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It’s a wreck; this place did NOT escape the chaos.  Zel spots a tree house and lifts me up to it.  A moment later I’ve dropped my pack and am reaching down for his, securing it to my own before dropping back to the ground.  We stalk into town within nothing more than our water, Blades, rifles and pistols, plus one Envoy each.  The main street is a jumble of cars and other improvised barriers and we negotiate it without issue.  All the windows of the shops have been broken out, whether or not they had boards over the glass, and the insides have been gutted.  Given the lack of anything even remotely useful I am forced to assume they were looted, and then abandoned, as there’s no way to secure even a fraction of this area without some major city-works they simply didn’t have time for.

“So much for pie,” I whisper and Zel’s chuckle rumbles around for a minute deep within his chest before he’s silent once again.  We listen for anything suspicious, but there’s nothing besides the merry singing of birds in the tall trees and the wind as it goes whipping across the landscape.  “School?” I ask, referring to the complex on the east side of town that housed all the educational facilities (High School, Jr. High, Charter school and Library) and Zel nods.  It’s the other logical choice: schools often have high windows that are well above waist height, multiple levels, a high-volume sanitation system, and lots of land nearby in the form of sports fields, if you can get them fenced off.  Given that every school was turning into a mini-compound before the plague, it’s not a far-fetched idea that people would flock to these places.  Safety in numbers and all that.  It’s a quick walk toward the schools and we cross the fractured pavement with the ease of long practice.  I smell…something different as we approach and stop dead in my tracks as I realize, it’s wheat.

There are people here.

“Huh,” Zel grunts and astonished grunt and takes his eyes off the looming complex to glance at my wonder-filled expression before turning those ice-filled orbs back toward the compound.  There are layers of chain-link fence banded around a sizeable area—maybe a quarter of a mile, square—and you can see where the inhabitants reinforced what they already had.  School busses cross the roads, their tires deflated and all manner of immovable material shoved under them.  I’d be surprised if a cat could crawl through the jagged jumble beneath, so we slowly start to circle the area.

The fences are solid; most times I have to stand on my tip-toes to see over the mounded earth behind the fence line.  It’s a good strategy.  You pile the dirt high on the inside so you can leap over the fence if something goes sideways and you can patrol a perimeter from an elevated position without exposing yourself to a threat from below.  It’s the smells, though, that blow me away.  Not the arid stink of buildings slowly rotting, or the wet stench of human waste, but the clean, biting smell of ripening wheat baking under the late-summer sun.  It’s heady, intoxicating, and I’m going to blame it for why I didn’t notice the flashing in the high school’s second-story window just before a CRACK, CRACK and a spray of dirt shatter the afternoon’s tranquility.

Again, I find myself underneath Zel’s bulk before I can blink and get my mind in the game.  Once I do he rolls off of me and plasters his back to the chain-link & earthen fence.  Now their walls are shielding us, and I’m glad they’re so solid.  I tie a white handkerchief to a semi-straight bramble I pull out of the shubs and as I raise it to wave overhead I hear another CRACK, CRACK before the whole thing is torn from my hands.

“Unfriendly,” Zel growls as he loosens his Envoy from one of the ties on his vest.  He flings it over the fence and within a minute CRACK, CRACK sounds again, this time accompanied by the sound of cracking plastic.  “Too bad,” he mutters, a feral glint in his eyes belying his words.  “Let’s go,” Zel says and, crouching, we make our way back toward the town.  I would prefer to make my escape not hunched over, but as long as they don’t come after us I won’t have hard feelings.

Later that night, shoved into the tree house that barely accommodates our things and Zel’s bulk, we plan our return trip.

“Same way?” I ask and he shakes his head, no.

“No idea where that herd shuffled off to,” Zel grunts and I nod my head, yeah, you’re right.  “What about this road leading east, out of town.”

 

“Leads into even MORE town,” I grumble as I tear into some miscellaneous animal jerky.  The people running the smokers weren’t being particular when they spiced the meat, and all I can taste is pickled jalapeno (which I hate) over a non-descript meat.  “But if we take it only half-way, then there’s a pretty prominent ravine which leads almost directly back to the railroad.

“Rough country,” Zel murmurs.

“Plenty of water,” I counter, knowing that an argument about resources will generally sway him.

“All right,” he leans out of the tree house for a moment before nodding to himself and turning off his flashlight.  “You first,” because there isn’t a lot of space and the little hovel provides some shelter, I don’t bother to kick off my boots and crawl in the sleeping bag but instead prop my legs across a pack, lean against the other, and pull the sleeping bag over me like a normal comforter.  Zel positions himself just inside the doorway, sprawled on his stomach as he surveys the trees around us, and I let the creaking and groaning of the wood lull me to sleep.

 

Halfway through the night, we switch.  At one point I’m afraid we’ll break the flimsy hut as we jockey for position, but Zel grabs a strong, stout branch and levers himself into the spot I just vacated.  I climb down and attend to my “needs” after surveying the landscape and letting my eyes clear—sleeping outdoors always makes my eyes feel grainy—before shimmying back up the tree to lie on the floor as Zel had.  At first light his eyes spring open and we eat what’s left of our ration packs: when we had to detour for the herd we knew we’d have to split our rations or we’d run out before we even got to our goal.  Even so, unless we decide to hunt or grub around in the mud, we’re on the Paleo diet (i.e. whatever we can strip from the scenery that won’t kill us or slow us down).  We make the ravine before midmorning and after a quick survey with our scopes we decide it looks safe enough to attempt.  I say “looks” because some zombies go into a virtual hibernation and the mud, dust, whatever sticks onto them when they stop moving.  So you walk along, pretty certain that it’s just you and the wilderness, when it gets a little more wild as something pops out of the ground, gagging and choking and making horrible, teeth shattering noises as it tries to devour you.  There’s not a lot you can do about these lurkers, so you always wear layers of clothing, good, stout boots and shoulder your way through it with a Blade at hand.

Now you might be wondering, why do I keep referring to it as a “Blade,” with capitals and everything?  Because it’s a tool that almost every successful survivor manages to either find or craft, but it basically boils down to a few primary characteristics:

1)      double sided metal blade, kept sharp enough to shave with

2)      long handle, usually around 40 inches in length (about the length of a baseball bat)

Some people get lucky and plunder a hardware/garden store which already has such an item labeled as “Kaiser Blade” or “Sling Blade” and some people work a machete into a bat and bind the whole lot with duct-tape and barbed wire (barbed wire doesn’t help against the undead, but it makes the living pause when they see it.)  Me?  I started out with a cheap, mall-kiosk quality “katana” which shattered after the second skull I hacked into and then I ran to that friendly place and snagged my Blade.  We’ve been through a lot, and even when I thought I’d lost it, my Blade is almost a boomerang for the number of times it’s returned to me.

When the sun manages to climb to its Zenith we stop to rest on a jumble of boulders.  A hawk cries and I follow its lazy circles through the sky as I chew on the last of my jerky.  Zel tries to hand me another gel but I shake my head; ever since the climb I haven’t exerted enough effort to warrant the use of another gel, and I hate how much saltier they taste after their expiration dates.

Climbing back to our feet, we agree to stop only when night falls and this time I set a pace brisk enough to have Zel grunting when he has to take big steps over obstacles I lightly vault.  In fact, I’m having so much fun that when the first rock goes zing’ing by my head I stop dead, wondering what just happened.

It’s a mistake; a huge mistake, I think as a resounding CRACK! rattles my skull and my knees collapse.

“EILIDH!” I hear Zel shout, then he growls, “Eili,” before I feel his fingers tearing my pack off my back.  My world’s gone black, though I can still feel the faint warmth of the afternoon sun on my face, and I’d panic, if I wasn’t rapidly losing warm blood down the back of my shirt.

Zel,” I whimper and a rough hand grips mine as he lays me flat out on the ground.

“I’ll find you,” he says, gruffly, and I can hear shouts in the distance.  Zombies don’t shout, I manage to think to myself before I try to shake him off and push to my feet, “No time for that,” Zel says, pushing me back down even as vertigo rises up to claim me.

If the brush across my forehead is his thumb or his lips, I can’t tell.

Then there is darkness.

 

Darkness, always darkness.  When the power gave out we just decided to huddle in our attic and ride it out.  The plague originally occurred in winter, and the nights were as long as the days while I hid in a tiny, cramped space with some neighbors while looters and zombies fought for supremacy.  First we ate all the food in my house—all of it, raw flour and dry rice and everything—then we made little expeditions to the other houses in the sub-division.  Mostly during the morning hours (no one was at their best in the morning, myself included) so that we wouldn’t stumble upon anyone in full-on attack mode. 

And then there was light; one of the raiding parties started torching houses and laughing as people fled them, screaming.  At the time I wondered why they didn’t just try to pull them down, but after I witnessed 2 raiders dragging a beheaded buddy out of a townhome three houses down I realized why.  Living people are dangerous and panicked people are stupid.  So they started burning our homes after they realized they’d been picked clean…I didn’t stay to watch.

It was sad, though, when the nice couple next door simply couldn’t convince their youngest to follow them quietly as the rest of us made a break for it.  If they lived or died, I have no idea, but law of averages says it didn’t go well for them.

Anyway, I wasn’t a leader so I followed as we darted across streets strewn with cars and garbage.  We holed up in a few fast-food joints and ate what we could (even preservatives don’t save everything, given enough time) and we lost another couple to food poisoning.  I warned them, Don’t eat anything from a can that’s deformed, but they didn’t listen and their screams attracted zombies from miles around while the rest of us ran as far as fast as our legs could carry us.  For a while I thought we could camp out in some undeveloped land nearby, but when the rains came I realized why no one had built there.  A little rowboat floated by, and when it passed beneath the tree I was clinging to I tried to jump down into it.

I missed, but the current caught me and rushed me downstream until I was so tired it was all I could do to gulp a breath, hold it as long as I could, and float down to the sea.  Tired, cold, wet and exhausted, I pulled myself onto a muddy shore—slicing myself on the razor sharp reeds that lined the bank—and collapsed in the first shelter I could find.

Why am I remembering this?  I manage to think, and I try to flex my fingers around my Blade.  My fist closes into a ball and I realize I’ve lost my Blade; fighting down panic, I manage to pry one eye open but the other seems fused shut.

Shh,” someone says in a soft, gentle voice, “ye’r aright now…”  Focusing my one good eye on the figure above me, I give my hips an experimental wiggle and hear the groaning of springs beneath me.  But my legs don’t move separately and my ankles ache fiercely and I know that I’m bound.

“Where am I?” I croak, trying to sound calm but instead just sounding pitiful.

“You’re at the Riviera,” my…host?...says, as if it’s the only named place remaining in the universe.  Maybe it is, in his universe; many survivors endure simply because they stay put.  Anywhere between five and fifteen miles becomes the sum of the world, and anyone who threatens it is dealt with.  Swiftly.  Severely.

“Where’s my stuff?”

“Safe,” he replies, and it is a he, the scraggly beard silhouetted by the candlelight tells me that much, even if my ears won’t stop ringing.  I try to lift my hands up to probe at the tenderness of my skull and find them bound to my waist.

“Why am I bound?” I ask, trying to sound indignant and not frightened.  Never frightened.  Frightened equals stupid equals dangerous, so if you find yourself in a situation like mine (and I pray that you never do) do not allow fear to enter your tone or your thoughts, or you will defeat yourself and your enemies will feast upon your flesh without even having to work for it.

“For your safety, and ours of course,” the man replies, tilting my head away from him and prodding at the knot on my skull.  My eyes water and my throat tightens so much my moan comes out as a squeak and he stops his preliminary ministrations.  “It’ll be a few days until that heals up enough so you can walk,” he murmurs and I snort.

“So how am I going to use the bathroom?”

“One of the girls will take care of you,” the man says as he wipes his hands on a cloth that reeks of astringent.  I’m guessing ethanol—it’s easy to make but highly flammable—and I file that bit away for future reference.  “I’ll send Hannah in to help you get comfortable.”

“When can I leave?” I ask as the door swings shut and I have to remind myself that grinding my teeth will just hurt me more since not a lot of dentists are still practicing, these days.  Working slowly, I try to wriggle my hands free but it’s futile.  Worse than futile, it hurts, and I stop short of drawing blood.

Situation: got hit by a rock and Zel took my gear and (hopefully) evaded capture.  Transportation: unknown—they might have vehicles or they might not—but either way I certainly don’t and I’m not even up to fighting strength when each head movement makes me want to barf.  Location: unknown—depending on what kind of transport they’re using, I could be hundreds of miles off course by now…but since we didn’t HEAR any motorized vehicles before the ambush I’ll have to assume they’re using something that’s NOT gas powered.  Inhabitants: men and women.  Well, 1 man and 1 woman for sure, but I’m guessing there’s more since this place “the Riviera” has a name and that means the encampment has enough locations to require distinguishers.  Okay, that’s something; most likely this is a medium to large encampment.

“Excuse me,” a woman whispers as she pushes the door open.  Her arms are piled high with linen and she has to push the door shut to avoid sloshing the basin on top over the fabric.  “I’m Hannah, it’s nice to meet you,” she says in a routine tone.  Hello, welcome to RESTAURANT, I’m so-and-so and I’ll be your server this evening, spins through my brain and I smile weakly.

“Hello Hannah,” I gasp, trying to fight past the nausea running laps through my head.  “What have you got there?”

“Some clean clothes and a wash-basin,” she replies, her eyes brightening for a moment before she notices I’m bound.  “I didn’t know they’d tied you up, I just heard you were really disoriented when they saved you.”  So…I’ve been ‘saved’ is it?  No one mentioned that clocking someone with a rock and abducting them counted as ‘saving’ but it’s best to play along for now.

“It was my fault,” I croak, trying to keep my voice low, “I have really bad nightmares and I might have lashed out when they woke me.”

“Oh,” Hannah says, smiling sweetly, “that makes sense.  When the Elders found me I hadn’t slept in days and had almost starved to death.”  The drawn, parchment-like texture of her skin speaks of malnourishment, but her sweet, docile acceptance of this situation makes me think she’s been here a long time.  “Well, Stephen says I’m to help you get clean and dressed, but that you’re not to leave the room or anything, all right?”

“Sure,” I say, whatever it takes to get these straps off of me.  “It’s for my health, after all.”

“That’s right,” Hannah beams, the relieved smile of someone who was expecting a difficult task and is relieved to find that it’s just another routine occurrence.  She loosens one strap and I don’t move.  She releases the restraints around my waist and remain as still as I can, it won’t do me any good to spook her now.  When she finally undoes the bindings around my ankles I carefully reach up to touch the back of my head and I almost black out as a wave of nausea crashes through my skull.  “Don’t do that,” she chides, clucking her tongue as if I’m a child, “you took a nasty hit out there.  You’re lucky the Elders found you when they did.”

“You must be very safe, if the Elders can go out into the wastelands to look for people like me,” I say through gritted teeth as Hannah helps me sit up.  I brace my arms against my knees and dry-heave before the spinning subsides and Hannah strides over to the pile of linens and basin of water as I get my breathing under control.

“We are,” she says, humming under her breath as she sets out different parcels of linen.  A sleeve here and a cuff there reveals a long tunic of some kind and some shapeless, baggy pants.  “Now take off those awful boots and let’s get you cleaned up.”

I comply, though I am loathe to have this girl fluttering over me like some mother-hen.  She helps give me a bath with damp cloths, instructing me to “tend to the necessaries,” with a blush.  Afterwards she hands me some underwear and again averts her eyes, so she doesn’t see my expression change from pleasant compliance to suspicious loathing and back as I band the just-too-small scraps of silk around myself.

No one uses silk underthings for everyday wear.  It’s not like silkworms are native here, and I’m not sure anyone stayed alive to cultivate them after the plague.  So it’s just about irreplaceable and highly coveted by the people in cities who have such a level of safety that they can worry about things like underwear showing under impractical garments, instead of people like myself who value function over anything else.  I ratchet up my estimation of this encampment; it must be a large, established place, and I worry even more since the map said nothing about this.

Are you angry because they lied, E? I ask myself and I smooth my face back into a pleasant expression, or are you angry because you thought that they wouldn’t?  I have trouble getting the tunic over my head and call for help and Hannah’s cool hands help smooth the off-white fabric over my body.  I manage to pull the pants up, but have no way to secure them and Hannah flushes when I ask her,

“Can I get my belt, or something?”

“No,” she mumbles, “not right now.”  Hannah bends down and scoops up my boots, rushing over to the door before I can protest.  “I’ll get you a better-fitting pair of pants soon.  We’ll have lunch up for you shortly.”  She closes the door behind herself taking the remains of her gear, all my clothes, and (worst yet) my boots with her and I hear a distinctive double-click of a deadbolt firmly engaging.

“Shit,” I mutter as I ease myself back down on the bed.  You’d better get me out of here, Zel, I think, not wanting to speak his name where anyone might hear before falling into a dark and dreamless sleep.

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