The meeting began at eight sharp in the East Newlanta market on Ponce. The old structure existed long before the Collapse, morphing into various identities during its lifetime. Now it was headquarters of the Newlanta Reclamation Department or NRD, the department responsible for rebuilding the city and establishing safe districts surrounding the Perimeter Wall. It was also the department overseeing the Assimilation and Prevention Project, home of the Retrievers and Neutralizers. The meeting room was cavernous; the metal chairs in formation in the corner across from the entrance. Retrievers and Neutralizers segregated themselves, the strait-laced Retrievers taking the first row because of their aggressive punctuality. The Neutralizers lounged in the back, chatting and laughing.
Moses sauntered into the room. As he neared the back row a tall dark-skinned man dressed in the drab grey NRD uniform took the podium. The room fell silent as he scanned the group with penetrating brown eyes that focused on Moses as he took his seat.
“Eight oh one, Mister Pritchard,” he said.
“Great,” Moses said. “You can tell time.”
Commander Darin Voorhees glared at Moses and Moses smiled back. A few of the Retrievers turned around to glare at Moses while the Neutralizers laughed and winked. Voorhees directed his attention to the group.
“A situation has occurred that requires the immediate attention of everyone in this room. We have reason to believe a particular southern warlord has acquired the means to jeopardize the safety of Newlanta.”
The Retrievers murmured nervously. The words had the opposite effect on the Neutralizers. They all fell silent, including Moses. Voorhees let his words settle before continuing.
“The recent increase in slaver raids drew our attention further south. We contracted Uta Jones to do an aerial reconnaissance. Uta?”
Moses smirked as his old friend sauntered to the podium. Uta Jones was a head shorter than Voorhees and possessed the hard, lean body and suspicious eyes of a man from the Wild. He nodded to Voorhees before speaking.
“From the air the truck patterns are obvious,” he said. “They lead to two convergence points, one about forty miles from the coast, the other ten miles sought of the 16/75 junction.”
Uta looked at Moses as he mentioned the last location. Moses cut a glance at Voorhees, expecting the same expression. He wasn’t disappointed.
Uta stepped aside as Voorhees returned to the podium.
“These are locations of former military installations Stewart and Robbins. It’s possible whoever is doing this is planning a major military campaign, and we may be the target.”
Darin returned to the podium.
“Because of this threat your orders have changed. Assimilation for settlement within a fifty-mile radius of Newlanta is mandatory. Retriever and Neutralizer teams will be combined into Persuader teams to encourage evacuations.”
Thomas Dean stood. “This is against protocol, commander.”
“There is no protocol when it comes to the survival of Newlanta,” Voorhees replied.
“I wish to file a formal protest to the Elders!” Dean retorted.
“These orders come from them,” Voorhees said. “But feel free to share your dissatisfaction.”
Thomas scowled then sat.
Voorhees waited for more protests before continuing. There were none.
“I need the retrieval team commanders to coordinate their schedules with the Neutralizers. I expect to see new residents as soon as yesterday.”
Voorhees left the podium; the meeting was over. Moses sauntered to him.
“You need to speak to me?”
Voorhees nodded. “Follow me.”
Moses, Uta and Voorhees walked to the rear of the building to Voorhees’s office. The office was at the end of a dim corridor which extended from the meeting hall. The room was bare and functional; a large metal desk with two chairs opposite his. The walls were bare. Voorhees sat behind his desk and rubbed his forehead. Uta and Moses sat in the chairs on the opposite side. Moses turned to Uta.
“So what’s the deal?”
Uta pushed his chair back onto the rear legs.
“It’s definitely a buildup. I’m seeing fires and raided communities up and down the coast and the highways. Somebody is building an involuntary labor force. I think Stewart is random, probably some local upstart. But Robbins is definitely organized. They’re probably scavenging the military bases for ammo and weapons.”
“Somebody we know?” Moses asked.
Uta frowned. “Most likely.”
Moses turned to Voorhees. “What do you need me to do?”
“I need you to go to Robbins,” he said.
“When do I leave?” Moses asked.
“As soon as this meeting is over. Find out which warlord is stirring up trouble and what they’re up to.”
A chill swept over Moses.
“Is Newlanta going to war?”
“It depends on what you find,” Voorhees replied.
Moses folded his arms across his chest as his past flashed before him. He was twelve, an oiled AK-47 gripped in his callow hands as he followed his father through a thick stand of loblolly pines, the summer sun squeezing sweat out of him like a sour wash rag. He crouched low like his daddy taught him, staring into his broad back as they advanced on the heavy machine gun position in the clearing. The fear came on him like it was yesterday. Mama had been dead three years, her memory still sharp in his young mind. Their life had transformed after her passing. They’d become nomads, settling wherever an ambitious warlord needed skilled gunmen. He blinked his eyes and returned to the present.
“Take whatever you need,” Voorhees said. “The motor pool is waiting for you. Don’t forget you comm. We might need to communicate. Take how many men you need.”
“I can do this myself,” Moses said.
Voorhees leaned onto his desk. “You’re damn good, Moses, but I don’t have time for your cowboy shit.”
“I don’t need a team,” Moses replied. “You need me to go down and assess the situation. I can do that better alone.”
“Your team might become a strike force,” Voorhees said.
“So, you’re going to throw together a half-assed army of green fighters and conscript militia and march into a hornet’s nest?”
“It’s all we have,” Voorhees admitted. “Besides, every person within the Perimeter pledged to defend this city. It’s our hope and we’re willing to die for it.”
“You’ll die alright,” Moses replied. “And whoever is out there will get what they want, only easier. You have a city full of defenders, not gunmen.”
“What do you suggest?”
“I know how these militias work,” Moses said. “One person is driving the whole deal. About five others are waiting for their chance to take the reins. Take the leader out and the militia will disintegrate. That will give us more time.”
“He’s right,” Uta added.
“So you’re an assassin now?” Voorhees asked.
“I’m whatever it takes a gun to be,” Moses said. “Give me a month. I’ll find out who’s behind all this and I’ll take them out.”
“We don’t have a month.”
Moses shrugged. “Then pay Uta to do his magic to slow them down”
“I couldn’t do it any faster,” Uta said. “I’d need time to gather ordinance. Besides, bombing isn’t as accurate as Moses can be. He’s your best bet.”
“I’ll get in, find out who runs the show then do the deed,” Moses said.
“You make it sound so easy,” Voorhees said.
“It’s not, but you know I can do this. That’s why you recruited me.”
Voorhees stood and paced.
“This is Newlanta’s future, Moses. Don’t make me regret this.”
“You won’t,” Moses said as he stood to leave. “Besides, if I screw it up neither of us will be around to be pissed about it.”
Of course, nothing goes as planned. Follow Moses into the Wild.