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"Rearguard" by darkart

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  • "Rearguard" by darkart

    by darkart

    In the deserts surrounding what was once Las Vegas, a woman sits on the burning rocks and breathes. The sun throbs and the sky is bleached pale like cleaned bones. In the thick dry heat the air is so still it hums.
    The woman is a soldier and these are her orders.
    Stay here.
    Monitor the radio.
    On the ground, all around her, are her insects.
    They appeared after everything else had gone quiet. At first, there were one or two. Then five. Then fifty, and then she gave up counting.
    She remembers how they were once wary, keeping a watchful distance from her tent, shying away from her when she stirred, but now, some years later, they have lost all fear. In the morning when she wakes up and switches on the big radio set they sing a chorus of chirps and clicks, as though they are glad she is still alive.
    It is unclear what sort of insects they are. They are narrow and black and dull brown, with big wings. She likes them. Wherever she wanders in the camp and the broken city, they follow, tumbling over each other in their haste like puppies. She does not know why they follow her. Once she thought they wanted to eat her, but she has never been attacked.
    Possibly, she thinks, possibly they miss us.

    Stay here, she was told as the others left. That's an order. Here is safe. The camp, and the city, and that's it. Out there, any further, beyond the desert, there is the enemy. They will kill you.
    Every afternoon she scans the horizon for some sign of the enemy waiting to kill her. She listens intently for the rumble of tanks or the whistle of incoming shells or the hoarse shouts of soldiers calling out coordinates and instructions.
    As though trying to help, the insects fall silent when she does this, but there is never anything.
    She has a gun, of course, but it has not been fired for many years and she has not maintained it. Some time ago she aimed at the sky and pulled the trigger as a test and from the gun's insides came a wheezing sigh and then the sound of something collapsing. Since then she has not picked the gun up or even looked at it.
    In a compartment in her wallet there is a photograph of a woman and a small child. She has some idea that this photograph once caused her to want something, maybe desperately, but she has forgotten what it was.
    In the same compartment there is another photograph, of another woman. She thinks this might be her but she does not look in mirrors so it is hard to know.
    There is an address in the blank space underneath the photo. The address is not where she is now and so is unimportant.
    Stay here, she was told. Stay here, monitor the radio, and wait for further orders.
    There have been no further orders.

    At night the desert cools and the wheeling sky is salted with stars, bitter and prehistoric. They are not something she understands. She keeps the radio on until the calm hiss of static makes her eyelids grow heavy, and then from her bed she fumbles for the dial and turns it off before she falls asleep.

    The insects squeak to one another for a while and then there is silence.

    In the morning she switches on the radio and smiles briefly at the little chirrups of celebration from outside the tent. She is alive, again. She squints at the boxes beside her bed. There is not much food left. She will have to find more supplies.

    Monitor the radio, she was told. Stay here, and monitor the radio, for survivors.
    There has only been static.
    She puts on her tattered uniform and over breakfast she regards the shining towers which shiver and ripple far away.
    She packs the radio in her bag and strikes out towards the city. In her wake is a twitching shadow of insects, all vying to overtake each other, nimbly dodging her battered boots crunching on the rocks.
    When she reaches the suburbs she rests in the shade of a tree and at her feet the insects gather round and click quietly to each other. She looks at them and thinks she recognises a few. On one, a peculiar jagged pattern on the waxy shell she is sure she's seen before; another has a skipping, lopsided gait that marks it out from the rest. It is, she knows, ridiculous to think this way. They are insects. They are all the same.
    But she catches their eyes and sees their frozen insane features and she recognises something else.
    These are her orders.
    Stay here.
    Monitor the radio.
    She sets the radio up under the tree. Behind it, in her eyeline, is a small, squat house with grey windows. A square piece of paper is taped to the glass, like a patch of enamel scraped from a decaying tooth. She does not read the words on the paper, just as she no longer looks at her gun or inside the rusted corpses of cars which lie crooked across the roads. She has nothing left in her for this, only her orders.
    From the radio comes the usual blare of static, fading to a hushed and steady crackling.
    She waits for a while, listening, looking fondly at the insects playing around her, and then she packs the radio up and continues.
    Behind her, the insects rustle like leaves.

    In the city the slightest sound echoes off the faces of the huge buildings and the soaring structures that were the world. There is an iron tower, and a castle, and a creature with the face of a human and the body of a lion. Somewhere nearby, she vaguely remembers, is an underground river, although she has not yet needed to find it. She has plenty of water; she only needs food.
    And here is the white statue. Half of it is missing; only the legs remain. She once knew a poem about a statue. She is a traveller in an antique land.
    She enters the building behind the statue. A faded red sign triumphantly declares the building as a palace, but she thinks it was a hotel of some kind. She is cautious and slow as she walks inside; long ago, on one of her first expeditions to the city, she strode in to one of these buildings too quickly, stamping her feet, and then screamed as a stream of rats surged past her.
    In the dark and silent kitchens she finds several tins of food. She loads them into her backpack and winces at the extra weight on her shoulders. The insects wait patiently.
    On her way out she sees one of the insects pulling at something in the corner of the lobby. A gleam of silver catches her eye.
    Other than food, she has never taken anything from the city. She is dimly aware that once there was money here, and cameras and computers and clothes, may still be, but she is limited to a single backpack and she has no need for these things. She only takes what is necessary to fulfil her duties.
    It strikes her that maybe this, too, was once an order.
    Yet the gleam intrigues her. With the back of her hand she brushes away the insect, which chirps chidingly in protest, and she picks the object up.
    It is a clip on a half-rotted lanyard. On the lanyard itself are designs, drawings she cannot make out. Hanging from the lanyard is a plastic badge.
    She wipes away the dust and a smiley face looks back at her, two bones crossed underneath.
    She looks at it and frowns. The symbol has no meaning for her, is of no use to her in this place, and she lets it fall to the floor.
    She pushes open the scratched doors into the sunlight and is about to start back to the camp when she realises something is wrong. She looks back.
    The insects are still inside; they are no longer following her.
    Tutting, irritated, she goes back. The insects have arranged themselves in a rough semicircle around the freshly disturbed badge. Usually, she thinks, they are all movement, all trembles and jerks and little sounds. Now they are perfectly still. Not even their antennae waver in the stale air.
    She shrugs and picks up the badge and puts it around her neck. She has no reason not to, if it will make her insects happy. It will not stop her following her orders.
    The insects judder and confer amongst themselves and, apparently placated, start to move once more. Some of them flip over in clumsy rolls and then hurriedly skitter to catch up with her as she walks.

    The woman is a soldier and these are her orders.
    Stay here.
    Monitor the radio.
    Over the years she has done exactly that and no harm has ever come to her, although the deeper reasons behind these orders have clouded with age. But if she remembers them, she thinks, there must be a reason for remembering.
    She does not recall if, or when, the others will be coming back. She does not know what she would do if someone spoke to her through the radio. She can listen.
    She wonders if she would still be able to speak. Perhaps her larynx has atrophied. She will worry about that when the time comes.

    Night, and she turns the radio off and rolls over and closes her eyes. The badge is still around her neck. It smells of dust and age and the sun. Outside the insects call to each other in the dark and for the first time she hears words in their inhuman sounds.
    Why. Why. Why. Why. Why. Why.

    When the morning comes she switches the radio on and waits for the noises from outside, ready to smile.
    There is no sound from the insects. Puzzled, she steps out of the tent and looks.
    There is nothing there. Only the desert, stretching far away.
    She searches everywhere in the tiny camp, in the smallest gaps, even under her bed and inside her boots. Every time she lifts an object or disturbs a rock she expects to see a flash of brown and black and hear a high-pitched squeak as one of the insects scurries away.
    She does not. They have gone.
    She sits down heavily on the hot sand and the badge thumps against her stomach. She lifts it to her face, gazing at the grinning face above the bones.
    Just you and me, she thinks. She is crying. It's just you and me left.
    After a time she lifts her head to the washed-out sky and screams.
    Her larynx is still working.

    The day passes slowly. She does not feel hungry, or thirsty, or tired. Usually she listens to the static of the radio intently, meticulously, her fingers creeping up the frequencies and then back down, straining to hear ghosts of voices in the signals.
    These are her orders.
    Stay here.
    Monitor the radio.
    But without the insects she is disconsolate. She misses them, and she does not pay attention to the radio. Her fingers tweak its dial in erratic, random spasms, back and forth, causing the static to warp and snap. Her eyes flicker over the dull ground, willing a dark glint to appear shyly from somewhere.
    Everything is as motionless as everything else.
    Occasionally, her free hand wanders to the ancient badge around her neck and absent-mindedly caresses the plastic. She hopes if she does this for long enough her fingers will sense its meaning.
    Now and again an image comes to her of a crowd.
    There are other images.

    Over lunch, she takes out her wallet and for a long time she stares at the two photographs.
    She is a soldier and these are her orders.
    An echo of a life.
    The reflection of a pulse.
    The world shrinking as it exhaled for the last time.
    The sun glares, raw and heavy with heat.
    She stands up. She gazes once more at the smiley face and the crossbones, gently stroking the pitted laminate surface.
    In one of the crates in the camp is an old tube of glue. She places a delicate dab on the back of each photograph and tenderly presses them to the back of the badge, so they face inwards, towards her heart.

    She fetches her backpack and fills it with the tins she took from the city yesterday. She turns her back on the buildings glittering in the distance.

    She picks the radio up and places it carefully on the ground. She chooses a large rock. The radio makes a sickening crack as she swings the rock down against its casing. The static stutters and cuts off for the last time. The badge twirls and dances against her body. The desert shimmers with a new and violent strangeness.

    A light gutters deep in a nest of ruined synapses. Too little and too late for almost everything.

    As she walks out into the desert, away from here, towards an immense and open sea, the meaning of the badge comes to her as well, and she smiles.


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