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A dusty wind blew listlessly across the badlands, carrying whatever soot and gravel it could across the dull copper-tinted surface of a desert that seemed to stretch forever beyond the eastern horizon, stopped in the west only by a towering cliff wall and the shining forbidden Citadel just out of our reach. And in the center of this endless barren plane was home ,if it could even be called that. Nothing more than jagged ruin scattered in geometric patterns across the land, picked clean of nearly all resources. Only a few buildings remained as refuge from the sandy whistling winds that worked away at exposed skin like sandpaper. In a small corner of the cold gray ruin, in the tiniest floor space, in the last building with a roof and all four walls, I slept with 11 others. “The Matchbox,”Blot had called it, “All twelve matches huddled together with not an inch between, just hoping not to get blown out by the winds”. It was the only time he had ever waxed poetic, but the name stuck. So here we are. A small dozen still-human survivors of the Genome Revolution in the year 5073- or was it 5075? 74? Scrit would know; she's kept track of the date since the end of the war. So, a small dozen still-humans in 507- something are hiding out in a wobbly old house no bigger than a matchbox. Dying to break out.
Only Scrit was old enough to remember what life was like before the war. She was just a teenager when it happened. Her name, her real name, not the name she received when she had earned her keep, was Violet, and she was a customer service rep for the Genome Foundation, the company that started this mess. She used to tell us what it was like working for them. We needed to know how it had happened so certain mistakes were never repeated, and she was the only one who could teach us. Apparently, the GF was originally meant to reconfigure human DNA to cure things like Down’s Syndrome and other birth defects, but by her time it had been reduced to a mere fad. Once all birth defects were eradicated permanently, the only other use for it (for humans anyway) was to change their hair color or height etc. permanently. But even then the public was not satisfied. Eventually, people got the treatment to join their own DNA with that of animals, giving them animal-like features, heightening their senses, even tripling their lifespan. There finally came a time when these people, calling themselves the new-humans, began looking down on the others, those who they claimed were now obsolete beings, standing still forever on the path of human development. The treatment was the next logical step on the evolutionary ladder. Everyone else was just too weak and close minded to see it. Scrit and her fellow co-workers had to deal with these kinds of people every day with no sign of the movement ever stopping. Eventually one of them cracked. The one that mattered to her the most. Winston.
“Winston, you can’t go! Don’t leave me here!” she cried that fateful day.
”Then quit! “he shouted in reply. There was a long silence. Violet didn’t dare look him in the eyes. “You can’t, can you?” he spoke softer now, more solemn. Violet still averted her gaze.”You took the treatment,” he stated in disgust. It was not a question but a fact.
“I had to!” Violet cried, “These people, these new-humans, they have a point! If you have the chance to improve yourself then why not take it? It’s a revolution in human history! Humanity has come so far but we can do even better” she defended, no longer knowing who she was trying to convince.
“You sound like a GF commercial,” he spat.
“Winston,”she started again,” I’m going to live a lot longer now! I’m not going to be stuck in this job for the rest of my life! I have time to do anything I want now!” Another longer pause.
“Violet,” he spoke as if referring to the subject of a eulogy, ”They’re up there playing God, “ he said pointing up to the highest flowers of the GF tower ” There are some things we aren’t supposed to fool with and I’m getting out while I still can. You should too”
Soon after Winston left, she quit. There was no letter of resignation, no two weeks’ notice, nothing. She knew quitting wouldn't make any difference in the long run. No doubt a want ad would go into circulation an hour after it was discovered that she was missing. Before the week was out, there would be another customer service rep sitting in that desk, but it wouldn't be her. The company would have to find someone else to aid their dirty work. Scrit tried searching for Winston when the war began, but it was too late. She would never see him again. There were times even now when she entertained the idea that he was still alive out there somewhere, but she knew better. Most of the still-humans were slaughtered in the Genome War, and he would have died of old age without the treatment she had received. After all, that was nearly 200 years ago.
There came a gentle shaking at my shoulder as I slept sprawled out on the cold tile floor of the Matchbox. I blinked lazily awake but did not stir.
“Psst. Blink, hey Blink. Time to wake up “whispers (very loudly) a tiny girl with a small lock of dark purple hair curling down the side of her face. That’s Mouth, medic and unfortunate wake up call.”We’re running outta food. Scrit says you and Blot gotta make a run down to the shop and pick up some supplies”. I groan and turn, pulling my filthy gray hoody over my head. “Up”, she says. Her shaking becomes significantly less gentle. My head smacks against the floor once or twice.
“Ow, hey! Okay Okay, I’m up. I’m up! Sheesh!” I mutter, rubbing the newly-formed, red lump on my forehead.
“Blot’s waiting for you outside already with the bartering stuff,” she reports, sitting back and crossing her arms over her plain white tank top.
“Blot’s coming too?” I asked, my head still throbbing.
“Course he is. Last time you couldn’t carry everything back. Scrit says to pick up a weapon for yourself too. You need all the help you can get.” I groan a little, putting a hand to the throbbing red spot on my forehead. “Hey, you wanna quit whinin’?” she mocks.
“Aw, shut up Darlene,” I snapped. She blushed a little at the use of her birth name. Mouth had been the last person to earn her keep and name, Mouth, and the rest of us picked on her about it.
“Blink! You get out there NOW, and if you call me that one more time and I’m not doin’ nothin’ for you anymore. Next time you get your butt kicked, you can sew yourself up you lazy, ungrateful son of a!“
I didn’t stick around for the rest of her rant. Sometimes I think that if she screams any louder the roof will cave in. I scrambled towards the door and met Blot out side.
“Hey, Blot!” I greeted him. Blot only nodded as we started the long journey to the shop. He was the second oldest of the twelve, after Scrit ,and was in charge of teaching us all how to fight and the hunting party how to hunt. He stood seven feet tall with a long thick lead pipe slung over his shoulder, the kind of person you can hide behind for shade. Blot was the size of a bear and almost as talkative. An hour is a long time to walk to the shop, and the silence doesn’t help.
Scrit once told us of the towering shops, malls that dotted the country, one in every city, filled with aisles and aisles of anything you could want. The shop we stood before was nothing more than a small ring of stacked crates. A long branch stabbed in its center supporting the large stained sheet that served as a makeshift roof to shield it’s keeper from the winds that worked like sand paper across exposed flesh when given enough time.
“Hello?” I say, the winds carrying bits of my voice away. A small new-human woman creeps out from the darkness. Her genome treatment has granted her raven wings though completely useless. Her beak was an unfortunate side-effect. Her sporadically downy face is ancient and wrinkled as one of her steel-silk grocery bags, scavenged from ruined cities of the last century. Blot couldn’t seem to stop staring at her lack-luster wings. I had forgotten that this was his first time visiting the shop.
Somehow, this old crone was exiled from the New-Human Citadel with the remaining live still-humans. Why? I never bothered to ask. Maybe she was a still-human sympathizer like Scrit, or maybe she committed some unspeakable crime or…
She pulls out a wooden spoon and starts stroking it gently with her dark bony fingers, humming all the while.
…maybe she’s just senile.
“Ahem!” Blot cleared his throat loudly. The humming stopped.” We need food and a weapon for Blink.”
“And what have you to trade?” she crowed.
Blot reached into one of the “grocery bags” from the last visit and pulled out some gardening tools (we had never figured out how to use them in the desert anyway) and some scavenged cinder blocks from the foundations of the ruined houses near the Matchbox. Why she valued these so highly we could never understand. She ran her hand over the bartering goods, “ooh”ing quietly at odd intervals. She stooped behind the crate stack a moment and returned with a large bag of raw raccoon meat.
“Good good good yes. You, boy,” She said, jerking her head towards me exactly like an enormous owl, ”I have something special for you.”She hunched down once more pulling out a long cord attached to a steel silk pouch filled with what seemed to be pebbles. My heart sank. Mouth was never going to let me live this down. Ever. Even she got a pocket knife, and she was younger than I was. “Er…I was thinking of something a little, you know…” my voice trailed off.
“Scrawny little thing, aren’t you?” She continued. Blot stifled a laugh. “But fast”, she said, “Very fast. Why they call you Blink, yes?” I nodded. If there was one thing I was good at. It was running away. “You watch,” she finished. The ancient new-human began swinging the “flail” over her head with the speed and power of a much younger woman. I watched as she spun it faster and faster until it could no longer be seen. There came a deafening crack as the pouch of marbles crashed against an empty clay pot. Shards of pottery flew everywhere. “Skill,” she said noticing my eyes had widened, “not strength”. I wasn’t entirely convinced. We paid our debts and started the journey home. Blot tried to teach me to use it properly and how to aim with it, but almost always by example or correction. He only spoke when I asked for advice but, somehow, he managed to teach me in almost no time at all as he had done with the hunters.
I crashed into Blot, who had stopped suddenly in front of me, staring off into space. “What is it? What’s-”I started but was silenced immediately when Blot put a finger to his lips. Blot stooped down, and untied the supplies from the heavy pipe slung over his shoulders, readying it as a club. I listened for a moment. At first all that could be heard were the winds racing past the craggy cliff walls.
Suddenly, there came a blood-curdling squeal. An enormous boar, the largest I had ever seen, leapt from behind the stone and bolted at us. I was only just quick enough to dodge as it screamed by me and instead went for Blot’s throat. He gave out an agonized cry as he wretched the beast free, slamming it against the stone. An instant later it scrambled to its feet, raising itself from the dust, barreling towards me, the lesser threat. This time I had seen it coming, I dove out of the way, came up with the flail, swung it over my head, flinging it towards the boar. There came a satisfying thwack as the thin cord wrapped around its thick neck, the weight itself, beating against its face. It bolted, squealing and screeching in agony and dragging me along with it. The cord constricted its neck, cutting deeper into its impossibly thick hide the longer it struggled. I refused to let go, the extra weight slowed it, if only a bit. It was enough. Blot ran as fast as he could. The Thick pipe came crashing down on the boar’s iron skull. The cord slackened. The boar fell limp. Blot and I hunched over the carcass, gasping for breath. “Th-thanks”, I managed, huffing. Blot was already staring off into the distance, unblinking.
“Where do you think that boar came from?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen one that big before,” I answered.
“No. Not that. The new-humans have been using the treatment on their livestock more than usual lately to make them grow larger, he must have just escaped. No. What I mean is, look where the trail leads.” Blot finished. I kneeled putting my hand to the ground, trying to follow the trail as well as I could, like Blot and the hunters had tried teaching me.
“I’m no good at this”, I said with a sigh,” It looks like it goes right into the side of the cliff to me.” Blot gave no answer but a nod and followed the path to the natural stone wall. A long thin passage way wound into the darkness. It was unlike anything I had seen before. Although the outer entrance was jagged to be indistinguishable from the surrounding cliff, the inside was completely smooth, a flawless archway as far as we could see down the unlit tunnel.
“There is little to eat on this side of the cliff” Blot said to no one in particular,” and a boar that size needs a lot of food to survive.”
“So maybe we can find more resources on the other side” I finished. He nodded again, turned abruptly and began walking back to the Matchbox.”Hey wait! Aren’t we going inside?” I called after him.
“Dinner comes first. If something goes wrong and we die, the others starve.” He said matter-of-factly as if speaking about the weather. We decided to sell the boar meat to the shop keeper. Scrit never would have allowed us to eat genome-treated livestock in any case. We now found ourselves with extra food and medical supplies as we headed back to the Matchbox.
“Scrit!” I called when we arrived, “We got more food than we counted on and ome medicine too!” Scrit’s age had robbed her of the use of her legs. Her treatment had not granted her eternal youth and a maze of wrinkles stretched across her face, the scars of 200 years of hard living. Mouth now carried her to us.
“Wonderful”, she said softly,”but how? This is worth much more than what we had to trade.”
I winced a little at the thought of her reaction but could not lie to her. “We killed a genome-altered boar and sold it”, I admitted somberly.
“You killed a mutated boar?” she asked turning a sickly pallor. There was a long silence until finally, “Did you physically touch any of the food after it was killed?” Blot and I shook our heads. We knew her better than that and made sure the food was not “contaminated” in her eyes. The color began to return to her face.” Good”, she said gruffly, “Make sure you wash your hands. We will have to limit the water rations tomorrow.” We did as we were told. Many a genome warped steer or pig had escaped from the new human citadel though none as large as the one we had just encountered. Yet each time the hunting party had returned with the meat of such an animal Scrit had commanded the group not to eat any of it ,and the hunters had to wash their hands thoroughly before helping prepare dinner. Even when we had no food, she would rather us go hungry for a few days than eat the livestock. She had never explained why. Perhaps it was only paranoia, but we had all come to respect her too much to question her orders. That night, the other ten sat in awe as we told them of our discovery. Frenzied murmurs and chatter passed through the audience almost before I could finish. Scrit sat quietly staring at the dirty floor for along time, then sat up as straight as she could, and made her speech. The murmurs halted instantly.
“The time has come for us to move from the Matchbox,” she began, “There is nothing for us here any longer. I am sure I’m as excited as all of you for this chance at a better life. However, we must be cautious. The passage through the cliffs may lead to something wonderful or something terrible. We must be ready to face either. Blot, you will go with Blink and Mouth through the passage, armed. The hunters, little ones, and I will make camp near the shop early in the morning. It will be safe there. Send word as soon as you can. If you are not back by midnight that night, we must assume the worst,” she announced.
“Why the caution? What are you expecting?” asked Hound, the leader of the hunters.
“This tunnel Blink described troubles me. Such a structure takes knowledge, the kind stolen by the new-humans during the war. They are the only ones who could have made it. All other books and scholars containing this information were destroyed to erase all trace of still-humans ever having existed”, Scrit explained coolly, “If it leads to a new-human outpost, we are all in grave danger.”
Mouth flipped open her pocket knife and surveyed the rocky entrance to the passage way.”Wow, you wouldn't even know it was there if you didn't know what you were looking for,” she said peering into the tunnel. Blot brushed past her and continued down the tunnel, feeling his way blindly through the darkness. We followed as a train, my hand on Mouth's shoulder and her hand on Blot's shoulder, which she could barely reach. As we reached the light, voices came thundering through the tunnel, echoed by its cold walls.
“O, be gone! By heaven, I love thee better than myself for I come hither armed against myself. Stay not, be gone. Live, and hereafter say, 'A madman's mercy bade thee run away,” said the first voice, a young man no older than me.
“I do defy thy conjurations and apprehend thee for a felon here,” cried the second voice, an older sounding man, perhaps Hound's age.
“Wilt thou provoke me? Then have at thee, boy!” the first exclaimed. Suddenly the clanging of metal could be heard, but our eyes were still unaccustomed to the blinding light.
"O Lord, they fight! I will go call the watch!” shouted a third voice. Blot refused to stand idly by as a murder ensued. He jerked forward unexpectedly, pulling us all with him. The three of us tumbled clumsily into the light just in time to see the second man killed! A large group of strangers applauded gleefully at his death. What barbaric execution had we just witnessed? Eventually the clapping ceased. They were suddenly aware that the execution had been rudely interrupted.”Hey!” someone finally shouted, “Who are you!” Before any of us could react, a tall slender still-human man was pushing his way through the audience. Finally, he reached us and eagerly shook all our hands.”Hello. I'm William Shakespeare”, he claimed. We all stood there mouth agape, completely dumbstruck at the situation unfolding before us. None of us had even bothered to notice whether the audience was still-human or not. It was. “Sorry,” Shakespeare apologized,” where are my manners. The man playing Romeo is Charles Dickens and that's Twain over there,” he introduced, pointing to the dead man who promptly sat up and waved at us. This was not doing wonders for my psyche.
“What the heck is going on?!?!” Mouth demanded finally, unable to take this insanity any longer. William explained everything over dinner that night. It was an enormous feast filled with things and foods that I had never seen before like the corn and potatoes that they had somehow managed to grow themselves.”Where did you learn to do all this?” I asked between bites of mashed potato.
“Books, of course” he explained as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“But there aren't supposed to be any books outside of the Citadel anymore,” I pointed out.
“Well, technically, there aren't supposed to be any living still-humans either”, he retorted,” About a hundred years ago, a librarian-”
“A whud-?” Mouth interrupted through a mouthful of corn.
“As I understand it, it was a great keeper of knowledge before the book burnings began,” he explained completely un-phased,” Anyway, he gathered all the humans he could together to protect the last of the world's books, which he passed down generations to us. So, every generation, we teach our children to read and write, and at thirteen, when they create their own story, they choose a name for themselves. So now, we've increased our number of books over time, adding to our knowledge with every rite of passage.” the next half hour was spent talking about every subject he knew, from their agriculture to theater. There was nearly one hundred still-humans living in this utopia, named “Shire” after some mythical land from ancient literature. We had always known that there had to be someone else trading with the shopkeeper, but we never knew who, and we never expected anywhere near this many. When he had finished telling us about his home, it was our turn. “So, where are you three from,” he questioned. We all fell silent, turning a little red and avoiding eye contact. Mouth looked from me to Blot and back to me again.
“Listen, I gotta be honest” she began,” we came from a pint sized little hut in the middle of nowhere, alright? I'm sorry, but we only came here because we needed a new place to stay. Our old place is running out of game, and we have nine others who need a place to live” My jaw dropped. “I’m tryin' to be rude or nothin' but that's the way it is. I'm not saying anything, but we didn’t exactly expect this place to be occupied, ya know.” Mouth successfully shrugged off Blot's glare. Shakespeare said nothing for a moment, politely excused himself, and went to a tent followed by a woman and two men. The glares continued. “What? What'd I do? “she begged defensively.
“Mouth, he just invited us into his home and fed us. You can't just say things like that!” I protested. Mouth frowned.
“Hey, all I know is, we need a place to go. It's getting' too dark to head back now and pretending everything's okay ain't gonna make things any better! Now you two can criticize my manners all ya want, but we don't have time to beat around the bush about it!” she retorted. Shakespeare returned before I could even speak again. He introduced the woman as his wife, Emily Dickinson and the two men as Robert L Stevenson and George Orwell.
Orwell was in charge of the agriculture and food rations.” We haven't made enough food for nine extra people tonight,” he began gravely,” But if they brought their own food this night, and agreed to assist us with some of the tasks around the town, than they could stay permanently.”
“Really?” I asked enthusiastically, choking a little. We had already brought food for the trip and most of it had been conserved.
“Absolutely”, Dickinson beamed, “Will you need help bringing them here?” Blot's eyes widened. The moon was already high in the sky. Midnight was closing in.
“We have to go”, he stated quickly, “Now.” He did not have to repeat himself. Shakespeare joined us as we left the Shire. When we reached the shop, what we found was too disturbing to fully describe. The raven winged shop keeper lay curled on the ground, trembling, shedding inky black feathers. One wing had molted completely, revealing a vein-covered, vestigial nub. The three little ones hid cowering in fear behind Scrit and the four hunters. Mouth stepped forward crouching beside the shopkeeper. “What happened!” she cried. Scrit held back the children from the scene.
“The boar,” she said not looking up, “I did warn her not to eat it but she would not listen. It's the genome treatment. In my years working for the GF, I found out that too much of it could tear someone's entire genetic structure apart. One hundred years of that tainted strain of new-human genome, building over generations, tainted even by the food they eat. That boar was the last straw. Her entire genetic structure is unraveling.”
“You knew?” I demanded,” You knew this whole time that some day this would happen?”
“It was only a matter of time. The same thing will happen to me some day I suppose. One day my body will not be able to take the treatment any more after baring it for so long. I didn't want you to worry. Two hundred years. You had gotten so used to the idea that I would always be here” she admitted. The shopkeeper let out an ear-splitting scream. Mouth covered her ears and jumped from her place beside the poor creature. Moments later a hellish chorus of a million agonized voices erupted from the Citadel.
A low, unexplained rumbling followed.
“What was that?” Mouth asked never wanting to know the answer.
“Uh-oh,” I said, “Uh, Blot, didn’t you say something about the new-humans using a lot more of the treatment on their livestock than normal?”
“We need shelter”, Scrit stated gravely,” Now'.
“Come” Blot commanded. He scooped Scrit’s fail frame into his arms and rushed off to the side of the cliff as the rest followed. The little ones struggled to keep up. I slung one of them around my shoulders. Mouth and hound helped the others .Single file, we pressed through the tunnel. Once inside I was led to a lookout point where I could safely see exactly what Scrit had meant. All around us countless new-humans were fleeing the Citadel, screaming. They were not merely trembling as the shopkeeper had but were like rabid wolves, howling and frenzied, brutally attacking anything that lay in their path, clinging desperately to who they once were. No longer even new-human, their primal shreds of animal DNA had finally consumed them. Blot took the little ones deeper into the Shire. This was not a sight for children. The rest collected at the rim of the cliff, armed, waiting. And, though no mercy or compassion had been shown in the past two centuries towards us, the “lesser evolved” beings, there were no cries of joy at the fate of our oppressors. There was only pity. Mouth stood as I has never seen her before, back straight, eyes forward. Her face was like that of one of the statues of the worn cemeteries of the ruins. Lifeless. Emotionless. Not quite knowing what to feel. Our lifelong tyrants were finally defeated, but it was only through a fate that none of us would ever have wished on anyone. Not even our most hated enemies. Eventually, the storm passed and all of us were struck with the same earth-shaking thought-
The Citadel was empty.
We had accepted that this could never happen so long ago, clinging to hopes of freedom only in our dreams. And now that the day had finally come we did not know how to process it. Our minds had almost forgotten that the world had ever been any different than it was in those 200 years after the wars. Now it was time to face it. The leaders of both groups as well as Blot, Mouth, and I were sent to explore the city. Apparently the new-humans were enjoying an enormous city0wide feast that had poisoned all of them almost at the same time. The hunters were left to clear the tables of the tempting infected meals. Blot destroyed the genome treatment center which was the first order of business, and the new tribe had rescued the books stashed in the citadel for incineration and added them to their own creating their first vast library that anyone could visit in almost 200 years. But when that was finished, we all sat silently on the steps of the shining white fortress with its buildings towering into the sky like an enormous crystal structure. This huge Citadel, now filled with only a hundred people coupled with the vast unknown change that lay before us for once showed us how small we were. And so we sat. In utter silence. Even the whistling wind seemed to hold its breath. There was the overwhelming joy of a future better lived but also an overwhelming fear of the tasks set at our feet. There was much to do. Mouth of course, was the first to break the chilling silence. “There are others out there you know.” she said gazing at the maze of diamond buildings above.
“What do you mean?” I asked, grateful for the sound of any voice at all.
“We aren't supposed to be alive according to the new-humans, but we're here and there weren't supposed to be any successful still-human colonies according to us, and the book nerds are here”, Shakespeare ignored the jab, “So that means there has to be someone out there, somewhere. Just like we were. Alone, scared.” More silence. Scrit slowly gripped the step railing and pulled herself to her feat, using a wall for support.
“Well”, Scrit said grinning, “Then we have a job to do, don't we?” Blot, Mouth and I looked up. “People need to be told what is happening” she said “and that takes a fast messenger. And it wouldn't hurt if that messenger had a medic to help when he get's hurt, and a bodyguard to keep them both safe along the way. Would it?” Mouth slapped me on the back as hard as she could.
“Well,” she said grinning from ear to ear, “ You heard the lady.” She jumped up from her seat on the ivory steps and bolted for what was now her house. Shakespeare grabbed me by the shoulder before I could run after her.
“Excuse me,” he said ,“Blink, I would be very interested in any thing you come across on your trip. I don't suppose Scrit taught you to write?
“Actually, she did” I answered.
“Excellent, excellent. Than perhaps you wouldn't mind writing it all down”, he said handing me a journal and pencils,” provided that I teach you how to narrate properly first, only if you're interested, you understand.”
“Yeah”, I grinned, “I’d like that, I'd like that a lot”
It’s just like Scrit said once. With life we must be cautious. The path ahead might lead to something wonderful or something terrible. We must be ready to face either. The thing is, you need to remember not to lose who you are along the way.