COMING SOON – another story, “The Diminishing Returns”

AftermathsMEDThe fall of civilisation may or may not happen overnight. ABSENCES – Two Tales of Impending Apocalypse presented gradual transitions into disaster, slow enough to allow us time to worry and suffer while we wait for the other boot to drop.

Last week I shared a snippet from the first story in my next ebook, AFTERMATHS, in which we meet survivors of a similar decline into an ecologically devastated future – but the second story is very different. Instead of a mistrustful community forever on the verge of falling apart, here we meet one man, picking through the ruins of a world which was brought low in a single stroke. He’s not completely alone, though… not yet.

 

The Diminishing Returns

 

The day the dog left ended the best eleven months since the end of the world.

Hugo had known it would be a bad day, had been anticipating it for five months, ever since the last bad day. He wondered if anyone else knew—probably not—and, if not, whether bad luck plagued them anyway but just crept up on them, unaware and unprepared for whatever was about to go down. Probably so. Of course, he didn’t know what misfortune might be lying in wait either, but at least he could brace himself. Though all he could really do was agonise over unknowns out of his control, more and more as the date edged closer. He suspected his way was considerably worse than just being ignorant.

It hadn’t started like a bad day. The cloud cover broke for the first time in months, thin sunlight shining down on them. The dog had been lively, fired up by the sunlight. She bounded in tight circles, eager to be hunting.

Hugo wasn’t fooled. The day was all the more dangerous for wearing a pretty face and inviting excitement. He collected his pack and guns from La Casa, ignoring the stockpile and his hunger. He looked at the hand-drawn calendar on the wall, crossed himself, then it was time to find food.

They prowled the streets of home and the clouds stayed parted. The sun behind the wrecks of the buildings cast bars of no-shadow that slowly dragged across the ground, patterns of broken tarmac, scattered brick and other detritus complicated by unfamiliar contrasts. There were few plants pushing through the rubble that had been the city’s centre—a patch of grasses, the occasional weak treeling—and Hugo knew them all. They had their route, scouting the feeble hints of green for any brave herbivores, watching for rats or other prey.

It was nearing noon when they got lucky. It was the dog that spotted it: a breezeless shiver amongst dry grasses. She stilled and Hugo went on one knee, drawing his little air pistol as he watched for the sign, tried to calm his shaking hands. He saw the jerking of a plant as something (small and brown and out of sight) tugged it up to get at the roots.

The dog sprang forward, no barking to tip off the prey or anything else, but the skittering of her claws on the tarmac was enough. Hugo saw a flicker amongst the grass as the thing made a break for the safety of the nearest fallen building, the dog fast after it. His heart sank as it disappeared into the shelter of a collapsed wall, but the dog thrust her head into the gap too, shifting the bricks and old cement as she struggled.

She backed out and paused, nose low, ears pricked… then darted left and dived in again, further this time, up to the hackles. He heard her faint growls, the snap of teeth. Then, bursting from some unseen crevice, the small, dark blur of fur was back in the open.

He aimed fast and fired, no time for finesse, and he swore under his breath as the shot flicked off the ground in front of the fleeing rodent. It jerked and changed direction as Hugo dug blindly into his shot pouch for another wad cutter—but then the dog was on it, snatching at it with her jaws. The prey squeaked once, then with a violent shake of her head the dog broke its back and Hugo hissed victoriously through gritted teeth.

“Buena, chica,” he whispered, and patted his thigh to call her back. The dog looked at him for a moment, their first fresh meat for weeks dangling limp from her mouth, then she trotted over and released it into his hand. He rubbed her head. “Buena, guapa. Buena.”

Abruptly the dog pulled back from him and turned away to stare across the street. Then she was off and running again, back to the ruined building. She ignored the holes where her kill had hidden and bounded up the slope of debris, climbing over slabs of fallen brickwork and crumbling plaster. She jumped through a half-doorway silhouetted against the sun-lit grey on the crest of the mound and vanished.

“Guapa?” he called, as loud as he dared, his voice a strangled husk. “Chica!” He heard sliding stone, a little avalanche beyond the crest, then nothing.

Then something. Barking. He heard her bark, for the very first time.

Hugo swallowed back his nerves and scuttled to the building, bent almost double. He climbed awkwardly, one-handed, unwilling to sling his weapon. As he neared the top he crawled on his belly until he could peak over the edge.

The breadth of the main street stretched away before him. The dog was already distant, running away from him.

Toward scavengers.

There were four of them—no, five, another emerging from the back of the caravan which the others pulled. He heard their calls as they spotted her coming, they spread out from the cart, guns appearing—he waited for the sound of gunshots as they turned her into a meal. She dodged between them—what was she doing, and why?

As she circled the caravan, the fifth scavenger snared her with a lasso. She twisted and jumped as she was reeled in, her barking turned frantic, mixed with snarls and yips and the others closed around her. They dragged her into the cart.

He saw and heard her no more.

As he trudged toward home, Hugo felt a dog-shaped hole open up in his life. He thought about the rodent, safely stashed in his pack. It would feed him twice now. He tried to tell himself that this was a good thing, a stroke of luck.

But he knew the date. February 13th, 2024.

Tuesday the 13th. Nothing lucky could come of it.

You thought Friday the 13th was bad? When you descend from two superstitious cultures, your bad days can be doubled… and Hugo’s life gets much, much worse than this in Aftermaths: Two Post-Apocalyptic Tales – out this Thursday, on pre-order now.

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