I was so lucky when the world ended. I had the good fortune, you see, to have been born into a Doomsday cult, and we had prepared for it every day of our lives. It was almost a relief when it came. Why, we all wanted to shout, why didn't you listen to us?
Two generations ago, our community had bought an abandoned mining town at the very end of the world, the tip of New Zealand's southern isle. Conveniently, it came with a schoolhouse, medical centre, and small police station with gaol. The stroke of serendipity was that it had miles of deep, long, underground tunnels, perfect for any end-of-world scenario.
It is still beautiful, our emerald green land, with snow covered peaks, and verdant valleys. If postcards still existed, then it would be just like the proverbial postcard come to life. The only movie I have ever seen, The Sound of Music, had mountains and valleys just like ours. In real life, they take your breath away.
It is in this enchanted place that my tiny wooden schoolhouse sits by the lake. Accommodating just twenty pupils, we have managed to squeeze in thirty. They are all sitting in front of me, ready to start their school day, their faces eager to learn.
"This morning, we have history, and then off to sport lessons. Rachael, can you start us off with the school anthem?"
Rachael padded to the front in her bare feet and stood at my little wooden desk. Her voice so small, yet it rang out clear and crisp in the mountain air.
Greedy were the marketeers
Financiers and auctioneers
Cruel takers were the profiteers
And cavalier the engineers when
The world came down around our ears
Deceiving were the electioneers, mastered by the puppeteers
Playing the false tunes of the balladeers
While Armageddon was paid out by the cashiers
From brigadier to privateer, rise, our brave army of the volunteers, the pioneers, the mutineers
We'll cure the poisoned atmosphere
Never again our name besmear
For we are The Ones you now will fear.
"Lovely Rachael, thankyou." I was just about to start with history when the loud hammering began. They were making another gallows. The last one had fallen down mid-execution. Overloaded, perhaps, as they were trying to hang five offenders at once, and the contraption just wasn't up to it. Any kind of mathematics was now forbidden, and the workers hadn't figured out how to measure by eye yet. Perhaps they might be able to use some sort of unmarked measuring stick? I'll take it up at the next Planning and Safety Committee meeting. Although, chances are they won't think making gallows safer for people about to die is a big priority.
"History, children, has so much to teach us. Open your textbook at Chapter 6."
We were only allowed to use numbers up to 10. Fortunately, there was only one text in existence - The Everyman's Guide to Happiness and Prosperity after the Apocalypse - so the children had no trouble finding the spot to follow along while I explained.
"Before The Event, some people, some very rich people, were planning to go to the planet Mars to live, and allow all those left on earth to perish from the floods and famine caused by the Climate Change, that they themselves had created. They built spaceships and sent astronauts - human crash test dummies we called them. Unfortunately, children, they all died because the limited air and water they could create on Mars ran out, but not before their bones and muscles shrivelled up, while they were still alive."
The children were just starting to enjoy the lesson when there was a ruckus outside. They rushed excitedly to the windows. The gallows were finished and they were bringing out the prisoners to hang. In school hours? Surely not. Or perhaps that was the idea, a furtherance of their education.
Amongst the condemned group, clad in sackcloth with their heads bowed, one person stood out. Walking tall, his back straight, head up. A mop of curly brown hair, a mouth set in a defiant smirk. Could it be him? Oh, please, no, not him.
"Well, it's your lucky day, class, we're going to have an early mark." My voice was a little shaky. "But first, of course we have to do the closing limericks."
Our short rhymes are a very effective way of helping the children retain information, it makes it really stick in their heads, the last thing they will remember for the day.
We gathered in a circle. "Sammy?"
"No planes, no trains,
No acid rains!"
"No science, no maths,
"Excellent. One more. Jacob?"
"Ten fingers, ten toes,
Anything more is not your's to know".
We high-fived each other around the circle.
"Now, off to your sports classes. Today, it's wrestling, archery, and spear-throwing. For those children who have an injury and have been excused from sport, there is a fascinating lesson in tanning rabbit hides using only the brain material, or, if you prefer, making wood-ash lye for the soap. Have fun everyone!"
Rabbits and wood, our only resources which were replenishing themselves.
I walked the two kilometres to the edge of town where the Police station stood. On the wall of the office there was still a faded print of a resplendent Queen Elizabeth 11. A grumpy resident we called "Sergeant", wearing an odd assortment of army camouflage gear and a discarded navy police jacket, several sizes too small at the waist, sat at the only desk. Paper had long ago become a rare and valuable commodity, and the only place it was used in our community was on the "Hanging Wall" in the station. The police artist drew, in charcoal, an image of the offender, with a description of the offense, and the date of the execution. The images were intended to serve as a warning to others, although for most people, the first time they set foot in the station, their fate was already sealed.
The Hanging Wall had recently grown into four Hanging Walls. So many pictures. There he was. Ronaldo Garcia. I remembered him from my class, about eighteen months ago. He was only fourteen then. Curly brown hair, beautiful big, long lashed brown eyes, and an inquisitive and challenging temperament. One afternoon in class he had asked a question.
"What do we do when the cans of food run out?"
Immediately, the other children sensed trouble and put their hands against their ears or lay their heads on their desks.
I shut the conversation down. "It will be fine, Ronaldo, we are working to heal the environment, soon all our food will be grown in the gardens, and we will be hunting and fishing. So please don't think you have to worry about that."
Even four years after The Event, the sea had refused to yield up any harvest for us other than a few fish with three wonky eyes and an octopus with two heads. Trees grew on the slopes, yet the soil in the fields remained stubbornly and mysteriously barren.
Ronaldo refused to take my hint to drop the subject and cornered me after class.
"Miss Elly, why is everyone ignoring the obvious? We need to travel to find food. I need to know how to build a boat,or navigate across land. I need to know about distances and angles and how to work out where I am. I need to learn how to draw a map so others can follow me. I need to learn a lot more."
"Curiosity killed the cat, Ronaldo. We have plenty of canned food."
He hadn't listened.
There was nothing for it, I would have to try to speak to The Boss about it. He had always had a soft spot for me. After The Event, when we were discussing what to teach the children, he had explained to me why maths and logic were not to be used. It was a great honour to be allowed this knowledge. He tried to make it simple for me.
"You like cake, Elly? He asked.
"So, eating cake will make you fat.
Elly loves eating cake.
Therefore, Elly is fat.
"Now, Elly, this is not, in fact, a logical conclusion. You are reed thin. Before The Event, people worked out how to convert words into symbols - as simple as A+B=C - and then, the maths would tell them that a statement wasn't logical. From there, it got a bit more complicated, but essentially, they used that maths, that started with this basic logic, to create programmes that made the machines think."
Each time he used the word "machines" I shuddered.
"They called it 'coding'. And then, you know what happened, and it happened very fast. First, people turned the world into a garbage dump. Then, Nature fought back. The machines fought against Nature. People fought the machines and machines fought people. Everyone lost. End of story."
He had been so busy since then, that I had hardly spent any time with him. I entered the Municipal Hall, the grandest building in our little town, and the only one of two stories. An office on the right had a sign "The Boss." I don't know when we first started calling him that. It was intended, I think, as a sort of colloquial term, almost of endearment, however lately it seemed to be only in the sense of "He Who Must Be Obeyed."
I knocked softly and held my breath. I had had years of learning to say the right thing, use the right words, to not offend, to keep out of trouble. I should be fine.
He opened the door himself. I was pleased he was alone, it would make it easier.
"Hello Dad." I said.
"Elly! What a pleasant surprise. To what do I owe this visit?""
"Well, I noticed that one of my past students was hanged this morning. I'm wondering if perhaps there's something more I can add to their lessons, something which might prevent this in the future? I mean, it does seem there have been problems with quite a few young men, and I would like to help if I can. We really need those young men."
"Sit down Elly." He patted the plush couch.
"You see, Elly, no, we don't need them. Grown men eat significant amounts of food, which we will have in the future, but not right now. We need the women, for procreation, but we don't need a lot of men for that. A few men, even the older ones, will do." He paused.
"In fact, I was going to make an announcement soon, but I'll tell you as you're here. Very soon, you'll have some new half-brothers or sisters - more than a few, I think!" He laughed.
I tried not to register the shock on my face. We had always been told, make the young men stronger, give them a bit of extra food, they are our labour force. I could barely prevent a tear dropping before I could brush it away.
"It's ok to be sad, Elly. And of course, to be happy about my news. That's part of our lore now. This is our freedom. Be sad, be happy, be in between. And then, of course, there's fear, which is perhaps the most useful feeling now for our people.
"Right now you are sad because you feel you have failed, your student is dead. So feel it! Tomorrow, I'd like you to give a lesson on the importance of following your feelings. Remember, the machines had no feelings, just logic, and that's why we'll survive.
"Goodbye Elly." And he shut the door.
The next day, I was back in the classroom. History, as usual.
"So children, before The Event, people would have a metal chip placed under the skin on their wrists." Several children winced at the concept and rubbed their wrists. "Then, the chip would pass information on to the machines, and everything that person did, everywhere they went, the things they loved, the machines would know."
Heads were shaking in disbelief. How could people have been so stupid?
"The people also had little personal machines, held in their palm. They would never put down their personal machines, and did not pay attention to their fellow humans. Even at night, the machines would make pinging noises, and show them pictures and messages, which stopped many people from sleeping. Eventually, bit by bit, the machines ruled every aspect of their lives, and told them what to do, and when to do it, and how to think and how to feel, so they were totally controlled by them.
"What you must learn is this:- your feelings are your own, and noone, and no thing, tells you what to feel, ever. Respect your feelings."
As they filed out, I told them quietly, "Remember children, fear is a useful feeling. It's ok to be scared, because that's when you know it's time to be brave."
I'll make that into a limerick tomorrow.
After dinner, I went down to the basement of my little house. In a dusty corner, I pulled out a layer of loose bricks. Hidden away, wrapped in layers of decaying cloth, were a few small, folded squares of paper and a stub of a pencil. A tattered book, dogeared, yellowing with age, mouldy in bits, but legible. "Advanced Mathematics."
I lit my candle. Time to be brave.
"This is for you, Ronaldo" I whispered to myself, and started to study it..