London in ruins, millions killed—is this the end for mankind, or a second chance?
An unspecified catastrophe has befallen the Earth and civilization lies in ruins. In what remains of London, bands of survivors pick over the detritus of a vanished world, trying to scrape a living from the carcase of thousands of years of mans’ achievement, seeking the useful, the edible or that with which they can defend themselves. A new order is emerging, with the nascent society brutally guided by superior force—by the threat of violence and the barrel of a gun. Into this world comes a loner, an artist with a vision all his own and a belief that a civilized world can only emerge from co-operation and culture. In this contest for the future will belief in the essential goodness of mankind win the day? Or will brutality rule?
“. . . . his finest novel was his last, Junk Day, a post-holocaust tale set in the ruins of his native London and peopled with engrossing character types . . . . perhaps grimmer than his previous work but pointedly more energetic.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
The going southward was easier this time. By nowóthe fourth time he had made this trek, one direction or the other óhe knew the places to avoid, the detours to take. Even so, it took him four hours to reach the river. When he did he saw smoke rising from the stovepipe of his late home, and he was immediately on his guard.
As he came closer he could see no more direct sign of life. He went down to the track that led to the door. The sign he had painted was gone. Probably used by the new tenants to feed the stove. They were welcome to it; its purpose had never been served. What kind of purpose had it had, any≠way? He must have been crazy. Things were different now. Life had started to have meaning again.
He was a dozen yards from the doorway when a man stepped out of it, pointing a shotgun. Bryan halted.
ëWho you looking for?í The man was thin, red-bearded. Under the brusque words there was a trace of an over-refined accent that sounded incongruous in this world.
ëNobody. Just looking for something of mine I left lying around here.í
ëAnything that might be lying around here belongs to me. Iíve taken possession of this place.í
ëHow long ago?í
ëThree days. Whatís that to do with you?í
ëNothing, only this used to be my place. I put it in good shape. I made the doorway youíre standing in.í Bryanís lips crooked. ëI made this nice narrow pathway.í
The gun barrel jerked. ëWhatís your game? Why are you telling me this? What do you expect me to sayóthank you and help yourself to anything you want. I donít know you ever lived here anyway. Thatís just your story.í
ëThere used to be a sign over the placeóThe Womb with a View.í
ëThat? What kind of crazy name was that? I took it down straight away.í For a moment a clerkís affronted morality seemed to struggle to assert itself, then died. It must have had worse affronts in the past three years. ëThat doesnít prove you ever lived here. You could have passed by some time and seen it.í
ëI could have. All right, something I couldnít have passed by and seen. Youíve got a stove in there. Itís got the brand name on it in big curly letteringóInvicta.í
The man hesitated. ëAll right, youíve had your fun. Now beat it. You donít have a right to anything here.í
ëWhat I want isnít inside your place. It may not even be where I left it. I just want to find out. To do that I have to pass where youíre standing. If youíll step aside there wonít be any trouble.í
ëThere wonít be any trouble, Iíll see to that.í But the gun barrel wavered slightly. A womanís face, hair unkempt about it, looked out from the doorway, then retreated.
Bryan took a step forward.
The red-bearded man didnít pull the trigger. The odds were, Bryan estimated, that the gun wasnít loaded. Guns, like anything else, were something you might come across in the ruins. And you could be lucky and find one loaded, or with ammunition to hand, like the pistol Veeís late partner had given her. But ammunition was small and less likely trove. Even if the gun were loaded, he would gamble that the man wouldnít use it lightly. He himself hadnít acted hostilely. They had exchanged words, established some kind of communica≠tion, however precarious. If the gun was loaded, the other would surely want to keep it for greater emergencies.
He lifted his arms and walked slowly forward, praying that the man hadnít come across an arms cache somewhere and have a regular ammunition store in there.