How far will one go to fulfill what they had promised?
He heard a faint snap off to his left. Stopping, he tilted his ear to listen further, lifting the brim of his darkened boonie hat slightly with his finger. His other hand slowly moved to his hip, coming to rest on the top of the kydex holster that housed his sidearm. The silence weighed heavy around him, and his lack of motion contributed to the eerie peace he had found himself in. Calculations zipped through his mind, a reflex at this point.
‘30 meters to the trail.’
‘Noise, about 50 meters past that.’
‘Visibility, likely 100 meters. No, fog is out, morning dew, maybe 50 meters.’
‘Can’t see.’ He slowly lower his level, careful to avoid a sudden movement.
‘Human eyes are attracted to quick movement’ he thought. He waited a few more seconds, or an eternity, he was unsure. The silence permeated, and finally he relaxed ever slightly.
‘Must have been deer’ he concluded.
As a kid, he had never heard the animal make a sound in the woods, they were so careful. Now, with the lack of people and natural predators to disturb them, they had become lazy. Maybe they’ll pay for it, one day, but not by him.
‘Stop holding your breath’
His eyes widened, and he exhaled. Bad habit, need to focus on breathing. Air is thin, even here. He rose, and turned around. Noticing a bit of smoke rising from a small, hastily made fire pit he kicked another bit of dirt in its direction. The smoke faded and he returned to the task of packing up his camp. It was not a large task, all he had was an old, faded camouflage sleeping back and a small pack of clothing and survival items. Rolling the bag up and throwing the pack over his shoulders, he peered down at the base of a tree on his left.
Nearly impossible to see in the shadow of the tree and low-lying mist of the early morning, lay his most important piece of equipment. A military-style carbine, a newer generation M4, sat barrel up against the bark. The dark base of the rifle was interrupted by the waves of tan paint, creating a tiger stripe pattern across the rifle’s receiver and barrel. The tan was his addition, and had once been new but was now weathered and chipping.
“Also like me” crossed his mind. He bent down and scooped the rifle up, quickly pressing the magazine ejection button and removing the magazine with deftness.
23 rounds. He reinserted the magazine, noticed a fallen branch to his right, counted to three, and stomped on the branch, creating a loud crack that covered the sound of the bolt on the rifle being racked back and slammed home. He was confident he was alone, but certainty was a luxury not afforded to him. A quick inspection of his sidearm reminded him of the 9 rounds left in his fallback weapon. He then fingered the leather sheath and ensured it still contained the blade within.
“She never runs of ammo” he muttered to himself, with a smirk. He lifted his boonie off his head and ran his hands through his greasy, brown-ish hair. It was always curlier than he had liked, but out here it did not matter. No one stopped long enough to see it anyways. He unzipped the old brown bomber jacket he was wearing and lifted the bottom of his grey t-shirt to wipe his face with. It did not do much, he had wearing the same clothes for what felt like ever, but it felt right. He could feel the scruff on his face and wondered if he should shave, it might even feel nice.
No, he decided. Water was low as is. He would once he got closer. Slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he peered down the tree line parallel to the trail to his right.
‘Car should be about 100 meter up, just out of sight’ he recalled. Never camp next to something that draws attention, better to lose your equipment than your life, he remembered. At least some training was worth a damn. Shrugging his shoulders and patting his hands on his fatigued pants, he set off in the direction of his vehicle, keeping a safe amount of terrain between him the conspicuous trail.
The faint clink of metal on glass was the only foreign noise to interrupt the hum of the engine and the whirring of tires on the cracked pavement. It was never a surprising sound, but one that drew his eye to the source every time he plowed through a bump in the road. Dangling loosely from the remnants of a rear view mirror was a small, golden heart shaped locket attached to a thin gold chain. Gold was a description in name only, he knew. The illusion of precious metal had long since dissipated with the cracks and fades of the shiny lacquer that coated the mystery metal beneath.
Real gold and other precious items were long gone, he knew, and what was left was bitterly horded and fought for by various factions and state apparatuses. All telling the same story, one of eventual prosperity under the heels of their boots. He cared nothing for prosperity, nor precious resources; he simply cared for the valuables the locket contained. That, and his destination.
A violent shake brought him from his thoughts, his absentminded thoughts lending themselves to a deeper press of the accelerator. The deadened trees of a haphazard woods had given way to a much more barren landscape, occupied by grey, dry dirt and skeletons of long gone vegetation. It meant he was close, or closer, at least. Death surrounded the biomes of the Free Cities, long reminders of the wasteful nature of predecessors. If anything, it was a reminder that fell on deaf ears of the irony of resource wars and who had created them in the first place. Not that it mattered, the consequence of wasteful decisions were another matter he was unconcerned with.
What was concerning was his old vehicle’s waning longevity. Gas seemed to be the most pressing issue, but even that was a guess. It was, unfortunately, too much to ask to have working instruments on a nomadic vehicle these days. He was not one to complain too much, this was after all, not his vehicle. The hastily welded steel plates and odd, square-shaped adornments on the outside suggested this vehicle was used for far more nefarious purposes prior to his acquiring. In fact, that was a very safe bet, considering it had not been a week since he had ‘tactfully commandeered’ the car from a pair of roving bandits, a situation they were not particularly happy about. The rest of the band could be close now, especially after his woodland nap. They might even be here soon. Regardless, he did not feel overly regretful of his actions; no one outside the biomes was good. He wondered if that included him.
‘Discussion for another time’ he muttered aloud, as the car crested a small hill. As his eyes adjusted to the change in sun position, he spotted a potential remedy to his fuel problem. A small cluster of vehicles sat to the side of the torn road, parked sporadically and in a hurry, judging by appearances.
‘Likely not by choice’ he concluded. It was not safe outside the cities, but word-of-mouth from the fronts had hinted it was not particularly safe in the cities either. Some even speculated that people attempting the journey out beyond, in search of one utopia or another. It appears, this particular group of desperate citizens had not lasted long.
He rumbled closer to the cluster, eyeing the vehicles as he approached. There had been no signs of movement, and the cars themselves appeared to be mostly intact. He slow rolled to a stop off to the side, leaving a few meters between him and the nearest car. He needed to make this quick, there had to be something left. He eyed the nearest car, and a few beyond, and chose his scavenging route in advance. Grabbing the rifle, a clear piece of tubing, and an old bucket he had previously found from the backseat, he ducked out the vehicle and maintained a crouch. Satisfied with the quiet, he made his way to the first vehicle and pried open the gas compartment and while shoving the tube down the hole. He placed his mouth over the exposed end and, despite the salty taste, attempted to siphon any liquid from the tank.
A few hefty pulls only confirmed the emptiness of the tank. This was too good to be true, after all. Standing from his knee, he let out a deep sigh, and eyed the next derelict vehicle in the cluster. He took a step in its direction before a faint humming sound came over him. He froze, and slowly peered past the brim of his boonie once again. A light gathering of dust had begun forming just past the ridge he had come from. As the humming became louder, the dust grew thicker. There was no mystery here, he knew exactly the origins of this break in the wasteland monotony. His time of judgement for his transgressions against those frequent transgressors had come. Or, at least, their buddies had.
Instinctively, he darted for his car... or their car… and threw open the rear passenger door. Grabbing the rifle and box of ammo, he lurched himself from the vehicle and moved towards the front of the vehicle. Ensuring he positioned himself just beyond the driver’s side door and in front of the front left tire, he began meticulously arranging ammo and magazines around him.
“Engine block only thing that’ll stop a round” he muttered to himself, a vain attempt to lower his spiking blood pressure. Taking a small measure of comfort in the ammo pool assembled at his feet, he moved to the next step: survey.” Popping his head up and using the windshield to cover his gaze, he noticed the dust cloud coming straight down the road he had traveled, preparing to crest the ridge any moment. He tuned his ears, gathering as much environmental data as possible.
“Three, that’s three engines. So, twelve at the most? Maybe only three.” He smirked at that thought. It would be twelve. He was about to drop back down when a glint caught his eye. He stopped, and stared momentarily. In the piercing sun, reflecting bright colors throughout the car, was that locket. He reached in and pulled it from the mirror, letting it rest in his gloved palm as he slid back down behind the wheel well.
Moving it around in his hand, watching the sun gleam off the gold paint, the engine hum, the heat, and the world briefly faded. He reached down a flipped the clasp, opening the inside. He knew there was no picture, nor anything but the true metal the paint had hidden. Yet, the most beautiful thing in the world existed in his palm. Etched, so lightly, into the left side was one word, ‘Lily.’
“Lily’s are still colorful. They’re always beautiful” he said aloud, repeating the words he had said as he hugged his young daughter goodbye. Repeating the promise he had made to return to her as the Free Cities took him for conscription. He stared, until the world came back to him. The sound of the engines struck him like thunder; they were only a few hundred meters away now. He closed his eyes, let out a breath, wrapped the locket in his fingers, and grabbed his rifle. Popping his elbows onto the hood of the car, he sighted in on the first approaching vehicle. As he moved to the trigger, his mind went blank. He had never enjoyed death, but he enjoyed lying even less.
He had made a promise. The locket jumped as the first shot erupted.