Craig watched the last wisps of gun smoke rise slowly into the air. His little band of survivors had been fortunate this time, but there was still losses. Mitch lay on the ground, unmoving. His freckled face would not light up in that devil may care grin again. He was only a kid, but the constant struggle for survival had aged him, and everyone else, fast. Several others had minor injuries, but no one else had died today. The would be attackers all lay dead. Running a hand through his brown, filthy hair, Craig looked at his band of fighters. Lack of food and sleep, and above all the constant need for alertness and caution, was taking its toll on everyone. “All right, everyone, load up and let's head back to base.” “What about Mitch?” Kurt asked. “His body stays,” Craig replied. Unhappy murmuring echoed around the group, but no one opposed Craig. Somehow he'd managed to keep everyone alive and safe despite the odds. These days, that counted for a lot.
Heading back to base, Craig's thoughts turned to a time when things had been different. Working as a rig hand, he never thought he'd see the day where he was the leader of a makeshift group of people. After his divorce, Craig kept more and more to himself. When the opportunity came up to work in South Dakota, Craig jumped at the chance. Make some extra money, get away from the rut he seemed to be stagnating in, why not he thought? The media had been running stories about nuclear experiments at the missile bases for awhile before it happened. No one took it seriously though. Heck, there had been missile silos in the US for years and nothing had happened. Farmers grazed their cows in the pastures around them for pete's sake! Except this time, the reporters turned out to be right. The explosion at the silo in Montana triggered a chain of detonations across the country. Whole cities disappeared in the blink of an eye, The fortunate ones were those who died instantly. The damage was on a scale that couldn't be comprehended. Skyscrapers were toppled down like children's building blocks. Whole suburbs just disappeared. What was worse was the loss of life. Millions of people were snuffed out like candles. The injured were in the thousands. Ten years later, the radiation levels were still off the deep end in what was left of the cities.
Working in butt munch nowhere North Dakota had proven to more than a financial boon, Craig mused. The rig Craig and his crew had been working on had been missed by the explosions. Him and his crew, like countless others, banded together for safety in numbers. The ensuing years hadn't been kind or easy. Craig had lost track of the people who had died, some from disease, some from hostiles who wanted the hard worked for base he and his followers had struggled to establish. Now they were faced with a new set of problems. They had scavenged the surrounding area clean. Food and essential supplies were running out. The many times repaired water system wasn't going to hold out much longer either.
The massive gates slid slowly closed as the last fortified vehicle rolled into the enclosure. Wide-eyed children and hopeful women watched as the vehicles rolled to a stop. Food had long since stopped being a luxury and was now a carefully rationed necessity.
Jeff, who served as handyman and mechanic, approached Craig at the supply storage. “I can't make the water pump last much longer. There isn't the right parts, and even if there was, it's just plain worn out.” “We'll call a council meeting first thing in the morning,” Craig said. “There's other issues we need to address.” You're going to push for leaving, aren't you?” “We can't stay here much longer, and you know it,” Craig replied. “The risks are high leaving too. What if you're following a wild goose chase?” “It's the only shot we have, Jeff. We've picked everything clean around here. Rations won't last much longer either.” “I'll see you at the council room tomorrow.” Jeff turned and walked away.
Craig collapsed on his narrow cot. He'd long since learned to tune out the sounds of other people moving around him. Crying babies, screaming children, and the constant bustle of bodies was something that took Craig along time to get used to. Being a solitary, private individual, giving up his personal space hadn't been easy. Now utterly exhausted in mind and body, Craig just didn't care.
Before falling asleep, Craig pulled out the gold, heart-shaped locket he had stowed away with his few meager, personal possessions. His thoughts turned to the beautiful, mysterious stranger his band had rescued on a scavenger hunt into the city. Melissa was the lone survivor of an ambushed group of travelers. Her stunning blue eyes and wavy blonde hair were characteristics that alone made her unforgettable. What Craig remembered the most about her was her indomitable will. She believed that there was a place in what was formerly Alaska that was still habitable. Arable land, green forests, clean water, all the things from a past life that most people didn't even remember anymore. Before she left, Melissa pressed the locket into Craig's calloused, scarred hand. “As long as we have hope, we can survive,” she had told him with her blue eyes shining bright with passion and determination. Melissa had left as soon as her injuries had healed enough for her to leave. Nobody had objected as supplies were tight enough without sharing with a random stranger. Most thought she wouldn't live long enough to make good use of them anyways.
Craig allowed himself a small smile as he tucked the locket back into his pack. Tomorrow would have its challenges with the council, as well as preparations for a mass exodus. In spite of this, Craig felt at peace; something he hadn't experienced in a long while. As he drifted off to sleep, Craig saw the flash and sparkle of the small diamond in the pendant in his mind. It had the same brilliance as Melissa's eyes. For once, he slept deeply, untroubled by turbulent dreams.