1. Camping Trip

Nicole crouched low in the overgrown shrubbery at the top of the ridge, confident in her invisibility to the world below her. Her dark brown eyes scanned back and forth over the abandoned estate. It was little more than a square acre of open farmland, complete with barn and ranch house. The rest of the terrain was surrounded by densely packed evergreen forestry.

And it was all deathly silent.

Nicole's calves were starting to fall asleep from being crouched for so long, but she wanted to be sure. Usually farm life was filled with some sort of ambiance. No one kept track of that around town, but out in the country, away from the rest of the world, any sort of human activity made noise.

So did the undead, which was a bit comforting to Nicole. The infected were always easy to hear, not that she had any prior experience. Vids had supported her with everything she could hope to know about these things.

Still, she was being cautious. Regardless of never having seen one of these things in person, she wouldn't take any chances. Just because it was all quiet didn't mean there wasn't anything down there.

Nicole chewed on her lower lip. The more she thought about it, though, the more she was beginning to believe there was nothing down there. Completely abandoned. And for some reason she couldn't place, that bothered her more than anything.

Finally standing out of her crouch, she took a moment for the blood to flow freely back into her sore limbs. She took a deep breath, partly sniffing the air for any trace of decay or death. Not a whiff caught her nose; not even the usual barnyard scents of life.

Walking cautiously, she navigating the steep slope down into the valley. The plants here had become overgrown during the summer, most of them riding up to her chest. She tried not to think about how short she really was, and that for anyone else they would probably only go up to their waist. No, don't think about that at all.

Nicole stepped out onto what was once the front lawn of the ranch house. It was something right out of a portrait, with the wraparound porch, white trim, and large turret style windows. It was also in a horrible state of disrepair. Whoever had lived here either had let the place go since the plague-infection or had long since abandoned it.

"Hello?" she called out. "My name is Nicole Jennings. I'm a territory scout from Deadwood. Just here to see how everyone is doing."

She always felt awkward giving out these standardized greetings. Part of her understood them; she had to be upfront about why she was here and that she wasn't going to rob them blind. There had been a bit of that during the first year of the plague out here in these rural parts. The sad part was most of it was between neighbors.

Another part of her felt silly about having to announce herself like some kind of official straight out of Rapid City. She wasn't anything important; just a lowly scout making sure the various farmers and ranchers were okay outside of town. Outside of Deadwood, away from the central community. God only knew what could happen this far out away from any civilization.

Well, at least what was left of civilization. These people probably didn't get electricity.

Nicole's hail was met with more silence. At least a few birds had started squawking somewhere in the woods, taking away the total sense of foreboding that came from this silent place.

Waiting another moment, she shrugged, walking briskly up the creaking stairs onto the porch. Her trained eye scanned around briefly for tripwires and hidden booby-traps. Some people this far out got a little paranoid and she had a nasty scar on her left shoulder to prove what they were willing to stoop to in order to keep everyone out, friendly or not.

Satisfied that poisoned tipped arrows weren't aimed at her heart, she twisted the doorknob, which wasn't locked. She peered inside, her eyes sweeping over the old furniture and belongings.

It was a cozy little place. Probably the home of at least four or five generations. The furniture reflected this especially; nothing looked recently made or purchased. A lot of old portraits hung on the wall, and the fixtures in the ceilings were probably as old as the house itself. For a moment, Nicole felt like she had walked back in time.

"So this is a settler home," she mused to herself.

She proceeded forward, her rough-leather boots thudding loudly off the hollow floor, no doubt a cellar below. This homestead probably belonged to some of the first settlers of the Black Hills. She wondered why it didn't show up as a historical site on her maps. Probably the owners had kept the property privatized for their own wishes.

The kitchen was still set up like the last day someone had lived here. The china had a thick layer of dust and mildew, the sink especially smelly. But there was nothing in the pantry or refrigerators. Her suspicions about the power were confirmed by the blank digital readout on the microwave.

Nicole proceeded upstairs, after assuring herself that the stairs wouldn't cave in, and found three bedrooms. Each had open drawers and closets, with signs of a hurried departure. Whoever had lived here, they packed up quickly and gotten out. Out of simple curiosity, Nicole wandered into one of the bathrooms and flipped the knob on the shower handle. For a split second, she allowed herself the hope that for once she might get running water on her month-long camping trip.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Not even a drop leaked out of the rusted, mold covered spout up top.

Downstairs again, she walked into the den, and found a curious note left on one of the desks.

Can't stay here any longer. Water and electricity are out. Headed west to Evergreen. Heard they still have necessities. -Charley

Nicole frowned, rereading the note. Evergreen? She had to think for a moment. No, she hadn't been that far west yet. That was almost right up against the Wyoming state border. Probably right along the old quarantine line. Nicole had specific instructions never to wander that far west in her scavenging.

She would have to consider rescinding that instruction.

Outside, there were a few old tractors and farming equipment under old tarps. Aside from a bit of rust, they seemed in good condition. There was no fuel in any of them, wise on the part of Charley. The barn and sheds still had a lot of the basic equipment, but she found places where things had been taken in the hasty departure. There was no fuel.

Walking back out onto the main yard, Nicole placed her hands on her hips, surveying the scenery around her one more time. She felt disappointed. She wasn't sure why, either. From the moment she had tied Rory up half a mile back up the ridge she suspected the place was abandoned. She was further certain of this when she waited on the ridgeline over the property. Why had she expected otherwise?

The place had definitely remained forgotten from the rest of the Hills. No one had even looted the place.

Nicole walked over to the porch, finding a flat space to set down her pack. She rummaged around to find her maps; old, worn pieces of thick paper that had turned brown over the years of use and abuse. They also looked like a five-year-old had gotten a hold of a marker and scribbled profusely.

But these were her guides to the Hills. Everywhere she had traveled as a scout was marked on here, with explicit notes on what to expect, the people living (or not) there, and especially where there was food and other resources to be aware of.

It took her a moment to trace exactly where she was. This was definitely one of the farthest out places she had gone in this latest expedition. She had spent nearly all of her travel time just getting here. She drew a little symbol to indicate no one was presently living here, but that there was potential land use. She also added a symbol for the possibility of basic farming equipment. All little reminders of what she had found and what to report on to the Council when she returned.

After stowing her maps and slipping back on her pack, Nicole turned back towards the ridge. She left the house, the property, and forgotten inhabitants without another glance. Though she did keep a mental note of Evergreen.

We're going to find something out about you.

Hiking back up the ridge, she brushed a few bugs out of her short trimmed dark hair. There were few bloodsuckers up in these parts for the most part, except an occasional mosquito. The air was a little humid, but a cool breeze made up the difference. To be honest, Nicole loved living in these woods. Applying for position of scout had been more than appealing; it was an escape from the nightmare of the rest of the world collapsing. Out here, under the tall pines and conifers, everything very wrong in the world seemed far away and more of a dream.

A few minutes later, she finally arrived at the tree where Rory, her appaloosa, was tied up. He had found a few clovers to munch on patiently in her absence, and took little notice of her return. She patted his nose gently, and he grunted in acknowledgement.

Nicole was always a little anxious bringing him along to places she hadn't scouted out previously. If anything ever happened to her, Rory was a goner. No one would be coming for him, and any infected would eventually find their way to him. She hoped tying him up a good distance away would at least deter any of the curious and give him some sort of a fighting chance.

The only problem was that she dare didn't leave his rope slack. Rory would wander off in a heartbeat.

"Don't know what I can do about you," she muttered, climbing back up into the saddle. "Can't leave you with too much freedom. Otherwise I'll never get back to town."

She gave him a nudge with her boots, and Rory turned back towards the ridge. They had bushwhacked it to this point, and it would be at least an hour or two to get back to the road. Nicole wasn't in any particular hurry. Besides, she still had to make up her mind as to whether she was finally going to head back into town or not.

The journey to Deadwood was nearly two days. Most of her time was spent combing every inch of the Black Hills. Each expedition lasted about a month or longer, depending on how much she could get accomplished. Some runs she rarely had contact with a soul. Others she could hit up nearly every rancher and hermit that still lived out here. More visits meant more to report, and cut her expedition times down.

This particular excursion had been focused so much on pushing further west that she had seen few of her regulars. She had no shortage of items to report on. Plenty of equipment, crops, and supplies had been located, but her push westward would be hard to distract in her report. The Council would clearly see that she had intentionally headed out this far. Peter would probably give her flack.

Nicole sighed. Oh, Peter. He always seemed to cringe every time she set out again. As if each time there was a chance she wouldn't be coming home. Unlikely. As much as she was precautious and kept a look out, there hadn't been any sighting of plague-infected for the last eight years. Not since the days of the quarantine.

But she had something good this time around: Evergreen. No one, as far as she knew, had kept in touch with that small community. Maybe she could get an excuse to investigate. After all, Nicole was fairly certain none of the other scouts had dared venture as far as she had. They all had a bad feeling about it; partly stigma created by the Council, Peter being no shortage of the blame.

The note came wandering back into her mind again. It was so brief; barely even conveying any details about the individuals that had lived there all those years. Who did they know in Evergreen? How were they certain it was worth the trip? The moment that South Dakota went into lock-down, Deadwood extended its reach out to Lead, and most of the northern Black Hills community. The plan was to get everyone in the know about who was in charge as the system came crashing down. People wanted to know if they would still have power; water. Food.

Yes, several communities and individuals had slipped through the cracks. The Black Hills were vast, and there was only so much Deadwood could do to reach out when the infrastructure of modern technology was collapsing. Somehow, Rapid City had orchestrated ways to keep lights on and water running for mostly everyone. A blessing, but with a steep cost.

So where did Evergreen fit into this? Was Deadwood well aware of them, and more or less kept them as the source of information regarding what was going on west? Maybe the City Council knew things Nicole should find out.

By the time Rory pushed out of the woods and down into the old, cracked country road, Nicole had made up her mind. She would make the trek back to town. Besides, it had been a month. Her family was always so sad to see her gone for such long periods of time. Especially after her father had left them to work on the quarantine.

If Nicole had known how things would turn out, she might have gone with him. Or at least said a lot more in that goodbye before he left.

Rory took Nicole at a casual pace up the road over the course of the day, largely in silence. The sun slowly turned from bright yellow to dull orange, and the forest shadows grew ever deeper around them. Before the light was completely gone, Nicole halted Rory and consulted her general map.

Wow, she was pretty far west. There weren't many usual places she had marked to settle down for the night. The nearest one was at least five hours out. It would be too dark by then, and Nicole was always anxious about traveling at night. Eight years or not, she didn't want tonight to be the night that she walked right into a horde of infected unwittingly.

She cast a weary glance back over her shoulder at the horizon. It was mostly obscured by another ridge, topped with pines in neat rows. The sun was long gone, the last orange and yellow glows of light fading fast. It was time to set up camp.

"C'mon," she said, giving Rory another gentle nudge with her boots.

She changed direction, leading them off the road and down into a small gully by the woods. There was little brush down here, perfectly fine as far as she was concerned. After heading into the forest for a few yards, she decided she was far enough off the beaten path to be unnoticed by travelers.

Nicole located a small ground clearing, the trees still thick overhead. She got Rory situated, starting on his evening meal, and then got her own gear in place. A small mat and sleeping bag served her well enough. This time of year was fine enough to sleep under an open sky. On the off chance she ever got inclement weather, trees and rocky outcroppings provided enough shelter. They were into the summer season now, anyway, so Nicole felt a little spoiled. The weather would be quite well for the next few months. She could get in at least four more solid expeditions before scaling back for the winter months.

By the time she was satisfied with camp, including a few trip sensors set up in a forty-foot perimeter around their clearing, the last sunlight had faded, leaving them largely in darkness. Nicole sat on her mat, taking a moment to let her eyes adjust. It didn't take long, and soon she could see the outlines of Rory and her gear with ease. She pulled out her peanut butter stash, a couple of slices of old bread, and made herself an impromptu dinner. She wasn't that hungry, anyway. Tomorrow she would go hunting for breakfast and get something a little more filling.

As she bit into the stale morsels, Nicole chewed slowly, tuning her ears to the ambiance of the forest. There was a lot more noise now than during the day. Lots of bugs chirping and humming, though of little concern. A few birds, some rustling in the distance that could be any sort of animal moving about.

There was always a slim chance she would run into a mountain lion, but a dirty little fact was how quick they had been hunted down after the infection-plague. With no more federal government in charge, none of the farmers or locals wanted them getting in the way. It was bad enough keeping one eye open for infected, let alone local predators.

Besides, Nicole always kept a few deterrent scents on her person to plant around her campsites. Those warded off any of the curious. Something she had picked up in Deadwood; one a local merchant made up. She didn't know what was in it, and really didn't want to find out. But it was mostly inert to Nicole's nose, and had left her with near-zero contact around her campsites. Animals tended to stay away from humans anyway. They were big, smelly apes that scared the shit out of them. That always helped Nicole sleep a little better at night.

Though maybe not so tonight. Nicole perked up her ears. She could hear something new on the move. It was a ways off. Maybe even along the outer edge of the woods near the road. But it was making quite a ruckus, tramping through the undergrowth in the gully.

It didn't take her long to decide it was human. No animal tromped like that. Whoever they were, they sounded like they were probably trying to deter any animals from taking curiosity of it, too. So it was someone who was familiar with traveling in these parts.

Of course, this was all speculation on her part. It could just as easily be a plague-infected, wandering aimlessly in search of sustenance for an eternal hunger.

The noise came to a near dead stop. Nicole listened hard, hoping she was off. If she had gauged it right, whoever it was had stopped near parallel with where she had taken Rory off the road and come back to their clearing. Could they see her path? She hadn't made any effort to cover her tracks. It would be easy to see.

Okay, definitely human. But maybe a plague-infected was looking for smell and not necessarily tracks.

The movement resumed, this time straight into the woods in her direction. Nicole had long since finished her meal, and gingerly reached for her Glock stored in the holster still attached to her belt. As the tromping got closer, her fingers locked around the cool metal of the gun's grip. She waited a few minutes as the sound got within a few yards of her camp.

Then it stopped. Nicole squinted in the darkness. Even though her eyes had adjusted well, the foliage was really too thick for her to make out anything at that distance. If they came much closer, they would trip her proximity sensors and then she would leap into action. But whoever they were, they seemed to have instinctively stopped short of those.

The tromping continued, this time off in a new direction, somewhere away from her camp. Nicole's grip on her Glock remained firm, and she held it so for the next five minutes until the tromping had nearly disappeared down a dip somewhere in the forest.

They were gone.

Nicole exhaled, falling back against her sleeping bag. She realized her heart was racing and took a few calming breaths. There was nothing to worry about. There weren't any plague-infected in these woods, and if there were, they certainly wouldn't turn tail at that close of proximity to food.

But who were they? And why had they changed direction so abruptly? It was almost as if they had known she was there and intentionally avoided her camp. That thought made her groan inside, because she knew she wouldn't sleep well tonight. Her ears would be too attuned to the noises of the forest, searching vainly in case her mysterious hiker came back, perhaps hoping to catch her in an unguarded moment.

Nicole detached her holster, slipping it under her pack by her right side. In a pinch, she could grab it up and have it aimed in all of a split-second. If an attacker did decide to come back, she was ready.

The night was warm, so she slipped out of her thick pants and leather top. Nicole wasn't too thrilled about fighting off an attacker in the nude, but sleeping in her sweat stained and filthy clothes wasn't the most pleasant. And it was itchy.

After curling up inside, checking briefly to see Rory now nodding off as well, Nicole settled in for a hopefully restful sleep. She didn't have a watch to consult, so there was no point trying to guess the time. The only time that mattered was sun up.

So she slept.