The train came to a shuddering, violent halt. The three men in train car rolled to their hands and knees. The floor was sloped at a steep angle, which made it almost impossible to stand. They crawled to the door and rolled to the ground.
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Andy and Nyko roared off towards the walled section of the city, weaving down the empty streets between wrecked and abandoned cars. There weren’t many infected, singles and pairs occasionally in view. Nyko was paying specific attention to their surroundings, looking for anything to give him the lay of the land.
The closer they got to the city, the fewer houses they came across that had been ransacked. Half a mile from the wall, there were a few desiccated corpses here and there, sprawled out in the street, rotting where they fell.
A quarter mile from the wall, there were none. He’d expected animals to have moved back into the area. Arizona was home to coyotes, wolves and bears, in addition to the smaller animals that were food to the apex predators. There was no sign of wildlife at all, and given that Phoenix was between two major rivers, that was very odd.
Out near the new Phoenix Station, every single door and window was broken. In closer to the city, there were still locked homes and buildings, left untouched as they had the last time their owners locked the door on their way to work two years ago.
Andy drove them to the base of the wall, and stopped. There was wreckage at various points along the perfect wall, like the builders had run bulldozers in a perfect circle around some important central location. Buildings were cut in half by the wall builders. The sections that would have been on the inside were pushed out in a pile. Roads were dug up where the shining white barricade intersected them. The builders left piles of asphalt in the middle of the street, just feet away from the glimmering wall.
Nyko slapped the bars, signaling Andy to stop. They were cruising along some four lane road that paralleled this section. Andy pulled into a gas station parking lot and stopped the buggy. He didn’t even think about it, habit made him pull off the road.
“What’s up, boss?” He asked, turning the motor off.
“I want to get a closer look at it,” Nyko replied unbuckling his harness and hopping down out of the buggy.
The two men walked down a deserted side street. At the edge of the wall, a fast food joint was torn in half. It ended two feet from the wall, the inside of the store plainly visible as Nyko leaned in close. The wall itself seemed to be made of plastic. It was seamless as far as he could tell, one massive sheet of plastic running a hundred feet in the air and a mile or more in either direction before it curved out of sight.
“What the fuck is this,” Nyko said, putting his hand out.
“I don’t know if I’d do that, boss. No idea what it’s made of, but look at the trench. Nothing is touching it.”
Nyko looked along the wall where it met the ground. As far as his eyes could make out, Andy was correct. Grass, shrubbery, everything grew away from the wall, nothing grew towards it.
“Guess we need to find out of this thing has a gate. Maybe we just came up on it from behind.”
“Maybe. The fact that none of this stuff is looted makes me worried though,” said Nyko. “Houses with the doors and windows still secure. Probably tons of food, weapons, clothing and everything else still in them. Why wouldn’t the marauders have taken it?”
The pair started walking back towards the buggy. Andy asked, “What if there aren’t any marauders?”
“That scares me even more. There’s no way they got everyone inside the city. Look how hard Vegas tried, and still you fuckers didn’t make it in time. Someone had to be left outside the walls. And some of those fucks had to be crafty enough to survive, and yet a few more of them would be desperate enough to try to eat the infected, when they got hungry enough.”
Andy slid into the driver’s seat, and when Nyko was secured, he took off. For the next two hours they circumnavigated the wall, stopping at their original spot. There wasn’t any kind of gate or even any roads leading into or out of the city they could find. Phoenix was sealed off.
“Now, we go back to Phoenix Station, load up some supplies to pay for the trip, and head home. I’m going to start selling pleasure cruises to see The Great Wall of Phoenix.”
Nyko was glib about the whole thing, but Andy could tell he was sorely disappointed. The sun was setting by the time they started back to the warehouse. They’d spent so much time driving around everything started to look familiar.
“The first street sign I remember seeing was West Glendale, and we just passed that, so we’re pretty close,” Nyko said. “You remember this gas station?”
“I think.” Andy didn’t seem sure.
“Swing in. We’ll grab a fucking map and find the train tracks. Worst case, once we find the tracks we can follow them away from that fucking wall and get back.”
Andy pulled the buggy right up to the door and turned on the headlights and the auxiliary lights mounted above the bumper and along the roll cage.
The pair approached the store side by side, pulled the door open and stepped in. The windows were covered in two years of grime and dust, casting a dim yellow hue around the room. Andy pulled down a map and Nyko grabbed a couple packs of peanuts and stuffed them in his pocket, and tossed a few back to Andy.
“Wanna risk opening the fridge? Bunch of waters in there, and some skunked-to-shit beer.”
“Dude, fuck yeah! Brian will go nuts when we show up with a case of bud.”
“You do it. I’ll go outside and figure out where we are.”
Andy took a deep breath, opened the fridge door and pulled out two cases of Budweiser, then thought for a second, opened it again and grabbed two more. He was carrying the beer out to the car when he heard Nyko’s shotgun. He dropped the beer. Cans rolled in every direction. Andy vaulted the mess, hit the door with his shoulder and rolled out, getting to his knees behind the buggy. Nyko was standing out in the lot, shotgun in one hand and pistol in the other.
Two men dressed in white were laid out on the concrete in front of him, face down. A white car was parked in the lot. Andy pulled his gun and advanced on the corpses. One had a giant hole in his back, the other had no visible wound, but was lying in a spreading pool of blood. A bullpup assault rifle was on the ground beside each of them. Andy pushed the second man over with his boot. He was wearing a solid white face mask with a large black visor. The mask was cracked and broken; one eye was visible with a bullet hole just above it.
“Good shooting, boss. Where did they come from?”
“Fuckers just flew up in that car. They jumped out as I was coming out of the god damned store and advanced on me, guns drawn. I drew. They yelled something, I yelled for them to lower their weapons. The cocksuckers did not follow simple directions.”
“You think we ought to get out of here before more of them show up?”
“No. I think we get in their fucking car and see if they have a god damned radio. I didn’t start that fight, and I’ll be fucked if I’m going to run from it. Search these fucks and see if they have anything useful.” Nyko walked over to the car as Andy picked up their rifles and stowed them in the buggy.
He heard his boss from the car. “Is anyone listening? My name is Nyko. I’m the owner of the train. I’ve come to trade, carrying fuel, and other valuable goods. Two of your men are dead, because they approached in a hostile fashion.”
The gut-shot man’s mask was in good shape, Andy pulled it off and looked at it. He recognized the basic form from Afghanistan; it was a chemical weapons mask, filtration down to one micron with ports for supplemental air. The visor was unlike anything Andy had seen.
Wires ran to four different points on the inside of the glass. Andy held it up to his head, and was greeted with a heads up display. He looked around at the corners of the mask, causing the screen to flicker rapidly.
“What the fuck!” He called out. He kept his eyes forward and used his peripheral vision to read the edges of the screen. The top left corner said IR inside a square box. Andy flicked his eyes over to the box, and suddenly everything went to shades of green. Andy spun in a circle. There were people all around, using the darkness to conceal them. They stood out as if it were high noon in the night vision.
“Nyko! We got company brother!”
“Lots!” Andy picked up one of the short rifles. Instantly, a crosshair appeared on his visor, down along the bottom. He moved the barrel around, and watched the crosshair move across the screen.”
“Holy shit, they have mad tech, Nyko.”
Suddenly, seemingly from everywhere, including the earpiece in Andy’s mask, a loud voice boomed. “Unauthorized personnel, stand down. You have ten seconds to comply.”
Andy heard Nyko yelling into the radio. “We’re not your personnel. Do not fire.”
“You have five seconds to comply.”
“Nyko, I think we should consider it. We’re not going to get out of this fight. Say the word, brother.”
“Stand down,” Nyko yelled back. He climbed out of the car and held his hands above his head.
Andy put the rifle down. He’d been willing to fight with the boss, but he was glad to be surrendering. There wasn’t any way they could win this fight. He laid the rifle down, took the mask off and held his hands up.
The pair heard an engine in the darkness. A white Humvee pulled up and three men got out, dressed in the same uniform as the men on the ground. They zip-tied Nyko first, then Andy, and pushed them into the truck.
The truck sped off into the night. They drove for about an hour, before the truck turned straight for the wall. The driver didn’t slow at all. The truck’s headlights reflected off the gleaming white surface until the second they passed directly through to the other side.
Inside was, in every sense, an oasis. Nyko was familiar with Phoenix. This looked nothing like the city he knew. Inside the wall the adobe houses and stuccoed buildings were all gone, replaced by a massive green stretch of farm. The truck passed through the farm, Nyko judged it was two or three miles, before they crossed a river. On the opposite side of the river, massive skyscrapers rose, all glass and steel. Lights everywhere made it almost like daytime.
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Charlotte opened the bar at six, just like every night. She had a skeleton crew, with Nyko taking her best four employees. She had to put a couple of the girls in other spots. Teagan was working the front door, Taylor was with her behind the bar, and Ashley was working the DJ booth in Derrick’s place.
Continue reading The New Girl
Nyko’s men ran towards the front of the warehouse, towards the sound of the approaching vehicles. Only Jonas stayed in his spot. He was the eyes. His job was to spot attackers and call out their positions.
The men were well trained. Nyko and Brian collapsed inward to the front of the building. Terrell and Andy moved up to the front corners. The drive up to the warehouse was a long, straight road.
“Three trucks, each with two in the cab and four in the back,” Jonas called down.
“Blow the latches,” said Nyko.
Jonas reached into the bag he was carrying and pulled out one of the remote controls. It was a gun shaped unit, designed for driving a car. On the side was a wheel that had been intended to steer the car, and the trigger was the throttle. He flipped the controller on and squeezed the trigger.
One hundred yards away from Nyko’s position, a series of pops, no louder than a firecracker puffed tiny clouds of smoke up from the road bed. Those small charges lifted the latch on spring-loaded spike-strips. The spikes rotated up out of a small ditch in the road, pointing straight at the oncoming truck.
The first truck hit the spike strip. The tines hooked into the tires, flattening them, but also holding on to them. A year ago Brian had complained loudly when Nyko made him drive the stakes holding the spike-strips eight feet into the ground, and every time he had to reset them. But the effect was impressive. The truck was brought to a stop in less than three feet. The sheet of strips ripped partially out of the ground and folded around the wheels.
The front of the truck dipped and the rear flew upwards, launching the four men and enough hand-tools to fill a garden shed out of the back, cartwheeling through the air at fifty miles per hour. The rear of the truck fell back to the ground just in time for the second truck to slam into the tailgate. Four more men were ejected, this time from the second truck.
The force of the impact ripped the spike strips from the ground. All eight men were still in the air as the two wrecked vehicles spun to the left, and then rolled over sideways.
The men hit the ground, skidding on the asphalt. The third truck narrowly missed the pair of mangled vehicles that were still rolling over. The driver of that one must have had lightning reflexes to miss the collision.
He jerked the wheel to the right, then back to the left to swerve around the wreckage. He was in the middle of his maneuver when he ran over one of his compatriots. Driver number three locked up the brakes, skidding to a stop, sideways in the road. His real wheels came to rest on top of the corpse he’d just run over.
The driver of the last truck watched the carnage unfold, and had nowhere to go. He’d been accelerating to catch up to the group when the scene unfolded, and he never thought to hit the brakes. He smashed into the passenger side of truck number three, rolling it over. His passengers were thrown clear, and skidded to a stop on the pavement.
When everything came to rest, sixteen men lay on the asphalt, ejected from the cargo area of the trucks they were riding in. There were eight more men inside the vehicles. The driver’s side doors of of the first two opened, and at the same time, several of the wounded men started to get up off the asphalt.
Nyko waited until the driver of the first truck climbed out of the wreckage, then shouldered his heavy rifle and squeezed. He still had the door latch in his hand when the glass exploded and shards of glass and hollow point embedded themselves in his face.
The driver was spun around by the force of the shot and landed on his stomach. Several of the marauders were back on their feet, charging at Nyko, axes, hatchets, or whatever they could find in their hand. One of the remaining six was holding a shovel over his head, ready to swing it like a bat. None of them were in good shape. Those without shirts had very little skin left on their chests. One man’s nose had been ground off by the asphalt. Every one of them was covered in blood.
Nyko’s men opened fire. The marauders were cut down one by one. Not one tried to find cover or even slowed their charge, they were so consumed by aggression.
The last man moving, the driver of the second truck got out and held his hands up.
Nyko knew this was always the tricky part. One of them had to get away, one of them that was still sane enough to report back to their boss that they failed.
He started walking forward slowly, keeping his scope on the man. “Driver! Step around your truck and lay down on the road.”
“I have a cuddle fuck… I have a cup of soup… I have a message. Yes, message!” The driver yelled, seemingly thrilled that he got the right word out.
Nyko stopped. He was about thirty feet from the man. This was a new tactic. “What message?”
“Your train will be fucked by an antelope!” Brian burst out laughing from his position back by the warehouse. The sun was setting. They had about an hour before the bar’s patrons would be showing up, and had to have all this cleaned up by then.
“Is that your message? I have one for you to return,” Nyko shouted. Andy and Terrell advanced from the corner towards their boss, covering him. Both knew what was about to happen, as it had countless times before.
Nyko pulled a small notebook out of his back pocket and a pen out of the inside of his leather vest. He quickly scrawled a note.
Stay away from my bar and I won’t come for you.
This is your third and final warning.
If you come again, I will hunt you down and kill every one of you.
Everyone knew they would ignore the warning. But Nyko couldn’t just kill someone once they surrendered, and he certainly wasn’t in the business of keeping prisoners. So, he let the man go with a note, as he’d done the two previous times.
“Now, run along. Go back to your boss and tell him what a bad idea it is to come here.”
He’d been through this cycle a bunch of times. Three warnings, then they find the marauder camp and wipe them out. A few weeks or a month later a new group started up. No one knew where they came from, or where they’d been the last two years.
Nyko always figured they were the people of Las Vegas and the surrounding area who didn’t make it inside the walls in time. They held on as long as they could, eating whatever scraps they could scavenge before they resorted to eating the infected.
At first, there were no side effects from eating the disease ridden people. It built slowly. Some people retained more of their mental faculties for longer than others, but invariably, cannibalizing the infected lead to dementia and intense aggression. Marauders killed for fun. Many of them wouldn’t even eat regular food anymore. The dementia convinced them that everything else was poisonous.
In that regard, they served a purpose. They kept the infected population down.
“Let’s get this shit cleaned up,” Nyko yelled. “Haul the trucks around back, tomorrow we’ll see if there is anything we can use. Burn the corpses.”
Brian rolled up the warehouse door and came rolling out in a golf-cart pulling a trailer. The roof of the cart had been replaced with two massive solar panels. Fuel was everything, there was no sense in wasting it on yard-work.
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The next morning at daybreak, Jonas, Brain, and Andy loaded up in the Marauder’s truck to head out to the barn. They spent the day loading and hauling, and by nightfall were completely exhausted.
The maintenance shop was fully outfitted to repair any type of railroad car. Spare parts, specialty tools, and best of all, a massive tank of diesel fuel. The tank was, by Jonas’ estimation nearly full. The marauders were sitting on a gold mine, somewhere in the neighborhood of eight thousand gallons of fuel.
Jonas and Nyko had only gone a few miles on the train, but their initial estimations were that it would take about two gallons of fuel to move a mile. Jonas knew about two hidden diesel reserves he and Nyko had sourced, which totaled enough fuel to make the two-thousand mile circuit they had planned three times. This reserve would help them make it four more times.
That gave them enough fuel for a year of operation, Nyko would be thrilled.
The three men worked on the track-plow for the better part of two hours figuring out how it worked, how each of the mechanisms operated, and making sure it was all in good working order. In operation, it was a very simple machine.
A front plow, not unlike a snowplow, cleared the sand down to the tops of the rails. Just behind the sand-plow, a large broom-wheel spun very quickly to dig the sand out from between the rails, ejecting it out the side.
A secondary plow on either side at the mid-point of the locomotive pushed the sand eight feet on either side of the rails. As a test run, Jonas ran the plow up to the warehouse.
It functioned beautifully, leaving gleaming sand-polished rails in its wake. Jonas was giddy. He screwed a wooden crate inside the cab of the plow locomotive, lifting him high enough to see out the window at the flying waves of sand he pushed. The feeling of power was amazing, if felt like nothing could stop this massive machine.
Over the next several days, Jonas cleared the tracks all the way to the northern edge of the Canyon bridge. He liked the work. He learned that the faster he went the farther it pushed the sand, buying them more time between cleanings. On his last run, he had the stick forward running about forty-five miles per hour. Sand flew off the blades nearly twenty feet in either direction.
By the time the tracks were clear, Nyko was up on his feet. He was still only allowed light duty according to Dr. Charlotte as everyone had taken to calling her. No lifting or getting up and down, but he was able to supervise loading provisions on the train. If everything went well, this first trip would only be a couple of days down to Phoenix, then a couple of days back.
Nyko wanted to go meet with the Phoenix leadership before he started making official runs. Mostly, he wanted to know what supplies he could sell for the most profit. This was an expensive endeavor. Carrying passengers was one small revenue stream. Their drinking and eating in the bar car was another, but the real money was to be made hauling goods between the two cities. If he could establish and run the only trade routes between several cities, he’d be set.
As the departure date neared, Nyko felt Charlotte growing more and more distant. Finally, after she walked past him in the hallway without even looking at him, he put his hand on her shoulder and asked her to step into the office.
When they were alone in the office, Nyko crossed his arms and leaned against the door, holding it closed. “Spit it out, girl.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have work to do,” Charlie replied, making a slight move towards the door Nyko was blocking.
“Not until you tell me what your problem is.”
She shook her head. “It’s nothing. I’ll deal with it.”
“We’ve been partners for a long time. I count on you more than anyone in the family. If something’s bothering you, I need to know about it.”
Charlie’s internal debate raged. Finally her stubbornness won out. “Nyko, I don’t want to talk about it.”
He had years of experience managing people in the shop, and was a naturally shrewd judge of character. “Okay. So, it’s me you’re upset with?”
She was always surprised by how easily Nyko could dig the truth out of her. The debate raged again. He’d get it out of her. She might as well tell him. “When you were injured, I stepped up and ran this place. I made the hard decisions. I sewed you up. I’m not a fucking nurse. I’m not a fucking manager. I don’t know all the things you know. I have no idea what I’m fucking doing here, I’m just making this shit up as I go, and what happens when I make the wrong call? What happens when I make the wrong decision, Nyko? When you leave, all these people will be counting on me. Depending on me for their lives and safety and security.”
Nyko nodded. “What could I possibly say to make you feel better, when I have all those same fears? I live in fear every day that one of you is going to get killed doing something for me. That marauders are going to show up at our door and overrun the place.”
“How do you handle it? How do you deal with all the pressure?”
“I don’t know,” said Nyko. “I guess because there is no other choice. This is life now. I try to make the best decisions I can with what I have. That’s the only way I can sleep at night.”
“And how can you leave all that on me?”
“Because you’re the only one that can do it. Because it has to be done. New Vegas is doomed, Charlie. There aren’t enough resources. They’re running out of canned food. There isn’t enough water to grow crops. There isn’t enough fertile dirt. Vegas was always a city ruled by technology. Without it, humans can’t survive here. But, do you know where we can survive? Southern Colorado. Kansas. The mid-west.”
“So you’re moving all of us east?”
“We can’t stay here. And I can’t move everyone and start an entirely new city with the resources I have. My only choice is to use what I have to earn what we’ll all need to survive.”
“What do you mean?”
“We can’t start a community with fifteen people, only four of whom are women. We can’t start a community without teachers and doctors and a hundred other vocations. We’re just a bunch of mechanics. I value the skills of every one of you. But we don’t have enough.”
Charlotte nodded as Nyko continued. “Also, I can’t take fifty or a hundred people out into the waste to make a place to live without the means to build a wall to protect us. We can’t go without the means to grow food, without the means to defend ourselves, and certainly without enough food to survive the first winter.”
Charlotte wondered when he’d made all these plans, and what else he hadn’t told her. “When were you planning on telling me all this?”
“When it was a real possibility. People need hope, Charlie. I need hope, a goal to strive towards.”
“So, what now,” she replied.
Nyko grinned. “Now you tell no one about this conversation. The goal is to get to Phoenix to prove that travel across the wasteland is possible, and to make it less frightening. If things work out in Phoenix, we’ll start offering pleasure cruises. We’ll get people used to the idea, and then we’ll take it a step further. All the while, buying and selling what we can, hauling freight between destinations, and stockpiling materials we’ll need when the time comes.”
“Do you ever not have a plan?”
Nyko smiled at her as she left the office, and then walked back into the warehouse. As he supervised the loading of the train, Nyko wondered if the pressure might be too much for her. She was only twenty four years old. She’d never managed anything until The Saloon.
The first trip was only scheduled to run three days out, and three days back. Jonas was bringing enough for three weeks. The rail truck, the scout buggy, and two dirt-bikes would get the whole crew back to The Saloon in the event of a breakdown. Nyko and Jonas had figured on triple-redundancy, and it was all coming together.
Tomorrow, the train departed. Nyko held his side as he limped back to his room, confident that everything was in good hands.
Taylor met Charlie at the door to the shower room with two towels. Charlie took the first one and wrapped her long, dark hair in it, piling the towel up on top of her head. She took the second one and dried off, then wrapped it around her waist. “Thanks, Tay.”
Taylor looked at her friend with soft eyes. “You okay? I don’t know how you stay so strong. I’m falling to pieces.”
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Nyko and Jonas worked furiously to get the truck moving. Once they had the air pressure lowered, Nyko drove, following the tracks, deep into the desert. Within about thirty miles, the desert gave way to sandstone and rock. The landscape was beautiful, if barren. The occasional cactus was the only green in the reddish landscape.
Jonas found a rail map in the pocket of his door and unfolded it out over the dash. “There’s a big canyon coming up in about a mile. The tracks and the road parallel each other there. I think that’s where we’ll find our maintenance garage.”