AN: Had this idea when I saw the Gears of War 3 trailer, the music was incredible and really fit the hopeless atmosphere of the trailer. As a matter of fact, I listened to it as I wrote this (song's name is 'Heron Blue' for those of you who want to know).
The ashes came down heavily; often so thick it almost appeared to be a sort of grey snow, or a fog. Ashes falling on a desolate, deserted city, abandoned by whatever greater power it housed before The End. It was sad, yet destruction has its own kind of peculiar beauty; with the sun setting, the few orange-gold rays that could penetrate the clouds marked torn walls and derelict, morose buildings, some leaning over as if feeling some deep regret... At least... That's what I thought it looked like. And had I stayed on the roof of what I once called my home, I might have broken down into tears as the ashes around me sung with the tales of the dead and the damned. I did not stay though; I clambered down from that husk and descended to the empty streets. Like most people, we went out at night, though night did not always provide the safety we sought. There were always raiders, bandits, and others – men and women, stick-thin, who would do anything for food; bands of children barely older than eight who shoot other men in their genitalia for sport and approval of their overseers; roving bands of cannibals, cultists and psychopaths who make the meagre, pitiful life in this world all the more horrendous.
Then there were the rumours of the 'Sons of the Apocalypse'; others called them the 'Reborn', people claiming to have seen flashes of unnaturally pale skin in the ruins and in the underground, others told stories of dreadful mind-trickery and inhuman eyes watching them from cracks and holes in the ground and the walls. Some said they had comrades and friends leave for food or water and never return, hearing strange noises and the frightening last screams of these friends. Some say that these 'Sons of the Apocalypse' want to understand us, to live among us, some say that they would murder us all and devour our remains, others say that they do not even exist. As far as I and most of the two-thousand or so people who inhabit the shadows of this dusty city are concerned – anything is a potential threat, and I'm more concerned about the people kind of monster than the boogey-man.
I hit the dry, cracked concrete of the sidewalk with a muffled thud – ash cakes the place, and kicks up as I move my feet. I look around, not seeing anything out of the ordinary and begin to weave my way through the ash-blown streets and dank back alleys. I hear a shout, the crack of a rifle, then a pop-pop-pop – someone was unloading an automatic into someone... Or something. I shake the thought from my mind and continue onwards, trying to determine the distance and direction from me – sound carries and echoes everywhere within this dead place. Eventually, silence reigns again, and I crouch, unmoving, listening. In this city, sound, not sight, is often the key to survival, the pant of a bandit can give an ambush away, the rustle of a bush is a predator trying to drive a knife into your spine, there is no wind any more, not in this place. In this city where silence reigns king, the faintest whisper can doom you to a cold, horrible death.
I'm broken out of my thoughts by a clatter, barely a few metres from where I am. I freeze, waiting ten seconds, twenty, forty, a minute, two minutes. Something is close. I hear more noise, soft crunching of ashes underfoot; the distinct noise of someone attempting to move quietly around. I reach slowly for the rifle on my back, it's in fairly poor condition and jams often, but in this hellhole, it is my only defence. Trying my best not to give away my position, I sling the rifle painfully slowly over my head, and into my hands, taking aim down the sights at the corner where I think the unknown is coming from. I start shaking in anticipation and fear – the shot will certainly give my location away, and if whoever it is has backup, I know I'm not going to survive long.
I stiffen and my breath catches when I see a shadow edging forwards, a slow, deliberate pace shows that it is most certainly a human around the corner. Suddenly, I hear rapid footsteps, a shout, several whoops, and a shot. The bullet whips into a trash can, knocking it over and spilling some of its foetid contents onto the ground, kicking up more ashes. Meanwhile, the shadow becomes a man, he's wearing an ash-caked hoodie, combat webbing – most likely pillaged from a dead soldier somewhere – and holds a dirty handgun in one hand, he's crawling on the floor, more whoops echo throughout the block and it suddenly occurs to me that I have landed in the middle of a game hunt. The man looks around wildly for escape, and finally sees me, his eyes widen and he aims the pistol, but stops when he realises I have exactly the same terrified look upon my face that he does. He relaxes somewhat, and pulls himself around the corner and edges towards me, I see now that one of his legs is brutally shredded, and there is a hole in his left trouser leg with dried blood soaking the area around it, there is another similar wound that looks like it goes through a lung that I hadn't noticed, his breathing is ragged and wheezing. He reaches for me pathetically, his tone pleading, and his eyes begging.
"Please... Go to the Market Square – my friends... They're trapped there by those freaks. Please, you gotta..." He's close to tears now – which means that those friends of his are either very dear to him – or he's in total agony. I think of the former – after all, friends are the only things that you can truly rely on in this place now, but it is much more likely the latter. He is also aware that he will most certainly die here. I feel sorry for this wretch on the ground; I nod, lying to him. I have no intention of going to his friends, but at least this will give him a peace of mind before his death. He looks like he's about to say something else, then a crack, and a sickening thwack as a bullet forces its way through his torso, exiting his body and ricocheting off the ground before thudding into the wall behind me. A raggedy-looking man stands a few dozen metres away, down the alley I was about to take before this happened, he's fumbling with a long-barrelled rifle, I realise that it might have jammed, and immediately take the opening to bring up my own rifle.
Three ear-splitting cracks, like the roar of an angry god, and the man falls.
I hear more shouts, closer to me, that man I just felled was obviously part of their group, they're shouting for him, trying to discern whether he is dead or alive. I look to their game – he's not moving, a pool of blood spreads further and further out from underneath him, some of it's already run under my boots, in amounts thick enough to dye the ash itself crimson. I rise, and start to run, forwards, I dash off the left when I reach the end, not caring where my path takes me, as long as I get away from here. I hear shots behind me, ash and specks of concrete kick up from the kinetic impact of the bullets, I dive into another back alley and continue running. I make a right turn, then a left, another left, then a right, until I'm on a street, panting and out of breath, looking around, I'm fairly certain there's no one around, that is, until a bullet whizzes past my head, grazing my cheek.
I whip my head around so quickly it feels like it will come off, there's a mob of individuals, more than twenty, all of them baying for my blood. More bullets cut the air around me and I take cover behind a burnt out vehicle, letting off a few rounds from my own rifle in the process. More shots, and shouts to go with it, getting closer – they're suppressing me while the rest move in to finish me off! Cursing my luck, I let off another burst before risking a quick peek from behind the car. At least a dozen of them are picking towards me, not even remotely afraid of any potential pain I can dish out, occasionally letting off a poorly aimed shot. I'm good as dead if I stay; so after the next ease in the pressure, I dash –
I'm not more than five feet from a street corner when the roar of a dragon cuts the air, and I'm thrown off my feet. Turning back, I see the smoking wreck of a long abandoned vehicle, its frame now far too twisted and mangled by the explosion that gutted it to tell what it was beforehand. A stray bullet must have penetrated its fuel tank deep enough and set it off. Recovering my wits, I realise that this wreck has given me an opening – a chance to escape! Not bothering to even check on the mob, I take off; no shots are fired, the gang is either stunned, or the smoke is masking me from their sight. I silently pray that the explosion took at least one of them out; sick fucks don't deserve to live.
I run, half a kilometre, one kilometre, one and a half, until I come to a halt in front of an old, abandoned convenience store, out of breath, and counting my luck. Sweat patches cover the faded grey beanie on my head and line my underarms, the handkerchief that covers my mouth is wet around my mouth. I clamp it shut – I can't waste my fluids since clean water is now such a rare luxury.
I get to my feet, rifle unsteady in my hands, and I move through the store – there is nothing. The place has been picked clean long ago, and I feel strangely dumb for a moment upon remembering that I was one of those looters in the early days. I shuffle forward in a trance, and for a brief moment the dull ash clouds lift enough for a moment to allow a few sparse rays of sunlight to peek through. One lands on my dirty face, and in the middle of that dry, dusty shop I imagine that I am back in the world as it was before. When no one had to hide, when no one had to fight, claw, scrape, scratch, and barely eke out a life that can now no longer be called such a beautiful thing.
We are all dead; we died the moment the light shone so bright it seared the surface, when the greedy and the paranoid and the vainglorious crossed that last, ever so thin line and brought hell to earth. I wonder if heaven was atomised by the blasts, and I briefly consider it a miracle that the very air we breathe isn't toxic from all the bombs. I recall reading a book by a Russian novelist where that was the case. It was a good book. I regret losing it when I left my parents' home in the city outskirts.
As I continue on through the grimy store I wonder how many of us are left in this country, in the next, in the one beyond that. I've heard from some that the East was utterly atomised, from others that it was the West. I wonder if those rumours are true, if they have seen it themselves, or if someone else has. I scoff to myself. Impossible. If such a thing had occurred then there would be no one to tell the stories, and anyone who went into those places would never return – we cannot survive on ash and diseased earth after all. I conclude that these stories are simply that, and I let the ghost of a grin onto my grimy, dirty features, somehow this thought of stories amuses me. I shake my head, I should be far more concerned for myself, as if to prove this, I take a step forwards –
– and the ground gives way beneath me.
I land awkwardly, but the pain will fade and nothing feels like its broken, knowing for a fact that I would be in much more agony if that was the case. I remember exactly what kind of world I live in and spring to my feet, ignoring the stab that pierces my ankle. My rifle isn't here; it's perched precariously on the edge of the newly created portal. The light peaks through, granting me a dim view of this underground...
I put a hand to my head and try to stifle my tears. If there is a God, he has truly blessed me this day. An underground safe house lies before me: a bed – not used in a considerable time if the dust is any indication, a wash basin, a door that is ever so slightly ajar to reveal a similarly unused lavatory, a stove, hob, and shelves of provisions, cans and bottles line the shelves. I want to drop to my knees at the sheer marvel of it. I grab a can of peaches and greedily open it with my knife, throwing my head back I devour those peaches in milliseconds, hungrily sticking my tongue inside the tin as far as it will go and lapping up any leftover juices.
I open another can of meat and scrape everything into my waiting mouth. It's the best thing I've had in weeks. I pause after going through another two cans, and realise that my rifle is still upstairs and that I made quite a bit of noise when I fell through the rotting boards that concealed this paradise so efficiently before. I notice a ladder that leads up to the trap door I unwittingly unveiled and ascend, taking my rifle and sweeping the store, much more steady now that I've had a decent meal. Nothing, not yet at least.
I take my pack off my back and open it before I stuff as many cans and bottles into it as I can, not all of it fits; I cram some into my pockets. It still isn't even half of what is in this place, I'll have to make multiple trips, but I don't want to leave and return to find someone else has pillaged what's left – or worse, return and find that they're still there. I search for something to cover it and find a tatty rug, it's easily the size of the trap door, but anyone who frequents this part of town will notice it immediately. There's nothing else though, it will have to do. I zip my pack up as best I can, climb the ladder and cover the hole before leaving.
I make a further three trips back and forth before realising that it's getting dark, and that I really shouldn't be out. I'm almost to the store, when a rattle and a crash from inside cause me to duck instinctively. I curse and creep up to the unlocked back door, opening it as quietly as I can, which isn't very, another crash and a shot echo through the building though, which conceals any noise I made on entry. I leave the door open in case I need to beat a retreat. I stalk through the aisles of the store, crouched low to minimise visibility, I see through the cracks that there are several figures near the trap door, and two of them seem to be on lookout, they're all dressed in thick coats, with hoods concealing their features.
They've found it without a doubt. The rug has been pulled violently to one side and ungracefully decorates the floor near the broken trap door. I shoulder the rifle, my head is telling me that I've got more than enough back home, but my instincts are telling me that everything in there is mine. I found that place, and a primal rage burns through me as I flick the safety off, line up a shot, and loose an ungraceful shot at the closest guard. His head snaps back, and he falls to the ground, limp, dead. The other whips around, looking for a target, two shots take him off his feet. The last one doesn't even have a gun, just a pitiful little knife, he looks around, eyes probably wide and afraid behind those goggles of his, my last shot puts the sorry fuck out of his fear.
I wait for a moment, sure enough, someone pokes his head up through the trap door, my shots miss and he ducks down, bringing up a handgun and firing blindly over the edge. Amateur mistake, he obviously isn't much of a fighter. I sprint forwards, covering the distance easily as he stops to reload. He's in the middle of loading the magazine when I appear and put two in his scrawny chest, he drops, knocking over a few cans, an anguished shout resounds from below, not giving the bastard a chance to even try to avenge his friend I do the only thing that makes sense to my adrenaline-fuelled mind. I jump in.
The looter never sees it coming, and he's on the ground bleeding and as cold as his friends a second later, but I'm deafened for a moment, firing a gun in that enclosed space is not good for my ageing ears. I check outside, just in case there's backup waiting outside, no one storms the fort so I'm good for the moment. I get outside to scavenge the bodies for ammunition, and as I uncover the first the full horror of what I've done hits me in force.
These raiders are all children, lanky, pale skinned, dirty, tired, cold children. What was inside there was probably the first sight of decent food in god-knew how many days. I feel the blood drain from my face and feel myself about to heave. The oldest can be no older than fifteen – barely a year younger than my own beloved niece would have been today. I clutch at my head, maddened by my selfish, greedy actions and scratch until blood seeps into my unwashed, greasy hair. I try to reason with myself, it was survival – self defence. They shot at me. But my memory is better than that.
I let a tortured sob escape my lips and finally throw up my meal, barely-digested, mashes peaches and scraps of raw meat cake the dusty floor and I pull myself away from the bodies. A thud jolts me back into reality, footsteps, some jeery shouts. Some sound familiar – the bandits! Could they have followed me all the way here? Or is it a mere chance encounter? My pack still lies inside the bunker –for there isn't another word I can use to describe it. I panic and scramble for the open trap door – all my guilt forgotten as thoughts of self-preservation force their way into the forefront of my mind. I throw the pack over my shoulder, trampling all over tiny, frail bodies as I go and hurriedly clamber up the ladder, ignoring the protests of my ankle at the hurried movement.
I'm barely to the dead, automatic doors when a deafening shot rings out, it impacts off the wall just to my right and I see another man standing in the store with three of his friends behind him. None of them look as though they've had a decent meal in aeons; all are dirty, grimy, ragged. One is female, wearing goggles and she gives me a crooked, unpleasant smile, displaying a row of yellowed, cracked teeth from behind the butt of a shotgun. The men all have wildly grown facial hair that might have been considered rugged in another time – now they give them an aura of brutality, repulsiveness and barely constrained barbarity. One of them pulls the trigger of his gun. A rookie mistake, the force he applies drives the cold, unforgiving barrel of his gun upwards even before the gunpowder cooks off and forces the bullet down the chamber, and the shot goes wide.
I dart outside, but not before another three shots pierce the dank air, the flare of the muzzles lighting and giving greater definition to the bandits' collectively ugly features. I feel a sharp, splitting pain erupt in my lower abdomen, and another on my thigh. I almost collapse, but I keep going, and before I reach the parking lot, I wheel around, bringing my rifle to bear with one hand and streaming gunfire, bellowing my pain and fury as it sings. Only one of my shots makes contact with flesh, spinning the wretch around, clutching his shoulder with a cry of pain. The rest however, scatter at the display, and I hare through the abandoned vehicles left here as fast as I can possibly move while they reel. I'm barely out and into the street beyond when I feel a bullet graze my leg, opening a new wound on my already scarred form. More shots follow but they're all poorly aimed, and I make it through to another back alley where I continue onwards, fuelled purely by adrenaline by this point.
I continue running from my pursuers for far longer than I should, and when I finally feel that my limbs are too leaden to move I stop inside the burnt, bombed out shell of a shopping centre. I sit atop a burnt, unstable bench and the feeling of the charcoal gives me a strange comfort, I take off my heavy pack, prop my rifle – now all but spent – by my feet within easy grabbing distance, and take stock of my wounds. They are clean shots – each of them punching through skin and muscle, and both are bleeding heavily, I fumble with the clasps on my pack and open it, almost immediately, various cans and bottles spill out onto the ground, making a din so loud, so careless than I wince. My shaking hands reach in, deeper, deeper until they clutch hold of a roll of gauze. I wrap the fabric around my body so that it covers my wounds, they still bleed, but hopefully it will do until I make it back home and can do some real patch-work.
A low growl rumbles from behind me and I freeze. It grows steadily louder and higher in pitch, and I reach slowly, steadily for my rifle, but my hands are shaking so much from a combination of blood loss, exhaustion and pure terror. I barely take a hold of the stock before the growl suddenly becomes the bellow of an animal and I feel something barrel into me, knocking me off the bench and into a blown-out electronics store. Glass crunches and ash scatters as we struggle, a hand clutches my hair painfully and dashes my head into the ground once, twice, glass and dirt dig into my face and the pain sends a fresh wave of anger through me.
Invigorated by my fury I twist myself suddenly, throwing an elbow as hard as I can in the direction of my assailant's face, the blow connects and he releases me temporarily, allowing me some space and time to bring my rifle up –
– but he's on me before I can finish the job, and I finally get a close-up look at the – good lord his face! The thing that struggles with me for possession of the gun is hideously deformed, a fleshy brow droops over a milky white eye while its other, similarly discoloured eye seems to blaze with animal fury. A short, snub of a nose that looks like a pig's adorns its face at a painful looking angle and a crooked mouth lined with broken, rotting teeth is curled with undisguised hatred. Its pale white, lanky limbs – which seem at odds with the power it possesses (or maybe that is due to my own present weakness) claw for my gun, a spare arm juts out of its torso – grossly malformed, twisted, almost like a baby's, and reaches pathetically, sickeningly for my throat, its breath is fouler than any cess pit I've ever smelt in my life, and in it, I think I can detect the hint aroma of rotting flesh. Crying out in revulsion, I smash my head into the thing's own repulsive features and it reels, I headbutt the wretched creature again and I feel its grip weaken.
I yell in triumph as I pull my gun away from it and raise the barrel towards it from my lying position. Blood streams down my face and a trickle of it travels across my eye, but even that cannot spoil my aim. With spite and vengeance on my lips I unload the last of the magazine into the vile beast; it twitches as the bullets perforate its deceptively fragile form, screeching like the animal it is until finally, it drops, limp, unmoving.
I don't feel any jubilation at my victory as I slump down onto the floor, merely thankful that I have survived an encounter with such a creature, I try to drag my arm across my face to wipe the blood away but my limbs feel like they are made of steel. I'm for all intents and purposes, immobile.
Then another growl reaches my ears, and another, and another, and another... Until all I hear is the noise of a dozen rabid, sub-human wretches. They line the entrance, some crouched low on all fours, others atop two feet, hunched over, some are even in the store itself, lurking behind aisles and the counter, only now emerging at the prospect of fresh prey. I feel myself heave and sob, trying desperately in vain to move my aching, protesting body. This isn't fair. This isn't how this was supposed to –
– then one of the creatures releases a shrill cry and then a swarm of cracked, yellowing teeth and murderous, hungry eyes descends upon me, taking me, agonisingly, to my final rest.