Tag Archives: Edward Morrison

Edward and Hestia

This is part of my post-apocalyptic Aftermath series. The previous story was Voices from the Past. Here is the Aftermath Glossary.

 

“It looks like you’ve been through an ash heap or two since I saw you last,” Hestia said. “I guess we all have.”

Despite what she said, Edward could not see that the last seventeen years had touched her much at all. She was older, of course. Her hair was touched with silver and a few wrinkles had sprung up in the corners of her eyes, but overall she had passed through the poisonous world unscathed.

“You know each other?” Blake asked in surprise.

“We met once,” Edward said. “Look,” he said, turning back to Hestia, “I’m not looking for anything for myself. You took some kids for me before; now I’m asking if you can again. I have one named Sean who’s in the hospital here. Just give him a good home and I’ll get the hell out of here.”

Hestia gave a small smile. “Hell,” she repeated softly

“What?”

“You said hell. I just wondered what you meant by it.”

“I—I don’t know, I just said it. What does it matter?” He felt a flash of anger.

“I was just wondering because most people in here consider out there to be more or less a literal Hell. They would do anything not to go out there and the people out there would do anything to get in here. So why the hell do you want to go back out so badly?”

“I can survive out there. It’s where I belong. I’m in control there.”

“Ah, ‘better to rule in Hell’ and all that.” Hestia sat down and motioned them to chairs. Blake sat down but Edward didn’t move. “I’m curious, Eddie—”

“Squid.”

“Squid? Really?” She shrugged. “I’m curious, Squid, what you’ve seen out there. What’s the world like?”

“You know what it’s like,” he said. “You said it yourself. Everything is sickly and twisted. Food is scarce. Everybody is hungry. Everybody suffers.”

“Except you.”

“Even me! But what’s the alternative? Live in here where everyone tiptoes around in fear of losing their position.” He would not tell her, but a small part of him wanted to stay—longed for that safety and security. Still, he could not do it. A bird that had been freed and lived in the open forest could not voluntarily step back into the cage, no matter have much gilt was put on the bars.

“You know,” Hestia said, “the right to murder and steal is not as precious in a place where no one is your enemy and everything you desire is freely given. But let me tell you about the world outside. Cambridge is the solitary island of civilization in England, but we are branching out. We even have a seaport now in Great Yarmouth and a rail line connecting us. It was the closest port we could find.”

“Was Ipswich destroyed?” Edward asked. “That would be closer.”

Blake made a noise of exclamation and Hestia stared at him. “Are you making fun, Squid, or have you really been that isolated from things down there in your scuttle-hole?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I mean, that Ipswich is the antithesis of civilization now,” Hestia said. “It’s a seething den of crime and piracy and every terrible thing you could conceive. They are our main enemy, since they are the only ones that send targeted attacks against our supply lines.”

“I didn’t know,” Edward said. He didn’t know how he felt about it. Part of him wanted to go there, to test himself against a whole city of the worst villains and thieves, but part of him didn’t want the competition. He enjoyed being the top dog.

“We have a few mines and a small refinery,” Hestia continued, “although a lot of what we get is still through salvage. That’s my job here. As Minister of the Exterior, I send out people to find things and bring back the best. Blake works for me sometimes, finding robots.”

“And that’s what you want me to do, to go find stuff and bring it back.” Edward thought of the chren mining that Hinsen had tried to get him to do and suppressed a shudder.

“That’s the idea,” she said. “Listen: what you’ve got here is a golden chance. We don’t pull molerats—outsiders—in and offer them jobs very often. Actually, never. But you’re here and at least I’ve met you before; someone who attracts little kids like a magnet and tries to find them good homes can’t be a total blacksoul. So, here’s the deal. We’ll give you a house here—you don’t have to live in it if you don’t want—and the boy can stay here. You can spend most of your time outside and do whatever you want, as long as you bring me some good stuff every now and then. If you ever want something more, let me know.”

“What the alternative?”

Hestia waved her hand carelessly. “Take the boy and leave. But if you do, my offer won’t be renewed and you won’t get back in. I’m too busy for that.”

“What do you need me to find?” Edward asked and Hestia smiled.

There was a buzz and Blake took out his e-device and looked at the screen. “The hospital says the boy is awake.”

“You mean Sean?” Edward asked.

“He says his name is Damian. And he is asking for you.”

hospital bed 2


Voices from the Past

This is part of my post-apocalyptic Aftermath series. The previous story was Droog the Angel. Here is the Aftermath Glossary.

 

The hot water that coursed over Edward’s head and down his back seemed to strip away more than the dirt and sweat of years. It soaked deep, washing away some of the pain and awakening a part of him that had existed, Before. He stood in the shower and reveled in becoming clean until Blake knocked on the door and told him the water tank was getting low.

Blake’s house was on the ground floor and looked out onto one of Cambridge’s ancient college quadrangles. The apartment was small, but warm and dry, and to Edward it looked like a palace. He came out of the shower and put on clean clothes that Blake had given him. The place peaceful and empty, but still he held his knife close to his side as he went into the living room. Blake was sitting by the electric heater, fiddling with a tiny gearbox.

“Thanks for the clothes and shower,” Edward said, standing uncertainly by the door. He glanced quickly behind him—no one was there.

“Not a problem,” Blake said, barely glancing up. “I’m happy to extend a few things to a friend of 8134—Droog, I should say. Just sit down and relax. You don’t need the knife.”

Edward sat down and crossed his arms, keeping the knife hidden in his hand. “So, how did you find him?”

“He found me,” Blake said. “He’s a smart little bot. He told me all about you—otherwise I’m not sure I’d have let you in here.”

“He doesn’t talk; he just blinks his red and green lights.”

“I put those lights there to make it easier to communicate,” Blake said, “but he does talk, if you ask him to and know the language. It’s Russian.” He held up an e-device. “I’ve got an instruct that will translate. I’ll give you a copy, if you want. He told me how you rescued that boy. Sean, right?”

Edward stood up, dropping his arms and unconsciously exposing the knife blade. “You have Sean? Where is he?”

Blake smiled. “Sit down, and put the knife away. He’s with Droog at the hospital—yes, we have such things here. He was almost dead when I found him and he would have been dead and eaten if not for Droog. You’re lucky to have that little bot.”

“I stole him, you know, from a guy named Joseph.”

“Droog says you invited him to come along on your quest. To find music, he said. You’re a complicated guy, Edward.”

“I thought bots couldn’t lie,” Edward said. He put away his knife slowly and sat down.

“They don’t have any morals,” Blake said, “but they also don’t have any guile or reason to lie. They tell things as they see them, but every so often, they just choose to interpret things a different way. Droog claims you requested him to come.”

Edward gave a small laugh. The shower had put him in a better mood than he could remember for a long time and hearing that Sean was safe made it even better. “You know, I don’t remember the last time I requested anyone to do anything,” he said.

Blake gave him a long look over the gearbox. “I’m not surprised, looking at you. Listen, you can stay the day here, but tomorrow night you’ll have to go. If you want, I can see about getting you a job somewhere around town: security or loading or something like that. Still, I don’t know if you’re the kind of guy who works well with others.”

Edward gave him a thin smile. “I want to see Sean.”

Cambridge street

They left Blake’s house and walked through narrow streets of the city. They were lit with electric lights, quiet, and what amazed Edward most of all, clean. People passed them, talking quietly. There were no raucous market sellers, not street rats, not even any weapons that he could see.

“Isn’t there any crime here?” he asked Blake.

“Of course,” Blake replied. “There’s crime everywhere, but nothing like out there. The penalties are harsh too: often execution or worse.”

“Worse?”

“Exile,” Blake said. “Fear of the outside is a better enforcer of the law than any number of policemen.” He led the way up a set of stone steps and into a long hall.

“This is just the local clinic. The bigger hospital is across the city, but I thought this would be sufficient.”

They came to a long room with beds lining the walls. Droog was standing by the third one on the right and lying on the bed was the little boy, Sean. He had an IV in his arm and looked to be asleep. Blake called over a doctor, who said that Sean was improving and would probably fully recover in a week or two.

“Have you thought about what you want to do next?” Blake asked. “As I said, you can stay with me today, but that’s all. All other lodgings in the city are for workers. Ain’t no tourists here.”

“You’re right when you said I probably wouldn’t work well with others,” Edward said. “I’d best be moving on out of here, but do you think he could stay here?”

Blake was shaking his head before Edward even finished. “Only the children of workers can stay. If you stay, you adopt him; otherwise, you’ll have to take him when you go.”

Edward looked down at the sleeping boy on the bed and wished he could just leave him. He felt as if he barely knew his own mind anymore. Why did he feel he owed this boy anything? He had never killed a kid, it was true, but he had robbed a good many and pushed them around. This wasn’t penance for them; he honestly didn’t care about any of them. But still . . . He shook his head, as if trying to put it in order.

“I don’t think I’d fit in this city, but I’d like to do something to earn a place for the boy, at least.”

Blake smiled. “I think I know the person you want to talk to. She’s the Secretary of the Exterior. I’ve worked with her a few times, when I go out exploring for robots. “

They left Droog and Sean and walked for half an hour, to the heart of the city. They entered an area with more guards where Edward had to give up his knife. Finally, they were escorted down a hall and their guide opened a large, ornate door.

Edward found himself in a large oak-paneled office with leather furniture and shelves of books. A ‘Munculus bot and a larger Myoolbot, both painted yellow, stood to one side. Behind a large desk sat a middle-aged woman with close-cropped hair and wearing a leather jacket.

“Madame Secretary, I brought someone who is interested in expeditionary work. His name is—”

“Wait,” the woman said, cutting him off. “I think I know him.” She gave Edward a long look and then broke into a grin. “Hey there, crackerjack.”

She looked older, but Edward recognized her. From deep withing the annals of his memory a name slowly rose. “Hestia?” he said.


Droog the Angel

The latest chapter in the Aftermath series. The previous story was Droog Comes Home. There is also an Aftermath Glossary.

 

Edward Morrison felt powerless and that made him angry. He had been wandering the satellite slums of Cambridge for two days, searching for his robot Droog and the boy he called Sean. Why do I even care? Why don’t I just go? his mind demanded, but then the question always arose: Go where? He had no food, no supplies, no plan. What had he been thinking when he had left Free Frall? It had seemed so simple then.

He was also fiercely hungry. In Freefrall, he would merely go and take food if he needed it, but here people were shrewder, and far more dangerous. He had managed to steal a scrawny pheasant from an old woman in the market—just grabbed it off her table and ran. She was quick though, and a second after his hand closed on the bird, her knife was flashing towards his ribs. It missed him and he could hear her cursing him for a long ways away, even over the normal murmur of the crowds. He had eaten it furtively in the dark, gnawing quickly like an animal afraid of having its prize stolen.

That had been a day ago. Now he was starving again and becoming desperate. He would have ambushed someone and killed them for their food except that no one ventured outside the markets alone and everyone was heavily armed.

Dawn was close when he finally stumbled back to the nest he had found under some stubby bushes. It wasn’t much, but it kept the sun’s blistering rays off him . The air was sweltering and he slept fitfully, his dreams melding with hallucinations from the heat and thirst and his gnawing hunger.

He dreamed that he was in a dark room surrounded by all the people he had killed over the years. They came at him, one by one, and he had to fight them again and again. I’m so tired, I just want to sleep, he thought, but they wouldn’t stop. Then the scene shifted and he was wandering over the dark countryside with Droog, looking for Sean. He was too tired to pay attention and after a while, Droog led him to a place under the bushes, where he could rest. Droog did not leave, but kept leaning over him, making little noises and prodding him…

Edward pulled himself upright with a sharp intake of breath. Droog was standing in front of him, pushing his small, metal body partway the hollow in the bushes.

“Droog, you little gear-rat! How did you find me?” Edward shouted in surprise. He stopped as a coughing fit grabbed him. Droog reached into a bag he was carrying and pulled out a bottle of water and a metal container, which turned out to hold food. The water was warm, but cleaner than any Edward could remember and the food… he had not tasted food so good since Before, when food was plentiful and taken for granted.

Droog waited as Edward wolfed down the food and water. The position of the sun showed that it was late afternoon: about four hours until darkness. Droog took something else out of the bag and handed it to Edward. It was a suit of shiny, white material that included pants, jacket, gloves, hat and goggles.

“You want me to put this on?” Edward asked, although the answer was obvious. “Where are we going, Droog? Where did you get this stuff?” Droog did not reply, but simply indicated the clothes.

Edward put them, trying not to rip them on the bushes around him. They were bulky, but not hot and they seemed to cool him down, if anything. When he was completely covered, Droog went outside and he followed.

scorching sunlight

Edward had not been outside during the day in seventeen years. He had heard stories of people who had gotten caught outside when the sun rose: sunburns within a minute, third degree burns in an hour. The goggles cut the glare and for a moment, it was like he had was back then—Before—when he would walk outside in the sun’s warm light for hours.

They walked back through the Silver Street market and came to the bridge across the canal that led to the fortified city of Cambridge. Guards were there behind locks gates, wearing similar white suits and goggles. Droog handed them two square cards and they unlocked the gates. Just like that, Edward was in the protected city.

Droog must mean angel, he thought. Suddenly, the combined effect of the food, the sunlight and his sudden reversal of fortunes made tears start streaming down his cheeks. He hated them and the weakness they implied, but there was no way to make them stop.


Droog Comes Home – Part 2

Here is Part 1 of this story. Read the rest of the Aftermath stories here. Here is a glossary of slang and jargon used in the stories.

Night on the road

They left the Silver Street market area and struck out along a path that followed a canal. Twenty minutes of walking in the dark ended at a fire-lit circle of about twenty tents, with a few electric lights adding glaring illumination to the scene. It looked like a graveyard for every type of technology made in the last century. Masses of wire, piles of circuit boards, computers, e-devices, even a few battered robots filled the tents to overflowing. It was not a comforting place for Droog.

Matty led the way through a greasy yellow door-flap and into a tent stuffed with robot parts. A bald man with blotchy skin sat behind a workbench.

“Hey Screws, we brought you a good one,” Matty said. “It works, but it won’t take commands. Plus, it seems attached to this kid.”

“Fortuned stars,” Screws said, coming around the bench and inspecting Droog. “It’s quite a calico little drob. Someone’s fixed it up pretty well. Is it owned?”

“Just some mudscrape,” Matty said casually. “What’ll you give for it?”

As the men were haggling about trades, Droog did a scan of the tent. Somewhere beneath the pile of derelict technology was a robot that was still activated.

Have you been here long? Droog asked through the robot universal communication.

183 days, the other robot replied. He took off my limbs to put on other robots. I must wait here in case he needs any of my other parts.

What is he like? It looks as if he will acquire me. The other robot sent him scan logs from the last 183 days, which Droog analyzed instantly. This man Screws was not a good person. Besides dismembering robots, he was also depraved towards humans. He ate human flesh. Droog knew from experience that humans considered this to be the worst thing in the world. It indicated a very evil person. He did not want Sean to be anywhere near someone like that.

Matty and his gang stayed for another half an hour before agreeing on a deal and leaving with their traded goods. Droog went and stood in front of Sean, who was lying on the floor, not moving. Screws came over and tried to go to Sean, but Droog blocked his way.

“I see, I see,” Screws said with a laugh. “Protective little watchdog, you is.” He picked up a round, black device connected to a wire and put it on Droog’s head. “Stay, boy.”

Droog tried to move, but he could not. Electricity was going through him, freezing his limbs and gears. He stood like a statue as Screws picked Sean up and put him on the workbench.

“You’re on death’s door, aren’t you kiddo,” he murmured. “I’d best get you dressed up now before you die and start spoiling.” He put a oily basin underneath the bench and then reached down and pulled out a large knife.

He was going to kill Sean, Droog realized. In the other robot’s scan logs, Screws had done this before to other people. He tried to overcome the device on his head but he remained frozen, like ice.

At that moment, the electric light went out and Droog was suddenly free. Through his infrared senses, he could see Screws blundering around in the dark, fumbling with the battery pack for the lights. Droog moved towards him, scanning and trying to find a way to take him down. There. The man had a tumor growing just behind his knee, well within Droog’s reach. He reached up and pushed his small steel hand into the tumor.

Screws screamed and fell to the ground, holding his knee. Now was Droog’s chance, but he could not reach Sean on the workbench. He pulled on the workbench, but it was solid. He could not rescue Sean on his own.

Droog knew that the probability of Edward being in the area was very small, but still he went outside and started scanning, looking for known voice patterns. A match came up, but it was not Edward: it was Blake, the man who had found Droog and brought him to Cambridge, before he had gone down to Free Frall and met Edward. Blake was in a tent on the far side of the clearing. Droog went to him, bumping into the back of his legs to get his attention.

Blake was tall and middle-aged and always wore heavy leather clothing. He turned around and looked at Droog, then smiled.

“Well, it’s 8134, the little Russian ‘Munculus, isn’t it?” Blake referred to all his robots by the end of their serial numbers. “I’m surprised to see you again. Who are you with?” Blake always talked to him normally, even though Droog could never respond in English. Droog went back to Screws’ tent and Blake followed. Screws was sitting in a chair, still holding his knee. The lights were on, flickering weakly.

“So it’s you, Screws,” Blake said. “Do you own this little bot?”

“Yeah, I just traded for him, but the scrygging drob attacked me. He’s twisted for this boy.”

Blake’s eyes flicked to Sean. “You hungry, Screws? Listen, I like this little bot. He’s too good to end up in a place like yours. I’ll trade you for him, and the boy.” Blake took out a bag of food and opened it. Inside was meat, vegetables and even real fruit.

“You Insiders make me sick,” Screws said. He spat on the ground. “Coming outside the walls to lord your wealth over us.” Still, his eyes could not stray away from the food.

“So, we have a deal?” Blake asked. They bargained for a few minutes before agreeing. Blake gave Screws the food and picked up Sean. They walked ten minutes to a bridge across the canal and the gates of Cambridge. The guards nodded at Blake as they passed through.

“Welcome home, 8134,” he said.


Droog Comes Home – Part 1

After a long break, here is another story from the Aftermath story. Part 2 of it will be up tomorrow. It picks up right after the story Outside the Gates of Cambridge. It’s also about Droog and references Droog’s Story. The rest of the Aftermath stories are here. I’m also going to put up a glossary on the Aftermath page of all the slang terms used in these stories.

The slumsDroog the robot knew a lot of things. Through his scanners, he knew that the small boy that was sleeping in the dust in the corner of the hut—the one Edward called Sean—was dying. His kidneys were shutting down slowly. Droog did not have any feelings of sadness—he had no emotions at all—but he did hope that the boy would not die.

Long ago, on the day the world had ended, there had a been a boy he had promised to help. That boy had disappeared, but Droog had never stopped looking for him. Some part of his mind knew that he was probably never going to find that boy again. He still had his bio-rhythmic signature stored in his memory, but he had scanned thousands of people and had never found him again. Now he had a boy here that Edward cared about. It would be so much easier if this really was the boy he had been looking for all these years, the boy he had promised to protect. Then he and Edward would have the same goal.

Droog thought for a moment and then did something he had never done before: he intentionally overwrote his memory. He replaced the bio-rhythmic signature of the boy from long ago with Sean’s and suppressed the logic that said the time difference was too great for that to be true. And just like that, Sean was the boy he had been looking for, and had always been. And Droog was going to help him survive.

Droog did a scan of the surrounding area, as he did every few seconds and that was how he knew the three men would come into the house, seconds before the door banged open.

The lead man wore a expensive, but faded suit coat over his filthy overalls. He leered at the woman who was sitting at the table. “Hinsen gone?”

She flushed slightly and nodded. Droog watched as they flirted back and forth, dispassionately recording their attraction for one another. Then the man turned towards Droog.

“What’s this, a robot?”

“It’s a ‘Munculus Bot,” one of the other men said. “I know a guy who pays good for these.”

“We’re going to take this, okay love?” the first man said, with a wink. “Just tell Hinsen it ran away on its own.”

“It don’t belong to Hinsen anyway, Matty dear,” the woman said. “Some mudscrape brought it with him yesterday. You want the boy too?”

Matty shook his head with a laugh, then turned back to Droog. “You obey commands, right? Let’s go.”

Droog turned back and tried to pick up Sean. The frail boy opened his eyes but didn’t sit up.

“Come on, we ain’t going to bring him too,” Matty said. “Get going. I order you.”

Robots like Droog were usually programmed with a number of voice signatures when they arrived at their buyers. These were the master access voices and the robot was forced to obey them. Droog, however, had never been bought and did not have any master access voices programmed into him. He could decide whether to obey someone or not, although he usually obeyed unless there was a good reason. Now, however, he ignored the man’s request and tried to pick up Sean again.

“This piece of scrap is broken,” Matty said. “Jere, pick him up and let’s go.”

Jere, the burliest of the three, stepped forward and put his arms around Droog. Droog waited while the man strained and puffed: Droog knew that he weighed 130kg, despite his small size. Jere finally gave up and Droog turned back to Sean.

“Do you think he’ll come along if we take the boy?” Jere asked.

“I think you should try,” the woman said.

A couple minutes later, Jere walked through the fire-illuminated market street carrying Sean, while Droog followed behind.

Continued in Part 2


The Making of the Squid, Part 6

The Making of the Squid, Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5

You can read the rest of the Aftermath stories here or here.

Well, this is the final installment of this story. Thanks for reading thus far. Please forgive the length of this one; I decided to just post it instead of breaking it into yet another installment. This last part is much darker, but after all, this is not the end of the story: it is the beginning. I will pick up with Edward “the Squid” Morrison again on the other side.

storm clouds

There was a storm brewing. For days now, they could see clouds seething in the south, thunder rumbling distantly, like a monster that was slowly wakening. It seemed to be growing, creeping ever so slowly towards them.

Harlow had become an unfriendly place for Edward. The other residents barely spoke to him now and the men worked together on the other cisterns, leaving Edward’s half finished.

Edward did not worry about this—he did not need their approval—but what did worry him was Sean. The boy was spending more and more time outside, staring off in the distance. Edward knew he was watching for his parents. He was becoming paler and had developed a cough.

Several days after Edward had gone to his last committee meeting, he was walking along route B180, back towards his old house. The afterglow of sunset was fading to black when a car drove down the road towards him, headlights glaring. It was the first working car he had seen in almost a month. It stopped and the window went down, revealing a woman wearing a diagnostics headset and stylish clothes.

Hestia's car

“Evening, crackerjack,” she said. “I thought this whole space was blitzoid. You the only one around here?”

“There’s a whole town of us, back there in Harlow,” Edward said. “You come from Cambridge?”

“Yeah, that much you know.” She took her silk-gloved hands off the wheel. “You do know about the storm coming? The gee-sees all show the radiation as being right up there. A regular slam-bang.”

“Is it any safer in Cambridge?” Edward asked.

“We have some deep cellars, but we’re probably all well snuffed together, you and us. Once it gets into the drinking water and we’re all swilling fallout cocktails, well…” She shrugged—what-are-you-gonna-do? “I came down on a scouting mission, looking for clues of its trajectory.”

A thought flashed through Edward’s head. This was his one chance. “Can you do me a favor? I have children at my house—orphans. Take some of them with you, if you can. I don’t want to, but I can’t take care of them all.”

The woman frowned, as if thinking. “Let me see them,” she said finally. “Hop in.”

The woman introduced herself as Hestia Wolfe. As they drove back to town, she showed him her e-device, with news and images from around the world, including pictures of the devastation of London. There was already a remnant of the UN that was trying to stagger back. The US capital had been moved to Denver. Wales had been untouched by the missiles, but decimated by fallout. The list of tragedies and triumphs went on and on, weighted heavily on the side of tragedy.

“We’re fortune-kissed to be in this area,” Hestia said. “The winds didn’t bring much our way—until now, it seems.”

Hestia met the children and they had dinner together. The kids had made a concoction of corn and pinto beans, with jellied cranberries on the side. Hestia complimented them on their skill and even had seconds. After the meal, she took Edward out onto the porch.

“I can take the four youngest ones,” she said. “Let me see: Ernesto, Kaveh, Cala, and Lalasa. Two boys and two girls. I’ll be able to find them good homes. They’re all relatively healthy and I know of a few families who will welcome them.”

“Will you sell them?” Edward asked.

“I will find them good homes,” Hestia repeated. “Money—or goods, I should say—will change hands, but that’s how the world works, you know? I’m not a human trafficker, if that’s what you mean.”

“I’d ask you to take Sean, but I don’t think he’d go. I’m worried about him.”

“I wouldn’t take him anyway,” Hestia said. “He looks pretty hacked up—sick, that is. I can’t take the risk.”

They went back in and Edward told the kids what was going to happen. They took it much better than Edward had expected. None of them clamored to go or begged to stay behind. Life had hit them with so much pain and uncertainty that the possible positives and negatives of going to Cambridge cancelled out into a dull neutral. Cala sat on Edward’s lap and cried a little, but when he told her to go get packed, she went upstairs with Lalasa without complaining. Hestia left with the four chosen kids thirty minutes later. Edward watched them go but no one waved good bye.

It was not until the next day that the house felt emptier. Hugo began to fight more with Meredith. Portia and Hazel retreated into their room and would not come out all day. Sean stood on the porch, looking flushed. Edward found him there in the evening, his legs curled against his chest, eyes glazed. His skin was on fire.

No, not him too. All Edward could think of was the shock of Ramya’s cold cheek against his hand. It couldn’t happen again. Edward put Sean to bed, got his gun, and went to the Crawfords’ house.

Nikola opened the door a crack when he knocked. She immediately tried to slam it shut again, but Edward stuck the butt of the rifle in the gap and forced the door open.

“For God’s sake, Edward, what do you want now?” Her voice was dull, but her eyes flashed with hate.

“Sean’s sick. I need you to come treat him, or at least give me some medicine. Please,” he added.

Nikola looked at him and then stepped forward and very deliberately spat on his shirt. “I wouldn’t treat you or any of your mud-grubbing pack of rat bastards to save my life,” she said. She spoke slowly, enunciating every word.

Eight-year-old Trav Crawford appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. Before Nikola could react, Edward strode towards him and pointed the rifle at his head. “Not to save your life, eh? How about his life? Is his life worth a bit of medicine to save my boy?”

Trav gave a small shriek and started to run towards his mother, but Edward pushed him back. Nikola was staring at him, frozen and pale. “Don’t hurt him,” she said softly. “Tell me the symptoms. I’ll tell you how to treat him, if you can.”

Edward described Sean’s condition to her. She went upstairs and came back with several small boxes of pills. Edward stayed behind with Trav.

“I can’t guarantee this will work,” she said, after she had told him how to give it to Sean. “Please, if he dies, don’t come take it out on us.”

“We’ll see,” Edward said. “Come on, Trav; you’re walking me to the door.”

Edward started to walk backwards towards the front door, holding Trav in front of him. Nikola gave a cry and leapt towards her son. Edward pointed the gun at her. At that moment, something hit him in the back. He slammed the butt of the rifle backwards, feeling it strike something solid. The gun went off and Nikola fell back, an expanding red hole in her blouse. Behind him, Noah Crawford lay on the floor, next to the piece of wood he had used to hit Edward. Edward left, quickly.

He ran all the way home, intent on getting back to Sean and unable to process what had happened. He had just killed someone—a mother, in front of her son. It had been an accident, of course, but it had still happened. He couldn’t think of it now.

He gave Sean the medicine as Nikola had instructed him. Then he set Portia and Hazel to watch him. He was just going downstairs when he heard a shot and a bullet ripped through the front door.

“Squid! Get out here, Squid!” He peeked out the side of the front window. Noah was standing in the street, holding Kaine Bowlery’s rifle. Kaine, Heston and few of the other men were standing nearby.

Edward opened the front door and stood to one side. “Go home, Noah. It was an accident. Just get out of here.”

“You killed my wife, you bastard!” Noah screamed and fired another shot through the doorway. “I’ll kill you. I’ll rip your guts out.”

Edward looked around. Where were Hugo and Meredith? The others were upstairs, but if a stray shot hit one of them…

“This is your last chance, Noah. I didn’t mean to shoot Nikola. It was an accident and I’m sorry, but don’t you dare fire that when my kids are around.”

“Your kids? You pointed a gun at my son’s head. You shot my wife!”

Edward stepped into the doorway and raised the rifle. He felt a bullet whiz by him and he fired. Noah fell to the ground.

Before anyone could react, Edward rushed out and grabbed the other rifle. Noah was not moving—the bullet had gone through his neck. “I didn’t want to do it,” he said.

Kaine Bowlery held out his hands and when he spoke, his voice shook. “Please, Eddie. We don’t want any trouble. Just go. Leave us in peace.”

“I can’t,” Edward said. “I have to stay here, for Sean. Take him and bury him. Then, go home.” They picked up the body and left without a word.

Over the next week, Sean was slowly restored to health. One evening, he and Edward were looking out the south window. Far away, the storm clouds still rolled and boiled, but they had not come any closer

“Aren’t they moving?” Sean asked. “I’ve never heard of a storm that didn’t move. Does that mean we’re safe?”

“No,” Edward said. “There’s no such thing as safe anymore. I don’t know what will happen, but that’s the world we live in now.”

They continued to watch the storm, as around them the darkness grew.

Epilogue

Time passed and they struggled on, against hunger, sickness, against the other residents of the town that gradually became known as Free Frall. Sickness ravaged the survivors, eating away at their numbers. The town began to decay and decline, as did its residents, until they were little more than ghosts, creeping forth at dusk to scrape out a miserable existence from the blighted earth.

Hugo died the first winter and a year later, Hazel. Edward buried them away from the house and with each death, he became more and more the Squid. Portia left four years later to join a group of wanderers and returned a year later to take Meredith with her, who was only eleven. Edward let them go. Then, it was only he and Sean.

One night, close to dawn, Edward returned home to find Sean gone. It took a week of searching for Edward to finally accept that he was not coming back and his transformation to the Squid was complete. He went out and stabbed the first person he met. He buried the body and tried to forget he had ever known anyone named Sean, or Portia, or Meredith, or even Ramya. The memories brought too much pain.

And so, Edward Morrison lived as the unofficial king of the decaying residential area known as Free Frall. They called him the Squid, and he liked it.

Aftermath

(continued in the story Saturday 4am)


The Making of the Squid, Part 5

The Making of the Squid, Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4

You can read the rest of the Aftermath stories here or here.

box of cans

“Eddie, what are we going to have for supper?” Sean asked. The older children were taking turns cooking supper, now that Edward was trying to do more work at night.

“I don’t care. Whatever’s in there.” Edward went to the pantry, pawed through the box on the floor, and pulled out two cans of sardines, canned potatoes, and canned tomatoes. “Here, we can eat this.”

“What, cold?”

“Or heat it up over the fireplace. I don’t care.”

“Lalasa doesn’t like tomatoes,” Sean said.

Edward clenched his fists in frustration. “Then don’t make them. I don’t care, but this is all we have. I will try to get more today, but I don’t have any control over what I find.”

“But—”

“Do whatever the hell you want, okay?”

Hazel put her head into the pantry. “Eddie, we’re almost out of Abadocil.”

“Then I’ll go get some more!” he shouted. He pushed past them, ignoring Hazel’s hurt expression. I can’t do this, he thought. I gotta get out of here.

Edward walked through the twilit streets towards the Crawfords’ house. They had moved the boxes of Abadocil there for convenience and to keep them safer from looters. He knocked on the door and Nikola answered.

“Hey. I need more Abadocil,” Edward said. “Just give me a case, so it’ll last a while.”

Nikola hesitated. “Eddie, we’ve decided not to give out any more.”

Edward looked hard at her. “What? To anyone?”

“No, just to those children staying in your house. We’re running low and it’s going to be gone soon.”

“So who decided that?”

“Noah and I. Listen, Eddie, I’ll give more for you, but we just can’t afford to give them all away, just like that.”

He stared at her until she looked away uncomfortably. “Why the children, Nikola? They only take half the dose an adult does. Are you stopping them for your children too?”

“No, just the ones in your house.”

“Just mine?” he shouted in disbelief.

“They’re not yours, Eddie,” she shot back. “If they were, we’d do something, but they’re not. They’re orphans. I don’t like it either—I hate it, but there’s nothing we can do. The truth is that if we use them all up, we could all die. It’s for the greater good.”

He continued to stare at her, too furious to speak. “Look,” she said. “All the Geiger counters are dead, but who knows? Maybe the radiation has decreased. Maybe they’ll be okay.”

“Maybe?” he shouted. He reached out and grabbed her by the throat, slamming her back against the door. “Maybe? Why don’t you stop the meds and see for yourself what maybe looks like, you scrygging cow?”

“Get your filthy hands off my wife, Eddie.” Edward turned and saw Noah just inside the door, pointing a hunting rifle at him. Edward let her go and she staggered back, gasping.

“This is what I’m going to do,” Edward said slowly. “I’m going to come in and take a case of Abadocil and I’m going to go home. Okay?”

“You don’t get to make the rules, Eddie,” Noah said. “You’re not the law.”

You’re not the law. The words echoed in Edward’s head. There was no law now. No law. It was an exhilarating, terrifying thought. He could do whatever he wanted, and so could anyone else.

“You’re wrong,” he said to Nikola, who was holding her throat and looking up at him with murder in her eyes. “When you said those children aren’t mine. They are mine now, and I’m going to do everything I can for them. Okay?”

Without warning, Edward grabbed the muzzle of the gun, thrusting it into the air. The rifle went off, shooting high. Edward smashed the stock back into Noah’s chest, knocking him down and wrenching the gun from his hands.

Five minutes later, Edward left, carrying the rifle and two cases of Abadocil. He had stuffed all the bullets he could find into his pockets. He strode down the road, cursing and kicking rocks furiously out of the way. He hated the Crawfords for trying to play God with his kids; he hated the Central Bloc for starting the war that ended civilization; he hated his own government for bungling negotiations and refusing to compromise on that small strip of land, which had ratcheted up tensions until there was no going back. He hated Ramya for dying and leaving him all alone, and he hated himself most of all: for losing his temper, for being weak and incompetent, and for thinking unfair thoughts about the dead. Tears started down his cheeks at the thought of Ramya and he hated them too.

Supper was ready when he got back. Sean and Portia had made a concoction of potatoes and sardines, mashed together and heated up, with tomatoes on the side in deference to Lalasa’s tastes. Edward had to admit it was pretty good, all things considered.

“Listen,” he said. They looked up at him expectantly. “I have medicine for all of us for a while. All of you have to take three pills a day, okay? No matter what. Make sure Ernesto takes his too. We have to hide it though because people might try to take it. I made some people mad today. Keep the doors locked all the time. Nobody—nobody except us ever comes in here, okay? Promise?”

He made them promise and the solemn looks on their faces showed him they understood the seriousness of the situation. He was glad.

“Now, there is a committee meeting tonight. I’d better go and make some things clear,” he said, standing up. “Lock the door and don’t worry; I’ll be back soon.”

The meeting had already started when he got there, but everyone stopped when he walked in. He carried Noah’s rifle, loaded, but held casually in one hand.

“What’s gotten into you, Eddie?” Kaine Bowlery asked. “Weren’t you the one that said this was about us, not you, and now you assault the Crawfords and steal medicine?” Noah was there, glowering darkly at him.

“Stealing?” Edward said. “I thought we were in this together. If one person refuses to help another, telling him that his kids can go die, is that any better?”

“Are you trying to be the boss, Eddie?” Kaine asked.

“I’m here to stick up for my own, and I’ll stick up for you too,” Edward said. “What if the Crawfords decide next week that there isn’t enough medicine for your family, Kaine? Or for you, Abdul? What if only the white people are allowed medicine, or only those whose last name is Crawford?”

A few people were nodding, but most looked doubtful. “We are going to have one rule in this town,” he continued. “Everything is free. Everything. It’s free for all. That means that if I have more than I need, then I’ll give to you, and if you have more than you need, you give to me. No hoarding.”

“You’ll never have more than you need with that gaggle of brats,” someone said. “It’ll just be you, taking and taking from the rest of us.”

“Hey, I took them in when none of you would. What can I do: I’m their Uncle Octopus.”

“More like a squid,” Noah said, “sticking your tentacles into everyone else’s business.”

“So a squid is worse than an octopus?” Edward asked, but no one answered. A few minutes later, he left and went home.

The next morning, Edward got up before sunrise and walked through the town, looking for untouched houses where he could scavenge for food. He walked past the main roundabout and saw a new message spray-painted under his:

It’s free f’r all, as long as you pay the Squid first.

For some reason, it amused him and he laughed as he continued on his way.

(to be concluded)


The Making of the Squid, Part 4

The Making of the Squid, Part 1     Part 2     Part 3

You can read the rest of the Aftermath stories here or here.

unmarked grave

Edward buried Ramya in the backyard of the house, between two beech trees. There was no funeral, but a few of the residents came to give their condolences. The children clumped together around the edges of the yard, looking lost.

“What are we going to do now?” Hazel asked when they had all gone back inside the house and were sitting despondently in the living room.

“What are we going to do?” Edward repeated, forcing a smile onto his face. “We just gonna—we’re gonna keep going, right? I’m Uncle Octopus, remember? I got this.”

A few of the younger ones smiled at this. Then Meredith came over and climbed onto his lap. Cala and Lalasa followed, with Ernesto toddling behind and after a moment, all the kids—even Hazel and Portia, the older ones—were around him, crying and hugging him. Part of him wanted to fling them off and go get blackout drunk somewhere, but he restrained himself and soon he felt the tears trickling down his own cheeks.

The rest of the community responded to his plight and for a while once again, women came in from time to time to help him cook and clean. Portia, Hazel, and Sean helped as well, although never as much as Edward wanted. He had to remind himself that they were children, and children who had just lost their families and the only life they had ever known. Sometimes they would break down in tears out of nowhere, and go off by themselves for hours at a time.

As for Edward, he threw himself into work, drugging himself with exhaustion. Life soon fell into a routine: up at sunrise to make breakfast for the children, then out collecting food and supplies from abandoned houses. Back to make lunch and clean the house around noon, and then do it all again in the afternoon and evening. He fell into bed soon after sunset, too tired to even think.

The electricity had died soon after August 4, the day the missiles fell, but the water kept running in the taps. Kaine Bowlery told him that the water system was all automated and should go for months by itself. But of course at some point it would break and the water would stop. So, with the help of some of the other men in the town, they were building huge cisterns to catch rain water. It was slow, frustrating work and none of them had had experience building anything before.

Eight days after Ramya died, Edward was resting outside after lunch. The calendar said it was September 1 and the weather remained warm and deceptively cheerful. Sean came over and sat by him. They sat together in silence for a moment.

“You don’t go back to check our houses anymore,” Sean said.

“The note’s still there,” Edward said. “Your parents can find their way here. I just don’t want to waste power, now that we can’t charge the cars anymore.”

There was a moment of silence. “They’re not coming back, are they?”

“We don’t know that,” Edward said. “Roads are a mess. It could have taken weeks for your mother to find your father and it could take longer to get back here. They could be on their way back now, especially if they have to walk.”

“I just wish I knew,” Sean said.

“I wish I did too,” Edward said. The fact was that he truly did not know. None of them did. The Internet was still working somewhere, presumably, but with the electricity out in Harlow, all battery-powered devices had died within a few weeks. Two weeks before, just before his device battery had given out, England was still in chaos. It was reported that on August 4th, there had been 96 nuclear strikes on twelve different countries. The most reliable estimates were of 150 million casualties on that day alone, not to mention the hundreds of millions who would probably die in the next year or two.

There was a scream from across the yard and Edward jumped up. It was Hugo, running towards him crying, with Kaveh and Meredith running behind. Hugo stopped in front of him, holding out his arms. Edward saw they were covered with tiny blisters, as if the boy’s skin had bubbled.

sunburn 2nd degree

“Get in the house, everyone!” he shouted. All he could think about was fallout, and cancer bombs, and Ramya throwing up her lifeblood on the upstairs carpet.

Edward examined them all and found that others kids had similar blisters and severe sunburns, although none as bad as Hugo. Meredith, Hazel, Kaveh and Lalasa were all dark-skinned, but even their skin was tender to the touch in places. Still, he felt better about fallout. “It’s just a bad sunburn,” he said. “I don’t know why, but stay out of the sun for now.”

They stayed inside for the rest of the day. Edward stayed with them, until he had to go out in the afternoon to get tampons for Portia. She had locked herself in the bathroom in embarrassment and it had taken her an hour to admit the reason. Edward was embarrassed as well, and was glad they had the talk through the bathroom door.

I can’t do this, he thought. It seemed to be a thought that came to his mind every day now. It wasn’t just buying tampons for teenage girls, it was everything. This isn’t me. I’m not Uncle Octopus, I’m Eddie Morrison, a 25-year-old illustrator. He felt like he was pretending to be something he wasn’t and that it was only a matter of time before everything came crashing down. Either he would make a mistake and one of the kids would die or he would just snap and take off, leaving them to their fate. Did he even want to? He wasn’t sure.

That night, he left the kids in the care of Portia and Hazel and went to the committee meeting. Others there had bad burns and blisters from the sun and they debated it at length.

“It can’t be radiation because we’ve been taking six pills a day and I still got it,” Gray Hassick said. “And this guy over here doesn’t have a bit.” He pointed to a black man who only went by the name Abdul.

“I think I know what it is,” Heston Bowlery said. “I think the Ra-Shield has gone down. That would explain everything.”

“That’s impossible,” someone else said. “What about the triple redundancy they went on about? They said the facilities were even hardened against nuclear attack.”

Edward had almost forgotten about the Ra-Shield. It was just a background part of normal life, like running water and electricity. 40-odd years before, the UN had built a huge, globe-spanning system of machines that helped protect against ultraviolet radiation, after the ozone layer had been dangerously depleted. He didn’t know how it worked, but if it was gone . . .

“So, if that’s the case, what do we do?” he asked. “Stay inside except at night? Bring an umbrella?”

“On top of cancer bombs and fallout, we have to worry about skin cancer too?” someone said. “Humanity is screwed.”

The committee looked around at each other dismally and Edward could feel the weight of depression settle over them all.

(to be continued)


The Making of the Squid, Part 3

The Making of the Squid, Part 1     Part 2

You can read the rest of the Aftermath stories here or here.

 

“Do it, Eddie. Don’t be a mouse.” Ramya stared at him, her mouth set resolutely. “Do it, or I’m walking out on you.”

“You’ve said that before. You wouldn’t dare,” he said.

“You wanna bet?” She thrust a large bowl of oatmeal into his hands. “Now get out there. And try learning their names for once.”

Edward pushed through the door into the dining room. “Good morning,” he said, flashing the assembled children a wide smile through gritted teeth.

oatmeal

“Good morning, Uncle Octopus,” a girl said and giggled. Most were still yawning. There were nine children there, ranging in age from three to fourteen. Besides Sean, he knew that one of the girls was named Meredith and there was a boy named Hugo there somewhere. The three-year-old was named Ernesto, but he only knew that because the phrase “Ernesto wet himself again” was heard so frequently in the house.

“Before you get any breakfast, you have to tell me your name,” he said, plunking the bowl on the table.

“We told you yesterday,” the oldest girl (Portia?) said.

“Well, tell me again, dammit,” he said. “Sorry, just—tell me as I come around.” He tried to remember them in the order they were sitting: Sean, Hugo, Meredith, Kaveh, Hazel, Portia, Ernesto, Cala, and Lalasa. The names were muddled and gone from his head almost as soon as they told him.

“I want raisins in mine,” Cala, the four-year-old, said.

“There weren’t any raisins yesterday and there sure aren’t any today,” he said, remembering not to swear. Cala looked mournful, but picked up her spoon and started poking around the edges of her bowl.

“We’re going to need more food soon,” Ramya said when he was finished doling out the breakfast. “We have enough oatmeal for maybe another day and the rice is almost gone too.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “They’re little eating machines. The argument that they don’t eat much doesn’t work when there are nine of them.” He regretted it when he saw her face. He had promised not to keep bringing it up, subtly blaming her for their shortages.

It had been two weeks since they had moved into the house in Harlow and although the other residents had been generous at first, donations had dropped off quickly as stores of supplies shrank.

“I need to get everyone united somehow,” Edward said. “Other people may be able to get by on their own, but we can’t, not if you’re gonna—if we are going to have these kids here.”

She put her arms around him wordlessly and he hugged her, glad of her warm presence. He wondered what he would be doing if she hadn’t been with him. He wouldn’t be in Harlow, that was for sure. Most likely hoofing it along the coast or up to Cambridge like everyone else. He squeezed her harder and she grunted.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I got a bad stomach. Just tired, I think.”

He looked at her closely, then gave her a quick kiss. “Taking care of nine kids makes you tired? That’s crazy talk. Get some of the older ones to help and take the day off. I’m off to get some unity around here.”

Edward skipped breakfast and walked downtown. Now that the residents of Harlow numbered only a few hundred, they had drawn closer together, most living within a kilometre of each other in the town center. Edward got some spray paint and a ladder from a hardware store and went to the main roundabout in town, where there was a large blank wall of an electronics store. Carefully, he wrote with the spray paint, trying not to smudge the letters. Then he sat down underneath it and waited. Twenty minutes later, people began to gather around him, reading the message in huge, red letters:

It isn’t about survival

It’s about redemption.

It isn’t about existing

It’s about living.

It isn’t about me

It’s about us. [*]

“What does that mean, exactly?” asked Noah Crawford, a lawyer who had just arrived from a neighboring town with his family.

“It means we need to cooperate,” Edward said. “Each of us can get all the things we need, for a while maybe and while the weather is good, but what about later? What happens when it’s stormy or people starting getting sick and each of us runs out of food or medicine or drinking water? We need organization. We need to work together. We can’t do it on our own, but together, we have a chance.”

“And with you as the leader, I suppose?” Crawford asked.

“No leader,” Edward said. “Just a committee. It’s not about me, or you, it’s about us.” He could see that the idea appealed to them and he saw also that even with his proposal of a round table committee, he would be the natural leader, if only because he had come up with the idea. People look for a strong leader in times of uncertainty, he thought.

“We’ll meet tonight, in the Food Collective. Anyone who wants to be a part of it is free to come,” he said. There were many nods of agreement. No one argued. He was practically their leader already. Once he headed the committee, he and Ramya would never lack food again. He gave a warm, reassuring smile.

Thirty-six people attended the meeting, just over a quarter of the town’s current population by their best estimates. Jacine Ramm volunteered to be in charge of the census, to make sure no one was overlooked for food or necessities. The Crawfords—Noah and his wife Nikola—offered to be in charge of medicine distribution since Nikola was a nurse practitioner. Edward, Kaine Bowlery, and his son Heston were in charge of food collection and distribution. The evening went perfectly and Edward walked home feeling the happiest he had since the world Before had ended. Already they were referring to that time simply as Before and it was starting to seem like a dream.

“Eddie, is that you?” a voice called from the darkness in front of his house. It was Portia, standing on the porch. “Come quick, Eddie. Ramya’s sick.”

Fear struck Edward in the chest. He rushed into the house and upstairs. Children seemed to be crying all around him. He reached the top and recoiled at the pool of bloody vomit just outside the bathroom door, spatters flecking the door and walls nearby. Ramya was inside, her head resting on the toilet seat and Hazel, in tears, holding back her hair.

“Ramya, what the hell! What’s wrong?” No. No, it couldn’t be. No. Suddenly, he was terrified.

“I’m sorry, Eddie,” she said in a weak voice. “I didn’t feel well after dinner. I’ll clean it up, don’t worry.”

“Forget that. I need to get a doctor. I’ll be right back.”

It took thirty minutes for Edward to find Nikola Crawford and return with her in tow, almost dragging her along. Ramya had cleaned up a little and was in bed.

“Have you been taking your medicine, the Abadocil?” Nikola asked her, after examining her.

“Yes, every day,” Ramya said.

“How many times a day? The directions say three a day, but I would suggest up to five or six a day for adults in this situation. It won’t hurt you as long as you take it with food.”

“I’ve been giving the children one with every meal, but—I was afraid it would run out, so I’ve only taken one a day. Is that the problem?”

“You’re suffering from a type of acute radiation poisoning,” Nikola said. “It’s killing you.”

Edward felt his heart suddenly squeezed with fear so intense that he felt light-headed. “What’s the most she can take in a day?” he asked. “If she took eight or ten, would it make her better quicker?”

“It’s preventative medicine, Eddie,” Nikola said, looking sympathetic. “It won’t help to take more now. The damage is done.”

“Then what can we do? Surely the hospital has something that can treat her. Machines or medicine or something.”

“There’s no power, Eddie. As for medicine, I can go look around tomorrow.”

“You go tonight,” he said. She shot him a look of anger at his tone, but then nodded quickly and left.

Ramya reached up and took his hand. “I don’t want to die, Eddie.”

“You’re not going to die,” he said. He couldn’t even conceive of the possibility; no images came to his mind. He was going to marry her. They had made plans. Then again, the whole world had had its plans.

Nikola returned three hours later, exhausted but carrying a needle and an IV bag of green liquid. After it was started, Nikola went home and Ramya drifted off to sleep, looking peaceful.

Ramya sleeping

Edward woke up on the window seat next to the bed and saw the morning rays slipping through the curtains. Ramya looked as peaceful as she had the night before. He put his hand on her cheek and felt with a shock that it was cold. He checked her pulse. Nothing. He checked it again and again, unwilling to accept it.

It took only a moment before he was trembling so hard that he had to sit down. The terrifying black abyss of What if? had arrived and he was powerless against it. He wanted to scream, and then find a gun and blow his brains out.

I can’t, he thought, and the image of the nine sleeping children came into his mind. I’m Uncle Octopus. He had never felt so alone in all his life.

(to be continued)


The Making of the Squid, Part 2

The Making of the Squid, Part 1.

You can read the rest of the Aftermath stories here or here.

 

Fear. It was roiled in the air as thick as the smoke from the destruction in the south. It seemed permanently etched in the faces of everyone that Edward saw.

He had gone to Harlow center to get food and to find out how things stood there. He went to the National Food Collective building and was about to enter when he saw a portly man hunkered down on a low stool just inside the door, a shotgun by his side.

“And what do you want?” the man asked, picking up the shotgun.

“I’m Edward Morrison,” Edward said. “I live out of town a ways, in Leister Cottage. Got any food to spare?”

The man deflated a bit. “Take what you want,” he said. “Whatever’s left, that is. It doesn’t matter anyway, you know. What are we supposed to do when this is gone? There’s no more food coming and money’s no good now anyway. Anyway, did you hear?” He stopped as if he expected Edward to answer. “They dropped a few cancer bombs along with the nukes. We’re all walking dead anyway.” He turned his palms up, helplessly, then sat back heavily onto his stool.

Edward opened his mouth, but what could he say? They had all heard about the Central Bloc’s new weapons. Officially, they were known as radio-mutagenic ordinance—colloquially as cancer bombs. No one knew exactly what they did, but they were supposed to be able to change cells quickly. Some said they caused mutants, most said they just caused huge tumors to grow.

“Where did you hear that?”

“The net. Where else? It could be a rumor, but—” Palms up in the same helpless gesture.

“What’s your name, sir?” Edward asked.

“Kaine Bowlery, at your service. My daughter-in-law is manager of the Food Collective, but she didn’t want to come in. I offered to come stop looters, but—”

“Yeah, I understand. I’m going to go get some things, Mr. Bowlery. It was good to talk to you.”

empty shelves

Edward loaded up a cart with what he could find, which wasn’t much. Even the pet food aisle was almost depleted. He threw the stuff in the car, then drove to Harlow National Hospital. Along the way, he saw a press of cars, loaded with possessions and driving north. The main road was so packed, he parked his car and walked the last half kilometre. The overheard snatches of conversation on the road all formed a common theme. Get away while you can. The fallout’s on it’s way. What’s the point? Cancer bombs. But the kids… What are we going to do now? Dear God, why?

The hospital was understaffed, but still manned by a few brave volunteers. One harried nurse gave Edward a once-over visual triage and seeing no obvious wounds, hurried away.

“Excuse me, I was wondering if you had any anti-radiation medication,” Edward asked, hurrying after her.

She gave him a tired glance, then pointed to the stairs. “Room 309. Join the line.”

She hadn’t been kidding about the line. It stretched all the way down the hall, but it moved fast.

“One box per person,” Edward heard as he got closer. “One box per person, no exceptions! Keep the line moving, please.”

Edward got up to Room 309 and saw an exhausted doctor sitting by the door handing out boxes of pills. A sheet of names with checks by it lay abandoned on the floor. He handed Edward a box with the word Abadocil on it and waved him on.

“I’ve got a woman and a kid at home. They’re sick. I’ll need one for each of them,” Edward said.

“One box per person, no exceptions,” the doctor said wearily.

Edward glanced behind him into the room. It was stacked floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes, all of which were printed Abadocil. “You’ve got loads of this stuff,” he said. “Spare me a few more boxes, please.”

“Look,” the doctor said, “you can’t take all this in one day anyway. Come back to tomorrow and we’ll give you another one. You want three boxes, and the next guy will want 12 and the people after that will want 100. This is all we have, do you understand? We have to make it last as long as possible. Okay?”

Edward balled up his fist, but swallowed his rage and nodded. He left and went home.

Ramya was waiting for him on the porch, looking pale, but slightly better. “I’m so glad you’re back,” she said, giving him a hug and a kiss. “I heard news of looters driving around killing and stealing things. I want to get away from here.”

“And go where, Ramya?” Edward asked. “We can’t go anywhere, especially not with Sean. Rosie could be back at any time, so until then, I’m not taking off to Edinburgh or the Orkneys or wherever people are going to. No hoarders are going to come.”

“Can we at least go into town?” she asked. “I’d feel safer being around other people, instead of out here by ourselves.”

In the end, he agreed. Kaine Bowlery was a good man and he had a gun. Edward did not have a gun, nor had he ever fired one before. He packed up what supplies he could and then the three of them drove into town.

“Where will we stay?” Ramya asked, as they drove down route B180 towards the town. “Do you think there will be any hotels open?”

“Everyone is leaving for the north,” Edward said. “We can probably pick out any house we want.”

“Will Mom and Dad be able to find us there?” Sean asked.

“I left a note on the door to check at the National Food Collective for us.” Edward said. “Don’t worry; they’ll be able to find us.”

Edward picked out a large house on a street just behind the giant National Food Collective. There was a fully-loaded car in the driveway and a man was cramming suitcases into the back. A woman and two children waited inside.

“Where you taking yourself to?” Edward asked, getting out. The man looked up in annoyance.

“Away from here. Scotland if we can make it. What do you care?”

“Can I live in your house?”

“Hell, no!” the man said. “Get back to your own house, you beggar.”

“So, when are you coming back?” Edward asked. The look on the man’s face confirmed what he thought. “You know, I can just break the window as soon as you leave. Plus, if we’re staying here, it’ll keep it safe from looters. You know, if you ever do want to come back.”

“Suit yourself,” the man muttered. He threw Edward the keys and jumped into the car, driving off quickly.

deserted town

Over the next week, as most people left, the life drained slowly out of the town, like a leaf withering in the autumn chill.  Edward drove out to his house every day to see if Rosie or Mason Dodd had returned. The fifth day, when he returned, there were three more children in the house.

“What the—” he started as Ramya hurried over to him.

“They were alone outside, Eddie. The littlest is only three. I don’t know where their parents are, but I think they’re lost. They were hungry and crying. I couldn’t just leave them there.”

“We don’t have food for them all,” he whispered fiercely. “I didn’t even want to take Sean, and now we’re running an orphanage?”

“They don’t eat much, Eddie. Do you want to kick them out, let them starve?”

He turned away with a growl. “No more, okay? I’m not kidding.” He knew as he said it that they were empty words. She would bring more back if she found them and he would let her. What else was there to do?

The next day they got rid of one of the kids, a girl, when her parents came looking for her. Edward was encouraged until a woman showed up with two more children. “I hear you’re taking in children,” she said. “These two were staying with me; their parents were in London. I’d be obliged.”

“We are not taking in children!” Edward shouted at her.

“That’s fine by me,” the woman said, “but they’re not staying with me no more.” She walked away. Ramya looked at him and he swore and kicked the wall. The kids stayed.

Somehow the word spread and more children arrived. A week later, there were nine children at the house, including Sean. Edward made a sign: We are NOT taking in children!! It did no good. Ramya was too soft-hearted and Edward couldn’t say no to her. It was not all bad though. The remaining citizens heard of the impromptu orphanage and helped as they could. The Bowlery family brought them food and one of the doctors brought over a case of Abadocil. A few of the women in the neighborhood came over during the day to help out with the children. Edward tried to give them children to bring home but they said no and he saw fear behind their smiling refusals. No one wanted to be stuck with more liabilities than they already had.

Edward tried to mask his resentment and discomfort. He threw his energy into finding food, getting supplies necessary for the upcoming winter, even cutting wood and stacking it in the backyard. One day he was piling wood when one of the little girls called to him.

“Uncle Octopus! Uncle Octopus, come play with us!” she said.

“Too busy,” he said, then looked questioningly at Ramya.

“It’s the name they’ve given you,” she said, with a smile. “You’re so busy, they say it’s like you have eight arms. Like an octopus.”

“Bah!” he said, but mentally, he smiled. Uncle Octopus. How about that.

(to be continued)


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