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THE FINAL CONFLICT began in 2020. It lasted two days. In that time America had been decimated by the bombs of its enemies and had in turn destroyed beyond repair the hopes of the gentle peoples of the world. Only a few locales, widely separated by thousands of miles on different continents held pockets of humanity. They struggled and most failed. This is the story of Waterbury in the former state of Connecticut, as unlikely as any to survive. Fifty years have passed.

Chapter I

Rodney huddled quietly in the shadow of a destroyed building and tried to make his thin body as small as possible. He sat very still in spite of his tension. Ruins covered every inch of the territory he could see. Today he’d decided on this place. He’d never used it before. From this vantage he searched, only his eyes moving. Jon had to be out there somewhere. He’d spot him in a minute.

The shattered pre-cast concrete wall provided some shelter. A small section rested gingerly on a canted cement upright. It formed a roof of sorts. It didn’t look stable, but he had been close to it in the past and knew it hadn’t moved in years. It effectively blocked the pelting rain, but did nothing for the knives of chill that curled around the moldering edges of his temporary haven.

His mind simmered with private thoughts. He wished he didn’t think so much. Now and then his mood boiled up to match the violent, stormy night. Josh had sent him out in this. Conflicted, he railed briefly, but in his head he knew the storm must be their vehicle, the best way to survive the watchers. He shivered again.

“Could be worse!” Although the wind whipped away his dubious mutter, his oft-repeated mental exercise took away the sting of the storm and put him back on track. Half a smile curled his thin, wet lips. Father had a droll sense of humor, too, he thought. The pain of remembrance froze his smile.

Tonight Rod and Jon carried in their hearts and minds the vision of their two fathers, a plan initiated by Lieutenant Reed Noyton and taken over by Josh after Reed died, cut down by a sniper’s bullet. And so Rod crouched and shivered, all for a dream. Could they get to the Highlander leader…?

He hunched lower, hoping by folding further into himself he could conserve the heat he felt leaving his body. As the wind threatened to take it from him, he grasped the top of his borrowed slicker and pulled it tighter. The sharply blue-eyed thirty-six year old couldn’t get warm, but to dare move beyond inches in this place would be the height of folly.

His slightly bent body looked almost malnourished. It made him look old. Still, he had sinewy strength. Others had found it perilous to confront him. His full head of wet, black hair glinted in the continuous flashes of lightning, all but the unnatural white crease in his scalp. The bullet that grazed his head took the skin off to the bone. There it bordered white. That part looked dead.

Rod thought of the bullet that narrowly missed killing him. Inside the furrow hair would never grow again. The white streak on either side of the wound arrested peoples’ gazes and drew their eyes into his brilliant, steady blue ones. It made him look a little crazy. That made him dangerous. He didn’t try to correct the impression.

His ill-fitting clothes were torn. The plastic overlay he’d found in an untouched stash showed bright yellow in the rain. Usable, he’d put it on wet. Bad color, yellow, but he’d been lucky to find it. Too bright to blend, it helped protect him from the weather. If he stayed still, any watchers might still miss him. Rod decided to chance it. The storm both a friend and enemy tonight, he couldn’t do without it.

His mind jumped back twenty years. He’d been part of the motorcycle corps as courier for the Westaves, the group he owed allegiance to. Sixteen years old and full of life. He’d worn yellow then, too, a plastic Dry Rider suit, uniform of the day for cycle riders. It cut the wind and shed the stinging of rain drops magnified by the bike’s speed. Most important, it could be easily seen. The Waterbury convention between the old nine factions allowed for it. You didn’t shoot the messenger in those days. Now six factions were gone and only three held the entire territory.

Still a messenger, he’d drawn this bad night along with Jon. No motorcycles any more. Everyone walked and hid and shivered, for if anything, blood lust ruled today.

Tonight they carried a message cloaked in desperation. If they managed to get to the Highlander leader before being killed out of hand, he’d hear a message of hope and healing. Maybe they could get the Highlanders to take a grudging step in the right direction. Rodney fervently hoped so.

His eyes searched for Jon. Still nothing!

Anxiety furrowed his brow. "Where is he?"

The wind howled. Now he spoke without fear of being heard. It helped take his mind off the chill. Unlikely one infiltrator could breach Highlander security better at any other time than two could tonight.

Things were better twenty years back. Each protection group had something to gain from the other and a workable peace existed between the factions. People moved between the clans. As time went on, need for hoarded equipment within two of the groups led to hatred because critical material became too important to share. General war followed. In the end, only the Westaves, Oronokes and Highlanders remained.

Tenuous contacts from the three remained under a flag of truce for a time. In three years’ time that disappeared, too. Now, with Rod’s father dead, Josh became leader of the Westaves. Jonathan led the Oronokes. Jon, his son, Rod's friend from childhood, discreetly protected their friendship.

Brad, strong man of the Highlanders hated the Westaves and Oronokes, but he still didn’t kill a messenger before he heard the message. Although his charges seldom disobeyed a standing order, so much bad blood existed between Highlanders and the other two clans that “accidents” did happen. If Rod and Jon could get through the perimeter guard without being shot…why think about it?

Josh, the Westave leader, had great physical strength, but stayed alive by being smart. He kept one eye always looking behind him. Surround yourself, he said, with friends, and if not friends, with people who needed something you could provide. Make sure they couldn’t take it away from you. Rod believed him.

West of where Rodney waited, barely seen, beyond the high fence that marked the three factions territorial limits, sick remnants of the Middleburians and Watertinians lived. Part of the wooden fence, long, thick poles sharpened to points at the tops had been constructed by the Waterbury clans. The rest of it consisted of old, eight-foot high Anchor fence covered with razor wire. Once that vicious stuff kept unwanted visitors out of chemical plants and other commercial trappings of a disintegrated past.

Many miles of razor wire covered the barrier around the perimeter. No one messed with it anymore. Bled out bodies now only bones and tattered wisps of clothing still hung from the wire. No one on either side dared try to remove the desiccated corpses lest they die, too.

Lookouts, from the safety of man-made bunkers, kept watch for infiltration from the starving peoples outside the fences. With posts covering every inch of fencing around the old town limits the clans made incursions from Outsiders reasonably impossible. Naturally defensible areas in the north, including unscalable granite cliffs prevented invasion from that locality.

A shout, “Outsiders!” brought everyone within earshot running, brandishing knives, sickles and other farm implements and such firearms as still worked. If the desperate, sick Outsiders could overrun any position, there would be much death within the compound. Outsiders had nothing to lose.

The Westaves, the Highlanders and the Oronokes were all of the power left in what used to be Waterbury, once a city of more than one hundred thousand people. Now the total population of the three clans had diminished to fewer than ten thousand ragged and hungry souls. Ragged and hungry, but not starving, a key fact. The three factions had naturally become clannish and on their own marginally prospered for a time, years back.

No maintenance infrastructure to rely on now. Gradually, motive equipment and complex tools fell into disuse as parts broke and couldn’t be replaced. Once a well-known manufacturing town, anarchy after the fall of central government had pitted man against man, and his works had suffered mightily. Finally the gasoline reserves gave out and civilization took one more huge step backwards. Distance increased even within this small city’s limits.

It had been a half-century since Osama bin Laden’s coup de maitre started the fall that created this savage world. His act so changed America that perhaps the last small cradle of humanity had a new calendar. This year they called 50-ABL.

Rod reviewed these things in his mind while he shivered and waited.
He had already lived well past his expected life span; it came of being clever and smart. He’d changed like a chameleon many times before to fit his situation. Rod and Jon were a lot alike, neither one a leader, but both major survivors. Although Jon’s father led the Oronoke faction, he still lived a very precarious life.

Rod in his turn didn’t want his fate tied to that of his father; death by unwary moment, but he could see it coming if he couldn’t somehow change all the clans’ downward path.

Jonathan also kept the vision close to his heart. He did not want to succumb to the savagery of his altered world.

Feeling yellow bright in the rain slick night, he knew he should be grateful for whatever he could find. There wasn’t much to be grateful for, after all. The mission would come out right if he could just…why think about it? Life today required doing, not thinking.

Maybe one day it would get better, but for tonight Rod crossed his freezing fingers and chose not to hope for more than he and Jon getting before Brad alive.

You never got to be on your own these days. His Dad had told him how it used to be. Shortly thereafter Lieutenant Noyton caught the sniper’s bullet. If Rod could put a point to it, it would be that moment when the feeling of unease in the Westaves became a terrible anger and when it turned to terror. The bullet came from a Highlander rifle. Rod should hate them for that. Now and then hate welled up, but he put it down. Healing and vengeance were opposites.

It couldn’t be much worse now. It took great effort to keep perfectly still in the storm. Believing there might be sharp eyes out there kept him immobile. He had already penetrated deep into what he and Jon laughingly called the DMZ, the wiped clean area between the acknowledged territories of the factions. Here no law existed but the law of survival.

Suddenly, something wet and black thudded down beside him. Rod spun defensively and put up his hands.

To be continued

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