Aftermath of the Infernal Reckoning

Submitted into Contest #227 in response to: Write about a character emerging from hibernation, whether literally or metaphorically.... view prompt

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Science Fiction Suspense Sad

Survivors of the nuclear holocaust called it: The Infernal Reckoning.


8th of July was the day humanity perished in the fires of a thousand suns, as the rain of a thousand nuclear missiles speared down from the skies across the globe. Entire cities faded in the blink of an eye, as concrete rippled like ocean waves, and the towns in their wake crumbled to dust. The dark mushroom clouds unfurled their wings like angels of death, harvesting the souls of the damned.


World leaders were the first to burn. The serpents who hissed their lies, proclaiming the weapons would protect us and lead us to salvation. They were the first to perish under the wrath of their self-destruction. Obliterated within the cities along with the buildings that were made to shield them. But they had the privilege to know the means of their demise. They were allowed the luxury of embracing death.


Survivors were few and sparse. Those who could not be reached were left to die under the rubble and flames. Roads became tangled strings in the riptide of the explosions, leaving no way to reach those in need. No help came for the injured. No one came to the aid of the souls smitten under the rubble. No one was there to answer the helpless cries. Corpses spent their final moments blazing in the firestorms or crushed and ravaged by the impaling debris.


The rest of us were left in the wake of a greater horror - the aftermath of the nuclear fallout. Hurricanes ruptured through the lands and wildfires consumed continents in the first few days. And in the weeks that followed, ashes consumed the skies, enveloping the earth in darkness. Day by day light faded until the world was under the rule of a new ice age.


The memory of that day scarred into the nightmares of the last of us - the remaining few survivors. It would have been a year since that dreaded day, but that no longer meant anything. Time was lost to us all.


I heaved open the lid of my bunker and was greeted by ashy snow that hailed from the charcoal skies in the morning of mid-July. The nuclear winter sheathed away the warmth of the summer sun, leaving the earth to wither under blackened skies. The frantic clicking of my Geiger counter confirmed my fears. The snow was littered with radiation. A mere snowflake could gnaw through clothes and flesh to the bone.


It was suicide to venture out. But my hunger grew unbearable, and my strength was quickly fading from not having eaten for days. The last of my supplies were finished. I looked up at the metallic clouds as they growled louder by the second. The snowstorm would only worsen with time, and showed no signs of it ending. I may not have had the strength by the time the snow would subside. No strength to defend myself from whatever else would be lurking out there.


 This would be my only chance. I lowered my goggles and wrapped my face closing most of my airways. I let out a sharp cough as I tightened the strap of my rifle, and spluttered blood on my hand. I had already lost an eye to the cancer. It was only a matter of time before my lungs and other organs degraded from the mutant tumours gnarling away at my tissues. The radiation had already done its damage.


Withered trees wilted as I walked along the shrapnel, concrete roads. The same matted ash coated the charred barks and branches as it did the paths, fields, and skies. In the distance a crater, tens of kilometres wide, left imprinted in the place where a vibrant city should have been; now left lifeless with a grey silence. But the air around me still echoed the haunting wails of the tortured souls in their final moments.


My health was poor. I became breathless after a few minutes. My body had deteriorated from radiation sickness and my stamina suffered from being cooped up under my bunker. But I had to keep moving. Every very breath out here was poison. I hacked and wheezed once more spitting out a lumpy ooze of red liquid, expelling degraded lumps of my lungs on the metallic, grey snow.


I stared for a second, pondering the futility of my efforts to keep living. In the old world, I had a reason to endure. My two sons, the gems of my life. If only they had been with me, or better yet if I had been with them at the mercy of the explosions. I wouldn’t have to continue this hollow existence.


I could’ve just ended this suffering quickly. I gently glided my hand across the handle of my weapon. One pull of the trigger, and this living nightmare would be over. I knew my end was nearby, yet I was a prisoner in the clutches of my own will to live, tormented by the dread of death. Yet I endured it all through the months, unable to fathom an entire year had passed before me. Memories of the old world faded with the weeks gone by.


The thoughts turmoiled as I caught sight of the place I had been searching for. Barely intact and mostly buried in the radioactive snow, the half-collapsed structure of where a service station once stood, kneeled down on the final few pillars that kept it from collapsing. Towering In front of me, despite half dug into the ground, a large, yellow sign that I could only imagine was once the number 3, or perhaps the letter 'W' or 'M'. I found myself surrounded by shattered windows and steel fragments that once erupted from the explosions of petrol. Traces of charcoal and smoke still stained the char-glassed air I inhaled.


Creaks from the wilting structure, bellowing its echoed cries from within the mouth. Cracks slowly seeped further and further down like droplets trickling down the walls as the layers of snow continued to pile on. There was no telling how much longer it would bear the weight of the storm hailing down. I peered into the distance, watching the darker, ash-blackened clouds rapidly approaching from the north. A storm like that, infested with a swarm of radioactive soot, would burn me alive. If the entire building didn’t collapse from the sheer weight of the piling snow first. Time was against me. Cautiously, I poised my weapon forward and flicked on my torch as I crept slowly into the binding.


The rattling of my Geiger counter quickly dropped to a steady click as I waded deeper into the building. The howling wind now replaced with the buzzing of broken electrical wiring. Each step led to an echoing creak across the halls, as pebbles of concrete dusted down from the ceiling. The creaks grew louder. There was no telling how long I had before it came collapsing down on me.


A stench of rot infested the air, growing fouler as I trekked deeper. It was a good sign. Where there was rotten food, there would be canned ones. The chances were slim, yet I was helpless to do nothing but pray they were in my favour, as I searched through the stock of decaying produce and curdled growths.


My face almost curved into the remnants of a smile as the metal of the cans reflected back the beam of light. Rows and rows of all combinations, perfectly arranged in front of me. The thought of a canned chicken kiev would have me wincing back in horror in a simpler time. Right now, I embraced the culinary abominations in front of me. Though there were not many, it would be enough to keep fighting for even a little while more.


However, I could not help but notice the jagged edges of the half-opened ones scattered with the rubble. Slowly, I edged forward to the can of beans still dripping sauce from the tip. Except, the closer I got, the clearer I could see the faint mix of colours – one a distinct orange, the other a metallic crimson. The blood glistened under my torch. It was fresh. Someone else had been here before me. And they were nearby.


A hand grabbed my shoulder. I flung myself back and quickly drew my rifle. A shadow stood before me. It stood ominously still, completely motionless. I slowly lifted my torch to reveal the figure in front.


The young girl’s eyes gaped open with the light. She stood limped on her left leg. Her skin was ash grey and her face reflected the same defeated droop I held on my own. She seemed young, barely an adult. Or perhaps her sickly, frail state gave the illusion of youth. Her skin had thinned to reveal the outline of her skeleton. But what stood out to most of all, were the blanketed cloths she had cupped around her arm, nesting a sleeping newborn she held close to her chest.


I wondered at first what sort of insane people made love in the middle of an apocalypse, and still chose to bring new life into this fallen world. I wondered if the father was nearby. But the same defeated expression I saw reflected in her eyes told more than words needed to. I wonder if the father had known of his own demise. I wondered if he spent his last moments tormented by the thought of his own child having to watch his mother hold him in one hand and dig his grave with the other.


I empathised with the couple; it was only human nature to want to leave behind a part of them for the world. Even cavemen imprinted their hands on walls for future generations to view. If only I could say the same about my own children. I reminisced a time when I taught my boys to make their own bubble mix from soap, just as my mother had shown me. And tricked them into believing square breaths made square bubbles, just as my father had tricked me. I remember the day my oldest set out to venture the world on his own as a man, as I held his hand and pinned his old man's lucky cufflinks to bid him wishes in search of his new life away from home. I kissed his forehead and told him no matter what he did, his mother would always love him and would always be proud of him.


 Legacy, heirlooms, predecessors. Words of the old world that carried no weight, no meaning in these barren, lawless wastelands. They were all obliterated in the fires of the Infernal Reckoning.


Staring through me, she gently reached an arm towards the shelves. Immediately, I cocked back my rifle and stood defensively between her and the tins. Like a feral animal, I growled a warning at her. But she did not flinch. She showed no sign of fear. It was as if she sensed, mother to past mother, that I could never bring parent nor child any harm. Instead, she held the same blank expression as she hobbled toward a series of blankets and cushions she had perched in the corner, leaning an arm on the splintered shelves for support.


Ignoring her sorry sight, I began loading the tins into my bag one by one. The odour of rot suppressed my hunger and my urge to devour through the food on the spot. It was vital to fight the temptation and stay alert. Others may have been lurking nearby, and there was no telling how long the structure would hold until --


The floor beneath me rumbled violently as I heard the sound of a winding creek. I held my breath and rapidly darted my head, scanning the surroundings. My eye widened in horror at the sight of the above me. A large bulge punched through the ceiling as cracks streaked across and quickly widened. I grabbed the few remaining tins I could and darted towards the exit. A shrill cry stopped me in my tracks. I looked back and caught glimpse of the girl cowering in the corner, desperately shielding her child.


I glanced at the door, then back at the helpless girl and her baby. I’ll never know what came over me in that moment. Perhaps seeing the pair triggered my dormant maternal instincts. I  slung the bag of food and my rifle aside. I pounced forward and grappled her shoulders as we scythed across the floor. The impact of the wall against my back left me winded, yet my arms refused to release the girl. Instead, they wound tighter. I clenched my eye shut as the wailing creaks turned into rapturous thuds and crashes. Each passing second was an eternity, as I heard crash after crash, waiting for that fatal blow to take us out.


But it never came. Silence echoed once more, until it was broken deafeningly by the baby’s shrill cry. A sense of familiarity came over me as I slowly opened my eye. Even in the pitch-black darkness, even without my torch in hand, his face beamed brightly in front of me. I had felt this feeling before, back in a time that now feels aeons ago. Staring into something so pure, so joyous, and so full of potential. A beacon of light and purity in the arms, shining in this withering world. The shadows this wretched world cast over me for the past year suddenly lifted. I had found a glimmer of hope in this bleak purgatory.


But after so long, it scared me. I released the mother and child from my grasp in horror and reached for my bag and rifle. The mother reached out her gentle hand to me as I turned to face them one last time. But I simply scowled at them again. I had dealt with enough today. Carefully, I swayed to avoid the debris and destruction that had nearly collapsed on top of me, as I scrambled my way to the exit.


A gust howled at my face as I emerged from the building. My Geiger clicked frantically into life again from the lethal radiation. I peered behind the building, catching sight of the dark, looming, storm clouds again – now barely at arm’s length. The building would inevitably collapse with the snowfall that was approaching. If I hurried, I could reach my bunker in time to take shelter. But I stopped. My body froze. The dark clouds loomed closer and closer, and the clicks of my Geiger counter grew more and more frantic, flaring an ear-piercing buzz. Yet I was helpless to move. My instincts had rendered me catatonic.


I held my gaze at the horizon where my bunker lay, then at the creeping storm, before taking a final look into the void at the mount of the collapsing building. Among the howling wind, and the frantic clicking, I heard the echo from within the collapsing chasm; a muffled cry. But it wasn’t a cry for help, it was a calling of hope. And I was helpless to resist my body, moving towards its call…


******************************


The storm bellowed out from behind consuming all in its path. I frequently glanced back, watching it engulf the building. The sheer force would surely have caused it to collapse. But I prayed it would hold so I could return for more supplies once the storm faded. Venturing in again would be suicide, but I knew now I had something worth dying for; or rather something worth living for.


Though the storm roared behind me, the baby slept peacefully, as if he knew he was safe in the refuge of my arm. The young mother wrapped herself around my shoulder for support as I heaved her along. Even though I told her to save her strength, she could not help but frantically thank me, refusing to accept she had shown me enough gratitude.


I powered forward, away from the wrath of the storm and to the safety of my bunker. Even in my hunger and deteriorating health, even with the load of a baby on my arm and a girl against my shoulder, my body surged with this newfound strength, and I strode with each step. I left my bunker in search of food but returned with something far more valuable- hope. I did not know why I fought so much to keep myself alive in the apocalypse. I did not know why I had suffered so much for such a meaningless existence. But holding this new life in my arms, it all became clear.


The will to survive is embedded within us all. It keeps us fighting through the bleakest times and gives us strength to fight till the coming dawn. For the better or worse, either way, we fight to live another day. Until we pass on ourselves to the hands of the next generation, in hopes they make the world of tomorrow a better place. Even in the darkest of times, even in the aftermath of a nuclear fallout, we reside in our instincts to survive, to have hope for a better tomorrow. For what do we have if not hope?


My name is Jane Harper. I'm one of the few remaining survivors of the Infernal Reckoning. I’m transmitting from my bunker, under a town once called Lincoln, and I hold the future of humanity asleep in my arms, to give him the promise of a better tomorrow. To all of you who find my message, to all the survivors of the Infernal Reckoning, this is your sign to keep hope alive. There is indeed a future ahead of us. We must hold on to the will to survive, to rebuild all that we lost in the old world. But we must learn from the mistakes of our past. This is Jane Harper, over and out.

December 06, 2023 13:01

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1 comment

J. D. Lair
00:45 Dec 10, 2023

A post-apocalyptic take on the prompt was great! Love this genre. Well done!

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