The sun rose over the mountains.
Although, one could hardly call those the mountains. When an ordinary person hears this word, he imagines great stone formations with glaciers, cliffs, and precipices crowned by snowcaps. If one was born in the mountains or lived there, he would think of those particular ones. The Alps, the Cordilleras, the Caucasus, the Tien Shan – there are many mountains on tiny planet Earth, which rushes through the silent darkness of the Universe. There are great and small mountains, huge and noble. These mountains, though, compared to their more successful companions, were rather small and insignificant. They were burnt brown due to their old age… The mountains were asleep, and for the time being, tender beams of rising sun could not wake them up.
However, the exhausted man that walked along one of many thousands of canyons in these mountains did not care either about the age of the mountains or about their significance. Only their color mattered to him. It irritated the man, and even quietly enraged him. Brown color was everywhere: on the slopes, in the gorges, on scarce trees, and on the clothes of a lonely wanderer. The whole life in desolate shades.
These mountains were real for the wanderer; they were the only ones he had ever seen. He knew only about those mountains that existed in the middle of the huge and deadly Outback. The old folks said that beyond the Outback, there were other mountains and endless spaces filled with water up to the brim. The man could not imagine so much water. Well, he had never seen more water than there was in the bottom of the Water Barrel near the City Hall.
The traveler needed water. The thirst was unbearable. He wanted not just to take several sips of water from the flask on his belt, but to gulp it for a long time, until the infuriated Mayor came with his endless whining about thrift, responsibility, and other delirium. “What does this skunk know about Water, thrift, and responsibility? He never even leaves the Deserted City! He’s just sitting there and giving orders, all because he can read, you see. Bloody smart ass, radbit tear him to bits!”
The man shivered. One thought about radbits was enough to make anyone shudder, even a strong grown man with a weapon atilt. At this thought, one wants to look back and hide in the shadow of a cliff. By no means run. These beasts are so dumb, they’d think you are trying to outrace them. If you run, they will get you. The radbits will get anyone. They will get you and tear you to bits. They won’t eat you because, according to Doc, they are herbivorous. So why should they tear you to pieces? Their ancestors, rabbits, from whom the radbits mutated, don’t try to kill anyone – they are just sitting in their cages at Doc’s, feeding on grassmeat and reproducing. That’s still some food. The rabbit meat did not taste good, but was much better than radbit’s meat, which was absolutely disgusting. If one eats it, he will have diarrhea for three days, and then he’ll die.
The man gave a sad smile. That morning he could not think of anything good…
The Mayor saw one of them with that goddamned tramp. Pinkpunk, he called himself (probably because of this pink flock of hair on his head, “the hairstyle”) – anyway, this swagman sometimes came to the Deserted City and traded ammunition for food and water. This time he did not come on foot, but rode a tamed camel – gangama trample him down! He blurted about a herd of the camels wandering not far from the mountains! At once, it came to the Mayor’s mind that he should get one of those for moving the cargoes. What kind of cargoes? The Mayor’s own shit, or what?
The man clenched his teeth in anger. Why did it have to be him, hunter Mick, to go on that idiotic and remote mission? Logan knew the Outback far better than him. Well, to be honest, Logan had also never met the camels. Mick roared and kicked the closest stone with his rifle butt – as for him, he did meet them! He was spit at and kicked in the leg by one of them, and the camels ran away. Strange, Pinkpunk’s animal couldn’t run…
Mick’s flow of thoughts changed when he noticed some metal shining between the boulders. There were no radbits or other creatures for a reason as Mick, an experienced hunter, noticed ten minutes ago. A tesla stood among the rocks, a bit tilted on its three legs. A dangerous thing, to tell the truth: it might not kill you, but it will fry you deeply with its charges. Everything depends on the age of this thing; the older it is, the less charge it has. It is not deadly for humans, but all those radbits, gangamas, and smaller creatures hate its guts. That’s why they avoid places with teslas. All of them, except for the Ox, or Mister Hellish Ox – this pile of muscles, saturated with radiation, destroys teslas easily.
The man looked around him, searching for the best shooting position, then kneeled near a small boulder and aimed the rifle. Inhale-exhale. He slowly placed his finger on the trigger. A tesla’s weak spot was its processor – a bump in the joint point of its legs. One shot and the tesla would be disabled forever. Shooting the big plate-like top of the tesla was useless, as was shooting the tripod. His aim was for the processor, or “the bump”, as hunters called it.
But Mick didn’t shoot. He spotted the shape of a familiar rock. That meant that somewhere close to it was a path to the city, and the tesla was protecting it from aggressive animals. That’s why he should not destroy it. The technology of the Aliens worked for humans’ sake. Did they think of such consequences? Well, now it didn’t matter, after the Third World War destroyed almost everyone…
Mick stood up and slung the rifle behind his back. Then he checked that the equipment was fastened tightly. He didn’t want to come back to the tesla for something that he had dropped. The hunter recalled everything he knew about the enemy: a tesla shoots with the charges once every three to five seconds, and its radius of action is ten to fifteen meters. If he ran fast, there wouldn’t be a second charge after the first one: the tesla was old and probably discharged and wouldn’t have time to prepare for another strike. He had to run straight, no zigzags – a tesla never misses.
Inhale-exhale. Close your eyes and calm down.
‘Go!’ Mick yelled and dashed off as fast as he could. ‘Radbit tear you…’
The rest of his scream was inundated in tesla’s shrieking noise. The hunter quickly passed the mechanism, withering it with his look. Two pink spots appeared on Mick’s chest and elbow.
‘Agrrrhhhh!’ he howled when tesla’s second charge hit him right in the right buttock. The hunter tripped and, wildly screaming, rolled down the cliff where the tesla stood…
Pinkpunk was thinking of destiny. Of the destiny of the world, of this continent, of his own destiny, though the latter interested him the most. Why should he care about the planet burnt by the nuclear war and mutated under the influence of alien chemicals when his camel had run away with all his stuff? Why should he care about the wild mutants raging in the north and people opposing them, when he had only ten rounds for his shotgun in his pocket? Down with the Aliens, who occupied the south and forced the humans to the Outback! Down with everyone! The only thing that matters to a man is his own destiny when eight evil red radbit eyes stare at him. In a moment like this, the feeling of the imminent end of your own death outweighs all the other feelings.
What a shame, if one’s life has to end in the moment of triumph, when finally he is close to his goal and found this bloody Entrance. The entrance to an old prewar reserve of the Aliens, the one he was looking for for almost a year, swindling tiny bits of information from the locals. He finally found it, thanks to the camel who ran off in the canyon.
Who knew what was in store for him in the reserve? Technology? Weapons? Even a stock of preserved nutritional lumps from the Aliens would do. In this world, burnt down by the war and the sun, any prewar hiding place promised great treasure.
At the moment, that treasure was beyond his grasp. He had killed radbits several times before. Two or three at most, but four – no way. And four huge ones! Do the locals feed them, or what? It would be fine to meet them somewhere in the desert; he would stand still, and the beasts would leave in half an hour. They are interested only in moving prey that they can catch and tear apart! No, today he somehow managed to turn up right in front of their hole in the mountains that was guarded by four huge males. Who knows how many brutes are inside? These beasts don’t like when somebody intrudes on their territory. He wished he had a grenade; the shotgun might not be enough: the radbits have a rather high pain threshold and much anger powered by the cocktail of radiation and mutated extraterrestrial DNA.
Basically, Pinkpunk had already prepared to die in a fight, when somebody’s howl on the cliff on the left distracted the animals. The curious beasts craned their necks and then set their ears back, confused at the distinctive shrieking sound of a working tesla that followed the howl.
Pinkpunk took his chance and pressed the trigger, roaring: ‘How do you like that, bitches?’
Boom! The first shot took half of the hideous head of the closest beast. Bang! The second one shook in agony. Tuh! The rifle of a new fighter snapped from the slope, and one more radbit fell down with a hole in his eye. The rifle and shotgun struck simultaneously, and the fourth mutated rabbit fell dead. Then a man rolled down the hill; he was wearing pants of a strange, dusty color and a scratched leather vest on his naked torso. He had a wide-brimmed hat on his head, adorned with radbits’ teeth. He was holding a good-conditioned, old prewar M14 in his hands. The hunter jumped up and looked about him, frowning at the blackness of the radbits’ hole. He looked at the swagman and scolded:
‘Pinkpunk, what the hell are you doing here, goanna screw you? Don’t you have an agreement with the Mayor: you don’t come to our territories, and we trade water and food with you? What will the Mayor say when he finds out?’
‘Hey, man… Mick, right? Is that your name?’
Pinkpunk was too happy with his lucky escape to worry about any problems with that old asshole Bartlet, the Mayor of the Deserted City.
‘Listen, Mick, you came right at the darn time…’
‘I ain’t blind. I see that I’ve saved your ass right on time! What’s your problem, anyway?’
‘Oh, come on! If I weren’t hanging here, you would have rolled off from the rock right on the heads of these beasts, and they would have torn you apart as sure as death.’
Mick squinted one eye, perplexed. He had just realized it. There was an awkward moment, and Pinkpunk decided to be the first to break the silence:
‘Well, thanks to the blind chance or the will of fortune, if you’d like, we helped each other. Then, maybe, you should not tell anything to Bartlet at all? Let’s part friends, after a drink together?’
Pinkpunk’s hand slowly reached for the flask on his belt.
The hunter did not seem to understand completely what the man in front of him said, but the phrase about the booze definitely comforted him. He pulled his hat over his forehead and scratched the back of his head. Then for some reason, he dug into his ear with his little finger. Pinkpunk waited patiently for the end of this spontaneous itching. Then the men exchanged glances and grinned: the silent agreement was reached, and they could relax.
‘So, what the radbit are you doing here?’ asked Mick, taking Pinkpunk’s flask.
‘You see,’ the swagman hesitated. He wasn’t sure he could trust Mick with the aim of his trip. On the other hand, he needed an ally – who knew what else he would meet on his way?
‘Listen, I need to take something not far from here. Would you like to help me? Not for nothing, of course.’
Mick squinted, once again peering at the blackness of the radbits’ hole and said: ‘I need a camel.’
‘No problem! You’ll help me, and I’ll help you find one. Or even two! And you’ll get a new gun – much better than that old one.’
Pinkpunk played a double game. It wasn’t so hard to find a camel in that area, but he could bargain about the information on how to tame it…
Suddenly, they heard a noise of many steps coming from the forgotten hole. The men turned around with their weapons tilted forward and startled at the sight of a pack of radbits coming out of the hole. The leader of the mutants, a large male decorated with many scars, looked over the corpses of his fellows and stared at his new enemies. The tousled hair on the back of his neck and his strained pose meant the imminent death of the two-legged that had attacked his territory.
Alii’s thoughts flowed slowly, like the very time of the majestic Universe, as it counted the moments from its inception until its bright end, which in its turn would become the birth of a new world. But Alii was not thinking of the endless space. About fifteen minutes ago (her race adopted the earthly kind of time), her thoughts had carried her far away, beyond the limits of this miserable world. Towards the stars, to her own planet that only the Oldest had seen, and none of the living ones, to the past splendor of her race that accomplished the Great Transition to the planet Earth. The colonists were indeed surprised to see an inhabited planet. A humanoid mammal race, very similar to Alii’s own race, quii, had covered the blue planet, biting into its bowels and looking for new resources. The people in some ways reminded her nation of themselves several thousand years ago. That is why the Oldest decided to act cautiously and tried to establish peaceful connections with leading countries. However, they underestimated the infidelity of human politicians: every country tried to use the new alliance for its own benefit. Finally, a World War broke out (the third one in the last hundred years, according to the people’s chronology – so much these savages loved to be at war). Although, at that time, the war meant mutual destruction. Main human settlements were destroyed, as was the gem of the Alien space fleet – a great Maternal ship. The world sank into chaos…
Now people brought more chaos to Alii’s life and to her carefully verified plan. For many months she had been hunting for the information in the archives, analyzing the terrain and human settlements with only one purpose: to find the Cell of one of the renegades that he secured before the war. Technology, resources, and knowledge – these were in store for Alii in this Cell. At last, she was a hundred steps away from her aim!
Unfortunately, her brilliant plan fell to pieces because of two people, who first almost died, foolishly appearing in front of the mutants’ hole, and then nearly wanted to shoot each other. Now their situation was getting even worse: probably all the beasts that lived in the hole went out. Desperately firing back, the two men were slowly rearing to Alii’s ravine, where she was hiding behind the masking shield that made her invisible to outside observers.
Alii was thinking over her next actions, but there were not many variants. She and these people were in the same boat – in several moments, the integrity of the net of her masking shield would fail, and she would lose her tactical advantage. It was time to intervene. Alii turned the shield off decisively and rushed forward.
This new character on the battlefield was like a bolt from the blue. For a moment, everyone froze; as for Mick, his bottom jaw almost fell down, as he never saw Aliens. Just for a moment, though, a burning ball that Alii had flung grew, hissing and sputtering, and made a real breach in the radbit horde. One could sense a smell of ozone mixed with blood. Then the Alien pulled out a strange-looking weapon and started shooting straight at the oncoming beasts. Pinkpunk joined her in a second; Mick needed a bit more time to collect himself, but soon he started firing at the radbits with his rifle.
In several minutes, everything ended. Pinkpunk finished the last beast by cutting its throat – by that time all his shotgun ammunition was gone. Then the man hesitated, considering what to do next, and with a wide smile on his face, he turned to their savior.
‘I greet you,’ he said, but his words stuck to his tongue. ‘Mick, what the hell?!’
Mick and Alii were standing in tense positions, pointing their weapons at each other. The hunter’s face revealed rage, hesitation, and fear all at once. As for the Alien, Pinkpunk could not read their faces, her face didn’t express any kindness either.
‘Pinkpunk,’ snapped Mick angrily, ‘let’s finish this Alien right now!’
‘Your friend behaves very aggressively,’ said Alii to Pinkpunk without looking at him. ‘And this is your gratitude?’
‘Hey, man,’ the swagman was desperately looking for a solution to this new problem. ‘Let’s not hurry and think it through. You and I, my friend, were fucked up for sure, and if it wasn’t for the help of…’
Pinkpunk looked at the Alien and waited.
‘Alii. My name is Alii…’
‘Glad to meet you, dear Alii! I am Pinkpunk, and this is Mick, in front of you.’ Pinkpunk slowly neared the hunter, talking in a calm and quiet manner. ‘If it weren’t for Alii’s help, we would be dead by now…’
‘If it weren’t for the damned Aliens, there wouldn’t have been the War, and we would live now as…as…’ Mick was bursting with anger and could not find the proper words; besides, he knew very little about life before the Aliens.
‘They almost destroyed all of us,’ he continued. ‘It is because of the Aliens we cannot live normally, because of them we live in this brutal hell…’
‘Yes, we are aliens here,’ Alii’s voice was cold as ice. ‘But it wasn’t us who destroyed the humankind! It has devoured itself, sinking in avarice and greed for gain! We came with peace and did not want to kill anyone…’
‘You didn’t? Yeah, right!’ Mick wasn’t going to believe her.
‘We were looking for a new home and met the savages that wanted to use us for their own selfish goals, in order to gain even more power and resources. You have been destroying yourselves for thousands of years, and finally you’ve exterminated yourselves almost to the end! The trouble of our race is that we witnessed this and participated, though involuntarily. You heaved your nuclear weapon at our Maternal ship. You killed our children! I was a child myself at that time and saw everything first hand!’
Alii’s voice revealed such sincere grief that even the tough hunter almost believed her.
‘You are lying, blue lizard!’ said Mick, shaking his head no. It looked like he did not care for any reasoning.
´Mick, listen, it doesn’t matter now! All of us try to survive in this world,’ Pinkpunk intervened.
‘There’s nothing you can change, but we can help ourselves and others. We have almost reached our goal. A little more, and we’ll be able to provide ourselves with a normal life…’
‘Our goal?’ interrupted Alii. This man with the strange hair seemed to be out for the same thing as she!
They stood in awkward silence, immersed in their own thoughts. Pinkpunk’s mind was racing as he tried to decide how to attract the Alien to their side, as she knew much better than them how to use the Alien technology. Alii suddenly realized that it would be much easier to get to the Cell with the help of these two, but the hunter worried her. And Mick tried to decide who was in front of him, a friend or a foe, and could he call the Aliens friends at all?
A sudden explosion nearby hit the debaters with a hail of stones, leaving a cloud of dust and a hole the size of a human head in the slope above them. Mick and Alii stared at it, surprised, and Pinkpunk, who was facing them, saw a camel appear around the bend of the gorge, its eyes wide open with fear. It was his camel! Pinkpunk had no idea it could run so quickly. The camel, roaring wildly, passed the three of them, and then rounding the same bend appeared the reason for its fear – a tank that crushed stones with its tracks on its way. It was an enormous tank with a long gun on a small turret.
Mick’s jaw dropped again, demonstrating two rows of scarce and yellow teeth. Pinkpunk stepped back in terror of the tank. Only Alii stayed calm and shouted, ‘Quickly! Back off!’
The tank’s artificial intelligence quickly calculated new pointing corrections. It hesitated because, among the enemies, there was one of the quii, and one of the directories of the main core forbade damaging this type of aim. However, the software patch inserted during the last maintenance required destruction of everyone within the given square. This problem required diagnostics, and for now, the AI made the only possible decision: to follow the given task and point its gun at the enemy again.
Mick and Pinkpunk panicked, reared back, and did not know what to do – this enemy was definitely too tough for them. As for Alii, she brightened up, as it was a machine of her people and it was programmed to help quii. However, her happiness quickly gave way to hesitation and fear, as the last owner of the tank seemed to have re-programmed it. It was supposed to greet Alii with its mechanic voice and report its state and destination, but it was ready to destroy everyone.
Alii had no choice. She rushed towards the tank, activating a masking shield. A shot rang out, and a new missile exploded, hissing and cracking several meters before Alii, thrusting her aback with an explosive blast. She succeeded, though – the masking shield was unfolded right in front of the tank and the artificial intelligence of the machine lost its aims in an instant. The AI started to analyze data and recalculate. It recorded the system error message and decided to go back to its previous position: to continue protecting its square. It reared back to the gorge.
Meanwhile, Pinkpunk, trying not to leave the area that was protected by the masking shield, rushed to Alii. The Alien was wounded fatally; there was no need to understand quii’s anatomy to see that she would not survive with such wounds. Pinkpunk kneeled and held her head tenderly in his arms.
Alii realized that she was dying. She had never thought about death; she was very young for one of her race. However, this was the inevitable fate: there was no one who could help her and to whom she could confide her secret. No one, except for this man with strange-colored hair and respect for her race, unusual for humans. She had no choice. Alii’s hands were shaking; she took her personal key from her neck and held it out to Pinkpunk. Words hesitated on her lips, her voice shaking and turning into a hoarse whisper:
‘Take this…You cannot use it now; it is configured only for our race…Find swagman Koarra… She is of my race, and she often wanders in the south. Tell her I found a Cell…She will understand… Please, human, help…I’m very cold…’
Alii’s hand clenched the man’s shoulder convulsively. Pinkpunk took her hand in his and looked for several seconds into her eyes with their long horizontal pupils. The life was fading from those eyes, and then it left her wounded body. By this time, the tank had disappeared completely from the battlefield. According to the human tradition, Pinkpunk closed the woman’s eyes with his hand, then he stood up and turned to Mick, who was crumpling his hat.
‘We need to bury her. I do not know their traditions, so we will bury her according to ours.’
‘No buts! She has saved us twice! We would be dead without her!’
Mick didn’t mind. Today his world had turned upside-down, and it probably would never be the same.
The sun was setting behind the mountains.
It changed their color to blood-red – the color of the passing day. The mountains continued to sleep, and nobody in this world could wake them up. Nobody actually cared about these forgotten pieces of brown dust that had dwelled here for ages. The history of this world counted one more day, and this planet traveled several more steps in its eternal movement in the Universe, as well as the man with dirty-pink hair, who took several steps towards the night. He turned and looked at a lonely hill hidden beneath an old dry tree. The lonely tombstone said: ‘Alii lies here. She saved our lives. Rest in peace.’
The next moment, the man turned back and whispered: ‘This is not the end…’
About the Author
Kirill Grushevich is a professional game developer. The Outback - translated by Alla Demina - is Kirill's debut short story, and the basis of his latest game development project, exploring post-apocalyptic Australia. Want to learn more? Connect with Kirill on Facebook.