Ch. VI, p.2

“What? Are you serious?” he said, laughing at the absurdity of her words. But he was afraid, too; disoriented.

“Yeah, well, imagine what it’s like to be in that situation… And in between there were these muddled faces and sounds, mucked up into a gray mess that didn’t seem to mean anything, one way or the other. I thought I’d died and gone to hell.”

“And you’re sure you didn’t? Die, I mean?”

“How could you ever be sure of something like that? But I was sure it had to be hell… Death has always been a part of life… for three years though it’s been a part of every day.” She spoke almost casually, as if she were describing an unremarkable meal, or bemoaning the weather of a slightly-too-cool day. “You never get used to it. You just get better at moving on.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh… It’s difficult to get my head around all this...”

“It’s okay,” she said, showing little emotion, “It’s all in the past.”

They continued in silence, navigating down a tangled slope. When they reached level ground again, he asked, “So what happened next?”

“I wandered the city for weeks without ever seeing a soul,” her skin crawled at the memory. “I remember the sky… it was solid gray the whole time, and there wasn’t any rain or any wind. But it wasn’t hot either. I don’t remember eating or sleeping… I must have though. But it might have been a dream, I don’t really know…” I only know
    this
,
    right now
, she thought, determined not to be sucked into the past again. “Then, one day, people started to appear. Sometimes alone and sometimes in packs—”

“What? Out of thin air or something?”

“Just listen, would you? I’m getting there… But, yes, something like that. We call them drop-ins. We still get a few, even now—people who just appear in a city, or wandering in the woods or something, who don’t remember a thing since around 2036. It’s the last year I remember, too, before the shift…”

They came to a steep incline and she paused in her story to navigate upwards carefully, tugging on stiff brown roots in an effort not to slide on the dark, crumbly soil. Coming to a plateau, she reached a hand down and helped him up.

“So, anyways,” she said, grunting as she dragged him up, “I spent the next seven or eight months drifting from one group of survivors to the next. Teachers, farmers, doctors, politicians, whoever… it doesn’t really matter what they used to call themselves. Everybody is a survivor or a fighter or dead.”

“How did you stay alive? Whoa—” he slipped backwards, struggling to keep a hold on her hand. She gripped a tangle of roots jutting from the earth below and pulled him upright steadily, placing a hand on his back and guiding him away from the edge.

“How you feeling?” she asked again, “Alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

She nodded at him. He looked far more fatigued than he was letting on. “Okay,” she said, motioning to him to follow.

She continued speaking. “The strange thing is, I don’t really have an answer for you. I just took things one day at a time and tried not to think about it all too much… There is plenty of food and water… power… most of our resource gathering infrastructure intact… But people are people, and the shift brought out the ‘fucked up’ in a lot of them. They wanted control, dominion over each other, and they cut off food supplies, hijacked A.I. systems, raided farms, warehouses, whatever… There was a lot of killing, especially with fresh drop-ins.”

“Is that where the term drop-in comes from?”

“Yeah, actually. It does have something of a transient quality to it, doesn’t it?” As she spoke, she turned on her Aura. The creeping shadows were thick and heavy. “Anyways, one thing led to another and eventually I…” she stopped. Suddenly, she couldn’t see much past the tips of her fingers. “Say, it’s getting awfully dark. Does your Aura work?”

“No, I was just noticing that. Everything looks really dull with it on, but I still can’t see.”

She scanned the surrounding area again. Nothing. “We’re alone still… So that’s good.” She switched on a bright flashlight attached to her shoulder. It was meant for blinding an opponent, but still served its original purpose well. “It’s these woods… We need to find a camp ground and wait until sunrise. Someplace more open than this.”

They pressed forward into the encompassing darkness, trees packed tightly all around them. The black was so dense it weighed upon their eyes themselves, unyielding to the bright call of her flashlight. They talked quieter now, saying less. They could feel an unmentionable presence in the air, lingering all around them; but speaking about it would make it become real, and neither mentioned it.

It’s just my fear of the dark, that’s all, she thought.

Just keep going. You’ll be fine, there’s nothing here, he reassured himself.

More than once, the stygian black tripped them up; snagging at their feet; forcing them to stumble; forcing them to crawl. The forest seemed to grow more chaotic as they went, swathed with an impenetrable thickness. But they went on, a lingering sense of fear kept barely at bay.

After a long while, he said, “So…” Even whispering, his voice sounded far too loud, and he went quiet again. Eventually, he continued, “What were you doing out here? We’re a long way from New York.”

She took a moment to respond, conscious of the same loudness in their voices. “I told you about Discovery, the reconnaissance group I joined.” She stopped, listening intently. But there was nothing. What am I so afraid of?

“And?”

“It’s a governmental entity, tasked with exploring the New Frontier; or, re-exploring the west and mid-west. But none of us really cared about that… We… I… just needed something to keep me going, and I thought doing this would help. And at some point I realized I could use them to find you. That’s what really kept me going all this time.”


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