“What?! We can’t just ditch him,” I hissed, keeping my voice low. I knew from experience that Conversant could hear pretty much everything that we did. “He’s getting us food and water!”
Palavar pulled a package out from under their bulky coat. It was, as far as I could tell, several tied together with tubes. “Why are you whispering? He doesn’t have any agents here. Anyway, don’t worry about that. I brought my portable filter system. That’s why I was down in the sewers in the first place. This thing even filters seawater. Even if it’s radioactive! Although that would make the filter radioactive. Look, just don’t worry about it. I designed it myself. It works great.”
They were heading over to one of the vehicles as we talked. The vehicles-- there were three of them, shoved into the subterranean garage-- had more in common with a tank than what I had been envisioning, which was… I don’t know… something with four wheels and a canvas top, not a box set on metal treads. It looked sturdy, but not fast, which made sense. More sense than my mental image, anyway. This vehicle would have to be contending with acid rain, radioactivity, rough terrain, heat… the sorts of things you would want a tank for. Hopefully, a tank with air conditioning.
“Is this the VTOL?”
“No, a VTOL’s an aircraft. 'Vertical Take-Off and Landing.' Like a helicopter. If you noticed when we entered—“ I hadn’t “—the back of the room was an old elevator platform. So I think the aircraft would be back there somewhere, and they’d launch from the top of the hill. Conversant was right about one thing, though. Aircraft fuel is hard to get ahold of. Uh, actually, I think we’d have to make it ourselves. But this thing will take whatever burns. It was built to last, it’s shielded against all kinds of things, and although it’s significantly slower, it’s much easier to fuel.”
Palavar scooted under the tank and knocked around at the undercarriage. “Okay, it needs oil… a lot of oil… there will be mineral oil around here… antifreeze… this is all on those shelves in the other room. What are you waiting for? Conversant won’t be gone long!”
I still didn’t approve of running off without him, but I didn’t really like the idea of him directing everything we did, either. I knew from our discussion earlier that Palavar wanted to find life, real life— wild life— and I wanted to search for any sign of surviving humans, but it was Conversant’s motivation I didn’t understand.
He’d claimed he wanted to protect Palavar, and possibly myself, but was that really it? Did he want to ‘collect’ anything we found and bring it back to keep in his ‘archives’? If we did find humans, would he try to abduct them? Or would he try to kill them, to preserve his collection as-is? He certainly didn’t seem fond of us. Anything seemed possible. I trusted him about as far as I could throw him, and I was pretty sure I couldn’t even lift him.
I walked back into the other room, avoiding the melted cables and heading instead for the mouldering junk on the shelves. The entire vault door had closed behind us, and the light was dim and flickering. I wondered about the upkeep on this place. Did Conversant just send his little robot extensions on sweeps of the city, sometimes? Or did he pick and choose specific places to make sure they worked? Did he really care about keeping things working, or did he just like to keep up appearances?
I didn't want to touch any of the boxes. Although I knew that black mold technically counted as a whole unique life-form in and of itself, somehow I wasn't exactly thrilled to find out that it had survived armageddon after armageddon just fine. I shuffled around the lower shelf with my boot until I found a metal rod. I pulled the boxes apart with that. Yes, they covered up plastic gallon containers. The labels were gone, and they were covered in dust and who-knows-what, but they looked intact, and, most importantly, still sealed.
Did plastic leech into oil? Well, that would be a question for Palavar. I flicked as much of the box-remains as I could off the containers, and then lifted them up.
Something-- many things-- scuttered out from behind the containers and down the shelves, little skittering things like Conversant's robot servants (extensions? drones?). I screamed shrilly and tripped backwards, dropping the containers on the ground with a thud. Palavar came running out, grime smeared over their jacket.
They hoisted me back to my feet.
"Something's hiding back there! A bunch of things! I think it's Conversant--" I pointed at the boxes. My hand may have been shaking a little. Palavar leaned forward, squinting, and then, without any regard for sanitation, shoved the boxes aside. The things skittered away from the light again.
Wait. If they were Conversant's creations, they wouldn't hide from us, right? Did that mean...
...these were alive?
"It's cockroaches!" Palavar exclaimed. "Quick, catch them!"
"Catch them?! No!" I didn't want to touch anything that had been living on mold for a hundred years! Maybe Conversant and Palavar didn't get disease, or roach bites, or whatever else they carried, but I wasn't going to go rooting through rotting garbage trying to catch a tiny, sprinting ... huh. Why was I having such a strong reaction to the roaches? Had that come with the memories? It wasn't like I'd ever actually been bit or caught a disease from one. Not that their living situation made them seem pleasant, but, it was worth admiring anything that had survived this long, wasn't it?
"You're right, we need something to carry them in!" Palavar glanced around the room, and then ran back into the garage. I brushed my pants off, eyeing the suspicious pile of junk, and hoped the rest of the food in the place was somehow not infested. In theory, maybe I could eat the roaches, but... I shuddered. Palavar returned with a pair of small containers-- they looked like the dusty lids of something large--and handed me one.
"Okay. We don't need all of them, but if we can get, I dunno, eight or so, that should be a decent breeding population."
"...ew," I said, despite myself.
"Don't be such a wimp. They can't hurt you. This is a really big find, I don't think you understand how big it is. Ready?"
"Ready," I said, feeling as ready as I'd ever feel.
Palavar shoved all of the junk off the shelf in one big sweep, sending it crashing to the floor and the cockroaches, who I now felt a little sorry for, fleeing in every direction. They hurled themselves after the insects.
I wasn't as enthusiastic about the job, but I followed with my lid in my hand, ready to slam it down over the insects as soon as I saw them. They moved too quickly for me to see, but I figured if I tried to catch them ahead of where I saw them, I'd have a better chance of actually trapping them. Palavar was running up and down the shelves, making enough noise that I was sure our original plan, to escape before Conversant returned, had been entirely abandoned in favor of capturing the roaches.
"Ywain! Don't just stand there! Help me!"
"Sorry, I'm just... I don't want to touch them," I said. Palavar stopped dead in their tracks to stare at me.
"Get your gloves out of your backpack then, idiot!"
"What? Oh!" I slung my backpack off my shoulder. Yes, I did have gloves in there, although I wasn't sure why Palavar knew that. That thought made me a little uneasy, but I pulled the gloves on anyway, and one of the empty water bladders. Flattened out, I thought it would make a good temporary cover with the lid. Palavar seemed to just be covering the lid with their hand, which meant the insects would... crawl on it. Gloved or not, the idea wasn't appetizing.
"Thanks, Palavar," I said, and set the backpack down, although well away from the shelves. This time, when Palavar yanked one of the jerry cans off of the shelf, I was ready, and slammed the lid down as soon as I saw movement. I braced myself to feel little legs on my hands, arms, or...
Nothing scurried out from under the lid.
"I got some!" I yelled, caught up in the moment.
"Me too," Palavar said, from significantly further away than they had been a moment ago.
I glanced over at Palavar. They were standing equally triumphantly several feet away, hands on their hips, one foot on their lid, pinning it to the ground as if they were a victorious wrestler in the ring. 'Smug' didn't even begin to describe their expression. 'Elated' did. From their distance, and their pose, it seemed that some of roaches had attempted a desperate last-ditch escape towards the other side of the room, and Palavar had managed to intercept them.
"Great! Give me a second, I need to figure out how to transport them. I can't wait to get a closer look!" Palavar turned the lid a little, under the ball of their boot.
"I've got a plastic water-bag here, I was going to slide it under the lid and then flip it over."
"Do you have two of them?"
"Uh.... no, the others are full, and I would appreciate you not emptying them for this. I'd like to err on the side of having more water and less roaches." I leaned down to examine my catch more closely.
One of the roaches had been bisected by the lip of the lid. It was still twitching, tiny limbs scratching helplessly at the ground in unseeing death-throes. I recoiled instantly.
I'd killed it. It was one of the last of its kind, isolated in the darkness for... who knew how long, and... I'd just carelessly crushed it. I swallowed, and tried not to let the emotion creep into my voice too much. Palavar already thought I was a wimp.
"I... think I killed one. I'm not sure about the others."
"Eh, that's fine. I got at least four under here, so as long as you have some others, we're good. Be sure to save the dead one, too, though. We'll dissect it, or extract genetic information, or whatever Conversant does with his specimens."
"...so it... uh, this will probably sound silly, but..."
"...it won't have died in vain?"
Palavar tilted their head for a moment, considering my question. I waited for their sarcastic retort, or disbelieving counter-question, but instead, their response was quiet.
"No," they said. "It hasn't died in vain."