When Victor set out to get water, he had to do it without his gun – he had put it down someplace other than its usual spot and now it was nowhere to be seen. That'll teach me, he snarled to himself. Shit. First he'd been in this village for months without getting a single plague victim, let alone a single plague victim's scalp – what they called a “topknot” - and now he was going for water without his gun. Brilliant. But he had to have the water.
He put on his armor and facemask walked out into the cold air. His neighbors took care of their chores – hoeing vegetable gardens, beating the dust out of carpets, hanging wet laundry to dry. Life in 2030.
Mac paused to lean on his hoe. “Hey Vic,” he called, waving. “Hunting?”
“Water,” Vic responded, looking back down to the weed-strewn ground.
“Oh.” Was that a note of contempt in his voice? “Course. No gun.”
Victor ignored him – no point in getting into an argument with that know-it-all – and headed out to the spring.
Other neighbors glanced at him on his way. A few looked at him twice when they saw he had no gun with him. Victor didn't spend much effort to return their looks – it wasn't polite and could get you a punch in the gut. He probably should have gotten used to the neighbors' contempt by now – people in 2030 tended to be overprotective, especially when dealing with relative newcomers like himself. He'd moved to this place a month or so after the plague had hit, and the village hadn't really gotten used to him yet, so he tried to have some empathy. Wasn't easy.
Besides, he had enough to do to keep his gaze down at the cracked, uneven asphalt road so he wouldn't trip. Maybe one of these days the settlement would attract someone who knew how to pave this thing, or take up the asphalt, and enough people to do the work quickly.
On the outskirts, he came to the edge of the wood. He crept to the first tree – moccasins kept his tread quiet, unlike those fancy shoes he used to wear before the sickness. When he reached the first tree, he stood flat against the trunk facing back toward town and edged his way around, bit by bit. Took him a full twenty minutes, he figured, before he was facing the wood.
Slowly, slowly, toes touching the ground first followed by heels, Victor sneaked up to the next tree, then the next and the next. It took him a good hour or more to turn and see that the trees hid his view of the settlement. Now it got really dangerous. His heart pounded like he was about to collapse in on him.
Toes and heels, toes and heels, and then he heard a crunch. His toe had found a dead leaf. Shit.
He lifted it up, moved it a half inch to the left, set it down again. Crunch.
He lifted his foot up, moved it behind him, set it down. Crunch.
Good Lord. He looked up. He was under a big elm covered with red and yellow leaves, all of them dry, all of them about to fall. He'd managed to get under the tree without crunching, but the likelihood of withdrawing by the exact same path he'd come in by, and thus avoid any more crunching leaves, was vanishingly small.
Well, he thought, palms sweating despite the autumn chill, here we go. He took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and took off running.
He ran as lightly on his feet as he could. His facemask made it a bit difficult to catch his breath, but he kept moving and found that he could still hear the sounds from between the trees pretty clearly despite the rattle of the foliage under his feet, but he missed the net stretched between trees until it was almost too late. He spotted it in time to skid under it. As he scrambled to his feet as a half dozen other footsteps headed toward him – they were almost on top of him when he sprang away.
He ran toward the brook, asking himself the whole time why he wasn't just running home. Whatever was after him wouldn't stop just because he needed water. He felt for his knife – no gun, but his blade was just where it was supposed to be. Maybe that would be enough.
What was he thinking, though? It was stupid to keep heading toward the brook at a time like this. There would be other days to fetch water. Maybe he'd find his damn gun. It would be a thirsty night, but it was better than dying, wasn't it?
No, dammit, it wasn't.
Running over the forest floor, with something still behind him all right, he saw red at the thought of running in a circle and heading back home. Home, with all those neighbors who couldn't stand him and whom he couldn't stand either, and who would only hold him in greater contempt if he came back without water after he'd said he was getting some.
Others could go for water, come back without it, and the neighbors would understand perfectly – that was what you did if something spotted you in the woods. Yeah. Unless you were Victor.
A year or so ago, before the plague, it had been the same damn thing. The neighbors and their contempt. Why him? Apart from the general distrust of strangers – which wasn't anything new or brought on by the plague – he'd never found out.
Enough. No more. Victor slowed down, spun to face his pursuer.
It was a plague victim. Shit. Obviously had been a human once from its basic shape. Not anymore. This one had boils and scales all over it, twisted rotten teeth, flaps growing over its eyes, misshapen limbs. Nothing to do but put it out of its misery. Victor went in, knife drawn.
Took all of a half hour. The thing, as most of them were, moved very slowly, but it was terrifically strong and its skin was tough as armor. Victor sliced at its head, its neck, its arms. Nothing worked. He got no penetration.
Only one thing to do. Victor ducked his head and raced under the thing's oncoming arms. He took two blows to his shoulders before he got to its chest sack, where things like this kept their heart and lungs. One quick slice and the sack came right off, with a spurt of ichor shooting out afterwards.
Victor ducked and rolled away from that stream, stood up, felt at his facemask – no ichor on it. Whew. No infection for him. No ichor on his clothes either. He approached the thing and clipped off its topknot.
Back to his trip. As light-footed as possible – he'd beaten one thing and he was feeling pretty cocky, but no point in being stupid about it – he headed off to the stream again.
He filled the tank on his back, which weighed a ton right afterwards, and headed for home, light-footing it all the way.
A week after he got back, when everyone had seen the topknot, a neighbor invited him for dinner.