Down in the Meadow

A young man sifted through files on a computer inside a decaying treehouse. The machine was dirty and full of dents and scratches. His hands moved across the keys like a hummingbird to a flower. The man sat by the window, positioning the laptop in the direction of the fading sunlight. His computer had been heavily modified long ago by his father to run exclusively off of sunlight, the only source of energy his father deemed "constant while life is still constant". Access to electricity and batteries were luxuries of the past out where he was. While the computer could still run with either, he hadn't bothered wasting his time rigging up something that would ultimately be temporary. His supplies and time in any one place were always limited. He always needed to move. For the time being, this place was safe. According to his father's files, this place was called Zone 1. Zone 1 was a death zone where only plants grew. The plants in the area thrived but were unsuitable for consumption by animals, humans included. If he were to eat anything from within Zone 1, he would die within the hour. Whatever food he managed to scavenge up in the last location would have to last him until he moved on. He stared down at a one inch button pin on his bag. The design was for an old library long contaminated on the other side of the border. He felt over it and sighed. His time here would be brief. Subject 14, female, photosynthetic, and missing researcher Dr. Juliet Marsh--he needed to find out if they were still alive. From what he read in his father's files, Dr. Marsh had been one of the lead scientists on Team 5 of Project Shelter, a top secret government research project. She worked alongside five others sharing leadership, with many assistants underneath them. Their project specialized in military research, working on creating human weapons. Ultimately, their division was deemed a failure, and with ever increasing technology in the government's hands, biological weapons of that nature were seen as outdated and inferior. All the scientists heading the team, the assistants, and the subjects were supposed to have been eliminated after the collapse of Team 1's headquarters and the compromising of Team 5's. Two scientists, one assistant, and four subjects were unaccounted for. He managed to find two of the missing people, Dr. Giovanni and Subject 13, and collected what data he could from the scientist. All information he had suggested the other missing scientist, Dr. Marsh, was still living somewhere near the sinkhole disaster area that caused the destruction of Teams 1 and 5. If not alive, he hoped she might have at least left something of value behind. Subject 14 likely would be with her. Each team leader was expected to give reports on the mental state of the other team leaders. Dr. Marsh was frequently written up for getting too close to Subject 14 and displaying emotional favoritism towards the subject. When he met with Giovanni in person, the old man confirmed the accuracy of the reports. If she still had Subject 14 with her, that narrowed down her potential living area even further. Subject 14 could not live without a steady supply of fresh air, sun, soil, and water. Most of the waterways even before Project Shelter began were primarily man-made in the area, and were now tightly controlled. For the sinkhole disaster area, that left only a few small streams and creeks. He had already checked half of them. Tomorrow, he would begin again. As with Subject 13, Subject 14 was the same age as him. Her records listed her as having green eyes and light green hair, a unique trait not seen before in other subjects with similar genetic modifications. That trait alone would make spotting her very easy. Dr. Marsh's photo on file was from over twenty years ago. He knew to expect an old woman, but she would be more difficult to identify. In the morning, he set out to the next possible location, a small meadow with a stream that ran through it. The meadow reminded him of the field just behind his home when he was a child. He used to play out there with his sister all the time before Phase 2 began. Memories of then were blurry in his mind now, as he was a very small child at the time. That place behind his home was once a private sanctuary. Several years ago, over the course of a single month, it turned into a decayed, stained graveyard for everyone in the house save one. The big red seven on the calendar was forever burned into his mind. When he was young, he mourned them and wanted to avenge their deaths. Now that he was older, he had no pity for any of them. His mother and sister acted stupidly, and his father--he hated that man completely. At twenty, so little of his life was before the incident. If he had been born to a different family, he would likely be a brainless experiment to be played with or dead. A quick death in ignorance was a fantasy of his. He soon approached the stream, crouching down in the tall grass. The stream was in sight, and so was she. In the stream, her clothes completely soaked, he found a beautiful woman with hair the color of leaves. She looked normal other than that detail. Her thin, wet dress made the rest of her body all too easy to see as he noted she wasn't wearing any undergarments. The view gave him a bit of a rise as indecent thoughts crept into his mind. He kept the thoughts at bay. He was done with intimacy and relationships. There was no place for them in this world of decay and death. Slowly, he stepped into the river. The woman turned around. She kept her distance. He pulled down the scarf that covered his face. "Miss, do you know a Dr. Juliet Marsh?" The woman backed away from him. "What do you want with Mama?" "I only want to ask her some questions about her work, and what she might know about my father." He gave her an honest answer. That was why he came. He wondered how much the woman knew. 'Mama, huh? Subject 13 called Giovanni 'Father' too. These people...' "Your father is an old friend of Mama?" The woman moved a little closer. "They were well acquainted." He lied. His father had only met Marsh a handful of times, as she was never a particularly impressive researcher. "Could you take me to her?" "Alright. It's this way." She stepped into the grass and led him into the woods. She looked him over as they walked. "You wear funny things." He was accustomed to that reaction. Even among those who knew the dangers that existed on the outside, few protected themselves, as if they lived in a deep denial. He usually kept his face covered with a thick scarf and goggles. Over his head, he wore a hat with a protective flap that shielded his neck and ears. Regardless of weather, he wore two layers of shirts, one long-sleeved and one tank top. He had on shorts underneath his pants too and a thick pair of socks. He wore sturdy gloves and hiking boots. Over everything else, he wore a heavy-duty coat lined with many pockets. He rarely let any portion of his body be exposed for long. He gave a simple, honest answer again. "It's for protection." "What's your name?" She asked. "Sky." "Oh, that's a pretty name." The woman smiled. "It's a stupid name." He sighed. He didn't know why he always gave out his real name. A lie would have been more believable and less embarrassing. "Why's it stupid to be named after the sky?" She asked. "That's not a real name. My mother came up with that to sound mystical. She was always reading those stupid New Age self-help books and buying dumb crystals." His full name was even more embarrassing, as was his sister's. There were few things he was grateful for. His parents homeschooling him for the brief time period he attended school was one of them. "I don't really know anything about that." She skipped ahead of him and turned around, walking backwards. "My name is Violetta, by the way." His eyes lingered on her body again. He pushed those thoughts aside once more. "I see. How long have you been living here with Dr. Marsh?" "Mama and I have been here over ten years now. I'm not sure exactly how many years." She seemed to be counting back in her head. "Where's your dad? Why didn't he come to visit Mama too?" "He can't. He died." Sky gave her the truth again, minus the important details. "Oh, I'm sorry. What happened to him?" Violetta lowered her head. "He got sick." He remained truthful. His father did die of a sickness, a man-made one. "That's so sad." Violetta looked down at his bag. She pointed to the pin. "That's a pretty pin. What's it for?" "It's from a library." Sky refused to look down at it. He hated being asked that. "I've never seen one of those." "There aren't any open anymore." His words were bitter. He never had the chance to visit one while they were still open either, though he had been in many at this point. "Oh. Who gave you the pin? Did you get it as a prize?" "My...a friend gave it to me." Sky walked a little faster. The girl was starting to get on his nerves. "A friend? How'd your friend get it?" Violetta asked. "His father used to run a library." "Where does your friend live?" Violetta skipped ahead of him. "He's not around anymore either. He also got sick." He wanted to say, 'He's dead, you idiot.' He still needed her to guide him to Marsh. He didn't have the luxury of saying what he wanted to. "Oh, you poor thing. Why don't you stay here with me and Mama? That way, you won't be alone." Violetta held onto his hands. He knocked them away, annoyed at her innocence. "It's not safe to stay in one place for long. After I see Dr. Marsh, I'll be leaving again. You should consider leaving soon too." "Mama says there's bad people out there who might take me away and hurt me. I should stay hidden here." That was the same response Subject 13 gave him when he told him to leave Giovanni's side. He had several meetings with Giovanni, and not once could he convince Subject 13 to leave. He heard from some of his acquaintances at the Sanctuary that Subject 13 eventually left on his own. It was unlikely, but he hoped that he might have had some influence in Subject 13's decision. "They'll find you eventually out here. You should move somewhere less exposed." He tried to get through to her, but she wasn't listening to him anymore. Violetta stopped and closed her eyes. Sky gave her a strange look. "What are you doing?" "You can't hear them either, huh? Mama can't. The roses are talking about the weather." She pointed to two rosebushes that were side-by-side. "The...roses? Roses can't talk. They don't have brains, much less vocal chords." He rolled his eyes at her. "It's not like how people talk. It's different. They don't use words." She grinned. Watching her reminded him of how his mother used to act in the garden. It annoyed him even more. He let it go. For all he knew, she really could pick up on something. She was listed as having plant-like qualities. His mother was just an idiot. Violetta turned to face him and put her face close to his. She squinted. "You know, I haven't seen a man in a long time. No one ever comes out here. You're a lot more handsome than the men from a long time ago. From the parts of you I can see anyway." 'The men from along time ago? She must be talking about the researchers.' He didn't say anything about that. "Is that so? Then most of the men you saw must have been very ugly." "That's really rude, you know!" She yelled at him. He wasn't fazed by her reaction. "The truth isn't always nice." "I think you're just lonely and that's why you don't know how to behave anymore." She snapped at him. "I'm not lonely." Sky didn't feel much of anything anymore. There wasn't a point to it. All that kept him going was his need for vengeance. There was no room in him or time for anything else. Violetta led him down to an old cabin. He wanted to laugh. It wasn't much different than the one Giovanni used as his hideout. 'Groupthink, huh? Pathetic.' "Here it is. I'll introduce you." Violetta opened the door and led him inside. An old woman sat in a rocking chair by the window. Violetta showed Sky to her. "Mama, we have a guest." "A guest?" The old woman said in a sweet voice. "This is Sky. He says his dad knew you and he wants to talk to you." Violetta explained. "Oh, is that so? Violetta, could you give us a little privacy while we talk and go play outside?" The old woman rocked back and forth in her chair. "Yes, Mama." Violetta obediently left the cabin. When Violetta was gone, the old woman got up out of the chair. She circled around Sky, looking him over. Sky placed his hand over the pocket he carried his pistol in as a precaution. The old woman grinned at him. "You, you look like the old director, the one who led everything." "I am his son." Sky answered what she wanted to know. "Dr. Summerfield's son, aye? How is the old bastard?" Marsh laughed. "He died years ago." "You don't seem sad." She walked back over toward the window. "I'm not." Sky said. His voice was emotionless. "What are you after, boy?" The woman pulled the curtains in to block the view of outside. He didn't dare move closer to her. No one could be trusted who worked for them, whether they stayed or ran away. "I want to know everything you know about what happened. All of it." "And what will you do with that information?" She asked. "I'm going to piece it all together, all of the secrets, and record them. Someday, someone will find them and know what happened here." Sky told the same thing to Giovanni the first time they met. "My, how thoughtful of you. Feeling a little guilty over what daddy was up to?" The old woman jabbed. "A child is not guilty of their parents' sins. I don't give a damn about him. This is for justice." Sky's eyes never left her for a moment. He watched her every movement. She chuckled. "How quaint." "Are you going to cooperate or not?" Sky took one step forward. Marsh understood his threat and walked over to a set of boxes. She opened them. "This is what you want, isn't it? I've been keeping logs of her progress all this time. You should already have the ones from before Team 5 was shut down." "Yes, I do." He said. "They're all in this box, everything I have. Take a look if you want." She sat back down in her rocking chair. Cautiously, he walked over to the box and shifted through it. Sky had no time to copy everything nor room to carry it all. He skimmed through the journals, making note of anything he found useful. The details about the incident were similar to what Giovanni told him. For Subject 14, he wrote down: 'Development: secondary sex characteristics appeared at normal age range, absence of menses, possibly infertile, reached average American female height Intelligence: average intelligence Communication: appears to be able to communicate signals to plants, human-human communication abilities average Additional notes: hair appears biofluerescent at night under conditions not able to define' That was good enough for his records. He would record that information on his computer later. He closed the box back up and checked on Marsh again. She was still sitting there in her rocking chair. From behind, he noticed something. A large splotch of red-brown and black on the back of her neck. He knew that mark anywhere. He saw it so many times in his life. He stood up. "You have the Rust." "That I do. I'll be dead within the week." She said without a care. "Does she not know?" Sky asked. "How could I ever tell her such a thing? She doesn't understand things like that." Marsh got up out of her chair and peeked through the curtains at Violetta. "She needs to be kept away from you. You could give it to her." It was long ago, but he could still see it in his mind, the moment his sister died. After she died, his father told him and his mother to go inside quickly. Sky stood inside the house like his father told him to while his father tried to coax his mother into coming inside. His mother refused and stood there beside his sister's corpse for at least half an hour. He wasn't keeping track of the time. His father tried to pull her away, but she clung to his sister's body. While his father was trying to pull her off his sister, his sister's stomach burst open with blood and brown-black spores, spraying them both. After that, his father shot his mother in the back of the head and came to the window. His last words to him were, 'You must leave now. Remember what I told you.' "Plants can't catch it." Marsh closed the curtain back. "She's not a plant. No matter what you may have manipulated in her genetic code, she is still a human." He stepped toward her. "Is she now? And how are we defining human?" Marsh kept her back turned to him. He could feel her smugness radiating from where he stood. "I'm not interested in having a philosophical debate with you over your blatant disregard for ethics. Your lack of rational judgment was already clear from you being involved with this to begin with. Are you going to tell her?" He asked again in a stronger tone. "She doesn't need to know." Marsh replied. "I'm taking her to the Sanctuary then. If I have to kidnap her, I will." He had no interest in staying in that place himself. Sky still had too much to do to relax. It was the only safe place he knew of on the outside. He could drop her off there and go back about his business. "And you say I sound irrational?" Marsh laughed at him. "This is a matter of life and death. If I must take desperate means to protect life, then I have no qualms against that. What's your reasoning for not telling her?" Sky felt over his pocket again. "They won't be able to care for her like I do." Marsh turned around and laughed again. "In what way are you caring for her now? You're the same as Giovanni. You sit here pretending to feel guilty for what you've done, making amends by keeping one of your torture victims, acting all self-righteous and wise..." He slipped his hand into his pocket and felt over the gun. "I'm taking her from you." "Perhaps you're the bad one. A young man coming to take my daughter away. How do I know you won't do as you please with her? I bet you didn't take Subject 13 from Giovanni, did you?" She mocked him. He wanted to laugh at her assumptions because if he were to be after Violetta in that way, he wouldn't have hesitated with Subject 13 either. "Subject 13 is at the Sanctuary now. And there was less need to remove him urgently from Giovanni's hands. He was not dying from an easily transmittable disease." "I may have already infected her for all you know. Forcing her to spend her last days away from home, how cruel." Her words made his blood boil. In her cruel suggestion, he saw his sister's boyfriend playing at her heartstrings until she caved into his demands and gave herself a death sentence to appease him in one of the other ways the disease was spread. Sky pulled down his goggles and covered up his face with his scarf. He put his hood over his hat. Without warning, he took out his last means of negotiation. Dr. Marsh laughed. "I'm not afraid of that. I'm already going to die. Go on, shoot me. Will that make you feel better, son of the original director? Aren't you the guilty, self-righteous one? You won't be a hero if you shoot me and everyone involved. You're wasting your time, little boy." "I'm not looking to be a hero. That's what you were doing." Sky pulled the trigger without hesitation, hitting her square between the eyes. "This is for revenge." Her blood splattered against the walls and parts of his coat. Sky quickly tossed the coat off. He struck several matches, dropping them around the house as he left. The house burned slowly behind him as he searched for Violetta. She was easy to find. Violetta was playing down by the stream in the meadow. He kept his face covered. "It's time for us to go." He said. "Where are we going?" Violetta sensed something was wrong. "You're mother told me to take you somewhere far from here." He grabbed her hand. "Why? Mama always said I was safest here." Violetta pulled away. "It's not safe here anymore. Other people have found out about it. They'll come here and lock you up in a cage, or worse, kill you. We have to go now." He lied. He hated lying. His voice always sounded so convincing he almost believed himself. It was a trait he inherited from his father. Tears welled in her eyes. "Where's Mama? Isn't she coming?" "She's staying behind. She's giving us a distraction so you can escape." He grabbed onto her. "But...I don't want to leave her behind! I have to go to her!" Violetta struggled to free herself, but couldn't get away. Sky was too strong for her to overpower. "No, you mustn't! Don't you see? She's chosen to protect you. If you go back to her, her efforts will be in vain. We have to go now. I can protect you from here, until I can get you to the Sanctuary. The people there can keep out all the bad people." Violetta stopped struggling after he said that. He forced himself to speak in a gentle voice. "Come with me." Tears in her eyes, Violetta nodded her head. Sky released her. Then, he offered her his hand. Reluctantly, she took it. He hated traveling with other people. Sky reminded himself it would only be for two weeks. The Sanctuary wasn't far, fortunate for him. Those days with her, he shared at a distance. Violetta's condition added an extra two days onto the trip, as they had to find sources of water every day for her. A growing temptation filled him when he watched her. For all he said, he knew he was lonely. She annoyed him, but he would be lying to himself if he said he wasn't enjoying her presence. Sky stared down at the pin on his bag. That reminder allowed him to overcome his loneliness and keep his distance from her. On the last day, he handed her over to the people in the Sanctuary. He didn't dare step inside that place. He didn't belong there, not yet, he told himself. Sky wanted to add, "not ever" to that, but even in his mind, he was still too weak to resist the company of others. With Violetta, Subject 14, accounted for and safe and Dr. Marsh gone, he set out to track down the rest of the missing team. On the outside, there was nothing for miles. The world of man that once was laid hidden underneath kudzu and moss. He wandered in a direction that looked just as empty as everything else that surrounded him, knowing it would be weeks, if not months before he saw another person. Briefly, he contemplated suicide, but laughed it off. He was far too weak for that.
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