Every step I take kicks more dust up behind me, covering my shoes and my jeans. It’s been seventeen days since my last contact with a human and the soles of my shoes are so thin they’re closer to rags now. I’ve not taken a vita since sundown and my body is feeling the effects. I’m walking on the old riverbed as it reduces my chances of getting lost and provides wide views of what’s ahead and what’s around me. I run a hand across my chin; I haven’t come across a mirror for a while and my beard feels impressive. I know that it won’t look as good as it feels so even if I do come across a smashed up car I won’t chance looking, I’d rather wait until I’ll be impressed. If I’m going for the lone ranger vibe I want it to be convincing after all.
The river used to be called the THAMES in the Golden Age. Fuck knows what that stood for; they used to love acronyms back then, like they were more efficient or something.
My jeans finally ripped last week. They hang around my legs like capes now, I’d be better off turning them into a robe or a dress or using them to light torches in the evening but I won’t. Mr Everton used to complain about how quick the world was to abandon clothes. “I just don’t understand. They’re looting and rioting, there’s an H&M over there, why don’t they steal some trousers and a jumper?” H&M – see? Another fucking acronym.
After a while I spot some intact steps and climb them and head North West into the city.
I’ve not heard much from the Arturians, which is odd, since the Balloon reckons the old-town is overrun by them. Sure, at night, when my eyes are straining to see and my ears pick up the slack, I hear the odd crash or shriek in the distance – but that’s it, it’s always in the distance no matter how far into the city I get. London, that’s what Mr Everton called it. It’s spelt London but pronounced Lun-dun he taught me and Mags when we were young. Jesus, Mags. I swallow hard and my throat feels dry and my ears go numb and my eyes are hot – no, no use in crying today. Tomorrow I’ll allow myself a cry but not today.
The Arturians were the first ones to start rioting after the collapse. They were people who were born into this world too soon, for them the Golden age was as alien and scary as this world seems to the rest of us. They were made for a lawless age but spent years, decades even, pretending to be lawful. The Arturians are the proof that some people are just born differently to others. The Balloon reckons there are 3 million people left and that the USC is plenty big enough for all the Arturians and then some – which leaves the Eurasics for the rest of us.
We call them the Arturians after their old leader, but Mr Everton says they used to be called the whiteys and that Chaplain Arthur was just a catalyst. Years and years ago, years even before the Golden Age, there was a time when the Arturians ruled the world. They started here in England of course and sailed these huge wooden ships taking over all these lands and tricking the people of said lands into living like they did, until one day there weren’t any lands left to conquer or people left to trick. They tried getting on peacefully, only problem being that with nothing left to conquer they got bored, so they tried fighting against each other for a few hundred years instead. This worked for a while but eventually they turned on all the lands and the peoples they’d tricked centuries earlier. Then the collapse happened and they all revealed their true natures and went back just to fighting whoever was unfortunate enough to cross their path. Mr Everton used to say that when he was doing the clan-tracings he’d always stumble across an Arturian here or there in everyone’s bloodline and, though no-one ever wanted to admit it, deep down we all descend from the Arturians in one way or another. I remember I asked him to do a tracing for me and Mags a few days before the Balloon came because she was downright terrified of the Arturians and I wanted to show her that she was one as well so she wouldn’t be scared any more. But then the Balloon came and whenever I asked him afterwards he said he never started it and there was no way to finish it now and go off on one of his rants about the Balloon. Crazy old fucker. I miss him. And Mags.
The further I go into the city the harder it is to spot the sun. The crusty shards of building block it out and the rays fall on the ground like a spider’s web, getting denser the farther I venture in until I’m just a fly stuck in a web of shadow. It’s about 4. I’ve not got long to find shelter; the ruins will provide some cover from the winds but it’ll still drop to minus numbers so I need to be indoors huddled around a fire before long. There’s debris all over the roads and I consider picking some up to use as kindling but it’s covered in layers of dust and I don’t want to risk too much smoke attracting the Arturians. The chafing of the straps of my old rucksack is now almost impossible to ignore, so I agree with myself that the next structure that leads underground will be my resting place for tonight. I have to walk another few kilometres at least before I reach it and by this point there is almost no light left to help me crawl through the spider’s web. Black railings have collapsed over the entrance leaving a small hole about a metre wide that I have to crawl down into and a thought briefly crosses my mind that I’m climbing into the spider’s anus, not its mouth. Fine by me, I whisper, because who in their right mind would live in a spider’s arsehole.
It takes me longer than usual to light the fire as the yellow bulb on my flashlight has dwindled so much it only illuminates about 30 centimetres in front of me. As I’m looking round I find several other exits that have been completely blocked by rubble but, more worryingly, I see an untouched staircase that lead further down into darkness. I turn off my flashlight and wait for my ears to catch up and pick out anything that sounds remotely unfriendly from down there, but nothing comes. I’ll set up my camp near where I entered just in case.
Once I’ve lit the fire my surroundings become a bit clearer. I realise that I’m in one of the old underground train stations from the Golden Age – a sign to my left reads OXFORD CIRCUS. OXFORD was an old city to the north of London, but I don’t know what a CIRCUS is. Sometimes it’s like they spoke a different language back then. There’s a drawing underneath it that looks like a map – only there’s no landmarks on it, just lines and dots that all intersect and spiral off out to places like EDGWARE, EPPING and BRIXTON. I look for a while to try and find my new home on here but there are so many dots that my strained eyes start to give me a headache. Apparently these underground lines are how everyone in the Golden Age used to travel but I don’t see how they could have done so without getting lost. As far as I know we are smarter than they were, just like they were smarter than when we all used to live in caves, so I figure there must have been some simple trick to it that I’ll figure out in the morning. If I had more power for my flashlight I’d consider using the old tunnels to cross the city but it’s unwise because if the light goes I’d be lost down there. That’s what I tell myself, but the truth is I am so scared of the silence emanating from there that I want to get out of here as quickly as possible.