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Friend in the Field

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It had been a simple mission.

It was always a simple mission, wasn’t it? Archie had only ever heard people describe missions as simple, which was silly, really, because there was no such thing as simple now that there were zombies everywhere. Also, everything in the world was complicated once you got to the quantum level. Simple and complicated at the same time. A metaphor, if you thought about it hard enough.

She hadn’t meant to trip and fall. It was the sort of thing that people in movies did. Not that there were movies anymore, or not ones that they hadn’t picked up from the remnants of houses and video stores and hard drives. New Canton movie nights were fun, sometimes, but sometimes they weren’t, because there wasn’t a New York or a London left; there were no more romantic comedies and cop dramas in this world. Usually they watched space movies, because space was still there. Space could be anything you wanted to be. There were no zombies in space.

Sometimes they watched a zombie movie, and laughed at it. Those were good nights.

And now Archie had done what everyone in zombie movies did just when they were about to die — she’d fallen as she and Runner Five dashed down the now-still escalator in an abandoned department store, distracted by wondering whether one of the sinister-looking mannequins had moved. Unfortunately, she’d been behind Runner Five, and the momentum of her fall had caught Runner Five too, both of them rolling to the bottom, scraping up knees and elbows on the ridged edges of the escalator.

Five was fast. She’d been on her feet in seconds, and her cricket bat had decapitated the zombie that had indeed been lurking around, almost indistinguishable from a mannequin in the dim interior of the shop, sending it flying. Then she’d wheezed, and clutched her side a little, her other hand already swelling from where she’d landed on it.

After a brief, agonising test, Archie determined that she had sprained her ankle. She rather thought that Five might have broken some bones, and she was ready for Five to be angry with her — clumsy Archie — but instead, Five had examined their now-broken comms gear, stuffed the sports bras that had spilled out of her bag back in there, and set Archie up on a comfortable-but-mouldering chair, prodding gingerly at her leg.

“I don’t think there’s any more in here,” Five had whispered. “Nothing for them to eat, so why stay in here?”

“Won’t our noise…?” Archie began, but Five put a finger over her lips.

“Give me ten minutes. Sam said there was a camping supply place in the mall, and you’re going to need some crutches if we’re going to get home, so I’ll go on to the target and see what I can find.”

They’d been targeting a chemist that they thought might be un-looted. Archie swallowed, her throat dry.

“You should run for Abel and leave me here,” said Archie. “Send back runners.”

“Too risky,” said Five. “If you can’t move, you’ll die.”

“But I do not want to be the cause of your death.”

Five smiled at her, just a little, and then reached out, brushing her thumb over Archie’s cheek. “You won’t be,” she said, and then she was jogging off, her good hand holding her ribs, and Archie just had to wait.

____________

 

Archie was faster on the crutches than she thought she could be, but walking on crutches compared to running was such a ridiculously different speed differential that they’d never make it home by nightfall.

“You really should go,” she said, into the silence between them.

“I won’t leave you alone without comms, or without protection,” said Five. Her breathing was sounding a little ragged, and Archie realised that maybe Five couldn’t run back to Abel, even if she wanted to.

Archie swallowed. “Does it hurt very much?”

“What?”

“You’re hurt,” she said. “And I caused it.”

Five stopped, then, and turned to her. “It was an accident,” she said.

“I should have—“

“No,” said Five, almost sharply. “It was an accident. I’ve had enough people try to kill me to know when something’s deliberate or not. You’re not allowed to carry it on your conscience.” She gestured to Archie’s foot. “Besides, I think you’re suffering enough for it.”

After Archie’s anxious wait in the comfortable-but-mouldering chair, Five had returned with crutches, and four more bags looped around her shoulders, or tied to her pack. They’d been in luck — the chemist’s hadn’t been looted, and she’d managed to salvage penicillin and prescription pain meds. Both of them had taken some pain meds, even though it would probably make them a little slower, and Archie had rolled a pressure bandage over her own foot, and then one over Five’s swollen wrist.

It was only when the sun started to slip lower that they stopped, just inside an old electricity substation’s wire fence. It wasn’t much, but Archie spent half an hour stripping out the wires from the control box to jury-rig the fence to give a bit of a zap to anything trying to get in. They’d gone cross-country to avoid zombies, and it had been successful so far, but neither of them wanted to risk being set upon in their sleep. Archie had remembered the old substation, which collected and modulated the electricity coming in from a solar array. She was glad she’d been right, and there was still some small generation of power.

“You’re a genius,” said Five, as the fence hummed quietly into life. “We’ve got a good chance of making it through, thanks to you.”

Archie knew she had a tendency to get distracted, or to let something interesting snatch her attention away — but she didn’t let it happen when it really mattered. She beamed. Five unpacked her ungainly load of bags to reveal a small pop-up tent and a spongebob squarepants sleeping bag.

“Camping shop,” said Five. “All the really good stuff was gone, but this’ll give us some cover, at least.” She also produced two fairly squashed galaxy bars that looked like they’d been melted at some point in their lives. The chocolate was still excellent for Archie’s mood; she ate it with gusto as the last pinks and blues disappeared from the sky. Five unzipped the sleeping bag and arranged it over their knees.

“We should try growing cocoa plants in the greenhouse,” Archie said. “Where do you get cocoa plants from? You couldn’t just plant a chocolate bar.”

“I wouldn’t waste a chocolate bar,” said Five, who was eating hers in small bites, savouring each piece. “We’ve got coffee plants in our greenhouse, but they’re yet to yield. Well, we had them. Who knows if they survived?”

“Coffee,” said Archie, a flash of nostalgia rolling through her. “I remember coffee. Those pretty paper cups you used to get with flowers on them, or art. I always knew I should buy a travel mug, because the pretty paper cups were wasteful, but I liked the pretty cups too much.”

Five shrugged. “Turns out we should have all just enjoyed what we had before it vanished,” she said. “Not worried about tomorrow. That sort of thing.”

“I have never worried about tomorrow,” Archie protested.

“That, I can believe.”

They sat in silence, the warmth of Five’s body tangible where their sides pressed together. Archie wished they could risk a fire.

“You do not have to answer, if you do not want to,” she began. “But why Runner Five? I mean. Why is your name Runner Five? It is more of a description of your function, I think.”

“That’s the designation they gave me when I came to Abel.” Five didn’t sound angry, just resigned.

“But it’s not your name.”

“No,” said Five. “I don’t — my old self lived in the old world. She made a name and a life for herself in the old world. I wanted a new name for a new world.”

“I understand,” said Archie, because she did. “But why not a different name? There are many good names. Like Archie.”

“If I let you name me, I’ll end up Mildred Vandergraaf the Second.”

Archie giggled. “Probably,” she said, and she rested her head on Five’s shoulder. Five startled a little, but then put an arm around Archie. Overhead, a satellite passed quickly, flashing bright as it moved. There’d be no more satellites, would there? Or maybe there would. It wasn’t that dark yet, the horizon still glowing just the faintest of glows, but Five shifted to stand.

“We should get some sleep,” she said. “We’re useless in the dark, and we should get running as soon as dawn breaks tomorrow. Walking. Whatever.”

“We are not useless.”

“I feel like I am right now,” said Five. She must have picked up something in Archie’s body language, because she gave Archie a little squeeze. “What?”

“I do not like sleeping away from home,” said Archie, raising her head from Five’s shoulder.

“It’s not ideal, but we’ll be home soon.”

“I mean at all,” said Archie. “It took me weeks to get used to my bunk at New Canton.”

Five kept hold of Archie. “Is it home?” she asked. “Now, I mean?”

“Is Abel home to you?”

“Yes,” said Five, without hesitation.

_______________

 

The wind sighed, rustling the tent roof above them; there was a full moon out tonight, just enough to see by once your eyes had accustomed to the dark, and as long as you left the weird meshy windows of the tent unrolled. It meant it was colder, of course, but it also meant that they could listen out for any zombies on the move.

Not that they’d have much of a chance, if there were any zombies on the move.

“You know,” said Archie, into the darkness, “I think that tents are like a metaphor. We put them up, and we think we are safe because there is a thin layer of fabric between us and the outside. But really we are only fooling ourselves. Tents are flimsy. They are not safe. Not like—“

Five rolled over and looked at Archie. No words. Just looking. It made Archie feel a little odd, but in a good way, like she was warm on the inside.

“But you’ll keep me safe, won’t you, Runner Five?” Archie asked.

No words. Just staring, and a bit of a smile. Archie smiled back. Her leg had hurt earlier, but the painkillers had helped; they’d made everything a bit fuzzy at the edges.

“Yes,” she said. “You’ll keep me safe. You’ll keep both of us safe.”

Still wordless, Five raised her arm. Beneath the thin polythene of the tent, Archie cuddled in close. Five was warm, and her breathing was steadier than it had been earlier. They’d make it through the night. They had to. And then tomorrow, they’d go home to New Canton — or Abel Township — and they’d be safe, and all this would be forgotten.

They’d make it through the night.

Somewhere in the distance, the wind picked up, and the sound of shivering leaves hissed over the roof of the tent. Five shifted a bit, and tightened her grip on Archie. Archie didn’t mind.

_____________

“Runner Five?” asked Archie, after a while of not sleeping. “Do you think they’re worried about us?”

Five contrived to look like she was still asleep. Eventually, Archie closed her eyes.

____________

They’d intended to leave just before dawn, but it ended up being after, because Five was moving like every breath hurt, and Archie’s ankle was giving her a headache. She snapped at Five when Five expressed incredulity about the biomechanics of a sore foot giving someone a headache, and then she was sorry, because Five ignored her for a full hour. She didn’t even rise to Archie proclaiming that the mouthfeel of the word “mouthfeel” was kind of squirmy, and Five usually at least gave her an eyeroll.

They weren’t moving quickly. It was lucky that they only found two shamblers, because they weren’t moving quickly at all.

“Archie!” gasped Five, but Archie was quick, and the zombies were both down, one with the pointy end of Archie’s left crutch buried in its brain. They weren’t game to pull it out when it might have biological matter on it and both of them were covered in grazes and scrapes — instead, Archie hobbled along with one crutch, and Five seemed to have forgiven her in the instant when the zombies tried to kill them.

“Abel is closer, isn’t it?” asked Archie, eventually.

“Yeah,” said Five. “Do you mind? It’ll be another night in an unfamiliar bed. But they’ve shored up the walls, and Dr Myers is there, and Sam. We’ve all been sharing a bunk room while we wait for the town to get back to normal.”

“It will be all right,” said Archie. She knew the wisdom of it. She wasn’t silly — easily distracted, maybe, but not silly. “Do any of them talk in their sleep?” She frowned. “Do I talk in my sleep?”

“Not that I noticed,” said Five. “Although honestly, if you did, it would be about the etymology of the word custard, or something along those lines.”

“I do not know the etymology of that word,” said Archie, so she proceeded to try to puzzle it out, and came up with something about crusts. Crustard. Custard was one thing they did have after the apocalypse, she realised. Chocolate might be in dwindling supply, but custard was all right.

She looked over at Five as she announced that custard was probably a kind of crusted, as they crested the ridge of the small hill near Abel. Five looked back, and gave her one of those half-wry, half-happy smiles that Archie thought she could carry around with her forever, and never feel any weight.

____________

 

Abel’s gates were closed, but Archie could see a flurry of movement from the gun turrets as they approached, the sun starting to slip below the horizon, turning the world into magic hour. She imagined them inside, shouting at each other — raise the gates!— but of course, they might not. Nothing was ever guaranteed, not now that the world was different. If they thought that Five and Archie were infected, then they’d leave them out here to —

The gates raised, creaking, and Archie realised that she was blinking back small tears of relief. She caught Five’s eye; Five was trembling slightly, probably from weariness and happiness and being home.

They were running on a skeleton staff at Abel, Archie remembered, as the gates lowered laboriously, and the person who’d lowered them clambered down from the watchtower.

“Runner Five!” said Sam Yao, hugging her with evident delight. “You made it home.”

“Of course we did,” said Archie, straightening her spine. “Because Runner Five is very brave and strong, and I am a genius.”

“Archie!” he said, and hugged her too. “You both — I can’t — this is brilliant!”

There were still good people after the apocalypse, weren’t there? Sam Yao was a good man. He cared. She heard him on her headset sometimes, and he was a bit like her, easily distracted, but there was a good heart to him.

“What happened? How did you survive the night outside?” he asked. “And then to come back right as we had a joint Abel-New Canton team off experimenting with whistles down by the river…?”

“Archie jury-rigged an electric fence for us,” said Five. “And we had an accident in the mall.”

“An accident?” he asked, as Dr Myers jogged up to them.

“I fell,” said Archie. “And took Runner Five with me.”

“Are you okay?” asked Sam, obviously taking in Archie’s remaining crutch. “Maxine’s in the compound, I’ll just radio for—“

“No need,” said Five, as Dr Myers joined them.

“Oh, Maxine, I didn’t see you—“ Sam stammered. “You remember Archie? Archie, Maxine?”

“My god,” said Maxine, surveying their dirty faces and obvious injuries. “Are either of you bit?”

“No,” said Archie, cheerfully. “But I have sprained my ankle, and Runner Five has a broken wrist and I think she’s cracked a rib.”

“And you carried all that stuff back?” asked Maxine. “Runner Five, I don’t expect you to be a superhero. None of us do.”

“We needed it. Look at Archie first; she needs it more,” said Five. “My ribs are bruised, not broken. Then we’re both going to sleep for a week.”

“No,” said Maxine. “If you’ve broken a rib, then it could be dangerous to your health.”

“More dangerous than spending a night outside?” asked Five. Maxine glared her down. “Fine. But there’s nothing we can do.”

“How about you let the person with medical qualifications decide that?” asked Maxine. “Come on. Take my arm, Archie, and we’ll see if we can get some weight off that foot.”

_____________

 

It took forever to get examined. Part of forever was unpacking the bags, and for a minute it seemed like Runner Five had been carrying around Mary Poppins’s bag, for how much she’d fitted in there. Archie said as much.

“Runner Five is the best packrat I’ve ever met,” said Maxine, fondly. “Need a new sports bra? Five is your go-to.”

Archie’s whole body was aching by the time she sat down — Maxine gave her some headache pills, which were good, and then proceeded to manipulate her ankle, which was not good.

“Definitely sprained,” said Maxine. “It’s possible you’ve fractured something, but with no x-ray…”

“It has got better, over the last day,” said Archie. “I believe it will continue to do so.”

Maxine smiled a tight smile. “Let’s hope so.”

There was a knock at the door to the infirmary, and without waiting for an invitation, Sam Yao let himself in. He was carrying something.

“Sandwiches,” said Sam, and Archie dug in. “The bread’s a few days old, but it’s still all right. New Canton bread, Abel spread.”

“Oooh, Marmite!”

“You must have been worried,” said Maxine, wryly.

“I wasn’t worried,” said Sam. “I was just — I thought Runner Five and Archie might like something to eat.”

He settled where he could watch both of them, and Archie offered Five a sandwich. She ate it while Maxine poked and prodded at her ribs, wincing at one point.

“I hope they’re only bruised,” said Maxine. “As with Archie’s ankle, it’s hard to tell without an x-ray. Show me your wrist.”

Five obediently held out her hand, and Archie nudged Five’s other hand with hers. Five threaded their fingers together as Maxine swore about what was probably a broken wrist.

“This, we’re definitely immobilising,” she said.

Five sighed.

“Would you like to finish my sandwich?” asked Archie, and Five accepted the offering. “So. Where is it that we will sleep? Not that I am usually tired at this time of the day, but…I am tired.”

_____________

 

The bunk room that the Abel people were sharing was spacious — it had probably been a rec room before. There was a Demons and Darkness plush red dragon toy on one of the beds. She’d wanted one, before the apocalypse, but after it felt — like playing games was too normal. Too much like the old times. Everyone dealt with the apocalypse in their own way, thought Archie. Everyone.

Five caught her looking. “That’s Sam’s,” she said. “One of the other runners and I found it when we were on an entertainment supply run. He lost his mind when we brought it back.”

“Abel is a nice place, isn’t it?” asked Archie.

“I’d say so,” said Five. “But I’m not a good judge of niceness.”

“I think you are an excellent judge,” Archie protested. “I wish you could have seen New Canton like you see Abel.”

“How do you know the way I see Abel?” asked Five.

Because it is as easy as tracing the roots of a word, Archie wanted to say. Because you let them give you your name, and once you name something, everyone knows that part of it will always be yours.

“I have magical powers,” Archie said, instead, and got that wry smile out of Five.

“You want Spongebob?” Five proffered the sleeping bag.

“Oh no,” she said. “You collected it. You should use it.” She looked at her bed. “Besides, I have a very nice blanket here.”

Five shrugged. “Let me know if you change your mind,” she said.

Archie’s borrowed pyjamas were too big for her; she felt like she was very young again, as she climbed into bed, her fingers tangled in her cuffs. Five snapped off the light, and Archie heard her stub her toe against something in the dark. It wasn’t too bad, though. A soft rain began to fall on the tin of the roof, and Archie was glad they were inside tonight, safely behind Abel’s walls.

Still, those walls had been breached once. She tried to burrow into the covers, but they weren’t her covers.

“Runner Five?” asked Archie, in the unfamiliar darkness of an Abel township bunk room. “I would not say I am scared, precisely, but I am a little cold.”

“Come on, then,” said Five, patting the bunk beside her, and Archie hopped over, curling up in the lee of Five’s body. She listened to the rain on the roof, and felt Five stroke a gentle hand over her hair.

“You don’t mind?” asked Archie. “They will not mind?”

“I don’t mind,” said Five. “Get some rest, Archie.”

Archie snuggled in, and barely woke when the door opened a crack to let the room’s other inhabitants in. Five’s breathing was soft, and she was warm; Archie fell back to sleep in what felt like seconds, to the sound of the rain on the roof.