“I’ll tell it,” said Louisa. “About Kelsey, and Aadi, and the storm.”
The group seemed to agree to this, and settled down to the telling.
“Things were going pretty well at first,” she said. “After you all left, we decided to get serious about food, so we went gathering every day. We started heating rocks so that we could cook it up into – well, like this. Plus other things – digging out the spring so it held more water, better tools. We tried to make fire, we had a rotating shift working on that, but it never really took.”
“We decided to explore more, properly. The valley down there isn’t the only place with food near here at all, it’s just the closest. We found a few other valleys like it. That was mostly Caleb and the boys – they did longer hikes than us. Said it made them feel useful.” Louisa smiled.
“So you were okay on food?” asked Noah.
“Well, as okay as anyone is,” she said. “It wasn’t great, but we were getting by. Lots of green stuff to eat, lots of little things for protein if you didn’t look at them too closely. It didn’t help Aadi, though.” She paused, looking at Dev, who didn’t pick up the story. She continued, “Aadi was sick. Real sick, by the end. He was hiding it, but he’d gotten cut up by the wreck and it didn’t heal right – he got infected. We didn’t have nothing to treat it with, not that he told us it needed treating. So he kept getting paler and weaker and less useful, and he got really annoying, lying around like Sam was only without a broken ankle or anything. Some of us – uh, we yelled at him some. It was Dev that showed us.” Her expression twisted. “Showed us what was happening to him.” She told Noah, “It was going all colors and oozing, and then he got a fever. So, he died. It was quick, I guess. Could have been quicker.”
“Systemic sepsis,” Noah muttered. “Remind me never to get hurt on this planet ever, ever again.”
“Like your knee is peaches and cream,” Michelle muttered back.
“What’s wrong with his knee?” asked Caleb.
“I twisted it or something,” Noah said. “It’s fine. Getting better. Go on,” he told Louisa.
“That was a few weeks ago,” she said. “Before the big storm, so – three?”
That got nods of agreement.
“It was the storm that screwed everything up. Before that, we were fine, we were getting on with things. We were talking about an expedition back to the swamp to get lots of food, maybe find a better cave nearer there to set up as a halfway point. Really build something. Except then it started raining – no big deal, right, you just stay inside for a few hours and wait for it to pass. Then it didn’t pass. And we’re waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. We wait some more. It’s dark as pitch out there, and the wind is throwing rocks around like they’re kid’s toys. We can’t go out in that. The only good thing about it is that we’re not going thirsty, but it’s not like we’ve got any food put away in the cave. That lasts three days. Three days of getting on each other’s nerves and getting desperate enough to eat moss. We were so hungry, but what was worse was by the time the rain calmed down, we were all so tired. We dragged ourselves down to the valley to eat and then didn’t have the energy to come back up, so when it rains again the next day we get rained on so now we’re hungry and exhausted and wet. Might as well not have ever left the swamp. That was – that was pretty much the worst that happened to me, except for Kelsey.”
Louisa closed her eyes, dark face tired and lined.
“She was your roommate, right?” Michelle asked.
“She never told me that,” Zack said, frowning.
“Girl’s gotta have some privacy,” Louisa shrugged. “She was a private lady, was Kelsey. Always was.”
“What happened?” Michelle asked.
“How the hell should I know? One day she’s saying her stomach hurts and I’m saying suck it up, mine hurts too, and then the next day she’s curled up in a ball because she’s in so much pain and then she’s just – gone. Like something just went wrong inside. It’s not like there was anything anyone could do for her. There wasn’t anything you could have done for her.”
She was staring at Noah. Challenging him. Michelle braced herself, but Noah just nodded.
“There’s nothing any of us can do about internal medicine out here,” he agreed.
“After that, things just kept not going so well. Not enough food, not enough time, bad weather, bad company. We talked about leaving, getting someplace else, but some people wanted to stay and wait for you all to come back.”
“Which they did,” said Caleb.
“Which wasn’t looking very flipping likely yesterday, was it?” asked Louisa. It had the sound of an argument had many times before.
“It wasn’t just that,” said Sam, surprising Michelle. “A lot of us weren’t sure we had the energy to hike someplace we weren’t sure how to find, for who knew how long. It was a lot of bad decisions. I’d like to hear about this place you want us to go. I want to hear who this is, too,” she said, nodding at Andy.
Andy, put on the spot, waved her fingers at the group, which studied her with open interest. Michelle was oddly reminded that they were suddenly in a group that actually found girls hot. Andy was a hot girl these days, as these things went – curvy in lots of places but with muscles to back it up underneath that, with lovely deep brown skin and a short cap of black curls, taller than most of the other girls.
“I’m Andy. Andromeda. Call me Andy, though, okay? I’m, um, I was thrown out of the wreck at a different point than everyone else, I guess? Let’s see… Noah and Michelle probably saved my life, it’s nice to meet you, and I got picked up for political protests at my university. What about everyone else?”
“I’m Michelle, no nicknames. You all know me, but if we’re comparing stories, I got arrested for vagrancy.”
There. And no one blinked, or yelled. There were some good things about being here.
“And I’m Noah, though I don’t know why I’m introducing myself.” His gaze circled the group. “And I was sexual deviance.”
“Hey, me too,” said Kitty. “High five.”
Surprised, Noah high fived her.
“Well, and public drunken and disorderly behavior,” she added. “Sam and I compared notes the other day and we got arrested at the same bar. Go figure. And I’m Kitty.”
“Not really worth it as a night out, looking back,” said Sam. “I’m Sam, known around here for my broken ankle and complete lack of drunk and disorderly behavior, which is a big change from home, let me tell you.”
“Sexual deviancy for me too,” Louisa said quietly. “But I don’t need to high five anyone.”
“Anyone else for sexual deviancy?” asked Zack, lightly. “Or shall I take a turn?”
No one spoke up. He grinned briefly.
“My school had a zero tolerance policy for everything you could have a zero tolerance policy for. I mouthed off to a teacher, threw a punch. Ended up here.”
“You have a name?” Michelle prompted. “Or have you started calling yourself Spear Guy?”
“Zack. But thank you for noticing my spear.” He grinned, to the assorted groans of the group and Michelle’s secret relief that no one could read her mind and know how much she might be thinking about his spear. It wasn’t that he was super buff or classically handsome, especially as he was now, looking like a particularly animate skeleton scarecrow, but he had a nice white smile and an easy, confident manner.
Dev was next. He said quietly, in careful, accented English, “My name is Dev. My parents volunteered me. They thought it was best.”
No further details were forthcoming. No one seemed eager to pry.
Caleb had ended up going last.
“Well, with everyone being arrested and all, I don’t know how to… I volunteered,” he finished in a rush. “I wanted to see places no one else had seen. Go places no humans had gone. I wanted – well, not this. But I volunteered.”
For a while, no one was really sure what to say to that. It didn’t quite follow, from the hunger and the recital of deaths. It didn’t fit.
“You volunteered,” Michelle heard herself say.
“I did,” he said, raising his chin.
“Are you crazy?”
“Not to my knowledge. No.”
“Christ almighty,” she said, softly.
Noah, bless his poor unfortunate soul, looked charmed by this assertion of complete loonytunes. Boy had it bad. Boy was a bit stupid. Boys. Boys were a bit stupid.
“I guess it’s time for us to explain what we’ve been up to, huh?” Michelle said. “Andy, you want to take a turn? You were there for all of it, you know the place best.”