“I don’t think I’m gonna be able to climb up to the gate.”
Sarge looked over at Pixie. The kid was pretty pale and sweat dotted her forehead. The improvised sling he’d rigged for her dislocated shoulder was looking a bit looser than when he’d retied it this morning.
“How’s your shoulder doing? Any swelling?”
“Don’t think so. Just… don’t think I can move it all that much. Certainly not enough to pull myself up a ladder.”
“I’ll take the bags, you go up first. Don’t take your arm out, just grab rungs with the right, pull with the left. I can steady you from below.”
“You just want an excuse to grab my ass,“ Pixie smirked, then winced and went paler.
“Since when have I needed an excuse?” Sarge said, halting and passing over Mort’s old water bottle. He kept watch while Pixie drained the last of the water. “Better?”
“Little.” Pixie breathed heavily for a couple moments. “Can… can we stop at the medic before letting Goma know about Mort? Pretty sure I’m not thinking too straight here.”
“Assuming she’s not at the gate when we get there, sure. I’ll go talk to her. I’ve got practice.”
“I should be there too.”
“You should do exactly what the doc tells you to. That shotgun butt whacked you bad. Next bend’s the turn off for home.”
Pixie shot him a tiredly mutinous look, but didn’t continue the argument. Once around the next bend in the formerly two lane road that was rapidly decaying into gravel, they paused and Sarge made his best imitation of a barn owl. Once he heard the return signal (Blue Jay cry this week), they turned off the path onto something no wider than a deer trail and continued down that. A moment later, the rhythmic banging of metal on rebar was audible through the trees.
At the ladder, Pixie pulled her backpack off her left shoulder and handed it over to Sarge. There were a couple Fencemen at the top of the ladder, on the catwalk heading back towards the concrete tower they all called home, just standing there watching. Sarge raised an eyebrow at both of them wielding spears; at least one of them should have brought a gun along, in case of raider trouble. As opposed to the usual casualties. Neither one of them were about to open up the gate until Pixie made it within arms reach, though. Certainly weren’t going to give her a hand before that.
All three backpacks balanced and tied down as best as they could be, Sarge positioned himself behind Pixie and gave her a boost up. It was slow going, probably taking twice as long as usual. Sarge was figuring how long he should volunteer for pit clearing duty, to balance the extra casualties this would attract, when the gate hatch opened. Pixie was only halfway up, but Spike was bracing his feet in the top rings and reaching down for Pixie. A little longer for her to get in reach and Spike grabbed her under the left shoulder, hauled up a bit, and grabbed the top of her jeans. Between Spike scooting back to pull up and Sarge boosting from below, they all got up in a minute.
Hauling himself up the last bit, Sarge nodded his thanks to Spike as Jones gave another Blue Jay call and reattached the gate-plate behind him. The rhythmic sound of metal on metal from over the other end of the catwalk ceased.
“Mort finally bit it, huh?”
“Yeah, Goma around…?”
“Horticulture’s been pulling over time, you’ll probably find her there. So, you all got on opening on your crew?”
“Jesus Christ Spike, I haven’t even told his wife yet and you’re angling for his job?”
Spike shrugged unconcerned. “Fence doesn’t actually need me, gonna do more for the community working here part-time and handing in a cut of the cards you bring in.”
“Get Pixie to the doc and I’ll consider it.”
Spike pulled Pixie back to her feet, looked like he was going to go for the arm over the shoulder carry, then changed his mind, and just picked her up. Given that Pixie didn’t immediately try to rip him a new hole in his larynx, Sarge knew she was damn near passing out. Sarge had untied the backpacks and rolled his shoulders before he noticed Jones watching him.
“Kid’s got another couple of hours on guard duty,” Jones drawled.
“I know. It’s why I’m not going to hire him. Despite appreciating the assist up the ladder.”
Jones’s grin turned sardonic. “We’ll beat the glory hounding out of him eventually. Or he’ll get bit. One or the other. Your best bet to catch Goma really is in Horticulture. Everyone’s been working like crazy over there.”
“Whats going on?”
“Ain’t nothing but rumors at this point–”
“But rumor is that one of the grow rooms went tits up with some kind of infection and they’re trying to expand and get a new crop in before we all starve.”
“Great. See you later. Thanks for the heads up, Jones.”
Jones called after Sarge’s retreating back, “So buy me a beer!” Sarge waved acquiescence and continued down the rickety metal walkway.
At the other end, Sarge paused and flattened against the railing to let Nemi by; she must have drawn the short straw to fill out Spike’s shift. The entrance to the tower, up here on the third floor, looked narrower than when they’d all left on the train job… reinforcements, the Fencemen had gotten those reinforcements they’d wanted installed.
Ducking in the doorway, Sarge looked right towards the stairs up, sighed, and went left, past the hole where the stairs down had been knocked out. Couple hundred yards around, Sarge stopped next to the head of pit clearance and leaned on the trails overlooking the emptied out bottom two floors of the tower.
Sarge watched the Latent crew on the platforms dangling down to about seven feet from the ground. The crowd of casualties looked thinner than he expected. All of the Latent crew were using spears and none of the non-infected crew up around the railings was letting loose with their slings.
“Figure I owe you a shift for the extra time on the ladder.”
“Nah,” Low Key said, pulling out the toothpick he’d been chewing on and flicking it down into the pit. “Thin crowd. Blighters need to earn their keep,” he continued nodding at the platform crews.
Sarge shrugged, half-heartedly waved, then headed back towards the stairs and past them to the clinic. He stuck his head in, noted Pixie on one of the beds, then turned on a heel and walked right back out. The doc was slowly pulling on Pixie’s bad shoulder while Spike helped hold her steady; he need to either not see that or to walk in and take over from Spike. But he’d avoided Goma long enough; either he went now, or she’d end up hearing about Mort from rumor. Damn, he really thought he’d popped Pixie’s shoulder back in right. Hopefully the two day walk back hadn’t permanently fucked anything up.
On the stair landing just below the top floor, Sarge paused to catch his breath and double check Mort’s pack had everything. Water bottle (empty), the rations he’d had left, Ubiq specs (disinfected to hell and back, blood cleaned off, and dings as polished out as he could in two days), rope, flashlight, and Mort’s cut of the payout, both job fee and loot found along the way. He’d left the first aid kit and binoculars in his and Pixie’s closet of an apartment — they’d been crew gear really.
A glint of light reflected off of laminate at the bottom of the pack sent Sarge digging through the pack, squatting in the stairwell.
Son of a bitch. Mort had been pocketing drivers’ licenses found along the way, instead of divvying everything up equally. Like they’d agreed.
Sarge looked up at the door to the top floor and Horticulture. Goma would need the money. Wasn’t no way to support herself and a kid on just grower money. Pixie needed the time out of the field, let that arm heal up or they’d both be dead. With a sigh, Sarge left a third of the cards Mort had hidden in his bag, pocketed the rest, and headed up the stairs.
On the top floor, Sarge knocked on the first door on the outer ring. Door was opened by a teenage girl in jeans and beat up tank top.
“Looking for Goma, she in here?”
“Three doors down,” the kid said, wiping at the smudge of dirt on her cheek bone. “Brac is running that room, she’s not going to let you in.”
Brac was indeed the one to answer the door, three down the hall. She took one look at Sarge and moved to slam the door shut again; Sarge stuck his foot in the door.
“Got to talk to Goma, Brac.”
“No unauthorized personnel allowed.”
“So send her out, I don’t want to do this in front of y’all.”
Brac was opening her mouth to say something when Sarge hefted Mort’s backpack up a little. Her scowl softened, she looked back into the room, then turned back to Sarge with a brisk, "Wait here.“ Sarge removed his foot from the door and leaned up against the other side of the hallway.
He was just about to go knock on the door again when it opened back up and Goma slipped out. Catching sight of Sarge, her face crumpled.
"Mort’s… Mort’s in the clinic, right?”
“Goma, I’m so sorry–”
Goma let out a wail as her knees buckled. Sarge caught her before she hit the ground and eased both of them down to the floor. He wrapped her up in a hug as Goma sobbed into his shoulder.
“You were supposed to protect him! It’s your job!”
Sarge closed his eyes and just let Gonna continue sobbing. These talks hasn't gotten any better after The Crash. Just less bureaucracy on how to go about it.
About fifteen minutes later, when Goma seemed cried out, Sarge had to lean in further to hear her asked, “What happened? Did… did he suffer?”
“Infrastructure failure. He went off a bridge, and landed on a casualty. I’m sure he was unconscious at that point.”
“He didn’t… eat anyone else, did he?”
“No, no, no one else got bit.”
Goma sniffed, wiped her nose, and asked “How many did he kill this trip? Janice will want to calculate his final kill to death ratio.”
Sarge tried not to let his eyebrows shoot up; he hadn’t realized Goma’s kid was a Black Mathematician. “Uh… Four. I’m sorry, I wasn’t counting real close.”
She nodded, wiped her nose again, and stood up. “That’ll be some comfort to Jani, I suppose.”
Sarge stiffly climbed to his feet as well and handed over the backpack. "It's got his gear and cut from this last one, should be enough to last you awhile. Sell his gear if you need."
"Guess Jani and I will be making a life out here... She'll be pleased." Goma sighed. "Time to take in a roommate or get a smaller apartment I suppose. Don't suppose you and Pixie would be interested?"
"I... I'll float it past Pixie and get back to you.”
Goma patted Sarge absentmindedly on the arm. "You're a good man. Thank you for telling me," she said and walked back into the grow room.