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Link Posted: 1/14/2011 4:07:43 AM EDT
[#1]
From Swindle:

Chapter 7

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Hope awoke to water splashing against her face. Ah. She'd forgotten the tent had a leak in it right where her head went. She opened her eyes and stared at the roof of the pup tent only six inches above her. It was just light enough to see the water running off the fabric. Above the sound of the rain pattering she heard the truck door slam. She unzipped the end of the tent and lifted it, careful not to let more rain in.

Sam was messing around with a bottle, swishing it around and looking at it carefully before swishing it some more. A box was in his hand, sheltered from the rain by the camouflage poncho draped over him. The dogs were under the truck, out of the rain.

Nick... Now this was interesting. Nick was stripped to the waist, arms akimbo, staring up into the sky. A flash of lightning revealed that his eyes were actually closed. Hope supposed he liked the rain. It surprised her that it would rain at all in the desert.

Sam finished with the bottle, poured the contents out onto the increasingly muddy ground, and began setting up large plastic containers with funnels on top of them. Ah. He'd been checking to see if the rain was free of contaminants before gathering some for drinking. Nick finished whatever it was he was doing and helped. Once the jugs were set to capture the rainfall, he returned to the tent. Hope zipped the enclosure shut and settled back down. The sun was coming up, but it didn't look like they were going anywhere.

––––––––––––––––-

An hour later, and the early morning sun had already burned off the rain clouds and sucked most of the moisture from the dry ground. The mud had dried and cracked in a seemingly endless pattern that stretched out to the horizon. Nick and Sam had already packed their tent away and were pouring the water they'd collected into one container when Hope and Eli crawled out of their cramped tent for breakfast.

Nick shot a jackrabbit or something that they cooked with breakfast, which included some stale bread and dried apple flakes. After that, everything and everyone was loaded into the truck and they hit the road again.

Nick seemed to be in a particularly good mood. Sam just stretched out onto the seat and cranked up the air conditioning. He was obviously suffering in the desert heat, but insisted on wearing that scarf and hat, as well as the jacket and chest rig. Nick had kept his cap and chest rig, but the tube scarf and jacket were shoved under the seat. Hope didn't think she would ever understand these two.

Eli had finished the book and two manuals he'd been given and announced that he was bored.

Nick, still cheerful, stuck a cd into an old portable cd player that was connected to a cassette converter. The cassette deck this was all plugged into had obviously been retrofitted to the truck years ago by someone who only partly knew what they were doing.

"You guys like Johnny Cash?"

"I was totin' my pack along the long dusty Winnemucca road,
When along came a semi with a high an' canvas-covered load.
"If you're goin' to Winnemucca, Mack, with me you can ride."
And so I climbed into the cab and then I settled down inside.
He asked me if I'd seen a road with so much dust and sand.
And I said, "Listen, I've traveled every road in this here land!"


I've been everywhere, man.
I've been everywhere, man.
Crossed the desert's bare, man.
I've breathed the mountain air, man.
Of travel I've had my share, man.
I've been everywhere.

I've been to:
Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota,
Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota,
Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma,
Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma,
Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo,
Tocapillo, Baranquilla, and Perdilla, I'm a killer."

Nick sang along in a not-quite off-key voice and smacked the steering wheel in time with the beat. Hope and Eli were amused by this. Sam just fought with the german shepherd for space in front of the air vent.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––-

"So, how long until we're through the desert?"

"We're making really good time. Should be through in two more days. After that, we'll be in eastern Nevada. We'll stop in a little town I know and stay there for a couple days. It's pretty much the last bit of civilization we'll encounter on this trip. That I know of, anyway."

Hope tried to visualize an old map of the United States in her mind.

"Where do we go from there?"

"We'll cross Utah into Colorado, but they got plastered with nukes, and a big cobalt bomb made sure that whole area is still hot. We'll turn north into Wyoming and then into the Dakotas. From that point on, we'll be in uncharted territory. The whole trip will take longer because we'll have to backtrack and find a detour every time we come across a hot zone or a place where a bridge washed out or a city got blown up."

"Hmm."

Hope couldn't remember the map well enough to really picture everything Nick was saying, but he and Sam had maps of their own and seemed to know what they were doing.

The rest of the journey through the desert was relatively idyllic, with regular stops, nights spent in tents instead of the truck, and Nick patiently teaching Eli how to use the little .22 rifle. Hope tried her luck with the little rifle and hit her target dead center every single time. Unlike Eli, she'd been considered old enough to teach by their father and she was reasonably confident in her marksmanship. If Nick was impressed, he showed no sign of it.

Eventually, the desert scrub began to feature stunted trees and scattered patches of grass that slowly crowded out the desert sand and soil and replaced them the fields and woods Hope was used to.

"Coming up on Wilma in a couple of hours. We'll have dinner there."

––––––––––––––––––––

Wilma turned out to be a town with a population of about 2,000. It had managed to survive not only the radioactive fallout that came after the nuclear exchange and the engineered diseases and chemicals carried by cruise missiles and terrorists hiding in the country before the war started, but also the famines and waves of starving urban dwellers who had descended on the rural areas and stripped farms and ranches of crops and livestock. Hope wasn't surprised to see that the town had a high wall of wooden posts with guard towers and rusted barbed wire around it, nor that they maintained a cleared area in a fifty yard swathe around the entire town.

The people here were tough and disciplined. She didn't think any gang of bandits would profit much if they tried to prey on this tight-knit community.

The guards at the gate seemed to recognize the truck immediately and, after a cursory check to make sure the drivers were really who they thought they were, the truck was waved through. Nick steered the truck down the narrow streets until he reached an old fire station, at which point he backed the truck into one of the bays.

Eli asked, "won't they need the space for their firetrucks?"

Nick laughed and made a gesture that took in the entire town.

"You see a lot of cars around here?"

Eli didn't have an answer for that. The four people and two dogs piled out and paid the man who seemed to be managing the fire station as a parking garage. Then they followed Sam along the winding streets and buildings until they came to a small motel.

The elderly woman at the desk recognized Nick and Sam immediately.

"Well, haven't seen you two in a long time! Thought maybe you'd decided to stay in California for good this time! The usual?"

"Two rooms, actually. Got passengers."

"Ah. Dinner for four, then?"

"And the dogs."

"Of course. All right, here's the key to your usual room, and the one next to it. How long you gonna be staying?"

"Two, three days."

She nodded and marked something down in a notebook on the counter, then disappeared in the back to holler at someone in what was probably the kitchen. It was the first time since leaving home that Hope had seen someone that old and that overweight. Wilma had been doing well in the post-apocalypse.

A few minutes later, the woman came back with a tray laden with bowls of stew and fresh-baked biscuits. Nick thanked her and Sam took the keys from him so he could carry it. Hope and Eli followed them back outside to their rooms. Hope and Eli were shown into their room and their food was set on the small table, then Nick and Sam disappeared into their own room.

Hope and Eli ate in silence. After they'd finished eating, they could hear the same Johnny Cash cd playing in the next room. The combination of thin walls and the loud music made it easy to make out most of the lyrics. Once something thudded against the wall, but the sound wasn't repeated, so Hope decided nothing was wrong. After the cd had started over at the beginning again, the music was turned off and she could hear water running. This town had running water and electricity?

Hope quickly ran to the bathroom and tried the sink. Running hot and cold water! For the first time since they'd left home! She squealed with joy and began undressing, stopping to shoo Eli out of the bathroom when he came to investigate her sounds of joy.

She stayed in the shower for entirely too long, luxuriating in the sensation of cleanliness and warm water. Reluctantly, she got out so that Eli would have a turn before the hot water ran out. She dried off with a towel provided with the room while Eli showered, and then looked at the slips of paper set on top of a dusty television. Ah. She could pay to have her laundry cleaned too. Perfect. She'd wondered how she was going to wash her clothes on this trip. The only reason she still had clean outfits was because she hadn't changed very often while riding in the truck.

She flopped onto the bed, soaking in the pleasant sensation of clean linen and worn, but serviceable flannel blanket. They would be here for two or even three days.

Wonderful.



Link Posted: 1/14/2011 1:01:42 PM EDT
[#2]
Hurray for updates! Keep em comin when you can. Love this story.
Link Posted: 1/24/2011 1:50:11 PM EDT
[#3]
NO Fing way... I was beginning to think that this was really dead... maybe we can start to get more frequent updates now that he's back at it... as I'm knocking on wood so as to not jinx us...
Link Posted: 3/16/2011 8:39:06 AM EDT
[#4]
Updates would be nice, this story really has great potential, if he would just complete it.
Link Posted: 3/16/2011 1:43:40 PM EDT
[#5]
Originally Posted By cwm1150:
Updates would be nice, this story really has great potential, if he would just complete it.


No kidding... it has great potential... but I think he's moved onto a different path in life and doesn't have the time anymore...
Link Posted: 3/27/2011 1:51:43 AM EDT
[#6]
Updates incoming:

Chapter 8

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The next day, Hope slept in until almost noon. The bed was so comfortable, she couldn't make herself get out of it. She finally got up when Eli and Nick came in and threatened to drag her outside if she didn't get out of bed.

Once dressed, she joined them outside.

"What have you been to, Eli?"

Eli literally bounced up and down in excitement.

"This town is really cool, Hope! They don't have lots of cars so they use horses to go everywhere! And Nick took me to go see a blacksmith, and he had lots of really cool stuff! It was really hot in there, and he let me wear his leather apron and hit a horse shoe with his hammer! It was awesome!"

Hope blinked several times, then looked at Nick.

"What were you guys doing at a blacksmith?"

"My old hunting knife snapped off at the hilt a few weeks ago. I really liked it, so I'm paying him to forge me a new one. He's pretty good; he's going to copy the design of my knife and then slap the old handle on over the tang."

Eli grabbed Hope's hand and yanked it up and down as he jumped, showing her a badly mangled horse shoe.

"See? He let me keep it after he cooled it off in a bucket of water! It was great, steam went shooting everywhere! And the blacksmith was the biggest man I'd ever seen! He's got this huge mustache and this really cool scar on his neck like an L with an 8 next to it!"

"An L with an 8 next to it? On his neck?"

Nick's eyes narrowed and his tone hardened.

"Slaver's mark. They take a branding iron and burn their mark into the base of your neck, usually on the left side. Let's people know that you're... property. Cheaper than tattooing and you can't take it off like a collar."

"Oh gosh," Hope covered her mouth, "You mean he's a slave?!"

"No. Slavery is illegal in Wilma and the surrounding area. It's illegal in most civilized places, at least this far west. He escaped a few years ago and the folks here took him in when they found out he knew how to handle steel. He's one of the most important people in town now."

"I can imagine, being a blacksmith. But a slave? That's horrible! I didn't think... Um..."

"Didn't think people really did that? I guess if you've been sheltered all your life, grew up in some place where things hadn't gotten so bad, you'd hear about it, but it'd be too abstract to really believe."

Nick's glower became an outright snarl. He wasn't looking at Hope any more.

"It's disgusting what people do to each other. That's why I try to spend as much time out in the wilderness, even the wastelands, as possible. Getting killed by animals or radiation is better than letting people get their hands on you. Far better."

Hope, unsure how to respond to that, let an awkward silence hang for a long moment. Clearing her throat, she broke it by asking, "So, uh, where's Sam? Did he go to the blacksmith with you?"

Nick snorted, his apparent anger vanishing in an instant.

"Hardly. Sam likes people even less than I do, so we're not in town very often. Some place as comfy as a hotel room is a rare luxury for us, so... Uh, it's gonna be practically impossible to drag him out of there."

Hope's forehead wrinkled a little.

"What does he do in there all day? I mean, I guess he could sleep in like I did, but is he going to do that the whole time we're here?"

"Ha! Hardly. You don't have much time for relaxing out in the wastelands; you're either doing something necessary, or looking over your shoulder for danger every five seconds. We spend most of our time in civilization catching up on our reading. Plus Sam likes to hog the air conditioning."

"I can imagine, the way he's always covered up with that scarf and jacket."

"Eh, the jacket's not that warm. I would know, it used to be mine. Besides, the weather's usually cooler this time of year. It's really weird, it being this warm; it's almost like it was before the war, before the weather patterns got all messed up from the nukes. I guess things are returning to normal, at least as far as the planet goes."

Eli was shifting from one foot to the other, irritated with the boring conversation but too polite to interrupt his elders; Hope placed one hand on his head to hold him still.

"Why does he wear that scarf and jacket if it's warm, anyway? Wouldn't it make more sense to just take them off? I mean, I can understand always a hat, but it's a little... odd." She quickly added, "Not that I'm trying to be rude or stick my nose in anybody's business, of course, I just, uh-"

Nick laughed it off.

"Don't worry about it. Everyone out in the wastelands has their little quirks. We get real attached to our possessions; sentimental, I guess. I even talk to the truck sometimes. Sam thinks I'm going crazy whenever I do it. You might try asking Sam about it, see what kind of an answer you get."

"Wouldn't he just not say anything, like usual?"

"Um... Yeah."

"Why won't he talk with us?"

"Like I said, Sam likes people even less than I do. You know what, you haven't gotten to see Wilma, so what do you say Eli and I show you around?"

Eli jumped and whooped and began tugging on Hope's arm, telling her about the things he'd seen. After a few moments of resistance, she gave in and let the two lead her away.

––––––––––––––-

Wilma was a serious community. It was interesting to see the shops, but it wasn't very entertaining. You could only look at a gun smith, cobbler, or cooper for so long before it became boring. The people in the town were hard-working, and apparently spent most of their time laboring just to survive.

Even the children were hard at work, tending livestock, killing rats, or learning to read in the house that had been converted into a one-room school. The old, pre-war school had been converted into a hospital since Wilma had never had so much as a first aid clinic before the bombs fell; in those days, the next town over was just minutes away and a serious emergency would warrant a helicopter from the major hospital there. Now, most of that town was ruins, destroyed by fires and looting shortly after the nuclear strikes, and the school was the only hospital for dozens of miles in any direction.

Wilma had been warned by people fleeing that town. Warned not to let refugees in. They came from the cities, with no food, no water, no electricity. At first, they'd streamed in by car, then on foot. There had been miniature riots at gas stations as they fought over fuel to continue fleeing. The ones on foot had no money for food from the stores. Most of the stores had given away handouts, but more and more refugees continued to stream in from the cities. The food began to run out and was rationed. The refugees were angry. They began looting the stores. Then they spread out into residential areas and began camping on people's lawns, begging for food, shelter from the weather and the fallout.

Some people let them into their homes, and this made other refugees jealous. They demanded to be allowed inside too, demanded to be given a share of food and water. There wasn't enough to go around, and anger and resentment grew. Smarter residents refused to let anyone in and refused to share what little they had. This did nothing to make the refugees less angry and resentful.

Eventually, it became a full-blown riot. Refugees stormed into homes by the dozen, typically killing the owners when they resisted. Businesses were looted by crowds of thousands. Women were raped in the streets. In many parts of town, the rioting was racially charged and people were shot, stabbed, or beaten to death for being the wrong color.

Residents fled ahead of the ravenous, lawless mob and arrived in Wilma in time to warn them of what was coming. The people of Wilma barricaded the streets with trucks, began erecting wooden fences and barbed wire to keep people on foot out, and formed a militia. Except for their neighbors that had escaped to warn them, Wilma would be letting no one into town.

The refugees from the cities angry at being refused entry, but the people of Wilma were dead serious. Eventually, the body count grew high enough that the streaming hordes of humanity flowed around the town like a river flowing around a boulder in its path; none wanted to brave the rifle and shotgun fire of the people of Wilma any more. They descended on the surrounding countryside like locusts, stripping the farms and ranches of anything and everything they wanted to take, then moved on until they were only rumors. The town of Wilma continued to fortify itself, and had maintained its no-nonsense approach for all these years.

This was the condensed version of Wilma's history that Hope got listening to Nick and the various residents she encountered on her tour of the community. She met the blacksmith that had so impressed Eli, and he truly was a giant of a man. He was loud, he had a roaring laugh that followed all of his jokes, a big, black handlebar mustache. If he hadn't been bald, she'd have sworn he was almost identical to the Theodore Roosevelt person she'd read about in the only history book she'd had at home. His humor was infectious, and he simply had presence.

Hope found her eyes kept returning to the ugly scar on his neck; it did indeed look an L and an 8 close together, a reddened welt on his skin. He noticed her stares and, though his mood became slightly subdued, if that was possible, he made several self-deprecating jokes about how he should have taken up running as a child instead of learning how to work a furnace and anvil. He informed Nick that his knife would be ready by tomorrow afternoon, gave him a slap on the back that obviously winded the smaller man, and returned to his work on a plowshare.

"He certainly was... interesting. I can see why he impressed Eli so much. He has a very... loud, personality."

Nick chuckled and rubbed his back, straightening one strap on his chest rig.

"He certainly does at that. We should get lunch soon, then I'll show you two the town museum. It's got a bunch of indian stuff and some relics from the frontier days; I think you'll like it."

––––––––––––––––––––––-

That night, Hope and Eli relaxed in their beds, enjoying the cool breeze from the ancient, laboring air conditioner under the window. Lunch had been good, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and pickles, but dinner was stew and biscuits again. According to Nick, that was the most common meal here as it was easy to make. Hope decided that must get boring after a while, though the stew was certainly delicious.

In Nick and Sam's room, Johnny Cash began singing again, so Hope flipped through the small cd case Nick had given her and looked at the DVD's it contained. One had a scorch mark on it, indicating it had apparently been through a fire at some point. Ferris Beuller's Day Off. Intriguing. She stuck it into the DVD player, took some time figuring out how to work the television, and started the movie. It drowned out some of the music from next door.

Hope and Eli enjoyed the movie, though they didn't really understand the majority of cultural references throughout it. When she turned the television off and retrieved the DVD from the player, she noticed the music had stopped and she could hear water running in the next room.

"Ok Eli, time for bed."

"Awwww!"

Hope gave him a playful swat to the back of the head and together they went to brush their teeth. They both took a quick shower and headed for bed.

Lying in the dark, Hope luxuriated in the almost forgotten sensation of having a bed all to herself and rubbed the soft flannel blanket against her cheek.

"Hope?"

"Yes?"

"I'm having lots of fun. This trip was worth it."

"Don't say that yet. We're not even a third of the way there."

"Yeah. Night."

"Goodnight."

Link Posted: 3/27/2011 1:52:35 AM EDT
[#7]
Mas:

Chapter 9

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Hope rose with the sun this time, catching Nick on his way out. Didn't that man ever sleep in?

"Hey, I was wondering if you could help me with something."

"Like what?"

Hope paused for a moment to sort out what she wanted to say, then continued, "You were expecting Eli and I to provide for ourselves on this trip. I'd like to do that. But, since we paid you, we don't have much to barter with, so I'm wondering how we would go about buying provisions."

"Oh. Well... what can you do? What sort of service can you provide?"

"Um... I know first aid, and I know my way around prescriptions."

Nick shook his head.

"This town has its own hospital. Worthless here. What else?"

Hope frowned deeply as she tried to think of some skill or knowledge she had that was marketable. None were coming to mind.

"Don't worry about it. I'm sure you'll come up with something. Meanwhile, you paid enough, we can afford a little charity for a while. Now, unless you wanted something else, I've got business to attend to."

Hope nodded and Nick walked away, both dogs trotting along behind him. Well, she thought, there's nothing like being a fifth wheel.

––––––––––––––––––––––––-

Nick, it seemed, had been on an information gathering mission all day. He had updated his maps, gotten weather reports from travelers who frequented the area so he knew what sort of climate to expect, and the latest news and rumors about bandits and other dangers.

He'd marked off on his map a place contaminated by chemical weapons that had been found in a cache last year and accidentally spilled by the treasure hunters trying to bring them back to sell. He also marked off an area where a giant, mutant bear supposedly lived and had allegedly eaten a traveler. Hope had laughed at that one, but Nick's serious expression had made her wonder just how outlandish such a rumor was.

He had also purchased fuel for the Tatra, bought more provisions, and picked up the knife he had ordered. He seemed pleased with it, and commented that it might actually be better than the original. It had a six inch blade, thick and heavy, that curved downward slightly, like the kukri her father had had hanging above the mantle at home, though the curve was more subtle. The grip was black hard rubber, ribbed to provide a good grip, with a hole in the end for a lanyard. Except for the razor-sharp edge, the blade had been colored black somehow. Nick commented that it kept light from reflecting off the blade; Hope didn't understand why that was an issue.

"Well, I'd say we're as ready as we'll ever be. We leave at dawn tomorrow. When you get hungry, go to the lobby for dinner, it's already paid for."

"Where are you going to be?"

"Me? I'm enjoying the comforts of civilization while I can."

With that, Nick winked and went back to his room.

––––––––––––––––––––––

Hope flipped through the ancient National Geographic magazine left in the motel room for guests to read and tried to ignore the noise. The cd had changed from Johnny Cash to some rock band she didn't recognize, but it hadn't gotten any quieter. Eli hummed along with the music, intent on the children's book about dinosaurs that old woman who ran the motel had given him.

Several times something hit the wall. Hope hadn't figured Nick and Sam for the partying type, but she guessed you had to blow off steam somehow. The music finally stopped and shortly afterward she could hear water running in the shower again. She just hoped they wouldn't have a hangover in the morning.

––––––––––––––––––––––––-

Neither of them had a hangover when they banged on the door to wake Hope and Eli up. The sun wasn't up yet, but they were both eager to be on the road it seemed. Hope made sure she and Eli hadn't left anything in the room, then they carried their things to the truck and loaded up. Sam took the dogs and ran all the way to the gate at the other end of town while Nick started up the truck and worked his way down the streets.

"Why is Sam running there instead of riding in the truck?"

"Hm? Oh. He's exercising the dog's. They don't get much of a workout riding in the truck, so we have to work the kinks out and let them run around at every chance we get."

"Oh." She thought for a moment, then asked, "So how do you two get any excercise? I can't imagine sitting in a truck all day does you guys any good."

"We get up before you, remember? Situps, pushups, jumping jacks, that sort of thing. Every morning. Whenever we're not staying on the move, anyway. And usually when we're in the wastelands, we park the truck somewhere, hide it, and roam around on foot for a few days at a time, scavenging for stuff. All right, here's the gate."

Nick scooted over to the passenger side and Sam took his place at the wheel. The dogs found their respective places in the truck and panted happily. Hope was impressed; Sam had run almost a mile and was barely breathing heavily. Apparently these two explorers-slash-scavengers did keep in shape. She poked at her slightly pudgy sides and reflected that she should probably start doing morning exercises too.

The guards at the gate let the big truck through and they were officially on the road again. Nick turned the cabin light on to review his maps and directed Sam onto the north road, then made some notes in his little journal notebook before turning the light off again. The sky gradually brightened with the rising sun, but for now the headlights on the road were still brighter.

Hope glanced over at Eli and noticed that he'd falled asleep again. She smiled and returned her attention to the view through the windshield. Once, a small tree had fallen across the road and the massive Tatra just rolled right over it. Something in the back of the truck made a loud, metallic thump. Nick looked up and rubbed his forehead.

"I forgot to secure that empty kerosene can."

Sam glanced over questioningly.

"It'll be fine. It won't hurt anything until we stop for lunch."

The truck rolled on.

Link Posted: 3/27/2011 1:53:52 AM EDT
[#8]
Yet more:

Chapter 10

––––––––––––––––––––-

We've been back on the road for two days now. It's getting colder as we head north, and the unseasonably warm weather we've had for the last few weeks has abandoned us. No snow so far, but we'll be seeing it within a week.

We're coming up on a ghost town, according to the map. Reports from the towns people say the town is intact, but was abandoned because of fallout from a city getting nuked four hundred miles away. Nice winds there. After fifteen years, the radiation should be tolerable; Chernobyl was mostly safe to visit twenty years after the accident there, and that was a heck of a lot more radiation. This place should be safe by now. Still, I'm bringing the dosimeters and geiger counter. Reality has a way of biting theory in the ass.

Supposedly, almost nobody goes there because they have no idea whether or not it's safe since geiger counters don't exactly grow on trees and almost nobody knows how to calibrate them anyway. Still, I'm sure its been looted by now.

We'll see how it goes.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Nick finished securing the camouflaged netting over the truck while Sam positioned some bushes some bushes he'd cut down with a machete around it. Once done, they stepped back to examine the hidden truck.

"Won't stop someone from seeing it up close, but at a distance it should keep the curious from stumbling across it."

With that, Nick and Sam each secured a small cylinder in a pocket of their chest rigs. Sam picked up the geiger counter and looked at the needle, shook it, then smacked the side of it. Apparently satisfied it was still working, he stuck the carry handle into a loop on his belt; it kept his hands free and let him glance at the display.

Hope thought it looked funny. Both men were completely clad in camouflage, and one had a bright yellow box marked CD on his hip. She guessed if they really had to hide, the geiger counter would be ditched or stuffed into a backpack. Both of them were wearing very large backpacks which were completely empty.

Empty, she reflected grumpily, because she was carrying everything. Nick had made her change into a camouflage jacket and pants, which he informed her were East German rain camo, whatever that meant, and made her carry two days worth of food and water in a backpack. Eli had another backpack with first aid gear and rope in it. Everyone was equipped with flashlights and at least one glowstick. Nick and Sam both had flares, but hadn't given any to the others.

Equipped, they set off toward the town, the two dogs roaming ahead.

––––––––––––––-

The town appeared truly dead. Nick and Sam had insisted on surveying it with binoculars for half an hour before finally approaching it.

Hope had never been someplace this eery before; she'd been in empty, looted towns since setting out on her trip, but those places were different. The buildings were hollow, no windows, no doors, most of them gutted for wiring, plumbing, or firewood. Streetlights were similarly ravaged.

Here, most of the windows still had glass. The doors were all shut and locked. Power lines still hung between poles, though some were now hanging down to the ground. Cars were still parked in the street, with flat, rotten tires. There were signs of some looting, but it was limited and all of it done long ago.

"I don't think this place has been looted in years."

Nick nodded and absentmindedly replied, "Yup. Probably the folks evacuating the town took the time to strip the grocery stores bare. All right, we got our map, so here's what we do: we hit these two gun stores, the police station, this auto garage, aaaand... this mom and pop store. They may been overlooked and might still have canned goods."

He looked up as he stuffed the map back into his pocket, then frowned at Hope and Eli.

"You two stay behind us at all times. Do NOT wander off on your own. Do NOT enter a building until we check it out first. Could be pockets of radiation in there the rain hasn't washed out, could be dangerous animals, could be the floor's rotten and will collapse as soon as you set foot on it. You don't do a thing until we decide it's safe first. And if you see anyone or anything moving, you let us know. Quietly. We don't want to attract attention. Got it?"

They both nodded.

"Then let's go."

––––––––––––––––––-

Sam glanced at the geiger counter at it clicked quietly, then looked at Nick. He nodded and motioned them on.

"Like we thought. Radiation's safe enough. Higher than normal background, or what passes for normal after a global thermonuclear war, but not an issue. We've been in hotter areas before. Ok, first gun shop should be just ahead."

The door and windows were barred, but the door was standing open. Broken glass remained strewed on the sidewalk. Sam waved the geiger counter inside the open door before nodding. Then Nick urged the dogs inside. A few seconds later and both dogs returned, panting happily. It was safe inside.

The shop had been thoroughly looted. No longarms remained on the racks. The glass display case full of handguns, optics, and knives was smashed and empty. Some animal had made a nest out of a pile of rotting leather and nylon belts and holsters. A clothing rack stood conspicuously empty of anything that wasn't blaze orange.

"Sam, check the ammo. Hope, look around on the shelves. Look for anything that might be useful. Anything. Eli, you and the dogs stand in the door and keep an eye out. I'll check the back."

Five minutes of careful searching turned up five boxes of .303 British and two boxes of .264 Win Mag ammunition still on the shelf and a box of .357 Sig that had fallen under the counter. Nick had found nothing useful, and the paper targets and fiberoptic front sight posts Hope had found were left behind. They would only return to retrieve them if nothing better was discovered in town.

––––––––––––––––––––-

The second gun store was larger and fancier, and appeared intact. As they approached however, the geiger counter began chattering and Nick and Sam backpedaled rapidly. Nick glanced at the needle.

"Shit. It's still hot. Someone could take that kind of radiation safely for a few minutes, but after that trip through Colorado a couple years ago I'm not taking another dose like that."

"If it's safe for a few minutes, why not go in and grab what we can?"

"Radiation poisoning is cumulative. You build up so much over your life time and you get sick. Get enough and you die. Comprende? That's why we wear these dosimeters when we go looting; so we know exactly how much we absorb and keep track of it."

Hope thought for a moment.

"Well, as far as I know I've never absorbed any radiation. I could go inside and-"

"No. By the time you even figured out how to get inside, you'd already reach your dose. You wouldn't know what to grab anyway."

He lifted his binoculars and looked through the grimy window.

"They got a skylight, makes it easy to see. Dang. They're still fully stocked. Woulda figured somebody without a geiger counter would have been dumb enough to try looting it by now. I see a couple AR-15's, and... looks like a Barrett M82A1 sitting out on the counter. Dang. Let's see if it's safer at the back door; might be the inside is clean and it's just out front that's contaminated."

The back was just as radioactive as the front. Nick grunted, unsurprised, and they moved on to the police station, startling a deer along the way. They saw nothing else moving.

––––––––––––––––-

The police station was a mess. Old, yellowed paper was everywhere. There were several bullet holes in the wall above some seats in the lobby and a very old, brown stain on the upholstery and carpet. Apparently there had been some excitement here before the evacuation was complete.

The dogs didn't alert to any danger and the geiger counter simply clucked to itself like a contented hen, indicating only basic background radiation. They continued inside.

Eli sat on a chair that wasn't covered in ancient gore or cobwebs and patted the doberman.

"What are we looking for, Nick?"

"Useful things. Body armor, guns, ammo, handcuffs, whatever. Stay in that chair. If the dogs growl at anything, go in that office and hide. Hope, you follow us."

They explored the police station quickly, using flashlights in most of the rooms due to the lack of windows. Sam checked all the desk drawers and was rewarded with half a box of .38 Special ammunition.

The cell block was locked, as were all the cells within. The keys were nowhere to be found. On the door leading to the cell block was a sticky note. It crumbled when Nick pulled it off, but was still mostly legible.

"Child killer. No release, *missing text* forgiveness."

In the cell furthest from the door was a dark, shapeless mass under the bunk. The room had a musty, rotten odor of something long decayed. No one turned their flashlights that way.

Finally, they found the armory. The door was locked, which Nick announced as a good sign. He slipped a pair of padded earphones, designed to protect hearing from loud noises, over his ears and waited for the other two to cover their ears before drawing the sawed-off double-barrel shotgun he'd taken from the truck. Ensuring Sam and Hope were safely out of the way, he held the shotgun's muzzle a few inches from where the lock met the door frame and turned his head away.

Even with her hands over her them, Hope's ears were ringing from the gunshot in the enclosed space. Nick reloaded the spent shell, then surveyed his work. The shotgun slug had utterly obliterated the lock. He stuck the shotgun back in its scabbard on his back and kicked the door in.

The next several minutes were spent with Nick and Sam repeatedly high-fiving each other. Even Hope was ecstatic at such a haul.

Inside the room, on racks and not locked in a safe, were five 870 shotguns, and three MP5 submachine guns. Several hundred rounds of ammunition for both were sitting in a pair of large cardboard boxes on a table beside the rack. There was also a skeleton in a badly decomposed uniform seated at the desk on the opposite side of the room. Half the skull was missing. Nick carefully removed the handcuffs and handcuff keys from its belt and the Glock 21 from in front of it on the desk while Sam stuffed guns into his backpack. Then he turned around and loaded the ammunition and the cop's possessions into his pack.

"You know Hope, you mentioned you wanted to do something to earn your keep on your trip. I'd say you're doing a pretty good job here. We'll cut you in twenty-five percent of our haul and you sell, trade, or keep it as you see fit; what do you say?"

Hope squeeled in excitement, avoiding looking at the skeleton, which Nick took as a yes. Sam just shrugged noncommitally when he glanced his way. It was a deal.

Heading back to the lobby, they discovered that Eli and the dogs had gone. Hope immediately felt her heart pounding and the tightness in her chest return as she fought panic. She felt relief seconds later when Nick stuck his head into an office and the dogs came out, followed by Eli.

"I heard shooting. I thought..."

"It's fine, kid. Just had to blow a lock off. Got a good haul too. Darn good haul. All right, next place."

––––––––––––-

The garage had some vehicle fluids Nick eagerly stuffed into Sam's backpack, along with a handful of tools. He glanced wistfully at the tires hanging on racks above the service bay, but left them where they were. Too awkward to carry back to the truck, and not valuable enough to drive the truck in to get them.

The rest of the town was too hot to explore, so they called a halt to the looting and returned to the truck as the sun was beginning to go down.

"All right! Well! Today was a pretty good day! Didn't get anything in the way of consumables, but heck! We got some pretty frickin' awesome hardware at that police station. We can trade those for a LOT of food. Speakin' of food, let's get something to eat, huh?"

The four of them munched on sandwiches Sam assembled as Nick drove. The dogs got bits of bread and meat of their own. Eli giggled and fed the doberman part of his sandwich when it glanced at him with hopeful eyes. Nick and Sam ate every crumb of their sandwiches, giving none to the german shepherd sharing the front seat with them. Hope got the idea that they didn't part with anything they could eat themselves without a good reason. They'd probably gone hungry at least a couple times, out in the wilderness.

She settled back in her seat and wrapped her thin wool blanket around her. It was getting chillier. Night would be even colder, and according to Nick they were staying in the truck instead of pitching a tent.

The road went on.

Link Posted: 3/29/2011 10:32:55 PM EDT
[#9]
so......I have up to chapter 17 from the original posting, I can't remember if the new posts were re-written or not.
Link Posted: 4/15/2011 12:22:40 PM EDT
[#10]
Yyyeeesss
Link Posted: 5/10/2011 3:11:00 AM EDT
[#11]
...........<crickets>...............











(So did somebody kill this thread off with fire, or what?)
Link Posted: 5/23/2011 9:54:47 PM EDT
[#12]
You can't rush genius.
Link Posted: 6/13/2011 2:25:53 AM EDT
[#13]
Chapter 11

________________

Hope woke up shivering. It was dark; the only light was the glow of the dashboard and the dim keychain flashlight Nick was using to read the map while Sam drove. She coughed and tried to draw in air. No use; her asthma was bothering her again. She sat up straight and massaged her chest, trying to relax the tensing muscles. It felt like iron bands were tightening around her, squeezing the air out. Inhaling took effort, and she could barely manage to exhale any of the air she forced into her lungs. She would have to use her inhaler.

She dug through one of the pouches on her belt for her inhaler, waited until a series of bumps where the road had washed out made the truck rattle and squeek, then quickly took a puff off the inhaler. She hoped the noise would cover the hiss of the inhaler working. No one in the front seat seemed to notice, and Eli was asleep. Not that it mattered since he knew she had asthma and used an inhaler.

Still shivering, she drew her blanket tighter around her and waited with relief as the tension in her chest slowly faded and she could breathe normally again. The view through the windshield was somewhat depressing; they were driving around a part of the highway that was full of abandoned cars. They'd been sitting there since they ran out of gas during the traffic jams that occurred during the mass exodus from the cities. She watched them all moving past as the truck rolled along the side of the road. Once, a coyote or something similar ran in front of them, stopping to stare for a moment. She thought the light reflected in its eyes made it look ghoulish.

"Why did they do it?"

"Huh?"

"Why did they do it," she repeated, "The war, I mean. Everything used to be so much better. Nobody starved, nobody got sick, the cities were full of people, the wilderness was alive. Now everything is dead, dying, or abandoned. What was it all for?"

Nick seemed to be thinking. She noticed an odd wheezing sound, as if he or Sam was also suffering from an asthma attack. It wasn't until he spoke that his distorted voice told her he was wearing a gas mask or respirator of some kind.

"Well... We didn't start it. The others did. Russia wanted territory and glory again, so they attacked our allies. China wanted Taiwan and other places, so they attacked our allies. North Korea and South Korea hated each other, so they went at it too. Pakistan and India hated each other. The muslim countries and Israel hated each other. Cuba and Venezuela hated the US. Mexico did too, in a way. Communists, muslims, and assholes. You can't really coexist with people like that, even if you try. If you concede to them, try to keep them happy, they just see it as weakness they can exploit. Same deal as the bandits and slavers we've got today. There's no way to peacefully coexist with them; the most you can get is a temporary truce, and that goes away as soon as they think they have the advantage over you.

So... We fought them. Tried to stop them all. It was working too. The bad guys were losing the conventional war. So they had infiltrators, terrorists, illegal aliens, attack us from within. Hurt our logistics by bombing power plants, mortaring military bases, assassinating officials. Tried to break the will of civilians, make them call an end to the war, by going on shooting sprees and blowing up schools. It didn't work. So they nuked us. Blew up a lot of cities and military bases. Used cobalt bombs to poison the land and the water so we couldn't feed ourselves. I think a lot of our food was imported anyway. Used chemical weapons to attack public gathering places. Tried to kill the survivors with germs; even used chemicals and diseases to try to kill our crops.

Sure, they killed us. At least, as a country. Took out enough infrastructure that we collapsed into anarchy. But we got them just as bad. Maybe worse. Haven't heard a peep out of China or Russia on the radio like I did before the war. Maybe we wiped them out. Maybe they just lost their ability to transmit. Maybe radio waves don't go as far because of radiation and we just can't hear them. Or maybe they're just laying low so we think they're all gone. Who knows."

He lapsed into silence and checked the map again, then looked at the faded, rusted road signs in the headlights and put the map away.

"Um... Are you wearing a gas mask?"

"Yeah. Keeps my face warm. And we're coming up on contaminated land. Not much radiation, but chems were used. They should be long gone by now, but people keep getting sick when they drink the water or eat crops grown here, so there's something still hanging around. And it's definitely poisoning, not a bug."

A rustling sound came from the front seat, then something blocked out the light from the dashboard.

"Here. Israeli M15 mask for you and Eli. I'll show you how to put 'em on in the morning. You'll be fine until then; the truck has filters, and the stuff isn't airborne. It's just a precaution. And like I said, it keeps the face warm. Keeps dust out when you're in the desert too."

She took the two rubbery objects and placed them on the seat next to her.

"Where are we now?"

"We'll be coming up on the Mormon Territories in a day or two. Depending on which community you go through, they're either really friendly or outright assholes. And the asshole bit only applies if you're not a Mormon. Most of 'em are all right though, and even the asshole communities won't shoot at you without a good reason."

He paused for a moment, then continued, "I think I liked the Amish communities back east more. As long as you were courteous and didn't steal, rape, or murder, pretty much anyone was welcome. The Mormons were better prepared for this mess than most folks, but the Amish really have their shit wired. We might run into some when we get across the Mississippi."

"How long will that be?"

"Can't say. Before the war, you could practically cross the entire country in just three or four days. Less, for north-south traffic. Now, I don't know anybody else who has made it from one coast to the other. Far as I know, Sam and I are the only ones who ever bothered to try. Travel's dangerous, and the further you go the more dangerous it is. Go to sleep; sun won't be up for another couple hours."

Hope laid back in her seat, taking deep, almost luxurious breaths of the cold air, and eventually dozed off again.

Chapter 12

––––––––––––––––––––––––

Hope reached up to touch her face, but Nick slapped her hand away and continued tightening straps.

"Does that pinch?"

"No."

"How about now?"

"No."

"Ok, good. Exhale all the way, then take a deep breath."

He placed his hand over the can on the front of the gas mask as she exhaled. Then she inhaled- There wasn't any air. The mask was shrinking against her face as she tried to pull in air, but none came.

"Any air?"

She shook her head and he removed his hand, giving her a rush of rubber-scented air. Then he had her cough as hard as she could to see if it pushed the mask away from her face and broke the seal. It didn't. Finally, he pulled out a tiny glass vial, pulled a plastic stopper out, and waved it in front of her face and all around the edges of the mask.

"Smell anything?"

"Just rubber. What is that?"

"Banana oil. If there was a leak, you'd smell it."

"I don't know what a banana smells like. I haven't had one since I was three."

"Trust me, you'd know if you smelled it. Ok Eli, let's get you done so we can hop back in the truck."

Hope wandered over to the truck, running her hands over the mask. The lenses fogged slightly at the bottom every time she exhaled, but she could see all right. And while tight, the mask wasn't uncomfortable. She just wondered how she'd get it off so she could eat without taking her entire face with it.

Eli's mask was fitted and he ran over to join her. He was having fun making hissing noises through the filter and playing with his voice. Nick made a comment about a Darth Vader, but neither of them understood it. Probably just another of the countless monsters and legends roaming the wastelands.

With everyone masked except the dogs, they quickly mounted up into the truck and hit the road again.

––––––––––––––––––-

Hours down the road, and still they hadn't taken the masks off. Eli was complaining that he was hungry, and Hope was beginning to agree.

Suddenly, she spotted something on the road in front of them. An overturned shopping cart, with a random assortment of junk spilled from it. A woman lay beside it, her white shirt stained red. There was a dark puddle on the weathered asphalt beside her.

"Oh my gosh! Look at that!"

"Yup. Sam, keep driving."

"What?! Nick, what's wrong with you?! She's hurt! Maybe dying!"

"Or just plain dead. Or, far more likely since the body hasn't been touched by animals and all of her stuff is still there, she's just bait for a trap. Some dumb samaritan stops to help and he gets bushwhacked. We're not stopping."

Hope was about to argue, then paused to think. What had her father always said whenever he talked about negotiating trade with outside settlements? 'Don't appeal to a man's "better nature"; he may not have one. Instead, invoke his self-interest."

"Well, if she's hurt, then I'm sure she'd be grateful and repay you for helping her. And if she's dead, then couldn't you just take all of her stuff for yourself?"

Nick turned to stare at her for a moment. Even Sam turned his head slightly.

"Well, well, well. Clever girl. But old age and treachery, and all that jazz. We're not stopping."

Defeated, Hope fumed. The truck rolled past the woman and her overturned cart without slowing. Hope watched the still figure in the side mirror, feeling frustrated and disappointed in the utter lack of sympathy these two had.

Then the woman in the mirror sat up, transitioned the pistol to her other hand and held up her middle finger as two men came out of the woods to join her and stare after the receding truck.

Nick had been watching too. He turned back to look at Hope, the question whether she'd seen it in his eyes. She held his gaze steady for a moment, then turned away. He turned back in his seat and marked the spot on his map.

"Bandits with a samaritan ambush. Be good information to pass along, don't you think?"

No one said anything. Nick hadn't expected anyone to.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––

The truck thumped and rattled its way over potholes, places where the road had washed out, and a fallen tree. Hope was nearly hypnotized by the rhythm of sound and motion, but hunger kept her awake. Eli was making snoring sounds through his mask.

"Are we ever going to eat? We skipped lunch and dinner."

Sam stirred at the sound of her voice, but remained asleep in the corner. Nick glanced over his shoulder, trying to keep his eyes on the road.

"We ate breakfast. You can go until morning without eating. Sam and I have both gone more a week without eating. Darn near died that time, but that was from dehydration, not hunger. You'll be fine."

"Are we going to stop for the night?"

"Yeah, there should be an old pole barn twenty miles down the road. We'll pull in there so it hides the truck from the road. I don't like driving at night through this country. I did it a couple times, and I hate it every time."

"Why's th-"

Hope's voice died and her heart jackhammered. Something crossed the road in front of them. Judging by the height of the ruined car it strode past, it was very tall, maybe seven or eight feet tall. It was hunched over, and still that tall. It was shaped something like a man, but just appeared to be a shadow walking across the road. And it was looking right at them, red eyes reflecting in the headlights. It cross the road in three huge strides and vanished into the darkness outside of the headlights. In seconds, the truck rolled past where it had been and left it behind.

Nick seemed to take a moment to find his own voice.

"That's why."

"What the heck was that?"

"Darned if I know, but it scares the shit out of me every time I see it."

Hope shivered, and not from the cold this time. Half an hour later, they found the old pole barn a hundred yards off the side of the road and pulled into it, sheltered on three sides. Nick lowered the armored shutters over all the windows, then turned the truck off and wrapped himself in a wool blanket.

"Nick? What was that thing?"

"I didn't know when I saw it, why the heck would I know now?"

"You said it scares you every time you see it!"

"That doesn't mean I know what the fucking thing is! Bigfoot, wendigo, skinwalker, or Johnny Appleseed out planting trees, I don't know the frigging thing is!"

Hope tried not to shiver again. She was thoroughly creeped out.

"So... you've seen it before? Is it dangerous?"

"I dunno. I've seen it three or four times driving along this road. Last time was a couple years ago. I generally don't come this way. It's never bothered me, and while I've talked to other people who've seen it, nobody knows what it is and nobody knows if it's dangerous or not. If it's attacking people, then it's not leaving any survivors to talk about it."

There was a comforting thought.

"Now get to sleep. We're safe in here."

He turned on his side and let his head droop to his chest. His mask had the filter on the side instead of the front; it was easier to do that. Hope snuggled up against Eli, telling herself it was just for warmth and not because she had the heebie-geebies. She didn't notice herself falling asleep.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Hope jerked awake, listening for something. Then she caught herself- what was she listening for? She hadn't been awakened by a noise. Had she?

The soft click of the safety on Sam's M-16 and the louder clack of the safety on Nick's AK definitely jarred her to clarity. Both dogs sat up, staring at the doors intently. She found that even though the inside of the truck was almost pitch black, she could still tell where everything was.

Nick's voice hissed through his gas mask.

"Son of a bitch. Something's in the back of the truck."

Link Posted: 6/13/2011 2:27:48 AM EDT
[#14]
Chapter 13

––––––––––––––––––––––––

Hope felt the tension in her chest increase and slipped one hand into the concealed pocket of her tunic where she had concealed her .22 pistol. Nick, Sam, and both dogs quietly piled out the driver's side door and swung it not-quite shut. She couldn't see or hear what was going on. She could hear the blood pounding through her ears as she strained to listen.

After what seemed like a long time, but had to have been less than thirty seconds, she heard a loud crash in the back of the truck and one of the dogs barked. The crashing sounds got even louded and she heard Nick cuss at something. She'd expected to hear gunfire, but none was forthcoming. There were more thumping and scraping sounds in the back of the truck, which Hope thought sounded like someone straightening up whatever had been knocked over. After another long period of silence, the door to the cab swung open again and the dogs jumped into the truck. The door shut and she could hear Nick and Sam speaking outside for a moment before they both got back in the vehicle.

"What was that?" Eli asked.

"Frickin' racoon got in the back of the truck. We chased it off. Go to sleep."

Hope's relief that the weird creature with the glowing eyes hadn't been in the truck was overwhelming. She hadn't realized just how disturbed she'd been by such an apparition. She withdrew her hand from her weapon and snuggled under the blanket again.

Just as she was drifting off to sleep, however, she snapped awake again when the truck engine roared to life and the headlights came on.

"What's going on?"

Nick waited until he had the truck back on the road before answering.

"We're moving. I don't like it here. Sam and I discussed it, and we think it'd be better if we didn't wait until morning to hit the road."

Hope thought through that for a moment, then asked, "Did something happen?"

"Yeah, a frickin' racoon ate half a loaf of bread and tore open a bag of jerky."

"No, I mean- something that made you decide to move on?"

"Nah. Just... one of those feelings, you know? Kind of like when you're walking through the woods and you suddenly realize that everything is still and deathly quiet? And you get that feeling like you're being watched. You ever get that feeling?"

Hope nodded, then remembered that he couldn't see her and responded with, "Sure."

"That's 'cause you were being watched. Always trust your instincts and be cautious. If you're wrong, then it didn't cost you anything. If you're right, then you might have just saved your skin. Same thing here. It just doesn't... feel right. So we're moving."

Satisfied with the answer, Hope settled back and watched the road pass through the steady gaze of the headlights. It was a long time before she managed to get back to sleep.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––-

Breakfast was the usual fare, which Eli complained was boring. Hope still made him eat it all. Especially after Nick had jokingly told him to always eat what he had since he never knew when he'd get the chance to eat again. Hope had the distinct impression that he wasn't actually joking at all.

This time, Hope had awakened early enough to see more of Sam and Nick's morning rituals. They did stretches inside the truck cab, then climbed out. The dogs were allowed to roam free, and the two took turns doing situps and pushups while the other stood watch. A handhold above the rear of the truck became a chin-up bar. The dogs returned after tending to their own business and the two took turns throwing an old tennis ball for them and running laps around the truck. Always when one was doing something, the other was holding his rifle and constantly shifting position, watching in all directions. The entire set of activities seemed honed by long practice. When they returned to the cab, it was time for breakfast.

Despite having stayed up for half the night driving, Nick seemed refreshed and cheerful once breakfast was finished. Hope tried to engage him in conversation, with Eli gamely trying to coax him into talking as well, but Nick wasn't having any of it. He just hummed to himself, checking his maps, jotting entries into his journal, and consulting a thick binder that someone had labeled The Post-Apocalyptic Almanac with a black marker. Finally, Nick left his own little world and returned his attention to the others.

"It's been unseasonably warm for the last two months, but it's not going to last. We're heading further north and gaining altitude, so the temperature is going to drop pretty rapidly from here on out. The way I figure it, we've got maybe three days before we start seeing snow. And once we really get up north, we're going to see nothing but snow. So whatever outdoor activities we're going to do, we need to get them over with now while we still have the chance."

Eli quickly asked if they could go shooting again, to which Nick laughed and told him that the .22 rifle was already loaded. Eli whooped as Nick retrieved the rifle and the little .410 Snakecharmer from the back of the truck. Hope grinned, and shook her head at the two of them. It felt good to see Eli so enthusiastic about something again.

Sam, she noticed, was walking into the woods with the dogs. Probably needed to go to the bathroom again. Hope watched Nick and Eli going through their marksmanship lesson, and found herself less unnerved when Nick's eyes were always roving in every direction, even when giving instructions. Survival out in the wastelands wasn't something that came easily, and one probably didn't last long without always being on the watch for an enemy who might be sneaking up from behind. Hope found herself nervously glancing in all directions too. She still didn't notice when Sam and the dogs returned, they moved so quietly. Nick, however, did notice and asked Sam if he'd found "it". Sam nodded and went to the back of the truck.

"Ok kiddo, time for a break. Hope, you wanna take Eli and get a towel or something out of your stuff?"

"A towel? What do we need a towel for?"

"There's a creek nearby. Sam tested it to see if it was clean. We're going to swim and wash ourselves off before it gets too cold. I don't know how you civilized people do it, but out in the wilderness, when it's the middle of winter, the only way you're getting clean is a sponge bath once a week. People, uh, get kinda ripe in winter when they can't heat enough water to bathe in."

"Oh. That's a good idea. I'll get a towel for Eli and you two can take him to the creek. I'll wait until you're done before I go down there."

Nick seemed to mentally stumble for a moment.

"Uh, can't you take him?"

"Not if we're going to be bathing! He's too old for me to take now. You're all guys, so I'll just wait until you're done washing up before I get a turn."

"Ummm... Well, uh, I dunno. I mean, that makes sense and all, but we, uh, Sam and I just... We like our privacy, and..."

"You're gay."

Nick seemed to go into total mental lockup for several seconds, his mouth hanging open. Finally, he blinked and replied weakly, "We're what now?"

"No, I understand. It's all right. You and Sam are gay. That's what you meant when you said everybody has their secrets, including you. That's why you turned up the music when we stayed at the motel; so we couldn't hear, uh, you guys."

Hope winked at Nick, who still seemed to be in shock, and continued, "My parents did the same thing when I was a kid."

Nick finally seemed to snap out of it and, still somewhat weakly, adopted a wan smile and said, "Uh, yeah, that's right. We're gay. I hope you, uh, keep this to yourself. That sort of rumor getting spread around tends to get a guy lynched in a lot of areas these days. I'd really rather we just kept it a secret."

"Sure. I understand completely. I won't tell anyone; it's not even any of my business. But, uh, about the bathing arrangements..."

"No, it's ok, we can do it. You just wait by the truck and we'll be back in fifteen, twenty minutes."

Nick went around to the back of the truck and, once out of sight, made the oddest choking-barking-snorting sound Hope had ever heard. A few seconds later, his composure regained, he came back around with Eli in tow and joined Sam, who had two towels and a cloth bag that presumably held soap slung over his shoulder. Nick made another sound like he was clearing his sinuses as he passed Hope and the three headed off to the creek, the german shepherd following with its tail wagging briskly.

Hope sat on the rear bumper of the truck and noticed the doberman had been left to guard the vehicle. She leaned over and scratched its ears, eliciting a deep-throated sigh of content from the massive canine. She leaned back and listened to the birds chirping and the trees rustling in the wind. It was so unusual that they still had so many green leaves on them this time of year. She heard a loud splash in the distance and Eli's high-pitched complaint that the water was cold and laughed to herself. The doberman titled its head to concentrate her scratching behind its left ear.

Suddenly, Hope realized that she'd forgotten to get a towel out of her luggage for Eli. She chastised herself for being so stupid and retrieved the towel. The doberman stayed where it was.

As she headed off into the woods in the direction of the creek, she wondered how she was going to handle this. It would be a bad idea to surprise the boys since they'd not only be naked, but Nick and Sam would also presumably have their sidearms within arm's reach and wouldn't take kindly to being startled. It'd be best if she located them and then called out to let them know she was there; then they'd tell her where she could leave the towel.

She heard a splash to her left and turned in that direction. Just as she called Eli's name to let them know she was there, she stepped into a clearing that stood right beside the creek, closer than she'd thought. She saw only one person standing in the water with his back to her; she started to backpedal to give them privacy but the nude figure reacted faster than her and, in less than a second, had whirled around, crossed the five feet to the shore and drawn the Mauser c96 lying on top of a pile of clothing.

Hope froze, partly to avoid getting shot out of reflex and partly out of surprise. This person was lacking male anatomy. But she did have breasts, however. And was holding Sam's pistol and dripping on Sam's clothing.

"Are you kidding me?!"

––––––––––––––––––––-

Hope knelt with her head cradled in her hands.

"I am such an idiot. I completely missed the obvious."

Nick shook his head.

"I can't believe that I thought- and you! You were laughing at me!"

Nick smirked, then tried to maintain a stoic expression and failed.

"Yeah. I was laughing at you. But hey, you startled the crap out of me when you just decided that we were gay."

"Why didn't you say anything?!"

"What was I going to say? Like I said, we like our privacy and we have reasons to keep things to ourselves. You decided the reason for that was because we were gay, so I let you think that. Besides, it was... funny."

Hope buried her face in her hands again and tried to muffle the frustrated scream. She didn't succeed.

"Why keep it a secret in the first place? That's what doesn't make any sense. What's the point of Sam pretending to be a boy?"

"You have to understand, once you leave the so-called civilized areas, the only rules are the ones you can establish with force. Might makes right. And, sad to say, women just don't have the sort of power men do. Out in the wastelands, the most valuable things are weapons, food, fuel, and fertile females. The elements of survival. And if you have any one or more of those, then you're a target."

"But that still doesn't make sense! I mean, I understand what you just said, but how does pretending to be a boy help? It's pretty obvious that I'm a girl! Everyone back in... whatever that town we stayed at was, was obviously female! So why does Sam have to hide her breasts and keep her face covered out here?"

"In the middle of nowhere, she usually doesn't. It's just when we go into town or run into a caravan that she covers up. But since you guys are with us..." Nick shrugged.

"Why keep it a secret from us?"

"That's something you'd have to ask Sam. It's not my place to say anything."

"Sam doesn't talk!"

Nick shrugged again and said, "I'm going back to the truck to make sure Eli's not dripping on everything. Your towel's right next to the soap there. Take your time, we'll be here until after lunch."

With that, Nick walked away and left Hope squatting on the ground trying to make sense out of the world. She felt incredibly stupid and embaressed. Frustrated, too.

"You want to know why?"

The soft, quiet question startled her and Hope looked over her shoulder to see Sam perched on a large rock. She was barefoot and without her chest rig and coat, her feminine features were much more obvious. Sam gently rocked backed and forth, squeezing water from her shoulder-length hair, staring at the ground in front of her. Hope had to revise her estimate of Sam's age again; her face had made her appear much younger as a boy. She was maybe seventeen or eighteen instead of the fourteen she'd guessed. Her original impression had been much closer to the mark.

"Sure."

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She scrambled through the debris of a fallen building. Bricks, mud, broken glass, and sharp bits of metal tore at her hands, her feet, her knees, but she kept scrabbling on all fours up the mound of debris. She was wet all over and couldn't tell any more which was blood and which was rain water. She didn't care. She didn't notice it any more than she noticed the burning pain in her body as she gouged and cut herself all over. She didn't notice the pain in her chest and sides as her lungs labored to keep her blood oxygenated, didn't notice her heart pounding as hard as it could, didn't notice her lips had peeled back from her teeth in a rictus of terror. It had all become background noise to her. Nothing mattered except escaped getting away.

She was physically and mentally exhausted. She didn't know how long the terror had lasted. She had hidden inside an old furnace when she heard the gunshot. Her father's head exploded into a red pulp with white chunks of bone; the shotgun blast had taken him completely by surprise. The rain and thunder had covered the men's approach as they crept up on the camp site. Her mother didn't run; she tried to find her daughter instead, but she was already hidden. The men grabbed her and held her down while others began rummaging through their things. She had squeezed her eyes shut and covered her ears, but she could still hear the screaming and the rough laughter. Hours. It had to have lasted for hours before the shrieking finally stopped and all she heard was a terrible silence. The silence bothered her more than the screaming had. She tried to peek through a hole in the furnace door, but only saw the orange glow of the fire.

"Man, these pissants didn't have nuffin'."

"You'd think they'da had a little sumfin, ya know? Jewelry, coins, somethin'? Maybe they stashed it somewheres in case they got robbed."

"Good thinkin'. Finn, check the furnace. Scotty, toss through their stuff again, see if we missed anything. I'm gonna check that workbench in the corner."

The furnace door swung open and she scrambled to get out, but a hand grabbed her by the hair and brought her to the ground.

"Weeee-hell! What DO we have here! Looks like they was hidin' a little somethin' after all, boys!"

The laughter and cheers from the men sounded ugly.

"Ain't she a cutie! I bet we could get a good price for this one. Don't waste her like the other bitch."

"Ah, c'mon Vince! Mommy didn't last long enough."

"Hey, I said don't waste her. I didn't say you couldn't have a little fun."

The whooping and hollering got louder.

"Now that's what I'm talkin' about!"

She screamed as they tore at her clothes, held her down. She bit a hand that was ripping at her shirt and that loosened the grip on her hair. She thrashed, kicking and flailing, until she managed to break free and darted for the door.

"Hey! Don't let her get away, dumbasses! If Morgan's crew finds her, we don't get the cash when we sell 'er!"

Three of the men ran after her into the rain, whooping as they ran. Her bare feet slowed her down on the rough ground and they taunted her, stooping to pick up rocks and throw them at her. She ran as fast as she could.

She blinked. She'd been reliving the same scene over and over in her mind. Her body had been moving on automatic. She was utterly exhausted and had used up her adrenaline long ago, her entire body was in pain, but she still kept moving. It wasn't enough. She could still hear them behind her, taunting her and yelling out what they would do when they caught her. She stumbled over a curb and found a hole where a slab of concrete had fallen; there was just enough space for her to slide inside and hide, if they weren't too close to see where she went. She tried to crawl in, but her limbs didn't want to move.

"No, ya don't girly!"

She felt herself lifted onto her knees, gasped in pain as the fingers in her hair yanked her back.

"Where do you think you're goin'? Fun time's just startin'!"

She tried to reach over her shoulder, scratch him, hit him, anything, but he casually slapped her hand away; she couldn't physically move enough any more to fight back. The man's laughter stopped when something THWACKed against his chest. He looked down as if confused, then slowly toppled over backward, taking her with him.

She tried to untangle her hair from his hand and caught a glimpse of a wolf or something streaking past. One of the other men yelped and she heard a muffled popping sound, three times in a row. She couldn't see, but she heard the wolf growling and a crunching, tearing sound. She finally got free from the man's grip and tried to get up, but her legs refused to support her. She settled for rolling a few feet away, stopping when she came up against another pile of ruined building.

The wolf- no, it was a dog, like the police used to have- returned, its muzzle dark and its fangs dripping. She pressed herself against the rubble, praying it would ignore her. It just wouldn't end. The terror would end, it just changed. Now she had to face the prospect of being eaten. She glanced at the man who had grabbed her. He was moving feebly, trying to reach a knife on his belt. If she could get it...

His head bounced off the ground in time with another muffled pop and a THWACK and he stopped moving. She looked up and the flashes of lightning lent a supernatural air to an already eery figure. Clad in a green crosshatched poncho with camouflage splotches, combat boots, and a backpack, it stood atop the concrete slab she'd been trying to hide under. The dog stood beside him, licking its chops. A rifle with a long suppressor on the end was clutched in both hands and he stepped down off the slab and knelt over her.

The gas mask he was wearing and the thunder muffled his voice, but she still distinctly heard what he said.

"Yeah, I've had better days too."

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She woke up lying on her back, wrapped in blankets. She didn't know where she was. More disturbingly, the world seemed to be shaking. She sat up and realized she was in the back seat of a truck of some kind. A doberman puppy, already large, lay at her feet, watching her curiously.

"Hey, you're up. You've been out for two days. I gave you some antibiotics, but I think you'll be all right."

There wasn't a single part of her that wasn't in pain. It took her a moment to realize that most of the stiffness in her body was because she was covered in bandages and not because she was hurt. She was hungry. She was thirsty. And she was still scared out of her mind.

"Wh- Wh-...."

"You're safe. I'm not going to do anything to you. I rescued you from those guys, remember? There's food and a canteen full of water next to you."

"Where are we? Who are you?"

"I go by a lotta aliases, depending on where I'm at, but my name's Nick. I just sorta tool around in the wastelands, looking for stuff. Found you a couple days ago in what's left of Freeholn. You're lucky I found this truck a few months ago; I wouldn't have been able to move you on foot, especially when the rest of those bandits caught on that their buddies were dead. Uh, speaking of which, was there anyone else... with you?"

She nodded, then shook her head.

"Not any more."

Nick was silent for a moment, then asked, "Got any friends or family you know of? Anywhere that's safe I can drop you off at?"

She shook her head again. It was all she could do not to cry and start screaming.

"Guess you're stuck with me then, at least until we find some place you can stay at."

"What are- What are you going to... do... with me?"

"Keep ya fed, made sure you keep taking antibiotics for those cuts, and find a town or something you can stay at. What else?"

She didn't answer. She had the feeling he knew exactly what she meant.

"So, uh, what's your name?"

"Samantha."

"Nice to meet you. Though it could be under better circumstances, of course."

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A week later, and she was nearly back to full health. The deepest cuts were still bandaged, but she didn't hurt any more when she moved. Nick had been as good as his word and had tended to her needs, without expecting any sort of payment in return. She knew from experience that such charity was rare, especially since he'd expended quite a bit of his medical supplies and food on keeping her healthy. It was hard to shake the idea that he was just doing it all out of the kindness of his heart.

The previous day, a man with a crossbow had tried to ambush them when they stopped for a toilet break. The german shepherd had alerted on him and Nick had dropped him with two shots from his rifle before the man realized he'd been detected. Nick had then casually retrieved his spent brass, policed the body for anything useful, and they had gotten back into the truck and on the road again. She was dangerously close to hero worship; her father had been armed and ready to fight to the death to protect his family, but he had never exuded the confidence, the casual competence, that Nick did. Nick was dangerous, deadly when he wanted to be. This was a man who was in the prime of his life and knew exactly what he was doing. That was power. She wanted that power for herself. If her father had been like that, the bandits would never have snuck up on them. If she could be like that...

They reached a settlement in the evening and Nick began making arrangements for her to stay.

"Ok Sam, I think we got a good thing here. I know this town pretty well and they're good folks here, so you don't have to worry about anything. The lady that runs the town thinks they can put you up some place, and so long as you find something you can do to earn your keep, you can stay."

She stared at her feet, wiggling her toes in the ill-fitting shoes Nick had given her to replace the ones she'd lost. She was wearing his old clothes too, ones too small for him to wear any more. They were too long and baggy on her, but they were better than the torn, filthy things she'd had when he found her.

"C'mon, it'll be ok. They're nice people here, they have a good harvest every year so there's plenty to eat, and bandits don't come out this way because the communities have a posse doing patrols all over the county. You'll be fine."

He hesitated a moment, then took off the Night Desert poncho he was wearing.

"Here, it's thin but it's better than nothing, especially since I waterproofed it. I bought a better one anyway, so you can keep it."

She took the light jacket wordlessly and put it on. It fit her like a trench coat. She flipped the hood up and continued to stare at the ground between her feet.

"Um... Nick?"

"Yeah?"

"Is it all right if I... if I stay with you?"

"What?"

"I mean, you're the only person I know now, and..."

"Look, I think it'd be better for you if you stayed here. It'd be safer, for one thing. A lot safer. And I don't have the resources to keep taking care of you like this. I dipped into my reserves pretty deep this last week."

"Then I'll earn my keep! I just... I just don't want to stay with people I don't know."

"Sam, you don't even know me. You just sat in my truck for a week and used up all my medicine. It'll be fine. It's better this way."

Sam clenched her fists and tried to hold back the tears. She didn't succeed. She didn't know why it was so important to stay with Nick. It was her only anchor of stability since the attack, the only thing left that she had any familiarity with, and she didn't want to leave it for a bunch of strangers in a community she'd never heard of. She heard Nick sigh and she resisted the urge to wipe the tears off her cheek. She didn't want him to see.

"How old are you?"

"Fifteen? I think?"

"Fifteen. Well, that's about the age I ended up on my own. I guess... All right, fine. You can stay. But you're going to earn your keep. You can start by helping me train Daisy. And you're going to have a lot to learn if you want to be useful and survive out in the wastelands, got it?"

Sam didn't say anything, she just lurched forward and grabbed Nick in a tight hug, crying into his chest.

"Ok, this is, uh... this is kinda awkward. Uh, Sam? You wanna let go? Sam?"

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––-

"You're getting pretty good. If we're ever attacked by a rabid horde of buckets, you're gonna be lethal."

Sam stuck her tongue out at Nick and finished stowing the AR-7 she'd been shooting.

"When do I get a gun of my own?"

"That's a good question. The biggest component of firearm safety is personal responsibility, and you can only learn so much of that shooting someone else's guns. All right, you'll get your own gun. You gotta learn how to use it, how to maintain it, and how not to shoot me in the ass when I'm setting up targets."

"I said I was sorry!"

"Tell that to my ass. All right, I think I know just the thing. It's complicated enough to make you really learn how to handle it, but not valuable enough that I'll be heart-broken if you break it or drop it in a river or something."

Nick climbed into the back of the massive Tatra truck and rummaged around in one of the dozen or so crates he had in there. He emerged carrying a brown leather holster and, after checking that the pistol was unloaded, handed it to her. Sam had never seen a firearm even remotely like it. It was almost like an alien artifact.

"What is it?"

"It's a Mauser c96 broomhandle. This one's been rechambered to 9mm, so it's easy to find ammo for. I have a stock for it somewhere, I'll have to look for it. This pistol's different enough that I think once you've mastered it you'll find other guns easy. Now you take care of this thing, understand? It's not worth enough that breaking or losing it is a huge loss, but I'm kinda sentimental about it."

"Why's that?"

"Eh, I kinda got in a situation like you did when I was about your age. My dad was a survivalist, had a ton of stuff. Unfortunately, people knew about it and when the war happened, they came to take it from him. My dad and the other guys in his group mowed down a bunch of 'em, but there was a whole mob of people, from the city nearby, and they were desperate enough they just kept coming. Too many for five guys to handle even with the hardware they had. I snuck out from an escape tunnel and went into town for help, but nobody care. They had their own problems. So I broke into the town museum; it'd been closed since the war started and nobody thought of the antique guns there as useful. I grabbed that Mauser from a display case, loaded it with ammo from a spare magazine I had on me, and snuck back to my dad's place. Most of the looters had left by then and they were too stupid to find the real caches of stuff, so I snuck back in through the escape tunnel, killed or chased out the ones who were still there, loaded up with whatever I could carry, and left."

"Wow."

"So don't lose it, understand?"

"I won't."

"Now go set up the can again, I gotta load some stripper clips."

She walked over to set the old paint can up again, clutching the ancient pistol in her hands and staring at it like it was a holy relic. This was power. A teenage boy got revenge and the necessities of survival with an obsolete piece of steel and wood. Now she held that power in her hands. Never again would she have to run for her life, helpless. Never again would she be a victim because she was weak.

No, that wasn't true. She still looked weak. She was still an enticing target. She pulled the jacket around her uncomfortably, clenching the pistol tightly. Then she noticed. The jacket was as baggy as the rest of her clothes. And even when they got clothing that would fit her properly, it would still cover her up. She took off the cap she wore to keep the sun out of her eyes and tucked her hair under it. That was it. Strangers were dangerous. But if strangers thought she was a boy, then they would have less incentive to hurt her. And if she were as dangerous as Nick...

"Ok, now let me show you how to load this. It's really simple, but you gotta get the hang of it."

She listened as if they were the most important words she would ever hear.



I'm gonna cut a lot of the flashback bits out of the final story and stick them in a separate "The Adventures of Sam and Nick" story. I got a little carried away writing their background stuff; at the time, it seemed more interesting than the point of the main story I was working on.

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Chapter 14
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The truck pulled over and Nick shut the engine off, stretching in his seat and wincing as something in his back popped.

"I gotta teach you to drive, doing it all myself is killing me. At least my butt made a nice indentation in the seat so it stops going to sleep after a few hours on the road."

"Why are we stopping here?"

"Got some work to do. Get out; we'll take the dogs with us."

After Nick checked to be sure the truck wasn't visible from the road, he went to the back and retrieved a pair of shovels. One was a full-sized shovel, but the other was a tiny folding shovel. Sam didn't really feel like digging, especially if she got the tiny shovel; it looked awkward. She followed him into the woods a few yards.

Nick checked the notebook he carried in his jacket pocket, looked around, and made a beeline for a large boulder. Someone had spraypainted 87 on it in faded fleuorescent paint. Nick turned to his right, then paused.

"Shit. There's supposed to be an oak tree over there. Hang on."

He consulted his notebook again, looked back to the right, and frowned. Putting away the notebook, he walked in the direction he'd been looking and wandered around for a bit.

"Ah, here it is! It fell down. Ok, then it's ten yards to the North-east."

Nick immediately headed in a direction Sam couldn't readily identify as being any particular point on the compass; Nick hadn't consulted the compass in his gear and it was overcast, so he couldn't have judged direction by looking at the sun. She dismissed as yet another skill she needed to learn and followed, scratching at a mosquito bite. Nick finally stopped at the base of a cedar tree, indistinguishable from any of the others around them except that it had a signing declaring that there was no hunting or trespassing allowed on private property nailed to its trunk. The sign was also badly faded and beginning to rust. Nick took the full-sized shovel and began digging.

"What are you doing?"

"Remember how I said my dad was a survivalist? He was pretty hard-core into it. Made a living off of it, actually. People paid him to teach them stuff. Used to be special forces in the army, grew up on a farm, so he knew everything you needed to know. Mom was a registered nurse, then quit to homeschool me after I came around. Her parents were convinced the Russians were gonna nuke us any day now and they had to be prepared, so she got along with my dad pretty well, even if the lifestyle got on her nerves now and then. Anyway," he grunted as he dug up and tossed aside a rock, "my dad had a good amount of money since he didn't owe anybody anything and did a lot to bring in an income. One of his nuttier ideas was to put at least one cache in every state in the US except Hawaii. Didn't like Hawaii. Said the Chinese or somebody would take it when the balloon went up. Mom always thought it was a waste of money. Me? I'm kinda appreciating it. I've found five so far. Would've been six, but the landmarks for one had been moved around so I couldn't find it. Three of them were already dug up when I got there though. Too many people with metal detecters. You gonna help?"

Sam grimaced and picked up the little shovel, unfolding it, and began to dig.

"How far down is it?"

"Not far, about four feet. We gotta hurry though, looks like it's gonna rain."

She tried not to groan as she tossed aside a second shovelful of dirt.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––-

Sam climbed into the back of the truck and flopped on top of a conveniently located wooden crate labeled in Russian. It looked like it held ammunition, or did originally. She was exhausted, sore, muddy, and her hands were blistered. At least she was out of the rain now.

"So what's in the pipe?"

"Dunno. I'll open it in a minute."

Nick was busy removing his jacket, chest rig, and gunbelt. Next went his boots, and then it became very clear that he was changing his clothes right in front of her.

"Um, do you want me turn around, or..."

"Huh? Oh. If you want. Not like it matters. Not gonna get much privacy sharing a tent, you know."

Sam turned around, but kept glancing in Nick's direction as he stripped out of his wet, muddy clothes and began putting on dry replacements from a plastic tub full of BDU's and other clothing. He had a scar on his left buttcheek where she'd actually shot him with the .22. She quickly turned her head and blushed as he pulled a shirt on and turned around.

"Here. They're even looser than what you've got on, but they should fit. We'll get you some real clothes when we get out to Cummings, they have a nice surplus store that's still in business."

Sam caught the BDU pants and t-shirt he tossed her, then hesitated. Nick sat down and began prying on the lid to the large PVC pipe they'd out of the ground, trying to unscrew it. He was facing in her direction. Blushing again, she turned her back on him and quickly peeled off the wet shirt that was sticking to her, then pulled the dry one on. This one was Nick's size and came down well past her waist. She emptied her pockets and removed the Mauser in its holster, then stripped off her boots. She hesitated, glanced back at Nick, who was fully engrossed in opening the pipe and not paying her any attention, then pulled her pants off and hurriedly changed into the BDU pants he'd tossed her. Even with her belt, they still felt like she was wearing a circus tent around her waist. She finished changing and turned to see Nick struggling to open the pipe with a large wrench.

"Son of a bitch this thing won't budge! Hand me a hacksaw, would you?"

She opened the tool kit and found the hacksaw. He immediately attacked the pipe with it, making an expression of determination and frustration that, frankly, looked pretty funny. She smiled slightly as she sat back down and watched him. He hadn't looked while she was changing. Or cared. Of course, he'd seen her naked when he'd bandaged her up after he first rescued her, but that wasn't the same thing. She could trust him.

She really was safe here. Like nowhere else.

"Here, let me have a turn at it."

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The cache had contained an SKS rifle with three hundred rounds of ammunition in a Chinese bandolier, a box of 9mm ammunition, a hunting knife, and enough canned goods to feed two people for a day. It also had a map of the area, a flashlight, and spare batteries that weren't any good. Sam almost didn't consider it worth all the effort of digging it up since they had plenty of firearms, and far better ones, but the food made it worthwhile. They were running fairly low on rations since they'd run out of bread and jerky, which she'd finally gotten used to as a regular meal. The only food they had left that didn't come out of a can was a pouch half full of dried blueberries. Those were reserved for special occasions, or basically whenever Nick decided they needed dessert after a meal.

"We can trade the rifle for some clothes that'll fit you when we get to Cummings. I wanna keep the ammo since it's factory. Probably toss in some reloads for the rifle to sweeten the deal."

"What about food?"

"Don't worry about it. I got some silver jewelry I can barter with. The main thing we gotta worry about is fuel. That's gonna be a problem. The refinery doesn't send much fuel this far west, so it's going to be expensive."

She nodded seriously, then took note of her baggy clothing. The silence was broken only by the steady purr of the motor and the rain pounding against the steel of the truck cabin.

"Warn me before we get to Cummings, ok?"

"Ok. Why?"

"I want to cover up my face with something," she said, as she began to tuck her hair under her hat.

Nick glanced over at her, then returned his attention to the road.

"Ok."

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It had worked. No one in Cummings had suspected she was a girl; one person had even called her "sir". She'd broken her cover when someone asked her a question and she'd answered, startling the people gathered around the truck. That had been embaressing; she hadn't thought before speaking, and her feminine voice was unmistakable. She'd remained silent the rest of the time they were in Cummings.

Nick, for his part, had said nothing regarding her gender to anyone in town. He'd simply referred to her as Sam or "my partner". That last one made her happy. If they were partners, it meant they were together. Her entire life, things had been very unstable for Sam as she tried to survive in a hostile world, and she'd recently lost both her parents and every other tie to her past. Nick and that giant truck of his were the only solid things she could latch on to, and the fact that Nick seemed to have accepted her into his largely solitary existence meant she had a home. Well, a home that was constantly on the move, but a home nonetheless. She also had to admit to a degree of hero worship regarding Nick, which was rapidly developing into a crush.

They'd traded the rifle and some reloaded ammunition for it, plus some silver charm bracelets, for food, fuel, and clothing. Nick was certain the fuel was mostly bad, but seemed confident that the truck would burn it anyway. The engine was designed to burn just about any combustible liquid.

Once they were on the move again, Sam crawled into the backseat and changed into the clothes they'd bought. Nick had been right; there had been a surplus store in town that had a decent stock of clothing remaining. Most of it had been size small or even extra small, so it fit her perfectly. There had even been a pair of jungle combat boots, worn but servicable, in her size. She gladly discarded the baggy BDU's she'd been wearing and slid into one of the new ones. This set was green with brown splotches and black stripes, like tiger stripes. It came with a matching brimmed hat that was very floppy. She couldn't tuck her hair under it like she could with her cap, but it'd be nice to wear if the rain picked up again. She examined herself, then frowned. The uniform fit perfectly; too perfectly. Her figure was obviously feminine, even with the BDU jacket buttoned, especially since she wasn't starved skinny any more. She pulled on the oversized Night Desert parka again and became satisfied that it was impossible to tell her gender except up close. She crawled back into the front seat, nearly sitting on the large doberman puppy in the process. Nick glanced at her.

"Looks good. They fit pretty well. I've got a spare chest rig you can wear, once we figure out which rifle is best for you. I'm guessing it won't be the FAL."

He smirked as he said this, but she didn't know what an FAL was, so the in-joke was lost on her.

"Tigerstripe camo works pretty well around here, and those woodland BDU's we got you, like the ones of mine you had on before, work okay too. But they really stand out in the dry areas, especially in winter or the middle of summer. We'll have to get you some Multicam, like me. " He paused for a moment, then continued, "I'm wearing a set of my dad's. Outgrew the ones he had for me, and I didn't keep them once I got too big for them. Traded 'em. But there's a spot a couple hundred miles ahead where he and I used to go hunting; we'd take a week off to drive out here, hunt for a few days, then drive back. That was back when you could actually drive fast, when the roads were good and nobody was ambushing people. We should get there in a couple days and I can see if the old cabin is intact. It's just a plywood shack, in the middle of nowhere, so I doubt anybody's found it. If it's still there and mice haven't gotten into everything, there should be a couple sets of Multicam that'll fit you. Maybe a box or two of hunting ammo."

She nodded politely, not really having anything to say.

"So... you're hiding the fact that you're a girl, now?"

Sam was silent for a moment, then responded, "Why not. Strangers are dangerous, and girls are targets. Food, guns, and girls. That's all anybody cares about, and they'll do whatever they can to get them."

There was silence in the truck for a while. Then Nick said, "We'll have to give you a haircut then. Keep your hair shorter than it is. Not too short though," He turned and winked at her before returning his attention to the road. "Don't want you looking too much like a boy now."

Sam stared at her feet, wiggling her toes in her new boots. Nick had done so much for her. Rescuing her from being raped and enslaved, or maybe just raped and murdered. Nursing her back to health. Keeping her with him instead of dumping her on somebody else. Teaching her the skills she needed to survive on her own instead of keeping her reliant on him for protection and shelter. Using up his food, clean water, medical supplies, and more, all things he could have used for himself. Spending his barter goods on her. It was hard to believe that in this day and age, someone would just go to all that effort for someone who was effectively a complete stranger just out of the kindness of their heart. These days, people had an ulterior motive for everything. Since she was female, the ulterior motive of a male helping her out was easy to figure out. But Nick hadn't made a move on her. He'd shown himself to be completely trustworthy and respectful toward her.

"Why?"

"Hmm?"

"Why do all of this for me?"

"Didn't you already ask me this?"

"I want to know."

Nick didn't seem annoyed or confused; he probably understood her mental process better than she did, having gone through something very similar.

"Because we can't all be selfish bastards looking out for number one. Because somebody has to do something civilized for someone that isn't immediate family or part of their little community. Because every boy fantasizes about being a knight in shining armor saving a damsel in distress and grown men never really abandon that fantasy. And because it gets pretty frigging lonely sometimes. Life is like some sort of nightmare, sometimes better and sometimes worse, but either way you can never wake up from it. Everybody's been through this shit, but you're probably the closest to understanding what I went through as a kid and I'm probably the closest you'll ever have to someone who can understand what you've been through. After I was left on my own, I didn't have anybody to help me out. I had to do it all on my own, the hard way, and when the universe wasn't actively trying to kill me I repeatedly came close to doing it myself because I didn't know what I was doing and made stupid mistakes. You're right; strangers are dangerous and can't be trusted. I hooked up with a little family that promised to take me in once, when I was 17. Sons of bitches shared what little they had with me for days, gaining my trust. Then they tried to drug me and sell me as slave labor. So I know what you're going through."

He looked over at her and locked eyes for several seconds, ignoring the jarring thud as the truck drove through a pothole that was more like an asteroid crater.

"I understand."

He returned his attention to the road and drove around the next pothole, cursing under his breath when the engine made a coughing sound because of the bad fuel, but returned to its usual rumble quickly.

After almost a minute of contemplation and more silence, Sam scooted across the seat, disturbing the two dogs, and cuddled up against Nick, hugging him.

"Thank you."

He merely grunted in reply, but after a few moments put one arm around her shoulder.

The truck rolled on.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––-

"So where are we going?"

Sam loved the new Multicam fatigues; they didn't blend in with the surrounding foliage as well as the tigerstripe did, but they matched what Nick wore and he looked quite dapper in them, she thought. She hurriedly unbuttoned her tigerstripe jacket and replaced it with the Multicam jacket, then after a moment's hesitation, dumped out her pockets and dropped her pants so she could put on ones that matched her new jacket. Nick raised an eyebrow, but didn't avert his eyes. He simply didn't seem to care about being flashed a little panty, as if he were above such things. If he could be above a silly thing like modesty, then so could she. At least, when it was safe.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, we're always moving, right? You don't have any place that you normally stay most of the time.

"Not any more, no. Not since a few months before I found the truck. I don't like being tied to one place. You get to feeling too secure, you get into habits, and when you're by yourself that makes you an easy target for bandits. Staying on the move is better, if it's possible."

"So where are we going? If we're always moving, we have to be headed somewhere, right?"

Nick scratched his head and looked around the musty hunting cabin.

"Not really. I haven't had a goal in mind since I left home and hit the east coast. That was a mistake. I was stupid and thought that if there any relief efforts from overseas, they'd be at the coast and I could find food and shelter there as they restored civilization. Big mistake. Nobody gave a rat's ass about the United States if they didn't get something out of it, and the east coast was the most heavily nuked part of the country. Found out later that I'd wandered through a forbidden zone, hot as hell from the radiation. You can't feel radiation, can't see it or smell it. It just hurts you and you don't even know it until you get sick and die from it. I never got sick; no idea how big a dose I absorbed, but now I keep a dosimeter and geiger counter on me all the time."

"So you just keep moving at random?"

"Not at random. I keep maps, find communities that are safe to visit. Most of the time I scavenge ghost towns and farm houses for anything I can trade, so I can get food to keep me alive and fuel to keep moving. I've been driving around in circles visiting all these communities for weeks now; that's how I know the area."

Sam finished transferring her meager possessions into her pockets and buckled the belt with the broomhandle Mauser and its stripper clips around her waist.

"But you don't have any place you want to go to?"

"Well, I guess we could always head west, back where things didn't get bombed into the stone age near as bad, but no, I don't really know of any place that I'd want to visit. I could always see if there's more of dad's caches to dig up, but frankly whatever's in them isn't worth the fuel it'd take to get there."

"There's an idea."

"What?"

"Head west. Where it didn't get bombed as badly. It won't have all that radiation like the east coast does, not as much anyway. And if they didn't get bombed as bad, then the people there will be in better shape. Maybe it'll be safer there."

"You've got more faith in humanity than I do."

"I doubt it. I feel like fresh meat any time we meet someone. But it's something. We could try for it, see how far west we can go. At the very least, it'll give us new places to search for things to trade, right?"

"Sure, I guess. Why not. It'd be good to have a goal. Something to achieve. It's been a while since I felt like I accomplished something beyond mere survival. All right. Let's head west. We've already started, coming this far, why not just keep going?"

That decided, Nick made another, brief search of the tiny, plywood cabin for anything useful. He didn't find anything new. There had been just an old ammo crate filled with several sets of camouflage uniforms, a hunting knife that had become badly rusted after years of neglect, and a tiny cupboard filled with dried goods that been spoiled by mice and age. The twin-size mattress set on a shelf on the wall had no bedding, and Nick had already policed the kerosene lantern hanging from the lantern and a small can of fuel for it, which likely wasn't any good since it had been opened and was nearly a dozen years old.

"Nick? Why don't we spend the night here? It's already getting dark, and I haven't slept in a real bed in forever. Sleeping on the ground or in the truck gets old quick."

"Sure, I guess. You can have the bed, I'll set up my sleeping bag on the floor."

"You don't have to sleep on the floor. I'm sure you'd like to sleep in a real bed too."

"It's a small bed."

"I don't mind sharing. It'll be warmer that way anyway."

Nick stared at her suspiciously for a long moment, then shrugged.

"Sure, why not. That truck seat is killing my back anyway."

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Nick snored slightly, almost imperceptibly, as they lay back to back in the narrow bed. Both dogs slept on the floor, on a wool blanket Nick had laid out for them.

Sam shivered a little from the chill; the cabin wasn't very well insulated. She pressed up against Nick to absorb more of his body heat. They were both fully dressed, minus their shoes, which was how they slept in the truck. It was stilly chilly. She pulled the blanket up higher to cover her face and curled tighter into her fetal position. She didn't care about the cold. She had the comfort of a real bed for the first time in... she had no idea how long. And, she privately admitted to herself, it was nice sharing it with Nick. Not only for the shared warmth, but also because it simply felt safer that way. The world was a horrible, dangerous place and she had to be strong and deadly to survive in it; she knew that, that was why she had to become like Nick. But... she had somebody she could trust now. She didn't have to be strong and alert every single moment, because she had Nick there. She pushed herself tighter against his back and took comfort in allowing herself to feel small against him.

It was almost like having a family to depend on again. Almost.

Link Posted: 6/13/2011 2:29:06 AM EDT
[#15]
Chapter 15

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Sam's eyes slowly scanned from right to left, then back, looking for anything out of place. Or movement. Motion made it easy to spot the enemy; it was harder when they were smart, experienced hunters. Like these men were.

She wanted to ask Nick when they would get back to the truck, but he'd drilled it into her that she couldn't speak while "on patrol" as he termed it and she kept her silence out of habit. If he had something important to say, he'd get close and say it in a low voice. Not whispering, because that raised the pitch, and lisping to avoid the ss sounds that carried further. He had nothing to say. He gestered with one hand, not looking at her.

Two... men... one... boy... longarm... bow... She didn't understand the last gesture. He glanced at her to be sure she understood and she mouthed "where?"

Look... he pointed. It was hard to tell where he was pointing, because he kept his hand low so the people hunting them wouldn't spot the motion. She scanned in the direction he was pointing and saw nothing. Then a tree branch moved, and she realized she was looking at a person. His camouflaged outfit blended in with the large tree he was standing against, matching the bark and foliage exactly. If he hadn't shifted his weight, she'd have never seen him. Now she could begin to pick out details. A compound bow, arrow fitted, both had been painted green, brown, and grey to match his camouflage. Eyes catching the light above what was either a trimmed beard or a scarf. She gave the gestures for one, man, and shrugged. Nick pointed in the same direction, made the gesture she hadn't understood, and turned his eyes back on the enemy. She stared hard into the gloom of the woods, then looked up. Oh. That's what that gesture meant. There was a boy of indeterminate age in a treestand, clutching a pump-action shotgun. He was only visible because of his bare face. It practically glowed in the growing dark. She still couldn't see the second man, who was armed (or unarmed, but that wasn't very likely) with an undetermined weapon.

She could feel the burning in her legs that told her they were losing circulation, having squatted in the brush for so long. If she didn't move, they would start to go numb; if she moved to relieve her discomfort, she'd probably give away their position to the boy in the tree, who had an excellent vantage point. She glanced over at Nick, who was in the same position; she couldn't tell if he was merely ignoring the uncomfortable position or if he wasn't feeling any to begin with. She'd already established that he was far tougher than she was, though she'd been improving in leaps and bounds with all the training they'd been doing. She clenched the grip of her M-16A1 and bit her lip. She couldn't hold this position for long.

Nick very slowly sank lower unti he was on his knees rather than squatting, ducked lower so he was nearly face-down in the ground, and very slowly crab-walked sideways to where she was. The entire process took three minutes, he moved so slowly. Once he was beside her, he guided her into into the same position, supporting her with one arm to keep her from shaking when her legs began to spasm. Eventually she was down on her hands and knees with him.

"They don't look like bandits, just locals who don't like trespassers. We could try to low-crawl out of here, but if they get antsy and start looking for us, they could walk right up to us and spot us. We obviously can't stay here forever. We can either take them out or try talking our way out of it."

"Where's the third one?"

"Behind a bush. I could only see one of his shoes and the top of his head. I'm guessing it's a man from the height. What do you think?"

"What do I think?"

"Talk, or shoot? We can take the kid easy, he's not going anywhere. The one with the bow would be easy too. The third guy'll move when we start shooting. We can shoot the two men, leave the kid for last since he's probably not going to jump."

Sam thought for a moment. If they hadn't left the dogs to guard the truck, they could have already taken these jerks out.

"I don't wanna shoot a kid."

"Won't stop him from shooting us."

"How 'bout we try talking our way out, then shoot if that doesn't work?"

"I'd rather not come close to getting skewered with an arrow again."

"C'mon."

"Fine. Stay here, draw a bead on the guy with the bow. I'm gonna move so they don't get both of us if they start shootin', try to get a bead on the third guy. I'll do the talking."

She nodded and he waited until she had carefully drawn herself up into a kneeling position and had her rifle aimed. Even knowing where he was, she had trouble finding the man with the bow until he shifted again. He was scanning the woods and listening, like they had been. Nick crawled out of sight through the brush, the noise of his travel nearly imperceptible thanks to the dampness. Apparently the man with the bow was a much better woodsman than she was, because he zeroed in on the sound and slowly drew back the string on his bow. She gently brushed the trigger with her finger; if it looked like he was going to shoot, she was going to put a 5.56mm round through his face.

"Hey out there!"

The boy visibly jumped in his treestand, head and shotgun snapping around to the direction Nick's voice had come from after a startled delay. The man with the bow hadn't reacted. She still saw no sign of the third person.

After a long pause, Nick called out again.

"I can see you, you know. Got a bead on the kid."

The boy in the treestand twitched, but held the shotgun steady in the direction of Nick's voice. Finally, the man with the bow responded.

"So how come you ain't shot if you got a bead?"

"Don't see the need. Yet."

"Oh?"

"Way I see it, we're just passing through. You shot at us and missed. No harm, no foul. How 'bout you go your way and we'll go ours?"

"Uh-huh. And how do I know you won't just shoot us soon as we try to leave?"

"I got the same problem, pal. I'd appreciate it if your friend with the Winchester stayed where he was. Don't appreciate folks trying to flank me."

Sam still couldn't see the third person, but heard a quiet curse. The man with the bow didn't visibly respond.

"So you're just passin' through, that it?"

"Yup. Got no quarrel with you."

"You come in that truck we heard earlier?"

"You gonna talk all day, or are we gonna go our seperate ways?"

The man with the bow glanced around himself, then lifted the bow. Sam shifted her aim and the rifle coughed. Between the suppresser on the end of it and the bullet THWACKing against the tree just above his head, the man couldn't have any idea where the shot had come from. He dropped to his knees and looked around wildly.

"Ok! You win! No harm, no foul. We'll go our way, you go yours."

The man hissed at the boy in the treestand to get down, and he only too hurriedly complied. The two carefully walked backwards into the woods, scanning for any sign of Nick and Sam. Eventually they disappeared completely in the brush and Sam could hear the rustling as they slapped against branches and undergrowth. Her instinct was to get up and hurry in the other direction, but forced herself to stay where she was. She'd never seen the third person and had no idea what he was doing.

"You too, mister. We'll leave when you're gone."

Sam had no idea if he did leave, but after half a minute Nick appeared beside her, twitched his head, and they hurried through the brush, moving too quickly to be silent but not fast enough that they made undue noise. When they got near the truck, Nick made that mouse-squeek noise between his teeth and the dogs came running over to greet them. If anyone had been nearby, they would have alerted on them. Satisfied, they got in the truck and took off.

"So much for some venison."

"Forget it. I'd rather eat canned food than risk getting shot by some hillbilly again. They'll be telling all the other locals about us, so we'd better not stop anywhere soon."

They drove in silence for a while, then Nick flicked the wipers to clean the windshield of the gathering drizzle.

"You did good today, by the way."

"Thanks."

She smiled at the praise, and took the opportunity to top off her magazine and replace the suppresser in its pocket on her chest rig. He smiled too, pleased with her diligence. All things considered, they'd gotten off very lucky today.

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The abandoned house was in fairly shabby condition due to weathering and animal encroachment, but it provided a place to stay while they rode out the worst of winter. There was nothing there worth taking with them, but they took the opportunity to use the dishes in the cabinet, once dusted, to eat off of so they didn't have to clean their own. The dirty ones went into the sink, which didn't work, and stayed there.

Sam liked the canopy bed on the second floor. They spread blankets from the house over it to make a sort of tent over the bed to keep the warmth in, and used the thick comforters from the bed itself to cover up with. The dogs slept on a rug on the floor, between the door and the bed. Nick liked the room because the stairs made a chokepoint for attackers to come through and they could open the window and jump out onto the truck. Not that it would help much; the truck was nearly buried by snow at the moment.

"I hope the roof holds up."

"What do you mean?"

"Snow's heavy. The roof is old and hasn't been maintained in years. Probably not since the war. It might collapse from all the weight."

She looked up at the ceiling suspiciously, then shrugged. There was nothing they could do about it, so why worry?

The kerosene lamp on the dresser cast a flickering light that matched the one from the fireplace. Nick pulled the curtains shut and rehung the towels; he insisted on allowing as little light as possible to show from outside the house, and she had to agree. It was safer if no one knew the place was occupied. Then again, the house was isolated, its nearest neighbor two miles away according to the map, the woods were thick, and the snow was even thicker. Who in their right mind would be out this late at night in this kind of weather?

She revised that thought, thinking of the hunter they'd come across wearing the snowshoes and white clothing. Except for his goggles and rifle, he blended in perfectly. That had been over a week ago though, and they were almost certainly out of his range if he didn't have horses or a vehicle. He'd been very helpful in updating Nick's maps of the region, showing where the roads were out from war damage, weathering, or sabotage by locals who wanted to keep strangers out. He'd been a good source of information, but now they were beyond the range he'd been able to tell them about.

Nick moved the lantern to the bedside table and began pulling his boots off. Sam anticipated his wanting to go to bed and hauled off her pants so she could climb under the covers. He didn't continue undressing, but laid on the bed, so she sat on the bed feeling awkward. He stretched out, crossed his legs at the ankles, and rested his hands on his stomach, staring at the dead television in front of them. After a moment, she dropped her pants on the floor where she could dive into them in a hurry (keeping in mind what Nick had quoted from some man named Heinlein, "keep your clothes and your weapons where you can quickly grab them in the dark") and stretched out in an identical pose. The room was cold, but she was trying to be as nonchalant as possible. Nick didn't look at her; she wasn't entirely certain she didn't want him to.

"You remember tv?"

"We saw a movie a month ago."

"No, I don't mean watching a DVD someplace with power, I mean tv. Shows. Commercials."

"Kind of. A little. I remember watching tv in the morning before school, but I don't remember what any of it was. I don't even remember what we did in school. I was little when the bombs fell. I remember my parents were really worried about something, the lights kept going out, but that wasn't normal then. People I knew kept getting sick and then we wouldn't see them; they stayed home. I don't know if they died or just stayed inside. We stayed there a long time, until the looters came and we had to leave. We stayed with my grandparents, I remember them. We stayed there a long time, till the fire, and mom taught me stuff while dad hunted and grandma cooked. Grandpa never did much, he was too weak and kept forgetting where he was. They didn't have tv there, it didn't work. After the fire, we went looking for my uncle, I don't even remember his name. I don't even remember ever meeting him. We walked for months trying to get there, only dad knew the way. Then... um... that's when we met."

She rolled on her side and met his eyes.

"What about you? You were older, you remember tv, right?"

"Yeah. I used to like sci-fi shows a lot. Star Trek, Farscape, Firefly, that sort of stuff."

"Sci-fi?"

"You know, spaceships, aliens, ray guns, that sort of stuff."

"Oh, like those books."

"Right."

"They never made any sense to me. None of that stuff is real."

He laughed.

"That was sort of the point."

He stared at the television for a moment, then his gaze drifted to her bare legs stretched out beside him. He saw that she noticed where he was looking, grimaced, and rolled out of bed.

"It's late. We should get some sleep. One of us has to chop more wood tomorrow."

"Oh, we can just chop up that table downstairs. I don't want to go out in that snow again. It's impossible to find any decent wood with it like that."

Nick removed his pants and quickly got under the comforters.

"Man, it's cold!"

"Yeah."

She slid under the comforters too and shivered as he put out the lamp. The dim glow and occasional pop from the fireplace kept everything in the room visible. She rolled over to take a sip from her canteen and confirmed again that her pistol was on the bedside table, next to the defunct alarm clock. She lay on her back again and watched the flickering light on the ceiling. She hear the dogs thump their tails against the floor as Nick reached out to scratch their ears.

"So what were they like?"

"Huh?"

"The tv shows."

"Oh. They were pretty fun. They had funny costumes, and puppets, and models made to look like other planets. A lot of CGI too. Uh, computer pictures, drawings that were supposed to look real, but never really did. Man. I haven't thought about those shows in years. My dad bought me some DVD's of them for Christmas a couple times. It'd be nice if I still had them."

"Mmm. It's cold."

Nick scooted closer and continued talking, trying to describe the aliens, and worlds, and spaceships. None of it remotely made sense to her and the descriptions were over her head, but then she wasn't really listening anyway. She snuggled up to him and put her head on his shoulder, one hand on his chest while he talked. He didn't seem to notice; he was caught up in his memories. It wasn't until she slid one of her legs over his that he froze in mid-sentence.

"Um..."

"What's wrong?"

"... Nothing. Still, uh, still cold?"

"Mmm. Getting warmer. It'll get better when our body heat starts warming the blankets up."

"It'd be warmer if we closed the blankets at the end of the bed so our 'tent' would hold in heat."

"I don't feel like getting up to do it. Do you?"

Nick, very obviously feeling awkward, slowly responded, "Not really, no."

"Ok. So... what else did you watch on tv?"

"Not much, really. Basically just those. I played a lot of video games though."

"Video games? I don't remember those."

"Eh, they were a lot of fun when I was a kid. I don't know if they'd be fun now. I haven't played any since the war."

"Mmm."

She snuggled tighter against Nick, pulling the comforters up so only the top of her head and most of his were exposed.

"Good night."

"You, uh, you gonna stay like that all night?"

"You're warm. Night."

"Uh... Night."

Sam was just dozing off when she heard him whisper, "Man, I really need to piss." But he didn't move. She smiled and drifted off to sleep.

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Hope listened intently. Sam left a lot of gaps in her story-telling, all of it was abbreviated, and she had a habit of falling silent in the middle of a sentence, lost to thought, then picking up again on a completely unrelated subject. Her voice cracked several times as a result of her not being used to speaking so much at length. It was all very confusing, but Sam was obviously lost in memories of the past and she didn't want to interrupt. Eventually, Sam fell into a long silence, remembering something she seemed fond of from the little smile she had, then slowly seemed to return to awareness. She then put on her socks and shoes, tucked her mostly-dry hair under her cap, and stood up.

"Anyway, that's why."

"That's why what?"

"..... Why I pretend to be a guy. Stupid."

Sam's rambling, semi-coherent story hadn't been much of an explanation, but Hope did get a definite sense of constant hardship and danger from the snippets Sam said out loud. She also had a vague idea of just how close Sam and Nick really were, considering how well they worked together as a team. It took absolute trust in one another to operate the way they did out in the wastelands. She had no idea if they loved each other in the conventional sense, but as far as Hope could tell, they were closer to each other than most married couples she'd known. Certainly closer than her parents had ever been.

"Your turn."

"My turn?"

"What are you and the kid doing going to the other side of the country? What's over there that's so important you gotta risk crossing the whole country to get to it?"

"I thought you and Nick had a policy of 'don't ask, don't tell'."

"Well I told. And now I'm asking."

Hope paused for a moment.

"I'm sorry. I can't tell you. Not right now."

Sam glared.

"Then what about that hissing noise whenever you have one of your choking fits? Some kind of medicine?"

"Um... yeah, that's my asthma inhaler."

"Asthma? You got bad lungs? You sick?"

"No, I'm not sick. It's bad lungs. I've always had it."

Sam got off the boulder she was perched on and shrugged into her parka, grabbing the rifle.

"You're weak. The weak die. You either get strong or die."

"Strong like you? You think I can be like you?"

Sam looked her over, like a piece of meat, then turned and walked back to the truck.

"No."


Chapter 16

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Hope followed Sam back to the truck. She wasn't happy, was slightly confused, and was still humiliated by her assumption and subsequent discovery. She didn't imagine that Sam was very happy about having her secret outed either.

Eli, of course, was also confused that Sam had turned out to be a girl, and Nick apparently hadn't mentioned it to him until Sam walked up, without her scarf and hat, and with a decidedly more feminine figure without the chest rig covering up her curves.

"Since when is Sam a girl?"

Nick snickered and replied, "Since always. She just likes to pretend she's a boy. It's safer that way."

Eli stared at Sam suspiciously, then shook his head. "I don't believe it. It's too weird."

Sam ignored Eli, who continued to stare disbelievingly, and struggled into her boots. As she took off her parka so she could put her chest rig back on, Eli blurted out, "Prove it. If you're really a girl, show me your boobs."

Hope's jaw dropped. That was out of character for her little brother, especially lately. Where did he gall to joke around like that now?

Hope's jaw remained hanging open and she blushed bright red when Sam nonchalantly hauled up her shirt, revealing her pale but shapely chest for a split second, then pulled it back down and shrugged into her chest rig. Things were just too weird now. Too many shocks and bizarre events were piling on top of one another and her brain went into temporary vapor lock. Eli turned bright red and spun around to face the other way when Sam revealed her chest, but he was obviously considering glancing over his shoulder when he noticed Hope was there and decided against it.

Nick was laughing.

Sam finished getting dressed and put her hat on, but with her hair down and exposed now. Her scarf went into a pocket in her BDU pants. Nick was still laughing when she punched him in the arm, hard. Nick stumbled away, sputtering and trying not to laugh again.

"I think you just drop-kicked the kid straight into puberty. Nice job."

Now it was Sam's turn to blush in embaressment.

That was it. This was too much. Hope yelled for everyone to get in the truck. Maybe that would get things back to normal and she wouldn't have to deal with any more insanity for the rest of the day.

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The truck rattled as it thumped and rolled over potholes in the road. They'd had to backtrack an hour when their route was blocked by a rockfall, and Nick was muttering to himself while poring over old maps. Mist, condensed by the dropping temperatures, roiled across the road in their headlights like ghostly snakes. It wouldn't be long before they began encountering snow on a regular basis.

"The Mormon territories begin in another mile or two. We should be able to stop for supplies in the next community; we'll get shafted on a lot of trades because we aren't part of their church, and I don't know enough about them to fake it. God only knows what they'd do if they found out we were imposters. Most of them are friendly enough to outsiders, but they've also got that Lord's Army wandering around Utah preaching about doomsday and killing off heretics and heathens."

Since the subject had recently become a big issue, Hope decided to approach it.

"Shouldn't Sam cover herself up some more before we go into town?"

"Nah, that's just in places where we might run into trouble. When we're out in the wilderness and wastelands by ourselves, or in safe areas, Sam doesn't bother pretending to be a guy. Mormon Territory is safe for women. Or as safe as any place gets, anyway."

Sam just shrugged and reached around the steering wheel for a water bottle on the dash.

"I'll probably tuck my hair up and put my scarf on anyway. It's warmer that way."

As it turned out, the next settlement they reached was abandoned. A large tree growing in the town center had the word CROATAN carved on it, fairly recently. None of them understood the reference. Sam and Nick opted not to stop and investigate the town.

The truck rolled on through the night. By morning, they reached the outskirts of another Mormon settlement. The old city limits sign was too badly faded and rusted over to read, but Nick's map said it was called Clarkstown. It too was abandoned, but unlike the first settlement, this one showed signs of a struggle. Several houses had obviously burned down, either from arson or neglected fires left burning when the owners left. A car was riddled with bullet holes too fresh to have rusted over, and Nick had to steer the truck around a badly decomposed horse at one point. They didn't stop here either.

By late afternoon, they reached a third settlement. This one was also abandoned, also showed signs of a recent battle, and this time there were two dead men lying in the street, stripped of all their belongings. The bodies hadn't yet been touched by scavengers. Both Nick and Sam were on edge, and Hope felt that tightness in her chest again. She concentrated on not coughing, as that would send her into a choking fit and full-blown asthma, then realized that thinking about it so much would cause it to happen sooner or later. She distracted herself by thinking of other things, such as helping Eli with words he was unfamiliar with in his book. She didn't know how long it took, but eventually the tightness in her chest released itself and she could breath normally again. It was still sore when she breathed, but at least it didn't feel like steel bands were tightening around her lungs.

As evening fell, the Tatra's headlights revealed a large sign, handmade, declaring that Fort Joe Smith was fifteen miles ahead and that this was the appropriate evacuation route. Nick, despite having been on edge for most of the day, seemed calm and stoic. Sam, though mostly silent, seemed about to go nuts from tension and the revelation that there was an official evacuation route made the three abandoned settlements even more ominous. What were people fleeing from? Not a disease, certainly, especially not one of the surviving war bugs. No one would be taking refugees from a plague, and towns would quarantine themselves rather than run to somewhere else. Radiation? The geiger counter on the dashboard clicked occasionally, but that was merely background radiation, not dangerous. What were they running from? Bandits?

The roads were well maintained now, she noticed, and Nick took advantage of this by driving faster. He slowed down when the headlights revealed a roadblock and lowered the armored shutters over the windows. Sam was in full garb and had her old M-16 clenched in her hands. Why was Nick stopping? Anything that looked even remotely like a roadblock or trap was always circumvented or approached with extreme caution. Here was a genuine roadblock manned by armed men, and he was approaching it! The tightness in her chest threatened to come back when Nick actually shut the noisy engine off and reached for the door handle.

He wasn't entirely trusting, of course. The sawed-off double-barrel shotgun mounted in a scabbard on the driver's side door was in his hand and pointed at the man approaching the truck. The guard made a show of patting his shouldered rifle, to show that it wasn't ready for use, as he walked up and spoke through the cracked-open door.

"Evening. You headed to Fort Joe Smith?"

"Possibly. We're just passing through, looking to trade for some supplies. What's the situation?"

"Fort's just ahead. We still got room in one of the hotels, but once you get in we can't let you leave. Not right away. Too dangerous. We'll also have to search your vehicle for explosives before we allow it inside. You'll have to leave all your weapons in the vehicle and park in our warehouse. You can only access it with an armed escort and you're not allowed to bring alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, or other contraband out of the vehicle. The warehouse is guarded 24/7, so don't worry about thieves."

"Fuck that. We'll park outside and you guys can come to us to trade. I'm not giving up my weapons and you're not touching my vehicle."

"Suit yourself. You're crazy if you stay outside though."

"Why's that?"

The guard stared at Nick for several seconds before slowly asking, "You ain't heard?"

"I haven't heard shit. Like I said, I'm just passing through. Saw three abandoned towns on the way here. What's going on?"

"There's a fucking army ransacking the whole state, that's what's going on!"

"What do you mean," Nick asked, finally letting some tension bleed through into his voice. "What army? The Lord's Army?"

"What, those nuts? Nah, man, they're on our side in this one. Been getting their asses handed to them though."

The guard glanced at his compatriots, then continued.

"Some senator finally came out of his bunker and decided it was his divine right to rule over the state and take what he wanted. It ain't the Lord's Army we're fighting, it's the fucking federals."

"....... Shit. They have anything to do with those army boys working for that cabinet guy a few years ago?"

"Last I heard, the last holdouts of Mr. Olsen's private army hooked up with these guys and are back on the warpath. Now they have tanks again, along with a couple old howitzers and a shitload of machine guns. They've been demanding tribute from every town they run into, and if they don't get it, they make an example of whoever's in charge. This is our territory, given to us by God as the homeland of the true believers, and those sons of bitches think they're running the show. So we're evacuating all the people we can and fortifying ol' Fort Joe Smith the best we can, so we have a stronghold to fight these guys from. Once winter sets in, we'll start letting people leave if they want, since the feds will be bunkered up for the season, but until then we're still taking refugees and travelers in so they don't get jumped. You want in, or what?"

"With your bullshit rules? Nuh-uh. Nobody touches my truck, and nobody disarms me. I agreed to that once and it almost got me killed."

"Look, I understand, but we have to do it. The feds were sneaking in assassins and bombs before we started inspecting vehicles and preventing people from carrying weapons if they weren't part of the militia. If you want in, you gotta follow the rules like everybody else."

Nick grabbed the door handle to pull it shut and retorted, "Thanks but no thanks. I'll take my chances outside."

"Suit yourself. It's a wonder they didn't jump you on the way here, the way they're crawling all over the place. They'd definitely want a sweet rig like you're driving."

Nick shut the door, but made no move to start the engine. Hope cleared her throat.

"Now what?"

"Fuck if I know."
Link Posted: 6/13/2011 2:31:45 AM EDT
[#16]
Chapter 17
––––––––––––––––––––––––––––-

Nick sat slumped in the seat for a moment, pondering his options. Sam leaned her rifle against her door and shone a light on the map.

"We can go around the Fort, but we'll have to backtrack a quarter mile and drive under an old overpass; those feds probably have some guys camped out there to ambush anyone trying it."

She muttered to herself as she pored over the map, trying to find a safe route.

"Maybe we can go off-road and just hug the wall of the Fort, assuming they don't shoot at us."

Nick shook his head and reached to start the engine.

"We'll think of something. This is obviously a military vehicle and there aren't too many cars or trucks running now, so maybe they'll mistake us for one of thei-"

A rapid series of THWACK's announced bullets impacting the armored cab of the truck. Hope couldn't see anyone else through the thin slits in the armor, but the man who had spoken to Nick dropped as his bones had instantly and magically turned to jelly. Nick started the engine and rolled forward slightly, then stopped.

"Why are you stopping?! Go, go!"

"They're climbing in the back."

Hope was confused; who was climbing in the back? The bad guys, or... There were two faint thumps against the back of the cab, followed by gunfire from behind. Nick floored it and rapidly shifted gears as he crashed through the barricade and roared down the road. There were a few more pings against the armored cab and more gunfire from the back, then no sound except the roar of the huge, multi-fuel engine.

"What just happened?!"

Nick said nothing for a moment, concentrating on his driving, then replied, "Those fed guys attacked the road block. I dunno how many, but some of the Mormon guys managed to get in the back of the truck before I took off. They're gonna be our ticket into the fort."

Sam shook her head violently.

"No! They're not disarming us!"

"You're right, they're not. The road passes all the way through the fort; those guys get us inside, then we drive out the other side. I don't care if I have to ram the gate or blow it up, we're getting out. This whole place is going to go to hell soon, and I don't want to be here when they do."

The cab was silent for maybe two minutes, then Hope saw Sam suddenly tense up. Nick had a grim look on his face that turned into a smirk shortly after she heard a metallic thump from in front of the truck.

"What was that?"

"Couple feds stood in the road and pointed guns at us; one didn't get out of the way in time."

Hope sat back in her seat; this was bad. They weren't just being shot at by a handful of bandits, they were being shot at by an entire army of professional soldiers! She felt the prickling sensation in her upper chest as tightness began to sieve her lungs again and dug out her inhaler. She didn't use it yet; she had the presence of mind to want to conserve it until and unless she absolutely needed it. She only had a couple, and they had to last her. She probably wouldn't be able to get another.

She jumped as Eli patted her hand.

"It's ok, Hope. We're safe as long as we're in the truck, right?"

Nick horribly disillusioned them both by replying, "Kid, the armor on this thing was an add-on some guy did before the war, and it doesn't cover the entire cab. And it's not bulletproof; if they have a .50-cal or a grenade launcher, we are completely fucked."

Now Eli looked scared, and Hope glared daggers at the back of Nick's head before bursting into a coughing fit. Crap. Her lungs immediately tightened down and it was hard to inhale, even harder to exhale. She shook the inhaler, stuck it into her mouth, and took as deep a breath as she could while pressing down on the cartridge. It hissed and she went into another coughing fit, hocking up phlegm into her mouth. She swallowed and used the inhaler a second time, then leaned back into the seat, keeping her back straight to ensure an open airway. The life-saving medicine did its work and she felt the pins-and-needles sensation in her chest again as her airways opened up. As she took a deep breath, she noticed Sam watching her intently and stuck the inhaler back into its pouch. Sam noted which pouch it went into and turned away, clutching her M-16 again.

A minute later, and the truck began to slow, then Nick pulled it to a stop and shifted to neutral, leaving the engine idling.

"Sam, take the wheel. I'm checking on those guys in the back. When I give the word, idle forward, but don't go fast; if we start taking fire, haul ass out of range."

Sam wordlessly scooted across the seat, squashing the dog lying between them, and took the wheel as Nick got out, rifle at the ready. Sam left the door cracked open.

There was no sound but the rough rumble of the engine for a long while, then Hope could hear voices. Nick stuck his head in the door and said, "Two of them are in bad shape, I don't think they're gonna make it. One's still in the back taking care of them, and the fourth guy is gonna walk with me. When I wave you forward, come on, but if anything weird goes down, take off without me."

"No. I'm not-"

"Shut up."

Nick shut the door and Sam glared at it, turning an amazing shade of red, before turning her attention forward. She made an obscene gesture as she put the truck into gear.

Five minutes later, the passenger door of the truck opened and Nick got back in.

"Ok, we're clear. They're gonna let us through, but we have to stay in first gear and they're gonna have guys escorting us through. We stop so they can unload the wounded, then move."

He paused for a moment, then jerked a thumb at the back of the cab.

"I'm gonna frisk the two healthy guys to make sure they didn't steal anything from the back while they were in there too."

Sam punched Nick in the arm, hard, then turned her glare back to the road.

"Ow! What was that for?"

"You know what."

Nick thought it over for a moment.

"Hey."

He put one arm around her gently and after a few seconds of remaining tense and glaring straight ahead, Sam relaxed and leaned her head against his. Hope didn't understand what the quarrel was about, but things seemed to be ok now.

"Are you two gonna kiss now?"

"Shut up, kid."

Nick leaned back onto his side of the seat and Sam drove forward. Nick flipped the switches to raise the shutters and Hope's visibility outside the truck improved dramatically, even in the low-light conditions. What she saw awed her.

It was a concrete wall, twenty feet high, topped with razor wire and what looked like a log parapet. Armed men stood or paced behind the parapet, and tall guard towers stood behind the wall, some of them fitted with electric searchlights sweeping the road and the treeline a hundred yards distant. Two massive gates, made of wrought iron and thick logs, slowly swung open and a knot of armed men waved the truck forward. Nick muttered something about a lion's den as they rolled in and the gates shut behind them. Regardless of whether they had any real options, they were committed now.

"Stay at the wheel and keep the truck running; I'm going to help unload the wounded and make sure they don't go snooping around in the back."

He got out and Hope couldn't see much outside, beyond some men in odd clothing staring at the truck and talking. All of them were armed. She couldn't tell because of the darkness, but it looked as if there were a whole town inside the fort, a town surrounded by a massive wall.

She watched two men get taken away on stretchers, and then Nick came back into view, arguing with someone. The men who had been standing around clearly became agitated and one of them unslung his shotgun, though it remained pointed at the ground. Sam flipped the safety on her rifle and it clicked twice.

The group of men disappeared in a shower of dirt and blood, and the concussion rattled the windows and rocked the truck. Nick and the man he was arguing with dropped flat to the ground and Sam swore loudly, slapping at the switches for the armored shutters. Another explosion took out a leg from one of the guard towers ahead and it sagged, but didn't fall. Sam started to open her door, then the passenger door opened and Nick threw himself into the truck.

"GO! GO!"

"What's-"

"Mortars! Go!"

A third explosion rocked the truck, and Sam floored it. The engine screamed until she finally shifted gears and continued accelerating. Hope pressed her face to the thin slit outside her window and saw a house burning as they raced past it.

Eli clung to her arm and his voice cracked in terror, "What's happening? What's going on?"

"They're firing mortars into the fort. We're friggin' lucky that one didn't land closer or the whole truck would be gone."

They continued to race down the road, and Hope's stomach lurched as they went over a rise in the road at hight speed, then zig-zagged around objects in the road. There was a hollow THUNK and Hope didn't know what they had hit, but from the way Nick and Sam both winced she could guess. They didn't slow down.

Explosions and fires continued, some of them nearby, others distant. The army didn't seem to have coordinated their fire or aimed it for anything in particular and were just dropping shells into the fort more or less at random.

"There's the gate. Should I-"

"Ram it. Dead center. Guys, buckle up, now."

There was a series of clicks as seatbelts snapped shut. Hope wondered if the gate would crash open, or if it the truck would just smash into it and fail to open it. As it turns out, she never found out. There was a loud shrieking sound and explosions like a string of firecrackers. She vaguely heard Nick scream, "Rockets!" before the truck bounced in the air and slewed sideways, the rear end smashing into something solid. The tires screeched as the truck continued to spin, and Sam made a sobbing sound as she fought with the wheel and gear knob. Nick grabbed the dash to avoid being flung around and shouted, "It's gone, the gate's gone, go go go!"

The engine roared and another explosion lifted the back of the truck off the ground for an instant. Then, suddenly, they were clear. They were out of the fort and back in the darkness of the road. Bullets pinged off the front of the cab in rapid succession as they approached the treeline, there were several thumps that had gotten disturbingly familiar by this point as several soldiers were too slow to get off the road, and there was a loud hissing roar outside the window. Hope peered through her slit just in time to see a metal rack loaded with rockets ripple-launch them all in succession, belching flame and smoke. More bullets rattled against the truck and then suddenly they were clear.

Sam continued driving them down the road at a hectic pace, clearly hyperventilating, and Hope suddenly became aware that Eli was crying uncontrollably. She hugged him tightly and he turned to sob into her chest.

"Shit! We've got at least one shredded tire, I can tell that much, and God only knows what happened to the stuff in the back. We can't stop here, we gotta keep going."

Nick pulled out his map and shined his flashlight at it, then turned to look at Sam. He set the map down and pushed the dog out of the way, scooting over to put his arm around Sam again.

"Hey, calm down, we're ok. It's ok. Sam! It's ok, we're in one piece. Slow down."

Sam's breathing slowly returned to normal and she wiped sweat from her forehead, nodding.

"I'm ok. I'm ok."

Nick studied her for a moment, the nodded and returned to his side of the seat, displacing the confused German shepherd, ignoring its whines. He picked up the map again.

"Now we just gotta find a route those bastards haven't blocked."
Link Posted: 6/13/2011 3:46:25 PM EDT
[#17]
Sweet. Now we're exactly where we left off last time. Anyone read them both? The old version and the updated? Just wondering how different it is, and if I should save these to pdf.
Link Posted: 6/14/2011 8:30:03 AM EDT
[#18]
Originally Posted By Hulka73:
Sweet. Now we're exactly where we left off last time. Anyone read them both? The old version and the updated? Just wondering how different it is, and if I should save these to pdf.


It's been so long since I read the old version that I can't recall. There are some parts I don't remember, but that could be because I just plain don't remember them, not because they are different from the older one. So I'm really not sure.
Link Posted: 6/30/2011 9:11:56 PM EDT
[#19]
So what happened to Swindle on that other site?  His rants and this story are gone...?
Link Posted: 7/2/2011 3:02:08 AM EDT
[#20]
just read both, I like the old one a bit more
Link Posted: 7/7/2011 3:34:56 PM EDT
[#21]
Eh i like em both. Each are great in there own way ... but i do enjoy the 'adventures of nick and sam', so that could be it. I cant wait for more. Atta boy Swindle
Link Posted: 8/21/2011 10:25:06 AM EDT
[#22]
C'mon.  More.  Please.
Link Posted: 8/24/2011 1:35:49 PM EDT
[Last Edit: Markypie] [#23]
Chapter 18

Hope tried to ignore the thumping caused by the shredded tires while Nick and Sam were obviously brainstorming. Something occurred to her and she spoke up, startling them.

"Won't it be harder to see us with the headlights off?"

Nick scrambled under the seat for something, then produced the case for his night vision goggles and handed them to Sam. She slid them on, flicked off the headlights and then turned on the goggles. Sam then cursed and smacked the goggles several times before they produced a high-pitched whine and green light leaked out from around Sam's eyes.

"Not a bad idea. Problem is, the truck is still a big target and they could ambush us just about anywhere. Sam, pull it over. I want you to drive at a crawl while I scout ahead with the dogs."

Sam didn't argue. Nick bailed out with the dogs and Hope couldn't see him in the darkness, not with the armored shutters down at least. After waiting nearly a minute, presumably to give Nick some lead time, Sam put the truck into gear and began to inch forward slowly. Peering out the slit in the window, Hope saw a tree going past agonizingly slow. She couldn't be sure in the darkness, but it seemed to take them fifteen minutes just to travel a hundred yards. Then, Sam suddenly stopped the truck and killed the engine. They sat there for a seeming eternity before Nick hopped into the cab and Hope felt a chill from the split second the door was open.

"They've got an M113 parked on the edge of the woods. They can't see us with the hill in the way, and I don't think they heard the engine. Looks like there's seven or eight of them all crowded around the back trying to stay warm and listening to some music. Pretty sure they're drinking too."

Sam scoffed.

"Army discipline isn't what it's cracked up to be these days. So how do we get past them?"

"It'd take too long to backtrack and find another route, and we can't go cross-country with the truck in the shape it's in. If we try to bluff them, pretend we're one of theirs, it's probably not going to work. And if we try to just drive past while they're distracted, that big ass machine gun on top of that thing is going to chew us to pieces. So..."

".... the green box?"

"The green box."

Hope could hear the grin in Nick's voice. Eli piped up to ask what the green box was.

"Remember that crate we dug up when we left Barter Town? It's got a couple useful things in it, and I think we can justify using one right about now. Grab all your stuff; I want you guys outside and hiding in the bushes."

"Why?"

"If we screw up, they've got a heavy machine gun and probably some other stuff that could ruin our day. The truck is going to be a huge target. If things go wrong, run into the woods and don't look back. Otherwise, run back to the truck and get inside when we tell you."

"What are you going to do?"

"You'll see."

Hope could hear the grin in his voice again. She and Eli dug around for their things in the dark and Hope slung her bundle over her shoulder before getting out of the truck. Eli whined, "it's freezing!" as she helped him out of the truck, but otherwise kept quiet while Sam led them to a spot in the woods.

"If we yell run, run. Get about five hundred yards into the woods and then find a place to hide until morning. When the sun comes up, get as far away from the truck and the fort as possible. If we yell for you to get back in the truck, get back in the truck fast or we'll leave you behind."

Sam didn't wait for questions or an affirmative, instead jogging to the back of the truck and helping Nick with whatever he was retrieving. Hope could hear him say something to Sam; she couldn't quiet make it out, but it sounded like, "I've always wanted to do this."

The two spent a long time uncrating something and then there was a lot of metallic clinking noise before they finally seemed done with whatever it was they were doing. Then they silently jogged ahead, disappearing in the darkness. Hope had no idea where the dogs were.

She squatted down and hugged Eli to her, telling herself it was just to keep him warm while refusing to admit that the cold wasn't the only reason she was shivering. She really didn't want to have to abandon the truck and run into the wilderness. She couldn't do this on her own. She couldn't keep Eli safe or do all the things necessary to survival. She was just beginning to think she had made a serious mistake in starting this journey when there was a brilliant flash of light, a noise so loud she felt it in her chest as a solid THUMP, and then a second later there another loud bang and a fireball lit up the sky.

"YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA­H! FUCK YEAH!"

Then she heard feet pounding against the cracked pavement and Nick bellowing for them to get back in the truck, and she jumped to her feet and roughly dragged Eli behind her, running for the truck as best she could in the dark. She tripped over a rock and was hit in the face with a tree branch nearly simultaneously, causing her to fall flat on her face, taking Eli with her. He got to his feet faster than she did and helped her up, and then they reached the road and were scrambling to get in the truck just as Sam, Nick, and the dogs got the doors open and were piling in.

"Drive, drive, drive!"

Sam started the engine and the truck roared to life, flat tires smacking into the pavement over and over as she floored it. They raced past something big and boxy that was on fire and a couple of gunshots rang out, but none seemed to connect with anything. After they were a couple miles down the road, Sam removed the night vision goggles and turned the headlights back on. Nick whooped and leaned over to crush her in a bear hug before returning to his side of the seat. Hopes ears were still ringing from the concussion of noise, and judging from the way everything Nick said was overly loud, she guessed his were too.

"That was fucking awesome! Did you see the way that thing went up? We totally should have found somebody worth blowing up sooner, that was worth it."

Hope leaned forward and had to ask twice before he heard her, "What did you do?"

Nick turned the cabin light on and hefted a big metallic tube off the floor; it was difficult to show it to her in the confined space of the cabin. After a couple seconds, he just dug into a pocket of his jacket and pulled out a thick pamphlet.

"Here, that came in the case with it."

Hope squinted to read the words on the cover in the dim cabin light: RECOILLESS RIFLE, M3 CARL GUSTAV, 84MM.

"Found this thing with three rounds for it hidden in the backroom of a gas station a couple months ago; no idea who put it there or when, but it's ours now. I LOVE this thing!"

"Why did you bury it in the woods when you came to Barter Town?"

"In case some asshole snuck into our truck looking for stuff to steal; something like that, I could probably buy another truck with it. But I am definitely keeping this thing!"

Sam brought Nick back to the present with a soft punch to the shoulder.

"Now what?"

"Um, the truck's in pretty bad shape. We're gonna have to stop for repairs soon. The guy I was talking to said the troops were coming from the northwest, and we're headed northeast. Except for trying to surround and blockade the fort, they shouldn't be out this far. Go another thirty miles and find someplace to hole up for a couple days so we can work on the truck. Hopefully it doesn't start snowing too  heavily until we're stopped; don't want 'em to follow our trail."

Hope leaned back in the seat, the ringing slowly leaving her ears as she started to get warm again. Eli nudged her in the side and she leaned over to hear him say, "That was pretty awesome."

Link Posted: 8/25/2011 10:31:26 AM EDT
[#24]
Boss.
Link Posted: 8/27/2011 1:27:23 PM EDT
[Last Edit: Former11BRAVO] [#25]
Aaaarrrgh!

What's a guy gotta' do to get this story movin' again?





ETA: Awwww man . . . !!! I thought this one was done too! Boooo!!!!! Hisssss!!!! I should've never started the darn thing!!!

Waaaaaaaa!!!!

2nd EDIT: I see this last chapter was only posted a couple days ago, so I guess I won't bitch too awful loud 'bout it! (Still a bummer, though!)
Link Posted: 8/28/2011 11:14:41 AM EDT
[#26]
It's going. Just relax and let him tell the story in his own sweet time. I'm thinking about collecting all the new chapters under my own thread so that when he sends me a new one I can update the header.
I am not trying to take credit for the story.
I am merely a conduit for posting the story here.
Link Posted: 8/28/2011 8:07:21 PM EDT
[#27]
I just found and read this last night.. must have moar! excellent story.
Link Posted: 8/29/2011 12:21:13 PM EDT
[#28]
Originally Posted By 2T2_Crash:
I just found and read this last night.. must have moar! excellent story.


Hahahahaaa! I hear ya'! I had just finished his other one (for the third time) when I saw THIS one and blasted through it all in a day - not realizing it was unfinished till I was within a page or two of where it's at!  

There sure are some good "unknown" writers in the SF community - huh? Pretty cool . . .



PS: Thanks for posting these and being the go-between, bro. I'm sure I speak for everybody when I say it's very much appreciated.
Link Posted: 9/15/2011 7:15:21 PM EDT
[#29]
Write faster please. Great story.
Thank you for posting it.
Link Posted: 5/2/2012 9:33:00 AM EDT
[#30]
Is the story dead?
Link Posted: 5/2/2012 10:53:10 AM EDT
[Last Edit: BulletBait] [#31]
Originally Posted By rktman26:
Is the story dead?

OP got banned two years ago. So it needs to be re-posted from elsewhere.

Thanks for the bump tough.
I forgot the title and hadn't finished reading it.
Link Posted: 5/2/2012 11:17:47 AM EDT
[#32]
Where's else where's? It is really good I would like to finish it.
Link Posted: 5/2/2012 6:14:11 PM EDT
[#33]
I din't know he got banned.  I really enjoyed reading it.  



If anyone knows where it's posted elsewhere, especially if it's finished, I'd love to know.




Thanks,
Link Posted: 7/19/2012 9:13:55 PM EDT
[#34]
^  ?
Link Posted: 7/30/2012 1:36:21 AM EDT
[#35]
Originally Posted By rktman26:
I din't know he got banned.  I really enjoyed reading it.  

If anyone knows where it's posted elsewhere, especially if it's finished, I'd love to know.

Thanks,


You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet, But It's Coming









a cloo 4 u
Link Posted: 7/30/2012 11:35:23 AM EDT
[#36]
Originally Posted By Deadcenter45:
Originally Posted By rktman26:
I din't know he got banned.  I really enjoyed reading it.  

If anyone knows where it's posted elsewhere, especially if it's finished, I'd love to know.

Thanks,


You Ain't Seen Nothing BAD Yet, But It's Coming









a cloo 4 u


Link Posted: 7/30/2012 8:46:34 PM EDT
[Last Edit: Deadcenter45] [#37]
Originally Posted By WDS:
Originally Posted By Deadcenter45:
Originally Posted By rktman26:
I din't know he got banned.  I really enjoyed reading it.  

If anyone knows where it's posted elsewhere, especially if it's finished, I'd love to know.

Thanks,


You Ain't Seen Nothing BAD Yet, But It's Coming



a cloo 4 u



Thanks  
Link Posted: 7/31/2012 12:06:17 AM EDT
[#38]
Damn.  I find it and it's still not done.
Link Posted: 8/31/2013 12:14:20 PM EDT
[#39]
So, does anyone know if this was ever posted on any other site?  I would love to finish this one.
Link Posted: 10/12/2013 5:28:45 PM EDT
[#40]
anyone?
Link Posted: 10/12/2013 7:41:57 PM EDT
[#41]
I don't know but I'd love to read the rest of the story
Link Posted: 10/13/2013 1:03:03 AM EDT
[#42]
Same here.  It was a good read while it lasted.
Link Posted: 10/14/2013 2:52:53 AM EDT
[#43]
I enjoyed this story while it lasted.  Note to Moderators, if you ban an author in the middle of a story why dont you post this on the story line so we all know why he was banned and why.
Link Posted: 10/14/2013 4:58:14 AM EDT
[#44]
It is dead, Jim.
Link Posted: 10/15/2013 3:22:33 PM EDT
[Last Edit: Vault_Boy] [#45]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By cwm1150:
It is dead, Jim.
View Quote


No it isn't. There is plenty more where this came from. I wish he'd finish it, though.

Search Yasbybic proboards.

Link Posted: 6/14/2016 10:06:10 PM EDT
[#46]
So was this story ever finished?
Link Posted: 6/16/2016 9:26:35 AM EDT
[#47]
I really liked this story.

Unfortunately I'm not smart enough to follow the yasbybic clue to find more.

I'd appreciate it greatly if someone could shoot me a pm or post a link or something.
Link Posted: 6/16/2016 1:09:19 PM EDT
[#48]
Yeah... I searched those boards & all I came up with is: user profile/files have been removed due to violation of terms of conduct or some such nonsense.
Link Posted: 6/16/2016 1:27:56 PM EDT
[#49]
Discussion ForumsJump to Quoted PostQuote History
Originally Posted By DFARM:
I really liked this story.

Unfortunately I'm not smart enough to follow the yasbybic clue to find more.

I'd appreciate it greatly if someone could shoot me a pm or post a link or something.
View Quote


I would also like one please.
Link Posted: 6/16/2016 11:44:55 PM EDT
[#50]
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Originally Posted By Racer27:


I would also like one please.
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Originally Posted By Racer27:
Originally Posted By DFARM:
I really liked this story.

Unfortunately I'm not smart enough to follow the yasbybic clue to find more.

I'd appreciate it greatly if someone could shoot me a pm or post a link or something.


I would also like one please.


Unfortunately that forum is now dead. Swindle did add some more chapters but at the time that other forum died he had not finished the story.


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