“One of the windows goes down,” he notes and reach out a foot to tap him in the ankle. It’s code for, “Don’t be ridiculous, it’s okay.”
“Do you think we’ll have to sleep on the train, tonight?” I ask him and Zel responds with a non-committal grunt. “Well yes, it doesn’t matter,” I continue, “but I was just wondering if I should get comfortable for the trip or not. No point unpacking the bed roll for a quick trip.”
“Unpack it,” Zel mumbles as he considers the slant of the sunlight breaking in through the boarded-up windows. “These idiots are taking too long anyway.” He’s right, we don’t depart the station for another hour and I make use of the time to familiarize myself with the rest of the cars, and their passengers.
I only know one of the other groups and they’re an Expeditionary Force, not a scouting team. Their leader—an older man with flecks of red desperately hanging on in his grey, close-cropped beard—tells me there have been some skirmishes up at the Boobs (no, I didn’t name them, but the nuclear power plant that supplies us with our electricity does look, absurdly, like a set of giant, white tits) and everyone knows that if we lose control of that installation we lose a LOT of our current capability. I, personally, have grown fond of the ability to read at night, tucked safely in my 22nd story apartment, and I growl to hear that raiders are harassing our assets again.
“How many fell in the last skirmish?” I ask quietly and the number is disheartening. The facility’s defenses are sound, but the fact that the damn raiders KEEP COMING isn’t a good sign.
“Don’t worry Eilidh,” the gruff old man musses my hair and I’m glad I keep the auburn mop to within inches of my skull, “me and m’boys can handle it.” All these years and he still hasn’t lost that back-hills accent that used to fill the plains cities. I feel Zel slide up behind me and the knee that brushes the back of my thigh tells me it’s time to board the train. I nod to Grizzly and his group before following the solid, black wall of Zel’s back to our car, as the train fires up and starts to growl its way down the track. Before our car clears the platform we’ve got the doors shut and locked, the familiar twists of crisscrossing twine flowing as easily between us and someone passing bread down the length of a table.
“Troubles” Zel asks as he bends down, cupping his hands together.
“Raiders at the Station,” I reply stepping into the cup of his hands and he grunts as he lifts me, an affirmative, as I slide through the opening in the roof. I reach down and my long-arm is placed in my hands and as I pull it through the small hole I check to make sure that it’s on safe.
“I’m down,” Zel murmurs and I feel a gentle pressure against the calf of my dangling leg before he moves into the most protected corner of the car to sleep. Zel doesn’t really NEED sleep, but when he has a chance he’ll squirrel away a few hours so that he can stand a night’s watch. I am grateful for it, the older I get the more I seem to need sleep, but the less I can manage to get.
When the train passes outside of the city proper I flick off the safety and start sighting the rooftops with my rifle. I sweep from side to side, noting that Grizzly’s slimmest companion is manning the top of his car and a youth in mottled greys and blacks is lightly hopping up and down the train, navigating the battered rooftops like a cat.
“You can rest easy, Ma’am,” the boy sighs, his voice so soft I feel no need to scold him, “we know what we’re doing.”
“Indeed,” I reply, “I’ll go back down in a minute.” Every seasoned soldier knows that the most risky part of any journey is either the start or the end, and an extra show of force has foiled more than one attempted raid. The youth nods, continuing on down the line, and by the time he makes his way back to me, Grizzly’s companion has slid back down into his own car. “Will we be overnighting at the terminal?” I murmur and the boy nods, pausing for only a moment before returning to his sentry. I clip my rifle to my sling, ease myself back down into the car, and land as quietly as I can…but not quietly enough.
Zel’s eyes snap open and I hear the distinctive ffftzwp of his gloves sliding the safety off his sidearm. The minute he registers my presence that ffftzwp happens again and the ice-blue lights of his eyes are again shuttered as he returns to sleep as quickly as he came out of it. I envy his ability to sleep so easily and wake so readily, but there’s no questioning it. Instead I go to my pack, pull out my knives, my Blade and my whetstone, and sit down on the uncomfortable, molded plastic bench that was built to cradle some slight thing in comfortable clothes, not a survivor dressed in uniform and plates.
The shhck, shhck of the blades against the stone does not disturb my companion; it’s a comfortable noise that means we’re safe and secure enough to go about the boring business of maintenance. I don’t carry as many blades as some but we all carry blades. After all, blades don’t make noise—or, if you prefer—blades don’t make as much noise. The sun goes down before we reach the terminal and I sigh. I was hoping to get off this rust-bucket to do my routine but instead I have to compensate for the rough floor, the confines of the space and the rickety, side-to-side motion of the train to do my stretches.
Stripping down to my white silks, I carefully lay my mottled clothing across the prefab seats before unlacing my boots. I do NOT remove my socks, hoping that the two layers will protect my feet from whatever nasty debris coats the floor. Sighing, I stand tall and then start moving through asanas, each more complex than the one before. By the time I get to a modified raven, I’m sweating clean through my silks and more than a little grateful that my partner is fast asleep. Not that Zel would ever do anything, but everyone knows that getting sexually interested in your partner is a sure recipe for disaster down the line.
I finish just as the train starts its slow deceleration and quickly strip my underthings, towel off, and get dressed. Zel’s foot twitches and I freeze—involuntary movement means he’s slept deeper than usual and is more likely to react badly if he’s not allowed to wake in his own time—but the danger passes as he extends both arms over his head before pushing himself to his feet.
“Food?” he grumbles and I shake my head, no. “Damn,” Zel mumbles before unfastening a button on his utility vest and handing me a crackling package. It’s the good stuff, actual survival rations and not some high-fructose-crap masquerading as an energy supplement. I arch an eyebrow, are you sure? and he replies with a stiff nod. Chewing slowly, we’re still finished before the train comes to a complete halt and we unseal the doors.
I see Grizzly and his group head toward some waiting busses and we nod at each other before his back’s to me and Zel. Zel moves toward the information kiosk that has been transformed into the central command—a smart decision given that it has roll-down steel shutters incase the perimeter is breached—and picks up the regional maps that are crucial for the success of our mission.
“Lights out in five minutes, lights out in five,” a quiet voice whispers across the station as I step out of the restrooms. Last working toilet for who knows how long and they’ve let the damn soap run out…but that’s why I have my own gear. I move back toward our car and Zel murmurs,
“They’re returning at nine,” which lets me know that I don’ t have to worry about getting up before dawn, as we’d planned.
“You spoil me,” I sigh and the right corner of his mouth quirks in a familiar grin, before being replaced by his usual, stony visage. I slide the doors shut and fasten them with a single line of twine (that way Zel can cut it open if there’s an emergency but any undead will be halted long enough for me to get out my Blade) before unwrapping the bedroll next to our gear and using my pack as a pillow of sorts.
“Lights out, lights out,” the automated message is almost drowned out by the sound of Zel climbing to the roof of the train, but for such a large man he’s as silent as a mongoose stalking a cobra. I allow myself a tiny luxury and kick my boots off before sliding into the oversized sleeping bag, but I still have my pistol in my hand and a foot long blade across my boots.