New Hayshot - Date Unknown

Back outside the town walls, the blazing sun hadn't lessened one bit. Lise wasn't surprised by this, but the disappointment she felt every time on stepping out was probably going to stay with her for a while. She peered off down the road they'd so recently come up. "That's him, isn't it?", she asked Harry, who shaded his eyes to check.

Harry chuckled. "Yeah, I can see smoke. Blonde hair, white jacket. Who else could it be?"

"He doesn't look like he's limping," Bob put in.

"It's been quite a while, hasn't it?" said Lise. "Must be two months." Two months spent haring about chasing powder, with who knew what success. Their haul so far was held by Harry, his teacher's instinctual authority naturally extending to cover administrative matters. Well, that or he couldn't bring himself to trust even his old friends, not while they were abroad in this strange world. They'd all found themselves making choices - and not comfortable ones - which had changed everything. Lise found herself envying Philious' sojurn. Raising a hand in greeting, she strode forward to meet him.

Tall and lean, Philious was almost a counterpart to Lise's own stature, and she found herself smiling at the strange sense of completion as he rejoined the group. Grinning, he offered round his joint, swaggering and eyeing the guarded walls. Lise enjoyed seeing him in good humour. Much as they each knew and accepted one another, this charming man was a soulful and unpredictable presence - a counterpoint to Bob's reasoned calm, a foil for Nobby's directed aggression, and a voice for Harry's avarice. For Lise, Philious was a kindred scientist, another person of empirical learning, a source of curiosity, and - dare she say it - easy on the eye.

"How's your ankle mate?" Harry asked, smiling knowingly.

"Got better." Philious shrugged, seemingly unconcerned with the injury that had, with the irony not going unnoticed, left the team's doctor laid up at a farm far to the south.

"And the farmer's daughter?"

"I dunno," said Philious, deadpan. "The farmer's wife, though..." His grin was infectious, and they shared the laughter, Harry even clapping the doctor on the back, the gesture raising a cloud of road-dust from his not-so-white coat.

Lise nodded towards the city. "Want to see our hideout?"

With the doctor - "the Good Doctor", as Harry insisted upon calling him, as settled as he could be, Lise announced she was taking a walk. It would be hours before they'd be able meet with Smiler. Their contact in Hayshot, he'd given them the job that'd they'd come back to claim for, and it'd been made clear from the start that he was absolutely not a morning person. Whether he kept owlish hours by choice or consequence wasn't clear; the bar where he'd be didn't open until late afternoon, but Smiler didn't seem the sort of man for whom finding alternatives would be a problem. In any case, time in a place with the amenities of Hayshot was a rarity, and Lise had a specific idea of how to spend it.

As she climbed the barrier out of their room, Nobby slumbered against one wall. He'd volunteered to stay behind and guard their belongings while everyone else went to meet Philious - old habits died hard. Back home, Nobby had worked security, keeping tempers and fists in check. In a closed environment, it was easy for the littlest things to leave their mark on others, and even with the population steadily falling, leaving rooms and halls empty, it was hard to find solitude.

Now wandering the main street of the run-down town, Lise marvelled at the determination and ingenuity of the residents. Many of the larger buildings were monolithic, concrete habitation blocks, which Harry claimed had been used to store the less desirable citizens of the old States of United Americas, or whatever the country had been called (Harry changed the name weekly). Their grey and black shells stood silently in contrast to the creaking, flapping metal shelters, which in all shapes and sizes formed the majority of the township. Constructed from any and all materials that could be scavenged or stolen, those colourful painted houses and businesses had an almost lyrical quality when the wind was up. Odd angles, hard plastic tubing, and loosely tied canvas harmonised to create a song for the lost world, a keening, rustling, whistling ode to witness man's rebuilding.

The Velvet Slipper claimed one of the old blocks, shored up with wooden supports. Newly made glass fitted crudely into the window openings, and ragged curtains behind. This wasn't opulence for Hayshot, but it was close. As one of the few inns - three or four...she couldn't remember - it was important for the exterior to make a positive impression on any visitors. It didn't really do so for Lise, but then nothing out here they'd yet seen was up to the standards of the vault. Well, she supposed the vehicles were certainly something, but even those which ran were usually on the verge of collapsing. Neither were dirty facades and rotting leather couches her idea of luxury, but in comparison to the road, anything would do.

It was early still for the place to be open, but Lise knocked insistently, and was soon pleased to see a hatch in the heavy metal door slide open. "I need a bath," she declared without preamble. The eyes inside swivelled up and down, once, and following the clunk of heavy bolts, the door swung open. The price offered was acceptable - cheap, even, for hot water and a private room - and Lise was soon standing before a steaming bathtub. The girl who took her money was young and sullen, freckled and marked with the receding jawline of many in Hayshot. Her training told her that was likely an effect of the radiation, and she felt some pity then for the girl. Lise asked her to come back in a few minutes for her clothes, which she'd leave outside the door to be washed. There was no sense in getting clean only to clamber back into her own filth.

Closing the door, she swirled the water with one finger. Her heart rose in her chest as she felt the embracing warmth, and she sighed a deep sigh as she lowered herself slowly in. Lise lay there, letting the water lap around the little islands of her kneecaps, breathing the steam as it drifted waif-like up to the roof. There, some plaster still clung, moulded and contoured, an inverse landscape. Flecks of mould dotted it, the wavering steam making them seem to dance gently, winding patterns along their own roads. Lise watched, weary with travel, work, friendship, and displacement. The mould-people flitted back and forth, forming patterns of trade and migration. Families grew in the joining of steam-threads, spreading apart to form branches, then fading out when they strayed too far from the main settlements.

Tyres screeched on metal, the roar of a mighty engine breaking her mind's silence, and Lise jerked out of her dream, back to the quiet of the bathroom. That man, she thought. That poor man. They'd taken that vehicle, armoured and armed, they and it. Cold and steel-hearted, they and it. What a price to pay for being in the wrong place, for doing one's job. It was a job well done, up until a scream had rent the air as the metal beast broke free, ripped from its stable by riders with no claim to it, and certainly no claim to the life of the man paid to guard it.

She ran a hand through her hair, tears adding their weight to the bathwater. She wondered if the others remembered him. It was hard, maintaining the pretence that the killing didn't bother her. Taking shots at bandits from a distance was one thing, even if she'd found it hard to pull the trigger; with people actively attempting to kill her, she'd found strength that she hadn't known before. It was a hard, dispassionate response to the need to survive, a dirty brown feeling with a thrilling edge to it that she didn't like. Lise thought that edge was stronger in the others, who had barely blinked at the deaths, and that worried her. It worried her enough that she hid it, not wanting to appear lacking in conviction - and really, it was probable that they were all doing the same, wasn't it? If one of them showed cracks, it could be the beginning of their own end.

She settled back into the water. There would be worse, no doubt, before they were done. It did no good now, she knew, to have doubts, not when families depended upon her and the others. Harry said they weren't doing too badly, and this afternoon would bring more powder for the pot. Philious reckoned the more jobs they did, the more jobs would find them, and that meant it could all be done with in a few months. With everyone fed, it'd all be worth the scrapes and bruises. With everyone fed, they could go home.

Still, that man.