An excerpt from BY THE FEET OF MEN (chapter one)
After the boys had finished unloading the cargo, Ghazi climbed into the back and gave the faulty battery the once-over. Cassady ran his hands over the tyre treads. They weren’t bald yet.
Ghazi poked his head out. ‘It looks fried. I’ll try to charge it, but don’t hold out much hope.’
Cassady closed his eyes for a moment and quelled the spark of anger that wanted to take hold. ‘How?’
‘Can’t tell. Pushed her too hard in the heat, maybe. Or it might just have been its time. Old model. Anyway, looks like we’re running on a single until we find a proper town.’
‘Wind’s picking up, so at least we can charge the other one. We may need to leave at short notice.’
‘You don’t trust Quentin.’
‘That man is too accustomed to giving orders and being obeyed for his hospitality to benefit us.’
While Cassady worked a splinter from between his teeth, Ghazi took the wind turbine from its storage tube and set it up on the roof. He pulled the blades into position and fed the lead through an opening at the top of the hood into the cab and then into the battery. The vanes began to chase one another and the yellow LED winked on.
‘When it’s charged I’ll try the other,’ Ghazi said, closing the cab door and locking it. ‘I’m going to see if I can find a book.’
Cassady smiled. When he wasn’t behind the wheel or repairing the rig, his co-driver spent his time reading anything he could get his hands on. He was one of the few who still bothered. Books couldn’t be eaten or traded or used as weapons. They were only good for burning. In the early years of the Change, the survivors had thrown them onto fires to make it through the still cold winters. As a younger man, Ghazi had gone into the dead cities in search of untouched libraries and bookstores. Cassady had put a stop to it when they’d joined forces. It was worth the risk.
‘Not hungry?’ he asked.
‘I’ll eat when I’m done. I guess it won’t take long.’
‘Then I’ll take a look around the camp, too.’
Ghazi nodded at the rig. ‘Okay leaving her on her own?’
‘She’s all locked up. Meet back in ten.’
Ghazi ghosted between the shacks and disappeared. Cassady sighed and stretched his arms. He was beat, but the thought of the faulty battery wouldn’t allow him to relax. He couldn’t remember when they’d come by it. His memory was getting worse with each summer that passed. There had been a time when he’d only needed to hear a name once for it to stay lodged in his head. Now he was already struggling to recall the name of the head honcho of this pitiful camp.
A cough that started deep in his chest had him doubled over with his arms wrapped around his stomach. His lungs were on fire. After a minute of agony it stopped. He took a drink of water from his canteen and leaned against the hood of the rig. The road was getting to him. A few days in a larger settlement would be no bad thing. All he wanted was a river to wash away the lice, a warm meal that tasted of something other than grease and Cosinex, and a night of uninterrupted sleep.
He struck out along the main path that cut through Verne. The camp was quiet. Places like this always were once night fell. Only a fool advertised their position when they could no longer see well enough to protect themselves. Dwellings fanned out on either side: corrugated iron shacks, wooden huts, vehicle bodies, canvas bivouacs designed to be taken down in a hurry. Squat solar stills that were little more than a black tray with a plastic cone and a spout at the top had been set up wherever there was a free space to distil the water they had managed to collect. The air was heavy with sweat and incinerated plastic and illness. Few lights burned inside the shelters. As he walked past the doorways, he caught snatches of conversation. The water shortage was on their minds. Verne was vulnerable. He didn’t hold out much hope for it. Setting up a new camp always came with a cargo full of risk. A lack of food and water, disease, infighting, flash floods, dust storms, the baking sun. They were a prime target for nomadics too. Virtually no defences to deal with, and Quentin hadn’t even put sentries on the gate. One guard watching the road from a tree house didn’t cut it. A few men with rifles and bows could take this place. The settlers would be cut down where they stood and the dwellings would be razed. Cassady shivered. As soon as morning broke, they were getting out.
At the end of the trail was an old windowless substation that had been turned into a bunker. Behind it, pylon legs jutted out of the ground, rising to a height overlooking the station’s flat roof. A lamp hung from one of the legs and a limp flag from the other. Two generators thrummed next to the squat building and thick cables disappeared through a small hole in its side. Loopholes had been hacked into the brick and a sandbag fortification, vacant now, had been set up on the roof. Next to the entrance was a crude metal barricade that could be dragged in front of the opening in the event of an attack. One of the boys who had helped to take the cargo from Warspite stood by the door, leaning against a crude pike with a look of boredom on his face. When he spotted Cassady approaching he straightened up and stared at him with cold interest. The Runner stopped and plugged a new stick of root in his mouth. The stench of Verne’s latrine pits drifted over from their location in the forest. He spat a long stream of saliva into the dust. It wouldn’t take a minute to walk over and take a look inside the bunker, but that would mean dealing with Quentin again. The man might not be so easy to shake a second time. The boy’s hands wrung the body of the pike like it was a wet rag. Cassady winked at him, turned away and started back to his rig.
As he neared the end of the thoroughfare once more, he spotted movement near Warspite. It was too furtive and unsure to be Ghazi. Keeping low and on the balls of his feet, Cassady left the track and squeezed between a tent and a lean-to. The trees whispered with the wind, damping the sound of his boots hitting the ground. He peered into the shadows and recognised the rig’s bulky form and the blades spinning on the roof. And there, by the hood, the silhouette of a man. He ducked back behind the tent, blood pounding in his temples. Either the man was friendly or he was not, but he would have to find out either way. Another peek. Some kind of tool glinted in the man’s hand. As Cassady watched, the man bent over, wedged it into one of Warspite’s headlight sockets and yanked the cover off. A cold fury made rational thought impossible. Cassady fished the wad of root out his mouth and dropped it on the floor. From his belt he took a switchblade knife and snapped it open. If the thief damaged or stole the light, it could be weeks before they found a replacement. But if he made too much noise trying to take the bastard out, the whole settlement could come down on them, which meant they probably wouldn’t make it out alive. He focused on the back of the man’s neck, knife held in a tight grip, and covered the dead ground at a jog.