The hare stopped. It looked up from its grazing, ears tall and twitching. A soft shift in the forest floor alerted it and it turned, ready to flee, when the arrow pierced its heart.
Halley emerged from the brush. She slung her bow over her shoulder and pulled out her skinning knife, placing the handle between her teeth as she crouched to remove her arrow. Still sharp. She wiped the edges against the loose part of her shirt and returned it to the quiver.
She grabbed the skinning knife from between her teeth and then squinted at the rabbit. The forest light was still too thin for her to see clearly by. It would be better to skin it without a canopy of trees blocking the young sun. Glancing around her, she gauged the level of the land and decided to head west. The ground sloped upward in that direction. If she could find a clearing, she might get the light she needed to skin her catch and get the lay of the land in one go.
Within a few minutes time the trees began to thin. Halley jogged forward, hare heavy in her hand. She wanted to do this as quick as she could; she’d already spent an hour hunting, and had a day of travel ahead of her.
Halley stopped as the sun warmed her face. She’d come to the top of a hill and below her the valley stretched verdant. She breathed deep, grateful for the warmth of the rising sun dispelling the chill from her bones, and then scanned the direction she was headed. Any additional information about her path could be drawn on her map and earmarked for exploration.
Her eyes moved slowly, deliberately, but jumped at the sight of two billows of white smoke in the distance. The smokestacks curved in an hourglass shape and she nearly forgot about the game she held.
A nuclear plant. A functioning nuclear plant.
Halley dropped the rabbit and pulled her map and compass from her bag. A quick consult of the sky, the landmarks, and direction told her it was only out of her way by about two miles. She marked it with charcoal and made note of the roads that led in the plant’s direction. Any road towards a nuclear plant would be clear. Satisfied with her notes and new plan of action, she put the map back and set to skinning the hare, her thoughts racing.
She hadn’t seen a nuclear plant in years. The last time she had still been a child, roaming with her scavenger band, sitting in the back of the carts and sorting copper from bronze. The town around the plant had been the biggest she’d ever seen, with the most excessive use of power- there had been electric streetlamps on all night. Candles were cheap to trade and their haul had been worth much more than in any other town. Nuclear power plants needed a lot of working parts to run and, in turn, powered a larger grid than usual. All those electronics needed copper.
Halley finished skinning the rabbit and wrapped it. She turned to look one more time at the power plant before making her way back into the forest and to her bike. All the while she took mental inventory of her scrap haul. It was decent, and in any other town, would afford her the rations and repairs she would need to move on. In a nuclear town? Much more.
Her bike was still safely stashed in the tree line near the edge of the road. Halley looked at her cart, attached to the wooden bike’s back spokes. It was only half full. Normally she liked to keep it from being at full capacity. It was easier to maneuver and put less of a target on her back for competing scavengers. If she was thorough, she might be able to fill the cart with one more hit. Then she could trade for anything in the nuclear town. New clothes, better bows, a better bike- the possibilities whirred in her mind and settled her decision. One more hit.
She walked the bike out from the trees, the wooden wheels clacking and jumping with each dip in the earth. The asphalt road eased its complaints and she made sure the cart was fully attached and balanced before sitting on the bike and pedaling. The roads were quiet. Sunlight began to reach over the treetops and glinted off the aluminum husks of cars, silently decaying under the bright light. Halley looked at the shells, rubber wheels disintegrated, upholstery eaten away. Some of them were in ditches. Others were still on the road. She weaved her way around them, wondering about the beings who had once abandoned them in the haste of disaster.
What the disaster was, she didn’t know. Her parents had known, and her grandparents had seen it as children. Halley never was interested in history though, and so the stories fell on deaf ears. The signs of the event were all that mattered to her. Cars on the road meant an infrequently traveled route. Infrequent travel meant a higher likelihood of good salvage. Good salvage meant food and supplies to keep moving.
Another good rule was to look for dirt paths, or paths that weren’t as overgrown as the rest of the surrounding area. Chances were there had been gravel or sand there once, which meant a building. Old rusted fences were another good sign, but hard to spot when overgrown.
Halley looked for these now as she rode between the mess of cars, hoping to find one good score.
A few hours passed. The sun was making its way to the center of the sky and she’d be making her last turn towards the town soon. She still hadn’t found a good place to scavenge. She slowed her bike, braking in spurts to make sure the cart didn’t tilt or push forward. With a sip from her waterskin and a few berries she’d picked yesterday, she looked at her map.
Nothing suggested any auxiliary roads or buildings. Halley let out a sigh and scanned the area, taking another draught from the skin.
A glint of metal caught her eye.
She put her kickstand down and walked to the edge of the road. Sure enough. A fence covered in vines. Beyond that, a glint of something else. The roof of an old car? The grass leading to the fence was shorter. She smiled. Bingo.
Halley looked at her bike, debating whether to hide it or not. The road behind her and before her yawned empty. She hadn’t met a traveler in days. Leaving the cart in the open would mean a faster load but would make her a mark for any other salvagers on the road. With a heavy sigh, she pushed the bike, cart bouncing behind, into the overgrowth. Better safe than sorry. She couldn’t risk losing what she had so close to town.
The bike stashed, she grabbed her bow and quiver from the cart. This was still unclaimed land and animals made their homes here- sometimes even human ones. She dared not be caught in a ruin unaware by lynx or loner. Throwing a glance behind her, she assured herself the bike was appropriately covered. Then she jogged up the path, her feet light in the tall grass.
She scanned ahead of her. The grass opened up to a dirt patch and she slowed, spying the two cars rotting in front of the concrete building. There was something unsettling about the dirt patch but saw no tracks. Halley stopped and listened. Birds sang in the trees surrounding the clearing. Crickets chirped. Bugs buzzed and flew lazily from stem to stem of wildflowers. She was alone, that much was clear. Her disquieted thoughts took a backseat as she began to walk towards the building’s front door but whispered that it might be better to get in and get out as quickly as possible.
Red rust coated the door, handle and all. Halley stepped back and glanced over the rest of the building’s façade. There were plenty of open windows, but jagged glass often hid in the corners. The second story was too high to climb to. She quickstepped to the right side of the building on a hunch and found another door, this one cracked open. She slid in, doing her best to let the rust rub against the back of her shirt instead of her skin.
Dampness clung to the air and Halley breathed in the familiar scent. Most buildings she scavenged from smelled like this. Decay, new life, trapped humidity. It reminded her of the greenhouse she’d seen at a healer’s hut once.
The building seemed to have been a manufacturing facility. The entire first floor was open, only a few walls for some tiny rooms on the far end. All good signs. She wasn’t sure what manufacturing in the days before looked like, but it usually meant lots of copper and steel. Her steps still delicate on the concrete floor, she began searching.
The entire building seemed barren. Every table she searched, every heavy machine left sinking into the floor had been torn apart. No copper, no wire, no steel. She even stepped into the dark back rooms, looking for anything that hadn’t been picked over. All that remained was shattered porcelain and fractured glass.
Halley’s sense of unease heightened. This place had been difficult to spot. She’d almost ridden past it. To see it this empty meant that someone had taken repeated trips or had a large caravan. Either way, it was looking less and less safe to be here. She looked up the stairs and bit her lip. Safe or not, the nuclear town was close, and this might be her last shot at finding any more scrap. She pulled an arrow out of her quiver, just in case, and headed up the stairs.
The stairs turned around on themselves and led to a long hallway. All the doors were rotted off the hinges and she walked past each room, bow and arrow loose but ready, pointing at the floor. Each room had the same bare look of the first floor. The alarm bells in her mind grew louder and louder until she reached the last door. This one still stood. Slowly, quietly, she twisted the knob on the door and let go once the jam released, letting gravity swing the door open. As soon as she processed what her eyes were seeing, she knew she’d made a mistake.
Copper. Scrap. An entire room of it. Everything that had been stripped from the building was stored here, in neat stacks. She even spied gold fittings in the west corner. Halley walked into the room and stared in amazement. The amount of scrap in this room alone could afford her a life in a town. Even the nuclear one.
“You got the guys going in?”
Halley ducked down, away from the window. The whispered voices were below her.
“Yeah. Good thing Gerald spotted that bike. Wouldn’t’ve even known someone was here.”
Shit. Shit shit shit shit. Halley’s blood ran cold. She tried to focus. They’d found her bike. That meant her scrap, too. The thought made her bite her lip so hard she felt warm blood tickle her tongue. They said guys were going in. In where? The building. Of course. Hunting her down. Stopping her from stealing their stash. Shit.
She didn’t hear any footsteps. Chances were, they were still searching downstairs. That gave her only a minute or two to think. The voices below had quieted.
A quiet chink of porcelain from downstairs brought her back. They were checking the small rooms downstairs. She needed to leave this room. Fast. Her hands were quick and her feet quicker as she dashed out of the room and into the one across the hall.
Their footsteps were audible now. She put her back against the wall, hand over her mouth to quiet her breathing. Her eyes closed briefly to concentrate on the footsteps drawing nearer. One? No. Two. She kept her ears keen for the sound of more footsteps but heard none. Two people coming up the stairs.
The footsteps split up, one person going into rooms near the stairs, the other heading towards her. Checking the stash, most likely. She drew her bow but kept it pointed at the floor, arrowhead glinting. She’d only killed another person twice before, years ago. She didn’t relish doing it again, but she was trapped and outnumbered.
The footsteps across the hall stopped. “The door’s open,” a man’s voice whispered. The footsteps down the hall stopped. She heard the door creak open wider than she’d left it and listened for the man’s reaction.
“Keep looking,” he whispered. The footsteps down the hall began again, muffling as they entered another room. Out of sight. Now was her chance.
Halley pushed herself off the wall and swung to face the scrap room across the hall. The door was wide open and a man, a good six inches taller than her, stood with his back to her, examining the stash for signs of tampering. She silently asked for his forgiveness and fired. The arrow struck true, shooting straight through the man’s neck.
He turned in panic, unable to speak as the arrow stopped his airflow, and looked at her. She pulled a second arrow from her quiver just in case, but the man went down in shock, eyes rolling into the back of his head.
Footsteps came running at the thud. Halley didn’t like her chances against a moving target and shifted her bow and arrow to one hand, using the other to pull the skinning knife from her belt. The footsteps drew closer and she stood poised, knees bent, ready to lunge.
The second man missed seeing her completely as he turned into the scrap room to see his fallen comrade. She leapt forward and stabbed the knife into his throat. A quiet whine and a gurgle managed to escape his mouth. Halley dug the knife in deeper and the noises stopped. The second body fell to the floor and she pulled out her knife and froze.
No more footsteps. No voices. She hadn’t been discovered. She crept over the bodies and snuck back down the stairs.
As soon as she stepped on the ground floor, she saw the rest of them. Two more at the doorway. Two outside. She was trapped unless she could find another way out. Halley slid behind one of the big machines and looked against the back wall for an escape.
One window peaked at her from one of the small rooms in back. It was small and there was sure to be glass, but it looked like her best option. Killing people wasn’t something she enjoyed- if she could avoid any more death, she would.
Peeking over the top of the machine, she saw the two at the door growing restless. She had to move now. Darting back when one of them turned to look out a window, she entered the small room. Broken glass gleamed in the sunlight.
“Hey! David!” one of the men at the door called. There was no response. David must’ve been one of the men upstairs.
“That’s it, I’m coming up there!” the same man shouted. His partner protested and the two outside hushed him. Marching footsteps headed for the stairs. Clenching her jaw, Halley slid herself through the window, feeling the glass scratch her arms and thighs as she wiggled. She made no sound and dropped to the ground. Bleeding and full of glass, she slunk through the tall grass around the building.
The way forward was clear but for the two men outside. Halley moved further into the brush, ignoring the flies and gnats that landed on her cuts, biting. She’d make her way around them and then double back for her bike. The two men talked quietly as they heard shouting inside. An alarm hadn’t been raised just yet. It would soon.
She was within sight of her bike when she heard the pounding of feet and screams. The bodies had been found. They were searching for her. Moving faster now, she parted the overgrowth, bow slung over her shoulder, one hand on her knife.
There. Her bike. The scrap gleamed from inside the cart. She stood and ran for it, only to be stopped short by a young man. The hair on his chin was still patchy and wiry and his body was lean. She guessed sixteen, seventeen at most. He looked terrified.
They stared at each other while the yelling behind them grew louder. Halley kept one hand on her knife. The boy had a hand on a holster. The group had guns, then. From the looks of it, this one was too young to have ever used his. His hesitation to kill worked in her favor.
Halley took her chance. She stepped forward and punched the kid in the face, hard. Something cracked under her knuckles. Without looking back, she grabbed her bike and dragged it back on to the road, cart bouncing wildly behind her. Scrap jangled at each bump, a chorus of bells marking her escape. She pedaled as fast as she could.
The scrap in the cart had quieted, but the gold fittings and copper wire she’d stolen from their stash jingled lightly in her pockets. Something good had come out of the stop after all. She took a quick glance behind her to see the boy, hand on his cheek, blood on his nose, watching her. Halley smiled and waved once with two fingers, like the tip of a hat. The salute of the scavenger. Then she turned back to the road and biked like hell to town.