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The Forgotten Ocean
In a time of peril, when all Earth ground with the weight of humanity, the laws of human nature dissipated, leaving only the unforgiving nature of beasts. Death grew, consuming those who struggled for survival in battles for food and territory, taking its victims with blood and hunger and sickness. Like lions, some humans roamed in small packs and ate what they could find. Like monkeys, others took to the large forests, hardly ever setting foot on the blood drenched ground and picking fruit for eating. Others turned to cannibalism, living in a delicate balance of truth and lies and games before finally playing traitor and tearing into their own friend...but none went near the ocean.
Deep, angry quakes would send waves so large they’d block out the stars. Walls of water with such force that when they came crashing down they demolished everything in their path. So the ocean turned into nothing more than a nightmare to keep people from roaming too far. Most didn’t even believe it existed. It made Sera wonder why, if the ocean didn’t exist, her pride never travelled farther than the land they knew. Surely there was an ocean. Surely that force still existed, had survived in through the trials of shaking earth and fire that burned the sky and winds that could uproot forests. Surely the ocean had survived.
Sera left on a night when the moon and stars shone bright enough to show her every face of the twenty-four others in her pride. All were sun weathered from living on the plains, all scarred from fighting with the other prides, all tired and beaten, but surviving. Not a single one was related to her by blood. Sera’s parents had been killed long ago in a territorial battle. It hardly mattered. While the pride was as close as a family, it was a harsh, battle strengthened family, more based on survival than trust.
Creeping away into the dark, Sera’s boots shifted the long grass aside then settled on it with a dry crackle. There were trees, but they were few, spread far and wide across the plain. Their branches spread wide, allowing for rare shade on the plains. Creeping farther away from the warm bodies of others, Sera felt the cold wind that swept the flat plain. Sera pulled her worn jackets tighter around her.
She had three, dirtied and holed jackets that she’d scavenged and taken from the bodies after a fight. At least her worn boots were in better condition with only holes in the lining. Her capris, or at least they were capris now, were in the worst condition, threadbare and no protection against the wind.
With a groan and a crack, the earth shifted. Sera kept walking, indifferent to the small quake that made the ground bounce beneath her feet and was as common as the wind. None of the pride had shifted, none had cracked an eye open to see Sera being swallowed by the darkness.
By the time daylight took to the gray sky Sera was far from the pride and the plains she’d often wandered. She walked through a wood, moving quickly over the broken rocks and fallen, splintered trees. The smell of sap and dirt not dry and cracked by the sun made her head spin, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Light was filtered through a thick canopy of wide leaves and strong branches that twisted around their neighbors. It made her nervous. There were many protections the trees provided, like cover from the rough cold wind, but there were also many dangers. Those humans that had taken to the trees like monkeys lived here. They stayed in the canopy. It was not smart to cross into their territory even if they did not usually kill. Sera gripped the knife at her hip, hoping the assurance would slow her heart.
More quickly now, she jogged over the cracked ground. It was worse than the plains, with roots sticking out and rocks shifting under her weight. Some turned to dust just at her touch. Grabbing onto branches to help her way, and her eyes on the ground, Sera very nearly didn’t see the girl up ahead.
Startled, Sera stopped. Holding absolutely still, she watched the girl. Wind wound through the trees, making the leaves shake, but the stranger seemed not to notice, not to be affected by it. Though her hair was long and brown and strangely neat, not a strand moved. Carefully, Sera crept behind a tree, wincing at every sound her boots made. Her knife was in her hand. The weight made her feel stronger. Still the stranger did not move. She faced a different direction, looking up as if she could see the sky through the canopy. Sera glanced up, but there was nothing. Was this girl a Monkey? It was hard to assume so. Sera had seen Monkeys and this girl looked nothing like them. Everything she wore looked clean and whole, from the black tights and knee high boots to the long necklaces she wore on top of a black tank top.
Sera continued carefully, curiosity making her head straight for the stranger instead of around. Sunlight broke through the canopy for a moment, lighting everything up, except for the stranger. As the wind had not effected her, neither did the sunlight. No shadow darkened the ground around her, the light seeming to pass straight through.
Very close now, Sera paused behind a tree, pressing one side to the rough bark and peering out at the stranger. Before she’d decided to try and get the stranger’s attention, the girl had turned and looked at Sera. Her expression was neither welcoming nor hostile.
“You’re reaching for the stars, you know.” Her voice echoed strangely, sounding more like she’d shouted into a plain than murmured in a forest. It was almost like it wasn’t sound at all, but an impression, a ghost of a sound.
“Who’re you?” Sera asked, baring her teeth as she said it.
“An imprint.” The girl shrugged as if it didn’t matter to her. “A memory of the earth, leftover from years ago.”
When Sera didn’t say anything she beckoned and started walking.
“You’ve got to keep moving if you want to find the ocean.”
Sera jogged after her, still wary of danger, but willing to have company. The stranger moved comfortably, fluidly, her long legs easily taking in stride the broken ground. Her expression was peaceful, but her eyes didn’t seem to focus on anything.
“It’s nice that you have hope,” the stranger said softly. “When the earth started over not many people did.”
“Started over? How?” Eyeing the stranger, Sera wondered if she believed this girl was an ‘imprint’, a person left over from the destruction of many years ago.
“Everything just sort of...stopped...and then it was gone,” the girl whispered, haunted. Her brown eyes were wide, staring at something Sera couldn’t see. The stranger swallowed tightly as if pushing back tears. “The ocean was there then, and it wiped out so many things...I don’t think it exists. Not anymore, at least. You might as well try, though.”
“You said you’d seen it!” Sera cried, her heart pounding harder. She scrambled up a ledge of rock, grasping at roots while the ‘imprint’ stepped easily upward.
“I saw it before all this,” the girl replied, gesturing to the torn ground and shredded trees. “After everything that happened...I don’t think it could be there anymore...good luck.” The girl smiled. A breeze wound through the trees and this time it caught her, pushing her image back, brushing her away like a hand brushing away a drawing in the dirt.
Sera did not stop. She kept moving in the same direction she had been all day. She’d find the ocean. It had to be there. Waves so high they'd block out the stars. People in her pride had often laughed at ideas like imprints and apparitions, at the stories the Monkeys and Cannibals had spread. The world was haunted, the stories had said, the memories of those who had wiped out at the end of their world still walked, lost.
Pushing the chilling thought from her mind, Sera kept walking. Just after noon she’d left the forests and started across another plain. It was warmer in the sun, but for now she’d wear her jackets. Soon Sera found a road. Long and broken, barely distinguishable through the long grass and chunks of black rock. A road that might lead to an ocean. Sera followed it through the plain, eating a small meal from what she had packed. Hopefully she saw an animal soon so she didn’t have to use up the supplies she had. Afternoon sun forced off her jackets and the wind was hot, helping little. There was nothing for miles around except for the occasional ruin.
“You could be walking forever. You think that after all this earth has been through, there’s still an ocean?”
Sera’s head jerked up. A man walked beside her, unaffected by the loose road or the hot sun or the wind. Another imprint, Sera would guess. He seemed old, but strong. There was white in his gray hair and stubble on his chin, though patches were missing. He had a mocking expression on his face, as if Sera’s insistence, her hope, amused him.
“There could be,” Sera told him, refusing to believe otherwise.
“Probably not,” the old man sighed. “You have not seen what I have seen, little girl. Why don’t you go back and stay with the things you know for sure? It’s safer.”
Sera snarled at him. She was hardly a ‘little girl’.
“If you’re going to be like that, just go away. I’d rather walk alone.”
The old man laughed and let the wind brush him away, his mocking voice the last to go.
Sera kept walking until sundown. With tired legs and sore feet, she veered off the road toward a gnarled, bent tree. It bent over as if protecting something at its base and the few leaves that held to its twisted branches were more brown than green. Curling up beneath it, Sera slept.
The sun woke her in the morning. She squinted and rolled to her feet, ignoring the quake that was threatening to topple the tree. Walking on, she waited for it to stop. Sera walked beside the road to avoid the bouncing rocks and the quake grew harder. It shook, making the earth sound like thunder rolling on and on and on. Vision shaking, Sera paused and sat, waiting for it to pass, but it grew harder still and she began to worry. There was not much she could do, but a quake this long and strong hadn’t happened in a while. Suddenly the earth cracked, right behind her, tearing a gash in the earth. Yelping, she threw herself sideways. It was only a foot wide, but there was no bottom to it and it went as far as the eye could see. All around Sera birds were taking flight, filling the sky with black shadows, but there was nothing for her to do, but wait.
So, with her heart in her throat, she waited. Keeping her hands on the ground, though rocks bit into them, trying to keep herself relatively upright. When at last the earth held still she got to her feet and started walking, quickly, trying to work out the nervous energy. Sera was alone now, without a pride, without anyone. There was no one to look to and be assured that it was alright, that this quake would end just like all the rest.
“There’s nothing!” Someone screamed and suddenly there was a woman, running full pelt down the road toward Sera. She was gasping, crying hysterically, her dirty face streaked with tear tracks. Her arms were flung wide, waving in the air, demanding Sera’s attention. Sera gasped, her knife in her hand. The woman was wild, her hair in straggled knots and her clothes ripped and her skin brown with dirt.
“Nothing!” She screamed again, weeping. “My children, gone, all wrenched from me by the ocean, but now that’s gone too! Nothing is there! Turn back!”
Sera crouched, ready to fight her, but just as the apparition would have hit her it vanished, the woman gone as suddenly as it had come. Sera’s hand shook as she slid the knife back into her waistband. Shaking her head, she tried to put the woman from her mind. Her hopelessness, her complete belief that there could be nothing. All that had been a long time ago. The earth had started again, and there was an ocean. Sera kept on, ran forward, needing to find it. All day she ran and ran then slowed to a walk and then ran some more. A city slowly rose up around her. The ruins of houses, roofs collapsed, walls splintered outward, some completely toppled to one side. The roads were broken and the cars still on them shattered, dented, rusting, some even burned. The entire place reeked of death. In some of these houses were the long dead bodies of families. In some of the cars were the rotted skeletons of those who hadn’t escaped. Bones littered the street, some from animals, but most from the humans that had been caught in the city when the world had stopped.
Sera watched carefully for the Cannibals that made these cities their home. She didn’t dare head for the tall buildings. Most had fallen long ago, but there were one or two standing, swaying in the wind, ready to fall at the slightest touch. Sera was picking up her pace without meaning to, fear pumping through her. Cannibals wouldn’t hesitate to kill her. Running flat out, she turned corners, trying to keep her direction and skirt around the city at the same time. The buildings grew taller, the ruins larger, then smaller again. Once Sera thought she saw a fleeing shadow and her heart practically stopped, but she kept running and soon she’d passed out of the city, through the town and was once again on a road with only a few ruins spattering her vision.
Night was going to fall soon, but Sera wanted to be farther from the city. She kept jogging until she saw the child sitting on the side of the road. Sera slowed and approached carefully, trying to see in the halflight if this was a Cannibal child or yet another apparition that haunted these parts. The child just sat, barely moving. Her head was shaved bald and her clothes were a loose, pale green. FInally Sera stopped beside her.
“Why are you sitting there?” Sera asked, seeing how the light passed through her, how there was no shadow next to her own. “Are you waiting for something, or someone?”
“No...I’m just sitting.” The child’s voice was dead. It moved neither up nor down, had no expression or hope at all.
“Why don’t you get up?” As Sera said it she moved back, away from the child. It was wrong to be scared by a child, but she couldn’t help it. Her stomach churned at the sight of this girl. Her face was less than blank, it was empty, just like the rest of her. It was like a body had learned to sit and talk.
“I have no reason to. There’s nothing. Not even hope.”
Sera stared at her, backing farther and farther away. Not once did the child look at her. There was no hope to make her. No hope for...anything. Sera ran. As fast as she possibly could, she ran down the broken road, needing her lungs to burn and her muscles to ache. There was an ocean, she had hope for that. Another quake shook the ground, but she ignored it even as it grew and ran on. Even in the dark, Sera ran. She kept her eyes fixed on the stars in front of her, on the moon above her. The thunderous rumbling of a quake started again, but Sera ran...until she realized that the ground did not shake. She stopped. It was no trouble to hear over her panting breaths. It was not the sound of a quake. There was a tremor in the ground and a sound like thunder layered on top of itself, but there was also a rushing, a whispering that turned into a roar. Sera looked up and realized she could not see the stars anymore. She’d found the ocean.