Read 15 years later: wasteland Online

Authors: Nick S. Thomas

15 years later: wasteland

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15 YEARS LATER: Wasteland

By Nick S. Thomas

 

Copyright © 2015 by Nick S. Thomas

Published by Swordworks Books

 

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

 

 

 

CONTENTS

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Epilogue

 

 

Prologue

 

What if you woke up one day and everything you ever knew had gone? The only people in sight want to take everything you have, including your life. The cities you used to visit reduced to uninhabitable ruins. There appears no law and order, nor government, or organised society. Worse still, you don't know how it got this way, or who you really are. Any friends or family you may have are nowhere to be found. Are you a hero, a villain, or perhaps a nobody? All you have is a handful of photos of who might be a wife and a daughter that you don't remember, and a will to live. What do you do?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

"What Order is he from?" a coarse and poorly educated thug called out.

To Zed it sounded like a muffled dream far in the distance. His head felt sore, and his senses were dulled. The overwhelming sensation was that of an unrelenting sun beating down on his face and the boiling rock he lay on.

Where the hell am I?

"Just kill him, and then let's get out of here!" yelled a whiny female voice with a Jersey twang, but with the rough tone of a chain smoker.

Zed wasn't awake enough to take in what she had said, and it still felt like a dream. He tried to open his eyes, but the light was too much. He felt someone grab his clothing around his chest and pull open his jacket violently. He heard the threads snap as several buttons were ripped from the garment. Zed had no idea where he was or how he had got there, but he knew he was in serious trouble. He forced his eyes open, and the light assaulted his eyes. His only saving grace was the little shadow his attacker gave him.

Before he could make out the man's face, he was hit by a disgusting smell. A mixture of old sweat, gasoline, and foul breath. It was almost enough to vomit.

"Get off me," he muttered.

He meant it to be louder, but his mouth was dry, and he was barely able to get the few decibels out that he managed. His eyes were just about adjusting to the environment and getting into focus to see a dirt-ingrained clenched fist heading right for his face. It caught him completely by surprise as it landed squarely on his nose. The impact smashed the back of his head down against the rock he had awoken on.

The impact dulled his senses and caused his vision to briefly blackout. The dull thud echoed in his ears. It almost sounded as though his skull was splitting on the rock. He felt his upper body being lifted up once more in preparation to smash him down again. He knew he couldn't take much more of this. He didn't know why he was being attacked, but the severity of the situation was really kicking in.

His body stopped mid air, as it reached the apex and his attacker was happy his head was high enough to finish him off. It felt like the end. He didn't know why, but he didn't seem to have any fight in him. But in those last seconds, some survival instinct buried deep within his soul seemed to wrestle control of his mind, and without even knowing it his right hand shot upwards and grasped his attacker by the throat. The man still drove his head down to try and split it open, but could not get any strength into it as Zed kept his head raised and his arm locked out. His shoulder blades still struck the rock hard, but he held on for his life so his attacker could get no strength into the throw.

Zed's eyes were wide open now as the adrenaline rushing through his body brought him back into reality like a shot, and he gasped as the wind was taken out of him. His attacker was dressed like a homeless punk who had been drifting across state for years on end. His clothes were ripped and worn out, but he wore a thick steel nose ring that hung down over his upper lip. His hair was shaved into a short Mohawk and looked so crudely done as to cut his scalp in many places.

Who the hell is this guy?

The last thing he remembered was a lawn party behind a perfect white picket fence, the sound of a child's laughter, the sizzling of meat on the barbecue, and a cold beer at his lips.

How has it come to this? Howhave I even got here?

None of it made any sense, but he was brought back to reality from his attacker's fists once again smashing into his face. He was gasping for air, as he grew weak. Zed's grasp around his neck was clamped like a vice. He never remembered having such strength, but the psychotic attacker seemed completely unable to free himself from his grasp.

Another fist struck into his face, and he tasted blood as it seeped out from his nose and mouth. He could see his attacker was getting weaker and going a little pale as he was starved of oxygen. It was a horrible sight, and yet somehow he took pleasure in it. It was an alien feeling that made him feel a little sick, but he didn't let that stop him.

"What do you want from me?" he asked.

No response came as the man still struggled against his grasp. He grabbed Zed's hand with both of his and tried with all his strength to prise them off his neck, but to no avail. He reached down for something on his body and pulled out a knife. It was a fixed blade kitchen instrument with just four inches of sharpened edge. It was black with dirt and old rust, but its point and edge glistened where it had been recently sharpened. He stabbed forwards towards Zed. He had no time to do much, no room to manoeuvre.  All he could do was put his left hand in the path of the thrust to save his body. The blade pierced his palm and passed right through so that the point came out close to his face, and his own blood dripped down onto him. He'd had enough. He let go of the man's throat and quickly snapped the back of his fist into his face to disorientate him.

That was just enough to make him lessen his grasp on the weapon a little. Zed grabbed the index finger wrapped around the grip and snapped it back until it broke. The man screamed in agony and let go of the blade. Zed quickly drew it out, causing his own blood to spurt out from the open wound. He thrust the blade into the man's chest so that it drove deep. He rolled and came up on top of his attacker until their roles were reversed as he drew the blade out. Blood was pouring from the wound, but he did not hesitate to plunge the blade back into the man with five more unrelenting and brutal thrusts until he was finished.

He finally slumped over the body in relief and tried to regain his breath. He righted himself and looked at his hands once more. The other man's blood horrified him more than his own. He never remembered harming a soul before, and yet his hands seemed to act in a way that his brain was unfamiliar with. He had shown no hesitation in killing his attacker, but he didn't know why. Any time he had to think it over was soon torn from him.

"Hey, watcha doin?"

It was the woman whose muffled voice he first heard when he had begun to wake. He got up to his knees and rested down on his feet as he turned to face the woman. She wore the pleated tartan skirt of a schoolgirl, but it was dirty and torn, and she looked closer to thirty than thirteen. She wore a camouflage shirt open with the sleeves rolled up, and tall leather boots with two-inch thick soles. Her face was adorned with black make up, and she held a hatchet in one hand. She looked like something out of a horror movie and wasn't a lot cleaner than the body of the man he was lying over.

She looked at him in surprise, before turning her attention down to the bloody mess below him. Her gaze quickly turned back to Zed, and she glared at him with daggers in her eyes. He could see she wanted his blood. He stood up and backed away from the body, leaving the knife still embedded in his victim's chest. She took a few paces nearer so she could get a better look at the body on the ground. There was no doubt he was dead.

From a standing position, he was now able to get a better idea of where they were. He was on top of a rock formation in what looked like the dry dusty barren lands of Nevada, but he couldn't tell for certain. To his back was a fair drop, and he looked back to the woman. She was psyching herself up for a fight.

"I didn't want this. I didn't...I didn't start this," pleaded Zed.

But his words seemed lost on the woman. He could hear footsteps coming from behind her, and another man who was clearly with her scrambled up the rocks. He rushed to the side of the dead man and looked even more stricken than she did. This man was bald and dressed as roughly as the others, but had a deep scar running from his nose, past his eye, and up over his bald head. He drew out the knife from the body and strode forward towards Zed with a war cry so loud and high pitched it was terrifying.

This man came at him with a frenzy the likes of which he had never experienced, and the woman was already following close behind. He knew if he had any chance of surviving, he could only take on one at a time. The scarred man swung a heavy and clumsy thrust towards his head. Zed ducked under and pushed with all his force so that his attacker was thrown off the plateau. He saw him vanish off the edge and smash into a rock before disappearing out of sight, but he didn't have a moment to waste. He spun back around to see the woman's hatchet swinging for him in a strong horizontal arc. He backed off and almost went over the edge himself, but he took another step and spun out and back towards his first victim.

"Why are you doing this? I haven't done anything to you. I don't even know you!" he screamed.

She didn't seem interested. She let out a banshee like scream and charged towards him. It was as if nothing mattered in her existence but killing him. He couldn't understand it, but all he could do was try and survive. She was swinging the hatchet from one side to another. He backed off a few paces when finally one of the cuts clipped his chest and opened up a few inches long. He winced in pain as he stumbled back nursing his wound.

For a moment she stopped and circled him. He had hoped she had seen some sense, but he wasn't so lucky. She was merely torturing her prey. She came rushing at him once again. He threw off his coat and wrapped her arm as she came at him. It quickly entangled the weapon and her arm and brought them face-to-face. To his amazement she head-butted him on his already sore and bloody nose. The pain was excruciating, but he held onto the axe with everything he had. He pulled back and wrenched it and the coat away from them both. But as he turned his attention back to her, she was airborne and descending on him with a punch that hit him just to the side of his left eye. She wore a line of sovereign rings that struck like brass knuckles.

Zed could see another swing coming for his face, and he wasn't sure he could stay conscious through many more like it. He ducked aside at the last minute. That threw her a little off balance as her shoulder went into the powerful strike. He stepped around her and slipped his right arm round her neck to lock her. But she immediately resisted and stamped down on his right foot with her heavy boots. It was enough to weaken his grasp and allow her to drive her elbow into his stomach.

She spun out of his grasp and punched at the open wound on his chest where she could see the blood dripping from the cut. He reeled in pain, but it also made him furious. He had tried everything to prevent a fight, but now there was nothing left but to fight for survival. She swung a heavy right towards him, and he blocked it with his left and delivered a quick succession of three punches to her face. The third came close to knocking her out as her legs buckled and she fell in towards him.

One again he locked her neck, and this time she was too weak to fight it. He held firm as she tried to hit back but to no avail and finally passed out. He released his grip and let her drop to the ground before slumping his shoulders and sighing in relief.

It's over!

But even as he let himself believe for a moment that all would be okay, the man who had gone over the edge scrambled up onto the top to face off against him. His left shoulder was separated with the bone driven upwards. It was a nasty sight, and yet he seemed to shrug it off. He stood firm for a moment and just growled at Zed. He may be injured, but he looked just as dangerous as before, and Zed was now very aware of how tired and weak he was.

He looked down to see the woman's hatchet not far from his feet. Without a word, he snatched it up. As he got upright, the man was sprinting towards him. Zed drew the hatchet back and launched it with immense force in a straight-line throw. The blade embedded in the man's skull and snapped his head back like he had been clotheslined. His legs flew up in the air as his back hit the ground, and he slid to a halt, the blade still embedded in his head. Blood seeped out over the rock in a growing pool around his body. There was no doubt he was dead.

Zed could only shake his head. He was beginning to feel sick once again now the adrenaline was starting to die down. He never remembered killing anyone before, but then he didn't remember much at all of anything around him.

"Why? What have I done to deserve this?" he asked himself.

 

Chapter 2

 

Blood dripped from Zed's hands as he stood in horror looking at them. His own wounds were numbed. He was too horrified by what he had done to really notice. He looked past his hands to the three bodies that lay before him. A single tear dripped from his right eye, and his stomach was still turning. It was like a dream, a horrific nightmare. And yet he knew it was real because no nightmare could be this bad. He expected the cops to turn up any minute. The only thought going through his mind now was the lifetime he would spend behind bars.

But he snapped out of his dream like state as he heard the roar of an engine in the distance. It reverberated with a coarse and visceral tone, like an old carburetted V8 running straight through pipes. Zed's adrenaline surged once again. His survival instincts told him he needed to be careful, as though a predator was circling him. It was an uneasy feeling, and yet somehow it felt all too familiar.

He turned towards the sound and rushed to the edge of the rock, ducking down so as to not create a silhouette. He could hear the vehicle’s engine roaring. It was being thrashed like a rowdy teenager would do in their first car. The first thing he saw was the dust cloud the vehicle was creating over the edge of the rocky outcrop. A wrecked and heavily modified old pickup raced into view a few seconds later. It looked like a 70's Chevy but was barely recognisable, the paint long overtaken by thick rust and a black patina. The roof was missing, and a crude cage stood in its place.

Thick steel ram bars had been welded to the front, and the only paint visible was a roughly painted white skull on the hood. Every panel was bent and damaged, and a thick layer of dust and dirt covered each surface, only thinner on the hood where it had been swept aside to keep the skull visible. Zed's eyes widened, and his gaze panned to the rear of the vehicle when he heard a scream ring out. A half naked woman was tied to a wrecker frame in the back. Her face was bloody, and she screamed out for help. Even worse, a chain ran out from the back of the vehicle dragging a man across the ground.

Zed couldn't imagine how his situation could have gotten any worse, but it just took that turn. He put his head down to look away and kept low, praying they would pass him by. He didn't want to live this day anymore. But to his horror, he heard the squeal of old brakes as the vehicle slid to a halt.

No, please no!

He looked up and around for any reason why they might have stopped, and then he spotted it. Parked on the ground below was a sand rail buggy. There was no driver or occupants to be seen, and he knew why, because they lay dead beside him. The buggy carried the same white skull as the truck. He heard the engine of the vehicle roar and draw nearer to investigate. He didn't have long now, so he crawled carefully from the edge and back to the bodies.

The engine slowed and drew to an idle, finally stopping as he began to rifle through the pockets of his attackers. He was looking for something, anything, any indication as to their identity, where they were, and why he was attacked. But there was nothing. All of their pockets were empty. No identification, no money, nothing. He could hear the sounds of two people scrambling up the rocks behind him. He didn't want another fight, and he wasn't even sure he could survive one. He got up, rushed quickly over the edge furthest from the vehicles, and clambered down the rocks as carefully as he could.

As his left palm rested on one rock, he felt excruciating pain soar up his arm. He went to cry out but stopped himself at the last moment. He carried on a little way until he found a small alcove and ducked in for cover. He knelt down there silently and waited. The muffled tones of two men's voices became louder as they reached the top. At first he couldn't make out what they were saying until one stepped up to the edge where moments before he’d clambered down. The steps stopped. He must have been looking out and around for any sign of movement.

"They musta just gone at each other!" he yelled to the other.

He spoke with a southern accent and not an educated one. Zed wanted to peek out to get a look at him, but he couldn't risk it.

"Hey, Jinny's still alive!"

Ah, shit!

He remembered leaving her unconscious. He couldn't bring himself to kill her at the time, but now it could cost him his life.

"Is this what life has come to? Kill or be killed? Is there nothing else?" he asked himself quietly.

He heard the footsteps grow quieter as they made their way back to the truck. The sound of its rumbling engine firing up was a relief to him, and as it pulled away along with the sand rail, he breathed a sigh of relief.

Slowly but surely he made his way back to the top of the rock. He had to try and make some sense of everything he had seen and experienced. But as he reached the top, he followed he tyre tracks of the vehicle. It was heading for some kind of shantytown in the distance. It looked like an industrial complex mixed with all sorts of vehicles and other structures, but nothing more than three storeys tall. Even from this distance, he was able to make out the giant white skull on the largest tower at the centre of the complex. He didn't recognise it from anything other than what he had seen on the two vehicles, but he already knew to fear it.

He turned to pan around the entire scenery and look for any other landmarks, but as he got a full one eighty degrees, he stopped dead and couldn’t breathe. It was like someone had just kicked him in the stomach. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. Not too far in the distance were the desolate ruins of a once large and modern city. With the dry craggy mountains in the background, it looked like Phoenix, but was so badly damaged and long abandoned it was hard to tell if it was. Zed felt his head begin to spin as the reality of his surroundings were really starting to kick in.

A wide highway leading towards the city was barely visible through the sands that were encroaching on its borders. There were no signs of where he might be, no central reservation on the road or streetlights. Not a single piece of metal in sight; as if it had all been long destroyed or removed. His fear of incarceration by the law of the land had vanished in seconds, replaced by a deep down dread and terror of what was to come. He collapsed down onto his knees. He felt lost. There were no answers for what he was experiencing, no one to ask why or how.

He looked at the two vehicles vanishing off into the distance and then down to his hand that was still bleeding badly. All he knew was that he had to keep on going. He had to keep on living. That was all that mattered, because that's all he knew. He forced himself back onto his feet and carried on down the rocks towards the city. He reached the ground and found a little shelter from the sun and cover from the savages, who may yet come back looking for him.

As he sat down, he found a small bag hanging by his side from his shoulder. He had not noticed it before through the wave of emotion and pain that had overcome him. It was a canvas bag that looked as if it used to house a gas mask. He opened it to find a small metal bottle of water, a tinderbox, and a few bandages that looked as though they had been used many times before, but carefully boiled and re-rolled. He reached down into the bag in the hope of finding something else, but that was it.

He opened the water and sniffed it. He poured a little over the wound on his hand, before unravelling a bandage and wrapping it as best he could. Within a few minutes, he had started a fire with pieces of wood he had scavenged from around the area. It immediately calmed his nerves as he sat back and let the flames grow. For a moment he was frozen solid as he desperately thought of what to do. He tried to think back over his last memories, of that party as if it were yesterday. He remembered being in his early twenties, and yet he looked down to see the hands of a man at least ten years older than that. They were the hands of a man who had not just worked with his hands, but also lived a hard life.

There was a scar over the back of his left wrist and hand. It vanished in under the bandage he had applied. He reached into the pockets of his coat, but they were empty. Then he thought to check the inside pocket. He delved into it and found some thick paper card. It was something, and he quickly pulled them out. There were three photos. They were crinkled and worn, and more than a little faded. One of them had a burn mark in one corner. The first picture was of his parents. He recognised it instantly as though he had seen it a thousand times. They were arm-in-arm resting on the bonnet of his father’s 2009 Dodge Charger.

The next photo was of him, as he remembered himself in the memories of that party. Stood beside him was a woman around his age. She was beautiful, but her name eluded him. He couldn't remember who she was, but he knew she was important to him. He could only imagine it was his wife or girlfriend. She had her hands on the shoulders of a girl who was maybe three or four years old. It brought a smile to his face as he remembered a few flashes from that day, but nothing that helped him.

He moved to the last photo. Yet again he was in it, with a beer in hand and his arm around a man who looked close enough in age and appearance to be his brother. He was straining his mind trying to remember more of the people in the photos, but nothing was coming. It looked as though they were all taken around a similar time. Perhaps even all at the same party. It was the only memory he had to go on right now.

He slipped them carefully back into his inner pocket, but as he looked down, he saw something shining beneath his shirt, just above the wound on his chest. He raised his hand to see what it was and found a gold ring around a chain on his neck. It looked like a wedding band, but was plain and gave no further clues as to why he had it there. He could only assume it must have been important to him. He turned his attention back to his hand. He unwrapped the bandage, but there was little sign of the bleeding stopping. He rifled through his pockets once again, when he noticed a leather pouch on his belt. He looked inside and pulled out a small multi-tool. It would have to do. He opened the blade and pushed it into the hot embers of the fire. He reached up to scratch his head. His hair was short, not even an inch long, but it felt rough and unkempt, as if cut with a pair of scissors and not washed in weeks. As his hand brushed through his hair, he felt a sharp pain as his fingers touched a patch of dried blood. He winced in pain and felt his head pounding as a result.

"What the hell is that?"

He felt around for the wound. It was a severe cut in his head and had sealed naturally by the feel of it, and recently.

Is this the reason I can remember so little?

It seemed to make sense. He wondered now how long he had lain on that rock where he first woke up. His skin was well tanned and a little burnt. As though he was well accustomed to living under the sun, but not for days on end, as it seemed he had done. It reminded him just how dry his mouth was, so he took another sip. As he lifted the flask, he saw a small engraving in the centre.

'To your first legal drink, from Johnnie."

Reading that name instantly sparked a memory of the photo of the man who he thought was his brother, and now he knew. He didn't know how or why, but it was him; and as his lips touched the mouth of the flask, he remembered the first sip of Wild Turkey he had taken the day he had been given that flask. But now water tasted just as good to his chapped lips and bone dry mouth.

The comforting smell of burning wood reminded him of what he needed to do. He reached down and wrapped the burning hot multi-tool with the sleeve of his jacket and picked it up, placing it down on the palm of his hand. The smell of searing flesh was not a nice one, but he gritted his teeth and got by. Somehow he knew he had done this before. He turned his hand over and cauterised the exit wound, too, rewrapping the bandage in the hope of keeping it clean.

He turned his attention to the cut on his chest. It was only a surface wound, and he couldn't spare any water to clean it down. He pulled out one of the other bandages and used it to wipe the wound clean, and then left it be. He lost himself in thought as he stared into the fire for a few moments. It was good for the soul if nothing else. But then he finally looked towards the ruins of the city. He stood up and just gazed upon it as he tried to wrap his head around how and why things were the way were.

How many years since that city fell?

Based on the accents he had heard and the vehicles he’d seen, it was a pretty safe bet to assume he was still in America, but that made it all the more terrifying.

What could have gone so badly wrong as to reduce a major American city to ruins, and then leave the area home to little more than low life gang scum?

He had so many questions, and so little idea of how to find the answers.

 

Chapter 3

 

It was the sun that woke Zed, just as it had the day before. The first day in what was this new life that he never could have wished for, nor imagined in the worst nightmare. Yet again his mouth was dry, and he knocked back the flask, but there were only few drops left. His fire had long gone out. He was still dressed from the day before, only having removed his jacket to use as a pillow for his weary head. He got up and pulled it on. It was a bizarre feeling to know that he was leaving nothing behind. As far as he knew, he was wearing and carrying everything he owned.

As Zed stepped out from the shelter of the rocks, and onto the dusty open plain leading towards the city, he was struck by a cooling light breeze. The air smelt fresh and clean, a welcome change from the filthy vagrants he had to deal with the day before, and his own unclean self. He stopped for a moment and considered which way he should go. All he knew was that the white skull adorned savage town lay at his back, and a dilapidated city ahead. All he would find was violence if he turned back, so the city seemed his only bet. Perhaps he might at least find some clue as to his location and how it got that way.

He lifted his wounded hand and clenched his fist. He could manage it, but the more his fingers closed in the more it hurt. He just hoped he wouldn't need to use it for a few days. He looked back up at the ravaged silhouette of the city, and knew there was nothing else for it. He took a pace forward and started the march onwards. It wasn't long before he found himself joining up with the dust-covered road he had seen the day before. The ground between him and the city was almost completely flat, and he could see for miles all around.

That made him vulnerable, but there was no choice. He couldn't afford to wait out there in the wilderness for much longer. The lack of water alone would kill him, even if the white skull gang didn't. It was a slow drudge down the road. The tarmac and the sand all around it was soaking up the heat, and he was starting to really cook once more as it drew closer to noon.

He started to stray from the centre of the road slightly as heat exhaustion was setting in, when his foot hit something hard. He tumbled over into a roll and landed on his back. He stayed there for a moment, trying to find the motivation to get back up. To his amazement his foot didn't hurt at all, and he leaned forward to feel the cap of his shoes. They had steal caps inside. It was lucky, but he doubted it was a coincidence. Whatever this life was, there was no doubt it was a tough and violent one.

Finally, he got back to his feet and staggered over to investigate what he had tripped on. There was a stem of a steel pole protruding from he ground. It was about eight inches in diameter and perfectly machined, but had been cut off as close to the ground as whatever power tool used could manage. He walked to the opposite side of the road until he found exactly the same sawn off pole embedded in the ground. He could see they were the supports of an overhead sign for the road, but all the metal that could be pillaged was long gone. The corrosion on the surfaces looked like they had been cut away years ago.

His hopes of finding out where he was seemed dashed for now. The hope of finding road signs seemed all but gone, but he had to go on. It took him another hour of walking in the baking heat before he got close to the first structure on the outskirts of the city. It looked like a diner with a gas station beside it. Every window was missing, and yet again any metal signs were missing.

A thin rope was tied from the cover of the gas station over to the shop beside it. Dozens of empty food cans were hung from it, and they echoed as they struck one another in the wind. It was an eerie and uncomfortable sound, and he couldn't help but feel that he was being watched by whoever had set it up. As he stood still and studied it all, his ears suddenly became aware of what he had feared most, the violent reverberations of throbbing V8’s at his back. A sound he used to love, and in one single day it had come to symbolise a predator that seemed to want to stalk him until the very end.

The same truck from the day before was tearing up the road towards him. Another was running beside it that looked like it used to be a Caprice cop car, its front bars and spot lamps fitted in place where the blue lights used to sit. He hoped they hadn't seen him, but it seemed impossible. He quickly rushed towards the gas station and dived through one of the open windows. A few remaining shards of glass were caught by his coat and showered him as he rolled inside.

The gas station was dark inside, the only light coming through the broken windows, and it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust. As soon as they did, he found himself looking at the sharp end of a makeshift spear. It looked little more than a survival knife taped firmly to a pole. He looked past the blade, and it was held by a skinny wretch of a teenager. He was dressed more in rags than clothes. Despite the boy’s small stature, he looked hardened by the cruel world around them. In his eyes was a cool confidence and psychotic survival instinct that told Zed he meant business. He held his hands up as if to offer the internationally recognised sign of not wanting trouble.

"Go!" yelled the boy in a gruff voice that sounded like it came from a man twice his age.

He thrust the spear forwards in a threatening manner as if wanting him to leave, even though Zed had no desire to cause him any harm. He couldn't believe it.

Is there anyone in this place who doesn't want to see me dead?

"Come on, just let me stay. I don't want anything from you," he pleaded.

But he noticed a few more glimmers of movement in the background, as another five similarly dressed young men appeared from behind the cover of the old dusty aisles. The nearest looked more intent on doing him harm as he came forward with a brutal looking two-handed machete. He quickly got up and backed off before leaping through the window he had come in from.

The white skull adorned truck slid sideways to a halt about twenty yards from the edge of the gas station. The two men on top of it just watched and waited, as if they didn't want to draw any nearer. Zed looked back inside to see the shadows of the feral young men inside glaring at the vehicles in front of him. There was some kind of feud or understanding here that he wasn't privy to. Nobody said a word, but all eyes were on him now.

Just beside the truck the old cop cruiser had drawn up. The roof had been cut back into a pickup, and the rear doors were missing. A man stood in the back with a dust infused Mohawk. He wore an old police issue Kevlar vest over his bare skin and carried a powerful looking compound crossbow. Across the way to the truck, one of the men in the back carried three javelins, the other a ball and chain. He couldn't believe what he was seeing, and yet it didn't make it any less real.

It was a standoff. Nobody would approach him, and he couldn't go to either group, as both appeared to want him dead or worse. He looked back to the city. The nearest buildings were less than a mile away now.

Could I make it?

It didn't seem likely, but he didn't have any choice. He leapt into action and got to almost a sprint. His will to survive kept him going even when his body wanted to stop.

At his back he heard the engines of the two vehicles roar and the wheels spin as they tore off in hot pursuit. He could hear the excited screams of the men on the back of the vehicles chasing down their prey.

What have I done to deserve this?

He ran with all the strength he had left. Every ounce of his reserve of energy went into his sprint. For a moment he believed he could make it, but he felt the impact of the ball and chain on his left shoulder blade as the truck raced past.

The iron ball threw him forward so that he went face first into a tumble. Had he been going any slower, it would likely have shattered his bones, but that was of little relief as the pain spread through his shoulder. He tried to land on his feet, but he had been thrown too violently and landed face down in the sand. He tried to get back up and managed to get to his feet. The vehicles slid to a halt around him, and the two from the truck approached. He turned and kept trying to run, but he could only manage a jog now.

"Come on, please, just a little longer," he whispered to himself.

He could hear the war cries of those at his back and their heavy breathing as they closed the distance. They barely seemed human. They certainly weren't treating him like one.

I imagine this is how the fox must feel just before the hungry pack of bloodhounds tear it apart while their masters cheer triumphantly.Is this a sport to them, too? Doesmy life have any value in this nightmare I have awoken in?

Somehow he had summoned enough strength to make some distance from the two barbaric lunatics at his back. But once again he heard the roar of an engine. He was close now, almost within spitting distance of a building. He felt that would maybe grant him some safety. He had made that his target, and he was going to make it. But he could hear the roar of the engine once more. It reeked of oil where it clearly wasn't running well. That clung to his lungs.

He had made it. There was a floor to ceiling window ahead for what used to be a furniture shop. The window was badly broken and weakened, and he could see the dust covered products still left inside.

Just a little longer.

But at the last moment the crossbow wielding man on the back of the old cruiser pulled the trigger. Zed expected to feel the pierce of a bolt in his back any moment, but it didn't come. He jumped to break through the glass, but as he struck it, a heavy net encompassed his body and completely entangled him.

He shut his eyes to protect them, as he knew now he had no control left at all. He barrelled through the window and landed on the edge of one of the sofas as glass showered all around him. As it began to settle, he was relieved to see he wasn't hurt. He tried to find a way out of the net but was completely entangled by it. He could do nothing. He had little energy left, and no way to fight back, but he had made it to safety. Made it to the city. In his head that made him think he had won. He had succeeded in the mission he set for himself, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

His dream was soon shattered when he heard the roar of the car engine. A rope attached to the net drew taut as he was wrenched out of the shop and landed hard on the ground outside. He was dragged a few yards and then stopped. He fought once again to get out of the net, but it was impossible. He reached down for the multi-tool on his belt in some hope of getting to the blade, but it was too late. The ball and chain-wielding maniac stood over him now, and he was powerless to act. He saw the man's fist coming for his face and felt the impact before blacking out.

 

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