India opens her eyes into the familiar semidarkness. Business as usual at the end of the world.
She woke with a start, though, which is unusual. Years of this life have left her internal rhythms far more accurate than Romeo’s kitchy 50’s clock, salvaged from a picked-over Wal-Mart near Omaha last summer. She can sleep for a solid six hours when she’s off-duty and perk up as soon as it’s her turn to drive or keep watch. Back at Safe Haven, she can wake up with the sun, regardless of the time of year. Really, it’s a shame she didn’t have this talent back in her nine-to-five days.
The truck grinding to a halt beneath her is worth waking up for, however abruptly. They rarely stop like this without at least a warning over the intercom. She would have heard shooting already if there were Butchers outside, so this probably means an unexpected salvage trip—though whether they’ll find spare parts or stray people is a tossup.
In any case, she’ll need her gun.
Reaching for the rifle wedged between her bunk and the wall, unloaded but always close by, India shakes her head to rouse herself and notices Romeo staring right at her. He’s the only one tall enough to have the lofted cots at eye level, and his tall, skeletal frame looks particularly menacing in the shadows. In another lifetime, she would have been terrified of him.
Now, she just yawns in his face and raises a questioning eyebrow. He had been sleeping in one of the bunks closer to the cab of the semi-trailer truck they call home, so there’s a chance he knows what’s going on.
Equally half-conscious, Romeo grunts, “Broken-down car roadside. Vic thinks he saw a couple of people hide behind it, so probably not Butchers. Wants us to go check it out.”
“The usual? I’m the good cop, you’re the bad cop?”
“Yeah. Maybe one of these days he’ll let me play the good cop. I’ve been wanting to expand my acting range.”
India snorts and lets him pull her to her feet. “Of the two of us, Rome, who was a secretary in the suburbs, and who narrowly avoided prison on drug charges?”
Romeo rolls his eyes. “Fair enough. You’re the good cop. Let’s motor.”
She follows him through the cluttered maze of supply shelves, cots, and tech to the back of the trailer. The rear wall opens in full, but it’s easier to use the door they carved into it. Kilo’s voice crackles over the intercom wired to the corner. “You guys good?”
“We’ll be fine,” India radios back. “Not like we haven’t picked up strays before, in spite of Bad Cop here’s best efforts.”
“I heard that!” Romeo protests, though he’s grinning good-naturedly. The road can get monotonous after a while, so they all welcome an unexpected detour, even if meeting most Actuals tends to be less of an adventure and more of an exercise in demonstrating that they’re not Butchers.
They jog across the cracked four-lane highway to the broken-down sedan on the shoulder. Its hood is open and spewing steam, and at least one of the tires looks flat. There’s no sign of anyone leaving the mess, though—no footprints in the dust or supplies spilled in a rush—so the passengers may be close by—presumably in between the car and the Jersey barrier behind it.
Romeo nods at her to start, and India sighs. Explaining that they’re not necessarily dangerous people always ends up being harder than she’d like it to be, though she’s better at it than most of the others. Years of handling immature and bizarrely difficult co-workers were all in preparation for this, apparently. She’s pretty sure Dwight would be proud, once he got over the idea that she’d survived the end times better than he had.
She takes a deep breath and begins the usual spiel. “Hi, um, look—we know you’re over there. I’m India, my friend here is Romeo, and we’re here to help you. I mean, if we were Butchers or we wanted to hurt you, we would obviously have done it already, so…right. If you don’t want help, just say so, and we’ll be on our way. If you do—I mean, we can fix your car, or help you with food or supplies, if you need anything.
“We can also give you a lift—I don’t know where you were going to go, but our home’s a settlement a week or so driving from here. It’s really nice, actually, and we keep it pretty well stocked, and there’s fresh food from the little farm and these—well, we call them deflector shields, like in Star Wars? They ward off whatever stray signals might bounce by, so you’re extra-protected. Or we can take you to a different settlement—we’re in touch with a few others.
“And…I think that’s about it. What do you think?”
There’s a very long, very pregnant pause, and they can half-hear a murmur of conversation coming from behind the car. India slings her gun around to her back, with the strap cutting across her chest, as a show of goodwill. Romeo follows suit and squats, peering under the car. When he rises, he nods in confirmation that there are definitely people behind it.
The tense silence goes on long enough that she’s almost surprised to hear a human voice from behind the wreck.
It takes a hell of a lot to truly surprise India these days, but she would know that voice anywhere, and it wasn’t one she had expected to hear again. Not even if the Call had never gone out.
She stares at the figure rising from behind the car. There’s no question—it’s him. Or at least, it’s his body. But if he’s recognized her so very far out of context, he’s probably still an Actual, which is a miracle of its own.
He just gapes at her, without a trace of fear, anger, or anything that isn’t total shock. She knows what he’s seeing—a woman twelve years older than the one he’d known, clad in homemade body armor (mostly scrap metal and athletic guards, affixed to a motorcycle jacket and pants), holding a huge assault rifle, and standing next to a threatening-looking and tattooed ex-drug dealer who’s dressed the same.
And they’re all standing in front of a massive, armored truck, on the side of the highway, without another living thing in sight, after the end of the world, where there’s no guarantees that mind and body are matched.
Romeo whips his head to stare at her, too. “You know this guy?”
“I—we used to work together. Assuming it’s him, I mean.”
“Back in Pennsylvania? When you were a secretary?” He says the last word like it’s almost a joke, like there’s no world (even a post-apocalyptic one) in which a receptionist at a mid-range paper supply firm might end up being, well, India. His tone annoys her, and she turns back to one James Duncan Halpert.
There’s a hiss from behind the car, and Jim glances down and then looks back at India. “What—um. What—name something I got you for Christmas—for Secret Santa. Before. And—and why?”
It’s absolutely him, but she can’t blame him for thinking someone else is in her body, even if she had recognized him. “That last year. You got me a green teapot, because, well, tea. And there were a bunch of things in there, like—the pencil? From that time we blew off work to play mini-golf? And I think there was a ketchup packet—”
Romeo gives her a funny look. “What the hell kind of office did you work in?”
“Paper supply.” She ignores his reaction and tries to think of something the cameras wouldn’t have caught the answer to. “How did you tell me you were transferring to Stamford?”
“I—didn’t.” He’s more blindsided than she had been aiming for, but it was the first thing that had come to mind. He glances down at whoever he’s with and nods wearily.
A woman, dark-skinned with model looks, stands up next to him. She’s probably about Kilo’s age and India’s height, with a head full of tiny braids. She comes around to the other side of the car, with deliberate caution. Jim follows, and then they’re only a few feet from where India and Romeo are standing. The woman is dressed like Jim and most other Actuals they’ve met, in colorless fabrics and worn shoes. They don’t appear to be armed, though appearance is hardly a guarantee of anything these days.
“Who the hell are you guys? Because you don’t exactly look like a secretary,” Jim’s friend asks pointedly. India notices a bulge near her hip that might be a gun. The loose sweater makes it hard to tell, but it also means she can’t get to it faster than India or Romeo will, if they need to.
“Course I don’t, I was a drug-runner in a past life.”
She elbows Romeo. “Shut up, Rome, you’re not helping.” Turning back to the others, she repeats, “We’re here to help. Our settlement—”
“We’ve both had some bad luck with settlements. Why is yours any different?”
Romeo has the decency to sober up and explain. “It’s safer, like India said. Plus, one of our guys is always based there, just in case. Big gun. On your side. And we keep it supplied—food, clothes, whatever we can find in the glorious ruins of corporate America. Other settlements, too—we’ve been stocking up whoever we can find. I think we’re up to like three or four others. And we always teach ‘em medicine, mechanics, combat, whatever…if you’ve been having bad luck with settlements, it’s ‘cause you haven’t been to any of ours.”
There’s another tense moment where the woman seems to be reassessing if she’s about to be shot—Jim is still just gobsmacked—and then, hands on her hips, she asks, “How do we know we can believe that? And trust you?” She looks pointedly at India on the last word; so does Romeo, who nods—they both know what the next step is.
In the space of a breath, India’s right arm is around Jim’s neck. Her free hand has his left wrist pinned between his back and her front, and her right knee pushes his shoulder forward and down, making it hard for his right arm to do much of anything to her.
It’s a small relief that she can’t see his face, because the look on his friend’s is enough. She releases her hold after a second and adds, “Because if either of us wanted to hurt you, that’s how fast we could do it.”
“Or our other two friends in the truck,” Romeo adds helpfully. “And they’re not nearly as nice as Indy is.”
The woman does a good job of covering her fear with indigence. “So, what, you’re just going to make us come with you to your little magic homestead?”
“Hell no. Like she said, we’re here to help.”
People rarely believe Romeo when he says that, though, so India jumps back in. “We are. Really. We can give your car a jump, or supplies or whatever, a vaccine, a ride to Safe Haven or somewhere…” She trails off as the two Actuals look back at their wreck of a car. “We can both be expert mechanics. Or navigators, if there’s somewhere specific you’re trying to go.”
As she had Jim in a headlock within the last two minutes, it would probably be a bit much to add that she’s never wanted a stray Actual to accept a ride as badly as she does right now. But it’s tempting, after so long and with so many unanswered questions—and not just the ones she’s curious about with every Actual, like how on Earth did you survive this long without us?
He turns back to her and does that familiar shrug-nod thing of assent. “Okay.”
Her heart pounds. “Okay—what? You’ll—you’ll come with us?” He nods.
“Jim,” his companion hisses. “What about—”
“There’s gotta be room for him. And the car…Ash, we’re just sitting ducks out here. One pistol isn’t going to get us very far if Butchers or looters show up.”
The woman—Ash?—breathes in deeply, glances back at the car, and nods. “Okay, we’ll come with you. But we have—there’s one more. Anders? Come on out, it’s…it’s okay, I promise.” She doesn’t sound very sure.
The back door of the car opens by what turns to be a white-blond little boy who can’t be more than five. His blue eyes bulge in terror at the sight of India and Romeo, but before he can retreat into the sedan, Ash scoops him up. “They’re friends, okay? Jim knows the nice lady. They’re going to take us somewhere safe, where Butchers can’t hurt us. Okay?”
The boy nods fitfully, and buries his face in Ash’s shoulder. India’s pretty sure that’s the best they’re going to get for now—kids always have extreme reactions to their outfits. She wonders fleetingly where the boy came from, since he certainly doesn’t look like the woman holding him. Maybe he’s Jim’s.
The other woman introduces herself as Ashley while Jim robotically grabs a couple of tattered backpacks and what looks like a First Aid kit from the car. Ashley spares one last glance towards the car before repositioning Anders on her hip and following Romeo back to the truck. He’s grinning with enough satisfaction to make her regret their decision.
Jim lags behind them to walk with India, though he doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t, either—where would she start?
When they reach the truck, Kilo and Victor are waiting by the back, which is now fully open. Though dressed and armed the same, neither looks as scary as Romeo. But with Kilo lounging against the side of the trailer, small and smug, and Victor perched on the edge, every inch the soldier, they make an intimidating portrait.
Victor smiles and launches into his usual friendly greeting. “Welcome to, well, our truck. We don’t have a name for it—”
“The Enterprise,” Kilo pipes up.
“Yank and me liked the Black Pearl,” Romeo interrupts.
India jumps in with her preferred “Haven One.”
Victor rolls his eyes. “Okay, we don’t agree on a name for it. Anyway, welcome. Most people call us techheads, but we do in fact respond to our individual names—I’m Victor, this is Kilo, and you met Romeo and India already.”
“I’m Ashley. That’s Jim. And this is Anders,” Ashley says when he pauses, nodding at the still-shaking kid in her arms.
Victor closes the space between them and smiles at Anders. “Hi, Anders. We’re really glad you’re here. How old are you—four?”
Anders shakes his head and buried his face in Ashley’s shoulder again, but he holds up five fingers.
“Wow, five?” Victor grins. “You’re going to love Safe Haven. I’ve got—well, there’s another kid there, right about your age. His name is T, and I know he’s going to be really excited to have a friend. Does that sound fun?”
Anders slowly turns and nods, and although he’s still bug-eyed, he’s shaking less. Ashley mouths thank you and smiles a little.
“So, our trip back to Safe Haven should be about four or five days,” Victor continues, buoyed by the exchange. “Unless there was somewhere else specific you wanted to go?” Jim and Ashley shake their heads. “We get pretty good mileage on this thing, but we try not to push her too hard with the fuel supply, even with the solar panels. Although timing depends on how often we stop, anyway.”
Jim asks, “What would we be stopping for? I thought you had supplies.”
“We do, but if we pass somewhere worth salvaging from, we’re either gonna raid it, or check if it’s worth our time to come back to. At minimum, we need to empty the john. And if there’s an okay body of water somewhere, we’ll stop to bathe—you can, too. You’ll see it’s pretty tight quarters here, so it can start to stink pretty quick.
“Once we get rolling, I’ll be driving, Romeo is on guard duty up in the crow’s nest—” he points at the gap above Kilo—“and the ladies will help you get settled in. Dunno if Indy mentioned our vaccine, but we have a vaccine, if you’re worried about getting wiped or printed…which most people are, obviously, so strays usually want that.
“You’re welcome to come up to the cab—there’s a crawlspace through to the trailer—or the crow’s nest as long as someone’s with you. Basically…stay out of the way and don’t touch anything. Don’t press any buttons, don’t flip any switches, just—we know what we’re doing, and we’re good at it. We’ll set you up with provisions, but please don’t go grabbing stuff—everything’s rationed for a reason, and we need to make sure we have enough since we weren’t expecting extra mouths to feed. Our job is to keep you safe, but we can’t do that if you mess with our protocols.
“And, I’m sure you guys have a lot of questions. Kilo and Indy are going to do their best to answer them for you. Otherwise, you’re free to do whatever. We have some books, a few places to sleep, and, yeah, just ask if there’s anything else you need. Guys, let’s move out.”
He disappears in a single, swift movement, followed by Romeo, and Kilo motions for the others to follow her inside.
Ashley and Jim glance at each other, and after a few silent gestures and head jerks, she follows Kilo with Anders, and he turns hesitantly to India. She smiles, feeling truly shy for the first time in a while, and climbs in. Once he’s inside, too, she cranks the trailer shut, and the engine starts. Neither of them moves.
For the first time since Casino Night, they’re alone together.
She lets him make the first move, not wanting him to think she’s going to put him in a headlock again. He has a couple of false starts, and then, of all the questions he could possibly ask—what the heck is going on? Where did you disappear to in 2006? Why did you tell me “no” and leave Roy anyway? What are you doing here?—he chooses, “What happened to your face?”
India’s hand goes automatically to her right cheek, where a small array of triangular metal studs fan out in an arc about her ear. “They’re ports. They’re like—plugs. Or USB ports, like on a computer? They go to this.” She holds out her right wrist, pulling back her jacket sleeve enough to show him the disc-shaped tech strapped to it.
“And then these”—she holds up the string of drives around her neck—“plug into it.”
He looks thoroughly confused, so she demonstrates. In a swift, practiced motion, she switches out Weapons Expert (always the default print) for Auto (since it’s her turn to drive next anyway). She shakes off the half-second the wipe-and-print takes and explains to a no-less-confused Jim, “See? The tech—it wipes just a piece my brain, and then replaces it with, you know, mechanical skills or medical knowledge or sharpshooting or whatever I need. When we all joined up with Victor, we just wiped a section to make some room, and then now…”
“You…you just let yourself get wiped? And printed? Voluntarily?”
“Well, yeah. And no, not—just partially. I still have all my memories and everything. I just let them take stuff that didn’t matter, like how to draw, or four years of Dunder Mifflin shenanigans and—”
Now he just looks angry. And horrified. “Have you been out there? Do you know what happened to the whole world, Pam?”
“Wha—yeah, of course I do, I’ve been at the center of it since—”
“Our selves—that’s the only thing any of us Actuals have left. And you just gave it up? For this? So—so, what, you could play Rambo with those guys in what’s left of the world?”
Anger seeps across her skin, cool and metallic. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I made the choices I made for a reason—you don’t get to just show up on my truck and—”
“You came for us.”
“You came with us.”
“Because I thought I was going to get to see Pam Beesley again, not—whoever the hell ‘India’ is. I thought—”
“You thought after twelve years, that, what, that I’d just be waiting around at my computer playing Minesweeper? I know you thought—what you thought, but I’m—I’m not, okay? I didn’t then, and now—”
“Not what? Didn’t what?”
“Need you to save me!”
He pivots and storms off without a response, and her first thought, however uncharitable, is, How far away from me do you think you’re going to get, exactly?
She stands there for a full minute, staring at the space he vacated and shaking with suppressed rage. Who is he to question her choices? She’s heard his line of argument before—they all have—but how dare he not even let her explain? She’s been through hell as much as any person who’s still a person. She didn’t pick this life to be a superhero and feel badass, though it’s admittedly a neat side effect. And she had wanted him to get to see her again, to see that she’s not scared anymore, and her defaults aren’t set to I can’t.
She had wanted to tell him how a week didn’t go by in the last six years that she didn’t think about him and wish she’d left things differently. That she has a purpose, here and now, and she wants so badly to show the one person from Before who’d ever believed in her that there was a good reason to do that. That, staring into the end of the world, she still had whatever he’d seen in her back then. That she could save herself, and that she’d done it.
It’s not that big a truck, so hopefully she’ll have the chance to explain things. And if he can’t understand why she’s India now, well, he and Priya will be great friends.
She shakes her head, which does absolutely nothing to clear it, and stomps through the trailer, curving around the tech workspace to avoid the cots, where she can hear Kilo explaining the beginnings of the Rossum Corporation in a mock-spooky voice. She crawls into the driver’s cab, where Victor glances at her in surprise before looking back at the road.
“Everything okay? I thought heard shouting.”
“No.” She exhales sharply. “Can I drive for a while? I need something else to think about besides arguing with the newbies.”
Without taking his eyes off the windshield, he raises an eyebrow. “You? Seriously?”
She slumps onto the bench next to him. “It’s—I used to work with Jim. Before. In Pennsylvania.”
“Ah.” Victor fiddles with a dial for a few seconds. “He’s that guy, isn’t he? The one you left your fiancé for, that—”
“How did you—what, is there like a mind-reading print no one gave me?”
He chuckles, “It’s all over your face. I had ‘coworkers’ I watched die in foxholes in the Sandbox that couldn’t get me as worked up as you look.”
The corners of mouth twitch. “I have a pretty bad poker face, huh?”
“And don’t let anyone tell you different. So, what, he didn’t think you were the same old girl?”
“Pretty much. And then there was yelling.”
Victor sighs. “Well, look who you’re talking to, right?”
India stares at her hands. “Sorry.” At least she doesn’t have a kid in the middle of this.
“Eh, I made my choice. Priya made hers. I keep making the choice because I believe with everything I got that this is the best thing we can do for whoever’s left. She doesn’t think so, obviously. And it sucks. Burns every time we leave. But this is who I am, and it’s what I choose. If she can’t get on board…well, then we didn’t have anything that was going to last anyway.”
“But—every other time we’re back there, you…fall back together. And then yell a bunch anyway.”
“I didn’t say I stopped loving her. I didn’t. Shit, I loved her when neither of us even existed. And T…he should stay away from me. From us. But I can’t not do this thing, this mission out here. Because being the guy who didn’t—that wouldn’t be me. The one she fell for in the first place.”
“So, what? I don’t get to…make things right between us, even? He’s just going to be mad, and I don’t…”
“I didn’t say that. I met the guy for about a minute and a half less than an hour ago. And for what it’s worth, remember that it’s not like he knows the first thing about any of this. But, look. With me and Priya—it keeps happening, because, if it’s the person you love? You never stop thinking you’re going to get it right.”
She bites her lip. “I don’t even know…he could’ve changed how he felt about me even back then. I don’t even know if he, or I—it’s not like we were anything besides friends before.”
“Then start there.” Victor shakes his head and yawns. “In the meantime, drive. It’s getting dark and I’m still wiped from that strip mall thing yesterday. So the wheel’s all yours if you want it.”
She smiles her thanks and scoots into the driver’s seat. He claps her on the shoulder as he makes his way out.
The next several hours are lost in the rhythm and constant state of attentiveness that driving a semi at night takes. An hour or two before dawn, she stifles a huge yawn and punches the intercom. Romeo comes to relieve her. “Watch where you step,” he adds, climbing into the driver’s seat. “Your friend’s on the floor—he was too big for the cots.”
Tiptoeing around a sleeping Jim Halpert isn’t exactly how India imagined today would end, but he’s curled in a tight ball on a pile of salvaged winter coats in spite of the space. Kilo and Ashley have each passed out on a bunk bed, with Anders nestled under Ashley’s arm, which means Victor’s now in the crow’s nest and there’s an open bed for India. She balls up her jacket inside out for a pillow, and falls asleep, gun in hand, hoping no one needs her for at least a few hours.