It was carnage. The sky itself grew lighter as the fires raged in the distance.
Granger patted his pocket self consciously, a nervous gesture and a complete give away. His eyes darted off the ground for the first time since he’d left the tunnels. He flicked his attention back and forth. The Gatherers ignored him, struggling under the weight of some scrap, half of a vehicle, already mostly stripped. They peeled away any bits that could be worth keeping and carefully placed them in their carts. To his left, a pack of children skittered away behind a destroyed camp. There were quite a few gangs around the area, more now than ever. No one bothered with them. Occasionally, someone might toss them some scraps, but for the most part, they were more scavengers than anyone. A boy, hair covering his filthy skin, glared at Granger. A low growl rumbled in his chest and suddenly every eye in the pack was on him. He’d looked too long and rolled his eyes at his own stupidity.
The pack circled him before he realised, one of them stabbed quickly at the back of his leg, trying to hamstring him. The pack yipped and snarled to each other, animalistic calls of warning.
Granger slipped his hand into his pocket, clutching his prize. Why did he had to look around? That was the first rule- Keep your eyes down. Eye contact was just asking for trouble, even with the most unassuming creatures. The pack of children swarmed around him, their hackles up. He’d offered a challenge, a threat. A pack like this didn’t survive without being wary. The smallest of them snarled and whined at him, ducking in and out of the circle of vicious looking creatures.
There was no point in drawing a weapon, even if he got a shot off it was no guarantee they’d scatter. There was just as much chance they’d swarm over him. He’d seen a pack half as big tear a settler apart for trying to pick up one of the little ones. Fool. It was incredible that there was anyone left on earth who remembered that they had once been children, or even what that had meant. Now a days, they were everywhere. Since The End, packs roamed, defending territory and surviving like that bugs that scuttled in any available crevice.
Granger kept his eyes low now, watching them from under his eyelashes. They were in a holding pattern, pacing slowly around him. There wasn’t any hope of rescue. Ferdinand had been dead since winter, The Yellow had taken his skin and Granger had burnt him on the ridge. He missed the bickering the most. It kept his mind sharp to squabble over whose turn it was to guard the door in the day, or how many pieces of meat he’d eaten. Ferdinand was a grumpy piece of work, loved to bawl at Granger any chance he got. There’d been good times too, finding the laughs where they could. Gallows humour, Ferdinand called it.
Granger moved slowly, pulling his satchel around. He clicked his tongue comfortingly at the pack. He slipped his hand inside the battered leather bag and slowly removed a strip of dried meat, enough to keep him alive for two days. He took a deep breath, no choice really. It was his meat or his arm. The piece of rough brown meat flew through the air over their heads. The squeals and howls of the pack followed it.
The largest of them snarled at him but couldn’t stay. Vengeance at being tricked or looked at was one thing, losing out in feeding was another. Granger didn’t run. That would have just set them off all over again. He took one solid, placid step after another and quietly made his way further away from his home in the tunnels. He had somewhere to be and he wasn’t going to be prevented by anything.
The roads were littered with skeletal remains of both man and machine. The dry shells of forms that had once move animatedly over the landscape, now crystallised in a statuesque form, immovable, slowly decaying and being picked apart. No one had a vehicle anymore, at least no one Granger had ever seen. Occasionally the buzz of engines whirred in the distance but it could have just as easily been the skin-ripping wind tearing the metal from a carcass. He’d taught himself long ago not to hope, there was no magic rescue coming, no golden city- hidden and protected from The End. Still rumours were flying everywhere. He was embarrassed to admit the glint of hope that sat in the corner of his tired eyes. He touched the prize in his pocket with his fingertips.
So why was he going to meet this man? After years of laughing at the rumours people were willing to believe. After half a life time of callous and cynical disbelief, he was allowing this moment of hope, of fantasy. He stood on the cliff face of reality and the endless depth of the slowly choking earth stretched out beneath him- and still, he felt the stirring of something inside him. His fingers touched the smoothness of the object in his pocket. A belief was birthed for the darkness. A question- What if it was true? If they took it from him, then it was all real. There was a place that had a use for such a thing, a place where people survived. And if that was true, Granger knew his price. He had never been a man to try and rescue others. That kind of thinking led to the slippery slope of self sacrifice and humanitarianism. From there it was a quick ride to being stripped of everything you had. And for most people, who only owned the skin on their bones, it was one sacrifice too many.
The dry river bed cut a scar into the wrinkled dry face of the landscape. She’d never been pretty, but the river’s aching wound leant a sense of endlessness and age to the place. Granger stood at the edge and looked down into the small valley, trying to remember what running water had looked like. He’d been fifteen when The End had arrived. The memories of green and sweet and clean were locked away in there somewhere, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to open that box. That was the kind of thinking that could drive a man mad.
From beneath, he heard the footsteps cracking the riverbed’s surface. Each crunch brought the tall man closer to him. Granger didn’t move. No point in taking the plunge and losing the higher ground. The individual below wore a dark brown coat, his hands shoved deep in to his pockets. His face was a mirror of Granger’s own expression, mistrusting, haggard and desperate. Neither man wanted to show the dull throbbing longing for human contact that drove them there.
‘Did you bring it?’ the stranger called.
Granger tipped his head to one side, ‘Tell me why you want it.’ He demanded.
The stranger shrugged eloquently. ‘I’m a collector.’
That phrase alone was enough to make Granger’s heart race. The concept of anyone collecting anything for pure pleasure had died with The End.
‘I want payment.’ He spoke clearly, confidently calling to the stranger who seemed more relaxed by the moment, like someone who had realised a guard dog was really nothing more than a pet.
‘I’m sure you do.’ The man smiled, thin lips, not showing his teeth. ‘I can offer a month’s water and food, good quality, military.’
Military. That was gold dust, as Ferdinand used to say. The canned stocked food originally intended for soldiers was more valuable than any other item. Granger was shocked the man was willing to offer so much. It was guaranteed pure and untainted, more than could be said for a lot of the food they ate. But there wasn’t a choice, hunger or taint. No competition.
‘I want to come with you.’ Granger was bold now. He tried to hold his voice steady but desperation danced at the edges. The man looked up at him, raised a hand to shadow his eyes. He was smiling. Granger felt his blood growing hot. He clenched his fists at his sides.
‘Just take me!’ he shouted suddenly, his heart racing, ‘No one will know. I’ll come right now.’
The collector smiled still, seemingly unmoved by Granger’s frustration. He dropped his hand and then put both on his hips, shaking his head a little as if Granger amused him.
‘Show me.’ The collector waited. Granger ran his hand over the prize he’d guarded so carefully. Slowly he removed his hand from his jacket pocket, the small item resting in his hand. So insignificant, useless in its own way. Granger had stumbled across it in the tunnels. Ordinarily there wasn’t much worth salvaging in there. The gargantuan vehicles that had lumbered through there were long gone and he knew that few people had walked their before him. How the prize had survived he didn’t know. Obviously the tunnels were solid enough to withstand the blasts and creatures that resided there had little interest in such things.
‘Throw it down.’ The collector commanded. Granger frowned as he looked down at the item resting in his palm.
‘It’ll break,’ he shook his head, ‘Promise me I can come with you.’
The collector pursed his lips, ‘Hold it up high, so I can see.’
Granger obeyed, amazed how the light went right through it and glinted off its delicate surface. He held it carefully by the base, wrapping his fingers around the metallic ridges.
‘Can you use it?’ he asked as he finally dragged his eyes away from the beautiful smooth globe.
The collector nodded.
For a second Granger’s heart stopped. He swallowed, trying to regain his senses. The sudden piercing pain in his side made him cry out- a sharp gurgling sound. His eyes snapped to the collector who had not nodded to him at all, but to the man who had appeared unheard behind him. The blade was in deep and then whipped out again with a suddenness that made his knees buckle. He felt a large hand grasp around his own and for a second he contemplated putting up a fight for his prize.
He slid fully onto the ground in a heap. The cracked soil drank up his blood greedily as he stared into the distance, seeing nothing. Granger’s fingers weakened, refusing to obey his mind. His grasp slipped from the base of it and the man who crouched beside him, disregarding his pain-filled eyes, slowly removed the prize from his hand.
The footsteps of his killed were much louder as he walked away than his silent approach. Granger grunted, clawing at handfuls of gravel and sand as he towed himself over to the edge of the riverbank. The collector smiled, positively beamed, as the killer handed him the light bulb. He looked up at Granger one last time, raising the bulb almost as a salute before turning and beginning to walk away.
‘I could have come with you,’ Granger groaned, holding a dust covered hand against the wound. It was a joke. They had no intention of taking him. He was a savage who’d been lucky enough to stumble across something they wanted- and unlucky enough to be unnecessary.
Still, he almost smiled to think, life went on. Somewhere.