A silence fell over the room, but it was finally broken as the man next to Nathan spoke up.
“Yes, there are some definite concerns,” he said to Samuel Iverson, “but it would be something for the entire council to decide on.”
“Yes, of course,” Iverson softened his posture and leaned back in his seat. “Well said, Harris.”
“Thank you,” Harris turned back towards Nathan. “But what I want to understand, is how you even found us out here. I’m sure our fame doesn’t extend all the way to Virginia!”
“No, you’re right” Nathan shook off the tension from the previous moment and settled back into his story. “As I said, I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for when I left with the prototype, I just wanted to get out west and see what opportunity I could find along the way. I drove my vehicle until it ran out of gas, then continued on foot. I advanced very slowly, only progressing when I was sure of the next leg of my journey. I won’t go into unnecessary details about the adversity I faced, I’ll only say that I have struggled against any form of opposition imaginable. Mobs, natural disasters, striker worm nests, injury and illness…I’ve dealt with them all.
“Inch-by-inch I made my way to Missouri, though, and it was there that I met the man who told me about your city. He was a former citizen of New Denver.”
“What man?” Hogue piped up. “Did you get his name?”
“Of course. His name was Manuel Carrillo.”
“Manny!” several people in the room exclaimed at once.
“Manuel was sent to find Washington D.C. early on,” Iverson affirmed. “He was supposed to find out if there was any semblance of a government left to support us. We all assumed that he had died.”
“Well…he did–” Nathan said awkwardly, “but not until later. Not until a year ago.”
“You spent some time with him?”
“Oh yes. Once I told him there wasn’t any vestige of the government remaining he wanted to find somewhere to settle out East, but I convinced him to accompany me back here. As soon as I heard about your situation I knew this was the place for me to come. I wanted a guide, and when I explained my purpose to him he knew that my cause was worth the risk.”
“Manny wouldn’t have stayed out East,” Samuel huffed. “He would have come back here to finish his mission.”
“Manny barely survived the trip out to Missouri. He lost an arm for his trouble and he wasn’t too keen on losing the other while coming back. And certainly not to deliver a message that you shouldn’t expect any help from the government! You’d figure that out on your own soon enough. As I said, though, once he knew the importance of my own mission, and that he would have my help to survive, Manny agreed to accompany me back here.”
“Except you didn’t keep him alive!”
“Oh I did. I saved his life many, many times over. And he saved mine. I can honestly say that Manuel Carrillo is the only friend I’ve had since the world fell apart. As dangerous as the road from one coast to the other is for the typical traveler, it was even more so for us. As much as possible we tried to keep the nature of our mission a secret, but at times there was simply no way forward unless we disclosed the truth. And while that opened many doors for us, it always invited trouble as well.”
The door to the bunker suddenly squealed loudly as it opened on its rusty hinges, startling Nathan. A youth came in, blinking furiously until his eyes were adjusted to the dark, then he made his way to Samuel Iverson’s side and whispered a message to him. Evidently there was some issue out at the pit. Nathan heard something about “saltwater backwash,” which set him at ease. It was just typical salt battery concerns, nothing to do with him.
For a moment, the way that youth had opened the door had taken Nathan’s memories back to a similar room with a similar door on one particularly dangerous night. He and Manny had been the only two people in that room at that time, and they were listening to the din outside of a clan murdering itself!
“It’ll be alright,” Manny had said encouragingly. “Red Stella is a mad upstart. There’s no way she could have planned a coup that actually had a chance of success.”
“No,” Nathan shook his head. “She might be crazy, but she isn’t stupid. She wouldn’t have shown her hand tonight unless she had the force to back it up.”
There came a particularly loud explosion from out in the camp and both men flinched lower to the ground.
“Well then we got to get out of here!” Manny hissed.
“That’d work for me! You got any idea how?”
“We just gotta take our chances and run for it!”
“I don’t know–maybe you’re right–“
But just then the conversation was cut off as the corrugated door swung open, flooding the two men with the light of fire burning out in the field. Silhouetted in the door was the figure of a tall woman. She was large and powerfully built, nearly sixty, with deep stress lines etched along the sides of her face, and streaks of gray through her red, waist-length hair.
“Hello, Stella,” Nathan murmured.
The woman and her two bodyguards entered the room. Behind them Nathan and Manny could see that the struggle in the camp was winding down. The old management had been successfully deposed of.
“Now we will return to our prior conversation,” Stella said with her deep, husky voice, “and Mister Tanning won’t be around to interrupt with his opinions any more!”
“I always knew you were crazy,” Manny snarled, “but I didn’t figure you for the mercenary type!”
“Mercenary?! Please, I have no intention to profit from your weapon. As I said before, I’m trying to prevent exactly that. I only mean to safeguard what you two clearly cannot protect on your own.”
“Oh, so you’re robbing us to keep us safe from being robbed. How thoughtful!”
“I’m not going to try to make you see reason. I don’t have to anymore. Either hand the device over of your own volition, or we will kill you and take it from your corpses!”