The empty streets did little to relieve Luke’s tension. After the way he and Abby had been so easily taken prisoner by Nice Bob and his friend, he kept a wary eye out for anyone who might be trying to ambush them. If the armory was far enough, chances were good that they’d run into another group sooner or later.. Unfortunately, Tony didn’t seem to realize this.
“We gotta get some kind of weapon,” he said, hardly bothering to keep his voice down. “Even an axe or something. Anything that would let us kill some of these fuckers.” He spoke with a smoldering anger that echoed around the area before them.
“Keep it down,” Luke hissed. “They could be anywhere around here.”
Tony glanced around the empty street. “Really?” he asked, sarcasm heavy in his voice. “Where?”
“Just because you don’t see anyone doesn’t mean they aren’t present,” Abby said softly. “Luke and I already got taken by surprise once.”
“Yeah well, I’m pretty sure I’d be able to tell if one of these idiots was trying to sneak up on us. You just gotta be perceptive.”
“Right. If you can hear them over all the shouting you’re doing—”
A nearby noise prompted all three of them to turn their heads. Footsteps sounded from a side street ahead of them. Alarmed, Luke looked around wildly for somewhere to hide. His eyes settled on the building closest to them, and he pointed it out to the others. Abby nodded, and they crept in that direction as the footsteps grew louder. Luke’s instincts screamed for him to run, but the footsteps—and voice now, he could hear—were close enough that his movements might be heard. They reached the door just as someone came into view down the street. Abby opened the door hurriedly and they dove inside.
She closed the door most of the way; a slit of sunlight entered the room through the crack. Luke gestured for her to close it the entire way, but she shook her head and crouched at the threshold, moving her ear to the gap. Realizing what she intended, Luke moved closer and closed his eyes. A faint voice floated out from the street.
“Did you hear something?”
The response was nearly inaudible over the sound of Luke’s pounding heart.
“Sure. These buildings are old as hell, there’s probably always something falling or breaking inside of them.”
“Well I guess we’ll be looking through all of them anyway.”
“Are you insane? That would take all fucking week, I’m not going through every house on the block.”
“Are you insane? You want to not do the one thing that Graves sent us out here for?
“Yep. You could go either way, but I know Graves is crazy. Like this shit with that vault. Why do we even need those guns? It’s overkill, we already got more than enough firepower to blow them away.”
“You’re a fucking idiot, Gary. What happens if we leave them there alone and one of the assholes here manages to get in? We’d be fucking screwed is what would happen. Use your damn head, man.”
“All right, don’t be a bitch about it,” the first voice sulked. “I’d like to see those fireworks when they go off anyway. Never seen that much ordinance in my life.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure they could have just blown the whole damn settlement up if they wanted. I wonder why they’re trying so hard to take in everyone alive.
“Hell yeah they could. And that’s my point! Even if there was anyone dumb enough to hide in one of the buildings around here, which there’s not, what’s it matter if they’re down three or four prisoners? Let’s just get the hell back before they find out where the food’s stashed.”
There was a long pause. “All right, fine. If you rat me out I’ll fucking kill you though. Let’s go.”
The footsteps picked up once more and moved down the street beyond Luke’s hearing. The other two had clearly heard the conversation as well from the looks on their faces.
Tony started to speak, but Abby held up a finger again. She listened carefully at the crack for a few more minutes before nodding and opening the door.
“I just want to point out that I was completely right and I heard them before they saw us,” Tony said, but he now spoke at a much lower volume.
“So did we,” Luke protested. Abby ignored them both.
“It sounds like our problems may be bigger than we thought.”
“You mean how they were talking about blowing something up?” Luke asked, turning from Tony. “The place where they keep the guns?”
“They put them in an old bank vault,” Abby explained. “Solid steel on all sides. It would have to be a fairly large bomb to blow it open.”
“That’s exactly what they’ve got from what they said,” Luke said. “But why can’t they just get one of the prisoners to tell them how to get it open?”
“I’m fairly sure that only the Committee and a few high ranking guards have the combination for the armory. Either they don’t have anyone who knows or they don’t know who knows. Which is probably a good sign for your dad at least, Tony.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll hold off on celebrating until I see him myself,” Tony said, all traces of good humor gone. “These guys are still fucking dead if I can get my hands on a gun.”
Neither Luke nor Abby had much response to that.
“We still need a destination first,” Abby said. “The armory may not be the best place to go at the moment.
“It’s up to you two,” Luke said. “You know this place way better than I do.”
“We should still check it out,” Tony said decisively. “Look at their defenses, maybe pick a couple of them off if they wander off alone?”
“Who are you, fucking Batman?” Luke asked. Tony looked at him strangely and shrugged.
Their course unchanged, they continued down the same street as before. Tony was quieter, thankfully, but Luke was a little worried about him. Whenever he glanced over the boy had an ugly look on his face, like he was stewing in his anger. It wasn’t exactly an ideal time to have a discussion about feelings though, so he left the matter alone.
They encountered enemy patrols twice more on the way to the armory, narrowly ducking into an alleyway both times before they were seen. Both of the groups were walking down the street without checking houses, similar to the pair they’d crossed paths with earlier.
Eventually, Abby whispered to the two behind her. “It’s only a few streets away now. Be careful, they could be anywhere around here.”
“Did you hear something?” Luke asked, looking around the empty street.
“No. You want to stay focused, Luke? We have a job to do here.” Tony didn’t even look behind him as he spoke.
“No, really. I’m pretty sure I heard something.”
“Hey!” The call was a little louder this time, and now Tony and Abby reacted to the noise.
“Who’s there?” Tony called in a stage whisper. Abby walked back the way they’d come toward a side street.
“Over here,” she said a moment later, turning her head back toward the two of them. “It’s a friend.”
Luke followed her, turning to raise his eyebrows at Tony. The other boy didn’t react, but walked over to the intersection as well. Turning down the street where Abby had been, Luke craned to see the speaker.
He found a pair of figures waiting . After a second the larger of the two stepped forward, giving Luke a good view of his face. It looked familiar, and after a moment he placed the muscular, red-headed man as a guard from the caravan. Owen, he thought his name was.
“Is it just you three?” he asked, his voice gruff. Abby nodded, equally terse.
The pale guard sighed and glanced at his partner. She was a Hispanic woman around the same age as Owen perhaps thirty or so. But after Abby answered Owen’s question, she smiled warmly and spoke to the girl in a familiar tone
“I’d worried that they dragged you out of your home, ‘Cilla.”
The girl shook her head. “They raided the hotel first thing, but I was already on my way to the clinic. I saw them hauling lines of people away and got the hell away from there.”
“Do this later,” Owen said, scanning the road around them. “We’re too exposed. Any of you have guns?”
Abby shook her head. “Do you know somewhere safer?”
“Yes, it’s not far, come on.”
He trotted off, and they followed behind. True to his word, it was only a few more block before he knocked on the door of a large commercial building. There was little to differentiate it from every other structure on the street, but the door opened and two more guards met them with raised guns.
“We found a few more out there,” Owen said. The guards nodded and let their weapons drop. Stepping inside, Luke saw that the place had probably once been some kind of restaurant, judging by the stripped booths that lined the walls. Faded carpet covered the floor, and the only light came from a pair of guttering candles in the back that did little to illuminate the front half of the room. All the windows had been covered with fabric, leaving it dark and sunless within the space. At least two dozen more residents were sitting inside, a fair number of them guards from what Luke could tell. He was relieved to see that more carried weapons beyond the two that had been posted by the door. One man stood up as they entered, a thin beam of sunlight illuminating his face long enough to give Luke a jolt of recognition before the door closed behind them.
Luke glanced toward Abby, who’s face had gone utterly blank. After a moment she shook herself and walked forward with Luke and Tony.
“Good, more people. Well done, Owen.” Simmons nodded toward the red-headed guard, and Luke recalled that he had been part of the old guard’s clique during the trip.
“Do any of you have guns?” Simmons asked. He kept his voice low, and Luke responded in the same tone.
“No. We were heading for the armory, but these two found us before we got there.”
“Is the Committee here?” Tony interrupted. He was looking around the room, peering into the darkness.
Simmons shook his head. “Our best intel places them in Sarah’s office. At least, I presume so since there’s an entire group of goons surrounding the place. I’m not certain why they haven’t moved in yet. We were considering trying to break through, but unless we take the armory it would be tantamount to suicide. We are outmatched in both manpower and firepower.”
“Sitting around here won’t solve anything,” Abby said. “We overheard a few of them talking amongst themselves and it sounds like they’re planning on blowing up the vault. That can’t happen.”
“So we heard. And yet there is quite a difference between sitting around and waiting for the right moment.” Simmons’ tone was sharp, rebuking. Abby didn’t back down.
“How did you hear about it?”
“Because we’ve been busy gathering intelligence.” Simmons gestured toward half a dozen people sitting against the wall. Luke had missed it in the dark before, but looking carefully now he saw that they were bound and gagged. And that several had blood smeared across their faces.
“Two different patrols have found us already, but we managed to subdue them without any gunfire. Their people will realize that their agents consistently disappear from a single location, but we should be able to make our move before that happens.”
Someone else walked up to them from some dark corner of the room. “Hey guys.”
Luke couldn’t see her face, but he recognized the voice. “Naomi! You’re all right!”
“‘Course,” she scoffed. “Those guys are idiots. I took down three of them and jumped out the window when they were clearing out the hotel.”
Tony stared at her. “Naomi, you live on the third floor.”
“Fine, I was walking back from the kitchens and ran when I saw what was going on. Happy?”
“A touching reunion, but perhaps we should remain focused on the task at hand,” Simmons broke in. Luke had forgotten how pompous he could be.
“I don’t expect you to come up with a solution yourselves, but to keep you apprised of the situation, there is currently a truck laden with explosives on its way to Crater. If it arrives, they will open the vault and our position will become even more precarious than it already is.”
“They don’t need to come up with a solution,” Naomi said. “I already have the perfect plan!”
The older guard rounded on her. “No, girl! It’s moronic, you’ll be captured and we’ll lose some of the few personnel we still have!”
“Why? It’s not like they have a uniform, and those guys,” Naomi waved at the prisoners, “already said they’re from all different settlements! It’ll work!”
“I will not send my men out to die or be captured. If you wish to go, you’re going alone.”
“No she isn’t,” Abby said, perfectly calm. “I’ll go with you, Naomi. The plan seems sound.” She didn’t look at Simmons, but Luke felt like he could sense her glare.
“I’m going too,” Tony said. “As long as we’re doing something against these guys.”
Simmons looked at him, wounded. “You’re smarter than this, Tony. We’ll get Tom and everyone else out, but going out with these…people won’t aid in accomplishing that goal.”
“I think it will. I’m gonna make these assholes regret coming into this settlement.”
The old guard looked like he was about to argue further, but Abby cut in.
“Fine, but try to stay quiet and blend in. Don’t glare at everyone we pass.”
“None of you will be able to blend in,” Simmons said, turning to her angrily. “You don’t know anything about these people. You’re walking to your deaths.”
“And if we don’t, everyone here will die anyway,” Abby shot back. “It will just be a slower demise.”
Simmons threw up his hands. “What are you even going to do if you manage to get your hands on this truck? A vehicle packed with explosives isn’t the most inconspicuous form of transport.”
“We’ll figure that out on the way,” Naomi said. “Maybe we’ll just drive it into the canyon or something, anything’s fine as long as they can’t use it.”
“Idiotic.” Simmons shook his head. “Fine, go. Just don’t lead them back here. In the meantime, we shall think of a real plan to get our town back.”
“All right, then.” Abby turned to Luke. “Try not to worry too much while we’re gone.”
“We’ll be back before you know it,” Naomi chimed in. Tony nodded.
“Wait,” Luke said. “I’m going too.”
Abby hesitated. Naomi spoke before she did. “I don’t know if that’s a great idea, Luke.”
“Why not?” he demanded. “I’ve done dangerous shit before.” Once again, something in him rejected the idea of being left behind. Waiting without anything to do would be far worse.
The other three exchanged glances. Simmons wore a slight smile, barely visible in the gloom.
“You get—this look, sometimes, when you’re nervous,” Naomi said hesitantly. “It might give us away if we have to talk to anyone.”
“If Tony can manage it, I’ll be fine.” Luke protested. A look? He hadn’t even realized it.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Tony said heatedly, but Abby held up her hand and spoke over him.
“It’s really better if you stay here. It’s safer, and I’m sure there will be plenty you can do to help before the day is done.”
A thought occurred to Luke to justify his presence. “Do any of you even know how to drive?”
Tony, Abby, and Naomi were silent. Simmons barked a quiet laugh.
“My dad had me drive a bunch of building stuff through the settlement once,” Tony said.
“How fast were you going? Because trust me, it takes some practice if you’re not going ten miles an hour.”
“Would you be able to do it?” Abby asked.
“I drove pretty much every day for two years before I got here. I think I’d have a better chance than any of you, honestly.”
There was another pause. “Fine,” Abby said eventually. “But please try to stay calm while we’re among them. And do not have a panic attack.”
“I won’t.” It struck him as a singularly useless thing to say, as if he had any control over the episodes, but Luke thought he would be fine regardless.
“All right, let’s get going then,” Naomi said. “Take it easy, old man.”
“Wait,” Simmons said, holding up a hand. They stopped and turned back to him. “One second.”
He walked to the candles in the back of the room and spoke to another guard.
“We need to hurry,” Abby said, her eyes locked on his form. “We don’t have time for this.”
A few moments later, Simmons returned to them, holding something in his hand.
“If you’re going, you might as well take this.” He held out a gun, a dark gray pistol of some kind. Not for the first time, Luke regretted never getting into guns in his own world.
“There are only two bullets in the magazine, so it won’t be of much aid here,” he said as Tony took the weapon. He looked around, daring someone else to suggest they should take it, and gripped the handle tightly.
“Be careful out there,” Simmons said, and they departed the restaurant.
Luke blinked when he stepped back out into the sunlight, although he couldn’t have been in the darkness for more than a few minutes. They strode out to the street after a quick warning by Abby to walk as if they owned every stone they stepped upon. Rather than passing by the attackers posted in front of the vault, they chose to take a detour in order to limit the number of people with whom they came into contact. As a result, they didn’t encounter anyone else until they neared the settlement entrance. When they did, however, it was like they crossed an invisible threshold. One block was deserted, abandoned, and the next held a flurry of activity from a dozen different smaller groups. It was clear these were all invaders; the average age was far below that of Crater and Luke could see a dozen guns or more at a glance.
Whoever was leading the them did have the foresight to establish a perimeter, however. As they approached the border of the makeshift camp, Luke saw a group of six or so guards that watched everyone going in or out, though they didn’t stop anyone that he could see.
They didn’t slow as they approached the checkpoint as that would have only served to make them more conspicuous. There were a fair number of groups moving through, from several pairs all the way to a squad of a dozen people that trotted out toward the rest of the settlement, and theoretically there was nothing that Luke could see that made their group stand out from any of the others. That didn’t stop his heart from pounding or his palms from sweating, but he endeavored to school his face into neutrality. Next to him, Naomi looked more or less at ease and Abby might as well have been walking through an empty meadow for all the concern she showed. Tony’s hand hovered near the gun in his waistband and his eyes occasionally darted around the area, but Luke hoped his demeanor could pass for paranoia rather than ill-controlled anger.
The guards barely glanced at them as they passed through. Once they were on the other side of the checkpoint, Luke released a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. It was lucky that no one had been looking at him closely.
“There’s so fucking many of them,” Tony muttered as they scanned the street. Luke was forced to agree; there had to be near a hundred just in their area, and who knew how many more patrolling around the settlement. He suspected that Sandy had underestimated their numbers by a good amount.
“Shut up,” Abby said quietly. “Don’t talk until we’re out of the settlement.”
They had agreed that their best chance was to intercept the truck bringing the explosives before it got inside of Crater. Hopefully it hadn’t arrived yet, or all their efforts would be for nothing.
“Just walk out like we’re supposed to be there,” she said, and walked on, following her own advice.
Near the road that allowed entry into the settlement, Luke saw a group of a different kind. Ten or twelve men and women sat on the ground with their hands and legs tied with lengths of rope. Most of them were elderly, and while he didn’t recognize anyone, it was clear that they were prisoners from Crater. Three or four armed guards stood next to them, hands on their weapons.
“That isn’t nearly enough to be everyone they’ve captured,” he said quietly.
“Stop,” Abby said out of the side of her mouth. “Don’t look over there. If one of them recognizes us, we die.”
Luke turned away and saw Tony’s knuckle go white holding the grip of the gun at his side. Thankfully, no one paid any more attention to them on the way to the gate than they had when they walked in . Luke wasn’t sure what they were all doing, but it seemed to involve a lot of reports and sorting of guns and other goods. Men and women barked orders at the various crews, with nothing to differentiate them from the grunts as far as Luke could see. For all that, it seemed like a fairly organized encampment, with few people hanging around doing nothing.
The entrance to the settlement was marked by a pair of makeshift guard booths, stone buildings that looked like they’d been built from scratch. Slits ran through the middle, foot-wide gaps in the masonry that allowed the guards inside to see outside and shoot while still providing cover if necessary. The gray material traded by the Salesman could be seen lining the walls inside, presumably holding the odd architectural structure together. The invaders had manned these outposts with their own soldiers, and no one was going in or out. Cool gazes met them as they approached the checkpoint, and Luke’s hackles raised at the attention. It was far more difficult to keep his nervousness off his face when he knew he was being studied.
Abby marched them up to the exit as if nothing was amiss. She didn’t even acknowledge the guards until one of them called out.
“Hold on, there.”
He stayed in the structure, speaking to them through the slit while the guard on the other side ambled over from her own booth. Neither seemed particularly concerned, but they were watching the four of them intently.
“Why’re you trying to leave?” the one in the booth asked. “Plenty of town left to search, I’m sure.” He was a heavy-set man, one of the few Luke had seen since coming to this world. Sweat covered his brow, and his beady eyes looked out at them from under bushy eyebrows.
“We have business outside,” Abby said dismissively, and started to walk forward. The woman grabbed her arm, giving her a more intense stare. She was short and muscular, with hair swept back into a ponytail.
“What exactly would that be, then?” she asked quietly. “‘Cause we got orders to keep everyone inside until every last asshole in this place has been rounded up.” She stared at Abby for a long moment.
“Ah, maybe we should let ‘em go, Shar,” the fat man said, clearly uncomfortable with the confrontation.
“Don’t be such a pussy, Evan,” she responded without taking her eyes off of Abby. “We got a job that even you can handle and we’re sure as hell not gonna fuck it up.”
Abby tore her arm out of the woman’s grip with some effort, never breaking her own gaze.
“Well?” the guard asked quietly. “What’s it gonna be? I don’t know who the fuck you are, but you aren’t getting out early without a damn good reason.”
Abby hesitated, still not saying anything. Luke could tell she was racking her brains for an excuse.
“We’re supposed to go help watch the prisoners,” he blurted out and coughed. The woman, Shar, turned toward him.
“On whose authority?”
“Graves,” Abby spat out quickly. Luke breathed a sigh of relief. “You want to go against his word?”
“Graves,” Shar repeated, and made a face as if she were tasting something unpleasant. “That fucker’s been swinging his dick around since we got here. He’s got no right to order anyone anywhere, far as I’m concerned.” Luke’s heart sank.
“Not my goddamn problem,” Abby said in a low voice. “Go take it up with him if you have an issue with it.”
Shar stared at her for a few more seconds…and finally averted her gaze, spitting on the ground.
“Get the hell out of here, sheep-fucker. I’ll be telling Cynthia about this later.”
“Go ahead and tattle to whoever you want,” Abby said. “Makes no difference to me.”
Shar snarled wordlessly and walked back to her post. As they passed by the booths, Luke saw Tony turn to give the woman’s back a long, cool gaze.
They left the settlement in silence, not daring to speak until they made it a fair distance from the entrance.
“Jesus,” Naomi exploded a half-mile or so away. “I thought she was gonna put a bullet in us right there.”
“I was a touch worried as well,” Abby admitted. “Well done with that excuse, Luke. How did you know they took everyone out of the settlement?”
“There’s not that many of them at their encampment, it’s the only thing that makes sense.” He shrugged self-consciously. “I don’t know many other places you can stash twenty-five hundred people.”
“I wonder where they all are,” Naomi said, glancing around. They were walking down the road, and could see no sign of other people anywhere.
“I don’t know. We could try to find them once we have the truck, but I’m sure they’ll be well-guarded.”
“Let’s focus on one thing at a time,” Naomi said. “If we don’t stop this truck, we’re fucked anyway.”
The other three nodded, and they kept walking in the direction that they hoped would lead them to the vehicle.
Perhaps fifteen minutes later, Naomi stopped. “Do you hear that?”
Luke listened over the sound of the breeze and indeed heard a faint rumbling he recognized as an engine. The road curved off to the left a half mile down the road and their view was blocked by a rock formation, but the noise was growing steadily louder.
“Wait, what the hell do we do?” Tony asked suddenly.
“Wave it down, get it to stop,” Abby said. “Then we force the driver out of the cab. Keep your gun ready.”
He nodded and they waited for the truck to round the corner.
Luke’s eyes widened when he finally caught sight of it. The thing was going at least eighty, getting closer to them every second. He, Abby, and Naomi dove out of the way, but Tony stood with one fist clenched, still waving at the truck with the other hand.
“Tony, MOVE!” Luke yelled, but the other boy didn’t react.
Perhaps a hundred feet away, the truck finally started to slow down. The brakes squealed, and it swerved past Tony with less than a foot between them. Fifty feet down the road, it finally came to a stop. A tattered blue tarp was tied over the back, but the bed was clearly loaded down with something. Luke’s eyebrows raised. There had to be a lot of explosives back there.
“What the fuck do you want? I’m almost there.” A voice drifted out from the truck. The man inside wasn’t getting out, but waiting for them to come to him. Abby dusted herself off and trod down the road, trailed by the other three.
“Let me talk to him,” she said quietly as they neared the truck.
Luke and Naomi nodded quickly, but Tony took a little longer to give his assent. Abby gave him a long look before walking to the driver window.
The man inside was old, probably nearing Carver’s age. He had a bushy grey beard but the hair on top of his head was thin and stringy. He looked at them suspiciously.
“Why the hell are you out here? I gotta get this stuff into that shithole ASAP.”
“Graves sent us,” Abby said. “Apparently he got word there’s something wrong with the explosives. This girl’s a demo specialist, we’re here to see if any of it’s salvageable.”
She slapped Naomi on the shoulder. The dark-skinned girl made a show of peering toward the back of the truck bed.
The driver squinted at her. “Graves, huh? How the hell would he know anything?”
Abby shrugged. “Like he’d tell us that. You know how it is.”
“Right.” He paused for a long moment, staring at each of them in turn. “Awfully young to be a demo expert. Most of them I know are the ones who were in the army or some shit back in the day.”
“I’ve always been interested in stuff that goes boom,” Naomi said. “We gotta hurry up before those assholes try to get smart with us. I’m gonna take a look back there, ok?”
She walked away from the door casually.
“Hmm. Hold on, girl. You’re Graves’ people, right? What settlement are you from, again?”
Abby paused a moment before responding. “This kind of-”
An ear-shattering BANG rang out right next to Luke. The truck driver fell back in the seat, his brains splattered against the shattered remains of the passenger window. Luke looked over to see Tony’s hand extended, the revolver held in his grip.
He looked over at Abby calmly. “So what was the plan for the truck again?”