I woke with a start. It was still dark outside, but only just.
It took a couple of seconds for everything to slip into focus in the gloom, and for me to fully register where I was. My head threatened to explode at the slightest movement. Dehydration, I told myself slowly as I smacked my lips. I grimaced at the horrible gumminess of my tongue.
I could vaguely make out a collection of empty bottles on the table, just within reach. I nearly wretched as my brain registered the tell-tale stench of alcohol.
Just dehydration, I told myself again. Definitely not a hangover.
I automatically reached for the bottles. One fell on the floor with a strange, muffled thud. I swirled another couple until I heard something sloshing around. I took a swig to clean my mouth out. The alcohol tasted oddly sour.
It was another few minutes before I dared attempt to stand up.
I nearly collided with the door frame as I shuffled into the living room. The others had always scoffed at me for calling it that. It was a room with a sofa, a broken TV and very little else – what else was I going to call it? That’s what we’d always called them before the world went to Hell.
I leant against the frame of the floor-to-ceiling window and studied the view.
Back in the day, this penthouse would have been quite something. Sweeping vistas over the city, all the way up to the greenery beyond. Now, it just looked out over a barren patch of dirt. Rubble and ruins dotted the landscape as vague reminders of what human achievement used to look like.
Time was, at this time of night – or rather, morning – it all would have been carpeted by lights. Not anymore. It was just grey, blue and black.
Now, survival was a full-time job. If the elements didn’t get you, other people would.
But that was where I came in.
If people had a problem, they came to me. I knew people who could solve problems. I pass them the request, the problem gets solved, we all get paid.
Not much, of course, but enough. Enough to keep up the repairs on my lofty little hideaway, at least. Anyway, wouldn’t want it looking too good. It would attract unwanted attention from all over The Wastes. To look at it from the ground, this building was falling apart.
Not that anyone would make a move on this place anyway. I had a reputation – I knew too many people. Had too many friends, and dirt on just about everyone out here.
Who knew? Perhaps one day I’d be able to buy my way back into the real high life in the city. Get a cushy spot on the board of one of those weapon companies looking to tame the land again.
I was too old, too tired, and making too much money.
I flopped onto the sofa and immediately felt better for not standing up.
A small, green blinking light on my computer got my attention. A message.
There was no great secret to how I was able to come across this place and carve a niche for myself out here. I used to be a company man, and an engineer. A couple of stolen computer units and one jury-rigged rooftop generator later, I was ready to go.
Just because humanity had managed to virtually wipe itself out, didn’t mean the satellites weren’t still out there in space. Information always was power and, outside of the cities at least, I now had the Internet to myself.
A couple of dirt cheap antennas for reaching my associates and suddenly I was the communications giant of The Wastes. Messages were passed through me, and it wasn’t long before I found a lucrative sideline in acting as an operator, of sorts, linking disgruntled residents with all the thieves, killers and scum they’d ever want to hire.
I shifted the laptop towards me. The movement took a huge amount of effort, it seemed. I heaved the lid open. The device had started out as a reasonably sleek model, but years of tweaks and running repairs with whatever I could find meant that it had become something altogether bulkier and uglier.
But, unlike so much else out here now, it still worked.
I squinted into the blinding light of the screen as it woke from its sleep. It seemed as slow doing that as I was. I tried to scratch my chin, only to find my thick, greying beard was stopping me.
I silently made a bet with myself that the message was just another request. A territory dispute or something needed settling. It was always something like that.
I was wrong. They were status reports, unread from yesterday.
An associate of mine was down. Killed in a used car dealership, of all places.
I automatically finished the last of the bottle as I scanned the data. Everything on his job was fine – he had just finished a delivery, as he was paid to do. But then he sent a distress call. I’d missed it, as I was in my alcoholic stupour.
I wasn’t all that surprised. He was a junkie, and a loner. Completely unreliable. It was only a matter of time before he’d get himself killed.
My blood ran cold when I opened the next report. Another associate of mine had successfully completed his job – “removing” the courier. He’d caught up to him at the dealership.
I found myself resisting the urge to look at the piles of bottles near my bed. I could hazily remember the request now. I must have thought it was a good way to get rid of a lazy employee and make some money doing it.
I swallowed hard and told myself that I hadn’t simply ignored his distress call. Deep down, I knew I had.
Through the screen, it all felt so distant and annonymous. Yet, as I sat there in the cold pre-dawn light, I felt a terrible sense of guilt. He was a waste of space, sure, but was I right to have him killed?
I checked the files. The request to take out the courier had come in anonymously. At least I hadn’t made that part up to excuse my guilt. I was just exploiting the situation. As if that was any better.
Something caught my eye in my second operative’s report, though. After he’d shot the courier – the realisation he had been a mechanoid of some kind.
I felt less guilty the second it became apparent the courier wasn’t a real person.
Remorse swiftly gave way to simple confusion. I’d never known any of my operatives were anything other than human. I’d heard about experiments in the city with mechanoids, but this was the first I’d heard of anything relating to them being in The Wastes.
My second operative had finished his report on a successful mission with a set of coordinates. Breadcrumbs. He wanted to find out what was going on as much as I did. They pointed to an old warehouse or a trainyard or something – I couldn’t quite tell from the map.
There had been no update from him after that. I had to assume the worst.
What worried me more was the feeling that my organisation had been used. My first instinct was that I had been exposed and was being set up for a fall. Perhaps armed men – maybe even my own operatives – would come bursting through the door any second.
I took a deep breath.
No. All my transactions were monitored and I was protected. People probably just thought I was a sophisticated AI. A pre-war relic, like a chatbot or something.
I sat there as the sky began to brighten, a million and one scenarios racing through my head.
I had to get out to those coordinates. See if I could find out what had happened to him. I drew up some rough directions and grabbed a tatty old rucksack that I kept everything in that I’d need in an emergency. Water, a loaded pistol, and some other things.
I took one last look at the view before I headed down the tower and out into the wastes.
An orange sun was just starting to creep over the horizon, with the sky a brilliant, deep blue. Greys and blacks were getting replaces by browns and yellows.
I had a feeling it was going to be a very, very long day.