Chapter 17:

An Unusual Pair, Part 5


Once Caleb had restocked on supplies, he joined Hope outside of headquarters. She'd had a stoic expression on her face as always, but he could tell that there was also a hint of anticipation there as well. Maybe he was just getting better at reading her face.

“Are you ready?” Hope asked with a hint of impatience in her tone. Caleb nodded, and she immediately turned to leave.

“Hold on!” Caleb called out. “This isn't like before. Right now, you're the only one with satellite-accurate mapping available. We're heading to a location I'm unfamiliar with, so I need you to communicate with me and make sure you're moving at a pace I can handle.”

Irritation flashed across Hope's face. “It'll already take three days to get to the job site at my fastest pace. If I have to wait for you, it will take a week.”

“My evaluation of your abilities is just as important as you actually finishing the mission. There's no rush, so stop being so impatient.”

Hope let out an exasperated sigh, the most emotion he had seen her show in the week that he'd known her. “Fine. Then can we get going already?”

Caleb nodded, trying his best to endure Hope's irritation with him. In a way, it was a rather hopeful sight, as it proved that at the very least, she was capable of feeling impatience and annoyance. He just needed to prove to her that those emotional impulses were actually important.

Though it was still a fairly warm autumn day, the sky was overcast, meaning Caleb did not have to worry as much about exposure or heatstroke. That made it easier for him to keep up with Hope's pace, which she had slowed down to match with him.

Of course, that didn't mean that every day would be so lucky for them, so Caleb was insistent on making as much progress on the first day as possible. It'd give him some leeway on hotter days, and the less delays there were, the less chances Hope would have to complain.

Still, even if Caleb wanted to make a lot of progress, he was still limited by his physical capabilities. Even in the best conditions, he wasn't moving faster than 5 miles an hour, and they had a few hundred miles to go before they reached their destination. There was no way he could trek across hilly terrain and rocky ground without taking at least a couble of breaks. In the end, the first day ended with him barely breaking 50 miles.

With the sun going down, Caleb quickly started a fire and had a quick dinner of jerky and dried fruit. Once he was done, he took out his maps and tried to draw a quick sketch of the area he'd traveled from memory. Normally, he'd have taken his time during his travels to properly map out the area, but he knew that if he even tried to do something like that with Hope, she'd probably leave him behind. At the very least, he'd learn fast if she had the capability to throw a withering glare at him.

Right now, though, he couldn't deny the very real possibility that she was already quite annoyed with him, but had not elected to show it on her face. He had gotten a lot better at telling when she was agitated and when she wasn't, but not enough to really tell otherwise when she was being stoic. Once again he wondered if she wasn't pushing herself too much. After all, even if she was a remainer, that didn't mean she had unlimited energy and endurance. She surely needed to take a break.

“Hope, can you come here?” Caleb called out. A quizzical look flashed across Hope's face, but she did as he asked and approached him. “I'm going to be up a little longer than usual. Why don't you get some rest?”

Hope merely raised a brow in annoyance. “This again? I told you, I don't need rest.”

“It's not good to push yourself. Besides, you're not going to be doing anything anyway even if you don't rest. I'm not trying to trick you or trap you here. Why don't you just take this chance to get a little sleep in?”

Hope clearly wanted to say something in response, but she held her tongue. Caleb didn't know if it was because she didn't want it to affect her evaluation or if it was because she thought the argument would be pointless. To his surprise, she spun around and laid down on the ground as if to sleep.

“That must be uncomfortable. I'll lay out a spare sleeping bag for you.”

“I don't need anything like that. I'll go to sleep just like you told me to, so be quiet already.”

Caleb sighed, but at least she was getting some sleep in. He left her alone and continued working on his map. It wasn't perfect, but at least he had a general idea of the area sketched out. If he had any time later, he'd fill in all the details and fix any errors then.

It wasn't long until Hope woke up again, and when she did, Caleb decided to go to sleep for the night. He needed his energy for tomorrow's trek, after all. He wasn't sure if he could keep up today's pace, but he would get to that problem when he came to it.

Thankfully, the next day was much like the last. A thin layer of grey clouds covered the sky, with the sun only peeking out occasionally through small gaps. It looked as if the clouds were starting to clear up, however, which meant that it wouldn't stay cloudy for long. Caleb decided to take advantage of the clouds when he could, picking up his pace from the day before. Nevertheless, his progress was similar to the day before, and he wasn't willing to push himself any further than that.

On the fourth day, the clouds had mostly disappeared, allowing the sun to beat down on Caleb without pause. Thankfully, by this point they had arrived at a thick forest, with trees that would easily offer some welcome shade. Caleb would normally never walk into an unfamiliar forest like this, but he sorely needed the shade. Besides, Hope was here to keep him from getting too lost.

The days continued to pass as the duo continued to make their way south towards their destination. On the way, Caleb noted that Hope had, at some point, gotten better at anticipating when he needed help traversing some difficult terrain or when he wanted to take a break. While she had yet to show any form of friendliness towards him, he could tell that she was starting to show some concern towards his well-being. It was a step in the right direction, if nothing else.

Finally, eight days after they set out from headquarters, the two remainers arrived at the location Computer had specified to them. It was a massive desert laid about the southern stretch of the continental United States, with sandy dunes and arid rock formations as far as the eye could see. Caleb grimaced. He hadn't realized just how massive this desert was going to be, and he saw no sign of the tanks Computer was talking about from where he stood. That meant they'd have to go deeper into the wasteland before they'd be able to find them.

Caleb looked at the darkening sky and sighed. “Let's set up camp for today,” he suggested to Hope. “We're going to need our energy if we're going to be trekking in the desert.”

Hope simply nodded. At this point, she was well aware that arguing wouldn't dissuade Caleb from his usual modus operandi, and he was grateful for that gained awareness. He quickly set up his tent and took stock of his supplies. He'd still had quite a bit of food and water, but he had no clue how long he'd end up stay in the desert. He doubted he'd have to stay long, but if something unforeseen happened, he'd have to worry about the possibility of running out of food on the way back home.

“Are you sure you have enough?” Hope asked, as if reading the expression on Caleb's face. Caleb coughed and tried to put on a carefree appearance.

“No worries. If I start rationing a bit, I can stay here for a week at most.”

“If it's going to be hard on you, you could always just stay behind. It's my job, after all.”

“No. I need to be there in case anything happens to you. After all, you're still new at this.”

Hope scoffed. “You've got a lot of nerve saying that when you're the biggest reason it took so long to get here.”

Caleb ignored her complaint. If he had to pay heed to it every time, he'd never get anything done, after all. “There's no time limit. We have plenty of time. Just do your work well and you'll pass Computer's test with ease.”

Hope seemed doubtful, but she sighed and sat down. “Fine. But we're going to work the moment the sun comes up, alright?”

“Fine, fine,” Caleb smirked. “I'll go to sleep early, then. See you in the morning.”

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