Time-broken bodies, illuminated by light-filled with drifting dust, lay on the concrete floor. They were draped across each other and huddled alone. A child’s hand had fallen from the clasp of their mother’s; a wrinkled man with a snowy white beard was hunched in the corner. On the balcony, a teen was curled into the fetal position, a hand reaching out for help.
Help that never came.
Oberon walked carefully, avoiding the bodies. He was too late- always too late.
He crouched before the teen. There was no fear on their face, just silent despair, loss, and grief, all preserved like a fly in amber.
It’s my fault, isn’t it? He thought. They were waiting for me, even though they didn’t know it.
Oberon. Caelon fluttered around him, before eventually settling on his shoulder. You did everything you could.
“But it wasn’t enough, was it?” Oberon’s creaking voice broke the silence. He let out a sob.
Oberon… Caelon reached out a hand towards Oberon but drew it back in. Tears formed in the tiny pixie’s eyes.
“I would've- I could’ve…” Oberon knelt on the floor, tears streaming down his face. “So much loss. And I, like a fool, listened to that monster.”
You couldn't have done any different, Oberon. It’s not within your power to understand that kind of evil.
“I, at the very least, should have understood that he was tricking me. Keeping me occupied with fighting him, while these people died.”
It was just a mistake.
“A deadly mistake. These people begged for someone, anyone to save them- their pained pleas still echo down these halls. I can hear them now.”
I do as well. The pixie tilted his head. Oberon glanced at him, eyes widening.
“There is someone here.” He said breathlessly. Oberon hastily stood up and began searching the corridors of the old building, desperately trying to locate the crying. “Please, if you’re there, where are you?”
“Is it safe?” A weakened voice answered him. Oberon turned the corner and found a sealed door. A pane of glass allowed him a glance into the room.
A young woman was sitting in a chair and holding a baby. A makeshift speaker had been attached to the wall outside, and from there issued the sounds of crying. A window had been opened slightly, with just enough air filtering through the leaves of the potted plants that scattered the room to sustain the mother and child.
“Please, is it safe?” The woman rasped.
Oberon quickly dispelled any traces of the lingering sickness from the area and nodded. The woman got up, painfully, and fiddled with the lock on her side of the door. The sealant attached to the door squealed painfully against the floor as it opened.
“Thank you.” The woman took in a big gasp of the plentiful air and nearly cried with relief. The baby’s cries grew louder with the new supply of oxygen, but Oberon held his arms out.
“May I?” He asked. The mother barely hesitated, handing over the child before collapsing to the ground, taking in large lungfuls of air.
Oberon cradled the child, marveling at it.
You saved them. Caelon said, clinging tight to Oberon’s long hair, out of the sight of the woman.
I did. Oberon thought, closing his eyes and listening to the baby’s wails as if they were music.
The radio only spit out hissing static, no matter how hard Rene fiddled with it. Littered across the floor were various scrap parts and tiny nuts and bolts that would’ve gotten lost in the carpet thirty years ago. As it was, the once-fluffy fibers were crusted and worn to the point where they could only be generously called a mat.
“-jazz music played by…”
Rene frantically smacked the side of the machine as it faded back into white noise.
“No, no, no, da-”
Rene startled, banging her fingers into the radio.
You’re being too loud. Caelon hovered in front of her, arms crossed sternly.
Rene cradled her hand and looked sheepishly up at Caelon.
“I’m trying to get this to work.”
Regina and Orson are sleeping. You are going to wake them.
“Sorry, I’ll try to keep it down.” Rene turned to the radio, and after a moment, back up at Caelon.
“Do you- need anything else?”
Why are you so intent on fixing that radio?
“I’m sure you know why, Caelon.” Rene’s jaw stiffened.
I can guess at your intentions. If my guess is correct, though, there is a very high possibility that you are needlessly risking everything that’s been set up for you and your family.
“Mom and Orson will be fine.”
You can upset things more than you know if you leave, whether or not you find him. The ripples will eventually find their way back here.
Rene’s gaze dropped.
And do not think I forgot about the disregard for your own safety. Assume you manage to track his signal. What will you do then? Walk out of here with the device and your rations for the next week? Wander in a general direction, guided only by a fallible machine, in a world you don’t know?
“That’s the most I’ve heard you say in years.” Rene snorted.
“We can’t keep living like this. You know we can’t. This was only meant to be temporary.”
You cannot leave.
“I can’t stay stationary, either. If there are two impossible situations, then there’s a choice to make.”
Listen to me. Are you going to leave on a foolhardy mission? Leave your aging mother and young brother to fend for themselves? What if you don’t come back? It will all be for nothing.
Rene’s eyes hardened. “You always do this.”
Do what? Caelon asked, rubbing his temples.
“Try to manipulate me. I’m capable of making my own decisions. We’re doomed if we stay here. The rations will run out eventually, or someone will find us. If he needs help, I’m going to help him.” Rene pushed herself off the ground, grabbing her cane and standing up. “I’m going to help Oberon.”
The pixie’s fangs bit through his lip in shock.
How do you know that name? He asked, wings moving faster, humming discordant to the static.
Rene laughed softly.
“He left me a message.”
She sat down on a chair positioned next to the radio and pulled a skinny metal cylinder out of her pocket. Pulling on the end, she extended it until it was nearly as long as her arm. She inserted one end of the antennae into the radio, and the static died. Rene adjusted some dials and then hit the play button.
Caelon lunged for the radio, then stopped short.
“I wouldn’t move if I were you,” Rene said, spinning a ring between her fingers. “I could activate this any second.”
How did you get that?
“Oberon also left it behind. Showed me how to turn on the mechanism. It sounds like a very unpleasant experience. I always wondered why you never took those iron bracelets off. You couldn’t. The power of magnets, huh?”
He told me he destroyed it.
“He didn’t.” Rene shrugged. “Now, shall we get back to the message?”
She rewound the recording and pressed play once again.
“-ne. I know there isn’t anything about this trip that should be different from any others, but I have a strange feeling. I put this package in the two-month ration packets. I know that if you are hearing this, I have not returned.
I think, then, it is time for the truth.
You have known me as Ambrose, a wanderer, who found you and your mother after a sickness overcame your entire colony. Since then, I have found safe places for us to reside, leaving in search of supplies for a month twice a year, and moving once. My companion, a pixie named Caelon, has kept watch over you on my expeditions. I’ve brought you a brother, a young boy that I found crying alone in the wilderness.
And I’ve lied to you all for sixteen years.”