I was aware, dimly, of movement. Of my feet bouncing regularly. Of my arms swaying from side to side, though at an odd angle. It was an interesting feeling, to say the least. But really, in the end, that’s all that it was. Just a feeling.
And then I realized my eyes were closed.
Opening them offered up all new experiences. Colors burned, but lines were hard to make out. I blinked a couple more times, and everything gained some resolution. Ah. There was a building retreating in the distance, and I appeared to be getting half-dragged across a street. My head tilted down and I realized that my arms were at an odd angle because there was a single arm wrapped underneath my shoulders.
Also, bodies of critters. My eyes looked around at the bodies littering the ground. Some were blue with black humps, twitching violently on the ground. Some were smaller and a burnt orange in color. There were a whole lot of those. There were also a whole lot that looked like snakes.
Or were they? I wasn’t sure. Not that it mattered. Right now, I supposed, what mattered was that I was being dragged. Yes. I lifted my head up, smiling into empty space. “Hi.” Huh. Weird. My voice sounded strange.
“Bro?” Female. Bro? Right, that had to be Sis. It had to be Sarah. She sounded awfully excited. “Jesus fuck, Bro. Are you… Never mind, can you walk?”
“I don’t know.” Hm. This was going to be annoying. My voice sounded really off, but I couldn’t identify how. “I can’t get my feet under me while you’re dragging me.”
That made her stop in her tracks, and she helped haul me upwards. It was a funny feeling. But I was able to get my feet under me, though it was awkward. My right leg didn’t want to work right. It took me a few tries, but by twisting it just right and clenching my muscles properly, I could take a few slow, hesitant steps.
“Okay,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. It didn’t quite work right, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around how it was wrong. “Yeah, I can walk, slowly.”
She frowned for a moment before thrusting my halberd into my hands. “Get inside, I’ll cover you.”
I blinked for a moment before looking around. The streets were so huge, so empty. Except for the corpses laying around, of course. Poor critters. Nothing deserved to die. But the grass was so very overgrown, coming up to waist level. The buildings were so very big, massive, and covered in dirt and grime. It was breathtaking in a way.
“Bro!” barked Sarah. I turned to look at her. Her face was hidden behind her helmet. When had she gotten a helmet? Right. Chris had given her one. Why didn’t he give me one. Did he give me one? My hand touched my face. No, he hadn’t given me one. Why?
Sis pointed to a doorway. “Get inside, upstairs, into the apartment. I don’t know how long the wildlings will keep each other occupied.”
Wildlings? I listened for a moment, and could hear animals fighting nearby. Oh, wildlings. Alright.
I moved carefully to the door, gingerly holding my halberd. It was hard walking like this. Each step, I had to carefully twist my wobbly knee before taking another. I was halfway to the door before I realized that I could use my halberd like a crutch. I’d done it plenty of times before when my knee bothered me, so why not now?
That made the going a lot faster. The breeze was cool on my head as I hobbled the rest of the way, and despite the gray day, it was still kind of pretty. But Sarah was right, I needed to get inside.
The stairs slowed me down a little bit, but that was fine. I was sure she’d understand. Well, she probably would prefer it if I were to take them two at a time, but with my knee, that wasn’t an option. She’d be okay with it.
Man, this place was dusty. Someone needed to clean it.
At the top of the stairs was a hallway. I turned to the first door and tried the knob. It wouldn’t turn. That made me frown. Sarah had specifically said to get into the apartment upstairs. I tried the knob again. If the door wouldn’t open, how was I supposed to get inside? It made no sense. Had she gotten confused? That’s it, she must have gotten confused. I turned to go back downstairs so I could ask her to clarify, but she was already coming up them.
“End of the hall!”
I turned to look, seeing a door that was already open down the hallway.
That made sense.
With a smile, I turned and began limping towards it with the help of my halberd. After a moment, I began to hum to myself. I wasn’t actually feeling cheerful at all, but it seemed like something that I should do for some reason. Smile and make some sort of pleasant noise. It seemed right, so I did it. There was no sense in thinking too hard about it.
I hobbled through the door, looking around. My, this was pretty. Nice drapes, nice carpeting. I wished my boots were off so I could feel it between my toes. I wandered through the entryway, past the kitchen, and into the living room. The couch was a nice black leather, and there was a funny overstuffed chair with a footrest.
My eyebrows furrowed. I knew this. I knew this. I knew this.
Lazy boy recliner. I smiled, pleased with myself.
There was a black rectangular object on the floor. I bent down to pick it up, but lost my balance and ended up on the floor myself. Hrm. Annoying. Still, that got me closer. I retrieved it and turned it over in my hands, looking at the buttons on it. Weird. Useless to me. I set it back down and worked on getting back up.
Okay. I was in the apartment. Sis had told me to get in here while she covered me. I wasn’t hearing her use her powers. Maybe she was using one of my guns? I looked down to my hip. No, my revolver was still there. And I wasn’t hearing any gunshots. So what was she doing? What was I supposed to do in here? I wasn’t sure. I turned to the door, staring at it. She’d come soon and tell me.
I wasn’t sure how long I waited before she rushed through the door, closing it behind her. She took a moment to work the latch, and then the deadbolt. After checking to make sure the door was secure, she moved over to me, flipping her faceplate up.
She looked worried. Why did she look worried? I couldn’t figure it out. Instead, I smiled a little. “Hi.” This voice thing was going to bug me.
Sarah moved suddenly, wrapping me up in a fierce hug, tight enough that my armor was reacting slightly. At least, I thought the sudden stiffness in my body was the armor. It made sense, at least. After who knew how long, she pulled back, studying my face. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, putting the confusion over my voice to the side for the moment. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Apparently, I said something wrong because her frown deepened. It took her a moment to speak again. “Bro, I need your help with something.”
That made me straighten up a bit more. I was good at helping people. It made me feel useful and wanted.
“I need to get a couple of things real quick, so why don’t you put your halberd somewhere safe?” With that, she turned on her heel and went down the apartment’s hallway.
Somewhere safe? I hobbled to the wall and carefully leaned my weapon up against it. I watched as it moved slowly at first, and then quickly fell to the floor. Well, it wouldn’t go anywhere after that. I twisted the button on my chest, making the pack fall off my shoulders, spending a moment staggering from the weight change. Satisfied, I moved back to the center of the room, turning back to the hallway.
She appeared a few moments later, a small pillow and a blanket in her hands. She looked from me to where my halberd had fallen, her face unreadable. After a moment, though, she looked back to me. “Alright. I’ve forgotten how to do something, and I need you to teach me how to handle it. Let’s pretend that someone was hurt, alright?”
“Now, let’s pretend that their in shock. They’re moving around, they’re talking, but their wits are gone. They can’t think straight. Now, you’ve done everything that you can for the wound, and you think that they’re going to be alright. Now you have to worry about the shock.”
I thought about it for a moment before nodding. That was simple. Back in school, I used to take first aid courses every year, and took courses for higher issues than even that.
“Okay, pretend that you’re the one hurt, and show me what you would do to them.”
Right. Right. I focused for a moment, forcing the information to come up through the haze. “Well, first you need to get them to lay down, and you need to elevate their legs, so…” I moved to the recliner and laid on my back, working to put my feet on the footrest. It took a little bit of effort to get my right leg on it since my lower leg kept dropping. When I finally managed it, the footrest ended up dropping.
I frowned a little. But Sarah had asked me to show her how she should have a person, so I went ahead and shuffled my body down and working to prop my feet up on the seat. Something felt wrong about this, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of what. No matter. “Then you want to cover them with a blanket.”
“I’ve got that.” She moved quickly, draping a blanket over my legs. She took the time to bundle me up as best she could, going so far as to tuck the blanket in around my neck and ears. “Do, uh, do you want a pillow?”
“No,” I said slowly. “No. You want to encourage blood flow to the head.”
“Alright.” She set the pillow on the couch, looking down at me. She looked so weird at this angle. “Why, uh, why don’t you just stay like that a while? Close your eyes and rest for a little bit. We’re safe here, so why don’t we rest, huh?”
“Okay.” I looked up to the ceiling. A moment later, I closed my eyes.
A moment after that, I was dead to the world.
Lancing pain shot through my neck before I was even aware of waking up. I let out a soft gagging noise that hurt my throat and tried to roll over. Bad move — that just made the pain worse. My legs fell, though I was barely aware of it through the pain. They were in their own form of agony, long since having fallen asleep.
I forced my eyes open, trying to get aware of my surroundings. In the dying light of the day, I could tell that I was inside a building, and there in front of me was a couch. On the couch was Sarah, looking at me in horror. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot — she’d been crying.
That, and the blanket that I seemed to be wrapped in, painted a nasty picture. I’d been wounded, she’d patched me up, gotten me inside, and had spent who knew how long watching over me, afraid that she might lose me.
“I’m fine,” I made out, but it wasn’t easy. My throat was rough, and each bob of my Adam’s apple caused a little more pain in my body. “I’ll live,” I corrected, knowing that she’d call me on lying. “What… What happened?”
She paused a moment before answering. “We were fighting the wildlings in the warehouse. Doing a good job of it, too, but there were a lot more of them than we’d thought. Then I saw flying ones moving to flank us, so I had to focus on those while you focused on the ones with tentacles. You were doing pretty good up until you had to quit using your semi-automatic.”
I focused and remembered the pistol cracking, gasses coming out the side in slow motion. I would have thought it was a dream, but it was far too vivid. And I was remembering it. “Case head failure,” I made out roughly. “I bought reloaded ammunition, and either the casing was crimped too hard around the bullet, or the casings were reloaded too many times, causing a fracture point.”
When the casing had cracked, all of the force was sent out of the small crack instead of down the chamber. It had pretty much fragged the pistol. It would only be worth the weight of the metals now. It was my own dumb fault — the magazines had come pre-loaded, and the rest of the ammunition for reloading the magazines were in a box. I hadn’t checked any of the magazines, looking to see if the bullet casings had worn too thin from being reloaded too often.
Rookie mistake. I kicked myself mentally.
Sarah made a noise. “Anyway, the next time I saw you, you were back on one knee, using your halberd. I guess your knee must have gone out on you again. The next thing that I knew, you were lying on the ground with your knife stuck in the back of your neck.”
Right. I could dimly remember the tentacle around my throat, and barely remembered drawing the knife. After that, everything was a blank.
“When I had a spare moment, I pulled it out, finished cutting the tentacle off from around your neck. Once the flyers were taken care of, I could hear more wildlings coming, but they must have run into each other and decided to duke it out. I took the time to treat the cut, but you’d been bleeding for a while. I took care of a wildling that was gnawing pretty uselessly on your leg, then a couple of other ones that were still alive, before trying to drag you off.
“You woke up while I was dragging you, but you were pretty out of it. I still got you up here and locked the door, though. After that, I figured it would be easier to trick you into treating yourself for shock than to try and treat you myself. As soon as I got you bundled up, though, you were out like a light.”
I rocked my body so I could nod without moving my neck. Clever of her; I’d have to keep that trick in mind for the future. But right now, there were bigger priorities. “Painkiller.”
Sarah moved quickly, getting the kit out of her pack and fishing out a the small bottle of painkillers. Another Chris special, though I understood it less than I did the actual gel that was in my neck right now. It acted as a coagulant, somehow promoted cell growth, minimized the formation of scar tissue, and was antibacterial.
I understood the basic principles behind it, though like most tinker tech the actual details were beyond me. It was a plant-based polymer that changed with the natural movements of the skin and muscle that it was injected into. In essence, it would connect the muscle groups together, allowing them to operate normally. Even blood vessels would reconnect, with one side sucking and the other side pushing, it would somehow route the blood optimally. With the enhanced cellular growth rates, what would take weeks to heal could be done in a matter of days.
The pain pills she offered to me dissolved immediately upon contact with saliva, far faster than any other pain meds I’d ever taken. That’s all that I knew. How they interacted with the body was a complete mystery to me. I wasn’t sure if it blocked signals or found the receptors that were sending the signals and told them to knock it off. It was… irritating.
Within moments of them hitting my tongue, the pain in my neck dulled to a low throb, easily ignorable. I probably wouldn’t even need them by this time tomorrow. I knew from experience how well the gel worked.
I pulled the hose from my suit and took a sip of water from it. Cool, clean, delicious.
Sarah was frowning as she stared at me. “Maneuverability isn’t doing you as much good as you’d think right now. Can I talk you into putting the collar back on?”
I didn’t like the way that the detachable collar restricted my movements, kept me from having full motion of my head… but she made a good point. It was a fairly high collar, coming up almost to the base of my jaw. Since the collar was stiff, it would mean that maybe they would have wrapped around it rather than my neck. I barely had fleeting memories of tentacles around it. More like memories of memories.
“Sure,” I said, trying to ignore my rough voice. I hoped it was from my neck being squeezed and not some sort of microhairs that injected a poison, but since there was nothing that I could do about it at the moment, it was better to ignore and hope for the best.
Sarah gave a sigh of relief, running a hand through her short hair. Her helmet was sitting on the couch. “Thank fucking god. I thought we were going to have to go rounds over that.”
I smiled weakly. “I’m stubborn, not stupid.” That got a bark of laughter out of her. “I’ll put it on before we go.” A quick test to wiggle my toes told me that my legs were still completely numb. If I was wiggling them, I couldn’t tell at all. “How long was I out for?”
“I dunno. A few hours?”
I nodded. “Okay, then I’ll give it a bit longer. But, uh… Listen. You elevate the legs above the head, not…” I took a breath. “Not in stirrups. Gynecologists don’t help with shock, they cause it.”
That got a bark of laughter out of her. Good. It seemed like she needed it.
In the end, we’d radioed in to Nest to let them know that we were alive, despite our best efforts to the contrary. Sarah had taken the whole attack and what had happened to me pretty hard. She blamed herself for having a bad plan, despite all my comforting. Now wasn’t the time to explain to her how it had been bad, or to try and teach her the various ways that we might have shored it up to ensure a better chance of coming through unharmed. No, that would be better to do when we were far away from this city. Maybe when we were home, safe and sound.
After that, we’d commandeered the use of the bedroom for ourselves. Since nobody else was going to use it, and since we’d already had a rough day, we decided to enjoy the bed. Just before we’d journeyed there, Sarah had taken stock of everything in the apartment. I didn’t feel up to any scavenging, so instead I tried a few more tests.
Sugar and salt dissolved just fine, but tea wouldn’t brew no matter how long I left the baggie in water. Even using my little alcohol stove to boil the water wasn’t getting any sort of result.
I wanted to believe that I could make sense out of what was going on. I wanted so desperately to put two and two together and suddenly be able to explain the mechanism of what seemed to keep entropy from affecting Saint Louis, but somehow it all was staying beyond my reach. Which, honestly, wasn’t surprising. The best minds on the planet had engaged in lengthy debates about it to no avail. It was kind of stupid of me to assume that I could do as well as the lot of them.
In the end, I hadn’t been able to sleep through the night, either. I’d woken up twice, done some exercising, then gone back to bed. Eventually, Sarah had woken up to join me. Not a moment too soon, either. I’d started to go crazy.
It had started to get light out about an hour ago, now getting about as bright as it would until noon or so. Well, a few hours earlier, more likely. My neck was still more than just tender, but I could ignore it. I didn’t mind the pain if it didn’t interfere with my work. A pain in the neck was infinitely better than a knee giving out on me or worse.
Sarah exited the bathroom, closing the door behind her. “What I wouldn’t give to have that tank full of water. Let’s not come back this way.”
“Yeah, good idea.” I paused. “I’m running a little low on water myself, actually. Even with the recyc, I’m a little worried.”
“We aren’t close to the river, but I could have sworn I heard running water nearby yesterday. We’ll restock there before we go.”
I nodded slowly. “Cool. Think we put enough of a dent in the population of the warehouse that we can explore?”
She turned to look at me as if I’d grown a second head. “Um, Bro? I’ll admit, I wasn’t keeping the best track once the flying bastards came our way, but I’m pretty sure you killed fifty of them or so.”
“Nuh-uh.” I remembered something like ten to twenty, but fifty? Fifty wildlings? Twenty was… Well, unless you were a Brute, twenty was an impressive number. Enough to get you a few rounds of drinks at a bar if you could prove it. But fifty? Even Lung might have a problem with that many, unless his powers got a kickstart in advance.
“Uh-huh. I think my grenades probably killed somewhere between twelve and fifteen, and I wanna say that for each of my kills on those tentacle bastards, you were getting four or five. Fuck, I’m pretty sure that if that bastard hadn’t gotten your neck, you probably could have helped me with the flyers and blown me out of the water. As it is, I think we’re kind of tied.”
I blinked slowly at her. If she wasn’t lying… “Nobody’s gonna believe us.”
“Tattletale would,” she pointed out quickly.
“Besides her.” I shook my head. “Most people are going to look at us like we’re liars if we tell them that.”
Sarah laughed a little. “When we walk out of here alive with all our goodies, people will damn well believe it if we tell them that we killed a thousand wildlings a day. We’re surviving where entire combat squads of Wardens failed. Trust me when I say it’s a non-issue.”
“Fine. Okay. Whatever.” I took a deep breath. “Task at hand. I haven’t heard any fighting out there all night, so I think we might be good. Get over there, sweep the building, then nab anything that we can find in an open box.”
“I’m down with that. You wanna take point, or should I?”
“I’ll take the lead. You’ve got the long-range firepower to cover me, and I think I can handle myself now.” Even if this collar was driving me insane. “I’ll draw them out, and you punish them for trying to take the bait.”
She put her helmet on and slid the faceplate down. “I’m ready whenever you are, then.”
“Then let’s go.” I retrieved my halberd and made my way to the door, unlocking it and opening it.
A good ten feet down the hall, my rifle and semi-auto were lying on the floor. That was good; it meant that I didn’t have to go hunting for them. The bad was that right behind them was a wildling, about the size of a American bulldog. It was covered in soft green-colored fur that was green with large blue spots. As soon as I laid eyes on it, it hopped to its feet, those blue eyes locked on me.
I immediately shut the door and put my back to it, looking to Sarah. “Nope.”