~ a short story

~ art by Virgil Finlay

Twin suns burned into his scalp. From above, the visage glimmered under the vast blue; below, the Candidate stirred and withered and shook under its gaze.

He was to get the head to speak.

How? Well, that bit was entirely up to the Candidate themselves.

How best to reveal yourself to a stranger?

How best to impress? To showcase? To persuade?

The Candidate breathed deep, the chest under the folds of his robe swelled with the necessary courage to speak his soul to it.

To the Guildmask. To the Guild itself.

Underneath its chin lay the Underworks. A gilded city of automated technocratic brilliance, where members lived energized lives of opulence. The world’s winners from Before, in the ‘Age of Squander’, had fled into a compound they’d built in secret. One to house their complex sciences to the ends of perpetuating their seed. “The Guild” they’d named themselves during Terminus. Before the last bombs and the apoc-initiating storms, they’d steadily executed their plan to its fruition. Under the earth — down there, under these chromium masks doubling as cellar doors into their utopian tunnels — their society still remained today. Under there, within the confines of the Guild, existence was safe. Safe enough to allow for everything Candidates such as himself forlornly yearned for up here on the surface wastes.

A bitter gale cut through the landscape. Fraying robe shuddered as he did. Mountains on the horizon welcomed miles of desolation in every conceivable direction. He’d traveled for weeks to arrive here, at his ‘local’ Guildmask.

Hardly, he muttered but only his mind. ‘Local’ to this quadrant of the country maybe… This Candidate had long since lost the energy to speak aloud to himself along the road. He’d saved all his words for this moment. Skin and bones trembled underneath the folds. This was it.

The trip was grueling. Out of food for the final legs, with only a couple drops a day from his canteen, he’d scavenged the settles to make way for his survival through the ravages. Nowadays, the two merged to form a single locale. Outside was one big emptiness. A forever-spanning plane of nothingness. Nothing a Man could live with.

Every single living thing was gone from the settles he’d passed. Just dust and debris, not even death. The hovels were caved and abandoned. The rows and the stacks were destroyed or dismantled. C-Kits, or any recognizable components from their mechanical life-giving boons, ones that the Chancellors might appreciate enough to revoke his exile if his mission didn’t… The people? Either moved or dead. Past dead, returned to vapors for the worms and crows. He was pretty sure it was the latter. He’d found some bodies. But they were so decayed, sunbaked or altogether picked apart, that he could not hope to determine their age. The wastes did not abide knowledge of that sort.

Not that it mattered anyway. His people knew the settlers’ choice to leave Dome was an ill-fated one. Living on the road, in the open air, on the dry and dusty surface, trying to build a life out here… Yes, of course, that was a death sentence. And wayfaring Candidates such as he could bear witness to the truth of that prediction while on their own ill-fated pilgrimages…

The Self-evidence of the Wanderers, The Fifth Chronicle: Outsiders fall.

But there were different classes of Outsider. One difference between he and them lay in the outset of the quest: They were not leaving to settle the wastes, but to seek the Underworks, the Guild’s already settled, world-spanning undercity. Chancellors might label them as equally preposterous. But Candidates knew better. Their dream could not be infringed with doubt; what a stark contrast under and over the wastes will make!

He did understand that no one had ever returned. Every Candidate that left through the shears of Dome never came back. Whether they would be welcomed back or not was another question entirely.. Settlers didn’t either, generally. But their settlements could be seen in life or death. No one knew what happened to the Candidates after their journey Outside. The difference between prospective Candidates and Forever-Domers was in the meaning behind that bare fact.

They’d perished.

Or  —  they’d succeeded in their daring quest.

They’d become Guild members.

This was the hope of the Candidate, the solo traveler unto Outside.

Chancellors branded them heretics. In the most recent eras, to even speak of making pilgrimage was to doom you and your family to indefinite servitude within the mines. “Candidates”, as they proclaimed their mythic status — the prospective journeyers to ‘the glad city of gold under the earth‘ — had to make all their plans in secret. False book coverlets. Codewords and smuggled chain-links. The emotional traumas of perpetual falsehood to power, and to family. He’d done it all. As all his forebears had laid the path well. But only for those inquisitive enough to crack its blueprint. At least by the end, there was no real ‘family’ to leave.

He was alone. As every Candidate was alone.

Alone in their dreams, as ever

How many of them made it into your mouth? the Candidate asked without expectation of an answer, exhaling. The gleaming face of the Guildmask kept its expression of hard, stoic judgment upon him.

How many of them are now somewhere inside you, partying and loving and living?

…Is that really all we were seeking? A mythic world of fun, of the kind we only ever read about in the stories?

He looked down at his feet, biding more time before having to break into his monologue. Or at least, what he could remember of it… His shoes were beyond worn, and had begun to tear at the seams. Bent and broken toes, bloodied and numb, casualties from his long journey, tucked themselves there into the sand. Gales of dust buffeted him, wavering his stand there before the Mask.

What do I have to offer? he asked himself once more, for the thousandth time. Why should I be allowed entry into the Guild?

I want to live… he answered for the thousand-and-first.

I want to…

The Candidate’s thoughts trailed away as he sighted a pair of indentions in the sand before his feet. The pair of presses — recognizable as a second set of feet, with the shape of heel and toes dug in — did not fade under the elements. The stand of another had marked itself there before the Mask semi-permanently.

He stared with awe at this evidence. Someone else had made it! Did I ever really believe? What did this mean? Were they successful? He searched for footsteps in, toward the mouth’s potential opening space. There was nothing. But that doesn’t mean anything! They stood for long, while the steps inside, after acceptance, would have been swift and temporary. Perhaps even at a sprint, instantly lost to the wind at their back. This only means they made their pitch for long enough to sink the sand to this marking; their stance must have been one of power and confidence!

Like my own! The Candidate repositioned himself physically and mentally, breathing deep with easier confidence, spreading his toes out agonizingly, into the sand, into his quest’s final leg.

“I am coming!” he finally screamed into the wind, toward his phantom friend in time, his fellow Candidate. Eddies of sand trickled into his mouth. He didn’t spit any of it out because he didn’t have any spit to spare. At long last, under wobbling legs fighting to straighten with courage, he opened his mouth to speak his peace unto the Mask.

But right as he did, with the culminating horror of one already abandoned of hope, barely alive at this juncture, desiring only the small roiling blasts of mortal adventure injected into an existence void of any fire, clumps of sand before him at this trail’s end gave way. Underneath them lay the bleached ivory sprawl of his friend.

With fading awareness of it all, while cyclones burred along the horizon and another nuclear superstorm gathered up power to the south, the wayward, red-eyed Candidate gazed down at his friend and not up at the inert eyes of the chrome face while he made his pitch to whoever might be listening inside. ~