I was chatting to a friend of mine about some of my stories, and she wanted to hear more about The Fallen Empire! I’ve written and rewritten this one since I was… I don’t know, less than ten? It’s been through a lot of writing incarnations, all of which are, for various reasons, a little bit rubbish. I’m a lot better now than I used to be, and will at some point be polishing it up again — in the meantime, this short story set before the book proper is for you!
Shafts of sunlight spilled down through the holes in the dirty skylights, catching dust motes in their rays. The warehouse was still and empty, motionless, the shelves largely bare, a few still stacked with cans and tins. Somewhere, a quiet grating sound emerged to disturb the silence, and moments later a sleek black rat ventured out into the open, whiskers twitching as he sniffed the air. Strong beneath the well-kept glossy coat, this was a rat perpetually in his prime, unaging, unchanging. He quartered the aisles thoroughly, methodically, then darted back to the cabin-like substructure from which he had come.
For a short while longer, there was, again, silence. Then the grating sound came again, and in what had once been an employee toilet block, a manhole cover moved aside, pushed by a pair of human hands. Deliberately dirt-streaked and clad in a patchwork of dark greys and browns, a girl clambered out of the long-empty sewer to kneel in an easy crouch beside it, the black rat riding on her shoulder. This was Wildcat, second-in-command of the gang that called itself the Hunters, physically seventeen and actually nearly ten years older. Like her rat, like every living thing in her world, she was ageless. Violence, sickness, starvation: all of those could kill her, but age never would. Light on her feet, she crept to the door with its grubby plastic inset, peered out in case someone had entered in the few moments since her rat, Jet, had reported back to her, but the warehouse was still and silent. Good.
Wildcat took a little bottle of oil from her pocket, dripped it on the old and rusty hinges and waited, silent. Behind her, a smaller girl of perhaps twelve pulled herself up with barely a sound, then a boy of eleven or so: young raiders, chosen for how swiftly they could move in the pipes even when laden down. Their eyes were bright with anticipation and a little fear, and sleek brown rats rode with them. Unseen hands passed much-patched bags up from the pipe to them, and they waited in silence so complete even their breathing could barely be heard until, at last, Wildcat eased the door open. It creaked, and she stopped, listening, alert… but nothing happened.
“Jet, sentry,” she whispered, and the rat shot down her leg to the ground, running back out into the warehouse, swiftly lost amongst the aisles. Once he was out of sight, she slipped out, standing straight for the first time. The deep shadows of the warehouse offered concealment outside the handful of sunbeams that filtered down, and she knew she was invisible to most casual glances. Holding the door, she waited for the two children to come through, then pushed it quietly to. From a distance, it would look closed. That done, she set off quickly through the largely empty shelves, looking for an area that was still stocked.
Though she didn’t show it, the emptiness of the place shocked her. The Hunters were raiding for a reason, their own supplies running low, but it didn’t seem that this gang, the Sweepers, had any more than they did. Following her rat’s directions to the nearest stack of boxes of tins, she gestured silently to them, leaving the two children to work as she scrambled up the enormous empty shelves to find a vantage point. As the others worked below her, the warehouse remained as silent as the grave.
Comfortably poised, grey-green eyes scanning for danger, sharp ears alert to the slightest sound, Wildcat watched, and waited, and thought. It was as Spitfire had feared, as they all knew in the backs of their minds was happening, but mostly ignored or refused to acknowledge. Their food was running out. Just as he’d said, the Hunters would have to leave the comfortable, familiar paths of the territory they’d known all their lives, below ground and above. And she, out of them all, knew the most about his plans. They’d have to go so far… further than anyone had ever gone since the long-forgotten time of wonder, lifetimes ago.
A small, sharp squeak caught her attention, and she stood at once, looking over in the direction of the side door that the Sweepers used most often. A hissed word and quick gesture were enough to alert the children industriously packing and moving bags beneath her, causing them to grab the current one half-filled and slip silently away. They vanished into the ancient toilet block as the side door opened, and Wildcat waited, poised, a crouched and indistinct shadow amongst a thousand indistinct shadows, Jet’s return one more little patch of darkness amidst the whole. If the people coming in were to notice anything amiss, she’d have to be the distraction, drawing attention and leading them on a false trail far from the sewer route her people had actually used. Carrying bags of heavy tins, the Hunters would be far too slow to escape if they were chased.
Quiet voices echoed in the warehouse, and she relaxed, just slightly. The Sweepers were talking, so they didn’t suspect anything. They were probably either on patrol or collecting some food to be passed out.
“…less every time we come in here,” one of them said. “I dunno, I’m starting to think maybe Kimmy’s right after all. I don’t want to go on another raid like the last one.”
“What’s the other choice? Leaving? This place is ours, and we’re strong enough to fight for it if we have to.” They were coming closer, and she watched, alert. A freckled ginger boy ‘Frezzed at around fifteen, a dark-skinned and fluffy-haired boy who looked to have made it to the grand age of eighteen before being halted there forever. Trailing behind them was a silent junior of seven or so, accompanying the adults on the routine responsibilities of their lives.
“Who’re we going to fight? The Crows? Glitches?”
The ginger boy shrugged, uncaring. “Whoever we’ve got to. I say we make ’em either join or leave if it comes down to it.”
Up on her hidden shelf, safe above their heads, Wildcat frowned. Their conversation reminded her all too clearly of words she had spoken with Spitfire, coming up ever more frequently over the past weeks. His vision exceeded her own; she had always been more focused on the immediate. He’d talked of what would happen when this day came, how people would respond, how they would react. Trying to protect their own, they’d fight one another to the death for the chance to keep on living a few more months on dwindling supplies in the streets they knew — because whether they believed it or not, everyone around them would be in much the same position. Hope, Spitfire said, was a beacon and a burden. It kept people alive against the odds, but it also kept them fighting battles they should long ago have walked away from. He’d smiled then, and admitted that his hope was perhaps the most foolish of all — but it was further, and brighter, and built on the best foundation he could give it. Listening to the Sweepers talk as they loaded up a large basket with tins from the front of a stack just a few shelves from where the Hunters had been, Wildcat realised all at once just how right he had been. There was no future for any of them here, in their familiar world, every twist and turn known just so; no safety in familiarity, hollow comfort in tradition.
If they didn’t leave, they were going to starve and die.
For a single brief instant, she almost called out to the people below her, the realisation striking like a blow. They had to know, needed to be warned… but she couldn’t tell them, crouched in the shadows to steal from them, part of the problem. The moment passed, pressed back by the demands of existence, and she shook her head the tiniest fraction, wondering if that were how Spitfire felt all the time.
As the three Sweepers left without ever noticing their missing supplies, she dropped lightly down from her shelf, landing softly as a cat, and padded quietly towards the old toilet block. Her hand slipped out almost of its own volition as she passed, picking up a tin from an opened stack, and she paused for a moment to look at it, a tarnished silver piece of life, a little promise of false hope. Every one she took might be another day of life for one of the Hunters — every one she took would consign these people so much like her to their fate another day sooner.
Wildcat put the tin back atop its brethren, and darted towards the sewers, to safety. She shut the door behind her, silent as a ghost, took off her outermost jacket and swept it over the dust, holding her breath as she obscured their tracks. Standing almost on top of it, she moved the manhole cover aside to clamber down, pulling it back in place behind her.
It was as though the Hunters had never been there… and high in the inaccessible roof of the warehouse, a silent watcher got lightly to his feet, stretching lithely before vanishing away into the shadows.