A man travels to an island in a post-apocalyptic world.
|The ferryman punted the wooden boat away from the drowned trees on the shoreline, and they glid into shimmering blue waters. Joe had never seen a boat before, and his first encounter with one was to leave his old life behind permanently. I probably won't come back, he told himself. He fingered the plastic trinket around his neck, and prayed silently to the seas.
He watched the other travellers. Justan and Faith shivered in silence and huddled low in the boat. They appeared healthier than when Joe had first met them, and their injuries had healed.
Poll, the gruff man with a gun who persuaded them to leave, smiled back. Despite his craggy appearance, he was always cheerful. He and the ferryman had a calm demeanour that revealed more than any words.
“You'll be safe soon,” said Poll. “There's no roving bands out here.”
“I shall be glad,” said Joe, yet doubt nagged at him. He scanned the receding shoreline, expecting to see scavengers watching, but the only movement was the trees waving.
The ferryman exhaled noisily as he rowed, and said nothing.
“We will arrive before nightfall,” said Poll, and he helped his friend with the oars. The sun was lowering in the sky, but there was no sign of the island.
They rowed for some time before the tip of a green hill appeared, just as the mainland began to disappear behind them. Soon the island stretched across a long section of the horizon.
“There,” nodded Poll. “Our haven. There are many islands around here since the seas rose. But this is ours, and it is a place of peace.”
As they approached, Joe could see a line of white houses. Below them lay similar crumbling ruins, half submerged.
Silhouettes flitted in the twilight as they landed on the grassy edge. Poll greeted the figures as they disembarked. The sky had turned orange.
A chorus of chickens clucked, and somewhere a baby cried. There was a smell of stewed meat, mixed with the fouler smell of human waste. Joe had never seen such a busy town, though there couldn't have been more than a few hundred inhabitants. He felt suddenly nervous. He didn't know these people.
They were led to a wooden hall up a hill overlooking the town. Beyond the hill were higher peaks where sheep roamed.
A small crowd followed as they walked. The three newcomers were introduced to countless villagers.
Outside the hall one man stood waiting. He shook their hands firmly and gazed into their eyes. His round face looked ordinary, but he carried an air of confidence about him.
“I am Zed,” he stated in a deep voice. “Welcome to our home. I hope Poll and Aron told you something about us.”
Faith peered about fearfully as though something awful was about to happen, so Joe answered. “They said we would be safe.”
“And so you shall. Come on in, sit down.” They entered the hall. It had been built recently, with no sign of moss or decay.
They sat on wooden benches around a central hearth where logs smouldered. Zed beckoned at someone to bring food and before long they were offered bread and water. They devoured the offering eagerly. It had been hours since they had eaten.
Finally Zed spoke. “I like to talk to new people when they arrive, to learn a bit about the outside world, what kind of people you are, and how you might be of use.” He turned to the nervous couple. “There's no need to be scared. I can see you have been through some rough times. Tell me what brought you here.”
Justan and Faith didn't move, so Joe decided it was up to him to reply. “I'm from a farm away inland. I was captured by rovers two years ago. They killed most of my family and took all our food. I lived with them for a while, until about two months ago, when they captured these two.” He pointed to the couple.
“Some of the other rovers beat them badly. I didn't like that, they had never taken captives before. I thought it would be a good chance to escape. There wasn't much hope to run away on my own. These two agreed to come with me, so one day when I was on guard duty we ran off and made our way up to the coast. That was when we bumped into Poll.
“We didn't trust him at first, but he didn't push us to come with him. Then we met him again a few days later, and he helped us find food. There wasn't much to be found – apples, and packs of wild dogs. The rovers would eat dog sometimes, but I didn't like to.”
“Wild dogs, eh!” grinned Zed. “We should catch a few, they would make good guards, and good pets. But from what you have said, you were a rover for two years. Is that true?”
The accusation surprised Joe. The room began to murmur. “For shame!” shouted one. “Filth!”
Joe had not noticed how crowded the room was outside the firelight. He looked around, and guessed over fifty people hid in the shadows. This could end badly, he thought.
“I was for a while,” he said nervously. “But I had no choice.”
“You had better tell us about how it happened,” said Zed. “And tell us true. We don't want any liars coming to live here.”
Joe's heart raced. He could barely think what to say. Somehow the words came out of his mouth and he hoped they were the right ones.
“We had peace for a long time when I was growing up,” he said. “I never knew it at the time but we were lucky. The same group of rovers came every year and demanded food, and we accepted that arrangement. They gave us protection in a way, and we could afford to spare the food. Although they sometimes took away women too.
“Things turned really bad five years ago, after the hurricane. We heard there was a lot of starvation about. Some farmers came to us begging for help, but we barely had enough to feed ourselves. New rover bands appeared that year, crueler and greedier, and they demanded everything.
“We began to starve too. We used to hide food so the rovers couldn't take it all. But they knew somehow. They would beat us and ask where we hid it.
“Two years ago another band came and asked for the little we had. Some of our farmers were tired of giving in and fought back. But it was a mistake, and we underestimated the rovers' strength. They left everyone dead except the children, and two women and me. I was only sixteen. I knew it was hopeless to fight, so I told them I wanted to be one of them. I had to. They would have killed me otherwise.
"But I never saw the farm again. When the rovers were going that way they would never take me with them. I still don't know how the survivors fare.”
Zed gazed at him, engrossed in the story. The blazing fire crackled. “So you have seen what it's like inside one of these rover bands?” asked Zed. “But two years is a long time, and I wonder why you didn't escape sooner. Tell me more, what did you do as a rover? Did you kill anyone?”
“No, never,” said Joe. “I stole but only because I had to. One of them said there used to be fifty farms within a day's walk of their village. They would go to each in turn for supplies. But by then there were only a handful left. Everyone was starving, just like during the Chaos."
"Some say the Chaos never ended," said Zed.
“We spent time down at the City, where there are thousands of houses. There's nothing left to loot, they've been empty for a hundred years. Sometimes people hid there and we would take their food. But mainly we hunted for rats. There are swarms of them. The scavengers...they have an ill reputation, and it is true some are cruel. But most are just hungry desperate people trying to survive.”
“Indeed,” Zed turned to Justan. “And what of you? Is this story true? Do you wish to tell us your own tale?”
“It is true,” Justan voiced softly. “He treated us well. Better than the others who chained us and...some would take pleasure in hurting us. Joe did what he could, and he helped us escape. For that we are grateful.” He was silent for a while. “As for our tale, I do not wish to tell it, not here, in front of so many.”
“And you?” he turned to the woman.
“We trust Joe,” nodded Faith. The crowd murmured in approval.
“Hmmm,” said Zed. “Trust is a precious thing. We're going to have to trust each other now, whether we like it or not. What skills do you have that might be useful? Can you do farmwork?”
“We can read a little,” said Justan, pointing to himself and Faith.
“And I can do carpentry,” said Joe, not wanting to feel left out.
“Read? Now that is useful. You can teach the rest of us, especially the young ones. Carpenters, we have more of than we need. I don't suppose you have any experience with electricity?”
Nobody answered. Joe heard whispered curses at the mention of the word electricity, but Zed ignored them.
“I have something,” said Joe. “It's just a trinket. I wear it for luck, but I was given it by my great-uncle.” He took out the stick from a chain around his neck. “I forget the name, but he told me it contains all the knowledge of humanity before the Chaos.”
Zed examined it. “It has the same rectangular socket I have seen before. Keep this, Joe, it has given you great luck already to bring you here." He handed it back.
"We have a couple of computers,” said Zed. “Magical powerful machines, I hear, but we can't make them work. Our solar panels don't produce enough power. We need a wood generator, if you know what that is. We do not wish to anger the seas, but we need more electricity.” More curses from the crowd. “We might even be able to use a computer to contact other havens."
“There were a lot of computers in the city,” said Joe. “Every house had one, although the rovers would smash them whenever they found them.”
“That could be useful, but it would be risky to send an expedition with all the rovers around. How strange to think that every house had one. I have read of someone who managed to switch on a computer using power from a generator. Its screen showed a beautiful landscape. But it would not let anyone use it until they entered the secret word. Might you know what the secret word is?”
Joe shook his head.
“Perhaps there are other havens where they know such things. There must be others. We can't be the only one. We have letters from during the Chaos, they tell us much. People could still communicate with other havens, for a time. Even in upland areas that weren't affected by the rising seas, there were heatwaves and hordes of hungry people fleeing. There are records of many havens during that time. The world is very large. I am hopeful they still exist.
“We have lost so much. None of us knows how to build a solar panel, or how to repair one, never mind a computer. But we learned how to build them once, we can learn it again. Humanity will recover. The only question is how far we will fall.”
“We have fallen far already,” said Joe.
“We have indeed.”