Hello everyone! As usual, ending a story is kind of a bittersweet moment for all of us. We're happy to read what happens and we're sad to see our characters take their leave. And as all writers will tell you, letting go of characters is kind of like letting go of your babies, so I'm a little sad too. But the good news is I know they got the ending they deserved and I hope you all like it. This story wasn't so much about sex, even though there was a bit of that. It was more about the characters finding themselves and where they belonged in such a bleak world, which is kind of a parallel message to finding ourselves in the world we live in also. Even though our society isn't exactly Weeping Creek or Surik, everyone visits a dark place now and again. It's how you survive those times that makes you who you are. Much love and as I said, I hope you all enjoy the ending.
HEART FOR TRADE: FINALE
Sam had been right. Phase one was going to take a full twenty-four hours to complete. After the excitement of the alarm and the reveal of the new control center, the technicians had taken over, swarming their terminals. There was nothing Ryan or Jarum could do. And after a few hours, Ryan was ready to fall asleep on his feet. Too much for one day, and too much for a lifetime, his anxiety level was through the roof. Jarum had reluctantly taken them back to their rooms once the wing finished shifting over to accommodate a large set of doors in the main corridor. Whatever was restructuring on the other side of the revealed entrance came with a counter, rolling down ten hours. Until then the doors remained locked.
Ryan didn’t remember falling asleep. He barely remembered Jarum leaving his bedside, mumbling something about chocolate chip cookies and Benny. When he woke up sometime during the night, his vision was blurry, and he refused to move from the nest surrounding him. While he’d slept, Sam had joined him, nuzzled into his back. It had become a pattern with them. They’d work or train. One of them would pass out first and the other would join, mindless for anything except sleep.
Ryan almost forgot what had happened before he zonked out. His eyes flicked open as the memories touched him. His hand brushed Sam’s fingers around his hip excitedly. He wiggled around until he faced his sleeping partner.
“Ten more minutes.” Sam shifted on his back, throwing an arm over his face.
Ryan shoved him lightly. “Sam.”
“We come before Russia,” Sam murmured.
“What?” Ryan sat up. “Sam, wake up.”
“We don’t need any sandwiches.”
Ryan smiled, sliding a leg over Sam’s hips until he straddled him. He bent down, kissing the Commander softly. “Wakey wakey.”
Eyes opening, Sam gasped, hands going to Ryan’s wrists. Once he realized he wasn’t under attack, he groaned and put a pillow over his face. “Just a little while longer, Ry, I’ve been up all night.”
“And I don’t know.” Sam pulled him down, cradling the back of Ryan’s neck until he lay on his chest. “Go back to sleep. I was comfortable.”
“I’m awake now.”
“Close your eyes.”
“Sam, please. What happened? Is it finished yet?”
“Sam, I want to know what happened so I can call my dad. You said we had to get them ready.”
Sam groaned. “Shh.”
“Don’t you shush me.” Ryan squirmed free. “I know how to wake you up.”
“If you pour water on this bed you’re grounded.” Sam stretched out, uncaring of Ryan’s weight disappearing from his chest. That is until the blanket was whipped off his lower body, leaving him cold. “Ryan!”
He shot straight up in bed to find Ryan crawling between his legs. “What else would you ground me for?”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Don’t try me you little minx. I have to sleep before the next shift. Who knows when I’ll get any after phase one is finished. Give me an hour at the very least and I’ll take you to your dad myself if that’s what you want. Please…”
Ignoring Sam, Ryan wrapped a hand around Sam’s flaccid cock. “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” He flicked his tongue over the head, eyes trained on Sam above. “You’ve been really tense.”
“Fuck,” Sam growled.
“I can take all of you like this.” Ryan proved his point, opening his mouth for Sam’s cock. He sucked until hands slid into his hair. “You have hours to sleep, don’t you?”
Sam cracked an eye at the clock and flopped back onto this pillow. “Keep going.”
“Start talking.” Ryan massaged the growing length. “And maybe I will.”
“If you think I’m calling you sir you’ve got another thing coming, baby.”
“No…you do.” Ryan arched his back, raising his ass. He scooted his knees back, allowing him to align his mouth with Sam once more. His eyes were narrowed, staring up the line of Sam’s impressive body.
“I’ve created a monster.” Sam moaned, hips rolling in time with Ryan’s mouth. “A feisty little monster.”
Giving Sam a few minutes to enjoy himself, because he wasn’t an asshole, Ryan got the Commander good and hard. His negotiation tactic backfired. He started to care less whether or not Sam filled him in on phase one. Sam had powers over him, spelling him with his magnificent body and warm skin, his groans that had become so familiar and safe. Ryan crawled up Sam’s chest, bringing their lips together.
Sam rolled them over, cradling Ryan’s head. “Now I’m wide awake.”
“You’re welcome,” Ryan whispered.
“Don’t take that as a compliment.” Sam winked. “Take this instead.” He bent down, tracing Ryan’s clavicle with his tongue. Soft kisses and fingers twining, Ryan closed his eyes.
“I’ll take it.” He wrapped his legs around Sam’s hips. “I’ll take you, too.”
“There’s one thing we agree on.” Sam brushed hair out of Ryan’s eyes. “And before you ask, we have fourteen hours to get things prepared before phase two.”
“You were going to sleep for fourteen hours?” Ryan bit his lip.
“No. A few hours and then I was going to get dressed, but schedules change I guess.” Sam kissed him again. “In,” Sam glanced at the clock, “four hours the next shift changes and Benny and my team are going to bring the trailers topside.”
“Trailers?” Ryan arched, thumbs rubbing over his nipples.
“I made you a promise, didn’t I?”
Ryan’s heart raced. He knew what was happening now. “Don’t mess with me, Sam. Seriously.”
“We’ll be taking on two villages, one of them Weeping Creek.” Sam pushed up on his elbows. “The other village is still up for debate with Avery, but she thinks Halstead is the best choice. They have trained security, which we’ll need once everything comes to light. This isn’t going to be easy, Ry. A lot of people will be terrified.”
“We can do this.” Ryan cupped his face with both hands. “You’re going to lead them all, Sam, and you have people who love you who will back you up. I know it’s going to be rocky at first, but we’ll manage.”
“God I love you.” Sam kissed him hard. “Couldn’t do this without you.”
“I need you.” Ryan groaned, rubbing himself against Sam.
Sam’s sudden absence made him sit up panicking. A comforting hand pressed to his chest, pushing him back to the bed. “Oh.” He smiled and spread his legs. His eyes closed.
Cold liquid dripped between his legs, down to his waiting entrance. Fingers massaged his heat, prodding and sure. Ryan’s chest filled with air, escaping between his lips on a sigh. The glass bottle top clinked. Sam returned between his legs, hard and ready, sliding between his cheeks. Ryan’s eyes opened, face to face with his lover.
Ryan nodded. “Always.” He took a deep breath and his mouth froze, open in ecstasy.
Sam pushed in slowly, letting him feel every inch. “We only have four hours,” he ground out.
“Is that all?” Ryan slapped his hands to the wall, head pushed into the pillows.
Sam laughed, bringing his lips to Ryan’s shoulder. “Unfortunately.”
“Then make it a good four hours.” Ryan moaned, filled to the brim.
“I plan on it.” Sam leaned back after a passionate kiss and began to thrust.
Ryan met him move for move. Somewhere in the back of his head, he let all his fear go. He was on top of the world as his first unexpected orgasm hit. He’d never completely get control of his body because Sam turned him on too damn much. And that was okay. It was okay to want his partner as bad as he did because they were in love and love was an awkward mess that had to be taken day by day. It wasn’t perfect, but it was magical in its own right, and Ryan loved Sam like the grass loved rain.
He smiled, eyes closing as Sam buried his face in his neck, making slow deep thrusts below. Soon they would show the world what it was to love again; what it was to live again.
“If you’re going to be bothering me like this you can at least do me the favor of listening, boy.” Yvonne slapped Jarum upside the head. “I ain’t got time to dilly dally with your scrawny ass. Now throw this out and do it again.”
Jarum frowned, holding back the words on the tip of his tongue. “I thought it said two cups of—”
“It said one and a half cups of flour. You do it right this time and no more wasting what precious ingredients we have or you can march yourself down to poor Sarah and the girls and beg for their forgiveness. They spend days grinding this flour up for your sorry mouths to eat. You don’t see them screwing around, now do you?”
“I don’t know Sarah!” Jarum threw his hands up. “I can’t…I can’t read this!”
The entire kitchen froze. Every eye turned to Jarum. He hung his head.
Yvonne’s scowl melted. She sighed. “You can’t read? Then why are you here, kid?”
“Because I want to make something of myself. And I like to eat. Benny says you should be passionate about what you do for the rest of your life, you know. He also said he likes chocolate chip cookies. Cookies make him happy and I want to make him happy. Okay?” Jarum clamped his teeth together, untrusting of his next words.
“You’re making these for him, for my Benny?” Yvonne flicked her eyes to the kitchen hands. They scurried back to work.
“Never mind, I’ll go.” Jarum pulled the strings of his apron loose.
“You’re going to give up that easily? Hmm, doesn’t sound like a man Benny would choose.” Yvonne hummed to herself, turning the mixer back on.
“He did choose me.” Jarum huffed, tying his apron back on. “I’ll show you, lady.”
“That’s Miss Lady to you.” Yvonne grinned, still focused on the mixer.
Jarum threw the dough into the trash and slammed the metal bowl onto the counter. He set about pouring sugar into the cup, glancing at her.
“That’s enough sugar! Make sure to wipe the excess off, even with the cup now, and don’t waste it!”
“I got it!”
“That’s too much butter, boy.”
“It says…shit what’s a T mean?”
“It means tablespoon, you little hellion. Like this.” She snatched the measuring spoon away, sliding the edge against the butter tub. “No more no less.” She tapped the spoon into the bowl. “Again, five more times. Count it out. See there…that says six tablespoons. You’ve already done one. That leaves five more.”
“Okay,” he grunted.
“Add a tablespoon of peanut butter.”
She looked around the kitchen and leaned in. “That’s why he likes my cookies. And keep that to yourself.”
Jarum smiled and nodded. “One tablespoon.”
“Mm hmm.” She stood straight, eyeing him quietly. They worked in silence except for the times when Jarum didn’t understand something or the time he kept eating the chocolate pieces.
The time came when he slid two dozen cookies into the oven and shut the door. He bounced on his toes, watching through the glass door anxiously.
“What are you doing standing around? I want another ten dozen within the hour! There’s a timer on that damn thing for a reason. Stop fooling about and get back to work.”
“You want me to cook for everyone?”
“No,” she mocked. “I want to watch you dance and bang pots for the staff.”
He squinted. “Huh?”
Yvonne shook her fists. “Get back to work!”
“Work…” Jarum smiled. “Yes Ma’am.”
Two hours later, Jarum had pretty much memorized Yvonne’s cookie recipe. He went to the hand washing station and wiped his face on his arm before running his hands under cool water. His back hurt and he was burning up from being around all the heat in such a cramped space, but he wasn’t complaining. He would go another eight hours if Yvonne asked him because he’d never felt like he belonged anywhere like this before. The kitchen housed quite a few staff members, but they all worked as one and he was happy to be a part of that, even if it was only for the day.
When he looked up to grab a towel, two kitchen hands leaned against the wall, eyeing him.
The blonde man nodded his head. “Heard you were having some trouble.”
“I was, but I think I got it.” Jarum smiled weakly.
“You did good, kid.” The bearded man who’d introduced himself earlier as Raul nudged him.
“I don’t know about that, but I had fun.”
“I’m Asher.” Blondie winked.
“Nice to meet you.” Jarum dusted off his apron.
“I used to have trouble, too, in the beginning, with the reading.”
Raul smiled. “Ain’t nothing we haven’t seen before, kid.”
“Really?” Jarum leaned in.
“Dyslexia.” Asher shrugged. “I get my letters mixed up. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Well, I just can’t read.” Jarum looked down. “I’m going to have to memorize most of the recipes. That is if Yvonne lets me back tomorrow.”
Asher and Raul looked at each other. Raul put a hand on Jarum’s shoulder. “Kid, Yvonne has never shared her cookie recipe with anyone before, no one except you.”
Jarum’s eyes widened. He glanced over to the woman hunched at the stove, stirring a pot of sauce. “Seriously?”
“Yep.” Asher pushed off the wall and went to a set of shelves where the staff kept personal items. “I’d say you’re on for tomorrow.” He pulled out a small notebook. “And memorizing recipes is good, but reading them is even better.” He handed over the notebook. “I’ve got another one that Yvonne gave me years ago, so don’t think anything of it. Have your boy help you go over this.”
“What is this?” Jarum flipped open the notebook.
“Measurements, meats, produce, and basically everything you need to know. There are pictures in there, too, for the harder stuff. It’s easier to see a picture to form the words for me…might help you, too.” Asher ruffled his hair. “You’ll get it in time, if you really want it.”
“And as much as you eat,” Raul laughed, “I think you want this.”
Biting his lip, Jarum stuffed the notebook in his back pocket. “Thank you.”
“No problem. Now get back over there before the dog starts barking.” Asher pushed him toward Yvonne.
Jarum waved at them both before shuffling over to the head chef. “What’s next, Yvonne?”
She looked up, cheeks flushed red. She smiled. “Grab one of those plastic tubs from over the sink and start putting the cookies in it. When it’s full, come back here.”
Yvonne watched Jarum happily fill the container. She thought of Benny in his younger days, sitting at her stool, munching on cookies and got a little misty eyed. She sniffed, clearing her face of motherly emotion and motioned Jarum back over. “That’s enough, boy. Now you clean up your station and get out of here. I’ll expect you back for dinner service. Don’t be late and get some sleep.”
“And make sure those get to Benny. Don’t be getting your sticky fingers in that tub before he gets some.”
Jarum grinned. “Yes Ma’am.”
Jarum chuckled. He couldn’t help himself from leaning in and kissing her cheek. “Thank you so much, Yvonne.”
She batted him away, terrified she would start to cry. “Get on with you. Out.”
Scooping up the container, Jarum took off, skirting around the other kitchen hands with a smile on his face. He ran the entire way home, to their rooms, and almost took the door off its hinges. Stopping short, he realized Benny was still sleeping, and cringed, shutting the door. He tiptoed into the bedroom, carrying his prized cookies, and put them on the nightstand. Benny was snoring into his pillow, on his stomach. Excitement warred inside of Jarum. He wanted to wake Benny up so bad, but he also knew how much he needed to sleep. He’d been up all night, doing god knows what for phase one.
So instead of being his usual immature self, Jarum took off his dirty clothes and padded to the bathroom. He showered and shaved, put on clean pajama bottoms and went to bed. He didn’t realize how tired he was because he didn’t even remember falling asleep.
Benny awoke to the smell of cookies and the buzz of his alarm. He hit the stop button, thinking he was dreaming until he lifted his head and saw Jarum lying next to him. Beyond Jarum’s dreamy face was a container full of sweet, sweet cookies. Benny’s mouth watered, no matter how groggy he was. He reached over, careful not jostle Jarum. Once he had the container sitting on his chest, he opened it, inhaling deeply. He couldn’t remember the last time Yvonne had made these or the last time he’d had one. Putting a cookie in his mouth, he closed his eyes, moaning softly.
“Damn,” he mumbled.
Jarum stirred next to him, cracking open an eye. “What are you doing,” he slurred.
“Uh huh.” Jarum curled into his side, half asleep. “Good?”
“The best.” Benny shoved another cookie into his mouth, chewing happily.
“I made them for you.” Jarum closed his eyes.
“You what?” Benny looked down. “You made these?”
Jarum said nothing, fast asleep again. Overcome with gratitude and proud of his lover, Benny put the container on his nightstand and wiped his mouth. He couldn’t contain himself as he rained kissed over Jarum’s face.
“Sleeping,” Jarum groaned.
“Don’t care.” Benny rolled on top of him, sharing the chocolate on his lips with Jarum. “So good, Jar.”
Jarum opened his eyes, a tongue in his mouth. He hummed, sliding his legs against Benny’s. In that moment, he felt everything click into place. He had everything he’d ever wanted and more. Not only had Benny kept him safe and given him opportunities he’d yearned for his entire life, he loved him. If someone had told Jarum what life would be like in the future, when he was some simple, dirty kid living topside, he’d have laughed and probably punched them. But now he couldn’t imagine a future without Benny. He’d relied on Ryan for so long, his only comfort, he didn’t think he would know this feeling...this welling never ending high could be real. He loved Benny with every fiber of his being. And he owed him everything.
“I’m ready now,” he blurted.
Benny lifted up, staring into Jarum’s eyes. There was no doubt in his mind what that meant. He looked at the clock and decided to hell with time. No job compared to the man in his arms. He smiled and nodded. He was ready now, too.
Jarum lifted his hips, letting Benny pull his pajamas off. He took a deep breath, guiding Benny’s hands over his chest and up his shoulders until his lover settled on top of his again.
“No one’s ever done anything like that for me before.” Benny lowered his head, whispering the words over Jarum’s lips. “Thank you.”
“It was just cookies.” Jarum teared up, shivering as Benny rubbed against him.
“It was so much more. You thought about me.” Benny kissed him.
“I think about you all the time now.”
Benny slid down Jarum’s body. “Welcome to my world.”
Jarum laughed. He relaxed, playing with Benny’s short hair. His ragged moan filled the room. Benny took his cock into the heat of his mouth, slowly tasting; Jarum was a little scared of how slow, seeing as how every other time they’d come together it’d been explosive and rough. Was this how it was supposed to be, he wondered. Were they supposed to take their time, making sex more about each other than getting off? He didn’t have much to go on, but he figured giving himself to Benny was kind of a big deal. Then the thought hit him…he was giving himself to Benny for real this time.
His heart thumped in his chest, tightening his limbs. Unaware of the smile on his face, he lifted his legs, sliding his feet over Benny’s shoulders. Being on the other end during sex didn’t mean he had to lose his edge. He pressed Benny’s face into his groin, laughing softly.
“Jerk.” Benny squirmed, lifting his head with a teasing scowl. “I do the demanding here.”
“Suck my dick,” Jarum quipped. He laughed out loud as Benny wrestled his way back up his body.
“Now you’ve done it.” Benny twined their fingers together, fighting to keep Jarum on his back. “You’re gonna get it now.”
“That was the plan!”
“I was trying to take your virginity, you little gremlin. I was trying to be sweet.”
Jarum flopped back on his pillow, out of breath. He stared up at Benny, grinning. “When have we ever been sweet?”
Pulling Benny down for a kiss, Jarum realized his lover had never been more right. For every push against the wall, for every slap and thrust, he and Benny had always been sweet in their own way. There wasn’t a rule on how to be sweet, and if there was, it was meant to be broken.
“Fuck me.” He nipped Benny’s bottom lip.
“Plan on it.”
As the alarm buzzed away for the hundredth time, twenty minutes later, Benny entered Jarum and took his virginity. And despite the slow entry, and a few kisses, there was nothing innocent about it. Jarum got over the pain, having dealt with worse in his life. He was just happy to finally take the last step and give back to Benny. As his back slid against the sheets, his ankles held in Benny’s strong hands, Jarum tilted his head back and moaned like the beast that lived inside him.
This was where he was supposed to be. This was the man meant for him all along. This was the place he found his happiness. With Benny, everything made sense.
Fingers wrapped around his cock and he jolted off the bed. He came so hard he saw stars. Love, he thought, catching his breath. This was love.
“Where the fuck have you been? You’re lucky I didn’t send Avery to pound down your damn door.” Sam got in Benny’s face.
“She would have got an eyeful, that’s for sure.” Benny smirked, ducking around Sam.
“Oh.” Sam looked to Jarum. “Proud of yourself?”
“You know what? Yes. Yes I am.” Jarum patted Sam on the shoulder. “Thanks for asking.” He walked slowly to the buggy, squirming a bit when he sat down.
Sam smiled this time, knowing exactly what went down. He gestured for Ryan to get in first. “The walkie is already on back there. Jarum, help him out.”
“I don’t know what to do with this thing.” Jarum scoffed, holding up the radio.
Sam shook his head. “I meant emotional support.”
“Oh…yeah, I can do that.” He grimaced, shifting on the seat. “Damn.”
“What’s wrong, Jar? Sore?” Sam slid into the driver’s seat, adjusting the rearview mirror.
Benny punched his arm. “Cut it out, asshole.”
“Now boys,” Ryan teased. They both turned around, scowling. “Is everyone ready?”
“Isn’t that my line?”
“Then hop to it, Commander.” Ryan waggled the radio, practically bouncing in his seat.
Sam pressed a button on his headset, connecting to the other vehicles. “This is your Commander. Is everyone set to go?” He nodded his head, listening to the vehicles lined up down the drive. “We’re ready. It’s all you, Ry.”
The buggy lurched forward over the forest floor, taking the trail they’d traveled when the boys had first come to Rineway. Ryan looked at Jarum, reaching out his free hand. Jarum held on and nodded. Ryan hit the button on the side of the radio, staring off at the early rays of sun peeking through the trees. The radio crackled.
“Dad, are you there?”
Hunched over his desk, Bart slept with his face in the crook of his elbow. In his dream, he heard Ryan’s voice. He mumbled, desperate to respond; to see his son again. He heard Ryan again, louder this time and shot up in his seat.
“What? Ry?” He wiped his face of tears, looking out the dirty window. “Fucking hell.”
“Dad? It’s Ryan.”
Bart’s eyes darted around until he saw the radio on the windowsill. He snatched the thing up, heart pounding away. If this was a dream, he hoped it would last forever.
Looking the device over, he found the button one of the Rineway people had shown him, and pressed down hard. “Ryan?” He didn’t recognize his own voice. It was the sound of a tired, desperate old fool, a father who needed his son.
“Dad, it’s me.”
“Ryan,” Bart repeated, not believing what he was hearing.
“Yeah, dad, I’m here. I-I miss you.”
“Shit, Ryan. I can’t believe it’s you. You have no idea how much I miss you. I’m so sorry for what I did. I regret it every second. I should have never ever given my—”
“Dad, you did the right thing. I don’t blame you at all. I’m happy here.”
Bart put his face to his arm, tears streaming down his cheeks. His shoulders shuddered. The weight of his grief and guilt was too much to bear. Ryan was lying for his benefit. His son was a better man than he could ever think to be.
“Dad, are you there?”
“Yes,” Bart choked. “I’m still here.”
“Good.” He could hear Ryan’s tears. “We have so much to catch up on.”
“That we do.” Bart closed his eyes, trying to memorize every part of his son’s voice. He didn’t know when they’d ever speak again.
“But I’d rather do it in person.”
“I wish that were possible. You have no idea how much.”
Ryan’s light laugh filled his heart. “Dad, I need you to listen to me. I know how hard this is, trust me. But right now, I need you to do something for me.”
“I need you to get everyone ready to leave. Pack up everything you want to keep and be ready to go in twenty minutes. Can you do that?”
“Dad, just do it. I’ll see you soon.”
“See me? Ryan! What are you talking about?”
“Love you, dad. See you really soon, okay?”
Bart opened his mouth and let go of the radio. It crashed to floor as he sobbed over the table. This had to be a dream. He couldn’t comprehend reality. Ryan was coming home? He wanted them ready, but for what? Lifting his teary gaze, Bart saw the first of his villagers bringing wood to the fire pit. She was a scrawny little thing with thin blond hair and sunken blue eyes. Her tattered jacket rustled in the breeze as she knelt to adjust the wood. Even with Rineway’s help, the village still suffered because their leader suffered. Ryan leaving hadn’t just affected him…it affected them all.
And if Ryan wanted them ready to go, wherever they were going, he would do this for his son even if it was still a dream.
Almost to Weeping Creek, Sam felt the first vibration under the buggy’s wheels. He looked at Benny. “Alert the others. I thought we had more time before it started, but apparently not.”
“What’s happening?” Jarum leaned forward, still keeping an arm around Ryan.
“The guide posts are coming topside.” Benny held up a finger, radioing in on his headset. “This is Benny. Phase one posts are emerging. Keep an eye out. They should keep to the side of the road, as this was a main trail at one time, but just in case take it slow.” He gave a thumb’s up above his head, signaling the driver behind him.
Ryan wiped his nose. “What’s a guide post?”
“They’ll act as command towers for the survivors. Kind of like a street lamp, you’ve seen one or two of those, right?” Sam glanced over his shoulder.
“Yeah, dad said they used to line the streets, giving vehicles ample light when the roads were dark. I’ve only seen two. Remember that one we found in the woods by the creek, Jar?”
“Yeah, thought it was scrap. You freaked out when you saw the wires coming out of the bottom. The thing was ripped right out of the ground and a tree root was growing over it.”
“Whatever, you freak out all the time when we find old world stuff. There’s a house east of Weeping Creek that wasn’t touched by the bombs back then. It’s old as shit, barely standing, but it looks like someone just walked out of it and never came back. Jarum couldn’t keep his mouth shut after we found it. He was so freaked out, thinking the place was haunted. I didn’t think it was right to just take someone’s things like that, because it could very well be haunted. Who knows? But once the village heard about it they scavenged whatever they could.” Ryan became quiet, thinking about the old house. “I remember there was a computer in there, now that I know what it was. No one ever took it because we didn’t know what to do with it. I wonder if we could…”
“There’s an old world computer out there, like a personal family computer?” Benny turned around, eyes gleaming. “Ah shit, if I could get my hands on that thing.”
“Never mind about the computer.” Jarum slapped a hand over Benny’s mouth. “What are these guide posts supposed to do?”
Sam directed the buggy around a fallen tree jutting into the road. “They’ll act as a network between bases and guide the survivors home, to us or wherever we send them. The guide posts will give out IGN-discs, basically a digital compass that leads them to safe coordinates. They’re also the first warning the survivors will have of phase two.”
“Warning?” Ryan swallowed.
“Remember I told you there were other places the government kept underground for the survivors to eventually go to?”
“Those facilities will be going topside during phase two.”
“Holy shit.” Jarum’s mouth opened in surprise. “How the hell does that happen?”
“A system of forced hydraulics which will eradicate anything above it, hence the guide posts. If there’s anything on top of those facilities, it needs to move out of the way.”
Ryan frowned. “By anything you mean villages, don’t you?”
Sam nodded. “Yes. That’s why we need the warning alarm to go off. The posts will inform survivors to leave the area and give them an IGN-disc to relocate them safely.”
“How many are there, Sam?” Jarum put his arm on Benny’s headrest.
“Maybe a dozen, maybe a hundred…I have no idea, Jar. You’ll know when I know. For now we have to go by the book and I have a promise to keep.” Sam eyed Ryan in the mirror. He winked, settling back against his seat.
“Cool.” Jarum grinned. “This is just so cool.” He screamed like a girl when a swirling spike pushed through the ground on the side the road. “What the fuck!”
“Everyone, stay calm,” Sam commanded. He veered around a guide post making its way through the cracked pavement. “So much for off to the side,” he mumbled.
Benny pressed his headset. “This is Benny. You’ve got a post coming up in the middle of the road, few yards ahead. Stay to the left.”
Three guide posts within a mile sent Jarum and Ryan spinning. They clung to each other, watching each post’s sharp tip bloom like a flower with jagged edges to reveal a red light. The light swirled into action, giving off a high pitched siren that gave them both headaches. The posts continued to rise into the air, competing in height with the oldest of oak trees. By the time they reached Weeping Creek, the boys were leaning forward, holding their breath as the upcoming villagers huddled together in fear.
Ryan detached himself from Jarum the moment the buggy stopped and hopped out. His legs pushed at a dead run when he saw Bart. His arms opened, catching his father’s force within them. Bart was saying something. The trailers were moving into the village. Only Ryan didn’t notice a thing. He could only inhale his dad’s scent, bury his face in that burly neck, and cry. Weeks felt like an eternity apart. He hadn’t realized how much he truly missed his family or the fresh air the topside provided. These arms were the ones he’d been held in for so many years. They were the same arms that let him go, but not out of hate, only love.
Ryan felt Jarum cover his back, hands encasing his to create a mess of the three of them. Bart clung to his boys for dear life, fearing this was all in his head. His filthy box of prized possessions discarded on the ground, he found the boys were worth more to him than anything material on earth. He wept openly in front of his people, tuning out the sound of foreign alarms going up around him. He didn’t care if the world was ending. He just knew he had his boys back home, safe in his arms.
Sam and Benny let the boys have their moment. It wasn’t their place to interfere. They both wished they had a father to hug in this time of celebration, but they didn’t and they had a job to do. They were okay with that. At the end of the day, they both had people to come home to, and that was enough for them.
Sam whistled through his teeth, calling the villagers attention. Once the mania ended, villagers clinging to each other in silence, he raised his hands. “I’m Samuel, Commander of Rineway and the United States Military. This is Benny, he is my second in command, and we’ve come to relocate you all to a safe place for the duration of phase one.”
The villagers backed away, frightened out of their minds.
“They don’t know what that means, Sam,” Benny hissed.
“Shit.” Sam groaned. “I mean, well… What do the fuck do I say?”
Ryan hugged his dad one more time and held up a finger to Bart. “I have to help Sam. Come on, dad.”
“What’s happening, Ry?” Bart wiped his eyes, getting to his feet.
Jarum grinned through his tears. “Your boy is gonna save the world.”
Bart shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“You will.” Ryan took his hand. “Everyone listen up.”
The villagers shifted their gaze like rabbits cornered between two wolves.
“It’s going to be okay. This is Sam, my partner.” He took Sam’s hand for emphasis. “And that’s Jar’s boy, Benny. They’re cool, okay? You remember them from the ad, right?”
A few villagers nodded, staying put.
“All right then, what I’m going to tell you is true because I’ve seen it. This isn’t a trick to take your home away from you. I promise on my mother’s life.” Ryan let go of their hands, stepping forward. “For the past few weeks I’ve been living underground.”
Gasps and whispers made him smile. Jarum joined him. “Me too, and damn, I missed the sun.”
“Nice.” Benny rolled his eyes.
Waving a hand, Ryan continued, “Jarum and I have been living on a military base that was created to rebuild our world after the fall of the Digital Age. Before the war, the government set up a series of underground facilities or…buildings,” he corrected, “to help the war survivors regain what was lost. Food, technology, education, all of the things that were destroyed with the war can be had again.”
Jarum pointed to a guide post at the back of the village that had come up through a shed. “Those things are there to help you, not hurt you. They tell you where to go when the buildings underground start to come above ground.”
“Oh god,” a villager moaned. Elderly, she leaned on her son for support.
“It’s going to be okay. I promise. We’re going to take you all to the base to get settled in and eat something. I know it’s scary to leave this place behind, but trust me, what awaits you is far better than this.” Ryan looked to his dad. “I’m gonna need your help here.”
“With what?” Bart lifted his hands. “I don’t even know what’s going on. You show up after weeks and tell me to leave everything I’ve ever known.”
“I did it and so can you.” Ryan put his hands on his dad’s shoulders. “I need you to be their leader and tell them it’s all going to be okay. We’re going to take them somewhere safe.”
“Please stay calm and approach.” The same female voice from the control room blared from every guide post. “There is no danger. Please stay calm and approach for further instruction.”
“Fuck this,” Jarum muttered. He walked around the villagers to the post. “Everyone watching?” He glanced over his shoulder. “Good.” He stepped up to the post where a little screen awaited him.
“Please wait. Your IGN-disc is loading now.” Jarum tapped his foot, impatient. A few seconds later, a disc the size of his palm dropped into a metal basket below. He lifted it up, amazed at the small dial blinking on its surface. “IGN-disc activated.” The voice came from his new disc. “Please head south to your safe house. I will be your guide.” A grid popped up on the disc, giving him a clear map of where he was headed.
“Awesome.” He held it up. “Look at this. See? It’s to help you.”
The first villager to step forward was Ryan’s oldest sister, Alice. She rubbed her pregnant belly, letting go of her husband’s hand. “Let me see that.”
“Baby, don’t.” Her husband moved with her.
“You want to stay here if what Ryan says is true? I don’t. I’m tired and hungry, Evan. The last thing I need is a building popping up from the ground where I sleep. Now stop being a wimp and let me take a look.”
Jarum dangled the disc in front of him, grinning. “Yeah, Evan, it’s just a disc, not a man eating bear.”
Evan scowled and let his wife go. She took the disc from Jarum, flipping it over to see the screen. While somewhat confused, she gathered the gist of the device and nodded at the villagers. “Get your things. Are those trailers for us because I’m not walking in this condition, topsider or not.” She raised a brow at Sam.
“Y-yes. We’ve got blankets and some food if anyone’s interested. Why don’t we start boarding by family? I’m sure that would take the edge off our trip if you could be together.”
Bart cleared his throat, nodding. “You heard the man, everyone line up by family. The sooner we get going, the less chance of any threat there’ll be. Did everyone pack their things?”
Ryan took Sam’s hand again and watched as his old village boarded into the trailers to take them to their new home.
“Guns down,” Sam commanded to his soldiers lining the halls. “What’s the time on those doors?”
“Less than a minute, sir.”
“And what about the new blueprint, anything changed?”
“Yes, sir. Here it is, sir.” Raj handed over the tablet.
Sam scanned the new layout, humming with approval. “Looks good, boys. I want you to break into groups and check out the areas already open for business. Report back to me on your radio. Once you’ve done that, contact whoever you think should be using the new facility and have them go from there. I heard Colby’s garage opened up on one side. We’ve got new vehicles and a warehouse down there now?”
“Excellent. Raj, any word from the other countries?” Sam fell in step with Andrew and Raj.
“Yes, they’re waiting for phase two, just like us. China says they already have a facility breaking ground and that the posts are streaming live video footage of survivors in route. Everything is right on plan, sir.”
“Good. I’m putting you on guide post detail. Footage means we have a direct link. See if Avery can connect some of the techs to audio in case we have a problem with the survivors. They’ll have questions. I’m sure they’d rather talk to a real person instead of the recording.”
“Yes, sir. On it, sir.” Raj detoured towards the Control Room.
“Andrew, I want you and Stella to take a team topside. There’s bound to be some noise up there. Take a few buggies and start surveillance. If you see any trouble, radio in before you approach.”
“Yes, sir.” Andrew took a left, going to grab Stella.
“Ryan?” Sam held out his hand. Ryan’s fingers slid over his palm. “You ready for this?” He grinned, looking over.
“More than you know.” Ryan glanced over his shoulder at the villagers following them. To say they were freaked out would be an understatement. But if he was right, on the other side of those doors would be something they couldn’t be scared of. If anything, it’d look like heaven on earth.
“Avery!” Sam shouted to the ceiling.
“I’ve got Halstead ready to go. I dispatched a team right after you left. Would you like me to wait until Weeping Creek is settled or should I send them back now?”
“Go ahead and send them back. I don’t want to waste any light. Anything on the cameras?”
“Not yet…wait.” Silence stopped Ryan and Sam in their tracks. “Northeast of here, the ground is breaking. The system just registered a new network. I think we have our first one.”
“Yes, sir,” she practically screamed.
Sam tightened his hold on Ryan’s hand. “Very good, Avery. Let me know how things progress.”
The locked double doors neared. Ryan and Sam slowed their walk. Benny and Jarum rounded the villagers, scanning each and every one of them to make sure all were okay. Bart took the lead, holding in his fear because he was a leader and he didn’t want to cause any distress.
“What are we waiting for?” He gulped.
“That timer over there.” Ryan pointed. “The doors will open when the timer goes off.”
“Right, I knew that.”
Thirty seconds ticked down. Everyone was on pins and needles. The timer flatlined at zero and the doors whooshed open. Cool air rushed into the hall and everyone stared at a corridor stretching a mile long. Door after door dotted the white walls. Light after light clicked on above.
“Welcome to the S wing, a new residential component to the Rineway base. Please make use of the Commander’s guide, located at the welcome station.”
Sam looked down at Ryan. “That would be me.”
Ryan grinned. “That would be you.” He walked his partner to a small terminal beyond the doors. A tablet waited, set it into a plastic vestibule. Sam placed his palm on top of it, allowing the system to scan his ID, and pushed down, hearing a click that released the tablet.
“Welcome to the S wing, Commander Samuel of Rineway Military Base. Please note the residential directory network on your tablet. There you will find instructions on survivor placement and the latest in your base’s facility restructuring. You can connect with your base’s network at any time with the touch of a button. This will ensure your Control Room can keep track of survivors and their needs once phase three begins.
“Survivor placement is important. Therefore please direct your attention to the residential styles available so that you may suit the needs of your new residents. Once you have settled your residents, please schedule each and every one for a health screening in the S wing medi-bay, located in the new S wing center. The health of your new residents is also very important.”
“Send the trained EMTs to me immediately.”
“Uh,” a lone voice pushed through the crowd. Sam’s second oldest sister raised her hand. “I’m a trained EMT.”
Sam gawked at Ryan. Ryan just shrugged. “It’s true.”
“I’ll be damned.” Sam smiled. “And your name is?”
“Katie.” She extended her hand. “I’m Ryan’s sister, Katie.”
Sam shook the hand offered. “Well, Katie, you’re officially on duty. Benny will you take Katie down to find the new medi-bay and see what you guys can figure out?”
“On it.” Benny offered his arm to Ryan’s sister. “Jarum!”
“Coming. See you kids later.” He winked, trotting off after Benny and Katie.
“Now,” Sam looked down at his tablet, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. “If I’m reading this right, each of these doors is a residence. I’ll need you to divide up into families again. Singles, I want you over here. And we’ll try to outfit you with the best accommodations possible.”
Over the next few hours, Sam had every family step up to the vestibule. Through his tablet, he assigned them rooms, and the vestibule spit out key cards for their door. And when Halstead showed up, he did the same, exhausting himself, standing in the exact same place for hours more. All the while, Ryan led every family to their corresponding door, settling them into their state of the art rooms. White on white with a touch of green, the rooms were meant to be a breath of fresh air from the state of living topside. They had clean, comfortable beds, a sprawling common space with couches and flat screens, and bathrooms. The bathrooms were probably the hit of the day with the survivors, and many of them spent hours playing with the water that flowed at the touch of a button. All in all the rooms gave the families relief, warmth, and safety even during their fear of change.
Ryan had to hold it together. He’d been one of them not long ago. He knew how overwhelming and scary the base and its wonders were at first glance. But given some time he knew these families would adapt. They would blend, new and old, becoming one big unit that helped each other step into the future.
By dinner time, Sam was wiped. However, he still stood on his feet, eating next to Avery’s screen as he watched the facilities pop up all over North America and beyond. Footage streamed in from the other countries. They all sat back to indulge in the survivors faces, the ones going through the process without a helping hand. But over fifty techs sat in the new control pit, talking into the guide posts, giving them someone to connect to as they made the scary journey into the unknown. Sam stretched, putting his plate down. He looked over at Avery.
“I never thought I’d live to see this day.”
“But damn it feels good that we did, huh?”
She took his hand. “I’ve never felt better.”
After a meal that never seemed to end, Jarum happily took the plates from over one hundred tables. He greeted his former village members, sharing in the magic floating through the mess hall, which had almost doubled in size. He didn’t notice Benny watching him from afar. He was too engaged in chatter as he swept up plates, charming the anxiety of their new residents away. He mingled with the soldiers and techs, urging them to sit with the survivors to make them feel more at ease.
Benny snagged another cookie, leaning in the kitchen doorway. “I could never do that.”
Yvonne put an arm around his waist, laying her head on his shoulder. “You do it every day for him.”
“Yeah, right.” Benny shoved the cookie in his mouth.
“Do you make him happy? Do you care for his needs? Do you do your hardest to see him smile?” She patted his butt. “That’s what I thought. Stop trying to act like you’re such a hard ass and scoot. Stop eating my cookies.”
Benny stole one more, running away from a flying dish rag. He nodded at Jarum, a wistful expression in his eyes before he went back to work. Later could not come soon enough, both of them thought.
Finally relieved of his residential duties by the next shift of soldiers, Ryan tiredly went to find Sam. He ended up in the Control Room, finding Sam looking at the screens with heavy lids. Avery was still a mad dog at the computer, typing away, and whispering into her headset. She didn’t notice when Ryan slid into Sam’s lap, but Sam did. He put his arms around his lover, sighing.
“You wanted to know how many there were.” Sam tapped a button on his keyboard. The large screen above showed a map with red blinking dots all around the world. “Four hundred and seven facilities are rising up because of you.”
“We did this together, Sam.”
Sam shook his head. “No, Ryan. I’ll tell you a thousand times over if I have to. You saved the world.” He looked over his shoulder. A smile teased his lips. “Did you know that, Bart? Ryan’s a hero.”
Ryan saw his dad being escorted onto the platform. His lip trembled.
“Of course I did. My kid has always been a hero. It’s nice to see others recognize him for who he really is.” Bart walked to them, putting his hands on their shoulders. The shake of his fingers was the only sign of his emotion. “So what do we got here, Commander?”
Sam chuckled. “A whole lot of work, that’s what.”
Ryan looked up at his dad. “And we better get started.”
“Started? I think you started a long time ago, Ry. Now it’s time to sit back and let us return the favor.” Bart squeezed his shoulder. “You two go get some rest while I learn a thing or two from the beautiful Ms. Avery.”
Avery stiffened, looking up with a blush. “Um...sure.”
Ryan and Sam shared a look. They busted up laughing, getting to their feet. Ryan held the chair for his dad. Bart sat down, picking up a computer mouse. “So, what’s this thing?”
Avery’s brows quirked. “A mouse?”
“Doesn’t look like a mouse to me.”
“Trust me, it’s a mouse.” She set it down, brushing his fingers. Looking away, Avery bit her lip, definitely affected by the handsome older version of Ryan.
“Whatever you say, honey.” He patted her back. “Now tell me what all this nonsense is.” He pointed to her screen.
“That would take some time…Bart.”
“Honey, I got plenty of time.” He winked.
Ryan stifled a laugh and held out a hand to Sam. “Shall we?”
Sam slapped his hand into Ryan’s palm. He looked over his shoulder. “Bart?”
“Yeah.” Bart sat up straight, putting his hands in his lap.
“I owe you one.” He kissed Ryan’s knuckles and led him down the steps. This time, both of them walked into the unknown together.
*One Year Later*
Sam tapped the microphone, shying away from the horrible noise. He held up his hands to Avery. She gave him a thumbs up, cozying back into Bart's side. He tried it again. “Hello?”
“We can hear you,” Jarum yelled through cupped hands in the audience. He leaned back against Benny’s chest. Their fingers twined, settling in for the grand event.
Rolling his eyes, Sam resumed his place in front of the microphone. He looked out over the hundreds of people sitting on the old Surik field. “Today marks one year since phase one began. So much has happened since then. So many survivors have come forth and began to rebuild our cities and create a new world for all of us. Our schools have reopened. Our training program has produced thousands of jobs and placements all over the globe. And I’m happy to say the first voyage overseas for our American military was a success. As of today, phase three is complete.”
Cheers rose up through the crowd. Sam smiled, waiting for the applause to die down. He held up his hands. “Now it’s up to us, and the memories we’ve been passed along to go from here. And I’d like to celebrate this fresh start with a little treat I was pushed into giving you.” He winked at Ryan. “Because someone told me it’s not fair to hold onto something so precious when you could share it with the world. Today, I declare this field Surik Theater.” He looked over his shoulder at the giant canvas screen his men had erected last week.
“What the hell is a theater,” someone shouted from the front row.
Ryan sniggered behind his hand then rolled out his blanket before pulling over his canvas bag filled with snacks. He leaned back on his palms, crossing his legs, waiting for Sam to come back to him.
“Tonight, I give you magic in the form of motion picture.” Sam waggled his fingers. The crowd laughed. “This is Lord of the Rings. Cue it up, Avery!” The spotlights behind the crowd died, bathing them all in starry darkness.
Sam toed through the crowd to Ryan, curling up next to him. Ryan kissed him softly. “You know they’re going shit themselves, right?”
“Eh, they’ll live.” Sam laughed at the gasp from the crowd. The movie began, enthralling them all. “I’ve already seen this one.”
“Me too,” Ryan whispered, leaning in. “It’s a bit scary.”
“I’ll keep you occupied.” Sam hooked a finger around Ryan’s necklace, pulling him closer. “And safe during the scary stuff.”
“Will you now?”
“Of course, I’ll keep you safe from everything,” Sam murmured against his lips.
Ryan smiled, and closed the small distance. A kiss had never tasted so sweet. This wasn’t the end, he thought. It was only the beginning of everything.