Lovecraft (Work in Progress)

“MY first thought was, he lied in every word, That hoary cripple, with malicious eye Askance to watch the working of his lie On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford Suppression of the glee, that purs’d and scor’d Its edge, at one more victim gain’d thereby. What else should he be set for, with his staff? What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare All travellers who might find him posted there, And ask the road? I guess’d what skull-like laugh Would break, what crutch ’gin write my epitaph For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare, If at his counsel I should turn aside Into that ominous tract which, all agree, Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly 15 I did turn as he pointed: neither pride Nor hope rekindling at the end descried, So much as gladness that some end might be. …. So, quiet as despair, I turn’d from him, That hateful cripple, out of his highway Into the path the pointed. All the day
Had been a dreary one at best, and dim Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim Red leer to see the plain catch its estray. – Robert Browning, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

We are the hollow men We are the stuffed men Leaning together Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! Our dried voices, when We whisper together Are quiet and meaningless As wind in dry grass Or rats' feet over broken glass In our dry cellar … This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper. – T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

“And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder: One of the four beasts saying: "Come and see." And I saw. And behold, a white horse.

There's a man goin' 'round takin' names. An' he decides who to free and who to blame. Everybody won't be treated all the same. There'll be a golden ladder reaching down. When the man comes around.

The hairs on your arm will stand up. At the terror in each sip and in each sup. For you partake of that last offered cup, Or disappear into the potter's ground. When the man comes around.” – Johnny Cash

CHAPTER ONE: MY FIRST THOUGHT… I The rain lashed viciously at the several ton APC as it rolled itself steadily down the muddy dirt road towards the small settlement of Lovecraft. Like a turtle escaping the storm it went as fast as it could, which was perhaps twenty to thirty miles with its weight and the elements. Within it carried a Joint Task Force squad of Raven Regiment soldiers and two pilots to see that they had a way back as soon as their objective was complete. The squad consisted of Sergeant Anthony Tombs as squad leader, Corporal Saul Dante as second, Cpl Daniel Eliot, and PFC Eleanor Wick. Because of the remoteness, and the special circumstances the strange mix of rank was seen as more beneficial over detrimental. Too much experience in the field had never killed anyone before. Had it? The machine whirred noisily as its treads tore at the mud pulling them along. The occasional hole causing everyone, including Neo-Dog Hannibal, to jump and perhaps tremble from nerves and adrenaline just ever so slightly. Daniel was Kilo-Niner, a Subdivision of the Regiment’s Auxiliary Branch, Super Sub EOD. They were a bomb, narcotics, and search team so should they find the proper trail Hannibal could find their missing persons. Tombs was a career Sergeant sort of man. He preferred his position to taking the Regiment’s duties and becoming an Officer to only ride a desk and never see any field work. He liked working with his men, and they were good soldiers. Perhaps his never being commissioned wasn’t helped by the fact he tended to be very vocal when offering a dissenting opinion to a superior. He was good at what he did too, and so the Regiment had never seen a need to discharge him from service, and with the world in its current state they couldn’t afford to simply abandon or turn away good fighting troops. Saul was actually a reporter who was a Runner as well, a Detective of Auxiliary Urban Police Squad, a team which was only present within Babylon, the earth capital city of Raven Regiment. This latter title a formality as he was actually a private detective on personal time, and a journalist for the Auxiliary Journalism and PR Division. A psychological manipulating flyer for the civilian class in truth, but despite everyone really knowing that it was an unspoken rule of the more independent personnel not to question certain things about the Regiment. To do so might be worth a bullet in the head, and causing a situation that could possible be only more detrimental than it would ever be worth. Only a pyrrhic victory laid down that road. Eleanor Wick was the only true lower rank, and a green grass Raven to boot. She’d only been on Infantry for just shy of a year, and was a regular member of Tombs squad after one of his had made Cpl and needed to be transferred to second for a squad who’d just lost theirs in a raid. Tombs had intended to take his Specialist but at the last minute had thought an easy non-combat task would offer him a better chance to see what kind of soldier she was going to be. They’d only just met when they had left on the APC, as her transport had been slow dropping off the transit groups. Pilots Riker and Croft would be staying with the APC 24/7 and weren’t part of the investigation so they would just poke around Lovecraft and if they found anything suspicious they’d be sure to notify the squad. Otherwise it was a vacation for them in other words, but still on the clock so no loss on ration coupons and cash pay, and still having access to MREs. They had the best deal of anyone in this broken as a glass bottle against the wall world.

“Wake up back there! Map shows us as half a click from Lovecraft. I’d suggest slickers. Rains even worse, we can barely see a meter in front of us goddamit!” Croft shouted over the commsets laughing.

It made everyone just about jump out of their skills. Tombs being the tallest and upright rubbed his head with an annoyed look after smacking his skull hard enough to make an audible sound. Dante only laughed as he stared at tombs with a smirk, stuffing his notebook and pen into his satchel and grabbing his rifle. “You know. I think I’m glad I was never tall enough to play basketball.” He said still staring at Tombs with a smile like a clown. “So did they give us anything else on this Lovecraft village? I know it’s supposed to be an agriculture supplier, but anything else? Raider camps, aggressive wildlife? All I’ve been told is they’re searching for missing persons. But I mean, settlers get lost all the time. Everyone knows what you risk leaving the city. Without big ass walls to keep the bad things out you’re bound to lose people.” “Yea. Why wouldn’t they tell us? I thought it was just an emergency field call when they dragged me out of bed this morning.” Put in Eliot who sat scratching between Hannibal’s ears as the German Shepherd made a face of ecstasy, leg twitching at random intervals.

Tombs glanced at Wick, he didn’t like having to do the “need to know” stuff right off the back as grunts tended to take it personally. As if you’re saying: I’m the boss and that makes me more important. It was never like that, but it was hard to explain if you didn’t need to be a leader and keep the occasional secret because perhaps it would scare your men or cause even more problems should it be a matter of mission security. He shook his head of the doubting thoughts, and withdrew a laminated folder and several personnel files. “Gamma Squad is a Joint Task Force like our own that was assigned to guard and provide medical, psychological, and labor aid should the colonists run into hardship. It’s already bad enough to build a brand new home with all sorts of dangers roaming through the uncharted zones and so the Regiment sees fit every honor guard is able to give multiple types of aid. They send a radio flare every week, and once a month do an audio transmission and the occasional status report should they have a critical infrastructure failure or a raider attack. Sometimes that means radio failure, they have a special tower built to boost their signal and make sure they can make contact. The tower was working last week, and Gamma had missed radio flare but that’s not a big deal. It happens and so it was let go. The week after they missed their audio call, and just two days ago while command was putting us together, the radio tower dropped off the network. This means Gamma hasnt been heard from in about two weeks, and somone or something destroyed their only means of making contact. Here’s something else though. About an hour before the tower went dark someone did radio in, they don’t know who it was only a sentence or two, here it is.” Withdrawing a small black plastic rectangle Sgt Tombs pressed a button and a red light came on and the message played out :WE NEED HELP!!! PLEASE!! THEY’RE COMING!! THEY HAVE THE REST AND…..” There was a storm in the background, and a crowd of angry voices beyond. The message ended with the sound of crash, perhaps a door being kicked in but it ended there with nothing else.

The other three all looked at each other with black and unsure expressions and Hannibal whined a bit as Eliot put an arm around him. “Don’t worry, bud. I’m not letting any monsters get to you. So basically something went completely FUBAR and they want us to tell them why?” “Because they built a fucking settlement in buttfuck nowhere? Seriously, I swear to god the second we step outta this thing Billy Bob and his wife Sister Suzie are gonna be playing their banjos and commenting on all our purty mouths.” He gave these last words a sardonic yokel twist as he folded his arms and sat back against the wall, he had the thick Brooklyn accent of pre-war New York normally. Wick finally spoke up for the first time in an annoyed and biting voice. “They’re our people! How can you talk like that?! We have to help them!” “I don’t mind helping them, but it’s obvious we don’t need to be going and playing detective agency, we need to be rolling in with our Ravens and a whole legion of our goddamn Infantrymen.” Dante replied as he checked his rigging and stared at the floor. Before anyone else could speak up for further debate they all launched forward as the APC slammed its brakes and its entire body lurched ahead. They wound up in a twisted pile, elbows and knees finding all the usual spots as they struggled to their feet in the already too cramped space, Eliot helping Hannibal orient himself and checking for any serious injury. Tombs walked crouched to the front and slammed his fist on the wall behind the pilots as he yanked the viewing slot open. “They taught you two shitheads how to drive this thing right?!” Neither responded and remained as quiet as the lone open ocean. Tombs stared between them for a long cold moment until his eyes caught why they were so deathly silent. He felt his heart chill before turning and checking his weapon before pulling the charging handle. “Dante, grab your weapon and cover me. We have someone blocking our road. I need to talk to him.” Before he could reply with a sarcastic comment Tombs was out the door and in the rain. He could only sigh and do as told and entered the maelstrom willing or not. He shielded his eyes as the bright headlights illuminated several yards ahead and in the mud stood a decrepit old man leaning on his cane. “Sir, are you alright?! Do you need help?!” Tombs had to yell so loud it hurt his throat to be heard. The old man only stood firm as a tree and didn’t respond. It wasn’t until they were a few feet in front of him that he looked up. And both armored soldiers took a step back. He was grinning with no teeth in his almost black gums, his eyes white and glazed with blindness and scars covering him. He clutches his gnarled staff with equally gnarled white knuckles and hands. “How may I help you, son?” He spoke like an ordinary old man, where Tombs had expected some weird singsong sort of voice. “Umm. We were actually checking to see if you needed help. We’re heading to Lovecraft to check up on them. We’re with Raven Regiment and we think they need our assistance. This is actually our territory if you didn’t already know.” “I knew…” He said looking Tombs directly in the eye, his mouth turning down and his smile curdling into a deep frown. The storm didn’t have any affect on him, he wasn’t so much as shivering and the only only thing he wore was a tattered black robe like a wizard or old priest. “Oh… Well… Do you live in Lovecraft? We could give you a ride in the APC, and let you warm up. We can even give you an MRE if you’re hungry.” “No thank you, Soldier. I’m here because I choose to be, and I do not live in Lovecraft. I just want to give you a word of advice Sgt Tombs… Go back and tell them it is burnt to ashes. The women raped, the men impaled, and the children carried off. You will have an easier time on that path I promise.”

“Dante, let’s go. He’s fine.” turning without another word and unable to meet the man’s eyes he retreated with Dante stumbling as he kept looking back all the way and slipping again on the metal ramp. “Tombs, did he say anything? I couldn’t hear a thing over the storm, but I could see your mouths moving.” Tombs paused and stiffened as straight as a board and his heart pounding furiously. “He didn’t say anything, and he didn’t want to come with us. He said he’s fine. Just sit. We’re close, I could see the shapes of buildings through the trees just up the road. Maybe another twenty or twenty five minutes.” “You sure everything's okay? Hannibal said he didn’t like it here. He may be a Neo-Dog but he still has the animal’s intuition. Believe me I feel it too. It’s like you’ve got black tar in your belly and cold wet fingers sliding over your back and brain. It’s not fun, trust me.” Tombs only glared and shoved a finger in Eliot’s face. “I don’t want to hear by about ghosts and bullshit, Cpl!Unless you or that dog can tell me where one of our soldiers is keep it to yourself!”

“Calm down, Tombs. We’re a team. You don’t need to keep up the brave face with us.” Dante took his shoulder and gently pulled him away from Eliot who was keeping Hannibal off only by unseen telepathy, but Dante was still thinking the animal was going to pounce on the Seargeant. “Come on, Tombs, you should know better than to get like that with a Handler. Those dogs don’t appreciate it.” Tombs sighed and rubbed at his eyes setting his rifle aside. “I’m sorry Eliot. I didn’t mean it. That old guy was just creepy as hell and I’m starting to feel really bad about this whole thing…” He paused for a few minutes looking between Dante and Eliot and then right at Wick who looked scared as a mouse in a cat convention and then said. “You guys think they’d let us turn around?”

They all exchanged looks, even Hannibal caught a couple of their glances and looked just as nervous. Their only response was a mute agreement. “That’s what I thought.” Tombs said grabbing his weapon once again as the light flicked from red to green. “WEll, buckle up, remember we have training and we’re on our guard. We also have an APC to act as our radio tower and they’d need a lot of C4 to make a dent. So keep on alert, and never go anywhere alone. I’ll brief the Pilots later, but I think they can handle themselves pretty well. They have pistols and SMGs and they did the same boot camp as us. Let’s find our guys, find whoever did this, and RTB.” His words if admittedly cliche did seem to brighten them each and they all sat a little straighter as the APC came to a gentle stop this time, and the ramp descended.

II: Lovecraft They were greeted by a huge wall of logs sharpened into oversized spears bound together and in between a sort of modern day portcullis built with only what you could find at a junkyard. A walkway laid atop it and they say lantern light as three men stepped out and peered down distastefully as two took up a flank on each side of the thrid who stood with lantern in one hand and pistol in the other. “Who the fuck are y’all and why’re you roaring up here in that ridiculous machine?!” He was an obvious yokel and dressed the part with overalls, straw hat and a mouthful of chew. Another was dressed in average windbreaker and ball cap and the third a suit jacket and hoodie with the hood drawn up against the rain. “I’m Seargeant Tombs of Raven Regiment, this is my squad, Cpl Dante, Cpl Eliot, and Pvt Wick. We also have Pilots, two, in the APC. And that’s Hanibal, our Neo-Dog.”

“They say them Neo-Dogs can talk.” Commented one of the flanking rifleman and said no more.

“Well, he can but only I can hear him. They can’t figure out how to get their brains to figure out how to enable them to use their mouths like that. They got the idea from that book, Starship Troopers, the dogs in that can talk but they can’t do certain vowels and…”

“That’s plenty Eliot, you answered his question. Now, we’re here to help. Eliot and I can do some engineering and labor, Dante has some counseling experience, and Wick is a medic in training, but she’s got an M.D. from the pre-war days. She’s just a recruit and it’s standard titling procedure and training. We had Gamma squad here before, and we need to look into what happen. As well as why you didn’t welcome us with kisses seeing as your radio tower is down.”

“Because we’d figured Raven Regiment had fucking abandoned us!” The yokel suddenly screamed and aimed directly at Tombs. “Y’all blackbird sonsofbitches force us out of our warm and safe homes in the city to freeze out here! And to boot your men rob us blind and then desert like the pathetic dogs all you whores that call yourselves soldiers do eventually!”

“But…” one said as the yokel rounded on him, grabbing him by the collar with his pistol hand and yanking him forward. “Bobby, come on I…” his words were cut off by a whack and a shove to take his position again which he did gloomily.

“What’d I tell you?” Dante whispered and Tombs glared at him.

“Shut up…” He whispered back before stepping forward, making sure his rifle was on safe before raising both hands.

“Sir, I can understand feeling that way but I promise you that you are not forgotten. Things are still hard, and especially so with the settlements. We can’t clear out more land to build on and guard every settlment. We tell you all this before recruiting you into the Pioneer Program and we promise again you are not forgotten. We came here to set things right and get you going again and remain here until another squad can be put together for permanent residence. It can take a while to find the right people with the right skill so I’m talking as much as a year or two if need be. If things go a certain way we may end up being your new squad. But that’s the future. Right now I need to talk to your Mayor, and Constable. You’re still Raven Regiment Citizens and subject to the law of the Regiment. If need be I WILL order my Pilots take that ten ton elephant and ram those gates and do this the hard way if you keep fighting. You are also not a recognized authority and by the Laws of the Nation of the Raven, Chapter IV, paragraph three: Only civilians with a role within Auxiliary Branch vested with the approval of Commander Walsh designated as peacekeeper, or law enforcement may deny non-commissioned soldiers access so long as the motivation is a recognized reason with intentions to uphold the responsibilities of aforementioned role in protecting their fellow civilians from death or harm. So to put it bluntly: unless you’re a civilian officer and me stepping foot inside would kill a citizen I suggest you raise your gates before you are charged with treason and sentenced by a jury of your fellow citizens. And something tells me you would already have one vote against you since I pick the jury as most senior government official in this settlement.”

With an angered, and pouting look he nodded at the one on his left. “Open the goddamn gate… I’ll get Bradley and Mayor Ernie.”

“Actually send the one on the left. I’d like to start on the right foot with those two.”

“Fine… Do what the GI says, Derek.” He said glaring at the smaller man and then off into the distance still with that look of annoyance and immature rage.

“Okay, Bobby… I’ll see you at home.” He seemed to almost lean in and then thought better of it before glancing down at Tombs

“Whatever…”

Derek glanced nervously at the yokel once more as he slunk away to find the two men. Tombs watched him closely and glanced at the yokel named Bobby before turning around to fall in beside Dante. Wick turned around to look at them both as she spoke another rare sentence. “Those two are a couple?” Dante shrugged as they entered the APC one at a time. “Couples come in more shapes and sizes than you think. Our generation is new. Now it’s bad to judge and so people you never would’ve thought of are just proving love is a strange in very multi-face thing.”

“When you talk like that you sound like a romantic.” Eliot said before making a gagging noise which Dante responded by showing him a middle finger.

“I may be a cynic, but I really am a counselor. It’s what I did before and I happened to have a lot of LGBT. It’s hard being told you’re a monster for something you can’t change about yourself and if you’re happy with what you like romantically and intimately you shouldn’t have to feel bad for it.”

“Okay, Mr. Rodgers. I promise to recycle and use my words too. How’s that?”

“Maybe we can have a talk. Perhaps we can come to terms on you being a walking asshole. Acceptance is always the first step, Danny.”

Wick couldn’t help but giggle at this last and Tombs sighed standing at the still open ramp. “Okay, okay. You two can have your feelings talk at lights out. Right now let’s focus on the settlers. I think we’re at the center of the town now.”

They felt the machine halt for the third time and a small crowd of voices talking as they stepped out to see about a score of settlers with torches and lanterns all watching them. Two men came to the front, one in a slicker and robe and the other in the standard issue Civilian Police uniform, a sort of urban blue camo pattern and a sidearm noticelable on his hip.

“Mayor, Constable, I’m Sgt Tombs and this is my team. We’re here to aid you and I’m hoping you can tell me what happened to your last squad. If me and Dante can talk to you inside Cpl Eliot and Pvt Wick would be more than happy to assist any of your people. We also have two pilots who need a place to maybe get something to eat and stretch their legs for a while. They’ll be sleeping in the APC with a heater as per standard procedure of course.” This last was actually a direct order as there was no such rule but it was best to keep anyone from becoming scared and chasing off evidence. The officer looked at him hard and the mayor looked wide eyed with relief as he took Tombs’ hand. “Oh, Sergeant! Thank god you’re here! Mrs. Voorhes just went into labor as fate would have it! Oh please! Please tell me your medic can help her! She’s not doing so well and…” Before he could get another syllable out Wick was there with a medical kit and Eliot beside her.

“If someone will take us to her I can take it all from there. I only need Eliot to play nurse, and Hannibal could be a therapy animal. Neo-Dogs can afford to be more sociable than the old trained animals.”

“Oh god bless all of you! Derek, you know the way take them straight away.”

Tombs watched the five of them run off into the night as the mayor gently guided him to a huge old mansion with a belltower. “Right this way, Sergeant! Right this way! We have a lot to talk about, and I’m very sad to say it is not all pretty. No indeed. Uh everyone, everyone, we will have a town meeting at noon tomorrow to meet our new guests! Please, until then give them all space, especially the girl and the one with the dog, they’re helping Mrs. Voorhes! Baby Penny will surely be needing their full attention! The other two are surely exhausted and don’t need us pestering them! Milly why don’t you show them to the inn, and the uh, ladies if they are in the need of that comfort! We also don’t need anyone getting a cold or pneumonia so back to your warm beds and we will talk as a community tomorrow! Treat them just as you would your visiting relatives! Goodnight everyone!”

Some responded with a goodnight, and others quiet stares. A few raising their hands in half hearted signals of farewell as they ascended the old concrete steps and into the shelter of the mansion with Dante, Constable Bradley, and a woman and a man in a Deputy’s Uniform, which bared a II mark on the arm signifying him as second to Bradley. “Mayor, did you say something about “girls” to that woman?”

“Oh yes. We found a brothel has um benefited with occupying testerone filled working men and the Regiment’s encouragement to repopulate. In fact that’s how we came about Penny who your soldiers are delivering right now.”

“But the mothers a Mrs…”

“I know… I have to kee pa positive attitutude since we’re building a home on the corpse of our old one, Seargeant. And that means needing to view bizarre social routines as nothing more than oridnary. And she did want a baby and her husband couldn’t have one. Old injury and a long story. Anyway, from what I understand it was his idea and I don’t even know if she’ll return. She did it but I don’t think she really enjoyed it.”

“Was she forced into this?” Dante asked with sligthly narrowed eyes.

“Oh god no! I saw her six foot tall muslced like an ox husband cradle her like a baby rabbit when she feinted a month or two into her pregnancy. I can’t imagine him making her do anything like that. It was just an answer, and they don’t even know who the father is so it’s like he’s the only one. Trust me, every woman who chooses to do the job is 100% free to say no and I make sure there is always someone outside the rooms incase of trouble. I don’t think it’s necessary but always better safe than sorry with ladies and such things. Now, I am sure you are not here to talk about our brothel. So let me cut to the chase. I am overjoyed to see your faces. But my citizens as you surely saw are far more hesitant. They may have a hard time accepting you after what Gamma did to us.” At these last words his joyful tone took a sharp somber note as he removed his sicker and revealed his jolly white beard and big belly and smooth bald head. He lead them to an old den with a charred fireplace and several easy chairs with a desk. He sat behind it and poured a few glasses from a decanter before drawing himself a couple fingers and setting it aside. “So what happened? That big guy with the hat was yelling about being abandoned? Why would they do that? I knew Lieutenant Mathers and he was a saint, nicest guy, he was EMT after he came home from serving in Navy EOD, just before the whole Neo-Dog breakthrough at Johns Hopkins as it happens. I can’t imagine that man just leaving you defenseless.”

“He wasn’t the issue, it was the others. They didn’t like it here I think and viewed it as a punishment or something. They argued and the Lieutenant socialized with the populace more than his soldiers on personal hours. The medic would treat us, and they’d do the work but they were always distant and never came to the dances or events in town. One night we wake up, the radio tower is in flames and some raiders were marching with two of the unhappy soldiers, I think they were Privates, maybe one was First Class, like I said they didn’t tell, I didn’t ask, and I can’t read your weird patches. If it was like the Army ones I could’ve figured it out. But anyway, they came marching up with the Lieutenant shirtless and gagged and face all beat up and stumbling. They made him kneel and said “Raven Regiment is abandoning this outpost.” And just popped him once. IT was weird… I thought his head was gonna explode but just one bang and then a red hole and some blood leaking out. He fell over and they all just walked away. I think they didn’t attack us because we were inside with the walls and they didn’t have anything to get through. And that was it. We couldn’t radio, we don't have vehicles, water is just an oversized lake that wouldn’t get us even close to Babylon, so we just kept on keeping on. Figured when and if we had to leave we’d figure it out then. That’s all Sergeant. Haven’t seen them since. I hoped you’d be out a few days later, not a couple weeks. I’ve tried to keep them faithful in your army but it was becoming obvious they didn’t like what they were hearing so I buttoned up and hoped for the best. I’m fighting the urge to dance I’m so happy you’re finally here though. We need to finish preparing the field for planting, we’re still getting enough sun and summer is still early enough to have a proper harvest come time. It won’t be big enough to share obviously, but we’ve found the fish are still edible. We’ve been keeping it limited so we don’t deplete the population. We’re still figuring out how to keep it balanced but we can fish year round and it doesn’t matter yet. We’re also looking at livestock eventually, until then we have a trader who still does slaughtering and brings meat once a month and there's plenty of wildlife for extra meat. We e’s learned our lesson before and we only hunt when it’s necessary, which isn’t too often. We’ve got a rain catcher and mass water filter all setup so we’re good on that front too even. For now we mostly get our nutrition from MREs. It’s not easy at all but the work and community is a good way to keep us all focused on working for an easier and more normal life.” After he finished Tombs sipped at the whiskey and winced while Dante took a slow sip and swirled before swallowing. “Good shit, Mayor. What… Thirty years? It’s been a long while since I’ve had a real drink. The ration whiskey the Regiment manufactures is paint thinner with some food coloring I swear.”

Mayor Ernie guffawed like a big jolly uncle’s laugh as he held his gut. “Well I'm glad to see someone else share’s that special taste. ‘Bout thirty give or take I'd say. It was already here and I never found the label. I think it was some private stuff the bit shot CEO used to live here stored for a rainy day, but I figured I'd earned something special tonight after the last couple weeks. Welcome yourself to another glass if you want, son.”

Dante smile and took another appreciative sip. “I think it's best I keep a clear head, Mayor, but thank you. Was there anyone else there who saw what happened that night? Officer Bradley, were you? Did you look into after? Search their bunk room?”

The Officer had been standing with arms so tight against his chest he was like to strangle the air from himself if he squeezed just ever so slightly.He spoke with a slow southern Texas drawl as he glared between Dante and Tombs as he spoke. “The mayor said everything I saw. They left nothing but some journals and files, and random electric parts for some toy one of them was tinkering with. Some stupid robot camera device. I didn't understand it and tossed it all in the swamp. Didn't know you boys would be coming back.”

Dante chuckled dryly as he sat the glass down and leant forward with crystal blue eyes and straight into the officer’s cold dead ones. “Constable, I worry about your investigative abilities when you simply toss sensitive information about people who threatened your own without even seeing what it says. Well, I'm sure they left something behind. They were here for a while, and that's plenty of time to build loose junk with tidbits here and there. Don't worry, we’ll find them.”

“I ain't worried.” He replied icily gripping his pistol.

“Bradley stop it!” The mayor snapped lurching and spinning to get right in the officer’s face. “I expect more from the man who's supposed to keep us safe! These young men want to help and find their fellow soldiers! Just like you would want to find your deputies if you traded places with them! From here on out I expect you to treat them with the respect due to our fighting men!” He was winded and struggling to breathe he'd been so furious and spoke so rapidly. He wiped a bit of sweat from his brow and turned to sit once more. “I am sorry, Sergeant, Corporal. Tensions are very high. We have had a bit of trouble with the filter and a couple cases of dysentery have appeared. We hope the two are not connected, but they're still troubling.”

Tombs nodded and leant forward to speak as if they were friends planning a project with one another. “Don't worry. We can fix it, they make them pretty simple on purpose. And you know we have a medic, who is an M.D. to boot. Mayor, I promise you. We are not going anywhere.” As he looked about the room he saw Bradley still glaring, the mayor looked a little relieved but he fiddled with his hands as if he wanted him and Dante to be going already. He'd forgotten about the unnamed deputy and woman who had followed them. She was sitting by the now lit fire and humming a tune as she knitted a child’s onesie. It wasn't unusual, but her skin was rather pale and she seemed less concentrated and more hypnotized, she stopped and looked up and smiled a smile filled with half rotted teeth before frowning once more and returning to her knitting. As he met the deputy's eyes he saw restrained malice behind them. It was obvious they could just chase them out, or kill them, but they didn't, and Tombs was now wondering even more about the old man’s words, and a snatch of poetry flashed through his mind, but he couldn't seize the words, just a feeling of blique wonder. Like standing in a dead ancient village reduced to rubble and feeling the specters of a thousand years dead people go on with their daily life, giving you a window through time and death to watch for even just a few minutes.

“Sergeant?” The Mayor said grabbing his shoulder and making him jump. “What?! Hu?” “You fell asleep. We've been trying to wake you for a few minutes. You alright, son?” “Yea.” He said rubbing at his eyes and saw Dante looking relieved. “Yea. I guess I'm just a lightweight. We can talk in the morning. Do you mind showing us to a place to stay? We have supplies to setup a bunk, but we can't now with the storm.”

“Of course, Sergeant. Right this way. Corporal, you're welcome to take the glass if you wanna finish that.”

As they were lead away and Dante and Ernie chatted about liquor and a few other subjects, Tombs looked at the woman. She was a healthy middle age woman singing a goofy old world song that went something like. “Well long tall sally, she's built for speed She's got everything that Uncle John need.” The deputy was perhaps 18 with a scared look, as if he and Dante were a pair of wolves sniffing around him and thinking he was a meal cooked and ready to be torn apart. Bradley didn't look pleasant, but he seemed more friendly than before., Tombs though about it as they continued on for an inn with beds enough for everyone; he couldn't say a thing about his dream of course. It had been a strange night, and this little town by a lake with a raging storm had made him think about all that old dark poetry and weird sci-fi with Cthulhu and the Yellow King. He'd loved that morbid stuff as a teenager and the town must've just made it all come flooding back. He shook it off as nothing and focused purely on sleep for now.

III: Lights Out Tombs was snoring away, and Dante was scratching in his book when Wick and Eliot finally arrived a couple hours later look absolutely drained. “How'd it go?” He asked not looking up from his pen and paper as Eliot collapsed on an empty bed and Hannibal curled up on the floor beside him. Wick stripped down to her shirt and carefully laid her jacket, vest, and other gear on the floor beneath with her sidearm carefully positioned for easy access for her. “The baby is healthy. And the mom is fine thankfully. This new world is gonna be a challenge. How long have we just run to the hospital when it's time for a baby, it made it so easy to stop the bleeding if the mom has a laceration during the birth or have a C-section for breech births and twins. But now we don't have a net, we just have to hope we can do what we can and that nothing goes wrong.” She sighed sitting on the edge of her bed and holding her head in her hands. “I've done a hundred births and been as calms as if it was just doing the dishes, but tonight I was absolutely terrified. I saw the head and I just froze. I was thinking about what if she can't breathe, what if the cords wrapped around her throat…”

“Wick, we’re soldiers… our job is to hope nothing goes wrong and he ready for when it does sooner or later. We can't save everyone but we can try. And if you at least try than you didn't waste anything and that's what counts. Standing there with a gun when someone about to bash your head in is just stupid, but you can try and maybe you hit him and you survive or maybe you only wound and die, but you went down fighting and that's brave. Giving in is being a coward. Come on, I think these three have the right idea. Tombs needed to sleep and I wanted to make sure you guys came back. Pilots are in the APC, I've already checked and it's impossible to get in from the outside or tamper with the engine. Thought you might wanna know.”

She nodded and prepared to sleep but as she laid back she stopped and looked at him. “Where'd you counsel?”

He shrugged lacing his hands behind his head and looking at the ceiling. “Inner city high school, I was also a secretary in the office.”

“How'd you wind up here? I mean, other than the apocalypse and everything.”

“I dunno… I liked helping people but now you can't really use your words and I guess I had some anger I needed to externalize to put it simple terms. Raven Regiment was taking anyone they could get when the government fell and I figured it didn't hurt to try a new environment.”

“They said you were a Runner too. What's that all about? You're not even in the Urban Patrol Division. You're a reporter aren't you!?”

“Well that's my day job, I'm a bit of an insomniac and like I said I like helping people so the Regiment decided to franchise just a little. I guess I'm good at that too.”

“You'll have to tell me about it sometime.”

“Maybe… not now though. Goodnight, Wick. Let's try to get some sleep before we get to be on display for the locals tomorrow.” He turned over and closed his eyes. Thoughts of past battle seeping in, friends screaming as a Raven crashed overhead and a shard of the rotor blade slicing his chest as it barreled him over. He heard the stomp of armor as a Werewolf snarled overhead with glowing red eyes and then a whole pack of Direwolves surrounded him. All baring fangs before pouncing and rending his body. It never ended there, it went on for a very long time before he finally awoke in a cold sweat and panting. This time he didn't scream, but he worried about that. It might make things hard, but he hoped he could control it with his usual routine of meditation. “Goddammit… why'd it have to be the Wolves?”

CHAPTER 2: Unreal City

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