The Gathering of Friends
The war is finally over, leaving behind a world saturated with radiation so deadly life on the surface was barely possible. Man has nearly disappeared from the face of the earth. For the past year, my assignment had been to explore the western region from where, for reasons unknown, two previous searchers had failed to return. My travels took me past the river that split the continent, to the great range which formed the border of the forbidden zone a vast desert where most living things retreated before the unforgiving glare and heat of the sun, or die.
Having survived the ordeal, I am now returning to the gathering place on the given date and time. My name is Carter.
It is late October. The moon rises over the mountain, full and white, etched with the pattern of naked branches. I stand still drinking in its warmth. It dissolves the cold dull ache in my mind and body. My blood tingles. The landscape looks strange in the moonlight. I gaze into the depths of what appears to have once been a pine lush forest, but is now a skeleton of it's former self. A sweet, yet strange, stillness comes over me.
Time passes, yet I have no sense of it minutes or hours it doesn't matter. Time no longer has meaning. As the moon rises higher, its light becomes stronger.
Warm and relaxed, I contemplate this new world with its struggles ahead and the overall labyrinth of hope and despair. Entire plant and animal species have vanished, only the remnants of structures remain in the cities and towns, yet not all life has ended. Small clusters of heartier plants, a few small animals, such as voles, mice and rats, and, I have heard, the odd human survive in isolated areas and were already adapting to the harsh new world. Slowly the earth is renewing itself.
Even here, even now, I feel I am not alone. There are creatures somewhere above me, which somehow have guided me to food and shelter. I wonder how many have died to protect my life my mortality. I did not choose to become what I am, I simply chose life, not death, and have chosen it every night since that first one. And now, I am compelled to eternally search for life by ancient forces I cannot deny.
Enough of my reverie, it is the time to move on and in several hours, I will be at the gathering. I travel at night because it is cooler and I can move more quickly, covering the ground fast with long, quiet strides.
As I arrive at the city, a chill autumn wind sweeps down from the mountains setting trees creaking and dangling signboards swinging. A peal of thunder comes from far off like the signal gun for a battle to begin. The sound awakens the new city residents from their slumber and they begin to move to the gathering place.
They have come to the gathering from far and wide, having risen in the depths of the night and traveling quickly. They await my return, knowing I was coming because of messages to my father from the nighttime creatures. They were anxious to be here when I arrived to hear the news from my journey. It is fast approaching Midnight on the Hallowed Eve.
My father silences the crowd and addresses them, as I stand next to him, alert and sensitive to the crowd. I haven't seen this many of my kind in one place since the day I left.
After his introduction, I walk to the front of the platform, slowly and deliberately. My appearance is different from when I left. I have hardened, am 30 pounds lighter, and the skin on my face and shoulders is blackened where the sun burned it before reaching the safety of darkness.
I talk about the sights I have seen: the desolate cities, the vast wasteland plains, and the ravaged mountains. I speak of deserted campsites with human remains, of paths that led into the forbidden zone, where there was no shelter, no darkness; where in the open one would quickly die from the burning sun.
I tell them of my nightly searches seeking any trace of humans, and of the creatures that acted as my eyes and looking in places where I could not. I thought of these creatures as my friends, yet many did not return, having perished. I admit I have failed them by not finding any living humans. Red tears roll down my face, as I speak these words.
My father turns to the stunned, hushed crowd and speaks of an earlier time when humans destroyed themselves in world wars and when plagues killed multitudes. He says with sadness and hope in his voice, "they have come and gone and will return again. They are out there. My son has seen their signs. They will rise and multiply again. Eat heartily on any small creatures you can find to replenish your strength, and then return to your resting places. When you next awake, we will again gather at this place. Tomorrow Carter will begin his search anew, and, before the next Hallowed Eve, will bring us wonderful news of having found humans."
He waves his arms in a sweeping motion and the gathering disbands. He walks slowly with me until we finally reach our resting place among the vines and heavy brush. Here he pauses and looks out at the silent place of high grass and hidden tombs, and senses rather than see the crosses at which we must not look. At the entrance of the large granite mausoleum, we enter together, the door closing silently behind us.
As we lift the lids and climb into our coffins, he says, "son, you will have better news to tell the brethren after your next search. The earth and man are reawakening. Rest peacefully and comfortably. Awake early again and go forth looking for life."
Thomas Lera is a Fellow in the Explorer's Club (and says his passion is cave exploring around the world), environmentalist, and conservationist. When he has free time from work and exploring, he writes horror and sci-fi stories, all of which have a small reference to a cave or bat in them. His work has recently been published in Blood Moon Rising, Demonminds and Dark Elation Volume 1.
Published by permission of the author.