When Dawn wakes up, it's with a jolt and a yelp. There's cold coffee dripping off her arm, and the sight of the spreading pool on the table is enough to make her move fast, jerking her shirt over her head and throwing it down as a barrier between the liquid and the texts that cover most of the surface. That buys her enough time to be gentle, moving the books into stacks on the chairs before using the edge of her hand to push the coffee off the table and back into the cup she's retrieved from the floor. She uses the shirt to mop up the rest.
"Crap. Crappity crap crap crap." Giles is going to be pissed. He's been close to instituting white-room rules on the vault for months, and this is going to mean an explosion of paranoia. It wasn't enough that the books were sealed in - bomb-proof, fireproof, warded and climate-controlled - this is going to mean actual restricted access.
If he finds out.
Dawn puts the books back in their cases, the cases back on their shelves, and picks up her notebook and wet shirt before she thinks to look at her watch. Great. Jet lag strikes again. It's six in the morning. Wonderful. She's slept through hanging with everyone to watch the sky. Not that she'd thought there'd be much to see; the comet would have had to be huge to compete with the ambient light from the city. But she's missed everyone, and she hadn't planned to spend her holiday break puzzling over rare texts. Or falling asleep on top of them; that was embarrassing.
Their plans for last night are spilt milk, though. Spilt coffee.
She enters the code to unseal the door and listens to the clunk-clunk-clunk-whoosh as the bolts unship and the air pressure equalizes. Climbs up a tight spiral of stairs and out the next door into the basement. Slings her shirt into one of the open washing machines with a satisfying wet smack and digs through a dryer for a clean one. Something unidentifiable, in case anyone's awake yet. She doesn't expect anyone will be; it's a house of late risers. She can still get a couple of hours in her actual bed before apologies and conciliatory sister-time.
The house is dead silent, and she takes care with the basement door before heading up the back stairs. Dawn counts off the risers and steps over the ones she knows are creaky, pulls the door to her bedroom almost closed so she'll wake up when people start moving around, and burrows into bed.
She wakes up over-warm and sticky-mouthed. Muzzy and blinking at the glaring sun spilling across the bed. The house is quiet again, so she must have slept right through the usual late-morning chaos of slayers and scholars fighting for space in what will never be enough bathrooms. Dawn's groggy with too much sleep. No one woke her. And it's 11 am. Either Buffy has spontaneously learned empathy (fat chance), or she's pissed about being stood up. Dawn pushes her face into the pillow and allows herself a long-suffering groan.
Okay. Time to mend fences. Or raise barns. Or something.
There's a soft red powder on the floor of the bathroom, and scattered half into the sink. Someone dropped her blush, maybe? Who wears blush anymore? And why not clean it up? Slayers. They got a good dose of entitlement with the calling, but damned if Dawn's going to clean up after them. She kicks the negligee sitting in the middle of it to the baseboard, which is where dirty laundry seems to gather no matter how close the hamper is. And she isn't picking that up, either.
The shower is what she needs to feel ready to rejoin humanity. Caffeine is going to make the apologies easier, though. Dawn rushes through dressing and knots up her wet hair. She'll dry it after coffee acquisition. Also, humility: apologizing before grooming is the kind of thing Buffy will respond to best.
She's on the front landing before she realizes that it isn't just the upstairs that's quiet. The whole house is hushed. Weird. Even in emergencies, even in an all out crisis, there's someone left behind, sitting in front of the TV or griping over Froot Loops about still being on the injured list. But there's no one here.
A banana and half a pot of coffee later, and Dawn's left puzzled behind and is sitting smack dab in the middle of bored. She hasn't been able to find the morning paper, and she doesn't want to be in front of the TV when people get back, so she's loaded the dishwasher and wiped the counters and feels like she's done enough penance. She pulls her cell out of her jacket, hanging by the kitchen door, and hits the auto-dial for Buffy.
Twenty-two calls later, Dawn's considering panic. Every number rings and rings and then goes to voicemail. And she's heard four of the phones ringing inside the house.
She searches the rooms, top to bottom, floor by floor. Then she pulls on her jacket and heads out.
She's backed the little rental car out of the driveway before she remembers she hasn't got a clue where to start looking for everyone. Back into the house and she's checking the tracking system, the street map screen display scattered with the eight dots that comprise the council fleet. None of them are moving; five of them overlap, centered on the garage they'd dug out underneath the old carriage house that serves as training space. Of the other three, one's out in West Park, the other two are on the east bank, in the Flats. The better odds mean that's where she's headed.
She snags one of the duffle bags on her way out, tossing in a few stakes and one of the protection charms that are heaped on the table next to the front door. She's got at least three hours to sunset, but better safe than sorry.
Dawn stands next to the car for a moment before she gets back in. The whole neighborhood is silent. There's a bite in the air, and the sunlight is the bright warming gold of late autumn. A breeze picks up, and the sound of it stirring the heaps of dry leaves along the curb is startling.
Buffy always parks at Old River and Front. She claims the predictability means she doesn't have to go looking for targets; they're right there, trying to set up some lame ambush.
The cars are there in the lot, one parked cockeyed, enough to throw everything around it out of plumb with the yellow lines. Dawn doesn't need to look for more verification, but Buffy's jacket and field bag are both in the back seat.
The streets have all been still. The drive over didn't yield a glimpse of a single person, and in the back of her head, Dawn's shuffling through the possibilities: pocket dimension, glamour, phase shift, dream. She sits for a moment on the hood of the car, listening. There's a little electrical hum from the buildings, and the rise and fall of faint, dry rustling from leaves and litter shifted by the air. But no birds, no regular pat of animal feet, no voices, no cars.
Dawn climbs to the roof of the car and pulls the phone back out of her pocket. She dials and listens hard, pivoting to pinpoint the ring.
She finds Buffy's crossbow at the mouth of an alley. It's been dropped. There's a notch in the wood from the impact, and the firing mechanism looks jammed as well. It sits near a loose jumble of clothes, bright familiar colors and patterns, the stacked heel of a boot emerging from underneath. The pile is layered with soft red dust, and Dawn crouches next to it for a moment, refusing to know what it means. She feels blank when she lifts the hand she'd braced against the pavement and finds her palm stained, vivid.
Dawn scrapes her hand over the edge of one of the slumped piles of cardboard stacked against the wall and closes her eyes tight for a moment. One deep breath, and she runs the fingertips of her other hand over the crossbow before pushing it into her duffle and rising.
There are three other piles of clothing, a few feet away. Dawn pokes at one with the toe of her shoe, disturbing the dust. It's not quite the same, here. There's a grayish glitter to it, and it isn't as dark. There's a buzz of ideas at the back of her head, but nothing's making it though the silence. Something here should be obvious. She scans the alley again: blue sky, brick walls, pile, pile, pile, pile, dumpster, loose garbage. Her eyes shy away from the red-smeared cardboard, and then she finds what she hadn't noticed before: a scatter of glittering ash. And another. Vampires. Dusted. She crouches again next to a huddle of clothing, and uses a crossbow bolt to gingerly raise the shirt high enough to sniff. There it is. The clean dirt smell and faint cold sweetness. Also vampires. So it got them, too.
Dawn doesn't remember walking back to the car, so she's a little surprised when she finds herself pulling up the driveway. She shuts off the engine and stares at the steering wheel, then gets out. Habit makes her lock the car doors, ignoring the bright gibbering bubbles of thought that tell her there is nothing to lock the car against.
Back inside, back up the stairs, back into her room.
She pulls the door gently closed behind her and curls into the nest of covers on the bed, shoes and jacket and bag and all.
She's braced for impact so many times. So many averted apocalypses. And here it is, the end of the world, un-prophesied. The unexpectedness is like vertigo. Like peering over the edge of a swaying tower forever.
Her face is wet. She buries it in the pillow.
She wakes up sweaty and disoriented. It takes a moment to remember, and then there are a long few minutes where she considers staying in the bed forever. Starving to death, dehydrating into incoherence. Following the people who have left her behind.
But it's only a few minutes.
A shower and she's pulling on jeans and boots and a big lumpy sweater she picks up from the floor of the room Xander uses when he's in town. Used. When he was.
Back on task.
She starts a pot of coffee and unwraps a breakfast bar. The nausea might be because all she ate yesterday was a banana. The headache might be because. Well. The coffee will help with her headache.
She tries the TV first, flipping mechanically through the channels. A few are broadcasting static, a couple have reverted to please stand by screens. The movie and entertainment channels are all unchanged. Dawn doesn't let herself be hopeful about that - they're all automated, they'll loop the same week of lineup forever. She stops on a rerun of Growing Pains for a while, lets herself zone out.
The last couple of bananas are brown-spotted, but she eats them anyway. She has a suspicion they may be the last ones she has for a long time.
CNN is a three-way split screen. An animation of the comet's path through the solar system, a shot of the anchor's desk, a shot of a streetscape with a banner at the bottom identifying the location as London, England. There aren't any people in either of the shots, and the scenes could almost be still photos. The local channels all show something similar. Empty streets.
She tries the radio next. FM, knowing that those broadcasts will be as automated. Most of what she can't identify as Clear Channel is broadcasting silence. AM is almost all dead air. She saves shortwave for last, but there's nothing.
She's not sure where to look on the internet; it's too big a task. She checks her email, and the house email, but there's nothing that didn't come from a spambot that's time-stamped later than 12:20 two nights before. She checks all the social networking sites she can think of for posts, and they're all as old. Ditto all of the bulletin boards, wikis, and groups she googles her way to.
She sits and thinks about being the last person on Earth until her head is full of white noise.
She cruises around the city at a snail's pace, searching. She decides against driving the rental - she's better off in one of the Council SUVs. She's up higher, and there's more passenger space.
Just in case.
There's nothing. She spends six hours driving a huge spiral, winding back, inward toward the house. The banks of the river are edged in a red scum. So is the lakeshore. She suspects that's the fish, but she can't be sure. It doesn't matter. It's another crisp, sunny day, but the sun is shining through a reddish haze in the sky. She must be breathing the dust in; she tries not to think about it.
Not thinking about doesn't turn out to be possible for very long. She's emptying a can of soup into a bowl next to the microwave when she freaks out. It takes almost two hours to vacuum every living surface in the house. It's worth it for the freedom of not seeing any more of the dust, not figuring out who was in the house when it happened. She's shaky with hunger by the time she's done, but she pours the soup down the sink, starts the dishwasher, and eats peanut butter out of the jar with her fingers on her way into another shower. The water heater is huge, so she's still able to make it scalding.
Clean bowl, clean spoon, hot soup. Dawn sits at the kitchen counter, half watching some terrible monster movie on the Sci-Fi channel. She's turned the TV in the living room on as well, sitcoms with the sound turned up loud enough that she can make believe the voices are real. The house sounds almost like normal. The furnace clicks on and she presses her feet up against the register.
She can't stay here. She needs a plan. She needs.
She needs to bring the world - everyone - back. Whatever happened, it's got to be mystical. It has to be reversible. She can do this, if it takes a life of study.
She needs to make sure she has the life to work with. Winter's coming. She needs to be practical. Safe. Healthy.
They'd been in Cleveland for a while. Sunnydale is long gone, but California is still home. Gentle weather, and fresh food should be easier to find. Not worth considering orchards, though. Unless there are still bees.
It's hard to know about insects, this late into autumn. If she has to, she's pretty sure she can pollinate a small garden herself, at least enough to produce seeds for the next year. That's not a worry yet, though. She goes back to the notepad she's brainstorming with.
So, California. She has the entire coastline to choose from. She can decide the specifics later, but she's thinking the northern end of the state. More dependable for regular rainfall.
She'll drive across the country - maybe there are people somewhere. Or maybe she can find clues to what happened, some way to reverse it. Her notebooks, the ones she's been using to take notes on the fragments of prophecy the Council has never been able to interpret, incomplete or mistranslated, are in her dorm room, so she'll stop in Berkeley, even if that doesn't wind up her final destination. She writes road atlas at the top of a clean page.
Food and clothing for the trip. Medicine - the basics, maybe one of the field first aid kits. Weapons? Definitely. She's going to be scavenging for the rest of her life, if she can't find a way out of whatever this is, but she can't think of much here that she won't find more of there.
She sets down her list and heads up the stairs, turning on all of the lights as she goes. When she gets to the highest, farthest room, she starts opening drawers and closets. Looking for the irreplaceable.
She gathers souvenirs of the dead. The multi-tool from a bedside table goes into her back pocket, along with the handkerchief retrieved from a neatly arranged drawer. She finds a brushed velvet jacket still smelling of verbena and sulfur over the back of a chair. A curved knife, haft wrapped in red leather, comes from between a mattress and box spring. She knows she's keeping the crossbow.
In the basement, she loads all of the waiting laundry into the two washers and starts them up. She might want to come back someday, after all; there's no reason to leave anything undone.
Back up to the kitchen and she clears the big dinner table and sets her notepad at one end. Then back through the house, gathering all of the laptops and USB drives, setting them pell-mell across the surface. The sleek Vaio she's been using for school and Willow's latest MacBook go next to the pad - she's taking those. Back to the basement for one of the spare hard drives, and she starts the process of backing up all of the council data. It's all stored on triple redundant remote servers, but Dawn doesn't want to risk waking up one morning to find her access gone, the internet disappeared.
It doesn't take up that much space, all told. Scans of innumerable books, text files of all the watcher's diaries, mission reports, exhaustive files profiling long-dead demonic megalomaniacs. Photos. Training manuals. Dissertations. A double-handful of translation programs.
She spends a few minutes breaking into the password file and uses it to access everyone's personal drive space. At first she means to sieve out the snapshots, but it's easy enough to take everything - email folders, outdated documents, school papers, personal journals. She thinks it might be a comfort, going through them later.
Then through the USB drives, copying anything worth keeping, clearing the memory, setting them into neat rows along the table edge. And the laptops, for anything not saved to the remote drive. When she's done, she carries the laptops in armloads down to the book vault, and carries up the few books that had always been too dangerous, too volatile to scan. She'll take those with her. Their fragility seems a small concern, now.
She ransacks the kitchen for food that won't take up much space, shelf-stable things in foil packets, a few cans and jars. The weight of what she's taking doesn't matter that much, but the bulk does. It all goes on the table as well.
The rest of what she needs is in the carriage house, but it's 3 am. Alone in the world or not, Dawn doesn't want to cross the dark, silent yard to get there. She'll save that for daylight.
She sleeps in Buffy's bed.
She's walking through Sunnydale, down the center of Revello Drive, toward home. The neighborhood is covered in a blanket of soft snow. Everything's silent, the way it was the day of their one white Christmas. The only sound is Dawn's steps, and even that's muffled. She looks up at the dark sky, and the stars make her head swim.
Dawn gets to the house and starts building snowmen in the yard. She's made one of her mother and she's putting the finishing touches on one of Buffy when she realizes the snow is a dark, soft red, and her sister's body is crumbling under her hands. Her mother blinks red eyes at Dawn, pushes back red hair with a red hand and smiles, kind and patient, then slumps, collapsing back into powder, swirling around Dawn's ankles.
She's gritty-eyed the next morning, feeling off, missing birdsong and road noise in equal measure. She pulls yesterday's clothes back on and goes to the basement first, putting everything into the dryers before venturing outside.
It's another clear day, hard November sunshine and cold, dry air. The gym is dim and stale in comparison when she enters. She doesn't bother flipping on the lights, but walks through the gloom to the office, where she retrieves the keys from the hook on the wall.
Willow's herbary is first. She isn't going to try to take the big glass jars, but there's a box of little heavyweight plastic zip-topped bags, and she fills them as full as she can of the things she knows she won't be able to find in grocery stores or pick wild out of fields. It's a slippery pile by the time she's done. She looks over the tinctures and suspensions, the tiny pickled eyeballs and other, less identifiable parts. There isn't much out of those that she can use. Her skills begin and end at the small, useful charms that can be followed like recipes, like chemistry, with no native magical talent and no reliance on living ingredients.
She selects a few anyway and pours them into rinsed-out soda bottles. Perhaps she'll improve.
Dawn chooses one of the hard plastic toolboxes from the workshop and dumps everything inside out onto the floor. It's the best option for keeping what she's salvaged from being crushed beyond usefulness, but the jumble of tools makes her stop for a moment. The workshop has always been alien territory, but every room is hers now. Every task.
She leaves the toolbox on the floor until she's managed to fix Buffy's crossbow, taking the mechanism apart, cleaning it, replacing the bent pin, and putting it all back together.
She sits for a moment, rubbing the stock with a little lemon oil on a soft rag while she thinks. She needs cargo space, and comfort. Passenger space, because continuing to look for people is the right thing to do. She's not certain how easy it will be to refill the tank, but she's confident she can work out how to turn on the pumps at gas stations, at least in cities. She's never been a fan of the SUVs the council favored, but they fit the bill. There's one in the front drive, rather than across town somewhere, and that's what settles the matter.
She sets the crossbow on the passenger seat and straps the filled toolbox to the wall of the cargo space. She slides a huge trunk into the back and loads the books and computers in layers, padded with some of her clothes and one of the blankets. A couple of swords, a case of crossbow bolts, and the compound bow along with every arrow she's been able to find fit around the case. The other blanket goes in the backseat with a pillow and the suitcase she's filled with food and clothes for the trip.
She showers and folds laundry, then goes through the house, the garage, the carriage house. Locking doors behind her, turning off lights, looking for things she might have forgotten. There's nothing.
She throws a frozen pizza in the oven and looks over the maps at the kitchen table. She's going to get a late start, but it doesn't matter.
The plan is to stick to the big roads, for ease of navigation, convenient gasoline. But she has to maneuver around a lot of semis, crashed and jackknifed, still smoldering. There weren't many other cars on the roads when it happened; the comet must have been too compelling a sight. But the guys paid to drive on a schedule, most of them would have kept going. It's too bald a reminder, so she leaves I-90 for the side roads. Dawdling a little - she thinks she should be covering more ground, getting done, going west faster, but she's still hoping for survivors.
She feels a little guilty that she isn't still scanning through radio stations while she drives, but that seemed like a pointless exercise in bravado. There's no one to impress, so she's plugged in an iPod on shuffle and turned the volume way up. She's not sure who it belonged to, but she's guessing it must have been one of the younger slayers, by the unremitting earworminess of every track.
The wall of sound doesn't stop her from thinking. Red dust, green energy. Complementary colors. Being left behind, just when she'd stopped worrying about it. Her own nature. The future and the past. The papers she isn't going to need to finish for the classes that won't be reconvening after the holiday. Pumpkin pie. Maybe the final proof that she isn't real after all.
She turns off the iPod and meditates on the lines of the road, the sound of the tires against the pavement.
Dawn's only made it as far as Toledo before full dark. Topping up the gas tank turns out to be easy, and she stops at a grocery store, lit up like a beacon, the freezers still humming, the Muzak still piping through the speakers.
She doesn't stick to packaged food, though she thinks perhaps she should be worried over the chance that whatever killed everyone might have contaminated it. But she's the last girl on earth, maybe, and she's not going to deny herself a few small pleasures because they might hold dangers. So many of the large pleasures are gone forever now, after all.
There's an Econolodge right there, so she lets herself into a room, spreads a picnic on one of the beds, and flips through the pay-per-view. The room smells of stale cigarette smoke and the cover on the bed is scratchy. She thinks perhaps she should have driven uptown, found someplace swanky. But all she needs is a place to sleep.
There's more meandering the next day, crossing under and over the expressway, exploring a little bit. It's slow, but she doesn't stop until mid-afternoon, driving away from the road and into a neatly kept little downtown. Polite streets, stores with big windows, and a restaurant - time for lunch, a place to pee and wash up. It's nice to be out of the car, but she doesn't spend too long before she's driving again. A few more blocks and she finds the gas station she expected. No reason to let the tank dip too low.
She's almost driven past the restaurant when she slams on the brakes. The front windows are smashed, where they hadn't been half an hour ago when she'd been sitting inside. The rush of adrenaline makes her queasy as she takes in the litter in front of the window. The gnawed scraps that had been the chair she sat in, the table she'd used.
Not looters, then. Not human.
The car hasn't finished stopping before she's moving again - straight back to the expressway. She can deal with the wrecks if it means getting away from whatever is here.
It takes a while before she's calm enough, but it gets her thinking. This sort of thing, the threat of violence from demons, is going to increase. Trans-dimensional traffic has always been steady. Word will get out, and they'll be coming to pick the bones of the world clean. She can't stop it; she isn't planning to try. She won't be using most of the world, anyway. But it means that she needs to find a defensible place to live out her life, and she needs to get there soon.
She makes it all the way to Chicago before dark.
That night when she stops driving it's to pull into a parking lot with a low decorative brick surround, and she sets charms at the corners to keep out malicious harm. She pours a thick ring of salt around the car, whispering invocations, and draws wards on the doors and windows, hood and roof.
It's the edge of the city, but everything's silent. She lies across the back seat in the dark, exhausted and a little embarrassed by her own paranoia. It takes a while to drift off, even so.
Thinking she's overreacting doesn't make her sleep any deeper, so when she hears the scream she's out of the car and fitting a bolt into the crossbow almost before it ends.
A few blocks running flat out, and she reacts to the tableau without thinking. There's no hesitation as she stops between the two figures, breathing deep for steadiness as she pulls the trigger.
She's almost forgotten how satisfying it can be to know you've hit target, waiting through that moment where everything seems to hang, suspended - then victory in the form of a monster crumbling into so much shining ash.
Until the breeze picks up.
Dawn shakes the front of her shirt and watches the familiar grey drift down over what's left of the scattered red on the ground. The world is shifting in her head; there are new data. She isn't alone. It isn't her origin that saved her, not if anything else survived.
A mixed blessing, then, everyone struck down so many hours after sunset. It won't have taken out any of the vampires or sun-shy demons in Europe - they're too fond of their vaults and buried catacombs. It would have been harder to be the last person on earth there. Though Italy had been pretty cool.
She turns back to the blonde woman, fitting a new bolt into the crossbow and holding it in casual readiness. But the woman looks frightened and exhausted, breathing fast and shallow, watching for Dawn's next move. Human, then.
Dawn can feel herself relax. Finding another person is such a relief, she wants to yell and cry and throw up. Hug the woman and dance her around the street. But they aren't safe here, and the woman has started to shake.
She needs to say something, break the tension. Introduce herself, and offer protection. Find a way to keep the woman from going away.
"Nice shoes," is what pops out. Well. She's channeling Buffy, now. But it's working so far.
The woman's eyes widen, and she looks maybe a little outraged by the non sequitur. It's an improvement.
"Uh. Thanks. I guess." She looks at the crossbow, then at the ground behind Dawn. "What was...?"
"Oh, that. Vampire, no big." Dawn shrugs, daring the woman to take issue with her sangfroid.
"Oh." It comes out soft and hollow. And now she looks like she wants to pinch herself. Taking it pretty well, otherwise, but she still looks like she's on the edge of panic.
"Yeah. You should worry more about the demons." Breezy.
"What? Demons? What?" There it is.
Dawn figures they should get the freak-out out of the way.
But the woman turns and runs.
"Hey! Lady!" It had taken a moment before Dawn had started running after the woman, and the half-block lead meant that she lost sight of her after a turn. She takes a deep breath and holds it, listening for movement.
What she gets is the sound of a quiet voice, coming from behind one of the parked cars.
A few more steps and she can see the source. The woman is bent at the waist, panting, with her hands braced against her thighs. She's looking into the back window of a station wagon, mumbling a steady stream of thank yous.
Dawn walks up next to her, still cautious, and sees why. There are two little kids asleep inside, round pink limbs tangled in blankets, brown hair and blonde curls, tilted toward each other as though they are sharing secrets as they sleep.
The woman smiles at her, still catching her breath. "I'm Jeannie."
Dawn grins back. "I'm Dawn. The vampire slayer." She winks at Jeannie. "Ex officio."
It isn't a hard sell, getting Jeannie to move the car, so they park it next to the SUV; Dawn scuffs away the salt, then pours a new circle around both.
When she's done, Jeannie's still resettling the kids. They hadn't woken up, not all the way, so there's almost no delay before Jeannie's sitting next to her on the hood of her Volvo.
The relief of company is still making Dawn giddy, but she's trying to keep herself loose, play it cool. Human doesn't mean safe or friendly, after all.
Buffy always made the repartee seem easy. Dawn can't think of a single smart-ass thing to say to get this conversation started. She's got the crossbow sitting across her lap, though, and she figures maybe the awkward silence looks like watchfulness.
It pays off, because Jeannie starts talking.
"I know it seems stupid, leaving them like that." A deep breath. "I know."
Dawn raises an eyebrow, because, sure, now, in retrospect. But-
"But I didn't think-" Jeannie's shaking her head, rephrasing. "I didn't know about demons or vampires. But everyone was dead. I thought." She's whispering now. "Me, my little girl, my nephew. I thought we were the only people alive in the whole world. On the planet. On Earth."
Dawn nods. Except. Apocalypse wouldn't be everyone's first guess, would it? "Why?"
"Why did you think you were the only ones left?"
Jeannie hasn't opened her mouth yet and Dawn can already see that whatever she's going to say won't be true. It's all over her face.
"I assumed, that's all. I mean, there's no one on TV, or the radio, or anywhere. Right?"
Huh. Weird that it's such an obvious lie, since that's pretty much all the evidence Dawn's been working with. But she's never been as certain about it as Jeannie is saying she was.
Something to watch out for.
"Yeah." Dawn lets it go. "So what were you doing walking around in the middle of the night? Insomnia? A little late night looting?"
"Well," Jeannie looks a little embarrassed. "Sort of? We ran out of milk. And we passed a grocery before I parked and it's so much easier to shop without kids along, you know? And they always have cereal for breakfast, and all the experts say that in times of upheaval it's important to keep as many normal life behaviors in place as possible, and I thought that-"
"Got it." Dawn's not sure how much more Jeannie could have got out without stopping for breath, but she can find out sometime when she's not about to come down hard from an adrenaline high. Sleep's sounding better all of the time.
But she should get the rest of the story first. "I didn't see any milk."
"Oh. Yes. I was still on my way." Jeannie smiles at her, a little shamefaced. "I wasn't rushing. Trapped in the car all day, you know?"
Dawn nods for her to continue.
"So I thought I heard something. But I knew - I mean - I thought there wasn't anyone else. I was sure it was my imagination. But then I started thinking about horror movies and I was freaking myself out and then I talked myself back down again and then a guy walked out from between a couple of buildings and I was so surprised I screamed.
"I startled him, too. He jumped. But then he started walking over to me and he said he was happy to see me. That I scared the life out of him. And then he laughed, and his face changed, and he tried to grab me and there you were."
"That's me, nick of time girl, at your service." Dawn's snappy dialog has almost no snap. Maybe it will be better when she gets some sleep?
If she's right, and Jeannie was lying before, or covering something up, then she's telling the truth about the rest. Good enough to take a chance on. Not that there's an alternative.
She'd opened one of the windows a crack before falling asleep, so the sound of Jeannie shushing the kids is what wakes her. The three of them are on the asphalt between the cars, the kids grappling over a Game Boy, Jeannie looking up at Dawn, a little guilty and desperate, as Dawn climbs out of her blanket.
"Sorry. We tried to be quiet." Jeannie doesn't look like she slept much.
Dawn stretches. "It's okay. Time to - " She's been turning to look over the parking lot, but the unexpected sight of a long comma of sleeping tabby cat on the hood of the Volvo stops her cold. She frowns for a moment before turning back to Jeannie, looking a question.
"It's my brother's cat. I don't know her name," Jeannie offers. "Oh! And this is Dennis," she rumples her fingers through the little boy's dark hair, while he tries to duck behind her arm, shy. "And this is Madison," she gestures at the little girl, who grins and swings an arm through the air in an elaborate wave. "Kids - this is Dawn."
That Dawn is awake enough to be introduced is license to escalate the argument over the Game Boy. It's kind of a relief that she isn't expected to make conversation with them; it already feels like meeting babysitting prospects. Surreal.
Wait. There's something off in what Jeannie had said. By the time Dawn has it puzzled out, she's speaking again.
"...so I didn't know if maybe we shouldn't try to cross it, because when the cat got out of her carrier, she walked around the inside of the circle and then came back to the car when I got out the food and then she didn't try to wander off after, and that seemed weird. And it's regular salt, right? Is it dangerous?"
"You still need milk, right?" They need to talk, but there's no reason to do it in front of the kids.
Jeannie frowns a little at the unanswered questions. "Well, yes. I just got done telling you that we didn't leave the circle."
"Okay. Put the kids back inside the car. They'll be safe there until we get back." Jeannie looks a little uncertain about that, but does it, and puts the cat in as well.
Dawn uses a key to scratch wards into the doors and hood, until Jeannie's car is as demon-safe as her own.
Jeannie seems to have caught Dawn's mood, and doesn't question until Dawn retrieves the crossbow.
"Will that thing kill demons?" Hushed.
Dawn shrugs, insouciant as she can manage. "Yeah, well. Mostly vampires. Better than nothing for demons, though."
"Oh!" Jeannie jumps a little, surprised by a thought, and opens her car door, stretching across the seats to pull something out of the glove compartment. "Would this be better?"
Holy shit. Jeannie is holding a gun. Dawn swings the crossbow up, but she hasn't loaded it yet, so fat lot of good that will do her.
Except it does. Jeannie gives a little gasp of surprise and raises her hands. The gun's pointed at the sky. "Sorry! Sorry - really - don't shoot!"
Dawn decides now is not the time for Jeannie to learn Crossbows 101, so she goes with it. "Set the gun down on the ground. Slowly." Dawn gives Jeannie a grim smile when that's done. "Now step back."
It's heavier than she expects, cool in her hand. She grips the muzzle, pointing it down and away. Dawn knows next to nothing about guns - Riley had never let her look at his up close. She'll have to fake it.
Dawn sets the crossbow down and changes her grip on the gun. Fingers away from the trigger. There's the safety. Or the cartridge release? She'll figure it out later. If Jeannie couldn't spot that the crossbow wasn't loaded, Dawn is willing to bet that she isn't that familiar with the gun either.
She looks back over at the other woman. Jeannie looks terrified, and she's shooting glances over at the Volvo, where the kids have their heads bent over the screen of the Game Boy, a temporary truce rendering them oblivious to the activity outside the car. The cat looks interested, though.
Dawn sighs. Drama. Great.
"Okay. You surprised me." She's matter of fact about it, and lets the hand with the gun in it drop to her side. "Sorry."
"You aren't going to shoot us?" Jeannie looks like she honestly believed Dawn would have. Jesus.
"Sheeyeah." As sarcastic as Dawn can muster. "I am legend, right. Like I want to be the last person on Earth. Come on, let's go get the milk."
The market has huge, reassuring front windows, and the lights are all on, so they fill a cart with milk and a bag of apples along with boxes of Cheerios and Frosted Mini-Wheats. Dawn tosses in some Golden Grahams at the last minute, and a jug of Cranapple.
They walk through the checkout line and bag everything up. Dawn's not sure why they aren't walking the cart back to the cars, but she doesn't say anything.
They each take a bag, and once they're back on the sidewalk, it's time.
"We need to talk."
Jeannie had relaxed when they were in the store. The walk over had been silent, but not strained. Now she's tense. She looks like Dawn has caught her at something. Which Dawn supposes is accurate.
Dawn sets her grocery bag next to a bench and sits. Jeannie follows, and folds her hands in her lap, looking at the ground.
Dawn lets the silence stretch out taut, and then snaps it.
"It's your brother's cat."
Jeannie's eyes are big. That wasn't what she expected to hear. "Yes?"
"Is. Not was."
"Oh." Jeannie looks back down at the pavement. "Yes."
"You were lying to me last night. About why you thought everyone was gone." Dawn pauses to see if Jeannie will speak, but she stays silent. "The three of you. But that part wasn't the lie." Jeannie doesn't look up. "You thought you were the only people left on Earth. So what, exactly, is your brother?"
That gets a reaction. Jeannie stares at her for a minute, then puts her face in her hands and starts to shake. Crying. Terrific.
No, wait. Laughing.
"Oh God. You think - a demon?" Jeannie is gasping for air. She's closer to hysteria than Dawn had guessed. It's been a tough morning.
"But he isn't a person?"
Jeannie takes a shaky breath. "Well, his humanity has, from time to time, been up for debate. But never that way. That's not it." She smiles, a little watery. "He isn't on Earth."
As reveals go, that one's insane.
Dawn finds it reassuring.
Jeannie doesn't want to leave the kids alone for long, so they agree to talk it out over breakfast. There's a Starbucks kitty-corner from where they're parked, so Dawn does recon while Jeannie fetches them.
Recon is checking for footprints in the red dust scattered across the floor, then grabbing a broom to sweep the worst of it into the corner and dropping one of the clean green aprons over the top. She's done in plenty of time.
Jeannie settles Dennis and Madison onto the sofa nearest the front window, upending a bag in front of them, scattering coloring books and crayons, Lego pieces and little wooden cars. Then she heaps a couple of café au lait bowls with cereal, grabs spoons out of the server station, opens the milk carton, setting that all within reach as well before walking back to Dawn.
They've got a good view of the whole store from behind the espresso machine, but they won't be overheard. Jeannie probably doesn't want to panic the kids, but Dawn's kind of wondering if they might contradict parts of her story. Shouldn't matter, unless Jeannie has learned to dissemble sometime in the past twenty minutes.
Jeannie's fidgeting. Sorting through the pastry case, trying to decide if any of the things inside are still fresh enough to eat. It's not worth looking. On the other hand, Dawn wouldn't say no to a venti skinny half-caf caramel latte. If she can figure out the giant espresso machine.
Score. Procedures manual, tucked into a handy spot under the counter.
On second thought, too much trouble. Dawn leans over the surface and stretches out to snag a Tazo. Good enough.
Jeannie's given up on the pastries. She's eating dry handfuls of Golden Grahams instead. She tilts the top of the box toward Dawn, offering.
Dawn's not an anthro major for nothing. She knows there's symbolism there. She takes some, washes it down with the tea before she speaks.
"Yeah." Jeannie sighs. "Where do you want me to start?"
"Tell me what happened. Because I think you know. And tell me how you survived."
Jeannie makes a little equivocal movement with her mouth and chin, a sort of shrug. But then she starts.
Ok, this is a slow start. Dawn can play along, though. To a point. "The one on another planet?"
"Well, yes. Rodney. I've only got one brother." She shakes the cereal box a little, peers inside. "We hadn't been close for years; we had a falling out. But we got back into contact, had a visit. A couple of months ago."
There's a pause, so Dawn prompts, "Hmmm."
"Yeah. So he's busy, I'm busy, we're in different galaxies - I didn't expect regular correspondence or anything. But about a month ago, end of October, I got a package from him - a big envelope full of letters. Like a backlog. They were all newsy without saying anything, you know? Normal." Jeannie stops to raise an eyebrow. "Rodney is not normal. He'd never write letters like that. So I looked them over - I figured he must be pulling something, making sure they got through the censors." At Dawn's confused look, she elaborates. "Top secret project, the military, the US government, alien technology - they all get sort of paranoid."
It's a lot to take in, but Dawn thinks it might be harder to deal with if she didn't have plenty of memories of the Initiative.
Jeannie starts up again, talking around a fresh mouthful of cereal. "I started looking at them by date, though I thought it was pretty obvious they'd almost all been written at the same time. Well, not obvious enough you'd notice if you weren't looking for it, I guess.
"They all had messages in code. The first couple told me how to break the more complicated codes in the later letters - nice, subtle work - drawing on our shared knowledge, with a more obvious, breakable overlay, a dummy message in case of discovery. He did a good job on it, so I paid attention - Rodney doesn't have a ton of free time - if he spent it on that, I knew it had to be important, right?"
Dawn shrugs. The only coded messages she'd ever written were notes to Janice during AP History class. They hadn't been anything resembling unbreakable.
"Right," Jeannie continues. "There were three different messages, hidden over and over throughout the letters: an insistence that I hide from the comet, instructions on how to do that, and the access code for the lockbox in his condo."
That pulls Dawn out of her slouch. "The comet? That's what it was?"
"Of course it was the comet. What did you think, it was some giant coincidence? What else could it have been?"
It's all meant rhetorically, but come on. "I knew the comet was part of what happened; a sign, maybe. I just didn't know it was the cause. It could have been plenty of things." Dawn glares a little. She feels stupid, but she's still right. "Plenty of things."
Jeannie yields with a half-shrug. "I took it seriously. There was a disused nuclear shelter on our family property near Sudbury, so I got that into shape. I tried to convince friends to come with me, but no one would. My husband, well, he did. He tried to help me convince people, too. His sister thought we were crazy, but she was okay with Dennis sleeping over."
She laughs a little. "She was having a comet-viewing party. Kaleb's sister. He was -"
She goes quiet for a few minutes.
"He drove a junker. He loved it. I used to make fun of it all the time." She pauses. "He managed to convince his parents to come. They broke down an hour and a half after they left Toronto. I was on the phone with him when the comet went over. He got to talk to Madison before."
She goes silent again, staring at the counter for a long stretch of minutes. It's fine. Dawn can see from across the room that the kids aren't done with their cereal yet.
But then again, they don't have all the time in the world. "So you stayed in the shelter."
"Oh. Yes. Three nights. That's where the messages got complicated - the how parts. They said that the first night was the crucial one, and that we didn't need to be shut up longer than ten nights, but not why. Anyway, we were stir-crazy by the third morning. I didn't want to save the kids just so I could wring their necks a couple days later, you know?"
It's a pretty lame joke, but Dawn grins at her anyway.
Jeannie smiles back, wry, regaining her bearings. "So that's where we're driving. Going to live with my brother. He didn't spell out the invitation, but he wouldn't. We'll show up and he'll bitch about it and everyone will live happily ever after."
Wait. "On another planet?"
"Yes. Huh. I guess there was sort of an invitation." Jeannie digs into her pocket. "This is what was in the lockbox." She hands Dawn a plastic card with a magnetic strip down one long side, and an unflattering yellowish ID photo of a smirking man on the opposite face. There's some text as well, and the initials SGC in hologram form over the entire surface.
"That's him?" Dawn tries to keep her cool. Jeannie and the kids are leaving the planet. She's not sold yet on whether that means Jeannie's going some sort of Heaven's Gate Kool-Aid route or if it's possible there's a spaceship. She believes what she's saying, and it's probably not completely impossible. Either way, it doesn't matter. Dawn is going to be the last person on Earth. And if everyone is dead because of the comet, then...
Think about it later.
"Yeah. The picture's a few years old." She takes the card back. "Oh, the gun was in the lockbox, too. And some other stuff, odds and ends. But the card is the important thing."
"His ID? Why? Who are you going to show it to?"
Jeannie looks at her like she's an idiot. "It's a keycard. It's to get into the base. The one that we need to get into to get there, to the other planet." All slow, over-enunciated.
God, Jeannie could be kind of annoying.
It turns out Jeannie and the kids are headed to Colorado. Which is on the way to California, near enough. Dawn figures she should see them off, keep them safe. And maybe the spaceship or whatever isn't there. Or maybe Jeannie's crazy. In which case Dawn should keep an eye on her. Once she faces reality, maybe they'll come with her to the coast. Maybe they'll stay.
Dawn's flipping through a magazine, waiting for Jeannie to finish washing up the breakfast dishes. She gets leaving things as you found them, but at a Starbucks that no one will ever enter again? Seems a little extreme.
"Hey, Dawn." Jeannie's still drying, but she has a weird look in her eye. "Have you seen a phone book around?"
"What, you want to call for pizza?"
Jeannie's smirk is a twin to the one on her brother's keycard. "I thought we might want to do a little shopping."
"Okay. So this is kind of genius. Creepy, but genius." Dawn's impressed. She never would have thought of this. Must be her sheltered upbringing.
"Thanks, I guess. I figure the actual creepy thing?" Jeannie pauses for a moment while she boosts herself over the counter that holds the cash register. "Is that this place must have been open when the comet went over." She kicks at something on the floor, and is rewarded with a soft jingle. "Ah ha! Found the keys!"
"When was that, though? I mean, isn't this the central time zone?"
"I'm supposed to feel better that a gun shop was open at 11:20 at night, not 12:20?" Jeannie shakes red powder off of the keys. "Yuck. Huh. Yeah, that actually does make me feel better."
Jeannie unlocks the cage at the back of the shop and shoves the grating out of the way. "So. What do you figure they've got that's suitable for housewives?"
"Which one were you aiming for again? Because if it was one of those cars a couple of blocks over, maybe you hit it. But I'm not walking over to look." Dawn is sitting on the roof of the Volvo, one foot to either side of Madison, who's hooked her arms out of the open driver's window, the better to keep an eye on her mother. Dennis is trying to torment the cat in the back of the car. So far he seems to be failing.
Jeannie raises the pistol again. "Heckling me isn't going to help." But she takes out a window this time, so maybe it did.
And it's time to reload, so Dawn's up. They switch places, and Dawn starts with the AR-15. It's light, so it doesn't kick much, and she leaves a careful, meandering row of holes down the side of the old sedan they're using as a target. Not bad.
She walks back to set the rifle next to the car, playing it cool. She's fighting a victorious grin, and it's harder when she catches a glimpse of Jeannie looking impressed out of the corner of her eye. Time to try her new handgun, though, and that's going to be harder - the feel of the grip is alien, nothing like the weapons she's trained on for the past few years. The weight feels odd, unsupported in her hand, and she tries to pull up the memory of every action movie she's ever seen for hints on stance and grip.
Her first shot goes wild, but the next is closer, and she feels like she's got the hang of it halfway through the magazine. Jeannie's silent behind her, though, and that's - annoying. Maybe it's the silence of being very impressed?
No. A casual turn that Dawn's pretty sure could be passed off as scanning the perimeter, and Jeannie's not even looking in the right direction. She and Dennis are sitting on the ground, fiddling with the pieces of -
"Hey - that's mine!" Okay, that came out as a whine. Oops. But she had been good with that gun; there was no reason to take it apart.
"Oh hush, hang on." Jeannie hasn't looked up, but she's putting the rifle back together, taking parts out of Dennis' little hands as he offers them. She gives him a proud smile as she smacks the magazine back into place. "Thanks babe. You're a big help."
Dennis looks thrilled and starts examining the smears of gun oil on his fingers. Great.
"Well?" Jeannie holds the gun out, so Dawn takes it.
"What?" She's keeping the whine out this time, at least.
"Try it." Jeannie's pushed herself around to lean against a tire. "Go on."
Whatever. She takes a couple of strides away and sights along the gun. Another row, above the first this time?
But when she squeezes the trigger, there's a sound like the very best bubble wrap, and a whole cluster of holes.
Dawn points the muzzle at the ground and spins back to face Jeannie. Who looks like the cat that ate the canary.
"Fully automatic. Like it?"
"Oh my god." Dawn loves it. "What are you, MacGyver?"
Jeannie laughs and claps her hands together. "I gotta do mine now."
Two hours later and the four of them are having a picnic in front of the wreckage of their target. Well, the five of them - they've tied a piece of string to the cat's collar.
Jeannie's been talking since they stopped shooting. Somehow she still seems to be keeping up with the rest of them on the cheese and baloney sandwich front. Dawn hasn't had a baloney sandwich since fourth grade, but they're not awful. Also, she caught a glimpse of the package, and she's pretty sure it's fake meat, so no worry about eating pig noses, or whatever. And the kids aren't complaining, though the sandwich Dennis is eating is in careful, crustless triangles, so she's guessing there's complaint potential in the waters. Madison is eating hers in tiny bites, circling in from the perimeter. Kids are weird.
"I've always been, you know," Jeannie gestures in a vague way with a slice of bread and the mayonnaise knife. "Anti-gun." She pauses for a moment. "And I still am. Guns," she points gravely at each of the kids in turn with the knife, "are bad."
Jeannie pauses to wipe the knife clean on a second slice of bread and starts unwrapping a piece of cheese. "Shooting cars is fun, though." She grins at Dawn and hands her the completed sandwich. She aims another serious look. "Adult fun. Fun for grown-ups. Right?"
There's a vague noise of assent. Dawn's not sure, but she has a feeling they might tune most of what Jeannie says out. They'd almost have to.
The sandwich ingredients are tucked back into the cooler, and Jeannie sets an apple and a cookie in front of each of them. A perfect re-creation of every bag lunch ever: cookie first, or apple first?
When they all pile back into the car it's past 3. There's no way they're making any real progress tonight, and even though Dawn knows it shouldn't make any difference anymore, she wants to drive when it's light out.
Jeannie looks over at her, then around at the back seat. "Think we can find a swanky toy store?"
"I think we can find lots of swanky stores. Want to?"
Honest to god, Jeannie starts giggling. And throws the car into drive.
It doesn't take much to find a store that catches all of their interest, in what looks like it had been a hip part of the city. But a couple of hours of wild pseudo-consumerism later and they're all worn out.
Time to get back to their parking lot, anyway. Full dark is coming on fast.
Dawn's been carrying her new handgun. It seemed like the responsible thing to do, and she needs to get used to having it in her hand. So when the figure lurches out from behind a nearby car, features sunken and skin ashy, Dawn shoots, almost without thought; she brings her arm up, hits the safety, squeezes the trigger, squeezes again, and again; it's knocked down by the impact, knocked away from Madison, who it had been reaching toward.
Jeannie grabs the kids fast, one after the other, shoving them in the open car door and blocking it with her body. Guarding, watching for attack, but there's just the one, and Dawn watches it struggle on the ground and stop moving.
When she's pretty sure it's dead, she shoves the muzzle of her handgun under the corner of its jaw, to be safe, and gingerly presses her fingertips into the opposite side of its neck, feeling for a pulse, for breath, for a lingering hum of magic; trying to figure out what sort of a thing it was. The skin is papery dry, and the flesh underneath feels ropy and desiccated. Like no demon she's ever seen, ever read about. It had been passing for human, the way it's dressed. A keychain looped into the belt, the line of a wallet in the back pocket. There's no question it's dead, so she sets the gun down and moves to examine the body.
Her fingers come away from the skin covered in soft dust. Chalky dry. She palpates the body, pushing it over to be sure. It's lighter than the size suggests. Dehydration. There's no blood coming out of the bullet holes, but when she steels herself to push a finger into one of the wounds, what she finds is human. Thick and congealed, but human.
And now she's sure, or as sure as she's going to be. This is the comet, still killing people. And that thought's a comfort. This isn't murder; this is mercy. Bringing peace to someone driven mad and violent by illness and the proximity of their own death. She repeats the thought to herself, waiting to believe.
"Dawn?" Jeannie's turning, watchful, gun held high and ready, looking for threats. Good. "What was that? Will there be more?"
"I'll tell you later. And maybe. Let's go."
The drive back was silent, but now Madison and Dennis have been tucked in and reassured, the charms refreshed, the protective circle redrawn.
Dawn doing her best peering-into-the-terrifying-unknown pose. She was hoping that would translate into a delay, but Jeannie's standing next to her already.
She leans in. "So?"
"What?" Dawn plays for time. She doesn't want to think about it, much less talk about it.
"What do you mean, what? What was that thing?" She looks over at the kids, making sure they can't overhear. She whispers it. "What kind of demon?"
Deep breath. "Wasn't a demon." Say it. Just say it.
She can't. Maybe Jeannie will figure it out and stop asking.
No such luck. "It wasn't?" She frowns a little. "Oh! Oh my god. A zombie? It looked like a zombie. Wow. Zombie. Is the world getting stranger or has it always been this weird? It was a zombie, right?"
"Um. Not exactly."
"What do you mean, not exactly?"
It isn't going to get easier. "Technically zombies are already dead."
And now Jeannie figures it out fast - Dawn can tell by the shudder. "That was a person." She sits down on the pavement, landing hard, like she expected a chair to appear beneath her. "Oh, no."
Dawn moves to sit next to Jeannie, who has pulled her knees up and is starting to sound like she might hyperventilate.
Might as well get it over with. "I think it's the same thing. How everyone else died. The comet - but slower."
"Particle bombardment. Partial exposure?" Jeannie calms, but only for a moment. "What if we came out too soon? What if that happens to us? What if it happens to -? What if -" She stops talking with a quiet choked sound.
Dawn's not sure what to say. They're either dying or they aren't. It isn't like they can do anything about it, anything they aren't doing already.
It looks like Jeannie's figured that out, too. She's breathing deep, getting herself back under control. "Fine. It's fine. We need to get to Colorado."
"Leave at first light?"
Jeannie climbs to her feet, brushing herself off, reassembling her poise. "Sounds good."
They leave the Volvo behind. Jeannie argues a little, but it's pro forma - just another tie to the familiar gone. No reason to caravan with only two adults. They move everything sharp to the front seats, so Jeannie's feet are sharing space with the swords and boxes of crossbow bolts. Dawn gets the impression that she doesn't even notice, as she divides her attention between the front and back seats, asking questions about Dawn's life, then turning to keep up her part in a roaming, fanciful conversation between the kids without waiting for answers. It feels like every time Dawn has been in an overcrowded house, and she doesn't mind.
The rise and fall of voices in the car is constant, but she and Jeannie don't really talk about anything. Dawn isn't sure she can, not about school or her life or her family or friends, about before. And there's no point in talking about after; there's barely enough of it yet. She feels too shut down to work out the details of their plans. She needs to hold herself together until she has her head sorted out, and she can't do that while the shock and grief is still so raw.
But the good-natured way that Jeannie is letting her stay silent right now leaves too much time to think.
If Jeannie's right about the comet, then everyone died from something normal. Or not normal so much as just non-mystical. Scientifically explainable. That Jeannie was warned ahead of time means her explanation is probably right.
Survival isn't proof she isn't real. Or not compelling proof. Her survival so far is a fluke. She'll never be able to bring the dead back. They're not in another dimension; not caught in a spell, cursed, damned, out of phase, invisible. They're just dead.
When she can't think about it anymore, she pulls off the highway and announces lunch.
The kids are getting buggy from confinement, and the litter box needs changing, so they find a park, one with good lines of sight and a swing set. Dawn thinks about resenting the hours they're spending there, but the urgency of her rush to California is dissipating. She still needs to set up a safe place to live, hopefully for all of them, but there's no research to do, not any that will save the day. No hurry.
She wakes up to Jeannie's gentle grip on her shoulder, and lets herself be steered away from the picnic tables and into the passenger side of the SUV. The kids are already belted into the back, telling each other a story and acting out scenes with a combination of Lego pieces stuck together into abstract shapes and battered action figures.
She's groggy, but waking up enough for the world to be sharp seems unnecessary. She leans against the glass of the window and watches the miles go by until dark.
They get as far as Omaha before stopping. They wind up at the Hilton connected to the convention center, a huge, ugly place on the river. That it's safe is a gamble, but it's no more risky than anywhere else.
They pull an all-purpose keycard from a maid's cart, take the elevator to the top floor, and move into a suite.
The kids get a bath, then Dawn combs the snarls out of Madison's hair while they watch television and wait for Jeannie to get out of the shower. Then Dawn runs a bath for herself, but the hotel water doesn't get as hot as she wants it to be. Stupid hotel safety precautions.
She soaks in it anyway until her fingers are shriveled, examining the skin of her wrists, the tops of her thighs, the bottoms of her feet. She can't tell if her skin is drier than usual. She rubs at her calves and the undersides of her arms, and she doesn't feel like the zombie thing. She feels normal. Tired, and her eyes hurt a little, but that doesn't mean anything, does it? She climbed out of the book vault less than six hours after the comet passed. Jeannie kept the kids underground for three nights. Six hours isn't even one night.
It's useless to worry about it. But she should probably warn Jeannie. She could become a threat to her, and to the kids.
No. She can't risk them leaving her to die alone.
Probably she's fine. Probably.
She stays there until the voices in the other room are long quiet
They're all in the king-size bed, so Dawn wakes to the sound of Dennis crying. She isn't sure he's awake, but if he builds up steam he will be, so she spreads her palm flat over his back and gathers him in. The sky outside is still dark. He curls his arms tight around her neck as his breathing settles back into a quiet rhythm. It seems like an impossible way to sleep, but the next time she opens her eyes, the sky is rosy. Dennis' fingers are tangled in her hair, pulling at her temple in little points of sharpness that make her eyes water. She's slick with sweat under her t-shirt, and the cat is sniffing at her eyelashes. She desperately needs to pee. It's all very real, very alive.
Jeannie is watching from across the pillows.
Dawn tries on a smile, and Jeannie grins back.
The SUV is untouched in the parking lot. Omaha is not a mystical crossroads, it seems. The day is clear and bright again, the red haze of the past days barely present against the vivid cold blue of the sky, the high, flat-bottomed white clouds. The miles pass faster, and they're in Denver by sunset.
Dawn follows the signs from the highway to another shining hotel-convention center in the middle of town, and the four of them pile out of the car, stretching gratefully. The drive had been beautiful, shooting west like an arrow; she hadn't wanted to stop. Jeannie had been excited at the progress, and hadn't pressed for the breaks they should have taken.
It's just past 4:30, though, and the sun's down. They have plenty of time left in the day to work off the tensions. And bonus - there's a huge pool.
By 6 they're all in swimsuits and eating microwaved frozen lasagna poolside. Or Dawn and Jeannie are eating - Jeannie has cut up servings for Madison and Dennis, but they seem to alternate pushing it around their plates with trying to top each other with ever-grosser descriptions of what they think the resulting mess looks like.
"Dead worms. Old dead worm soup." Madison is pretty creative, it turns out.
"Ew. Um...dog throw-up." But Dennis is giving her a run for her money.
Dawn stops eating and frowns at her plate. Jeannie keeps eating. Maybe it gets easier with practice.
Madison starts giggling, and squeaks out, "Poo! Dog poo!" Like it's the funniest thing anyone has ever said.
Which it is, if you're Dennis, who falls off his chair.
Jeannie gives her plate a final scrape with the side of her fork and licks the tines clean.
"Ok guys. Five bites each, then there's ice cream." She sets the fork down and leans back in her deck chair, folding her arms across her chest. "I'll count. One."
It's a little startling how well that works, and Dawn stares for a minute before realizing that the three of them are staring right back.
"Don't you like ice cream?" Madison looks a little appalled, like she can't imagine it can be true.
Jeannie raises an eyebrow at Dawn, and says it again. "One."
Dawn glares at Madison and Dennis in turn, and shoves the biggest forkful she can manage into her mouth. They look gratifyingly impressed, and Jeannie is choking back a laugh.
The kids are in the shower rinsing off the chlorine and giggling, and Dawn's sitting on the edge of the bed flipping through the channels when Jeannie comes out of the bathroom and collapses onto the mattress next to her with a sigh.
"I think we should keep driving."
"What?" In the dark? Jeannie looks serious, though.
"Yeah." She sighs again. "The kids are going to be asleep no matter what, soon. And we only have, what, a couple hours left to Colorado Springs? If we go now, we can reconnoiter in the morning while they watch cartoons."
"Reconnoiter?" Dawn snorts. She can't help it - that's not a word she expected to hear from Jeannie.
She gets a glare in return, which is fair.
"Yeah. Reconnoiter. I don't think we should take them with us until we make sure we can get in. There's probably a lot of automated security stuff."
The shower shuts off, but the kids still sound like they're all right on their own.
"You're really okay with leaving them alone?"
Jeannie lifts her hands, and then lets them drop. "I don't see a choice, I guess. We haven't seen any more zombie things, and if we find a house with good locks on the doors and, say, bars on the windows, they'll be safe. You can do your demon-b-gone thing. They'll be fine for a couple of hours, right?"
Dawn thinks for a minute. The guy who'd attacked them had been close to dead even before he was shot, and that was two days ago. She doesn't love the idea of driving through the dark, but she doesn't see a good argument against it, either.
She nods, thoughtful.
Jeannie pops to her feet and starts toward the bathroom door.
Jeannie turns, her eyebrows rising.
"This means tonight we sleep in the car, okay? I don't want to try to pick out a house in the dark."
Jeannie is bouncing with victory. "Sure! Yes. Fine."
They take their time getting the kids dry and into their pajamas. Once they've fallen asleep, they carry them back to the car bundled in plush hotel bathrobes and coverlets, and nest them into the back seat. The only member of the group that seems discombobulated by it all is the cat, who climbs back and forth between the front and back seats for most of the first hour, before curling up next to Jeannie's hip.
The drive seems like it's over fast. Dawn pulls over to the side of the highway just before the exit. If they aren't going to get out of the car, there's no point in going further before sunup. They recline the front seats and close their eyes, but Jeannie is jittery like Christmas Eve, and Dawn feels off now that they're within reach of their goal. She suspects neither of them will sleep much.
They're both awake when the sky starts to pale, at least, so Dawn starts the car and pulls off the highway. Jeannie rubs her eyes and pulls a folding map out of the bag at her feet.
It turns out their destination is a mountain. NORAD. A military base inside Cheyenne Mountain. Which makes it pretty easy to navigate to.
They park outside a curve of tall fence topped with barbed wire and stare at the dark curve of entryway in the distance for a few minutes, then Dawn throws the car back into drive and they go looking for promising houses.
They go all the way off the base, as the military housing is just depressing. Forty minutes later they've found a curving street lined with trees and modest homes. They leave the SUV parked in the middle of the street, and go into the first bungalow they find with bars over the first floor windows. God bless paranoid retirees.
Dawn picks the lock on the side door. They enter back to back, guns at the ready, and it occurs to Dawn that they make a surprisingly good team. Jeannie might have made a good watcher, before. Good instincts.
The house is empty, no dust even. There's no basement, which is a relief, and the attic crawlspace is stuffed with pink insulation, with no space left for anything to hide. It will do.
They set the kids up in the bedroom with cereal and the television and admonitions to get dressed, and head back out, locking the doors behind them.
There's a guardhouse at the fence gate, but the door is standing open, so it's a simple matter of going in and hitting a button to clear the way. The road is empty all the way to the side of the mountain, and under it, driving down into the tunnel, all the way to the end.
There's a row of jeeps and a couple of dark sedans and SUVs parked in rows at the end. Dawn pulls up as close to the big metal door as she can.
"So." She sits for a moment before shutting off the engine. Jeannie is staring around like she can't believe they're there.
"Come on." Jeannie turns and Dawn smiles at her. "You don't want to keep the kids waiting too long, do you?"
Jeannie considers her for a beat before crooking a smile. "No. I don't. Show, road, get - what do you say?"
She's hopping out of the car before Dawn has a chance to respond.
By the time Dawn catches up at the big door, Jeannie already has the keycard pushed into the slot and is frowning at the number pad.
"Okay. Six digits. I can figure this out." Jeannie starts punching numbers, talking under her breath. "His birth date? Zero-four-one-eight-six-eight." The light on the handle stays red.
"Isn't that kind of obvious?" Dawn's never been part of a secret government project, but come on - she could have guessed that one. If she'd known it. She digs into the pocket of her jacket - bingo. Doublemint is exactly what she needs right now. They should have stopped someplace to make coffee, but too late now.
"Yeah. Rodney - well. He hates these things. He always used to say that keycard locks were like trying to build a safe out of wet toilet paper." She's shaking her head while she pulls the card out and pushes it in again. "I think he thinks he's making some kind of point." She squints at the keys. "R-o-d-n-e-y. No." Again. "R-m-c-k-a-y." Nothing. "I-n-g-r-a-m?"
Dawn heaves a dramatic sigh and leans against the wall. She's scanning for movement in the tunnel, but if something does appear, she and Jeannie are pretty screwed - the area around the door is too exposed. No reason to let on about that, though, so she yawns and scratches idly at the side of her leg.
Jeannie raises an eyebrow. "Sorry. Next time I need to break into a high-security military installation, I'll bring a magazine for you, shall I?"
Dawn grins and snaps her gum. "Yeah, I'd kill for a copy of Cosmo."
Jeannie rolls her eyes and goes back to the keypad. The running commentary is back. "Primes. Okay, six-digits...Fibonacci? Five-one-four-two-two-nine." Card out, card in. "Riesel? Five-zero-nine-two-zero-three?" Sigh. "Unique? Three-three-three-six-six-seven. Damn. One of the Mersennes..."
"These are obvious?" Dawn knows she can be pretty geeky, but this is nuts.
"Well. Yeah. To Rodney they are." She starts punching another string of numbers.
"Huh." This is taking too long. "He didn't leave you any hints?"
Jeannie looks annoyed. "No. He didn't leave me any hints. And I'm trying to keep track of what I've tried, so..."
"No, hang on - what was in the safe with the card?"
Jeannie shrugs. "The gun. Ammunition for the gun. Some pictures. Some thumb drives."
"Yes. Family pictures. A couple snapshots, in a manila envelope. I'll show them to you later, okay? Can I-"
Dawn cuts her off. "Snapshots of who? Of what?"
"Me and Rodney. When we were kids. Jeez. Now. Shut. Up. Please."
"No." Dawn's bouncing. She's got it. She's a genius. "Your birth date. Not his. It's you."
"We aren't that close. Weren't."
"You. You, you, you, you, you."
"It's obvious you don't know Rodney."
"Try it," she singsongs.
Jeannie glares. "Zero-two-two-seven-seven-three. Happy?"
And yes. Dawn is happy. The light's green and she can hear the motors starting to open the door. Genius.
"I'm a genius." She does a little victory shimmy.
Jeannie looks stunned. "Oh." Quiet. She takes a step backward and fusses for a moment with her gun while they wait for the door to finish opening. When she looks back up at Dawn, her smile is huge.
Dawn smiles back, then flicks a last look around. "Age before beauty." She gestures toward the open door.
"In your dreams." But Jeannie is heading through the door already.
"I guess it's unanimous. I am the most beautiful woman on Earth." Dawn follows her, high-fiving the big button as she passes, starting the door's slow sweep back into the wall.
It's hard to maintain the high spirits once they're inside. It feels like a tomb, albeit a well-ventilated one. It's dim and maze-like, the red glow of emergency lighting high on the walls. There are a few piles of dusty uniform in the uppermost levels, which seems odd. This place used to be NORAD, wasn't it meant to seal at least as well as the shelter Jeannie had used?
Dawn thinks about asking, but the quiet sound of their steps isn't something she wants to interrupt. She gets the answer anyway. They've made it down a few more halls to an elevator, and Jeannie swipes the card again and hits the call button. They're waiting for the doors to open when the light from Jeannie's flashlight snags on something just around the corner. A uniform that still has some shape to it.
"Oh. Hey." Jeannie is walking over before Dawn has a chance to stop her, but she stops when she's parallel with the archway. "I'd wondered about that."
Dawn rolls her eyes so hard she worries she might injure herself. Not that it does any good - Jeannie is focused on whatever she's found.
"What is it?" Dawn hisses her words, hoping that will remind Jeannie they aren't here for sightseeing.
"Hmmm?" Jeannie frowns a little at her, but waves the flashlight a little and beckons her over. The elevator makes a muted ping as the doors open, but she walks over to Jeannie anyway.
Great. It's a body.
"Great. You found a body."
It's Jeannie's turn to roll her eyes. "Look at it. Didn't it seem weird to you that there were dust piles even though we're in a giant bomb shelter?"
It takes a force of will not to return the eye roll. Dawn glares a little instead.
Jeannie walks close enough to the body that the flashlight reveals how odd it is. Dark reddish and skeletal.
"It's the ventilation. This place wasn't sealed up. So whatever particles or radiation it was still got in. It just took longer, further down." She nudges the bared arm of the corpse with the tip of one shoe, and that breaks the cohesion of whatever was holding it together. The part that had been flesh slumps down into loose dust, leaving the shapes of bones, which come apart at a slower pace, like drying sand. In less than a minute, there's no shape left to any of it.
Jeannie's mouth twists a little. "Should we -?"
"We should go." This is freaky. "The elevator came."
Inside the car Jeannie pauses with the card above the slot, staring into space.
"Wait. Going down further." She turns to Dawn. "If there were - if it isn't -"
Dawn gets it. "Zombie things. Non-zombies. Yeah." She raises the AR-15, trying to make it into a reassuring gesture. "We'll be careful."
They ride the elevator down, walk another corridor, pass through another secured door, take another elevator.
When the doors open again, it's onto another branching of long, round-walled corridors. The lights are still dim, but not the way they were above. White bulbs, not red - the regular lighting is on. But most of the bulbs are gone. Jeannie's frowning up at one of the empty fixtures, so Dawn peers down each corridor in turn. They all look the same, equally dim and deserted.
"Jeannie?" Dawn whispers. They don't know there's danger; they don't know there isn't danger.
Jeannie keeps frowning, but turns at the sound of her name.
Jeannie answers with a shrug. "Don't know. I've never been here. I guess -"
"You've never what? Never been down this far?"
"No." Jeannie's smiling, cool as can be, now. "Never been in this mountain. It's my first trip to Colorado, too."
Dawn's not sure what to say. "How?" Is that possible? How is that possible? Fury is hitting her like a wave. Unreasonable and ill defined. She's been following Jeannie's lead, and she was, what, making it up as she went along?
"What?" Jeannie pauses for a moment. "Oh, well. Getting down here seemed pretty obvious."
Sure. Okay. She takes a deep breath and holds it.
"So." Jeannie's continuing. "I guess we look around. Hey - the thing we're looking for? It'll be a big circle in a big room." She stops again and twirls her gun in a vague loop. "On edge. A big circle on edge."
Fine. If it even exists. If Jeannie isn't making everything up. "Okay. Let's go."
"Do you think it's budget cutting?"
"What?" Dawn can feel the edges of her patience fraying away.
"The light bulbs. Pay attention!"
"You pay attention! Pay attention to looking for zombies!" Dawn's still whispering, but her hiss is loud enough to echo down the hall. "Shut up about the lights. Just shut up!"
Jeannie goes pale and swallows hard. "Sorry." Meek.
Dawn feels like a jerk, but - zombie things. She raises her gun, and sets off down a hallway. Jeannie follows.
Twenty minutes of sulking while walking endless dim corridors, and Dawn's wishing she brought chalk. Or string. Maybe breadcrumbs. It's boring and silent; it's enough that she's starting to relax, getting her equilibrium back. This place is deserted - no dust, no bodies, no sign of anyone.
Creeping around is starting to feel ridiculous.
She doesn't know if she's supposed to go left or right at this corner, and being mad at Jeannie seems pointless. It's not like she has anyone else to talk to, after all.
She lets her gun hand drop down to her side and turns to face Jeannie with a sigh. "I don't think there's anyone here."
Her voice sounds strange after the silence, and the whispering they'd been doing before. Odd enough that she thinks at first that the sound is an echo. But it's conversation and footsteps, coming toward them. Coming fast.
Dawn shoves Jeannie toward an open doorway, gun hand pushing at a shoulder and palm over Jeannie's mouth. They can only get half behind the door, but deep enough into the shadows it shouldn't matter. Jeannie looks confused and mimes a series of shrugs and open-handed gestures. In answer, Dawn widens her eyes in the most commanding, beseeching way she can manage. It manages to keep Jeannie silent while they wait for the voices to fade into the distance.
Dawn leans out to look down the corridor, holding her breath and straining for sounds. By the time she turns back, Jeannie has crossed her arms and set her jaw. It's an impressive glare, but she doesn't manage to hold it.
She can't quite manage to make words, either, it seems. Her hands flail around before she manages to choke out, "People. What? Why can't we -?"
Dawn isn't sure, for a minute, how to explain without telling the whole story of the Initiative, of the last secret underground military base she snuck into. Of the forebodings that rushed in on her when she heard the voices, multiplied by the missing light bulbs, the body left where it fell upstairs.
Jeannie's whispering again. "Survivors. Those are survivors. They were talking. They aren't zombies. Un-zombie things. Why hide?"
"Just because they're human doesn't mean they're on our side." It's the moral of the story. It's not going to be enough, but she sees what Jeannie's missing. "They didn't warn anyone." The penny hasn't dropped yet. Spell it out. "These would be the people your brother smuggled the message past, right? They knew. They probably knew. I mean - " Because she wants hope, even if she can't act on it. Survivors, people who know what's going on, who have a plan. People who would take care of her, take care of Jeannie, and the kids. "They might be fine. I just think we should find out more before we give ourselves up."
Jeannie's whole face says, "Oh," but she shapes the word voicelessly.
They both adjust their grips on the guns, and move back into the corridor.
They hear people with increasing frequency, now that they're moving toward the center of the place. The headquarters. There still aren't that many, but they all seem to move in groups. It's easy to stay out of sight.
They haven't found what Jeannie's looking for, and they haven't found out much more about the people, either. It's a mix, mostly men, mostly military. A smattering of formal uniforms, but otherwise some kind of generic fatigues. There are people in lab coats, sprinkled into the groups, and their voices are frantic, their steps stuttering past those of the others, falling behind and catching up again.
Leaning into doorways looking for some big round thing is becoming rote, but this room makes her pause. It has an anteroom, with a glass door leading beyond, and the lights beyond are brighter than anywhere they've seen so far.
Dawn taps Jeannie on the arm, and gestures toward the door. It gets her a slow nod back, which she can't figure out - is it reassuring that Jeannie is letting her lead, or frustrating? Both?
Maybe she shouldn't be thinking about it. Buffy wouldn't have thought about it - she would just have led.
Fine. She can do that.
Dawn goes through the doorway, Jeannie silent at her heels.
It's an infirmary. The bright lighting turns out to end just past the second door, centered on what looks like a nurse's station. It's unmanned. The room is full of people, though - all sixteen beds filled. Thirteen men and three women, and all look like they're in their twenties. They all look healthy, if you disregard the breathing tubes, electrodes, and thin snaking IV lines running in and out from under the sheets pulled up to their shoulders. And the way their eyelids are crisscrossed shut with strips of medical tape.
There's a low electronic hum, and a quiet, regular whooshing as they breathe in unison, controlled by machines. Dawn stifles the part of her that wants to giggle - it sounds like Darth Vader. Which isn't funny.
She's seen enough without going any further - whatever is wrong with these people, they're being taken care of. It doesn't tell them anything useful, except that these people have doctors. Which she could have guessed. But Jeannie has gotten much closer to one of the beds, and she's peering at a clipboard, leaning to look at one of the screens.
Dawn frowns. "What?"
Jeannie looks like she's going to be sick, and lifts the edge of the sheet enough that Dawn can see underneath. There are broad straps holding the body down. Restraints around his wrists, with ragged layers of yellowed gauze bandage underneath.
Weird. Weird that people in comas would be in restraints.
But it's freaking out Jeannie, that and whatever she'd seen on the charts, and she drops the sheet and takes a quick step away, turning away and pressing her forehead into the wall at the head of the bed. They've been here too long. Whatever it is, they can discuss it once they're outside.
"Come on. Let's go." She pitches her voice low, calm and reassuring. Jeannie looks like she's a nudge from freaking out. It's like approaching a skittish animal, and what a strange thing to think about Jeannie, of all people. As she passes the bed, Dawn taps the stack of charts back into neatness. It's smart to leave as little sign of their passing as possible. She reaches to twitch the sheet back over the guy in the bed, and stops mid-gesture. Now that she's close, Dawn can see she was wrong. There aren't any bandages at all. It's just the wide bands of the restraints and the flesh around them swollen, ragged layers of scraped up skin and crusting scabs. It looks like more struggle than anyone should be able to accomplish while breathing by machine. It looks like it should have been bandaged. Strange that it hasn't been. This near, she can also see more tubes, snaking in and out of the man's torso.
"What did it say? Was he - did the comet get him a little bit?"
Jeannie shakes her head. "No." Another shake. "You're right. We need to go. Now. We need to go."
Dawn's trying to shift gears - all of these people, and if there's something sinister going on -"Can we help them? Can we let them go?"
Jeannie shudders, her mouth closed tight like she's worried she might throw up. Dawn reaches out and takes her hand. She interlocks their fingers and squeezes. Jeannie's skin is like ice.
"Okay. Okay, come on. Let's get out of here."
Jeannie breathes hard through her teeth the whole way out, and Dawn keeps thinking that someone will hear and stop them. But it isn't as loud as it seems, and it's easy to avoid the other people - there don't seem to be very many of them, and they all seem to be in groups. They're both starting to relax by the time they step out of the second elevator, but Dawn keeps Jeannie behind her, and they both have their guns held ready.
Their version of high-alert stealth doesn't approach a military level, though. Dawn's turning the last corner when a shadow in one of the deeper alcoves shifts, and the muzzle of a handgun rises out of the gloom to aim at the dead center of her chest.
Jeannie's attention is on the corridor behind them; it's barely half a breath later that she stumbles into Dawn's back. There's a bad moment, struggling to not fall in the direction of the gun, and Jeannie grabs at her shoulder as she rebounds from the impact, steadying them both. It seems like a long time that the three of them are caught in tableau, and Dawn's world narrows down to the dull gleam of the gun and the tight grip at the top of her arm.
Then there's a sigh from the shadow, and the gun moves down, points away. Jeannie's hand relaxes as well, but stays, warm and reassuring. More movement in the alcove, and the figure moves forward, resolving into a woman in some sort of dark blue fatigues. She's tense and grim, squinting a little at them, like she's fighting a migraine.
Then it's like someone flips a switch: her eyes widen and she grins at them, holstering the gun in an easy motion.
"Mrs. Miller. I should have guessed."
Jeannie hand still doesn't move, and she stays quiet for long enough that Dawn gets a good look at the woman barring their path. She's pretty. Older than Jeannie, definitely, and she looks tired, with dark circles under her eyes and chapped lips. There's something about her that reminds Dawn of Buffy. The effortless way she acts like she's in control of the situation. Though Buffy would never have gone for a haircut like that. Or perhaps she would have, had she lived long enough.
"Mrs. Miller?" The woman's smile is slipping.
Jeannie's grip is convulsive. "What are you people doing down here?" It comes out squeaky, wobbling at the end. It's enough to make Dawn turn toward Jeannie, who looks half angry, half betrayed, pale and wide eyed.
The smile is gone. "You found the labs."
The woman sighs and looks down. Her hands move as if she's trying to pull words out of the air. "Decisions were made. At the highest levels." She shrugs. "It isn't going to happen any more. To anyone else."
Dawn isn't following the nuances, she knows that. It doesn't matter.
"Who are you people?" Her voice comes out level and challenging. Good.
The woman starts a little. Like she had forgotten Dawn was there, standing right in front of her.
"Oh. Yes. Sorry. Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter. And you are?"
"Okay. Ms. Summers, this is a complicated situation. Right now I believe it's dangerous for you two to be here."
Jeannie shifts to Dawn's side. "I knew better than to trust you people before. I can't believe -" Her voice is rising, angry and assured.
Carter cuts her off. "These are special circumstances."
"No kidding!" Jeannie takes a step forward, out from behind Dawn.
The woman raises her hands like a barrier. "You're right. I know it doesn't mean anything, but you're right. And we'll be gone soon." She looks at Jeannie, thoughtful for a moment. "You're going? Using the gate?"
Jeannie nods. She still looks angry.
"Alright. I'm sure you could figure it out, but you should access my files on power consumption and alternate boosting methods. And don't forget to radio ahead, they have a shield." She frowns at the ceiling. "Come back in a week? We'll be gone."
Jeannie nods again, then looks over her shoulder at Dawn. Nice to be remembered.
"Let's go. I don't want to leave the kids for too long."
"Kids?" Carter looks poleaxed.
"My daughter. And my nephew. They're watching cartoons."
Carter looks horrified.
Jeannie launches right into her own defense. "Maybe you don't realize how hard it is to find a good babysitter now that everyone's dead, and by the way, who the hell are you to criticize?"
She's loud. Dawn glances back along the corridor; there's a chance they can get past Carter even if she tries to stop them, but not if more people show up.
"No, no - I'm not. Really, I'm not. Just - you're right. You should go." Carter looks regretful. "Take care." She moves out of their way, keying the big door to open.
The concession has knocked the momentum out of Jeannie's rant.
She recovers a little, though. "Goodbye, then."
Carter smiles at Jeannie, then Dawn. "Both of you. Take care." There's a strange emphasis to her words. It reminds Dawn that she doesn't quite know what's going on. It doesn't matter; she can find out later. They go.
They're back in the car. Jeannie hasn't spoken since they left the installation.
Dawn tries again. "So. What was -"
"No. I don't want to talk about it." Jeannie is looking out the passenger window.
It's starting to piss Dawn off. "I don't think you have a choice. I think you need to tell me what's happening. I don't think you have the right to be mysterious about this." She stops the car and throws it into park. They're in the middle of the road, but that doesn't matter.
It makes Jeannie turn to face her, at least.
"I'm not being mysterious."
Dawn snorts. She doesn't mean to, but this is bullshit. Again.
"No, really. I'm not." Jeannie looks down at her hands, twisting against each other in her lap. "I just don't want to think about it. I'm - I'm freaking out. This is freaking me out. And I need - "
Jeannie gasps and presses both hands over her mouth. Another gasp and she's fallen into big shaky sobs.
Freaking out. So maybe she'd had a point. It hadn't occurred to Dawn before that the reason they haven't talked anything out might be mutual.
Dawn presses the release on her seatbelt and slides over to Jeannie. It's awkward for a minute; she can't turn in the seat, and she isn't sure where to try to put her arms, but then she manages to pull Jeannie into a really uncomfortable hug. Jeannie's hands are trapped between them, but a moment later she wriggles them free and squeezes back.
It takes a while before her crying slows down enough that Jeannie can talk again.
"I need to hold it together for the kids." Her voice is wavery and thick. Dawn spares a moment to hope there's a packet of Kleenex in the glove compartment.
"Yeah. Good job."
Jeannie straightens up and runs the heel of one hand across one eye, then the other, and tries a grin.
"Sorry about that."
Dawn shrugs. "Hey, you know - end of the world. Hysterics are kind of de rigeur."
Jeannie's grin gets a little more genuine. "Well, I'd hate to make a social misstep at this point."
"Stick with the right crowd, you'll catch on."
They're both quiet for a few minutes after that. Dawn doesn't want to start driving again until she knows something more. Almost anything will do.
Jeannie breaks the silence first. "We should pick up something for lunch."
That's not what she wants to hear yet. Dawn stays quiet, waits her out.
It doesn't take long.
"Okay. I think they were exposed. The bodies we found? I think the people who were farther down are sick from the comet, too. It's just slower. That's a guess, but - the files in the infirmary back up my hypothesis. I think they are using the people in the infirmary to cure themselves. I think they killed perfectly healthy people to develop a cure." It comes out in a rush. "Okay?"
Oh. Yes. That's creepy. In a sort of familiar way.
"But you know that woman. Carter."
Jeannie seems relieved at the question. "Yes. I've met her. She works with my brother. Did work. Has worked with him."
"And what was she saying? What did all that mean?"
Jeannie shrugs this time. "You heard her. They're leaving. They'll be gone in a week and we can get back in then. It's good; I don't want to deal with them. We can wait it out at the house."
"But where are they going?" It doesn't quite make sense.
"Did you hear her say? She didn't. Why does it matter?"
Dawn thinks for a minute. Does it matter? It's another week before anything happens; maybe Jeannie and the kids will come to California after all.
She pulls the seatbelt back on. "What were you thinking about for lunch?"
They wind up raiding a sandwich shop. The fancy kind, so they have cheeses and tubs of olives, a loaf of half-frozen bread, some fancy spreads and a cake from the display cooler. They're going to have to rely on canned and frozen foods, soon, but this still feels indulgent.
It's a relief to pull into the driveway of the little house. Lunch, and a long shower, and maybe a nap. Dawn figures maybe she and Jeannie can switch off taking naps; that's fair.
They've both got a bag, but Dawn has the keys. She opens the door and holds it for Jeannie to go through. The TV is louder now, blaring.
Jeannie rolls her eyes. "What do you want to bet they never got dressed?"
Dawn smiles back and shifts the bag on her hip. "Sucker bet. Would you - "
It all happens at once: movement around them, an arm pulling Jeannie away, the needle jab. Everything goes black.
She wakes up vague and heavy. She can't move, her eyelids feel weighted down. There are voices.
She's on a bed? No, a sofa. There are people moving around her, voices rising and falling; arguing.
"...it's not worth it, that's all I'm saying." It's a familiar voice. Sort of. Carter.
"So we take the other one back for testing and put this one down." Someone else. Male. Sounds like he's trying to be patient and failing.
"We can test her here. You can leave me to it, I'll bring her back if she's a viable subject. Take care of them both if she isn't." Dawn isn't sure what the argument is about, but she's pretty sure she knows what take care of means. Whatever the conflict is, Carter is losing. Her tone is all wrong.
"No. This location isn't secure. Gentlemen -" The voice is aimed away from her now. "Get that one into the helicopter."
"Sir." Carter again. Someone jostles the sofa. "I'd like to stay here, with the infected girl."
"Why? We need you to solve the problem with the gate. There's every likelihood we will need more subjects -"
Carter interrupts. "Yes, sir. I want to let this one wake up. She may know about other survivors. Some of them might be clean."
Oh. They're talking about her. Infected. Exposed, then, after all. It isn't a frightening thought. Maybe it's the drug. Maybe it's just relief, now that she knows for sure. There's a pause. "Well. Good thinking. Two women and two children. You're right, there must be more. I'll leave a couple of men with you; get back as soon as you can."
"Yes, sir. Thank you."
There's more movement around her, and other voices on the edge of the room. Dawn's in the den, she thinks. She can almost hear what's going on it the hallway and foyer, but not quite. The front door slams and she hears someone come back into the room. There are quiet noises for a while - papers shuffling together, occasional steps, the scratch of a pen.
Then she's alone again, drifting. She's feeling more awake all the time, and she can wriggle a little now, move her hands and feet. She opens her eyes and blinks the room into focus. The room is dim, the blinds shut, one lamp turned toward the wall.
There's a series of strange noises then, scuffles, thumps, and another door slam. Dawn shuts her eyes again just in time. She hears someone come back into the room, breathing hard.
Things are quiet for a while before she risks slitting her eyes open again. It's Carter.
She's slouched into the corner of the couch across the room from Dawn, her head back like she's too tired to hold it up. She has her sunglasses on even though the sole light source is on the other side of the room. There's a gun in her right hand, but it's flat against her thigh, like she's forgotten it's there.
The cat jumps up onto the couch next to Carter, and settles in, starting to knead at her hip. Her claws make a quiet arrhythmic sound as they poke in and out of the fabric of her pants.
Carter's head rolls to the side.
"Hey." She sounds a little confused, slow, like she's drunk. "Hey, kitty. Where'd you come from?"
She trails her fingers down the cat's back. Then she looks up toward Dawn, and her dark lenses shine in the light. "Is she yours? I know you're awake."
Dawn opens her eyes the rest of the way. She can't think of anything she has to lose by answering.
"She belongs to Jeannie's brother." It's not sensitive information.
Carter smiles, a real smile, open and happy. "McKay's got the luck of the damned. Who'd have thought?" She shakes her head a little without lifting it, a gentle roll back and forth, then sighs. Her smile fades.
She lifts her gun hand and shifts to sit upright, and Dawn tenses. This is it.
Or not. Carter sets the gun down on the coffee table, and leans back again, pulling a small case from the floor onto her lap. She takes a deep breath and pops it open, taking out a small bottle and syringe, little square paper packets and a rubber tourniquet.
Dawn takes a chance and sits up. She still feels woozy, like her balance is off, but her head is clearing.
Carter ignores her. She looks like she's concentrating on what she's doing, and Dawn can see that she's squinting despite the sunglasses. She tears open a packet, and pulls out a sheathed needle that she fits into the top of the syringe. Her hands are shaking a little as she pulls the cap off the needle and pushes into the little bottle, filling up the syringe and dropping the bottle to the floor when she's finished. The cap goes back on to the needle.
This is the time that Dawn should run. Carter doesn't look like she's going to be able to catch her. But she can't stop watching.
Too late now. She's remembered Dawn's in the room, and is looking toward her, barely smiling.
"Yeah. I thought so. I'm getting...forgetful." She stops for a moment, then picks up the tourniquet and starts clumsily tying it around her left arm. Once she's managed that, she looks up again.
"I wrote it all down." She gestures with her chin toward the table at the other side of the room. "There's a folder. And my passwords and my, um -" She makes an up-and-down gesture with her right hand, fingers pinched together.
Dawn frowns. Somehow she's playing the strangest game of charades ever.
"Hmmm? Oh. Yes. Key card."
"But I'm-" This doesn't make sense. "How long do I have?"
"Hmmm?" Carter frowns, then gets it. "Oh. You heard that. No. You're not - you're okay. You're safe. I faked it, faked the test. You're safe."
It's the last thing Dawn expected to hear. Death sentence and reprieve, hard on each other's heels. She isn't sure what to think anymore.
Carter looks down at the cat again, then back up at Dawn. "I didn't know until it was too late. I'd like you to believe that."
Dawn shrugs, nonplussed. "About the comet? Didn't Jeannie's brother or whoever tell everyone?"
"Oh, Rodney." She's rolling her eyes, Dawn can tell. "Of course he told everyone. Repeatedly. I was off - I was away. A lot of us were. Out of contact. I got back just before it happened.
"I don't think the guys in charge believed it. Or maybe they did, enough of the top brass stayed inside the mountain that night. But all the, you know - " This time the gesture is even more vague, but Dawn knows where the story is going, now.
"Yes. The ventilation. So they just slowed it down." Carter seems to notice the tourniquet on her arm again, and she pokes a little at the inside of her elbow with her fingertips before looking down to find the syringe where it's fallen between the arm of the couch and the cushion.
"They've been trying to find a cure ever since. They called back - " She stops to pull the cap off the syringe with her teeth, and spits it onto the floor. "They started calling back the unexposed teams. I sabotaged the code that controls the iris, but not before they -
"God, they were green teams, just kids. They didn't deserve that kind of - "
Carter makes another gesture, searching for the word, then stops. She's shaking hard, but she manages to keep steady enough to slip the needle into the crook of her arm and press the plunger.
Carter's lips curve; she's found the word: "betrayal."
Her smile disappears, and she says, careful and clear, "I didn't know."
The focus behind the words is off-putting, and Dawn just holds out for a few moments before she has to look away, down at her hands on the edge of the loveseat, then back up at Carter.
Carter tosses the syringe to the floor and offers her fingertips to the cat before continuing on. "You need to hurry. The guns are on the table. And the car keys." She pulls at the end of the tourniquet and it falls away from her arm. "There's no cure."
Her head tips back down; distracted by the cat again.
Dawn is waiting to hear more for almost a full minute before she realizes Carter's dead.
There are two military guys in the foyer, dead as well. Looks like there was a struggle, like Carter had fought them both, beat them up a little before shooting them. And a little like she might have had fun doing it.
The conversation changes focus in Dawn's head, emphasis shifting. Carter hadn't hurried her own death out of hopelessness, or not only; she had removed herself as a threat even as she had begun to spin into violence. Choosing a clean death as a hero instead of as a monster. It's something to live up to, even now that she doesn't have to worry about the same decision.
Dawn ducks into the bedroom to strip a pillowcase from the bed, and slides the pile of guns into it. Their familiar AR-15s and handguns, some bulkier stuff that must have come from the marines, a few more service revolvers. Next to the pile is a pad of paper covered in close writing, parts scribbled out, and a loose page folded around Carter's key card. She looks a few years younger in the photo, confident and happy. The paper is a list of code numbers defined by use, a quick paragraph of instructions, and a computer directory path, username and password. Dawn slips the pad down into the side of the pillowcase and sticks the note and card in her back pocket. The car keys are there, and go between her teeth.
She does need to hurry, but she makes the time to rearrange Carter's body, flat across the couch, arms folded. It seems like she deserves the respect.
Then she grabs the neck of the pillowcase in one hand, scoops up the cat with the other, and heads out.
Her SUV is parked at the end of the tunnel under the mountain, and she pulls the sedan up next to it. It's locked, of course, but all of the Council cars have multiple hidden spare keys. Better to risk a car being stolen than to risk not being able to get inside one when you needed to. She pops open the tailgate and sets the bag of guns next to the cases in the back.
It seems silly to open a different door, considering, but she sets the cat on the front seat and pauses to scratch between her ears.
"You need to stay here, okay? I'll get them out." Great. Now she's talking to a cat. But it makes her feel better, so she tries another line, just to make it real. "Don't worry, alright? I have a plan."
If the cat was worried before, which is doubtful, she definitely isn't now. Dawn decides to call it a win when she curls up on the passenger seat.
Back to the trunk, and after a little rummaging, Dawn has most of what she might need. The toolbox is next: three herbs and an ester go into a tiny bowl, and she sets that down on the ground before touching the contents with a lit match. A second of flare before it's all turned to ash, and she drips in a careful measure of oil. A slow stir with a fingertip, widdershins, and it's ready - quick smears go on the inside of her right ankle, the outside of her left wrist, down the nape of her neck, before she pushes her shirt up to draw the last of it down the center of her breastbone.
It will work, or not. She plans to be ready either way. Dawn shrugs into Willow's jacket and clips Carter's ID to the collar; the echo of power can only help. Her other things can't hurt either, for luck or practicality, so the multi tool goes in her back pocket, the handkerchief in front. The knife, sheathed, clips to her belt, and rests at the small of her back. The strap of the AR-15 goes over her head to hang ready at her left side, and she puts the second one, the handguns, and extra ammunition into a satchel, and that hangs over her shoulder, behind and out of the way.
"We'll be back soon," she whispers to the cat, picks up the loaded crossbow, and closes the back of the SUV.
Getting in is easy, a combination of Carter's directions and Dawn's own humming adrenaline. It's almost too soon that she's moving down the hallway toward the lab the note specified, but she takes a deep, calm breath when the guard outside the door sees her, and keeps walking.
His gun stays at a position of ready rest, and he nods to her, his sunglasses glinting in the low light. "Colonel. Can I help you?"
It's working. Small mercies, she thinks, and raises the crossbow, putting a fast, silent bolt through his eye socket and into his brain. He goes down in a heap, and she bends to snag the back of his collar with one hand as she pushes open the door with her shoulder.
Once the door is open, she rethinks that plan. She can hear the yelling now - muted still, but it's Jeannie, cursing and pleading, raw and constant, so she leaves the body in the hall. She hasn't got time to be careful.
The outer room is meant for observation. The big window shows Jeannie flat on a gurney, two white coated, sunglasses-wearing scientists wheeling a cart of equipment from across the room. Jeannie's covered in a sheet, but wriggling, head tossing and mouth open, screaming. Dawn can just hear it from where she's standing. Soundproofing. That makes things easier. She tucks the crossbow into her bag, and goes through the second door.
The scientists look up from the cart, smiling.
"Doctor Carter!" It's a dark haired woman. The sunglasses look huge on her face. "We've got a real live one, here. An excellent prospect. I think you'll be pleased."
The second scientist laughs and looks back down, arranging the tubes on the cart. "Yeah - more fight in her than in the marines."
The first raises an eyebrow. "That's hardly a fair comparison. The marines thought they were going through decontam..."
Jeannie's gone quiet, but her whisper carries. "Dawn?"
Dawn can feel the illusion stretching around her, but the scientists are looking puzzled. She fires in a quick arc, and they're down.
"Yeah. Remember? Nick of time girl. "
"Oh thank god. Really? You're not dead? They said you were dead." She's hoarse, and coughs a little.
Close up, Jeannie's a mess, red-eyed, streaked with tears and snot, flecks of blood and spittle on her lips.
"Yeah, really." Dawn grins down at her, and Jeannie grins back.
Pulling the sheet back reveals a full set of restraints. Jeannie's naked, otherwise, and it makes it easy to see the way her skin is starting to show bruising at wrists and ankles, over her ribs, where she's been pulling against them. Dawn pushes down a hiss of sympathy - they don't have time for that - and draws Faith's knife. She holds it up so Jeannie can see before she uses it, and realizes that was a mistake when Jeannie's eyes get huge.
"This is fastest. Just stay still." It is fast - the knife goes through the webbing holding Jeannie's torso down with barely a whisper, then parts the wrist cuffs from the sides of the gurney almost as easily.
"Okay." She slips the knife back into its sheath, and helps Jeannie sit up. "Get the cuffs off your ankles first."
Jeannie doesn't question, just leans down and starts working at the buckles.
By the time Jeannie's swinging her bare feet to the floor, Dawn's found a cupboard full of scrubs. She tosses a set onto the gurney next to Jeannie, who's down to the cuff on her left wrist. Dawn digs into her pocket and pulls out the handkerchief, pushing it into Jeannie's right hand and taking the left, squeezing the palm a little before pulling off the cuff and dropping it to the floor.
"Come on. Blow your nose and get dressed." She feels like she's being curt, but they need to hurry. They could be discovered any time, and they still need to find the kids.
Jeannie just nods, though, and does as she's asked.
Dawn strips the shoes and lab coat from the dead woman on the floor. There are bullet holes in the coat, but very little blood. It'll do from a distance. She pulls the sunglasses from each of the bodies, too. Underneath their eyes are in dark red hollows. It's reassuring to see that; Dawn needs the reminder: zombie things, or close enough to not matter.
The shoes are tight on Jeannie, and she grimaces, but doesn't complain. Better than barefoot. Dawn hands her the second AR-15 - Jeannie hangs it over her shoulder before pulling on the lab coat - then her handgun, which goes into the opposite side pocket. They both slide on sunglasses, and turn to leave.
"Hang on." Jeannie turns back and bends down to the body on the floor. She tugs at the end of the scientist's braid, freeing the hair tie, and pulls her own hair back as she rises. It's far from neat, but the knot at the back of her neck will help her pass from a distance. It's good thinking.
Carter hadn't known where the kids would be. There's a list of possibilities on the note, but they've checked all but one, and Jeannie is getting frantic.
"Oh god oh god oh god." It's a whisper, but Dawn's worried it won't stay that way. "What if we don't find them in time?"
Okay. This needs to stop, or they won't. Dawn tugs Jeannie into a dark doorway and pushes her against the wall. She pushes the sunglasses up off her own face, then Jeannie's sunglasses up as well, so she can make eye contact, sell this for all it's worth.
She waits a moment, waiting for Jeannie's eyes to stop darting and focus. She rests her hands on Jeannie's shoulders and squeezes, trying for reassuring and solid.
That's done it - Jeannie's breath is evening out, her attention is back.
"Listen - don't worry," Dawn says. "I used to get kidnapped for rituals all of the time. This is almost the same thing. We'll find them."
Jeannie looks at her like she's crazy. It's a lot like the looks Buffy used to get from the innocent bystander crowd. Reassuringly so.
She can feel a gallows grin stretch across her face. She's never had to carry morale before, and it's harder than she expected. Not more difficult: harder. Like she has a shell, like it's armor. Like she can step between Jeannie and her hysteria and force them apart.
They're going to be fine.
"One more place on the list. That's where they are. Let's go."
There's no window this time, no way to see what's beyond the door, and Dawn thinks surprise will help. Optimism - they don't have time for stealth anyway. The door smacks hard into the wall, and inside the room, the scientist crouched in front of Madison and Dennis startles, losing his balance and falling onto one hip. His handful of Tootsie Pops scatters on the floor, but he keeps his grip on the anesthesia mask Madison had been squirming away from.
Jeannie moves across the room so fast Dawn feels like she's lost time, like there was no transition. But the scientist is flat on the floor, Jeannie's knee on his chest, the muzzle of her gun shoved into the dip between his collarbones, the skin around it white from pressure. Her other arm goes out toward the kids, and they scramble into her embrace.
The few seconds it takes Dawn to start moving again stretch, like time has stopped so that she can look at them, a tight knot of family in this strange, discordant setting. But then she turns, looks both directions down the hallway, and goes back inside, closing the door.
Jeannie has things under control, except for the way that she can't get up off the scientist without either releasing him or letting go of the kids. Dawn kneels next to his head and raises her gun so he can see it, then rests the muzzle over his ear.
"Okay. You're going to stay still." Dawn's looking at her reflection in the sunglasses the guy is wearing. She looks exhausted and on edge. She looks older. The man nods.
"Jeannie?" Jeannie raises her head from where it was buried between Dennis and Madison, and looks down at the man, then over at Dawn. "Move your gun, and get off this guy. Slowly."
Jeannie nods, and sets the end of her gun against the floor, using it to push up and back with the kids still in the half-circle of her arm. She settles back against the door with both of them half in her lap and starts talking to them in an undertone, checking for injuries, asking if anyone had touched them, hurt them. They're both quiet and pale, clinging.
Dennis pipes up, shaky, "Some people asked us questions. About where we lived. Then they went away."
"They weren't nice." Madison manages to comment without moving her face from where it's buried against Jeannie's neck.
Dennis nods, and continues with more confidence. "He said we were supposed to breathe in that thing. And then we could have suckers."
Dawn looks down at the guy and rolls her eyes. "You really thought that would work? Candy? Are there any kids alive who don't know better than that?"
He opens his mouth to speak, then seems to think better of it.
"Right." Dawn shrugs. "Turn over, we're going to tie you up."
This is some kind of medical room as well, so there are plenty of rolls of gummy white first aid tape, and Dawn loops it around and around his wrists behind his back, then sits on the backs of his knees to do the same to his ankles. When she's done, she grabs one shoulder and heaves him back over.
She's about to tape his mouth when she notices the mask again. Sauce for the gander. It isn't like she hasn't already done worse. Today. She smiles at him.
"Stay quiet, okay? Or I'll do this with the gun instead."
After he shakes his head, stops, then nods, defeated, she stretches the elastic over his head, fitting the mask over his nose and mouth. By the time Dawn's standing up his body has already started to loosen, his expression going vague and drugged. Someone will find him like this, but probably not in time to do anything about it.
She turns to the huddle in front of the door. "Time to go."
Jeannie sets her gun down so she can scrub at her face with a sleeve, then tilts both kids away from her body and grins down at them. "What do you say, guys? Want to go?"
Madison nods and tightens her grip on her mother, but Dennis gets up and stretches his arms up over his head, looking at Dawn.
"I want you to carry me," he declares.
Dawn's a little surprised when that, of all the things that have happened today, is what makes her eyes prickle. She ducks to lift him, and he settles onto her hip. She moves her gun to the opposite hand.
Jeannie's got Madison in the same sort of carry, legs wrapped around her ribcage, arms in a stranglehold around her neck. Jeannie presses a kiss to the little girl's forehead and smiles. "Are you ready, sweetheart? Hold on tight, like a lamprey."
Madison nods, and Jeannie eases the door open a crack, peering out. She turns back to Dawn. "All clear."
Dawn gestures encouragingly, and they're on their way.
A stop at the next junction to get their bearings, and Dawn whispers, "Don't you mean limpet?"
"What?" Jeannie catches on fast. "Oh. No. We saw a lamprey display about a month ago."
Madison breaks in. "They attach to you. Tight!"
Jeannie strokes Madison's back a little. "Right. Very tight." She shrugs. "We've never seen limpets."
Dennis is looking like he wants to ask about both lampreys and limpets, now. This is not the time. Dawn tips her head in the most likely direction, gives him a reassuring squeeze, and they're moving again.
They have to duck into doorways twice when they hear voices, but there isn't any sort of regular patrol of the corridors, so they make better time to the elevator than Dawn expected. It opens as soon as she swipes Carter's card, and up they go.
Dawn is slumped against the wall when the elevator doors slide back open. It's careless, but they hadn't run into anyone on this level before, and there's no one now, either. She straightens and steps out into the hall, but Jeannie and Madison are still inside.
"Hush. Busy." Jeannie pries at the edge of the wall panel over the number pad, and it snaps off, revealing bundles of wire, like computer cables, running behind what looks like a flat metal box. She presses a thumbnail into one of the screws holding the top of the box shut trying to turn it, then snaps her fingers peremptorily toward Dawn without looking up.
"Knife. Give me that knife, okay?" Her hand goes back to stabilizing Madison against her body, and she looks over to Dawn. "I need to get this open."
Dawn frowns, but it's a formality. She's not looking anymore anyway.
Jeannie is tracing a finger along a wire and mumbling under her breath when Dawn slides the multi-tool into her field of view, open to the Phillips.
Jeannie's eyes widen, and she grabs for it and has the first screw out before she's even finished reacting.
"Super girl scout. You're like some kind of, I don't know, superhero of preparedness. Oh. Okay. This might be..." She trails off once the cover is removed, closing and opening the tool to get to the little scissors. A few snips, and a few twists, and she looks over at Dawn again, who is, she thinks, very patiently holding open the elevator door.
"That's done it." She punches five buttons in turn, then steps past Dawn into the corridor. "Let's go."
The door slides shut as soon as Dawn steps out. They listen as the motor starts to engage, then there's a soft thunk, and it stops.
Jeannie looks smug.
"This elevator is out of order."
Dawn starts laughing.
Jeannie does the same thing to the elevator that takes them the rest of the way to the surface. Madison gets down and walks, then. Not long after, Dennis does as well, still holding tight to Dawn's fingers.
Through the big door, and into the SUV, all of them piled into the front seat, and the cat won't settle, climbing in and out of each of their laps in turn, and Dawn drives them out of the mountain, off the military base, out of Colorado Springs.
There's a curdled feeling in her stomach, the last of the adrenaline. She's still waiting for one last zombie to lurch up in front of her, like every bad horror movie ever, just when they think they're safe. But it doesn't happen.
They switch off driving and sleeping and don't pause again until they can see the Pacific.
Then Highway 1, until they find a tiny town that would have been quiet even before the end of the world. And stop.
The next week is quiet.
Dawn wards the little house they take over, overlooking the Pacific, and she and Jeannie sleep at night in shifts, pacing from window to window, gun in hand. Just in case.
They don't talk about what they are waiting for. Dawn thinks about it, though: that each day means a few more of the people under the mountain dead, more corpses turned to dust. She's pretty sure Jeannie's thinking about it, too.
They both spend a lot of time watching at the ocean creep up the beach and back down again. The cat chases waves and looks for birds and other small things that don't exist anymore. She winds up attacking their feet, most days.
The kids seem okay, at least. Plenty of nightmares, but the days are full of run-on ad hoc kindergarten classes. They alternate teacher duty.
It's not so bad. Dawn's trying not to plan ahead. She doesn't want to ask what's next. Doesn't want to get her hopes up.
So it's kind of a surprise when Jeannie drops a stack of Carter's files and notes into her lap while she's watching the sunset.
"Hey. I'm watching the sunset, here." Dawn's voice comes out creaky. She's been sitting on the beach for hours.
"Yes, well, you watched it last night. And the night before." Jeannie sits down on the sand next to her. "Thought we should both know as much as possible before we go back."
"Oh. You want me to -" Dawn's not sure how to finish the question, now. "Go back when?"
Jeannie's frowning at her a little. The last of the sunlight is low and golden, right in their eyes. It gives Dawn an excuse to look away.
"Oh, whenever we're ready." Jeannie reaches over and flips open the notebook at the top of the pile. "Start with this. I don't know how good your maths is -" Jeannie's voice raises, making it a question, but when Dawn doesn't say anything, she continues. "- but I know you're smart, so I can talk you around the parts that you don't get. Enough to understand how to use the technology. Okay?"
Dawn nods. This is not leaving her behind. There better not be Kool-aid, though. She runs a finger along a line of close writing. This isn't going to be easy. It looks like Carter had already started to deteriorate by the time she started writing this part out. It shows in the penmanship. Okay. She can do this.
"Hey." Jeannie pokes her in the shoulder. It's annoyingly, wonderfully sisterish.
Dawn smacks at her hand. "Quit it."
"Did you think we were going to leave you behind?"
Dawn looks up from the papers at that. "No. Jeez. Why would I think that?"
"Oh my god. You did." Jeannie is wearing the most appalled expression Dawn has ever seen. "I can't believe you. You moron."
Dawn can bluff her way out of this. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Jeannie's laughing, and Dawn shouldn't have looked away, because now they're bowled over onto the sand and Jeannie's trying to pull the files out of her hands.
"Let go! You're a moron, you'll never understand those!"
Jeannie's laughing pretty hard, so Dawn's winning the tug of war over the papers. Until the tickling starts.
Then Jeannie gets an elbow in the face. And a bloody nose. And possession of the files.
"Hah! I win." Jeannie balls up the sleeve of the shirt she's got on and mops at the blood. She's mostly spreading it around. "Come on. I told the kids we'd have ice cream."
Another week, and here they are. It took a couple of days to reverse Carter's sabotage and rig a series of odd looking generators together into a one-shot super generator, but there really is a big circle standing on edge in a big room. Just like Jeannie said.
Dawn hooks a series of carts together behind a lunar rover-looking thing and Dennis and Madison help to pile the resulting train with their things. Most of them are filled with groceries - crates of Kraft Mac & Cheese, Pop-Tarts, Chips Ahoy, Stovetop Stuffing. Madison had soberly explained the importance of gifts. And the four of them are shouldering the burden of civilization, after all.
Preparations rush past, and, at the same time, never seem like they'll be finished.
But then they are, and the ring fills with a silvery shimmer and whoosh that settles out into dancing patterns. Like light over the bottom of a swimming pool. It's a portal. Of course. It shines like the one opened for Glory, the one that would have meant the end of the world.
Jeannie is talking to someone, and then the rover thing moves into the shimmer. Dawn can't look away; it's dazzling. Madison is holding her mother's hand, and Dennis is holding one of Dawn's, and she's got the cat carrier in the other. It seems like they should all be together, though, and Jeannie must have the same thought, because her free hand closes around Dawn's wrist. She squeezes, warm and reassuring, and Dawn wishes she could squeeze back. She smiles instead.
They go through.
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