Just a couple of days after their arrival at the renegade safe zone of New Haven, the weather turned without any prior warning. As the residents slept at night, the skies opened up and the first showering of rain hit the ground in what had been a couple of months. It rained with a vengeance too, pouring for several unrelenting hours and not stopping until well after daybreak. While the world may have changed, Britain’s weather was at least still as unpredictable as ever.
Ryan took advantage of the squall and went for a walk to cleanse his mind and body simultaneously. There was only one road in and out of the makeshift town, so he instead chose to head into the surrounding fields. Thanks to the sudden change in weather, he knew the residents of New Haven would soon be busy sowing seeds in them.
Walking the fields was advised against. The surrounding woodland was a hotbed for surprise lurcher attacks, as some had discovered to their detriment. That hardly bothered Ryan anymore. In his present mood, he wouldn’t have been upset if the lurchers tore him apart. New Haven wasn’t where he wanted to be. He yearned for home. The setup had been working nicely for him there and it depressed him that he’d been forcibly torn away from it.
Barely three words had been spoken between Ryan and Georgina since they’d arrived. He’d found a different room to sleep in and kept himself to himself. Harry would always walk in the opposite direction when he saw him. He wanted to straighten things out with Georgina but figured she probably wouldn’t calm down until Harry had gotten over being lied to; he clearly hadn’t yet as the pair could occasionally be heard arguing.
Though Ryan had largely remained alone, Jay popped in frequently to talk, clearly having taken a shine to him. Ryan had to admit Jay had grown on him too. He was straight-talking and didn’t carry the trademark ego often present in most ex-forces men. A bond of trust was growing between them, even if it was perhaps still a little too early to call it a bona fide friendship.
The edge of the field was only ten or so feet away and Ryan felt he was being watched through the nearby trees. He mentally prepared himself for some form of ambush; when the gawker leapt through the trees it didn’t even get close! He swung his 7-iron in a graceful upward arc and caught the creature hard in the face. The force was enough to change its trajectory and it landed harmlessly to Ryan’s left. Somehow it had survived, though its jaw had been completely smashed off and only the top row of teeth and wagging tongue remained of the hideous face.
The gawker growled as it prepared to launch again. Ryan was a hair quicker and used the flat of his boot to send the gawker back to the ground. He used the same foot to crush its head into the sodden earth. The ground was so wet that the gawker’s head sunk into it, the growls of the creature gargling creepily in the sopping mud. Ryan ferociously stomped until the gawker’s skull finally broke and the required damage to the brain occurred.
He wasn’t given chance to collect his thoughts as a small group of lurchers broke through the trees. He wielded his 7-iron like a ninja with a katana and got to work. The four-strong group was no real trouble. The muddy ground slowed their already sluggish pace further, allowing Ryan to pick his spots meticulously. He was relieved to see that a spewer wasn’t amongst their number as he made short work of them.
The altercation ended abruptly and Ryan made the decision to beat a hasty retreat back to the holding area.
After a hot shower, Ryan retired to his room and made himself a cup of tea. Entertainment was limited in New Haven. The choices at Ryan’s disposal were to take walks or to lie down and consider his own thoughts. He chose the latter, deciding he’d sooner stay clean after his shower rather than head out and get all sweaty again.
No sooner had Ryan drifted into a nap did somebody appeared at his door and call his name, causing him to wake with a snap.
“Ryan, the leader wants to see you and the other two now. Could you get ready and go to see him as soon as possible, please?”
Rubbing his eyes, Ryan emitted a loud yawn followed by a big stretch of the arms. He settled his gaze on the man, who waited patiently. “No worries. I’ll get dressed and make my way there shortly.”
“Thank you.” The man smiled genuinely as he drew the curtain shut to give Ryan his privacy once again.
Ryan quickly dressed. He was eager to meet the mystery leader; there’d been nothing said about him, not even a name. He’d probed Jay to no avail. He threw on a clean set of clothes that had been provided him when he arrived at New Haven, made his way out of the room, and down the hall.
Georgina and Harry were leaving their room too as he walked along. Ryan only nodded curtly in greeting and carried on, opting not to walk with them. He reached New Haven’s tallest building in just a couple of minutes and knocked on the door. It was opened by an attractive smiling lady, who gestured for Ryan to enter. Naturally, Ryan gave her the eyes reserved for those he fancied as he passed through. She told him to make his way upstairs and take one of the seats available in the corridor. Georgina and Harry weren’t far behind and sat as far away from Ryan as possible.
There were frequent albeit fleeting glances between the three of them. Ryan couldn’t fathom his feelings. He felt anger, guilt, disappointment, and a whole cacophony of various other negative emotions towards them, mainly Georgina. On one hand, he believed she was in some way indebted to him. On the other, he felt he perhaps had no right to feel that way given his treatment of her during their relationship. While the world had changed around them, feelings didn’t necessarily follow suit.
“Please come in,” a voice emanated from inside the room the leader sat in.
Georgina and Harry stood immediately and went into the room. Ryan followed them after a short pause. He stepped into what was a cluttered and hazy office. Sat in a chair at the far end of the room was a man whose features were hard to distinguish owing to the slightly open blinds behind him. Ryan was no fool; he knew this man had done that on purpose and it only served to irritate him further. He remained standing while the other two sat.
“Thank you for coming to see me,” the leader said in a gruff, southern Welsh burr. “Apologies for how long it’s taken. I’ve a whole town to run here, so time’s always against me.”
Georgina smiled genially. “That’s quite alright.”
“Enough with all this secrecy nonsense!” Ryan spat. “For days we’ve been given no information about who you are and what you do. We come up here and you continue to make a show of hiding your face. I don’t mind saying I’m starting to get pissed off by it all.”
“Ryan Lloyd, am I right?” the leader asked with a degree of mirth in his voice. “I’ve been told all about you from Jason. If you’ll forgive my favouritism, it’s you I’ve been looking forward to meeting the most. Every bit as brash as I was warned.”
He then stood and walked away from the window towards Ryan, his face coming into view in the process. The shaggy mop of grey hair atop his head might have looked fake if not for the fact it blended in perfectly to a beard and moustache combo that covered most of his face. Twinkling, intelligent eyes of green sat below thick bushy eyebrows and above a sizeable nose that bent slightly to the right. Just like most of the other apparent ex-army men that walked around, he was a strapping man. Despite his advancing years, he looked as tough as nails.
The leader held out a hand. “They don’t tell anything about me because we have to ensure you’re trustworthy first. I’m still not sure you are, but I’m nothing if not a risktaker. The name’s Melvyn Roberts. I prefer Mel.”
Ryan accepted Mel’s handshake. “It’s nice to finally have a name and a face.”
“I hope it puts you at ease.” Mel returned to his seat while Ryan took one himself. The Welshman took a breath. “I’ll get straight to the burning question most want the answer to first: why does New Haven even exist? It’s simple really. The safe zones are only a way of keeping everybody under control and the problem is escalating. Week by week, day by day, the military are taking away the freedoms of those inside. The plan is to condition people into becoming nothing more than subservient slaves who’ll do everything they’re told on the promise they’ll stay alive. Kind of like concentration camps. The government have spied their opportunity to oppress the people and taken it.”
“I had no idea the government were still operational,” Ryan said.
“This ordeal has allowed them the opportunity to slip off the radar. They’re still pulling all the strings. The military is acting under their orders. While I’m not privy to all the details, something dodgy is going on. They’re rounding up those still living on the outside and I have no idea what they’re doing with them.”
“What are you doing if not rounding them up yourself? It sounds like you’re doing exactly the same as the army only with a smile.”
“We’re giving people a safe place to live. We don’t oppress here. All we ask is that they put something in to get anything out. Surely, that’s not much to ask. Those who want to leave can do so whenever they wish.”
“This is how it starts until people get greedy.”
“For God’s sake, Ryan!” Georgina uttered in frustration. “You’re so cynical! Why not do everybody a favour and go? We don’t need your negativity around here.”
“Why don’t you shut your mouth?” Ryan retorted angrily.
“Don’t talk to her like that!” Harry interjected.
There followed a maelstrom of shouting and arguing; Mel sat back and allowed it to erupt with a smirk on his face. Only when Ryan looked as though he might swing for somebody did he interject. “Alright, alright! That’s enough!” he warned, keeping his tone friendly. The three immediately calmed down. “It’s clear there’s tension between you, so I’ll do all I can to keep you apart. Ryan, I’m aware that you’ve been out there surviving for a while now and are capable of taking care of yourself. Is that right?”
“I haven’t been bitten yet and I’ve lost count of how many lurchers killed.”
“Would I be right to assume a combat role of some description would work best for you?”
“One hundred percent!”
“And yourselves?” Mel asked of Georgina and Harry.
“There’s little point in assigning her anything. She’s infected,” Ryan callously muttered, refusing to look at Georgina and a smile of smug self-satisfaction on his face.
Georgina’s eyes burned into him. “You…” she started through gritted teeth.
“Is this true, Georgina?” Mel asked, his voice filled with concern.
“Allegedly so,” she conceded with a defeated drop of her head. “I was tested as positive at the time people were being screened.”
Mel looked puzzled. “Really? That was so long ago. Surely you’d have turned by now.”
“So I keep getting told,” Georgina replied, glancing at Ryan again.
“Something doesn’t seem right about that. I’ll have a doctor take a blood sample soon and get some answers before assigning you a position,” Mel reassured with a smile. “What about you, Harry? What role takes your fancy?”
Harry didn’t answer. He looked distastefully at Georgina and Ryan and then turned back to face Mel with a frustrated sigh. “Nothing! I don’t want to stay here. I’ll pack up my things and go at the earliest convenience.”
“You? Out there on your own? I’ll give you five minutes before you trip on your shoelaces and get eaten, you stuttering prick!” Ryan mocked with a derisive snigger.
“I swear, I’m going to punch you in the jaw in a minute!” Georgina flared up again.
“That’s no surprise. You’re more of a man than he is,” Ryan teased further.
“This is exactly why!” Harry interrupted. “I can’t cope with you two. You act like a pair of teenagers. It’s quite obvious you’re both still in love with one another. I won’t sit here playing middle man while you work out your differences. I’m not going to be your interim guy, Georgina.”
“Harry, you aren’t—”
“Save it, George! Seriously, save it!” Harry interrupted with a hand held up. He then looked at Ryan. “As for you; you’ve been an arsehole from day one! All you’ve done is look down on me because you’re jealous. I can’t stand to be in the same room as you, let alone the same town.”
“Pack up your shit and get out then!”
“My pleasure!” Harry stood and made for the door. He ignored the protests of Georgina and Mel; leaving the room and slamming the door behind him.
Mel looked at both Ryan and Georgina with an openhanded gesture. “I don’t want to ask what all that was about because I frankly don’t care. All I’ll say is that if there’s some kind of problem then you either make amends or stay out of each other’s way. Do I make myself clear?”
They both agreed half-heartedly.
“Okay, we’ll end this here. Georgina, I’m assuming you’re going to want to go and talk Harry around; I won’t keep you waiting.”
Georgina thanked Mel and excused herself—not before a look of contempt thrown the way of Ryan that he blew a kiss in response to.
Mel settled his attention on Ryan again. “I admire what you’ve done out there. I admire that you were able to escape the safe zone. You’re clearly a very adept survivor, but might I advise some caution in your attitude. Whether your arrogance is a front or genuine, you’re unlikely to make many allies with it and, right now, allies are what we all need.”
“What you call arrogance I call looking out for the only person that matters to me now the world has gone to shit,” Ryan countered vehemently. “While you’re judging whether I’m worthy of staying in New Haven, I’m judging whether New Haven is worthy of me. Up to now, I’m not convinced. I’ll stay here and help where I can; however, I don’t trust you’re the selfless person you make yourself out to be. The second I get a sniff that something isn’t right, I’ll bring this place to its knees.”
Mel scoffed at Ryan’s forthright impudence. His desire to be angry was outweighed by admiration at the man’s fortitude and self-assurance. “You talk a lot of smack for one man who sits in the empire of another,” he said with a smile.
“Without your empire, you’re just one man as well—and I never looked at another man as anything more than my equal, irrespective of his possessions.”
“Although your candour is appreciated, I’m going to request that you consider yourself equal to the people residing here for as long as you choose to remain. I’m happy to prove New Haven is everything that’s been promised to you as long as you can prove you’re capable of working alongside others to keep it safe. Can we shake on that?”
Ryan looked down at Mel’s outstretched hand and then back up into the Welshman’s eyes. His choices were limited for now. He swore to himself to find a chink in the armour and discover what tricks Mel had up his sleeve. In the meantime, he’d stick with the adage of keeping enemies closer than friends.
He took Mel’s hand in his and shook it. “Done!”
TO BE CONTINUED