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Rated: 13+ · Campfire Creative · Appendix · Thriller/Suspense · #2041408
It's the end of the world as you know it. Do you feel fine?
[Introduction] “I've reached the point where I hardly care whether I live or die. The world will keep on turning without me, I can't do anything to change events anyway.” -Anne Frank


It was just a typical Tuesday. At least, that's what you told yourself. It started like any day would. But then, you turn on the television to sights of horror. Murders. Many murders...


“Fear not death for the sooner we die, the longer we shall be immortal.”
-Benjamin Franklin


Every channel on the television is talking about a "war that will end mankind." All of the world's powers have clashed in a war over a mysterious new substance. Not much information on the new substance is known, but it is claimed to have power a hundred times greater than oil and similar products. It also possesses a high nuclear reaction making it very lethal. Nations have turned the world into a slaughterhouse in hopes of eliminating rival nations from obtaining this new substance. Most recently, America has been invaded by multiple nations...


“Death is Peaceful, Life is Harder”
-Stephenie Meyer


You look out your window and see that people have already gone crazy. Houses are being broken into and cars destroyed. Explosions go off in the distance. There are no zombies, no monsters, and this is no dream. You grab anything personal and run out, hoping that maybe, just maybe, you can survive the demise of mankind.


“Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
-Ernest Hemingway


*This story contains graphic images. Reader discretion is advised.*

Rules to survival...

1. Make your addition within two days.
2. No man is an island. Team up with other survivors.
3. Survive.



Welcome to Hampton. What's left of it...
*note to participants: Please introduce yourself and use first person!*

Name: Caleb Wells



I rolled over in my bed as the sunlight poured into my bedroom. I let out a groan as I forced myself to my feet and staggered my way into the bathroom. My black hair was a mess.

Small hands reached around my waist and down my muscular tanned body. In the mirror, a smiling redhead winked at me. The redhead, Linda, was a girl I had met out at the bar last night. I pulled her in close and caressed her body. She made soft moans as my hands went up and down her soft white body. I was cut short though as a scream rung in my ears.

"Did you hear that?"

Linda simply smiled and gave me a kiss on the cheek. She leaned in and breathed softly into my left ear. "Who cares?"

Another scream echoed through the house, followed by an explosion. I let go of Linda and ran downstairs. Outside my window, was a scene that belonged in a movie... not my street. I had no idea where these people had come from, but the actions outside began escalating quickly. Houses were being broken into and people were being killed. Another explosion went off in the distance.

I felt Linda lean into me as she watched the carnage taking place. "What the hell is going on out there?"

I ignored Linda's question and turned on the television. An image of a burning corpse filled the screen. The screen then flashed to a shocked news reporter.

"We... urge everyone to remain calm. Just stay inside and do not let anyone in your house," the reporter said directly into the television. He then shuffled some papers before continuing.

I turned off the television and looked back at Linda. Her face was white and her eyes wide. She stared at me with her mouth wide open, waiting for words to come out.

"W-w-what are we supposed t-t-to do?" Linda finally asked.

"I guess we stay here." I shrugged. I walked up the stairs back to my room.

"What?! I can't stay here!" Linda protested.

"Didn't you hear the guy? He said to stay home."

"But... my daughter..."

I froze halfway up the stairs and turned to Linda. My mind needed a moment to let that sink in.

"You have a daughter?"

Linda looked around the room, trying to avoid eye contact. "Yes..."

"Then what the hell were you doing leaving her home alone?!"

"It was just for the night! I didn't think all this was going to happen. How was I supposed to know?"

I couldn't help but shake my head. I hurried up to my bedroom closet and dug around some old shirts. I was looking for... there it was. I pulled out a shoebox and set it down on my bed. Linda waited next to the bed, eyes glued to the box. I lifted the lid to reveal a shiny black 9mm. I loaded the gun and pocketed the extra ammunition. Linda raised her hand in protest.

"You have a gun? What the hell is wrong with you?"

A crash downstairs startled her. She stepped behind me as I walked slowly to my bedroom door.

"I bet you're glad I have this now," I whispered over my shoulder.
Name: Zack Dean



I've been on the road for a while now, on my way to Hampton. I've been sent there at the request of an old friend. Someone who wants me to help them out with some problems they've had for a while now. It sounds serous enough, at least from what they said in the letter they sent to me a couple of days ago.


Dear Zack, it's been a while since we last spoke hasn't it? I'm gonna keep this letter as short and simple as i can manage. I've landed myself in a bit of a rut. I've gotten myself into some crazy shit again, but then again, when am i never involved in something crazy, right?


But this time it's beyond crazy. This time i may have finally gotten myself into the deepest darkest rut of all my life. I can't talk about it in this letter, nor do i feel safe talking about it over the phone. You of all people should know why.


In any case, i need you here to help me with this problem Zack. No, scratch that. I really need you here. I can't trust anyone else to help me out with this. And i know i still owe you for all the times you saved my ass while we were still a team, so here's what i propose.


Inside this letter is a spare key to my shop, Line of Fire. It's a gun shop near the center of town. You know how i used to collect any kind of weapon i could get my hands on? Well I've got some real special ones stored somewhere inside the city that I'm willing to part ways with in exchange for your help. Though they won't be in the shop, you're more than welcome to wait for me there if I'm not around, perhaps look at some of my more...legal toys while you're there.


You're old friend, RF


PS: If for some reason I'm not there when i should be, lock the doors, grab a gun, and don't let anyone else inside.



The last part of the letter made it sound like they were being watched closely. Hell, there were hints of it all throughout the letter. And if they were willing to part ways with some of their old stuff from the good old days, then they really must be involved in some kind of real life or death shit.


Still, i pressed forward on my bike towards Hampton. The sun was rising from where i was, and i still had about 30 more miles ahead of me. But once i got there, it would be smooth sailing from there on out.


At least, that's what i thought anyway.
Name: J

I was always secretive. That part was never a mystery, but what most people wanted to know about me, more than anything else, was my name. I'd introduce myself, say my name, and the usual response was "Really?" or "Come on, what is it really?" It didn't get any easier as I got older either.
I laid awake since 4:30 in the morning watching the various people scuttle about the streets from my bedroom window. It was boring, but it did the trick. It was either that, watch TV or clean my bolt action Lee Enfield No. 4 Mk. 2. A beautiful rifle to be sure. Specially modified to be able to not only use it's typical .303 Mk VII rounds, but also a majority of rounded cylidrical objects like marbles, shaped stones and such. Helped keep the cost of ammunition down and keep myself from being suspicious.

"She'd be proud of you Constance." Constance..a strange name for the gun to be sure, but it's what she wanted. All of a sudden, an explosion of the building two blocks down from me. I knew from the sound it wasn't accidental. I rushed to my bed as I grabbed my rifle, the bag of ammunition and checked the clock for the time. 9am...that had to be off. Then again, maybe it was right.Who cared...I needed to move. If I died, what other underground assassin would drug lords, rich people and murderers under suspect hire for their dirty work? I had to hurry..get dressed, grab all my gear, get to the roof.
Name: Clara Chase

I stood in the hallway, absentmindedly scanning the doors on either side before tapping lightly on the one at the end. I saw a shadow pass behind the peephole and smiled. I always found it better to be non-threatening, not that I, with my long dark auburn curls, bright green eyes and 1940’s ruby lips would ever really be considered threatening.

The door’s multiple locks clicked on the other side, and a handsome man in his late 30’s answered. His dark hair, just beginning to gray at his temples, was disheveled, his shirt hastily buttoned. “Miss Chase?” He asked, doing his best to conceal his panic. I smiled and stepped inside, waiting to speak until he had shut and locked the door behind me.

“Congressman Reynolds, I presume?” I asked politely, presenting a lily-white hand with the same ruby colored fingernails. Of course I had done my research, I knew his face, but I liked when they were willing to admit who they were. It showed they were willing to be at least a tiny bit honest.

“Yes. What I am I going to do? She said my name, she knows.” He rubbed the back of his neck with one trembling hand, glancing back to the closed doors of the bedroom. The pupils of his blue eyes were still dilated from whatever narcotics still lingered, and he stunk of alcohol. Always a good mix.

“You’ve already done what you needed to do, Congressman. You called me.” I replied with a pleasant smile, wrapping my hair into a bun and securing it. I sat my small work bag, a leather messenger style number with a few needed items, on the small oak table and turned back to the congressman. I nodded to the other room. “Now, let’s meet the problem.”

He opened the door to the bedroom, in which sat a small woman of maybe 25, draped in a satin robe. “Hello miss.” I began, pressing a light hand against the congressman’s chest and closing the door between us.

“Who are you?” She snapped back, crossing her arms over an ample chest.

“I am Clara. I am in public relations. I am here to help you and the congressman come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

“You’re a fixer?” She asked, giving me the once over, the slightest hint of concern in her voice. In her defense, fixers were generally the low, criminal types, and I certainly didn’t have the look. I was sort of girl next door pretty, and a bit casual; in a thin cabled sweater, dark jeans and a tall, flat black boots. And at the ripe old age of 26, I was about ten years younger than the only other working “Fixer” in the city.
Unlike my competition, I wasn’t one for dealing with the mob either, at least not on contract, and that seemed to be a feature one could easily sniff out when they spent any amount of time on the streets. Of course the worst of the worst had my number, but it was the elite and their frequent trouble that kept me busy. And I always preferred the job of keeping someone out of the media over that of keeping someone out of prison. It had a bit more cash, and I was less inclined to have to shoot, heal, or escape anyone.

“Eh,” I tossed a hand nonchalantly into the air and sat in the opposite chair, “I suppose, but I kinda hate the term. And I’m not one for carrying dead hookers out of expensive hotel rooms.” I found honesty always got me a little further than lies, at least in this context. On my taxes, and to all those honorable, noble, real life types, I was just a sweet, friendly kid trying to make a name for myself in the competitive field of politics and public relations.

“Only live ones?” She smirked. I laughed, “Only the live ones.”

The walls shook and the windows shattered, knocking both of us out of our seats and onto the loudly patterned hotel carpet. I could feel the stinging warmth of a cut above my eye, dripping blood onto my cheek.

I rolled over, my ears still ringing, to catch the sight of the woman’s lifeless eyes. I reached forward, placing fingers to her bloodied neck and feeling no pulse. “Shit.” I could feel my hands trembling, and did my best to ignore it. I couldn’t do much now but get out.

I climbed onto my knees and stood, making my way quickly into the other room. The congressman was alive, curled into a ball behind a chair, his face hidden in his hands. “Are you hurt?” I asked, because clearly ‘alright’ was not the appropriate word.

“I don’t know. My ears are ringing.”

“So are mine. Get up and gather your things, the police will be here soon and you won’t want to be close to this.” I answered. I may be the picture of charm when I have work to do, but this situation had escalated.

I grabbed my bag off the table and lifted it over my head, crossing it over my chest in a way that would not block the M&P shield 9mm I carried in my waistband. The congressman wasn’t moving. “I’ll count to ten and then I’m leaving you.” I said, trying to ignore the young woman’s blood that stained my fingertips. Part of my job was repairing wounds that would be reported if they were treated at the hospital, so blood was nothing new, nothing scary. But this? Something about this made my skin crawl.

“One…Two…” Another explosion rocked the room, pushing me off my feet again as the building opposite us crumbled under its own weight. This was no accident, no one time event. Something was seriously wrong. I scrambled to my feet again and moved toward the door.

“That's it, I'm out. The woman in the other room is dead, if you would like to stay here with her, by all means do so. If you would like to get out of here, I recommend you follow me.”

I entered the hallway and began down the stairs toward the rear of the hotel. People were already in a panic, flooding out of their rooms. “Clara!” I turned to see the congressman behind me, his jacket and suitcase in his hand, “I’ll follow you.”


My eyes were glued to the hallway as time slowed to a crawl. After a slow exhale, I inched my way to the stairs. Linda's arm pulled at mine, tugging me back to my room.

"Caleb, we can escape through the window," she pleaded, her warm blue eyes begging me to follow her to safety.

I shook my head, continuing my way towards the intruders downstairs. As I tried my best to get downstairs undetected, I turned an ear in hopes of hearing the intruders. I could hear the sound of crunching chips. It seems that the intruders deemed it appropriate to raid my pantry. Those bastards...

As my foot touched the bottom step, I stretched my gun out before me and turned the corner. I had a clean shot at the back of a man's head. My finger touched the cold steel of the trigger. I could feel the sweat form on my face as I lined up the man's head in my sights...

A loud stomp echoed through the house. The man turned around, his dark eyes immediately locking onto me. A second man appeared around the corner, gun already drawn.

I wish I could remember more of what happened after that. All I can remember is painfully loud echoes of the gunshots, a few painful grunts, a scream, and then silence. Beautiful, welcomed silence.

As I wandered into the kitchen, dark pools of blood formed around both corpses. On my table sat an opened bag of tortilla chips. Who were these men? Why did they choose to break into my house?

A gasp from the stairs pulled me from my thoughts as my hand clasped my gun.

"Help... me..." a voice whispered.

I made my way back to the stairs to find Linda clutching her side. Her yellow top had a growing red stain forming around her ribs, before finally dripping onto the carpeted steps.

"Caleb... my daughter... you have to... find her", she whispered between breaths.

Linda let out one more exhale before her eyes would close one last time.

As I watched Linda die before me, a sharp pain shot through my body. I felt myself twitch and contort. Breaths exited my body is short bursts. I could feel my body heat up quickly. Desperate for air, I rushed outside and inhaled deeply, the bright golden sun beaming on my blood-stained face. An explosion nearby ruined the moment. It took a couple of spins, but I eventually found a large sign on the Hampton City Hall building.

"Refuge."
By the time i had pulled into Hampton, it was only 8:00 am. I still had plenty of time before my friend's shop opened up, but i decided to go there and wait for them until they opened up anyway. It didn't take me long to find the place, it had a great big gun on the roof being supported by the giant words Line of Fire underneath it.


"At least people know where to go for guns in this place." I said as i pulled my bike up front and turned it off. Then i got up and looked at the front door where i was greeted with a sign that said the store wouldn't be opened until 12:00 noon.


"Looks like I'll be waiting for a while." That said, i pulled the key out from my pocket and opened the door with it, closing and locking it again once i was inside. And inside there were all sorts of nice little things from survival gear to bows and arrows, some small arms fire in the display case, and barrels no doubt containing tons of ammo under tight lock. And a couple of boxes on top of them containing who knows what.


Spotting the survival gear, i soon came across some food bars sitting right next to the tents.


"I'm sure nobody will mind me eating a couple of these things, at least until the owner comes back so i can pay them." So i opened a bar and bit into it, slowly filling me up with that nutty goodness that was inside. Looking around some more, i also saw a cooler filled to the brim with bottled water. So i decided to help myself to one of those as well as i took a seat in one of the camping chairs near the gun counter.


"And now all i have to do is wait." I said as i began to relax my eyes as i began drifting off to sleep.


Until all that was ruined with the sound of an explosion.
Throwing my pack across my back and holding tight to my rifle, I ascended the stairs to the roof after finally getting my clothes on. Some people in the complex were panicking and others were trying to call or contact loved ones. I didn't have to worry about either of those things. No loved ones and rarely ever panicked. As I passed by people and exited into the sun bathed roof, there were a couple of people already up here gazing around at some of the destruction viewable from our position. When one of them turned around, they saw me.

"Hey J, you come to see the mayhem too?" I looked at him confused. "Seriously? You live in a sand dune? We're under attack...people are losing their minds, ransacking homes and...woah! Nice rifle man! You hunt?" I ignored him and gazed down to the street. He was right, people were under such high stress they were losing themselves and reverting to their all too natural basic instinct...to survive.

"I'm leaving."
I turned to head to the edge of the building as the other two snickered. "To where J? The entire city is gone to hell. No-one can probably leave and we're safer here." I shook my head. No we weren't. High crowded place is always the first hit. Major stores, apartment complexes, huge buildings are always the first hit since they stick out so badly. Stupid punk would learn that the hard way when they come here. I leaped off the building and rolled as I hit the other building, only scrapping against some mind rubble on the concrete ceiling. I had to keep moving. Find someplace to try and get ahold of my contacts and see just what the hell is happening here.
“Where’s your security team?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder to the Congressman, who was struggling to keep the pace with his bag in hand.

“I left them on the street, there are two of them parked in a black escalade.” He answered.

“Are the windows bulletproof?” I asked. It would be a miracle if the car was still on its wheels with the force of the explosions, much less operational, but I had to ask.

“No, I don’t believe so.”

I bit my lip, shaking my head as we reached the lower floor, meeting a new mass of panicking, sobbing, shoving hotel patrons. We came to the ground level in a sea of chaos, people screaming, crying.

My small stature, raising me to just under five foot seven, was hardly enough to see over the crowd, so the congressman had the courtesy to relay the details. “The windows are broken out up front, people are scattering. It doesn’t look good that way. It looks,” The sound of automatic gunfire scattered the already mindless masses, dropping the front lines in a spray of crimson and a wailing of panic.

I grabbed Reynold’s arm and drug him out of the lobby, my heart pounding, wondering with each step what hell I had wandered into. This was Hampton, not some foreign battlefield. My mind wasn’t sure what to make of it beyond the simple, nagging feeling that I needed to get the hell out of dodge. We slipped behind the small front desk and around a corner, finding a break room, bathroom and storage room just beyond. The storage room door was propped open with a toppled paint can, its’ contents spilling turquoise paint onto the tile floor. I drew my pistol from my belt and slipped into the room, the congressman in tow. There was nothing but darkness, what we could see of the room in disarray. The shelves were on their sides, paint, tools and other maintenance supplies covering the floor.

I kicked the paint can out of the way, hoping the inevitability that it would give us away was far enough off for me to fortify my position. I pushed the door shut, dragging the nearest upright cabinet in front of it and casting the room into total blackness. I could still hear the shots ringing out in bursts from the lobby, their less frequent nature leading me to picture the gunman moving forward from person to person, picking off whoever still drew breath. I tried not to think about it, instead, being sure it wouldn’t cast any light beneath the door, lifted a small flashlight from my bag and clicked it on.

“Someone is here, I saw movement.” I heard the congressman whisper, his arm slipping around my middle to pull me back toward the door. It felt less like a protective reflex and more like I was being used as a human shield; not a huge surprise considering his current state. Without a word I slid from his grip, raising the pistol to the direction of his pointed finger.

“Come out quietly.” I spoke in a forceful whisper, watching the slight movement. Thin trembling hands lifted into air, quiet sobs quickly following. “Please, please don’t hurt me.” Came the terrified voice of a young woman, her bright and tear-filled eyes peeking from under a dark grey hood.

“Are you armed? How'd you get here?” I asked, my pistol still set on her, much to the dismay of the congressman who scolded from his hiding place. But I wasn’t one for carelessness. Teenagers could kill me as easily as their parents, and I, of all people, understood how an innocent appearance didn't count for anything.

“I was staying with a friend upstairs when the explosion went off. We got split up when everyone started running, so I hid. I’m not armed, okay? I didn’t have a choice.” She both pleaded and accused, her words still coming out broken.

“It's okay. What’s your name?” I asked, finally confident enough to return my pistol to its holster. I could spot fake, and the kid wasn’t faking. She was as scared as I was.

She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her hoodie. “Caroline.”

“I’m Clara, this is John. We won’t hurt you, but you need to keep quiet alright? Where are your parents? Are they coming for you?” I asked.

“My mom doesn’t know I’m here. She stayed over with some guy she met in a bar and left me home. Mother of the year.” The girl scoffed in feigned anger, drawing her sweatshirt closer to her chest.

“Any way of getting in contact with her?”

The girl dug a cell out of her pocket and typed a stream of characters into the tiny glowing keyboard. She shook her head. “No, nothing is going through. She sent me his address last night, but I don’t think she’d still be there.”

“Any mention of his name?” I asked, interrupted by a furious grip on my bicep. Reynolds turned me to face him with a jerk, “We playing babysitter now?” He asked, both anger and fear on his features.

I took a step closer, doing all I could not to strangle the man who towered over me, attempting to threaten his way out of discomfort like so many in his position did before him. I didn’t have much tolerance for behavior like that, but, lucky for him, I did have excellent self-control. Keeping my dimly illuminated features soft I met his eyes, “Listen asshole,” I whispered, placing a gentle hand against his cold, clammy cheek, “I was already playing babysitter the moment I agreed to drag you out of that room instead of leaving you. I will keep you, and now Miss Caroline, alive as long as I am able, but that’s only if you keep your mouth shut. If you don’t like it, you are free to go.”

He let his hands drop and stepped back, allowing me to return to Caroline, who’s eyes had gotten wide. “You’re going to help me?” She asked, wiping her cheeks with still trembling hands.

Of course I was, even if I wasn’t fully sure why. Perhaps it was too many nights left on my own at her age, too many people having come and gone from my own childhood that made a particular sting at the sight of the girl, not even fifteen by my estimations, left to fend for herself in a mess of violent chaos.

“Can you keep up? Keep your head down?”

She nodded quickly, stepping closer. “I can stay close.”

“Then it’s agreed. I’ll keep you alive if you watch my back, and we, the three of us,” I glanced back with a sharp look to the congressman, “Will get you to your mom. John and I surely have some connections still worth tapping into, and if not, well, we’ll do it the old fashioned way.”

She wrapped her arms around my neck, her sobs returning despite how much she tried to stifle them. I was fearful of the noise, but the gunshots were still far enough away, still betraying the position of the attackers, that I was confident her cries went unheard. “Thank you, Clara.”

I smiled, as much of a smile as I could muster considering the nightmare we were living, and tucked a piece of her dyed black hair behind her ear. “Now, did you have his name? The guy your mom hooked up with?”

She lifted her phone out of her pocket again, scrolling through old messages, “Yeah, Caleb. Caleb Wells.”

Name: Jack Collins

“You hear ‘bout Boston?”

“Sure did, last night on the news. That brings it up to what; three?”

“Four,” I growled, the idle chatter of my coworkers doing nothing to relieve my headache. “Atlanta, Raleigh, Tulsa and now Boston.”

“Well goddamn me all to hell and back for asking,” Terry snapped at me from the back. “What’s got you all wound up?”

“Sorry guys,” I mumbled as I rubbed at my eyes. “I haven’t been getting a lot of sleep lately and it’s taking its toll.”

“At least after the hotel we’ve got a long drive ahead of us,” Mitch offered from the driver's seat. “Once we’re done here you and Terry could switch places so you could nap back there.”

“Just focus on driving Mitch,” I chuckled. “I’ll be fine. I’d rather trudge through the day than the bosses finding out that I was asleep on the job.”

Terry nodded in agreement and the truck fell silent. My fatigue was nothing new, ever since things had really started hitting the fan a month ago I was awake almost nonstop.

While things had only really started to slide in the last three days, anyone who so much as watched the news knew this was coming long in advance. Speeches, laws, emergency spending measures, military exercises; all of these things pointed to one conclusion…war.

The reason why was a substance, a source of energy designated EU-327 by the scientific community. Hailed by authorities as a hundred times more powerful than existing fuel sources, it was said that 327 would herald the end of fossil fuels and usher in a new age of man.

While the U.S. prepared to clash with others abroad, there were rumblings of discontent here at home. Resources had been scarce and recession loomed in the background of everyday life, these conditions coupled with soaring taxes and the draft were enough to set the powderkeg of American society alight.

A group of protestors in Atlanta were fired upon when they were deemed to be a threat to public safety, later it was determined that none of the eight who died were armed in any way.

Howls for justice and vengeance against the government echoed in every neighborhood across the U.S., and riots broke out in Raleigh, Tulsa and Boston, to the point where martial law had been declared in several cities.

While the madness that had gripped the country hadn’t made its way to Hampton yet, there had still been what the police described as ‘isolated incidents.’ Stabbings, shootings, burglary and small scale looting were just a few of the things that I heard about on my scanner.

Talon Security: the private security contractor that employed me after I finished my degree was taking no chances with its armored truck guards; before whenever we left the truck we just had our sidearm, now we had to have a longarm as well and go nowhere alone, only the driver was allowed to stay by himself, and only when we went to pick up the cargo.

I tugged my black ball cap down as the truck came to a stop, the eagle claw that symbolized Talon embroidered prominently on the front. The truck’s engine changed from a roar to a growl as Mitch shifted it into park and unclipped his seatbelt.

I did the same and reached for the AR-15 beside my seat, I slung the rifle over my shoulder after I checked the safety and waited for Terry on the other side of the truck. I knocked once on the side of the truck as we walked towards the hotel to let Mitch know we were leaving, I heard a faint knock in reply as we walked towards the doors

The hotel had a modest casino on the ground floor; a few craps tables, blackjack tables and a lot of slot machines. It was the cash from the latter that Talon had been contracted to remove from the premises, two trips per week.

Terry and I looked out of place inside with our charcoal uniforms, our black caps and body armor and our slung firearms. On top of our appearance Terry and I were both above average height, Terry at 6’5” and I at 6’7”…every eye of the oversized crowd in the lobby was on us as we walked up to the front desk…or at least it felt like it.

“Hi,” I shouted over the din to the pretty brunette receptionist. “We’re here to pick up the vault cash.”

“Huh,” Her voice sounded ragged and a few strands of hair had fallen out of her topknot. “Oh yeah, that. You’ll have to wait until the manager comes back.”

Before either of us could say anything in reply, the receptionist hurried off to deal with an exceptionally annoyed obese man. I turned to face Terry, “what do you think, her and I…y’know?”

Terry snorted loudly at the sexual gesture I used to indicate what I would do with the aforementioned brunette. Before he could verbalize his amusement Terry was flung through the air, the same wave of heat and pressure that carried him also threw me off my feet.

Pain exploded in my right side and then my left shoulder; I tumbled for what seemed like an eternity through a maelstrom of dust, smoke, and debris before sliding to a stop against a wall.

***

At first all I could hear was the ringing in my ears but as it faded I could hear other things, the crackle of fires, the tinkle of glass fragments on the floor, and the sobs of injured people.

The world tilted and swirled as I tried to open my eyes; after a few blinks the blasted out lobby came into focus. A crowd no longer filled the lobby, those that remained lay on the floor. The explosion had blown out every window in the front façade, and sent the shards back into the lobby with deadly effect.

People jerked and thrashed as their blood pooled on the floor, it looked thick…like caramel. Glass fragments tumbled to the floor as I pushed myself into a sitting position against the wall; a deep breath sent me into a fit of deep hacks that echoed throughout the destroyed lobby.

A black patch grabbed my attention as the fit subsided; it was my rifle that rested against the wall four feet to my right. Steadying myself against the wall, I staggered over to the firearm and picked it up.

The action still cycled and a bullet slipped into the chamber, the action giving me no small measure of comfort. Thus assured, I finally turned to survey the lobby in detail.

Before I could take it all in, a boom at the end of the lobby and a snap beside my ear sent me crashing to the floor. It took me a second to realize what it was…someone had shot at me!

A second shot made me flinch and huddle closer to the desk as splinters from the wall rained down around me, my heart pounded like a jackhammer. My hands trembled as they tightened around the AR, my entire body felt cold. I'd have to shoot whoever was shooting at me...possibly even kill them.
As I read the sign quietly to myself, a flare shot up in the sky from the building. A fiery tail followed it before slowly fading away into the clouds.

I stood rather perplexed at the gesture made from city hall. Considering the current status of Hampton, it seemed odd that they would want to draw so much attention to a place as "refuge". As I looked up and down the street, my block was deserted. The occasional car sat in a driveway, but signs of life were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps everyone had left for city hall. Or perhaps they were all dead. A second flare shot up from city hall, this one fading a bit faster. Whatever was going on at city hall was probably worth checking into, especially if it was indeed a refuge. With this logic, I took off through the neighbor's emerald green lawns.

"Hey!" A voice called out from my neighbor's deck. The deep gruff voice stopped me in my tracks as my hand gripped my pistol, its cold steel still pressing against my skin by my jean waistband. Instead of turning around, I slowly stepped towards city hall.

"That'll do. You stop right there now, ya hear?!" The voice ordered. "Now... put yer hands where I can see 'em!"

Back still turned to the stranger, I stretched my hands out to the sky. My eyes scanned the yard for something, anything, that could be of use. A knocked over trash can lay nearby, but little else was in reach. I heard a clicking noise from the porch as the man called out to me again.

"Alright now, I wantcha to turn around slowly. Don't think of any funny business either! I got my eye on ya!"

My heart began racing as I pivoted to face the stranger. As soon as I saw the man's face, fear turned into relief. I smiled. It was my neighbor, Donald Hooch. Donald's gray mustache contorted with his curled lips as he smiled back. He threw his hands up with a hearty laugh as he set his shotgun down and ran to me.

"Well I can't believe my eyes!" Donald beamed. He wrapped strong arms around me and held me in a tight bear hug. "You look like shit, Caleb!"

I let out a chuckle as my squished body could let out little else. "You... do too."

Much to my relief, Donald let me go and stepped back. Grinning from ear to ear, he let out another belly laugh and gripped his sides. "Oh! Beverly is not going to believe this! With all the shit goin' on 'round here, I figured you were another one of them hoodlums!" Donald adjusted his ballcap with a chuckle, the Miller Lite logo prominently displayed.

"Yea... about that. Donald, what the hell is going on?"

Donald's head turned sideways as confusion filled his eyes. "You haven't heard? The news people were sayin' that they've found some sorta rare element in the earth somewhere. They say this could spark world war three!"

"I don't understand though. Why Hampton? Why not New York City or Los Angeles?"

Donald shook his head as it drooped. "Oh, they've already been hit. Couple other cities too..."

I rubbed my brow in disbelief. Sure the United States would get invaded, but that was only in movies or books. Things of fiction. But this... this was reality. Was this element in the United States? Did the United States begin a war without the general population knowing? What the hell was even happening in Hampton? Was Hampton truly being invaded or were they simply riots?

A loud explosion echoed through Donald's backyard, leaving a deafening ringing noise in my ears. My eyes clenched tightly as I covered my ears. Looking back to Donald, a soft gasp came out. The old man had a quarter-sized hole in his head, blood spilling out and flowing down his body and squirting out onto the lawn.

Time froze.

As my gaze looked over Donald's shoulder, I saw a man smirking, pistol outstretched before him.

I lunged for Donald, trying to use the poor man's corpse as a shield. The world crawled by me as I dove under Donald's still-warm, lifeless body. A few more shots were fired, each one absorbed by Donald's body as I felt his body bounce with each shot. The man let out a high-pitched laugh as he fired off another shot.

"What's wrong, kiddo?! Mad that your parents are both dead? How about we turn this into a family reunion?!" He bellowed as he let out another terrifying laugh.

As I hid behind Donald's corpse, I peered to the man on the deck. He had a long scar running down the right side of his face and no hair as his head glistening in the sun. His steely grey eyes caught my own as his mouth twisted into an evil smile.

"Come on out. Daddy can't protect you anymore," the man taunted to me. He threw his gun to the side and reached into his pocket. His hand quickly emerged, a shiny blade jutting out of his hand. "I think we should have a little fun. Yes..."

As the man waltzed towards me, he began to whistle a familiar tune. I watched him dance around the yard, taking his time as I sat idly by awaiting my fate.

My heart pounded in my chest. The man blurred, almost unrecognizeable, in a matter of moments. I could feel sweat dripping off my face and soaking into my jeans. Donald continued to stare blankly at me with lifeless eyes. Moment after painfully agonizing moment passed as my head began spinning faster. And faster. And faster.

"You ready to dance?" the man asked, now towering over me. He looked down at me with a toothy grin and kicked over Donald. Donald's corpse fell over, face-down into the earth. "Let's dance. I really like to dance..."

The man held the blade to his tongue and licked the sharp edge. A red liquid leaked onto the blade before he spit at me. His head shook violently as he let out a howl. "Oh this is so much fun, isn't it?!"

In my head, I reached for my gun and pulled it out. In my head, I confidently would add a quip worthy of a climactic cinematic moment. In my head, this terror of a man would fall over dead, and I would tower over him.

Victorious.

In reality, however, I froze. I did not reach for my gun. I didn't even move. I continued to stare up at my killer like a deer at an oncoming car. I tried to move, but I just... couldn't.

My bones ached from the stress; my muscles felt like concrete weights. My head struggled to stay up.

My head pounded.

Relentlessly pounding.

Time stood still.

Moments turned into eternities.

Then I heard it. The sound that most certainly saved my life when I was unable to save my own. The man looked down as a red stain quickly spread around his abdomen. He glanced at me before dropping to his knees and falling face down beside Donald. On the deck stood Beverly, her grey curls still bouncing from the recoil of Donald's shotgun.

"Should've made sure I was dead, you fucker."

Beverly looked down at me and nodded past me.

"Go to city hall, Caleb. Hurry. Figure out what's going on!"


Something was wrong, and when something was wrong, chances are you need a weapon to defend yourself with. Luckily for me, i didn't have to worry about running out of weapons in a gun store. But first things first, might as well see if i really need a weapon for what just happened out there. So i checked the window to see if i could see anything outside that would've caused that sound.


And sure enough, i did. It was a tank. A tank of all things was rolling down the street, crushing any cars that got in it's way. And i watched as it came to a stop right in front of the shop.


"Let me guess, they want guns, right?" I said to myself as i got behind the counter and grabbed a pistol from the display case. Luckily it already had a clip in it, almost as if someone had put it there for me. Then i heard the front door being broken as someone else entered the store. That's when i drew the gun and shot out from behind the counter as he fell backwards with a shriek.


"Sorry, but we're not open yet! Come back later!" I said with a grin as i heard more people shouting like madmen. Then i poked my head out and saw the tank moving once more, but only so it could get it's cannon lined up with the store.


Knowing what they were planing, i got out from behind the counter and made a dash for some supplies. Just because they were planing on blowing up the shop didn't mean i was going to let everything in here go to waste. And that was besides the point that i still had a little while left before they would be far enough away without being caught in the blast to harm their tank.


So with the time i had remaining, i grabbed a big carry bag and filled it with as much food and water as i could, then i rushed behind the counter and threw as many guns and ammo boxes inside as i could. By the time i filled the bag to the brim, the tank was far enough away to fire without harming itself or anyone inside, and the cannon was almost pointed right at the store. Feeling i had enough supply's, i ran for the back exit as i heard the cannon fire right behind me.
I ran from rooftop to rooftop, quickly leaving the large scale apartment complexes behind me. Not even before I hit the third building over did I hear the screaming from far back. See? I could have told you, but I doubt you would have listened. Fools. I continued on, eager to get to a empty apartment and try to find someone to contact. Still, who would be close enough? Zapper was out of state, more than likely Codex was being swarmed with calls and who knew where anyone else was.
Codex was the likely bet. A high time hacker with skill almost unrivaled. I'd seen him hack past high government firewalls and security programs in less than 10 minutes and without batting an eye. If anyone knew where to get ahold of a nearby contact, it would be him.

Still, first things first, I needed to find a place to lay low and get a secure connection going before I could try and get in contact with Codex. Being one of the best had its perks and if Codex saw me calling in, he'd answer. He'd be stupid not to..especially with all of this going on. I continued jumping roof to roof, almost falling and rolling off the next shingled rooftop. The next building had a skylight and seemed empty enough, so I opened it up and slipped inside. I glanced around and sure enough, empty. I got lucky on that aspect.

I wandered around and found a wireless router, so I had internet access and took out a small laptop from my pack, opening it to hear it buzz to life. The beeps of it connecting to the wireless world went on for a minute and then went silent before I heard a voice. "J? Oh my freaking word man, where the hell have you been? I've scanned the net looking for you for the last couple hours. Boss wants an update." I snarled, even though he couldn't see me. "Shut up Codex. Things are horrid here. The entire city has gone dead, mad with trying to survive and I have no clue who's all here. Some kind of force is making a play here and I'm right in the middle. I need a contact."

Codex went silent for a moment. "J...we have none there. Zapper is out on assignment, Widow is out on leave being recalled to deal with close range threats to us and you're there. We have no-one to spare." "Then go outside the grid!" Codex went silent again. "You sure about this?" I cut him off. "I won't ask again Codex...connect me with someone close. I need to get some help here and figure out what is going on exactly." The sound of typing on the other side took over for about two minutes before silence once again filled the air.

"I have someone...." I was getting impatient. "Then connect Codex. What's the deal?" Another short silence before the answer. "It's a fixer...Clara Chase." I cursed my freaking luck. The last time I encountered Clara, we had our bout and alot of stuff happened. Not the best situation, but hopefully circumstances would permit a small truce between us. "Call her Codex. I can't afford to be picky...." Codex sighed as he started the audio and video connect feed to Claras system. This was either going to end very interestingly or very very badly.
I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, and I couldn’t slow it. From the moment I stepped into the hotel room, hell, from the moment I had gotten the congressman’s call, I had worked to keep every hint of myself tucked away, fearless and controlled and calculating. But I felt my heart beating, and with every pounding, jarring thump I was reminded just how out of control it all was. How foolish I was to have Reynold’s at my back, how vulnerable I would inevitably be in turning my attention from self-preservation to helping Caroline. In truth, instinct fought to take over with every crushing heart beat; leaving me in the mess of auto-pilot, fight or flight, submit or posture, think or feel. I was adaptable because of necessity, trained because of need, but I was also young, alone, and if I was truly honest with myself, genuinely afraid.

Facing away from Caroline and the congressman, I bit my lip and drew a deep breath in through my nose. My pistol in hand, I forced my shoulders to ease, my face softening to the cool and calculatingly put together façade that I had worked so hard to perfect. If I didn’t feel it, I could at least fake it; and if I could fake it, I had enough control to keep myself reacting with a cool head.

Beyond the doors the gunshots had stopped, the chaos melting from the unmistakable popping of high-powered rifles to the crashing and yelling that accompanied a small army of looters.

“Stay close.” I whispered to the others, my eyes never leaving the door, “If I die before we make it out, take the pistol and my bag and get out as quickly as you can manage. Agreed?”

Reynolds and Caroline nodded in unison.

With my nerve was sufficiently worked up, I pushed the cabinet out of the way of the door. One last deep, calming breath and I opened it, ensuring the room beyond was empty before stepping out into the nearly blinding light.

I made my way to the lobby, peeking one eye around the corner before deciding whether or not I would send us headfirst into the carnage. I was no stranger to death, and the sight still made me dizzy; the piled bodies and severed limbs enough to make even the strongest stomach turn. I turned away, putting up a hand to stop the girl before she stepped any closer.

“You don’t want to see it,” I whispered, meeting Caroline’s fearful gaze, “I know you will want to look, but please keep your eyes on the floor. I’ll hold your hand and make sure you don’t fall, alright? And John, stay right behind her.”

They agreed, and taking Caroline’s hand I moved forward, staying low and keeping close to the wall. The congressman did as he was told, staying close, moving quickly. We slipped around the gore and into the hallway, where the lack of bodies allowed for us to quicken our pace. I released the girls hand and bolted through the side door, spilling out into the adjacent alleyway with pistol raised. A dirty black escalade occupied the street a few yards up, its’ back windows broken out, the rear driver’s side door opened. Beside it stood a man in a fine black suit, his hands pressed firmly to the abdomen of another.

The congressman moved toward him, his gate suddenly commanding, “Bill!” He yelled, inspiring the man to look up from his companion. Bill’s hands were covered in blood nearly to his elbows, his ear piece and its small spiraling cord hanging loosely over his shoulder. Pressing his fingers to the throat of the man on the ground, he abandoned his task, taking two hesitant steps toward the congressman.

“Good to see you alive, Sir.” He spoke respectfully, glancing over John’s shoulder at myself and Caroline, who were now huddled close to the doorway. “Tony didn’t make it.”

John wiped his mouth with his hands, “Leave him. We need to go.”

“But Sir.” The security guard protested.

“We need to go, Bill. Tony would understand.” The congressman answered, beginning toward the passenger side, inspiring Bill to follow. I took a step forward, and was stopped with a single command. “If they try to follow us, shoot them.”

The betrayal rang in my ears, and choked sobs from Caroline. “You son of a bitch.” I answered, “I save your life and you leave us to die.”

“Sorry girls.” John yelled as he took his seat, his customary arrogance returning now that he had his guard dog. Bill frowned his brow, almost apologetic as he climbed into the driver’s seat. The engine roared to life, and once again I fought the urge to put a bullet in that man's head.

The Escalade disappeared around the corner and out of sight, leaving Caroline clinging to my arm as tears poured down her pallid cheeks. “It’s alright. We can still make it out.” I replied, rubbing his shoulder reassuringly, trying to convince both of us that I was telling the truth. “But we need to move. Wait here.” I slid my arm from her grip and approached the fallen security officer.

His body was a mess of bullets and shrapnel, but his gear seemed intact. I knelt over him, releasing the few clips that held his shoulder holster in place. I tugged it free, and with it came a Sig 9mm and three additional magazines. “Do you know how to use this?” I asked, glancing over to Caroline, who stared on horrified. She shook her head quickly, “Mom hates guns. I’ve never even touched one.”

Perhaps after this, Caroline’s mother would change her tune.

I checked the weapon and secured it, slipping the holster over my shoulders. With it I salvaged his radio and ear piece, a small clip with a good amount of cash, and a sub-compact Sig .380. This one I insisted she take. “It’s small, easy to hold, see?” I pressed the grip into her hand and she pulled away.

“I’m sorry, Caroline, but it might save your life. Please take it.”

She frowned her brow and shook her head, not convinced. I never understood the aversion to guns. They were no more at fault for the death of innocents than a hammer was a fault for hanging a crooked picture or a chainsaw was to blame for clear cutting.

I sucked in an irritated breath and slid the gun and holster into my boot. It would hurt not having any backup, but I couldn’t force her if she was afraid. If we lived long enough to find her mother, I would share a few not-so-kind words with the woman who left her child alone and unprepared to take care of herself.

Once again taking Caroline’s hand we ran, moving as quickly as we could manage before slipping unnoticed into the street. Cars were burning, people were crying; the air was thick with the smell of ash and gunpowder. I pulled her left, beginning toward the address where we hoped to find her mother.

“Clara!” Caroline shouted, pulling me back. She was frozen in place, her finger outstretched toward City hall, and a banner that read “Refuge”.

“That’s where she would go, Clara. I know it!” Caroline pleaded, her hand tugging on mine. “Please.”

A subtle chime from my bag caught my attention, inspiring me to duck behind an overturned Lexus and dig for the assaulting technology. If the phones were working, that would change things, major things.

Unfortunately it was my tablet, the preferred method of contact for those of less than reputable quality, at least when I wasn't available via cell. It would function without the phones, as long as it was synced with Wi-Fi. At least it was something, the sign that I perhaps still had a tiny hint of luck. I unlocked the screen and answered, keeping it turned away from Caroline. She would overhear everything, but I wasn’t about to let whomever was on the line see her.

Codex, a hacker of considerable talent, popped onto the screen. “Hi Clara, I have a…Holy shit, you okay?”

“It’s nothing,” I replied, wiping the gash above my eye with the back of my hand, only to wince at the discovery that there was still a fine shard of glass imbedded in the wound. I plucked it out with two fingers and tossed it aside, pressing my sleeve to the newly forming drops of blood. “I’m fine, it’s minor. What is it, Codex?”

“J wants to talk.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Tell him I’m busy.” I answered.

“I can hear you, Clara.” J’s voice, as subtle and commanding as always, cut through the speakers.

’Thanks for the warning, Codex.’ I thought, raising my eyes to street before returning them to the screen.

“I am not exactly in a place to chat, J.” I answered with a shrug, trying my best to be polite, “If you haven’t noticed, Hampton’s blowing up from the inside, I can’t exactly,”

“I have noticed,” He interrupted, “I’m in Hampton, in an apartment on Lexington and Park. I need some info. We should meet.”

“I don’t know what I can tell you, J. I have my hands full…”

“I know, I know. I just want to meet, make a deal. One that’s mutually beneficial for all parties involved, as you would say. God knows we could both use some back up in a shit storm like this one.” I could hear in his voice that he was doing his best to be civil; quite the act for J, whose temper I had witnessed up close and personal on more than one occasion. I had to give him a least a bit of credit for the effort. And who was I kidding, he used the magic word, “Back up”.

“You’ll play nice?” I asked.

I could almost hear the smile in his voice, but I was pretty sure J didn’t smile. “I’ll play nice.”

“I have a girl with me. I made a promise to get her to her mom. You find us near the refuge at City hall, if her mom isn’t there, you help me connect them. Watch my back and I’ll watch yours. Then any contacts I have in the city, along with those outside of it, are yours to use. I’ll give you my whole damn file if you want it. If the girl’s mom is at City Hall, then we go where you want to go. No questions asked.”

He hesitated, and I could almost hear the growl of consent. “You armed?”

“Not so well armed as you, I imagine. But I’m not useless either.”

“I know that well enough, don’t I, Clara?”

I smiled. “Then it’s a deal?”

“It’s a deal.”

The hard wood of the front desk pressed into my back hard enough to hurt as I huddled away from the incoming fire. A second shot slammed into the wall panel in front of me, the impact sent wood splinters flying in every direction.

Sharp pinpricks of pain dotted my arms as I buried my head in them, the sacrificial limbs taking on the wood slivers that could’ve blinded me. In a split second my body’s adrenaline overruled my mind’s fear. My blood boiled as I gathered my feet beneath me, and in a single impetuous motion I rose and shouldered my rifle.

I saw my attacker as I turned to face him, not all at once but detail by detail: his dust-covered suit, askew tie, the scrape on his cheek and his eyes; not the eyes of killer or a maniac but those of a machine, a machine that ran on a program of training and was operating on a single imperative…to kill.

I saw his clothes, his face, and his eyes. I saw a living, breathing human being in front of me…and I pulled the trigger. The report inside the lobby was deafening and the muzzle flash seemed to torrent out of the barrel in a mile-long jet of flame, though it couldn’t have been more than a couple inches.

His eyes filled with shock and after a split second, with agony. As he hit the ground with a grunt, I ducked back behind the counter. A shout from outside made me tense.

Within seconds feet crunched across glass and hard breathing filled the lobby. My own breath felt magnified by a thousand as though my lungs were a great set of bellows, wheezing and groaning as they attempted to heat a batch of coal.

Whoever it was was well trained. He didn’t let loose any wild shots; just stood still and panted for a moment, no doubt scanning the room for me. After a moment the crunch of glass resumed and I heard a grunt followed by the scuff of fabric on the floor and the scrape of metal on the floor.

I could imagine in my head that the second guy was hauling his partner out of the lobby after he had retrieved his weapon. The same partner who was now making a horrible half moan, as though he was trying to scream out in pain but couldn’t.

The sound was awful, like a dying animal you shot before you put it down. My gorge rose at the comparison and I suddenly felt the overpowering urge to vomit, I pressed my mouth into my sleeve and bit down on the fabric hard enough to make my arm and teeth hurt.

Once the feeling subsided and the noises faded, I stood on my unsteady feet. The lobby was a mess, body parts were strewn everywhere, shrapnel had shredded the walls, and still forms littered the blood soaked floor. One of those still forms resolved into a shape I recognized; Terry.

Before I could rush to my partner the patter of footsteps drew uncomfortably close, this time from inside the building. Now my panic took over, instead of drawing a bead on the door and waiting for whoever it was to come out I dropped into a crouch and scrambled for an open door behind the desk, diving inside just as the door creaked open.

I hugged the floor and panted, my rifle tightly clutched.

“You don’t want to see it, I know you will want to look but please keep your eyes on the floor. I’ll hold your hand and make sure you don’t fall, alright? And John, stay right behind her.”

I only heard the woman’s voice but it sounded like she was talking to others, an assumption that was confirmed instantly when two murmured agreements responded to her commands.

Their footsteps took on a quieter tone, presumably as they crept through the lobby. Within seconds their footsteps had faded and in a minute they were totally absent, the lobby returned to a peace that seemed almost unnatural given the events of the last few minutes.

I waited another minute in the silence before I was sure I was alone, and then I stood up. Now it was my turn for glass to crunch underfoot as I moved into the lobby but I hardly noticed; I ran to Terry and dropped to my knees, my own pain momentarily forgotten.

I pressed my fingers to his blood soaked neck and checked for a pulse but there was none; Terry was gone. Hot tears stung as I used my palm to close his lids over their now vacant eyes. I hadn’t even known him that well, in fact he kind of reminded me of a dick uncle I didn’t like but he had been a part of my routine working life for the past two years, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t grown attached to him.

Maybe it was my old way of life that I wept for, after the things I saw and the thing I did there was no going back to it. In any case weeping wouldn’t do me any good and so as I wiped my eyes with the back of my sleeve my resolve hardened; I had to find out what was going on here, why were things exploding, why were people shooting at me, what had happened to Hampton?

A burp of static startled me but the voice that followed it turned my shocked expression into a great big grin.

“Terry, Jack,” Mitch whispered our names. “Where the hell are you guys, are you ok, over?”

I laughed out loud at his use of the word over, even in the worst of times Mitch still didn’t want to fuck up.

“Mitch! I’m here, can you hear me?” I all but shouted into the microphone mounted on my shoulder. Instead of a response I received only dead air, not so much as a single burp of static.

“What the fuck?” I muttered as my panic grew once more, my one lifeline ripped away as quickly as he had appeared.

“Terry, Jack, will one of you bastards answer me? Over.”

I focused on Terry’s radio, still clipped to his belt and shoulder. Mitch’s voice had come from Terry’s handset, not mine.

“Mitch,” I spoke into Terry’s receiver as I held it to my mouth, its cord stretched over his corpse. “I’m here, are you ok?”

“Holy fuck Jack, am I ever glad to hear your voice!” The relief in Mitch’s voice sounded about the same as I felt so I decided not to rib him on his forgetfulness of ‘over.’ ”I thought you guys were goners for sure when that explosion went up! And then when those guys ran through there-“

“What do you mean ‘guys’?” I hit the talk button to interrupt his mile a minute explanation. Even before he began to answer I spared a glance around the lobby and the corpses in it, more of them seemed to have been struck down by bullets than the explosion itself. An uncomfortable feeling wormed its way into my gut; just how long had I been unconscious behind the front desk? What had I missed?

”- I heard the screams and watched as everyone who survived the explosion ran out, when the shooting kept going after everyone had left I thought…I thought that they got you too.” My anger rose as I tuned in on the last part of his response, my eyes drawn to Terry’s corpse.

“You didn’t think to come in here yourself?” I bit out.

”I-I’m supposed to stay with the rig Jack, you know-“

“Goddamit Mitch! You didn’t even think to call 911?” I noticed the lack of sirens in the distance as I asked him. “All fucking safe in the rig, you could’ve done something!”

”I tried,” Mitch’s voice rose in pitch as his own emotions seeped through. “I got the fucking ‘all signals busy’ message…three times!”

I pinched the bridge of my nose until it hurt; clearly this was bigger than this building, this block, or even this city, America itself was falling apart at the seams and I was caught right in the middle of it.

“I’m sorry man,” my voice cracked as I replied. “Terry’s dead, he got shot by those fucking assholes that were in here.”

”Jesus,” Mitch’s one word response seemed to cover the situation quite well, unless divine intervention was a thing and it happened right now, we were pretty fucked.

“Here’s the plan,” I said as I finished securing Terry’s handset to my belt and shoulder, my broken one lay at his feet. “I’m gonna come back to the rig and then we’re gonna-“

My explanation was cut off by the screech of tires and a black SUV raced down the street, it’s driver heedlessly dodging and swerving around piles of rubble and dead bodies. I ran out into the morning sunlight and looked after the vehicle, it raced through the street full tilt, running three blinking red lights before squealing around a corner and disappearing from sight.

“Did you see that?” I demanded into my mic, turning as I did to look at Mitch through the bulletproof windscreen of the rig across the street.

“That motherfucker was crazy!” Mitch’s reply seemed to indicate that he had indeed witnessed the vehicle and sympathized with my shock.

My gaze drifted upwards and away from his shocked expression, something else had caught my eye. In the distance a large banner flapped in the wind over city hall, it had only one word painted on it in bright red REFUGE.

As I watched the banner fly in the wind I felt a bit of my old self-return, my confidence. The black Talon cap had been knocked askew on my head, no doubt by all of the running, diving and huddling I’d done in the past few minutes. I tugged it sung across my brow, the left side of my head smarted as I did.

As I walked back towards the idling rig I probed at the spot with a finger, it came away sticky and red. It would have to be tended to later, right now we needed answers.

I pulled my iPhone off its belt holster and swiped open the lock screen; zero bars for service…not even my provider’s name was showing. I remembered Mitch’s remark about the ‘all circuits busy’ message, if the phones were down it seemed like the best place to find out what was going on was at city hall.

As I returned the useless phone to the holster I decided that corporate policy be damned, Mitch and I were going to city hall…to Refuge.
I had to stop.

I don't know how long I had been running, but an overwhelming soreness rippled through my lower body. I staggered to a nearby building and collapsed along its red brick. Resting my head, I let out a slow exhale as I could hear another flare scream into the sky.

The street was surprisingly quiet. The occasional person ran by, but they seemed far too preoccupied to notice my crumpled body. My eyes followed a young man sprinting by. He disappeared into a doorway just on the other side of the block. Curious, my eyes looked up the building where the "refuge" blew in the wind.

I couldn't believe it.

I was there.

I had found refuge.

I was this close.

I could feel a new sense of urgency fill me as I pushed myself to my feet. My legs ached, a reminder that I had just run halfway across Hampton. With each step, a new ache shot through my body. Each step was more challenging than the one before it as the doors to city hall seemed further and further away...

It took a while, but finally my hands wrapped around the handles to city hall's front doors. I yanked the doors open a stepped through.

"Hello, sir. Welcome to City Hall."

I ran a hand through my dark disheveled hair as I looked at the man before me. He was a thin man with pale skin and bleached dreadlocks. He rubbed his dark stubble with a dirtied hand and walked to me.

"The name's Charlie. Looking for refuge?"

I opened my mouth to reply, but no words came out. I nodded before Charlie could notice my embarrassing moment.

Charlie smiled. "Well I've got a good sized group of us. We're trying to get all the people of Hampton together to restore some sense of order. It's getting rather chaotic out there!"

Again, I nodded.

After a brief moment, Charlie continued. "Well anyways... if you're able, we could definitely use a hand in the back. We're a bit undermanned at the moment."

Without a word, or even a nod this time, I strolled past Charlie towards a hallway. What I saw before me stopped me cold.

Bloodstains marked the walls.

The floors.

Even the ceiling.

A dark woman caught my attention and waved me over. Sensing her desperation, I hustled to her and tried to introduce myself. A choking noise followed.

"Yes, I need your help now. I've got an infected gunshot wound. Grab me a scalpel!"
I don't know how the Hell i survived that blast. But i did, and i even saved most of the arms, ammo, and supply's. But i still had that tank and the people using it to worry about, so i made a dash through the back alleys before they had a chance to find me again and managed to escape.


Now i was on the other side of the buildings. I took a quick look back through where i came from to see if they were following me. I could hear their voices faintly, but it didn't seem like they cared about me anymore and began moving away from there.


"Good riddance." I said as i dropped my bag and opened it up to see exactly what i grabbed in the store before it went up. And there were plenty of guns, ammo for said guns, and enough food and water to last me a whole week if not more. I was in hog Heaven when i saw all this good stuff.


At least, i was. Until i felt someone's gun pointed right at the back of my head.


"You! Give me your shit, now!" I was pissed. I had just survived an encounter with a frigging tank, and now this guy demands i give him all thew stuff i salvaged from the shop? I did not do that just so i could hand it over to this...this.....


"BASTARD!" I shouted as i reached behind me and moved the gun away from my head, and just in time as it fired too, though the bullet did shoot across the side of my head, but i didn't care. All that i cared about was teaching this punk a lesson he would never forget.


And teach him that lesson i did as i held the gun away from me and yanked it out of his grasp. Then he looked at me with fear in his eyes before he just started running away from me.


"Not gonna happen kid." I said before i pulled the trigger, firing the round as it went into the back of the lad's head as his body toppled to the ground.


"Stupid prick. Never pick a fight with someone who has a bag loaded with guns and ammo." I said as i grabbed my bag once again and began heading down the side of the street. I kept walking for a while, until i came across a sign on what looked like city hall that said REFUGE on it.


"Okay, either this is a trap, or the people of this city are really stupid enough to put a great big sign atop their stronghold that might as well say. 'Come here everyone who wants to kill us'. *Sigh* Oh well, might as well hope everyone is that stupid then." I said as i rushed over to the building and knocked on the big doors, thinking i would need permission to join their club at least. And then the doors opened as i saw a thin man with pale skin and bleached dreadlocks. He rubbed his dark stubble with a dirtied hand and walked over to me.


"The name's Charlie. Looking for refuge?"


"Yeah, as a matter of fact, i could use a place to hide away from that tank they've got out there." Charlie's eyes shot open once i said the word, 'tank'.


"They've got a tank out there?!" Charlie almost shouted as he looked behind himself for a moment to make sure no one else heard that.


"Yeah, damn thing blew a great big hole through the gun shop i was holed up in, barely made it out alive."


"Did it follow you here?" Charlie began saying in a more quiet tone.


"No. The thing was on the other side of some buildings when i lost it, i doubt the thing could move that fast anyway." I said as i began making my way inside as Charlie closed the front doors.


"Oh and by the way, you might want to take that damn sign down if you don't want that thing filling this place with holes and dead survivors." Charlie nodded as he began saying...


"You're right, we can't risk them finding us now that they have a tank on their side." Then Charlie motioned for another person as he began informing them of the situation, leaving me to find a lone corner to drop myself in and rest.
“How much farther, Clara?”

I glanced over to Caroline, whose cheeks were red with exertion, her charcoal black hair clinging to the sweat beading at her forehead.

The run was a decent distance alone, but the smoke in the air made it damaging; stinging both the eyes and lungs. I ducked down an alleyway into what I hoped was a moment of safety, making sure Caroline followed. We could both use a moment to catch our breath.

She rested her hands on her knees, her eyes wide and cast downward; concern lingering in them.

“Something bothering you?” I asked, lifting my sweater over my head and readjusting the shoulder holster to stay hidden beneath the oversized outer layer. I wouldn’t want to have to give it up if the refuge had a no-guns policy.

“I’m nervous... about meeting J.” She admitted, folding shivering arms across her chest, “How do you know him anyway?” The last words slipped out with a hint of anger. She was getting fatigued, emotionally, physically. I could see it in her posture, hear it in her tone.

{ i}‘He’s a hitman. I know him, because we occasionally work for the same criminals.’{/i }

“He’s a body guard,” I lied, “I work in public relations, occasionally we share a client. That’s why he called me for information, he knows I may have some connections he doesn’t.”

“You trust him?” She asked, meeting my eyes. I could see in her face that she needed to hear that I did; that this man wasn’t going to hurt us.

“I do trust him. I would not have agreed to work with him if I didn’t.” I lied again. It bothered me sometimes, how easy it was; how quickly and innocently decent dripped from my lips without so much as a thought. I was more concerned, however, by the tone in Caroline’s voice. She didn’t need to worry about working through any more fear.

“If it puts your mind at ease," I continued, "I know how it seems. Deals with shady characters, taking guns off people who died in the street. You must think I’m some sort of sociopath, dragging you into something dangerous. I promise that's not the case.”

Caroline smiled slightly at the comment. “No, nothing like that. I admit, I wonder how you can be so calm, how you know what to do. But I trust you, Clara. And the whole thing makes sense, if you and J work together.” Caroline answered. At least we were on the right path.

I half smiled, lifting one knee and then the other, stretching warm and burning muscles. I was tempted to question further, to work out the errors in my behavior that had sent up red flags, that had caused her to be afraid. But I resisted, instead settling to change the subject. We needed to get to city hall, to get her to her mother. I could ponder my choices later.

“Do you have your breath? Ready to move?” I asked, slightly more thoughtful in my tone.

She nodded, tying up her hair and rolling up the sleeves of her hoodie. “I’m ready.”

~~~


We swung open the doors to City hall as the banner came down. An action that made me even more hesitant to move past the threshold and into the unknown.

“Please, come in." A man in dreadlocks beckoned with a wave of his hand, "We’re still taking in survivors, but trying to avoid some attention.”

The doors shut heavy behind us, leaving us to funnel down bloodied halls into the large, shared space. Beds were set up, and survivors lined them, some resting, some sobbing, others bleeding. It smelled like death and fear.

Caroline grabbed my hand and squeezed, “I don’t see her, Clara.” She said. "Can we go?"

I searched the crowd for J, unsure if he would make his appearance here or wait for us outside. Either way he was not my immediate concern. “Let's ask about her then yes, we'll go. What’s her name? Her full name?” I asked.

“Linda Harrison. I have a picture on my phone.” She pulled the phone from her pocket and began shuffling through in search of the image. She handed it over, displaying the photo of a lovely woman with fiery red hair, not much older than myself.

“Is this recent?” I asked, insuring that it wasn't an outdated photo. It was hard to imagine her mother was maybe thirty at the oldest.

“Yeah. She had me at fifteen, that’s why she looks so young.” Caroline answered. I nodded.

“Excuse me!” I called to the group, my voice echoing and yet still lost in the chaotic hum of fear and pain, “We are looking for Linda Harrison! We have a photo! If anyone has seen her, please say so.”

A single person glanced up, his hands bloody as he half assisted a woman in dressing the wound of another. She seemed to not be using him at the moment.

“Can I see the picture?” He yelled back, his voice hoarse, but deep in a calm, pleasant way.

“Can you wait there?” I asked Caroline, gesturing toward a pair of cots tucked into the corner. They were uninhabited and clean, and with a wall to her back and side I wouldn’t need to watch her quite as carefully.

“Alright.” She hesitantly agreed, “But stay in sight?”

“I’ll keep an eye on you, I promise.” I smiled. She nodded, moving to claim the two cots. I watched as she settled into place, drawing her knees to her chest.

Keeping her in my periphery, I approached the stranger. He stood, only to be pulled back to his task by the woman with the scalpel, “I need your hands here, Mr. Wells!” She ordered.

It would have to wait. I turned back to Caroline, suddenly hearing the name ring out in my mind again. ‘Mr. Wells.’

“I’m sorry,” I interrupted again, “Caleb Wells?”

He glanced up, his brow knit, “Yes.” He answered hesitantly.

“That's Linda's daughter.” I explained, gesturing toward Caroline, “She got a text with your info. Is Linda alright?"

Caleb returned his eyes to his task, shaking his head, “I’m sorry, Miss?”

“Clara.”

“I’m sorry, Clara. Linda was killed this morning, shot when two men broke into my home. I'm so sorry, you have to believe there was nothing I could do.” He answered, genuine pain in his eyes.

I bit my lip, trying to hide my reaction from the watchful eyes of Caroline. The news would need to be handled delicately. “I believe there was nothing you could do, but there is certainly something you can do now.”

The woman tending the wound shoed Caleb away as the life slipped form the man on whom she was working. She moved on to her next patient, tossing a rag to Caleb in which he could clean his hands.

“What can I do?” He asked, a calm conviction in his voice. A calm which felt strikingly contrary to his appearance, which was emphasized with dark disheveled hair, and clothing that sat slightly askew on his fit frame. He did not strike me as a coward or a criminal, and though there was the slightest possibility that it had been him who took Linda’s life, I trusted it was not the case. He didn't have the look of a killer.

I took in a slow breath. “You can tell Caroline how her mother died, how her last thoughts were of her daughter, how she loved her, and how everything is going to be okay." I began, meeting Caleb's gaze as he looked on pensively, saying nothing. "She’ll want to hear it from you. She’s a strong girl, Mr. Wells, but this could very well break her if we are careless. Please, tell her what she needs to hear.”

He nodded slowly, "Alright."

We would see what sort of a man Caleb Wells really was.
“You’re gonna take the next left up here,” I said as I studied our route on the city map. “That’ll bring us on to Faircourt which’ll be a straight shot to-“

“No,” Mitch cut me off as I felt the all too familiar lurch of the rig’s breaks. “It’s just another fuckin’ roadblock.”

“Goddamit!” I snarled as I threw the map on the floor. “Roadblock after goddamn roadblock, that’s what our fucking day’s been!”

It had been late morning when all this started but now it was dusk, right around the time where I should’ve been back at my apartment eating supper, watching television and giving Roscoe a good scratch behind the ears.

Roscoe was my pet dog, a beagle to be exact. It worried me that he was alone in the apartment; he was just a little guy and I was usually home by now to feed him. Tomorrow I vowed. Tomorrow I’ll get you out of there buddy, no matter what.

I set aside my feelings of anger and worry as I examined the roadblock in front of us. A pile of cars had been rammed together and then left there; God only knew who did it or why but it looked a lot less imposing then the other blocks we had been forced to detour around on our long drive through Hampton, those had been the result of collapsed buildings and impossible to shift.

The stirrings of an idea began to form as I studied the cars and the sound of gunfire in the distance solidified the need to use it in my mind. “Bring us in close Mitch,” I commanded as I undid my seatbelt. “I’ve got an idea.”

The engine growled as Mitch gave it some gas and the rig pulled ahead into the area directly adjacent to the mess of cars, he turned to face me as the rig stopped. “Alright, so what’s this idea of yours boy wonder?”

“I’m gonna go out there and pop all those cars into neutral,” I explained as I shoved Terry’s handgun into my belt and slung his rifle across my back; both of which I had taken off of him before we left the hotel and added to my own arsenal along with his extra ammunition here in the rig, it all made me feel quite powerful. “I’ll signal once I do and then you ram this ramshackle piece of crap with the rig, it should give after a few good blows. After that it’s almost a straight shot to city hall, just a left turn at the end of Summer Street.”

I expected him to guffaw in shock, even express mild surprise but instead he just grinned. “I’ll be ready.”

I took a deep breath and prepared myself before I popped the door and leapt out. The sounds and smells assaulted my nostrils quickly; the acrid stench of burning stung my nose while the popcorn staccato of gunfire and the screams of men, women, and children echoed in my ears.

I resolutely pushed both sensations as far as I could from my awareness and walked towards the line of cars, I held my rifle at the ready. As I drew level with the first car I could tell something wasn’t right: it was a beige luxury sedan with silver trim, the beige paneling had been pitted and gouged by debris and the exterior was covered with soot but that wasn’t what caught my eye.

The crème leather interior was bathed in blood: the driver’s window, steering wheel, seat and console had big red splashes across them; as if someone had butchered a pig.

My gorge rose for the second time today and I chastised myself for using an animal comparison again, I’d have to keep that in check unless I wanted to get sick every time I saw blood. I was still contemplating on whether or not I should try and move the abattoir of a car when a bullet punched through its hood beside me with a flurry of sparks and sound.

I hit the pavement hard and struggled to bring my rifle to bear as I spun onto my back; the encroaching darkness made it hard to see but the guy who shot at me was clear as day, he stood in the center of the fucking road and walked straight towards me.

I squeezed the trigger twice and a pair of red holes appeared in his chest, one just below the left collarbone and one in the middle of his sternum. He dropped to the pavement like a sack of wet laundry, his gun landed beside him with a clatter.

I scrambled to my feet and vaulted over to the driver’s side of the car, one rifle butt later and the driver’s window was in pieces; bloody or not, I needed to get these cars moving.

I tried not to smell through my nose too much as I hunted for the emergency break and then the gearshift; I shut the door when I was done and moved onto the next car, One down, two to go!

I stayed low as I did my work on the second and third cars, bullets hissed overhead and thudded into the cars around me. I had just busted out the glass of the last driver’s door when an explosion made me jump; I looked up to see an orange-red cloud engulf the area where the shots were coming from.

I looked towards the rig as I shifted the last car; the grin was back on his face again. My face stretched into a grin of its own; I was about to give him a thumbs up when a clanking rumble turned my stomach into a ball of ice, and what I saw mashed the smile into a twisted grimace of fright.

A fucking tank lurched around the corner; it dwarfed the rig by a significant margin and its treads ground up the pavement beneath it. The massive bore of its cannon was pointed at the building beside the rig and without warning it opened fire. The explosion knocked me on my ass; like a stalk of wheat in a tornado. Pain exploded in my body again as I smashed against the pavement, my ears rang and my vision greyed out.

I staggered to my feet and looked at the spot where the rig was; the explosion had picked it up and thrown it against the side of the building across the street, I watched Mitch as he kicked at the crumpled door twice before he gave up and crawled out through the shattered bulletproof glass of the front windows.

The harsh whine of servos snapped me back to reality, the tank’s turret rotated towards the rig. “C’mon Mitch,” I bellowed. “Move your fuckin’ ass!”

Mitch looked up at my shout, even in the darkness I saw him turn white at the sight of the turret turning. He struggled out onto the hood, grabbed his own rifle from inside and slid down to the ground. He landed in a heap on the pavement and quickly climbed to his feet, he started to run towards the barricade of cars.

The tank fired and the rig blew the fuck up; its structure was engulfed in a fiery orange explosion, a belch of black smoke poured out from the side hole like a chimney. The wave of pressure and heat picked Mitch up and threw him against the cars, he tumbled across the hood and landed in a heap only a few feet away from me.

“C’mon buddy,” I hollered as I pulled him to his feet. “We’ve gotta go!”

His eyes wouldn’t focus; I knew that he wouldn’t be able to walk. I snaked my arm under his and half carried him to the nearest door. I heard the familiar whine as the tank rotated its turret again, the sound terrified me and that terror inspired me to move faster. Mitch and I finally limped to the door; I let my gun hang on its sling as I pulled the handle, like a goddamn miracle the door opened and I pulled him inside.

I didn’t check to see what the building was, just kept pulling Mitch further inside. The room we came into was big but empty of people, it reminded me of the lobby of the hotel this morning. I hoped the tank hadn’t seen which building we went into otherwise we were dead, the door had closed on its own and I had gone as fast as I could with Mitch over my arm so I was…hopeful.

As I waited in the darkness with semiconscious Mitch, I realized just how loud my breathing was, it seemed to echo throughout the large, empty space. The tank had gone silent outside, I couldn’t tell if it had left or if it was just waiting for us to show ourselves.

After a few more minutes of silence I decided to risk checking through the door and stood up, before I could move a buzzing at my waist sent me back down into a crouch. I pried my phone free from its holster and studied the screen Caller: UNKNOWN. I hit the green talk button and brought the phone up to my ear, if a telemarketer was really calling me now, I figured the least I could do was hear him out.

”Don’t go outside, the tank’s still out there looking for you.” Her voice was calm, not even a trace of worry about the current situation.

“Who is this,” I hissed. “Why did you call me?”

”Irrelevant,” she replied to the first question. “As for why I called you; I called you to warn you.”

“About the tank?” I asked, the sudden mental image of me chatting on my cell while the tank blew a hole through the wall and saying Just a minute! caused me to bite down lest I start giggling.

”No,” the woman answered. ”In thirty-one minutes, the lights will shut off and they will not come back on.”

“What, like a power outage?”

”An Electromagnetic Pulse,” she corrected. ”It will destroy any and all active electronics that are not within shielded areas. You must continue on to your original destination of City Hall; there is a fallout shelter underneath the building, its construction will protect your electronics from the Pulse.”

My mind swam with all the information she had just told me, a pulse that would wipe out technology and only thirty-one minutes to get to safety from it! “How am I going to get anywhere with that tank outside waiting for me?”

”Floor plans of the building show a hallway directly adjacent to where you are in the lobby. Follow that hallway and you should come to a set of doors, those doors lead to the rear exit on the next street over from the tank. As long as you stay quiet, the tank will not know you are there and you can make your escape.”

“Ok,” I replied as Mitch began to stir. “Wait, what do I call you? How do I call you?”

There was silence on the other side of the line for a moment before she spoke. “Pythia, my codename is Pythia, you may call me that. You cannot call me, I will call you when the time is right.”

With that she hung up on me, as I brought the phone away from my ear I noticed that the caller ID had changed from UNKNOWN to PYTHIA. I snapped the phone back into its holster and hauled Mitch to his feet; I sure hoped this Pythia was right.


***

Mitch and I crouched behind a dumpster, we were in an alleyway directly across from City Hall. It had taken me the better part of fifteen minutes to haul Mitch around all the wrecked cars, piles of debris, dead bodies and other assorted crap that littered the street. Around the half way point Mitch was able to focus enough to walk on his own which made up some time but I still knew we were cutting it close.

Now that we had made it to City Hall we faced a new problem. “Where the fuck’s the refuge banner?” Mitch demanded a little loudly.

I winced at his noise but I shared his sentiment, the banner that had so alluringly proclaimed REFUGE was gone; the only letters above the doorway were the engraved ones of Hampton City Hall; did that mean they weren’t taking anyone in, or were they just trying to stay hidden? What if there wasn’t even anyone left inside, what if they had moved to some sort of evacuation center?

A rumble in the distance made my mind up for me, that tank was still out there fucking shit up and the seconds were counting down until the EMP; one way or another that place would be our refuge.

“How’s your rifle?” I queried as I released the mag in my rifle and inspected it, I had replaced the four shots I had taken over the course of the day.

“Locked and loaded,” Mitch answered as he slammed his own mag back home.

“Alright; stay close and stay ready,” I instructed as I stood cautiously. “We don’t know what could be waiting for us.”

I moved into the street quietly with my rifle ready but not raised, I wanted to be ready in case there were hostiles inside but I also wanted to be as nonthreatening as possible in case there were other survivors in there.

Mitch and I had almost made it to the doors when a voice from above stopped us. “That’s far enough,” the disembodied voice said. “Turn around and go away.”

It had become too dark to make out his features but I could plainly tell that he had a rifle pointed square at me, if Mitch or I tried to put our weapons on him he’d have me dead before I could even raise and Mitch not long after that…he had us trapped.
“Look buddy we’ve just been through hell out there,” I pleaded with him, careful not to move my rifle in any way that might be considered threatening. “We saw the refuge banner and came looking for shelter, that’s all.”

“No vacancies,” it sounded like he smiled when he said it, the words turned my gut into a ball of ice.

All of a sudden the door to city hall opened in front of me and I had to fight the urge to raise my rifle. “What the hell man,” said the guy who walked out; he was tall, lanky, and even in the darkness had some of the most impressive dreadlocks I’d ever seen. He could’ve easily been Marley’s twin brother…if Marley had been white. “That’s not how we do things here, if they’re not threatening us then we let them in!”

“Yeah and it’s stupid ideas like that that get you killed…and me along with you!” The Gunman’s aim never wavered from my chest, I knew that not even my vest would stop the caliber of round that would come out of that rifle…it looked long enough to be a .308 or a .30-06.

“That’s enough!” A third voice joined the commotion, female. This one was familiar, like I had heard it somewhere before- holy shit, it was the female voice I had heard at the hotel this morning just after the attack. What the fuck is she doing here?

“Put it down!” She commanded to the gunman a second time, her voice had even more bite to it. My knees wobbled with relief; the next sound was the distinct lowering and slinging of a rifle.

“It’s your funeral,” The gunman growled as he walked back inside.

“Come on in guys,” Marley beckoned to us from the doorway. “We’ve got food, medicine and shelter for both of you.”

I slung my rifle and turned to grin at Mitch, suddenly I remembered Pythia’s warning about the EMP. I pulled my phone out of its holster and checked the stopwatch I had set 8:22.

“We’ll have time for the amenities later,” I spoke quickly but calmly to Marley. “Right now though I need you to get everybody into the fallout shelter downstairs.”

“What…how,” Marley struggled with the flood of commands I was giving him. “Why?”

“Because in less than nine minutes the U.S. is going to go dark and the lights aren’t coming back on again,” I replied grimly as I gently pushed him inside. “Now c’mon, let’s move!”
I glanced at the girl, her large eyes were wide as she looked around the dark room at other survivors. I knew there was no way out of this uncomfortable situation as Clara's eyes remained fixated on me.

With an exhale, I stepped towards the girl. I caught her attention immediately, and the girl watched me step closer and closer until I finally towered over her. She offered a warm smile with eyes full of hope.

"Hey there kiddo," I muttered.

I was never great with kids. My whole life, I heard from friends, family, even the occasional stranger about how wonderful it was to have children; my mother in particular always informed me that she wanted grandchildren. Frankly, I never saw the appeal. They were messy. Ungrateful. Annoying. Dramatic. And so... dependent.

I cringed every moment I was around children, making this encounter all the more painful. I looked over my shoulder at Clara, now covered by shadows across the room. Even in the darkness, I could see and feel her gaze on me. I felt a chill run through my body as I looked down at the kid.

"So... uh..."

The doors burst open as Charlie burst through with a few strangers. He looked out to the crowd with eyes or worry and fear.

"We need to move! Now!" He ordered.

Worry erupted as people fished for answers.

"What do you mean?"

"What's going on?"

"Where are we going?"

Charlie raised a hand to silence everyone Surprisingly, it worked as everyone in the room quieted down. Charlie paused a moment to scan the room, looking at the large group of strangers before him. The dark room made many of the people silhouettes, mere shapes anymore, causing Charlie to pause slightly longer.

"We do not have much information on what is going on in Hampton..."

Gasps broke out across the room at this declaration. A few cried out. Many remained silent, too confused to emit a noise.

"What do you mean?"

"What about our homes?"

"What is going on?"

Charlie held up his hand again as he waited for the yelling to subside. "What we do know is that we are minutes away from being hit with an electromagnetic pulse. Because of this, it is crucial for us to get downstairs into the bunker."

Before Charlie could even finish speaking, people began making a dash for the basement. I looked back down at the girl and shrugged as people pushed past me.

"So... you... want to just head downstairs then?"

The girl looked up at me with puffy red eyes and tear stained cheeks.

My countenance fell as I sat on the bed next to the girl and put an arm around her.

"I-i-is my mom gonna be okay?" she whispered.

I groaned softly at the question. What was I supposed to tell this girl? That her mother was dead?

That I was there when it happened?

I was a stranger to this girl. I was the last person she needed to hear the truth from. Especially at this moment.

A ball formed in my stomach as I hesitated to speak. With each passing second, the ball grew causing my stomach to ache. The room spun as people flooded to the doorway. I could hear Charlie's voice trying unsuccessfully to calm the masses. I heard a gunshot. A scream. It was all a blur though as I remembered little else.

A firm grip brought me back to my senses. It was Clara.

"Come on! We have to go!"

After i situated myself in the old shelter in the basement, i dropped my bag next to the wall and sat down close to the bag. After a moment of catching my breath, i decided to check what i managed to save from the gun shop before that tank blew the rest to bits. So i reached inside and saw a couple of handguns, an assault rifle, a shotgun, a sniper rifle, enough bars and bottled water to last me a week at least, and a lot of ammo covering it all.


"Looks like i saved the good stuff anyway." I said as i reached for the sniper rifle and one of the handguns.


"Better claim some of this stuff for myself, just in case the others start asking me to share with them in order to stay. Not that i hate sharing with other people, but no one else was there to help me save this stuff when a frigging tank was looking me in the eye." I said as i put the guns away and tried to get some rest.


*BANG*


"Now what?! Can't a guy get some shut eye after nearly getting his body blown to bits?!" I shouted as i loaded the assault rifle and pointed it right at the door on the far end of the room. If someone came in here with hostile intentions, this place would be their grave.
I was not happy about this entire scenario. Not one bit. Not only were all of my personal contacts out of reach, but now I had to "play nice" with Chase. Not like I really had a choice in the matter to begin with. She was one of the best far as her line of work, Codex was the best at his and it was rumored I was the best at mine, although I'd debate that considering what I've seen. After she disconnected, I started my trek towards city hall. Getting that list from Clara was priority and I would need it in order to get out of this alive.

As I descended and exited the building, I had to try and get my bearings. City hall was a good distance from me at the moment and I had a long walk ahead of me. I burst into a sprint, barreling myself along the road in an effort to try and get there as fast as I could. I had to try and get close to city hall and get eyes on the building. Get up high, get the scope attached to Constance and keep an eye on what was going on. It wasn't in me to get close to crowds...I was too exposed and not equipped enough to deal with that. She would have to come out and meet me after her business.

I could hear the familiar clicking of metallic spikes along the ground from around me. The tank...just what I need! As the barrel came into view from one of the side streets, I ducked for cover. I couldn't afford to be caught and could only hope it wasn't heading for city hall. If we were on the same path, then it spelled disaster for everyone there. How the hell did anyone expect to beat a tank!? Luckily, it rolled on past me and I was safe for the moment. It didn't look like it was heading toward the city hall, but that could always change. I stood and hurried off, finally reaching the outskirt buildings.

Rushing in, the entire first floor was silent with abandonment. I thanked my lucky stars for that and ran for the stairwell, jumping some of the steps two at a time until I got to the roof and shoved the door open, rifle at the ready. No-one here either. Guess people want to avoid being near here. Setting my pack down, I grabbed my scope from it and attached it to Constance. She welcomed it gladly and it fit like a dream. Laying near the edge, I gazed through the looking glass towards the entrance.
"No-one in sight. No movement. Perhaps she's already inside. Better let her know I'm here."
I grabbed the laptop from the pack and set it down, flipping it open and typing the password fervently as I wanted for a connection. However, I could only notice the extreme sound of static my machine made...as if it had been fried.
"Dammit, don't tell me......great! just great...."
The population of City Hall poured down the steep steps, shoving and pushing into the underground bunker in a tidal wave of panic. There was safety in numbers, surely, but not when the numbers were made up of the terrified and the worthless. Needless to say, I did not want to stay here.

I watched the group file in ahead of us, waiting for the numbers to dwindle before attempting to take our place. We would wait for the EMP, and then we would go. I would get J his notes and get Caroline out of the city. Surely there was an abandoned house, or perhaps a family somewhere out of town who could take us in; who could help us while we waited for this massive shit storm to blow over.

Caroline tugged on my arm, and moved hesitantly into the abyss of chaotic darkness. We were as likely to be trampled as we were saved, but there was little I could say about it; I needed my gear intact or I wouldn’t be able to contact Codex. He wasn’t a lifeline I was altogether ready to give up, even if an EMP would most likely cut off contact with J.

“I know there’s a switch here somewhere.” I heard Charlie say to himself, his laid back tone a welcome reminder that at least some of them were capable of functioning. The heavy clank of a large lever rang off the walls and lights popped on, their old bulbs humming as they bathed the room in a deep sepia glow.

The space was old and rusting, its steal walls reinforced with pillars of brick. Piles of old office chairs, melting cardboard boxes, and traffic cones lines the walls; its use having long been shifted from bunker to storage.

The large steel door was pulled closed behind us, leaving me with an almost choking sense of dread as Caroline and I stepped out of the way, huddled against the wall. Caleb was still within arm’s reach, though he did not seem eager to turn his attention back to the girl. If anything, he seemed relieved by the distraction the two men from Talon provided.

Now there was an interesting pair.

The taller of the two, a handsome young guy with the look of a soldier, wrestled a heavy steal desk into place.

“You mind keeping an eye on Caroline a moment?” I asked, pulling Caleb’s attention our way again.

Caleb hesitantly nodded, “If it’s alright with Caroline.”

The girl agreed and he replaced me by her side. It seemed the pure association between him and her mother was enough to bring her comfort. I wondered if she would feel the same way once the news had been shared.

“Thanks. I’ll be right back.”

I turned my attention toward the men, helping the taller lift his friend onto the smooth steel surface of the desk.

“Thank you.” He mumbled, taking his friend by the jaw and rocking his head in such a way he could observe the wounds on his face.

“If you don’t mind the interruption, I think I can help.” I volunteered, my voice limited in the commotion of the space.

“You have a med kit? Something that can stop the bleeding?” The man asked, his voice auto-pilot calm and he lifted his friend out of layers of tactical gear, looking for additional injuries.

“I do.” I replied, pulling the unmarked kit from my pack and rolling it out on the desk beside him.

His eyes studied me a moment, “You any good with stitches?” He asked.

“I’ve had some practice, yes. It won’t be the prettiest, but it’ll heal well enough.”

“Let her help, Jack.” His friend groaned, the motion of being lifted enough to bring him into the land of the living, if only for a moment, “I feel like shit.”

Jack acquiesced with a nod, sliding to allow room for me to stand beside him.

“Alright handsome,” I began with a warm smile, lifting his cap to glance at the pooling wound beneath it. “This isn’t going to be fun, but I’ll get it over with quick, alright?”

“Whatever you say, beautiful.” He mumbled half coherent, slipping again unto an unconsciousness all parties were grateful for.

Without a word I went to work, all under the scrutinizing gaze of the tall and watchful Jack.

“What’s your name?” He asked as I secured the last of the stitches and tossed my gloves aside.

“Clara Chase.”

“Are you a doctor, Clara Chase?” He asked.

“No, but I have a few first aid classes under my belt.” I replied, nodding to the blood that seeped through his cap. “I can take care of that too, if you’d like. It won’t take a second.”

He shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ll be fine.” He replied.

A loud pop and the lights went out, causing an eruption of cries.

“Was it an EMP?” Someone asked, as the roar of panic muffling his words.

“Hold it, Hold it.” Charlie said, clicking on a flashlight.

Jack checked his cell, the glow of the blue screen illuminating his features. “I’ll be damned.” He whispered, “Right on time.”

“Maybe a breaker got tripped,” Charlie explained, trying to calm the mob. They were growing increasing uneasy, their voices rising as they stirred, ready to bolt.

“Someone should go out and check! We can’t just sit here in the dark forever!” Another cried out.

“What about the soldier? It was his fucking idea!” another answered, met by a chorus of agreement.

I pressed my palm to my forehead. These people were idiots.

“Calm down.” I commanded over the murmur, turning to Charlie “I’ll go out. If it’s a breaker I’ll reset it, if not, I’ll make sure you all are safe.”

Jack frowned, his head shaking, “Bad idea, Clara. Did we forget about the tank?”

“I certainly did not, but I’m quick. Does your radio work?” I asked.

He clicked a knob on the side and it came to life.

I pulled another radio out of my bag, tested it and slid it into my pocket, “Excellent. Mind keeping it on until I get back? Channel 2?”

Caroline appeared within the beam of Charlie’s flashlight, her eyes wide, Caleb in tow. “Don’t go out there, Clara.” She pleaded.

I smiled a warm, reassuring smile, “I’ll be safe. If someone is waiting for us out there, we want to know about them before the group gives up our position. I’ll find out what happened, come back, and we’ll get the hell out of here. Stay close to Charlie and Caleb, alright? I’ll be in contact with Jack here, he’ll keep you updated, right jack?”

His eyes were sitting with his friend, “Fuck.” He answered, lifting the radio from Mitch’s belt and handing it to Caleb. “Channel 2. Wake Mitch up every few minutes, okay? I’m not sure if he’s got a concussion. I’m going with Clara.” He slung one of the three rifles he’d carried in over his back and checked the magazine. “You armed?”

I nodded, “I have a handgun or two.”

He shook his head, taking another of the AR15’s and handing it over, a spare few magazines with it. “You need something bigger. Are you familiar with the AR?”

I nodded, slinging the rifle over my shoulder.

“Alright,” He said, rolling his broad shoulders in attempt to relieve tension, “Let’s get this shit over with.”

Clara looked good when she moved: a measured gait, a smooth rotation of her torso as she swept the stairway that led out of the fallout shelter, and the even sweep of her flashlight through the oppressive darkness; all belied a sense of familiarity with the weapon she held and the situation she was in.

She also had a really nice ass.

”If she's done it for you she'll do it to you.” Terry had said that once in the cab of the truck, as Mitch relayed the details of his most recent breakup. Terry hadn't been surprised when Mitch clarified that she had left her previous partner for him and subsequently had left him for another man, one far wealthier than he.

This time the situation was a little different even if the sentiment still applied. Clara Chase was the owner of the voice I had heard at the hotel, the one that had sent me diving for cover after I had taken down the guy that shot at me. Was she connected to him and his group, did she have hostile intentions, would she end up being more of a hindrance than a help to me?

From what I'd seen of her so far hostile intentions were about the furthest thing from what she had, not only did she stand up for us from the mystery gunman but she also stitched Mitch's wound. As for being a hindrance; even if the only two skills she knew were stitching wounds and using an AR she'd still be a huge asset, not that I thought for a second that those were the only two skills she knew. Would she use those same skills against me just as readily as she was using them to help me right now? Only time would tell.

Whether or not she was connected to the gunman's group at the hotel...that was something I'd have to keep an eye on. A shout from downstairs drew my attention, it sounded like the same guy I'd heard earlier behind one of the closed doors in the bunker shouting something about shuteye.

Speaking of keeping an eye on things!

My heart rose in my throat as I turned to head back down the stairs; shouting was never a good sign and Mitch was down there with dozens of others. I suddenly wondered if he was the same guy that held us up outside before Dreadlock Charlie and Clara told him off, the voice almost sounded the same. Clara's hand on my arm stopped me; she spoke as I turned to face her.

“They need us up here Jack,” her eyes shone in the glare of her own flashlight like twin pieces of jade. “Down there we can only keep them calm for so long, up here we can try and find answers…in the long run facts will be more persuasive than any words you or I could say.”

My face must have belied my uncertainty, the hand changed into a fist that socked me in the shoulder and her ruby lips parted to form a perfectly relaxed smile, her teeth were white and without imperfections. “They’ve got it down there; now c’mon, lets go see what’s wrong with the lights.”

I spared another glance back at the gloomy entranceway to the shelter, I could still make out agitated voices but it seemed like the shouting had died down. I turned back to Clara and nodded,

“You’re right, let’s go get this done. Keep going up the stairs, I’ll be right behind you.” I noticed the surprised look she gave me, “What?”

“All the private security guys I’ve worked with in the past always wanted to go first; impress the lady and all that crap.”

“You’re the one who volunteered to come up here and check things out, that makes it your safari.” I shrugged my shoulders. “Your safari, your rules; you won’t get any crap from me.”

“You’ve got a funny way of saying trust Jack,”

“It seems to me that if there were any logic to our language, trust would be a four letter word Miss Chase.” I let a tiny grin creep into the corners of my mouth at the bewildered look on her face; I guess she wasn’t a big movie buff.

After a moment’s hesitation she started up the stairs again only to face me again. “It’s Clara, Jack; call me Clara.”

I grinned and adjusted my rifle as I padded up behind her; for only having just met her and being shot at by people possibly connected to her, she was really starting to grow on me.

She stopped as she reached the top of the stairs and pressed her back up against the wall, her AR in a position of readiness. I slowed as I reached her and slid my own back against the wall,

“What’ve we got?”

“Tank.”

Her one word response made my gut clench; they’d found us. I tapped Clara on the shoulder and motioned her back when she looked at me, not that I didn’t believe her but I wanted to see for myself.

I poked the edge of my cap into the lobby until I could see the front doors; the all too familiar shape loomed outside the doors to city hall. I yanked my head back around: the rig in flames, they licked and lapped at the metal like a furnace from hell…the machine turned its gaze to me with a bore so large that the darkness inside of it was infinite; an abyss, an abyss that stared back at me.

My eyes focused on the bare white wall in front of me, I was back in the present. I shook my head hard and calmed my breathing, now was not the time to lose it…not when people were depending on me.

Clara didn’t say anything; whether it was tact or she was simply unaware I couldn’t say, I doubted the latter though as she didn’t seem the type to miss much. I readied myself and spun around again, my eyes alert and scanning.

The tank was still in the same spot, its barrel still pointed at the front doors. As I looked closer though I realized that the tank hadn’t moved at all. Something’s wrong with it! My heart leapt at the possibility of that metal monster reduced to a gigantic paperweight but how to confirm it?

I had the answer in a split second, I gingerly stepped out from behind the wall.

“Jack!” Clara almost shouted as she tried to pull me back inside. “Are you crazy?”

“It’s…not moving,” my normal voice sounded obnoxiously loud as it echoed through the empty lobby. “At all.”

“What,” Clara demanded as she stuck her head around the corner again; after she studied the tank for several seconds she came out of the stairway and stood beside me. “How?”

“The EMP?” I suggested; it seemed like the most logical possibility since the pulse targeted electronics…like the many specialized ones you’d find in a tank.

“Makes sense,” Clara muttered as she took a tentative step towards the tank, when it failed to react she took another. I followed behind her as we made our way through the darkened lobby; the unnatural quiet that stifled the lobby seemed to amplify our footsteps.

The bulk of the tank filled our vision completely as we reached the doors, Clara covered me as I eased open the left one and peaked out into the street. Power outages had been a common thing; they happened and you dealt with them but this was something much worse.

Not a single light shone in the city of Hampton: windows were black; billboards were dim, only the hellish red glow of fires illuminated the city. No cars traveled the streets; no planes flew in the sky, not even the hum of air conditioners could be heard; only the chirp of crickets and the hum of cicadas, it was almost…peaceful.

A scream and the echo of a gunshot in the distance brought me back to reality, right now the city was anything but peaceful.

“That sounded pretty far away,” Clara murmured. “We should probably hurry this up though.”

“I agree,” my hand went to the receiver mounted on my collar. “First just let me check in on Mitch and see if we can’t get some instruction on where this breaker panel is.”

“Jack to uh…Caleb,” I paused for a second as I struggled to remember his name. “How’s Mitch doing?”

”He’s not here right now,” A girl’s voice came over the radio, I recognized her as the one who had begged Clara not to leave. ”He had to go uh…take care of something. I’m here though, I’ve been waking your friend up every few minutes just like you said and he’s fine.”

Something in her voice was off but now wasn’t the time to start prying. As for wherever the hell that Caleb guy went; I just gave him one job!

“That’s good to hear uh…” I trailed off as I realized I’d never actually heard her name.

”Caroline,”

“Right; Caroline. That’s good to hear Caroline but I need you to do something else for me; Clara and I are up here trying to get the lights back on in the bunker but we can’t figure out where the breaker panel is. Are there any instructions or schematics down there that would tell us where it is?”

”Hang on a sec, I’ll go see if I can find anything.”

“How do you know her anyway?” I asked as I shifted on my feet. “Friend, niece, sister…daughter?”

Clara laughed out loud. “Jesus Jack, how old do you think I am?”

“Well I…” My face reddened. “I dunno, I just thought…I don’t know.”

“I found her hiding in a closet at the hotel I was in. I brought her here in the hopes of reuniting her with her mother…but I guess that wasn’t in the cards; to answer your original question though, she’s someone that this new world will destroy; she’s someone that I need to protect.”

A belch of static came over my radio and saved me from any more embarrassing and stupid questions of my part.

”The plans that I have here show that the bunker used to be hooked up to it’s own generator but that the city switched it over to the Hall’s grid to save money. One of you is going to have to go on the right side of City Hall in order to disconnect the bunker from City Hall while the other goes to the left side and restarts the generator…if the ancient piece of crap will even start.”

“Thanks Caroline, with any luck we’ll have the lights back up in a couple minutes.” I took my thumb off the talk button and looked at Clara. “Which one would you prefer; generator or breaker?”

“Leave the generator to me,” Clara replied. “I’ve got some experience handling machines; besides, if you do it we’ll be up here for hours while you and every other man curses and grunts trying to get it to work.”

“Clearly you’ve seen me work before,” I smiled. “Alright then, I’ll go for the breaker while you take care of the generator. Once we’re done we’ll meet back here.”

Clara nodded and slipped out the door and to the left; I came out right on her heels and turned to the right. I made it down the front of the façade and around to the breaker box without incident but I was confronted with a problem when I got there; I had no tools.

The breaker box was right in front of me, and I had no way to disconnect it. I adjusted my rifle in a huff of frustration, so close!

The rifle.

I turned the weapon around with a grin, lined up the butt with the middle of the breaker box. One; two; three swings later, and I was sure that the breaker box was well and truly ‘disconnected.’

As I took a step back to survey my handiwork I felt my phone buzz, I snatched at it and brought it up to my face. Lo and behold, the caller ID read: Pythia.

“I’m here.” I spoke into the receiver.

”Your phone survived the pulse, that’s good.” As was becoming her custom Pythia didn’t bother to introduce herself. ”The bunker will be a good place for you to spend the rest of the night, I will contact you tomorrow at noon with direction on what to do next. In the meantime, shut down your phone in order to conserve its battery.”

“I understand, “ the line disconnected with a click before I could say anything more.

I sighed with vexation as I blacked out the screen, obviously Pythia wasn’t big on details and thrived on cryptic clues, What have I gotten myself into?

“Are you all finished over here Jack?” The sound of Clara’s voice made me jump; I turned to face her with my phone in hand.

I knew she had overheard my conversation the second I saw her, her rifle was in a ready position, her legs spaced and her shoulders tensed. Confusion and suspicion played across her face both of which lost to determination.

“You going to explain that?” She gestured with her rifle, “And think very carefully before you try and lie about it.”

“Clara, I-“

”Clara get down here,” Caroline’s panicked screech came over both our radios. ”The lights are back on but people are fight-“

“Later!” Clara snarled as she raced back to City Hall, I followed right on her heels.

There would be a reckoning later; of that I had no doubt. Right now though; right now we had to try and save as many as we could.
As I watched Clara exit the bunker with another man, grumblings grew louder among the group. Charlie raised hands to calm people down. It worked.

Barely.

"They will be back shortly. Everyone just remain calm!" He yelled out into the darkened bunker.

The girl, Caroline, sat quietly beside me, watching the mob grow restless.

"What are we supposed to do?"

I looked at Caroline and paused. My mind thought through the many answers I could give her, but frankly... none of the answers seemed sufficient.

Or honest.

I simply shrugged and looked ahead.

"I... don't know."

"Well, I at least want to know what happened to my mom. I'm guessing you were with her when all this happened..." Caroline looked at me with knowing eyes. I shifted uneasily in her gaze, trying to avoid telling this girl of her mother's demise.

"You know... I better talk to Charlie and get an idea of what we're supposed to be doing," I said as I jumped to my feet and began walking away.

"She's dead... isn't she?" Caroline called after me.

I froze in my tracks at the girls question. My eyes wandered about the floor momentarily before I continued on in silence.

The mob pushed around a frustrated Charlie, getting close to engulfing the man into the mob. As I snaked my way through the crowd, I could feel the tension building in the dark, dingy bunker, and it was building fast. Voices rose higher and higher with each passing moment as Charlie tried in vain to calm the aggravated mob. Regardless, the verbal onslaught continued.

"Why do we have to wait here?"

"Why can't we leave?"

"What are we supposed to be doing?"

"What's happening out there?"

With each unanswered question, more questions would be asked. Finally, I found my way to Charlie and offered a gentle smile. Through the growing chaos, Charlie smiled back, although it did seem a bit forced.

"Charlie, I got a girl over here. She's a bit worried."

Charlie nodded. "Of course. I think it's safe to say we're all a bit concerned at the moment."

"Sure... sure. Any chance I can take her out? Before things get out of hand?"

Charlie shook his head quickly, his dreadlocks fluttering about. "We still don't know what's going on out there. No need to be concerned though; we have this situation under control here."

"But..."

My question was cut off as someone pushed me into Charlie. As I toppled onto Charlie, he staggered backwards a few steps before falling into a couple behind him. The couple's faces twisted and contorted as they gazed at the man who dared to fall into them at this moment.

"What the fuck?!" one of the strangers yelled before shoving another individual.

And then it started.

People around me began shoving, punching, pushing, biting... doing whatever they could to hurt the person next to them. All the tension boiled over as screams echoed throughout the chamber. Someone pushed me to the ground, where I laid for a moment as the chaos ensued around me. My eyes shifted around the room from the floor, where I managed to watch a man stab someone next to him repeatedly, blood pouring off the stranger's body and pooling onto the concrete floor below. The bloodied man crumpled to the floor in a motionless heap as the knifed man moved on towards his next target.

As I cautiously rose to my feet, my eyes met Charlie's. The man's eyes were wide in terror as he disappeared into the crowd.

"Fuck this," I muttered as I bolted for the doorway. I shoved someone to the floor as my hands grasped the handle to my escape. I shouldered through the door and sprinted up the steps where I could see the sun still poking through the windows. As I paused a moment to catch my breath, I could still hear the screams and yelling coming from the bunker.

It sounded like hell.

I slowly made my way to the exit and pushed open the doors. The fresh air filled my nostrils and filled me with a new rush of energy. I couldn't help but smile at the beautiful sight of war-town Hampton.

Until an arm grabbed me from behind.

I jumped as a hand grasped my wrist, before freezing in place.

"You're gonna take me to my mom, Caleb."

A sigh of relief escaped my body as I slowly turned to see Caroline staring at me. My mind tried to think of ways out, but good ideas became hard to come by. I could've run... or lied... or just told her the truth...

"Okay, but it's going to be a far walk."

Caroline nodded as she motioned for me to lead the way.

As we moved further and further from city hall, I could only think of the havoc that Clara and that man would be returning to. Or if anyone would even be alive...
A number of things happened while i was in the bunker. After i heard that gunshot and pointed the gun at the door, i soon saw it open up as a flood of people came rushing in. None of them seemed to be a threat, so i decided to put my gun away. Then a little while later, we all heard the sound of something going on outside. Most likely a breaker went off or something like that. And after someone sent out someone else to go check on the problem, that's when all Hell broke loose.


It was tight enough in here with all the motionless people. Start making them all fight for their lives and it starts feeling like you're six feet under. Someone had to do something to get these people under control. And if the people who were supposed running the joint weren't going to do anything, then i might as well do something.


So i pulled out one of the handguns in my bag and pointed it at a man holding a knife. He was running towards me, but i wasn't his target. That didn't stop me from pulling the trigger, causing everyone in the room to stop pushing and screaming.


"Everyone shut up! Now I've had enough of this madhouse! I'm getting the Hell out of here, and if anyone tries to follow me, I'll kill em!" I shouted as i pointed my gun wildly around the room, making sure everyone got the hint. And as soon as i made it to the door, i bolted for the ground level and back outside once again.
J watched through his scope as he watched the city hall. No movement, no sounds. It was like it had been completely abandoned. That was until he saw slight movement by the front door, just across from the tank that had rolled to a stop in front of it. He saw Clara, and she was with someone. He could tell by her cautiousness, although that could be from the tank as well. She ducked back inside and J cursed. He wasn't about to leave his post, not with so much action being present down there. No-one had emerged from the tank yet as they were probably trying to repair or radio for reinforcements.

Whatever had fried his radio and equipment probably did theirs as well. He couldn't contact Clara and they couldn't get help. Still, if anyone with half a brain of determination wanted to scrap or take from it what they wanted, then more than likely City hall was about to get rushed by the less than savory remains of survivors on edge.
Seeing more movement, he noticed it was Clara and some man. They were going around the sides of the building to what looked like the breaker box and something else, but he couldn't get a decent fix on it. He noticed the mans radio was working when he spoke into it and then shut it down.
So, some of the tech survived the scramble did it? I might need to see if I can borrow that.

After those two re-entered I noticed two people exit, soon followed by a third after the two started wandering off. Where did they think they were going? Did something happen in city hall? He sighed as he took his eye from the scope. He'd have to go down there. How else was Clara supposed to meet up with him after he lost comms? Standing up to toss his pack and rifle across his back, he started heading back to the stairs. This was a bad idea...he could feel it but he had no choice.
I stepped one foot after the other up the stairs once again, an arm wrapped tightly around Mitch’s waist as Jack and I carried him out of the bunker.

It was emptying as we arrived, the last people fleeing the darkness as quickly as they had entered it. Almost everyone left inside, including Charlie, was dead. Shot, beaten, stabbed. Some were even trampled in the chaos as the frightened sheep fled. Caroline was gone, Caleb with her, and I had no idea where they were.

I had made a promise to keep her safe, and in a feeling of crushing defeat I knew, unless by some miracle they could have found safe place close, I wasn’t going to be able to keep that promise.

I stopped on the stairs, “Let’s set him down a second, Jack.” I requested, hearing the distance in my own voice.

Jack complied, settling his friend against the wall before turning to me, his intelligent eyes questioning. “You going to try and find her?” He asked, his tone empathetic, as if he understood why I would abandon them.

I shook my head. I suppose I should have at least considered leaving, but Jack was still my best chance, even with his secrets. And as much as I hated to admit it, I actually wanted to keep him around.

“I’ll look for her when we get out there," I began, tapping the toe of my boot against the steps, expelling a hint of nervous energy, "but it makes no sense to go searching without a plan. No, if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to stick together.”

He lifted his lips into a subtle smirk, cutting a crease into the stubble at his cheek. “If you promise not to shoot me.”

“I suppose, but that goes both ways.” I allowed a grin, even if it did feel out of place, “Now that helpful woman on the phone recommended you take cover for the night. Do you have a suggestion on where we should go?”

Jack glanced down at Mitch and shook his head, “My apartment isn’t far, 5 miles south, maybe. If it’s still standing we’d be safe enough, but I don’t think we can move him that far before dark. Not on foot and not without hurting him.”

“If I can get a car running? Something small so we can move around roadblocks?” I asked.

Jack nodded, “Let’s find something older, the less electronic parts the better the odds of getting it fired up.”

I agreed, “Leave it to me. If I’m not back in fifteen go without me.”


The sun was an hour from setting, and it seemed all the world had the same instinct, to get inside before it got dark. The streets were empty of all but debris, allowing me to move quickly down the side streets and alleys, searching for the perfect getaway car.

And there she was. A 1979 diesel rabbit four-door in avocado green. It was old, got excellent gas mileage, and was tiny enough to drive on sidewalks if needed. Perfection. It would also provide a hint of much needed comic relief, seeing all six foot twenty that was Jack attempt to fold up inside. I actually looked forward to it.

Lucky for me the window was already rolled down, allowing me to pop open the lock and slide into the driver’s seat without the noise of breaking glass.
I searched briefly for the keys, and finding none, began to work on popping out the ignition cylinder. A tap at the passenger window quickly grabbed my attention.

Down the barrel of the AR I saw J’s familiar scowl. I unlocked the passenger door, allowing him to slide in beside me.

“Sorry J, things have changed. The power’s out.” I began, prying free the cylinder with a screwdriver.

“I noticed. I just need a lead. I can follow up in person.”

“I only have online contact info. Email, IM, phone numbers. But it’s useless. Nothing is going through.” I answered.

“You’re boyfriend got a call, so something must still be working.” He replied.

I stopped, turning to face him with a grin, “You were watching us reset the power in the bunker?”

“Of course I was.”

My smile widened. “Did you see a girl leave, about fifteen, black hair, hoodie, jeans?”

“With a dark haired guy? Young and fit and looking like he’d seen better days? Yeah, I saw them.” He answered, his tone growing increasingly irritated. As he spoke he rubbed a scar on his cheek with his index and middle fingers, as if the old wound, now reunited with the bitch that had given it to him, ached with a new vigor. I could feel myself beaming, which I am sure did not help. It didn’t matter, Caroline was alive, and she was safe with Caleb...at least as safe as she could be.

“You’re right, J. You are absolutely right. If you can get a call to go through, I will give you all the contacts you want. Hell, I’ll even give you one of my burner cells. Just tell me which way the two went and give me the night to compile the info. You’ll have to keep yourself alive on your own tonight, but I’ll meet you again tomorrow afternoon.”

“Give me the burner tonight. Either of us get pinned somewhere, call.” He replied, stepping out of the car. I dug through my bag, producing a small flip phone still in its original plastic packaging. I handed it over and raised my eyebrows expectantly. “They went north on 6th.”

Caleb’s house on Columbia. What was the house number? I patted my pockets, finding Caroline’s phone still tucked away with the address. Perfect.
I twisted the screwdriver in the ignition and the tiny engine came to life. Seems J was my lucky charm.

“If I’m still alive, I’ll call in the morning.” I answered, pulling his door shut and starting back toward City hall.

I let out a sigh as I leaned back against the wall; it served as a counterpoint to Mitch's labored breath. I didn't dare turn on a light for fear of attracting people to our position...moths to a flame as the old saying went. It meant that I was virtually alone in the dark with only my thoughts to keep me company,

This was your fault. A tendril of self-doubt wormed its way into my consciousness.

Shut up. I tried to banish it from my awareness, the images of the blood soaked bunker played in my mind like a sickening side show.

Your fault, your fault, your fault! The voice of self doubt ratcheted up further and my stomach knotted; images of the blood soaked abattoir beneath my feet played with crystal clarity. YOUR FAULT!

Fine! I screamed back, my mental voice paled in comparison to those of my fear and self doubt. It is my fault but at least I'm trying to save lives, I don't see too many others doing that!

My self-doubt remained silent, and the gruesome slide show faded. My mind was content to merely nag me rather than paralyze me for the time being. "Fine," I muttered to no one as I stood up. "Better than nothing."

My work shoes scuffed the floor as I took a few steps away from Mitch, Something tells me that these shoes aren't going to cut it for whatever mission Pythia has in mind, hopefully my boots are still at the apartment.

My thoughts turned from the apartment to Clara, she'd left to get us a vehicle so we wouldn't have to walk five miles across the city to my apartment. I appreciated that she had decided to stay for now, survival would've been much more difficult without her and definitely much lonelier.

Still, I didn't have too much faith that she'd fine a vehicle that worked. In a city like Hampton there was probably only a handful of cars old enough to have survived the EMP.

Who knows maybe she’ll get lucky and find a ’69 Charger painted bright orange and with a Confederate flag on the hood. I smiled at the thought of us roaring around the city and blasting Dixie. Ah well, I can always dream anyway.

I was about to sit back down with Mitch when I saw the long trails of headlights on the window and a labored growl that could only be an engine. I snaked my arm underneath Mitch’s armpits and lifted him up with a grunt, “C’mon pal, that’s our ride out there!”

I was much less enthused when I actually saw Clara’s choice of vehicle, “Is that a rabbit?” I almost dropped Mitch in my incredulity. “That thing’s gotta be as old as I am!”

“Beggars can’t exactly be choosers Jack,” Clara grunted as she put her shoulder under Mitch’s other armpit. “It runs; that’s all that matters.”

“Seriously though,” I continued as though she hadn’t spoken. “The last time I saw one of those things I was wearing cargo shorts…because I thought they looked cool!”

It was Clara’s turn to almost drop Mitch as she let out a powerful and extremely undignified snort, “You wore cargo shorts?”

This was going to be a long drive.

***

I hunched over in the passenger’s seat as I strained to look out my window at the apartment block I called home; the leg room wasn’t bad but the car had clearly not been designed with anybody over six feet in mind.

“Can you see,” Clara sounded as though she was trying to hold back a laugh. “Or should I get out and look?”

“Fuck this,” I grunted as I forced open my door and staggered onto the street, my back burned in relief as I stood, the clicks and pops that accompanied it were just as amazing. “Just as bad as fucking airline seats!”

“Is this it,” I heard Clara ask as she shut her door. “This your place?”

“Yeah,” It seemed like a lifetime ago that I had left this place. “It’s my place.”

“Should we leave Mitch in the car while we clear the way to your apartment?”

“My apartment’s on the fourth floor,” I spoke after a moment of thought. “I don’t know about you but I don’t really feel like clearing four floors, then coming back down, and then hauling Mitch up those same four floors. Besides, I didn’t know anybody in the complex that was dangerous and I don’t see any sources of light in the windows like candles or lanterns…we should be good.”

“Ok so how do you want to play this,” Clara asked. “We take turns with Mitch and clearing?”

“Nah,” I moved back to the shitty VW wagon as I spoke. “I’ll take Mitch and you clear all the way up. I think I’ll be able to handle Mitch a little easier than you and you’ve demonstrated your skill with a rifle; I trust you.”

It occurred to me what I had just said as I lifted Mitch out of the back seat; I had just told this woman who I barely knew and not half an hour beforehand had been ready to shoot me, that I trusted her.

Fair’s fair though Jack, you’ve kept things from her too and besides, she did stick up for you back at City Hall.

“You ready?” Clara asked as she cycled the action on her AR.

“Ready,” I replied as I banished the thoughts from my awareness and shifted Mitch in my arms.

***

My legs burned as I mounted the final step and the muscles in my shoulder ached as I shifted Mitch for what seemed like the thousandth time. “That door Clara,” I spoke through gritted teeth as I pointed the index finger on my free hand at a door to our left. “Number 425 is my apartment.”

Clara reached for the door but drew back in surprise as frantic scratching came from the other side; in a smooth motion she shouldered her rifle and aimed it at the door.

“No!” I barked as I all but dropped Mitch to the floor.

Clara flinched under the force of my yell as she turned to face me. “What the fuck’s in your apartment Jack?”

The familiar aeoooooo of Roscoe’s baying answered the question for her, I could feel the warmth in my chest as my mouth stretched into a massive grin. “That is Roscoe.”

I jammed my apartment key into the lock and after a moment of fiddling I flung the door open. Roscoe launched himself at me: an explosion of fur, tongue and nervous energy. “Hey buddy!” I scooped Roscoe into my arms and brought him up to my face, his nose and big, slobbery tongue seemed to find every part of my face at once.

“I missed you too, I missed you too!” I laughed as I pulled him away from my face and gave him a good scratch behind the ears. While I still held him I turned to face Clara; her face split with a broad grin.

“This is Clara,” I spoke softly into one of his big, flappy ears. “She’s our friend.”

Roscoe had pushed his snout towards her before I had even finished talking; while curious; Beagles as a breed were slow to warm up to strangers and Roscoe was no different, if Clara passed his sniff test then I would really know she was on my side no matter what came next.

Roscoe stared at her for a moment when I put him down before he cautiously waddled over, his snout outstretched to smell the hand Clara had extended towards him.

At first he was tentative but after a few good sniffs he warmed up to her and even let her give him a scratch behind the ears. I let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding, I don’t know what I would’ve done if Roscoe didn’t like her.

“C’mon,” I smiled as I gestured towards Mitch. “Let’s get him inside.”

***

One of the posters on my living room wall was crooked; I could see its askew outline through the darkness. I gave Roscoe a gentle scratch behind the ears as he slept on my lap; he hadn’t let me out of his site since we got in the door.

Fuck it, I thought as I stared at the poster through the gloom. The damn thing can stay crooked for all I care.

I could hear Clara’s light snore in my bedroom and Mitch’s labored breath with me in the living room; both were nearly drowned out by the torrential downpour that slapped against the glass panes of the apartment.

I slouched in my lay-z-boy chair while Mitch took the sofa and Clara took my bed, she had protested quite vigorously but in the end I convinced her to take it; it was the best place in the apartment to sleep and I sure wouldn’t be using it tonight, I had too much to think about.

It seemed like years since I’d set foot in this place; almost like a completely different man had set out from here yesterday for work, his half eaten toast smeared with peanut butter left on the counter of a reminder of his priorities that day.

Will I ever be able to be the man I was before, I clenched my teeth as my eyes burned and my thoughts turned to those I had killed. What if those men had kids, families, what if they were just guys like me: guys with shitty jobs, crappy apartments and dreams of where they wanted to be ten years from now?

My guts twisted as I realized the awful truth…all those things stood a good chance of being true. What made them so different from me then, why did they die and I live?

I was faster. A darker part of my mind answered the question, the same part that took over when I killed those men and the same part that would do so again when needed. That part of my mind was me though; the darkness that would kill without hesitation and the pangs of guilt and remorse were one and the same, they stemmed from the same man.

I let out a slight huff as I realized that the darker angels of my nature wouldn’t be solved in a single night…if ever; Roscoe stirred from his sleep at the noise and looked up at me, his dark eyes held a multitude of emotions: concern, confusion, irritation.

“Sorry buddy,” I whispered, no doubt he was probably irritated at me disturbing his sleep. He gave a yawn in response and settled his snout back down on my lap. Before he could settle in I gave him a second tap and started to push him away from me, I remembered that I still had 3/4ths of a bottle of single malt on the top shelf.

I listened to the light tap of Roscoe’s paws on the floor behind me as I made my way to the kitchen cabinets, along the way I passed by the pile of stuff we planned to take with us tomorrow. Once we had gotten Mitch settled on the couch and did what we could for him medically, Clara and I had gone through the apartment for anything that would help us out there.

Besides carrying for my job, I was somewhat of an amateur shooting hobbyist. While my collection paled in comparison to some of the other guys’ down at the range, I still had a decent amount of weapons I wanted to take with us: My Mossberg 590 A1 pump in 12 gauge; my Ruger American bolt in .270 Winchester; my Remington 870 in 12 gauge; and my Ruger SR9 in 9mm.

Those four, plus their ammunition; plus mine and Mitch’s company rifles and sidearms, plus their ammunition; plus whatever weapons Clara had on her made the beginnings of a formidable arsenal. I had left them all in a duffel bag beside the counter and suggested to Clara that we take turns shouldering its weight; I really hoped we didn’t have to use them…it was awful enough dealing with the deaths of just two men on my conscience, I really didn’t want any more ghosts.

Aside from the weapons: we had loaded up all the canned food I had; some clothes; some batteries that hadn’t been fried by the EMP; some electronics that had been off at the time, like emergency crank radios and flashlights that had escaped the EMP’s destruction, what dog food I had for Roscoe and many other things I couldn’t remember; they sat in two stuffed and oversized backpacks that next to the duffel. One of the packs we had to scrounge from my neighbor’s empty apartment…he had been an avid hiker.

I grabbed a glass from the cabinet and used my superior height to grab the Scotch from the top shelf; I unscrewed the bottle and poured myself a somewhat generous helping. After giving it a swirl, I tipped the glass up and drank deeply.

The familiar burn raced down my throat and warmed my cheeks; I hadn’t had good scotch like that in a while. Just as I was about to finish off the glass, I heard a gut-wrenching scream from the street…it sounded like a woman.

I slammed the glass on the counter and drew my sidearm; my rifle was in the duffel with all the other guns I had finished cleaning earlier. Roscoe’s snout pointed towards the window as he bounded towards it like the hunting dogs he descended from, eager to get a look at whatever had triggered his senses outside.

I put my face to the glass alongside Roscoe’s and scanned the area outside; I saw it at the extreme periphery of my right eye. It was two silhouettes, one looked smaller than the other but I couldn’t be sure.

The smaller silhouette thrashed and kicked; it was being dragged back into an alley by the larger one, the larger figure gripped it by its hair. A second scream rang out across the block that sent goosebumps up and down my arms and then they were gone.

I didn’t hear anything after that but my face remained glued to the window, my heart pounded. Eventually Roscoe even lost interest and wandered back to the recliner, he had more pressing concerns than unknown noises in the dark. I knew what it was though, what I had heard, what I had seen.

Clara still slept and Mitch still snored, even Roscoe’s breath settled into the familiar rhythm of sleep. I stayed crouched at that window for a long time, my hand gripped the butt of my handgun with fright. When I eventually did move back to the chair it was on unsteady legs with a white knuckled grip on my pistol.

Suddenly sleep didn’t seem like such a welcoming idea.
As my house finally came into view, I let out a sigh of relief as the long trek home would finally be over. The walk with Caroline was filled with silence, mostly of the awkward kind. I wanted to break the tension with light conversation, but with each passing moment, it just seemed more and more inappropriate.

"So this is your street, huh?" Caroline said, finally breaking the silence.

I nodded briefly as a sigh slipped out. "It sure is. Feels nice to be home."

"And my mom's in there?"

I responded with silence.

"So... what was with your passing out thing at the bunker earlier? Do you do that alot?"

I could feel my cheeks turning red as I shot a quick glance at her. "You... noticed that?"

"Yea, it was pretty weird. Are you, like, okay?"

"Kind of."

"Great. So the man that is leading me through a war-torn Hampton is sick in the head."

"What?!"

"I'm just saying. I really don't feel all that safe anymore," Caroline muttered.

I sighed at Caroline's ignorance. If only she knew.

"PTSD."

"Really? Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?"

I nodded.

"What happened?"

"I don't like to talk about it," I replied with a shrug.

Caroline accepted my answer with a nod as we walked up to my front steps, where my door stood wide open, inviting us inside.

It felt weird being back at my house. Just this morning, I had woken up with Linda in my bed, and now... now Hampton was being destroyed, Linda was dead in my house, and I was watching over her daughter. I placed a hand over the tan house paneling and rubbed the house softly.

Home.

"Are we going in?" Caroline asked.

I looked back at Caroline and nodded silently.

Caroline's gaze shifted through my front yard. She ran a hand through her hair and sighed.

"Should we... take a look around and make sure it's safe?" she asked, eyes staring off into the distance.

I smiled at the girl's hesitation as I placed a hand on her shoulder. "Actually, before we go in, we should probably check on my neighbor. I need to make sure she's okay..."

Caroline returned her gaze to me and nodded. "That sounds like a good idea."

As we crossed the street to Beverly's house, more and more questions flooded my mind.

What were we supposed to do now?

Would it ever be safe again?

How long would I have to watch over Caroline?

With each step, questions continued to flood and overload my mind.

It was painful.

Having no grasp on the situation. Or the future.

It made one feel helpless.

So helpless.

Caroline was a fool to think I could offer her any help. After all, I couldn't even save her mother...

Before we even reached Beverly's door, it flew open as the elderly woman stood in its frame with a bright smile and arms wide.

"Caleb!" she shrieked as she ran to me and threw warm arms around in me a tight embrace. "Caleb, I can't believe it's you!"

I failed to hide a smile as Beverly refused to let me go. "Yes... I had a little help here."

Beverly loosened her grip on me to take a glance at Caroline. Her eyes grew brighter at the sight of the young girl. Caroline shifted awkwardly as Beverly squeezed her in another tight hug. Beverly finally freed us both from her merciless embraces and ushered us inside. As I entered, I was hit with the smell of fruit-scented candles and warm cookies. Everything looked just as neat and tidy as before, a nice reminder that not everyone was lost in these dark times. Beverly gave me a once over and shook her head.

"Caleb, you need to go freshen up! You aren't going to impress any women looking like that!"

Caroline chuckled as she wandered to the windows overlooking the backyard. I could feel my cheeks turning red at the quip.

"I'm serious now, Caleb. I'll run upstairs and find you a change of clothes. I believe Donald might have some cargo shorts that should fit you!"

Before I could refuse, Beverly disappeared up the stairs, leaving Caroline and I alone. My gaze shifted to Caroline. A young child without a mother. I could only imagine the pain she was going through, hiding behind a veil of carelessness. In the moonlight, her silhouette gave a faint glow, making the young girl appear angelic... if only for a moment. My heart ached. Wanting to assure her that I would watch over her. Take care of her in her mother's absence. After all, it was my fault...

Caroline tapped on the glass and cleared her throat, breaking the silence.

"So... she seems nice."

"Yeah, Beverly and Donald were always like parents to me."

"I can see why. So who is that in the backyard?"

I stayed quiet for a moment. "Which one?"

"What do you mean? There's only one body out there..."
After i made it outside, i looked around quickly and started moving once again. I didn't care where i went at the time, only that i started moving and didn't stop until i found a safe place i could spend the night in. Then tomorrow, i could try to plan out my next move.


Some time later



"This is a load of bull. It must be almost midnight by now, and i still haven't found a safe place to rest." I thought to myself as i looked up at the moon. There were no clouds in the night sky, though some fires in the city were creating smoke clouds and blocking some parts of the sky, but not all of it.


"Guess i better keep looking." I thought as i rounded the next corner. And upon doing so, i saw a group of armed men talking around a trashcan fire which was right next to a dirty black escalade. I quickly ducked down behind a broken down truck and looked out from underneath it.


I could see three people around that fire. Among them stood a man in a fine black suit, a man in his late 30’s with dark hair that was just beginning to gray at his temples, and another man who's back was turned to me.


They were talking around the fire about something, but i couldn't hear what about from where i was. Then i saw them head back to their ride and begin to drive away. But before they pulled out, the man who had his back turned to me looked over in my direction and tossed something my way from out the window. It was a small black case from the looks of it, and then they all took off.


"What is this thing?" I questioned out loud as i looked closely at the case. And then i saw a note on the top of the case with something i was not expecting to be written on it.


Zack Dean.


"What the?!" Why does this case have my name on it? And why did that man toss it my way? Did he know i was here the whole time? If so, then why didn't he inform his friends?


In any case, i decided to see what was inside the case my new friend left for me. And upon opening it up, i saw a small black cellphone with a note attached to it. On the note was a list of numbers, and one of them was written in red ink with something else written next to it. It said, Call me tomorrow at 9:00 AM.


And if that wasn't weird enough, there was also a street address on the flip side of the note, and directions on how to get there from where i was. Just who in God's name was this guy?


"It couldn't be.....Rufus, could it?" As i began to ponder this new possibility, i decided to follow this bread crumb trail to wherever it led and hope it was somewhere safe.
I wanted to argue, to tell her that she wouldn't be able to call me because my radio and equipment was fried. All I had was my rifle, my bag of miscallaneous ammunition and little tidbits of other things I felt I would need. Bandages, food stuff that would last through times,I forget all what is in there sometimes.
As I watched her drive off, I sighed before turning around. I had to find someplace. The city hall was too obvious and there was a freaking tank sitting right in front of it. Still, he had to go inside and check for possible things he could use. A radio, cell phone, something that wasn't fried or dead. I crossed the threshold, hearing more people and decided to lean against a dark corner of the room and observe. It was a man and he looked in a hurry to get out. A couple other people came out after him and then the entire building sounded as silent as a ghost town.

It wasn't helpful to an already stressful state of mind. I headed down from where they came from and found a small gathering of trampled, stabbed and shot bodies. Blood had coated the floor and the bottom of my shoes were now coated in the crimson color. I bent down to search their pockets, finding one broken cell phone. Probably stepped on repeatedly. Darn it! Searching the next set I would find a crushed set of bagged snacks and another cell phone, this one luckily in good shape.
"Even has a decent charge. Nice."

I tucked the phone into my pack and then left the carnage behind. the sun was just starting to set when I left and I could hear frequent, and angry, voices approaching city hall. I bolted for a nearby alley to try and avoid any confrontation. I needed to get ahold of codex and figure out my next move as well as save enough battery for her call tomorrow.
I tapped a pen lightly against Jack’s kitchen counter, transferring a few well-chosen contact names from my tablet to a small notepad. Every name scratched down made me a little nervous; the wrong names shared and I could easily earn a bullet to the head, even if they weren’t direct clients. Hell, even without the bullet, if I shared the wrong name I would certainly be out of a six-figure job. A fixer who can’t keep a confidentiality agreement intact, well, that wasn’t a fixer you’d call.

Did I even want to keep working? Now that was a thought. If any part of world was still intact, I could withdraw my savings and leave. If I could find Caroline again, keep these boys alive, get us out of city and onto something new…It would be worth giving up the work. I had always done it because it was what I was good at, it was never a matter of enjoyment. Maybe the end of the world was the perfect chance for me to be the good girl.

If I was even capable of it.

I glanced over to Mitch, who had managed to move himself from the couch to the recliner. He sat bouncing his foot, flipping through a gaming magazine. It seemed the night of sleep had done him some good.

“How are you feeling?” I asked, slipping my still wet locks over my shoulder and taking a seat on the overstuffed and slightly out of place couch.

The set-up of Jack’s apartment was amusing to me; the comfortable furniture of a bachelor pad, set in the clean and well organized setting of a professional. It was a contradiction, just like the sweet, playful guy who took shady calls from people who knew way more than they should. He would have been so much easier to manage if he was as despicable as the men I was used to interacting with.

“I’m feeling right as rain, Little Lady.” Mitch replied, with a proud smile. I raised an eyebrow and smirked, my eyes finding a poster than hung crooked on the wall.

That was all that hung on the walls really. Posters. Landscapes and animals in fine photography print, advertisements for video games and the like. Not a single family photo. The only photographs at all consisting of a group of friends, or so I assumed by the settings and the multiple talon emblems on t-shirts and caps. One solitary blonde made multiple appearances, but they looked nothing alike, her and Jack. I assumed it was a girlfriend. I wouldn’t ask. It'd come up again if it was important.

“How recovered can you be, still using the term ‘little lady’ and not expecting consequences?” Jack brought my thoughts back to the room, stepping through the bathroom door with a smile. A small cream towel ruffled his brown hair as he scrubbed the water from it. He was freshly showered and clean shaven, looking rather put together, considering. The shift was emphasized by his switch from his Talon uniform to Jeans, a gray button up, vest, and black military boots. It was a look that certainly suited him.

It suited him so much in fact, that I started second guessing why my morning had been spent worrying about him.

When I had emerged from the bedroom just after dawn and found him still awake in his chair, it was clear he wasn’t fully okay. I could see it in his reddening eyes, in the weariness of his frame. Even Roscoe looked uneasy, shifting to adapt to his masters nervous energy. But cleaned up, he looked better; calm, controlled, and if I was honest, handsome in a way that could inspire a girl to make very bad choices. If there was lingering fear, or pain, or anger; he hid it remarkably well. Maybe that’s why I liked him. He could keep his head in the game.

I glanced out the window, watching the billowing smoke and listening for how frequent the gunshots had become. The population had thinned significantly I was sure, making those still standing likely harder to kill. It made me less than anxious to venture back out.

Jack’s cell phone buzzed in his pocket, and glancing to the screen his expression quickly changed. “I’ll be right back.”

I met Mitch’s gaze as Jack retreated into the bedroom, remembering suddenly my hesitance at trusting either of them. Mitch shrugged. “You can ask him about it if you’re curious. He likes you, I can tell, he might tell ya something.”

I smiled, squeezing Mitch’s shoulder as I passed into the kitchen. I lifted my cell out of my bag and tossed it onto the couch, sure J’s call wouldn’t be too far off. It seemed the outside would catch up with me either way.

“You have calls to make too?” Mitch asked.

“Yep. I have a meeting this afternoon.” I answered, scooping my tablet and notepad off the counter and taking my place on the couch again.

“I have a feeling it got canceled.” Mitch grinned.

“I made it after the world blew up.” I specified, finding no benefit in lying any more than was necessary. The more I spilled, the more they would trust, and the safer we would be as a team. “He’s an old co-worker, looking for a few contacts. I promised if he’d help me find Caroline I’d give him a lead.”

“Co-worker? What is it that you do?”

“Public relations. Basically, I make scummy politicians look less scummy.” I grinned.

“You get military training in public relations these days, or are you naturally a complete bad ass?” He asked, clearly trying to charm his way into more information.

I smiled. “Not exactly. I started as a body guard as soon as I finished my psych degree. The senator I was working for saw that I had a way with people and found me a job in PR. Said I was too tricky to just carry a gun. It’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Well, until the world went to hell.”

“And yet you are still carrying a gun. Ironic.” He smiled.

“You are feeling better aren’t you?” I grinned, interrupted by the call I had been waiting for.

“This is Clara.” I answered, not bothering to move into the other room. I doubted J would mention his history as a hit man, or the added layer of public relations I had left off of my resume.

“It’s J. Where do you want to meet?”

I glanced to the clock, it was just after noon. “I’ll meet you in two hours at the coffee shop on the corner of Halsey and Moss.” It was on the way to Caleb’s house, and would be close enough that I might even convince the bastard to play back-up, assuming the call Jack was taking would lead them in another direction.

“Fine. Two hours. Hard copies only.” The call ended as Jack stepped out of the room once again.

“She’s sending us to The Cascadia on Hawthorne. We have something there we need to get.” He said.

I felt my stomach turn. The popping of automatic fire, the pile of gore that covered the lobby. I could only imagine the smell now that a day had passed. The idea of the boys going, even without me, was enough to make my skin crawl.

“Shit Jack. You don’t want to go in there.” I said, rubbing the back of my neck, “It’s where I found Caroline. I don’t know who or how many, but a group came in with automatic weapons and killed almost everyone. It’s a fucking meat grinder in there.”

Jack frowned his brow a moment, as if working up the courage to say something. “Mind chatting with me for a second?” Jack asked, nodding to the bedroom door. I rose, straightening the crooked poster on the wall on my way.

Jack closed the door behind us and took a seat on the bed, his elbows resting on his knees. “Can I ask you a few questions about it?” He asked.

I nodded hesitantly. I was getting flashbacks to our first conversation, filled with suspicion and doubt. I was unsure what inspired it, and why he didn’t want Mitch present for the conversation.

“You said you found Clara in a store room?” He asked.

I nodded.

“Which one?”

Strange question. “One that connected to the room behind the front desk.”

“How did you get back there? And please be honest with me, Clara.” Jack’s voice wasn’t without kindness. If anything it seemed he was hoping for the right answers.

I crossed my arms over my chest, suddenly wondering why I should answer. Yeah, Jack was my best shot. He gave me some tinge of hope, or maybe it was some other emotional bullshit that inspired me to play nice. Either way, I decided I didn't have a reason not to, at least not at this moment.

I relayed the details of the Hotel, including that I had a consultation with a congressman, who had left Caroline and myself in an alley and bolted in a black Escalade. “Why do you want to know?” I asked finally. None of it was a secret, but his questioning, especially under the circumstances, made me uneasy. And I hadn't forgotten I still needed a few answers of my own.

“I was there on assignment with Talon yesterday morning. I was in the lobby, took out one of the gunmen, got knocked out and woke up to your voice. I need to know why you were there. I needed to know that you weren’t,”

“That I wasn’t a murderer? I hadn’t already made that clear?” I asked, unable to stifle a grin. Even at my very worse I wasn’t a murderer. A killer, unfortunately, but not a murderer.

“Sorry Clara, I just needed to know, before I went back there.”

“I?”

“Yeah, I'm going back, I don’t have a choice in that, I'll bring Mitch, but I’m not taking him in. Awake or not he’s not ready to be on his feet. I just assumed you didn’t want to go.”

“Oh I’ll go." I clarified, gathering my freshly washed clothing off the rack and folding them, "I’m not leaving you to clear the place alone while Roscoe and Mitch sit outside. No way in hell. But since it’s time to clear the air, I suppose it would be a good time for me to ask about the woman on the phone?”

Jack lowered his head, as if anticipating the conversation wouldn’t go well. “Pythia. She told me her name is Pythia.”

“Fine. Pythia. Is she your employer?”

“No. Mitch and I work for Talon. I don’t know who she is. She called and told me about the EMP. I believe she can help us so I’m going with it.”

“Alright.” I answered.

“Alright?” Jack asked, meeting my eyes and for the first time since the call cracking a hesitant smile, “You are going to just believe me? Really?”

“One thing I am very good at is spotting a liar. I work with fucking politicians, I have a lot of practice picking out the bullshit. I know you aren’t telling me everything about who you are, or what is happening with Pythia, but that’s fine. I only care that what you do choose to share is the truth.” I shrugged. “And that you won’t kill me.”

“And what you told Mitch, about being a body guard before going into PR? That’s the truth too?”

So much for being out of earshot. I smiled, suddenly feeling a bit more impressed with Jack. “It’s not the whole life story,” I admitted, testing the waters, “But yes, it’s the truth.”

“So you’ll go with me to the Hotel, help me retrieve what it is Pythia wants me to retrieve, and then what?” He asked, standing.

“Then you continue on with me if you can. Meet the co-worker I am sure you heard about, and continue on toward Caleb’s house to find Caroline. If Pythia sends you elsewhere after that, fine. But I want you to cover me just like I am going to cover you. Do we have a deal?”

Jack smiled, in a way that suddenly made our relationship feel honest. “We have a deal."
Blood roared through my ears; my breath came out in short, heavy gasps; and the pack I carried slapped against my back as I ran for the entrance to the Cascadia hotel. A shout from behind sent me careening to the left, a bullet snapped through the space I had just vacated and slammed into the masonry ahead with an explosion of dust.

I bent over double and used my momentum to slide behind a mailbox; the steel was hot to the touch, even through the fabric of my shirt. Clara dove around the corner and slammed her back into the mailbox, seemingly unconcerned by the hot metal. Mitch was right behind her; he slid into cover behind the box like the goddamn batter that he was sliding into home.

Some ‘waste of time’ the company team turned out to be, Mitch probably said that to keep me from getting in between him and that redhead, bastard. What started out as a warm morning had turned into a scorcher of a day; it was too hot to deal with the bullshit these guys were throwing at us.

I sat against the box for a minute and collected myself, I panted like a dog in heat. My back stiffened against the box as I realized who I’d left behind when we ran for cover, Roscoe!

I peeked out from behind the box to scan the street for my canine companion and almost got my head blown off for my troubles; in the few seconds I had to look around I didn’t see Roscoe anywhere in the street.

My stomach lurched as I turned to Clara; I was about to yell that Roscoe was gone when I saw a large lump that she hugged tight to her chest…a furry lump.

“Nice save,” I yelled as a shot spranged off the mailbox.

“He looked so damn cute,” Clara hollered back with a grin. “I just had to have him.”

“Jesus Christ,” Mitch’s yell was laced with exasperation. “We’re being shot at here! Can’t you two find a room later or something?”

“Right,” I made a mental note to kick Mitch when his guard was down. “Clara; you, Mitch and Roscoe make a run for the hotel on my signal; I’ll cover you from here. Once you’re set up, you cover me while I run for the entrance.”

“I should stay with you, help cover Mitch.” Clara replied as she hefted her AR.

“More trips means more chance for one of us to get shot,” I spoke through gritted teeth as I readied myself. “We don’t have time to argue Clara, just get ready to run!”

I felt a twinge of guilt as she flinched in surprise but only a twinge; our lives depended on what we did in the next few moments.

“Ok on three,” I gripped my rifle. “One, two, three!”

I burst from behind the mailbox and fired off a handful of shots at the source of incoming fire, more to force their heads down then do any real damage. I noticed the still shape of the Rabbit in my peripheral vision as I fired, tendrils of smoke trickled from the bullet holes in the hood.

I squeezed the trigger again, and again, and again; the AR dutifully discharged a round each time. After about half a magazine’s worth of shots I ducked back behind the mailbox, surely I had given them enough time to make it into cover.

The return fire was swift and brutal, bullets slammed into the metal bulk of the mailbox; the crack and metallic sprang of each round was bad enough but five of them continuously was deafening.

Through the storm of fire I could see Mitch and Clara as they huddled behind the entrance to the Cascadia; they’d made it, my friends were safe…for the moment. The thunderous cacophony of fire suddenly intensified, it took me a second to realize that it was from Mitch and Clara.

“Come on,” Clara hollered as she snapped off another shot.

Gotta roll the hard six, My gut clenched as the thought rolled through my mind, I could die in the next few seconds.

I shoved the doubt from my mind, stumbled to my feet and ran: my insides knotted, my heart pounded, blood roared in my ears, and I ran. Bullets ripped through the air as I continued on my mad dash towards safety; their presence more felt than heard.

The rubber soles of my boots scuffed on the asphalt as the shapes of my friends drew closer. Closer and closer until I was suddenly right beside them, my boots scraped across the debris scattered on the floor as I sprinted into the building.

I bent over double as I struggled to collect my breath, that short sprint had left me more winded than any race. A hollow boom came from behind me as Clara and Mitch heaved the lobby doors shut, barricading them with whatever they could find.

By the time I had straightened up again they stood beside me, and Roscoe at my feet; his canine features seemingly animated with concern. I gave him a little scratch before I turned to face my friends.

“Let’s get to the vault and then get the hell outta here, these doors won’t hold them very long.”

They nodded and we walked deeper into the hotel; there was work to be done.

***

The vault was dark and stuffy; not the ideal conditions to exist in, let alone search for what could best be described as a ‘needle in a haystack.’ At least Pythia had given me a bag number; that helped narrow it down.

“How’s it going in there buddy?” Mitch called from outside the vault; I had made sure both of them stayed outside while I searched, the less they knew about all this the safer they were. “We can hear them trying to get through the doors now.”

“Almost there!” I called as I heaved the bag with matching number down from the shelf, it landed on the floor with a satisfying thud. I undid the string and upended the bag, and millions of dollars in cash spilled onto the floor.

Where a lesser man might have been consumed by greed and focused solely on the money, I focused on everything but the money; my experience working with it largely immunized me to its alluring effects.

I pawed through the stacks of bills looking for the match to the photo Pythia had sent me this morning, after about a minute of frantic searching I had found it. I shook my head as I held it up to the light, For something so important it really is quite small.

“Come on Jack,” the urgency in Clara’s voice made me jump. “We’ve gotta go now!”

“I’m coming,” I shouted as I shoved the object in one of my pack’s pockets, I hoped it would be safe there.

“Did you get…whatever it is that you came back here to get?” Clara asked as I stepped out of the vault.

“I got it,” my voice carried a grim note of satisfaction as I shouldered my pack. “Now let’s get out of here.”

“How about through the back?” Mitch chimed in. “It looks like there could be a maintenance exit that way.”

“There is,” Clara confirmed as her eyes followed Mitch’s pointing finger. “It leads to an alley on the other side of the hotel, it’s how Caroline and I escaped from here the first time.”

“Lead the way then,” I gestured with a wave.

“Just remember,” Clara’s gaze seemed to bore holes into me. “Once we’re away from here you’re coming with me to watch my back while I meet with my co-worker and then again to Caleb’s to find Caroline.”

“Of course; we have a deal after all.” I allowed a slight smile. “Though if you need us to watch your back with your co-worker maybe it’s time you found new work.”

“I’m trying; trust me.” Clara muttered as she walked towards the exit, Mitch followed and I brought up the rear.

Roscoe did his damndest to stay close to Clara as we made our escape from the hotel; at first I thought it was because that he really liked her, then I remembered that her pack had the dog food in it.

So much for man’s best friend, I smiled; it soured quickly as I thought about Clara's current situation.

I really hoped we'd find Caroline safe and sound; for Clara's sake more than anything else.
I slept uneasily, waking up every hour or so to check my surroundings. I had taken cover, for what little it helped, inside a trashed and looted apartment. Each noise outside jerked me awake and had me reaching for my rifle but each time it was some animal outside or some shadow bolting across the street to another location. When the morning finally came, I grabbed the radio and tried to get a decent connection.

Yesterday had proven uneventful for getting ahold of Codex, but maybe today I would have more luck. As the sound of static filled the room, I tried to radio in. "Codex, you there?" I got no response. "Cod.." "Shut up. Don't say anything J." He sounded panicked..what was going on? I waited for a couple minutes before Codex came back on. "You're in trouble J. We all are. Boss is terminating our contracts." My eyes went wide. "The entire squad!? Why!?" I could hear sniffling..was codex crying? "He said with everything that was happening his companies and assets were compromised, started getting paranoid and suspecting us of going outside the company for better pay and stuff. Once he knew you contacted Clara Chase, he flipped and ordered hits on Zapper and Widow. The...they're both dead."

I sighed. Zapper and widow....both executed? Boss must have lost his mind to kill them. "Codex, I need..." I could hear shouting in the background. "Oh god...I think he found me J. You're next...he won't stop...." A loud crashing followed by the sounds of screaming and gunshots. I stayed silent in case the heavy breathing I could hear wasn't Codex's. It wasn't once the voice spoke to me. "J? I presume this is you...you turned on me and now I'm coming for you. I lost everything and now you're going to too...."

The line went dead. My blood felt cold and that was hard to do. Boss, even with the loss of the four of us managed quite the set of killers and hired thugs. Having them come after me was going to be troublesome, but knowing him like I did...that meant he had sights of Clara and those with her as well. Anyone I might have associated with was at risk. Boss wanted to clean house and scrap the entire thing, or at least what he could manage before he went down fighting.

I had to contact Clara. After rerouting the signal so it wouldn't be tracked, I heard Claras voice. "It's J...where you want to meet?" Maybe I could use her contacts to get out of this..or at least make the final fall on more even terms. When she mentioned the coffee shop on Halsey and Moss, I knew the place. Often a meeting ground for their type to trade info or meet contacts. What irony there Clara. "Fine...two hours. Hard copies only." With that, I hung up and started towards the shop. I had to make sure it was clear of any annoyances and get a position where we could talk, but still let me be protected in case her companions got any bright ideas.

The entire place was dark inside, power probably shut off with the emp. Suppose I should consider myself lucky I got that internet connection this morning. Going inside, the entire place was pitch black and various cans and canisters of coffee grounds were scattered everywhere. Getting behind the counter, I had the perfect position. Away from the door that led to the back, cover from the side door and the front door and hid well enough from the bright outside that I wouldn't be seen right away. When Clara finally showed up, i had a tiny bit tempted to fire off a shot but I did tell her I would play nice. Even assassins had their word and I gave it. Still, I had to let her know her position as she entered and I clicked the bolt action of my rifle to let her know she was not alone inside.

"Hello Clara. Do you have my contacts?" She would eventually see me standing behind the counter, my rifle resting on the counter-top level with her. Especially after this whole thing with codex and the company going to shit, I was not in the mood for trusting or taking chances. Clara had been playing fair so far and I had to give her that, but now the game had changed. New players coming into the game and I had to prep myself for them...and prep her as well.
We approached the coffee shop on foot; not my preferred method of travel after having the luxury of a few inches of steel between myself and the armed and terrifying new Hampton. But we had no choice, the Rabbit was shot up and we were on a tight schedule. After the meeting with J I would try to find something else.

“So what’s the plan?” Mitch asked, jogging a step behind Jack and myself. He was keeping up well enough considering, and even managed to move with Roscoe tucked under one arm.

I shrugged, no real thought-out answer to give. “Go in, trade info, and get out as fast as we can manage.” I replied.

We crossed Moss Street and approached the blacked out windows of the corner coffee shop. The door was ajar and damaged, giving me a suddenly overwhelming uneasiness at the prospect of bringing the guys in with me. Especially with J already inside.

I ducked into a small alcove in the building next door, sliding my pack off my shoulder. The guys were stepped in behind, moving close enough to stay out of view of the street. I could not appreciate more having well trained men at my back. It was as close to heaven as I could ask at a time like this one…which was why I wasn’t going to risk them. “On second thought, guys, you should wait out here. J’s jumpy. I don’t want to risk you getting hurt.”

“Would he try to kill you?” Jack asked with a raised eyebrow, as if contemplating whether or not he was going to let me go in alone.

I frowned, torn for a split second between the truth and….another, nicer version of the truth. But we had made a deal.

“He might,” I answered, “He can be jumpy. But he’ll certainly be less jumpy if he only has me to worry about.”

“Makes sense.” Mitch sighed, glancing out of our little alcove to ensure we weren’t followed. These two were fucking gold.

The phone on Jack’s hip rang, and being in as close proximity as we were, the name ‘Pythia’ was difficult to miss. He picked it up, his brow knitting as Pythia began.

“I’m sorry?” He listened more intently, lifting the phone away from his ear and presenting it. “She wants to talk to you.”

It was certainly not what I expected. “…Alright.” I answered, taking the phone from Jack and placing it to my ear.

“Clara Chase?” I heard a woman’s voice.

“Yes. Pythia I presume?”

“Listen closely Miss Chase, we have a few rules you need to understand.” Pythia began directly, “You are never to contact me, or attempt to do so. I will contact Jack only, and if I need to speak with you, which I plan to never do again, I will request it, though his line. He is my contact. I will speak with no one else. Am I clear Miss Chase?”

She was certainly clear. “Understood.” I answered.

“I understand your employment history, and for the time will not share the more….illegal aspects with Jack, but you will need to do so soon.”

“Why is that?”

“Don’t interrupt Miss Chase. The contact you are meeting today, J, he is being hunted by his former employer. This man has already eliminated a number of J’s team. We believe it is because he contacted you.”

“Shit.” I whispered to myself, not again making the mistake of interrupting.

“Because you are associated with J, you are considered a target, along with Jack, Mitch, even the girl you were looking after. I am attempting to clear up this little issue as we speak, but you need to know that for the moment none of you are safe. This former employer is very, very, well connected, Miss Chase, and will happily do the things even J would refuse to do. I recommend you proceed with your current plan with extreme caution. Jack especially needs to stay alive. Understood?”

“Understood.” I answered. The line disconnected.

“How on earth did you find her?” I asked, handing the phone back to Jack.

“She found me. What the hell was that about?” Jack asked, more than a little interested.

“She knows exactly who I am, who I am meeting, and informs me that his boss is going to try and kill the whole lot of us because of our association. You have to believe me I never expected to bring you into this. I’m sorry. She’s going to try and sort it out, but in the meantime…”

“In the meantime?” Jack asked, his thumb and index pinching the bridge of his nose as he worked out the added element of being hunted.

I hesitated a moment. I couldn’t just tell them my whole checkered past and expect them to still be there when I got out. It would have to wait. “In the meantime we need to stay close. You’re out of the way here, but the second I get out we need to get to Caroline. Somehow J’s dickhead of a boss has his sights on her as well. I can’t just leave her with Caleb and no warning, Jack. I can’t do it.”

“Agreed. Go do what you have to do, we will cover you out here. Be quick, Clara. We’ll come in if we hear shots.”

“Only if they keep going. You hear two rounds and nothing, then keep the hell out.”

He nodded. God I love a guy who won’t let some ancient chivalry interfere with good decision making. I found myself hoping my little explosion of honesty wasn’t going to ruin the relationship.

I turned to the door a moment, taking in a slow breath as I wrapped my head around the plan with J. I did not like when J was on his turf, and the odds were good he’d have beaten me here. That and unlike our last meeting, he knew I had what he wanted in a way he could access it even if I was dead. Not the perfect scenario for yours truly.

“Be careful, babe.” Mitch whispered with a grin. Always one to try and lighten the mood.

“Always am, sweet cheeks.” I answered sarcastically, swinging the AR over my shoulder and drawing the full size sig pistol instead. I turned and gave Mitch a quick hug, suddenly feeling like any moment would be the last I’d spend with them, and getting just a tad sentimental about it. It was odd, especially for me, but I went with it. Why the hell not when you’re about to die. “Be safe, you sexist pain in my ass.” I smiled.

I turned to Jack, who pulled me into a quick and surprising embrace. Our height difference felt even more significant as I sunk into his chest, the smell of gunpowder and aftershave giving me the slightest inclination to linger.

“Don’t be dumb.” He said with a smile in his voice, resting his chin on my head a moment.

“You either.” I grinned, pulling away and slipping down the street.

The darkness of the coffee shop was surprising. And thankfully, enough to provide me some concealment. Unfortunately it also greatly interfered with my seeing anything. Already I felt as if I was on uneven ground. Not a great way to start.

I clicked on a flashlight in short bursts, not wanting to give away my position for too long. Finally I caught the silver ring of Constance’s barrel sitting above the counter in the back, the click of the bolt action telling me J was on the other end. And so it began.

“Hello Clara.” J’s voice joined the darkness as I clicked off the flashlight and slid it into my pocket, “Do you have my contacts?”

I wanted to strangle this asshole for ever contacting me, for getting me on his insane boss’s shit list. Lucky for us both, I resisted. “Yeah, I have them. You mind moving Constance just slightly? She’s giving me a nasty look.” I asked, returning my gun to its holster. He moved to rifle a few inches, positioning the barrel to stare down the door. The door through which Jack and Mitch would enter if I got into trouble. It didn’t make me feel any better.

“Your boys with you?” He asked.

“They aren’t too close.” I answered, taking tentative steps toward him with my hands empty and hanging at my sides. I was sure he could see me well enough, even if coffee beans crunching under my boots didn’t give my location away.

“Let’s keep it that way, hm?”

“That’s the plan, J.” I answered. It was amazing how quickly I felt myself slipping into my old role already. My posture changed, my voice changed, even the inflection of my words grew quick and cold. So much for getting the job out of the girl.

“My contacts?” J asked again.

I drew the folded piece of paper out of pocket and lay it face up on the counter. J clicked on a small flashlight of his own, for the first time illuminating his features. He looked tired.

“Any of them mob contacts?” He asked.

I shook my head, “No, but these three might have contacts of their own.” I circled the three with my finger. “If you’re trying to contact the Mob why not go through Codex, or that fucking Boss of yours? They have better connections there than I do.”

I wanted to see just how honest he was going to be with me. “Not an option at the moment.”

“Codex got his stuff fried, hm?” I asked, making light conversation as J perused the list. I was sure he could feel my eyes on him.

“No, boss killed him.” J answered after a moment, his eyes never leaving the page. I hadn’t heard about Codex. That one stung a bit.

“I had heard something about him killing off your team.” I answered, as if the words themselves didn’t make my blood boil.

“He did. Best keep an eye on that little team of yours. The kid as well. Odds are he will be looking for you too.” J answered, circling a name or two of his own in red marker.

I ran my fingers through my hair, “Why do you think that is, J?” I asked. I was sure now my tone, as calm and perfect as ever, was all the hint he needed to the fact that I was two seconds away from putting a bullet between his eyes.

“When I contacted you, he thought I was going rogue or some shit. He’s got connections, Clara, but you figured that out I’m sure. How else would I get all the thrilling work I’ve been getting?” J answered, his tone as much of a red flag as my own. Ah well, this was how we always interacted, before the stabbing and shooting started, anyway.

“Well, I’d appreciate a call to get me and my team the fuck off that list, J.”

“I have no way to contact him. Codex was my only link.” J answered, tucking the paper into his pocket.

“Fair enough. Maybe mention it if he hunts you down, then.” I said, turning my back on him and starting toward the door.

“Is your phone still working?” J asked, lifting Constance off the counter.

“It is, but with all the power out it won’t last me long.”

“Can we make another deal?”

“What, this deal only got you on one hit list and you want to try for a second?” I asked, opening the door.

“Share any info you have, and I’ll share mine. He shows up at your door and I want to know about it, and I’ll do you the same courtesy.” J answered, turning toward the opposite door.

I hesitated a moment. It would be foolish to refuse. “Fine.”

I stepped quickly onto the street and found Jack in the front seat of an old Jeep Cherokee, a grin from ear to ear. We had passed it, not twenty feet before the alcove, and he had managed to get it started.

“You can hotwire a car?” I asked with a smile, slipping into the front seat.

“No, the keys were in it.” He answered, “Wait, can you?”

And so it came up again. “Let’s get to Caleb’s, I have a few things to tell you on the way.” I answered, setting my rifle on my lap and tucking my bag onto the floorboard. Roscoe wagged his tail from his perch on the center console, surely convinced this was just a roundabout way to get to the park. Mitch was buckled in the back seat, sharing his space with the packs we can carried from Jack’s apartment. He was already making himself comfortable against them, his rifle at the ready but his posture relaxed.

“Alright.” Jack answered, his eyes never leaving the road, “What do you need to share?”

Fuck. How should I ever start? “I haven’t been fully open with you Jack.”

“I figured, Clara.” Jack answered, four-wheeling over a sidewalk to avoid an overturned car.

“I am not just PR. I am, God a hate the term, I am a fixer.”

Mitch perked up from the back seat, “No kidding, for real?” He asked.

“Yeah, but I have my limits.” I clarified quickly. Hopefully Jack would be as amused as his buddy. Maybe Mitch’s knock on the head had actually helped my cause a bit. Either that or he watched too much T.V.

“A fixer.” Jack growled, “So you get rid of bodies? Bribe cops? Kill people? That sort of thing?”

I let out a quick breath, suddenly feeling my foot tap nervously against the floor. “I have bribed cops, yes. I have more than one on payroll, in fact. I do not dispose of bodies, but I certainly manipulate whomever I can to see that whoever put the body there doesn’t end up in the Media. And yes, I have killed people.” The last words tightened my chest and made Jack stop the car.

“Are you fucking kidding me, Clara?” He asked, his words angry but his tone controlled. “You told me you weren’t a murderer. We made a deal, anything we said would be the truth.”

“I did tell you the truth. I haven’t murdered anyone. The people I have killed were all trying to kill me, first. I am not a fucking executioner. I bribe and blackmail and manipulate people for a living, but I’m not a murderer.”

“And that shit about being a body guard?” He asked, starting the car moving again. It seemed despite his anger he wasn’t going to put us in a bad spot.

“It’s the truth. I was a body guard. I am in public relations. I just go above and beyond normal PR work. It wasn’t a lie when I said I wanted out of it either, Jack. I’m not proud of it.”

“No wonder you’re so handy to have around.” Mitch gave a nervous smile from the back.

“Now to the point I really need to tell you.” I continued, feeling suddenly sick to my stomach. So much for trust. So much for a bond. I was on my own, my past once again thoroughly caught up with me.

“Oh there’s more.” Jack said, calm but still visibly irritated.

“J is not a friend, I don’t think I need to express that. He is a co-worker in the sense that we occasionally share clients. He’s…” I rubbed my forehead, suddenly unable to find a nicer word for hitman, “He’s dangerous. Because I don’t deal with the mob types frequently, for obvious reasons, his boss thought he was selling info or something. That’s why he’s after us. We interacted with J. I will never forgive myself, hell I’ll never forgive J, for putting you in this situation, but I promise you one thing Jack.” I turned to him, for once not trying to hide the genuine regret in my eyes, “Trust me or not, boot my ass out at the next corner and I’d understand, but I’ve still got your back. I promise you that Jack.”
The Jeep’s engine growled as I downshifted and slowly threaded the small gap between two overturned cars; it seemed like the road was deteriorating meter by meter, a grim parallel of how things had panned out inside the Jeep. Twenty minutes ago Clara had dropped a bombshell on us; she was a fixer, someone who had from time-to-time worked for the criminal underworld.

It’s always fucking secrets with us, just when I think we’re finally being straight with each other and then this shit happens! I tightened my grip on the steering wheel as a blasted out section of the road made the Jeep bounce and sway.

Of course I had my secrets but those were personal, not related to what we were doing now but I had leveled with her about Pythia, told her everything I thought she deserved to know, how could she keep this from me?

"Christ boy," The soft southern drawl from my childhood made me tense, I hadn’t thought of him in a long time. "When are you gonna stop bein’ such a goddamn baby and start treatin’ her like a man? Force is the only thing broads like her understand, apply enough force and she’ll eat right out of yer palm."

The old man’s voice rang hollow in my thoughts; I knew exactly what his methods of dealing with women were…it made me despise him all the more. I deliberately quashed his voice and concentrated on my own words, I would never be him no matter how hard his ghost tried.

I pushed the brake and brought the Jeep to a stop in the middle of war torn Main Street. “Clara,” my voice pierced the veil of silence that had settled over the interior, her head turned towards me but her eyes remained downcast. “We all have a past Clara and it was wrong of me to try and vilify yours. I overreacted back there, with the anger and the accusations and all of that, I just wish…I just wish you’d been straight with me from the beginning but I can understand why you weren’t.”

Her eyes remained fixed on the floor. “Hey,” she looked up at me, I could see regret and fear in her eyes; the jade had lost some of its shine. “You worked with me when everyone else in that bunker wanted me dead; you saved Mitch; hell, you even saved my dog.” I could feel my voice starting to get a little husky and my smile starting to get a little wobbly; I had to wrap this up before I embarrassed myself. “All of that matters more to me then anything you did or didn’t do before all of this, that’s why you still have my trust and you still have a place here with us.”

“You’ve got mine too,” Mitch echoed from the back. “Besides, without you the end of the world would be pretty awful with just this ugly sonofabitch and his dog to ogle.”

I burst out laughing in spite of myself. “Say what you want about me Mitch but leave Roscoe out of it!” Roscoe barked at the sound of his name and did a little dance in the back seat; he always liked it when I laughed…especially because it didn’t happen very often.

I turned my gaze back to Clara, her eyes looked a little watery but the jade iris shone once more and a grin split her face. “We good?”

“Yeah Jack, we’re good.”

I rested my hand on her shoulder for a moment before I gripped the Jeep’s steering wheel and gave it some gas, our course to Caroline had been resumed; it came to a jarring halt some ninety feet later, the road that led to Caleb’s address was completely blocked: an overturned bus took up most of the center while a dump truck and an 18 wheeler took up either side of it, the three of them looked like a giant sandwich of twisted metal.

“Son of a bitch!” I swore under my breath and smacked the steering wheel with my hand. “Another goddamn roadblock.”

“Does this mean we’re back on foot?” Clara asked, her voice resigned.

“Not necessarily, if I remember correctly there’s another route that should get us to the address you gave us. It skirts the entire city boundary so it’ll take us an hour or two to get there but we should be able to avoid any wrecks by off roading and it’ll allow us to keep our vehicle.”

“Hey,” Mitch piped up from the back. “Work’s on the way there too, we could stop there and see if anyone else made it.”

“My thoughts exactly,” I replied. “Even if there’re no survivors we could still find supplies, weapons and maybe even a bigger vehicle that wasn’t damaged by the EMP to hold more supplies in.”

“Sounds like a plan to me boys,” Clara said as she focused on the road ahead. “Let’s go!”

A solitary drop of rain plaped on the tempered glass of the window as I put the Jeep into motion, and another, and another…

***

The guardhouse looked empty but it was hard to tell through the deluge of water that pelted the Jeep and the darkness that came from the clouds that obscured the sun; the fence that covered the entrance to the Talon building was very clearly intact and closed, that needed to change. I stifled a yawn with my hand; it was hard to believe that only this morning I had been in my apartment for what would be the last time in a long time.

”You must leave Hampton with the key my champion,” Pythia’s had told me after she finished her description of the Cascadia and why we had to go back there, the words rang loud in my memory. ”Journey deep into the untamed lands that are America; many challenges will confront you on your way to me but I am confident you will succeed… I will await your arrival.”

She hadn’t given me a destination; I assumed that would come in time but one thing was certain…’deep into the untamed lands’ didn’t sound like a simple day trip. I didn’t really understand why she called me ‘champion’ either; she had sounded like a mystic out of fantasy or Greek legend.

All of this made it even more incomprehensible to me that she had asked for Clara, by name. If I’m her vaunted champion then what in the hell would she want to talk to Clara for?

“Yo Jack,” Mitch’s call from the back seat broke me out of my trance. “We gonna sit here all day or what?”

I cleared my throat in embarrassment and pulled on the door handle, the ‘door open’ chime sounded as rain slapped against the exposed interior. Can’t keep drifting away like that!

“Right,” I replied as I opened the door wider. “I’ll check the guardhouse, open the gate and you can drive through.”

“Backup?” Clara asked as she reached for her rifle and the passenger door.

“Nah,” I stopped her with an outstretched hand. “It looks quiet out there; besides, there’s no point in both of us getting wet.”

“Ok Jack,” she set her rifle back down. “I’ll be ready to drive in when you give the signal.”

I nodded and stepped out into the downpour, water assaulted me from all directions almost instantly. The scrape of metal on leather was almost lost in the cacophony of sound as I tugged my Glock from it’s hip holster and brought it into a ready position; the Maglite on my right side made a similar noise as I drew it and thumbed it on, it’s bright LED beam cut a swath through the rainy gloom.

My boots thudded on the pavement as I moved to the guardhouse, my pace cautious and my stance alert. Soon I stood just before the rain-soaked concrete of the guardhouse, the white glare of my light illuminated the inside through the windows.

Papers littered the floor, the guard’s chair had been knocked over and the back door yawed open. It looked like whoever had been sentry decided that they weren’t getting paid enough to guard against the end of the world.

“At least whoever was standing sentry yesterday didn’t get violently murdered,” I muttered as I circled around to the back. Inside the tiny building I had a momentary respite from the rain as I tried the different controls for the gate with no success, the motors were all burnt out from the EMP.

I couldn’t find the physical key; it wasn’t in its emergency cubbyhole. The situation only got worse when I ran outside to check the gate: someone had unlocked it, gone through and then closed it again, unable to lock it from the other side.

I made a snap decision as the rain pelted me, we were going in mystery person be dammed. I yanked the gate open and waved the Jeep through, the glare of its headlights and the growl of its engine would be a sure warning to whoever was inside the compound that company was coming.

Clara stopped the Jeep just inside the chain-link barrier as I yanked it shut, as I approached the driver’s side the window came down. “What happens now that we’re inside?” She asked.

“We’re inside but we’re not alone,” I warned. “Someone else unlocked the gate before us.”

Clara frowned, “What does that mean for our plan?”

“The plan hasn’t changed,” I pointed to a building a dozen meters away. “That’s the administration building, they have keys for every single building on site. I’ll go in there; get the keys for the armory, the commissary, and the vehicle bays; then I’ll come back to the Jeep and we’ll clear them individually.”

“What happens if our mystery person is in Administrations?” Clara pressed me.

“Then I guess I’m in for a very bad day,” standing in the rain was starting to get old. “If I’m not back out in five minutes chances are I’m in trouble, if you hear a gunshot chances are I’m dead and if you hear multiple gunshots, chances are I could use help.”

“Fuckin’ Jack trying to be a fuckin’ cowboy,” I heard Mitch mutter.

“I won’t have my only source of backup in trouble in there with me,” I countered. “Hopefully you’ll be able to flank anyone who’s giving me problems in there, if you have surprise then we’ll all have the upper hand.”

“I don’t like this,” Clara shook her head to emphasize her unhappiness.

I was unhappy too with how soaked I was…we couldn’t always get what we wanted. “I’ll be back before you know it!” I forced a smile and headed towards Administrations, Clara’s startled protests behind me.

After I fiddled with the lock for what seemed like hours, I heaved open the door and stumbled into the administrations building. It was dark and silent inside the building, not dissimilar to a tomb.

I resisted to shake myself dry like Roscoe would after a bath and clicked on my Maglite, the click of its button sounded like a gunshot. The white circle hovered over dead computers, abandoned workstations, and empty desks. Unlike the guardhouse this had been a much more organized evacuation, though very much right in the middle of the day…half drank coffee cups sat on almost every desk.

My light hovered over the Talon emblem; an outstretched Eagle claw with lightening bolts behind it.

Before I could examine the rest of the room something caught my eye; a single red light that blinked, it came from a computer. My steps echoed as I jogged to the computer and sat down in front of it, my hand instinctively went for the mouse.

The computer booted to a very simplistic interface, the chalky letters only spelled out one thing at the bottom left corner:

Olympus network: Activate (Y/N)

I tapped the Y key and hit enter.

Input authorization key…

Key, what the fuck could the key be? I knew I was close to something big, the fact that one stupid key could block me from it, The key!

I pulled the coin I had acquired from the Cascadia from my pocket and flipped it over; it looked like something straight out of El Dorado, only it was far stranger than gold.

My phone had gone nuts when I found it earlier; it kept flipping between full service and zero service nonstop. Finally, I had tucked the coin away and my phone went back to normal but I wondered if…

Before I could even set the coin on top of the tower things had already started to happen.

Authorization key: *******

Authorization key: Valid

Access granted

Olympus Network: Online

Status: Standby

The view abruptly changed from the simplistic view to a seemingly real time map of the United States, yellow dots winked in all fifty states, multiple dots per state.

I clicked on one and expanded it, the view that it gave me left no doubt in my mind…this key of Pythia’s was important enough to die for in this new world, definitely important enough to kill for.

There was a single question at the bottom left of the map screen:

Activate Olympus network (Y/N)

© Copyright 2015 Pollo Mark, Dr. Shrink, Scythe, Kat, Undead Detective, (known as GROUP).
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