Rhodesia’s heart thumped in her chest.
People could probably hear it in the next city.
She forced a breath into aching lungs and kept a hand over her mouth to stifle the sound of an explosive exhalation. Hiding behind a tree was hardly sufficient, even if the trunk was wide enough to cover a two-person hovercraft, but she had to catch her breath.
Were they still on her tail?
Probably. And they wouldn’t be tired.
Maybe she should just give up and submit to the conversion. No place was safe, she had nowhere to run, and perishing alone in the forest might be worse than turning into one of them.
A beautiful sound drifted down from the branches above her head. One of the indigenous birds sang. Happy, joyful, and defiant.
Through her adolescence teachers talked about the old world and life on a planet called Earth. She never understood why it was important, not until now when her own life was in shambles. Remembering the past might be more valuable than she ever realized.
Birds on Earth were allegedly different than here, but it was hard to believe such a preposterous statement. Flying animals should look the same everywhere.
She remembered a photo of a feathered creature with an extraordinary beak. It hadn’t even been a hologram; the picture was two dimensional, and so old the color had faded. Pelican. It had been called a Pelican.
How such a being could fly boggled the mind.
The birds of Lucretia looked more like the drawings of dragons she’d seen in an ancient book for children. Sleek, with long bodies that shone with an inner light. The one above her sounded like it would be yellow and orange. Their song varied with their color.
She wanted to look, but it would be hidden in the leaves and she couldn’t afford to divert her attention.
Earth dragons breathed fire and probably weren’t real. The birds of Lucretia had no fire, but were still radiant.
The bird cut its song off and the forest around her became too quiet too quickly. That could only mean one thing: they were near.
They were faster and stronger than her. She’d only gotten this far because of a head start.
It didn’t matter.
She needed to run. The bird had reminded her of the value of freedom and slavery was not an option.
She peeked out behind the trunk, but couldn’t see any pursuers. That didn’t mean they weren’t there.
Her feet were heavy and did not want to run anymore, but she made them. She was too tired to be quiet and almost stumbled a couple of times, but regained her balance at the last moment.
I’m going to die.
It might not be true, not even if she stopped running and submitted, but it felt true.
Her great escape stopped just minutes later. She threw herself down on her stomach and took in glimpses of a large road. The pavement looked golden in the sun, and it stretched out with no interruptions as far as she could see. Days earlier it would have been crowded with traffic both on wheels and in the air. Now it lay deserted.
Walking on the road would be easier than trekking through the forest. It would also make her an easy target.
It led to New London. She had been there a few times and it was a nice city. Crowded, but pleasant. People were polite.
Cities had clean clothes, water, and food.
It was just an illusion. New London would be in no better shape than New Tampa, and getting out of there almost killed her. Mankind was overrun by its own creations, and any city would be a deathtrap.
Maybe she should cross the road and resume her trek through the terrain on the other side?
It was just an excuse to feel the pavement under her feet, and once she stepped onto it the call of civilization might be too strong. She might not be willing to step off. She’d keep walking, comforted by any remains of her lost world, and it would lead straight to her death.
On the other hand, did she stand a chance alone in the woods? She could hold out for a few days, but what were the odds of someone solving the world’s problem before she succumbed to starvation and fatigue?
What if I’m the only human left on the planet?
She would need a ride off-world. The elders had placed the planet in quarantine and there were surely beacons transmitting gloomy messages of death and destruction, but there might still be ships able to fly. She had never left the planet, but how hard could it be?
The spaceport couldn’t be far, and to get to it she’d have to cross the road.
She climbed the short but slippery bank on all fours, determined to get to the other side before she changed her mind again. Minds were such fickle things.
The deserted road was eerie, much more so when standing on it than when seeing it from a distance. Alone in the forest she had been able to pretend the world still functioned, but roads were never empty.
She reached down to press her palm against the smooth surface. It was cool and smooth. At least buildings and roads were still reliable. For now.
“We accomplished this. We built this.”
Her words were too loud. Now would be a good time to run, stay out of sight, and hopefully be forgotten.
Get off the road.
As much as she told herself to hurry, she dragged her feet. New London had a thick wall and it looked safe. Tempting.
“Doesn’t matter when the danger comes from within.”
Her voice sounded spooky in the thick silence, but talking to herself helped her move forward.
Getting up on the road hadn’t been difficult, but seen from above the bank of gravel slanting down to the forest looked steep. She crouched and squinted, attempting to make out a safe way down. Falling would be bad.
Was that movement?
Or, maybe an animal.
She kept her eyes on the spot, just in case the leaves would separate and show a human face. This was the end of the world and her instincts might be reliable.
At first nothing moved, but then the greenery parted and a man looked out. He stared at her and held out a hand.
“Come with us. You will be safe.”
Right. Sure I will.
She got to her feet, slowly. He might still be human, but odds were against it. Even if he were human, he might also be a crazy, cannibal rapist.
“You will be safe.”
The slow repeating of words and the lack of expression on his face convinced her.
Where there was one, there could be more.
Had he come from the city?
She nodded, pretending to consider the offer, and glanced to the side. A group of five advanced in an eerie, synchronized manner.
The man said, “You will be safe” one more time, and the others repeated the words. An eerie choir of human voices void of emotion.
The only way clear led to the city.
“You know, I’m gonna have to take a rain check on that.”
Her voice came out strong and clear. At a time like this, small victories mattered.
The words didn’t slow their approach, and she spun around and ran.
She didn’t expect to get far. Her escape earlier in the day had been dumb luck; she wasn’t that good at running. She expected the pursuers to approach like the wind, but they weren’t good at running either.
Maybe human bodies were complicated to control and they only managed a slow shuffle without falling over?
If this was the case they would adjust. She should take advantage of their weakness while she could.
I need to get off this damned road.
Good idea, but no telling what she would run into in the forest. She only had rudimentary memories of the area, but there had been smaller settlements outside the wall. If all those people had turned and filled the woods, she wouldn’t stand a chance.
She dared a glance back. The pursuers weren’t breathing down her neck, but they were moving faster.
Her lungs burned and her legs ached. It had been a long day with no rest, and she wouldn’t be able to go much further.
Something moved up ahead by the city gate. Had she waited too long and trapped herself between groups of enemies?
No. Only humans could move that erratically.
Shouting voices drifted over on the wind. She couldn’t make out the words, but only humans would shout.
Safety might be an illusion, but she’d hardly be worse off with them than alone.
She forced her legs to move faster and ran like she never had before, to the New London city guard. One man caught her when she collapsed at their feet, and she heard a voice bark orders.
“Get her inside. It’s time to clear out the woods.”