Before Zoey’s mother died, she had always repeated three rules to her.
1: Always head north.
2: Don’t stay on the same path too long.
3: Travel alone.
There were of course, exceptions to the third rule, which is why it was only uttered occasionally. So far, they had kept Zoey alive. Kept her safe from the murderous madness of the infected. For how much longer, she couldn’t say. It sure hadn’t kept her mother alive for very long.
Of course, it wasn’t like she needed her mother. She could survive just fine on her own. After all, you learned, because you had to. You learned never to travel in a straight line, to throw off anyone following you. You learned not to raid from the corpses with the bruises of strangulation on their necks. You learned how to sharpen a simple stick into a spear and where exactly to aim in order to kill an attacker. You learned never to say too much. Any interaction with others should be brief, to the point, and then you should never talk to them again. It was survival, after all.
Zoey was walking through a thick, dry desert, following her mother’s rules and trying to stay hydrated with the little water she had left in the small canteen from her last raid. The air shook in waves from the heat as she trudged through the hot, golden sand. She supposed that without all the bodies strewn everywhere it would look somewhat nice. In fact, she always wanted to go camping in the desert. But deserts had snakes, which Jax was very allergic to, and her mother would never risk him getting bitten. Her mother was like that, paranoid, especially with Jax. Zoey supposed that was a part in his disappearance.
After a few hours, she passed by a body, one with a bright green suitcase. It was the rolling kind, with a retractable handle. The person who died here was trying to move somewhere else. Well, they hadn’t gotten very far. She bent down, checking the neck of the corpse. To her misfortune, there were purple bruises on it, as if two hands had been around it. Which, they had. An infected had killed this person, which meant that the body was infected as well. Raiding from this one would be too risky.
She supposed she should get moving. The bruises were fresh, which meant the infected was still around somewhere, if the disease hadn’t killed them yet. Slowly, she got up, tossing her pack over her shoulder, making sure to keep an eye on her surroundings at all times. You could never be too careful, after all. In an open desert such as this, ambush was always just around the corner.
So, she started north again, making sure not to walk in a straight path, and stepping lightly so the wind could easily blow away her footprints. She couldn’t be found, not yet. Not before she found Jax.
Her younger brother had disappeared a few months after the infection had begun. He was supposed to be going to a friend’s house for a few hours, but never returned home. When their mother called his friend’s parents, they said Jax had never even showed up at their house at all. This, of course, sent their mother into a panic. She was absolutely positive Jax had gone off and gotten killed. Zoey tried to tell her mother that that couldn’t be the case. That Jax had probably just gotten lost and was staying the night at one of the local homeless shelters. He was smart, she told her mother, he knows what to do in an emergency. But her mom had soon packed her bags, and so did Zoey, and they left to go find him.
That’s when those rules came to be. They kept Zoey and her mother alive out in the open, deserted land they had made their home.
Her mother had died a few weeks ago. Zoey had no idea how long she would last, but damn her if she was going to die without finding her brother.
Raiding was a dangerous life to pursue. There were too many things you had to be aware of, so many rules to follow. You had to be extra aware of the state of a body, just to be sure you weren’t raiding from an infected. If you used something they had touched, you had a very high chance of catching the disease, and that was a death sentence.
Zoey wandered the desert, the sun hot on her skin. This place was more barren than others. Usually there were bodies everywhere, like a trail of corpses leading to something less than favorable. But this desert was empty of any people, living or otherwise. The ones she did come across helped her none, as they had all ended up being corpses of the infected.
She sighed to herself. She needed to find either a suitable body or another raider to trade with soon. Her supplies were running out. Nobody could survive off of half a canteen of water and ten packs of saltine crackers for very long.
Soon enough, night fell. Luckily, Zoey had managed to find a large tree with a big enough hole in its trunk for her to barely squeeze into for the night. It wasn’t going to be comfortable, but what was she going to do about it? Quickly, she tied a rope around her pack, slinging it over a tree branch and pulling the bag into the air to prevent any animals from snooping around in it. She took the end of the rope and pinned it to the ground, driving a large, pointed tree limb into it. Finally, she curled into the hole in the tree, using her jacket as a blanket.
Surprisingly, it didn’t take long for her to fall asleep.
Jax wasn’t sure how long he’d been at the labor camp in Wisconsin. It had to have been a few weeks at least, maybe a month. He wasn’t sure why he stayed. THe place smelled of mildew, he wasn’t being paid, and all Ms. Harlett ever gave them to eat was bread and some fake cheese product. Although he supposed it beat staying outside where almost anything could happen to you.
His first day there, he had immediately been put on bullet making duty. It didn’t matter that he knew nothing about making bullets. They were low on bullet makers, Ms. Harlett said, so that’s what he was going to do.
He also didn’t know why they were making bullets. He knew that sometimes Hunters stopped at certain points to load up on ammo, but he had never seen any come to the Wisconsin labor camp. But he also didn’t ask.
He had been partnered with a girl named Wren. She didn’t talk much, except to tell him that he was putting too much powder in the shell, or that that bullet would never fly more than twenty feet the way he was making it. He didn’t like her very well, but he was stuck with her.
And, it seemed, today her complaining was at an all time high.
“You need to start making these bullets correctly,” she told him, “Our supply is running low, and Father needs to make sure all the Guardians have enough bullets to hold off an assault of the infected.”
He rolled his eyes as he capped the bullet he was making, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll just start making these things perfectly even though I’ve never made bullets before in my life and I currently have less than a month of experience.”
She glared at him. “This is a new age, Jax. Everyone needs to learn things like making weapons, or you will die at the hands of raiders, or get infected.”
“First of all, I know that. Second of all, you don’t get to call me Jax.”
“You want to take this up with Ms. Harlett? Or my father?”
“Not really, no.” he replied, “Oh, and your bullet is overflowing with powder.”
She cursed and stopped pouring the powder in. “Just keep making the bullets; rumor has it we’re going to be expecting guests today that will be buying our ammo. You’d better do a good job though; these guys are Hunters; not only that, they’re probably the best Hunters in the country--or what’s left of it.”
He rolled his eyes, but continued making the bullets. Best hunters in the country. That’s literally what every hunter ever says. But it’s never true, he thought. It was kind of like how Wren thought she was the best employee at the labor camp.
As he was thinking about this, the lights suddenly went out. “Dammit,” he cursed. He pulled out a small pocket flashlight and turned it on. It was dim, but at least he could see. But it was also difficult to make bullets with just one hand.
There was a commotion coming from outside; running footsteps heading for the main gate. Jax turned to look at the small window in the left corner of the room, the one that looked to the ground outside. Nothing.
He heard the unmistakable booming voice of Alpha, the head Guardian, calling out “Open the gate!”
The gate slowly groaned open, and what appeared to be a tank slowly rolled through it.
How the heck did they even get a tank to work? he wondered as the vehicle approached the building that had been turned into the labor camp.
The tank, which had been spray painted black and painted with symbols of infected getting killed by explosions and decapitation, rumbled to a halt. Seconds later, the top hatch opened, and a girl late in her teen years climbed out and jumped to the ground.
Alpha approached her cautiously. “I wasn’t expecting you. Where’s the one called Crosshairs?”
The girl blew a bubble from her bubble gum. “He’s down in the Wastelands, hunting for infected and searching for survivors.”
“Then why are you here, who are you?”
The girl smirked. “Name’s Princess, and I’m here to trade on behalf of Crosshairs.”
Alpha looked confused. “You know who he is?”
She blew another bubble. Smack! “Yeah, used to roll with him, until I decided to run solo right after I restored this war machine.. So, we gonna trade, or what? I’ve got things to do.”
Alpha apparently was satisfied. Plus, he probably didn’t want to lose a customer. “What do you have to trade?” he asked.
“Food and medical supplies in exchange for bullets.”
“Right this way then, madame,” he told her, leading her away.
Just then, Jax remembered that the power was out. “Well, this is great.” he muttered, staring at his unfinished bullet.
He listened as the footsteps got closer. Then the doors were thrown open, and Alpha entered, leading Princess behind him.
“We’ve got over 10,000 rounds of ammunition here, so browse around and take your pick of what you want. When you’ve made your purchases, return to your vehicle and we will continue the trade,” Alpha told her.
“I appreciate this...Alpha, was it? And Crosshairs will appreciate it too.”
Alpha nodded, and left her alone.
Jax sighed, still looking at his half completed bullet. “You got any string or anything?” he asked Wren, “I’m going to try and secure this flashlight somewhere high enough that we can see what we’re doing.”
“Does it look like I have string?” she snapped.
“Dunno. What does a person who has string look like?”
She scoffed. “You can’t possibly be this stupid.”
“Hey kids,” a voice spoke out of the darkness.
“...did you want to add on to that statement or?”
Princess came into view. “Nah, I just wanted to know where I can find . the 50 cal bullets. Also, when are these lights coming back on?”
“Storage closet in the back, and no idea.” Jax replied.
“Lead the way then, kid, you’re the one with the light and the knowledge where everything is.”
He stood up, leading her to the small closet in the back. He jiggled the door open, flipping on the small floor lamp that had been placed in there.
“New around here kid?” Princess asked.
“Yeah. Been here a month at most.”
“How’d you get here then? Car? Bus? Did Raiders sell you to this camp or something?”
“Bus. It was one of the last ones taking normal passengers, back when people were still pretending the world was normal. Got dropped off about a mile west of here and just kind of ended up being put to work.”
“That was back when the major cities were still putting up a fight, wasn’t it? Before they all got overrun and their Guardians slaughtered in the Great Purge.”
“Yep.” he replied.
She looked him up and down. “You have a southern look to you. Lived down in the Wastelands, am I right?”
“South Carolina,” he said.
“You also have the look of someone that’s lost people, which I guess everyone has. Any family out there?”
He nodded. “My mom and older sister. Least I hope they’re still alive.”
Princess nodded and grabbed a fistful of bullets. “Tell you what kid; I’m planning on heading down to that area to meet up with a friend of mine. If you give me your name, I’ll ask around and see if I can find something out.”
“It’s Jaxon, but most people call me Jax.” he said, “you want a box for those?”
“Nah, I can just carry these. Thanks for your help kid; I’ll, ah, see you around.”
She patted him on the shoulder and left him there.
He walked back to his spot next to Wren. By then, the lights had turned back on, and everyone was back to working.
“Bout time you got back,” Wren told him, “Help me fill up these bullets with more powder.”
He grabbed an empty shell, dumping a small amount of powder into it before capping it and placing it next to the others. “Not my fault that chick was so talkative,” he remarked.
“Hey, as far as I can tell, she travels alone. Who else is she going to talk to, the infected?”
They then heard voices coming from outside the window.
“The fruit is a little bruised, and the water is warm, but it’s all good stuff,” Princess was saying.
“A pleasure doing buisness with you, Princess,” Alpha told her.
Princess nodded and got back onto her tank. “Oh, I almost forgot,” she suddenly said, “I’ve spoken with a few raiders recently, and there appears to be quite a few infected in the area. I suggest you be on your toes, unless you want to get infected yourselves.”
With that, she gave them all a snappy salute, got into her tank, and began to drive it away.