Word Count: ~52,000
Song: "Diamond Dogs" from Diamond Dogs
Warning(s): Explicit violence, disturbing imagery.
Summary: Post-apocalyptic futurefic. The late summer sun is high over the base today, hot and intense. Kris tilts his face up and closes his eyes, pretending the hunters got fresh meat today, and that there are rain clouds on the horizon that'll sift cool, clear water down on all their sweaty heads. Everybody has their happy place these days, but Kris tries to make his attainable. There's no point in wishing the last five years never happened, because they did.
NUCLEAR BLAST LEVELS D.C.
- as near as we're allowed to go, ladies and gentlemen. For those of you just tuning in, we have confirmed that the nation's capital has been completely decimated by a ground-level nuclear explosion, and there appear to be no survivors. It's... excuse me. Ted, Jesus, just give me a second. -
Millions dead, U.S. Government in chaos
CIA suspects suitcase nuke; Evidence thin
Reports still arriving
A Nation Grieves: Vigils Across America
MARTIAL LAW DECLARED
- expect to have the new President sworn into office shortly, though who exactly will be taking that oath is yet to be determined -
Wide-reaching police crackdown
FOUR DEAD, HUNDREDS INJURED AT PROTEST IN BOSTON
Riots breaking out across the nation
- reporting live from Dallas where a huge group of civilians have overtaken the National Guard -
MICHIGAN LEGISLATURE ARSON AT HANDS OF MILITIA, THOUSANDS FLEE STATE
Independent unauthorized border patrols forming nationwide
Citizens advised to stay at home, prepare for worst
NEW YORK TIMES CORP. OUT OF BUSINESS?
News giant cites economic problems; Bloggers claim censorship by military
POWER PLANT EXPLOSION IN NJ
THOUSANDS OF RIOTERS KILLED IN KANSAS MELTDOWN
Media outlets shutting down across country
Lights Out, America
- repeat, please stay inside, wash your hands and limit contact with anyone outside your family. This is the emergency broadcast system. This is not a test. The W.H.O. and C.D.C. have declared a pandemic in progress -
- Hello? Hello. I'm trying every channel, here. If anybody can hear me... if anyone's alive out there, please. Please answer me. -
USAF El Segundo, Los Angeles
"I can't stay here," Allison blurts out, her voice cracking. She grips Kris's shirt tightly in her fists, and pushes against him almost hard enough to hurt. If he couldn't feel the tears soaking through the fabric, he'd never know; she never makes a sound when she cries.
"Easy," he murmurs, rubbing her back. She spends so much time being tough, spitting back at the grunts on patrol who try to make her stand up straight for inspections, or take issue with her mouthing off. She's never broken for them, even when she probably should have. Would have spared her that scar on her jaw, at least. But now and then, she'll come and cry against Kris's shoulder, and he figures that's fair. She didn't deserve any of this.
None of them did.
Kris doesn't cry for himself anymore. He's learned better, because just when you think the worst thing that could possibly happen has happened, and you're crying as hard as you can, something else comes along: horror on the news, the worst of all your nightmares in a big orange cloud, glass breaking and buildings burning faster than the firefighters can get to them, people dying no matter where you go, people you love, finally staring up at nothing.
So no, he doesn't cry anymore. Instead, he hugs Allison close. "Take it easy, honey."
"Hey," she whispers, lifting her red-rimmed eyes. "There's a plan. I heard."
Kris's stomach drops. "There's always a plan. Someone always tries, and he always gets shot down before he even touches the fence." There's a long, barren stretch of pavement between the tents and the wall, fading streaks of black all along it. They call it a lot of things - no man's land, the border, the killing fields - but nobody's ever confused. The space between them and the outside is important enough for a hundred names. Kris rubs Allison's shoulder and hugs her close. "We can't risk anyone figuring out we're here, Alli, you know that."
"I don't care," she gulps, pushing her face back into his shoulder. "It can't be worse out there, it just can't. I'd rather fucking die than stay in here, I can't even go to the stinking pisshole bathroom without someone looking at me, okay? You don't understand."
Kris sighs; he's never been the best person to argue this point with Allison. His keep-your-head-down attitude never goes over, she'd always rather fight. He glances over her head at Anoop, hoping for a little help, but Anoop's eyes are flat with disgust. "Don't look at me, man. Don't. These fucking fascists." He rubs a hand over his eyes and falls back onto his cot.
Allison goes over there to curl up against the wall by Anoop's cot and whisper about the great escape. Danny was talking to this guy, she says, and maybe they can finally get out, maybe they can all go live together in the canyons and be happy forever.
Well, that's not exactly what she says, but close enough. Kris gets up and heads outside for some air before he says something he'll regret.
The late summer sun is high over the base today, hot and intense. Kris tilts his face up and closes his eyes, pretending the hunters got fresh meat today, and that there are rain clouds on the horizon that'll sift cool, clear water down on all their sweaty heads. Everybody has their happy place these days, but Kris tries to make his attainable. There's no point in wishing the last five years never happened, because they did.
"Hey," says a harsh voice, and Kris feels the barrel of a rifle shove at his shoulder. He tries to keep his breathing even, keep from tensing up. Carefully, he opens his eyes and turns to face the sunburnt, heavily muscled man in front of him. The grunt looks tired and cranky, but he's alone. Nobody to show off for. "What the fuck are you doing?" he demands.
Kris puts his hands in his pockets. "Just getting some air. It's a hundred degrees in there." He tilts his head back toward the tent, casual and inoffensive without seeming weak. Weakness provokes them.
The grunt sticks out his jaw, debating for a second, and then nods. "Go down to the mess and make yourself useful instead of fucking around," he says. He's chewing on a twig, which is what they do now instead of smoking.
"Yessir." Kris nods, and turns in the direction of the mess. They don't need any help there, he's sure of it, but you don't give a patrolman any kind of excuse. Might as well just stay in your tent and hit yourself in the face with a nightstick.
It's funny, he thinks, walking down the neat row of canvas tents. He remembers being overjoyed to see the military show up. He remembers thinking, Thank God, the cavalry. And for a couple of years there, he wasn't even wrong. It was all right for a while, when there was a command structure and orders coming from somewhere. Back when there were still people trying to save them.
He arrives at the mess and pokes his head in. "Civilian. Patrol said you needed help?"
"Fuck off," comes the reply. It's what they always say, because patrol always sends them random civs when they get bored of wandering around posturing, and kitchen has to stop actually working long enough to tell them to get lost.
"Yessir," Kris replies, and turns around to go back to his tent.
On his way back, he spies Meg. They gravitate together, because no woman walks around the base alone even if she is dating one of the captains. There was a time he'd put an arm around Meg or bump her shoulder with his, but of course he doesn't do that now, in case anybody saw him touching her. He hasn't had so few beat-downs in the time he's been here that he's dying for another one. "Hey," he says instead.
"Hey," she replies, her wide, toothy smile as nice to see as ever, even if it does have a bit of desperation on the edges of it. "Going back?"
"Yep. Patrol caught me standing still."
Meg laughs. "They're not that bad," she says. "Just looking out for us."
"Sure," Kris nods, inoffensive. Meg's been with "Bish" for about six months now; he's one of the few officers that survived the mutiny a year back. Ever since, it's not worth the argument to badmouth grunts to her.
Kris takes care to come into the tent before her. He snaps his fingers when he does it, the signal they've all developed for shut up and hide your contraband. It stung like hell, the first time he had to do that on one of their own, but it can't be argued that she's drunk on the Kool-Aid and she's not coming back anytime soon. Alli scrambles off Anoop's cot and onto Kris's empty one, wiping her eyes so Meg won't ask and she won't have to lie. Danny emerges out of the huddle too; he must have come back while Kris was out.
Meg starts brightly discussing the sad little basketball league the grunts make tall civs participate in, and Kris has time to himself to frown about this so-called escape plan. Danny shouldn't be encouraging them. He's just getting their hopes up over nothing.
Nothing changes around here. You get a routine and you stick to it, that's how you stay alive. You don't think about eating rations again, and you definitely don't spend all your time thinking about the things you can't have anymore. You keep your head down, you don't speak your mind and you don't ask questions. When they say you should sing army songs or not fucking sing at all, that's what you do, and you thank God that you didn't end up on your back in the street, staring up at nothing. You don't cook up some ridiculous scheme to escape when there isn't any place to go.
There isn't another word about it until after lights-out. Meg and Allison are back in the women's section, and Mike's snoring in his cot, which almost drowns out Danny's whisper. "Are you awake?"
Anoop's voice is not a whisper, just low volume. "Dude, he can sleep through a surprise inspection."
Danny laughs softly, as does Kris. "Hey, Allen," Danny says.
Kris shifts onto his side, leaning on his pillow. "You guys aren't still thinking about that plan," he whispers.
"Tomorrow," Anoop says softly. "It's going down tomorrow."
"Come with us," Danny urges.
Kris can only sigh. "You guys are crazy. You're gonna get killed."
"We're going under the fence," Danny says. "I've seen the tunnel, it'll work. It's safe."
"Safe," Kris scoffs. "Come on. Even if the grunts don't catch you, what are you going to do for supplies? Where are you going to get water, or food? Or weapons?"
"We can make the canyon in less than a day," Danny whispers back. "There's fresh water there, and we can figure the rest."
"Anything'll beat here," Anoop puts in quietly.
"You're just saying that because you haven't been outside," Kris scowls. "At least we survive here."
"So fucking what?" Anoop rolls over, and Kris can picture his furious face. He's seen it enough times at mess, at rec, whenever Anoop has to spend time with their wardens. "Have you counted the brown people around here?" he asks, his voice a low hiss. "Have you noticed how there's one or two less every few months, every time somebody goes shellshocked?" He sneers the word, like the sick joke it is - people who make escape attempts aren't necessarily insane, but the grunts sure insist everyone says so. Anoop shifts again, and mumbles his next words so quietly that Kris almost doesn't hear them: "I'll take my chances with the fucking cannibals, man."
He can't help but shudder at the mention of the people outside the walls of the base. The patrols tell these stories every time they come back, maybe making themselves look brave and scary, but maybe not. The word "cannibal" refers to an outsider, even though their eating habits are only part of why they're terrifying: thin, filthy people who'd as soon shoot you in the face as look at you, and can, because they're all armed to the teeth. There's murder wherever you go, and rape is like the new national pastime. Something's wrong with their faces out there, covered in dirt and blood and maybe worse. They even cut themselves up for the scars. People have gone batfuck crazy, is the short of it, and God help us if they knew the base had people in it. If the cannibals knew what we had, they'd come and take us all.
Kris has thought about how it would be if he hadn't been brought here, if he'd become a cannibal. Maybe he just wouldn't know any different, if he were crazy. Ignorance is bliss.
Then he gives his head a shake. Danny's voice cuts across his thoughts. "So can we count you in?"
"No," Kris scowls. "You can't do this."
"We're going to," Danny growls. "We're taking Allison and we're lea-"
"Don't you dare," Kris spits, too loud. He claps his hand over his mouth as Mike grumbles in his sleep, turns over. Everyone holds their breath.
After a second, the snoring starts back up, and they slowly decompress.
"It's suicide," Kris whispers. "The canyon's a pipe dream, guys, come on. If it's fresh water, it'll be swarming with cannibals and they will eat you alive."
Anoop is barely audible. "She's going," he says. "With or without us, she said. If we're there, at least she'll be okay for a while."
Kris is silent. His heart feels like it's sliding down between his ribs, aging and sick and heavy. This is all that's left of his family, all he can count for sure are alive and healthy, and if Allison knows where that tunnel is, it's just a matter of time before she makes a run for it. They can't watch her every second, she's so determined, and he couldn't live with himself in here if she wasn't...
"Come on," Danny says, barely there.
Kris wets his lips. "I guess... I guess the worst that'll happen is, we die. Right?"
Anoop reaches over and pats Kris's cot, the closest he can get. "That's right, man."
Kris appreciates the effort. He dreams that night of the bones of his loved ones, empty and bleached on the glaring sidewalk; of sitting over them, feeling nothing and wishing he could cry.
The guy with the tunnel is the size of a Mack truck and has a beard like Grizzly Addams. The only reason Kris's instinctive paranoia checks itself is the way the guy treats Allison. "One more time," the guy says, his voice surprisingly gentle.
"Eyes, balls, toes," she repeats dutifully. "Try to stay where the buildings are low and watch the rooftops, not just the alleyways. Never go anywhere alone, not even to pee. My priorities are water, food and shelter, in that order, and anything I want is something I have to carry."
Grizzly looks up at the rest of them. "You guys got all that?"
Danny shifts his canteen strap. "How can we tell if water's clean? We're gonna get everything we drink off the ground, pretty much, right?"
"I'd be surprised if you found a water bottle," Grizzly agrees, and starts in explaining to Danny what their best bets are for decent found water, what they'll experience if they drink stagnant or poison, how to tell the difference based on where the pain hits you first.
Kris puts his arm around Allison and asks for the eleventh time: "Are you sure?"
"You could always stay," she offers, leaning into him. "I know you're... comfortable here."
Kris rubs her arm instead of answering. He could shout at her, he could shake her and try to make her understand, but that'd be pretty much the antithesis of the point. So he kisses her dark hair and hugs her tight. "Place wouldn't be any fun without you," he says softly.
Grizzly interrupts them with a wave of one big hand. "Patrol's due back any minute, guys. Make sure you hide the exit on the other side."
Anoop steps up and shakes the guy's hand. "Thanks, Tom." Danny follows after, and Allison plants a kiss on one of his bearded cheeks. Kris can see the gentle smile on Grizzly's face, and wonders why he stays - if he's got kids, maybe. He shakes hands too, and they trade a serious look that the others don't see. Kris wishes him well.
Then he follows his friends behind an empty crate, and carefully drops down into a hole in the cool, dark earth.
It's narrow, once they get crawling. Kris can feel dirt in his hair, under his fingernails and gritting down into his collar, sifting loose as his shoulders bump the walls. At one point Anoop, who's in the lead, makes a sharp sound. Everyone asks at once if he can see the exit, but he only put his hand down on a rock, and they push on. It seems too long they've been down here, it feels like they've been crawling for an hour and there's no light, that's the worst part, that he can't see Allison's boots in front of him even though he knows they're there, and it's hard to breathe with three people ahead of him all kicking up the dust, he's coughing and it feels like he just breathes in more dirt. Kris has never had claustrophobia, but if it's like this with your heart hammering in your chest and a vague sense of nausea and panic, panic, he doesn't understand how anybody lives with it.
At long last, Anoop shouts again, and this time it's for real. Kris can hear the others sighing as he does, and suddenly they're all pushing forward on sore hands and knees. Kris sees movement first, and then a shape, and before he knows it he can see Allison eclipsing the light, a bright halo around her. Anoop's relieved laughter is followed by Danny's, and then Allison wriggles away and Kris can see blue sky.
When he first pulls himself up and out of the ground, the wildflowers and trees are like a painting, unreal compared to the gray concrete base. A little ways away there's a row of houses. Danny and Allison are chasing each other through the grass to stretch their legs, and Anoop is sprawled like a starfish, making a man-sized dent in the underbrush.
Kris closes his eyes and breathes deep, with nothing over his head or pushing at his sides.
"Wait," Danny says, his voice suddenly low and urgent. "Do you hear that?"
Kris drops into a crouch and listens as hard as he can. When long minutes have ticked by with only the wind in the trees, they come together and get serious. They promised Grizzly that they'd hide the entrance, which they now figure means trying to erase the fact that they were here; Allison, as the fussiest of them all, is tasked with trying to get the grass looking like it was as they troop out of the field toward a nearby stretch of road.
The road is a highway, as it turns out. There are cars all along it, smashed wrecks. "Hey," says Anoop, pointing at a sign. "It's the PCH."
"Too close to the water," Danny says, shaking his head. "There'll be cannibals."
Anoop squints down the road, and Kris can almost see him engaging the small unit tactics courses that the army gave everyone, right when everything was starting. "If we head that way, I'm pretty sure we'll hit the freeway. That'll get us straight up to the canyons and keep us up off the street. We should be able to see anything that might come at us."
They look at each other, trying to think of any holes in the plan, and then nod. "Me and Danny up front," Kris says firmly. "Allison behind us, on watch, and then the smartest guy in the back." He grins at Anoop, who winks back at him. It's the first time he can remember seeing Anoop do that in... God. Maybe since Before. It makes him seem brighter, somehow.
Allison bumps Danny's shoulder with her own. "We're cannibals now, too," she says. "We're outside."
Nobody has much to say to that, but she doesn't seem to mind.
They form up and head down the highway. It's flat and clear, and when they hit Sepulveda they decide to turn north. It's the fastest way, Anoop is sure, and Allison agrees because of this shop she used to love, back in the Before, which she remembers was just over by a couple of streets. They'll be hemmed in by the shopfronts, but it's a huge street, so Kris figures they can risk it.
At first, every twitch of the palms in the breeze makes them freeze up, but as they walk they get used to it. There's almost no sound, though as they make their way down the road, a long-rusted door blows open and the scream of it sends all of them into instant panic. They spend five minutes hunched together against a car, a fierce whispered argument breaking out over whether or not they should be making it a priority to find guns.
Then the door blows open again, and this time Allison spots it. They all laugh until tears run down their faces, and by the time they've got their breath back again the sun's a little lower and it's time to get moving.
They make it all the way to Fox Hills before anything finds them. They're just crossing under the freeway, enjoying the shade, and Kris has taken the opportunity to stretch his neck without the sun blinding him. That's why he's looking in Danny's direction when something moves beside the tire of a car, right by Danny's foot. "Danny," he calls softly. "C'mere."
"What's up?" Danny asks, veering over. He must see the look on Kris's face, though, because halfway there he turns around to see the rattlesnake following him, already raised up and staring at him. He freezes like a rabbit.
Allison and Anoop have stopped moving, but Kris can hear Allison breathing heavy. "What do we do?" she whispers, terrified. "Shit, what do we do?"
The snake's head swivels to her and it hisses, longer than Kris thinks it should have breath to do. Its scales have a slick shine to them, like it's been rolling in motor oil.
"Need a stick or something," Danny says, strangled and low. He turns to look around, and the snake swings back to him and puts its head down a little. It looks pissed. Danny freezes again.
Suddenly, a low whistle comes floating through the tunnel. Kris can't help but glance, because Jesus, what now?
He sees nothing, but there's a ticking sound, and Kris spies the pebble jumping down the street toward them.
The snake hisses at it, looking around at them, getting madder and madder, and just when Kris thinks he's gonna start shrieking like a baby if they don't do something soon, one of the loudest sounds he's ever heard comes ripping through the tunnel and the snake's head explodes.
Kris clutches his chest, digging his fingernails in, because if he doesn't his heart is going to leap out of it.
"Get back," comes a rough shout from the side of the overpass. "It's mine."
Kris spins around to look and sees a man there, and the man's got a gun which is pointed right at them. He puts his hands up and backs up to the other side of the overpass. "Come on, come on," he whispers urgently, but he doesn't have to because Danny's already going and Anoop is pulling Allison. As they hit the far wall, Kris gets a look at the shooter.
His hair is cut short, blond and red, and tucked under a visored army hat. He has a bit of a beard, but not enough to hide the grim set of his mouth. His eyes are narrow on them, and Kris doesn't doubt the guy could shoot any one of them dead with hardly a thought. He's wearing what was probably once a nice white dress shirt but is now stained to hell with sweat and dirt and blood. It's rolled up to his arms and tucked into his jeans, and his tough black boots are laced over top of that. They used to do boots over the pants in Vietnam, Kris's mind informs him, coughing up old Discovery channel. It was so the creepy crawlies couldn't get you. On his belt is a bunch of stuff, but at least two knives that Kris can see.
Cannibal, whispers a voice in his mind.
With ease, the man walks up to the snake and lifts it. Keeping a suspicious eye on the four of them, he tucks his gun into a holster on his belt and then twists the remains of the snake's head off. He drops one bloody handful on the ground, and the body of the snake he slings over his shoulder, holding the stump away from his body so the blood can drain onto the ground. "Well?" he says, lifting the gun out again with his free hand on his jeans. "I don't know you. What're you doing in Culver City?"
Nobody knows what to say for long enough that finally Anoop's instinctive curiosity takes over for them. "I thought we were in Fox Hills."
The man looks at them skeptically. "Fox Hills has been Culver territory for the last three years. Where are you from?"
Danny takes a step forward, a breath in. Kris is just barely fast enough to get a hand on his shoulder and pull him back. "We're from south of here," he says. "We're sorry, we don't know much about what's up north. It was a bad situation."
Behind the car, Allison looks at him like he's gone crazy. He ignores that, because if the man's going to talk to them like a real person, then he might as well talk back. He can lie, and Danny can't, and the decision's made now, too late.
The man eyes him for a minute more, and then seems to relax a bit. He scratches the stubble on his chin thoughtfully. "Well, you sure don't look like you've been on your own for long. What happened to your weapons?"
"We brought what we could," Kris says. "Would you know a place we might be able to scrounge up something extra?"
The man frowns. "Depends. Everything along the freeway'd be picked clean. You could try looking west of it, but there's always a chance you'll run into hunters out there. Where are you headed?"
The man lifts an eyebrow. "Well, why you'd wanna go there, I don't know, ain't nothing but forest. But if you're dead set on it, it's gonna take you straight through the Dogs." He pauses for a second, and then shudders deeply. "You don't want to meet up with the Dogs, trust me on that. Those fuckers are crazy."
"Where's their territory?" asks Danny.
"North of ours," the man says. "All the way up. I don't ask, man, I wouldn't go there if you paid me. Some people, after, you know. They just went psycho." He shivers again, lighter this time.
"And there's no way to the canyons that isn't through their territory?"
"Not unless you wanna get up to Los Feliz and Silverlake. That'd take you a while, though, and there's not much for cover." The man picks at his nails, as casual talking about their future as about the weather.
"So," Kris says tentatively. "Any other place you know of that we could stock up on things we might need? Maybe just find some food?"
The man shrugs. "All the territories share food, but only with their own. I'd offer to take you into Culver, but, no offense, you don't think you wanna be with us right now. There's some debate over the current leadership, and you don't wanna be handy when these punks want to try to make a point to our boss. It's pretty Lord of the Flies in there."
Kris presses his mouth in a tight line. "I appreciate the advice," he says, because that much is true. "Good luck with them."
The guy looks at him and chews his bottom lip. "Look. You seem like a nice bunch of people, so I'm gonna give you some free advice, okay? Stay off the freeway and major roads, because you'll be easy pickings for the border patrols. Stick to residential streets. If you're looking in houses, avoid any that have an American flag out front, because they were stripped bare. You'll have better luck finding common stuff in other houses - knives, clothes, bandages, that kind of thing. People lump together out here, so anyplace you don't see people, you're probably okay. Once you cross Venice Boulevard, you're out of Culver territory and you're not my problem anymore. I gotta go check in, so take care of yourselves, okay?"
He turns away, and then turns back, digging a hand in his pocket as the dead snake flops on his shoulder. "Hey you. Miss."
Allison peeks around the side of the car at him.
He pulls something from his pocket and tosses it. It comes thumping over the hood of the car toward her - a battered juice box. Kris stares at it for a second, because it's been about four years since he saw one. Then he motions to her to take it, which she does. "Thanks, mister," she calls, stuffing it into her pocket.
He waves over his shoulder, already leaving. He's gone the next minute, no trace of him left except the pool of blood on the pavement.