For whatever reason, be it the slightly bemused look on his face or the fact that he’d been nicer than many she met on the road, she took his statement in a non-threatening way. “Fair enough. Do we hang out here for a while longer, or do we hit the road?”
He patted his gun and pockets. “I seem to have everything a traveler needs to wander these wretched hollows. I’m game for leaving now.”
She nodded sharply. “Me too. The clock is ticking.”
He walked to the door and waited.
She undid the booby trap and as she did, noticed he drew his gun. She had time for a brief moment of panic, when she remembered having the gun out before entering the street was good practice.
He went out first, swept his gaze left and right and then motioned for her to come out. He spoke in hushed tones. “I’m going to take us through some spaces most people wouldn’t easily fit into. Don’t panic if things get tight. It’s easier to travel where they can’t go.” The moved into the darkness after he doused his headlamp.
Her eyes adjusted to the outside gloom. The inside of the Starbucks hadn’t been any brighter until Leon had activated his lamp. Now she had to stumble a bit until her pupils opened up. She tried not to make any undue noise. Silence was an area Leon excelled at. She thought for a moment she’d lost him, but once she got her bearings she saw that he waited for her in a pool of shadow further up the alley they were in.
True to his word, they went through places where she almost couldn’t make it. She was hardly big. The post-apocalypse diet had been kind to her figure and she wasn’t overly tall. She still struggled to contort herself through gaps. Travelling light helped as there was nothing much to get snagged. The walked for what seemed like days. In reality it was only a few hours before the sun began to make itself known. Instead of only being able to see a few feet ahead, she could now see yards away. She marveled at the great vision Leon must have had to guide them in near complete dark.
For the first time in a dozen hours she felt somewhat safe. They might still run into pockets of the stumblers, but if they stayed outside that would be unlikely. She motioned to Leon. “I need a water break.”
He smiled at her. “Good idea.” They both fished out plastic bottles and drank. He offered her something wrapped in plastic. It was a granola bar. The rectangle was nearly as hard as a brick, but she broke off a piece and put it in her mouth. She let the sweetness dissolve on her tongue and couldn’t help letting out a little moan of pleasure. After far too few minutes spent on what no sane person would call breakfast, they continued on.
Morning light came on strong. The sky above the city was a reddish haze. Shards of blue broke through, instilling a sense of hope. She didn’t know the last time she’d seen a clear and completely blue sky. They were getting better as time went on. Pollution was slowly making its way out of the air and to the ground. “How much farther?” She was beginning to wish for the nap she didn’t get to take.
“Only about another hour or so.” The sound of sliding rock in the near distance put them both on alert. He drew his gun and squatted.
She pulled her knife and held her breath. Just because the usual danger wasn’t present didn’t mean there weren’t things to be afraid of.
When the noise failed to repeat itself, the pair continued on. “What did you do, before?” She felt safe enough to speak in a louder voice, but still kept it just above a whisper.
“This and that. I was mostly a teacher, Adult Education. You?”
She thought about him standing in front of a classroom, maybe on a cardboard box, and stifled a laugh. “I was a waitress for a long time. Then I decided to go back to school. I was going to get my nursing degree. I wanted to really give something back to society.”
“I guess your skills have been useful?”
“Oh yeah.” She smiled, thinking about how she’d helped the people in her group. “I didn’t finish the program before it all went to hell, but I got through most of it. I’ve got plenty of useful knowledge tucked away. That’s part of the reason I want to find the cure. Some people said it would be better if I just died and that there was no cure. I’ve got two people I was teaching my skills to. I want to get back to them and finish what I started.” She saw the ghost of a frown on his face. “What’s wrong? You know something, don’t you?”
He tucked his thumbs into his belt loops and avoided her glance. “I know a lot of things. Some of them are about C-9 and some aren’t.” He looked up at her, but only for a heartbeat. “I know the cure might not work for you.”
“Hell I know that.”
He smiled at her honesty. “Good. The percentage is probably a lot lower than even you know. I heard it only works in about ten percent of cases. The other ninety either die of the disease anyway, or die from the attempted cure. The things that are remaking you have a sort of fatal cascade they undergo and that screws up your whole system.”
“You know an awful lot more than I heard. You’re military, aren’t you?”
“Was and am.”
She drew her knife and pointed it at him. “What do you want with me?”
“Will you put the knife away? If I wanted to kill you you’d be dead. I want to see if this cure works for you. And I maybe want to see if I can help.”
“How would you help? Isn’t it just an injection?”
He nodded. “But those little machines in you? And the ones that will search and kill them? I can talk to them.”
“How? I never heard anything like that.”
He stared at her. “Look in my eyes.”
She hesitated for a moment and could swear his irises flashed silver. “Did I just see that? Are you a cyborg?”
“You did and I’m more android than cyborg. Most of me is machine. They made my type during the last days of the war. They mostly wanted something harder to kill than the infected people. Turns out we might also be able to help folks.”
“How much of the government is left?”
He shook his head. “Very little and nothing centralized. I and the others like me are scattered around the country. We look for people like you, who are at the right stage, and who would be useful to a new society. Then we offer to try and help them.”
“You’re selective? That’s cruel.” She gripped her knife’s hilt tightly.
“Not as such. If you’re too far gone then there’s a risk of damaging my programming. It’s a risk no matter what and there are only a few of us. It’s just making the best use of a limited resource.”
“Am I at the right stage?”
“You meet all of the criteria. I didn’t lie to you about getting you to a cure. We do need to hurry though.”