During all their decades of searching, the Gatherers hadn’t ever discovered any signs of another settlement. Martha had explained to him that the early Scholars had emphasised the importance of the technology because they had believed it would be a means of communication, a way of reaching out and connecting with others. But they had been wrong and their legacy was merely a collection of crushed and broken components.
After the Plains had been picked clean, Dana and the other children had been taught about the Internet in school and the Pamphlets had been prevalent for years. The Scholars couldn’t suddenly snatch back all of that information and so it had become about the relevance of history and how they could learn from the past, rather than it being something to which they should aspire.
Following the Stranger, Nate cursed himself once again for not bringing a hat. He still held the apple and had been rubbing it intermittently on the front of his sweatshirt since he first picked it up. It felt to him like a gesture of goodwill, an invitation even. But the possibility that he was being led into a trap was something he couldn’t shake. The Stranger had something that neither he or the villagers back at the Settlement had; a rifle and Nate’s first glimpse of it as the man turned played in his head as if on a wheel, making its way round and round again.
My story, The Drug of Choice, is published in the on-line journey 365 Tomorrows. To visit the site please click on the link https://365tomorrows.com
The world is broken; in all the ways we predicted it would be. It cannot be repaired; it is far too late for that now. But at least you can take a break, as long as you have the funds of course. You can check into one of the Long Term Hotels. These are easily distinguished from the others with their high fences and the twenty-four hour security guards patrolling the perimeter.
When I was a kid, I used to think that they were homes for the elderly. Whenever I spotted the residents out on their balconies or lounging in the gardens, to my young eyes they did appear to be old and decrepit. When I learned the truth, that these people were the wealthiest in our society, the monied elite, I was appalled. It seemed obscene to me that they were living amidst us in the lap of luxury, flaunting their success and good fortune in our very faces from behind the high fences with the armed guards protecting them from the rabble outside.
Now I am the one on the other side of the fence, gazing out. I am the old man on the balcony and I remember my younger self and how slowly I came to realise that most people didn’t share in my outrage and were much more accepting of the hotels. They argued that they were ‘good for the City’ and created jobs, not just for the construction industry but also the hotel staff and the security details. And businesses and local shops benefited and flourished, all because of the Long Term Hotels.
I ranted and raged and they stared back at me, incredulous.
‘Why is it so wrong?’ they asked. ‘If they can afford it, why shouldn’t they check in? Who wouldn’t? Wouldn’t you? Isn’t it what we all want, isn’t it the dream? To be comfortable and to be safe?’
I remember how I answered, what I said and I believed it way back then. And I still do.
Nate began to move again as the man stood stock still. Despite the oppressive heat, a cold chill ran through his body and he shivered. Nate was moving quickly now, the distance between them closing, less than half a kilometre now. Suddenly, the man turned and stepped back inside re-emerging seconds later with his backpack. The man crouched down in front of the Station and Nate was certain he had placed something down on the ground. Just as suddenly, he was up again, on his feet and walking away from the Station, making his way out across the plain. Nate could see clearly that there was a rifle slung across his shoulder.
Covering the last stretch, Nate watches the man as he walks, his departing back. As he draws closer, Nate glances across at the spot where the man placed something. He can’t see it, not yet, but he is sure that he wasn’t mistaken. The man left something for him, a message of some kind or a warning perhaps.
At last, he gets close enough and recognises it immediately. Nate smiled; it is an apple – not what he had been expecting. Bending, he grabs at it and pushes through the doorway and into the cool of the Station. Letting his backpack drop to the ground, he stretches and groans. It felt good to get out of the searing sun and he is tempted to sit and rest for a while. But he can’t – he has to follow the stranger.
As Nate drew nearer to this particular way-station he began to search for the road in earnest. The plains were doing their very best to reclaim them, covering them with dust and shale and the high winds and heavy rains were helping.
He kicked at the earth, exposing a tiny patch of tarmac. Martha had told him about the motorways, three, four, even five lanes wide. The Autobahn in Germany, smooth and sleek, a masterpiece of engineering. And the grid like network of roads in America called the Interstate. Nate kicked away some more at the square, making it a little bigger and, raising his head, he stepped across it and began to walk again on the hard and cracked dirt.
When the man appeared in the doorway, Nate was still a good half a kilometre away from the way-station. He drew to an abrupt halt, squinting in the harsh light. The man was tall and skinny. Nate couldn’t make out much more but he wondered if the man had been watching him for a while from inside the station; standing in the cool and staring out through the space that had once been a window. Anyhow, he was looking now and Nate supposed that the man saw much about the same as he did. A tall skinny figure shimmering in the sunlight.