6.0 or Trouble in paradise.

Natalie fit right in; she helped as we dug the cellar, helped as I made the kiln and fired the mud bricks made from the dirt. She helped as I stacked those bricks into the greenhouse. She helped me set the windows and ceiling in. She always fell into bed right after, but she got right back up and worked herself right into the ground

Now she stood next to me, wearily peeling off her gloves as we stared at the new greenhouse. The bricks would trap heat, and the wooden fittings would hold the recut plexiglass and keep the sharp edges from cutting us if we put a hand wrong. The raised dirt troughs would prevent the freezes from killing the plants that way, and the pvc pipes strung up would make watering easy.

Everything seemed to hold. The roof just slanted as opposed to falling off, and the supports should hold everything together if a branch came down on it. There were a few sheets of replacement plexiglass and glass we could use to fix things if that happened; if a full tree came down, we were just screwed.

“It could use some paint,” Natalie commented.

“We don’t want it to stand out,” I replied. But to myself at least I could admit it was ugly. Well made and very functional, but very ugly.

“Right, I’ll go get the seeds.”

I snagged her hand. “No need, it can wait a day. It’s Miller time.”

Her mouth twisted in a wry grin as she shook my hand off. “But it’s just past lunch.”

“Still Miller time. If it has to be done today, let Sal or Les do it.”

Natalie proved that she caught on quick. “I don’t trust either of those two to know which end of the beer is up, let alone anything else.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Sal has his uses.”

“Oh, he does. But he’s liking going to town a little too much lately to be trustworthy.”

“Someone has to man the store, and Sal doesn’t know how to build a greenhouse.”

Natalie went inside first. “True, I suppose. I’m actually rather surprised you know how to build one, honestly.”

“Built one by myself for an old couple who wanted a place to put their ferns. The worst part here was improvising; no nails, only slot tech with a mix of brick and wood. If not for all that, we’d have been done in a day.”

“Yeah maybe, but it would have been even more ugly; I mean, old warped plywood? Ick. Say, we played in the mud, do you mind if I take a shower?”

I spared her a glance; yep, just as covered in filth and sweat as I was. “Sure, go ahead. I’ll tip the barrel for you.”

“Thanks, I was hoping you’d say that.”

Tipping the barrel wasn’t actually tipping a barrel, it was using a bucket to transfer water to the reservoir above the shower; When the reservoir ran out, you were done. It was a good way to time it, and a good use for the sterile rain water we gathered outside. Some wild herbs in the brew kept the insects out of the liquid and helped us smell more woodsy and less like people.

That would come in handy later.

Fifteen minutes later and we were both chilling with our feet up, sipping stolen beers from Les’s stash (because they tasted better that way) and firing up my ancient laptop. It wasn’t much, but it could be a window to the outside world as long as I had means to charge it and the ability to point a dish of some kind towards some unsecured wifi signal. It also worked wonders for cell reception.

The web page caught up, and we got another look at a world slowly going up in flames. There were protests everywhere, with the unwashed shave the whales crowd coming out in force to wave signs to save… us. To save us by putting anyone who tested positive into a ‘preserve’. or supporting the new status quo.

Any of the several counter protests that sprang up had people that ran the risk of being harassed or even attacked for coming out against the law. There were cars being burned and blood in the streets.

“I had no idea it was that bad. I mean, I suspected some of this but nothing on this scale.”

Natalie shuddered. “It was just starting up when I got taken in; the main objections were the proposed sweeps.”

Yeah, I could imagine that sweeping in with SWAT or even national guard and testing everyone, block by block, city by city, would be wildly unpopular in a supposedly free society. Comparatively, the bill to test cons and the families of cons passed without a whimper. The actual approach used, that of offering money in order to get tested voluntarily still seemed to catch enough people. That’s how Natalie got nabbed after all.

I checked to make sure my little mini-generator was recharging the laptop battery. It was working like a charm, and so was the foam noise canceling box I placed over it.

Well, fifteen minutes of the news of the day, and we were both up to date. One of the more important things I learned was that there were mechanized troops parked both north and south of us, but not east. West was covered by the navy; there were patrol boats crossing the sea at all times of day and night, just in case one of us tried to build a raft or swim or something.

What I’d seen of the ocean convinced me that it would be the worst route to try and escape; the water around here was rough not even a mile out, and very rocky closer to shore. I wouldn’t lay good odds on troops further up the beaches, watching for swimmers; I already knew the walls went right to the beach; the engineers had even dug out the sand and laid a foundation first.

I closed down the computer and shut off the generator; I had little doubt that the Wardens already knew what I was up to, but it wouldn’t do to rub it in their faces. It could just be my paranoia too, but a real concern was this wifi account named “John.” His internet was unsecured, and the best one I could find within the range of the dish; if he figured out I was pirating and made a password, it would be more than a little annoying.

I tapped Natalie’s beer, and she raised it from the table. I raised my own and lifted the tabletop, sliding the laptop into it’s hidden nook. It was as safe there as I could make it, from wind and weather and casual discovery.

I sat back down and put my feet up and Natalie mimicked me. “You know, you should take your own shower; that mud is drying on you.”

She had a point. “Are you going to tip the barrel for me then?”

“Hell no, do it yourself before you get in,” she laughed. “Just do it before you start looking like swamp thing.”

“Fine, fine.” I snagged some clean clothes on my way out.

Natalie’s true motives were revealed; she hadn’t cleaned the tub. Whatever, I wasn’t going to fight over it.

I would probably need to improve the drainage behind the cabin if we kept bathing and cleaning clothes in here. It was a point of potential attack; someone could really hurt us by simply stuffing up the pipe.

I needed another beer. I wouldn’t be relaxing with weed like Les wanted, and neither would Les for that matter, but maybe taking the edge off my paranoia would be a good thing. The cabin was going to have weak points, and I’d done the best I could. If anyone did hit us, they would bleed badly for it, and that would have to be good enough.

I got out of the shower just as the water ran out, dressed, and ran a comb through my hair.

Just as the door opened, and speak of the devil and he appears. “What’s up, Les?”

“Nothing Roy, just taking my break,” Les replied loftily as he cracked open a beer.

He was supposed to inform one of us and let us take over. “Fine, Guess I’ll take watch then. Behave you two.”

I took my beer and went to the hide; it was still in shout range by necessity, so I wasn’t too worried.

It only took me about five minutes to get the feeling I was being watched. I spent some time looking for who could be watching me until Sal came back. He was early.

“What’s up?” I asked when he was close enough.

His reply chilled my blood. “I closed the shop for the day. There was an incident in town, and the wolves and cats are at war.”

5.5 or New additions.

It was difficult to remove the old satellite dish. The thing was an old and rusty relic of either the eighties or early nineties. It was even more difficult to move the thing, since it weighed as much as I did and was several times more unwieldy.

And of course, the reason why I was fiddling with this hunk of junk at all, was the difficulty in moving something like this unseen.

Pull some copper pipe or wiring from a house here, and no one would so much as blink twice as they watched. Pull a dish from a mount? All sorts of eyes would blink, and wonder why you were bothering. The answer they would come to was unlikely to be the right one, but it would be enough to march on our cabin and demand answers I didn’t want to give.

This dish was older, larger, and crappier than the cable service types of today, but it had two things going for it. One, it was built by craftsmen from an era in which the parts weren’t designed to fail inside of five years, and two, it was placed in the back yard of a house that had fallen to ruin well before the others.

The overgrown yard blended right into the tree line, sort of ironically masking the old time dish from satellites observation – or fly-bys, for that matter. Which meant there was a low possibility of anyone watching me as I yanked this thing down. I still intended to break a strut and bend a few more to mask my activity from later prying eyes, but for now I had to get the dish down so I could get at its innards, and hope enough was intact.

If I were out in the world, I could simply build my own for a few bucks worth of household goods. Maybe the rats wouldn’t suffer if they were the ones that took down a dish or two? No, even my allies must never know; no good would come of it.

I dragged the relevant parts out of the metal box (I had to cut the thing open) and hung my limp weight off the weakened scaffold, bending it in the proper direction and leaving no incriminating toolmarks, gathered up my loot, and took off. There would be time to check it later, when I was safely hidden and had a moment.

Sal met me halfway back. “Come on. I heard an engine, let’s go check it out.”

“You go. Any hike we make will take hours, and our bike is strictly a one-seater.” Sal hadn’t been to town in weeks.

Sal shrugged. “Fine, I’ll go.”

“Don’t lose the bike.”

Sal flipped me off silently. We walked back together, and then Sal peeled off, grabbed his bow and the bike.

I went inside, grabbed a beer and my duct tape. I Had two painfully restored Ford alternators set up in a series, and I’d already proved those worked. Next was deciding where to put the windmill I needed to restore. It wouldn’t be enough to power everything in the cabin… not even my car engine could do that, and without a battery to store it, the power would be mostly useless anyway – but I still had a use for it.

The light changed and the cabin darkened before Sal made it back. Les was still out on watch… he should have come and got me about an hour ago.

Sal walked in. “The engine I heard was a bus.”

The first bus in weeks.

“The bus was full, half of prisoners from Texas, and half of normal citizens from other places.The Wardens had the board set up, and everyone coming in had a listing; name and supposed species.” Sal continued.

I grunted. This stupid thing would have to be wrapped, probably in foil….

“The Wolves got the most again, most of the Texas contingent went into their ranks. Some real tough hombres in that bunch, I know a few by reputation. The Cats got most of who was left. I don’t think the Rats got any. There were a few outliers which will probably get snapped up in the next couple of days… and uh, someone followed me home, can I keep them?”

….What.

“You let someone follow you back here?” Sure it wasn’t the issue it was weeks ago, but it was still just an awful habit to get into.

“No, nothing like that, don’t get your underwear in a bunch. She was fresh meat off the bus, and the Wardens already had her outed. She didn’t want to join the crooks, and didn’t want to join the Rats, and the Cats told her no. So she didn’t really have anyone else.”

He better not be thinking with the wrong head. “She?”

“You can come in now.” Sal said, but clearly not to me.

He was definitely thinking with the wrong head. She was about my size, which made her a little on the small size, with long dirty blonde hair and freckles. Mousey looking, but a shade past merely cute. There was a few hints of makeup on her face. She was also built better than most, with some muscle and tone visible under the very inappropriate shirt and skirt combo she was wearing. She stopped at the door nervously, and brought her duffle bag up in front of her.

“The Wardens proclaimed her a Raccoon.” Sal said helpfully.

I went back to work, watching. After a minute she relaxed a little, starting to get more mad than afraid.

That was the time to strike. “What’s your name?”

“Natalie.” She answered in a voice just a shade from dulcet. The type of voice that could annoy after awhile.

“Well Natalie, why did you follow Sal?”

“Because I saw those people looking at me,” She replied with shudder. “And I didn’t feel much like being raped. The only other group with women in it told me they wouldn’t take me because I was the wrong species, and that I should come find you.”

I was right; her tone left no doubt about her feelings on a human being declared something else… and those feelings seemed to coincide with my own… but that voice was almost like nails on a chalkboard.

“Well, two things. One, and the most important, secrecy is essential. You are not to ever speak of anything you see here, no matter what. If you feel you must, ask me first.”

I turned and speared her with my gaze to drive the point home.

She swallowed visibly and nodded.

“The second thing is everyone around here works and does their fair share. You won’t be treated badly, but you wont be coddled either.”

This time the nod came more quickly and was more firm. “I’m no stranger to hard work.”

“Prior job?”

“Waitress at a Diner in Houston.”

She had me there. What she didn’t have was the Texas twang; she sounded more midwest.

“Alright. We’ll try you out. I reserve the right to kick your ass to the curb if you don’t pan out, in which case secrecy is still in effect,” There was no way she’d stay silent if we kicked her out; she wouldn’t be allowed to, but hopefully she wouldn’t realize that. “Until then, we will work to give you privacy when you need it, bathroom is over there, and please forgive the mess for now.”

“Uh, it’s better than I was expecting. The bathroom is even closed off.” It was true the cabin looked like a cabin, there was no fixing that, but that was no reason it couldn’t be decent.

“Of course. Look at Sal there for example, would you want to see that taking a dump?”

“Uh… no.” Right answer.

“Right, neither do I. If you’ll forgive me, I need to discuss expanding the cabin with Sal, to give you your own room.”

“That would be… great, thanks.”

I should probably get this out of the way. “One last thing. You’re aware that Sal and Les are ex-cons, right?”

“I am… but Sal has been nice so far, and two is better odds than thirty plus.”

“Just making sure you knew.” Granted the odds were better, but she must have been really scared to follow a lone ex-con into the woods rather than stay near all the people she could.

I snagged Sal and dragged him outside. With the door shut, Natalie wouldn’t hear anything from twenty feet away as long as I wasn’t yelling.

Still, I had to fight myself to keep my voice low. “Are you out of your mind?”

Sal stood straighter as Les walked over. “Maybe, but it was bound to happen eventually; this entire animal enclosure is going tribal if you haven’t noticed. She got tarred with our brush, no one else was going to help her, and you know very well what would happen to her without backing, even weak backing like ours.”

We weren’t as weak as Sal thought here, but now wasn’t the time for that argument. “Fine, but – and this goes for you too Les – keep it in your pants. You offered her protection, and as long as she pulls her own weight she has it. You can ask, but if she says no she is to be left strictly alone. Get me?”

My uncles both had the good grace to look offended. “That didn’t even need to be said. We were jailed for robbery, not sex crimes.”

“It’s been a long time for each of you; I’m just making sure it’s clear and out there.”

“But we can ask, right?” Les all but salivated out.

“Yes, you can ask. As long as you make it clear she has the right to refuse.” I’d better make sure she understood that myself, just in case. I didn’t really doubt my uncles, but it had been a long time for both of them, and misunderstandings could happen.

Sal started to walk back towards the cabin. “Where are you going, Sal? We still have to talk about the expansion to the cabin.”

“What? But we built extra rooms in already, we have plenty of space.”

I shook my head. “For men, maybe. Women want their own space as a rule, and more privacy.”

“So no more tapdancing around the living room in our underwear?” Les joked.

“Not unless you’re really tanked. Like blackout drunk; only excuse that will work.” I answered back.

Sal just groaned. Whether from the joke itself or the idea of toting logs a couple miles again I couldn’t say.

5.4 or The odd couple.

The large man with large hands and a bathing problem was named Harry Todd, of all things. and had been sent to Sunny Vale as a part of the first wave. Not content to stay in the town and under the thumb of Mark and his crew, he had struck out on his own in search of a little piece of heaven all for himself.

I’d have searched for a way out myself, but different priorities I guess.

At any rate, he had found it. The house was one of those ‘modern’ ones featured in magazines in the 60’s, all glass and rounded edges and picture windows. It sat on a cliff overlooking a white sand beach; there was a trail down to the beach itself which had seen some recent use.

The house was in good shape; the plaster was a bit chewed in spots, but the house itself had a steel frame and a metal roof just beginning to go from patina to rust. A simple reapplication of paint could fix that minor problem. Most of the windows were intact, and those that weren’t were boarded over tightly. There was some rot, dry and wet both, and I smelled some mildew in the air, but all in all it was the best looking and most livable house I’d seen.

Some poor dispossessed homeowner must be pretty mad at the government right now; even in the shape it was in, this was probably a half-million dollar house.

As we approached the garage with the intent to enter, another man emerged from the house. Where Harry was tall, this man was broad, but his hands were equally large. He waddled his way over to us.

“Roy, this is Martin. Martin, this is Roy. He’s the repairman from town I was telling you about.”

Did this Martin need that explained to him?

Apparently, he might. “Oh, yes, the repairman. How do you do?” He lisped out and swallowed my hand with one of is. He had a strong grip for a flabby guy, a worm of suspicion was crawling up from the depths.

“Pretty good; I hear you have some work for me?”

“Oh my yes. Right this way, I’ll show you.”

Martin wound his way through the house, acting as one part chattering tour guide and one part annoyed homeowner. Harry trailed behind us, just far enough not to make me uneasy. He let Martin talk.

I was right; the house really was in the best shape of any I’d seen so far. Most of the damage was superficial. I could have the place more or less set in under a week, minus the windows. From the looks of things, Martin really wanted me to be able to manage the windows.

Come to think of it Martin looked pretty clean and well turned out for being here as long as Harry, but he had to be an old hand. Maybe he was doing more than just playing house here; the place was clean. Clean enough to suit me.

“Well, I can’t do much for the windows except get some plywood and board them up.”

Martin frowned. “Why not?”

Yeah, there was something odd going on upstairs with my new friend Martin. “Because the Wardens won’t let me order glass, even window glass. Too easy to be converted into a weapon, they tell me.”

They weren’t wrong, but window glass made a pretty terrible weapon in a place where just about anything served as a club. I already had enough glass to make arrowheads out of the broken crap that just lying around, so it was a case of closing the barn door after the horses had fled. But the Wardens weren’t really doing it to limit weapons.

Martin sighed but nodded his understanding.

I had to ask because getting the wrong kind of reputation would be bad. “So, how did you guys find out about me? I haven’t seen either of you in town before.”

Martin wobbled his head immediately. “Oh, I never go into town! Too dangerous! Harry found out about you.”

“The Rats told me,” Harry added. “Only good things.”

“Oh, I don’t like the rats! Too dirty and too twitchy.” Martin Exclaimed.

Well, that answered that. “Right. Do the others know you’re here?”

“They do, but we think they’ve forgotten about us. They don’t know about the condition of the house and we’d prefer it stay that way.” Harry answered, flexing those ham hands of his.

Totally unnecessary on his part, but more importantly it looked like a nervous tic. “Well, they won’t find out from me.”

The Cats wouldn’t care, but if Mark found out this place would be his new place; it looked like the kind of place he would be familiar with.

“Thanks!” Martin gushed, pumping my hand again.

“So, I’ll work up the estimate of parts and labor, and get back to you. I might need some extra help getting some stuff up the hill here. You can do that, or it can be factored into the price.”

“Oh, we’ll pay for it. How does payment work?” Martin asked.

“Two ways. I get the Wardens to ding your card through a reader like Al has, or you buy valuable stuff like food on your card and give it to me. I prefer the first, but I can live with the second.”

“The Wardens just listen to you? They gave you a card reader?”

“Usually. They have so far.” It wasn’t like they cared one way or another; it was a good thing I was honest.

Harry soaked that in while Martin minced back into the house. “So, help?”

“If you want. I’ve got some help I can line up to get the stuff here unseen, but after that, we will be on our own.”

“That is acceptable. When do we finalize?”

I shrugged, making it visible. “When I start – or we can do half and half if you want. I don’t care.”

“Day of sounds fine to me.”

We shook and I turned away.

“And before you ask, Lobster and Crab, supposedly.”

“I wasn’t about to ask. See you later.”

5.3 or New old blood.

Working for the cats was a pleasure; they had the most women of any faction unless the rats were hiding theirs, and all of them were watching me work. Well their men and myself, but it was close enough.

I’d been forced to split up my week and work for the wolves, rats, and cats on alternate days. Today was cat day, but they needed less work than the other factions; while the wolves had staked out the biggest buildings, the cats had looked for a set that were in the best shape and went from there.

That said there were more than a few people pushing for those little external finishing touches that made for a nice home. Stuff I couldn’t do at the moment, but paint and wallpaper were on the way. I intended to just plug holes or other issues, and paper over the entire mess. It wouldn’t be nice at all.. but it would look nice. Paint would work for most of the other problems.

For some reason, caulk was a prohibited substance, at least for now. It made me happy I’d used mud for the cabin.

As it was, I was entertaining the idea of just making more cabins; with the amount of labor given me, it would be easier and faster than doing this crap. The problem was convincing others… and all the wood we would use. At least this house was done and properly liveable; I was fairly certain that if a home inspector came calling, it would get low marks but pass muster, which was better than this morning.

It was time to broach the subject I’d been sitting on all day, now that the people around me were relaxed and happy.

“Carey.”

Carey turned from putting “Yes?”

“Any idea why we haven’t got a shipment of noobs lately?”

Carey shrugged. “Not a clue. I’m not in the habit of asking the wardens why they missed a week. Maybe they are running out of people to dispossess.”

I waited a full beat and laughed. Carey and those around joined in, and we all pretended to ignore the bitter edge tinging the mirth.

I waited for things to quiet down. “Well, maybe I’ll ask. It doesn’t make much sense.”

I mean there were quite a few of us here; over a hundred, but this area could support more. Maybe even as many as a thousand with the infrastructure we’re making. So why not take advantage? was it a manpower issue?

No, it couldn’t be. the manpower to patrol that absolutely huge wall was already committed and had to be expensive. So why not take advantage?

Well, I wouldn’t learn the answer just asking myself.

“Alright Carey, going to knock off so I can get home before dark.”

“Good luck with that.” He replied as I left. By now it was no secret where I was holing up, at least the general area, but no one had pushed me on it.

I had already moved my car though, and anything the three of us couldn’t secure; the rats had been true to their word so far.

When I stopped outside the Warden’s compound, guns normally held slung all day were lifted in my direction. There were also more of them outside today; some of them in uniforms that still had creases.

One of the guards spoke. “No visitors today.”

I got the message.

I didn’t need anything from Al’s, so I stopped at my own shop, dropped off my tools, and pondered my own latest problem; panes of glass. I wanted glass so I could weatherproof the cabin while continuing to get light into it; I’d even planned for it, with shutters that would not get in the way when closed… but it was proving harder to find unbroken glass around here than I thought, and there was no way I was going t be able to make some on my own. I knew how to make glass theoretically, but my own experiments proved theory was a far cry from practice.

I might have to go with plexiglass… but I hated plexiglass, and it was normally harder to find than glass was. I did know where to scavenge some at least, and it wasn’t far from the cabin.

There were only a few watchers this time when I rebuilt my bike and set off, and they didn’t bother trying to follow. The house I wanted was on the same road my cabin had been built behind, and it was long past time I paid a visit to it. If I was quick, I could avoid being late and triggering the search and nasty reprisals. Probably for the best since in this case, the wolves would be completely innocent.

I pushed it a little and arrived at the place well before sundown; it was a ranch style house fallen on hard times. And hard times for it meant it had fallen half over when a tree from its own front yard had fallen and smashed it. What I was interested in though, was the cheaply made greenhouse in the back; it was pretty much everything I wanted for myself if you didn’t count the rotten woodwork; a few of the plexiglass panels had cracked and lost corners, a few had outright shattered from impacts as the elements made them brittle, but most of them were more or less intact.

The only real problem was how to transport them. I couldn’t do it by bike, and I was reluctant to do it by car… which at this moment left dismantling the entire thing, stacking it, and using a sled to move the panels are few at a time several miles. Even I didn’t want to do that; I could only imagine what Les would say.

“Excuse me.” I whirled but kept my knives hidden.

The voice was light and did not match the barrel-chested giant it came from. He was ragged, unwashed, and clearly out of shape, but his hands were large… and held up in surrender.

“Can I help you?” If he was after the salvage, I was going to have a problem.

“Yes, are you Roy Marsh? Or if not, do you know where he is?”

“Yeah, I’m Roy Marsh. What do you need?” I could always ditch the bike and run; he didn’t look too agile and his stamina had to be crap.

The only real concern is he had been here when I pulled up; otherwise, I’d have heard him. The fact that I’d never seen him even once before in almost a month of being here now was a close second; did he squat around here? He also had an accent I couldn’t place.

“I’d like to hire you if I can.”

5.2 or Breakfast with the Rats.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the rats had found and claimed the sewer for themselves, but I was.

The sewers themselves weren’t anything special; a few pipe tunnels made of old flaking concrete pre-fab just large enough to walk through if you weren’t that tall. They ran next to the storm drains in most cases, and had a few breaks that water had managed to leak in from. The stench of old mildew and rotting leaves was incredible and must have been much worse during the summer months, but my tour guide Kirby didn’t seem to notice at all.

The tunnels themselves though were surprisingly clean. Some even showed obvious evidence of the cleanup that had made them so.

No, the tunnels weren’t exactly impressive, even though they were good for a small town. The real impressive feature was a few miles down the main tunnel, out near the sea. That’s where the almost fully modern (Built in the sixties perhaps?) water and sewage treatment plant was. The place was as clean as the newspaper office or better, and there were people active everywhere I looked.

Kirby led me to a corner office, complete with a desk and old computer. He shut the door and started his pitch. “When whatever happened to this town happened, the plant was just shut down and coated in dustcovers. Now I may not look it, but I worked in sewage and water treatment.”

He looked it.

“I know how to fix pipes and storm drains, but I’m only one man, and fixing the water system of this shithole would require an army. I want you to help me shore up the drains and tunnels so that we don’t get flooded out in a heavy rain.That and maybe add some security upgrades.”

“I can do that. One question, is this place hydroelectric?”

“I think so. There are generators or capacitors under us, and I think they tap into the waves there.”

“Waves?”

“We are directly over a cave that opens to the ocean.”

Oh right, what was it called? Wave generated hydroelectric or something like that?

Kirby was sitting on a power goldmine here, with no ability to tap it; flip the switch and everything could work… or it could all explode. I couldn’t tap it either, it was above my pay grade. but it was a nice dream. The salvage might be worthwhile too; the place hadn’t looked stripped coming in.

“I can help you, but even with two if us it’ll be a long-term job.”

“Well, the rest of my people will help if we show them how. I don’t have many people who don’t like to make themselves useful. When can you start?”

“When I get the supplies; I’m not even close to supplied for this.”

“Well if it’s just supplies, we’ve got you covered. I was doing the work alone already, and you aren’t the only one dealing with the wardens for supplies.”

“Oh really? Can you show me?”

“Ready to name your price? Sure I can show you what we have.”

I’d already decided on my price, but now wasn’t the time to correct the man.

What the Rats had was an actual supply room with actual supplies. An entire room that my new home could fit in filled with not only buckets of ready-mix concrete and salvaged carefully folded chicken wire to clothes and cans of food. Enough to open a small store like Al’s or feed the people living here for weeks.

The clothes ranged from mostly ragged to pristine and wrapped in plastic, the salvaged lumber and tools had seen much better days, and everything was more than a little grungy which explained the current look of Kirby’s gang. Or Clan, as everyone else kept calling it.

Of particular note were the rolls of copper wire stacked mostly neatly in the corner.

But no, while copper wire would be helpful and the rats had to have stripped all that from the town, it needed a separate deal.

“What I want is an alliance. Shelter if attacked and help when asked. In return we do the same, as best we can.”

Kirby’s eyes narrowed. “We aren’t fighters. I won’t send my people in to fight for you.”

Everyone was a fighter when pressed; how good was another matter. “I’m not asking for that.”

Kirby spit in his hand and held it out. I answered with my own spit and shook; it wasn’t the first time I’d shook that way.

“We’ll set up some space for you… and that car of yours. Maybe the offices up ground side?”

“Sure, that’d be fine. Have you found a local map yet?”

“Several, you want one?” Kirby wasn’t surprised by the question; maybe he’d been asked before.

“I’ll deal for it.” I answered.

“Yeah’ I’ve got one you can have. Why do you need it?”

“I want to be able to find the back roads without wasting gas.” Every rural area had back roads; routes only the locals knew about and were commonly used to avoid unpleasant people in uniforms that liked to ask questions or to make out with some thrill in complete privacy.

In this case, they would allow me to smuggle my car, sort of. Or support my new allies should they need it.

“Makes some sense,” Kirby admitted and led me back to his office.

The map he pulled out of his desk was a bit dog-eared and more than a little grimy, but it was local, had all the roads clearly marked by number, and I could restore the damaged parts. I pocketed it and turned to the map on his desk… the one depicting the tunnel networks.

“Thanks. Now, let’s talk strategy. What do you need first?”

“Security first. A way to hide the entrances,” Kirby answered.

“Hide, huh? Not trap?”

Kirby grinned. “Traps are later in; I’d rather as few people as possible know where the entrances are. Or most of the entrances anyway. The entrances in town are pretty obvious.”

“We can fix that by rigging a trash door. Make a door coated in rusty, sharp junk, make it look like a deadfall, and no one will bother trying to move it. We can do sort of the same thing for the entrances out of town, only with branches and logs. We might have to make a few actually impassable, but most will just be hinge doors. Kind of like you did before, only better.”

“I like the way you think, kid. You’re right, we’re behind the trash at the town entrances, but making doors that work for us is even better.”

Right then, let’s start by having you number the tunnels in importance, and we’ll go scope them out.”

This was a big job, but at least it was more interesting than re-roofing a house.

5.1 or Daily bread.

The trip home was anything but boring; I spotted a few tails on a long leash behind me as I made my way through the outskirts of town and back to my bike. I had to imagine the sounds of dismay and curses of course when I unveiled my new ride, but I was sure there was some of it.

I had a good half an hour before a car caught me, and that was enough to get a few miles ahead before I dumped the bike in the woods and hoofed it.

Except the car never came. Was I being too paranoid, or was Mark really going to let things go, even if only for now? I did the standard double backs and blinds periodically, which slowed me down. I was still ahead of schedule when I pulled into the home stretch.

I stopped at the old house and waved my arms in the prearranged signal, then broke the bike down and carried it in.

Sal was in the hide as I passed. I waved to him as I opened the cabin door.

Les was working on a table – with an adze – inside. “You’re cleaning that up.”

“Relax, it was an executive decision; with just the two of us, we aren’t both outside any longer than necessary.”

That kind of made sense, but could come back to bite us in so many ways. I looked over the table. Made of logs sawn in half and shaved into a level surface, it wasn’t bad work. It looked nice and sturdy; he’d even cross braced it.

“You’re still cleaning it up. With the broom.”

“Fine, fine, jeez. Did you get my beer?”

“You’re out already?” I turned to check the corner – nope, there were still two cases, next to the canned goods.

“No, but it never hurts to keep a stock.”

It was too bad Les only applied foresight to beer.

“There’s another case outside.” I’d paid for it, but Les would eventually.

I started making arrows from our stock of straight branches in the other corner; sharpened sticks and some stone arrowheads. I wasn’t about to waste metal on them quite yet, my stock of scrap was low as it was. Not that I had time to hunt up suitable stone either… hmm. Perhaps old nails and a mold were in order.

Of course, any fire large enough, even with masked by a furnace, would be enough to give us our metal casting would be tricky to hide. Maybe if I did it at the shop. That might have the added effect of advertising we were armed. Which reminded me of something.

“Les, tomorrow put those amazing carpentry skills to use tomorrow and make us a drying rack.”

He nodded and pulled out a weatherbeaten scrap of paper and pencil stub. “I’ll add it to the list.”

I couldn’t help but laugh; I’d seen his list. it had three items on it, and the first was ‘beer fridge’.

As for me, it was time to get to work on the barrels; the buckets we were using now to collect rainwater just wouldn’t be good enough, and we needed them for other things anyway. Sure there was a stream nearby, but a siege could happen, and we wouldn’t be able to call a time out for water. But a few solidly built barrels placed close might be possible.

Wait, priorities. The first was a garden.

I already had the plot marked but without some kind of fence it was pointless; without some kind of protection at night, it would be an all you can eat rabbit buffet. Maybe even deer. Good for us if we were awake, bad for us if we wanted to eat in the winter.

I got my lazy ass up anyway. I could at least hoe the thing and clear it out. That way with the fence up, actual seed planting would only take a few minutes.

The ground was tougher than it looked; filled with twisted up roots and errant bits of rock. It took almost until sundown to get it done, and all the while I was mulling the fence problem. There was still some glass around, even old picture windows that hadn’t fallen out or been shattered yet; perhaps a greenhouse? It might be easier to find sheet metal than fencing that wasn’t rotted. One of the few things I did not bring with me was chicken wire, and wood would just get chewed through.

Then it was back inside to steal another of Les’s beers. Who was going to bust me, the wardens? Sal followed me in, since seeing at night was an issue anyway. I wasn’t happy about it, but with any heat officially off and as few of us as there were, we couldn’t keep the watch up.

Dinner was a surprising rabbit and wild onion stew. I hadn’t seen evidence of a pelt or smelled anything off so it must have been dressed away from the cabin like I requested. I bet Sal managed it; neither of my Uncles were hunters, but both could figure out the snares I had… and I’d forgotten to set. The stew wasn’t half bad either; at least it was edible.

Now, all we needed was a good fruit juice or something. Maybe I could manage grapes? It was California after all if farther north than was normally considered for those.

Sal was checking my cheap notebook. “Looks like a lot of work for one little squirt.”

“Oh it is, it is. But it’ll pay the bills and forge alliances.”

“The cats? Those guys aren’t going to be worth much.”

I leaned back, shaking my head. I was tired. “The cats are more of a possible check to the wolves, just by being the second strongest faction. The one that will help us most will be the rats; those guys are busy.”

Industrious, that was the word. They had some things all worked out.

“Going to share with them then?”

“If everything works out, yes. They will be who we end up calling if we get set on here. I’ve got no doubt they have a novel approach or two when it comes to dealing with the wolves, and I bet not all of their plans involve running.”

“Well, I doubt all that, they seemed a little stomped on if you get my meaning, but I guess you’ll find out tomorrow.”

“Yeah. For now, shut up. I’m tired.” I dragged myself to my makeshift bed (maybe Sal would prove useful and make some of those) and fell on it.

5.0 or Paradigm.

The first thing Mark said was stupid: “Can we talk?”

“Of course we can talk Mark. What can I do for you?” As if he didn’t have the place surrounded in case I ran or similar.

“You left in a bit of a hurry a few days ago.” So he was going to dance around it, was he?

I decided to let him and see where he led. “I left one step ahead of some excitement. Some of our mutual friends seemed to be quite insistent on sharing our joy at being labeled as something we aren’t.”

Mark cocked his head in a calculated way. “I don’t know, I can see it in your case. But yes, some of our friends were a little enthusiastic. I’ve since calmed them down. I’d like to re-extend my invitation to live next to our home, and I’d be delighted if you and your uncles would accept.”

Yeah, I bet you would. Right up until you didn’t need me anymore or needed my belongings more. No, you don’t get to keep us under your thumb anymore. “I’m afraid I’ll have to decline, though I am still interested in any work you have. I’ll have to charge a standard rate of course, or people will talk; you understand.”

Mark’s look soured for a second before he cleared it. “Of course. I’ll see what work I can scare up for you.”

He was going to try to starve me for jobs. I could read it clear as day – but he would be surprised at just how little power he has. He would flip his shit, in fact.

“Sure. Is there anything else?”

Mark made a show of looking around. “I didn’t see your car out front.”

“It doesn’t make sense to waste gas, so I walked. Was there anything else?”

The look on his face. He’d clearly done all his walking on a treadmill for leg day.

“I’d like to buy a few do it yourself things.”

Of course; he had to support the burgeoning economy, or it would collapse, and not even he wanted that. If he sent his people to rob the place, then Al would close up and so would anyone else thinking about opening a business, and next thing you know, any pretense of civilization would collapse as everyone starts hoarding their own stuff.

That would appear to favor Mark, as his faction was the strongest until you remembered he was a law abiding citizen once, and he was the head of what was essentially a group of hard cons. Hard cons that would be without beer.

“Sure thing. What do you have in mind?”

“I’ll send over a list later.”

“Sure,” I said again. “Is there anything else?”

Mark looked around, seeming to writhe as he stood there. “No, other than a welcome back.”

“Thank you.”

He finally left, and I blew a breath. One hurdle passed, and that should open the door.

Sure enough, less than an hour later, Carey walked through the door.

He too took a moment to look around and orient himself, taking everything in. “Hello, Roy. Can we speak for a moment?”

I shrugged. “It’s a free country.” A little joke there.

He actually laughed at it. “Right, well can I interest you in some work? I’ve seen what you’ve been doing around the town, and I’d like for you to help us out.”

“Sure, but I charge. My standard rates are fifteen an hour, not counting supplies and spare parts.”

His shock was evident, for all that he tried to master it. “Um, sure, we can swing that.”

“Alright, then make a list of what you want done and I’ll drop by later to see what I need to make it happen; that cool with you?”

“Um… sure.” Perhaps he was expecting more resistance or negotiation, or maybe expecting me to still be under Mark’s thumb somehow?

I loved that look. “Was there anything else?”

“No, that’s fine. I’ll go see about that list.” Carey wandered back out, almost tripping he was so dazed.

Less than an hour later, the guy I’d talked to from the ‘normals’ or whatever they were calling themselves today – Dean, that was his name.

“What can I do for you, Dean?”

“Well, I’d like you to finish what you started and then ran out on a few days ago.”

Ouch; someone was a little pissed. “Well, there was a bit of a management dispute, but it’s over now. I’m under new management, however, so we might need to renegotiate.”

He sighed. “Damn contractors. How much do you want?”

“Fifteen an hour not including materials and parts. If you bring me a list of what needs doing I’ll make an estimate of what it’ll cost.

“Well, there is quite a bit more to repair now; after you left a few of the people working for you tried to finish the job themselves… it didn’t go well. And of course, they took the payment anyway.”

I winced. “I’m sorry. Here’s what I can do; I can waive the fee for my labor, but I’m spread too thin to waive the cost of materials.” It was only fitting since I had actually agreed to the job. It wasn’t Dean’s fault or concern what issues I had with ‘management.’

Dean pursed his lips into a thin line as if tasting something sour. “That’s… acceptable. I’d also appreciate the repairs being tended to promptly.”

I nodded and stuck out a hand. “You’ll be my first priority.”

He shook and left with a muttered. “See you soon.”

Well, could have gone worse, I guess.

Less than fifteen minutes later, the leader of the Rats walked through the door, looking very unhappy with being out in the sun.

I couldn’t remember his name. “We meet again, um….”

“You can call me Brillo, Mr. Marsh.”

“You can call me Roy, Brillo. Sorry for forgetting, but the time we met was a busy one for me.”

Brillo sighed. “Don’t worry about it, it happens. So you’re up and running?”

It was pretty obvious that I was; what he was really asking if I was still in Mark’s pocket. “Yep, all good to go. Why you have a problem?”

As far as I knew the rats didn’t have any houses staked out in town; the wolves didn’t know of any, and if the cats did they hadn’t told me.

“That depends. How discreet can you be?”

Well now if that wasn’t an interesting answer. “Pretty discreet, now. Of course, if I find out something you’d rather I didn’t, chances are other people would find out if I vanish.”

Even if he or his wasn’t responsible, it would happen. He’d have a vested interest in keeping me alive that way, and he’d be stupid to think he could get rid of all of the people I could tell.

He backtracked quickly. “No no no, nothing like that! We just have some… hidden real estate we’d like your opinion on, and we’d like to keep it hidden.”

So, the Rats had a hidden base? How very middle school.

“Sure, that’s easy. How’s tomorrow sound? You can even blindfold me if you want.”

Brillo gave me a lopsided grin. “That won’t be necessary, but you might want to pack good boots. It’s a bit… soggy.”

I held out my hand and we shook. His hand was a bit more dirty than mine and stunk of mold and plant decay. Hm, standing water? I waited until he was gone before wiping my hand off; I was polite, but he’d been some places I was pretty sure I’d rather not be, even by proxy.

And then it occurred to me that I had my work lined up for me for the next several months, even with my uncles helping, which was, of course, something they couldn’t do.

It was better than the alternative I suppose; finding another contractor had landed in our little prison and that he was more amenable to being used than I was would be a disaster. Hopefully, I could nip that nightmare in the bud; if I found out first and co-opted the people with my skill set rather than seeing them set up as competitors… I could ride the bull like Mark. Not exactly the most appealing prospect.

Oh well, lunch time. Rather than eat here in the currently empty shop, I decided to close up and go find Al. It was never too early to take steps to avoid unpleasantness. I dusted the old hours sign off and put it in the window, then locked up.

Al was waiting outside with his door open. He pointed out a guy who might be a wolf or might be a Cat with a quick flick of his head. “You’ve been popular.”

“Yeah, I can hardly believe it. Got jobs lined up for the next few weeks at least. I’m thinking of knocking off early and starting with the first. Did I miss anything or something?

“Just Mark taking it on the chin, like I told you before. The cats have come out and said they’d openly protect you, and so have the Rats and Normals. Even if Mark wanted to try something, the Wolves just can’t take everyone else at once. And that will last… “

“…as long as I continue to be useful, yes.” I already knew I couldn’t afford to alienate anyone.

I pulled out my lunch, peanut butter without jelly and hard bread from this same store, and started in. Peanut butter was energy food. Al tore into a pack of beef jerky, and for a moment I was envious.

“You’re surprisingly good at this, for a kid.”

“I grew up fast, and had good teachers.” Trying to stay one step ahead of the feds and other alphabet soups of the world as they tried to pin crimes on me and mine did tend to make one sink or swim.

“Well, whatever you did as a kid, it worked,” Al stated.

“That reminds me. If I vanish tomorrow, the Rats probably did it over some secret of theirs. I figure they can’t disappear us both.”

Al snorted. “As if they could. They wouldn’t be able to eat if they made me vanish, and duly noted, though next time you feel the need to unburden your soul, you might want to ask first. I’m likely to get a little angry otherwise.”

I took the warning for what it was and finished up my sandwich.

“Alright, thanks for hearing me out.” I snagged a six of coke from the shelf as I passed; it was warm dusty and old, but better than beer and I didn’t want to drink boiled water after several days of drinking boiled water.

I handed Al my card and he rang it up. I was still low, but I bet I had more left than most.

I opened one bottle on my way to the shop and chugged it. The rest I left on the counter as I grabbed my notebook and pencils; I was interested in seeing if the Normals expected me this soon.