Humanity Has Moved On
These past two days have been wild, I'll give them that. Both the most amazing and incredible two days ever, and also the most infuriating and frustrating two days ever. Why is that, you ask?
Eh, I could tease you around or dance around the issue just for fun, but I won't keep you waiting: Both Fort Knox and Louisville had survivors. Apparently quite a few of them, too. It was incredible to meet actual, living people who weren't from Home, but both groups were just the worst to try to talk to. Or at least, one of them was. One of them turned out to be alright, though I still didn't get a lot of histories from them. Let's not beat around the bush and just get right into it.
As I mentioned before, I set up shop for a couple days about half a mile away from Fort Knox, and it was going to be the first potential key location I explored in my travels. And so, yesterday, that's precisely what I began to do. After I packed up all my supplies and recollapsed the Cube, I started up the Sun Rider and made my way onto the open road once again. It didn't take very long to reach the boundary of Fort Knox, and I was immediately floored.
While Fort Knox is just one single building, it sits on a massive campus of maybe 130 buildings lined with clean green yards and even what I recognize to be ancient restaurants from before the Fall. And there were people outside! Honest-to-goodness people! They seemed to be wearing pale yellow Radsuits and were running some kind of extendable device over every inch of grass, bush, and tree on campus--probably deradiating the land, if I had to make my best guess. I thought this behavior was a little strange, since the outside is safe now, and just as I was thinking that, two of the presumed deradiators took off their helmets and were chatting animatedly to each other. Joking around like they were sharing the same sentiment that I was just thinking.
Naturally, I was excited. Here they were--other survivors! Reclaiming the land around their own Home!
And so I decided to stop hemming and hawing on the boundary, and followed the road until I reached what seemed to be the official entry point. At the time, I should've figured my time at Fort Knox would be disappointing when I saw those men in the Radsuits exchanging panicked expressions and gestures before sprinting off towards one of the buildings. I wasn't exactly about to be greeted by the welcome wagon. As I drove into the campus, keeping my speed relatively low because that's just the respectful thing to do, probably, I noticed a large group of men in blue expedition suits rushing towards me. Figuring this was the welcoming committee, I slowed to a stop and waited excitedly to be greeted by curious survivors eager to meet someone from the outside world. As I mentioned, that's not what I got.
Instead, the Fort Knox "expedition team" was actually a security force, armed with sleek, black long-guns and shielding their faces with armored gas masks. I didn't see any vents on the masks, so obviously they were almost entirely for show. A pretty damn scary show, but show nonetheless.
"Identify yourself, outsider!" ordered one of the men in front. He was slightly taller than the others, and I began to notice that their suits all bore the same logo framed by a stately-looking shield: KSMS SECURITY. The leader's suit had an additional scroll-like emblem beneath it, bearing the title of CORPORAL. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a lot of moving shapes that were almost certainly other people, and since these shapes were multi-colored, I could only assume that they were not also security personnel. I was tempted to look around and take in more of the sights, but there was a very tense platoon of large guys in front of me, and they had guns, to boot. The tall man shouted again, "I said identify yourself!"
It was probably best not to mess with this guy, and the military decorum I've learned about from my reading seemed like an appropriate tone to take in such an awkward situation, and so I gave it to him straight. After dismounting the Sun Rider, I turned to the group, slightly raising my hands to show that I wasn't about to attack them with anything, and spoke slowly and carefully. "Sir," I began, "I am Taren Morris, age 19, son of Zachary Morris, and Emissary to the Northeastern United States for the purpose of survivor location and communication commissioned by Home--I mean, the Kentucky State Fortified Civilian Shelter, sir!" It was a bit of a mouthful, and I hadn't talked to anyone for a few days, so my mouth and throat felt a little dry when I gave them that little spiel. I felt this was a little underwhelming, though, so I swallowed hard and continued on. "You and your men are the first people I've come across from outside the shelter, sir! So this is a momentous occasion for me! And so I was hoping to perhaps speak with a representative to tell me about your community and your history here, sir!"
The Corporal and his men didn't seem to get any friendlier, once all was said and done, but luckily, I didn't seem to have made the situation any worse, either. But it was pretty clear that my request was about to be slapped down pretty hard. There was a low murmur behind the Corporal, but it wasn't the chatter of excited interest--it was the terse, hushed tones of familiar suspicion.
I did receive a good sign, though. At the Corporal's gesture, they lowered their guns. That's a start! Then the Corporal gave me another good sign: He placed his gun on some kind of sheath or slot on his back, took off his armored mask, and rested it under his arm, revealing a rather gaunt and hard-lined face framed by a very stereotypical military haircut and thin, square glasses. He had the appearance of a very stern and studious professor who had just been rudely interrupted in the midst of a fascinating breakthrough in his research. "At ease, men," he barked in a softer, unconcerned tone, "He does not appear to be a Raider. He is too clean, too well-spoken. I do not believe he will be any kind of threat. Return to your posts. I will also return shortly."
"Sir!" chorused the security team, and in almost perfect unison, they turned their backs and marched off in several directions. It's likely they were stationed at various places around the campus, which now felt safe for me to turn my head and start taking in. It was pretty impressive--having seen miles of desolate fields and rotting homes, it was so odd to suddenly see an entire complex of immaculately preserved buildings of all sizes and, presumably, functions. I was acutely aware that I was being a little rude, though, ignoring the man in front of me in favor of the scenery, so I quickly turned back to face him.
The Corporal placed both of his hands behind his back, stood a little straighter, and began speaking in a low, and rather comforting, voice, "Son, I appreciate your state of excitement and enthusiasm to learn about those fortunate enough to have survived the disaster, but I am afraid that I cannot allow you to enter our facilities. The Kentucky State Military Shelter, which I am sure you are aware that you stand on the perimeter of, was constructed within the existing fortifications of the United States Bullion Depository and the surrounding structures in preparation for the Sino-African War of 2043."
He raised his left fist to his mouth and cleared his throat, before retreating it behind his back once more and continuing, "This was, of course, the conflict that brought about the nuclear winter we have just endured. The war which many civilians referred to as the Third World War. Much like your Civilian Shelter, this Military Shelter has fulfilled its purpose in ensuring our survival. Unlike your Civilian Shelter, however, we have had the technological capability to expand outside of our confines for the past 6 years."
At some point, I had gotten out my pencil and paper without even realizing it, and I was furiously scribbling down everything he said. Which is, of course, how I am able to relay all of it to you! I only noticed this fact consciously when the Corporal coughed pointedly and added, "The Kentucky State Military Shelter is home to technology that we still cannot declassify to the general public, no matter how dire the situation, and your willingness to write everything down is precisely why I cannot allow you to stay and learn more." This was the precise moment when I realized that I was writing it all down.
"O-Oh..." was all I could manage, before lamely adding, "I see."
"You are on a journey to reconnect the people of this country and to learn about their struggles and tribulations during the harsh trials we have all faced these past decades, am I correct?" the Corporal asked, seemingly judging and probing my face with eyes rapidly darting back and forth. Subtly, the atmosphere seemed to shift. "You seem genuine in your conviction and your goal is a noble one, if somewhat colored by naiveté."
It was a surprise, then, to see the Corporal wearing an expression that, while still carrying echoes of stern...ness, also betrayed a hint of sympathy. "I am sorry that I cannot tell you more about our history, young Taren Morris, but it is simple misfortune that we are the first survivors you have encountered on what is undoubtedly going to be a long and arduous journey. You are, no doubt, planning on traveling to the city of Louisville, in order to seek the Shelter there?" I nodded apprehensively, and he gave a solemn nod in return. "I must warn you that the survivors you encounter there will not be so accommodating to you, either, but for very different reasons. The Louisville Shelter has long been taken over--or was, perhaps, always populated by marauding thieves that call themselves 'Raiders.' And so, because I have a personal belief in the merit of your ultimate mission, I want you to take this." The Corporal drew out his left hand once more and snapped his fingers. The sound of it was strangely loud, almost like he had stopped time, snapped his fingers 20 times, and resumed time so that those 20 snaps combined their sonic efforts in that brief instant.
Astonishingly, what appeared to be a woman in a pale green Radsuit seemed to have been summoned from the long buildings to my right, bearing a small wooden box. "I could not help but notice that the solar devices you wear on your belt do not include any substantial means of self-defense," he spoke with a somewhat pitying tone in this moment, and I instinctively placed my hand on the Sun Staff as if to say that wasn't quite true, but he seemed to read my mind, "And no, the Sun Staff you bear that Lieutenant Laylah Reynolds had developed before the Sino-African War will not be enough to protect you from the Raiders."
It was just one surprise after another with the Corporal. "You know Elder Laylah?" I asked in awe. I couldn't help myself--this guy just seemed to know so much, and it was incredible. "But you don't look like you're any older than my own dad!" I blurted out.
The Corporal chuckled good-naturedly. Yet another surprise. It's almost like the tense standoff a few minutes ago had never happened. "You flatter me," he said with a genuinely jovial grin, "But yes, I am familiar with Lieutenant Reynolds. She was one of the engineers under my command during the war--and no, young man, I cannot reveal to you the reason why I have not aged as much as I am sure Lieutenant Reynolds has--and I would recognize her handiwork anywhere. I assure you that the gift I bestow to you was also developed by her team."
The woman in the green suit handed the box over to me. It was polished to an almost-mirror level, and the patterns imprinted on it seemed to undulate like pockets of air in a rush of flowing water. I had only ever seen anything like this once before, but I could not remember what it was or when I saw it. It was just a seemingly unattached, unrelated memory bouncing around my subconscious mind until this moment drew it out. I grabbed the edge and lifted it open, and inside was a velvet pillow on which rested a sleek, black handgun that bore design elements that were uncannily identical to Amy Jo's Sun-based tools gifted to me only a few days ago.
"I am certain that Lieutenant Reynolds--and perhaps, her team at the Civilian Shelter--might not have considered the possibility of hostile interaction with other survivors, but I want to warn you, Taren Morris, that it is not only a sad reality, but an inevitability," the Corporal urged in a tone of increasing seriousness. "And so I give to you this defensive weapon that will help keep you safe on the road ahead. It converts the energy stored within its battery into a super-heated laser, with lethal efficacy up to 50 meters and wounding efficacy for up to 200 meters. You will find that it can be fired 30 times before it must recharge, but much like your other solar devices, it will do so swiftly as long as you remain somewhere there is light." He drew out his left hand again to stroke his chin slightly. "Erm, yes, in the spirit of Lieutenant Reynolds, we shall call this weapon the Sun Beam."
Unbelievable. To think that I was deathly afraid of this man mere moments ago. It was the worst pun I had ever heard. And that's totally what Laylah and Amy Jo would have called it. I sat there, momentarily stunned. Fortunately, the woman in the Radsuit did not laugh, either. The Corporal cleared his throat again. "Well, uh, I thought it was funny. Surely you do not object to this gift?" he asked--most shockingly--with a wink and a wry smile.
"O-Oh, no, sir! Thank you very much!" I said enthusiastically before giving him a polite bow, slotting the Sun Beam into an empty loop on my belt, and returning the polished wooden box to the woman in the Radsuit, who gave me a nod before returning to the long buildings across the road.
Clearing his throat for the final time, the Corporal straightened up and spoke in an official manner once more, "Now then, young Taren Morris, this is where I must leave you. Once again, I cannot allow you further entry into our Military Shelter, but I can wish you luck on the journey ahead." He smiled somewhat warmly before adding, "Now that the citizens of your 'Home' are finally emerging, I will send some of my men to assist them and provide aid in navigating the local area. They will be defenseless against attacks from the Raiders, after all. So once you have made it to Louisville and discovered for yourself the situation there, I wish to assure you that your friends and family will be safe."
"Thank you again, sir!" I said, as I put my writing materials away and turned to place my satchel and mount the Sun Rider. "I'll keep what you said in mind. About the Raiders and...the need to defend myself. I just hope it won't come to that." I started up the Sun Rider's engine and prepared to turn around before looking back up at the Corporal. He was still standing there, stock-still, hands behind his back and looking significantly warmer than my first impression had led me to believe. "Y'know," I began, "I was a little worried that your guys were gonna shoot me back there." Yeah, no kidding, me. Way to dig up a hitherto unknown fact to stun the world. "But...I'm happy I made it. Here, I mean." With that lame sendoff embarrassingly floating around in the ether, I turned the Sun Rider around and exited the campus on my way to Louisville.
Strangely, as I was leaving, I could've sworn I heard the Corporal's voice following me, saying, "Take care of yourself, young emissary."