by Chris Henry
Cold rain fell from a steel greysky and ran down the shattered faces of old skyscrapers, collecting in thecracked streets below. The city of Kroeper used to be home to Dieb, where he’dlived years ago in relative comfort. It was once home to hundreds of thousands.When the aquifer ran dry and the lights went out, the citizens fled to thesurrounding cities, and when they were turned away, they formed settlementsthat now dotted the country side. After the exodus, the city fell into ruin andthe remaining locals rechristened it The Corpse. Few people still lived hereand most of the city was bandit territory. Now Dieb crawled through the ruinsrelearning the streets; learning which buildings were shelter or trouble.
A short, lithe man of some 30years, Dieb was an experienced scavenger. He’d spent a decade crawling theCorpse, picking through its bones and finding the precious treasures: unspoiledrations, medicine, and occasionally a bottle of clean water. Stagnant riverscrept through the countryside, and water was worth more than its weight in goldin Greylands. Outside the walls, many would eagerly kill for it.
Picking through the streets, Diebspotted a man on a rooftop a block away. He crouched behind a rusting car andpulled his binoculars from their canvas bag. He peered at the man throughsmudged lenses and studied him. It was a man in rags clutching his own pair ofbinoculars. Bandit? he wondered, they usually don’t come out this far. Theyboth sat there and watched each other for a while. Eventually, the man in ragsgave a meek wave. Dieb waved back, and the Ragman shrugged, but when Dieb drewhis thumb across his throat the Ragman got the idea and disappeared. Diebquickly got up and ducked down an alley. If that was a bandit, he thought, he’llhave friends. He hoped their brief conversation would give them pause. Thebandits in The Corpse were armed, but their weapons were in such disrepair, andammunition of such poor quality, it only gave them the advantage at closerange.
“This looks promising”, hewhispered to no one as he spotted a crumpled storefront shutter. Masonry fromabove had fallen and came to rest against the shutter; the stone’s weight hadpushed it in slightly, forming a narrow gap. He unstrapped his rucksack, fishedout a crowbar, and went to work to widen the hole. The shutter groaned as hebent the slats. He shoved his rucksack inside, followed by his crowbar, thenclutched a flashlight in his teeth, and squirmed into the dark. Once inside, hepulled a grenade from his bag and ran a length of fine wire across theentrance.
Dieb slid his machete from itssheath, and swept the flashlight across the darkened store. The shelves weremostly barren, like the rest of the Corpse. Some canned meat sat on a farshelf. He was pleased to see the tins hadn’t rusted, and only one of them wasbloated. Carefully he packed them into the rucksack. A bottle of cooking oil,rice, and a box of stale crackers went in beside the tinned meat. At the backof the store stood a heavy freezer door with a padlock. A slow smile creptacross Dieb’s face as he went to work with the crowbar. It didn’t last though:the lock proved too strong. He went back to the front of the store and checkedaround the register, searching for a key. In the register, he thought. Hepressed a few keys before prying it open with the crowbar. It popped open witha chime that echoed in the empty store, and he cringed. The key sat there inthe drawer next to a few bills. He pocketed both and turned to leave.
“Hear that?” came a muffledvoice. The tone was hushed and urgent, almost like a hiss. Dieb killed theflashlight and sank behind the counter. Instinctively he reached for hismachete, only to realise he’d left it back beside the locked door. Dieb backedaway from the counter slowly, moving towards the back of the store and hisknife.
“Over here”, called a gruffervoice, “The shutter here. This is new.”
“I can’t fit through there,”replied the muffled voice.
“Neither can I.” The shutterrattled, and Dieb held his breath.”It won’t move. Help with this gap.” Theshutter rattled again. Died grabbed his things, slung the rucksack over hisshoulders and gripped his machete tight. He had to hide in the locker, therewas nowhere else to go, no other exit. The key fit the lock, but it wouldn’tturn. Rust had taken hold, or maybe it wasn’t even the right key. A lightfilled the small store, and Dieb froze with his heart in his throat.
“Hey!” came the voice, “Whatchagot in that bag?”
Dieb turned to see a mansqueezing through the widened gap in the shutter, a lamp in one hand, a pistolleveled in the other. He thumbed back the hammer with a click, and before Diebcould say a word the room filled with thunder.
Dieb scrambled to his feet andstarted to run. The grenade had blown most of the shutter clear of thestorefront. The man who’d triggered it was a shattered mess; he barely lookedhuman anymore – bits of meat and clothing peppered the walls and floors. He’dtaken most of the shrapnel, and left Dieb unscathed. He could feel blood as itran down the side of his face and his ear rang from the blaste. The man’slantern had gone up as well, the kerosene now scattered and burning. Inky,black smoke filled the store, and spilled out into the open air. A batteredpistol lay near the burning oil, which Dieb snatched greedily.
As he exited the store, Diebfound the other man in the rain, legs torn. A large bent piece of the shutterprotruded from his shoulder like some grotesque limb. The blood slowly spreadout around him like a fan, and he struggled vainly to move with his one goodarm. Dieb couldn’t stop to help him; he looked too far beyond the help ofanything but a bullet. As he stumbled through the city, Dieb was keenly awarethat darkness would soon take the Corpse. The Ragman had probably sent the mento find Dieb, and the explosion and smoke would surely bring others. There waslittle chance of safe shelter in the Corpse that night.
The sound was barely audiblethrough his ringing ears, but the muffled pop and startled stones in front ofhim were enough to know someone had shot at him. Dieb began to run clumsilythrough the ruined street before he found a car to duck behind. He peekedaround the corner and saw them: a half dozen or so motley men clamouringthrough the rubble in pursuit. Dieb pulled one of the round tins from hisrucksack and pitched in their direction. They’d heard the first blast, hereasoned, maybe… The gamble paid off; when they saw the metal cylinder in theair, they dove for cover.
Dieb was up on his feet againbefore they could realise his bluff. If he could widen the gap between them,they’d have to give up before it got too dark. His lungs burned as he ranthrough the streets and alleys towards the aqueduct. He slipped through thehole in the chain link fence and slid down the slope into the dry concreteriverbed. From here he could follow it to the dead lake and maybe find a placeto sleep before he began the long walk back to Greylands.
Very Pulp Fiction – I want to know what’s in that locked freezer! >:-[ Next installment, I hope!
Greylands: Adopted – by Krista Walsh
Greylands: Adopted (continued) – by Anonymous
Greylands: Firefly – Chelsea Miller
Greylands: Fletch – Kathi L. Schwengel
Next week: Part 2: The Shadows