Cedar is startled awake by the injured companion she had met nudging her urgently, “NEH, NEH!”
Confusion swirls around within her sleep-muddled brain while the man shuffles about the cabin in a bluster, making an unruly racket. Her limbs feel like dead weights as her brain works to climb out of the euphoric lull of sleep.
“NEH!” The man Nudges her again, but this time with enough force to nearly knock her out of the seat.
Cedar loses her balance and lilts hard to her left, striking her temple on the compartment bulkhead. The contact is accompanied by a sharp but mostly-harmless pain that shoots from her temple, spreading like fire to her jaw and brow. She recalls only a scarce few instances of ever losing her temper to the point of raising her voice. She finds the present situation to be one such occasion.
“What are you doing!?” She shouts angrily while regaining her balance and steadying herself on legs that are still wobbly with sleep.
The vehicle’s interior is still filled with inky darkness. Their only light source is presently being used by the man as he rifles through storage bins. Her initial anger turns to rage at the sight of somebody going through her belongings uninvited.
Her voice lowers to a threatening growl, “Keep your brutish hands out of my…”
But her anger and her words are both cut short. Something is wrong. They are not alone in the cabin. Noises, sounding like stiff-bristled brushes scouring the hull, echo throughout the vehicle. An earthy, acrid smell reaches her nose. She pauses for a moment to gather her wits while the man pulls on her arm absently, leading her farther back into the rear of the compartment. He has stuffed a rucksack full of what little stock of food and water she had brought on the excursion. Enough to last her three days plus a cache of no more than twenty rounds of ammunition each for her rifle and pistol. She had also found a few minor trinkets within the ruins yesterday, among them are some pristine old-world garments still sealed within their protective sleeves. He has packed everything into the bag.
Cedar pulls up closer to the man to see his face in the light, “We cannot go out there. It is too dangerous…” She appeals to him more gently this time, gesturing toward the rear access hatch. Her last spoken word hangs in the air whilst her voice cracks and falters. Gaunt, pale, and sweating profusely, the injured man is pushing through terrible pain to exit the vehicle. Her words did not register with him in the slightest.
Her immediate worry for his wellbeing is interrupted by the sensation of numerous jagged branches clinging onto her back and neck. It is followed almost immediately by searing pain inflicted on the flesh between her neck and shoulder. Compelled by some embedded instinct, she pulls herself into a tight ball, lunging forward quickly in a bid to throw the assailant off of her back.
Flashes and glimpses of a forgotten routine suggest she has done this maneuver many times with some unknown human in the past. This conflicts with what she knows to be true. It is impossible, or at least something in the recesses of her mind is insisting that it is.
The thing on her back is sent flying toward the front of the vehicle and lands with a dull thud followed by thick spatters of her own blood. The man directs the light to where the thing has landed and she immediately understands the reasoning behind his actions. Numerous large insects sporting vicious pincers have invaded the interior of her vehicle. They have undoubtedly come in through the open vents. Her companion has seemingly been busy slaying the creatures. He mumbles some unrecognizable words while pulling on the hatch release, proceeding onto kicking the door open afterward.
Before Cedar can react, the insect that had attacked her regains its footing and spits some noxious brown secretion in her direction, striking her mouth and nose. Her head spins from the terrible smell as she begins gagging and coughing. The substance immediately causes her throat to swell, limiting her ability to breathe normally. Numerous other insects drop from vents around the vehicle as the man directs Cedar through the door while affixing the white shell to his head, effectively obscuring his face.
Hundreds more of the same insects she had seen inside await them outside, covering the forest floor in one fluid mass and surging like the surface of an unsettled pond. Cedar is better able to breathe after clearing her mouth and nose of the secretion. Fortunately, the substance seems more likely intended to blind victims than poison them. Taking over the load of the effort to move them away from the vehicle, Cedar supports the man and allows him to use her as leverage to ease his pain as they retreat. The weapon he had fired upon their first meeting is nowhere to be found. It had been replaced by a smaller pistol that he has drawn and started firing toward the closest insects.
“pweet! pweet!” Each time the weapon is discharged one of the insects stops moving as its carapace explodes, leaving it to collapse into its own ugly, brownish innards. The weapon is silent, emits no flash, and is terminally effective. He is moving slowly and breathing in heaving gasps.
Cedar’s already racing heart somehow increases its pace even further as a large shadow and whatever caused it, plays across the forest floor. She stands frozen from equal parts awe and terror as a predator many times larger and far more dangerous than the insects, lifts its head into view. It strides on six legs and steps on the vehicle as though it were a toy. The man has fallen in place, exhausted and unable to continue.
“pweet! … pweet!” More of the insects fall, though the time between discharges has increased significantly.
Cedar has become aware of the likelihood that the time of their deaths is near. This man could have left Cedar behind as an easy target to cover his own escape. But he did not. Rather, he had taken care to collect her before leaving. Though she has no clear memory of other humans, there is an itching sensation at the back of her mind. She has experienced similar camaraderie in the past. But the memories refuse to surface. Cedar leans closer to the man until they are nearly occupying the same space. She prepares her rifle, ready to return the favor, “If we die here, we die here together…”
“BRAAAAP!! BRAAAAP!!”, she discharges the weapon with flawless accuracy as rapid bursts of flame erupt from the end of the barrel, “…but it won’t happen without a fight.”