The machines were built to stand in the place of human soldiers, to protect human lives. Artificial Intelligence Defense Force or AIDF. Those who worked on the program just called it AID for ease of pronunciation, and because that’s how they perceived it. On the brink of the third world war, the United States achieved this technology with major world powers not far behind. China, Germany, England and others all followed suit. It was bloody and disastrous, and before long, the machines found better targets. No one knows why the machines turned on their human creators. Major communication resources and infrastructure were taken out quickly, and people were left isolated and hoping their governments would send help and soldiers to protect them. They had hoped in vain.
“Holy shit! Get down! Down!”
Jensen drops to his knees, eyes blinking away the dust as he scans the rubble for his friends.
Chris vaults over the dune and drops behind him.
“Where the hell is Chad?” Jensen hisses, eyes searching the barren landscape. When Chris opens his mouth to respond, Jensen jerks his head once and grabs the front of Chris’s shirt, pulling him down behind the sandy ridge. The creak of metal grinding against metal and heavy mechanical footsteps echoes around them.
Jensen closes his eyes and waits, ears focused on the sound of the machine as it walks past, searching for any human survivors. He counts in his head – one, two, three. The machine pauses, the footsteps cease, and Jensen keeps counting, knowing because they’re still breathing that they haven’t been discovered yet.
He hears the change in Chris’s breathing, the slightest hitch of breath that means he’s thinking of doing something stupid. Jensen wraps his hand around Chris’s upper arm, squeezing painfully hard.
Chris’s eyes narrow, flashing, and the silent question is raised: Chad?
Jensen shakes his head again. He’s out there somewhere, probably hiding in amongst the forgotten ruins just like they are, and when Jensen gets his hands on the wiry bastard, he’s going to tell him exactly what staying together means. In vivid, graphic detail. He might even draw pictures this time. Maybe then it would finally sink in.
His pulse is racing, but his breathing is measured and silent. He hasn’t gotten used to this and doubts if he ever will, but he’s adjusted. They all have, because this is their life now. What they once were is not what they are, and the lives they used to lead were forfeit in favor of a mechanical war that they hadn’t wanted and had no hope of winning.
Chris doesn’t voice his acquiescence so much as relax against Jensen’s hold, a silent huff of acknowledgment. Jensen loosens his grip, the pads of his fingers resting against flesh and muscle, a gentle reminder.
The heavy footsteps resume as the machine thuds away, continuously scanning for any signs of human life to destroy. They remain on their stomachs, hidden by the blockade. Jensen implemented the ten minute rule about six months ago: wait ten minutes after you hear the last sound before moving, because those bastards are smart, and getting smarter every day.
Jensen eyes the leather cuff watch on his wrist silently ticking down the minutes until they can move again, until they can try to find Chad. Chris twitches impatiently, and he keeps grabbing Jensen’s wrist to check the time. His hand falls away from Chris’s arm after twelve minutes pass, because he can’t be too careful. Jensen pushes himself up to his knees, eyes immediately tracing the deep footprints in the dusty earth. The machine’s gone, having disappeared into the sun bleached horizon.
Chris stands beside him, grumbling underneath his breath about being too old for this shit. It’s a familiar mantra between them, and Jensen can’t stop his mouth from curling around the edges.
“Don’t yell,” he says quietly.
Chris glares at him. “I’m not a complete moron.”
He nods because he knows Chris has been fighting to stay alive as long as he has, but he can’t stop himself from saying it, from doing everything he can to keep him safe. It’s a courtesy and a loyalty that’s always returned.
“Been awhile since we’ve seen ‘em in these parts,” Chris muses as they start walking in increasingly wide circles looking for Chad.
Jensen sighs, rubbing away the sweat on his brow. “They know we’re out here. They’re gonna keep coming.”
“Until they get us,” Chris finishes.
“They haven’t gotten us yet,” Jensen replies. He’s not a positive person by nature, preferring honesty and realism over rainbows and fantasies that don’t exist anymore.
“So what are you planning?” Chris asks conversationally. He’s keeping the conversation going, filling the void of silence with words because that’s better than contemplating where their wayward friend has gotten off to.
Jensen eyes him sideways. “What makes you think I’m planning anything?”
Chris snorts, lips curving to a smirk. “Because I know you, Jenny Bean, and if I know anything, I know you’re already thinking what our next move’s gonna be.”
“Yeah, Jenny Bean, what’s the plan?” a mocking voice asks.
Chris and Jensen spin around and Chad is standing less than ten feet from them, trying to slap the sand and dirt off his jeans.
“I’ve told you not to call me that,” Jensen growls. There’s heat in his words, a heavier meaning that has nothing to do with the nickname he despises.
Chris is moving away from him, face split by a grin, and he slaps Chad on the back before sliding his fingers to the other man’s shoulder to squeeze. “Been lookin’ for you.”
Chad jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “Did you check the trench where I was cowering like a bitch in the corner?”
“I prefer the term strategic retreat,” Chris replies.
Chad smiles. “There was nothing strategic about it. We were just about toast. Speaking of toast, how the hell did you hear that thing coming, Jensen? It had to be half a mile off.”
Jensen lifts an eyebrow. “What does that have to do with toast?”
Chad shrugs. “Made sense in my head.”
“Here’s something else you can make sense of in your head: when I say stay together, I mean stay together. You should be on our asses, man. I want you to be able to tell me what Chris had for dinner by the gas that’s coming outta his big ass.”
Chad takes a deep breath, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. “He had Danneel’s sorry excuse for chili.”
“It was vegan. Can’t expect it to be that good,” Chris replies.
Jensen narrows his eyes. He knows people make jokes to cope. God knows these poor substitutes for lives that they lead have destroyed far better men, but that doesn’t mean he wants to lose one of them. “I’m serious.”
“I think he had some type of wheat product. I guess it was supposed to pass as a roll, but who knows, really?” Chad winks at Chris, who doesn’t smile back, merely flicks his gaze to Jensen as if to say he’s not joking.
“You know what? Whatever. You don’t answer to me. Do whatever the fuck you want.” Jensen spins on his heel and starts for the Jeep. It’s over a mile’s hike, and the sun is dipping dangerously low on the horizon. Their chances of encountering a machine are bad during the day; their chances of survival when encountering one at night borders on the chances of Danneel cooking something that’s actually edible.
He hears muffled voices behind him, but he doesn’t slow down, long legs eating up the dusty, broken earth in quick, agile strides.
Chad falls into step beside him. “On your ass,” he says quietly. “Got it.”
“Doesn’t have to be my ass,” Jensen mutters, accepting the admission for what it is. Message sent and received. It’s already been forgotten. Grudges and resentment have no place in this world where continued survival is the one and only goal, and transgressions, real or perceived, are forgiven and forgotten nearly as quickly as they occur.
“But you have such a nice ass, Jenny Bean!” Chris chuckles, coming up on his right side. “If I had to pick an ass outta our group, and I couldn’t pick one of the girls, I’d have to go with –”
“You can stop now,” Jensen interjects, rubbing his hand over his face.
“But your ass, it deserves all the –” Jensen shoves him and grins when Chris stumbles and opts to start cursing instead of continuing his tribute to Jensen’s ass.
The Jeep is a blessed sight as they pick up the pace to an easy jog. Chad and Chris carry on the conversation, discussing the machine and the remnants of the war as Jensen starts the engine and follows a different path back to camp.
Chad and Chris jump out of the back of the Jeep and Jensen parks it under some dense underbrush. He slips out of the back and they cover it with branches and leaves. If a machine gets close, this makeshift camouflage won’t be enough to stop it from destroying one of their few working vehicles, but then again, if a machine makes it this close to camp, a destroyed vehicle will be the least of their worries. They’ve been lucky so far and it’s enough protection from a cursory look from a distance.
Jensen gazes at the horizon, squinting against the darkness like that will somehow sharpen his vision. A lone owl calls in the distance then everything falls silent. Jensen nods to Chris, who lifts his fingers to his lips and whistles once. The ground comes to life around them as covers are moved and people rise from the ground like zombies from a grave.
Jensen leans back, fingers pressed against his lower back and waits for the pop and his muscles to unclench. He starts for his bunker and leaves the explaining to Chris and Chad – another supply run has come up a bust. He’s already doing the math in his head, the constant stream of numbers that calculate their supplies and food stores compared to how many people they have in the camp. They’re still holding their own, but for how long? They’re on borrowed time as it is.
There’s a face he doesn’t recognize as he passes by, a young woman with a child clinging to her neck. The kid’s young, maybe three or four, looks like he’s missed a few meals, and he hides his face in the woman’s shoulder as Jensen walks by. He doesn’t assume it’s his mother. He stopped making those assumptions over three years ago when everything he thought he knew got turned on its head, when the war started that burned the world from one edge of the planet to the other.
He pushes a metal cover aside and slides down the ladder to his bunker buried six feet below the surface. Jensen knows he’s the luckiest one here because he’s one of the two people that have some type of shower facility, even if it’s just a concrete stall where he hangs a bag of water. He figures that’s the perk of finding this place, of being the one who burned the owner’s mangled body in a makeshift funeral.
Jensen pulls off his clothes and leaves them scattered across the floor as he steps into the tiny shower stall. He tugs the stopper off the tubing and pours cold water over his body, enough to get himself damp before grabbing the soap and rubbing the dirt away. He’s on autopilot, planning the supply raid tomorrow. He’s going to head for the city, a broken shell of what it once was. They need fuel, medical supplies if he can find some, and whatever else they come across.
As much as he’d like to go after that machine, he knows they’re soldiers, built for destruction, for war. Jensen just wants to survive. His stomach rumbles as he washes the soap off his body. Two meals a day – that’s what they’re allowed. It’s what their food supply allows. Kids are the exception, and there’s an unspoken understanding to look the other way if a child takes a snack out of turn.
The remaining water slips down the drain and he pulls the coarse towel off the rack and rubs his body dry. The jeans he pulls on have more holes than fabric now, but they’re still his favorite pair, soft, fitted and comfortable. He eyes his bed regretfully as he starts for the ladder. He’s got a raid to plan before he finds any rest tonight.
The food tent is in full swing, and fifteen or so people are gathered around talking quietly. Chad laughs loudly and shoves Mike away as Chris steals a few beans off Danneel’s plate. There’s a familiarity to it that Jensen finds peaceful, not that he’d ever be caught dead saying that out loud. He’d never hear the end of it.
He approaches the tent and eyes the pot of simmering food. He guesses it’s some type of bean soup. Every time Mike cooks it ends up being some type of soup. He figures Mike throws in whatever he can find and calls it that. Usually there’s a surprise somewhere in the title.
“Jensen, so nice of you to join us,” Mike says as he grabs the ladle and slops some soup into a bowl. The conversation dies down as Jensen eyes it warily.
He says the same thing he always says no matter who’s cooking: “Looks good. Thanks for makin’ dinner.” He keeps his head down as he grabs a spoon and starts for the war room. He hates the term. It was a Chris thing that caught on, and now he’s saying it in his head.
“You could join us, you know,” Chris says quietly, appearing out of thin air at his side. It’s been awhile since his friend has brought up this particular bone of contention, but Jensen’s reply is as steady as it’s always been.
“We’ve got a couple of newbies. Might be nice if you say hello,” Chris says. His voice is even and conversational, but Jensen has been able to read him for years.
“I don’t need a PR person,” Jensen grumbles. What he wants to say is who gives a shit if I say hello? He stops to suck down a couple of spoonfuls of broth and nearly chokes on a bean stem. He winces and eyes the next spoonful. On second thought, he’s not as hungry as he originally thought.
“Just come say hi,” Chris repeats. “It’ll take two seconds.”
Jensen sighs and feels himself give in almost immediately. Chris knows it too, because his mouth contorts into that conniving little smirk that Jensen hates. He follows Chris back to the group, and people move aside to give them room.
“So,” Chris begins, pointing at a petite young woman. “This is Alice and the little man here is James.” James lifts his head long enough to meet Jensen’s gaze then drops his eyes to the bowl in Jensen’s hands.
“Nice to meet you. Both of you,” Jensen says. He hates it when Chris makes him do this shit. He’s not the camp’s welcome wagon, after all. He’s not antisocial; he just has other stuff to do, like figuring out how to stay alive in a world where the odds are stacked against them.
“We’ll earn our keep,” Alice blurts out, watching Jensen carefully as if his opinion matters, as if his words carry weight. “I promise you, we’ll earn our keep. I’ll cook, clean, and I can –”
“Hey, it’s okay,” Jensen says easily, suddenly wanting to put her at ease. “It’s fine. You’ll be fine. You guys are welcome here.” He knows their open door policy isn’t the norm. Settlements are scattered and resources are scarce. Most people would look at Alice and James and see two more mouths to feed, liabilities in a world where nothing can be taken for granted. The day Jensen looks at innocent people and sees that, he’s going to give up fighting altogether because there’s no point anymore.
Alice eyes him curiously, as if she’s trying to figure out if he’s real or not.
Jensen clears his throat and sets the bowl on the table in front of James. “I’m not hungry,” Jensen says lamely when Alice looks up at him with wide, questioning eyes. “So, um… yeah.” He rubs the back of his neck nervously, feeling inquiring eyes staring at the back of his head. His cheeks feel warm and he spins on his heel and stalks away so he doesn’t have to see that knowing smirk on Chris’s face that he knows is there. It’s Chris’s fault anyway. He never knows what to say to the new people, and with more and more coming every week, he figures he should probably work it out. Or learn a few new hiding places.
No voices call him back to the group and he’s not surprised. That’s the most social he’s been in a month. The war room is dark when he removes the hatch and climbs down the ladder. It’s the biggest room in the settlement, and they keep their maps and emergency stores of food here. When he first found this place, this was the room he slept in. As more people showed up, he moved to a smaller one, opting to keep this for group planning or whatever. The last thing he wanted was for people to think he ran things around here. It’s childlike reasoning: the person with the biggest bedroom has the most authority, and he isn’t one for false pretenses. As far as Jensen is concerned, if you contribute in some way, you get to stay. He’s yet to come across a single person that hasn’t wanted to help, because in the end, it comes down to survival, and they are stronger in a group.
The war brought out the worst in some and the best in others. Petty differences were laid aside for a common goal: survival. Most efforts were for naught; the machines were too strong, too fast, armed with weapons meant to bring a nation to its knees. The United States crumbled, and it was assumed that other nations followed a similar path, even though the news stopped broadcasting soon after the war started. Communication was the first thing to go – cell phone towers, broadcasting stations and backbone servers. People were isolated, families were torn apart, and the hope of any type of government intervention died quickly.
Jensen pulls out the city schematics for Phoenix and spreads them across the table; the days of GPS and satellite tracking are gone. They’d tried to raid the city about five months ago and were shut down fast. The machines were still in the city then, in vast numbers. At the time, there were still people to hunt.
He pulls the public school system book down to read the statistics on the schools, trying to find the mark that will hopefully give them biggest score. He trails his finger over the map, plotting the easiest way in and the fastest way out. After crosschecking it with the sewer system just in case they hit trouble, he jots a couple of notes down in the notebook he always keeps handy.
The hatch above is pulled back and Danneel climbs down the ladder using one hand; the other is tucked against her stomach. He’s not surprised to see Chris, Chad and Mike following her down.
Danneel holds out her hand and offers him two pieces of bread. There’s some type of fruity jam on it, and Jensen doesn’t ask where she got it. “Here.”
There’s a generally accepted rule that if you don’t eat at mealtimes, you don’t eat. It’s easier to keep track of food that way. Jensen refuses to lock the food stores despite Chris grumbling that he probably should. If someone is that hungry, he’s not going to refuse them food.
Jensen eyes the food she’s offering him. “You didn’t have to –”
“Yeah, I know I didn’t. Shut up and eat it anyway,” Danneel replies, lifting her eyebrow when she thinks he might refuse.
He takes the bread from her hand and gives her a half-smile of thanks before stuffing the corner of one piece in his mouth and leaning over the map again. He chews, swallows and repeats, his eyes trailing over the details, mind racing as he jots another note in his book – 75th leads to Martin Luther King Blvd - overpass.
“Gonna clue us in?” Chris asks as he leans over the table on the other side, eyes tracking Jensen’s finger over the worn paper.
“Supply run,” Jensen says after he swallows.
Chris leans back and rubs his chin thoughtfully. “Not that I’m doubting you or anything, but that looks an awful lot like the city.”
Jensen nods. “That’s ‘cause it is.”
“The city?” Chad prompts, suddenly a lot more interested in the conversation. “Maybe I can find some batteries. I’d give your kidney to be able to listen to that CD player I found.”
Mike grins. “Be nice to finally listen to all those CDs you’ve been storing away.”
Jensen can feel Chris’s wariness. It’s palpable in the air.
“Don’t you remember the last time we tried that? Nearly didn’t come back.”
Jensen remembers. He remembers everything about that day because one of them didn’t come back. He remembers Cindy wandering away from the group, and yelling at her to stay close. He couldn’t get to her in time, and her screams split open the night sky as the machine eviscerated her body right in front of their faces. He remembers his hands shaking as he stitched the gash in Chris’s arm. He remembers not talking for a week as he longed for a bottle of whiskey to dull the ache in his chest. He remembers the pale yet stoic faces of his friends as they realized once again that they were vulnerable, that they were all living on borrowed time.
“We need supplies,” Jensen says, not lifting his gaze from the map. He doesn’t want to see whatever might be lurking in Chris’s eyes. “We need gauze, stitches, ointment, braces – stuff you’re not going find in bumfuck nowhere.”
“And you think the hospitals, what’s left of them, haven’t been raided yet?” Mike asks.
“We’re not going to the hospital.”
The room falls silent, and Chad leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Okay, I’ll bite. Where are we going?”
“The medical examiner’s office.”
“That’s uplifting,” Mike mutters.
Jensen points to the map. “There’s a high school a block away. We’ll see what they have there, too.” Chances are most things in the school have been picked over, but it’s worth looking.
“And you got a way to get us in there?” Chris asks.
Jensen leans closer, outlining their way in, the roads and possible escape routes if things get rough. He shows them the way out, what to do if they get separated and all the places to hide in the area if they can’t get back to the vehicles.
When Jensen pauses to wait for questions, he stuffs the last bit of bread in his mouth. He’s gotten used to eating half of what he once did, but the jam is sugary and sweet on his tongue. He eats now because he has to; it’s a chore like anything else, a necessary task for survival, but this is actually good and he sucks the red jam off the tips of his fingers, barely suppressing a moan of enjoyment at the sweet taste.
Mike clears his throat. “Two things – do you sleep with the fucking maps? How the hell do you plan this shit? And second, we need to find more jam.”
“That was three things,” Chad points out.
Jensen chuckles and waits to see if anyone is going to ask something pertinent to what they’re attempting tomorrow. When no one speaks up, he finishes the same way he always does. “Look, it’s going to be dangerous.”
“Getting out of bed in the morning is fucking dangerous,” Mike says.
“I’m not expecting any of you to go. If you show up tomorrow, great, and if you don’t, no hard feelings. There are no expectations and none of you owe me or anyone else here a damn thing.” When no one responds, Jensen ends with, “I’m pulling out at eight.”
Chad groans. “Ever heard of noon? I thought you weren’t a morning person.”
“I do this purely to piss you off. Makes getting out of bed in the morning worth it,” Jensen says, a smirk curving his lips.
“Asshole,” Chad mutters as he starts for the ladder. “I’m gonna head to bed or you guys will never see me in the morning.”
Mike stretches his arms over his head. “Yeah, me too.” He slaps Chris on the back and shifts to kiss Danneel’s cheek.
Danneel glances between Chris and Jensen. “I guess that’s my cue. Don’t stay up too late.” She smiles at Chris and leans against Jensen’s side for a second in a lazy half-hug.
Jensen waits for several seconds after the hatch is closed before speaking. “You don’t have to come.”
Chris snorts. “Like hell. You know I’m coming.”
“I don’t expect you to.” Cindy was close to Chris. Jensen never asked, but he saw her leaving his room more than once early in the morning when Jensen was just heading for bed. She was special to him, and it was more than just the codependent we need each other to survive sort of way.
“I know you don’t. I just want to make sure you’ve thought this through. It wasn’t your fault last time; none of the fucked up shit that happens around here is your fault.”
Jensen opens his mouth to tell Chris that he knows that, rationally; he knows he’s not responsible for Cindy or anyone else that chooses to live here, but Chris lifts his hand before he can get a word out.
“She got away from the group, didn’t stay with us or stick with the plan, and because of that –”
“I don’t want to talk about this.” Jensen knows what happened. He was there.
“I’m just sayin’ we need you there tomorrow, Jensen. All there and not inside your head reliving what happened in the past.” Jensen had already played out the possible endings for the conversation, but trust Chris to throw him a curve ball, because he didn’t see this coming. Chris knocks on the table once, focusing Jensen’s attention. “So, I guess the question is are you ready for this?”
Even if he isn’t ready, it doesn’t matter. There are things they need for the camp, and if they’re going to continue to scrape out some type of existence out here, he has to be ready.
“I’ve been planning this for a while. It’s going to be fine,” he says.
Chris shakes his head and sighs, and Jensen tries to figure out what he said that was wrong. Chris is used to translating his bullshit. “That’s not what I asked.”
“You should know by now, I’m fine. I’m always fine.”
“What you are and what you let people see are two entirely different things.”
Jensen groans and rubs his fingers over his eyelids. “Dude, seriously? Who the fuck are you now, Yoda? Tell me we’re not going there.”
Chris pats him on the shoulder, fingers lingering to squeeze as he passes by, obviously taking pity on him as he heads for the exit. “Get some sleep.”
Jensen gives him a small smile meant as a gesture of thanks. “Yeah. You too.”
After the hatch slides closed, Jensen’s eyes fall to the map again. He’ll go over it one more time just to make sure.
It’s another four hours before he finds his way to bed.
Jensen slings his duffel bag over his shoulder and stalks toward the Jeep. The sun is starting to rise, chasing away shadows with warm light. People are milling around, cleaning away the signs of breakfast before heading out to the fields to check on the crops. Jensen makes a mental note to try to get to the fields tomorrow. Amy waves at him and he gives her a half-smile he knows she can’t see. Maybe they’ll run across some glasses while they’re out. All the pairs he’s brought back haven’t been close to the right prescription.
Chris is leaning against the side of the car, fingers loosely holding his belt loops as he watches Jensen approach. “Did you sleep at all?”
Jensen grunts and slides his aviator sunglasses down to cover his eyes. The last thing he needs is people asking questions.
Chris nods knowingly. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“So what are we bitching about this morning?” Mike asks as he wanders up from their other side.
“The usual,” Chris replies.
Mike levels a finger in Jensen’s direction. “What’d you do now?”
Jensen doesn’t reply. He climbs into the Jeep and slams the door harder than necessary, hoping that will kill the conversation before the guys decide to have another tag team session. Chris clambers in the opposite side and Jensen passes him the ever-present notebook.
Chad jogs over and pulls on Mike’s shoulder. “Go ride with Danneel.”
Chad shrugs. “Apparently I’ve already managed to piss her off this morning.”
Chris shifts so he can see over his shoulder. “What’d you do to her?”
“Why’s it always gotta be my fault?”
“’Cause it usually is,” Mike replies, slapping Chad on the shoulder as he jogs away. “No worries. I’ll handle it.”
Jensen waits for Mike to reach the van before backing the Jeep out slowly, because the couple of kids that they have running around the camp don’t listen for shit. Chris and Chad wave to the onlookers who have come to see them off, but Jensen keeps his mind on the endless miles of desert ahead of them. The brakes squeak in the van as Danneel and Mike pull out behind them.
There’s no one on the road when they turn onto the dusty highway. It’s not the same shock it once was. The cars became less and less frequent as time progressed, and now it would be a surprise to see another vehicle out here.
“Be nice to be able to bitch about the traffic again,” Chris muses quietly.
Jensen glances at him out of the corner of his eye. They don’t talk about it, at least he doesn’t. The past is the past, and this is their future. He prefers not to focus on a world they’ll never have again. Nostalgia is pointless, and engaging in a trip down memory lane only distracts him from the present, from what he has to do now.
Chad laughs from the backseat. “Man, it used to take me an hour to go three miles. Rush hour traffic in LA. Never thought I’d miss that shit.”
Chris drops his arm behind Jensen’s seat, resting his hand against the back of headrest. “At least there was a lot of eye candy to keep you occupied.”
“Yeah, now that’s something I miss. Beautiful women as far as the eye could see. It was heaven.”
“Now see, that’s where you’re wrong,” Chris replies. “Country women beat out city chicks any day. Jeans and cowboy boots – that’s where it’s at.”
Chad shakes his head. “No class, man. No class.”
Chris knocks on the back of Jensen’s seat. “What about you?”
Jensen glares at the empty, stretching road ahead, at the burned-out houses and dying landscape. “The radio.”
“How do you get the radio from ‘country women or city chicks?’” Chad asks.
“I miss the radio because I could turn it up and drown out the two of you,” Jensen says.
“You don’t have to be a dick about it,” Chad mutters as he leans back and glares at nothing.
Without having to turn his head, Jensen knows Chris is watching him. He doesn’t know if it’s understanding or disappointment. He figures it’s a combination of both. He lets it go, crams it away in the back of his mind where he puts everything else he figures he should feel bad about but doesn’t have the time or inclination to do so, at least not right now. If they make it out of this trip alive and intact, he’ll consider it later.
The city crests on the hill. Massive buildings loom in the distance, shells of their former glory as they deteriorate and crumble, forgotten monuments of human aptitude. Chris is staring straight forward, eyes tracking the road and nothing else. There’s nothing any of them want or need to see past the road.
“Jesus,” Chad murmurs. Jensen glances in the rearview mirror at Chad, who’s staring without blinking at an annihilated neighborhood, eyes wide.
“Don’t look,” Jensen orders, fingers gripping the wheel so tightly his knuckles are bleached white. When Chad doesn’t turn away, the color slowly draining out of his face, Jensen reaches back and grabs his knee, fingers struggling to get a hold at the awkward angle. “Hey, don’t look. Just… don’t.”
When Chad can’t tear his eyes away, Jensen clears his throat and says, “Country women. Or men. Never was that particular.”
Chris coughs beside him, eyes narrowing as if to say what the hell are you playing at? You’re gonna do this now?!
Chad’s mouth snaps closed, and he meets Jensen’s gaze in the mirror. “Country men? Seriously? I never knew that about you. Huh.” His gaze falls to Jensen’s arm that’s twisted back, fingers gripping his knee, and his mouth twists mischievously.
Jensen’s hand falls away and returns to the steering wheel. “Trust me, not you.”
“Don’t act like you don’t want a piece of this,” Chad says a little too gleefully as he rubs his fingernails against his puffed out chest.
Chris snickers beside him and relief mixes with amusement when he says, “I think you’ve created a monster.”
“Anyone but you.”
“Don’t hate, man. I wouldn’t be able to resist me either,” Chad says. Jensen rolls his eyes and returns his gaze to the road now that Chad has some color returning to his cheeks.
“Next exit is ours,” Jensen says, counting the exit ramps because there’s no guarantee there’s going to be any road signs left.
They drive through the empty streets, carefully navigating their way around broken cars and debris littering the road. Pinnacle High School is on their left and Jensen pulls the Jeep around the back as Danneel passes him on the left and drives to another entrance. Most of the windows are busted out, glass scattering the parking lot and overgrown flowerbeds.
Jensen parks and slides out the vehicle. “I’m gonna try to find the nurse’s office.”
“Always liked a woman in uniform,” Chad says. Jensen shakes his head and motions for them to follow.
Chris hangs back and grabs Chad’s shoulder as he passes.
Chad eyes the hand on his arm. “What?”
“I’d see it as a personal favor if you didn’t breathe a word of what Jensen said in the car to anyone else.”
Chad’s eyes widen. “He was serious? Really?” When Chris’s grip tightens on his bicep, Chad shakes his hand off. “I figured he was just spouting crazy shit to make me feel better.”
“And if he wasn’t?” Chris demands, voice low, a challenge shrouding the words.
“It’s fine,” Chad says, shrugging. “I’m from LA, remember? I’ve seen it all before.”
Chris blocks his way when he tries to follow Jensen into the school. “You won’t say anything?”
“No, man. I won’t say anything.” He lifts his hand in a sorry impression of Scout’s honor that comes off looking more like the Vulcan salute from Star Trek. “Not like I’ve ever seen him look twice at anyone before anyway. He’d have half the camp falling at his feet if he’d even show the slightest interest.”
Jensen sticks his head out of the doorway. “Everything all right out here?”
“Yeah, we were just coming,” Chris calls back.
Jensen gives them a disbelieving look that makes Chad look away guiltily. “Well hurry your asses up. We’ve got work to do.”
“Always so bossy,” Chad mutters as he trails behind Chris.
The school is in disarray, chairs upturned and scattering the halls and classrooms. Sunlight shines down where part of the roof is missing and the smell of mold is thick in the air.
Jensen climbs across a desk that’s blocking the way into one of the science classrooms.
“What are you doing?” Chris calls. “The nurse’s office is probably somewhere close to the front.”
Jensen’s flipping through some of the textbooks, the ones with the least amount of water damage, eyes scanning the pages quickly.
“A little late for a science lesson, don’t ‘ya think?” Chris says as he rests his arms on the desk.
“I just…” He closes the book, grabs it and a few others before going back to the door, glass crunching under his boots as he walks. “We’ve got kids in the camp,” he says flatly when Chris raises an eyebrow at the books in his arms. No one comments when he takes a couple more from an English classroom.
Most things considered worthwhile for survival have already been looted. Mike and Danneel might be having better luck with the cafeteria, but Jensen isn’t holding his breath. There are a few tools salvageable in the agriculture department, and some packets of seeds that are missing the labels. He hefts a bag of fertilizer over his shoulder and carries it back to the van.
Chad takes an outdated bottle of Tylenol and a cheap plastic stethoscope from the nurse’s office while Chris explores the machine shop for anything useful. Jensen pulls the biggest set of bolt cutters out of a tool chest and grins when he pulls the handles apart and pushes them closed with a snap.
“Do I want to know what you need those for?” Chris asks curiously.
They gather what they can and store it away in the van. Jensen keeps the bolt cutters and slides them under the front seat of the Jeep before he gets in behind the wheel.
“Not much left in the cafeteria,” Mike says as he leans against the side of the van and tries his best not to look disappointed.
Jensen shrugs because he’s not surprised. “I wasn’t expecting much.” It’s not about finding food. That’s a short term solution to a lifelong problem. It’s about finding a way to sustain their existence.
“You guys finish loading up,” Jensen says. “I’m gonna go next door and see if there’s anything worth taking.”
“To the medical examiner’s office,” Chris says flatly.
“That’s just creepy,” Danneel says, rubbing her arms as if fighting a chill.
There’s not much left that freaks Jensen out. He’s seen things he never expected to see, all of them have, and he gave up the moral high ground a long time ago. If there’s something worth taking, he’ll loot it.
“I’ll go with you,” Chris offers.
Jensen knows his heart isn’t in it. “It’s okay. It’s basically right across the street.”
“Would you let one of us go alone?” Chris asks.
He wouldn’t. That’s rule number one: you never leave the camp alone. If you do leave, you go in a group and you stay in a group.
“Practice what you preach,” Mike says, winking when Jensen flips him off as he’s passing by. He’s never said he leads by example.
“Siphon some gas from those cars while you’re standing out here doing nothing,” Chris calls over his shoulder as he climbs into the passenger side of the Jeep.
Jensen drives up to Danneel, elbow resting over the door. “Twenty minutes.”
She gives him a sloppy salute. “Aye aye, Captain.”
Jensen looks both ways before crossing over the street, an old, mostly unnecessary habit that he can’t seem to get past.
The medical examiner’s office is mostly intact: the front office window is missing, but the roof seems to be all there. It’s not the type of place most people would choose to hide out in, which means there’s a good chance whatever’s left hasn’t been picked over a hundred times.
“So, are you expecting some type of ‘coming out of the closet’ gift?” Chris asks.
The question is from so far out in left field that Jensen pauses and glances over his shoulder at Chris, who is pretending to be interested in a cheap island painting on the wall. “Excuse me?”
Chris rubs his chin as if he’s contemplating a piece of fine art, and Jensen resists the urge to lob a stapler at his head.
“You told Chad you’re bi or into guys or whatever.”
“And?” Jensen tosses back, trying to figure out where the hell Chris is going with this crap. “Do you honestly think any of that matters right now?” When Chris rubs his finger down the cheap wooden frame, Jensen cracks. “Would you turn around and look at me? I refuse to have this conversation with the back of your fat head.”
Chris reluctantly turns around. He’s not one to back down from a confrontation, so whatever is on his mind is something more than just simple frustration. “Did you have to tell him?”
“That’s what this is about?” Jensen snaps, lifting his arms and spreading them wide. “You’re the one telling me to open up to people more. Make up your fucking mind.”
“I figured you’d start with your favorite color, not ‘hey, by the way, do you know that I happen to like fucking guys?’”
Jensen’s head jerks up, his eyes narrowing. “What the fuck, Chris?”
Chris sighs and rubs his hand over his face, massaging his temples using his thumb and the tips of his fingers. “That’s not what I meant.”
Jensen shakes his head. They really don’t have time for this little heart to heart. In fact, Jensen would like to schedule this engaging conversation for sometime during the month of never. “Talk and loot,” he orders as he pushes open the swinging doors to the autopsy bay.
A couple of seconds later Chris follows him, grumbling obscenities under his breath. He’s gathering his thoughts, which is so unlike Chris that Jensen almost wishes he’d told him to wait until they got back to camp. Then he could feign illness, disappear into his bunk and come out sometime next spring.
“What if he wasn’t okay with it?” Chris asks as he picks up a nasty looking hand saw.
“Keep that,” Jensen says. When Chris looks at him cross-eyed, he shrugs. “You never know.” He starts reading the labels on the chemical bottles and wishes he’d paid more attention in high school chemistry instead of trying to score a date with Summer Holland.
Chris bumps his shoulder as he walks past. “You gonna answer my question?”
Jensen slips packages of various sized sterile needles into his duffel. “He was freaking out, Chris. What was I supposed to do?”
“What you always do – make something up.”
Jensen zips the bag closed and pulls the strap over his shoulder. “You’re really worried about this, aren’t you?”
“I just don’t want you catching shit for it.”
“Think they’re going to throw me out?” Jensen asks. That hadn’t occurred to him until now. There was a time when being gay meant risking your job, your family and possibly your friends. If Chad decides to run his mouth and tell everyone, there’s a chance that –
Chris cuts across his mental rambling. “Of your own camp? I doubt it.”
“It’s not my camp,” Jensen returns flatly.
“Yeah, sure. Whatever you say.”
The conversation lulls as they scavenge for anything they might have overlooked. Jensen takes all the hand tools he can carry. He has no intention of using them for whatever they were originally made for, but well built tools are priceless.
“It just caught me off guard,” Chris says. “It’s not like I didn’t know you’re… whatever you are. I got more than an eyeful when I busted in on you and Steve making out in the back of my minivan before our set in Portland.”
Jensen chuckles at his friend’s obvious discomfort. He still has no idea why they’re having this conversation. His sexuality has been the farthest thing from his mind for ages. It’s not like he doesn’t have needs - he’s still a guy - but finding their next meal and figuring out how they’re going to irrigate their crops tends to get first priority in his mind.
“It’s not going to be an issue,” he says, trying to bring the conversation to a close. “It’s not like people are kicking in my hatch to jump in bed with me.”
Chris rebuts Jensen’s comment just a little too quickly, a little too severely. “That’s because you never give anyone the time of day. If you so much as looked at someone twice, you’d be beating them off with a stick.”
Jensen groans. “I’ll give you a thousand dollars to drop this.”
Chris smirks and rests his hip against a metal slab. “We’ve been over this. Your money’s no good here.” His money’s no good anywhere. Not unless you need something to start a fire with. It’s pretty good for that.
“I don’t see you jumping in the sack with anyone.” That’s not entirely true. He’s seen more than one woman leaving Chris’s room early in the morning, but he’s neglected to mention it. They’re all adults, and there’s nothing wrong with seeking companionship once in a while.
Companionship? He needs to get his head out of ass.
“You don’t see everything, Jenny Bean,” Chris replies, grinning like the cat that caught the canary.
“Hey, Chris, let’s have this conversation never again, okay?” Jensen says.
Chris opens his mouth to reply, and the cold slab starts to vibrate against his side. A pencil rolls across the floor as deep vibrations start rocking the very foundation of the building.
“Shit,” Jensen mutters as he runs for the door with Chris close on his heels. There’s only one thing that could shake a building like that, and it’s no damn earthquake.
Tires screech in the distance, and Jensen sees the van driving away with the machine trailing behind it. The machine’s not fast; it doesn’t have to be. The lasers take care of that.
“Don’t try to outrun it,” Jensen yells, even though there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell they can hear him.
The passenger door of the Jeep is hanging open with Chris only halfway inside as they peel out of the parking lot, leaving a trail of rubber on the asphalt.
“It’s a Street Sweeper,” Chris yells over the sounds of the engine. The foot soldiers were built for combat, for one on one killing. The Sweepers are taller than those, with better equipment and built to withstand heavy artillery. They were designed to do the heaviest damage in the shortest amount of time, to bring the population to its knees by destroying infrastructure.
The road explodes in the distance and the van veers off down a side street. The machine turns to follow, heavy footsteps vibrating debris around them.
“What are you doing?” Chris yells, craning his head to look down the street as they speed past.
“Getting ahead of it,” Jensen mutters.
Chris spins on him, eyes wide. “What?”
Jensen hunches down, eyes narrow as he yanks on the wheel, tires squealing in protest as they spin around a curve. “It’s part of the plan.”
“What the fuck kind of plan is this?” Chris yells. “Where the hell was I when you were planning it?”
“Asleep.” Jensen gestures over his shoulder. “Get the harpoon gun.”
“You do realize this is not Jaws, right? That thing shoots lasers out of its eyes. What do you think a –”
“Goddamnit, Chris! Just do it!” Jensen screams.
When they round the corner, they don’t see the van. There’s debris blocking the road, and Jensen swallows, the pit in his stomach a deepening void as he stomps down on the brake, bringing the Jeep to an abrupt, screeching halt. He hadn’t planned for that, for the road to be blocked, for them not to be able to get out.
The Sweeper sees the Jeep, beady red eyes homing in on its next prey.
“Come on,” Jensen whispers. He stands up, waving his arms over the top of the windshield. “Come on, you piece of shit! Come get us!”
Chris is tugging on his hip, fingers digging into flesh. “Jesus Christ, Jensen. Sit the fuck down.” The machine lowers its head, and the debris in the road explodes into nothing. “Drive, man. Fucking drive!”
Jensen drops into the seat and slams the gearshift into reverse, foot pressing the pedal flat against the floor. “Get the gun.”
Chris climbs over the seat and pulls the heavy weapon off the floor. “Okay. Now what?”
“What?” Chris yells, his new default setting.
“Get it in the leg. The big plate on the side should be fine.”
Chris slides the gun into the mount, checking the settings quickly and lining up the shot. Something thick and gooey covers Chris’s fingers and he eyes the sticky, yellow substance carefully. “I swear if we live through this…”
“Fire out of the back and don’t get caught in the cable,” Jensen instructs as he switches gears and spins the Jeep around, tires screeching.
The machine appears about fifty yards away. It starts in their direction, steps heavy and measured as the earth rocks around them.
“What are you waiting for?” Chris snaps.
“For it to take a shot,” Jensen says. His foot hovers over the gas, fingers twitching from the strength of his grip on the wheel.
“You’re waiting for what? You want it to shoot at us? Are you fucking insane?” Chris yells.
It’s a standoff worthy of the old big budget Hollywood action movies that once graced silver screens around the world; the machine ambles forward, each blast closer than the last. It’s not a sharp shooter, but its intention is clear: destroy anything human.
Jensen’s counting in his head. “Get ready,” he yells. Three, two, one…
The ground explodes behind them as Jensen floors the gas and the engine roars. “Stick it in the leg!”
Chris takes aim and the harpoon slices through the air, cable flying out after it, and it sticks. It barely perforates the thick metal plate of the machine’s leg, but the industrial strength glue holds strong. Bullseye. The Jeep turns around the machine, circling its legs as explosions rock the ground after them. It looks like it’s working, layer after layer of cable encasing the heavy legs of the Sweeper. The next blast takes off the side mirror, and that’s enough. The next one will be the kill shot. Jensen cuts the wheel hard to the right, the cable disconnecting from the roll on the back.
Lasers flash past them and a building explodes to their left. The next sound they hear is twenty tons of powerful steel hitting the ground.
“Holy shit!” Chris hollers, twisting in his seat so he can see over his shoulder. “Holy shit! That fucking worked! How the fuck did that work?”
Jensen drives back the other way, hoping to see the van, to see signs of some kind of life. Chris slaps him on the back for a job well done.
The two-lane street is still deserted, shadowed by the crumbling buildings on both sides.
“There’s no debris,” Chris says quietly. “If it got ‘em, there’d be something.”
A Sweeper makes houses dissolve into little more than dust and ash. A van wouldn’t even be a blip on its radar.
Bringing his fingers to his lips, Jensen lets out a loud, shrill whistle that makes Chris wince and rub his ear.
Headlights flash ahead, shining brightly against the back of a former Walgreens. Jensen closes his eyes. The relief that floods his body is enough to make him stop breathing. The van pulls out ahead of them, and they follow it to the main street where the machine lies still, eyes no longer red.
Danneel rolls down her window as Jensen pulls up on the side of the van. All three of them are firing questions a mile a minute.
“What the fuck happened?”
“You took it down? How in the hell did you do that?”
Jensen cuts across them. “It’s offline, and we have to get outta here before it’s back online. Let’s go.” He doesn’t give them time to respond, just pulls ahead and leaves them to follow, yelling more questions in his wake.
“All right, start talking,” Chris says after they pass the outer limits of the city. “Where the hell did you come up with that?”
Jensen rubs his mouth on his shoulder, trying to get the dust off his lips. “Ever seen Star Wars?”
“Star Wars,” Chris replies flatly. “You took out a Street Sweeper using a move you saw on Star Wars.”
“Actually, you took it out. You made the shot. I always knew that redneck, backwoods upbringing would come in handy.”
Chris grins at him, all teeth, expression carefree. It’s a good look for him, Jensen decides. “It’s the timing, man. You always manage to get it right.”
Jensen doesn’t reply, letting the praise wash off of him. It’s not that he feels like he doesn’t deserve it, he just knows it doesn’t matter at the end of the day. He’s not looking to be anyone’s hero. He doesn’t want the responsibility.
“I know you don’t want to hear it, but –”
“You’re right,” Jensen interjects. “I don’t want to hear it.”
“You’re not going to ruin this for me,” Chris replies, dropping his arm across the back of Jensen’s seat. “I’ve been waiting a long time to see one of those fuckers go down.”
This was the first time they’d gone after a Sweeper. They’d taken down foot soldiers before, but it was a rarity, because to Jensen, knowing when to run is the better part of valor. His theory has kept him alive this long, which is proof enough to him that it works.
The camp is quiet as Jensen parks next to the underground storage compartment. Signs of life start to appear when Jensen opens the door to the back of the Jeep and starts to unload. He’s already making his mental to-do list for tomorrow.
The van hasn’t even rolled to a stop when Chad jumps out, arms waving. “A fuckin’ Sweeper! You took down a fuckin’ Sweeper!”
“With a move we learned from Star Wars,” Chris says, grinning as Mike gives him a high five.
“That just makes it more awesome,” Chad says.
“We’ve got to celebrate,” Mike decides. “Wine, women and song!”
“I’m down with all three of those,” Chris agrees, waggling his eyebrows in Danneel’s direction.
“I’ll take the former and latter, thank you very much,” Danneel says as she playfully pushes Chris away.
“Dude, seriously, we need to talk about this,” Chad says as Jensen passes by with an armful of bottles and plastic containers. “You took down a Sweeper today. There’s a chance we could –”
“No,” Jensen says flatly.
“You don’t even know what I was going to say,” Chad huffs.
“I don’t have to know,” Jensen replies as he pulls himself out of the manhole in the ground. “I’m sure it was going to be something dangerous and equally stupid.”
“Jensen, easy,” Chris warns.
“What’s your problem?” Chad snaps. “You guys brought a Sweeper to its knees today. You should be fuckin’ ecstatic.”
“And do you know why we did?” Jensen says, his voice dropping dangerously low as he steps into Chad’s personal space. Chad backs up, pressing against the side of the van, and Jensen follows him so they’re nearly sharing the same air. “That thing wasn’t going to stop until you guys were dead. Either we stopped it or I’d be gathering your ashes right now to spread across that pot plant you love so much. I’d have run if I’d thought we could get away. You guys hear me?” Jensen steps away, eyes traveling to each member of the group before meeting Chad’s gaze head on. “You always run when you can. You run and you stay alive.” He steps back again, feeling exhaustion and weariness pricking at his eyes. This is not how he wanted the day to end, with him dropping a bomb on everyone’s good mood. “I’m gonna take a shower. Finish unloading if you want or… don’t worry about it. I’ll just get it tomorrow.”
They watch him go, people stepping back to give him as much room as possible.
“That went well,” Danneel comments when Jensen disappears through the hatch into his room.
“He knows about Betsy?” Chad says gloomily, referencing his much loved marijuana plant.
“There’s not a whole lot that goes on around here that Jensen doesn’t know about,” Chris says.
Mike rubs the top of his head, staring at the ground as if he’s unsure of his next question. “So is he right?”
Danneel sighs. “The last camp I was at was attacked about two months after I got there. I was the only survivor.”
Chris swallows. “Fuckin’ hell.”
“You never said that before,” Mike says.
“That’s because we don’t talk about where we came from because the story’s always the same. You find a place and sooner or later the machines show up,” Danneel says. “You guys know how it ends.” Her voice is even and devoid of all emotion. Those tears have already been shed.
“We don’t answer to him,” Chad says belligerently.
Chris glares in his direction. “Do you really believe that?”
“It’s not that I wouldn’t like to see every one of those machines destroyed. God knows I’d give up my life tomorrow if I thought we could stop it, but what chance do we really have?” Danneel says.
“And if Jensen says no, well…” Mike shrugs. “He’s kept us alive this long.”
“Exactly,” Danneel agrees. “He’s proven himself more than once. Hell, he proves himself every day.”
“If we go, he’ll go with us,” Chris says. Jensen would never let them out of his sight if he knew they were going after the machines, intent on hellfire and destruction. Even if he didn’t agree, he’d still fight by their side. He’d fight to keep them alive.
Mike shakes his head. “There’s no way.”
“That he’d go?” Chad asks.
“That we could risk him,” Danneel clarifies. “He’s the heart and soul of this place. He makes it work. It’s the best camp I’ve lived in since the war, and I don’t think I’m ready to give that up yet.”
“So you’re saying I should apologize,” Chad says as his head drops against the side of the van with a thud.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Chris says. “He’s not expecting it.”
Mike stares out at the sun slowly descending behind the outlying trees. “Grants no quarter and expects none in return?”
“Yeah, something like that,” Chris mumbles.
Chad claps his hands together, trying to bring some enthusiasm back to the group. He’s never one to stay down for long. “All right, let’s finish unloading this shit. We’re still gonna celebrate tonight.”
“Any chance dear old Betsy will make an appearance?” Mike asks, bumping Chad’s shoulder as they start pulling supplies out of the van.
“You know Betsy never turns down a good party,” Chad replies, grinning.
In a world where surviving the day is an accomplishment, taking down a Sweeper is something that’s never been seen before, and celebrate they do. Late in the night, after they’ve all eaten until they’re feeling content and lethargic, Betsy’s offering is passed around as Chris lazily strums the strings of his guitar. Alice and Danneel hum along as Chad and Mike talk quietly in the background.
Occasionally one of them gets up to stoke the fire and cast a sidelong glance toward where Jensen’s room is. The hatch stubbornly refuses to open, and no one is surprised when their unofficial group leader doesn’t join them.