Poor William spent his day sifting through the heap of disks piled at his feet. He crouched down and, holding each disk carefully, turning them around in his hands, separated the good from the bad. Some had eroded connectors, some had rust on the casing, other cracked - each a sure sign of moisture damage. These he tossed with a clatter into the corner. Those that passed inspection were carefully wrapped in old, anti-static bags and put into his satchel. His hope was to find some useful information on at least one of them.
The dank walls of this old data center had kept away most scavengers. The low ceilings - or, rather, high floors - kept the air heavy and wet. That same raised floor also was certain to be hiding pools of water, which had probably come in through the main entrance, and trickled down the deep tunnel into the main chamber. Most would think that the data in a place like this had rotted away like so much wood, but Poor William was sure a digital diamond might be found among the moldy rough.
He picked his way back to the entrance, scrambling past overturned server cages, squeezing his way through the door, half-blocked by a full, rusty rack. Down the stairs ended in a dark pool of water, which according to the emergency escape maps, also lay the bottom two floors of servers whose data had long dissolved into the black reseviour. Up the stairwell he went, back towards the control room.
The control room had been picked over by other scavengers. The remains of the desks, and a few monitor stands were all that really hinted at any memory of its past life: huddled IT workers lit by brighly glowing screens. Over in the corner opposite the main door, were the remnants of the most recent human presence in place. Buried Data centers were great finds during the Migration. Poor William and his Mother had spent a few nights in one east of the mountains when he was a boy.
He could also see that animals had used the place even more recently. Small bones of birds or rats cluttered up an area under one of the desks. They must have used it as a winter hideaway, the walls of the man-made cave doing such an efficient job of regulating the temperatures. Fortunately for Poor William, it was Spring, so even the laziest of wildlife was out chasing game through the woods above.
The sun was low and blinding when he emerged from the entrance of the cave. He took a moment for his eyes to adjust, and then began his walk down the narrow path through the young woods. The afternoon light cast shadows off the corrugated walls, remains of an industrial storage park surrounding the data center's cave. He had a bit of a walk ahead of him and he set his pace to try and get back before dark.
Getting home before dark was more important the just avoiding stumbling about in woods at night. He had a flashlight in his satchel - one of his prized possession: it could be charged by shaking it, a type that was hard to come by. The worry was more about losing his flashlight, his possible data find, or his life to any possible roaming bandits that might be hunting in the forest for fresh game.
Every city had a forest like this one, on the outskirts, where the suburbs or commercial parks used to be. It didn't take long for forests to reclaim the land from the cheap construction materials. Occasionally, he would pass by the ruins of a particular sturdy house, built of stone or brick by a long-dead artisan, but even those were succumbing to the assault by the slow advance of the forest.
Poor William made his way back to the crumbling main road, back into the city. He felt much safer here, as he could see a caravan up ahead, as well as two small merchant wagons farther out to the east. Caravans meant guards, and guards meant less bandits. He quickened his pace to catch up with end of the group, keeping his distance just enough to not be hassled, but close enough to seem alone.
By the time the sun was giving off it's last deep red hues, the caravan and Poor William in close second, entered the city proper. The old core had become the main population center, where people could live closely and safely. The skyscrapers flashed red, from the sunlight reflecting off the glass on westward side, from cook fires now visible on the dark side.
In the last decade the New Wall had gone up, filling in the space of an old ring highway, protecting the city from organized assault. On the southern outskirts of the New Wall lay rice fields, one of the cities main stays. Crops were still coming in weak thanks to prior decodes of industrial land use. Entire fields were already flooded and filled with algae blooms, in an attempt to draw up the toxins.
The caravan stopped at the gate, for inspection, approval and papers. Poor William snaked his way past the wagons and made his way to the guard controlling foot traffic. He flashed his city ID, was asked for a brief account of his whereabouts, and then allowed into the city. He passed immediately into the noise and color of the gate market.
It was crowded with people making the last of their even purchases. Here were food stuffs and housewares, grains and spices brought in by travel merchants from all over the region. Some stalls specialized in pre-Collapse artifacts. There were lamps and tools, cooking devices, and, most precious, plastic utensils. The former were near useless for anything other than their raw materials. The plastics, on the other hand, were hard to find, no one made them anymore, and the lasted forever.
He might be back at these stalls in the morning to get a few pennies, if his satchel had nothing but very complicated weights. First things first: he had to find out if he had weights, or if he had some useful information.
He headed deeper into the city, heading for the northern towers. He came to the smaller building where he lived and worked. The black glass of was aglow with lights from the forge that had sprung up around near it's base - another possible buyer, if there was nothing but heavy metals in his disks.
One of the blacksmith's apprentices poked his head out the door.
"Poor William! Hey! Where you been?"
"I out at that old data center in the eastern suburbs. Picking it over. The Old Smitty got you working late, Sammy?"
"Yeah, just stepped out for smoke. We had a big order come in yesterday and the buyer want's it by weeks end. Find anything good, or do you have just more junk for us," he grinned.
"I might have something, we'll see. Gotta go see Bill, first."
"Have a smoke first, man."
They passed a small pipe back and forth, puffing on local weed. It was relaxing and Poor William's tired legs felt lighter and less weary after they finished off the smoldering pile. A little dinner and a good night's sleep would refresh him completely. First, he had to go to Bill's place.
Bill's was at the top of same building, with plenty of windows and a glimpse of the bay. It had once been a luxury apartment, but now was half workshop, half living space. The living space was chaos: an unruly mess of clothes, bedding and dirty plates stacked on top of everything. The workshop was order: tools hung on pegboard, cables neatly bundled, a wiring diagram laid precisely beside the board it describes, and rows of technical books.
"What have you brought for me today, little Bill."
Bill was the only one to call him this, at least with out a fight. Something about his thick accent and proper language made the use of 'little Bill' sound almost natural.
"I was out digging around, came up with a few drives. Wanna take a look?"
"Of course, let me check the batteries and see if there is enough power to do a full drive scan."
Bill squinted into the tiny screen once used as a digital photo frame while typing a few commands into his keyboard. Numbers dividing bigger numbers scrolled up the screen. He looked back at Poor William with a grin and pressed the power button on a big computer sitting under the desk. It started up with a howl of fans.
"Plenty of power. Those winds from the last few days certainly helped. Probably have enough to do three scans, if we needed. Let me get things going and then I'll make some tea for while we wait."
He connected a small ribbon cable to the drive, and tapped a few commands. The drive made its own sounds of life: quiet whir followed by some clicks. Bill clicked away at the ancient keyboard, noisily typing in commands, each key's spring making it sound when rebounding. After squinting more into the little screen and typing more commands, he stood up and gave a small, satisfied smile, nodded and headed to kitchen.
"Did you see your mother recently?"
"Not since the weekend, Bill. She didn't look good, she's just skin and bones. Don't know if I can go back there, man."
"The Wasting is a pretty awful thing, a pity to sit by and watch. But you should go and spend some time with her, boy. Won't be long now."
Bill leaned back in his chair, the wood creaking with his bulky frame. Distance crept over his features, as it always did when the spoke of Poor William's mother. He sat silent for a time, sipping his tea. His revery was interrupted by a bell chime, muffled and distorted as it came out of a speaker made from an old Styrofoam plate.
"Ah, let's see if we've found anything."
He stood up and took Poor William's empty cup. They sat back down in front of the computer, whose picture frame was full of green lines of text. Bill scrolled the text up and down, making a few humming sounds every once in a while. Occasionally, he would murmur about a particular file's interestingness and type a command and more text would rapidly scroll across the screen. Finally, he turned back to Poor William with a big grin.
"What a great find, Little Bill, what a great find! Two years of medical research information. Data on protein analysis, some details on synthetic vaccine production. This could be some very lucrative stuff."
"How much do you think we can get?"
"Don't fret, my friend, you'll get your usual ten percent. It'll be a tidy sum."
The pair celebrated over another cup of tea, luxurious for the use of fresh tea leaves.