The building had been abandoned for twenty years. Nature had claimed much of the grounds on which it stood. Dahlia liked exploring old buildings. Sometimes she found interesting stuff there – old photographs, timesheets, accounting books, and other items left behind. She had already rescued an old pair of sunglasses. They were dusty but amazingly unscratched. Dahlia checked the time. It was still early afternoon. Most of the machines had been left behind, rendered obsolete by new technology. She passed them by as she crossed the shop floor heading for a set of stairs.
She bounced up the stairs two at a time, paused at the top to look around. Some of the windows at rooftop level were open; others were broken. She continued down the walkway to the offices. That was where she found the good stuff. Paper and ink were rare and people paid good money for good quality paper and pens. The offices looked undisturbed. There was a good chance of finding something valuable.
There were some pens in the desks, but she needed to find the ones that were still sealed. The used pens would be dried out. She found a few open boxes and tossed them into her rucksack. Her search for paper uncovered a few unopened packages that quickly joined the pens. There were a few shiny baubles on the desks that Dahlia also collected – letter openers, paper weights, and an old magnifying glass. She picked her way through all the desks in all the offices. She raided the closets for whatever treasures they held.
In the last office, she found an old safe. It was locked, but Dahlia had come prepared. Inside the safe was an object that Dahlia had only seen in pictures. She gently picked it up and examined it. The strap was intact. The lenses were clean. She looked through the eyepieces and slowly adjusted the focus. A small object across the room appeared larger and in reach. The binoculars would come in handy.
Noticing that the light in the room was dimmer, Dahlia checked the time. She only had an hour to get out of there before sunset. The Wilds weren’t safe after dark. She hurriedly packed the binoculars in her rucksack and walked quickly to the stairs. She took those as quickly as possible and broke into a run across the shop floor. She covered the open ground between the abandoned factory and her caravan in less than an hour. Once inside, she bolted the door and energized the electric grid attached to the outside.
She unpacked her rucksack, carefully sorting and stowing the contents. She opened a can of ravioli and slowly spooned the meat-filled squares into her mouth while planning out tomorrow’s foray. One more raid on the factory was in order before moving on. After finishing her meal, she took some time to examine her newest tool. It could do more than let her see far away objects. It could tell her how far away they were. This would be an advantage out in the Wilds.
In the morning, she downed a can of mixed fruit and set out to finish harvesting the factory. There was little left for her to take, but she managed to collect a few more boxes of pens and reams of paper from a floor level office that she had missed the day before. Upon returning to her caravan, she fired up the engine and continued down the road to find another abandoned area.
The Fueling Station
Dahlia stopped at a small fueling station and recharged her caravan. The wildlings had not damaged the station, but the doors were locked. After some fiddling with the mechanism, she was able to gain entry. She removed canned food from the shelves and grabbed several bottles of water to restock her pantry. There were a few t-shirts hanging at the end of an aisle that would serve as a fresh change of clothing. She emptied the shop of as many supplies as she could while the caravan took on charge. She took advantage of the station’s electrical independence to heat up a can of spaghetti. It was nice to have a hot meal after being away from civilization for days.
Dahlia locked the place up before she left. She wanted to get her caravan in order before nightfall and move it to a safer location. In the past few days, she hadn’t encountered a single wildling and she wanted to keep it that way.
One of the items that she had liberated from the station was its microwave and supply of plastic bowls. She was looking forward to being able to heat up her favorite canned meals. The caravan’s batteries registered full charge just minutes before dusk. She quickly disconnected the chargers and set off down the road.
Dahlia hadn’t driven far before encountering trouble. It was standing in the road staring her down. She had never seen anything like it. It didn’t quite fit the description of a wildling, but those eyes. After a minute or two of mutual staring, the creature cleared the road. She watched it bound off into the woods to be followed by several others like it. They were elegant in their movements as they bounded across the road from the fields to the woods. Their little white tails were the last she saw of them.
Farther down the road, Dahlia found an abandoned motel. She pulled in and parked behind the motel office. She planned to check the place out in the light of day. For now, she was debating whether to stay inside her caravan or risk sleeping in one of the rooms. Ultimately, she opted for safety over possible comfort.
She wondered how the others were doing. Had they found anything of value? Had their supplies run out? Had they encountered any wildlings? How many of them would she see again at the end of the hunt? She popped the last piece of pasta into her mouth and set her up her bed in the narrow caravan.
The early morning sun woke her. She put away her meagre bedding and changed her shirt into one of the new ones from the fueling station. After turning off the grid, she stepped out of her caravan and headed for the restaurant. Once inside, she checked out the kitchen. Most of the equipment wouldn’t fit into the caravan. She would have loved to have taken the stove. After taking stock of supplies and food, she decided to see if a cooked breakfast would be possible. There were eggs and bacon available in the walk-in chiller. The first gas burner that she tried fired up. She found a brew station for coffee and made a pot. After her breakfast, she examined the kitchen pantry and decided that the cans and bags of coffee would be the most valuable item to take from the place.
While poking around the rest of the building, she found several pillows still wrapped in their plastic packaging and took them. There were also a few new blankets, both wool and cotton. She took those items of bedding. What she didn’t use, would fetch a pretty penny. Dahlia stowed the coffee and bedding materials into her caravan and set off toward her next objective.
The rooms held little of interest. They were painted in pastels to compliment the coverlets and curtains. The beds smelled of must and urine. Dahlia was glad that she had opted for the caravan rather than braving a room for the night. The paintings that were screwed to the walls were worthless. The wall-mounted video screens were obsolete. The contents of the mini cooler were questionable.
There was no electricity. However, there was running water fed to the motel from a tower. It would likely continue to flow until the reservoir was emptied. It would be a cold shower, but she knew she would feel better cleaned up. Dahlia stripped off her clothes and braved the cold water. It felt good to wash off the dirt and dust of the past week. Fresh from the shower, she toweled off her light brown hair while pausing to look at herself in the mirror. She was still in good shape for her age. Dahlia dressed and returned to her caravan. Checking over her collection, she realized that she was several items short of her goal. As much as she wanted to be the first one back, she wanted to return with a full hold and there was still room for more. It was time to get moving.
Dahlia stopped beneath the carport of a church to slurp down a can of chicken noodle soup. She didn’t expect to find much of value there. The religious iconography was lost on her. No one believed in the old superstitions these days. Still, she searched the building.
It was a waste of her time. Useless artifacts, a collection of worthless paper and coins, and books full of fairy tales were plentiful. But a person could starve to death in this church. There was nothing comforting about the place. She left it behind with its doors wide open to the wildlings. An hour and a half later, she found a more promising site.
Dahlia stopped her caravan along the road and stepped out. The sign along the road has lost some of its letters but she could make out one word clearly – Hospital. She took out her binoculars to survey the cluster of buildings. There were four buildings in a cluster around a central square with parking between and behind the buildings. The hospital was marked with a large H with the Emergency entrance off to the side and below the main entrance level. That was the building where she would find the most valuable items. She packed her knapsack with her tools and set off in the direction of the Emergency entrance.
Fifteen minutes later she arrived at the Emergency entrance and set to work unlocking the doors. She only had a few hours to work before needing to head back to the safety of her caravan. It didn’t take her long to find the pharmacy and dump out all the drugs. She grabbed a few emergency kits while she was there. Her next stop was upstairs where the central pharmacy was located. “Jackpot,” she whispered.
There was no way that she could carry all that it held back to her caravan. It was time to risk moving closer to the building. Thirty minutes later, Dahlia parked her caravan under the carport of the Emergency entrance and jaunted back upstairs. Just as she cleared the stairwell, she noticed movement across the small square. A figure was struggling with some heavy equipment that they were liberating from the Oncology Center. She watched through her binoculars as they gave up trying to force the object through the doors and simply removed a container from it. She recognized the symbol on it. “Poor bastard,” she shook her head, “That radioactivity is going to kill you before you reach the goal.”
Before long, she had managed to clear out most of the contents of the pharmacy. She left behind the opened bottles and the refrigerated items. By the time that she had it all neatly stowed it was time to lock up. She still had a small amount of space left, but there would be time to fill it in the morning. She had almost forgotten about the race to scavenge the most items of greatest value out in the Wilds. But she hadn’t forgotten the most important rule – don’t get yourself killed.
Unfortunately her rival had forgotten. He was too busy loading everything radioactive into his caravan that he had lost track of time. Before the radiation had a chance to kill him, a wildling finished him off. Dahlia could hear his screams just as she was settling into bed for the night.
Dahlia waited for the sun to be fully above the horizon before venturing out. She walked around to where her rival had parked. There were blood and body parts scattered about. Some of the parts looked like they had been gnawed on. She resisted the urge to scavenge his caravan. There was no point in risking radiation exposure this close to the goal. When back inside the hospital, she searched for surgical kits, preferably the sterile packaged kits, to fill up the empty space in her hold. On the second floor, where the surgical rooms were located, she found a closet full of surgical kits and other supplies.
With her hold now full, Dahlia started off towards the goal. Before leaving the grounds of the Hospital, she engaged the security grid on the caravan. The idea was to fry any potential hitchhikers. It was still early in the day, but after what she had seen that morning, she wasn’t taking any chances.
She would be early arriving at the gate. She knew that she might not get inside until the next morning, but as long as she kept the grid energized she would be safe. The citadel rose up in the distance like a beacon to anyone lost in the Wilds. The road widened as she approached the vast city. She stopped some distance away and trained her binoculars on the gate. There was no one ahead of her. Dahlia smiled and resumed driving. She had made it to the goal – Astro Land.
Dahlia stopped her caravan about a ten-minute walk outside the gate. She checked the time. Sundown was three hours away. Pulling out her binoculars again, she surveyed the area just inside the gate. The tunnel was clear of vehicles. At the other end of the tunnel, was another gate. The tunnel was long enough to hold several caravans. She wasn’t expecting to enter the tunnel until mid-morning, but the gate raised to allow her entry. She pulled forward to the inside gate and stopped and waited.
It was the same drill where she came from. The citadels were secure fortresses against the wildlings. No one ventured outside except by caravan. Every so often, a scavenger would fall victim to a wildling. The caravans would sit until another scavenger set out with a reclaimer. Dahlia had been a reclaimer her first time outside her citadel. She had been out scavenging many times in the past. This was the first time in her lifetime that there had been a prize offered for scavenging. The scavengers had to bring their hauls to the goal. If she won, Dahlia would have to give up her caravan as well as its cargo.
Dahlia thought about the caravan that was left behind at her last stop. It was unlikely to be reclaimed unless there was a radiation suit available. She wondered if it was too late to back out of the competition. She had way too much time on her hands, or maybe not enough. While lost in her reverie, night fell unnoticed. The sudden light show in the tunnel startled her back to reality. The sparks flew everywhere between the tunnel grid and her caravan grid. Anything trying to sneak in would be fried by the jumping sparks.
After fifteen minutes, the light show stopped and the inner gate opened. She was directed to a parking space to the left of the gate and told to wait inside until cleared. She shut down her grid as instructed and tapped impatiently on the wheel. A mechanical loader extracted the cargo hold from her caravan. The bin already bore the name of her origin point – Dream Land. It was tagged with the number “1” to indicate that it was the first to arrive.
Rooms had been set aside for the contestants at the local hotel. She gathered up her personal belongings and headed there. After securing her room, she went to the downstairs eatery and passed a can of food to her server.
“Honey, it’s on the house,” her server replied while passing the can back to her. Dahlia smiled and nodded. “Cider,” she said before the server could ask.
The hot meal of meatloaf, mash, and corn surprised Dahlia. She hadn’t seen meat in any form beyond what existed in the canned foods. She took her time eating. The video feed in the eatery showed the arrival of a second caravan. The light show started as soon as it entered the tunnel. By the time it reached the end, the inner gate was open. By the time Dahlia had finished her dinner, the second contestant was cleared. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and dark-skinned. His cargo hold bore the name Play Land. Dahlia didn’t wait for him to check into his room before cornering him.
“Dahlia DeHaven,” she said while extending her hand. He glanced at her hand, then reached for her shoulder.
“Out of my way, woman,” he said shoving her aside.
“No need to be rude, asshole,” she shouted at his back. He turned on his heels.
“What did you just say to me?” “That you are an asshole and a very rude one at that.” Dahlia smiled broadly.
He returned the smile. Extending his hand, he introduced himself, “Adam Smith. It’s nice to meet you, Miss DeHaven.”
“Likewise, Mister Smith.” Dahlia said, while shaking his hand. “See you around.” Dahlia let him walk off this time without asking the rest of her questions. There would be time in the morning while waiting for the deadline.
Two other caravans arrived by mid-morning. The scavenger from Fantasy Land was one of two who set out from there. The dead scavenger that Dahlia saw at the hospital was the other one. The woman had dyed her hair bright green and wore red leather clothes. They didn’t look the least bit comfortable to Dahlia. The second arrival was from Star Land. He avoided eye contact as much as possible. Despite acting so squirrely, he still managed to smile and introduce himself as Leonard Leonard.
Adam managed to intercept Miss Fantasy Land and engage her in conversation. Dahlia walked Leonard over to the duo and introduced him to Adam. Adam introduced Dahlia to Miss Fantasy Land as he called her since her refusal to give her name. She was actually surprised that two people had beaten her to the goal. But she seemed confident that her haul would win her the prize. Dahlia asked her if she knew the name of the other scavenger from Fantasy Land. “Why?” she replied.
“A wildling killed him two nights ago. It ripped him to pieces. I couldn’t find the head, just a whole lot of body parts.” Dahlia left out the part about being there at the time.
Miss Fantasy Land had a stunned look after that revelation. “He was a friend, actually, more than a friend. His name was Todd, just Todd.” She sighed. “My name is Crystal. Todd and I had a thing.”
“I’m so sorry,” Leonard hugged Crystal. “I lost my boyfriend too.”
“Let’s get you two settled in and then get some grub,” Adam said as he herded the new arrivals toward the desk.
The next caravan to arrive came just before dusk with only minutes to spare before the deadline. The scavengers were a set of twins out from Adventure Land. While the other scavengers saw the twins as cheaters, Dahlia saw the disadvantage of having to argue about every item that would go into the hold. On the other hand, when they agreed, they could load twice as much stuff as everyone else.
Mike and Ike were amiable. They had a habit of finishing each other’s sentences. And they had a story to tell about running afoul of a pack of wildlings and barely surviving. Crystal excused herself from the group and Dahlia followed her to the counter. “Most of that story is pure shit. Wildlings don’t hunt in packs. They don’t need to.” Dahlia could see that she needed to change the topic.
“Bartender,” Leonard slapped the marble counter, “something frilly for the ladies, please.” Dahlia smiled at Leonard, grateful for the rescue.
The scavengers sat together during the evening meal. By the end of the meal, they had each had a chance to talk about their journey from their home citadel to Astro Land. Crystal sat quietly while Dahlia talked about her journey there. Dahlia left out the part about Todd’s death as a kindness to Crystal. The twins had a few more tales to add about finding a church full of gold icons and raiding the appliance section of a department store. Adam talked about running something down in the road and turning on his grid just in case. Leonard didn’t say much of anything. He seemed anxious to get away from the group.
When everyone arrived back at their rooms, they found a notice about a breakfast meeting to discuss the results and announce the winner of the contest. The twins set up a security system because they didn’t trust the door locks. Adam tucked a gun beneath his pillow. Crystal rigged a few traps just inside the door that should knock out any intruder. Dahlia didn’t bother to lock her door. And Leonard stayed awake all night.
In the morning they met in a small private dining room where a breakfast buffet had been set up. Dahlia and Leonard were the first to arrive. They both loaded their plates with sausage and scrambled and tots. Large glasses of raw cider and mugs of coffee accompanied their first course. By the time the rest of the scavengers arrived, they had just sat down with heaping seconds. Adam sat next to Dahlia. Crystal sat by Leonard. And the twins sat between Dahlia and Leonard.
Several city officials arrived and sat down opposite the twins. Everyone sat back and pushed away their plates. “We have examined your goods and assessed their value on the open market.” There were no introductions. “We appear to have a tie for value.” Dahlia smiled. Leonard leaned forward.
“Well?” Adam asked, “What does that mean exactly?”
“It means that we are re-sorting the inventory by value to determine whose inventory had the most high value items. We should have an answer by mid-day meal.” The officials stood and departed the room.
“Oh for the love of…” Crystal stood up and marched out of the room. Leonard pulled out a pocket video unit and stared intently at it while Dahlia cornered the twins.
“You made up that story about the pack of wildlings. Why?” Dahlia asked.
“Because we saw something else far worse,” Ike replied.
“It’s about Crystal, isn’t it?”
The twins looked at each other and nodded.
“I recognized the caravan when it pulled in.” Dahlia continued, “It was the same one that was parked at the Hospital that I stopped at. The poor guy was torn to pieces.”
“I noticed that she doesn’t eat much.” Adam chimed in. “Neither does Mister Leonard.”
The Item of Value
The hotel staff removed the breakfast trays and cleaned off the tables while Leonard continued to study his video. Adam and Dahlia questioned the twins at length about what they actually saw versus what they thought they saw. After an hour, the twins excused themselves and left the room. The remaining three moved to a round table in a corner of the room.
“I thought they’d never leave,” Leonard exclaimed. “It’s safe to talk now.”
“I thought this contest had rules.” Adam pulled out a chair and sat down.
“It does. And, apparently, only the three of us followed them.” Dahlia leaned against the table. “Well?” she said while looking at Leonard.
“Yes,” Leonard replied.
“Yes what?” Adam glanced at the two of them.
“Crystal is an artificial, an old model. I don’t think she killed Todd.”
“Was she registered as a contestant?” Adam threw his heels up onto the table and leaned his chair back slightly.
“No. But Todd Rucker was registered. His inventory lists a sex surrogate as one of his personal items.” Leonard pulled up a chair and sat.
“She seems a bit too bright to be a simple. Illegal upgrades, maybe?” Adam asked.
“No way to know without tipping her off,” Leonard looked at Dahlia, “unless you can read her.”
“I can barely read you,” Dahlia replied. “What about the twins?”
“The registered contestant, note singular, not plural, from Adventure Land is a man named Karl Aesop.” Leonard continued. “According to the Adventure database, Karl had no offspring. He does have two nephews, twins, named David and Daniel, Idents match the twins.”
“Where’s Karl?” Adam said as he lowered his feet to the floor.
Dahlia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “The local Feds are relaying an inquiry to Adventure Land. They’ll get back to me when they have an answer.” She cleared her throat. “Or we could just ask them, she said nodding in their direction.
The trio intercepted the twins. “How are the Aesop boys doing?” Leonard asked.
Dahlia laughed. “Leonard is a hack as well as a scavenger. He checked the roster of contestants. The two of you weren’t on it, but your uncle was.”
“He got sick.” David, aka Ike, replied. “We took his place. How did you know that he was supposed to be in the contest?”
“Exit visas,” Leonard replied, “are public record. They should have been updated when you took his place.”
“Who are you three?” Daniel, aka Mike, asked. “Are you Feds?”
“Private investigators,” Adam replied. “We were hired to find something out there. With any luck, one of us has.”
While the hotel staff was busy setting up the mid-day meal, Crystal returned to the room. Leonard intercepted her while everyone else sat down at the table. The seating arrangement was changed from the morning. Adam and David sat at one table. Daniel sat near David and Dahlia took the seat next to him. Leonard saw to it that Crystal occupied a chair between himself and Dahlia. The moment Crystal sat down, Dahlia sensed something very odd about her. Even Leonard seemed disturbed by it.
Artificials all have the same EM field surrounding them, with minor variations that allow for identification. Crystal’s field was inconsistent as if something had corrupted her programming. Leonard erected his firewalls and isolated his video from the citadel’s networks. Sticking strictly to NFC, he started to access Crystal’s field. She was emitting a distress code hidden beneath her ident.
Dahlia had been monitoring the investigation into Todd Rucker’s untimely demise. They had managed to find his head beneath a bush. The autopsy revealed the Todd was dumping his consciousness, most likely into the artificial, Crystal. Dahlia decided to try to reach out to Todd, but instead encountered mental blocks. Watching his true self be torn apart must have traumatized his copy. The damaged neural net was likely disrupting Crystal. Leonard had already started to work on normalizing the malfunctioning artificial when the contest officials arrived to announce the winner.
Dahlia wondered if any of the other contestants fully understood what the prize was. The twins were too young to collect and had not brought their uncle with them. Artificials are ineligible, but the officials already knew that Leonard was a citadel investigator. Todd was deceased. That left Adam and her as the only possible winners, and Adam was young and in perfect health. Dahlia was beginning to have second thoughts about the prize.
It seemed that the officials were way ahead of her. “We have taken steps to bring the winner here by secure transport. It was a tough call, as Dahlia DeHaven brought us some much needed medical supplies, but the twin surrogates for Karl Aesop brought us visual footage of a wildling attack. This is worth more to us than every physical object that has been collected in this contest.”
“How is that possible?” Adam asked. “They weren’t anywhere near the attack site.”
“They were close enough for satellite monitoring to catch the attack. The imagery is mostly thermal,” the official replied.
“The twins had pulled in after I left, just in time to see Crystal drive off. They saw the remains of Todd Rucker and assumed that Crystal was responsible.” Dahlia continued, “The daytime satellite imagery likely confirmed that the thermal was a wildling attack.”
“It would have been better to have more detailed footage,” Adam stated.
“We do,” Leonard replied. “Crystal had night vision imagery and a recording of her owner’s death. I made a copy before suppressing the file. We also have Todd’s first person experience as downloaded into Crystal.”
“Citadel Security will be pleased. Could Astro Land have a copy?” Dahlia rose from her seat and raised her glass of milk. “A toast to the winner and his surrogates is in order. Congratulations all!”
The naturals rose to toast the winner while Leonard continued his work on Crystal and relayed all pertinent files to the appropriate authorities.
“It’s just as well that I didn’t win. I don’t think that I’m ready for a ‘trip to Mars’.” Dahlia turned toward the twins, “do you boys understand what your uncle has won?”
David replied, “Like you said, a trip to Mars.”