Nick wiped the sweat from his face.
As it was late December and snow covered the streets all around him, the warm breeze that blew by caught him off guard. Blinking to regain his focus, he looked down at his hand and noticed that sweat wasn’t the only debris that covered his palm. A mixture of what appeared to be dark, gritty mud now covered his chapped skin; a result of being out in the elements for weeks on end with his team of agents in a Winter unlike any that he, or they, had ever experienced.
It only took a moment to know that the substance wasn’t what it appeared to be. Looking up at what was before him, he knew that the mixture could only be sweat and…ash.
“Jesus,” said Nick quietly. “Why would somebody do this?”
Much like hot embers escaping into the air from a dying fire, the ash from the pile of charred corpses that lay only a few meters from his position was now doing the same. The breeze that carried the debris past him, some coming to rest on his face, flew by like dying flower petals drifting through a field. But there were no flowers to be found, and all that lay behind him was a square that thousands used to cross through along their daily commute.
His mind drifted out of focus once more.
I have to find out where she is, he thought. I have to know what’s happened to her.
He thought of his girlfriend just before she had left on her business trip to Stockholm. Having said their goodbyes before their world turned upside down, he still didn’t know if she was alive or dead.
Maybe I could check the FAA database for the status of her flight, or maybe…
Down on one knee in a haze between his own loss and the urge to vomit what little food he had in him thanks to the pungent smell, he stared at the pile of bodies. Focusing on one of the victims that, by what features he could identify, the person appeared to be a woman in her late twenties to early thirties. The other men, women and children seemed to fade into the background as he couldn’t stop staring at her.
“I’m so sorry that I wasn’t there for you,” said Nick halfway between tears and rage.
From across the square, one member of his team had broken off and was heading in his direction. At any other time, he would have heard the agent approaching as her footsteps clumped through the slush of melting snow on the asphalt. But his brain, and his heart, were locked-up in a moment that shut out the rest of the world.
There was no Judge and Jury for these people, he thought. There was only an Executioner.
Transfixed at the sight of the men, women and children that met a fate that none of them deserved simply because they had become infected by a virus, he didn’t hear the footsteps behind him slow to a walk and then a full stop. Before he knew it, a shadow fell upon him and a water bottle nudged against him.
“Nick,” said a familiar voice.
The abrupt interruption caused him to jump slightly from being caught off-guard. Looking up at his Team Leader, Megan, he saw the tan, black-haired Marine looking down at him.
“You ready to move,” said Megan in her commanding tone. “We’ve gathered all the intel we can from this site.”
In a moment uncharacteristic of him, Nick wiped more debris from his face and looked back at her in utter defeat. Although her stature did not change to react to this, her eyes let him know that she understood his remorse for the innocent people that had been lost at this and a staggering ‘eleven’ other Sites that they had discovered over the past few days.
“You should drink some of this,” said Megan. “You look pale.”
Each member of the four-person team had experienced one of these moments over the past few weeks since the onset of Dark Winter – a pandemic that ravaged New York City to the brink of collapse. Thousands had died within days and thousands more, with little help from the Joint Task Force (JTF) services – which was comprised of what personnel remained in the National Guard, Police and CERA (an emergency response agency) – were left to fend for themselves not knowing when this Hell on Earth would end.
Chris, a former Network Engineer, had greatly over-reacted towards his fellow agent when Nick had to shoot down a malfunctioning mini-drone in order to neutralize a group of enemies who were trying to burn down an entire building with infected citizens trapped inside.
Bronson, a former professional Chef, had all but lost it when his hands wouldn’t stop shaking one evening while trying to prepare dinner for the team in an abandoned warehouse.
And Megan. A United States Marine who had taken the role of Team Leader as she was the only member of their Strategic Homeland Division (SHD) team – otherwise known as The Division – to have any military background; Nick having been a bike messenger prior to being activated, like the rest of his team, by Directive 51 from the President of the United States of America.
Her moment came after the team had split up into teams of two in order to cover more ground for a brief period of time. One evening just before an attempted attack from a group that they were now hunting, she had admitted to Nick, having never disclosed any personal information of this caliber before, that she had lost her twin sister a few years prior that week to Cancer. Nick, who discovered the initial piece of intel with Megan after doing his part to prevent the attack, was finally having his own moment after all that they had endured.
The intel took the form of a hand-drawn map with the edges burnt off. Regardless of the state of it, once the map was scanned by their Division – issued, Shade Watch contact lenses and added to their existing mission data as another thematic layer of information, it showed that each Fire Icon designated locations throughout the City.
After joining back up into a team of four, the group traveled to each of the eleven locations and found, in one way or another, the same result: a pile of dead bodies burnt to death by an unknown group of individuals. From what the Agents had gathered, this group was killing anyone infected by either a gunshot to the head followed by burning or by saving ammunition only to burn them alive. More often than not, traces of gunfire were not found leading the team to believe that fire was the preferred way of killing for this group.
For Nick, the twelfth site, the one that was before him now, had finally pushed him over his limit of what he could physically and emotionally handle. He was consumed by sorrow for the innocent people that lay before him, anger against those that had killed without cause, regret that he and his team hadn’t been able to save them from such a horrific end and a debilitating sense of defeat of seeing this terrible sight over and over again. All he could do was to look to his leader for guidance.
As a Marine, Megan knew she had to keep her team moving and focused regardless of the horrors that they had seen over the past few days. As she was never one to sugarcoat her responses, she relied on the best approach she knew in situations like these: blunt honesty.
“We can’t help them now,” said Megan as she offered him her hand. “But we can hunt these people down and do what we can to make sure they don’t kill anyone else.”
Although he didn’t react immediately, Megan didn’t budge and waited for him to grab her hand. Finally after picking up his rifle off of the ground, he grabbed a hold of Megan’s hand and was once again on his feet.
Shouldering his automatic rifle and, with a subtle nod of thanks to Megan, Nick took the water bottle from her. Pouring some water on his bare hand, he mixed it around with his fingers to get rid of the mud-like mixture before splashing his face with it. After that, he handed it back to her because he didn’t want to drink any of it as supplies were running low. Reaching into his water-resistant, insulated jacket with the SHD patch on the shoulder – a white phoenix rising from black flames over the expression “EXTREMIS MALIS | EXTREMA REMEDIA” or Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures – he pulled out his black, tactical gloves and looked beyond Megan to the square where Bronson and Chris were still reviewing the intel they had gathered.
“Let’s get out of here, Agent,” said Megan after taking a few steps towards the rest of their team. “I believe that Chris has picked up their trail.”
Nick could see Bronson scanning the area the ‘old fashioned’ way – that is to say, with his eyes and ears – while Chris did the same by piloting his newly crafted mini-drone from just beside his team member in order to scan the area from fifty meters above.
“Ying and yang, aren’t they,” said Nick as he jogged next to Megan into the square.
“You could say that,” said Megan.
Rejoining them, Megan didn’t waste anytime as enough had already been spent at Site Twelve. “Report,” said Megan. “What have you found out?”
“You should be asking ‘what haven’t I found out’,” said Chris.
Looking at him with a get-to-it look, Chris got the message and continued with his briefing.
“We haven’t got a lot of time,” said Chris. “The Runners are on track to arrive at the Crisis Center within the next two hours, and once they leave it’s going to be near impossible to track them.”
“But you’ve gathered that they are possibly taking supplies to the Pyros,” said Megan.
Having not learned any other name for this group of radicals, they had come to call them ‘The Pyros’ – short for pyromaniacs – based on their primary method of killing by fire.
“That’s affirmative, boss,” said Chris.
Bronson cleared his throat and the team shifted their attention to him.
“The ECHO showed two males in their late twenties. Each of them carrying fireproof backpacks,” said Bronson.
Each Agent of The Division was equipped with highly specialized technology that no other agency in the world had at their disposal. Connected to every possible network in the country – both secure and not secure – one such technology that was used to review their intel in three dimensional space was called an “ECHO”.
This analytical technology enabled Agents to recreate a crime scene in three dimensions right in front of them; allowing for a much more visual investigative approach to a scene. But as the data was transformed into useful information for them to investigate, it was only visible to the Agents because it was displayed in 3-D space by way Augmented Reality (AR).
“They are also armed with knives given that they clearly cut-off sections of clothing from the victims, most likely as trophies. But I don’t think they were the ones that burnt these people to death.”
“So they are just cutting off pieces of clothing from charred corpses when they aren’t delivering goods to the Pyros,” said Megan.
“These aren’t the brightest people, but they definitely working with the Pyros and they can really move,” said Bronson. “This information estimates that…”
“Are they armed with anything other than blades,” interrupted Megan.
“Uh, well, there’s a strong possibility that they are carrying low-caliber handguns as there were sporadic bulletholes near the victims that were cut.”
“Ok then,” said Megan agitated at such a blatant disregard for life from these two men. “So what’s our best route to the Center?”
Seeing that their new destination was a temporary Crisis Center in Lower Manhattan close to the Manhattan Bridge setup to handle the overflow of patients from the City’s hospitals, they headed southwest along West Street in order to intercept the Runners and to once again pick up the trail that would hopefully lead them to The Pyros.
“We have to keep moving, we have to keep moving,” muttered Hector as he ran down the alley next to Eddie, his partner.
Looking down at his broken watch to check the time, Eddie stopped abruptly. Hector knew that this meant only one thing, and quickly hid out of sight alongside Eddie. From behind a pile of trash bags and snow-covered cardboard boxes that were already starting to breakdown from excess cold and moisture, they waited and watched as the small group of people passed by them.
“We have to keep moving, we have to keep moving,” said Hector as he frantically looked around to make sure no one else was nearby.
Although Eddie had come to understand his compatriot, it still plucked a nerve with him every now and then when Hector got into one of his states; usually centered on his paranoia of not being able to deliver their packages in a timely manner. He would repeat a phrase over and over again, with minor variations, until they either had made their delivery or until he collapsed out of exhaustion.
Scanning the area ahead, Eddie saw the group of three people pass by on the opposite side of the street. Noticing that the two, older members of the group – a man and a woman, both with gray hair and aged features – were coughing while guiding a young boy in between them, Eddie knew what had to be done.
Hector and Eddie were what some had come to call “Runners”. They were not the kind of people you see jogging in running shorts wearing earphones on a nice, sunny day. They were typically homeless people that had turned their ‘lifestyle’ into a beneficial one after Dark Winter leveled the playing field for each class of citizen’s survival from one day to the next.
But as before the pandemic took countless lives after Black Friday – the busiest shopping day of the Christmas season – not everyone, in the eyes of those that had already been living a hard life on the streets of New York City, was equal when it came down to those that ‘should’ survive.
It was a distorted, at times demented, version of ‘Survival of the Fittest’ because those that were doing what they could to survive without harming other people now that they were forced to live without electricity, utilities and a regular food supply were also facing another threat as fanatics like the Runners were judging them without just cause.
More and more, the actions of the Runners were delegated by a radical group known as The Cleaners. Moving through New York City on trash trucks while armed with flamethrowers and automatic weapons, as well as, no remorse for their actions, The Cleaners were killing off anyone that they thought was infected. But they couldn’t be everywhere, couldn’t eliminate everyone that was infected, and they needed supplies that, in some cases, were in guarded areas. So Runners were used to gather supplies and, at times, to exterminate those they were infected because in the eyes of The Cleaners, they did not deserve to live.
As Hector and Eddie were at the mercy of The Cleaners, and in seeing the small group of, supposedly, infected people, they knew what had to happen.
Looking over to Hector, Eddie – having lost the ability to speak due to an operation that had gone horribly wrong causing him to lose his job and to live on the streets – tapped his front jacket pocket which bulged out in the outline of a small, rectangular object. He had made this same gesture before, and Eddie understood what it meant.
Itching his face faster only to follow his nervous reaction by smacking his forehead and cheek repeatedly, Hector changed his tone as if to say I don’t want to do this. Please don’t make me do this. But his thoughts were still verbalized through, “We have to keep moving,” over and over again.
With a sly smirk, Eddie grabbed a hold of his knife – a 3-inch, jagged piece of metal with a grip made of duct tape – and leaped out of the alley sprinting towards the small group of people. Following closely behind, Hector had a similar weapon and was holding it tightly enough to nearly make his hand go numb.
The man, woman and young boy – who were dressed in tattered blue jeans and faded, gray winter coats that had THE NORTH FACE logo faded in white text on the back of their jackets – never saw the Runners coming. It was in these few, horrific moments that Hector fell silent as he concentrated on doing ‘his part’ to rid the City of another infected group of people.
Over twenty people, including this group of unassuming citizens, had died in similar fashions at the hands of the two Runners. Not all of them had been murdered as quickly, and some had even tried to fight back. But as the Runners were usually highly-medicated on either cocaine or methamphetamine – a method of payment from The Cleaners – not to mention drinking nothing but soda or energy drinks to keep themselves on edge, their victims never stood a chance.
As the three now lay dead in the middle of the street, their killers gasping for air above them as adrenaline pumped voraciously through their veins, Eddie looked down at them pleased at what they had ‘accomplished’. Hector stood by and periodically twitched. But as they had learned from previous run-ins with The Cleaners, they knew they needed ‘evidence’ of their devotion to the group that was eliminating those infected by the pandemic one fire at a time.
The first was that Hector, who was already starting to mumble “…keep moving, …keep moving” again, would cut pieces of the victims clothing and, when possible, hair off – almost as if he was scalping them. Both would be stored inside of his black, fireproof backpack; which both of them carried at all times.
Eddie, on the other hand, would keep watch until, when Hector had nearly finished his part, would take out his silver, battery-powered digital camera and would take two pictures with the flash turned on regardless of the time of day. This, as Hector had come to understand, was the signal that they needed to move on.
The time that it took this ordeal to happen varied from group to group. But on this cold, December morning, from the first stride to the last picture taken only three minutes had passed.
As Hector ran off continuing to muttering to himself, Eddie returned his camera to his front jacket pocket and snapped the button shut to close it. Looking at this broken watch once more to check the time that had stopped at 11:34 AM months earlier, he ran off after Hector in the direction of Lower Manhattan where their next package was to be acquired.
Snow covered a concrete sidewalk. Still, cold and damp. Slowly it seeped into a nearby drain that connected the empty street to a sidewalk cluttered with bags of trash.
A K-9 sniffed through one of the bags searching for scraps of food while a few others ate leftover chicken fingers and discarded hamburger buns.
All was peaceful and quiet.
A scream followed by a single gunshot is heard in the distance, but with only a minor twitch of their ears, none of the dogs are disturbed by the sound of one more person’s death.
The sound of water trickling into the depths below the street is the only consistent sound that can be heard, that is, by humans.
Suddenly one of the K-9’s perked up. Then another, and another. But the street was still empty.
One level beneath the group of dogs running parallel to the storm drain that carried the water to a reservoir just outside of the City were the four Division agents; their boots splashing through random puddles in the darkness of the New York Subway tunnel.
“How…,” gasped Megan as she jogged a few steps behind Bronson who had taken point, “…are we doing?”
Bronson, still jogging up in front of Megan, Chris and Nick, tapped his smartwatch in order to access their real-time mission data.
“At this pace…,” said Bronson equally winded by their long run across the City, “…we will arrive at the Center in approximately fourteen minutes.
Peering back over her shoulder, she could see Chris and Nick following closely behind. Though tired, she could see a glint of satisfaction on Chris’ face for having chosen their current, but alternate route of travel. Noticing her, Chris gave a thumbs-up and the group continued along the Subway tunnel. Their destination: the Fulton Street Metro stop which was the closest stop to the Crisis Center in Lower Manhattan.
An hour earlier, the team had been cut-off from their original route through the City. Two passenger buses had collided during the first few days of Dark Winter, and to find a way through the City that avoided such obstacles – including the people using the buses as a makeshift home – they took a risk and entered the Subway tunnels. A few hours had passed and, it appeared that their gamble had paid off.
Without warning, Bronson slowed to a walk and held his right fist up – signalling the team to stop and to take cover. Shortly after lowering his hand, he looked through this scope downrange and scanned the area.
Before Bronson could say anything about why he had stopped, Chris had already updated his map and sent the intel to the rest of the team.
Up ahead were thirty-six people who were using their original destination – a Subway Station just two blocks before the Crisis Center – as their new home. Old sheets and randomly placed, camping tents made up the majority of the Station floor. But after Chris had supplied the team with the new intel, Bronson knew that his decision to be cautious had paid off.
For starters, the group was comprised of people of all ages. Some were infected, others were not. But many of them were armed with either pistols, hunting rifles, or – Bronson gathered because the intel from Chris didn’t provide this kind of information – that most of them had some kind of knife with which to defend themselves.
Another reason that Bronson could see that this was not a recommended path to continue on was because they were outnumbered, and the location did not provide any readily available exit points if things went south.
Finally, as the entire team understood from the intel, whether the people were infected or not, armed or not, they didn’t want to risk a firefight with innocent people just trying to survive.
So as Bronson finally lowered down into cover with the rest of the team, he looked to Megan for their next move.
“We can backtrack out of here to the Wall Street Metro stop, and do what we can to cut-off the Runners as they are leaving the Center,” said Megan. “Copy?”
“Copy that,” said Nick, Bronson and Chris in unison.
“Let’s move. Double-time it,” said Megan.
As Nick was at the rear of the pack, he switched his position with Bronson and took point. Megan followed behind him and Bronson and Chris followed her.
Minutes and a hundred yards later, Chris whistled out to the group to stop. “Looks like we don’t have to reach the next Subway Station after all,” said Chris. “This way.”
Leading them down a short corridor just off the main Subway tunnel, Chris found an emergency shaft that, by way of a damp, steel ladder, led up to the surface.
Once they were within view of it, Megan passed by Chris and patted him on the back.
“Great job,” said Megan.
“Can’t believe I didn’t think of that,” said Nick as he remembered back to when he was activated and had to retrieve his gear where he had stored it in an abandoned Subway tunnel.
Climbing up the ladder, each member of the team once again felt the cold wind and warm sunshine on their face as they stood in the middle of a graveyard of cars that used to pass by at various speeds.
“We’ve still got some ground to cover, so let’s not waste anytime here,” said Megan who took point immediately after the rest of the team exited the emergency shaft.