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Number 68

By unravel All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Scifi

Prologue


Surviving in a post-war city is hard.

You would think that with the astounding technology and modern devices we had made, it would save us from our destruction.

Apparently not.

I mean, I don’t know much about the time before the War, but from the stories the locals whisper in hushed mumbles, or the pieces of machinery we bring back home, apparently it used to be extremely advanced and beyond its time. My parents died from The Fall before I could remember them, but from what my late-aunt could recall, the city and the world was once a sight to behold.

Now? I’m not so sure how sophisticated this city was, but if it was as spectacular as they said, then we are the remaining shambles left – irony intended.

The city remaining from the War is not much. In the past, survivors of the War had scrounged up everything of worth and fled to the most intact city left functional, and from there a colony of people survived.

Here we are today.

And here I live.

What we do have, though, is everything I cannot live without. There are the old motorbikes that, if I beg hard enough, the cashier behind the counter in the convenience store will let me use for a ride around – but only if I’m doing errands for her. Then, beyond the bend, lies the garden that the Auntie from the botanical greenhouse opens. Whenever one of us civilians passes by, she always greets us with a smile and a flower constantly at hand. Sometimes, she will tell us what the flower symbolizes, and other times, she will give us the flower when she notices that we’re depressed.

The baker down the street is a jolly old fellow. Auntie and him know each other so well that if one of them is missing, then you will be sure to find them at the other’s place.

Within the city, there are various abandoned buildings. Out of them all, my favourite place is the old, collapsing library that I claimed as my second home ever since my aunt’s death. Despite the broken shelves, there lies books scattered all around. Sometimes, some of the books are damaged, but if they are still decipherable, then I manage.

There are many other places here, some I know to avoid from experience – especially the polluted swamps with radiation still lingering in that area. Others, I keep in mind for when I need to hide out in solitude.

There are lots to do and see above the city, but down below is where my family resides in, and that is where I live.

Together, we are a huge family of sixty-eight. I’m the newest recruit, and they call me 68. My family is a gang that goes beyond our city’s proclaimed safe-zones, and we are the ones who supply the required necessities when the rations are running low.

To me, going outside is exhilarating like an addiction. We leave the city by rowing through the passages in the underground sewer canals, and when they end, the outside of our city is as shambled as one can imagine.

I think it is beautiful.

Besides the remnants of rubbles and concrete from fallen buildings, there are the decayed wooden drawbridges, rusted metal, jagged stones, and broken ceramics from The Fall. Broken metal towers and electrical cables lie in halves amongst the wreckage, and from what I was told, they used to stand tall and proud at more than 200 feet under the blazing sun and blue sky.

Off-white and weathered complexes teeter sideways; their windows shattered, floorboards eroded, and their concrete walls smashed in. Loose rubble and boards litter the ground near the buildings with caved-in doors and empty windowpanes yawning into the darkness.

On the ground, rusty bolts, screws, and nails pepper the ground everywhere along with shattered glass, and if we are lucky, we might just find some coins and broken off machinery. It is like a treasure hunt for us newest recruits, and we do something like a scavenger hunt to find any available, functional materials in the area. The one who finds the least amount of materials has to do the dishes tonight.

Here outside in the open, nature does not thrive. The War impacted the lands and even now, the grass is still dried and burnt with many missing clumps, and the patches of cracked soil and ash can be seen from miles away. I guess no one ever really recovered from The Fall, humans and nature alike.

Some trees do grow out here, but the majority here are burnt to blackened ashes and their trunks lie on the ground, broken and aged.

No birds sing here and no creature stirs. Some people dislike it and call it deathly-still, but to me it’s merely a calm of eerily-still silence. Looking up at the grey sky and blackened trees keep me grounded and as wrong as it sounds, outside, here in the wreckage, is a breath of fresh air to me.

We are damaged; ruined irrevocably, but surviving against all odds is what makes one strong, and that survival is the force that keeps me alive.

Farther outside the city’s barriers and past the wreckage, lies another city we can reach after a five-day travel. Usually, we travel by horseback, but occasionally in dire needs, we can use the motorbikes (which I, personally, enjoy more) and reach the other village in three days instead of five.

There in the other village, another gang greet us. They dress differently from our military outwear; their clothes smooth and flowing in assortments of red, green, blue, black or gold – all made of silk.

We communicate through the Native Tongue with them, but theirs has an accent: a slight pitch with an added hesitancy that distorts their words into something highly amusing for us Natives to hear. But when they aren’t speaking the Native Tongue, their language is like currents of water – smooth and flowing, but spoken clearly at rapid speeds.

When we arrive at the rusty gates that separate them from us, a woman always steps out from the throng of people crowded around the gates. The crowd parts to make room for her as she nears the gates, and they each place their hands into the opposite sleeve of their garments and bend into a half-bow; a custom of theirs that symbolizes respect.

The woman that walks up to the gates is a fierce one, and we all call her as Leader. Her jet-black hair is tied back into a bun with chopsticks holding it in place, and her jade earrings flash in the light as she makes her way down. Her glossy-black pumps echo as she steps towards us. Her face is usually stern, her blood-red lips set into a grim line that only changes when she spots our Chief from amoung us.

Chief is friends with her, and together, they are unstoppable. One the gates upon, none of us moves as they meet together by the entrance, stepping up to do this secret handshake that ends with their elbows slamming (painfully) together. Sometimes we bring goods (such as bolts, wood, stone and machinery) along with us to trade, and in return, they give us plants and herbs for consumption and medicinal purposes, or elk and deer meat. Occasionally, they even give us the fruits from their lush trees when it’s around harvest season. It’s a rare treat for us, and we take it with great care and gratitude as we only have berries back home, and even those are rarely eaten fresh and are mainly dried.

But on days like today, we travel for information only.

This time, we take the motorbikes out for a ride across the vast plains, and by the end of our travel, the sun is down and half of us in the of twenty pack are exhausted. We park the motorbikes inside the gates below the stairs, and stretch out our sore limbs. Some of the villagers greet us with a bright grin and a cup of tea, and we gratefully sink ourselves on the wooden benches and drink the hot beverage avidly.

The first odd thing I should have noticed was that we used motorbikes to travel here, that the usual handshake was not done in front of the gates, and that the village that was usually filled with glowing red lanterns, fields of candle lights, and whispered-hushes woodwind instruments was unusually silent and lacked the welcoming glow. The lanterns paving the roads were not lit and the only light in the village was from the lanterns held by patrolling guards. The wooden houses in the proximity held no light seen through the windowpanes, and their shutters stayed closed.

The town was in a hushed silence and when it was time for dinner, there was no music from their plucked instruments and boisterous, bubbly laughter to greet us.

Instead, we were grimly led down to the great hall for dinner; Leader in the front of the line, and our Chief at the back.

Leader and her group sat down first, in a special position called seiza that involves sitting down with one’s legs folded underneath one’s thighs and resting our posterior on our heels. Chief and the rest of us follow, and we crowd around the dinner table.

When all of us are seated, Leader rises up to a kneel and slams her fist down hard on the tabletop to catch our attention. The tableware rattles, and the candles hiss as the flame flickers weakly, struggling to recover. Everyone jumps. What little conversation there was dies down, and it fades into silence.

The silence fades when she clears her throat to initiate her speech. I sit at attention, as does the rest of our team, and we turn our eyes towards Leader, who stares down each and every one of us sitting around the table.

“Let me get straight to business. We have lived relatively safe in these sixty-seven years after the War, and despite The Fall, we have lived, even with the hardships of living off remains and hunting for more.”

I lean back, relaxing my stiffening posture to mumble in agreement. Some murmurs join in with mine, and a hummed agreement emits from dining table.

If anything, Leader looks indifferent to our responses, and steadily goes on. She relaxes back into her seiza pose and interlocks her hands together.

“But today I bring news that may shatter our ‘peace’. From the War and after The Fall, there are only four cities that remain. That would be us in the South, you guys from the East, the Nautae in the Sea Region North of us, the Wilds in the West. Yes?”

Nods break out through the room. I nod along warily, not liking the implications of this topic.

Leader smiles grimly. “Well, that seems to not be the case. We are not the only survivors, and yesterday during my hunt, I came across a survivor.”

Voices break out, as if Leader had let out a dam. I sit in shock, and beside me, I feel Chief tensing up.

Leader holds up a hand for silence, and Chief does the same. Eventually, all that is left is the sound of our breathing. I listen intently, straining to hear by shifting closer towards the table.

“Yesterday on the hunt, I found others – or rather, one stray traveler collapsed nearby the forests near our city. He was wounded, dehydrated, and delirious from a raging fever. He seems to have travelled West from the deserts, and ended up travelling South towards us. We tried to treat him, and he did come to and speak to us for a moment before he died. He spoke of his family near the woods out in the North-West near the initial area of the War, and says he had lived in a cabin with his whole family and his wife and son. However, his cabin had been invaded, his family killed, and he had fled with pursuers on his tail. They injured him out West, and from there he managed to escape with his life barely intact. He tells me . . .” here Leader breaks off her story with a shaky sigh. Chief glances at her with concern, but Leader recovers and spits the next words out with venom. “Tells us that the man who did this to him was 71.”

Collective gasps and heated protests break out while Leader clenches her hands into fists, her knuckles turning white against the strain. I stare ahead blankly, trying to remember where I heard the name before.

If I recollect anything from the ruined books of history, the rumours, and from my Aunt’s stories, then 71 was that tyrannical ruler that betrayed humanity’s faith, that led us to our destruction with his council against all citizens into War. The bomber, the traitor, the ruthless backstabbing murderer that should be buried eternally in history and be dead with all the other scoundrels.

If Leader means that 71 . . .

Leader slams the table again, and silence steals the protests as everything falls to a hush. She grits her teeth and places her elbows down on the table with her hands gripped tightly into fists.

“As you all know; this is not good news. I have travelled far and wide with the former Leader across all cities, and even with all my patrols I do now, there has never been anything like this. The only area I have never actually stepped foot in was the Centre, the region where the War took place. It’s ruined beyond anything, and . . . well, I have never thought there was a reason to patrol a hazard zone that you could see ruin from a hundred miles away. There honestly should not be, in any way, for 71 to be alive. But if he is, if he’s . . . out there, the only place he could be is the Centre. And if he’s alive and well, then we all might as well be screwed. The War was what 71 had started and if he is out there with technology, then we might as well commit seppuku and kill our lives off as honorably as we can. No matter what generation, we all know of him; his evil deeds, his ruthless, intelligent mind, his power, and just how ghastly he was.”

I clench my fists my my sides, and stare down at my plate. My stomach clenches uncomfortably, and the steaming buns in my plate do not look as appetizing as it used to be.

Around me, everyone shows their discomfort at the news.

Chief glances to Leader across the table, his visible eye showing dread.

“Seven, is there nothing we can do to defend ourselves?” Chief asks, his voice soft with concern.

Leader fondly throws a glance at him. “Trust you to say that, Five.” She huffs out a chuckle. “To be honest, I’m not sure. It’s impossible news, but it’s there and exists and I’m not willing to turn a blind eye to only find out its true when it’s irreversible. 71 is a cruel mastermind, and if anything, I would prefer to be over prepared then to underestimate a more than formidable opponent. He’s capable of anything, and with our limited resources, I’m not sure how we can take him on. If anything, it’s like fighting guns with twigs,” Leader snorts at the imagery. “But, it does not mean we will sit here until death. I want us to work together with the other cities. I want to stock our supplies to the fullest, to sharpen our weapons, to be wary and keep an eye out. If anything is wary or suspicious, send news here by owl or by messenger. Any bit of warning or information is crucial in how this plays out, and if we want to be the winners and the survivors, we must do everything in our power,” Leader pauses and narrows her eyes to scrutinize each and every one of us. “Anything you encounter. Absolutely anything and I mean it. I don’t give a shit on how trivial it is, as long as you report it.” Leader finishes with her head cocked towards Chief, and they have a silent conversation with their eyes.

Eventually, Chief clears his throat for attention and all eyes turn to him.

“We are the Scavengers, and as such, we must ensure that we keep our eyes and ears open at all time. I’m not asking you to turn on each other, because that would be the worst thing we can do, especially since 71 will use our weaknesses to turn sides and cause war. No, what I mean is that we are alert. We are soldiers, we have trained, and if anything we will finally put our skills to use. Seven will connect the other two cities on this, and while this is risky, it is a gamble we must take. 71 is a prodigy and with his intelligence, he will break us all down if we don’t fight together as one.”

Chief breaks off with a sigh and closes his eyes. “The stories I know of him are terrible, and while he has aged, he is not a force to be reckoned with. They say the older you are, the wiser you are, and if he has been using these sixty-seven years to plot our demise, then we are in for one hell of a ride that could lead us to another war like the War. Do not lower your defenses and no matter what he offers, do not accept and do not show yourselves as vulnerable. Promises from a devil are lies, and I have not trained us all here to be cowards and traitors. Each and every one of you is a soldier as I have trained you to be, and if we do not survive, then humanity will die under 71’s second tyrannical rule. Our fate can be better than this. As such, we must trust our comrades to have our backs and fight on believing on hope of us winning – no matter how bleak that thought can be. Have faith, believe, fight, and we will survive. We will not go down without a fight!”

Cheers erupt around the cave, and some pound the silverware in agreement. I clap my hands along with a few others, my gut tightening, but also relaxing at the same time.

Leader grins at Chief, and they share a smile before Leader breaks off the eye contact to stare at all of us with a fierce hope and pride burning brightly in her eyes.

“While that wasn’t the best way to start dinner, I think I have made you all wait long enough.”

At her words, some cooks come over and place down dishes of food, and leave just as silently as they had come. I stare at the gyoza and soup with wonder as the aromatic scents waft up my nostrils. Leader lets out a loud, melodious laugh.

“Regain your appetites if you can, and you all may begin to eat! 26 holds no shame in finishing the appetizers already, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t either. Begin!” Leader exclaims, raising her cup to us all.

Laughter rings around from the table, and it pushes away the previous despair. 26 ducks his head, wiping his mouth as delicately as he can as he tries to melt down onto the cushion, his ears bright red in embarrassment – almost as red as his hair. I grin at the sight.

I force away the forbidding feeling blossoming in my gut, and join in the feast set before me, using the tongs to grab a few jiaoze to put on my plate, and force myself to be at ease.

71 is important. He will probably never be buried again in the depths of our minds after today, but for now, I settle on what’s real in front of me.

And let me tell you, the food is damn good.


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