Part IX

“Boy, that makes me feel a whole lot better,” Thom replied sarcastically, and paused before continuing. “I think maybe you should go. I’m tired and feeling a little off from that stupid dream.” He didn’t add that every time she tried explaining things, the information she gave became more horrifying and tended to result in more new questions than answers.

She seemed to know what he was thinking. “Look, Thom, I know that…” she began.

He put a hand out to interrupt her. “No, it’s alright,” he said softly, “I’m fine. Just a bit tired.”

Ana cocked her head to left and gave him a concerned look.

He suddenly regretted having suggested she leave. The tilt of her head and look on her face made him think she was trying to decide if he couldn’t handle hearing the truth, or maybe just wasn’t up to dealing with it. Realistically, he probably wasn’t, but would never admit that to Ana. The last thing he needed was a candy coated version of his situation because she figured he’d do better with the kid gloves. No, if the world was as different as she suggested, and they really were in legitimate danger, he wanted to hear about it unvarnished.

“Honestly, I’m fine. Actually, let’s keep going for a little while longer.”

“Are you sure? Your rest is very important.”

“No, I’m sure. I’ll just sleep in a bit tomorrow. It looks like my schedule is pretty flexible all this week.” He winked at her playfully, hoping to allay any lingering doubts.

“Okay, then, yes, let’s continue for a bit. Perhaps you might like a drink of water first?”

“Sure, yeah, I am a little thirsty, that’s good idea. Thank you.”

She nodded, but he couldn’t tell if it was in confirmation to herself or was meant for him. She revealed nothing else and turned to pour him a cup of water.

“So tell me why we’re in so much danger here. I get the sense we’re being looked for? Who’s doing the looking, and why?”

She handed him the water and leaned back against the stool. “Yes, I suspect we are the targets of a search, although I haven’t seen any direct evidence of it, luckily. As I said, I believe the man I snuck you away from will make every effort to get you back.”

“What does ‘every effort’ mean, and who is this guy?”

“It means he likely has several groups of hunters out trying to track you down. His hunters are very skilled and very dedicated, which makes our situation so precarious. They will find us eventually; it is simply a matter of time.”

He sipped at the water and tried to let that sink in. Thirteen years ago he was a regular schmuck working his way through a fairly unhappy life as he tried to put the pieces of his marriage back together. In what seemed the blink of eye, he somehow became the focus of people intent on locating him and apparently returning him for some kind of twisted experimentation. The whole story just seemed so surreal.

“What about ‘the guy’?” he asked.

“His name is Gordon, and he is effectively in charge of this part of what used to be United States. The days after Charon were chaotic, at best, and the few thousands of survivors were basically all trying to live independently. Before long, there wasn’t enough food; not many knew anything about its production. Worse, in places where the survivors lived in relatively close proximity, fighting was invariably the result. And typically, such fights resulted in deaths.”

“Clearly, some form of order was necessary. In this part of the country, Gordon was somehow able to convince enough survivors to follow him, to accept his rules and live by his law. In return, he brought the worst of the fighting to an end and has apparently made some progress on providing food. I suppose those might be considered admirable results, but he apparently used threats and coercion to solidify his power and simply killed anyone who disagreed with him or wouldn’t follow along.”

“So, what exactly do you mean by ‘this part of the country’?” Thom asked.

“The former US has basically been separated into six zones or regions, and each has a kind of leader like Gordon, although not are all so brutal as he is. Each one came to the position in a different way. Some were well known before Charon and lived in areas still well populated enough for their influence to spread easily. Others were largely unknown, but managed to gain support from the people in their respective region through another means, whether by force or by some other method of proving their leadership. It’s a lot like a return to feudalism, with each region having its own king.”

“So, you’re not from around here, originally? Which region are you from, and who do you serve?”

“The West,” she replied, “California, specifically.”

“I’m so sorry,” he interjected, thinking of a huge black crater as the remains of Los Angeles.

“No need to be. Before Charon, I lived in Atlanta. I just happened to be in California when the worst of it came, and started over from there. I do follow the leader from the West, a man named Colin. Everything I do, even here, I do on his orders. He is equally responsible for getting you away from Gordon.”

“Then I would like to meet him.”

“And you will, when you are well enough to travel. We will head west, where things should be safer for both of us. And with that, I need to be going. There are number of things I need to check into and need to start making arrangements for us to leave. We will talk again soon.”

He wasn’t exactly looking forward to that, fearing he might find out he had an alien growing in his stomach or something. Still, it was nice to not be so completely in the dark about the world outside. “One more thing.”

Ana turned in the doorway, and for a brief moment, her eyes shone like Onyx in the moonlight. “Yes?”

“Where is the closest border to Gordon’s area? Are there hard borders?”

“In some places, where geography helps, yes, but in most places, no, which is an issue that still leads to fighting. In any event, we are currently in what used to be Ohio, north of Cincinnati. South of the remains of the city is the Ohio River; it marks the edge of this territory. Across the river, in what used to be Kentucky, the South region begins.”

Thom nodded and yawned. He was suddenly very tired.

“Oh, Thom, one last thing,” Ana began. “You need to start walking about further. Don’t overdo it; I don’t want to have to search the whole building just to find you slumped in a corner someplace, too exhausted to stand up. With each walk, though, try to go as far as you can indoors, keeping in mind you will need to be able to return to this room.”

He nodded again, mumbled an agreement, and fell into a somewhat peaceful asleep.

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