Ash figured thirteen was much too young for a human to survive on her own. It wouldn't be long before Jaelyn would need to do just that, though. The least Ash could do was prepare her for the inevitable.
The monsoon season on Buncombe's northern hemisphere was winding down when he took her on her first hunting trip. They had supplies packed away in their shelter, but fresh meat would be a welcome change. She celebrated the occasion by painting bars and blotches on her forehead—a crude replica of Ash's own tattoo.
He wasn't sure how to feel about that.
He winced while she hopped from wet rock to wet rock, his old plasma rifle banging against her side. His one-time drill sergeant would have gone berserk at the sight of a weapon treated so carelessly, but the rifle—a souvenir of the war between Buncombe and the Collari Union's GenMod soldiers—would not discharge accidentally, so Ash said nothing.
They reached one hill's wooded crest, and Jaelyn pointed to an abandoned building down by the river. "Look," she shouted, barely audible over the rain. "Behind the old Arden place."
He followed her gaze to the homestead, abandoned since before the war. Weeks of precipitation had uncovered a cellar door neither of them had seen before.
"Do you think it's a bunker? Maybe the Ardens are hiding in there. Maybe they don't know the Jimmies are gone."
"They're not in there."
The Jimmies had been bred by the Collari to be faster, stronger, and more perceptive than ordinary humans. Once the cloned soldiers dropped on Buncombe's surface, the colonists never stood a chance.
"Well then there might be food inside." She ran down the hill without waiting for his reply. Halfway down she slipped on a muddy patch.
She climbed to her feet and walked carefully the rest of the way to the cellar. They didn't bother with the house itself—they'd picked it clean long ago.
It was a bunker, and inside they found a stockpile of canned food, along with other household goods. Ash loaded his pack with cans by the gray half-light spilling in through the opening overhead, while Jaelyn fiddled with a sealed door in the back. Minutes later, a whoosh of air signaled her success.
Her squeak of surprise made him pause with a can half in his pack.
"Um, Ash? Tell me again about the war."
He sighed. She'd been fascinated with the Jimmies ever since she learned they were responsible for killing her parents. "What do you want to know?"
"You fought in it."
Ash detected an unaccustomed tremble in her voice. He crossed to the door, which led to an airtight storage compartment. Jaelyn stood with her back to him, silhouetted in the glow of a long-dormant emergency light, her coat dripping rainwater onto the stone floor.
"You know I did," he said.
She stepped aside, and Ash's gaze caught on a shape on the compartment's floor. A perfectly preserved body, mirroring his own, right down to the identification tattoo on his temple.
"Which side were you on?"
She bolted from the cellar before he could frame an explanation. He followed her out of the cellar, but she was out of sight by the time he climbed to the surface. He closed his eyes and listened, and heard her quiet sobs from the other side of the house. He circled around and found her, beside the engorged river, scrubbing the makeshift tattoo off her face while the water raced past.
She grabbed the plasma rife when she noticed him. He held his hands out in what he hoped was a non-threatening gesture.
"You left out the part where you were a Jimmie," she said.
"The war's over. There are no more Jimmies. No more colonists either. Only stragglers like us."
"Did you kill my parents?"
He eyed the barrel of the plasma rifle and swallowed. "Probably not."
"You don't know."
He shook his head.
She lined him up in the rifle's sight. A small part of him was pleased to note that her form was perfect.
"If you want me dead, you just have to wait," he said. "GenMod soldiers don't live beyond a couple decades. It won't be long now. In the meantime, why don't you let me keep helping you."
"Why? What do you want?"
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