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Scorched

Scorched

Аннотация

    After a solar flare scorched the Earth and incinerated the atmosphere, survivors dug deep beneath the surface, discovering a new means of life where none had ever lived.
    Spec is an ordinary 16 year old residing underground in the Hive, a modern day colony where he and 73 other human beings survive.
    Every day is the same for Spec.
    Wake up.
    Mine for clay and insects.
    Sleep.
    That’s why he has decided to venture outside of the colony with his best friend, Cotta. Spec plans on going where there are no ceilings and no walls, a place where there are no barriers. He plans on going to the mythical surface.


Michael Soll SCORCHED

    To Jonathan and Samuel

PROLOGUE

    The golden nugget shimmers in the dim light, a shining echo of bloodlust and triumph. It lay helplessly, entombed within stubborn soil, held hostage by indifference.
    Beside the invaluable nugget, rusted iron strikes rock, shattering the prison and unleashing the beauty onto the dirt surface below. The nugget rolls down the uneven path and collides with a foot so filthy it’s difficult to tell where the dirt ends and flesh begins.
    The boy ignores the gold; he’s looking for something else. Something more valuable to his village. Something more important than precious material forged billions of years ago deep within exploding stars.
    No. The boy is looking for something that will help sustain the lives of the seventy-three people he calls his family. The boy is looking for the most essential natural resource to modern society.
    The boy is looking for clay.

SECTION ONE
Scorched:

“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper.”

— T.S. Elliot

CHAPTER ONE
a Middle:

    I only know what they tell me.
    In 2031, hundreds of “years” before I was ever born, a massive solar flare released by our sun struck the Earth and incinerated the atmosphere. Every living creature on the surface was scorched and only the few who were lucky enough to be underground at the time survived.
    Most of the survivors starved within the first six months while the rest continued to dig deeper and deeper in search of new forms of sustenance. Those savvy enough to explore the possibilities of life under Earth discovered a world of oxygen-creating anaerobic bacteria that could be grown and cultivated fairly easily. Underground streams unaffected by the scorched surface dripped through cracks and crevices and into clay pots. Some insects and fungi survived alongside the human race, and with them, we discovered a world beneath the land we once called home.
    And it is and has always been my home. It is the only life I know so I cannot compare it to any other. It is neither good nor bad, it just is.
    My life is, what I assume to be, fairly normal to what life once was before we moved below. I have one father and one mother. My father has one son, my mother has 22 sons and daughters. She is one of three current breeders sturdy enough to survive the rigorous effects of childbirth. My mother has birthed 15 children since I was conceived, so I am currently in my 16th cycle.
    Like all my peers, I live alone with my father in a cubby he hand-carved. I am told our cubby was once twice the size in our old colony, but after the earthquake of 14 cycles ago and the death of a third of our population, we were forced to rebuild alongside our former home, constructing a sturdier colony reinforced with clay.
    I am a collector. My job is to dig until I find resources that can be used back in the colony: rocks we can shape, insects and fungi for food, and most importantly, clay. With clay, we build the tanks for our anaerobic bacteria which allow us to breathe. We use the clay to help heat up invaluable waste products, purifying and using the precipitation as clean drinking water. But no doubt, none of this is new information to you.
    I don’t mind collecting, especially since my partner is my best friend, Cotta. In our colony, you can only leave the main hive with a partner in case of injury or collapse. Cotta and I share the same mother, him being born the cycle after me. His father died in the great collapse when he was just a cycle old, so he was raised by an infertile elder named, Dover. Dover is weak and brittle, as most elders are, and risks a broken bone with a wrong step.
    When I’m not collecting, I’m in the cubby with my father. Last week, we started drawing on our walls with some charcoal like the other families. My father likes to draw pictures of my mother while I like to create images of things that could never exist. I imagine insects several feet high covered in hair with sharp teeth. I imagine they can run at incredible speeds and burrow to depths unseen by Man. I imagine the world above, creating pictures based on what elders have passed down generation after generation. A sun so bright you could only gaze at it for a second before it burned your eyes. A sky so blue, like Cotta’s eyes, plastered above, just out of reach. And a nighttime, a period when the sun vanishes and billions of faraway suns twinkle.
    I sometimes wonder how I’d be different if the sun had not destroyed the surface. I wonder how living above, albeit my daily tasks would differ, but how my mind would think. Would I ever consider what life beneath the Earth would be like? Would I still dream of large insects or would I be focused on other matters? What other matters are there to focus on besides survival and the ifs? If there’s one thing I have, it’s time. And with that abundance of time, I think. I think while collecting. I think while drawing. I think while sleeping.
    I wonder about other survivors and if they wonder about me. Is there another me somewhere on the other side of the world contemplating if there’s another him?
    And then, I try to stop. Thinking doesn’t do me any good; it doesn’t do anybody any good. My father tells me he’s grateful for my imagination, for the way I’ve rearranged our cubby and helped decorate and design our home. He tells me to never stop imagining, but the more I dream, the less free I feel. The dirt all around protects us from the danger above but it also encases and insulates our dreams; it is the barrier between here and anywhere but here.
    That is why during the celebration of the next newborn’s birth, Cotta and I will leave through a hole we’ve been digging all cycle which leads back to our old colony. From there, we will journey farther than any before us, in search for a dream contained only by our imaginations instead of the walls we have constructed to isolate ourselves from the outside. As they say, the surface is the limit.

CHAPTER TWO
an Ordinary Day:

    I awoke to find Cotta hovering over me. “You sleep like you’re dead.” I pushed him aside and grabbed my pickax. I had built the ax myself, using clay as the handle and shaping sturdy rock for the top. I finished off the ax by tipping it with the very little iron we had.
    “Hey Spec, you wanna swap picks for today?”
    I looked over at Cotta’s dull equipment and simply gave him a look.
    “C’mon, you might like it. It’s sturdy and worn in.”
    I stood up and grabbed my clay lantern. “I told you I’d help you make a new one.”
    He stared at his ax with pride. “I love it. I just wanted to let you use it so you could enjoy it too.”
    I checked my fuel level. “I need to fill up before we leave.”
    “Why don’t you ever remember to fill it up at night?”
    I grabbed a bowl and poured some chum in for later. (In case you call it something else, chum is our staple food, a concoction of fungi and insect larvae mashed up into crunchy flakes — it’s high in protein and easy to make)
    We left my cubby and headed down the winding path toward the Central Tank to fill up. It’s the hub of our little colony and the place where we deposit our solid wastes. Thanks to Maggot, one of our colony’s Founding Fathers and a bio-engineer, we were able to convert our waste into usable methane gas. The gas is harnessed and used to light the Central Flame at all times. Every day, collectors can visit the tank and siphon some of the methane into their lanterns when they go on their excavation.
    As I gathered some fuel, I noticed a pair of dark brown eyes peeking out, staring at Cotta and me. I knew instantly who it was; it wasn’t the first time she had followed me.
    Her name is Kaolin, and some say she’s the future of our colony. She’s in her 14th cycle and her job is to wait. Wait until it is her time to breed. She is the only young female in the breeding zone and the colony’s longevity sits upon her ovum. And if I’m chosen by the elders, for one day, some time in the future, she and I will create a future and I will have a child to build my own cubby for. It’s one of several thoughts that float within my mind, but at the moment, her body is not ready and when it is, Cotta and I will already be long gone.
    I fill my lantern and we leave behind wandering eyes. We make way for the normal excavation site in case we’re being followed, but then we double back and reach our secret exit point. Years ago, after the quake that decimated our old colony, a new initiative was put forth to build a smaller and more durable home. After the new colony was created, the elders demolished the opening to the old as they deemed it dangerous. But after a cycle of chipping away at rock and stone, we could feel the gap only inches away.
    Cotta twirled his ax carelessly as we pushed forward. “How many grains of dirt in the world do you think there are?”
    Cotta had an affinity toward questions that could not be answered. Not the ‘ifs’ and ‘whats,’ but the ‘how manys’ and the ‘could there ever bes.’
    “I mean, I know there’s a lot and everything, but I guess it’s probably impossible to know. You think there could ever be a device made that could figure it all out?”
    We hunched through the back tunnel and came to The Great Divide, the place where one path turns into dozens. We hoisted ourselves up to Rungded Route and crawled up the narrow path. The tunnel is one of the oldest in our new colony, having been constructed after the Great Quake.
    Cotta went first since he’s smaller while I anchored behind. The tunnels created in the last several cycles are fairly sturdy (having been reinforced with clay) and collapse is fairly rare, but there is some danger in traversing through the older tunnels. Another risk is the bacteria we’ve cultivated for oxygen. In the main colony, we have constructed large tanks to grow the bacteria, flooding the cubbies and centralized tunnels with breathable air, but in the routes further from the central hive where the oxygen is thinner, the bacteria has spread within the soil. It benefits us in that we have air to breathe, but were we to have some sort of cut or abrasion and come into contact with it, it would mean certain death.
    “How many people do you think have ever existed in the entire world?” Cotta pushed himself out of Rungded Route and we hunched through the larger tunnel until we came to our excavation site. It had once been the tunnel leading from the old hive to the new, but now, only dirt and rocks were left. We pushed a couple boulders aside which we had used to disguise our entrance. We looked up at the winding path we had dug—
    “Who’s going first?” I asked, eager to be the one to finally break through.
    “You went first yesterday.”
    “Yeah, but you went last yesterday.”
    Cotta twirled his pickax. “Fingers? Best of three?”
    “Best of one.”
    Fingers is a quick game a lot of us play to decide generally mundane tasks. Each player puts out a fist and on the count of three, holds out how many fingers they want to play. The person who holds out one more finger than the other wins (1 finger counts as one more than 5). It’s considered a draw if there isn’t a one finger differential and the play continues through the next round.
    We held our hands out and I played a four while Cotta played a three. “You play a three every time.”
    “I know, but I was hoping to trick you into thinking I was going to play a five to beat your four.”
    “But that would mean you would think I was playing a one, so you should’ve gone two.”
    “Oh, yeah, guess you’re right.” He smiled at me. “Guess you’re going first.”
    I gave him a questioning look and then squirmed my way through the narrow tunnel, ax and lantern tightly in my hands. I crawled for awhile until I reached the end of our path. I looked up at the rock I would soon demolish and there, a picture very recently drawn in with charcoal stared me in the face.
    It was a picture of a giant penis.

CHAPTER THREE
an Ordinary Night:

    The light in my lantern flickered as the methane sputtered out slowly. It was about time to get back. In the tunnels without light, you’re dead. It’s as important to our society as food, water and oxygen. One time, before the buddy system was implemented, a collector by the name of Chip was out excavating when his methane ran dry. He was on a newly built trail when it happened and he hadn’t yet grown accustomed to the routes’ nuances. He yelled for help, but deep within the tunnels, it’s impossible to know where the echo’s coming from. He was found a week later, having fallen into another tunnel and broke his neck.
    I’ve heard in past civilizations that death is mourned, but when somebody in the colony passes, we celebrate the person’s life and don’t dwell on their death. Not just because all life is to be celebrated and appreciated, but with their death comes a feast for the rest of the village. A ceremony is held for the individual, culminating in a thanksgiving meal.
    Every part of the body is used. The blood is siphoned and evenly allotted to the community. The organs and meat are cooked thoroughly on clay pots over hot coals, and the bones, skin and hair are used for tools and household items. And the heart is given to the closest relative of the deceased. It’s more of a symbolic gesture than anything else, but it’s also one of the most nutritious parts of the body.
    Luckily for us, even if our light were to go out, Cotta and I would be okay. We know these tunnels like we know our cubbies and we’d be able to make our way back safely. So, our hearts for now are our own.
    I sat beside our makeshift tunnel waiting for Cotta to finish his shift. There was nothing more I could do than just sit and stare at the grains of dirt all around…
    I never met my father’s father. He passed a couple of cycles before I was born. Each person has their own unique heritage that dates back to the beginning of the new world when Man moved below. My ancestor who once lived on the surface was named Janathon Weshington. So the story goes, passed on from parent to child, Janathon was a machine operator, a doctor who fixed cars. On the surface, cars were the main source of transportation with rounded wheels and exploding engines which would propel the machine forward at incredible speeds. When parts would fall off the cars, Janathon would find and replace them.
    On the day of the solar flare, Janathon was with his breeder and son touring a coal mine. When the surface was scorched and atmosphere incinerated, the mine sealed off and he and the survivors began the first underground colony. And the rest is history…
    I think about that story often. I think, what if Janathon had decided not to tour the mine or if they had left early or gotten there late. Such an irrelevant decision at the time has had such great consequences in my life. I would not be were it not for those series of events. I think about the moments I spend while awake, the moments I spend digging and thinking and how inconsequential certain decisions may seem at the time. Often, I consider leaving early from scavenging because I’m tired, while other times I decide to collect longer. I might find some extra larvae or bits of clay, but staying longer or leaving early doesn’t wholly affect me at that time. But what if each choice, though meaningless at the moment, is the reason a future child lives and breathes and thinks of me? What if my thinking this right now sets off a series of events that will ultimately lead to somebody’s demise or somebody’s saving? Every choice I make, every seemingly meaningless decision now is undoubtedly a cause to an effect, cycles in the future. And then, that effect is a cause to another effect.
    “Hey, Spec.” I looked up at Cotta who had apparently been standing in front of me for some time. “We’re really close to breaking through.”
    “Yeah… maybe tomorrow?”
    “Maybe.”
    “Echo’s gonna squeeze that baby out this week. Hopefully not before we get through.”
    We collected our belongings and headed back while Cotta chattered away. “Her milk is the tastiest right after the baby comes out. We should bottle some up for our journey.”
    I ran my fingers against the side of the tunnel as we hunched through. I watched as grains of dirt dribbled down and landed quietly on the floor beneath. I had caused those specs to tumble from their place on the wall to their place on the ground. Without my decision to run my fingers, they would not be where they are. I did that. It seems so meaningless now…
    “Could there ever be a tunnel so big, we couldn’t see the top?” Cotta balanced the ax on his finger as we reached the hive. We entered the Cove and deposited our collections for the day – some rocks and clay.
    We collected our daily chum and milk and headed to the Grotto which was the biggest room besides the Central Hive. There, we socialized with our peers before the Head Elder commenced the meeting. As always, Ceramy was the first to greet us. He was the youngest of the collectors, halfway through his 6th cycle.
    “Heya Spec! Get anything good today?” The boy placed his lantern on the ground and waited for me to pull something magical out of my basket.
    “Just some clay,” I said in as nonchalant way as possible to deter any follow up questions.
    He quickly diverted his attention to Cotta. “What bout you?”
    “I found a large fungus. The size of your head!”
    “No way!” he squealed. “When do we eat it?!”
    I tempered his enthusiasm – “He’s joking, Ceramy. All we hauled was rocks and clay.”
    The boy giggled. “That’s funny but now I’m kinda sad you didn’t find it, hey guess what I found while collecting today, I’ve never seen anything like it, you wanna see it?”
    He pulled out a tiny rock and handed it to me. I looked at him, unsure of how this was in any way special. “You gotta rub it,” he said with growing excitement.
    I rubbed the rock, wiping away some of the dirt and revealing a sparkling surface. I held it to the dim lantern and within the rock, I saw glowing colors I had never seen before. One was blue and one was darker and one was brighter. How do you describe a color if you’ve never seen it before?
    Cotta grabbed it from my hands and scratched at the surface. He banged it against the ground. “It’s worthless. Too difficult to cut and shape.”
    “But it’s so pretty!” he retorted. That’s when I noticed Kaolin’s eyes watching me. I smiled and waved politely, but she quickly turned her head as if she wasn’t even looking my way. I felt bad for the girl even though I shouldn’t. We all have jobs and just because hers leaves her restless in the hive all day isn’t my fault. And when she becomes fertile, and if her body is able to withstand the birthing process, she will have a considerably decent life by our standards. She will get the most food and doesn’t even have to work for it; she just has to usher in the next generation of workers.
    The others slowly siphoned in and all seventy-three of us sat on tiny mounds of dirt, listening to the High Elder as he announced the daily haul. Echo was presented and we all stared at her bursting belly. Crumble, the father of the soon-to-be baby, stood beside her, proud but tempered.
    We ended the ceremony by gathering in line and rubbing the breeders’ bellies for good luck. As my hand brushed against Echo, I felt a tiny foot kick at my fingers. I rubbed some of the stomach and instead of seeing unimaginable colors, I saw a little imprint of the future.
    “What’s their name gonna be?” I asked, staring at the belly.
    Echo smiled and simply said, “Hope.”

CHAPTER FOUR
Fervor:

    I wasn’t stealing; I was borrowing.
    But even if I wasn’t returning it, it wasn’t stealing. It was technically 1/74th mine and 1/74th Cottas so that means it was 1 somethingth Cotta and mine which we could use when we wanted.
    It was just a prototype but it worked well enough. A self-sustaining lantern, like the Central Tank, but portable. It meant future collectors wouldn’t need to fill up their lanterns with methane any more, they could just deposit droppings in the bottom and the methane would always be present. And it’s not like we were taking the only one of its kind; there were three prototypes so the colony would be fine. Cotta and I also constructed a portable tank to cultivate some bacteria. It couldn’t fill large tunnels with oxygen, but in areas depleted of air, the tank might be a lifesaver.
    By my count, we had all that we needed for our journey. We had light with enough deposits to last us awhile. We had also been saving some of our rations of chum every feeding period, so we had food which would allow us to continue to make deposits in the lantern. The lantern gave us light and fire which allowed us to heat our urine in the aquifyer giving us clean drinking water and the tanks would supply us with enough breathable oxygen. We had enough to sustain us for about a quarter of a cycle.
    Neither of us worried too much about when our sustenance would run dry. Cotta didn’t worry because he didn’t think that far ahead. I wasn’t worried because I trusted in our ability to find our own food and water as we moved forward.
    What worried me most wasn’t the rigors of the journey ahead, but was leaving my father behind. He was a good father by all accounts and cherished me more than any other father cherished their child in the colony. I had wanted to make this journey for cycles but had held back because of him. He found out my secret desire through no fault of my own. While my eyes were closed and I was off in far away lands, my secrets unwittingly flooded from my mouth and he overheard everything I had been thinking but never said.
    He sat me down one day and told me how when he was younger, he adored my mother. He wished she would be his and only his, but his father told him his dreams should stay locked away in his head, for they were merely dreams. And then, one day he was lucky enough to be chosen and for one day, she was his and he was hers. The cycle in which I grew in my mother’s stomach was the best time of his life. He was allowed to provide for her daily, watching his love grow inside of her and then, I was born and I became his while she became another’s.
    My father’s dream had come true, if only for a fleeting period of time, and I was the lasting memory not only of his love, but that wishes and wants were possible. I was the most important thing in the colony to him, but he would rather me dream and wish and want than just be relegated as his dream. He told me that his new dream was for me to live mine, for me to make my life rather than live his. It made departing the colony an easier task to swallow, but I still worried about leaving him alone.
    I sat in the Grotto next to my father, Cotta and Dover as we watched Grub perform his magic show. He was the most experienced at sleight of hand in the colony and for better or worse, he was the best entertainment we had and a lot more exciting than watching larvae “race” down a clay track with people gambling portions of their chum rations on the winner.
    Grub picked up a large chunk of clay, waved his hand over it and turned it into a sharp rock. We all clapped our hands as he continued his show. Cotta and the others were deeply immersed in his performance while my eyes predictably wandered. Instead of watching the magician, I observed the audience; I found their reactions more interesting than the show before them. Everybody was so focused on the act in front of them that they were missing out on the show all around.
    As my eyes wandered, they landed on the only other wandering eyes. Kaolin wasn’t looking at me; instead, she was watching the people all around her. I watched her as she watched the others until finally, she peaked my way.
    My eyes didn’t dart away and neither did hers. We stared at each other across the packed room, observing each other as we observed the other. And then, she smiled.
    That’s when I looked away. My eyes darted back to the magician and stayed there. Even though I couldn’t see her, I could feel her watching me. I could feel her analyzing and deciphering me like I would everybody else. I didn’t like it. What she was doing didn’t feel right. When I watched everybody, they were ignorant of my eyes, but she knew I knew she was watching yet she continued to do so. It was rude is what it was.
    I turned back to give her a disapproving look but she was gone. I felt her eyes still on me but she was nowhere to be found.
    “Could there ever be a magician so good he could make a person disappear?” Cotta looked at me as inquisitive as ever.
    “I dunno,” I replied, my most often response to one of his questions.
    It was an ordinary moment for Cotta and an ordinary moment for me. It was an ordinary moment for the colony and for the world as we so presumed. Things were all so ordinary when Crumble quickly jumped to his feet and with such excitement and enthusiasm shouted:
    “Echo’s water just broke!”

CHAPTER FIVE
Breech:

    It happened suddenly like all good and bad things. The colony quickly dispersed, leaving Echo alone in the Grotto with only Crumble and the elders who would help escort new life into our world. It was a great moment for Crumble and the others, but an anxious one for me and Cotta. After the delivery of a newborn, the colony allows everybody to take the day off as we feast on fresh milk, chum, and placenta. It is a time where we do not have to deliver our gatherings for the day, which means we had an extra day’s head start before they knew we were gone.
    Our problem was simple: we had yet to breach through to the old hive. Now, with Echo going into labor, we might not be able to break through in time.
    Cotta hurried over to me. “If she’s still in labor when we wake up, they’ll send us out to collect, right?”
    “It depends on how much food we’ve got stockpiled. We might not get a chance to break through until the celebration.”
    Cotta bit his lip. “We could sneak out when everyone’s sleeping.”
    “We’re dead if somebody spots us.” I looked around at all of the excited people. “We wait until the baby is born. Appear at the feast and then slip out. Hopefully we chip through right away.”
    He looked uneasy. “What if it takes us too long? They might send someone to get us. Even if we break through, they know the old hive better than we do. They’ll be able to catch us.”
    I had the solution tiptoeing across my tongue, but I didn’t want to say it aloud. I didn’t want to utter the words because it would make it more real… but I had to. “We collapse the tunnel behind us.”
    “What if we want to go back? What if we need to?”
    Cotta’s usual jovial tone turned bleak as his hypothetical questions transformed into very real quandaries. I didn’t want to persuade him into doing anything he wasn’t comfortable with, but it would be impossible for me to make the journey all by myself.
    “Look, chances are we break through right away and nobody notices. We get a big head-start and we can leave the tunnel as is.”
    “What if we don’t?”
    “Just… think about everything and what you want or don’t want and when we come to that point, we can figure things out.”
    He nodded and walked to his cubby. I knew we would come across a variety of barriers in our journey, but I didn’t think we would hit an impasse so soon. But here I was, telling Cotta not to ask good questions as I attempted to ignore futuristic scenarios.
    I didn’t go back to the cubby for awhile; instead, I sat at the top of the cove and looked down at the hive. The Central Tank burned bright, sprinkling light across the many smiling and excited faces. A thin layer of smoke formed at the roof of the hive, contained by the same barrier protecting me. If I were to dig up, I could free us both. We would claw our way to the surface, to the charred past. The smoke would survive, but I wouldn’t. I would burn or freeze or suffocate but in the moments before the world went dark, I would see it. I would see what once was; I would see the world through unfiltered eyes and perhaps discover the remains of large insects.
    I continued to sit at the edge of my world, legs dangling off the path. As time passed, more and more people dispersed, heading to their cubbies to sleep. I should go back and spend my last day with my father, but for some reason, I can’t get up, I can’t leave. As much as I care for everybody here, as much as I love my father, nothing ever changes, nobody changes. I can wake up and expect the day to go as it goes. I can expect people to act the way they act. Every so often, there’s a slight surprise like Echo’s water breaking early, but they are the same surprises. I want something new. I want something I’ve never seen or heard or imagined. I want a spark. I want to be ignited. I want my flesh scorched and imagination set ablaze.
    And then, I had an epiphany. These were no longer wants, they were no longer desires. They had become needs. I needed the change. I needed the different. I needed it as much as I needed food and air and water and light. But it was something the colony could not provide for me. It was something my father could not give me. It was only something I could earn myself. I need to see colors I could never imagine. And even if it meant my light would go out and I’d be lost forever, it was a risk I had to take. I’d rather have my light extinguished than never having been lit.
    The world was still and quiet and I suddenly realized I was alone. It was just me and the flame. My father was asleep. Cotta was asleep. The world was sleeping while I dreamt.
    I stood up and gazed out below me. Time to get some sleep
* * *
    “She squeezed him out!” I squinted and examined Cotta in the dim light. “The celebration is starting.”
    I looked over at my father’s bed, but he was nowhere to be found. “We’ll eat and then slip out.”
    Cotta led the way. The closer we got, the louder the chanting. In the Cove, a beady eyed Echo smiled to her adoring fans as Crumble held up their baby boy, Hope. He was still covered in uteral lining but he was beautiful as all babies are. The other breeders quickly tended to the child as the Hivetakers distributed the chum and fresh milk. And then, a nice little gift: we divvied up some of the crags we had been collecting and breeding. The little insects were still alive which made them extra juicy but difficult to swallow as their legs try to scurry up your tongue even after you bite down on their heads.
    I took a sip of Echo’s sweet milk and looked over at Cotta. He took a bite of crag and nodded his head. I looked across the room and spotted my dad eating and celebrating with the other fathers. I didn’t say anything. I just got up and excused myself. Kaolin gave me a questioning look, but I needn’t explain.
    Cotta and I left and planned to meet back in his cubby after I collected all my belongings. When I got to my cubby, I pulled out a piece of charcoal. I wanted my father to know I would remember him always. I needed him to know I would survive for the both of us. I drew a quick picture. It wasn’t my best, but it would be my last on this wall. I picked up my supplies and looked over at my creation: a fiery ball in the sky glaring down at a barren Earth. On the tallest mound of dirt stood me, staring down below.
    Cotta and I reached our secret path in no time. There was no need to play any game to decide who was going. It was going to be me breaching through, giving birth to my new life.
    I quickly crawled through the tunnel and immediately began chipping away. I could feel my future inching up in front of me. The oxygen was thin in the tunnel, but I was undeterred. I could smell the mystery ahead. Whereas the unknown was frightening to many of those in the hive, for me, it was my freedom.
    I slammed the butte of my ax against the wall. Again and again and again until finally, I broke through and a gust of air splashed against my face and doused my light.
    It was pitch black. I didn’t think my light would go out this soon. I continued to break through the wall, and I crawled blindly ahead, feeling my way hesitantly. I turned and shouted, “I’m through!”
    I sat there in darkness for a few moments. I had no idea what lay in front of me, but instead of being scared, I was excited. I spotted Cotta’s light inching through the tunnel. His head finally poked through, anxiety smattered across his face. “We have a problem.”
    Before I could ask him what he meant, I saw the problem crawling up behind him:
    Kaolin.

CHAPTER SIX
The Beginning:

    “What do we do?” Cotta asked as he relit my lantern.
    “She can’t come with us!” I shouted stubbornly.
    “If we send her back, she’ll tell everybody where we went.” Cotta took a seat on the ground as if he were exhausted from mining all day.
    I wanted to sit down with him, but I needed to take charge. “We don’t have enough supplies for her. We send her back and collapse the tunnel.”
    Kaolin looked at me with her wide eyes. “I don’t know how to get back.”
    “It’s her first time away from the hive,” Cotta said calmly.
    I jumped to my feet and ushered her back to the tunnel. “It’s easy. Go through here, then at the divide go left, then the next intersection go up two tunnels and right three. Then crawl through that and go through two intersections, take the tunnel at the way bottom, then go left at the fork.”
    Kaolin stared at me blankly.
    “We don’t even know if she wants to come with us!” I stammered.
    Kaolin smiled, “I want to go with you.”
    “No, you don’t. You’re just a kid. The colony needs you.” I had gone over a thousand scenarios but had never imagined this happening.
    Cotta took a bite of his chum. “We’d need her if we want to repopulate.”
    “We’re explorers not colonists! And we’ve got to conserve our food!” I snatched away his chum. And then, I realized something that made my stomach churn. “At the end of the celebration, the future breeders are toasted. They’re going to notice she’s gone.”
    Cotta picked up his ax and headed toward the opening of our tunnel. “Should we cave it in?”
    I thought about all of our options. I thought about what collapsing the tunnel meant. “We conceal the entrance to the tunnel. It’ll buy us some more time.”
    Cotta and I stared at each other in silence, communicating our thoughts telepathically. Kaolin examined us, trying to understand what we weren’t saying. “I have a question…” she said tentatively. “You conceal the tunnel… it takes them longer, but then they find it and we’re still stuck in the Old Hive.”
    Cotta turned to the girl: “Our ancestors who founded the original hive, their paths were never caved in, they’re just unstable but…”
    “It doesn’t matter what we’re doing,” I interrupted, “we’re going to draw you directions and conceal the entrance. If anybody asks where we went, you just say you don’t know.”
    I enthusiastically nodded after saying my ingenious plan. Kaolin snatched some of my chum and took a bite. “I’ll tell them exactly where you went.”
    “You’re not coming with us! She’s not coming with us!” I sputtered.
    Cotta stood up and calmly moved toward the tunnel. “I’ll conceal the entrance. You two work all this out.” He grabbed his lantern and disappeared.
    “I’ll pull my weight. I won’t slow you down. I’m stronger than you think.”
    I looked down at the scrawny girl. “All you’ve ever done is lie down and stare at dirt.”
    “All you’ve ever done is whack dirt to get to more dirt.”
    “If it weren’t for my whacking, you would’ve starved a long time ago.”
    “You’re only a little older than me. Don’t act like you’re an elder or something.”
    Cotta reappeared with a large grin. “Who’s ready for an epic adventure? I can be the journey guide. On our right, we have some dirt — on the left we have some more dirt… beneath us, you guessed it, even more dirt.”
    Kaolin laughed. I hated her laugh. I hated her for spoiling my dream. I paused for a moment and ran every scenario in my head, but there was nothing I could do. The only way the journey could proceed was with her. But I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. No. I wouldn’t tell her she was part of our adventure. I would just ignore her. That would be her punishment.
    I looked over at Cotta, “Let’s go.”
* * *
    The Old Hive was magnificent. It was much larger than our newer one, with multiple winding paths leading to numerous large cubbies. We tried to light the Old Central Tank but the methane had run dry long ago.
    Our old home was much different than I had imagined as imaginations tend to stray from the concrete. Some time after my father overheard my dreams, he had gathered a few of the elders to tell stories of the past hive. They explained the old paths in detail and described the oldest of the old that led to some unknown locale only our ancestors had seen. It was a present my father gave to me, his way of pushing me toward my future as I headed through his past.
    “This way,” I said to Cotta while ignoring Kaolin.
    She didn’t bring much. No lantern because she was never issued one, no ax because she never needed one, and no food because it was always brought to her lap.
    We passed through the Old Hive and made our way to the tunnels near the back. After the Great Quake, many of the tunnels were demolished but the ancient ones survived. Our parents had fixed our old home the best they could but they knew it would be a more difficult task reinforcing the large hive with clay so they built the new one, a sturdier and safer place for future generations to thrive.
    Cotta and I walked at a brisk pace while Kaolin was forced to run to catch up. “What if the ancient tunnels dead end?” she asked while kicking the dirt beneath her foot.
    I ignored her because she didn’t exist.
    “They’ll find you two and then we’ll all be punished.”
    Cotta gave me a pleading look, asking me with his eyes whether or not he could acknowledge her existence.
    “They’ll cut your rations in half for a cycle. That’s for sure. Who knows what else they’ll do…”
    Cotta chirped in and ignored my glare, “The ancient tunnels are the sturdiest of them all. And they go on forever.”
    “Where do they lead to?”
    “I don’t know. Where does forever go?” Cotta asked nonchalantly but soon got caught up in his own question. He looked over at me, waiting for my answer. Kaolin also looked my way, questioning me with her big, stupid eyes.
    I finally gave in. “It doesn’t go on forever. It’ll lead us up and into a mineshaft.”
    Kaolin grabbed some chum from my stash and took a bite. “And then where’re we going? To the surface?”
    Cotta laughed. “We’re not going to the surface. We’d die if we go up there.”
    Kaolin gazed at me, waiting for my response.
    “That’s a stupid thing for you to say. We can’t go to the surface. If you’re tagging along, you can’t say dumb stuff like that.”
    She squinted her eyes at me and then simply said, “Okay.”
    We finally reached the edge of the Central Hive and found the paths leading away. “They don’t look so ancient,” Kaolin said, examining the ridges of the tunnel.
    Cotta examined the handiwork as well. “These aren’t the ancient tunnels. We still have a ways to go.”
    Kaolin and Cotta smiled at each other as they discovered the past all around them. They were wasting time. They shouldn’t be running their fingers through dirt or smiling at each other.
    “C’mon. Let’s go.”
    I pushed ahead of the others and suppressed every urge to explore the tunnel built by my ancestors. But it was fantastic. The tunnels they created years and years ago still stood strong, even through the Great Quake.
    As we came to the first divide, I thought back on that day my father had assembled the elders. “Down the Pristine Path and you make a sharp right into Mudd’s Entrance,” reminisced Dover.
    “This way,” I told the others.
    We scurried through the next opening until we reached another path. “Then you’ve gotta go up, up through Toureanne’s Tunnel. It gets real narrow toward the end, but if you squeeze on through, it’s smooth tunneling from there,” Pebble had enthusiastically added. I remember my father giving me a wink after the elder had reminisced.
    “Up here,” I ordered.
    We moved through the narrowing tunnel, squeezing on through to the other side. And then I recalled my father’s words as he recalled his father’s words, “He saw the Ancient Tunnel once. Make a slight left when you see a large gap. A few steps in and you’ll see the largest path you’ve ever seen, constructed hundreds of cycles ago. That’s the original tunnel.”
    “Over here.”
    We found the gap and we made a slight left. And then, we saw the Ancient Tunnel. It was beautiful but ominous. It seemed like any moment it could crumble. How it lasted this long is a mystery nobody could answer.
    Cotta gazed at the tunnel. “How did it last this long?”
    Kaolin grabbed some more chum from my bucket. “C’mon boys. Let’s see how long forever goes.” She walked ahead, leaving us behind. Now it was us catching up to her.
    We walked for what seemed like an eternity. We decided to stop momentarily while Cotta filled up his lantern. Kaolin walked ahead, navigating the tunnel with the faint light radiating from my lantern, heading into the darkness.
    I hurried ahead to her, not because I wanted to be with her but because she had no light and if she got injured she’d slow us down even more.
    When I caught up, I found her staring dumbfounded at a strange structure jammed into the wall. “What is it?”
    I placed my hand against the brown device. It didn’t feel like anything I had ever felt, but it was rotting like food that had turned.
    I rubbed my fingers across the material when a piece lodged in my hand. I recoiled and screeched.
    Kaolin examined my flesh. “Hold still.” She placed her fingers against the brown sliver stuck in my hand and pulled it out.
    “Wow, that’s amazing!” exclaimed Cotta, lantern burning brightly in hand. “That stuff is holding the tunnel up. Maybe we should take some with us for later.”
    “We can’t. It’s holding the ceiling up—”
    And then, noise echoed through the Ancient Tunnel. Cotta and I froze for a moment, asking for guidance from each other’s frozen lips.
    “How did they find us so quickly?”
    I shook my head, “We should’ve covered our tracks.”
    The noise got louder and louder as our colony closed in on us, ready to imprison us once more, and then—
    The butt of my ax struck the brown structure. Again and again until the foreign material collapsed beside my foot. The ceiling rumbled as dirt dribbled from above, an infinite amount of soil croaking.
    I looked over at the ax, at the fingers grasping onto my beloved possession. Kaolin handed me back my tool and simply said, “Thanks.”

CHAPTER SEVEN
Collapse:

    I stood in shock for a moment, dumbfounded that the seemingly innocuous girl standing before me was responsible for our imminent doom.
    “I think we should go,” said a startled Cotta as dirt dribbled from above and onto his hair. “Scratch that. We should definitely go!”
    Cotta turned and ran, but I was still frozen, staring up at the falling dirt, listening to the distant echoes, possibly from my father or Dover, their words and pleas kept alive by the barrier crumbling before me.
    Kaolin’s hand clenched my wrist and I felt my world crumble. I felt the grains of dirt freeze in midair, I saw the echoes ricochet through the tunnel, and I felt her heart pump blood into my veins.
    Her eyes shined and our rhythms pulsated. Her mouth opened and she screamed something, but I couldn’t hear. I had lost control of all other senses, all I could feel was the touch and then, everything came flooding back—
    “What are you doing?! Run!” Kaolin pulled me away from the imminent collapse, as tons of dirt plummeted to the ground.
    And then, the Earth was quiet. The three of us shared a relieved look.
    Cotta examined the damage and the tiny collapse. “Well that wasn’t that bad…”
    I felt it on my face first. A tiny grain from above. We looked up and all around, and we knew we could do only one thing…
    “RUN!”
    Our feet pounded against the ground as the tunnel collapsed all around. Yet, even though my fire was moments from being extinguished, I couldn’t stop focusing on the spark galloping in front of me. Those graceful feet and lean legs. She looked back at me and screamed something with her beautiful mouth and big, kind eyes.
    We were moments from dying, but I hardly noticed the tidal wave of Earth caving in all around. I didn’t notice the tiny specs being displaced behind me, I was only focused on the displaced Spec within.
    And finally, after what seemed to be an eternity of running, the dirt subsided and we collapsed, breathing heavier than we ever have.
    Reality quickly struck as I looked behind and realized any thoughts of returning to my home had collapsed along with the tunnel.
    Cotta picked up a chunk of rock and put it in his basket. “The tunnel survived hundreds of cycles but couldn’t withstand the Kaolin.”
    I stood up and walked over to the fallen rocks. I laid my hand on the dirt and watched as the grains I touched trickled to the ground below and stopped, waiting for the next Kaolin to displace them once more.
    I closed my eyes and thought about my home, a home I had always thought I’d visit some time in the distant future, a father I’d share all my adventures with, now just a memory, a story.
    Truth be told, I had never really let go. I had whispered goodbye but never shouted it. I was leaving a trail of rocks, just waiting to pick them back up, but now the rocks were gone and I was lost.
    I turned back to my two companions, my new world and my new home. I didn’t say a word because no words needed to be spoken. I simply walked ahead of them, lantern firmly in hand and we continued down the Ancient Tunnel towards forever, towards an empty abyss filled with dust and hopes whose echoes were silenced long ago. And as our lanterns lit up the ten feet in front of us, we could only wonder and fantasize on what lay in the darkness, shrouded in silence. We could see each step, see each other, but we could not see behind and we could not see ahead. Our world consisted of the ten foot radius of light. What we saw was real and what we couldn’t see was fantasy.
    We walked for a long time and when we got tired, we continued walking. We kept walking until we couldn’t walk anymore and when that happened, we sat and waited until we could walk again. It was all we had to do, it was our only mission. We were not mining for clay or hunting for fungi. The tunnel was dead and our only goal was to get out alive.
    Kaolin and Cotta talked about nothing as I gazed at the black. It was the same darkness our ancestors had once gazed at. I wonder if Janathon Weshington ever imagined or fantasized about me. I wonder if he thought one day I would journey back to the mine shaft that acted as a safe haven for him so many cycles ago. I wonder if I will have descendents like myself, if I will have a future Spec who will travel back to his ancestor’s hive, to the path his forefather once journeyed on.
    Our feet were rested and up we were, moving forward and shifting our world. Kaolin took some more chum and stepped in the lead. She was a couple feet in front of me but instead of staring at the darkness ahead, I was staring at her behind. I watched it rhythmically move up and down, hypnotizing me and placating my fears.
    I regained control of my mind and looked over at Cotta. He too was staring at her backside. He regained his composure and hurried forward. I stared at his backside as he walked beside her but for some reason, his rear was not nearly as exciting as hers.
    Our bodies were worn out so we decided to rest. Cotta piled up some dirt to form a pillow while Kaolin used his chest as a mound of dirt. I could’ve slept in the pile with them. Perhaps it would’ve been more comfortable having life so close to me, reminding me I too was alive, but instead I chose to lay by myself. I placed my equipment to the side and built a little bed. It wasn’t that bad, but it paled in comparison to the one back in the hive.
    I lay on my back and stared up at the wall several feet above. At one point, an ax scraped against its surface, irreparably shaping and destroying and fixing and creating. My blood had carved these walls. Did they know how important their actions were, how meaningful their decisions were?
    My eyes close and I dream of sunlight. I dream of freedom and air. I dream of an up, a world without tunnels. I dream of a breath, so clean and sweet. I dream of a purpose, a reason for being and for dying. I dream of the Original Hive. Before the world became my world, when there were hundreds of hundreds of hundreds of hundreds of people like me and Cotta and Kaolin.
    If there’s one truth I’ve learned during my time in this planet, it’s that in the midst of destruction, life will prevail. When the sun charred the surface and destroyed the exterior of our world, it meant the creation of my father and myself. And when one of our friends’ lights go out, their life gives us life. And if all of those people in the past had not died, then I would not have lived.
    My thoughts escape me, and I find myself sitting atop a giant insect as it sprints across blackened dirt toward the giant ball of burning fire. I feel a warmth I’ve never felt, I reach a speed I’ve never traveled, but then, the insect trips and we crash into the ground. The insect takes its last breath. I place my hand on its rough skin and feel its damp blood on my hand. The blood is warm and feels as real as anything I’ve felt.
    My eyes fluttered and I regained consciousness, but the dream persisted. I examined my hand to find it stained red. I looked at Cotta, blood smeared across his abdomen.
    I hurried over to my friend, shaking him, wondering if his eyes would open and then, they finally did.
    “What’re you doing?” he grumbled.
    “I thought you were dead.”
    “You’re the one who sleeps like he’s dead.”
    I pointed to his stomach. He felt around, searching for a wound. “I think I’m okay. Where’s Kaolin?”
    I had forgotten about her. I searched all around but couldn’t see her. I picked up my lantern and only had to run a few feet before I spotted a desolate Kaolin staring into the darkness.
    “Are you okay!? Are you hurt?”
    Kaolin turned, and I understood what had happened. Dribbling down her leg was a thin trail of blood.
    She smiled, tears in her eyes, “I’m a woman.”

CHAPTER EIGHT
Torrent:

    Kaolin had evolved into a woman while Cotta and I remained boys. We had only heard of women bleeding but never seen it with our own eyes. A woman usually bleeds only once in her life and then she gives birth and either dies, or she lives and gives birth again.
    The first thing we did was collect all of the blood and divvy it up between the three of us. It was bitter as blood often tends to be, but the extra nutrition would help us on our long journey.
    Kaolin’s mood quickly changed. She walked in the back and kept mostly to herself. When we tried to include her in the conversation, she just ignored us. Her mind was off in some faraway land and neither Cotta nor I were allowed in. We continued forward, pushing the world behind us as we walked into the unknown.
    Our feet had never been so sore. Blisters formed all over our toes and then quickly turned to calluses. In addition to our bodies deteriorating, I could see Cotta struggling with the mental aspect of our journey through the Ancient Tunnel. It wasn’t the fact that we were walking into a void, it was that the tunnel was so high. Whenever we worked in the tunnels, we were forced to hunch, as we snugly moved toward our working position, but the Ancient Tunnel was so massive that he was beginning to feel uneasy. He would often spend most of his walking looking up at the faraway ceiling, worried some unseen creatures were about to strike. How could he have survived in the olden days with no ceiling at all?
    “What if it never ends?” Cotta asked, chewing on a piece of food.
    “Everything ends,” I told him. “Beginnings can’t exist without an ending and we saw where the tunnel began.”
    And then Cotta said something that caught me off guard. “It was the beginning of the tunnel for us but the ending for them.”
    He was right, but how could a beginning also be its end? If a man grabbed his toes, there would be no beginning or end to his body, he would just be. But if his feet were his beginning and end, what were his hands when raised above his head? If a man and woman come together and have a baby, that baby grows into a man or woman and has a baby of its own but which is the beginning, the baby or the man/woman? And then, a baby is born and that is his beginning. He grows and dies and that is his ending. But then after he dies, we consume him and he begins again within us until we die and therefore he dies. But then we’re eaten and we start new within those who eat us. Maybe there isn’t an ending until nobody is around to consume the dead. Maybe the tunnel doesn’t end until we die and nobody is around to question if it has an end.
    Kaolin quickly stopped—
    “You hear that?”
    She put her ear against the wall. We followed. “What do you hear?” Cotta whispered.
    She shook her head and put her ear to the ground. Cotta and I gave each other a look, then did the same.
    I placed my ear against the ground and heard what sounded like a faint whistling coming from below and then—
    Kaolin’s foot stomped the ground as hard as she could. Dirt crumbled from above. She stomped again and more dirt came tumbling down.
    I jumped to my feet and held her as tightly as I could to prevent her from stomping again.
    “What’re you doing!?” She paused for a moment and looked me in the eyes. I had never been this close to a girl in my life, not since I was ejected out of my mother’s uterus.
    She put her hand onto my chest. “You don’t want to die in this tunnel, do you?” And then, she pushed me back, jumped as high as she could and smashed into the ground beneath her.
    The tunnel rumbled. Dirt and rocks came tumbling down from all directions. There was nowhere we could run. There was nothing we could do. I took what I assumed to be my last breath and closed my eyes when the floor beneath me collapsed and we plummeted below.
    We hit the slick decline and sped down at an incredible speed. I reached for my tumbling ax to slow our descent but I couldn’t get it. All I could grab was Cotta’s flailing hand as we tried to grab onto the moving wall before our skin was completely shredded.
    And then, we hit the ground and I lost my breath. I lost my understanding of reality and feeling. I touched my body to make sure it was still there. Cotta appeared above me, hand reaching down. I grabbed it and he hoisted me up.
    Kaolin was a few feet away, picking up as much fallen chum as she could, gathering all of our tools.
    I looked back up. All I could see was darkness, but I could hear something…
    I grabbed my lantern off the ground and moved my way through an uneven tunnel, one that either formed itself or was made by clumsy hands.
    I crawled through an uneven gap, squeezed through a tiny crevice, stood up and gazed at something I had never seen before in my life.
    All I could do was stare and when Cotta and Kaolin arrived, they could only do the same.
    It was beautiful and glimmered like the rock Ceramy had found, but it was moving and alive.
    “What is it?” Cotta asked, stepping closer to the noise.
    I moved in front of him and knelt down to the edge. I peered inside and saw a boy peering back. The boy made the same movements as I did, taunting me and then Kaolin knelt beside me and a girl who looked identical to her appeared. And then Cotta and his imposter.
    I moved my hand toward the strange surface and felt my flesh submerge, past the boy looking back at me. My hand was cold and wet. I pulled it out and Kaolin screamed as she saw my hand. It had changed colors and looked new like that of a baby.
    “Are you okay!?” Kaolin asked, fearful that I was in pain.
    “Yeah, I’m fine.” I put my hand back in and scooped up some of the liquid and put it to my face. I hesitantly stuck my tongue out and tasted it. “I think… I think it’s water.”
    We stood up and looked out at what I assumed to be a body of water. “I didn’t know this much water existed in the world,” Cotta admired.
    I raised my lantern over to the side and saw a spurt of water trickling out of a tunnel and splashing down into the large body. I looked back down at my hand, “I think it removed the dirt from my skin.”
    “You can remove dirt from skin?” Cotta plunged his hand into the boy staring back at him and then lifted up his discolored flesh. “It smells weird. Good, but weird.”
    I looked around for our other adventurer, but she was nowhere to be found. “Where’d Kaolin go—”
    As soon as I uttered the words, a running Kaolin appeared and jumped into the water, causing an explosion of the liquid, spraying Cotta and me in the face.
    And then, Kaolin was gone, disappeared, swallowed by the water until—
    She rocketed out and splashed us with the liquid. Cotta and I were frozen in place, staring at the girl standing in the water.
    “What?” she inquired, looking at us dumbfounded. She looked down and noticed her whole body had changed colors. And her hair… her hair was the color of teeth, but so much prettier. Her lips were blood red.
    I started to feel dizzy and I could see Cotta looking the same. “Come on in, it feels so good!”
    I was hesitant, afraid to see the colors my skin and hair would turn. What if I looked different than them?
    Apparently Cotta wasn’t thinking what I was thinking because he quickly jumped in and resurfaced with brighter and lighter hair, his eyes brighter than ever. “Come on in! Don’t be such a crag!” Cotta and Kaolin laughed. I knew I had to go in, so I stopped thinking and I jumped—
    I hit the water and my body went into shock. I opened my eyes underneath and could see the brown escaping my skin and I could see Cotta and Kaolin’s hands intertwined.
    I resurfaced and found Kaolin and Cotta smiling at me. I looked down at the imposter in the water and he was beautiful. His hair shined, his eyes twinkled. My two friends splashed me with water and I splashed back.
    I hurried over to them and we both dunked our heads underneath. I felt a soft hand interlock with mine and then a callused one took hold of my other. We stood in a circle, hands clenched, smiles gleaming.
    I had never felt better in my entire life. I felt reborn and lighter and… like fresh meat, like fresh milk, just… fresh.
    Kaolin smiled at me and rubbed my arm, then smiled at Cotta. She moved closer to him and placed her lips against his. Their eyes closed as mine remained open, and then, she pulled away and came close to me, leaned forward and pressed her lips against mine.
    I was dizzy again and my heart was pulsating as if I were running through the collapsing tunnel. She pulled away from my lips and Cotta and I placed our lips against each other, but I wanted to do it again with Kaolin, so I did, and so did Cotta.
    We pressed lips for awhile and rubbed each others’ bodies. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe and my body would collapse. A wave of energy pulsated all over and I felt like I was weightless. I felt like impossible.
    I got out of the water and lay on the soil, staring up at the shield above me. I wanted to touch the ceiling, but I knew it was out of reach. I wanted to jump higher than I could jump and slowly peel away the barrier. I wanted to move through the air as if I were walking, arms outstretched and pointing towards freedom, my one and only dream, to be in a place without a ceiling and without any walls. An ancient tunnel in all directions, where the darkness was occupied with anything that was or could ever be. I would put down my lantern and walk into the black and become that anything, I would occupy somebody else’s dreams because if I were to ever enter that void, I could only be a dream, an unfiltered, undiminished dream.
    But for now, I was me.
    We ate and we slept and then we awoke. There was only one direction we could continue. The water was carving a path through the dirt so we got inside and walked through the wetness, making sure to hold our torches up high so they wouldn’t get extinguished.
    Kaolin was much happier now, pushing her hands through the water and propelling herself forward like there was no gravity.
    “I’ve never felt this good in my entire life.” Kaolin moved to her back and pulled herself along.
    “It’s nice, but not as good as tunneling.” Cotta slurped up some water and spit it out.
    “It’s way better!” she retorted, floating effortlessly in the water.
    “How can you say this is better than tunneling? You wouldn’t know. All you’ve known is your cubby.” Cotta was getting a bit heated. There was nothing he loved more than striking his ax against dirt.
    “What do you think we’ve been doing all this time? It’s really not all that fun.”
    “We haven’t been tunneling! We’ve been walking. It’s not the same as crawling through a path you carved out. If you’d journeyed through the hive you would know.” Cotta was full fledged annoyed.
    Instead of ending the conversation, Kaolin pushed on. “I have. This is better.”
    I looked over at her. “I thought you never tunneled.”
    “I never said that.”
    “You implied it.”
    “You inferred it, I never said it.”
    “So, you could’ve found your way back. We didn’t have to take you along.”
    “Nobody made you do anything. Nobody forced you.”
    “You knew I’d feel bad sending you back. You knew I thought you couldn’t make it. You used that against me.”
    “Maybe.”
    I was just as annoyed as Cotta. With every step, I felt as if I were losing more and more control. My feet wobbled. I felt as if I would fall forward. I couldn’t keep myself steady. I had never been so angry to the point of feeling this way. In fact, I really didn’t feel that angry, so why was my body feeling this way?
    I looked over and saw Cotta stumble and fall into the water, his body pushing forward at an accelerated speed before he regained control.
    Kaolin also struggled walking. And then, I fell and the water pulled me faster and faster through the narrowing tunnel. Behind me, Kaolin’s screams echoed all around.
    I fell beneath the water and my lungs screamed. I couldn’t get back to the air, I couldn’t get back to the oxygen. A rock appeared in front of me, but I couldn’t move and the rock didn’t want to. It struck me in the stomach and ripped apart my flesh. The water turned red and my eyes fluttered.
    I raised my hand above me and touched sky and felt the air speed around my damp hand. My lantern floated passed me and then submerged in the water and everything went dark. I became a dream.
    I couldn’t see where I was heading or where I had come from. I couldn’t see the blood escaping my body, all I could feel was the throbbing on my stomach and the muffled yells from behind.
    I knew I was dying. I knew I would die. I knew this was the end.And then, in the pitch black, I saw a faint light ahead. The light got brighter as my light got dimmer.
    My battered body smashed into something rigid and I got sucked deep beneath the water before I finally resurfaced.
    I was lying on dirt staring up at a structure I could never imagine. The darkness was gone and I could see everything. I could see the water flowing through the object and spinning this thing and the thing kept spinning as more and more water swept through it.
    I wondered if Kaolin and Cotta would see the magnificent creation. I wondered if they had survived the rocks or were shredded like I was. I wondered if they would find my body and make me part of theirs.
    And then, I saw a pair of feet, without toes and shapeless, one large callous over skin. I looked up and saw wrinkled and weathered blue skin, and then a black stomach and chest.
    A light brighter than any I ever saw shined in my eyes and I couldn’t see. The light quickly disappeared and I regained my vision.
    Standing before me was a boy roughly my age. He examined my stomach and my body. He knelt down beside me, hand on my chest and said, “Are you olbreay?”
    I used every ounce of energy I had left and uttered, “My name is Spec.”
    The boy looked at me, confusion smattered across his face and said, “I’m golereana hepetta. Jureld searlen still. You’re golereanna be fine.”
    He pressed his hand against my wound. The blood slowed and he smiled and said, “I’m Joey.”

SECTION TWO
Extinguished:

    “The small wad of burning paper drew down to a wisp of flame and then died out leaving a faint pattern for just a moment in the incandescence like the shape of a flower, a molten rose. Then all was dark again.”
— Cormac McCarthy, The Road

CHAPTER NINE
Joey:

    He was bleeding bad. There was a gash on his abdomen the size of my watch. “You’re going to be okay — I just need to stop the bleeding.”
    He shook his head and grabbed my hand. “It’s ner youlseuh. I’m groniling deole.”
    I shined my flashlight toward where I left my friends, “Help! Hurry!” My hands were stained red, and I could feel his breathing slow down. That’s when I noticed the two foreign shadows appear.
    In front of me stood two people I had never seen before, naked and unflinching. They stared at me as if I were a ghost, no doubt the companions of the wounded boy lying in front of me.
    “Holy shit!” James yelled as he appeared, shining the flashlight on the two strangers. “Where’d they come from?”
    Bryan held his tiny pocket knife firmly in hand, ready to strike. “They’re NaNas.”
    “There aint no more NaNas alive.” James shone the light on the girl’s mouth. “Show us your teeth.”
    “He’s bleeding out — we gotta get him to Shaw.” I pressed my hands down harder on his large wound.
    “We can’t help him til we know he’s not a NaNa,” James said, flashlight still pointed at their faces.
    Bryan knelt down and opened the boy’s mouth. “Smells like a NaNa—”
    “Like you ever smelled one before!” I took my shirt off and tied it against the boy’s stomach. “Help me carry him.”
    Bryan continued to threaten the strangers with his knife while James walked over and examined the body. “I’ll get his arms. I don’t want his thing flapping in my face.”
    James and I hoisted the boy up, but the blood started to gush out faster. I turned to Bryan who was brandishing a knife gleefully. “Come hold his wound.”
    “The hell I am. I don’t want no blood on my hands.”
    “His blood’s gonna be on your hands if you don’t help!”
    “Shit…” Bryan pointed his knife at the girl. “You. Yeah, you. Come here.” The girl stood frozen, staring at him blankly. “They sure are dumb.”
    “Put your knife away.”
    “Man, I never get to use the knife!” Bryan put the knife away and walked toward the girl, hands in the air. “I’m not gonna hurt you.” He grabbed her hand but she quickly pulled back. “You want your buddy to die?” He waved her forward. She tentatively followed him to the boy in our hands.
    “Can you put your hand on your friend’s wound?” I asked, unsure if she understood what I was saying.
    She glanced over at the boy. “What’s… wound?”
    “They aren’t as dumb as they look.” James motioned Bryan over. “Take his arms.” Bryan reluctantly grabbed the boy’s arms while James gently held the girl’s hand and pressed it down on the wound. He looked over at the other boy. “Come here.”
    The boy did not move, either unable to comprehend what James was saying or unwilling to cooperate. James waved him over but he wouldn’t budge.
    “Take my knife. He’ll come if you got it shoved up against his throat,” Bryan laughed as the words trickled off his tongue.
    James took a step closer. Put his hand to his chest. “James. James.” He pointed to the stranger. He furled his eyebrows and tapped his chest, “Cotta.” He pointed to the girl and said, “Kaolin.” To the wounded boy: “Spec.”
    I looked over toward the girl. “Kaolin?” She nodded slowly. “Hold tighter. Harder.” She was confused.
    James walked over and pressed his hand on top of hers and pushed down. Their eyes met and James looked uneasy. He removed his hand and motioned Cotta over. “We gotta go before he bleeds out.
* * *
    It was chaos. Hundreds of people rushed through the City Center when they spotted us carrying the bleeding boy.
    “Joseph!” My father emerged from the crowd, his large sword firmly in hand. Beside my father, his Chief of Staff, Riley rushed forward, sword pointed at Cotta.
    “They don’t look like NaNas, sir.” Riley carefully opened Cotta’s mouth with the tip of his sword. “Too old to not be initiated.”
    Shaw appeared with a few of his assistants. “Prep the OR.” They took the bleeding boy and rushed him toward the hospital. I looked down at my clothes and they were painted red.
    My father lowered his sword and approached me. Placed his thumb on my cheek and wiped off some of the blood. “Where’d you find them?”
    “By the watermill.”
    He examined the situation as he so often does. He had been mayor of our city since before I was born. He had saved us from the waves of NaNa attacks and even demolished their village.
    “Get our guests some clothes. Food and water. Lock them up until we know more.” A couple of the City Guards chained a subdued Cotta and Kaolin. They didn’t struggle, they just looked all around, amazed at anything and everything.
    My father eyed me. “You okay?” I nodded. “Get washed up.”
    I walked through the crowd and passed some of my classmates. “What’d they look like, Joey!?” “Were their teeth as sharp as all the stories!?” “Did they attack you!?”
    I answered the questions as best as I could, but my mind was elsewhere. I couldn’t stop thinking about the bloodied boy who may or may not be alive. If he lived, it’s because I just happened to find him at the right moment. If he died, it’s because I didn’t act fast enough. His life was decided by my hands.
    I walked passed the statue of Jacobson and Fiddler’s Fountain. I tripped over a loose brick by Cantor’s Steps. I’ll tell my father about it when he gets back and it’ll be fixed within the hour.
    I got home and walked upstairs to my shower. I turned the faucet on and warm water dribbled down my face, but the water was only nice for ten minutes before it got cold. I was forced to get out of the shower prematurely and dry off.
    I stood in my room, bored. I waited for the sound of the door opening so that my father could tell me whether the stranger would live or not. I lay on my bed and stared up at the ceiling. It was littered with cracks. I had tried to count them on numerous occasions, but I always wound up falling asleep before I could finish. And then there’s always the heated debate every dozen cracks or so whether a crack is one or two and then I have to get up and get a closer look to see if there’s a gap.
    I yawned. It had been a long and arduous day. Bryan and James and I had to check on the watermill clog. And then there was the whole strangers thing. I’m tired. Let’s see. One crack. Two cracks. Three. Four. Five…

CHAPTER TEN
Awakening:

    I awoke to the sound of chatter below. I jumped to my feet and tiptoed to my door. Opened it a creak and listened in on my father talking to Riley.
    “They aren’t NaNas,” said my father’s young and powerful advisor.
    “Where are the rest?” My father stared at his inferior, waiting for a response. “Are there any more?”
    “We don’t know. They speak a little English, but it’s difficult to communicate. They don’t appear to be a threat.”
    My father picked up a soggy grape, disappointed at its less than perfect nature and tossed it in the trash. “That’s what the NaNas said about us.” He walked over to a skull encased in glass, teeth like daggers. Holds it up high. “And now look at them.”
    “The NaNas were dangerous brutes. These children are savages but their savagery is predicated on naivety and not viciousness.”
    “And where are they now?”
    “The wounded boy is recovering in the ICU. The other two are locked up at the station. Should we kill them?”
    My father took a seat at his desk. Sat quietly for a moment before, “We’re a civilized people. We don’t kill those who pose no threat. We’ll hold a charity event. An auction for each of our guests with all proceeds going toward the schools.”
    Riley nodded. “I’ll let everybody know.”
    “You go with him, Joseph. Since the topic so intrigues you.” He looked up and easily spotted me hiding behind the banister.
* * *
    The City Center was the most crowded I had ever seen it. Nearly all 2,300ish people in town had shown up for the charity auction.
    My father took center stage on the podium and quieted the raucous crowd. “My fellow Newburyians, thank you for coming out to today’s charity auction. As you have heard by now, my son Joseph discovered three strangers last week. They are no threat to us and should be treated as guests until they can be properly integrated into our society. We will be auctioning off each of the three to the highest bidder on the grounds that such person will take it upon him or herself to sivilize the savage. And let me remind you that all the money taken in today will go toward refurbishing our schools.”
    The crowd cheered and my father waited a moment, absorbing the applause like the plants take in the UV light. “And without further adieu, our first savage is roughly 14 years of age and goes by the name Cotta. Please, welcome him to the stage.”
    The crowd cheered again as the younger of the boys was escorted to the stage, chains around his wrists and ankles. “He would certainly be a great addition to any household. A strong and sturdy boy, no doubt can help around the house. Why don’t we start the bidding off at 100.”
    “100!” An elderly woman (I forget her name) shouted gleefully, smiling at the prospect of welcoming a new member to her family.
    “200!” shouted Thomas, a middle-aged botanist living alone in the East District.
    “300!” squealed a little girl no older than 5, standing between her father and mother who happily encouraged their daughter. “So I can have a new big brother!”
    The crowd awed. “I don’t think we need to go any further than that. Sold for 300 to the Wilkins. Come on up, Annie, and claim your new brother!”
    The girl looked up at her parents who simply nodded. She quickly ran through the crowd and up the steps onto the stage and hesitantly stared up at the stranger before her who hesitantly stared back. “I’m Annie, your new sister.”
    Cotta looked down and said, “Herble, wherel is brughets?”
    She slowly moved her hand and touched the boy’s arm, then, leapt forward and gave him a hug. The boy didn’t reciprocate. He just looked down, confusion smattered across his face.
    “First thing’s first,” the girl said as she grabbed his chains and dragged him offstage, “we gotta get you something nicer to wear.”
    My father quieted the crowd once more. “Ladies and gentleman, our next savage is no older than 13 years of age. Please welcome to the stage, Kaolin!”
    The crowd erupted as the teenage girl was escorted onto the stage. “Once again we’ll start the bidding at 100.”
    “100!” shouted the elderly woman.
    “200!” exclaimed Benson, the police commissioner’s son.
    “300!” The elderly woman was not giving up so easily.
    “500!” A middle-aged woman stood alone, staring longingly at the little girl. I had never seen the woman before, but there were many people in the city I had never seen.
    “Do I hear 600? No? 500 to Meredith Washburn! Come on up and claim your Kaolin.”
    The woman took her time through the crowd and up the steps. She stared at the girl and the girl stared back. Placed her hand in front of her. The girl examined the hand. “Come with me Kaolin.” She put her hand on the girls back and led her off the stage.
    “And now, ladies and gentleman, the final part of our charity auction, he’s the oldest of the three, roughly 15 years of age. He’s recovering from an abdominal wound but has been medically cleared for the auction. Please welcome to the stage… Spec!”
    And then, my wounded friend made his way to the stage. He looked around at the crowd, in total awe. He looked like a kid in a weddle shop.
    My father put his arm around my stranger. “For continuity sake, we’ll start off at 100.”
    “1000!”
    The crowd went quiet as all eyes landed on me. I looked over and noticed my hand had skyrocketed to the ceiling and then I realized that it was I who had shouted the price.
    My father looked at me like he had never looked at me before. I saw pride and anger and curiosity.
    And then, after what seemed like a lifetime of that stare, he spoke up, “You heard the man, 1000 to my son, Joseph! Come on up and claim your prize.”
    I tentatively moved through the crowd and onto the stage and looked at the boy. He was older than I but much skinnier.
    I put out my hand, “Hi.”
    He looked down at my hand and put his hand out as well and said, “Hi.”
    I moved my hand forward and clasped his. Shook up and down. “It’s nice to meet you.”
    The crowd cheered, and my father closed the ceremony. “Thanks to you all for showing up. We raised a lot of money for the schools. We’re three citizens more and I’m down 1000 dollars.” The crowd laughed and clapped. “Take care everybody.”
    My father walked off the stage, gave me a look and said, “Sivilize him quick. Then you can work off the 1000 you owe me.” He looked down at Spec, examining his property and then left without saying another word.
    I looked over at the boy and waved him over. “Come on, let me show you around.”
    I led him away from the City Center and took a seat on a nearby bench and motioned for him to do the same. He quickly caught on and took a seat. “We’ll just wait here until the crowd disperses.”
    He watched me closely. I knew he didn’t know the words I was saying, but I felt he understand what I meant. “You were born a savage, but I don’t know if that means you’ll always be one. I think, first I have to teach you our language, but I don’t know how to do that.”
    “I koundla understand, Joey.” He watched me closely, waiting for my response.
    “Are the other two your siblings? Cotta and Kaolin?”
    “Cotta and Kaolin are furalzos.”
    “What is furalzo?”
    “Furalzo.” He places his hand on my chest. His fingers were rough and calloused and strong. “Joey is Spec’s furalzo.” Placed his hand against his chest. “Spec is Joey’s furalzo.”
    I nodded my head. “Furalzo is friend. Friend is furalzo.”
    “Friend,” he said, smiling.
    “Furalzo,” I said back. “I think I’ll just talk and show you things and when you have something to say, you’ll just say it.”
    He watched me closely and nodded his head.
* * *
    I showed the boy the entire city, from the schools to the mall, to the police station. He was amazed with everything and would touch whatever I showed him. He was fascinated with each brick on every building. What interested him the most was our farming sector with our greenhouses and UV lights. He acted as if he had never seen a plant before, let alone a potato.
    He looked at me like I was crazy as I took a bite out of a carrot. I handed him one and it took him awhile before he took a bite. He was astonished by its taste or texture or both.
    I then took him to the pens and he froze as he saw our pigs and chickens. He placed his hand on the chicken and looked over at me with a big smile.
    “We use the river to power our city. The water rushes through the mill and charges the turbine which then gets used to light the city and the plants. The river is our main source of water and the pipes beneath the city allow us to survive.”
    I walked over to a nearby hose and turned the faucet. Water squirted out onto the ground. He quickly jumped out and tried to stop the flow. He grabbed at the puddle beneath and attempted to place it back in the hose.
    “It’s okay. It’s just water.” I held the hose to his mouth and he took several big gulps. I gathered some of the water and combed my hair. He watched closely and did the same, but his hair was all over the place. “We need to get you a haircut I think.”
    I took Spec to the barber shop in the West district since it was the nicest. Not Brightens because they sometimes get lazy with their cuts but Stripes because they always gave 100 percent.
    I motioned Spec to the chair. He sat and watched curiously as the scissors cut each strand of hair. He grasped the side of the chair, waiting for some sort of pain but was astonished that he felt nothing.
    When the barber was done, Spec stood up and took a look at himself in the mirror. He was truly beautiful. A bit malnourished, but that would change after a few weeks of proper eating.
* * *
    I took Spec home and finally removed his chains. He seemed appreciative but didn’t know how to show it.
    He was dirty, and I needed to clean him up. I led him to the shower where I turned on the faucet and then disrobed him. He was completely unabashed with being nude because he had yet to learn humility.
    I motioned him into the shower while I squirted some shampoo into my hands and rubbed his scalp. He seemed hypnotized by the running water.
    I put my hand on the left handle and turned. “Hotter.” He felt the water get hot. I turned the right handle. “Colder.” The water cooled down. He placed his hand on the left handle and turned up the heat.
    I took the bar of soup and lathered up my hands and started washing his skin. I moved my hands down his chest and stomach and cleaned his waist and upper legs. He didn’t seem to mind, but I felt I shouldn’t continue cleaning in that area even though he didn’t care.
    “You should finish up.” I put the bar of soap in his hands and watched him closely as he finished showering. When he was done, I put the towel around him and dried his hair. I picked out some of my clothes, and I dressed him.
    We headed downstairs where our cook, Lucy, served us our dinner. Spec sat next to me while my eight year old sister, Kat, sat across from us. My father sat at the end of the table, sitting across from an empty spot where my mother would be sitting had she not died giving birth to my sister.
    “Let’s eat,” he announced as he always did every night. I put the fork and knife in Spec’s hand and showed him how to cut. He struggled grasping the utensils at first and whenever he had trouble scooping up some of the peas, he would resort to picking them up with his fingers.
    After dinner we went up to my room and I went around picking up various items and saying what each was. I had Spec repeat after me and he quickly began learning each item.
    He was especially interested in my speakers. I hooked up my iPod and played a song for him. He was in a daze, hand hovering over the outside, trying to gather every last remnant of the vibrations I could only imagine as being some magical and mystical force to him.
    “Have you ever heard music before?” He simply smiled at me and waved his hands, asking for more so I played another song. This time, he laughed. It was a mixture of excitement and giddiness. “It’s good, right? She was supposedly one of the best musicians of all time. Her name’s Miley Cyrus. You wanna hear more?” I played him another and again, I saw the excitement in his eyes. We may have spoken different languages, but I could still understand him. It’s interesting how he’s human but kind of not yet we still emote the same way.
    “We still need to get you a bed so you’ll be sleeping with me tonight.” I disrobed him and gave him a set of pajamas.
    He looked up at me and said, “Why are there different clothes?”
    I couldn’t help but smile. It had only been a day but already he was asking coherent questions.
    “These are for night.”
    “Night?”
    I put my hands against my head like a pillow. “For sleeping.” He didn’t seem satisfied by my response but put them on anyway.
    He got into bed and instantly fell asleep. I moved up beside him and hugged him like a teddy bear. He didn’t seem to mind.
    For a moment, I wondered about the series of events that had unfolded on the day. I thought about Spec and Cotta and Kaolin and fate and destiny. It was Spec’s destiny to wind up with me and the others’ fate to wind up where they wound up. In the midst of each of their journeys, they came across insignificant people, like the elderly lady whose name I can’t remember. If she didn’t exist or died awhile ago, the little girl would have still bought Cotta, just maybe for less money. In the grand scheme of things, that old lady didn’t matter at all, at least not to me and not to Cotta. She could have not existed and the same result would have occurred. There’s so much about life that’s insignificant. I wonder why?
    Well, I’m tired. I’m gonna sleep.

CHAPTER ELEVEN
Six Months Later:

    It had been six months since I first found Spec. Everybody was shocked and delighted at how quickly it took the strangers to learn our language and customs. Several years before I was ever born, we had caught a few NaNas and tried incorporating them into our society. After a couple of years, they had only learned a few phrases and refused to adjust to our customs, so they were killed. Luckily, Spec did not suffer the same fate as them.
    “C’mon, we’ve gotta patrol the borders for father.” I picked up my knife while Spec grabbed his axe. He had constructed the tool a few months ago and actually helped excavate some new territory for our community. Before he could do so, however, he had to be taught about the harmful gasses within the city. Awhile back, while the city was being expanded, one of the miners released a pocket of flammable gas causing a small fire. Luckily, the tunnel he was working in collapsed and the flame was extinguished before it could do any harm to the city.
    “Why do we patrol the borders?” my inquisitive friend asked. “If there have been no NaNa sightings in years.”
    “We do it because people feel better knowing somebody is checking.” We headed out of the house and off toward the borders.”
    Bryan jumped out from behind a stone and yelled, “Freeze savage!” He playfully swiped his knife back and forth. “You’d be dead right now if I wanted to kill you.”
    James took out his knife and pressed it against Bryan’s throat. “And you’d be dead if I were a NaNa.”
    Bryan pushed the older kid away. “NaNas don’t have knives. Their claws are razor sharp so they don’t need them, duh!” He placed the knife between his fingers and swiped like it were a claw. “Rarwr!”
    “They don’t growl, you idiot,” James said dismissively.
    Bryan fought back. “How would you know, you never talked to one.”
    James pulled Spec to his side. “Well look at Spec. He’s as close to a NaNa that we’ve seen. Do you growl?”
    Spec watched him closely. “I don’t think I growl.”
    “He’s just saying that cause he don’t know what a growl is. Go grrrrrr.”
    Spec looked over at me. I simply shook my head. He stood silently, axe in hand.
    “The savage can’t think for himself!” declared Bryan. “It’s like two Joey’s.”
    “So what, two Joey’s are better than one,” I said. I looked over at Spec who watched me closely. I nodded my head and he said, “I agree.”
    James shook his head and walked out in front. “C’mon, I set up a target.”
    We followed behind James, along the outskirts of our city. When we got to the East District Throughway, we had to get on our hands and knees which upset me because I had just washed these pants.
    Bryan scraped his knee against the ground and yelped. “Why’d you set it up so far away?!”
    James rolled his eyes. “Because if anyone saw us we’d get in trouble.”
    We finally reached our little cove where James had set up a life-size dummy. “I go first. Since I’m the oldest,” he declared.
    James held the knife firmly in his hand and flung it forward, connecting with the dummy’s right arm.
    “My turn!” Bryan jumped in font of us and carelessly flung his knife ahead. It dropped several feet in front of the dummy. “That was just a practice throw, that doesn’t count!”
    He ran ahead and picked up the knife. Took a step back and threw again, this time, the knife soared to the left. “Tell me when we’re starting for real,” he yelled as he ran for his weapon.
    I stood in front of the dummy and raised my knife, aimed and flung it toward the lifeless being. The point connected with its leg. I smiled over at Spec who stared at me blankly. I smiled and nodded. He mirrored me.
    I ran and grabbed my knife. “Here, Spec. Just aim and throw.”
    “The savage can’t have a knife!” Bryan squealed. “He’s not allowed.”
    “And we’re not supposed to be doing what we’re doing,” James replied.
    Spec stood in front and aimed the knife. Put it down. “Why are we doing this?”
    “It’s target practice, Spec. Go on, throw it.”
    He raised the knife again, but hesitated one more time. “What are we practicing for?”
    James and Bryan were getting antsy, but it was my duty to sivilize Spec which meant answering all of his questions to the best of my ability.
    “In case NaNas show up, we wanna be able to kill them.”
    Spec stared at me for a long time. I could tell he was thinking, but he wasn’t saying anything, and then, after several moments, he asked, “What is kill?”
    “You know, to make somebody die.”
    “Why would you make somebody die?”
    “Because if we don’t kill them, they’ll kill us.”
    “Why would they kill us?”
    “Because they’re evil.”
    Another long moment of thinking until. “What is evil?”
    Bryan gave an exacerbated grunt while James raised his knife and heaved it at the dummy.
    “You know Spec, like good and bad. You and I are good. NaNas are bad.”
    “Why—”
    I cut him off because I knew what he was going to ask. “They were just born that way. And we were born good. Like when you help someone in need, that’s good. That’s right.”
    “If NaNas are bad and they kill, that means killing is bad.”
    “Yeah, you get it.”
    “But we’re practicing to kill them.”
    “Yeah, but it’s in defense. It’s okay to kill someone if you think they’re going to kill you.”
    “How do you know they’re going to kill you?”
    Bryan had had enough. He grabbed Spec’s axe and aimed it at the target. “Because they’re NaNas. They’re all bad. They all wanna kill us.” He flung the axe and hit the dummy directly in the leg.
    “I did it! That one counted! Did you see that!?”
* * *
    It was getting late and we were getting tired. As we headed back, Spec tapped me on the shoulder:
    “Do you think I could see my friends?”
    “Your furalzos?”
    “Yes. I haven’t seen them since the auction.”
    “But… I’m your friend.”
    “You are.”
    I was a little hurt by his desire to see his old friends. “Sure, let me see if I can set up a dinner.”
    When we got home, I asked my father if we could have a party and invite Cotta and Kaolin’s families over for dinner. He seemed relatively enthusiastic about the prospect of having some distinguished constituents over at his house.
    First, I walked over to the Wilkins where I was initially greeted by Cotta at the door. “Hello, sir, may I help you?”
    “Hi, Cotta. Do you remember me?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Are the Wilkins home?”
    “Yes, do you have an appointment?”
    “No.”
    “Would you like to make one?”
    “I’m just inviting you all for dinner at my place. Thought you’d wanna hang out with Spec and Kaolin.”
    Cotta nodded his head. “Yeah, I’ll ask them if they’re interested, and I’ll get back to you.” He smiled and closed the door.
    I turned and headed over to Miss Washburn’s place.
    I knocked on the door repeatedly, but there was no answer. I turned to walk away when the woman appeared.
    “Can I help you?” she asked, stone-faced.
    “Hi — my father would like to invite you and Kaolin over for dinner tonight.”
    “She’s not ready to go out in public yet.”
    “Well, it’s not really public, it’s just our house. I thought it’d be nice for her to spend some time with Cotta and Spec.”
    “No, I’m sorry.” She closed the door in my face and left me standing alone.
    When I got home, my father told me the Wilkins had RSVP’d for the dinner, so the party wasn’t going to be a total bust.
    I went upstairs and found Spec sitting on his bed which we had placed beside mine. He had an old history book in front of him, but I knew he couldn’t read; instead, he sat, staring at the pictures.
    “Are you better than me?”
    “What do you mean?” For a moment, Spec and I had switched places, with my asking him what he meant.
    “Are you a better person than I am?”
    “No. We’re all equal here. All humans are equal.”
    He placed the book aside and looked up and down my shelves. “Then why do you have a bigger house than everybody else?”
    “Well, because some people make more money than others.”
    “If everyone’s equal, why do some people make more money?”
    “Because they choose to do harder jobs. Like my father is mayor and serves the entire town. It’s a lot of pressure, you know? A lot of responsibilities. Mr. Johnson is just the janitor. All he does is sweep up after the students leave the school so he gets paid less.”
    “What makes being mayor harder?”
    “Well, not everyone can do it. You have to make it your life and put others before yourself.”
    “Could Mr. Johnson be mayor?”
    “He could try, but he wouldn’t get elected.”
    “Why not?”
    “Because the people wouldn’t vote for him and even if they did, he couldn’t do the job as well as my father.”
    “Could your dad be janitor?
    “If he wanted to, of course.”
    “So your dad and the janitor aren’t equal.”
    “I don’t think you properly understand the concept.” I laid out some clothes for Spec. “Cotta’s coming over tonight.”
    He walked over to the closet and pulled out a plain shirt. “I thought I could choose my own clothes for tonight.”
    “You don’t like what I set up for you?”
    “I do.”
    “Okay. I guess that’s good, right? You should be picking out your own clothes.”
* * *
    The dinner went pretty smoothly. My father relished the opportunity of hosting a dinner for the Wilkins while I hesitantly sat in my chair and watched Spec and Cotta stare at each other, communicating telepathically.
    “Don’t you love what I did with his hair! It’s so pretty.” The little girl patted down Cotta’s flattened hair which had several bobby pins.
    My father smiled, “I should have you do my hair next!” It didn’t matter how young she was. Some day she’d be older and that day she’d be a voter and every vote counted. “Did you see Kat’s tea set?
    “You have a tea set?!” The girl jumped from her seat.
    Kat jumped up as well. “You wanna have a tea party!?”
    “YES!” The two girls hurried out of the room.
    My father turned to me: “Why don’t you and Spec show Cotta around while I talk to the Wilkins.”
    “All right. Come on guys.” We led Cotta up to my room where he stood by the door as Spec and I got comfortable. “You can sit if you’d like.” Cotta ignored me and looked over at Spec and the two had a staring contest for a moment.
    Spec smiled and put his hand on Cotta’s shoulder. “Are you olbreando?”
    Cotta nodded. “It’s brelombed with crultins.”
    Spec laughed and said, “Yeah.”
    I chimed in. “So, Cotta, how are you liking the city?”
    “It’s great, sir,” he said, politely but robotically.
    “You don’t have to call me sir.”
    “All right, sir.”
    The three of us stood silently for a moment, waiting for the next person to speak. I guess it was up to me to continue the conversation. “I see you’ve acclimated well.”
    Cotta smiled and nodded. “Oh yes, I’ve learned all about modern society as well as the history of the city. Would you like to hear it?”
    “No, that’s alright.” He looked at me with sad piglet eyes, so I caved. “Sure. What’d you learn?”
    Cotta took a step forward as if he were reading aloud in class. “Before the surface burst into flames, the great minds of the time built the underground cities and constructed the sustainable methods to survive that we still use today. Only the smartest and most talented were allowed to come below and live in the haven known as Newbury. When the solar flare incinerated the atmosphere, the elevator that led the genius survivors from the surface to the below was forever sealed off.”
    “Elevator? To the surface?” Spec’s eyes had widened. He listened intently.
    I turned to him and responded the best I could, trying to remember my history classes when I was younger. “Yeah, everyone was taken in the elevator down below. An elevator’s a machine that moves people up and down. It’s behind the north district.”
    “Is it functional?” he asked timidly.
    ‘Why would it be?” I said, “There’s nowhere to go but up and there’s nothing up but death.”
    Spec looked past me, staring blankly at the wall. Silent until, “When people die, what do you do with the remains?”
    “It’s not you, it’s we,” I corrected him.
    He reiterated: “What do we do with the remains?”
    “Well, we bury them of course,” I said, watching him closely.
    “And has that always been… our… way? Even on the surface?”
    “Yes, I believe so. Why?”
    “Well, it seems that if the dead are buried, then only life could exist up top, since death is the absence of life.
    “That’s not how it works.” I instructed him.
    “How does it work?”
    “Things are the way they are and not everything has a reason.”
    Spec’s eyes wandered for a moment, and then asked, “Do you mind if I talk with my brother alone?”
    “I thought I was your brother.” I retorted.
    “You are. You’re both my brothers.”
    I looked over at Cotta who stood silently, waiting for me to grant them their wish of privacy. And then, I cracked like my fractured ceiling. The dirt tumbled down and I caved in. “Okay.”
    I left my room and took a seat outside. I couldn’t go downstairs because my father and the Wilkins were there. I could’ve gone into the game room but for some reason, I wanted to stay right by the door.
    I know I shouldn’t be upset that he wants to spend some alone time with Cotta. I get it. I want to hang out with my friends alone sometimes. For some reason, though, it upset me. I think I’m just irritable. I’m just tired and full from dinner.
    In all honesty, I didn’t want to leave the room. I mean it’s my room. He was being rude by asking me to leave, but I felt obligated to be polite. My father always stresses manners. “Never show them anger unless anger is what they need to see,” my father would always say. “If they want you to be happy, be happy.” He had become so well adept at masking his emotions that I could never tell what was true and what he thought should be true. It wasn’t weak showing your emotions, it was weakness not having control of them.
    There are so many circumstances in life that are unpredictable. He could not foresee my mom’s death and when it happened, he was sad. Everybody expected him to be sad, so I guess I really don’t know if he was upset or upset because they assumed him to be. He knew he couldn’t control the events, but the way he appeared to feel was in his grasp and he was brilliant at knowing how people wanted him to feel. When they told him stories they believed to be funny, he would laugh. When they told him stories they believed to be sad, he would cry. And it wasn’t just outside these walls, it was within as well.
    And so, even though I was annoyed with Spec, I couldn’t show it because he didn’t expect me to be annoyed. And as long as I lived up to his expectations, he would like me and we would be friends.
    To have as much success as my father, I have had to thicken my skin. I can’t just have knee-jerk reactions. I need to clench my leg and only kick it when everyone expected me to.
    But the problem with thick skin is that it leaves you impervious to the sharpest of pins. Everything becomes dull. I’m no longer feeling, I’m thinking about what I should feel. It seems like a good problem to have, to not feel that sharp pin, to not feel that prick, but without that sense of pain, there cannot be that sense of relief. Ultimately, the thickened skin leaves you numb, incapable of feeling the highs and lows of life. It leaves you rough like a rock and just as inanimate.
    My father is a great man, by all standards, but I don’t know if I’d consider him a great human. I could stand in front of him and say the cruelest words, the most vicious things I could think of, but he’d stand there unaffected. If he appeared hurt, he’d just be acting that way because that’s how humans are supposed to act in such a situation, but deep down, beneath the flesh and organs, there was a lifeless rock.
    I guess that’s the problem with being polite. When you’re constantly thinking of others and what they must be thinking or feeling or expecting, you wind up in this perpetual state of trying to please them. You see yourself through their eyes and you lose sight of who you are.
    What’s taking them so long?
    I walked back in and we talked about some superficial things until Cotta and the Wilkins left.
    Spec and I got ready to sleep and we lay in our separate beds. I turned to him and asked, “Do you want to share the bed like we did when I first got you?”
    “Is that what you want?”
    “If you want to.”
    He looked over and considered his options. “Sure, that’s fine I guess.” He got out of bed and lay next to me.
    “If you want to sleep in your own bed that’s fine.”
    “This is okay.”
    He got on his side and I cuddled up next to him. I put my hand on his and kissed the back of his head. “Goodnight.”
    I closed my eyes, and I could feel his warmth and my heart beating faster than it’s ever beat. I moved my hand up his arm and laid it on his chest. His heart was beating slow, nowhere near as quickly as mine.
    And then, I fell asleep.

CHAPTER TWELVE:
Caged:

    The annual ball was a few days away and Kat needed a new dress, so she, my father, Spec and I went shopping.
    Kat put on a vintage red gown, but she wasn’t pleased. She grabbed a pair of slippers and slammed them against the ground. “I hate red! You know I hate red, Daddy!”
    Mr. Hamilton, the portly, middle-aged storeowner, laughed at her antics. “Well, we have something similar in blue. Would you like that?”
    “NO! I hate blue too. Red and blue are ugly! I want green!”
    My father shrugged and patted her on the head. “The girl knows what she wants.”
    Mr. Hamilton scurried to the back of his store while Kat continued to pout. I noticed Spec’s disinterest so I asked my father if we could take a look around on our own for some clothes. My father consented and we went through the fashion district by ourselves.
    One of the jewelry stores caught Spec’s eye, so I took him in to take a look. He stared longingly at a diamond ring. He moved the precious rock, examining it from different angles.
    “I’ve seen this before. What is it?” he asked.
    “Diamond.”He glanced down at the price. “What does it do?”
    “It doesn’t do anything. It’s pretty.”
    “Why’s it so expensive?”
    “It’s rare.”
    “What is rare?”
    “It means there’s not a lot of it in existence.”
    “Why does that matter?”
    “Because not everybody can have it. It’s unique and special. And I guess, if you own it, it makes you special by association.”
    “Am I rare?”
    “I’m not sure what you mean.”
    “Me, Cotta and Kaolin. We’re different, so we’re rare.”
    “Yeah, you are, I suppose. That’s why people were willing to pay so much for you, right?”
    “But back home, there are lots of people like me, so I wouldn’t be rare there.”
    “You’re home now. That’s just where you were born.”
    He nodded. “Right.”
    We left the jewelry store and went searching for some formal attire. I found a couple of nice suits and we were set for the ball. We walked passed Hamilton’s shop, and I could see my sister wearing a green, frilly dress, slamming her shoes on the ground and screaming, so we decided to walk around the rest of the city.
    We came across one of the animal pens and Spec asked if we could take a look inside, so we did. We went passed the pigsties and into the chicken coop where the hens were locked up.
    Spec placed his hands against the cages. “They’re trapped.”
    “They’re being protected.”
    His eyes furled. I seemed to have hit a nerve with him. It didn’t happen often — it was difficult for him to hide his emotions which is one of the reasons why I loved him.
    “What’s wrong?” I asked.
    “They’re not being protected.”
    “Sure they are. If they got loose, they could run away. They wouldn’t have any food. They’d die.”
    “Or they could escape.”
    “Why would they want to escape? They have food and safety here.”
    He rubbed the cage’s lock. “Sometimes that’s not enough.”
    “Do you feel that way with me?”
    “Who gets to decide who should have a cage and who shouldn’t?”
    “Whoever has the key.” It was a cold response. I didn’t mean for it to be, it was just the first thing that jumped into my mind. “You know, if you ever wanted to leave, you could. Nobody’s stopping you. But you have everything you need to survive here. And you have me.”
    He nodded and looked around the room. “Everything in this city is so bright.”
    “Well, the brightness let’s us see everything better.”
    “Right. It helps you see things more clearly.”
    I didn’t want to discuss the subject any further. “We should head back.”
    Spec walked out in front of me. I lingered for a moment and stared down at the many cages filled with hens. They couldn’t move. But, they didn’t need to, did they? All they needed to do was lay their eggs.
* * *
    It was the night of the dance and my family and I walked to the City Center where the ball was being held. Spec walked beside me, adorned in a shiny black suit and looking as handsome as anyone in all of Newbury.
    My father was perhaps the most excited of all of us. He always looked forward to the times when he got to speak in front of the whole town and the annual ball was such an occasion.
    He greeted every individual we came across with a large smile. He knew every person’s name, every person’s story. He would ask about their family and their jobs. They loved him; they all loved him. And if they didn’t, they acted as such, since that is what he expected from them. He treated them as if they loved him and so, whether they did or they didn’t, they appeared to and thus, everyone assumed he was loved by all, especially him.
    The city lights had dimmed to simulate the night, but extra bulbs had been strung up in the City Center for the ball. Everybody looked spiffy. Spec and I went our separate ways, and we soon found Cotta who was walking to a table, carrying several drinks back to his family.
    “Have you seen Kaolin?” asked Spec.
    Cotta placed the drinks on the table. “No, but I heard she would be here soon.”
    I saw the eagerness in Spec’s eyes. “You two don’t know how to dance do you?” They shook their heads. “Come with me and I’ll show you.”
    The two of them followed me to the dance floor, which was essentially just the center of the venue, tables circling around.
    “It’s pretty easy, really. You put your hands on the girl’s waist and you take a step forward while she steps back. After that, step to the left. Then step back. Then to the right and repeat. That’s how you dance.”
    Spec nodded and put his hands on my waist. I laughed and pushed him back, “No, guys don’t dance with guys.”
    “Why not?”
    “Because, only guys and girls do that.”
    “Why?”
    “Because, that’s the way it is.”
    And then, a burning, red blur appeared in the front of the stage. A girl I had only seen a couple of times appeared, blazing crimson dress flowing to the ground. Spec and Cotta watched in awe.
    Kaolin looked beside her, at the woman who had bought her. Meredith Washburn looked down with a sense of pride. “Go ahead, dear. Let everyone gather you in like the light that you are.”
    And then, James walked up to her. “Hi, do you remember me?”
    Kaolin looked back at Meredith who nodded. Kaolin turned back to James. “Yes.”
    “I’m James. Would you like to dance?”
    “Yes, I would like that.”
    James took her by the hand and the two danced as if they had been dancing their whole lives. Kaolin knew exactly what she was doing and looked graceful as she did. I looked back at Spec who watched her every movement. He was jealous. I could see it. I could feel it.
    Kaolin’s eyes left James’ and fell onto Spec. She finished her dance and walked over to us. “Hergels. I harvulen it herbru.”
    Cotta and Spec gave each other a look. The tension was palpable.
    “You look great in that dress, Kaolin,” I said encouragingly.
    “Thanks,” she tersely replied. Turned back to the other two. “When are we lerverlpy?”
    Spec looked back at me. “Is it okay if I dance with Kaolin?”
    “Sure.”
    The two walked to the dance floor, leaving me alone with Cotta. Across the floor, James watched the two closely as they danced.
    “What did she say? Just now…”
    Cotta seemed conflicted. “We were just catching up, sir.”
    “Does he like her?”
    “Spec?”
    I nodded.
    “Of course. Don’t you?
    Kaolin and Spec stopped dancing. They were standing still in the center of the floor, just staring at each other, speechless. And then, Kaolin lifted up her dress and took it off. She stood in nothing but her undergarments as those around her gasped. Spec picked up the dress and handed it to her, but she pushed it away.
    “No! No more of any of this! I hate it. Let’s go! It’s arilite aberillious!” she screamed.
    “Kaolin!” Meredith appeared and quickly covered her up with the dress, pulling the girl away from the crowd.
    Spec walked back, defeated. I fixed up his tie. “Let’s get out of here.”
    “Okay.”
    We walked away from the City Center, away from everyone and life and movement and into the stillness.
    “You’re never going to like me as much as you do the others, are you?”
    Spec placed his hand on my shoulder. “You kept my flame lit. Nothing changes that.”
    I looked deep into his beautiful eyes and then, I kissed him.
    He stared blankly at me, unwilling to reciprocate.
    “Should I not have done that?”
    “It’s not my place to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.”
    “You can’t tell anybody I did that.”
    “It’s not my place to tell people what you do.”
    “Stop it. Stop talking like that. You only say that stuff to please me. You don’t mean it. I see you when you mean it, when you’re talking to them.”
    “I don’t know any other way.”
    “I love you. Did you know that?” He shook his head. “I feel about you differently than everyone else. I want to be with you all the time. I dream of you even when you’re next to me.”
    “By your definition, I love Cotta and Kaolin.”
    I shook my head. “No. When you love someone, you’re with them and only them. You can’t love more than one person.”
    Spec was offended. “I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with you.”
    “Your love isn’t real.”
    “Why’s your love any more real than mine?”
    “Because! Because I was born and raised to feel a certain way. I grew up understanding what real love is, and you, you just have this degraded version of it. You don’t know what love is!”
    My body was trembling. I felt I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to cry until I was dead.
    “You can’t tell anybody about this, Spec. Not what I said. Not the kiss. None of this happened.”
    “Okay.”
    We walked back to the house and neither of us said a word. All we heard were the distant echoes from the music.
    When we got home, I quickly jumped into bed by myself. I didn’t look at the cracks or at Spec. I just closed my eyes and wished the day had never happened. I clenched everything and wished I had never met him. I wished I never saved him. I wished I didn’t love him. I wished I was like everyone else. I wished he was like me.
    He lay in his bed beside me but again, I was alone. There were thousands of people in a mile radius, but I was by myself. Nobody felt the way I felt. Nobody thought the way I thought. Nobody saw what I saw. I could be hugging Spec, but I was still alone. I was locked up and the key was constantly and perpetually out of reach.
    I wish I could just lay an egg, I wish I could be told what to do and how to do it and then I would do it and that would be purpose enough. I wish I was how my father appears to be. I wish I was everything everyone expected of me. Every day wouldn’t be so hard. Every day wouldn’t be such a challenge.
    I closed my eyes and wished that when they opened, it would be the day of the ball. I wished to rewind time. I wished this was all just a bad dream as I closed my eyes, and for a moment, the world went black and the light went out.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN
Slumber:

    It was my turn to patrol the borders with James and Bryan. Spec grabbed his axe, but I stopped him and told him to stay at home. He was a bit confused, but he consented.
    “Here,” he said, handing me the axe, “in case you come across any NaNas.”
    I left him behind and walked through the town, past the shopping district, past the City Center and Agricultural Square. I walked past everything and headed toward the borders to where there was nothing but empty.
    For a moment, I wondered about Spec and who he was before me. I had known him for eight months, but I never asked about his home, I never asked about his story. My father, though emotionally difficult to read, would drink from time to time, either in celebration or woe. And in those moments, I could see the real him, or at least the version I considered to be real.
    “Everybody has a story; some are just not worth examining.” That always stuck with me. It was cynical, but it had some truth to it, not because the merit of any person’s life was more worthwhile than others, but because there isn’t enough time to truly consider every person’s life or perspective. I see my life in its entirety, but Spec and others only see the abridged version. My father sees his life in its totality, but I only see what I can see and know what I can know.
    I could try to hear Spec’s story. I could attempt to hear about his childhood and his existence, but I’ll always be limited because I’m me and he’s he. I could put myself in his situation and walk in his shoes, but they’d always be my feet. My vision of his being is skewed by my mind. My perspective inevitably inhibits me from truly understanding and relating to others. And the more they differ from me, the less human they seem.
    And then there’s me. I can’t truly share my story with anybody because there are always consequences to opening up, my story is never just my story, it always involves others and sharing limits their privacy. I wasn’t free to share me without intruding on others. I wasn’t free to say how I felt or who I was. I had no freedom over my own domain, over my own utterances.
    “Freedom of speech is an illusion,” my father would say when he was intoxicated. “The more power you have, the less you can truly say. That’s the irony, Joseph. I’m the most powerful man in the city, but can I say what I want to say? No. I say what they want me to say. But Carl in Sanitation, well, he can say whatever he’d like to say. He could rant about anything because less people listen and there aren’t any consequences. His words have less merit than mine, but he can say what he truly wants to say. I can’t tell all of Newbury what I truly believe. I can’t say anything outrageous because I’d lose my job. But, everybody listens to what I say. Do you see the irony?”
    I closed my eyes and my world widened, my everything expanded.
    “Where’s your puppet?”
    I opened my eyes, and I felt the earth all around, I felt the weight of the world.
    “Where’s Spec?” Bryan snapped his fingers in front of my face.
    “He isn’t feeling well.”
    “Sure sure sure. I’ve been practicing my knife throwing skills all week. James wants us to meet him there. I’m gonna beat you for sure.”
    We walked to our hidden spot where James had set up the dummy.
    “What do you guys think about Kaolin?” he asked as casually as he could.
    Bryan jumped in front of both of us and flung his knife through the air, missing the dummy and hitting the dirt. “James gotta thirst for savagebait. He wants them animal-like.”
    James stood on the mark and aimed the knife at the dummy. “She’s nice and pretty.” His knife hit the dummy right in the gut. “I think I’m going to ask her to be my girlfriend.”
    I examined Spec’s axe in my hand. Every groove. Every ridge, crafted so diligently. Every detail was exactly how he wanted, and it was amazing.
    Bryan hurried back to the mark, running with the knife in hand. “She’s got them tiny titties. I like em big and squishy!” He thrusted multiple times.
    “You’ve never seen a boob.”
    “Sure have. Tracey showed me after school one day. She got them big ole titties!”
    Bryan flung the knife. Once again, it missed the target and hit nothing but dirt.
    “What do you think, Joey?”
    I put the axe on the ground and watched it sit still, alone. “She’s okay.”
    “Well I think she’s nice.” James took a step on the mark, then looked back at me. “You haven’t even gone yet.” He moved out of the way and let me go.
    I held the tip of the knife firmly in my hand. It was sharper than Spec’s axe, but it wasn’t made with the same love and care and affection that gets imprinted on a work of art. I could feel it. I could feel the coldness in my hand. His axe was used for survival. The knife was to take down a rival.
    I aimed at the target and I thought about Spec and Cotta and Kaolin. I thought about myself and how unfair it was I didn’t feel the same joy as Bryan and James, that I couldn’t partake in talk about breasts and girls like they could.
    I took a deep breath and concentrated on the target and for a moment, I felt this intense clarity. I felt the world’s colors melt into one. I felt the rightness and the wrongness swap meanings. And then, all that mattered in this precise moment in this precise location was that I would hit the target in front of me, that I would pierce its fake skin and hit its fake heart. And so, I cocked my arm back and I heaved the metal forward.
    The knife struck the dummy’s chest with unbelievable force, pushing it backwards and propelling a puff of dust into the air.
    Bryan and James screamed in jubilation. Bryan yelped in disbelief, “Did you see that!? That was amazing!”
    James shook me and lifted me into the air and I could almost touch the ceiling. Almost.
    “Now I gotta make a new dummy,” James gleefully stated while slapping my hand.
    “I’m gonna do that next!” Bryan aimed his knife and practiced his form while I walked over to the dummy.
    I looked down at the lifeless entity beneath me, hole in its chest, dirt dribbling out. If the dummy could talk, would he be happy? Would he be glad his purpose in life had been fulfilled? Would he be content knowing he did his job? Could something ever be happy at its own demise, even if its end was a necessity?
    Grains of dirt dribbled onto the dummy’s head, and then, I felt grains of dirt dribble onto mine.
    I looked up at the ceiling and that’s when I saw her.
    She looked down at me, and for a moment, our eyes connected and we connected in a way that is impossible to explain.
    The girl was clinging to the ceiling. She opened her mouth and snarled and I could see the daggers jutting from her mouth, scar across her cheek. And then—
    She pushed off from the ceiling and landed on top of me. Her razor sharp claws cut into my chest and I instantly coughed up blood.
    I could hear James’ and Bryan’s screams. I looked over at my friends as they ran away, leaving me behind with the girl.
    She raised her claw and ripped into my stomach, and I could no longer feel the world; I could no longer feel anything.
    Her mouth widened. Her teeth shining.
    And then, my world went dark—

SECTION THREE
Ignited:

    “Sure, everything is ending,” Jules said, “but not yet.”
— Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

CHAPTER FOURTEEN
Alive:

    It had been eight months since I last awoke next to my father in our cubby, but it felt like a lifetime ago. For so long, I had hoped for the new, but now I find myself dreaming of the old. Painting pictures with my father, excavating with Cotta, and even watching Grub’s magic show in the Grotto.
    There was so much I wanted to share with him. I wanted to tell him about our harrowing escape from the hive and my near death and the large civilization that took me in. Sometimes I would lie awake and stare through the ceiling, listening to Joey as he struggled breathing in his sleep, gasping for breath. I would imagine busting through the barrier and propelling myself upward, to the past that is my future. I would walk the burnt rubble and find my father waiting for me, and he would ask what took me so long. We would walk beside enormous rivers, and I would tell him all about the wonders I had witnessed. We would discuss music, the sweet sounds and harmonies we could never imagine. We would discuss the animals and the plants in which they ate. We would discuss couples who only bred with each other and clothes and flowers and Kaolin. We would discuss everything.
    I had always hoped for something different, and now that I obtained it, I still wanted more. I wasn’t content, and I was beginning to wonder if I could ever have my desires quenched. I found myself immersed in everything new, but the more I learned, the more I discovered I hadn’t known and the more I wondered what else there was to know.
    In the hive, life was simple. I’d wake up and collect and survive. I had so much time that it was inevitable for me to think and yearn. Now, in Newbury, other people collected, other people worked, and my job was simply to learn. And so, I learned. I absorbed it all in and the knowledge changed my thoughts but it didn’t warp my imagination. My inventions had merely become more elaborate. Instead of imagining large insects, I dreamt of large chickens and pigs. Plants that went higher than the eye could see. Music that reverberated deep within my body and shook the very foundation that is me. Sweet scents that lifted me off of my feet and made me immune to my deficiencies. I realized anything was possible because everything was possible.
    Today was supposed to be our day to patrol the borders, but Joey left me at home. It was one of the few times he let me be alone, and I couldn’t help but relish the time where I did not have to worry about another living person. I was alone for most of the time back in the hive. Sure, I’d walk to the gathering spot with Cotta, but we always worked at different plots of land. It was only now that I truly understood real isolation. Only after finding myself surrounded by so many people and being beside Joey for most of the day did I understand this feeling of lonely and cherish the moments of being alone.
    Cotta, Kaolin and I had all taken to Newbury in a different manner. Cotta seemed to enjoy the city the most, incorporating far better than I. Kaolin liked it the least and rejected most of their customs. I was somewhere in between. I did not like all that was presented before me, but it would be foolish to say it was all bad. There were some things I liked more than home and some things I did not. I liked the options but disliked the lack of choice. I could supposedly do whatever I wanted to do in Newbury, but I had to go to school with Joey — that was mandatory. I couldn’t just be mayor like Joey’s father. I was told the option was there, but I didn’t have that choice. That choice was limited to a few. We were free to be who we wanted, to wear what we chose, but I had to wear something. I could not go as I did before, naked and untarnished. I had the option of clothes but not the choice to go without.
    We were all being held prisoner by each other. If I were naked in front of Joey, he wouldn’t mind. But if I went outside nude, he would be upset. Why is this? Why are there rules that exist in front of the many but not the few? An individual’s rationality is somehow altered when others are involved.
    And then there is right and wrong which somehow correlates with truth and lies. The right was true and the wrong was a lie. There was no in between, at least from what I’ve gathered, but I don’t understand why some things are considered good and others are bad. I don’t understand how Joey can blindly say one thing is right and dismiss the alternative as being wrong. Then again, if I were born in Newbury, would I believe what he believes? Would I be me, or would I be some version of him? How much of me is truly mine? Am I just a product of my father and the hive or am I something more?
    As I sat in the room alone, relishing the opportunity not to be seen, a noise I had never heard chimed throughout the city, over and over and over. I looked out the window and I saw people rushing out toward the City Center. My time of solitude had ended.
    I hurried down the stairs where the Mayor promptly appeared. He grabbed his sword and rushed out as if the house were collapsing. I followed behind the Mayor, through the panicked crowd. Riley stood on the stage with James and Bryan who were covered in tears.
    The mayor hurried over to Riley who took a sympathetic step toward his boss and whispered something into his ear. Riley took a step back, giving the Mayor some space. He held the sword firmly and shut his eyes as the entire city watched him closely. And after a few moments, Joey’s father opened his eyes and looked out at the city:
    “The NaNas have returned and they have taken my son’s life.” Everything went eerily silent. “We will secure the borders at all times. Schools will be suspended indefinitely and all citizens 8 and up will be enrolled in daily military training.”
    The mayor paused for a moment and examined all of the panicked faces in the crowd. “We don’t die. We don’t die! We fight. Fight like we did so many years ago. Fight for our children. For our parents. For our brothers and sisters. For our people. And we will win like we have every time before! Newbury is a beacon of light and they are the darkness. We are the shining city that survived the apocalypse and nobody is going to take that from us.” He lifted his sword into the air, then slammed it into the ground beneath, turned and walked away.
    The crowd slowly dispersed, but I lingered behind and stared at the weapon lodged in the ground. I thought about Joey and his last moments and how he must have felt. I wondered if he somehow knew about his imminent doom and had intentionally left me behind. I wonder if I had gone, would Joey be wiping up tears with James and Bryan while I became extinguished?
    I walked back to Joey’s house, back to Joey’s room and stood idle amidst his memories. He had left so much behind but so little at the same time. I wonder about his friends and his family and how much they knew the real Joey. I wonder how much I knew the real Joey. Did I know him better than everyone else? Was he truly dead if I survived and carried on his story?
    And then, before I knew it, it was supper time. I walked downstairs not knowing what to expect but found an ordinary setting without one key component. The Mayor was at the head of the table, Kat at her spot, but across from her was Joey’s empty chair.
    The Mayor looked over at me. “I suppose we’ll begin with a prayer.” I didn’t know what that was, but I watched Kat close her eyes and bow her head so I did the same. “Bless us, oh God, for the food we are about to eat. Thank you for this house and this life and protecting Joey in that thereafter. Amen.” After a moment of silence, I opened my eyes and realized the other two had started eating.
    I didn’t know much about God, but Joey had taught me a little about him sometime ago:
    “There’s only one God and he created everything,” Joey said nonchalantly while we were playing basketball (a game played by bouncing a ball and shooting into a hoop).
    “Did he create this ball?” I asked.
    “Well, he created Man who created the ball, so yeah.”
    “He created me and you?”
    “Of course.”
    “Who created him?”
    “Nobody. He’s always been around. Or he created himself. In the olden days, there were a lot of different names for him and different religions. But in Newbury, we just all refer to him as God.”
    “What about those who don’t believe in him?”
    “Nobody doesn’t believe in him.”
    “I don’t,” I said abruptly.
    “Well, you just don’t know any better. Like when you first saw a carrot you thought it wouldn’t taste good, but you ate it and you liked it. And now you have it every day.”
    “That’s true.”
    “Yeah, and before you came here, you never heard music. You didn’t know it existed, but you love it now.”
    “I do…”
    “So, I mean, now you know about God. He looks out for us all. Why wouldn’t you want to believe that?”
    “What about when the solar flare hit?”
    “Sometimes he does things for reasons we don’t understand. But if he stopped the flare, we wouldn’t have ever met, right? So he brought us together—”
    I snapped back to reality and looked over at the empty seat beside me. If God really existed, did Joey need to die in order for me to continue my journey? Or was he just something people believed in that may not exist, like giant insects or my dream of walking on the surface?
    I finished my meal, but waited for the others to be done before I left the table. I looked over at the Mayor who was imbibing copious amounts of alcohol.
    “You two are excused.”
    Kat got up and ran to her room. I looked over at the Mayor and wondered if I should talk to him. I wondered if I had any words he had not already heard. I knew I didn’t, so I went back to Joey’s room.
    I thought a lot about Joey and what he had done for me. I left the hive because I couldn’t grow old in a place I couldn’t grow. Not only were the walls narrow, but so too were the expectations of a substantial future. In Newbury, the ceiling was so high I could barely see it. Yet, I knew it was there. I knew the ceiling was keeping me down just as it did in the hive. The only difference is in Newbury, there was the illusion that there was no ceiling. That anybody could become mayor.
    Joey had saved me in more ways than one. He carried me from a life of ignorance into one of understanding. Before, I imagined a world beyond my world but now, I knew there were an infinite amount of worlds. If the hive and Newbury existed, anything could exist. Eight months ago, I was lost and hopeful but now, I was determined more than ever to see the above. In the hive, I only knew what I was told by my ancestors and they only knew what they were told by their ancestors. Now I know a different set of truths told by a different set of ancestors. Who’s to say the surface is forever scorched? Who’s to say there’s an irreparable scar imprinted above the dirt and beneath the dust?
    What I know is only what I’m told and what I’m told is only what they know. Trusting that my knowledge is the knowledge because others said it so, is trusting that they know what is right and what is wrong. It’s trusting that they know what is good and what is bad. But which knowledge is accurate? Newbury’s ancestors? My ancestors? Or neither?
* * *
    I woke up in the middle of the night and expected to hear Joey’s troubled nocturnal breathing. It took me a few moments before I realized he was gone and would be gone forever.
    I was thirsty so I went downstairs to get some water when I found the Mayor sitting with a glass in his hands, staring through the wall in front of him.
    “If you can’t feel the world around you, it doesn’t exist. Did you know that, Spec?” I shook my head and stood silently. “We have five senses, you know? Sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch. Take away one’s eyes, one can no longer see the world. Take away one’s nose, no more smelling. No tongue, no taste. No ears, no hearing. No heart, no feeling, no touch. We only comprehend our world through our senses. So if you close your eyes, curl up into a ball and shut out the world, it doesn’t exist. You don’t exist. Because, you’re a part of this world now, aren’t you?”
    I nodded.
    He took a sip of his drink. “You’re insignificant, Spec. Did you know that? I don’t say that to be cruel. I’m insignificant too. We’re all… insignificant. I’m going to teach you something I should’ve taught Joseph. The world is not black and white. It’s shades of gray and purple and blue and red. But if you treat it as such, buildings crumble. People want there to be only two colors. They want only black and white. They don’t want to decide what type of gray they are looking at because if they had to decide, they might choose differently than their neighbors and their friends and family. You know what happens then? That person is different. That person is an outcast. Two choices. Black and white. Make things clear. People don’t get hurt. They need right and wrong. You can’t have a decent society without right and wrong. And when people start to question if black is black or white is white… civilizations topple.”
    Another sip.
    “Before the end of the surface, people said, ‘We don’t have to prepare for an apocalyptic disaster. It’s fiction.’ They didn’t believe in a truth. They didn’t believe black was black and white was white. And those people burned.”
    Another sip.
    “There are two types of truth, Spec. The reality in our mind and society’s reality. Take you and me for example. I believe in what I believe. Since I believe it, it’s true. You believe what you believe and hence, it’s true. Then there’s the reality society says is true. That’s the loudest voice. That’s the voice that once said the world was flat and so it was flat. That was fact. Sure, some said it was round, but that was their truth. Would their truth matter if society did not agree? If everybody who declared the world was round was suddenly purged from a society, would that truth still exist?”
    “Yes,” I said defiantly.
    He laughed and took a big gulp of his truth. “Yes!? And how is that?”
    “Because there are an infinite amount of truths. But there can be only one truth within me,” I replied.
    “And what truth is that?”
    “What I see is true because I see it. What you see is true because you see it. Those aren’t two separate truths. What is real can only exist inside of me. You can say something that might change what I believe to be real and change my truth, but in terms of what is real and what isn’t, all that matters is what I think. Newbury views me as inferior. They see my friends as subhuman. But I don’t see that. What they believe isn’t true. What I believe is fact even if everything points to my being wrong, in my mind, that’s all that matters.”
    The Mayor gulped down the rest of his drink. “You should get some sleep.”
    I nodded and walked back upstairs. I didn’t know if what I said was a mistake. I had never spoken that way to anyone in my life, but I had never been spoken to like that either. I had never had somebody challenge me in such a way that prompted me to discuss what I believed, to divulge my thoughts. Those had always been private to me. They had always been my own but now, they were the Mayor’s and he could do with them what he pleased. Every time he looked at me now, he would know what I was thinking, what I believed. Did I just give up my last bit of privacy?
    I got back in bed and looked at the ceiling. At that very moment, I knew the one truth I believed, the one truth that would set me free.
    I would reach the surface.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN
Change:

    The change was inevitable.
    School was suspended and we were all forced to attend self-defense classes, even Kaolin, who had only appeared in public once since the auction. I had woken up early and decided to explore the city on my own for the first time before the class.
    I weaved through the residential sector and found a path on the outskirts that led upward. I went as high as I could and found a spot where I could see the entire city below.
    I felt higher than I had ever been and I had this unusual sensation, this fear that I might fall. I imagined the pain from the impact. I guess the higher you go, the harder you fall.
    I stood against the dirt wall and saw everything. The city was magnificent. More buildings than I could possibly count. Most of them were rectangular with windows made of glass (a protective substance that you could see through). At the East Sector, the buildings winded up an uneven path. Most of the structures were scrunched together with tiny alleys in between. In the South Sector, the buildings were bigger and more spread apart. The West Sector consisted of the industrial businesses, including the farms and pens.
    And then there was the North Sector. It differed the most from the other districts. It was cold and abandoned, a vestige from the past, a path from the old to the new. At the northern most tip of the city, a path led up to a mechanical structure called an elevator. Before the flare hit, several individuals predicted the disaster and created the town. They brought the smartest and most capable people down to the city and created Newbury. But once the flare hit and the surface was scorched, the founders of the city blocked off the path.
    They hadn’t done the best job at obstructing the path and it wouldn’t be the first time somebody from the olden days tried to block the past. If Cotta and I could breech the Old Hive, we could make way to the elevator, but would the contraption even work? If it did, could we figure out how to work it? If it’s only purpose is to go up and down, would it be that difficult to decipher?
    The bootcamp was starting so I hurried down the winding path and made my way to the class. I quickly spotted Cotta standing by the front, waiting for me.
    “Hey, Spec. How’re you doing?”
    “I’m fine. You?”
    “Yeah, I’m alright. I’m eager to learn self-defense, but I don’t know what it is.”
    And then, all eyes turned as a pair of shiny legs appeared. They belonged to the most beautiful girl in the city. Kaolin.
    She looked over at us, then spoke in our native tongue. “I hate this place.”
    “It’s not that bad,” Cotta said playing with his zipper. “They’ve got jackets and they easily open and close. So if I’m feeling slightly warm, I can zip it down but if I’m feeling a little bit cold, I can zip it up.”
    Kaolin stared at him dumfounded. “It sounds to me like you just like playing with the zipper.”
    “They’re fun! What if you could put a giant zipper on a house and zip or unzip it to make a completely different house?”
    Kaolin turned to me. “Tell me we’re leaving this place.”
    All I could do was stare at her. Her neck was so shiny and her collar bone was so pronounced. It was hypnotic.
    “Spec! Did you hear me!?”
    Her angry shouts melted into beautiful melodies, massaging my ears. I could see that she was angry, but that didn’t make her any less beautiful.
    Her melodies quieted and she gave me an angry stare and then, walked to the back of the class and stood by herself.
    Cotta leaned over and whispered, “I think her Aunt Flo is visiting.”
    “What’s that?” I asked.
    Cotta shrugged. “I don’t know. I hear my dad say it when my mom is annoyed with him.”
    A young man (slightly older than Cotta and myself) appeared yielding a sword. “Hello everybody. My name is Alex and today, I’ll be teaching you some basic moves with the sword. You should be getting your own within the next couple of weeks, but until then, you’ll each be practicing with the old ones.” Alex pulled a cart forward filled with several dull swords.
    “What if we brought our own?!” Bryan appeared from the back, slashing his sword back and forth. “It’s my dad’s. He killed about a thousand NaNas with it back in the Great War.”
    Alex lifted his weapon and made contact with Bryan’s sword. It leapt out of Bryan’s hands and went flying through the air, landing several yards away. “If you don’t know how to use your sword, stop pretending like you do. You’ll just end up getting hurt.”
    Bryan scampered toward his sword and then dragged it back to his spot. Alex looked out at the students. Held his sword firmly in his hands. “This is called a slice.” He tilted the sword and brought it down diagonally toward the ground. “Now I want you all to choose a buddy and you’ll take turns slicing with the sword.”
    I looked over at Cotta who looked over at me. “Who goes first?” he asked. We paused for a moment, then quickly put out our hands. I held up a 4 while he held up a 3. “I really gotta choose a different number,” he lamented.
    James walked to the head of the class and grabbed a sword from the basket. “Is it alright if we work in a group of three? Kaolin doesn’t have a partner.”
    Alex looked back at Kaolin who stood next to Bryan. “That’s fine.”
    James hurried back to the two. He handed the sword to Kaolin, then wrapped his hands around behind her and showed her how to slice.
    I held the sword firmly in my hands and sliced through the air, but all I could focus on was his arms around her.
    “That’s some good slicin,’” Cotta said while practicing my motions, holding nothing but air. “Let me try!”
    I handed him the sword and watched James smiling at Kaolin. I wondered if he thought the way I thought about her. I wondered if he felt the way I felt. I wondered if we all felt and thought the same way or if we comprehended the world differently. If we experienced the world through our five senses, it would be understandable for us to all think differently. Our bodies are all different, which means our eyes are different and our ears and everything else. So if we witness life through different means, who is to say we perceive them the same way? Does James feel the same sort of pain when Kaolin is next to me as I do when she is next to him? I only ever started feeling this way since I awoke in Newbury. Is this a normal part of growing up, or is it the city itself that has brought these feelings out of me?
    They call us savages because we were raised in a place that does not adhere to their customs, but in the hive, we did not practice inflicting pain on others. In the hive, we did not need the largest house to show we were better than everyone else. In the hive, there was no better, but in Newbury, there was which meant there needed to be a worse. For every mayor, there was a janitor… yet, we are the savages.
    After class, I took Cotta aside to gauge where his head was at. “Would you leave this place with me?”
    The question seemed to confuse him. “Why would we leave? This place is perfect. Have you tried chicken yet? It’s what all food should taste like.”
    “Cotta, I’m going to leave Newbury.”
    “Where else is there to go?”
    “The surface.”
    “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
    “I want to go to the top. I want to go beyond.”
    “But, we’ll die.”
    “Says who?”
    “Everybody.”
    “Yeah, everybody who’s never been up there. It doesn’t make it true just because others say it so. If we started our own hive and told all the kids the surface was melted and nobody could survive, they would believe that to be true.”
    “But it is true.”
    “Cotta, we only know what is true and what isn’t if we witness it for ourselves. Newbury is the same as the Hive, it’s just bigger, but it has the same walls. It has the same ceiling. Up there, there aren’t any walls. There aren’t any barriers.”
    “Are there chickens?”
    “There might be. There might be anything. That’s the beauty of it, don’t you see? We know what’s here. We know there are chickens and carrots and dirt. But up there, Cotta… up there is a mystery.”
    “What if we breach the top and we die?”
    “That’s a possibility. But I know if we stay here, we’ll die eventually. And I’ll always wonder if we had tried, if we had gone up there. I’ll never stop wondering. And that seems a lot worse than dying.”
    He stared at me for awhile, contemplating all that I said. I could see him weighing everything as methodically as he could, and then he said:
    “Okay, Spec. I’m with you. Until the end.”
* * *
    We had been training for a few weeks, and already we learned the basics of sword and knife play. We were also taught several maneuvers with our hands. The Mayor thought it was time to send out search parties along the borders to find the NaNa breach into our city. My search party happened to include Cotta and Kaolin, along with a few other students and a couple of adults more adept at self-defense (including Alex) in case we were to run into a NaNa. There were 8 of us in total.
    We started along the East Sector and wound up by the water mill. Alex studied the stream. “The current’s too strong for us to go up. Keep a lookout along the walls for any holes.”
    We walked along the border of the city for awhile when I noticed some loose dirt, pounded in to look like the dirt around. I had seen it done several times before by Cotta and myself as we filled in gaps while hiding our secret path.
    I dropped to my knees and started to dig and after a few seconds, I easily breached a tiny path. A portly man looked down at the narrow hole. “Too small for any normal-sized human to fit through.”
    “We should get back and let the mayor know,” said a girl from my class.
    Alex examined the path with his flashlight. “We can go through and find where the NaNas came from. We can locate their village. We’d be heroes.” He stared at the hole and seemed lost in thought, trying to hold back a grin. “We gotta go through.”
    “It’s too dangerous!” the girl shouted. “They could get us.”
    “They’re not gonna get us,” Alex said dismissively.
    “I’m staying,” she announced.
    “Fine. I’m going.” He looked out at the rest of us. “Come if you aren’t afraid.”
    Alex got on his hands and knees and crawled through the path, clutching his sword tightly. The rest of us followed behind, minus the portly man and girl.
    The path was crudely constructed and highly unstable. Luckily, it wasn’t that long and we soon found ourselves in a small cavern. Alex led the way, and once again, we followed behind. I saw some unusual grooves on the wall. There were four parallel indentations carved in.
    We walked for awhile until we found another crudely formed pathway. Alex didn’t even hesitate. He got down and moved ahead and we followed until we reached an even bigger cavern. Our flashlights cut through the black when we heard a sound in the distance. “Flashlights off!” Alex said in a loud whisper.
    We turned the lights off and stood in complete darkness. I felt a hand on my back. “Is that you, Spec?” Cotta whispered.
    “Yeah.” I reached forward and grabbed into the darkness for anybody else, trying to form a chain, but I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t hear anything. For all I knew, I no longer existed.
    “Okay,” Alex said softly. “Flashlights back on.”
    I turned on the light and standing inches in front of me was a large man covered in hair, teeth jagged, metal protruding from his knuckles. He made the loudest sound I had ever heard and the noise echoed through the cavern.
    Alex turned and swiped at the beast with the sword but the beast swiftly dodged the attack and knocked the weapon to the ground, metal claws gleaming.
    One of the boys in our class lunged with his sword, stabbing the beast in the arm when suddenly, a smaller beast appeared, metal daggers on his knuckles. He swiped at my classmate and connected with his throat. The boy fell to the ground, clutching his wound, trying to keep the blood from flowing out, but it was no use. He stopped struggling and laid there dead.
    I turned around and spotted several beasts circled around us, daggers in their mouths and knuckles. The largest raised his fist up high, about to strike Cotta when a shrill voice pierced the cavern.
    A girl appeared. No older than Kaolin with a prominent scar on her cheek. “We nelfurvlo alive.”
    The female NaNa walked up to Cotta and came face to face with him. She stared straight into his eyes, raised her claw and then, slowly slid the daggers down the side of his face. She smiled and simply said—
    “I’m Valasca — and you’re mine.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN
Nanash:

    The five of us were escorted through cavern after cavern by the NaNas. Cotta was taken to the front of the pack next to the girl who called herself Valasca. She kept eying him and glaring her teeth. I could tell he was frightened. His fear prompted her to move closer and glare them even more.
    Kaolin and I walked behind Cotta and behind us were Alex and Jennifer, one of the teachers at school. In the back, one of the NaNas carried our fallen classmate.
    The beasts were wearing some sort of decorative cloth around their genitals. They were painted red, either constructed that way or stained by the blood of their victims.
    Valasca grabbed Cotta’s hand and examined it. “You’re not from Newbury, are you?”
    Cotta looked back, asking me with his eyes if he should answer honestly. I gave a little nod and he replied, “No, not originally.”
    “I can tell. You’re much too beautiful to come from there. Your hands are rough and worn in. Theirs are soft and fragile. What about the others?”
    Cotta glanced back at me, but Valasca quickly stepped in between us. “Don’t lie to me.”
    He looked back at the others, unsure of how to respond, then retreated to the truth. “Kaolin and Spec and me aren’t from Newbury.”
    She ran her claw through his hair. “And what’s your name?”
    “Cotta.”
    “Caught-tuh. Say my name.”
    “Vuh-lask-uh.”
    “Good.” She glared her teeth again.
    “You speak English,” I interjected.
    She and the other NaNas laughed. “I do speak English, but this isn’t English. This is Newburyian. This is harlech you sprulch English.”
    “I don’t understand,” I said.
    She smiled. “Don’t worry. You will.”
* * *
    We walked for what felt like hours until we came across a much larger path. Valasca moved her hand to Cotta’s and interlocked their fingers. “This is Nanash.”
    Before us was a large, circular village. It was about the size of the Old Hive, but much smaller than Newbury. There were houses spread across the village comprised of dirt and clay, ovular and lying low to the ground. In the middle of the city was a small stream. We walked over a tiny path constructed above the stream and continued through the village. Lining the village walls were large, round life forms that brightly glowed green, causing a greenish hue to cascade across the village. They looked like some sort of large fungus, but I had never seen them before.
    We reached the back of the town and lined up against the wall were dozens of cages, like the pens in Newbury, except instead of chickens, people sat hopelessly inside.
    Valasca turned to the others. “Onelech those two. The othleals will be incheclicon.”
    Alex and Jennifer were pushed toward two empty cages and locked inside. Valasca turned to the three of us. “Come with me.”
    She escorted us through the town, accompanied by several male NaNas. She clenched her hands, then undid a strap around her wrist, taking off her claw. She rubbed her bruised hand and gave her claw contraptions to another NaNa who quickly walked off toward a nearby building.
    “So how long have you been with the Bungs?” We looked at each other, but none of us knew what she was talking about. “How long have you been in Newbury?”
    “About 8 months.”
    Valasca pinched Cotta’s shirt, caressed the material. “You like it there?”
    I watched Cotta as he watched Valasca’s hand rub his shirt. He seemed to be intrigued by her.
    None of my friends were speaking up, so I took the lead — “We were just passing through.”
    “And are you just passing through here?” I didn’t know how to respond, so I didn’t. “I guess we’re all just passing through until we stop moving,” she said with a smirk.
    “How do you know Newburyian?” Cotta asked, finally out of his daze.
    “A long time ago, before I existed, the Bungs invaded our village and set it ablaze. They collapsed our exit and most of our people died. My father was captured along with a couple other children. He was just a boy at the time so they thought they could ‘save’ him along with the others. They taught him their language and customs and then one day, they decided to stop their little experiment. They executed the children, but my father got away. He found the rest of our tribe at one of our outposts and taught us all what he was taught, including the language and culture. To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.”
    Valasca walked us back to another set of houses. Whenever we passed a NaNa, they looked over at her like people would look at the Mayor in Newbury. The giant beast from the cavern appeared. Valasca placed her hand on his arm. “I’m making these three provisional Nanashi. Cotta will sleep with me in my hut. Kaolin and Spec will take Melanippe’s old hut.” She turned to me. “Gunnar will show you where to go. Come with me, Cotta.”
    Cotta followed Valasca while we were escorted by Gunnar to an empty mud hut. “You shetcha herelo and grundalo by grunds.”
    Kaolin and I stared at him blankly.
    Gunnar grimaced and looked up toward the ceiling. After several seconds, he looked back down. “My Newburyian is not so good. Understand but can’t speak good.” He glared his razor sharp teeth. “This your hut. Guards watching.”
    We examined the hut. Several NaNas stood by the entrance. I looked over at Kaolin who gave me the same look she gave me on the dance floor in Newbury. I went in and she reluctantly followed.
    The hut reminded me of my cubby back in the hive. It was sparse and empty without any paintings on the walls, but who needs an image still and beautiful frozen on dirt when something more beautiful is breathing in front of you?
    “Are you alright?” I asked. I felt as if there were a thousand crags in my stomach trying to get out.
    She nodded her head.
    “I shouldn’t have let you come with us,” I said.
    She rolled her eyes, a gesture she had learned while living in Newbury. “You didn’t let me come with you. I followed you.”
    “Still. You could be back in the hive right now instead of being held here.”
    “What difference does it make where I’m being held? All I wanted was to go to a place where somebody wasn’t telling me what to do, but everywhere we’ve gone, I have to mimic. I have to do what I’m told. I want to decide what to do. I want to go somewhere where there are no walls. You know what I mean?”
    I couldn’t help but smile. “Yes.”
    “Are you okay?” she asked, concerned.
    “I don’t want to stop and settle. I want to keep moving.”
    She lay back on the ground and stared over at me. “You want to go to the surface.”
    I leaned forward and kissed her. It was automatic, as if somebody had taken control of my body and pushed me forward. It was as if Joey entered my being and forced me toward the girl.
    Our lips connected and a fire ignited inside my chest and spread to the rest of my body. A conflagration roasted my organs and boiled my blood, but I wanted the burn, I needed it. I needed my heart to be toasted and my lungs roasted. Our lips created a solar flare, wiping away any last remnant inside my mind that I could continue my journey without her. Everything I had known, all of my selfish endeavors were scorched. It was at that time that I knew wherever I went, whether the above or the deepest place on Earth, that Kaolin would be by my side. She had become my surface, and I would do anything to protect her.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
Power:

    I awoke to an empty hut. I peeked my head outside — there wasn’t a guard in sight.
    Lying beside the opening was a tiny article of clothing. I stripped out of my Newburyian clothes and put on the small cloth-like material that only covered my genitals.
    I left the hut and decided to explore Nanashi. I started at the center of the village and dipped my hands into the tiny river when I spotted a small, translucent animal floating beneath the water. I moved my hand toward the creature and it ran away through the water, effortlessly with rounded limbs that cut through the liquid.
    I stood up and looked around at the city that was less-developed than I had come accustomed to, but for a moment, I felt free, or at least as free as one could feel surrounded by dirt. There was nobody telling me to follow them, nobody telling me I barely got any crags or clay. Nobody was concerned with what I was doing, and I felt like I could breathe… really breathe.
    I continued through the village, past a variety of NaNas of all ages. I’d get a strange look every now and then, but nobody gawked at me like they did in Newbury. And that’s when I came across the cages again, and I saw the people trapped; the only person I recognized was the school teacher from our search party. I looked over at the cage Alex had been put in yesterday, but the cage was empty.
    “If we don’t eat, we die.”
    I turned and spotted Valasca standing alone, staring at the cages.
    “It’s either them or us. The mushrooms and fish alone can’t sustain the tribe. For every hunter, there’s a hunted.”
    I examined Valasca. She was smaller than me and much younger, but she spoke like the elders back at the hive. Girls her age in Newbury complained about dresses and homework, but Valasca was different.
    “Cotta looks up to you, so I figured it was worth my time getting to know you better. I want to show you a place I think you’ll like.”
    “What about Kaolin?”
    “Don’t worry. Her and Cotta are being given a tour of the city. Come…”
    I followed Valasca through the village to a small opening beneath the ground that was too small for me to fit through. “Wait here.” She quickly ran off and returned several minutes later with her claw contraptions. “You like them? They’re called ‘spikes.’” She tied them on and then punched into the dirt. The claws pierced the Earth like my ax. She pulled out some tiny, glowing fungus from her pockets and handed them to me. “Hold these for light.”
    She continued to punch and dig through the path, widening it for me as I crawled behind her until we reached a larger opening. I looked up at the ceiling of the cavern and it was riddled with glowing fungi of varying sizes.
    “In Newbury, my father was taught about the night sky and the stars that shone above. When I was born, he climbed the walls and recreated a night sky for me. Every so often, when the mushrooms die, I add some more. Cotta said you were fascinated with the surface, so I thought you’d like this.”
    I looked up at the top of the cavern, at the gleaming “mushrooms.” I looked back at the girl who was watching me, examining my every movement.
    “What happened to your father?” I asked.
    She sat on the ground and eyed the night sky. “He was the greatest warrior Nanash had ever seen. He defended us from every attack, founded this new settlement, and was loved by all. He had survived situations no other man could, and then one day, he got sick and he died. Even my father couldn’t defeat that. I’m his only child, and I’ve taken it upon myself to perpetuate his legacy.” She smiled at me, glaring the daggers in her mouth.
    “Why do you sharpen the teeth?”
    “When a child becomes a warrior, her front 12 teeth are whittled down. Do you like?” She glared her teeth again. “Can I ask you a question?”
    She seemed timid. It was the first time she had lacked any confidence in front of me.
    “Does Cotta like me?”
    “What do you mean?” I asked, caught off guard by such an intimate question.
    “Do you think he likes me? Or could like me?”
    “Cotta?”
    “Yes.”
    “I don’t know. Do you like him?”
    “Yes. A lot.”
    “But you don’t know him.”
    “What don’t I know about him?”
    “Everything.”
    “Like what?”
    “Like who he is. Where he comes from.”
    “Do you need to know those things in order to like somebody?”
    “I think so.”
    “You’ve never just felt a certain way without knowing why?”
    I thought about her question. I thought about how I felt about Kaolin when I really didn’t know much about her or who she is. I saw her grow up, but I had never started talking to her until we left the hive, and even then, our conversations were sparse. And then I thought about the surface and my desire to breach the top. How could I love a place I had never been? Did I love it, or was it just an escape from a place that was unfulfilling?
    She looked uneasy. “I’ve never wanted anybody before, but I want him. Only if he wants me too. How can I get him to like me?”
    I snapped out of my dream world and looked over at the helpless girl, desperate for an answer I didn’t have. She had as much power in Nanash as the Mayor did in Newbury, but at the moment, she was powerless. She could keep Cotta in her hut all she liked, she could force him to be hers, but she couldn’t make him feel the way about her that she felt about him. The same was true with Joey. He had kept me close and although I developed a fondness and need for him, I could never feel the way about him that he felt for me.
    And then I thought about Kaolin and wondered if she cared as much about me as I did her. Was I as helpless as Joey and Valasca? Were my dreams of her as fantastical as those of the surface?
    “I don’t know what Cotta likes in terms of girls. He’s my best friend. I know his jokes and his games. I know his smile and his laugh, but I don’t know how he feels. I don’t know how he loves. We never discussed those things, I suppose. Or maybe he doesn’t know. Maybe he does love you or can love you. Who am I to tell you otherwise? I cannot feel other peoples’ emotions. I can only feel my own.”
    “Do you believe me when I tell you how I feel about him?”
    “I have no reason to disbelieve you, and if you do feel it… if you say you feel it, then you do, don’t you? I choose to believe you.”
    “Is there anything he likes? Anything I can give him as a gift?”
    I knew exactly what she could get him, a gift he would love, but I had learned a few things while in Newbury, while living with the Mayor. Valasca had immense power within Nanash. I learned that power was the ability to get what you want, and the more power you had, the more control. I also learned that power was transferable. An individual with great power had the ability to give you what you wanted.
    “I know something you can get him, but I’ll need something in return,” I said confidently.
    Valasca smiled. She was no longer timid. She was used to these types of games, and I could tell she felt more comfortable now than she was a few minutes ago. “What would you like?”
    “A favor.”
    “A favor can be anything.”
    “I know.”
    She stood up and stretched. Interlocked her spikes and sliced them together causing tiny sparks to fly, but I wasn’t intimidated.
    “All right then. One favor. If the gift is good.”
    “I’ll need some tools to help you make your gift.”
* * *
    Valasca procured the necessary materials I needed to make Cotta his gift. She presented him the ax I had constructed and he was overjoyed.
    Valsca asked me what I wanted as my favor, but I told her I didn’t know yet. She looked at me curiously and carried on courting Cotta.
    A few days later, she asked me again what I wanted as my favor, but I still didn’t know. My hesitance to tell her what I wanted seemed to be bothersome. It angered her, but I could tell she was trying to stifle her rage. She wanted to “pay me back,” so to speak, as soon as possible, but my reluctance to tell her my favor forced her to carry a burden she was not used to shouldering. I realized then that the greatest favor I could ask of Valasca was to keep her in a perpetual state of owing me. I sensed a sort of angst whenever she was around me that wasn’t present amongst anyone else. She felt obligated, and that led her to doing more things for me on an every day basis that she would not have otherwise done.
    It was during this time that Kaolin and I really got to know each other. We didn’t have to do anything in Nanash. Cotta had grown fond of the village and was training every day so that he could be initiated into the clan while me and Kaolin were overlooked and given time to do whatever we pleased.
    We talked about the old hive, and I told her about my father and the drawings I had made. She told me about the restlessness that was her life, having to wait for a moment she had no control of before she could give birth and be useful. The more I got to know her, the more I wanted her, but I wanted to be with her outside of the village. Despite the amount of freedom we presumably had, Kaolin was not happy in Nanash. She would rather be eating chum, isolated within empty tunnels than here amongst others. She refused to absorb the NaNa customs just as she had in Newbury. I wasn’t as stubborn. There was plenty that I liked in the village, though it wasn’t perfect. I liked the openness and that I was not constantly being judged by those around me. I also liked the lack of a schedule that was ever present in the hive and Newbury. Nobody was telling me what to do or when to do it.
    But, there were some things I loathed. I did not like seeing the people caged just as I did not like seeing the chickens. I also didn’t like the feeling of not being needed. We could pretty much do as we pleased because the village did not ask anything of us. In the hive, I was responsible for supplying food and clay to the colony. They needed me. We all needed each other. In Newbury, I was being taught and schooled so that I could be useful to society. I helped Joey patrol the borders, and I helped around the house. I was important, so to speak, at least amongst a certain group of people. In Nanash, I was just taking up space.
    I took Kaolin to the cavern beneath the glowing mushrooms. We lay beside each other, fingers interlocked and stared up at the green suns. I closed my eyes and imagined the heat radiating down onto my unfettered flesh. I looked over at Kaolin who was staring at me. She placed her hand on my cheek and said:
    “I love you.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
Revival:

    Some time passed. I don’t know how much exactly, as the NaNas don’t keep track of time, but it was a substantial period. Enough to allow Cotta to develop into a decent warrior and for Kaolin and me to learn the Nanashi customs and language.
    During this time, I witnessed my best friend fall in love with Valasca while I too began having the indescribable feelings I had only ever heard my father speak of. The four of us would spend a lot of time together, roaming the city and the exterior passages for no reason other than exploration. Valasca was a hardened soldier when surrounded by her peers, but when she was with us, she became docile and Cotta began developing into the leader I had never seen.
    It was a time when all of our roles began reversing. Cotta was changing, Kaolin was changing, and so was I. We were becoming something different and therefore “better” in its own right. I began discovering Kaolin in a way I had never known and she began discovering me and in so doing, we began discovering ourselves. We had become one person. We shared our food and our stories. Our lives had merged, and I realized that we had become our own Hive. We had become our own family, and the only thing that could destroy us was some sort of collapse.
    While the four of us were exploring the tunnels, Cotta and I lingered back while Valasca and Kaolin pushed ahead.
    “I’m happy,” Cotta said. “Thank you for taking me with you.”
    All I could do was nod. Nothing else needed to be said.
    “How many people in the world do you think have truly been happy?”
    “I don’t know,” I said, “but maybe a lot. Maybe the special thing isn’t being happy but being aware of it.”
    “You know, Spec, the world’s an interesting place. There’s the hive and Newbury and Nanash and there’s me and I’m all three and there’s you and you’re something else. And Kaolin and Valasca. We’re all different, but we need to breathe and we need light and food and water.”
    It was the most insightful thing he had ever said and I wondered if Cotta always had such thoughts but kept them buried deep within his mind or if our journey had created something new within.
* * *
    Some more time passed and Valasca deemed Cotta a Nanashi warrior and his commencement was to take place later in the day. First, he was to have his front teeth shaved down, and then he would swear an oath of allegiance toward the clan. After the oath, there would be a village-wide celebration.
    Cotta had taken to the Nanashi much like he had the Newburyians. As a warrior, he would go out on patrols in search for food, bringing back any forms of sustenance he found.
    Kaolin and I accompanied Cotta as he participated in the teeth-sharpening ritual. He was held down by two NaNas, Beadurinc and Eyvindur, as one of the older female NaNas (Toril) held a couple instruments to Cotta’s mouth. One of the instruments was a blunt object, the other was rounded on one end and sharpened on the other. Toril placed the sharpened side to one of his teeth, held the blunt object a few inches above, and then slammed it down on the rounded end.
    Cotta screamed as a piece of his tooth chipped into the air and landed on his cheek. Valasca grabbed the sliver and placed it into a bowl. Toril moved the sharpened edge to the other side of the tooth. She raised the blunt object again and slammed it down. Cotta screamed and struggled to get free as the sliver of tooth flew in the air and back into his mouth. Valasca quickly reached in and grabbed the piece, placing it into the bowl beside the other.
    The process continued a few more times until Cotta’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. He was still breathing, but he had fallen asleep. Toril finished chipping away, then took the sharpened tool and shaved the sides of the teeth, making them as sharp as possible.
    It wasn’t until some time later that Cotta awoke. He slid his tongue through his new teeth, glaring them at us.
    “How do they look?” he asked.
    “Sharp.”
    “Raging!” he shouted with a big smile. “Now I just gotta practice my growl.”
    “Are you excited about the celebration?” Kaolin asked, pricking his teeth with her finger.
    “Oh, definitely. They’re sacrificing a caged-one for me so there’ll be a feast too.”
    Kaolin and I left Cotta with Valasca while we got ready for the night’s festivities. We were given a pair of ceremonial clothes, but they were nowhere as ornate or elegant as those in Newbury. I looked over at Kaolin after she had dressed for the occasion and she was as beautiful as she had been the night of the ball. It didn’t matter if several people worked for hours to make her hair shine or if she just patted it down, she was beautiful, simply beautiful.
    “When do you wanna do it?” she asked, glimmering beauty.
    “Afterward. For Cotta.”
    “Are you sure you wanna do this?”
    I thought about her question instead of mindlessly responding like so many others. She and I had decided awhile back that we were leaving Nanash. I went back and forth in my mind whether to tell Cotta or not, whether to bring him along. He had been the happiest I had seen him lately, and although I might’ve convinced him to leave, he would only be doing so for me and wind up less satisfied than had he stayed. How quickly things change in life. One day I’m preparing a journey with Cotta, trying to abandon Kaolin, and now here I was, absconding with her while leaving my closest friend behind.
    It was the end of the day and the entire village united at the Zone (the open area near the center of the village). Cotta stood on a tiny platform made of bone and flesh and recited the Nanashi oath of allegiance. When he finished, he raised both arms to the ceiling and roared, glaring his newly sharpened teeth. The crowd erupted in a celebratory chant that shook the walls, forcing loose grains of dirt to crumble from the ceiling down to the ground.
    Cotta came down from the platform and greeted a slew of NaNas by placing his hands on their shoulders and tilting his head. He spotted us and gave Kaolin and I a Nanashi greeting. Valasca appeared and kissed him for several seconds.
    “You were great.” Valasca turned to the crowd and made a high pitch noise.
    Several Nanashi appeared, wielding a variety of instruments concocted from the unused parts of their conquered remains.
    One of the large warriors slammed a stick down on a rounded bowl, flesh pulled tightly around the top. A thump emanated from the instrument. He slammed the stick down again and there was another thump. And another. And another.
    The beating echoed through the village and vibrated my bones, a crushing rhythm tingled down my spine. The other instruments joined in, and a music unlike I had ever heard blasted deep within me.
    “Let’s dance!” Valasca screamed to Cotta.
    He smiled and put his hands out. She stared at him, confused.
    “No, I said dance!” She pulled him into the Zone and joined the rest of the NaNas as they “danced” in a way that would cause an uproar in Newbury. They were jumping up and down, shaking their bodies and grinding on another as if a crag had crawled into their ears and they were desperately trying to get it out.
    The music and emotions were overwhelming. Kaolin and I joined in and for a moment, we forget about our ambition. We forgot about tomorrow and just saw each other. I felt her warmth and we basked in our love.
    I turned and saw that the others had stripped naked, relinquishing their garbs and celebrating without restraint. By the edge of the Zone, a NaNa pinned another against a hut, kissing the back of her neck, grasping his arms around and thrusting behind. In the middle of the dance floor, a few NaNas had taken to the ground, groping each other and thrusting. Cotta and Valsca had joined in the celebrating as well and the majority of dancers quickly moved from their feet to the ground.
    The music continued to reverberate throughout the village, mixing with the moans and roars. Kaolin and I embraced like we had in the body of water so long ago. We were surrounded by dozens of others but it felt like we were all alone, floating amidst the stars. The world went dizzy and I felt her heart beat into mine, I felt my blood circulate with hers, our flesh melting into one.
    I looked over to the edge of the Zone and could see the caged-ones locked away, watching us all celebrate. Jennifer was curled up, tears smattered across her face. I wanted to free her. I wanted to free all of them, but where would they go? Would they just find another cage to get locked in? If I unlocked their restraints, would I be put in their stead?
    The music got louder and the space got hotter. Sweat dribbled down my forehead and our bodies dampened. We breathed in the heat and exhaled fire; our beings became enflamed, engulfed in the everything around us, the all that forever resided within.
    And as my body tingled, I noticed a red trail by the nearby huts. A puddle of blood that had not been there moments before. Valasca stood before her village, Cotta beside her. She chanted and raised Cottas arm in the air.
    I saw it before I heard it. It was an object spiraling nearby. I had only ever seen it as it traveled away, never beside. As it passed, I could hear the air around me get sucked and warped toward the object’s trajectory.
    The knife sped past the NaNas, toward Cotta and Valasca and then struck. I looked back and saw Bryan with his arm outstretched, eyes wide open, behind him, several Newburyians holding their swords up high.
    I turned back to Valasca; her hands were painted red with blood, terror in her eyes. Cotta fell to his knees, knife plunged deep in his stomach. His eyes closed, and he fell asleep.
    Valasca screamed at the top of her lungs, clutching Cotta in her arms as dozens of Newburyians rushed toward the Nanashi, striking with their swords. The dance floor turned a dark red, as the Nanashi leapt to their feet and struggled disarming the attacking Newburyians.
    Bodies fell to the ground, forming large puddles as the blood from both Nanashi and Newburyians joined as one, unified beneath the battling soldiers.
    I hurried to my fallen friend who was sleeping in Valasca’s arms. She screamed over and over. Gunnar appeared, claws attached to his fists. He handed Valasca her pair. She took one last look at Cotta before strapping them on. She turned and spotted a young Newburian slicing with his sword. Valasca dug her claws into the ground and took off running toward the boy. She jumped into the air and lunged the metal deep within his chest, punching him over and over until he disappeared beneath the puddle.
    I looked over at Cotta. I pressed my hand against his chest, but his heart was no longer beating. I looked all around, at the chaos that surrounded me, at the anger that had always existed but only now had been unleashed.
    “Spec!”
    I looked through the madness and spotted Kaolin, James’ arm around her as he swiped at a Nananshi. He dragged her through the crowd, away from the madness. I leapt to my feet and hurried toward her, cutting through the screams and slicing through death.
    “Spec!”
    I needed to get to her. That’s all that mattered. I needed to reach her before she was taken and lost forever.
    I weaved past the clashing of sword and spike, moments away from reaching her when the butt of a sword struck my head.
    I stumbled to the ground and gasped for breath. I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. All I could do was lay there as her screams for me got more and more faint. Above me, sparks leapt from swords as they connected with claws. They twinkled and disappeared.
    Another spark. Another twinkle. And then, I could no longer hear her voice.

SECTION FOUR
Ablaze:

    “I sat in the dark and thought: There’s no big apocalypse. Just an endless procession of little ones.”
— Neil Gaiman, Signal to Noise

CHAPTER NINETEEN
Valasca:

    The Earth shattered and I stood unscathed amidst its ruins.
    I overlooked bodies without breath, one of which was my only. Cotta was the first to die in the bloody battle, but he wasn’t the last.
    My people lay scattered. Those who had vanquished were gone while those who survived were incensed, entrenched deep within their anger.
    Life happens. Then it ends. There’s beauty in its brevity. But we yearn for longevity. We yearn for the forever which we are inevitably denied. It is a natural part of being, for there could be no life without death. Every beginning needs an ending — there would be no start were there no finish. The middle is the buffer. She separates the two, for if they touched, they would be one, and if they were one, they would be none.
    I scanned the Zone and took in the destruction. Gunnar had already begun lifting the bodies and moving them toward the cages, several at a time. I counted 34 dead, 22 of them ours and 12 theirs. The numbers would not be so skewed had we been aware of the attack. The Newburyian cowards could only defeat us when we were defenseless.
    Gunnar picked up a body. “This one’s still alive.”I looked over and spotted Spec lying in his arms, unconscious with a gash on his forehead and breathing slowly, but breathing nonetheless.
    “Put him down and finish collecting the others. We need to cook them before they spoil.”
    Gunnar put Spec back on the ground. “What about Cotta?”
    “Put him in my hut.”
    It didn’t take long for the bodies to be cleared away. Beadurinc created a large pit which we filled with hot coals, slowly roasting the fallen soldiers. There’s no way we could eat it all, but we would eat as much as we could for as long as we could.
    Cotta was different. I took him to the edge of the village and siphoned out all of his blood. He had already lost a lot on the battlefield, but I took what was left and drank it. I tried to keep it down, but the sheer volume of blood left me vomiting. Still, I drank every last drop.
    Next, I sliced open his stomach and pulled out his organs and carefully placed them on hot coals. I inserted a sturdy metal rod up his nose until I cracked through to his brain. I churned the rod, draining the organ through his nostrils. I placed a large bowl beneath the nose, collecting every last remnant, then put it atop the hot coals.
    I sat beside my hallowed Cotta, empty but free and soon to be a part of me. I drank the brain and started on the innards. It was more than any person could consume in one sitting, but I ate it all. Until I couldn’t move, like Cotta.
    I lay beside his pale body, immobilized by his presence, consumed by his spirit. My stomach ached as did my heart. I placed my hand atop his lifeless fingers and imagined a world where we had lived until wrinkles plastered our skin, a time when most of our memories had faded and all we could rely on was each other. I could see it as clearly as I could feel his cold fingers.
    But that future was gone. That possibility was slaughtered along with Cotta and now, all I had was my hatred. All I had was my anger. All I had was my vengeance.
    We gathered everyone to the Zone where Toril led the village in a memorial service. I waited for my time to speak. I waited for my time…
    I stood before my people. They felt what I felt. We were one and as one, we would conquer.
    “The Bungs have attacked us for the last time! They come into our village and take the lives of our people. They are destroyers, merciless and unyielding. They kill for pleasure and suffocate the dead beneath the ground, torturing them for all eternity. They take refuge behind their technology, behind the hard labor of those from the past. They are a plague in this world, an unruly, unsatiated beast. They’ve tried to decimate our tribe twice and both times they have failed.”
    I held a piece of Cottas rib I had sawed off. Squeezed it tightly.
    “We will no longer wait. We will no longer remain stagnant as they flood our caverns and wash away everything we hold dear. We will no longer allow them to force their will. They will no longer take our lives. They will no longer instill fear in our people. They will no longer thrive!”
    I looked down at the piece of bone and remembered what I had lost.
    “We are going to kill them all. Every last one of them! We are going to tear down their buildings and demolish their futures. We are going to take everything from them! Everything! And with them, we will extinguish our fear. In one swift move, we will wipe out the Newburyian threat and mollify our wounds.”
    I looked out at the enthusiastic crowd and then noticed the only person not riled up. Spec stood at the edge, watching me with solemn eyes. I turned back to my people and raised my spikes to the sky.
    “We will burn their city to the ground!”

CHAPTER TWENTY
War:

    I see the world through stained-glass eyes, a hollow projection of the person I am, of the woman I could be. I see the pain and the suffering and the torment of all, the average the big and the small. I feel the breaths of those left still and dry, their whispers that trickle and tickle inside, they mute in the darkness, lying quietly as they wait to resurface and take their vengeance. And I am their leader.
    They would all die. That is the only possible outcome. That is the only truth and the only reality. I knew their city would burn and therefore it was truth. As long as I imagined it, as long as I knew it, it would happen… it already happened.
    They would suffer when they died because they would lay witness not just to their end, but to their future’s end, their past’s elimination. I would command that nobody speak the name Newbury, that nobody would mention their existence. And in time, they will have disappeared from this planet, from all existence. Not only would they die, they would cease to ever have been born. And I would be the one to undo them. I would be the one to scour their village and lay waste to that which should never have been.
    After the blood melted beneath the ground, we made the Zone a map for the final battle. We created an outline of Newbury based on what my father had told us years ago. We constructed dirt buildings based on his notes, but our dimensions were not as accurate as we needed. There was only one person who could help us…
    I found Spec staring up at the glowing mushrooms, alone in the cavern I had spent many cherished moments with my father.
    “We need your help,” I said. “We’re going to war.”
    He didn’t look over at me. Continued to gaze at the simulated stars until he finally spoke.
    “What is war?”
    “The solution,” I responded.
    “To what problem?”
    “Newbury.”
    “Are there any other answers?”
    “No. There is only war.”
    He finally glanced over at me and we felt each other’s pain. “I don’t want anybody else to die. Nobody should be ended by another’s hands.”
    “They attacked us. We’re just retaliating.”
    “And they were just retaliating from your attack on them. Who was the first to attack? Does it even matter?”
    “All that matters is the last.”
    “I have a favor you owe me—”
    “No, you cannot ask that. We are doing this, with or without you.”
    He stood up and looked down on me, but I wasn’t intimidated by his size. I could take him to the ground if I chose. I could end him if I decided. All he could do was convince me otherwise. I was the one with the power.
    “For my favor… I want you to promise you won’t harm Kaolin. She’s been taken and had nothing to do with any of this. I want to free her.”
    “Fine. But you need to tell us everything you know about the city. You will help us construct a model of their village, and then you will bear witness to its destruction.”
    He didn’t seem pleased by my words, but there was very little he could do. “Okay,” he said quietly, as if the volume of his response would make him less complicit in Newbury’s demise.
* * *
    With Spec’s help, we were able to create a model of the city. It was much larger than we had all thought, and there were a few buildings my father either had not mentioned or had been built recently.
    I stood amongst the Council of Warriors as we gazed upon the city. My father’s name had given me a great deal of respect, but I had also earned much on my own as one of the best scavengers in the tribe. Still, I was not the strongest or fiercest warrior. People listened when I spoke, but my words were not necessarily the wisest. The city was led by the Council which I was a part of. There were 15 of us, with each member being chosen by the others. But, with two dying in the Bung attack, we were now down to 13.
    Ludvik was the only warrior larger and fiercer than Gunnar. Ten enemies were not enough to take him down. Harva was the wisest and greatest tactician in the Council. She studied the model and spoke softly, as she always did, as she only could:
    “They’ll be securing their borders, waiting for an attack. If one of us is spotted, all of us are spotted. They will expect us to come from the East which means they will be expecting us to come from the West. There’s no way to breach from the North which only leaves the South. That is where the fewest safeguards will be and where we will infiltrate the city.”
    She moved her foot over to the East side of the city where the water device was located.
    “This contraption gives the city light. The water flows through, spinning the object, allowing their city to live. Deactivate the device and you deactivate their city.”
    Gunnar circled the structure with his spike. “So we destroy the structure and breach from the South.”
    Ludvik stepped forward. “We go in from the East. It doesn’t matter if they know we’re coming. They can do nothing.”
    “We’re stronger, but there are too many of them,” warned Harva. “Even with the power disrupted, a trap would end us. We need to wound them before we attack. We need to take a substantial amount of them out before we set foot in their city.”
    Harva circled the body of water that led toward the “water mill.” It was the body of water Cotta told me he had swum in some time ago, the same body of water that led them to Newbury.
    “We attack this first. We attack their sustenance. Poison their drinking water. It will kill many of them, debilitate several others.”
    Spec looked uneasy, but there was nothing he could do. I told him I would leave Kaolin unharmed, and I would in the battle… if she survived until then.
    “We’ll take the uneaten bodies. Secure them in the water. The blood of our fallen will spoil their living. We’ll wait a few days and then disrupt the contraption and attack from the South.”
    Ludvik seemed irritated by the strategy. He didn’t like the idea of sneaking up or planning. He wanted to smash ahead and destroy anything in his path. He was an unstoppable force and unstoppable forces don’t ever worry about barriers because barriers did not exist. He got what he wanted because nobody could stop him. You could disagree, you could explain why he was wrong and that he was wrong, but it did not matter. He would not listen because he did not have to. He would ignore your words and live in his ignorance. He would believe he was right and shut out those who disagreed, and thus he was right. As long as he focused on his own thoughts and purged all others, those were the only thoughts. In his world, whatever he believed was truth and since he was so strong, nobody could penetrate. He could take you down before you could make him believe he was wrong. Before you could shatter his world, he would shatter you.
    “I’ll plant the bodies,” Gunnar declared.
    I scanned the Council, trying to decipher their thoughts. Gunnar was a great warrior, but he could not be trusted alone with something so important. Harva could volunteer to go with him, but she was too important a strategist were something to happen.
    “I’ll go with him.” The Council looked my way, considering if it was such a smart idea to send the tribe’s symbolic leader on a potentially dangerous journey. They could send several warriors with us, but the more people traversing stealthily through the tunnels, the more chatter and the more chance of getting caught, especially while dragging bodies.
    Harva nodded. “Valasca will go with Gunnar along with Beadurinc and Eyvindur. Take a body each. We’ll wait until they have properly rotted and then you shall go on your journey.”
    The Council ended and I was left alone in my hut with only my thoughts and memories of a time when I wasn’t alone. I looked over at the empty shell of my Cotta, lying next to me, hollowed. Even though he rested beside and inside of me, I knew he was gone. I knew I was truly alone.
    As every day passed and more memories were formed in my mind, those of my Cotta were regrettably purged. I would soon forget his touch and his breath. I would soon forget his spirit and his laugh. And as more time passed, my wounds would slowly heal, not because I would miss him any less, but because I would forget how he was, how we were. Time does not remove the scars, it merely plasters new skin above the lesion. The wounds became less visible, but you know they’re there. They were always there. Lingering and festering until one’s own breath ceased, until one’s own world ended. And someday, my world would end. Some day, Harva and Gunnar and even Ludvik’s world would end.
    That’s the thing about unstoppable forces. They keep moving and destroying until at some point, there’s nothing left to conquer. And when there’s nothing left to bombard, there’s no such thing as an unstoppable force. Because, if there are no objects to attempt to block the force, it can no longer be deemed unstoppable.
    And then, all you’re left with is nothing.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
Sabotage:

    Sabotage was the smart choice. The Bungs had always underestimated us. They viewed us as brutes and brutes did not use their brains. They were Ludviks, smashing forward and plundering ahead. Newbury would never expect sabotage because they did not believe we were capable of it.
    You should never underestimate your foe. Doing so says less about them and more about you. It speaks volumes about ones own prejudices.
    Beadurinc, Eyvindur, Gunnar and I collected four uneaten bodies. We plucked the hair from their head and formed twine, tying their bodies together, and latching them to Gunnar’s waist and he would drag them through the tunnels.
    Eyvindur took the lead since he was the greatest tunneler of the group. I was behind, followed by Gunnar and then Beadurinc, bringing up the rear and helping push the bodies. The corpses’ loose flesh would often snag against the rocks, leaving a residual trail of their entrails, a stain which he would quickly smother with dirt to prevent anyone from tracking us.
    We methodically moved through the Earth, creating our own path. Eyvindur punched through rock and dirt, puncturing its skeleton and entering its soul and we happily followed.
    There wasn’t much talking on our journey. Gunnar had been my father’s apprentice a long time ago and took it upon himself to look after me. We had never made an emotional connection, even though we had spent more time with each other than any other person. He watched over me as a silent guardian. I had always suspected he loved me more than he loved my father, but who could know for sure with a silent statue.
    For all I knew, Eyvindur was a mute. In all the time I knew him, he had never spoken. During Council meetings, he would vote with his hand and facial expressions, but he never uttered any words. He had been alive during the first Bung raid so many years ago when my father was taken. He was just a boy when he witnessed our village get decimated. He survived, but maybe he lost his voice alongside the village. Maybe all of his words were burned with the fire and buried next to his loved ones.
    Beadurinc was strong and young, only a few years older than I. He kept his hair long and tied behind. When he traversed through tunnels, he would wrap the hair around his neck. I always considered the hair problematic in battle, but thus far, he has survived. I once approached him about the subject, but he refused to cut it off, despite my asking. Since then, we seldom spoke. So on this journey, I was with a distant guardian, a mute, and a boy filled with resentment.
    Eyvindur stopped his digging and looked back at Gunnar. I glanced at my guardian, wondering what Eyvindur was saying with his eyes.
    “Whereto now?” Gunnar asked me in his stead.
    “To the left. Over there. It won’t be much further until we breach through to the water. Do you need a break?”
    “No,” he said with his eyes.
    And so, Eyvindur began digging again and we followed behind. I imagined Cotta traversing the land with us. He would have enjoyed himself thoroughly. I wonder sometimes how somebody I knew so briefly had such a profound effect on me. But then, I think about my father and realize the two people I cared for most in my life were in it so shortly.
    We breached through and the cool breeze whipped across our faces. Heading through undocumented territory was always dangerous since some places had less air to breathe. You had to fight through the dizziness and breach through to a new area filled with nourishment before your vision left you completely.
    We laid out some of the mushrooms in front of us and the body of water glowed green. I turned to Gunnar, who was noticeably sweating from dragging the bodies. “Over there looks like a good place to tie them up.”
    Eyvindur and Beadurinc helped Gunnar lift the corpses to the spot. I looked out across the vast body of water and imagined Cotta moving within. Dunking his head. Enjoying the newness. That’s what I liked most about him. He appreciated everything when with me. He enjoyed the smells and the tastes and the sights. Everything was fresh and his spirit revitalized me. He taught me how to breathe again without my ever knowing I had been consistently gasping for breath.
    The others found a firm place to tie the bodies but my mind was elsewhere. I was floating in the water next to Cotta and imagining another time and another place and another reality. And in those moments while I pictured myself next to him, there was no other reality. I imagined it and it was no longer a fantasy, it was truth.
    I lay on my stomach and ran my fingers through the water, watching the ripples pulsate from my fingers and spread outward until dying back into the bottomless, watery pit. I tried to make the trickles bigger and see how far I could make them travel. The bigger the trickle, the longer the indentation in the liquid.
    I made a big splash and followed the mark until it bounced off the wall and hit another ripple. I watched curiously for a moment, wondering where the other ripple had come from. Had a previous splash of mine lingered out of sight? Had the force of my hand created a ripple I had not noticed until it smashed back into the one I had been watching? Was I watching the wrong ripple?
    I jumped to my feet and heaved a mushroom as far as I could, across the water towards the other side and that’s when I saw their small army. There were a couple dozen Bungs moving across the other ledge, weapons in hand.
    I quickly screeched our call to arms signal. Eyvindur, Beadurinc and Gunnar dropped the bodies and looked across the water as several flying objects hurled their way. Gunnar stepped in front and swiped the projectiles away with his spikes.
    I leapt into the water toward the army, plunging beneath and cut my way through below. The water was disrupted as a foreign body crashed into the liquid beside me, blood obscuring my vision.
    I slashed passed him through muffled screams, dodging falling bodies and navigating around seeping blood. I pushed through the water, stabbing ahead and slicing water behind, propelling myself forward like I had practiced in our Central Stream throughout my childhood.
    I arose to thickened air filled with heavy screams. A woman held a man in her arms, four slices across his chest. She cried for help, pleading with an invisible force either incapable or unwilling to acquiesce. The light was scattered and most of the yells emanated from the darkness between blocks of green haze and shattering white rays.
    I jumped onto land and was immediately hit by the white beams. I sliced down, cutting the mechanism in half and falling into darkness. I connected with flesh until screams turned to echoes. I heaved myself across the ground to a man holding his sword up high.
    I jumped onto the wall and dug my spikes into the dirt and sped horizontally, away from his cumbersome swipe. I launched myself from the wall and sliced his throat, quickly moving to my next target. I obliterated all who appeared before me, swiping and screeching, ripping apart when a screeching came from across the cavern.
    I turned and spotted Gunnar as he lifted a boy and heaved him against the rocks, shattering the spine, and bringing an avalanche of dirt down into the water. On the ground beside him, I saw Beadurinc smiling with vacant eyes, blood smattered across his lifeless face. I hurried over and looked down at the boy as he looked past me, his long flowing hair dampened with either his or another’s innards. I picked up the head and closed his eyes.
    Gunnar hurried over to me. “We’ve gotta go—”
    “No!” I screamed, standing my ground. “We take them all out!”
    “It’s only us. Eyvindur’s gone too. We need to retreat.”
    I ignored him and growled, ready to take on all of Newbury by myself. Gunnar hurried over and grabbed me, picking me up with one arm and retreating back into the tunnels. I screamed and swiped at the air. Beadurinc’s head fell from my hand. I grabbed at it, catching him by his long hair. His head dangled back and forth as Gunnar tore through our path, swiping above to collapse the tunnels behind us.
    My guardian carried me the entire way, my body limp and drained. When we reached Nanash, I was finally released. I fell to my knees and screamed at the top of my lungs. Everybody hurried out of their huts as I held Beadurinc’s head up high.
    Harva appeared, startled by the scene before her. “What happened?”
    “It was a trap,” I uttered. “They knew we would come. They were waiting for us.” I turned to the Council. “No more waiting. Strike them down now.”
    She helped me to my feet, and I looked out at my village. “Where’s Spec?” I asked, noticing his eyes were missing from the crowd.
    Harva looked at me, confusion across her face.
    “He’s gone,” she said, as if the information should have been known to me long ago. “He said he was going to help you navigate to the water.”
    I fell back to my knees as the betrayal swept across my bones. I could see his face before me. I could sense his being in striking distance.
    I felt my spikes penetrating his flesh and his life escaping his body. I could feel his end.
    And all I could do, was smile.

SECTION FIVE
New Endings:

    “Did you eat something that didn’t agree with you?” asked Bernard. The Savage nodded.
    “I ate civilization. It poisoned me.”
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
Old Beginnings:

    I couldn’t let them hurt her. That was reason enough for me. That was all I needed to leave Nanash and return to Newbury, spoiling their attack and saving Kaolin.
    I burst through the Earth like a spiraling ball of fire, immune to dirt and gravity and right and wrong and the planet and all that was within. I pushed through melted tunnels, corroded and divided.
    I had taken a pair of unwatched spikes because I needed, because I wanted. I cut through terrain, heading toward my world, toward the all that mattered, toward my other, toward my heart. I could feel it thumping and beating and pulsating and screaming my name, urging me to move quicker than I had ever before. I needed to move quicker than ever before. I needed to get back before the water was tainted and my future was tarnished.
    I clobbered through the ground, furious and unforgiving, uprooting innocuous specs of dirt that smacked me in the face and clung to my tiny hairs, unwilling to fall back to the ground where they may lay dormant for all eternity. And then, I punched through, and I could breathe again.
* * *
    I found the Mayor and told him the Nanashi plan of infecting the drinking water. He immediately sent a couple dozen guards to squash the attack while he sent the other soldiers to protect the border, in case of a subsequent breach.
    I was held in chains for several hours until their attack was confirmed. The Mayor and Riley watched me from a distance, discussing matters I could not hear until they finally approached.
    Riley sat in a chair across from mine, except he had the ability to walk away if he chose.
    “Jennifer said you were inducted into the NaNa tribe. And during the raid, James saw you dancing freely amongst the savages.”
    The Mayor took a seat beside Riley. “Now, we understand Kaolin was brainwashed by the NaNas. We’re just trying to figure out if you were as well.”
    He leaned forward and spoke softly, but that didn’t take away any power from his words. If anything, it made his speech more potent.
    “See, I can rationalize that to the people. You two are victims. Captured and transformed. Weak wills, you see? Tinier brains.” He gave Riley a look, prompting his Chief Advisor to leave the room.
    “I like you, Spec. I do. And you just saved a lot of peoples’ lives. A lot of good peoples’ lives. Maybe my own. Maybe you saved our city. Maybe our entire race. Did you know that? Did you know you were doing that when you came back? Did you understand the consequences of your actions?”
    I watched him closely as he watched me even closer. It had only been recently that I was forced to understand what people were saying when they were saying something else. He wanted a hero, not for my benefit but for his. I was the closest thing he had to a son. If I were to have betrayed the city, how would that look on him? But if I had purposely saved Newbury, I would be a hero and so would he.
    In Newbury, it mattered what other people thought. It’s a strange concept; each of their well-being depended on the group’s consensus. The Mayor was mayor because people chose him to be. In the Hive, people did their jobs and that was that. It didn’t matter if you kept to yourself or didn’t. Being liked was a personal decision, not mandatory. In the hive, we worked for each other and survived off the other. We only lived if each person put in the effort. In Newbury, survival depended on one’s ability to be liked. The Mayor was supreme in Newbury but in the hive, his words would be meaningless.
    “Is that what you meant to do, Spec? You came back to save our city. You’re a hero then…”
    I was not good with words. It was inconsequential for me growing up, but here, I was at a disadvantage. I wonder though, if I was born Newburyian, would I be a master of words like the Mayor? Would I think the hive was a strange and backwards place? Would I think a person like my father was immoral or bad for the person he was, for the things he did? Would I think he just didn’t know better like the Mayor did I? If I were born in Newbury or Nanash, would Spec even exist? Or would I just be a duplicate of those I have met on my journey thus far? A leader? A warrior?
    And after some time without a response, keeping the Mayor in suspense, something he was not used to, I replied: “Yes. I came back to save Newbury.”
    The Mayor was pleased. Never had a man been so happy to hear a lie.
    “Good,” he said as he unshackled me. “Let’s go celebrate.”
* * *
    The city came out to praise Spec, the Hero of Newbury. The music played, soft and pleasant and the dancers moved in a square, soft and pleasant. And that’s when I saw Kaolin standing with James. She was watching me from across the dance floor. Hundreds of people stood in our way of reconnecting but I had overcome sturdier barriers.
    “Oh my God, Spec! You infiltrated the NaNas, that’s so amazing!” a boy shouted as I walked across the dance floor.
    “Is it true they bathe in human blood!?” a girl squealed.
    “I heard they can bite through bone. Did you ever see that!?”
    I pushed past adoring faces and spotted Bryan standing in the middle of his own crowd, showing off his knife throwing technique.
    “The key is pinching the tip and the quick release. That’s how I took down all those beasts and that traitor, Cotta.”
    I stopped for a moment and stared at the boy. I watched him regale others of how he took down the evil Cotta, how he helped invade the NaNa village and rescue the good while purging the bad.
    Death wasn’t a foreign concept. In the hive, a lot of people died before their bodies could mature. I was able to witness the beginning and end to many lives. I was no stranger to the concept of finality. I had seen siblings die the moment they entered this world, born without life. I had left my father behind and by leaving, he had died. If there was one thing I knew, it was death. But never had it caused me the pain that it had with the passing of Cotta. Never had I been so angry. Never had I felt an injustice, but how could I? Growing up, there was no such thing as justice. There was no concept of fair. Things happened and that was that. The world wasn’t cruel, it just was. But now, I realized, people were cruel. They added misfortune to the world that could not exist without their existence. But they also brought goodness as well. They were the ones who filled the empty with right and wrong.
    And as I watched Bryan gleefully laugh about ending my friend’s world, I felt a deep sense of contempt, or at least that’s what the emotion felt like as described by Joey. How do I explain a feeling I had never known? How can I tell another the pain I’m feeling and know they understand? Just as when we stare at a color. Do we both see the same colors, or do we just have the same words for an experience we assume we are sharing? Different eyes, different world.
    But there Bryan was, being lauded by others for doing a cruel act. Why was it cruel? Because I deemed it to be. It was cruel and that’s what I believed and so it was true. To those cheering him, they believed his actions to be just. They believed him to be a savior. How can one act be both right and wrong?
    I thought about the world that once was. Was it just one big Newbury? One Nanash? One Hive? Was it an amalgamation of all three? I dream of going above, but I do not wish to go back to what once was. I do not wish to see the cruelty that existed before my time. Bryan shakes another’s hand and I wonder, did the Sun congratulate itself when it scorched the surface and every lingering civilization?
    There was a time when people had greater weapons than swords and spikes, but what’s the point of such ways to kill people when you have no need to kill? Would Newburyians have swords if Nanash did not exist? If Kaolin and I made a new Hive, would we build our own swords?
    I continued to push through the crowd and my thoughts when I finally reached Kaolin and James. She embraced me and squeezed tightly as James watched with a deep resentment in his eyes.
    “The big hero,” he said indifferently as his eyes spoke differently.
    “No. You’re the hero,” I replied. “You saved Kaolin from the massacre.”
    “That’s right. I would’ve rescued you too, but you looked a lot like a NaNa.”
    “Well, looks can be deceiving. Or so I’m told.”
    “Yes, they can be.” He smiled and patted me on the back. “Let’s celebrate!”
    He took me by the hand, firm and powerful and pulled me over to a lady who stood before a variety of alcoholic beverages.
    “What can I get you?”
    “A bottle of wine!”
    The two of them shared a laugh and we all began drinking… from a glass of course. From the bottle would be uncivilized.
    Everything became hazy as the world became blurry. James became funnier and the music became better.
    I grasped Kaolin and kissed her. I didn’t care that James was watching or all of Newbury. I was impervious to their thoughts.
    She laid her head against mine. “We need to leave,” she said. “I don’t want this. I don’t want any of this. I don’t want the eyes on me, I don’t want the chains around my throat.”
    “What do you want?” I asked, ready to give her anything.
    “Unfiltered air. Unfiltered ideas. I want to leave.”
    I nodded. “I’ll take you wherever you want. Whether the surface or the center of the Earth. As long as you’re beside me.”
    “I want the surface. Tomorrow. Before they figure a way to separate us again.”
    I smiled. “Done.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
I am Spec:

    How many times had my thoughts been sparked in another’s mind before I ever considered them? How many conversations had been spoken and uttered above the ground years before they were extinguished, resurfaced beneath the surface within me? Is there such a truth as new or fresh or novel in a world with incalculable moments with innumerable members with brains and voices of their own? Have my yearnings been yearned by many before? Will my desires be desired by my descendents deep in the future?
    I am Spec. There will never be another me. There will be similar iterations, but there will not and cannot be another Spec. There is only one Kaolin and only one Valasca. The one Cotta died with Cotta…
    But was there truly only one Cotta? Was he only one? Was he a singular voice and presence? I remember the young Cotta, before he ever chipped into the dirt with his ax. I remember the Cotta, covered in filth, tunneling through to the Old Hive. I remember the Cotta dripping with water, cleansed of the soil and past. The Cotta entranced by Newbury and the one reborn in Nanash. He was a copy of himself, skewed and changed by the world. He moved like the river that almost brought my death.
    I am Spec. Tomorrow I will be as well, but tomorrow I will be different. Yesterday I was different, but I was Spec. Before I left the hive, I was a Spec who dreamt of the surface and nothing else. And now, I dream of Kaolin. I am different, and just like the river, I slowly alter the world around me. If it weren’t for me, Cotta would be alive. Would Joey be alive? Would Newbury be alive? How can I, nothing more than a grain of dirt have such an impact on a world made of infinite grains?
    It was night and I was back in the Mayor’s house, in Joey’s unaltered room, sleeping in the bed beside a memory that would not vanish. Kaolin was back in her home, being repressed and suppressed, but it would be for the last time. I thought about destiny, a concept introduced to me on my journey, the idea that events which have happened could only happen. That there is one future and it has already been decided. The idea that Cotta and Joey needed to die because they were to die. Destiny was an invisible man writing my story, and I could do nothing but observe it. All of my thoughts were his thoughts and I was forced to live them. He introduced the solar flare to our planet and forced me out of the hive and willed the knife into Cotta. He controlled the all that was. But I refused to believe it. I refused to believe any of it, even if it was his will making me refuse. I believed I had control over my own choices and decided my own fate. And since I believed it, it was fact.
    I arose from the bed and sunk downstairs where the Mayor sat again, like he had so many times before. He picked at the tip of an ancient knife, once used in a battle on the surface long ago. He held it firmly in his hand as my shadow cast across him.
    “The Hero of Newbury!”
    I watched him from afar. I didn’t say a word because I did not know what to say. I had no words to say.
    “Take a seat.”
    I stood for a moment, watching him glare into my eyes. He pointed at me with the knife and repeated, “Take a seat.”
    So I sat, across from the man with the weapon.
    “You know what my father said to me the day that he died? Of course you don’t, how could you? Let me rephrase that. Would you like to hear what my father told me?”
    He picked at his nails with the tip of the knife, scratching the underbelly, freeing his fingers from grime.
    “Yes.”
    “He said to me, in his raspy voice, because he was manly, you see. And manly men have raspy voices. I couldn’t look up to the man if he squeaked like a mouse. You don’t know what a mouse is, do you? You don’t know a lot of things. My father would love you — you embody everything he told me the morning he died. He said, ‘Son,’ in that raspy voice of his, remember? ‘Son, live every day as if it were your first.’ Not last, not like that saying you hear everybody say. No, he said ‘Son, live every day as if it were your first.’ I always wondered, ‘how do I do that?’ But then, how could I live every day as if it were my last? How do I know what my last day would be like? If it were like my father’s, I would be living every day immobile in bed, sick and beleaguered. But now, I’m supposed to live it as if it were my first. See the world with eyes wide open, full of hope and mystery. But how does one infuse mystery in a story read time and time again?”
    He moved the edge of the knife from beneath the nails to his tip, shaving small slivers off as he spoke.
    “How do I see anew that with which has already been seen? But you do. You do, Spec. Because you’re a child. You were born alone and only grew when my son saved you. We gave you eyes and ears and showed you what life should be and you lived, by God you lived! And now look at you. Time has passed and yet, every day is still your first. And here I am, glued to my chair with a glass in my hand, like the day before and the day before and before that. Living my last day on repeat. Have you heard that ignorance is bliss?”
    “I heard it before, spoken by a gleeful child who repeated the words but had no sense of its meaning.”
    “Well, it’s true. No child is born unhappy. Oh, they cry. They cry a lot, but they don’t know sadness. They just know need and want, and for a child, they are one in the same. But the child is ignorant. Because the child has no fear because it knows no fear. It does not understand the concept of death. It does not understand the concept of losing something it needs. No, that’s taught. That’s taught by the people who control whether that child gets what it needs or doesn’t. Fear is infused by civilization. So to live every day as your first is to live without the fear that is learned thereafter.”
    “Then, by what you’re saying, I don’t live every day as my first. Because I’m filled with fear.”
    He slammed the knife down on the table so swiftly that he erased any memory of it ever being in his hand. He laughed, heartily, as if he just heard the funniest joke ever told.
    “No no no no no nonono! Spec, what are you afraid of?
    “You.”
    I watched him as closely as a person could watch another and he watched me back, sizing up my answer. I could see the thoughts race through his mind.
    “Good. You should be. I could kill you while you slept and nothing significant would come of it. You would be gone, I would still be mayor, and Newbury would continue to thrive.”
    “No,” I said. “You’re wrong.”
    He laughed again. “Prove it.”
    “Do the ignorant know they’re ignorant?”
    “How could they?”
    “So, how could you? You seem full of bliss. What does that say about you?”
    “You confuse laughter with happiness. A childish mistake. But understandable.”
    “What makes you think you’re smarter or wiser than I am?”
    “What makes you think I’m not?”
    “You’ve been around more than twice the amount of my life, but you assume you’ve lived more than twice the amount. You were given knowledge I didn’t have access to for most of my being, so you assume you’re more knowledgeable. But what have you lived? A truly isolated existence. You see a moment from one angle. You see only in two dimensions. You cannot see that the line is actually a circle. You’ve never been forced to step around a situation and view it from another perspective. You stand glued to your spot as the world turns in front of you and assume what you see is the only. But it’s not. You are one man in one place in one moment of time. You rule this space, but one quake can fill the hole. One solar flare can destroy everything that is you.”
    “You’re getting better at speaking,” he said dismissively. “Like a child mimicking its father.” He stared at me for awhile and I could feel my being fill with dread. “I enjoy our conversations, Spec.” He grabbed the knife from the table. “And you’re right. I do live alone, but I make it so. It is my choice to willingly bind my hands. And one day, maybe sooner than you think, you will too. It’s an inevitable decision made by all free men. It is better to live in a world you can see clearly than live in one with no boundaries. It is better to really understand one thing than have a vague recollection of the multitude that is the universe.”
    We sat, staring at each other, listening only to the humming of the refrigerator reverberating through the kitchen and buzzing into the living room. In one hand was his glass, half empty, but how many times had it been filled? In his other hand was the dagger.
    The humming continued and at the moment, that’s all that mattered. That humming. Those vibrations. That energy flowing from the river to the mill to the turbine to the house to the refrigerator to our ears in the living room. How much time it took for that energy to be transferred, I did not know.
    And then, after moments of listening to only the buzzing, I asked, “Do you think life can exist on the surface?”
    “Is that where you think you’re heading? To see God with your own eyes?”
    His hand tightened around the knife and the humming pulsated within. Buzzing and buzzing, reminding us we were still alive despite our own silence.
    Humming and humming until, the noise quickly muted.
    Our heads turned toward the kitchen, simultaneously as if we shared one mind. And a moment lingered where we both were filled with fear. Him for his own life, and mine for Kaolin’s. Two people, different in almost every way, filled with the same fear.
    And then, the house’s lights shut off and the city went dark.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR
Murder:

    The alarms blared throughout the darkness. I could feel the Mayor jolt to his feet and grab an item on a nearby desk.
    The flashlight illuminated the room, and I got a glimpse of his eyes, filled with fear and excitement. He had posted a dozen soldiers at the water mill, but apparently a dozen was not enough. The Nanashi were attacking and for many of us, tonight would be our last.
    For me, there was no more waiting. I needed to find Kaolin and get to the elevator. Whether Newbury was destroyed or survived was of no concern to me.
    The Mayor grabbed his sword and rushed out of the house, leaving me alone in total darkness. I knew where the extra flashlights were and although they were only a few feet away, I struggled searching in the black.
    As I bumped into furniture, I could hear the distant screams get louder and the Nanashi roars emanate throughout Newbury. I reached the light and quickly wound it up, supplying energy to the stick so that I could rush through the bloodshed to find Kaolin.
    I grabbed the spikes I had taken from Nanash, and I left the house and found myself amidst chaos. Hundreds of beams of light cut through the darkness, in search of those attacking. A few of the beams shone toward the ceiling, still as can be. Either Newburyians were examining above, or they had fallen to their doom, the only life left were the radiating beams of energy bursting toward the ceiling, only to be kept and confined within the city.
    I hurried through the City Center when I tripped over something, bringing myself to the ground. I looked back and spotted a slain child, melted in the dirt. He was no older than five or six with a sword grasped in his lifeless hand. There were four slash marks across his stomach. If Newbury survived, if his loved ones made it past the night and the lights were renewed, they would find their child slain, but would they wonder why? Would they examine the series of events that led to their child face up in a puddle of his own blood? The surprise attack on Nanash which led to their attack on Newbury? The Nanashi attack on Joey which led to the Newburyian attack on Nanash? Their old tribe decimated by the old Newbury. When did it all begin? Did it matter? Did it matter who struck first? Did it matter why? Regardless of the reason, the boy was dead and that was that. There would never be another one of him for all time.
    I pushed through the screams and the cries and the death, striking through beams of white light and flying green mushrooms, briefly illuminating the above. And then, a beacon at the center of the city burned a bright white, pulsating its light outward across the city. The center of the city became well lit, allowing all who looked toward to see the massacre which was occurring. The further away from the center, the dimmer the light. Somehow, they were able to restore power to the beacon while the rest of the city lay dark.
    I continued to run across the city, dodging swords and spikes. I turned and spotted Gunnar holding an elderly lady in his hands. He launched her toward the ground with a loud crack that shook the air. The body dented the Earth, causing a puff of dirt to cloud the area before he swiped at the next attacker, sending him beside the woman, shrouded in the gray dust.
    I was unphased. I sprinted passed everything toward Meredith Washburn’s house. My heart thumped ferociously and I could barely breathe. I wanted to vomit, I wanted to fall to my knees and lay beside the lifeless, but I couldn’t. The only way that would happen is if my legs were taken from me, but even then, I would pull myself along the ground, shredding my body apart until I found her.
    I finally reached the house and I heard screams from within. I burst through the door and from the other room:
    “I’m trying to save you, Kaolin! I have a place we can hide.”
    “Let me go!”
    “I’m trying to help you!”
    I hurried in and spotted James grabbing at Kaolin who had been backed into a corner.
    “Let her go!”
    James turned and held his sword firmly. I raised my hands, spikes protruding from my knuckles, but I did not know how to use them to defend or attack. I knew what they could do, I had seen them in action, but that did not mean I knew how to use them as such.
    He swiped at me and I jumped back. He took a step forward and swiped again and all I could do was jump back. If he were chasing me, I could tunnel away, I could escape, but here, I was powerless. I could not defeat him with the weapon like Valasca could. He knew that. I knew that. Kaolin knew that. I could not defeat him with words like the Mayor could. He knew that. I knew that. Kaolin knew that.
    I wanted so desperately to save her and vanish with her to the above. I wanted us to leave this place, this cruel and unforgiving city, but in order to do so, I had to become Valasca, I had to become the Mayor. I needed to defeat James.
    “I don’t want to hurt you,” I said as calmly as possible.
    “I want to hurt you,” he said defiantly.
    “We just want to go. We just want to be happy.”
    “Yeah? Well what about me? I want to be happy.”
    “What can I do to help you?”
    “Leave.”
    “I can’t do that without her. Don’t you want her to be happy? She wants to leave with me.”
    “She’ll be happy with me. She just can’t see that yet!”
    He raised the sword and swiped. I put my hands in front of me. The sword connected with the spikes, pushing me back into the cabinet, causing several plates to fall and crash to the ground.
    Despite my best efforts, I could not talk my way out of the situation. I would have to fight.
    He raised the sword up high and I wondered, is this the same thing so many people felt long ago when the ball of fire flung its destructive energy toward the surface? Did they look up, knowing their imminent doom and wonder what would happen next? Where would I go? What would happen to me?
    And as he brought the sword down, Kaolin jumped from behind and grabbed around his neck. His weapon fell to the ground as the two of them slammed against the sink.
    He pried her off of him as I stood still, watching and immobile. He raised his hand and struck the side of her head, causing her to stumble back. He turned to face me and froze in place.
    He looked down at his stomach and saw my fist pressed against his shirt, spikes sunken deep within. He grabbed at my hand, trying to pry me away, but I wouldn’t move back. I couldn’t move back.
    I willed my hand forward. He stumbled backwards as I sunk the spikes deeper and deeper into his gut until he backed into the wall. He coughed and blood spurted from his mouth onto my face, but I was undeterred. I kept pushing forward as his power left his body and this world.
    I could feel his energy subside. I could feel his everything vanish in a wisp of a memory. He whimpered as he pleaded for me to stop. But I couldn’t stop. Not anymore. He looked out the window and could see the city being extinguished.
    “Everything is ending,” he said, spitting out his words. “The true apocalypse.”
    And then, I felt nothing. No movement. No more whimpering. I pulled my hand back, spikes gleaming red and James fell to the ground where he may lay for all eternity. Where he may disintegrate into billions of specs of dirt.
    Kaolin got up and threw her arms around me. “Are you okay?” she whispered in my ear.
    “Yes,” I said, to soothe her nerves, to calm my fears. I looked out the window and saw the screams and heard the killing. My gaze turned from the outside to my own reflection, captured in the translucent glass, my own image disrupted and distorted. It didn’t feel like me, like my reflection in the water so long ago. Things were not all right. I was a new Spec, older and wiser and tainted.
    It poisoned me, I thought. Newbury and Nanash. They infiltrated my mind and changed my very being. They transmuted me into something I did not want to be. They transformed me. They turned me into a beast.
    They made me a savage.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE
Scorched:

    The screams continued to echo throughout the city. They had a way of piercing your insides like the spikes had cut through James. Their fear was transferred from their cries into my being. I could feel the pain of the fallen, I could feel their dreams vanquished, and I could do nothing to stop their penetration. Their screams weren’t pleading for help. Nobody could help them. They were a way to be recognized one last time. To have their voice and thoughts heard. I felt what they felt. For a lingering moment, I absorbed their pain and fear, before both them and their essence dissipated into the darkness.
    Kaolin and I sliced through the screams and to the North, toward the elevator that would save us from the inevitable doom below, bringing us to our potential doom above. We hurried up a hill through the dimming light and spotted the large mechanism with a pile of junk we could easily move.
    I grabbed at rubble and flung it away like Gunnar did his victims. I looked over at Kaolin and saw her working just as hard, wanting the future just as badly as I wanted. I wondered if we survived the night, could we survive the surface, could we survive the future?
    We broke through and stood before a metal gate with a small metal lock, blocking us from the elevator. I raised the spikes and hit down on the lock. Again and again, but it was no use. I found a large rock beside but couldn’t lift on my own. I glanced over at Kaolin and she knew what to do.
    “Now—”
    We hoisted the stone and heaved it at the lock. Again and again until the lock fell to the ground in a heap. We dropped the boulder and I walked inside of the contraption. There was a lever propped to one side. Is that all we needed? Is that all it took? One turn of a lever to fulfill our dream? Would it work? Did it need electricity? I took the flashlight and shined it upward, and for the first time in my life, I could not see a ceiling. I just watched as the light faded into the dark. How far down were we? I guess there was only one way to find out.
    “Are you ready?”
    I turned to Kaolin, but she was nowhere to be found. I took a step out of the elevator and spotted her pinned to the ground beneath Valasca’s knee.
    “Hi, Spec. I’m afraid I’m going to have to break my promise.”
    “Don’t…”
    “My friends died because of you.”
    Kaolin tried to speak, but her face was pinned to the ground and her breathing was labored.
    “She didn’t do anything to you, Valasca.”
    “Yes she did. She did everything!”
    “Please don’t hurt her.”
    “There’s nothing you can say, Spec. Because I don’t care the way you do. Your sadness means nothing to me. I have seen the world sulk. I have heard her moans, and I am left pristine. Your loyalty was all I asked. I gave you freedom and you gave me betrayal.”
    “No, you didn’t. You gave me false hope. You gave me a substitute. Glowing mushrooms so that I would be content and Cotta would stay. I was never free. There was never freedom. You manipulated my mind to give me the illusion, to believe I had what I wanted. But you could never give me it. How did you earn your loyalty? I never betrayed you because you never had my allegiance.”
    She moved the spikes against Kaolin’s neck, but then, shot her head up, as if something struck her in the side of the skull. She jumped off of Kaolin and stabbed in the dark and we heard metal clash and then a spark.
    The Mayor appeared, yielding his sword, dripping red. He sliced downward toward Valasca. She connected her hands together, blocking the attack but pushing her back. I moved toward Valasca with my claw held high, ready to end the threat, but Kaolin held me back and shook her head.
    The Mayor raised his sword and struck again. Another spark as the metal connected, her spikes blocking the weapon. Another blow and another block. She had no time to attack, she was consistently defending.
    Kaolin placed her hand against my chest and pushed me toward the elevator. “This is our chance.”
    I watched the two continue their battle and wondered where I stood amongst the chaos. Who was good and who was bad? Who was right and who was wrong? Both only cared about themselves. Both would destroy the other in a heartbeat. But were either evil? By Newburyian standards, Valasca was bad. By Nanashi standards, the Mayor was bad.
    And as they fought, generations of anger pulsated in the dim-lit arena. But there was no place for me and no place for Kaolin. Our place was above. We rushed into the elevator and watched as the Mayor struck again. This time, Valasca pushed his sword aside, and both of their weapons pierced the rocky wall beside. A gust of invisible air rocketed out of the Earth, blowing their hair back.
    The Mayor stopped suddenly, as if his heart were stabbed. He put his hand out toward Valasca, pleading for her to stop:
    “Don’t!” he shouted. “The gas is flammable! It’ll kill us both!”
    She understood what he was saying, but she didn’t care. She raised her fist and with her spikes gleaming, slashed down at him.
    He could have blocked her attack with his sword if he chose, but he didn’t. He raised his arm as a shield. Her claws penetrated his flesh, cutting through until hitting bone. He screamed as the blood dribbled down his limb.
    She raised her other fist and brought down more spikes. He held up his other arm as a shield and it too was pierced by metal. The Mayor screamed in agony, unable to save himself or the city which loved him.
    Kaolin took my hand and placed it on the lever. We shared a moment to appreciate each other and then, together, we pulled and the elevator jolted upward.
    Down below, I could hear Bryan’s screeches as he appeared, running to save the Mayor whose arms were being shredded to a pulp, no more muscle or skin, only bone.
    The boy jumped in front of his leader, sword held high as the noxious gas pushed around the metal, undeterred by the weapon and its destructive power.
    The Mayor screamed, “No!” But it was too late. It was too late.
    The boy slashed down at Valasca as she struck forward and both sword and spike connected. A tiny spec of a spark leapt from their metal and then ignited.
    The fire incinerated the air, consuming all three of their lives and bursting down onto the city below, swallowing the buildings and Newburyians and Nanashi and plants and animals and their history and memories. The fire extinguished it all, in a burst so powerful it knocked Kaolin and me to our knees and then, the blaze rocketed upward toward us.
    I held Kaolin in my arms as the flames surrounded the contraption and melted the wires pulling us away. The metal box creaked and moaned and then, there was a nearby explosion.
    The box careened into one of the walls, denting the dirt and forming a hole as the smoke billowed up. I quickly grabbed Kaolin and lunged toward the hole in the wall, away from the rising fire and its deadly smoke. We crawled out of the broken elevator and into the nearby soil.
    I punched the tiny hole with the spikes, widening it. I pulled us to temporary safety as the fire engulfed the elevator, but there wasn’t much time until there would be no air left to breathe and we too would be swallowed by the Earth.
    “Hold on!” I shouted as I punched through the dirt, making our way upward toward the surface. Kaolin grabbed onto my ankle as we steadily crawled upward at an incline as I used the spikes to lead us to safety.
    I didn’t know how much time we had left or how far the surface was or how long it would take to get there. There was no light. My knuckles were completely raw and I couldn’t feel them as I clawed at what I presumed was upward. All I could feel was Kaolin’s grasp on my ankle and her slowing breaths against the back of my legs.
    My lungs screamed and I coughed harder than I ever had. I didn’t know how long we had been tunneling or if it mattered at all. I didn’t know if we were dead or alive. My brain felt scrambled and I was so tired I just wanted to lie down and stop. But I couldn’t.
    As the smoke filled the tunnel and our lungs burned, I could feel Kaolin’s grip on my foot weaken, her life fading from her body. I punched and clawed and grabbed at dirt. I needed to get us to safety. And then, I felt a warmth from above as we evaded the heat from below.
    I couldn’t breathe anymore. I used every last ounce of energy to push us ahead. I had only moments left. Only seconds to see my dream before the eternal slumber.
    My punches slowed and then, my hand got tangled onto something. A stringy substance I could not see in the infinite blackness. I pushed past the strings as they surrounded our bodies, trying to hold us below, trying to keep us from breaching the above.
    Kaolin’s fingers were loosening from my ankle. I took a deep breath but all I got was smoke. I was suffocating.
    I had energy for one last punch. One last effort.
    I heaved my hand upward and I pierced the Earth’s flesh.
    A blinding heat sprayed down onto my face as I felt the thick smoke escape the tunnel beside me, rocketing up toward the sky, to wherever it would like to go, to the infinite beyond.
    I grabbed upward, toward the top of the Earth and felt the damp soil between my fingers and then,
    I gasped                                                          for air.

EPILOGUE

    A cacophony of clamor and chaos and death was expelled from the Earth along with his fist. The boy sucked in the air as he felt the blistering heat. The inexplicable light shined onto his face and shattered the darkness, but he was still left blind. He reached down below and grasped her hand and lifted her above so that she may witness his lifelong dream beside him, but for the moment, neither of them could see. They simply lay on the ground, staring up at a sky they could not view.
    They coughed and wheezed, but they were alive. They could feel a prickly sensation on their backs as their scorched flesh was revived by the dampness beneath. And after awhile of lying and waiting, wondering if their vision would ever return, the whiteness sprinkled away. Now, they could see a bright blue ocean above, like the color of Cotta’s eyes.
    With their hands forever interlocked, they watched above and stared at the fluffy, white pockets of bundled water molecules. They drifted through the sky, effortlessly and without purpose but their heart desire. Past a ferociously yellow ball of fire that made Kaolin’s hair seem dull and ordinary.
    The lovers took in the coolness and the warmth and inhaled the freshness. Spec caressed the prickly green blades of grass beneath them and glanced over at a large tree, towering above, remnants of its roots still stuck to his ashy hair.
    His eyes continued to readjust to the light, sending tears dribbling down the sides of his face, washing away the scorched grime smothering his skin. For so long, he had the weight of the world hoisted atop his shoulders, but now, that was all behind him, below and out of sight.
    And after some time, enough for new clouds to appear and the sun to shift directions, the boy and girl stood, gazing at the infinite wonder of the world loved so long ago. The girl arched her head and stared at a magnificent structure constructed in a time before the end. A wooden marvel and symbol for a nation of people. A house once white, now charred black, deformed and disfigured like the world it used to inhabit, a marred spectacle, standing empty and burnt but a marvel nonetheless.
    The two walked hand in hand toward the house, one of the most important structures of the old, now a dilapidated memory, but to them it was new.
    The people who lived here must be responsible for Newbury, the boy thought. They must have brought the people below so long ago.
    The two moved past four charred beams and through a door overrun with foliage and entered the home that had once housed some of the most powerful people in the world.
    On the walls were many portraits of men long ago extinguished, yet their faces remained, pale and unflinching.
    A breeze floated past the cracked doors and into the empty house, sending a chill up Kaolin’s spine. She pulled Spec in close and asked if they could leave.
    “It reminds me too much of Newbury,” she said.
    “All right,” he said back.
    They left the house and its history and were once again met by the beautiful green outside. They walked together, past a gate and to new terrain. They had never seen cement or asphalt or anything unnecessary in the world they had become acclimated to.
    The girl looked up at a sign once green, now plastered black, but she could still make out the curves of the letters imprinted so long ago.
    “What do you think it says?” she asked.
    “I don’t know. Joey only taught me a few letters. I know that one’s a ‘P’ and that there’s an ‘S.’”
    They pushed forward, past the street sign so recognizable in the time long ago. Had they known the letters and the numbers and the word imprinted on metal, they would have known that the sign read: “PENNSYLVANIA 1600.”
    They walked down the road, not a soul in sight, except for the one in which they shared, encircling the two in a world of their own, one to cherish and nurture, to keep safe from harm at all cost.
    And as they pushed ahead, Spec couldn’t help but look up, past the clouds and past the sky, past the sun and further than he could see.
    What’s beyond, he wondered. What’s above the Earth? If there’s so much beauty above the world I knew, what wonders are there above this one and the next? How many truths and how many realities exist beyond our own? Did the Specs of the past look up and ask, what if I could go higher? What if I could claw my way past the sky and the sun, further than the stars? Was the past banished to the surface like we were to the depths of the Earth?
    And the boy realized that despite his location, he would always wonder. He would always gaze above. He would always be lost in his thoughts.
    “It’s okay,” she said, as if she could read his mind, as if his inner dialogue was uttered aloud. “The world is as it is and you are as you are. There are reasons for this and that but things are the way they are because they are. You’re looking up while I’m looking ahead, but our hands are still clasped. That’s all that matters.”
    I wonder what direction Joey would look were he here, the boy thought. Would Valasca look below? Would the Mayor keep his eyes tightly shut? What about Cotta and my father? Would they see the sky’s blueness like I do? Would they appreciate the warmth of Kaolin’s hand?
    And then, his mind skipped a beat as a thought trickled in. Could I see the world as they do? Could I love the way they love? Was I capable of understanding as they could?
    Spec’s thoughts were interrupted by a small creature with a bushy tail that scurried past the two, a tiny nut in its hand. For a brief moment, the animal glanced at the humans, curious by the two strange creatures.
    The boy took a deep breath and wondered about the past. Something happened here, he thought. Who’s to say it was a solar flare? Who’s to say it wasn’t something else?
    The two pushed past the ancient city. The breeze sent a small piece of paper toward Kaolin, pinning it against her chest, beside her heart. She pried it from her shirt and stared at the man imprinted in the middle, once the most famous general to those who resided in the city now uninhabited. Four large “1”s were imprinted on the bills corners. She tried to read the words: “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” But she couldn’t. The girl dropped the piece of paper and the two continued out of the city.
    The boy climbed up the incline, up the grassy hill, up the large mound of dirt, beside the girl he once loathed, now his one love. And then he took it all in. Not just the view around, but the one within. How he came to where he was now.
    Were I alive so long ago, I couldn’t avert this crisis, he figured. I couldn’t have prevented the war between Nanash and Newbury or their ultimate demise. I couldn’t control any of that. But here I stand, with a girl I saved, with a girl who saved me. I changed my world. Just a spec on this planet. I transformed my everything.
    And after some time walking up the hill, the two of them reached the peak, standing atop the tallest mound of dirt, staring down alongside the fiery ball in the sky at the not-so barren Earth.
    And in the ruins, in the not too far away, several streams of black smoke billowed up from a distant city.
    The boy squeezed the girl’s hand and leaned his head against hers. He whispered something in her ear and she smiled.
    She turned to him, caressing the side of his face, amidst the world flushed with green and red and yellow and blue and purple and black and white and all sorts of gray.
    And as they breathed in the colors, as they breathed in the world, she nodded and simply said, “Of course.”

Copyright

    Copyright © 2014 by Michael Soll
    This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
    SCORCHED
    All rights reserved.
    This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.
    First Edition: November, 2014
    Cover art by Anthony Jenny
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