The smell was what got to her first. The smell of burning flesh. The slow deterioration of cells that smelt of death. But they weren’t dead. Well, not physically anyway.
She watched from the safety of her little rooftop alcove as hordes of people walked by. But they weren’t fully people. Not anymore. They were more like a walking Shell. A memory. A memory of what humanity used to be, of what it was now.
It had been nearly a year since it happened. Nearly a year since life as she knew it ended. Nearly a year since she found Constance. And nearly a year since she lost everything.
Well... almost everything.
Deciding that the coast wouldn’t be clear for a while, she put down her rifle and decided to get some well-deserved rest. She removed her rifle from its slot in the wall, folding in the stand simultaneously. She was about to cover up, retreat to her bike and manpower it back to “The Grey Fort”, but at the last second, something caught her eye. From the corner of her eye, she caught a blur of movement.
A person, younger than the zombified adults were, crept past sticking as close to the shadows as possible. They got close to the automatic doors on the local shopping centre—wide open, thanks to the near-constant stream of Shells—then glanced back to the street, to check for prying eyes, and tripped over a pile of junk that Lori’s younger half-brother Alec had discarded the last time the rag-tag team of three had been there.
Constance, her best-and-only-friend-excluding-her-half-brother-and-budding-mechanical-genius had wanted to add the scrap metal to her growing collection of ‘junk’, but the siblings had vetoed that idea nearly instantly. Constance had an ever-growing collection that nearly took up a whole floor of The Grey Fort.
The noise caught the unwanted attention of passing by Shells. The person, who appeared to be a few years older than her, looked up with fear evident in the lines of their face, in the expression chiselled on. Relying on pure instinct alone, she assembled her rifle and got it into position in record time. In a spur-of-the-moment act, she started firing at the Shells, picking them off one by one. When there seemed to no longer be any Shells consciously present, she made her way down from the building’s roof and crept her way through the passed-out pile of Shells and up to the stranger.
They hadn’t noticed her presence as when she called out a falsely cheery, “Hello!” they spun around chaotically and expelled the most high-pitched screech she had ever heard.
She was just as startled by the way that the Stranger instantly composed themselves and relaxed as they recognised her as a fully functioning person, not a Shell. The dark eyes becoming warmer and their whole body relaxed.
“I’m Lori,” she said as she held out her fist (instead of a handshake a fist-bump was far quicker, and they were currently surrounded by zombified adults).
“Lex,” Stranger replied, finishing the fist-bump. “Enchanté.”
Lex had dark hair cut into an undercut, buzzed around the sides and back and longer on top. It was well done for someone living in the apocalypse, only slightly uneven where the hair was longer. Lori was momentarily jealous of Lex’s haircutting skills; Alec had a particularly awful man-bun that could use a good cut.
Other than a fantastic haircut, Lex was a pretty average looking person, shorter than Alec but taller than Constance (which wasn’t hard, Constance was fairly tiny) and they had tanned olive skin and a large aquiline nose.
“Well, that door won’t stay shut for long, we should get going.” Lori hauled Lex along, pointing out potential escape routes as the two ran through the empty store, Lori grabbing small supplies as they went.
Lori pulled Lex into a doorway at the sight of a stray Shell pacing back and forth as if in a trance. The Shell was in the way of their escape route.
Lex’s breath caught audibly, and Lori tugged them around only to discover the door had started to buckle under the weight of so many Shells in a frenzy.
“We’re so dead,” Lex murmured to no one in particular. For some reason that Lori couldn’t decipher, Lex’s words rubbed her the wrong way.
“Say your prayers later,” Lori snapped loading another tranquiliser into her gun. She fired at the single Shell blocking their escape route and the person wobbled around before dropping. She pulled Lex away from the door; just about to break.
They burst through the doors together, Lori with her gun and Lex with their fists, ready to fight their way out. They’d found themselves in a car store, with motorbikes on one side; dirt bikes on display and road bikes in pride of place.
Lori looked around and watched Lex stare contemplatively at one of the bikes.
“Got something to say, Stranger?” Lori snapped, watching the doors and windows for evidence of Shells.
“Do you know how to ride?”
Lex stared at Lori blankly for a minute. Under their stare, Lori felt judged. She watched as Lex pointed to one of the dirt bikes near the windows and large glass doors at the front of the store.
It was mostly white with some greens and purples accenting the new and expensive. It looked like something only a regular motorbike rider could handle; not something that Lori pegged the short and slightly fearful stranger to be able to do.
Lori’s gang had never considered taking vehicles—except for the one that Constance had driven when they’d met her. It had broken down a while ago and the group had never considered getting another.
“I can,” Lex admitted, taking helmets and fuel from displays on the walls and behind the counter, “I’ve never taken a passenger, but it can’t be all that different surely.”
Lori had never ridden a motorbike. Bicycles and cars were as close as she’d gotten, neither of which were that close at all.
Sounds from the hall they’d just left sealed the deal, Lori lunged for a helmet and Lex checked the straps before testing the bike. By some miracle, it worked with the fuel Lex had found.
“Open the door!” Lex ordered Lori who rushed to oblige. Lex knew more about motorbikes than Lori did, and she didn’t quite trust herself with control on one of those bikes.
Once Lex and the bike were out, Lori dragged the doors closed behind them. Once Lori was seated in relative safety, Lex tore out of the car park.
“Left!” Lori called, directing the skilful driver to the Grey Fort, Lori and her gang’s home. A fortified op shop, almost entirely grey and nearly impenetrable to outside forces (thanks to Constance). Lori directed Lex to the underground carpark.
The car-park was where Constance stored her work and yet it was the least fortified part of the entire building. It was fortified, though there were definitely places where a few hits would cause the whole makeshift wall to come down.
Lex parked off to the side of the largest ‘room’, the one with the car and Lori gratefully abandoned the bike.
“I never want to get on that thing again,” Lori told Lex, who laughed. They had a sweet laugh, soft, nearly silent and the grin split their face in two. It made them seem younger, clean, more alive.
“Feel free to wander, though you can’t take anything, and don’t run,” Lori explained. “This is a safe space. Nothing can get in here. I’m going upstairs until my hands stop shaking.” She levelled a look towards Lex, “that’s your fault, by the way, you drive like a bloody maniac.”
Upstairs, Lori pressed her face against the cold glass. Outside, a single person stumbled passed the fort and down the road. She looked about thirty and had once perhaps been beautiful, through malnutrition and a lack of common sense had left its mark. Bruises and shallow wounds littered her body, and the sun had left burns over her shoulders and face.
Lori didn’t recognise the woman, and for that she was grateful; so far, she had managed to avoid anyone she knew. Lori didn’t know what she would do if she came face-to-face with her mother, but she knew there was no way she’d be able to pull the trigger—even if Lori was acutely aware that it only shot tranquillisers.
A hand on her shoulder shook her from her thoughts, and Lori turned to see Constance. Constance was a short Greek girl and had a shock of red hair that was always falling out of her ponytail. Her clothes might as well have never been washed by the amount of oil and grease that stained them, often thanks to Constance wiping her hands on her jeans and shirts to clean them enough to handle delicate parts—and people.
“Leslie,” Constance announced theatrically, “has finally been fixed!” Then quieter, and without the dramatics, “though I definitely want to add more later.”
“Leslie?” Lori repeated startled, rattling her brain for someone named Leslie. “That new person? They were injured?”
Constance looked at her strangely, “uh, no, definitely not? Leslie’s the new love of my life—”
“The car or bike?”
“Car.” Constance nodded, then gestured for Lori to follow, “come downstairs and see.”
Lori followed down the shaky stairs and through the crowded room, weaving in between the ‘junk’, or essential spare parts as Constance called them, to find the land rover that they had previously hot-wired in their chaotic attempt to make a daring getaway. Luckily for them, Constance had the uncanny ability to get pretty much anything up and running again, even when Lori considered it a lost cause.
Constance stopped in front of a car that Lori thought looked completely different from her previous image of the vehicle. Alec was there too, walking in steady circles taking in Constance’s handiwork.
The sleek lines of the body stood proud as the bonnet reflected a stray beam of sunlight that made it through the fortified walls. Constance had fitted it with tires better suited for off-road terrain, and solar panels to make it run efficiently for days without needing a refuel. She had spent far too long painting a camouflage pattern onto the body of the car until it was Constance Approved™️.
Alec continued to walk around the vehicle until Constance grew annoyed with the pacing and took it upon herself to state every single improvement added to the car at Alec’s expense. Alec shot a pleading glance towards Lori who just stifled a laugh while shrugging her shoulders and let Constance continue with her mental torture.
Alec was a couple of centimetres shorter than Lori, which she had once used to lord over him as much as she could, though nowadays the half-siblings were too busy trying to survive to compete over who was tallest. Lori knew she was still taller as she had caught Alec trying to gauge it a not a few days before, though she didn’t know how long that would last.
Alec looked similar to Lori, as both of them got their facial structure and bright green eyes from their mother, though Alec’s height and blond hair came from his father. Lori has been told she got her thick brown hair and lack of charisma from her father.
Both got their impeccable aim, Rivera surname, and knowledge on how to create tranquilliser darts from their mother and aunt. Both of which excelled at hunting and occasionally did commissions.
Sitting awkwardly off to the side was the motorbike that Lori had brought back with the help of Lex, who was sitting further away in the corner just watching the group.
“Who’s the Stranger?” Alec asked once Constance has finished pointing out the handmade windshield wipers.
“I’m Lex Durand.” Lex blurted, seeming unable to help it. “I'm alone, no one's going to come after you for me.”
To Lori, it seemed that Lex was nervous to meet the whole team—their fidgeting got worse under Alec and Constance's steady gazes. A heavy silence settled in under Lori and her gangs’ scrutiny. Lex’s fingers had just jumped to their hoodie strings when Alec broke the silence.
“I’m Alec,” he said holding out a hand for a high-five which Lex finished with an abundance of enthusiasm. “I’m Lori’s half-brother, and the redhead is Constance Adelpha.”
“Hi,” Constance waved a hand, a streak of grease, that Lori had missed until that moment, across her jaw, “You must either be something or a complete disaster for Lori to bring you back to her fort.”
“Constance,” Alec warned a light hand on Constance’s shoulder to stop her.
“No, it’s okay,” Lex smiled shyly, “I don’t mind if I can’t stay, I was going to move on soon anyway.”
“If you’re leaving can you give Alec a haircut,” Constance asked to Alec’s protests.
“You don’t have to leave." It was the first Lori had spoken in that conversation and she watched as her people, her family automatically turn to her. "You've said you're alone, why not join us?"
“Yeah,” Constance added, “you go off about how we’re hard enough to find things for around here.”
“Really,” Lori confirmed. “We’ll probably have to branch out to other places soon—there’s that shopping district north that we haven’t touched yet—and now that you’ve fixed the car, Constance, we can drive to other towns for a few days at a time.”
She had been thinking about it a lot lately, the lack of supplies and the limited way to fix said problem. And then Constance, the blessing that she is, had pulled through and gifted the gang the ability to travel.
Lori grinned at her group, all three of them, Constance—red-headed and covered in grease, Alec—with his awful hairdo and a wide grin that put them all at ease, and finally Lex, with their fidgety hands, sharp gaze, and terrifying motorbike skills.
Meet Lori. Lori has a gun. She doesn't particularly enjoy using said gun, but she will if she has to. In this particular instance, she had to. Thanks Lex, you're official more uncoordinated than Alex...and that's saying a lot.
Enjoy adventuring through the abandoned city and the infamous "Grey Fort" and meeting the main characters in the first chapter of 'Nuclear'
The cause and origin is still unknown. The only thing we understand about this devastating virus is that the infected eat human flesh to survive. They move and act like humans but the pungent odor and decaying bodies clearly differentiate those infected from those that are not. This is the struggle of 3 teenagers in a world trying to kill them. Will they make it, or has the world already decided what is to be their gruesome demise?