbers was too great a risk, that the only way to travel in the wilds was quickly, carefully, and quietly. He had always believed in leaving as small a footprint as he could manage-- or none, if possible-- and traveling militias made a lot of footprints.

The guard stepped aside as Parker and Reuben entered the hallway. The two were immediately struck with the stench of day-old defecation. The prisoner came into view, sitting in a fetal position in the corner, likely trying to conserve his heat in the chilly cell. He looked pale, a bit sickly. In the opposing corner, there was a pile of feces and a puddle or urine, contained as cleanly as possible. Parker had not realized the cells lacked toiletries.

The man looked destitute. Parker could tell by his coloration that he was getting increasingly dehydrated. Although his time in the cell was between twelve and sixteen hours, Parker realized he probably had not had anything to eat or drink during the entire time, and understood how that sort of punishment can take its toll. For a moment, he pitied the man, but the moment fleeted as Parker recalled why the man was in the cell, and why they were there to question him.

"What's your name?" Parker asked sternly,

The naked and sore runner stirred in his cell, weary eyes peering at his inquisitors. His voice was hoarse as he spoke, saying, "Alan Paddock."

"Too broken down for bullshit, I see," Reuben observed.

"You're not the average Runner. What do you do, Alan Paddock?"

Taking in a heavy breath, the prisoner wetted his lips, then said, "I'm a hitman."

"Oooh, an assassin. Scary," teased Reuben. "Come on, chump-- you can do better than that. If you were a big bad hitman, I'd have heard of you."

"Amateurs spend their time trying to make sure you've heard of them," Alan said with a sickly chuckle. "Professionals make sure you haven't."

Parker and Reuben fell silent, casting each other a glance. There was a pause before Parker spoke up. "What's an assassin doing working for the LRA?"

"I'm not working for the LRA. I'm working for Garret Freeman."

The name stung in Parker's ears. Director Garret Freeman was at the head of the LRA and had become a personal friend of Parker's throughout the years of work they shared together. A chill ran down his spine at the thought of his boss hiring a hitman,

"Did he send you to kill me?" Parker asked.

Alan peered at him and replied, "There's a bonus in it for me if I do, but no, that was not my contract. He wanted me to stir up a hoard and lure them to the walls, then leave the gates open for them. He wanted me because I know how to travel quietly and how to control the walkers out there."

"Why are you rolling so easily?" Reuben asked. "Why tell us this?"

"I took the contract because it paid well, and I got a third up front. But the job was bullshit, and it was a pain in the ass-- especially when my horde tripped over you morons, and you started slaughtering them and messing with my route." Taking a breath, Alan added, "And I don't necessarily like the end result of what I was told to do."

"That's where all those damn corpses came from when we were meeting with Noric and Andrew," Reuben realized. "Fuck. It makes sense now."

Alan scooted closer to the bars of the cell. "What are you looking for? Hoping I know some secret weakness for a strike-back mission?"

"You're a hitman. You always have contingency plans, right?" Parker reasoned, "What do you know about the LRA?"

"I've got some information that might be useful," he stated. "But it's hard for me to talk right now. You get me some water, I'll give you what I know."

With a scoff, Reuben shook his head and said, "How about I shoot you in the foot, and if you don't tell us what we want to know, I shoot you in the other foot? How about you tell us, and I'll think about giving you something to keep your upcoming gunshot wounds from getting infected while you stew in your own shit?"

Parker set a hand on Reuben's shoulder, calming his companion. "I can see you're not keeping up well," he stated. "I'll get you some water. But if you so much as twitch in a way that I don't like, we're doing things Reuben's way. Understood?"

The assassin nodded hopefully, and Parker motioned for Reuben to stay while he went to fetch his hydration pack. For a moment, as he walked down the hall and turned toward the private quarters where his effects were, he reflected on the fact that he was fetching water for a professional murderer. But a small part of him believed that although he had done terrible things, he was still a man, and all men deserved some decencies, no matter how horrible they might be. That was a thought Parker was not sure he was comfortable with.

Only a few minutes later, he returned with a mug and his canteen around his neck. The guard stepped aside again and Parker grimaced at the smell as he stepped back into the hallway, glancing to Reuben, who had a disgusted look on his face. Parker knew he was disgusted not with the smell, but with the fact that this killer was getting mercy.

After pouring some water into the mug, filling it only about halfway, Parker unclasped the snap on the holster of his pistol. His right hand grasped the grip as he offered the mug through the bars with his left. Alan, with his palms up, reached for the mug. Parker felt his breath catch in his throat and his chest tightened for a moment. He wondered if the assassin was capable of killing him in their current positions. How would he do it? Parker had seen his work before, and there was no doubt in his mind that the man could kill him with relative ease, maybe even when naked and dehydrated in a cell.

But the assassin grasped the cup and pulled it back slowly and gently, while Parker retracted his hand through the bars. The exchange was uneventful. Alan drank down the water quickly.

"If I like what I hear, maybe you'll get more," Parker said.

Alan took a moment to let the liquid saturate his throat. Then he took a deep breath and aimed his gaze at Parker. "I stashed my bag in a trench outside the north wall," he stated. "It's not far from the alley between the ironworks center and the abandoned building next door. You can see the trench from the end of the alley. Inside my pack, there is a map of the LRA facility. All the entrances and exits-- the complete floor plan. It's in a folder, along with some notes on the armament of the security and their shift changes." The two listened intently, both surprised by the depth of the information the man had. Alan smiled and said, "Contingency plan, in case Freeman didn't want to pay up. I always get my money."

Parker glanced to Reuben, then back to the prisoner. "Fine," he said, tossing the canteen into the cell. The assassin dove on it with a surprised gasp, pulling the top off and sucking down the water. The two turned away from the captive and moved down the hall.

"Keep an eye on him," Reuben said to the guard as they passed. The officer nodded and grasped his Stone-2070 tightly in his hands, turning to face cell.

The two walked in silence down the hall back toward the private quarters again, before Reuben patted Parker on the shoulder and said, "You think he's telling the truth?"

"I do," Parker stated. "I know desperation when I see it. And I think showing him a little decency might have warmed him to us a little."

"Whatever," Reuben said. "If you want to cuddle with a mangy rabid killer dog, I won't stop you, so long as it gets us results."

Parker did not reply. Upon reaching the private quarters, the two went to their cots and began to suit up in their outdoor gear. Reuben had just finished, and Parker was just grabbing his rifle, when Hatch walked in and spotted them. "What's going on?" he inquired.

"We got some information from the prisoner," Parker said. Hatch perked up a bit and Parker went on to say, "Said he stashed his pack a ways from the north wall, and inside is a map of the LRA building and information on the security force there. Could be exactly what we're looking for. We were about to go check it out."

"Negative," said Hatch, shaking his head. "That's my job. I'll have some of my guys look into it. You two need your rest."

"I don't think so," Reuben said. "I've been itching to get out of this place ever since the firefight."

"I've already got a patrol in the area," replied Hatch. "Head out and tell them what's going on. This could be an ambush and I don't want you going out there alone. My patrol should be right around the north gate by now."

The two nodded, and departed quickly. Parker did his best to put the soreness of his arm out of his mind; it was painful to put on his gear with the injury, but he would not let it get the better of him. The two walked in silence through the facility to the door that led outside, moving down the walkway toward the north gate. Reuben waved to the guard in the tower on the wall, who turned the winch that opened the gate. The two Runners strolled through it, hearing it clatter closed behind them, scanning the foreground for the patrol.

"There they are," Reuben said, tapping on Parker's shoulder and pointing toward the crest of a hill further north. There were four men, all wearing the black attire and armor of the facility security, and armed with Stone-2070 rifles. Parker nodded and the two moved towards them.

Moments later, they caught them and the two groups met. Parker and Reuben were hastily introduced to officers Lanley, Baker, DeWitt, and Soreolas. It only took a moment to explain the situation to them before they diverted to look into the situation. On the way, the group exchanged small-talk; Parker learned that Jackie DeWitt, the female officer in the group, was the ranking officer of the four, and that Marc Baker was her brother. She was a young widow who kept her late husband's last name. Arlo Lanley was the group wiseass, and Reuben took a liking to him. Henrik Soreolas was the smart one, always making shrewd observations and warning the group when something did not feel right. It quickly felt like everyone knew each other and were old friends.

"There's the trench," DeWitt stated, pointing toward across the field. Parker could see the ironworks factory and the abandoned building not far beyond it. The force of Runners they had fought must have used the alley to get close enough to dig the trench without being spotted by the security towers. The hill between the wall and the row of buildings kept the area in a convenient and unmonitored pocket.

The six approached the trench carefully. "Lanley, watch that alley. Baker, Parker, Reuben, establish a perimeter. Soreolas, you're on point. If you see the bag, let us know."

Everyone set to their business. Parker and Reuben decided that, for now, it was best to listen. The two remained outside the trench, kneeling and arming their weapons. They scanned the area around them and saw no perceivable threats. Baker had hopped into the trench to the rear of Soreolas, while Lanley and DeWitt inspected and watched the alley.

A moment later, Soreolas' voice rang out. "Found it!" he called out. He pointed to a large brown ruck that was tucked neatly into the corner of the trench and covered with twigs and brush to keep it inconspicuous. Parker glanced back to see it.

DeWitt approached, as did Baker. Remaining outside the trench, DeWitt called out, "How do we look?"

One after the other, the officers called "Perimeter clear!" Reuben and Parker did as well, following the others. DeWitt looked pleased as she then looked to Soreolas, nodding to him to proceed.

Soreolas leaned over the front pocket, and Baker knelt down to check the side pockets. Lanley approached from behind them to see what was inside the pack. "Make sure you check the bottom of the main compartment really well," Baker commented. "Sometimes these rucks have little secret pouches in the bottom."

Soreolas groaned, and looked up to Parker. "Did the guy say which pouch it--"

Suddenly there was no more sound. Parker blinked to see a flash of light and a cloud of dust. Half a heartbeat later, he was lifted from the ground and thrown tot he side, slamming into the hill. A massive veil of dirt hung over the air. The familiar ring of a deafening explosion echoed in Parker's ears. His insides felt like jelly and his legs refused to work. His mind raced as he reacted faster to the sudden explosion than before; after ensuring he had all his body parts, he quickly scrambled to sit up, the world around him spinning. A mangled Stone-2070 rifle was imbedded barrel-first in the hill beside him, buried up to the magazine in the earth. Scraps of bloody cloth and flesh rained from above. Parker realized he had a splash of blood on his right side-- not his own.

The ringing subsided to screams and cries of agony and devastation. Parker lifted a hang to his rattled and scrambled head. With a gasp of filthy air, he stumbled to his weak feet, and shuffled towards the epicenter of the blast. The trench had been torn open, like a wound with ripped stitches. A severed and ravaged leg, disembodied at the thigh, was draped over a section of the torn earth. Where the bag had once laid, there was only a massive smear of splattered gore, with red bones jammed into the earth and scraps of flash shoved through the dirt. Parker could hear the screams getting louder. He looked right to see DeWitt slowly sitting up-- she appeared more or less unharmed. Hurrying to her side, Parker saw Reuben not far from her. He was standing, wandering like a lost child, through the dark cloud of bloody dust that lurched around them. He was covered in blood spatter.

"Sound off!" echoed the female voice in Parker's ears. "Sound off!"

Parker pushed a voice from his lungs, but no words formed-- only a disoriented holler of affirmation. Reuben's followed a moment later. There were no other yells, save one perpetual scream of agony. Parker stumbled in the direction of the scream only to find Lanley lying in the dirt. A good portion of his midriff was missing. There was a bone jutting out of his shoulder and another from his leg, but it didn't look like his own. Parker quickly realized that whomever was standing nearest to Lanley had been blown apart and the bones became shrapnel.

A moment later, DeWitt was kneeling at his side. Reuben had wandered to them, and was standing over the mangled officer. Parker glanced over his shoulder to see that the dirt cloud was settling, and coming over the hill from the facility was a group of security officers coming to help.

Lanley coughed violently, then screamed again, a hoarse and agonizing scream. Parker winced at the bloodcurdling cry of pain. It seemed louder than any explosion. Walking wearily toward the oncoming assistance, Parker waved his arms to bring them directly to the wounded man.

CHAPTER 17

The taste of vomit was still fresh in Parker's mouth. He was unsure whether it was the shockwave overturning his guts or the obscene amount of gore in the explosion, but something had gotten to him. Even as he sat at the table in the dining hall, he felt queasy, like his stomach was constantly in a state of motion while the rest of him remained still.

He was surrounded by his companions. To his right sat Reuben, battered and bruised, and beside him, Sal with a look of shock on her face. To his left, an equally battered DeWitt, and past her, Noric sat in silence. The Vice Captain sat at the end of the table beside Hatch, who was standing and addressing the group. Miscellaneous security officers were here and there throughout the room. The hallway that led to the holding cells was buzzing with security activity.

"As you know, the bag that Alan Paddock led us to was trapped," he said, his tone disdainful and weary. It seemed every time he gave an address to the crew of the med facility, it was in the wake of a great loss of life. "This assassin had one last trick. Just after the explosion, during the scrambling chaos, the assassin offered an empty canteen to the Officer Morris, who was standing watch over him. Morris approached and reached for the canteen, at which time the assassin entangled his arm in the strap and pulled him into the bars. He was able to reach through the bars to operate the rifle on Morris' chest, wounding the officer, before detaching the rifle from its sling and using it to destroy the lock on the cell door." Letting out a drawn sigh, Hatch spat the words, "He then made his escape via the recently-demolished cellar. Three security officers were killed, one wounded.

"The explosion itself claimed two lives: Officers Baker and Soreolas. Officer Lanley is in critical condition with extreme blood loss and severe shrapnel wounds."

Images of Lanley lying in the dirt bleeding and screaming rushed to Parker's mind. Did the bones that were lodged in his body belong to Baker or to Soreolas? A shudder traveled down his spine at the thought, after which he recalled that Baker was DeWitt's brother. Casting a glance in her direction, he saw only a stoic expression and a look of resolve.

"In light of the recent loss of life," Hatch continued, "I've elected to take a smaller force to Louisville than I originally intended. Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, I will be assembling a strike team. Lieutenant DeWitt will accompany me. Any officers who wish to participate may speak with me for consideration." There was a break in his words, before Hatch's demeanor changed. He became softer, more sullen, less business-like, as he said, "We've all been through a lot these past few days. We need to recuperate before the trek to Louisville. Any officers not on duty may go on leave. But this is also a time of great danger, and as such, any officers late or absent to their shift will be terminated and prosecuted for private security desertion. Am I understood?"

There was a general murmur of affirmation amongst the security officers that were present. Normally Hatch might have pressed them for a stronger response, but just like everyone else, he just seemed too tired to care. Everyone was feeling the pressure, the stress, the loss; it left them worn thin, ready to tear.

After Hatch took his seat, the Vice Captain stood. "I've ordered for your ranks to be supplemented by the militia," he stated, "so as not to leave this facility with too few men to protect it. I recognize the importance of this venture and I hope you all do too."

With that, the meeting was dismissed. Twenty-four hours until they bundled up their so-called army and set out for Louisville. It seemed too far away and too close all at once. Parker pushed away from the table and moved to stand. As he did so, he caught a glance of Reuben; he was wearing a scowl more bitter than Parker had ever seen before. He wanted to ask what was wrong, but decided it was best to wait until they were in a more private setting.

Parker stood to his feet, minding his turned stomach. Peering over the table and past the others in the room, he saw the hallway that led to the cells. There was still blood on the floor. The damaged cell hung open. Parker took it as an additional insult that the assassin took the canteen with him. Reuben was right; it was wrong to show him mercy, and good men paid for it.

"I know that look," said the Vice Captain.

Glancing over to see him approaching, Parker said, "What look?"

"You're feeling like you're somehow responsible for this. Don't go down that road. It doesn't go anywhere good."

Parker scoffed. "I know this isn't entirely my fault," he replied. "I just feel stupid."

"Like it or not, Mason, you're in charge of these people. Leaders can't afford to feel responsibility for things like this. It affects your judgment. You have to pick up, dust off, and keep doing the right thing. Sometimes people die either way."

"You're telling me walking into a trap was the right thing to do?"

The Vice Captain shook his head and sighed. "It's a lesson in trusting the enemy. Now we all know just how great a threat Alan Paddock is. You're not the only one who believed him, Parker."

Letting out a sigh, Parker decided he didn't want to be in the conversation anymore. "Look, Jefferson," he said, using his name with disdain, "thanks for the encouragement. I'm just not sure a pep talk is enough to cover five deaths."

The Vice Captain said nothing as Parker turned away to head toward the living quarters. Soon Parker was sitting alone on his cot, taking slow and even breaths to keep his stomach from rising up. He did not want to see anyone; he just wanted to sit and think. Where would Alan Paddock go after an escape like that? He had to be in town still, trying to find clothes and supplies before he could go out into the wilderness. Parker considered gearing up and setting out to search for him. But even if he found the assassin, what then? The man proved that he was lethal in even the most one-sided situation. He was naked, starved, dehydrated, locked in a cell, and he managed to kill five people and escape. There was no denying it; Parker feared this man.

Movement caught Parker's peripheral vision. He glanced up to see Sal leaning into the doorway; the one person he could not turn away. He tried to force a smile for her, but failed. She wore a look of sympathy as she stepped into the room.

"You doing okay?" she inquired.

Parker opened his mouth, but stopped himself from lying. "No."

The cot flexed slightly as she took a seat on it beside him. The two of them were angled together, shoulder to shoulder. Sal placed her soft hand on his knee and tried to catch his eyes in hers. "Don't torture yourself with this, Parker. It's not like you."

"Not like me?" he replied indignantly. "What would the Parker you know do, then?"

She squeezed his leg as she said, "Suck it up and do the job ahead, that's what my Parker would do. We don't have time for self-pity."

Parker had to smile at her as she spoke. "Sounds like a real tough guy."

"Tough as they come," she said quietly, leaning in for a kiss. Parker could not deny her. The two kissed, and the cot creaked as she leaned against him. What parker thought would be a simple kiss deepened as she leaned further against him. Her hand flexed on his knee, and a shiver ran down his spine. For a moment, the kiss broke.

"What's this all about?" he asked through a smile.

"Tomorrow we go off to war," she said. "The first war in almost a century. Doesn't that excite you?"

"No," Parker replied with a chuckle.

"We might not come back from it," she said. "If that's how it's going to be, I don't want either of us to have only a fuzzy drunken memory of what our sex was like."

Parker went with her movement as she eased him into his back on the cot, straddling him. Before he could process what she was saying, her hands had found her way under his shirt. By the time it hit the floor, his hands had found her shirt as well. He pulled it over her head, her light blonde hair spilling through the neck of the shirt as it came off, before tossing it aside. Running his hands down her sides, he took in the shape of her body and let out a shaky breath. His hand moved over her stomach, his thumb touching over the large concaved teardrop-shaped scar over her naval. Emerald eyes peered down at him with fire in them, and she gave him a crooked grin.


Officer Lanley lied motionless in a bed in the medical treatment bay. Reuben saw Officer DeWitt sitting on a stool at his side. Other than the meeting, he had not seen her leave his side once. It was not so long ago that Reuben was there, watching over all his companions that were hurt during the firefight in the cellar. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since then.

"Hey, Jackie," he said softly as he moved to stand by her side.

She looked up, pulling some of her dark hair from her face. Suddenly she sat up straighter, and cleared her throat. Her eyes were puffy from tears. "Mr. Santiago," she said, quickly pulling her hair back and tucking some of it into her patrol cap. "You'll have to forgive me-- I hardly look like an officer right now."

Reuben smiled softly and shook his head. "It's Reuben. And don't worry, I won't write you up this time."

She smiled weakly and let out a quiet chuckle. "You really do remind me a lot of him," she replied, her gaze falling back to Lanley.

"He's a sharp guy," Reuben agreed. "And handsome, too. He and I have that in common."

After another subdued chuckle, she said, "My rank never mattered around him. It was nice that he wasn't afraid to crack wise in front of me."

There was a pause, before Reuben stepped a little closer to the bed. Lanley's chest was gradually rising and falling with breath. There was a tube down his throat hooked up to a pump of some kind beside the bed. Reuben had never seen a machine like that before. He wondered who was breathing-- Lanley, or just the machine.

"He'll be fine, Jackie," he lied. "If he's anything like me, this won't stop him. He looks like a tough son of a bitch."

"That's kind of you to say. But I've seen his wounds." She said nothing else after that. Reuben gathered that she would have followed that with 'and he doesn't have a chance' but did not want to say such a thing in front of the bedridden officer. It was obvious she felt that way. "I knew it was a trap."

"We all did," Reuben stated with a sigh.

"Then why did we go? Why did we even bother the fucking backpack?" There was anger in her voice, repressed and subdued, but raw. Reuben gleaned that this was the first time she had ever suffered loss of life in her command.

"I don't know," he placated. He was asking the same questions. To help satisfy her, he said what he felt Parker would say. "It was a tip, and we had to check it out. The information would have been too valuable if the tip was true."

"Of course it wasn't true," she said bitterly. "That fucker just wanted a window of opportunity, and he got it. He killed Marc and ran off. God knows where he is now."

Her brother, Officer Marc Baker, was killed instantly in the blast. Memories of the horrifying gore flashed to mind as Reuben recalled the explosion. He remembered vividly how he felt hot blood cover him like a sheet of rain. The smell of open bowls and gunpowder was easy to recall. Those things hardly bothered him anymore. After fighting at Elizabethtown, his sense of violence had become completely desensitized.

He placed a hand on her shoulder and said, "I'm sorry, Jackie. They'll find him."

"Right," she replied hastily. Her words stung even as they left her mouth, and she knew she was being too harsh. To soften her demeanor, she lifted a hand and placed it over Reuben's fingertips on her shoulder. "Thanks, Reuben."

Reuben offered her a warming smile, and gave he shoulder a squeeze. Just as he did, there was a light knock on the doorframe behind them. The two turned to see Commander Hatch standing in the doorway.

"Another meeting," he stated. "The Vice Captain and I forgot to discuss travel arrangements." He lingered a moment, before glancing past the two of them to the wounded man. "How is he?"

"Same, sir," Jackie replied. Hatch nodded, before disappearing wordlessly. With a sigh, Jackie stood and prepared to head to the dining hall with Reuben. The trip down the halls was silent, but the two traded looks every so often. Soon they arrived at the dining hall, where everyone was present-- everyone except Parker and Sal.

Just as Reuben and Jackie sat down, the whole room turned to see Parker and Sal rush in, barely modest. Their hair was disheveled and their clothes were crooked and hastily dressed. Parker's boots were unlaced and he was buckling his pistol belt as he entered the room, and Sal was barefoot and desperately trying to smooth out her hair. It was obvious what the two had been doing when the Vice Captain, who was sitting at the end of the table shaking his head, had interrupted them.

The meeting was brief. Hatch acknowledged the officers that had volunteered for the venture, one of which was Lieutenant Jackie DeWitt. Reuben surmised that Jackie felt she needed to go to earn whatever justice she could for what had happened to her brother and the rest of her team. Then the Vice Captain spoke on travel arrangements; he suggested, and Parker and Hatch agreed, that the security force travel with the Runners while the militia will lag some distance behind to thin their presence in the wilderness. Parker reasoned that this was better than them all traveling as one group, but still preferred that none of them come at all.

"That's all," Hatch declared. "I promise there won't be another meeting today. Meet back here at sunrise. We're getting an early start tomorrow."

Upon dismissal, everyone began standing and leaving. Reuben stood and made his way toward Parker, who was following short behind Sal as they left. Tapping his shoulder, Reuben got Parker's attention and pulled him aside.

"Seriously? You two, here?" Reuben prodded indignantly.

Parker just smiled and shrugged, saying, "Hey, we're about to go off to the first war in almost a century. Might as well, right?"

Pulling away from the conversation, Parker hurried to catch up to Sal, leaving Reuben standing in surprise. He wanted to be mad at Parker, but when he realized that it was just because it was Sal he was with, he brushed the feeling off and sighed. He had a good point-- Reuben had not realized that if the Louisville militia responded with force, it really would be war. The idea sounded crazy. Even crazier was the thought that he would be a soldier in the war. He had never fought in force-on-force against human enemies, at least not on such a large scale. What if he never made it back? Suddenly Parker's logic made complete sense. As he thought on that, his eyes trailed to Jackie.

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Tribunal Power's Zombie Fiction

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Last edited by Tribunal Power on Mon Feb 20, 2012 8:58 am, edited 4 times in total.

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 Post subject: Re: ZPAW
PostPosted: Mon Jul 25, 2011 11:25 am 
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I like it so far. Nice start. :D

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 Post subject: Re: ZPAW
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CHAPTER 18

Still catching his breath, Reuben lifted from the bed to see Jackie redressing. He leaned on his elbow and covered himself with the blanket, watching her for a moment as she stood only in her underwear, buttoning up her black top. Her eyes shot to him, then away.

"This was a mistake," she said sharply.

"That's probably true," Reuben stated with a chuckle. "But not all mistakes are bad."

"This one was."

"Why?"

"I don't know you," she snapped, snatching her pants from the floor. "And you don't know the first thing about me."

"Your necklace," said Reuben, moving to sit up on the bed.

"What about it?"

"What's the story? You were in a firefight and your enemy's weapon jammed, and you won so you took the cartridge? Or maybe it's a lucky shot you made that saved a life?"

Jackie buttoned up the second to last button on her shirt, concealing the necklace from view. It was a spent shell casing, .38 Special, affixed to a silver chain that dangled nearly between her breasts. "None of your business."

"Your service weapon is a nine millimeter. That's a thirty-eight casing. So it either happened before you joined Hatch's band of merry men, or it was from someone else's weapon. Come on, you're not really gonna leave me here guessing, are you?" Pants in hand, Jackie huffed, and peered at him. She said nothing. Reuben gazed back at her with softening brown eyes, moving closer to her, sitting at the edge of the bed. "Why are you so angry?" he said. His words were deeper than they seemed; he was not asking why she was upset, but rather why there was so much rage inside her. It was a question she did not want to answer.

"It's a piece of my husband," she stated simply.

Her words pushed Reuben away from her, and he leaned back onto his hands on the bed as he made a realization. "I'm the first man you've been with since he passed, aren't I?"

Jackie gave him a look, her eyes somewhere between enraged and heartbroken, as she shoved her legs into her pants and reached for the door.


Parker moved quickly through the halls toward the reserves Clyde had pointed him to. With only a few hours until sunrise, Parker needed to replenish his rations and ammunition. First he would head to the corner of the cellar where the food was stored, luckily untouched by the chaos that had taken place there. Then he would visit the barracks, where security stocked their ammunition. Hatch had given him express permission to take the ammunition he needed.

The encounter with Alan Paddock had left him edgy. His right hand remained ever near his pistol as he moved down the corridors, making his amble slightly off-kilter. He did not care. Paranoia or not, he wanted to be prepared to draw and fire in the blink of an eye. That was all he would have if the assassin was stalking him. He nodded to everyone passing him in the hall, but he was scanning around and behind them constantly, checking every corner and watching his back at all times. It was a new level of caution for him, one he had never been so concerned about before. Every time he glanced around a corner, he wondered if this was what it was like to live in fear.

He passed the hallway that led into the section of the cellar that contained all the metal containers that he used to shelter himself in a storm of gunfire. There were still scraps of shredded steel all over the floor from he containers that were ripped apart from the rounds that had blazed over his head. He did not want to linger in that room-- it brought back bad memories. After a brief glace, he walked on down the concrete hallway.

Once he reached the food reserves, he slipped off his empty pack. It was a smaller bag he kept tucked compactly into his ruck, used for carrying miscellaneous things when he did not need his whole bag. For now, it was the vehicle for the rations and soon the ammunition as well. After selecting several packs of dehydrated food, enough to last about ten days, he moved on. He still had some salted squirrel strips to eat before getting into the dehydrated foods, but it was better to have too much food than not enough when in the wilderness. He backed out of the store room and headed back up toward the barracks.

The amount of ammunition that was collected in the barracks was impressive. The selection was slim, however; there was a lot of 9mm, the caliber of most of the security officers' sidearms. But the amount of 5.56mm ammunition was getting low because of the amount of gunfire the security force had used lately. Constant fighting had that effect on ammunition reserves. Parker snatched several boxes of the 5.56mm before glancing around for his sidearm's caliber.

There was a lot of .308, the select caliber of the security snipers. Parker idly wondered if Noric's rifle was chambered in .308. There was also an excess of 7.62x39mm, the caliber of Reuben's Kalashnikov. Parker grabbed a few boxes for him. Finally he came across the .45 ACP, and grabbed two boxes to replenish what he had used since he left Constitution. The amount of times he had needed to draw his pistol over the past several days bothered him.

Then he recalled his misfire during the firefight in the cellar, and was struck with insecurity in his carbine. That was not acceptable. As he headed back toward the living quarters, he mulled over what parts he could change, if any. In all likelihood it was probably faulty ammunition. Parker made note of this; he was still using ammunition he had bought in the factories in Louisville. This dissatisfied him; the quality of most of the goods produced in Louisville had dropped significantly after the Socialist Revolution. He made a note to swap out the loaded ammunition in his magazines with the fresh ammunition he had just gathered, which according to the package, was produced locally in Shepherdsville. Capitalism always produced better quality goods and services.

As he moved down the hallway, he was disturbed from his thoughts by a door swinging open, nearly hitting him. He took a quick step back, hand touching the grip of his pistol as if he were being attacked. The sign on the door read 'LIEUTENANT QUARTERS'; Parker did not know the Lieutenant got her own room. Through the door came Lieutenant DeWitt, barefoot, and seemingly furious. Her eyes snapped to Parker, seeing his hand on his weapon.

"What the fuck are you gonna do, big boy?" she snarled.

Stunned, Parker said nothing.

A hand reached out for her shoulder from within the room. Paranoia told Parker it was Alan. His hand gripped his pistol, but he did not draw. A moment later, Reuben stepped from within the room, covered in only an unbuttoned pair of pants. His hand grasped the lieutenant's shoulder, but she angrily pulled away.

"Get off me," she growled at Reuben, before taking a step toward Parker. "Move, Parker. Now."

Not wanting to get involved in whatever was going on with her, Parker stepped aside, and Jackie stormed past him. He cast a surprised and confused glance at Reuben, who let out a groan and leaned against the door. "Wow," remarked Parker. "You and Jackie. I didn't see this coming."

"What can I say?" Reuben replied, his voice dry of humor. "You inspired me."

"Yeah, well, looks you did a great job of wooing her."

Reuben sighed and gave Parker a scowl. Blinking in surprise, Parker decided to leave the subject alone; normally Reuben would have made a joke about it, but something was clearly very wrong and Parker did not feel it was his place to get involved. Instead, he reached into his bag and pulled free the 7.62x39mm rounds to hand to his companion.

Reuben took them without much more than a simple "Thanks." Parker nodded obligingly and excused himself from the scene.

When he returned to the living quarters, Sal was sitting on his cot, cleaning the disassembling and cleaning the bolt carrier group of her AR-15. She looked up at him when she noticed him and smiled, and Parker felt comforted by it. He took a moment to observe her; her hair was tucked into a red bandanna, and she wore an olive drab sports top with brown cargo pants. She was using a blue towel to clean and lube the bolt of her rifle and Parker could not help but admire the finesse with which she did so.

"What's wrong?" she asked. Parker was surprised she could tell so quickly that he was bothered.

"Something's up with Reuben," he stated. "I think he slept with DeWitt. I saw him in her room, and she stormed out really pissed about something. She got in my face and Reuben just watched. I don't know-- Reuben has just seemed really distant."

"I understand. You miss your boyfriend," she teased.

"You're hilarious," mocked Parker, moving to sit on the edge of the cot beside her.

"Have you tried asking him what's going on?"

"No," Parker admitted. "It hasn't seemed like a big deal until now, I guess."

Sal sighed and shook her head, saying, "What is it with you two? You never actually talk about anything. You both keep everything bottled up and then bitch when you don't know what's going on in the other one's head. I swear to God, you're like brothers." There was a brief pause before Sal looked up at him and added, "If you're going to talk to him about it, you'd better hurry. We'll be meeting by the gate in a little over an hour, and then we're hitting the road. I wouldn't want to talk about something like this while traveling if I didn't have to-- it's an unnecessary distraction."

She was right, and Parker knew it. Whatever was going on, he and Reuben needed to figure it out before they left. They could not afford to have drama in the wilderness, where at any time one person's life and death could be decided by the actions of another. Parker leaned over to give Sal a soft, brief kiss, his way of thanking her, before pushing off of the cot and moving toward the door.

"Good luck," she said, returning to the maintenance of her rifle.


Reuben finally caught up with her in the dining hall. She seemed to just be idly wandering, doing whatever she could to get away from him. Normally she was so concerned about her image, but as she rushed into the room and past the tables in her bare feet with her uniform only mostly buttoned and untucked, Reuben was thankful there was no one else in the room. As she rounded the edge of the table, Reuben reached out and grabbed her arm. "Jackie, wait, please!"

She jerked her arm away from him and turned, shoving him. Reuben stumbled back, and before he could protest, she sent a straight punch into his chin that snapped his head back and staggered him for a moment. When he realized she was not finished, he readied himself to evade further attack. He was ready when she swung a second time, weaving to avoid the punch; he closed the distance between them quickly and wrapped his arms around her, clinching to keep from being hit again. In response, she slammed her elbow down on his shoulder blades over and over again; to neutralize her, Reuben lifted her from her feet and carried her toward the wall, absorbing the abuse for the moment. When he reached the wall, he dropped her back onto her feet and grabbed her by the shoulders, slamming her back into the wall. The concrete wall proved harder than her body, and the breath left her chest, taking the fight from her for a moment. Reuben snatched her wrists and jerked her forward, spinning her so that he was able to slip his elbow under her throat, pulling her back to his chest. He held her arms tightly with his left arm and restricted her airflow with his right, ignoring her struggles against him.

"Jackie, I'm going to be very clear. I want to know what's gotten you so angry. But I'm not going to deal with you attacking me. I'll let you go if you can act like a sane adult."

She growled, and he pulled tighter. Reuben was confident he had subdued her, until she snapped her heel between his legs and shattered his sense of victory. It was a direct hit, and Reuben, despite his best efforts, could no longer hold onto her. She writhed from his grasp and he buckled to take a seat on the nearby table, sucking in air with pained breaths.

Jackie shoved away from him and stormed toward the door, tears streaming her cheeks. But when she reached the doorway, she stopped and leaned her head against the wall, no longer trying to keep from crying. As Reuben recovered, she stood silent for a moment, before slowly returning to him. Reuben looked up to see the ashamed look on her tear-streaked face.

"I'm sorry," she murmured, as if she did not want to say it but knew she had to. Reuben just shook his head, either lacking the strength or the mercy to accept her apology. Sheepishly, Jackie took a seat on the table beside him, and laid a hand on his back. "When it comes to my husband, I get... Crazy."

"No shit," Reuben wheezed.

"Why do you want to know this stuff about me? Why are you suddenly so interested?"

With a scoff, Reuben finally sat up straight and retorted, "Why can't you accept that I just want to get to know you?"

Jackie did not have a reply ready. She let out a defeated sigh and looked away, leaving her hand on Reuben's back. Neither of them spoke for a moment, Reuben still regaining himself and Jackie carefully selecting her next words.

"I hate him," she said simply.

"Who?"

"Robert. My husband."

Reuben paused, trying to understand. "You hate your husband? Why?"

"Because I love him so much," she stated. It frustrated her that it seemed to make no sense, that no one else could possibly understand. "I love him so much that I feel guilty for being attracted to anyone else. I feel like a whore for wanting someone new, for being lonely and craving what he used to give me. I love him so much, and he loved me so much, and I'll never forgive him for it."

Surprised by the sudden spill of emotions, Reuben carefully grasped her hand, and slipped an arm around her waist. "How long has it been?"

"Three years," she sighed. "Three years since he died, and I still feel like he's at home waiting for me."

"You can't stay in mourning forever, Jackie," he said softly. "If he loved you as much as you say he did, he wouldn't want you to feel alone and unhappy. That doesn't honor his memory at all."

"I know," she replied, sniffling and wiping away fresh tears from her cheeks. "But I just can't make myself stop feeling like I'm cheating, or pissing on our marriage."

"So I was right, wasn't I? That I'm the first one?"

"There have been others that I've wanted to be with, but..." She trailed off, before taking a deep breath and saying, "Yes, you're the first one I've done anything with since he died."

"No wonder you freaked out. It's a huge thing for you." Reuben cleared his throat, suppressing his pride as best he could to say, "I'm sorry if I pushed you into it before you were ready. I didn't know you felt this way."

"No," she said quickly, before adding, "Well, you did push me into it, but I went along because I wanted to. I'm attracted to you, and... Well, I've just wanted to be with someone so bad. It's been such a long time."

"Could have fooled me," he replied with a smile, giving her a nudge. She looked up at him, and smiled weakly. Reuben was glad to see she was not always so impervious to his humor. Her hand gently squeezed his, and he took it as encouragement to learn more about her. "You said the necklace was a piece of him. What did you mean?"

Taking a deep breath, Jackie prepared herself to talk about the most difficult topic of all. "Robert was Marc's best friend growing up. When we were all teenagers, he and I started dating, and the three of us would hang out a lot, go on little adventures and things like that. Teenager stuff. Then we became of age and decided we all wanted to join the militia. Sounded like such a great idea at the time.

"I was the only one that made it. Robert and Marc washed out in Boot. They weren't cut out for it, but I was passionate about it. I graduated and went on to the policing sector, and spent the next few years fighting the gangs for control of the industrial and impoverished districts. But Marc resented me for making it into the militia, and later I found out he got involved in some of the gangs. I've always wondered if he did that in spite of me.

"Robert was the one who told me what Marc was doing. From then on I was terrified I'd be pulling the trigger on my own brother. I ended up transferring for Scout training because of how afraid of it I was, even though I didn't really want to be a Scout. Contact died between Marc and I, and Robert and I got married. I got a position as a Spotter and started making real money. Robert ended up getting a job as a surveyor, charting the land around the city walls to help make accurate maps, you know? I hated him doing it. He loved it so much, going out into the unknown and marking down landmarks and pathways. But I hated that he refused to get any kind of training, and always just thought that as long as he had that stupid revolver of his, he'd be fine. Well one day, the worst finally happened, and he got attacked."

Jackie fell silent, and Reuben looked away. That was all he needed to know. He prepared to speak, but Jackie continued instead. It seemed like she wanted to get this all off of her chest, and Reuben could not help but wonder if she had ever told anyone before. "He was bitten on the hand, and again on the shoulder. I remember when my CO told me that my husband was outside the city gates, screaming for someone to open them for him. They couldn't. When I got to the gates and saw the blood, I just... I knew. I knew he'd been bitten, that he was already dead. Once he saw my face, he knew too. We cried, we touched through the portcullis, we said a few stupid little things to each other, and then he drew his revolver and... He was gone."

Reuben pulled his arm around her and hugged her to him. "He told me not to look," she added. "I'll never understand why I didn't listen to him."

"I'm sorry," was all Reuben could think to say. "I can't imagine what that must have been like."

"My CO gave me his revolver," she said. "I was never really able to handle it much. It just hurt too bad. But the day I got it, I opened the cylinder and took out the shell of the bullet that killed him. I couldn't bring myself to get rid of it. It's a part of the last thing he ever did for me-- he took his life so that I wouldn't have to."

There was a strange and twisted romance to that concept, and Reuben found it touching. He gave Jackie another squeeze and tried to find words for her, but came up short. She nestled her head into his chest, leaning over his lap, and let out a heavy, weary sigh. "Now Marc is gone, too. He was the last bit of family I had."

"I'm so sorry, Jackie."

"Don't be. It was a twisted sense of cosmic irony that put him here in my unit in the first place. He hated me, and I hated dealing with his bullshit. Apparently he couldn't hack it in the gangs either, so he thought private security was his gig. Shows what he knows. I don't even know why Commander Hatch took him in." Despite the hatred in her words, Reuben could tell there was a sadness in her chest she would not let out. "Still, he was my brother. We should have known that was a trap. We should have done things differently."

"It's not your fault. You were just following orders. You weren't the one who made the choice."

Jackie scoffed and quipped, "If not me, then who?"

"Parker. He's the one who bought the hitman's bullshit story, and then rewarded the bastard for it."

Pulling away slightly, Jackie looked up at him in surprise and said, "Isn't he your friend?"

"It takes a real friend to say when you're being a fucking moron," Reuben defended. "Parker made a dumbass choice and people died. What kind of friend would I be if I let him go on to make another stupid choice and get more blood on his hands?"

"Reuben," she gasped, "that's a horrible thing to say."

"You know better than I do the amount of damage bad leadership can do. You lost people you know, people close to you, because of him."

Disgusted, Jackie moved away from him and said, "I can't believe you would put that kind of weight on his shoulders, even if you're right. Some friend you are."

As Jackie slipped from the table and moved away from him, Reuben let out an annoyed sigh. It seemed she was just determined to be mad at him. He watched her move to the doorway, and grumbled as he stepped to the floor to follow her. As he rounded the corner to follow her down the hall, he saw Parker standing in the doorway, leaned against the wall, a pained expression on his face. Reuben felt his gut sink when he realized Parker could have been standing there the whole time. Parker peered at him through eyes that were colored with an emotion Reuben could not place.

"Meet the group at the north gate in forty minutes. It's time to go," Parker said blankly. Reuben simply nodded, and Parker turned away to move back down the hall. The two said nothing more.

CHAPTER 19

The first rays of the sun had just touched the dewy grass when a light patter of rain began to fall. It was getting cooler outside, indication of the coming winter months. The temperature and rainfall was enough to warrant use of cold weather gear; it was bothersome because the temperature would not always be cold enough to use the gear, and when not in use the gear was extra weight in the ruck. It would make travel slightly slower and more difficult for everyone.

The group was congregated inside the north gate of the medical facility. Hatch stood before the massive iron and wood gate, arms folded over his carbine, in full black gear. With him was a group of four men, and Lieutenant DeWitt, in matching gear. Parker and Sal stood beside them, fully geared, and on not far from them stood Reuben. But when Noric strolled down the path to the gate in complete Scout gear, everyone stopped and watched in silent shock.

"Noric," Parker said as he came closer, "are you sure you're alright to travel?"

"I'm fine," he affirmed. He didn't appear to be walking any more laboriously than usual. If Parker had not been there for his injury, he might have believed him.

"I don't know, Noric. A cracked rib is no joke. We've got to be fast and mobile."

Noric cast him a displeased look and he said, "I'm a Scout, Parker. I've been trained in how to remain fast and mobile while missing a limb. I can handle a fracture. You won't hear a word about it from me. I'm fine."

It was clear that Noric's mind was made up, and his will was too resolute to bend to anyone present. Nodding with a sigh, Parker stepped back into the group with the others, doing his best to have faith in Noric’s fortitude.

The group stood still and silent for a moment, before Hatch cleared his throat and stepped forward. "Parker, Sal, Reuben, Noric," he said, "I'd like you to meet Unit One-One. These are some of the best under my command. I will introduce them so that we have no strangers among us."

Motioning to the first man on his right, a tall Caucasian fellow with a full brown beard, he said, "This is Captain Corey Marshall. Six years in the militia police force, three years as a Runner, six years under my command. He is directly beneath me and his orders should be followed in my stead. Don't let the rank fool you-- he does not outrank the Vice Captain of the militia. Our ranks work differently. But we will respect the Vice Captain's authority as if he outranked me."

Moving on, he stepped to the next man, a dark-skinned fellow wearing a patrol cap and a tan scarf. "This is Lieutenant Harrick Bolden. He shares rank with Lieutenant DeWitt. He's a quiet bastard, so don't let that bother you. Eight years in the militia before coming to work for us, three years ago."

"This," he said, placing a hand on the shoulder of the next one, a young-looking and somewhat short man, "is Officer Kin Tora. He is a rising star in my force. Five years experience as a Runner from Saint Louis until he migrated this far. Any man that can make that kind of journey is welcome on my team." Parker was legitimately impressed with that note. That was hundreds of miles away, much further than Parker could imagine for running a delivery.

“Finally we come to Officer Mark Raff. He has been among our best intel agents in the fight against the local gangs. He comes from a gangland past, but left it behind to join the militia. After a few years as a militiaman and eventually a Scout, he took a wound that got him discharged, but when he healed up, the militia wouldn’t take him. Fools, I say-- he has been very helpful to us. He’s up for promotion, and when he returns from this endeavor, he’ll probably be our newest lieutenant.”

“You already know Lieutenant DeWitt,” he said, coming to a stop beside her. “But know that she comes with the highest praise I have. She’s a hard woman, harder than a lot of men, with militia experience and plenty of time on the field against the gangs.”

Hatch stepped toward Parker and said, “Now you know my team. They will be a detachment sent ahead of the main force, which I will be leading under the Vice Captain’s command. Captain Marshall will be the commanding officer of this squad. Parker, you tell me what you and your boys want to do, and we’ll make it happen.”

Having expected the question, Parker responded promptly. “We will be your lead eyes,” he said matter-of-factly. “We will stay far ahead of the main force, either ahead of or in tandem with the Captain’s detachment. A small group makes a much smaller footprint than an army, so I suggest allowing us to maintain a long distance ahead to flush out or spot any trouble that could scatter the full ranks.”

“You and yours can stay ahead of One-One, but you‘ll be operating as a single unit,” replied the commander. “Rendezvous regularly with them, and they will relay word to us. If anything should come up that you have to confront, One-One will assist you. Should you encounter anything that could threaten the main force, keep eyes on it and wait for assistance from One-One, who can either assist you in managing the threat or let us know to wait until we find a way to circumnavigate the issue. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Parker obliged.

“Good.” Hatch reached into a pouch on his vest and pulled out a folded piece of paper. As he unfurled it, Parker saw it was a map. It was not as detailed as the maps Parker had, but it was still quality work, and it only covered the land between Shepherdsville and Louisville-- a much smaller area than the atlases in Parker’s ruck.

Their path was clearly marked. “The main force will stay to the road as much as possible,” Hatch said. Parker presumed he had already briefed everyone on his end, as he was mostly just speaking to him. “I want your group to take a half-day’s advance. One-One will trail you by a mile or two most of the time and will act as your overwatch. We will make straight for Louisville, right up old I-65 until we cross 265, then we break north-west. We’ll use Park Hill as a staging area. You’ll be reaching Louisville before us-- when you do, assess the external defenses, regroup with One-One, and find a way inside. Once the main force gets to Park Hill, all of Louisville will know-- the whole city will hit red alert, and there will be no slipping in unnoticed until the siege is done. Hopefully, by that time, you will already have found a way to get to the LRA tower.”

“Understood,” Parker responded. Normally he would have resented taking orders this way, but if he was going to be fighting a war, he figured he may as well start thinking like a soldier.

“There’s one other thing,” Hatch said, folding the map back up. “We received a transmission from the governor today, in response to the message we sent them a few days ago. He claims that he has been politically forced into cooperation with the LRA, and while he has limited knowledge of their affairs, he knows they’re dirty. He said our allegations didn’t surprise him, but that he could not help us very much while under the LRA’s thumb. He assured us that if the opportunity presented itself, the Louisville militia would support us, but added that we shouldn’t count on it. So it looks like we’re doing this alone.”

Letting out a sigh, Parker replied, “In other words, he’ll only help if we’re winning and he’s got a way out.”

“That’s about the size of it. He’s a bureaucrat, not a warrior. Bureaucrats don’t take chances or play the odds. They go for the sure thing.” Tucking the folded map back into his admin pouch, Hatch peered at Parker and asked in closing, “Any questions?” After a moment, the runner shook his head, and Hatch dismissed the small group.

Stepping back to his companions, Parker explained the briefing. No one in his group had any questions or voiced any concerns. Despite the madness they were taking part in, everything felt like business as usual. It was just another mission, just another trip to Louisville. The reality of what they were involved in had yet to truly sink in, and Parker knew it.

Chains rattled as the guard in the tower turned the winch. He shouted down into the wall‘s interior that the portcullis would soon be open, and Parker imagined the security inside preparing to stand watch over the open gate while the envoy of doomed men strolled through. Gradually, the large wood and metal gate lifted, and the rest of Shepherdsville was exposed to him for what seemed like the first time in years. The green hills gave way to the factories in the north, and beyond that, the housing district and the gate to the wilds. The sun reflected off of the glass window of one of the industrial centers, creating a sheen that made it hard to see far ahead. Some of the night sky still lingered above, not yet having retreated from the day, and many of the people of Shepherdsville still laid in their beds unaware of the history their city was writing.

Parker’s party moved along with Commander Hatch and One-One to through the gate. The world around them was silent. There were no cheers, no well-wishers or send-offs. Just the morning mist and the glare of the sun, the muddy dust of the road sticking to Parker’s boots and the cuffs of his pants and the solemn chirp of a sunrise sparrow. The road gave way to cracked, weeded pavement as they vacated the facility grounds and entered the factory district. A man wearing tattered overalls and covered in a dark grey filth was pushing a squeaky wheelbarrow full of sheet metal down the side of the road, but when he saw the group approaching, he stopped for a moment to observe them. They must have been quite a sight to the common working man, Parker guessed; a dozen runners, scouts, and soldiers in full gear with their rifles slung over their chests walking down the streets of the factory district at the crack of dawn. The man removed his hat and brushed a filthy hand over his thinning hair as the group passed him on the road, and a moment later, Parker heard the squeak of the wheelbarrow moving again. ‘Life goes on, with or without us,’ Parker thought.

They saw no one else as they progressed through the factory district, the large boxy buildings giving way to smaller domiciles owned and rented by the common folk of Shepherdsville. The walk was relatively short, or so it seemed in the silence of the group as they progressed toward the north gate. Soon, Parker glanced up to see the hanging sign for the Queen’s Council, the tavern he had stayed at when Sal caught up with him. What he could recall from their night together flushed back into mind, along with memories of being awakened in the middle of the night by a tremendous explosion-- the first of many that he would experience. As he looked away from the sign, he cast a glance to Sal, who peeked at him and smiled slightly. It was comforting to know that she recalled their night with fondness as well.

Not long after passing the inn, Parker spotted the gaping whole in the wall. By now, it was covered in a mesh of metal barwork, a grid upon which the wall would be built. Being able to see the outside wilderness from the streets of a city was as unnerving as anything could be. There seemed to be quite a few militiamen on patrol around that section of the wall, though, and Parker recalled seeing mounted guns on the top of the wall, so he tried to remind himself that the city had the breach under control. But seeing the breach itself brought back traumatic memories of another city that suffered a much worse blow…

“Are we ready?”

Reuben’s voice shook Parker from his thoughts. They stood at the inner portcullis of the north gatehouse, ready to leave the city. “Ready as we’ll ever be,” Parker said, ejecting the magazine from his carbine.

He ejected the 5.56mm jacketed hollow point round from the chamber, and as he knelt down to pick it up, Hatch said, “Don’t worry about unloading for the gatehouse. The militiamen inside are aware of our situation and have orders from the Vice Captain to let us pass right on through. Just load up and we’ll be on our way.”

Parker swapped the hollow point magazine in his chest rig for on full metal jacket magazine, and once he chambered a round he glanced back to the others. Reuben had just finished chambering his Kalashnikov, and Sal appeared to have already done so. Noric clicked the bolt forward on his Stone-2070 and looked to Parker expectantly. Everyone was good to go.

Reuben slammed his fist onto the thick wooden slats of the inner portcullis, making a resonating thud. Moments later, the familiar sound of chains rattling could be heard through the walls and the gate began to rise. The group ducked in two by two, and Parker was surprised to see the gatehouse completely vacant. It was only a few days earlier that he had entered here to find three dead gatehouse militiamen, seemingly killed by one another. Parker sighed as he looked at the sandy ground where their blood had been shed, the inner portcullis clattering closed behind them.

A moment passed, and Parker grew tense. The outer portcullis shuddered a moment before lifting its first few inches off the ground. The two groups separated from one another and everyone assumed a hostile stance. In a cacophony of clicks, all fire selector switches snapped to live fire, and all weapons went hot. The gate lifted steadily until at waist height, at which point Sal moved forward and bent down, rifle trained at the gap between the ground and the gate, peering into the outside world. Officer Kin Torra did the same at roughly the same time, and almost in unison, Sal and Officer Torra declared the immediate foreground in front of the gate clear.

The gate was high enough for the group to push through. They emerged in pairs, immediately checking the corners outside of the gate that could not be seen from the inside. Soon, both groups stood on the outside of the portcullis, which clattered quickly to the ground with a shaking clatter. Wasting no time, the groups began quickly down the ruined road, headed north towards the first war since the end of the world.

CHAPTER 20

The light rainfall had turned into a miserable thunderstorm. The earthen mud grasped at Parker’s boots as fervently as any corpse ever had. Glancing upward from beneath the brim of the hooded poncho he had put on earned him nothing more than a glimpse of a slate grey sky and a face full of water. Even with his companions, Parker was beginning to feel hopeless and alone. Morale was low, their task seemed impossible, and every time Parker tried to think of a realistic way for their situation to close, the future looked more bleak.

On a good day with clear travel, no disturbances, and a clean walking road, the trip from Shepherdsville to Louisville would take around eight hours. But with the storm, the size of their group, and all the safety precautious they had to take, Parker knew it would be at least a day before they reached their destination. Nothing frustrated Parker more than traveling slowly; it was his profession to move quickly, and he was proficient at it. Having so many people was slowing them down, keeping them from being expedient in their task. Still, it beat marching in the main force.

Traveling on the highway was normally faster than through grass, although sometimes more dangerous. Taking the roads often meant being exposed, which in many areas could get an unwary traveler killed. The wilderness was full of predators, but the most dangerous ones were the men-- living, not dead-- that preyed upon rookie runners, salvagers, and resource camps.

By noon, the wilderness gradually ebbed to make way for dilapidated buildings, springing up as though they were a natural formation. Beyond the crumbled concrete barrier at the edge of the road, Parker spied a home painted in red, the paint peeling and chipping, the chimney collapsed onto a destroyed fence; in the front yard, what appeared to be the harshly-aged remains of most of a human torso was picked clean to the bone. The front door of the home was missing, and the building seemed to be sitting at an angle, as though something important to the building’s structure was buckled or broken. Much of the land around it was overgrown, but there were timbers and piles of rubble spread near it-- Parker wondered if this was all one man’s property, lifetimes ago. One man and his family, living in the wilderness during a safer time; now all that remained was the remains of a corpse on the remains of the property, in the remains of what was once a city called Louisville.

Parker remembered seeing an old map some years earlier that showed how large Louisville once was. They would have already been on the outskirts of the city, in its former glory. He couldn’t imagine such a vast city in the modern world. He’d heard stories of large pinnacles of the old world, cities like Louisville or Saint Louis, which were now shriveled-up carcasses of what they once were. He had even read about a city in the north called Chicago, one of the cities wiped out by the events of the original infection, and the magnificent ruins it left behind.

To their right was one of Parker’s landmarks: a battered green sign that read Kentucky Turnpike in bold white letters, with the number 65 blazoned on a blue badge beneath. It was one of the few old world road signs that still stood securely and in fair condition, and it marked roughly the entrance to what would have been the city limits of Old Louisville. If he were by himself, he would be three hours into his trek, with four or five to go. But with his current group, he was five hours into the journey and had no idea when they would reach their destination. It was disheartening to think that he was marching to his death, and scarcely even knew when he would arrive. He wanted to stop, to consult the map and calculate their speed, but without laminated parchments, unfolding them in the rain was as good as tossing them into a fire pit. Doing his best to estimate their distance traveled, he figured they had traveled about fifteen miles in the past five hours-- and that was a high estimate.

The mud that had overtaken long stretches of the road in decades past sucked at Parker’s boots as he trudged through it. Even walking was becoming more laborious in the stormy turmoil, and there was no sign of it letting up. A gust of wind shot the rain beneath Parker’s hood and into his face, and he recoiled for a moment, reaching a soaked glove to his face to wipe away the water. The miserable conditions made it difficult to see ahead, but as he jerked his legs into and out of the murk around him, he knew what lied ahead; a dip in the road that, in a storm like this, was guaranteed to be flooded.

Moments later, Parker stood at the precipice of a newly-formed rainlake, discord painted on his soaked face. A hand grasped at his shoulder, and he wheeled about, hand ready to spring his rifle to his shoulder, to see Reuben standing before him. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, a mighty flash of lightning lit the world on fire, followed immediately by a clap of lightning that felt like an explosion against Parker’s chest. Everyone jumped as if it were incoming mortar fire, only to quickly resume standing position and huddle together.

“We need to get out of this!” called Reuben, having to holler of the wind that began to howl and the rain that slashed against their bodies.

Jackie wedged her way between Sal and Reuben and interjected, “This is prime tornado weather-- we need shelter!”

“There’s a viaduct ahead, where 265 crosses over I-65-- we can take shelter underneath it,” Parker called out, leaning forward against the rain to reach their ears.

Corey Marshall chimed in, saying, “That’s north-- how do we get there if the road is flooded?”

“We’ll have to skirt around the rainlake,” lamented Sal, and just as she said it, Parker leaned out of the conversation to look at the situation. “East or west?”

To the east was a thick wood, but it was uphill. The trek would be arduous, but at least they knew they would face no flooding. To the west, the wood was thinner, but the flat and occasionally downhill slant of the land meant there could be further flooding. To make matters worse, the viaduct bent northward to the west, meaning the path would be longer. With a heavy sigh, Parker returned to the group. “I think we should go east,” he shouted, before explaining his thoughts.

“We might run into stalkers in the brush,” Sal stated.

Parker nodded, but dismissed by saying, “Stay sharp and we’ll be fine.”

“One-One won’t be going,” hollered Hatch as he leaned into the circle of conversation. “It’s our job to relay the situation to the main contingent.”

Reuben and Jackie cast a look of disdain to one another, before looking in opposing directions. Parker did not fail to notice. “Be careful,” he called to Hatch, who nodded and shoved off, wasting no time to turn back toward the way they came.

With their group halved in size, Parker expected quicker movement. The group took their steps eastward, reaching the ancient cement barriers that lined the edge of the road. Parker carefully climbed over the waist-high wall, his boots sinking into the muck on the other side. He pushed forward through the filth toward the forested hill before him, turning back to see Reuben, Sal, and Noric all close behind. He was the first to take to the hill; the incline was gradual at first, but it steadily increased, and they began to slip in the mud. Thankfully, thin trees and low-hanging branches provided something to grab onto and pull themselves up the hill, and no one found themselves falling into the earthen slime.

The hill leveled off at the top, and the slick mud gave way to a mixture of tangled roots and knee-high bramble. The terrain was even more unforgiving than it had been on the way up the incline. Another blinding flash took the area, followed by a roaring bang that sounded even closer and more terrifying than the first-- a startling thing, as Parker had never before seen the sky so angry. He glanced over his shoulder to see his friends, all unmoved by the display. He admired their stoicism, especially Sal-- she looked like a true soldier, tromping through harsh terrain with rifle in hand, unimpressed by the fury of nature. A smile curved his lips as he turned around to face his path-- a smile that quickly faded when the visage of a boney, grey, decayed stalker leapt at him, mere feet away.

Parker’s scream of shock faded silently into the roaring rain. There was another bright flash, but it was not lightning-- it was a multitude of muzzle flashes. In a spray of rain-pattered gore, the stalker slapped into a tree, Parker’s final rounds drilling its face into the bark. He turned to holler warning to his companions, only to the same sight all around. They were under attack. Parker observed Noric ripping a stalker off of Reuben, who was lying in the muck discharging his sidearm into it. The scout hurled the shredded body aside as Sal backpedaled furiously, firing her rifle into a trio of stalkers that had not yet fully emerged from the wood.

Wheeling to her side, Parker leveled his rifle on them and sent off three rounds. Two struck the same stalker in the face and neck, the third shredding bark from the tree inches away from one of its brothers. Grabbing Sal’s shoulder, Parker tried to shout to her, but the shots and the storm and the moans and the cries of horror drowned out his words. Pulling her hard, he turned away toward the north and looked back to Noric and Reuben, who had just regained footing. With all haste, Parker leapt from the midst of the chaos, breaking into a run that carried him as quickly as the terrain would allow.

A shambler bumbled through the woods to his right. Before Parker could acknowledge it, the creatures head erupted from a round sent by one of Parker’s companions. He did not slow down as he moved past the corpse, finally falling dead never to rise again. Shots sounded behind him, and for a moment he was unsure what was thunder and what was muzzle report. A shrill scream burned his ears, and he wheeled about to see a stalker diving at Sal, but before it could touch her it was peppered to pieces by the combination of arms the group carried. Never one struck in the head, the creature was blown apart too badly to move, and the threat was neutralized. Parker kept moving, and the others leapt over the corpse.

As he turned, two cold hands reached out, grasping the hood of his poncho. A hard yank jerked him off balance. With a sharp growl, he jerked his rifle toward the beast, the magazine slamming into its neck and knocking it aside, but it’s grip held true. With another pull, it took Parker’s feet from him, his momentum sending him spinning into the ground. His carbine slapped into the muck, and he rolled helplessly into his pack, suddenly covered in earth. His hands scrambled for his pistol, but he felt other hands too, dozens of them grabbing and clawing. Panicked, he jerked his pistol free, breaking the latch on his thumbsnap. He fired two rounds, blasting through one of the wrists, but there were so many. One grabbed his shoulder, ripping and pulling. Then he smelled it, the rotten filthy breath from dead carrion lungs, the flash of black teeth jutting from corpse jaws, the feeling of death all around him-- but he would not die without fighting.

He slammed his head forward, shattering the nosebone of the corpse that had sprawled over him. Where were the others, his friends? The ones that would help him when needed? They must have been overwhelmed. They must be dying. They must be dead. Parker imagined their screams, their sobs, their gasping breaths through the howl of the rain that was burying them beneath a lake of dread.

Another hand, grasping his hood. He slammed his head back, crushing it with his own skull. He thrashed, kicking out at another that grabbed his foot. He felt teeth, pressing and cutting, all over his left wrist. Recklessly, he fired his pistol into it with his right hand, four rounds destroying what the first round had killed. Free enough to sit, he shoved his body forward and leveled his pistol on the four corpses that were stumbling towards him. Crack. Crack. Crack. Crack.

Four shots. Four dead men, made dead again. There was nothing around him but the sound of the sky unloading its rage. Time seemed stopped. Parker tasted blood. He struggled to his feet, losing balance, slumping against a tree painted grey and red with the internals of a corpse’s head. Weary eyes looked over the bodies amidst the trees and shrubs. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. A woman lied naked, breasts sagged and rotten, an arm lost at the shoulder, filthy black hair on her head split apart with her skill like a dropped watermelon. A child, there, who looked to have been decaying longer than it had been alive. What was his name, when he was still a boy?

Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. So many bodies. Had they truly killed so many? Where was Sal? She was among them, no doubt. There she was, dead-- no, just another woman. This one was young, maybe nineteen. She looked like she may have been beautiful once, but that was before. Now, dead, and dead again.

Movement. Parker wheeled, rifle leveled. He pulled the trigger. Click. Click. Click.

Nothing. No report.

A hand reached for him. He scrambled, reached for his pistol. Gone. His knife, then-- gone. Another hand grabbed him. A haze cast his eyes. This was it, then-- this was death. He was to be the twentieth corpse, in this forest of the dead.

His carbine was wrenched from his grasp. He screamed, writhed, thrashed, but was held down. Then, illumination, as if God himself had dropped the sun right before him.

There were no more corpses. Reaching, grasping, holding Parker down-- it was Reuben, it was Noric. It was Sal, kneeling on top of him, pleading for him to calm. A faint voice, crying out, “Parker! Parker, stop!”

His heart sank. Had he killed one of his own? No, no-- he was sure of it. They had all been grey, dead things. Not Sal, so beautiful. Not Reuben or Noric, no. His heartbeat slowed and the haze dissipated. Parker saw the world revealed to him once again in shades of reality. And with it came pain. His arm ached badly, and his shoulder was numb with only the nagging feeling that he should be in more pain than he was-- a feeling never welcome.

Carefully, cautiously, his companions let him up. No one spoke. They kept walking, heading north, all but Sal. Her gentle hands took his arm and helped him to his feet. She stooped down, picking up his rifle, and handed it back to him. On her face was pain, fear, hair pasted to her face with rain and sweat. As she handed him the rifle, she tapped the magazine. Parker looked to see that it was badly bent to one side. It was wedged so badly in the receiver that it refused to drop at the press of the button, taking serious wrenching to break it free. There were rounds trapped inside. Parker had no time for that. He tossed it aside to the ground, cleared his chamber just in case, and pressed a fresh magazine into it.

Sal pointed to the ground, where Parker’s spent pistol lied, slide locked back. Had he fired that many rounds? He bent down and took it up, placing the empty magazine in his dump pouch and impressing a new one, releasing the slide. Once the pistol was holstered, Sal pointed to the body of a dead man, slumped on the ground. Lodged in its eye socket was Parker’s knife. When did that happen?

He withdrew it from its killing place, and wiped it on the dead man’s rain soaked shirt thoroughly, slipping it into its sheath on his belt. Then he followed Sal northward, toward the edge of the woods. The rest of the trip was slow, uneventful, and soon they broke from the bramble. To their west, they could see the sizable rainlake that overtook a significant portion of I-65. To the north, beyond the flatlands at the bottom of the hill, stood the ancient and shattered viaduct that once carried one bustling highway over another. Now, a crumbled portion of I-265 lied dead over the grass and concrete of the westernmost side of I-65. Leaned against the standing portion of the highway was a fallen steel tower that once presumably carried power lines or some other form of unknown technology to the people of the old world. Now, it served only to have broken apart the highway, and lied like a fallen tree against the destroyed edge of the elevated road. Parker wondered how long ago it had fallen, and how long it would remain against the viaduct until it fell again.

As a group, they rushed down the hill toward the viaduct. There was an elevated portion of ground against one of the massive concrete support beams that lifted the highway off the earth. Rubble of another support beam had been moved by some long-dead traveler to form a circular perimeter around the front of the column, giving whomever camped inside a set of impromptu walls around them with only one entrance or exit. There did not appear to be anyone there.

Soon the group trudged their way cautiously through the entrance, just barely wide enough for two people to enter side by side, and limped to what seemed like the last remotely dry place on earth. A feeling of dread picked at Parker as he saw Reuben limping, and noticed that Sal was favoring her left arm for her rifle. Had they been bitten? Scratched?

One by one, their packs slapped into the dirt, and they all turned to face each other. Reuben was reloading his Kalashnikov, and as he pulled the charging handle, he looked up to the others with agony in his face. “So,” he said, looking back and forth, “Is anyone infected?”

No one spoke.

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Tribunal Power's Zombie Fiction

My Trunk Bag/GHB/BOB for a Tight Budget


Last edited by Tribunal Power on Wed Sep 12, 2012 4:00 am, edited 4 times in total.

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 Post subject: Re: ZPAW
PostPosted: Tue Jul 26, 2011 8:20 pm 
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CHAPTER 3

It felt good to walk around town without his pack on. Without it, he could comfortably sling his rifle on his back, keeping it out of the way as he moved. His chest rig rattled slightly with each step-- magazines inside his pouches lightly hitting one another-- as he moved down the street of Constitution’s market district. Occasionally, someone would stop and stare; a little boy noticed him and pointed, tugging on his mother’s hand as he asked, “is he a Runner?” It was the kind of attention Runners gathered within the walls, from people who either dreamed of being one or dreamed of having the money that comes with it. At first, when Parker had first joined the agency and survived his first few deliveries, the attention was inflating to his ego. Now, it just annoyed him. He looked at the people around him; depressed bags of emotions, living day to day on scraps and letting their children live on one meal a day. He never understood why, when Runner agencies were always looking for new agents. It did not take a special man, just a man willing to train, willing to risk. Maybe that’s all that made men special anymore.

Soon, the market district was behind him. Passing beneath a decorative arch, possibly the only purposeless decoration in the city, Parker entered the industrial district. It was where Constitution manufactured the goods it sold in the markets, other than the food stalls; clothes, tools, utensils, even weapons had to come from somewhere. There were no caravans to take large shipments of goods from one city to another. Runners could deliver packages, but a convoy of runners with a shipment of goods was nothing more than a slow-moving feast. In the wilds, traveling with others meant making more noise, and that meant attracting attention. That attention could get someone killed.

Parker passed a factory, glancing over to see the door open with a large fan blowing through it. It was a hot day, probably around ninety degrees, and Parker wondered how people could stand factory labor. But then, he recalled a conversation he had with someone in the manor district once, who could not fathom sleeping in makeshift shelter and eating bush berries in the wilds. Parker stopped being judgmental and moved on.

He was a good fifteen or twenty minutes away from Sal’s house, now, where Reuben had remained Parker told them he needed some air, some time to think. That was not his purpose. Ahead, at the fork in the road, stood Constitution’s radio tower; that was his destination. Most of the large cities had radio towers, said to be maintained from the old world or built using old world technology. Parker knew how to operate a HAM radio, but those were rare; most of the radio work was done from station to station within cities. Runners often used to send word to their agency that they hit a snag in their delivery, or that their destination had changed. That was only part of why Parker was headed there.

Pushing open the door, he was noticed by an attractive blonde woman sitting at a desk, presumably the receptionist. The radio stations always got a lot of people who wanted to use it to contact family, but that was not what it was for. Apparently the sign on the front door that read “NOT FOR CIVILIAN USE” was not clear enough-- although, in all fairness, most of the people that frequented the industrial district were illiterate.

“Good afternoon. How can I help you?”

Parker pulled his Constitution papers from his back pocket-- proof that he was a Runner-- and handed them to the woman. “I need to send a message to the Louisville Runner Agency.”

The woman glanced over the papers for a moment before handing them back to him. “Alright,” she said as she opened the ledger on her desk. She wrote his name in the ledger, along with the time of his arrival, before saying, “Please, follow me.”

He nodded with a smile, and fell in behind her as she stood from the desk. She guided him through a solid wooden door that separated the foyer from the rest of the building, and then through a lobby, finally moving up a flight of stairs. She opened the door at the top, holding it for him, allowing him to step into the broadcasting room. There was a long hallway stretching before him, with multiple rooms on either side; the doors were numbered, and accompanied by a thick glass window into the room. The woman closed the door behind him and moved on ahead once more, before stopping at the first room with the door open, the second door on the left.

Inside it was a large man in clean, fine clothing; he wore a collared shirt with slacks and black suspenders. He looked to be in his forties, with thinning black hair and recently-shaven stubble. In his left hand was a paperback book, and in his right was a piece of bread that he was dunking into a cup of coffee on his desk. Behind him was a large terminal installed into the wall, with wires running to a small brown box on his desk.

“Roger, you have a Runner here,” the young woman said, seemingly a little annoyed.

“Hm? Oh, thanks doll,” he replied dismissively to her. The woman sighed and walked away without another word. “Take a seat, champ.” Parker moved to his desk and sat in the wooden chair on the opposing side from the man. After taking a bite of his soaked bread, he said with a full mouth, “What agency you contacting?”

“LRA,” Parker replied, shifting so that his rifle was not gouging him in the back while he sat.

“LRA it is.” The man turned his chair to type at the terminal behind him, before reaching over to grab what looked like a pair of earmuffs, as well as a black metal receiver. Parker recalled the first message he sent, and how confused he was about the technology he was using. This time, it was nothing new.

“Sound comes out of these,” the man said, laying the headphones on the desk. “And you talk into this.” He laid the microphone beside them and turned back to the terminal. “You’re all dialed in. Just say when.”

Grabbing the headphones and slipping them on, he motioned to the man to start the broadcast. Picking up the microphone, Parker took a deep breath, just as the light on the wall that read “BROADCASTING” illuminated.

“ Parker Mason, LRA 1031, to Director Garret Freeman. Current delivery destination moved. Original recipient killed by attempted robbery. All assailants killed by Runner. Will submit report upon completion of deliver. Will divulge new destination upon contact from Director Freeman. Currently residing at 71 Arming Street, Constitution. Please send liaison. Over.”

“Alright,” the man said, flipping down a few switches. “Looks like it all got through just fine. Sounds like you had quite a day, I might add.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

“No prob. You take care.”

Parker dismissed himself and followed the way back downstairs, smiling to the woman as he departed. But he did not return to Sal’s, not yet; he went to the address he had given in the transmission. Arming Street was in the industrial district; the address he gave was one of the warehouses that clustered the area. He chose it because there was another warehouse directly across the street, and that was where he would be.

In a few minutes, he was looking at the only entrance of 71 Arming Street; a small wooden door with a window that was painted to conceal squatters from prying eyes. It was not uncommon for Runners to squat inside warehouses when in large cities; seeking residence at inns or taverns often resulted in altercations with resentful locals. Warehouses were free, and although it was illegal, Runners were normally very good at remaining unseen.

Leaving the street, Parker entered the warehouse directly across the street from the address he had given. He made a note of how heavy his footfall had to be to make an echo inside the deserted warehouse, and committed it to memory. Making his way upstairs, he climbed the ladder to an elevated loft and carefully crawled to the small window nearby. The window overlooked the street, and provided a perfect view of the warehouse Parker claimed to be residing in.

His plan was to send the transmission and watch carefully to see what took place. If armed men came in looking for Parker and the package, then he knew beyond a doubt that the agency was compromised in some way, either with a mole or with someone intercepting transmissions. But if the proper LRA liaison came, then he knew the LRA had nothing to do with whatever was going on and that he should report as usual.

Hours passed, and night fell in Constitution. Parker passed the time by scrawling in a small book of crosswords that he always kept on him for time that required patience. He consumed one of his individually-wrapped wheat bars to keep his stomach from giving away his position, and washed it down with water from his hydration pack. But eventually, Parker’s patience paid off.

He spotted five men coming down the street. The size of the group is what grabbed his attention, and although he could not yet make out details about them, he knew they were there for him. Soon they stepped under one of the streetlights and Parker noticed that the gear they wore looked like what a Runner would wear. It was a disguise, he reasoned, so that no one would question why five men were walking down the street with rifles. But Parker knew that no Runner would want to be in such a large group; his suspicions were confirmed when they all stopped about ten feet from the door to the warehouse across the street. He could not hear the words, but he saw one of them motion two to the front door, before turning to look around the street. He pointed to one of the other man and then to the rear of the warehouse-- probably telling him to look for a back door. Then, to Parker’s horror, he pointed to the last man and then across the street to the warehouse Parker was in. The five separated to do their jobs.

Quickly but quietly, Parker scrambled up and moved down the ladder. He could hear the door opening down the stairs below him. Adrenaline surged through his veins as he quickly decided what to do-- try to circumnavigate the man, or set an ambush. The decision was quick: there was a hostile threat between him and an escape. The threat had to be dealt with.

Parker minded his footfalls, recalling how light he had to tread to keep from making noise. As he moved, he silently pulled his knife from his belt. There were a stack of crates just in front of the stairs-- it was close to Parker, and he knew the man would have to come up the steps. It would have to work.

Blade in hand, Parker slinked into position, behind the stacked crates. The sound of the man digging around downstairs was grating at the Runner’s nerves. There, in the dark, he wondered if his hands were shaking because of the adrenaline, or because of fear. Then he heard the first footstep on the stairs, a loud and creaky press into the aged wood. The man stopped for a moment, probably kicking himself for being so loud, and then proceeded at a much slower pace. Soon, Parker felt the wooden floor beneath him shift ever so slightly. There was another person standing on the same planks, just on the other side of the boxes. He heard light footsteps moving past, then around the railing of the stairs.

Parker realized the man was checking the crates on the other end of the room. That meant the target’s back was exposed, but that he was quickly putting distance between the two of them. Parker had to act, and he had to act now.

Taking a fast breath, Parker surged from around the corner of the box. In two long strides-- one quiet, and one very fast-- he was upon the man. His left hand wrapped over the man’s shoulder and grabbed at the trigger guard of the rifle, which was successful; he was able to jam his pinky finger behind the trigger, making it unable to fire. His blade flashed into the man, but not as aimed; the thrust was meant for the soft spot behind the jaw but instead struck the neck, nearly in the shoulder. Just as the man began to shout, Parker gasped and yanked the blade free, slamming it into his neck again and again. The man writhed, the rifle swung back and forth, and Parker felt his finger twist, feeling a pop that reverberated through his whole body. He, too, grunted in agony, before slamming the blade into the man the last few times. Coughing and wheezing, the man slammed an elbow into Parker’s chin, which knocked him away, but Parker came away with the man’s rifle in hand. When the Runner recovered, dropping the knife as he lifted the rifle to swing it like a bat, he saw that the man had collapsed, and was slowly crawling away.

Parker discarded the rifle and recovered the knife, dropping it into the back of the man’s neck to touch into the spine. The man no longer moved.

Moments later, Parker hastily crept through the door. Knife still in hand, he broke into a sprint, burning through the street to get away from the industrial district. He made the twenty minute walk back to Sal’s in less than ten, only taking time to ensure that he was not followed. When he reached her house, he exploded through the door, and saw more than he expected to.

Bullet holes pocked the wall facing the front door. There was blood on the floor, leading into the kitchen. Parker quickly pulled his pistol and leveled it before him as he approached the entry way into the kitchen. Collapsed against the wall was another man that looked like a runner. He had been shot several times in the torso, and once in the head. Satisfied he was not getting up, Parker followed the smear of blood into the kitchen. Laura was lying on the floor, and the trail of blood led to her.

Swallowing, Parker noted that she had been shot at least twice in the chest, maybe more. He moved past her, before hearing movement in the bedroom. Quickly turning in that direction, he saw Reuben leaning out of the door; his face changed when he saw Parker.

“Oh, thank God,” Reuben said.

“What the fuck happened here?”

“Those guys just kicked in the door and started searching,” Reuben said. “I went for the guns, and Laura started yelling and grabbed a knife. She… Well, she took one down. I took the rest.”

“How many?” Parker asked.

“Three. One on the living room, one in the kitchen, one in here.”

Parker pushed past him into the bedroom. He cast a glance to the body in the corner, a man with only half a head, before snatching his bag up from the ground. “We have to go. Right now.”

“What about Sal?” Reuben asked, his voice flexed with stress.

“This isn’t about her. They want the package. They only attacked you because you two were in their way. I’m sure she’s fine.”

Reuben grabbed his bag as well and let out a heavy sigh. For the first time, Parker saw Reuben’s rifle-- a relatively small Kalashnikov with wood furniture and a long magazine. But it was not the time to admire a weapon-- they had to leave.

On the way out, Parker stopped for a moment at Laura’s body. Three shots-- two to the chest, one to the right bicep. Beside her was the kitchen knife she had grabbed. He looked over to see the dead man, and noticed that the trail of blood Parker had followed actually seemed to belong to the man; his throat was cut open, and he was lying in a massive pool that had spread nearly to Laura’s body. What happened seemed clear; he came in, Laura grabbed a knife and started slashing. She took a chunk out of his throat, he shot her, then collapsed and bled out. Parker cast a gaze of admiration to Laura.

“I guess she was tired of being the victim,” Reuben commented, moving past Parker.

“She never should have known what being a victim was like in the first place.”

“Cruel world,” replied Reuben as he knelt down by the dead man, looking over his belongings.

“No,” corrected Parker. “Cruel men.”

“Maybe.” Looking over to Parker, Reuben sighed and said, “Jesus, what happened to you anyway?”

Unsure what he meant, Parker looked down to see that he was covered in blood from the man he had killed. It was all over his shirt and his chest rig, soaked deeply into the rolled up sleeve on his right arm. “They found me, too,” he said simply. “I’ll explain later.”

Reuben shook his head with a sigh, as he helped himself to a few things on the man’s corpse. Parker took the unspoken advice and moved to the one in the living room, quickly looting a few pieces of candy and a granola bar. He noticed that the man carried a Glock, and checked the magazine. It was a 9mm, and had several full magazines. He grabbed them all, and the pistol, stuffing them into his bag for now; later, he would decide if they were worth the weight.

With that, the two departed from the house, keeping to alleys and staying as close to the city walls as they could as they made their way to the gate.

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 Post subject: Re: ZPAW
PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2011 10:02 pm 
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Liking this story a lot so far

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 Post subject: Re: ZPAW
PostPosted: Sat Jul 30, 2011 8:56 am 
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I like it.

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 Post subject: Re: ZPAW
PostPosted: Sun Aug 07, 2011 12:01 am 
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[Thanks, guys! Sorry for the delay, here-- life got crazy. Since my last post, I've been hired full-time at work, changed to another shift, and begun the process of moving to another state. I'm still writing though!]

CHAPTER 4

Parker took a moment to towel off the blood that splotched his skin and shirt before entering the gatehouse. Once dark red stains were less noticeable, he discarded the rag he had taken from his pack into a shrub just before the gatehouse. The sound of rattling chains and squeaking pulleys came through the wood and iron portcullis as it began to lift. The inner portcullis was identical to the outer; the two gates formed the front and back walls of the gatehouse, which acted like an airlock to travelers and intruders alike. Once the portcullis was open enough, the two Runners quickly scuttled beneath it. The gate slid closed behind them, and the two followed protocol, stepping away from each other and facing the outside wall, popping the magazines from their weapons and extracting the rounds from the chamber. Once their weapons were effectively disengaged, a trio of men emerged from the side doors, one with a clipboard flanked by two with rifles.

“On your way out, boys?” the man said, approaching in a friendly demeanor.

“Yep,” Parker stated. “Delivery was declined. Gotta head elsewhere now.”

“Sounds like a headache,” the man said. “Mind if I see your papers?”

Parker and Reuben both reached into their packs, slowly, with their off-hand open and palms facing the guards. The two of then unsheathed their credentials and offered them to the man. He nodded in thanks as he graciously took both of them, unfolding the papers and reading them over. “Parker Mason and Reuben Santiago. Well, you gentlemen be careful out there, hm?”

“All day, every day,” Parker quipped, watching the man cross their names off the check-out list.

The cities kept a record of the Runners that came through their gates separately from the guest ledger of other individuals; this made it easier to find a name when the agency disperses transmissions requesting information on runners that have disappeared. The cities that have the name on their ledgers transmit the Runner’s name and the date and time of their entry and exit. With this process, the agencies could deduce where the Runner had been last before he disappeared, and decide whether or not to pursue an investigation; if the Runner vanished in the city, investigations were usually conducted, but if the Runner was last seen exiting a city and never entered another, then the agency presumed him dead.

With their names marked off and the time recorded, the man handed their credentials back and turned away from them. “There was a nonmortuis sighting west of here, about ten miles,” he warned. “Looked about ten miles away. Only a few of them, though there might be more nearby we can’t see. Don’t know where you’re headed out there, but take care.”

“Thanks,” Parker said, folding his papers and slipping them back into his pack.

With no further words, the man returned through the side door along with the guard. Parker and Reuben stepped to the front portcullis, and proceeded to load their weapons-- each of them loading full metal jacket rounds, rather than hollow point-- before the portcullis began to open. The only time a loaded weapon was allowed in a gatehouse wielded by someone other than militia was when preparing to deploy back into the wilds, after all others cleared the room. Parker and Reuben both pulled the charging handles on their rifles as the chains began to move, hoisting the heavy gate.

By the time it opened, the two Runners had their rifles pressed to their shoulders and were watching through their sights. After satisfying their caution that their immediate area was not hostile, they relaxed slightly just in front of the gate, and stepped closer together.

“Tie everything down,” Parker said, as he checked over his gear. “Make sure that if something comes looks while you’re trucking, it’s tied to something that won’t.”

“I know, Parker. I’m a Runner too, remember?”

“Right. I’m just not used to--”

“Partners?” Reuben let out a soft chuckle and replied, “Yeah, I kinda got that impression from you.”

“We head north,” said Parker, forgoing the previous subject. “We’ll see if we can find a way around the walkers to the west.”

By saying nothing, Reuben agreed. The two set off north, breaking away from the hills that surrounded Constitution and entering into densely vegetated fields. The foliage through which they soon waded forced them to hack their way through, Parker with his machete and Reuben with his kukri. This did not last long, as Parker quickly mentioned to Reuben that it was a bad idea to stomp through a jungle in the middle of the night with very little light. The two agreed that it would be best to navigate their way to the edge of the foliage and find a suitable place for a camp.

Setting up the campsite took several hours. Once they escaped the vegetation and found suitable, flat ground with the necessary accommodations for shelter, the two separated and performed a meticulous sweep and inspection of the area to ensure their safety. Once completed, Parker suggested they move slightly into the foliage so that they could use some of the trees and bushes for perimeter security, and Reuben deferred to Parker’s knowledge on the matter. Using fishing line and small bells, Parker outlined their campsite’s borders; this would give them some warning if something or someone touched it on their way in or out of the campsite.

At the foot of each tree, Parker set up snares and traps for small game, such as squirrels or chipmunks. During their search, neither of them found edible berries, but Reuben noted that it was too dark to confidently pick the non-poisonous berries and be certain of them.

Finally, with perimeter security established, some traps laid, and their shelter pitched-- both of them having small single-man tents, separate from one another-- they were prepared to retire. Not bothering with a fire that night, the two went to their tents; Parker passed some time by eating a few of the granola bars he had recovered earlier in the day, and inspecting the weapons in his gear. He concluded that the Glock he salvaged, along with the ammunition and magazines, was worth its weight because of the possibility of his sidearm being lost during combat. He counted the ammunition that remained for his rifle and for his current sidearm, and then doused his gas lantern and fell into a light sleep.


A gentle shade of dawn shone through the top of Parker’s tent, but it was not sunlight that awakened him, nor was it the early morning hours that caused him to snatch his pistol and bound from his tent. It was the sound of one of the bells ringing, clattering as though something had stumbled through his tripwire. He leapt from his tent, pistol leveled and aimed, when he saw a chilling sight. Reuben emerged from his tent seconds after.

The west perimeter, formed by two large trees with a long stretch of fishing line and two bells clamped to it, was broken. One bell lay on the ground. The other was jingling sporadically, as an undead fiend nonchalantly kicked it repeatedly. It would bump the bell with its foot, and then be startled and attracted by the noise it made, turning around only to bump the bell again and make another noise. It was a precarious cycle that the creature had been snagged in, and for a moment, Parker watched in quiet surprise, and even a morbid sense of amusement. Reuben, staring down the sights of his suppressed Walther P99, felt no such thing.

“Real quiet,” Parker whispered in a nearly inaudible voice. “Quieter than a suppressed shot.”

Reuben nodded, before offering the pistol to Parker. Holstering his own, Parker took the weapon, before Reuben reached into his tent and unsheathed his kukri. While Parker kept the suppressed pistol trained on the creature’s head, Reuben sidled up on its flank with the blade. He took a deep breath and drew his arm back, before heaving a heavy swing into the unsuspecting creature’s neck. The first cut seemed to chop about halfway through its neck; the beast collapsed and twitched, writhing back and forth, before suddenly clawing at the ground to get to Reuben. Parker stepped forward and put his boot on it, pinning it for a moment while Reuben landed one last blow into the neck. Decapitated, the body lay motionless, but the head continued to function, eyes and jaw moving in an unholy search for flesh. Parker was considering how to end this monstrosity when Reuben surprised him by producing an ice pick, delivering a swift jab into the eye socket of the undead head. There was no more movement.

“Well, not exactly a morning cup of coffee,” Reuben commented with a sigh.

“Our friend attracted attention,” Parker said, nudging his companion and pointing westward. There were several more undead stragglers meandering about, but all were gradually milling toward them. “I think we need to go.”

“Seems that way.”

The stench was overpowering. Before heading back to his tent, Parker glanced over the creature. Mostly naked, it looked like it had been decaying for a few weeks in humid heat. Its clothes were reduced to tattered rags and it was missing several fingers. No hair, peeling scalp, and a large portion of its body was missing skin-- excessive movement after all the skin died often caused the flesh to be jarred off. Feeling sick, Parker retreated.

The two rapidly dismantled their site and erased any trace of their presence, including picking up their empty snares and recoiling the fishing line. In ten minutes, the camp that had taken three hours to establish was completely gone. With their rucks on their backs, Parker and Reuben set off; because of the dense foliage to the north, the Runners weighed their options and decided to head west to test their luck at circumnavigating the undead that were seen there. Carefully and quietly, they maneuvered around the stragglers that were to the west of their camp, but were prepared to face them full force if necessary.

After successfully avoiding the small group, they kept heading west, with Parker occasionally checking his compass to keep them on track. For hours they walked, barely saying a word to one another. Parker knew that talking was among the greatest dangers of traveling with a partner; it was impossible to know with certainty if there was a living corpse listening, attracted by the sounds of human speech.

It was late afternoon when Parker stopped. “That’s I-65 right there,” he commented, pointing to it. It was just barely visible, snaking its way over the hills and clouded with the surrounding vegetation. “If we follow that north, in a couple days we’ll run right into Shepherdsville.”

Reuben nodded, before pulling a pair of aged binoculars from his pack and pulling them to his eyes. “Looks pretty clear,” he commented. “The zombies are mostly to the south now. I can see a few down that way on the highway, but they’re out of earshot. We should be fine if…”

Parker paused a moment, turning to him and asking, “If what?”

“There’s someone down there,” Reuben said quickly. “Not a zombie, a person.”

“What’s he doing?”

“He’s… Waving.”

Parker pulled his own binoculars from their pouch on his pack and peered through them, struggling at first to find the man. But after a brief search over the highway, he saw the man standing in one place, waving one arm at them. Parker took a quick note the man’s appearance; he was wearing camouflage and had a relatively small pack on his back. He wore an olive drab scarf around his neck and a patrol cap of the same color. But by far the most interesting feature of his attire was his weaponry; over his chest lied a Stone-2070, a rifle that used the same design as the AR-15 but began manufacture in 2070, long after the end of the old world. It had an optic mounted to it that Parker knew was powered-- generally, powered optics were bought at very high cost by a city-state to better equip their militia.

“He must be a Runner,” Reuben commented.

“No,” replied Parker. “He’s a Scout.”

Watching through his binoculars, Reuben simply said, “Hm. No shit.”

“Scouts always travel in pairs. Sniper and spotter.”

“So you can bet the other one is holed up right now?” Reuben asked, pulling his attention away from the man to look elsewhere for his partner.

“We’re probably being watched through a scope as we speak.” Reluctantly, Parker lifted his arm and waved back to the man. The man stopped waving, but did not move from his spot. “He wants us to meet with him.”

“Not like this, we’re not-- not on his terms.”

“We’ll even it up a little,” Parker commented, taking a few steps back from the hill upon which he stood. He knelt down and lifted his AR, before laying prone on the ground. “If you go meet with him, I’ll stay here and watch your back.”

“Jesus,” he remarked, “that’s a long way. Are you sure you can make the shot?”

“Looks like around 250 yards. With elevation, yes, I can make that shot.”

Reuben sighed, and conceded. “Alright, I’ll go. I’ll try to be diplomatic. What do you think a Scout wants with us?”

“Who knows? We might have just stepped into his expedition, or maybe he’s looking to trade. His overwatch could just be insurance.”

“Yeah, I hope so,” Reuben muttered as he turned away. Stopping, he looked over his shoulder and added, “If you have to shoot, don’t miss.”

Parker did not reply. As Reuben tromped down the hill, Parker took in a deep breath and peered through his short-range ACOG scope. It helped significantly, but it was not an easy shot; if the man moved or sought cover, it would be an extremely difficult target to hit. Parker was a good practical marksman, but he was no sniper, and he was not used to engaging at such extended distances. He knew his weapon was more suited for this task than Reuben’s Kalashnikov, which was generally less accurate and lacked optics of any kind, but as his partner approached the strange Scout on the highway, Parker suddenly felt doubt in his own plan. He hoped earnestly, for Reuben’s sake, that he would not have to shoot at all.

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PostPosted: Sun Aug 07, 2011 12:22 pm 
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Good story, please continue!

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 Post subject: Re: ZPAW
PostPosted: Sun Aug 07, 2011 2:31 pm 
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So does anyone else think that Reuben is on it somehow?

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 10, 2011 4:27 am 
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CHAPTER 5

Seeing a Scout in the wilds was a rare thing. They were not like Runners, always moving along the roads or over the hills to get from city to city. Scouts were the highest tier of city militia, engineered specifically for outland expeditions. Reconnaissance, exploration, and occasionally even intercity intelligence were the jobs that only Scouts could accomplish. When a city had problems outside of its walls, problems beyond riots or crime, the militia would stay home while a pair of Scouts were sent to make the problem go away. So as Rueben moved down the hill, alone, his eyes fixed on the armed scout that waited for him on the road, he was understandably uncomfortable and wondered what in the world could be going on so far from any city that would attract a Scout. They were a day away from Constitution and at least two days from Shepherdsville; why would a pair of Scouts come out so far?

Reuben took a moment to observe the area around the Scout. The man stood between two burned-out cars, positioned roughly twenty feet apart, almost forming a clear section of pavement on the two-lane road. As Reuben approached, he kept his hand on his lax rifle, finger outside the trigger guard, until he saw the Scout remove his hands from his own rifle and lay them limp at his sides. Obliging the subtle move towards parlay, Reuben did the same. Soon, he stood on the road, a mere ten feet from the man.

“Good afternoon,” said the Scout.

“Hi. What can we do for you?”

“Well, you can make my job a hell of a lot easier. Maybe yours, too.”

“Oh?” Reuben replied, growing increasingly uneasy. “Howso?”

“Before I say anything, I want to make it clear that I am not here on hostile terms. I want to treat you like a human being and I want to do so in a fair way. So instead of going on dim commands and vague instructions, which seems so popular these days, I’m going to hand you the truth and see what you do with it.”

For a moment, no one said anything.

“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that you are being watched by my partner. In addition to being an excellent shot, he is also a very good judge of character and body language. If you make a move, I promise you that you will expire before you hear his shot. I will operate under the assumption that your companion on that hill has the same level of expertise. Regardless of what you do here, as long as it is nonviolent, we will both walk away from this.”

Reuben nodded slowly and silently.

The Scout took a deep breath. “My partner and I have been sent for a mister Parker Mason. We were instructed to find him and acquire from him the package that he carries. Our CO gave us no further information, other than the fact that he would be traveling from Constitution to Shepherdsville. We figured I-65 was a likely spot to encounter him, and set up camp. We have been here for just over twenty-four hours. Although I had no further information, being assigned to track down a Runner-- and being told that killing him was fine if necessary-- is a rather unusual task. I had some friends look into it and I discovered some things that you and Parker Mason need to know.”

Reuben wondered briefly how the Scout knew that he was not Parker. The only answer that came to mind was the fact that the agency kept a picture on file of each Runner. Was the agency involved?

“That package you carry,” the Scout continued, “could be the most important delivery in the history of the world. The decisions you two make can and will affect the rest of the world in very defined and profound ways.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Reuben asked indignantly. It all seemed awfully melodramatic.

The Scout shifted slightly, as if uncomfortable with the information he knew.


Parker could only wonder what they were talking about as he watched through his ACOG scope, with his fiber optic crosshairs laid roughly six inches over the Scout’s head. The two seemed to be getting along alright so far-- no sudden movements or confusing gestures. The situation still seemed so alien to him-- being approached in the wild at all was rare, but a sniper standoff with a pair of Scouts was absolutely unheard of. The Scouts had to have been searching for them specifically, or they never would have crossed paths. The thought led Parker’s finger inside the trigger guard, a hair’s width away from the trigger. If he was being followed by Scouts, the only possible conclusion is that it was somehow connected to the package he carried-- the package that had already caused so much trouble and death. He caught himself wondering yet again what could possibly be in the lockbox that was so important for all of this.

The two continued to converse, and Parker was beginning to feel confident that the man was not planning on attacking. Several minutes of peaceful conversation had taken place now, and so instead of needlessly holding his target over the Scout’s head, he began to slowly scan the area. He looked atop the hill on the opposing side of the highway, hoping to see the Scout sniper, but did not. His scope lowered back to I-65 as he looked first to the right, northbound, and then to the left, southbound. At first, it looked clear in both directions, but just as he was about to look away from the southbound highway, he spotted movement. Steadying his aim, he watched for a moment, before seeing it again; a woman, beaten and bloodied and mangled and rotted, making her way toward Reuben and the Scout.

“Oh, fuck.”

There was roughly thirty yards between the two and the shambling horror, but the distance was closing. He trained his crosshairs at an appropriate height above the undead woman to hit her from his distance, but hesitated. Clearly, neither Reuben nor the Scout had noticed the woman yet; if he fired, and they did not know he had shot a zombie, then his gunshot might make the Scouts think they were being attacked-- undoubtedly their sniper would then take his shot at Reuben, and was probably much better equipped for such ranges. He shuddered to realize that shooting the zombie could cost Reuben his life.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he murmured through clenched teeth.

Behind the woman were three more just like her. Parker decided it was probably the tip of the cluster they had bypassed earlier in the day’s travels. Either the horde covered a large span of territory, or Parker and Reuben were followed by them.

Details aside, Parker was still at a loss for what to do. The shambling woman had a line of sight on the two now, and was beginning to pick up speed. They still did not seem to notice. There was not much time.

Cursing under his breath, Parker shoved off of the ground and took off down the hill. Hopefully he could warn them-- get their attention in time to point out the oncoming trouble. His feet carried him swiftly down the grassy hill, his gear shifting back and forth as he sprinted toward them. Finally, within earshot, he hollered out to them.

“Reuben! Nine o’clock! Nine o’clock!” he screamed.

Reuben’s head whirled back to see him, a befuddled look on his distant face. He did not seem to hear.

“Reub--”

Parker’s voice was cut short by the crack of a high-caliber weapon. He felt his heart jump, his gut lurch. For a moment, a brief hazy second in time, he wondered if he had been hit. But he was still running, his feet still carrying him over the ground at an impressive speed, and he felt no pain. No, he was not hit. He looked to Reuben, diving for cover; he saw the Scout, rushing to a nearby car to protect himself. Looking over, he saw two stragglers where there had been three; on the ground in a heap lied the undead woman, sans most of her head. It must have been the Scout sniper-- he must have seen them too.

Then, the second horror’s chest erupted; collapsing into a moaning and writhing pile, the zombie crawled toward Reuben and the Scout, dragging its broken body behind it. Then Parker heard the crack again; the sniper had to be distant.

There was still so much space between he and Reuben-- he felt like he was walking rather than sprinting. Adrenaline surged through him, and he pushed himself to move faster, when suddenly he found himself no longer touching the ground. He felt the residual impact of something that had slapped into his shoulder, but hardly even noticed it at the time of impact; airborne for a moment, he had time enough to catch his breath in his chest before slamming into the dirt.

He landed on his shoulder, rolling onto his pack. He heard things crunch beneath him, and prayed that it was nonessentials in his pack rather than his own ribs. Rolling at a dizzying speed, he instinctively tried to reach out to stop himself, but as a result, his carbine’s barrel jammed into the dirt, the stock jabbing into his chest, pushing the breath from him. His head snapped back and his left hand struck the ground, a jolt of pain ripping through him from his already-wounded finger. Finally, filthy and bleeding from who knows where, he skidded to a stop at the bottom of the hill. He lifted his head in a daze.

He could hear a cacophony of gunfire, loud enough to be within fifty yards. His dizzy and blurry vision focused on a figure approaching him, flanked by another figure. He was relieved to think that it was Reuben and the Scout coming to his aid, but logic denied him that relief; if the gunfire was some fifty yards away, these figures could not be his allies. His heartbeat surged in anxiety and he rapidly drew his pistol.

His vision came clear and he saw that the two figures were indeed bony, rotted corpses rushing toward him. He caught himself just as he let out a scream of shock, before he squeezed the trigger of his Glock 21 as many times as he could stay on target. One round shredded the zombie’s shoulder, another through its chin, the third and forth blasting chunks from the side of its head. The second creature let out a blood-curdling roar just before Parker let a more calm shot rip through its head.

Wide-open eyes took in his surroundings as he struggled to get his bearings. He hastily got to his feet and swirled around to make sure he was clear. He looked down to the highway and his gut sank-- the horde made it before he did. Where Reuben and the Scout once stood, dozens of zombies now walked and ran. He could hear gunfire down the northbound highway, and he wanted to go aid them, but he had problems of his own.

Looking back to his own surroundings, he counted four more coming his way from the horde itself, and two flanking him from the south. He backpedaled as he holstered his pistol and lifted his carbine, only to see the grass and dirt packed into the barrel as he aimed through his scope. Cursing, he dropped it back over his chest, leaving the inoperable weapon in favor of his pistol yet again. The nearest zombie caught a .45 caliber round to the face before Parker turned around and took off yet again.

His speed was lacking this time, as he found himself limping with a pain in his right foot. Still, he hurried on, headed north in hopes of linking up with Reuben. But as more and more zombies broke away from the group to pursue him, he quickly shifted priorities into simply making it out alive. The undead were to the west, and to the south, all moving north; with no other option, he turned east and began to move uphill.

The difficulty of movement was wearing on him. There were a handful of undead men and women closing in and he knew he could not make it to the top of the hill-- it was too steep. He had to clear his immediate area before trying to get to the top of the hill or they would simply attack him from behind. Steeling his resolve, he stopped and turned, slamming his back against the steep hill, leveling his pistol. His first round went wild, driven off-target by his trembling hands. The lead corpse was less than ten yards out now, and he let out a breath to steady himself. His next shot was true, dropping the zombie in its tracks. He struggled to recall how many shots he had used as the others closed in; growing nervous, he fired another two rounds, both striking the second zombie in the head.

There were two more from the west, and two more further out from the south. Lining up his sights carefully, he squeezed off one round, catching the nearest zombie in the eye. But the other was right behind it, and taking his time to line up a shot had cost him precious seconds. Growing intimidated, Parker fired one shot, missing wildly. With the zombie only ten feet away, he pulled the trigger three times.

There were two loud bangs, followed by the heart-stopping click of the slide locking back. His thirteen round magazine was spent.

Parker gasped in relief that the zombie had been killed on the second shot, but the last two that were approaching were too close to allow him time to reload. He swallowed, and actively chose to drop his handgun onto his lap, pulling his knife from his belt. He tightened his body and prepared to catch the corpse as it dove for him. Lifting his left arm, he knocked the bony fingers away that tried to grab him, and his right arm slammed the knife into the corpse’s body. It was enough to keep the maw of the beast away from him long enough to grab it by its rotted clothing, yank the blade free, and shove it into the creature’s temple. Limp, the body rested over his legs as the final monster approached; this time, Parker was able to drop the knife and quickly reload his Glock, before firing two quick shots that toppled the beast.

Leaned against the hill, mostly obscured by bodies, Parker knew that to try and make an escape was too likely to draw attention. He was in too deep now. The stench of the body that lied over his waste was overpowering; he felt vomit rising up in him and did his best to contain it. When he realized that the rest of the large group was still moving north, ignoring him, he realized that staying perfectly still to blend in with the dead bodies around him might keep him alive. Sweat soaked his clothing as he struggled to keep from gasping breath, a combination of the physical exertion and the noxious aroma coming from the corpses around him making it hard to draw air. His rapid heartbeat sounded like gunshots in his ringing, nearly deafened ears, and although he lied still with the corpses around him, covered by their image and their smell, he knew he was trembling with terror.

Silent, still, and scared, Parker remained beneath the bodies until the horde had passed him by.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 23, 2011 9:34 pm 
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More????

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 1:36 am 
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BearBait wrote:
More????


Not to worry, more is coming soon. Things are a little hectic right now because my wife and I are moving out of state, but I still find time to work on this whenever I can. The next chapter is almost done!

Thank you for showing interest!

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 24, 2011 9:28 pm 
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I normally just subscribe to story threads rather than try to come up with some clever way to incorporate moar in a sentence but i have really enjoyed this story so far and cant wait to read the rest of it

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Raptor 6 wrote:
I normally just subscribe to story threads rather than try to come up with some clever way to incorporate moar in a sentence but i have really enjoyed this story so far and cant wait to read the rest of it


We mainly do it to remind the writers that they need to forget about having a life & to write more story/ies for us to read.

:P :P :P

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 25, 2011 5:12 am 
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[Ask and you shall recieve! Sorry again for the delay-- my posts will get more expedient soon. Don't give up on me just yet. :P ]

CHAPTER 6

The cool nighttime breeze blew over the grass and dirt, and over the small fire Parker had built. It was a welcome change of pace from the sweltering temperatures that had been common, and Parker found it relaxing. Despite how well his fire was burning, he took no pride in it, because amidst the coals and kindling was a set of perfectly good clothing that he had to burn due to its exposure to the undead. It was covered in gore from the earlier skirmish, and the stench would never come out. He was running low on good sets of clothing now-- he noted that he may need to purchase more upon arriving at Shepherdsville.

His shoulder ached terribly. Of the many scrapes and bruises he obtained earlier in the day, the most painful was the long gash on his right shoulder, which he likely received from his fall. He also twisted his ankle-- a very bothersome injury for a swift traveler-- as well as a more troubling injury that resulted in red-tinged urine. He had tried to relax since he made it away from the scene of the fight to give his body time to recuperate; his kidney had probably taken a knock and he was unsure as to whether or not he had broken anything. His left pinky finger, previously injured during the scuffle in the warehouse in Constitution, was now badly bruised and swollen; he wondered if he dislocated it more severely this time, or even fractured it.

With the bleeding wounds sanitized and bandaged, all he could do was maintain his gear. He had pitched camp a ways to the east from the highway, and would continue on in the morning. The night was spent cleaning and inspecting his weapons and reloading his magazines, trying not to think about whether or not Reuben survived the horde. He ate a meager meal, rationed from his few remaining packets of dehydrated foods; he had been unable to replenish his supplies in Constitution, which left him dangerously low for the journey to Shepherdsville. If he tarried too long, he would run out of food. Without more rations, he could not afford to prolong the trip.

After packing his gear together rinsing out his eating utensils with some of his drinking water, he fell into an uneasy slumber on a hammock tied between two trees, sheltered by a tarp strung overhead in the same fashion. Sleep was difficult; the pain from his injuries and the troubles on his mind kept him too disturbed for an invigorating rest. But in time, his mental and physical exhaustion caught up with him, and he relaxed into his slumber where he was met with dreams even more disturbing than the reality he faced.


When Parker opened his eyes again, the smell of an oncoming storm filled his nostrils. He lifted his head only to feel a stabbing pain in his neck and shoulder, and quickly reclined once more. Dull aches resonated all over his body, sore and beaten from the previous day’s combat. For a time, he remained in his knit hammock, gently swaying in the cool breeze, unwilling to force his pained body to stand. Eventually, he mustered the strength and the resolve to lift, no matter the pains, and sat up with a clenched jaw and a stifled groan. He kicked his throbbing legs out of the hammock and took to his feet, catching his balance a moment before letting out a long and painful stretch.

After brushing his teeth, he found a suitable bush a short distance away into which he emptied his bladder. His urine still showed an orange tinge, and he let out a troubled sigh. As he returned to his site he lifted his shirt to check his body over; as he suspected, a massive bruise had formed on his right side, directly over his kidney. With the shades of purple, grey, and yellow that decorated his flesh, he knew he had bruised the kidney during his scuffle. As long as it was no worse than that, it would clear up in a few days; otherwise, he had a serious problem.

He took an extra dose in vitamins to provide his body with the extra energy it would need for the journey. After a quick breakfast of dehydrated fruits, jerky, and a granola bar, he began to tear down camp. First he packed up his water pot and utensils, followed by unstringing his hammock, and lastly the tarp. Once everything was shoved into his noticeably-lighter pack, he hefted it onto his shoulders. A sharp pain tore through him as he remembered the bandaged wound on the back of his right shoulder; he was forced to let the pack down and loosen the right strap. He dreaded the trip ahead; two days walking with wounds and a ruck on his back would not be a pleasant experience. Still, he had to hurry in hopes of beating the storm.

In a short amount of time, he reached I-65 again, and was staggered by the carnage he saw. Dozens of corpses lay in the street, motionless, truly dead; stragglers wandered amidst the bodies, still shambling and searching for the meal that had eluded them. Parker decided that it would be best to avoid the interstate for a few miles; perhaps further down the road the highway would be clear. To lift his spirits, he continuously reminded himself that Reuben’s body was nowhere in sight.

Travel was slow. Parker’s injuries were taking their toll on him. His shoulder wound made it difficult to maintain a steady pace while carrying his pack, and his sprained ankle ensured that every other step he took was gradual and painful. As he walked, he wrapped his pinky finger tightly with medical tape to help compress the swelling. In order to keep himself distracted from both the situation and the pain, he took peeks at his book of crossword puzzles every now and then; he would focus on a particularly difficult clue, put the book away, and ponder it as he traveled. This allowed him to keep his mind actively engaged without stopping or compromising his awareness. It was effective; two crossword puzzles later, Parker realized the sun was beginning to set. He adjusted his course to approach the highway.

By his estimates, he had traveled roughly twenty miles in ten hours. It was a painstakingly slow pace, but he successfully passed the storm, and had not seen any walkers since he first looked at the interstate. After confirming that the highway was clear, he branched off to prepare a campsite for his second night alone in the wilds.

Before all else, he set his catches. Squirrel snares had always been his favorite; the most effective way in his experience was to find a long branch from one tree and break it off, placing several squirrel snares on it. Leaning this branch against another tree made squirrels curious about it; squirrels that investigated were often caught by the wire snares, and hanged. Once the squirrel snares were in place by the trees, he began a small fire beneath his overhead tarp and put some water to boil. By nightfall, he was peacefully enjoying a cup of hot tea and finishing off the remainder of the crossword puzzle that he had left incomplete. He urinated in a nearby bush, satisfied to see his kidney injury had not worsened, before managing his dental hygiene. Satisfied and exhausted, he stamped out the fire and buried the coals to keep them hot for the morning before tucking into his hammock and pulling his hat over his eyes.


Another uneventful night passed. Parker awoke to shooting pains and stiff aches, but none as bad as the previous morning. He rose, cleaned, and urinated again; much to his relief, the color was improving gradually. Then he was off to check his snares and traps; he could see from the distance that one of his snares had caught its prey. Upon closer inspection, he saw that two snares were occupied at one tree, and one at another. This was a victory-- three squirrels would be enough for a whole day of traveling. He retrieved all of the snares as well as the small game and returned to his camp site.

After packing the snares, he uncovered the coals he had buried the night before and prepared for the morning’s fire. From his pack he pulled a small pouch filled with dead grass and straw and laid it around the coals before laying thin branches in a piled pyramid around them. The coals heated quickly as he blew on them, soon growing hot enough to light the tinder. He left the fire to build while he prepared to boil his water.

Soon, all three of the squirrels were boiling whole in the pot. After a few minutes, the boiling water had removed the hair from the creatures, and Parker begrudgingly discarded the water; although he hated to lose good water, doing this was much easier than singing the hair off. He then skinned and gutted the squirrels one by one, dismembered the meat and dropped it into a pan coated with a small amount of oil. As they cooked, he prepared the salt and pepper seasoning-- heavy on the salt, to preserve what he did not eat. A few minutes later he was contentedly eating a high-protein breakfast of seasoned squirrel strips. The rest was dried over the fire to remove excess oil, covered with a bit of tinfoil, put into a cloth bag and tied tightly. After he packed the meat into his ruck and tore down the campsite, Parker set off again, hoping he could close the last bit of the journey and reach Shepherdsville before nightfall.


When Parker saw Shepherdsville sitting on top of the highway, he felt a wave of relief wash over him. The road was broken and destroyed, ending abruptly at the wall of the city; it gave the illusion that the walls had burst from the earth and risen through the ground beneath the road. The newly-risen moon reminded Parker that he was extremely behind schedule, and he hurried towards the city.

As he neared the gatehouse, his heart stopped in his chest. The exterior portcullis was open. The only time he had ever seen a city’s exterior portcullis standing open was when he saw Elizabethtown falling to a ferocious onslaught of the undead several years earlier; the gatekeepers did not live long enough to close the gates. The thought that Shepherdsville could be suffering the same fate sent shivers of dread through him. But there were no such noises coming from beyond the walls, nothing like the wails of agony and screams of horror he heard in Elizabethtown. Gradually, his weapon raised and aimed, he put one foot in front of the other, his mind flexing beneath the dread of what he might see.

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 Post subject: Re: ZPAW
PostPosted: Thu Aug 25, 2011 5:34 am 
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 Post subject: Re: ZPAW
PostPosted: Fri Aug 26, 2011 6:02 am 
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CHAPTER 7

The gatehouse was devoid of any movement at all. The interior portcullis was closed, the exterior open, the two doors on either side of the room shut. As Parker crept inside, he spotted the bodies lying on the floor, their blood soaked into the dirt beneath them. There were three bodies total, lying very near to one another, all militia. Parker ensured the room was clear before lowering his weapon and kneeling down to look over the bodies. Each of them had been shot several times, mostly in the chest, with one of them showing a fatal shot to the side of the head.

His eyes trailed away to the spent casings on the ground. He picked one up and inspected it. It was a 5.56 casing, the same cartridge his AR-15 was chambered in, as well as the Stone-2070s the militia carried. Curious, Parker inspected their weaponry. Two of them carried the Stone-2070 carbines, while the third one left a discarded old world HK USP45 handgun just a few inches from his hand. Parker checked the magazines of all of their weapons; the nearest Stone-2070 was missing seven rounds. The HK USP was missing one. A quick glance around showed a spent casing for each bullet missing, and for each bullet wound. Could these men really have slaughtered each other, and left the gate open?

Parker sighed and shook his head. If it could happen anywhere, it would be Shepherdsville; in a city with such high crime rates, even the militia did crazy things. Still, it did not feel right. Standing up and moving away from the bodies, returning them to the same manner in which he found them, he moved to the side doors. One was locked, the other unlocked. Why had no one come for these soldiers? Were the walls empty now, no longer guarded? Someone must have heard the gunshots.

Deciding the good of the city was more important than preserving the crime scene, Parker worked the lever winch to close the portcullis. But opening the inner portcullis could attract a lot of attention, so instead, he moved cautiously through the side door. He popped the magazine from his AR-15 and retrieved the chambered round, shoving it back into its place in the magazine which he tucked into his vest. His hand stayed very near his sidearm as he moved through the poorly-lit hall, searching for a door into the city. Eventually, without seeing another soul anywhere inside, he found one unlocked. He opened it and stepped into the market district.

He remembered hearing about the huge overhaul Shepherdsville had some years ago. The market district was moved from the center of the city to the front, because the crime had become so frequent that the militia grew tired of crossing the city to get to it. When a shop was robbed or someone was mugged or even murdered, the militia would get there to clean up the mess but never to find the culprit. The overtaxed militia rarely had time for investigations, so rather than allow it to continue, the city decreed that the shops must be moved closer to the gate where the militia would be able to respond more promptly. It worked; crime in the market district was, from that point forward, the lowest in the city.

As Parker moved into the market proper and saw that the streets were abnormally empty, he wondered what had happened that would clean the local riffraff so thoroughly from the shops. Even when there were no customers in the market, there was always a high volume of beggars, but even they were absent. Not wanting to linger there, Parker hastened his way to his lodging: a tavern called ‘Queen’s Council’.

The wooden door to the tavern creaked as he pushed it open, and he was relieved to see some activity within. The people inside seemed normal enough; folks laughing and spilling alcohol on the floor, a few tired old men yelling at each other in the corner, a beautiful woman chatting up one of the bartenders, and the poorly-concealed smell of sex and narcotics. Briefly, Parker wondered what it was like to be one of these people, worried only about whether or not their paycheck from the farm or factory would cover the booze, drugs, and cheap women for the week. Still, whether or not he liked it, it was the best lodging in Shepherdsville; being in the market district meant the odds for a burglary or some such thing were comparatively low, and the respectively high prices kept the lowest thugs from coming around too much.

Casually, Parker strolled to the counter. Most of the congregation was too drunk to notice him. He tapped on the counter, and a large middle-aged man with a scraggly brown beard and a tattered bandanna turned to him with a wide smile.

“Oh, a Runner,” the man commented in a delighted voice. Parker knew he was excited because, to a proprietor of a business in the market district, Runners meant big money. “You don’t look drunk or high yet-- or sexed up, for that matter. Can I get you something?”

“Maybe later,” Parker said dismissively. “I need a room for a few nights. One with a widow facing the alley.”

“Of course, of course. Let me see here,” said the barkeep, peeking beneath the counter. He pulled a key from a hook and said, “Room Two sounds right for you.”

Parker smiled as the man handed him the key, and in return handed him thirty dollars. The man happily took it, but hesitated when Parker laid a ten on the table. “Is that for me too?” joked the man.

“Not yet,” Parker replied. “I need some information.”

As the man leaned down to put the thirty dollars into a wooden case beneath the bar, he grabbed the guest book and set it on the counter. “What about?”

“What’s going on around here lately? The market seemed a little empty and I’ve noticed a lack of militia near the gate.”

The man shook his head and said, “It’s those damn riots.”

“Riots? What riots?”

“Something about a medical plant downtown, right past the factory district. See, it started when their plant security got hit by some terrorist group or something, and it’s been chaos ever since. The militia got involved yesterday to try to contain it and a couple of honest folk got killed in the crossfire. Terrible thing.”

“How long has this been going on?” Parker asked.

“Not long. Three, maybe four days. The terrorist thing wasn’t big news-- in that part of town, you hear about shootings and little bombings all the time. Lots of gangs over there. But it’s never gotten this bad before-- I heard the militia was pulling soldiers off of the wall because they needed every body they had to fight over there. It’s a war zone-- lots of the folk you see here tonight are here because they couldn’t go to work, thanks to all that.”

With a nod, Parker slid the ten dollar bill across the bar. The man was ecstatic to pick it up. “That’s the best tip I’ve had all day,” he commented.

“You earned it.”

The man smiled and tucked it into his pocket, before picking up the pen and opening the guest book. “Can I take your name?” the man said, as he wrote down the entry time.

“Reuben Santiago,” Parker stated blandly. He was not so foolhardy as to use his real name, and he hoped that if Reuben came by to take up residence he might see the name.

The man scribbled it into the book and closed it, setting it back beneath the counter. “Hey,” the man said, leaning closer. “If you’re looking for any company tonight, I’ll be sure to cut you in on a discount. Any girl with a purple scarf is yours, half price.” The barkeep gave a wide smile and a bright wink, before leaning away. “And I promise you, we’ve got the best Scarves in town.”

Parker forced a smile and nodded, replying, “Thank you, that’s very kind of you. But if you don’t mind, I’m going to go get adjusted to my room.”

“Of course, Mr. Santiago. Have a good evening now.”

Giving the man a brisk nod, Parker moved away from the counter with the key in hand. He bounded through the tavern, squeezing past the patrons as he made his way up the steps to the second floor where the rooms were. He glanced to the letters carved and painted on the doors; when he found room two, he unlocked it and stepped in. His window was nice and large-- a valuable escape route if necessary. Letting down his pack, he let out a heavy sigh of relief to take pressure off of his shoulder. Taking a seat on the bed, he opened the side pouch of his pack and pulled free a length of rope. He tied it securely as he knew how to the leg of the bed nearest the window, and tucked the rope between the head of the bed and the wall. If trouble came along and he had to flee quickly, he would toss the rope out the window and climb down.

Pausing a moment, he rested his head in his hands to take a few minutes of rest. It was a long, tiring, stressful trek from Constitution and he was in desperate need of relaxation. He could feel both the physical exhaustion and the mental duress affecting his body; it left him feeling sluggish. He did not like feeling any less than one hundred percent. He undressed, washed himself with a wet rag, and put on his last set of clean clothes. Taking a seat on the bed again, he felt his body slouch, and his eyes leveled on the floor. At that moment, he realized it was not physical pain or trails that were affecting him so much. He was mentally vexed on all spectrums of the scale. Fear plagued him for Reuben’s sake, for his own life, and for the lives of those around him. Confusion had set in because of his inability to understand what had happened to the soldiers in the gatehouse. And the trauma from the undead ambush on the highway still lingered freshly in his mind; whenever he closed his eyes, he saw the horde running past him, his vision partially obscured by the rotting corpse that laid over him. He thought about every movement the horde made, every subtle jerk and garish stumble, panicked that one might look over and see him or take a gasp and smell him. He recalled with vivid clarity how his fingers dug into his thigh in anxiety as he lied there, bleeding and pained, covered in sweat and stench, watching and praying that he could live another minute.

And he was terribly lonely. That was something he had always struggled with; too lonely to be a loner, too mistrusting to trust for friends. He had never really found the right balance of seclusion and exposure to others. But now, after having a friend he believe he could trust, after breaking past some of his own trust barriers, he felt the impression that Reuben had left on him like a hole in his body. His mind recalled the offer the bartender left him, about the girls that stayed here. Suddenly he felt wrong for judging the people that paid for their services. Suddenly it made sense why someone would spend good money for one night of company. Suddenly Parker considered heading downstairs with his wallet, laying money on the table and bringing the most beautiful Scarf in the building up to his room. Who would judge him? Who would think it was odd? No one, because everyone else did the same thing. He would be blending in, to go down and pick out the cutest Scarf of the bunch. Besides, those purple scarves of theirs probably looked a lot better at the foot of the bed.

As Parker sat there, seriously considering the proposition, he let out a sigh and took a step back. Maybe it would bring the relaxation he needed, but he still did not feel comfortable dropping his guard. Not while he still had the package. He looked over to his bag, in which the packages was hidden, and rubbed his forehead. So much trouble over such a small little box. What could possibly be inside that would be worth a fifty thousand dollar delivery fee-- not to mention all the lives lost during the process?

There was a knock at his door. Parker jumped at the sudden sound. Caught deep in his thoughts, he scrambled to prepare for a visitor, friendly or not. He opened the window and tossed the rope out, set his carbine and chest rig right beside it, and drew his pistol. Carefully, he moved toward the door pulled it open, but it stopped when the chain lock was pulled taut. His curious eyes peered through the crack.

“Sal?” he said, shocked.

Her eyes widened slightly as she took a close look at his barely-exposed face. “Parker?”

So much for the Scarves-- the most beautiful women he knew just came knocking on his door. He was stunned to see her, and she looked pretty surprised too. Parker realized she must have been expecting Reuben since he had used his name for the registry. Considering a moment whether or not he could trust her, he decided to allow her entry and pulled the chain lock away. The door opened, and she quickly stepped inside.

Parker closed the door behind her, and when he turned to speak, an open hand flashed across his cheek. His reaction was hostile; he backed up and resisted the urge to level his pistol on her. Instead, before her arm had a chance to retract completely, his free hand lashed out and grabbed her wrist, pulling it back and locking her arm into his. She struggled, but did not strike at him again, although she could have with her other arm.

“What the hell was that for?” said Parker through clenched teeth.

“For leaving my fucking home in rubble!” She jerked away from him a few times, and finally, Parker released her arm and she took a step back with a sigh.

Parker was silent for a moment. “Fair enough,” he said. “I’m sorry. But we couldn’t control it. Some guys came looking for us and--”

“Yeah, I noticed that much,” she said, folding her arms.

“Enough attitude. What are you doing here?”

“I couldn’t stay there,” she replied matter-of-factly. “I had no idea if more goons would show up or not. I grabbed my go-bag and I took off.”

“How did you survive?” Parker asked incredulously. “It’s a two or three day journey from Constitution.”

“I know how to get by. And I got here before you did, apparently. Why weren’t you with Reuben?”

Parker perked up as if he had just been given some hope. “Have you seen him? We got separated in the wilds.”

“Yeah,” she said in confusion, “I saw him this morning. I spotted him in the market but there was a big rush because some shooting started downtown, and I lost track of him. I’ve been trying to find him all day. I came here, they said his name was in the guest book, and instead I find you. Why use his name?”

“Because dropping my name seems to be a good way to get shot at lately.” Parker sighed and holstered his pistol, moving to take a seat at the foot of the bed. “Look, I’m really sorry about your place. If I had know you’d get dragged into it, I wouldn’t have stayed there.”

For a moment, Sal looked at him silently. When she realized he was not being sarcastic or witty, that there was no snappy comeback, her eyes softened. “That’s… Sweet of you to say. I’ve moved around a lot in my life-- I’ll get used to it. Sorry I hit you-- I just needed someone to blame, I guess.”

“I understand.”

“So,” she said, “You don’t know where Reuben is, then?”

“No. We got split up during an attack two days ago. If he got in this morning, he made decent time in the travel. Means he probably wasn’t hurt.”

“What about you? The bartender said you just checked in a few hours ago-- what took you so long?”

“I took a few knocks. Nothing serious.” Sal gave him an unconvinced look, but said nothing further. Parker glanced up to her and went on to say, “Why did you come to Shepherdsville? Why not just another place in Constitution?”

“I didn’t know if it was safe there. I had heard you and Laura talking one night about the delivery and she mentioned Shepherdsville, so I figured I’d have the best luck finding the two of you here. Turns our I was right.”

“Eavesdropping,” Parker remarked. “Figures.”

At first, Sal thought he was being insulting, but Parker grinned and she couldn’t help but do the same. Parker felt comfortable in knowing that maybe Reuben was not his only friend. He watched Sal for a moment as she glanced around the room, taking in her surroundings; he noted the way she monitored the things around her, just like he did. He recorded her mannerisms in his head like a scientist would an experiment for later study. The way she moved might offer insight about her personality, about things he could not learn otherwise. And it was fair to say that she was easy to watch; as Parker observed her for a brief moment, he realized just how attracted to her he was, and decided to cut himself off at the start. He had enough on his mind without adding relationship emotions to it.

Deciding to shift gears to keep his mind straight, Parker said, “Tell me how you survived the trip.”

Sal looked up at him, and smiled.

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 Post subject: Re: ZPAW
PostPosted: Fri Aug 26, 2011 10:37 pm 
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 Post subject: Re: ZPAW
PostPosted: Sat Aug 27, 2011 6:48 pm 
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CHAPTER 8

“I used to be in the militia, you know,” she said as she took a sip from her fresh goblet of wine. “In fact I was a rising star in the forces. I used to outshoot the marksmen on rifle exams and outscore the eggheads on the written tests.”

Parker looked impressed. He folded his arms and leaned back against the headrest of the bed. “Really? I can’t picture you doing fighting drills.”

“I did them like I invented them,” she said plainly. “When I had a few years of militia service behind me, I signed up for Scout classes. I nailed the preliminary exams and flew right into training. My CO said I was a prodigy.”

There was a pause, and Parker watched as her eyes fell away. She took a drink of the wine, and eventually Parker broke the silence. “So what happened?”

“This happened.” Sal lifted her shirt above her stomach, revealing a massive scarred dimple just above her naval. Her otherwise flat stomach concaved with a downward accent, leaving an indented scar in the shape of a large teardrop. Parker looked at it and his brows furrowed with concern. “I was on the range testing out one of the new bullpup sniper rifles they brought in. I couldn’t get the scope zeroed, so I handed it off to my spotter to see if he could do better. When I handed it to him, he squeezed the trigger. Since he was behind me, the barrel happened to pass over my body when I gave it to him, and the round tore through me. I don’t remember very much about it.”

“I can’t believe you survived that,” Parker said in dismay.

“If it happened anywhere else, I wouldn’t have. But there were some very good combat medics there to keep me taped shut until the surgeons could do their thing. Anyway, I was expelled from Scout school for failing to clear my weapon and failing to follow safety protocols, and he was dismissed from the service completely for pulling the trigger. It was a dark day for me.”

As she lowered her shirt, Parker looked back up to her and sighed. “That must have been horrible.”

“It was. But after a lot of physical therapy, I recovered. Reuben was there the whole time, making sure I was taken care of. He took leave from work just to baby-sit me.”

“So that’s where you got your survival know-how. Where did you meet Reuben?”

Sal laughed lightly and lifted a hand to her forehead. “I arrested him, actually. When I was still in the militia, I took him in for starting up a bar brawl. He wouldn’t pay the fine. Eventually he convinced me to drop it, and what can I say? I was charmed. Actually, after I recovered from my injury, I joined the LRA for a while.”

Parker looked on in surprise, yet again. “You were a Runner?”

“For a while, yeah. Reuben and I did some jobs together. But things got complicated between us and I didn’t like being forced to move around so much, so I left that-- and him-- behind.”

Parker nodded softly, but chose to keep from asking what happened between them. It was not his business. “So what happened when you returned home the other night? What did you do from there?”

Sal took another drink, setting the emptied wooden goblet on the nightstand. “I grabbed my go-bag from the rear cellar, snatched my guns from the bedroom and got the hell out of there. The gate watch told me there was a horde forming in the west, so I stayed north enough to get around it.”

“That same horde ambushed us when we were half-way here.” Parker commented. “We got stopped by a couple of Scouts. Reuben went to go talk to them and I played overwatch. The undead came by the dozens and I got pushed east. If Reuben made it here, I want to know what happened to the Scouts.”

“Wow,” Sal uttered. “You’re lucky to be alive. What did the Scouts want?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to ask Reuben.” Parker sighed and looked toward the window. In the brief pause in their conversation, the sound of gunshots could be heard downtown. The fighting must have started up again. “What about when you arrived here?”

“That was last night. I showed up, they opened the gate, I signed in, and got a room. Why?”

“When I came in earlier, the outer portcullis was open. I came into the gatehouse to find three militiamen dead. It looked like they shot each other.”

Sal fell quiet, and looked him blankly in the eyes. “Tell me you’re joking.”

“No. I lowered the portcullis and snuck in through the side doors. I didn’t call it in because I didn’t want to be implicated.”

“Those men are dead, Parker,” she said in frustration, “and calling it in is what’s right, whether or not it makes you look bad.”

“I can’t risk that kind of exposure right now. I need to keep my head low and my name out of people’s ears, or someone might come shoot up this place just like they did yours.”

Sal’s eyes trailed away. She knew he was right.

“Besides, who would investigate? There aren’t even any militiamen on the walls right now because everyone is so wrapped up in those riots, or whatever they are,” Parker added.

“Then we’ll investigate,” she said.

Parker blinked, and replied, “Woah, I’ve got a very expensive package to deliver. I can’t run around solving crimes right now.”

“Where is your package headed?”

“The address is 122 Dale Avenue. You know where it is?”

Again, Sal quieted for a moment. She let out a heavy breath before saying, “Yeah, I know where it is. Just follow the gunshots.” Parker said nothing, and so she elaborated. “That’s the address to the medical facility, Parker. The one that’s under siege right now-- it’s a three-way war between the militia, the local gangs and the facility security.”

Parker closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. “Well that’s fucking fantastic.”

“On the bright side, looks like you’ve got some spare time while you wait for everyone over there to die. There are three good men dead in that gatehouse and you and I are going to find out why.”

Parker could not help but be impressed by her persuasive skills. He leaned forward and rubbed his eyes, replying, “Alright, fine. I’ll help you figure out what happened if you’ll help me get into that facility somehow. Deal?”

Sal stood and replied, “Deal. I know where to start.”

Pushing off the bed, Parker moved toward his gear with a heavy exhale. “Good, because I sure as hell don’t.”

The two prepared to leave, and moments later they were walking down the dimly-lit midnight streets. Parker brought with him his chest rig and his carbine; normally he may have considered leaving it behind, but with all that had happened lately he thought that would be foolish. Sal brought with her a small backpack and a pistol on her right thigh.

When they came to the gatehouse, Sal led him back to the door he had sneaked through, and pulled it open to step into the hallway. It was still quiet and empty. The two of them moved down the hall toward the gates, but turned before reaching the door that led into the gatehouse. With another turn, Sal opened a door that led to a small office. The two stepped in and she closed the door behind them.

“Is that what I think it is?” Parker asked.

“Yeah, it probably is,” Sal said, moving over to the desk. She sat down, peering at the large black monitor before her. “Most people don’t know the militia uses computers for security. It’s better that way. A lot of people are afraid of this technology.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a working computer before,” Parker said, his tone dripping with intrigue.

“This is a relatively cheap one, it looks like. The militia here probably can’t afford better.” She punched a few keys with lithe and grace, and Parker watched in admiration. The screen flickered on and a white cursor appeared over a black backdrop. “Damn,” she remarked, “they don’t even have a real operating system. Probably couldn’t afford that either.”

She began to type on the keyboard, her fingers flying swiftly from key to key. Parker could not imagine being so quick with that kind of technology. Soon, another screen popped up on the monitor, and Sal used the arrow keys to make a selection of the things displayed onscreen. Parker gleaned that it was the security logs of the gatehouse. Prior to this experience, he had no idea the gatehouses were filmed.

“Here it is,” she stated, and the grainy image of the gatehouse filling the screen.

There was no sound, just a flickering black and white image of a man that appeared to be a Runner standing in the gatehouse. Three men emerged in the typical fashion; two with rifles, one with a clipboard. They stood for a moment, presumably speaking back and forth, before all of them approached each other. The Runner leaned over and pointed at something on the clipboard-- everyone leaned in. As they did, he jerked his left elbow into one of the soldiers’ face. The Runner swiftly grabbed the stunned man and struck him again in the temple with his elbow, rendering him seemingly unconscious. Wrapping his arm around the man’s neck, he stood behind him and snatched up the rifle that hung over the soldier’s chest. By now the other two men had taken arms, but had no shot. The man with the clipboard tossed it down and drew his sidearm, and just as he did so, the Runner fired. Three shots tore through the officer’s chest, and four through the other soldier. As the two men fell, the Runner dropped the unconscious man only to move over and grab the pistol, then putting a single round into the still-living soldier’s head. He discarded the weapon moved to the exterior gate, pulling the winch to open it. Then he moved to the lever for the interior gate, but stopped. The man cast a look over his shoulder, before dashing to one of the corpses to grab the keys and bolting through the side door.

“What the hell is going on?” Sal murmured.

A moment later, three men came running into the gatehouse through the open portcullis. Two of them leapt over the bodies and sprinted through the side door. One stopped and knelt by the dead men.

“That’s Reuben,” Parker gasped. “What the fuck is he doing?”

“My God, it is.” Sal paused a moment and observed Reuben’s actions before saying, “It looks like he’s just looking over the bodies.”

“He can’t be involved in this.” Although Parker said it as a statement, it sounded more like a question.

“No, no way. He was probably chasing that son of a bitch.”

Reuben stood from the bodies and ran through the side door.

“Yeah, he had to be. Those other two men-- they were the Scout, and probably his spotter, that we met in the wilds. The three of them must have traveled together.”

“Scouts and Runners traveling together. Never thought I’d see the day.”

Parker pushed away from the computer, and sighed. “Well, now we know what happened. These militiamen were slaughtered by some highly-trained Runner with an unknown and probably evil agenda. Unfortunately just about everyone in Shepherdsville has an unknown and probably evil agenda, so what are we gonna do about this?”

“I don’t know,” Sal said, standing from the chair and shutting the computer down. “But we can’t do anything else here. Let’s go.”

The two emerged into the streets, Sal’s expression contemplative and Parker’s destitute. The sullen expression on his face did not go unnoticed by the intuitive woman, who turned and asked, “What’s wrong?”

Parker stoutly shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Bullshit. It’s more obvious than you think. Spill.”

Letting out a defeated sigh, Parker said, “That guy that took out those soldiers-- what if he’s here for me? He has to be.”

“How do you figure?”

“There are a lot of bad-asses in Shepherdsville, Parker. It’s a tough town. The world doesn’t revolve around you.”

“Seems like it has lately,” Parker commented. “Everywhere I go, the shit hits the fan and someone gets killed because of that damn package.”

Sal stepped in front of him to get the door to the Queen’s Council. Parker brushed her hand away from the door and pulled it open for her. A smile crossed Sal’s lips, and she replied, “It must be something worth dying for.”

“Nothing is worth dying for.”

“Awfully bold words for such a good man,” Sal joked. “There are things worth dying for, and killing for. Survival, happiness, shit like that.”

“What could possibly fit in a ten inch box that would ruin someone’s happiness or chances for survival?” Parker asked, moving through the tavern.

They began up the stairs, and Sal shrugged. “Who knows? It must be something that threatens to ruin the people that are coming after you. Something incriminating, maybe. Something that would upset some powerful people.”

Parker took that in and thought for a moment. He got the feeling she was on the right track. “Still, it doesn’t change the fact that everywhere I go, someone gets killed over it. It has to stop.” Parker opened the door to his room, and Sal stepped in before him.

“Then deliver it,” she said. “As soon as the gunfire stops, I’ll take you through the alleys and get you right to the medical facility. After that, it’s up to you.”

Setting his rifle against his pack near the window, Parker nodded to her before taking off his chest rig. He opened the window and sighed, hearing the echoing cracks of gunfire across the city. “They’re not even slowing down out there,” he commented.

“War is a fulltime job.” She sighed and took a seat on the bed, rubbing her forehead. “I remember when Reuben fought at E-Town. I thought he’d be gone a couple days-- he didn’t come back for a month.” She chuckled lightly and shook her head, adding, “I was naïve, I guess.”

“Reuben fought at Elizabethtown?” Parker said, turning to her. “I was there. I fought, too.”

“Yeah, I remember Reuben telling me that all of the Runners in the area came in to help push the undead from the city. A lot of good men died there.”

Parker set his gaze back to the window. A lot of good men indeed. “What happened to the two of you, anyway?” he inquired, his eyes turning to her once more.

Suddenly nervous, she shifted slightly in her seat and cleared her throat. “Well,” she began, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it.” Parker quirked a brow, intrigued. “See, he and I are two very different people, but we made a good match. But Reuben was just… Greedy. He wanted everything. He wanted me, he wanted money, he wanted to fight, he wanted to roam. What was I supposed to do? He loved his life, and I couldn’t add much to it. We stuck it out for a long time, but eventually things were just too painful and too complicated, and we agreed it was better to split.”

“I’m sorry,” Parker said sympathetically. His facial expression told her that he really meant it, that it was more than just a friendly sentiment.

“Don’t be,” she said dismissively. “What I lost in a lover, I gained in a friend. Reuben and I have honestly become much closer since then. It’s easier to get to know someone without the pressure of a relationship.”

“Sometimes that pressure is the best motivation to get to know someone,” Parker commented.

Sal watched him for a moment, before a wry grin came over her face. “You don’t say,” she commented, before standing up. “I just realized I’m not drinking. That’s not gonna work out. I’ll be back, with booze. You want anything?”

A breath nearly left Parker’s lips to decline, but he stopped and let out an exhale. The gunfire outside was steady as ever. Locking his jaw in contemplation, he looked up to her and nodded. “Yeah, sure. I’ll have whatever you’re having.”

Sal kept that grin of hers, and turned to leave. Parker was left to his thoughts. What was the sudden change in her demeanor? Was she flirting? Just playful in a friendly way? Seconds after she left, he regretted his decision to have a drink. It was a terrible idea, he told himself, to drink when things were the way they were. He tried so hard to care, doing all he could to berate himself, but he could not make himself reconsider drinking. He realized it was because he had not had a way to unwind in days. The pressure was too much and he was buckling, but a relaxing night with alcohol and a friend would do him well. Maybe it would help keep him going.

When Sal returned, Parker was smiling. She smiled too, lifting a dark bottle in her left hand and two wooden goblets in her right. “Elk Grove,” she said, moving over to him. “It’s a ‘76, fifteen years on the shelf. Quite a treat.”

“Wow,” Parker remarked. “How did you get that?”

“You know the barkeep downstairs? Ephram?” Parker nodded, gleaning about whom she was speaking. “I showed him my tits.”

Parker laughed, as did she, as she unscrewed the cap and popped the cork out along with it. He couldn’t help but wonder if she really had done what she said-- aged wine was a true rarity. Soon his cup was filled with a deep cherry red wine, the refined aroma of blackberries and alcohol. It had been a long time since he really enjoyed alcohol, and even longer since he had found an alcohol worth enjoying; with high hopes, he lifted the cup to click against hers, before taking a sip. He was pleasantly surprised.

“Wow,” he commented, lowering the goblet. “Your tits really paid off.”

She shoved him with a light laugh, and he smiled bright. “You’re suddenly in a good mood,” she commented. “You haven’t cracked wise all night.”

“It’s nice to unwind a bit. I’ve been so uptight lately, it’s good to do something other than stress or run or fight.”

Sal watched him for a moment, and as he looked up, he saw her eyes observing him the way he had observed her several times before. For a moment, they sat there quietly, watching each other, and the longer it went on, the more Parker felt like it was more than just a staring contest. Nervous and awkward, he looked away and took another drink of the wine. Sal looked elsewhere as well.

“Tonight is my night to relax,” Parker declared. “It’s a good time for it.”

“Every night is a good time for it,” Sal said with that clever smile of hers.


Parker rolled over in his bed, his hand striking a hard object, waking him. He blinked his eyes open and looked down to see the empty wine bottle beneath his hand, and let out a soft groan. Glancing over, he saw Sal laying beneath the covers, cradling his arm. She wore nothing but the sheet they lied beneath. Swallowing, he struggled to formulate an explanation. He looked to the window to see the dark sky, and resolved that he was dreaming.

The glass of the window suddenly shattered. Shards flew inward and struck him, shortly before he was spontaneously crushed with some invisible force that swept both his body and Sal’s off the bed and onto the glass-covered floor. His head struck the carpet in a daze, and as he tried to understand what happened, the entire sky lit up outside, flashing through the window.

Then came the sound. Another force smashed into him; it felt like someone slammed the world’s largest drum right next to his body. He felt the vibrations tear through his uncovered body with such force that it made it hard to breath, hard to think, hard to see. He felt his head pounding and heard nothing else after that but the ringing of his ears, coupled with the muddled mute that one would hear inside a sea shell or a discarded can. When his vision straightened, he tilted his head to see Sal sitting up from the floor, face shocked and dazed.

Grit fell from the ceiling. The world gradually came back into realism, and Parker felt the pain from the crash. He knew now that he was not dreaming. It was a struggle to slowly lift, trying to sit up; the noise of the world rolled into his ears. Screams, shouts, and the sound of an inferno touched his ears, and smell of fire filled his nostrils.

He looked to the window to see Sal, still unclothed, peering through it into the street. His head still spinning, he took a moment to catch his breath, unable to keep from marveling at her slender, petite frame and desirable body. Snapping back to the confusion of the situation, he said in slurred speech, “What happened?”

Sal stammered, but her head turned quickly to him. “Explosion” was the only word he could make out.

“Where?” he demanded, weakly climbing to his feet. At first, he wondered if he was drunk, but he did not recall having that much to drink; he reasoned that he was just in a daze from the shockwave.

Sal looked back out the window, saying nothing. Making his way to her, he placed one hand on the window frame and the other on her shoulder, peering into the illuminated night. Flames and rubble were cast everywhere; people ran through the streets to get deeper into town. Parker narrowed his eyes to peer down the street, where he identified ground zero of the explosion.

A massive chunk of the city’s wall had been reduced to singed rubble, and Parker knew what came next.

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CHAPTER 9

Along the streets of Shepherdsville, small red lights flickered on. Every ten feet, imbedded in the ground along the edges of the road, the red lights illuminated. Along the inside of the city walls, large spotlights burned brightly, some pointed into the city and some into the wilderness around it. Only a few hours before sunrise, the dark city came to life in a flash. In a single moment, the war downtown stopped and all able-bodied militiamen were headed to the wall. Among them was every Runner and Scout within the city, and anyone willing and capable of defending the city.

Parker rushed down the red-lit street, freshly dressed and rapidly aware of what was going on. Neither of them spoke a word about the night prior, but they had no time to concern themselves with it. As soon as he and Sal realized what had happened, they had thrown on clothes and equipped their fighting gear, wasting no time in bolting through the door. Parker had dressed in snug cargo pants and a long-sleeve collared shirt in earth-tone colors, with his chest rig and combat belt equipped. He swapped his magazines to full-metal jacket, knowing the undead would soon be there to take advantage of the broken wall. Sal had donned similar attire, with an AR-15 and a chest rig of her own. Several other men from the tavern followed them out of the tavern; Parker was grateful to see to many responding to the threat.

The gunfire deep in the city had all but stopped. The militia had undoubtedly retreated to respond to the much greater threat while the other parties in the firefight were probably fortifying or fleeing town. Parker could already see militiamen forming on and around the broken wall ahead, and he imagined it would only be a short time before the militia in its entirety had responded to the breach in the city’s security. With them would come any responsible man that could fight, including Runners within the city.

Side by side, Parker and Sal reached the group of warriors that had congregated near the rip in the wall. There was no organization yet, save for the front line of militiamen just on the outside of the wall; using large stones left from the wall, they were building barriers to make it more difficult for the undead to get through. The tops of the walls were again populated by the militia, armed with heavier weaponry such as belt-fed machine guns and long-engagement sniper rifles.

Anxious, Parker pulled the charging handle on his AR-15, chambering a round. At that time, amidst the noise of the crowd, he distinctly heard his name called.

“Parker!”

Turning to look in the direction from which it had come, Parker scanned the faces of the strangers nearby before spotting an image that brought a smile to his face: Reuben running toward him, dodging the others in the crowd. Sal turned to see him as well. She and Parker exchanged uncertain looks, which left Parker satisfied that he was not the only one vexed about the night they shared. He felt a cringe of guilt as he realized how his actions might hurt Reuben.

“God damn, it’s about fucking time I found you,” Reuben said as he came closer. He thrust his hand into Parker’s and they shook, before slamming chests together for a fast embrace. The two laughed lightly, but it quickly died as they got to business.

“Parker, there’s so much I have to tell you,” Reuben started.

“I could say the same.”

“No, Parker, you need to hear me before anything else happens. And you have to trust me completely here, okay?” Parker cast him an uneasy look, but Reuben continued. “We can’t fight here today. We have to get your package delivered, and we have to do it right now, while there’s a break in the war back there at the facility.”

If nothing else, Parker was relieved that Reuben was up to speed on what was going on in the city. Still, his words bothered him. “Reuben, we have to fight here. There’s no choice in it. They need every single person here to--”

“What you have is more important!” Reuben exclaimed, grabbing Parker by the shoulders. “I’m telling you, buddy, you have to trust me, and we have to go right now.”

Parker pushed Reuben’s hands away and said, “How the hell do you know what I’ve got? How would you know what’s in that box?”

“Damn it, Parker! Just trust me!” Reuben demanded.

“No.” Parker stepped away from him, pointing to the wall. “That right there is the most important thing in the world right now. You were at Elizabethtown, Reuben-- don’t you remember what it was like? All of those people, gone so quickly-- you want that here, too?”

“You’re not Jesus Christ!” Reuben shouted in anger. “You weren’t sent here to save Shepherdsville from damnation! You’re not here to sacrifice yourself for the good of man!” The both of them took a deep breath, before Reuben went on to say in a calm voice, “Parker, I can’t explain here, but that package can change all of this. It can change the world, make humanity stronger again. The militia here is stronger than in E-Town, and they can handle a breach. But us, we need to do this. And we need to do it right now. Please.”

Parker gritted his teeth, looking at Rueben before turning his eyes to the breach. He noted that there were indeed more militiamen here than there had been in Elizabethtown, despite it being a smaller city. He glanced to Sal, who gave him a silently reassuring look. “Fine,” he agreed with a sigh, “but you better explain on the way.”

Reuben nodded quickly and turned away. “Thank God. Go grab your package and meet me by the entrance to the industrial district. I have to find the Scouts.”

Reuben took off, and Parker did as well with Sal short behind. The two of them rushed back to the Queen’s Council and burst through the door, moving quickly through the deserted tavern and up the stairs to Parker’s room. Parker immediately went into the bathroom and knelt down by the bathtub, reaching his arm underneath of it. He had stashed the package in the corner, completely concealed from view by the bathtub and difficult to reach. Grasping the strap of the bag, he pulled it out and stood. The package was inside, still safe.

Looking to Sal, Parker realized they might not get another chance to talk. “What happened last night?” he said suddenly.

She looked up at him and shifted nervously, saying, “We had a lot to drink.”

“I’m not saying I don’t remember. I’m asking what it means.”

Sal paused, and turned toward the window. “I guess I hadn’t thought that far yet.”

“Now is a good time,” Parker stated. “As good as it’s going to get, anyway.”

“I don’t have an answer, Parker. I’m sorry.” Sal fell quiet as Parker began for the door, but she spoke before he reached it, saying, “What about you? What do you want it to mean?”

Parker had moved to his bag to retrieve a few supplies, but when she spoke, he stopped, hesitated, and cleared his throat. “Maybe it wasn’t the most responsible way to get started, but I don’t want it to be just one night. There was more to last night that just wine.” After grabbing a modular section of his pack, designed as an emergency sustenance bag in a very small package, he stood and moved away from his ruck. With a disdainful look, he opened the door and stepped out, before adding over his shoulder, “For me, anyway.”

He hoped to hear a ‘me too’ from Sal, but she said nothing. When Parker reached the bottom of the stairs, he heard her following behind him, and let out a soft sigh; he desperately hoped that he had not just made things awkward between them.

With no further words, the two returned to the streets and headed toward the gate that led deeper into the city.


When Parker saw Reuben standing with the two Scouts near the gateway, he took note of the way Reuben oriented himself toward them. The two Scouts hardly seemed to notice that Reuben often left his back to them, a sign that there was trust between them. Parker assumed this was because of whatever they went through between and the current activity. Hopefully it was indicative of their character, that they were trustworthy, rather than being indicative of Reuben’s character, that he was naïve to trust them. Parker supposed that he would know which in due time.

When the two groups came close enough, Reuben stepped forward and introduced them all. “This is Noric,” he said, motioning to the Scout, before pointing to the spotter and saying, “and this is Drew.” He then turned to the Scouts and said, “This is Parker and Sal.”

“It’s about time we meet,” said Noric, offering his hand to Parker, who reluctantly shook it.

“Right,” Parker said passively. “Are we going, then?”

“You bet,” Reuben said. He began through the gate, and soon the group of five was moving hastily down the streets toward the industrial district. Just as they passed through the gate, they heard gunfire from the walls. Parker swallowed, knowing the undead had now begun to assault the walls, drawn by the deafening explosion. He felt a sting of unshakable guilt as he thought about the fight at the walls and how far from it he was. Every death would be, in a small way, partially his fault. Although it was a negligible level of responsibility, and one could easily argue that one more Runner would make no difference, the fact that he was not there assisting nagged him.

“You have some explaining to do,” reminded Parker.

Reuben cast him a nod. “It’s time you learn what’s in that little box of yours, Parker.”

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My Trunk Bag/GHB/BOB for a Tight Budget


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