Book 2 of the White Mesa Chronicles is now available! Read the first chapter here, then find it at your favorite online retailer!
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Ten to eight in the morning, the scavenge team started from White Mesa. Tommy sat in the truck bed, watching the settlement where he’d been born and raised roll past. The fields rippled with new growth, and he knew every farmhouse by name.
They passed the electrified fence, then the border fence that separated White Mesa from the wild lands beyond. Tommy shifted to stay out of the way as the team-members straightened into watch positions.
Captain Gibbs – ranking officer of Team Alpha and the team lead for the scavenge mission – looked at Tommy over the back of the seat.
Tommy swallowed. “I’m fine.” Nervousness was natural, but this was bigger than he was.
“We’ve never done anything like this before.”
“Well, someone needs to do it. And you guys have my back, right?”
The captain nodded and smiled. “You got that right, LT.”
Tommy could deal with gangs…and they were always coming and going as they killed or absorbed each other. But now the security council had caught wind of something new — the New Republic, far north along the lakeshore, was almost like a political entity: welcoming of newcomers, offering food, safety, prosperity.
Tommy mentally rechecked his supplies and tools. The security council had approved an intel-gathering mission, but not contact. Certain parties (ahem – Mr. Grimthorpe and the people who listened to him) were afraid of what contact and interaction might mean.
Others (General Thaxton and Colonel Milligan, for instance) believed a sister community within the city itself might be just what White Mesa needed to springboard further activities there. The gangs needed stability…security…the gospel.
What both groups agreed about was the need for information: since the New Republic was gaining such a reputation, White Mesa needed hard data about whether they were something to embrace…or avoid.
The truck bounced over a larger-than-normal pothole, and Tommy shook off his revery to scan the thick greenery of the forest surrounding them. No gangs had been spotted this close to the homeland, but cougars were everywhere.
It was not quite noon by the time they reached Rendezvous-2 (the current default meeting place for near-city operations) and they took another hour or so to reach R-5, across the Calumet River (taking a circuitous route so that any gangs that noticed their passage wouldn’t be able to deduce their direction of origin – security council paranoia, again).
As Capt. Gibbs was giving instructions to the regular team about their day’s activities, Tommy climbed over the tailgate and dropped to the ground. He patted his jacket pockets and belt once again, then checked that the knives on his thigh and ankle were secure.
“Well, good luck, Lieutenant,” said the captain, coming up and shaking his hand. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t, eh?”
The rest of the team also shook his hand. Tommy smiled.
“Tell the Friday team not to forget about me, huh?”
“You think a week of roughing it is as much as you can take?” chuckled one of the team privates.
“No, I think a week of suspense is as much as Colonel Milligan can take; he’ll want to know how it’s turning out.”
“I imagine your dad will be anxious, too,” muttered the captain. “Take care of yourself.”
Tommy checked the heading on his compass and started north before they could discuss his dad any more. Gen. Thaxton wanted this mission to happen, and had approved Tommy as the agent. This was important…to him, to the security council, to everyone at White Mesa.
Tommy crept down the street, slipping from shrub to tree, cover to cover, as he worked his way north. He kept his ears tuned for any sign of gangsters, or ferals, or even bobcats. If only he could have brought his rifle and pistol – but there was no place to secure those farther on, and he needed to play the part of a gangster renegade down to a tee…at least until the security council approved contact.
But that was their call, not his.
* * * *
The sun was dropping toward the horizon, its sphere hidden among the ancient skyscrapers of the city while its light still glowed on bracken, creepers, and tree branches.
An hour ago, Tommy had slipped through the glassless window of a storefront to avoid a hunting party of gangsters (Pythons, as was to be expected) but he’d seen no hostiles since then.
He should have spotted something of his target by now. His friend Mr. Pollock had heard of them even as far away as R2 and Grasshopper turf; for that kind of word to spread, the New Republic must leave a footprint on their surroundings.
Then he saw it. Through the tree trunks and derelict cars ahead, a light shone that was not sunlight. Hugging the foliage to stay out of sight, Tommy eased forward, senses tuned.
Tommy sank to a crouch behind a thorn-bush. The next street over, a fence of wooden beams and sheet metal had been thrown up between two apartment buildings, cutting across the road. A chain-link gate pierced the center, beyond which guards patrolled.
And the lights. In the gathering twilight, Tommy saw clearly the luminous casings atop posts on either side of the gate, with wires or tubing trailing down inside the fence. Far more sophisticated than the gangs’ torches and candles.
Tommy leaned forward, eyeing the inhabitants while still in the cover of the bush. One guard lounged at the corner of the gate, dangling a crossbow. Two others behind him held long, disfigured clubs of some kind…
Tommy unwound the string around his left arm enough to knot a few notes in Morse: the number of blocks between here and R5; the fact they had armed guards and ranged weapons; a brief remark about the structure of their fence and lights…
Now, if he were brutally murdered by a gang and White Mesa recovered his mangled corpse, they’d still learn something. At least, that’s how Col. Milligan had put it. Gen. Thaxton probably hadn’t appreciated that way of expressing it.
Tommy slunk down the road parallel to the fence. On the opposite side of the boarded-up apartment building, another section of fencing – and another of the strange lights – straddled a narrow alleyway.
So many lights…the New Republic wasn’t apparently shy of attention.
About a block from where the previous gate had been, Tommy found another. The growing darkness of the sky intensified the artificial lights, making their bold presence all the more remarkable. As Tommy rested on his haunches, a growl sounded nearby.
Not bear…not coyote…feral. Sure enough, moments later the creature appeared through the brush to the left, staggering across the road toward the gate. With the rest of the city pitch dark, the sickness-blinded ferals would be drawn to the lights… Brave men, who would invite such attention to themselves.
A crossbow rattled, and the feral sprawled on the ground, a bolt through its stomach, clawing at the air with shredded hands.
The guards knew their business. Tommy sucked his lip for a moment, catching glimpses of the gate defenders chatting and laughing with each other behind the chain-link. One pointed at the dead creature and lolled out his tongue in mimicry.
Tommy breathed in and out. Dropping ferals on sight didn’t really tell him much about this place and their intentions; that was standard practice for the White Mesa scavenge teams, too. Tommy himself had put two or three out of their misery in the last year.
If they had a medicine that was effective once symptoms started, it would be different — but the teams couldn’t afford to waste z-killer on victims who probably wouldn’t survive the cure. Besides, not many militiamen were keen to get close enough to a symptomatic feral to administer the shot, even though they were vaccinated.
Tommy hadn’t been appointed White Mesa’s first ever covert agent to philosophize about ferals. He needed actual data about the New Republic’s actual intentions and worldview. Whether this ended in forming a diplomatic connection, or engaging New Republicans on sight (as White Mesa teams did with Red Mohawks, Bigshots, and other gangsters), it all started with finding out what they were really like.
Tommy continued following the jagged fence-line – some of it strung between buildings, some of it striding straight down the middle of roads, the support posts plunged through the crumbling asphalt.
So much fence…so many blocks…so many guards to defend all that border. Where were they getting the food for everyone? Just how many people did they have inside this compound?
It was full dark by the time Tommy circled around to the north border of the Republic. He paused again to note the number of gates he’d seen. He had stayed in the shadows and avoided attention…the last thing he wanted was to be mistaken for a feral and end up with a crossbow bolt in his gut.
Now was the time for his infiltration. The security council had decided he should be as covert as possible, and get a feel for their military capabilities before the New Republicans knew they were being observed.
And again, that was their call, not his. After all, the security council were the ones who’d promoted him into a paycheck from the militia.
“To comfort your family in the event of your untimely demise,” Col. Milligan had said. Tommy suspected the colonel liked watching the other council-members gape.
He crouched in the shelter of a spinney, appraising the structure of chain-link and chicken wire that stretched across an intersection between two traffic light poles. The area was illuminated by a lamp on one of the poles, but other than that the road was dark. From what he’d seen of the border, this was as good a place as any to make his insertion.
Tommy advanced, keeping in the shelter of the windowless coffee shop beside him until he could get a closer look at the fence. Freezing, he poised his ears for guard patrols.
Scanning his surroundings, Tommy crept underneath the light. A round casing protected whatever the filament was, while a rubber tube or hose fed it from below.
Tommy squinted up at it. If it was electrical, surely the power line would look more like a wire – and the luminescent in the case would look more like a light-bulb. Unless the New Republic was manufacturing their own type of light-bulbs?
Heavy footsteps clomped on the other side of the fence. Tommy darted for the coffee shop, through the window-hole, and crouched in the lee of the wall. Chatter and laughter drifted to him, while through the links of the fence he could see two guards – in uniforms? – stroll into the pool of light, then out again.
Letting out his breath, Tommy waited. He wouldn’t break the light; apart from his revulsion at wasting resources, it would give them another reason to investigate this section of the fence – perhaps even increase the guard on it. He wanted them thinking everything was quiet and normal for as long as possible.
As he waited to see how often the patrol came by, a muttering sound caught his ear. Tommy hesitated, squinting in the twilight cast by the light-pole, trying to see into the corner of the shop. He strained his hearing…it sounded almost like words…
“Stay hidden…I’be fine…stay hidden…not sick…”
Tommy let out a breath — at least he wouldn’t be facing a cougar with nothing but melee weapons. Digging in a pocket, he pulled out his scavenged lighter and snapped it to life.
In the flame he could see a man crouching under one of the shop’s tables. The man blinked and squinted, cradling his left arm – an obvious human bite visible on the outside of his forearm.
Feral-bit. Tommy watched him, still trying to get his pupils to adjust to the light.
The stranger whimpered. “Can’t be sick. I – can’t be sick. Wait. Stay hidden. Feel better. I’be fine. I’ll be fine, huh?”
Tommy swallowed, and let the flame shut off. With his pupils not adjusting to the light, the young man was already symptomatic, meaning he had less than four hours. Even if Tommy had z-killer with him, it was iffy whether the medicine would be enough to save the man.
Dr. Radcliff had never had the chance to study the progression of the disease in humans. White Mesa didn’t take the risk – and cured or killed any infected they found, depending on the stage they were in.
“Stay quiet. Feel fine. Not sick. Stay hidden…”
Tommy squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. One of the Grasshoppers had been found like this – confused and compliant, with dilated pupils. Dr. Radcliff estimated he was past the twelfth hour of infection, and authorized z-killer.
“Stay calm,” Tommy whispered. “It’s okay.”
The voice in the darkness fell silent. He had one to four hours before full symptoms…perhaps less.
“Go around the fence,” Tommy murmured. “Around the fence to the cross building, then follow the big road to the girl-billboard.”
It was stupid…ridiculous. The man would never make it to R5 in one piece. Tommy heard the infected man shuffle across the floor without comment or question, then saw his dark form cut across the light of the lamp-post as he crawled out of the window hole. He wouldn’t be able to follow such sketchy directions – in the dark – past the trigger-happy guards on the look-out for ferals…
But it was just a chance – a chance to meet a White Mesa team, with z-killer, before the parasites took over his mind and killed him.
A snowball’s chance.
Tommy heaved another deep breath. His mission here was tied to eradicating z-germ…calming the gang violence…prospering and protecting White Mesa. Every issue was tied to multiple other issues.
Focus. One step at a time. The guard pattern. Tommy shuffled around in his hiding place to better watch the fence-line through the window hole.
It was almost an hour after the first patrol had passed by the time a patrol came by again. When they moved out of earshot, Tommy swung over the low wall of the shop into the open, knowing he’d have plenty of time to get through the fence.
Dropping to his knees beside it, he looked over the construction. Tugging wire cutters from his pocket, he bent to his work. Piece of cake.
In a few minutes’ time, he had a hole big enough to crawl through. As Tommy stowed his wire cutters and bent to worm through, his instincts pinged.
Catching a blur with the tail of his eye, he spun around in time to see a feral staggering toward the light pole.
Drool coated its chin, while what rags of clothing it had left flapped against its emaciated frame. A young man, not past twenty-five if Tommy had to guess.
Despite Tommy’s efforts at holding still, the wire structure of the fence shuddered and his hold on it slipped.
The feral turned toward him, gurgled, and charged.
Tommy didn’t have time to get to his feet. He kicked at the creature while it lunged and scrabbled for him.
A blow from his boot sent the creature staggering backward. In the split second while it recovered its balance, Tommy snatched his knife from his boot.
It lunged again; Tommy drove a kick into its throat.
As the feral jerked backward, Tommy snapped to his feet. Mouth working, the feral toppled backward and lay convulsing on the ground.
Tommy weighed the knife in his hand – then, reconsidering, stomped on the back of the creature’s neck.
A knife wound would be clear and obvious – a broken neck slightly less so. And he wanted to direct attention away from himself and his entry point as much as possible.
Tommy shivered, scuffed his boot against the asphalt a couple times, and dropped to his stomach again to worm through the flap in the fence.
Huzzah for White Mesa boots and Mr. Ahnert’s combat training.
Reaching the other side of the fence, Tommy adjusted the chain-link to cover his passage, then darted across the street to find a hiding place behind a wall.