A single teardrop draws a bright line down the old man’s dust-smeared cheek. Its slow passage further marks a face weathered by time and toil. This dystopia, this burning Earth, has claimed his kin. It seems that now, finally, it is his turn to die.
Baker coughs, his raw throat screaming for relief. He’s on his knees, this once proud man, and the tear he sheds is not born of the pain or the humiliation that he’s being subjected to. It is for his friends, the two young travellers who not so long ago accompanied him, the two who were killed instantly by the band of raiders who’d ambushed them.
The three friends had travelled together following a chance encounter, all of them in search of a safe place to call home, a place untouched by the apocalypse. Baker had given nothing away, simply told them he knew of a good spot and that they were welcome to join him.
During their journey, Baker’s eyes, still sharp even in his sixth decade of life, had spotted a gleam near a rocky outcrop in the distance. He’d yelled a warning as he dropped to the ground, but it had come too late to save his friends. He’d turned just in time to see the arrows pierce their frail bodies.
The leader of the motley bandit troupe kicks Baker in the head, laughing as the Wastelander collapses in the dirt. They’ve had their fun with him for today, and he awaits the killing blow from the sadist’s rusty sword. Instead he is dragged back to the cage, thrown inside like an animal, a plaything for his tormentors.
The following day they offer him dirty water, which he refuses even as a crushing thirst hurls insults at his obstinacy. He knows what they don’t, that the murky yellow liquid offers only a slow and painful death. They’ll find out soon enough. He takes what sustenance he can from the scraps he’s fed, whatever they may be.
The next day it rains and Baker thanks whatever cruel gods may have remained when the world began to sour. It hardly ever rains anymore, and when it does the water is foul with radiation. Still, it’s not nearly as deadly as the water pooling in puddles and shallow lakes. The heavens drench him and he laughs quietly, cupping the liquid in his hands. He tastes it tentatively. Acidity burns his lips but it’s not too bad, all in all. Perhaps the atmosphere is finally beginning to mend. He drinks, enduring the scalding pain, trying not to think too hard about whatever slow ulcers may be forming inside him. He knows he’ll suffer for it in years to come, but if he doesn’t drink anything then there will be no future at all.
On the third day all vestiges of the downpour have faded aside from ugly cracks in the parched, hard soil. The cage is opened and he’s dragged out again. And then the games begin.
There are five of them, these hard men, all of them in their prime, built for survival. Built for fighting. They’re all muscle and testosterone, filled with a dark rage, the result of too many years out in this dead world. They squabble constantly, boredom and sickness fuelling their anger and unrest. But now they have a plaything and so their focus shifts once more to the grizzled traveller.
The leader, the one carrying the rusty machete, looks down and grins. His teeth, what few remain, are black with rot. He cuts the frayed bits of rope binding the old man’s wrists.
‘Go on, Grandpa – run for it. Let’s have some fun.’
Baker can only look up despairingly, his bright eyes pleading.
The bandit laughs. ‘You’re all skin and bone,’ he observes, and then shakes his head. ‘Not much meat on you at all, but it’ll have to do.’ He turns and gestures to his band of rancid companions. ‘Come boys, let’s tenderise this pretty fellow one last time before we feast.’
As the brute turns back to face him, the old man lunges.
Staff Sergeant Carl Baker had been an elite special services veteran when the world was still a relatively sane place. Now he puts decades of training into effect, jumping impossibly high for a man of his advancing years and smashing his knee, hard, into the thug’s chest. Even as they both land in the dirt, Baker is moving again. He grabs the leader’s sword and lashes out, separating the bastard’s head from his shoulders. The four remaining men stare, confused, and that brief moment of doubt seals their fate.
In under a minute all five of Staff Sergeant Baker’s former tormentors are dead. He drops the sword and then collapses onto the blood-spattered ground. He gasps for breath, realising that if any one of the men had managed to last another few seconds, he too could have been lying among the corpses.
Baker slides sideways into the dust. His ragged exhalations move the fine grains of sand. He wonders whether the exertion will be the end of him, whether his heart will give up, before he falls into a fitful sleep.
The Wastelander stirs as the wind’s chill rattles him awake. He dons the bandit leader’s heavy woollen coat and lights a small fire, deciding he’ll move on once he has his strength back.
Long ago, a few years after the war had ended, his brother told him of a theory he’d had. Francis had been a biologist, the clever sibling. He’d always said there would be another war, a devastating one, and that man was destined to fail as a species, that intolerance and arrogance would be the end of us all. And he’d been right.
Francis had died from an accidental fall, something easily fixed in the old world with its hospitals and doctors and medicine, but fatal in this post-apocalyptic mess. But before the accident he’d told Carl that he’d been looking at the geographical patterns and topography of the region. He hypothesized that, at a specific point north of the crater that had been the nation’s capitol, they might find clean water. Or at least, as clean as could be expected. Carl had argued that the damage was already done, that even the bottled water they’d survived on for so long was probably contaminated. Francis had merely shrugged and asked what other options they had. And then he’d fallen down the damn stairs.
Carl had been heading toward the predicted springs, following Francis’s map, when the ambush had happened.
He plans to continue that quest. He hopes that the streams are exactly where his brother predicted, and if so that they’ll prove relatively uncontaminated.
He settles down for the night. He’ll be stronger tomorrow. Stronger still the day after that. Then he’ll head out. Water is still scarce for now, but he has the meat and that will have to do. He smiles, his dry lips stinging, as he remembers a life so long ago, a life when he was a vegetarian, when he walked for exercise, when drinkable water was everywhere. Ah, the things we took for granted. The things we thought would always be there for us. He hasn’t seen a vegetable in over two years. He’d sell his soul for a single bloody potato if he knew where to find one. Maybe there are plants growing on the banks of the stream. Or maybe he can find a way to make something grow.
For now though, he needs to stop daydreaming and eat. He has no idea what the bandits fed him, but it couldn’t be any worse than what’s roasting over his campfire right now.
After the meal he drags an old foam mattress beside the fire, laying a heap of dirty, tattered blankets across it. He lies back, covers himself, and stares up at the stars.
The universe is constant, he thinks as he identifies various constellations. It cares not for the whims of man, these tiny, insignificant beings who are arrogant enough to think they matter.
The old man drifts off, surrounded by the silence of a world destroyed by fools.
Martin was born and raised in South Africa, lived in America (briefly) and then England (less briefly), and now resides in France. He speaks almost no French, which is immensely useful. He has had numerous flash fiction pieces published – links available via his website – and is currently finalising the edits on his second crime fiction manuscript (no, the first one hasn’t yet seen the light of day – it lives in a dusty drawer, along with his dreams of fame and riches).