Nuclear Strawberries by Martin Chase

As he shuffled ever-so slowly through the various avenues formed by these toxic, stinking ziggurats, his eyes swished about and mentally picked at appealing morsels of charcoal-smelling, singed rifle barrels, giant, radioactive roach talons with the look and smell of overcooked intestine, grossly-priced tablets that shot off hostile, acerbic-odored volleys of electric mercury, and the occasional, blackened skull or three, some clad in scalded, rubber masks, others laid bare and gloomily grimacing sans jaws.

But in the midst of his last-minute window-shopping, the soldier’s ears captured the dull echo of an aching moan to his left.

Turning towards the object of interest, the soldier gazed upon the thing it had originated from; a fellow soldier.

Though he was partially obscured under the oppressive, overhanging shadows of the malignant, acid-soaked clouds above, the soldier instantly recognized the muted green jumpsuit and slipshod gas mask which clad the individual – a fellow, emaciated praying mantis in the service of NATO.

And similarly wounded to boot! – only this feller looked as if a Dragunov round had slashed across his gut, rather than being impaled by shrapnel. Furthermore, a scanty strip of intestine dangled from this jolly good mate’s gash. Not that he truly seemed to mind it, though.

The soldier sighed. Was there any point in really talking to him? he would have thought in that instance, assuming he was capable of it. For what was the point of conversing anymore, when there was nothing worth buzzing off to one another about, except for whatever the next mission was, how many Rooskies you’ve plugged, or in what manner you would probably meet your gruesome, untimely demise the following morn?

After an extensive handful minutes of awkward silence, however, the soldier finally spoke.

“Hey,” he rasped dully from beneath the confines of his mask, “you got a name?”

The other did not respond at first. Then he rasped back in an anemic, faltering croak after a minute’s delay.

“Does it really even matter?”

“I dunno. You got a family?”

“I dunno what that is. How many Rooskies have you taken with ya?”

“Too many. You?”

The other man coughed vehemently. Ripping off his gas mask, he revealed underneath that rubbery facade a scarred, papyrus visage with deathly white flesh, gaping, Stygian pits of eyes, near non-existent, dementedly grinning lips, and luscious, chocolatey blood smeared and caked across his chin and cheeks.

“I lost count yesterday. Remember takin’ a lot down with me earlier today though; put a bomb in one of ‘em tall towers.” he chuckled deliriously, directing a finger to his far right at one of the many ruined skyscrapers beyond the Square. “Hee hee. If only you could hear ‘em scream like they did. Thought it was really funny.”

“What else do you find funny? Never really understood humor.”

The other contemplatively wiggled his obtruding piece of bowel for a moment, and then burst into hoarse, grating laughter interrupted frequently by a series of blood-spewing coughs before yielding his response.

“You know what I find funny?” he drily snickered, those dark, lightless eyes concealing a baffling mixture of cynical amusement, subdued sorrow, and ambivalent acceptance. “How meaningless it all is. Think about it for a moment! What the hell are we fighting for? I mean, what is there left to fight for? White House, Big Ben, Kremlin, n’ Forbidden Palace are blown up, an’ there ain’t no government or countries to speak of anymore. An’ pretty much all the little civvies have been blown away by them nukes, ‘cept for a few stupid ***wipes rottin’ away underground. Yet even so, it’s still red n’ green, Rooskie an’ NATO goons shootin’ the livin’ s*** out of each other every flippin’ day, for no reason that I can see.”

The other man sputtered up yet another clot of blood, and paused for a moment to wipe his face.

“In short,” he grinned jadedly, “I find stupid people, and stupid goals effin’ hilarious. Whether they’re NATO or Rooskie.” He fiddled with his intestine again. “Also, I kinda like playin’ with this thing from time t’ time. Gets me a giggle every so often.”

Another dissonant whoop, and more blood spat up than previously. Any mad amusement that once rested upon that blood-smeared mask had subsided into abject pain and fearful anticipation.

“Make….it…quick.” the madman groaned feebly.

The soldier nodded. Lifting his firearm to his shoulder, he slipped his finger over the rusted trigger.