Cairn tied his cart to the flatbed train car. Melanie tied hers alongside it. Her horse, Samwise, was enjoying a rest in the stable car, towards the front of the train.
“It’s an odd pilgrimage to make,” she said. Her bronze-coloured hand reached out for his.
Cairn, still unsure of their limits as a new couple, placed his pale hand in hers. “I suppose it’s important to remember why the world is the way it is. Why humanity had to change.”
They walked between the many carts of their tribe, heading for the front of the train. Other tribes had their own carts loaded up as they weaved between the dyed woods. Tracks to the platform stretched off through an endless sea of grasses, shrubs, and flowers.
“I want to be near the front,” said Melanie. “I want to see it rise over the horizon.”
“Think it will?” Cairn asked, talking of the monument to humanities hateful past.
“Everyone says it does.”
A car filled with stable booths for horses had Cairn looking for Samwise. Melanie took the nose of her beloved beast of burden in her hands and kissed the fine hair.
“Good boy. You can just relax with your new friends while we travel.”
“Better hurry up if you want good bunks,” said a young boy pushing past them to move to the front.
“Bunks?” Cairn asked. “Will it take that long to get there?”
“We’re heading to the other end of the country, Cairn. Did you think it would be a ten-minute trip?”
“I just hadn’t thought about having to sleep surrounded by strangers,” he said.
“Strangers and me,” Melanie said. She winked, her one open brown eye dazzling. She pulled him forwards. Shouts outside the train made them look back, but there was nothing but a sea of young faces. A tide of adolescent bodies pushed them forwards.
The smell of the road surrounded them. Horse fart, dirt, tree bark, body odour. Cairn wished he’d sold more of them his soaps on the way to the first station. Their clothes came in every possible variety of brown and green.
Entering the sleeping carriages, many of the bunks already had packs or clothing laid out on them. Claiming one meant finding an empty bed.
“Here,” said Melanie, her dreadlocks danced as she turned her head to look back at him. “This one.” The bed was empty of course, a lower bunk surrounded by others. She pulled him into the space where there were shelves. Each bunk had a box for the sleeper’s things. Painted arrows helpfully pointed at the bed the box belonged to.
“Where will I sleep?” Asked Cairn, looking at the taken beds all around.
“With me,” Melanie whispered in his ear.
He flushed from his forehead to the base of his neck. Something stirred below and he tried to deny it. She left gloves and he a scarf on the bed to reserve it.
They wove their way through the crowds that were searching for bunks. Many were likewise heading to the front of the train. Out of the windows Cairn saw grassland become deciduous forest spattered with redwoods.
The train tilted up, forcing everyone to check their balance. Conifers either side of the train became as common as the seasonal trees. After ten cars for sleeping, there seemed to be endless rows of seats all facing forwards, pews to worship the journey. Three seats either side of the aisle, ten per car. Overhead racks were already piled high with bags. Eager faces were pressed to the windows.
“Look at the blue feathers,” Cairn whispered. He pointed to the children of a tribe he’d never seen before. Pale skin seemed a common trait among them, blue eyes, and feathers from some giant bird poking from their hair. “They need my shampoo for sure.”
“The feathers are cool,” said Melanie. “Hello.” She waved as ears caught her words and heads turned to look at them.
“Shouldn’t we stay with our tribe?” Cairn asked.
“The whole point of this pilgrimage is to have us all mix with each other.” Melanie found them two empty seats and threw herself into one.
Sitting down by her, his chair sagged beneath him. “This is a relic of the old world, isn’t it?”
“Bits and pieces I presume,” said Melanie, barely listening as she looked out of the window.
The train leapt from coniferous forest, past cliffs and across a bridge. Drones swarmed over the bridge. A man hanging from a harness waved to the train as it passed.
Cairn’s stomach twisted as his eyes locked on to waves hundreds of metres below. Before he had the chance to adjust the water was gone and green branches were slapping the train again. Pine needles slid along the glass like fingers searching for purchase.
“I’m Melanie.” She held out her hand to shake that of the girl in the seat nearest the window.
“I’m Felicia,” said the girl wearing glasses and a green shirt. “I’m from Bluebell Valley, where are you from?”
“We’re from Starfall Ridge,” said Cairn’s girlfriend.
“What’s your name?” Felicia asked, looking at him.
“Nice to meet you both, and to talk to someone.” Felicia smiled with snow white teeth, showing her upper gums.
“I’ve been excited about this trip since I was five,” said Melanie. She had her back to Cairn, but he didn’t mind. Being surrounded by hundreds of new, noisy people, was agitating him.
“I know. It’s going to be amazing.” Felicia’s voice hit high notes Cairn didn’t know girls could after puberty. “Can I stick with you two? Everyone else I know vanished while I was tying up my horse and I couldn’t find them.”
“You have a horse? So do I, he’s called Samwise.”
“My horse is called Cynthia.”
“What colour is she?” Melanie asked.
“Jet with a lily-white line down one half of her nose. White mane.”
“Ooh, I think I saw her when I walked Samwise on.” Now Melanie’s voice was hitting those high notes as well.
On a mountain ridge, the train looked down over a winding river that surely met the mighty body of water they had crossed on the bridge. A ruin clung to the far bank of the river. Twisted, rusting metal reached for the sky. Birds nested in empty floors of the towers. Foliage carpeted the lower floors, working its way up over time.
Forest swallowed the broken city. Oaks, ash, birches. A heron flew alongside the train until the whooping of the rowdy passengers scared it away.
Woodland became grassland, then scrub. Bare earth stretched on and on.
“The world is still healing,” said Felicia.
“It will be for a long time,” agreed Melanie.
“The people of the old world had great nerve to desecrate the beauty of nature. Another generation and we might not be here.” The spectacled girl pushed freckled fingers through red-brown hair.
“And yet they are our ancestors. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We owe them our lives.”
“They owe us a world,” said Felicia, bitterly.
“It’s not so bad now. We can breathe. We can eat. The last of them weren’t responsible for this. They were left to make the tough choices. They made us.” Melanie’s voice carried a tone of reverence. “Imagine having to look at the ruin of the world, facing extinction and admitting that you had to fundamentally alter your nature to ensure a future for your children. We are something more and less than they were. More peaceful. More resilient. Less violent.” Soothed by her words, Cairn’s lids were drooping.
He woke in darkness, lying in Melanie’s lap. “Get up, sleepyhead, time to go to bed.” For a while her words filtered down into his mind through a fog. He was going to bed with her? It rang a bell, a distant bell.
Snoring surrounded them. Some were still whispering to each other, looking out of the windows. Blinds had been pulled down over glass. Teenagers slept with their heads against a reflective surface beyond which the stars gleamed.
Shivering, he tiptoed down the aisle towards the rear of the train. They had to step over boys and girls who were lying down between the seats because there was nowhere else.
The sleeping cart was busier. Every bunk had one or two in it. Most were snoring. Some lay awake, unable to sleep because of the endless noise from the rest.
Either side of their bed were sleeping boys and girls. That they had respected the sanctity of clothing reservation said something about remade humans, Cairn thought. There was no chance the people of the old world would choose the floor when there was a bed only saved by a scarf and gloves.
Wood creaked as they lay down together on the thin matrass. With her arm wrapped around him, Melanie fell asleep in moments. He lay awake. Outside the window were stars he’d never seen before. The rhythmic gah-ton gah-ton sound of the train welcomed him back into dreams of the girl behind him. Her warmth and the hand against his stomach made sleep irresistible.
“Cairn. CAIRN. Wake up.” Rude hands shook him. He groaned. “I can see it, Cairn. Come and look,” her voice had never irritated him so much. His dreams of her had been a perfect mix of soothing and erotic.
“What can you see?” He rubbed his eyes.
“That you were dreaming about me,” she said with laughter in her voice. “Good boy.”
He turned over onto his stomach, hoping no one else had heard her. Her beautiful voice wasn’t helping him recall the blood from his morning glory.
“Come on.” She rocked him with uncaring hands. “I want to see your face when you see it. We’re almost there.”
He rolled from the bed and yawned. Her hand waved him to the window next to her. Cairn stretched stiff muscles and tried to find the target of her pointing finger. Orange light bathed the world. Streaks of red had been painted across the sky. Pink clouds were few and far between.
An imposing silhouette peered over the horizon. A head and shoulders dwarfed everything that lay before them. Cairn’s mouth lay open as he tried to comprehend the scale of something visible from so far away.
“That’s what I wanted to see.” Melanie kissed him. “Felicia is waiting for us in the stables.” She walked away. He caught another glimpse of the huge statue before following her to the rear of the train.
“The Last Soldier,” Felicia squeeled.
“I know!” Melanie’s voice hurt Cairn’s head. He winced.
“Another hour, you think?” Asked the redhead.
“Maybe two, it’s that big,” said the curly raven-haired woman of his dreams.
“Is he always so talkative?” Asked their new friend, with a teasing smile.
“I can’t shut him up.” Melanie laughed. “Cynthia is beautiful.” Her brown hand rubbed the black horse’s nose. Somewhere behind them another horse snorted in derision. “You are, of course, just as beautiful, Sam.” She gave a glittering smile as she looked back at his stall.
In no mood to talk, overwhelmed by the smell of horse manure, he walked to the back of the train. In the east a familiar golden orb sat above the horizon. Ruins overrun by the wild showed the scars of the last war. A crater had become a lake. Rivers ran down old streets.
“Brutal, isn’t it.” A boy wearing an orange and clay coloured poncho turned towards Cairn. A swirling tattoo covered one side of his face and ran down his neck past his collar.
“I guess that’s why we are what we’ve become.” Cairn couldn’t say why he was drawn to look at his hands. He was searching for some intangible difference between him and the homo erectus that had been waging war with itself for millennia. They were the homo pax, the children of peace.
“I’ve read a lot about what they thought it would be like to change from them into us,” said the tattooed boy. “They thought they would be lessened, neutered or something. Finding peace wasn’t losing something. It is the greatest gift we’ve ever been given. We never have to worry about each other again.”
Cairn nodded, eyes glazing over as he thought about it. “I’m Cairn.” He held out his hand.
“Aled,” said the other boy, reaching to shake. More tattoos were revealed as his forearm slipped out from his cream-coloured sleeve. “Wow.”
The Last Soldier loomed as they drew closer. Rusty shoulders towered over the horizon. Something in the warrior’s arms aimed towards the sky. They knew from old world media that it was a gun.
There were no guns left. Every weapon in the continent had been used to make The Last Soldier. At most people had bows and arrows, or spears for hunting. Melanie and her family made both and sold them to hunters throughout the lands.
“I’d better find my tribe,” said Aled.
“I should do the same. Good to meet you.”
“And you.” When the boy bowed, his poncho flapped forwards.
Melanie was with Samwise. “Where did you disappear to?” The stable still stank of manure but with a window open, it was bearable. Bog outside the window was becoming forest again.
“I made a friend.” He stroked the snorting horse, which nuzzled him in return.
“Nice, where are they?”
“He had to go and find his tribe.”
“Everyone’s heading to the front of the train. Someone said it’s downhill soon. We’ll get the best view of The Last Soldier. Soon we’ll be too close to appreciate it.”
“Isn’t it a monument to everything we’re not meant to be anymore?” He asked.
“Yes,” she sighed. “But it’s also the biggest monument left in the world.”
“I guess we’d better look at it then,” he said. “But if the train turns then we can see as well from the back as the front. The train is definitely turning.” He took her hand, determined to be the assertive one for once.
The train began to slow, heading downhill. The pockets on armour that neither of them recognised were large enough to home families. There was no face. Goggles and a helmet hid the soldier from its audience.
It was judging them. Either it mourned the end of the age of violence that humanity had barely survived, or thought them ridiculous for building it in the first place. Haunting was the only apt description of the thing which both was and wasn’t looking at them. It was the ghost of a fallen god.
Cairn guided Melanie to the back of the train. Among the carts of the many tribes. Alone, he held her hips and kissed her.
“We’re going to miss it,” she said, breathlessly.
“It’s right there.” He pointed over her shoulder.
Looming above them, many miles away, The Last Soldier held its vigil.
“Aren’t you going to look,” she asked, as he nuzzled at her neck.
“I’d rather look at you. It’s the past. Hopefully you’re my future.”
For once, she blushed. Melanie’s arms folded around them. They forgot the twice in a lifetime view. Kisses down her neck brought gasps from her. Fingers digging into his shoulders made him wince, dragging her hand down his back.
Her trembling hands fumbled with her buttons as he kissed his way down her chest. Her shirt fell away. Beaming with pride at the awestruck look on his face, she embraced him. “Your turn,” she whispered. Together they freed him of his long-sleeved T-shirt and lay down on their clothes.
“I’ve never,” Cairn said.
“I know.” Melanie smiled. “You’ll be great.”
A horn blared.
They looked between the carts. The reimagined bones of an old-world station swallowed the train.
“Seriously, now!” Melanie frowned, reaching for her clothes.
“We’ll find somewhere later,” he said, eyes worshiping her body.
“Put some clothes on, quick.”
“I love you,” he said.
She paused, thrusting her hand down a sleeve. Bending down again, she kissed him. “I love you too.”
Sunlight burst through glass in every colour of the rainbow. Smiling as the carts changed from red to blue to yellow and so on, they kissed again. The Last Station was a sight to behold, especially when they did so hand in hand.