1st Place WINNER in the Tales from the Dark Side contest - Man is an endangered species.
|Ivy's Journal - Entry #572 - September, 4 A.M.
History will later recount these times as possibly the most difficult ever faced, will call it the mass genocide of mankind. Man will be praised for perseverance and ultimate triumph over such overwhelming darkness, over extinction. "The greatness of humanity will always prevail," they will say. And "they" will be naive historians, protected by books and papers and years from the horror of the reality of these times. None of us who live this hell every day will be alive then to set the record straight. Triumph is not what we do here. Perseverance is nowhere around. What we do is survive, by any means necessary.
I am educated enough in the ways of death to accept that I likely will not see next year, much less next century and beyond into the rebuilding of real civilization, real society. Hell, I may not see even see tomorrow. But I am at peace with that. Death is a part of everything now, more than it ever was before, when we slept soundly at night and drank lattes during the day. Death is everywhere, and I am not exempt. None of us are. We will all die someday, and in these times it is waiting around every turn you make. Every last one of us. And "someday" is dangerously close.
Sunrise was fast approaching, and that was good because it meant that the last night-shift guarding the walls could get some much needed sleep. It had been a long uneventful watch, and cold enough to warrant the winter coats even though it was still only early October. The 12th, if her calendar was right - it probably wasn't. In the Eastern sky it was beginning to lighten from cobalt to grey to lavender, and she could tell that it was cloudy, which meant there would not be much sun today. Just one more hour to go and she could get some rest.
To pass the time, she turned her attention outward, as she should have been doing anyway. The location for this stronghold, her stronghold, was a good one, and had been carefully selected three years before to build on. It was situated on a wide, flat plain that made spotting something even a mile away an easy task from a perch on the twenty-foot walls. In about a quarter mile radius around the stronghold, called Mother by the soldiers, was a very thin forest that provided excellent cover for the occasional ground skirmish. The trees were young, thick in the middle but not very tall, spaced very widely apart. To the south, only a few hundred feet outside the wall there, a river cut through the plain and provided her regiment with all the water they needed. None of them had known, upon arriving here, which river this was, and it didn't matter. It was a beautiful place that she once would have admired and now was just another place where Death was waiting.
She was jaded and she knew it, but hardly anyone could muster optimism anymore. It was very easy to be a cynic when you saw violence almost every day, and you had killed so many times there was no use in counting. And since simply staying alive was so hard, why not take the path of least resistance when it came to state-of-mind? Life was not the same as before things went to hell, and even if somehow all of the Rots were eradicated or died off, the world would never be the same again. It didn't matter anymore that this was America. It was amazing, and sad, that in the wake of this all racism, prejudice, and bigotry had albeit disappeared completely. Now man had a united hatred of a common enemy that was devoid of ethnicity or stereotype. Death truly was the greatest equalizer. Nothing brings people together quite like an apocalypse.
Lovers still married, but the traditional process was obsolete and unrestricted. Babies were still born, but due to the lack of proper healthcare, harsh environment, stressful conditions, and poor nutrition only two out of five lived past infancy, on average. Most couples only tried a few times, if at all, because they knew the odds and would rather spare themselves the pain. Sleep was never sound and laughter never easy. It would have been the year 2034 if even time were the same. But nothing was the same. It was now 4 A.M. - In May it would be 5. Anno Mortem - 'Year of Death' ... 'After Man'.
The sun was almost completely free of the horizon, and it would not be much longer now. A lot of nights went by without incident, as did many days. She wasn't sure which way she preferred it. Sometimes she craved the action - that would have sounded insane about six years ago when the world was still normal, but now it made perfect twisted sense. The #1 Killer of mankind was the Rots, and close in the #2 spot was Suicide. This was due mostly to the fact that in order to survive you must be willing to inflict terrible violence on something that still looks remotely human, and most people could not cope with that, with the horror and blood, the isolation. For others, the idea that they would never eat at a McDonald's again or step foot inside a shopping mall at Christmas time was too much to bear. And those chose to escape. No one blamed them or judged them for that choice, and besides, anyone who wasn't strong and capable was a liability. The less of those people around the better.
Below, at the base of the only stair leading down into the stronghold from the wall, came the familiar sound of heavy bolts and locks sliding. The door there was once part of a nuclear fallout shelter - two feet of thick reinforced steel that wouldn't be penetrable to most attacks. It was to be closed and locked at all times and only two people were entrusted with the keys to minimize carelessness. Those two people were the Founder, and the Founder's Advisor. If one was outside on a shift the other was always inside with the keys, as a safety measure. If there was an attack that somehow broke the walls of Mother, that door was never to be opened... No matter who was left outside.
The sound of the locks coming free signaled the end of their shift. All along the wall she could hear the other seven Watchers stirring at the same auditory signal, and she knew who each one of them was without looking. As Founder that was a large part of her role and responsibilities, remembering each member of her force and what their skills, weaknesses, and strengths were. That way she could make snap decisions about who would be best suited to which task, and when someone died she would immediately know what sort of role needed to be filled. If a man who knew his way around machinery was killed, she needed to find a quick replacement with similar skills. This way her force remained balanced, strong, and able to deal with most situations - teamwork was the only way to live.
Standing up from her place on the cold wood, she stretched the numbness from her stiffened joints, hearing the crack and groan of protesting bone throughout her body. Most of the others were doing the same, a few already moving towards the top of the stairway where the Exchange would take place. They kept their backs to the stair and watched the perimeter with keen eyes, ready with the high -powered rifles each of them carried. Ivy, Founder and therefore expected to be the one to do so when she was out on shift, gave a shrill bird whistle that split the air. Instantly the door at the bottom of the stair swung open and the next shift came running out and upstairs. As each of them passed and was handed a rifle by one of the retiring Watchers, Ivy made a note of every name and face.
The last one up paused in front of her. Jordan was only slightly younger than her, which put him at about twenty four, but he was quiet and wise. Filled with thoughtfulness and compassion, the young man had seemed too gentle and soft to have lived through the End. Ivy thought that, anyway, until the day a routine scouting foray she had lead was ambushed by a particularly savvy pack of Rots, in the first few months of their time here. Jordan had transformed then into an instinctual, wild animal almost the instant the Rots came into sight. At one point his 9mm sidearm had been knocked away and he, without even the slightest fearful pause, snatched up a nearby rock and promptly crushed the faces of three more Rots. When it was all over, the young man was trembling and crying, covered in gore but unhurt. Around him lay twelve Rots, dead forever now, and of her five-man party not a single one was lost. Jordan had later confided in her that those were the first Rots he had seen up close since he watched a pack of them tear his mother, sister, and younger brother to minute pieces. Ivy had nodded her wordless understanding at this.
They all had stories.
Since that day Jordan was a valuable addition to her team whenever fighting broke out, but never failed to suffer an emotional breakdown afterward. This warranted that she keep an eye on him, but despite this moderate risk she could nigh afford to keep an able body banned from her team. They needed everyone they could get.
Now Jordan smiled in a small, slow way as she handed him the rifle she had used all night but had not fired once in that time. In his watery blue eyes was no trace of the mania that seized him during a fight, and that was reassuring, but there was a tension in his back and in his jaw that belied his smile. Ivy shrugged off the overcautious prickling up her spine, chiding herself silently for always seeking out the worst in people.
Giving him a solemn nod and a firm pat to his shoulder as she passed, she moved down the steep staircase. The heavy door was already admitting the others, all looking weary and ready to crash, but a few offered their leader smiles of good will. They all knew that Ivy rarely smiled, and never faked it, but it was evident that she cared deeply for everyone here - they were her people, and she was fiercely protective of them. So they did not expect her to smile back, but she always acknowledged them and served right alongside them, and that was all they needed. Each of them, the ones who fought and the ones who made the stronghold as much like a home as was possible by staying in, were equally loyal to her. What they had built together here was greatness out despairing nothingness. And while they credited her almost entirely with that, she gave herself none of it. Anyone else could just as easily have done what she had, and would be the Founder now instead of her.
Ivy had not really been an individual of great significance in her life before, and was not even that outstanding as a person. Her Advisor often told her that who she was and what she did before the End came meant absolutely shit. What mattered most in these times was their people having a strong, capable, fair, and trustworthy leader to place their faith in. It was incredibly necessary that those who were left alive have someone they were unafraid to follow, even into death - for that was often where they ended up. Good advice, she had to admit.
Her Advisor was not on guard shift yet and that meant that she could get a few hours of sleep. That was, of course, under the assumption that there was no activity outside the walls in that time - she was always up and out front for anything that happened. Ivy would never sit back and let her coalition do the dangerous work for her. She would never ask them to lay their lives on the line unless she was laying her own down right next to them. It made them less afraid when the inevitable violence came, to have their leader right there with them through all of it.
The whole thing was one great charade - she would pretend to be their fearless leader, and they would pretend that there was hope for mankind. Ivy would never contradict the dream; sometimes a lie was far more beautiful and useful than the truth. And when the truth was an ugly fact like approximately most of the world's population was either dead or worse-than-dead, a small lie like maybe this nightmare would end in their lifetime was everything but harmful. She would give her people the lie any day without regret. For herself, however, Ivy would always keep to the harshest of realities. It kept her grounded and focused, together - as long as she knew in her soul that only the present had meaning, she was free to fight in the moment with all she had.
Navigating the dark, frigid hallways that led to her quarters, Ivy was pleased to note that many of her crew were already stirring for the day. The tantalizing smell of warm food from the mess hall was almost more than she could resist, the fare of that amazing group of domestic soldiers who made it their business to ensure that every mouth was fed every day. But this morning the siren's song of a warm bed was just strong enough to overrule the call of breakfast.
She reached her room quickly, feeling somewhat guilty for using stealth to avoid contact with anyone, but it had been such a long night and all she wanted was to close her eyes for awhile. Ivy had complete faith, as she sank under the rough blankets still fully-clothed, that this place could run without her for a few hours. She had trained them as well as she could, knowing that she wouldn't always be lucky enough to return from the battlefield.
After a few minutes she drifted off.
A familiar, worrisome sound jolted Ivy awake from the fathoms of slumber, and she sat bolt upright. Fatigue dragged at her but she was perfectly alert, breath held as she waited to be certain that what she had heard was not in her dreams.
There, again, the sharp crack and echoing report of a gun being fired outside, and Ivy was out of the bed like a streak of lightning. She crossed the bare room in a few strides to the wall where she kept her weapons and snatched up a revolver that she knew was already loaded. Shoving that into her belt alongside a twelve inch bowie knife that never left her hip even in bed, Ivy was out the door and running towards the stairway, rushing wordlessly past everyone who lined the hallway in anxious tension.
She needed to get up to the wall as quickly as possible but there was only one way. How long had she been asleep? Ivy could not be certain until she saw the sky, and that would be among the least of her worries then.
After what somehow seemed an eternity she reached the heavy door that led up to the walls. There at guard were two very young men who she knew had only been with them a few months, aged sixteen and eighteen she believed. Both stood staring at her with wide eyes, clearly at a loss for what to do as the gunshots and shouting went on above them. But Ivy was a veteran, and action came as naturally to her as swimming came to sharks - movement meant survival, inaction meant death.
Reaching between them, Ivy grabbed up the shotgun that the elder of them held limply and promptly shoved him out of the way. Leaning the firearm against her hip she began to work the bolts and locks, keys flying and clanking. Her voice was brisk and sharp, but calm, as she addressed the older boy "Is the gun loaded?"
"Y-yes ma'am it is."
"Good. When I go up you will close this door behind me and lock it, then one of you will run and find the Advisor. And I mean RUN. He should be headed this way already. No matter what is going on up there, I will be sending someone down with news and orders from me for the Advisor. One of you stay here, do NOT leave this door unguarded!" The door was open then and she was out, shielding her eyes for a moment from the brilliant daylight spilling downwards, letting her eyes adjust from darkness to light. She let sound wash over her and invade her senses to try and tell her what was happening before she saw it. Behind her came the heavy metallic clang of the door closing.
Above, after the gunfire that had ripped the air, there was now a terrible silence. And... The faint sound of weeping? Ice seized her heart, flowed in her veins, raising the hairs on her arms as a sense of doom swept into her brain, instinct telling her what the rest of her refused to consider. Jordan. The sound was Jordan, weeping as he always did after an attack, but he was on the wall. Something was so very wrong. Paralysis had its claws in Ivy's legs, rooting her in place while she willed her screaming intuition to be false. Finally, with a surge of adrenaline like a runner with the finish line in sight, she tore herself back into motion and up the stairs. Nothing had prepared her for what she found.
Jordan on his knees and wracked with deep, anguished sobs. Ivy's eyes were drawn first to him, kneeling there among his comrades, but in only a second she saw the blood. So much blood, smearing the wall all around and pooling under the bodies of her fallen team, lifeless and empty shells now. They were all dead, except Jordan. Quiet young Jordan was crying and shaking, holding his red hands out in front of him, a discarded rifle laying in front of him as the corpses of his fellows lay around him like a gruesome wreath. Jordan is alive.
Truth hit Ivy like a freight train, exploding inside her head and igniting her fury, her horror at what he had done. How had she not known? How had she not seen it in his eyes when he had looked at her that morning? She had seen nothing, had not known that madness swam shallow in him, waiting to be freed. And it had been unleashed with a vengeance on her people, who had trusted her to keep them safe.Jordan killed them!
He looked up at her, face streaked with the blood of his brothers and sisters, eyes wide and wild, filled with despair and something much darker. Words tumbled out of his mouth and against each other in a stream of desperation that made little sense - not that it mattered, for nothing he said would save him from her now.
Ivy drew her revolver and, with the ease and surety of many years of practice, leveled it and squeezed the trigger, firing a round into his forehead with a roar shared between herself and the gun's report as it kicked in her hand. Wasting not a moment, Ivy shoved the handgun back under her belt and strode to where he had slumped. She roughly seized his body and hauled it up, muscles tightening with the heavy load but she could handle the weight, and more. She dumped him over the side of the wall, unceremoniously, for the Rots to have when they came, as they always did. For the others, the six who had fallen because of him, there would be burial and ceremony befitting them. Their names would be recorded and remembered, their loyalty and dedication honored. Then they would be replaced.
She was stoic as she descended the stairs again into shadow, beyond the reach of daylight, to break the news to her waiting people. Some would cry, some would shrug, some would shake their heads, some would claim they saw it coming. All of them would move on.
That was simply the nature of life now.
Ivy thought to herself how ironic it was that you could trust Death more than you could trust Humanity.
(word count: 3490 * includes hyphenated words)