Song for the reluctant heroes
Oh Give me your strength
Our life is so short
Song for the reluctant heroes
I wanna be brave like you
– Attack on Titan, “Reluctant Heroes”
Katie was four hours north of the bunker when she spotted the tracks. They curved deep fissures through the snow and hadn’t filled in yet. Fresh tracks then.
The sun was reaching its zenith but the temperature was still cold enough to burn her lungs. She waited for several minutes, listening intently for any sound that might indicate who made the tracks. The urge to move was strong. By her estimation, her dad’s cache should be roughly five hours north of the bunker by foot. She was so close and she had to know if he was alive.
Licking her chapped lips, she dug out a protein bar and ate it quickly before pressing on. Her energy was flagging and slogging through freshly fallen snow was not easy work. Her direction took her perpendicular to the tracks and when she crossed them, she paused to look at the impressions. They were big and heavy, judging by the displacement and depth. Large tires with thick tread. She didn’t recognize the pattern but they were widely spaced, so a truck of some sort.
Was her dad picked up by someone? Did he find other survivors? If he did, why didn’t he contact her by now? There was no sense stopping here in any case, so she hurried on, pulling out her map to double check the location of the cache. Then, with a quick look at her compass, she reoriented herself and headed over the hill and into a thick batch of brier.
“Great, just gr—”
The mountains were suddenly very quiet, the sudden silence louder than any gunshot. While the sounds of Mount Hope were often too far away to hear, the forest had its own sounds. Birds, the rustle of fir branches, squirrels romping in the snow. This stillness cut through her far worse than the cold and she charged the bolt on her rifle.
It appeared through the brush just ahead of her. Once, it had been an old man. She knew him, even if most of his face was torn away from the eye to the jaw, exposing white bone and shredded muscle. Jacob Eisner was… had been… a miserable old man. He hated anything that wasn’t originally from the town and constantly complained about all the “foreigners taking our jobs.” He mostly especially hated how women thought they were so “high and mighty that they might challenge a man for the same privileges.”
Yet, in that moment, as he came crawling through the snow on hands blackened and burned, Katie found no hate for him. Everything was missing below the waist and gray and rotted guts trailed behind him like the tentacles of some horrid sea creature. She expected to be frozen by fear but found herself feeling only pity. Yes, Jacob Eisner had been a miserable human being, but no one deserved this.
She raised her rifle and aimed for the middle of his forehead. He opened his mouth, a dried, cracked tongue sliding from between yellow teeth, and croaked. Hands reached out but he sank into the snow and floundered, stuck in place. Katie slid her finger from alongside the trigger guard and curled it around the trigger itself. Rest in peace, Jacob Eisner. I’m sorry.
The sound of an engine stilled her hand. Then came voices from down the hillside, back the way Jacob Eisner had come from. They were male, a few hundred yards away, and none of them was her father. They were yelling, angry. Then another set of male voices. These were desperate. Pleading.
She flicked her gaze upward, away from Jacob Eisner but saw no one, then looked down at him again. A gunshot would be too loud. Instead she safetied her weapon and let it hang by the tactical strap. She drew the knife at her shoulder and moved toward the struggling corpse. He was still stuck in the snow, hands reaching up. He rocked from side to side, the movement causing him to sink deeper into the snow. She swallowed against the bile that threatened to rise in her throat and blinked at the tears that clouded her eyes. Kneeling, she grabbed hold of the old man’s hair and shoved the knife through his eye.
It was harder to do than she imagined. The eye gave way easily but the sensation made her want to throw up. Then the knife scraped on bone and hit something spongy. She pushed, grunting against the revulsion and nausea. The knife sank all the way to its hilt and Jacob Eisner shuddered, then went still. Katie gagged, holding her arm to her mouth and shutting her eyes, willing herself not to be sick. She’d just stabbed a man through the eye and into his brain. It was so much worse than simply shooting him. So much more personal. She hated herself in that moment, sickened by what she found she could do.
I’ll do worse before it’s over, she thought with sudden clarity and stunned numbness.
She left the corpse in the snow where it fell and moved slowly, quietly, towards the sound of voices. Every crunch of snow and scrape of thorns against her pants sounded as loud as an explosion to her ears. The voices never seemed to notice and she crept close enough through the brier patches to see faces.
She found them beside a pond that was beginning to freeze over. The vehicle turned out to be a military “humvee” and explained the tracks she’d seen, but the men who stood around it did not look military. There were three of them and Katie didn’t recognize a single one. The first one she spotted was a small, skinny man wearing a thick, wool cap, dark gray parka and held a military assault rifle in his hands. By the way he held it, one hand tight around the grip and the other wrapped around the barrel, she surmised he was an amateur at best. He stood behind the truck, watching what the other two men were doing.
They were both much bigger, husky with more fat than muscle and wore woodland camouflage jackets. They both carried military rifles as well. One had a thick brown beard and black ball cap turned backwards while the other had some light stubble and wore his long blond hair in a ponytail. Bearded Guy was dragging someone from the back of the truck. Katie’s breath caught, fearing that it was her dad. It wasn’t. The one they dragged out of the truck was young, maybe her own age and frightfully skinny. His hands were bound behind him and he had silver duct tape across his mouth. They roughly shoved him to the ground and Katie heard a rifle’s bolt charge.
Oh my God, she thought and fumbled to bring her rifle to bear. Bearded Guy pointed at something hidden by the truck and motioned towards the young man.
“He ran all right, but not fast enough. So let’s do this again, boyo. Where. Is. The fucking. Goods?”
Another voice answered, coming from someone who was hidden by the truck.
“It’s not here! Do you think we’d keep something like that here?”
“Ah!” Bearded Guy scoffed and waved a hand. He drew a pistol and pointed it at the young man they’d pulled from the truck. “Jesus Christ, man. Just tell us where it is. I ain’t got all day and neither does he.” He made a motion to indicate the young man. “Every time you don’t say something I like, I’m going to shoot off a fucking finger. Got me, bud?”
Bearded Guy reached down and grabbed the young man’s hand, forcing his wrist to bend and placing the barrel of his pistol against a finger. The young man started to groan and struggle, but Ponytail put a boot on his back and kept him still. Katie’s heart beat hard inside her chest. She had to do something.
“Where’s the shit, Allan? Your kid’s never gonna jerk off again if you don’t say something useful.”
There was a very pregnant pause and Katie raised her rifle and pointed her sights on Bearded Guy. Bile rose in her throat. Could she shoot this man? She didn’t know the situation. Didn’t know who had done what to who. Maybe this… Allan guy had murdered half a dozen people? Killed Bearded Guy’s family?
“I’m going to count to three. One. Two—”
Suddenly the skinny one in the knit cap began to cough violently. Katie saw dark flecks splatter across the snow as he bent nearly double. Bearded Guy looked over at him and cursed. “It’s gonna be okay, buddy, okay? Allan’s going to tell us where the shit is. You’re going to be fine.”
There was a concern there that made Katie hesitate. She wasn’t expecting that. This looked too much like a scene from every apocalypse movie she’d ever watched. Bandits out on the road, robbing people.
Look with your eyes, not your brain, her dad constantly said. The brain is for analysis. See first. Take data.
Bearded Guy cocked the hammer of his pistol and turned his gaze back on the man Katie couldn’t see. “Tell me where it is, you piece of shit, or I swear to God I’ll blow his fucking hand off!”
Another brief silence.
“I… ah… I don’t…” Allan’s voice trembled. Katie shouldered her weapon and took aim. Maybe she could hit his arm, throw his aim off. Then you’ll be a target. Take center mass or stay out of it. Her aim wavered, then steadied on Bearded Guy’s chest.
“Dad! Don’t tell him!” the young man said, only to get kicked in the stomach by Ponytail. He coughed and groaned.
“Jesus Christ, Allan! This is your son! Tell us where it is!” Bearded Guy shouted.
The skinny one with the cap coughed again and leaned against the back of the truck.
Bearded Guy shifted his aim from the young man’s hand to his head. “Fuck this. Tell me or I’ll kill him. You’re killing Davie, man. It’s only fair.” He took a firm grip with both hands on his pistol and Katie heard the sound of the safety pull free. She sighted him again and let her finger glide to the trigger.
Suddenly a strong hand went around her mouth while another pulled her hand free of her weapon. She flailed but the hand on her trigger hand moved around her middle and dragged her down, pinning her. She tried to cry out but the hand was so powerful.
“Shh, Katie girl, it’s me,” her dad whispered. “Shh.”
He released her and she spun around to see her dad kneeling behind her. He had icicles in his growing beard and he looked very pale. She hugged him fiercely and barely remembered to keep silent. Relief flooded through her and for a moment she forgot all about the men below. Her dad was alive. It was all she could ask for.
“It’s up in Solon’s Wake. The bank. A vault there… okay? Just… let him go.” The sound of Allan’s voice made her turn back to peer through the briers at the action below. Bearded Guy looked back towards the truck, but didn’t move his weapon. Katie’s dad held a finger to his lips and put his hand on her weapon to keep it down. He shook his head.
“What vault? Your personal account?” Ponytail moved behind the truck, presumably to where Allan was.
“Yes. You’ll need my authorization code.”
“Not if the power’s out, doc.”
“I’ll take you, okay? Just… don’t harm him.”
Ponytail reached down and pulled Allan to his feet. He was a middle aged man who still had a thick head of hair, though it was all white. He wore glasses and jacket that looked far too light for the weather. Ponytail shoved him towards the truck and then opened the rear passenger door.
“Get in, buddy,” he said with a snarl. “We’re going for a drive.”
Bearded Guy picked up the young man by his collar and marched him around to the other side. In moments they were all packed up and the truck started. Solon’s Wake. She remembered going there once with Lindsay and her mom when she was twelve. Upscale area with expensive shops. Lindsay’s mom got herself a designer purse. The two of them pretty much lost themselves in the arcade.
Her dad tapped her on the shoulder as the truck drove off and they backed away, further into the woods. They stopped near the corpse of Jacob Eisner and her dad shook his head at the sight. The look he gave her was a sorrowful one. Katie only shrugged.
“Dad, we have to help those people. We could have taken them… why didn’t we?”
“Are you that ready to take a living man’s life, Katie? Are you ready for that responsibility? That weight?”
“I…” She didn’t know. Afterall, she’d hesitated earlier. What if she couldn’t do it when the time came? Her hesitation had nearly gotten them killed before. She hung her head. “You’re right.”
His hand touched her shoulder again. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of. But you are right. We need to help those people. We’ll need them.”
Her dad’s face turned grim and he released his grip on her shoulder. His gaze turned away, back down the hill towards where the truck had gone.
“Because he knows how to stop this.”