Chuck’s challenge this week: Must Contain 3 Things. My three things: Library, Survival, War.
Ever gotten totally lost in a really good book? So did Elloree. Her story is below.
In the flickering light of her dying candle, Elloree resembled nothing so much as a praying mantis in smudged plaid and oversized glasses. Her spindly fingers tracked like machines across the typeface, barreling toward the bottom of the page, then flicked it over with robotic efficiency. Her radiant eyes bounced from side to side as they drank in the words like so much water down the throat of a man dying of thirst. Her papery lips alternately pursed with puzzlement or curled up with satisfaction or opened just slightly to gasp with surprise. In a matter of moments, she had finished the book and tossed it on the pile of its brethren; another stripped-down carcass added to a growing pile of bones.
She rose, dusted her knees, and ghosted her way through the aisles. They towered over her diminutive frame like guardians, shielding her from the crimson light streaming through the windows, the streaked and scorched sunlight invading her fortress as it did for only a few times every day. She floated through fiction, bandied around the biographies, and reveled past the reference section, landing at last in her favorite section: Romance. She picked out a thick volume with a strapping bare-chested man on its cover and hummed dreamily to herself as she carried it back to her nest.
Rast’s shrill whistle pierced the evening, and Nell lifted her gaze from her bedraggled footsteps.
“Up ahead,” Rast whispered, as if afraid of breaking the dusty silence. “See it?”
She did. And as it always did when they approached another town, her throat tightened. Most likely it was just full of more of the same: smoldering corpses, shattered buildings, the haunting echoes of an entire community’s tortured final moments lingering in the air like poison. Occasionally, despite all the festering death, there would be some supplies. It had to be risked.
Nell straightened her pack on her shoulders, brushed an errant strand of soot-smeared hair from her face. “Let’s go.”
The sun was almost down, but Elloree hardly noticed. She never did, as the sunset looked the same as sunrise and much of the rest of the day. With the never-breaking columns of acrid black clouds streaming overhead, only an occasional ray of burning light would streak through, and then only briefly. The rest was darkness and smoke, and her candle was guttering. She lit another and continued her story.
The extermination here had been methodical and absolute. The roads were pulverized and difficult to walk on; Rast and Nell found their footing much more easily several feet off the road in the mud and weeds. The buildings were hollowed and skeletal, their shells weird misshapen silhouettes against the fading red light. No food. No survivors. Nothing left.
“Sun’s down soon,” Nell said. “Time to go.” She hated making camp in towns; you never knew when a sentry would pass over. They were better off when they could find a copse of trees or a rampant untended cornfield. But Rast wasn’t listening. He was squinting against the fading light, his three-fingered hand needlessly visoring out the sun. “There’s a light.”
“Don’t be stupid. I don’t want to get caught out here.”
“Nell. That building. Over there. It’s intact.” he pointed with his five-fingered hand. “And there’s a light in its window.”
Nell sighed and humored Rast with a look. He was daft as a post, but loyal, and he tried to help, bless him. He was also absolutely right.
The Septids razed every building they declared “tactically useful,” which included food storage, weapons repositories, residences, schools, churches, and offices. Occasionally you’d find a squat untouched, a shed or a low-slung warehouse. This building was small — probably too small to hold anything useful — but it was also definitely illuminated from within. Not by much. A light too faint to be mistaken for anything other than the reflected glow from the scorched sun burned at one window at the nearest corner. But that one window glowed while the others were dark. Rast’s sharp eyes had picked out something useful after all.
She turned to him and nodded, drawing her pistol. “Quietly.”
The cracked and smoke-stained door opened soundlessly as Rast leaned into it, and on practiced, stealthy footsteps, they stole into the wide open space.
For a moment, Nell simply gaped. She couldn’t believe the building was so intact, but it didn’t take long to figure out why. Books had long ago gone obsolete. They’d been digitized and collected into virtual storage, which was easier to police and took up less space. Most libraries had been decommissioned, but in some outlying towns it hadn’t been finished before the overthrow. And here they were, in a library.
With somebody else. At the end of the room, a shuffling of feet, a clatter of books. They edged around the shelves and aimed their guns at the tiny girl hunched over a novel in front of a ludicrous pile of books. Her eyes peered at them curiously through the thick lenses of her glasses.
She blinked at them, and they at her, for a few tense moments.
“How are you alive?” Nell finally asked.
“How long have you been here?”
She shrugged again.
The girl seemed so carefree, so unimpressed by them. Nell felt foolish. “How did you survive the war?” She demanded, her voice growing shrill.
Rast giggled foolishly. Nell scowled. “The war,” she explained, “that wiped out most of humanity. The war,” she continued, “that destroyed this town. The war,” she finished, “that somehow left you untouched. You didn’t know?!”
Elloree shrugged, looking a little sheepish. “It’s just… well… I’ve been reading.”
Rast began cackling. “Bookworm read right through the end of the world!”
“It’s just,” Elloree said, “that they were really good books.”