When people started shouting, “It’s the End of Days!” I laughed. Horror upon horror, the world won’t end.
Only people will.
“Do you have all your gear?” he growls, and I nod. Voice a gravelly rumble, it barely reaches my ears before it’s swept away by the wind, but that’s for the best. It doesn’t do anyone any good to make noise anymore. Zel is a good man—a harsh man, but fair—and I am grateful to be by his side.
“Did you bring your Filter?” I whisper, knowing that even as meticulous as the man is, he almost invariably forgets his water gear. He thumbs the right side of his belt and I see the distinctive bulge of his kit tied tightly to his leg. Surreptitiously, I loose a small bag from the back of my kit and stow it back under the table. Last time we had to share my kit and while volume wasn’t a problem, when I found him after four days separated he was almost dead.
Almost. I’d recognize those blazing blue eyes across a city, let alone across an alleyway. “Eilidh,” he’d croaked and I holstered my sidearm, checked the entrance to the alleyway, and rushed to his side. He drank down both my pouches and lumbered to his feet, letting me take point for once as he stumbled behind me as silently as he could.
“Your target is one of the outlying mountain towns,” the Assignor drawls, naming a place I remember made famous pies, “and you’d best be quick about it, it will start snowing there within the month.”
“Why’d you wait so long to send us, then?” Zel growls and the other man flinches before regaining his composure. “Problems clearing the road?”
“Not anymore,” the Assignor mumbles, clears his throat, and continues, “they’ve got the train up and running to the end of the line, so you won’t have to waste 2 weeks walking through the Sprawl.” I shudder, while the Sprawl might be clear of Undead, it’s still littered with corpses and Unfriendlies.
“And when we get off the train?” I mutter but the Assignor waves away my reproach with a careless flick of his too-clean hand.
“There’s an established Outpost. They’ll drive you out past the Sprawl.”
“Wonderful,” Zel rumbles and I growl my distaste as well. “Why not just air-lift us if you want to make so goddamn much noise?”
“It’s not the Unfriendlies you have to worry about, not during Harvest. So calm down, do your job, and come back safe.” It’s a familiar sentiment, rote words…before anyone goes beyond the wire they’re told to calm down, do the job, and come back safe. The phrase is comfortable, an old sweater you shrug into on a rainy day, and it does more to settle my nerves than the solid weight of the pack strapped to my hips and shoulders.
“Back soon,” I sigh and Zel grunts an affirmative. We push through the doors of the departure terminal and board the battered, single car that will carry us to the mainland. Once onboard, we work together to shove the doors closed and lash them together tightly with the twine provided.
Like many, the man driving the train doesn’t speak. The need to remain silent in order to remain alive was so great, for so long, that many people couldn’t return to the glib chatter that had filled every waking moment before the plague came. Zel is, by nature, a man of few words, and he parses those out with such exacting care that we communicate mostly through glances, brushes, and nods.
“Clear water,” he murmurs and I am shocked. As we slide across the bridge, the bay is wide and blue and unusually calm, but I didn’t expect him to comment on it. I don’t need to answer, but I want to, and the surprise of the urge silences me. Instead I lean into him—touching shoulder to shoulder—and when he leans back slightly we break away in unison.
Never before the plague did I think about where I would live. I just lived where the military told me to live, and tried to make the best of it. This place, with its near-perfect weather (early morning marine layer that burns off before noon, cooling ocean breezes that keep the inland temperature between 72 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit most days, with a clear, partly cloudy evening perfect for a light jacket) was not a bad place to be stuck when the plague locked everyone down. So I guess it’s just luck, that I was stationed here when we were told that travel beyond one’s own town was strictly forbidden, because there were MUCH worse places to be.
“Don’t,” Zel growls, and I shake myself from my reverie. “We’ve got too far to go before you can worry about any of that.”
“You’re right,” I smile, a hint of upturning at the corners of my mouth but nothing more, “and I could really go for some fresh pie.”
“Maybe if we’re lucky the town is still intact,” he replies and I am again startled by his loquaciousness. “Maybe.”
“Maybe,” I echo, and we fall silent as the train grinds to a halt in one of the switching terminals. Standing up, we shuffle off the train in single file and immediately our heads start sweeping left and right. The military used to call this “keeping your head on a swivel” and I suppose it’s still apropos, even though it’s tough to find things that swivel very well anymore. Everyone tells us we don’t have to be so paranoid anymore…that the mainland has been well cordoned off and the city is habitable again, and Undead free…but Zel and I haven’t lived as long as we have by being careless. Or wreckless. Or loud. Or inconsiderate of each other.
“Zel and Eel-lee-dee?” the woman in the tight pants and clipboard stumbles over my name and I wait until she looks up before correcting her.
“It’s just pronounced Ee-lee,”
“Your train is waiting, what took you ?”
“Last minute change of plans,” Zel growls and the woman stops glaring at me, turns on her heel, and storms down the platform. “Following?” he guffaws under his breath and I make an affirmative sound before we fall into step behind her. We move fast, and we move quiet, and when she suddenly stops to turn back and glare at us she starts when she realizes we’re right behind her.
Due to her relative youth (people started aging fast again, once “The Apocalypse” was upon us) I’m guessing she was born a few years prior to the plague and on the Island. Now she’s reveling in some safe, teenage rebellion by volunteering to work on the Mainland, all the while knowing that there’s no real danger waiting to devour her here and that as long as she stays within the wire she’ll be safe. But her Mom hems and haws when she leaves and tearfully greets her return, so she keeps at it—foolish, reckless child—because it’s providing all the attention her little heart desires.
“Yes?” Zel arches an eyebrow and she fluffs up like a sparrow before turning back to lead us to the next train. Unlike the “historic” trolley that brought us over from the island, this mainland train has been reinforced six ways from Sunday and the modified snow scoop is still being hosed clean of blood and gore from the train’s last run past the Sprawl.
“You’re in car four,” the woman-child says, ticking things off the list on her clipboard and doing her level best to ignore us, as we haven’t been hospitable. But she’s not the one going back into the Wilds, so neither Zel nor I consider her worthy of hospitality. This is business, and she treats it like play, and I wonder how much longer before her kind of insolence and disregard for the way things actually are will be the downfall of our sanctuary. “You’re allowed three ration kits,” I cover my irritated hiss by looking pointedly at my thumb and pretending I caught it in the entryway to our car, “and six Envoys.”
“You honestly think we’re going to find six strongholds in the amount of time we’re going to be out?” my companion barks and the chit actually has the gall to laugh. Not a titter, nor a muffled giggle, but a full out laugh—long and loud and exuberantly defiant—and I catch Zel’s arm just before his hand clamps down over her jaw. The woman’s eyes go wide as plates and I don’t have to look to know that Zel’s own eyes are burning with disdain. “Where do you think you are, girl?” he snarls and she squeaks before running off toward a pair of uniformed men headed our way.
“I’ll handle this,” I murmur to Zel and I step in front of him. I’m not slight—at five foot nine inches and 190 lbs I’ve never been a small woman, but Zel makes me feel tiny with his massive bulk. His muscles seem to feed upon each other, rolling over his bones like snakes in a death match each time he clenches—and releases—his grizzly-bear paws. “Problem, lads?” I ask the youths (everyone stationed here is a youth and I have to wonder if that’s because all the adults are out doing the real work, or because they’re all huddled on the island, pretending that life’s getting better and normality can be restored) and as I step out from Zel’s protective range they shrink back. Obviously, they’ve under-estimated my own stature, having nothing to compare it to besides Zel at a glance.
“Your partner scared the coordinator,”
“Your coordinator scared my partner,” I pause a moment, to let the idea sink in. “I know you haven’t been beyond the wall, son,” the boy opens his mouth and his buddy elbows him in the ribs—Outlander, that one—so I can finish, “and my partner doesn’t scare easy. So get your girlfriend,” I snarl the word, hating the infantile sound of it on my tongue, “to keep her noises in the bedroom and you won’t have this problem again.” The youth blushes beet-red and his friend hauls him off before his sputtering can turn into words I won’t abide. It’s not that I hate the young ones, but I hate idiocy in all its forms, and as an established Scout I don’t have to take shit from any of these lackeys.
“We good?” Zel asks and I smile, ducking my head before shoving past him into the train. The rest of the passengers filter into their assigned cars as we store our gear, and Zel pushes up into the top-hatch, grunting when he can only get one shoulder and his head through it.