Back to prologue
Three years later…
“Red Leader, come in, Red Leader, this is Command.”
Dean snatches up his radio from his utility belt and depresses the button to speak. “This is Red Leader.”
“Red Leader, you want to tell me why the hell you’re not back yet? Your team was due to check in two hours ago.”
He grits his teeth at Weiner’s officious tone and keeps his voice even as he answers: “We’re checking out Bravo Sectors Four and Five. We’ll be back when I’m happy they’re secured. Over and out.”
He thumbs off the radio before Weiner has a chance to respond and slides it back into place on his belt.
“Let’s roll!” he growls, slamming his palm against the side of the Jeep. He watches his team jump back into the bed of the Jeep before he slides into the front alongside Jackson. “Well, what ya waitin’ for? A freakin’ invitation?”
She rolls her eyes at him and starts the engine. They pull out, bumping and jostling over the rough terrain as they follow the line of trees designating the natural divide between Alpha Sector Two and Bravo Sector Four. In the back, the rest of Red Team – twelve men and women – line the bench seats, sitting shoulder to shoulder, rifles standing barrel-side down between their knees, expressions guarded and alert.
He curls his hand around his Colt .45 resting in his lap, gaze locked on the countryside spooling out in front of them through the bug-spattered windshield.
“Boss…” Jackson murmurs.
“I see them,” Dean says. His eyes narrow in on the flicker of movement a couple of fields ahead of their position. He grazes his thumb over the safety, licks his lips. “Alright, stop here.”
She slices the brakes on, mud flying up around the wheels and splattering the sides of the vehicle. He climbs out the cab, rests one arm on the roof and squints in the direction of the moving shapes. They’re coming into focus, nine… ten… eleven in total, swarming through the bushes up ahead, long grass and weeds flattening and swaying as they surge forwards, misshapen bodies almost doubled over in a grotesque parody of four-legged animals. Their mouths hang open, gaping and slavering, necks twisted towards the skies, animalistic howls catching on the damp breeze as they head straight for Dean and his team.
He flicks a glance over his shoulder; the guys have already taken up their positions, kneeling on the bench seats and leaning over the sides of the Jeep with rifles raised, primed and ready for the kill. He can see Jackson from the corner of his eye, fingers tapping a nervous drum-beat against the steering wheel, a stray lock of dark hair hanging down over the mottled scar on her left temple. She’s got her assault rifle on her lap, ready to snatch it up and use it should it become necessary. It shouldn’t. This will be an easy kill.
He turns his attention back to the approaching enemy. He raises his .45, takes aim, shouting the order: “Fire!”
The rattle of machine gun fire shakes the Jeep as they all let loose. The closest creature crumples to the ground; spurts of blood and chunks of flesh and bone rendering and tearing through the air as the bullets rip through the hideous, deformed bodies. He gets off another couple of shots – headshots both times – grimly pleased when he sees his two targets drop.
It’s over in less than ten seconds.
He lowers his arm, weapon still enclosed tightly in his fist. Behind him, the guys are jumping down from the Jeep, voices raised in jubilant relief. Bryce, Koopowitz and Navarro jog towards the bodies, rifles hooked over their arms.
“Boss! We got a twitcher!” Navarro calls back to him.
Dean goes to join him. He glances down at the creature, and pokes it in the side with the toe of his boot. It shudders, writhing like a gigantic maggot. It claws at the thick wet grass with its fleshy distorted arm-stumps, twisted rictus of a mouth gaping and rotten, gooey blood seeping from the webbed-over eye sockets.
“You wanna take this one in?” Bryce says.
Dean shakes his head. “Nah, fucker’s nearly gone. Won’t last long enough.”
Bryce nods. “Perhaps we’ll get a live one in the traps.”
He fights the instinctive reaction to flinch at the mention of the traps, disguising it with a sharp nod. He raises his .45 and pulls the trigger.
The shot slams into the mutant’s head, scattering blood and brain and matter over Navarro’s boots. Navarro curses, stumbles backwards, wiping his boots off on the thick wet grass.
Dean shrugs. “Gotta learn to dodge, man.”
He turns to survey the rest of the corpses. Eleven of the bastards. Eleven, on top of the ten they took down earlier, twenty one in total. Twenty one this far inside Bravo territory. Jesus.
A year ago they would’ve stacked them up and torched them. These days they can’t spare the fuel. Priorities have to be made Sanders said at the last officers’ briefing, and this is not a priority. Instead, they’ll sit out here and rot, food for scavengers and bugs.
He sighs, tilts his head back, stares up into the grey, clouded sky. He brings his hand to the back of his neck, fingers brushing against the razored hair at his nape. Jesus, he’s tired. Tired and antsy, muscles knotted up with fatigue and tension. He wishes for a moment that they could fuck the last sweep, fuck checking out the goddamn traps. Get back to base already like that asshole Weiner wanted. Magically transport himself back to his and Sam’s quarters; Sam’s hands on him, working out the knots in his back and neck with that magic pressure.
He swallows; his mouth feels like he’s swallowed a handful of sand and he’s fucking parched. He reaches through the cab side window to snatch up his canteen. Jackson quirks an eyebrow at him, and he smirks at her, offers her it first.
“What’s in there?”
She makes a face. “You disappoint me, boss.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time, soldier.”
She snorts and he finds himself grinning. He straightens again, watches the guys head back to the Jeep as he drains the rest of his canteen.
“Nice work!” he calls out as they swarm past him. He exchanges a couple of high-fives with Gutierrez and Navarro, happy to hear the whoops, the black-humored cracks and ragging.
Positive reinforcement. He doesn’t give it out very often. He knows he’s a difficult commander to please, but goddamnit they’re good. They took out eleven of the motherfuckers. Dropped ‘em in under ten seconds. They’re the fucking Red Team, best damn team in the fucking compound.
It starts to rain as they cross into Bravo Sector Three. This area used to be farmland, but it’s been five years since there’s been anyone to work it. Nature has taken over, turning everything wild so quickly and relentlessly it’s fucking scary. Sam has lots to say about this sort of shit, dissertations about Nature returning to reclaim the earth, taking back what used to be hers, getting her revenge on the human race who fucked her over so damn thoroughly. The trees and bushes and weeds have expanded here, exploding onto once neatly plowed furrows. There are still crops coming through, pushing through the weeds and greenery, potatoes and onions and radishes lying rotten and scavenged on the ground, dug up by the few foxes and badgers and coyotes left, the ones who haven’t ended up as monster chow.
The Agricultural Committee has been talking about reclaiming this land. Apparently, it’s got the right ph consistency in the soil for what they want to grow, and God knows they need the extra space. The land inside the wall just isn’t big enough to cope with the six thousand souls who already live there, never mind the new mouths that keep being born thanks to Mrs. Fitzgerald’s big fertility drive. The time for scavenging and looting is over, their stores depleting every day; these days the only food they have is what they grow, slaughter or make themselves.
But the fact remains that they just killed twenty one mutants right in the middle of land the committee’s so gung-ho about working. At the moment, there’s no goddamn way anyone should be farming here. It’s too fucking dangerous.
“Boss, look. Looks like we got one.”
Jackson’s voice drags his attention back towards the wild overgrown brambles ahead of them. There are three man-traps laid there, the old-fashioned metal kind. The kind he knows from personal experience that are devastatingly effective. He swallows over the tightness at the back of his throat, and forces himself to look.
His fingers tighten around the pearl-handle of his revolver, heart sinking when his eyes focus in on the creature. It’s writhing; jerky, spasmodic, inhuman movements, neck twisted upwards towards the sky, cavernous mouth wide, dripping white rancid liquid.
He can hear it too now, even over the Jeep’s engine: that noise, the one that lodges in his head and doesn’t leave. The noise they make when they’re trapped. That goddamned screaming.
Jackson brings them to a halt, hand hovering over the ignition, about to cut out the engine.
“No,” Dean says, licking his lips, swallowing over a dry mouth. “Don’t turn it off.”
Jackson nods, clenches her fingers around the wheel.
Dean gets out the Jeep; tension rooted into every muscle, hairs raised and pricking at his nape, a skittering up and down his spine. Christ, that noise, that fucking noise. Even now, even after five years of hearing that sound.
It’s hellish. It’s the best description he knows. And he knows, he fucking knows. Taking him back, trapped demons writhing and wailing on the rack – on his rack. Standing with a straight-razor in his hand, blood rolling down his arm, trying to decide where to cut next. He’d liked that sound back then; it’d been a kind of music, a music he’d learned to love thanks to Alistair.
He raises his hand, signaling to the rest of his team. He doesn’t want to look at them, see the freaked-out or dead-eyed expressions on their faces. They can take out the things at a distance; mow them down with godly sprays of machine gun fire. Even closer up, shotgun blast taking out chunks of brain, they can do that. But like this: when they’re cornered, that noise.
Gutierrez and Tachman jump down first. Gutierrez’s got the tranq gun and Tachman’s tossing the chains to the grass where they land with a resonating clank. The rest of the guys spill out, fan out into a perimeter, rifles up and eyes locked on the countryside around them. It’s calling to its kind after all and who knows how long it’s been here, how quickly some more will come to its aid. They usually move in packs. This one must’ve been a stray, a straggler from the main group. The others could be close.
Tachman shoots. The dart pierces the creature in its chest. It crumples to the ground, and Dean can practically feel every one of them taking a collective sigh of relief as finally, goddamn finally, the noise stops.
He jerks his head at Bryce and Gutierrez. “Alright, bag it.”
“Looks like a good specimen,” Bryce comments as they toss it into the bed of the jeep. It rolls, smacks against the bench seats with a sickly, squishing sound.
Dean grunts, repressing a shudder. He watches Tachman go back to reset the trap, the rusted metal jaws squeaking and protesting as she forces them back with the heel of her boot, bending to flick the catch. He turns away, not wanting to watch, the memories shifting insistently at the back of his mind; Sam’s pulped leg, cartilage and bone twisted, skin shredded like fried chicken, muscle and sinew ripped open. He blinks, forcing the images away, and focuses on the wild green landscape around them, the rolling hills and swaying trees, so deceptively tranquil.
Of all the places they could’ve ended up, Western Oregon was one of the last he would ever have imagined. If he ever thought about retirement, (not that he did, the concept of retiring was completely foreign to him), but if he ever did let himself indulge in that sort of wishful thinking then he’d imagine them somewhere in the Midwest, one of their hunting grounds. Maybe even Kansas or South Dakota near Bobby’s place, helping the old guy out with his business perhaps or fixing cars while Sam took classes or did something suitably geeky to earn a living.
He swallows, rakes one hand over his jaw. Jesus, he’s tired. They’re so heading back after this. They’ve bagged one motherfucker, killed another twenty. He needs some freaking shut-eye.
His radio crackles.
“Red Leader! Dean! Dean, come in! Are you there?”
He frowns, slides the radio out again. “Ritchie, that you, man?”
“Yeah! Shit! Dean, you gotta get over here! We got – fuck – we got thirty – forty of the fuckers –“
Dean stiffens, hairs pricking at the background noises coming through the static and crackle of the transmission. Ritchie’s panicked tone backed up by the spatter of machine gun fire, cries and shot-gun blasts. Dean swallows and shouts into the radio: “Silver Leader! Report: where are you?”
“Jesus, uh, Charlie Sector Two! Are you anywhere nearby? Fuck, Dean, just get here! Place is fuckin’ crawling with -” his voice evaporates in a hiss and crackle of static.
“Copy that.” Dean shuts off the radio, his body suddenly infused with a dead-like calm, the kind of calm he can remember from hunting, from being so certain, so sure of his own abilities – his and Sam’s abilities. He sweeps his gaze over the rest of his team; they’re all watching him, expectant and ready, waiting for the order.
“Let’s go! Bryce, up front with Jackson! Charlie Sector Two – and step on it!”
Bryce nods, and runs to slide into the front seat. Dean jumps into the back along with the rest of his team. The Jeep jolts into motion, the sudden movement causing the chained specimen to slide free of its spot at the end of the Jeep bed and roll towards Dean, ugly mangled stumps of its arms webbed with flesh and bone, claws visible through the tightly wrapped chains. No hands, these things don’t have hands, just stumps with claws. It fascinates Sam, but it makes Dean nauseous, Cronenberg movie nauseous. He flinches away, yanking his feet back under the bench. Next to him, Tachman grimaces and kicks the thing with the heel of her boot, sending it rolling back into place.
It takes them two minutes to make it to Charlie Sector Two.
“Hold fire!” Dean tells them as they sweep into view. “’Less you got a 100% clean target, you hold fire!”
The things are everywhere, putrid, sinewy flesh swarming the Silver Team’s military green. Silver Team outnumbered by at least three mutants to their every man. And they’re doing their best, they’re holding them off. But the sonsofbitches are so fucking fast, and there’s more of them coming, more of them – twenty – twenty-one – Christ - thirty at least – maybe more – flooding like gigantic cockroaches down the hill to the west of their position.
“Grenades!” Dean yells. He leans over the side of the Jeep so Bryce can pick up his signals in the wing-mirror – grenades – gonna take out the newcomers with grenades. Jackson swings the jeep around, slicing them into the grass and mud, making a barrier between Silver Team and the new arrivals.
Navarro and Koopowitz are uncapping their grenades, eyes focused on the bleeding, jerking, writhing herd heading their way. They stand up as the Jeep swerves, arms making a graceful arc as they lob the grenades into the mass of grotesque mutant flesh.
Their aims are true. The blasts rendering him deaf – blessedly deaf – until sound rears back, eardrums shaking, buzzing with it, though that could be the machine gun fire. The rifle vibrates in his grasp as he takes aim, clack-clack-clack of the machine guns tearing through the air, mowing down the bodies in videogame supremacy.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Dean mutters under his breath as still – still they keep coming, getting closer, mouths like maws, gaping hungrily, greedily for a taste of human flesh. They’re fucking close now – only five of the motherfuckers left, only five of them – but the bastards are refusing to die, machine gun fire not getting to them and he’s gonna have to mention that to Sam, tell him that they’re getting impregnable, some of them are becoming impregnable to regular machine gun bullets. He grabs a shotgun from under the seat; sees Constantinou, Tachman and Gutierrez do the same.
Jesus, they’re fucking close, only feet from the Jeep. He shoots, absorbing the kick-back as part of his body, as Dad taught him so long ago. Blood and brain and bone, fat blast taking chunks of grotesque reptilian nose, gaping mouth and white skin-covered eyes. The motherfucker goes down; the other four go with it as the rest of his team get with the new program. Fucking shotgun blast to the brain, works like a goddamn charm
“Head out!” he screams. “C’mon! C’mon! Move!”
He kicks down the tailgate, jumps out, hands wrapped around his shotgun.
The compound used to be a store for the US military back in the fifties, for Armageddon, for World War Three or the Nuclear Holocaust. The end of the world, and the US military had dug out the tunnels under the base and stocked them with enough ammunition to last fifty years. It’s good to know that they can blast and fire and burn with impunity, that they’ve got enough ammunition to just keep going. And as Sanders says, by the time they do run out, they’ll have figured out how to manufacture it themselves.
If they all last that long.
Some of the bastards are breaking away from Silver Team, scenting the new distraction, their new walking happy meals. Dean shoots, reloads, shoots, reloads, two of them fall. And Jesus, despite Sam’s waffling about evolution and survival of the fittest, they’re still so freaking dumb, no better than animals – worse than animals – unnatural and repulsive and so freaking dumb that they haven’t learned that if you mess with Red Team then you ain’t long for this world.
Dean catches Ritchie’s eye through the melee, through the chunks and spatters of blood and gore, through the snarling-screaming-battering at his brain, through the devastating sight of two of Ritchie’s men – no longer living breathing people but corpses, torn into, mutilated – strewn across the ground. Ritchie’s eyes are all whites, glassy-eyed and adrenalin-glazed, a crazy flush to his cheeks. He’s not even firing anymore, taking the butt of his rifle to the nearest mutant, smacking into spongy soft flesh like red bloody putty, though the sonofabitch’s not put off, coming back at him with claws outstretched, jaws gaping -
Dean signals desperately: get down get down get down Goddamnit! Somewhere through the bloody gory haze Ritchie sees him, the signal registering. He drops and Dean shoots. The mutant falls, collapses like a redwood on top of Ritchie, and Dean has a second to register the disgust in Ritchie’s expression as he squirms out from under the mangled body.
“You’re welcome,” he mutters to himself, but there’s no time for sarcasm. They’ve got the upper hand now. They’re winning, but there are still a dozen of the fuckers to kill.
A couple of minutes more and they’re all dead. It’s over. The battle short and furious and none of his team are down.
More importantly, none of his guys has been bit.
He goes round them, slapping each one on the back, squeezing shoulders, receiving glad to be here euphoric, relieved smiles or stony-faced resignation. He could write a book about the different ways of dealing with trauma. There are those who crumble and give up, there are those who push all the emotion from themselves, teach themselves how not to care, then there are those like the majority of his team, like Jackson for example; she’s leaning up against the side of the Jeep, hip cocked at a jaunty angle, assault rifle dangling from her right hand. She lifts the barrel and blows across it, cowboy style, smirking at him as he strides towards her.
“Just do your job, Jackson,” he says
“Yes, Sir, of course, Sir, anything you say, Sir!” she counters in a high, breathless tone.
He rolls his eyes at her, and goes to find Ritchie.
“How many down?” he asks him.
Ritchie flinches, raises his hand to his face, smoothes away the blood caked around his temple, trickling down his cheek, his own probably, though maybe not.
“We lost Rivers and Montez,” he says.
Dean nods. He watches two of Ritchie’s team load their two dead companions onto the back of the Silver Team’s vehicle.
Ritchie says, “Morrison got bit.”
“Shit!” Dean curses.
Ritchie gives him a bleak smile. “Yeah.”
“Does he know?”
“Course he fuckin’ knows.” Ritchie sighs again, raises his eyes to Dean’s. “Dean, man, I – I ain’t sure I can. I mean, could you maybe -“
“Rich, dude, no way. You gotta do it. You’re his commander.”
“I know, I just. Fuck, Dean, he’s been with us almost two years. Two fucking years! He’s had my back; I can’t tell you how many fuckin’ times he’s saved my sorry ass.”
“Then you gotta have his back now. You gotta do it,” Dean insists. “I know it – it beyond sucks, I know that, I do. I done it enough myself. Clancy…” he trails off, that lump in his throat again at the memory of Clancy, guiding that kid behind that tree, only twenty three years old, forcing him to the ground, the kid’s head bowed, tears rolling down his cheeks as he begged and pleaded with Dean. And then the acceptance, the Lord’s Prayer tumbling from the boy’s lips as Dean put the barrel of his gun to his skull, as if God could even do anything for him. As if God could give a rat’s ass about any of them.
God and the angels abandoned them five years ago. They haven’t been back since.
This is just something they have to do. Another burden. And it’s not gonna change. There’s one thing Dean’s realized over the past five years and that’s that these bastards just keep coming. They don’t quit. Ever. He and the rest of the team leaders have responsibilities, and one of them is making sure that the men and women under their command go out like they came in: as humans.
“Rich, it’s gotta be you,” he says.
Ritchie nods, the look in his eyes going dead and opaque. “Yeah, I know. Christ, I just wish.” He trails off. Jesus, wishing. Wishing’s worse than praying. Ritchie should know that.
Dean watches him pick his way through the mutilated corpses and gore, watches him lean down to speak to a guy – Morrison – Dean remembers him now. Ritchie says something and Morrison jerks his head up, gets to his feet and follows after Ritchie, towards the nearest copse of trees, the walk of a condemned man.
Dean turns away. He feels sick, heavy and deadened with the weight of what’s about to happen. He glances at his own team; Bryce, Navarro and Gutierrez standing off to one side, shooting the shit, their eyes caught and wary, tense with cruel expectation. Tachman, Ancelotti and Constantinou have joined Jackson by the Jeep, their attention riveted to the surrounding fields, keeping look-out, shoulders raised into tight lines, fingers on their triggers. The rest of his squad, Street, Djourou, Park and Lancaster are picking through the mutilated bodies, checking for twitchers, but the slumped lines of their shoulders and the hooded look in their eyes show that they know exactly what’s about to go down.
Ritchie’s team has come together, moved into a huddle that reminds him with a wrench of watching old football games; their hands braced on each other’s shoulders, heads bowed as if one of them’s about to call a play. They’re supporting each other, readying themselves for the sound of their commander putting a bullet in the back of their comrade’s skull.
Dean curls his hands into fists, bows his head and pictures his brother’s face.
The shot rings out unnaturally loud. He half expects to see a flock of birds take off from the trees at the disturbance. But there are no birds here, just the empty reverberation of the shot hanging in the air. Ritchie’s men, still in their huddle, flinch as one, almost collapsing in on themselves. Dean swallows and looks away, gaze catching on the stooped figure of Ritchie, emerging from the copse of trees with Morrison’s body draped over his shoulders in a fireman’s hold.
There are two things he misses from Before. Well, there are a lot of things he misses from Before, (like the internet for example, man, he misses the internet), but there are two things that stand out most.
The first is his car, his beloved baby. He tries not to think about her most of the time. It’s strange how he’s come to accept the near eradication and slaughter of the human race over the past five years, (well not accept exactly, but these things are relative), that thinking about it now just leaves him cold; incapable of quantifying how much they have lost. But when he thinks about his baby, about that moment when they were forced to leave her by the side of the road on a lonely Idaho highway, a lump still springs to his throat.
Hell, he’s always known his priorities were fucked up.
Sometimes he dreams about driving her and he wakes up with the smell of her in his nostrils: leather and dirt and beer and vinyl upholstery and fast-food wrappers and his and Sam’s sweat and spunk, those combined smells that made up his life for so many years. His heart hammers and the lump in his throat aches and those days are always bad days.
The second thing he misses is long hot showers. Showers at the base are never hot, lukewarm at best, and they last three minutes and only three minutes. Apparently it’s necessary for water and electricity preservation. They run their own generators from the solar panels erected years earlier at the southern side of the base, but the technology is old and requires a lot of maintenance. Despite Dean’s arguments that morale would be a helluva lot higher if they were allowed long hot showers at least once a week, Sanders and the rest of the Executive Committee insist there are other things that take precedence.
Whatever the reasoning, it sucks big time. Three minutes is barely enough time to wash the blood and gore and sweat from his body. Forget about jerking off. These days his fantasies are filled with hot showers – sometimes just that – just a long hot shower, though sometimes they’re memories: those times when they used to check into a motel with great water pressure and a tub big enough for the two of them to crowd into together. And then he’s lost in the memory of going down on Sam under the falling spray, how Sam looked with water running down his chest, flattening his hair to his scalp, droplets fringing his eyelashes, Dean’s hands hooked around his brother’s strong muscled thighs and his face buried in his wet springy pubes.
It’s memories like those that make him regret the years he and Sam spent not fucking around, the years when things were bad between them, when hell and angels and demons came between them. That one, maybe two years when he rarely touched Sam, and when they did give into their urges, into that burning need and desire for each other, it was fast and hard and furious, tinged with self-loathing and painful nostalgia of how it used to be, how it should be between them.
It’s not like that anymore, thank God. It hasn’t been like that for years. But Dean still has regrets, and missing out on all that steamy hot shower sex with Sam is one of the biggest.
He catches his reflection in the mirror as he steps out the shower stall. He hesitates, caught out by a sudden lack of recognition as he stares in confusion at the weathered looking dude with streaks of grey around his temples peering back at him, until his brain fires up again and he’s registering his own reflection: that is him, that’s how he looks these days. He arcs up one eyebrow, frowning at himself and assessing. God, Sam’s right, he is looking kinda haggard. He needs a fucking break; he needs to sleep for a week. Not that that’s ever gonna happen.
He strokes one hand down his chest, lingering over the distinct muscles of his stomach. Hell, at least he still looks good here, and well, whatever, he’s gonna be forty next year, he’s not gonna look like he did ten years ago. He’s still a handsome guy though, if he says so himself; he’s older – yeah – there’s mileage in the crow’s feet around his eyes and the grey in his hair, but he can carry it off, he can work it. He’s still the same guy he always was, still got the charm and the confidence and the bullshit lines (as Sam would say). And physically he’s in better shape than he has been for years. Regular PT, the toughest training in the corps, and a rationed diet lacking in the roadside and fast food he used to love so much mean that he’s much leaner and stronger than he used to be. Hell, he’d been getting kinda pudgy five or six years ago, love handles at his waist and hips, the beginnings of a beer gut. Not anymore though, he’s a lean, mean, fighting machine these days, back down to the same weight as when Sammy was in high school, though more muscled, more resilient, tougher all over.
He smirks at the thought and gives his flat muscled belly a couple of satisfied pats, cocking an eyebrow at his reflection. He reaches for the clean fatigues he’d slung over the towel rail and tugs them on. These days instead of jeans, shirts and Dad’s leather jacket, he wears combat fatigues and military issue boots, even when off duty. Instead of the amulet around his neck, he has dog tags. It’s one of the many ways their lives have changed, but this is not something he regrets. Wearing a uniform is clean and simple in a way that hunting never really was. Having a superior he respects to take orders from is a relief after so many years of second guessing his own decisions, being pushed around and played by demons and angels. He was raised into this world, he was raised to be a warrior, it’s comforting to be back in it again.
He glances at his watch as he leaves the bathroom. It’s almost 9pm; he’s been up for 18 hours. Even so, the exhaustion from earlier is seeping away and he feels too wired to go to bed. And anyway, Sam’s not back yet, freaking workaholic. He winkles his nose in annoyance, grabs his jacket from the hook on the door and leaves their quarters. He’s gonna get a drink.
He takes the long route to Rick’s. Outside, the air is cool and damp, the after-effects of the rain lingering. He turns up the collar on his jacket and takes the path leading away from the military barracks and towards the civilian buildings.
He passes by the field that the Construction and Livestock Committees have been fighting over for the past few months. By the looks of the foundation work and the presence of the base’s one rusty digger, the Construction Committee must have won that battle, though they don’t seem to have made much progress. Probably in need of supplies, and God, he hopes that Sanders isn’t gonna ask him to lead a salvage and scavenge mission in their meeting tomorrow. He fucking hates those S&S missions, hates driving the collection trucks and military Jeeps through miles and miles of deserted wild landscapes, broken roads and destroyed tarmac beneath them, half-burnt-out buildings and random piles of animal or mutant remains. He hates leaving the compound for so long – leaving Sam – hates how damn scary and inhuman the cities have become with their roaming packs of ravenous mutants, burned and looted stores, deserted and forgotten houses, all those reminders of the civilization that was still there only five years ago.
In the early days, before the whole world got infected, some cities were burned down by the authorities in an effort at containment. This was back when they still had some semblance of a government, still someone in charge, calling the shots. He can remember hearing the announcements on the radio, on the one government run station that’d still worked, the announcer’s voice intoning the cleansing of Las Vegas. The desert city torched to the ground, genocide of mutants and any unlucky humans left behind.
Sam’s mouth had worked soundlessly, eyes shiny and glassy with unshed tears as they’d stared at each other.
“Christ, Vegas, Sammy, they killed Vegas,” he’d said.
“Those bastards,” Sam had murmured, and Dean had laughed, hysterical and terrified, and pulled Sam across the bench seat towards him, needing to hold onto the one thing he still had.
Sometimes he wonders if things would’ve been different if Sam hadn’t gotten injured. It was Sam’s injury that brought them to the compound, Sam’s injury that forced them to stay and build a life here instead of going back out on the road again. If Sam hadn’t gotten caught in that trap maybe they would still be out there, leading their nomadic Winchester lifestyle, saving people and hunting mutants.
Most likely, they’d both be dead, or mutants themselves. Hell, he’s not even sure how many other humans are still out there. Not even Sanders knows for sure. Sometimes it feels like this is it; the compound really is all that’s left. Humanity’s last stand.
On to Chapter Two