Authors: James Hunt
Copyright 2015 All rights reserved worldwide. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, by any means without prior written permission, except for brief excerpts in reviews or analysis.
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Starvation has wreaked havoc on the United States, and the Soil Coalition’s fascist communities aren’t making the situation any better. Alex Grives is torn from his community by the Coalition’s founder, Gordon Reath, and blackmailed into locating the scientist who Gordon believes has found a cure for the damage done by GMO-24.
Alex is caught in the middle of life and death, feast and famine, and only he has the ability to change the fate of the entire country. There will be casualties, but the decision of who will fill the body bags rests with Alex.
Find out what happens next- Book 2 Available now- 80% Off Click Here --->
Table of Contents
The tracks in the grey ash were freshly indented. Alex ran his finger into the imprinted hooves of the game he was tracking. He adjusted the strap on his rifle, which smacked his hip when he squatted. He pinched some of the ash between his fingers and held it up above his head. He let it sift down, watching the wind carry it behind him. Alex brushed the rest off of his pant leg and stepped swiftly, continuing the hunt.
The barren, rolling hills ahead of Alex stretched for miles, and he’d lost count of the miles he’d already trekked. For the past year it had been difficult to find game, but the three-week dry spell was the longest since the soil crisis. The burn of fatigue in Alex’s legs and arms started to wear him down, but the growling empty pit in his stomach pushed him forward like a primal instinct. It was simple. If he didn’t eat, he would die.
The keen, incessant pain in Alex’s lower abdomen had dulled since the morning, but so had the sharpness of his mind. His body had grown accustomed to running on empty, but even this was pushing it too far. His concentration was waning. He reached around to his pack and grabbed a small wrap of dried meat. The flavorless protein stick snapped in half as Alex tore a piece off with his teeth. He wasn’t sure if the crunch in his jaw was from the stick or the breaking of his back molar. After a few more hard bites, he determined it was the former.
A slight breeze kicked up the ash, and it brushed against his already dirty pants and boots. For a moment his mind returned to the lush meadows where he used to hunt with his father during his childhood. But much like the once-fertile soil beneath him, the memories of his youth were now covered in a layer of dust, making it harder to see what life still lay underneath.
Alex pumped his legs up the crest of a hill, following the tracks. At the top the breeze shifted directions, sending a cool rush of air across his left cheek. If it continued that trend, his prey would smell him coming. He pulled the rifle’s scope to his left eye, a habit that his father had never been able to break him of. Traditionally, a person always used the eye of their dominant side to shoot, and since he was right-handed, he should have used his right eye. But it never felt comfortable for him. In his left eye, the target always seemed clearer.
The crosshairs of the scope fell between the hills on the horizon. The tracks were fresh. The deer couldn’t have been more than a couple hundred yards ahead of him. Alex was closing the gap. Then, in the dip between two hills, Alex could see the slow stumble of a buck trudging forward. He balanced the rifle in his hand as he slid down the mound of ash before him, triggering miniature landslides on his descent.
Much like Alex, the buck was in search of the same thing: food. Hardly any vegetation remained in the area. Everything was either dying or already dead. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw anything green, which he’d grown used to, but the one thing that he still hadn’t gotten over was the quiet.
The chirp of birds was mute. The buzz of insects had disappeared. The sway of grass and leaves blowing in the wind had decomposed. GMO-24 had done its work well, dismantling ecosystems and discoloring their world into a lifeless bowl of ash and dust. Now, the only sound was the hollow howl of the wind past his ears.
Heavy snorts and the stumbling of hooves grew louder as Alex stepped quietly around the base of the hill. The rifle was wedged snugly against his shoulder with his finger hovering over the trigger. He hugged the base of the hill, using as much of it as cover as he could. The flicker of a tail came into view, accompanied by more labored breathing. Adrenaline surged through him and replaced his road-weary fatigue.
The animal looked like it could be taken down by a stiff breeze. Its bones were pronounced along the legs and shoulders, looking as though they were trying to break out of the animal’s skin with each step. The rich brown color of its hide had faded to something akin to a ghostly pale. Its head was lowered as it continued its serpentine shuffle in search of greener pastures that Alex knew it would never find.
Alex brought the buck into his crosshairs, lining up the shot right at the base of the skull. He didn’t want to waste any meat by shooting the animal anywhere else. One shot. One kill. He exhaled slowly, quietly. The buck stumbled again. Alex realigned his shot. Another exhale.
Squeeze the trigger.
The gunshot thundered through the silence of the field. The shell ejected and buried itself next to Alex’s boot. The buck collapsed to its side, ending its journey and its pain. Alex knelt down by the buck and ran his fingers over the bumps and tags along the animal’s hide. Some parasitic disease had grabbed hold of it and was draining away what life it had left. Blood soaked the ground around the animal’s head, and Alex pulled the knife from his belt. Despite the animal’s thin frame, it was still too big to carry all the way back to the community in one piece.
The tip of the blade pierced the buck’s stomach, and Alex slid it all the way down its belly. Intestines and organs poured out, sending a rush of hot stink into the air around him. He worked swiftly, extracting what meat he could and packing it into his sack. Anything that could be eaten was taken, and he left what couldn’t to rot with the dead earth underneath.
Alex zipped up his pack and lugged it over his shoulder. It was at least thirty pounds heavier than when he left the community. His boots sank a little deeper into the ground from the extra weight, and he cursed the once-loved hilly terrain that now burdened him.
When he made it back to the top of the hill, he could see a single tree just to the north of him. Its branches twisted and jutted into the air, bare of any vegetation. The bark looked black and grey, almost completely blending into the earth surrounding it. Alex knew the tree had long since died, but there it remained. No doubt hollow and weak, it endured even through death.
Alex stood there transfixed, unaware of the amount of time that passed. The wind had now completely reversed its direction and brought with it the familiar stench of dirty flesh. Alex immediately jumped down the hill, the sound of gunfire blasting behind him.
Layers of ash and dirt caked his face and body. Alex kept his limbs tucked in tight as he tumbled down the hill. The moment his body came to a halt, he quickly aimed his rifle and fired toward the top of the hill, causing his two attackers to seek cover on the opposite side.
Bits of earth sprinkled from his eyelashes as he blinked, attempting to clear his vision. Alex peered into the scope, swinging his aim from the crest of the hill, then side to side, checking the perimeter. From what he could tell, there were only two of them.
“Put the rifle on the ground and come out with your hands in the air,” a man’s voice echoed from the other side of the hill.
“You have papers for that weapon?” Alex asked. “’Cause I have them for mine.”
“We don’t need papers to kill you, hunter! We have you outnumbered, so leave the meat and be on your way,” the second voice said.
Alex jumped to his feet, keeping the rifle tight against his shoulder and continuing his fluid scan of the area. He backpedaled and started to make his way around the left side of the hill, keeping quiet and being mindful of the wind.
“Last chance!” the first man’s voice yelled.
The moment Alex turned the corner and saw the first man on his back, he squeezed the trigger and sent a bullet through his temple. The shot sent a spray of blood across his partner’s face, which provoked a scream and immediate surrender.
“Please!” the second man said, thrusting his hands into the air as he lay on his back, digging his heels into the ground to push himself backwards. “Please! It was his idea. I d-didn’t even want to. C’mon, mister, don’t kill me, please!”
Alex kept his rifle up and then kicked the other guns out of reach once he was close enough. Both men were skeletons. Their flesh resembled the same hide as the deer and their hungry minds were propelled by the same infinite quest for food.
“Where’s your community?” Alex asked.
The skeleton twitched, its nerves overloaded with the rush of adrenaline that accompanied the barrel of a rifle being shoved in its face.
“Where is it?” Alex repeated, barking the words more harshly.
“W-we don’t have one. We’ve just been running across the states, trying to find any place that still had food left,” the skeleton answered.
If neither of the men had a community, then who knows how many others they had killed to feed themselves? With the confiscation of weapons by the Soil Coalition, the only members of communities that were allowed to have rifles were the designated hunters and the sentries stationed in each to maintain control over its members.
If the skeleton had any water left in him to form tears he would have, but the malnourished figure before Alex didn’t have any liquid to spare. “P-please, you don’t have t-to do thi-”
The bullet that cut him short sliced right between his eyes. What little brain matter the skeleton possessed oozed out of the back of its skull. Alex took stock of their weapons and patted them down for any other supplies or ammo. All they had between the two of them were the two rifles and the ragged, soiled clothes on their backs.
Alex grabbed both rifles and restarted his journey back to his community. The lone tree atop the hill in the north flashed in his peripheral view. He stopped again to look but quickly dismissed his glance and marched forward, gripping one rifle in each hand. The skeletons would be left to rot along with the deer carcass, and like the skeleton behind him, Alex had no tears to waste.
With the sun almost completely setting behind Alex, the tiny cluster of buildings in the distance signaled the final few hundred yards back into the community. But before he passed through the community’s checkpoint he made a detour to the dead forest.
Alex stepped over logs and crunched the smaller twigs under his feet. The dead cousins of the lone tree that he’d seen on his hunt were clustered together here in a single mass grave. Whatever life was abundant here had disappeared long ago, and with it the sustenance that Alex used to survive on. Now, he had to trek farther and farther away from the community in order to hunt what fresh game was still alive. And he wasn’t sure how much longer that was going to be.
He walked all the way through the forest to the other end and started digging at the base of the biggest tree trunk he could find. The goliath he had settled on was at least six feet wide, and despite having no nutrients left in the soil beneath its roots, it still gave a solid thud when Alex thumped the trunk with his knuckles. He tossed the two rifles in the hole and covered it up. He pulled his knife from his belt and carved two scratches into the bark.
Alex checked the perimeter of the forest before exiting, then headed down toward the cul-de-sac where the community’s citizens’ housing was located. He stopped at the back of one of the houses and knocked on the door. The door cracked open, and Alex was greeted with a sliver of Daniel Harper’s eye staring back at him.
“You alone?” Harper asked.
Alex pushed the door open and stepped inside. “No, I brought a few sentries with me.” Harper quickly shut and locked the door as Alex made his way to the kitchen. The counter rattled from the weight of the pack when Alex slung it off his shoulder. He unpacked a quarter of the meat and handed it to Harper.
“How far did you have to go this time?” Harper asked, grabbing a knife out of the sink.
“Why don’t you keep your utensils in drawers like normal people?” Alex asked, peering into the sink filled with knives, forks, and spoons.
“What? They’re clean. So how far?”
Harper almost dropped the deer meat onto the floor. “Are you serious?”
“I’ve got to get the rest of this to town before the sun goes down. The sentries are getting stricter with curfew.”
“All right. I’ll get this canned and handed out to everyone by tomorrow.”
“Tell everyone to be careful. We’re overdue for a blood sampling.”
“Will do. Thanks, Alex.”
Alex slipped out the back and headed toward the community’s official entrance, where he was greeted by the same thick-skulled, wide-jawed, mindless sentries every time he came back from a hunt. Each of them was weighed down with Kevlar and helmets and armed with fully automatic weapons, which thankfully hadn’t been fired in quite some time. And Alex wanted it to stay that way.
Alex extended his hunting papers, and the sentry ripped the pack off of Alex’s back and dumped the contents onto a makeshift table. The sentry’s partner then manhandled Alex in a pat-down.
The mechanical motions of the security check was a ritual he’d grown accustomed to. The time of his absence was recorded into the Soil Coalition database, the meat was weighed, the rifle was locked up, the hunting knife was seized, and the sentries checked every item he had to ensure nothing more nor less had been brought back with him.
The sentry shoved Alex’s pack and hunting papers into his chest with a force that made him stumble backwards. “Drop the meat off at the meal station and return to your home immediately.”
Alex’s boot sank deep into the community’s main street, which was nothing more than a long stretch of muddy filth. A few of the community members hurried over to Alex, their eyes glued to the pack of food on his back.
“Get anything, Alex?”
“Yeah, did you have any luck out there?”
“You were gone a long time.”
If Alex would let them, they would eat the deer meat in the back of his pack raw. The responsibility of providing fresh meat for the forty-plus community members rested on his shoulders, and even though the bodies of the people around him were thin, he still couldn’t help but feel their weight starting to wear him down.
“Tracked a buck north of here, just south of the Nebraska line,” Alex answered then leaned in close.
“Harper will be making some deliveries tomorrow.”
Their bony hands gripped Alex’s lean arms and shoulders. The thankfulness in their eyes and touch that helped fill him with purpose lingered on him until it was replaced by the forceful hands of the sentries at the meal station that seized every last ounce of meat, which would be distributed evenly to all communities across the state of Kansas. His community members would be lucky if they saw three pounds of that deer.
It was the Soil Coalition’s belief that each citizen had to contribute to the greater good of feeding the nation. The famine brought on by GMO-24 had taken the lives of over a third of the country’s population and decimated whatever soil its seeds found their roots in, leaving nothing but the dry ash that Alex had spent the past two days trekking through.
Aside from the meal station, the only other community buildings were the water unit, medical center, communication building, trade post, work station, the community hall, and the sentry housing. Each was constructed and maintained with the same care and efficiency of a tyrant keeping his people alive only to feed on them once he was hungry.
The only source of power a community had rested in its generators, which kept the lights on in the sentries’ quarters, refrigerated what food needed to remain cold, and provided any electricity needed to keep the community work stations operational. Aside from those three buildings, the rest of the community was living in the 1800s.
The leaning walls and sagging roofs of shacks mirrored the faces and bodies of everyone in town, most of whom were just getting out of the wax factory, scuttling back to their homes before curfew. Everyone wore the same mass-produced rags from some community in the west. Each community had a separate discipline, providing a desired product that was distributed to the rest of the Coalition. Their discipline was candles.
The skeletons that Alex passed walked with a limp and a hunch from the perpetual curl of their bodies clawing at the hunger in their stomachs. Movements were slow, groggy, disoriented. The hollowed eyes shielded minds too tired to think beyond the prospect of their next meal.
Between the narrow alleyways of the buildings that Alex passed on his way home, he could see the quick movements of a shadow. The shadow stayed in step with him, and when Alex stopped to tie the loose laces flopping around on the top of his boot, he heard the rapid succession of feet sprinting toward him.
“Got you!” Meeko yelled.
But before Meeko could pounce, Alex rolled forward, sending Meeko face-first into a pile of mud. The young boy lifted his face and wiped away the thick clumps of earth covering his eyes. Alex extended his hand to help him up. “If you’re going to surprise someone, kid, you need to make sure you make yourself known
you’ve gotten hold of them. Giving them time to move out of the way isn’t a smart call.”
got you,” Meeko replied.
“Almost doesn’t pay the bills, kid.”
Alex used what he determined was the cleanest part of his shirt to help wipe the mud from Meeko’s face to where the boy could at least see, and the two of them walked home. The little street rat was distributed to Alex’s community by the Soil Coalition when the communities were first established three years ago. Alex caught him trying to sneak an extra ration card out of a sentry’s pocket. He immediately liked the kid.
“So did you get anything?” Meeko asked.
“It’ll be venison for dinner tomorrow.”
“Deer, kid. It’s deer.”
The cul-de-sac where the community members lived were comprised of fifteen small two-bedroom homes. Each home housed no more than four individuals and no fewer than two. Some of them were families by blood, most by association.
Once Alex and Meeko made it to the top of the hill, Alex gave Meeko a playful shove, and the two stopped, both bending their knees slightly, each eyeing the center house with its two front windows shuttered closed.
“Same bet as last time?” Alex asked, his muscles twitching in anticipation for the race.
“Double or nothing,” Meeko answered.
“That’s bold. You think you have enough gas in the tank?”
“Eat my dust, old man!”
Dirt kicked up through the air as Meeko got the head start. The fatigue from earlier lifted as Alex chased him and caught up with Meeko halfway to the front door. He could feel Meeko’s small hands smack the side of his leg, attempting to push him off kilter, but Alex was too big for the boy.
The two were neck and neck down the final stretch, both reaching their hands out to touch the door handle first. Just before they reached the front steps, Alex took two leaping strides and beat Meeko by only a few feet.
The two bent over, panting, trying to catch their breath. Meeko threw a punch into Alex’s arm. “C’mon. Can’t you just let me win once?”
“What? You think I should be taking it easy on you? I’m doing you a favor.”
“How is beating me every time a favor?”
“Because when you do beat me, you’ll know that I didn’t let up. It’ll be more gratifying for you.”
Meeko rolled his eyes and twisted the doorknob. “It would be gratifying not to have to give you what chocolate I have left.”
“Hey. A bet’s a bet.”
Alex rested his pack against the wall next to the front door, and Meeko disappeared into his room. The light from the oil lamps in the house cast the front living room with an orange glow, which included Warren, who seemed to have become a growth on the chair he was always sitting in.
“How’d it go?” Warren asked, not looking up from the book he was reading.
Alex looked down the hallway to Meeko’s room, making sure he was still back there. He took a step onto the living room floor, and Warren dropped the book onto his lap with a smack. Alex froze.
“Really?” Warren asked.
“Shoes, Alex! How many times have I asked the two of you to take your boots off? It’s like living with farm animals.”
Pig noises squealed from Meeko’s room on cue.
“I will eat that boy,” Warren replied with raised eyebrows.
“I heard that!” Meeko said, his voice slightly muffled behind his closed bedroom door.
“I know!” Warren shouted back, returning to his book. “I don’t even know why you keep that punk around. He doesn’t do anything but make my life a living hell. The latrine sits right behind the house, so it’s bad enough I have to smell shit when I’m here, let alone hear the nonsense that comes out of that boy’s mouth.”
Alex tossed his boots next to his pack and headed into the kitchen. The cabinet Alex opened, just like the rest of the cabinets in the kitchen, was completely empty. But he reached over the second shelf along the side wall. His fingers wiggled a loosely fitted piece of wood on the back corner. Alex pulled the wood out with his fingertips and grabbed the key hiding behind it.
“C’mon,” Alex said. “It’s inventory time.”
Warren snapped the book shut and scooted off his chair. He pushed his glasses up to the top of his head then slammed the book into Alex’s chest, passing him on the way to the garage.
“Your willingness to help is always appreciated,” Alex said.