A while back, the podcast for Cracked.com (I can’t remember which one, sorry) suggested an idea for a Superman movie. I loved the idea, and wrote a short story around it. I worked really hard on this, and I hope you like it. DC, please don’t sue me.
“IS GOD WILLING TO PREVENT EVIL,
BUT NOT ABLE?
THEN HE IS NOT OMNIPOTENT.
IS HE ABLE, BUT NOT WILLING?
THEN HE IS MALEVOLENT.
IS HE BOTH ABLE AND WILLING?
THEN WHENCE COMETH EVIL?
IS HE NEITHER ABLE NOR WILLING?
THEN WHY CALL HIM GOD?”
I was five years old when the last of the ships left. I watched them go with the rest of the Library Shelter, just white streaks in a gray sky.
“They’re pretty,” I whispered to Ma’am Estella, who had her hands on my tiny shoulders as she too gazed up at the ashen roof of the Earth that the silver veins were so close to breaking through.
In retrospect, Ma’am Estella of course knew exactly what the departure of the ships meant, but she didn’t let on to the children. She just clasped my shoulders a little tighter.
“Very pretty, little one,” she murmured. “Very pretty.”
We weren’t supposed to run and play too far from the Shelter when we were little. Ma’am Estella was in charge of the children and she instructed us that the farthest we could go was the edge of Lane Park, a large expanse of concrete right in front of the Shelter. We were kids, however, and if there was anything we were good at, it was misbehaving.
We liked to climb over the debris in the streets, crying that we were “rulers of the rubble!” whenever we managed to clamber to the top of a particularly large piece. Sometimes we would draw a line down the middle and play war, hurling large chunks of brick and small lumps of metal across our imaginary lines. Our games would only cease when Ma’am Estella found us, as she always did in the end.
“You nearly gave me a heart attack,” she’d scold, dragging whatever unlucky child she’d nabbed first back by the ear. We of course would have bolted when she found us, but we all knew that returning to the Shelter to face her wrath after running was far worse than coming back to the Shelter with her. “One of these days you’re going to get lost, and I’ll dance in the streets and spit on the ground.”
When I was seven, one of us did get lost, a boy named Tad, and Ma’am Estella didn’t dance in the streets or spit on the ground. Instead she left us in the charge of General Mark, who usually guarded the water supply, and left with a pack of the inhabitants from the Shelter to search for him. By the time they got back, it was dark out and General Mark had put us to bed. We all crowded around the windows once he left, however, and witnessed the dark cloud of shadowy forms and torches approaching the Shelter. We pressed our faces to the glass and saw one of the sentries, Jamal, with an arm around Ma’am Estella as she pressed a hand over her mouth, crying. In another sentry’s arms was a small bundle wrapped in a loose gray blanket, a small arm dangling limply from the folds.
We never went farther than Lane Park after that.
All my memories of attacks on the Shelter come from when my memories are vague still images and sensations. The recollections are comprised of the smell of smoke, the ratatat of gunfire, deep darkness interspersed with blinding light. The only truly solid memory I have is of the one time assailants breached the Shelter. Ma’am Estella was wielding a large gun, guarding the doorway of the large windowless basement room. At the time it had been a retreat room for the children during attacks. Some time after the attacks ended it became the group bedroom, and where we were primarily raised. The light occasionally flashed from above as doors slammed and footsteps thundered. We would all flinch away from the glow, shielding our eyes. Ma’am Estella’s form was the only thing we could see, a dark outline in a halo, protecting us all.
The attacks almost completely died after Departure Day. There remained a few here and there, but they petered off fairly quickly. It was as if humanity decided as one that after the ships left to just… hush. What’s the point in fighting for supremacy, after all, when we gain a final end date?
I would go to Sanctuary with Ma’am Estella every Sunday. She never forced any of the children to go with her, saying she wouldn’t make anyone go to anything they didn’t believe in. The only ones who would went with her were Annie, Charlie, and myself. We would walk down the streets that weren’t quite alive but very nearly alert, clutching each other by the hand. There were Sanctuaries all over the city, but we went to the one closest to the Shelter, the House of the Scarlet Azure, known to most as the Dalpa Sanctuary.
“This is a holy site,” Ma’am Estella would tell us sometimes as we walked through the lobby and around the statue in the center, a battered metal earth with a ring encircling it and bearing the letters “DA L P A”. “They say that the Scarlet Azure used to frequent this place, back in the Sapphire Days. They told news here, and he would give it to them so they could spread it across the world.”
The pews were rough plastic that had been hammered into vaguely bench like shapes with worn and tattered cushions for seats. They faced one of the old statues found in the city rubble and carried back to Dalpa, made of gray stone with black scorch marks adorning it. The statue was particularly charred over his chest, almost but not entirely obscuring the raised S.
Ma’am Estella told us once that back in the Sapphire Days, there were many religions, all reading from different texts. “Books weren’t as rare back then,” she’d said, eyes wistful. “They had places you could buy them and places you could take them out briefly. That’s what our Shelter was, you know. That’s what the word ‘library’ means.” We nodded as though we understood.
There were no books in Sanctuaries. I learned later that they did have texts, gatherings of stories about the Scarlet Azure that preachers would study devoutly so they could recite them by heart, for the bindings were too fragile to bring out every Sunday. In Sanctuary, they would stand at the head of the church behind a rough hewn podium to occasionally lean on and they would tell us stories. I don’t know if there were different preachers on different days, but we only ever went on Sundays, and on Sundays the preacher was Father Luis.
In retrospect, Father Luis was probably quite young, but at the time he seemed ageless. He had his black hair cut halfway between his ears and his shoulders, alway tugged in a short ponytail. It looked more ragged than most of the men’s, but it marked him as a preacher, as did his battered necklace with the S of the Scarlet Azure hanging about his neck on a tarnished chain. His clothes were the same as all of ours: stitched together carefully from various fabrics. He was given cloths of colors similar to each other, as befitted his status as a preacher.
Father Luis was the best at telling stories. He would tell us of how the Scarlet Azure could fly around the Earth to change time, and how he was stronger than any mortal man. How he was just and kind and how he could fly, red cape against cerulean skies.
“For they were blue in those days, children,” he would say. “Bluer than any shade you or I or any have seen, and that is why we call them the Sapphire Days. You knew help had arrived, when you saw his cape fluttering against the roof of the world.”
Ma’am Estella would take us to Father Luis afterwards when she said hello. He would smile at her and kiss her gently on the cheek. Then he would kneel down to our height.
“Hello, little ones,” he’d welcome us. “How is your morning?”
We never lied to him in our answers. It seemed wrong to lie to a man of the faith.
“I fell asleep during your story,” I told him once. Ma’am Estella swatted me on the arm.
“It’s fine, Estella.” He grinned at me in that warm way he had, like you had never done wrong in his eyes. “That’s quite all right, Madeehah. These things happen. It’s important to rest when you can.” His eyes twinkled. “So long as you don’t snore too loudly, all right?”
I grinned back a little bashfully. “Yes, Father Luis.”
“Good girl.” He ruffled my hair and stood. “Don’t worry about it, Estella.”
She laughed. “If you say so.”
He would give her a smile that was different than the ones he gave everyone else.
Sometimes after Sanctuary Ma’am Estella would take us to Akihiro’s store. Those were the best days. Annie and Charlie liked it well enough, but I adored the shop to my core. Most of the stores in the city were useful. They bartered clothes or food or even on occasion weapons. Akihiro’s wasn’t like that. It was full of ancient artifacts, relics from the Sapphire Days that couldn’t be deemed “useful”, merely existing.
Daichi, who had taken over the store after his father had died, knew me on sight. “Hello, Madeehah,” he’d say each time, smile wide and warm. “And how is your day?”
“It’s okay,” I’d answer brightly. “A surprise would sure make it better.”
“A surprise, eh?” He would rifle around behind his desk, pretending to search. “Well, let’s see, what could I have for a surprise…”
The presents would vary. One was a pair of shoes, surprisingly intact but much too big for me. Another was a ring, green stone with tiny sparkly rocks set around it. I still have that ring. It’s on my finger as I write this.
“Is it better now than it was in the Sapphire Days?” I asked Ma’am Estella once. She thought about it.
“Some things are better,” she answered eventually. “Humanity used to fight based on the color of their skin. That was something they were judged for.”
I looked at my skin, dark brown, and Ma’am Estella’s skin, cream. Later, I would read a book about the past and know more. For now, I did not understand.
“And it’s better that we don’t do that anymore. But there was more medicine. More food. The Scarlet Azure blessed the people.”
“Would you rather live there than here?”
Ma’am Estella smiled at me, radiating that warmth that never failed to soothe me. “Madeehah, I don’t want to be anywhere that you and the children here aren’t.”
When I was thirteen years old, Ma’am Estella got sick and when her coughs became wet and red, we knew there was no recovery for her. Father Luis never left her bedside, not when she vomited, not when she slept, not when she cried. Annie sat with her frequently, too. Annie was fifteen years old, and it was well-known she would take the position of Ma’am when the time came. When I went to see Ma’am Estella, however, it was just her, I, and Father Luis, asleep in his chair.
“Don’t cry, little one,” she said with a faint smile. She’d always been fair, but now her skin was pale and drawn, beginning to resemble a skeleton more and more. She reached up to weakly wipe a tear from my cheek.
I dragged my arm across my nose. “I don’t want you to die,” I told her thickly. “You’re too important.”
“Death doesn’t work that way and you know it.” She sounded just like she did when she was teaching us lessons in school, and it brought on a fresh wave of tears.
“What am I gonna do without you?” I asked.
“Go on, darling. What the rest of us do when someone dies.” Tangled in the recently bony fingers of her left hand was Father Luis’s Scarlet Azure necklace. “Will you do me a favor, Madeehah?”
I sniffed. “Yeah.”
“Visit Father Luis. He works so hard. Make sure he’s doing all right.”
I nodded. “I promise.”
“You’re a good girl.” Ma’am Estella smiled at me then, and for a moment she didn’t seem sick, not at all. “Keep being good. It’s an important way to live.”
“Yes, Ma’am Estella.”
“Go now and do your chores.”
“Yes, Ma’am Estella.” I kissed her forehead before I left. It was the last time I ever saw her.
We buried Ma’am Estella in the small park behind the library. It was one of her favorite places to be. Wainwright, one of the Scavengers who stayed in the Shelter sometimes, crudely carved onto a piece of stone Ma’am Estella’s name to mark her grave.
As she said, I went on. We all did. Annie became Ma’am Annie to the children. I continued to live in the Shelter, becoming one of the cooks part-time. The other half of the time I spent at Akihiro’s.
Daichi would get new items often from Scavengers, who would trade trinkets they didn’t find useful. He hired me to help sort through the items. Because I worked at the Shelter and therefore had no want for food or living, Daichi would often pay me in little tokens from the store.
My small room was a collection of such items, fragments of an ancient world. There was a round delicate object I hung on my wall, a black thing with lines etched into it in circle after circle. There was an odd rectangle of tattered fabric with red and white stripes on it and a blue square full of pale blotches.
At least two Sundays a month, I would bring over a box of Scarlet Azure relics to the Dalpa Sanctuary. I would take them directly to Father Luis, always remembering my promise to Ma’am Estella. He always looked so tired, but happy to see me.
“I swear you get taller whenever I see you, Madeehah,” he’d say each time. “What do you have for me today?”
Sometimes I’d have a battered hunk of plastic that seemed to be in His image, dark hair and faded blue paint where his eyes should be. Sometimes a piece of a cape that looked similar to what the Scarlet Azure wore. The best days were when I could bring him a scrap of paper that had survived. One time I brought something written by a man called Kent, his first name too smudged to read, something that had miraculously made it through the centuries. Father Luis was always pleased to receive whatever I had brought, but that day his eyes lit up.
“Kent is a biographer of the Scarlet Azure,” he told me excitedly. “We have many of his writings. Thank you for bringing me another example, child.”
I was in Akihiro’s looking for valuable merchandise. He had so much stuff that even he didn’t know what was in the shop. On slow days, Daichi would have me inspect the vast stacks and piles of things to see what he could sell. It was a joy for me.
I was sifting through a collection of papers in his back room. These were cared for the most, on account of how fragile they were. They would be lain on thin strips of wood and pressed in between them, each on top of another. I lifted them carefully one by one, examine their worth. I was going through the stack specifically of maps. The maps were useful to Scavengers, who could more easily find their way to abandoned cities and locate food and water. I had set several aside, thinking they could be worth Daichi’s inspection, when I paused at an irregular one.
This map was much larger, for one thing. It didn’t lead to towns outside of our city. Rather, it led to farther away, much farther. I squinted. The designated spot was an X in the middle of the far-away area, with a title scribbled hastily by it that made my heart feel like it had stopped beating, and then beat even faster than before.
Of course I knew Hardwater. It was the palace that the Scarlet Azure lived in, a place built of a material that seemed to glow and gleam like the crystals Daichi had given me once as payment. Hardwater was said to be incredible, a relic of back when buildings had been created not for necessity but for beauty.
I carefully took the map and laid it out on the floor, and then scurried off to find Daichi. I dragged him back to the room and showed him. Daichi peered at it. His vision wasn’t well, so it took him a moment to confirm.
“How interesting. You can take it to hang on your wall, if you want.”
“We could go there.” I got more and more excited as I spoke. “We could ask him for help, Daichi, he could save us. We might not all have to die after all.”
Daichi raised his eyebrows at me. “The world’s dying, Madeehah,” he told me. “And all the richest and most powerful people knew it, and they left because they could. We’re the dregs of humanity. I doubt even the Scarlet Azure could assist us now.”
“He’s a god.” My belief in the Scarlet Azure had been shaky sometimes. It had always been more something that Ma’am Estella had loved and that, after she had died, I had loved for her. But now that there was a chance his palace was on the Earth, now that there was hope… “He can do anything.”
Daichi shrugged. “Take it to Father Luis, if you want. See what he thinks. I’m sure he’ll be fascinated by it. It doesn’t seem to be as old as some of our other papers, so you can transport it easily.”
I carefully folded it up. “Father Luis will agree with me.”
Daichi seemed unfazed. “If you say so.”
I showed Father Luis the map. He studied it before smiling at me.
“It’s a wondrous artifact, Thank you for bringing it to me.”
“I want to go and find him,” I explained. “I want to ask him to fix the world.”
Father Luis’s face didn’t light up with hope as I’d thought it would. “Madeehah,” he said sadly. “Don’t you think that if Hardwater is on our planet, he knows how fated we are?”
I was adamant. “Maybe he just needs someone to ask him.”
Father Luis scrutinized me. Then he took off his necklace that bore the sign of the Scarlet Azure and motioned for me to come closer. Once I did, he put it around my neck.
“I won’t be able to convince you not to go,” he told me. “I can tell. But you can go with my blessing. May you be protected on your journey.”
“I can’t take your-“
“There are more within the Sanctuary.”
“Come with me,” I said. “You can finally meet him.”
“No. No, I’m too old, and have too many people to look after. You go.”
I kissed his cheek. “You’re a good man, Father Luis.”
“Be well, Madeehah.”
It took several days to prepare for my journey. Daichi supplied me with clothing slightly thicker than my own. “The temperature’s supposed to be different there,” he explained. “It’s less warm. Like how it is in the basement of the Library Shelter.”
I frowned. “The whole area is like that?”
“That’s what the stories say.”
I accepted his gift with a hug. “When I return, it’ll be with the Scarlet Azure.”
Daichi shook his head. “You’ve never seen the world beyond this city, Madeehah. I think life beyond its borders will be too much of a temptation for you.”
“I’ll come back. I’m going to fix things, I promise.”
He smiled. “Safe journey, child.”
I had one more stop, before I left.
“I remember when the ships left, you know,” I told Ma’am Estella’s headstone. “You were there. You looked up at the sky with me. You said they were pretty, too.” I put my hand on the marker. “There’ll be books again, just like you talked about.” I stood. “I’m sorry you won’t get to see them.”
Annie approached me as I walked away from the grave.
“I haven’t seen you there in years,” she observed. I shrugged.
“Ma’am Estella told me to move on after she died. I thought she would want part of that to be letting her be.” I looked over my shoulder at the spot. “At least she lived a full life.”
Annie blinked, looking vaguely surprised.
“Madeehah,” she said. “She was twenty-nine.”
My journey took by my count took one hundred and eighty-five days. I hopped rides with Scavenger to Scavenger. They had contraptions I had only seen before in passing, devices that could fit more than one person because of something strapped to the roof that turned the sunlight into power. We drove over where they told me water used to be, great craters and canyons that wove through the world. We stopped at night when the magic roofs no longer worked. I had to admit, Daichi was right; the world outside the city was amazing.
“It was supposed to be really something when the world was the way it’s supposed to be,” the final Scavenger to take me on my journey told me. Her name was Annika and she didn’t have one of the multiple people devices that the other Scavengers had. Rather, she had a battered two wheeled device that roared almost like my memories of gunfire, also powered on the sun. I would ride on the back, clinging to her back, the only part of her visible being flyaway strands of pale blond hair. “These cavities were filled with water, and the sky was blue, and green grew everywhere.”
I tried to imagine a world with such color. I couldn’t.
Of all my companions on my journey, Annika was the one who guided me the longest. Her father, she’d mentioned, lived in a small town not too far from Hardwater. She had grown up close to a place whose existence I had been skeptical of. She told me stories of her travels and I told her about where I’d lived all my life.
“I don’t have stories as exciting as yours,” I said one day. “You’re a Scavenger! You’ve been all over.”
“Your city is one of the last great hubs of the world,” she told me. “And your tales are beautiful.”
“Do you know what stars are?” Annika asked me when we were closer to rather than farther away from Hardwater. We were camped out late at night, under the sickening color of the sky. I shook my head and she pulled a small square of paper from her bag and handed it to me. I knew logically what it must be; a photograph, like I had seen so many of in Daichi’s. Photographs had always been one of my favorite types of artifact, ancient remnants of a civilization from long ago. But I couldn’t believe it, when I gazed down at the crinkled and faded image. An array of lights in a variety of colors, wreathed by shining clouds, all against a backdrop of black.
“These are above the gray,” she explained.
“Back in the old days?” I asked.
“No. Now, still. They took that picture in space, years and years ago.” She looked up at the bruise purple and greenish-gray clouds. “There’s still beauty. We just can’t reach it.”
“It’ll change once I ask the Scarlet Azure for help,” I promised. “There’ll be beauty.”
Annika inclined her head slightly. “We don’t call him that where I grew up, you know. We call him the Visitor. We say that he came to Earth from beyond the sky, and to beyond the sky he will return someday.”
“Well,” I said firmly. “Before he does, he’ll help right the world.”
She was quiet for a moment, studying me. Finally, she nodded. “If anyone could do it,” she answered. “I think it would be you.”
Later, I asked Annika if she ever believed I would succeed. She had given me the exact same thoughtful gaze before answering.
“I wanted to,” she told me. “And I hoped.”
I accepted that. To me, that was good enough.
We arrived at Annika’s town, where the land rose up and down. However, in the distance, there was a shape that, although it also rose from the ground, was distinctly different. A shape that glistened.
Annika introduced me to her father Malik, a large bearded man who shook my hand. “Any friend of Annika’s is a friend of mine,” he told me. “Please, stay here tonight.”
I tried to sleep that night, on Annika’s floor, but I couldn’t. Not very much, at least. Tomorrow, I kept thinking, tomorrow I will meet the Scarlet Azure, tomorrow the world will be like it was in the Sapphire Days, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
Annika was the one to drive me out there. The closer we got, the more striking Hardwater became. It was beautiful, a massive lattice of great shining white clear… things, almost like the crystals that would come through Akihiro’s every once in a while.
When we reached the front of it, I dismounted from Annika’s great booming device and stared. I was suddenly nervous. I didn’t see a doorway. What if I came all this way and couldn’t get in?
Annika put her hand on my shoulder comfortingly. “You’ve got this,” she said. “I’ll be here waiting when you’re done.”
“You don’t want to come in?”
“It’s your journey, Madeehah. Not mine.”
I approached Hardwater nervously. I put my hand on the crystals and instantly pulled back. It almost burned, but not quite. It felt close to biting, and there was a seeping absence of heat to it that I found more unnerving than the sparkling structure before me. Hesitantly, I touched it with one finger. Still too uncomfortable and painful. I drew back again.
There was a muffled rumbling sound and I stepped back. To my left, a small opening appeared in the side of Hardwater. I glanced back at Annika, who smiled at me encouragingly. I stepped through the opening. I heard it close behind me, but was too busy gazing around the room to look back.
The room was huge, larger than any room I’d ever been in. It was made of the same material as the outside, intricate carvings in the walls. I stared at one that depicted a collection of people standing together, shivering slightly from the odd sensation that felt like something had cut me. One had a cape that fluttered in an imaginary wind.
I started and turned to my right.
A tall man was holding a blanket, his handsome face friendly. His black hair, graying a little, was a touch messy, looking like he’d run his fingers through it a little. His blue eyes crinkled at the corners.
“Looks like you could use this,” the Scarlet Azure said, holding the blanket out. I shyly accepted it.
“Thank you.” I looked back at the designs. “Did you make these?”
“I’ve had a lot of free time lately.” He held out his hand. “I’m Clark.”
Clark. The Scarlet Azure had a name. I shook his hand hesitantly. “I’m Madeehah.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Madeehah. Please, come in. You must be hungry. Have you come far?”
“From the city.”
I struggled. We never had a name for it. “Your city,” I said finally.
He looked a little sad. “Ah. My city. That must have taken you a while.”
“Clark is fine.” He led me into a different room, smaller and a little homier, with a rug on the floor and a small wooden table. He pulled a can out of a cabinet, unlike any I’d ever seen. The cans I was used to were battered and rusted. This one was pristine, revealing soup to be within. He emptied the can into a bowl and put it in a smaller white box that started rotating it.
“Do you like potato soup?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never had it.”
“My mother used to make it for me. This stuff won’t be as good, obviously, But it’ll do.” I was grateful he turned back to the little white box when it started beeping so he wouldn’t see the shock on my face. There was something that carried a hint of unreality, I thought, about a god with a mother. He took the bowl out of the box and handed me a spoon and the bowl.
“Eat this. It’ll help you adjust to the chill.”
I didn’t know what a chill was but I accepted the bowl gratefully nonetheless, sitting at the table. I took a hesitant sip from the spoon. It was delicious. I’d never tasted anything with so many flavors, all competing for attention.
“What do you eat normally?” Clark asked, sitting across from me. I shrugged.
“Canned peaches. Canned bean soup. The normal stuff.”
“No wonder you’re so skinny.”
I didn’t know what skinny was, either. I felt like there was a lot of things I didn’t know all of the sudden. It must have shown on my face, because he smiled kindly.
“It’s all right. Don’t worry about it.”
I took another spoonful of the soup.
“It’s been a very, very long time since anyone knocked on my door,” he mused. “Everyone’s been far too scared, I think.”
“Your door feels weird,” I told him. I wasn’t quite sure what had emboldened me, but feeling somehow that it would be hard to offend this man. I seemed to be right; he laughed.
“I guess it would. You’ve never felt anything that temperature before. How did you find me?”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the map, smoothing it out. “My friend Daichi let me have this.”
Clark studied the map. “Hardwater,” he read aloud. “Is that me?”
“Yes, sir. What do you call it?”
“Home,” he murmured absently. He looked up at me. “Tell me about yourself.”
“Well, I came because-“
He shook his head. “No, no. Tell me about yourself. Tell me about your life.”
So I talked to him. I told him about Ma’am Estella, Father Luis, Daichi, Annika, the Sanctuaries, the Shelter, Akihiro’s. I talked until my throat was sore. When I finally stopped, Clark was leaning back in his chair, looking almost sorrowful.
“I wish you wouldn’t worship me,” he muttered. “I’m just a man.”
“But you’re a man who could save us.” I leaned forwards. “You can, can’t you? You could change the world so it would be like the Sapphire Days.” I could see it then, this man streaking against the sky, clearing the clouds, showing the skies, baring the stars.
Clark pursed his lips.
“I’ve been alive for a very long time,” he said. “I’ve watched countless people die, my friends, my parents, my children, my wife. And for a very long time, I kept saving them when they asked. They would come to me and beg, and each time I would help. But they kept breaking out in wars and supervillains. It happened again and again and I watched it, like this vicious cycle. They would fight and they would ask me to save them and I would and they would fight.” His hands were turning over and over. “I can’t do it. You have to understand. I can’t.”
My heart plummeted and my mouth dried. “But-“ I stammered. “But you have to. We’re dying. We’re at peace now, we-“
“You’re at peace because you’re dying. If I fix this, you’ll just be at war and ask me for help once more.”
“But you have to,” I repeated.
“It’s selfish of you to assume that.”
“It’s selfish of you to not do anything!” I cried. “You’re going to let a whole race die because you’re tired? That’s what’s really selfish!”
His face shifted to something a little stonier and he straightened a little. I shrank back in my chair, remembering suddenly Father Luis’s stories of the red heat that used to blast out of the Scarlet Azure’s eyes, of the strength he possessed. He noticed, and visibly pulled himself together.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he told me softly. “I’m just a man. Men break.”
I swallowed. “Then why did you let me in? Why did you have me come inside Hardwater, if you knew you wouldn’t help?”
“I suppose…” Clark trailed off, looking into the distance. “I suppose I was lonely. It’s been a long time since I spoke to anyone, you know. All my closest friends have died. Except one. But she left to rule her people some time ago. I don’t know where she is now.” He focused his attention on me once more. “I promised my wife once that I would stay to the end with Earth. And I won’t break that promise. Once this world becomes uninhabitable, I will leave it. I’ll go somewhere else, find a place on another planet. Maybe I’ll be normal there. Maybe I won’t. We’ll have to see.”
“And how will you live with yourself?” I asked hoarsely. “How will you live with yourself, becoming the hero once more, with thousands of lives on your conscience?”
He smiled sadly. “I suppose I’ll learn.”
I couldn’t look at him then. Not at this god who turned out to be a man after all, smiling away like he didn’t have a world on his back and wasn’t choosing to let it fall.
“I should go. My friend is outside waiting.”
“I’ll walk you out.”
“I know the way.”
He followed me anyway. I didn’t look back at him until I reached the door, when I paused and turned my head slightly. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, hands in his pockets.
“What you’re doing is cruel,” I said quietly. “And I hope you know that somewhere, because if you don’t, you’re much worse off than we are. And I pity you for it.”
The door opened and I left. I heard it slide shut behind me. Annika looked up and must have seen the expression on my face. She came forwards and she hugged me, and I cried into her shoulder.
That was five years ago.
Annika is my wife now. We Scavenge together, often on the move, but we have a house in her village. We return to my city often to trade and barter. I see Daichi, sometimes. The first time I saw him I said “you were right, you know.”
“I’m sorry that I was,” he answered. “For your sake and mine.”
I haven’t been able to bring myself to see Father Luis. What do you say to a man, when his god has failed his people?
Occasionally, when Annika and I are home, I will go out in the early morning when she is asleep, and I will look out at Hardwater, the monolith we all live in the shadow of, even if we are thousands of miles away. I wonder about Clark, if he is still there, waiting for us to die so he can depart. I wonder if we will be able to tell when he leaves, and how we will be able to handle that promise of an imminent death sentence.
I have many things in my world. I have Annika, the light of my life. I have her motor device where we spend many of our days. I have Daichi. I have my town. I have my city. I have my home.
I do not, however, have hope.