It was called different things by different people. The Event. The Zero Hour. The majority call it the Decimation. It became the most apt description with everything that was lost. With everyone who had been lost. It had decimated the government and the rule of law and broken the spirits of almost everyone.
The caravan breathed a sigh of relief as they arrived outside the settlement before sunset. It wasn’t safe to be on the roads at night even for a group as large as theirs. They had begun as a family of four, John, his mother, his father and his brother. But it had now become a mismatched pilgrimage of twenty strangers, the only motive for their alliance being safety in numbers and the rumours of safe living and work in the north.
The main bulk of the reclaimed hamlet was still abuzz with workers and traders, but this group of new arrivals knew to keep their distance. This was the way it was done now. The group had no idea of what motives this settlement would have, and the settlement would be wary of twenty travellers arriving all at once. Half a mile away they found an abandoned bungalow. Two of the larger, more intimidating men checked the inside and found it empty. Like all of the homes everything of use had been taken. The windows were smashed but left enough sharp shards to stop anyone from just charging in and the doors had been broken in but could be barricaded while they slept. And so, the group began to set up camp.
John’s father had become the pseudo-leader of the group, simply from being the first to take charge as they travelled north. He ordered two of the group to begin guard duty, with another two to take over in a few hours. Others began to unpack pots and tins and camping stoves to prepare dinner. The few teenagers of the group had become the babysitters and found an empty bedroom to take the children to play. John moved to join them when his father grabbed his arm.
“You’re with me. I need you to find the kettle boilers and charge the gear.”
It was amazing that even after the Decimation, even after the power went out and the water stopped running, people still seemed so dependent on their little devices. MP3 players, e-readers, handheld game consoles. Little souvenirs of when life was happy and not frightening. Songs and stories that helped you ignore the cold and the dark. Settlements like this not only had farms for food and water but usually one or two ingenious folk who traded in another commodity. Electricity. They would have gathered up the resources not long after the crisis. Solar panels and inverters, banks of old car and truck batteries. They had earned the nickname ‘kettle boilers’. Trust the British to find a way to get their power back on and think of putting the kettle on first. Every settler considered them as important as any farmer or trader. They gave them light in the long dark nights. It attracted occasional trouble from raiding groups, but everyone agreed it was better to see the danger than worry about the unknown.
While John went to find the kettle boiler, his father went in search of the “mayor”. He would introduce the group to arrange trade in the morning, and hopefully arrange work for credit. The group had some things to barter. Money meant nothing now. Jewellery was cheap but still held some nostalgic value. Medicines were the most important, basic toiletries could even earn you a meal. You’d be surprised how much people would give for proper toilet paper. But the main way of trading for a travelling group like this was labour. A couple of days working fields or building shelters could get them another 100 miles on their way. But work became rarer as the days went on. Settlements were already full and wouldn’t lose resources on unneeded help, which was why the group was making its way north.
The kettle boiler was happy to make the trade, a full charge of two MP3 players and a tablet for a can of WD40, three cans of tinned meat and a pack of multivitamins. It would be an hour or so while the devices charged. The old man tried to make conversation.
“Where’ve you come from?”
John wasn’t interested. He kept his gaze to the shadows in the distance.
“Heard about nasty stuff going on down there with the army remnants. No wonder you left.”
“Heading north then?”
“Afraid I’ve not heard much better from the travellers coming down. Hardly any talk north of the Antonine. What about you?”
John didn’t reply.
No one ever heard anything better. North, south, east or west, every settlement only had bad news to share, and every group of travellers only had the rumours of sanctuary. All John and his family had was the last message from his older brother saying it was safe in Scotland. The two sat in silence until the devices were charged.
Back at the bungalow the groups had eaten and settled around the light of a few broken candles. The teenagers now crowded together listening through an old speaker to whatever songs had been popular last year. There was some idle talk, but everyone was ready to sleep to get ready for the two days work John’s father had managed to arrange. John sat with his brother, just eight years old, while he watched the same cartoon he always watched on the now charged tablet.
It had been hard on the kid. He cried for days when he had to leave his toys behind at home. When he couldn’t stop walking when he was tired. When he had to eat baked beans every night. But the crying stopped eventually and now he had become used to this new routine. It made John sad to think about it. The odd shaped characters on the screen danced to their silly tunes for the millionth time. His brother hummed along, uncaring. John cuddled him tight and hummed along as well.