She looked at the machine in her hand. Power from the sun. It was clever. She held it. It would get her to where she needed to be. She knew that. It would be less reliable in getting her back. She’d also had a motor for part of the way. Who knows where that had come from. She was rowing back, at least that was the plan. Back to the bit they once called France. She hoped not to have to go on, at least not quickly on, after that. She remembered France from her childhood-a family holiday. She had put that memory away somewhere. Tucked it far away. The sight of its green shores had brought it flooding back but the sight had been brief and she had been focussed on getting here. She would like to just walk there for a day, a day to remember. She was far more familiar with the land she was about to wash up on but less sentimental about it. There were a thousand memories associated with here but she couldn’t recall any good ones easily. She had forgotten those ones.
When she’d taken the job she’d known it would be hard getting here but part of the reason she’d done it was to prove that home was a concept she had no need for anymore. She would be content to wander forever. To forget all of it. She’d been able to see the shore for awhile now. She’d been coming down the coast for awhile, having gone too far north. She had drifted this last bit on the tide. The sea had been calm. It had been for most of the trip too. It was common now. Deeper, more acidic, but much calmer-like the land and the sea had once been at war and now the sea had won. All its rage was spent and it just lay there now smugly vanquishing it’s foe in the bright sunshine.
She had rowed for most of the last seven hours and she was desperate to make land fall but she was waiting for at least semi darkness. Drifting with the tide, watching the shore. She had seen no one. The village, the crumbling remnants she could see from the shore, looked deserted. Still you could never be too careful.
She had seen nobody, even in France there had only been the one contract. What used to be France, she corrected herself. No point in clinging to the old way of seeing the world. She herself lived on what must once have been and still was the continent of Africa. It was just a much smaller continent and really the structure of countries had broken down although Africa at least still had people. France it seemed, probably didn’t. She really didn’t know what she would find in England.
Technically she was rowing on water where Essex probably once was. There were still people here when she’d left, that was not 10 years ago. The long journey across to the mainland of Europe, down through an abandoned France, on through a revolutionary Italy that was still clinging on as the ice came further and further south. And in front of the ice came the people, and as the sea rose there came more people and they were all looking for somewhere else to be. There were rumours about Africa, how it was surviving. Flourishing. She had nothing. No one left, at least not by the time she reached the shores of Italy. She climbed in a boat, not much bigger than this one with a dozen others and left.
The sky was darkening now. She wanted to land before nightfall but as the light was fading. Her arms ached. She was too tired for a fight, she knew that. How would it feel hopping off that boat onto English soil again? Would she suddenly feel at home or would she feel nothing? She let the waves carry her closer and then she grounded on the pebbles. She leapt out and dragged the little boat forward. She was out of the water on the dry shore before she’d even thought about it. She felt nothing. Just cold.
Looks like England, smells like England, must be England. Off in the distance she could see a tree against the sky. She’d seen them a bit as she drifted down the coast-eucalypts-they didn’t belong here but since the climate had changed she guessed they’d made it home. The one on the skyline was stripped of its leaves, she had heard somewhere far away that the locals in Britain did this. It looked odd, the tree would die now. The weather here was colld compared to the heat where she had come from. Further north it was just ice, she knew that. She would have liked to see where the two met and watch the jagged edge of winter butt the mild weather of the south. She had always liked England though it had not always been her home.
Home. It was a concept she had abandoned. She dragged the boat up to some bushes just above the shore. There was no one around and something told her there hadn’t been for awhile. She hid the boat but wasn’t overly careful. Nothing had walked on that shingle for awhile. She looked at her own footsteps and thought of erasing them. Five extra minutes and no one would tell she’d been there. She decided to do it, cover her tracks and risk entering the town in near darkness.
She grabbed her pack and walked up what had once been the path to the village. It had the remnants of a wall. She could remember when the coastal towns had decided to build walls, when the sea had got to close and they had taken matters into their own hands. She had even helped with one herself. It looked like the sea had crashed through this one at some point but then receded again. That is what people said now, they thought the sea was receding, perhaps abandoned continents would become liveable again. Even here now after all these years you could still see the plastic, the litter everywhere. She had even seen it rowing far out to sea. It was inescapable. And whatever else was liveable, the rubbish would still be there, underneath the ice flow forever.
She walked for a bit and saw no one. This bit of town was obviously deserted. It looked as good a place as any to spend the night. She pushed on a door and it gave way beneath her hands. She sort of jammed it shut behind her. She looked around. Nothing sinister seemed to be living here. There wasn’t the smell of animal droppings or anything dead. She almost wanted to call out hello but stopped herself. She would find a place upstairs. The stairs were rickety but held. She found what was probably a bedroom with some carpet still left on the floor. It was nearly dark now. She would have liked the warmth of the fire but decided against it. She ate some of the bread she had brought. She had other rations in the boat but it would be better if she could find some food here. She took a swig of water. Fresh water would be good too.
She took the sleeping bag out of her pack, and laid down it. Her muscles ached from rowing. She slept until the daylight awoke her.
She smelled from several days of not washing, but she had grown used to it. She thought perhaps of a swim in the sea but it was a risk. On the other hand who was likely to be around versus who knows what lives in that sea. She packed up her stuff and went and stood at the door, back to the beach or on into town. It was only just light. She headed for the beach. The water was freezing but refreshing and she wished she done it last night so she could hunker down in the bag and stay warm. She sat on the beach to dry herself for a bit, munched on the bread, dressed herself and headed off.
She had no desire to meet or see anyone except the person she had come to see. It was about 15 minutes of walking before she saw any sign of life, even then she smelled it before she saw it. Human faeces, someone lived here. It was still early but she suspected here like everywhere else they would make the most of daylight. What would she say if she saw someone? She suspected there were never travellers here, really she wanted to observe for a bit without being seen. The whole place was flat though and there were no trees. She would need to observe from a house. She skirted around the faeces and headed further towards the centre of town.
The place she was really headed for was through the centre and out the other side. Finally she thought she could hear the sounds of a lot of people. She thought perhaps there was a market ahead somewhere. She walked into a backyard, another house, empty. She went upstairs and sat looking out the window. She saw nothing. She moved on for a few houses and did the same thing again. She thought now she knew the direction of the noise. She wanted to skirt it but also to see it. That was unnecessary but she had not seen another human for a few days and who knew who she was going to meet.
She went oncarefully. She leapt a fence and hid when she heard someone actually coming her way. She wondered if she’d been seen from a window but nothing. She came across a small child alone in a back yard at one point. She made eye contact. Held its gaze for a few seconds. It had run away. It had run inside, evidently not too scared. N o one had come to see what it had seen.
Finally she found a house that overlooked what was a market. It was in the distance to some degree. The houses around the centre had been reduced to rubble and the market stall holders used the walls as part of their cover. She sat down. It was bigger than she expected. It was midday maybe by now she thought. She wanted to watch, just for a bit, see how England was really faring. She would be better to travel in early evening anyway.
It was about 4pm when she realised the signal was getting closer to the market. The machine was beeping at her. She was stunned, could it be coming to find her. Then she saw it in the market. It’s hard to know what gave it away, a slightly odd mechanical inflexibility in its movement. She could tell from a distance what it was, when she suspected even up close others couldn’t. She saw it talking to the stall holder on the far side. The stall holder obviously knew what it was because she refused to serve it and sent it away. It looked crest fallen. It was definitely transmitting. It tried again further along with the same reaction and she saw it slip between the stalls and away.
The transmission showed it sat there hiding and then about half an hour later it tried again at another stall. She saw a light come on and the stall holder talking and then it handed over the thing it was holding with the light, grabbed the bread and ran. The stall holder shook his head and she was guessing he was angry but the machine had taken the bread and gone. That was a reckless thing for a machine to do and she was sure that was against its programming.
Nonetheless the deed was done and the machine was gone. Now that she’d seen it she wasn’t so worried. If the person who’d sent for her was any kind of threat, they would have appeared at the market themselves she reasoned. She wondered who it was that had sent the machine to get food. Perhaps it was injured. Most likely it was. She hadn’t prepared herself for that. She had prepared herself for a fight, she had not thought she might have to finish off someone who was injured. There was never a pleasant side to these jobs.
She hunkered down under the window. It was getting darker. She would wait until the last vestiges of light were gone and then travel by night. Through the square and on out the back. She would find somewhere out the other side to spend the night and then track it into the morning. She didn’t mind so much going back through the village on her way out. She could run. She was fit. She could even fight if she had to. But kill an injured person in cold blood. Much harder. She wouldn’t sleep well.