A new day dawned on the wastelands of Europe, bringing with it increased radiation levels as the rising sun heated up the parched ground, and unhindered summer winds blew radioactive dust through open windows, doors, and bombed out walls that once sheltered their evacuated custodians from the elements outside.
Hugo Borscht, a reluctant denizen of the night, sealed the doors and windows of one of the remaining liveable apartments located on the outskirts of Kyiv. Seven floors up, each stairwell was protected from unwanted intruders and scavengers by several rows of sharp barbed wiring intended to inflict the most painful injuries. Impossible to remove and difficult to destroy, the protective barrier of rusting wire had lain unmolested for years.
Hugo’s fortified apartment was surprisingly void of clutter and dust. A trait he had learned in the army. ‘A clean camp clears the cobwebs,’ read the sign above his apartment door. Having some element of order in his life helped him retain his sanity. It wasn’t easy living without human contact. There weren’t even any stray dogs to befriend. The whole city was a desert tundra.
To alleviate boredom, Hugo had several games he would play on his own. His favourite was a game ironically called ‘Geronimoes,’ comprising of six-sided domino-like playing cards designed in the theme of US Cavalry versus Native American ‘Injuns.’ Double sided, the game allowed you to be one or the other while trying to surround your opponents’ cards on all six sides. Being a randomly drawn card game, it was perfect for solo competition and helped to alleviate the daily ravages of isolation. Hugo would often playfully ‘Whoop’ the battle cry sounds of the Indians and imitate the bugle charge of the US Cavalry, as he laid each card down. It reminded him of how war resulted in him being alone, but it added a small element of daily regimentation, stimulation, and motivation to his mundane existence.
Not seeing a living human in almost two years, caused Hugo to think he was the only person left on Earth. Nomads looking for missing loved ones and food, had come and gone in the early days. Those who had attempted to find suitable shelter in the ruins of the city, quickly succumbed to hunger, radiation poisoning, or had just simply expired. Loneliness was just something that Hugo had to deal with. On one hand, it was a curse for losing the city and on the other hand, it was a chance to live and fight again as a tank driver in the mechanised division of the Ukrainian Cavalry - one of the first tank units defending Kyiv from the merciless Russians.
For resisting the might of the Russian Empire, the destruction of the once lively city of nearly three million inhabitants, was clinical, precise in its cleansing - and deliberate. Running street battles pitted untrained civilians with Molotov Cocktails against shells and missiles. The end seemed inevitable, but after seven months of resistance and with no end in sight, the Russian Despot pressed a button that led to a series of tactical nuclear strikes on the Ukrainians, setting in motion the obligatory nuclear retaliatory response from the West. Invaders and defenders alike quickly became one – victims of a lunatic desperate for control and hungry for power. He did not live to see the fallout. A delayed coup disappeared him and replaced him with a peaceful historian who wanted to avoid mistakes of the past. His swift actions averted a world-ending calamity; however, it was too late to save most of Europe and parts of his beloved country. Like the trade winds, radioactive clouds began to circle the Earth, bringing sickness, famine, and death to every corner of the globe. Like Covid-19, humans were told to live with the new nuclear dawn.
Streams of bright light penetrated thin cracks in the tinfoil covered windows that remained intact in Hugo’s modestly furnished apartment. Green was never his favourite choice of wall colourings but who was he to complain? He didn’t have to pay rent. It was home and it was safe at night. Daytime was for protective sleeping under radiation blankets. Facing away from the original explosion, the shuttered windows had withstood the blast as effectively as the building had. Originally built from steel reinforced concrete, the block of privileged apartments had housed some of the country’s most important political figures. Most had been in parliament near ground zero that day, evaporating from the thermo-nuclear heat. Those that were home in the block, eventually starved to death in the aftermath of anarchy and despair.
Seven floors below on that fatal day, Hugo was servicing a captured Russian tank while his commander and gunner searched the building for food and water. Protected by the concrete tower and five inches of armour-plated steel and composites, Hugo survived. His comrades having just exited the building were caught in the shockwave and blown to nuclear hell, never to be seen again. Fortunately for Hugo, inside the tank were radiation suits and a Geiger counter. Realising the seriousness of the situation, Hugo had quickly donned a suit and waited out the destructive winds before seeking shelter in the building. For the past three years, he had made it his home, strategically selecting apartment number 7C, a corner abode providing the widest field of vision to watch for signs of life.
Each day, Hugo would sift through the various trinkets and tins of food, he collected on the previous nights’ expedition. Apart from the slim pickings of canned fruit and soups, he was eager to test the AA-sized batteries he found in a deserted supermarket. His small portable radio had long ago stopped working due to lack of power, so Hugo was excited at the prospect of hearing any signs of life that might be transmitting over the old AM radio waves. Success! The batteries worked, but the radio just blared static sounds from its speaker. Slowly and meticulously rotated the tuning knob, Hugo stopped occasionally when the frequency changed its tone. Almost reaching the top of the dial, his heart began to sink with disappointment, then at 1610hz, a faint voice could be heard. Slowly progressing the dial until the voice became clearer, Hugo rested at 1640hz as a male voice repeated a pre-recorded announcement.
“Comrades of Europe. The war is over, but the radiation continues to kill and Separatist Bandits roam the highways unchallenged. For anyone out there listening to this broadcast, we will be live at twenty hundred hours each evening with news of safe zones you can reach. Twenty hundred hours every evening… Comrades of Europe. The war is over, but the radiation continues to kill… For anyone out there listening to this broadcast …”
Hugo sat back in astonishment. This was the first outside human voice he had heard in three years. He looked at his faithful watch. Without electricity to recharge his smartphone, time was either night or day. It had no specifics. His military-issue watch had continued to work all this time, allowing him the luxury of timekeeping – another sanity saver. Setting his watch alarm for 19:45, Hugo switched off the radio to save the batteries, then grabbing a tin of pears, he carefully opened it with his combat knife, quickly consumed its contents, then settled down for a sleep. As tiredness wrapped itself around his excited state of mind, he let out a Geronimoes-style ‘Whoop’ sound to celebrate this days’ small but encouraging victory.
Some six hours of dreamy sleep later, a repeated beeping sound signalled it was time to wake. Hugo’s internal clock knew the scavenging hour was almost upon him; however, he needed to tune in to the radio broadcast first. Boiling some drinking water reclaimed from a bombed-out convenience store basement, Hugo prepared a cup of hot coffee. The instant brew was something he always looked forward to after waking. During the past several months, he had collected a good supply of coffee, and that made him happy. Coffee was another connection to life.
Splashing water on his face, he began the process of getting up to speed with the day. Going on night scavenges always posed the risk of injury or exposure to radiation. Thankfully, he still had his night vision goggles and helmet to help steer clear of sharp obstacles. Only five months ago, he had stumbled upon a human scavenger impaled on a metal fence post. Hugo compared the misfortunate man to a shish kabab, as he had fallen headfirst onto a spikey pole that sat below a stone wall. The sight of the man – his throat penetrated by a spear that travelled straight through him and exited from his anus – was lesson enough for Hugo. ‘Never leave home without night vision goggles,’ he repeatedly reminded himself. In an attempt at cremation, he drenched the body in gasoline, then set it alight – unintentionally resulting in the corpse looking more like meat on a barbeque skewer.
Grabbing the radio, Hugo switched it on and re-tweaked the dial. For several moments, only static could be heard. Then, precisely at 8:00PM, the radio crackled into life as a female voice speaking Russian, opened her broadcast.
“This is the People’s Radio Station broadcasting from Brasov, Romania. To all who are listening to this broadcast, the war is over. Most of Europe and parts of Russia were destroyed by nuclear holocaust. Areas of the world that survived are now living under a radioactive blanket… except for the western foothills of Eastern Romania. The local mountains provided initial cover from the missiles and a new tunnel system built into the mountains, now protects us from the radioactive cloud. We are home to approximately fourteen thousand people from many countries, and we have hospitals, food, water, and shelter. There is room for many more people, so if you can make it to Brasov, do so. We welcome you. However, please be aware that we are surrounded by bandits, so be careful.”
The broadcast repeated itself – this time in English, then Romanian. Hugo let a smile escape from his face. ‘There are people still alive,’ he realised out loud. In an instant, he decided to make the journey. Living alone in a bombed-out city would eventually drive him insane. More importantly, he missed talking to people. Grabbing his military map, he plotted a route to Brasov. It was approximately 950 kilometres from his current location, so he decided on using the only means of transport he had – his captured T-90 tank, still sat at ground level, next to his building. Each week, he had fired up its 840-horsepower diesel-fuelled engine and regularly maintained its operating functions. Hugo estimated that travelling at an average speed of 50kph, he could reach Brasov in nineteen hours. That would require a refuelling stop. Fortunately, he had enough Jerry Cans of reserve fuel to make the journey. That same fuel had come in handy for many things during his isolated existence, including use as a fire starter in the cold winter months, but now, it had a more important purpose.
Two days had elapsed since Hugo received the first radio broadcast, but he had excitedly listened to it again the previous evening, as he prepared his tank for the long journey. To lighten his load, he stripped all bullets, shells, missiles, and armaments from the vehicle. A lighter load meant less fuel consumption, and it could allow him to drive at the tank’s maximum speed of 65kph without sacrificing too much fuel. It also meant reducing his travel time by five hours.
Bidding a fond farewell to the apartment that had provided him shelter and security, Hugo climbed over its balcony and descended a rope ladder that allowed him access to the ground. Seated in his tank, the engine roared into life, echoing through the desolate pastures of the destroyed city. Donning his night vision goggles and confident of navigating the unlit highway over any obstacles in the way, Hugo set the T-90 into motion. Following a southerly direction, he thought it best to travel all the way without sleeping. Civilisation awaited and Hugo was anxious to be a part of it once more.
Fourteen hours later, a road weary Hugo slapped his face into alertness. The T-90 had performed admirably and was purring along splendidly. Refuelled several hours ago, Hugo had left his radio tuned into 1640hz, almost memorising the repeating, pre-recorded radio transmission. Somewhere along the way, the broadcast started to fade out, replaced with another voice – a female, talking loudly in English. The AM bandwidth allowed for many more stations than each frequency could handle, so range was often the earmark for granting multiple licenses on the same wavelength. This meant that news, sport, and announcements could be specific to local regions and towns. The fading out of one station and fading in of another was a common occurrence for long distance truckers, but for Hugo, it was a nuisance – especially as he spoke very little English. Listening intently as he trundled along the highway, he could make out words like ‘Brasov’ and ‘Guns,’ but not much more of anything else. The voice seemed agitated and highly emotional, so Hugo blocked it from his mind, concentrating on the road ahead, as the early light of day began to warm the air. Lengthy exposure to the sun posed a health threat and driving a large tank with its driver’s hatch open, would be unwise at the brightest part of the day, so Hugo swapped his helmet and night vision for a rimmed jungle hat, sunblock, and sunglasses. The highway had long ago turned into what could only be described as a narrow village-type road leading through the foothills. Surprised to see houses still intact, as if awaiting the return of their previous occupiers, no signs of life anywhere made Hugo feel nervous, so he did not stop.
Passing through the deserted city centre of Kaufland Onesti, reminded Hugo of a ghost town. Buildings still stood erect, some reclaimed by nature; however, it eerily looked like a city unaffected by the inhumanity of nuclear rage. Turning right onto the road to Brasov, the noisy tank soon left the small city behind as Hugo increased speed, marvelling at the greenery of the pristine countryside. Just past the village of Oituz, the terrain developed into lofty, sharp left and right bends, as the T-90 climbed to a higher altitude. Zigzagging through the mountainous road, the tank performed effortlessly, but climbing steep hills meant higher fuel consumption, so it was a relief to Hugo when the tank finally passed the hill’s peak and started to head downhill, onto the open and long Romanian flatlands.
After what seemed an endless highway of fields and pastures, small villages rushed by, then Hugo saw what he was looking for – the city limit sign for Brasov. Something up ahead caught his attention. Approximately five hundred metres forward, there appeared to be a roadblock manned by several individuals with Jeeps and trucks, standing behind someone kneeling in the middle of the road. The radio broadcast suddenly grabbed Hugo’s interest as the voice was now intelligible, speaking in a language he understood. Surprised that it was his military radio broadcasting to him, he brought the tank to an abrupt stop and listened intently to the message.
“I repeat,” said the voice.
“The road to Brasov is not safe if you are travelling from Ukraine. Separatists loyal to the Crimea are attacking anything that moves. Find another route… I repeat…”
Hugo took out a pair of binoculars to study the roadblock in more detail. Four vehicles appeared to be fortified and heavily armed. Not a problem for the T-90, he thought, but then quickly realised he had no means to defend himself. His adopted tank was nothing more than a big metal taxi. More alarming to Hugo was the kneeling individual with a Javelin anti-tank missile launcher resting on his shoulder, pointed directly at him. Grabbing his comms radio, Hugo attempted to contact the radio voice.
“This is Hugo Borscht, Ukrainian tank driver at the outskirts of Brasov on highway eleven, come in...”
After a delayed moment, the voice answered.
“Hugo Borscht, this is Brasov Free State. My name is Nadia, the community’s administrator. Be aware that you are in danger, over…”
“I have eyes on it right now, over...”
“You say you are a tank driver?... over.”
“Yes, I’ve been surviving in Kyiv for the last three years… over.”
“I thought that the war took you all… over.”
“Not Hugo Borscht… over.”
“Then you are the last of your kind… Are you able to use your tank to fight?... over.”
“Negative, I left everything in Kyiv… but… wait one second…”
Hugo suddenly remembered that there was one remaining shell still loaded in the cannon. Whether it was still operational enough to fire after three years was another question, but it was his only option.”
“Hugo, are you there?... over.”
“I do have one shell left… over.”
“They won’t let you live… Whether you have anything or not, they will kill you… over.”
“I’ve travelled too far to turn back now. Where do I find you, Nadia?... over.”
“Two more kilometres ahead is the entrance to our enclave. We are only equipped to defend – not attack, so you’re on your own… Good luck, Hugo Borscht… over and out…”
Producing a can of pears from his rucksack, Hugo patiently opened the tin with his knife, then proceeded to savour each slice of pear before downing every drop of satisfying sweet juice. Engaging the T-90s target control, he swung the turret to aim at the roadblock. Suddenly, his radar picked up an incoming signal, signifying the Javelin missile had locked onto him.
“This is Major Gorky,” squawked the comms. “We have you in our sights. Abandon your tank!”
“No can do, Gorky,” Hugo mocked.
“Who are you?”
Hugo’s index finger slowly tightened on the firing trigger.
“…I’m Hugo Borscht,” he exclaimed. “…the last Hussar…”