Chapter 36

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As Kay was busy preparing a meal for the return of the supply run crew, Lacey had been charged with watching the Walker children. Although she didn't feel the need to babysit children aged fourteen and eleven, Lacey didn't want to rock the boat. Not with sunset only a couple of hours away. By then Eva would have returned and their plans for departure set in motion.

            The air quality had improved and with no need for bio-suits, Lacey decided on a walk, allowing Audrey to lead Gus on the leash, with Lance at her side if she needed assistance. Lacey trailed just far enough to give them a sense of independence. The lab occasionally glanced back to be sure his owner didn't fall too far back.

            "He's so skinny," said Audrey.

            "Yes, he's a little underweight," replied Lacey. "Food's been tight, just for the people of Community, let alone a dog."

            Lance chimed in. "I bet in most other colonies they'd have eaten the dog by now." He looked at Lacey. Audrey, taking part in her brother's game, chuckled.

            Determining that his comment was designed to illicit a response – in this case, anger – Lacey countered with agreement. "I think you're right. That would be the logical thing to do." Lance looked away in defeat.

Audrey, apparently deciding to give it another try, scrunched her nose. "And he stinks, too. I bet he hasn't had a bath in a year."

"Yeah, right," laughed Lacey. "Not even close. Try three years." Audrey looked pissed.

Take that, you little shit.

            Following the same worn trail around the perimeter of the airfield, Lacey glanced off to the west, toward the farms. She wondered how many were out there. Only on rare occasions did she catch sight of the farmers, who weren't permitted to leave their houses except on special occasions. Likewise, she and the others were prohibited from going to the farms. She supposed this was to keep the farmers focused on their demanding work. The more she dwelt on the subject, the more curious it all seemed. In fact, Lacey recalled that she was once discouraged from even looking out at the fields.

            Realizing that she had stopped walking, Lacey searched for the Walker children and Gus, whose lead had doubled. She resumed following, her mind however, unable to resist the imploring questions: Why was everyone in the silos restricted access to the fields? What were they trying to hide? And who was behind these regulations?

            Grant?

            Isaac?

            Again, Lacey had fallen behind, her pace having slowed considerably while she contemplated these ideas. The perimeter fence began to follow a lengthy curve, where it would lead back to the main entrance. She quickened her steps and was relieved when she caught sight of the three as they rounded an old, decrepit Quonset hut.

            Beyond the fence line, maybe a hundred yards away, Lacey spotted a deer walking through high grass. She noticed the animal's strange gait; it seemed to waddle instead of stride gracefully, the way normal deer moved. She wondered if it was injured. Then it entered a small clearing and the reason for its hindrance became clear; the thing was not a normal deer. Its rear legs were two times longer than they should've been and appeared not to function at all. The appendages ended not in hooves, but in tapering, rounded tips, reminiscent of tentacles. They dragged along the ground and the thing appeared burdened by their weight.

            Wishing there was something she could do for it, Lacey shuddered as a gunshot rang out. The deer dropped to the ground and was still. Lacey, only now aware that she had passed beneath one of the guard towers, glanced up and met eyes with Charles, who had been positioned there as a fill-in, with Wes and Laird having gone on the supply run.

            "You hear that?" asked Charles.

            "It wasn't you?" replied Lacey.

            "No." He looked out across the grassy landscape, using his rifle's scope.

            "Mitchell?" questioned Lacey.

            "I doubt it. We're not supposed to fire unless it's for a just cause. Putting an animal out of its misery doesn't qualify." After a moment, he added. "Then again, it is Mitchell in question. I can see him just wanting to kill something."

            "Isn't he on the opposite side of the perimeter, though?"

            Charles nodded. "Supposed to be."

            "I'd better get the kids and Gus back to the silo." Lacey turned to start after them but stopped after twenty feet. The trail of flattened grass before her was empty. Just as before, she waited for Lance, Audrey and Gus to round another Quonset Hut, which sat fifty yards away, obscuring her view. Ten seconds passed, but the trio did not emerge from behind the structure. Twenty seconds and nothing.

            Take it easy, Lace. Gus probably just stopped to relieve himself.

            Thirty seconds.

            Forty.

            Lacey's nerves were quickly fraying as she bolted from her spot, racing along the trail beside the fence. Before her was an empty stretch, spanning hundreds of yards. Surely it was impossible for the children and the dog to have cleared such a distance in the short amount of time since Lacey had last spotted them.

            Sweat beaded her forehead as she left the trail and sprinted to the nearest Quonset Hut. But inside, there was no trace of the three. She hurried back to the guard tower where Charles was till busy scanning outside the perimeter.

"Charles!"

He quickly glanced down. "You scared the balls off me."

"I can't find the Walker children! Can you spot them? They're with my dog!"

Sheltering his eyes from the sun, Charles searched the interior of the airfield. "I saw them earlier. Maybe they're just hiding from you, they do that kind of shit all the time."

"Just keep looking! I'm going to check the other building."

Darting down the center of one of the runways, Lacey headed for the next likely structure they may have entered – a small-craft hangar. Entering through a rusted door, her footfalls echoed inside the airy space. It was a dark and unsettling atmosphere. Wading into the murk, her fists balled and ready to strike, Lacey paused when she detected the padded approach of an entity. Then she heard the familiar jingling of a dog's collar. She released a pent-up sigh as the shadowy figure of a dog emerged from behind a long unused aircraft.

"Gus."

She stooped to one knee and the dog trotted over to her, feverishly wagging his tail. She hugged him hard and buried her face in his fur. "You big dope! I was so worried about you!" She smelled his soft coat. "You don't stink at all, you smell great! Don't let Audrey get to you."

Lacey rose to her feet. "Where is Audrey? And Lance?" She looked down at Gus, who panted and stared back. "Audrey?" she called into the darkness. "Lance?"

Anger poked at her. She studied Gus. "Did they abandon you? Toss you into the hangar and take off?"

Little bastards.

The door to the hangar burst inward, glaring light stabbing the gloom. Charles stepped through. "Hey! Just wanted to tell you I found them."

Lacey felt her face heat with anger. "Where are they!"

She pushed Charles back outside and followed him into the sunlight. "Way over there," he said, pointing. Gus shadowed Lacey and Charles let out a surprised "Oh!" at the sight of the dog. "And...who's this?"

"What?" she replied, paying more attention to finding the Walker children than to his question. She squinted, shielded her eyes from the sun's glare and in the distance saw Lance. Just beyond him was Audrey, still holding the leash, secured to the collar around Gus's neck. Lacey's eyes widened as the impossible visual information was processed by her mind; trying desperately to decipher the indecipherable.

The other Gus growled at Charles.

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