He tells her to pick up the gun, and she does, but her vision is so blurred from the tears and how fast everything is going that she’s useless.
It's the dog who kills them, tears out their throats, leaves them bleeding on the ground.
The dog kills them in the museum, too, as she follows behind, clutching too-tightly to the gun she picked up from the corpse on the front stairs.
“We’re so lucky you came along when you did,” the man in the hat near-cries. He has big brown eyes, a scar on his cheek, a scarf that looks homemade. “We wouldn't have made it much longer.”
She shakes her head, points at the dog, whose muzzle is still dripping blood. His tail thumps on the floor and he pants happily, looks up at Hat Man like he’s waiting for praise. She holds the musket out away from herself. Marnie had kept a hunting shotgun in a lockbox beneath the bed; they had taken it out once, after Anchorage, went out to a firing range and Marnie showed her how to use it. Before things got bad and the gun was locked away and they pretended they didn't have one if anyone asked. She had never liked the gun, didn't like guns in general, remains unenthused by them.
The other woman--not the old one, sitting in a chair, who is watching her with too-sharp eyes, but the one pacing the room, three steps one way, three steps the other, takes the musket from her hand.
She lets go.
“Marcy-” Hat Man starts.
“She doesn't want it,” Marcy snaps. “Then I'll take it.”
She nods, shuffles a half step away to make Marcy's new ownership of the gun clear.
“There are bound to be more of them coming,” Hat Man says.”You helped us, if you don't have a weapon, they--”
She holds up her hands, waves, takes another step back. She looks around at everyone watching--the man at the terminal, Hat Man, the old woman, Marcy, another man seated on the floor and gently rocking. Everyone one of them looks like they're listening, not watching, and she should have known this is how it would be. Of course. This is how it was before, too.
She pantomimes shooting a rifle, “aims” at the wall past Hat Man, then points at herself, waves her arms, shakes her head, tries to look as alarmed as she can.
“She's not going to take a gun, Preston,” the man at the computer desk says, looks to Hat Man--Preston. “Have you ever heard of power armor?” he asks, looks to her.
She nods, carefully, turns to face him.
“There's an unpowered suit up on the roof.” He has a drawl, makes him sound friendly, and he nods. “There’s a fusion core in the basement, but I’m no good with terminals or locks, and there ain’t no key or password around here.”
She nods, runs a hand back through her hair. God, she feels shaggy, now, even though she looks the most put-together of everyone here.
“If you can hold their attention, Marcy and Preston can pick the raiders off. It should be easier to keep their attention in power armor than in what you're wearing.”
She nods again, and the dog looks up at her.
“The fusion core is in the basement, just about straight below us. The armor is on the roof, right out the door over there.” Computer Man points down the hall. She nods again, turns back the way she came.
The terminal is an easy hack, and the lock on the door clicks open. She has to throw her weight into dragging it open, the hinges rusted shut, the dust and wood and concrete piled up against it. The rust cracks, and the dust moves, and she steps into the generator room.
The fusion core still glows, but the generator around it is dead.
She wraps her hand in the hem of her coat, turns the core, and yanks.
It comes out easier than she expected, and she stumbles back a step, holding the distantly-warm and no-longer-glowing core in one hand.
Preston--and it's hard to not call him Hat Man, still, as she runs through the signs in her head--is out on the balcony, the door cracked so that everyone inside--Marcy, Computer Man, the old woman, and the man sitting on the floor rocking gently--can still hear and see him. Marcy looks at her--eyes wide, eyes hard--as she passes. She doesn't look back in return.
The suit of power armor is obvious enough, and she beelines toward it. She jams the core into the back, twists, and something in the suit hisses, and it hums under her fingertips when she touches it.
She's touched power armor once, before, when one of the soldiers put his hand on her back to usher her and Shaun toward the vault entrance.
This might get interesting.
The armor opens with an ungodly creak when she spins the wheel around the core, and she stares at the inside for a moment before taking a tentative step into it. The undersuit depresses under her foot, and she grabs at the conveniently-placed handles, hauls herself in, settles her other foot in the other boot.
She stretches her arms out, settles her hands into their gloves, and the suit hisses shut around her.
It’s hard to move, but the weight, the closeness, is more reassuring than she wants to think about. It’s easier to breathe than she expected, too, an easy suck of cooler air than it felt like when she was standing outside the suit.
She takes three lumbering steps forward before she’s swallowing down her vertigo, feels the electric thrill of fear up the back of her head, her breath catching in her throat, her hands shaking in the gauntlets--shaking hard, the sort of hard where Marnie would walk her to the bathroom, no touching, no noises, no judgement, no nothing, until she could breathe and things were alright and her hands stopped shaking so she was coherent again.
But Marnie isn’t here.
There’s a man in a hat, named Preston, with something that looks like it might have been a laser rifle before someone tinkered with it, and a woman named Marcy, carrying the same, and there’s a German Shepard sprinting out the front door of the museum, and there’s a thirty foot drop two feet in front of her.
She edges closer, not sure how to get down--the suit moves easily, if she doesn't think too hard about moving it, but she can still feel the weight, the heavy blocky movements, the heft of every movement she makes.
Can she jump? She would break her leg if she was in her street clothes, but she’s wrapped in half a ton of metal meant to protect The Boys And Girls Overseas.
If they need her to be loud, draw the raiders attention, then certainly jumping from roof will do that.
She backs up three steps, feels the roof give under each one.
She closes her eyes when she hurls herself off the roof, keeps her feet underneath herself, keeps her knees bent, empties her mind for the long, long second seconds it takes for her to hit the ground.
When she hits the ground, she feels it shake, can hear the buildings around her shake, some facing somewhere crumble and shatter on the ground, and she hears men yelling, and then she hears a sound like a monster from a movie--a dinosaur, a dragon, some reptilian hellbeast that Marnie would have shrieked at.
And when she opens her eyes, there is a reptilian hellbeast tearing up the street--the size of a small boat, or their living room, on two legs, then on four, dodging bullets or just shaking them off--and her breath freezes in her chest.
Hat Man is yelling something, and the monster is closing on her before she manages to remember how words work, before she hears anything Hat Man says, before she can stop thinking too hard about moving and suddenly she’s moving through syrup, slow and hard and not nearly fast enough as the monster closes and closes and closes.
One of the laser guns scorches the monster's shoulder, and she can’t get away, even as it turns, roars at Hat Man and Marcy up on the balcony, plants one hand on her chest and shoves her to the ground, claws scraping across her armor, an awful shriek she can feel down into her breastbone, stabbing through her skull, too much even if she hadn’t already been shaking, hadn’t already been afraid, hadn’t already wanted to clutch at someone who would take her weight and lead her somewhere else, hadn't panicked and agreed to be bait.
The monster roars again, stands up on its hind legs, stretches its shoulders back, and she sees the flash of a laser gun again, and the monster is reeling backwards, mouth dangling open, and a second shot follows right after the first, hits its stomach instead of its throat.
It topples backwards.
And everything is silent.
So, so silent.
She closes her eyes, and tries to breathe.
“Preston, let us rest first,” Marcy sighs, voice harsh, like she’s rolling her eyes.
“We’ll need beds before tonight,” Preston argues, points toward the west. The sun is just past noon, still hanging high and hot and yellow.
“We can rest before then!” Marcy snaps back, and throws one arm out. Floor Man cringes where he’s standing, in the doorway to the house. The Old Woman disappeared inside, and Computer Man stands out of the way, watching Hat Man and Marcy. They continue arguing.
The sun is long gone by the time she gives up on sleep, puts her glasses on, wraps one blanket over her shoulders, bundles it around her neck, and steps out onto the floor of the carport in her bare feet. The concrete is still smooth, and she shuffles across it, breathes through her nose.
Hat Man comes around the curve, laser gun in hand, looking up at the stars. She leans against the roof support, watches him as he walks down toward the bridge. He drops his eyes when he gets to the worst of the broken concrete, watches where he puts his feet.
He stops at the bridge, fiddles with his scarf, hefts his gun, looks across the bridge and down toward the truck stop.
He doesn’t notice her watching until he turns to go back up the road. He jumps, gun swinging toward ‘ready’, and she hunches down into her blanket. When his eyes focus, he lowers his gun, smiles with furrowed brows.
“You scared me.” He laughs, like he’s embarrassed. She nods, and smiles back. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name earlier.” He walks toward her, gun still lowered, stops five feet away, out on the driveway.
She shrugs. He won’t understand signing anyway.
He looks like he’s about to squint at her, but he doesn’t. Credit to him.
“I have a hard time understanding you,” he says, after a moment too long of silence. He shuffles like he’s not sure what to do with himself. “Do you have something to write one? I’m--I’m sorry to ask, that’s probably rude--”
She unbundles the blanket from around her neck, holds up one finger. He nods, falls silent as she checks through her pockets for the scrap paper and pencil she picked up earlier in the day.
She puts pencil to paper, but hesitates before she writes her name. Hat Man watches as she deliberates. He takes his hat off and runs his hand back across his hair.
Finally, she writes PROF in block letters on the paper.
Hat Man reads it, nods.
“Prof,” he says, and she nods back. “How long have you been here?” he asks, and she bites her lip to keep from laughing. How long has she been here? It’s two hundred years and change on a calendar, but five months by the days she’s been in her house.
That’s the number she picks, in the interest of not--well, it seems like a bad idea to mention she’s pre-war. Hat Man and the rest seem nice enough, but--just in case.
“You must know the area pretty well, then,” Hat Man says, and oh god is that hope in his eyes. Shit. Shit. She’s just been volunteered for something.
She shrugs, turns her head to give him a side-eye. He catches on to what it means, and waves his free hand.
“Oh, no, no, I just--we need a little help establishing here, is all. Please, just--a little help.” And that’s not hope, that’s desperation. That’s foot in the door, that’s last-ditch effort, that’s the same face the freshmen would wear when they slipped into her classroom at five in the evening on a weeknight, clutching their pre-algebra books, tears in their eyes.
And damn if Marnie hadn’t always teased her for being a bleeding heart.
WHAT HELP DO YOU NEED? she writes.
“We need food, and beds, and while we can live in these houses, they need fixed up to keep out more of the weather.” He takes one step closer. He’s still comfortably far away, at least. She nods, turns the page in her pad of paper, starts a list on the back. “We need clean water, too. We can live on that creek for a while--” She pulls a face, and Hat Man huffs out a laugh, “--but someone is going to get sick from it eventually.” She nods, adds “WATER” to the list. “That should be enough, we can work from there on our own, if you want to leave.”
She nods, tucks the paper away, bundles her blanket up again. Hat Man half-turns, back out toward the road, then stops.
“I’ll be on patrol tonight,” he says. “I know you don’t want to shoot people, but--would you take a shift tomorrow, maybe? Just get me or Marcy if there are any problems.”
She nods again, and then after a moment, signs, “You should sleep.”
He stares at her for a moment, and he recalculates--points at him again, unbundles her blanket and catches the corners in her elbow, puts the flats of her hands together, leans her head over on them. She closes her eyes, open and closes her mouth like she’s snoring.
Hat Man giggles, and she smiles, drops the sign.
“When others are up, I’ll sleep,” he agrees. “Can you show me the first one again?”
She signs again, and the Hat Man imitates the signs back. She nods and smiles, and Hat Man smiles back.
“Can you teach me more?” he asks.
“Tomorrow,” she signs, and he squints for a moment.
“Soon?” he asks, and she nods, wobbles her shoulders, pulls a face. He laughs, again. After hesitating a moment, he signs, “You should sleep.”
She gives him a thumbs up, tugs her blanket tighter around her shoulders, and then shuffles back toward the house as he heads out back toward the street, humming.