The Changed -- Chapter Fourteen -- by Dee Caples

 The Dust Settles

Once it was safe to do so Pericles stood and removed the covering over his face, went outside and slapped it against the side of the building. The dust cloud was moving away from them, sweeping just as violently as it had come. Several doggish and cattish men unloaded water receptacles and everyone drank their fill and washed out their eyes. Dirt streaks formed on fur and Danna’s skin and they all laughed at one another, embracing.

“Enough of this!” Kellus barked. “Everyone get these supplies hidden beneath the houses.” They were all built on pier and beam. Once they had shoved their goods beneath, they replaced the sand drifts and looked for the most defensible places to hide those were weren't going to fight. They stored the vehicles out of sight in a garage of sorts.

“Come here,” Pericles told Danna. Along with Kellus and Manda, Aces and two doggish ones, they went about the perimeter, making battle plans.

Danna pointed to one of the buildings that had a raised lip along its flat roof. “If we had a way to get me up there, that’s a good, defensible position for shooting.”

“If. Perhaps we can build one,” Pericles said. He told a few young ones to go searching for a ladder but they returned to say they’d found nothing even resembling one. Pericles scowled and went on inspecting the houses to see which ones provided the best cover.

Manda frowned. “We probably want you guarding the parents and children anyway.”

Aces argued with her. “We can hide the ones who aren’t fighting. We need her and the guns with us.”

“And what if she’s killed almost right away?” Kellus argued back.

“I’ll just have to hide better. Or keep moving. It’s harder to hit a running target.”

“You’ve shot people before?” Manda asked, impressed.

Strictly speaking, she hadn't ever shot anyone before. Didn't mean she hadn't killed before. What she'd done to Don was something she kept to herself. It was no one else's business. “No. I’ve had to shoot my dinner more times than I have fingers and toes, though.”

He saw something not too far away, large desert lizards. “Go get one of the guns. I want to see you shoot something.”

“Wouldn’t you rather I save the bullets?” she asked.

“There’s your dinner.” He pointed and she shaded her eyes to see what he was talking about.

“Okay.” She left and came back with one of the pistols and walked closer to the lizards. As long as she didn’t get too near they wouldn’t run. Taking aim, she breathed in and slowly let it out. When she’d expended all her air, she squeezed the trigger. The hapless lizard was blown into the air then landed, minus its head. Aces whooped in appreciation for her marksmanship.

She roasted her lizard on a long stick and watched the children playing with the dolls. Pericles lounged against his pack, cooking the snake he’d killed. “What is this place?”

“I suspect it was a testing site for the nuclear facility that used to be near here.” He waved toward the houses behind them. “They detonated bombs to see how blasts affected structures and monitored the fallout levels.”

“How do you know all this?” she asked, amazed.

He gingerly lipped a piece of the meat on his skewer then stuck it back in the fire. “All I ever watched at the lab were educational programs. All kinds. Some were about animals. Some about human populations, foreign countries. War. Food distribution.”

“All the things an ape-man needs to know,” she teased.

Pericles almost bristled until he heard her giggle and realized she meant no harm. He nodded. “Exactly.”

Danna ate her lizard and gave the bones to a little dog girl that wanted them. She listened to the cracking and imagined the horror that might fall on her when Dancy got here. And he probably would. She wasn’t fool enough to think he wouldn’t. Dancy had achieved what he had by craft.

He wasn’t the only one. Pericles was more than a big guy with hair. He laid out a plan. Some of it used the mannequins as fake enemies. Everyone was assigned a strategic placement and drilled on maneuvers. It wasn’t easy digging the pits and cutting holes in the wood but they worked tirelessly and without complaining throughout the night.

Danna tagged along the next morning as they decided on the best houses under which to hide the mothers, or fathers, of children. They piled junk at the bases of the pier and beam structures and hoped the clutter looked natural. "How long will we wait here?" she asked Pericles. Danna watched the parents take what spare moments they had to lavish affection on their children or each other. Despair, with an outer coating of desperation, made her ache for them. She didn't want them to die. How could they possibly survive what was coming?

As if reading her mind and hopes, Pericles said, "If these men got lost in the storm and can't find us in a week, we can safely assume they probably never will. Then we'll move on."

"I probably will, too." She hated herself for allowing David's starry-eyed affection for her to blossom into that foolish flight from Dirty Town. Dreams of a better life had ruined what peace this band of genetic mutants had found. She'd come along and fucked it up. Her eyes welled and her throat threatened to close. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean for any of this to happen to you and your people."

Pericles looked down and was tempted to put his arms around her to steal just a moment of comfort. That's what everybody else did, wasn't it? Why not him? He should be able to have something soft and sweet in his life, something he'd never found. The hand behind her hunched, defeated back twitched with temptation then fell back to his side. "We should eat something more and rest."

Around the fire sat the rest of them, chatting and laughing in spite of the approaching trouble. They were eating from the meager stores again but Danna wasn't hungry. The dog-woman with the guitar came and asked Danna to sing as she played. Of course, she had to perform This Old Man and was impressed with her natural ear at following the tune. The children joined in, laughing and slapping their legs in time, with the beat or not.  It was a night she was to remember years down the road with bittersweet joy.

All alone, Pericles honed his knife and pretended not to notice her approach. A piece of an old coffee cup with handle still attached was his whetstone. The blade whispered back and forth across the ceramic, the newly sharpened metal gleaming brightly in the firelight. For a while she imitated his quiet demeanor but eventually the silence became too much. “I’ve never heard the names all of you have before. Are they ones you chose for yourself?”

He shrugged. “They didn’t want human names. None of the first generation wanted to keep the ones they were given at the lab. I don’t know why I did. It’s the name of an ancient Greek general.”

“Good name for you.”

“Thank you.”

She played with the toe of her boot, wondering if her curiosity might offend him. Some of The Changed were a little touchy when she asked questions but Pericles was harder to read. “Have you had to fight before?”

It was a while before he answered, his quiet voice tinged with sadness rather than anger. “When we escaped. Kellus heard what the people were planning and persuaded one or two to help us but he had to be very careful who he asked. Few of them were willing to act against their own. They had nowhere to ship the animals being used for testing so they killed them with drugs rather than set them free. We were next. A woman in the security division rigged the locks on our cages so they wouldn’t close and warned us when they were coming to, as they put it, give us something to help us sleep. If not for her we’d all have died. They shot many. That’s why we don’t like guns.”

“Oh, God, that’s horrible.” Danna closed her eyes as she imagined the caged, helpless animals unable to get away, slowly succumbing to the poison. “Were you afraid?”

“Yes.” Whisk-whisk went the knife. Pericles’s jaw tightened. “Angry, too.”

“Did you kill anyone that day?”

Whisk-whisk. “Yes.”

“Have you killed anyone since then? A human, I mean.”

“What are you trying to ask me with all these questions?” Pericles stopped what he was doing and glared at her. Those brown eyes weren’t just annoyed, they were haunted, too, and she wondered if he still saw the faces of those he’d killed. Would she? Her finger would pull the trigger and someone would die. How was she to live with that?

She scooted on her seat to face him. This was something she had to know. It was one thing to shoot something to eat but she had no idea what it was like to kill, except to save her own life. “Was it hard to do?”

It was funny how his face was different from a man’s and, yet, how very alike. That moment of understanding printed itself on his features, raised eyebrows and mouth forming an O. Had her question inspired memories of the light dying die in someone’s eyes? The hand holding the knife paused for a moment then went back to its task. “I think I know what you're asking. The answer is: not really. In the heat of the moment I didn’t have time to worry about anything but defending myself...and others.”

He sheathed his knife then held out his hand. “Let me see yours. You need it to be sharp.” She handed her knife over and watched as he ran the edge over the broken piece of ceramic cup.

A dangerous gleam in his eye flicked her way before he went back to watching what he was doing. She had no clue what was on his mind nor did she need to know how he’d done it. On that nightmare of a day he’d literally pulled apart the ones he’d encountered. They hadn’t always been fortunate enough afterward to avoid people. One terrified, brave and foolish man had thought to protect his family and charged at him with knife in hand. He hadn’t died immediately. 

“With you, with the guns, you’ll have some distance between you and who you're shooting at that. That's a good thing, believe me. When the time comes to use them, don't think twice about it.”

Danna stared into the fire until he was finished with her knife. She tested the edge. Maybe not sharp enough to shave with, but close enough. “Do you ever regret it?” she asked, finally coming to her point.

To make his, he took her by the arm and pulled her to within a foot of his face. “Regret is the most useless of emotions. You can’t go back and change anything you’ve already done. Tomorrow or the next day, men are coming to kill us. Look around you at the little ones and those who can’t fight for themselves. You can help save their lives. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Her teeth were bright as she smiled at him. “For someone grown in a lab, you’re pretty smart.” If she’d said that to anyone in Dirty Town she could have expected to get a crack across the mouth. Instead, he showed his sense of humor by damn near smiling. For the first time in a long time she felt safe how safe near him and these strange creatures. Humanity had lost its, well, humanity. Mama had told her how it used to be, her eyes far away and sad. Everyone had been kinder, more considerate back then. Now a neighbor was someone to exploit as often as not. Pericles exemplified the better part of humans as they once must have been.

He let his hand linger on her arm and couldn’t tear his eyes away. It wasn’t like him to judge anyone on their physical appearance but she was pleasant to look at, even with the hair he’d thought so pretty now hacked short. There had been fat people working at the lab but he doubted there were any now. The Changed, and Danna, were made of lean, strong muscle and sinew. Part of him, the man part, admired her girl curves and his fingers itched to cup a breast and test the weight of it. How would it feel to graze a hand across her hip and grip a buttock?

Danna’s breath caught in her throat with the sensation of his touch, even though the gesture wasn't a tender one. She’d seen that fleeting look too many times. It was most often leering and lustful but this time it wasn’t. The naked curiosity on Pericles’s face made her stomach tilt over. 

Oh, my God. He'd never done it before. 

Of course he hadn't. Who could he possibly have had sex with? Animals didn't mate outside their species and she instinctively knew The Changed wouldn't either. A riot of emotions swirled in her like the mixing of oil, water and air. Before a life-threatening event it was the way of life to try and preserve itself through procreation, no matter how fruitless. 

This wasn't what she felt. Pity, yes. Softness, certainly.  Overlaying those things was the need of a shaman to pass on his or her knowledge to the uninitiated. He was undoubtedly older than her, age-wise, but innocent as a child. She could change that with three words. Come with me.

She couldn't say it. The physical act of love had never been a pleasure. It was always an act of brutality or barter and not even remotely enjoyable.

Swallowing, she gently extricated herself from his hand and stood up. “Better get some sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a hell of a day.”

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