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99 Chapter Ninety Eight - Apples and Pairs

    The suffering endured by the pack of single dogs reached new heights.  But what could this group of mostly straight men do when there was a serious lack of available straight women (or single gay males, one particular person pouted during the testosterone filled gym session vent)?  Eyes began wandering towards the one woman still roaming free, but she just stared them down one by one and dropped their hopes into a deep barrel of excretion.  "Don't even bother thinking about it," she warned them as she polished the custom crossbow Shaun had not long finished creating.

    It was not that Monika didn't want to find a man to walk beside in her future, just that even before the End, her standards had been higher and she herself would confess to being higher maintenance than their former 'princess' Brooke and she felt no reason to change that.  She would have said that she didn't particularly mind about his appearance, but he couldn't be too ugly, he didn't have to be a kind person, so long as he was kind to her.  The pay check didn't matter too much, but there was no way she'd accept some loafer who wanted to sponge off of her.  Equally, he shouldn't be tight with money, but not a spendthrift.  Educated enough, she couldn't stand dumbasses, but not so educated that they looked down on the publicly educated with average grades like herself.  Naturally no criminals, no addicts, men with bad habits could be fixed but ones with disgusting habits were to be avoided.  The list continued on... obviously now there were a few adjustments, such as the money thing.

    She didn't particularly want children herself, but she also recognised that it might be unavoidable; this was an era of survival, if she could get pregnant and chose not too, wasn't that being just a bit too selfish in the long term?  Not that she disliked kids, Lucy was adorable, little x was very cute, despite being a boy filled with drool, but she hadn't the patience for raising them herself, so that would fall on her future man's shoulders... along with all the farming, at least half the housework, the cooking (she burned water) and she wanted a pampering massage at least once a week on top.  Then her inner Empress might just be satisfied.

    So the single straight men that outnumbered her quite a bit dropped this idea and all volunteered to be amongst the group transporting the first harvest of apples to the army base.

    Autumn giggled once Dexter told her, while he was tapping a pen upon a notepad writing a list of supplies she wanted him to try seek out.  Salt was no longer on the list, but also, they weren't ready to share their discovery wanting to see how their experiments developed before they offered the results to the base.  This wasn't just out of selfishness.  As Ren Zexian had mentioned, the root of the False Nettle was too potent for the consumption of ordinary people, but if they knew about the plant and did not heed the verbal warnings, blame might still land on their doorstep.  What they were hoping to develop instead to share, was a universal 'salt' in dried leaf form for the purpose of cooking, with instructions for its usage.  That way, they could offer this salt solution safely to outsiders.

    "Well, I wish them luck," Autumn washed the courgettes, tomatoes and aubergines in a bowl of clean water before placing them to one side.

    "They'll need more than luck," Dexter sighed, tossing down the pen.  "I definitely recall seeing more men than women at the base last time.  What's the chance of their being a girl who doesn't have a few men chasing her?  That and I can't take them all with me.  Who'll be left to defend home?"  Autumn dried her hands on a tea towel and came over to squeeze his tense shoulders.  His hand covered hers as he head leaned back to rest against her warm chest.

    "I was actually going to ask, if I could go with you," she confessed, softly, causing him to look sharply upward, his body becoming tense once more.  "I want to help you... but also I wanted to check on Brooke." Seeing his frown, she added; "I know I don't owe her anything, it's just that, it was my mother's last wish for me to look after her."

    "It was her choice to leave," he reminded her.  He'd couldn't say he'd agreed with that decision, she'd abandoned Jonah and her child, but a small part of him had been glad.  Brooke had treated Autumn like **.

    "I know," Autumn nodded in agreement, "I just wanted to check on her.  Make sure that she is okay."  Despite wanting to refuse without room to protest, Dexter admitted the weakness within him of wanting his woman to be happy and agreed to it.

    In the end, he only allowed the addition of two single dogs, requesting the Chang Min/Cole duo join the team as extra protection for Autumn.  Just Chang Min was a lone man army by himself, but with Cole constantly shadowing him and having his back, they were almost a fluid a machine of war as the former would be with his master.  Just that Ren Zexian would not leave without Nathan.  "Do you wish to go?" The older man asked his young lover.

    "No."

    That left Harry, Winston, Tyler, Paul, Arthur, Jimmy and Eraj gathered around a small metal container filled with metal sticks, two of which had the term 'winner' embedded in its side.  It had been created by Shaun, who chose not to participate for practical reasons and remain behind with Jonah, who would remain behind for his son and Patrick, who had no interest in finding a woman and didn't want to squabble with the ones who did.  He wasn't so desperate for a lover, thank you!

    'Loser!' Tyler tossed his stick aside with a sore comment of how this was a stupid way to make a decision before hinting that he had better things to do.  Eraj watched him go before waving his 'winner' stick in a smug manner.  Jimmy took the opportunity to tug it from his fingers and replace it with one that said 'Not in this lifetime!'

    "Hey!" Eraj complained rushing after Jimmy, who tumbled back in hysterics over his own prank.  Arthur sighed before grabbing the metal stick in Jimmy's hand and passing it back to the other.  "Thanks, Arthur."

    "Don't mention it," he replied, before placing the small stick 'admit defeat' back into the pot, that he himself had pulled.

    "Hey," Paul sidled over to his friend, who watched the men draw lots with amusement.  "You can change the words on the sticks right?"  He looked with hopeful eyes at Shaun, whose brows rose upward.

    "Are you asking me to cheat?" Shaun accused in a teasing tone.

    "Not cheating per say," Paul mumbled an excuse, "more like helping out your best buddy."

    "Don't feel like it," Shaun yawned as if he'd been drained of spirit just creating this little game for them, before wheeling his chair out of the room.  Paul clambered after him, hoping to change his mind.

    *****

    Crates of apples were placed in the truck, the crop this year had been abundant, weighing down the branches of the trees until they were well in reach of all of the adults.  Autumn had taken many into her kitchen, dried them out into snacks and placed them into little plastic pouches no more than a hand wide.  She had thought about making sauces or chutney with the apples, but both required sugar, something they were also running low on and she'd wanted to keep these for producing jams and potentially cider, if they could get the equipment.  Either way, they'd not produce enough to keep for themselves let alone share with others.

    Still, they not only packed the fresh and dried fruit, but also decided to take a chance upon the apple 'butter' and oil produced by the mutant tree.  The oily pulp of the shelled fruit had a similar consistency to apple purée when mashed down and was sweet enough by itself to flavour toast and crackers.  It didn't taste bad with pork either, just milder than what a normal apple sauce would be like, the only complaint would be that it was a little greasy.  The oil, however, went well as a salad dressing or heated to stir fry vegetables, providing sweetness while vinegar provided the sour.  Surely that would sell, right?

    "It seems that people are overly wary of mutant plants," Autumn sighed as the person she had spoken to fled in light of the truth of where the oil came from.

    "Can't blame them," Dexter said in response as he packed five apples into one person's carrier bag after receiving a handful of points in exchange.  It seemed that the one thing people still had plenty of, even after the end, were carrier bags.

    Arriving at the base walls, they'd experienced the expected interrogation and were checked for wounds and such.  Cole's scratch had healed enough to have scabbed over, waiting to reveal the new skin beneath, but it was enough for the soldiers to want to quarantine him.  Fortunately, they still had enough respect for Chang Min to give him some face, at least enough to report to their superiors for their opinion.  On hearing that the wound was now two weeks old and due to mutant birds, not zombified ones, the medic sent to glance over it gave him the all clear.

    "There is no sign of black rot or inflammation," the man told the cautious guards, "this man's temperature is normal.  His gums, eyes and fingernail beds reflect that of a healthy, young man.  A full quarantine really isn't necessary, just the usual two hours will be sufficient.  If he has any signs of changing, I'll turn in my medic's badge!"

    "Don't joke, Doc," the guard leader replied, "everyone knows that you really do want to hand in that badge."

    "Who let me be one of only five medical staff and the only fully qualified doctor!" The man harrumphed.  "Every time someone's temperature rises a single degree or they receive a slight graze they come panicking to me!  As if a paper cut is going to cause them to turn!"  He tossed crossly any equipment he used in a separate bag in order for his assistant to sterilise later, only calming down when Chang Min offered him fruit free of charge.  The doctor was not humble enough to bother even thinking of rejecting it.

    Before arriving at the market, Dexter spoke to the man running a small greengrocers, wanting to get an idea of the value of their apples.  This shop had been added since they'd last been here.  This man was selling off the excess produce from the farms or rather, the lower quality vegetables that either did not grow well, such as stubby carrots, or had been left aside for too long, such as the cucumbers that now tasted slightly bitter.

    He also sold some fruit, including apples.  The cafeteria hadn't wanted these; there had been a change in the way things were on the army base.  Since setting up the base, the army had taken responsibility for everything from shelter to clean water, from safety to food.  The rule in exchange was that people needed to work for these small luxuries.  There was work in the green-house farms, on the walls, in the cafeteria, even just sweeping the streets and lighting braziers during the winter.  Not to mention the squads made up of soldiers and civilians both that could leave the base in search of things to benefit everyone.  However there was always the minority that would slowly become lazy and lax, perhaps cutting corners, claiming sick or sponging off of others.

    There was the added difficulty that the greenhouse farms produced limited amounts of food, despite all of their hard work and preparation and the water users worked from daybreak to dusk with barely a break exhausting themselves.  To make up for the missing amounts of food and water, the base had their people raid every house, every shop and warehouse in order to hoard as much long term as possible.  But eventually, this food would either all be eaten or not be fit to eat at all.  Somethings had to change.
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