With the knowledge that her brother was still alive, Cat seemed to be desperate to reach him, setting a punishing pace. Not that I particularly minded, since we had to reach ‘New Beginnings’ by sundown anyway, but my pack was heavy and I really felt I needed a rest.
Cat, with her naïve unpreparedness, had forgotten half the equipment she should have taken for an expedition across the wasteland and so had a far lighter load. It was really getting to me, having this girl dancing in circles around me and trying to hurry me along.
“For the last time, I’m not going any faster” I told her.
“But my brother-”
“The slavers will keep him alive until they can sell him. He has nothing to worry about”
“But they might-”
“Just shut up, and let’s walk, okay! Please” I snapped.
Cat’s face fell and she slowed, staring bitterly at the ground. We had reached the motorway a few hours ago and already we were seeing signs of abandoned ruins on either side. The motorway itself rose up in concrete pillars as we entered the tangled remains of a city and so was mercifully hoard-free. The only zombies we saw were the occasional loner or pair, which either I or Cat would take in turns to shoot.
Unfortunately, we were entering a city and cities were an absolute nightmare. With hundreds of hiding places, back alleys and underground sewer systems, zombies could appear literally out of nowhere and if you did not know the city well it was very easy to be trapped in a dead end and slaughtered. Naturally, I didn’t tell Cat this. The last thing I needed was for her to start worrying even more.
I checked the map once more, making sure we were still headed in the right direction. The dot which represented the city was placed firmly to the left of the motorway, but less than a mile away, and so should be easily visible from our vantage point. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about spotting it.
‘New Beginnings’ was the most advanced town I had ever seen. It must have been several blocks in diameter and the whole thing was surrounded by a giant concrete wall, of the kind that reminded me of a dam. Around the outside the houses were mostly blackened and burnt out, as if to make a defensive perimeter. I could make out the remains of a previous wall around the concrete one, which must have been used in the construction of it. Speaking of which, this was the most impressive post-apocalypse engineering feat I had ever seen, so good on the people of ‘New Beginnings’.
The top of the wall was a raised walkway and six ‘towers’ of concrete which were slightly higher. On each one of these was a ballista which put my Mangler to shame. So much for biggest crossbow in Britain, these ones won that hands down. They must have been the size of a car and each one must have needed a whole team to operate. The only projectile I could think of that was worth such effort against zombies was either a fire or shrapnel one, so that also explained all the burnt-out buildings.
The town was situated two blocks from the motorway, but was conveniently located right next to an exit, so that we could easily reach it. If we could avoid the large crowds of zombies scrabbling at the concrete, we could be at the town in less than an hour.
“There it is” I told Cat, pointing.
“Wow” she said. “It’s incredible”
“Isn’t it just. Come on, let’s go and pay it a visit.”
It took us about half an hour to exit the motorway and enter the city proper. Now that I had buildings on either side of me, I had to be careful not to get disorientated as I led us through the city. Twice, we had to flee from shambling hoards and once I almost got us caught in a dead end. Luckily, Cat had spotted a metal fire escape just in time.
Eventually we reached the entrance of the city, a gothic archway of concrete with two huge gates and a small door to one side. We had to kill three zombies that were hammering on the wood before I knocked at the door. A small section of wood panelling slid back to reveal a bony face.
“Please tell me your names and why you seek entry to the city of ‘New Beginnings’” the old man asked.
“Fen and Cat, and we come to trade” I told him.
Cat seemed about to protest and tell him why we were really here, but I shot her a look to tell her that would be an exceptionally bad idea. The old man noted our names on a piece of paper before unlatching the door so we could enter. He made no move to take our weapons, so obviously they were perfectly legal here.
“Read this” he said, passing us both a neatly printed sheet which said ‘town rules’.
They were mostly the standard sort of thing – no murder, no stealing, and no trying to take over the town. There were, however, a couple of interesting ones. For one thing, New Beginnings had its own currency, a derivative of the pound called the NB Pound. Apparently these were used rather than bartering in the town, so I would have to sell some items to get some. Slavery was perfectly legal, as it was in many other towns nowadays. That explained why the slavers had come here. The other interesting thing was that smoking was illegal and punishable by imprisonment. Obviously, whoever was in charge had hated cigarettes in their previous life.
I nodded and handed the sheets back, telling the man we understood and would not break them. He then opened the door at the other end of his little guard’s office and we were in the town proper. All in all, it was very much like a suburb from before the zombie invasion, except everyone carried weapons. There was an atmosphere of almost tangible hope in the air that maybe, just maybe, the people of ‘New Beginnings’ and their children would be okay forevermore.
It was a surprisingly nice feeling, hope. Not one I felt very often. In the few cases I had seen it, it usually ended with screaming and blood. You’re probably beginning to understand why I’m such a nihilistic bastard by now.
As I assessed my surroundings, I thought of a plan of action. Step one, get some currency. Step two, buy a bed for the night. Step three, go to the slave market and find out where James was. Step four, free him. Step five, get him and Cat out of here. Easy. Time for step one.
We were standing on what appeared to be the main street of New Beginnings, a road that ran directly down the centre of the town and terminating in a large, modern building with ‘town hall’ written on the front in big green letters. In front of that was a flagpole and a small area which I assumed from the small shops set up there was the town square. The flag was a white background with a line of green triangles along the bottom and a quarter-circle of yellow in the top right hand corner. It took me a moment to recognise that it was supposed to be the sun shining on grass. How lovely.
“Come on, Cat, we need to get some money and then find somewhere to sleep. It’s getting dark”
“Right” she said.
I’m not sure quite what was going through her head but she was looking around her almost … wistfully, if that made sense. Maybe she was thinking back to the time before the zombies, which generally wasn’t good for your sanity.
I decided to try the left hand side first. There were a couple of shops, a pub and a B&B but I could see no sign of any bartering store. Turned out that that was because the bartering store was behind me, right across from the entrance we had come in from. It was a low one-storey brick building which looked to have originally been part of a petrol station, but all the rest of it, including the fuel pumps, were nowhere to be seen. As we walked in, the woman behind the counter gave us a friendly smile.
“I haven’t seen you before” she remarked. “Just arrived from out of town, have you?”
I nodded. “Yes, we have. Seems we need some money to buy anything here. What kind of things do you buy?”
“Oh, anything useful” she replied. “I’m afraid pretty things like necklaces and jewellery are out. I’m supposed to take food, weapons, water and equipment. Although I personally pay quite a lot for batteries”
“What about this lot?” I asked, placing my backpack down on the counter.
“You have got to be shitting me” she said, staring at the rocket launcher.
“Sorry,” I laughed, “but that particular item isn’t for sale. However this is”
I held up one of the handguns, before placing it and two boxes of ammunition on the counter.
“Given how rare this stuff is, I expect a decent amount of money for it” I warned.
“Don’t worry, I’d give you half my store for this. You’re going to be a very rich young man”
Cat’s eyes flickered down to the assault rifle she was holding, finally realising why I had been so eager to loot stuff from her armoury. The woman at the counter handed me five thick bundles of notes, of which I passed one to Cat, peeled off a couple to use and put the rest in my bag. Then, transaction complete, I bade the woman good day and we left.
“There are no guns out here, are there?” said Cat. “That’s why you tried to take half the armoury.”
“Yes” I said. “Well, it’s not that there are no guns, it’s just that there is no ammunition. Five years of fighting the undead will do that”
“I see.” She lapsed into silence.
The sun was now fully beginning to set, giving the clouds a pale pinkish tint. I had no doubt the view from the top of the wall was amazing, as I could see many groups of people on the walkway, looking over. But for now, I had better things to do.
The B&B was empty when we walked in, but a small man with a wispy beard appeared from the back room when I called.
“How may I help you fine young persons?” he asked, giving a look towards Cat that made me uncomfortable.
“A two-person bedroom please” I said, putting a couple of notes on the counter.
“Right you are” said the man, reaching under the counter and handing me a small metal key with a tag attached to it. “Room 7, just up the hall to your right”
I took it and followed the corridor as the man instructed, finding the room. However, I had expected two beds, rather than one. Cat gave me a look that said ‘don’t even think about it’ and I ended up sleeping on the floor, using my backpack as a pillow. I guess I should have probably specified better when ordering the room, but oh well. At least Cat seemed happy, stretched out like, well, a cat and fast asleep. After a couple of minutes, I closed my eyes, ignoring the aches and pains of my body and drifting off into a deep slumber.