After walking several doors down the hall, John stopped. He looked back past the people circulating around him and waited for Michael to appear. He watched him for a moment, disappointed with his disorientation and general lack of situational awareness. “Over here,” he called, an annoyed tone resonating in his voice.
Michael finally made eye contact and started making his way toward John. Someone in the crowded hall bumped into him, and he winced, his body echoing with the pain of the crash and recent medical attention.
“Follow me,” John said, turning and continuing down the hall.
Michael was looking generally lost, a confused furrow in his brow as he peered into the rooms he passed. Most were filled with men and women on cots. Some were reading or sewing clothes back together, most were cleaning weapons or loading ammunition into magazines. He couldn't help but notice the way certain people looked at him. It was an awkward stare, or a kind of excited glance that a rock star would expect to receive. To Michael, it was utterly disheartening.
“There's a war going on Michael,” John said, not bothering to look back as he navigated between two people talking in the hall.
Michael scoffed. “Really?” he asked sarcastically, “I hadn't noticed.” The point quite pungently pressed home when he saw a room filled with wounded and bandaged people; IV's snaking from saline pouches that hung on to anything available. Most were tied with string from the supports of the drop ceiling. “Who's winning?” Michael asked, his voice sombre and pessimistic.
John turned around. “Who knows?” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“How long has it been going on for?”
John continued down the hall, “As long as I can remember really. It's slowed down at times. I remember about five years ago there was very little fighting. Small skirmishes here and there, but no real losses in territory.”
“Who're the players?”
“There's one large group that call themselves The Republic, aside from them we don't really know.”
“You're telling me you've been at war for your entire life and you don't know who you're fighting?”
John stopped and glared at Michael. “You can go fuck yourself.”
Michael frowned in frustration. “What?”
John pointed at him with an accusing finger. “I was nine when the bombs fell. What do you think happened to your self centered, egotistical, instant gratification society when the grocery stores didn't have food anymore? What do you think your generation of glutinous resource pirates did when imports stopped coming in? What do you think -”
Michael slapped John's hand out of his face. “I get the picture, get to the point.”
They stared at each other, the air between them chilled as others walked by obliviously; or at least trying to seem so.
“Leadership ceased to exist,” John continued. “The armed forces were so thinly stretched fighting proxy wars all over the world that someone figured it was a perfect time to cut the head off of the snake. At least that's my theory.
“We think the troops couldn't get back home because no one was here to organize things, to set up the infrastructure required to mobilize them on home soil. We don't know for sure because they never showed up to tell us what happened on their end.
“We've been cut off from the rest of the world for twenty four years. In the meantime, we've been desperately trying to rebuild society, but with a power vacuum as huge as the one that opened after the nuclear exchange, there's been a civil war ever since; if you want to call it that.”
“You said exchange, who'd we exchange with?”
“Who knows? All I know is my father went blind from the initial blast and died three weeks later from exposure to radiation. I was on the farm at the time, miles away. My father made me drive the truck, and directed me to an old hunting camp where my sister and I lived for maybe five years undisturbed. She taught me how to survive,” his eyes wandered into a dark place in his past.
Michael knew that look, and knew John was strong enough to handle the question. “What happened to her?”
“She was raped and beaten half to death by a band of marauders.”
Michael nodded. “I'm sorry.”
“Don't be. I killed them all and then buried her after she bled out.” John turned down another hallway and started up a stairwell. “I left the shack that year. It didn't feel right there; felt like I was always standing on my Father's or sister's grave, even though I buried them pretty far from the shack.
“Where'd you go?” Michael asked.
“I started wandering. I had this vigilante mindset. It was a little misguided at the time if you ask me, but I spent my time hunting marauders and other assholes who tried to take the power away from innocent people.
“I did this for a couple of years, drifting from settlement to settlement, learning who needed killing and killing them when the time was right. I got good at it. That's why when I met Stephens he put me to work where he knew I would be the most useful.”
“Stephens?” Michael inquired.
“He runs this outfit,” John said. “I've spent most of my time here pulling high risk high reward missions with a few other talented men. We've lost a lot of good people, but whoever crosses our path generally fares much worse than we do in the long run.”
“Does Stephens have a plan to rebuild society?” Michael asked.
“Hah, no,” John sighed. “That's a job for someone else altogether. We're just the sharp end of the stick Michael. A sharp end that needs to know where to be pointed. That's where you come in.” John stopped in front of an ornate wooden door. “We're here.”
“Stephens?” Michael asked pointing at the door.
With a deep breath, Michael turned the knob and pushed the door open.