Cold, dusty air cascaded into the room, sending papers flying and the tablecloth flapping. The fabric that Olive had painstakingly laid out suddenly careened across the room. As her eyes followed its path, they caught on the shadow of a burly figure towering in the opening. Olive rose from the table, but the figure had already heaved the vault door shut and spun the locking wheel into place with an echoing creak and deafening silence. The scavenger pulled the scarf down off her nose and peeled the goggles off her face. The crust of dust left behind widened her eyes into a spooked expression, even though her face was exhilarated and ruddy from the exercise. She stomped her feet on the shreds of the doormat.
“What did you find?” Olive retrieved the scrap of fabric from the floor and brushed it off as if nothing had happened. Emberline shook her head sharply in an attempt to dislodge the sand stuck in her hair. After getting her fingers stuck trying to comb it, she gave up and shrugged the canvas knapsack off her shoulders.
“A few things. Odds and ends.”
“Where’d you go this time?” Olive asked, used to her roommate’s brusque answers. She grabbed a broom leaning near the door and swiped the dust into a corner. A losing battle, but one Olive was determined to keep fighting.
“The houses down on the water.” The scavenger unzipped her jacket and cracked it off her torso to hang. It retained her shape, the husk of a human form. Olive shivered. “Apparently the houses built for hurricanes also held up to the apocalypse pretty well.”
“That’s not somewhere you’ve been yet, right? Did you find anything? Anything from Before?” Olive prompted hopefully. Emberline paused, enough time for Olive to note the rips in her patched cotton sweater. She made a mental note to wrestle it from her friend long enough to sew them up later.
“Maybe.” Emberline looked around for a place to put down the bag. Scraps of cloth, buttons, and the remains of an old chair cushion had claimed the table, so she chose the chair instead. Its one metal leg knocked on the wood of the floor. She unclipped the buckles and started pulling objects from the top. Olive couldn’t contain her curiosity. She left the broom and guiltily crossed her arms on the back of the chair to get a glimpse. Emberline first pulled out a bottle. It seemed, spectacularly, to be intact. She rubbed a section with her sleeve. The light from the oil lamp shone straight through it. The bottle was glass. “I couldn’t find the lid.” She shrugged as she handed it over.
“This is great,” Olive breathed, and continued to scrub away the grime.
“I’ve got some cans, too. A tad gross. Ah, here. Color.” It was rare to find cans with any decoration left on them, even rarer to find one uncrushed. As Olive thumbed off the dirt, she found the exterior to be tinged a bright green. Her face lit up.
“I know just where this should go.” She crossed the room and held it up next to an orange can already on the shelf, one that faintly still read anta in big white letters. A cactus poked its head out from the ripped aluminum, a rare and precious survivor. “Not that I have a plant for it. Someone in town might.” But Emberline had already moved on.
“I got some scrap metal for Allison… some plastic for Marco. Wood from a picture frame. Maybe Kat will want it.” Olive tapped her fingers on the shelf. So it was just a practical run, then.
“Seriously? You went to a new house and didn’t find anything to bring back for me?”
“Olive. You know scavenging is what keeps our community running.”
“Yeah yeah, I know. We can’t manufacture anything ourselves anymore, spare me the lecture. I just… I don’t know. They had so many cool things. They knew so much. It’s a shame to have lost everything.” Olive crossed the threadbare rug to the wall of memorabilia. Papers, black disks with holes in the middle, anything with a picture or a logo that Emberline had found over the years in the ruins of the city, Olive had catalogued and labelled.
“… And whatever this is.” Emberline made sure she had Olive’s attention before pulling out a flat, round object and thrust it at her. Olive took it skeptically. It used to be mostly white, but layers of age and use had turned it into a murky yellow. Still, small blue dots spattered the disk. Some of them were connected by lines in little clusters. The object had several layers, and a scalloped edge peeked out from the middle one in several places, as if asking to be turned. Attempting to move it would probably be futile. Calendar dates and times ringed the border. The words “The Night Sky” were stamped across the middle.
“What is this?” Olive asked. Emberline continued to shove the things they weren’t keeping back into the sack. She shrugged.
“Your guess is as good as mine. Seems that maybe, you could see things above you, Before. Like in the paintings.”
“Yeah. Instead of just the dust.” Olive stared down at the disk and traced the lines with her fingers.
“I’ve never seen dots in those pictures, though.”
“Maybe it’s a map. Maps have dots.”
Olive scoffed. “Of what? The sky?”
Emberline smacked the dust off her hands and went to the porcelain water basin. “Maybe there was more. Before.”
“Well, there’s no way to find out,” Olive sighed. She returned to the table and set to painstakingly rearranging the pieces of cloth that had been scattered by the wind.
“What if I said there was?” Emberline said slowly. Olive perked up.
“What? What do you mean?”
“If I said there was a way to see over the storm.”
Olive scoffed, grabbed a pin, and stuck it through a carefully marked line. “If there was, wouldn’t we have heard about it by now? Between you and the other scavengers, if you were going to come across something you would have.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Emberline said carefully. “There’s a place.” Olive gaped.
“…Will you take me?”
Emberline looked up in alarm.
“Really? You hate outside. It’s not close.” Olive straightened her back. She didn’t quite know why, but she needed to prove herself.
“I can handle it.” Emberline raised an eyebrow. “Okay, I’m scared! Happy? But if there’s a chance to know what this means…” Olive hopped up and crossed to the shrine of relics. “I want to at least try.” Emberline stared her down long and hard, seeming to weigh her determination.
“Well then. Gear up. Let’s go on an adventure.”
Scarves. Goggles. Gloves. Boots. Long strips of cotton to cover anything and everything else. As they stood by the door preparing to leave, Emberline held up a hand. She reached out and, as gently as she could with the gloves on, tucked in the loose fabric around Olive’s face. Luckily the scarf hid her blush.
Emberline hoisted a coil of rope across her torso. Then, a thumbs-up sign. Olive nodded.
She braced her bent knees against the floor as she hauled on the spoke to open the hatch. Olive plunged into the storm as quickly as possible. Her friend followed on her heels and let the door slam behind. The storm was so thick today that Olive couldn’t see her own feet. The two clasped hands, like two otters in a river, and dove into the current.
Emberline know the way best, so she led, her left hand trailing the ruins. This part of the trek was always a blur for Olive. Her nose itched, but nothing could be done. Instead she focused on putting one foot in front of the other, following her tether of sinew and flesh through the haze of sand and dust. A sudden gust shoved her, and it was only Emberline’s tight grip that kept her from falling into the dune.
In the back of her mind, Olive wondered how Emberline did this every day.
The wind swirled around the two girls in eddies and flurries, tearing at their clothing and pelting their goggles. It took a few moments for Olive to stop scrunching her eyes so tight, a defense mechanism she had to consciously unlearn. As always, being outside was eerie. On the one hand, Olive felt claustrophobic, as if the very air itself was trying to smother her, bury her. At the same time, once away from the wall, there was no way to tell where the world was. For all she knew, her right side could be open for miles. Or, maybe there was another building five paces away. But unless she ventured out there, it would remain a mystery.
They rounded a corner. The view didn’t change. Olive was acutely aware of the warmth of the breath in her scarf, worrying her heat might fog up the googles.
After a long period of nothingness besides the wall, a tall pole suddenly materialized out of the flurry. Time to cross.
Emberline uncoiled the rope. With large, gloved, clumsy fingers, she wrapped a loop around Olive’s waist and cinched it tight before tying herself into the other side. A few feet remained between them, just enough to bend down comfortably. They linked arms and cast off, into the abyss.
There were only 23 steps between the post and the other wall. Sometimes 24 or 25 for Olive, because her steps were shorter.
One. Two. Three.
As they ventured further, the wind picked up, sending grains of sand down the street in a river of dust.
Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen.
Olive clung tighter to Emberline. She tried not to think about what would happen if they got separated somehow. There’s no telling what direction she might get off in. No markings on the walls to know which way was home.
Twenty. Twenty-one. Twenty-two.
And there it was. The next wall. Olive heaved a sigh of relief. She was not built for this. She clung to the wall, as if it would run away if it slipped through her fingers.
Emberline gave the thumbs-up sign. Olive half-heartedly returned the gesture, peeled her hands off, and tromped on after her friend.
The building they came to had no door. They fought through several opposing, violent air currents to force themselves in and duck through the archway. Inside, the storm was slightly calmer, but the ground was still covered in feet of sand. It had once been a grand foyer. Olive could see the ceiling through a haze of dust, far higher than the ceiling in their bunker, even higher than in the community building.
“Have you been here before?” Olive asked, her voice muffled through the fabric.
“No,” Emberline replied happily. “Marco told me about it.” She stomped around the old foyer, peering through every opening she found. Finally a metal door in the back seemed promising. Emberline put her shoulder on it and pushed. It gave way with a metallic screech. Sand and dust seeped into the next room. “Stairs. Come on.”
Olive followed her through the door. A staircase made of metal grating crossed back and forth above her head into the distance. Just looking up made her head spin with vertigo.
“We’re going… up?” she asked meekly.
“Well, yeah, of course,” Emberline replied. “Above the storm.”
“Oh. Yeah. That makes sense.”
“You okay?” Emberline asked.
“Yeah.” Olive nodded and took a large gulp of air. “It’ll be fine. It’s better than being outside in the storm.”
As they climbed higher, the air slowly cleared. Eventually the two of them were able to pull the scarves from their noses and the goggles from their eyes. Each time they stepped, the metal groaned under their weight. It echoed in the narrow space, down the floors, a jarring reminder of how easy it would be to fall, of how much space was between them and solid ground. At every other crossing, a doorway led into what used to be the main building. Sometimes there was a door. Sometimes barely the frame was left, and they could glimpse the rotten tables and chairs that used to populate the floors.
After just a few levels, Olive’s energy sagged, and they had to stop. This happened several more times, until Olive lost track of how many floors they had ascended. Forty? Fifty?
“I don’t think I can make it,” Olive panted. Emberline pursed her lips. Somehow, she had barely broken a sweat. Maybe that’s one of the perks of being a scavenger, Olive thought.
“Here. I’ll see if the end is close. Hang tight.”
“Yeah yeah. I will.” Olive leaned against the railing and let her breath recover.
When Emberline came back, her eyes glowed with excitement.
“What? What did you find?” Emberline shook her head, grabbed Olive’s hand, and dragged her up the stairs. Olive stumbled along.
“Where are we going?” Olive let herself be led up another flight of gridded metal steps. The walls around them were stone, and in places, they had started to give way. The holes grew in size until Olive could see straight through them. The jagged holes should have been windows to – to –
Oh. To that.
Entranced, Olive tugged Emberline towards one of these gaps, yearning for a closer look. She resisted.
“Trust me,” Emberline repeated emphatically. “One more.”
The staircase narrowed to the width of a singular human. The incomplete walls closed in. But through a rectangular opening just above, perhaps a doorway of some type, was open space. Olive blinked and craned her neck to make sure her eyes weren’t playing tricks. Beyond that door was the outside. And it was clear. As they neared this phenomenon, Emberline stepped in front.
“Close your eyes,” she instructed.
“But – look – ”
“I know. Just… trust me a little longer.” Olive glared at her friend, who raised her eyebrows mischievously. Finally Olive sighed, smiling, and closed her eyes. Emberline narrated the rest of their climb, holding both of Olive’s hands and, presumably, walking backwards. “Three more steps… alright, forward just a bit…” Olive’s boots hit concrete, and braced herself. She expected the wind and dust to batter her face, but none came. Emberline led her forward and slightly leftward. Olive could hear the roar of the storm, as if from far away. Her hands were placed on a low concrete wall near her waist.
“Alright,” Emberline sang. “Open away!”
Olive did. Gasped. Blinked. Blinked again. Turned in a circle, eyes widening, staring at the sky. Emberline grinned at her, pleased.
“What is that?” Olive whispered.
“I think it’s what’s on that map of yours. The Night Sky.”
Olive felt woozy. She tried to steady herself on the low wall, but failed and fell on her bum on the concrete.
Firstly, Olive had never seen so much empty space in her life. Tall buildings of varying heights and states of destruction dotted the landscape, so far away they couldn’t be reached with any length of rope they owned. There were maybe two dozen, most of them stretching even higher than their perch. The columns seemed to be floating, as the sandstorm rolled and crashed about their bases, obscuring the ground beneath them and into the distance.
And above that…
Olive couldn’t comprehend what was above the buildings. Most of it was dark, but scattered around the void shone pinpricks of light, like grains of sand on a clean surface, but glowing, as if each one was a lantern being held aloft by some great being in the sky.
And that’s what Olive decided she was staring at: the sky.
There was so much… space. Emptiness, between her and… whatever those speckles were.
The world was so… big. In every direction.
Emberline sat next to her, legs slightly spread, knees up. Somehow, very calm. After a moment, she reached back into her bag and placed the circular map on the ground between them. Then she grabbed a candle and lit it.
“Whenever you’re ready,” she said. Olive took the map reverently. She held it up to the light, expecting to see some similarities. It seemed pretty clear that the dots on the map were the lights in the sky. Unfortunately, the two seemed not to match at all. Olive tried turning the map upside down, but to no avail. She even turned it around and checked out the back. Emberline sensed her frustration.
“May I?” she asked. Olive grunted her assent. Emberline lay down on her back against the concrete and held out her hand. Olive put the map into it and joined Emberline on the ground. They held the map up and tried again.
“I think I see one,” Olive gasped. “Look. There’s this weird ‘W’ shape…” She pointed at the map, then at the sky. “Kinda looks like those over there?”
“Yeah,” Emberline agreed. “It says… Cass-eye-oh-pie-ee-ah. Huh.” Olive laughed.
“That’s so cool! Almost sounds like a name.”
“I wonder who she was. Must have been pretty great at something to have part of the sky named after her. Maybe she was a famous singer. Or artist. Or actor!”
“Doesn’t even look like a person.”
They studied in companionable silence, glancing between the map and the sky. Since they found one cluster, Olive looked nearby to search for another. Failing in that attempt, she moved elsewhere.
“Hey, check that out. Kinda looks like a pan.”
“A pan? …Ah. I see. Is it on the map?”
“Well, it connects a few more stars than that. Looks like it has legs. It says… ‘Ursa Major.’ What do you think that means? It looks kinda like a dog to me. Allison’s dog, the one she named after that picture we found. What’s her name again?”
“Huh. Okay, I see it.”
They found a couple more of these clusters of lights. They had names like ‘Orion’, ‘Gemini’, ‘Perseus’, and ‘Leo’. Names that meant nothing to either of them.
“This is silly,” Emberline declared, dropping the map to her side.
“Wha- what?” Olive spluttered. She was having fun finding the particular lights that made up a cluster. Each one came with a little spurt of pride. But Emberline went on, something she didn’t normally do. So Olive listened.
“We don’t know what any of this means. I assume they’re the names of these dots with lines between them, but… those names don’t mean anything to us.” She turned her head to look at Olive. At this angle, their faces were incredibly close. Olive was glad for the darkness. She could feel the heat creeping into her cheeks at the proximity. “Cass-eye-oh-pie-ee-ah might have meant something to someone a hundred years ago, but now it’s just a name on a map. We don’t know who it was, or if it was even a person. Doesn’t that feel strange to you?”
“I don’t know,” Olive replied. Her heart sunk to realize her friend didn’t cherish this bit of history the same way she did, but she didn’t need Emberline to know that. She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“You know what we should do?” the scavenger said after a long silence.
“We should give them new names.”
“The clusters. Who says we need to use the same names they had before? Probably made by some weirdo who had nothing better to do than lie outside and look at lights in the sky. Doesn’t make any sense. Let’s give them new names.” At this, Olive could feel a bit of warmth in her gut.
“You know, I like that,” she said. “Where should we start?”
“Hmm. Well, there’s the pot-looking thing. What was it called before? Ursa something? Major? Didn’t they notice it looks like an animal?” Emberline chuckled. “I still think it looks like Adele. How about that for its name?”
“That’s amazing. I love it.” Olive looked around for something else familiar. Her eyes alighted on a string of three bright stars in a row. She peeked back at the map. Orion. “Okay, my turn. That one. Three stars across. The one we thought looked like a person. Well, it looks like the guy on the poster I have at home. With the whip over his head. Oh shoot, what was the name?” Olive bit her lip. Emberline lifted herself up on one elbow.
“I know which one you’re talking about,” she said. “Brown hat? Very dramatic looking?”
“Yeah. Hmm. Oh! It’s something like… ah… Diana Jon?”
“Diana Jon. Beautiful. Up there in the sky. Hello, Diana.”
“Ooh, yeah. Let’s see.” Emberline lay back down and crossed her arms across her chest. Olive smiled at the intense look of concentration that scrunched up her friend’s face when she was deeply in thought, cast in amber by the candle between them.
“There. There’s two lights up there, and two lights down a ways. A pillar, like the buildings.”
“And what are you going to call this pillar?” Olive prodded playfully.
“Something dramatic. Ground Zero.”
“Ground Zero. I heard it on Marco’s radio once. I think they were talking about this place. The entire city, I mean. Not just this building.”
“Ground… zero. That’s so weird. Like, you haven’t started counting yet. Zero. Or, maybe, there’s nothing left to count.”
Emberline thought about it. Olive could see the gears turning in her head.
“It feels like it could be either. The beginning, or the end.”
Olive stood up and moved to the low wall. The unforgiving sea of eternal sand and dust stretched into the horizon: an expanse of a desolate storm, devoid of hope. But above it was a different sea, a sea of wonder, an unexplored abyss of magic lights, new names, possibilities. Emberline joined her at the edge.
Olive reached for her hand.
“I hope it’s the beginning.”