We were gathered in the woods when Lane woke. His name badged black against green on his breast pocket. A good hour had passed since we’d dragged his body from beside the road, since I’d taken his gun as he slumped and dealt with whatever had become of his colleague.
I’d been mistaken. When the body at my feet moved, his crewman, rolling over, arms and legs loose, eyes white, teeth bared, that was the first time Lane had seen him. He knew what it had become. I’d watched as he pawed at his face, blood rolling down his forehead, into his eyes and he took his first glimpse. It could have been the loss of blood, or the shock, but he collapsed in a heap.
Andrew arrived under Nat and Zoe’s shoulders soon after, questions alight on each face with my hand pressing a bandage on the face of the guy they were yet to meet. We agreed making camp in the woods was necessary and ferrying Andrew and Lane; we did just that. Nat and I made a fire after a five-minute walk in, the warmth more than welcome, with two pistols I was comfortable leaving Cassie on guard as the rest of the able-bodied scavenged what we could from the crash site. None of us had the courage to visit Matt’s resting place to gather what he’d stowed in his pack, to check if he was resting.
We sat around the fire getting warm, patching up the two injured, Nat giving me glances, a slight smile each time she tended to our air force man. We were okay, I thought, trying to relax by the fire, trying not to flinch at every sound in the woods, every crack of twigs or whistle of wind. I took comfort we were deep enough, would hear anyone living or otherwise, approach from far out.
“I’m sorry,” were his first words, stopping to take a drop of water offered from Nat’s bottle, looking so much different without the scarlet mask. Our age, maybe a little older. Weather warn, face down-turned. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, his eyes falling on the gun resting on my lap. Our eyes caught and he said the words again.
“You didn’t know we weren’t infected,” I said, sharing a look with Nat. “But now I need you to tell us everything.”
And he did.
“They lied,” I said.
“Or didn’t know,” Nat added. Lane stared back, no reaction to the words.
“It’s still spreading in the air. No one touched your man,” I said.
“Spicer. Leading Hand James Spicer,” he replied, looking down at the ground.
“And your name,” Zoe asked, her voice soft from the other end side of the fire.
“Commander,” he said, then paused, his eyes turning down. “Connor Lane.”
“Well, Connor Lane,” Andrew said, leaning up at my side, the pain stretching out his face. “Welcome to hell.”
Zoe snapped his way and Andrew relaxed back, letting the air suck through his teeth as he did.
“So what next,” I said, looking around the fire, each face reflecting the question. Lane was the first to speak.
“We should wait here. They’ll come and rescue us. They know where we are, the transponder in the helicopter. Even if it’s damaged, they’ll have our last position.”
I watched as faces lit up. I didn’t want to be the one to let them down.
“And risk another crew for someone whose already infected?” I said. Their faces fell.
“I’d like to think so,” Lane replied, still sipping from the water.
“I’d like to think so too,” I said. “But what if they come? They were in the same briefing, right?”
“They see you, then fine. Hugs all around. They see us and open fire.” I waited for someone to argue. “Tell me why they’re not like you,” I added. Lane took his time.
“We don’t decide,” he said, his eyes floating around the group. “We call it in and they sign off.”
“Exactly,” I replied.
Zoe was the first to react with sobs from across the fire.
“So what do we do?” Nat said, standing, moving around to comfort her.
“We get warm, rest up, take stock. It’s still early. But we need to get on the move, find somewhere warm and secure for tonight.”
“Then what?” It was Nat again. I looked to Lane, he was thinking the same.
“We keep moving North,” I replied. Lane nodding as deep as his bandaged forehead would allow.
“Then?” Nat said leaning in. I drew a deep breath, all heads turning in the same direction toward the road at the heavy crack of twigs, the damp leaves rustling. I palmed the gun and stood, twisting my head back around.
“We see if civilisation lets us back in.”
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