She found somewhere else to rest, a house empty with no dead in it. Poor woman, poor woman, she needed sleep.
But other things don’t, or they don’t need it at night, and they followed her scent and found her there. And they watched her sleeping body with gleaming eyes and something vicious on their mind. They watched, hating, until dawn started to mark the sky with light, and then crept away to wherever nighttime things sleep.
So she didn’t know.
But when she woke she did know another thing. She knew how the tanks worked.
They were for emergencies. Emergencies only. A person in a tank could live, undamaged, for six months, a year, while work was done to fix or cure them – but longer than that and the brain broke down, the muscles atrophied, the flesh became vulnerable. These days (those days?) they were mostly used to grow flesh-shapes with no brain-stems, with limbs and organs for harvest for a sick person.
RED 87 had been in that tank a lot longer than a year. Maybe more than ten years, or twenty, or thirty. It was a wonder she could walk, a wonder that her brain could fire at all. No wonder her memories and thoughts were like a rotten tangle of cloth.
She ran one brown hand over the dusty red of her jumpsuit, trying hard to make it not shake. There was new dirt under the nails that had been baby-clean when she spilled out.
The urge, like the urge to eat or drink or shit, unignorable, essential, part of her. Go east.
So tired. So bone-aching tired already. Limbs and muscles sobbing softly in their cases of fragile skin. A headache, from dehydration and constant exertion, lurking at the edge of sensation. Her feet. Oh, who knew feet could hurt so much. They were swollen, would barely fit back in those boots. Those thick socks stiff at the bottom with her blood. She bowed her head down to her feet, and rough hanks of tangled and oily black hair hunkered down over her face. She moaned. Only a day, and how long would she have to walk, how far east did she have to go? Her feet. Her poor feet.
But they went back in the boots anyway, and after the first few stiff and awful steps she could ignore the pain and put it somewhere else in her head. Because what other choice did she have? She couldn’t refuse the east.
Slower going this time, slower work, because a hungry and sore machine is not a capable one. But the city was only so large, only so wide, and the externals were withering away. So not so far, not really. Another day, two, with no clean water and no food and feet that were bleeding. And from then, further, maybe, further still, to the other side of the country where the land flattened down to meet the sea and the sky was huge and weighty. Weeks. Months.
When a creature suffers, strange things happen. It becomes focused on the result. Other senses drift away. Red 87’s sight blurred, till she could only see pebbles and horizon, and nothing in between. Intact buildings, rubble, ruin, all passing her like they didn’t matter. She heard only the wind and her own irregular footsteps, felt her heartbeat pounding in temples and throat.
So it says nothing of her capability, of her skills, that she could be surprised – that she could be trudging half in a trance, and find herself faced by another person, having never heard or even seen them. One moment she was walking, muttering a little song she’d made up to herself one step two step three step step all day you can do it red strong and good step step step and then she was staring at feet that weren’t hers.
Red 87 blinked, twice, and lifted her tired head, and was looking at a woman. She was narrow, angular, with very curly hair that she’d cut close to the scalp. There was a face there, too, all sharp lines and freckles. An ugly scar across cheek and lips.
“…the hell?” she said.
“Going east,” said Red 87, politely, like she was sharing conversation with a friendly stranger in a shop. “Got to go.” But then she fell backwards, onto her arse, hard enough to jar her spine.
“Don’t think you’re going anywhere.”
The woman crouched down, arms on those sharply pointed knees (everything about this stranger hard and sharp like a knife, except the mouth, the mouth was soft and full and scarred. Even the eyes, the brown eyes, they were like being cut)
“I can’t…” said Red 87. “No words.”
“Who are you?”
“Dunno!” she laughed. “Going east. My feet. They’re bleeding.”
“Let me look.”
Red 87 shook her head. “Going east.”
“In this state you won’t get further than Old Mutterway before you just die in the dust.”
A pause. An argument in a brain. The capability still there, but distant from her. “Food,” she said at last. “Water. Sleep.”
“At the minimum. I… know a place nearby.” The woman tilted their head to the side, made her narrow eyes even narrower. “Can get you there.”
Red 87 looked up, at this woman, at her eyes, at her mouth, at her clothes, which weren’t much more than clumsily-woven squares sewn together. “Yes.”
“Come on, then.” A hand, offered and taken. And then two women, one short and soft, round and tender, the other tall and looking carved out of hard wood. One striding, the other limping. To a new place. To the east.
I am a monster. Anyway, don’t forget that I WANT to incorporate your suggestions, whether they be tiny (she finds a special thing!) or large (they are attacked by mutants!). Please leave them in the comments. Be aware that really big suggestions may take a few updates to include, and that by posting a suggestion you are giving me the right to use it or not as I see fit, including in future publication attempts.