Travis moaned and covered his face with one hand. “I know. I was just...done.”
“He said we should have taken it to the fort.”
“I agree. But it’s done now, isn’t it?”
“I should send someone out to check on her, shouldn’t I?”
Sighing softly, Katie shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t give a damn what happens to her, but if it adversely affects the fort...”
“Maybe we should bring her back for justice at the hands of the fort people.” Travis sighed. “Just when I thought I would get some sleep.”
“You’re not going out there, are you?”
“Nah. I’ll send out some of the volunteers who were going to go with Nerit.” He glanced at the clock. “I’ll head downstairs and meet up with them. They should be going to breakfast soon.”
“Then you’ll come back up for at least a few hours of sleep?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Unless something else happens.” He kissed her soundly, then her belly, and gave the reproachful looking German Shepherd a pat on the head. “I’ll be back.”
Bone weary, Travis pulled on his boots and headed back out the door.
The morning was very cold and a light mist flowed over the ground.
Occasionally a dark figure lingered in the wispy grasp of the haze, but mostly the world seemed strangely empty as the Hummer sped along the country back roads.
A herd of cows gathered around a pond huddled together for warmth.
They looked relatively well fed considering how long they had been on their own.
Just since last year, the world had changed drastically. The few houses they passed were desolate looking creatures. Before winter had set in, nature had already begun the process of dismantling the man made buildings.
Katarina drove the Hummer dressed in warm clothes with her hair braided tightly and slung over one shoulder. Beside her, Nerit stared out at the dead world with a thoughtful expression on her face. Curtis and Dale sat in the back, quiet and half-dozing. Despite hot coffee and donuts, it was too easy to want to fall back to sleep on a cold morning.
“For nature to take back the planet.” Nerit motioned to the fences that were already down.
Katarina looked over at a farmhouse and its listing front door. “Yeah. It’s already going to hell.”
“Not surprising. Americans do not build to last,” Nerit said, wiping her nose with a Kleenex. Allergies were hell on everyone it seemed.
“Yeah. Expendable society is what it’s called, I think,” Katarina said with a nod.
“Humanity. That is what is expendable.” Nerit shook her head. “We went down so easily.”
“Some of us are still here,” Katarina pointed out.
“The lucky and the too damn stubborn to die,” Nerit said with a laugh.
“Me, too. Me, too…” Nerit said.
“If I had still been living in Houston, I would be eating someone’s nose right now,” Nerit decided.
“Weird how it worked, huh? If you made it through the first day, it got easier somehow.”
“The initial shock of it all wears off and the survival instinct kicks in.”
Katarina ran a hand over her hair, then sighed. “It almost feels like this is normal. Ya know? Like this is just how life is.”
“This is how life just is now. The old way is just that…old. Gone. Lost.”
“And now people are hitching up and having babies…”
With a tilt of her head, Nerit regarded Katarina. “You like Bill.”
“He’s nice,” Katarina said after a moment. “I did like…I do like…he is just nice.”
“Nice is good. Ralph was nice.” Nerit suddenly stiffened, looking ahead.
The Hummer came to a slow stop just after a curve on the country road. A few cows were walking down the road. Deer were strolling casually across the meadow and, somewhere in the distance, a bird was calling out. The mist was now just wisps along the ground.
Ralph’s truck was smashed firmly into a fence post. Its deer guard took most of the damage and Nerit was fairly certain it would drive. But both doors were wide open and it was obvious the truck was empty.
Dale woke up in mid-snore and sputtered a few incoherent words before saying, “Hey, cows.”
“They must have got out when the truck took the fence down,” Katarina said.
Nerit ignored the cows and stared at the truck thoughtfully. “Get out slowly. Cover all sides. I doubt there is any activity out here, but be on guard. Let me examine the area around the truck.”
“You got it,” Dale said, stuffing the rest of a stale, cold donut he had fished out of his pocket into his mouth.
Katarina slid out of the truck, holding her gun easily in her hands. Curtis stumbled out and worked a crick out of his leg as Dale strode in a slow circle keeping his eye on the cows.
Moving toward the truck, she squinted a little, focusing her gaze. With a little groan, she squatted down to look at some shoe prints in the mud.
“Jenni was in cowboy boots. So was Bill.”
“Roger was in sneakers,” Curtis added to Nerit’s comment. “So was Felix.”
“What do these look like to you?” Nerit motioned to the footprints.
“Exactly.” Nerit stood up slowly, feeling her hips and back protesting, and moved to the truck. Gazing inside, she saw the dried blood, sticky in the humidity of the morning, smeared along the passenger side.
Curtis was instantly at Nerit’s side. “Think they got bitten and went at each other?”
Pulling what looked like a wadded up sheet to her, Nerit looked it over.
“No. This is full of surgical tools. See that neat slice in the fabric. I think someone got stabbed by one of the instruments.” She fumbled with the makeshift bag a bit more. “My guess is Jenni.”
“You can tell that by the blood?” Dale asked in surprise.
“No, sweetheart, by her wadded up, bloodied leather jacket,” Nerit answered pointing to where the article of clothing lay on the floor of the truck.
“There are drag marks through the grass.” Katarina pointed.
“And along the side of the truck,” Curtis observed.
“And a helicopter settled down in the pasture,” Nerit added.
“Look at the grass, Curtis. Flattened in a circle. And it was not one of Roger’s crop circles.” Nerit sighed and moved around the truck slowly.
“Only two bodies,” Curtis said from behind her as he studied the drag marks.
“So they got Jenni and one other person,” Katarina said in a soft, low voice.
“I can’t tell that.” Nerit sighed and climbed into the truck. Turning the key, she furrowed her brow, listening to the engine try to turnover. Then it suddenly roared to life and she sat in silence in the cab.
Katarina was stoic, but Nerit knew she was in pain. Curtis just looked a little lost. Dale was still staring at the cows like they were walking hamburgers.
“What do we do now?” Curtis finally asked.
“We go back. We tell everyone we are not alone. We tell them the military is still functioning somewhere out there and they have Jenni and one other survivor.”
Curtis shook his head. “Fucking shit! If Lenore hadn’t tried to save Ken and kept with the mission--”
“She did what I would have done, fucktard,” Dale growled. “You don’t let your friends die in front of your eyes.”
Flinching from the harshness in Dale’s voice, Curtis drew back. “Okay, okay.”
“We do what comes instinctively. Lenore saved her friend. But we lost two others. That is the nature of this world,” Nerit said firmly. “There are no second guesses, Curtis. We just do our best.”
“Yeah, but Bill, Jenni, Roger and Felix…they’re fucking gone now,” Curtis said in a low, tight voice.
“Yes, they are,” Nerit answered in her calm tones. “Now, let’s go home.”