Aftermath – Chapter 6

A short story set in a near future – Internet and our societies have fallen and the law of the jungle prevails…

This article is also available on Medium.

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 6— Anna

I wake up in a white steam — my head is lost in clouds. As my eyes focus, I discover it is actually a neon light on the ceiling just above me. It clicks and dies from time to time, then comes back to life again. I am hypnotized by the light. Off, and on, blink, and on, and off, blink, and on. Where am I? The last thing I remember is the bus jumping into the air and fire blasting me meters away. I start moving in the squeaky bed but this mostly results in huge pain through my entire body. There is nothing to see, anyway — the cement walls are white and rough, the ceiling is dirty and cobwebbed, this greenish cover I am wrapped in has had better days. Except for that music… Mozart, again. My mind tries to regain clarity; what is it beside me, on the chair? The shade looks up and speaks.

  • You’re up. No, don’t move or talk yet. You…
  • What’s this place? Who are you?

Ironically enough, I have never been a fan of following orders. The music drops notes regularly, pecking my brain like a little bird — I do not like being passive, useless, taken care of. Time to move, Anna. Sitting up in the cold sheets, pushing the green thing away, standing up. The nice chain of actions breaks in the middle when a flash burns my brain.

  • You should rest.

It is a young boy. A Japanese fellow, about sixteen or so, with kind eyes and a faint smile. Maybe if I look away too long, it will disappear. Let’s try, Anna. Turn right. A white wall with some lonely nails that may have held posters. Turn left. This is a round room that inspires bad feelings. I have seen many military bunkers in my days, but this one is different. Because of the drunk laying on the broken couch, of the girl playing the piano, of the ball of hair roughly human-shaped buzzing and rattling around a motor? All of that, probably. I go back to the boy. No more smile.

  • We’re running short on food and material for the kid. Last expedition was fruitless, plus the mobile market is away this time of year.

This mess of words enters my brain before I have really awaken. It makes a cloud of sounds, a carpet of images. Focus, Anna. I slowly break it down into small pieces to get back to life. One at a time, that’s a word, then another. Who is talking? A man, a sweet voice. He was in the jeep before, I vaguely remember him whispering over the deafening engine and the rocky road bumps.

  • She’ll wait. The priority is not wires, right now. We need medical supplies. The old dude doesn’t complain much, but he’s been hit hard by the sun before we arrived. And your lady has supposedly moved yesterday, but this is according to a lunatic twin, so what do I know. She looks in bad shape to me, she’d better get a shot of something. So we got to go in town, both of us, if we want the dealer to even consider.
  • Yeah, but…
  • It’s been four days, Rick.

Not as sweet. This second one, he is a big mouth, he speaks loudly and craves the attention. I imagine he is good-looking. Some scraps of sentences come back from my lucid fever moments in the car — he must be the actor… Alan? Adam?

  • Look, man, I know you don’t want to leave her alone. But at this point you’re doing her more harm than good. Plus, what do you fear can happen to her here? We’re all among friends, yes?
  • Sure…

The loud voice again.

  • All right, kid, hit me!

Big laugh, it rolls around the ceiling down to my bed. There is a beer clicking.

  • Now, that’s how you play poker!

The world has ended and he is playing poker. Great. I try to focus on the slight shuffles, the card sweep on the table, the breathing of the men. Cardboard on metal. Crying chairs about to die of exhaustion. This bunker is filled with gathered furniture and desert junk. The loud one is with an older guy. Maybe the one I remember from the car? Focus, Anna, you can do this. I used to play blind poker. Guess the cards, listen to the players’ reactions. Gasping — very faint sound, the old man did not hear: this is a big card. Another gasp, broken respiration. That goes out. Two face cards, one small. Nothing in his hand. What about the opponent? The shaky fingers lift up the cards. Complete silence. He is good, he hides everything. Except for the tapping on the chair with his shoe. He is looking for something to complete his hand.

  • Sure you want to keep on playing, old-timer?

Nice bluff. A quick laugh rips my ribs apart. I groan. Some movement next to me makes me open my eyes suddenly — I was so in the game I did not even realize there was someone sitting so close to me. My vision zooms on the person on the chair. It is not the boy anymore, but she is Japanese too. Her sister maybe? I see some common features with him. And there is this music; is this Mozart tune ever going to stop? My arms are weak, I fall back on the bed heavily. The girl does not pretend to help me. She is staring at me, no blinking, no emotion, a neutral face that is quite scary.

  • Hi there.

I tried a nice tone, not my forte but it was pretty good, I think. No answer. She does not look entirely human, actually. Her lids are not moving, her lips are sealed in a terrifying half smile, her hands are perfectly parallel on her lap. My tired brain dims out while I wonder about these confidential projects I read about… androids who are so human-like people could be fooled. Could it be? A blurry shade comes to us.

  • Here you go, Aiko, some tea like you asked… shit, you’re awake?

The girl takes the cup in silence as the man rushes to me. He was the one in the jeep, the sweet voice. Rick. He clearly has no idea how to react.

  • How are you?

He has raised his hands a little, like he is trying to tame a dangerous beast. Smile, Anna, it will calm things down. The man seems to relax a bit. He reaches out to help me sit up. I point at the girl huddled up on herself in the armchair with the steaming mug.

  • Better. But your friend is not very talky.
  • I’m sorry, Aiko is not… well, people aren’t exactly her strong suit.
  • Is that right?

I was wrong before, there is definitely too much sarcasm in her voice for her to be an android. But she’s so cold and distant… Rick suddenly coughs when the arm of the other man falls on his shoulder.

  • Hey, darling. Feeling alright?

This I did get right: big mouth is a playboy. Perfect face, deep eyes, nice nose, well-cooked tan. Yet a smell of alcohol comes to me as he gets near. I have got to rant, I cannot help it now.

  • Better than you, obviously. You’re quite far from this full house, with only a seven and a queen, am I right?

I enjoy the small amazed silence, I am a little child with a really good cherry lollipop. Rick looks back at the man, a ghost of a smile on his lips; playboy glances at his cards, then at me again. He shows me a set of starry white teeth with happy eyes.

  • I’d offer you to join in, but it seems to be quite a risk. What do you say, Prof? Care to lose properly to this young lady?
  • Well, child, maybe it is not the right time to…

The man jumps around the room like a proud lion. He’s here one second, over there the next. The girl — Aiko, is that it? — has closed her eyes and sighs deeply, the old man nervously watches the scene, the Japanese boy I saw earlier has stopped playing with the deck of cards.

  • You’re good, miss. You’ve just woken up and already you’re stealing the spotlight. Look at her, she’s missing the attention.

I follow the slight movement of the chin. Aiko is looking at him with a creepy frown, the kind that puts small ice shards in your bones. Mozart gets insistent, behind me. Like the blond girl at the piano is trying to ease the atmosphere. But the man does not care — actually, that appears to be his main attribute: swaggering and joking around, no matter what the others say.

  • See, now, that’s normally her thing. The whole ‘getting sick, feeling weird’ stuff, us gathering around her on the couch… so now we’re looking after you, she’s taking it pretty hard.
  • Take it easy.
  • Come on, Rick, we both know she’s mostly showing off.
  • Alright, that’s enough drinking for tonight.

The man has taken a step towards us, he quietly grabs the beer in the playboy’s hand to throw it on his left — not one look to the pile of cans and glass it lands on, he knows exactly where it is. Force of habit? Ichirō then goes to his sister and sits on the floor next to the chair. The girl is staring at the cement wall in my back, holding the cup of tea so tight it is shaking. Somewhere in the back of my head, an alarm goes off. The situation could get ugly very soon. He is obviously drunk, everyone knows that, still I am the outsider to this group. If even a tiny part of their unconscious assumes he is saying the truth, I sure do not look good. Take a sorry voice, Anna, get back in the bed, weak arms around your knees. Some tears, just to be sure. Act the part, at least for now. You will make up a real excuse later.

  • I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…
  • Shhh, sweetie, this is not your fault. Don’t get all teary. You’re tired, that’s it.

The man puts a comforting hand on my shoulder — or is it sweaty and shivering? For a brief moment, I think I see something else in his face, something more than just red chiseled cheekbones and bags under charming eyes. Perhaps I am imagining things — my brain is not completely back to full speed yet –, but I feel bad for messing with their feelings. I take a long breath to calm my mind. Aiko’s black look is fixed on him; isn’t she slowly burning a hole through his neck with those eyes?

  • We’ll get you a better tale teller for tonight, promise. She’s lousy, it’s true.
  • Adam, enough already! Let her breathe and apologize to Aiko.

Rick’s voice is soft but in the same time so powerful you have to obey. He is holding up his exasperation. Clearly, the man’s behavior, though unbearable, is quite usual. Over there, the old man is lost and worried, he does not know what to do. Adam lets go of me, turns back to Rick, and his hands clap loudly on his shoulders as he pats him strongly. Something in the playboy’s wide smile has changed, however.

  • Look at Rickie, going daddy on me. Such a grown up.
  • Guess I have to, since you’re playing the moron teen.

The man holds his hand to his heart in an exaggerated theatrical way.

  • I’m truly hurt, honey.
  • Apologize, you dick. Now.

The white teeth reappear in a large grin. Adam hugs his poor hostage before taking a step back, checking for balance, burping and finally bending to his knees in direction of the girl, his hands joined in a sort of praying pose.

  • The humble worm I am asks you grand Aiko to accept its sincere apologies. May I repent for my sin by offering another cup of the miraculous beverage we reserve for our goddess!

A cold silence falls upon us as the piano suddenly stops. There is just this one deep note frozen in the air, the soundtrack to this cowboy duel between a drunk actor and a crazy robotic woman. The smile that lights her face in this instant is the most frightening thing I have ever seen.

  • Be careful, Adam. Goddesses have a strange habit of blowing up fuses when they get annoyed.
  • Oh, appease thy fury, I beg of you!

Rick shoves off the man strongly while he starts laughing nervously. Anger is beginning to show in his voice, now.

  • Shut it. You’re being an asshole.
  • I know, man…

Adam leans on him and giggles for a while. Right now, time seems to slow down. No one moves in the bunker, thoughts are still, eyes are locked — we are all waiting for the explosion. The smile falls, it turns into a sad mask.

  • But trust me, dickhead me is the funniest me you’ll get.

As he staggers away, back to the kitchen and the beers, I wonder if it is my fault. I should come clean, tell them I am okay and they can resume their lives. I would actually prefer not to have anyone watching over me, I am a big girl and kind of a lone wolf. Rick and the old man are watching him with worried looks. The Japanese girl is hiding her eyes in the tea mug. I notice the piano is running again. Then why, Anna, are you feeling someone’s look on you?

For the first time, I find myself faced with a mystery: young Japanese boy is blank noise. I see nothing on him, I cannot deduce anything. These two black holes staring at me are sucking out life itself. Behind me, Mozart is filled with questions and defiance. An uncontrollable shiver runs through my body. Relax, Anna. Breathe and relax. No, these dark ashes rolling from his eyes are in your imagination, this fire in his gaze too. These arpeggios must be normal, though I do not recall the music sheet… they are not accusing you of anything, Anna, it cannot be. After years of practice, I am good at pretending. They do not know it is just a role. Right? Better to stay in character for now, anyhow. Put your lamb face back on, Anna, before the others look again. They are nice people, they have to be. After all, they saved two strangers in the middle of nowhere, they could have left us to die…

Yet there is still this bomb tick in my brain. Maybe I have started a game that will be hard to play? Hopefully, I will turn it around soon enough.

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