Shelter from the Reign: A Short Story

So, I’ve decided to post my first assignment of my creative writing degree. I figured I spent so much time on it, I might as well. But, I must admit showcasing my ‘serious’ writing is giving me a slight anxiety attack.  It’s kind of like one of those dreams where you’re suddenly naked, or you really, really need the bathroom but everybody’s watching and the door won’t close. It just won’t close!

Eh hem, anyways. For my short story assignment I submitted something that was originally part of a much larger story. Upon some positive feedback I’ve decided to expand on it. So, here’s Part 1 of my first attempt at dystopian SF.

Oh, yes, and … Disclaimer – this post does contain infrequent coarse language.

******

‘Shelter from the Reign: Part 1 – Sacrifice’

Clutching a high-powered, automatic weapon in your hands in a post-apocalyptic town is worlds away from holding a hunting rifle back on the farm. This thing wasn’t made for culling feral roos, or keeping rabbits away from your crop. It would damn near blow them to bits – a tail here, a fuzzy little foot there – no, this thing was made by the Confederates to cut through the armour of the enemy. Red State armour. The cool weighted metal across my lap, my finger poised over the trigger, inspires the same feelings in me of a kid hugging their teddy close when mum turns out the bedroom light. Slouching against the paneled stainless steel wall of the observation deck, I listen to the steady breathing of my sister, her body curled in a foetal position a few feet away from me. Still there, to my reassurance, high as a fucking kite, seeing swirling patterns in the white and grey linoleum floor, but still there.

The stuff mellowed her out and it sure beat the hell out of her screaming at every splayed corpse littered throughout this silent grave of a power station.

“The view’s not bad,” I mumble, trying to rise something out of her, but she just makes little circles on the floor with her pinky, round and round, her sparkly purple nail polish chipped on a broken nail. She’d normally freak out about that, go ballistic looking for nail clippers. She’s not quite the same without the complaining.

“Not bad,” I sigh, staring out the twelve-foot seamless glass window, that only four days ago I was showing as one of the technological highlights in my guided tour. It was the perfect vantage point to look out over hectares of outback country and the small mining town purpose built for the employees of the highest energy-producing plant of the 22nd century … And the most obvious site for military attack. Especially in a world energy crisis … Why wasn’t that part of my tour guide speech?

Now, outside the plate glass everything is flattened to the earth, as if a massive harvester came along, ripped it all out and dumped it. The buildings are burnt skeletons in the distance. I can almost make out the pub, the fuel station, the Hypermarket, even though they’re rubble. They’re the biggest piles. The sky is a haze of red dust – blood smeared across the horizon. There’s not patch of blue, or a speck, or even the hope of a speck. It’s suffocating. Lifeless. Pocket fires burn, their orange glow illuminating parts of the destruction – the street where Lil and I used to play, the footy field where I smashed Luke Jones for calling me a little girl and not letting me join in with the boys, the school where all twelve of us students learnt algebra and all that other crap that’s about as helpful now as a fly-screen in a submarine. Gone. All gone. Out there is completely fucked, because of one little thing in here.

The first time I saw the station’s core power cell, floating there in this clear tube container, it reminded me of a special clear marble I had as a kid, one of those with the streak of colour suspended in the middle, swirly, like the surface of Jupiter. Even though I was pushing nineteen at the time and had long grown out of marbles, I felt the same unadulterated fascination of my younger self when I looked at that power cell. A tiny fragment of energy-sucking material, storing what was left of whatever they could drag out of the ground. Even though mining has long been inactive in this area, the cell has gathered enough energy to be self-sustaining, my chipper, tour-guide voice reverberates through my head.

Gees, you’d think the government would invest more in protecting something that important. You’d think the Confederates would be freaking smart enough to stop something like this happening. Maybe they were all nuked too? Caught off guard. Who fucking knows. I hit my skull against the wall with a clamour that echoes through the silence. Lil stirs. My head flops over towards her like a rag doll’s, exhausted from keeping all my frustrations inside and smothered by a fog of dope. Lil’s eyes are red-rimmed and bloodshot. She sits up, her vintage Justice League t-shirt clinging to her skin with sweat. The goofy, cartoon smile of Superman makes me grin painfully, with dry, cracked lips. He must be something pretty freaking special to still be idolized, but I guess that when the world’s turning to shit, people wanna hold onto symbols for good. Even if they’re are a fourteen year old know it all, who should be obsessing about boys and not comic book heroes.

“You coming around?”

Lil nods and grabs her head with a quiet moan. “I feel sick…”

“Ya gonna chuck?”

“I don’t think so…” Lil scoots her back up against the wall. She stares at me with her usual ‘what the hell are you looking at?’ face and I know my lil’ sis is still in there.

If I hadn’t shut us away in the basement after work to get high, she probably wouldn’t even be here at all.  The weed is wearing off now. Its comforting haze clears and bleak reality presses on my chest like a hundred kilo weight. Images of the lifeless faces twisted in terror I saw when we first emerged from the basement, creep their way back into my mind and I wish I were still stoned. I pat myself down, searching for a fix. Plastic crinkles beneath the khaki material of my right pant pocket and I feel the cylindrical shape inside. A medical grade applicator housing a drug far more serious than weed, and so far I’ve been hesitant to use it. At least I know for sure what weed does to me – this stuff I can only go by what I’ve seen and the stories I’ve heard.

The soldier boy I took it from hadn’t the time to use it. Poor bugger would have died screaming. From what they say, just a little of the drug would have saved him all that pain, and with the whole syringe he’d have flown out of this world quicker than a startled chicken flying the coop from a big nasty goanna. I guess you can tell the ones who took the lot: they’re the ones you can still recognise. The ones the Red Coats wouldn’t waste bullets on. The ones that don’t have their brains spilled out onto the floor, limbs missing and broken bones poking out of their skins.

I picture my sister suffering the same fate. I’ll be fucked if I let any Red State pig touch her. Lil questions me with her blank glassy eyes. I want to give her a reassuring smile, one that says ‘don’t worry kiddo, we’re gonna be alright’, but I don’t believe it myself. When we passed the reactor chamber the bitch was still glowing, and I knew someone less than merciful was going to come back for it.

I need a fix, bad. The last thing Lil needs is to see me wuss out.

Just suck it up. Lil will need the stuff more. You don’t even know how long it will last. 

My sister reaches out for me. Her hand is clammy and cold, on her finger is her gold signet ring, the one mum and dad got her for her tenth birthday. I remember because that same year, for my seventeenth, I got my first air rifle.

That thing barely left my side for a whole year. I could shoot a clothes peg off the line at a hundred meters or so. That was then. Now, the gun in my hands is completely foreign to me. I tried my best to wipe it clean, but it still has specks of blood, stained into the metal. I’ve never shot one of these before. You know, never wasted a guy. Except in virtual. I bet it feels heaps different in real life. I bet it’s one of those things you can never recover from. I can’t be certain whether I’d have the gall to fire if it came down to it. Yet, just holding it, just knowing I have it. I dunno. A big-ass gun can certainly give you an ego rush to the head, and I know Lil feels safer with it around.

“What’s taking so long?” Her voice is hoarse and it falls from her lips in a parched sigh. “They should’ve come already. Aren’t they checking for survivors?”

I hesitate. Longer than I should, but what can I tell her? I want to believe that the Confederation is going to come as much as she does, but we’ve been looking out this goddamn window without seeing a Green Stripe for days now.

The silence drags, then, fortunately, she lets out one long sigh. “Are you gonna shoot that thing?”

“What, this?” I notice the tightness of my grip on the gun and release a little. I raise it, bringing the butt under my right armpit. The thing is freaking heavy. My arms quiver, so I rest it on my lap. “If I have to.”

“I should have one.”

“No way,” I reply.

“Come on. I’ve gone skeet shooting with dad heaps of times.”

“This is way different, Lil.” She’d never killed anything breathing before. Every time Dad or I had to shoot a lame cow between the eyes, she’d run to her room, crying, then turn up some crap Top 40 song to drown it out.

“It’s not like I’m gonna hurt anything. This place is a dump.”

“Lilly.” I never use her full name unless she’s grinding on my last nerve. It usually shuts her up.

“Fine,” she huffs.

Fighting with my sister comes naturally even at a time like this. The familiarity appears to sooth her and it distracts me from the cruel wrenching of my insides.

Darkness falls like mum turning out the light and I hold my teddy bear closer. The narrow beam of the LED light from my sight torch pierces through the night.

The torchlight reminds me of camping out in the backyard. Lil and I laughing and writhing around in our sleeping bags, making stupid shadow puppets on the walls of Granddad’s old tent. I could only do the duck. Lil managed something that looked like a dog. Then we’d just name everything we could think of that looked like a hand … a five-legged spider, grass blowing in the wind, I dunno … stuff like that. We’d stay out there in the middle of winter. You couldn’t keep us inside. Even now the only thing stopping us from wandering out into the ruined remains of our town was choking on some noxious gas.

It’s getting cold. We huddle. Lil shivers and I sling my arm around her. She buries her head in the little nook between my shoulder and collarbone and I rest my cheek on her strawberry scented hair.

My eyelids droop, heavy like the headlock on a cattle crush. My body loosens, sinking into the floor with exhaustion. The world begins to slip and time melts into nothing. But then a flicker of light dances past the inside of my eyes, again and again until a flood of bright white bursts them wide.

Lil stands completely still, silhouetted against the giant glass window. The sound of blades continuously chops the air: ticka, ticka, fwoom, fwoom. I pray to see a telltale green stripe on the chopper tail. Shit. The crows are as black as the township they burned to the ground, and there must be at least ten of them in the air, a whole murder of them, ready to swoop down. The searchlights pierce through the window, sweeping the entire observation deck. They flash over my face like the strobe at the underground rave.

“Come on,” I scream at Lil over the chopper’s thrum. Lil’s transfixed and I have to drag her away.

As I shoulder through double doors and sprint the long hallway, Lil flails out behind me. Our slapping footsteps on the floor are not alone. Heavier, more synchronized ones are marching on the metal grating of the upper floor.

You can run…

We fly down the steps of the stairwell and burst out into another long hallway.

I run until my breath escapes me, then I keep on running. Stairwell after stairwell, the footsteps are getting closer. Hallway after hallway and those stomping Red State boots still get closer.

I barge into the basement and bolt the door behind us. We disappear into a maze of high-stacked boxes. I drag Lil down beside me. We crouch. Hearts in our throats, we wait. Just maybe if we’re quiet enough they won’t find us. Lil’s eyes are wild. My gun rattles in my shaky hand.

How the hell do you shoot this thing? I was too shit scared to even practice in the whole freaking four days I’ve been holding onto it. Who am I kidding? I’ll probably drop it and wave the white flag first thing. Maybe they do take prisoners. Lil trembles beside me, her breath shallow and erratic.

“Listen to me Lilly,” I breathe out in barely a whisper. “We’re going to be fine…Look at me… If they come in here, we’ll take ‘em out. We’ll take ‘em all out if we have to.”

She nods. She wants to believe me, but I can see the cracks starting to form. Hysteria’s going to grab hold. It’s going to rip her apart.

What the fuck can I do? She’s gonna die screaming. 

My hand instinctively goes to my pocket. The applicator is unbroken. Steadying my jittery hands, I take out the implement.

“What does it do?” my sister asks, wide-eyed and innocent. I’m reminded of when she was eight, and I was about to put antiseptic on her skinned knee. I got her talking about her favourite cartoon and it distracted her from the pain.

“It will make you invincible,” I say, ripping the plastic pouch with my teeth. “So nothing can hurt you.” I nod down at her T-shirt, “just like the Man of Steel.”

She looks to the doorway. The footsteps aren’t far away. She’s not buying it, I can tell, but then she looks to me, the corner of her mouth creeping up.

“Faster than a speeding bullet?”

I nod, shaking the applicator out of the bag.  “Faster.”

Lil smirks. “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound?”

Even though she’s trembling, even though she may be scared out of her brain, she still gives me one of those sarcastic teenage smirks I’m so fond of.

I stare at the applicator. It has one of those little red buttons. It couldn’t be simpler. Just point and shoot.  A single harsh clamour fills the air. Metal on metal. The basement door heaves, resisting.

“A lot of the physics in Superman are wrong, you know,” Lil pipes up, like she knows.

“Is that a fact?” I ask, gently taking her forearm and facing it towards me.

An accented Red State voice commands, loud and violent, through the door.

“Yep. If he actually held out his arms to stop a train, he’d actually go right through it, instead of stopping it…”

The basement door is resisting the barrage. I’m shaking so hard, I’m afraid I’m going to miss the vein. What’s wrong with me?

Just point and shoot … point and shoot. 

Steadying my breath I pick my spot. The automated needle pierces Lil’s baby-soft skin right on target. We look at each other. I press the button, half way. I feel her body relax.

She smiles. “Just like Superman.”

“Like Superman,” I smile back. The needle is still in her arm whenthe basement door finally surrenders, crippling off its hinges. There’s a flash of sight torches, yet I keep looking at Lil. Her eyes are serene, blue as a sunlit sky. She’s somewhere peaceful, where nothing can hurt her.  She’s free. I can’t let them take that away from her. I won’t. The whole syringe is hers.

*****

To be continued …

Now, could somebody please pass me that paper bag? And perhaps a defibrillator as well.

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