We hit the edges of the St. Louis zone about midday. The moment we saw it, a strange surreal feeling washed over me. We crouched, making slow progress as we maneuvered around packs of wildlings through tall grass and crumbling buildings.
And then, as we slid by, we almost seemed to pass through a time portal into a strange, new world.
The grass was as tall as ever, giving us plenty of ability to hide and creep, but buildings were no longer decayed. They stood straight and proud, the only thing marring them being the grime that covered their surface. We passed one that had a tree growing right into its side, and then around as it couldn’t break its way through the walls or windows.
As we slowly crept along, desperately trying to keep from being seen, we encountered strange ditches in the earth, some of which had bridges that had once been sidewalks and roads, now held in place without anything to support their weight, presumably forever.
Intellectually, I knew these ditches, ravines and depressions were caused by the first few years of erosion. I knew that as plant life had reclaimed the area, they had worked to stop the erosion and create these strange wonders. But this knowledge did nothing to make them any less strange and unusual.
Cars lined the roads. Some of them had been parked or stopped, but all too often they had collided with each other. Some had flipped, ending up on top of other cars in a strange fashion. Yet, even after the decades since Scion had attacked the city, they showed absolutely no damage. A strange monument to the people who had lived here, the lives that they had once lived, and how they had died.
Sarah had taken point a little while ago, and now she held up her left fist. She reached over with her right hand to tap at the watch. I glanced down at my own; 1:30. We’d made better time than I’d initially thought we would. But she was right. It would be better if we were to find a place to report in, and so that we could run some basic tests.
I took a couple of creeping steps forward to let her know that I’d take point before carefully lifting my head above the grass. I had to be careful; some wildlings could pick out any unusual movement from a half a mile away. After a moment, though, I found a good house with a garage next to it. A large fence around the house itself, with the gate half open. Whomever had lived there had run to the garage in a hurry. Who knew if they’d gotten out in time?
I motioned for Sarah to follow me before creeping along. Now that we had a definite destination in mind, I took it more slow and cautious than usual. I was almost to the street when we heard a keening to the east of us. After a moment, it was joined by more, an entire pack keening. We both froze, and I let go of my halberd with one hand to put it on my revolver. If they’d seen us, we were in for a hell of a fight, with no place to retreat to yet.
After a moment, though, we heard the snarls and yaps of a fight breaking out. Two packs attacking each other. Maybe they were fighting for territory, maybe for food. I wasn’t too keen on finding out. Instead I moved cautiously to the edge of the grass, held for a ten count, then darted across the street. I instinctively knew Sarah was right behind me.
Instead of hiding in the grass, I kept to the edge of the sidewalk, ready to slip into the grass at the first sign of trouble. As we crept along, I ignored the front door entrance. While the fence made it so that any wildlings that attacked us would be funneled through a choke point, it also meant that we’d have that much more trouble maneuvering.
Instead, I moved to the gate, putting my shoulder against the fence and looked to Sarah. She turned and took up position to defend my rear. I couldn’t see over the fence, so this would be tricky. I held up a single finger, paused, and put up another. A third finger joined it. I didn’t bother with the fourth, instead ducking inside the gate when I would have raised it. I quickly scanned the area.
Nothing. We’d lucked out, but I didn’t want to depend on luck.
I took a step so I could pat Sarah’s shoulder twice before moving back inside the fenced-in yard. It must have been nice, once. Now, the stone path to the side door was uneven due to decades of plants growing in the cracks. There was a table and some chairs in the grass that had been completely grown over, barely visible in the grass.
I waited for Sarah to close the gate, quietly latching it. Every noise made my nerves rattle. All that we needed was to have one pack overhear us at this point, and it might be all over. We didn’t need that. Survival was the name of the game.
As quietly as possible, we made our way along the path, my heart hammering in my ears. It was almost louder than the sounds of wildlings fighting in the distance. We moved to the side door and I once again positioned myself against the wall next to it, setting down my halberd and drawing my revolver.
Sarah took up position in front of the door, pausing just long enough to hand me the semi-automatic pistol. I set it next to my foot before raising my revolver, finger on the trigger. This was where we might get into trouble, and I wanted to be ready.
Sarah fished out her tap keys, trying several in the door’s lock. It wasn’t until the fifth that one slid in. A quick glance to me to make sure that I was ready before she carefully held the key, paused, and then used a bit of her strength as she tapped her finger against it.
I couldn’t see her face, hidden behind the faceplate of her helmet, but I knew she was irritated now. She did it again, and the key still didn’t turn. The way that I understood it, when she tapped the toothless key from below, it would jostle the tumblers. If she did it just right, they would give her the briefest of moments where they would all be aligned and the key could be turned.
A third tap, and the key twisted. She opened the door a crack before putting the keys away and quickly retrieving the semi-auto. I put my revolver away, disconnected the lowest portion of my halberd shaft and slid that into a loop on my belt. The shorter shaft for my halberd would be better for inside the building. Wordlessly, we slipped inside and quietly closed the door behind us.
We weren’t out of the woods yet, though. We moved carefully through the kitchen that we’d entered, me taking point once again. It opened into a dining room, where there were paper plates and an open pizza box. There was no sign of pizza anywhere in it, just a thick layer of grime.
We moved into the living room, checking every corner, nook, and crannie. Echoes of an old life abounded. Game controllers haphazardly abandoned on the floor. A glass laying in the middle of the carpet next to a paper plate, the white carpet stained blue from where the glass had tipped over.
The overwhelming knowledge that we didn’t belong here, in this house or this city, flooded through me. Necessity, however, dictated that we didn’t always get to listen to feelings.
We checked the entire first floor like that, looking for any signs of life, any animal droppings. Anything. There weren’t any, but that didn’t necessarially mean anything. There were still two stairwells, one going up, and another going down.
Sarah pointed to me, then up. She pointed to herself, and then down. I nodded in agreement — it was a good plan. With her relying on her power, she could hold a flashlight easier, allowing her to respond more easily if there was anything down there. I didn’t like separating like that, but I couldn’t argue the logic.
Just because we had to check the entire house didn’t mean that I didn’t feel more at ease as I went up the stairs. The likelihood of there being anything in here was low if there were no signs on the first floor. But wildlings were odd at times, so you were always better off being safe rather than sorry.
The first room to my right seemed to be a computer room. I slipped inside, looking around. A computer to the left, another to the right, and a small TV on the wall opposite to the door, with some sort of DVD player hooked up to it. Various small toys littered the floor in front of the TV. The room looked fairly well-kept, really. A few things knocked over, but nothing important. There were posters on the walls for video games I’d never heard of, along with a long poster of some dude with a katana.
There was a closet that was open, but it looked empty. Completely empty. Interesting. The only other thing of note was the window. I always felt weird looking at these huge windows. They were common in older architecture, from before Gold Morning. Large windows, completely unsecured except for a lock. It seemed strange to me. Not a waste of resources, not exactly. More of an open invitation to danger. Smaller windows that you could somehow secure were better, even if airflow wasn’t as nice because of it.
I moved on, heading into what I was guessing was the master bedroom. The bed was enormous. I honestly didn’t think that I’d ever spent any time in a bed that big. I noted, however, that there were no pillows on it.
Dresser drawers were pulled out, with sections of clothing missing in them. I peered into the closet — ladies dress shoes, boots that must have come up to the knees, nice dresses, some summer clothing. Nothing all that interesting to me.
I was about to head out when I noticed something on the floor, half-tucked behind one of the dressers. Carefully I bent over to pick it up. A picture of two women in the woods, in front of a good-looking tent. Their arms were wrapped around each other as they smiled at the camera, one woman’s head tilted so it rested against the other’s.
I looked up at the dresser, and then the mirror above it. I suddenly had the mental image of the two of them grabbing things in a hurry, making sure to grab the pictures. They left their computers, their games, but they’d grabbed the things that were most dear. Their memories.
I took a wild guess and tucked the picture into the mirror frame. It didn’t seem right to leave it on the floor.
The next room was a tiny bathroom, just a toilet. The small mirror above the sink was open, with only a couple of odds and ends in it. I wished that there had been more for me to investigate in it. I really had no desire to go into the last room.
A few moments later, though, I found myself pushing the door open. My suspicions were immediately proved right by the twin sized, four poster bed, with pink chiffon swags going from post to post. The drawers to the French provincial dresser were open, revealing that almost everything had been taken out of it. On top was an empty doll stand.
In one corner of the room sat a small table with four chairs, a plastic tea set on top of it. The molding around the window had been painted like castle stones, and the wallpaper along the top of the walls looked fancy and elegant. A quick check of the closet revealed that it was almost empty. I noted that there were no stuffed animals around, and the only toys I’d seen were in the computer room.
A mental image was forming in my mind. They’d adopted a daughter, one whom they’d loved very much. She was at an age where she wanted to be a princess, and they’d indulged her completely. When the report about Scion had come, perhaps a phone call or something, they’d taken the time to grab all of her toys. To keep her calm in this time of emergency. With what they’d left, it spoke volumes.
They would have been better off grabbing the bare essentials and leaving as quickly as possible. I still had to give them credit; they were good parents, doing everything they could to make sure that their daughter wouldn’t be scared while they were terrified.
I had other suspicions, but I couldn’t verify them here. Instead, I went back downstairs, feeling so painfully hollow.
Sarah was still in the basement. I moved to the kitchen, opening cupboards. Most everything was still there, but I did notice some gaps where things should have been. A cupboard packed almost completely full, save for a gap next to the sugar jar. I noted that the sugar was still inside it. The lazy susan, however, was completely empty. They’d grabbed all their non-perishable foods.
As I heard Sarah made her way back up from the basement, I moved to the dining room table and carefully removed my rifle and pack.
“Clear,” she whispered as she moved to the kitchen door, locking it.
Strange. We were the safest that we’d been since we’d left Twain, but I felt horrible about it. I opened my pack. “Was there any camping gear down there?”
She shook her head slowly. “Not that I found. Some stuff looked missing though. Why?”
“They had a daughter, but all of her stuff and some of theirs was missing.” I glanced at my watch as I pulled out the small battery-powered lantern. “I did find a picture of the parents, though. Looked like they were camping when it was taken.”
I took a deep breath. “I think when they heard about Scion’s rampage, they grabbed everything they could an ran. If they enjoyed camping, though, they probably grabbed their gear as they left. The kitchen doesn’t have any canned goods, though.”
Sarah nodded slowly. “So they either had some place that they could go to in the wilderness that they felt was safe.” She paused, building her courage. “Or they went for Canada.” I blinked at her, and she explained. “Between here and Canada is Iowa.”
I winced. If they were anywhere near the southeast part of Iowa when Scion had done his pass over it, they were most likely dead. If they were lucky, they’d been vaporized when the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant blew. If they weren’t, the death would be longer due to the radiation.
“They were remarkably well-organized when they left,” I said cautiously. “They may have had a plan if things went horribly wrong and had to bug out. They probably had a place to go that wasn’t north.”
“Yeah.” Her tone said that deep down, she didn’t believe it, but she consciously chose to buy into that explanation. I knew I did.
I checked my watch. It felt like we’d been doing this for hours, but it was only 2:12. Only forty minutes. I held out my lantern to Sarah. “You wanna go into the basement to make the call? Muffle the noise?”
“Yeah, sure.” She took the lantern and paused. “You gonna do some tests?”
As she went back to the stairwell, I headed back into the kitchen. As I heard her reach the bottom, I turned my own radio on, keeping the volume almost all the way down.
“Eagle to Nest, do you copy? Over.”
“Hey, Nest here!” Phil’s voice was loud enough that not only could I hear it from my own radio, but hers as well. “How’s it going?” There, now I only herd him from one place. She must have turned down her own radio.
His lack of knowledge about radio protocols probably had her wincing. I knew I was.
“We’re fine.” She was keeping irritation out of her voice and rolling with his example. Good. “We’ve found a place to hole up for our first set of tests, and will be staying the night here.” We were? I’d rather do the tests and move on, but she must have had a plan.
“Any trouble along the way?”
“We had to reroute a few times due to wildliings, but we’re fine. Quite a few of them are attacking each other. We aren’t sure why. How are things going on your end?”
“We had a group of flying wildlings attack, but we’re fine. This little fort of ours is pretty dang good, blasted a few waves out of the sky. We’re going to use the turrets as little as possible for wildlings on the ground, save it for air attacks.”
“Roger that.” She paused. “Don’t worry about further calls tonight. We’re in a house and locked the doors, so we’re perfectly safe. Resume the regular schedule tomorrow.”
“Gotcha. Stay safe out there.”
“You too. Eagle out.”
I set everything down that I’d grabbed in the kitchen and shut off my radio. Instead, I focused on my first set of tests by carefully testing a knife against my cheek. It wouldn’t be quite good enough for shaving, but it would have done alright for cooking. Good. Unceremoniously, I stabbed it into the pizza box.
Nothing. As I raised the knife, I could see it had made an indentation, but that mark slowly disappeared in front of my eyes, looking like I’d never stabbed it in the first place. Sadly, I’d kind of expected that reaction.
That was why Saint Louis was so special. Scion had done his usual blasting of the earth until he’d reached a certain point in the city before using some new power. Nobody was sure about its exact nature, but every living thing in a huge radius had simply vanished. A lot of things that weren’t living were locked into a form of stability, like somehow they had found a way to evade entropy completely.
That’s why we were completely safe from wildlings in here. Unless they could pick locks, which was very unlikely, there was no way that they could get in. In theory, an Endbringer could fling themselves into a building here and not even cause a scratch, but nobody was eager to test that theory.
The effects didn’t exactly make sense, either. Some things behaved in weird ways, while others were absolute. It was a topic of great debate and study, and up until the wildlings had driven off all scavengers, items from here were worth almost anything. The knife I held in my hand would flex, but would never bend, break or become dull.
There was some vital piece to the power that everybody was missing, and without more items, and a greater variety of them, that puzzle would never get solved. Even if some of the things we brought back wouldn’t be worth much on the open market, the scientific community would pay handsomely to get their mitts on them.
Nobody knew why Scion hadn’t used whatever power it was elsewhere. Maybe he sensed that it would make things more impervious to him. Maybe, as some suggested, he found it a boring way to kill people. Some theorized that it took too much energy. Others simply said that trying to get into the headspace of an alien entity was a route to madness.
No matter. I had tests to run. I grabbed a pen and a piece of paper, scribbling on it. It took a second for the ink to flow, but it marked the paper just fine. I wiped at it with my finger, and it didn’t smear. Okay, good. I did the same with my own pen, and got the same result. That was, honestly, unexpected. As an afterthought, I took a swig from my canteen before holding the paper above the pizza box and poured some on.
The ink from my pen smeared, but the one from the house didn’t. The paper, though, didn’t absorb any of the water, nor did the pizza box. That was odd, to say the least.
I poured some of the water from my canteen into a glass, then opened the sugar jar. I heard Sarah come up the stairs as I poured some of the sugar into the water. I didn’t look up from my work as I nabbed a spoon and started to stir. Almost immediately, it began to dissolve into the water. After a few moments, there was still a little left, but I was pretty sure that the water had reached its saturation level.
“Huh,” Sarah said, tilting her head. Her faceplate was up, letting me see her expression: curiosity. “I was pretty sure that it was just going to stay a powder.”
“Crystal,” I corrected her, before lifting the glass to my lips and taking a deep swig.
“Oh, fuck!” She looked at me as if I’d grown a second head. “You’re out of your goddamn mind.”
“It’s sweet,” I said brightly, holding out the glass to her. She raised her hand and shook her head. With a shrug I polished it off, trying to get even the dregs of the sugar down.
“Fucking crazy,” she said softly.
“You want to try and capture a wildling alive? See what it’s like on a sugar buzz?”
“Yeah, no, I’ll pass. Thanks.”
Despite it all, we grinned at each other. Here we were, in the middle of a city where we could theoretically get eaten at any moment, cracking jokes with each other. Still, serious matters at hand. “Keep an eye on me. If I get a sugar buzz, then it’s a good sign. If I show any other unusual signs, let me know immediately. I might not see them myself.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She paused for a moment, looking down at the things on the table. “You tried cutting the box?”
“First thing I did. I thought we might try setting it on fire in the sink, see how that works out.” I paused for a moment. “Honestly, I’m not sure if this is going to work. Sure, the sugar dissolves, and yeah, it might give me a sugar rush, but I don’t know if the stuff we get is going to work or not.”
Sarah scoffed softly. “Listen, bro. Wilborn, she’s not dumb, you know? Yeah, it might be one thing for her to waste a ton of questions figuring out where we could find all this stuff in the city, but you think that she wouldn’t pause for one moment to ask if those chemicals and junk wouldn’t work because of what Scion did to them? I really can’t believe, even for one moment, that she wouldn’t do that.”
I frowned a little. She made a good point, but at the same time, it was an easy thing to overlook. And we didn’t ask. Dumb move on our parts. I hadn’t even thought about it until we already were at Twain. On the other hand, there was nothing we could do about it now that we were in the thick of things. Besides, if it didn’t work, Sarah would probably insist on suing her for breech of contract or something. Not that we’d win; Tattletale pretty much owned the courts there.
“Alright,” I said, nodding. “Then we just keep going as we’re going, and hope for the best. Do you have any ideas on other stuff we should pick up?”
“Hmm.” Sarah leaned against the wall, frowning. “We aren’t sure how computers act, or else I’d suggest them. Even if they do work alright, we’d have to find someone to get the password. If it weren’t for the fact that boxes would stop us dead in our tracks, I’d suggest getting into a store and nabbing some brand new ones.
“The problem is that we have to get small things, or things that we can stuff in a bag. If we can find a duffle bag or something. If we could find a wagon or something, that would rock, but it’d make too much noise. But otherwise, we have to have things that we can fit in our packs along with everything else.”
She paused for a moment, then flashed me a sly grin. “But I figure we can at least grab some games and a console for Greg.”
I couldn’t help but smile in return. My first, and my primary martial arts teacher. Yeah, he’d go apeshit over games, and maybe some movies too. I glanced towards the living room, suddenly not feeling quite so bad at the prospect of looting from the dead. It may not be something that I looked forward to, but we had the chance to bring some joy into people’s lives.
Yeah. Maybe I could do this.