Authors: Al K. Line
Copyright © 2015 Al K. Line
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All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Edsel crunched into neutral, slammed on the brakes and was out of the car before it stopped moving. The smell of burning rubber was lost behind him in seconds as his legs pumped for all they were worth, arms moving like pistons as he vaulted over the ripped refuse sacks spilling into the road just as a fox ran for the safety of an alley, disturbed from its scavenging.
Already the lactic acid was building in his thighs and his calves were beginning to cramp. Edsel ignored it, just carried on running. He had worse things to worry about than just a little bit of soreness from all the sprinting he'd been doing — The Eventuals that were pursuing him for one, and the scabs he could feel ripping all over his body where The Ink, that damned disgusting blood red Ink, had began to heal, leaving the curse permanently staining his once pale skin, singling him out whether he liked it or not as a member of the fastest growing religion society, or the pathetic tatters of what was left of it, had ever seen.
Thank god I got away before they did my face.
Edsel winced as he felt taught, dry skin rip across his back, the crook of his elbows and under his arms. The back of his knees began to ooze a wet goop of pus, blood and who knew what else, as the scabs cracked and popped while he tried to run for all he was worth, not just fall over screaming and let the group of acolytes finish the job and inject The Ink all over his head. They'd nearly got there too — the back of his neck at the nape was permanently red now. As was the rest of him from his toes to his groin, up his legs, across his torso, arms and most of the way up his pectorals — he looked like a damn lobster and felt sick at the thought of having to one day look at himself in the mirror. If he survived the next few minutes.
It was seven years since The Lethargy first got a name, and Edsel was alone in the world now; apart from Kathy.
Kathy, Kathy, Kathy. The one thing that had kept him going since he thought he would never talk to another living soul again. He had to get to her, had to make sure she was alright; that she was at home.
Edsel was lucky enough to have remained what the media had named Whole, before it shut down as nobody could be bothered to run it, or do much of anything any longer. By the time mankind had actually realized something was destroying the minds of people all over the world, and they slowly fell into a coma-like existence, it was too late. Not that anybody knew what to do about it anyway.
But Whole, he was Whole. He had escaped The Lethargy so far and so had Kathy. So far.
Turning as he heard tins, bottles and the accumulated trash of years scatter, Edsel saw three red-faced men ranging from early twenties to late forties kicking it all out of their way as they panted after him.
Where to now? Where's safe? I've got to get home.
Looking around frantically, Edsel couldn't see an easy way out. The damn car had been a stupid idea — he'd got less than a quarter mile through the city before the road was impassible, blocked by all manner of vehicles from motorbikes to public buses, some still containing drivers slumped in their seats, passengers that became lost to The Lethargy and never came back to themselves, dying where they sat, uncaring, unknowing.
"Argh," grunted Edsel, as the pain flared like a dart to a frayed nerve.
Must not scratch my arms. Must not touch my skin.
With dry and gritty eyes, Edsel scanned in all directions as he ran, trying to find something, anything, that would help him get free of his pursuers. He wasn't a big guy, not strong particularly, didn't have a gun with him, or one stored anywhere as they were next to impossible to find. The few gun clubs he'd finally decided to hunt down out of misplaced hope had been ransacked years ago, the strict British control over firearms making guns the most expensive bartering tool less than a few months after The Lethargy really got going. Everything fell apart slowly at first, nobody even really noticing, but the minute the media gave it a name and people actually understood the reason why nothing worked properly any more and the streets were always half empty, well, all hell broke loose.
No fear of reprisal for actions meant that society unraveled in a heartbeat. But it was more than that, it was the knowledge that sooner or later, maybe that very day, The Lethargy would wrap you in its warm blanket of forgetfulness and you would fade in and out of self-awareness until you were nothing but an empty vessel. Then you died.
He had seen it happen to his very own family. His mum and sister were both gone within a few years and he had to watch it happen, help feed and clean them, until he couldn't cope and thought he would go mad as sadness enveloped him and refused to let him surface to breathe the air of if not the happy, then at least the not morbidly depressed.
And that's when it happened: he almost got turned, but not quite. A chance encounter with one of the crazy Inked Eventuals had led to him pouring his heart out to a stranger, telling of the loss of his family, the way he had finally had to kill them just to end the misery — they were never coming back anyway. He told of the despair, the sorrow and the utter pointlessness of it all, and the shame he felt for the way society had reacted to such a catastrophic event.
Rather than coming together and helping each other, it was every man and woman for themselves — looting, murders, rapes, slavery and worse were all the norm as the prisons overflowed, until there was nobody left to arrest, try, or imprison the diseased remnants of a once modern society.
The man had sympathized, had told him of the religion he followed, talked of The Ink and why it was taken, and that their belief was that what had happened was a punishment from Him for ruining the planet — they wanted it finished, wiped clean of the disease that was humanity.
He nearly joined. Then he met Kathy.
There was peace for a while, happiness, then they began to hunt him, to chase him and never leave him be. Crazed religious extremists following a faith that felt that once you showed an interest in their fatalistic dogma then you would be turned to becoming a believer whether you wanted to or not.
But they didn't know about Kathy.
They pursued him, unaware of her presence, Edsel keeping her hidden. Safe. There hadn't been a day of peace since.
This time was different though, this time they had caught him, and he'd been gone for a few days at least. It could have been longer, he didn't know, he just knew he had to get back to Kathy and nothing, nothing, was going to get in his way.
Not even the pain that constantly ripped through his body.
Perfect. Rain, just what I needed.
Edsel wiped the water from his eyes, cursing his tattooists as pain screamed up his arm from his palm that was blistering and peeling. At least the water was soothing his skin a little, but it would help if he could see more, even if it meant hurting more.
Thick cloud descended, hiding the city, which was something. It was so damn depressing looking at it now, half the buildings burned out or collapsed, the rest smashed, scavenged for anything of use, and the streets covered in the garbage that a first-world society took for granted would always be cleared away.
The rain beat down harder as Edsel splashed though the stinking puddles.
Great. Soaked feet now too.
Although it did cool them a little, easing the fire that he felt with every step. It had been excruciating the second they had begun — he had no idea that being Inked on the soles and on the whole foot would hurt quite as much.
All part of the ritual, his captors had said, smiling through red lips, the insides of their mouths as red as the rest of their bodies. They ignored his pleas, ignored the fact he didn't want to be a part of them, answered with grunts and more Ink, promises that he would come around eventually, and the alternative was death. Was that what he wanted?
No, it wasn't. So he kept quiet and took The Ink against his will, listening to his own screams as they slowly stained more and more of his naked torso, all the while half aware of the inane chatter of the two tattooists.
They had shaved his head, right down to the bone, beard too, pubic hair, arms, legs, all of it — part of The Cleansing as much as The Ink. Naked and helpless before Him, all because of a weird warping of their religion, basing the ritual of The Ink on their leader's red burns and disfigurement.
The Converse on his left foot began to flap. The sole was coming loose and it was slowing him down.
No matter, just keep going. Don't stop, don't pause for a second. Keep on running; keep on going. Shake your head to get rid of the rain in your eyes, don't use your hands, it will just hurt too much.
Driving just the short distance he managed had been hell. The steering wheel felt like it was on fire, changing gears was a lesson in the spiteful design of human anatomy and just how many nerves a hand contained, and when it came to using the clutch whilst changing gear, well, the force needed to press the pedal had sent Edsel screaming out the open window like a woman giving birth.
But he thought he would make it, get away, get back to Kathy, his savior, his love, his hope and his only friend in the whole world.
Then the road was blocked and now here he was, damn sneaker flapping like a tired dog's tongue, as he tried to avoid falling and tripping over... ugh, it was a person, still alive too by the looks of it — just.
He jumped over the skeletal figure, landing awkwardly, the sole causing his ankle to twist as his foot hit a plastic bag and he slid. His leg bent and he put his hands down for balance, even though every instinct in his body told him not to.
He screamed out in pain.
Damn, now they know where I am again. If I'd managed to lose them in the rain anyway.
At least the ankle wasn't twisted, or worse — broken. Edsel was exhausted, and stopping was the worst thing he could possibly have done as a wave of tiredness swamped him.
Go, go, go.
He ran on, down the wide street, the signs of expensive department stores hanging like bodies from the hangman's noose, swaying in the wind like the countless missed harvests all over the country, the world.
The rain beat down faster, flooding the street in seconds; turning it into a river that rushed down the slight decline, bringing yet more trash with it, threatening to make it impossible to run.
At least these red idiots have the same problem.
He splashed through the water, the polystyrene food containers and coffee cups, ignoring the cramps, the blisters, the pain and the cold as the rain soaked through what little clothing he wore.
Got to get away, got to get home, got to get Kathy. It's only a few miles, nothing to worry about, this should be easy.
Edsel kidded himself, he knew it, but where there was life there was hope, and he was still alive — barely.
They were gaining on him. He could hear their feet hitting the sodden street, splashing like fish in shallow water flapping to get deep again. He picked up speed, pumping faster and faster, sure his heart would explode at any second.
Must practice running if I get away; I thought I was fitter than this. Twenty five and I'm like an old man already.