Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

Even before everything came apart, I hated hills. And, back then, I had gears. This old clunker only has one cog at each end. So there’s nothing for it but to push down on one side while hooking the other side under the pedal to pull up. If that isn’t enough, it’s time to walk.

Which is a bit of a bugger with forty kilos of scavenged stuff in the panniers. Then again, I’m going back to Racehill Fort, where sanity still exists. I have three people with me, and we chat about things and laugh as we go. Most of the south coast is a feral wasteland. If pedalling harder is the tariff for being part of civilisation, I’ll happily do it.

“Chargers!” Cindy’s cry is hoarse with fear.

Damn and blast. I’d hoped that the new equivalent of mechanised cavalry hadn’t spread this far. Should have guessed it – electric motors do good work on smooth going, but off roads, they’re shite. The mountain bikers, foresters and horsefolk make short work of them. Which means they are bound to the roads, and roads delimit the old urban territories. Like the one we live in.

“Push on! There’s a dip we can use to help with the long up to the fort!”

True enough, but the sounds I’m hearing are not servo-driven bicycle tyres. They sound like –

A black-helmeted rider shoots from a side road, his e-motorbike sporting armoured fairings, spiked leg guards, and a pillion with a hand crossbow.

“Stand and deliver!”

You can hear the amusement in the bastard’s voice: he’s enjoying this.

I raise my hands: “We’ve not got much, just some canned goods.”

He points at me: “Dump it all.”

We do so.

Pillion dismounts and stretches with a groan. Unlike the compact frame of the rider, this one’s a bit of a monster. I note that the crossbow does not waver while the stretch and audible bone cracking occurs.

After the stretch, he waves the hand that doesn’t hold the crossbow as he speaks: “Here’s how it goes, kids. You’ll not be scavenging anything until our conditions are met.”

Mark’s face betrays his bafflement: “What?”

Rider shakes his head: “If you leave the fort to get stuff, we will stop you on the way back. Every time. If you keep trying, we’ll slash your tyres.”

We are faced with a man who knows his threats.

I raise my arms: “What conditions?”

There is no hesitation: “Vegetables.”

Mark beats me to it: “What?”

Linda gets it: “You’ve lost your farmer, haven’t you?”

The rider laughs: “Good guess. So, here’s how it goes. We want fresh veg, and you grow loads up there. But you need people who do the brute force thing. We’ve watched you, and you’re either shit at it, too squeamish, or both. We are very good at violence -”

Linda interrupts with: “But shit at gardening.”

Pillion grins and stops pointing the crossbow at us: “You’d be right, lady.”

I start pushing my bike: “You wouldn’t happen to have any bicycle sized motors would you?”

Rider scratches under his helmet: “The sort that helps pushbikes up hills? I’m sure we could find some.”

“Then I think you’ll be welcomed with open arms. Providing you bring the gear to fit ‘em as well.”

Both of our erstwhile highwaymen burst out laughing, and I know an alliance has been formed.

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