In a fallen world

Part 1 – Chapter 1

He sensed them in the darkness, all around, moving quickly through the building, room by room as they searched. Every few minutes the silence was broken by loud crashing sounds as they broke into another area, the clatter of broken wood scattering across rotten floorboards and cracked concrete, or the terrible, grief-stricken and desperate cries of those who had been found, their hiding places uncovered. He could hear the thud of boots sometimes, echoing through the corridors, or the creaking of the building’s very structure as it protested against the abuse.

Centuries old and given to spontaneous collapse, the tenement buildings of the outer zone had ceased to be safe long before any of their current residents had been born, but the crumbling ruins were the only real shelter for many of the inhabitants of the zone, the only place to hide from the danger on the streets or the often unforgiving weather.

Most of the dangers lay outside of the crumbling walls – things that wandered the streets at night that were far from human, but the hunting squads from the city travelled deep into the darkness of the buildings, seeking those who would avoid capture. Finally, the noise that everyone dreaded could be heard in the distance – the rising hum and the sharp crackling buzz as a stun rifle was fired.

Jack sat in silence, listening, willing his nerves to calm and his heart rate to slow. The sounds were getting closer now, and he knew they were in a nearby corridor, possibly just a few rooms away. He heard boots shuffling along the floor, and the crash of rubbish as it was kicked aside – the barrier that he had built outside provided no protection, was merely an inconvenience for the heavily armoured troopers whose faces had never been seen, at least by anyone who remained to tell of them.

Jack had never known where the raiding parties took the captured, for no one ever returned. There were always tales, and rumours of course, but no one that he had ever met had confirmed any of them.

The corridors of the sprawling, old building were littered with the junk and debris of decades, most of it useless and left there because there was nowhere else for it to go. But the trash also acted as a territorial marker, a sign of neighbouring borders, of marked out claims. Often it was piled up to waist height, to act as a makeshift defensive barrier, and a way to slow intruders down or ward them away. Folks who lived in the area would know to stay away, and recognise the barrier for what it was, but the Hunters saw it as a sign of life, of someone to capture and drag away to their prison vehicles. The vehicles had no windows on the sides or the back, and Jack suspected it might be completely dark inside them, but that was something else that no one had confirmed. No one ever came back.

His heart thumped harder in his chest and he doubled his efforts to control his breathing, to remain silent, but a cold trickle of sweat heightened the twitching of already ragged nerves as it ran down his neck. Jack knew there was a chance, if only very small, that they could pass him by. The Hunters might enter the room, their pinpoint searchlights flickering over the walls, passing over the cracked paint and the curled and mould-ridden wallpaper, skittering over the rubble and litter covered ground and not stopping as they zipped past the broken wardrobe that was his hiding place. Even if they did look into the wardrobe, they could still miss him as he lay huddled in the bottom, covered by rags and old clothing. With this thought, he crouched lower and did his best to be a pile of discarded junk.

It was possible. But maybe this is my time? He thought. They could pass you by, like before, but they are smart, not stupid, and you know that they see more than you think they do, don’t you? What if they did take you?

He tried to ignore the thoughts. From his hiding place he could only see a tiny slice of the derelict room beyond. Both doors of the wardrobe were still attached, even if they did hang at odd angles, and he had pulled them as closed as they would go. It only left a few inches in between the doors, so his vision was limited, but his hearing was sharp, and when the first Hunter stepped into the room Jack slowed his breathing to almost nothing. Instinct kicked in and he lay there, perfectly still and silent, not knowing how long he could keep it up, but hoping that the search would be over quickly.

Slow and shallow, slow and shallow, he thought. Repeating the mantra in his mind, over and over. If he could just keep this up long enough, and if he made no noise, they would go away, wouldn’t they? The old man that Jack had once travelled with, so very long ago, had taught him how to hold his breath and stay perfectly still, had even beaten him with a stick until he got it right. And so, over the years, he had done this before in many other places and not been found.

But I’ve also never been this close to them, he thought. Not this close. Just a few feet away. They can see through walls – that’s what some folks claimed, and they can see you in the darkness. His breathing wavered very slightly at this thought. If they could see him anyway, wasn’t he just delaying the inevitable, waiting and waiting only to be taken like all the others? But what choice did he have?

The same choice you had back then, he thought. You have your machetes. But what good would they be against the armour of the Hunters? If you had the guts to use them, you would have done it back then, back when it really mattered.

The Hunters never searched thoroughly, they just swept through an area like a hurricane, raiding entire buildings in just minutes, satisfied if they found someone to stun and carry away. Jack would hear the buzz of a stun rifle and the thud as a discovered victim hit the ground, and then heavy boots clomping away as the Hunters carried their latest catch to the vehicles that awaited them in the street – the vehicles with no windows.

Sometimes there would be a struggle if the Hunters found a group of people together, but the fight was always over quickly. There was little defence against the weapons that the soldiers used. Sticks, knives and metal pipes were no match for reactive armour and a stun rifle that could knock you out cold, at fifty yards, with one shot. Fists were useless against a shock stick that could render you unconscious with just one strike, twitching and writhing on the ground as the electrical pulse surged through your nervous system. And if the resistance was too high then they would just throw in a grenade and stun everyone in the room. One loud thump and it would be over. Except the grenades didn’t always stun – sometimes they caused more damage than that. Sometimes there would be bodies left behind.

The outer zone of the city – the area beyond the glowing barrier – was massive. Thousands and thousands of square miles of ruined, crumbling decay. Endless desolate streets lined with empty shells that had once been buildings – their windows shattered, doors long taken for firewood, bricks and stone cracked and collapsing, leaving holes that looked like gaping wounds. It was among these ruins that the destitute – the people not allowed to live on the inside of the barrier – were forced to make their homes, to scavenge and scrape some form of life from the remains of a fallen world. These people were never permitted within the confines of the barrier, but for some reason that no one had ever discovered, the people on the inside were capturing the ones on the outside, and in large numbers.

Where were they taken? This was the question everyone wanted an answer to, but one that was never given. There were places that were left alone – larger outer zone communities, workhouses – anywhere that had a dense population – these weren’t raided. Maybe there was too much risk involved attacking such heavily defended locations? He didn’t know. What he did know was that to claim your own pitch in many of the bigger hovels was a fight that most people couldn’t win, so they were forced to live in the surrounding ruins. Those were the ones who would be hunted and taken.

It had been nearly three months since Jack was last in an area targeted by the Hunters. With such a vast city to search, it was rare to even see them in the distance. They only came down from the inner city once every few weeks, that much he did know. But knowing where and when they would strike next was an art form that very few had mastered, a total mystery to most.

And it was so fast when it happened, the huge Dropship soaring across the sky at a speed that was dazzling for such a massive behemoth of a vehicle. It would land within seconds of appearing on the horizon, the huge black shape plummeting towards the ground as if it were about to crash. But it never did crash. Seconds after the blast of jets were unleashed, the Dropship was on the ground, spewing out a torrent of fast-moving armoured carrier vehicles that burst through the clouds of dust kicked up by the beast’s arrival. The vehicles quickly sped through the streets at a terrifying speed, and when they arrived at their target location, dozens of armed squads would jump from the trucks, surging into the ruined buildings in search of vagrants. In search of prey.

Jack tried to recall the first time that he had seen a raid, and the picture came to him almost immediately, blanking out the sounds of the Hunters moving in the darkness around him. There were several of them in the room now, scanning, searching, but even with capture in such close proximity, his mind still drifted away, seeking a place to escape to.

Part 1 – Chapter 2

Just once

Many years before…

How old had he been at the time? He had been very young, seven years old at most, and life in the ruins was still a thing of terror for him – a time spent hiding in dark corners and shadows, avoiding the folks that searched the ruins. It was a time of catching rats or mice and scratching for life, even though it was one spent in near constant starvation. That he had survived those days was a miracle in itself, for many others that he had known hadn’t. He tried to wipe their faces from his mind and think back to the one scene that might ease him.

So many of them lost, he thought. So many friends, and some not so much friends. It didn’t matter which, though. They were all gone, now. Taken was taken and dead was still dead, unless you were one of the things that roamed the streets at night, and no one really knew much about why they were still there.

The building Jack had been hiding in the first time he’d experienced a Hunter raid, all those years ago, wasn’t in the block that the soldiers had targeted.

Lucky, that’s what you were. Others hadn’t been as lucky as you.

He remembered hiding for a while, curled up in the corner of a bathroom, high up in the crumbling shell of an abandoned apartment building. He had been tired, almost completely exhausted, and had huddled inside the recess behind the cracked sink to sleep for a while. He’d found the spot a few days before, as he entered the bathroom in search of water. Some of the pipes and taps in the old buildings still gave occasional bursts of fresh water. No one knew how or why, but the old man that taught Jack how to slow-breathe also said that some of it came from hidden water springs, deep under the ground, and that it would occasionally overflow into the old water systems.

The hole behind the sink was almost unnoticeable even from a few feet away, and Jack certainly hadn’t spotted it immediately, and probably never would had he not also been searching for metal to trade as well as water. A scavenger group living not far away loved their metals, and plumbing pipes were still the most abundant source, if you knew where to find them. As he had crawled behind the sink to see if any of the original piping was still there, he found that the area opened up into a small compartment just big enough for him, and a little left over to stretch his legs if need be.

Hiding places such as that would serve him for many years.

That first experience of the noise of the incoming Dropship was the most terrifying. The roar was louder than anything he had ever heard, and since he was unable to see its source, it sounded like some huge beast was about to trample the whole city. But the noise stopped in an instant, and the sound of smaller engines cut through the quiet. Jack had crawled from his hiding place, curiosity overcoming his fear, and peeped out of the broken window just above the sink.

The streets were buzzing with large grey trucks, and he could see soldiers dressed in grey armour rushing into the buildings nearby. They carried weapons that he had never seen before – large black rifles that looked heavy and awkward, and long black sticks with tips that glowed blue in the darkness.

He watched, struck motionless with fascination, as a group of people in a building just two blocks away were roughly ushered into the back of one of the vehicles, and a surge of fear hit him. What if they came to his building? Still, he watched from the window as the vehicles came and went, and once he realised that they weren’t coming into his building, he tentatively crept closer to the window and watched. He still kept to the shadows, fearing that one glimpse of a person in a neighbouring building would set the hounds upon him and the few vagrants that lived in the lower levels, but he couldn’t help but watch. Some morbid fascination kept his eyes glued to the chaos just yards away as more soldiers piled from the backs of vehicles and ran into the surrounding buildings.

Heavy boots kicked down doors, and long black sticks smashed through windows. Minutes later they reappeared, dragging the unlucky people that they had found, throwing them into the back of their trucks. This went on for ten minutes or so, until finally a group of four soldiers approached the front of a dilapidated and crumbling storefront opposite the tenement building he was hiding in.

Then the real chaos started.

The old store was where the gang of Scavs – scavengers – had been holed up, and Jack estimated there had to be at least thirty of them in there. They were inoffensive folk, if a little rough, but they left him alone, never harassing him or any of the other dwellers in the area. It wasn’t their way. They weren’t territorial, and would be gone in a few months, maybe even weeks – that was how the Scav clans worked. Jack had met their kind before on the few occasions when he ended up near the outer circle – the furthest parts of the city from the centre. It was usually where their kind lived. Except they moved around a lot, never staying in one place for more than a few weeks, scouring the area for metals to salvage and then moving on.

But he had no idea just how heavily armed Scav clans could be until the moment the four Hunters headed for the front door of the store.

The streets were silent, except for the distant crashes of doors being broken, and the cries of the discovered. Most of the search was over and many of the trucks were already filled with those unfortunate enough to have been found. When the four soldiers got to the door of the store, and the first lifted his foot to smash a way in, the doors burst open, both swinging wide. The first Hunter, one boot lifted in the air and now off balance, fell backwards, struck down by the force of the door, and that was what saved him from dying with the other three. Even as they started to raise their stun rifles, a deluge of weapons fire erupted from within the building. Jack had never heard such a tremendous and destructive noise. Flashes of blue light rocketed out of the double doors and tore into the three soldiers. All three fell to the ground, their bodies torn apart.

The Scavs weren’t using weapons that just stunned.

The fourth Hunter rolled to the side of the doors, jumped up and started to run from the store, but then the Scavs were flooding out of the front doors, most of them carrying bags and sacks as they turned and ran, but the first half a dozen were armed with heavy, black weapons. The fourth Hunter got maybe twenty yards before they gunned him down in the middle of the street, flashes of blue energy thundering into him, tearing the limbs from his body.

In the distance, a klaxon sounded – an alarm from the direction of the Dropship, and Jack crouched down, further into the darkness, watching as more armoured vehicles sped through the streets, heading in his direction. He looked down at the store below, and saw the last of the Scavs grabbing the Hunters’ rifles and pulling belts and other equipment from the dead bodies before they ran, moving swiftly into the darkness of the surrounding streets.

By the time the half-dozen armoured trucks arrived, the Scavs were long gone and all that was left were the four dead, stripped bodies.

It was the only time Jack had ever seen or heard of someone putting up a fight and winning.

Part 1 – Chapter 3

Hunted

Now, sitting in the wardrobe, pretending to be a pile of rags and holding his breath, he wished he had one of those weapons, in case the Hunters, just feet away, managed to detect him, and that he’d had one of those Scav guns a few years ago.

Then it never would have happened…

…and there it was, again. The ever-haunting memory he wished he could remove. But frustration had once again brought the memory rushing back, his brain desperate for distraction.

Jack had been furious at the boy for drawing in his magazine, so angry that he had stood there, towering over the child, shouting angrily at him. Until he saw how small the boy was, the tiny figure looking at the floor, his rounded face bright red with the shame of what he had done. They were Jack’s things. His magazines. His way to learn about the past. The boy had known that, and should have known better than to de-face one of them. Jack had been so angry with him that he hadn’t heard the Dropship approaching until they barely had the time to react – so little time to hide.

On that day, because of his scolding, the boy looked as fragile as he had the day they’d met.

Part 1 – Chapter 4

They took his shoes

Three years before…

The boy had been sitting at the side of the road the day that Jack met him. The child’s scrawny arms were wrapped around his knees, his head bent low as he shivered. It wasn’t too cold, but then the child wasn’t wearing the extra layers that Jack was. Where Jack had two shirts underneath his heavy leather coat, and black overall bottoms pulled over his jeans, the boy was dressed in a torn and filthy t-shirt and a pair of thin, ripped trousers.

You saw things almost every day in the outer zone – people in doorways, huddled against the weather, their eyes dark and tired, their faces gaunt, but you just moved on. Life was harsh and deadly, and to even attempt to help others was considered a foolish way to shorten your own life.

Jack had just been to The Crossing, a walled and defended section of the ruins that had grown over many years into a dangerous but necessary marketplace. It was a hovel – one of the small towns that the Hunters ignored. There were many such places dotted around the outer city, thriving hubs of activity where people had gathered and built defences against the world outside, ramshackle shanty towns filled with all manner of folks trying to survive and not wanting to live on the streets of the dead city. But to hold on to a place in one of the towns you had to have resources or weapons, something to ensure that you could keep your pitch. The Crossing was a place that Jack visited regularly, the centre of everything for miles around. That also meant that it was the hang out for every thug, gang or would-be overlord in the area.

But it was also a place to trade. If Jack found something while scavenging, something that had a value to someone, then it was to The Crossing that he would usually take it. Metals, ammunition, paper, plastics, food – anything that could be traded – was wanted by someone there.

He was trudging along the highway, on his way out after trading some lead sheeting he had found in an old factory, for a dozen packets of dried biscuits and a bottle of oil, and he had only made it a few hundred yards out of the gates when he crossed another intersection and saw the boy.

Anyone with any sense of self-preservation got off the road, hid away in a building, or just kept moving. The roads going into The Crossing were a place to get yourself killed in a second if you hung around too long. In the shadows of the buildings that lined the street, prospective scavengers lay in wait, watching from their hiding places, just for the moment where someone passed by or stayed too long. Jack had seen many a body in the gutters, stripped of all belongings, throats slit, skin turning pale.

And yet here was this small figure, sitting on the edge of the sidewalk, rocking backwards and forwards.

Jack slowed as he approached and glanced at the gaping hole in the side of the nearest building. It could be trap, he knew – the child sent outside as bait to draw in some unfortunate victim looking for an easy take, or a fool thinking of offering help. But there was no movement from inside the crumbling building, no eyes watching from the corners, no shadows shifting.

Still, he gripped the handles of his two machetes tightly as he started making his way around the swaying figure, keeping his distance and moving quickly. Yet every few steps he couldn’t help but glance at the child – his thin arms, the dirt that covered every inch of him, his body heaving as he sobbed. These were good tricks for a baiter. But then, as Jack started to move away to leave the boy behind and move on, he noticed that the child had nothing on his feet, and that they were bloodied.

The hairs on the back of Jack’s neck started to tingle. Why was he stopping? Why did he find himself standing, turning to face the small figure, and taking a step towards him? It made no sense. Even if he hadn’t seen watchers in the building, that didn’t mean they weren’t there.

Right now there could be a dozen of them creeping around, surrounding him, and preparing to rush in for the kill. He could stand his ground against one, two, maybe even three, but a large gang – the kind of gang that employed baiter tactics to catch foolish, weak hearted folks that might stop to offer help – no, he wouldn’t be able to fight that off.

But there he was, still moving closer. Then he was just a few feet away, looking down at the huddled figure that still hadn’t sensed his presence.

“Why are you sitting here?” Jack asked him, but was rewarded with no answer. The boy just sat there, rocking and murmuring. Yes, Jack could hear the murmuring now… or was it singing? He listened, peering at the child through narrowed eyes, straining to understand. Didn’t he recognise the words from somewhere?

Five green bottles sitting on the wall…

Some sort of saying, or a poem.

One green bottle, should accidentally fall…

The tune was familiar, vague, but familiar. Something from Jack’s childhood that he didn’t want to remember, but he did remember it.

We used to sing it in nursery school, he thought. The recollection was there, even after all these years, but not clear enough for him to picture it.

And he didn’t want to hear it any longer.

“Boy!” he snapped, and the small figure jumped at that, almost falling back as he fumbled to steady himself. The child stared up at Jack, eyes wide and full of terror, his tightly closed lips trembling. At the sight of his fear, Jack’s irritation with the song vanished, and he spoke again, more softly.

“What are you doing in the middle of the street?”

The boy looked at him, eyes still wide, and tried to speak, but for a moment nothing seemed to come out but a quiet squeak.

“They took my shoes,” the boy finally said, grasping his bloodied feet with pale hands, his eyes bright with tears.

Jack wanted to ask if the boy was a baiter, but knew it was a pointless question. If the child was bait for a gang’s trap, it was already too late. Jack would already be caught in it. But there was still no movement in the buildings surrounding them, and no noise but the howl of the wind and a repetitive squeaking noise. A few feet away a rotten sign hung over a door that would once have been the entrance to a shop. The wind blew it backwards and forwards with the same rhythmic motion as the boy’s, as he had rocked backwards and forwards just a few moments before. The screech of the plastic, rubbing on the pole that jutted out of the broken brickwork was long and drawn out, a noise that grated at Jack’s nerves.

The boy was still staring at him, his expression weary. He had dark bags under blood-shot eyes, a stark contrast to his pale skin. The boy looked severely malnourished and quite sickly, and those eyes spoke of many nights of missed sleep.

“They took my shoes,” the boy repeated.

That was three years ago, he thought.

Part 1 – Chapter 5

Hunted

The Hunters were so close now that Jack thought he could hear their breathing. Pinpoint spotlights continued to flicker across the room, tracing the corners, the places of darkness, the door opposite, and then the window. The thud of boots on the floorboards. He thought for one moment that he heard talking, muffled and low. The soldiers wore helmets that covered their faces completely, and even at security stations near the inner city, he had never heard one of them speak or seen their faces. Their armour and helmets made them look like robots, almost inhuman. Whatever conversations they were having must have been via radio, and private, only among themselves.

Through the narrow slit that was his only view of the room, Jack saw the dark shape move, slowly sweeping the area and peering through the two openings that led into the other two rooms in his small, rubbish-littered hideout.

He knew that these places had once been called apartments, and he guessed that centuries ago they would have been homes for people, couples, or even whole families. This much he had learnt from the remnants of magazines and books that could occasionally be found among the ruins and from the signs that he had seen on the stairwells of many of the old buildings. If you took the time to look around, evidence of the old days – from before the world collapsed into the chaos that he’d seen for most his life – was everywhere. Tatty old posters, half worn away by the weather, still clung to the walls, depicting people in some of the strangest clothing he had ever seen – bright and sparkling costumes that surely couldn’t have been every-day wear.

Books lying in tattered heaps in the corners of old buildings were also a treasure of tales of the old world. Most of them had been burned for fuel, but occasionally he would come across them, sometimes hidden away where someone hadn’t looked. And the magazines and old newspapers – he loved them the most – not only could he learn about things from the long gone, but there were pictures that showed him what things had looked like back then.

Once, in a run-down office building many miles across the city, out near the Ashlands, he had found an article about the very street that he was on. Some sort of horrible act had been committed. A murder, he thought, but it wasn’t the scene of uniformed soldiers that had interested him. It had been the buildings in the background of the picture. He could clearly see the very building that he was in, and next to it the vast thing that had once been called The Grand Theatre. Jack didn’t know what one of those was, but by the size of the place, he thought it must have been something important.

Two huge towers rose on either side of the main entrance, and a massive board with bright white lettering stood as a bold centrepiece. There were hundreds of people queuing outside the entrance, just yards from a cordoned off area patrolled by men in uniforms. All of those people were waiting to be allowed admittance into the vast building that he knew was now, centuries later, just an empty shell.

Jack had been in there before he discovered the offices nearby, and wondered in awe what the huge room, with the cracked and weathered carpets, was for. In the magazine there was a picture of the interior, with rows upon rows of seats, all filled with smiling people as they waited for whatever spectacle happened at The Grand Theatre. He had presumed that it was some kind of meeting place, and that the stage at one end of the room – now just a hollow hole in the ground with a twisted set of metal stairs leading up to nothing – was where someone important would stand.

So much was hidden away, waiting to be found by those with an eye for searching. So much still left behind but unnoticed. A keen eye could spot the clues that many had missed, and Jack had collected a few almost intact magazines over the years – something considered valuable just for the paper. And as he sat in the wardrobe, watching the figure of the Hunter move through the room, his gaze stopped on the small pile of magazines across the room in the corner, where he had left them, and when one of the tracer lights passed over them, stopped and went back to settle on the top magazine, his heart started to thump harder.

Continue the story …