He was bleeding from the shots to his stomach and shoulder. Fatal wounds for any human, though she didn't know about him. He watched her, eyes clear as she stepped towards him. "Nemesis," he said. "I was expecting you."
The world ended with a second of static on the wireless.
Jean was curled into a ball on the floor, eyes puffy and red; she'd stopped crying an hour ago. Finally she had turned on the old wireless, wanting to hear something besides her own thoughts. Ninety minutes drive away from Delphi but reception from the city was clear.
The song stopped mid-tune, followed a second later by the blip of white noise. She hadn't been listening but the changes in sound caught her attention. She searched for something else to listen to but the other Delphi stations were silent as well. Finally she found something, heard an announcer, voice panicked, saying something about massive nuclear attacks, planet-wide, all major cities hit.
No vid access here--her grandfather had called it a mind-numbing waste; so she sat, inert, listening to the announcer until his station went silent as well. She looked around the small cabin, walls covered with plaques and photos and wondered if she would die here. Grabbing her favorite blanket, the one her grandfather had always put on her cot when she visited, she went to his creaky bed and pulled it over her head. Her world had ended the day before; everyone else was just catching up.
Still alive. She didn't bother changing clothes or eating when she woke up; instead she looked by the door for the things she'd dropped when she came inside. Her hands were shaking as she opened up her purse and took the pictures out of her wallet.
Dad, whose picture she considered removing every time she saw it--he hadn't spoken to her in years. The last time they'd talked was to argue about her grandfather again and she'd slammed the phone down. He'd been living in a big city along the coast. That meant he was dead.
Mom, with her hair almost as red as Jean's, even now; they spoke frequently but didn't visit much in person. Mom's small apartment was in south Delphi, a close commute to work. She was probably dead too.
Jean ignored the moisture in her eyes and pulled out the next photo. Him. The picture was of the two of them together, smiling. Gods, all she wanted to do was see him again and ask why; wanted to yell at him, hit him, anything. She would never have that chance. She ripped the picture in half, then quarters. Walking over to the fireplace, she stirred the embers of the fire she'd lit when she first arrived. It was cold in the cabin and she hadn't even noticed. When the fire was burning freely she put the torn photo into the flames and watched it curl into smoke and ash.
At last her body rebelled; hunger overcame apathy and she opened the pantry to find something to eat. It was well stocked with dry goods, enough to last for a while. Grandfather had always kept enough food on hand to last for months--a paranoid survivalist, her dad had called him. Her mother hadn't wanted to deal with the kitchen after the funeral so Jean had cleaned up the dirty dishes, thrown away the perishables and left everything else.
After eating she tried to find any remaining wireless broadcasts but heard nothing. Were there other survivors? This area was so isolated, her grandfather used to drive for hours in his off-road vehicle to treat patients who couldn't be moved to the tiny clinic. She'd stayed in his home enough times to know that others would be out there.
With a taut smile she went to the cabinet and took out his old rifle, placing it next to the bed. She put the pistol under the pillow.
That night she dreamed of the last time she'd seen him. She was walking into their home, setting her keys on the table by the entry, smiling at the pile of papers on the floor. As she approached their bedroom door the hallway was darker and longer than before. Her feet were dragging and she stood in front of the closed door, listening; she heard only the thrum of her heartbeat. She opened the door and saw them, just as they were two nights before in life--him on top of the blonde in their bed. This time, though, her grandfather's rifle was next to the bed. She picked it up, checked that it was loaded and shot them both.
She decided not to die, at least not of radiation sickness.
Her dad used to argue with her mom about Grandfather and his influence on Jean. Now she was grimly amused that things were darker than even Grandfather might have predicted. The clinic he'd run before he'd gotten too weak had medicine supplies; his replacement worked there only part-time, yet another reason for locals to move to a city with reliable health care. Jean pulled out desk drawers and emptied cabinets until she found the large bundle of keys. She didn't think anyone would leave medicine untouched but the storage room in the clinic had a sturdy lock and she didn't know where else to look. No use heading towards Delphi--at least here the distance gave her a chance for a while. She tried to remember information from science classes about radiation and nuclear accidents. How far had the radiation spread by now?
Grandfather's off-road vehicle was stored in the barn behind the cabin, the one that didn't leak. She'd never had much luck with it; this time she couldn't even get the engine to turn over. Either she had a very long hike or she'd have to walk back to her car and hope that it could pass through the steep narrow road to the clinic.
The car was hidden in the woods at the base of the road; she didn't trust it on the rocky parts of the track leading to the cabin. Might as well walk to the clinic, which was in the opposite direction, and save the fuel for another time. Digging through more boxes and closets Jean found the camping gear she had used while hunting with her grandfather. She tried to pack light but didn't want to be unprepared in case the hike took longer than she hoped. The straps pulled on her shoulders and she adjusted carefully to balance the weight. Picking up the pistol, she stuck it in her waistband, then changed her mind and kept it in her left hand.
Outside the sky was gray. Nothing she saw betrayed the destruction further south--she heard birds squabbling over territory; trees engulfed the trail and damp leaves underfoot stuck to her shoes. Less than five minutes of walking and the cabin was already hidden from view. Inhaling deeply, her chest felt tight and she coughed in surprise; she closed her eyes and breathed in again slowly, then exhaled.
"Hello." Moving automatically she shifted her grip on the pistol to both hands. A man was standing in the middle of the trail several feet in front of her, his stance relaxed. He was wearing hunting gear and had a rifle strapped to his back. He stared back at her, looking at the weapon. "I'm not going to hurt you," he said.
She didn't know what to say and the standoff continued. "Want me to put my rifle on the ground?" he asked.
"Don't touch it." Her voice cracked; it had been nearly four days since she last spoke. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm looking for meds, anti-radiation meds. I heard there was a clinic somewhere in the area, thought maybe I'd try there." She didn't reply, held the gun steady as she looked. "Hey, I was hunting when everything happened. I'm just trying to stay alive."
"Hunting by yourself?"
"I had some buddies with me. We were listening for game scores on the wireless and heard the news. They left to find out if their families are still alive."
"What about you?"
"None of my relatives live on Caprica."
She decided to give the stranger a chance. Game stats, hunting with buddies--he sounded normal. "Clinic's the other way. That's where I'm heading."
"You going to walk the whole way?" He tilted his head to indicate the direction he came from.
"You got a better idea?"
"I was hoping maybe you had a car."
"A car would get stuck and the truck doesn't work."
"I could take a look at it, see if I can fix it." He smiled for the first time. "I'm good with machines."
After a moment she pointed back toward the cabin. "Let's go, then." She indicated for him to go in front and she followed behind him, gun still in her hand.
At the barn he put the rifle and his pack on the ground, moving slowly while she watched. He popped open the truck's hood and started checking wires. She leaned against the doorjamb for a moment then slowly eased off the heavy backpack one strap at a time, switching her grip on the gun.
"So what's your name?"
"I'm Leoben." He smiled again, looking up at her while he leaned over the truck. Fiddling with parts, he asked her where the tools were. After she pointed at the toolbox he pulled out some pliers and loosened a bolt. When Jean was small she loved watching her grandfather fix machines; Leoben's hands reminded her of when she used to sit next to Grandfather, asking questions about what made things work.
She pushed those memories aside and said, "You want something to eat?"
"That would be nice, thanks." Leaving him in the barn she walked into the cabin, locking the door behind her. She watched him through the kitchen window while they both worked. It took him most of the afternoon but the engine finally turned over; he drove in small circles behind the cabin to make sure everything functioned properly. They agreed to get the meds the next day and he helped her fix dinner.
It felt strange, being around someone else after the world had ended, but okay. Leoben wasn't pushy; he didn't even object when she made him carry her old cot to the barn so he could sleep there. He seemed nice but she wasn't that trusting yet, not ready to have an unknown man in the cabin while she slept.
The ceiling over Grandfather's bed had cobwebs in the corners. Staring at them, she thought about him, asking him why he did it. Was there something wrong with her, was she not good enough in some way? She remembered her dream from the night before, thought about it and changed the details. She imagined that she was standing right behind them at the foot of the bed and shot him in the back, the bullet traveling through to kill the woman. Falling asleep she walked through the same dark hall again and again to find them.
When she was little Grandfather would let her ride in the back of the truck; he would rev the engine heading down toward the small creek and she'd shriek with glee as the water splashed up beside her. Leoben drove toward the shallow creek bed at a much slower speed. "You sure this is the right way?" he asked, looking doubtfully at the stream.
"Yeah. When the water's too high there's another road with a bridge."
When they arrived at the clinic Jean checked the door. Locked. Leoben looked at her closely when she pulled out the keys and opened it. The clinic looked the same, except darker; it was illuminated only from the small amount of daylight slipping through the tinted windows because of the lack of electricity. She had to try several keys before finding the right one for the medicine storeroom. Pulling a flashlight out of his small pack, Leoben flashed it around the room, examining the contents.
"Over there. I think that's the right stuff," she said. The large tin rattled as he picked it up and opened it; the syringes inside contained a viscous yellow fluid. After tapping for air bubbles like she'd seen her grandfather do she handed one syringe to him with the comment, "Bottoms up!" He looked startled. She grinned and swabbed his arm with the alcohol wipe. "You want to do it or shall I?"
"You go first and I'll watch." She cleaned a spot on her arm and carefully injected the fluid, grimacing. This wasn't her favorite thing to do, but she'd seen it often enough and practiced during a basic aid class in school. He watched and asked questions before doing his own injection with a concentrated expression on his face.
She directed him on a different path to return to the cabin. It was overgrown; even with most of the leaves on the ground the sky was barely visible through the tree branches. More images flashed in her mind--the drive to the cabin, sitting in the backseat listening to her parents argue; watching the shadows move across Grandfather's face while he showed her signs of different animals in the forest. "This was my favorite road when I was little." She was startled to hear her voice; neither one had talked much so far.
"So you're the doctor at that clinic?"
"No, my grandfather was." At his inquiring look she added, "He died about three months ago. The cabin belonged to him. It's mine now."
"You live there?"
"No. I just needed to get away, so I drove up here the day before..." She didn't have to specify what. "Anyway, Grandfather worked at the clinic until he was too sick to take care of himself. He died a couple of weeks later."
"Does that still make you sad?" She would have been offended at the question but he sounded sincere and his face was open, curious.
"Of course it does. But he hated not being independent, so it was a blessing, I guess."
"All life is a gift. His actions made ripples and now they're washing up on the shore."
Confused, she turned and looked at him as he drove. His face was serene, his hands steady on the steering wheel. "What do you mean?"
"Life is a cycle. It repeats itself. What he did in his life affects you now. You're alive, you have the means to stay alive a lot longer thanks to him."
"Well, I don't know how much of a blessing that is for me." She heard the bitterness in her voice but refused to say anymore when he asked.
In her dream that night the dark hallway from her former home had an extra door. She walked past it without a glance, stood behind the door she knew and listened to the thrum of her heart. This time he begged for mercy before she shot him. She left the woman alive in the bed next to his body.
They had agreed to stick together the first part of the day so she could show him the trails she remembered walking with her grandfather. It wasn't an issue yet but sooner or later food was going to be a problem; best to start planning for that now. The sky was still overcast, grey clouds scudding over the sun. She'd done most of the talking so far, pointing out places to fish and where her grandfather preferred to hunt. They'd stopped for lunch in a clearing; she sat on a rock and he flopped on the ground.
"My grandfather called it 'hiking with guns,'" she told him; he smiled at the statement, blue eyes glancing at her for a moment. "You been hunting a lot?"
"Not much. My hunting buddies are... were... friends from work." She remembered he said something about them driving back to the city--she assumed he meant Delphi--after the attack.
"You don't think they survived?"
"If they weren't killed outright by another warhead then the radiation will do it within a few days."
"You think it's that bad?" She glanced at him and took another bite of lunch--bland food, but it would keep her alive.
"In the cities, yes. We're protected here to a certain degree--higher elevation, the distance from the blasts. Plus the prevailing winds are blowing away from here."
"What work did you do?"
"I'm an engineer. Numbers, machine parts... pretty boring stuff, actually."
"You know a lot about radiation for a numbers guy."
"I always liked science. You can see the design of nature, her patterns and rhythms. It's like she's trying to pass on a message." His voice had a cadence while he talked; it reminded her of the time her mom visited an Oracle with her in tow. "What about you?" he asked. "Did you think about going back to the city after the attacks?"
"No. I knew there was no point." She shrugged, looked away and didn't elaborate.
He didn't press. Instead he said, "Do you think God has a plan for all of this?" His eyes were intent as he looked her direction.
She frowned. "The Gods didn't do this to us. I don't know what did but it wasn't the Gods."
"Maybe they made a mistake."
She raised an eyebrow at his statement. "They're not like that."
He shrugged. "It's like a river, you know? You can stay in place or be washed downstream but it's not the river's fault. We choose to step in the current."
Her lips twitched, but she didn't smile. "The Gods are actually interested in us, unlike the river." He was watching her, face concentrated. "I do pray," she added, feeling vulnerable, like she'd revealed a deep secret. "Come on. We have some more walking to do." She stood up and offered her hand to him while he got up from the ground.
She slid into her dream that night like a stone falling under the water's surface. The hallway wasn't silent this time. A distant wail--was that a baby crying?--came from behind the new door. She looked at it and lifted her hand to touch the doorknob when she realized she had the pistol in her hand. She turned and walked to the other door. He was by himself this time; stepping towards her, smiling, dark eyes crinkling in the corners in the way that she loved. She pulled the trigger twice then woke up with a gasp, her heart beating double time. She heard Leoben walking around in the other room--they'd moved the cot into the cabin the day before. The floor creaked under his feet; she listened as he stirred the fire, then she fell asleep again.
The quick cracking noise echoed in the clearing around their cabin. He was splitting logs, his movements a repeating pattern with no wasted motion. It was hypnotic. She shook her head and walked past him to the barn. She had been gathering kindling; now she planned to scrub her grandfather's rusty hunting traps with a wire brush.
They both worked until the dim light forced them to stop. Sitting on the cabin porch they watched the sunset. Brilliant colors filled the sky, especially in the south, towards Delphi.
She looked at the colorful display and said, "We'll have to go into Delphi in a few weeks. We don't have enough meds to last more than a couple of months."
"It should be safe to go into the city by then."
"The radiation levels drop pretty quickly, actually." He saw the surprise on her face. "Oh, it'll still kill you. Just a lot slower."
She looked away then started talking; it was easier in the twilight. "There was someone I might have gone to check on in Delphi. Two people, actually. My mother..." Her voice dropped and she blinked rapidly to keep tears from spilling over. "I can't talk about her yet." Gods, with everything else that had happened, she hadn't even started processing that loss; another unopened door. She stopped a moment then continued. "A man. Someone I loved. He betrayed me and I didn't get to do anything. Never got to yell or throw things at him or ask why..."
She glanced at him. After a moment of hesitation he leaned over and touched her hand, patted it gently. She grabbed it like it was a lifeline, like he could pull her out of the morass and she could breathe again. They sat like that for a long time. Taking a deep breath she finally pulled her hand away.
"Maybe it was part of the plan," he said softly. "His path led to your life being spared."
She let out a small laugh that sounded like a sob. "So he frakked another woman so that I'd live. That's just great."
He was undeterred by the sarcasm in her voice. "You're too close to the situation. I can see the patterns that you can't. What you see of yourself is just a reflection but it's not who you really are."
She hugged her knees and listened to his voice as he talked about paths, streams and destiny. It didn't matter, none of it mattered; his speech flowed past her and left her untouched. After a bit she stood up. "I'm going in," she said curtly, and left him outside.
His brown eyes were so sincere in her dream, looking at her with familiar affection. She asked why but he didn't answer. Looking down she saw her rifle, her pistol and a knife; while she was staring at them he disappeared.
He'd gone fishing while she hunted. Both had moderate success, which pleased her. They'd have to find more soon but she was hopeful. She was sitting outside on the ground, cross-legged, with her grandfather's whetstone, sharpening the hunting knife she'd found. Holding the knife in the air she inspected the edge.
He walked over to where she was sitting. "Are you Nemesis now?"
"Nemesis?" It took her a moment to remember the reference. "Wasn't she a goddess of war or something?"
"Goddess of justice and equilibrium. You don't know your own gods." He looked amused. "She was in charge of human affairs, keeping balance. In the stories, though, she was also concerned with matters of love. Sometimes she's holding a sword in paintings," he finished, pointing to the knife. She looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "So I take it you've never prayed to Nemesis."
"No, but maybe I should."
He dropped his teasing manner. "Careful not to get pulled under the surface. She swallows you up."
"Revenge. It's the current that will pull you under and drown you."
"Shouldn't I be more worried about getting cut?" she asked, brandishing the knife.
He didn't acknowledge her attempt at levity. "There are more things in life than you dream of. The patterns are swirling past you in the stream…"
She interrupted him. "Would you shut the frak up?! I'm tired of hearing about patterns and currents. Gods!" She expected sulking; instead he laughed, looking at her like she'd said something witty. He pulled her up from the ground then leaned his hand on her shoulder for a moment as they walked in the cabin.
The first door in her dream was open when she walked past it. She looked; it was outside--the room was a forest, bright green with sunlight filtering through the leaves. A small crib was sitting a few feet away from the door. The noise she'd heard before--a baby was standing up in the crib, holding onto the railing and whimpering. It was dressed in white, robes flaring in the light. She squinted as she looked at it. Strawberry-blonde hair and blue eyes--they made eye contact and Jean looked down. She backed away and the green forest shifted, changed into gray walls with a pulsing red light.
She closed the door and stood in the hallway. She put her right hand to her chest, feeling her heartbeat. Her left hand was holding the knife; she opened the door at the end of the hallway and used it on him.
Hunting again; she took a break and climbed to the top of the nearest hill. Scanning the horizon she looked for signs of other survivors--smoke from a fire or some other clue.
Engine noises--a military-style transport vehicle winding down the track below. Running alongside the truck were... she couldn't believe it. Cylon centurions--she recognized them from her history textbooks. She picked up her binoculars and looked more closely. In the truck bed a small group of young women huddled together, arms bound; guarding them with rifles was a group of blond men, all identical; all just like the man who'd been sleeping on her property for the last seven nights.
Holding still until the vehicle was out of sight, she hurriedly repacked her gear and checked her rifle, turning off the safety. He was fishing at the same stream as before. She must have made a noise; he turned as she fired and the shot hit him in the shoulder. She fired again and the bullet pierced his stomach; he collapsed, arms flung wide and one foot in the creek.
She stepped closer, staying out of his reach. He was bleeding profusely; fatal wounds for any human, though she wasn't sure about him. He looked at her, eyes strikingly blue in his pale face. "Nemesis," he said. "I was expecting you."
"What are you?"
He didn't answer her question. After a moment he licked his lips and said, "Twenty clicks west. Other human survivors. They have more meds."
"Why?" she asked, voice anguished. The why that she'd asked when her dad had left, the same why that she wanted to ask him but never had the chance.
He smiled, face calm. "We'll talk again someday." She stood there until she was sure he was dead then she picked up his backpack. Inside were things she expected--some hunting gear, a compass and pocketknife. She felt deeper and found another pocket. It contained a few days' dosage of anti-radiation meds, different from the stuff they'd found in the clinic; and something else in a syringe. She didn't know what it was.
She told herself that she didn't believe him. He wasn't a nerdy, socially challenged engineer; he couldn't be telling the truth about other survivors. But invariably her path took her further west.
Sleeping outdoors, she dozed fitfully and didn't remember her dreams. Instead she listened for the sound of footsteps and trucks.
She was an asset for the resistance fighters; even basic medical training was helpful and she passed on as many of her grandfather's survival skills as she could. Anders was good at picking the right people for different operations and she never lacked for opportunities to shoot bulletheads and skinjobs. She'd shot several of copies of him, always trying for headshots because it was faster. One of them smiled at her through her spotting scope as she pulled the trigger.
The blonde pilot and her tall friend had left a few days before, taking the dark-haired cylon with them. Someone else's problem, not hers. Anders wanted to find the other farms and blow them to bits; she was more than happy to help.
Before falling asleep she wondered why Leoben hadn't drugged her and taken her to a farm. He'd had plenty of opportunities. Why...
They were both in a forest; he was leaning against a tree watching her. "You drowned," he said.
"I know. Nemesis pulled me under."
"This is not all that you are."
"Yes it is," she whispered and woke up with a start.