After stumbling through several fields, we finally located a public footpath which in turn led us to a road which, when we followed it, came out on the road I had been travelling on when I had been kidnapped by the bunker people. Cat followed me, staying silent and looking nervously around her for any sign of zombie activity. I wasn’t expecting to see any – mostly, they stayed near towns and in large groups. The loners had been picked off long ago.
After checking the map, I decided that it was probably best to start at the nearest town, which was, happily, the same place I had initially wanted to visit, ‘New Beginnings’. But first, there was a trading post nearby which would likely have some gossip for me to follow. I also marked on the position of the bunker entrance on my map, since that in itself would barter for a lot.
“Fen…” said Cat, raising a trembling finger.
I looked over, before seeing it was a lone zombie, missing its lower jaw and nearly rotten through.
“Just shoot it” I told her. “It’s only dangerous if you let it get close enough”
She nodded, raised the assault rifle to her shoulder and fired. The retort was louder than I expected but I was pleasantly surprised to see that Cat clearly knew how to use the weapon, and even more surprised when I saw the zombie fall to the ground with a hole through its face. Seemed the girl wasn’t quite as useless as I first thought.
“Oh” she said, her voice weak. Obviously she didn’t like shooting things. Which was a great pity, considering what lay ahead.
“So, anyway,” I began, “first thing you need to know is that you cannot rely on me. I’m notoriously untrustworthy and generally bad at keeping anyone other than myself alive. So I’m going to tell you some stuff which is likely to help you”
She nodded, like she’d expected nothing less.
“First up, zombies only die from having their brains destroyed. I know it’s basic but it’s key. Also, zombies tend to hang around in groups and are attracted to light, movement and sound. They can’t smell you, due to being so smelly themselves. Some are faster than others, given their rate of decomposition. Recent zombies have almost as good motor functions as the victim who was turned, whereas mostly decomposed ones have a hard time staying upright. The only kind mainly left by now are the severely decomposed ones. One bite or scratch is all it takes to be turned, so make sure to cover as much skin as you can.”
Cat soaked this up. “Okay, I understand zombies”
“Humans are a lot harder. There are, however, some basic assumptions you can make. Just assume everyone is crazy, untrustworthy and lying and you’ll get along fine. You need to understand the harsh reality. There is nothing to stop me from ditching you right now and disappearing into the blue but my honour and the fact that I like you. Most people you meet have neither of those things. Also, you will run into some particularly nasty bastards who take advantage of the fact that there are no rules anymore. You name the crime, someone’s done it. This includes particularly nasty stuff like crucifixion, torture and maiming”
“Please don’t leave” said Cat.
Aww… that was sweet.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to help you find your brother. Whether or not I help you get back after you find him depends on how I feel at the time. And on top of that please bear in mind I have a lot of enemies and could be brutally murdered at any time”
“Yup. Trust no one, not even me”
“Got it” she replied.
“Anyway,” I said, “we need to take a right turn here. There’s a trading post which might have some information”
In truth, I had no idea if there still was. The map I had was a copy of several other ones I had bartered at other trading posts, and some of the information had proved less than accurate in the past.
Luckily, it seemed the map was right this time. The trading post itself had once been a hotel, but now the ground floor was almost entirely gone, leaving the building looking like it was standing on stilts. This was not uncommon – being up in the air was an extremely effective way of avoiding the undead. The building was ringed by a nasty barbed wire fence littered with rotting corpses, heads smashed in. After walking around the edge, we found the entrance, a simple pull gate, which zombies could not open due to only being able to push.
“Hello!” I called, hoping whoever was running the post would hear me.
The people who run trading posts are hard as nails. They have to survive long periods of time between visitors and have to forage and grow their own food. Not to mention defend against zombies. A great many of them are ex-military, but most are just ordinary people who do not like the lifestyle that comes with living in a town.
The man who came towards us definitely looked ex-military. He was broad and muscled, with a tattoo of a skull and dice on his neck. He wore tight, black clothing and carried a large woodcutter’s axe across his back. He had the posture of a man who was used to fighting.
“I’m Abel. Welcome to the Trader’s Motel” he welcomed, in a gruff voice. “What are you looking to trade?”
“Oh, this and that” I replied, turning slightly so he could see my backpack.
Abel whistled as he saw the rocket launcher.
“Well, I’ll be damned. I’m not sure I have anything quite up to your price range”
“Don’t worry,” I assured him, “information has no set price. I’m Fen, and this is Cat”
I noticed that Cat made no move to correct my use of the nickname I had given her. Hey, maybe she didn’t mind me so much after all.
“Huh, she doesn’t look like she’s from around here. Where did you pick her up?” asked Abel, looking at Cat.
“A few days back” I lied. “She needed my help with a job, so I agreed to help her cross the wasteland without dying”
The big man nodded, understandingly.
Abel led us to the Motel building, where a ladder had been propped against the side for access to the building. Obediently, we followed. Inside, the building still had much of its original decorations and I assumed that with all the space, Abel mostly sold nights in his safe house. How amusing, a hotel converted into a hotel. He led us down the corridor a little way and then into one of the guest rooms, which had the walls to the next three rooms knocked in to create a large hallway. Displayed on tables to either side were the various wares he sold, with notes beside each item saying the quantity he had available. I noticed he had several guns for sale, but no ammunition.
Cat seemed quite taken aback at the room, with all these survival necessities neatly organised and displayed.
“This is a trading room” I told her. “It’s where people swap items they have acquired for other items”
“You said you were looking for information?” said Abel. “Exactly what kind did you have in mind, and what can you offer in return?”
I unzipped my bag and took out a cartridge of 9mm bullets, laying it on one of the tables.
“That’s what I’m offering. For such a price, I imagine you will tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
“Naturally” the man replied.
“Good” I said. “Cat, tell him what you’re looking for”
The girl cleared her throat.
“I am looking for James Hemmingway, my brother”
Oh. Her brother was the same James who had been my jailer? That asshole? Wow, small world.
Abel nodded. “I think I have some information well worth your payment. Two days ago, a group of slavers showed up on my doorstep offering to sell humans. Naturally, I told them I did not trade in lives, and instead they simply bartered some food from me and went on their way. One of the people they were trying to sell, five in all, they called James. He was relatively big and had the same colour hair as you.”
“That’s him” said Cat.
I honestly hadn’t expected it to be this easy. When I had first accepted Cat’s offer, I had assumed her brother was either dead or turned and planned to tell her as such after we had searched for a bit. But now it turned out her brother was very much alive and less than two days away.
“Where were the slavers headed?” I asked.
Abel looked down at the cartridge for a second, before back up at me. “The nearest town, ‘New Beginnings’.”
Luck seemed to be shining on me.
“Thank you for your generosity” I said. “The bullets are all yours”
Able took the cartridge from where I had placed it and inspected it.
“Is there anything else I can offer you?” he asked.
“No, we must be on our way.”
After all, Cat’s brother wasn’t going to save himself.