By: Bill The Butcher
“All right, now listen here,” Hunter Leader says.
The three tourists gather round him. They’re clad in black balaclavas, hems rolled up, and camouflage outfits, a dapple of greens and greys on a grey-green background, almost invisible in the night’s shadows. The guns slung over their shoulders are Chinese, bullpup designs in light hard plastic and alloy in matt finish. They try hard not to appear nervous or excited.
Hunter Leader has a South African accent and an Afrikaner name which nobody has bothered to remember. He’s known by the job title, and everyone’s been told to call him that. He’s tall, lean, and has a jaw like a battering ram. When he speaks, his lips hardly move.
“This is the ultimate tour.” Hunter Leader taps the huge metal gate set in the concrete wall towering above them. A searchlight from a distant watchtower washes over the little group for a moment, like pale milk. “You know what you signed up for, and why you signed those releases, I assume?”
The tourists nod. Two of them exchange a slightly uneasy glance, but the third, and smallest, doesn’t look away from Hunter Leader.
“This isn’t the luxury tour,” Hunter Leader continues, after a pause. “We aren’t going out there like the big parties, in armoured buses with machine guns in roof turrets, out at nightfall and home by mid-afternoon, with meals served every six hours. I’d like to remind you precisely what you’ve signed up for – seven days and nights, on the other side of the Wall, with no other support or help but yourselves…and us, of course.” He nods at Hunter Two, who stands to one side, watching them with total disinterest. “We’ll be out there, on foot, among them, cut off completely from any help. Do you understand?”
“Are you trying to scare us?” asks one of the tourists. He’s young, very fair, and has a prominent beak of a nose over a chin beard. His eyes are sunken so deep in his head that they are pools of shadow.
“If you’re going to change your mind, now’s the time to do it,” Hunter Leader replies quietly. “We can’t afford failures of nerve on the other side. If you’re going to change your mind, you’re free to do it now, and your fees will be refunded to you, apart from the service charges, of course. Am I making myself clear?”
The thin young man wipes his face with his hand quickly, and nods. Hunter Leader stares at him for a long moment, but he doesn’t look away.
“You’ve been trained,” Hunter Leader says, “and briefed on what’s going to happen. What you have to remember is this: everything on that side of the Wall is real. It’s not like being in one of the video films you’ve been shown. If you’ve taken the luxury tour, it’s not like the things you’ve seen from the bus window. You’ll be out there, among them, with nothing between you and them, or between you and the taste of your own fear. And you’ll feel fear. Don’t doubt that.
“Fear has its uses,” he continues. “It can keep you alive. But fear can be a deadly thing, too, when it comes in the way of your doing what’s best for your own survival. When you’re out there, you’ll have to conquer your own fear.
“And remember one thing, one vital thing. We aren’t going out there to fight. In fact, as far as possible, we’re to avoid violence completely. I’m sure this has already been explained to you, but I’ll repeat it anyway. You’re armed, and you’ve been trained how to use those guns, but they are only for self-defence, weapons of last resort. There are too many of them to fight, and no way for help to come to us. If there’s any fighting to be done, Hunter Two and I will be doing it.” He glances around inquiringly. “Is everyone sure they still want to come?”
Ten minutes later they’re moving through the passage between the inner and outer gates. The passage is carved into the concrete, the walls roughly-finished and lit by a dim yellow bulb set in a frosted glass dome set in a wire cage in the ceiling. There must be a hidden camera somewhere, because the outer gate opens slowly as they approach, with a slight dragging sound.
They’ve been up on top during the day, and watched the terrain across the Wall through telescopes. It’s a tumbledown vista of shattered cityscape and new growth of vegetation, pushing skywards from cracks in the pavement and through collapsed roofs, from overgrown parks and school playgrounds. Nothing had moved in that crumbled stretch, of course; the denizens of the ruined city were primarily walkers of the night, and few of them ever ventured so close to the Wall.
The night is dark, with patchy cloud cover and no moon. It’s cool and the air feels moist, as though there is a mist, just too thin to be seen, wafting around them. There is a smell, too, faint and indescribable, a medley of old dust and corroded metal and many other things besides.
Here, at ground level, the broken city looks completely different, and much more frightening. The walls of the nearest buildings vanish upwards into darkness, and the streets are canyons where any possible danger might be lurking. Hunter Leader signals, his hand moving in the gestures they’ve learned over the last week of training, over and over until they have them perfect. Here, at night, they have to make as little noise as possible.
Hunter Leader moves silently and with purpose, like a leopard from the savannah of his native land. He has instructed them to space themselves out, so that each can only see the one in front. Hunter Two brings up the rear.
They move down a broad street, which must have once – before the Happening – been a fairly substantial avenue. Vehicles, wrecked so long ago that most of them have corroded to metal skeletons, make humps here and there in the darkness. At one point, Hunter Leader holds up a hand and gestures back over their shoulders. They turn.
They can see the Wall from here, the sheer immense height of it, the watchtowers with their searchlights moving back and forth, the string of red pinpoint dots of light that mark the parapet. Suddenly, and for the first time, the three tourists feel isolated from the world beyond, and alone.
“Let’s go,” Hunter Leader murmurs. Whispering isn’t allowed because the sibilants carry much further than soft speech. Turning, he lopes off down the street, not looking back to see if they’re following, but of course they do.
Far behind them now, the searchlights paint the night.
She calls herself Jasmine. It’s probably not the name she was born with, but there are a lot of things she’s left behind, like how she came by her combination of curly black West African hair and slanted East Asian eyes, high Slavic cheekbones and Gypsy-brown skin. Nobody ever has the time or inclination to ask questions, she discovered a long time ago, so long as her credit is good.
Once a boyfriend had told her she looked exotic. It was when they were lying tangled in bed after love. “Exotic!” she had said, laughing explosively. “Is that even a word for the modern world? Who isn’t exotic, in one way or another?”
“Oh,” he had said, struggling to explain, “I mean…unusual. We don’t much see people like you.”
“Good for you. I’m not for everyone.”
She had never been with that boyfriend again.
She glances, now, over her shoulder at the figure of Hunter Two behind her. Like all the Hunters, he moves smoothly and without the tension that’s knotting her gut. The Hunters ought to know this ravaged city as well as game rangers know the wildlife preserves. She tells herself that the danger they keep emphasising is at least partly of their own construct, meant to impress the tourists, but she can’t quite believe it.
They’ve already been moving for hours, and seen nothing so far, not even a track in the blown dust. The night is at its deepest now, and a wind has sprung up off the river, redolent with the stink of mud and decay. The Hunters are still fresh, of course, but the tourists are starting to flag. Hunter Leader gestures for a halt.
They’re in a small square formed by tall buildings crowded together. What must once have been a very large tractor or bulldozer of some kind has burned in the centre of the square; the concrete is charred in an enormous black circle, and the corpse of the vehicle has so collapsed in on itself that it looks like a shapeless, angular mass.
“Juice break,” Hunter Leader murmurs. Standing next to the burned-out caterpillar tracks, they open small packs of fruit juice – Jasmine has apple – and unwrap bars of dark chocolate.
“From here,” Hunter Leader says, “we’ll go east, towards the river, so that we’ll hit the first sanctuary at daybreak. Questions?”
“We haven’t seen anything yet,” complains the thin fair young man, whose name Jasmine remembers to be Ross.
“It’s still too close to the Wall,” Hunter Leader explains, “We’ll probably be seeing them tomorrow night, though.”
As though in response, something moves inside the old wreck. A shadow trembles inside the skeletal cabin, an arm waving, a silhouetted hand flapping loosely.
Hunter Leader vaults silently up on a caterpillar track, a pistol appearing in his hand as if by magic. “Don’t worry,” he says, peering into the cab. “It’s dying. No threat to us.” They listen to it dragging itself around the cabin of the wrecked ‘dozer. There are other sounds. Finally, there is a soft moan, and the thing in the cabin falls silent.
“Let’s go,” says Hunter Leader, and lopes away towards the east.
Jasmine has known she was special since school.
“Why can’t you be like everyone else?” she had heard, over and over, and finally in school she discovered the simple answer.
“Because I’m not everyone else,” she’d said aloud, right in the middle of class, astounded with the simplicity of it. “I’m me.”
The fact that she had been who she was, though, was apparently far from acceptable or even comprehensible to anyone else, let alone to those in authority over her, parents and teachers and employers. It had only been when she moved into sufficiently remunerative self-employment that she could really try to be what she thought she wanted to be. But, even there, she was herded and chained by a thousand rules. More rules than ever before, since the Happening.
This adventure, then, had been a way of trying to break free. And now she wonders if it’s even more restrictive than all she’s ever known.
The sanctuary today is in the basement of a building three stories high, the upper two of which are gutted and choked with their own rubble. The basement’s accessed by a set of narrow steps cut into the pavement, with an armoured door at the bottom. To open it, Hunter Leader slid away a panel by the door and input a code. The code can only be used once before it’s changed. The maintenance team that will follow them will have the new code.
Inside, the basement’s surprisingly comfortable. The walls are covered in glossy paint and prints of great works of art, including those long-ago masters, Picasso and Monet. There’s even a carpet on the floor, a kitchenette and curtained sleeping recesses. There is electricity, running off batteries, which power the lights and air-conditioning system. The follow-up team will change the batteries as well.
They’ve cooked breakfast – Hunter Two doing the preparation, what little there is of it. Most of the food is preserved and just needs heating. It’s probably healthy but far from palatable. Jasmine’s hardly a competent cook, but she thinks even she could probably have turned out a better-tasting meal than this. But everyone’s hungry, so they dig into the dehydrated scrambled eggs and toasted cereal without comment.
At one side of the room is a kind of periscope array, and Hunter Leader raises it at frequent intervals and has a look around. The periscope rises and retracts with a faint, almost inaudible hum of electric motors.
“Nothing to see,” he tells anyone who asks if he’s seen anything. “Nothing at all.”
Jasmine has begun to feel the fatigue in the muscles of her legs, and she goes off to one of the curtained alcoves to try and get some sleep. There’s a sleeping bag there, slung like a low hammock on an aluminium frame, and it doesn’t look as though it would provide even a mite of comfort, she thinks as she climbs dubiously into it. Not a mite of…
A hand on her shoulder, shaking her awake. Hunter Two is leaning over her, his dark Semitic face expressionless, a steaming mug of coffee held out for her to take. “It’s almost dark,” he announces. “We’re moving off in half an hour.”
Hunter Leader has just finished taking yet another look through the periscope. “No sanctuary for the next two days,” he reminds her. “We’ll be self-contained. Two and I have packed rucksacks for you all. No eating or drinking unless you’re told to. Remember that.”
Ross and the third tourist, a plump black man with receding hair, are already struggling into their rucksacks. Hunter Two adjusts the straps and buckles, makes sure they’re not being chafed, and helps them sling their guns. He comes over to aid Jasmine with hers, his eyes flicking across her breasts.
“Let me fix that up for you,” he says, his eyes still lingering on her chest.
“Thanks,” she replies, a shade too brightly, her hands on the straps, resisting the impulse to cross them protectively over her breasts. “I’ll be fine.”
He hesitates, glances towards Hunter Leader, and moves away with a slight shrug towards his own pack. She doesn’t look back at him.
They move out after a last peek through the periscope shows the coast is clear. The last of the twilight is leaching from the sky, and the air is heavy with the heat of the day. Far to the east, towers of black cloud are climbing into the sky. Lightning flickers, too far away for the thunder to be audible.
“What do we do if it rains?” the plump black man, Odili or whatever his name is, asks.
“We go on, of course,” Hunter Leader replies, not even bothering to look back. “Weather conditions make no difference.”
Complete darkness falls with the suddenness of a closing door. Tonight there is none of the sense of closeness to rescue that they now realise that they had had the previous evening. Now they’re truly cut off, on their own. The ruined city around them might as well be on another planet from the other side of the Wall.
“Keep a close look out,” Hunter Leader murmurs. “We’re almost certain to come across something tonight.”
Jasmine can already feel her imagination working. Every shadow seems full of hidden menace, every wrecked vehicle hiding unseen eyes. As they get closer to the river the clouds move in, blotting out the stars. The lightning flashes every few seconds, the thunder a sullen background mutter. The stench of the river’s overpowering.
And then they see it.
Once, many years ago, Jasmine had been on a trip to India and had visited an industrial estate built on the banks of the Ganges. The holy river’s water had been a coruscating mass of colour under the spring sun, violet and black and shimmering pools of brilliant green and oily red, all floating slowly downstream. The air had been so thick with smoke that her eyes had begun tearing uncontrollably, but not so much that she hadn’t seen the corroded pipes gushing yellowish effluent out into the holy flow. The sight had held an almost hypnotic beauty for all that it was so terrible. Jasmine still has the photographs somewhere.
She’s reminded of it now, irresistibly. In the darkness the river’s water glows with dull greenish phosphorescence, laced with swirls of other colour, brighter greens and traces of golden-yellow. A capsized cabin-cruiser still bobs up and down on its anchor, the rounded hull showing like the humped back of a breaching whale. Far away upstream, to the north-west, a dim bluish glow clings to the horizon, as if of gigantic lights, but of course there are no lights there.
“We’ll go across,” Hunter Leader says, pointing. The bridge is a ruin, a tangle of sagging steel and concrete pointing across the terrible river, but there are walkways that are still intact, far above the shattered road surface. They climb a narrow winding steel staircase, not speaking. Odili, just behind Jasmine, is breathing heavily, the sound harsh in her ears.
From high above the river the view is even more spectacular, the water a glowing green-gold pathway below them, the lightning ahead stabbing down, white and violet. A roll of thunder cracks overhead, so loud that they can feel the vibration through the metal of the bridge and the soles of their boots.
“We’ll make the other side before the storm reaches us,” Hunter Leader announces. “It’s likely to be a bit…severe.”
Jasmine glances over her shoulder, past Odili and Hunter Two. Far away, she thinks she can see the Wall, frontier of civilisation, behind which people are eating and sleeping and bickering and having sex and doing a hundred other, normal things. Normal people aren’t on a metal bridge over a river of poison, with a thunderstorm coming in, and a wrecked city full of unknown dangers all around. Then the first drops of rain begin pelting down.
In the shelter of what was once the portico of a hotel, they dismount their rucksacks, pull on their waterproof capes and take the chance to rest for a moment. The rain is a torrent now, and lightning arcs over the river, the flashes showing them each other’s faces clearly, naked and startled. Even Hunter Leader looks a little shaken.
Across the river, near where they’ve spent the day, a tall building is struck. The lightning is like a white spear hurled down by an angry god, furious at the temerity of the builders of the skyscraper to reach upwards, and the thunder is like the roaring of his voice. Another flash, so close they can smell the ozone, and their ears ring with the force of the thunder.
“We can’t stay here,” Ross begins to mutter, his voice rising steadily. “This storm’s going to kill us.”
“Shut up,” Hunter Leader orders him. “Sit down and take some deep breaths. We’re going to be all right.”
“You don’t understand,” says Ross, in the tones of one explaining the patently obvious. “We’ve got to get back across the Wall before these lightning strikes kill us.” He’s speaking louder and more urgently, and when the next bolt of lightning sizzles overhead he screams.
“Sit down and shut up,” Hunter Leader snaps, his hand clenching into a fist. “I’m not going to tell you again.”
Ross ignores him. He steps out from beneath the portico. “If you aren’t coming,” he informs them, speaking in gentle and reasonable tones, “I’ll go back alone. You must see what’s best for you, don’t…” Lightning flares, followed almost instantly by a deafening peal of thunder, and with one terrified glance upwards, Ross sprints off into the night.
Hunter Leader snarls an ugly word in Afrikaans. “We’ve got to go find him,” he snaps. “You, Odili, come with me. Two, you stay here with her and the bags. Make sure to let me know if something happens.” Without waiting for an answer, he runs off in the direction Ross has taken. With the reluctance visible in his face, the black man follows.
“Sit down,” Hunter Two tells Jasmine. “It might be a while.”
“He said you ought to tell him if something happens. How?”
Hunter Two pats a bulging, buttoned-down pocket on his thigh, “I’ve a radio here.” He pulls over the bags and places them against the wall of the old hotel. “Sit down, please.”
She sits, back against a bag, and as far away from him as she can.
to be continued…