Runners of the Wastelands

“There are twenty artefacts on the countertop, on the top floor of the Lewis temple, and there are fifty of you! One runner to represent each of the fifty tribes of the wastelands of Lond,” shouted the Announcer, his eyes shining white through purple face paint, one gloved hand lifting a burning torch high above his shoulder. He was building the tension, revelling in the buzz, simply enjoying the moment where all eyes were upon him, and all ears were tuned to his carefully projected words.

Tina stood on the scuffed tips of her steel toe caps to crane over the crowd of heads. She wanted to see him, to capture every moment in her memory of this spectacular event. He was standing on a mound of masonry and rubble from a recent house collapse, his ragged, tatty grey poncho teased by gusts. The frozen wind was picking up and creating havoc with building dust, causing the gathering of runners, who were eager to begin, to turn away, cover their eyes and huddle. The dark after twilight was encroaching and snow was starting to slowly corkscrew down from dense clouds.

Despite the cold and goosebumps, Tina Ren loved this time of year. Bonfires were burning across the city ruins, and it was strangely beautiful, especially as so many people were outside and unafraid, not cowering in the ruins or territorial zones. She listened to the crackle of slow-burning timber and watched the spiky flames poking over the rims of oil drums or heaped debris. It was Black Day, and the start of the celebration of the holiest date on the calendar.

She scanned the jagged length of the degraded city wall. Large sections of it still stood defiant, despite the apocalyptic attacks two centuries ago. There, still emblazoned on its brickwork, were the universally loved remains of the portrait. It was the original image of hope, of civilisation, it provoked people back to religion in their darkest hours. The picture was of the true God and was an inspiration for all, his divine name, smudged with time on the tall, ancient mural. Letters surfaced from the damaged image, to read: ta Clause, Yours on Interest. It was a cryptic, religious text, an old dialect. Ta Clause’s white beard trailed over his red portly stomach, one gloved hand outstretched high in the starry night of the picture, clutching a wrapped box, in victory. The image of God matched other ancient texts and images they had found crumpled or mostly burnt up in the rubble. God was an ethereal, legendary superman, a father figure, with a white beard, who lived in the sky, and who gave you what you prayed for if you asked. He was magical, omniscient and one day a year was everywhere, all at once, for everyone. Despite their differences, all the tribes would share ta Clause tattoos, bonding at least in a shared faith.

Around campfires and in the gathering hangers, the elders passed down the tales of a time when people would run and fight to attain valuable treasures, battling tooth and nail to be true takers, the keepers of the best resources. The tradition was sacred and to be selected to run on Black Day was an honour in each tribe of the wastelands of Lond.

Tina was fast, she was ferocious, and she had often dreamed of returning from the ritual with an ancient artefact for her people. It was the ultimate gamble for each runner, all the glory or all the shame. It was an honour, no question, to run for your people, but everyone knew that returning empty-handed meant failure for their tribe. If a runner returned to the Yule Tree with an artefact, a seat of governance in the Hall of Kings would be assured, but if not, or if left in a pool of blood on the road, the tribe would suffer without a voice, a slave to the bigger decisions, for one whole calendar year at least.

The Announcer shuffled on the precarious debris pile, wanting to feel stable and look stoic for the occasion.

“You have all been chosen by your people. You are all Merry Runners today, the best of your clans. Your goal, collect one artefact at any cost and return it to the Yule Tree. If you succeed your tribe will have a seat in the Hall of Kings for one year.”

The Yule Tree was just visible from the start line, it stood tall near the edge of the deserted palace, a towering but tired-looking artificial conifer adorned with candles, many of which had gone out, incapable of handling the intermittent wind. Its branches had been spray painted in the colours of each tribe and at the top of the tree, a yellow disc with a smiley face drawn on it, bobbed with the breeze.

“It’s Chrrissmasss!” he roared, which provoked the runners to cheer and scream in readiness. It was the traditional battle cry for Black Day.

“Five, four, three, two, one… Go!”

The runners erupted forward into the road and poured through the valley of the ruined street. Immediately, many fell, some stumbling with the momentum and uneven terrain, and others were pushed over by zealous competitors. Watchers cheered and jeered from the glass-less window frames of faded shop fronts. The chants of tribe names pulsed through the growing darkness.

Tina had a knuckle duster tight in her fist, but she was focused on running more than fighting. A fight would cost time, a fight was inefficient at the start of the run. She pounded her boots into the road, jumping over bodies and broken bricks. There were several faster men ahead of her but she knew the maze of the city well enough to find shortcuts that few tribes were aware of.

She peeled off from the main thoroughfare and angled toward the East. Some runners followed her, aware of her knowledge and eager to exploit it. Her dyed red ponytail was flicking her bare shoulders as it bounced hard with her footfalls. She had dressed for speed rather than protection, in a thin gym vest and joggers gifted her by the Elder. She had a disadvantage in that her boots were heavy, but she could still outpace most of those with more suited footwear. She listened as her breathing, and feet synchronised into a steady, predictable rhythm. She had outpaced rapists and killers every month in the debris and squalor of the destroyed city and she wasn’t about to slow down for anyone, for any reason.

The East Side was messier than the rest of the city and that was saying something, there were breezeblocks, missile tails, broken pipes and icy puddles to navigate, but she knew of an alley that fed directly to the street behind the John Lewis temple. Some families had gathered in the recesses and shacks to watch her approach, she was fast, her arms pumping high so her knees would follow.

“Go Tina! Ta Claus is with you!” yelled a bystander. She recognised the voice, one of the protectors in her tribe, a man that always greeted her warmly at the gates, when she returned from scavenger runs in the city outskirts before dawn. She smiled as she ran, fortified by the knowledge the tribe was with her.

Through the smallest of brick wall gaps, she squeezed, finding a near-impossible route between two buildings that had not disintegrated in the bombardments. Underfoot was a muddy slush, dead birds and crumpled plastics that could have been centuries old. She popped from the gap into an entirely different part of the city and sure enough, the John Lewis temple was close by, a towering, broad building at a crossroads. The dead metal carcasses of burnt-out cars were stacked in a makeshift wall around the temple. There had been many battles here, it was a symbolic place. The words, John Lewis were tall over the open doorway. As she picked up the pace, she was aware of other runners joining her, matching her speed. It was as if wolf packs had latched onto her scent and were tracking her with snarling muzzles, hungry for her flesh. Their snorts of breath made flumes from their mouths in the chill. They were visceral animals following instinct.

They funnelled into the smashed-open double-door entrance and one by one sprinted up the metal stairs of two parallel, long dead escalators. A large gripping hand tugged at her ankle to off-balance her as she leapt upward, so she swung a clenched fist in response. A bold-headed man adorning rodent skulls on his lapels toppled over the side of the escalator’s wall to land with a back-breaking ‘thwack’ on the tiles of the ground floor. She paused for the slightest second of regret, hearing him gasp in pain, shuddering in spasms on the ground. She shook her head as if shaking the weakness from her, hardening her resolve, and bounded up to level three.

The floor’s vast open space was a grave-like dark. All the runners were forced to slow to a walk and acclimatise their eyes. The escalators on this floor were twisted in collapse, like slain beasts, their metal steps like bones of a spine ripped out and strewn obtrusively about.

They would have to find a different way up. There were naked, featureless mannequins looming about them on plinths and stages, like embodied ghosts, staring yet eyeless, as the intruders flooded through their private kingdom.

Tina had good eyes, she could pick out the edges of the room, and the silhouettes of moving people. This place was eerie, a tomb of commerce left to rot. The runners skulked and darted, finding their way together as one, like a flock changing direction together in murmuration. They were heading to the open lift shaft with the notion to clamber up the suspended cables to the final floor. The counter of artefacts was only a floor up so for competitors it was time to even the odds. There was a palpable rise in tension and aggression in the air.

It began slowly, the fighting, there would be a sound of grunting, the beginnings of an encounter, an attack, and then a competitor falling into space down the elevator shaft. Like a spreading disease of violence, as the mob closed around the choke point of the lift shaft, closer to the sacred counter, they turned on each other. Long blades flashed and glimmered in the dark, followed by rage and screams and pain. They tussled and grappled, and more bodies fell into the gaping hole of the open shaft. There were always injuries and deaths, but this year seemed worse, more fevered than other years. It had been partly in the build-up, the talks and chatter, the imagination of grabbing the sacred items, it had generated a pure kind of desire, akin to addiction. Every runner wanted to possess an artefact, not as a means to an end, but as a matter of life and death.

Tina sensed the turmoil and frenzy and realised it would be foolish to run for the shaft. Instead, she jogged to the edge of the room to an open window and climbed out gingerly onto the ledge. The wind was stronger up high, the snow like a million racing bullets of light disorientating her as each frosty point of light arced into her eyes. She gripped the metal frame of the opening and dared to peer upward to see how she could make a move for the ledge above. It was tricky and required a small leap of faith, a jump up to grab the slippery sill of the window above. She counted to three, eyes fixed only on the handhold and didn’t hesitate when the moment came. Pulling her body weight up to the higher, narrow ledge was not a problem. The ruined city had long been her playground, her training, her every day since she was a small child. It never intimidated her, that’s why she was chosen. Falling into the room above, she let herself smile, it was an accomplishment. Several had died already from small mistakes, but not her, she was street-smart and quick to move.

There were two large men already at the sacred countertop, which had three evenly spaced tills aligned upon it. ‘Pay Here’, it said, on a faint sign dangling from the ceiling. She took a moment to evaluate and recognised their tribal colours. For the first time in the race, she flinched. One of them was a Jackal, and that did not bother her, but the other belonged to a fierce rival of her people, who called themselves The Eaters. They were cannibals, and at this time of year, were known to feast on competitors they killed and claimed for food for their tribe, after the race. Her knuckle duster was not enough but she couldn’t loiter, as others were emerging from the lift shaft, coated in blood and ready to engage.

She waited long enough for the Eater to grab an item, a flatscreen TV, one of the most sacred of artefacts but clumsy to manage on a return sprint. She guessed he would lose it to a rival, it was hard to manoeuvre with, let alone in a run. He skulked away into shadows, and as the Jackal grabbed something known as a toaster, she made her move. The right item would make it easier to succeed. She would forgo the temptation of snatching the most prestigious pieces like the food mixer and foot spa and make sure she could move easily with her prize.

There it was, the obvious choice, a box with the word Alexa on it. She grabbed it, but as her hand held it up, a woman from the shadows pounced on her, with clawing fingers. Stunned, Tina realised the horde was coming, spilling into the room from the elevator shaft. An uppercut to the jaw of her opponent sent the woman reeling into the countertop, crashing into a couple of artefacts. It was lucky as it distracted the mob approaching, who jumped onto her and the fallen items. There on the floor sprang a ball of frantic limbs, punches and grunts of pain.

As Tina ran back to the windows, she noticed a rucksack on a rail in the sports section, and in one fluid action tucked the Alexa inside it and swung the rucksack around her shoulders, leaving her hands free. As she climbed out of the window, she stole a look behind at the scene. It was a holy fight. People were clawing at eyes, smashing skulls on the countertop, and screeching into each other’s faces like rabid monsters. She grinned. It excited her. This was the culmination of the festive time. For generations before the End War, this had been a way of life for a sophisticated society. She was glad they had preserved some of history’s festivities at least. So much had been lost forever.

Back on the street, she had to adjust her strategy, to think differently. It was no longer an open run, concealment and stealth were now needed to avoid ambush. People had been torn to pieces over blenders and coffee machines in previous return runs. No competitor was safe from attack until they reached the sacred clearing of the Yule tree.

Through the gutters, face down in the dirt, she knew crawling would save her skin. Grime, debris and open sewage were just the grass and foliage of the time. She could use dirt as camouflage, snow as water, and damaged walls as cover. It was perfect terrain for evading pursuers. She could hear them dart by, yelling and desperate, scrambling and scanning for anyone with an artefact in their hands. Now and then, as she crawled, she heard the surge of attack as someone was picked off, someone who hadn’t been fast enough in retreat, or wise enough to hide the item in their possession.

She picked a path carefully to circle around the race. It would take longer but she would evade them all. As she approached the Yule Tree, no one stopped her, there was a kind of respect, a pact in the last few metres toward the end. The crowds were cheering her, the other runners were no longer chasing, and she walked the last steps to the base of the tree calmly, as it swayed with the winter weather.

Her tribal Elder, with his long trench coat and dirty beard, was there to greet her with his palms facing her in a gesture of recognition.

“Our tribe, the Consumers, wish you Happy Christmas, Tina Ren, your gift is a gift to all of us.”

He smiled warmly with compassion and gratefulness.

She smiled back and tucked her knuckle duster away into a side pocket of her newly acquired rucksack. She was exhausted but exhilarated. It had been the best day ever. She fished out the battered box of her artefact and placed it under an artificial branch of the tree. An adjudicator gestured for her to stand on a platform with the other winners. There were still a few places left to fill on the stage, but Tina had done what she had been asked to achieve. She faced the crowds who clapped and jumped in the air with the spectacle of the race end and a tree that was circled with big and small boxes.

The Eaters were in the crowd, she noticed. They weren’t permitted to hurt her now and they looked solemn. She had been right about their champion, he had picked the biggest artefact and not only lost it to the mob but had been murdered in the affray. They had retrieved his body and dumped it at the feet of the Eaters Elder, a tubby old man with rotten yellow teeth. No doubt they would devour him. If not a competitor, it would be the runner himself to feed them that Black Day. She could hear them mutter in unison their pre-dinner ceremonial prayer.

“Give us this day our daily dead, and make us truly thankful…” they chanted softly, knives drawn for carving.

Tina sighed with a warm inner glow, despite her chronic shivering. The snow, the fires, the gift she had given her people, it was all exactly what she loved about Black Day and as she wiped someone’s blood away from her forearm, she felt entitled to enjoy her success.

The End

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