The Suitsmith pulls the drawstrings tight around the face opening of Taepar Drappo’s coveralls, completing its airtight seal over his body. Taepar’s pulse quickens, and he sucks in a breath, as the silicone respirator housing lowers over his face. The clear plastic face-shield refracts the flickering light from the exposed bulb in the dressing atrium, casting an axis of illusory rainbows around the room. His shallow breath echoes in his ears and fogs the interior of the mask, as the Suitsmith tugs the straps tight around his head.
The broad man at his left he knows only as Jubba. The Soldier’s coveralls are mottled with fabric patches and duct tape — the newer suits having been reserved for the more valuable Scouts. While Taepar is only a Scout’s apprentice, already he outranks his large companion, and has been issued a suit that, while faded and worn, is fully intact. Jubba grunts and knocks his fists together, as the Suitsmith gives him a once-over and a thumbs-up.
No one in the Nethers has more clout than the man to his right. Rosh Tentein isn’t just a Scout. He is the Scout. His forays into the Loft may have left him scarred and hobbled well beyond his fifty years, but he is the man who discovered Eden. And of all those who have seen it since, he is the only man who has survived each time to tell the tale. Taepar swallows in a vain attempt to wet his parched throat. He’s going on his first mission with the Scout. His idol. The savior of his people.
“Ready, men?” Rosh slaps his companions on their shoulders.
Jubba grasps his trident with both hands. “Let’s do this!” Taepar can only smile and nod.
Rosh’s gait favors his left foot as he shuffles toward the airlock. The walls are covered with enlargements of the digital photos he’s taken of Eden. Nestled at the base of steep, rocky cliffs, the verdant valley bursts with color from fruited trees, and flowering shrubs, bisected by a crystalline, rolling river. Having been born and raised in the Nethers, Taepar tries to imagine what it will feel like to one day wade into the fresh water, and breathe the open air, and stroll through the fragrant woods, of the one land that somehow survived Doomsday.
The Doorkeeper pulls a bandanna over his face and wrenches open the airlock, and the trio step through into the ascent tunnel.
“Stay close, but let me have a look around before you come out,” Jubba says. At the top, Jubba pops open the hatch, flooding the cylinder with daylight. Taepar winces from the brightness. He’s had a dozen visits to the Loft for Scout training, but the contrast is jarring every time.
Jubba gives the all-clear signal, and the Scout and his apprentice step from the portal. The former metropolitan landscape that surrounds them is a crumbling, twisted mass of concrete, steel, and glass, covered in a powdery, gray ash that drifts on the intermittent breeze, below a permanent ochre haze. Taepar has seen pictures of the Before, when proud, sprawling cities stretched high into bright, blue skies. When smiling citizens strolled on bare feet over soft, green lawns, feeling the warm, golden sun on their skin. Any such foolishness these days would spell one’s certain demise — a blistered, oozing, wheezing death, from the thousand-rem radiation still believed to infect the outside world.
“You coming, Greenhorn?”
Taepar jumps from Rosh’s interruption. “Sorry.” His face warms with embarrassment.
“Don’t be sorry,” Rosh says. “Be better. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover before nightfall.”
The small band makes its way through what was once a thriving suburbia. Jubba is visibly impatient of Rosh’s slow pace, while Taepar appreciates the opportunity to absorb the bleak surroundings, and imagine what they once had been. Most of the dwellings had been leveled in the relentless waves of nuclear fire, but some parts of the sturdier structures remain erect, lonesome monoliths in an endless desert of cinders. Relics from an extinct civilization.
“Let’s go over the Delphi again,” Jubba says. “When can we expect to see them?”
Rosh clears his phlegmy throat. “We won’t have to worry about them for a while. They don’t venture out of the valley.”
“You sure about that?” Jubba waves his hand. “There’s a thousand places something that small could hide out here.”
“Unless they’ve figured out how to make a radiation suit, they wouldn’t get very far. The Loft would kill them just as quick as it would any of us. They’re smart little bastards, but from what I’ve seen, their intelligence is limited to fashioning a few crude tools, not fabricating radiation-resistant textiles.”
Taepar tries to imagine what the Delphi will look like, if he does have the misfortune of running into them. Rosh’s official report had described them as “large, bipedal opossums.” Back in the Nethers, he’d looked up opossums in the “O” volume of the antique encyclopedia scavenged from the library. They’d reminded him a little of the rats still raised in captivity by the algae farmers, just bigger. Maybe someday, when he is a full-fledged Scout, he’ll be able to afford to buy a rat on special occasions. He’s heard they are a delicious change from the cultured protein soup that makes up every meal in the Nethers.
“Have you ever killed one?” Taepar asks.
Rosh sighs. “No way. They’re too damn quick. And they travel in packs, like wolves. If you ever do see one, take my advice. Run. Run like your life depends on it.” The Scout turns away and says below his breath, “Because it does.”
“The Hell with that,” Jubba says. “I’m making it my mission to introduce one of them to my trident.” He parries his weapon with a flourish.
Rosh rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “Unless you have an army behind you, I’d advise against it. That confidence of yours is going to get your neck severed. The Delphi may be small, but they strike fast. And they can strategize. What do you think happened to all the other Scouts I took to Eden? I told them all to run, too, but they … they didn’t believe me.”
Jubba smirks, and continues his stabbing and slashing dance.
The three men huddle around the fire as the last of the daylight fades in the west. The light gray smudge of the half moon overhead is the only visible feature in the dusty, black sky.
Taepar reclines in the soft ash, propped up on his elbows. “What was it like, finding Eden that first time?”
The stillness of the night stretches before Rosh’s reply. “Magical. Like a gift from God. Things were bad in the Nethers back then. All us kids used to call it the Sump. The people who’d lived in the Before were all dying off, and with them went all the hope we had left. All their stories of how it used to be. It’s not the same, reading it in a book. People were distraught and defeated. Vitamin deficiencies and disease picked off everyone weak, and the rest of us were turning against each other. Violent gangs hoarded all the supplies. The ones that controlled the geothermal generators had everyone else by the balls, including the Council. Dark times. Very, very dark.”
Rosh stokes the fire with a spoke from an iron fence, and tosses on another hunk of charcoal.
“I knew Eden would be the answer to all our problems. I took all those photos to show the Council, and was about to head down into the valley to drink from the river, when the Delphi charged me. I barely made it out of there alive.” He points to the diagonal, jagged scar that traverses his face from brow to chin. “So I knew we had our work cut out for us. At that point our people were so fragmented and hopeless, that we’d never have stood a chance against those nasty little varmints.”
The Scout coughs wetly. Jubba leans over and closes his eyes.
“But when word got out about Eden, we managed to step back from the brink. It was hope, see? Hope is the one universal drive of every single one of us. You can put a hundred different names on it — ambition, drive, hunger, lust, greed — they’re all just another word for hope, in one shape or another. And Eden was the purest embodiment of the one hope we all shared: to one day find our way back to the Loft, the birthplace of our ancestors. To live how we were meant to live.”
Jubba, who has since fallen asleep, flatulates softly and grunts. Rosh glares at him, and Taepar chuckles.
“In the years that followed, everything changed. We had a common goal. We pooled our resources, made sure everyone was well-fed, shared our medicine and our power supply, and started to care about each other again. Then we started making plans to go to battle with the Delphi. That invigorated everyone even more, having something so concrete to rally around. I went on several reconnaissance missions with other Scouts over the years, to check in on our enemy. Unfortunately, every single time, they got the drop on us. Like I said, they’re clever buggers. Thankfully, I’d managed to escape each time, but only just.” He cranes his head skyward. “I wish I could say the same for my comrades.”
Taepar sits up and holds his hands before the fire. “I’m glad you made it back safely. No one else knows how to find Eden.”
“Well, that’s where you come in, Greenhorn.” Rosh glances at Jubba, who is snoring quietly. “You’re the most promising Scout I’ve trained in a decade. You’re bright. Strong. Agile. If anyone can figure out how to handle the Delphi, it’ll be you.”
Taepar blushes. “I’d put my money on you, frankly. Look how many times you’ve survived.”
“Trouble is, I don’t know how much longer I’ve got in this world. All this time out in the Loft has taken its toll on me, even with these suits. Before I kick the bucket, I need someone else to … learn the way to Eden. Someone who’s going to be around a good, long time. Someone like you.”
“Well, after all you’ve been through,” Taepar says, “I can’t imagine us making our way to Eden without you. If anyone deserves to live in that paradise, you do.”
Rosh stares into the fire, frowning. “I wish I could, kid.”
In the morning of the third day, Rosh leads the group through a steep mountain pass. Adorning the periphery of the trail, they pass the abundant skeletal remains of both humans and wildlife, those who had apparently sought refuge here from the apocalypse that had razed the world beneath them. While they’d escaped immolation, they could not outrun the fallout, and will rest forever in this stark, anonymous graveyard.
“It’s just over the next ridge,” Rosh says.
Jubba plunges ahead, using his trident as a walking stick to scale the remaining incline more quickly. Taepar looks at Rosh, eyes wide and watery. Rosh nods, and Taepar lurches forward to catch up with Jubba. He reaches the crest at the same time as the breathless Soldier, and they stand with their hands on their knees, squinting down into the valley to find their long-sought prize. Rosh catches up with them soon after.
“Where is it?” Jubba asks. “Where’s Eden?”
There is a valley, and the rocky cliffs look the same as in the photos, but that is as far as the similarities go. The valley floor is as blackened and desolate as every mile behind them. The sky above is as polluted here as anywhere else they’ve traveled.
Jubba lets out a wet gurgle, and Taepar turns to find the Soldier holding his hands over his throat. Blood gushes between his fingers. As Taepar meets his wide eyes, the life drains from them, and he crumples to the ground. Behind him, Rosh stands holding a large knife, dripping red.
“What have you done?” Taepar backs away.
Rosh wipes Jubba’s blood from his knife. He steps next to the deceased man, picks up the trident, and tosses it deep into the valley, where it clatters against the rocks below. “Help me with him. I’m getting too old for this shit.”
Taepar is frozen on the spot, heart racing, mouth agape.
“Well, come on now. We’re going to need all afternoon to get back somewhere safe to camp.”
“You … you killed him.”
“Kid, this cretin would have exposed me in a second.” Rosh nudges Jubba’s corpse with his toe. “There’s no way I could trust a pea-brain like that with the truth.”
Rosh sighs. “On my fifth scouting mission, after two weeks of slogging through this wasteland, I’d found exactly bupkis. It was so much worse than anyone had expected. Not a single animal, no bugs — not so much as a blade of grass. Just death, endless death, all the way to every horizon. Something like that gets to you. I found myself bargaining with God. I swore that if he would give me some way to turn things around back in the Sump, I would reward him with blood, every chance I got.”
Rosh turns the knife over in his hands, and Taepar flinches.
“The very next day, I found an old laptop computer with a memory card still in it. On a whim, I put it in my camera to check it out. It was a series of photos. Whoever took them stood right about …” — he shuffles to the side — “here, when they took them. Pretty decent photographer, actually.”
“They … weren’t your photos?”
Rosh shakes his head. “Nope. Eden was long gone before I got here.”
Taepar couldn’t believe his ears. “But … why, though? Why not just tell the truth?”
“It’s what we needed to believe. And it worked, didn’t it? Turned everything right around.”
“Weren’t you concerned that people would find out?”
“That’s why I had to invent all that bullshit about the Delphi. Keep people from coming out here half-cocked, and learning the truth.”
“But … you’re the Scout!” A lump rises in Taepar’s throat. “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be just like you. And you’re nothing but a liar? A murderer?”
“Not murder. Sacrifice. Remember, I made a promise to God.”
“So all those other Scouts …”
“Killed three birds with one stone each time.” Rosh puffs up with pride. “It made me look like a hero. It kept them from blabbing. And it appeased God.”
“This is insane.” Taepar intertwines his fingers on top of his head. “You’re insane.”
“Am I though? God rewarded us, didn’t he? Humankind has never had a more coherent, productive, life-affirming society than the one in that pit back home — not even before Doomsday — and it’s all because of me and my ongoing gifts. Now, are you going to help me move this lug or not?”
Taepar shakes his head. “I can’t. I won’t. You’re crazy. I’m going to have to tell people the truth.”
Rosh rolls his eyes. “Will you listen to yourself right now? If you go back there and tell people there’s no Eden, humankind will fall right back to the same self-destructive shit we were caught up in before. Without hope of someday getting to Eden, the Nethers will descend back into chaos, and the species will implode — probably for good this time. Do you really want that blood on your hands, when all it takes to prevent it … is spilling a little actual blood once in a while?”
“Wait — you expect me to take over for you? Is that what this is all about?”
“See? I knew you were smart.”
“You’re even crazier than I thought. There’s no way in Hell I’m going to murder people, just to perpetuate a lie.”
Rosh sighs. “Well if that’s the way you want it …” He steps toward Taepar. His knife glints in the oblique morning light. “I can’t let you destroy what I’ve worked so hard for.”
Taepar inches backward, but the cliff edge halts his retreat. He hunkers down in defense.
Rosh narrows his eyes. “Sorry, but this has to be done.” He lunges knife-first at Taepar.
Taepar contorts out of the path of the blade, wrenches it from Rosh’s hand, and directs it back into Rosh’s sternum, where it sinks to the hilt. A trickle of blood seeps from the side of Rosh’s mouth.
“Don’t be sorry,” Taepar says, “Be better.”
He pushes Rosh over the edge of the cliff, and the Scout rolls and tumbles over the stones.
Taepar descends the cliff, careful not to lacerate his protective suit, and steps into the valley that indeed once had been the Eden he’d so coveted, but was now a sterile chasm. Next to Rosh’s twisted corpse lie the desiccated or skeletonized bodies of a dozen other men — Rosh’s former victims.
He wanders, tears dripping from his eyes, through the lifeless terrain, disillusioned in every possible way. His hero had been a murderous madman, perpetuating a lie for over twenty years. A lie that he would now have to reveal to the Nethers Council, and possibly face being ostracized, while his society would likely crumble around him. And above all, the land he and everyone else had assumed would be their salvation, was nothing but more of the same scorched death as everyplace else on Earth.
As he turns to climb back out of the valley, a splash of color catches his eye.
From beneath the blackened soil, a solitary flower has emerged.