* * *
Ashlee woke with a shutter. She glances around the woodland clearing, her eyes focusing first to Mitchell and then to Kelvin.
“What did you hear?” she asks with a sigh, wiping the sweat from her forehead, and peering into the darkness to find the bound form of Dr. Monroe.
Kelvin looks away, but Mitchell fixes her with an icy stare. “How many of us have you killed?”
Ashlee took a breath, preparing to respond, but Kelvin interjects. “Red here, she doesn’t kill the Afflicted.”
Mitchell’s eyes narrow. “Is that so?”
Ashlee spreads her hands wide. “I’ve ended a million birthdays.”
“What-“ Mitchel starts to say, but Kelvin interrupts.
“Red’s a stone cold killer,” he raises his eyebrows as if to emphasize the next part. “She only hunts humans.”
“I am human,” Mitchell retorts.
Kelvin rolls his eyes. “You know what I mean.”
Ashlee stands and walks to the doctor. Her sweat has plastered her red hair against her cheeks and neck.
“So,” Mitchell asks, trying to remain casual. “A million birthdays? What are you, some kind of apocalyptic bounty hunter?”
Ashlee doesn’t respond. She walks into the underbrush.
She doesn’t need to respond, Kelvin thinks with a detached understanding. People like Ashlee reject labels the same way they reject people. Independence is a way of life. Relying on, or allowing people to rely on you is a fast track to disaster. When it’s you against the world, decisions are easy: complete the mission at any cost. But stop being a lone wolf, and you’re asking to be let down, or let someone else down.
That kind of pressure, self imposed or otherwise is a hard thing to handle. When someone else relies on you, then there’s more at stake. It’s easy to see how ugly the post-afflicted world really is. Ashlee has the almost hopeless task of calculating and even foreseeing the terrible things that can and will happen. Her outlook defaults to pessimism. And who wants to be responsible for leading people who depend on her into that glimpsed future?
It’s not that she’s a coward; on the contrary, it’s a twisted leap of logic; of hope. Isolation leads to the inability to harm those around you. Was it Frankenstein’s wish that his monster be reviled and hated? Just like the good doctor, Ashlee just wants to do her duty.
The monologue running in Kelvin’s brain is interrupted when Ashlee drops to a crouch. Even Dr. Monroe, searching for an escape, falls silent and stares after her. The monologue running in Kelvin’s brain is interrupted when Ashlee drops to a crouch. Even Dr. Monroe, searching for an out, falls silent and stares after her. He wants his escape, but not to those things.
The night is eerily quiet, and the telltale passing of a group of humans is almost felt instead of heard. It’s as if they register on a sense unused before the collapse. After a few minutes, Ashlee makes her way back to the group.
“We need to move,” she hisses. “We’re less than a day from our destination.”
Kelvin gathers his meager belongings and pushes Dr. Monroe into the underbrush following Ashlee.