I first see him stumbling through the junk, tripping over jutting pieces, barely remaining upright as a Collector pushes him forward. He’s clearly not used to walking in the gear, his heavy boots catching on scattered debris, his shoulders hunched with the weight of it. His gloved hands keep reaching for the face mask, but he doesn’t have the dexterity to undo it as he goes. Luckily.
Right before he reaches my sector, the inevitable happens. I watch in slow motion as he miscalculates a step and lifts his thick-soled foot too little, lurching forward and falling face first into the rusted body of a 20st century car. If he’s punctured his suit then that’s that.
The Collector kicks him once, twice, five times in quick succession. Each blow sticks. He’s not used to defending himself. Finally, he musters the strength to get up and move forward to where I’m stationed.
“Recycler, this is X-5783. Instruct him.”
The Collector leaves. He steps over the junk with the grace afforded him by years of experience, lighter equipment and adequate nutrition.
“X, huh?” I say to the newcomer.
He doesn’t respond, doesn’t even raise his eyes from the ground.
“X – that’s convict, right? What did you do?”
Still no response.
“Alright then, here goes. Not rocket science, really. We dig through the trash mountain to save every goodie we can find. Copper’s good, intact glass is great – bottles, jars – gold is excellent. And the most valuable, of course – foodstuffs. Cans are your best bet, but bags are good too as long as they’re hermetically sealed. Food’s rare though, Recyclers dig for years without finding any. But if you do get something edible, you’re golden. Don’t need to find anything else that day and the next day’s off. At least that’s how it works for us, Gens. I don’t know about X.”
“Have you ever found food?”
His voice is hoarse and quiet, yet he sounds much younger than I’d realized. I can’t really see his face beneath the mask.
“He talks! I did actually, yes. I found a tiny, unopened baby food container. It had this beautiful orange color, and it said Peach and Banana. I just stared at it for the longest time. Such an incredible color. Babies had it good in the day. You have any idea what those taste like? Peach and Banana?”
He says nothing, but instead fidgets with his mask again.
“Don’t do that,” I say, “this air will kill you.”
“But I can’t breathe.”
“Nah, it’s just a sensation. If you breathe in the outside air, it will really make you sick. Look at me, I’ve been working all my life with it on and I’m fine.”
“All your life?” he asks, lowering himself slowly to the ground.
“Yes. Now, come on, don’t sit, it’ll be harder to get up, and you might puncture your suit.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“Sure, you can.”
I haul him up by his arm and continue digging in the junk around me. It’s been a good day. A length of copper, three jars complete with lids and, best of all, an old motherboard.
“This is a productive spot, but you have to really plough into it. Some of the best stuff sinks bellow the bulky, useless pieces. It took me half a day of excavating to reach the board.”
He’s still not touching anything, almost like he’s afraid it’ll bite.
A glint beneath the surface catches my eye. A glint is good. Could be jewelry, or, even better, canned goods. Unfortunately, there’s a heavy iron pole on top of the pile.
“C’mon,” I gesture to the new guy, “help me move this, I can’t manage alone.”
We count to three, but I’m the only one who lifts.
“Wow, this is heavy. I can’t do it, I’ll throw out my back.”
“Don’t you sit down again,” I say. “If we can’t lift it, we’ll have to push it off. It’s in your best interest really, because my Cart is pretty full already, but you have nothing. Do you know what that means? No rations.”
He just stares at me, infuriatingly.
“Seriously,” I say, “where did you come from? You’re acting like this is your first day outside. Why are you shaking like that?”
To my horror, I realize he’s crying.
“Oh, no. You’re not – are you from – from the Shelter?”
“Yes,” he says between sobs, “I was sentenced – to – to expulsion.”
I’m stunned. For a moment I look around me, trying to imagine what he must be seeing. Collapsed buildings, exposing rusted iron beams and crumbled brick, beneath an overbearing, gray sky. Mountains of mingled trash flowing between the ruins, like rivers of decay, heading out to the sea of ended civilization.
But it’s the clouds that get you. Thick, low-hanging, enclosing. So solid, you could grasp them, hold them in your palm, push them aside to reach the blue sky behind them. Pepsi cap blue, I was told.
“Have you never seen the outside before?”
“No.” He sounds more composed. “I was aware of the decontamination efforts, but all I’ve ever seen are images from before.”
“Decontamination? You mean the recycling? The scavenging?””
“No, the –”
He looks at me for a moment.
“You say you’ve lived out here all your life?”
“Yea, I have.” I can’t sit around any longer, so I try to push the pole myself. I can still use my hands for tasks like these, no problem. It’s the finer stuff, giving my fingers trouble.
“I’m a Gen. You know, my grandparents were accused in the Trials. Found guilty of profiting from climate destabilization, so they had no chance at a Shelter. They worked in some company, I don’t know the details, but it caused a lot of pollution, and they were found responsible, together with other colleagues. Not low enough to claim ignorance, not high enough to walk free.”
I finally clear the obstruction and look underneath. The ground is too far to see. On the sides of the mound I can count down the stories of the buildings. One, two, three.
“How did you survive out here?”
“Doing my job, of course. I’m assigned to this sector, and I’m great at finding treasures. I’ve earned double rations loads of times, and I do my best to stretch and improve fine mobility during allotted Coffin time. Otherwise these suits will stiffen you right up, with the boots and the gloves and all.”
“It’s where we sleep and we – you don’t want to hear about that. Now come on, dig, time’s wasting. While we search you can tell me about the Shelters, is it true you don’t wear any gear in there at all?”
“No gear. No mask. I worked in food sorting and –”
Before I can say anything, he’s thrown down by a gust of Wall Wind onto the top of a dismembered plastic table. Soon it’s dislodged, together with a wave of wrappers and crumpled paper, and my friend slides away.
When I heard the Wind – you hear it before you feel it – I ducked and made myself into a ball, as small as possible. I want to rescue him, but running on the garbage is tricky, as air pockets could be anywhere beneath the surface. One false step and everything moves around like quick sand, and you’re trapped, sinking.
“Don’t move, just wait for me.”
Too late. He’s already on his feet, making huge strides towards me without even looking down. His arms jerk, he yells and then disappears.
I shift unsteadily in his direction, trying not to fall in the same sink hole. Luckily, I see his arm within my reach and pull him out. Supporting most of his weight, we make our way back to where I left my Collection Cart.
“You gotta be careful with these Wall Winds, nothing stands in their way. Best to just lie flat on your belly and hope your Cart is still there when it’s over. Now, help me get that shiny thing I saw earlier, and if it’s good I’ll let you keep it. The Collectors will be back soon, and your Cart is empty.”
He helps me remove indiscriminate pieces of plastic and metal, bags wrapped around trinkets that can’t be untangled, carcasses. Those are the worst. Things that used to live, constricted in a synthetic environment that slowed their decomposition. Lack of water, shortage of bacteria. Even through the industrial gloves they feel soft and wet.
We’ve dug a hole deep enough to fit me, and, at the bottom, I finally put my hand on a piece of metal. It doesn’t come out smoothly, but I wriggle it free.
“Hey, what are you doing? That’s not yours!” I hear X scream.
I jump to see outside my hole and immediately scramble to get out, but it’s too late. Three people in dirty gray wear are escaping with the entire content of my Cart without a backward glance. I’m hot in pursuit, with X right behind me, but their shoes are better adapted to speed. These aren’t recyclers. They’re pillagers.
With such a slow start, and boots made for stability, we wouldn’t have caught them anyway, but to make sure, my friend trips and lands on his belly, spreadeagle. I slow, waiting for him to recover, but he’s motionless.
For a moment, I’m torn. The thieves are gone, and the new guy isn’t moving. I go to him.
I bend over to flip him, but he doesn’t budge, and then I see why. The cord transporting oxygen to his mask has come undone, and he hasn’t actually tripped, but fainted. I plug it back as fast as possible, securing it against leakage and hoping it isn’t too late.
He wakes up coughing.
“You were out for a spell, friend. Gotta be more careful with the gear, it’s old and worn.”
I help him sit and join him.
“So, tell me, why’d they kick you from the Shelter?”
“Why are there carcasses between the trash?”
“From when the seas overflowed. The waves brought in the trash, the bags, the plastic, the fish and the birds. Then the water evaporated, and here we are, sitting on a treasure mountain of our own making.”
We’re quiet for a while. It’s almost dark, the Collectors will soon be here.
“The answer is no,” he says.
I wait for him to continue.
“No, I have never tasted Banana or Peach, or any other fruit for that matter. That’s why I was evicted. I stole a jar of Apricot jam from the food sorting station. I knew it was wrong. We share everything, I might have had a taste of the jam anyway. But I wanted it all to myself, every last drop. I guess it’s in my nature.”
There is no sun. The clouds turn deep purple, and we are no longer surrounded by objects, but shadows of forgotten past.
I remember what I have in my pocket. In my hurry to run after the thieves, I put it there and then forgot. I show my friend, and he stares wide-eyed from beneath his mask.
“Yes, my friend, tinned Strawberries.”
We open the can and share possibly the last Strawberries on earth.