Published: Nov. 27, 2016
Authors: L.A Richards, S.W Best
Words: 67,110
Language: English
ISBN: 9781370421985
Versions: Kindle, NOOK, iBooks
Publisher: Bowker - Silver Dog Publications

 


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CHAPTER 1
The City of Ruin

Some would consider the draughty view from a fourth floor apartment a luxury… a good place to view the destruction of what the survivors came to call ‘The Reckoning.’  On good days, I would sit and dream about owning a grand, high-rise apartment like this one. In reality, however, those dreams are long dead; forgotten like the rest of this dismal and broken world.

I raise my scuffed binoculars, staring out into the distance through a large hole that used to be a wall.  My focus is the view of the river Tyne, and what remains of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.  Once a proud city with history, it was now lost to the destruction and chaos of those who survived it.  On a clear day, you can see for miles up there.  It is the peace I long for; a place to get my thoughts in order when faced with the alternatives.

I drop my gaze as I hear Diesel, my five-year-old Husky, scratching his paws across the scuffed floor.  He is dreaming, and by the looks of it, it's a good dream.  Those are something I rarely savour, for my dreams are consumed by darkness, and I am envious of his ability to switch off while everything around us goes to hell.  In truth, he looks just as tired and beat-up as I do, but I made sure he ate better than I did.  I don’t mind; Diesel has saved my life more times than I would like to admit.  He is my best friend on these dangerous roads.  Out here, he is my only friend.

After the Reckoning, some people saw the chance to rebuild society, regroup and work together to survive the hardest period known to mankind. Some saw prospects and unions, and they held meetings in great numbers to discuss the future as they tried to hold onto a dated past that was now redundant and beyond repair.  Most of those dreamers are now dead; killed for their peaceful visions of a greater tomorrow.  I once dared to dream as they did, but desperation changes a man.  I once saw beauty and opportunity, but now all I see is destruction and mankind's inability to make peace with one another.

All in all, I consider myself one of the lucky ones.  My home, my place of safety (if you can call it that) is just far enough to not be bothered by the tribes of the city.  They don’t consider me a threat because I don’t exist and that’s how I intend to stay.  I’m just a ghost, nothing more than a shadow.

The busted up apartment I stand in is not my home, but it is a place I come to think and clear my head.  I say think, but recently, all I’ve been able to do is focus on the past.

In the hedonistic, carefree days before the end of the old world, I was a successful entrepreneur and an over-confident nineteen-year-old with more money than sense.  When I think of the past, I look back and cringe. How safe we all thought we were; each wrapped up in our own self-made problems, ignorant and isolated by the trappings of technology. How wrong we all were.  When the world we had grown to love turned to hell, our lives disappeared almost overnight.

C'est la vie . . .

The collapse of society took effect in only a few months.  Everyone panicked, and the rich and poor alike began protesting, fighting for their place in this new world order.  But money didn't mean anything anymore; it was just paper. Paper you could burn to keep warm, like they did in the great depression of 1920s America.  But this was worse.  Rioting was commonplace, and we were fighting over sought-after resources that we had, until now, taken for granted.  The curfews failed and crime rose out of control. Rape, violence, looting, and murder were everywhere.  The police urgently needed support, and that was when the military got involved, but even they struggled to control the uprising.  And the problem was not just contained to the United Kingdom, it was worldwide.  Finally, with heavy losses the British armed forces pulled back to an unknown location, along with what remained of the government, and left the rest of us to fight for ourselves.  To kill one another until there was no one left.

And just like that, everything we had built was up for grabs.  If you wanted to survive, you had to move fast; and that’s exactly what I did.

The unthinkable had finally happened. The fictional problems of the silver screen were, in fact, now a brutal reality.

I force the noise to the back of my head, wondering when this madness will end but I am like the few remaining with sanity.  I know this will never end, and that is this truth that keeps me strong.

My daydream is brief, but long enough for me to privately mourn what I have lost.

I focus on the present, knowing that my daily scavenges are almost up.  I need to get out of the city and back to where I can feel at least some measure of safety.  The sun has already started to dip.  It is late afternoon and I know bad things happen at night.

I turn to my dog as I grab my backpack, “Come on Diesel, playtime is over.”

***

We leave the apartment without trouble or injury.  This is a miracle considering half of the building is rubble and littered with environmental death traps.  But we know the right steps to ensure safe passage.

We make it to the road before the shadows begin to swallow up the light.

Light saves lives.

That’s one of my personal mantras.  Light may show you your enemies when they hide in dark places, but darkness can also be your friend if needed.  In the seven years since the Reckoning, I’ve learned to use both to my advantage with deadly effect . . .

We come to a big mound of bricks which used to be a building, but now most of it has collapsed.  This is our route home.  We clamber over it easily enough, though I am concerned about Diesel stepping on any sharp glass I have missed.  I’m not a vet; I can hardly patch myself up, never mind a dog.  But he is a wise dog; clever and cunning, just like his master.

Another broken structure is laid out for us to explore, but I can tell by the added destruction that someone else has already looted the place.  No matter, there is buried treasure in these places if you know where to look.  This is a little game I like to play in my head to amuse my overactive imagination.  It helps block out the paranoia.  While some use theirs to dream, I use mine to survive.

Treasure... These days, it can be anything that helps you live to see another day.  You find and take what you can, hide it well, and always, always be ready for it to be taken by someone else.  That is life now.  A Darwinian reality.  Natural selection at its best.

Today, Diesel doesn’t seem that confident about our usual path, and I wonder what he can detect amongst the debris. It makes me sharp, cautious.

“What is it, Diesel? What do you smell boy?” I ask, level to him.

Diesel stands still and barks.

It’s loud enough to be heard by others, but I’m grateful for the warning.

I look across the empty room.  It looks safe enough, but I’ve known appearances to be deceptive.  “Stick with me boy.”  I say as I carefully continue across the rubble, mindful of any changes in the terrain.

Diesel was right . . .

Suddenly, the concrete floor underneath us threatens to give way. I’ve been in enough scrapes to know when to run, and run we do. We jump to safety on an adjoining floor just in time to see the previous level drop from below us.

With a pounding heart, I stand out of the way of a rising dust cloud and look down into what could have been our tomb.  Hopefully, no one else had detected this giant ‘come and get us!’ sign.

I gently pet my dog’s head.  “You okay, boy?”  I ask out of concern for my faithful companion.  I let out a sigh of relief, glad to be alive.  There’s nothing like a near-death experience to get the adrenalin flowing, and my eyes fall to the support beams that stick out like deadly spikes below.  If we had fallen, I’m sure those rusty spikes would have made us into attractive pincushions.  That’s not how I envision my death.

With these thoughts, I clamber over the ruins and spot a bedside cabinet poking out of the bricks, exposed by the mini cave-in.

I smile. “Jackpot.”

Not wasting a second, I run over and start to wrestle it free.  “What do you think we’ll get?” I ask Diesel, excited about finding buried treasure after all.  “Hopefully, some earplugs so I don’t have to listen to your snoring.” I laugh, feeling surprisingly happy. But I know happy was bad. Happy meant I had dropped my guard. In these days, if you dropped your guard, you were most certainly dead. I know the rules. Time was short.

“Come on, let’s see what we can find and get out of here, huh?”

I reach into my jacket and find the handle of my old survival knife.  The drawer is stubborn, but I pry it open using the solid edge of the blade.  And it’s all worth it.  At last, I see the bounty within; a small, white plastic jar.  I quickly pull it out and shake the bottle.  I’m in luck.  Tablets rattle inside.

I roll it around in my hand, trying to make out the torn label.  I have no idea what the pills are for, but it’s a type of medicine nevertheless.  You never know when these will come in handy.

I stuff the container into the side pocket of my backpack before I notice Diesel in the corner, sniffing something.

“What have you found, boy?”

I walk over to investigate.  Diesel is normally good at finding treasure and traps, but after our unexpected brush with death, I’m not willing to take that chance.

Diesel continues his private investigation as I pull a baseball bat from my backpack. It is my main weapon of defence, with my knife a close second. I use the bat to move some of the bricks so I can see what all the fuss is about, and I spot something unpleasant.

I cringe at the sight of human remains that had been left to rot.  It's a feast for the maggots that cover every rotting inch.  It is disgusting to see, but I admire their staying power.  They are higher up on the food chain, and, like the cockroach, always winners in a bad situation.

I see an empty tin in the dead man's hand, and I gently pull it free and stash it away in my backpack.  He doesn’t seem to mind.  Everything has its place, even battered old tins.

Diesel’s nose is twitching, and he looks unsettled.  Something is wrong.  “Come on. We’ve wasted enough time.  We need to get out of the city.  It’s going be dark soon.”

Then I hear the voices.  I curse under my breath.  Voices are never good. That mini cave-in earlier must have attracted some unwanted attention.  Damn it.

I slide my bat away and crouch down with Diesel, hiding between the rubble.  The instinct of survival is strong, when faced with the possibility of being someone else’s meal.  The rules of correct etiquette are a thing of the past.  Even in my darkest hours, I have yet to be so low and desperate enough to eat another human being.

I hold Diesel down, keeping my own breath steady as I spot two men talking as they walk past.  They are wearing backpacks, but aren't dressed in the Tribal colours of this region.  Clearly, they aren't from around these parts.

They don’t know how dangerous this city can be.

“Stupid tourists,” I curse under my breath, taking a risk. “They will get themselves killed.” They may seem friendly enough, but I have come to know that people these days cannot be trusted.  This could be a trap; an enticement to leave your hideout.

Diesel looks to me as if reading the situation.

I shake my head.  “No.”  It is best not to take any more chances.  Danger is everywhere, and I need to have my wits about me.

I wait for the men to pass, comforting Diesel to ensure our invisibility amongst the destruction.  I am confident I’ve made the right decision.  More people means more mouths to feed, or conflicts of interest.  I’ve done the right thing.  Friendship is an option I don’t have.

Once the tourists are long gone, and their voices have faded into the distance, I get up, and we continue our journey out of the city; very much alive and, thankfully, in one piece. 

***

My timing is perfect, and we make it to the trapping ground just as the sun is leaving the horizon.  This is the place where we hunt for rabbits and whatever else is unfortunate enough to wander into one of my self-made snares.  It used to be an old golf course, but the lack of upkeep has allowed the grounds to fall into disarray.  Nature has staked its claim and many wild animals have come to make it their home.  This makes it perfect.

The field has a tranquil feel to it, almost too peaceful.  I remind myself of possible danger as I walk on, allowing my fingers to skim across the long grass.  After a few minutes, I come to my spot.  I check the traps, conscious of the falling light, and a brief smile fills my tired face.  I am in luck tonight.

Three rabbits!

“Bingo!” I laugh, checking the rich bounty.  “A grand feast awaits us, Diesel,” I say to my companion, who is caught up in the excitement.

I attach two of the rabbits to my backpack and allow Diesel to carry the last one happily in his mouth.  My stomach aches from hunger as I think about boiling the rabbits later for our planned banquet.

We push on through the overgrown field, exiting out of the golf course onto a main road.  This route used to be a major dual carriageway before everything went to hell.

The skeletal remains of abandoned vehicles help mask our presence as we walk, leading from the city centre to the coast, seven miles away.  A stark reminder of the years of chaos.

We pass through the lines of abandoned cars until we reach the first checkpoint; the remains of a stripped down Challenger 2 tank, a welcome sight.

"Almost home,” I say with a smile to my canine companion, who is happily keeping up with me, the rabbit bobbing between his teeth.

I feel myself relax, letting my fingers run over the graphitised metal exterior of the tank as I pass by.  This is a new tradition for me, and I wonder what it was like to operate one of these mighty beasts.

Once safely across the road, we break through an overgrown hedge and into the remains of a small estate. In its time, it was a sought after place to live, but now it is a shadow of its former self.  The houses that hadn't been burned to the ground still bore the scars from the destructive first-wave of looters. The tribes weren’t interested in this place since there was nothing left for them to take, so they avoided it.

The house I chose looked the worst of all.  Nobody in their right mind could live here, let alone be able to survive.  That made it an ideal choice.  That made us invisible.

Some of the damage I constructed myself to sway any unwelcome intruders.  One wrong step, and you could end up with a fatal wound.  Nobody was foolish enough to take such a risk, especially since medicine is so hard to come by these days.  While the apartment in the city was an escape, this was my real safe haven away from the madness.

As I complete the first of my three safety checks, and satisfied that I had not been followed, I walk down the side of the house, careful to avoid the traps that I made.  I then clamber over the rusty gate and watch as Diesel clears it in a single, confident leap.

In the back garden, I continue to my second safety check, which takes a little longer due to the size of the grounds.  Of course, the house had lost some of its charm. Nature had reclaimed what was once a private conservatory; its glass walls smashed to pieces.  At the bottom of the garden, part of the fence had been crushed under the rusty remains of a carriage from a train that had derailed sometime in the past.

With the garden secure, we carefully make our way through the shattered remains of the conservatory, avoiding the shards of glass.  Diesel knows exactly where to tread.  His intelligence for a dog is unparalleled.

Two padlocks on the partly concealed back door is the third and final safety check.

Once satisfied, a set of rusty keys is used to gain access.

After a moment of struggling, the door creaks open, allowing us to enter a ransacked kitchen. As always, I waste no time in closing it behind us.  A big, metal bar is quickly slid into place, followed by a healthy course of padlocks that are all locked with a master key.  This ensures that there are no unwanted visitors during the night.

Again, common sense (and a healthy touch of paranoia) comes in handy more times than you know.

But we’re not safe just yet.

With Diesel at my side, I creep further into the house, slowly sliding the wooden handle of my scuffed baseball bat into my hands.

I tread carefully, hands tight on the handle, my knife on standby, ready for anything.  I know from experience that nasty surprises can lurk around the corners.  Even in your own home.

I check the adjoining dining room, looking for clues of any change.  Everything seems to be the same way I left it.

I let out a long sigh and drop the bat as my eyes look over the destruction with mild acceptance.

“Home sweet home, huh?” I say to Diesel, who appears more interested by the rabbit in his jaws than potential trespassers.

I snort, taking a second to stroke his head.

Once back in the kitchen, I place the three rabbits on the counter next to the boarded up window.

“Hungry?”

Diesel barks in agreement, and I don’t blame him.  I’m starving, too.

I drop my backpack on the kitchen table with a relieved grunt, taking a moment to stretch out my tired muscles.  I steady myself on the counter, leaning into the stretch and enjoying this stolen moment of bliss.

After a silent prayer of thanks to any God that will listen, I compose myself, rubbing my eyes in a brief moment of grateful reflection.

Diesel runs ahead, and I follow him through the hallway, making my weary way up the stairs to the landing, where I find him clawing at a spot on the floor.

Dropping to one knee, I pull back the grimy carpet and loosen the floorboard with my knife.  I reach into a spider’s tomb and retrieve a long, metal pole with a plastic hook on the end.

I use the pole to unhook a ceiling hatch, handling the drop-down metal stairs with skill.

Diesel barks.

I peer into the darkness and there is a faint flicker of light.  I then see a set of eyes looking down at me.