(C) 2010 by: Roger A Wilbanks
Like most vultures, he didn't mind the stench. Not anymore at least. Digging through the moldy piles of filth found these days is a survival tool. You never know what you'll find in them, but they're not for the picky person. There weren't many of those left these days. Picky people came from the world before this one. A world separated from this one by years of fire and wind. He was a product of this modern age; a changed man. It was the scarcity of comfort that changed him.
He flipped through a magazine he uncovered; a relic from a yesterday foriegn in recollection. It advertised an article titled "What would you do if...?" which presented absurd social situations and posed polarizing moral questions to the reader.
"What would you do if, your neighbor kept a tool he borrowed?"
"What would you do if, a stranger didn't hold open the door for you?"
"What would you do if, you found a $5 bill in line at the checkout?"
The innocence of this article stung. These questions were asked by a ghost. A corpse that died a long time ago in fire and flood. No one today even mourned his passing. This world would laugh at him and take all he possessed . This world’s only morally challenging question is “Why shouldn’t I kill you?”
“I’d kill the neighbor, kick the door down and what the hell is a $5 bill?”
This pile yielded very little treasure aside from the magazine. He put these items, two cans of cat food, a deck of cards and three pencils in the worn leather satchel at his hip. Civilization these days amounted to nothing more than similar piles of trash scattered throughout the barren land he wandered. One heard whispers of communities, walled off from the open and sealed from the harsh elements. One heard of them but never saw one. These communities were oddities. They may as well be unicorns. But if he ever came across one, his face would crack into a crooked smile. He respected no person involved in something so wasteful. There was no room in this world for cooperation and compassion. Those who practiced these vices were weak. Their comminuties were weak. They were found money to the wanderer strong and smart enough to take them. He laughed out loud at the notion of people working hand in hand to get by. Extra hands meant extra mouths to feed. These would only slow him down. You had to earn their keep to stay around and none of them ever could.
The notion of helping your fellow man had vanished in Apophis’ wake. Though the state-sized asteroid had missed the Earth, it didn’t travel alone. For three weeks, the sky rained down its agents of fire and destruction. Even the missiles that missed the people damaged them. Oceanic impacts created tidal waves that flattened coastal cities like sand castles, leaving the skeletal remains of skyscrapers poking through the mud like tombstones. Monuments to the people buried below who once lived and worked in them. They spoke of a world filled with weakness, filled with people convinced others would be there to help them. They spoke of fools.
Yes…this world was different. In all the ways that mattered. He was just old enough to remember the ghost of the old one. Bits and pieces of a past time played out inside his mind. Some of these memories rang through the fog of time clear and focused while others melted into oblivion. He remembered baseball. He remembered movies. That helping hand thing? He drew a blank.
He repacked his bags to conserve space and weight. These two things were most important to a wanderer like himself without the aid of a mule or a wagon. When he traveled, he traveled light. That was the best way to avoid complications. Things weighed you down. He had seen with his own eyes many a man fall to his death because his free hand grasped a treasure rather than self-preservation. He kept the food in one bag and the necessities in another. This helped him know where his survival stood. When the food bag was heavier than the other one, he was ok. It was when it got lighter that it was time to worry. His food bag was light now. His entire pantry consisted of 2 bags of rice, 9 cans of unlabeled mystery meat and a dozen high-energy candy bars. He didn’t pack spices or condiments. He found these unnecessary and they took up valuable space. He did have a block of salt that he shaved into his food, but that was the extent of his diet. He added the cat food to this bag and increased its weight enough to delay the alarm bell for a few more days at least. He left the magazine in the pile. What need did he have for painful memories? Let a sentimental fool find this. He would appreciate it more.
He climbed the highest hill in view to survey the horizon. He did this with caution because he had no way of knowing whose eyes would be doing the same. As he crawled to the crest of the hill, he saw it. An unmistakable pillar of smoke signalled a camp nearby. This was a large pillar. That meant one of two things. This was an inexperienced traveler, unaware of protective concealment or a large party in need of a large fire. He licked his lips at the thought of either scenario. The inexperienced traveler would be easy prey and the large party would allow for some trade possibilities provided he approached it with caution.
He was wary of large groups in the wild. They were unknowable. If the people were fighters or bandits, he could lose everything, perhaps even his life. If they were survivors, they may be open to the possibility of trade. If they were exiles or even better, Infirma…they were prey. He crawled back down the back of the hil and decided to reevaluate the rubbish pile. He took his few valuables and buried them behind brush so the telltale signs of disturbed earth would be hidden. That done, he repacked his new bags with the essentials. He placed the cat food and a few candy bars in his new food bag, certain that being seen without food would alert the strangers to the ploy he was using. He packed another bag with two magazines and anything else of value he found in the pile. A rusty stapler with about 45 staples and a cracked magnifying glass were placed in this collection along with two heavy iron scraps. These scraps were true treasure if that fire contained a smithy. They were worthless otherwise. He saw a picture frame in the pile. It was stainless steel. That would fetch good value in trade. The picture was rotted away, but there was a ghost image of a woman and a tree on the backing board. To these items, he added small nicknacks as he found them. A rubber dinosaur, a worn pencil, paper clips and three golf balls filled the remaining space in the pack. His new inventory packed, he started the walk around the hill towards the camp.
He would know in an instant what he dealt with. Bandits would have scouts. He would be in their grasp first, before he ever saw them. Travelers would have a watch posted. He would get within eyesight of the camp before they were alerted. Infirma would let him just walk on in. He knew that if he got within eyesight of the camp he won and just in case, the reassuring weight of the knife blade sewn into his sleeve would give him enough of an advantage should the opposite prove true. He looked weak. He did this on purpose. Better to let the enemy think you an easy target and be surprised than to warn them in advance and take away the pleasure of that last quizical look as you slit their throat. He took pains to walk with a slight limp just in case eyes were on him. He did this often enough the limp became his normal manner of walking. He took great pains to stay clean. He knew the cost of allowing filth into your person. With no antibiotics in his pack, the danger of infection was a real one so he washed regularly. This was a sign of caution he didn’t wish to convey to his unmet foes. He took a moment to dirty himself before walking further by dropping down to the rust colored earth and rolling for a while.
When he was sufficiently filthy, he moved on. “This is where the scouts will be.” He thought. He limped through two massive rocks that opened into a clearing. “If there’s anyone here…I’ll be set upon any second now.” He continued his distracted walk. A snap in the brush alerted him but he made no outward motion of alarm. He knew it was harmless. Perhaps a small animal or maybe a thrown rock, used to gauge his reaction. Either way, he walked past it as if it weren’t even there and the sound failed to repeat itself. As he neared the edge of the clearing he relaxed just a bit inside. His concern about facing bandits eased and he began to think about the other options. His previous run ins with the Lawless had left enough scars on him to advise against seeking to repeat them, but these were tough times and you had to take risks to survive. Siting in a cave being cautious was just the same as walling yourself up in a tomb and singing a dirge. Either way, you were as good as dead. He limped onward and could now see the top of the smoke pillar. He was getting close. The watch would see him in a moment.
The camp was 20 yards away when he saw it. They hid it well. The people who set up here were good. They had taken up in a very defensible position. The bandits that broke through had come in force and the signs of a terrible fight were all scattered across the earth. He walked over the dead bodies of the bandits and neared the camp. There was no outward sign it was inhabited. The fire he saw, was not a camp fire as he had first thought. It was a wagon set ablaze. He saw the tents the people used scattered about as if kicked with a giant foot. The dead were all over the place. Whatever was in this camp must have been of great value for the bandits to send this many to take it. This thought tickled something inside him. There were a lot of dead. Perhaps this was a wipe out? There were even numbers of dead scattered about. The bandits could be told by the blue bandannas they tied around their heads. The campers were discernable by their mismatched clothing. There were about 100 bodies around the camp as he crossed the perimeter. “This will be where they take me.” He thought.
Nothing happened. He walked to the closest tent and said in a forced harshness “Hello? Is anyone here?” He got no reply. He looked into the tent and saw two people, a camper and a bandit. Both had stabbed the other and lie in a pool of their mixed lifeblood. He saw no valuables and moved on. Any survivors of this massacre would be watching him now intently. Should they be bandits, his life was all but forfeit. He would feel the arrow long before he heard or saw it. If they proved to be campers, the same could hold true. He felt the danger of his situation begin to close a net around him and walked to the next tent. Empty. He examined each tent for valuables and found none. He looked to the wagon and saw a few cans under the flame. Taking a blanket from a tent he extinguished the flame. Still, no person challenged his presence. He began to relax. “Just another pile of found treasure.” He thought.
He was able to salvage three dozen burned cans filled with God knows what from the wagon. The vehicle itself was burnt beyond repair. Several of the tents were of usable quality so he went about removing the bloody combatants from them and cleaning them up. He would keep one for his own and use the others as trade goods. He found a shovel and a bag of tools. Though these would be valuable to have, he traveled too often to warrant carrying them about. The extra weight would not make up for their usefulness. He removed the hammer and a screwdriver from the bag and added these to his possessions. Let some other romantic fool cart off the rest. There were three grainsacks that still contained some of their former contents. He collected these into one much smaller sack and after checking for leaks, went about collecting the waterskins.
This was the one burden he was happy to carry. Water had become scarce in the days following the Earth’s devestation. He heard rumor of massive ice caps forming in the northern regions, but this was a fanciful notion as far as he was concerned. There was no way he would willingly travel that far north for water when he could just as easilly take it from the weaker survivors. He had found massive plastic drums a while back and buried them. He returned to these drums with any and all the extra water he could collect. This was his treasure and he guarded it’s existance with vigor. He counted often on both hands the number of people he had killed to protect it’s secrecy. Most of these victims had it comng, he thought. But the ones who didn’t, the ones who learned of the stash accidentally, these were the ghosts who haunted the little sleep he got. Especially the children. He hated himself more and more when that little girl’s eyes opened one last time to ask him “Why?” against his mind’s eye.
He shook himself alert from this daydream at the sound of another snapped branch. By this time he was certain that no danger lurked in the rock and brush that enclosed the camp. He held no fear for the creator of these snaps. Part of him harbored the hope that it was another person. The monotony of traveling alone could often be broken by just the simplest of conversations. What did it matter if he was likely to steal the life of his chat mate? At least his boredom would be diverted for one more day.
The unmistakable rustle of life caught his ear. His hand gripped the shovel he had found and he called out in a voice hoarse with neglect “Who goes there?” He received no reply. His curiousity stoked, he ventured into the perimeter of the camp. Several large boulders marked the edge of this oasis. There were three gaps in the rock. Two of them were large enough for two men to walk abreast. The other opened to a panoramic vista looking out on the valley below. The vista was fenced in by a brush wall the size of a man in height. There were gaps in the wall where the residents of the camp could see clearly into the valley but from below, this wall was solid and gave up none of its secrets. The wall of brush was about 3 meters deep in places and thinned to less than a foot in the gaps. It was from the deepest section that the rustle came from. He focused his attention on this section and redoubled his grip on the shovel.
“Come out!” he barked. No one complied. The rustling had ceased and now a silent stalemate gripped both participants, seen and unseen, in the exchange. He scanned the brush for any giveaway of the identity of his foe. The light had darkened behind the wall and shielded him. As the seconds ticked away , he began to feel a sense of urgency like nothing he knew before. He was actually afraid of this spy in a manner that was alien to him. His mind raced images past his mind’s eye of the creator of that noise and each image was more fearsome than the last. He could take no more of this torment. The sun was falling from the sky like it had an important errand to run. He was running out of time. As soon as darkness wrapped it’s cloak over the camp, the opponent would have the upper hand. If he was going to act, the time was now.
He flipped the shovel in his hand, gripping it like a javelin and threw his weapon into the left side of the wall. He hoped to force his opponent to flee through the right side of the wall where he would be waiting, hammer in hand. This worked perfectly and he was there at the gap as his nemesis raced out of the protection the brush gave. He expected a grizzley bear. He expected a mountain lion. He hoped for a wounded bandit. What he was given instead was an 8 month old black and yellow kitten. Frozen in place, inches from each other, the foes regarded one another. The kitten showed no fear and his own apprehension made him feel ashamed. He stood poised to strike with the hammer but stayed his hand. The kitten had reared up and arched its back, fluffing itself out to an abnormal size. When each realized the other would not attack, their respective guards began to slacken.
The kitten relaxed it’s threatening posture. He lowered his hammer. The two stood there and looked deep into each other. An agreement was made between them. Some psychic connection that told the other “I will not kill you.” The kitten began to walk towards him. It took cautious steps, unsure of what his reaction would be. He didn’t move. When the kitten was close enough to sniff him, it reached out a paw and swatted at his foot. He laughed. The kitten took this as a good sign and swatted again at his boot. Thus the bond between the two formed. He knew at that moment he would have a companion. The kitten knew that it would have a protector. He turned back to the camp and took stock of the carnage. Over a hundred dead people, three sacks of loot, three gallons of water and a hammer. The kitten brushed against his leg and mewed. “And one stinky cat.”
Stinky blinked and sat where he stood.
The cat had an amazing ability to keep up with him in his travels. It also had a maddening habit of being easilly distracted. He cheered the former and often had to halt his boot from flying at the latter. Besides, he thought, It was good to have someone to talk to with nothing to hide. Stinky may have been a lot of things but a secret keeper was not one of them. He ate. He slept. He played. This was the cat at his core. Occasionally Stinky would wander off at night in camp, but he would always be awoken when the cat silently crawled onto his chest to sleep. He found in his new companion a sounding board. "Looks like trouble ahead." he told Stinky. "Should we just toss the firebomb and run for it or wait it out?"
The cat cocked his head as if in deep thought and swatted at a fly. He decided to wait it out. "Good call." he said to the cat.
He had just crossed the roughest patch of hill country he could remember when he first saw it. At first he could not believe his own eyes. Out here in the wastelands that was usually the first thing to go. The harsh elements had a habit of playing tricks on you. You often saw what you wanted to see when there's been nothing to see in months. He had a system for this. When he came onto something that got his attention he would sit, in the shade if he could find it. He would sing a song to himself that he heard on a record player in his youth. He couldn't remember the words, but his ear was fine. He hummed the melody to himself. It took 2 minutes from start to finish. If the vision was still there after all that, then it bore investigation. Most of the time, this method was able to filter out the mirages. After finishing the song, he turned and looked. It was still there.
Another pillar of smoke.
This one was different. This wasn't a campfire with its white whispy frolicking personality. This one was thick and ominous. Something was being forged here and the people doing the work were not worried about security. If he saw the smoke, others did. And if those others were bandits, the people making the smoke would be equipped in dealing with them. Stinky sneezed. He looked at the cat and agreed. "I don't like that smel either, cat." There was a sour sting of sulfur to the air. There was also something green in that smoke. Something that was once alive. Whatever they were making down in that valley, they had access to wood. Not the scrubby brush he wandered through, either...real wood.
This meant industry. This meant creation. This meant society. He made it a habit of avoiding all three. He had grown accustomed to scavenging humanity's corpse. He had gotten good at it. There was plenty left these days to live on. But there was always that one question that lingered in the back of his mind while he sorted through a pile that others has pilfered before him. What next? What do we do when all the piles have been picked clean? Who will make new ones? This wasn't his question to ask however. His existance was not motivated by creation.
He remembered the stuff of his youth as if it were presented in a fairy tale. There were mountainous piles of stuff all over and it was all unprotected. He had a home too. The permenant one. He would actually return to it when the day was out without fear of another tracking him. That was the thing that stuck out most in his past recollections. He didn't remember fear then. It took fire and death to teach him that one.
His nostrils puckered at the odor that he could no longer ignore. Stinky did the same. Both companions knew that their future was tied to that black smoke now. Even if he walked the other way now, his mind would forever be haunted by a question. What if? Once a man gets that question in his soul, there is no escaping it. He said aloud "Ok Stinky. Let's go knock on the door and see who answers."
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