“You lying fuck. You said this was a safe neighbourhood.”
I risked a quick glance through the shattered windows of a looted car we had hid behind. A Peacekeeper Drone hovered in the centre of the dark quiet street. It cast a blue light into the depths of an alley opposite us, scanning for curfew breakers, Sharks and anyone infected with the plague.
“Keep your head down and you be jus fine,” Linford said. I was starting to distrust my guide. “Jim, my friend, don’t look so worried. Drone be gone in a short while. Then we be on our way. No problem.”
Peacekeeper Drones have been in operation since the war. They were supposed to protect the public and kill the infected but it seems their directives have been changed to include kill anyone on sight after curfew. No one takes much notice of them any more, well, until they kill innocent people that is. What were once considered an amazing leap in technology quickly became the norm. The drones blended in with the hum-drum of society in the same way every other new piece of tech had since the invention of the wheel.
It’s funny how easily the public were fooled into supporting such a radical move to bring law and order back to the chaos, only to find they were being ruled instead of protected. I don’t blame the government, I blame myself, just as everyone else in this shit hole of a country should.
The drone ended its scan and continued its patrol. Linford smiled at me and again I wondered how he could afford a mouth of gold teeth.
“Like I said. Drone gone. Come.”
I followed Linford into a nearby building. The majority of neighbourhoods beyond Zone 1 and 2 were little more than shanty towns, derelict buildings home to hungry people. I seldom ventured far from the city centre and rarely into the wastelands. I’ve a head full of bad memories and I wanted to avoid adding more to the chaos inside my skull. In years gone by they called it Post Traumatic Syndrome or War Psychosis, but those are just easy terms to pigeon-hole people who sought to cause trouble with their problems.
Personally I never protested against the government to make MET – Memory Erasement Therapy - available for everyone, not just the super rich. I remember watching live footage of the crowds marching on the city centre from my apartment. At the start it looked peaceful, banners flying, placards held above the crowds, people chanting and singing. I knew it would end in bloodshed before even the drones came. One million people marching with passion and it took a handful of idiots to turn it into a blood bath.
The apartment block Linford led me through stank of mould and piss. I peered into the occasional doorway to see shadowy faces huddled around meagre fires. I felt sick knowing that only a few miles away Zone 1 was a lively affluent place, a utopian society where the rich ignore the poor. Never in history has there been such a vast divide between the classes.
“How much farther is it?”
Linford walked with ease, unafraid of any would be mugger lurking in the shadows. It was hard to miss the two large curved machetes strapped to his belt or his confident body language. I wondered how many limbs or throats he had cut with his weapons. I wasn’t fearful of the wastelands, I could handle myself better than most. After the war I kept myself in shape, mentally and physically. I saw what happened to my friends, how quickly they faded into the world of drink and drugs. Not me. I refused to give up without a fight.
I doubted Linford knew who I was, or even cared. To him I was just another post-war loser who wanted a way out. But the drones worried me. If I was caught outside Zone 2 after curfew I’d lose my home and maybe my life. But it was a risk I was willing to take. I’ve been slipping for a few months. I could feel the weight inside my mind, the chaos I struggle to keep at bay wants to get out. I can’t afford MET, and those who can don’t really need it.
To be fair, the government did set up a payment plan for ex-soldiers like me, but the repayments were too much. Even if I worked twenty hours a day I had little chance of keeping everything together and leading a normal life. Well, what the government consider normal for the miserable people who live in Zone 2. My wife and boy were killed in the Green Park Massacre so it was just me. Even then it’s been a hard life. No one cares for soldiers, they remind people of dark times they pay to forget. I guess that’s why so many protested and died. And that’s why I finally decided on the alternative, the Cleansing.
We reached a doorway and Linford held out his hand. “Sharks,” he said.
Sharks. What a stupid name. They were feared for no good reason. Sharks were nothing but a ramshackle band of thieves and black marketeers. I suppose it didn’t take a war to create a system where the strong preyed on the weak, but it certainly made it very obvious who to avoid. In the alley between the apartment blocks three men stood around a fire. Shadows danced across brick walls and the smell of cooked meat made my mouth water, though I suspected they weren’t cooking a nice pork chop. Only the rich could afford such luxuries. The gang talked quietly yet confidently, unafraid of who might see or overhear them.
“I take care of it,” Linford said.
He strode out of the door way and marched toward them. They reacted quickly, drawing their knives and facing Linford. My guide held his arms out wide, revealing his own arsenal, and stopped a few feet away. There was a brief discussion and Linford returned to the door way.
“We go now.”
“That was easy,” I said.
“Ha. They jus boys,” Linford said. “Keepin warm and shootin their shit.”
In the alley we turned away from the Sharks and navigated overflowing bins and junk. At the end we stopped again. Linford surveyed the street and pointed to another alley between a liquor shop and a gunsmiths. Neither of us spotted a drone and Linford moved off. Before we reached the mouth of the alley I glanced behind me. The fire was still burning but the Sharks had gone. My senses ramped up and I was instantly on alert. Something felt wrong.
A shadow twitched beside the gunsmiths shop and I grabbed Linford’s arm.
“Company,” I said.
Linford wasn’t so confident in his surroundings as he made out. We stopped under a dim street lamp. It was the worst place to stand still. Anyone lurking in the shadows could see us. I stepped away from Linford, leaving the weak orange pool of light behind, seeking the safety of the shadows.
“Is nothing,” said Linford.
“You sure about that?”
“Jus shadows and fear,” said Linford.
Nevertheless he withdrew one of his machetes. Out of the alley six Sharks emerged. They surrounded Linford who removed his other blade.
“You boys know me,” he said. “Know who I serve. This foolish.”
“Foolish you, dark skin,” said a tall boy holding a large hammer. “These streets belong to the Sharks.”
They paid me no attention as I lingered at the edge of the light. I stood still and waited.
“Harm against a servant of Rhema be harm done to the lady herself,” said Linford. “Wise boys no attack. Jus go back to your whorin and theivin.”
“Rhema ain’t nothin but an old whore witch,” said a boy to his right.
Linford pointed a machete to the boy. “You. I will chop off your hand first.”
The boy, probably no older than sixteen, glanced at his fellow Sharks. The others laughed and closed in. Linford darted forward, his machete sliced through the air and a hand dropped onto the cracked tarmac. The rest stopped dead. The boy stared at his hand and jet of blood streaming from the stump at the end of his arm. He howled like a wounded wolf, snatched up his hand and ran screaming into the darkness.
I closed my eyes and silently cursed my stupidity for watching. Yet another memory of violence added to the pile.
Linford pointed his blood soaked weapon at another boy. “Next I cut off your balls.”
“Fuck you,” said the leader. “He can’t take us all at once, lads.”
There was a moment of hesitation. I prayed they wouldn’t believe their leader and run while they still could.
The Sharks attacked.
Linford swished both machetes across the crotch of the boy to his left. In the weak orange glow I couldn’t see details but I was sure that boy no longer had any testicles. Linford removed the arm of a third before the leader struck his hammer against the side of my guide’s face.
Linford staggered and took another blow. I waited a moment longer but I knew he wouldn’t recover. Linford’s brain would soon be smeared across the street. Those who fought in the war know battle cries are dangerous, they attract unwanted attention and lesson a soldiers adrenaline. I crossed the street in seconds, silent and fast. I disarmed the leader, brought the hammer down on his arm. It cracked and I slammed my elbow into his face.
I threw the hammer away and tackled the next Shark. He was tall and quick on his feet, but overly confident in his reach. I ran at him, dropping to my knees as he swung his baseball bat. Reaching up I snatched it out of his hands, kicked his left knee, forcing his knee cap to pop and his thigh to snap. Before he hit the ground I jabbed the bat into his face, his nose burst open with a spurt of chunky blood and gore.
Linford’s remaining attacker had him around the throat. I dropped the baseball bat and strode toward them.
“Hey boy, fights over. Fuck off.”
Only then did the lad realise his gang was ruined. He pushed Linford toward me then turned and fled.
Linford held onto me as his vision cleared. When he could stand unaided I retrieved his machetes and handed them to him.
“How you do that?”
“Just lucky I guess,” I replied. I didn’t want to share my history with Linford or anyone else.
Linford sheathed his weapons. “No. That not luck.” He studied me as if for the first time. “You soldier.”
“Whatever. Let’s go before a drone sees the mess we made.”
“You made mess,” said Linford. He looked at the Sharks and smiled. “Is good mess.”
“No it’s not. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“You are warrior. You fight with power and skill. Why not do this?”
“Because it’s wrong.” I didn’t expect Linford to understand. In Zone 1 the rich elite worship money, not people and skills like mine. Yet in the wastelands strength and violence are the main currency. “We shouldn’t be killing each other over dumb shit like this.”
Linford frowned. “What else can we do?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I just want to forget.”
“The war. You are slipping. Memories kill soldiers.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
Linford took a few steps then turned and put a hand on my shoulder. I stared into his eyes that looked so white against his dark skin and the shadows.
“Thank you, warrior. A debt I owe to you.”
“Just get me to Rhema and we’ll call it quits.”
“No. No quits until debt is repaid. My vow to you.”
Linford led the way and I followed. His words echoed in my head. I was surprised to find any shred of honour left in the wastelands.
Most major cities across the world bear little resemblance to before the war. I compare them to archery targets, the yellow centre is Zone 1, where the rich live in their bubble of perfection. Vast buildings reach up into the sky, technology is entwined in every aspect of the lives of the population. There’s no dirt, no grime, everything works to perfection. The city centres are ringed by a wall of steel and stone one hundred feet tall. Immense gates are guarded by automated defences. If you don’t have a pass you can’t get in or out. The next ring on the archery target, blue, is Zone 2. This is where I live with the other manual labourers. It is dirty and noisy 24 hours a day. I have a small apartment, one bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom. The power is cut off at midnight and returns at 7am. Zone 2 isn’t as beautiful as the city centre, there are no trees or parks, and people don’t smile as much. Those in Zone 2 work to survive and work to give those in Zone 1 their perfect lives.
Beyond the walls of Zone 2 lie the wastelands. If you live in the wastelands you will die in the wastelands. There’s no chance of ever making it through the gates to Zone 2. After the war, governments around the world adopted the Freeman-Walsh Principle and the Zoned Society was formed. Society was broken up, the rich, the workers and the poor. Donald Freeman and Serenity Walsh were scientists working on bringing philosophy, religion and science together under one banner – Zoneism. They blamed the integration of classes for the spread of the plague and the reason why the war lasted as long as it did.
In 1985, the year I was born, the plague had already decimated half the world’s population, mainly the poorer countries, those whose governments couldn’t afford mass inoculation. By the time I finished high school I was drafted into the army. I fought alongside many brave men, most of which didn’t live and die for their country or government but to kill the plague before it reached their families. I lost count of the number of countries and the number of battles I fought. In 2005 the plague took hold in the cities but even those free from infection were considered a risk. My wife and son were butchered in the Green Park Massacre in what used to be called London.
The UK Government argued fiercely against the Freeman-Walsh Principle. But when the plague took root in the city they were left with little choice. In one year the class system was abolished in favour of Zoneism. Religion was abolished as it deemed a breeding ground for dissension and terrorism. The day of the Green Park Massacre my wife and son were part of a peaceful protest against Zoneism. The same day Peacekeeper Drones were revealed as protectors of the peace and guardians against the plague. The protesters cheered the drones as they circled over head. They would be safe from the infected.
I watched the news in the mess hall of our temporary outpost in Spain as the drones scanned the crowds. I knew my wife was there. The night before I had pleaded with her on the phone. She should have stayed at out home and kept our son, Lucas, safe and not risk exposing him to the plague. The protest would have been peaceful if not for a group of infected who broke through the police cordon.
The war had stripped the population down so much that police numbers were incredibly small. They had no chance of stopping the infected from breaching the fences, and indeed some policemen and women abandoned their posts for fear of being infected themselves. Peacekeeper Drones swarmed the protesters but even with their advanced A.I they failed to stop all the infected. Left with no options the drones opened fire and slaughtered every single person at Green Park, including my wife and son.
I held out hope that my family had stayed at home but as the days went by with no word from them I realised they had been killed. At the end of that terrible week our outpost had lost dozens of soldiers. No one stopped the deserters. I wanted to leave but where would I go? I had been fighting to protect my family. I couldn’t bring myself to leave and return to an empty home. I had friends who needed me, who relied on me for guidance and strength.
I fought on, no longer caring why so long as I could block out the memories of that day.
In 2017 the plague had been beaten into submission. My regiment went back to England. I didn’t care when I was told my home was no longer within the zoned boundaries. I was allocated an apartment and a job cleaning sewers. The war was over but for many it raged on inside their heads, their memories forced them into a life of drink and drugs, anything to dull their pain. I kept myself busy, worked long hard hours, ran the streets in Zone 2 and kept a diary. I wanted to forget but I wanted to record what I could before I slipped. I knew one day I would. It was inevitable. Whilst the rich sat safe in their city fortresses, the war machine battled against the infected, and thus became infected themselves.
I don’t understand the medical jargon for what ex-soldiers called “slipping” but it has something to do with being in close proximity to the infected. Some element of the plague is embedded within the soldier, no one knows how and few scientists believe it’s even possible. Maybe it’s passed via the air, from the dying breath of the infected. It doesn’t show up on scans or blood tests but soldiers know it’s there, waiting to attack their memories.
A few weeks ago an old army buddy came to visit me. He was slipping fast. His nightmares from the battlefield had crossed over into his waking life. He was seeing the infected on the streets and at work. He knew they weren’t really there but soon he wouldn’t be able to tell what was real and what wasn’t. He was scared that one day he would mistake a memory for a normal person, that his trained reactions would take over and he’d be responsible for the death of an innocent.
He cried in the darkness of my kitchen and I sat in stunned silence. That man, that soldier, my friend, had saved my life countless times in battle against the insane infected hordes. His courage and honour was untold. I had never seen an ounce of weakness in him, yet there in my apartment he broke down and wept about the war and the unspeakable things we had done to protect our country.
I told him to request MET but like most of those living in Zone 2 he couldn’t afford it.
The next day I got news that he had jumped to his death from the Zone 1 wall.
That was the day I slipped for the first time.
And it scared the shit out of me.
To be continued.
This short story was inspired by Indigo Spider’s Sunday Picture Press – a challenge to write a 1500 word piece of fiction using one of 4 photos as a prompt. This weeks prompt was entitled “Sixty Percent Off” but so far my tale has yet to reveal how that ties in. But it will, dear blog reader, all will be revealed in the concluding part.
This section took about 2 and half hours to write, and is a shade under 3,200 words. With any luck I’ll post the conclusion later on this week or the weekend. Apologies for not posting Part 8 of Arcane Insane last week, long days at work have worn me out. Hopefully Friday 16th I’ll post another instalment.
Excellent picture prompts from Indigo. If you want to join in and write a short piece of fiction clicky-click Indigo Spider’s link above and wrap your imagination around one of the pictures.