EBS2

Watching The River Flow (Diplomacy for Dummies)

Written on Sunday, October 12, 2025 by Nick.

Dreaming heavily in a deep sleep, I was roused by nothing more than my sense of time, a biological prodding reminding me that I can sleep when I’m dead.

For a few moments, I laid with squinted eyes gazing in to the late summer sun. It was mid morning and the sun was well on its way to cresting in the sky, but the colorful songs of robins and wrens still filled the air. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the other senses for a moment, enjoying a feeling of tranquility that has become so rare for me. I could hear the soft lapping of the river water on the sides of the decrepit catamaran, complimented by the gentle rocking of the vessel, but drowned out by the small 2 stroke motor whirring as it powered us upstream. It smelled like summer still, though some of the trees were already shifting colors. I could hear Kevin and Lacey murmuring about something, but they were talking softly and facing the other direction.

I rubbed my eyes, ushering myself back to reality, and sat up.

“G’morning chaps.” I greeted in a good-humored attempt at a pathetic British accent.

“Well ‘ello ol’ sport!” Lacey said over her shoulder, in a significantly more accurate accent.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“Not sure really.” Kevin said flatly.

“By the sun, we are headed west, maybe northwest.” Lacey added.

“Well, I’d like it to be more west than north. We don’t exactly have a GPS.” I said.

Phil spoke up from under the brim of his hat “We ’bout 6 hours out of Lynchburg.”

“We got enough fuel for that?” I asked, hanging on to my pragmatism.

“Dunno, current seems a bit heavy today, and but I reckon we’ll make it.” Phil seemed confident as he held on the the control rod of the small motor at the back of the raft.

Lacey stood up to stretch her legs and I exchanged spots with her next to Kevin at the bow. She detected we were going to have some private talk, and seemed perfectly content with lying down across the boat to bask in the sunlight. She removed her denim overcoat and rolled up her T-shirt to expose her midriff to the sun’s rays. I wasn’t sure if she noticed Kevin and I experiencing a brief moment of carnal distraction over her very well-maintained physique before pulling ourselves back to reality.

The cicadas were chirping loudly now off the river banks, and with the sound of the motor, we had enough acoustic cover to exchanged a short conversation in privacy without seeming conspiratorial.

“What are we doing when we get to… Lynchburg?” I asked Kevin softly.

“I don’t know what to expect.”

“I haven’t seen any signs of civilization around here in a while.” I said.

“That’s probably a good thing.” I couldn’t argue with that. “We are going to need to plan for a few different situations.”

Kevin nodded. “First, this could all be a trap, he could be taking us to a Hub prison. Second, he could be taking us to a place devoid of any witnesses before he rapes and murder us.” I was expecting a laugh from Kevin about that notion, but it never came.

I thought for a moment. “He could be actually be taking us upstream without complication, but it doesn’t mean we’ll have a way home. I fear this day will end up in Harrier territory.” I feared.

“Or we could just be lost in the woods.” Kevin said with finality.

“I guess it couldn’t hurt to ask Phil what was going to happen at the end of this boat ride.” I said suggest. Kevin didn’t protest, but I saw him slowly check the position of the pistol under his arm.

I turned around, engaging my diplomatic drive. I could turn it on and off as if it were a simple flashlight. At my will, I could suppress the idiosyncratic parts of my personality. I could fetch a new vocabulary that would make the conversation a comfortable one. I could adjust my posture and body language in a hundred different ways, from standoffish, to impatient, to consolatory, to friendly. Half of the skill required to be a good diplomat was being able to read situations dynamically and adjust yourself to accomplish your goals. I’ve taught myself to avoid danger, to appear respectful without appearing intimidated, and most of all, I’ve taught myself when to shut up. A diplomat leads a conversation towards a goal while making it appear as though he’s not in the drivers sea. It’s a facade, a front. It’s equal parts of deception and honesty, and it is volatile.

On this particular occasion, my subject was Phil. He was simple, not very well educated, confident and cocky about his independence form higher thinking. Just as his southern, country accent reeked of stupidity to mean, almost anything I would say to him would come off as snooty and condescending. He wouldn’t be receptive of it, especially since Kevin has raised his rifle at him.

I turned over my shoulder so I could only make eye contact with one eye, and said friendly: “Hey Phil.” Hey is a word to be used carefully, and in diplomatic settings, it’s almost always used incorrectly. Hey is a cocky, ineloquent and unrefined word. But it just so happened that Phil was all three.

He tipped the brim of his hat up. “Howdy.”

“Dave didn’t fill us in very well, where we going?” My style of diplomacy all rests on using the word we alot. We makes the conversation seem mutual, that outcomes are shared by all parties, and for a single syllable, carries a trove of subconscious trust.

“Depends. Dave said you need out of the Hub, and the only way I could gitcha out safely is up the river. What you do after that is up to you.”

“D’you know where the Roadhouse is?” I asked cautiously, hoping not to insult his knowledge of post-apocalyptic American geography.

“Yea, sure. North a few hundred miles.”

“What’s the best way to get up there from here?”

He thought for a moment, grasping for an answer. It was almost as if the man hadn’t thought that far ahead. Kevin and I exchanged a glance to each other, speaking volumes silently to each other. “Well…. I reckin’ y’all follow the ol’ interstate up. Them harriers been a lil’ rowdy lately, but it shouldn’t be nuthin’ ya can’t handle.”

Lacey cocked her head sideways. “Harriers?”

I shrugged sardonically. We’ve seen Harriers before. She still looked concerned, so I naturally went and took a seat next to her. Meanwhile, Kevin continued to probe Phil for solutions on how to get home: “Phil, how long you think the hike North will be.”

He shrugged. “Guess about two weeks walking pretty quick.”

Lacey didn’t seem thrilled about the figure, but she kept it to herself.

* * *

Several hours had passed, and the late afternoon sun was pounding on our shoulders. I had already taken the clothing off of my upper body, leaving myself on in jeans and my boots. Even after I stripped down, I could feel the constant flow of sweat down

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my back. I would need water soon, but not bad enough to drink the river water. Kevin had followed suit, only leaving his two button leather vest on, drooping over his shoulders. Lacey had rolled her shirt up above her navel and tied it in a knot modestly, though I still caught myself staring at her when I thought she wasn’t looking.

Phil, on the other hand, left most of his clothes on, and surprisingly, he was very dry. The man had gotten used to this dank summer heat, and casually meandered the boat up the channel.

At around 8pm, as dusk began to grab hold of day, we saw a small dock ahead. Phil gracefully slipped the boat in to the dock and tossed a rope over to the dock poles.

Cautiously, never taking eyes off of Phil, we took our turns dismounting the boar, standing on the dock to help each other out. Phil was the last to step out of the boat. And there we stood, the three of us facing him, unsure of how to end our small excursion with the mysterious Phil.

Phil was the first to speak as he lit a cigarette. Kevin’s mouth watered at the site of the tobacco, having run out of cigarettes hours ago.

“Boys… ma’am, I had half a mind to kill you when I laid eyes on ya.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kevin check for the presence of his pistol, expecting Moore’s law always.

I replied cautiously, “Why is that, Phil?”

“Well, you just don’t know who to trust anymore.”

“You’ve lost some faith in humanity?”

Phil thought for a second. “No, I half expected you to be Hub informants.”

“Trust us, Phil, we are no friend of the Hub. Not anymore.”

He smiled. “Then it’s true what they say?”

I raised an eyebrow. “What do they day?”

“That a war is coming. That the Roadhouse is choosing sides.”

“Phil, I can’t tell you whats going on because I honestly don’t know. That’s why we are heading back now.”

He was silent for a second, than fished a box of cigarettes out of his pocket, tossing them to Kevin. “Take ‘em.”

Kevin nodded and smiled genuinely. “Thanks! So we are heading up that road?” Kevin indicated the direction of the interstate, speckled with car carcasses of world’s past.

Phil nodded. “Strait until you get to Maryland, than you should know your way from them.”

Lacey reached out to shake Phil’s hand. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure” said Phil. And with that, we headed North.

Wolf Am I (and Shadow)

Written on Monday, September 8, 2025 by Adam.

I slid murkily into consciousness, as if from one dream to another, and tried peacefully to make sense of the swimming gray above me, streaked with gold and green fish that lapped effortlessly through the haze. I was wrapped in sheets and blankets, feeling like some forgotten Lazarus waiting to be unbound. I was a little too warm, and very thirsty. I closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, minutes, hours later, the room was brighter, and I could see the green trim that framed the faded wallpaper, and dust motes swirling in the bright sunlight that now filled the room. I heard soft footsteps coming toward the room, the quiet creak of the old door opening to her (our) room, and my Ella entered, carrying a battered stainless steel tray with sandwiches and a pot of some pungent smelling tea.

She wore a clean white summer dress spotted with faded red flowers, no doubt trying to enjoy one of the last warm days before the harsh winter set, the fabric clinging to her slender frame, swishing almost noiselessly around her hips and thighs as she padded silently across the floor.

Ella set the tray on the end table and climbed into the bed and lay next to me, propping herself on a slender arm, looking at my face with a deep compassion that for some reason unsettled me even as I felt a spreading warmth in my chest. She smiled, and brushed the hair back from my temples and forehead, her spidery fingers running gently over my face. I closed my eyes again, enjoying the sensation of her touch on my forehead and eyebrows, down my cheek, across my lips.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“Better,” I replied mechanically, keeping my eyes closed, focusing on the warmth of her fingertips, now tracing the veins of my throat. “Where’s Margaret?”

“She’s in school,” she answered, and we let the silence return for a moment. One of the recent reforms in Roadhouse territory created the option of a public schooling system, based out of the old high school. Originally, the benefits of a pre-Crossing education were relegated to those of us who were old enough to have actually had one and to those we independently decided to teach, creating an almost mystical reverence of the wisdom and knowledge of the “elders.” However, Nick had proposed to create a schooling system available to all of the children in our territory, citing that it would create a stronger future than would a community of peasants ruled by some intellectual elite. I was inclined to agree with him, despite Kevin’s misgivings about planting the seeds of liberal and enlightened malcontent.

There were maybe a hundred children in the school program all told, since it was voluntary and most families preferred to keep their children home for safety and labor reasons, even though the vegetable oil bus that transported the children was barred and armored, and contained no less than two armed guards in addition to the armed driver at any given time.

“How long have I been out?”

“Almost three days. Your fever finally broke last night.” Her lips touched my forehead, what I had always considered a mysteriously developed maternal instinct for checking temperatures. Satisfied that the fever had not reemerged, she gently kissed my cheek and then sat up in the bed, expectantly.

I opened my eyes again, finally, and with a small grunt lifted my heavy head from the pillow and pulled myself into a sitting position, hooking my arms around my knees so that I wouldn’t fall back again. The room spun and pulsed terribly, and blood pounded vengefully through my temples and

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neck, but I forced myself to keep my eyes open, knowing that if I shut them against the maelstrom it would be a short trip down again to the threadbare pillow.

Ella’s hand pressed reassuringly to the center of my back, and I gratefully leaned toward her, resting my head in the nook of her shoulder, letting her fragrant hair cover my face.

“Come on,” she whispered. “Let’s see if we can’t get something down you and get you out of this bed.”

I felt her smile.

“Ella,” I said, almost tenderly, and felt her other hand gently squeeze my arm. “What are we?”

She leaned back suddenly, her lips curled into an almost pitying smile, her bright eyes the only steady points in the still swirling room.

“We’re Adam and Ella,” she said warmly.

+

A little less than an hour later, Ella and I walked hand in hand toward the central mall of the Roadhouse.

The Roadhouse had changed significantly since pre-Crossing times, when it was simply the Skvarla house, fortunately situated between all of our own homes, and thus was our unofficial “base” of operations.

Now most of the woods behind the house had been cleared, surrounded by high stone walls, and the Roadhouse resembled not a spacious Pennsylvania backyard but a spoked, teeming futuristic medieval micropolis. In the center, as mentioned, was the mall: a trim, spacious, and reasonably circular clearing which provided a sort of community center, complete with cart-pushing vendors and merchants from the surrounding towns peddling their wares during the semi-open daylight hours of the Roadhouse before the evening lockdown. Just off of the center of the mall stood our laughably named Forum, a closed pavilion made of cinder blocks and two by fours filled with folding chairs, where we occasionally had something like “town hall” meetings, but more often it was used as nothing more than a run-down dance hall for the Townies, with grainy speakers trickling pre-Crossing music.

To the west of the mall, along the old Paintertown Road, was the limited residential sector, which those of us lucky or powerful enough to have been allowed to actually live within the walls called home. Running along the whole northern wall was the foreboding military complex, with its low concrete buildings and flat dusty earth, encompassing the training grounds, barracks, the armory where Ella worked, and the notorious “Brig,” located in some cold sub-basement where our AN friend was no doubt being held. Toward the south were the administrative offices, and along the eastern wall, furthest from the interterritorial travel roads, were our utility centers: power, water, the motor pool with its vegetable oil refinery. It was a self-contained fortress, and while Nick had always encouraged it as a community center for greater Roadhouse territory, we rarely saw new people milling about.

The mall was quieter than usual as the two of us strolled along.

“I guess word must have spread about your unusual return,” Ella said, worry creasing her brow. “I’ve never seen it this empty.”

“People are scared, I suppose. This is an unstable time.”

“But do you think they realize that? How bad things are getting?”

“Maybe not consciously. But you can feel it. In the air.” At least I could. “Ella, do you even know how bad it’s getting?” I asked gently.

She drifted a bit closer to me and I wrapped my arm around her bare shoulders.

“I’ll protect you,” I said after a while. “And Maggie. I promise.”

“Don’t say that, ” she said bitterly, quickly. “Don’t promise. You’re a lot of things, boy. I don’t want you to end up a liar too.”

I pulled her a little closer, and we walked on in silence. We had almost made a full lap when Michael appeared.

“Adam, I’m glad I found you.” He stopped and turned to Ella, bowing slightly.

“If you’ll excuse us–” he began, trying to lead me by the arm back the way he had came. He seemed agitated and hurried. I rotated my elbow, popping out of his grip.

“What?” I snapped. I could hear the coldness returning to

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my voice.

He sighed, obviously anticipating resistance. “Emergency meeting. Dad’s house. We need to go, now.”

“Can she come?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Michael said, raising his hands in a placatory gesture. Shrugging, I began to turn away. It was Ella who stopped me, her own hands resting on my chest. She was smiling again.

“I have to be home for Maggie anyway,” she said. “The bus will be coming soon. When you get done, though, we’ll all have a nice dinner together. Okay?”

I didn’t answer at first. To be honest, I really didn’t want to go to the fucking meeting. I wanted to rest. I wanted to be with Ella. I wanted–

Her cool hand came to rest on my cheek.

“Okay?” she asked again, her eyes full of compassion and understanding. She knew how I felt. I was beginning to think that maybe she always had, even when I didn’t.

I nodded reluctantly. She stretched up on her toes and kissed me, and then walked away without another word, sunlight in her hair.

“Look,” Mike began, but I had already pushed passed him and begun stalking toward the house.

Exodus

Written on Friday, August 8, 2025 by Kevin.

I seriously missed my gun. As the days of our imprisonment dragged on I began to realize more and more how slim the chances were that I would ever see my beloved M1 again. It was probably still sitting behind the grandfather clock in our rooms in the capitol building a couple of clicks away. So close yet so far, never to be held by me again. I considered going back for it after Shields sprung us, but immediately realized how ridiculous it would be to risk life and limb for it. But it was a gift from someone important to me, and it had been my only friend for the past two decades. How could I just leave it behind? And so that was first issue that had me infuriated.

The second was Nick. Nick had done his fair share of pissing me off in the past on numerous issues (most often we butted heads over what was best for the Roadhouse), but usually I recognized that he only thought he was doing what was best for everyone, and often he or I would come around and discover that the other was right. This time, however, he was being foolish. Lacey incited a quick but brutal war between Nick’s wisdom and his libido, and his libido had scored a decisive victory. So now I counted one less person that I could trust during our extended stay in enemy territory.

The third and final item on my list of grievances was Shields. Our great and noble savior, David Shields. Before he was kind to us, and then he took a huge risk springing us, risking his title and his life. But to hole us up in his own home with his family, to risk their well-being? Foolishness. Or, even more worrisome, he had a plan, and it was working perfectly. I needed to get into his head and figure out what he really wanted. Nick was content to accept favors as simple acts of nobility and kindness, but I always tried to look for those ulterior motives. People called it paranoia until it saved their lives, then they praised your foresight until they forgot and resumed calling it paranoia.

I am alone. Utterly alone.

I was in the room assigned to Nick and I, silently searching the walls and furniture for anything out of the ordinary. I didn’t trust Shields. He was either horribly irresponsible or brilliantly devious, and either way it was quite possible that the room was tapped. So far though, nothing. The room wasn’t cluttered, but it was large and certainly not sparse, and this made my search long and slow. I was on my hands and knees, peering into an air duct when I heard the door open and close. I knew without looking that it was Nick.

“What are you–” he began, but I held my hand up to him without looking back, and he stopped short and waited.

I grabbed the duct’s slotted cover and worked the tips of my fingers behind it. The house was nice, but, like all pre-Crossing houses, it was old, and the cover came off, albeit a little noisier than I had hoped, with a good hard yank. Nick was across the room now, hovering above me, watching as I reached into the duct and pulled out a small blue baby monitor. A small green LED light was ignited, telling us it was on and functional. And listening.

I considered smashing it, but instead I handed it to Nick and went up to the roof for a smoke. It wasn’t long before Nick came to join me. Habitually, I offered him a cigarette that I knew he would refuse and then placed one in my lips and lit it up.

“So what now?” Nick asked.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I really don’t. We’re far away from home, and everyone between here and there will be looking for blood and we’re completely unarmed.”

“David said that he sent a letter–”

“David also had a baby monitor planted in our room,” I interrupted impatiently.

“Regardless, when we don’t come back, they’ll send someone looking for us, Kevin.”

I nodded, taking another hit. “I admire your optimism.”

Nick sighed. “Shields isn’t our enemy.”

“Maybe not, but he’s not to be trusted,” I replied, and then, in a whisper: “The Hub still wants our oil. They put us next to each other in that prison hoping we’d talk. Now Shields suddenly risks his job, his life, and his family for us, only to spy on us? What if it’s all for the oil?”

“That’s a pretty elaborate ruse,” Nick responded doubtfully.

“It’s oil, Nick! Oil! We don’t know what they’re liable to do.”

“Alright,” he resigned begrudgingly, “we’ll be careful around him, all of them, but he’s still our best chance of making it out of this in one piece, so why don’t you try to be at least a little less paranoid? At least in appearance.”

“Fine,” I laughed.

We heard footsteps padding up the stairs then, and we both turned to see Joy emerge from inside. “Gentleman,” she greeted us. “My husband is home.”

We followed her quickly down the steps to find David Shields in the kitchen, panicked and packing supplies into three backpacks. Great. Three.

“David,” Nick began, “what’s wrong?”

“They’re going block by block. I can’t stop them. You two have to leave now or I’m dead. All of us will be, actually.”

David tossed me and Nick each a bag. “You’ll probably get back home on that food if you ration it. Where’s the woman?”

“I’ll get her,” a pale Joy offered, and she hurried away.

“Nick, take this,” Shields said, handing him a folder. “It’s got information in it that you’ll need to read when you get to safety. If they catch you, burn it, because they can trace that back to me.” Nick nodded. “Kevin,” he said turning his attention to me, “I left two pistols and a few boxes of ammo out in the living room. It’s all I could get without raising too much suspicion. Also, I found your rifle, and it looks like it’d be hard to replace.” I followed him into the living room, where I saw three pistols and a bag laying on the couch, and just inside the door, leaning against the wall was my M1. I grabbed and checked it over, cradling it in my hands lovingly.

Nick, Joy, and Lacey soon joined us in the living room; Joy near tears, Nick looking at me with his “I told you so” face, and Lacey looking rather confused. “So I’m going with them?” she asked.

“You don’t have to,” David replied, “but you’re not staying here.”

She nodded, and David now addressed us as a group.

“I want to apologize for your treatment, ambassadors. The Hub wasn’t always such an oppressive regime. I’d like you to know that there are those of us, even in the government, who are working tirelessly to make this great place into a democracy once more. Tell that to your people so that perhaps we can avoid a senseless war.”

He shook hands with Nick and I and wished us Godspeed, and resting a hand on Lacey’s shoulder, he told her he was “sorry you got mixed up in all this madness.”

“Head south until you reach the river, then follow it west,” Shields instructed us. “You’ll find a small ferry operation there. Tell them I sent you, and they’ll take you out west into Harrier lands, outside Hub influence. Then it’s up to you to get home. Best of luck, my friends.”

And with that, we left.

+

Under cover of darkness, the three of us darted through alleyways and across quiet streets. Nick and I had been in similar situations (though much less dire), and so were well prepared for the slow progress through the city. My concern had been that Lacey would slow us or get us caught, but she too seemed to have a good idea of what to do. I was impressed by her patience and dexterity.

About an hour later, we reached the river that ran along the southern edge of New Richmond. Nick crouched down and rested on his haunches, taking a swig of water from the canteen provided to him by Shields while Lacey stretched with feline grace.

“Five minutes,” I said softly, and went to find a place to piss. I found a tree and watered it, and then leaned against it and lit a smoke. I watched the silhouettes of Lacey and Nick from where I was as I smoked. Lacey sat down beside Nick, and they spoke quietly. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I slid down the tree until I was squatting.

Watching them reminded me of things. I missed her, and with hollow grief came boiling hate. I wanted to kill Adam. I clutched my rifle hard and shut my eyes tight. I can’t, though. I can’t kill my own brother. I can’t do it.

“Hey,” Lacey said softly.

I flinched at the sound of her voice. I hadn’t seen her coming while I was lost in my memories. I looked up, but the moonlight was behind her and all I saw was her shadowy outline against the sky. I stood quickly, and knowing she could see my face even if I couldn’t see hers, I assumed a harsh yet passive expression. “What is it?” I asked.

“Look, I know you hate me and all, but I was wondering if maybe it’d be alright with you if I came back to the Roadhouse with you guys.”

I grinned, not an amused grin, or any type of grin, really. It was an empty, flat grin. “I don’t hate you,” I replied. “And even if I did, you’d be in pretty good company. Ask Nick if you can come, I don’t care.”

“I did,” Lacey said. “He said I had to ask you if it was alright.”

I sighed. Nick was doing this to appease me. And it was working. “Very well, let’s go then.”

We went and got Nick and then headed west along the river, keeping our eyes peeled for the ferry Shields had instructed us to

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It was early morning when we heard the distant sound of a harmonica. I raised my rifle, prepared for the worst. We crested a hill, and from the top we saw an old man sitting on a lawn chair on the river bank. Behind him, what could only be described as a raft was on the river, tied to a post on the shore. I lowered my rifle and the three of us approached.

When we were still thirty feet away, the man stopped playing and smiled at us toothlessly. He waved. “Ho there,” he called in a raspy voice. He sported a long handlebar mustache and was otherwise dressed like a cowboy biker.

“Hello,” Nick called back. “David Shields sent us, with his regards.”

The old man nodded and stood. “It’s a pleasure, in that case,” he replied jovially. “Name’s Phil.”

“Nick,” Nick responded. “And this is Lacey and Kevin.”

We now stood face to face with Phil. “So,” he said, producing a can of chew, “you’re all headed west, eh? Got some heat on your tail?” He put a massive wad of tobacco into his cheek and offered some to Nick.

“That’s right,” Nick replied, politely refusing with a wave of his hand.

“Well, then,” Phil started, spitting on the ground. “Seeing as how you’re friends with Mr Shields, I’ll cut ya all a break. What’ve you got?”

“Excuse me?” Nick prompted worriedly.

“Ya know, fer payment.”

Nick sighed and nodded to me. I sighed in turn and began to raise my rifle, but before I could, Phil had already produced a revolver in each hand, one on me, the other on Nick.

I let out a low whistle. “You’re pretty quick, old man.”

“Damn right. Now let’s try this again: What’ve you got?”

Phil wound up with Peterson’s phone, Lacey’s Zippo, and Nick’s wind-up pocket watch, all of which he took eagerly, but still reminded us that we were getting “a deal, a real hell of a deal.” And proceeded to talk about the usual going rate for his services, and about how that one guy tried to get over on him but “no sir, I wouldn’t have it! Shot him right in the eyeball from fifty feet. Ever shot a man in the eyeball?” He didn’t stop until the raft was loaded and we were well underway. Then he sat down on his lawn chair and went to sleep.

We all wordlessly agreed with that idea, and soon Nick and Lacey were stretched out on the deck asleep and I was taking first watch. I didn’t mind, the air out here was fresh, and I felt at ease for the first time since we had got on that damned rail car.

Return

Written on Thursday, August 7, 2025 by Michael.

I was past exhausted. The fighting and endless driving had all but wrung the last ounce of energy from my bones, but I couldn’t stop, not now. There was work to do.

“DPM,” I started, but he was fixed on Adam, who was stalking away. I snapped my fingers. “Mike, over here.”

He turned to me and shook his head, “Yeah, what’s up. Glad you’re back.”

“Get a fire going and get all the lead you can find. I know we’ve got some fifty pound bricks lying around here, so get someone to round them up. We need some lead sheets pronto. And a Geiger counter. I don’t suppose you’ve got one stashed away somewhere, do you?”

“Mike, what’s going on?”

“So that’s a no the Geiger counter?”

“Yeah, probably. I don’t know why we’d have one.”

“Well, check anyhow. I wonder if they’re hard to make, you should check into that too.” I turned to the guard nearest me. “Find my father and bring him here. I don’t care what he’s doing, just get him here as fast as you can.”

I closed my eyes and pressed my fingers into my temples, trying to make the jumbled thoughts churning through my head coherent. “DPM, hold up. You said something Smarto and Kevin..?”

“Yeah, word is they’ve been captured at the trade summit.”

I let the words sink in for a few seconds before opening my eyes again. “Ok. I need you. This may be the hardest we’ve been fucked in a long time.”

DPM started to ask something, but I cut him off when I saw my father coming down the hill from the Roadhouse in a trot. “I need a garage,” I told him. “Functional, but a few miles from the Roadhouse at least.”

Mike was quiet for a few seconds. “I think I know one we can use.”

“Good.”

Skip stopped in front of us, no more out of breath than a man half his age would have been. “What’s so urgent it’s got your panties in a twist?” he asked.

“We’re at

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war with the Associated North and we didn’t even know it,” I told him.

Dad seemed to slump just a bit at the weight of the news. “You’ve got evidence I assume.”

I motioned to the tarped thing in the bed of the truck. “I need it checked out, but…”

“But what?”

“I think that’s an atom bomb we intercepted. We didn’t dare fiddle with it, but it reminds me of one. DPM, do you know anyone..?”

“Sure, loads of people. The tech’s only been dead for the last twenty years, but we’ve got loads of nuclear engineers. Scratch that. Nuclear weapons engineers. Fuck me!”

“And you brought it here? What if that was the plan and it’s on a timer?” Skip asked.

“We didn’t want to

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risk leaving it on the roadside to be found by harriers.”

Dad wasn’t very pleased with the answer, but he didn’t say more about it. “DP, see if you can find someone who knows anything about bombs enough to tell us what the fuck this thing is. Be discrete about it. Get whatever you need from the garage and get this thing out of here, at least ten miles distant. Take a dozen guards with you; I want Roney to hand pick his best men. You’ve got twenty four hours to get some answers and get back here. I’ll leave it to your best judgment if you want to bring the bomb back or not.” Skip turned to me then. “You look like shit. Go get some sleep. There’ll be an emergency council meeting when DPM gets back and I’ll need a full report from you.”

“Can’t do that just yet,” I said as I opened the back door of the truck. The AN prisoner fell to the ground in a heap. “I’ve need some answers first.”

Seeing The Real You At Last

Written on Friday, July 4, 2025 by Nick.

It turns out that ‘Our Rooms’ weren’t the lavish guest suites we had been privileged with, but rather damp, underground cells with iron gates. All the comforts of home.

Knowing better than to resist, we allowed the guards to grab us by the backs of our collars and search us again for anything that could be used as an improvised weapon, including my precious mechanical pencil and Kevin’s hidden blade in his tube socks. They threw Kevin in a cell as he landed with a big “Ouff’, and threw me in the cell next to him.

The guards, seeming content with their hostility, slammed the doors and left without comment. As the guards footsteps disappeared around the corner, Kevin gave me a look. It wasn’t a facial expression I recognized, it was full of anger, disillusion and resent. He seemed ready to defend any sort of sardonic statement I threw his way, and I knew that during times like this, it was best not to poke the beast.

Kevin nonchalantly examined to the hinges. “Rising-butt barell hinges” he grunted.

I didn’t bother to confirm, I just agreed with a simple impassive “Yep.”

“Any way to break them?” Kevin asked, already knowing the answer.

“Nope.”

We heard the guards slam he door to the corridor and with that, we were left in the complete dark.

“Kind of them.” Kevin said acerbically.

* * *

We sat in quiet speculation. Questions flew across my mind like a swarm of locusts. Were they talking about us right now? Were they going to exalt us? Were they going to make us martyrs? Would we just ‘disappear’ the way Sandrin did?

Finally, it was itching to much: “Well that…” I stopped myself. I was going to give my two cents about Kevin’s attempt at the oil power-play, but there had been a degree of tension in the rapport between Kevin and I ever since we got to the Hub, and I didn’t want to instigate. “Well that was unexpected.” I left which that I referred to ambiguous.

Kevin thought for a second. “You think they’ll keep us here long?” He sounded gloomy.

I had heard horror stories of the Hub’s torture tactics. If they wanted information, they would get it or kill us trying. “No, I think they are just making us tired” I said hopefully. “They might just want to talk about it, oil is

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enticing.”

“Not my idea of a fun sleepover.”

“I think they may starve us, actually. They think we’ll exchange information for food.”

“Not a particularly bad way to go.” said Kevin. Was he being glib?

“I think I’d rather take a bullet.” I said all to honestly.

“Too messy. Bullets are too expensive, they won’t waste them.” Kevin retorted, considering all of the other options.

“Drowning”

“Not for certain.”

“What’s not for certain?” I asked.

“Drowning may not finish the job.” said Kevin.

“Electrocution?”

“Nah, how?”

“Poison?”

“Not enough spectacle. They won’t let it look accidental.” Kevin’s cynicism was dripping.

“How about fire?”

Kevin thought for a second. “It would draw a crowd. Also, it smells like shit. No one, not even the Hub, wants the smell of death looming in the air.”

“True.”

A soft, feminine voice came from the darkness. It was confident, but with repose: “They’ll probably just beat you for talking so much.” The voiced echoed around the long hallway, cloaking it’s source. We hadn’t realized there was another person among us.

“Who are you?” I asked the vacuum of dark.

“I’m Lacey”

“Are you in a cell?” Kevin asked.

“No, I just hang out in dark hallways at my leisure.” Everyone was a comedian. “I’ve been here for two days.”

“In the dark?” I asked,

“Yep, no food or water either.” Her tone was surprisingly light, considering the circumstances.

“What did you d….” I began but was interrupted by another sound. Footsteps approached down the hallway, accompanied by the warm, orange glow of a small cigarette lighter. It was David, and inside I rejoiced at this realization.

He was panicked, and spoke in a rushed whisper: “You guys, we have to go. They are coming. They are putting you to death!” He was succinct and terrified.

David quietly fished in to his pocket and produced a large ring of keys. Selecting the appropriate key, he slid it as quietly as possible in to Kevin’s door, and with a sharp clank, the door freely swung open. He turned to my door and did the same, and I saw the fear in his eyes. “Hurry.” Panic almost overtook him as he shooed us towards the other end of the hallway.

“Lacey, where are you?” still not able to determine the source of her voice.

“Turn around” the voice suggested with hint of sarcasm. All three of us looked over our shoulders as the faint orange glow of David’s lighter cast a wash light on a womanly figure inside the cell across from Kevin and I. She was sitting in the rear of the cell, hugging her knees. Most of her features were camouflaged by the dark.

David held the keys in his hand for a second considering the notion. He apparently wasn’t familiar with this prisoner. The woman could see the consideration on his face, so she spoke up, “I’m here for the same reason as you. The council has no sympathy, only power.”

David leaned in close to the bars and whispered. “You are a rebel, eh?” Was David taunting her?

The woman slowly unraveled her limps and stood up. She approached the cell door and grabbed the bars with her very delicate hands. She leaned in to meet David’s penetrating gaze. “I am no rebel. Don’t make accusations.” The flames from David’s lighter reflected off of the woman’s dark brown eyes.

David was still rushed. He backed away from the cell, we followed suit. “We don’t have time for this.”

Lacey’s hand flew through the bars and struck my arm like a viper, her fist clenching my wrist. “They will kill me too” she said with more prudence than plea.

David was already trying to shoo us down the hallway, but something inside of me manifested, a feeling of regret. Some qualitative response to Lacey’s plea had made me hesitate and I couldn’t move my feet. I’ve always been plagued by the fear of making decisions I would later regret, and I knew I’d regret leaving Lacey to be killed by the same thugs that had intended on killing me. I grabbed David by his sleeve and stopped him.

“David, let her out. No person deserves what the Hub is going to do to her.” I pleaded with little tact.

Kevin was already moving down the hallway. “Nick, shut up, we don’t have time for your heartfelt bullshit.” Kevin was being the the typical id to my superego, forcing self-reliance in a manner that he often described as ‘pulling one’s head out of their ass.’

Davis stood with the key ring in one hand and shrugged as he lost his words. I put my open palm out as if to say ‘give the keys to me’. He considered but yielded and a moment later I had unlocked Lacey’s cell door. Kevin cursed at me, but we all fell silent as

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we heard a door creak at the other end of the hallway.

David’s voice fell to the quietest of whispers as he pulled all four of us in to a circular huddle. “Shit, they came quick. There is a carriage out back, go jump in. The driver knows what to do. I can’t be seen with you” With that he turned around, extinguished the lighter and disappeared in to the black.

We felt our way down the hallway as we heard the jovial guards approach from the other end. They were laughing about some crude joke one had told, and were utterly unsympathetic of their duties to bring an individual to their execution; heartless as the council themselves.

Moments later, we found an unlocked but very narrow door at the end of the hallway. From behind, I pushed Kevin’s massive frame through the door to the exterior and pushed Lacey ahead of me as we landed in the next room. We closed and locked the door behind us, hoping the guards hadn’t heard.

There was a little light in this room and it appeared to be foyer. We felt the warmth on the next door, excited knowing that the late summer daylight was on the other side. We quietly made our way in to the burning sunlight, our eyes painfully meeting the sun and the gaze of a large brown horse, a small carriage and a tall driver with a bowler hat.

The driver said nothing, only smiled and opened the carriage door as if he were a refined, cavalier chauffeur. He seemed surprised to find a third fugitive in our group, but the sunlight had revealed that Lacey was surprisingly alluring. Her dark eyes and freckled nose were bordered by her jet-black, straight hair, all on top of her lean but curvy frame. Her gray denim overcoat and jeans had blotches of oil and dirt, reminding me of a very sexy mechanic, but her face was soft with delicate features.

I think even Kevin was pleasantly surprised by Lacey’s beauty despite his fervor for getting far away from the Hub. I cherished these brief, fleeting moments where Kevin seemed human. His experience with war and diplomacy had made him in to such a machine that I often wondered if a grease-pump had replaced his heart ages ago. But he was still my friend and I relished seeing him break facade one in a while.

Needless to say, the driver wasn’t opposed to the beautiful addition to our party, and we crammed in the back of the carriage. The driver started the horses before we could even get the door closed. “Duck down!” Kevin whispered as he pulled a blanket over the three of us, now crammed in the foot wells of the passenger compartment.

The carriage swayed and rattled over the cobblestone alleys for over 15 minutes, rocking back and forth with tranquility and in my weariness, I almost feel asleep. I was abruptly plucked from my haze as the carriage slowed to a stop. I began to stretch my limbs, but Kevin grabbed me by the hair and forced me back to the carriage floor as we heard muffled voices.

Though mostly indistinguishable, I heard the words ‘fugitive’ and ‘escape’ very clearly and I surmised that the man hunt for us had already begun. The driver appeared to sound calm and play dumb. A few panicked moments later, the cart began to move again. We all breathed an audible sigh of relief which was short lived as Kevin’s foot was lodged in my back and Lacey’s shoulder was burrowing in to my stomach as we all crammed in the small foot-well of the carriage.

After another short period of the carriage rocking back and forth, we felt the it come to a halt. We held our breaths in anticipation of another checkpoint, but instead, the tall, lanky driver with an impressive mustache turned around and pulled the blanket off of us. “We’re here”.

‘Here’ wasn’t terribly descriptive, but we were definitely in a covered garage. Kevin rolled out of the cart, his legs having fallen asleep. He shook them vigorously, trying to call them back in to function. Lacey followed suit from the other side with a little more grace than I, and I rolled out on to the floor much as Kevin had when he was thrown in the jail cell an hour ago. The driver closed the carriage door with a certain level of chivalry and broke the silence: “Go inside and make yourselves comfortable. “

“Where are we?” Kevin asked.

“This is Mr. Shield’s private residence. His wife is ready to receive you.”

“Are you his personal driver?” I asked.

He nodded. “Of sorts.”

The door from the garage led to a modern-style kitchen with white tile floor and aluminum counter tops. At the kitchen table sat Joy and her son Davey. We had met before.

“Nick, you look tired.” she approached me and gave me a hug. Davey ran up to me and looked up. I put my hand out and he jumped for a high-five. I was genuinely happy to see them, they were long-time friends. I was informally Davey’s godfather and although I never felt cut-out for fatherhood, I always shared a special bond with Davey.

“Joy, you’ve met my partner Kevin?” I asked.

“No, I don’t believe I have, but nice to meet you.” They exchanged a firm, diplomatic hand shake. “This is my son Davey.” Kevin gave Davey a warm, masculine nod. I rolled my eyes, the machine was back online. Joy looked over at Lacey, who was still stretching her limbs as she recovered from our journey. “Who might you be?”

“I’m Lacey.” The exchanged an awkward handshake. “The man that rescued those guys rescued me too.”

Joy smiled. “That man is my husband, David. He’s the Secretary to the Grand Council.” Lacey had a brief moment of fear flash across her face. Joy gave a motherly smile. “Don’t worry dear. He’s one of us. How did you get wrapped up in all of this?”

Lacey took a moment to phrase herself. “Suffice it to say, I’ve had some grievances with the council.” she said with humor but with conviction.

Joy laughed comfortably. “Haven’t we all, dear.”

I finally introduced myself to Lacey. With little reservation and great gratitude, she threw her arms around me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you for the rescue.”

“Twas my pleasure.” I gave an awkward smile, realizing that I sounded more like a limerick than the sophisticated Victorian poet I was channeling. We exchanged a smile at the awkwardness, and I appreciated her tolerance. She felt oddly comfortable.

Kevin found no need to a polite introduction. It was clear that he already saw Lacey as unnecessary baggage. Avoiding any more discomfort, I pointed to him. “That’s my partner Kevin.” The machine nodded, but he was, if nothing else, civil.

Joy poured a round of coffee and we all sat down at the kitchen

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table. Coffee was rare these days, usually reserved for guests, and we all appreciated the gesture. Kevin and I sat at the end of the table. Lacey hesitated, and then pulled a chair up next to us. I supposed that in her head, she was committing to whatever battle Kevin and I were fighting. “That will be all Joe, thank you very much” and with that, the driver left through the door to the garage. Joy continued: “I don’t know how much David told you.”

Kevin sipped is coffee, finally relaxing a bit. “He said we have been sentenced to death, we didn’t get much else out of him.”

“David thinks they are doing it to send a message, but they are doing their secret motions, so it’s anyone’s guess.”

“Well, us not showing up in a few days back at the Roadhouse will send a message itself” I said with a degree of threat. I always counted on Mike and Adam to be my pocket aces in dangerous situations.

“True, but there are some things you don’t know about.”

“Like what?” asked Kevin.

Joy sipped her coffee, “I should let David explain them.”

“Fair enough.” No reason to prod. “They’ve started to search for us, so how do we get home?”

“We don’t know. It’s only a matter of time until they come search here. We have to get you out somehow. David already wrote a letter to your pals.”

“Michael and Adam?” She nodded. “Well, hopefully we’ll get out of here long before there’s any need for them, we can’t risk your family like this. Not with Davey here.”

Joy smiled, “Nick, some of us still believe in doing the right thing. Even if it means a little danger.”