There is only one way to start my story. At the end of all things.
I know little of the world before the end. What I have learnt comes from the whispers of the elderly and the occasional tales told to us as children by our parents. I have no parents, so perhaps all I know is wrong, a fable of lies woven by the old to insight fear into us as we set out to start anew. The past is considered a trivial matter here. An unnecessary deviancy from our duty to our race.
When the world ended, and all was destroyed, somehow, our community came into being. An outpost surrounded by glades, beside the forest, hidden behind the ashen mountains of the north. We are alone. A final stand for man. A dwindling light of human existence in the dark abyss. Our race has been destroyed, with only the savage packs of wild men remaining. That is why they build the citadel. It will be a beacon of hope, for the future generation, preserving our sacrifice. Although, it's construction has caused more death than the dangers beyond the walls.
Silence. There is only silence beyond our feeble stronghold. No other voice, none like ours. Only the occasional howl of the beasts or the feint stirring of the trees in the wind. Emptiness.
They say we are all that is left. We assume we are the last. I just don’t believe any of it. Voicing disbelief is frowned upon, though my voice is barely heard. If I were to shout, it would travel into an empty void, along with the screams and prayers of everyone else here. Even our names, lovingly bestowed upon us by our parents, are erased and ignored by those who work us. We are guards or hunters or workers. My name is Anya. It will always be Anya. I will not be stripped of my identity. It is all that remains of my past.
My existence is meaningless. As are most lives here. We all serve to build and break and bleed for the survival of the next generation. We are the creators of a future, forming a pathway to the prosperity and safety we will never have. As the citadel is built and the food is collected, we are here, breaking bones to lift wood, loosing limps in the jaws of the beasts that prey on us from the glades. We stand atop the mighty walls, we guard our people, and we give our lives when danger approaches.
What do we build? The citadel. A mighty structure of wood, atop the stone building the elders call a “theatre,” though the hall with rows of seats is now the meeting room for the council. It was they who decreed we build, that we forage and die to serve the future generation. Food rations are given by their instruction, appointments of guards and hunters are by their choice. Free will has been outlawed.
I do not seek to insight a rebellion. I have no interest in intervening in the matters of the council. They appointed me a guard, I get a meager but sufficient ration of grass pulp and the occasional morsel of beast meat. My life is hardly the hardest, though I am expected to bear children soon should the hunters lose any more men. That is a duty I will never fulfill. To reproduce would be to create a life made to endure pain and fear and cruelty. I see the children here, I would not wish their fate upon anyone.
How did this happen? The truth was lost long ago. I know only rumors. The world was at peace. They say the wars ended, the blood of the innocent ceased flowing, and the shroud of death began to fade from the lives of the poor and destitute. Then the great purge occurred, but how I do not know. Some say it was disease, and the world destroyed itself seeking to fight each other in belief the other side had a cure. Old Rudy, the eldest of the elders, and the most bitter, swears it was the great uprising between the ordinary man and the men in power. Most agree it was the electricity, when it died, so did the world and the people ran wild in anger. In my mind, it didn’t matter what happened. The damage was done, I didn’t need to argue about it till I was grey. Unlike most here, I still sought to find what was left, instead of rebuilding it all.
Somehow, our world ended, and this new strange, cruel underworld emerged. We lived, as did the savage men who eat the flesh of their own, and the beasts of the glades. I like to think we are the least barbaric of the three, but a mere glimpse at our people proves it may be a three way tie.
I don’t know why I think so deeply upon life. Most carry out their duties and are content with serving a greater cause. Maybe this is a rebellion, a rebellion of the mind, of the soul. To pursue a free will to think whatever I wish. Or maybe it is merely because I was never taught to obey without question.
They called me a dreamer. My father, the other children. Always wondering, never in the now, always lost in my mind. Perhaps it was because the only place I was safe, the only place to find solace and sanctuary, was my mind.
I never knew a mothers love. Nor any love for that matter.
My mother took her last breath the moment I took my first. My father raised me, alone, until he was torn apart by a rival group on a hunt. I was orphaned before my tenth birthday, and I was taken into the care of those barren women who care for the children left behind. The only hope I'd clung to was my father’s final gift to me, a secret heirloom he had stolen and saved for my eyes only. A book. Found in the belongings of a corpse in the glades. A book of pictures, a window to the past, showing me the wonder of our cities. The book was long gone, stolen as I slept by one of the children. I beat a few into confessing, though I was soon taken away and beaten into silence. I have since given up hope of ever knowing the identity of the thief, but the pictures are here, burnt into my mind. A blessing and a curse, to know the beauty of the past and yet never find such a place in my time.
I am standing at the wall, looking at the citadel, watching the men and women heave timber and tie rope, I feel the crushing pressure of the wood as they lift it, the burning and splitting of the skin on ones hands as you tie the rope. My own hands bear the scars of years spent working like this.
I won't have long before the bell of awakening is rung and I will be sent out again, so I drink the lumpy mixture and run away to the northern wall. My stomach aches as it pleads for more food, my arms ache as they condemn my use of them to climb the ladder. I almost slip as I reach the top, my fingers still bruised and cut from yesterday's spear crafting. Perhaps you wonder how my body carries out such difficult demands on so little food and rest. It's a question I ponder daily but pay little heed to. Pain is a burden we all bear.
I am a scout. My legs must carry me for hours and run when danger nears. My arms must support me as I carry timber and climb trees. My heart must learn to stay calm when I am afraid and keep contained my sorrow and emotions. To feel would be too fall prey to weakness. Weakness is a pathway to death.
However, unlike the strongest of us, I am not without flaw. I am not completely selfless. That is why I am here, climbing the wall, sitting on the edge, staring out at the devastation before me. I am here by no order not any strict instruction. I am here by choice. By free will.
For a moment, the past comes back to life, and I see the devastation regenerate into a paradise of towers and cars and people and laughter and light. A blue sky, with clouds that dance across the horizon as birds chase them, soaring above the city below them. The dreamy vision slips away swiftly but the ghostly silhouettes of their majesty remain, imprinted in my mind, ghosts of a past only I understand.
The sky in the pictures is blue, crisp and clear, you could not see the stars, nor was the sun red. Our sky is burnt, fiery auburn dotted with stars that drown in its raging endlessness, broken only by the sun, so vast and huge you can see the flames on its surface lashing out. Many nights I dream of a dawn where the sun no longer looms over me, where the sky is blue and the birds that fly above us are white and pure, not blood thirsty like the crows and vultures that lurk on the wall and in the mountains.
Since the end, there has been no blue sky. The sky is red. They say it is because the sun exploded and set light to the universe, preserving us. Though I never believed the old stories that hell burnt away the universe to punish us, even as a child, when such stories were told to scare us into submission.
I am here to escape the life we serve and to catch a glimpse of what lies ahead. From here, I see the ashen Forrest the scavengers burnt in an effort to scare us. I see the black lake where they drowned the family who stole meat on a hunt. I can see the broken mountain in the distance, and the glades below that harbor the beats who can feed us or feed on us. I see every danger, but I don't come here to fear this world. I come here to find hope.
Hope. A sentiment long lost and yet forever present in the depths of every soul. I can see it, in the horizon, in the sky, in the trees that still grow green and the daisies that stay an untainted white as they appear in the miles of grass before me. There is always something to believe in, and I believe in hope. I believe there is a way to enjoy life and keep safe the future generation.
One day, I will leave. I will not be the first, nor will I be the last. The time will come for me to disappear into the dawn and journey on to find something more. I may die, but to live with hope and die seeking it, would be the ultimate journey for a child of a dying world.
I will go alone. As I have done from the beginning. As I will always do. Life isn't meant to be a path walked upon by two. Not that I had much choice in the matter, few bothered with an orphan scout. All except for Phoenix West.
Phoenix sought to find me most days, whenever my guard duty crossed paths with his. He is my elder by five years, and my superior, though his obvious preference for me is a weakness that I will never understand. I mention him only because I know he wants to run away, and he will, but I will not have our paths joined. We wonder aimlessly from the beginning, and when we find our road, it is narrow and hazardous enough without trying to pull someone else along with you into an unknown future. He runs because his family have preordained his appointment in the council, and he will not adhere to the barbaric justice system we are governed by.
He could not give the order to drown the family in the lake, it is known that he ran when they were held down. He is recognised as a weak leader, and they have made him a hunter in an effort to turn him into a savage. To rule in this time, you must abandon all humanity, and govern without consideration of desperation, hunger or age. Most of the orphan children I was raised with were victims of such justice. Their hunger drove them to raid the stockpile, their bony bodies and sunken eyes ignored as they were sent to the wood and remain there, granted their peaceful slumber in the soil of our ancestors.
It was such justice that drove Phoenix to seek an escape. I don't know why, but I feel no pity toward him. Perhaps because I know that soon he will be a runner and feeling anything for a runner is futile. He is too weak to survive and too fearful of death to survive.
That is why I will go alone. I am unattached, unloved, unimportant, and I see death as the friend who will grant me an escape should the pain of life break me. As hopeful as I am of finding a future, I will not imagine that it is promised I will get there. Nothing these days is promised, least of all a long life, but I will not die here. I refuse to join the rows of graves beside the makeshift lumberyard. I will not become a mound of dirt marked with pieces of wood. If I am to perish, let it be out there.
Beyond the horizon. That is where I will go. Into the sun, into the fire of freedom. This is my world. A world that ended in destruction, and now lives on in this broken dystopia. I don't know why we’re here, why we made it, what is left beyond this crippled citadel of life.
Perhaps there is life, perhaps there is more wasteland. Perhaps there is naught but sheer emptiness and I will enter the oblivion we all fall into in the end. The bell rings, I must join the next guard, but as I lift myself up and turn away from the walls edge, I feel the feint chill of a northern breeze and I look out, in time to see the trees sway. There is life, preserved and unyielding, in every inch of existence, regardless of how fierce the fire or how dark the shadows.
Life cannot be destroyed. Nor can the soul. I will live, I will fight, and I will touch that horizon and venture forth. Perhaps it is time I rewrote the future of my race.
I will no longer survive to endure. I will endure to live the future written for me in the cosmos.
I am alive. I am free.
I am the future.