I suddenly realized that I didn't know who I was.
As this realization crossed my mind, I stopped walking. I was at the top of a hill that was all covered in crunchy yellow and brown weeds and long grass. Along the slope in front of me were rows and rows of hundreds of dead pine trees lying on their sides, all bent over at an identical angle in the force of some ancient explosion, like toppled dominoes. It created a strange lined texture over the landscape. The sky was light blue and spotted with clouds. It was windy, up so high, and the air buffeted past me so hard it almost hurt my ears.
None of it was familiar.
I looked around, out into the valley and the countless yellowish hills behind it, and behind me at the plateau I'd just come across. There was no one. The completely empty, dead landscape stretched for miles in every direction. The wind pushed against me.
I tried to remember something. Anything. Nothing came. Not so much as my own name. Just walking. Walking for a long, long time, over hill after hill, over tree trunks and past boulders and rivers. I could remember the scenery, but it was distant and vague, like a dream. The farther back I tried to remember, the more it faded, until there was nothing.
I didn't recognize myself when I looked down. My own body was strange. I might as well have been looking down at someone else. That was exactly what it felt like, actually.
I stood there for a long time. I guess I was hoping it would just come rushing back if I waited long enough, and what else could I do, really? What were you supposed to do when this happened? It wasn't exactly the type of problem people planned for and had an awaiting solution for. And even if I had, I wouldn't remember what it was now.
Finally I started walking again, if only to get out of that wind. I took a step down the hill, letting myself slide down as the slope steepened. I skated awkwardly like that all the way down to the bottom of the hill, stopping to hop over a tree trunk or go around a tangle of thorned bushes every so often. I stopped as the slope evened out.
What the hell was I doing all the way out here, wherever this was? There was no civilization anywhere in sight. It looked as though there never had been, even before the war.
The war. Well, I remembered that. That struck me as important. What did I remember? I knew about yao guais (I thought of this because, I realized, I was hoping there weren't any around at the moment). I knew about street signs, and candy canes, and acoustic guitars and Robco. I remembered a lot of things, but nothing to do with me.
I sat down heavily on a downed tree trunk, staring at the hills blankly. This was all wrong. I couldn't think. I waited again for some bit of memory to surface—some explanation for what I was doing here and what was wrong with my mind. I wondered how far I was from a town. What if I couldn't find my way back? What if I did run into a cougar or a yao guai before I got out of the woods?
I looked down at myself again, holding my hands up to examine them. The nails were bitten short. They shook slightly, and I glared at them, willing them to hold still.
I was female. I was black. I was wearing a bullet-proof vest over my T-shirt, which was a nice surprise, but I didn't have a jacket. Every article of clothing I wore was black. My bare arms were scarred and burned from various injuries and accidents and there was a particularly thick layer of scar tissue on the palm of my left hand, and the tip of one of my fingers had been lost at some point. A tiny bit of the panic began to ebb away as I realized those things somehow felt okay. Not familiar, but normal. I suddenly wondered what my own hair was like, and reached up to touch it.
There wasn't any. My head was shaved and only a small haze of fuzz was still there. As I ran my hand over it, I brushed over something tacky. I pulled my hand away to look at it, and there were red spots on my fingers. Suddenly I realized my head hurt. I reached up to touch it again. There was a big swollen spot and a nasty gouge on the edge of my forehead, extending toward my temple, that stung viciously when I touched it. That would be the cause of the memory loss, I supposed.
Someone tried to kill me. Worse, they'd gotten away with it. At least they hadn't succeeded. I snorted. How hard is it to give someone an extra shot through the brain to make sure they're dead before you leave them? I wondered if I'd done as bad to them as they did to me. It seemed doubtful. I was probably knocked out after this shot if it screwed up my brain enough to make me forget everything.
I felt a weight on my back, and realized I was carrying something. I pulled the canvas pack off my back and set it on the ground. There was something else strapped to my back, too, and I reached back to pull it off. Cold metal met my hand. Something about the sensation made yet a little more of my fear disappear. I pulled the gun off my back and held it in front of me. It was a four foot long sniper rifle with a suppressor attached to the end. There were only three bullets left in the magazine.
It was the only weapon I had, unless there was something else in the bag. I set the gun down beside me as I knelt to dig through the pack. There wasn't much in there. I pulled out a torn magazine (the kind with writing, not the kind that held bullets and might have actually been useful), some dirty clothes that looked a bit small for me, an empty carton of cigarettes, and a candy bar wrapper. Whoever shot me must have cleaned me out afterward—I couldn't imagine I'd have been stupid enough to be carrying around this stuff but no food or stimpaks or extra bullets. The sniper rifle and bulletproof vest had likely been too heavy for them to bother with.
I held the bag upside down and shook it, hoping I'd missed something. Nothing else fell out. "What a bunch of useless shit," I said aloud, and almost jumped at hearing a strange voice coming out of myself.
I sat staring angrily at the pile on the ground. It didn't give me many hints about who I was or what I'd been doing before all of this. It could have belonged to anyone. I did wonder why I was carrying a magazine, because I couldn't read it. It wasn't even in particularly good condition. I thumbed through it quickly. There were a lot of pictures of women in dresses and high heels. I hoped I wasn't the type who was into that kind of thing.
As I was looking at the magazine, there was a sound at the top of the hill, and I looked up immediately. Someone was standing at the top where I'd been a few minutes ago. I froze. He held a sawed-off shotgun in one hand. He looked at me for a moment, then started down the slope.
The second he looked down to check his footing, I picked up the rifle and trained it on his forehead. He didn't notice. He was having more trouble getting down the hill than I had.
"Hey!" I yelled. The sound echoed many times, piercing the quiet in the hills. He looked up, and stopped.
"Drop the gun," I shouted up to him.
He dropped it. It slid down the hill and came to a stop behind a fallen tree trunk. That was easier than I thought it'd be. But then, I didn't know what he was thinking coming down the hill in plain view with a short-range weapon. Come to think of it, I didn't think anyone would do that if they were planning on attacking.
I looked at him through my scope. He wore a grey furry hat, a scarf, and a greenish parka, despite it being rather warm out. The hat and a pair of rectangular glasses obstructed his face. So I couldn't see much of his expression, but I could hear the confusion in his voice when he ventured, "Ma'am?"
"Come down here," I said.
He slid down the hill as awkwardly as I had, and kept clear of the shotgun on the ground. Small cascades of dirt and dislodged rocks and root bundles fell under his feet. He stopped at the bottom of the hill in a cloud of dust, looking at me blankly. He coughed once.
I lowered the rifle slightly as I approached him. He was a bit of a shrimp. He had to tilt his head up to look at me as I moved toward him. His glasses were so dirty and scratched that I could hardly see his eyes behind him. I reached out and lifted the glasses up off his nose to see the dark eyes behind them. He looked like one of his parents might have been Asian. He also didn't look as nervous as I thought he should have been. Several neat, white scars ran across his cheekbone and down to the side of his face to his jaw. They almost blended in with his skin, which seemed abnormally pale. I wondered if he was one of those vault people.
He was examining me as I examined him. His eyes flickered up to the injury on my head, then back to my eyes. "Are you alright?" he asked tentatively.
"Who are you?"
He blinked at me, plainly taken by surprise. "What?"
I set the glasses back down on his face. He reached up to adjust them. "Who are you, and why are you following me?"
He stared. "You...don't remember? You don't remember anything?"
"You know what happened?" I asked, desperate for any information, even from someone I didn't recognize.
"You've been wandering this way for some time. I called to you, but you didn't answer. You were shot, a few miles back."
"Why are you following me?" I asked again.
"I wasn't the one who shot you, ma'am."
"No. I work for you, ma'am."
"Work for me?"
"I'm your slave."
Well. That was convenient. Except—"You don't have a collar."
"No. We have sub-dermal implants."
He pulled down the neckline of his shirt to reveal a scar and a square bump under his skin. "The kind that kills me if you die or if we become separated by more than five miles."
I looked at the implant curiously until he let go of his shirt and it was covered back up. "I have one, too?"
"Yes," he said. Then, after a moment's hesitation, "Yours poses no danger to you, ma'am. It only measures your vital signs."
I pulled up on the neck of my vest to check, watching my apparent slave out of the corner of my eye. I could barely see a square bulge below my collarbone. "Good thing you caught up to me," I said.
"Yes, ma'am." His tone never really changed. He had sounded surprised when we'd first started talking, but he seemed to have adjusted to the situation quickly. Now his speech was oddly bland and matter-of-fact.
We stared each other down for a moment, each of us probably as bemused and mistrustful as the other as we tried to figure out where we now stood. I carefully took in every detail about him, though I didn't know what use it would be to me. Perhaps it would help me remember something if he was really someone I'd known before. Watchful eyes flickered over me in turn.
"What's your name?" I asked, taking a small step away from him.
"What's my name?"
"I don't know."
I looked at him. "You don't know my name?" I asked, slowly enunciating each word with as much disbelief as I could muster.
"You never told me."
Either he was a really bad liar, or a really good one with a weird strategy. "Well how did this happen?" I asked, pointing to my head.
"Bounty hunters seem the most likely culprits."
I paused, waiting for that to make sense. It didn't. I sat back down on the fallen log. "Bounty hunters."
"Yes. There has been a bounty on your head for some time now."
I stared at him blankly. He went on. "I heard a shot, which must have been what hit you. Then something struck me in the head." He reached up to take off the furry hat, revealing a mop of black hair. He turned slightly to corroborate his story, pulling away a bit of hair to show me a purplish bump on his temple. "I got a glimpse of them, but not much more. When I woke up I saw your footprints leading away from where you'd fallen, so I followed."
"If I get more than five miles away—"
"No," I interrupted, "why is there a bounty for me?"
"You're a mercenary," he said simply. "And you usually take advantage of...the kind of opportunities other mercenaries won't take. You've been labeled a criminal by the Regulators."
"Organized vigilantes, ma'am. Like police."
I looked quietly at the pine needles carpeting the ground as I thought about all this. I tapped a finger absently against the grip of my rifle, which I still held on my lap, pointing to the side. Bruce stood still and said nothing, showing no inclination to take any action in particular. Like a slave would, I supposed.
I was half convinced it was some weird dream, but I also realized that I couldn't keep waiting to wake up. It might be a long wait.
I turned to the pack on the ground and scooped everything up and poured it back into the bag. When I turned back to Bruce, he still hadn't moved. He was giving me a curious look, but his face smoothed again as soon as I looked up at him.
"I need to get this checked out," I said, indicating my head. "Maybe yours, too," I added as an afterthought. "And we should probably get out of here before whoever attacked us comes back, don't you think?"
"Do you know where we are?"
"Right now we're in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. About forty miles east of Seattle."
I nodded. "Do you know where we can find a doctor?"
"Lead the way, then."
"Can I retrieve my gun?"
"Oh, yeah," I remembered. "Go ahead."
He turned and marched back up the hill. The gun was nestled against a tree about halfway up. It took him a long time to get up there. When he finally reached it, he lightly brushed off and holstered the weapon before working his way back down. By the time he returned, he seemed to be having trouble breathing.
"You okay?" I asked, arching an eyebrow.
"Come on," I said, and he moved ahead of me to take us to wherever we were going.