Author Note: To make up for not posting last week, this chapter is a little longer than the others. I hope you enjoy.
Everyone tromped on the next several hours in silence. No one was saying it, but we were all thinking the same thing. Whatever the most recent rumble had been, if it was the Plax it was something new and very worrisome. We had come to another fairly large opening and several of us were sitting around in silence. An agonizing scream came from a man in the cavern we had just exited. Sam, Max and I were on our feet and running in the blink of an eye.
I was the first to reach the dark skinned man but as that was stooping to touch him Max screamed out at me, “Don’t touch him!”
The man was thrashing about having some sort of seizure. His eyes were rolled back in his head and a yellowish foam was coming from his mouth.
“What happened?” Max barked at a young wide-eyed woman nearby. She pointed to a wet wall not far from us.
“What can we do?” I was frantic to help the man. His convulsing seemed to be slowing.
“It’s already too late.”
We stood in silence as the man’s body shook violently one last time and collapsed lifeless. The wide-eyed woman let out a soft whimper.
“Is there anyone behind you?” Max was all business.
“A few,” the woman said in barely a whisper.
“Stand guard and make sure no one else touches the wall.”
I felt like we needed to do something for this poor woman but Sam lightly tugged my arm. “We need to keep moving. People are tired and starting to let their guard down.”
“But… the man?” I was having trouble finding words.
“He’s gone.” There was a coldness in Sam’s voice I had not heard before. “We must get the others to safety.”
“But the body?”
Sam stopped and turned to me, her headlamp blinding me for a moment.
“You really don’t remember, do you? The body is contaminated. If we touch him, we risk getting poisoned ourselves.”
I turned and looked down at the now lifeless body. I felt something should at least be said about his passing.
Menton came running up just then. “Stand back,” she ordered.
The wide-eyed woman hesitated for a moment and Menton brusquely pushed her away from the body. She held a small object that I thought at first was a flashlight. She pushed a button and bright light did come out illuminating the man on the ground. His entire body glowed for a moment and disintegrated into an outline of ash. The woman cried out in grief.
“We must keep moving. It is not far.” Menton was a true soldier.
The wide-eyed woman glanced at the wet wall and then at the cavern behind us. Menton was clearly moved though her body stayed rigid and at attention.
“I will stand guard,” Menton told the woman. “Sam, take her with you.”
It was another 3 hours of the worst terrain we had seen. One area was so confined that we have slither through on our stomachs pushing our packs in front of us. Not much farther from there we came across the old bunker door. I was amazed that we had managed to get all of that equipment through small openings.
The new bunker was much older than the one we had left. Much older and much less comfortable it reminded me of the interior of an old submarine. All of the hatches had a large lip at the bottom meaning we had to carry all of the equipment over each door opening. Max chose one of the larger rooms to turn into a medical bay and started setting up and equipment.
Sam and I spent some time exploring the bunker. We found a large area that we designated as the barracks and another slightly smaller area that we decided would be the mess hall. The bunker had been used in many years in most areas we went to the left footprints in the dust on the floor. Some of the civilians set about trying to make the place a little more homey. Some others started cleaning just to keep their minds off the things we have been through.
At the end of a long corridor we came across another bunker door that looked like it might be an exit. The door was covered in rust and frozen in place. A team was working on opening it but did not seem to be making any progress.
“We could cut it open,” one of the men suggested.
“Probably not a good idea,” Sam told him. “We have no idea what might be on the other side of that door. There may be a reason it can’t be opened. Station guards and carry on.”
The team nodded. Two of them turned their backs to the door to stand guard and the rest of the team went back up the corridor to explore further areas.
They’re really wasn’t a whole lot more to explore. One by one people started to find their way to the mess hall and sat around and small quiet groups. Menton came in and sat down not far from where Sam and I were sitting. Seeing her again brought an idea into my head.
“Menton, you knew Peadar well, right?”
A look of pain washed briefly across her face.
“Very well, sir,” she answered.
“Tell me about him. There has to be a way to reach him again.”
“You probably knew him better, sir. You and his brother were very close.”
“Yeah, unfortunately I don’t remember any of that.”
Menton started to tell me what she knew. She tried hard to be the soldier giving a status report, but a quiver in her voice occasionally gave away the depth of emotion she felt toward Peadar.
Peadar and Mical were orphans. They were in their early teens when the Plax arrived. Their parents had been killed in the first Plax attack. Both were already strong and athletic. Like so many other orphans, the Hyatt took an interest in them. The Hyatt enticed orphans with promises of food and shelter, but then quickly begin to work on modifying them into the soldiers they wanted them to be.
I had known them before their parents had died but lost touch with them after they were taken by the Hyatt. Later I had run into Mical while he was on patrol in the city center. He was so augmented that I did not even recognize him at first, but he saw me and cornered me away from the crowd. He told me that their augmentation wasn’t complete and that he was afraid of what it would mean for him and Peadar when it was. He already felt like he was losing himself.
Already the leader, I had set out a plan to free Peadar and Mical from the Hyatt. Another Plax attack gave us opportunity and I was able to whisk them away in the heat of battle. I hid them in the basement of a nearby abandoned house for several months as they learned to fight their programming and become members of the general populace again.
Both boys had loved football. I was surprised I remembered football. Visions of professional teams on vid screens flashed through my head. Professional sports had been one of the first things to go after the arrival of the Plax. All able-bodied and athletic people were quickly conscripted to be soldiers, first by the government and then by the factions as they took control.
Menton and Peadar had never been romantically involved officially, but it was easy to see on her face how much she cared for him.
Since being freed from the Hyatt, Peadar had always felt deeply indebted to me and put my safety first. He had died when a grenade had landed nearby. In an instant, he had scooped me up and thrown me free of the blast radius. No one ever found a body so it was believed he had died in the explosion.
Menton had given me a fair amount to work with. I was optimistic that if I ended up back in the compound that I would now have something that would help me to reach Paul/Peadar. I did not want to go back, but if I did it would help to have an ally.
I did not intend to, but at some point I must have closed my eyes and fallen asleep. When I next opened them I was back in the compound. It was another beautiful sunny day. I jumped out of bed and took a hot shower. Even if it wasn’t real, the hot water felt amazing. I couldn’t help but think of the man I had just seen die in the caves for accidently touching poisoned water. I shook involuntarily and goose bumps come up all over my body. Even in the hot stream from the shower, the chill of the vision ran through me.
I was drying myself off when I heard the morning meal bells. Vann and his henchmen were standing outside the entrance to the dining area.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” I nodded as I walked past.
“Someone seems happy.” Vann was smiling but I still felt a twinge of contempt in his voice.
“I guess I am. It is strawberry waffle day,” I told him.
I savored every bite of my breakfast. For the first time I ate everything that I was offered, every strawberry, every bit of scrambled eggs, every sliver of bacon. If this is a simulation, I thought to myself, it is an amazing one.
I didn’t know how much time I was going to have this trip, so after breakfast I made my way to the barns where Paul worked. No one was at the barns. To wait I leaned against the wall near the entrance that I thought Paul would use.
A few minutes I noticed Paul walking towards me, leading a group of six other men. When the men caught sight of me the redispersed so that Paul was in the middle of the group. I continued looking off into the distance even when they got close to me. The three closest my each kept an eye on me, the last stopping after Paul and the other five were well into the barn.
He smiled but there was no doubt he was angry about seeing me. “Brother, shouldn’t you be at the vineyards?” he asked me.
I turned and locked eyes with him. There was something foreign in those eyes, but I could not decide what. He continued to smile and I only looked at him. After a few minutes he gave up and turned and went into the barn without another word.
I decided to keep my post. No one was going to force me to work so there was no need to go busy myself in the imaginary vineyards. At least now I finally had an answer as to why the work was unending even though the vineyard was relatively small.
The sun was unusually hot compared to my days so far in the compound, but I stood my ground hoping to be given a chance to get close to Paul. When the noon meal bells rang I was almost to the point of giving up to go explore more of the compound. The large oak was on the other side of the barns so I did not expect anyone to come back out of the door where I was stationed. To my surprise, the man who had spoke to me that morning came out with Paul close behind him. I blurted out, “Football!” before the man noticed I was still there.
His attempt at smiling was less sincere as he turned to me.
“Friend, are you lost?” he asked me.
Paul stopped too to watch the interchange, confused as to the tone the man was using on me.
“Football,” I said again. “Football. Football. Football.”
“I don’t understand what you are saying,” the man came closer.
Something in Paul’s face changed and I knew I was reaching some part of him.
“Mical. Football. Menton.” I tried to use single words that might trigger something in Paul. He didn’t respond but I noticed the way he was blinking changed. He started blinking three times in quick secession then he would pause and blink three times again.
I started to open my mouth again, but Vann and the two white tigers appeared from seemingly no where to my right. I jumped at the sight of the tigers.
“Good day, brothers,” Vann smiled to the three of us. “Isn’t it time for noon meal?” His question was more of an order than a question. The man and Paul went back into the barn leaving me alone with Vann and the tigers.
“Something is different today,” Vann continued surveying me. “Are you felling all right?”
I glared back at him keeping one eye fixed on the tigers. They seemed mostly disinterested in me but hung close to Vann’s side.
I noticed black stains on the side of Vann’s shirt and pants. Vann noticed me looking and commented, “Ah, yes, I had a minor mishap earlier. I slipped on the path near my sleeping quarters. I should go and change into clean garments.”
I remembered from my exploring that there was no spot near Vann’s sleeping area that was not either grass or a clear running stream. I had seen that color before. Near the entrance to the bunker there was a pool of something that resembled used motor oil. A plan began to form in my mind.
Still apprehensive, I decided to head back to the rooming house, making my way quickly past the tigers. They did not pay me any attention, but I still glanced frequently over my shoulder as I walked back to the house.
Inside the house I went to the room where clean shirts and pants were kept. I found a set that would fit me and another that I thought would be big enough for Paul. I pondered his size for a moment and then put the second set back and took the largest set I could find. The rooming house was empty as was the area outside. There was no need to conceal the extra garments from anyone.
I made my way to the pool of black liquid. To the touch it was a little thinner than oil but smelled much worse. I dipped a sleeve of one of the shirts into the liquid. Immediately it turned black. A portion of the stream ran nearby so I went and tried to wash the shirt in the water. Much to my joy, the black seemed to be permanent. Whatever it was it would be the perfect dye.
Back at the black pool I carefully put all of the garments into the liquid. A small splash cast some of the liquid onto my hand. It stained my skin just as quickly. It was a small spot so hopefully wouldn’t be noticed. I broke a branch from a nearby tree and used it to stir the clothes in the liquid. Then I used it to carry each garment one by one to rinse in the stream. I had perfectly colored black garments that would help me with my nighttime adventures.
That night after first rain I changed into my new black outfit and ran off to the barn to the spot where Paul and I had met to talk. There was a crate against the back wall that had clearly not been moved for some time. I lifted it and hid Paul’s clothing underneath.
Paul did not show up that night. I waited until second rain before heading back to my room. There really weren’t any hiding places in my room for my new clothing. I wasn’t sure if my room was ever inspected but someone evidently cleaned it because there was never a speck of dust to be found.
I noticed a section of carpet was loose in the corner. I pulled it up and carefully flattened the linen garments beneath it. The carpet was now slightly raised but not so much as to be readily noticeable. I grabbed one of the chairs and put it over the clothing. The bump in the carpeting was safely hid underneath the chair.