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Humans have always been storytellers. From our earliest days until whenever we finally disappear from the universe, we will be telling each other stories. For a while there, we’d figured out a way to make it indirect and widespread, sharing stories across the world via text and then voice and then video. There are still books, and the audio and videos can still be found in a few places, but Humans have shifted back around to direct storytelling. The Collapse has taken access to everything else away from most people, and those who survived adapted.
Now, on the quiet nights when the wind is low and the tundra has been still for long enough that everyone has stopped looking over their shoulders for signs of danger, people gather around the fire to share stories. They are bundled against the cold still, faces peeking out from heavy coats, huddled blankets, and worn out thermal sleeping bags because the warmth of the fire doesn’t spread very far. The banked and shielded coals are kept alive until the morning, when they’ll be needed again, but sitting around even a small, almost dead fire seems to be an important part of the ritual for most.
I like to participate when I can, on the nights when my duties as a Wayfinder don’t keep me busy. These people pay us to guide them from Enclave to Enclave, keeping them warm, fed, and safe as we traverse the arctic remnants of what used to be the midwest of the United States, so I am obligated to attend to my work even if I’d rather listen. I have to set a good example, after all.
The nights I join in, though, I almost always get drawn into the telling. I’m a rarity in the tundra, after all. I’m in my fifties, still traveling between Enclaves despite the harsh cold and nigh-constant snow that makes up our years. Most people don’t even move from one Enclave to another, let alone make a career of guiding people, carrying messages, and mapping the safest routes as the crumbling infrastructure of a lost world slowly decays.
Some do, of course. Not every move from one Enclave to another is by choice. Not every person can live in an Enclave. But most of those who move or make their lives outside the restrictions of an Enclave are on the younger side. Something about old bones needing warmth and the cold leeching away your life, according to the way people outside the Wayfinders tell it. Inside the Wayfinders, we know better. All it takes is one mistake, one error of judgment, and you can lose your life. The longer you do this job, the more likely you are to make a mistake.
The other older members of my Wayfinder crew aren’t really the storytelling type, so their marvelous sheen wears off quickly. Only I am willing to be pulled into telling stories most nights, and since I’ve been around for so long, I have more stories than most. Some real and some imagined or remembered. Tales of my crew’s past exploits as we’ve survived longer than most in the unforgiving frozen world outside the safety of an Enclave and stories I read or heard when I was younger, intermingling and sometimes being combined to create something new for my charges.
Inevitably, someone asks me what the world was like before The Collapse. There are a lot of children and teenagers who have only known the world we see before us, who are tired of hearing the same stories their parents tell them, that the Enclaves tell them. They want to know what my life was like before I became the first Wayfinder, before I started guiding people from bastion of safety to bastion of safety. They want to know what I might tell them that the Enclaves or their parents won’t, about how much better things were.
Unfortunately, few of them are satisfied with the truth. Since all Enclaves still have some kind of power in varying quantities, because they’ve adapted to the restrictions of the world that remains, things aren’t that different, other than the unending winter. Get deep enough in an Enclave–a fortress of contained warmth, safety, and order–and you can almost forget that the snow hasn’t vanished from the ground in over two decades. You can still see the old world in the shadow of the current one, if you know where to look. Human adaptability is so far insurmountable. Our world might be a ruined husk of what it once was, but we get along just fine now that we’ve figured out what we need to do to survive.
If there are no children to seek out stories of the wondrous world they never knew, the swapping of stories will eventually peter out until someone starts talking about where they were when The Collapse happened. If I can, I try to extricate myself at this point because someone will always turn to me, remark that I must have been an adult when it happened, and ask me to tell them my story.
The problem with talking about The Collapse is that it’s a name we came up with years after it happened. There’s still debate in what remains of the scholarly circles of the Net, some of it carried on by members of my own team as we deliver the various data dumps that allow the Enclaves to share information, about what specific event counts as The Collapse. While the debate is over a series of events that played out over the course of about six months, starting with the June snows and ending with the destruction of every population center throughout December that same year, they still argue about what moment in time marks the first event that Humanity couldn’t have recovered from, even if we’d all been unified at the time.
I’m of the opinion that it was years earlier than the general consensus. There was a moment in my early life, only a month out of college, when I saw some ultimately inconsequential piece of news and knew it was already over. That we were just dragging it out and trying to deny the reality we’d made for ourselves. I remember the bitter taste of being called an alarmist as my warnings fell on deaf ears. I remember phone calls going unanswered because people were tired of me begging them to prepare for what felt inevitable.
I try to brush them off, but some insist, implicitly asking me to reinforce the idea that the world we’re in now was unavoidable, that losing so many people was inevitable. If they do, I tell them. I tell them about the phone calls that eventually went unanswered because the people had vanished. About having only three people from my life before The Collapse still alive despite spending my entire life since then searching for my family and friends. About the origin of the Wayfinders being a man desperately trying to find any friends and family who survived the initial waves of destruction and only finding strangers he couldn’t bear to turn his back on.
I tell them that even though we still occasionally find isolated Enclaves and reconnected them with other survivors, I still haven’t found a single person I knew from before The Collapse except the three who are a part of my Wayfinder crew. The only three who listened to my warnings and were ready when the blizzard appeared and left behind destroyed cities in its wake. About frantically searching every updated obituary page for the names of people I knew more than half a lifetime ago because even that would be better than having them all be a part of the massive list of the missing.
The stories usually end after that. There’s not much to be said after an old man tells you why he’s still wandering the frozen wastelands over a decade after a sensible person would have retired to an Enclave. I try to end it on a positive note, by saying that founding the Wayfinders means I’ve got family in every Enclave in the world now, even if I’ve never met most of them, and that my knack for preparation means that they’re all going to get where they’re going safely. Usually they all return to telling stories after that, sometimes with a little help from me and a few choice anecdotes about some of the people I’ve reunited, but they usually stop asking me for stories after that.
Which is fine. Gives me more time to plan, to listen, and to keep watch. After all, as the head of the Wayfinders and the Captain of the only team big and skilled enough to escort large groups through the frozen wastelands, I’ve got a job to do.
Next Chapter: Chapter 1
There is a moment in every intense fight where time seems to slow down. Motion becomes fluid, action becomes exact, and the fight changes from ultimate chaos to pure order.
It only happens when the combatants are evenly matched and battling with everything they have. They need not be skilled; they need to be committed to their cause. Anything less and their contest will not warp time like this.
People who survive these moments feel it as it happens, but almost no one outside the conflict notices anything beyond growing intensity. The explosions seem bigger, the movements faster, the blood splashier. The crowd responds, roaring and cheering as their favored fighter battles for their life, feeding into this intensity.
I have been accused of many things. Slavery. Murder. Cruelty. Warmongering. And so on. Not a day passes that I do not walk through my city followed by a crowd calling for my blood from beyond the perimeter of my guards. They know I’ve spilled my share already. After all, what kind of emperor would I be if I did not conquer everything put before me?
I have conquered the world and they refute my power with mere words and the occasional stone or bullet if they feel so daring. Still, none can topple my throne. I’m sure someone will, someday, but not until they learn my secret.
After all, what is the point of having people kill each other? There is no need in society being met by bloodshed. No one wants for food, their health, or their safety. Everyone is taken care of. These warriors seek glory, reknown, and a shot at my throne. In exchange, harvested one sliver from every warp these fighters create, I get the one thing no one else can ever get more of. Time.
Wren checked the clock and saw they’d overslept. Grumbling under the music playing from their phone, they heaved themselves upright and sat on the edge of their bed for a few luxurious mintues, mind blank as sleep slipped slowly away.
After their routine of exercise, stretching, coffee, showering, and breakfast, they slumped into a lounge on their deck and spent an hour planning their week. Meetings were maneuvered, appointments shifted, and plans confirmed as their second cup of coffee dwindled. Wren clambered off the chair after finishing, left the pool of lamplight on their deck, and went for a brisk walk through the woods.
It still felt wrong to hike in the dark, but they’d adjusted to wearing a headlamp and marked all their favorite paths with reflective trailmarkers. Their parents had gotten used to winters without snow eventually, so they figured it was just a matter of time.
After their hike, Wren settled down for lunch in their kitchen, absorbing the warmth and light of a sun lamp while eating. They could have taken vitamin suppliments, but they found comfort in the routine of basking.
After cleaning up, they settled into their office and put in a few hours of work, doing a few pages of roughs and working on some flats for their currnet graphic novel. The idea was about five years old, but it felt nice to draw sunlight. Nostalgic, even thought it had only been a few months since the Shutter project failed, cutting Earth off from sunlight permanently.
Since the shutters were all solar panels, humanity had plenty of power to turn the moon into a replacement. Days were 28 hours long now, after adjusting the moon’s orbit, but Wren always felt like they were built for days like this. Shame about the tides, though.
Tej slipped silently through square, disappearing into moonshadows as she neared the park. Even the guards at the entrance didn’t see her, despite their torches.
Once inside, she moved swiftly, heading for the column of moonlight over the plinth. As she neared, she saw the familiar glow of the blade magnifying all the light that struck it.
She took a moment to observe the churned mud surrounding the plinth. So many tried to free the sword and earn the Xendran crown. Who wouldn’t be tempted by that much power?
Certain she was alone, Tej slipped into the moonlight and laid a hand on the pommel. The blade began to brighten and she leapt away. “Shit.”
Tej threw her cloak over the blade, leaving the hilt uncovered. After a deep breath, she pulled it free and set it on the ground. She could see the blue and gold glow pressing against her cloak, so she worked quickly. It had taken weeks to convince people it had been struck by divine lightning after the first time.
She poured both her flasks into the plinth and stirred the liquid with a stick until it began to stiffen. Careful not to toss aside the stick, she grabbed the sword from the ground and plunged it back into the plinth. The light beneath sputtered and disappeared as she tore free her cloak’s hem to wipe the adhesive from the plinth and wrap up the stick.
As she snuck away, she checked the sky. By the time the sun rose, the sword would be sealed in the stone again. This recipe should buy her enough time to finish negotiating with the Aluskan Empire. Better to sell the crown and disappear with the money than be assassinated like the last four fools to pull the sword free.