Ellen Johnson nicknamed the assignment Project Intimidation. She didn't agree with the order to sweep four blocks in every direction of the Tombstone but as MPD Commander, she didn't want to risk repercussions for challenging the general's order—even if he was her father. To listen to the rank-and-file gossip, scavengers were flooding into Rivertown and would soon be camping out on the MPD's doorstep or breaking down the doors to the storehouses. While Ellen knew the claims to be exaggerated, Rivertown's immigrant population did seem to be on the rise, and her father wanted to make an indelible impression on any newcomers.
"These degenerate thieves must be taught that their possessions, their dwellings, and everything east of the river belong to us," he shouted at his annual spring address just two weeks prior. She envisioned him pictured on an old-time billboard, his arms around the city with the MPD logo behind him and a single word emblazoned at the bottom: Ours.
Ellen supported his position but only to a point. For one, she feared overzealous guards might maim, kill, or drive off immigrants with valuable skills before they could be apprehended—engineers, doctors, scientists, computer technicians. You had to walk the streets to know not everyone was a rundown addict, and newcomers wouldn't know to apply for citizenship at Summerland. Second, sweeps were dangerous business. Scavengers were notoriously territorial themselves and you never knew what guards might stumble upon out in the rubble. IEDs? Bands with shotguns and automatic weapons? The private arsenals some citizens stockpiled in the final days before society's collapse never ceased to amaze her. While her father viewed scavengers as toothless vagrants fit for bullying, she knew some had teeth and were looking for anything--or anyone--to bite.
Her father's enthusiasm ebbed when she insisted upon leading a team in the sweeps. As both a woman and the daughter of the boss, Ellen had worked twice as hard to win the guards' respect. Marching alongside them, fraternizing with them, sharing her allotment of booze and smokes with her crews. She held a near-legendary status among the rank-and-file. Her father would retire or die sooner or later and, if the guards serving would have any say, she was the clear successor to the general's position.
Her crew had cleared twelve of the sixteen blocks and uncovered a few scant signs of recent habitation. The structure they now searched had collapsed inward, a result of decades old fire damage. The pink evening sky showed through holes in the walls and ceiling, and Ellen watched bemused as some young showoff scaled a steel beam to the second floor only to confirm the patently obvious, that the upper floor wouldn't hold a person's weight. Ellen was about to order their withdrawal when another guard called, "Commander, I think I found something."
And indeed he had. He shoved aside a broken shelf, revealing a grate low on the wall that had been pried away. Ellen put a finger to her lips and called for an torch then motioned for the two guards with shotguns to enter first. She crawled behind them through the cramped ventilation shaft as quietly as they could, ordering the other three to stand guard. The shaft opened onto a room engulfed in darkness. She readied her pistol and clicked on the torch.
The beam of light sliced through the blackness, revealing a buried room with no entrance save the vent. Two prone forms lay in one corner, limbs splayed in all directions; the rest of the room was empty. The guards investigated the bodies and reported it was a man and a woman, both unconscious but breathing. "Stand them up," Ellen ordered.
The elderly man and a younger woman, both dressed in rags, slowly came around as the guards hauled them to their feet as Ellen examined their campsite: two empty tins of food, a filthy bedroll, and four small glass phials, all empty. She pried open the man's eyes; his eyes hardly dilated in the harsh light. She slapped him, raised his chin, and then slapped him again. He moaned. She patted him down and found a small plastic device in his coat pocket. She examined it, then looked questioningly at the guards. They shook their heads, shrugging.
The man smiled at her, his teeth stained red. "I'm sorry, have we met?" he asked dreamily. "We weren't expecting visitors."
She held the device close to his face. "What's this?"
"A fine choice madame, if you like merlot. I prefer the cabernet myself," he said. He tried pulling away but the guards tightened their grip on his arms.
Ellen looked from his beaming face down to the device, then back. "Pack them up," she ordered. "Once he comes around he can tell us more."
The guards began collecting the couple's possessions and wondering how best to get them back through the vent. Ellen wasn't paying attention though. She was studying the empty phials in her palm, wondering exactly what it was they had just stumbled upon.