August found the electronics Holden needed at the municipal airport outside Brush. He was pleased that he thought of the airport when he saw the tower in the distance. He was an hour back before the sun started to set, so he had to choose between sleeping in a ruin or under the stars. For August, this was not a hard choice.
He tapped the power needle on his cycle with his forefinger. "Well," he muttered, "I guess I'll have to charge you for a few hours when the sun is up so I'm sure I can make it back."
The stream nearby provided water and fish, although he supplemented that with apples still clinging tenaciously to a nearby tree and a small rabbit that curiously peeked at him from under a bush. He buried the uncooked remains of the fish and the rabbit and ate the rest. Washing his face and hands in the stream, August breathed deeply of the fall air.
It was a new world. Perhaps a better one in many respects, though August set small traps as safety measures. It took him a few minutes to settle down comfortably, a large tree to his side. His knife sat unsheathed by his hand, and his bow, rifle and pistol were all within reach. He smiled as he closed his eyes. It might be a new world, but it paid to be cautious.
Dreams rarely intruded on August's sleep, but a ripple flowed into the darkness of his mind as he lay under the branches of the trees, the stars twinkling in the ancient distance of the cosmos. Redness flowed in front of his eyes and he smelled the filth of unwashed bodies, of sweat and blood.
August snapped his eyes open, his hand gripping the handle of his knife. He put his back to the large tree behind him. "I know you're there. I don't want to hurt you," he said to the darkness outside the dim light of his fire.
A thin creature moved toward the fire and sat opposite August. August stared at the glowing eyes across the dying embers of his campfire.
"Hello, August." The voice was tired, the small man so thin he was almost emaciated, his face covered with bristly, dark whiskers. August focused on the squatting figure and noticed the shredded shirt and tattered pants.
"Hi, Hemanth." August looked around and pointed at Hemanth's feet. "What happened to your shoes?"
Hemanth reached past his bent knees and touched his toenails, astonished his feet were bare. "I...I don't know, August. I guess I lost them somewhere." August saw him shrug, a slight movement of his thin shoulders. "I don't need them, though. My feet are tough." He pinched his left arm with his right forefinger and thumb, lifting the skin. "All my skin is tough now. It's like shoe leather, but it still feels normal. My teeth are sharper. My nails are thicker and harder, a little jagged." He looked at the fingers of his right hand. "Quite deadly against normal skin."
They sat in silence for a few moments, Hemanth staring at the fire burning low between them.
"What can I do for you, Hemanth? How can I help you?" August thought about standing up, but decided against it. He held his knife loosely on his open lap. He pulled his boots on, tightening the laces, watching Hemanth's eyes.
Hemanth sighed, the red coals of the fire reflected in a small teardrop from his eye that coursed down his cheek. "I don't know, August. Right now I'm pretty much okay, but that varies from day to day. I have no idea how long I go with blanks in my memory, times I wake up covered with blood and hair and meat stuck between my teeth." He tried to smile, and a sad look crossed on his face. "I brush my teeth with the pounded end of a stick like I did right after the Virus hit the first time." He looked away, into the distant trees. "I thought about ending it. Some of us already did." Hemanth ran his hand over his face. "The change did something to us, too. Made us more… I don't know. Risk-takers? Aggressive isn't right, although that's part of it. Braver? More rash, maybe. It's hard to pin down."
"Holden can help you, Hemanth. In fact, I'm sure he wants to."
"I'd have to get into town, and I'd have to be in my right mind when I got there." Hemanth's shoulders trembled. "I don't know how to do it. I can't predict when my mind slides away. I could walk into town in my right mind and snap as soon as I walk up to Holden. I can't risk it. I might hurt someone."
"You took a chance tonight."
Hemanth smiled. "It's you, August. I could smell you a mile away. Some of the others wanted to come too. We travel in small packs, but I talked the others into letting me come alone. I figured if I could get here in my right mind, then I could talk to you. If I changed..." His voice dropped to a whisper. "...if I changed, then you'd kill me." He looked at August, his eyes pleading. "Either way, I win. You see?"
Hemanth's shoulders shook again, his eyes dropping down to stare at the fire.
"I see. But I wouldn't kill you, Hemanth, not unless I had to. You're my..."
Without warning, Hemanth launched himself across the fire, fingers extended like claws, his eyes dark and blazing with an inner light, spittle flying from the side of his mouth.
August flung himself to the left, away from Hemanth's leap. As fast as August was, the claws of Hemanth's right hand tore through August's shirt leaving bloody furrows along his back, the tattered cloth tearing away.
August stood, pivoting to face the snarling animal crouched across from him, his knife ready in his right hand. "Hemanth! I don't want to fight you."
The creature leaped again, faster than August anticipated. August stepped to the side, grabbed Hemanth's shirt and swiveled his upper body, propelling Hemanth into a tree and leaving the remains of the shirt in August's hands.
The creature shook his head groggily and staggered to his feet, glaring at August with hatred. August rolled his shoulders, feeling the torn skin and muscle on his back. "You're fast, I'll give you that," he said to the creature, "but I've trained and fought with the best men and women of the last few centuries, so I think experience trumps speed." He glared back at the small monster. "I don't want to hurt you, but if you force me to, I will." August moved toward his weapons, never letting his eyes leave the face of the creature who was once Hemanth.
The beast sniffed the air, shifting his gaze right and left. Lifting his head, he let out a long, low howl, the sound of a nightmare from an almost human throat. The howl traveled into the trees, disappearing within its branches. From not far away the howl returned, four or five different voices blending into a symphony of hatred. The others were coming.