Nearly four minutes ago the last deserter left through the gateway. The last sight that they would have seen before escaping to the other side was the field. A barren, open stretch of wilting grass, a muddy hue of sepia and faded brown. Those further ahead perhaps would have looked back as they faded into the spiraling neon blue abyss, a final glimpse at the long line of their kin, patiently waiting their turn, stretching to the horizon. Strangers and family alike, they all sought a common goal: escapism. Long ago, the land served as an airport runway, a hub of travel for those who traveled the expanse of the globe. Some flew with the notion of escaping the monotony of home for a while, others hoped to escape that monotony forever by finding a new one elsewhere. Such a strange idea, thought those who looked back at those simpler times. Why would one wish to leave their home for another exactly like it? Why waste the effort of the arduous journey to leave one’s speck of the earth only to arrive at one exactly like it? Those who were old enough to remember recalled a time where the planet was lively, where the infinite corners of the world were each spectacular and unparalleled, filled with boundless running water, joy, and lush green fields. Those younger simply lived in bitterness that they never got to see a world such as that, jealous that the world they received was only one of fire, tragedy and faded browns. But inspired by the ideals of escape, they created their own design, a passageway to another world, the image of the one they had never gotten to see. As the fourth minute passed, the blue vortex flickered into non-existence, collapsing under the weight of the unseeable forces. What a blessing it is, to be alive to witness its creation. What a curse, to live in a time that necessitates its birth. From an abandoned, crumbling hangar, sounds of sputtering engines and flying sparks roared quietly, marking the final breath of the great machine.
For a moment all the world was still, a monotone quiet ringing through the clearing. Then, from the hangar emerged a figure, coated in soot and smoke. All knew his name, as for those who made it through the portal without him their life had no future, and for those few who had chosen to remain he maintained a level of infamy. Rome Heidecker, the Operator. As he stepped out into the smog-filtered sunlight, he looked out at the lifeless remains of his great machine. The work of countless generations to save a dying people. With steady pace, he sulked towards the gateway. A work of brilliant salvation that he himself would never get to experience. He laid a hand on its metal frame, breathing deeply. A work that, in the end, he alone could understand and use. In the end, he was truly alone. He had saved the lives of hundreds mere minutes ago, hundreds that would go on to propagate thousands more and thousands beyond that, all thanks to his heroic engineering. But any gifts or congratulations were now locked away in another world. He would never see those blue flashing rings again, nor be able to feel their embrace.
As Heidecker stepped away, gazing towards the morning sun on the horizon, he toyed with the idea of bringing it back to life. The machine still worked, he had designed it flawlessly, but in a world so thoroughly cleansed of its natural resources, the fuel would never be enough again. Even if he did, it required an overseer to ensure the proper running of the machine, and the only one with the intellect to do so was he. He extended his hand to feel the passing leaves and bushes as he walked, trying vainly to find something, some peace. He had always said to do that, to stop and feel the wind, to admire the flowers. Before Heidecker had become so obsessed with his work, when the two were still friends. Perhaps he should’ve taken that advice when he was still young. Perhaps he should’ve been kinder to those around him, to those whose value he’d never really understood. Maybe, just maybe, he should’ve listened when they called for him to change. Now here he stood, his life as the Operator as his only memory. It was a tragic end, Rome Heidecker: A hero of legend, yet still condemned to this living hell. Since birth he had been raised to take up this role, the ultimate martyr. His childhood, his whole life robbed by study and sacrifice for this one moment. Deprived of friendship, of love, of joy. He wouldn’t have even known what to do if he made it to paradise. Whether it was worth it or not, it was too late for him to decide. Taking a final look at the gateway, the Operator turned back and vanished into the withering fields of grass.
The sun had begun to set, the smog clearing just enough for the orange evening light to shine over the otherwise lifeless runway. With labored breaths and groans, a man trudged over the nearby hilltop, taking a rest on a towering oak. Despite everything, somehow the tree had managed to survive. Truly remarkable, the man thought, to be able to still see a sight such as this. Beauty still rests everywhere, if one takes the time to look. In fact, taking the time to look at his surroundings, the man noticed something very odd. Yes, quite odd indeed. Where were all the people? The crowds of rushed and panicked survivors anxiously awaiting their portal to paradise? The notice had said to meet at sundown, right? Perhaps he was early? No, that couldn’t be right. If known for anything, Bruce Brady was known for his tardiness. He had not gained the title of The Snail for nothing. He had worked hard to achieve this level of laidback procrastination, there was no way he would’ve let it up now. Rifling through his cluttered coat pockets, he pulled out the crumpled up notice, covered in gum and lint… Ah, that was it. Sunrise. Brady stared out at the open field, then the setting sun, then the paper once again. He had missed it.
Strolling down the hilltop, Brady’s eyes rested on the gargantuan metal circle at the center of the field, cables sprouting from it like a cluster of branches. A shame he hadn’t gotten to see the final result, but that’s what one gets for sleeping in. It reminded him of back then, when they all were kids. There was a game that they’d play in the playground once classes were over, where they’d each take on the epithet of a different mystical beast before going out on a wild hunt, to see who would be the last one standing. Yes, Animals, that’s what they’d called it. The first person outside would get to pick their animal, then so on and so forth until the last. There was Rome, the noble lion, king of the wasteland. Cynthia, the erratic cuckoo, Alex the butterfly and many many more. Then there was him, the one who fell asleep during class and wouldn’t wake up until the bell had finally rung. The one who, groggy and confused, would stumble outside with only one last option to pick from. That’s how he had gotten his title, the one only allowed to slowly crawl across the dirt and grass. Not that he minded much, it was nice to be able to just relax while the others were busy chasing each other around and running for their imaginary lives. He just enjoyed watching the show. It really was just like that, wasn’t it? That’s all he had wanted to do, to sit down at the hillside to watch the zebras and giraffes run past, escaping into the spiraling steel oasis. All of his friends, finding a new playground to run through. To have one last look at the past. Brady was too tired, too lazy to move his life. He was comfortable where he was, lying on the earth, why should he? This was where those memories remained. Yes, why should he… He lay down at the base of the runway, imagining the spectacular herd rushing across, fearing for their lives if they stayed another minute in this wasteland. Then there was him, the snail, content with feeling the wind and admiring the flowers.
Skittering through the cover of darkness, a hunched figure darted between the abandoned metal buildings, wary of anyone who may be spying on her. This was her it, this was her big break. After years, nay decades of being mocked, they would understand, they would all understand! She darted around another corner and there it was. In all its nefarious metallic glory, there it was. A handful of spotlights littered the area, shining a light on the runway surrounding the great machine, but beyond them the area seemed empty. She doubted Rome would still be around at this hour. He was probably back at his lab, working on some other nefarious project or satanic scheme. It was so close, all she needed was one little piece. And so with a deep breath, she ran into the light. And the sirens flared on, a horrible screaming noise. She had to move quickly. Even if he wasn’t here, he must’ve set something up. Maybe he had created some robot servants to safeguard his property. Maybe all of the people who had gone through the portal would emerge, brainwashed by the mad scientist and stop her before she could get away. She pulled out her trusty crowbar and began heaving at the engine, the very heart of the machine. She could hear the sirens getting louder, flooding her ears with sound. With one final heave, she launched backwards, the loosened engine piece catapulting with her. With no hesitation, she picked up the piece and ran. Cynthia was about five minutes into the woods when she realized that there never had been any sirens. Nothing had chased her, there was no heroic escape scene or even a shadow in the corner of her vision. All there was was the rustling of the wind. Her pace slowed to a halt as she turned back, gazing back through the smog and dead trees. Cynthia Heidecker, the Stratagem as she referred to herself, looked back at the path of her spectacular escape, wondering if she had ever really had a plan at all.
Cynthia sat down on the forest floor. As a child she was terrified of the place, believing it to be full of supernatural monsters. Wolves, lions, something of the like. Bruce had quite enjoyed seeing her face as he told her those elaborate horror stories. Part of her still believed in them, that they would come out at any moment and rip out her throat, but decades of investigation had told her otherwise. All that was there were some rats. Maybe that’s why Rome had been so desperate to build that machine. Perhaps he had been making a portal to another world, to bring the lions back to life! Another idea she’d have to weigh against the evidence. Nothing was ruled out yet. Portal to hell, sadistic death trap, an infinite power source, who knows? She almost felt bad for the ignorant fools who had fallen to Rome’s devilish schemes. It’s what they deserved for discarding her for so long. For writing off her theories, for calling her crazy. They even had the gall to title her The Spoof of all things. Cynthia refused to believe that was a real word. It was just another lie Rome had told them. Nobody had believed her when she said Rome cheated in Animals, whatever cheating meant for a game such as that. Nobody believed her when Rome stole her lunch. Nobody believed her when she told everyone her brother wasn’t the savior golden child he claimed himself to be. But not, she had the chance to prove them all wrong. She couldn’t wait to see the look on their stupid faces when they saw how wrong they’d been. A thought hit her and her grin fell into oblivion. Who would she tell? To her knowledge only two people besides her had stayed. Well, maybe three knowing Bruce. She had worked so hard for so many years to gather proof, and now that she had it, who could she go to? Rome was her sworn enemy. Bruce, a lazy jokester and Rome’s former right hand man. And Alex? There was no joy in gloating to the one person who had always been on her side. Everyone else was on the other side. The weight of all the years she had wasted pounded into Cynthia’s chest. Why had she been so obsessed? To get back at them? To prove she was right? No. It had been to be listened to. For attention, attention she never got. Maybe if she had backed off, maybe she would have talked with them. If she spent less time conspiring and more in conversation. Maybe Rome was right when he told her she had to grow up. Maybe, but it was no use growing up now. She looked down at the engine piece in her hands and for the first time saw it for what it was: a useless piece of metal. The only achievement she would ever have, a piece of junk. Cynthia Heidecker, the Spoof, lay her back on the dusty floor, curling around her prized possession. She wished that the wolves were still alive.
As the sun rises once again, a person stands at the severed bridge between two worlds. To most they are simply The Architect, the Flower Bringer, the Bonfire, or some other moniker. They all get the point across, but to their friends both past and present, they are Alex Tumaini. When one comes of age in this world, they are given a title, an indicator of their success and defining traits. Though, in many instances Alex had observed, it was a cruel practice. Ridiculing those unlucky or simply out of the norm, and dehumanizing all of the rest. They had seen what titles and expectations had done to their friends. For one, it had driven her to frenzy, desperately trying to prove the title wrong. The second, he had become lazy, taking it as an unchangeable fact. The third, his title had driven him to isolation. Alex had been lucky, to be given so many names as to maintain all identity, to maintain clarity as to the nature of the world. Although all knew that the world was dying, perhaps she was the only one who truly understood what that meant. The others saw the grey fields, the shrouded sky, the lifeless forests, but she saw beyond them. She saw the abandoned factories, melting into the landscape, the vacant trenches laden with craters, the graves of those that no one remembered anymore. Yet when the portal opened, they did not run, flee to a better world. It wasn’t right to leave their home in such a mess. All of their lives, the four of them had been told that the only way to survive was by leaving, but through their years Alex had come to another conclusion.
Alex rested a hand on the machine. Only a day had passed, yet it was now completely cold. Did a part of them resent the others for leaving? Perhaps, but they could not be blamed. And there was no use in hating the departed regardless, all one could do is move forward. It came to them in a vision one night, a few weeks before the great machine was set to be completed. A dream of a world of smogless skies, of lush green fields, of plentiful flowers. Of forests filled with wolves and lions and all manners of life returned to their rightful place. When they awoke they knew that they could no longer leave. Circling the machine, Alex examined the gaping hole in the backside of the gateway, wires hanging lifelessly alongside silent gears. Perhaps it would take years, perhaps decades, perhaps generations. But if a portal to another world could be made by the effort of a single man, it could be done. Regardless of the impossibility of the world, it could all be done. They would need help of course. Rome’s ingenuity and brilliance, Bruce’s stubborn strength and eye for beauty, and Cynthia’s energy and imagination, but it could be done. Once upon a time, Bruce had shown Alex that even in these darkest of times, flowers still bloomed in the shade of the last trees. Cynthia had single handedly proven the existence of living animals, the rats that skittered through the seemingly inhospitable forest. And Rome, at one point in time Rome had been the love of their life, drew them in with his brilliant inventions. It would take work to bring these fractured people back together but Alex was nothing if not a dreamer. If not for themself, for a day where all could once again bask in the glory of the sun in an open field, side by side with their friends and family, then it would all be worth it. Four minutes ago, when Alex had arrived, the field had seemed dead. But looking closer at the machine, in the cracks where it met the ground, they saw something. The top of a flower bulb peaking through, not yet in bloom but waiting for the right moment to shine. In the distance, they could hear the squeaks of rats. It seemed as though the world was finally coming back to life.