Child of the Wasteland:

I don't really like these people, but that isn't a problem. They don't really like me either, or each other. But out in the wasteland you have to at least get along with the people you're with, because if you don't, things will go badly.

It has only happened twice since I joined, but twice is often enough for it to be concerning. So I just follow, and keep a gun. Not many guns for us anymore, not really. We waited until it was too late I think, before we started to change

So there aren't many guns that we can really use, our fingers got to big I guess. But it isn't an issue, we can still use knives. That is what happened to me I guess. They found me one day and said to me: "Son, if you can use this to skin them, we will keep you."

And they gave me a big knife.

I was eight, barely five foot tall, and they gave me a big knife to skin with, and nothing to kill with. I guess I was the grunt. The thing is that I am no one's son, I am a girl. A woman now, really, seventeen is a woman around here.

Of course eight would have been a woman to them. And telling them now would have the same effect. So I keep it to myself, because I know what happens to women out here in the wasteland. I have seen it before.

Even though it bothers me it is none of my concern.

Not unless they find me out.

But I have another knife now, I am not just a skinner. I catch and I kill just like everyone else, so we all have to skin our own now. I am still the best at it, I have the most practice I guess, but that doesn't mean I will help.

Being helpful is still a sign of weakness, humans haven't really progressed very far. But we adapted quickly to the wasteland, once we made it. The state of the world is our own fault. Or maybe not quite ours, not anymore. It has been a long time since it was really the fault of anyone alive. But it is still the fault of humans, as everyone expected it would be.

We may have been right but it doesn't make it any better. It probably makes it worse.

So we are all stuck on the wasteland, except maybe those in the city. We have all seen the city, we go past it from time to time in our hunting. But no one has gone in or come out for a very long time, the world has changed too much for them. And the city has changed to little or us.

But hunting is good fun. Hunting is what it is all about, if we're honest. They are everywhere now, we don't have a word for them, the animals died, so many of them died, but there was one species that changed like we did. And now they are everywhere.

So maybe we should just call them the animal. But humans like us are animals too, not just from the point of view of anthropology. We are animals like we were a long time ago. We have degraded I guess, but we still improved.

That is what we are for, surviving. That is what we are.

We are black skin and slim muscle and long limbs. We are suited to the wasteland like we were once suited to everywhere. We are suited to hunting with knives, suited to hunting the animals of our wasteland, even each other.

I want to keep talking about the wasteland, because that is all there is anymore.

But I will leave it alone.

Every morning is the same in the wasteland, the same for everyone. Wake up to the sun emerging from the horizon and tie your hair back behind your head, to keep it out of your eyes. Get up and stretch, then pack up your sleeping spot.

Hoist your bag upon your back and start walking. We stay in groups, all of us, no one survives outside of a group. You are either killed by the next group you are found by, or you are assimilated into it. We can no longer survive by ourselves, we aren't good at it anymore.

Not that we were ever very good at it.

But what a group is really for is the extra eyes. Having more people means having more chance of spotting the animals before they spot us. Because we stand out, we really do. And they don't as much. Their only concession is short sightedness.

We do not share in our group, we just communicate. Someone sees them and they communicate, because otherwise we would have to dispose of them. And generally the manner with which they are disposed of is unpleasant.

We walk until we spot a herd and then we hunt. Out come the knives and we run as fast as we can, not right into the herd but around and around. If you run around them they don't know where to go, and so they go nowhere.

And then you attack. You grab one of them and you slit its throat and you drink its blood. Because that is all the liquid we are getting. Then you drop it and grab another and repeat the process until your thirst is quenched.

And that is how we hunt. Another reason we stay in a group, you cannot herd by yourself. Once you have drunk your fill you turn to your discarded dead and you skin them. And you cure the skins in the sun and you keep as much of the blood as you can.

I guess all we ever drink out here in the wasteland is blood. But that is all there is. When I was young, before I was found, I was living with my mother, I don't remember her clearly, but there were some stories that she told me that I remember. About the evil blood drinkers.

I was reluctant at first to drink blood, I didn't want to be evil. But what I reasoned was that I was not drinking human blood so it didn't matter. It only took me two days to realise this. I don't remember much about before I was found.

Only the stories.

I don't remember how I survived, I don't remember food or drink or anything, only the stories.

I barely even remember my mother, but that isn't unusual.

Once you have skinned all the animals you hang them up, we all have our own racks for this, it is a prerequisite of being alive here. You hang them so that the blood drains out and you keep the blood. If the flesh touches the sand then it cannot be eaten, and so we are all very particular about this process.

There are four rules that everyone follows, not just the people in my group, everyone I have ever met out here in the waste. First is that you always communicate when are where you see the animals, under any circumstance. Second is that you do not, ever, take another's kill. Third is that you do not, ever, foul another's kill in any way. And fourth is that you do not harm or kill another person, in your group, unless they break one of the rules.

The simple thing to do is follow them, the complicated thing to do is die.

So you let the animals drain until they are free of blood and then you tie them to your pack and you keep walking. When the night comes you eat and then rest and in the morning you repeat the same thing. Day after day you walk and hunt and walk and hunt until night and then you eat and sleep.

It is not hard to remember but it is hard to do. For a while. The sun is strong and the heat is suffocating, every single day. But at least no one talks much. We are not friends in a group, we are just a group. I have never met a group who thought otherwise.

Some clarification may be needed, the rules only apply between you and the people in your group, and anyone you are sharing your space with. But you don't always need to share your space. We have found and disposed of six different groups since I started traveling with these people. We have met thirteen.

Most groups are the same size, six people. That is enough to herd and few enough that there is no overlap when killing. We have disposed of four groups that were smaller than ours and two that were bigger.

The bigger groups attacked us, but we won. Numbers do not outweigh skill. And we, all of us, are skilled. In fights we have lost two people. But we gained more by finding singles who wish to travel and will follow the rules, and once by assimilating some people from a group we killed. We have also had to dispose of two people for breaking the rules.

Some days are good, we find two or even three herds in one day and sleep contentedly. But some days are bad, where we find nothing and have to eat leftovers from the day before. Only once has it happened that we had two bad days in a row.

It was a horrible experience for me as a thirteen year old, you cannot eat meat that is two days old. It goes bad. One day is often stretching it. But the next day was a good day and we were all okay. Most days you only find one herd and that is enough for one day.

I will tell you one last thing before we get to what is happening. It is incredibly uncomfortable to sleep with a gun at the small of your back. But no one has a gun these days, those that do are killed and no one can use them.

I don't know how to use a gun either, only than that if you point it at someone at squeeze the trigger then person you are pointing at dies. I have never used it and I don't know if it works. I found it last year and kept if, it has four bullets. I kept it because it may take more than a knife to defend myself if anyone finds out that I am a girl.

But what is happening at present is that we are hunting. I have six dead and one more in my hand, they are not big, so it takes many. Seven is my number, my lucky number I would say, but I have no luck, no one does.

Seven is the number I can drink and five is the number I can eat.

We finish hunting and skinning and bleeding and we pack up and continue on our way. Only one of them has more than me, but he is a big man, big even for us now. There is not much variation is size anymore, because we have developed to take an equal amount.

But he has nine and I have seven. I do not want more but he does. So I think I am superior in that respect. We walk through our wasteland, watching for another herd. None of us need more, but it is human nature to want more.

Instead what we see is a lone figure in the distance, just a silhouette against the sky. He is carrying something, it is always a he. Women do not travel, they stay in these little villages with men and have children, that is all they do.

Which is why I travel, I have no desire to breed, that and because I was never in a village like that. But women who travel get it much worse. And that is why I continue to masquerade as a man. I know what happens to traveling women.

As the man comes closer we prepare, generally a loner is killed, and we have no need for an extra. But as he comes closer we see he is carrying something. Something in a bag that is struggling feebly and sounds to be crying.

A woman, but a small one, we are all the same size out here, men and women, we are not uneven in build or strength, it is a mystery to me why women let themselves be breeding machines, or sex slaves.

But I think that even being a sex slave would be preferable to what I know will happen the girl in that bag. It must be a girl, they are too small to be much older than ten. And even a ten year old will count out here.

We do not attack as the man gets closer, as much as I want to. The others want to know what it is that he has with him. Or at least they all want a go at it. The problem now is that they will all expect the same of me.

I should be old enough and I cannot make any kinds of excuses. I will not eat all I caught and they all know it. I have no reason to decline what he will offer but I want to none the less. I just need a reason to before he gets here.

But it is too late, he is here.

He smiles at us like any salesman would, and I have seen it before, just not for two years, since before, when I could still say I was too young. "Before you start on me," he says, knowing that is what we are likely to do, kill him and take what he has.

I don't know why, but if he is selling something we are less likely to kill him. It is like a universal rule, do not kill the merchants. "Let me show you what I found," he says. And with a flourish he brings the bag in front of him and pulls from it a small girl.

But she is not young like I thought, she is just small. She is small and she is different. She isn't from the wasteland, she is from the city. I have never seen a person from the city, but I know from someone who used to travel with us that that is what they look like. They look like the girl the merchant is holding up.

She is tied up and seems to have been, until recently, bleeding from the scalp. Like she was struck there, and she probably was. She blinks at us, blinded by her sudden emergence from the bag in which she had been held.

She is small and that is what I notice first. She is the size of a ten year old, barely even five foot five. The second thing that stands out is that she has bright hair, not dark like the rest of us, almost sand coloured hair. Then are the eyes, not dark like our own, but blue like the sky, and dilated to pin pricks despite the fading light.

But the strangest thing is the skin. She has white skin, she almost shines in the light of the sun. She has light skin like we have dark, like she has never seen the sun in her life. And maybe she hasn't, maybe there is no sun in the city, maybe there is no light.

But what I notice about her is that she is cute. She is cute like the one child I have ever seen in my life was. But she isn't a child, she is probably my age.

The salesman cuts into my almost fixated staring. "Only two each," he says.

We know two of what. I want to just because she is cute, but I know that if I do I will be expected to do something and once I take my pants off I will be discovered and that doesn't bode well for me. There are six of them now, against one of me. And maybe the girl too.

We all set up our racks and everyone eagerly relinquishes the two to the salesman. Even the big one, who wanted more. They all look at me now, and I know what they are thinking before any of them say it. "You are old enough now," the big guy says. "Give him the two and become a man."

I get the impression that the girl has no idea what any of us are saying.

I don't want to do it, in fact just the idea makes me nauseous. But an idea forms as I relinquish the two regardless. I could save her. Somehow the idea takes root instead of being dismissed as insane, and fairly stupid.

I want to save her, because I really do know what happens to women in the wasteland. And it is not something that I will allow to happen if I have the power to stop it. I have the power to stop it now. So I feel that I must.

I take a deep breath and try not to look nervous, or more nervous. Everyone else thinks I am nervous about the idea of having sex for the first time and I am okay with them thinking that. But I do think that sex is too nice a word for it.

The big guy goes first and everyone stands around, as we tend to when something like this happens. Or they tend to. I tend to go and be sick somewhere. I do not do that this time. The salesman lies her down on the ground and unties her legs, not her arms. The big guy immediately pulls down his pants and pulls her closer.

She screams, because there is nothing else she can do now. It has gone too far for her to even try something. I feel sorry for her now, having to live with the fear that she is out of options for even a minute.

He pulls her legs apart and she screams and thrashes, but she can do nothing, she is too small. I take another deep breath and let it out through my teeth. Everyone is staring at the two of them on the ground and no one looks at me.

I pull out my skinning knife and step forward. Before he has a chance to do anything I slide it across his throat and he gurgles and his blood pours all over the girl on the ground. She screams louder, trying to get out from under his now limp body.

Everyone looks at me for a moment too long. I drop the knife in my hand and pull the gun out and shoot the four other people who I have been traveling with. It is loud, really damn loud, but the recoil in my hand is less than I was expecting. The four fall dead and the salesman pulls out a knife of his own.

I drop the gun and pull my killing knife. As he lunges at me I move out of the way and jam it between his ribs where his heart is. He stills immediately, his mouth gaping at me in death, and he falls on his back, ruining all the food we gave him.

I move over to the girl, who is still trying to get out from under the dead body. I shift the man and pick her up. She screams again, but I just turn her around and cut the binding on her hands. She looks at me wide eyed and I have no idea what to do now.

Everyone has their racks set up so I guess we still have enough food for two, or even four. I don't know how much she eats though. I consider retrieving my skinning knife from the sand where I dropped it, but I don't want to clean it. The girl just sits still and stares at me.

I go through everyone's packs and get what I want from them. The big guy has a better skinning knife than I so I take it. It occurs to me that the girl will need her own equipment as well. So I empty one of the spare bags and get the smallest knifes I can find, and a blanket.

I hand the pack to the girl and she takes it, but just keeps staring at me.

"Are you alright?" I ask her, trying to sound soothing, or at least concerned, but she stares blankly, no idea what I said at all. I think she is in shock or something. I pull the blanket out of the pack I gave her and wrap her in it.

She glances at it but keeps staring at me, wide eyes.

I cannot believe I just did that, killed them all, left myself and this girl all alone in the wasteland, she cannot hunt, she stands out more than we do. She is too small to be of any use, too small to keep up, too pale to survive.

So I guess I need to take her to the city.

The sun has set and it is starting to cool. I pull one of the dead animals from my stand and offer it to her. She stares at it for a moment before freeing her hands and taking it from me. I turn away pull another one from my rack.

She looks down at it and then up at me and asks me something. But I can no more understand her than she can me, so all I can do is start eating and assume that that is what she was asking me about. I just tear the flesh off with my teeth and make sure not to waste any of the blood.

She watches me, then looks down at her own food and tentatively takes a bite.

She doesn't enjoy it but at least she doesn't throw it away.

She takes a deep breath and continues to eat. She starts shaking, her whole body shaking like she is cold, but it isn't that cold yet. I look closer and see that she is crying, great sobs between bites of the animal she holds.

I guess I would be crying too.