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Alex crept up over the ridgeline hoping that the slither of leather on stone wouldn’t give him away. Slowly but surely he pulled himself up for a better view. He made sure to keep a low profile and stay downwind anytime he approached new ruins. You never knew what might be watching when you breached the top of a ridge. Every creak of the old leather made him wince inside as he crawled with deliberate slowness, aware of every tiny sound or movement. Even the slightest noise could mean death. When he finally reached the highest point and looked over the top, then he could rest for a moment. Pulling his rifle out of its sheath on his back, he watched the rubble below for any signs of movement. He peered through the powerful scope down into the ruined buildings below, eyes peeled for the slightest movement and listening intently for the slightest sound. He knew what he was looking for, he had been tracking them for days and had finally discovered this place. He scanned the ruins below until he found what he was looking for.
Mutants wandered around the ruins in their slow shambling walk. Alex often wondered how something so uncoordinated could possibly move so quietly. Regardless of how they could do it, they could move like ghosts through the wastes and ruins. They were an abomination created by toxins and nuclear fire, long before Alex was even born. They would eat anything that they could get their hands on, even their own excrement or people if they could. Mutants could often be found in and around ruins, seeking shelter just like anyone else. At one time long ago, these were regular humans just like Alex. They had families, sought out food and shelter and even seemed to bond together in large groups. That was pretty much where the similarities to humans stopped. They were little more than animals to most people, and even Alex couldn’t see how they were related to humans at all. They would even eat each other if food became scarce, something that Alex and others often were afraid would happen.
Anytime Alex tracked mutants to a lair, he eliminated them. Large groups were dangerous, especially if they gathered anywhere near residential areas. They were dangerous to anyone who walked the wastes, but you could learn a lot from them. If there was a large group that looked well fed it meant that there was still plenty of game to be hunted in the area, which was good news to survivors like Alex. If you found a lair, you could often find other things besides game. They seemed to be drawn to the trappings of former civilization, like moths to a flame, they would gather around old decrepit items from a bygone era. Alex even once found a group of them crowded around a pair of old tennis shoes as if they were worshipping them. Alex took the shoes and traded them for a new knife sheath, happy that another group of the ghastly mutants or “muties” wouldn’t be gathered in that ruin again.
That’s how scroungers and scavengers like Alex contributed to the world as a whole. Besides bringing needed supplies to communities and trading posts, they also cleaned up the places where muties would gather. Stripping a building of items was an excellent deterrent against large groups of mutants.
Alex watched them for a few more moments, looking for the opportunity he needed. he watched them go about the things they did. Eating, shambling and talking in that low growling hiss that they used. He saw about a half dozen of them milling about in one particular area, but still he scanned the rest of the buildings for movement. Sweat beading on his forehead, he slowly squeezed the trigger of his rifle.
The first mutant went down in a shower of dust, debris and gibbets of brain matter grey. While the others were anxiously looking around for the source of the commotion, Alex squeezed the trigger a half dozen more times. Six more silent rounds went screaming into the windows, and six more mutants were on the ground in a horrid mess. Not another sound came from the ruins. Alex reloaded the rifle and slid it back into its protective case on his back with a satisfied smile on his face.
He pulled out his binoculars and scanned the rest of the area for any signs of movement. Three buildings in a horseshoe shape, two stories each but only one building with mutants in it. Alex found that a little strange, but seeing nothing else, he stood up and strode down the ridge to the ruins. Still walking as silently as he could, he kept a wary eye on his surroundings. This was the time for work, not relaxing.
He could relax and let his guard down later in his bunker, but for now he needed to be on top of his game. One little mistake out here could, and often would, cost you your life. He had seen many other hunters and scavengers go out never to be heard from again. They got fearless and overconfident and met a grisly end to one of the many dangers out here in the wastes. The ways of dying out here were many and varied, and death was always waiting for you to fuck up. When you stop being afraid, that’s when death looks at you more closely. Alex swore that he would never forget to be very afraid whenever he went out.
Just last week he had come across the corpse of a fellow scavenger in the burnt out shell of a building. The scene was so gruesome it made Alex stop dead in his tracks. He barely recognized what he saw, but he would have known the tattoo anywhere. A phoenix rising from a skull, hand drawn and stenciled on with a piece of hot wire and ink made out of ashes and berry juice. It was a lovely tattoo attached to an equally lovely person’s arm. He knew this one, it wasn’t just another body to Alex. The pieces of her that weren’t eaten were scattered all over the floor. Alex collected what he could from the body as tears slid down his face. He almost felt like a rapist, scavenging what he could from the remains of a friend. The tattooed arm was lying discarded in a corner, gnawed on by some animal. He had gathered what he could in silent tears and moved on. He had rather liked the friendly girl and her infectious smile. Seeing her torn apart and left to rot made Alex’s insides squirm and roil. He had buried what he could find and left the building wondering how long he might survive. How long would it be before he was only a discarded arm and a memory?
“Back to the moment idiot!” Alex thought to himself. This was certainly no time for introspection or daydreaming. he continued down the slope, across the open space in the center and into the decrepit building.
The mutants had certainly chosen an interesting place to make their lair, Alex mused as he walked through the rubble strewn rooms. The usual debris and detritus was everywhere, but there might still be something here worth scavenging. The first room had nothing more than a few bones and trash, but the second room was a different story altogether. There was a locked cabinet against one wall, untouched by anything except time and dirt. This was probably why the group was here, this one untouched cabinet. Good thing that mutants aren’t that smart Alex thought. They wouldn’t have thought to try to open it, and most likely didn’t have the knowledge to be able to. He opened his tool bag and pulled out the small set of tools that he had scavenged.
A small leather pouch holding a handful of small bits and pieces of metal that other scavengers wouldn’t think twice about. He had learned about locks and lockpicking from a book he found in an old hardware store, something else he would never understand. Why don’t the others ever bother with the books? If they do snatch them up, it’s only to use them as fire kindling. Alex had other uses for them, he used them to make his life and work ten times easier. He could do what he did partially thanks to what he learned from books he found. Like how to pick a lock and how to make lockpicks to do it with. He had access to things that other scroungers could only dream of thanks to his lockpicks.
It took a few long minutes, but he finally heard the satisfying click as the lock gave way. Inside he found every scavenger’s dream. Weaponry in prime condition was often talked about and dreamed of by scavengers. Alex was looking at one of the best finds he had ever come across. Two large caliber rifles, a shotgun and three pistols, as well as cleaning kits and a half dozen boxes of cartridges. His knowledge and tools had given him something amazing today.
He stood and stared in awe at his incredible luck, already imagining what he could get for some of this at the trading post. He quickly pulled an empty duffle bag out of his pack and filled it with the new weaponry. Something else he always traveled with was a his “bag of bags”. He carried at least two empty duffle bags around with him wherever he went, always ready to carry what he came across.
He would have time later to inspect the weapons at his leisure, perhaps he would replace his current rifle with one of these new ones. For now it was better to grab what he could and leave quickly if possible. You never knew when something nasty would wander into an abandoned building. He grabbed everything he could and with the cabinet now empty, he proceeded to examine the rest of the building. He went through desks and file cabinets, finding nothing more than a pack of gum that had broken down decades ago. Further into the burned out building he went, always alert for the hissing and scratching sounds that indicated mutants nearby. He gathered up some old clothing that had survived the years, shoving it into his duffle and started to leave.
Just when Alex thought he would get out and away unscathed, he heard a chilling sound from the entrance of the building. An unmistakable sound that made his breath catch and his blood run cold. Cold hard fear gripped him when he heard the low growling. It was sniffing around the door, probably looking for the smell of the dead mutants. The snuffling and sniffing continued to get closer to where Alex was, so he slid quietly and carefully into a closet. Alex watched through the crack of the door as the creature sauntered into the room with the bodies. It had been many years since Alex had been this close to a panator, and the last time had nearly cost him his life. He had escaped with only a few scars to show for it, but he would never forget it.
Alex was trapped in a closet with his sweat-soaked hand clutching a large knife that he kept on him. he could only pray that the panator would eat its fill and leave. He watched as the large muscular animal used it’s three inch claws to tear into the dead mutants. Pieces and chunks of the bloody bodies slid down it’s throat as it ate. The muscles of it’s powerful limbs rippled as it moved from body to body. Alex controlled his breathing and kept as calm as he possibly could, all the while hoping that the stench of the fresh remains would mask the smell of his own now very sweaty body.
Thirty minutes later, having sated it’s hunger for now, the panator strode out the door as quietly as it had arrived. Alex waited a few more minutes, and gently pushed the closet door open. He stepped out and stretched his now screaming muscles. Staying completely still for a half an hour while watching a powerful predator within feet of you can take a serious toll on you. Once Alex had his blood moving through all his partly numb limbs, he gathered up his things and carefully made his way to the entrance.
Alex could see that the sun was going down, he knew he had to get going or he’d wind up trying to navigate this treacherous area in the dark. He surely didn’t want to be out here after dark, that’s when the truly dangerous things came out to hunt. Even a panator would hide from some of the things that came out after dark. He made sure of his surroundings, secured his gear and duffle and started the long run that would get him home.
Another day alive and a good find, This was a good scavenging run. Life in the wastes was hard, but people like Alex thrived on it.