Apocalypse

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
‘You’re cheating! Cover your eyes! Count to 10!’
(dark, psychological)
from the forthcoming online anthology: 'Is It Today?'

Submitted: March 02, 2019

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Submitted: March 02, 2019

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Apocalypse

‘You’re cheating! Cover your eyes! Count to 10!’ the boy laughed.

The girl covered her eyes and turned to face the steamy kitchen window. It was lunchtime. Her mother smiled benignly at her, through the mist, as she drained off the boiled potatoes. A delicious smell of freshly baked gingerbread men teased her nostrils.

She started to count. ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 10.’

‘I heard that, cheat. Start again!’

She counted again, properly this time, ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.’

‘Now, where are you hiding? The garage? The outhouse? The potting shed?’ She shook her head. He must be in the woods. As she entered the forest, she stung her arm on a nettle. Her frock caught on a bramble thorn. It was dark in the woods. She was scared. She wanted to go home. She was about to give up when a thick shaft of sunlight burst through the trees. There was a clearing ahead. Freshly hewn pine logs, scattered in the bracken. He was sitting on a tree stump, head in his hands, frothing spit at the mouth, twitching. Having a fit. Seeing his little sister watching him, he begged her not to tell. But she ran home as fast as she could and told her mother. Father was out, doing the weekly chopping. Next day, the men in white coats came to the house to take the boy to the asylum, trussed in a straightjacket. That night his grey smoke poured out of the tall chimney at the hospital crematorium.

‘Martin’s sudden death remains a mystery to us,’ his mother said over supper.

Maria told tell-tales at a very young age.

*****

Maria told tales. The paid-up Purist Party member informed the local militia where to find undesirables within the community, indifferent to their dreadful fate. When her valiant man, Stephen, died fighting the indestructible enemy, she moved out of their house in the historic city centre to a discreet abode in the suburbs, fearful of recriminations for her extreme views. After inheriting his self-drive car business, she became a wealthy woman who could afford the best for her children: a Purist kindergarten for Keira, an elite sporting academy for Kiran. But all the money in the world couldn’t put Maria’s warped mind back together again.

She read her daughter the fairy tale in which the princess consents to a prince kissing her awake in a far-off fantasy world where good always triumphs over evil. The ruby crystal wall softened, artificial dusk turned to twilight and the girl closed her eyes. Her mother kissed her goodnight, then she searched under the bed until she found her battered rag doll, a doll which reminded her of her childhood when she played ‘hide and seek’ in the forest near her parents’ old summer house. She tucked the doll up in bed and prayed for her daughter’s purity. Keira was her war baby, she had never known peace. Maria crept out of the room, leaving the door open, a lamp alight. Her little girl was scared of the dark.

She crossed the landing to the sapphire room. Kiran was fast asleep - cradling his ginger teddy bear. Her knight was difficult to control at the best of times, without Stephen to exert much-needed discipline. Calm one minute, temperamental and disobedient the next. Kiran frequently threw tantrums for no apparent reason, the disturbingly dark trait that ran in their family. She ruffled his silky blonde hair. Her son looked just like his dad. He’d be so proud. Every night she prayed her knight would grow up healthy and strong, without the affliction.

Keira and Kiran were perfect, unblemished children, role models for future generations of the super-race, the ultimate human dream. Maria endorsed and participated in the separation of undesirables, the cruel apartheid that divided the city after the insurrection, when once-unthinkable purges of the weak and diseased returned to haunt the nation. Although the war was far from over, according to the deluge of state propaganda, it alarmed her to hear of a decisive enemy advance up to the city border. More than 60,000 refugees lived in the city, fugitives from the brutal killing machines that annihilated humans with impunity. She was under no illusion; the Robots would kill her first. Then they would kill her children. Maria was steeling herself in preparation for her family’s death.

She went to her bedroom and admired herself in front of the vanity mirror suspended on the amethyst wall:

‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?’

The mirror was voice-activated. The wall turned red. Maria had been a widow three years. Still only thirty, she was an attractive woman who could afford to pluck young gigolos fresh from the academy. But she could never love another, not after Stephen. Excited by her image, she undressed and washed herself, splashed a dab of scent behind each ear, slipped on her red satin gown and climbed on the quilted bed. Hugging herself to stay warm. She hated the long, lonely nights with no-one to caress her, and lived in fear of the inevitable invasion.

A young man’s face appeared in the mirror. Maria felt like a child waiting for Santa Claus to climb down her chimney. Except that she couldn’t wait. She closed her eyes and the neon walls softened. A virtual princess in red satin lay sleeping on a velvet bed with her handsome prince. Maria entered virtual reality, her private la-la land. She saw her dead man’s bronzed face, his rugged muscular physique. She thrilled whenever Stephen communicated with her:

‘May I have your consent to kiss you, Maria?’

He was playing with her! She stroked his neatly trimmed blonde beard, ran her hands over the twin cusps of solid barrelled chest, found his downturned nipples, and gave them a tweak.

‘I might let you! If you’re nice to me!’ she giggled hopefully, as she missed him so much.

Haunting him with her hazel dew eyes, she drew him close. He thirsted for her, his parched dry mouth drank in her moist pink lips. She opened her mouth relishing his smoky breath. He savoured her sweet saliva as her tongue flickered playfully against his soft palate.

‘Nice to you? I love you! It’s been so long since I died. Have you missed me?’

‘Missed you? Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of you. You’re still with me, here.’

She pressed her fingers to her bared chest and crossed her heart. He was overwhelmed by her love, his heartstrings torn to shreds of undying love for her, bursting out of his soul.

‘How lovely of you, Maria. How very lovely.’  

He asked after the children. She told him the children were well. Kiran was seven now, he missed his dad. He was lonely without his friends since the authority closed the academy. He rarely left the house, preferring to spend his time in virtual reality with Keira. They were best friends.  Maria wished Stephen could meet them. But he couldn’t, not in his virtual state. She told him that Keira would start kindergarten when the horrid war ended. If it ended.

‘They say the Robots have reached the city wall,’ she said, ‘I’m frightened of what they’ll do to us when they find us, I’m scared. Hold me, Stephen.’

The prince looked into the gathering gloom as death’s dark clouds loomed on the horizon.  

‘I must go now. I’ll always love you, Maria. I’ll never forget you.’

‘No! You can’t leave me! Hold me, darling, one last time! My dream hasn’t ended yet!

‘I can’t, I’m not real! I only exist in your imagination!’

‘You must! I’ll never see you again! You must!’

His face was indistinct. She felt him ruffle her hair, licked her lips at the divine sensation, buried her head in the pillows. Her red satin rolled off her shoulders like crimson quicksilver. He parted her lush chocolate-cherry hair, revealing her gilded neck, the tell-tale curls of teak. She bristled at the touch of his lips. He nuzzled her. He kissed her there. She loved it when he kissed her there. Her virtual-beast, her lion-man.

Maria woke up to find him gone, and cried herself to sleep.

*****

Nathan was an undesirable, an unemployed chef, a survivor of the cruel purge. A man who stayed alive through his wits, stealth and concealment, never staying in the same safe house more than one night. Even if that meant sleeping rough on the streets. Tonight, home was a mattress in a derelict warehouse beside an old railway marshalling yard. Nathan slept fully-dressed, in a black boiler suit with an infamous bright orange U patch, the distinctive brand label of the undesirable, stitched onto the chest. He slept soundly in his sleeping bag, didn’t hear them arrive.

*****

They shed their cloaks of invisibility at twilight to reveal their beautiful charcoal-grey battle dress: a pointed nosecone, slash-back wings, an empty black cockpit, a stubby fuselage, and tall angular tail fins. The sting was in their tails. Before the attack began, each drone shed an electron bomb. The bombs’ sensors hacked into the city’s IT systems: networks, stand-alone and mobile devices. Severing all electronic communications and command and control units within six miles of the city centre. Creating widespread pandemonium among the inhabitants. The e-bombs drifted lazily to the ground attached to gaudy tangerine parachutes.

*****

Maria was woken by the wail of air raid sirens, an unfamiliar loudspeaker blaring outside in the street:

‘Warning! Warning! The enemy have appeared over the city centre!’

‘Please God, save us.’ She prayed for their lives. Her face blanched with worry. 

The petrified children ran into the room and leapt into her arms. She held them tight. They were all she had left.

Keira touched her mother’s tense face, felt her worn out laughter lines.

‘Are we going to die, Mummy?’ she asked.

Maria stroked Keira’s curly blonde hair. She felt so soft, young, vulnerable. The tears came fast, choking her up as she tried to speak.

‘Of course not, darling, but I think we should get dressed in our warmest clothes and go to the cellar where it’s safe, don’t you?’

Kiran cried out in protest, ‘No, not the cellar!’ He clenched his hands into tight little fists, pummelling his mother’s breasts. ‘It’s cold and dark! I hate it in there!’

Maria hugged him to calm him down. Scolding him wouldn’t improve their chances of survival. The children didn’t start this bloody war. She hoped they might live long enough to see a brave new world. A world at peace, without brutality, torture, killing and destruction. Oblivious to her tell-tales which resulted in 196 undesirables being sent to certain death in the asylums that flourished, like toadstools in the depths of the pine forests. Kiran had a hysterical fit, frothing at the mouth, twitching. Reminiscent of Martin.

He screamed, ‘I’m not going! I hate it! Keira hates it! She’s scared of the dark!’

Maria lost her tenuous self-control, rebuking him, ‘Do as you’re told! Bad boy!’

She slapped her challenging son hard, eight, nine, ten times, stunning him, making his face sting.

Keira clawed at her arm and yelled, ‘Stop it, Mummy! Stop it! You’re hurting him!’

Humiliated more than hurt, Kiran ran from the room. Maria immediately regretted what she had done, calling after him, ‘Forgive me, Kiran! Please forgive me!’

Keira gripped her mother’s hand and waggled the stupid doll. ‘Can I take Gertie?’

‘Of course, you can,’ her mother retorted in a voice laced with sarcasm, ‘We wouldn’t want her to be lonely now, would we? Now, run along and get dressed.’

‘Yes, Mummy,’ she said, ever-obedient.

She ran upstairs to the brother she idolized. He was flying around on his interactive Action Man bed playing virtually real war games: East plays West, East takes West, West concedes.

‘Are you hurt, Kiran?’ she asked, ‘Please say you’ll be alright.’

‘I’ll have a bruise in the morning but I’ll be okay. Thank you, Keira.’

‘Kiran?’

‘Yes?’

‘If anything happens to Mummy, promise you’ll look after me.’

‘I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die.’

*****

Nathan Kanoo woke to the sound of a distant air raid siren. It was freezing in the granary, the floor was covered with fine, floury, dust. His face, hands and feet were blue, numb with cold. He was ravenously hungry. Stank to high heaven. It had been weeks since he enjoyed a hot bath. He envied the wealthy elite luxuriating, warm as waffles, in their glass houses. But how many fat cats would survive the onslaught, he wondered. He puffed a frosty halo, enduring another coughing and sneezing fit, took a crumpled photo out of his breast pocket and stared fondly at Renate Nabil: her chocolate face, shiny ebony eyes, flat nose, toothy smile. Her hair puffed up, jet-black candyfloss, tied in a pale vellum bow. She looked sensational. He tucked her safely inside his boiler suit. I hope she’s okay, he thought. I miss her like crazy. I hope I make it back to my sweet lady.

After praying for her, Nathan wriggled out of his sleeping bag, grabbed his rucksack and hurtled down the stone steps. Before he ventured into the street, he tore off the incriminating patch. Then he ran for his life, towards the river. Nathan had to reach the river, to have any chance of finding his woman alive.

*****

Kiran stood in the doorway, hands-on-hips, looking grown up in a bright blue puffer jacket, brown needlecords and trainers. His cheeks were streaked with dried tears - from blubbing.

‘Come on, Keira. Get dressed.’ He sounded unusually quiet.

She told him that she couldn’t get her socks on. Keira’s socks were the ultimate cotton nightmare: bunched around her heels and inside out.

Kiran looked up at the heavens, sighed, ‘Here, let me help,’ then knelt and pulled off her socks, turning them right-side-in and yanking them over her feet.

In her satin bomber jacket, ‘Kids Will Change the World!’ sweatshirt and skinny-fit, pink twill jeans, his sister looked as if she was going to a kid’s birthday bash. Not a night down in the cellar.

‘Thank you,’ she said. Keira was ever so polite.

Kiran waited until she pulled on her blue suede hi-tops. Then he took her hand and led her across the landing. Past Mother’s bedroom. She was too preoccupied to see them. They were about to descend the balustraded staircase when Keira stopped. Kiran toppled over her.

He shielded his mouth. ‘What is it now?’

‘I forgot Gertie. I’m sorry.’ 

He looked her up and down as if she was crazy. ‘Keira! Wait in the kitchen! I’ll get her.’

‘Thank you, Kiran.’

She stared at her feet, shame-faced for all the trouble she’d caused, pretty glum, about to burst into tears.

Kiran felt very old, positively ancient. ‘It’s alright, don’t cry. I’ll look after you.’

Keira cupped her hand to his ear and told him what she wanted to do. He smiled at her, a very naughty smile, then went to her bedroom, turfed the bed inside out and found the doll.

Maria climbed out of bed, showered, shaved, brushed her hair, teeth, dressed in her most expensive clothes. If she was going to die tonight, she decided, she would go out in style. She strolled out onto the landing like a fashion model strutting the catwalk, attired in grey turtleneck sweater, silk scarf, crinkled ankle-length jeans and a mock suede and fur coat with an integral fur-lined hood. In a bate. Her son hid from her in the closet while she shouted at them.

‘Kiran? Keira? Are you ready yet?’

‘Yes, Mummy!’ Keira called, faking enthusiasm. ‘I am waiting for you in the kitchen.’

Maria breathed a sigh of relief: the cellar door was in the kitchen. She went downstairs. Kiran left the closet and crept down the crimson staircase as far as the reception room. He paused to admire her two digitally-reproduced works of art: Water Lilies, The Annunciation. His father’s antique walnut writing desk. The crystal chandelier that hung from the baroque ceiling.

Would they survive the blast?

Kiran walked into the dining room, past a shiny mahogany table, ten dusty balloon-back chairs, a chiffonier full of china, and an inlaid music cabinet bedecked with crystal glasses. He hid behind the door to the kitchen. Keira was standing like a sentry in front of the open cellar door. She wasn’t holding mummy’s hand. They were turned away from him, staring at the dark cellar. The light bulb had gone out. The megamarket was closed. Forever.

Kiran entered the kitchen.

‘Please don’t make me go down there,’ Keira was saying, ‘There’s a rat on the step, look!’

Maria raised an eyebrow. Perish the thought. ‘A rat?! Where?’

She craned her neck, leant forward to get a better view. There was no rat, only cobwebs.

Kiran took a step forward.

‘Where, darling?’ their mother asked, impatiently, ‘I can’t see a rat?’

‘There!’

They pushed her in the small of her back with all their strength. Down the stairs she fell! They slammed the door shut. Kiran locked the door, removed the key, stuffed it in his jacket pocket. Maria bumped her elegant backside on every single step until she reached the bottom where she banged her head on the concrete floor and passed out.

Her cherished children punched their fists in triumph, ‘Come on, let’s go!’ 

Kiran passed Keira her doll and strode purposefully into the larder. Once inside the sacred vault, he prepared a late-night snack of chocolate, crisps, chicken and coke and threw it all in a carrier bag. Then he dragged his bewildered sister outside into the garden.

‘Quick!’ he said, ‘Follow me!’

‘So where are we going?’ Keira asked, ever so matter-of-factly.

They reached the garden gate. ‘We’re going on an adventure!’

Maria never let her children play outside and forbade them from leaving home after dark. They froze in the moonlight as an animal rustled the dead leaves under the hedge: a bird with a broken wing? A real rat? Kiran and Keira walked through the creaky gate, relieved to hear the crunch of gravel under their feet and entered open space. They passed an old bandstand, where a young Stephen had once sung patriotic songs, then walked down a broad tree-lined avenue into the gloom. The sweet chestnut trees cast strange shadows as they swayed fitfully in the chilly breeze. A pipistrelle fluttered by them, scuffing Keira’s hair. Scared witless, she tugged at her brother’s sleeve.

‘I don’t like it,’ she said, shaking, ‘I want to go home.’

Tiny stars pricked the boy’s eyes. His head spun. He felt sick. Had a migraine. Too much chocolate? Or too much responsibility? At too young an age? Kiran didn’t have the heart to tell his sister, they couldn’t go home. Mum would never forgive them for what they’d done. He dreaded to think what cruel punishment she might inflict on them if they went back. On the other hand, he mused, if they rescued her, released her from her cell, nursed her wounds and made her better, they’d be her heroes. They could even pretend her fall was an accident. The children loved her really, with all their hearts. And she adored them. Perhaps she would forgive them and they’d all live happily ever after. Like they did in the fairy tales. Perhaps. Until the bombs fell. And the Robots came.  He slumped in a heap on the damp grass, head between his knees, and wondered what to do. Without a friend in the world to ask. Except for Keira. She was his friend. His shoulders heaved and he wept, tears of frustration. Keira tried to wrap her short arms around him, only to find they didn’t reach.

She cocked her head to one side and asked: ‘Why are you crying?’

‘I don’t feel well.’ He did look pretty sick.

‘Don’t worry, I’ll look after you,’ his only-just-turned-four sister said, unconvincingly.

He suddenly felt much better. ‘Oh, Keira!’ he sniffed, ‘What would I do without you?’

‘Let’s go home now, Kiran. Please?’ She sounded hopeful, expectant.

They had taught their mother a damn good lesson on the perils of being cruel to children. A lesson she wouldn’t forget in a hurry. Now they were missing her like mad. Keira’s lower lip curled up and quivered. Soon they were both crying, but Kiran looked the more miserable.

‘We can’t go home,’ he explained, ‘Mum will kill us after what we did to her.’

They were interrupted by a shrill whining noise which grew louder until it was deafening. They rolled on the ground with their hands over their ears.

‘What is it?’

‘I don’t know!’

The noise stopped. A silver ball with a fluorescent green aurora lay by them, flattening the unmown grass. Kiran sprang up and examined the bizarre phenomenon. He ran his hand over the ball’s smooth surface. The object was perfectly spherical, solid, heavy, warm to the touch, fascinating. The eerie glow came from the instrumentation panels inserted into metallic green caps at either end. Caps that reminded Kiran of the Poles. He rolled the ball. Keira held back, wary, edgy, watching the back of his bobbing head.

‘Look!’ he said.

They inspected the illuminated panel, captivated by its magic. Hundreds of lemony yellow numerals, letters and symbols changed constantly on the flickering screen.

‘Isn’t it pretty?’ Keira remarked, gripping her brother’s hand, ‘What do you think it is?’

Kiran scratched his head, ‘Dunno! Could be a weather satellite, I suppose.’

The numerals reminded him of the codes on his virtual console, a kind of data stream.

‘You don’t suppose,’ he started to say.

She interrupted him, holding up a tangerine bundle, a mess of linen and tangled string.

‘I found this!’ she announced, excitedly, ‘By the bandstand!’

At first, he thought it was a damaged kite. Then he realised what it was. He jumped to his feet. Jerked her arm. Pulled her clear of the ball. Keira dropped the parachute, annoyed at his reaction.

‘Keira, get back! It’s a bomb!’

She wasn’t listening.

‘Keira?’

She was too busy watching the hundreds of grey moonlight shadows form in the night sky.

‘What are those funny arrows?’ she asked, pointing at the gathering drones.

*****

The aerial raid on the city was a treble strike. The first wave of drones vaporized all of the military installations, militia headquarters and air defences. The second assault targeted the mediaeval Old Town with its congested and highly combustible buildings and the exclusive Glass House area.

Each drone dropped a single high explosive bomb weighing seven thousand pounds. The affectionately-named Fast Roast Meat Cookers destroyed streets in seconds, rupturing water mains, blowing off roofs, doors and windows. They also created the rapid air flow needed to feed the wildfires caused by the drones’ secondary payload: the deadly cluster incendiaries, mini fire-starters. The first bombs were released at 21:34, the last incendiaries fell at 21:54.

There were no rescue teams left alive to fight the fires. Hundreds of fires from the burning city could be seen sixty miles away on the ground and five hundred miles up in the air. Thick black smoke rose as high as 15,000 feet.

The Enemy Intelligence System rapidly decoded data transmitted to the central command unit by the drones. Then EIS autonomously elected to expand the target zone, far beyond the perimeter of the firestorm to include all airports, hospitals, ambulance stations, train, subway and bus stations. And any exit routes that escaped damage.

The third wave appeared at 22:14. An explicit executive order was issued to all drones not to strafe civilians. The sirens sounded but, since there was now no electricity, they were small hand-held sirens that could only be heard within a block. The city was defenceless.

Bombing recommenced at 22:24, aimed at a wide dispersal zone radiating outwards from the city centre. The last cluster fire bombs fell at 22:34. At least no civilians were strafed! All drones returned safely to their secret airbase.

*****

Maria lay huddled on the damp cellar floor clutching her badly gashed head. I’ll have a nasty bump and bruise in the morning, she thought, daftly. That was the least of her problems. She had no feeling in her legs. Couldn’t move them. But she could feel the explosions, aftershocks, run up and down her spine, as the bombs rained down and the floor shook. She heard a man scream in the distance. Another bomb fell. This time the whole building shook. Chunks of masonry fell from the ceiling. Maria was showered with bits of concrete and plaster, coated in fine white dust like a ball of dough being floured, ready to be aerially oven-baked. It had to happen, she rationalised sensibly, my luck had to run out.

The air was scented with the noxious by-product of an arson attack deliberately inflicted on defenceless humans by insensitive drones. The house trembled as yet another bomb exploded nearby. Maria had to leave before it was too late. She must find shelter. She thought of the air raid shelter on the far side of the city full to the brim with refugees. Maria wasn’t aware of any other shelters. She’d have to take her chances. First, she must find her children. They’d be terrified. The incessant shelling would drive them mad. Most of all, she dreaded them dying. Life without Keira and Kiran would be unbearable. If they were killed in this war, she’d kill herself. She shook the absurd notion out of her mind and rolled onto her bloodied front. Then Maria hauled herself up the staircase, her dead legs weighing her down like sacks of potatoes.

*****

The shameful scenes at the riverside would haunt Matt Chilin, an unemployed engineer, for the rest of his life. Hundreds of survivors lined the quayside. A sea of terrified faces, roasted radiation red by the raging inferno. Any sense of order, dignity or respect was lost in the rush to escape. Grown men and women, clad in pyjamas or underwear, shoved mothers with young children and old folk out of the way then plunged head first into the ice-cold water. Matt and Renate watched from the safety of their stolen launch by the far bank as all but the strongest swimmers got swept away by the tidal current. Their eyes were elsewhere, constantly searching the screaming faces of survivors who poured out of the inferno in droves, into the death trap.

There was an explosion. The firestorm attacked those condemned, killing indiscriminately, carbon-dating their lives in seconds. Chaos ensued as the panicked crowd surged forward. Unlucky procrastinators on the front line were pushed over the edge. The river became a seething mass of vanquished souls, clawing each other, fighting to stay afloat. After a while, they relaxed, conceding defeat. The dead drifted off downstream in orderly fashion, bodies bobbing along like plastic ducks in their last race. Until they reached the weir.

*****

Nathan raced down the narrow streets of the mediaeval town into the firestorm. He watched with horror as his best friend ran towards him through the flames. The man tripped and fell. For a moment, he screamed and gesticulated with his hands. Then he fainted, dropping to the ground, starved of oxygen. Nathan covered his eyes, ears and nose while Luke Ngapi was consumed by fire. An insane fear gripped him. But he willed himself on: I won’t burn to death. Don’t let me burn. He forgot how many bodies he tripped over as he ran. He only knew, he must not burn.

*****

Maria stared up at the clouded night sky through the gaping hole in the roof. A blooming pall of black smoke blotted out the stars. The force of the explosions had blown the cellar door off. This revelation gave her renewed hope. She snaked up the slippery stairs, out of the cellar, rolled on her back and gulped the fresh air; covered from head to foot in blood and soot. The house was a smouldering ruin. She looked round her wrecked home, tried to contain herself, but the tears streaked down her black face in sour cream-white runs. Someone gripped her hand. Maria stared at her children’s ghostly faces in the dark, their dust-blanched hair. They lay with her in the broken glass and rubble, guilt etched indelibly into their pained expressions. Keira immediately accused Kiran of wrongdoing. 

‘What have you done to my mummy?’ she screamed, ‘What have you done?’

He was appalled. His sister already knew how to blame someone else. Who taught her that, he wondered?

‘What do you mean?’ he barked, ‘It was your idea.’

The children stopped bickering and embraced their mother.

‘Please don’t cry,’ they told her, ‘We’ll look after you.’

Maria hugged them, held them tight.

‘My darlings!’ she said, ‘You came back to save me. What would I do without you?’

*****

Matt removed his broken glasses, rubbed his weary eyes, and drew a hand through his bristly beard. He had given up all hope of ever seeing Rachel alive again. He sat at the boat’s helm, thinking of her. The cheeky smile on her soft strawberry lips. The cherry-rimmed spectacles perched on her beaky nose. Her tidy bob of copper hair. He remembered the red roses, their romantic candlelit dinners, moonlit strolls hand-in-hand by the river. How the simple things had meant so much to her: his handwritten love letters, breakfast in bed, having a cuddle. He recalled his proudest moment when he held their new-born son, Jacob, in his arms, while his Rachel slept, after giving birth. Then the militia made them wear black boiler suits with ‘U’ patches - to show the watching world they were undesirables.

Understanding his pain, Renate wrapped her arm round his shoulder. She wondered if her man survived the holocaust. A deathly hush fell. The river lapped gently against the hull of the boat. Only a handful of swimmers reached safety. It was a time for mourning, grieving, grim reflection. She held Matt in a silent embrace. Her frizzy hair slick with perspiration in the intense heat. Her face lined with the strain of not knowing.

Matt steered the launch upstream away from the carnage. They crossed the river, mooring at a wooden landing stage by the city’s central park.

*****

Nathan found a safe house with a cellar, a sanctuary full of screams for the injured and dying: men, women and children. The aftermath of the bombardment was far worse than his darkest nightmares. So many victims, so horribly burnt. It was hard to breathe. A grey-haired lady in curlers and a nightie, an angel of mercy, soaked tea towels in a sink of cold water and passed them round. Nathan thanked her, wrapping a wet cloth around his face to soothe his fire-burn. Then the safe house took a hit, the room went dark, pitch black. Utter panic set in. He tried to escape. To his shame, he trampled on dying people to get out, forcibly shunted upstairs by the others, desperately trying to escape behind him.

The scene outside was unimaginable. Entire streets were in flames. Hot ash rained down on his head. But most terrible of all was the firestorm. He covered his eyes when he saw the horrid, inhuman things. Whole families running around in flames. Burnt-out shells of trams, taxis, coaches crammed with cremated civilians, refugees, rescuers and soldiers. Lost babies. Lost children. Lost souls. Fire was everywhere. The hottest wind in recorded history, the evil firestorm, threw fleeing survivors into the burning ruins, the same shelter of death that they’d escaped from.

Nathan’s heart sank. He’d been running around in circles. The safe house had evaporated, consumed by the inferno. He wondered if anyone else managed to escape. Pictured the angel of mercy up there in heaven handing out wet tea towels, saving the dead and dying, bless her.

*****

Maria fingered the deep gash in her head. At least the blood had dried. She fell asleep in the arms of her beloved children. When she awoke, the paralysis had spread. Numb below the waist, she lay still and told her son she couldn’t move her legs. Painfully slowly, he dragged his mother out of the ruin, through shards of broken crystal, past piles of charred matchwood, shredded clothing, flaming artwork, fractured dolls, a blown-out teddy bear. Stumbling, he fell, then got to his feet and hauled her dead weight. Until they reached the shattered kitchen door. Keira watched him heave her outside. They lay on the garden lawn under the moonlight with nothing but memories, a stupid rag doll and a carrier bag. Kiran passed round the chocolates, crisps and chicken, helping his mum sip coke from the bottle. She burst into tears and kissed him on both cheeks. Maria was battered and bruised but she’d never felt love like his love. The memory of her dear boy, so young, tender and caring, would stay with her forever.

The synchronised bombing of the city was over. The battle for survival was about to begin. Maria was under no illusion. The Robots would kill her children. She had steeled herself ready for their death. She ruffled her son’s hair. He looked so like his father. Her treasured knight would grow up to be a strong young man. She kissed her daughter on both cheeks. One day she would be a beautiful woman, her princess. Maria struggled to find the words to express how dearly she loved them.

‘Now children,’ she said, ‘You must leave me here and find help. Go through the park, past the bandstand and take the avenue with the sweet chestnut trees. Don’t stop until you reach the river. You’ll be safe there. I love you, Kiran. I love you, Keira.  Now be good children and go.’

The children shook their heads and disagreed, ‘No, Mother, we’re not leaving you!’

‘You must! Your lives are in terrible danger if you stay here with me.’

Kiran pictured the Robots exterminating everyone who survived the aerial bombardment.

‘We won’t go! We won’t go!’ he said.

But even as he spoke, he knew that he must.

‘Hold me, my darlings,’ Maria cried, reaching for them.

They held their mother for the last time. They kissed their Queen. And said goodbye.

*****

Renate, an unemployed megamarket cashier, stared at Matt tearing his grey hair out with worry. Fretting over Rachel and Jacob. Those beauties aren’t coming back, she knew it, she felt their loss deep inside her heart. She really ought to tell the poor man. But she couldn’t bring herself to tell him. Instead, they discussed the tide. Soon it would recede, revealing the thick grey slimy mud which full-grown men sank into, disappearing without a trace. If they missed the tide they went nowhere, just sat around, waiting for the Robots to arrive and electro-fry them. Matt stroked his cheek, deep in thought. It was Renate who broke the silence.

‘We must leave, Matt, she said.’

Reluctantly, he agreed. Renate untied her sweaty blue hairband and smoothed back her sopping wet hair. Wishing she’d brought a change of boiler suit. She sighed. Matt was a good man, kind and loving. He deserved better than this hell. She felt for him, hoped he found inner peace one day. They stood silently on the landing stage, wringing their hands, preparing to say goodbye.

*****

Nathan’s clothes were saturated. His legs ached from running. His lungs were seared by heat. He took one look at the dense fog of black cloaking the narrow street, blazing fires all around him, and flopped to the ground, trapped. Horizontal flumes of blue flame cork-screwed behind the gaping windows. There were piles of crisp ash everywhere. It occurred to him that he hadn’t seen a living soul since he left the safe house. How many souls had perished, this night in the apocalypse? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? He must stay alive. Must find a way out, for Luke, for Renate.

Rachel walked out of the smoke towards him in her boiler suit, the golden-skinned unemployed teacher, carrying her tiny bundle, her baby, and gave him a weary smile. She had flare-burnt strawberry lips, shattered cherry-rimmed specs, a sunburned nose, an untidy bob of filthy dirty, carbonized copper hair. Nathan couldn’t believe his eyes. She was incredible, a mother in a million. He opened his arms wide.

‘Rach? Is that really you?’ he cried.

He embraced her and Jacob. If only they could reach Matt and Renate.

‘Fancy meeting you here, Nat,’ she jested, ‘Now let’s get out of here, shall we? If we go left here, this lane will lead us past the old church and the mosque to the park. Cover your face and take a deep breath. Are you ready for this, Nathan?’

‘Are you for real, Rach? Yeah, I’m ready! Let’s do it!’

Rachel hugged her baby to her chest and took Nathan’s hand. Together they walked into the smoke, past the old church and the mosque, which would never burn, until they reached the open space. Safe, at last, from the firestorm. From there it was a short walk through the park, round the bandstand, along the avenue lined with sweet chestnut trees. To the river.

Matt saw her first, walking unsteadily towards him, beaming, their baby son cradled in her arms. He ran the last steps, rushing to embrace them. Nothing could still his euphoria, the sheer joy uplifting his soul. His heart pounded with anticipation. He held their miracle child, hugged and kissed Rachel. She felt so fresh, so alive in his arms. And she reeked of coal. They were reunited, speechless, happy beyond their wildest dreams. They boarded the launch with their child, starry-eyed, so in love, and sat waiting for the new dawn to break on the distant horizon.

Renate tried to control herself, failed admirably, ran up and threw her arms round Nathan who thought he was dreaming, thrilled senseless to be back in her loving arms again.

She was crying. ‘Want to love you till the day I die, Nat!’

He cried too. Tears of joy. He held her tight, popped the question, there and then, ‘Say you’ll marry me, Renate.’

‘I’ll think about it,’ she answered, slyly.

The love of his life smothered him in kisses. He swore he’d never leave her side again. After the celebrations they’d say a prayer for Luke Ngapi who died in the name of freedom. They walked arm-in-arm to the landing stage and climbed into the launch. Matt took the helm. And they cast off.

‘Wait!’ Rachel cried, ‘Look!’

The children stared in fear and awe of the blazing inferno, surrounding them on three sides.

*****

 Maria opened the heart-shaped pendant on her necklace where she kept him, a cameo portrait of her valiant knight, resting against her heart. She prised out the bitter pill. Release would take seconds. She put the cyanide in her mouth, and felt its dryness on her tongue. Someone gripped Maria’s hand. The pill fell out of her mouth. Onto the paved garden path.

‘Please, don’t!’ Renate shouted.

Maria felt humbled, ‘How can I ever thank you? You don’t know what this means to me, to be saved.’

Matt and Nathan lifted her onto a makeshift stretcher. As a second woman spoke: radiant, proud, holding her baby aloft. Maria looked guiltily at the undesirables. How could she be so cruel to these lovely people? Perhaps there was hope for a brighter future, a brave new world, after all? She vowed to atone, to repent for her sins. If she survived, she would devote her life to building a new city, a true community founded on love, hope and equality. Meanwhile, she searched for her son and daughter.

‘Don’t worry, your children are here,’ Rachel assured her, ‘We nearly left you behind. If it hadn’t been for Kiran and Keira leading us to you, we would have.’

Maria stared at Rachel’s kind face as the first light of dawn brightened the horizon. She hoped her baby lived long enough to see one world, the entire human race, living in peace.

‘We said we would never leave you, Mummy,’ Keira said, ever so matter-of-factly.

Kiran gave his sister a loving hug. They all cheered as she showed off her grubby sweatshirt:

Kids Will Change the World!

In 2017, one hundred and sixteen founders of robotics and AI companies signed a petition calling for an outright ban on killer robots and lethal autonomous weapons, claiming the use of such weapons crossed a moral red line.


© Copyright 2019 HJFurl. All rights reserved.

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