The Soil Scraper

radiation_mask

My feet were steeped in cloying mud, the colour and consistency of wet clay. The earth sucked my Chukkas into the ground. I pulled them free with a shlock. The filth on my hands penetrated deep, and clung, no matter how hard I flicked my fingers. I yanked the boots off, lashed them together and draped them round my neck. The sodden ball in my pocket was once a pair of socks.

“Wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” a muffled voice said. “Thousand mSv down there. Have you retching your guts up before sundown, it will.” So spoke the Soil Scraper. Around the edges of a full-face leather mask, he was all cropped hair, wrestler’s neck and plumes of laboured breaths, leaking through an air filter. “De-contamination bath’s what you need.”

“Foot bath?”

He stiffly shook his head. The mask’s straps squeaked. “Full immersion.”

On the basis I had no other options, I ascented to his proposal. But I still had work that needed to be done. In another world, a deadline was waiting. I asked the man to explain his job.

“I make bad land good.”

cracked_earth

Image by Stones via pixabay.com

If I was going to detoxify my feet before the onset of PACZ sickness, I needed this man to be rather less enigmatic. I urged him to elaborate.

“I survey the land, mark out the bad,” the Soil Scraper said. “Then I call a gang and get them to make it good again.”

“How?”

“Scrape away the bad. Go deep enough, you reach the good.” He held up a long-handled tool, rather like a garden hoe, but wider and with a blade sharpened to a hair’s width. “Sometimes they turn the soil on the good land too.”

“Why?”

“Because good land always turns bad…eventually.”

By then, the socks were leaking down my leg. “There’s one thing I don’t understand,” I said. “How can you hope to find any uncontaminated land amongst all…this?” I wrung out the socks and gestured at a corrosive nightmare of naked trees, caught in the jagged death throes of traumatic seizure.

The Soil Scraper returned the hoe to a wheeled trolley and hauled out the next device in his arsenal. At first, I took it to be an Old World walking frame, but then he held it suspended over my feet. Accompanied by a tirade of loud clicks, a needle swept across a dial and surged into red. Even through his goggles, I could see his eyebrows arching.

The taste of bile rose to the back of my throat. “Shouldn’t we be getting back?”

“Don’t you want to know about the counter?” he said. “Thought your readers might be interested in a bit of tech?”

I didn’t like to tell him my readers were the type who preferred to hear all the horrors others had to put up with, ideally from the comfort and safety of their own cosy little homes.

misty_field

Image by Stux via pixabay.com

“Well now, let’s see,” I said. “You have it mounted on a frame, what—to keep the counter a fixed distance from the ground?”

The Soil Scraper hoisted it into the trolley. “Got a bad back, see. Don’t have to keep bending over with a frame.” He pushed a reel of tape into my hands. “One last thing to do.”

“But my sickness—”

“You’re not the only one with work to finish.”

We left behind us a cordoned off oblong, quivering with red and white tape, which strained to withstand a freshening easterly.

“Sorry if it’s been awkward,” the Soil Scraper said. “In my line, you don’t get much company, not out in the field.”

I assured him there’d been no awkwardness.

His goggles misted a little. “Come back and visit. This time next year, we’ll have potatoes.”

abandoned_building

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Robert Oppenheimer

The PACZ Runner

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I’m early for my rendezvous and immediately wish I’d stayed in my machine. This so-called PACZ is stark: dead trees, grey earth, all made indistinct through a mist of rain. There’s a thin high-pitched whistling, like sand blowing across a beach. I can’t be sure if it’s deep inside my own head or the air itself is still seething with the distressed memories of what happened here. I take shelter by the way-station’s wall and squeeze my ear, again and again, like a swimmer trying to dislodge water.

The road is buckled and broken, but unlike so many of the others, which have surrendered to nature’s relentless march, it’s almost devoid of vegetation.

I sit on a raised kerb and wait.

dead_tree

Image by Thomas B. via pixabay.com

The Runner, when he comes, is covered from head to toe in overalls and boots, so robust, they alone could keep him propped up on the seat of his quad bike. His face and eyes are masked in scarf and goggles. A broad-brimmed hat is pulled low over his ears. A thick layer of filth coats both Runner and four-wheeled vehicle alike. Only his eyes can I see with any clarity. The lenses of his goggles, though smeared from wiping, are otherwise clean. Grey eyes settle briefly on my face, then slide away to linger on my own machine.

“This thing ever been outdoors?” the Runner says. “Give us a moment. Then we talk.”


The Runner’s drenched outer clothes are hanging to dry, still dripping from the pressure wash. He says the cleaning process is all part of running the PACZ; laborious, but necessary. Sometimes he’ll spend longer on preparation and clean-up, than on the travelling itself. He says he’s known some cowboys who cut corners and skimped on the cleansing, either through laziness, or in the pursuit of new business.

“All dead now,” he says. “Or taking their time dying.”

He hands me a cup. The coffee is thick and bitter.

I comment on a chain around his neck. He holds it up and a row of tokens jangle; symbols, he says, of delivery contracts with his suppliers.

“This one—” he shows me a tarnished brass ingot “—is for a five year deal with Prendergast’s. Got to keep me eyes on that one. The old man’s been selling more, buying less.” He rubs his bristly head. “His DC’s half in ruins. What’s left is only half full and half of that he’s let spoil or go bad.”

I ask him about the roads. Surely most are impassable.

He opens a paper road atlas, one that pre-dates the Apocalypse. He carefully turns clumps of ragged pages, until he comes to a map of the local area. The paper is criss-crossed by a network of flowing lines: thick blue, bold red, and narrow white.

“Nearly two thousand miles of roads, just on them two pages,” he says. “These days? Only about a hundred miles still fit. Even on a quad.”

With such limitations, I ask him, how can Runners do their job? He explains the hundred miles are maintained by a partnership of vested interests: Runners, distribution centres, customers. All play their part in keeping the roads clear.

What about the winter months? Short days, harsh weather. Doesn’t that change how he runs his business? He makes a rumbling sound at the back of his throat. The roads are dangerous enough already, he says, but if it gets dark, or there’s ice or snow, or even reports of gatherings of Wanderers, then Runners can always break up their journeys at the way-stations. He indicates the building’s interior with a tilt of his chin.

What’s to stop any waif or stray breaking into a way-station and helping themselves? The bedrolls and water canisters, say. Aren’t they all precious commodities?

“Steal off Wycherley’s Runners?” he says. “Even a Wanderer knows to leave well alone.”

My questioning reveals some of that reputation is justified, but some comes from exaggerated rumour, and the rest from carefully propagated untruths.

“People believe it though?” I say.

“You’d be surprised.” The Runner closes the atlas. “A gentleman of learning – such as your good self – would hardly credit it, but there’s a lot of ignorance and superstition in this day and age.” He taps the side of his head. “It gets worse with each new generation. No education, you see. It’s like a new Dark Age.”

The Runner surveys the failing light and swallows the rest of his coffee. “I’ve got a delivery to drop, out west way.”

I sense our interview is being brought to a conclusion, but there’s one last thing I want to know. I suggest, in diplomatic terms, that my host appears to be of a certain age. “In researching my book, you’re the first person I’ve encountered, who possesses – if you don’t mind my saying so – the greying hair of seniority. I merely thought you might be getting close to—”

“What, hanging up my goggles? Ain’t going to happen.” He wipes his cup with a weathered finger. “You look like a gentleman who’s already got his whole life mapped out.”

I assure him not a day goes by without me dreaming of sitting by a river with a fishing rod and a copy of Dante’s Inferno.

“Different world.” He shrugs his bear’s shoulders. “My Runners don’t think beyond the end of the day. You know how I sells this job? Got a slogan: ‘Come work the PACZ. Don’t need to plan for no retirement.’”

My proposal that he do just that is greeted with a shake of his heavy head. “This book you’re writing. You’ve met all sorts, haven’t you? I thought you would’ve picked up on this by now.”

I thought he was going to leave it there, but he must have noticed the fog of incomprehension pass over my eyes. He grins and pats me – robustly, I might add – on the back. “I’ll be like every other poor sod. My last day as a Runner will be the day I die.”

I think he’s joking, so I laugh in what I hope sounds like a supportive tone.

With not another word – and with death in his grey eyes – he leaves.

The Forager

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A spindly pair of legs, capped off by over-sized boots, stick out of a dustbin and waver from side to side. Great tangles of straw are cast out and land in heaps on the warehouse floor.
The journalist clears his throat. A boy’s head bobs up. He has a sharp nose jutting over taut lips and – half way between the two – a sprouting of thin blonde hairs.
“I presume you’re the forager?” the journalist says.
Independent forager.” The boy holds up a dusty green bottle. “Don’t mind if I have some refreshment, do you?” He clambers out of the bin then gives the bottle a cursory wave beneath a handheld gadget, which shrieks a series of loud clicks. He shrugs, downs a greedy swallow then – seeming to remember his manners – offers up the bottle.
The journalist declines. He pulls a hip flask from his coat pocket instead then asks whether the forager usually conducts his business in those parts.
“Depends on the order,” the forager says, “or what’ll sell on the open markets. For wines, spirits, and the like, I usually forage in residential areas.”

“What about bottled water?”
“Nah, all spoiled, long since.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to forage in supermarkets, hyper-stores?”
“Stripped bare,” the forager says. “Anyhow the old ones’ homes are safer. Too small for the gangs to bother with. Too full of death for most independents.”
“Doesn’t death worry you?”
“Not when it’s someone else’s.” He has another swig and swirls the liquid round his mouth.
“You usually deal in alcohol then?”
“Far from it. As soon as the leaves turn brown, that’s when people want shoes and warm clothes.”
The journalist remarks on the quality of the forager’s own boots.
“Wouldn’t guess they’re forty years old, would you? Near good as new.”
The journalist views the stains around the boots’ soles with suspicion, but declines to comment. Instead he further pursues the subject of death.
The forager holds the bottle up to the light, frowns at something floating at the bottom. “The richest pickings goes to them that don’t mind pulling the boots off a dead man’s feet.”
He’s warming to his subject, the journalist thinks.
“In the trade,” the forager says, “the difference between success and failure is knowing when to give up.”
“I’m guessing you have experience beyond your years.”
“Let’s just say I’ve seen more than one beginner pull the boot off a corpse, only to find the foot still stuck inside.” The forager wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
The journalist makes a hasty exit from the warehouse and sucks in lungfuls of fresh air.

People of the Post-Apocalypse 

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In 1840s London, social researcher and jounalist, Henry Mayhew, wrote a series of articles, culminating in ‘London Labour and the London Poor‘. In these volumes, Mayhew described in detail the lives and conditions of working people. His findings were not altogether welcome; London’s street traders established an association to protect themselves against his prying.

So much for the past. What of the future? Or our possible futures? What if someone were to pick up Henry Mayhew’s mantle? A time-travelling journalist flitting through time, observing future societies and their peoples, listening to their stories.

Consider the world of the Post-Apocalypse. Putting aside its likelihood, no one can at least deny the possibility. Assuming the presence of survivors, what would their lives be like? How would they react to being the subjects of a social study? What of their children and their children’s children?

There’s a whole new undiscovered world to observe and write about. What Henry Mayhew started, let our time-travelling jounalist continue.