Ernie and Silo walked along through fields of clover that belied the dangers that were around in zomboid form. "Whar's this cave ye mentioned,
ma'am? I hopes it's near. This gawdawful gizmo gits heavier every step I take" Ernie said, referring to the flamethrower he carried at the ready,
heavy tanks strapped to his back.
"It's not far now. See the woodline over there? just inside the woodline is an old set of ruins, and the cave is not too far beyond that."
Ernie eyed the distant woodline and shrugged his shoulders to reposition the straps biting into them holding the tanks up. He decided the change the
tack of the conversation, just to take his mind off the remaining distance, which might not be "far" to Silo, but looked like a lifetime of walking
to him. "Bransom and Dag mentioned that y'all knowed a nenothtu, but it got a wee bit excitin' right about then, an' I never got to hear any more
of this character. D'you know 'im too?" he asked.
Silo bristled at the mention of "a" nenothtu - as if there were more than one! She said in reply "Yes, I know THE nenothtu. he's a U-man, a Vandal
from Earth that Was."
Her stress on "THE" was not lost on Ernie. he might look and act stupid, but he was anything but. " I didn't mean to offend, ma'am - it's just
the way I talk. Iffen you don't mind me askin', what truck have you got with this U-man, an' a VANDAL at that?"
Silo, still peeved, was not mollified. She abruptly and pointedly replied "I can't see how that's any business of yours, Ernie. Just because
you're from Earth too doesn't make him your brother or anything. He's from a whole different time and place than you are."
They had topped a rise and started down the other side into some tall grass. Ernie said softly as they went "but it IS, Silo, it IS my business. I
knowed him when he was just a pup." A single zombie had risen from a nest in the tall grass and started for them while Ernie was speaking. Without a
thought, and not even breaking his speech, Ernie triggered the flamethrower and set the zombie afire like a marshmallow in a campfire as he strode
along talking. "It was me edumacated him in the ways of killin' during the Vandalian Clan Wars - well, one round of 'em anyhow."
Silo was astonished - whether at the claim that Ernie was making or the casualness with which he flamed the zombie and kept walking and talking during
the event was anyone's guess. "You're from 21st century Earth, Ernie. Neno is from 24th century Earth. you can't have met him." she pronounced
Ernie sighed. "I knows I looks old, but I'm a damn sight older than even I look. Been a lot of places, done a lot of things, in a lot of times.
Yess'm, I can and do know 'im, an' knew him way back when, back when the most he could sprout on 'is upper lip was fuzz. We both had differnt
names back then. I was called 'Ben Griffith', and everyone knew him as 'Freddy Carpenter' ". Ernie didn't miss Silo's smolderingly skeptical
look, but he continued with "he was found as a toddler, wanderin' in the woods by Big Frank Carpenter. No one could ever find his parents, an' the
Carpenters adopted him and raised him as their own."
Silo had heard bits and pieces of a similar tale from nenothtu in their journey, and began to wonder. "I'm not saying it's the same person, but
what else do you know of this boy you knew?"
Ernie kept an eye open for more hidden zombies as they went, but didn't appear overly concerned about them. "Wal, he wuz a wild child, that one. but
the Carpenters doted on that boy - they never had none of their own - an' he adored them. As he got older, he took to the woods a lot. it was like
the woods were callin' to him or something. I never seen nobody take to the woods like that. The Carpenters, they had a spread next to mine out in
the boonies. It had an old dilapidated cabin on it, and that boy, when he was about 13 er 14 years old, just a slip, cleaned that cabin up and fixed
it up, and when school wasn't on, he spent more time out there in them boonies than he did at home. He'd come from his little shack an' stay at my
place fer hours on end, an' we'd talk an talk an talk. I learned him a lot of stuff that I'd picked up over time
" Ernie placed an odd
stress on the word 'time', but Silo didn't ask, not wanting to interrupt the tale.
"So anyhow, when he wuz about 17, I reckon it wuz, - mebbe 18 - the Taggart Clan decided to go on the warpath agin' a combine of folks that were
tryin' to do good fer the people around there dealin' with the Companies that were comin' in an' buyin' up contracts on the resources in
Vandalia. See, the Taggarts, they thought THEY oughtta get all the money out of that. Thought they wuz mighty big folks, them Taggarts did. They got
showed, though. they got showed..." Ernie drifted off for a moment before returning to the tale. "So Freddy was out at the shack in the boonies,
an' had been there fer a week er so. It wuz time fer him to pack it up an' head back in, and when he did, the Taggarts struck. It was a two pronged
attack. One bunch of 'em killed his folks an' burnt the house to the ground, and another bunch of 'em came fer me an' Freddy at the same time.
Silo was fascinated with the tale now, in a morbid sort of way, so she let Ernie continue to weave it uninterrupted.
"They timed it right enough, but missed Freddy. He was in between, travellin', and weren't at either place when they hit. They come fer me because
they knowed I was a friend of the Carpenters, and knowed which side of their little war I'd be on. I'd made a name fer myself some time before that
in an earlier Clan War - they was fightin' all the time, them different clans wuz, over 'bout the same things, ever since Old America fell an' got
reorganized into the American Federal Empire. So anyhow, they sent seven men fer me, figgerin' I was some sort of dangerous desperado er sumpin'. I
kilt all seven of 'em, but then thought I ought to be harder target to hit by being' someplaces other than expected, so I skyed on outta my camp
an' started movin' around a lot."
"Now Freddy - yer 'nenothtu' - when he got home an seen the smoke an' carnage, well, that boy was inconsolable. he was damned pissed off, too, as
ye might imagine. He took out of there before they could pin 'im down, and come back out to my camp. When he got there, all he found wuz dead
Taggarts, an' he couldn't find me nowhere, so he figgered the worst. Kinda pushed him over the edge, I reckon. He musta felt like he wuz all alone
in the world, and he set about his work all by hisself, never asked nobody else fer no help at all. I dunno what the hell he was thinkin', but he
planned it out good. Took them Taggarts out one er two at a time - 'cept fer one case where he took out twelve at a whack through the miracle of
modern 'splosives. Took 'im about eight er nine months, I reckon, to git 'em all, but he kilt every man-jack of 'em. Turned inter a pure killin'
machine in that few months. When he wuz done with the Taggarts, he lit out of there like his ass wuz on fire an' his head was catchin', an no one
never heard from him agin. I figgered he bit off more'n he could chew somewhere along the line an' got hisself kilt, but I reckon I figgered wrong.
I shoulda knowed there weren't much he can't chew."
Silo silently digested this information, but Ernie wasn't quite finished with the tale yet. "I read in a future, whar he'd made it long enough ter
see the Earth destroyed wif his own eyes. I can only imagine how that hit him. Everything he ever knowed kilt and destroyed in a big fire - agin."
That caught Silo's attention and pulled her out of her reverie. "What do you mean 'a' future? Come to think of it, what do you mean a 'FUTURE'?
Ernie paused, then said "Like i said, I'm older than I look, an' I been a lot of somewhars and somewhens
, an' done a lot of different
things in 'em. How d'ye 'spect I knowed how to deal with that Splitter? Anyhow, we ain't got time to tell my own tale right now - yonder's yer
ruins. Don't fret none, though. Thar'll be time later... there's always time, even when there ain't nothin' ELSE. Let's go poke around in there
an' make sure there ain't no zombies holed up in 'em, then we'll move on and sterelize the cave."
"Keep yer eyes peeled" Ernie cationed Silo "they could be a hidin' behind anything from here on out 'till they're all dead."