New Denver was the largest city Nathan had seen in a long time. It wasn’t just another occasionally-inhabited outpost, it was an actual, persistent community of seven hundred souls! New Denver citizens lived in actual houses, grew actual farms, and ran actual shops!
Most of that population was comprised of original members of the Coast-Seekers company. The expedition had paused at this location when its leader, Liam Blakes, recognized that the Bonneville Salt Flats (which lay just beyond) were a likely nesting ground for giant sand striker worms. Liam’s hunch proved true, as he and the rest of his surveying team were devoured only ten minutes after venturing onto the powder.
A few more surveying teams were sent out, each in a different direction, each hoping to find a path of safety through the dry ocean. Not a single one of them made it, though, and at last the company gave up their dream of reaching the California coast and sailing to New Zealand. What with the radiation to the north and the spawning grounds to the South, there didn’t seem to be any safe passages left.
And so they had settled, scratching out their lives in the very heart of chaos.
It was almost dusk when Nathan arrived at the city gates. The perimeter fence was nothing more than razor wire, corrugated zinc sheets, and concrete barriers. The gate was nothing more than a retractable garage door. At first Nathan was surprised that their defenses were so weak, but then he realized that when you lived on the fringe of sand striker worm territory, it didn’t matter whether your walls were made of paper or steel.
“Do you have a token?” one of the armed guards asked Nathan as he approached the gate.
Nathan had heard about this “token system” that the western states employed. A major city like New Denver was sure to draw all manner of criminal opportunists, so they had to be selective about who they actually let in. So all of the main factions in this area distributed unique tokens to their members, an emblem which proved that the bearer was vouched for by a trusted community. On each token was written a serial number, and there were ledgers which tied each number to a secret password. Those ledgers were regularly updated by each faction, and whenever someone presented a token they also had to provide the password that was associated with it. This was to discourage anyone from just murdering a token-bearer and using the item for themselves.
Nathan did not have a token.
“I’m not from here,” he said. “I’ve come from far to the east.”
“New Denver does not admit new recruits. You’ll have to join one of the smaller organizations instead. Once they decide you’re credible, they’ll give you a token.”
“But I have other credentials,” Nathan unbuttoned his shirt pocket and drew out an old and stained ID card. The picture was still recognizable as being of him, and all of the essential words were still legible.
“Nathan Prewitt,” the guard read. “You were a biochemist? For the government?”
The guard handed the ID back and exchanged a confused glance with his cohort. “I don’t see how that’s relevant. Just because you worked for the government doesn’t mean we trust you.”
“Before everything collapsed my department was paired with a Weapons Research team. We were looking for an effective means of killing the sand striker worms.”
“Please inform your superiors that I wish to speak with them. I have come to help.”
The two guards looked sideways at one another. This situation was outside of their standard procedure.
“It’s alright, I’ll wait out here,” Nathan took a step back and sat down on a rock protrusion.
After another moment’s pause the guards shrugged, and the one who had been speaking with Nathan retreated into the city, leaving the other at the post. That guard stared at Nathan for a full minute before he finally ventured to speak.
“But you didn’t find anything.”
“In your research, you didn’t find anything. If the government had found a way to stop the Onslaught they would have done it. So what’s the point of your being here?”
“You’re right, the government wasn’t able to stop the Onslaught. But I didn’t say that I was here to solve all of your problems…just that I could help.”
Five minutes later the first guard returned, accompanied by a man with copper-peach hair, which was so similar to his skin tone that it seemed to disappear into it.
“Doctor Hogue,” the man introduced himself, extending a hand to Nathan.
The two shook hands.
“Thompson tells me you’re some sort of government specialist, Mister Prewitt? That you were making weapons for them?”
“Biochemist, actually. We were studying the tissue of the sand striker worms, and then collaborating with Weapons Research on what tactics we could use against them.”
“I see. Well if you’re willing to leave your weapons here with the guards, I’ll take you in to talk with the council.”
Nathan removed his rifle, handgun, and knife, surrendering them to Thompson.
“Search his backpack?” Thompson asked. “And come along with?”
“No, no, I’m not worried about him,” Doctor Hogue waved his hand, then motioned Nathan to follow him through the raised gate.
Nathan breathed an inward sigh of relief and followed. His backpack was the one thing he didn’t dare entrust to another soul. What it held had been his sole responsibility all the way from Virginia to Nevada. He would die and he would kill before he would surrender its contents to anyone else.
Which was why Nathan kept one hand permanently affixed to his shoulder strap as he followed Doctor Hogue into the city. He didn’t expect to run across any thieves here, but he had a set of rules for how to conduct himself in a community, and those rules had managed to get him through this far. They would get him through the last leg of his journey, too.