“June 17, 2042
Jesus, had a pretty eventful day today.
Met a group of Marines. They had a convoy moving through town, and all the noise brought out a goddamn Juggernaut. I’ve only seen those a couple of times. Nasty bastards. Ripped a marine in half right in front of me… I managed to take it down, but a large group of Pouncers were there too. One of them would’ve got me if not for Fenix.
After the fight, I decided I’d further push my luck and introduce myself. Commander is a Gunnery Sergeant Jackson. Seems like a good guy. Gave me some ammo and food in exchange for a truck to get his guys home. He said they have a safe place south of Pueblo, and invited me to join them there. But it just seems like trouble to me. Not that they’re bad guys, just… nowhere is really safe. More people means a larger target for the monsters AND the Raiders. If Jackson’s boys have set up here, then it’s likely that there’s a Raider presence nearby as well. One’s probably hunting the other, and I’d rather not be involved.
Didn’t do much scavenging today, but got a good haul from the convoy. Grenades always come in handy, and eating something that didn’t come out of a can will be a very welcome change of pace.
Anyway, we might have to be moving on soon. I’ve searched most of this town, and there’s not much left. There’s an old Dodge Ram I have working in the garage. I’ll probably load up what I have tomorrow and hit the few buildings I haven’t yet on the way out of town. Don’t know where we’ll go, but we’ll be fine. Maybe we’ll head West, into the Rockies.
I need some rest.
Joel awoke to his canine companion playfully growling and pawing at his leg.
“Alright, alright. I’m up,” he said, rubbing the sleep from his tired blue eyes. He noticed the sunlight was already pouring through the apartment window. His watch told him it was 9:17am.
“Jesus. Why’d you let me sleep so long Fenix?” Joel was met with a soft ruff in response. The previous days events had taken a toll on the survivor, and though he was still groggy, he got up and started sifting through their food stash. After looking through canned goods which consisted of beans, green beans, chicken, tuna, and some other assorted vegetables, he remembered the MREs he was gifted by Sergeant Jackson.
“Hey!” Joel said, notably excited. “Let’s eat something good for a change.” Fenix only panted, patiently waiting for his portion. Joel looked at the rations, reading their contents aloud for the dog who, if he did understand, likely didn’t care. “Ok, we got… cheese tortellini, jalapeño beef patty, meatballs, and brisket.” Fenix let out a low woof. “Yeah, I was thinkin’ brisket too,” Joel opened the brown plastic and readied the ration heater by pouring a little water into it.
When it was done, the two ate, Joel thoroughly enjoying the change in diet, while Fenix all but inhaled his share. It was a rare happy moment, and although only briefly, the weight of the past that haunted Joel was lifted.
“Alright buddy, we got a lot to do today,” Joel said, while wiping any remaining crumbs from his weathered face and beard. He strapped on the dogs backpack he had made by tying some canvas bags to a police K-9 harness. The two started loading up their few possessions and taking them to the truck.
Joel stood on the roof of the apartment complex with a map, planning the route they would take to hit the more profitable buildings on the way to the 287 south. Hardware stores were a good bet, as they were overlooked for basic medical supplies in the back. Pawn shops and pet stores were good too. Animal food could be eaten in a pinch, and sometimes you’d get lucky at the pawn shop and find some decent weapons. There was no pet store, far as Joel could tell, but there was a hardware store just a couple blocks away from a pawn shop on the way out. It was risky to make a run in a vehicle the day after a convoy led a Juggernaut and a bunch of Pouncers into town, but now was as good a time as any.
“Alright boy. I know where we’re going. Let’s saddle up,” Joel said to Fenix. The two made their way to the garage. A well maintained 1997 Dodge Ram diesel with a camper shell and a heavy-duty deer guard on the bumper sat loaded with the survivors supplies. The two got into the truck and Joel started her up, the twelve valve Cummins roaring to live. Although the forty-five year old truck was a classic, she was still in pristine condition. Joel had taken to calling her Delilah. He wasn’t sure why, but the old Dodge just looked like a Delilah, and the name had stuck. With their supplies loaded in the bed of the truck next to a few Jerry cans of fuel, and Fenix in the passenger seat, Joel said, “Mornin’ Delilah. Let’s get you some exercise,” he put the truck into 2nd gear, let off the clutch, and they were off.
“Let’s hope for better luck here,” said the wanderer as they pulled up to their second stop. The hardware store had mostly been a bust, with the exception of some expired Ibuprofen, and a hatchet. Now outside the pawn shop, Joel shut off the truck and got out with his backpack. The little shop was a mess, but didn’t appear to be completely looted. With the exception of the firearms counter of course. Joel entered the old shop saying, “Guard boy,” to Fenix. The dog obliged, and the aging survivor began searching for anything useful. He stepped through the aisles opposite the gun counter before he noticed a clothes rack. Upon inspection, he found a few flannel button ups his size, as well as a semi-worn leather coat. He put these in his pack. He then headed towards the empty gun cases, finding a small set of binoculars, a small LED lantern, and a pair of composite toe boots, which he immediately switched out with his old boots. As he walked around the empty cases, old, dried blood could be seen smearing the ground, with bloody footprints leading towards the back room. When Joel crouched to inspect closer, he noticed something underneath one of the displays. Bending down to see if it was worth taking, he pulled out the mysterious object, revealing a Glock 17.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Joel muttered to himself. “Guy must’ve dropped it when he got hit and ran…” Ejecting the magazine, he saw that it had ammo, with only a few rounds having been fired. Twelve remained of the seventeen bullet capacity. He slid the magazine back into place with a satisfying click. Joel didn’t have any extra 9mm ammunition, but as it was a common caliber, he was sure he could find some. Tucking the pistol in his belt, he noticed the footprints led to a roof access hatch in the back room.
“I’m gonna check out the roof, make sure we’re clear,” Fenix raised from his sitting position at hearing his partners voice. “You stay, guard the truck.” The canine sat back down, ears still perked as Joel climbed the ladder to the roof.
Once on the rooftop, the macabre prints led about halfway across the roof, then disappeared. “Screecher must have got him,” the survivor muttered to himself. “Poor b*****d.”
Joel pulled out his newly acquired binoculars and looked south. He could see the highway they would be taking, as well as the surrounding area. Then he saw something. A pack of four Humvees, spray painted black with the letters ISA painted in orange, were moving down the road. The Independent Survivors Army, or ISA, is what the Raiders called themselves. But everyone who crossed their paths knew what they really were. Thugs. Gangsters. Fear mongers.
“Raiders…” Joel muttered as he looked ahead to see where they were heading when he saw something else. A lone person wearing a motorcycle helmet was hiding behind a wrecked ambulance, waiting for the black convoy. “Oh no no no…” As he looked closer, he could barely make out what the person was holding. “Is that?… No… Don’t do it kid.” As Joel finished thinking aloud, the figure popped out from behind the overturned vehicle, aimed the XL79 grenade launcher, and fired. “Ah s**t…” The grenade shot toward the convoy, blowing up the lead hummer of the Raiders and causing them to stop. “Well, now you’ve done it,” the mysterious figure fired another grenade, this one hitting the second vehicle in linel, causing the cab of the Hummer to explode and engulf in flame. Joel then saw the person turn to flee, jumping on a motorcycle and taking off, the remaining Raiders immediately in pursuit. The wanderer turned and ran back to the hatch. Sliding down the ladder, he yelled to Fenix, “Come on boy! We gotta go!”
The dog stood and waited for Joel, who threw the backpack in the back of the truck while jumping in the driver seat. Fenix jumped in the passenger seat through the open window as Delilah fired up. “Haven’t seen anyone in months, now two f*****g days in a row with this s**t…” Joel muttered, putting the truck into gear and tore out towards the chase. If they hurried, they might catch them on the highway.
The Cummins roared as Delilah sped towards the on ramp of the 287 south. Joel had been muttering curses the entire way, damning the stupidity of the lone stranger to take on the Raiders, as well as damning his own stupidity to try and save him. Ahead he saw the motorcycle speeding past the on ramp with the Humvees close behind.
“Hold on Fenix!” Yelled Joel as he dropped a gear and took a sharp right onto the highway, the tires screeching in protest around the curve. The diesel dumped black smoke as it’s driver up-shifted, struggling to catch up to the pursuit. Knox pulled the Glock from his belt. They were about 100 feet behind the Raiders, but catching up. Joel’s heart began to race in anticipation of what was to come. He tried to stay away from the Raiders when he could, but he knew that if they caught the stranger, they would kill him slowly and painfully. Despite his best efforts to ignore that fact and leave well enough alone, he couldn’t let that happen.
As he closed in on the rear black Humvee, he saw one of the Raiders lean out of the window, looking back at him. He aimed a pistol at the truck and fired as Joel yelled, “Down Fenix!” the canine dropped into the foot compartment of the pickup as Joel ducked behind the console. Faint gunshots followed immediately by breaking glass could be heard over the wind of their high speed duel. The now pissed off driver of the Dodge moved the Glock to his left hand and leaned out of his own window. “Quit shooting my truck a*****e!” He yelled as he navigated the truck to the right to better see the raider and fired three rounds at him, who fired back, hitting the headrest where Joel’s head had been just seconds before. Joel took aim and fired a single shot, hitting the man just under his right eye. The former soldier slumped, still hanging halfway out of the window, crimson blood staining the side of the Hummer.
As Joel pushed the old Dodge harder to get alongside the rear vehicle, he could hear gunshots coming from the lead. He was running out of time. Joel put the pistol between the seats and pulled a grenade from his belt. Once the window of Delilah was alongside the Hummer, he could see inside. Only the driver remained, with the back of the truck full of supplies. The driver reached for his pistol. Joel regretfully made up his mind.
He pulled the pin on the grenade and started the timer, throwing the little ball of fiery shrapnel awkwardly from his window, over the dead body still hanging from the Hummer, and into the driving Raiders lap, before falling onto the floorboard. As the Raider panicked, the Humvee began to swerve and slow down. In the side mirror, Joel saw the former soldier open the driver side door and leap from the vehicle, rolling and tumbling painfully on the asphalt.
“What a waste…” he sighed, just before the grenade exploded, the fading echo heard over the sound of the roaring Diesel. The Humvee, as well as the supplies inside, were destroyed, their remains littering the highway.
Joel turned his attention to the lead Hummer, grabbing the Glock and assessing the situation. A Raider was leaning out the passenger window of the black transport, shooting at the helmeted motorcyclist. Upon seeing their comrades behind them no more, another member leaned out the back window with a M16A4 and took aim at the grey Dodge.
“Oh f**k you!” said Knox, swerving slightly to the right and lined up the sights of the Glock with the rear passenger side tire, firing the gun until the rubber exploded. The force of the exploding tire was enough to make the former soldier lose his balance and fall from the Humvee. Joel winced slightly as the large Dodge’s left tires finished off the man, his screaming cut short.
The Raider in the front had managed to stay in the Humvee, which was managing to maintain speed on the straightaway despite its lack of four tires, but he had dropped his rifle. As he pulled out his sidearm, Joel sped up to place Delilah between the Humvee and the bike. He heard two distinct thunks of bullets hitting the tailgate as he tried to get alongside the speeding motorcycle. When he finally had the rider by the passenger window, he yelled, “Get in the truck!” The stranger looked over and quite aggressively gave him the bird. Irritated, Joel yelled again, “YOU WANT TO LIVE? GET IN THE F*****G TRUCK!” The rider looked into the Dodge, looked back at their pursuers, then back to the truck again. “Fenix, in the back!” Joel commanded, which the dog complied with quickly. The stranger pulled the bike closer to the diesel as three more metallic thunks hit the back of it. Carefully but quickly, the rider brought up a leg and kicked off the motorcycle, jumping halfway into the window of the roaring truck. The bike laid over, spinning across the asphalt and getting run over by the pursuing vehicle. The Humvees right side was lifted into the air by the unexpected obstacle, and came crashing down hard, causing the black machine to swerve into the side railings before tipping onto its side, then the roof and sliding to a stop. Joel slowed the truck some, but continued forward. He looked to the stranger.
“What the hell were you thinking, taking on a group of Raiders by yourself you moron?!” Joel lectured. “Do you know what those psychos would’ve done to you?”
The stranger removed the helmet and loudly said, “Better than most a*****e! And I didn’t ask for your help!”
The voice surprised Joel into a dumb silence. He looked over to see the that the voice belonged to a young woman in her mid 20’s. She had black hair just past her shoulders, wild from being tucked into the helmet, and piercing green eyes that stared into him with a focused intensity.
“You’re…” Joel began.
“Yeah. I’m a girl. That a problem?” the stranger spat defensively.
“…not what I expected,” he finished.
The young woman glared at Joel a moment, before turning to the passenger mirror, sighing.
“…I loved that bike…” she turned again to face the man who had saved her. “I’m not some damsel in distress. Why’d you help me? Where’d you even come from?”
“I was passing by.”
“And why interfere?”
“Look, you needed help, I helped. I’m no fan of the Raiders either.”
“B******t,” the woman pulled a gun from her hip and pointed it at Joel. “What do you really want?”
At that moment, Fenix decided to poke his head out between the seats, growling at the new passenger. The riders eyes widened as she looked at the dog she had forgotten about.
“Down boy,” Joel said, unfazed by the gun in his face. “We’re good bud,” Fenix relaxed some, but kept his attention on the girl. “Look, keep the gun on me if it makes you feel better. I used to be a cop before all this,” comforted Joel. He gestured to the desolate road ahead as he spoke. “Guess I never lost the urge to help where I can,” the woman put her pistol away but eyed Joel suspiciously as he continued. “Listen kid…”
“I’m 25,” she interrupted, crossing her arms.
“Listen kid. That was reckless. Brave, but reckless. Are you trying to get yourself killed?” The girl remained silent as they drove, removing her small, lightweight pack and setting it on the floorboard at her feet.
After a few minutes of nothing but the sound of the diesel cruising down the empty highway, Joel spoke. “So… what’s your name?”
“Why do you care?” the woman responded, before sighing. “Sorry. Williams. Chloe Williams,” she responded, staring out the open passenger window. Turning to Joel, she asked, “You?”
“Joel Knox. And this is Fenix,” he said, gesturing to the dog who perked up at the mention of his name. Chloe tried to hide the smile that crossed her lips at the canine. She liked dogs, and the fact that her new aquaitence hadn’t eaten this one yet made her slightly more comfortable.
“Nice to meet you Fenix,” she said, scratching the shepherd behind his ears. “And Mr. Knox?”
“You owe me a bike.”
The trio had gotten off the 287 onto the 66 west when Joel noticed they were low on fuel. He noticed an abandoned orchard and pulled into the driveway, which was bordered by a white fence on either side.
“Why are we stopping?” Chloe asked, somewhat wary.
“Relax,” Joel said, shutting off the truck. “I’m sure we all need a bathroom break, stretch our legs, and I need to top off our fuel.”
The three wanderers dismounted the diesel and stretched, satisfying pops emanating from Joel’s lower back. “Ah… That’s the stuff,” he whispered to himself, and headed to the red, barn looking house. Finding it locked, Joel stepped back and prepared to kick the door in.
“WAIT, wait, wait…” came Chloe’s voice, approaching the door.
“What?” Replied Joel impatiently.
“Just wait,” Chloe pulled two paper clips from her pocket. One already bent into a tensioner, the other straightened with a curve on the end. “Picking the lock is much quieter. You don’t have to smash everything.” Within 30 seconds she had the door unlocked, flashed Joel a “told you so” look, and stepped inside.
The interior of the house was dusty, and appeared to be ransacked at first glance. The former cop followed Chloe into the living room, taking in the state of the place before saying, “Wow. Looks like no one’s actually been here since the owners left.”
“How do you figure? This place is a mess,” Chloe challenged.
“Well… Look at the drawers. Some are open, yeah, but others are shut, like they knew where everything was. Nothing is strewn about. Plus, none of the windows are broken and the door was locked. If we’re lucky, they packed in a hurry and left something behind for us. We should take a look around,” Joel concluded.
“Huh…” the girl replied. “You really were a cop, huh?”
“Detective, yeah,” the wanderer chuckled. “Seems like a lifetime ago.”
Chloe looked at Joel, and although she still didn’t trust him, she was starting to relax, just a little, around him. “I’m gonna find the bathroom,” she stated.
“Yep,” Knox said. “I’ll, uh, take a look around.”
Ms. Williams headed down the hall while Joel started looking around, pulling open the still closed drawers. Pens, paper, canning supplies. He took a couple of pens for his journal.
“Ya know, maybe we should stay here for the night,” came Chloe’s muffled voice from down the hall. “It’ll be getting dark soon.”
Joel looked out the window, and sure enough, the horizon glowed a bright orange. The creatures during the day were bad. The things that came out at night were worse. She was probably right. Joel began assessing the house. As he heard Chloe approaching from the hall, he said, “Let me ask you something. Why are you sticking with me? I know you don’t trust me. It seems like you’ve survived on your own for a while now. You know HOW to fight,” he looked over his shoulder at the girl before continuing, “even if you don’t know WHEN to pick ’em.” This got a wry smirk from Chloe. “So why haven’t you taken off?” Joel finished.
“Like I said earlier Mr. Knox,” the green eyed girl answered, circling around her rescuer to better see his face. “You owe me a bike,” then her demeanor changed slightly. She crossed her arms and shifted her weight to her hip, looking down slightly. “And… I owe you. Wether I like it or not, you saved my a*s, and I want… I need… to return the favor.”
Joel processed this, then looked to Chloe and said, “Alright. Help me get the stuff from the truck and we’ll set up camp. And just call me Joel please.”
With the doors locked, and the windows covered with blankets, the three survivors sat in the living room of their “camp.” Joel had fetched some water from the nearby lake and was boiling it to drink later. Fenix drank from a tin bowl, and Chloe sat opposite the two staring at the fire of the small camping stove.
Suddenly, a low growl broke the silence. Joel and Fenix looked to Chloe in unison, who stared back wide eyed and said, “I don’t suppose…”
“Here.” Joel interrupted, digging into a rucksack and pulling out one of the MRE’s, tossing it to Chloe. “Now you owe me two.”