The Next Generation Chapters

Written by: heartsoflead

Amongst the rubble and destruction, Amara watched the city in complete chaos. It had only been weeks since another virus plagued the world. This time it took the adults that molded what was now left of the city- the ones who knew the secrets to surviving a true apocalypse. She had heard the stories of the Locos, Demon Dogs, and Jackals; she knew every story of every hardship that the Mallrats had faced to stay alive. She had grown up feeling hopeful for the future. Now that all that hope was torn from her, what was she to live for?

She knew the answer to that- Her mother, Amber. She had to live for Amber. She was the last to die of the virus. Amara made sure to spend every moment with her on her deathbed. Amber had been the leader of the Mallrats. From day one, she kept order within the tribe.

“I know I’m dying, Amara.” Amber had told her daughter. The rasp in her voice was almost unbearable to listen to. Her brow was sweating uncontrollably. She squint her eyes to focus on her daughter’s face. Amber coughed and continued on. “I don’t want sorrow. My life is over, as are my struggles. Yours have only just begun. My dream was to survive. I want you to keep that dream alive.”

Amara wanted nothing more than to survive, but how could she with all of the brewing chaos? How could she rest at night knowing there were tribes with access to weapons? Tribes had moved on from technological and religious take over. It was now all about force by gunpoint. Guns were like gold, and everyone had one while others wanted more.

She ran her fingers over the metal breastplate on her chest. Within weeks she had to wear metal all over her body for protection. Though she had access to guns, she never kept one on her. To take another life made Amara feel like she was one of them- a blood thirsty psycho.

A sudden round of guns firing caught her off guard. They sounded close. All of this chaos was diverting her mind from the real reason she was here. Looting. The adults kept food storage “hot spots” around the city. Since they began thinning out, kids would take what they want when they wanted it. Nobody took the time to trade, and if they did, they’d only trade weapons. She was sure that most of the kids living in the city now hadn’t seen a decent meal in a very long while.

Amara began walking, the satchel she was wearing bumping against her lower back. She’d already picked up a couple of loose cans from around the streets. It was nothing much, but just a few unmarked cans could keep her tribe satisfied for a few extra days. As she knelt down to pick up a rather dented can of peaches, a foot stepped on her hand. She yelped in pain as she looked up.

A face glared down at her. He was dressed like a police officer, though his trousers and shirt were ripped and stained with spray paint. He had gauges in both ears, large enough to fit two fingers. The two shining studs from his lower lip winked at her. “Well, what’s this. We have a rat out during the day. I thought your kind only looted at night?” He removed his foot from her hand, and as he did so, she turned to run away. He grabbed her arm, causing her to jerk backwards. “You’re in Bulldog territory, Babe. You know the penalty for looting in Bulldog territory, dontcha?”

Amara’s scream was caught in her throat. She tried to pull away, but his grasp was so tight. His hand reached for his back pocket. Amara knew it was a gun. Bulldogs were known for having guns on them at all times. She kept struggling in his grasp until finally she felt the cool, metal of the pistol on her cheek. Instantly, she was still. Her eyes widened. Was this how it was going to end for her? She was going to be shot by this kid who assumed he had the authority over whether or not she lived or died?

In a boom of sound, the grasp on her arm loosened and the kid was on the ground. Blood sputtered from his head as he lay lifeless on the concrete of the street. Amara turned to the source of the loud noise, a small smile slowly shaped across her lips. “Thanks.”

Her half brother, Bray, smiled back, putting his handgun back into its holster. “Looting at three in the afternoon? That Bulldog was right. Rats never loot during the day.”

“Yeah, well, we’ve been running low.” Amara ran her fingers through her dark hair as she glanced at the kid, his blood now spidering toward the sewer grate. “Food is running out. The lack of traders trading food has really affected us greatly. Plus, I think we have a thief on our hands.”

“Really, now?” Bray said, amused. “Must be one of the kids.”

“Maybe.” Amara couldn’t stop looking at the kid, dead on the ground. Life would no longer flourish in his lungs. His heart would no longer beat. He was just another dead body in the nameless count of millions. A chill flowed up her spine as she turned her attention to Bray. “Let’s go back, please? I don’t need anymore rescues at gunpoint.”

Bray laughed, wrapping his arm around Amara’s shoulders. “I think there should be more rescues at gunpoint! Did you see how precise that shot was? Damn. I’m getting good.” He boasted as they began the trip home. Amara couldn’t help but roll her eyes. Her half brother and herself could not be anymore different.

Walking back into the Mall was like a breath of fresh air after you’d been trying to breathe underwater. The tensions outside the Mall seemed to float off Amara’s shoulders the instant she set foot inside this safe haven.

“Saving my half-sisters life sure gives me an appetite.” Bray said, ruffling Amara’s hair. They both walked up the steps of the mall, to the kitchen. He made his way over to the pantry that Amara had instantly begun filling with some of the food she had looted in the city. “Looks like we’re missing a few cans of baked beans?” Bray noted as he grabbed one of the cans of peaches Amara had just restocked.

“We have a set amount of how much the members of this tribe can eat!” Amara shut the pantry, angrily. They’d had meeting after meeting about the food issues and still these kids didn’t get it. “What would Mom do?” Amara turned to Bray who was already gorging himself.

“I know.” Bray said, swallowing a mouth full of peaches. “Lock the pantry.”

Amara shook her head. “Locking the pantry would lead to a full out battle. I already can name a couple of people who wouldn’t be okay with that.” She walked over to the table that Bray was sitting at and sat across from him. She folded her hands together and rested her chin on her knuckles. “Things are just rough. Finding food is getting harder and harder with each passing minute. What we have stored isn’t enough.” The Mallrats had their own food storage and within a couple of weeks they’d been dangerously close to having nothing.

Bray wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I dunno. You’ve just gotta fight to survive.”

“Fight?” Amara laughed. “I don’t want to fight. I want to just? be. What’s so wrong with that?”

“I guess you haven’t been out there, but they’re using guns now. Weapons. Things that the? what’s their names? The Technos and Locos and Chastened-”

“The Chosen.” Amara corrected him.

“Right. They never had the weapons that everyone has now. And even back in the Elders time, they had to fight. Face it. In society today, we will never just ‘be’. Fighting is just what has to be done from now on.”

“I think there’s another way.” She knew there had to be. What about Gandhi? What about Civil Disobedience? It worked in the past. Why can’t we use those techniques for our future?

“Alright, Freedom Fighter.” Bray replied, gulping down his last bit of peaches and drinking the syrup left behind.

Falcon hated the city.

The air was so stale and dead. On one brief trip there as a nestling, he remembered how the wind blew smells of rotten metal from various old buildings. Despite the democracy that had ensued, he still saw many stray children wandering around, digging through trash to find food. Everything had seemed so unfriendly, right down to the stray cats in the alley. When he rushed home before sundown, he could remember his mother swatting his behind with a bamboo stick. “What have I told you about the city?” She told him, angrily, drying the small tears from his eyes. “People die there. Men will snatch you up and take you to a place far away from Mommy. Crazy people are there, Falcon… terribly insane people.”

When his mother had died, his younger sister, River, thought it best that he go back there. “Mom died of a strange disease. If it couldn’t be diagnosed here, maybe a doctor in the city could tell you more about it. Maybe it could save the rest of us.”

Falcon had crossed his arms around his chest. “Save us? Whatever this is, it’s only hitting the elders of the tribe. Besides, I’m not going into that filthy place. It’s only existence is to breed slime.”

“That’s where Mother was raised? You know just as well as I do that things have changed.”

He threw his arms into the air. “Really, River? Can you honestly believe that things have changed there? I hear whispers from the trees. They cry of such destruction and sadness whenever the wind blows from the east. The city is probably where this virus came from. Mom wouldn’t have wanted me to go-”

“Well, Mom’s dead!” River yelled. Her green eyes were fierce, surrounded by her pale, porcelain skin. Freckles dusted her flushed cheeks. “She’s dead, Falcon. And if you’re wrong about this virus, we all will die too.”

Falcon hated to see River angry. Though she was only a year younger and a foot or two shorter, she had the temper of a grizzly bear. “Fine.” He said, bitterly. “I’ll go.”

River spun on the heals of her feet, collecting things off of various shelves in her hut and gently placing them into an empty woven satchel. “There is a tribe Mom used to talk about- The Mallrats. Find them and tell them of this sickness.” She stopped for a moment, touching something around her neck. In one swift movement, she pulled on it. Slowly turning around, she stretched out her hand and dropped something into Falcon’s palm.

It was her locket. He opened it and saw a picture of a woman smiling at him. “Who’s-”

“I’m not sure of her name, but Mom used to tell me that they were great friends. They were both Mallrats back when they were nestlings. Give that to them. They’ll identify the girl and hopefully identify our Mom.” River picked up the satchel and handed it to Falcon.

It had been four days since he left The Eco’s base. River had packed a week worth of dried fish and berries for him, along with a small blade for hunting. She insisted he packed more, but Falcon told her he didn’t need many things. He’d lived off the earth almost all his life. If he ran out of something, he knew it wouldn’t take him long to retrieve it himself.

Falcon could see the buildings of the city in the distance. With each step closer he could feel the air getting caught in his lungs. The locket in his pocket felt twenty pounds heavier than it should have. It was a firm reminder of why he was doing this- his tribe and his sister needed his help. A couple more steps could easily be the answers that they were all hoping for him to find.

He stopped and made an abrupt turn to his right. A boy a couple yards away had a rifle pointed toward him. Falcon raised both hands in retreat, having no idea what else to do.

“Who are you?” The kid asked. His head was shaved, leaving small patches here and there which were dyed different greens and browns. Shaved into his eyebrows were small lines. On his chest was a shiny metal plate with dents by the heart. He looked dirty, like he’d previously been rolling in a mud pit. The smell of him made Falcon’s stomach churn.

“I’m from the Eco Tribe. My name is Falcon.” He replied, bowing his head slightly. “Is there anything wrong?”

“You’re on Bulldog territory.” He said while cocking his gun. “We don’t appreciate tree huggers.”

Falcon lowered one hand slowly, trying to grope the inside of his satchel for his knife. “Maybe we can talk this out? I have some food you might be interested in? You look like you haven’t ate a decent meal in days.”

It was true; the boy looked skinny as a rail. There were deep pits in his cheeks which were sunken in. The whites of his eyes were now a dull yellow. “Oh? And what will you feed me? Some bloody roots and berries?” He seemed to get a kick out of his own joke. He started cackling like a mad man.

Having grabbed the knife, Falcon immediately dropped to the ground. The boy noticed this sudden movement and lowered his gun. Just as his finger hit the trigger, Falcon rolled quickly and jumped back to his feet. As soon as the boy cocked his gun again, Falcon began running toward him in a zigzagging motion. The boy couldn’t keep up with him. With each shot, the stray bullets would hit a tree or the ground. Falcon jumped and landed on top of the boy, the knife in his hand on the boy’s neck. “Drop your gun.” Falcon told him.

With a scared look in his droopy eyes, the boy did as he was told. “You ain’t gonna kill me.” He spat in Falcon’s face.

“Really?” Falcon asked, pressing the knife closer, almost digging into the boy’s skin. He knew he could never really kill anyone- it was hard enough to kill animals for the hunt. The only thing that could allow him to sleep at night was to know that he’d set their spirit free to be reborn into something greater. “I could kill you with just one swoop of my knife, you son of a-”

A jutting pain shot through Falcon’s body as he recoiled backwards, his knife falling out of his hand, the other hand blindly landed on his stomach. There was blood, everywhere. He looked over at the boy who had a long knife in his hand, a smile on his ugly face. “Look who’s stuck now.” He smirked, grabbing his gun from the ground and running off.

Falcon laid there, the pain so great in his stomach that he couldn’t move. All he could feel was sadness overcome him. He hadn’t even made it to the city and he was going bleed to death on the outskirts. What would River say? He wondered if Mom was watching from the Beyond. He wondered if she was disappointed. He wondered-

Everything went black. A sudden fatigue fell over him as he felt two arms picked him up?

Falcon opened one eye to blinding light, and then shut it again. Groaning, he rubbed both of them with balled fists. When he finally opened his eyes, he saw he was in a white room. The blinding lights were coming from the open windows. He turned on his side to look outside and noticed buildings against blue sky. Was he dead? Maybe this was hell?

“Hey, guys? he’s awake.” A female’s voice seemed to say out of nowhere.

Falcon sat up quickly. A jutting pain went through his entire body, causing him to suck in his breath. His head turned toward where the voice was coming from. It was a female. She was a beautiful brown hair, brown eyed angel. “H-hi.” He responded, stunned.

“My friends found you while on our rounds for food. One of them carried you back here, to our mall.” She spoke softly, yet she was sure of her words. She sounded to him like a leader. “I’m Amara. This is Niko and Tristan.” She motioned to the two people sitting next to her.

Falcon only glanced at the two of them but stared at Amara. He couldn’t help it. She was just so lovely.

“And you are?” Niko cut in.

“Falcon.” He told them, drawing his attention away from Amara. “I’m from the Eco Tribe. I’m looking for some people? the Mallrats.”

“Looks like you’ve come to the right place.” Tristan said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You’re looking at us? well, some of us.”

Falcon’s eyes lit up. “You’re the Mallrats? Is this the mall?” He sat up, this time ignoring the sharp pain in his stomach. “I’ve got something for you.” He patted his pants pockets, trying to find the locket that his sister had given him. He couldn’t feel anything but fabric. “This locket? My sister gave it to me to give to you. It was my Mother’s. She died from a mysterious virus. It’s been hitting all our elders. I’ve come to ask for your help. I’ve been told that you could cure it. You have the antidote.”

The three Mallrats looked at each other, then back at Falcon as if he had three heads. Niko opened her mouth but Amara cut in before her. “Your mother was right. We do have an antidote-”

“Then you can give it to me. I could save our Tribe-”

“It doesn’t work.” Tristan told him, his hand still rested on Falcon’s shoulder. “Our elders have died too. We tried giving the exact same antidote we had before, but the virus must have mutated into something even worse than anyone has ever seen. There was nothing we could do.”

Falcon lay back on his pillowed bed. He was quiet. How could this be? He heard his Mother talk about a virus that destroyed her parents, but how could it come back in a second wave? What if it grows into something that could potentially destroy them?

“I’m sorry, Falcon.” Amara told him, solemnly.

“I have to leave.” He lifted himself up and stiffly moved his legs to the side of the bed. “I have to get back to River, she needs me-”

“Woah, you’re not going anywhere!” Niko exclaimed as herself, Tristan and Amara tried to stop him. “You’ve got internal stab wounds. If it wasn’t for Tristan, you’d be dead right now? bleeding from the inside out in the woods.”

Falcon suddenly felt weak again, another wave of fatigue swept over him. “But, I-”

“You need rest.” Tristan told him, covering him back up. “Sleep. When you wake up, we’ll have a meal for you and we can discuss more.”

“Right…” Eyes starting to close, Falcon was on the edge of awake.

“Did you see the way he was eyeing you up?” Niko said to Amara, nudging her slightly with her elbow. “He’s kind of cute? Maybe you could get to know him better.” Niko placed her had into Tristan’s, indicating that maybe Amara should try an intimate relationship.

Amara glared at the girl and shook her head. “Tell me if he wakes.” She said to the both of them before she walked out of the hospital wing.

With two burlap bags in her hands, Lux walked down the ally closest to Sector 7- or what was left of it. Sector 7 had been established as the trading market. Amber had set it up herself, allowing for each tribe in the city to set their own hut for traded goods. Now, as Lux jumped the wrought iron bars of a security fence, she didn’t see the cheerful faces of hopeful kids, trading baskets or homemade jellies for fresh fish. She saw Bulldog tents lining both sides of the ally.

Lux pulled the hood of her coat over her eyes. Making eye contact with these people could be deadly. Anger coursed through their veins, an anger that Lux could never understand.

She arrived at tent number ten- Fang’s tent. He was the most feared Bulldog of them all. Tough as nails, he killed just for the fun of it. The metallic smell of blood turned him on. She had been to him before, the fear of him becoming less and less with each visit. He liked her- said she had a spunk about her, though everything she’d ever told him had been a lie. To him, she was Pandora from a nomad tribe out west. Each visit with him, they swapped bloody tales. It gave her a thrill to make an alter-ego for herself.

“Pandora? it’s been a while.” Fang sat in a makeshift throne, sporting a gnarled looking top hat and scuffed up leather shoes. He had a beauty about him that nobody else saw, except for Lux. Fang was less of a bulldog and more of a puppy. “How have you been? What’s in those bags?”

“Last time we spoke, you needed a meal.” She emptied the bags onto the floor, revealing cans upon cans of food and chocolate. “Here’s your meal.”

He stood up and walked over to her. He knelt on one knee and examined the cans. “Beans? Peaches? Corn? Chocolate?” Fang picked up a bar of chocolate and brought it to his nose. He inhaled deeply, and then exhaled, his eyes rolling in ecstasy. “Oh, how I’ve missed chocolate.”

Lux couldn’t help but smirk. “Well, it’s there. All of it is yours- but I need a favor.”

He slowly stood up, towering over Lux. Any stray in the city would have instantly cowered down to him, but Lux knew better. “Favors? You’ve never asked me for favors before…”

“I need it this time, friend.” She gazed into his dark eyes, the eyes, she felt, of a scared child. “You have something of great value to me.”

Fang turned his back away from Lux. Although he had labeled her as a friend rather than foe, her gaze was just too much for him to take at the moment. He crossed his arms over his chest. “What is it, Pandora.”

“I need Zoots goggles.” She said, so very sure of the words she was speaking.

Fang turned back towards her, his eyes narrowed. “How do you know I even own something of such value?”

“Fang, you are the wealthiest person in the city right now. I know who the Almighty was to your family, to your mother. She worshiped him after the first virus broke out. She was his queen. It’s only assumed that you own something of his.” Lux got down on one knee, now even smaller than he and yet her gaze still pierced his heart to the core. “I’ve only been told of his greatness in stories.”

Her stone cold hand reached for his. It chilled him how badly she wanted this prize. A weakness of his was for women, this of which Lux knew. Fang slowly pulled her up to a standing position and kissed her white hand. “For you, Pandora? But only for you.”

Turning toward one of his rather fat guards, he snapped his fingers. Immediately the guardsman waddled out of the tent. Still turned away from her, he shut both of his eyes. "I would never do this for anybody else. Giving away such a precious artifact for a few tin cans and chocolate… that’s not the reason. You, my darling, are the reason?"Again, he turned to face her. His hard jaw line softened and the lines that creased his forehead flattened out. He looked like an actual person again. As he opened his mouth, the pudgy man waddled back in with a leather hatbox. He bowed, handing it over to Fang.

As slowly and carefully as possible, Fang took the top of the hatbox off, lifting the dusty hat out of it. All the while, Lux kept reminding herself of plan B- the blades in the inside of her boots and wound with hemp around her forearms, the pistol tied to the inside of her thigh and tear gas strapped to her back. All in case of an emergency, though she knew what she was doing. For years, she watched people- how they acted, what made them tick. Since she began coming to the Bulldogs Hideaway, she studied how Fang worked, soon developing a sick obsession with bringing him down.

After he handed it to her, Lux placed it in one of the bags that she had filled food with. Her skin was beginning to prickle, the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end. “Thank you, Fang.” She said, rubbing his temple to his cheekbone with the back of her hand, bypassing the harsh cold metal of his eyebrow rings.

He looked into her eyes for a couple of moments, feeling her soft hand on his cheek. Those eyes? pale blue, like the color of ice and metal. He couldn’t help himself? he grabbed a hold of her blond hair and pulled her face into his, capturing her lips in a rough kiss. As he pulled the fistful of her hair away, he bit her lip, hard, drawing blood. Fang let go, waving her away from him.

Lux smirked at him, wiping her lip with the back of her hand. The thoughts running through her head when she left his tent were burning her eyes with tears. Happy tears. Thrilled, excited, entirely too pleased tears that finally she’d be able to do what she’d dreamed about for a very long while.

Fang watched the back of Pandora’s messy blond hair pass through the exit of his tent, the smell of lavender still wafted in the air from her passing. His white knuckled hand clutched the arm of his throne. In life, he had learned to not trust a soul. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. His mother, Ebony, was a firm believer in that theory. Pandora had come to him plenty of times, though the first would always stick in his mind.

She walked into his tent with those stone blue eyes. He could feel the fury within her, not the kind that ran through his blood, but a different kind. He couldn’t put his finger on it. Without even touching her beautiful face, he knew she was as soft as a flower. She told him stories of slaughtering hundreds of old Techno prisoners back before the adults passed. Pandora always smiled a wicked little smile when she mentioned the tears of the innocent, or while describing the asphyxiating smell of blood soaked clothing. When he began hoping that she and him would cross paths again, he knew that it was completely out of character. Never before had he craved someone’s companionship so much.

But this trip was different. He had he seen such desperation in her eyes. He smelled betrayal the moment she walked through the door. “Call for Nathaniel.” Fang barked to his guardsman. He nodded and scurried out of the tent.

Fang sighed. What was this feeling erupting from his heart and pulsating through his veins? Not only was he looking forward to her beauty gracing him, but he welcomed those dreams where she stood over poor innocent men and women, bleeding. Twisted, they were, but all the while beautiful to him. He knew there had to be more to this little wench than what she was putting on the table.

“You called?” Nathaniel, Fang’s twin brother walked in. They shared very similar features, though Nathaniel had white hair while Fang had jet black. Nathaniel’s leather jacket was aligned with spikes, inside and out. Pain. The man lived for pain.

“You know that little tart that walked through the tent a bit ago? Blond girl, striking eyes, pale complexion-”

“Why, yes. I noticed her hopping the security fence. She happens by your place a lot, dear brother?”

Fang’s face fell. He hated when Nathaniel saw him with his guard down. “Business, of course.” Fang fumbled on his thoughts for a moment, but then got back on track. “I want you to follow her. Tell me where she stays. Do not make yourself known.”

Nathaniel smirked. “Damn. I should have liked a little torture in the afternoon?”

“No. Leave the torturing to me, brother.”

With a small bow, Nathaniel turned away from Fang and returned to the city streets.

“The reason I called you all to this meeting is because we’re having a growing problem.” Amara paced the floor slightly, the others had scattered chairs around her. Most of her tribe was there, except for Lux. Amara hadn’t seen the girl all day long. "I’ve been keeping a tight food inventory and I?ve noticed that every week at least six cans of food go missing. We’re almost completely out of chocolate and dried fruit. Now, I’m not sure who has been doing it, so I?m asking if anyone knows something, please, fess up now.’

“You don’t think that the one person who isn’t here could be the person who’s been doing it?” The voice was coming from Brady, sitting in the back of the crowd. Her arm was rested on one of the tables, her lace gloved hand sitting under her chin. Her black hair curtained her pale face, leaving the look of utter boredom in shadow. She was almost the spitting image of her mother, with the temper of a tiger. “We never see Lux. She leaves for days sometimes and comes back whenever she feels it’s necessary or she can get a free meal out of it. Obvious red flag there?”

“You shouldn’t point fingers.” Niko blurted out from the other side of the cafe. “For all we know, it could be you.”

“Why would I even bother?” Brady asked, feeling the rage building in her chest.

“Who knows what you do while you sit in your room all day, barely social, keeping the sunlight out.” Niko spat back, her knuckles white with annoyance. Tristan slipped his hand over hers, trying to calm her down a bit. “How do we know what side you’re on?”

“You know where my loyalties lie, Niko.” Brady shouted. A red blush started to burn across her cheeks. “I’ve been in this mall longer than you have- longer than most of you!” For the longest time, Brady protested the fact that Amara was trying to take up role as leader, but Amara knew well that the girl could never handle such a position. Her temper could get them all killed, easily, as well as her emotions.

“That doesn’t mean you have a right to point a finger at Lux.” Tristan told her in a very calm voice. It was almost impossible to anger him.

“You can’t even talk! Niko only brought you here because she felt sorry for you!” Brady shouted at him.

“Now, that’s enough!” Bray yelled, but his voice was over powered by Niko’s bought of screaming.

“Don’t you dare! He has every right to be here. More of a right then you do, might I add. At least he DOES something around this mall! You just sit on your royal behind and cry over your dear ol’ Mum.” Niko knew she hit a soft spot and prepared herself for the storm that would be raging within seconds…

Brady’s face contorted in rage. Amara could see the girl balling up her fist, ready to strike. She stood up, throwing the chair she was sitting on behind her so it made a loud clatter. “Stop it! We are a tribe! Why are we fighting like a bunch of Bulldogs?” Both girls looked down at their feet, ashamed at the fight they let break out. “This meeting is a matter of if we have enough food to fill our stomachs! We’re going to have to cut down our food intake- three cans a day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. No exceptions. And as for Lux…” Amara panned her glare at both of the girls.

“As for me, what.”

Everyone turned to find Lux, standing in the lobby of the mall. She had mud caked in her hair and on her boots. Her eyes were wide with curiosity as she crossed her arms over her chest.

“We’re missing food from the rations.” Amara said as Lux began walking up the steps, into the cafe. She took a seat next to Bray. “A large amount of it has gone missing for the past couple of weeks. I was just telling everyone if they know where it has gone, they should tell me as soon as possible. I know Jack left this mall secure before he passed, so I can’t imagine we have an outside thief on our hands.”

“It can’t be an outsider. I’ve been keeping up on security measures.” Lux replied. Her heart tensed a bit, but she was well aware that she had to play it off. She couldn’t let everyone know that she had traded almost all their rations for Zoot’s goggles. “Maybe it’s someone with some kind of problem?”

“A problem? HA.” Brady blurted out. “The only problem that someone has is kleptomania. Or selfishness. Which one is it, Lux? Did you eat it all yourself, or is it just a thrill for you?”

“Enough, Brady!” Bray yelled, causing her to instantly get quiet. He knew she had the tongue of a snake. He grew up with her; she was closer to him than his half sister was. “We’ll just have to do what Amara says if nobody is willing to fess up. Let’s not argue. It gets us nowhere.”

“Bray’s right.” Tristan said. “We’ll follow the rules, nobody will get hurt. Negativity will lead us to a dead end and more fighting?” He noted, followed by a dramatic eyeroll from Brady.

“Meeting finished. You may all be dismissed.” Amara announced to her own pleasure. Everybody stood up to go about their business, but as Lux stood up to go, Amara motioned her over. “Lux! Can I have a word?”

Lux walked over to her, tucking a strand of her blond, muddy hair behind her ear. “Yeah?”

“You’re a bit? dirty. Where have you been?” Amara asked, touching Lux’s sleeve where the mud began to harden.

“Looting- trying to find weapons for our storage, in case of Tribal warfare.” Lux quickly pulled away- Amara’s hands only a couple inches away from the wound on her arm. A stab wound. “It’s crazy out there?”

“Yes, it is.” Amara could sense that the girl wanted to change the subject. “I know we have surveillance cameras in the sewers and one outside the mall? I was wondering if we had any extra. I was thinking that maybe if I could catch the perpetrator in the act, I could sleep better at night.”

“Yeah? I’m sure I have a couple more. I could set them up for you, as well as giving direct cable to one of Dad’s old laptops. Constant feedback, Twenty-four hours a day, Seven days a week. Sound good?” Lux asked.

“Perfect. Can you accomplish this by tonight?”

“Sure. Let me just work out the kinks.” Lux smiled at Amara, but on the inside she knew that without her offerings, she couldn’t keep Fang on her side. The way to a man’s heart is through is stomach, but maybe she could find her way around it. With this sudden flaw in her plan, maybe the direct route to the heart was the only way.