Come morning we found a rabbit and a possum in our snares. Running trails while hungry is pure misery, so we blessed our luck and dug into one big, tasty breakfast. Afterwards I posed my theory about Dyani to Dunc while we set to breaking camp. Believe me, I was more than a little dumbstruck to find out he’d known from the get-go when Dyani had first swung down from the tree and confronted us. And here I’d thought I was the one with good eyes and ears.
“It wasn’t plain to you like ducks fly?” Dunc asked in disbelief. “Can’t believe you didn’t notice the second she started movin’ and talkin’. She hadda drop her pants before you knew?” He gave a huffing laugh.
“No, I didn’t know before then,” I said irritably. “Had a few other things on my mind, didn’t I?”
“Well, me too,” Dunc replied, “but that didn’t keep me from noticing that she’s a she.”
“All right. Okay. So where’s that put us, ya think.”
“Oh, let me see.” Dunc set his face in mock concentration. “Well, how ’bout exactly where we’ve been ever since runnin’ into her and the cobot? Still totally fucked.”
“You think she’s tough enough to run with us?”
Dunc looked over his shoulder to where Dyani was wiping down her gun. “Tough enough? I think she’s at least as tough as either one of us, maybe both together. She’s been out running the woods on her own a whole lot longer than we have, and she’s still alive. The way I figure it, the three of us footin’ it together stand a lot better chance of pulling through than just you and me. We might even be able to get the best of that cobot when we get back since she knows it better than we do. That’s what I think.”
I stole a look at Dyani. There was cool deliberateness in the way she carried herself and a load of confidence, too. A knife swung at the end of one of her lean, muscled arms would cause some serious damage no doubt about it, and I guessed she was more than just a middling shot with that gun of hers. I also saw that she probably was younger than she looked under her coating of dirt and tan, about my age or just a bit older. “Could be you’re right,” I said. “Tell you what, though. We don’t have to let on that I didn’t see she’s a girl, okay?”
“Sure, Travis. That’s all right by me. Can’t have her thinking you’re that dim, can we?” I let the little dig go as I was too busy realizing that I wasn’t nearly as smart as I’d thought.
Dyani walked over to us. “Lost in thought, are ya?” she asked me. “No time for that now, you know. Lotta ground to cover.”
“I know that,” I answered. “So, maybe you tell us what the plan is?”
She gave me a measuring look, and I felt I was coming up way short of smart in her estimation, too. Then she leaned in on me and said, “I’m not so sure the two of you are going to get through what’s ahead, but it looks like I’m stuck with you. There’s little help or trust in the woods, and I’ll take what I can get, but just don’t ever get in my way or let me think I can get back to Bors with the goods on my own. Follow me?”
I did. “But Bors must’ve thought you needed us, otherwise why’d he send us out all together?”
“Well, Travis, it’s pretty simple, innit now? He must think a crew’s got the best chance of living long enough to find whatever it is he wants. If you ‘n’ Dunc hadn’t come along, someone else would’ve, and I’d be stuck with them now.”
“D’ya know what it is we’re supposed to find?”
“I’m not sure exactly, but whatever it is, Bors believes it’ll make him a regular power in the Big Woods, so it’s got to be something way bigger than anything else he’s already found.”
“And this ‘whatever it is,’ it’s supposed to be somewhere down around the power station?”
“Yep, down around there somewhere. I’ve got the general idea where from Bors,” she said, tapping her head, “but no one particular place to go. We’re gonna have to feel our way around once we get there and listen for word of an Old Days cache.”
I didn’t like that idea much, but under the circumstances, what was there to like. “What’s our chances of running into Meeks or bandits d’ya think?”
“Plenty good, but I’d rather take my chances with them than stay stuck where I’ve been.”
“I know what you’re sayin’. I feel the same way about the farm.”
“It’s not anywhere near the same,” she said with a frown. She gave a low whistle and Stashi bounced over to us and sat still at Dyani’s side, eyes fixed expectantly on her. Dyani scratched between the dog’s shoulders and then continued, “We’re goin’ now and I’m takin’ point. Dunc’s middle and you take the rear and make sure nobody’s stalking us. That okay with you?” I didn’t think she was really asking for my opinion, so I just nodded, slung my pack over my shoulders, and cradled my gun in my arms. She called Dunc over and told him to join in a last sweep around our camp to make sure we’d cleared our tracks as much as we could. Once we’d done that, we were off again.
A breeze had been ruffling the treetops along Old 6 since early morning, and the further we traveled, the more it picked up. Down on the roadway, though, it was almost still, and we found ourselves slogging through air brimming with wet heat and bugs. We had to slow down and take a break after only an hour, all of us sweltering and breathing a little too hard.
I checked my map and located a stream not far off. The notes said it was supposed to be clean of contamination and bugs which meant, at least the last anyone knew, that nobody had gotten sick or croaked after drinking from it.
Information about the dangers and safe places in the Big Woods spreads fast by word of mouth, and based on travelers’ tales, the mappers on the Farm had pieced together a picture of where to hole up and where to drink, which hamlets were safe for travelers and which you’d better pass by. There were even some notes about who you could and couldn’t trust in some of the marketplaces. Teacher said that our maps were all about staying alive on the trails. He told me that before the Long Last Days, though, lots of people used maps to run around the world to see new and interesting things, meet different sorts of people, eat different foods, and so on–all for fun. He showed me pictures in one of his brittle old books of what he called mass transport. It all impressed me as crazy and unreal–just made up stories from way back–but I guess Teacher might’ve had some good reason to believe that something so far fetched could be true.
Anyhow, when we reached the stream, I made a good luck sign over it before we sipped some for taste. None of us went straight into a puking fit. We waited a while longer for good measure and then drank deeply, filled our canteens, and splashed our faces and necks to cool off. Dunc asked what the sign meant, and I told him it was just something we did on the farm to ask the great whatever that watched over the whole show for protection. Dunc snorted and said that he reckoned there was nothing watching over any show, that we made our lives up as we ran along through them, and come to think of it, we’d better get moving along. I thought that his idea might be something I’d like to kick around later, but right now he was right. We slapped more bug dope on, hoisted our gear, and beat it back to the path.