Casey shoveled coal into the furnace until his shoulders throbbed and he could not see for the sweat dripping into his eyes. He stood up and wiped his forehead with the bandana and looked over his shoulder as Nicola handed him a canteen of water.
‘Will it be enough?’ she said.
He unscrewed the canteen, poured some on his face before gulping it down and then poured some onto the bandana, rubbed it against the back of his neck. He glanced up and smiled at her.
‘So long as the tracks aren’t screwed, we’ll make it to the settlement.’ he said.
Nicola had found him at the border, repairing engines in return for food and equipment. She stood outside his workshop and watched him hammer an edge into a spade and weld on a second handle like a scythe. He looked up from what he was doing, narrowing his eyes as she came in, shook the water off the brim of her hat.
‘I have a job for you.’ she said.
He grimaced and wiped his hands on a towel as he walked over to her. He folded his arms across his chest and looked her up and down with care.
‘What are you thinking? I’ve got a good gig here.’ he said.
She looked at the workshop and took her hat off to fan herself with it.
‘I know, but I need someone who can fix things. People say you’re it.’ she said.
Casey scratched his chin and smiled to himself.
‘It is nice to hear, but what are you proposing?’ he said.
She told him. A supply run to Salvation, a small settlement two hundred miles east of here, but there was a train which could be repaired. An old steam engine, built as a hobby but still in good condition.
‘You still think there are tracks to run on?’ he said.
She retrieved a map from inside her jacket. The revolver hung from a holster on her left hip, the oversized sight welded on with care. Casey knew his guns and she had a good piece of iron on her hip.
‘I’ve seen them for myself. On the Eastern Plain which the train runs on.’ she said.
Casey coughed and leaned on a scarred worktable.
‘How much of a load are we carrying?’
She took out a notebook from her coat pocket and flipped it open.
Six months of medical supplies and engineering materials, some ammunition. Food and seeds.’
He clapped his hands together and grinned.
‘Well, so long as I can fix it, I’m in. How long do I have to get it working?’
She told him and he rolled his eyes.
‘You’re fucking kidding me.’
Nicola wished she wasn’t.
The infected lacked the higher functioning to register their passing. The noise drew them but they could not gain purchase and Casey had overhauled the engine as much as its age allowed. Nicola had asked for more men but they were stretched so thin, she took enough to divide funds for the repairs of the train.
Three hundred people waited for them.
They took turns but Nicola noticed how Casey shoveled twice as much so she watched the train eat the distance in slow bites, looking at the infected as they staggered towards them. It was a waste of bullets in the dark but she kept one hand close to the spade as Casey slept for a few hours.
He had been a husband and father. He lost them all when the commune at Portland was overrun and spent three months wandering around, looking to die.
When it didn’t happen, he made himself useful. Casey spoke about them with a quiet warmth which made her eyes prickle, grateful for the night to hide her emotions as he talked about how he had cared for them. Five years a widower and he spoke of them with a gentle awe.
Nicola had been a police officer, uniformed but studying for her detective’s exam when things fell apart. She had been dating, but they were boys grown older but not up. She wept for herself as much as Casey and his loss.
She felt his hand clap her on the shoulder.
‘We’ll be there by dawn tomorrow. Not much coal left, but it’ll get us there.’ he said.
She rested her hand over his and looked up into his eyes. They were soft, brown and gentle set into a face made hard by circumstance, ingrained with dust and oil until his skin was dark no matter how much he washed. His hands were horned with callus but she liked how they felt. She looked into his eyes and he brushed her hair back over her ear.
‘What happens then?’ she said.
He tilted his head and grinned at her.
‘That’s your department not mine.’ he said. ‘I’ve got ideas.’
She raised her eyebrows and he clapped her shoulder again instead of something he wanted but was afraid to risk speaking aloud.
‘We’ll see. Salvation needs help that’s all.’
He nodded and walked back to the front of the train, ready for his turn to keep things running.
They were six miles away when they ran out of track. Someone had taken up the tracks for the metal and Casey swore as he gazed through the binoculars before he handed it to her.
‘One of us will have and see if we can raise anyone.’ Nicola said.
Casey glanced at the stretch of land ahead, studded with small groups of infected who wandered around with no will beyond appetite.
‘I’m faster.’ he said.
She patted the butt of her gun.
‘I’m a better shot.’ she said.
He looked down at her gun and her eyes followed.
Before she could look up, his hand came around and caught her on the side of the side.
Everything went black.
She woke up in the container, a folded coat under her head and she found her gun still in the holster as she put her hands to her head and groaned.
‘Stupid asshole.’ she said.
Nicola tried the door to the container and found it locked. The toe of her left boot scraped on something and she saw he had left the key for her. She was about to unlock it when she heard the guttural moan of someone infected outside.
She put the key in the door and turned it as she drew her gun.
The infected was a young woman, a camisole top hung from her skeletal shoulders and a fist sized clump of flesh had been chewed from her neck, making her head loll forwards as she reached out for Nicola.
Nicola fanned the hammer on the revolver and took the top of its head off with a shot as she charged outside. She saw a group of eight converging on her as she turned and climbed on top of the carriage. She had three speedloaders of ammunition but she knew the noise would draw more of them.
Had he deserted her? She did not want to believe it but stranger things had happened in the world and she knew if help didn’t come, she would die six miles from achieving anything. She looked over and saw another group of five in the distance coming towards her. Nicola sucked in a deep breath and gritted her teeth.
Salvation had no transport to speak of, but she heard the thump of hooves against the earth as a cloud of dust billowed towards her from the the settlement. She looked down at the blank, hungry faces and saved the bullets.
Four horses with riders, aiming long rifles as they took each one of the infected out with the precision of a metronome as they approached.
They came over lowering bandanas from their faces as she climbed down from the carriage.
‘I’m glad he found you.’ she said.
One man, in his fifties grimaced and shook his head.
Nicola’s chest hurt as she holstered her pistol and asked him what had happened.
Casey fought the ache in his chest as he ran from the train. He knew Nicola had been out here and survived, but her courage was leavened by a belief in her own talents which ran counter to his experience of surviving out here. He had the sharpened spade strapped to his back but otherwise he ran light and fast
A lack of willingness to care if you lived or died.
People forgot how the world had been before, how much they took for granted. Sure there were people who spoke about hierarchies and the cruel, causal nature of the world but most of them had ended up meat between a walking corpse’s teeth. The same as those cosseted children, grown older but not up.
His wife and children, for one.
He had chased oblivion and the world had took one look and decided it had other uses for him. Casey’s aptitudes were salvation, but they did not keep him company at night. He saw people in love, cradling tiny flames of comfort from the harsh wind of the world as it was and it made him want to curl up and weep for the want of it. There had been women, but after the damp spurt of release, they would turn away and it redoubled his loneliness. As a man, he felt disposable, a set of skills people needed but gifted to a man no one wanted once the work was done. Running over open land, watching the infected shamble towards him, Casey felt the burn in his lungs as he saw the lights of Salvation.
Which was when he tripped over the corpse and fell on his face. He tasted blood and soil in his mouth as he sought to get up despite his arms trembling with fatigue and the unresolved grief and rage which had him seek then reject death before it all came full circle.
Until Nicola and the promise of a chance to be noble. He ran the gauntlet towards Salvation, over open land and someone seeing him for more than what he could do, as faint and inconstant an idea as it was, still lent energy and drive to his efforts. He rolled onto his side and pulled the spade free, swung it in an arc to gain distance.
Which was when the corpse he fell over, turned and sank a mouthful of broken teeth into his hand. He reared back, lost a plug of tissue as a reward and stabbed the beveled edge between the eyes of the corpse where the nasal cavity and forehead met. The impact traveled down his arms but it was something to mitigate for the awful mistake he had met.
You’re not dead yet, he thought as he got up and swung at the gathered group of them. The edge sliced into the skull of a ten year old with grey skin and dry, flaking lesions before he pulled it free and jammed it into the head of a balding man with the dessicated remains of a moustache. He tugged it out as his hand bled onto the dirt. Casey ran on with his spade by his side.
The walls of Salvation were a hum of activity and he heard warnings echo to him as he ran. He waved the spade above his head, hoping someone had not cut the knot and reward his efforts with a bullet in his head.
He shouted and waved his arms, waiting for the curtain to fall on his performance but when the guns rang out, he found he was still alive. Casey saw the gates opening as he fought the waves of exhaustion which beat down on him like rain.
I hope it’s enough, he thought as he fell forwards and warm, human hands caught him.
They took her to him. He had his own bed in the infirmary and tried to get up when he saw her but the effort took too much and he collapsed against the pillow. He was shining with sweat and jaundiced which was where she noticed the stump where his left hand used to be.
She sat down and put her hat in her hands as she sighed and shook her head.
‘You stupid old man. You weren’t that fast.’
Casey raised the bandaged stump, yellowing and damp with the antiseptic.
‘I got here, didn’t I?’ he said.
She looked away and wondered why she hadn’t kissed him.
‘Are you going to get better?’ she said.
He sighed and closed his eyes.
‘They think they got it off in time but you know how bites go.’ he said.
She looked around before she leaned over and kissed him on a whiskered cheek.
He shivered and brought his right hand up to the back of her head and stroked her hair.
‘We got it here. I think I’m done after that.’ he said.
She wrapped her arm around his neck and pressed her cheek to his for a second before she stood back up.
‘They better make sure they treat you right, Casey.’ she said.
‘Don’t think I didn’t see we brought antibiotics to these people, think warrants me a shot, don’t you?’ he said.
She smiled but saw the purple bruising under his eyes and the sweetness of impending decay.
‘Casey, you know it doesn’t happen like it.’ she said.
He smiled and raised his stump again.
‘I have to hand it to you, you cut to the quick, my girl.’ he said.
She laughed as tears fell and she hugged him again. With his mouth to her ear, he whispered one last question and she nodded her agreement. She kissed him on the mouth, a chaste final kiss before she fixed her hat, pulled the revolver and fired into his forehead as he closed his eyes and smiled.
Men came running but Nicola had replaced the gun and turned to face the gathered men. She stared at each of them.
‘This man helped me get the supplies here. You bury him with honours and you get the track fixed. It’s what he wanted.’
She walked out of the room so no one could see her cry.
Nicola rode with a group of scouts back to the border. When she checked in with her commander, he saw the hard, brittle look in her eyes and the streaks of white at her temples. He told her to take the day off, but she shook her head.
She told her commander there was work to be done out there and getting the tracks fixed. Nicola looked at him with such pain in her eyes he could not meet her gaze for long. He dismissed her and she saluted before leaving his office.
It was sunset outside, people were doing final checks before the guards went up and they settled in for another long night. She wandered over to the rail yard, saw there were carriages and engines in various states of disrepair, but tried to see it through Casey’s eyes. She took until dark but she got there as she made a list of what she needed.