A man lay prone underneath a rust-spotted highway guard rail, obscured by tall brown grass. Below him, the road snaked down and continued toward the city in the distance. Through his rifle scope he observed two younger men, sitting on the lift gate of an old white pickup truck, blocking the road below. They were armed with assault rifles, and were smoking cigarettes, talking and laughing.
Also lying prone and nestled against him was a girl of ten or eleven years, watching the same scene through a pair of oversized binoculars.
“What do we see?” he asked her.
She hesitated a second.
The man on the left let his rifle rest on his lap as he lit the other man’s cigarette and spoke a few words.
“Two men.” She answered. “Armed with cheap civy M4’s. Clean and well-equipped. Most likely Dead World Republic.”
The man on the right laughed through the cigarette in his mouth.
“Why is that?” he replied
The man on the left laughed even harder.
“The cigarettes. They have cigarettes.”
“So what do we do?” he asked, looking away from his scope and at her for the first time.
It was the right answer, but he still didn’t like how quickly she said it.
“Shoot them?” he asked
The girl gave an exasperated sigh. “Kill them, I mean”
“And why do we kill them?”
“Because we don’t want to get robbed-raped-and-murdered.” She recited
“Alright then, girly. Go get Elly.”
“Can I use the M40 instead?”
The man sighed. “They’re only a hundred yards away, and we’re low on .308. Will you please just use Elly?”
The girl gave an exaggerated huff and looked over her shoulder at the truck housing their weapons and gear. ‘Elly’ was her boring old M4, sporting a sloppy pink and blue flower-pattern paint job she applied when she was 7; an ugly garish reminder of her childhood. The M40 bolt action sniper rifle belonged to Joe, but he had promised it would belong to her someday. She had recently become enamored with the rifle after watching Joe waste some bad guys with it a few weeks ago. She had big plans for ’Jessie’, as she had already named it. A nice grown-up conservative tan and green striped pattern, some real hardcore soldier shit.
“Hey! Jane! You fallin’ asleep on me? Go get Elly!”
“Fine, geez!” She crawled backwards until she was out of view and trotted out to the truck. Retrieving her weapon from underneath the seat where it had rolled. She jogged back out towards the rail, switching to a prone belly-crawl for the last ten yards. She pressed up against Joe the way she always did when they shot together, so they could feel each other’s breathing.
“Who do you want?” he asked as they both sighted in on the guards. “Beardy McBeard-Face or Stupid-Scarf Man?”
“I’ll take Scarfface.”
“Ooh, good one. Alright, here we go. Bottom of the third breath, you know the deal. Clean kill. Droppin’ fools.”
Three steady synched breaths later, both rifles popped in unison and the two young men dropped. The man with beard flopped back into the bed of the truck, lying still with his legs dangling off the end. The man with the scarf doubled over and fell off into the road, and could be heard screaming in pain.
“Oh, nice shot Annie-fucking-Oakley! I thought I said clean kill, not shoot the man in the gut so he can scream his lungs off for twenty minutes. And you wanted to use the M40.” He said loudly, breaking the pattern of tactical whispers they had been exchanging.
“I would have made the shot with the M40!” She yelled, drowning out the wounded man’s distant screaming. “This rusted ass garbage gun can’t shoot for junk! And it’s really windy right now and the sun was in my eyes!”
“The gun wouldn’t be rusted if you took better care of it! And the wind? Really? That’s what you’re gonna go with? You’re gonna tell me the wind made your shot go down? Is the goddamn wind blowing down today?”
“Whatever Joe shut up, I’ll take care of it.” She settled back down behind her sights.
“No, wait.” He said, putting his hand on her back “Anybody who could’ve heard him already has. Let’s go down there and talk to the man before he bleeds out, see what we can find out. Does he look like he has any fight left in him?” At this point Joe was standing up, while Jane still watched the scene from her scope.
“No I don’t think so; I think he’s pretty fucked up.”
The man named Juan, who was currently sitting against the tire of his assigned truck with a hole in his lung and a silly orange scarf around his neck had been happy to be assigned roadblock duty with his best friend, Mark. It was better than being stuck on guard with some idiot weirdo, or some asshole psycho. It was better than guarding the base, where all the self-important officers with nothing better to do spent their time bothering you. And it was definitely better than patrolling the streets waiting to get popped by some bored asshole for no reason or rushed and bitten by a stray Plago.
But now Mark was dead, graped by a bandit sniper. And he was lunger, taking shallow labored painful breaths. He felt like he was drinking through a cracked straw. Juan could almost laugh. ‘After all the shit I’ve been through’, he thought. ‘This is how it ends.’
Juan was afraid. He had said his last words to himself and prepared himself for death, but death didn’t come. Pain and fatigue came. He felt weary, and sick. He was covered in sweat and he wanted to throw-up. His body was ringing all of its’ natural alarms, all of which seemed to think more pain was the answer. He wished he could silence them. He considered lying down but he didn’t want to move. It hurt to breathe, and breathing was becoming harder. As he put more effort into breathing he put himself in more pain. He felt intense pressure in his chest and could hear a crackling noise every time he inhaled. The wound in his chest bled a little bit, frothy pink blood. He had a brief thought, ‘Dying is fucked up.’
A few minutes of trying to not move and keep his breathing steady later, a man and a little girl emerged from the tree-line in front of him. At once he recognized that they could either be the ones who had shot him and Mark, or two strangers who might save him. Juan had always been pessimistic though. He considered speaking, but figured there wouldn’t be much point, and too much pain.
The man looked cold and calm, the little girl was awkwardly hugging a rifle and looked wild eyed and nervous. Juan took a particularly painful breath that caused him to inhale sharply, which then caused him to choke on blood and then cough it back up furiously. He flopped down to the ground in pain. “Fuck it, man” he gasped out, surrendering his effort to minimize his pain through silence and stillness.
The man walked up to Juan and kicked his weapon, lying nearby, away. The little girl stayed near the edge of the road, staring.
“Don’t.” Juan gasped, “…Shoot.”
In his mind his thoughts were clear. He knew exactly what he wanted to say; that he hadn’t done anything to this man. He would ask the man if he really wanted to shoot him in front of his kid. He would ask the man to help him, offering all he owned for some medical attention; but at this point every shallow breath aged him a year, and every spoken word aged him five. He stared up at the man who was saying something. Juan couldn’t hear so well, it sounded like he was under water. Two breaths later Juan’s vision began to narrow and blur. In five breaths he had forgotten everything he had ever known. His seventh breath was his last.
It was dusk now. Joe was sitting on a fold-out chair in the middle the woods, leaning over a pile of twigs starting a fire with his lighter. Jane sat on the lift-bed of the truck nearby and was intently cleaning Elly, she had broken the weapon down into its smallest parts and was obsessing over each of them. Jane was normally lazy when it came to cleaning her weapons. She hadn’t said a word since the shooting, and Joe hadn’t pressed her.
With the fire started and their dinner cooking, he looked over his shoulder at her. She was using a small piece of cloth on a string to clean her barrel. She dropped the string through the barrel and used it to pull the cloth through. She had been doing this the last time he checked, a few minutes ago.
“Hey bud.” He called over his shoulder. “I think that barrel is clean. You wanna put the old girl back together and let her get some rest? Let’s watch a movie.”
She didn’t look up from her work.
“We can’t watch a movie.” She mumbled. “You said we didn’t have enough batteries last time.”
“I know what I said, but you were good today and I think we have-“
“No Joe! You said it!” She looked up sharply, and began to yell. “You said we didn’t have the batteries! You said I watched too many movies and we didn’t have enough batteries! And I wasn’t good today! I missed! I missed and you didn’t!” She went back to her cleaning.
“What!?…” she looked up, her face angry and determined. He had given her the opportunity to lash out and she was about to take it.
“You think I don’t get it?” He said gently, as he walked over to her, “You think it doesn’t mess with me the way it messes with you? Look at me…Janie…”
She dropped the barrel and looked up.
“He didn’t look like a bad-guy…” she said.
“No.” Joe replied, “He didn’t. He looked like a man dying.”
“But-“ She started.
“We both know what can happen at those checkpoints, Janie…” he interrupted. “You think I would ever take that chance with you?”
“I ju-“ she began.
Joe interrupted again, “And yeah- maybe he wasn’t a bad guy, and maybe he wasn’t going to do anything to us. But it would have been his job to take us to someone higher than him, because of what we have in our truck; and what about that guy? Would he have had the same innocent eyes? Would he let us go?”
Jane didn’t say anything, but prepared herself for a speech she had heard before.
“The way that we operate,” He continued, “Is the only reason we’re alive today. I honestly don’t care if that kid was a nice guy. To keep you safe I would kill a hundred nice and innocent honorable men. I wish things didn’t have to be this way, but they are! You deserve a better world, and I can never give that to you. I can keep you safe, though; and I swore I would do absolutely anything I had to…to keep you safe.”
Jane was silent.
“We got some good food, some ammo, and some fuel off that truck. We can afford to run the engine long enough to watch a movie, and I think we both earned it; Something funny.”
Jane fell asleep that night thinking of the looping radio broadcast that had brought them this close to the city.
“Citizen-survivors. The city has been secured. The Dead World Republic has taken the city back. We are rebuilding the world and securing the future. Come to the city, and rejoin civilization. The brave soldiers of the Republic have killed the Plagos and the bandits and created a foothold for peace and stability. Come to the city and help us rebuild.”
Joe had always said that the DWR was no better than the raping murdering bandits and crazies, but even he had been intrigued by the broadcast, based on the fact that it was coming from all the old FM stations that had once entertained the entire state. He told Jane that she had trained long enough and that they were ready to leave the bush. That was why they had packed up and headed toward the city.
Jane woke up. Joe was shaking her. It was still dark.
“Wha…what time is it?” she asked.
“It’s two.” Joe replied, “Get in the truck.”
Jane jumped up, noticed that their camp had been broken down, and that Joe was using his weird stressed out voice.
“Wait….” She said. “Why?”
“We’re going back.” He said, “This was a bad idea, we’re going back. We’re too close to the city and we have to leave now. You need more training.”
“No.” she said, waking up and realizing what was happening. “Joe, no.”
(After the compound has been taken, in the aftermath of the battle. Jane is sitting on a piece of rubble alone, and her right hand man Grizz, A large man with a giant beard comes walking up with a notebook. A flurry of activity can be seen happening inside the compound, trucks rolling in and people running around.)
Jane was sitting alone on a piece of rubble in the middle of all the activity, picking at her arm and watching her people settle into their new home: A massive enemy compound made up of many city blocks walled off by the DWR. The smell of burning bodies began to fill the air. She didn’t know what was more disturbing; how familiar the smell was to her at this point, or how much it always smelled somewhat like meat cooking; in a smoky, sweet kind of way.
She saw Grizz approaching. She had sent him out to find out how everyone was doing and to report back to her.
“All these fine people working their asses off, and I find our fearless leader sitting on hers; picking old shrapnel out of her arm. Don’t you have any new wounds to play with?”
“What do you have for me?” she asked.
“Where do I start…Let’s see…The assault teams are getting rest, and the civvies are settling in.”
“How about the wounded?” she suggested.
“Right. The medics set up an aid station in that hotel lobby over there. They were keeping everyone stabilized until the hospital truck arrived with the docs, and now they’ve taken over. Jake’s probably not going to make it and the docs say Emily and Rhino are both 50-50. I think they just wanted to get rid of me. Trip’s lost her leg. Bird and Sandman each lost an arm, one right from the elbow down and the other left all the way up.” He pointed to his own arms as he spoke.
“Which one was which?”
“Ahhh…” Grizz looked back at his paper, which he already knew didn’t say, and answered “I do not know, but I will find out.”
“Brick, Ginger, and Nora each lost their left eye, I don’t know how or fucking why, but that’s a thing…”
“Right…Loco says he can totally fly that attack chopper, says it was like the exact same one he used to fly or some shit. He’s flipping out about it, you know him. He says he wants to take you up for a ride, he knows you’ve never been up in one.”
“No, but I did shoot one down, and it was way too easy, so I think I’ll pass. Tell him I’m happy for him but that he needs to chill his beans for a bit. I’m not letting that thing leave the ground until I know it’s safe. Not gonna risk him or it. In the meantime he can go over every nut and bolt of the thing and make sure it’s ready when we need it. Tell him he can sit in the cockpit and make helicopter noises all he wants.”
“Oh yeah,” Grizz remembered. “For all the times that thing has chased us off and spooked us, the damn thing’s not even loaded, the rockets are like paper mache or some shit.”
“Are you serious?”
“I know, I was pissed. Remember that time we ran into the sewers to get away from it?”
“Yeah I remember that, I had to throw away my favorite fucking pants.”
“The weird part was that you kept that shirt…”
“The shirt was fine.” She said defensively. “I love that shirt”
“If you say so… I threw away all those clothes, and I shaved my beard…couldn’t stop smelling it…” He had a haunted look in his eyes.
“Yeah, because your dumb ass fell into the sewage face first.” She laughed.
“It wasn’t funny…You ever think about that sewage though?” He looked at her.
“Yeah Grizz, I think about that sewage all the time…” She answered sarcastically
“No for real though…It’s like…that’s all Old World sewage. Just a bunch of long dead people’s pissy-shit water…like…that stuff will be there forever. It will probably outlive us all…When will that shitty-piss water ever change into something else?”
She looked at him dead-faced. “I could sit here all day with you and philoso…philosophize? About Old World pissy-shit water or shitty-piss water or whatever-the-fuck; but let’s get some business done first.
“Right.” He looked back down at his list. “Uh…B-man has some prisoners locked up in a couple shipping containers; he made air holes and everything. He wants to know if he can keep them. Told him you would probably say no. Told him I’d ask you though. He said it wouldn’t be a problem feeding them, all the food we just got here.”
She thought for a second. “He can keep them for now; maybe we can use them as hostages or in an exchange or something.”
“Wow, didn’t expect that.”
“Let it never be said that your god is not a merciful god” she said dramatically, moving her hand in a botched catholic cross.
“Right.” Grizz wrote in his book.
She waited for him to finish. “Speaking of food, we need to start inventorying all of our new stuff. You know that one kid who always follows me around? The smart one? Andy.”
“You mean the one who’s totally in love with you?”
She laughed, “I think he can’t decide if he’s more afraid of me or more in love with me. Get him to inventory the food and weapons. Make a big deal out of it, like I’m entrusting him with this big thing. It’ll make his day.”
“Oh man…” she laughed.
“I was just thinking about how you fell in that sewage. You looked like a straight-up idiot.”
She started to laugh and suddenly winced, putting her hand on the side of her chest.
“Oh yeah.” This reminded him. “I meant to ask you how your ribs were. I saw you take that shot to your armor. YOU looked like a straight-up idiot. All inspiring and fierce, jumping out of that death-trap of a crater like, ‘Look at me, I’m Jane! Let’s go get these motherfuckers!” He started to laugh. “And then..” He laughed, “The second you jump up to lead the charge, ‘WHAM’ right back down on your ass while everyone runs ahead of you.”
“Still beat your fat ass up that wall though, didn’t I?” She retorted. “And” she added, “You got your mouth full pissy-shit shitty-piss water, and I got this bad-boy:”
She lifted up her shirt to reveal a massive purple and yellow bruise covering the better part of her chest.
“Disgusting.” He made a face, “Put that shit away.”
“Oh it’s not THAT bad.”
“I wasn’t talking about the bruise.”
“Oh fuck you.” She kicked at him and winced; he jumped out of the way. “I think I did fuck a rib though. Have to go see the docs when we’re done here.”
“Honestly though,” He laughed, “Do you ever NOT take a fucking hit, or get wounded? Not that it surprises me seeing as how you’re such a shitty fighter.”
“Oh I’m a shitty fighter? I’m surprised you somehow NEVER take a hit. If I were up against such a big-fat fucking slow-ass target, I would never miss. Plus you’re fucking dumb.” She did her best to suppress a smile. “What’s next?”
“Right. A bunch of little stuff. Judith wants to get the civvies settled in to the apartment buildings but we’re sweeping them first, and we’re mostly keeping the civvies near the gate until we’ve checked everything. Tearing down DWR flags, putting up ours. Taking care of the dead, burying ours and burning theirs. Our guys want to know if they should set up a permanent grave yard here. A lot of people think we might not be here long.”
“Go ahead and nip that shit in the bud. Tell them to start planting fucking crops, because this is home now and we aren’t going anywhere.” She said. “By the way do you know who that one surviving girl on Cricket’s machine gun team in the hotel was?”
“No but I can find out. You wanna thank her for lightin’ up those walls and saving us?”
She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I just need to talk with her. When we were getting murdered in that crater; I wanted to know when the machine gun team was gonna be set, so I hit them up on the radio. I guess there was more resistance in the hotel than we had anticipated. They were up high-up enough to wipe the walls, but her and Cricket were the only ones left alive. Cricket was fucked up though and she was putting pressure on his bleed. I sort of ordered her to get off him and start hitting those walls. Told her we were all gonna die if she didn’t.”
“Oh geez.” He replied. “I hope it wasn’t his-”
“Well I mean, not that I hope she’s dead.”
“Yeah. I know. It’s fucked up; just find out for me.”
“Right. Oh well this might help, it’s a list of all our dead. It’s not as bad as we thought it might be but that doesn’t make it any easier to look at.” He handed her a couple sheets of paper.
She took the papers but avoided looking directly at them.
“Oh yeah,” he added, “Jen and them did manage to get our people’s heads off those spikes before the bus with the kids rolled in, like you wanted. They’re burying them with our guys from the fight right now. So that’s good.”
She looked down at the list of real names mixed with earned nicknames.
“Thanks Grizz, you can go now.” She said “I’m crashing hard off the adrenaline; I’ll probably try to snatch a little sleep after I visit the wounded. Go deliver my words and get some rest yourself.”
He sensed her sudden change in mood. “Right.” He began to walk away.
“One more thing.” She called after him, he turned around. “I changed my mind about the prisoners; we can’t afford to feed them.”
In her bedroom of their mountain cabin, Jane was woken up by her beeping watch. 5:30, it was still dark outside.
Jane’s bed was nice, even by old world standards, and she didn’t want to leave it. The cabin itself was the product of a year and a half of hard work and love by Joe and her. They had found it, rebuilt parts of it, and furnished it with loot from supply excursions into the surrounding towns.
It was cold outside, and the cabin had no heat, but Jane was wrapped up in the finest down comforters and blankets money could have bought, and on top of that, a sentimental bear skin that she had taken all by herself.
Jane was 13 now. She loved the cabin. It was definitely better than the old campsite, sleeping on a cot in a musty old army tent, shivering and falling asleep with numb feet.
Most mornings she woke up happy. She and Joe had worked so hard, and been through so much, and now they were making a life. A real life. She loved training with Joe, blowing things up and playing war games with him. Going for long runs and learning to fight. Hunting, fishing, swimming and shooting. They had books on every subject she could care to learn about, and she devoured them all. They watched Old World movies together so she could see what had once been; she even told Joe that she would make a movie someday, the first New World movie, about a badass woman who saved the world. They were safe here, finally.
When she woke up with that attitude, as she did most days, she knew she would have a good day of training and schooling. That she and Joe would eat dinner at the table together, playfully insulting each other and having pun-battles. Joe would read to her or her to him, and maybe Joe would tell her an old story. She loved to hear Joe just talk about the Old World. Old World stories were usually prizes for good performance in training. She would sit wide eyed while he described his childhood trip to New York, or what it was like at a mall, or his own time in Army. Those days she would go to bed thankful. Thankful that she had Joe, and that Joe had made her strong. Thankful that she wasn’t a pile of bones on the side of the road.
Lately though, she would wake up feeling instantly lonely. It was just her and Joe, the same as it had always been, and she longed for social interaction. She wanted to tell people all of her stories. She wanted to impress others with her knowledge and strength. She wanted to help them.
Joe had taught her so many things besides soldiering; history, math, science, art, and philosophy. She had so much to say and so much to ask. She was strong, fast, and brave. She dedicated her days to honing her mind and body, and for what?
These mornings Jane would feel irritated at Joe’s humorous and fun approach to training, because people were dying out there. She wouldn’t talk during their meals. She would be ashamed for the both of them, for not fighting for the city full of what must be slaves and victims; for not fighting the bad guys. She would go to bed with her mind open to all kinds of things; running away, going into the city; meeting new people and becoming a champion of the innocent in a world ruled by murdering raping barbarians.
Joe had spent a lot of time cultivating her physically and mentally into a warrior, perhaps without thinking of the consequences. Jane was a warrior; she had killed men and women. She had killed them through subterfuge and in open battle. Warriors didn’t hide in cabins while the world rotted. Warriors stormed the beaches of Normandy to fight evil tyrants. Warriors froze together at Valley Forge for the freedom of their people. Warriors held the gates of Thermopylae against vast barbarian hordes. These kinds of stories had been her fairy tales as long as she could remember.
Warriors had causes. Warriors weren’t survivors.
She rolled out of bed, picked up her toothbrush and canteen and walked outside toward the lake through the backdoor in her room. Jane brushed her teeth in the pre-dawn gloom on her way to the outhouse, rinsing with the half frozen water in the canteen. It was getting colder, she thought; I’ll have to start keeping my canteen in bed with me. She regretted not putting on a jacket, so she rushed through her brushing and did her business in the outhouse and ran back into the cabin.
Joe was out early, like always, checking the nets and traps, and probably doing one of his OCD perimeter checks. She started a fire in the fireplace with a barbeque lighter, and put a kettle on for coffee. She looked at the big white dry-erase board in the living room. She always thought that it clashed with the opulence and decoration of the rest of the cabin. She had nothing to compare it too, but Joe had always said the cabin must have been owned by rich people.
The whiteboard laid out their schedule for the week. The entire thing was covered in both her writing and Joe’s. She had a pink marker and he had a green one.
She looked at today’s schedule one the board as she put on her shorts and running shoes.
Morning Exercise- 8 mile run.
Her legs were sore from yesterday’s training, but she could manage 8 miles. She existed in a constant state of soreness. She picked up her pink marker and started writing.
Training- Survival lvl 8 (cont.)- Getting used to eating bugs…NOT A GOOD THING JOE!
Schooling- Anatomy and Physiology-I already know all of this. Can we get more animals and do more surgery stuff at least?
She turned her attention to the next day.
TUESDAY: JANE’S DAY Hell yes bitch
Morning Exercise- Muy Thai
Training- Surgery (advanced amputation care and gut bleeds)
After that the week looked like this:
WED-THURS- Field trip/Supply Run CLEAN ELLYFINE GEEZ
FRIDAY: (Day Off as per ‘The Bet’) Yesssss…told you I could do it!
The board also contained a few other sections.
Jane’s Badass Goal of the Week: Catch a rabbit. Reward: Extra Jane’s Day next week. DONE SON!
Old World Comfort Goal- PHOTOGRAPHY!!! You’re probably gonna die of old age soon and I want pictures!
On the right side of the board in giant excited letters:
NEXT WEEK: WARLYMPICS- YEAR 3 aka Jane’s week-long and much needed lesson in humility. aka Jane literally makes Joe eat dirt like a schoolyard bully. aka Jane is revealed to be a delusional narcissist. aka Joe breaks his old man hip trying to keep up with the young beast Jane.
Jane had just added the last line. The Warlympics smack-talking would not end until the event was over, she knew.