5 Years After

By Cory Strode

Chapter One

Mark woke up and hoped it was morning, but in the darkness, it could have been anytime. Couldn't check his watch because the batteries had died a couple of years before. Time didn't much matter anyway. The air around him was cold, damp and smelled like the potatoes his mom had told him to throw away.

Slowly it came to him. Basement. House. Floor. He reached behind his head and grabbed the shotgun. Betsy, named for the last person he'd traveled with.

He coughed, hard, and he could feel the fluid in his lungs rattle a bit. Another cold, or worse. He reached around for the lantern he'd brought down into the basement with him and lit it with matches from his pocket. The light didn't help much...it wasn't his basement, so there was no shock of revelation. It was a basement in a house that had been turned into a safe house. There weren't tools or boxes filled with old books and magazines, but boxes of food and water.

Canned foods, army rations, and water in packs that had been bought by people for the Y2K bug, but needed when the world ended three years later. MREs, meals ready to eat. When he first started eating them, they tasted like shit, but now they are like hitting gold. It meant you wouldn't have to waste time opening cans, hoping the food inside hadn't turned, or trying to find food that you could eat while on the run. He used to love freshly killed game, now it was too much work and slowed him down.

Looking around, the place was clean. No bugs, or rats, so it was secured. And no bodies either, which means that the people who built it either got out or were nailed upstairs. He'd stayed in places where the former owners were still in their secured basements, but something had gone wrong, and they were all dead hidden behind their locked doors. It was usually easy to tell what had gone wrong by how the bodies were. Sometimes it was that one of them had been infected and turned while they were locked inside. Those were the worst, since the bodies were partially devoured, and a starving one of them would be in a near corner in a corner, waiting for the gunshot to the head. Other times you could tell that the stress had gotten to them, and they had killed each other in an argument.

There were also a few where there was one body with a bullet in its head. A person who couldn't take it anymore and opted out, making sure they wouldn't be back.

A few years ago, those would be horrific thoughts. Now they were just memories and information, no more horrific than eating food and taking a crap.

He grabbed a meal packet and ripped it open, spilling the contents onto the floor. Plastic utensils wrapped in plastic, four dull green packets holding food, matches, a paper napkin and a wet-nap.

He heard a loud thump above him.

Fuckers were pounding on the door, seeing if there was anyone inside. The people who had said that they weren't intelligent were wrong.

Dead wrong, now.

He ate the food greedily, felt it as it went into his stomach, a sign that he'd been sleeping too long. He hoped it wasn't night. If it was night he'd have to wait another day and try for daylight again. The dim light illuminated the base cement floor, and he took the spare bedding he'd used and packed it away in one of the boxes, just as he'd found it. That way if someone else used the house, they'd know where things were. It was the way of things, a form of taking care of people you wouldn't ever meet. He opened a liter bottle of water from another box and drank the entire thing. He drank half of another and stopped to breathe. After he finished that one he did some quick exercises, just push-ups, sit-ups and stretching. Had to stay fit and ready to run.

And he'd done a lot of running. The other things were what he did so he could have an edge. They were slow, but strong, and if they got their hands on you, you needed to be strong enough to get away or...

He grabbed his backpack and checked the contents, grabbing what he was low on. MREs, water, shotgun shells and ammo for his pistol, toilet paper, fuel for the lantern, and if there were books he would grab one or two as well. Normally, if you had to hole up in a place like this, you'd just read and wait. Do your time until it was safe to go outside.

He didn't want to stay here very long though. The basement was safe enough, but it was close to a city, and the further away from a city the better. They tended to gather in the cities. Back in the day, he'd heard scientists say it was vestigial memory, they would go where they had gone before they turned.

He didn't believe it. He thought it was because they knew that people wanted their cities back, and would keep trying to take them back. So, they would wait in the cities for people to come back. And they did.

For all the good it did them.

Another thump. This one louder and coming from the top of the stairs. He didn't say anything. He hadn't said anything out-loud in months. No one with him to talk to, and he wasn't crazy enough to talk to people who weren't there. No volleyballs with faces drawn on them or imaginary friends like in movies about isolation. Just survival and thinking. Thinking a lot. That's why he read in safe houses. Gave him new things to think about.

Like science and how it hadn't been any better than religion when the end came.

A thump and a moan. It knew he was here.

Good thing he'd eaten already. He double checked his pack and grabbed another couple of MREs, hoping he got Chicken Ala King in a few of them. He slung the backpack over his shoulder and picked up the shotgun, loading it quickly with no wasted movement. He checked his pistol's magazine and it was full as well. Not that he trusted using a pistol. They were good at killing living things, but the dead?

He only trusted Betsy with doing that.

The lantern was a small one, and he doused the light and put it in the backpack as well. Another invention of the Army, and he had long since thanked the military for their inventions, doing penance for treating the military as if they were lower than dirt when he was younger. Hard to continue to be a man of peace if you want to stay alive now.

He walked silently to the stairs and made sure his backpack was secured. He didn't even notice its weight anymore. He went up the steps slowly, his breathing slowing, his heart rate dropping, his mind only thinking about what he could hear and being ready for what was to come.

He got to the top of the stairs, and there was a hastily made platform there. The people who'd lived here had converted a normal basement into a safe one when there was still hope that they could keep civilization going. Back when there were commercials and cell phones and grocery stores and shopping. It was thought to be a quick little war, or even an on-going one that no one would really be affected by.

He'd even made fun of a neighbor who'd added a safe basement to his house, saying it was like building a bomb shelter during the Cold War. The neighbor said it would keep him safe.

They were both wrong.

Sadly, the conmen didn't die out fast enough, and people with badly constructed safe houses died cursing that they hadn't paid top dollar.

The door was steel reinforced on his side and had a pair of large metal bars to keep it from being knocked in. There was a panel at head level that would slide up, but it was held in place by a pair of large sliding locks.

Another thump on the door.

He wasn't startled and didn't jump, because he was listening so closely he could hear the fabric rub against itself on the other side of the door, reeling back for the blow. It had been a minute, maybe two, since the last blow. It didn't know he was here. It was just frustrated by the locked door.

He slowly slid the bolt for the first lock on the panel, trying not to make a sound. He didn't know how good their hearing was, but he knew that they could hear, and smell. Damn, but they could smell.

As he slid the bolt for the second lock there was another thump. This one startled him and he pulled his hand back, causing the lock to clink against the panel.

He held his breath and got the shotgun ready, putting the muzzle near the panel.

Then it started pounding, relentlessly, stronger each time.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

He watched silently as the bolt lock moved a little further right with each thump, moving bit by bit out of position. Moving so that the panel could come open. He took a deep breath and held the shotgun in position.




The bolt slipped out of position and the panel moved a tiny bit. He sighted down the barrel of the shotgun and waited.


The panel opened a tiny bit with that and was sitting a tiny bit ajar. Just enough so that he could see light stream in around the edges. He waited, not breathing. Not thinking. Waiting.

The panel was shoved inward by a gray, grasping hand and he calmly pulled the trigger.

The explosion at the end of the barrel knocked it back, and he stepped forward quickly and sighted again. He closed his eyes and said silently to himself, "Forgive me."

He fired again, destroying the head. Brown blood spattered the wall behind it and it fell to the floor, and didn't move. He looked through the panel again, making sure there were no more.

Then, he quickly took down the door braces and opened the door, holding the shotgun in front of him like a talisman to ward off evil. He listened, he looked, and there was nothing. Only one zombie. Only one. He'd been lucky. And now it was time to move, since if any were in the area, they would have heard the shotgun blast Wendy ached all over. Her joints still hurt from the infection, but as she looked over at Tim, she knew that he was doing far worse. Her fever had broken a couple of days before, but Tim was still lying on the cot, sweating and having trouble breathing. He breath came in long, raspy, tortured gasps, and she had no idea how he could sleep with breathing being such an effort for him.

She wanted to sit by his bedside and take care of him, but she couldn't. She was too scared. Even though the same zombie had bitten them both, she'd fought off the infection. Her rational mind told her that it wasn't dangerous; the disease (or diseases, they were dead, Lord known what sort of bug they had in them...both figurative and literal) could only be passed if the skin was broken. The irrational part of her mind kept screaming at her that if she got too close to him, she'd get sick again. And the next time she wouldn't maker it.

He looked so small there on the cot. When she'd met him three years before, he was a huge man. He carried a gun bigger than any she had ever seen that he said he'd "liberated" from an overrun Army base. He showed her his house, one that had been equipped with a safe room, but he had also built up a fence high and strong enough to keep them out. Them. It kept them out. After a year, they didn't even try to break through the fence anymore, and they had a near normal existence, if such a thing was possible. They grew food and rarely left the grounds, usually to see if they could pick up any supplies at the Army base. It was pointless to go to into the City.

He stopped breathing for a second, and she held her breath, willing him to keep breathing. All other thoughts were gone as she chanted, "breathe, dammit" in her mind over and over again for what seemed like a year, but was really less than 30 seconds. He let the breath out slowly, his chest rattling. She didn't know a damn thing about illness, but she could tell his lungs were filled with fluid. It was like a flu or pneumonia or whatever it was when that happened. His breathing resumed, rougher than before. More labored. Not as deep. More often.

It was a month ago when they had been out getting fruit and looking for game when they stumbled onto a group of them (no, she can't even think the word anymore...she'd almost become one of them, and she wouldn't have even known it...please don't let me become one of them even if I do die, she would think over and over again like a mantra). She'd gotten scratched. He'd gotten bit. They got away and doused the wounds with bleach and used ever kind of anti-bacterial thing they had, took penicillin by the handful and hoped it would work.

For her it had. She looked down at the four deep gashes on her arm, still scarred and looking like they would never fully heal.

Tim hadn't healed. He slowly got worse. Until he was lying in a cot in their safe basement, under the dim light of a pair of lanterns, having trouble breathing and sweating through the sheets around him even though it was cold enough for her to wear a sweater. The basement was full of supplies, boxes and boxes of them piled against the walls. They had both come down here and secured the door after securing the fence when they knew they were getting too sick to take care of themselves. For all she knew, the fence had failed and the house was filled with them.


God damn fuckers.

She stood up and the aching in her joints was worse. She didn't know if it was the aftereffects of the illness or the fact that she was sleeping on a cot too. She had no idea how long she drifted in and out of consciousness while her fever raged. Clock and calendars really weren't all that useful anymore. He'd gotten sick faster, so she was the one who had secured the upstairs, locking both the inner and outer fences, locking the doors and windows and then coming down to the basement.

She knew she needed to eat...she'd eaten the contents of five cans of tomato soup they had made back last year when she woke up, and threw most of it up in the small gravity toilet in the back of the basement. After that she'd nibbled on the MREs they had, but wasn't very hungry anymore. She started to grab another one, and hoped it had peanut butter and crackers when she heard Tim moan.

She looked over, and he was trying to get up. He was breathing harder now, and each breath sounded like his entire chest was shaking with each intake of breath. She ran over to him and sat on the chair next to the cot, putting her hands on him and easing him back down.

"Don't get up, you'll wear yourself out," she said, pulling her hands back quickly, then feeling ashamed that she had.

"Not gonna make it," he said between breaths. His eyes opened a slight bit as he finished the statement, and she saw that they were bloodshot and dilated, as if he'd been drinking and smoking pot for a month straight.

"Yes you are. You've woken up and it just hurts like hell. I still feel like someone went after me with a ball peen hammer," she said, wiping her hands off with a towel that would later be burned for kindling (have to get rid of the disease...).

"No," Tim said quietly, "I'm burning up...it feels like my muscles are stiffening up. When I went to sit up, it was like I was made of plaster. It's rigor mortis."

"No it isn't!" she hissed, "you're awake, your fine. You're going to get better."

"Wendy, I don't want to be one of them."

She couldn't reply. Her mouth opened and she tried to form words, but all that came from her was a low, sad moan.

"Promise me."

"I promise," she said quietly. They had made the promise years before. If one died, the other would make sure they didn't come back.

They had known each other a year before she told him about her husband. It was before the fall, when people thought they could still stop them. He'd gotten bit as well, and there were still doctors. They didn't have fancy clinics anymore and you didn't wait with old magazines anymore. You'd pay them in cans of food, and if you had enough cans of food, they would come to your house, shoot you up with anti-biotics and tell you that all you could do was wait.

She had waited. Then he died while she was out of the room, and when she came back, he was standing there. That shell that used to be her husband. She has missed him so, and had come to terms with the fact that he was going to die, but he'd told her that he wouldn't come back as one of those things. He was mentally strong, and even if he did, he knew he could overcome. He wouldn't be one that ate people. He would go away or finish himself off. That was his plan.

Yet, when she came up to check on him, he was standing there. She looked into the face of the man she had promised to spend her life with. The man she loved more than any other. The man who had proposed to her at the airport where they had met, giving her the ring at the very spot they had first seen each other.

She looked at that man, and could see the brown in his larger than normal eyes and the blonde, short hair looking as if he'd just woken up and he didn't look any different. Just a little more...vacant. As if he wasn't paying attention to anything. And then he came toward her.

She didn't move for a second, startled by his speed. She was able to get to the door and shut it, but there was no lock on the outside. She jammed a chair under the handle and hoped it would hold long enough as she ran downstairs. When she got downstairs, she heard the door give way and footsteps, running down the stairs.

As she got the shotgun ready, she couldn't help thinking that it was surprising that he could run in his condition, since his asthma made it so he had trouble running normally.

That was the worst part of it. Looking at his face as he came toward her, uncomprehending before the shotgun ended his second life.

As she looked at Tim in the cot, it was different. She didn't think about all the time they had spent together or how much they had cared about each other, because they hadn't. They were together in order to survive, each working at something to keep them alive. He would take care of the fences and lead when they went out for game or supplies, and she ran the garden and gave up her body for sex.

It was a trade.

And the trade was almost over.

She listened as his breathing slowed and got shallower. If she didn't know better, she would think that the fever had broken and he was getting better. But the breaths were just as labored, just bringing in less oxygen. She reached down under his cot and got out the revolver. Tim didn't like automatic pistols anymore. Too hard to repair and not as reliable as an old fashioned revolver. She remembered all the times they'd gone into the city and used it for target practice, shooting at them until she could nail a headshot at 50 yards. The gun was heavy and cold in her hands and she checked to make sure there were bullets in it, quietly and slowly.

She kept track of his breathing, listening, as there were now pauses between each breath. Longer each time. When she counted 5 seconds between breaths she corked the gun and aimed it at his head. When she counted 10 seconds she fired.

And spent the rest of the day cleaning up. It was ugly work. She figured she could stay in the house for a good month or so without any help as long as the fences upstairs were fine.

They weren't.

* * *

At first, Rick thought it would be like that old movie "The Road Warrior". He got the best car he could find and started driving all around the country. He wasn't the only one, and they would communicate on CB radios they found at truck stops once the cell phones no longer worked. They would tell each other where there was gas, and they drove around the country in pack, killing zombies, taking what they wanted and answering to no one. He'd ever killed a few he wasn't sure were zombies. Didn't matter. The cops had given up long before he started.

Then, the gas got harder and harder to find. There were huge gang wars over the remaining stores of it. He dropped out of the wars when most of his tribe was taken out in a night raid. He'd found a place to lay low and listened to the CB, then short-wave as he heard about the tribes at war with each other. It was good for a year's worth of listening. Then, suddenly, the CB wouldn't have any chatter on it. Once in a while he'd hear someone asking if they could be heard, but he didn't want to let them know he was still out there.

Might be a rival.

Then the short-wave went dead. It wasn't a thing where he woke up one morning and it had all stopped. It was slow over time. He'd used the last stores of gas and kerosene to power a generator until he read a book on how to use solar cells for electricity. It was like all the lights going out in a neighborhood. Fewer people, fewer languages, until finally silence. He still turned on the radios every few days to listen to the static, and once in a while you would hear someone talking.

Usually it was a language he didn't understand, but sometimes it was English. He listened to one man read the entire New Testament over a week, and then he went silent at the end of Revelations. Sometimes he heard people asking that if anyone heard them to please contact them.

When it was a woman, he would think about it. But it could be a trap, so he would just listen until someone else talked to them and they discussed where they could meet and how to get there safely.

One woman said she had found an entire city of people and they were building a fortress to keep everyone inside safe. She talked in detail about it and how it was in Southern California and all were welcome. He was packing to go when someone came on and said an earthquake had destroyed the walls, and the survivors of the first onslaught were taking off to regroup.

The man cried as he told the story, and he cried too as he listened. He hadn't cried in so long he didn't know if he was sick or not when the tears started flowing. Now he kept the radio off most of the time. He had a nice hidden place, a deserted bomb shelter in the middle of South Dakota. During the winter, the zombies weren't around. He had no idea if they hibernated or just went down south, but they weren't there once the first hard freeze hit. Once the weather started getting cold, they were a hell of a lot slower. Then, during the winter, he'd hunt game, raid their cities and look for weapons. He'd been here for five winters now, and the pickings were getting slim.

This was farm country, not a weapons depot. The farmers usually had a shot gun and a pistol and more ammo than they would have needed in their old lives. He'd pack it all up, and if they had a tractor with some gas in it, he'd load up as much as he could get and drive the tractor back until it broke down or ran out of gas. Most of the time, though, he'd have to bring it back on a cart or in a backpack.

The rest of the time he'd stay in the bomb shelter, reading whatever books he had scrounged up during the year, hunting small game like rabbit and squirrel and making sure that the zombies didn't know he was around. They weren't as prevalent as they had been when he first got here. Back then, they were everywhere, and there were a lot of them. Every night they would be banging on the door to the bomb shelter, somehow knowing he was in there. Anymore he only saw one or two a week. They probably didn't come back from where ever they went during the winter. Wasn't like they could drive to Florida and back.

When he had gas for the generator, he'd used it to watch movies and play video games. He hadn't wasted it either, and made the store this old farmer had last over a year. When it ran out, he started reading. He found a house some hippie had turned solar and took the books in the house. After he read them and figured out how to get them to work, he went back and took the solar panels and all the equipment. Now he used the solar energy just for what he needed.

By then he didn't want to waste the energy on video games. He'd use the big batteries the man kept so that he could run the space heaters during the winter. Video games and movies bored him now. He'd rather just read. One summer he found a house that all off the Executioner books, and he spent that summer reading over 400 Mack Bolan adventures, all of which ended with someone getting shot by Bolan. He found the Destroyer books in the same house, but they didn't take their stuff seriously. There were a lot of jokes and people were killed like it was some insane kung fu movie.

The bomb shelter was filled with the spoils of his raids. Things like hair clippers so that he didn't look like a wild man, tons of radios that had been long since taken apart for different experiments in trying to create a transmitter. CD players and boxes and boxes of CDs that he rarely listened to. Computer parts and stacks of software that he'd lost interest in.

Ricky was a thin man, but had the body of a runner. He didn't care to exercise, but hunting rabbits and the like made it so you had to learn to run. He would hike every day as well, hoping he might see another person.

When he first moved into the shelter, he didn't want anyone else around. He worried that they rivals were still looking for him, since he was the only one who survived their raid. There were people who had tried to enter his shelter the first year or so, but he wouldn't let them in and ordered them down the road or he'd shoot them.

Then, after he was sure he wasn't being hunted anymore, he'd look for people. Someone to talk to. He would see people traveling on the interstate once in a while. Sometimes he'd wave them down and talk to them, making sure they heard his voice as he approached. Zombies don't talk, so that's how you can tell if someone's alive. Most of the time, they ask him to come along, but he says no. Offers to let them stay, and they do for a while. They always leave, though. Never because they are mad at him, but because they want to get on their way.

Then he's left alone. Just him and Annie.

He had a small pack of dogs he fed as well. It's easier to hunt when you have dogs, and while zombies don't eat them, they do react whenever there is one of the dead bastards around the place. It was just good security. He didn't even name the dogs anymore, since there were about 10 of them.

Night was falling, and the dogs were all laying on the perimeter, quiet. It would be a good night to just relax. He had meat drying to be made into jerky for the winter, and a big pot of stew cooking he'd share with the dogs later, but there wasn't anything he needed to do.

He looked around outside one last time and then went deep into the shelter and turned on the computer. It whirred and hummer, slowly turning on, draining the solar energy the batteries had been storing all day. As the screen came on, he fiddled with the mouse a bit and a digitized face popped up on the screen. He pulled the microphone off of the computer's tower and said, "Hello, Annie," into it as he sat in a chair he'd stolen from the bank President's office.

"Hello, Ricky," came from the speakers, a low, husky female voice that sounded slightly inhuman, "What do you want to talk about today?"

And when he was done talking to Annie about what had happened that day, the stew was burned and none of the dogs would eat it.

* * * Once Charles got the last of the four kids to sleep, he was able to come downstairs and relax on the futon in the living room with Vic. They had checked all of the boarded windows and doors with the kids so that they felt safe, and locked up the gates around the house before dark, as they had every night. For some reason, the nights were more active, but after being in this house for three years and never having any problems once the fences were up, they could afford to relax at night. Everyone was safe, and no one had to stay up at night to keep watch anymore.

Vic was reading a hardcover book and half lying, half sitting on the futon, not looking up from his book as he said, "They finally go to sleep?"

"Yeah," Charles said and he sat in the middle of the futon, picking Vic legs up so that he could sit down, then laying them across his lap, leaning back and closing his eyes, "Jesse's starting to ask questions about if we'll ever get to see other people. Eventually, we're going to have to see who lives in this area and see if we can make alliances with them."

Vic put the book down, "The last time we did that, it didn't go well. I'm not looki9ng to relive the whole Texas thing again."

"We aren't in Texas. And that was four year ago."

"Still," Vic said, a disgusted look on his face.

Charles understood why he didn't want a repeat of that. They had found a very secure house in south Texas, near what used to be Houston, and worked on making it their home. They only had three of their kids then, Jesse, Rich and Martin, and all of them were under 7 years old. When they went in to the main settlement, it hadn't taken long before one of the people there asked if they were interested in a woman to help them with the kids.

Didn't take long for the people to decide they didn't want a gay couple raising three kids who weren't theirs near their settlement. Civilization fell and the people there took it as a sign that they didn't have to put up with people they felt were "evil", "cursed" or "perverts." Vic was the one who wanted to move on. Charles wanted to gut it out. Just like he had in Florida before the Fall. But Vic didn't trust the people there (which made him more like them than Charles wanted to think about) and he thought that they might come out, break the fence, ruin the locks on the gates or any number of other things to make it so the zombies were able to get into the house and get at the kids.

Charles couldn't fault him there. Each of the kids were given to them by people who were asking for help. "Please, please take my child away from here."

Jesse's mom was hooked on drugs as the city they lived in was shutting down, medicating herself against the horror. Between putting herself in a better place with heroin and selling herself to get more, she had met Charles and his former lover (why can't you say his name? Was it too much when he became one of them? Is that why you'll never say his name? Why you won't even think it? His mind kept bringing it up until he shoved it back into his memory) and begged them to take her little girl. Jesse was 12 now, and starting to hit puberty, which scared Charles more than he would let on. He knew nothing about what happened with girls when they hit that age, seeing as how he had been an only child, and rarely had female friends before the fall.

Rich's parents were dying, and Rich was trying to get them to drink water when he saw them on the street and asked them to help his parents. Charles and Vic had met by then in a refugee camp, and they stayed with Rich's parents, never even learning their names until they died. Rich was ten now and had an infectious smile and would spend most of the day working in the garden or playing with the animals outside. He didn't care for their dog, a border collie named Duke, but loved feeding the sheep and pigs more than just about anything else they had around their house.

Martin was a street kid, living on his own, hiding in abandoned building and eating things he stole from stores that hadn't been fully raided. He was almost nothing but skin and bones, and almost feral, but now he was the one who spent days drawing and wanted to learn how to paint. He drew pictures of how things used to be, not how they were. He never talked about the zombies and never talked about his live before they had met him.

The newest, Sarah, was barely 7 years old, and had been given to them as they left Texas by one of the women who had been calling them dirty faggots. She was scared of them for the first few months, and would eat away from the rest of the family. Now, she was still shy, and hadn't really warmed up to Vic much (which broke his heart, but he never said anything to anyone...just got that look in his eyes when she would turn away from him without saying anything).

They had moved east and North, finding an abandoned plantation mansion about 50 miles south of Memphis. It had taken a good two months to get everything secured, and three months more to get the place cleaned up. While they were getting the place secured, they would take shifts at night watching the basement door, praying nothing got past them, praying that they wouldn't fall asleep. Once the place was safe and secure, they started gathering up some of the animals that had once been on farms in the area, and found that they were mostly alone. There was an older couple that lived in a house a few miles away, and once in a while, travelers would come by and ask to stay the night. Mostly they were either headed to Texas or Graceland.

Rumors were that a large city was growing up again in the area outside Houston they had tried to live in. The people there were supposedly trying to gather up as many people as they could to try and take back a large enough area that they could keep the zombies out and rebuild an entire city. Vic and Charles privately dismissed it as a pipe dream, but the people would have such passion in their eyes that they could only wish them well. They just weren't willing to face the fact that this was how they lived now. Y2K came 5 years late and had nothing to do with a computer.

The Graceland folk were religious and talked about going to Graceland the same way that Moslems would talk about going to Mecca. At first, it was only a couple every few month, and easy to dismiss as a joke. Now, there were caravans that passed by on the highway, horse drawn carriages, lines of people in sackcloth and ashes. It would have scared him if the people weren't so sincere.

"Penny for your thoughts," Vic said, and Charles opened his eyes and looked around the house. They had filled the mansion with ratty furniture from abandoned houses in the area, has candles burning all around them and the windows were covered with plywood held in place by nailed so big that Charles had wondered if there was any way to ever pull them out of the wood.

"I was just wondering about how we got here, and where we go from here. You know, typical stuff you worry about when not running for your life."

Vic smiled, and in the candlelight the wrinkles starting to form in his face looked much deeper, and the gray in his hair looked almost white. He reached over and pulled Charles down so that he was lying on his chest, "Tomorrow we'll feed the pigs, tend the garden and make three meals. And then we'll do it again and again."

"But what about the kids? They are starting to get older, and soon, they will need to meet some other people. Jesse is already asking...I know it's only been three years here, but in another 5 years or so, she'll want someone in her life. And then there will be her children..."

"You sound like my mother," Vic said, kissing Charles lightly on the top of the head, it was comforting in a domestic way, "which is probably why I love you. We'll worry about those things when they happen. It's not like we have to get her ready for the Senior Prom and hope her boyfriend isn't some scraggly kid with a drug habit and bad hygiene."

"Still," Charles said, his will to continue to conversation fading. It felt nice to be in the arms of someone who cared about him, even after all of the horror they had gone through.

"Still nothing. You worry too much. For all we know, her true love my come though on one of the caravans and will take her off to California to be in the movies."

Charles laughed, a rare thing in the world now and hugged Vic. "OK," he said, "I'll quit worrying about it. But you get to be the one to tell her that being a stripper is a bad career choice."

"Deal." Vic shifted on the futon so that they were both more comfortable, "Arte we going to make it to our room or will we fall asleep down here again and have sore necks all day?"

Charles answered by hugging Vic closer and closing his eyes. Another day had passed, and all was right with their world. How many days would there be like that?

* * *

Ray was finished with guard duty, but his replacement hadn't shown up yet. It wasn't like people didn't know when they were to take post, he thought to himself, since they bugler announced it every four hours. Ray was in his late 20's, had his hair in a militarily approved cut (not long enough to touch his collar) and some of the girls on the base thought that he was attractive. He even thought he was good looking enough to run around on Susan, but she would get so mad when he even looked at another woman and thought about fucking her that he had decided that he'd have to break up with her before sleeping with another woman. And if he did that, no woman on base would want to hook up with him anyway, since Susan was well connected.

Even without a government, there was politics, he thought to himself and smiled.

"I'm here, dude," he heard behind him. Sure enough, Dan was there, looking as if he'd slept in his uniform and not bothered to even brush his teeth before reporting for duty.

"You may be here, are you fit?" Ray asked.

"Fuck you," Dan said, irritated, "I overslept a bit. I'm good to go. Not all of us are Joe Soldier, you know. I would have been out of the army if things hadn't gone to shit."

Ray didn't show his disapproval, but instead handed Dan his logbook and light source. "It's been quiet, but the guys in the north quad say that there was a bit of activity. It was too far away to know if it was travelers or bogeys, but the CO wants checks into the dark spots every 10 minutes instead of every 20. I've been doing it every 7, just to keep awake. It may be October, but it's not going to be getting cold tonight."

"An Alabama winter is like summer everywhere else," Dan said, another cliché.

Ray nodded and saluted, not because he respected Dan, but because he wanted to go home. Because he was living a relative of the CO, he was able to get into married housing. He walked back in the dark, a few fires were burning to provide light, but the torches or outside fires were far enough apart that the base looked as if it was empty. The soldiers on duty were at the fences, watching for movement in the night.

7 years ago, martial law had been approved by the Congress. Ray had only been in the military for a few months, joining up when his college shut down, hoping to help win the "War against the dead." Now, the base had become its own society, taking care of the soldiers and their families, shunning outsiders and protecting the base. Tom Marshall, the Commanding Officer didn't treat it as if civilization had fallen, he treated it as if the world was waiting for everything to turn back around and once it did, they would rejoin it.

Even Sue would talk about a time when things were back to normal. 5 years since communications went down, the Government disbanded and people pretty much decided it was over, and she kept her credit cards and dreams of Macy's. He gave up on it before then. Didn't tell anyone, but when the people on CNN reported that the President had declared martial law, and the Vice President was to be secured in a secret location, he knew it was over. He stayed with his troop at the base because he knew that the best place to be when things broke down would be with a bunch of people holding a lot of weapons behind a wall.

The barracks were quiet as he walked by. Sometimes the men inside would stay up late, gambling with worthless paper money, or worse yet, having some of the woman on the base dance for them. Women were outnumbered on the base by about 2 to 1 and they knew it. Each one had power. The kind of power that someone has when they control a supply.

He walked by, hoping the rest of the base would be quiet too. They had finished a lot of the harvest, and most of the soldiers had been working on securing more food and storing it for the coming months. Alabama may not have cold winters, but things don't grow as well as they did in August.

And the dead from the North come down as well.

He shuddered thinking about it. People who used to live in states like Minnesota would tell stories about how they would find zombies frozen solid and how they would shatter when they were shot, they eyes still open in horror lying on the ground in pieces. He's never lived up north. Never wanted to. But the idea of getting 3 or 4 months where you didn't have to worry about those bastards showing up and trying to rend you limb from limb was enough to make him want to brave the cold.

Not that it was allowed to leave. They had weapons on the base, foodstuffs, emergency equipment and other secrets. Things that before the fall they weren't allowed to be working on. Weapons and technology that could have gotten people very upset. Now, the CO kept those things secret in case things did start up again, he couldn't be accused of breaking the law.


Ray laughed when he thought about that word.

They still functioned under military law on the base, and the only reason they did was to keep a slim veneer of civilization. People liked having laws. They liked knowing what was allowed and what wasn't. Now, they liked having the CO as their leader so they only had to think about getting food, keeping things clean and doing their duty. Relieved you of the responsibility to think for yourself. Ray thought that was what he wanted when he joined the military, but now he wasn't sure anymore. It's one thing to have someone telling you that if you follow certain rules, the world will right itself when things are crumbling around you, but when you see that doesn't work...

He snapped out of his thoughts when he got to his home. It wasn't much by old standards, but on the base, it was one of the better places. A small two bedroom military house that had been used for married soldiers who had one or two kids. Now, he lived in it with Sue because of his rank and her family connections.

The house was dark, and pale moonlight shone in through the windows so that he wouldn't bump his leg on the ratty furniture they had in the place. He put his gear away in the closet and reminded himself to clean and service it first thing in the morning.

The bedroom was small, just enough room for a dresser, a king size bed and a pair of nightstands with lanterns on them. Sue was sleeping. In the dark, her long blonde hair looked dark, and her face was covered in shadow. She slept on her back, and he could see her chest slowly rising and falling. She didn't snore anymore, not since she quit sleeping on her side, and on her nightstand was a half read romance novel and an alarm clock.

Wind up, of course.

He laughed to himself quietly. There's no more government, no more cities and no more hope, yet she wants to know exactly what time it is, and wants to be up at 6:45 in the morning.


What a fucking joke.

It didn't even matter to him what month it was anymore, other than each month had its own set of tasks. It was October, so food supplies were replenished. November, the fences would be worked on, and any improper links would be replaced and any weak joints or connections would be fixed.

And so on and so on until they died.

That was his life.

Get up, clean his gear, listen to Sue talk about the good old days, eat, shit and complete his orders.

Worth it?

Fuck no.

Sue was nice enough, he guessed. She was prettier than most, with a small nose and large blue eyes. And yes, she had generous breasts that caught the attention of most every soldier on the base. He still got offers from soldiers who hadn't been chosen by one of the women on the base to let them just see her breasts. They offered to take shifts, to give him food rations...some even offered alcohol they had made in defiance of base orders. Just to see her breasts.

Damn, but the women had power.

Sue never used hers though.

She loved Ray. She'd fallen in love with him before The Fall, but he hadn't much cared about her until it started to look like the gates were being locked for good. Ray was only as faithful as his options. He hated himself for it too. She was beautiful, loved him, and loved having sex with him. He was never one of those men who had to beg for a lay from his woman, more often than not she wanted to sleep with him more than he wanted her.

Problem was, she had no vision. NO drive. She just wanted to wait here for things to start up again.

He cursed himself as he got out of his clothes and into his nightwear, thinking how he was an utter shitheel with no sense of decency. He had more than most of the men on the base, and he wasn't just taking it for granted, he was cursing it. There would people on base who would kill for his position, let alone people outside the base that would do far more.

He slid under the covers, and he heard her stir slightly. Her stopped kicking himself and moved over to lay next to her and kiss her on the forehead.

"Sorry," he whispered and moved back to his side of the bed.

"Sorry for what?" she said drowsily, rolling over and putting a hand on his chest.

"Just thinking too much again," he said, closing his eyes and feeling her hand caress his softly.

"Wanderlust again?"

He laughed quietly under his breath, "Not this time. I was just thinking about how dull it gets around here and how there isn't much to break up the routine."

She slid over and lay on her side next to him, draping her arm around him and moving it up and down his chest lazily, "That's a good thing. I think the last thing e need is excitement. Excitement means either they are trying to break in, or some people here have to go."

He shuddered. There was only one punishment for breaking a major order. Being sent off the base without weapons or food. One night he had been on guard duty when a man had been put off base for stealing food. He was marched outside at sunset, and he clung to the fence, begging for someone to give him a gun, just a gun. He had cried, saying he knew he couldn't come back, but it was inhuman to leave him outside the base without a gun. Ray had made sure to be as far away as he could be from the man and still be considered at his post. He'd still heard it as the dead had come for him later. He couldn't remember the screams (liar!) but he could remember having to look away as the man simply gave up to his fate.

He snapped back to where he was now and felt that her hand was caressing his hip. "No, I don't want excitement, bunny (his pet name for her because he couldn't think of anything more endearing). I just keep thinking that there should be more than this. More than..."

"There is," she said, and her hand slid under his waistband. He didn't think any more about routine that night, but instead about how soft her touch was and how she would do anything he wanted, as long as he pleased her as well.

The next morning, the alarm went off way too soon, and while Sue bounced out of bed to make coffee, he wanted to just lie there for the rest of the day. But when she came back in with a cup for him and reminded him that he had guard duty from 8 until noon, he reluctantly sat up on the side of the bed.

Sue was sitting in the small chair they had in the bedroom, and he sipped the coffee and looked at her. Not just the way he would glance at her most of the time, but really looked at her, seeing how her eyes would go to the window whenever he would try to look her in the eyes, and how she would run her finger around the rim of her own coffee mug as she talked about hr plans for the day. He didn't pay a lot of attention to them, since he was still lost in thought.

Guard duty. Then home to tend his garden (ten yards by ten yards, since he was an officer). Then a night of reading or talking with her, unless she would invite friend over for a game of cards.

He laughed out loud when he thought of that. Less than one mile away was an enclave of the living dead who would eat them alive and they would play bridge behind a wall guarded by horny soldiers.

"What's funny, love?" she said, looking at him with her semi-vacant look she gave him way too damn often.

"Nothing," he said, not wishing to get into the conversation with her, "I was just wondering if Dan gave the person who relieved him as much shit as he gave me."

She smiled, still looking confused, and he wondered how he was going to get through the day.

He wondered that for the next two days as he fell back into the routine of work, home and work again. He woke up one night from a dream that he had become his dad, working in a factory until he was old and worn out at 50, unable to enjoy the retirement he had worked so hard for because his body had just been pushed too far. He stayed awake the rest of that night, wondering which reality he would rather have been in.

He would meet with the CO once a week, and in the days leading up to his meeting this time, he started to practice what he would ask. He cared about Sue, and liked that he was safe and secure with a roof over his head and a gun by his side, but..

The Commanding Officer had the most impressive building, proving that some things simply didn't ever change. The building was meticulously maintained and had its own security fence that could be shut from the inside in case the zombies got through the main fences. Inside were most of the spare weapons, files upon files of information that no one gave a damn about anymore, and soldiers in full battle uniform as guards. The CO was Bradley Larson, who had been a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and made sure that people knew that he was once stationed in the White House. He'd been sent here when martial law was declared to make sure that the soldiers here would follow orders without question.

In the five years since The Fall, Ray kept thinking that Bradley would eventually set himself up as a ruler in and of himself, but he never did. He still acted as if the President was in charge, and that he was simply awaiting orders. Must have been why the people here respected him so much.

The inner office was down a long hallway filled with posters from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the two Gulf Wars, talking about Duty and Honor and Patriotism. The outer office had two armed guards and a male secretary who had saved the CO from a zombie attack soon after the CO was stationed here. It had not been one of the better moments of the base. The dead from recent battles against both the zombies and some of the citizens (he shook his head and put that out of his mind, better not to think about that part of it) had been put in the underground bunkers, but no one knew much about how the dead returned to life. Some of the scientists were watching the corpses to see how they reanimated, but they didn't have enough protection.

After that, they burned the dead and the scientists were pretty much either pressed into military service or Put Outside. All but the last madman who stayed below ground and claimed it was all Cheney's fault.

The secretary, an older man who had aged at least 20 years in the last five, nodded when Ray came into the office and went into the inner office. He came out and said quietly, "He'll see you now."

Ray walked into the office and saw that Bradley was dressed as he usually was, in a dress uniform, perfectly fitted and decorated profusely.

"Sit down, Colonel," Bradley said. It was always odd to hear that, since no one else ever referred to him by his rank. Outside the office the only thing rank meant was where you slept and how easy it was to get out of the more disgusting tasks of the base. "How is my niece doing?"

"Very well sir," Ray said, sitting ramrod straight. Even if he didn't much care of this life now, he gave all due respect to the CO for keeping the base so safe that a person COULD get bored. "That's not what I want to talk to you about this week."

"That sounds quiet serious, Colonel. Are you having trouble with some of the men?"

"Not at all sir." He stopped, gathering his nerve. Now was the time to decide. He could say what he had been thinking about, or he could give a brief report and go back to his beautiful blonde girlfriend and their secure and safe life. All this and more went through his mind in the second before he spoke again.

Then, as he had done so before, he made the decision and forged ahead, "I would like to speak freely, sir."

"Granted. These reports are worthless if we do not speak freely."

"I agree sir. I would like to propose a special detail for myself. As you well know, communications with other bases fell apart 5 years ago, and in the past couple of years, we have only gotten sporadic and confusing messages when we fire up the communications equipment. However, I have noticed that the enemy is less active and less numerous. It is my proposal that we send out a long-term reconnaissance mission to attempt to re-establish communications with other bases that may be able to help us."

Bradley scowled, and Ray wondered if he had overstepped his bounds so far that he would be looking at living in the barracks again. "Are you trying to tell me that you think I should send away a group of my soldiers to try and get word to other bases?"

"No sir. I am volunteering to go to a nearby base to see if there is anyone there. I want to see if we can start moving forward on putting America back together."

The last part was the part he thought would clinch it. The CO was the only person who even used the word America anymore. Not even Sue would say America. She would say "here" or "the base" or "our home" but not America.

Bradley looked him up and down, and Ray thought he was being scrutinized. He had known that there were some people in the past that had asked to go to other bases...most of them had been Put Outside and called deserters. But they had asked to be reassigned or to try and find survivors. Everyone seemed to forget that there WERE other survivors when they sealed the doors, but the CO decided that they could only take care of military personnel and their families.

"I can't spare any men." Bradley finally said, flatly.

"I wouldn't need anyone sir," Ray said, hurrying to make his point, "I could go to the closest base in 7 days and then be back in 7 days. Sooner if they have equipment or communication. The enemy has been dropping off in numbers, so I would be able to make twenty miles a day, getting me to the base outside Memphis within 6 days."

"Do you want to die, son?"

"Excuse me?"

The CO leaned back in his chair, gazing off into space and talking, not really to him but in general, "The world outside our gates is chaos. The dead have risen, they eat the living. Eat them, for Mercy's sake. The bastard terrorists didn't even do that, and they were a bunch of fucking savages. I understand that this isn't the best of all possible assignments, but this is all we have left.

"That talk about us waiting it out until the country gets back on its feet is bullshit to keep the men from going nuts. The best we can do is get to a point when we can keep the gates open most of the time, and people can start moving out of the base, but I don't think that's going to happen in my lifetime. This is our world, Colonel. The fence is the boundary, the houses are our castles and the men in a barracks are the underclass. We don't tell the underclass what is going on in the world because it is our duty to keep them away from the hard truths."

Bradley opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a bottle and two glasses. He poured the dark liquid that was the whiskey made by some of the men in defiance of orders and offer Ray a glass. Ray drank it, and it was smoother than the stuff he had been able to get from the bootleggers, and he saw Bradley drink his glass dry in one gulp before starting again, this time staring him dead in the eye.

"I know you are getting restless. I would be too. The problem is, there's really no place to go. The other bases are either overrun or doing what we are. Surviving. The Commander in Chief gave us very specific orders in case we lost communication. Set up self-sufficient communities and wait it out. I know it's hard when your world is a couple of square miles and reveille, but that's the deck we were dealt.

"Request denied."

The look in Bradley's eyes let him know that the discussion was over. Ray took the hint and changed the subject to his weekly report of men, supplies and work rosters. He went through all of the normal duties of his rank without once betraying that he had made his decision to leave before even showing up in the office, but wanted a chance to do it officially.

The next week he went about his duties without anyone being able to tell what he was planning. Sue asked why he was away from the house more than usual, and he told her that he was trying to get ahead on some of the cleaning and storage duties in order to have more free time during the holidays.

One night he lay in bed after she had fallen asleep and wanted to change his mind. After all, if the CO was right, he should be happy that he was doing so well. He was one of the elite. He had a mate, he had rank, and he had one of the houses. He was one of the chosen ones, one of the people with power. If he left, all of that would be gone. He'd never be able to return (deserters are Put Outside), he'd never see Sue again. That was the one thing that almost changed his mind.

He'd never see her face again, and they didn't have photographs anymore (a waste of chemicals). Her voice would fade into his memory, and the way she walked would be something he would faintly remember as if he'd seen in once in a movie. Her way of making fun of their meals without seeming ungrateful, gone. She'd have a new man in her house within a month, there were too many people who would vie for that privilege, and maybe with the next one, she would figure out that she had power over them, and make them into her toy as most of the other women on the base did to their men.

She had stirred slightly then, moaning slightly in her sleep. She was having another erotic dream, and when she did wake up, they would have hard, fast, passionate sex, half awake and filled with lust. He thought about that too, even though it shouldn't be the single thing to keep him there. He would probably go for a very long time (ever?) without meeting another person, let alone a woman. Let alone a woman as attractive as Sue, or one that loved him so simply and easily.

The next day, on guard duty, it solidified. It was a night shift, just the early portion of the night, though, from 8 pm to midnight, when most of the base was still active, but people stayed away from wall. The ground on the base was covered in gravel near the wall, but outside it looked like the rest of Arkansas, short scrub grass and a few trees, but not enough that they could be used for cover. The night was darker than normal, with heavy cloud cover during the day, so they had let the people on guard duty carry flashlights. Batteries were a precious resource, since recharging them used up the electricity generated by the solar panels, which was usually used for the mess hall, the people who worked on ammo, or the huge spotlights that were mounted on turrets around the camp.

He heard something off in the distance about halfway through his shift, and when the sound didn't go away, he shone his flashlight into the darkness. He used it to scan The ground and he saw them. Five zombies, coming up slowly, stumbling as they walked toward the base. It was hard to make them out, but they had to be about 500 yards away. He drew his weapon and waited, protocol was not to alert the turrets until they were within 100 yards, partly to make sure that the base was their destination, and partly so as to get a good shot at them and not waste ammo. It was possible to get a decent head shot at 500 yards with a sniper rifle, but it wasn't worth the time.

As they came closer, he saw that it was two men and three women. Their clothing wasn't torn, which meant they were freshly turned. They looked fairly young, maybe in their 30's when they died. The men were leading the way with the women behind, and they weren't making any sound other than their footsteps. None of the moaning he remembered from other zombies that had come near the base.

At around 200 yards he shone his flashlight at the nearest tower and then at the zombies again. The spotlight hit them, and they didn't change their motion toward the base at all. That part always disturbed him. If a deer or a rabbit was suddenly hit with a bright light they would either take off as fast as they could or freeze, staring into the light. Zombies didn't. They just kept moving forward.

At around 150 yards, he heard the two men in the turret shout, "we've got them, get ready to back us up if we miss."

He barely heard them, mesmerized by the fact that there were five people who had survived this long, probably using one of the "Zombie proof basements" the hucksters were selling as The Fall was going on, and now they were just dead. All of the hopes they had had at lasting until help came were gone, and they had turned. Somehow they didn't even get a chance to put a bullet in each other's brains to keep them from turning.

He was overcome with the thought that it was the fate waiting for all of them. Death, a bullet or that. There had to be something more. Waiting in a cage like lab rats was no sort of life for a human being.

They got close enough and shots rang out. They dropped like puppets whose strings had been cut, and the spotlight shone on them a minute or too longer, making sure they wouldn't be getting up again.

"Log the location and set up a crew for tomorrow, Colonel!" someone shouted from the tower. Ray turned off his flashlight and quickly walked over to the guard station. He noted the information (grid where they fell, number of zombies and time) and went back to his patrol. The rest of his shift, he thought about how they would all turn into those things eventually. There had to be more than just being happy in a cage, getting fed and having your waste taken away.

For the next week, he put together his pack, a regulation Army backpack with a map, compass, MREs, ammo and the other things he would have taken if he was going to be dropped into enemy territory. He didn't tell a single soul of his plans, and if Sue knew what he was planning, she didn't mention it.

A week after he had seen the zombies, he gave his report to the CO quickly and without emotion. If Bradley had any questions about what Ray had talked about the week before, he made no mention of it. He had most of the day to himself, so he spent it making a nice meal for Sue, letting her talk about the things she was interested in without interrupting or distracting her, and then making sure she went to sleep happy and content.

He had signed himself up for guard duty on one of the darker quadrants from Midnight to 4 AM, so he was able to get a few hours of dreamless sleep before the alarm woke him up an hour before he was due at his station. He left her a note he'd written a few night before on guard duty and kissed her while she slept, making sure not to re-set the alarm so that she wouldn't wake up when he was due home.

His pack was in the hall closet, and he tested it out, heavy, but not as bad as he'd thought it was. All of the military training and calisthenics had kept him in good enough shape that he'd be able to get pretty far before he'd be too tired from carrying it.

When he got to his post, Jen was there, one of the few female soldiers. She'd been in the military before The Fall, and had kept her rank rather than shed her uniform to be one of the typical base women. She was a colonel as well, but it was because of her commitment to duty and not because of who she slept with (like Ray). Then again, she did sleep with a lot of the other officers. Not for power but simply because she could.

She was about Ray's size, and a solid woman who kept herself in excellent shape so as not to be considered behind the men in terms of strength. She didn't talk a lot to other people either, and Ray couldn't think of a time they had had a conversation that had lasted more than 10 minutes in all the time they had been on the base.

She gave him the once over and said, "Is there a reason you have your pack with you? Got to sleep in the doghouse after your shift?"

"Nope," he said, trying to be casual, "I have a lot to take care of that I didn't have time to get to. Gun maintenance, studying for the upcoming officer's exams and the like. It's been quiet lately, so I can do it between patrols."

"Hell of a lot of stuff for a four hour shift."

"Yeah, depends on what I have time for. That and Dan is the person relieving me," he said, going over what he'd practiced.

She gave a short, derisive laugh, "I hear ya. The last time he was to relieve me, he showed up three hours late and I sent him home and said he'd have to take my shift the next day. There's a reason he's still a fucking private."

"Damn skippy," he said, putting his pack in the guard station, an 8-foot by 8 foot building by the fence.

She gave his pack another look, and he knew that she wasn't buying his story, but she wasn't going to push it any further. Her expression confused him since it was a mix of pity and confusion, "If you get sick of studying after your done on shift," she paused and he was finally able to understand her expression. Embarrassment. "Well, you know where I am. I could help you with some of the regulations. If. Well, if...you know."

He nodded and watched as she walked away, wondering, not for the first time, if he would be able to stay. Finally, when she was out of sight, he ran his first patrol of the fence, making sure the fence was secure and then making sure there was nothing outside of it to be concerned about. The moon hadn't risen yet, and when it did, it would be a mere crescent, so the night was darker than most, but he could still detect movement with his night vision binoculars. Nothing. Another quiet night where he normally would be able to just worry about staying awake.

For the first hour of his shift, he stayed in the guard house, making sure his rifle and two side arms were well oiled and in perfect working order. He did the standard check every 20 minutes, but during the last check, he turned his goggles toward the nearest guard tower to make sure he wasn't being observed.

After his last check he went into the guard house and slug his pack over one shoulder and went to the backside of the small building, putting the building between the tower and the fence. Checking again with his goggles and making sure that he wasn't able to be observed, he pulled out a pair of wire cutters. Working quickly, and pausing after each cut, he cut through a portion of the fence just big enough to squeeze himself through. He shoved the backpack through and then checked again, making sure the tower didn't see him.

Nothing. No movement, no sound, no sign that he had been spotted.

And with that he pulled himself through the opening and lay down on the ground, holding his breath and waiting to the count of fifty, since if he had been spotted, they would have sounded an alarm by then. When he was sure the coast was clear, he pulled a length of wire from his pack and twisted it around the portions of the fence he had cut apart, fixing the fence. He wanted to leave, not leave the base open for an attack.

He moved quickly in getting the fence repaired, years of experience guiding his hands as he wound the wire around and through, almost as if he was stitching it back together. When he fished, he paused again. Not waiting, this time, but making sure he was doing the right thing. It would take less than three minutes to back out. To go back through the fence, seal it up and go back to his life. He would do another patrol in 10 minutes, and then quietly go home in three hours, sleep in a soft bed next to a woman who loved him and forget he had ever done this.

Then, he thought about the pet rat he had had as a child. He kept it in a cage on his dresser, cleaned its cage, fed it and cleaned out the cage every week. He took care of all of its needs, but after a year, he took it outsider and set it free, where a neighborhood cat or some other animal probably killed it. When his parents asked him why, he said that he didn't like having an animal that didn't want to stay with him. If it had to be in a cage, it was a prisoner, not a pet.

He didn't want to end up as a rat in a cage. Maybe it was going to be the death of him, but he had to be free. Maybe there was a better life outside the base, maybe there wasn't, but he had to know. Furthermore, he had to try.

Ray moved slowly across the ground, making sure not to move fast enough to attract attention from the tower until he reached the tree line. Then he stood up, slung his pack over his shoulder and started walking north.

Interlude One

Back to the main page

© solitaire rose productions. Don't steal this.