Nothing lasts forever, not even the human race. (~2373 words.) Nominee. 2020 Quill Awards.
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Redbank Creek, Esk, Australia.
The year was 2103, and the extinction of all living creatures was well underway. It wasn’t zombiism or viruses killing off humanity. There were straightforward cures for those conditions. It was something far simpler, far more brutal, and far crueller.
It was all sadly unfortunate really. Although, it had its upside in a demented kind of way. Mother Earth was cleansing herself of pollutants, toxins, and poisons, and she was doing that out of utter depletion. Just by sheer chance—or call it whatever you like—she was purging her very soul of the deadliest poison of them all.
The human race itself.
Michael Haze took a deep breath of pristine, crisp air and eyed a wisp of a woman through the sights of his compound bow. She took off her shirt slowly by the clear mountain stream, blissfully unaware of his presence.
Or so he thought.
She was grossly undernourished, almost completely skin and bone. Certainly not an ounce of precious fat. She knelt in the water and pounded her wet shirt on a flat, partly submerged rock in the creek bed, peasant style, and as she raised her arms, Michael caught a glimpse of a holographic tattoo on her left wrist.
Six-six-six: the mark of the beast.
The final desperate act of the One World Government, before it crumbled into oblivion, was to mark and infect all emergency service, defence force, and law enforcement personnel with Virus-xp98, rendering their flesh bitter and inedible, believing it would protect them from the starving, revolting population of the world.
The plan worked most of the time.
The muscles in his arms and back were burning, and he exhaled slowly and unloaded the bow.
“Your left wrist.” A quiet voice came from behind him. “Nice and slow.”
Michael turned around deliberately: super slow. It was a similar looking woman holding a spear with wickedly huge cutting edges a foot long, probably forged from a rusty car spring, and it was aimed at his chest. He looked at her dark eyes and slowly pulled up the left-hand sleeve of his coat, revealing his own mark of the beast.
“Shit,” she said. The frustration was clear in her voice. “Another inedible.”
“How many have you seen recently?”
She lowered the spear. “Are you alone?”
“Do you often use your sister for bait?” he said.
“What were you?” She took a weary pace towards him, spear still half-ready. “A copper?”
“Something like that,” he said. “What about you two?”
“Well, it looks like hunger is on the menu again,” he said. “I’m just sorry I don’t have the ingredients for the sauce.”
A dishevelled, skinny man came into view on the far bank of the creek, behind the woman washing her shirt, brandishing a rudimentary spear of his own. His throwing arm was cocked, left foot forward, weight on the right leg, poised to lunge forward and launch the spear at her back. She reached into the water in front of her, turned her body, and a sword hurtled from her hand.
It was polished and glinted bright in the dappled sunlight as it flew.
The sword impaled him through the chest, slightly left of centre; he screamed and fell to the ground on his back, dropping the spear.
“And now we have two spears,” the woman in the creek said, putting on her wet shirt quickly. She splashed through the shallow water towards the dying man, knelt beside him, and examined his left wrist.
“Dammit,” she said, “another one.”
She stood and put a foot on his chest, withdrawing the sword, wiping it clean on his tattered clothing, examining it for chips.
Michael turned to the woman beside him. “Navy, eh?”
“We can take care of ourselves,” she said. “My name is—”
“I don’t care what your name is, Navy.” He turned his back and walked.
“Wait.” She took a step to follow. “You look... you’re in good condition.”
He stopped and looked over his shoulder at her. “And I intend to stay that way.”
“You have food?”
He said nothing.
He strode towards the undergrowth. It closed around him and he was gone.
“Quick, Leena,” Navy said to her sister. “We must follow.”
An hour later.
Michael walked along the path cautiously, stopping occasionally to listen and scan the vegetation all around him. The old track meandered lazily in a southerly direction towards Mount Mulgowie, overgrown in places with knee-high, green grass and small shrubs.
He stopped again, head tilted, ears straining.
“Don’t follow me,” he said quietly.
The two women stepped onto the path some fifteen paces behind him.
“We just want to be friends.”
“Friends make you slow,” he said. “Friendly will get you killed.”
“We saw a cat yesterday,” Navy said, suddenly glancing at her sister. “Well, Leena did anyway. It was ginger and white and fat.”
Michael laughed softly. “Leena needs to stay away from the mushrooms.” The smile died on his face. “Cats have been extinct for over three years now, along with everything else that was edible, and—just for arguments sake—tell me what this imaginary, fat cat of yours would eat? There are no birds, lizards, or even grasshoppers—all eaten: all extinct.”
He strode forwards and the women followed. They stopped when he stopped. They listened when he listened, but still they followed.
In the distance ahead, Mount Mulgowie was visible: a lush, green, silent mountain. It’s flat-top summit hidden by misty white clouds. Millions of years ago it was an active volcano, and the eruption that vaporised the top third must have been truly terrifying.
Michael glanced over his shoulder at the women. They were tiring; they’d fallen behind. The late afternoon shadows, cast by the trunks of the surrounding gumtrees, were long and straight. The air had a cool crispness heralding a long wintry night.
He shrugged off his backpack, grabbing a small folding shovel from it, and dug into the rich brown soil. He’d finished the fire pit as the women arrived, collapsing to the ground on their backs, exhausted, grateful for a rest. He threw a handful of leaflitter and twigs into the bottom of the hole and lit them with a Zippo lighter.
The flames crackled. He added more twigs. The women stared at him in awe.
“A lighter?” Navy said in wonder.
He glanced up but said nothing.
The night crept in quickly. It was cold now. The three of them huddled in stillness around the warmth of the small fire. Leena had her knees drawn up to her chest, hugging them, sobbing quietly, flamelight dancing on her grubby face.
“Will you help us, Mister?” she said, without looking at Michael.
“Help you how?”
“Help us end this misery.” She turned her head and looked him in the eye. “You could kill us both, quick and easy.”
She had captivating eyes, almost black in the firelight, matching her scruffy dark hair. Michael imagined she would have been a beautiful, elegant woman, alongside her sister, with everything to live for before the famine started. Before the madness started.
He tore his gaze away and stared into the flames.
“We’ve tried to end it ourselves,” Navy said. “But we don’t have the courage. This isn’t living.”
“Not my problem,” he said.
He opened his backpack, fishing around inside, and pulled out a rusty rectangular can. The women sat very still, staring at the can in his hand. He gave it to Navy. “Corned beef, I think.”
Then he produced a rusty teaspoon handing it to Leena across the fire. “Eat it slow so you don’t get sick.”
Leena wiped her tears away and watched her sister open the can. Navy brought it up to her face and took a long sniff, closing her eyes, “Oh my God. It smells heavenly. It reminds me...”
Her voice trailed away. Her eyes turned to Michael. She watched him curl up on his side using the backpack as a lumpy pillow.
“What do we have to do in return?” she asked.
A twig fizzed and popped in the fire, sending glowing red sparks skywards.
“Try shutting up,” he said and closed his eyes.
The following morning.
The women were in good spirits. The food and rest had them smiling, brought a little rosiness to their cheeks, and they now walked beside him, keeping up with ease.
“They say there’s a farm around here somewhere,” Navy said to Michael.
He rolled his eyes. “Who’s they?”
“Oh, you know... people we’ve met.”
“People exaggerate,” he said, looking upwards. Mount Mulgowie was close now. It was a bright, clear day and its flat-topped summit was clearly visible. “People lie.”
“Look who’s woken up on the wrong side of the fire,” Leena said with a laugh.
“Let’s call him Grumpy,” Navy said. “He won’t tell us his name so—”
“Shush,” he said and stopped walking.
“Did you just—?”
“Drop the weapons! Hands in the air!” A tall man in camouflage fatigues stepped onto the track in front of them, assault rifle at his shoulder.
Michael put his bow on the ground carefully. Navy dropped her spears, and Leena placed her sword on the ground in front of her. They all held their hands high. Michael looked over his shoulder. Four men, dressed the same, appeared behind them, all sporting rifles.
“State your business,” the leader said.
“We’re looking for food.” Michael glanced at Navy. “Happy to work for it.”
The leader eyed them up and down. “Frisk them.”
One of the soldiers slung his rifle and patted them down, taking Michael’s pocketknife, and searching his backpack quickly. The leader turned and walked; the other men used their rifle barrels to prod the trio forward. The track ahead rose and meandered from side-to-side; the ground grew rocky; they left the tree line behind, waist-high grass and shrubs surrounded them.
It was the smell that stopped Michael dead. The smell, carried by the gentle breath of the breeze, halted him. Memories flooded his mind, brought tears to his eyes. Good memories. Gentle memories of how things once were. Wonderful memories of food shared with his gorgeous wife and daughter, before they were taken away from him by cannibals.
The smell of cooking food.
The soldier behind him prodded him roughly, and he stumbled forward, ran a few steps regaining his stride, catching up with the women.
Navy sniffed the air, eyed him sideways, as they walked shoulder to shoulder. “Told you.”
Michael said nothing.
Up ahead a dark hole came into view in the slope of the mountain. A lava tunnel, millions of years old. More armed soldiers guarded the entrance, saluting the leader of the scouting party. He stopped and turned towards the trio. “Follow this man,” he said, pointing to one of the guards. “You will get cleaned up. You will be given plenty of food.”
The trio strode forward behind the guard.
“Not you,” the leader said pointing at Michael.
The women walked on following the guard and disappeared in the dim tunnel.
The leader stood in silence looking at Michael. It seemed like a long time. He smiled and said, “The Inspector wants to see you. Give him his weapons back.”
Michael pocketed his folding knife, shouldered the backpack, and took his bow from the soldier.
Then he hit him.
Right between the eyes. The soldier hit the ground hard, on his back, unconscious.
“When he wakes up,” Michael said to the leader, “tell him that was for jabbing me in the back with his rifle.”
He walked into the tunnel alone and slowed his pace, allowing his eyes to become accustomed to the gloom. He could see a bright, elevated, sunlit exit at the far end. He walked towards it, increasing his stride, and stepped into the sunshine shielding his eyes with a hand.
The scene before him was surreal. A fertile green valley with a blue lake in the middle. The crater of the long extinct volcano had gently sloping sides. On the far side of the lake, rows of bright yellow crops grew. Dandelions in flower. Thousands of them. Loaded with vitamins and minerals. Once they were lawn weeds, ruthlessly dug out or sprayed with herbicide. Now, they were cultivated and treasured. The last viable, edible, herb.
There were only two buildings, both made of logs. One squat and square, the other much larger and longer, a communal building with several cooking fires out front. The path split, and he took the branch that led towards the small building.
There were four large cages beside the trodden track, with palm-frond thatched roofs, and he stopped and peered inside. The first two held human bodies. Hundreds of rats feasted upon the flesh. Healthy looking rats with glistening fur: well fed. He noticed the mark of the beast on a partially consumed wrist. The rodents didn’t mind the bitter flesh.
The third and fourth cage housed sleeping cats. Fat, lazy, and lethargic cats, all of them ginger and white. In the corners of these cages, rats massed together in terror, for sooner or later the cats would wake up and eat again.
There was a cooking fire in front of the small building. A man in camouflage fatigues sat on a stool basting a cat on a spit.
He looked up. “Hello, Michael.”
“Did you find any seeds or plants on your journey?”
“Sorry to hear that. I’ve inspected your captures.” He dipped a brush into a tray of cat fat, coating the roast with long strokes. “Not much meat on them. How’s ten cans sound?”
“Each,” Michael said, “they’re getting harder and harder to find.”
“Fifteen, for both. And a big handful of dandelions.”
Michael paused thinking, What’s going to happen when the tins of corned beef run out?
“Done,” he said.
No more than a hundred paces away, on the porch of the communal building stood the women. They looked cleaner, happier, smiling broadly, waving at him.
Leena’s words echoed in his mind, You could kill us both, quick and easy.
I already have, he thought, swallowing the lump in his throat. You just don’t know it yet.