a to z: earth

Sometimes they would climb to the top of a building that was still mostly standing, just to enjoy the view. Those were good days. It meant the weather was clear, that the hunt had been successful the day before, that there were enough people at the encampment to take care of everyone who was sick and more besides.

They would stand on the ruins, still populated with ancient office furniture no-one had bothered to scavenge yet, and look south to the large lakes glittering below in the sunlight.

She was the first one to notice the old shoreline, maybe the third or fourth time they climbed the cement staircase. "The three lakes," she said. "They used to be one great lake. Look." She pointed out the edges with her finger.

"It doesn't matter now," he said.

"Of course not," she said, tucking her hand under his arm. An act of contrition. It was against their ways to piece together the past. In their grandparent's day, anyone trying to "avoid living in the now" would have been stoned to death.

"Those hills," he pointed out a series of high grounds forming a crescent shape between them and the home camp, "I'd like to hunt there tomorrow."

Those used to be islands, she thought. She praised his hunting prowess and agreed they would be worth the effort to climb.

"Perhaps we should return to the encampment now and rest," she said. "So you will have lots of energy for hunting tomorrow."

"Perhaps," he said, but he pressed her arm against his ribs, and she knew he would want to have sex first.

They went to the hills at dawn the next day. He walked ahead with the weapons; she walked behind with the rest of the gear.

He was pleased to find there were even more trees than had been apparent at a distance, and more pasture too, but they found only small animals living there: mostly cats and chickens. He thought he spotted a rabbit just before it went into the bushes, but they were too far away to tell.

They only caught one chicken. Chickens were prized, but didn't have the prestige of bagging a deer or a horse.

She could tell he was working himself into a bad mood over the hunt, and suggested they explore the catacombs in the old city for a change.

The people of the encampment called them "catacombs" because they were underground and stacked with old skeletons, but it was clear that wasn't their original purpose. There were brightly-coloured hangings with markings on them, similar to what they found in the carefully stacked and bound papers. And below the hangings... she thought it looked like it was for medical aid, or even food preparation. Nothing she could mention out loud of course.

The flesh had rotted from the skeletons long ago, but sometimes bits of the clothing remained. Some of it looked like it had once been brightly coloured, like the hangings, and made of similar stuff — that weird crumbling not-glass not-stone found throughout ancient ruins.

They'd walked farther than the sunlight could penetrate. Some of the ancient material was shiny and reflected light further inside, but it was too dark to make anything.

"We should turn back," he said. "If there's anything worth eating in here, it will just be rats or raccoons, and who knows what they've been feeding on."

"Wait," she said. "There's more light up ahead. See it?"

"Well of course I see it," he said. "I just mean there's no hunting in here." He sighed. "Stay behind me."

As they moved closer, it became clear the light wasn't the pale gold of the sunlight outside, but a blue-white brightness, stronger than the daylight.

They walked into an atrium surrounded by raised pods filled with dead vegetation. The blue-white light seemed to come from high above, even though when they looked up they couldn't see the sun.

And in the centre of the floor there was a panel, also lit up, surrounded by that yellowing not-glass.

The same types of markings appears on the panel as were on the hangings, as were on the papers. But the panel was making noise, too.

"It's connected to one of those black energy panels," he said. "Old magic. We should leave."

"Wait," she said. "Is it saying something?"

"Live in the now," he growled.

"This is happening now," she said. "Listen."

It was hard to make out, the pronunciation was so odd, but she was right, it was saying something.

"Earth Colony Ship 8, reporting successful landing on Gaia. Atmosphere, water sources, temperature range all compatible. I repeat, all compatible. Ship 8 reporting arrival, safe and sound."

"So strange," she breathed.

"We leave now, or I'm telling the elders," he said.

She blinked, nodded, and followed him back down the way they'd come.

The panel repeated its message.