There’s danger in this. Shit, there’s danger in everything now, but this is taking time. Time we made and can’t afford to lose. Y’see standing still’s a luxury these days.
But here I am. Standing still. Still as the tall rock beneath my feet. And I’m splayed like an image I recall from gods know when, arms outstretched, spit coated hands reaching out to catch a movement. Eyes open but unseeing, rolled back. Trying to feel something stir the drying liquid there.
An’ I’m drifting, thinking back to somewhere, somewhere from when I was just a kid. Layin’ there on the grass. Green, green grass, looking up at clouds and clutching the earth beneath me. Holding on ‘cos I’d been laid so long as to start to feel the earth moving and rolling beneath me. For a moment I wonder to myself if that’s what this is, this flicker of movement, this brushing against my skin. Nothing but the endless rolling of the world.
But then it’s there, it’s twitching in my hair and eyelashes, nothing much, but definitely something other.
Wind, I can feel the wind.
How long’s it been? How long since any of us remember the wind on our faces? Months? A year? Years maybe.
We got newborns named Breeze and Gale. Their namings a summoning, a public prayer for something other than this stillness. Names meaningless to some of the other young, their memories not long enough, or too filled with just surviving. Seven-year-olds with eyes like old soldiers. So many words that meant something are just names now.
And then we’re moving again. But now we got moving air too. And we’re walking to greet it, feeling it on our faces, feeling something other than just the perpetual heat of the endless days. Some of the women even begin to smile at each other.
Back in the early days some folks tried to make light of it all, saying it was a blessing, that we’d been saved. A few amongst the many, ready to start a corrupted world anew.
“We’re alive!” they said.
“We’re free,” they cried.
“No more taxes” they joked, “No more self-righteous politicians”.
But they were there alright, just hidden in their tin forts beneath the ground, while we wandered ragged into the wild places. It was then we began to see how things had really changed.
From the mouths of the mad and other wanderers we began to hear the tales. Tales of the “something gone awry”. Science merged with something other. Crazy stories. Stories of angelic visions, twisted and caught, wrought into the hearts of those final fires. That and the destruction from these more-than-bombs, the explosions that became a rolling wave of chaos, changing things that shouldn’t be changed. Leaving alive witnesses to things that shouldn’t be seen.
Sometimes I’d wonder if we hadn’t all just died and wound up in Hell. It would sure explain the looks in the eyes of the children born here.
We head New South away from the high ground. We move all the time. Avoiding the bleached skeleton remains of the few towns and cities not torn out of the earth completely. For “There be monsters”. It’s there they hide, our predators, waiting for us in the edges of the towns and in the higher ground. We skirt their horizons. But still we are taken. And still we die.
Hybrids of animals and the bombs. We name them like new Adams in a garden of dust and death, name them to try and control our fear of them. Hammerangs, Gildyglips, Stonemartins and Lipkins, animals that just shouldn’t be.
Just days ago we fought a Razorwight; I was lucky this time, I lost only two fingers off of my left hand. Two men and a boy of nine die quick, arms taken, guts opened to the sky. A woman caught in its first rush died as we moved off again. We left her for the spiders.
The fucking spiders. Childhood drugs opened a door. Let out a fear in me of the smallest of them. A fear I hated in myself but had been with me for years. An irrational fear made rational by the dust of the bombs. They hide in the ground, waiting, then pouncing with a scattering of dust and spit. They tear the youngest from the women’s backs and are gone before most of us turn around. Sometimes they come in packs, dogging our ragtag caravan. Like hyenas. Just bigger.
But there’s always worse. People. The people are always much worse.
They’re our real predators now, the Still-Soldiers. So we run from them. From their rape, their guns and their superiors with their steel-table-topped labs and endless experiments, but still they come. They plug their ears with wax and radio electronics as they drag us inside their stockades. They plug their ears so they can’t hear our screams, the pleading of the women and children. They talk about us as less than. Never saying He or She, just It. Then they cut into us. To see what they’ve done to the air, to see what they’ve done to us by letting us breathe it.
Some of us have been there and got away. Mostly men who’d been in other wars, once-soldiers. There’s lucky and unlucky in that brotherhood.
I sometimes wonder what they know, cooped up in their hide-aways. If they’re still just guessing like us. As frightened by it all as us.
Y’see, something wrong happened. They didn’t expect this. Not the war. Shit, we’d been expecting the war for years. No, I mean what came after.
Like us they’d read the books, seen the TV specials. We all thought we knew how it would be. Perpetual night. Cold. Ash like snow, filling the streets and mouths of the immediate and therefore lucky dead. We weren’t prepared for this.
Unending day, the world skewed, the compass changed, trapped under a white-yellow blanket of heat.
I think about it sometimes as I walk. We talk about it.
“There must be night somewhere.” We say.
But we don’t know.
Then, with as long as it’s taken, all the walking and the fighting and the dying, it’s done. Or it is the day we see the cloud. A great rolling fog spreading out across the horizon. And we stop and stare. Not knowing what to do. Some of the younger ones ask me.
“Salamander Jack,” they say, “What is it?”
And I lie and say I don’t know.
But I do know. And some of the older folk look at me and they know too. We can smell it on the moving air. Salt. Salt and death.
The sea. A boiling, dying sea. Bloated by the heat of the world and come to meet us. Come to where it shouldn’t be. Its life; its creatures, dead or dying. Its boats, our boats, broken on its hammering across the hard land until we’re caught in a vice of poisoned salt sea and Still-Soldiers.
Able to walk no further. Too tired, scared and sure of what’s out there to walk back.
And that’s it. All that running and fighting, for what? All that scrabbling in the dust for spoonfuls of water. All that fucking and squeezing pups out like animals, not for love, but just for plain stubborn, angry survival. All over. Done. The end. Done.
I knew a guy once, another once-soldier like me, just quieter, and smarter, real smart; always had his head in some damned book or other. One day he tells me a story about how one of the greatest lies we people told ourselves hinged on us always having hope. How we’d taken an old, old tale and wrung out the bad from it like water from a rag, so as to tell ourselves a different story, one we could live with. And I memorised the words he said, so hard did they strike me.
When we’d sit down in the quiet times and the old ones and the women would tell their stories of how it was, and how maybe we can get to some place and make things better than it is, I always got to remembering the tale he told me.
That how a long time ago at the very beginning of things, curiosity came-a-calling of this woman Pandora, and how it got the better of her. How she unstopped a jar left in her husband Epimetheus’ keeping. A jar she been told to leave alone for fear it would anger the gods as had given it. How all the ills to ever befall mankind were spilled out of that jar, freed up into the world, every last one in an endless buzzing stinging cloud. Released upon us pitiful folk across the wide earth to ravage us as never before. Old age, pain, hunger, thirst and every kind of ache and sickness. And he said how when she realised what she’d done she looked in the jar to see that only one thing had remained behind.
In the tale we recall most he said, “That which remained was hope…”
…But it wasn’t Hope.
Because that’s were we’d lied to ourselves see? What was left behind in that jar was something more terrible than all the ills and plagues loosed combined.
“…False Hope.” He’d said.
“…and with that,” he said to me “she damned us forever… damned us to believe that things could always get better.”
“Salamander Jack” – was originally written around June 2005
as part of a short fantasy fiction competition on Deviant
Art which it won, the original posting can be found here:
I wrote the notes for this one Saturday as I wandered around
Colchester... then typed them up the following afternoon...
I'd been reading China Meivilles (then) new novel "Iron
Council" and that's obviously been a big influence on this...
I kind of imagined the voice of Iggy Pop in the title role,
and the character just formed from there.