(An Edward Morrison chapter)
The road was there, waiting for him. He had dreamed about it for the last two nights, eager to set out, but reluctant to start. But tonight, the time had come.
The sun was almost down; it would be time to head out soon. Edward Morrison had his pack on and was waiting for the last blistering rays of the sun to disappear behind the western rubble heaps.
“What do you think, Droog? Can we leave yet?” he asked the small robot next to him. Droog went out into the twilight, did a scan, and hesitated, as if thinking. Then a green light on his shoulder went on and Edward joined him.
This was the night, the night he would set out on his quest to find those forgotten pearls of the world Before. He had spent the last two nights borrowing, extorting and just plain stealing supplies and food. He would set out for Cambridge, the only vestige of civilization that he knew of. He had never been there, but the road was long and barren. He had never heard anything good about it.
He set out walking, letting Droog go slightly ahead to scan the way. The little robot could not speak English but Edward told him what to scan for and to have the light go red if he found anything suspicious. The robot whirred quietly along, his little green light blinking every few seconds.
Edward left the Burrows of Free Frall—where most of the people lived huddled together in underground tunnels—and took the Cleanway north out of town. It had been picked clean of all useable material and was the clearest road in the area. Here and there, he could hear people coming out of their houses to forage for sickly leaves and sour berries to eat. It would hurt them, what he had taken from them. A going away present, he thought. They would be happy enough to see him gone.
Edward left the Cleanway and entered the wide highway known only as the M11. Now it was a twelve-lane graveyard.
On the day the world had ended, the M11 had been filled with cars. They were sitting there still, lined up in neat queues as they had been when the first missiles had hit London. They were ransacked, vandalized and slowly rusting away now—the home of strange creatures and dangerous men who preyed on travelers. Or so they said. Edward had never been far on the M11, just far enough to poke around a few of the cars. Now he started walking north on the left shoulder, with Droog going in front of him.
They had been walking for twenty minutes when the light on Droog’s shoulder blinked red, meaning that he had detected some life form close ahead. Edward froze. He could hear reaper birds shrieking out in the darkness somewhere and the air smelled like dust and decay. He took out his device and turned on the small light, at the same time taking out the length of steel pipe that was his only weapon.
A triple-decker cargo transport had collapsed across a line of car and just underneath, he caught sight of a tiny body, lying curled in a pile of dust. It had to be alive or Droog would not have detected it.
Edward wanted to leave it and was on the point of continuing on, when Droog approached the body and scanned it. Then he did it again and again, scanning it over and over until Edward thought that there must be a problem with the little robot.
“Droog, cut it out,” he said. He knelt down and saw it was a little boy—about six, he guessed, although by his size he looked about four. Edward could see the bones of his skull pushing out against the thin, stretched skin. He was probably about to die anyway. The boy moved a little when Edward prodded him, but did not open his eyes.
“So what do we do, Droog?” Edward asked.
Droog said something in his incomprehensible speech and tried to pick the little boy up, something impossible for the 3-foot high robot.
“Great, a robot with a social conscience,” Edward said. He sighed and picked up the boy, trying to knock some of the dust off the rags that he wore as clothes. The boy was little more than bones wrapped in dusty rags and Edward carried him effortlessly. He set off again, unsure what he was going to do with him next.
The boy stirred and tried to speak, so Edward gave him some water. He would have drunk the entire container if Edward had not stopped him. Then he put his head on Edward’s shoulder and fell asleep.
After another hour of walking, a point of light appeared in front of Edward, and grew into a campfire as he drew nearer. There was a barrier of derelict cars built across the road, the fire behind it. Several men were sitting on the barrier, playing a game with carved bones. They turned as Edward and Droog approached.
“Windrin,” one of the man said.
“Iffa please,” Edward replied. He had never used the wanderer ritual greeting before, but he knew it. The man nodded and opened a small opening in the barrier for them to enter.
Inside was a ragged group of men and women sitting around the fire, cooking rats and squirrels over the flames. They nodded unsmilingly at Edward.
“You’re welcome to stay with us for the night and tomorrow, if you wish,” the man who had greeted Edward said. “All it will cost you is half your food.”
“Half my food?” Edward wasn’t sure he had heard right.
“That’s right. Don’t worry, we won’t touch yer gadgets or anything. Just the food.”
“It took days to collect all this,” Edward said. “Why the scryg would I give it to you? I’ll keep going, if you don’t mind.” He turned, but the gate was now closed.
“The food is the price for passage, as well as lodging,” the man said. He was holding an object in his hand. It had a black metal tube sticking out of it that was pointing at Edward. Edward had never seen one, but he had heard stories. He took his pack off.
The men took out everything from his pack, put back the inedibles and divided everything else exactly in half, down the last withered lettuce leaf. Then they took half away and put half carefully back in the pack.
“I found this boy a while back,” Edward said as they settled back around the fire. “I shouldn’t have taken him, but I can’t take him any further, especially now. Can I leave him here with you?”
“Throw that one in a ditch outside,” one of the women said. “Far enough away though—we don’t want no reaper birds or wulps sniffing around here. We can’t spare no food for’em.”
Edward looked down at the frail form lying next to him with his head on Edward’s pack. He reminded Edward of someone he had known, long ago, back when . . .
“Maybe I can give him away in Cambridge,” Edward said. “I’ll take him that far at least.” He put his coat over the little boy and Droog took up guard at the sleeping boy’s head.
Sean, Edward thought with a mental sigh, as old pains long-buried resurfaced. I guess I’d better call him Sean.