It feels unreal. But it's real. It has been a month since it all began. The survivors hunted. For Cleo, it is all about survival. The town is so quiet that it's eerie. She looks at her destination across the street from her hiding spot and sighs. She knows it will be almost impossible not to be spotted since the eyes are everywhere on this street, but she needs the food. It is her last option and her only chance to escape death by starvation. She has survived on a small packet of sour stripes and water lately.
She looks around her and signs. It will be a grab-and-dash situation, so she has to be as fast. Movement in the dimly lit store alerts her of an unexpected company. She's torn between being glad to meet another person and being skeptical about whether the person is a runner or an ally. Some are joining the machines as allies to aid in the capture of the other survivors whom they call runners. The runners are usually in groups, but Cleo is one of the few unlucky rogue runners without a clan.
She decides to risk it as she is hungry, as the chances of her failing to get something to sustain her for a while are getting higher. The intruder might be more than one person and might be in a clan on a food hunt shift. She secures her backpack and sprints as fast as she can without stopping to breathe until she gets to the store's door bursting through, panting heavily. She has never been a fan of exercise and now regrets skipping recess and PE classes at school. She feels her lungs rebelling against the hungry gulps of air she takes in as they burn due to the exertion put on them.
After a few seconds, she looks around the store. It's untouched, the shelves fully stocked. Starting her way from the doorway, she puts random essentials into her backpack, making her way through the store rapidly. Halfway she notices she is not alone. Letting out a terrified scream, she jumps up and loses her footing falling to the cold cemented floor on her ass.
She immediately looks up at the person in front of her and gasps.
She looks at the boy ahead of her, taking in his unruly appearance in shock. He has always been a neat freak, so seeing him in such a condition is new to Cleo.
“Hi, Cleo. I didn’t think I would meet a familiar face anymore. Most people are leaving the town to the hideout.”
“There is a hideout?"
Cleo looks at Jacob and notices he looks worn out. Is he a rogue like her? She looks at him, wondering what has happened to him all these days. An alarm sounds outside, scaring Cleo. They look at each other, alarmed knowing what that means. Cleo was spotted. She looks around at the ceiling of the store and gets momentarily relieved. The store is one of the oldest in the town, so the owner had not installed security cameras, which is a blessing in disguise. Not saying anything, they quickly stuff their bags with anything they lay their hands on.
A hand grabs Cleo’s arm dragging her to the exit, as a panicked voice urges her to hurry up. She follows while she struggles to zip up her bag. She doesn't know where they are heading but decides to trust Jacob and tries not to trip on anything and slow them down. They run through the dark alleyway behind the store, the —way unfamiliar to Cleo. It feels like they have been running for hours when Jacob suddenly stops making Cleo trip and falls on the ground again. A small chuckle makes her glare at him.
“Are you always this clumsy?”
Cleo huffs indigenously and looks away. She looks around her, noticing they are in an abandoned house, and ahead is a dimly lit room decorated sparsely.
“So, this is where you live, huh? I see you still are neat to some extent.”
He looks at her and rolls his eyes. He walks into the room, empties his backpack onto the bed, and starts sorting out what he has. He looks at her still on the ground and shakes his head.
"I know you like the floor, but can we get this done? We might be caught because of the light if we leave it on for too long. They were close, and they might search this area before dawn. That fucking AI should have never gotten released."
Cleo looks at him and nods. She doesn’t know much about the machines except they get controlled by an application created for security purposes.
“Can you tell me more about the machines? “
“They are not your typical robots, as you have noticed. It's why every electronic device, such as a phone, is now called 'the eyes.' That application was for the local police to help with controlling the security cameras and allow easy access to any footage the police needed without the hustle of having to visit the exact location. They said it would prevent tempered recorded evidence, so it was approved. I’m unsure if the app went rogue or if someone controls it. I’m not even sure it qualifies to be AI. My dad was working on site, though he didn't know much as the project was confidential and on a need-to-know basis. Now he is probably dead, and my clan got ambushed within a week of its formation. So now I’m trying to go to the haven hence the supplies. What about you?”
Cleo recounts her experiences as one thought runs through her mind. She has been right about his clan, and she has better chances of survival with him. After several minutes of trying to convince him to take her along, he tells her to keep quiet. Quickly he switches off their only light source, dragging her to a small cavern-like hole at one corner of the room, and crawls in after her with both their bags. Before she can question his sudden bizarre actions, they hear hushed whispers. Hunters. The machines almost caught her. She looks at Jacob's silhouette and the bags in his grip. She doesn't know what she would have done on her own, but one thing is sure, the overcautious Jacob by her side means her survival for the night.
Their room gets bypassed, so she looks at him, puzzled. He seems to feel her gaze and shrugs in the dark. They settle in for the night, waiting for the hunters to leave. Cleo does not realize when she falls asleep. She jumps up suddenly awake and looks around. Jacob is nowhere in sight, nor are their bags. Panicking, she scrambles out of the hole into the room only to be met by a serious-looking Jacob bent over something by the door. He doesn't look up.
“We have a message.”
Cleo, puzzled, walks over to where he is. Looking at whatever is on the ground, she gasps.
On a piece of paper, the words are scrawled on and very messy but still readable,
‘Find the others. You are the hope. Destroy it. We are counting on you. You are the nation's only hope."
Looking up at Jacob, who looks as lost as she is, she says,
“Well then, we need to get going for many reasons, this being the very first. Someone knew we were here."
Nodding, Jacob picks up his bag and hands her an apple and her backpack. Without talking, he walks away, not waiting for her to catch up. Glad she still has her shoes on, Cleo bites on the apple and quickly secures the bag on her back before running after him. Their survival chances are still unknown, so they need to keep moving to find a haven.
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