Chapter I: A Graceful Encounter.

The way I see it, none of the stories mean anything to us now. It doesn’t matter if the world was once livable or if it has always been so bleak and desolate. All these happy thoughts of the past are merely a refuge for those who refuse to accept that the world around us is hell. Every day a repeat of the last, struggling to survive so we can all struggle again tomorrow. I know, depressing stuff from a nineteen-year-old kid. Sue me.

I watch as the sun creeps over the crestfallen skyline, casting the world in a familiar bitter taupe. The city below me wakes gradually as I stretch out on the floor, my body tense as always. The compilation of mats and scraps of fabric I call a bed does nothing in terms of support for my back or neck. My eyes drift over the skyline as I lean over my knees and grab my feet, the vertebrae in my spine cracking along the way. My face gives away no emotion, but I enjoy watching the sun rise over my city. It is one of the few simple things left in life. The soft first light glittering in the splintered glass buildings across the city and, if I squint, I can almost imagine it whole again. After a few more minutes the sun will rise into the fog and be lost behind the haze and all I'll see is the city as it is: broken and still falling. That brief moment in the early morning is one of the few things that remind me of how innocent the world may have been such a time ago. 

As the sun continues its lazy accent I stand and look around my room while I think about the day’s work ahead, which is about as depressing as ever. The old wallpaper has long since peeled away leaving a dull and chipped yellow muck. The door has been stolen from another room down the hall and poorly placed on a single rusty hinge. A dark brown carpet makes nauseating slurping noises under each step, waterlogged from years of rain water flowing in freely through a missing wall. The wide-open space where the wall used to be lets in ample muggy air which mingles with an old, damp smell that lingers in my room, likely caused by some unseen rot. The only piece of furniture is a small dresser beside the bed, two of its original three drawers till intact with the bottom recess now acting as an impromptu shelf for measly scraps and canned goods.

Slowly I get up, I open a drawer and dress in a loose pair of cargo pants and a burgundy shirt with sleeves that extend as far as my elbows. It's the same outfit as yesterday, and the day prior, and so on. I walk a few steps to the bowl that rests on a box in the corner and carefully pour some murky water from a jug into the basin to wash myself. As I lift my shirt up and use it to dry my face, I peer into the broken chunk of glass that I use for a mirror and look myself over. The scars criss-crossing my arms and torso tell stories of close calls and over confidence, each standing out against my dark complexion in the morning light. Nearly six-feet from my toes I rake my fingers through a tangled mess of short, brown hair in an attempt to shake free any excessive dirt or dust. Resigned to a job half done I finish drying off I walk to the other end of my small room to the large opening that drops off into open air and dump my waste and rubbish into the junk filled alleyway below.

I know today is going to be long, so I pack some gear in a sack and throw it over my shoulder, then strap my knife to my belt. I look at the bottom of the dresser to confirm what I already know: my food supply is all but nonexistent. I have to get more in the only place I can, the tradelands on the outskirts of the city. I set off, leaving my room and running down nineteen flights of stairs, dashing through the lobby and out the missing double doors.

I try to avoid being seen whenever I leave the old One Aldwych Hotel. Once upon a time the place was a small building of only six or seven floors but at some point around 2025 the whole thing had been remade to be the most luxurious hotel in the world and one of the tallest buildings in London. Almost none of the old building remained but they had kept the title. Then the war came and went, taking half of the city with it, and this hotel was no exception. Now it is abandoned, dilapidated, and has been deemed unsafe for years. But it is the only place my enemies never seem to find me. It is the only place I can sleep without fearing for my life.

Times are hard and anyone who hasn’t learned how to handle the broken new world we live in is long gone. Those unfortunate few who don't know how to survive have either succumbed to a corrupt force or died. The numerous gangs that run the streets are ruthless. With the scarce supplies left, cannibalism is even an option amongst the starved and deranged. The gangs are constantly fighting each other when they’re not busy killing the innocent, putting pressure on vendors and craftsmen to sell for cheaper or just hand over the little they have in exchange for protection from other gangs. Nowhere is truly safe anymore, especially for someone who has crossed any one of the major gangs before, someone like me.

Despite the depraved mongrels and street fighters that populate the streets, and the mob bosses pulling the stings in cities like mine, there is still a larger threat thats always looming over us. 

The Unitariate. 

After the war ended, the rich took control, forming one massive conglomerate that took charge. They consisted of five families that controlled some of the remaining major cities still standing after the war. They did not use their wealth or power to help rebuild, instead they built walls around their tiny empires, sealing out the rabble and extending their hand only to those who could afford the lavish lifestyle they lived. Any city not deemed worthy of living in had been renamed Squalls, and left to run themselves into the ground. Aside from a few supply ships sent once a month, the Unitariate did nothing to help. Even this small act of compassion was designed to keep their pockets lined with the little money and resources we had to offer in return. I suspect they hoped we would just kill each other until none of us remained, and if things continue the way they are, they may just get their wish. 

Some of the vendors at the tradelands tell me stories about the war. How the world was once made of seven continents and blue oceans before the war broke out, fought over greed and fed by corruption. Every country had used different weapons, some great land in the east had used technology to throw North and South America into the dark ages after North America used a seismic weapon to reverse the motion of tectonic plates, causing typhoons and earthquakes globally, drastically altering fault-lines and leaving entire nations leveled. This included much of ours. All the while Russia dropped nuclear war heads across the world, erasing entire civilizations. India had been completely separated from the rest of Asia and turned into its own massive island content. Parts of every nations coast had been pulled into the sea while new mountain ranges emerged out of the depths in the Atlantic. Despite the curiosity and wonder theses stories instilled in me when I was younger, now I simply can’t bring myself to care. The only kind of ocean I have ever seen is a choppy green-grey muck; as if some thousand bowls of old pea soup had been regurgitated into one giant basin.

As I make my way down the nearly deserted streets I notice the first signs of life in the early morning, some rodents digging in a bin, a few vultures circling in the sky, but no people yet which comes as no surprise. The only people who still live in the city are either on the edge of death, part of a gang, or one of the craftsmen who are likely already at or on their way to the tradelands with their little families. I hastily make my way to an old factory complex where I’ve managed to hide a small ride, a hovord. I had gotten it at the tradelands on my last trip for no small fee, but it was worth it.

The hovord is as old as it is unreliable. The tech is from way back in 2037 and it shows. Back then natural gasses were running low and manually powered vehicles were dated. So scientists tried to create a system that sent air rapidly through the base of a small round disk of metal for propulsion, using the human respiratory system as a gage for speed, with solar panels on the top of the disk for a constant power source. Basically, the faster you breathe, the faster you go. And to steer all you gotta do is lean. Pretty good system till you find yourself breathing just a little too fast. A little waiver on the side reads in fine print: “Not recommended for individuals suffering from asthma or anxiety.” Naturally, I try to keep my breathing levels consistent.

In no time I am crossing over Aldersgate st, making great progress through the streets without any sort of altercation or confrontation, and so long as my luck doesn't give out I’m betting I will make it back to may safe room before night falls. But of course, nothing is ever that simple.

KRAANG! My hovord connects with something solid that’s been swung towards me and suddenly I am flying and the world is spinning. I have no grasp on where the horizon line is or how far away the harsh ground may be, waiting to greet me rather suddenly. My landing is thankfully, slightly softer than expected though questionably favorable. My shoulder makes a loud crack as it connects with the side of a dumpster while the rest of me is protected by old garbage. Lovely.

“Well, well, well, as I live and breath, Thatcher Grayson! You still 'live huh” Chuck croons, swinging a long steal pipe around like a cricket bat as he walks towards me “well in that case I guess I get to be da one who takes ya to old boss man now don’t it?”

"Still haven't managed to find a dictionary in all your time scavenging huh?" I ask through clenched teeth, groaning through the pain as I roll out of the dumpster and onto the ground with a thud. Chuck’s a small time mobster who’s bark is well known and who’s bite is about as painful as a pin prick. I allow him to talk a short while longer while pull myself onto my feet, relocate my shoulder, and wipe myself off as best I can.

“You know” he continues, ignoring me completely, “we’s been lookin' fer ya fer a few weeks now, where ya been hidden at aye? Aww, it don’t mater if you don’t wanna tell me, cause I got ya now don’t I”

“Do you?” I ask, and in on swift movement I have him pinned against an old brick wall with my knife to his throat, his pipe chattering on the ground. “Now, tell me which gang you’re hanging around these days and tell me what they want from me”.

“Oi! No need to get violent mate, I’m just a messenger all right?” suddenly he doesn’t seem so cocky. “All I’m ‘ere to say is, well, ole Kingsley is convinced you the thief that stole some file from his compound a few weeks ago, and, well, he ain’t real chipper bought it, seems he’s got a hit out on yer arse.”

None of this comes as a surprise to me. The real surprise was that he hasn’t sent the hit out sooner. The job had been sloppy as it were. I was hired by an opposing mob boss to break in to a gang called “The Royals” run by a rather notorious self righteous bloke who refers to himself as "Kingsley" and grab some papers that had inside info on the gang. Blueprints of their compound and some schedules for shipments of smuggled supplies. 

I had gotten in and found his private office easy enough, and the papers I needed were just sitting there. I was about to grab them and go as planned when something had caught my eye. A diamond the size of my big toe was sitting on a shelf with a bag just by it. I peered in the bag and saw the whole thing contained precious stones. Without hesitating I had grabbed the bag setting off a basic pressure alarm. It was a rookie mistake. I barely had time to get out of the place before every living thing inside was searching for me.

But why would Kingsley, a man with more than enough connections to hired guns and hit men, send this low life after me? Unless there was something else he wasn’t telling me.

“What’s the contract?” I ask.

“What bloody contract!”

“The one Kingsley’s got on me, what is it for?”

“Oh, That one.” Chuck responds plainly, “well, it isn’t the normal find and kill contract, see, he seems to want to kill you himself. So he’s offering fifty solid to anyone that can bring you to him in tact”

Fifty! That’s a hefty sum; the bag I had stolen was worth maybe half that amount. Fifty would have me set for a full year. I know I’m wasting my time standing here talking to the lowlife who thinks he can take me in. I still have to get to the tradelands.

“Thank you for your time chuck, you’ve been most helpful” I say very casually as I slam the handle of my blade into his temple and watch him collapse on the cold, uneven cobblestones. I un-shoulder my pack and bring out some old wire ties and secure both of chucks hands to my old friend the dumpster. I don’t want another visit from the bastard when he wakes up.

I waste too much time walking about searching for the hovord and when I finally find it, it is miraculously still in one piece but has a nice dent in the front. Unsure if it will still work, I gingerly set it on the ground and step on. I kneel down to push the tiny blue button set in the side and take a deep breath. The board hums to life and lifts off the ground before starting back down the street.

The sun is now high in the sky telling me nearly half of my day is already over. Despite my better judgment I quicken my breathing. Faster and faster I shoot down the road. I steal a glance over my shoulder and see a wake of dust and papers in the air behind me. I look around trying to asses how close to the tradelands I am which isn’t easy to do considering the constant fog filling every street and alleyway.

I make my way onto the remains of an old overpass telling me I am getting close. I slow down and take a right onto a road identifiable by the makeshift wooden sign set up beside it. On it under a layer of dust and grime I can read the words "Tradelands" in crudely painted black letters with an arrow pointing towards the strip of land that used to act as a commercial airport. Now the only aircrafts that ever come or go are the supply carriers the Unitariate sends. After a few more minutes I see what I am looking for.

The tradelands are a small set of dirt packed hills with a broken plain of asphalt situated in the middle where the few supply crafts that are permitted by the Unitariate travel to once a month bringing food rations and other goods. Due strictly to convenience all the local venders have just set up camp here in an effort to avoid lugging any of their cargo further than they had to. Looking out at the asphalt I see the stretch of white tents, old steel boxes that used to be some sort of transportation now act as food trucks and small shops. Picnic tables, booths filled with knick-knacks and toys for children, and booths with food and supplies. All the vendors are pact so closely together that the tradelands resemble more of a maze than a marketplace. Then you add the element of hundreds of people bumping into you and rushing around as if their lives depend on it, which of course it does, and you get one hell of a shopping experience. 

I stash my hovord in a crack in a wall behind a decaying alleyway and make the remainder of my journey on foot. Down into the maze of booths and tents I find the vendors I’m looking for fast. With the little time I have left to linger I push and squeeze my way through the hoard. I go to JJ and get a good supply of canned beans and mystery meat as well as a little rice. Then I head over to Helena and get a small vile of water purifier. It’s pricy but cheaper than buying the water itself. I pay her with one of my smaller diamonds and I’m on my way. It goes on like this for over an hour and by the time I’m done I have a months worth of food and supplies in my pack.

I am about to leave when something catches my eye, A booth standing apart from the others that I have never noticed before. I walk to it and inspect the vendor’s curious inventory. Before me is an unusual looking knife that has a basic handle and a double sided blade but about half way up the blade seems to separate from itself creating two new blades. The end result looks like the fork in a snakes tongue. I also see jars on a shelf that are filled with bizarre colored liquids that for the most part hide the contents of the jar, though one of them seems more transparent. As I look into the jar, I realize another eye is looking right at me.

 I look behind me to see if anyone else has noticed the strange booth.

“They cannot see us my child.” A raspy voice chills from somewhere behind me. I turn back to the booth to see the owner of the voice and, spinning much to fast, find myself slipping in the mud and landing hard on my arse. 

“Now now, what are you going to accomplish from down there? Hmm” the voice adds. 

I look up and see a woman, old and wrinkled with a slight green tint to her flesh; prominent cheek bones pressing agains the thin skin. Her wide eyes are nearly too large for her frail face, yet seemingly not in alarm, she appears quite content actually. Her hair is unkempt and cut unevenly, as if she has been attacked by an angry pair of scissors. A strange smell lingers about her, and it takes me a moment to realize its gasoline. The pungent liquid has been out of use for decades now and I’ve only been near it once during a scavenge job in an old junk heap years ago. I stand up and gape at her for a moment before I finally say something.

“Who are you?” I mumble, still a bit unnerved.

“Me?” the woman responds grandly, “I am the great, Lady Grace. But you may call me Grace.”

The name doesn’t suit her. She seems more like a thin Helga to me, but I keep that thought to myself.

“So, what do you sell here?”

“I do not sell” Grace says.

“Then what are these things here for?”

“They are for the rare who find me.” She responds ambiguously.

“What do you mean those who can find you? You’re in the middle of the tradelands?”

“Is that where I am? Huh, I thought something seemed off. But not many are able to find me you see, and those who do, often wish they hadn’t. Sadly, I am known to bring pain and hardship. Once you have seen me, your journey has begun. That is why I bear these gifts, to offer to doomed souls in an effort to help them. So, now that you are here, please, take a token of my sorrow with you.” she says plainly while sweeping her arm over the cluttered table.

Almost none of what the strange woman says makes a lick of sense, but the lady did say she was giving, so I have every intention of taking. I scan the table for what I think would be the most valuable item, not one to waste an opportunity. I see an old compass, a map, a sword, a pin with a bird, a couple of books, a willowy stick, a strange jar of purple liquid, but nothing takes my fancy. Old Grace seems to catch on to my lack of enthusiasm and begins rummaging vigorously in a trunk behind her, insisting she has what I am looking for.

“Hold on, hold on, I've got just the thing. Aha!” She stands abruptly holding something tight in her fist. “This, this is what you want, this will show you the way, this will seal your fate.” She announce all this quite dramatically, and as she opens her hand I half expect some holy light to shine down on me. What happens instead is far less grand. Resting in her palm was a small circle with spokes along the outside and a hole in the middle with a thin chain looped through it.

“Its, a cog.” I state half heartedly.

“Yes!” She smiles and nods her head as if it is the greatest gift in the world.

Reluctantly I take the cog and throw it around my neck. It seems to make Grace happy and it hasn’t cost me a thing.

“So, what do I do with this cog?" I ask.

In response, she points a long boney finger back toward the city were I can see what remains of the once great landmarks. Tower Bridge had been bombed and only half of it still stands. St. Stephen's Tower is in tact though it has been silent for decades with the big hand lingering only a minute before the hour, and the One Aldwych Hotel, once tall and grand, now a third its old height and crumbling to pieces. Even the old Gherkin building has held onto its place on the horizon, if only just barely. The scene depresses me and I have no clue what the cog around my neck has to do with it.

Hoping for the slightest hint of clarity I turn back to Lady Grace but she has vanished. Not only is she gone, but so is the booth and all of the strange items it held. Even the smell of gasoline has dissipated. Every last bit of Grace has left the tradelands.

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