I surveyed my new home for a long moment, not having had the opportunity when I had first arrived earlier in the day. I had barely begun getting introduced to everyone when my friend Sofia’s frantic call had come from Camp Utopia to tell us that Fort Glacier was there to take her. It had been a long, bloody fight, but we had gotten her back and destroyed the facility and the scientists there once and for all.
Now, it was time for me to settle in at the National Guard armory that Collier’s group had called home. I was a little nervous about the whole thing, despite my bravado with Sofia. I had recognized what I was getting into when I volunteered, knowing Camp Utopia needed an alliance with Collier’s group to protect us against Fort Glacier, and also hoping I’d meet someone special.
The daunting prospect for me was the fact that I was supposed to entertain the idea of meeting several special someones. For whatever reason, the HLV virus had left a seriously skewed ratio of male to female survivors, and with my arrival here at the armory, I was only the second female who lived on base. I knew the first one was already involved in a relationship with other men, though I had no idea how many that entailed.
I also had no idea how many men lived on the base, and Collier hadn’t yet divulged that information to me. I followed behind him as he led me out of the lift that took us belowground. This was as far as I had gotten before, starting in the conference room. This time, he skipped that room and led me further down. To my surprise, we went to another set of lifts, and when he opened them, they were larger than any I’d ever seen. “How many people were they expecting to ride in these things?”
He gave me a small smile, and it made his already attractive features even more appealing. That was it for me though. There was no zing or spark when I looked at the commander of the armory. I didn’t think he felt anything for me either, but maybe he was always this professional.
With a wave of his hand, he indicated I should precede him. Once I stepped inside, and he joined me, the doors closed behind us almost immediately.
“It’s a cargo elevator, and it’s larger than usual because there are some interesting items stored in the space.”
I froze. “Nuclear warheads? You have nuclear warheads here? Why the heck are we in the vicinity?”
He grinned at me. “These aren’t nuclear. They don’t have the right components. They’re long-range missiles, but they aren’t going to poison anyone with radiation. I hope we never need them anyway, but I like the idea of having them at my disposal.”
“Why didn’t you unleash them against Fort Glacier instead of planting portable explosives?”
He shrugged. “We don’t have the launch system up and running. Besides, they can do extensive damage, and the explosives we used at Fort Glacier allowed for a more precise destruction.”
I eyed the commander for a moment, taking in his military demeanor despite a lack of uniform that represented the military. He wore loose-fitting khakis and a tight T-shirt, but they might as well have been camo and Army-green. I had a feeling he would shout military no matter what he wore. “What was your training?”
His lips twitched. “A little of this and a lot of that. I went where I was needed and learned what I could.”
That was the most ambiguous answer I’d heard all day, but I let it go with a small shrug. Clearly, Collier had no intention of confiding in me. “Is that your name? Collier, I mean?”
That same enigmatic smile. “It’s the only one I’ll answer to.”
I figured he must have been cursed with something terrible, but resisted the urge to try to guess what it might be. I wasn’t likely to endear myself to the commander if I started trying to guess his deeply guarded secret name.
Not that I intended to ingratiate myself to him, since there was no spark between us, but he was clearly the one in charge. I had agreed to come here, so I had to make an effort to fit in and open myself to the possibility of a relationship with one or more of his people. That wasn’t exactly a sacrifice, but it was a little scary.
When we stepped out of the lift, I was surprised to see a line of doors down the corridor. “What is this?”
“Quarters. There are more floors below, but this floor was designated for the VIP quarters, and we’ve taken it over.”
I frowned as I slipped back a strand of blonde hair escaping from the ponytail I’d used to secure it hours before. “VIP quarters? What are those doing in a National Guard armory?”
“This is an armory,” he said as he started walking to the left, “But that’s not all it is. The military loved states like Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada. All that free space and open land, with a small population. The highest concentration of VIP bunkers and secret bases are all in the Western United States. There are facilities scattered throughout the world, but you’d probably be surprised—and might’ve been disturbed back when the world was as it used to be—to realize just how many secret goings-on happened around the citizens here every day.”
That was certainly news to me. I had been born in Helena and had never left the state, even to attend university. I had big plans to go away for law school, but I’d been in the process of studying for my LSAT to get accepted when the HLV virus had struck. Everyone I’d known and loved had succumbed to HLV within the first two months, and I’d been adrift at that point.
Law school was no longer on the table, and I was busy trying to figure out how to survive the day to day, so leaving the state had seemed like a low priority. Still, I never imagined there were a bunch of secret bases around me, and he was right that it was disconcerting to realize. None of the people who had staffed them before remained to observe us or do whatever possibly nefarious tasks they had undertaken in such facilities, so I was able to mostly shrug aside the knowledge.
He stopped before a door labeled “Eighteen,” using a keycard to access it before handing it over to me. “This will be your room, Natalie.”
I followed him inside, and I soon realized what he meant by VIP quarters. It was still Spartan in some ways, but nothing like the military bunkroom I had envisioned, and definitely not like the tent I had spent the last year-and-a-half sharing with other women. This room had two beds, both queen-size, and I looked at the one with a question in my eyes as I turned to him. “Who’s my roommate?”
“Whomever you choose,” he said with a small chuckle. “For now, the room is all yours. We have no need to double up yet, and having you stuck with a roommate would sort of defeat the purpose of why you’re here, wouldn’t it?”
It was a sober reminder of my purpose at the base. I nodded, not yet ready to tackle that conversation with someone besides Sofia. Even with her, I hadn’t betrayed much of a hint of my anxiety about the idea.
“I’m sure the welcome team will be by in mass numbers as soon as word gets out of where you’re stationed, but if you have any questions, feel free to seek me out. There’s a cafeteria at the end of the hall, and that serves dinner from six to seven-thirty. Breakfast is from six to eight-thirty a.m., and lunch is from eleven to one p.m. All other times, the cafeteria’s closed, so I recommend you forage for snacks and keep some on hand. There’s a little kitchenette, and you might want to make use of it.”
He pointed to the corner of the room as he spoke, bringing my attention to the place where a small kitchen awaited use. I hadn’t cooked for myself since going to the FEMA camp, and the idea of doing so now felt a little strange. I had never been much of a cook anyway, but it was definitely different to have my own kitchen available again. I had taken that sort of thing for granted when I lived in a small studio apartment as I went to school while supporting myself as a CNA and studying for the LSATs. The room was surprisingly domesticated and felt a bit like the old life I’d left behind.
He left a few moments later, and I started unpacking. Someone had already transferred my bags from the Humvee that I had rode in. I’d come earlier in the day in Ben’s Suburban, but had ridden out in the Humvee with the other troops from the armory, and it had been my ride home.
Not that this place felt like home just yet. Camp Utopia was downright rustic compared to this, though it always had kind of an air of summer camp about it—at least how I imagined summer camp would have been if my mother could’ve afforded to send me.
Not that I had enjoyed my time there exactly, and I certainly hadn’t reveled in latrine duty. That alone had been enough to make the prospect of coming to the armory to open myself to the idea of dating some of the men on base seem attractive.
That reminder sent a cramp through my stomach again, and I breathed deeply a couple of times. I was a different person than I had been before HLV. That could be said of any of us, I was sure, but I knew I was far different. In the last eighteen months, I had acquired a new level of confidence, both in my own skills and in my daily interactions. I could take care of myself, though I could always use more experience. I was no longer the geeky girl who men naturally overlooked, and I had to remind myself of that.
My thick glasses were gone, though that had nothing to do with HLV. I’d finally saved enough money for Lasik surgery and had overcome my fear of the prospect just a few weeks before HLV hit and caused the world to go to hell. My hair was no longer short and thin. It was still on the thin side, but I’d let it grow out mainly due to lack of options, and it was much prettier and more feminine than it had ever been. Apparently, HLV had been the ultimate beauty makeover.
I giggle-snorted at the thought before clamping a hand over my mouth. That hadn’t changed. I still had the world’s geekiest laugh. Deep inside, I had all the traits that had made me the nerd girl, and I was afraid that slapping on a veneer of survival would do nothing to ultimately hide what I saw as flaws. It wasn’t just me. Every man I’d dated had considered them flaws too.
I jerked with surprise when there was a knock at my door. Setting aside the suitcase I had been unpacking, I walked over and spent a moment figuring out how to open it. It turned out to be simple enough. I just had to wave my electronic keycard in front of the panel, and it popped open.
My mouth dropped open in shock at what awaited me on the other side of the door. The man standing there was pure physical perfection. He was tall and toned, with light brown hair and bright blue eyes that were startlingly familiar, but I couldn’t place them.
“Hi, I’m Chris.” He held out his hand as he made the introduction.
I took it on autopilot, just holding it for a moment as I stared at his face. He was mesmerizing, but I was also trying to place where I had seen him.
He grinned at me before gently tugging away his hand. “You must be Natalie. I carried in your bags, so that’s how I knew where you were.”
I nodded dumbly for a moment before finally realizing I was behaving like an idiot. I took a step back and indicated he should come in. It was only after he crossed the threshold that I realized maybe I shouldn’t have invited him into my room. It was just the two of us, all alone, and I had no idea what his intentions might be. He could be dangerous.
Without thought, my hands dropped to my waist, where my two guns rested in the holster I wore from the moment I woke up in the day until I went to bed at night.
His eyes widened slightly, and he put up both of his hands in a “surrender” gesture. “Take it easy there. I’m not a threat to you. I actually just stopped by to introduce myself and to thank you.”
I frowned at him as I slowly let my hands drop from my guns. I knew I could get to them in a matter of seconds, should the need arise. “Thank me for what?”
“You saved my ass today.”
I frowned, trying to remember what he was talking about, but drawing a blank. “How did I do that?”
“You shot one of the soldiers at Fort Glacier before he could shoot me. I saw you moving away, and I thought you had seen me.”
For a moment, I thought back. I was able to easily remember all three of the soldiers I had shot, but not because it was a source of pride. In the last eighteen months, I’d been forced to take five lives, counting the three I’d taken earlier in the day, and the faces were still etched in my memory. It wasn’t the kind of thing I could shrug off easily. I could immediately recall the circumstances of having killed three people that day, but didn’t recall seeing him there. Maybe that was why he was familiar though? Perhaps I’d had caught a glimpse of him, and my subconscious had remembered his eyes.
He shrugged. “You were busy, and so was I. I wasn’t too busy to notice you though.”
I couldn’t miss the hint of interest in his gaze, or the slightly smoky tinge to his voice when he said the words. I think it was the tone of voice that jarred my memory more than anything, and my mouth dropped open. “Oh my god, you’re Chris Denali.”
Rather than looking pleased at the recognition, he looked a little embarrassed. “Actually, my real last name is Daniels. Denali was just my stage name, because my agent thought it sounded sexier than plain old Daniels.”
I was star struck for just a moment, and I hadn’t felt so giddy since I got to meet Ian McKellen at a convention. There hadn’t been an underlying note of attraction to Sir McKellen, but I was feeling it for sure with Chris Denali…um, Daniels. That would take some adjustment, as would the idea that I was now living in the same space as the actor who’d played one of my favorite characters in my favorite science fiction show of all time.
Somehow, I managed not to gush all over him like a geek goddess, and within a few minutes, we were having a surprisingly normal conversation. As I continued unpacking, I realized he was helping me while we talked. It was a strangely domestic scene, and while it was surreal on one hand, it was certainly welcome on the other. I’d missed feeling normal, and who would have imagined that one of the first people to make me feel truly normal in the last eighteen months had been a megastar in Hollywood before all this?
“How did you end up here?” I blurted without thought.
He barely missed a beat as he continued folding my jeans before sticking them in the second drawer of the dresser I had claimed. I barely had enough clothes to fill one, so I certainly didn’t need to worry about taking the other too.
“We were filming on location in Wyoming. It was supposed to be a desolate planet, and I guess that was the best they could get for the price they had. The show was hampered by the need to pay me a ridiculously exorbitant salary, you know.” He chuckled as he said the words, though there was just a hint of bitterness in them.
I vaguely remembered something about controversy surrounding his pay, and his threat of leaving the show, but I’d read it in one of the gossip mags at the checkout stand, so I had no idea how much of it was true, if any. “So you were in Wyoming when HLV hit?”
He nodded. “If you remember, they put a travel ban in place and shut down all the airports in an attempt to keep the virus from spreading. It didn’t work, but it stranded me here. I could’ve rented a car and driven back, but I kept waiting for it to blow over. A week turned into two, and then into three. Suddenly, everyone in the show was sick or dying, except me and one of my costars.”
I knew the person, or at least the actress. She had played his love interest/adversary on the show, and rumor had it, in real life. “Did Erin make it too?”
He hesitated for a moment and then shook his head. “She made it until the second round of HLV. The virus had been dormant in her, but the mutated strain took her out.”
Without thought, I reached out and put a hand on his arm in a comforting fashion. “I’m sorry. It sounds like you were close.”
He nodded. “We had been close before, but we got very close when we were the last people left that we knew in the area. She was two months pregnant with my child when she died.”
A wave of sympathy shot through me as I realized just how much he had lost. “I’m truly sorry.”
He didn’t speak for a moment, and when he did, his expression cleared. He was clearly making an effort not to think about, or perhaps just not talk about, his past and Erin. “After that, I was a little lost, as you can imagine. I was unable to go home. I didn’t think there’d be anything waiting for me in Los Angeles. All I had there were a few friends and mostly shallow relationships. I was certain my family in Pennsylvania was gone too, because they had all been sick the last time I’d been able to reach them before the cell networks went down. So I just stayed in Wyoming by myself for a while. I’d probably still be there if I hadn’t run into the group I traveled with. They brought me along, and when we found Collier and his group, we settled in.”
“How is it here?”
He hesitated for a moment, but seemed to be gathering his thoughts, not censoring them. “It’s pretty good. It’s not like the old world, not by any stretch of imagination, but compared to being alone in Wyoming, or on the road here, it’s pretty damn good. We have running water, electricity, and an equitable distribution of labor. It’s not where I ever imagined ending up, but I think it’s about the best any of us can do with the way the world is now.”
“And Collier? Is he a fair leader?”
This time, there was no hesitation. “Absolutely. He’s a good man, and he doesn’t give orders just for the sake of giving them, or go on a power trip. I don’t know what his history is, but whatever it is, he has his shit together, and he’s held the rest of ours together along with him. I think you’ll like it here, Natalie.”
I gave him a slightly shy smile. “I found at least one reason to like it here.”