Nathan pushed back the piece of corrugated iron that covered his hole in the ground and looked up at the midday sky, it was charcoal grey as always and he was having difficulty in remembering when it hadn’t been. He eased himself up and gazed to the horizon, or what he could make of it over the rubble that had once been Sydney. Would he need to kill someone today? And how long had it been since the last killing? He sighed, shivered a little and thought of food, today he needed food.
On the air he thought he smelled someone, a human scent that was quickly lost on the breeze. A study of the landscape showed nothing. His eyes were faulty and glitches were normal.
Nathan remembered the early days after the war; bodies everywhere and the sky blazed orange. Had it been months or years? He remembered when the orange sky turned black and the rains came; thick heavy drops that landed like hammer blows on buckled pavement and brick. The rain gave him blisters. He’d run and finding shelter wherever he could.
Today the horizon was a dusty barrier, distant winds playing havoc on a land destroyed. Nathan fingered his beard, nails getting caught in the deep knots until he found his bony chin. He looked to his feet, black with soot from his fires and dirt from the broken ground. Were they still coming for him, he wondered? The uniform he’d originally worn had rotted away, but he’d found clothes in stores after the rains, and given his starvation, many of the manikin clothes fitted. Down below he had binoculars and while he always studied the distance he didn’t always need extra vision to know what was happening; there was just so much nothing out there. He covered the hole; the scrape of iron loud in the stillness. Boots would have been good but shoes didn’t last long on the unforgiving, rocky ground. Shoes stores were usually inside collapsed shopping malls and out of reach. When the weather grew cold he wrapped rags about his feet for warmth and protection.
For a time Nathan listened; closed his eyes and really listened. The first time he really listened he heard screams and yells and crying, but after the turbulent days and months only the occasional barking dog could be heard. In time even the sound of dogs faded away. Today he listened for something else.
There was a reason he was alone, and it was because he was broken – a damaged soldier in a damaged land. The one time he’d headed out to search for others he’d killed every single person he found. He’d emptied all five of his clips and silenced the screaming. Those he couldn’t shoot he killed with his knife.
“Hello,” he said, it was a strange sound, more a strangled groan than a word. “Hello,” he said again, and he resisted the urge to answer.
He wrapped his feet in rages and listened to the day and knew he wasn’t alone. Someone was watching him.
For the first few days after the attack he’d waited at the rendezvous site as ordered, but no one came. He still went back to the place from time to time, to sit and wait and to contemplate. Ever since then, he had enjoyed walking, it brought little bits of hope alive in him and some days he really needed that hope of rescue. The walk to the mall had rewarded him with enough canned food to last at least a month. The light was still okay but by the time he got back to his bunker it was difficult to see and for the second time he thought he could smell another human, a sweet stink of new sweat. His senses weren’t as good as they used to be. He slid aside the metal cover over his hole with a loud, tiny grate, dropped the sack of food down first and then climbed in after; once the cover was slid over, darkness swallowed. Carefully Nathan climbed down four metres of metal ladder into the dwelling. He felt his way around in the dark; felt out the edges of the stove, the warm steel reassuring and he opened the door to see the low glow of coals. In the reddish light he found some wood and stacked it in above the coals, in moments flame started up and light increased in the dungeon like hovel. He appreciated the immediate warmth, but could smell the smoke as it leaked through holes in the flue. At least wood smoke would disguise the other smells. He unwrapped his feet, then the tins and stacked them on the floor near the fire so he could see them; most of the cans didn’t have labels but as he knew fish cans. He opened one of them by pulling its easy remove lid free, scooped sardines into his mouth and swallowed the strong fishy flavour; once done he drank the brine and savoured the rich taste. He put enough wood in the fire to keep it warm through the night, closed the stove’s door and allowed the darkness to lure him towards sleep.
Nathan lay under his stack of thin covers and watched as yellow-red flame light crept out around the edges of the stove’s door and its air controller. There was safety in that light, a strange calming feeling he didn’t really get from the daylight above. He wondered if it was because it reminded him of the orange sky when the war broke out and the time when all his systems still functioned. He wondered if tomorrow he would find and kill the person watching him?
Sitting outside eating fruit from a can, Nathan surveyed the distance looking for anything moving. He’d smelt the person again and thought he’d heard movement. He ate and watched and planned for the kill.
He saw something. He blinked and saw movement again, but then it was gone. He stood. Whatever it was had to be close enough
for him to see easily and the movement, what about the movement? He scanned the building decay where he thought he’d seen the thing but all he could see was a sea of rubble, a mid-grey land meeting the charcoal sky. What he had seen had been a black shadow across the grey. Was it another person? He picked up his pike, ready to attack and ready to kill. He sniffed the air. They were near, he could almost taste their rankness.
It could have been possible he was more damaged than he thought, his implants were not working as they had been intended, pop up weapons in his forearms no longer worked. His brain chip didn’t operate in a fashion that had him on tactical alert anymore. Had he really seen something? Some malfunctioning auto system had him position the pike for immediate use. A thought crossed his mind, an oddity but something he could rely on for the moment.
“I can see you,” he yelled.
“I can see you to,” a voice called back; it sounded female but it had been so long since he killed anyone he couldn’t be sure.
“Who…” he choked on the word; he needed water.
“Are you the killer?” The voice was definitely female, soft toned and smooth.
Nathan didn’t know how to answer. He positioned the pike again, this time in the direction of the voice. “I am damaged,” he managed. “I will kill you.”
“Is that pike the only weapon you have?” The sound came from a position to the left of where he’d heard it before. She was circling him behind the mounds of rubble.
He didn’t want to give away any advantage but he also wondered if she’d come from his father. “Are you from the Le Fevre Corporation?” He had to ask, he wanted it to be possible.
“Is that the only weapon you have?” she asked again.
“No.” He followed the movement of the voice. He raised his right arm and the laser weapon popped out of his bare forearm. He was surprised it actually rose from his skin but he knew well enough it had no power.
“I want you to kill someone.” The voice now moved quickly to his right.
Nathan thought hard and the laser slowly returned to his arm, the skin sealing neatly to leave a red scar. He closed his eyes and concentrated, the kill pattern still firm in his mind but he had no scanner capabilities, no solid mapping systems and everything was dead.
“If you come closer I will kill you. That is someone.” He wanted to lower his pike but he couldn’t. As soon as she came into view he would throw the weapon and knew with some surety he would hit her. Kill her outright he wasn’t sure of but he could hit and kill her later by breaking her neck.
“There is a man by the fallen bridge, he calls himself Sydney, and he has taken women prisoner and has taken my sister. I need you to kill him and get the women and my sister back.” She was in front of him, her voice carrying over a low mound of red bricks.
He raised the pike. She ducked aside; moved and came up a few metres away. He thought about how to approach; if he climbed straight up the front of the mound she would easily duck away and hide. Tactical was just a fuzz in the back of his head and he dare
not attempt macro vision as it would make him as good as blind should he not be able to dial it back. He waited; there was little else to do. She ducked away again.
“If I show myself completely I will be dead, and the cause, while not lost, will not be completed or even taken up.”
“Who are you?” He took a step forward; scanned the rubble then took the same step back.
“No one you know, but we of the harbour know of you. Have you never wondered why no people have ever passed your way?”
“Do you know how long you have been left alone out here?”
“No.” He still couldn’t pin point her. The urge to kill was strong. He had to kill her. He had to kill her.
“Almost thirty years.”
He thought about that. The sky never really gave much away and on the odd occasion when he could see the stars they just looked the same as they always looked. Thirty years; a long time to be alone. Nathan looked at his hands grasping the pike; they were black grimed and taloned.
“I will lead you to Sydney, but I will not show myself and I ask you to do your best and resist the urge to hunt me.”
“I cannot,” he said, killing was reflex.
“Then I must do my best to hide.” A dark flash appeared between broken walls. “Follow me.”
Night had come and still the woman called to him in the dark. The sky was thick with cloud and the darkness complete but the voice kept itching inside his ear and drawing him onward. He wanted to rest. Nathan needed to think but the woman kept his motivation alive. She had to be killed. The terrain was difficult and the movement slow, painfully slow and by the time the first light of dawn appeared on the horizon he felt he’d only covered a few hundred metres.
“You still with me, Killer?”
“You know I will only kill everyone I see,” he said, finding logic in the sound of his own voice.
“You will do what is right in the end.” She sounded confident. The people he’d killed years before sounded confident with his salvation, they were dead now. “There is a small river nearby, I will lead you to the water where you can drink, and I will also leave a parcel of food for you.”
In the new light Nathan ran towards the voice, easily seeing more of the ground and a clearer path through the worn down stone and concrete. He held his pike in one hand so the other arm could help balance his run. He was near the voice, he could hear the closeness and he thought he could smell her again, but the breeze was forever shifting and gusting. He broke out of a collection of tumbled walls and splashed into the edges of a small river, its gleam bright in the early dawn. The water was cold around his ankles; he crouched and searched the banks, looking for shadows on the move, looking for the girl. The light wasn’t clear but he made out a bundle nearby, in the dimness the yellow parcel sat atop a large rock. With caution he approached until he was a little less than a full pike length from the rock. He reached the tip forward and poked the package; a side of cloth fell to reveal dark contents and what looked like bread. How long had it been since he’d eaten bread? Thirty years if the woman could be believed. Nathan gave into hunger and snatched up the package; inside the loose material he found hard bread, the odour rich and inviting and some dried strips of cured meat; it smelt and tasted salty. He ate the small meal allowing it to distract him from the hunt. He cupped some water into his mouth and flinched at the metallic tang. After the rains water wasn’t the best to drink but what he captured in the subsequent rains and from melting snow kept him alive.
He patted his sides to realise he didn’t have his belt, with his water bottles, knives and fire kit; he had been too hasty to secure the kill. He had the pike and his bare hands that would be enough.
“Sorry the bread was hard; it was all we could spare.” He snatched up the pike, pointing it in the direction of the woman’s voice.
“What was the meat?” He chewed on the last, tough remnant.
“I’d like to say beef or lamb, but it is cat. There are a lot of cats around the harbour.” A flash of darkness erupted between some stones on the other side of the narrow river. His pike clanked against the rocks but the woman had already gone.
“I’d better be more careful now the sun is up.”
“Thank you for the food.” He did feel grateful but she still had to die. ‘Eliminate all threats’ was at the heart of his commands.
“The going is hard from here; there are dogs and big cats escaped from the zoo years ago.” She was moving. The wind gusted and he thought he could smell her, a sour stench of unwashed body and dirt. He knew he smelt little better but he’d grown use to himself, though sometimes his mind clicked through something and his stench became real and nauseating.
“Do the others have guns?” he asked.
“No, they have crossbows, pikes and clubs.”
He threw his pike and it stuck into and punctured a wall that must have been made of thin board.
“Close,” she yelped.
He saw her for a few seconds as she darted away from his attack. She was short and very thin; her legs dark tanned like her arms and hair a mat of tangles. He ran for his pike, thinking he’d have a better chance getting her with a long throw than running her down. He didn’t know how strong she was and he considered she’d know the terrain better than he. By the time he retrieved the pike from the wall she was gone. He listened for sounds but only heard the distant call of a bird, too distant to have been caused by an interruption by her.
“If you want me to save your sister you are going to have to be more careful. Once you are dead I will return to my hole.”
“You won’t seek out the others?”
He turned to the sound; she was behind him, hidden away in ruins. “I know what I am and I don’t want to be what I am, so I have no desire to hunt when I can avoid it.”
“You didn’t have to hunt me.” She had moved again. He was having difficulty in keeping a track on her.
“I saw you; I must kill what I see, I must eliminate the threat.”
“Then you will see Sydney.”
“Is he alone?” Nathan raised the pike ready for another attack.
He flew forward, the impact knocking him first to his knees and then to his face; the pike clattered away on the rocky ground. He pushed up and away with his hands and rolled to his back to find a spear point pressed into his throat. It was a woman, maybe thirty beneath the dirt, it was hard to say.
“I don’t want to kill you, Killer. I just need you to understand saving my sister is the real motivation here.”
Nathan swiped with his hand, trying to knock the spear away, the woman was quick and she made a small slash across his neck. He felt the nick and the trickle of blood across his throat. If he was to kill her he had to be better. He had kept up his training but he was old and with age came slowness. He swiped again and she nicked him again.
“I see you are the one. There are seven of them, they are skilled with weapons and two are skilled with crossbows. They will not hesitate in killing you; will you hesitate in killing them?”
“I will kill you eventually.” Nathan said, once more trying to flick aside the spear point and attack, but there was not a lot he could do on his back. “I will kill all I see.”
She flicked her hand and a shower of dirt hit him in the face. He was blinded. When he could see again she was gone. He climbed to his feet and wiped blood from his throat, the wounds were minor but still he wrapped a piece of torn shirt about his neck to protect the wounds from grime. He was thankful something still worked in his military grade body, the anti-infection system that boosted his blood.
With his pike at the ready he waited for her to talk again. He knew she would, she had to in order to get his help. He sniffed the air but couldn’t smell her.
“Sydney killed my mother.” She was far off; the voice was almost a yell. Nathan moved toward it, picking his way through rubble. His calloused feet still felt the sharpness of a small pebble sitting up amongst the worn down paths. People had been through this area a lot, he could tell from the tracks. She would have to speak again before he knew which direction to follow.
“They killed a lot of mothers last year when the crops failed.” She was directly in front; he positioned his weapon and stalked forward.
“Wheat, corn and maize.” She shifted to his right.
He prepared to throw again but hesitated. The woman only spoke when she was moving, which meant he could predict a direction and when she stopped talking she was probably sitting or resting. She’d stopped and he planned his approach a few tens of metres to the right of her position.
“They eat them, you know.” He turned left; she’d changed position yet again. Was she zig zagging through the fallen city? “The seven are cannibals, they fatten the women, make them have babies and then eat first the children and then their mothers, if they fall weak.”
“I only have interest in killing you. You are a threat.”
“I know, but soon I won’t be.”
“You’ll be dead.”
“Killer, I want you to wait here. I don’t want you to follow me. It is important you don’t.” She was yelling from far off, she must have run a head.
“I will find you.” He stood waiting for her next words. The woman said nothing. The silence was not complete but it was enough to say nothing larger than a small animal was moving about in the midday sun. He had no choice but to wait for her to speak again.
“Killer. Killer, I’m back.” She was close, very close. He said nothing. “I have found Sydney.”
Nathan sprang from his hiding place and saw the woman only a few metres away. She broke into a run and darted into the remnants of a building. He was quickly on her but the darkness in the building threw up many shadows. He caught sight of her as she darted from a broken window and into the open. He threw his pike, heard a fleshy thud, then a scream.
The woman lay to one side, the pike through her shoulder but little in the way of blood. Nathan stepped to her front, leant down and pulled the pike free, she screamed again as she rolled into a ball. The easiest treatment would be straight through her heart but the woman was protecting her chest, or more to the point was folded in around her wounded shoulder. He raised the pike and decided straight through the head would be quickest.
“Wait,” the woman howled as she lifted her head and stared straight into his face. “Wait, you don’t have to do this.”
He hesitated then plunged the pike down. The woman rolled away and he buried the pike into a slab of concrete, sparks danced about its tip and the ring of steel reverberated up his arm. The woman crawled away, disappearing into a small opening in a wall. Nathan swung the pike about but missed her, the tip clanging on the opening and again vibrations run up his arm; he dropped the pike as something weakened in his wrist. Nathan looked at his hand, flexed the fingers then tried to pick up the pike, but pain shot through his arm. He used his left hand to retrieve the weapon. The woman had escaped. Nearly killing a threat was not the same as killing a threat. Flexing the fingers on his injured hand he walked around the ruins looking for another way into the cavity; the woman had been small and his wide shoulders wouldn’t fit through the hole.
“We don’t have much time.” He heard from a distance to his right. The woman was outside. “You are just going to have to follow my voice for a little while longer then you can do all the killing you like.”
“I don’t like killing,” he said, knowing he’d just given away his position. The woman was injured, seriously, so he thought as he followed a trail of blood out and across the rubble. He didn’t need to follow her voice, she was leaving droplets of blood, and even his damaged eyesight could track that.
“I’m hurt pretty bad,” the woman said.
Nathan tracked the blood. The blood was being covered over as the woman walked. Surely this would be slowing her down. The pike felt awkward in his non preferred hand and he was certain he couldn’t manage a decent throw. His right hand was tingling now, as tiny machines in his blood started repairing what he had damaged. He
checked his throat and the nicks were gone. It was a pity the machines couldn’t stop aging. He looked at his hands. He was an old, old man, no wonder she had been able to hold him at bay with the tip of her spear.
“We’re here,” the woman said. “Sydney and his men are just around the other side of this building.”
Still following the blood trail he ignored what she was saying. The blood was just smattering of droplets. Carefully he traced the droplets on the grey compacted ground; the worn down remnants of building rubble. He readied the pike for a quick thrust, this time he would ram it through her heart and make sure he had killed her. He traced his way around the edges of a mound, keeping his eyes firmly on a spot he believed the woman to be hiding.
“Are you coming, are you coming for me?”
Her call confirmed his suspicion, she was hiding in a clump of stone on the opposite side of the mound, in a moment he’d be able to see her and then be able to remove the threat once and for all.
“You!” Someone shouted.
Nathan saw the woman huddled down against remnants of a wall, holding her shoulder her hand bloodied. He went to attack when an arrow thudded into his thigh. He swung about, pain sparkling up his leg. A man stood a short way off, he was loading a crossbow. Nathan threw his pike in reflex and pierced him through the head. The man fell like a rag. Nathan checked the arrow, pulled on it gently and felt that it had hit nothing vital. He broke of the end then limped to the dead man retrieved the pike, he also picked up the crossbow and few bolts. The ache in his leg was fading as he scanned the immediate surround for other attackers.
He turned to the woman, raised the now loaded crossbow and took aim. She closed her eyes and turned her head away.
“I think you need to lower that weapon old man.” It was a new voice, a man’s.
Nathan slowly turned his aim in an arch, searching out the landscape and honing in on the voice.
“The woman is mine,” the man said. “I will share her with you if you like, but I must be the first.”
As his aim drew up on a big man in worn black rags Nathan saw he also was armed with a crossbow, only his wasn’t as well targeted he could see. “Sydney?” Nathan asked.
The arrow struck Sydney between the eyes and like the first man he simply collapsed like a dirty rag. Other men stepped from hidden locations, one held a crossbow down at his side and two others held simple pikes. Nathan reloaded the crossbow, the men turned to run; he shot one down before he could vanish back into the rubble. Once more he went to load the crossbow, the woman was still behind him. He’d hunt down the other two men once he’d killed her.
“Thank you.” The woman said.
Nathan turned quickly only to see the woman swinging a rock down onto him.
Cold nipped at his face and he could smell the dead ash of his stove. His hole in the ground was alight with whiteness. Nathan forced himself up on his elbows, his head throbbing. Sitting atop
the stove was a lantern and he could smell the sweetness of oil. He thought of the woman and the rock. She had not killed him. Sitting, he touched his brow and felt tenderness but no scar, it had already healed. The floor was lost in a sea of rags and in a corner were large plastic drums in which he stored the water when it rained. In the bunker which he had mainly known by feel for a long time he felt out of place, things were not where he imagined them to be, it was as if everything in his mind’s eye had been shifted about. The clear sided drums looked full and stacked neatly at their bases were many tins of food, a large plastic container of a yellowish fluid, possibly oil, a stack of what he could only determine to be clothes and beside it all sitting in pride of place was a pair of boots.
He crawled to the pile and smelt the clothes and noted their lemon scent, the leather of the boots was soft. Under the boots he found a sheet of very rough paper. It was a note.
‘We do not know your name and have always just known you as the killer but please know we now consider you a saviour. We cannot come near you and we know you cannot come to us. Please accept these gifts. Thank you for our salvation.’
Nathan carefully folded the note and sat it back under the boots; he would admire the new gifts for a little while longer. He edged up against the near wall and dragged his worn blankets about his shoulders. Soon he would have to light the fire for extra warmth but for the time it was good to see where he was. He might not be able to stop his protocols, his father was obviously long dead and no one was coming for him, but strangely he felt pleased. He was not alone, and for some strange reason he felt the tickle of happiness. He looked to his pike standing upright against the ladder. ‘Yes’ he thought. ‘One day I will kill the woman and eliminate one more threat from life.