Mason and Shiloh sat around the crackling fire in the tranquil darkness, comfortably posed on their sleeping bags and scarfing down some leftovers of a bird they'd cooked earlier that day. Shiloh was softly strumming an old song on the strings of her acoustic guitar that she'd miraculously managed to salvage before the outbreak. Mason ripped a fleshy piece of meat from his bird leg with his teeth and glanced up at the starry sky, whistling along to the music he had come to be so familiar with over his five years of his partnership with Shiloh and Reuben.
Mason looked to the empty sleeping bag on the other side of their little campfire at the thought of Reuben, his best friend since middle school. Now he was thirty-two (and so was Reuben) and the infection had ruined his life, but somehow it brought together the three unlikely survivors.
The disease first broke out in a tiny town in Nevada. It didn't even have time to be named or identifed before it corrupted the minds of the whole state, causing people to attack and, in most cases, kill each other. By the time it was officially classified by the CDC as Homicida-Psychosis Syndrome (abbreviated as HPS), it had already spread to twenty-five of the fifty United States of America.
That was over the course of seven days.
Within two weeks, someone with the disease had fled the country in a blind fear and, unaware of their infection, spread HPS to Europe. It was transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood, making it extremely contagious. Just coughing on someone, wiping away a loved one's tear, anything involving contact with a body could give you HPS. It infected people by the dozen.
Three days and it was in Africa.
Soon the entire globe had at least 60 infected people in each country.
It was the fastest spreading disease the world had seen, and there was no cure possible. Doctors tried everything: Lobotomies, antiserums from other similar mental diseases, every available option in the field of hypnosis, and so on; nothing worked. Not even a bit of progress turned up. Specialists from all over the earth were brought to hospitals, which were already overflowing with people having so much as a runny nose (the first stages of the disease resembled the flu or a common cold, then depression, later schizophrenia), to try and use their talents to find a cure.
But, as expected, no results were positive.
Then the government began to fall through. People were already shrouded in confusion and horror; gangs formed, rebelling against the CDC's attempts at quarantine and killing soldiers; democracy vanished, and the economy and technology were ignored entirely. Social status was brushed aside. It was a no-man's-land no matter where you went, and the rules of the game were 'either you stick with your gang or you're on your own' and 'don't get killed'. "The Darkest Ages" it was called just before the news channels stopped broadcasting updates, as it greatly resembled the dark ages of Athens back in Ancient Greece. People wandered and killed, confused and lost in a trance, survival their only goal.
Mason, Shiloh, and Reuben were brought together by circumstance. And they didn't plan on separating. They broke the laws of leaving people behind to save yourself; when one was hurt, the others went back and helped them. Together as one they had survived for five years, and they didn't plan on stopping soon.
Of course, death would come eventually, but they wanted to elude it and find someone immune to the disease before time ran out for the world. Because food supplies were low, gangs controlled most of the cities, and the country was overflowing with infected. The three knew they had to do their best until they could find a cure.
Shiloh ceased playing her guitar, brushing back her tangled, matted, dark hair with her fingers. "You alive over there?" She asked.
Mason nodded dismissively, his gaze unmoved from the stars.
"You thinking about Reuben?" Shiloh persisted. Mason sighed and looked back down, glancing around the camp at the tall, silver-blue pine trees and the long green grass that tickled his hands.
"Yeah." He replied. "I hope he's alright. He's late."
"I just hope it wasn't an ambush, and that those dumb thugs really have the supplies." Shiloh laid her guitar beside her and hugged her legs, the holes in her jeans revealing bare, slightly tanned skin, and numerous cuts and scratches. She hummed the song she had been previously playing on her instrument.
A rustle in the bushes surrounding their territory caught the attention of the two. Mason jumped to his feet, tightly clutching his revolver pistol to his chest in case it was an infected.
Suddenly the leaves parted. A scrawny man in a tattered black vest and camoflauge pants stepped into the fire's warm light, his hands up in surrender. Mason lowered his gun; it was just a messenger, clearly, the telltale sign being the little yellow band around his thin, bony left arm.
"Relax, buddy. 'S just me," The messenger said quietly, his voice harsh and strained, probably from running the whole way to the wooded area.
Mason kept his eyes trained on the man, still suspicious to an extent. He didn't seem to be carrying a weapon, which was good, and he didn't have red around the irises of his eyes, meaning he wasn't in a contagious stage of infection. That was the dead giveaway that he, Shiloh, and Reuben had come to identify.
The messenger crouched down between the two, rubbing his scarred, dirty hands over the fire and breathing shallow, deep breaths.
"What did you see out there?" Shiloh inquired. She bit her lip and tore off a tiny piece of dried skin, spitting it out onto the grassy earth.
The messenger shook his head and sighed, smacking his lips and making a dissatisfied clicking sound. "I 'ave good news an' bad. Which one 'ya want first?"
Both Mason and Shiloh shrugged, Mason stroking his prickly brown beard stubble and Shiloh nodding her head to the rhythm of the chirping crickets hidden in the leafy green bushes.
"Well, bad news'll always come first 'ere, I guess." The messenger raised an eyebrow and let out a hoarse chuckle at his own joke.
"That is true," Mason admitted. "Now what's so bad that you heard?"
"Your friend Benny out there..." The scrawny man began. "sent 'em out to the highway, didn't 'ya? To meet that ole' band of good fer nothin' thugs?"
"What about Reuben?" Anxiety was present in Shiloh's persistent tone.
The messenger nodded his head sadly. "Group o' infected ambushed 'em on the shoulder of the road. Jumped outta the woods, I'm 'fraid. He put up a mighty good fight, I gotta say, but there was 'bout five of 'em...too many to take out on yer own I s'pose." he said.
Shiloh hung her head. "Oh, Reuben...you big doofus." She almost sounded as if she were in disbelief, but her sorrow was quite obvious.
Mason picked up an old beer bottle next to the fire and hurled it at a nearby tree. It shattered on impact, the sudden noise piercing the silence.
"Dammit," he muttered. "Picking the worst time to die, eh?"
"S' a shame, if 'ya ask me." The messenger sighed.
Shiloh and Mason stood up, brushing the dirt off their clothes. They both knew what this meant. The messenger stared at them, confusion gleaming in his dull eyes. "Aren't you two 'least gonna stick around an' mourn the poor guy?"
Mason let his angered gaze travel from the ground to the messenger.
He opened his mouth to speak, but Shiloh put a hand on his shoulder, silencing him in an instant. "He's right," she said softly, then turned to the scrawny man still by the fire.
"Go back to your base. We're leaving at dawn. If anything suspicious arises you come get us."
Mason stared at her in disbelief. "Why? The only thing we've got to be concerned about is Reuben, and he's already dead!" he shouted, brushing her hand off his shoulder briskly.
"He can act as a guard for us, don't you get it?" Shiloh explained. "Just go with it."
Mason rolled his eyes, intimidated. He was usually the one who made the executive decisions. Defeated but still unamused he sat back down on his sleeping bag, folding his legs indian-style and resting his head on his hands, leaning on his elbows. Shiloh plopped herself onto her bag and let out a long, exasperated sigh as the messenger saluted and scampered away as quickly as he came.
"Well, there goes Reuben." Shiloh stared blankly at the stars, but Mason knew she would've been looking at the empty bedroll if she were sitting up. "It's a real shame. Just like the dude said."
"Yeah." Mason grumbled something else under his breath, but Shiloh couldn't make it out, so she shrugged and pulled herself up to unzip her sleeping bag. Mason surrounded himself in the thin fabric, feeling chilled inside despite his closeness to the blazing fire. The skin on his arms prickled in the cold of the autumn air, and he slunk farther into his makeshift bed. On the opposite of the fire, Shiloh was already dozing off.
"G'night," she muttered.
Mason closed his eyes sadly. "Goodnight."
Soon he felt the coaxing warmth of sleep fall over him, and allowed himself to drift off peacefully. A feeling he hadn't felt in ten years.
Shiloh and Mason's eyes darted open as the approaching moaning and wailing of the infected could be heard. The smell of rain lingered in the hazy, pre-morning air, and the fire had seemingly been doused out hours ago. Mason shuffled out of his sleeping bag and over to Shiloh. "Get up. They're coming."