The air was arid and hot, scorching his throat and lungs on each inward breath. The dust and dirt, swirling through the barely noticeable eddies in the air, did nothing to help his situation. In Orwell, the human spirit died by force; In Huxley, it died of consumption; In reality, the human condition slowly rotted away to reveal the diseased heart of the species. Humanity didn’t cave to nuclear fallout after a war and they weren’t destroyed by a rampant virus or mutagen; nor was humanity struck down by divine or extraterrestrial retribution. As Elliot once said, this is the way the world ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. At the hands of time, humanity had whimpered and faded. Only the best now walked the wastes, collecting what little they could in what was left of a desolate and broken world; the smartest, the strongest and the most cunning were all that stood even a semblance of a chance in a harsh new world.
He turned on his heel, jerking his leg slightly so that the double barreled shotgun that hung loosely off his wrist from a tattered piece of an old belt to bump it up into his hand. The man's ears were second to none, honed after paranoid years of sleepless nights trying to detect the slightest warning of potential threats in the dark. He had heard the unmistakeable scuffing of a clumsy leather boot on the ground. The owner sounded light, a child at best or a hardened woman at worst; either way they would be dangerous. No threat could be taken lightly, even if it was just a kid.
He hunkered down against the burnt out shell of a long since abandoned car. Many years ago the vehicle would have been of some use, but oil had dried up shortly after the useable water did, and by that point the world had already slipped into the murky depths of chaos. Now, however, the vehicle would do no better than a basic shield, and even then the flimsy material it was made of would do nothing much if his potential assailant owned some form of heavy weaponry. That was unlikely, not many people had access to that sort of kit and even less of them would be children.
The street was silent once more. The dust from his abrupt dive behind the car had settled and whoever had been moving, if there had been anyone moving, had also moved into a defendable position and stopped. He reached up slowly and pulled the wing mirror off of the automobile, the rusted metal coming away from the rest of the machine as easy as snapping a twig off of an old withered birch tree. He extended his arm cautiously, allowing the very tip of the mirror to poke out behind the car and offer him at least some vision of the street through its cracked surface. The street was clear. Playing host only to the tufts of hardy weed that had been resilient enough to survive the never ending drought that plagued what was once London. He could just about make out the vine-covered top of the London Eye, a once great feat of mechanical engineering, glowing dully in the harsh afternoon sun. A testament to to the fall, a tombstone for all that remained. Though there was no sign of his would-be assailant, the street was devoid of all other human life.
He couldn’t help but let out a small gasp when the warm metal of a pistol’s barrel pushed itself firmly into the back of his skull, nestling neatly in the crook that joined head to neck.
‘Drop the gun Mister,’ came the voice of the child holding the weapon.
The man swallowed hard, his hand tightening around the grip of his own weapon momentarily. The chances of him being able to spin around and knock the pistol from the child’s hand were so low it was barely worth considering. The hand holding the weapon was already shaking, almost imperceptibly against his head, betraying the pre-teens nerves. One wrong move and the finger connected to that shaky hand would twitch and the inside of his head would be just one more pool of red among the ocean that had already been spilt. He let the faux-leather strap that bound the weapon to his wrist loosen, the gun clattering to the ground loudly, an ominous echo against the deathly silent street. It would have announced their presence to anyone of the devolved creatures that still lurked in the city.
‘Okay Mister, hands on your head and stand up real slow,” the child ordered, nudging the barrel of the pistol she held slightly harder to serve as a means of provocation. He complied, slowly letting his hands rest atop his head before raising up onto his feet. Now more than ever, standing up wide in the open, he felt vulnerable and exposed. He felt the gun leave the back of his head as he stood and, though it was surely still aimed in the same spot, felt a small sense of relief settle through his system. Now he had a much larger chance at disarming the child.
He twisted on the spot, throwing out his right hand to push the gun away from its aim at his head. He caught the barrel with the back of his hand, just as the young girls finger twitched on the trigger, sending a bullet to impact the side of a long since abandoned building. Both the shot and the impact sounded thunderous in the comparative silence of the street, and the man froze for a moment. The little girl look shocked at the sounds and relinquished her hold on the weapon, at a glance she couldn’t have been more than twelve. When he was sure that nothing had heard their conflict he turned back to the little girl, his grey eyes steely and cold.
‘Please sir, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it,’ The girl blurted out. His eyes narrowed.
‘Didn’t mean nothin’ by pullin’ a gun on a complete stranger,eh?’ the man replied. The girl’s head drooped slightly at that.
“I’m sorry sir. Really I am. I thought you coulda been a muta, I didn’ know you was normal, really I didn’,’ the girl whimpered.
He snorted slightly, shaking his head at the girl. It was a believable story, and if anything that was where the problem lay. Trusting anyone in the wastelands of a city was a bad idea, even a child could have a blade hidden in their boot, ready to plunge it into the heart of a trusting stranger. But there was something about the little girl, beyond her dirt smudged face, in the hopeful twinkle of her light blue, almost grey, eyes.
‘You’ve lost someone, haven’t yah?’ The man asked, his face softening visibly. The girl’s eyes widened for a moment before narrowing, her bottom lip quivered slightly and she turned away from the man slightly, both a display of trust and sadness. It told him all he needed to know. ‘Where were you heading in the middle o’the day like this then, scamp?’
‘Ma sister said, if we got split, to meet up at the big wheel by the river,’ the girl sniffled, trying and failing to keep tears from spilling over the corners of her eyes.
The man's eyes widened in shock. By ‘the big wheel’ the little girl could only have meant the London eye. In theory it was a good meeting place, a landmark that was identifiable for miles around in a location that could not be easily forgotten. This was why it was also a terrible meeting place. A big tall structure like that was easily defensible and as such was a prime spot for a group of egotistical bandit raiders to hole up around. It was likely that the girl’s sister was already dead, and there was no way that he could look after her. It would be simpler, and probably kinder, if he were to shoot her in the head. His fingers twitched on his shotgun slightly. It would be simple, one tap and her head would pop like a balloon.
‘So will yah help me find her, sir?’ She asked, her eyes wide and sparkling with hope. Eyes so innocent and so naive he couldn’t help but move his twitching fingers away from the weapon.
“Damn it,” he growled, “You got a name?”
“I’m Bailey, sir,” she squeaked, bowing her head as if the girl had suddenly grown nervous, which was a far cry away from how she had acted with a deadly weapon pushed into the back of his head.
“Well Bailey, you keep close now. I want yah to keep your gun ready, but don’t use it unless I say so yah hear?”
He didnt wait for her response. They walked from building to building slowly. Keeping to the shadows cast by the steadily setting sun that had begun to recede lazily below the horizon. He was already certain that he had heard the screeches of those changed by the wasteland more than once. He’d had half a mind to stop their journey and force her to agree to set up a camp for the night, travelling in the dark was usually a sure fire way to fall prey to the muta’s that had developed night vision to accompany their voracious appetite for human flesh. But every moment they spent holed up waiting for light was another moment that he had to spend putting his life needlessly at risk. He had told himself he wouldn't do this anymore, if she could see him now she would only laugh at how correct she had been.