Yavin has been walking for longer than he can remember. His only mission in life is to find water, to keep himself alive. He remembers so much from before the apocalypse, but there are holes as well, things he knows he should know, but can’t quite recall…
I’m tired. I can’t remember ever feeling anything else. I’m sure I have. I’m sure that once, many years ago, I was brimming over with energy, ready for every challenge that came my way. But now? Now I’m just tired.
The tundra stretches out before me, grey and passionless. There is passion, but it lies beneath the surface, buried beneath the coarse grasses that whip at the rags tied around my legs and the pale crumbling soil in which it somehow thrives. Deep beneath them both lies the water that brought me here in the first place.
I can find the water. It’s what I do, it’s what I’ve always done. Back home, whenever that was, they would use me. I’d be led out into the desert and left to roam until I was at death’s door. Something would pull at me, then, tugging me by a string tied to my heart, until I found a patch of sand no different from any other.
My family would emerge to pat me on the back, then men with shovels would arrive and dig and, without fail, water would spring forth from a place empty of the stuff. I was a miracle. I still am.
I miss my family. I am aware, in some dim recess of my mind, that they treated me abominably. Nowadays, it makes no difference. For one, they’re all dead. And for another, the bruised and battered concepts of right and wrong ceased mattering a long time ago.
There’s a wind up today, doing its best to wrest the grass from the ground and blind me with handfuls of fine soil tossed in my face. That takes me back to the desert. I was hunting for water when the slaughter gangs came. That’s why I survived. I didn’t know what was happening at first. I heard screams and gun fire and dashed in their direction, but by the time I found the bodies, they were all that was left.
I blink and see them again, sprawled across the ground, blood covered and blank eyed. Except for my mother. Her eyes were wide as well, but there was nothing blank about them. If her raised skirts hadn’t told me what happened, her face would have.
The irony was, I survived on the water I took from their bodies. We all had a water bottle then, kept full as often as possible. I pat my waist and feel the five bottles tied there, same as always. I survived by drinking the very thing that had taken me away from them in the first place, but not because I had succeeded. Because I failed. Because I was still searching.
That was the last time I failed. My foot catches one of the roots that runs across the surface of the tundra and I stumble. Maybe time to stop.
I perch on a vague outcropping of rock and take in the view behind me. Tundra, plain and unending. Before me lies the same, just as it does to both sides. How long have I been walking this time?
The slaughter guards were just the start. The tanks came not long after and my country was turned into a bloodbath, a wreckage site good to neither man nor beast. The papers called it a reclamation, that my people wanted the invaders to bring us back into the fold. I didn’t know what fold it was, but I knew they were doing nothing of the sort.
Retaliation. That was the next buzz word. Retaliation came in the form of soldiers, just like those that had killed my family, no more merciful, just more choosy about who they hurt. A bomb was dropped. I don’t know who dropped it first, but the next thing I remember was the sky turning orange and staying that way for two weeks. Black clouds like mountains towered above the desert and everyone left alive, died.
It happened just like that, just like I’ve described it. There was no long drawn out agonised final death throes, or some heroic struggle. There was sound and light, then silence.
So I left. I began walking, searching for something better. No, not better, just something, anything other than the endless waste lands of my home.
I’ve walked over desert and mountains, through green fields and brown forests and further still. I can’t remember when I reached the tundra, but it feels long ago, shrouded in some ancient part of history.
I snort and startle myself. I’m not used to making noise. I try my best to be silent and still as much as I can, save when I’m walking. Even then, I keep the chirpy humming to a minimum. This is a silent world now, the only disturbance the wind that whips across the tundra and drags with it the tiny stones that litter the floor.
I stifle a yawn, stand, and set off once again. I need water, urgently. I close my eyes and wait for the tugging. It comes, leading me on at a faster pace as I find energy in my body I didn’t know I had. Always the promise of water stirs me when nothing else can.
My mother used to call me a water baby, which is the biggest joke when you live in a desert. I would get excited at the sight of a glass of the stuff, and bath time would end with me in floods of tears, inconsolable at my removal from the inches-deep puddle of dirty liquid in which I had apparently been made clean.
It wasn’t funny then and it still isn’t. I’m still dehydrated to a degree far beyond what is healthy and I’m still going to die if I don’t find any. But the string is already pulling me alone, guiding me to a tiny depression in the ground. No one would have noticed it, not unless they knew what I was looking for.
But there’s no one here to look. There’s no one here to see me, not anymore. The last reports said the world was gone, that everyone was dying. I can’t attest to that one way or the other. But I’ve been walking long enough for my beard to be brushing my chest and my feet to feel like they’re made of wood and I’ve seen no one.
Not a soul.
I dump my pack, take the shovel off the back, and start to dig. The water lies deep this time and the sun’s dropping long before I’m done. The moon changed colour a few months back. Maybe. It might have been years for all I know, but now a faintly crimson light spills across the tundra. It’s something to do with the atmosphere being messed up by the bombs, I’m not sure. I think I would have known more, before.
I was studying. Something scientific. But my mind no longer works that way. It works in circles, now, decreasing ones most of the time. I walk. I sleep. I find water. I find food. Not that I eat much anymore. A rat maybe once a week. I’m sure I should need more, but somehow I don’t get hungry.
I get plenty thirsty, though. The spade cracks through the crust and beneath it I see the same brackish, brown liquid that has sustained me for so long. I thrust both hands in and raise it to my mouth. The water trickles into my beard, but enough runs down my throat to bring a huge smile to my face.
It tastes funny, I know that. Water never tasted like this before. But I’ve been drinking it so long it tastes how it’s supposed to.
A noise disturbs me and I spin round. There’s nothing there. There never is. There’s nothing here except me. Me and the silence. But I’m sure I heard something. Like a sigh.
I shake my head and fill up my bottles. I’m making good time today. The wind changed yesterday and brought with it the scent of something other than dry ground and dust. Trees. There’s a forest ahead. It’ll be evergreen, dark and vast. Somewhere to get lost.
I walk on. My mind finds another circular track and slips easily into it, poring over the same mysteries. Where did my pack come from? I’ve carried it as long as I’ve walked, but I can’t for the life of me remember where I got it. It has a shovel and a small tent and various other bits and pieces I need to survive out here.
And it has the paper. I found it a while back, scrunched up at the bottom of one of the side pockets. How I missed it for so long I’ll never know. It was almost like it wanted to be found, rising up from beneath the debris and leaping into my hands.
It’s in my pocket now, but I don’t want to take it out. I don’t want to stare at the strange symbols that remind me what I’ve lost. There are so many things I can’t remember from before the bombs, but I know I could read. I know because my father was obsessed with it.
His children would be educated. It didn’t matter that we lived in a desert with two rooms between five of us and goat’s meat once a week. We would be educated so we could become something more. So I could do maths and read long before the tiny school opened in the village.
The school isn’t there any more. The village isn’t, either. It’s a scar, barely even that, upon a desert that no longer remembers the people who once eked out an existence on its unforgiving rump. A lump forms in my throat, as unsuspected as meeting another person out here would be. I didn’t sleep well last night and I’m feeling it now, blinking away tears I’d thought long dried up.
I could read. But I can’t any longer. I look at the words on the paper and, even knowing they’re words, still they make no sense to me. I have no pen, but I tried drawing numbers in the dust. They I can do. Long multiplication and pi and all sorts, flow from me like they still matter. But words are gone.
I tug the paper from my pocket and stare at it. I think I do this every day, but even the days are mingling together now. Maybe it’ll be different when I reach the forest. I’ve been on the tundra too long. I scan the paper, seeing the symbols but not knowing what they mean.
Certification of Enhanced-Human-Resource.
This paper certifies that Yavin Mohamed has been officially designated Enhanced Human. His rad-resistance is at an astonishing level, far higher than most, and a considerable period of field time is expected before break down. He is to be deployed to ruined Earth to search for uncontaminated water. He has been assigned a complete field team that will monitor all activities from the Lunar Colony. Unnecessary memories of implant procedure and additional serum application have been removed, along with potentially hazardous skills or knowledge from pre-apocalypse persona.
Any further inquiries should be processed through the usual channels.
Field director for reclamation of Earth
General James Beltan.
I’m tired. The paper means nothing, not to me. I’m thirsty, too. The bottles at my waist were full not long ago, but now they clang and rattle together. I need to find water. I let out a long sigh, watching my breath steam in the cold morning air, then stumble on.