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“When did you know you were lost?” he asked.
“Lost? But I’m not lost,” I answered. I looked around, trying to get my bearings. I was standing on a beach I had never seen before.
This is wrong, I thought, I’m not here.
The familiar feelings of panic, fear and disorientation rose in my throat as my heart started pounding. I remembered watching my parents being ripped away from me in a turmoil of wind and sea.
Taking a deep breath, I willed myself to be calm, to show him that I was managing just fine.
“Oh, you’re lost, Dylan. Lost and alone.”
I shook my head, sure that if I looked behind me I would see the familiar compound surrounding us. “No, I’m not, I have everyone here. We’ve been waiting for you. I’ve organized them all…” my voice trailed off as I tried to remember all the things I had been waiting to tell him when he finally returned.
“No, it’s just you,” he said.
Before I could assure him he was wrong, piercing wail cut through the scene and everything faded to early-morning grey.
Sam was screaming in her sleep again. I must have dozed off.
I went to sit by her, trying to wake her though I knew by now I couldn’t. Her hand clenched mine as I stared at the crumbling walls and considered the dream.
Melis was the one who was lost, not me. But then dreams don’t always make sense. I tried to ignore the possibility that my dream was my subconscious telling me that we needed to leave. That we shouldn’t just stay here and wait for Melis – or for The Absolute to send another attack.
Though my friendship with Melis had given me a certain unspoken authority within the group, even in his absence, I still didn’t feel like it was my place to lead an exodus. Or even to direct Nasir to do so. Maybe Melis was right; maybe I was too naïve to be part of a rebellion. It wasn’t that anyone had challenged my role – but I did.
The time I’ve spent with Melis hasn’t prepared me for anything, I thought with a sigh that was drowned by Sam’s screams.
To focus on something other than my self-doubt, I tried to figure out how long it had been since The Great Disaster. The routine of life in the compound – warriors training with Nasir in the abandoned streets and the rest of us staying behind to keep our small village running – meant that the days melted into each other.
I was pretty sure that Melis had been gone almost two weeks and that we’d been at the compound for around a month before that. That meant it had been about two months since the day Melis had scared away my pigeon. It felt like it had been a lifetime.
Having counted the days, my thoughts turned to The Absolute, our faceless, nameless adversary. If the global network of surveillance systems controlled by The Absolute was still trained on us despite that first attack, if we were still among the survivors that needed to be reigned in, did it know our leader was gone? Would it attack anyway? Or was it watching Melis now, instead of our compound?
It would have helped to have Sam’s intelligence, but I knew I’d have to do without that for now, and maybe forever. Nasir surely knew more, too, but though I had appointed him deputy, I was too shy to ask him. He was Melis’ man. I was sure he would do a good job but he wasn’t someone to sit down and chat with.
I should have asked him anyway. Looking back, I think I was choosing to remain oblivious because I thought it was easier than taking action, and easier than acknowledging the authority I had somehow gained.
I must have fallen back to sleep in the midst of my contemplations. This time, it wasn’t Sam who woke me.
I wasn’t sure at first whether I was even awake or if I was dreaming again. A stab of fear prickled through me, making me hot. It was still dark, which was strange; I was sure it should have been lighter by then. I could hear Sam breathing evenly, for once, nearby. Then, cutting through the peaceful lull, I heard the sounds that must have woken me. As I struggled to clear my mind I heard voices echoing around the outside of the compound walls.
The open spaces that had once been windows funnelled the sounds into the room, making everything seem louder, closer. My whole body was tingling with panic as the thumping of my heart mingled with the intermittent bursts of a loudspeaker and the shuffling of heavy feet. The feverish panic I had felt moments before was replaced with cold fear, and then returned again in a wave.
I tried to determine how many people were out there. It sounded like there were more than ten, less than fifty, but it was hard to tell between the echoes and the thudding of my heart. The moving feet paused briefly while a deep-voiced woman shouted orders in a language I couldn’t understand. Her tone was forceful, cold and left little room for questions or doubt; she was the commander. The troops would come to find us when she told them to.
This time, I thought, our attackers have voices. It was then that I realized I had misjudged The Absolute. We should have moved out when we had the chance.
As I tried to shake Sam awake, I wondered whether Nasir was up. Was he mobilizing his teams? The rest of our community – 180 or so – were spread across several connecting buildings. Our attackers seemed to be outside the main part of the compound, the part where Melis and I lived. Would Nasir and the others have heard them yet?
After what seemed an awfully long time, Sam’s eyes flashed open and connected with mine.
“It’s happening again,” she said, holding my gaze.
Without acknowledging the momentousness of Sam finally speaking, I said, “We have to get as many out as we can.”
She nodded and we crept from the shadowed room into the hallway.
The two of us were weaponless but, so far, the forces remained outside, in the front of the compound. Sam and I moved down the darkened hallways of our building, going from room to room, waking everyone we found. There were seven floors, a main section and two wings on each floor. I kept going methodically, without stopping to agonize over how long it was taking. At least the warriors among us would have some manner of weapons, knives and handguns mostly.
Sam and I directed everyone out the back exists, reminding them not to hide but to use the shadows, to stand still in plain sight and to fade into the scenery. As we selected two warriors to go to the other buildings to round up everyone else, I noticed absently that a storm was approaching. That explained why it was so dark.
With everyone gathered quietly outside, I searched among their faces for Nasir. He and a few of the best warriors were missing. I decided they probably heard the troops out front and had put into motion some plan which must have existed for just this type of event.
I appointed Sam to lead everyone else through the abandoned streets around the far side of town and out across the dry plain. I was banking on the single-mindedness of the forces out front, assuming that they would be focused on the compound and not on the people moving in plain sight across the field.
“Just keep moving quietly in a straight line,” I said. “Go straight for two days and if I haven’t caught up with you, make camp. I will find you. The land around here is pretty flat.
I wasn’t sure how far away two days would take them, or whether I would even find them, but I thought they might be safer walking away. Even if we never found each other, survival would be better than walking into the arms of The Absolute, especially for Sam.
It occurred to me that no one doubted my authority or my plan. Did I command that kind of respect, or was it because I was associated with Melis? It was probably the latter.
As Sam turned to go, I threw one arm around her in an awkward half hug. “You will be fine, you will make it. I’ll see you in a day or two.”
“Thank you, Dylan. Thank you for sitting with me all this time, and for being patient with me. I’m sorry…I’m sorry I couldn’t, I didn’t…” she trailed off. I had been trying so hard not to prod her all this time but we couldn’t talk about it now.
“It’s ok, we can do that later. Go.”
With a weak smile and a shadow of guilt in her eyes, she turned and started herding those who had been waiting. I watched, impressed, as they followed her. She was a natural leader. She had always been capable but now, after her ordeal, she seemed stronger, more confident. She would be fine.
I turned and ran softly along the edge of the building as the first drops of rain fell and the first sounds of people moving inside reached my ears.
I had to find Nasir.