The view from the top floor of the twenty-story apartment high-rise was awe inspiring. There was no glass left in the entire building, and Jacob leant out of the window frame, peering down at the streets below. Eight years ago, the streets and sidewalks would have been bustling with activity, probably nearing lunchtime. Now they were ominously quiet, sprouts of hardy grass and plants shooting up between the cracks in the concrete and tar. Not a single living thing moved.
Another Wind is coming, he thought, feeling the slight hum and tingle on his flesh, setting his arm hairs on end. The winds which carried radioactive fallout from the nuclear bomb site twelve kilometres away had some nasty effects, if you did not find cover quick. Jacob had been in the building countless times, and quickly climbed into his makeshift shelter. Made from tables packed against filing cabinets, and a thick mohair blanket inside which he wrapped himself in, provided a secure cocoon, enough protection against the harsh winds which had destroyed most life within the city, and probably the rest of the country. Maybe even the world.
He didn’t like thinking about it, but the thoughts ascended any barriers he set before them: Were there others alive outside of the wasteland? Outside the borders of the old country, besides the few bands of misfits like himself, and of course the small military base? Is the rest of the world as devastated?
Rumours were that small towns had survived, that civilisation has returned to other countries, but rumour is still rumour. All attempts at contacting anyone who might have survived the war in other countries had failed, long- and medium-wave transmissions going unanswered. Nuclear fallout was possibly the reason, he told himself, scrambling the frequencies and such, although he could not deny the fact that the world had all but been destroyed by the most horrific war mankind has ever seen. Countries had turned against allies, coalitions disintegrating as quickly as they had begun, atomic and biological weapons sprouting out of everywhere to be used on the most populated areas of opposition.
Jacob shivered. Thoughts of death and destruction filled his mind. He quickly lit his torch and peered down at his watch to distract his thoughts. Another five minutes and he would have to get away from the building. Although the streets looked deserted, there were always eyes, and those eyes would likely sell your position to the highest bidder. He checked his weapon, a Colt Python 357 magnum. All six rounds sat neatly in their chambers. He had another handful of rounds in the zip pocket of his cargo pants. He could feel the weight of the twelve-inch hunting knife on his waist too, a comforting thought in these times, where biggest usually wins.
Five minutes passed. The Wind had died down, the creepy low whistling sound fading down to a faint hum. Quietly he pulled back a cabinet, and poked his head out into the room. It was clear. He climbed out and stretched his legs. He should definitely make that shelter a bit more comfortable. He scratched an itch on his arm, and looked down at it. He realised, with pangs of guilt and embarrassment, that he had not bathed in days. His arms were speckled with grime and dirt. His fingernails were black and torn.
He walked out and headed to the stairwell. The elevators had long since been used, but the doors had been pried open to reveal the dark gaping shaft. There was a service ladder inside, and could be used in case of emergency. But it could also be used in an ambush. He shone his LED torch into the hole and gingerly peered down the shaft. Instantly his eyes caught movement a few storeys down, a cable swaying gently down below. Cables were unlikely to move of their own accord, he thought. Rather be cautious than to lose your brains to a well-aimed shooter. He made a quick move to the stairwell and peered over the edge, between the many flights of stairs. He should have an advantage from above if anyone was down there.
He moved down the staircase with the revolver in front of him, as his informal training took over. His Wolverine hiking boots were well padded, the rubber soles silent on the concrete floor. His ears were already on full alert as the adrenalin slowly began pumping through his body. The fact that he heard nothing was more disconcerting. If it was the old military, they would come up the stairs in a classic formation of sorts, their fatigues and hushed commands making enough noise to confirm their existence. The absolute silence, though, confirmed that either he was alone, or he would soon meet an Unwanted, a member of the rebellious faction in the city. And the fact that they had not made their existence in the building known only meant that they wanted to catch him by surprise. His heart began racing, his hands sweating more every second, so much so that he thought he might lose his grip on his gun.
Floor by floor he descended, one step, two steps, counting them in his mind, his mouth dry, his underarms wet and his legs shaky. By always checking each corridor before moving onto the next level, he covered his back for at least a few seconds. He reminded himself that all he needed to do was get down to the basement where he had his Nissan Patrol hidden. As he thought about it, his heart sank. If anyone had been following him, they would have seen him idle into the basement this morning, and could have disabled the vehicle already. I will find out soon, he thought. Running was slower, but easier if he needed to hide.
The gun was cocked, as he descended another level, the old dusty sign revealing that he has seven levels to go. He quickly peered down the corridor, no movement, and started the next descent. A few steps later, and a faint noise caught his ear above the sound of his heart and own breath: the sound of a hammer being drawn back on a gun. It was close, and in the same instant he registered the sound, a deafening blast came from the stairwell below. He felt a spray of plaster and mortar shower his face as the shot hit the wall next to him. He spun around and raced back onto the floor he came from, down the corridor. The end of the corridor came close quickly, but he just had to make it to the room at the end, where he knew he could get out onto the balcony and scale down to the levels below.
He felt a rush of pressure past his head and saw a chunk of the wall in front of him break apart. He didn’t hear any gunshot, he wondered to himself, before realising that his ears were still ringing from the first gunshot. He was into the room at the far end of the corridor, and ran straight onto the balcony. He holstered his gun and disappeared over the balcony as quick as an acrobat, although he landed on the balcony below as gracefully as a hedgehog.
He tumbled onto an old flower pot, with a long dead plant in it, shattering the clay into a hundred shards. He abruptly felt a pain in his left forearm. He had a fleeting glimpse of a hand sized piece of razor-sharp pottery sticking out of the flesh, before he was up and running again. His pursuer probably wouldn’t have followed him but would be coming back down the stairs. He had the advantage now. Drawing the revolver in his good arm, he slipped into the nearest room. It was light enough in the room to see, but he could not find any hiding place except for an old upturned couch.
Deception, he thought. He could still wedge himself behind the semi-detached door, even though it was the first place his pursuer would look. He had precious seconds, he knew, as he ran with his bloodied arm over to the couch, making sure a noticeable trail of scarlet fluid was left behind, and kicked off a boot to the side of the shredded piece of furniture for added effect. It did not look convincing, but he had no more time. He pulled the clay shard from his arm and threw it down by the shoe. He held the now gushing wound tight against his chest and slipped back behind the door. Gun cocked and his arm throbbing, he waited. Minutes seemed like hours, and he was beginning to feel light headed and extremely aware of his pains, when the sounds of breathing came into the room. As two quick gun shots went off again and the couch ripped apart in splinters of wood and a haze of stuffing, Jacob pushed with all his weight against the door. He felt the door connect with the pursuer and give way as it broke off of its last hinge. The door had obviously surprised the attacker as he saw a figure sprawl down onto the floor beneath the door. A second later he let off a round and then another through the door, the body beneath giving a twitch before a pool of blood began saturating the carpet. He stood silently, still, and listened, gun still trained on the body, but listening for other sounds.
A minute passed.
Nothing stirred except for the last few gurgles of bloody air being squeezed out of the dead body by the weight of the door. He peered back down the corridor. Nothing, except for the dust motes hanging in the air.
He turned his attention back to the body, and slowly shoved the door away. A young girl, bright red hair cut in an untidy style, in her early twenties, lay face down on the floor, a dark red patch in the middle of her back. Jacob felt a pang of regret, and then anger.
He hated what this world had become, creating hired guns out of youths, and killers out of the vulnerable.
Yet, what was he? Thirty years old, and no less a killer compared to others in this new age.
New age. He laughed silently as he thought about that. It seems every age in mankind’s existence has become more and more destructive. ‘New’ simply meaning a new way to destroy earth. Sad times indeed, he thought, as he searched the girl’s pockets. No identification. Not surprising, as no one had any need anymore. A few extra rounds of ammo, a box of cigarettes, crushed and bloody from the fall, and a Leatherman. He took the Leatherman and her gun; they at least had some worth, and pocketed them. He pulled his arm from his chest and looked down. The throbbing was like a siren, drawing all his attention to it. It was not as bad as it looked. His whole front was soaked in blood, but was only just a slice in the meat. He flexed his hand and fingers and was relieved to see them move, although he didn’t know what he expected. His took his sleeveless camo jacket off and took off his shirt. The shirt he wrapped around his forearm, and slipped on the jacket again. He picked up his boot and wedged his foot back in. He was feeling faint after the effort and knew he had to get to safety.
He stalked back down the corridor, and had to take a bit more of a chance with his safety, he admitted to himself. Chances were that if anyone else was there, they’d have shown themselves already. He loped down the stairs, every step becoming more of a challenge as he fought dizziness.
One step. Two steps.
Finally, down to the bottom floor and to the basement. He knew he had to get to his car; he would never be able to walk, never mind run, to safety. He would have to hope the Patrol was safe.
It was. He almost fainted from relief when he saw the flattened cardboard boxes still covering the only side visible from the entrances. It was not a fool proof camouflage, but with all the other rubbish and piles of junk in the basement, it did alright at first glance. He was in the cab and turning the engine, roaring the big engine into life, when he remembered the first aid kit under the seat. He could at least get anti-septic cream and a decent bandage on. He started to shake as he tended to his arm. Shaking with relief, adrenalin, and loss of blood. But he was safe. He was alive. He had lived another day on Dead Earth.
The drive back to the processing mill was uncomfortable, as his body’s pains began revealing themselves. His shoulder was tender and a dull ache had developed, no doubt from the fall onto the balcony. His ears were still ringing slightly, and he had a headache. Mostly, his forearm pained. He searched in his rear-view mirror for any signs of someone following, as he had done every minute since he left the city. The road back to the Daimler Food Processing Plant was a six kilometre stretch of tar and sand, with no real cover for a pursuer to blend in to. Jacob would be glad to get back, as he thought about the food and water his body so desperately needed. Colwyn would be able to tend to the wound if he thought it needed stitches. Colwyn was good at that. His military special forces’ background proved invaluable in most extreme circumstances. It was a pity he was no good with people, Jacob thought. Although Colwyn got along with Jacob relatively well, he had a furious temper that was worsened with copious amounts of alcohol. You couldn’t blame anyone in these evil times for being angry. Colwyn had lost his family in the war, but so did everyone else. Jacob’ recollections of his own family slipped between Colwyn’s, and he grimaced as images of his brother and sisters flashed through his mind. Gone forever, no photographs or home-made video’s or letters remained. No trace of their existence except for in his mind.
He checked the mirror again. He was safe and at the mill. He let out a quick hoot of the horn and slipped through the barricade, made from old tractors and forklifts which had been upended. The mill was home to eight people, and would probably not accept anyone else. Too many cooks spoil the broth, the saying went, and was true here too. The Old Military and the Unwanteds – a large group of misfits who presumably dwelled in the old sewer lines beneath the city - would torture anyone they came across for information on anything. Information was as good as anything to trade. Having a housemate with a loose tongue could get you into the serious deep stuff.
He pulled the Nissan into the silo, through huge steel sliding doors, and honked the horn, the sign that he needed help. As he got out the cab, movement caught his eye to the left of the silo. Out of the offices came an aging, stocky man, just shy of six feet in height, and an agile look about his walk. Colwyn Lewis. The person who had taught Jacob how to use a weapon. And also how to drink.
“You look like you’ve gutted a cow, boy!” Colwyn shouted across the concrete floor, in a thick Welsh accent.
“A cowboy?!” he mocked in a really bad western accent, nevertheless still bringing a twitch of a smile to Colwyn’s face. “I got ambushed at the old high-rise, a young girl; she didn’t want to make conversation.”
“Take it she came off second best. You could have been chivalrous, and handed over your head. That would’ve been the gentlemanly thing to do. No wonder you don’t have a girl!”
“Well, she seemed a bit touchy at the time,” Jacob shrugged his shoulders, and removed the Leatherman from his pocket, throwing it to Colwyn. “Any idea who she was?”
Colwyn looked at the Leatherman, removing it from its holster. He turned it over a few times and clicked his tongue.
“No idea, it has some pattern scratched into it though, better to ask Eric”.
They headed back to the office’s, where their ‘common room’ was. Eric was an overweight, balding beast of a man, who seemed to know everything about everyone. He had forged small allegiances with all types of factions and routinely traded information with them, effectively stabbing them all in the back. He held no allegiance to anyone except himself, and to the small group of eight at the mill. They had all at one time or another saved Eric from harm, and so he owed them.
“Who’s home?” Jacob asked Colwyn on their way up the stairs.
“Well, Eric and Claire are playing pool upstairs, Morris just got back from a liquor run. Found a case of old wine in the natural history museum. Or so he says...” Colwyn raised an eyebrow suspiciously at Jacob. Although Colwyn was at least ten years his senior, Jacob felt that the bond they shared was as close to a brother as he would ever have again.
“Grey and Jordy are scouting the river bank near the timber yard. Apparently, a few Old Military were spotted there a few days ago. As for Laurie, she’s still AWOL, being Ms. Scarce is the only thing she seems to do wholeheartedly!” Colwyn sighed, and opened the door to the common room. “Let’s see that arm...”
Eric and Claire looked up from their game with wide eyes as they saw the blood-soaked Jacob enter the room. Claire was Mama Hen of the mill, in her forties, but always willing to help. Concern flushed her face, and Jacob quickly tried to set her mind at ease.
“It’s not bad, just looks bloody worse than it is”, smiling with the pun he managed to slip in.
Colwyn threw the Leatherman to Eric, and began removing the drenched bandage from Jacob’s arm.
“Who’s the markings represent?” he asked Eric, “By the way you need a few stitches”, he added to Jacob, reaching over to the drawer which acted as a medicine cabinet, for pain killers and a needle and thread.
“Mmm, no markings I’ve seen before. Ain’t gonna be an important group though, I know all the big shots’ markings. Probably just a small faction trying to make a name.” Eric determined. “I will ask around. You wanna sell this thing? I can get a few rounds for your six-shooter, or a few bottles of your choice if you’d like?” he added quickly.
“No, I’ll hang onto it for a while, thanks,” Jacob said, catching the Leatherman as Eric tossed it back to him. The needle was already three stitches in, as a glass of wine poked over his shoulder. He took the glass and had a deep gulp of the dark red vintage.
“You seem to have outdone yourself, Morris,” said Jacob, “this must have been someone’s prized possession!”
“Well it’s ours now! Just don’t overdo it with this grape juice, you’ll wake up with a pounding headache.” Morris said as he walked around the table to face Jacob. “So, was it only one of them?”
“Yeah, she was hostile and knew what she wanted.”
“What did she look like by the way?” asked Eric from the pool table.
“’Bout a half-head shorter than me, flaming red hair, built like an athlete.” Jacob described.
“The body will be gone by the morning, but she doesn’t sound familiar.” Eric struck for a cushion shot and cursed as the white ball went wide.
“How does it look?” Claire asked Colwyn, a grave expression on her face. Colwyn looked at her and chuckled.
“He’ll be fine, he just needs rest. Stop worrying so much. The world has already ended, it can’t get much worse!” Colwyn laughed again and Morris tried hard to suppress his laughter. “Go rest, kid.”
Jacob got up and headed up a level towards the sleeping quarters, although it was barely sunset, his eyes had become weary, possibly from the dose of wine and painkillers, yet his body ached more than ever now.
He reached his room and kicked off his boots, and threw himself into his king size bed: the only luxury beside his cars. He picked it up for ‘a steal’, he used to tell everyone, finding it in one of the abandoned department stores in the city. He was glad for it now.
His eyes soon succumbed to sleep, and his first moments of thought were of his sisters and brother, playing alongside the lake, throwing mud at each other. Laughing suddenly turned to screaming as they were running back through the forest, back to shelter, with the supersonic drone of jet engines passing low overhead, gone again in an instant, followed by a few seconds of silence. Then the tremendous booms of missiles hitting their targets met the youth’s ears. The small town they called home was under attack, a mere minute’s worth of destruction had dissipated all they held dear. Nuclear warheads created firestorms within buildings, spreading great blazes across to adjacent structures.
The world had gone mad. Mutually Assured Destruction. That was the technical term. Opposing forces armed to the teeth with nuclear and biological weapons, neither willing to back down, until both sides destroyed each other. Over two hundred nuclear bombs were detonated on Earth. Strategic sites were hit first. Hospitals, food storage facilities, military bases. Cities evacuated; populations diminished overnight. There was mass starvation, humans and animals alike. No last man standing. Only total annihilation.
His dreams turned to the young girl with the flaming red hair. “Why did you kill me?” she asked him with a quizzical look on her face. “I had to...” he sobbed, “I’m sorry, I had to...”
He looked down at her chest. Two gaping holes the size of tennis balls seeped blood. He looked at his arm, his open gash dripping blood too, running down his arm, into his hand and into the wine glass he held out to her.
“I’m sorry...” he sobbed, “I’m sorry...” yet as his words were fading, he abruptly woke up...
“I’m sorry!!” a young woman’s voice shouted from down the corridor, other voices trailing behind.
“You should’ve thought! Damn it child! What if she is infected? What if she is a trap?” Colwyn’s voice bellowed past Jacob’s room as his housemates ran down the corridor. He jumped up and ran after them.
“She needed help, you bastard! Help her! I’m sorry, alright?!” It was Laurie’s voice. Had she brought someone back? Where had she been?
“What’s going on? Hey, Claire, what’s going on?” Jacob had to shout to make himself heard above the commotion. They had ended up in a far room, which they used as a sickbay. A young girl, possibly in her early twenties, lay on the stainless-steel table, her neck and shoulders covered in blood.
“Laurie has brought this young lady, goodness knows from where! Colwyn says she could be infected!” Claire had that end-of-the-world look on her face again.
Infected! This could be bad. Many diseases had spread since the end of the war. People had lost access to immunisation, professional medical treatment, and their systems were weak from radiation exposure. The virus’s which spread had mutated with the years of exposure to radioactive fallout, too. Plagues had wiped out entire safe havens, where people had hidden from the world, but diseases had gone unchecked and unattended. A small infection or virus could kill the mill’s inhabitants within a week. With little access to clean water and proper sanitation, you might as well begin saying your goodbyes.
“What happened to her?” Colwyn had calmed down and was concentrating on the matter at hand.
“We were attacked, monsters! They were horrible, they had no hair! They were monsters, they just attacked us,” Laurie sobbed. She was still on the border of hysterics.
Jacob had seen some pretty weird creatures that had developed over the last few years, mainly due to the prolonged effects of radiation. Hair was a common loss on people and animals. But the second most common afflictions were cancerous tumours. Cats and dogs he had seen were horrific to behold, often grotesque in their features. Foetuses in animals - and humans - often fell detriment to brain damage. This could account for the animals not being afraid of humans, as was usually the case, and instead attacking.
Claire let out a whimper and mumbled something under her breathe, while Colwyn cleaned the wounds. Her leg was also injured.
“What’s her name?” Colwyn asked Laurie.
“Tatem. Her name’s Tatem. We were on our way back from the Waste. We fell asleep next to the fire, and we woke up when they attacked,” Laurie was crying now, tears streaming down her flushed cheeks. She was shaking, Jacob realised, and went up to her.
“Come Laurie, let Colwyn do his work. You need to have something to drink and tell us what’s been going on.”