Chapter 9: A SNEAKY ENEMY

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Reads: 16

CHAPTER 9

A SNEAKY ENEMY

 

 

 

We followed the asphalt road, repeating the itinerary covered earlier by my group. The further we went, the more the bush got the better of that small strip of asphalt, now reduced to rubble among the weeds.

Carrying the injured rider was no small burden, especially up the climbs. Using knitted jackets and even my coat, we improvised a stretcher with two sturdy branches where the poor man slept and on which he traveled. We alternated two in front and two behind. Initially reluctant, I gave in to Deena's imploring eyes and lent myself in turn as a stretcher bearer.

After a couple of exhausting descents, also lashed by a sudden downpour, we found a small lay-by covered by a canopy of foliage, where a small river flowed before plunging downwards. Hank, as exhausted as everyone else by the lack of food and rest, suggested a rest stop.

I was really broken and weakened: I had slept very little and eaten even less, like the rest of the group, only I was the one who had been shot the most. I found a tree and sat on its roots, resting on the trunk. We sat there surrounded by the roar of the rain and the millions of sounds that the jungle around us kept making: screeching, rustling, chirping, the gurgling of the stream and in the distance, the waves of the sea breaking on the coast.

My throat was burning. I struggled to my feet and staggered toward the stream, bending over to drink.

"You'd better not. You'll drink later, when we've boiled water for everyone. I wouldn't trust it too much”, the doctor warned me.

"Chill doc. This water flows just a few feet away from us. It certainly can't be polluted”, I replied.

"I envy you from here. On the colonies, water doesn't gush from the ground”, Asif said. His Io in particular was a complicated Dominion. A hell of lava, sulfur, and active volcanoes orbiting Jupiter, where cities had to be able to literally move to avoid sudden eruptions.

"Yeah. Earthlings are lucky”, Jake reiterated. "On Ganymede I built a park similar to this place, took us three years. An oasis under a dome, firmly set in the ice! Now that I see the original for the first time I can say we did a good job”.

"Were you born there?" asked Deena always hungry for stories.

"Well almost. My folks were unemployed and I followed them after the one-year quiescence where they couldn't find anything on Terra. I was two years old”, she explained. "Being a mercenary was the only way I could leave”.

I couldn't feel guilty toward them. Humanity guaranteed peace, security and good economic conditions for most, but it had to safeguard the planet from overpopulation. In past centuries we had done nothing but exploit and pollute Terra. There was no more room for everyone. It had to be someone's turn.

"Aren't you going to say anything?" asked Deena. She obviously didn't share my way of thinking.

"Good”, I replied indifferently, wiping my lips with the back of my hand. "We've stopped long enough. I'm going to start heading down”.

I rinsed my face with water from the creek, wiped my arms, and resumed my own journey along the thin strip of asphalt. They could drag their burden alone since they had all decided to break my balls.

I lost the surely unflattering comments behind me and headed out to explore. Many burned, abandoned and rusted war relics lay at the edge of my path. Now the road became wider and out of the woods I began to follow the coastline. I observed what appeared to be a reminder of a force landing gone wrong.

Several armored vehicles popped out of the waves as well as wrecks of warships and landing craft. The coastal defenders had given the attacking Chinese a run for their life. There were no bones anywhere, which made me wonder if the authorities had collected the remains of the fallen to give them burial. The hope of still being close to civilization was not entirely gone.

I heard light footsteps behind me approaching at a rapid pace. I turned, hands in my pockets, seeing Deena running toward me.

"You ran”, she exclaimed. "Shame on you”.

"Ran away? And from what?"

"You know damn well what from! Is the subject of Dominions controversial to you?"

"As I told you once before, the system exists for reasons. I approve of it though I don't think it's perfect. I'm not interested in their whining. I'm a soldier not a politician. Go cry to them”.

"The people up there are suffering a lot. You weren't fair to them! You could have at least shown some humanity! With me you were able to!".

"You exaggerate cause of fear of what you don't know”, I sentenced. "The colonies are not all the same. Some are very beautiful. If Io is miserable, it is the fault of their absurd religion, they chose it to be so! Luna is beautiful and there are lovely cities on Mars. Maybe men are not all the same and maybe some are more inclined to create beautiful places than others, who knows? The fact is that once you're away from Sol, it's up to you and your community to make that corner a beautiful reminder of Terra. It doesn't matter where you were born or why you are there, we all suffer in this world. Don't come telling me that stuff, okay? Does the fact that I'm wealthy, white and American make me special? You are half black, poor and European so are you automatically miserable? Do you think I'm always happy and free to do whatever comes into my head? Don't be shallow! They shoved me into the academy just as they would shove you into a colony! Not to mention all this nonsense about your empathy! Those guys sold you out to my bro’s crazy ass and now you feel sympathy for them?"

She remained silent, then replied, "I... I don't resent them! We're all just trying to survive after all!".

"You're crazy”.

"Maybe. But you're cynical!"

"Cynical?"

"Yes, you are cynical! And unfair to me, too!"

I stopped myself from walking and stood in front of her harshly. "I'm not interested in being fair or nice”, I said. "I chose to help you out of interest and because I felt sorry for you. Now it is my duty to protect you and keep my word as long as it is necessary. I'm doing this for me, to prove to myself that I'm better than that fucking Charon”.

"That's it? You felt sorry for me?", she said hurt in her feelings and pride.

I realized I had spoken out of turn. It wasn't pity that I had felt towards her, but the same empathy that I was now blaming her for. I was angry and still not man enough to apologize or retract my words.

Deena lowered her gaze, then with glazed eyes looked at me angrily and sadly. "I no longer want your pity, Lieutenant Daith Lester! From now on your protection is no longer required! If you want, you can even report me to the FMP, so your precious career will be saved!".

He turned his back on me and ran off. I felt bad at the time, but then I found myself thinking seriously about the relationship that was developing between us. Perhaps that fight had been providential after all.

 

 

 

*

 

 

I was growing exhausted, depleted, lacking strength in every part of my body. A rare steak of real meat, a hot shower and a bed were all I craved. The road was much longer than I imagined, it took me two hours before I finally reached an interesting place.

After ignoring dozens of abandoned and destroyed houses, I had just discovered the remains of a tourist residence. The complex of buildings, three main ones and a couple of smaller ones, stood close to the coast. To the left of the driveway I could also see the remains of a couple of tennis courts. After a few dozen meters, I immediately saw that, unlike the rest, this place was much better preserved. There were even some stores on the ground floor that might be worth raiding. The main buildings were once white, built like long crates on three floors and enclosed a series of apartments all identical to each other, with a terrace that surely opened from the bedroom. I noticed solar panels on the tin roofs. Maybe some of them could still work. I went back and waited for the rest of the group sitting on the side of the road.

I didn't have to wait too long. The other castaways arrived together after about ten minutes with Deena walking behind everyone, while Hank led the group. As soon as he arrived a few meters away from me, he spoke to me worriedly. He had already figured it out but wanted to be sure of the validity of his suspicions:

"Anything?" he asked.

"No. Bugs, birds... lot of traffic”, I replied bitterly.

"Shit!" shouted Asif irritated. "All this walking for nothing!".

"I wouldn't say that. At least we'll have better shelter than palm trees. And maybe running water or some useful supplies”, Jake observed. "What is this place?".

"A vacation resort”, Christelle explained. "There will be lots of useful things to spend the night”.

"All that's left to do is searching. Have fun”, said I. "I can't take a step anymore, I'm done. If you have enough strength left over, you guys get busy”.

"We need to get Josh under cover and find food”, said the doctor. The rain had subsided but the black clouds didn't promise a break anytime soon.

A gunshot echoed through the walls of the crumbling buildings. Everyone with a weapon on them, including me, pulled it out and dropped to the ground. I realized late in the day that my guns were empty. A few moments later, Asif emerged from behind a building with a furry beast on his back, smiling and satisfied. He tossed the boar he had shot to the ground in front of our still-terrified gazes.

"Dinner is ready”, he announced, smiling.

By then the sunset was near, so it was decided that we would spend the night there. Christelle and Hank were busy looking for a suitable building to host us for the night, while Deena was hunting for useful material and Asif had broken into a building to butcher his hunting prey. I, on the other hand, took to sleeping soundly in the shelter of a tree, not caring about anything.

It was Hank who woke me up with a stomp on my shin. I suddenly opened my eyes. It was now dark and the stars were shining proudly on a sky cleared of clouds. He asked me to follow him, which I did. The man took me close to one of the two-storey buildings, the one closest to the sea, dirty and mutilated windows and doorways. A fire had been lit in front of the building and some rusty chairs arranged around it. On top of one of them was my raincoat, which was drying near the fire. I was starting to feel cold, I was soaked and I really appreciated the proximity to the flames.

"Asif is finishing up making dinner. Why don't you help me fix the door?", the man proposed.

"I won't even think about it. I'm too tired, help yourself”, I refused.

"Everyone is helping out. Maybe you should start getting busy”, he scolded me.

"I've done too much already”, I replied. I turned my back on him and sat down in front of the fire, falling into a deep stupor. After a few minutes, a satisfied Asif arrived, carrying an iron grid with a lot of meat on it. He placed the grid on some stones around the low, dying fire and began to cook the meat. A pleasant smell delighted my nostrils and my stomach began to growl. Hank went to sit next to Asif who was impatiently watching the meat roasting. Every now and then he would turn it with a branch. Although I was focused on the food, my mind lingered for a moment on a detail of no small importance. "Hank where are the girls?".

"On the barbecue!", giggled Asif. Hank smiled this time, instead of beating him as usual. Instead, he pointed his finger toward a window of our new house located upstairs. A small light could be seen filtering faintly through the rectangular opening.

I got up and entered the building. It was pitch black but I still managed to find the stairs to the upper floor. Evidently the girls heard me coming, because as soon as I entered the room where they had taken refuge I found them quietly observing me. The bare room was being sparsely furnished with what looked like three mattresses covered with a clear plastic sheet and a flashlight hanging from a wooden coat rack located in the center of the room.

"Welcome back among the living”, Christelle greeted me.

"Come and eat, they managed to cook something”, I proposed ignoring Deena's face. They silently stood up, turned off the flashlight and followed me down the stairs to the fire.

Finally we managed to eat something hot. Sure, the meat wasn't the best, but with the hunger we had, we couldn't complain and there wasn't a single leftover.

While we were all silently eating, however, I noticed that Deena didn't dare touch the food. I looked at her worriedly. "What's wrong? Why aren't you eating?", I asked her trying hard to be polite.

"Mind your own business”, she coldly dismissed me. "You should know that”. I didn't dare resume the conversation.

After we finished eating, Hank began to speak. "So Daith, you should know that inside that mold-filled hole there is no power of course and no water. The toilet on the ground floor doesn't work and if it stinks it's because Asif wanted to test it without telling us. Leave the door closed and don't go in there. The girls insisted that you sleep in the same room as them. Instead, we will sleep on the ground floor and mount guard shifts. I hope you'll cooperate”.

"Sure”, I replied. "But not tonight... Really, I have too much catching up to do yet. I may look like a wimp to you, but treating me the way you've seen me do it is very expensive for me”.

"Just for tonight, I'll take it. There’s a fountain not far from here that still works. The water you drank now comes from there, but don't drink it without boiling it first. Understand Asif? Then, tomorrow we will try to find more useful materials and maybe a working means of transportation. We only searched a few houses and a couple of stores”.

"We found in an old warehouse some stacked mattresses still wrapped in plastic. We picked up the ones innermost in the pile that were almost decent, so we brought them in. Tomorrow we're going to look for clothes, we can't go on like this”, Christelle recounted.

"This place has been dead for so many years. Who knows where we ended up”, Asif said.

"There's a lot of remnants of war”, Jake recalled.

"Mines and radiation”, Hank said. "Booby traps in abandoned buildings. No one goes anywhere without me or Daith. You're trained in urban guerrilla warfare, aren't you?"

"Obviously”, I replied. "I thought the same thing this morning”.

"Daith and I should have our eye trained to recognize danger. Unfortunately for radiation, that's a problem”.

"I don't think we'll find any”, I said. "This stuff is from WW4 not WW3”.

"Passionate about military history huh?" asked Hank.

I didn't answer. Gage was seeking contact and an alliance with me and I kept refusing him. The issue was one of principle; I wasn't going to sympathize with them.

"It's a wonderful place, though”, Christelle noted. Deena silently watched the creaking fire and I watched her, unobtrusively, casting her occasional furtive glances. I had never seen her so dejected, and knowing she was fasting made me anxious.

I waited for them to go upstairs to sleep and for the light to go out before going up the stairs and entering the room. I found their request to have me there with them curious but after all, if Deena wanted to trust Hank and get rid of me Christelle might have been of much different opinion.

That little angel was very crafty and mind-reading, she definitely knew who she could trust and who she couldn't and my presence there was a clear sign that Gage's group was still a threat to some degree. It didn't matter what Deena thought of me. I was going to go through with it, keeping her safe.

 

 

 

*

 

 

The next day everyone got up early, shortly after dawn. Asif as always was the earliest followed by Deena. Together they went to pick some fruit from some trees and boiled some water in a bucket. I opened my eyes and rubbed my forehead and cheeks. I sat up and stretched my aching back. That mattress was almost non-existent and it was as if I had slept on the floor. I unfolded the raincoat I had rolled up to use as a pillow and put it back on. I felt dirty as hell: my hair was full of knots, not to mention the dirty and destroyed clothes. I worked up the courage to walk down the stairs and headed out of the building. Christelle was still sleeping.

I met Deena, not far away, who was carrying some large, heavy cloth sheets. She was clumsy and weighed down, leaning back a lot to keep them from falling. I knew she was weak from fasting, which made everything more difficult for her. I stood watching her, arms crossed, waiting.

She saw me and looked away in annoyance. Her expression screamed "I'll do it myself" so loudly it echoed over the mountains to the north. She stumbled and had a momentary lapse. I supported her with one arm while I grabbed the load with the other and brought it against my chest. "Where does this stuff go?", I asked as neutrally as I could. I didn't want to provoke her.

"Take it to our room”, she said and walked away in search of more material. Before long I sensed her intentions. She wanted to use that large sheet as a partition, separating the room into dormitories. Obviously, the girls took the place near the sea view window, assigning to me the one in front of the door leading to the stairs. They also swiped the coat rack / skylight, condemning me to the half-light. After fixing the drape to the ceiling with long rusty nails found on the ground, using me as a human ladder and a rock as a hammer, Deena went back to the ruins in search of useful material. Christelle and I, on the other hand, went to eat the leftover fruit so as not to pass out from hunger.

We then assisted Hank, who had found an old gasoline jeep in good condition in a sealed garage, and we wasted the morning trying to get it started. The tires were rotten and flat, but there was a second set in the garage stored inside plastic bags that we could have inflated and used. Around noon Asif arrived with another boar along with Jake with some more fruit. Then the others joined us for lunch in front of the usual fireplace. Deena ate the fruit they had picked, but didn't touch anything else.

"It's a miracle that ancient car has been preserved so well”, Jake commented.

"When they evacuated the island before the battle, the owners must have hoped to salvage what they could”, Hank imagined. "The rubber parts are dry and cracked, but when they parked it, they thoughtfully fixed up the supplies to get it running again, too. We'll make it”.

"I have no idea how to drive it. There are weird levers and pedals”, Asif said.

"I do”, I said. "I inherited a passion for old motorcycles from my grandmother. The shifter and clutch are annoying beasts to tame but with a little practice we'll get the hang of it”.

"Clutch?" asked Jake.

"I'll show you tomorrow”, I sighed. "The gaskets will be rotten by now, even if we can get it started that engine won't go very far”, I observed.

"We'll improvise”, Hank replied optimistically. "It's got a rough engine, it'll start up again. We don't have to go far after all, the first inhabited house will be fine”.

"And then?"

"And then we'll see Jake”, Hank concluded as he remained silent trying to mask his concerns. I could see that their backs were against the wall and it unnerved me no end.

"Don't worry, believe me”, Christelle said looking at Asif. He hadn't spoken a word so the conversation was taking place on a level that only she could understand. "The Lord will understand that this is an emergency”.

"What’s the monkey's concern?", asked Jake.

"This is boar not pig”, explained Asif. "But boar looks a lot like pig. Will it be haram?".

"The only sin”, I said looking him in the eye, "is to waste it”.

It was a statement that I wanted to be picked up by another person actually. Asif's philosophical and religious problems didn't matter to me. Deena's fasting, on the other hand, bothered me a lot. There was tension and embarrassment between us and I didn't want to start a sterile discussion but I couldn't hold myself back any longer.

After eating I discreetly approached Deena to try to talk to her. "You can't go on doing this”, I told her.

"Doing what?" she asked testily.

"To not eating anything”.

"That's my business. You don't have to worry about it”, she dismissed me.

"Look, have you seen yourself? How long do you think you can last at this rate with a physique like yours? What you're eating is basically water with some sugar and a few vitamins. You're taking a big risk and you know it. This is a bad situation and there's no room for idealism”.

"Why do you care now?", she asked in a quieter tone. "Do you pity me?".

I kept quiet. I didn't know what to answer. Couldn't she just listen to me?

"Leave me alone”, she replied then with her back to me.

"Listen to me, dolly”, I exclaimed irritated taking her by the arm. I tried to control myself and didn't hurt her as I held her. "If you don't eat after tonight, I will force-feed you, got it? We already have a dying man, we need an anorexic to make matters worse!".

She widened her eyes, amazed by that reaction, and after a few moments, she slapped me on the cheek. I left her and turned my back to the garage where Hank and Jake were working on the Jeep. What the fuck was I thinking?

 

 

 

*

 

 

"How is the work progressing?".

Christelle's voice caught me by surprise, causing me to drop the wrench between the meandering of the engine.

"Christelle!", I exclaimed. "Fuck!".

The girl grimaced in disapproval. "Officer and gentleman”, she commented sarcastically.

"Sorry... I... you scared me. Where did that fucking key go now...”.

The girl walked over to the hood and stuck her little arm firmly between the brake oil pan and the radiator, succeeding victoriously in her task. I thanked her as she handed me the key and went back to work as if nothing had happened.

"So.... how's it going?", she asked again.

"Fine, I guess”, I lied with a confident smile. "We'll be leaving soon”.

Christelle let a giggle escape. "Liar. You got into another fight with Hank”.

I again let my attention leap from the engine to the girl. "So? It's none of your business”.

"No... but he still left you here alone to fix an engine you can't really fix. I've already told him you're sorry. He'll be back in an hour or so and yes... he knows how to fix it. Did I get it right?".

"What? Why the fuck did you get involved?", I blurted out before huffing defeated. "Yeah”, I admitted. "It was the right thing to do. I was proud and stubborn... weird, right?".

"It's not weird when it comes to you. I know that even with Deena...”.

"Please don't!", I interrupted her. "Stay out of it”.

"Alright... I'm not here to talk about that anyway”, she explained. "Mainly”.

"What do you need? As you can see, I'm pretending to fix a two-century-old off-road vehicle”, I asked testily.

"We had some unfinished talk, didn't we?". She amazed me once again. I had completely forgotten about it.

"Yeah, right. Do you want us to... talk about it now?", I asked surprised.

"It's the best time. It's just the two of us, no prying ears, and no one knows I'm here. I'd rather take advantage of that right now”, she explained.

"Why?".

"Because I don't want Deena to see us talking alone. She's very upset and confused these days, and I wouldn't want her to think badly. Besides, a lot of the things I'm about to tell you she doesn't know, nor should she know...”.

"She doesn't have to know? It seems unfair since she almost lost a hand”, I protested.

"Knowing things is a responsibility Daith”, she said in contrast. "I myself am a receptacle of secrets that Charon would have desecrated without any mercy if the Judge had not expressly forbidden it”.

"The Judge? That would be the unmentionable fellow in charge up there?", I asked.

"He's not really a... guy, Daith. It's more like... a software”.

"An AI? John takes orders from...”.

"Not an AI. A digitized entity if anything. Something as old as the Fortress, that shouldn't even exist anymore. An ancient, raging entity that has survived to exact revenge for wrongs so old that it really doesn't even make sense to talk about them anymore. Charon is using that hatred and those feelings to turn them against Humanity and destroy it".

"I'm not sure I completely understand what you're trying to tell me Christelle. You were studied at Hobson's. Does that mean you work for Humanity?".

"In a way. More like a calling than a job”, she smiled. It made me feel comfortable knowing she was on my side. "Humanity didn't know about Di?ir-ga-šum and Charon counted on that a lot. Your appearance must have put him on full alert”.

"Yeah, he didn't spare himself”, I sighed, remembering his welcome. "The surprise effect will have worn off though! After the attack on Hobson's by now...”.

"Revealing himself is part of his plan, I imagine”, she said. "His Fortress needs lots and lots of energy. He's bound to have to come out to steal a lot of it. I think before he revealed himself he wanted to make sure he had the viral inducer ready”.

"Viral inducer? The machine you and Deena activated?".

"Yes”, she confirmed. "An incredibly powerful weapon of mass destruction. Now that it's active, Charon has a gun pointed at the planet's temple and no one will dare confront him directly”.

"Shit!", I exclaimed. "If only we could warn them”.

"Have faith in Humanity Daith! They'll defend themselves even without us!".

I was really agonizing over having ended up there wasting time. Between John and me it was a private matter. If anyone was going to teach him a lesson, it was me.

"Don't torment yourself”, she consoled me with a smile. "Redemption will come”.

"Deena”, I said, getting back on topic. "Why Deena? Why you?".

"Deena and I are... well... let's just say we're somehow connected to the ancient origins of that thing. A covenant was struck between the peoples who built what Charon calls Di?ir-ga-šum. Such great power required great control. To prevent it from being used by one against another, the device could only be activated by the will of one... of one and the life of the other”.

"Are you telling me that if Charon catches Deena, he will bleed her to death to pull the trigger?"

"Exactly”, she said seriously. "Her or another like her

"Son of a...”, I muttered in shock. That changed everything. There was no way I was going to leave Deena alone wandering around any city. I had to make sure she was protected at all costs, even from herself. Out of her foolish goodness she would surely agree to take the place of another the moment there was one to replace her. "Does she know?", I asked.

"No. You can rest assured”, she reassured me.

"About the fact that there are others like her? That they might replace her?".

"Not a thing. What you thought she would do knowing that is correct. You need to stay close to her and protect her, Daith”.

"Fuck! Why? Why did John end up becoming Charon?", I asked. "What is it that he wants?"

"I already told you Daith”, she said seriously. "Your brother has known truths that only those who are Enlightened should have access to. That is what the path of the Freemason is for. You as well as he are not ready for the truth. I will not harm you by revealing it to you Daith”.

"You cannot be a Mason”, I said. "You are a woman! How do you know of this truth?".

"It's true, only men can be initiated”, she confirmed. "I never said I was a Freemason and they are not the only ones who know what the World is really like”.

I thought she was pulling my leg, but then I remembered that she could read minds. Maybe she had read inside some advanced degree, discovering that truth. A terrible truth, according to her, that requires a preparation to be understood and accepted, a preparation that she would not have received. So why was she guarding it without being upset like John? If only I had been able to talk to him before his betrayal. To understand the reasons why he had turned his back on his companions and carried out those horrible actions. John was my brother. I loved him.

"Daith”, she said gently laying a hand on his arm. "Your brother is gone. There's Charon now”.

"I know”.

"If it comes to it, you might have to...”.

"I know”, I repeated.

"I'll pray that it never has to happen”, she smiled. "I've grown fond of you”.

"You'll pray huh? I didn't see any pantheons around”, I said skeptically.

"My God doesn't dwell in pantheons”, she smiled with a hint of pride. "But in His glorious Paradise! You'll see that with his help Mankind will defeat Charon!".

I shrugged, not at all impressed. "I wouldn't know Christelle, never had faith or anything. In fact, I'd say the Gods are pretty indifferent to our problems”.

"That's natural Daith”, she said with a certain amount of snark. "God is in charge of the World's problems certainly not those of the individual”.

"That's how it works? That's fine”, I said still not at all taken aback by that speech. "Go ahead and pray to your Gods, I'll keep up the charade here”.

"Deena doesn't need to know anything about what we talked about”, she reiterated. "The more she knows...”.

"The more she's in danger”, I said. "I get it”.

"Protect her”, she said again. She leaned in close, almost placing her lips to my ear, instantly embarrassing me. "Love her, if you can. She’s not waiting for anything else”.

"Get off me!", I shouted retracting instinctively.

"Bye-bye”, she said walking out of the garage, leaving a strange trail of scent behind her. I sighed in pain. That talk hadn't really clarified anything. Of course, I had the necessary elements to fight back. Deena needed protection and Charon needed energy. The Judge is a kind of SAI, perhaps very similar to what we know as Level 6 (banned by law, it's a human being that becomes a full AI by digitizing itself and merging with its symbiote, Ed.). I felt like I was at an intelligence briefing. A soldier is told just enough to complete the mission without really understanding what he is doing.

"Make up, you two!", suddenly yelled Christelle from outside.

"Get off me!", I shouted back.

"Shut up! You messed up! Make up with her! When are you going to get someone like her again, you dummy!".

 

 

 

*

 

 

That morning, all of us had gotten up early at the crack of dawn. I threw my head into a bowl full of freezing water and woke up with a couple of expletives, feeling as I did every day nostalgic for the smell of coffee.

Deena avoided me as she did every morning now. She looked perpetually tired and spoke little even to the others, always on her own and always sulking.

I pondered Christelle's words for a long time without finding a way to get to the bottom of it. Deena hated me and I couldn't put my mind in order.

That day, I found myself observing a scene that was curious at first as I sat on the side of the garage observing the daily life of our camp, leaving Hank to find a solution to replace a rotten gasket with salvaged material.

Deena was there in the corner, intent on hauling dry wood for the evening fire, a strenuous task she had wanted to take on herself since the early days. I appreciated that side of her, since we had been on the island she had never shirked a heavy job nor had she lazed a single day.

I saw her walking more and more unsteadily until finally, without strength, she let the wood she had been hugging fall to the ground, sitting on the spot and holding her forehead.

My instinct told me to run to her, but I held it at bay. I knew I would only get insults and would do nothing but protest the whole time.

The girl looked around, ignoring that I was watching her. She fumbled with the pockets of her pants and pulled out a few brownish stripes. She looked at them, puzzled, struggling to get to her feet.

I saw her almost fight with them, then with the expression with which one decides to tear off a band-aid well stuck to the hair, she bit into one and took a bite.

I realized that she had taken and stored a couple of strips of salted and dried meat that Asif had recently prepared to ensure we had supplies for emergencies and I was amused.

I enjoyed seeing her in pain chewing on that boar that definitely had the texture of leather with that expression of funny disgust.

I immediately changed my mood to see her bent over vomiting. It wasn't a gradual rejection; Deena threw up like she had been drinking whiskey and beer all night. After a couple of gulps, the girl lay down on her side, unaware that she was almost lying on top of her own vomit.

I got up and ran over to her. "Hey, Deena! Deena!", I called to her. She merely coughed, remaining with her eyes closed.

I took her in my arms and lifted her off the ground, screaming the doctor's name. I had weakened on the island, more than anyone else. Yet even though I was thinner, I quickly noticed that Deena's weight was almost nonexistent. I had lifted her before but at that moment, it felt like lifting a big empty box.

"Gods, what have you done?", I whispered to her worriedly.

"I told you... I can't do it...”, she replied in a hushed voice.

Agatha appeared in the driveway with her breath in her lungs, running towards us. "What's wrong?", she asked worriedly.

"She threw up after trying to eat some dried boar”, I summarized.

She looked first at the vomit on the ground, noting how there was virtually nothing in it but water. She placed a hand on her forehead, focusing on touch. "No fever”, she said relieved. "A psychological reaction, probably”.

"That exaggerated?", I asked in amazement.

"Well it's a little over the top, yes”, she agreed. "Usually people who make extreme food choices do so out of ideology or religion. I think in her case there are more complex motivations or simply more rooted in the subconscious. Perhaps severe trauma”.

‘Crazy. Has that rabbit nonsense scarred her to such an extent?’, I thought. “She's weak Ag and very thin. She can't even stand up”.

"We have no way to process the meat in such a way that she doesn't feel it”, the doctor reasoned. "Nor IVs or supplements. She's definitely iron deficient as well as protein and vitamin B deficient. With some rest and fruit she will recover but at the slightest exertion she will collapse again”.

I followed the doctor to our room and laid Deena gently on the bed, covering her carefully and arranging her hair around her face.

Christelle arrived with Asif carrying some coconuts and small green bananas. I appreciated the gesture but knew it wouldn't solve anything. I left the room, frowning and thinking.

I watched the sun reflect on the waves of the sea on whose shore my brooding had brought me. I kicked a rock into the waves and watched it plunge in and sink into the depts, scaring the fish that were swimming close to the rocks.

Jake came over beside me, whistling, stopping a few paces away and setting up to enjoy a long piss in company. "Ah, what a sight”, he laughed. "The nicest loo I've ever had! Too bad I just don't have a fish rod, uh? I've never had fresh fish in my life. Somebody even tried to print the meat but it just sucks. Rich people food!".

I looked at him with eyes filled with awareness. "Right! Yes!", I exclaimed and gave him a friendly pat on the back, causing him to lose his balance and jet control.

I ran wildly to the quarters and put my hands on my guns. I knew that one of the rounds had been forgotten in a pocket of my coat, so I loaded it and after being left with only my pants on, I ran barefoot to the beach nearby, diving into the sea.

Opening my eyes underwater proved to be a challenge but I had to do my best. I went where the sea didn't reach over my chest and looked around me for any shadow worth shooting at.

I didn't have to wait long before a large dark gray fish swam curiously close enough to me. I dove in and took aim, firing my one shot at close range, hitting it.

I came back victorious, with a large prey of which I was unaware of the species clutched by the still struggling tail, wounded in the center by my 9 mm.

I had no idea how to cook the fish, so I threw a sheet of iron on the fire until it was red-hot and improvised by throwing the animal on it after first gutting it with a knife and cutting it in two parts, without the head, along the profile and removing almost all the bones with ease.

The skin quickly sizzled on the incandescent metal and the air was immediately filled with a new and delicious smell of roasted fish.

Asif materialized with a rapt expression. "That smells good”.

"It's not for you”, I immediately clarified.

"I've never had fresh fish...”, he insisted as he approached and almost put his big face on the food.

"Take a small piece and get out of my way”, I conceded. After all, he was the one who had been feeding us those days.

He took a slice the size of two fingers and slowly ate half of it. His face expressed his amazement and he broke into a smile. "I have to let Jake taste this. Jake!", he shouted happily as he ran in search of his buddy to share the discovery.

I tossed all the food onto a flat, smooth piece of wood that I had washed and disinfected over the flames and returned still in soaked pants to our room.

Christelle was chatting happily with Deena sitting on the bed and the conversation came to an abrupt halt when they saw me enter with food in my hand.

The blonde looked at me from head to toe and smiled at me with a strange expression while Deena did her best to hide her embarrassment.

I walked over and knelt down, placing the "plate" over her knees. "Here”, I said to her. "Try it”.

"What is this?", she asked looking at the plate wary. The scent reached her nostrils and her expression quickly changed. A loud grumble erupted like a thunderstorm from the girl's belly and Christelle and I burst out laughing.

"Bon appétit”, Christelle said as she stood up and walked out of the room after casting me a knowing look. "Good job Daith”.

I followed her with my gaze, then turned around to see Deena put the first piece of white meat in her mouth with her fingers. I rejoiced in her amazement and saw the glow of her eyes light up her face again.

"C'est... incredible! Très bon!" she said looking at me as if she had just made the greatest discovery in the world. "What is it?"

"Fish. Don't ask me what species it is but... Watch out for the bones, I didn't get them out right”, I told her with satisfaction. I stood up, watching her come back to life one bite after another. "Starting tomorrow, you'll have to learn how to fish, I'm out of bullets”.

"It doesn't taste like meat at all!", she gloated, observing a bone between her thumb and forefinger that she had just retrieved with her tongue.

"Yep. And it's even better, in many ways”.

"Did you get it yourself?", she asked in amazement.

"Yeah”, I smiled. "Luckily there's plenty of it around here”.

Deena lowered her gaze. Her face was furrowed with a sweet smile, her shoulders tight and her greasy fingers intertwined with each other at the back of her stomach. "Thank you. You've been nice, for once”.

I should have simply been happy and that was it. Instead, stupidly, a searing flush of embarrassment ignited my face, refiling an invisible prick at the pit of my stomach. "Y-You’re welcome”, I stammered. "Now I'm going to work! Don't make me worry anymore, huh? Have a nice lunch and bye”, I said all in one breath. I turned my back on her and without realizing I found myself running away from that moment, running down the stairs three steps at a time.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

After three full days, that Jurassic engine finally started. The first day we disassembled the engine to see that it was okay, the second I spent digging to reach the resort's boiler tank with an old rotten shovel and a pickaxe that even dared to break, forcing me to look for a replacement pole. On the third day, we finally finished the improvised crank start, put oil and water in the radiator, and put in the hard-earned gasoline. We flipped a coin and it was Jake's turn to suck the fuel with a rubber hose from the tanker into a plastic bucket collected from a shed. Towards evening, after years, smog began to come out of the car's exhaust again. We decided to postpone the inauguration until the next morning and, with the vehicle switched off, we returned tired to the base.

Deena, invigorated and in a good mood again, had even managed to find some clothes. They were tattered and dusty, but still better than the ones we had. For the first time she saw me wearing civilian clothes and after a long time, she smiled at me, evidently amused by my new, less formal appearance.

A ridiculous short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt with a few buttons still attached in place, a pair of dark brown shorts and a shirt that was once supposed to be white but was now a decidedly unflattering yellow.

Asif and Christelle, who had been spending a lot of time together lately, had built a sort of shower using an old cistern that collected rainwater. It wasn't difficult to guess who had designed it and who had built it. Agatha had even managed to make a kind of soap using the laboratory of what was perhaps once an infirmary. It wasn't the best but it was enough to get rid of the smell of stables that had been surrounding us for too long. Life became less burdensome and morale began to rise again. The next day we might have been able to leave in search of salvation.

We dined with an unusual cheerfulness and complicity. Agatha was also satisfied, since the pilot's condition was apparently improving. Despite the good mood, I was terribly tired. I had worked a lot in those days and often at the end of the day I felt a headache that fortunately disappeared the next morning. And that evening came on time as well. As if from nowhere, suddenly, the painful discomfort in my temples began to torment me. "I'm going to bed”, I said, "I don't feel very well”.

"What do you mean?" asked Ag, squaring me from head to toe serenely.

"I have a terrible headache. I've been getting it a lot lately. I'm going to go lie down”, and turning my back on the group, I slipped into the house. I lay down on the mattress and squinted my eyes, massaging my temples. Time passed slowly but the pain remained and I couldn't get to sleep. The discomfort had become unbearable, so finally I got up to go to the doctor. I noticed that my head was spinning. Staggering a bit, I headed outside towards the fire. I could hear chatter, a sign that they were still there. Laying on the doorframe, I called out to the doctor, who turned to look at me worriedly.

"What's up kid?"

"Do you know if there's any good stuff left in that old infirmary? I need an aspirin”.

"Two century old medication is a good idea to never have a headache again”, she observed wryly.

Suddenly, a strong shiver ran down my spine. A chill gripped my hips. I can't describe what happened to me, only that I suddenly felt like a block of ice. I fell to the ground.

 

 

 

*

 

 

I dreamed of distant memories, perhaps not even mine, whose echoes were lost in my mind as if I were neither the protagonist nor the dreamer but the valley itself where the wind blew and the sounds died. I thought I was awake, again in human form, apparently solid and able to walk on a green meadow, swept by a light breeze, with a background of pleasant hills and a quiet blue sky.

I felt pleasantly lost in that realm as surreal as it was familiar.

"Look at that”, said a voice behind me.

I snapped in terror, turning around abruptly. "Sean?".

"Not in the flesh this time”, he said serenely, his face impassive. He was wearing his dark red uniform and looking far beyond the horizon.

"Where are we?", I asked.

"Where and when here makes no sense Daith”, he replied.

"Did... something happen to me?".

"Probably. You're dead or maybe about to die. Before you ask, that's not my case”.

"And you died that...?", I asked blocked by the answer in advance. "Oh”.

"I can come here at my leisure, in my sleep. Our father was able to too, according to him. I, however, have never met him. So far I've only ever been in my sojourns among the hills”.

"Does that sound normal to you? You must have asked yourself a question or two!".

"Is that thing beating in our chests normal Daith? Normal is not something about our blood. Nor our destiny”.

"Destiny?", I asked confused.

"I know you hate me. You're right to hate me. I also know that you care deeply for the huri who is with you. There was a time when I would have chosen merely to protect you. I would have chosen as a human being. That is no longer the case. It doesn't have to be that way for anyone anymore. Daith you're probably going to die and I don't want to lie to you. I'll find you, I'll take her, I'll sacrifice her if I have to. There are more important things at stake than our lives. Maybe on the other side you'll realize that. If there's any other better place to exist than this...”.

"You know what Sean? Of all the dreams I have about you, this remains the dumbest”, I said cheekily.

John laughed thunderously, then turned his back to me and fixed his gaze on the view. "Daith dreams fade when you realize you are dreaming. This place is a strange dimension. I come here when I want to clear my mind, to think unemotionally, coldly. Everything is peace. Here the chains of my humanity cannot hold me back. This dimension exists, it is real, it simply still eludes our understanding. It must be in one of these places that that den of scum called Anki is found”.

"If you cared so much about going to the other world you could die when you had to!", I shouted. "Why do you insist on living? Why do you do all this?"

John turned again and stared at me with a murderous look. His face instantly put terror in me, his beast-like eyes stared into my soul and in him I saw sharp claws ready to steal it from me. "I will completely destroy Humanity, I will exterminate the angels and if I get the chance, I will go to Anki's gates and take His head”.

Darkness descended. I saw a light and headed towards it; the fog surrounded everything again and silence filled my ears. I heard a voice in the distance but could not make out the words. A strong pain in my head made me collapse on the ground. I lay back down and opened my eyes, wondering where I was.

I looked confusedly at the rotten ceiling, barely illuminated by a dim light, generated by a small flashlight hanging from a coat rack. My head seemed determined to burst and I was cold. I could make out voices not far away on the ground floor.

"I don't know where but it's worrisome because we might have caught it too”, I heard Agatha speak worriedly.

"L-Leptospinosis?", asked Asif. I heard a pop followed by an expletive.

"Leptospirosis Asif!", yelled Hank.

"He must have drank contaminated water or simply come in contact with it. But the disease doesn't appear right away, so he must have done it a few days ago. I hope it wasn't that drink the first morning we spent here”, Agatha continued.

"But if it was then we would be sick already, too”, Deena observed.

"No. The disease has varying incubation times, sometimes very long. Some of us might be sick without knowing it”.

"But there is a cure, right?", asked Deena worried and close to tears.

"In ancient times the disease was treated with antibiotics, simple penicillin, to which leptospires are very sensitive. Today we use bacteriophage viruses which are even better, unfortunately I don't even have access to the right mold let alone artificial viruses”.

"I think there's no time to waste. Let's go to the infirmary right now and look for anything you might need”, exclaimed Hank.

"You won't find anything useful…”. sighed Agatha.

"I'm going to go to him”, Deena said and made her way back in. Agatha probably ran after her to stop her.

"No!", she exclaimed. "He's very contagious. We'll have to take appropriate measures first”.

"But…”, she tried to object. "All right then”.

I went back to focusing on myself, as I began to feel warm again. However, I was shaking. I shivered harder and harder until I lost control of my legs, which began to move on their own in an annoying shudder that I couldn't stop. I wanted to scream for help but I had heard what the doctor had said. I was contagious, I couldn't risk infecting someone else and I decided to resist. I lost touch with reality again and took another dive into the darkness.

I opened my eyes again. The room was illuminated by a bright and pleasant light. Deena was staring at me smiling with her bright green eyes.

"Good, the fever is coming down”, she whispered.

"That's good. But we can only try to keep it stable for now. We have so little time”, said Agatha's voice.

"What happened?", I asked discovering myself with a parched throat. I didn't know how long it had been since my first fainting spell, all I knew was that I was incredibly thirsty.

"Rest assured, Hank and Jake left this morning in the jeep following the road. They'll find a town with a hospital you'll see”, Deena said. Her eyes were getting red.

"Don't cry”, I said and made to move a hand to caress her face. My muscles ached with every little movement.

"No!", burst out Agatha. "Sorry kid, no physical contact”.

I immediately froze and put my hand back. I realized that they had procured some sort of improvised blanket, with which they had bundled me up almost to my neck, leaving my arms out.

"From now, physical contact only if necessary and only with a cloth. If you stay close to him, even as now, use the masks Christelle is sewing, okay? We stay at a distance”, the doctor explained. How fortunate, I thought, to be shipwrecked with a doctor by my side. "We found some still good meds that brought your fever down a few lines. But I'll be honest, the more time that goes by, the sicker you'll start to get. And the longer it will take to recover. If they don't get help within a couple of days...”.

The doctor couldn't finish her sentence. I nodded my head that I understood and sighed. Deena jumped up and ran out of the room, covering her mouth with both hands.

"My head hurts”, I said to the doctor.

"You have mild meningitis”, she said. "One of the symptoms of the disease. And believe me, it's only the beginning”.

"You sure know how to cheer your patients”, I said sarcastically.

"I won't give you fake hopes. If you have faith, turn to your God”.

"What the hell is wrong with all of you”, I laughed, thinking about how much I'd been hearing about Gods lately.

"Then I can only ask you to be strong. Let's just hope no one else is infected. I'm going to go get some more water. I'll be back in a bit”, the woman greeted me and left the room. I was left alone.

I felt like a real wreck. Every part of my body ached if I tried to move it, my head was pounding and I felt terribly tired. But in addition to my body, my pride was also beginning to suffer from the disease. I stood there in agony while I should have been with others looking for means of communication or transportation, signs of civilization. And I was supposed to be there protecting Deena and Christelle. If the mercenaries still had hostile intentions? There was nothing I could have done. Everyone was worrying about me. I had become a liability, and that didn't sit well with me at all. But there was no point in thinking about it, it wouldn't make the situation any better and it wouldn't help me cope with the illness either. I tried to relax my mind. And suddenly I remembered the strange vision I had the night I got sick. The more I thought about it, the less I could understand what the hell I had dreamed. Maybe it was just the fever's ravings. Of course it was strange. As I dreamed I found those scenarios familiar. But that's how dreams work; what seems perfectly logical at the moment seems absurd once we return to reality.

In the afternoon I heard the sound of the jeep's engine approaching at high speed and then screeching to a halt for several meters not far from the house. Agatha came over to see what Hank and Jake had found. "How come you're already here? Did you find a town?" she asked worriedly.

"Yes of course, there are several settlements along the road ahead”, replied Hank.

"Thank goodness”, exclaimed the relieved woman.

"But they're all abandoned and we haven't found any hospital-like buildings”, Jake explained. "But the worst thing is something else”.

"And what could be worse? Why did you come back you were supposed to keep looking!" she shouted impatiently.

"We went down the road to a small town always going east, then we followed the coast north. And at that point we turned back. If it's true that the boys followed the coast from the landing point east, then it's all for nothing”, Hank exclaimed in exasperation.

The woman lowered her gaze. Without help I couldn't make it. In the meantime, Deena had rushed to hear what the explorers had to say, followed by Christelle and Asif. I heard someone burst into tears. Hell, I hated that place.


Submitted: June 16, 2022

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