Eliza was trying to make small talk with me as we drove back to Worcester. I noticed that she’d stutter, and her voice would catch on consonants. One instance was when she said, out of nowhere, “I mmmean, this-this isn’t…” There was a long pause, then she said, “Fuck. I forget what I was going to say.”
“You ok?” I asked.
“Sorry,” she said. “I just have some trrrouble talking when I get out of isolation.”“I did too,” I said. “It took me a long time to get things, y’know, working.”
“Still got some of the aphasia?” Eliza asked. “I know that Cross gets th-that e’rrytime ‘e gets bbback.”
“Is he still alive?” I asked.
“Yyyeah,” Eliza said. “Remember ‘ow ‘e, Eric and Doc went to hide that-that Castle bloke out back?” I nodded. “Buncha Berserkers jumped out and surprised them.”
“Anyone else?” I asked.
“Oro an’ two of ‘er mates are alive, dunno ‘ow ‘an neither do they,” Eliza said. “John got pinned under some rubble, they ‘ad to dig ‘im out.”
“What about MC Disaster, Ray-Gun and the Monk?” I asked.
“Disaster’s alive,” Eliza said darkly. “To ‘ear ‘im tell it, ‘e’s not lucky. They got ‘im in the spine. ‘E, Ray-Gun an’ the Monk were firin’ at the Teeth below an’ the ones inside shot ‘em in the back.”
“That’s more than I was expecting,” I said. “Hopefully we’ll still have some booze left over when they get out.”
Eliza looked at me strangely. I noticed that my hands were shaking as I gripped the wheel. “Maybe you’ve ‘ad enough,” she said.
“You haven’t been out here that long,” I said. “And it might not affect you, because, well, you don’t know the area. But this,” I nodded to the burnt trees, blown up buildings, and scrapped vehicles along the road, “doesn’t get better as we go along. It’s even worse when you get out of the factory and look at all the starving people. Try going out every day and realizing that you are the only person who isn’t starving to death.”
“Th-then why dddon’t you stay inside?” Eliza asked.
“Because,” I said, “if I don’t go out and talk to people every few hours, the voices come back.” I took my eyes off the road for a few minutes. “Do you really think I’d get out of a year of isolation just to voluntarily undergo it?”
“Nothing,” Eliza said “you said has anything to do with booze.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her staring at me. Eventually her eyes strayed from my face to the graveyard of cars and burnt trees we were currently driving by. “But you’re right. I think I need a bloody drink.”
We had just merged onto a new highway (much easier these days now that everyone was dead) when I saw sirens behind us. “The bloody ‘ell?” Eliza said. “Are there still cops?”
“Yeah,” I said as I pulled into the breakdown lane, even though I could have parked so I was blocking all three lanes of traffic and theoretically not caused a slowdown. “They started reinstating any police officer who was still alive in January.” I realized Eliza might not know the month. “That was last month.”
“There seems t’be a shortage of police cars,” Eliza said looking in the mirror. I followed her gaze. The police car was a minivan from the late 90’s that had been hurriedly painted a soothing powder blue, but the work was so shoddy even at a distance you could see the original brown. The hood had been painted white with black border and sported a stylized gold badge decal. The sirens attached to the hood were on slightly cockeyed.
Two people got out of the minivan. One was an older man in a police uniform that was the same soothing blue as the minivan, but somewhat more well-made. The other was a Legionnaire with just a Gladius SMG in a sling across his chest. He followed the cop closely, so close that if I had been the cop and the Legionnaire had just been my partner instead of a member of a genocidal occupying army, my personal space would have been feeling extremely violated.
The cop, who was sweating profusely despite the chill, tapped on the window. I rolled it down. “Good morning,” I said. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Just a standard check,” the officer said. To distract himself from the looming Legionnaire, he added, “This weather, huh? Sky’s so dark it looks like night.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Also, did you hear it’s the same temperature here as it is in the poles.”
“You kidding?” the officer asked. “No wonder the rivers are all overflowing despite not getting any rain. Fucking weather.” He turned, noticing Eliza. “Excuse my language, miss.”
“Not a prob,” Eliza said. “Not a prob at all.”
“Oh, you’re from England? In case you didn’t know, there should’a been snow. There hasn’t. Crazy, crazy weather. Me, personally, I think it’s from all the plasma that the Teeth-” the cop was interrupted by the Legionnaire clearing his throat. “Oh, sorry,” the officer said, a note of panic in his voice. “This is a standard search. Please exit the vehicle.”
We did as instructed. “Is this on Olaf’s orders?” I asked.
The cop started to say something, but the Legionnaire cut him off causing everyone else to jump. I, personally, had never heard one speak outside a weird prayer they’d recited around me when I was in North Korea. “Yes,” he said, “but thanks to your divine protection from the Goddess Thana, you will not suffer his full wrath.”
“Tell her thanks,” I said. And maybe also to come get her boy, I added silently.
“Your supplication has been noted by the Death Mother,” the Legionnaire intoned portentously. He turned to the cop and said, “Search the car.”
“I see the Fourth is gone as well,” I said as the cop began to search the car, looking for who-knows-what. He wouldn’t find anything except crumbs and maybe a liquor bottle.
“So’s the rest of the Constitution,” the cop said, shaking the driver’s manual to see if anything fell out. “Luckily, my colleagues who are happiest about that don’t last long.” I suddenly remembered Olaf’s desire to liquidate the police force and felt like warning him. “Anyway, looks all clear.”
As we drove away, Eliza said, “So that was our local Vichy rep, eh? Lovely chap for a collaborator.”
“Hell,” I said, “compared to me, he’s practically resistance. I’m producing weapons for them and he might be helping Canadian SpecOps.” We were silent for a long time. I smiled. “It helps that I pay for my drink with some of my product. The booze I pay for with a Maccabee and a couple hundred rounds of ammo is better than the booze I find abandoned.”
“Nate,” Eliza said. “I don’t know whether to congratulate you or beat you senseless.”
“Honestly,” I said, “I’m cool with either one at the moment.” I sighed. “I know I need therapy. Probably some meds as well. Only problem is that all the shrinks are either dead or worse off than we are right now.”
Eventually, we were back in Worcester. I turned down into the maze of rubble that led to the factory where I pretty much lived. We would pass the occasional survivor. All looked malnourished to some degree, and most, disturbingly, seemed sick. They wandered around, some with desperate, others in shock, and a select few who had some sort of reaction to the Dragon’s Teeth hallucinogenic gas and were now lost in their own world. It looked like a third-world country that had suffered twenty years of war.
We were only a turn or two away when I saw a young black woman walking in the opposite direction wearing very feminine clothes that were suspiciously in good shape. The state things were in, there was no way to find clothes that looked new. My jeans and t-shirts I wore were slowly falling apart, and I wasn’t living the life most other people were. Maybe things were getting better, or someone had found a stash of clothes.
It was only for an instant I could look at her, and we were on our way through the maze of bombed-out streets. And then the factory was in view.
And in front of the factory were about fifteen Charon APCs with Picts and Legionnaires throwing up a cordon.