Sapphire stopped running as she tried to catch her breath. With a tired, aching hand, she nursed her right ovarian cyst, crouching beneath the nearest park bench to avoid being seized by a patroller who happened to be passing.
It was summer, but the black, poisoned trees - their branches void of leaves - made it difficult to recall the time of year. Stiff, yellow grass lay before her, as she peered beyond the toxic horizon.
Satisfied the coast was clear, she rose to her feet, dragging the tins across the exit of the park as she made her way back to her abode. She could not stop trembling; still in shock at having lost Topaz - her sister - only several days ago. Topaz had been warming up lunch and was about to switch off the portable stove, when she collapsed and instantly died, radiation poisoning presumably having been the cause.
Yet there were other ways to die in this post-nuclear age, one of them being caught stealing food. Criminals were now a source of entertainment, the aftermath of war having brought out the worst in mankind.
Attending the Arena to watch offenders eliminated as sport was a luxury in this bleak, twisted age. Few criminals – if sharp and alert – ever managed to survive their ordeal before a random, cheering crowd of spectators; Sapphire doubted she would be among them if she was caught for looting cans of processed food. Indeed, those she had previously known who had been caught in the act never survived to tell the tale; each having been destroyed in one electrical burst.
She took a succession of breaths; her ovary continuing to throb – an ovary that would have been removed had war not intervened; and now, three years on, the tumour around it must have enlarged within that space of time. She glanced at the familiar block of flats situated centimetres before her; its windows intact, but radioactive as a result of some distant nuclear blast; the top two floors uninhabited, but still in one piece.
Pushing open the door of the entrance, she climbed the staircase that led to the basement hide-out, the stolen tins clattering in the depths of her bag.
“Oh, you’re back, then?” squealed a voice from the foot of the stairs – a skinny, down-trodden silhouette that met her vision as she reached the basement entrance.
“Yes, Onyx, I’m back,” she replied. “But I’m not sure if anyone saw me. But anyway, since our ration has been pilfered, we’ve still got to eat. I’m only sorry it just had to be soup and nothing more substantial.”
“It was so good of you to think of us all,” mumbled Onyx, as they made their way into the basement’s dilapidated core.
“Where are the others?” asked Sapphire, as she and Onyx sat down on two ragged, pre-nuclear war chairs.
“They’re at the Eliminations,” replied the other almost whispering, ashamed that Sapphire had risked life and limb on her own.
“Mmmm,” uttered Sapphire, suppressing her annoyance as she took off her jacket. “And when, again, is our next ration due?”
“Err – not until another three weeks, I think,” Onyx nervously replied, sensing her group leader’s anger at the thoughtlessness of her group.
“Is it really that long that we’ve all got to wait?” remarked Sapphire in dismay. Onyx nodded in silence, throwing the inconvenienced woman a cautious glance.
“Well, let’s hope these tins last us until then,” remarked Sapphire, unzipping her bag before opening the doors of the larder. “And with any luck,” she added, continuing to hold in her anger at having been lumbered with the task of procuring a fresh supply of provisions alone, “our ration won’t be stolen this time round. By the way,” she went on as she began stacking the larder shelves with stolen tins, “have you any idea when the others will be back? Did they say if they’d return before dark when they left?”
“Oh, I forgot to ask them,” murmured Onyx in shame, afraid Sapphire’s patience would finally break. “They were all in such a hurry. They were late departing, and feared they’d miss part of the tournament.”
Sapphire slid the larder doors shut. “Did you not fancy going along with them?” she asked, turning to face Onyx in the fading light of day.
“No,” replied the other, shutting her eyes in distaste, “I find the Eliminations too upsetting to watch. I can never understand why they happen to be so popular.”
“No,” agreed Sapphire, sitting down on a chair that had survived the dreadful war. “I can fully understand how you feel. Not only are the Eliminations barbaric, but any one of us could become their next victim; you, me; the next person from another post-war group---.”
Onyx threw her a tentative glance as if reading her thoughts; that she had returned with stolen provisions, and was in danger of becoming the candidate of a future tournament.
“Is there any bread?” asked Sapphire, not wishing to push the subject any further.
“There are a few pieces left,” replied Onyx“.
“Well, if the others are not back in time for supper, I suppose we’ll just have to have it without them,” pronounced Sapphire in resignation, rising from her chair towards the portable stove.
It was dark before the others returned. The first to emerge was Sardonyx, who, despite a few facial chars from the heat of a not-too-distant blast, one could see that she was exceptionally attractive. The next to appear was Garnet, who had been serving a life sentence for murder – a sentence to which the war had put an end. Trailing closely behind him was Opal, a child of about eight years old, orphaned by a nuclear strike that obliterated her parents. She was a puny, under-sized girl, though one could hardly call her sensitive by nature. She would watch the Eliminations in fascination like one beyond her years, though that was probably due to the influence of Sardonyx, who would encourage this callous avidity.
“Did you manage to get hold of more provisions for us, Sapphire?” smirked Sardonyx in brazen curiosity, slinking up to the larder which she opened to see what she could find.
The hairs on Sapphire’s neck began to bristle; it was clear that she was being provoked. But she could read Sardonyx like a book, and had learnt not to rise to the bait of her wanton cruelty. She had sensed it was Sardonyx who had incited the others to attend the Eliminations without her; not a day went by when she was not goaded by Sardonyx in some way.
“Oh, tomato soup; my favourite!” exclaimed Sardonyx, eagerly clasping one of the freshly stolen tins.
“Did anyone survive the tournament?” asked Onyx.
“They did not,” replied Garnet, removing his jacket which he placed on the back of the nearest chair. “But alas, that’s usually the case, is it not? Very few contenders ever live to tell the tale.”
With a facade of calm, Sapphire looked Sardonyx straight in the eye and marched slowly towards her.
“Leave that tin of tomato soup alone; it must not be used until tomorrow; there’s not enough food to go round as it is,” she told her firmly, removing the tin from her grasp and sliding the larder doors shut.
“Oh, I quite forgot; our ration was stolen, wasn’t it?” remarked Sardonyx in complacent derision. “Oh well, Sapphire; you know what they say – you win some; you lose some.”
“Well, I hope I’m not arrested for having replaced our stolen ration on your behalf,” Sapphire told her in reproof. “It’s no light-hearted matter, Sardonyx.”
Sardonyx threw her a glance of disdain as she casually slipped off her boots.
“Cheer up, Sapphire,” she said drily, “For all we know, it may never even happen.”