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all i need is the air that i breathe, and to love you

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The year is 2023. 



The world as we know it has been ravaged by a deadly fungal infection - the Cordyceps Brain Infection (CBI). Since the outbreak’s onset in 2013, it is estimated that over 60% of the global population have been infected, or have died as a result of said infection.



Almost every city in the United States has fallen into a state of anarchy. Others have been placed under martial law and transformed into quarantine zones by an authoritarian government agency, FEDRA. 



A militia group known as the Fireflies has arisen in an attempt to counteract FEDRA’s tyranny. Its leader, Marie Laveau, is actively searching for a cure for CBI, and will stop at nothing to get what she wants.



‘Remember, when you’re lost in the darkness, look for the light. Believe in the Fireflies.’

 

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2023

Summer

New Orleans, Louisiana



In the wreckage of the once-great city of New Orleans, in a crumbling apartment block just outside the French Quarter, Cordelia Foxx awoke with a start.

 

The remnants of a nightmare shrouded her consciousness with a blackened haze so dark she began to wonder if she’d even woken up at all, or if her night terror had encased her in its deathly grasp forever, when her train of thought was interrupted. A sharp tapping at the door shook her fully awake - the distinctive knock pattern signalled to her that it was not a stranger but was instead her husband, Hank.

 

The knocking persisted, louder this time. Grumbling, Cordelia hauled herself to her feet and made her way towards the sound, staggering a little in her dazed state. The knock pattern rang out a third time, impossibly louder, the noise setting a throbbing pain alight in her temples. “Give me a second!” she spat out, voice sandpapery with sleep.

 

Cordelia unlocked the door from the inside and pulled it open, revealing a bruised and battered Hank. Sighing in exasperation at her husband’s antics - he hadn’t looked like this last time she’d seen him (which must have been a day, maybe two days ago) - she stepped to the side to allow him entry. Dried blood spattered the side of his face in the shape of a question mark.

 

“Well, a good morning to you too, Cordelia,” he muttered, having the audacity to look offended.

 

“It would have been a good morning if you hadn’t decided to show up in this state,” Cordelia retorted. “What the hell happened to you?”

 

Hank grabbed a bottle of whiskey from the counter and poured himself a finger or two into a dirty glass, earning him a look of disdain from his wife. “I was making that drop we discussed last week. The Broadmoor one.” He gulped back the drink, grimacing, and proffered the glass to her. “Want one?”

 

“No, I don’t,” Cordelia sniffed. “We were supposed to do that drop together. Is that why you’re, you know-” She trailed off with a limp gesture to the gash on Hank’s forehead.

 

“Not exactly. The deal went off fine, I got enough ration cards to last us the whole summer. I was jumped by these two assholes on the way back.”

 

Cordelia soaked a rag in alcohol and began to clean Hank’s forehead, perhaps a little more aggressively than needed. “And are these two assholes going to follow us back here?”

 

He smirked. “You’re funny. Want to know who they were?”

 

“Who?”

 

“Couple of Kyle’s men. Thought they were a pair of nobodies at first, but these knuckleheads were stupid enough to slip his name into the conversation.”

 

Stunned, Cordelia struggled to process the new information. “ Our Kyle?”

 

“Of course. Who else would it be? Anyway, he sent those guys out looking for us - looks like he’s hot on our trail now, Delia.” His face once again twisted into that infuriating smirk that Cordelia had grown to detest so much. His making light of their predicament - along with the untimely nickname - made her want to hit him.

 

“Oh, is that amusing to you? We’ll be dead within a week.” She chewed her lip. “Fucking hell. Kyle’s an asshole but he sure is smart.”

 

Hank barked a short laugh. “Not that smart. I figured out where he’s hiding from us.”

 

“Where?”

 

“Down by the wharf. Old warehouse in West Riverside.” Triumph ghosted over his features. “I say we make our way over there now and finish what he started.”

 

The two options battled it out in Cordelia’s head. Risk injury or even death by retrieving what Kyle owed them, or allow him to get away with selling off what was rightfully theirs? Red mist clouded her judgement at this rumination. She’d been screwed over several times too many in her span of existence, this being the most recent in an ever-growing pile of double-crossings she’d been dealt by almost every person who entered her life. Months - even years - of suppression, reluctant acceptance and betrayal all culminated into one surge of rage that eclipsed every other niggling doubt in her mind that this might be a bad move.

 

“Yeah, I can do now.”

 

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A soft summer breeze ruffled Cordelia’s ponytail as she stepped out into the August sunshine. If she closed her eyes, she could whisk herself away to a much more peaceful time and place, free of all the horrors everyday life in post-apocalyptic America threw at her. Snapshots of childhood trips to Santa Monica Pier flitted about in her mind’s eye like rare birds - though her younger years had been tumultuous at best, there was no denying that she did have some memories she treasured. Of course, she’d take anything over the current situation. Even the days when her mother wouldn’t wake up out of her drunken stupor to be a decent parent to her seemed appealing over a world where she wasn’t confident on whether she would even survive to see the end of the week - and survival itself was hardly worth it anyway.

 

Reality came crashing back down at the now familiar cacophony of gunfire in the distance. Hank’s hand landed on her arm in trepidation - “careful, Delia. Sounds like there could be trouble up ahead.”

 

Cordelia snorted. “Gee, thanks. Never would’ve realised that without your help.”

 

“Will you quit being such a bitch? I said I was sorry. Not my fault you hold a grudge ‘til the end of time.”

 

The young woman pinched the bridge of her nose, sighing out a long, angry breath. “Hank, if you do not get away from me right now I will not be held accountable for what I may do to you. You crossed a line yet again and you know it. Now, please give me some space or I will scream.”

 

The pair walked several paces apart for a while, palpable tension simmering to a boil between them. This wasn’t the first incidence of a fight when they had tasks to complete, and Cordelia knew it most certainly was not the last. But as always, she stored the hurt inside of her, cultivating it into something useful - fuel for the inevitable battle she would be facing with Kyle later.

 

They soon came upon the source of the shooting - a group of soldiers had intercepted a gang of stragglers and were scanning each one for infection. A corpse lay in its own blood on the ground - an attempted escape gone awry. The ‘INFECTION ALERT’ tone sent Cordelia’s stomach straight to the floor. To her, each awful sound that she so frequently overheard in this world had its own colour: red was the sound of a body hitting the earth, the resonance of a life taken far too soon. Yellow was the sound of a scream, and gunfire a stinging metallic grey. The sickening beeping noise of a scanner sealing someone’s fate, the one she could hear now, was a putrid green. She truly believed she would never hear a blue sound - one that brought her peace - ever again. Everything she heard now set her teeth on edge.

 

“No, the scan’s wrong! Please don’t kill me! The scanner is wrong!” the woman being scanned wailed. 

 

Too late. Yellow was consumed by grey and then red as the soldier put her down, blood spatter narrowly missing Cordelia’s shoes. Distracted, she had failed to notice Hank’s attempts to gain her attention. “Cordelia, wake up! We have shit to do. Don’t lose focus now.” 

 

Grunting in reluctant agreement, she followed her husband to checkpoint B. This was their passage between their safe haven - if it could even be called that - and whatever awaited them in the impending hours. A young soldier clad in the standard-issue blue uniform of the NOQZ FEDRA division apprehended them.

 

“What’s your business? I need to see your papers.”

 

Hank produced the necessary documents from his jeans pocket, yellowed and wrinkly with age. “Got the day off. Visiting a friend in Area 4.” The lie rolled off his tongue with ease. He’s had practice , Cordelia mused bitterly.

 

The soldier made a noise of affirmation and allowed them access. But before they could proceed, a truck several feet from them burst into flames without warning. The soldier cried out in surprise before shouting at them to run from the suspected Firefly attack. Hank roughly grasped Cordelia’s arm in panic and yanked her to face the same way as him. The sudden movement caused her to trip over her own feet, and she collapsed to the ground unceremoniously. A flash of pain blazed white-hot in her kneecap as she fought to keep up with her companion, who had failed to help her up or even notice her predicament and was by this point several paces ahead. She soon caught up, however, ignoring the twinging in her right knee.

 

The couple sprinted across the street to the doors of a derelict building and, once inside, took a few moments to catch their breath. Now out of the immediate danger zone, Cordelia was finally able to examine her injury, though once she acknowledged it, the slight burn turned to a full-on inferno as she ogled the shredded skin. She let out a tiny hiss of discomfort as she picked bits of dirt out of the wound. At least this finally garnered attention from Hank, who let out a torrent of apologetic mumbo-jumbo whilst offering her a ‘health kit’ - this consisted of a grubby bandage and a tiny bottle of alcohol for disinfection. It’s just one blow after another at this point, Cordelia thought. Apologies don’t even mean anything anymore. When has he ever meant any of them?

 

A dozen or so seconds of silence followed, then Hank finally broke it. “Well, so much for the easy route. I guess we’ll be going through the tunnels again.” He regarded Cordelia’s injury. “You think you can manage the tunnels, honey?”

 

Cordelia huffed. “Don’t patronise me. Of course I can.” She rose to her feet, doing her best to put on a brave face and not limp. The last thing she wanted to do now was show weakness in front of her accidental assailant, no matter what state he’d seen her in before or the bond they had once shared.

 

An old friend of Hank’s - Luke - sat observing the scene in front of him. “Hey, Hank, Cordelia. Did you catch what just happened?”

 

“We were there. Hey, how’s West Tunnel looking?” Hank asked him.

 

“All clear, I just used it. Where are you off to?”

 

“Going to pay Kyle a little visit,” Hank said, smugness etched into the lines of his face.

 

“You, too?” Luke questioned in surprise.

 

If one looked close enough at Hank, they would have noticed a little of the arrogance that so often adorned his features fade a little at this revelation. “Why, who else is looking for him?”

 

Luke was hesitant in his reply. “Uh, Marie Laveau. She’s been trailing him for days and wanted to know if I’d seen him.”

 

“What the hell do the Fireflies want with Kyle?” Cordelia interjected, bafflement elevating the pitch of her words.

 

The younger man exhaled through his nose in amusement. “You think she’d tell me? Anyway, I told her what I know - absolutely nothing. God help him when she finds him, though.”

 

Hank chuckled. “Good man. You keep yourself safe, yeah? The military will be out in their numbers now that the QZ is under attack.” With that, the Foxxes bid Luke farewell and continued on their quest.

 

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The West Tunnel was just as terrible as Cordelia remembered it, if not worse. Years of garbage, human waste and rot had accumulated in such vast quantities that the stench was practically visible to the naked eye, and the absolute darkness of the passageway did nothing but heighten her other four senses. She made a hasty decision to not breathe through her nose, but instantly regretted breathing through her mouth as she could now taste the horrific odour on her tongue. The woman screwed up her face in utter disgust.

 

Hank groaned in displeasure. “God, it stinks. They need to stop dumping everything down here.” A short clunk and whirr could be heard as Hank activated the generator. “There we go.” Unevenly spaced light bulbs flickered on above them.

 

Cordelia found herself wishing that he hadn’t turned on the lights - that way, she wouldn’t have to acknowledge the carnage around her or look her husband in the eye. Brushing this feeling aside, she followed the familiar glow to the workbench where she’d left her combat gear. Her trusty pistol sat there proudly, the magazine laying empty beside it where she’d hurriedly abandoned it last time she and Hank had been here. Her worn backpack was propped up in the corner where the bench met the wall, and when she lifted it up she found it to be disappointingly light. Peering inside, she counted one box of bullets, her flashlight, and a cereal bar.

 

“We’re going to need to look for supplies before we do this, Hank,” she urged. “I have barely anything in my pack.”

 

“You need to stop fussing so much, Delia, we’ll be fine,” Hank muttered. If she listened hard enough, Cordelia thought she might detect an undertone of care in his words, a glimmer of the man she had fallen in love with so long ago. If he cares, he hides it well. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking on my part.

 

As they finally emerged from the dank tunnel, Cordelia drew the deepest breath she’d taken that day in through her nose. The fresh air both cleared her fraught mind and focused it on the task ahead. This clarity was only fleeting, however, as Hank wrenched open the doorway to the next leg of their journey - a complex network of abandoned buildings pieced together over the decade by smugglers like themselves. She was careful to avoid the splintering edge of the hole in the wall as she slipped inside, and warned Hank to do the same.

 

The first building they travelled through appeared to be what once was a college dorm or boarding school; band posters and sports memorabilia for a local team lined the walls and there was space for several beds to occupy each room. A section of the ceiling was severely damaged in one room, the tiles hanging off loosely like teeth from diseased gums. The second building was an office - the entrance door was barricaded with miscellaneous items one would find in an office: wheelie chairs, desks, and filing cabinets were stacked haphazardly against it. Judging by the bloodstains on the walls and floor, it was fairly obvious that the protection had not been sufficient enough for the people inside. Cordelia shuddered, suddenly awash with a ghostly melancholia at the mere thought of what these people had endured in their final moments. No point dwelling on it. Happens to everyone eventually.

 

Each building they passed through held the same aura: wistful preservations of the past, sealed by a layer of dust (and occasionally blood). They soon arrived in the remains of an old hardware store. Cordelia searched each drawer and was lucky enough to scrounge up some ammo and half of a pair of rusty scissors that could be repurposed later. Hank rapped on the door to the outside - an odd move, Cordelia pondered - but she soon understood why. A child no older than twelve opened it, and Hank offered him some ration cards on one condition: “make sure there are no soldiers and none of Kyle’s men, got it kid?” The child scurried away on his mission, and returned no more than thirty seconds later to give them the all-clear.

 

This door led the duo to an area Cordelia hadn’t visited in a while - New Orleans’ black market. An array of stalls were set up in what was once a parking lot, each manned by a haggard survivor just trying to make it in this world. She pretended not to notice the stares from the strangers surrounding her. It’s not as though she was unused to the attention - considering the reputation she and Hank had racked up in the QZ - but the looks she typically received were that of admiration or respect, not suspicion. She kept her head down, embarrassed by the scrutiny.

 

Hank approached a sinewy man in a baseball cap who was loitering by an old Target truck. “Hey, bud. Any sign of Kyle recently?” He held up four ration cards to trade for the information. Stop giving away all our damn ration cards!

 

The man responded in a hushed tone. “Kyle passed through here half an hour ago to get back to the wharf. He should still be there now, you’ll catch him if you hurry.”

 

“Sweet, thank you.” Handing the man the ration cards, he sauntered towards the wharf with Cordelia following close behind.

 

“Hank, let’s be smart about this. There’s bound to be a lot of his men around,” she warned. 

 

Predictably, Hank adopted a complacent attitude to the whole situation. The pair advanced towards their target. As if they’d hit the jackpot, Kyle was standing just a few metres from where they had entered the area, talking to one of his many bodyguards. He appeared angry, or was that fear written across his face? Cordelia’s own expression mirrored that of his - furious, with a hint of apprehension. She surveyed the space ahead of her. Men of all shapes and sizes milled about, some carrying bats or planks of wood, others not (though she suspected they had some other smaller, hidden weapon about their person). The warehouse stood to the right of the concrete wasteland, entrance gaping wide and ready to consume her in its gloom. Trucks were parked in lines to the left, at least granting some decent coverage for them to begin their ambush on Kyle.

 

“If you keep them busy up this end, I can sneak round to the left and take out some of the ones on that side,” she whispered to Hank, intuitively knowing that he preferred the marching-in-with-guns-blazing style of combat, but also being aware that this would not be appropriate given the nature of their circumstances. They were deeply, deeply outnumbered - about ten to one, in fact. Her husband reluctantly agreed and picked up a bottle to throw and lure some of the bodyguards his way.

 

Cordelia, meanwhile, began her slow and stealthy approach. Creeping towards a tall stack of pallets, she drew out her knife,  positioning herself behind it. One by one, she took her knife to each man’s neck, taking each one down with the precision of an experienced killer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before one of them was spotted - it was bound to happen, after all. Gunfire rang out on her right and she hurried towards it to aid her somewhat clumsy husband in his killings.

 

Soon enough, each bodyguard had been obliterated, either by blade or by bullet - they were no match for the pair of skilled hunters that were the Foxxes. This just left Kyle, who ran towards what looked like a control room of sorts and slammed the door behind him. Hank charged towards it and kicked it down, revealing a frantic Kyle, blond curls framing his mortified expression.

 

“We just want to talk, Kyle,” Cordelia called out, humouring him.

 

“We ain’t got fuckin’ nothing to talk about! Leave me the fuck alone!” Kyle hollered. Then the telltale click of a gun out of bullets sounded, followed by a groan. In a last-ditch effort to injure his pursuers, Kyle threw the now empty gun towards them feebly, which missed them both. Cordelia stifled a laugh.

 

The young man took off through the other exit, the Foxxes hot on his heels. They chased him through yet another maze of dilapidated buildings until they finally caught up to him, where he was attempting a futile escape through a padlocked gate. He turned around steadily at the sound of footfall behind him.

 

“Cordelia, Hank. We’re cool, right?” he warbled out, edging forward a few paces. The cogs turning in his head, plotting his exact escape plan, were laughably obvious.

 

“Of course. No hard feelings,” Cordelia said, laced with sarcasm. She picked up an old piece of wood from the floor in anticipation. Kyle suddenly made a run for it, but Cordelia - who knew instinctively what his next move would be - brought the improvised weapon down harshly across his shins. Crying out in anguish, he tumbled to the ground, along with the plank. Hank quickly pressed a knee between Kyle’s shoulder blades, lest he made one more break for freedom.

 

“Those guns you owed us - they were not yours to sell and you know it. We would like them back as soon as possible, please,” Cordelia laid out her wishes slowly and clearly, as if talking to a child. 

 

Kyle squirmed on the ground. “I just need one more week to get them back. One week, that's all I’m asking for, please!” Desperation saturated his tone as Hank sunk his knee further into his back.

 

“A week isn’t good enough, Kyle. We need those guns now.” Frustration was beginning to creep into Cordelia’s words and she didn’t like it - she preferred to keep emotions out of business deals. “Now, are you going to tell us who has our guns, or are we going to have to beat that information out of you?” she said, coldness returning to her voice once more.

 

Colour drained from Kyle’s face, but he still didn’t give in. “Look, it’s complicated. I can’t tell you that right now.”

 

Cordelia rolled her eyes. “Suit yourself.” She motioned for Hank to act on her promise, who then proceeded to snap Kyle’s arm in half as easily as if it were a twig. The younger man roared in agony.

 

“Okay, okay, stop! Fine, I’ll tell you. It’s… the Fireflies… I owed them! They were gonna kill me if I didn’t offer them something in exchange for what they gave me!” Kyle hissed between grunts of pain.

 

If Cordelia was angry before, she was absolutely livid now. “What?”

 

Despite his plight, Kyle chuckled, surprising both of them. “They’re nearly all dead. If you let me get this bandaged up, we could just go and kill the last ones off, and get your guns back. What do you think?”

 

The woman ran her tongue over her teeth in contemplation, as if tasting Kyle’s words. Her expression quickly turned sour. “What a terrible fucking idea.” And within two seconds, Kyle was dead, brains splattered across the sidewalk. Smoke rose from the barrel of Cordelia’s gun.

 

Hank turned to his wife, at least having the decency to look somewhat awed. “Now what do we do?”

 

Cordelia sighed and ran a hand over her face, able to drop the hard-nosed businesswoman act now that they were alone. “I don’t know. Maybe we can find the Fireflies and negotiate something with them.”

 

A third voice suddenly cut into their conversation, startling them both:

 

 “You ain't gonna have to look too far.”