A short story set in a near future – Internet and our societies have fallen and the law of the jungle prevails…
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2063. After the Event, communities have reformed — while the majority of the population has regrouped in a handful of megacities under lockdown, the rest are scattered across the globe and fighting for their survival. This is the story of seven survivors stuck in a bunker, in the Middle East…
Chapter 2 — Anna
- Mornin’, madam.
The thin man is way too polite for me. Be it his patronizing smile, his military clothes or his well cared-for mustache, there is something in him that makes me distrustful. As he sits besides me on the bench, I squeeze against the window and try to occupy as less space as possible. How do I manage to get in so much trouble so fast? There are still dozens of miles to the next town, and now I am stuck at the back of an overcrowded bus with screaming children and desperate soldiers. The perfect recipe for an explosive cocktail. I should have known the minute they got in… why did their bus have to go and get blown up by a damn landmine? I do not like having those savage eyes fixed on my neck but I am more frightened by his gun. Should I move? Or stay still, pretend to be dead? The road is bumpy, dusty, and infinite, it seems. Why did I get on? After a lifetime of experience, I should remember not to go through with my hasty decisions. They always lead to something bad. Always.
I squeeze a little more. His fingers are tapping nervously on his leg as he throws quick looks at me. Suddenly, high-pitched voices burst near us over the hiss of the closing doors. I cannot help but look up at the noise. Brothers, sisters, mother, father, a big family coming our way, stretching between the seats and moving loudly. They are a few steps from us when the man stands up, takes his gun out and points it at them.
- Don’t come any closer, you damn Needies.
A few people turn back to watch the scene, although nobody even pretends to get involved. Rows of silent witnesses, waiting for the highlight of their day. And what a highlight it is. Shooting down a bunch of homeless people calls for cheers now. The bus driver appears in the rear-view mirror from time to time, but he’s probably just checking that no bullet damages his property. That is one of the drawbacks of having your bus celebrate its twentieth birthday and display its patched up fuel tank to every one. Disgust comes to me in the form of a bitter taste and jelly legs. My instinct is to get up, to fight for these poor men and women, but my instinct usually does not bring me anything good. Am I allowed to be selfish? In this brave new world, with its new rules and authorities, is self-preservation still a fault? Every day is about survival. The family has not moved, they are frozen in fear; the eight of them seem to scale down to a small shivering thing covered in pairs of wide-opened eyes and little arms. The soldier has a sadistic smile and caresses his mustache.
- I’ve got some bad news for you. You got on the wrong bus.
- Please, sir, we do not mean any offense! Have mercy, please, sir!
The father’s r’s are way too rolled for his sake. Soldiers have small minds with thick borders — the kind of boundaries that do not recognize English spoken with an accent as a proper mean of communication. They have been trained to despise the ones who have lost everything — Needies, as they call them.
- Is that so? Well, just being on the same bus as me is an offense! Get off!
Some slowly turn to the doors as they open. The driver is hidden in his cabin at the front. The father looks out and down, with tears on his face.
- But, sir, the bus is still moving. I have children, sir.
- This is a pity, isn’t it? Alright, then.
When the soldier grabs the little girl, I find myself in front of his gun without knowing how I got there. The man grins at me and pulls the child away from her mother. Crying, screaming, praying: the spectators have a great show and they are happy. I can see some cameras and phones around, filming everything so they can watch it again sometime.
- Let her go.
It has been days since I have not spoken. My voice is rusty and each word scratches my throat.
- Or what?
- Trust me, you don’t want to know.
The man slowly looks down at the knife I hold to his guts. His smile turns into an angry mask, with frowning and teeth glued to his face. I can hear the squeaking of leather boots as he takes a step back. The small shoes tumble down the alley back to the mother with a cry. But there is also this heavy pace, big boots on the metal floor of this wheeled cage, and a fuss as the rest of the squad rushes to us. Another bad decision, for a change…
- What’ve we got here? A Needy-lover, hey?
A big sergeant labeled Boon who probably thinks words are only preliminaries to boxing puts his rifle against my head. This is a fine mess, with no way out. Grumpy soldiers, scared outcasts and an American moron in the center held at gunpoint. A distinct sensation of déjà vu. Take a deep breath, Anna. Do not look him in the eye, it would be a beginner’s mistake. Remember L.A..
- Hey, lady, I’m talking to you!
Sergeant Shout-and-Shoot brutally pushes me to the nearest empty bench. His Boon label flashes in front of me. The other men block the alley. Is it just me, or do they all have mustaches? This will not end well. I have to regain control. Yet the incessant blips of cameras recording distract me and the sun is burning my eyes, a giant disk in the blue sky that paints all stuff pale and gray. Focus, Anna. The big head of the smirky sergeant suddenly appears a few inches from mine with a halo of light all around it. Guess God knows a bit about irony.
- You see, babe, we aren’t too keen on girls playing tough. It makes for long journeys in such a small space, with tense atmosphere and all. So why don’t you apologize to my colleague, here, and let him do his job, and you mind your own business. Sounds good?
Keep calm, stay in control.
- I would like that very much, sir.
- Good, see, we’re all friends here. No hard feelings. Right, Johnny?
The first mustache acquiesces rapidly with a forced smile stuck on. He is a smart idiot, the worst type. I have spent years working on the yoga crap, the relaxation, the meditation. I have learned to manage the anger, even in hazardous situations. So why on Earth does my brain decide to snap right this moment?
- But the thing is, I am not comfortable with filthy places.
- Well, I understand that, madam. Johnny was taking care of it when you rudely interrupted him.
- No, I mean I wish you asshole would move away from my sun.
Up to this day, I had never seen a palette of reds quite like this. There are delicate tones of purple in his forehead, right above the ready-to-blow vein. And blue in his cheeks, and red in his nose. Maybe defying authority is my painkiller, seeing how I feel way better now? But so much for therapy, Rudolph is dumb. And so he shoots. The first thing I notice is my eardrum might have burst; the second is people are yelling.
- Shit! Sergeant, you… the bullet hit the fuel tank!
Mustaches shout and run everywhere while arms grab their clothes. Nightmare is coming, panic sweeps in. I can feel the bus is swerving, leaving the track. Stand up, Anna. My legs seem to hate me for it. As I make my way past the soldiers to the driver, I contemplate the desert around us. The road is already fading at the horizon. An endless sea of teary faces clenches to me as I reach out for the man.
- Get back on the road!
He does not hear me. Am I the only one truly awake?
- Listen to me, you’ve got to go back…
A strong arm slams me against the high windshield. The sergeant and his good manners are back, and they are currently gently crushing my cheekbone. His words are one furious whisper, no pause, no intonations, no breath.
- Well, babe, I’m a gentleman who’s nice with the ladies, but you are no lady, so I’m gonna have a blast dealing with you.
While this is probably for the best — it will at least take care of debts, revenge and many crappy things I was evading by coming here –, I cannot help but wonder: what other end could I have had? Murdered by an officer in the Middle East does have an adventurous flavor, still it lacks flair. Can my death be so disappointing compared to my life? The gun is cold on my spine. But perhaps it is because his hand is so hot on my hip?
- What’s this?
The sergeant suddenly takes a step back.
Mozart. Mozart is playing on the car radio. Not one soul for miles but still, the music jumps around the bus like an impossible demon. This cannot be. Something is not right, my bones are sure of it. The music scorches my tired head like white-hot spikes. The closer I get to the radio, the more distorted the sound; up to the point where it is barely white noise.
- Why did you turn this on?
The driver’s hands are shaky and wet, they slip on the steering wheel.
- I… I didn’t, madam.
- What, you have a ghost in your bus or something?
While I try to take a cynical tone, I do realize the fluctuations in my voice sort of conflict with the message. Militaries are closing up behind me. The rest of the passengers splash on the windows with worried eyes, everyone takes a spot to record the sandy flatland, hoping action or horror will occur.
- Please don’t joke about that, madam. Spirits ain’t a game here.
Some of the locals nod, the homeless people in the back mutter prayers and cover their ears. Somewhere in all the static, Mozart keeps on playing. It will drive me mad.
- How long until we arrive?
- It would have been three hours.
Conditional mood has this way of instantly suppressing hope. I take a look at the leaking tank in the back. The oil is filled with beautiful colors, it is a rainbow dipped in black waves. This is true, we cannot make it. Had I been a believer, a God person of sorts, I might have held my tongue. But I am just that stupid.
- Tell your spirits we’re on our merry way, then.
A bump in the road? An old landmine? Whatever we hit turns the bus over in a cinematic graceful movement. There is this small fraction of time where we are all mid-air, floating bodies, no strings attached. Fifty-seven bodies waiting to die, sharing for the first time in our lives a common thought: what if gravity did not return? Just this once, what if it took a break? Right now, there are no laws or roles anymore, we are all perfectly equal. The cameras in the front row and their blips, the little girl and her small shoes, sergeant Shout-and-Shoot and his stupid bullet, Johnny and his well cared-for mustache. We are peas in a frying pan dancing around one last time to Mozart. A voice in the back of my head keeps asking if I am the reason for this. I should have shut up, we would have enjoyed a few hours of twilight sun. The red circle would have fallen and splattered over the mountains before us in the most magnificent explosion — I saw it happen for the past three days, it felt as if an egg was cracked on the desert in the distance, as if we were in the omelette of a giant. But now? As I am inches away from my death?
Damn it, I still cannot believe in God.