Alison loaded a shell into the breech of the tank’s gun and Claire gave her the thumbs up from the commander’s position. Claire looked outside where the tank was stationary in a wide wooded gulley; not the best landscape for the large tracked vehicle she thought.
“Have you sighted the soldiers yet?” Claire asked Sally the gun aimer.
“No, I think they are laying low,” returned Sally.
“Ok Anna,” Claire said to the driver, “take her slowly ahead.”
The loud diesel clattered into life and they could all feel that the cold winter day suited the engine. The tank moved along the gulley, able to drive directly over smaller trees.
Claire worried that they were heading into a trap but there was little choice to their current course. She decided not to tell the others of her concerns. Soon the insides of the tank were hot again. It was always like this, she reflected, the engine heated them while on the move, then the cool again while it was turned off and they rested. They all wore slim outfits designed for living in the tank. The material breathed in the hot but kept them warm again when the tank cooled. Claire thought of her life in the tank, as she felt the tracks rumbling over the rough stones of the gulley bed. It had been the same all her adult life, always on the run, always hunting or being hunted by the soldiers.
Further up the gulley the soldiers were waiting. They had come down the sides of the wide misty valley to where the trees were thicker. James eyed his binoculars and said to Peter, his second in command, “No sign of the tank yet.” Steam rose from his mouth in the cold air. Peter took his own binoculars from a bulky pack, “No, I think we have them this time though, they must be following the gulley.”
“Definitely, Sir,” added Dave, one of the privates.
“This has been a long time coming,” said James, “too long.”
He thought of the years they had been trying to catch the tank. Living off the grey land while catching and eating small animals. The land beyond the gullies scared him: vast tracts of waste land where nothing lived or grew.
Claire could see Anna watching carefully ahead through the thick small glass of her driving slit window. Wet sleet was lashing the tank and the little wiper pushed it aside frantically. She could also see Sally eyeing the grey rocky landscape through the gun aimer’s turret windows; Claire knew that all the time Sally made calculations in her head; working out the trajectory of the shells to bombard certain areas she sighted. They had not needed to fire for a few weeks now but always there were calculations, as each new attack could be the last.
Claire watched the same scene from her squat commander’s turret. She had a better view of the bleak landscape than the others. She reflected that this could be the reason she was more cautious than them. Her bleak world was bigger. She noted that the trees were thinning here and there were less of the big wood obstacles. The tank had more power in this atmosphere and could drive over most of the saplings. She could see that, unfortunately, up ahead they thickened again. She considered taking the tank up into the land beyond the gullies to loose the soldiers, but she thought that it had absorbed too much radiation the last time. Then the Geiger counter had been beyond maximum, but they had had to stay out of the gullies as the soldiers had been thick then.
“Can you see anything of them?” she asked Sally.
“No, but I think they must be ahead.”
Claire thought of the soldiers. She often felt an overwhelming desire for their big bodies, such a contrast to the slim women in the tank. Why were they like this all the time? She wondered what the war was about. When she saw them stripped to the waist she wanted in invite one inside, but no, this was war and further, she really was very afraid of them.
The soldiers had tracked the tank all day. It was now stopped, resting. They knew it would rest for an hour and they took the chance to rest and eat themselves. A few of the small caught creatures were cooking on the fire. The soldiers were, as was customary, stripped to the waist. This, they knew, made them stronger and James took the cold with a manly strength on his strong body.
He thought over their battle plan. The pincer movement was working and, though the tank did not know it, they were finally closing in for the kill. He was looking forward to breaking the tank open and finding out its secrets.
“What will we do after we break the tank?” Peter asked him.
“Oh there must be more out there to get.”
“Do you know of any?” asked Peter, a look of concern on his face.
“Sure, don’t you?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, no time for that now,” said James, dismissing doubts from his head. “We are soldiers, it is what we do.”
If anyone else, but his second in command, had said this he would have berated them, but his bond with Peter went back many years. All that time as comrades who could rely on each other in battle. Peter was the person he was closest to. He wanted to stop talking as the same doubts were in his head and he wondered if there was something missing: something he wanted but could not place.
Inside the tank it was quiet again as they ate the rations: small compact pots of nutrition. The cold was coming and after an hour they would have to start the engine or freeze. It was always the way, always had been, thought Claire. She looked though one of the windows, as she ate, at the grey and cold.
“Do you think there is more to find out there?” she asked Sally.
“No, I think we have it all under control.”
“I mean more than this fighting.”
“What? I don’t know what you mean.”
“No, it is fine,” she said wishing she had said nothing.
Claire remained quiet, but worried Sally would think from her comments, that she was no longer an able commander. It had happened before that the gun aimer became the commander. Claire, her world made bigger by the commander’s turret, found it hard to let her mind focus these days. Always now she had small doubts, it had been different when she used to be a gunner like Alison. Just loading the shells and looking after the gun; such a more simple life it had been.
Once they had finished eating they fired up the engine again and the tank started to follow the gulley to its final resting place. Little did Claire now that her world was about to change forever.
James judged the angles and did calculations in his head. They were hunkered down behind a large fallen tree and not far from a small stream. Over the other side a light flashed code which he read. He lifted his own small signalling mirror and replied to the other party of soldiers; they had split that morning. James felt a thrill of excitement as he heard the sound of the tank’s engine.
“We have them,” muttered Peter nearby.
“Private, get the bazooka over near that rock and get your sighting. The tank can come no other way.”
“Sir, yes sir.”
James knew that, as per his instructions, the other unit would be doing the same.
“Also, we have only two shells left so don’t miss.”
“Sir, yes sir.”
It was Claire who saw them first, but it was already too late. Through the slit window she saw the soldier holding a bazooka on his shoulder. The next second a tongue of flame leapt from the tube and the tank exploded around her. Briefly her world went black but soon she came round. Her ears were ringing and it was hot. Smoke filled the cabin. She groped for an oxygen mask, got it, pulled it over and clamped it on her face. Now she was able to breathe she looked around, but could see very little through the smoke.
Climbing down from the commander’s position she explored the dark tank: trying to find the others. Once down the smoke was thinner. Straight away she saw that the side of the tank was missing and with it had gone the driver’s position. Anna had been blown to bits, so much so that there was nothing left to find of her. Alison was slumped over her shells, dead. Claire then looked for Sally and made her way to the gun aimer’s turret. Once there she found her also dead and assumed the smoke had got her.
“Now it’s just me then,” she thought and turned her attention to the outside.
She knew the tank was finished and would no longer go anywhere. One track was completely missing and one side of the engine. Her hope was that the turret would still work. After pulling Sally aside she tested the turret controls to quickly find it was dead. Then she looked though the glass slit window. Through the grey light she could see some soldiers coming carefully down the sides of the gulley.
A thrill of hate swept through her as she thought of her comrades and the now broken tank, her home, her way of life. She scrambled up to her commander’s position. The smoke had cleared and she tore off the mask. The soldiers were more confident now and the group spread out as they approached.
“They must think they have finished us,” she grated to herself.
She grabbed the big machine gun, fixed into the side of the turret, but took care not to move it yet. Gradually the soldiers closed in and she sighted them all through the one way glass. She had used the gun many times and knew she could pick off all she sighted. They closed in, unprofessional to come together, but she suspected their lack of care was due to finally killing the tank. Well now she would finish them.
Finally she judged all were sighted and she pulled the trigger, and it was the last time she would use it. Deadly lead spewed from the twin muzzles and sprayed this way and that as she poured death upon the soldiers. They had no time to fire back, she was a deadly shot. Quickly all the bodies were laying on the floor and still she held the trigger. The dead twitched as more lead came, her muzzles were overheating, but the end came quickly as her ammunition ended.
Finally, after a few minutes, she let go of the silent gun and dropped her head to the metal handles. Tears came hard and she sobbed like never before.
Snow started to fall as James looked at the grey sky. Cold flakes settled up his face. He was laying on his back and his legs felt numb; there was also a dreadful pain in his head. He was unsure how long he had been unconscious. The snow became thicker and he turned his head to the tank. It had been foolish to approach it directly but for once the soldiers had all wanted to see the tank they had been chasing for so long. His fault, he should have given orders, he thought, but he had been as keen as the others to see the tank spew its innards.
As he looked at the dead machine he saw the lid forced open on top. It squealed back on unused rusty hinges. He tried to rise, but could not, as a lithe figure slowly climbed from the lid. It was like nothing he had seen before, slim, cat like. It moved carefully, checking the area around. In one hand was a gun. Despite himself he could not stop looking at this creature; he found it captivating, enchanting, and beautiful.
It looked around from the tank and surveyed the dead bodies, the eyes failing to stop on him. It came a little closer and he could see it was human, like him, only so different. He felt an overwhelming desire for it, but thrust away these thoughts remembering that it came from the tank and must be an enemy. He wondered if he could lift his gun and shoot; he tried but still found no power in his body. Then the human took flight, following the steam, and he lost sight of it.
He turned his thoughts to his own plight. Quickly he realised the weight on his legs was Peter, dead. Gradually he found some strength and was able, little by little, to start his body working again. Once he got the heavy Peter off his legs things became easier. He sat up and prized off his helmet. He found out why he had a headache. There was a shell flattened, and fairly embedded, on the side of it. It had caved in someway while attempting to save his life.
He threw it aside and took the helmet from Peter’s head: placing it on his own. After a few minutes he was able to stand. He checked if there were any of his platoon still living, they were all dead. He then made his way to the tank. Quickly inspecting it, he found the other humans. They were much more captivating close up and he almost felt regret for having killed them. Again he thrust away the thoughts, too many years he had waited for this, he would not go soft now. His mission was clear: he needed to hunt and destroy the lithe survivor. It was the one remaining link to the tank and his mission.
When Claire had finished sobbing she wiped her face and then opened the hatch above her head. It complained on rarely used hinges. She took her gun and climbed out. Snow was falling more regularly now and the flakes were getting bigger. She could see the soldiers and checked there were none moving before climbing down to the ground. She was still very afraid of them and after walking a little closer, she had to turn away. Her heart was beating hard and her fear outweighed her desire to check they were all dead.
She took flight along the stream, and then headed up an easier slope of the gulley, always wondering if there were more soldiers around. The snow became thicker as she headed into deeper trees. She felt bitterly cold and moved fast not only to escape but to keep warm. Once she thought there was a sound behind and further down. Fear filled her, without the tank she felt naked, infinitely vulnerable.
Her course was ever upward towards the bare land above the gullies. She hoped that the soldiers would not follow, as she knew their fear of the wide grey landscapes. The only problem being was that she no longer had the Geiger counter and the protection of the tank. Perhaps now she was as vulnerable as them, she thought.
After a time of moving she stopped and sunk down near a large tree: hiding herself in the foliage. The snow was thinning and visibility was improving; now she could see further back into the gulley. She saw no soldiers. Glad of the rest, she wanted to stay there, but soon the cold was biting again. The gun was annoying her as she had no pockets or holster but the hard powerful handle was a sort of comfort.
She kept a sharp lookout and listened for sounds of pursuit. Then she saw him, a single soldier. She could tell he was tracking her by his attitude. Low and alert, checking the ground before him and then up ahead. He was big and strong looking, holding a large machine gun. His backpack was bulky and he also wore a belt holding boxes. Around his shoulder and across the chest was a spare ammunition belt. On his head he wore a metal helmet which was held tight down by the strap under his chin. She was scared of him and wanted to run but knew this would alert him. He was clever: taking a high path to cut her off from the land above. She could tell that he guessed it would be her strategy. Quietly she slipped away, back down into the gulley in order to fool him.
James saw her slipping from the foot of the tree and he bought his gun up quickly. Easy as shooting a small creature for food he thought. The sights rested on her blonde hair and his finger felt for the trigger. She was as good as dead. But he faltered. His mission: but then the doubts. The hair mesmerised him. All conspired to make him falter: then she was gone.
He followed again. She was cunning, this creature, clever to slip back down into the gulley, he thought. Though not that clever, the gun had been on her long enough, one split second and he could have finished her. Down they went into the gulley. Here the trees were thick. The snow had stopped. He could hear the running water of the small stream. Stealthily he tracked the lithe human again. A heavy man: but light on his feet. Many years hunting had made him so, both for food and war. Tracking small scared creatures or larger aggressive ones: he was an all round professional.
Then as the trees thinned near the stream he saw a square regular feature. Coming closer he could make it out as concrete. There were never buildings in the gullies, this was new to him. From a distance he had seen buildings in the lands above but they were always ruins and broken. This one looked complete. He reached it and placed a hand on the hard wall. It was hard to see above and living rock took up the route that the concrete had started.
The wall continued to his right, hidden in places by undergrowth and trees. Tracking along it he soon found a small entrance. It was let into the concrete and contained a ramshackle and mouldy wooden door. The door was swinging slightly. He checked and knew the tank human had come that way.
Claire could not believe her luck to find the door. She carefully went through and found a large empty room beyond. The walls were the same concrete as the outside, the same grey colour. The room was entirely empty. On the far left wall to her left was a large empty door frame. Around the room were various other, smaller, doors. Then she heard the soldier outside, very close. Quickly, her heart thumping, she headed fleetingly for the larger, and closer, door. She rounded it and flattened herself on the other side of the right hand frame, away from the soldier.
Her heart was beating hard, making it difficult to concentrate with fear. Her eyes took in this new room. Again it was big and grey but at the far end was a large dilapidated thrown sitting on an equally dilapidated wooden platform. That was it. In despair she looked for a way out, not daring to look back through the door, as she knew the soldier must be coming.
Then she saw a faint dark hole to her right. She felt towards it. The dark hole turned out to be the beginning of a steep narrow grey spiral staircase. Without so much as a pause she climbed quickly upwards. She realised swiftly that the soldier, with his bulk, would be slowed down by it.
James was hard on her heels across the room. He was so light of foot that she was unaware how close he was. Her hearing was not as alert as his after years with the tank engine in her ears. He could have had her at any point as they traversed the big room. But he held back, unsure why, doubts in his mind. Then she was through the big door and he stopped short, suspecting she could have him covered with her gun. He heard her breath coming fast and then her movement away. He took a silent sideways roll into the room, instantly the gun covered the area. She was just vanishing though a small hole in the wall.
He stood and followed again. At the foot of the steps he realised he would not fit in the narrow way with all his equipment. He removed his big bulky backpack, equipment belt and ammunition belt. Now he was in only his uniform with hat and holding the big machine gun. He took the stairs, finding it a very narrow squeeze, but passable. He had to duck down and walk sideways with the gun before him, but he was able to climb.
He could hear the lithe human speedily disappearing above.
Claire climbed as fast as she could. The spiral went up and up. Very gradually the walls became less rough. Then abruptly they stopped and opened out into another room. This room was vast and she wondered how it could have increased in size over the ones below. The grey concrete walls had changed, now they were smoother, less brutal. There were odd forms of furniture, mostly of a rough design. Even the doors were lined with wood.
She snatched a glance back down the steps feeling sure the man was coming. Looking around she saw what looked like a door to more steps across the room. She ran across the open space. Shortly she reached the door and looked back. The brute was just emerging. He levelled his gun but she darted away up the steps.
Now the way was narrower but much plusher; designs on the walls and smooth stone steps. The way round upwards, and tight. She knew the soldier would be slowed by this and she gladly appreciated it.
Then again the steps ended and opened into another room. This one was quite small but much more plush with carpet underfoot and finer furniture. The walls were paper with nice designs. There were real wooden doors. She ran to the first and went through. Beyond was another room. As she ran she thought she started to notice people, but all was becoming a haze. Each room opened to another and she hoped her way was loosing the man.
Presently there came another staircase. This one was wide and straight with soft carpet and wooden walls. Pictures of grand people and scenes. The steps led to a landing which switched back and led up again. The decoration became more and more grand, as she ran up the steps to each switchback.
Then the last switchback came and she could hear voices and see up above the way opened out. She reached it and before her was a sight that astounded her. A sight like nothing she had ever seen before.
She had arrived at the very top of the stairs into a room; unlike the others, it was vast in size. This room was not just plush but golden: golden of sunshine and light. The far wall was a huge window to the land beyond, but this was not the dead land of the gullies, this was a bright beautiful landscape of trees and fields and sunshine. Beyond was a blue sky of the deepest, most tranquil blue she had ever seen.
But this was not was took her attention. The room was fantastic: with two large long tables covered in food like she had never seen before. Large cooked turkeys on platters of vegetables. Plates of roast potatoes, fruit of many types, all beautiful and sumptuous. Around the tables were children, happy and talking. Beyond this a large tree stood with pretty baubles and glitter. Candles were placed on the ends of the boughs. At the top was an attractive doll in a fairy outfit. Underneath stood boxes in pretty paper. The sound was of a running stream and of laughter and happy talking.
Sitting at the far end of the table was a woman. She wore good but unassuming clothes. She behaved in a relaxed manner, not the focus of the room, or the centre of attention, but clearly the middle of the universe. Claire was drawn to her. The soldier forgotten. Her fear had gone. She came to the woman.
There was no extravagant and embarrassing greeting, the woman simply turned and smiled and gestured to a chair near her. The same style of chair that all used, the same that her herself rested on.
Claire smiled back. It was so long since anyone had smiled at her and so long since she had herself smiled.
“I don’t know who I am,” she surprised herself by saying to the woman.
“You were the last of the Ultimate War. A long time ago the whole world was like this place. The King used to live in the rooms you saw on the way up to us. He created it when the world went crazy.”
“What is this place?”
“This is The Good House. Here there is no war, all the bad things stop in this place. It doesn’t exist really, in that world. You and the soldier were the last of the war. We tried to free you before but it never worked. Now it happened. We finally guided you here.”
“But the others are dead.”
“Yes, we tried so hard to stop that. We only managed to save you.”
“And the soldier?
“Ask him yourself,” she said nodding across the room.
She turned in fear to see him standing at the top of the steps. Claire still held her gun in her hand. The soldier held his at ease in his left hand.
They looked at each other across the room.
The old woman, the Queen, looked back at the time when the King had first arrived in those grey war ravaged rooms and together they had made a new life. Her young self pictured in her mind’s eye. She remembered those long good years before he had died an old man.