As we walked over to the trap, I saw we had caught something by how low the branch framework sat in the water.
“Looks like I won’t have to eat you today ready meal.”
Cyril looked up at me like he understood, but I may have been imagining that.
When I lifted the trap out of the water there were fish on all four lines. The river was full of fish and was why we’d stayed here so long. We should have moved on from our oasis by now, but it felt good to have something between my skin and bone for the first time in months. We needed to soon, but not until I’d replenished our food stock.
The smoker I’d built was only big enough for three fish this size, so I took the one with the most tumours off its hook, and quickly put it in our keep net so it wasn’t out of the water too long. I looked in the net and lumpy was still alive and splashing, but still not appetising. Fish had been affected the most by the fallout from The Last War, but thankfully this river was full so I could be choosey.
I took the chosen three off their hooks, and put them into my sack. I re-baited the hooks with the juiciest worms I’d found that morning, then placed the trap back into the water, underneath the marker tree. Relieved of its burden the branch framework sat higher in the water. The current took the bait away from the bank, and further down the river. I tied the trap off to the tree’s roots so the current didn’t take that too.
I picked up the sack, and slung our bounty over my shoulder, and felt the fish thrash against my lower back. But I couldn’t put them out of their misery now without risking exposing the location of my trap.
As I began walking down river I heard Cyril come scrabbling down the tree, then run up my leg, and finally rest on my shoulder. I looked like a pirate of the new world, with a squirrel as my parrot and fish as my treasure…but we weren’t burying this treasure.
Cyril was content, chirping and snorting as he rolled around in his hand the nut he’d found up the tree. We could both be choosey at this oasis, and as he removed the parts of this nut he didn’t want they dropped down my body armour and collected against the catapult directly under him. I gave him a stroke with my free hand, and he wrapped his tail tighter round the back of my neck.
After ten minutes of walking I found a place to gut and de-scale the fish. I chose a different spot each time so the blood didn’t attract predators, or worse. I threw down the sack, and it still wriggled, but with less vigour as their fight left them. I found a fist sized stone on the bank to finish the job.
“Sorry, but we have to eat,” was the same prayer I said for each of the three fish. I walked to the water’s edge, then rinsed out the sack. As I leant forward to wash the sack Cyril became agitated, and run from shoulder to shoulder. He didn’t like water, I think he knew it wasn’t safe to drink untreated. After removing the scales from inside the sack, I placed the stone on top of it to weigh it down, as it dried in the sun.
I pulled out the large hunting knife I wore on my right hip to de-scaled and gut the fish. When I stood Cyril sat on my shoulder, but when I leant forward at the water’s edge he sat on the handle of the sawn-off shotgun strapped to my back. He instinctively knew to stay away from the trigger, but it was only for show, as I’d used my last shell over a year ago.
With the job done, I took the bottle of treated water from my left hip – more essential to my survival than any of my weapons – and took a small swig to drink. As soon as I had the bottle in my hand Cyril was on my shoulder, with his face nuzzling against my cheek, doing his fast high pitched chirps that I pretended meant yes. I poured the water into the bottle cap, and he lapped away at the water he knew was safe. I used a sparing amount to rinse the river water off the fish, and then put them in a clean bag.
It was getting dark, and the sack on the floor was dry. I removed the stone, folded the sack and put it in the knee pocket of my cargo trousers. I took one last swig of the treated water, sloshed it around my mouth, and then spat it onto my hands to rinse them too. I picked up the clean sack and we walked to the smoker, with Cyril back on my shoulder.
I approached the smoker cautiously in case someone had found it during the day. I always left the fish to smoke overnight; it only required a small fire so it would be harder to spot at night, than the smoke would be during the day. The smoker was hidden in the woods so it wasn’t close to the trap or where we slept, but I couldn’t do anything about the smell.
After waiting for twenty minutes I couldn’t see any movement. Cyril was happily digging around in the dirt beside me, so he couldn’t smell anything either. I unfastened both my catapults, drew my shotgun, and walked down to the smoker. They weren’t needed.
We had arrived at the smoker at the perfect time – dark enough to light the fires, but not too dark I couldn’t find my way back to our shelter. I’d removed last night’s smoked fish at first light, when I checked that the fire had burned out. I quickly cut today’s meat so it was thin enough to cook properly overnight, then set the fire and left.
We walked back to the shelter in silence. Cyril running around looking for food, and I was looking for threats. We found neither in the barren wasteland. Soon we’d have to walk back out into the wastes, we couldn’t stay here forever.
I slowed as we approached the entrance to our cave. I’d chosen this shelter because it only had one path that led up to the entrance, and therefore only one path to boobytrap. I unzipped my body armour.
“FWEET. FWEET. FWEET.”
On hearing the command of three whistles, Cyril came running over, ran up my body and then dropped into the sock I’d sewn on the inside of my body armour. I zipped it back up, and then made my way through the tripwires mainly from memory, as they were barely visible.
Once inside our cave I looked around to make sure we hadn’t had a visitor, but everything was as I’d left it. I took off my shotgun and placed into the trench I’d dug for sleeping in. It was too dangerous to light a fire to keep warm, so we slept in a trench to stop any drafts. I plugged the cave entrance with some leafy branches I’d cut down for the same reason.
Feeling as safe as I ever did, I unzipped my body armour again and looked inside. Cyril was looking up at me from the top of his sock. His nostrils flared as he sniffed the air.
Then with those two words he chirped back yes, and then run up my neck, and circled my head, from shoulder to shoulder, running across my chest and back. Then he ran down my arm and into my hand. I smiled down to him, and stroked his head. Cyril jumped down then run around the cave, visiting his nooks and crannies, doing his own checks for any visitors.
“If you were a dog I could light a fire and you could guard our camp.”
Cyril stopped at the sound of my voice, and stood on his hind legs to listen.
“But I don’t think ‘stop or my squirrel will attack’ will cut it with any raiders…unless they got cramp from laughing so hard!”
Cyril dropped down to all fours and gave me his low ‘no’ chirp. Then angrily turned away and flicked his tail at me.
I took my wind-up torch from my pocket and wound the handle. I placed it next to my rucksack that was already in the trench and turned it on. The light was too low to be seen from outside, but bright enough for me to see in the cave. I took off my body armour, and laid it down in the trench too. Now we were safe in the cave it served as my pillow, but the catapults were still fastened to it, so they were within easy reach in case anything made it past the trip wires.
It had been a long day, and even Cyril was darting around the cave at a slower pace. I sat at the edge of the trench with my feet inside, just watching him. I told myself I kept him alive because there weren’t any fridges in the wastelands to keep your meat fresh – I told him sometimes too when he kept sitting on my head to be annoying. But the truth was he made me smile.
He entered my life when I killed his mother with my catapult. If I knew she had a kit I might not have taken the shot, but hunger has a way of focusing your mind, and your aim. When I found him in her nest, barely able to see, guilt made me raise him, but it was more than that now. He was a liability, but he was my liability, and he was all I had. He gave me more in entertainment, than he took in food and water.
I opened up my rucksack and took out a metal tin. The worn images on the outside were of delicious shortbread, but inside was powdery dirt. As I placed it down on the other side of the trench with a clang Cyril stopped dead, then as I removed the lid with a pop he came running over and dove straight in. I took off the bumbag I wore with all my best catapult stones in, and laid it on the floor of the trench next to my pillow. I took out my cloth from my rucksack, dampened it with some water, and we both had our daily baths.
Cyril had made a mess, but at least he was clean.
Cyril shook himself at the sound of his command, then jumped onto my shoulder in a single bound, waiting for his post bath peanut. I managed to scoop most of the spilt dirt back into the tin, and then put the lid back on. I put it back into my rucksack with my cloth, and took out a peanut to give to him. Cyril chirped his excitable yes, nuzzled his head against my neck, and then ate the peanut he’d earned. I didn’t have the heart to tell him there were only a couple of dozen left; nor did I know how I’d get him to have his bath when they ran out!
“Time for your bedtime story Cyril?”
He was too distracted by his peanut to chirp, and could only manage a grunt in reply. He probably thought he was too old for bedtime stories now, but they had been for my benefit more than his for a long time.
I scanned the cave with the torch to make sure I hadn’t forgotten to stow anything away in my rucksack. I always packed everything away before I slept in case we had to make a quick getaway. I’d learned the hard way there was no time to pack in an emergency. Content everything was stowed, I opened the second compartment of my rucksack that contained my favourite book, a magazine, and several cuttings from newspapers. I took out the dog-eared magazine and zipped the rucksack back up.
I lay down in my trench, with my head on my armoured pillow and began to read to Cyril. He coiled up into a ball on my chest, with his tail close enough to brush against my chin if I looked down at him.
“The End of the World isn’t just near…we have a date!”
I knew the article by heart, and even Cyril would’ve noticed if I skipped a paragraph. But it was important to remind myself of my mission.
“Dr. Chase, the founder of the ‘Hindsight Corporation’ (HC) – the company that had mastered time-travel by projecting your consciousness into the future – has confirmed one of his customers has seen the end of the world. This future has been verified by other projections, and thus the probability of it being accurate is too high to be ignored. ‘The world must act as one to change our future’ claims Dr. Chase, but information about the cause of this future is limited –”
Damn right it’s limited! I had been a customer of HC myself, before the end of the world announcement was made, and all further projections were restricted globally. The technology only projected your consciousness for ten minutes, without mass, so the only source of information to learn about your future was the voice activated computer screens in their Information Centre. No world, no electricity, no Information Centres. That was my mission, give them the information they were missing.
I continued reading. Cyril was soothed by my voice, and I was soothed by hearing the words. The words gave my life meaning. It made my brain hurt trying to figure out how changing the past would affect my timeline – whether I’d jump to a new timeline, if mine would remain on this path forever, or even if I’d just disappear – but if my plan worked and only one timeline was sparred this fate, it would be worth it.
In the article Dr. Chase believed it was accelerated climate change that caused the end of the world, and he feared his warning would be ignored. But he was wrong, he was listened to, and the fear of climate change caused the nations of the world to fall back to what they knew best – military power, which led to The Last War. The nuclear apocalypse. But if I cross the country to the UK HC location to leave this warning for the people that project into my future, they’ll have the knowledge to change it.
These were out bedtime stories.
Cyril was already asleep, so I carefully packed away the magazine and joined him.
“I’m up, I’m up!”
Cyril was running in and out of the trench, spinning on my chest, and chirping at me. I rubbed my eyes and tried to clear my head, but Cyril kept flicking me in my face with his tail. I sat up and watched Cyril run over to the entrance. It wasn’t even dawn yet.
“It’s too early, go back to sleep.”
Then suddenly I remembered where I’d heard that chirp before, it was when a cat nearly caught him before I got it with my catapult. It was his alarm call.
I frantically put on my body armour and bumbag. I ran to the entrance and through the branches I could see raiders riding up on horseback. Shit! They must have found the smoker and tracked us here. We had stayed in our oasis too long.
“FWEET. FWEET. FWETT.”
Cyril silently bounded over to me and went into his sock. I zipped him in, and jumped into the trench. I holstered my shotgun, and picked up my rucksack and torch. I could hear the horses’ hooves. I turned on the torch and I ran to the back of the cave. I yanked on the wire I had pinned to the wall.
Shit, they were closer than I realised. I’d rigged the dynamite above the entrance to cause a land slide to seal us in, rather than a cave in. The rock must have rained down onto the raiders.
Only guided by my wind-up torch, I walked to the back of the cave – I trod carefully as the last thing I needed now was a twisted ankle. In the far left corner there was a hidden tunnel, and thankfully a back way out of the cave.
As I turned into the tunnel the light from the torch shun off the metal frame of my bicycle. My trusty steed. I turned on the dynamo headlight on the front of the handlebars. Its faint light replaced the torch, which I put back into my rucksack, and strapped to the rack over the back wheel with bungee cords. I shook my spear to make sure it was securely fastened to the frame, then jumped on and rode down the tunnel.
The brightness of the headlight matched my speed, until it was washed out by the light coming in from the tunnel entrance. I turned off of the headlight and was grateful for not having to fight against the resistance from the dynamo anymore.
As I rode out of the tunnel my tyre triggered my tripwire.
The second explosion was quieter, but cost me exactly the same in dynamite. Each boom that echoed down the tunnel reminded me we’d stayed too long at our oasis. This boobytrap should have caused the tunnel to cave in – there was no way the raiders could follow us now. We were safe, until the next time.
With my spear fastened to the side of my bicycle, it looked like a knight’s lance, as we rode off on our noble quest.