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This was my destiny…
Was destiny the right word for it. Maybe fate was a better descriptor. I stood staring blankly, my mind racing, the technicians had handed me my pack without a single word and waved me onto the last room.
I held the pack by on of the straps, the other dragged on the metal walkway. My family had said good-bye to me a few hours earlier. No one else was here in the exit except for me. The heavy rolling door was controlled in a room of to the left. The only way into this room was through a long iron hallway with multiple heavy doors. The final door closed behind me as I stepped into the room.
I had been born for this. I had been born to leave the underground. It was my eighteenth birthday and it was time for me to leave. I looked up at the camera that fed to the door technician. I gave a shaky thumbs up. There was a loud boom that shook the lead lined room, and then a hiss of air. The hot outside air flooded into the tiny room.
The breeze caused my long gray hair to blow back off my shoulders. I covered my eyes as the first rays of light spilled through the cracks. The first real sunlight I had ever seen, and my eyes felt like they were being burned, it wasn’t even that much light. I felt the air in my lungs burn for a moment as the clean multi filtered and artificially humidified air of the shelter was replaced with the hot, pollen filled air of the outside world. I fought the urge to cough but instead I ended up sneezing, for the first time in my life.
“Good luck out there.” Came the mechanical voice of the technician on the other side of ten feet of lead and concrete. I gave the camera another thumbs up, and still shielding my eyes from the blinding sunlight I stepped through the small gap the rolling door had created for me. With a long whine and a solid sounding thud the door rolled shut behind me.
I didn’t look back at it. I couldn’t afford to look back now. Instead I stared at the ground beneath my boots. Green, there wasn’t much call for green within the shelter, and I wasn’t a farmer so I had only ever seen it in pictures. I knelt to run my hand over the grass, it was soft and sharp at the same time, beneath it was the course and loose sand. I felt a smile creep across my face. This wasn’t so bad.
“Welcome to the outside.” A familiar silvery and smoky voice rang from above and behind me. I spun on my heels and followed the lines of the shelter door up to the rocky outcropping. He sat relaxed back on one elbow, on leg hanging over the edge of the rocks. A crooked grin on his now bearded face.
It had only been a year since he had left the shelter, yet he looked so different. His skin was darker, he had a thick dark beard covering most of his handsome face, even his black hair was different, disheveled and messy. But the crooked grin and the silver blue eyes were still the same. We had grown up in the Nameless, those chosen to be cast out at eighteen, raised to know how to survive in the outside world. We learned more than those that stayed within the underground learned, because we didn’t learn one skill we learned them all. We however never had names given to us by our families.
“You didn’t think I had forgotten about you did you?” He asked. Nimbly, he sprang from the outcropping and dropped the fifteen feet to the ground beside me. I gawked at him, that fall should have hurt, but he stood with a smile on his face.
“Honestly I was worried you were dead.” I replied.
“There were some times that I came pretty close.” He said. “So, what should I call you now. Thirteen doesn’t seem like much of a name for you.” He winked.
“What do I call you?” I asked.
That handsome crooked grin spread back across his lips. “I go by Khaos out here.” He waved his hand in a flourish and gave me a mock bow. “Now mi’lady what do I call you?” He tilted his head up so he could look at me through the loose locks of his dark hair.
“I…I don’t know.”
He stood up, and straightened the tattered dirt stained linen shirt he wore. I caught a glimpse of something metallic and dark in his belt. I met his blue gaze, his eyes darkened for a moment. He pulled the hem of his shirt down a little further. “For now you can be Thirteen then. Until you choose a name for yourself.”
“Why do you have a gun.” I felt the question pass between my lips before I thought to stop it.
“This isn’t the shelter.” Khaos said, his smoky voice floating on the wind as he looked out at the horizon to the east. “It’s dangerous out here, you’ll learn that in time.”
“Yes, guns, you think that when someone is coming after you, they won’t use their gun? You have to think about things differently now. Before it was a simulation. Out here it really is life or death.”
“Someone else? Like the others?”
“The others that were released? No, they usually are at least civil.”
“We call them the Burnt.” He sighed. “Come on let’s get to my camp, I’ll explain everything along the way.” He held out his hand to me. I took a deep breath and took his hand in mine. The first time I think I had had any real human contact since I was a child. The Nameless were less than within the shelter, therefore not worthy of being loved. We were the burdens, we were the cast out, we were meant to die out here in the wasteland.
Khaos lead me down the hill away from the door that lead back into the underground, and back to all the people who had cast me out. Down the sunlite grass covered slope, towards a stand of tree, so tall I had to strain my neck to look up into their heavy leaf covered branches. I had trouble taking in everything I was seeing, from the trees, the grass, a fallen log covered in dark gray lichen, even a strange brown creature with pointed branches growing from both of its heads. The creature spooked at the sight of us and bound off through the brush.
“It’s called a duostag.” Khaos explained to me. “I’ll try to show you all the animals around here on the way to camp.”
“So, tell me about the Burnt.” I said.
“People survived the initial bombs being dropped, and there are still survivors out there. Many of them seem to live in roaming tribes, or clans, at least that is what I’ve gathered through the markets. Others however have turned into monsters, the radiation in the atmosphere has burnt their skin and their minds. They are vicious creatures, with just enough intelligence to use human weapons. You’ll recognize them by their red skin and the strange growths they have all over their bodies.” He paused for a moment, and dropped into a crouch, he pulled me down with him. I hit my knee hard on the ground. I hissed in pain. He hushed me, quickly, and pointed off through the trees ahead of us. “There look at that.”
I followed his finger to the strange hulking creature, patchy fur covered its spine, spots and strange large growths covered the rest of its hulking body. The creature was rustling around in the underbrush, with its large fanged muzzle, its long claws on its forepaws dug through the dirt looking for food.
“What is that?”
“That’s a bear, it doesn’t look anything like the bears from the books.”
“Nothing looks like it did in the books, just trust me. You don’t want to piss that thing off. Give bears a wide berth or stay as far away from them as possible. And they are not the worst of what you’ll see.”
“The Burnt are just horrible, and will attack for no reason. But there are worse than the animals and radiated souls.”
“You mean other people than?” I asked.
“Let’s just say you’ll want to cut your hair, and start wearing some looser clothing.”
I looked down at myself, I looked the part of innocent female in the wasteland. I glanced back at him, dirty and scarred, rough and suntanned.
“Help me?” I whispered.
“Always.” He nodded to the bear, as it moved off through the trees. “Quickly now.”
“So what does it mean that other people are the danger?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say other people, as much as the men that make up some of the reaving tribes. They capture women who don’t belong to families, or other tribes. You have to hide that you’re a woman. I can’t always be there to protect you.”
“I’ll learn though.” I promised.
“I know you will. You were always the most clever out of all of us.”
Out of the stand of trees and quickly across an ancient crumbling bridge. I paused for a moment to stare at the shimmering stream of moving water beneath us. I gawked at the crystal clear liquid as it sped by.
“Don’t ever drink from the rivers.” Khaos said, grabbing my hand and pulling me from the bridge. “And seriously don’t stand out in the open like an infant duostag.” He growled. He glanced around us as he pulled me through the tall razor sharp grass on the other side of the bridge.
“How far to your camp?” I panted, my feet already hurt, and my lungs were still burning from the fresh air.
“About another two hours, why?” He looked at me, and raised an eyebrow, then let out a sigh. “Right, I’m sorry, I didn’t think, you aren’t used to this much walking, and the air probably hurts to breathe.”
“Will that go away?” I rubbed at my throat.
“Yes, in a few days or so, depending on if you are allergic to anything.”
“How will I know if I’m allergic?”
“You’ll sneeze when exposed to it.”
I grabbed at my throat my eyes widening. “I sneeze when the Shelter first opened.”
He let out a small chuckle, god how I had missed that sound. A whole year without him, I had spent the weeks after his dismissal mourning for him, imagining him dead just beyond the door to the Shelter. Here he was, Six was alive and well, if not a little worse for ware.
“That’s normal, trust me if you’re allergic to something we’ll know in a few days.” He took my hand again, intertwining his fingers with mine, and pulled me through the grass.
“This grass is sharp,” I growled, wincing every time the blades left fine little nicks in my arms.
“We call it razor-grass for a reason.” He chuckled.
“The people who survive out here in the wasteland. The next market day is in ten days, I’ll introduce you to some of the others, and I’m sure you’ll recognize some of the other Nameless.”
“Do you live alone?” I asked.
“I used to live with another Nameless, who was released about a decade ago. But the Swamp-lung got him about a month ago.” His voice caught in his throat for a moment. “He was a good man, he taught me everything I learned out here in the last year. He taught me who to trust, the fields to farm, and the woods to hunt. I’ll teach you too.”
“He had been fighting it for years apparently. One of the flying big bugs gave it to him, apparently, the mires are more dangerous than the plains, but I haven’t bothered trying to go that far north, not alone anyway. Tails was too sick to travel much further than the market.”
“The name he gave himself, I never did get around to asking him about it.”
“I’m sorry about your friend.”
“It’s okay, he was sick when I found him, but at least he taught me how to survive out here. I will teach you and since we are both healthy and alive, we will protect each other.” He stopped as we topped a ridge. “There is my camp.” He said pointed, another stand of trees stood off in the direction he was pointing.
“I don’t see a camp.”
“It’s build up in the trees. The trees are ancient, probably there long before the bombs dropped. There is a ladder that can be pulled up to protect the camp. Come on let me show you the camp.” Khaos smiled at me, that handsome crooked grin, with his sparkling blue eyes. He pulled me down a rocky path to the valley floor below.
I slipped and twisted on the loose shale. I let out a cry of pain as I fell, and a sharp stone pierced the cloth of my knee. He pulled me back to my feet and knelt in front of my. His hands ran gently down my thigh until he reached my knee. He pulled the cloth away from the blood covered skin, I winced.
“It’s just a small cut, you’ll be fine. I have some meds in the camp.” He stood back up, I had to look up at him, he stood so close, he just smiled down at me. “Come on, I have some duostag cured and ready to eat.”
I stared up at the branches of the ancient trees as we stepped beneath them. Trunks so thick that I could not see around them, without walking ten paces in either direction. In the branches there were rope bridges, and large platforms, along with a small cabin built into one of the trunks themselves.
Khaos lead me to a swinging rope ladder, but did not have me climb it, not yet. He directed me to a fire pit.
“Can you start a fire for me while I get the meat?” He asked.
“I think so.” I whispered, I felt the heat of a blush rise to my cheeks. We only ever practiced the theory of making fires back in the Shelter. Can’t have Nameless starting fires in the Shelter.
I watched as Khaos pulled himself up the rope ladder and disappeared over the edge of the platform. There was already a pile of kindling and logs set up at the trunk of the nearby tree. I collected enough for what I thought would be a good size fire. I placed the kindling as I had learned, and the logs over the top. I took the flint and steel from my pack and tried to light the fire.
I jumped with a small scream, as a loud thud echoed from five feet to my left. I looked over to see a large sack laying in the pine needles.
“Sorry did I startle you?” Khaos laughed as he slid down a rope on my other side, just beside the ladder, that was faster I supposed. “Is that a flint and steel?” He asked, I nodded, he let out a chuckle. “God I lost mine within a month of being out here. This will be easier.” He pulled a small piece of metal from his pocket and flipped a little lid on it. “It’s called a lighter.” He snapped the metal igniter and touched it to a piece of kindling. The fire caught and he pushed it into the pile I had built in the pit.
I sat on a stump and just watched the flames catch on the dry tinder. I sat amazed at the beauty and listened to the cracking and snapping of the twigs as they burnt to ashes.
“The embers are beautiful, but do not let them hypnotize you with their beauty.” He whispered, I looked up at him, lights still flickering across my vision. “You are just as beautiful.” He said, touching my cheek with his rough and calloused hands.
“I’ve missed you.” I whispered. He smiled down at me. “Call me Ember.” I said, as he knelt beside me. I put my hand on his cheeks, and felt his beard beneath my fingers. “I cannot tell you how much I’ve missed you.”
“I missed you too, Ember.” He whispered, he rolled the name from his lips like it was a promise. “I will protect you.” His hands went to mine for a moment, his eyes on mine, his lips moved to speak but he closed his mouth without another word. He pulled away from me, and went to get the sack. He tied, the chunk of duostag to the spit over the fire and sent the spit turning.
“Khaos?” I asked as he sat across the fire from me.
“Are you alright?”
“I just missed you is all. I am sure that will fade in time. I’m sure you’ll go back to being the annoying little girl who used to follow me down the halls of the Shelter. The only thing you’re missing is that stuffed dog you used to have.”
“Oh,” I whispered, glancing at my bag. “I still have that.” He laughed, “I’m sorry if I used to annoy you so much.”
“You did when we were little.”
“We are here now, we have to look out for each other.”
I returned to staring at the flames, and let the silence stretch between us. He stood to spin the spit again. “Tell me about the market?”
“Survivors from all over the area, gather in this old ruined town. People set up shops and bring livestock, they sell crops, and junk people collect from other ruins.”
“What do you sell?”
“I have a junk collection I use to trade, and I’ve also been selling my time to build other people homes. Got this whole duostag thanks to building someone a pen for their livestock. I will take you out exploring, there are still plenty of places to the south that haven’t been completely cleared out, at least not yet. The idea is we collect as much as we can carry and bring it back here, we sort through what we need and take whatever we don’t need to trade.”
“What about weapons?” I asked, I felt my voice quake at the thought of the gun I knew he had in his belt.
“I’ll teach you how to shoot. I have a nice long rifle I think will be perfect for you.”
“And ammo for the guns.”
“There is someone who has a secret warehouse somewhere in the foothill, he and his tribe have been making guns and ammunition for the whole valley for years. It’s not cheap though so be conservative with ammunition. I also have a sword I’ve been saving for you.”
“Well it’s kind of a sword, or at least what passes for one, I found a really sharp hard piece of steel in one of the ruins a while back. I spent some time sharpening it and decorating it for you.”
I felt a small smile spread across my face as he glanced at me from the fire pit. He pulled a knife from his belt and began to carve meat from the spit. The knife matched the one I wore on my belt, it was Shelter made, the last gift our people gave us. He put the meat on a smooth stone he plucked from the pit border. He handed it to me along with a canteen.
“I thought you said don’t drink the water?”
“Don’t drink the river or lake water, ever. This is collected in a filter up in the trees. It gathers moisture from the air, and that is what we drink.”
“So rain is okay to drink?” I asked.
He sighed and shrugged. “Some will tell you yes, other no, no one can prove if there is enough radiation in the rain water to hurt us. At least their aren’t diseases in the rain water.” He carved more meat from the spit and came to sit beside me.
“Is there anything that isn’t trying to kill me out here?” I asked.
“Except for you.”
He glanced at me, his blue eyes dark. The dappled sunlight spilling through the branches sparkled across his face. I felt a chill crawl down my spine and I sat up a little taller, I stared down at him, waiting for an answer. “Ember I can’t promise that, and you shouldn’t promise not to hurt me either.”
“Ember you never know what might happen in the future, this isn’t the Shelter, one day your life might depend on killing me.”
“No.” I shook my head, and just stared down at the stone on my lap, the meat was steaming in the evening air, insects chirped and birds sang in the trees. I just shook my head again. “No.”
“Ember you have to listen to me.”
“You’re my oldest friend. You are my only friend.”
“That shouldn’t matter. If you’re life depends on my death, let me die.”
“I can’t make it here on my own.” I could hear that whining little girl in my own words, the little girl who had followed Six around the Shelter, along with Seven and Eight from his year. I would trail after them and they would glare at me, any time I called after them, and attracted the attention of the adults.
“Ember, stop, with any luck it won’t happen anytime soon, but you need to find it within yourself to except it.”
I picked at the roasted meat for the next little while. I listened to Khaos tell me about the surrounding area, and things to watch out for.
“Are you going to finish that?” He asked. I shook my head and handed the stone plate over to him. He finished it and set the grease covered stones back beside the pit. “Come on time to get up into the cabin before the sun sets.”
“Why before the sunsets?”
“We don’t want to be down here when darkness hits. There are some creatures that come out at night, creatures that you aren’t ready for.” He took a few moments to snuff the fire pit with sand and cleaned up the area around the pit. After a few minutes it was as though we had never been there, just a dark fire pit with a few empty stumps around it. I glanced up into the darkening canopy, we were hiding in plain sight, at night it must be impossible to see anything up there.
He held the rope ladder still as I put my foot on the bottom rung. “Slow and steady, and keep the rungs close to your chest, it’s the trick to keeping it from swinging.” Slowly and clumsily I pulled myself up the ladder and to the platform above. Gracefully and silently he followed me. He pulled the ladder up and tied it to the boards we stood on.
“This way.” He said, leading me through the twilight towards a darkened doorway. “Wait here.” He took my hand and placed it on the door frame. I couldn’t see anything within the cabin. I just waited, then there was a flash of light and a soft glow filled the wooden structure. Khaos held up a lantern to light the way for me.
Inside the cabin were two beds, on either side of a small table, there were, guns leaning against the inside of the doorway, a small shelf of weathered books stood opposite the door, there was also a strange plastic barrel hanging from the ceiling in the far right corner.
“That is one of the water collectors,” he said following my gaze. “Every morning make sure to fill up your canteen. I’ll show you the others in the morning.” He pointed to the bed to my right. “That one is yours, I collected the bedding at the last market day, fresh made by one of the other tribes I mentioned.” He pointed to a small trunk. “And in there are some clothes I’ve found, hopefully they will fit well enough to hide that you’re a woman.” I dropped to the mattress, the cushion squeaked as it took my weight.
I let out a shaking sigh as he set the lantern between us on the table and closed the door. Blocking out the twilight in the trees beyond. He sat down on his own bed and pulled his boots from his feet. He pointed to the door opposite the entrance. “In there is a restroom if you need one in the middle of the night.”
“Do we get to bathe?” I asked.
He shook his head, “Once a week I boil water from the stream to bathe, but beyond that there is too much risk of radiation.”
I pulled my own boots from my sore and swollen feet. I hissed in pain as I jarred my bruised knee.
“I promised you some meds.” He rose from his bed and went to a small box on top of the bookshelf. “Here.” He handed me a small white pill, when I looked up at him, he explained what it was. “The tribes call it stimulant, its made from some new plants that grow now, whatever is in them, it make you heal incredibly fast.”
“With no consequences?” I asked.
“None that any have noticed.”
“That seems too good to be true.” I said staring at the little white pill, but between my aching feet, my back hurting and my scraped up knee I was willing to risk something on my first day out. I popped the pill into my mouth and took a sip of water.
He sat back down and stared at me from across the small room. When I met his gaze he looked away.
“Khaos,” I sighed, “do you know I thought I would never see you again? I thought that when I stepped out of the Shelter I would find your body on the other side of the door. For the last year I have had nightmares every night, about the pile of bodies I imagined on the other side of that door. I thought that this world was gone, that there was no way to actually survive out here.”
“I think we all think that before we are released.” He said, he still wouldn’t meet my gaze.
He looked up at me, he stood and came to sit beside me. His warm arm reached around my shoulders and pulled me against him. “I understand, but I’ll protect you.”
I laid my head on his shoulder, “Promise.”
“I promise.” He whispered, kissing the top of my head. I took his other hand in both of mine and held it, stroking my fingers over his scars and calluses until sleep took me.