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Chapter One: Deb

“Can you see them?” Jonah’s voice was a sudden whisper in the quiet night.

“Not yet,” Deb whispered back. “And keep it down. This is the only chance we’re gonna get.”

Jonah responded with a combo snort-scoff that sounded like he was clearing his throat. “I know, Deb,” he replied. “We all know.”

She closed her eyes. “I know you do. I’m just…” she hesitated, not sure what to call the acid in her throat, the churning of her stomach.

“Worried.” Jonah finished her sentence for her.

Exhaling, Deb watched her breath steam and spiral in the chill, pre-dawn air, wishing she could’ve slept for a few more hours. She pulled her coat tighter around her. Even before the lights went out, she’d hated having to get up early for work. But now? This was torture.

For weeks, their days were eaten up by their forced march. Thankfully, the shorter daylight hours meant they’d yet to reach their destination across the Canadian border. As best she could tell, they were currently somewhere in Maine.

Traveling at night had become nigh on impossible in the years after the initial EMP event, although the stars were undeniably beautiful without the light pollution. 

Never thought I’d get to see the Milky Way before…

However, getting caught out at night was a good way to get yourself killed or captured by unsavory types, unless you were with a large group that could protect you. Like the one she was a part of.

Sort of, anyway. She scowled at her predicament and swallowed down a nervous cough, not wanting to give away her location at the edge of the camp. When Mike was here, he insisted that all of the workers remain in the center of camp, where it would be easier to protect everyone. But in reality, it was to keep them from slipping away in the night. 

But with Mike gone at the moment, the guards were much more lax with their restrictions, which worked in their favor. The less attentive the guards were, the better their chance of escape.

Life on the road wasn’t always like this. Originally, they’d started out as a group of like-minded individuals helping those suffering in the aftermath of the catastrophe, but it had evolved into a forced labor group overseen by the fortunate few. 

The guards were the ones who dictated where they were going, if they got to eat, and even what time they had to rise, be it with the sun or in the icy dark. Sleeping in was a luxury unavailable to anyone in the work gang.

A shiver raced down Deb’s spine as she thought back to the conversation she’d overheard a few days ago. 

Mike had been speaking with his lieutenant, Marie, about meeting up with another work gang to exchange some workers before they crossed the border. Given how the man despised Deb’s friendship with Carol and all around hated her guts at times, she knew without a doubt that she would be one of the workers traded. 

Even though life was hard under Mike, he at least made sure they were fed and given medical attention if they needed it. Sure, it was entirely self-serving on his part because the weak or injured couldn’t work as hard. But given the lawless state of the world at large, it could always be worse. 

Mike hired them out for manual labor projects. One of the most common was clearing the dead and rusting cars off of roads so the streets could be used again. Or felling trees and tearing down decrepit buildings. Whatever labor people didn’t want to do, Mike would do it for them. For a fee. 

And of course Mike wouldn’t do any of the work. Neither would his guards. No, it would be Deb and her friends, and all the other people Mike had pressed into his work gang who would handle the manual labor. Or else. And you didn’t want to be on the receiving end of “or else.”

Deb glanced over to where Jonah was huddled against a tree, worrying at a fingernail. She winced at his nervous habit and turned away, straining to catch a glimpse of Bobbi and Carol in the early gloom. 

Jonah was quiet for a long moment before asking, “Do you really think they’re going to trade some of us with the other group? Mike’s never done anything like that before.”

It was true, Mike didn’t like parting with anything he considered his. But this was a prime opportunity for him to get rid of any troublesome people. “Yes. He rarely does anything without a reason, but his mind seems set on getting in some different people, even if he has to let go of a few of us in exchange.”

Although it had become the norm to guard her own back and trust no one else, Deb had found herself pulled into a small group with Carol, Bobbi, Jonah, and Trevor. There were a few others who lingered on the fringes of their group, but those four were the only ones she would consider her people. They were more than friends. The traumas they’d gone through together had bonded them tightly. 

Now, if this trade went through, her small group would be split up, and she wasn’t going to let that happen.

The phrase “Leave no one behind” floated through her mind, and she was briefly reminded of her ex, who’d been a career Marine until he’d gotten injured. In odd moments of retrospect, she wondered if he had survived the chaos.

Jonah’s voice broke her from thoughts of her ex and being separated from her friends. “He won’t trade Carol, though. There’s no way that he’d ever let her go, especially not now.”

Rubbing her arms, which were stiff from the cold, she scanned the camp again, holding her breath as she searched for familiar silhouettes. This was not their first escape attempt, but God-willing, it was going to be their last. 

Maybe it would’ve been better to wait another month until the weather was warmer and it was easier to forage, but they were out of time. The meet-up to exchange workers was scheduled in two days, and then there was Carol. Pregnant. With Mike’s child. That had moved the timeline for escape from necessary to urgent because Mike was not going to let Carol out of his sight until the baby was born, not with her history.

She acknowledged softly, “No, not Carol, you’re right.” 

The rest of them though? Yeah, they were as good as traded. Mike knew if he got rid of Carol’s friends, her found family, he would have total control over her. Which was why their escape had to be now. 

Mike and Marie had gone ahead the night before to scout out the meet-up location. After they returned, they would watch everyone closely to make sure no one tried to run before the tradeoff. Deb and her friends wouldn’t have another chance like this.

As soon as Mike and Marie had disappeared into the distance, Deb had set her plans into motion. Jonah had found two full bottles of Jack at their last stop, and they knew they needed to hide it for the perfect opportunity. 

They had spent the last few days scrounging through the abandoned buildings for any sort of pills they could find to mix with the whiskey. When that had proven to be a bust, only finding one expired bottle with a few pills left, they had turned their attention to the budding plant life around them. 

Thankfully, Carol had found some valerian growing near a small pond they had camped by for the night. It was easy to dig up the roots without suspicion and add it to the whiskey.

Who knew that the books their captors had forced them to read so they could forage more efficiently would prove to be so informative?

Admittedly, Deb had hesitated before adding it to the bottles, not wanting to poison or kill their guards, only to knock them out. Still, all the books she’d studied said that valerian was a natural sleep aid. So she’d swallowed down her objection and added it to the bottles, waiting for the right moment.

Once the coast was clear, she had instructed Carol and Bobbi to take the bottles to the guards and get them to drink. She would’ve done it herself if it were at all possible, but she—even if she had been quiet in her rebellions—was certain Mike told the guards to keep an eye on her, and it would suck to have her every action scrutinized when she was planning an escape. 

Still, the whole camp knew that she hated the guard/prisoner dynamics they’d devolved into and avoided the guards like the plague. Carol, on the other hand, clearly had no problems with the dynamics, and Bobbi drifted back and forth between the two factions.

The guards were familiar and even friendly with Carol. They wouldn’t think twice about her coming to hang out at the fire with them, sharing her whiskey if they wanted to share the warmth.

Deb finally saw the two women sauntering slowly across the camp as if returning to their sleeping location to catch a few short winks before they had to rise for the day. She shifted and nudged Jonah with her foot to get his attention. “They’re heading this way.”

 Relief surged through her, and it was all she could do not to sprint over to them and look them over, make sure with her own eyes they were unharmed. 

Carol and Bobbi reached them and relaxed, leaning against the trees instead of flopping to the ground like they normally would. Every second mattered in an escape, and they couldn’t jeopardize whatever amount of time the valerian would buy them. 

Bobbi muttered so quietly that Deb had to strain to hear. “It’s done. It was almost too easy. They treated us like we were royalty for bringing them such a treat. They couldn’t get their hands on it fast enough, although they sure took their sweet time sipping it.”

Deb looked them over. “And they drank it all, right? They didn’t insist upon you two drinking as well?”

Carol sighed and allowed her eyes to droop, exhaustion lacing her words, “Do you really think they would’ve offered to share with us? And even if they had offered, which they didn’t, we wouldn’t have touched it. Not with the amount of valerian we put in those bottles.”

Deb felt shame rise in her in a hot wave and she prayed the low light hid her warming cheeks. Carol wanted to get out from under Mike almost more than anyone. And of course, Carol knew it was her who Deb was worried about drinking it. 

But the cold, hard fact was that Carol was an addict, and sobriety had been forced on her. She hadn’t quit of her own free will, and Deb couldn’t help but wonder if temptation was still there, still clinging to her. The shame was drowned out by a bigger surge of concern for the baby. She wanted to give the little one the best chance at life, and that necessitated a sober mother.

She could still remember the first time she’d ever seen Carol—the woman was rail thin and clearly in withdrawal, shivering and shaking like a leaf in a gale, even though it was a warm day. 

It had taken weeks for the worst of the symptoms to subside and her health to recover. And something about her had tugged on Deb’s heartstrings. She hadn’t had a friend in a long time, and she and Carol had bonded almost immediately. No one had been more surprised than Deb. 

Carol had gained weight and muscle and her skin cleared up, although none of them would ever be considered anywhere near heavy or overweight with the amount of work they did and the slimness of rations at times. 

Still, Deb could remember the fanatical gleam in Carol’s eyes as she ransacked those first few abandoned houses they had cleaned up. Cleared out was a better term for it, but she had been naive back then and believed that they were making a difference. 

Deb suspected Carol had hoped to find something to take away that persistent itch that never seemed to leave, so she’d kept an eye on her, and their friendship had hardened into something unbreakable.

She put the matter aside for the moment; Bobbi would’ve spoken up if either of them drank anything or had been forced to at least pretend to drink to keep up the charade. Since she hadn’t, they had thankfully managed to dodge that bullet, and it was no good worrying over what-ifs. Now, they just had to wait until the guards passed out and Trevor gave the signal to make their escape.

Time ticked by agonizingly slow, and it was all Deb could do to resist the urge to pace. Although Carol was leaning against the tree with her eyes half closed, Deb could see that she was resisting the urge to fidget as well, her eyes darting around rapidly before picking a point and fixing on it as if trying to nod off. 

She would’ve believed it too, but the cycle repeated itself every couple of minutes, the movement clear enough in the dim light if she knew what she was watching for.

The camp was quiet for now, all of the workers trying to snatch as much sleep as they could before they were forcibly roused by the guards. In less than an hour, the camp would be bustling with life as the guards woke their replacements and stirred the fires to life before retreating to get a cat nap until it was time to march again. 

If the valerian didn’t kick in soon, they wouldn’t be able to escape unnoticed.

Another handful of minutes trickled by, and anxiety coiled in her gut. Had their plan not worked? Had she somehow not included enough of the valerian root to knock them out? Even if it hadn’t knocked them out, it should’ve been at least enough to impair them. 

She shifted her weight from her left leg to her right before making herself stay still again. She couldn’t allow her nerves to spread to the group, even if she was panicking internally.

They weren’t going to get another chance like this, especially once Mike returned from his scouting mission. Should they go ahead and run for it, even if the guards weren’t fully incapacitated? Would their odds be better or worse in the long run if they didn’t bother waiting for the signal and just ran?

The sound of a blue jay call cut through her spiraling thoughts. That was Trevor’s signal; their plan had actually worked, and the guards were asleep. This was it, their one chance at freedom, and they needed to go now.

 

Chapter Two : Deb

Now came the tricky part. 

While she had originally planned for only her group to slip away, that would make it too easy for their trail to be tracked and for them to be recaptured. This had to be an all-or-nothing plan, a chance for all of the workers to escape and find their well-deserved freedom. 

Slowly but surely, Deb had quietly spread the plan to the others, whispering in the muted moments when muscles were aching as they were pushed beyond their limit or when bellies rumbled from hunger. 

She spoke of everything they could do if they were free, of the horrors that were other work gangs where the guards didn’t care if their workers lived or died, of the chance to reunite with missing friends and loved ones if only they could travel freely.

Deb had worried, at first, that word would get back to Mike and the guards. But she could see a growing restlessness and hunger for freedom in the eyes of the others, especially the closer they got to the border. 

Unfortunately, many of the workers had settled into a dull acceptance of their lot in life, taking orders and getting food and protection in return. It was an even toss-up at this point if they would take advantage of the sleeping guards or choose the path of least resistance.

She met Bobbi’s eyes and the other woman grinned wildly at her, waiting for her nod to proceed with the next part of the plan. They hadn’t wanted to wake the sleeping guards, and yelling would’ve given it all away immediately. In the end, they had settled on bird calls. 

As Trevor came slinking across the camp, Deb smirked and asked, “Well, what are you waiting for? An engraved invitation?”

Bouncing excitedly on the balls of her feet, Bobbi cupped her hands around her mouth and let out a quiet, unholy screech that was the perfect imitation of a barn owl’s call. She turned to Deb, her eyes sparkling, “Do you think that will be enough, or should I do it again?”

To Deb’s surprise, people started climbing to their feet from where they had been lying around the fires scattered throughout the camp. The noise increased a hundredfold as they milled around like ants from an anthill that had been kicked. 

Like they’d planned, people started extinguishing the campfires, increasing the darkness and confusion. Meanwhile, others headed for the tents where the guards slept. She felt a tiny shred of guilt for the guards’ defenseless state before pushing it aside.

“No need, let’s go. Now.”

She grabbed Carol’s wrist and motioned for Bobbi, Trevor, and Jonah to follow them, sprinting off into the darkness of the woods. Carol stumbled, thrown off by the sudden chaos and the darkness underneath the trees. Deb steadied her and kept propelling them through the woods. 

Behind them, the sounds of shouting and cursing grew louder, piercing through the pre-dawn like a battle call. It would rouse anyone within a few miles of the camp. She didn’t want to chance running into someone else, not when they were so close to freedom.

They all jumped when they heard gunshots ring out, the sharp crack unmistakable. Deb flinched, hunching low. She picked up the pace from a jog to a light sprint. Yes, she was risking an injury moving so quickly in the dim light, but it was better than hanging around and ending up shot. 

Along with the gunshots, screams echoed behind them. She had to harden her heart against turning back to help the others. They all had the chance to run, and if they’d chosen to fight each other or the guards, that was on them. Her number one priority was getting her and her friends out of harm’s way. Then, as far away from Mike and the work gang as possible.

Bobbi cursed quietly, her words breathless from the grueling pace. “I didn’t think they’d actually shoot at anyone. What are they thinking? Mike will have their heads.”

Deb thought she heard pounding footsteps in the quiet around them, but she couldn’t pause except for a brief glance over her shoulder. It was hard to tell in the shadowy forest, but there did appear to be others running in the same direction. 

She had to pray that it was other captives and not the guards. The chances that they had been identified were slim in the chaos that had unfolded so quickly, but the icy grip of fear around her heart whispered what-ifs into her ear.

Putting her head down, Deb tightened her grip on Carol’s wrist and forced herself to move a little bit faster. They couldn’t get caught, not now. 

They dashed around a tree, and Deb kept pushing them faster, trying to spot the quickest path to freedom. They had to keep going as hard and as fast as they could. They were only going to get this one shot at escape, and they couldn’t let it get away.

Deb’s breaths were rasping in her chest, her heart pounding when Carol suddenly stumbled and yanked on Deb’s hand hard to stop her. Deb turned and immediately scanned her for any injuries she might’ve sustained during their mad scramble. “What is it, what happened? Are you hurt?”

Carol was bent over, her chest heaving with her hands on her knees as she struggled to breathe. She managed to force out: “Need…to catch…my breath. We should be…far enough.”

Deb shushed her, resting her hand lightly on her shoulder. “It’s okay, take some deep breaths.”

Trevor offered her a bottle of water, but Carol waved it away, focusing on breathing and not throwing up like she clearly wanted to, her lungs vigorously protesting the unexpected activity.

Moving a few steps away so she could hear over the sound of Carol’s panting, Deb strained her ears for noises of shouting or gunshots, but the only sound that reached her was the labored breathing of the other workers around them. 

While they had been running, the sun had risen fully above the horizon, brightening the woods enough that they were able to make out their surroundings. The large oak trees around them cast steep, dark shadows, and the ground was clear of undergrowth this early in the season.

Anxiety thrummed through her. How long had they been running? How much ground had they covered? Would it be enough, or should she push them to continue even though Carol was clearly struggling?

Shoving down the fear, she pulled herself to her full height, instead of the instinctual hunch that she’d fallen into, and looked around for Bobbi, Jonah, and Trevor. 

Bobbi was only a few feet away, softly coaxing Trevor to breathe while Jonah hovered nervously behind them, his skin pale and clammy in the soft light. Had he thrown up from overexertion? She’d have to check on him later. 

Staying on the move would lower the risk of being recaptured until they reached a place where they could dig in and defend themselves. Or until Mike decided to stop chasing them. A handful of workers weren’t worth the time and effort. She scoffed mentally at that idea. Mike would never let Carol go unless there was absolutely no other option. Of that, she was sure.

“I still can’t believe those guards,” Bobbi whispered, rubbing Trevor’s back. “Shooting at us.”

Trevor groaned, standing up straight. “Mike is gonna have their hides for such stupidity when he returns. That is, if the guards don’t run for it as well, to avoid his wrath.”

Jonah’s humorless bark of laughter reassured Deb that he was recovering well. “They’re not going to make a run for it; they have too cushy of a job. They think Mike will write it off and everything will be fine, if they’re thinking at all. Besides, all they do is sit and monitor us as we work. They probably couldn’t keep up with us if they tried.”

Before the world changed and regressed to a pre-industrial age in the blink of an eye, Deb hadn’t been what anyone would call fit. Yes, she watched what she ate and visited the gym every week in order to keep her figure, but in terms of being truly fit like they were now, well, it was laughable. She had been soft as only a world full of convenience could make her.

She laughed, answering Jonah, “Yeah, I’ve never been in such good shape. Too bad the guards were content watching us work, but better for us. Chances are lower that they’ll catch us now.”

Carol muttered sarcastically, “Who would’ve thought that there’d be a bright side to being pressganged into a workforce?”

Pondering Carol’s words, Deb couldn’t help but wonder how she had ended up where she did. 

Things hadn’t started out that way. It had started as a true community, a group of people working together for the betterment of everyone. She had known Mike from before; he‘d been in the same unit as her ex-husband, and she had trusted him. That was a bitter pill, to find out that her trust had been betrayed, especially when trust had become such a precious commodity after everything went dark.

Still, somewhere along the way, it had ceased to be a community working together with free will to a handful of people overseeing everyone else, forcing them to work longer and harder as time passed. To Mike’s credit, he kept them fed, clothed, and healthy. But if someone chose to go against the guards, to rebel, they were never seen again.

Movement in her peripheral caught her attention, and she whirled to face the threat, wishing she had something to defend herself with. However, it was only a few more workers from the camp moving through the trees to join them where they were huddled. 

A mixture of surprise and the barest hint of happiness filled her. She had hoped others would take the chance and run. Conditions had been growing increasingly worse over the past several months, and her group wasn’t the only one that had been struggling. Although this wasn’t everyone, this was a large chunk of the workers who had taken the chance to run for it.

Dread started to pool in her gut as more and more people started emerging from the woods to join them. By the time Carol had caught her breath and straightened up, there were roughly forty people besides her and her friends. While she was pleased they had managed to escape, she hadn’t planned for this to happen. She’d expected them to scatter in all directions, not follow in the same direction as her group. This many people all in one place put a giant target on their backs.

Any one of them could possibly betray them to Mike or one of the other guards if they were recaptured, spilling any and all information they knew in the hopes of leniency, and which made all of them potential threats to their survival.

She took a deep breath to calm her nerves. Okay, they had managed to escape successfully. Now, it was time to come up with a workable Plan B. She could do this.

Rising Anarchy will be released on March 13th 2024.

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