There comes a moment in every era, where people see right through their leaders. Like a blinding light in the eyes, it becomes obvious the ‘truths’ we are fed are paper thin, as tangible as smoke, no more than emotions and inventions of a few characters bonded by power. People in charge, they got there because they made selfish choices. That had become clear. And selfish choices excluded all others.
The First World Riot was a perfect storm where nearly all the leadership failed at once and everyone noticed. The injustice, the anger and the revolution that followed destroyed the structure of civilisation, like a coordinated release of pressure. The death toll seemed incalculable. It was a pandemic of rage and it swept across borders, across continents, it rose up and it murdered.
I was there in the first days of the upheaval. The streets were like prehistoric canyons, where people ran and threw, kicked and gouged, the young and the old defiant in hatred, screaming against the curfews, surging like a single organism enveloping obstacles in the path. The police cars were set alight and the bodies were strewn on the roads. When the military intervened it only escalated. I had never seen a whole city on fire, or more than one dead body. It was a learning curve for us all, how to survive without rules, without safety, without all the things we took as normal: the shop, the hospital, the school, the home.
Like many others, when I realised it was a real war – not a blip in compliance, I had fled to the countryside, found a derelict barn and was holding up as best I could. I had acquired a pump action shotgun and as many shells as I could steal from an upturned squad car.
Earlier, amongst a scrum of shouting youths, I had foriaged in the debris for essential items. I had climbed through a broken store window, and hastily I had thrown together a survival kit which I crammed into a duffle bag. Despite the haste, they were carefully chosen items such as cans of food, knives, a flashlight and some warm clothes. I was alone. There was no back up and no back up plan but flee. How families could survive this level of chaos and destruction was beyond my comprehension. I had spent my life tethered to a singular job that gave me little room to have a life beyond it, and in truth I regretted that more than ever. In a time of total anarchy, such jobs meant nothing at all. What a waste of time that had been.
It was on the night of the full moon, the first since my city fell, that it slid from bad to worse. Maybe it was the silvery moonlight that highlighted my position in that barn. I had been careful not to light a fire, choosing to eat cold beans and swig water from my flask. I did not notice the gang watching me from the tree-line. By the time I was preparing to sleep between the two giant hay bales, I heard the unmistakable crunch from boots on twigs and leaves. I reached for the gun but froze on the sound of a pistol being cocked.
“Easy there… Get up… And show me both hands,” came the instruction. My heartbeat rose instantly. I slowly stood up between the bales. There were four men, tall and muscular silhouettes, backlit by the moon.
The crickets were chirping frantically in the bushes, as if warning me.
“You on your own?” asked the voice.
“Do not BS me, son…”
I told the truth: “It’s just me.”
One of the other figures came forward and snatched away my weapon. I was now theirs, totally helpless. It was so quick to lose your control over a situation, it just took a moment blinking whilst the mob circled. A hand came from the darkness and roughly pulled me closer into the open space.
It was then I noticed their police uniforms, torn and dirty from fights. I held my arms up straight. They all had handguns pointed my way.
One kicked the back of my leg, so I fell forward to my knees.
“Got any food?” said one of the cops.
“Yeah. Plenty to share.”
“Share! Ha!” laughed the leader, doing the talking.
“You don’t own anything anymore, let’s get that straight.”
“Yes, Sir,” I said.
“Good. I like it. Keep addressing me as Sir and maybe I’ll make it quick when the time comes.”
I could tell this was his way, a practiced performance, an entitled authority. I put my head down. I had seen this little dance before, many times. Fear was the leverage for total control.
I listened to them rooting through my duffle bag, composing a mental inventory of what they had taken from me.
“We can survive on this for say, a week,” said another voice.
“And him? You should just do it now,” encouraged a new voice in the quartet. It was so matter of fact, it made me sick.
At first, silence, and then I noticed the leader hold his revolver more purposely toward my skull.
“Nothing personal, pal,” he said.
I closed my eyes tight, as if bracing for it would make it hurt less. I heard the gunshot, but despite my life flashing before my eyes momentarily in blind panic, I felt no bullet drilling through my brain, just the splatter of blood from the cop who was going to end me. He slumped, headless to the side. The other three scrambled for cover and it took me a second or two to adjust to surviving, before finding myself and deciding to dive back behind the hay.
There were several gunshots, some shocked screaming and the scrabbling, desperate sounds of ultimate panic. Three were dead, it was easy to tell, even in the blackness of the night. The dying sounds of the remaining two fatally injured men I could pinpoint in the barn, but one of the group had not fallen. He had fled at such speed, I could hear the vanishing footfalls as he sprinted back into the cover of forest darkness.
“You OK?” said someone new to the party. It was the grating drawl of an elderly man, someone who had experience with a military gun, who was slightly rougher than your average Joe. Someone trained, a survivor of battles, I thought.
“I’m OK. Hey, thank you. You saved my life.”
“No problem, I saw those cops coming from a mile away. I’ve been watching you from my hide on the ridge, realised you were on your own and just hiding out.”
“Well, what can I say? I was one second from being a dead man. Seems to be the way we live now.”
As my eyes adjusted to the dark better with the boost of adrenaline, I could make out the outlines of three twisted bodies.
My unlikely saviour looked surprisingly unmoved by what he had done and was already distracted in thought.
“Look out there,” he said, pointing. I could see on the line of the horizon, the thin glow of flickering orange that highlighted the raging fires and slaughter in suburbia.
“I can’t bear it,” I said, “I’ve seen all the people I’ve lived and worked by die, one way or another. Do you have any news? Is anyone left to take control?”
“Any cops left are either on the run or with the remains of the army, defending themelves behind walls of street trash or holed up in buildings. They are all cut off from each other, no comms, no hierarchy, they’ve sort of gone tribal. It’s like gang warfare out there. I know half the government were lynched. All their institutions are burned to cinders. And everyone else, well they’re all crazy and mad, smashing the hell out of everything. Never thought I’d see a day like this. I don’t trust anyone any more.”
I nodded, edging carefully closer to my rescuer.
“Last thing I saw before I left the city, was people killing anyone with a uniform, hunting them down,” I murmured. “They didn’t ask questions – just bashed the crap out of them. But then that’s what cops have been doing for a long time, I guess? It’s all turned around.”
The old man gazed at me sideways, under a peaked baseball cap. I could see the whites of his eyes, like he had heard something in my voice, a tell.
“Guess you’re a cop too?” he asked. My frame became still, like a cayote in the scrub that had been spotted by a deer. The mood changed almost instantly. I knew one thing about him for sure, he didn’t like cops. All the while, the chirping crickets were scratching their chorus in the dark.
How did he know? Was it my demeaner, something in the way I talked? I thought it wouldn’t be that easy to make me out.
Before he could raise his gun, I had covered the space between him and I and knocked his automatic clean from his hands. He was angry but it was too late. With a gun he was lethal but without one he was just an old man. I had a knife in my boot, and we were now one on one. I considered that a fair fight. I slit his throat with one movement and as he grasped to try to stem the leak from the deep cut, I held him down on the dirt. The old man bled out over about a minute but after tensing hard in the final struggle for air he became limp and I was able to relax my grip. At last, I was safe. What a night. I slowly wiped the blood clean from the blade on my jeans.
He had mentioned a hide on the ridge. I’d make my way there and take it. Taking was the way of things now. It would be safer than this old barn at least. For a couple of days, it would serve my needs for cover and protect me from others. All the officers in my department were gone now. The other departments were rogue, acting as packs and as for citizens, I learned a long time ago, they could not be trusted, they were animals. It was like it had always been, every man for himself.