2130, August. Continent B.
Jaax was sweating. Not the kind of mild sweating you get after a good workout. No, this was the full body entrenching, underwear soiling, pouring down your back and legs and boobs kind of sweating. The heat was borderline unbearable as they trudged through the ruins. Her steps fell hard against the steaming embers of another fallen city, sending clouds of ash into the air with each step. The tactical backpack straps were cutting into her armpits, and her M17 LA-R, or Laser-alternating-rifle, was growing heavy in her arms.
“Hold up,” Sal said, putting his fist in the air. “We’ve got to stop.”
No one questioned him, throwing first their packs and then their bodies onto the ground. Mark and Jerusha collectively groaned as they opened their canteens in desperation for water. Jaax sat down on a warped cross-beam that had once been the backbone of building, now repurposed as a place for her to rest her ass.
They had orders to get to the battlefront by sundown and set up a small field hospital for the wounded. A convoy would bring the rest of the supplies at nightfall. It was too dangerous for medical officers to go by vehicle so close to the front; they’d lost more than a few of their own that way. The Rovers were easy to detect on radar, making them subject to mortar fire and gas attacks. Moving by foot and through the rubble, they were less likely to be detected. Supplies they could waste, but surviving medical officers were now a rare commodity. So many had been killed in the mass medical genocide at the beginning of The Fall. The way the government had seen it, it’d just another way to cripple the people. And crippled they had been.
As it was looking right now, however, they were not going to get there by sundown. From the faces of her fellow medical officers, she could tell they were all running on fumes. Sal’s lips were white and peeling away, his mouth open and gasping for air but instead met with this insufferable smothering heat. He was a slender, gaunt man who’d clearly become a doctor because of his brain, so he’d never been the one with the most endurance. But even Mark, the towering beast made of pure muscle and stamina, looked pale as a ghost as he slumped against the only standing wall of an otherwise demolished building.
No one said a word at first, they just caught their breath and quenched their thirst. All was quiet aside from the clinking of canteens and the howling of the wind through the smoldering remains of the city, kicking up the ashes and blowing it across the charred terrain.
“How far is the front?” Jerusha broke the silence. Mark looked down at his Navigation pod.
“About 30 kilometers,” he said, his voice dry from the scorched air.
“That’s going to take us at least another 6 hours,” she said, looking up at the sky. “And I don’t know if we can keep moving through this part of the day.”
Sal nodded, “We’ll just have to wait out the heat. We’re no good to anybody dead.”
Again, no one argued. They settled into the shadows of the ruins, hiding from the sun’s glaring beams as it crept across the sky above them. The shadows slowly started to migrate to the west, and every so often they would shift position to chase the coolness of the shade.
Jaax took down her long black hair and let it fall over her shoulders. It was matted against her scalp and drenched with sweat as she combed her fingers through to let the air dry it out. She pushed it over her shoulder as she took off her black canvass jacket, exposing the strapless shirt tucked into her pants. It felt good to air out her shoulders and chest after being caked in sweat for hours. She could see the salt crystals on her skin and the folds of her jacket. She poured a few drops of water from her canteen into the palm of her hand, wiping it across her neck and forehead. The water wasn’t cold, but it’s touch against her skin was refreshing nonetheless. She breathed a sigh of relief.
She jostled with her tactical backpack, fishing through the ammunition, clothes, and medical equipment to find her ration supply.
“Let’s see, what’s on special today?” She reached blindly into her bag. She pulled out one of the ration packs and acted surprised to see what it was.
“Ah, a packet of instant chicken alfredo, my absolute favorite.” She peeled open the packet and cringed down at the white liquid mass staring back at her.
“Want some instant coffee to go with, straight from the packet?” Jerusha asked, pulling open her satchel and showing off her “stash” of brown packets. Jerusha hoarded them at each supply stop they’d come across.
“Absolutely, thank you.”
They snickered, but it really wasn’t funny. This thing tasted like shit. Jaax picked a noodle—if it could be called that—out of the packet and popped it into her mouth. She fought back the urge to vomit as the lukewarm slippery substance slid down her throat. Her stomach grumbled audibly. Whether from nausea or satisfaction, she couldn’t be sure.
Jerusha got some aluminum cups out of her pack and poured water into each, pouring the precious coffee powder in next and watching it dissolve, turning the water dark brown. The instant coffee wasn’t even caffeinated, and only tasted like coffee if you held your nose and used your imagination. But to Jerusha, at least, it was one of the few joys left in this world.
Mark and Sal pulled out some rations as well, though they stayed away from the faux coffee.
“You guys remember real chicken alfredo?” She said, trying to pretend the creamy white mass before her was a delectable plate of pasta as she took another bite. She chewed in grim disappointment with her imaginative abilities. It still tasted like shit.
“Please, Jaax, let’s not depress ourselves,” Jerusha said. Her black skin was beading with sweat, her shaved head glistening in the sunlight. Her once full lips were parched and shriveled from dehydration. She rested her forearms against the butt of her rifle which stood muzzle down in the ground, cup of coffee in hand. Her hands were covered in fingerless gloves she’d made herself with scraps of canvass, leaving her muscular arms otherwise exposed. For being a woman of small stature, Jerusha had a commanding presence about her. Probably because she was a dead shot with a scary temper. Jaax hadn’t worked with her before The Fall, but she imagined she’d been a fearsome ER Nurse to behold.
“Oh come on. Nice creamy Alfredo sauce with real pasta and real chicken. Fucking dipping garlic bread in that shit? My God, it was better than sex.”
They all laughed. Except Sal. Sal never laughed.
“What kind of piss poor sex have you had?” Jerusha said, raising an eyebrow. “Speak for your damn self.”
Jaax smiled, “What about chocolate?”
Jerusha sighed, nodding to herself. “Okay now chocolate, that’s a different story.”
“A good burger.” Mark said, letting himself sigh with desire. He flicked the noodles into his mouth with his bare hands and talked with his mouth full. “Lettuce tomato, pickles, onions, ketchup, mayo, mustard. Cheddar. Bacon.” He closed his eyes while taking a deep breath in.
“Whoa dude, keep that thing in your pants if you can,” Jaax said.
“Mmmm,” he groaned to himself, putting his head against the wall before swallowing. “A good fucking burger. I swear I’d give my life for one.”
She smiled. “What about you, Sal. What’s your better-than-sex food?”
Sal didn’t look up from his meal. He took small bites and swallowed them down in a way that told you he was eating them out of necessity. He’d also stripped down to the bare minimum, wearing a grey t-shirt that exposed his slender but muscular arms, his rebel dog-tags dangling over his sweat-soaked chest. His blonde hair looked dark brown from all the grime and soot caking it to his scalp, and the light skin exposed on his upper arms was in stark contrast to the tanned skin on his hands and face. Sitting next to Mark made him look much smaller than he actually was; the dark, tan colossus with black hair and tattooed arms made Sal and his strong, gaunt jawline look especially delicate. She’d always thought he probably would have been considered handsome back when anyone actually gave a fuck.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I haven’t thought about it.”
“You don’t have to think about it,” Jerusha said. “Just something you’ve really fucking missed since The Fall.”
He was silent for a moment. He placed his ration on one knee and rested his elbows on his thighs, creating a point with his forefingers. She could see the furrows in his brow deepen with thought.
“Come on, even the great Dr. Sal Voss happened to eat food before The Fall,” Mark said, clearly sarcastic.
“Mark, we all know that he’s actually a robot sent by skynet,” Jaax said, smiling in Sal’s direction. The others laughed, but he shot her a sideways glance that suggested it wasn’t funny. She half smiled at the others as she picked up her coffee, sinking deeper into her seat and holding her cup over her chest.
“I guess I’d go with Pop strudels,” Sal said finally, refusing to make eye contact with anyone as he spoke. “Fresh from the toaster.”
Jerusha and Mark burst out laughing, but Jaax found herself quiet.
“What the fuck, Sal. Pop strudels? What kind of grown ass man eats pop strudels?” Jerusha laughed.
“I mean,” he threw his arms up as if to defend himself, raising an eyebrow. He went back to his ration and focused intently on it. “I was in my last year of fellowship when The Fall happened. I didn’t have much time for anything…”
The others stopped laughing.
She could hear the regret in his voice; she could see it in his eyes as they refused to meet hers and stared intensely at the white tasteless chicken he placed hesitantly in his mouth. Not only could she hear the regret, but she could feel his shame. His favorite food had been Pop strudel’s. That hadn’t been a choice he’d made; it’d been because he hadn’t taken the time to enjoy anything else before the world went to shit.
She knew how that felt. How the regret sank its fangs into them and sucked the lifeblood out of them, drop by drop. They’d all felt it since The Fall. The feeling that maybe they should have spent their years enjoying life when they actually could. The feeling that they’d lost their chance to enjoy anything ever again. She felt those pangs of sadness, that slowly escaping will to live leaving with each bite of joylessness that she took from her ration packet.
She fought to keep the sadness away as she looked at Sal, but it came anyway. Painful, hazy memories of a time before the Fall invaded Jaax’s thoughts without invitation, and as if she were living it over again, Jaax suddenly found herself between clean white sheets. She could smell the subtle aroma of roses and lavender; she could hear the soft noises of the city outside the window. She looked down to see long blonde hair flowing over her arm and a warm body pressed against hers, breathing rhythmically as if breathing were a form of singing.
“Anyse,” Jaax thought, her heart aching with familiarity as the memory turned around between the sheets to look at her. Her smile was infectious, her almond colored skin and bright green eyes appeared crisp and lifelike at the same time that they seemed far away and blurry. The memory pulled the covers over Jaax’s head to keep her in bed.
She saw Anyse open her mouth and start speaking, but the words coming out seemed muffled, as if she were far away. Though she couldn’t hear her, Jaax knew what she was saying. Anyse was begging her to hold her and kiss her, just for a moment longer. Begging her not to go to work so early. She was saying the same thing she’d said many times before, begging for just one more moment of her time before she left for work.
I have to go, you’re going to make me late. Jaax heard herself say, pulling the sheet off and swinging her legs over the side of the bed. Jaax tried to scream, but nothing came out. It was as if she were pounding her fists against a glass wall that separated her from her past self.
Please stay with her, you fucking asshole. Please stay. You could have protected her.
You won’t be late for a quick kiss. Anyse’s arms wrapped around her waist to pull her back into bed.
Jaax sighed as she pulled herself away, turning around to give her a quick kiss goodbye.
I love you. I have to go.
Jaax felt hot tears pouring down her cheeks. Unable to control the memory, she watched herself walk out the front door and lock it behind her. She pounded against the glass wall only a few moments longer, begging the memory to change, begging for history to rewrite itself. If only she’d known that would be the last time she would ever see her, she would have stayed longer. She would have held her harder; breathed her in as if it was her last breath. She felt her skin ache for the skin of her lost lover, a longing that would never be filled.
The memory faded away and Jaax found herself staring at Sal, their eyes locked in her moment of sorrow that she’d never shared with a soul. She felt the tears pouring down her face in a moment of raw vulnerability before she slapped them away and turned from him, feeling raw and exposed.
They all had their pain, because they all had lost everything.
“Pop strudels were pretty rad,” Jaax said, sniffing away the pain as if he hadn’t seen it. “Especially those berry flavored ones.”
Sal continued to look at her, but said nothing. As he often did.
To be continued…
-Copyright: Jennifer K Fuka
Image found at: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/2358184-city-ruins