John waited at the gate as the others finished getting ready. When the team of eleven had lined up in single file in front of him, he used his headlamp to send a single pulse of red light toward the member responsible for communications.
Samantha returned the light signal and keyed the mic. She whispered. “CP, this is one three, stepping off at the east gate now.”
John could hear the control point returning the message over her headset. “One three, this is CP, roger. Good luck.” He walked over to her. “Turn down the volume,” he whispered, “We don't need shifty knowing where we are.”
Samantha nodded and turned the volume knob lower.
“Shifty?” Michael asked.
Bobby turned to him, “Yeah, it's a nickname that pretty much encompasses anyone who's trying to kill you, but it originally meant the local population of an area that didn't want to conform to the laws and regulations that our fledgling government is trying to re-instate over the land.”
Bobby smiled a disconcerting smile. “Because they're shifty.”
“Quiet down, let's go,” John said as he then turned, stepping off toward the desolate city in the distance.
After zigzagging through the chicane and exiting the camp, John waited for the next member of the patrol to reach him. This was a form of tradition, as the commander of the patrol would always be the first man out of the gate, and the last one in. Once out, however, the team members with the most firepower were designated as front and rear, which meant John, with his assault rifle, was not to be one of those positions.
Kevin took the lead, as was discussed in orders. He walked past John, his arm resting on the light machine gun that hung from his neck on a long sling. The column of soldiers set out from the east gate, each one distancing themselves from the other by about ten meters. Bobby and Michael trailed at the back, Bobby having the second light machine gun in the patrol.
Their footsteps and the clicking of their gear dominated the acoustic landscape as they walked in the darkness of the early morning. The column remained silent while the dim haze of daylight crept beyond the cityscape; a pale ribbon of dark blue starless sky.
Rusted husks of what were once cars lined the streets. Telephone poles lay askew across the overgrown bitumen; their lines tangled into the foliage like snakes in the grass.
A feeling of despair boiled in Michael's chest as he looked through the broken windows of long abandoned homes, trees sprouting through the floorboards. He nearly bumped into the man in front of him, not having noticed the signal to stop. He backed up, creating space between the two of them once more and followed suit taking a firing position. He knelt as the others did and wondered why they had stopped.
John was walking down the column. He stopped at Michael. “How are you feeling?”
“Good,” he said, turning his attention to Bobby. “Take a position behind that car,” he looked at Michael, “You go with him.”
Michael nodded and followed Bobby who jogged toward an old vehicle and set up his machine gun looking the way they'd come.
“Just stay behind me and if shit hits the fan, pass me ammo when I ask for it,” Bobby said.
Michael nodded, “Alright.” He sat with his back against the rusted bumper, looking back toward the rest of the column. “Why did we stop?”
“Dunno, maybe John needs to check the map, maybe this is a checkpoint where they want to take an environmental sample. Maybe there's something of importance ahead, or something that John doesn't think looks right.”
“Where are all the people? Didn't people come back home after the fighting subsided? I mean, this place is deserted.”
“It's not deserted, there's plenty of people here, they're just not civilized.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, people had to stay away for a while because of the fallout. Aside from that, it has to do with what kind of people would be the kind to come back at all. My dad used to talk about how there were two kinds of people before the war; those who could take care of themselves and those who relied on the system to survive.
“After the system broke down, the people who could take care of themselves watched those who couldn't wither and die. Eventually those who were left split into two types of people; those who took care of themselves on their own, and those who took care of themselves at the expense of others.
“That's where he said the difference between the savages and the civilized truly lie. If you could stand on your own, you had your hands free to help rebuild society. If your hands were always around someone else's throat though.”
“Yeah. Scavengers, marauders, warlords, pirates. These people don't make headway, all they do is try to drag the rest of us down with them. And for some reason, they're always in the cities. It's like they couldn't let it go you know?”
“Yeah, they just couldn't believe it was gone, so they came back and festered here like maggots in the rotting flesh of the society they once lived in.”
The column began standing up, “Looks like it's time to go,” Michael said, grunting as he got up.
Bobby picked up his LMG. “Right behind you.”