Buildings crumbled like they always had in the rough area of L.A., and shadows lingered, like before, waiting to harm. But these were different. Jax wandered down the street, looking for survivors, when the patter of gunfire stopped him cold.
The small distribution center. Shit.
Dodging into a run, he hurried around rusting cars to the warehouse, finding a group of Twenty gang members firing on a huge black guy wearing a bloody football jersey. The man looked familiar and seemed to be protecting the warehouse.
Keeping out of sight, Jax had angled around to the back, only to find a bunch of elderly people and kids hiding in the warehouse near a barrel of what looked like toasted oats.
The gang would kill them without a thought.
Jax hustled by them, gun out, and inched up behind the football player’s side. “I’m with you.”
The guy half turned, a wild glint in his dark eyes. “You sure?”
“Yep. Jax Mercury.” He angled farther and fired, clipping a Twenty member in the side, having given up his allegiance the second he’d taken his oath in the military. “You have any combat experience?”
“Wyatt Quaid. No.”
“From the Niners?” Jax took aim and fired again. A yelp of pain filled the afternoon.
Wyatt fired and hit the dirt. “I used to be.”
“Go left, and I’ll go right,” Jax said, shifting into command mode. For now, he had a mission, and he’d win it.
“Jax?” Wyatt asked, yanking him back into the present.
“Is your stomach okay?”
“No.” Wyatt grimaced. “You ready?”
The back door to the cavernous space opened, and a group of twenty people filed in. They wore torn clothing but had jackets and hand-stitched patches on their arms showing they’d completed the training for scavenging. Jax breathed out. “Fuck, they’re young.”
Wyatt winced. “No shit.”
“They’re supposed to at least be sixteen years old,” Jax muttered.
“They are.” Wyatt stood. “Line up.”
The kids, and there was no doubt they were kids, formed two lines of ten. Jax shoved to his feet, eyeing them. A couple kept his gaze, while several more dropped theirs to the floor. “How many sections are there inside our grid?” he asked.
“Seventeen,” a blond girl in the back said.
The girl should’ve been planning for college and going to dances, not memorizing the layout of their territory. “Good. How many sections outside to the west?”
“Fifty sections straight west,” a kid barely sporting a goatee said from the left.
“Good.” Jax walked back and forth in front of the line. The kids were smart so far. “Do you ever go out of your ordered area?” he asked.
“Only in extreme situations to avoid Rippers.” The blonde spoke up again.
“What’s a Ripper?” Jax asked.
A couple of the kids chuckled. “Zombies,” one muttered.
Jax cut a hard look at Wyatt.
Wyatt shook his head. “Zombies don’t exist, dumbass.”
The kid with the goatee shot an elbow into his buddy’s gut. “We know that. First of all, zombies aren’t real.” He stood at attention. “Second of all, if zombies did exist, then they’d be what was left over after a human died. The person dies, and then the zombie bug takes over. Everyone who ever watched The Walking Dead knows that.” He sighed and looked down at his feet. “And third, zombies don’t exist in real life.”
“That was number one,” his buddy drawled.
“No shit.” The kid rubbed his eyes. “But if they’re still human, it seems like we could reason with them.”
Jax rolled a shoulder. So long as the kids knew how to scavenge and how to defend themselves, he had to send them out. “You have to understand that the bacteria does not always kill human beings; sometimes the patient survives, but the Scorpius bacteria still remains within the body, stripping a small part of the brain. The contagion alters brain activity in everybody who is infected, but only turns half of the folks into killers. We don’t know why. It might have something to do with oxytocin, which is a chemical we think relates to empathy. Some folks lose it all, and some only part or none.”
The kid nodded. “So there’s no hope for Rippers.”
“No.” Jax kept the kid’s gaze. “Don’t try to reason with them. There are two main types of Rippers. The first is organized and intelligent like a serial killer. If one of these attacks you, it’s planned, and they have bad things in mind for you. The second is disorganized and just plain crazy, and they’re more likely to rip you apart like an animal. Run from either.”
The kids started to shuffle their feet. Jax put bite into his voice. “When you’re out on mission, your goal is to be as quiet as possible. Don’t be seen, and definitely don’t be heard. What’s your motto?”
“Shoot first, question later,” the kids said in unison.
“Good.” Jax clasped his hands at his back and walked toward a small girl, another blonde, this one with bright blue eyes. What was her name? Haylee. Yeah, that was it. Her mother, April, worked as a cook at the soldier headquarters. “Who’s the enemy?” he asked softly.
Haylee kept his gaze. “Everybody not in Vanguard.” Sadness and determination lifted her chin.
“Yes. Out there you’ll find Rippers, rival gangs, and just ordinary people willing to kill you over a bottle of water. You wouldn’t be wearing that patch if you weren’t fit and prepared to fight.” He’d set the training requirements himself, and they included learning how to fight hand-to-hand, with a knife, and with guns. The kids were as much soldiers as scavengers, but he needed supplies more than protection right now. “We require medical supplies, food, water, and gas. Go out and find some.”
Haylee drew in air. Her eyes held both an old wisdom and a desolate acceptance. “To what end?”
Jax paused. “That’s a good question. Right now, it’s to survive. The bacteria is still running its course, Rippers are either getting reckless or planning big, and rival gangs want our supplies. For now, we fight.”
She swallowed. “For now.”
Smart kid. “Then hopefully we find a cure or at least a way to live with the infection, and we build anew.” Including some sort of civilization.
“But now we fight,” she whispered, her face too pale.
He tried to infuse confidence and arrogance into his voice. “And we win.”
The kids stood at attention and then slowly filed out.
Jax eyed Wyatt.
“I know. They’re young and have no clue what a Ripper will do.”
Yeah, but who did? Jax loped toward papers taped to the west wall where the entire seven square blocks of his territory had been painstakingly drawn. The outside buildings had all been fortified with turned-over trucks, vans, and other vehicles. Kids and the elderly were in the dead center near the hospital, which used to be an elementary school, and the current food depot, which had once been a small grocery store.
He’d planned every single inch of Vanguard territory with protection and survival in mind for his force of five hundred people, but it was getting more difficult to keep the enemy outside. “We need to shore up the eastern edge,” he said, pointing to a series of old apartment buildings.
Wyatt nodded. “We have a new force of soldiers ready to defend, but none have seen combat.”
“They will soon enough.” Jax rubbed his left eye to get rid of the pain behind it.
“When’s the last time you slept?” Wyatt asked.
Jax shrugged. “Day before yesterday? Maybe?”
Wyatt shook his head. “How do you do that?”
“Military training.” Jax turned to recheck the security for headquarters. Training wasn’t all, though, was it? He swallowed and kept going, not looking back. Now wasn’t the time to share his secrets, not even with Wyatt.