1.25

“What the fuck, Tony?”

Naomi was the first to speak as she turned away from the grisly scene inside the truck.  Tony wore an unabashed expression.

“He was already suspicious.  All he had to do was hit the gas and we’d be fucked.  I solved the problem.”

Abby looked at him for a long time without speaking.  Luke stared at what remained of the truck driver’s head.  Even in the middle of a battle, the casual execution had been disturbing.

“What’s done is done,” Abby said finally.  “We still have to hurry.  If we wait too long they might start looking for the truck.”

“What do we do with it now, then?” Naomi asked.  “Drive it into the canyon?”

“We could…” Abby replied, drawing out the word thoughtfully.  She glanced back in the direction of Crater.

“We’re never getting back in there on foot,” Luke said, wrenching his thoughts away from the dead man in the truck.  “They were already suspicious of us.  Can’t imagine that would go away if we tried to come back in less than an hour later.”

“Right.  And I would say that we are in no position to forgo the advantage these explosives offer.”

Tony turned to the pair of them.  “So you’d rather drive this thing through a camp with a hundred armed gunmen?” 

Luke and Abby glanced at each other.  He shrugged and nodded at Tony.  “More or less.”

“Right.  Someone want to help me with this, then?” Luke had expected further complaints, but Tony just opened the driver door and started pulling at the corpse behind the wheel.

He walked up beside the other boy, grabbed the cleanest spot he could find on the dead man’s shirt and pulled him to the ground.  The corpse fell to the earth with a sickening smack.  He stared at the lifeless body.

“Do we bury him, or…?”

Tony looked at him incredulously.  “Yeah, sure.  Let’s waste a few hours giving this motherfucker a proper send off while his friends keep capturing and killing people in the settlement.”

“All right!  Sorry, I’ve just never seen a dead body before.”  The Empty, with their lifeless eyes, were in a whole different class as far as he was concerned.  “You’re right, that makes no sense.”

“If we’re lucky, this won’t be the last corpse you see today.  It’s gonna take a lot more killing to get these guys out of Crater.”

Luke stared at Tony.  He seemed almost like another person since Crater had been attacked.  He had never been this ruthless when they were in danger during the caravan trip.  Naomi interrupted before he could think of how to respond.  “At least throw him in the bushes or something so we’re not leaving a goddamn body in the middle of the road.”

She and Abby were standing on the back tires of the truck looking under the tarp.  “Jesus, that’s a lot of hardware.  Where the hell are we gonna put it?”

“I don’t know.  If we can get past their base without raising the alarm, we can park the truck somewhere, but…”  Abby stared at the blood covering the passenger side of the cab.  “I don’t feel optimistic about the possibility.”

Luke and Tony did as Naomi suggested and tossed the body into a shrub by the roadside.  Though it was still fairly obvious if anyone was actively searching the area, Luke hoped a casual observer might pass by without noticing the corpse.

“Well, Luke, are you ready?” Abby asked once they were done.  Luke glanced inside the truck.

“Nobody brought any bleach with them, did they?”

He didn’t wait for the others to shake their heads before sighing.  “Is it even worth it to stop at the gate?”

“I doubt it,” Naomi said.  “Better to go in at top speed, just ram right through.”

“Shockingly, I’m in agreement with Naomi,” Abby said drily.  “The element of surprise gives us the best chance.”

“There’s no other road that leads into Crater?” Luke asked.  She shook her head.

“The Committee made it that way deliberately.  The other roads were broken up by construction crews, and there are walls around the whole thing except at the dam and the entrance.  Even if we could smash through a wall, I don’t think we want to go off-roading in this thing, considering what we have in the back.”

Resigned, Luke got up into the driver’s seat.  He stayed near the edge, where the least amount of blood had landed.  The passenger window and most of the right side of the windshield were smeared red, obstructing his view.  “Where will you guys be?”

“We’ll ride in the back,” Naomi said immediately.  “There should be enough room.  Try not to hit any bumps, I have no idea how volatile this stuff is.”

“Fine.”  Luke waited for them to load up and turned the keys, still in the ignition. 

The truck roared to life without issue, and he carefully started down the highway, swerving around the numerous potholes in the old road.  He was terrified that every minor bump would trigger an explosion.

“Pick it the fuck up, Luke.  We don’t have all day!”  Tony’s voice floated up to him from the open window.

“Don’t blame we when we blow up,” Luke muttered, but he started to speed up.  Encouraged by the fact that he was still alive, he continued to accelerate until he was nearly up to the same speed as the original driver when they first saw him.  He’d forgotten how great it was to drive instead of walk.  He watched the terrain it had taken them fifteen minutes to walk through disappear in less than a minute.

As the entrance to Crater materialized in the distance, he started to tense up once again.  It was one thing to make a plan to burst through a street filled with dozens or hundreds of armed enemies, but the approaching reality quickly drained his bravado.  Abby, Tony, and Naomi were hidden under the tarp, so he would be the only visible target to shoot at.  He was relying entirely on surprise and the speed of the truck to get through the checkpoint.

Luckily, there were no gates to block off the road inside, so Luke took a deep breath and slammed the pedal to the floor of the truck.  The engine roared and he accelerated even faster, blowing past the gates in an instant.  He couldn’t see either of the guards who had talked to them before, but he imagined the look on the suspicious woman’s face and gave a wild laugh.  There was a euphoria in what he was doing, an adrenaline high that started to drown out his anxiety.  The blurry forms of the invaders flew by too fast to count, and by the time he was a block away he let out a yell, convinced that he’d gotten through them without a scratch.

Then the bullets started flying.

Some of the invaders must have been incredibly quick on the draw, as it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds before they started shooting.  Even over the wind and engine, Luke heard the report of gunfire through the open window.  He wasn’t sure if the first few bullets hit, but as they kept firing, damage started to appear on the truck.  With a crash, a whistling hole appeared in both the windshield and rear window, each one surrounded by a spiderweb of cracks.  Luke ducked down as far as he dared, straining to see where he was going.  A few more shots cut the air, but he himself remained unharmed.

He tried to find a road to turn down to cut off their line of sight, but between his increasingly obscured forward view and the truck’s high speed, every cross-street passed him by before he could prepare to make the turn.  Finally, after a half-minute passed without any sign of gunfire, Luke slowed down and hoped that they’d made it far enough that they were out of range.

His hopes were dashed a moment later as he heard a thumping sound and the steering wheel tried to jump out of his grip.  The truck slowed even further, and he had to fight to stop it from veering into a building.  After a few tense moments, he finally saw a cross road in time to make the turn, and laboriously cranked the wheel to the right.  A few hundred feet down the new road, he let the truck slow to a stop and wiped the sweat from his forehead, breathing heavily.

“Don’t stop!” Abby said, peeking out from under the tarp.  “They’re probably already running down this way!”

“Where am I supposed to go?” Luke said.  “I’m pretty sure they hit a tire, we’ll be driving on a rim before long.”

“Then that’s what we’ll have to do,” she replied grimly.  “They’ll get the truck—and us—if we can’t lose them in the settlement.”

“Ok, but where do we go?  You know this place better than I do.”

“Take a left ahead,” Abby said.

Going as fast as he dared while trying to keep control of the bucking truck, Luke followed Abby’s instructions to forge a path through the maze of Crater’s streets.  She had him circle blocks, back out of random turns, and take lengthy detours to confuse anyone following them.  Once they gained a little more ground he stopped to pop out the windshield with his feet, a difficult task that he only managed by bracing against the driver’s seat.  His visibility improved greatly once it was gone, to his relief.  He didn’t anticipate the bugs, however, and Luke was splattered at least twice while they tried to lose their pursuers.

At some point, the rubber on the flat tire fell off entirely and left them driving on the rim.  While the sound was horrible, and Luke worried that it would draw the attention of their enemies, it actually made driving a little bit easier without the flat rubber flopping around on the ground.  He still traveled far slower than he did before, but he was confident that they were outpacing anyone following them on foot.

The most difficult moment came when they turned down a street and saw a patrol of invaders searching the nearby buildings.  Luke stayed on a steady course, but he wasn’t moving nearly fast enough to run them down, and they again had to duck under several shots before turning a corner and getting away.

Finally, Abby directed him to turn down an inconspicuous alley and turn off the truck.

“I think we’ve gone far enough.  Even if anyone meets up with that patrol, it should be difficult to determine where we went.”

Luke nodded his agreement, and he hopped out of the cab to meet the other three.  “What now?”

“I think we have to go find Simmons’ group,” Abby said reluctantly.  “None of us know how to use the materials we took.  Hopefully one of the guards over there does.”

“We gotta hurry, then,” Naomi said.  She knelt by the mouth of the alley, touching a black trail on the ground.  “Looks like we left a trail.”

“If we’re lucky, the marks won’t stand out too much,” Abby said, “but you’re right.  We should hurry.”

“Yeah.  Those assholes could have already broken in and grabbed the Committee,” Tony said.    “We gotta move.” 

 Though Luke didn’t recognize the area where they’d parked, it was relatively close to the restaurant where Simmons and the others had been holed up.  When Abby knocked, the door was answered quickly by the same guard as before.

“You’re back.  Good, come on.”  The inside was still dark, but Luke thought there were more people inside than there had been last time.  The guards led them to Simmons, who was speaking in a low tone with several others near the back.

“Did you stop the bomb delivery?” he asked, without preamble.

“We did one better,” Naomi said cheerfully, “we stole the whole damn truck!”

“What?” the old guard looked alarmed.  “They must be searching for it already!  Why would you bring it back into the settlement?”

“To give a chance of winning this fight,” Abby said, staring at him.  “You sure you can’t think of any uses for a truck full of explosives?”

Simmons sighed, blowing his white mustache up toward his nose.  “True enough, I suppose.  I hope you hid it well.  We’ve found more residents who slipped through the cracks and made contact with another group of holdouts, but we’re still dangerously outnumbered and outgunned.”

“We can use it to blow a hole in their defenses and get to the Committee,” Tony said eagerly.  “They won’t know what hit ‘em!”

“Right, or we can use them for something useful,” Simmons said bluntly.  “Think, Tony!.  I know you’re worried about Tom, but it doesn’t matter if we link back up with them if we get shot in the head two minutes later.  We’ll have to determine exactly what the material is to find the best use for it.  Owen!”

He called out to another guard, ignoring Tony’s furious look.

“It’s a good plan,” the boy insisted.  “They’ve gotta have a ton of people over there.  If we blow them up, that’ll be like half of them gone in one shot.”

“Wishful thinking,” Simmons shook his head.  “Don’t be stupid.  The bulk of their numbers are likely either still patrolling for residents or guarding prisoners.  If they had dedicated an army toward keeping the Committee in check, they would have already been able to break in.”

He turned to the other guard.  “We’re leaving.  I need you to ascertain the condition of some munitions.  Get your gun.”

A glint in the man’s eye when the bombs were mentioned.  “I’ve always got my gun.  Let’s blow these fuckers up.”

“Reconnaissance only right now.  You’ll get your chance, but we have to know what we’re dealing with.  You able to guide us back over there, girl?”

His question was directed at Abby, who nodded.

“Good.  Rest of you stay here, we’ll be back soon.  With a plan.”

***

“What if they’re already dead?” Tony demanded.  “We have to get over there as soon as we can.”

Luke forced himself not to sigh.  The other boy had been pacing since Simmons, Owen, and Abby left, and complaining about Simmons’ disapproval of his plan the entire time.

“You heard what Simmons said.  If they’re still just waiting around Sarah’s office, they’re probably waiting until they’ve taken the rest of the settlement to commit more people.  We have time.”  He could tell that Tony understood his logic, but logic wasn’t what he wanted right at that moment.

“Fuck this.  Fuck everything.” Tony looked like he was about to yell, but contained himself at the last moment.

“I wonder where they holed everyone else up,” Naomi said.  To Luke’s surprise, she had been sitting more or less quietly since the others left, contrary to her normally hyper nature.  “I didn’t see any sign of them when we left the settlement.”

“Somewhere away from the road, I guess,” Luke shrugged.  “We’re not in any position to fight our way outside yet though, let alone free everyone who’s been captured.”

At that moment, the door opened once again, allowing sunlight to flood in and burn Luke’s eyes.  He held up his arm and saw the group return, led by Simmons.

“All right, I think we have a chance to turn this back into a battle rather than a massacre,”  He rubbed his hands together.  Owen wore a manic smile, and even Abby seemed happier than when they’d left.

“What is it then?” Tony demanded.  “What’s this great plan you’ve got?”

Simmons looked at him and smiled, an expression Luke had rarely seen on his face.   “We’re going to get our guns back.”


“How long does it take to rig up some goddamn bombs?  It’s what they’re made for!”

A guard grumbled from one end of the street.  They had a group posted at both sides, on the lookout for any patrolling invaders.  Owen knelt with a backpack full of demolitions near the center of the street, working quickly to wire them together.

“Sure, any idiot could make them blow up,” he said cheerfully.  “The trick’s in making sure it happens at the right time.”  Luke was starting to wonder if the man was demented.  The worse their situation, the happier he seemed to be.  Apparently he knew his way around a bomb, however, so he let his concerns lie unvoiced.

A few minutes later the man spoke again.  “Ok, we’re all set here.  I can make this shit go up any time.”

“Good,” Simmons said.  “The stairs to the vault are off to the right from here, past the offices.  Watch my back while I open it up once we’re inside.

There was a group of twenty or so people who had gone on the raid, but only six or seven of them were armed.  They huddled on the far side of the street from where Owen had been setting up, and the man gleefully pressed a button on a small remote in his hand.

An explosion ripped through the silence of the street, and though they’d been out of the blast zone, Luke had difficulty hearing over the ringing of his ears.

“All right, fucking move!” Simmons roared in a tinny voice, and they charged toward the hole in the building made by the explosion.  Inside, a series of cubicles were arranged to the left and right, and a long glass window with a series of stalls stood in front of them.  On the other side, a squad of invaders were looking inside to investigate the sudden noise.

They raised their weapons, and Luke dove to the side along with several others.  His movement had been unnecessary, however, as the bullets slammed into the glass and stayed there, barely cracking the surface.  Cursing, the attackers started moving toward a door set into one stall on the far side of the room.

“Keep moving!” Simmons yelled.  “This way!”

He turned right, and, true to his word, a door stood beyond the largest office with a diagram of a stairway on the front.  Tony, in the rear, barely made it through before the invaders burst through the door on the far side of the room.

Hurrying down the stairs, Luke saw that a metal wall with a circular portal stood at the far side of the room, with a circular combination lock inset in the center.

“Ok, keep them off me,” Simmons said, rushing for the lock.  He started turning it as Luke heard the door above them open and footsteps start down the stairway.  As one of the people without a gun, he crowded toward the back while Tony and the guards took up positions around the bottom of the stairs, weapons raised.

He expected to see the attackers’ feet appear, but they were cautious in their approach.  They fired a few bullets down the stairs, but otherwise waited up above.  Luke frowned at the behavior..

“Shit,” he said after a moment.  “They’re waiting for us to go back up.  Even if we get the guns out, they’ll be able to hit us pretty easily.  Is there any other way out of here?”  He directed his question toward Abby, but Simmons answered first, still turning the combination lock.

“There’s not.  We return the way we came or not all.”

“Then we’re fucked,” Tony grunted, training his gun on the empty stairwell.  “We gonna draw straws for who gets to go up first?” 

“Patience, Tony.  Ah, there we go,”  A click sounded out from the door, and Simmons pulled it open with a small flourish.  “In we go.  Three of you stay here in case they decide to take their chances.”

Several of the guards nodded and kept their weapons pointed at the stairs.  The rest of them crowded into the vault.  Luke’s eyes widened when he got his first good look around the space.

Racks of guns covered the walls.  Most were handguns of one type or another, but there were a fair number of rifles as well.  Boxes of ammo were stacked around the room, more than he could count.  It was more or less how he imagined any armory from his own world would look, if less organized.  He couldn’t imagine how long it must have taken the combined efforts of everyone in Crater to amass such a haul.  Incongruously, a metal filing cabinet was pushed against the back of the metal vault.  Simmons made a beeline for it.

“Start packing up everything we can carry,” he ordered.  “Two or three rifles, otherwise stick to the handguns and ammo.  We only have so much room.”

Distaste flashed briefly across Abby’s face at the order, but she complied with the rest of them.  Most of the people on the raid had backpacks or bags they’d acquired one place or another, but even so Luke doubted that they’d be able to haul away more than a tenth or so of what was in the vault.

“This is great, but none of it is gonna help us get up those stairs without a bloodbath,” Tony said.  He started shoving guns into his bag, looking toward Simmons.

The mustached guard turned away from the open cabinet, eyebrows raised.  “That is what this is for, my boy.”  In his he clutched a small oblong object.  It wasn’t until he saw the silver handle that Luke understood what he was looking at.  A hand grenade.  They had fucking grenades stored in the vault.

“The hell is that?” Naomi asked, looking puzzled.  Luke supposed without access to movies it wasn’t too obvious what purpose the object had.

“It is the means for our egress,” Simmons said.  Naomi rolled her eyes beside Luke.

The group finished gathering what weapons they could carry and returned to the small room outside of the vault.  Simmons closed the door and ensured it locked once more.

“No movement?” he said once he was finished.  One of the guards who’d stayed outside shook his head.  The immediate obedience they displayed around Simmons unnerved Luke a little.  The old guard must have held a higher rank than he thought.

“Good.  Everyone move out of the way,” he said, holding up the grenade.  The guards obviously knew what it was, because they hurried back, pressing back against the vault door.

“Let’s see how you fuckers like it when you have a real fight,” Simmons said, and pulled out the pin.  He threw the grenade up the stairs and ran back farther in.

“Plug your ears!”  Just as he shouted, an explosion shook the roof above their heads.  Luke only just managed to cover his ears in time, and still the noise left his ears ringing too loudly to hear for the first few seconds.  No one else faired much better, he saw.  Gradually, they regained the ability to function.  

As soon as he was able, Simmons pointed up the stairs and gestured for the guards to storm the invaders’ position.  As the lone member of the team untrained in firearms, Luke took up the rear.  He didn’t hear any gunfire before he reached the top, but the scene that greeted him was grisly all the same.  More than half of the invaders who had been guarding the bank laid bloody and still on the ground, while several others were writhing in pain.  While Luke watched, Simmons calmly walked up to each one that still moved and put a bullet in their heads.  When he was done, he looked at the rest of them with no more emotion than if he’d been tapping them on the head.

“All right.  Chances are more are on the way as we speak.  We need to get back to the restaurant to regroup, and then we can see about killing our way into the Committee.

Tony nodded, a vicious smile spreading across his face.  The rest of the group was more restrained, but there was elation in their demeanor.  Luke understood how they felt, even if he still felt queasy about the way Simmons had executed the people on the ground.  Their situation suddenly seemed a lot less hopeless.

The group left the building quickly, using the same hole they’d used to get in.  The march back to the restaurant was long and silent.  Luke stayed alert for any sign of a patrol, though he figured that the others would likely spot it long before he did.  The moment Simmons killed the men and women in the bank stayed in his mind, replaying over and over.  Even Abby didn’t seem to be bothered by it as Luke was.  He told himself that the old guard just did what had to be done, but the thought did little to dispel his instinctive revulsion.

Once they were back in the restaurant, the group immediately began sorting through their haul.  Luke had grabbed whatever had been nearest to him, but the others had been more discerning in matching ammo to the guns that they took. 

He never learned the final count, but they certainly had far more guns than people after the raid.  The restaurant held around twenty-five able bodied people, including Luke and his friends, and they had made contact with a group that added ten or so to that number.  In short order, everyone had been given a handgun, two for some people, and several backup clips to carry around with them.  Luke reluctantly took one as well, though he wasn’t confident it would be any use in a situation where he was called to use it.  

“It will be necessary to scout out the area before committing any action around Sarah’s office,” Simmons said after the rest of them had gathered around him.  “They’ll know we hit the armory by now.  We don’t want to rush in to find they’ve doubled the guard around that area.”

“Fine, but let’s get fucking moving,” Tony said impatiently.  “I want to take those fuckers down.”

“We will,” Simmons assured him.  “Let’s head out.”

Save for two or three guards left to watch over the elderly, everyone swarmed out of the restaurant and marched toward the street in one large group.  Tony hurried to the front impatiently, and after a moment of hesitation, Naomi, Abby, and Luke followed him.  Sarah’s office was much closer to the dam entrance than the canyonside, so Luke wasn’t too concerned about running into a large group, but he kept an eye out nevertheless.  He saw no one.

Finally, they stopped about a block away from the office.  Luke remembered walking down the street they were on the first night he was brought to Crater.  He wondered how he would have reacted back then if he could see where he would end up.  Probably without too much surprise, he decided.  Even back then, he’d known what a shithole this world could be.

“All right, a small group is going to have to scout out the situation over there.  Any volunteers?”

“I’m going,” Tony said immediately, to no one’s surprise.  Naomi volunteered as well, as did Owen, the guard that enjoyed bombs a little too much.  Considering his lack of any sort of skill at sneaking or using a gun, Luke decided to stay behind.  A few other guards he didn’t know rounded out the group, and Simmons nodded.

“Good.  Find out how many there are and how well they’re armed.  Don’t get caught.”

Tony nodded with the others in the group and they moved off, running around a corner toward the back of the building.  Simmons guided the rest of them down a side street nearby.

“And now we wait,” he said.  “Keep an eye out for patrols.”  Several guards moved to both ends of the street to keep watch.  Luke crouched down with his back to the wall and turned to Abby.

“I’m a little worried about Tony,” he said quietly.

“What do you mean?” Even as she spoke, the girl’s eyes were on one end of the street, alert.

“I don’t know, he’s been kind of…brutal since this stuff started.  Like the way he killed that truck driver.  No hesitation.”

“I was concerned that the method in which he killed him would make our job harder, but he followed his instincts and it worked out in the end.”  She turned toward Luke, staring him in the eye.  “I try to find the most effective solution for every situation, but believe me—if I had the ability, I would kill every last man and woman invading us with my bare hands to save Crater.  Brutality may be exactly what we need right now.” 

Before Luke could think of a way to respond to that, a voice rang out from the alley entrance

“Simmons!  You need to see this.”  Tony was standing by one side of the street, looking at the old guard.

“So fast?” Simmons said, but he walked toward the young man. 

Tony locked eyes with Luke and gestured for him to come as well.  Abby stood with him, and they headed over to the scouting group, all of whom were standing around the alley.  They had been gone for less than ten minutes.

“What’s going on?” Luke asked Naomi in a low voice.  

She smiled.  “You’ll see.”

“You have to see this yourselves,” Tony said.  “Come on.”  He walked back in the direction of the office.  Simmons frowned, but stepped after him.  Luke and Abby exchanged glances before following.

The next street over, Tony started to turn the corner that would take him to the front of Sarah’s office.

“What are you doing?” Simmons hissed.  “They’ll all see you.”

“No they won’t,” Tony replied.  “Look.”

He walked out in full view of anyone standing in front of the building.  Hesitantly, Luke peeked around the corner.  Rather than the full squad he expected to see, a lone figure stood by the entrance to the building.

“Is that Felix?”  he asked no one in particular.  A moment later, the figure confirmed his suspicion by waving and calling out.

“Come on!  There’s not much time.”

Simmons, Abby, and Luke followed Tony toward Felix.  The old guard frowned.

“Where are the invaders?  Did you—”

“No,” Felix said.  “They’re inside.”

“What?  Did they take the Committee already?”

“No,” Felix shook his head.  “They’re parleying.  One of their commanders came up, started yelling about a truce.”

“They come in here, take our people, and now they want a truce?” Tony growled.  “Why haven’t you offed them already?”

Felix gave him a grim look.  “Because we have bigger problems headed our way.  The Empty are congregating on the canyon floor.” 

Previous Chapter

 

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