Shiro heard the footsteps approaching, even over the constant heavy rumble of the airplane's engines. He inhaled slowly, steadying the sudden surge of nerves, the impulse to reach for his gun. Instead he grabbed his pack with his bad arm – his new arm, technically stronger and better than the one he'd been born with – and flexed his fingers around the strap a few times before he slung it over his shoulder.
It took a moment for them to find him – the cargo bay was piled high with supplies and Shiro had set himself up at the back, near his hoverbike, obscured from the others by crates of food. He wasn't deliberately being anti-social, but he was a passenger, not part of the mission, and it would be easier for them to prepare without having to worry about watching what they said around him.
And if it meant he didn't jump out of his skin every time someone moved in his direction, that could only be a bonus.
Captain Angelica Chavez appeared around the edge of the crates, dressed in desert camo and armed, even at this altitude. Everyone was always armed, these days. Shiro had three weapons on him at the moment and more waiting for when he landed. Justified paranoia was the order of the day.
“We're approaching your drop-off,” Chavez said. She was almost shouting to be heard over the cargo plane’s engines. “Get yourself together, we land in five minutes.”
“I'm good to go,” he told her. He'd been packed up since he stepped aboard the plane. “Waiting for your word.”
She shook her head. “You don't have to do this, you know.” She looked over her shoulder and stepped in a little closer. “It's a hell of thing, don't get me wrong. I think it's admirable. Too many got left behind when the chaos started, but it's been more than a year. No reinforcements or supplies. Hostile terrain. Shiro, the odds that you're going to find anyone down there...”
The odds were phenomenally low. Greater than zero was how one of the scientists back at Joseph's AFB had phrased it, and reluctantly at that. No one thought there was anything at the Garrison left to save, which is why they'd declined his requests to send a team on a rescue mission for nearly a year.
Shiro wasn't entirely sure himself that there was anything left to save. But not knowing kept him awake at night.
“I've got to at least try,” he said and Chavez shook her head at him with a rueful smile.
“I knew you'd say that,” she said. They'd been students at the Garrison together, what felt like a long time ago. “All right, keep your comms on and I'll give you as much of an update as I can on when we'll be back for you.”
Chavez's mission didn't involve the Garrison or Shiro – he was a passenger only and an unofficial one at that. The team she was transporting was heading somewhere in Asia – he didn't have the details and they didn't volunteer anything he didn't already know – and they had been scheduled for a refuel somewhere approximately near the Garrison anyway. Easy enough to drag him along for the ride.
“I don't know how long this will be,” she reminded him. “We could be there for a few hours and turn straight back around. We could be there for days. Either way, you’re on your own down there for at least a full twenty-four hours.”
“I'll be ready,” he promised her. “This should be pretty quick on my part. Either I find something, or I don't.”
She exhaled heavily, her cheeks puffed out with air. “I don't know which I'm hoping for, to be honest with you. Kids surviving on their own for that long...” she shook her head. “They're going to be a mess.”
“They were teenagers,” Shiro said. “Probably too old to go feral on us, even after a year. And even if they have, I'd rather have the chance to save them.”
Survivors would be fantastic – latest estimates put nearly seventy percent of the Earth's population deceased and casualties had been especially heavy among the very young. Less than ten percent had survived, according to some of the reports he'd read, most of the world's children killed in the chaos, either by the horde directly or through injuries, the spreading disease or the ongoing famines. Finding some of the students alive wouldn't just be a miracle, it would be a morale boost that the world desperately needed.
That was probably what had convinced the command at Joseph's to let him do this. He was technically a civilian now – between his arm and the mess in his head he wasn't fit for active duty – but even if he came back alone, just the idea that they were trying, that someone out there was still looking for survivors, would boost a lot of spirits.
Shiro couldn't say he liked being used as a publicity stunt, but he also couldn't be bothered to care. Whatever got him where he needed to be.
“Either way, I'll see you in a day or so.” Shiro offered her his hand, which she clasped tightly for a moment.
“Good luck, Commander,” Chavez told him, and then the captain's voice crackled through the overhead intercom, announcing that they were about to land.
Shiro wasn't entirely sure where he was when he first woke.
He came awake instantly, sitting up in his sleeping bag, prosthetic arm braced against the floor. There was a k-bar in its sheath beside the poncho he'd used as a pillow and a handgun within arm's reach. The rifle was propped up against the cave wall next to his head, where he’d have to move to get to it. Dumb.
He’d thrown a camouflage tarp over the bike, which was acting as a barrier between Shiro and the opening of the cave. He had the .44 in his good hand, and he scanned the space carefully, looking for signs of movement or any unfamiliar shapes. It was still dark out but the moon was nearly full and just enough light filtered in through the opening of the cave for him to see as long as he concentrated.
There was a long moment where the only sound was his own heartbeat pounding in his ears. He listened, strained for any sign of what woke him, but the cave was empty and the night outside dark and still.
He drew in a quick, silent breath and let it out slowly, easing himself back down into the sleeping bag.
He heard it again. A low, rattling moan that echoed across the desert.
Shiro stilled, grip tightening on the gun as he listened for any other sound. There was only silence for a long moment before another moan and very, very faintly beneath it, the sound of footsteps on the dry desert earth.
The steps were uneven, one foot dragging in the dirt, the other hitting the ground with a rough lurch on every other step. Sound carried in the desert night, but Shiro didn't think this thing could be more than a few hundred feet away. Not too close, but not as far away as he'd have liked.
He lay still and breathed softly through his mouth. He could go out there and deal with it. One zombie wasn't much of a threat, and this one didn't sound like it could move very fast. But there was always the risk that there were others just out of hearing, and the sound of a gunshot would draw them all down on him like a landslide. He couldn't risk getting rushed by a horde, or pinned down. He didn't have the ammo or the supplies to survive a siege and if he got killed out here in the desert he'd never know for sure what had happened at the Garrison.
What had happened to Keith.
That could be Keith out there now, his mind helpfully supplied and he had to clench his teeth against the sick roil of nausea at the back of his throat. He could see it all too clearly in his head and he didn't – he didn’t know if he could do what needed to be done if Keith was-
He couldn't let himself think about it.
He swallowed, hard, and forced his breath to stay slow and even, silent in the near total darkness of the cave as the staggering footsteps moved further away and disappeared into the desert.
Sleep didn't come easily after that, too many thoughts colliding in his head, none of them particularly helpful, none particularly restful. He woke close to dawn with a burn in his throat that might have meant he'd been screaming and his bad hand had clawed into the cave floor, metal fingers digging precise furrows into the rock. Shit.
He didn't hear anything, but he couldn't take the risk. He packed quickly, sacrificing some silence for speed and was back on the bike in less than five minutes. The cave entrance was clear and he kicked the bike into gear, taking off with a thrum of the engines and a swirl of dust and sand.
After a couple miles he picked a wide open spot and came to a stop long enough to pick out a ration bar and a water bladder. He ate quickly while the sun finished rising, light spilling over the sand and turning the whole desert a yellow-pink. It would take less than an hour to reach the school; he could have been there the night before but it would have been dangerous to search the grounds in the dark. Better to rest and tackle it by daylight. He had time yet. Realistically it would be at least a day before Chavez would be coming back for him.
Shiro sighed and tipped the bladder back, catching every last drop of water. Right. Rest. There was a fun idea. He couldn't remember what a good night's sleep felt like.
The desert felt empty, but he could tell it wasn't. The skin on the back of his neck prickled and he rolled his shoulders against the uncomfortable feeling of being watched. Maybe the dead had spotted him and were staggering their way across the sand toward him. Or maybe there were human survivors out there, waiting to see where he was going or if he had enough supplies to be worth robbing.
Raiders were unlikely out in the desert. No foot traffic to ambush, no ruins to loot. No, whatever was watching him now was a different kind of threat. Something slow and inexorable that would likely catch up with him at some point.
He just prayed to whatever god was still listening that he wouldn't know it when it found him.
The Garrison was abandoned.
Shiro didn't know what he’d expected. He'd known when he started out that nowhere was safe anymore, and he'd had no reason to believe the Garrison would be any different. Government buildings, police barricades, military bases – they'd all crumbled in the months since the outbreak. Why he'd thought a school would be any different... But he had, he'd held that hope tight in his chest, an ember in the darkness, and refused to douse it even in the face of all contrary evidence. The school had to have survived, maybe not intact but...
But he was wrong. He'd known he was wrong and he'd come anyway.
He braced his hands against his knees and refused to be sick. He couldn't afford to lose the calories or the water, not out in the desert, not with his pickup an unconfirmed amount of time away. He dragged air in through his nose and swallowed until the acid roiling in his gut settled.
It had taken him nearly a year to get here and he'd known the entire time what the odds were that Keith would still be alive.
The Garrison was a fucking charnel house. There was blood dried in thick puddles on the floor – brown and flaking, but he could still see where people had bled out. There was arterial spray dried onto the walls. Some of the classrooms were barricaded shut from the outside and Shiro tread carefully past them. There was no movement from within, but he’d learned the dead could wait forever. No need to let them know he was there, especially since he wasn’t sure how strong those barricades were after months in the desert heat.
He didn't bother with the administrative offices, bypassed the simulator rooms. The dorms were empty, echoing with a silence that felt heavy and ominous. There were signs of life everywhere he looked – whiteboards with messages scribbled on them in dry erase marker, bulletin boards covered in take-out menus and flyers for dances and ball games. There were hand-made posters for an obstacle course race against a local high school. Some of the doors were open and Shiro could see unmade beds and posters hanging off of the walls.
Keith's room had been on the third floor of the upperclassmen's dorm. Glass crunched under Shiro's feet as he walked, the noise loud enough to alert any dead that still lingered, but there was only silence and the still, dry air. The door to Keith's room was open, its occupants having left too quickly to close it. They never would. Shiro doubted many people had made it out of the Garrison alive.
There were no bodies in Keith's room. No blood splatter on the walls, no stains on the carpet. Shiro almost hated himself for hoping Keith had made it out because there was nowhere for his brother to have run to, no help to be found. When the Garrison dissolved into chaos the only place for the kids to run would have been out into the desert, and that would have finished them off just as surely as the dead would.
He felt like a graverobber as he searched Keith's room. He found Keith's Garrison ID badge on the dresser and held it for a long moment before tucking it away in his back pocket. It was the only picture he had left of Keith, and he kind of wanted to remember what the kid looked like.
It hurt to think that was literally all he had left of his family.
He dug around for a few minutes, but Keith had never been overly sentimental. There were no photographs on the walls – not on Keith's side of the room anyway – and no obvious mementos. Keith's wallet was nowhere to be found, unsurprisingly, and Shiro swallowed another pang of regret. He knew his brother had carried photographs with him – an old, faded one of Keith's biological parents, and one with the Shiroganes, taken during the one summer they'd all been a family, after they'd taken in Keith and before Shiro's parents had died. He would have liked to have seen it one more time.
He'd have liked to have found Keith more.
Glass crunched under his feet as he made his way back to the staircase. He kept an ear open for any sounds of movement in the building just in case, but he was alone, surrounded by the blood and bones of the children he had once taught.
The sun was still a few hours from setting, so Shiro raided the commissary. It had been picked over by looters at some point but the school had had to feed five hundred kids three times a day, so there had been a lot of supplies packed away in the storerooms and it was far enough away from any of the neighboring towns and cities that no one had been willing to cross the desert to clean it out. Shiro stepped over a withered corpse wearing a bloodstained apron and examined the shelves. He had supplies of course, enough food to last himself a couple weeks, or to keep a small group alive for a few days. Water was bulkier, took up more room; he couldn't afford to ration it the way he could food. You drank your fill in the desert and prayed you found more. He'd need a heavy supply if he planned to go anywhere.
Shiro wasn't sure when he'd decided not to go back to Joseph's, but there wasn't anything for him there. He was a civilian now, just a burden on their resources. He'd thought, once, that he could bring Keith and the other kids back there, had some delusion of being a teacher again, taking care of them.
“What a joke,” Shiro said out loud, just to hear someone speak.
There were rumors of a command being set up somewhere in Scandinavia, in the mountains where the cold froze the zombies solid and made them easier to avoid. The plague hadn't spread as fast there, Radio Earth was reporting that something like fifty percent of their population was still alive and breathing. It was as good a place as any to dig in and start rebuilding. Maybe Shiro would head there next. It would take months, but it wasn't like he had any reason to hurry now.
He packed his bag carefully, sorting the food by weight and arranging it so he could fit as much as possible. The bag was a little overloaded, but he'd eat well that night, and start out fully supplied in the morning. He could radio Chavez on the comms, tell her not to come back for him. It would save them fuel and time, and he knew she'd try to argue, but not very hard. She had her own mission and Shiro had never been part of it.
He found a tower of MREs still in their boxes and wasted a half hour or so digging through for the ones he liked best and stuffing his pockets with as many packets as he could cram in there. There were cases and cases of bottled water and he filled both bladders and his canteen, then indulged himself by pouring an entire bottle over his head and scrubbing sand and dust out of his hair. It felt ridiculously good. Maybe he'd head somewhere with a beach or a lake next.
It was a pipe-dream of course. The only place more dangerous than land was the water, where the dead could crawl beneath the surface and drag you under. Shiro thought wistfully of clear, cold water and the sound of waves as he slung the canteen over his shoulder and headed out of the building.
There was enough sunlight left for him to hit the infirmary before he had to hole up for the night. If people had been looting the school, it was unlikely they left any worthwhile medicine behind, but if it had been civilians they might have missed something useful.
Or if it had been students. The kids might not have known the difference between acetaminophen and antibiotics.
Shiro pushed that thought out of his mind as soon as it occurred to him. He didn't want to think about the possibility that any of the kids lived long enough to come back and raid the supplies. He didn't want to think about them injured, bitten, scrabbling for medicine to make it better. He sure as hell didn't want to think about the odds of any of them having lived through this just to die alone.
He absolutely did not think of Keith, or if his brother had tried to wait for him.
There were a few hidden gems in the infirmary. It had been cleaned out but he found enough to make him glad he looked. No gauze – and no hand sanitizer, either, or any antibiotic ointment – but he found amoxicillin and metronidazole which could come in handy down the line for trade if nothing else.
He was looting a drawer full of burn cream when he heard movement.
Something heard him, was his first thought, the dead coming to claim a fresh meal. He had enough ammo to get him out of a tight spot or two, but the infirmary was largely indefensible. He needed to get out of there before he was penned in. Once he got outside he'd have better range of motion, better line of sight, and more options to retreat.
He'd rather retreat. Ammo was hard to find and harder to trade for. And his stomach was clenching at the idea of having to shoot one of his former students. Even if it would be a mercy, there was a part of him that didn’t think he could do it.
The sound of footsteps on the dry desert earth were getting louder and Shiro waited by the door, breath as soft as he could make it. If the zombies heard him they'd come straight for him, but if it was just a shambler roaming around looking for food, he could probably out-wait it and save himself some ammo and some trouble.
Then he heard the voices.
Men, living men, actual people. Shiro's immediate reaction was relief, followed instantly by wariness. Just because they were alive didn't mean they were friendly, and if they'd been using the Garrison supplies to live off of, then they might not be very happy to see him.
They passed his location by without stopping or giving any indication that they knew he was there. He couldn't make out any words clearly, but one of them laughed at one point. They didn't seem to realize they weren't alone, and they weren't going to great lengths to avoid making noise, which meant they weren't worried about the dead hearing them. So they were either completely insane, or they'd been using the Garrison as a base and had cleaned out all the zombies.
Part of Shiro, the part that still remembered taking attendance and having office hours, irrationally hated them for it.
He waited until the footsteps were fading before he slid out the door. A quick scan of the area showed nothing besides two men walking with their backs toward him, heading toward the administrative buildings. They were heavily armed and dressed in desert camo and one of them had a child thrown over his shoulder.
It was a girl, Shiro realized distantly. No more than fifteen if he was any kind of judge, with her hands bound behind her back and a rag tied around her mouth and eyes. She wasn't dead – her skin was pink with sunburn and even from this distance, Shiro could see the fresh blood matting the hair at her right temple where they'd struck her.
Fury burned white hot in his chest and he was running before he even has a chance to think about what he was going to do. There was no good goddamn reason for what he was seeing – even if the girl had been bitten they should have just mercy killed her.
He opened his mouth to shout – he would demand they let her go, but he didn't know exactly what he was about to say.
It didn't matter what he was or wasn't going to say, because before he took more than a few steps, one of their heads exploded.
Shiro almost tripped in shock when the man holding the girl jerked and collapsed, half his head blown off. His buddy started yelling and reached for his gun, but he didn't even get it cleared of its holster before his head snapped to the side and the back of his skull disintegrated. The shots had been nearly silent and so close together that there hadn’t even been time for the second man to duck or run.
The girl was struggling, trying to crawl away with her hands and feet bound. She was yelling something behind her gag and she must have been terrified, unable to see what was happening and covered in blood splatter and gore from the hips down.
Shiro couldn't see anyone – had only a rough idea where those shots had come from – but there was no way he was leaving her out there to be next. He put on a burst of speed and skidded to a stop next to her, dropping to his knees in the sand. She squirmed away from him and he tugged off the blindfold so she could see he wasn't one of her captors.
She blinked furiously in the sudden light, still yelling. “Hold on,” Shiro said. The gag was caught in her hair and there was no gentle way to pull it free without meticulously untying it, which they didn't have time for. “Sorry, this will hurt a little.” He pulled the gag over her head and yanked it free, pulling more than a few strands of blonde hair with it. “Sorry, sorry. Are you okay? We need to get out of the open-”
She was glaring at him, hazel eyes narrowed into a furious glare. Her eyes were watering from the sudden brightness and he doubted she could see him at all beyond a dark shape looming over her. “Oh fuck you, buddy, I'm not going anywhere-”
“Sorry,” Shiro said again, and he meant it. The last thing he wanted to do was scare her, but there were two bloody corpses in the dirt less than five feet away and somewhere out there was the sniper who killed them. He leaned in, intending to scoop her up and duck back inside where he could untie her without having to worry about being shot, but then it all became moot anyway.
Shiro froze in place, his hands only a couple of inches from the girl.
“If you touch her, I'll kill you.” The voice was young but hard as stone and there was no hesitation in the threat. Shiro knew a genuine threat when he heard it. “Get away from her. Now.”
Shiro backed off slowly, keeping his hands out in the open. “I'm not here to hurt anyone. I don't mean any harm. I wasn't with them,” he said, jerking his head toward the corpses. He lifted his head toward the voice and his chest constricted painfully when he saw the owner.
It was a kid, maybe the same age as the girl, maybe a little older. He was tall, with dark skin and hair that looked like it hadn’t seen a barber in months. He was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, with a bulging duffel bag strapped to his back. His boots were caked with the same red dirt as Shiro's. The rifle in his hands was in perfect condition and his aim didn't waver.
Shiro didn't know if the kid was the same person who just made two perfect kill shots in a row, but at that range he'd have to be a terrible shot to miss, so it didn't really matter.
The girl stopped struggling and sprawled in the dirt, panting for breath. “Lance?”
The kid with the gun didn't so much as glance in her direction, all his focus on Shiro. “It's all right, Pidge. Hunk, you got her?”
The voice from behind him almost made Shiro jump, but he clamped down on the instinct. He didn't want to give the kid with the gun – Lance – any reason to overreact. He did glance up to get a look at the third kid jogging toward them. He was armed too, with a shotgun strapped to the pack on his back, and he was carrying a metal baseball bat that looked like it'd seen a lot of use. He was big, almost bigger than Shiro, with broad shoulders and huge arms, a thick chest and gut and legs. The guy was a tank, and Shiro was pretty sure that bat would be just as lethal as Lance's rifle if he gave this kid a reason to use it.
Hunk the tank gave Shiro a nasty look and crouched down next to the girl. He pulled a knife out of his boot and cut her bonds with two quick movements and then she was scrambling to her feet, stumbling a little at the lack of circulation. Hunk had her by the arm and tugged her away from Shiro so fast that he almost lift her off the ground.
Lance still hadn't moved. “Pidge?”
“I'm okay.” She gripped one of Hunk's arms in both hands and Shiro can see that her knuckles were bloody. She'd tried to fight when they grabbed her. “He's telling the truth, he wasn't with them.”
“Yeah, he's not one I've seen before, and I'm pretty sure I’d recognize any of those sick little bastards.” Lance moved a little closer, but the gun didn't waver. Shiro'd seen snipers before and he was willing to bet that's exactly what this kid was. “What are you doing here?”
“Getting supplies.” Shiro didn't lower his arms, kept his hands in plain sight, but he risked shaking off his hood so they could see his face better. All three of them were thin – even the big guy had clearly lost weight, his clothes hanging off him in places – and sunburned, but they looked healthy beside that. No obvious injuries, no signs of infection or disease that he could see. “I came here hoping the school had survived the outbreak. I used to teach here and – anyway, I was going to stock up before I went back into the desert.”
There was a long pause, and then Lance lowered the rifle, his face twisted in surprise and confusion. “Shiro?”
Shiro couldn't place the kid at first, but he tried to picture him in a Garrison uniform and had a flash of an easy smile and bright laughter from across a crowded lecture hall. “You were in my Intro to Aeronautics class. Before Kerberos.”
“Reunions later,” the girl, Pidge, snapped. Her eyes were still watering and she was blinking furiously into the waning light. She scrubbed a hand over both eyes as the big guy pulled out a canteen and poured it down the backs of her legs to wash away most of the blood. “There were more than two of them when I got caught, the others are still around here somewhere.”
“I vote we go,” Hunk said. “Quickly. Possibly as soon as now.”
“Good plan. Time to cut this supply run short.” Lance gestured toward the bodies without looking too closely at them. “Pidge, which one took your stuff?”
The girl darted in and nudged one of the corpses with the toe of her boot. “Neither of these losers. The guy who took my pack was bigger. Had a familiar voice, but no one I recognized.” She squatted down until she was sitting on her heels and started to tug at the leg of the corpse's pants.
Shiro made a move to stop her, but held himself when both Lance and Hunk swung their gaze toward him. Well, it wasn't like he could really object on moral grounds.
She made a sound like a laugh, short and hard, and tugged a knife out of the dead man's boot. “This is actually nicer than the one they took from me,” she said. She stuck the knife through the belt on her pants – cargo shorts, but she was so short they hung halfway down her calves – and crabwalked a little until she could reach the holster strapped to the dead man's waist.
“I thought we had an agreement about looting corpses,” Hunk said. He sounded a little put out and when Shiro glanced his way he was avoiding the bodies altogether, eyes scanning the nearby buildings.
“I'm not going out there without a gun,” Pidge said. “Not all of us have the upper body strength of a grizzly bear, you know.”
“That's enough.” Lance said suddenly. “We're pushing our luck. Pidge, get what you need and let's get out of here.”
“All right, let's pack it in. Hunk, lead the way. Pidge, you and Shiro-”
“We're bringing him?” Pidge jabbed the knife in his direction and Shiro bit back a wince. “Wait, wait, no way. He's one of them!”
Lance waved that off. “He's not one of them, you said so yourself.”
“Yeah, he wasn't there when they brained me but it's awfully suspicious that he just shows up out of nowhere-”
“I came here looking for survivors,” Shiro said, calmly. “I was sent specifically to find any Garrison personnel or students and bring them back to the quarantine zone in the States.”
“Uh-huh,” Hunk said. The big guy had his arms crossed, the metal bat hanging loosely from one hand. “I am all in favor of pointing out all the ways this could end badly, but it really boils down to two choices here. Choice one: Take a chance on Shiro being who and what he says he is, which may backfire on us, or may just mean we have a ride out of here. Or choice two: Stay here and argue about it and get our butts murdered when we are inevitably caught because we're standing in the middle of enemy territory.”
“He's not wrong,” Shiro said. “Look, I came a long, long way to find survivors, I'm not going to do anything that will endanger your lives. As for the raiders-” he gestured toward the bodies. “All I can do is give you my word I wasn't with them.”
“He was going in for the attack when Lance took his shot,” Hunk said in an offhanded tone that sounded deliberately casual.
Lance shifted his stance a little. “I trust Shiro. Come on, we know him.”
“No, you know him. Correction,” Pidge said, “you knew him for about ten minutes back before the world ended. Newsflash: the apocalypse changed people!” She jabbed a finger toward the corpse at her feet. “Exhibit A, your honor.”
“I trust Shiro,” Lance said again, resolute and unfazed in the face of Pidge's indignation.
Shiro wished to hell he could remember this kid. He couldn't even tell if they'd honestly never met before or if it was just one more thing lost to the fog his memories had become after Kerberos. “Look, I'll keep my hands where you can see them the entire time. Keep your weapon out, I won't be offended, but your friend is right – staying here is going to get everyone killed.”
“If he fucks us, it's your fault,” Pidge said.
Lance tipped his head to the side. “He won't. But if he does, it's on me and I'll handle it. For now we have to move.”
“I have a hoverbike,” Shiro offered. “It's stashed by the welcome center. It should be able to carry all four of us.”
“Too loud,” Lance said. “Too hard to hide if they spot us – the bikes kick up too much dust. We can come back for it once we're sure the coast is clear but – Hunk, go. Shiro, with us. And-” he shot a glance at the two bodies lying still in the dust, blood already baking into congealing brown stains on the dry ground. When he looked up again his eyes were dark and tired looking. “Pidge, keep an eye on him. Just in case.”
At Pidge's feet, one of the dead men's radio chirped.
“Okay, someone has officially noticed they're missing. Move,” Lance said. “Now.”
Hunk moved first, fast on his feet for such a big guy. He snagged Pidge by the arm and hauled her after him as he broke into a run, making a beeline past the infirmary and heading toward the faculty building.
Lance waved him on ahead and Shiro stamped down the urge to argue. Lance may have been a student but he knew the terrain and the enemy better than Shiro did. And even if he didn't, this wasn't the time to argue about it.
He caught himself clenching his bad hand into a fist and made himself let go. He imagined he could feel gears grinding as he forced the joints to relax and pull his weapon.
Behind them, the second radio sounded.
“Move, move, move,” Lance said under his breath, more to himself than to anyone else, and they both put on a burst of speed. They caught up with Hunk and Pidge who were crouched at the corner of the faculty building, peering around the side toward the carpool. It was emptier than Shiro remembered it being, and the pavement was covered in a thick layer of sand that came up to the hubcaps on the trucks.
“On the far side of the lot, there's a hill,” Hunk said, voice low and urgent. “Straight down the hill past the gas tanks is-”
“An access tunnel,” Shiro finished. “I remember. It leads out right behind the maintenance buildings.”
His knowledge of the campus layout only made Pidge glare at him even harder than before, but Hunk was nodding. “Right. No one goes out there anymore, from what we've seen, not since they used up all the fuel in the gas tanks. Once we're in the tunnel we should be clear – the maintenance building will block line of sight from the Garrison and it's a straight line into the mountains from there. Just keep low, try not to leave footprints in deep sand, and book it.”
“Pidge, follow Hunk. Then Shiro.” Lance jerked his chin toward the carpool. “Don't wait for anyone once you get across, just keep going.”
Hunk went first, crouched low against the sand and Shiro held his breath waiting for a shout or a shot to signal the raiders had spotted him. But he skirted the edge of the lot and disappeared behind the gasoline tanks at the far end. Pidge didn't wait for a signal, just took off as soon as her friend was in the clear.
“You're next.” Lance was looking back the way they had come, rifle braced on his shoulder. “Don't worry about the directions, just follow them. Hunk will make sure you get where you're going.”
Shiro nodded. “You're going to be right behind me.”
Lance flashed him a grin. “Buddy, after everything I did to get out of this place, I'm not getting dragged back now.”
Shiro remembered barricaded classrooms and abandoned dorm rooms, the smell of old blood and stale dust. He tried very hard not to picture the events that led to it all.
A voice rose behind them in a shout – Shiro, still caught in the memory, had the idea that it almost sounded familiar.
“They're gonna find those guys any second now,” Lance said.
Shiro bent low, hoping that his fatigues and pack would blend into the landscape if anyone glanced his way. He rounded the far corner of the lot and darted behind the gas tanks to orient himself. There was the hill Hunk had described, steep and covered in scrubby brush and rock. At the bottom he could see Pidge just as she disappeared into the access tunnel that would take them out to the maintenance building at the foot of the mountains.
Over in the carpool, something moved.
Shiro froze, breath held tight between his teeth, and crouched low against the tank. He could hear something moving in the sand, fits and starts. Not footsteps, more like something heavy being dragged. Like one of the raiders trying to belly crawl, or-
The dead thing reached around the corner of the gas tank and dragged itself a few inches closer.
Shiro swore under his breath. He raised the gun but stopped himself. He couldn't risk the sound of a gunshot, not with the raiders just a few buildings away, but they couldn't afford to have that thing moaning and calling more of it's kind. It would bring the raiders down on them just as surely as a gunshot would and worse, it would lead more of the dead to trail after them into the desert. He holstered his gun and flexed the fingers of his bad hand. He could snap its neck easily enough and in near-silence, and even if it managed to get ahold of him, it wasn't like teeth could to any damage to metal.
The creature hauled itself forward again and Shiro's heart stopped in his chest.
The dead thing was ragged, skin desiccated and leathery from months in the desert sun and one of its legs had snapped at the knee, leaving it to crawl in the dirt. Its hair was caked with layers of desert clay and mud, but Shiro could tell it had once been black. It was wearing the battered and torn remains of motorcycle boots and a black t-shirt, and the hand that reached toward Shiro was still wearing scraps of black leather that had once been fingerless gloves.
Keith, Shiro tried to say, but horror was thick in his throat and the word couldn't force its way out.
It clawed its way over a few more inches of ground, mouth dropping open in a low moan. Its teeth were broken, sharp and jagged in its mouth, and its tongue was gone, rotten or ripped out or-
Shiro couldn't breathe. His bad arm hung heavy at his side and he knew he should do something. He should pull the gun and to hell with the consequences, or just do what he'd intended to do in the first place and snap the poor thing's neck, end its suffering for once and all.
His hand didn't move from his side.
I was looking for you, he thought somewhat inanely as the creature reached for his face.
A rifle stock slammed into the side of the creature's skull, driving it into the dirt with the grating sound of cracking bone. Lance pulled the weapon back and swung downward, and this time the side of the skull cracked under the force of the blow, caving in where the stock rammed into it. The creature collapsed without so much as a final exhalation, permanently still and finally dead.
For a split second, less than the time it took to inhale, Shiro was hopelessly, violently furious at Lance. Adrenaline spiked in his blood and his head felt hot and heavy and he curled his hands into fists and pressed them against his stomach to control the urge to lash out for something that should have earned his gratitude. You don’t even know for sure it was him.
He opened his mouth and dragged in a gulp of air. It was sweet and heady like alcohol, like water, and he hadn’t realized until then that he’d been holding his breath.
Then time sped back up and Lance grabbed his bad arm. “Did it get you? Are you bit?”
Shiro shook his head and made himself breathe evenly. “No,” he said, a little surprised at how normal he sounded. “No, it took me by surprise.”
He realized he could hear yelling now, angry and getting closer. The other raiders had found Lance's handiwork while Shiro was frozen.
Lance squeezed his arm and yanked him to his feet. “Don't look back and don't stop, no matter what you hear.” He met Shiro's gaze for a moment and he looks young. “Nothing is worse than getting caught alive by those guys. Do you understand me?”
Shiro twisted his arm in Lance's grip, wrapped metal fingers around Lance's wrist, and shoved Lance down the hill ahead of him as the sound of angry voices grew louder. They hit the tunnel at a run and didn't stop until they were nearly a mile away, hidden in the rocks at the base of the mountains, gasping for breath and rubber-legged.
Night came quickly in the desert.
The kids fell silent as the sun disappeared and the desert settled into full darkness. There was a moon, enough to see by, but they still peered anxiously into the darkness around them, tensing at unfamiliar noises, fingers clenched tightly around their weapons. Shiro found himself falling into the same nervous habit, seeing the dead in every cactus and scrub and rock they passed.
The dead weren't the only things to worry about, but as the distance between them and the Garrison grew the kids seemed to, if not actually relax, at least lose some of the intensity that had consumed them since this had all started.
Hunk's footsteps were growing heavier by the minute and Pidge was starting to list slightly to one side. Shiro wasn't sure if it was the head injury or just exhaustion, but when he tried to steer her straight she growled at him and jerked away from his hand, stalking forward to walk beside Lance.
“Don't take it personal, man,” Hunk said in a low voice. He was at the rear, still holding his metal bat and Shiro fell back a few paces to walk beside him. “She's got a good reason not to trust strangers.”
Considering how he'd met her, Shiro certainly couldn't argue. “Lance said something back there. Were you guys inside the Garrison when the raiders took over?”
Hunk looked away, mouth twisted in a grimace. “Yeah. Look, we should wait till we get home to trade angsty backstories.”
“Home, huh?” Shiro said.
Hunk shrugged, strangely casual considering everything that had happened in the last few hours - everything that had happened in the last year or so, really. “Well, it’s not Kauai, but it’ll have to do for now.” He sighed a heavy exhalation that seemed to start from somewhere toward the bottom of his feet. “For all I know Kauai isn’t even there anymore.”
“News is hard to come by,” Shiro said. “Even back at the base, there’s a lot we only get third or fourth hand. They’re trying to set up a planetary communications link, kind of like the old 24-hour news links.” They’d already started - Radio Earth had started as nothing but a constant running list of known survivors interspersed with the occasional piece of rumor or gossip. It was a bit more reliable these days, but a lot of what they heard was still second hand at best. “Once we get back to base we’ll have more resources. We’ll find someone who knows if your hometown pulled through.”
“You really think we’re getting out of here?” Hunk asked. “I mean, that’s a hell of a trek. The farthest we’ve gotten is the nearest city and I don’t mind telling you, that place has gone downhill. Big time.”
“Worse than the Garrison?” Shiro asked.
“One big dead city,” Hunk said. “We didn’t know how bad it was - I mean, the last time we had access to TV or the internet most of the planet was still alive and wondering what the hell was going on.” He shrugged, the bat bouncing lightly on his shoulder. “When we got away, we just booked it toward town and wham.” He slammed his fist into his opposite palm with a meaty smack that made Pidge and Lance glance back at him. “Straight into the horde.”
“I’m impressed you made it out.”
Hunk pulled a face. “Almost didn’t. After that, we were out of food, almost out of water and it was a thirty mile hike to the next town. Even if we managed to avoid getting turned into hors d'oeuvres or dying of dehydration and heat stroke, there wasn’t any guarantee there’d be anyone alive there either.” He was silent for a second, then added in a voice so low it was almost inaudible, “And even if there were survivors, there was no way to know they’d be any better than what we were trying to get away from.”
“Were you the only students at the Garrison when the raiders came?”
“No,” Hunk said. He paused and there was a moment of silence as they walked, the tread of their steps on the dry ground the only sound for miles. “But we were by the end.”
There was a story there, and Shiro needed to hear it, needed to know what had happened to nearly five hundred students, to the faculty and staff who had been Shiro’s coworkers and mentors. He closed his eyes for a second and let his breath out slowly. He’d known it was a long shot all along but it still hurt to hear it confirmed.
“Here,” Hunk said before Shiro could figure out how to respond. “Home sweet, rocky, dusty, scorching, sweaty, scorpion-infested home.”
“You forgot the zombies,” Lance said, almost cheerfully. “And the crazy murderous douchebags.”
“Dust storms,” Pidge added. “Flashfloods.”
“I feel like dust storms are covered by dusty,” Hunk objected. He steered Shiro to the left, up an incline that started gradual but became steep just a few feet up.
“Kind of an understatement,” Pidge said. She stopped and planted her hands on her hips. “We should search him before we go inside.”
“Search him for what?” Lance asked. “We already know he’s armed.” He paused a few feet ahead of her, rifle cradled loosely in his right arm. “Unless he’s got a hot pizza or a working cell phone in his pants, I’m not interested.”
“Well now my feelings are hurt,” Shiro said in as dry a voice as he could manage.
“He could have a radio. Or a tracking device.”
Lance made a dismissive sound. “Why would they let us get all the way out here? He could have taken me out back at the Garrison if that was what he wanted.”
“I don’t have a radio,” Shiro interrupted before Pidge could respond. “But I have a comm link - limited range, voice only. It’s how my ride is going to contact me when they’re coming back for retrieval.”
“Please tell me there’s room for stowaways,” Lance said. He flashed Shiro a grin, teeth white in the darkness, but it very clearly wasn’t a joke.
“You’re all getting out of here if I have to take turns carrying you out,” Shiro said. “Finding you is the reason I came out here in the first place. I’m not leaving without you.” He thought of Keith with a sharp pang, but pushed it down. Once they were settled and somewhere safe he would ask and try to find out what had happened. But for now he had three tired, brave kids to look after, whether they particularly wanted him to or not. He pulled his link out of his belt pouch and held it out to Pidge. “You’re welcome to search me if you want, I’ve got nothing to hide from you.”
Hunk didn’t move, but Lance and Pidge exchanged a pointed glance, complete with raised eyebrows and chin-pointing before Pidge darted forward and snatched the link from his hand. “It has a GPS locater,” she said grimly.
“You can turn it off if you want,” Shiro said. “We don’t need it until we’re ready for evac.”
“And when is that exactly?” Hunk asked. “Just, you know, I need to pack, fill out my change of address cards, look for someone to sublet the lease…”
“Sometime in the next forty-eight hours,” Shiro said.
“Two days,” Hunk said. “We could be out of here in two days.”
Lance didn’t say anything but the expression on his face was uneasy, like he was getting his hopes up despite himself. “All right, let’s move this inside.”
Pidge turned to face him. “But-”
“You can search his stuff once we’re not out in the open. We can’t risk the lights - they’re going to be out looking for us and they’ll see a flashlight like a search beacon.” He started up the incline again without waiting for a response and Pidge followed, Shiro’s comm link clasped tightly in one hand. Hunk gestured for Shiro to go ahead of him with a dramatic flourish.
Didn’t drop the bat for all his apparently affable humor, Shiro couldn’t help but notice.
The incline leveled out about twenty feet up into what looked like just a ledge covered in scrubby brush. But hidden behind the brush, down close to the ground, was a long, almost rectangular opening.
“Voila,” Lance said.
“Are his shoulders going to fit through there?” Hunk asked doubtfully.
“Lance’s ego does,” Pidge said under her breath. Hunk snickered.
Lance rolled his eyes so hard Shiro thought it probably hurt. “That’s enough out of the peanut gallery.”
Pidge scrunched her face up. “You know how I feel about peanuts.” She held out her hand toward Shiro. “The pack, please.”
Shiro shouldered out of the pack and handed it over, then added his belt and even the water bladders for good measure. “Do you want my weapons?”
She frowned at him for a long minute while Hunk and Lance waited silently, apparently willing to defer to her on this. “No,” she said finally. “If you are one of them, I’ll just take shelter behind Lance’s massive self-image.”
“What did I just say?” Lance demanded.
Pidge grinned at him, a real, genuinely amused smile for the first time. “I have no idea, I never listen when you talk.” She dropped to the ground and shoved Shiro’s gear into the narrow opening, then rolled in behind it without waiting for a response.
“I’m not getting paid enough for this,” Lance said. “When this is over, who do I talk to about hazard pay?”
“Boy do I have bad news for you,” Shiro said.
Hunk went next, crawling into the cave mouth like an inchworm. He fit, barely, and Shiro could tell they had been correct to worry about his shoulders, but he managed to crawl in after Hunk without anything worse than a little wriggling.
The interior of the cave was small and narrow and dark enough that he could only see Hunk as a big shadowy darkness that stood out from all the other shadowy darkness. “It’s high enough in here for you to stand,” Hunk said. “Just follow me, it’ll open up in a little bit.”
Hunk led him a few feet away to a tunnel so narrow Shiro had to turn sideways to get through. It was uncomfortably claustrophobic, pressed into the rock with no light to be seen. He clenched his teeth and breathed in slowly through his nose, keeping his eyes on Hunk ahead of him and the sounds of Lance following behind.
The tunnel opened up after what felt like a hundred feet or so in a wide, echoing cave. Pidge had already lit a lantern, and as Shiro stepped into the space he could see that the walls curved up at least twenty feet beyond the pale flicker of the light, leaving the ceiling a pool of darkness above them. The walls themselves were covered in carvings, dozens, maybe hundreds of them from what Shiro could see.
He moved away from the tunnel entrance so Lance could get in, and gave the place a once over. It looked… well, a lot like Hunk had described it. The cave floor was mostly bare rock, but he could smell water somewhere nearby. There was a fire pit near the far end of the cave, and stacks of supplies against the opposite wall. Mostly MREs, but some cans and crates just like the ones he’d sorted through earlier that day. They’d looted them from the Garrison at some point, and there wasn’t much left, not enough to last them long at all. No wonder they’d risked going back there.
Next to the supplies was a small cache of ammo and a few spare weapons. Across from that, piled up in a corner of the cave, was a heap of messy bedding. Pidge had managed to change her clothes in the short time it took Shiro to work his way through the passage, exchanging the bloodied khakis for a pair of cargo shorts and a green and white shirt. She was currently sitting cross-legged in the center of the cave and was sorting through his spare ammo, supplies and looted food.
“So it’s not exactly the Hilton,” Lance said.
It looked clean and dry and safe, even comfortable, relatively speaking. “I’ve see a lot worse,” Shiro said. “How did you know this was here? It must be nearly invisible from the outside.”
“Lance knew about it,” Hunk said. He dropped his bat and pack next to the supplies and was rummaging through one of the boxes of supplies. “After we had to turn back from town, he brought us out here.”
“Come on,” Lance said. He had exchanged the rifle for a handgun in a shoulder holster, which he shrugged on over his long-sleeved t-shirt. “I’ll give you the fifty-dollar tour.”
“It’s a rip-off,” Hunk yelled over his shoulder as they started to walk away. “Nothing in this place is worth fifty cents.”
“I charge extra for my sparkling wit and charming personality,” Lance hollered back.
Two simultaneous snorts echoed from behind them. Lance shook his head. “I get no respect,” he told Shiro cheerfully.
It made him think of Keith, the way they’d give each other shit sometimes. Or… or something else, someone, the name right on the tip of his tongue. Another hole in his memory, an empty place where he’s fairly certain someone important used to be. Someone who made him laugh.
“Here.” Lance tossed a flashlight and grinned when Shiro nearly fumbled it. “It gets darker the farther you go.”
They walked deeper into the cave, away from the narrow tunnel and the hidden entrance until the light from the lantern was a pale amber glow behind them and Hunk’s voice had faded to a low echo. The cave markings extended all the way throughout, etched deep into the cave walls. Shiro counted a few dozen large cats, and the occasional group of people, usually in fives. There were elaborately drawn circles that might have been suns except for the chevrons drawn around the edges. Shiro was kind of surprised he hadn’t known it existed. Or, well. He let the corner of his mouth curve up in a wry smile. Maybe he had and just didn’t remember. “How did you find this place?”
“I have no idea,” Lance said. “I just… knew it was here.” He skimmed the tips of his fingers over a particularly large marking of a cat that was nearly as tall as he was, brushing over the jawline like you’d scratch a housecat. “We didn’t have a plan, you know? We didn’t know how bad it had gotten while we were… And then there was nowhere to go, so we just picked a direction and ran. I must have seen this place on a map, or heard about it from someone and remembered it subconsciously.” He flashed his light to the left, illuminating a long tunnel. It looked more man-made than the one they had come in through, circular and much wider. The same drawings were etched into its wall as far down as Shiro could see. “There’s a couple different ways in and out,” Lance said, “but it looks like there was a landslide or something. The little one we came in through is the only one on this side of the mountain that was still open.”
“How long has it been sealed up?” Shiro was trying to remember if he’d heard anything about hidden caves when he’d been a student at the Garrison, but nothing came to mind. He’s reasonably certain he’d have heard about it if students were sneaking out to go spelunking and it doesn’t feel like the absence, the void, that most of his missing memories feel like.
“Man, don’t look at me. It’s a pile of rocks. Maybe it caved in yesterday. Maybe it’s been there for ten thousand years.” Lance shrugged, his light bobbing with the movement. “Come on back this way.”
The floor sloped downward gradually until the light from the lantern was completely gone and the scent of water was heavy in the air. Shiro swallowed, suddenly aware of how thirsty he was, and how dirty. He could hear the sound of moving water from ahead of them now, a quiet sort of rush.
“This is the real lucky break.” Lance pointed the flashlight out ahead of them, revealing a wide pool of water. “There’s some kind of underground stream or something that runs right through here. We’d have been dead in a couple of days without this.”
Shiro swept his light along the water. The pool had been carved into the rock of the cave floor over hundreds or thousands of years. The edge of the pool looked like a sheer drop, and further toward the center he could see the movement of the water. “It’s definitely got a current.”
“Yeah. There’s another cave down a ways.” Lance waved his flashlight off to the left. “There’s another tunnel and if you go down for a while there’s waterfall that drops into another pool. Back when we first got here, Pidge killed a few days dropping junk in there and seeing how long it took to come out the other side.”
“The highly scientific conclusion we came to was that it mostly depends on the junk. Some of it popped right up in a couple minutes. Some of it took longer. A lot of it never came back up.” He blew a heavy breath out through his teeth. “We started weaving little boats out of dry grass and racing them. Hunk’s always won, but mine were by far the coolest.”
Shiro grinned. “I’ll take your word for it.”
“Anyway. The water’s pretty clean. If you want to clean up a little, I’ll show you where everything is. I don’t recommend going for a swim, though. The current’s actually pretty strong and it gets deep really fast. Also, you know, we have to drink this and I’m pretty sure Pidge would kill you if you made her drink your bathwater.”
Yeah, Shiro had no doubt about that. He was fairly certain she could take him, if she were motivated enough.
Lance pointed out where the latrine was, and then led Shiro to a crevice in the wall. It was just as tight as the tunnel they’d come in through, and short enough that Shiro would have had to stoop to get through. “This is the back door,” Lance said. “If you go through here, eventually you’ll come out where the waterfall is, and there’s another entrance down there, a bigger one. It comes out right on a pretty high ledge, so if for any reason we have to leave this way, don’t accidentally throw yourself off the mountain.”
“Hopefully that’s advice I won’t need. If we can stay hidden until our evac comes back, we should get out of here without a fight.”
“And go to an Air Force Base in California,” Lance said quietly. “It’s better than the desert, right? How showers, hot dinners.” He grinned at Shiro. “Hot Air Force babes.”
Shiro clapped him on the back. “Well, there’s showers and dinners anyway. And in my experience the Air Force “babes” generally prefer to be called “Captain”.”
“Excellent advice,” Lance said. “You gotta respect the uniform.”
Shiro shook his head. “Come on, give me the rest of the tour.”
“Yeah, it’s getting late. We should start heading back. Hunk should have dinner ready by now. You know, if there’s a bright side to the apocalypse it’s that I at least got stuck out here with someone who knows how to make freeze dried meatloaf not taste like cardboard. I mean, it could have been worse.”
Shiro could still taste the bitter way resignation had tasted in his mouth when he saw the ruins of the Garrison and knew he’d come too late to help anyone. He rested his bad hand on Lance’s shoulder and squeezed, gently.
“Yeah. It could have been a lot worse.”
So Hunk snored.
Shiro jerked awake for at least the third time that night, startled by a particularly loud snort that had him sitting upright in his bedroll, hand curled around his gun, and blinking blearily around him. The cave came into focus around him and he relaxed slightly. The light from the lantern had been turned down to nothing more than a pale flicker, making their surroundings feel smaller and almost cozy.
“Sorry about Hunk.”
Shiro scrubbed a hand over his face and twisted around in his bedroll so he could face Pidge, sitting next to the lantern with her back to the wall and her gun within reach. Lance had been on watch when Shiro fell asleep, so at least four hours had passed. “No, it’s fine. I’m a really light sleeper these days.”
Pidge made a rude sound. “I’d say who wouldn’t be, but I know these two.”
Hunk was sprawled on his back, arms and legs all over the place, easily taking up more than his share of the bedding. He was a kicker, Shiro noted, one leg twitching abruptly in his sleep before he heaved another heavy snore and rolled over onto his stomach. Lance had staked out a place for himself on the far side, close to the darkness and apparently safely beyond the reach of Hunk’s tossing and turning.
“I’m kind of impressed Lance is still asleep.”
Pidge shrugged. “They were roommates, back before. And we’ve been stuck with each other for a long time now. I guess he’s used to it.” She sighed and let her head tip back to rest against the wall. “You really don’t know who I am, do you?”
He jerked his head back around. “What? I-” He kicked off the bedroll and stood,heart pounding a little heavily in his chest as he picked his way through the shadows to drop cross-legged on the floor next to her. “Did we know each other? I-” He ran a hand through his hair and let out a heavy breath. “I think I’m supposed to know Lance, too, but... I’m sorry, if I forgot you.”
“What happened to you? They told us you were dead. Pilot error, shuttle destroyed upon re-entry.” She pressed her lips together in a tight line. “They couldn’t even give us the bodies to bury.”
Bodies. Shiro’s crew had died in the crash. “I’m sorry.” The words were scratchy, hard and heavy in his throat. “I don’t know what happened. I was in a coma for a long time. And when I woke up-” He realized he had his bad arm pressed to his chest and forced himself to lower it. Pidge’s eyes flickered along the black metal, dark with what looked like reluctant sympathy. “I remember the mission - I know I went to Kerberos. But I don’t remember the events, the details. The people who went with me. It’s like seeing the title of a book and knowing you’ve read it before, but not being able to remember the plot or the characters.”
“You don’t remember the Holts?” Her voice hitched a little on the name. “Sam and Matt? My dad - he was the lead scientist. And Matt was your friend.”
He remembered the odd feeling of loss he’d had when they were teasing each other, the idea that he was forgetting something important. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. Well.” She drew her knees up to her chest and wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I guess crashing a space shuttle and going into a coma counts as a pretty good excuse.” She leaned down, resting her forehead against her knees and sighed, slow and shaky. “I guess I’ll never get an answer to why they died.”
I remember the idea of him, Shiro thought but knew better than to say. I know that I’m missing someone, that I make sarcastic comments that no one responds to and look for someone who isn’t there.
It was almost as bad as losing Keith, except Shiro could remember Keith, knew where he was likely to be and how he was likely to react. He could get himself dropped in the middle of the desert and go looking for Keith, just to have an answer to the nightmares that kept him awake at night. But he couldn’t do that for other blank spaces in his memory.
“If I knew, I would tell you,” Shiro said finally. It was a useless promise and they both knew it, but Pidge sighed anyway.
“I believe you,” she said finally. She lifted her head and pushed hair back from her face. “I don’t know why but I believe you.”
They sat in silence for a long moment while she rubbed at her eyes and he pretended he couldn’t tell she’d been crying. “You never actually met me,” she said. “So to answer your question, no, you didn’t really forget me. But Matt and I look - well. The family resemblance is strong, that’s all.” She held out her right hand across her lap and Shiro curled his metal prosthetic fingers around it carefully until he wasn’t gripping her hand so much as encircling it. “My name is-”
“Katie,” Shiro said.
Her eyes widened. “Do you-”
He pulled his hand back, let it fall into his lap. “I-” He could hear a voice in his head, laughing about something. “Wasn’t Pidge the cat? I remember - there was this big fat orange cat named-”
“Pidge Gunderson,” Pidge said. “Because my brother is an idiot. How did you know that?”
“I have no idea,” Shiro said honestly. “Sometimes I just… remember things.”
“Sounds really annoying,” she said.
“It’s not ideal,” Shiro admitted.
There was a loud, sharp gasp of breath from the far side of the cave, and Lance jerked as if he’d been shot. He coughed, harsh and short and pushed himself up into a kneeling position.
“Lance?” Pidge said. “You awake, buddy?”
He dragged in a series of shallow, unsteady breaths and swallowed hard several times before he pushed himself to his feet. He took a couple of steps and then suddenly he was running, heading for the tunnel that lead outside.
“Lance!” Pidge called. “Dammit, wait, don’t go out there alone!”
“I’ve got him,” Shiro said. He grabbed his gun in one hand and one of the water bladders in the other and followed.
He found Lance at the far end of the ledge, on his hands and knees, retching. He considered holding back and giving him some privacy, but instead he crouched down next to him and rubbed a hand over his back. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah.” Lance had his eyes closed, but he ran a hand over his mouth. He was shaky, Shiro could feel it beneath his hand, but his voice was steady, if a little rough. Lance turned his head and spat a couple of times, then sat back on his heels and took a long, shaky breath.
Shiro gave him the water and waited while he rinsed out his mouth and spat again. “Bad one, huh.”
Lance didn’t quite meet his eyes. “Sorry about that.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Shiro said. “Was it the raiders from earlier?”
Lance shrugged. “I’ve shot people before, you know. When we got away from - from the Garrison. I shot at least a couple people but it wasn’t like that. I blew those two guys away like they were already dead and-” He closed his mouth and dragged in a deep breath through his nose. “It’s different, when they’re alive. Messier.”
“Harder,” Shiro said. “But you did good out there. I want you to know that.”
“They couldn’t even defend themselves,” Lance said. “I was a couple hundred feet away. They couldn’t see me, they couldn’t return fire. They couldn’t have even run and I just blew them away from the roof of the dining hall.”
“Would they have given you the chance to run?” Shiro asked. “It’s not like there’s a right answer here, but for what it’s worth, I think you did what it took to keep you and your friend alive. I’m just sorry you had to do it at all.”
“They killed half the kids in my class and I couldn’t do anything but watch,” Lance said. “When we got away it was just… running. I didn’t really think about it, we just booked it. We didn’t try to kill anyone. We just did what we had to to get out of there. But they took Pidge and all I could think about was how I couldn’t save my friends, and about my brothers and sisters back home and how they’re all probably dead by now, or worse and I couldn’t let that happen to anyone else I cared about.”
“I don’t know if there’s a good reason to kill someone,” Shiro said. “But that’s probably the best reason you’re ever going to get. You protected your friends, Lance. No one can ask any more of us than that.”
“I just-” His voice wavered for a second and he exhaled heavily. “I just really want to go home.”
Shiro rubbed his hand over Lance’s back, feeling the curve of his spine beneath the worn material of his shirt. “Where’s home?”
“Cuba. Santa Marta. It’s right by Veradero Beach.” He sounded wistful. “You could taste the salt in the breeze coming up from the beach at night. The water was so clear you could see straight through to the bottom.”
“It sounds amazing.”
Lance laughed, short and hard. “Yeah. If it hasn’t burned to the ground or been completely overrun by shambling corpses, you should check it out.”
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?”
“Three. Marco, Javi and Elena. I was the youngest. Javi’s married and his wife and kids lived with us while he was deployed. They grew up with me, more like little sisters than neices, you know?” Lance cracked his knuckles. “Now they’re all dead, I guess.”
Shiro honestly had no idea if he’d heard anything about Cuba or not. He’d had no personal investment in the country, so even if he’d read something, he doubted he would have retained it. Too much bad news in the world for one person to really process all of it. “I have a younger brother. Had, I guess. I don’t know what happened to him, but-” He sighed and shifted his weight so he was sitting cross-legged next to Lance. “Well. It doesn’t look good, does it?”
“I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“We had different last names so it wasn’t really obvious. He was always afraid people would accuse me of favoritism or something. I think he just didn’t want to have to deal with his teachers ratting him out to me when he got smart with them.”
“He was at the Garrison?” Lance, if possible, went even paler.
“Yeah. I’m…” Shiro braced his elbows on his knees and leaned forward. “I’m pretty sure he didn’t make it. There was…” He couldn’t make his tongue say it, so he shrugged. Lance didn’t need to know the gory details anyway. “Hunk said that you guys were the only survivors anyway.”
“Yeah, toward the end.” Lance’s brow is furrowed and his lips pressed together in a tight line. “A lot of people left before-” he waved a hand in a wide circle, obviously meant to encompass the insanity the world had devolved into. “A bunch of the teachers and students lit out when it was still early days. Trying to get home before it all hit the fan, you know? He might - he might not have been in there with us.”
“Maybe. I saw - there was a - a body. In the desert. I thought it was him.”
Lance’s voice was subdued. “Oh. That sucks, man, I’m sorry. Are you sure?”
“I don’t know.” Shiro remembered the gut-punch of grief that had hit him when the zombie crawled around the gasoline tank. “It happened really fast. I was pretty sure at the time, but now I can’t really pinpoint what it was that had me convinced. I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t want to remember him that way so my mind is tricking me.”
“The reverse might be true too, you know?”
“I know.” Shiro drew in a deep breath and clapped Lance on the back. “If he’s out there, I’ll find him. That’s all I can do for now. In the meantime-” He pushed himself to his feet and held out his right hand to Lance. “We should all get some rest and be ready to book it when our ride gets here.”
Lance paused for a moment, still on his knees. “Don’t tell Pidge I freaked out over shooting those guys, all right? I don’t want her to feel guilty about it or anything.”
“She won’t hear it from me,” Shiro promised. He was reasonably certain Pidge knew exactly what had sent Lance running out of the cave like that, but if Lance wanted to pretend, that was his business. “Come on, I’m beat.”
Lance reached up and took his hand and the edge of his shirt rode up a little, revealing a patch of skin on his lower back that was covered in scars.
Lance let out a startled yelp as Shiro pulled him to his feet a little faster than he’d intended to. “What happened?” Shiro asked, voice coming out harsh despite his effort to keep it calm. “Is this-?” He tugged at Lance’s shirt, pulling it up so he could see the marks more clearly.
Lance jerked out of his grip and stumbled back a step or two, both hands gripping his shirt at the hem and tugging it back down. “It’s not what you think,” he said hurriedly. “I’m not infected. I swear.”
“Of course you aren’t.” The wounds were old, far too old for Lance to have acquired them that day. And there were enough of them, even in the glimpse Shiro had gotten, that if they’d been zombie bites Lance would have been dead in hours, if not actual minutes. No, Shiro realized with a sick lurch in his stomach. These bites had been made by something still alive. “What did they do to you?”
Lance laughed, breathless and tired. “We can’t do this right now, man. Not out here. I don’t want to do this now.”
Shiro wanted an answer, if only to stop the parade of horror flashing through his head. He’d had no reason to believe the three of them had been treated well during their imprisonment, but until now the possibilities had been safely ignored. “Lance-”
“Wait.” Lance held a hand out toward Shiro. “Wait, do you hear that?”
Shiro didn’t hear anything over the way his pulse was pounding in his skull. He made himself breathe deeply, pushed the anger down. “What is it?”
“Engines. A lot of them.” Lance scanned the desert, pivoting on one foot. “There. Can you see?”
Shiro followed Lance’s finger. “I see lights.” A lot of lights, moving in a dozen different direction. “They’re a long way from the Garrison.” If Shiro had his bearings they were several miles out into the desert.
Lance cursed. “I left my rifle. Did you bring a weapon?”
“Handgun.” Shiro palmed it, ready to hand it over, but Lance shook his head.
“I need a scope. I can’t see what they’re doing out there.”
“On it.” He shoved the gun into Lance’s hands. “If they come this way, get to cover, understood?” He barely waited for Lance’s nod before he hit the ground and made his way back into the cave. The darkness was twice as overwhelming after the moonlight, but he didn’t have time to wait letting his eyes adjust. Halfway down the tunnel the light of the lantern started filtering through the darkness. “Pidge! Hunk!”
They were both awake and kneeling on Hunk’s bedding staring at something Hunk held in his hands. They looked up simultaneously with matching guilty expressions. “Shiro,” Pidge said. “Um-”
“I broke your link,” Hunk said. He ducked his head and ran one hand over the back of his neck. “I’m really sorry, man, I got up to go to the bathroom and I didn’t even see it.”
“We can fix it,” Pidge added hurriedly. “We’re both pretty good with electronics and stuff, it shouldn’t be too hard. I mean…” she trailed off and stared at her hands. “Parts might be an issue, but-”
“We’ll worry about that later,” Shiro said, even as his stomach dropped like a stone. Chavez could be contacting him at literally any moment and they’d have no way of knowing. “I need Lance’s rifle. You should get ready in case we have to move.”
“What’s happening?” Pidge jumped to her feet and dove for her things along the wall. They all slept more or less fully dressed, and it would only take a minute to get jackets and shoes on.
“There’s something going on out in the desert. A lot of noise and lights.” Shiro grabbed his pack and pulled out a pair of binoculars, as well as his back-up weapon. “Lance is keeping an eye on it, but if they head this way, we should be ready.”
He grabbed Lance’s rifle and left the kids scrambling to get ready as he hurried back down the tunnel. He was listening for any sign of movement, but when he crawled back out into the desert, Lance was still crouched on the ledge, eyes pinned on the horizon. “Here.” He handed Lance the binoculars and set the rifle down within easy reach, reclaiming his own weapon. “What are they doing?”
“Driving around in circles, from what I can see.” Lance peered through the glasses for a long moment. “Okay, no I take that back. They appear to be chasing someone around in circles.”
“Chasing?” Pidge crawled out of the cave and walked on her knees until she was perched beside Lance at the edge. “Who the hell is there for them to chase? We’re all here and there’s no one else for at least a couple dozen miles.”
Hunk squirmed out behind her. “Well, there’s tons of dead people, I guess. Are they rounding up a new batch of zoms?”
“What do they need zombies for?” Shiro asked.”You know what, don’t tell me. I’m sure whatever it is I don’t want to know.”
“Well, you’re not wrong,” Pidge muttered.
“Holy crow!” Lance lowered the binoculars and blinked as if to clear his eyes, before hastily raising the binoculars again. “I can’t believe it! It’s him!”
“What? Who?” Hunk leaned over his shoulder, peering into the darkness as if whatever Lance had seen would present itself.
Lance practically flung himself off the ledge, hitting the incline at a run, his rifle clutched in one hand and the field glasses in the other. “It’s Keith!”
Shiro almost stumbled in shock. “What? Wait!”
Hunk jumped down after him. “No way. Are you sure?”
“I’d know that mullet anywhere!” Lance called back.
Pidge stared at Shiro. “Who’s Keith?” she demanded.
Shiro shook his head. “Go,” he said. “Follow them.” He followed her down the incline, ignoring the way his legs felt like rubber and his heart was beating in his throat. Keith, Lance had said and he couldn’t afford to get his hopes up even as his pulse was pounding in anticipation. He put a hand on Pidge’s shoulder, urged her ahead of him and was strangely grateful when she didn’t give him a suspicious look or hesitate to have him at her back.
Lance and Hunk had paused on a ridge a few hundred yards away. Lance dropped to his stomach and peered through the binoculars. Hunk crouched behind a couple of rocks and peered around the sides. “What do you see?”
“They’ve got half the Garrison out after this guy,” Lance said. “I see four hoverbikes - three in Garrison blue and Keith’s got some tacky gunmetal grey thing.”
“Let me see that.” Shiro took the field glasses Lance handed over and scanned the desert below. The Garrison bikes were in pursuit of the fourth, which seemed to be leading them on a bit of a chase, cutting back and forth between the rock formations and looping back on its own trail. “That’s - that’s my bike! He stole my bike! That little shit.”
“Yup,” Lance drawled. “Sounds like Keith.”
Shiro’s hands shook as he focused in on the driver. It was hard to get a good luck but it was a young man with dark hair in a red jacket. He was wearing a mask that covered the lower part of his face, but for a moment he was facing Shiro directly and he would swear on a stack of bibles he recognized those eyes.
He breathed in, sharp and deep, and forced back the voice that reminded him he’d been pretty sure before. Hope felt too good, he’d live with the disappointment if he had to, but he didn’t think he was wrong. “It’s him. It’s Keith.”
“You know Keith?” Lance said. He sighed heavily. “Of course you know Keith.”
“I told you my brother was at the Garrison,” Shiro said absently. Keith was doubling back on his trail, blowing past two of the Garrison bikes. He was a better driver than any of his pursuers, but he was taking a lot of chances in trying to lose them.
Hunk peered out from behind his rocks. “Wait, Keith is your brother?”
Pidge threw her hands up in the air. “Who the hell is Keith?”
Lance snagged her by the hem of her shirt and dragged her down next to him. “Keith is the Masked Bandit.”
Shiro pulled his gaze away from the chase long enough to give Lance a skeptical look. “Keith is the who now?”
“The guy who helped us escape from the Garrison,” Lance said. “Unintentionally, mind you, but I figure it still counts. We owe him one, so how are we gonna get him out of this mess?”
“We need to get those guys off his tail.” Shiro gestured to Lance’s rifle. “Just how good a shot are you with that thing?”
Pidge promptly slapped a hand over Lance’s mouth before he could do anything more than give Shiro a cocky smirk. “He’s pretty good,” she said. “But whatever he was about to say was a huge pile of bull.”
Lance swatted at her with both hands. “Pretty good?” he said. “Pretty - I am insulted. Hunk, are you hearing this?”
“Yeah, he’s pretty good,” Hunk said. “Seriously, though, they’re gonna start shooting at him eventually if they can’t catch him, so we should probably hurry up.”
Shiro cast a quick glance back toward the chase below, shoulders tensing as if Hunk’s words alone would be enough to start the gunfire. “How many rounds have you got?”
“A few dozen,” Lance answered immediately. Give the kid credit, he knew when to turn the bullshit off. Mostly. “If you’re looking for a whole lot of cover fire we’re going to need a different weapon or a better plan.”
“Can you get the raiders off Keith’s back for a few minutes? Long enough for me to get out there?”
“Yes,” Lance said slowly. His eyes flickered over the terrain. “That should be pretty easy. Can’t promise they’ll stay down forever though - one rifle isn’t exactly a blanket of cover fire, you know.”
“I’ll manage.” Shiro checked his weapon and the backup strapped to his calf. “All right, sharpshooter. Is this a good enough vantage?”
“Yes.” Lance grabbed his rifle and jumped to his feet. “But I see one with better cover. Give me a few to get there.” He took off at a run before Shiro could object, scrambling over rocks and disappearing around the side of a rock formation.
Shiro resisted the urge to swear a little. “Go after him,” he said. “Stay together.”
Pidge and Hunk exchanged an inscrutable look and then Hunk grabbed his bat and took off after Lance, his pack and shotgun bouncing on his back. Pidge gave Shiro a steady look. “I’m going with you.”
“What, no. Look, this is dangerous-”
“Wow,” Pidge said, pressing a finger to her mouth. “Really? My gosh, I hadn’t noticed.”
Shiro bit back on his instinctive response to that much sarcasm. “These are dangerous people who will not appreciate us trying to interfere with them.”
“I know this area better than you do,” Pidge said. “And you’ll need someone to watch your back anyway. So are we going to argue about it or are we going to go get your friend?”
Shiro scanned the desert below. “Stay close, keep your head down and shoot anyone who shoots at you.”
“My personal survival motto,” Pidge said.
They took off down the hill, heading for the flat ground where Keith was still driving circles around the raiders. Every couple of minutes one of them would come close only to veer off abruptly while Pidge and Shiro braced themselves to hide.
“Incoming,” Pidge called. She was a little breathless, and her knees were scraped from having to throw herself behind a boulder to avoid one of the raiders, but she wasn’t slowing down yet.
It was one of the Garrison bikes, coming in fast. Shiro scanned the distance and saw Keith heading their way as well, a ways back. The raiders were trying to get ahead of him, probably hoping to ambush him as he came around the side of the hill. Shiro braced himself against a rock and took aim, but the raider was moving fast in the dark. Shiro was a hell of a shot if he did say so himself, but with a handgun even a trained sharpshooter would have a hard time making that shot. He cursed a little under his breath and it felt kind of good so he did it again and shifted his aim to the bike itself. It was a longshot that he’d hit anything vital, but at least he could be reasonably sure of making the shot. If nothing else, he could draw the raider’s attention and screw up his ambush.
“If you get a good shot, take it,” he told Pidge.
The lights of the oncoming bike jerked suddenly, then swung wildly as the bike veered out of control. It spun in a wide circle that tightened until the bike looked like an out of control amusement park ride. Shiro blinked at it, not sure what had just happened, and watched the bike as it whipped past.
There was a heavy thud as a body flew off onto the ground a few meters away, and then the bike slammed into the rock with the screech of twisting metal.
Shiro jogged over to the body. Two shots, center mass.
“Sniper,” Pidge said in a sing-song voice.
“Nice work,” Shiro said.
“Told you he was all right. Incoming.”
The lights heading their way were from Shiro’s bike, with the other two raiders in close pursuit. “Get down. Cover me if you can. I have a plan.”
He pushed himself into a flat-out run, heading straight into the path of the oncoming bike. He could hear shots, watching Keith’s bike swerve to avoid being hit, and made himself run faster.
One of the raiders swerved off, ducking behind a rock formation where Shiro lost them from view. With any luck that was Lance, forcing them to ground. He flung himself off a small ledge and hit the ground directly in front of Keith. “Keith!” He flung his arms up in the air and waved them back and forth.
The bike’s headlights flashed over him for just a minute before Keith swerved around him and flashed past. Shiro pivoted on his heel to follow him, saw Keith swing into a circle to turn back.
Pidge came sliding down the side of the hill, kicking loose rocks as she skidded to a stop next to him. “That was your plan?” Pidge said. “Jump up and down while waving your arms? That was your plan?”
“My plan was to get his attention,” Shiro said. “And it worked, didn’t it?”
“Remind me never to take orders from you in real combat.”
The hoverbike swerved to a stop just a few feet away, and Keith was there, alive and staring at Shiro with wide eyes.
“Keith,” Shiro said, and he couldn't control the grin that spread across his face. “I can’t believe it’s-”
“Sniper,” Keith snapped.
“That’s Lance, he’s on our side-”
“They’re going after your sniper!” Keith pointed and Shiro turned to see that the raider that had been chasing Keith had veered off and was heading back in the direction he and Pidge had come from - straight toward Lance and Hunk. For a second Shiro couldn’t understand what was happening and then he cursed. It was dark and the raiders had scopes and field glasses just like he did. If they’d been looking, they could have seen the muzzle flash when Lance fired.
“Get on!” Keith yelled, but Pidge was already climbing aboard. Shiro swung up behind her and Keith was moving before he was even sitting, turning the bike toward the mountains and gunning it so hard the engine whined in protest.
The second raider picked that moment to make a reappearance, pulling out from behind a rock formation and swerving directly in front of them. Pidge yelped and Shiro had to flail for a handhold as Keith cut the bike sharply to the left to avoid a collision.
“If anyone has a gun, this would be an excellent moment to use it!” Keith shouted over his shoulder. “Hold on!”
The raider swerved at them again and Keith hit the brakes, letting the other bike pull ahead. He hit the gas again and aimed straight for the other bike, which was slowly turning around. Shiro swore and grabbed on tight as Keith sped head-on toward a collision. The other bike pulled away at the last minute and Keith circled back around. Shiro aimed for the pilot, but couldn’t get a steady shot as the other bike once again frantically swerved out of Keith’s way.
“The maneuverability on that thing is a joke,” Keith said. “Seriously, look how long it’s taking him to pull around. Whoever bought those deserved to be fired.”
“Focus,” Shiro snapped. The other bike had swung around and was coming at them head on.
Keith laughed and bent low over the handlebars. “So you want to play chicken, huh?” He gunned the engine again and swept the bike to the side just as they would have collided mid-air.
For a second the other bike was so close Shiro could reach out and grab it. Or the pilot.
That’s when Pidge jumped
“Pidge!” Shiro jerked around in his seat just in time to see the gunner on the back of the bike catch a hundred pounds of angry teenage girl in the face. “Keith, go back!”
Pidge grabbed the gun out of the raider’s hands and even as the guy started to recover she swung the stock of the rifle like a baseball bat, smashing it into his helmet so loudly Shiro could hear it crack. She hit him again, ducking when he made a clumsy grab for her, and swung it a third time.
The gunner went limp and Pidge scrambled to grab ahold of the bike as he tumbled off the side.
“Nice!” Keith yelled. “Do it again!”
The pilot was craning his neck to see over his shoulder, and he was reaching for his sidearm. Even as they pulled up alongside him, he aimed the gun behind him and squeezed off a few shots.
Shiro swore. “Pidge, get down!”
She yelped and threw herself back onto their side, grabbing Shiro’s hair in one hand to steady herself. Shiro swore under his breath and grabbed her with one hand, swinging her down until she was seated between him and Keith again. The pilot had adjusted his aim, but they were on his off-side, forcing him to aim across his chest. The bike was wobbling slightly as he tried to steer with one hand and aim without looking where he was going.
“Seriously,” Keith said. “Someone can just shoot him any time now.”
Shiro pushed Pidge forward until she could grab onto Keith’s waist and then he leaned out over the side of the bike.
The raider looked up and saw him and for a second they both froze.
“Jim Peterson?” Shiro said, a little dumbly.
The raider - who Shiro was now absolutely certain was Jim Peterson, the Garrison’s former professor of theoretical mathematics - swung the gun up to aim it directly at Shiro’s face. Shiro reacted without thinking, grabbing the barrel with his right hand - his metal hand - and squeezing.
The barrel bent beneath his fingers, just a little. Just enough that Peterson stared at him in shock for a second. It was all the time Shiro needed to yank on the gun and send Peterson flying out of his seat onto the ground. Driverless, the hoverbike veered sharply off to the side and spun out in every slowing circles until it dropped to the ground.
“What the holy hell is that?” Keith yelled. He was staring at Shiro’s arm and his voice is high-pitched with surprise.
“I got an upgrade while I was gone.” Shiro grinned at him over Pidge’s head. “You always said I needed some snazzy accessories.”
Keith shook his head. “I meant you should pierce a fucking ear or get a tattoo!”
“Guys?” Pidge yelled. “Rescue now, fashion review later. Iverson’s almost to them.”
She was right. While they dealt with Peterson, the first hoverbike had earned a strong lead on them and was speeding toward the rock formation where Lance and Hunk had taken up their position. “Can we catch them?” Shiro asked.
“On that hunk of junk?” Keith said. “Please.”
He laid on the speed again and the distance between them started to close. Keith’s hands were wrapped around the handlebars, knuckles white as he struggled to control the bike’s every twitch and jerk at well over a hundred miles an hour.
“He’s stopping,” Pidge said. She pointed, and up ahead, the other bike seemed to have come to a slow crawl.
The bike was steering between rocks, moving at a leisurely pace. They either hadn’t noticed that Shiro and the the others were coming up on him, or heard them coming and thought they were backup.
Keith throttled back, slowed to match the other bike’s pace. “Is this a trap?”
“What is he doing?” Shiro asked.
“Yelling,” Pidge said. “He does that a lot.” She had worked her pack around so it was in her lap and was digging through it. “Look, if you can get me close enough, I can make sure he doesn’t follow us for a while.”
“What’s your plan?” Keith asked.
Pidge held up a thin metal disk. “It’s a controlled, single-use EMP burst. Super focused, so I have to get it right on him.”
“No more jumping on speeding vehicles,” Shiro said automatically. “Wait, did you say Iverson? That’s Carl Iverson, the senior flight instructor?”
Keith looked at Pidge. “He doesn’t know?”
Pidge shrugged and snapped her pack shut again. “It didn’t come up.”
“The raiders are from the Garrison?” Shiro said. He met Keith’s eyes. “What happened in there?”
“It’s a long story,” Pidge said. “One I’d rather tell when he’s not trying to capture or kill us. Keith, can you get me in close again?”
“I can do that, but he’s going to see us coming.”
“Kill the running lights,” Shiro said. “There’s plenty of moon to see by if we take it slow.”
It was more or less a straight line to Iverson, and Keith brought them in quick but steady on Iverson’s six. He didn’t seem to notice, too busy calling up into the rocks.
“I know you’re scared.” Iverson’s voice echoed a little in the pre-dawn stillness. Shiro winced slightly, thinking that every dead thing for miles was heading their way. “Anyone would be, but think of the lives you’ll be saving. Think of the good you could accomplish. Just turn yourself in.”
Keith snorted. “That’s not going to work on your friend is it?”
“Normally, yes, that is exactly the sort of thing that would work.” Pidge hit a button on the EMP disk and it lit up briefly, a flash of electric green that went dark again almost instantly. “Fortunately for us, while Lance has a bit of a martyr streak, even he knows Iverson’s nothing but a homicidal nutjob.”
Shiro looked through the field glasses. “Is that Mateo Lopez piloting the bike? Why the hell is the Garrison’s international law professor chasing down kids in the desert in the middle of the night? Someone’s going to tell me what the hell is going on here, right?”
Keith shrugged. “Don’t look at me, man, I only found out about these assholes after it all went down.”
“All right.” Pidge held the disk in one hand. “We’re going to have to move fast. Their guns are still gonna work. As soon as I slap this on the bike, haul ass.”
“Let me do it.” Shiro held out a hand for the disk. “My arms are longer.”
“Yeah, and mechanical. If something goes wrong and this thing goes off prematurely do you want to take the chance of losing an arm?” Pidge shook her head. “This will be easy. Once I get it in place, it takes a minute to charge and then I hit the remote and bam. Fried.”
“Get ready,” Keith said. “I’m going in.”
The bike shot forward, dust billowing out around them. Pidge yelped and almost fell backwards and Shiro braced her with a hand between her shoulder blades. She crouched down, one hand clinging to the the bike in a white-knuckled grip and the other stretched out toward Iverson’s bike.
The men on the other bike were yelling something, and Iverson swung around, bringing his rifle up to shoot.
“They’ve spotted us!” Keith yelled. “Hold on!” He spun the bike sideways in a spin that almost had Shiro sliding off the edge, then pulled it back around so they were coming from the other side. “Short stuff, this is your shot!”
They swung past the Garrison bike so close that Shiro could see Lopez and Iverson clearly. Shiro aimed and fired of a few quick shots, forcing them to duck instead of taking aim at Pidge. The swept past the bike, and at the last second Pidge lunged and slammed the disk against the back end of the bike.
Shiro grabbed her arm before she could overbalance and fall, hauling her back into her seat. “Now what?”
Pidge pushed her hair out of her face. “It needs to charge!”
“Takashi!” Iverson was standing on the bike, his gun held in both hands, but aimed at the sky. “Takashi, is that you?”
“Careful,” Keith said.
“What are you doing?” Shiro yelled. “Put the gun down, and let them go!”
“I’m not going to let you do this!” Iverson swung the gun down to level it at them. “The cure is mine, I will take it back.”
“Okay, what?” Keith hunched low over the handlebars, trying to make a small target. “Shiro? What the hell is he talking about?”
“I have no idea.”
“Like I said,” Pidge said. “He yells a lot. I stopped listening a long time ago.”
“Let the kids go,” Shiro called. “Whatever happened out here, we can work it out later. For now there’s no need to make this worse.”
Iverson’s only response was to open fire.
Pidge yelped and Shiro wrapped himself around her even as Keith slammed the bike into reverse and spun around to head back the way they’d come.
There were a few more shots, then silence.
“He’s not coming after us,” Keith said.
Iverson and Lopez were already circling back to their former location, steering through the rock formations. Iverson had a spotlight he was playing over the rocks.
“They’re looking for Hunk and Lance,” Pidge said. Her voice was tight with worry and more than a little anger.
Shiro grit his teeth as he scanned the desert. “Do you know where they would have gone?”
Pidge hesitated a moment, then nodded slowly. “Yes. I think so. There’s a place near here that Lance uses when he wants to get in some target practice on the zoms.”
“Keith, can you get to them and get out of here before Iverson catches us?”
“I’ve mentioned that his bike is shit, right?” Keith gave him a cocky grin. “Yeah, I think so. I know this area, there’s a few places I can lose him even if Pidge’s EMP trick doesn’t work.”
“All right, let’s do it. Pidge, show Keith the way.”
She stood and braced herself on Keith’s shoulder shouting directions into his ear. Keith nodded, then slammed the accelerator, tearing off across the rock. He hit the incline faster than safety regulations would advise, sending them into a steep climb that had Pidge flailing for purchase and Shiro nearly siding off the back of the bike.
“If we live through this I’m confiscating your license!” he yelled as he caught Pidge just as she would have flown by him.
“I’m legal now, you can’t!” Keith’s laughter was a little wild but possibly the best sound Shiro had heard in more than a year. “I see them!”
They came up over the ridge and leveled out abruptly, skidding to a stop just a few feet away from Lance and Hunk. Hunk checked his bat mid swing and Lance rose from his position to stand with one hand on his hip. “Nice driving, mullet-head. Remind me to call you the next time I feel like dying in a fiery inferno.”
“Do I know you?” Keith asked.
“Oh geez,” Hunk said while Lance sputtered.
“Get on,” Shiro yelled. He reached down and offered Hunk his hand, pulling the big guy up onto the rear of the bike while Pidge wrapped her arms around Keith’s waist to make room for Lance between her and Shiro. He could hear the growl of another engine, nearby but straining to handle the steep incline of the rock face. “He’s here!”
“We’re gone!” Keith swung the bike around and hit the accelerator, heading back down the same way they’d come up.
Pidge swore, loudly and buried her face against Keith’s back. Shiro grabbed onto the bike with his metal hand and onto Lance with the other. “Hunk, brace yourself!”
“Oh, no,” Lance said just as they hit the edge and started to drop. “No, no, no, nononono!”
Keith whooped, the sound almost lost in the rush of the air around them as they careened down the side of the rock face, barely stable and gaining speed by the second. Shiro tightened his hold and closed his eyes, braced for impact as the ground rushed up to meet them.
The bike swerved, hit ground level at an angle, the jets screaming with the effort of keeping them in the air. The bike surged upward a few inches, and then they were horizontal again, tearing across the desert even as Iverson’s bike started down the incline after them.
“You are insane!” Lance yelled.
“Bunch of babies,” Keith tossed back. “Short stuff, how long till your toy kicks in?”
“Ninety-five percent charge!” Pidge hollered. “We just need to keep ahead of him for another minute.”
“Fortunately,” Keith said. “I know exactly how to lose this guy.”
“Oh no,” Lance said again.
Up ahead, barely visible in the dim pre-dawn light, was a massive rock formation. Keith appeared to be heading directly at the center of it.
“What are you doing?” Lance demanded.
“Losing him!” Keith hunched down over the handlebars. “Big guy, Shiro, you might want to duck.”
“What?” Shiro peered ahead and saw what Keith was aiming for - a narrow, nearly circular pass through the rocks. It barely looked big enough for a man, let alone a bike piled with people. “Um. Keith?”
“Heads down!” Keith hollered and Shiro pressed himself over Lance’s back, pushing him down and flinging his arm over Pidge’s head. The bike blew through the pass without slowing down. One of the side panels hit the rock wall with a jolt and painful screech of metal on rock.
“Holy crow,” Lance said fervently. Shiro agreed whole-heartedly.
“Charged!” Pidge yelled.
“Hit it,” Shiro ordered. “Keith-”
The bike cleared the far end of the pass and Keith made a hard right. “Told you,” he said. “Even if they do make it through that, they can’t have seen which way we went. We should be clear now.”
“Pidge can you get us back to the cave from here?”
Pidge nodded. “Yes, but not if you’re crushing me, Shiro. Also I don’t think Lance is breathing anymore.”
Shiro jerked upright. “Sorry, sorry. Lance, buddy, you alive?”
“It’s fine,” Lance wheezed. “I didn’t need my lungs.” He took a deep breath and turned a little in his seat to give Shiro a wide grin. “Beats getting my head caved in by a low hanging rock, so thanks. You good back there, Hunk?”
Hunk moaned and didn’t move from where he was lying face down on the tail of the bike. “Tell me when it’s safe to let go.”
There was no sign of Iverson or any of the others, no sound of engines or lights in the distance, so Pidge’s EMP trick had probably worked. They were still careful, and Pidge showed them where they could stash the bike about a half mile from the cave. Keith had, thankfully, thought to steal the camouflage tarp when he’d made off with Shiro’s bike, so they hid the bike and spread the tarp over it until it blended into the desert almost seamlessly.
“Jesus,” Keith said heavily and a second later Shiro was pulled into a rough, quick hug. “Where did you come from?”
“Well,” Shiro said. “When a mommy and a daddy-”
Keith shoved him away. “I cannot believe I missed you.”
“I hate to break up the reunion, but what’s the plan?” Lance asked.
Shiro had thought about it, and while it wasn’t ideal, it was probably their best bet. “We go back to base, pack up as much as we can reasonably carry, and we take the bike out of the desert first thing tonight. We can set up camp at the airfield and wait for extraction there.”
Lance, Pidge and Hunk exchanged a glance that seemed to contain approximately eighteen thousand unspoken words, some of them heated. “Yeah, sounds good,” Lance said. “Iverson’s going to have back up out here looking for us though.”
“How many of them are there?” Shiro waved Lance ahead of him and took up the read with Hunk as the made their way back toward the cave. The cave of lions, he was calling it in his head, and he made a mental note not to ever let Keith hear him say that out loud.
Pidge undid her ponytail and finger combed the strands back into some form of submission. “There used to be a couple dozen, but they had an unfortunate incident a few months ago that reduced their numbers significantly. If we count the guys Lance took out, they’re probably down to about half that, tops.”
“Hi,” Keith said. “My name is unfortunate incident.” He held out his hand and Pidge grinned as she clasped it.
“I’m Pidge,” she said. “And nice try, but everyone’s been screaming the name Keith for the last few hours, so I feel like we’ve already met.”
“What unfortunate incident is this?” Shiro asked. “And why do I suspect I don’t want to know?”
Keith shrugged. “I wasn’t in the Garrison when everything went to hell, but a few months ago I noticed that something was up. They had a mass grave out by the soccer field that was filling up a lot faster than just normal die-off would account for. And also one day I was out hunting and saw a bunch of them roping up fresh zombies like cattle and herding them back toward the school.”
“What the hell did they want zombies for?” Shiro asked.
“It’s a long story,” Lance said. “And one you might want to sit down for. Anyway, Keith here comes blasting in, takes out every generator the Garrison has, blows out a wall and in the course of all that, also accidentally manages to get us set loose.”
“No power, no door locks,” Hunk said. “We walked right out of our cell and hit the ground running. Only saw Keith for a second, never got the chance to thank you. We’d probably still be down there.”
“Or not, cause we’d be dead,” Lance said dryly.
“Once I realized all the bodies belonged to students, I figured it was worth looking into. Destroying the generators was supposed to let me sneak in without being seen.” Keith shrugged. “When I realized they were actually holding people prisoner, that’s when I blew out the wall. But Iverson and his dogs came after me and I didn’t get the chance to see what happened to the people he’d had locked up.” He cast a sideways glance at Lance, then Pidge. “I thought there were more of you.”
“Two of us didn’t make it,” Lance said, and left it at that.
Keith didn’t push. “Anyway, by the time I lost them, there was no sign of you guys, so I kept my head down and kept an eye on the Garrison. They were combing the desert for you guys for weeks. They still send patrols out on the regular.”
“How did you know where my bike was?” Shiro asked. He tabled the conversation for the moment, determined to follow up on it once they were back at base.
“I saw you,” Keith said. “Out in the desert, last night.”
Shiro remembered the feeling of eyes on him, of brushing it off as a zombie. “That was you?”
“I heard you,” Keith said. “Yelling. I thought I recognized your voice. Thought I was hallucinating, making things up.” He grinned sheepishly. “And then I saw you, but you were too far away to hear me if I yelled and too far ahead for me to catch you before you got to the Garrison. So I followed, and I saw them chasing you guys, so I stole your bike as a diversion.”
“Good call.” Shiro grinned at him and Keith flushed. “You might have saved our lives by buying us some time.”
If anything Keith just flushed a deeper red and ducked his head.
They made their way back to the cave just as the horizon was turning pink and purple. “Pack it up,” Shiro said. “Water, food. If we miss the extraction we’ll need at least a few days worth. Anything you can’t bear to leave behind you. Keith - your things -”
Keith shrugged. “I had some food and water, some gear. Nothing exciting. No personal stuff aside from what I already have on me. There’s nothing back at my cabin I can’t live without.”
They packed in silence, Hunk and Lance shoving ration bars and MREs into packs while Pidge consolidated their medical supplies. Keith offered his own pack, only about half full, and Lance wordlessly filled it with more ration bars.
“We need to fill the canteens,” Lance said finally, and Shiro nodded.
“Everyone stays together,” he said. “Drink your fill, clean up a little. We have some time until we need to move.”
Shiro’s water bladders were still mostly full, but Keith’s canteens were nearly empty, and the others had extras that they carefully filled and hooked onto their packs. Hunk filled one and poured it out directly over his head before flopping down on the floor with an exhausted sigh.
“Now what?” Pidge demanded. She sounded tired and angry in equal measure, her hair was a windswept mess and she was covered in red dirt from the knees down. Shiro paused for a moment to examine her hands, but aside from some scrapes, she looked unharmed.
Lance was on his knees next to the water, refilling the last couple canteens with almost mechanical movements, exhaustion making him slow. “Shiro, please tell me you have a plan besides 'wait and see what happens next' because I've got nothing.” He screwed the canteen shut and held his hand out for Pidge's.
“I'm working on it,” Shiro said grimly. “For now, this is as secure a place to wait as there is. We can stay here – there's food and plenty of water. And if they do find us, we have a backdoor to retreat out of. Pidge, Hunk, please tell me you were serious when you said you could fix my comm.”
“Those two can fix just about anything,” Lance said. He tossed Pidge her canteen and leaned over the water to scoop a double-handful of cold water over his head. “I'm holding out for a time machine, personally.”
“Yeah, about the comm link,” Hunk said tentatively.
“It's fine if you can't. The hoverbike will carry all five of us, we'll just have to be careful about supplies.” Shiro flexed the fingers of his bad hand, ignoring the phantom ache in his palm and the very real ache in his shoulder and back. “The good news is that there aren't that many of them and only a couple of them have functioning transportation now. They can't sustain a search for very long. If we can just stay low for a day or so, we should be able to get out without their knowledge.” He met each of their gazes for a second, trying to convey confidence and calm. “We'll set a watch, keep our heads to the ground and get some rest until it's time to move.”
He held Keith's gaze for a long minute, still amazed that he could, after all these months. “Keith, are you okay with taking first watch?”
Keith nodded. “Yeah. I slept pretty much all day before I hit the Garrison, so I'm all right for now. If we can manage it, I have some gear back at my shack, nothing long-range, but maybe you can scavenge it for parts to repair the link?”
“Okay, about that-” Hunk said.
“We'll worry about it later. I want everyone to rest while we can.” He pinned Keith with a knowing glare. “That means you, too, so I expect you to wake me up in two hours and not pull a solo on watch. Understood?”
Keith rolled his eyes so hard it was as if he was actually, physically pained by Shiro's mother-henning. He opened his mouth to say something, probably sarcastic and Shiro couldn't swallow the grin that spread across his face, he'd missed this, missed Keith's attitude and sarcasm. If someone had told him a year and a half ago that he'd miss Keith's mouthing off every five minutes he'd have laughed in their face but now he almost couldn't wait.
And then Keith's expression morphed into horror.
He heard Lance's startled shout at the same time as Pidge's frantic yell. He spun around in time to see Lance get yanked off his knees to sprawl on the cave floor, his head hanging out over the pool. His arm had disappeared into the water and in the second it took Shiro to realize what was happening a half dozen decaying hands reached out of the water to grab at his head and shoulders.
“Lance!” Hunk shouted. “No!”
Lance's free hand scrabbled for purchase at the edge of the rock. He managed to pull himself back an inch or two, but the one of the hands, more bone than flesh, dug into the front of his t-shirt and dragged him forward again.
Shiro grabbed Pidge around the waist as she tried to run to Lance and practically tossed her behind him toward Keith and Hunk. He lunged toward the water, knees hitting the stone hard enough to jar his teeth just in time for his hand to close around empty air as the creatures dragged Lance over the edge.
“Lance!” They were all yelling now, Hunk's voice a lion's roar over Pidge's shouts and Keith's vehement swearing.
Shiro sprawled along the rock and reached into the water with his metal arm as deep as he could without overbalancing himself. He swept it side to side, touching only cold water and hard rock. “Lance,” he said under his breath. “Come on, buddy. Give me a sign here.”
A hand scrabbled at his arm before finally clamping solid around his wrist. Shiro gasped with relief, turning his hand so he could grip back and pull. His back and shoulders screamed at him but he managed to drag the body out of the water.
It wasn't Lance. The hand grabbing him was bloated from being in the water and already turning black with rot. The face wasn't better, eyes gone, teeth bare and biting at the air almost frantically. Shiro stared at it in dismay for a half a second and that was all it took for the thing to reach forward and wrap its teeth around his thumb. Shiro barely felt it, the sensors in the metal arm being somewhat less sensitive than human flesh, but it was enough to shock him back to action. He grabbed the creature's jaw with his metal hand and twisted, forcing it around in a way the human neck wasn't meant to bend. It snapped with a horrible sound that Shiro found briefly satisfying, and then went limp. He tossed it to the side and reached into the water again, counting seconds in his head and hoping Lance had managed to get a breath before they dragged him under.
Hunk made a low sound of dismay from somewhere behind him. “Guys-”
Water splashed and Shiro looked up to see more hands breaking the surface of the water. Some of them were nothing but bone and connective tissue, some of them were still thick with skin, waterlogged and bulging. First a few, then more, until dozens were clawing at the rock along the edge of the pool.
“How deep is that?” Keith demanded.
“Around the edge? Five, maybe six feet? Maybe less in some places, I don’t know.” Pidge had her weapon out but had it pointed at the ground. “It's deeper in the center – at least twenty feet, from what we could tell. But the current is too strong out there, it'll pull you into the stream and drag you under the rock.”
“Stay back from the edge,” Shiro ordered as Hunk took a couple of determined steps toward him. He was leaning in as far as he dared, his face so close to the water he had to turn to the side to be able to breathe. He could hear them now, the low groan of their hunger carrying through the water like vibrations. There had to be dozens of them in there.
“It's too deep for the Zs,” Keith said, but he curled one hand in the front of Hunk's shirt and pulled the big guy back a few feet anyway.
“Yeah, until there gets to be enough of them in one place and they crawl up over each other,” Pidge said. “The water will make it easier – dead things float.”
Shiro's hand closed on empty water for the dozenth time and he bit back a curse. He sat back on his heels and for a moment he stared out at the water, fury, grief and guilt making his throat tight and his chest ache. His head felt hot, like it could burst and he wanted, desperately, to hit something. “Okay,” he said and his voice felt like sand in his throat as he pushed himself to his feet. “Okay, we need to go. Now.”
“No!” Hunk said, his voice cracking harshly on the vowel. “Shiro, we can't!”
“We have to,” Shiro said. He gripped Hunk by the shoulders and met his gaze. “We have to go. We can’t help him, Hunk and if we stay they’ll only get more of us. Tell me that’s what Lance would want.”
Pidge had curled her hands into fists at her sides. Her face crumpled a little but she drew in a harsh breath and forced it to calmness. “Hunk, we should go to the far entrance. The tunnel's narrow – if they follow us we can just pick them off one at a time.”
“Do it,” Shiro said. “Pidge, lead the way. Go.” He grabbed Lance's rifle and tossed it to Keith, who was pulling Hunk along with one hand, and stopped to scoop up the canteen Lance had filled. He backed away from the water slowly, keeping an eye on the hands to make sure none of them were gaining ground. He heard Keith yell for him as they made it to the tunnel.
He was about to call back when there was a heavy splash and Lance broke through the surface of the water several feet away from the edge.
He burst out almost to his waist, back arched almost in half before falling back into the water. Shiro heard his desperate gasp for air followed by several frantic breaths. For a second that seemed to stretch on forever, Shiro could see him in perfect stillness - red marks on his face and throat, blood already beading up on the skin. His eyes were closed, mouth open as he gasped for breath.
Shiro started to turn, started to go back. He wasn’t sure what he intended to do but if Lance was still alive he had to do something.
And then he was gone again, pulled back under as abruptly as he'd surfaced, the water rippling along the surface. Even that faded until there was nothing left to mark that Lance had ever been there.
“Shiro!” Keith’s voice was closer this time which meant he was coming back. Shiro sucked in a breath that was almost a sob, one frantic, broken second of grief that was all he could afford to let himself feel.
And then he pushed it down, packed it in with all the rest. One more person he couldn’t save, one more friend he’d failed.
“I’m coming!” He pushed the words out past the weight on his chest. “I’m coming.”
Keith was waiting for him at the top of the rear tunnel and as Shiro got closer he could see Pidge and Hunk as well, waiting for him . “Go,” he said shortly, and for just a second he saw Pidge grimace and Hunk’s mouth twist and even Keith’s shoulders drop.
They’d been hoping he’d somehow have Lance with him. He knew it the way he always knew which direction was north, the way he knew when Keith was hiding something or how he could feel rain in the way his prosthetic ached. Something in them had been hoping for a miracle even as they’d all known better.
Shiro had thought finding them was a miracle. He was pretty sure it was the last one the universe intended to hand him.
He herded them into the tunnel ahead of them - Pidge and Keith first since they’d have better movement, then Hunk and finally Shiro who would have to squeeze through.
Shiro made sure to keep his prosthetic on the side they had come in, weapon held tight in his fist. If they were followed at least he’d have a chance to pick some of them off. Tight spaces wouldn’t inconvenience the dead nearly as much.
He heard Hunk stumble out of the passage ahead of him with a big gasp of air and then Shiro could see the yellow glow of dawn filtering in.
The passage widened as it met the next cave and Shiro felt the thin edge of claustrophobia fall off his shoulders as he looked around. He was going to remember this place in his dreams, he could already tell. A long dark tunnel, so tight he couldn’t move, the dead coming at any moment. Pure nightmare fuel. He’d have to keep an eye on the kids, too, for at least a few days.
Lance arched back in the water, blood turning pink where it mixed with the water on his skin, pulled under without a sound, without a trace-
Maybe he’d just never sleep again.
“What do we do?” There was an edge to Hunk’s voice now. It might have been panic but Shiro met the boy’s gaze and thought it was more likely to be anger. Bone deep and roiling beneath the surface with no decent outlet. What could you really do when you were angry with the universe?
“The plan hasn’t changed,” Shiro said. “We can wait here to make sure the coast is clear.”
“There’s one big problem with that plan,” Pidge said. She pointed at the water.
The cave they were in was smaller than the one the kids had been using, but the entrance was wider, maybe twenty feet long and half as tall. Sunlight reached all the way to the back where they stood, still pink-edged and honey-colored with dawn, but already more than enough to see by. The cave itself was wide and low, with the ceiling only a few feet over their heads. And to the right, close to the entrance, was the pool Lance had told him about last night, wider than the one above, fed by a waterfall that poured out of the cave ceiling. The rush of the waterfall filled the space like white noise, made them all have to raise their voices a little to be heard.
“It’s still pretty deep down here,” Pidge said, “and it’s not the last stop, we’re pretty sure it empties out into the river down at the base of the valley.” She pulled the ponytail holder out of her hair and Shiro noticed for the first time that it was green, faded by the sun and sweat but still bright green. “The problem is that this pool is a lot shallower around the edges. There’s a drop off at some point - Lance stepped off it once when we first got here and went from waist deep to way over his head. If any of those fuckers are in there, all they have to do is wait till the current brings them close to the shallow part and then they can walk or crawl their way out.”
That was just what they needed. “All right, we’ll keep a watch. But I think we’re safe right now and in a few hours the Garrison will have moved on to a different part of the desert or lost interest and we can hopefully get out of here tonight.”
“I don’t know, man.” Hunk dropped his pack and sat down heavily. “It’s been six months since we got out and Iverson hasn’t gotten tired of looking for us yet.”
“What was his deal, anyway?” Keith still had Lance’s rifle and was scanning the cave with it as he moved around. He didn’t hold it as easily as Lance had, but Shiro had taught him how to shoot - he’d do all right. “What the hell was he screaming at you about, anyway? A cure? Are they working on a cure out there? Why would he think you had it with you?”
“There’s no fucking cure.” Pidge spat the words out like they personally offended her. She pulled her hair back with a fierce yank, fingers combing the strands into place as she redid her ponytail again. “The zoms are dead and you can’t cure fucking death. And if you could you shouldn’t be allowed to. Those things are dead and rotting and nothing but bones and connective tissue. Who the hell would want to cure that?” She dropped her arms and Shiro could see that her hands were shaking. “None of those people wanted to end up like that and none of them would ever want to come back like that. Anyone who tries to make a cure is a monster worse than anything that’s shambling around out there.”
“Is that what he was doing?” Shiro asked gently. “Trying to make a cure?”
Hunk’s face crumpled and he looked away from them. Pidge took several deep breaths, gasping for air like she’d just run a marathon.
“That’s what he needed us for,” she said. “There were more than a hundred of us left, you know. A lot of people left when the outbreak started. Their parents told them to come home, or a lot of the kids in neighboring countries left on their own to find their families. But there were still more than a hundred of us at the school when Iverson seized control.”
“There was a lot of fighting,” Hunk said. He still wasn’t looking at any of them. While Pidge was almost vibrating in fury he just looked tired and sad. “The faculty was working together at first. That’s when they moved us all underground. It was a tight fit, but they figured they could seal it off. There was enough food and water stored down there to keep everyone going for months and - they kept saying it’s a school, they’ll have to send someone eventually. Which, as we all know, they did not.”
“So they crammed us all in down there and - I don’t know who had the idea first. We weren’t there for whatever started it. But all of a sudden the teachers were fighting - actual fighting, like-” Pidge shrugged. “Professor Nazari came bursting in one day a couple weeks later and told us all we were going back to the dorms. A bunch of the kids tried to argue with him about it.”
“People were scared,” Hunk said. “We didn’t know. We’d all seen the news reports and even back then there had been sightings. Everyone was scared, and they’d spent weeks convincing us we were safe down there while feeding us stories about the world burning down around us.”
“Still don’t know how much of that is true,” Pidge said. “He was feeding his people stories about how we were one of the last strongholds of humanity left toward the end there.”
“You’d think that would have stopped him from killing us all,” Hunk said darkly.
“Anyway, Nazari was still trying to convince us to listen to him when the shooting started. I think he knew his side wasn’t going to win. Iverson was good at convincing people to listen to him.” Pidge lowered herself to the ground, shoulders tense and hands clasped tightly in her lap. “Iverson’s goons burst in and just - no one asked him to surrender or anything, they just shot him right there.”
“And Iverson’s guys rounded us up like cattle and locked us in and that was the end of that.” Hunk sighed. “We watched them drag the bodies of the people who’d tried to protect us out into the desert.”
“And then Iverson started his experiments,” Pidge said.
Keith caught Shiro’s gaze over her head. “Experiments?” he asked slowly.
“Yeah. They were ah, they were trying to figure out a way to stop someone from turning once they’d been bit. So they needed test subjects.”
Shiro shook his head, but bit back the denial that instinctively rose to his lips. Those men had been his coworkers, his friends, his own teachers not that long ago. They couldn’t have. He’d known them.
“So they kept a few zoms shackled up in a cage and every so often they’d come get one of the kids and deliberately infect them. Then they’d pump them full of whatever drug or -” Pidge waved a hand through the air “-or whatever, that’s not my area but. Yeah. Or they’d cut off their arms right after infection to see if they could stop the spread of the disease. Then they’d strap their guinea pig to a table and wait to see what happened. Unsurprisingly, what mostly happened was that they died and turned into zombies.”
“They were feeding kids to the horde?” Keith stared at Pidge. “They - how did they - how did he convince anyone to help him?”
“Fear,” Shiro said. “Panic. It’s a small price to pay, sacrifice a few to save the world and hey, if it works we can save your kids and your family. He preyed on their fears and their weaknesses. And once one or two give in, it’s easier for the rest to justify it.”
“The apocalypse changes people,” Pidge said and Shiro remembered hearing her say that back at the Garrison, the contempt in her voice as she spoke of the two men who’d tried to abduct her. They’d been her teachers once. No wonder she’d refused to trust him.
“A lot of the doctors said Iverson was forcing them, that he’d kill them if they didn’t run his experiments.” Hunk shrugged and finally looked up again. “I feel bad for them, but I still hate them.”
“I can’t believe I didn’t realize what was happening.” Keith crossed his arms crossed over his chest. He still had his knife gripped in one hand and his fingers were white around the grip. “I was only a few miles away the whole time. I should have.”
There was a tense moment of silence where the kids mostly didn’t look at each other and Shiro struggled to find something to say that would absolve Keith’s guilt without making light of what the others had endured. Finally Hunk shrugged, his movements deliberate and exaggerated in his effort to appear unconcerned. “Whatever, man, unless you have x-ray vision you never told anyone about, you couldn’t have known what was going on in the basement. Iverson and his buddies weren’t idiots. They were a lot of other things, but they weren’t idiots.”
Something stirred in the back of Shiro’s mind. “Wait, is that how Lance got all those scars on his back?”
Pidge blinked at him, then glanced at Hunk, who stared solidly at the ground. “No,” she said finally. “They didn’t throw us in there with the zoms, they couldn’t risk their test subjects bleeding out or getting torn to shreds. When they wanted to infect someone they just shoved one of our arms through the bars of the cage and used cattle prods and bats to keep all but one of the zoms away.”
“What scars?” Keith asked. He had taken up a position between the pool and the passage and was watching both with a wary eye.
“Lance had old bite marks on his back. I assumed - “ Shiro still isn’t sure what he’d thought, only that it had been wrong and terrible and possibly still not as terrible as what had actually been happening.
“There was a girl,” Hunk said.
“Okay, if this is some kinky factoid about McClain’s love life,” Keith started to say.
“Her name was Nadira,” Pidge said coldly. “She was in my class. She went… a little crazy.”
“There were only nine or ten of us left,” Hunk said. “And we were all penned in together by then. Us, the zoms, the scientists - it was all one big underground storage space that they’d converted into half laboratory and half prison. So we could see it when they turned people. Watch them get infected and everything after. We could hear them, crying or begging or just- anyway, Nadira was a good kid who just snapped one day.”
Pidge nodded. “The girl they’d been testing their cure on was going to turn any minute. We all knew it. And that meant they’d come for one of us soon.”
“Nadira just started moaning and - look, we were all pretty much basket cases by then, so we just kind of ignored her. Figured she was having a little break down.” Hunk looked shamed by the admission. “We left her alone.”
“Until that night when she crawled out of her blanket, climbed on top of Lance and started biting him,” Pidge said.
“Everyone flipped out. There was all this screaming and the docs were panicking and then Iverson and his guys came running in.” Hunk shrugged. “A bunch of us tried to hold her down and it got - some of the docs were yelling that it had switched to air transmission and we were all going to die, and some of the soldiers wanted to kill all of us. Half the kids were trying to get away, half of them were trying to hold her down, she was biting everyone who got close enough, it was nuts.”
Pidge nodded. “Someone clonked her on the head with an empty bedpan and she went down cold. Still breathing though, so that’s how they figured she wasn’t a zombie. Two of the guards dragged her out. Never saw her again after that.”
“They executed her,” Keith said.
“Probably. They kept a close eye on all of us for a few days, even the scientists, and waited to see if we’d turn, but no one did. She wasn’t infected, she was just… crazy maybe. Or smart enough to know that they’d kill her fast if they thought she was infected.”
“I’d take a bullet to the head over what they were offering,” Keith said fervently.
“You’re not the only one,” Pidge said.
“But why would he think Shiro had the cure?”
“He might have thought I was there to steal his research?” Shiro couldn’t fathom what had been going on in Iverson’s mind, but that seemed like something a paranoid murderer would imagine. “Or he might think you guys stole something when you escaped?”
“Does it really matter anymore?” Pidge asked. “We’re almost out of here. Iverson can go pound rocks in the desert looking for his cure.”
“It would be nice though,” Keith said. He sounded wistful. “Not - not what happened!” He added hastily as everyone turned to look at him. “Just - a cure. So many people are just gone. If we could have cured even some of them…”
“You can’t cure death,” Pidge said again. She wasn’t looking at any of them, and her voice was so low Shiro thought she might have been talking to herself.
“We should try to rest,” Shiro said. “Keith and I can take first watch.” He saw Hunk and Pidge both look toward the water and shook his head before they could say anything. “If anything happens we’ll have time to make a run for it. Even if there are zombies in the water, it’ll take time for them to get out. Right now we’re safer with them than we would be if we ran into Iverson’s people. Try to get some rest. Tonight’s going to be hard work.”
Getting out of the desert on the hoverbike wouldn’t be impossible. It wasn’t meant to carry five people - four now, Shiro reminded himself with a sharp intake of breath - but it could handle the load, even if it meant dumping some supplies. Gas might be an issue, but the bike’s solar cells should stay charged. They wouldn’t be able to go very fast on half-power, but they could move and that’s all they’d really need. If they could make it to the airstrip, they might get lucky and meet Chavez. And if not, there were supplies there and they’d probably be able to scrap some old equipment to repair his link. Even if they missed Chavez, she might be able to come back, or send something to meet them.
He had to hope Iverson’s people didn’t know about the airfield. It was a solid half-day’s drive on a fully charged and fueled bike. With any luck the troops from the Garrison hadn’t bothered venturing out that far.
Worst case scenario, there was a quarantine zone in Jerusalem, and one in the opposite direction, outside Cairo. Going north would be risky - as far as he knew Russia still had a death penalty for anyone trying to cross the borders, and their borders extended further south and west every time he saw a map, but Germany was supposed to have several large safe areas. And Britain had allegedly done well for itself, comparatively, but if they were going that far he should just take them to Norway where EarthGov was making a stand. They were young, relatively healthy and could work - the kids had some Garrison training and Shiro had combat experience. Someone would give them work and a place to sleep.
It would work out. They would survive. As long as they could get to the bike without being caught by Iverson’s men.
“Get some rest,” he said again. He nodded toward the passage and Keith gave him a thumbs up as he took his place for the watch. Shiro would watch the pool and the entrance from where he sat. Whatever ended up coming for them, they’d see it coming.
Pidge and Hunk settled down against the wall farthest from the water, heads together over something for a long couple of minutes. Shiro’s link, he was pretty sure. Pidge had said it was fixable and he was going to hold onto that until they were proven wrong.
After a minute or two they curled up, using their packs for pillows. There was silence for a few minutes, broken by the ragged, muffled sound of Hunk crying.
Shiro glanced over his shoulder, not sure if there was anything he could or should do. Hunk had his face buried in his arms and Pidge was laying against his side, her head on his shoulder. She had an arm hooked around his neck, hand clenched in the back of his shirt like she was afraid someone would try to take him away at any minute. Shiro caught her eye and she gave him a glare that clearly told him to stay away.
He nodded and turned his back to give them a little privacy. Keith was watching them, brows furrowed and a look on his face that he got sometimes when he wasn’t sure what to say. He hadn’t known them, at least not well, from what Shiro could put together, so he doubted Pidge would want his company any more than she’d wanted Shiro’s at the moment. He shook his head a little and Keith relaxed. He shot a regretful look in their direction, then focused on the passageway, turning his back to them a little more than he had to.
Eventually Hunk’s sobs and Pidge’s whispers faded into silence, broken by the occasional rough snore. When they got back to base, Shiro was taking Hunk to the medic. Or buying the rest of them earplugs.
“What happened to you?” Keith asked. His voice was low and barely covered the distance between them.
“We lost control on re-entry.” Shiro remembered fire and the sound of a man yelling. He remembered fighting with the controls and yelling into a radio but the specifics were gone. He didn’t remember the faces of the men in the shuttle with him, he didn’t remember their names, except for what he’d read in the mission reports after he was debriefed months later. “The shuttle landed in the water but it had already started breaking up. I don’t remember anything until I woke up at Joseph’s AFB almost nine months ago.”
“You’ve been dead for a year and a half.” Keith’s voice cracked on the last word and he wouldn’t meet Shiro’s eyes. “They told me you were dead. There was footage of the wreck and body bags. No one would tell me anything. They said it was pilot error, that you’d gotten everyone killed. And then nothing, they wouldn’t even let me have your body so I could hold tsuya or put you in the family grave with Mom and Dad.”
“I didn’t know that.” Shiro crossed the distance between them and grabbed Keith’s shoulder with his good hand. “Keith, I didn’t know that. I have no idea what went wrong - wires must have gotten crossed somewhere or…” He shook his head. “I wasn’t in any shape to do anything for months after I woke up and by then the outbreak had spread all over the world.” He squeezed Keith’s shoulder. “I thought you were dead. I never thought - they said the Garrison had stopped communicating months ago.”
Keith shook his head. “If you thought we were all dead why did you come all the way here?”
“Because if there was any possibility you were still alive I had to come.” Shiro tugged and Keith didn’t offer any resistance as Shiro pulled him into a hug. “If there was any chance at all you needed me, I had to come.”
Keith took a sharp breath and didn’t say anything for a long moment. “I wish I’d known you were out there. I would have come too, you know. If I’d known you needed me.”
Shiro cupped the back of his head with the palm of his good hand. “I know that. I would never doubt that.”
Keith sighed, shaky and a little hitched, but didn’t speak. He didn’t pull away, either, and Shiro closed his eyes and tried not to imagine what the last year or so had been like, how Keith had kept himself sane alone in the desert with no human company and no hope of rescue.
Eventually Keith slapped him on the back and pulled away, and if his eyes were a little damp, Shiro figured it was too early to start in on the brotherly teasing. “How did you end up in the middle of the desert, anyway? Were you one of the ones who left the Garrison when the outbreak started?”
Keith grimaced. “I actually left before that. It turns out that the Garrison isn’t crazy about students accusing high-level government officials of cover-ups and frame-jobs.”
Shiro stared at him for a long second. “You didn’t.”
His brother gave him a mulish look that Shiro mostly recognized form arguments about curfew and whose turn it was to take out the trash. “They wouldn’t tell me anything. They were blaming you for the crash. No one would talk to me. I had to get their attention somehow.”
“So they expelled you.” Shiro sighed, a heavy breath that felt like an actual weight. God, he’d have thought his friends at the Garrison would have looked out for the kid. “Even though you were underage and homeless.”
Keith laughed. “God no. With you dead the Garrison was my legal guardian. They couldn’t expel me. They waited until my birthday.” He shrugged. “The day I turned eighteen I was out of the door. I mean, I can’t say I hadn’t provoked them plenty by then. There may have been some property damage. A few fist fights. Several strongly worded postings on the net.”
“Absolutely none of that surprises me,” Shiro said dryly. “I suppose we should be grateful you didn’t end up in jail.”
“It was probably a pretty close thing toward the end. “ Keith offered him a grin that showed absolutely no sign of remorse or repentance. “If it makes you feel better, I never hit anyone who didn’t deserve it.”
Shiro pinned him with a look. “Why do I have a feeling our definitions of deserve might vary a bit?”
“Considering you’ve never been in a fist fight in your life, I think it’s fair to say your tolerance for bullshit is way higher than mine.”
“Considering I’ve put up with you for the last few years, I’d say you’re probably right.”
Keith laughed like it had been surprised out of him, sharp and loud and genuine. “Oh yeah, there’s the Shiro I remember. God, I missed you.”
Shiro grinned. “That’s good, because you’re pretty much stuck with me now. There’s basically zero chance I’m letting you out of my sight after this.”
Keith returned the grin with a smile of his own, softer and maybe a little wistful. “I’m okay with that.”
There was a sound like something heavy hitting the water.
Keith spun around, but Shiro was already moving toward the water with slow, deliberate steps. “Watch the passage,” he ordered. The water looked the same as it had a moment ago, no ripples aside from what the waterfall itself was making. He scanned the surface, but didn’t see anything below.
“Shiro,” Keith said in a low, urgent voice.
“I don’t see anything.” Maybe it had just been a rock, knocked loose by the water’s passage. Or a piece of debris carried in through the underground stream Lance and Pidge had told them about.
A body fell from the ceiling and plunged into the water.
Shiro tightened his grip on his weapon. “Shit.”
A third. And then a fourth, carried in by the water and dropped into the pool like stones. He didn’t see them coming back up but some of them inevitably would, the fresher ones still decomposing would be more buoyant. The skeletons and the ones wearing heavy clothing would sink and be trapped, maybe washed even further downstream, but the fresher ones would float up sooner or later. Then it was just a matter of time until the movement of the water pushed them toward the shallow edge.
It had officially become too dangerous to stay. “Everyone up!”
Pidge shot up like a rocket, glasses askew. “What? Where is it?” She scrambled to her feet, pack straps held tightly in one hand, the other gripping the knife from her boot.
Hunk moved a little more slowly. “Shiro?”
“They’re in the water, just like Pidge warned us. Time to get out of here, guys.” Shiro grabbed his own pack. “Have your weapons out and ready. I’ll go first, then Pidge, then Hunk and Keith will cover us. Move fast, be quiet and keep your heads down.” He checked his gun to make sure he’d reloaded it and gave them each a once over. “We just have to get to the bike without drawing attention. If we have to we can hunker down out of sight somewhere else and wait for nightfall.” He grabbed Lance’s pack and tossed it to Hunk, who slung it over one shoulder. “Are we good?”
“Oh we’re fantastic, Takashi. Thanks for asking.”
Adrenaline shot through Shiro’s veins like electricity even as the sound of Iverson’s voice echoed through the cave. He’d let himself be distracted by the water and hadn’t been watching the entrance. And he hadn’t taken into consideration that the sound of the waterfall would have covered the sound of approaching engines. Stupid.
“Carl,” he said slowly. Iverson was standing at the mouth of the cave, flanked by two of his men - young men, only a year or two older than Keith. Seniors when the world ended, stranded in hell and convinced it was better to serve than to be sacrificed. Shiro didn’t recognize either of them, a fact for which he was sincerely grateful.
“This has been a fun little reunion, Takashi.” Iverson waved his gun in Keith’s direction. “The whole family’s back together. How sweet. But it’s time to get down to business. You took my cure and I will get it back.”
“You can’t cure death,” Shiro said flatly. He could hear Pidge’s voice echo in the back of his mind as she explained Iverson’s experiments, described what had been done in the name of his impossible cure.
“Maybe not,” Iverson said. “But you can fight it off. Imagine if someone could patent immunity, Takashi. Imagine a world where you could survive the bite.”
Iverson smiled. It wasn’t particularly friendly. “The man who could stop the spread of the plague could rule the world, Takashi. I could name my price and every nation on the face of this ruined world would beg to be first in line.”
“What nations? What price? You want to be king, Carl? You want to rule the wasteland? Cause that’s all that would happen if you tried to blackmail people for a cure.” Shiro narrowed his eyes and backed up a few steps as Iverson and his men came closer. He could see Keith out of the corner of his eye, Lance’s rifle braced against his shoulder, and he could hear Hunk’s voice several feet behind him, hushed but urgent, and hoped the other two weren’t planning anything drastic.
Iverson stopped a dozen or so feet away, his back to the water, and Shiro felt a brief flash of hope. He shot a quick glance at the kids, one he hoped they understood. Don’t say anything. Don’t warn him.
He’d never thought he’d be all right with letting the zombies take someone, but he’d never hated anyone quite as much as he hated Iverson. And the diversion would buy them time.
“Your moral indignation is cute, I’d forgotten that about you. So noble. So righteous. Such a saint, our Shirogane Takashi.” Iverson shifted his gaze to the kids. “Literally no one else in the world could be bothered to come looking when the school went down. But of course you’d come back from the dead just to fuck up my plans.”
“Sounds like they were already pretty fucked before I got here.” Shiro smiled coldly and tightened his fingers on his gun. “I mean, really? A handful of kids were too much for you to keep under control? Not your best showing, Carl.”
Iverson’s face turned red and he shifted his gun from Keith to Shiro. “Big words from the dead man. I hear you managed to get everyone killed.”
Shiro tried not to look behind Iverson, where several more bodies had just plunged into the water. The sound of it was nearly indistinguishable from the waterfall unless you were listening for it and Iverson was too distracted to notice. One of his men glanced over his shoulder for a second, but almost immediately focused back on them.
In the water, something moved.
Just a flicker of movement, a head and shoulders rising out of the water as the zombie floated into the shallow end of the pool. The zombie stood slowly, water streaming off its body, hair plastered to its skull and clothes clinging to it.
It was Lance.
The sound Hunk made was possibly the worst thing Shiro had ever heard and Pidge drew in a single, shaky breath. But neither of them spoke, neither of them said anything and Shiro had to close his eyes for a second against a surge of fierce pride.
“That may be true,” Shiro said. “But it looks like I’m not the only one. Where are your buddies, Iverson? How many of them turned on you when you started slaughtering the students you were supposed to protect? How many of them did you have to kill before you got to crown yourself king of your little torture camp? How many of them did you feed to the horde so you could create a cure that would never exist?”
Lance was moving closer. The water was waist deep and his steps were unsteady, unbalanced. He was looking down at the water as he moved, one arm held against his chest, the other hanging limp at his side. Shiro could see a bite mark on the side of his throat and had to grit his teeth to stop himself from screaming.
“Sacrifices had to be made,” Iverson said flatly. He didn’t even flinch at Shiro’s accusation, but one of them men behind him winced a little. Not all of them were very proud of what they’d done, it would seem.
Shiro might feel a little bad about letting that one die. Only a little. For what they’d done, this screamed of karma.
“If sacrifices had to be made, then it was your responsibility to make them. You were the adult. You were the teacher. They were kids, you should have protected them!” He didn’t have to fake the anger that he’d been holding in for the last twenty-four hours. Didn’t have to hide the disgust. He raised his voice a little, to help cover any noise Lance was making.
He was getting closer, the water was only up to his knees now. Still moving slowly enough that his passage didn’t make any noise. He was pale, a grey pallor sucking the color out of his skin, and the wounds on his face and neck were still bleeding sluggishly, pale pink beads of bloody water trailing own his throat and staining the white of his shirt.
Dead things didn’t bleed.
Shiro almost dropped his gun in shock and that was when Lance broke into a run.
He dropped the arm that had been clutched to his chest, revealing a rock clenched tight in his hand. He swung high, catching the guard on Iverson’s left right in the chin. The guard staggered and Lance hit him again, right between the shoulder blades, hard enough that Shiro could hear the thud of the rock hitting his flesh. He dropped like a rock and Lance stooped, pulled the gun out of his hand and swung back up just in time to catch the second guard taking aim on him. He fired twice, and hit center mass on both of them. The second guard staggered, then fell over on his side, head and shoulders in the water. He didn’t get up.
It took three seconds. Behind Shiro, Pidge let out a loud whoop.
“I was wondering where you’d gotten to.” Iverson didn’t turn around, but he did look at Lance over his shoulder. “That’s a nasty bite. And so close to an artery, so close to the brain. How long has it been?”
Lance had his gun aimed at the back of Iverson’s head. “About an hour.”
Iverson smiled. “A bite like that, you can’t have more than a few hours left.”
Lance bared his teeth in a nasty grin. “Maybe less. Exertion speeds it up, doesn’t it? I’m already looking forward to ripping your throat out.”
“Dude, gross,” Hunk said.
“We’re leaving,” Shiro said. There was no more movement in the water, but that didn’t mean the risk had passed. And Lance was hurt. They needed to get somewhere safe where they could… Shiro’s thought shied away from the consequences of this. Lance was alive for now. They would handle everything else as it came. “Please tell me someone packed handcuffs or rope.”
“I don’t suppose I could give you my word that we’ll go quietly,” Iverson said.
Keith snorted. “How much do you think your word is worth to anyone here?”
Pidge appeared at Shiro’s side, a thin coil of nylon rope in her hands. “Boss?”
“Keith, Hunk, cover her while she ties him up.” Shiro dropped his gun but didn’t holster it, just in case. He shrugged off his pack and braced it upright between his feet as he dug through it one-handed, looking for a first aid kit. Pidge had apparently reorganized his stuff after she was done snooping the night before, and nothing was where he remembered it. He finally found it shoved toward the bottom. “Lance, come here.”
Lance sloshed out of the water and crossed the cave toward him, leaving a trail of sodden footprints and dripping water. He hesitated a few feet away. “I’m technically a biohazard. You probably shouldn’t get too close.”
“Sit,” Shiro said. He pointed at a rock with a mostly flat surface and waited till Lance did as he directed. “Let me see your throat.”
Lance tipped his head back and held still as Shiro carefully dried off the bite and the surrounding skin. “It doesn’t look too bad, yet,” he said. A single bite could take a few days to turn someone, but Iverson hadn’t been wrong. Wounds close to the heart or near arteries tended to turn people faster. Still, the lack of obvious infection was a good sign. As Lance’s condition worsened the wound would fester and turn black, the skin around it slowly going necrotic. Once the infection reached the brain, that was when it killed you. But it did a lot of damage in the meantime. The next hours and days would be hard and painful. For all of them.
“Don’t make Hunk do it if I get sick,” Lance said under his breath. “He’ll offer, he’ll feel like he has to because he’s my best friend, but he shouldn’t be the one to do it.”
Shiro carefully cleaned the bite with an alcohol swab. “I promise.”
“And not Keith either,” Lance said sourly. “He’d probably enjoy it too much.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Shiro said. He tore open the tiny packet of triple antibiotic and used his metal hand to smear the ointment over the bite. “It’ll be alright. We’ll make it work.” He pulled out a couple of bandages, looking for one big enough to cover the entire bite. “Just stay calm if you can, okay? We’re going to get out of here and get my bike, and find someplace safer to hole up for a few days.”
“I’d rather not do it myself, if it comes to that,” Lance said. “My folks are Catholic. I personally think God would understand considering the extenuating circumstances, but if my moms are still alive and ever found out I killed myself, it’d break their hearts.”
Shiro dabbed at the marks on his face - angry red gouges made by the same hands that had dragged him into the water. They covered his cheek and the line of his jaw over the bite. Another one had narrowly missed his left eye. “It won’t come to that.” He used his metal fingers to carefully apply the ointment to the other cuts and scratches, and the second bite mark he found on the back of Lance’s left hand.
“They got me pretty good,” Lance said. He sounded a little rueful, but he bit his lip and stared at the teeth imprints on the skin of his hand as Shiro worked.
“Neither of the bites is very deep,” Shiro said. “That’s good.” It would take longer for the infection to spread from a minor wound. And they were far less painful than if the zombies had managed to take a chunk out of him.
“Yeah, I don’t think zoms are real good swimmers,” Lance said. “That’s how I got away. Managed to twist out of their grip and just out-maneuvered them. Got to the surface for some air, but there were a bunch of the fuckers and they pulled me back in, so I let the current do the work.”
“You were gone more than an hour,” Shiro said. “You couldn’t have been under the entire time.”
“Nah, the water goes through the rock for a little while before it dumps you out down here, and it’s wide enough in a few places that I could get my face out of the water. I just-” He raised his hands, fingers splayed out like he was gripping onto something. His fingers were scratched and raw-looking in places, several of his nails broken or chipped. “Hung on for a bit, tried to get my breath back and come up with a plan. There was no way I could go back up, so it was either let go and hope I could fit through the rest of the way, or eat my gun.” Lance shrugged. “But a couple of the fuckers got swept by and managed to latch onto me and drag me back down before I could make up my mind.”
“This may be the first and last time I say thank god for a zombie.” Shiro clapped him on the shoulder. “You broken anywhere?”
Lance shook his head. “Just banged up.” He took the hand Shiro offered him and yelped a little when Shiro pulled him into a quick hug.
“Don’t do that again,” Shiro said quietly. “You got it?”
Lance grinned at him, a little crooked, a little tired, but real. “Trust me, I don’t plan to.”
“Good man.” Shiro clapped him on the back once more, hard, and let him go. “Guys, how are we doing over there?” Shiro glanced over his shoulder and sighed.
Pidge had tied Iverson’s hands behind his back, and then wrapped several layers of rope around his chest, binding his arms to his side. She’d also tied a rope around his neck and was currently holding the other end like a leash. Hunk was watching with a stony expression. Keith didn’t seem inclined to object to the somewhat unorthodox binding.
Shiro had better battles to fight. “Don’t forget the other one.”
“Already got him,” Hunk said. He nudged the unconscious guard with his bat. “I think he’s waking up.”
“Get him on his feet. We’re getting out of here.” Shiro helped Lance up to his feet. “Do you still have your weapon?”
“My back up. Lost the handgun when they grabbed me.” He raised his voice. “And Keith stole my rifle.”
“Hey, you were dead,” Keith said. The corner of his mouth twitched, just a little. “Scavenger’s rights. It’s the law of the land, buddy.”
“I’ll scavenge you,” Lance said heatedly.
He appeared ready to march over there and wrestle for it, so Shiro grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved him toward the gear. “Get your pack. Keith, switch out, I want Lance back on the rifle just in case we run into trouble. You’re going to need both hands to steer anyway,” he said to head off the objection he could see coming. God, he hoped they weren’t like this all the time. “We’re taking Iverson’s hoverbike.”
“You’ll leave us stranded in the desert, bound and defenseless?” Iverson said. “That’s not like you, Takashi.”
Shiro didn’t bother to look at him. “The apocalypse changes people, Carl.” He packed the first aid kit back in his bag and slung it over his shoulder. “Keith, you go first. Eyes open in case he has back-up out there. Pidge, cover him.”
Pidge handed Iverson’s leash to Hunk who took it with a yank that almost pulled Iverson off his feet. She darted away, close on Keith’s heels and an expression on her face that didn’t bode well for anyone they found out there.
He regretted that they had to learn to kill, but god he was proud of them. And very, very glad Pidge was on his side. “Hunk, I want you ahead of us. If either of these guys break lose I want you and that bat waiting for them at the bottom of the cliff.”
Hunk hesitated, casting an obvious glance at Lance. “You sure?”
Shiro smiled. “I’m sure. I’ll keep ahold of Iverson’s leash and if he tries anything, Lance will have him in his sights.” The remaining guard looked dazed and unsteady on his feet. There was a trickle of blood running down the side of his face from where he’d hit his head on the cave floor. His chin and jaw were already turning a spectacular shade of deep purple where Lance had clocked him with the rock. Shiro wasn’t entirely certain he could walk, let alone put up a fight. “Move out.”
Hunk handed the leash to Shiro, then darted forward and grabbed Lance in a tight, rib-cracking hug. “I’m glad you’re back,” Hunk said, voice shaking a little.
Lance squeaked a little, presumably as all the air was forced out of his lungs, but hooked the arm not carrying the rifle around Hunk’s neck and squeezed back. “Me too, Hunk. Now get out of here, we’re burning daylight.”
“You’re being short-sighted, Takashi.” Iverson glared when Shiro tugged on his leash but didn’t resist as the moved toward the cave entrance. “Give me the cure and I’ll let the rest of you go. Free and clear, my word of honor. We won’t pursue you, we won’t try to stop you. Hell, I’ll have some of my guys meet you with fresh supplies and as much gasoline as you need to get wherever you’re going. That’s a better deal than anyone else would give you.”
“It doesn’t really look like you’re in a position to be making deals, does it?” Shiro grabbed Iverson’s arm and pushed him out of the cave into the sun.
Iverson turned to face him, eyes narrowed in the sudden brightness. “I have more soldiers and more hoverbikes and more weapons. Trained soldiers who know exactly what kind of payoff we’re fighting for here. Do you really think you can outrun all of us, even if you do manage this little head start?”
“Sure I do. That’s exactly how a head start works.”
“And what happens if you do get away? You think I’m the only one willing fight for this? You think anyone else would do differently if they had it?” Iverson sneered. “Face it, Takashi, this is a better deal than most people would offer. Take it. Otherwise the next time you and I cross paths I won’t spare any of them.”
Shiro tilted his head to the side. “You talk awfully big for a guy about to be abandoned in the desert with no transportation, no water, and his hands tied behind his back.”
“Just take the deal!” Iverson yelled. His voice echoed a little off the mountains and Shiro grimaced. If any of Iverson’s buddies were out there, they’d have heard that. “It’s the best offer you’re going to get. Sacrifices have to be made, sooner or later.”
His words echoed slightly in Shiro’s head as he played back their conversation. Something was sticking, catching at the edge of his mind. Something he’d said wasn’t right.
Give me the cure and I’ll let the rest of you go
The rest of you
Shiro looked at Lance, still holding Iverson in his sights, blood seeping through a few of the bandages. He thought of Pidge, saying that the cure didn’t matter anymore after Lance was dead, of Lance saying that Shiro could have captured him if he’d wanted to, not them. Of the blank look on Hunk’s face and the long moment of silence when he’d asked if Lance was one of the test subjects. Of Iverson’s ridiculous speech in the desert last night, trying to convince Lance and Hunk that they would save lives by surrendering. Lance, with two bites and no sign of infection, saying if he got sick, not when.
Give me the cure and I’ll let the rest of you go
“No,” he said. “If sacrifices have to be made, I’m the one who’ll make them. I’m their leader. It’s my responsibility to keep them safe.”
“You can preach at me till you’re blue in the face, it won’t change anything. Do you get it? Once word gets out - and it will, I’ll make damned sure of it - there’s nowhere you’ll be safe. Every man or woman who hears that you have the cure will be my eyes and ears out there. They’ll hunt you down like a dog and take it from you in exchange for my guarantee that they and their loved ones will be first in line for a dose.” Iverson curled his lip. “Desperate times. Anyone would do what I did.”
He was wrong, but that didn’t mean there weren’t people out there who’d do exactly what Iverson had done. Weak people, scared and desperate people. If there was even the slightest chance the cure was real… There was always someone willing to sacrifice innocents to get to the top of the heap. What happened at the Garrison was proof of that. Fear made people do terrible things, and the world was a terrifying place.
“You’re wrong about that,” Shiro said. He dropped the leash. “I wouldn’t have.”
He planted his boot solidly in Iverson’s stomach and kicked, using every ounce of his strength and weight to send the man flying over the edge of the cliff.
Iverson’s face was frozen in a rictus of shock and terror as he vanished over the edge. He didn’t even scream, but they could hear the wet sound his body made as it struck the ground.
Pidge and Hunk were hollering at them from down below, but Shiro ignored them for a minute and turned to the guard. “You have two choices.”
The guard stared at him. “I’ll do anything you want.”
Shiro smiled. It didn’t feel like a pleasant expression and judging by the way the guard cringed back, it didn’t look pleasant either. “Is that what you told Iverson when he ordered you to torture and murder dozens of children?”
“I didn’t - he said -” the guard stumbled over his words. “I was - I was scared. He said we had to. I didn’t want to die!”
“Yeah.” Shiro looked past him. Lance was still at the ready, his rifle trained on the guard’s back, but he was staring at Shiro with wide, shocked eyes. “I bet they were scared, too.”
“Please,” the guard said and Shiro hesitated. He was barely more than a kid himself, after all. Didn’t make any of it right, but Shiro was tired.
“You can go. We’ll untie you and let you walk away. We’re taking your weapons, and we’re not giving you any of our supplies. But if you walk fast you can be back at the Garrison by nightfall, and outpace any infected that catch sight of you.” Shiro shrugged. “Or I can show you mercy right now. Your choice. And a better one than any of your classmates ever got.”
The guard stared at him for a long moment, each breath shallower and shakier than the last. “The desert,” he rasped. “I still don’t want to die.”
Shiro pulled a knife out of his boot sheath and cut through the rope binding his hands in one quick jerk. The guard flinched and shied away from him when he was done.
“If you come down before we’re gone someone will shoot you,” Shiro said flatly. “Lance, head down.”
“I’m right behind you.”
Lance didn’t object again. Shiro waited until his footsteps had faded to back away from the guard, still cringing in the dirt. Shiro hesitated, then unhooked one of the water bladders and tossed it to him. It landed in the dirt with a heavy thud.
“Iverson was one man,” Shiro said. “If you’d been strong enough to stand up to him together, you could have beaten him. But you caved in and decided to save yourself. Have fun living with that.”
He turned his back and started down the side of the mountain. Below he could hear Keith yelling for him to hurry and Pidge and Hunk fussing over Lance. They were waiting for him when he hit the bottom, confused, a little anxious, but no hint of wariness.
He ignored the mess of Iverson’s corpse a few meters away and pointed to the Garrison hoverbike. “Pack it up, let’s go! Keith, you’re driving. Then Pidge, then me, then Lance on shotgun. Hunk I need you in the back, you may have to help us steer.”
A few minutes later the sound of the bike’s engine was bouncing off the mountains around them, and Iverson and the nameless guard and the Garrison were all disappearing beyond the horizon.
They stopped for Shiro’s bike and rearranged seats - the Garrison bike had managed all five of them, but they’d gotten zero lift and it had maneuvered like a brick, which Keith complained about more or less constantly. Pidge rode shotgun on Shiro’s bike while Lance and Hunk bickered over who had to sit bitch behind Keith and Keith hollered at them all to just shut up already.
Shiro sighed. They were always going to be like that, he could already tell.
“Shotgun in the back,” he said. “Hunk, sit with Keith. Don’t make me come over there and straighten you guys out.”
“Yes, mom,” Lance sang.
“Get on the bike,” Shiro said.
They turned the bikes toward the northeast, toward the airfield and, hopefully, their ride home. It was a solid half-a-day’s trip, and Shiro thought they could make it by nightfall. They might have to stop somewhere along the way though, find a cave or something secure to hold up in for the night.
From Keith’s bike up ahead, Hunk suddenly let out a loud shout. “They’re coming!”
“What?” Shiro craned his neck to check behind him but there was nothing but sand and a clear horizon. “Where are they?”
“Straight ahead!” Hunk was waving both hands in the air, still hollering. Behind him, Lance had risen up into a crouch, the rifle aimed ahead of them toward a cloud of dust moving in fast from in front of them.
Keith let off the accelerator and their bike slowed enough for Shiro to catch up. “What is that?” Keith asked.
Pidge had dug out the field glasses at some point and was peering around Shiro. “It’s a convoy. I count two trucks, a half dozen fully loaded bikes and a couple of speeders. At least twenty people, Shiro, maybe more in the trucks. It’s not the Garrison, they don’t have enough people left for this.”
“It’s our ride!” Hunk leaned over, sending Keith and Lance flailing as the bike shifted balance. He held out his hand, Shiro’s link sitting in his palm.
“You fixed it?”
“I never broke it.” Hunk offered him a sheepish grin. “Sorry man, but, well. Garrison instructors weren’t high on my list of trustworthy allies, you know? I figured I’d just keep an ear out, see if your story about a rescue operation was true. And then Captain Chavez radioed me while you were off getting Keith so I told her what was going on.”
Shiro blinked. “In the cave. When Iverson showed up. That’s who you were talking to, not Pidge?”
“Yeah, I told her we’d been caught. She promised to send the cavalry after us, so those guys are probably heading straight for the Garrison.” Hunk smiled and it was hard and grim and satisfied. “She said something about the survivors standing trial.”
Lance hooked an arm around his neck. “Hunk, you’re my favorite.”
“Devious,” Keith said in a tone that clearly conveyed his approval. “So what do we do?”
“Keep on course. We’ll intercept when we get closer.” Shiro shook his head when Hunk tried to give him the link. “Oh no. You’ve been managing just fine so far. You can be communications officer until we get out of here.”
“That’s Pidge’s job,” Hunk said, but he curled his fingers around the link anyway.
“Come on,” Keith said. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
One of the speeders broke off from the convoy as they approached, slowing to a stop just a few feet away and hovering over the desert floor, dust billowing out beneath the jets. Angelica Chavez lifted the visor on her helmet and flashed a toothy grin. “Shirogane, what the hell have you gotten us mixed up in?”
“I thought your mission was top priority?” Shiro called back. “What happened to me being on my own if I missed the extraction?”
“My buddy Hunk told me a little bit about what’s been going on at the Garrison.” The smile vanished. “How much of it is true?”
“All of it,” Shiro said. “It’s probably worse than he told you.”
“That’s hard to imagine,” she said. “I told my superiors what I’d heard and they agreed with me that we couldn’t let that go unanswered. Human experimentation is a hard line, we can’t be abiding that. And kids.” She spat in the dirt. “I didn’t even have to threaten to defy orders, they told us to come out here, bring home the survivors and take anyone involved home to stand trial.”
Shiro tipped his head toward Keith’s bike. “Well, here are the survivors.”
“All of them?” she asked, dismay clear in her voice.
“All of us,” Pidge said grimly.
“There’s only a few troops left, but there were doctors, scientists.” He glanced at Pidge who shrugged.
“Maybe eight or ten still alive when we booked it. No way to know if any of them bit it since then. Most of them weren’t allowed to have weapons though.”
Chavez nodded. “All right. Let’s get you guys out of here.” She lowered her visor for a moment to issue orders to the troops behind her, and one of the bikes zipped out of formation. “Follow Zhang back to the plane. I’ll be back in a day or two, once we have this mopped up.”
She dropped her visor again and turned the speeder around to rejoin the convoy. Zhang lifted a hand in a quick wave, then sped off in the opposite direction.
Shiro had seen some beautiful sights in his life. He’d seen the Nabana no Sato Illumination in Mie and the Grand Canyon and Mavora Lakes. He’d watched the northern lights in an Alaskan winter and he’d seen the stars out the window of the space station observation deck. But all of that paled compared to the enormous, ugly cargo jet waiting for them at the airfield.
Zhang turned out to be a nearly six-foot-tall woman with the voice of a soprano and a handshake like a teamster. She had a group of soldiers load the hoverbikes into the plane and helped Shiro get them set up in a semi private section of the plane, behind some crates and close to the bathrooms. She set someone else to digging up enough food for four hungry teenagers. “You need a medic, too?” she asked, pointing to Lance.
Lance didn’t react at all, but the others did. Pidge froze and Hunk almost choked on his drink. Keith actually went for his weapon like he thought he was going to have to shoot his way out. Shiro gave him a quelling look over Zhang’s shoulder. “He should be fine. One of the guards from the Garrison roughed him up a little, but he’ll live.”
Lance smiled and shoved another forkful of what looked like a chop suey MRE into his mouth. “Thanks, though,” he said.
Zhang favored him with a fond smile. Lance had somehow managed to charm every soldier they’d met so far, a skill Shiro planned to take shameless advantage of when it came time to restock their gear. “Alright, you lot get some rest and keep your heads down. I’ll let you know when we hear from the Captain. They should be getting there real soon.”
“Thank you,” Shiro said. “For everything.”
“It sounds to me like we should be thanking you,” Zhang said. “There’s lines you don’t cross. Doesn’t do us any good to survive if we lose everything that made us human.” She clapped him on the back and left them to their own devices.
That turned out to be mostly sleeping. The kids passed out as soon as they’d eaten their fill and didn’t so much as twitch for almost ten hours. Even Hunk crashed hard and deep, though not so hard he didn’t snore loudly enough that several members of the crew stuck their heads in to see what the noise was. Zhang brought him blankets and he spread them out over the kids and settled in to keep watch.
He was more or less certain he wouldn’t need it, but he kept his gun in his hand.
They stuck close together for the next two days, the kids bolting down MREs like they were going out of style and then sleeping for hours at a time. The soldiers mostly seemed to find this endearing and started bringing them little luxuries - a few pieces of dried fruit, someone’s chocolate ration, coffee made from a private stash instead of the army brew.
Shiro remembered thinking that finding some of the students alive would be a morale boost and decided he’d underestimated the effect it would have.
He looked up up Kauai and Santa Marta and Leipzig and very deliberately didn’t tell them anything he’d found.
Lance didn’t get sick. Shiro checked the bites three times a day, Hulk shielding them with his body and Keith keeping guard to warn them if anyone came close, but the wounds were slowly closing and his skin was regaining its color.
There was another bite mark, just under the elbow on his right arm. The bite was deep and had scarred over in angry-looking red skin quite some time ago. Shiro had rubbed his thumb over it while Keith sucked in a deep breath and Lance watched him from under hooded eyes. “Could have been worse,” he’d said in a deliberately light voice. “I could have been one of the ones who got their arms chopped off after infection.”
“We’d have matched,” Shiro had said with an easy grin and they hadn’t mentioned it again.
Zhang came by on the third day and told them Chavez was heading back. Shiro left the kids with Hunk in charge - Shiro had learned very quickly that Hunk was the only one who could be trusted, and while he was a pushover, the others mostly felt bad about it and tended to do as he said - and followed Zhang down toward the rear of the plane where they were already starting to load in the trucks and supplies.
They’d looted the place, which Shiro could approve of. He recognized the crates of MREs and water from the dining hall. They were also loading up medical equipment and computers from what he assumed had been the underground lab where Lance, Pidge and Hunk had been held prisoner.
Angelica swung down from the first truck and grabbed him by the arm. “Walk with me,” she said under her breath and pulled him away from the activity. She tugged him around a crate until the were partially shielded from the rest of the crew. “Is there anything you’re not telling me?”
Shiro raised an eyebrow. “No?”
“Real convincing.” She looked over her shoulder. “Most of the guards decided to go down fighting, but the doctors are swearing up and down they were being held against their will, forced to participate in whatever the fuck they were doing down there. They are telling some very wild stories, Shiro.”
He could feel something cold and hard settle low in his gut. “Whatever they’re telling you is nothing more than a lie they invented to justify murder.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not,” she said. “All that matters is that people want to believe it’s true. You need to keep a close eye on those kids. I have no idea how many of my people have heard the story by now. I’d trust my crew with my life, but this is - Shiro, people are going to be tempted.”
“I’ll keep an eye on them,” he said. “Do you think the crew-”
“I want to say no,” she said. “At least not until we land. But Shiro, people have mutinied for less. I’ll protect you if it comes to a fight, but I have no idea how those chips will fall.”
“Let’s not borrow trouble,” he said. “Did they tell you who?”
She shook her head. “No. I think a couple of them are legitimately trying to protect whoever it is out of some very overdue feelings of remorse. The others are probably playing it close to the chest until they can work the knowledge to their advantage. I don’t want to know,” she added. “It doesn’t matter to me because I don’t believe these ridiculous lies made up by murderers. And if I don’t know I can’t tell anyone who tries to make me talk.” She exhaled slowly. “This is a mess. I have to go, I’ll try to control this as much as I can, but Shiro-”
“I’ll be careful.” He gave her a quick salute and then walked away. He could feel eyes on him now, different eyes than the curious ones of the last few days. There were a pair of soldiers listening intently as a blonde woman in a lab coat spoke in a low, urgent whisper, and another soldier lingered outside the curtained-off area Zhang had helped them set up. Shiro didn’t let his expression waver, didn’t let his hand hover over his weapon, just walked back as calmly as he could.
They were awake - Keith and Pidge were talking in excited voices, complete with emphatic gestures, and Hunk was watching a movie on a datapad while Lance dozed with his head on Hunk’s shoulder. They all looked up at him as he entered, and whatever they saw was enough to make them sit up and pay attention.
“Listen to me,” Shiro said in a soft voice that wouldn’t carry outside that space. “Pack your things back up. Get your shoes on. Be ready to move fast when I give the order. Do not go anywhere alone. Not even the bathroom. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“What is it?” Keith asked.
Lance met his eyes. “Iverson was right, wasn’t he?”
“Iverson was a waste of skin,” Shiro said flatly. “And his cronies aren’t any better. But yes, there’s a very real risk they’ve convinced some of the soldiers that Iverson’s bullshit about a cure was true.”
They all very carefully avoided looking at Lance, who should have been dead by now. “That’s ridiculous,” Keith said. “No one in their right mind would believe in a cure. Like Pidge said. You can’t cure death.”
“But you can hold it off,” Lance said. “What are you going to do, Shiro?”
“I have an exit strategy.” Shiro grinned. “Weapons out. Get ready. I can’t promise this is going to go smoothly.”
Shiro ducked back outside. The soldier who’d been lingering was gone, and Zhang stood there, arms crossed over her chest. Shiro froze at the sight of her but she only scowled at him.
“The captain is having your transportation refueled,” she told him. “But there is only so much we can do before someone notices and realizes what you have planned.”
“Is anyone going to try to stop us?”
Zhang frowned. “Already the rumors have reached every ear. Some don’t believe, some would not betray you whether they believe or not. Some are listening very carefully to the whispers. It would be best if no one knew until it was too late.”
“My thoughts exactly. Can you-” He gestured behind him.
“I’ll keep watch,” she said. “If anyone asks, I’m on a break and this happens to be a very comfortable spot to sit and rest for a few minutes.”
He had no choice but to trust her. If she betrayed him, he’d know about it fast enough - and he doubted the kids would go down quietly. Keith all by himself was very good at making a bad situation worse, and Shiro suspected he and Pidge together would be a walking disaster looking for a place to happen. He actually kind of felt sorry for whoever made the mistake of pushing them.
Most of the crew was still loading in the convoy and its prisoners so there was no one to notice when Shiro broke into the storeroom and the armory.
The infirmary was staffed, but the medic on duty either hadn’t heard the rumors or didn’t believe them; she didn’t so much as bat an eye when Shiro asked if she could help him restock his first aid kit. While she was pulling gauze and alcohol swabs out of storage, Shiro raided every unlocked drawer or cabinet he could find. “Thanks,” he said, giving her a big smile as he backed out of the room. “I appreciate this, you’re a real life saver.”
He grabbed the ammo and the sack full of rations from where he’d stashed them and made a beeline for his bike.
Chavez passed him going the other way and gave him a slow nod.
His bike and the one they’d taken from Iverson had been tied down against the wall, toward the back of the plane but well out of the way of all the commotion. Shiro shoved the supplies into his bike’s storage contained beneath the pilot’s seat and carefully undid the bindings holding them in place. He pulled the tarp over them to hide what he’d done and made his way back to the others.
Zhang was gone, but he could hear her voice not far away, scolding someone for loitering when there was so much work to be done. He pulled back the curtain and waved the others out. They were dressed and loaded up with everything they could carry, and all four of them were armed.
“We don’t have to do this,” Lance said quietly. Keith grunted irritably and Pidge and Hunk ignored him, which meant he’d probably said the same thing to them as they dressed. “Shiro, I mean it. I didn’t run from the Garrison because I didn’t want to find a cure, and these guys are taking us back to base. Real doctors, real chain of command, oversight. If I can do any good, then I want to.”
“That’s a very noble decision and I’m proud of you,” Shiro said. “But not like this. Those doctors from the Garrison aren’t trying to save humanity, they’re trying to save their own skins. Or worse, pick up where Iverson left off. As soon as we touch down you are going to quietly disappear and the rest of us will probably be dead, along with any crew members willing to defend us. I don’t care what you have in your blood, I am not going to let that happen.” He took Lance by the shoulders and looked him directly in the eye. “I will find you a lab. I will get you to somewhere safe and make sure that we can trust the people we’re working with. But that’s not here. We need to go.”
“Okay, but you guys don’t have to come too. I’m the one causing a problem. You guys could go back to the base, where it’s safe and-”
“No,” Hunk said. “Not even for a gourmet kitchen and all the hot showers in the world, man. No way I’m letting you go out there alone.”
“You’d probably die,” Pidge said. “We’re probably all going to die anyway, but you would absolutely die by yourself.”
“Thanks,” Lance said. “That was super moving. I love you, too.”
“You had my back out there,” Keith said. “So I have yours. Besides,” he lifted his chin and met Shiro’s eyes. “I’d rather be out there with the horde than safe in some base not knowing if you’re alive or dead. I’ve had more than enough of that for one lifetime. Where you go, I go.”
“And I’m going,” Shiro said. “This is a team now and I don’t leave a teammate behind.”
Lance blew a heavy breath out, his cheeks puffing up with the force of it. “Well, we’re all going to get eaten.”
Keith slapped a hand on his back. “Yeah, probably. Let’s go, hotshot. We’ve got a long ride ahead of us.”
No one saw them pack up the bikes, but when Keith and Shiro kicked the bikes into gear, not one of the soldiers manning the ramp tried to stop them. Shiro could hear shouting rapidly fading into the distance and hoped, fervently, that whatever fallout they were leaving behind them was something Chavez could control.
But there was no sound of pursuit, the hoverbikes were stocked and it was a long way to Norway.
“Due east and straight on till sunset,” Pidge said. “There’s an old farm at the edge of the desert. We should be able to find somewhere fairly secure to bunk down for the night.”
Ahead of them Keith and Lance were already fighting about who could pilot the hoverbike best. Hunk was shamelessly encouraging them. Shiro grinned and shook his head.
A long, long way to Norway.