It was the mid 21st century when they came. The armada fell upon our world overnight. Of course we tried to fight back, at least our grandparents did. Their bases plowed into our planet and unfolded a foothold that stood strong against everything we threw their way.
In the end it was our own stubbornness that ensured our survival. Our relentless refusal to give in to the aliens they called the Titans. Humanity wouldn’t bow, wouldn’t be made slaves, wouldn’t be conquered. Nearly down to throwing rocks in the end, we kept fighting... We were almost annihilated. By the last numbers anyone heard the human race was down to fewer than three million worldwide. Nothing could really be called a victory but we few survived.
Then one day, the enemy left. Their ships took back off through the black clouds that they had left behind, taking their troops with them. The fight was abandoned, and we were left to recover in a broken world. We never knew why and few asked. It was a bittersweet sigh of relief as survivors picked up the pieces and tried to rebuild.
My name is Reagan Crenshaw. The year is 2176, and that was the story we all learned as children.
Now I teach a new generation about things my own father could barely remember. The invasion, the struggle and ultimately… the survival of our home.
This is my story.
Chapter 1 - Lessons
I look out at the eager young faces of our next great hope. Once upon a time a 17 yr old teacher would have been nearly unheard of. However here I stand, an elder in our world doing their part to keep the spirit of our parents going.
"Who can tell me why we don’t go outside?"
I scan the hands raised in excitement. They so innocently accept the world as it is. This vast lonely isle closed off from the skies. I could barely even remember the look of clouds before the dome was finished. At least I think it is a memory. That can be a funny thing sometimes. The mind plays tricks on us. A thought that you’ve heard enough times can feel like your own even if the image is a conjuring of pure imagination. I couldn’t have been older than a toddler myself… and to be honest sometimes I doubt whether or not it was real.
“Reagan, pick me!” Came the excited response.
“That's Miss Crenshaw, Anna” I point to my housemate in the third row.
“Because of the oxidous."She beamed with pride as she said it. A feeling of irony played with me momentarily to see the excited child say that word.
“Oxidous”. The bane of our world. The thing that brought us low before the alien threat. Over 100 years had passed, and this was the lesson.
The oxidous was and is a silicon-based, biotechnical nanite cloud that was originally too alien for our people to conceive of. It spread across our world and darkened our skies, literally eating our technology. The fog created rust almost instantly on any ferrous surface it touched. That was only the first sign. The next was the wholesale decomposition of every metal, ferrous and non ferrous alike. As the cloud self propagated, the speed of its efficacy increased at an exponential rate.
Our weapons were useless, our communications turned to paperweights. The single biggest advantage of the days before turned against us as every conductor corroded, every valve jammed, and every vehicle stopped in its tracks. The basis of our technology, our mastery over metals and the hubris of thinking it could last forever was our undoing... Nothing short of vacuum sealing slowed its destruction. Too late we realized that it wasn’t only the machines. The oxidous took a human toll as well.
Our blood was also affected. Our scientists affirmed that it must have been tailored to our planet. Even after the departure of the Titans, their poison stayed in the air slowly turning our blood to sludge as the iron inside rusted and thickened, clogging our arteries.... Painfully killing us all in delayed time. My father was one of the oldest of his generation, living to almost thirty five.
My whole family have been elders because of something that used to be a disorder. They call us anemics the lucky few. All things considered, I suppose we were lucky to have time with our parents. The first generation lasted merely 10 to 15 yrs after it started. The higher concentration of the oxidous made the effects harsher on their bodies.
However in their short time, these survivors of the war found a way to protect their children. They secured the future of the human race and built the great dome that covers our city. We never suspected that there might be more to the tale or what might have been hidden from us.
First came the towering wall constructed from the wreckage of alien ships, running as far as the eye could see. It crossed rivers and land splitting us off from the world outside. It stood 20 meters high along its entire length. When the wall was finished there came the generators. Forty-seven massive engines charging away day and night, housed in plastic and rubber, sealed within multiple levels of protection. Then finally came the dome. A selectively permeable plasmatic shield powered by two nuclear reactors, holding back the scourges of Earth’s ruined skies.
Our city stands, the last remaining fortress of eastern North America. The story is part of our history, the reminders a part of our everyday lives. There is a quote carved above the entry to countless buildings throughout the city “Ut Alii Vivant”
“So that others may live”
These words are never far from our minds.
Papa had worked on dome maintenance for 20 yrs, nearly a lifetime for many, going by plans left to him from his father before, and his mother. It was Information that is taught now only to those servicing the generators. My cousin told me once that my great grandmother had been the first keeper of the plans. Her husband, my grandfather had given them to her for safekeeping. He was lost in the war, some unmarked grave beyond our walls. His vaulted title had once been the “Secretary of Defense”... all but meaningless now.
We, this generation of orphans, are the first since Titan -fall to have a chance at a full life. The dome has sealed us off entirely. The remaining oxidous fell dormant over time and our air is clean. Most of us are lost in the world, toiling at a life set apart from an outside we have never seen. Working to keep in repair the legacy of our parents. Many of us are under-educated, knowing only the specializations taught by apprenticeships. Engineers who know nothing of history or agriculture, farmers who cannot read nor write.
This class, these children will not have to live as we did. Their parents live today. Parents that will reach a ripe old age, parents that will be there to teach and watch their children grow. Now our city is growing. I see it every day as I go to the food replicators. More and more children flooding our streets. I think of the women my age and younger who have started their families already and I wonder what our parents would have thought of our progress. I for one am in no hurry to be a mother. I have my children in class and I teach them. Children like Anna, who feel as much a part of myself as I can imagine.
I have lived, since the death of my father, in what was once known as the Library of Congress. One of the great stone buildings in this city that still stood in the face of the oxidous. They are the original reason so many survivors flocked here. The iron bars inside of the concrete colossi of the cities left cracks and holes allowing the structures to quickly crumble under their own weight. The wooden stick homes assembled with nails and screws fell in on themselves long ago… But here we have stone. Here we have marble. Here our concrete structures were built long ago and stood strong without the advent of a thing once called “Rebar”.
My home is magnificent. Its large walls and hallways housing my entire collective in addition to 2 other groups which people whisper are based around the “founders” of our city, “Heads of Government” they say. I suppose it’s true, but as said before, these days those titles mean nothing. We are respected for our roles in our society and nothing more.
Collectives of course are our own versions of family, cousins and siblings older than ourselves, banding together with their friends and selected family to take the responsibility of parenting the young. As for our collective, we and the others that share our home choose to focus on education. It was a conscious decision to move into the library. From what we could find in the buildings of new DC, the ink of countless books has become faded by the oxidous. The pages have discolored and become brittle. Our collective, focuses heavily on preserving these works and the knowledge within. Fortunately the metal doors were historically or artistically considered of enough import to be sealed long ago but their sheer weight as they presently exist, encased entirely in glass, can be a burden to move. Most of the time they stand open to the world outside.
We make our ink without the iron commonly used to create black. Every child I grew up with was taught to keep a journal. The journals of our own parents often passed down for us to finish. Several of my peers spend their days and nights transcribing the words of the faded into newer volumes. We are a collective of scholars and of teachers, ranked highly in status for our roles.
I teach so that others may know more than a specialized knowledge. My studies come from both what I read in this house of books and from my interactions with workers from around the city. I continue to be a student as much as a teacher. My classroom however is the most prestigious in all of D.C. and my students come from kilometers around to be taught by “the best”.
Our “school” sits in what was once the place our leaders formed laws. It is still called the Capitol building, an oversized classroom to be sure. The ceilings are so high that their decorations loom above like gods. Only 2 other classrooms occupy the building on a regular schedule. Most of its vast empty maze of hallways and offices go unused, empty space for the students to explore and play.
For now my attention is drawn to the flicker of the lights. I know that outside they must be doing the same. For weeks now this has been going on. Something is wrong with the generators. I haven’t heard word on what the problem is, but all of us have noticed. Eventually the field of plasma that sustains our protection from the wastes will begin to fail... unless we can learn how to fix them. Strangely the original plans don't include instruction for repair, and without spare parts lying around... We have more questions than solutions. There are gaps in the history of construction, large gaps that no one seems to have answers for. Actually it’s about more than just the dome. Sometimes our history itself leaves me to wonder. This is also part of why I visit the workers of each section. It is a personal hope that something will turn up a clue.
When I was younger the brilliant pink of hot plasma shone bright all hours of the day and night. I used to squint upward, dreaming that I could see the clouds through the field... My eyes would burn with blurred spots afterward, the dull after vision of greens and blues left splotched in the familiar patterns of shifting plasma. Now though, my childhood dreams of clouds are closer to real than ever before, and they are the terror that haunt my nightmares. If the dome fails, then the replicators are next. No protection, no food... and “them”.
We all know something has happened to the animals outside. Every so often we hear the noises from beyond the walls. Even rarer we hear whispers. Stories from a watch guard along the towers... the proverbial bogeyman beyond our city. Worse than the long gone Titans, more menacing than the oxidous... Before I knew of genetics or viral engineering it was explained to me many times as this.
"The aliens needed something in their food, so they remade the animals to be like them."
This was the reason for the replicators as well as my fears. Though the fish and birds remained the same as they had always been, no mammal on earth, outside of humanity had been left unchanged... and even some reptiles were inexplicably affected. What once had been small were no more, what once had been docile, now aggressive.
For now, I sit in my classroom as my students use recycled paper to write their assignments. I continue to immerse myself in my books as I have always done. Today’s was a journal, and the entry on this very topic. There are no photos, but I can imagine easily.
“I almost died today out by the gennies. I was finishing the third layer of plasticote over the switch casings and Ronnie started yelling it. “Chihuahuas Chihuahuas!!” Now I wish I didn’t have to say this… but I’d always heard about how small they were before... Kind of like a joke ya know? And I sorta remembered something about them being ugly... But I don’t remember anything ever being told to me about the exact size. (The museum didn’t exactly have a section for house pets...) Anyway, I turned around to see these two ugly fangy things nippin at each other about 50 meters off.
So I took off for the ladders but the ugly bastards spotted me. They must've covered the distance in under 2 seconds I swear. Luckily Ronnie got one of the ugly things with her bow before it could get to me. The other one managed to catch me on the climb and got me by my ankle but Ronnie got it between the eyes.
I don't figure I'll be working the borderline any more though. The foot's never gonna be right again. Medic said the ankle’s broke at least three places. I gotta talk to someone tomorrow bout switching jobs. Back in the day, my momma used to talk about, well, something like this would have been treated by a doctor that could see into the bones, but I guess we’ll never have that back. I know I should be thinking bout how different things are gonna be with a cane but my mind just keeps popping back to Ronnie. She saved my life today. I do think I love her for that.
I don’t know why someone would have ever wanted a pet with such nasty looking teeth though. What was wrong with our parents? It could have ripped my leg off if it’d bit any higher. It’s a shame all that meat had to go to waste. There must have been a good 60 to 70 lbs on just the one that got my leg. I’m tired of reconstituted algae. Damn the Titans for all of this.”
"Miss Crenshaw?"I nearly jumped out of my chair at the small voice pulling me from my book. There was little Billy Roman. He giggled at the thought of scaring me.
"Sorry Miss Crenshaw" he said apologetically.
"It's ok Billy, What is it?" I asked.
"It's four o’clock" He said matter of factly.
I glanced over to the clock. He was right. Class was officially over. I thanked Billy and stood to address the students.
"Alright everyone, have your papers on rust prevention finished to bring in by Monday morning. Have a good weekend and be careful going home today. I will see you bright and early in the new week."
The kids began filing out of the large room as I settled back into my chair to gather my things. I shouted at Anna as she skipped towards the exits.
"I'll see you at home sweetie"
She was the closest I had to an actual child of my own. Her mother had died in childbirth and I watched out for her specifically. She lived in the library with us. Ideally we would be able to prevent that type of familiarity with our students, but there are only six teachers in town. Two of us for each age grouping. My students were mid rangers, 7 to 12 in yrs. We kept to the pre war tradition of schooling Monday thru Friday, and off during the summers so that the kids could help their parents with work. It was mainly useful for the farmers, but it also gave needed apprenticeships across the city.
As I filled my bag, I picked up the journal I had been reading from my desk. A cold chill ran down my spine. Unlike the writer of the journal, I had seen images of the described house pets before. Chihuahuas were surely ugly enough before the Titans. I couldn’t even imagine the thought of eating one before or after. Give me replicator rations any day.
“Four legs, without eggs, the meat will stop your heart. Fur or hair, leave it there, it’s deathly to take part”
Those words were something that was drilled into all of us as soon as we could understand what words were. It's not like we could exactly go outside and kill something in the first place... but we understood as we got older. Someday we would leave this city, and we had to remember. Our children would have to remember.
I threw my bag over my shoulder and headed out into the hallways of the building. I always slowed to admire the architecture. Such massive yet ornate workmanship. It was humbling. It was a reminder.
These halls and buildings could each hold nearly our entire population. Its construction probably required more than that alone. I often wondered what it must have been like to see skyscrapers. Giant buildings of metal and glass that once were... it’s true that there were remnants of such strewn around town, but nothing like the pictures and descriptions of New York or London. It’s hard to fathom so many people that those buildings were a necessity.
Of course then there is also the descriptions of the Titan ships; flying bases that could crush entire city blocks beneath them. 500 meter tall cubes of dark black falling onto the earth and drilling their way into its crust like some type of giant mechanical leech.
Damn the Titans indeed, can’t even daydream without their shadow.
As I finally made it to the stairs outside I looked up toward the flickering shimmer of our pink sky and I paused to sit. I looked out to the river in the distance, the algae barges docked as their automated systems cultivated the raw ingredients for the replicators. Continuing to gaze out from my lofted position upon the stairs. As I imagined things I had never known. I thought specifically about rain. Between the oxygen scrubbers and the atmospheric controls, our micro system was always under control... Even with the pipes and irrigation systems spanning into the farmlands, the most I could ever hope for would have also been the equivalent of a disaster. One burst pipe and suddenly a district loses rations until all is fixed and supplies restocked.
It was always like that.
Every detail had to be carefully tended to, every second of every day. 10.23 miles, 16.4 kilometers, to support 739 citizens under a complete balance. Maintenance is a round the clock job. Anyone over the age of twelve works. We all pull our weight. This infrastructure though heavily modified as it has become, was built up over the years to support nearly nine million people before the war. Now there are less than 800 to maintain it.
Nine million people... it's a hard number to wrap my head around. Of course by the time the dome was turned on most of them were either dead or had long since left, fleeing to the less centralized areas. Who wants to stick around the primary target of their enemy? It was six years into the war and the only people left, 334 holdouts, no armies, no infrastructure, no backup, were living underground. Then the dome was turned on.
The families of the last handful of what used to make up the governing bodies of the United States survived here. People who either refused to give up, or who simply recognized their last chance. There are bunkers and structures extending all the way out to Alexandria entrances below nearly every building left standing. Even my classroom housed networks below that carried outward to the entrances of Mt. Weather. They came with doors that would take years for the oxidous to dissolve. Most of them, originally intended for thousands were home to under twenty in the end.
Who could blame them for running? Who could blame them for staying?
As I made my way to the last step I turned to head towards the gardens. Of course the buildings didn’t all last long into the war, but even after the metal had given out and glass fallen away, the gardens remained. I admired them as I passed. I heard the laughs of 2 of my students and continued on toward the entrance for the 3rd street tunnel. I knew that Anna’s father Luke would be there. It was his own private place away from home.
My father had been one of the workers who originally helped seal the ends of the tunnel. It had but a single door, and the lighting was questionable at best but it was always cool, always dry, and always a welcoming atmosphere. Luke had even made a bedroom for Anna to sleep when he worked late.
He had years ago carried his bookmaking supplies into his special “office”. It took a dozen people to move everything over the course of a week’s time. Luke always preferred to write on treasury paper but he wouldn’t work in the treasury building itself. There was something about the acoustics in this place that he enjoyed and he had turned it into quite the office space.
There was no bother in knocking as I opened the door to peer inside. I could hear Luke’s voice amplified through the cavernous room as he sang to himself. There he was, dancing behind his desk, pen still in hand. I smiled and crept in quietly trying to remain unseen. I always enjoyed watching him when he was unaware.
The walls of the tunnel were filled with paintings and furnishings he had procured from around town. Many of which he had taken right from the walls of the capital's own bunker. Not that any of Luke’s collection should be surprising to anyone that knew him. Six months ago I had to help him roll Thomas Jefferson’s desk down the highway on a dolly so that he could write on it every day. It was something that made him feel connected to the past, and he took pride in having it in “his” space.
Today it was a painting in the center of the room by his desk that caught my eye. So far as I knew from books it shouldn’t have even been on this continent. Maybe it was on loan, or maybe it had been moved to Washington when The Louvre began to collapse. Either way, the blues and sharp yellows were bolder than anything I had ever seen. No pink light in here to change them or skew them towards the magenta, just true color.
I managed to get within 10 paces before he turned to see me. A nonchalant smile played across his face as he twirled once more, slowly. His wavy blonde hair flipped over one side of his face. His singing stopped and he placed his inkwell onto the desk before stretching to lean over it while he popped his back. He nodded towards me and I was confused.
“BOO!!!” I was startled for the second time today as Anna and a young boy named Alruc jumped from behind me and began to tickle my sides. The sound of their giggles as well as my own collided with Luke’s raucous laughter within the echo chamber of the oversized “office”. I nearly lost my footing over the edge of the rug and was on my way down when Luke’s hand reached out to catch me. He had come straight over the desk before I could hit the floor, and an arm now wrapped round my waist pulling me back to my feet.
“Alright scout” Luke laughed. “I think Miss Crenshaw has had enough for the moment. Go play.”
Anna and Alruc voiced concurrent protesting “awww”s as Luke shot them a glance. His eyes sparkled blue and he let go of my waist walking back behind his desk. He tapped his pen lightly on the desk’s side. The children raced each other toward the door and out into the afternoon. Luke stood there for a moment, hands behind his back once again stretching before a large yawn. His tall frame and broad shoulders arched backward. He arched his thin body like the image of an old alley cat from a picture or a movie.
“You brat. That's contagious” I spoke as I began to yawn as well.
“Had to get out of that chair for a bit.” He smiled
“Sure you did, mister...” I searched my mind for a famous singer of old, but came up temporarily empty.
“Oh, always with the wit huh?" Mister what is it today?” Luke bowed as he smirked. I simply squinted my eyes in his direction, then in a playful act of childishness I stuck out my tongue before settling into the chair opposite Luke’s' new painting.
“So, where did this one come from?” I inquired with genuine curiosity.
Luke sat into his own chair and picked up his pen, which he tapped on the bottom of his chin. “It's a Van Gough. Found it this morning under the pentagon. Your family wing as a matter of fact.”
“Oh so it’s mine then?” I asked with my own smirk.
“Not until tomorrow you. Seems fitting for an 18th” He retorted.
“Oh...” I stopped halfway. I had genuinely forgotten.
“How the hell do you remember my birthday when I don't?” I asked.
Luke smiled and tapped his pen to the side of his nose. It was a gesture I that I never quite understood, but it seemed like it should have been too obvious to inquire about. I played along like I knew what it meant and quietly looked towards him across the desk.
“You're welcome.” He said it with such calm assurance. His voice deep and comforting all at once. Luke has been my best friend for a long time and before that as an older brother in the collective.
He is twenty three years old. His wife, Anna’s mother, had been my first cousin. I never knew how Luke stayed so strong. It was after her death that we helped him build this office. I had heard him crying a few times before in the library and believe that this place was somewhere that he had originally come so that he could mourn in private... Luke had been only sixteen but he never leaned too heavily on the collective for help. He was a father thru and thru, and Anna was a wonderful girl.
I stayed in the office with Luke for the next hour as he wrapped up his work. We found Anna sprawled on the meadow by the gardens with her friend Alruc. They both looked up towards the pink light of the dome.
Alruc’s family lived in the Supreme Court building and he walked back with us as far as such before departing ways. Anna grabbed my hand on one side and Luke’s on the other as she backed up to swing forward between us.
“Scout, you’re gonna be too big for that soon” Luke smiled at her. She grinned back.
“Hence the need to do it now” She giggled. Luke did too. He looked my way.
“Hence, huh?" Looks like your teacher may be rubbing off on you”
My eyes met his as Anna swung between us. There was something different about his smile these past few weeks. It was happy, yet bittersweet. The sadness that played behind him was new.
Anna's swinging stopped as she let go of our hands to race up the stairs. Luke and I held back walking slower. I glanced down towards my feet before I spoke. “So, you ready for the summit Sunday?”
Luke now looked down before raising his head up again to speak “First one in ten yrs...”
I saw his lips pinch together, deep in thought. His feet kicked at the step before his mouth opened again. “I'm going to volunteer.”
I stopped and looked at him. He turned with his hands in his pockets
“It's gotta be done.”
“That’s why I’m going. I want her to grow up safe. We can't just pretend it’s not happening… and I trust you to look after her...”
I stepped up toward his body and reached for him to take my hand.
“Luke... I can't...”
His eyes widened in surprise and hurt. I finished my sentence.
“I'm volunteering too... The city needs you.”
“The city needs you Reg! You’re a teacher!”
“And you're a record keeper! I’m an anemic!”
I lowered my voice and trailed off .
“I have a better chance...”
Our hands broke apart. We each looked at each other. We both knew the others reasons. I couldn’t tell him that he was the one person I wanted beside me out there but I hadn’t expected him to volunteer... not with Anna, not with his responsibilities. I looked down towards the bottom of the steps to my left, trying my best not to cry. My legs wanted to run almost as much as I wanted to kick his ass. After a silence that seemed to go on forever I heard his voice again, speaking to me in that calm deep tone of assurance.
“You’re right... You do have the odds in your favor.”
I looked back to see his eyes, both soft yet determined.
“But you're not going alone... ”
I stared up at him. His lips curled harshly for a moment. I knew that look. When he’s made up his mind there simply was no changing it. He could be as stubborn as a brick bound root. Even speaking as sternly as I forced myself, I tried to plea towards his reason.
“Anna can't come with you Luke”
He kicked again at the step looking away from me, holding back what I knew had to be a tsunami of emotions. His voice nearly a whisper as he walked away into the stone walls of the library...
I watched him disappear into our home. My legs nearly gave out on me. I sat upon the steps and looked out into the darkness sitting behind the pink glow of fluid plasma. It was always for the children… Even in the harshness of their little lives and the burdens laid upon them… Every action that we took…
“So that others may live”