Daylight begins to fade across the plains. A light wind travels across the grasses that have now taken back control of what were once vast farms.
A gigantic wall wraps around to form an enormous corral. It must be twenty feet high and a hundred yards across and tilts inward. An old crane is posted just outside with a custom looking cage attached to it's cable. There is also a guard tower manned with three guards armed with assault rifles.
Inside the structure are hundreds of Infected. Some are near death others are wandering around occasionally clawing at the walls. This is a place that makes no sense. Why not just kill them? Are they hoping for a cure? Are they observing length of time until starvation? With this many captured Infected it would seem someone has a plan for them.
Outside the walls, a cube van accompanied by two pickups and an SUV pull up near the crane. Two men each get out of the pickups, while two other men and three women get out of the SUV. All are armed with either a rifle or a shotgun. They go immediately to the cube van. They unlock a padlock securing the rear door and inside is a woman hand and ankle cuffed to a heavy duty looking chair bolted to the floor of the cube. Her mouth is taped shut and she looks frightened. One of the men, Jarod, speaks to her.
"I'll give you a choice Samantha. We can just drop you in there open up the cage and let you be eaten alive or let you dangle there and become infected. It's up to you. Blink once for death, twice for infection."
She gives him a look of terror. A tense moment passes and Samantha finally blinks. Twice.
"Coward." Jarod responds. "Ok, she forfeits her humanity and her dignity."
One of the men and two of the women take Samantha from back of the van and outside where another of the men operating the crane lowers the cage to the ground. The cage is caked in old blood and sun dried flesh. This cage is well designed for its purpose. All four sides of the cage can be opened at once to allow for four sides of exposure. The occupant is secured with their hands handcuffed to the top and feet to the left and right. They are blind folded and ears are muffled so they have no sense of their surroundings. Once lowered...
Samantha is being raised into the air. The group that brought her here to die are climbing a stairway that goes up the side to an observation deck at the top of the wall. Samantha is trembling uncontrollably and her jeans show she's urinated from fear. She can't scream.
The crane now has the cage centered over the opening. The group silently and calmly observe. Jarod gives the signal to lower the cage. The cage begins its decent. Infected have gathered beneath the cage...Waiting for their new companion. Once the cage reaches about ten feet from the ground, Jarod does something that he does every time someone requests to be infected. He signals the crane operator to open the cage. Samantha has no idea the fate that awaits her.
When it's all over, those who observed and condemned her to die leave quietly. The society that executes people this way was born of chaos. The Infected have begun to die off. The plague stage has leveled off and is now on the decline. Those who have survived have reassembled into pockets of tribes and territories. Led by lofty, charismatic and unqualified men and women, these regimes are corrupt and unjust. Jarod belongs to Amarillo Territory. It includes all of Amarillo, Texas north eighty two miles along Highway 287 to Stratford, Texas and then 122 miles southwest to Tucumcari, New Mexico. By map it is triangular in shape. A territory of abuse and fear. If you ripple the waters of The Pyramid, you disappear. The execution method Samantha was sentenced to was conceived by Jarod. It is the most severe form of punishment. Samantha attempted to escape from Amarillo and was caught at the border. Labeled a traitor she was sentenced to death. One day later her sentencing was fulfilled.
Helen and Jessica approach Amarillo's eastern boarder on a sunny afternoon in May. Helen had heard the rumors. Therefore, they keep a distance and observe through a pair of binoculars.
"We have to go around." Jessica says. Knowing her Mom was already thinking it.
Jessica lowers her binoculars, turns around and slides down the ditch they're using for cover. She pulls a map out of her pack. The map has notes written about different territories. Every rumor and story she hears she notes. She didn't care if they were exaggerated or even fabricated. Better to be safe than sorry.
"If we turn back a few miles we can cut around to the north. These backroads..." She points out on the map.
"North takes us farther from Amarillo. Better to take the long way around rather than short cut it. We also need to hunt soon."
Each carries a bow and arrows. They realized guns drew too much attention. Also ammo is becoming hard to find. They can make arrows and recover ones shot.
"Mom? Do you actually think what they say is true? About these Amarillo people?"
"I...really don't know what to think about that. It would be an awful way to go."
"What if all the Infected have died off? All but the ones they have. And they got out? It would start all over again."
"It's been nearly three years since it reached Maryland. And almost 10 years since it started. We haven't seen the Infected for weeks. Populations don't just grow that fast."
"Why not? People still have sex."
"Most everyone has lost the sense of survival. It's not just Rage that kills. Other diseases, starvation, exposure. Most don't even know how to use a gun let alone a bow. Once the vending machines run out and the grocery stores rot. It's most likely over for them. Those who survived the first three months are the ones that are left. The women who get pregnant now probably will lose their first born. We have forgotten how to birth naturally. It's going to take some time before Rage can spread like it did."
"But it still wouldn't be good."
"It would probably kill off all of Amarillo. But, that's all."
They sit and ponder these things while they nibble on some jerky.
"If I had the opportunity, I'd kill all the Infected in that pit."
"How do you know?"
"Listen. Hypothetically, yes I'd kill em all too. We'd have to. But I'm not going to let us be distracted by some rumor. We have to stay focused on our goal. We have to keep going. Distractions are deadly."
Then they hear a vehicle in the distance. Jessica looks over to Helen. Helen whispers.
They both pull out a camouflaged cloth once used for hunting and drape it over their heads. Slowly they stand to their feet back-to-back and scan for the source of the sound. Helen spots them first.
"Got it. It's a pickup."
Jessica carefully turns to get a view. She then checks up the road and sees a cube van following trailed by an SUV and another pickup.
"Oh, here comes more."
"They're headed to Amarillo."
They watch the vehicles until they disappear from sight and then sit back down.
"We'll have to cross the highway at night."
"Mom, do you think they have regular patrols?"
"I don't think that was a patrol."
"What was it?"
"Probably a convoy of some kind."
"Where do they get their fuel from? Every group we've come across..."
"Amarillo sits on top of crude oil. They probably just pump it from the ground."
"Mom, what if we get spotted?"
"We lay low, and don't move until we have to. We have plenty of food to last us. What route did you find?"
Jessica pulls out the map.
"Move along Highway 60 to Panhandle. That should put us well out of the way."
"That's good Jess. We move tonight, walk the road and hide in the ditch if we spot any head lights. We'll see the lights before the beams see us. Risky, but necessary."
"We've never walked in the night before."
"We have no choice."
"Why did we even come this way?"
"Honestly I thought the rumors weren't true. But seeing those vehicles..."
Jessica doesn't respond right away.
"I am too. But, this is where we're at. We."
There is a moment of awkward silence.
"Jess. I really am sorry."
Jessica is upset but not mad. After all she didn't argue coming this way and she looks at the map more than her mom does.
"It's ok mom. We're in this together. We've been through worse."
"I love you."
"I love you too."
They hug. Helen and Jessica really do make a good team. They weren't close before the infection. Helen worked 80+ hours per week just make ends meat. Jessica's dad died when she was young. After the infection they were forced to rely on each other for survival.
The afternoon passes by while playing a card game beneath a lean-to built using their camouflage fabric to keep out of the sun. They say very little to each other. There isn't much to say about anything. Besides, talking makes noise.
It's early evening, Jess is taking a nap and Helen is reading a book. A man's voice cuts through the air.