Beyond the End of Time: Chapter 1
By Ben Snyder
Excerpt from the popular history Those Before Us:
Humans possess an amazing tendency t form packs known as “friends.” These are created through complex social rituals using a wide variety of auditory signals produced by flapping fleshy extrusions on the face. This strategy is exhibited very early on in development--as soon as human young begin to talk they form into teams and other groups along lines of social status, physical fitness, and gender. These groups then meet to hunt for food or entertainment and may create common lodgings, especially among younger members. Each member must show loyalty to the group protecting and providing for the others and receives safety in return.
Light, blinding light flooded in through his open eyes. His eyelids involuntarily slammed shut at the onslaught, leaving his head adrift without a sense of direction. Stiff muscles tensed as he pushed himself up and shielded his eyes against the sun overhead. Orienting himself based on the sky, the intense vertigo receded and he looked around. Tall, browned grass surrounded him on all sides, broken only by the umbrella shaped canopies of scattered trees.
Still unsteady, he levered his way into a standing position. His muscles felt cramped as if he had been lying still for a long time, and the sudden urge to move overcame him. As he ran, his trampling the grass clumsily, he finally seemed to wake up. He came to a halt beneath a large tree, eager to escape the sun. Shaking off the last feelings of drowsiness, he began to think.
Immediately, he was puzzled. He simply had no memory of anything before waking up. Even stranger, this vague hole in his mind felt completely normal. He did have some knowledge however: he could identify the various objects around him and he was pretty sure he knew how to speak as well.
“Julius,” he whispered the first thing that came to mind, “that must be my name.”
The words felt uncomfortable in his mouth, as if he were speaking around a swollen tongue.
He looked up at the leafy roof above him and something among the the deep green lured him onward. Grabbing a branch above his head, he swung up toward the trunk and began to climb. After several minutes of intense concentration, Julius poked his head into the air above the leaves.
Clouds drifted lazily off to the blurry horizon over a monotonous landscape. Julius spotted a dark green blot in the distance and, on further examination, determined that it must be a forest. Muscles exhausted from his run and climb, he lay back and rested. A sound below distracted him. He looked down to find a young girl shouting up to him.
“Hello up there! Can you hear me?” She sounded excited.
“Hey!” He waved down at her and began to descend carefully.
“I’m Elizabeth,” she said when he dropped to the ground, “what’s your name?”
“Julius. Where did you come from?” He took an immediate liking to Elizabeth’s outgoing manner.
“I just woke up lying on the grass and I decided to explore. So far, just more grass. Did you see anything interesting from up there?” She looked up at the tree excitedly.
“I think there’s a forest in the distance. We can find other people there.” He pointed off to the left.
“That’s a great idea! We can probably find food there too! Let’s get going.” Elizabeth started in the forest’s direction, beckoning Julius to follow.
The pair walked through the sea of dry grass, Julius’s longer strides keeping pace with Elizabeth’s bouncing steps. Despite having met Elizabeth only a few minutes earlier, he felt comfortable around her, as if they were old friends. To pass the time, they played games, tossing a stick between them or having short races, and when at last, the forest’s dark tendrils loomed overhead, the children’s shadows stretched out in long caricatures behind them.
All they could hear was the ruffling of trees in the wind and the clamor of birds. For a moment Julius and Elizabeth stopped and looked at each other, then they stepped into the shadow of the broad leaves. The thick undergrowth made progress difficult, but after a few minutes of forceful bushwhacking, Elizabeth chanced upon a rough hewn path. She called out to him and he burst out of a thicket, nursing several long scratches.
“This should make going a lot easier! I wonder if we can find food, because I’m really hungry. Are you alright?” she queried noticing his grimace.
“I’m fine,” his stomach grumbled in agreement as he looked at the trail more closely, “this must mean there are more people here.”
“Yeah! Which way should we go? It doesn’t really matter.” she shrugged.
Julius thought he heard a rustling sound to the right, so he pointed that way. Most of the smaller plants that dominated the forest floor had wide leaves that lent the path the semblance of a tunnel. As the duo continued, the rustling noise morphed into a rushing and gurgling sound that Julius recognized as moving water.
Elizabeth spotted something and leapt ahead exclaiming “A river!”
Julius followed her to the tunnel’s abrupt end on the sandy bank of the river. All of a sudden, Julius felt very thirsty and very hot. He started to kneel down for a drink, but instead he jumped into the water. The current was not very strong and he was easily able to stand, savoring the silky, comforting coolness of the water. While he drank, Elizabeth followed his lead and jumped in as well. Looking back at her, he saw her eyes darting around nervously and he raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t you feel like someone is watching us? Or something.”
Julius saw movement at the edge of the trees. He squinted, trying to pierce the dark shadows which now seemed onerous. Elizabeth traced his gaze and after a few seconds she broke into a smile.
“Hey you over there! Come join us!” she shouted, waving her arms.
A tall, blonde boy about their age stepped out from a bush. He was holding a stick that he had been sharpening which he waved at them casually as he walked. Elizabeth swam to meet him.
“Who are you? My name is Elizabeth, and that’s Julius.”
“My name you mean? Henry.” he didn’t elaborate.
“What is that stick for?” Julius waded over.
“Catching fish.” Henry responded, mimicking throwing it like a javelin.
Henry examined the point and finding it unsatisfactory, he picked up a sharp rock and used it to whittle away the wood. Julius was impressed at his nimble fingers and climbed up the bank to get a closer look. After carefully removing a handful of strips, Henry was satisfied and he tossed it between his hands.
“Do you need any help with that? We’re both very hungry.” Elizabeth volunteered.
Henry shook his head, “Been trying to catch them for a while, this should work.”
The others watched in fascination as he stood statue-like at the edge of the river and stared into its depths. A glimpse of shiny scales and Henry sprung, hurling the spear into the water with a splash. At the eager looks of Elizabeth and Julius he shook his head and retrieved the spear. He tried again and again, unperturbed by his lack of success. Julius on the other hand, sat down glumly and rested his chin on his hands; tempting visions of all sorts of delicacies danced before his eyes.
“Aha!” Henry shouted.
“Did you catch one?” Elizabeth and Julius asked in unison, jumping to their feet.
“Yes!” he grabbed the stick and brandished the fish triumphantly.
The shiny brown creature flopped furiously off of the stick and fell at their feet before going still. Henry used the spear’s point to slash off the scales and pry off the head. He then divided it into three sections and handed them each one. The tail alone was nearly as large as his hand so there was plenty of fish to go around. Julius ended up with the upper back and dug in. He grimaced at the clamminess of the flesh and nearly choked on a bone. Still, he wolfed it down vigorously.
“Next time, let’s cook it.” Julius said with a slight shiver.
They all laughed in agreement and finished up their portions. Above the forest, the moon shone blurrily down on them.
“Where are we going to sleep?” Elizabeth wondered.
“I know a perfect place,” Henry responded, gesturing to the path, “follow me.”
Julius fell in behind Elizabeth and the trio followed the trail, the forest now alive with the sounds of nocturnal insects and frogs in their nightly symphony. Winding around large trees, the path ended in a wall of ferns. Henry dropped to his hands and knees and crawled through a nearly invisible gap. Julius followed suit and emerged into a small clearing made by a fallen branch. The ground had a soft carpet of crushed plants, a welcome change from the rocky soil. Once they were all in, Henry collected the fragments of the branch that had broken off when it fell and stacked them by the opening, lending the area a comforting feeling of enclosure.
All three of them were extremely exhausted, and Henry keeled over almost immediately. Elizabeth lay down while Julius reclined against the roots of a tree opposite the entrance, eyes closed. A few minutes passed and Elizabeth’s breaths faded into the gentle rhythm of sleep. As Julius began to drift into the ethereal realm of dreams he thought he heard the low thrum of an engine, but he disregarded it as part of a dream.