NO ROOM FOR THE WEAK
by Simon Bestwick.
Half Noakes’ face had melted when he was five years old. That had been fifteen years ago, when the bombs had fallen. Luckily the eye hadn’t been damaged; his vision was clear as he climbed the wall, except for the rain.
The city wall was made of rubble, caged in wire mesh; he hooked his fingers into the gaps into the mesh, dug his toes into them, pulled himself up. Above him was night and wind and lashing rain and the beam of a searchlight, sweeping.
Noakes rolled onto the top of the wall, a knife between his teeth. Clear. He unwound the rope around his waist, tied it fast and let it drop.
Mary shinned up first – a thin pale woman, muscle and bone; a narrow face and black cropped hair. Darrow came up next: grey-haired, in his fifties, he was an old man by the standards of this world. But he was still strong and quick – in body and in mind.
Darrow had found Noakes after the bombs, when he was screaming in pain for his seared face and grief for his dead parents. Darrow had raised him, cared for him, taught him to survive. If Noakes loved anyone, it was Darrow. All else was indifference and hate.
“Pull her up,” Darrow said. “Quickly.”
Noakes and Mary hauled on the rope. Noakes’ lips peeled back from yellow, uneven teeth; one slip, and the bitch would fall. But would she die? He couldn’t be certain. And Darrow wouldn’t like it. A tough man, but he was soft on this.
Noakes bit down on the knife between his teeth. Soft, in this world, killed you.
Darrow had tied the rope around Alannah’s waist. She was mumbling to herself, as always. Darrow shushed her, stroked her hair. Noakes sheathed his knife, spat over the wall. Weak.
“Let’s go,” Darrow said.
They crept through the broken streets, keeping low and to the shadows; the buildings were broken, irregular stubs, like Noakes’ teeth. The roadways’ tarmac was cracked and fissured; weeds sprouted. Rain lashed down. In the distance, light gleamed through the buildings, shone on the wet black road: the searchlight on a Reaper landcruiser, patrolling the streets after curfew.
Noakes and Mary held submachine guns – Sterlings, old but reliable. Darrow’s was older still, a Thompson gun from the Second World War, but he was lethal with it. Alannah had nothing. There was no point.
Darrow held up a hand. “Here.”
Between two houses was a narrow, cobbled alleyway; a section of wall had fallen across the top but it but held, creating a tunnel.
Mary shone a clockwork torch on the floor to light their way. Rats skittered as they went in; Alannah whimpered and moaned. “Shut up,” Noakes hissed.
“Leave her,” Mary said.
“We should ditch her,” said Noakes. “Keep telling you.”
Mary glowered. “That’s enough.”
“She’s a fucking liability.”
Darrow wheeled. “She fought for us, long and well,” he said. “And when the Reapers tortured her, she kept her mouth shut. We owe her this much.”
“No we don’t. That’s how you get killed.”
Alannah mumbled; it echoed in the tunnel: Mary put an arm around her, spoke to her gently.
“I made a promise,” Darrow said.
Noakes sneered. “To Helen.”
“Yes. To Helen.”
“Helen’s dead.” Noakes nodded at Alannah. “She’s as good as. And she’ll get the rest of us killed too. We lost enough people at the Refuge. You can’t be weak, Darrow. You can’t. No room for it.”
“That’s enough.” Darrow sounded tired. Noakes couldn’t see his face properly, but the expression on it looked like pity. He turned away, angry.
“Come on,” said Darrow.
Past the heaps of fallen bricks at the far end of the tunnel was another street; across the way was a vacant lot where a building had stood. Beyond that, an old church. The top third of its spire had snapped off to leave a jagged stump.
“That’s the place,” Mary said. “Ashton said he’d meet us there.”
Ashton had gone ahead, to find them a place to hide; according to the message he’d sent back, he’d found them one. It would be good to be safe, even only sort-of safe, for a while. To stop running. But until then, death was everywhere for them. Noakes’ fingers were wet on the Sterling – sweat, despite the November cold, mingling with the rain. He wiped them on his coat. “Then let’s go,” he said.
“Wait,” Darrow said, and motioned them back into the alley.
A moment later Noakes heard what he’d heard; the hissing and clanking of the landcruiser. A moment after that, a searchlight beam flashed up the street, brightening as the ‘cruiser came closer.
“Shit,” he said.
“Here.” Mary slipped behind a heap of fallen bricks, motioned the others to another, larger pile. Noakes crouched behind it with Darrow, beside Alannah. He could smell the stink of her from here; since she’d been rescued, she couldn’t even keep herself clean. Weak. He clenched his teeth in disgust; as if sensing it, she moaned.
“Quiet,” Noakes snarled.
“Leave her,” said Darrow again. He murmured to her and she quieted a little. Noakes gripped his knife; he’d do it if he had to.
The light dimmed and brightened as it swept to and fro. The ‘cruiser engine was louder. Alannah was panting, whimpering in fright. Fear the Reaper. Wasn’t that a song? Noakes almost giggled.
The landcruiser was passing; the light flared down the alleyway. Alannah let out a muffled cry.
“Shut up!” hissed Noakes.
“What was that?” one of the Reapers in the ‘cruiser called. Movement. Were they getting down to investigate.
Darrow had a hand over Alannah’s mouth, but she was still making noise.
“You hear something?” said the Reaper.
Another noise from Alannah. Noakes drew the knife. “Quiet!”
“Noakes,” Darrow hissed.
But Noakes knew now what he had to do. Save Darrow from himself. In this one thing, the older man was weak, and that couldn’t be allowed. He raised the knife and moved: one quick thrust between the ribs and that’d be it – quick, silent, no pain –
Darrow pushed Alannah aside, caught Noakes’ knife wrist with one hand; with the other, Noakes thought at first, Darrow punched him in the chest. It was only when the weakness started seeping through him and he couldn’t breathe that he realised what he’d done. He looked at Darrow’s face, the one face he loved if he loved any, and thought that he’d been right before: that was pity he saw on it.
“Well?” said the second Reaper in the landcruiser.
“Nah,” said the first. “Nothing. Let’s go.”
When the ‘cruiser had rolled on and the darkness returned, Darrow withdrew the knife and let Noakes’ body slump backwards onto the cobbles. Rain fell on the scarred face, and in the open eyes.
Darrow cleaned the knife, looked down at the body.
“It had to be done,” Mary said. “He’d been losing it for ages.”
Darrow nodded, but didn’t speak. Mary touched his arm. “Come on,” she said. “Ashton’s waiting.”
Shelter. Sanctuary. When they had that, perhaps, they’d find others to join them. A new beginning.
They took Noakes’ gun and knife, and anything else they could use. Darrow covered the dead man’s eyes with a handful of alley muck; then they shepherded Alannah out of the alley and into the shadows of the vacant lot, towards the church.
Bringing up the rear, Darrow looked back once towards the alley, remembering the scarred, weeping boy he’d taken in.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “You deserved better.” Then he followed the others into the dark.
Simon Bestwick is the author of Tide Of Souls, The Faceless and Black Mountain. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and Best Horror Of The Year, and been collected in A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Pictures Of The Dark, Let’s Drink To The Dead and The Condemned. This short story is set in the world of his new novel, Hell’s Ditch, which is available now. Order it here: http://www.amazon.com/Hells-Ditch-Black-Simon-Bestwick-ebook/dp/B018SIFQT0/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1449403389&sr=1-4&keywords=simon+bestwick