By the year two thousand and ninety-eight, what was left of humanity, civilized or not, was scattered around the smoldering orb of desolation once regarded as a verdant and hospitable planet called Earth. Survivors split off into tribal factions according to region and existed in a network of natural and man made caves beneath the scorched surface between the poles where water was most plentiful.
A small section of the surviving population naturally gravitated to the task of preserving the history and fall of humanity by telling the stories which defined the best and worst of mankind, and set the course for the predicament they now found themselves in. They were known as the Storykeepers.
In the burrows below, there lived children and adults regarded as underlings, because they’d never seen the sun, much less anything alive or dead that existed two hundred feet or more above their own heads. Everything they knew about the life of their species before and after the fires, they learned from the Storykeepers.
Storykeepers were either very, very old and had been alive during the burning years and before, or they were the children of those who had survived the armageddon. These Storykeepers and their descendants were sworn to memorize in great detail every nuance of the natural world before the Sun star and God, if you so believed, stubbed it out with as much ceremony as a oil baron disposed of a half-smoked cigar.
Eep felt his brow droop like the rope in an abandoned game of tug ‘o war. The frustration was familiar and he always felt it while trying to describe a blue sky to a group of underlings who had only ever seen the ruddy walls of a cave. He pushed the bill of his cap up and ran a crooked thumb back and forth over a deeply creased forehead. The only visual reference he had to give them to demonstrate the color blue was a threadbare chambray shirt stained with mud and blood he’d worn years after honorably serving in the World Navy. In the dingy light of the caves it was hard to make the underlings believe a clear blue sky could lift your spirits as if you’d just looked upon the face of an angel (another reference he was hard pressed to explain, let alone demonstrate) but Eep persisted. He yanked the spare shirt from his rucksack and held it out for the underlings to see. A hand carved tent peg happened to catch on the shirttail and flipped itself into a dim corner behind him without notice.
“This shirt is blue, but not the kind of blue I’m talking about. Sky blue is clean and cool, and surprising, like the first drop of fresh water when it hits your lips and tongue. You know what that feels like, right?” Eep looked into the dirty faces of the underlings sitting cross legged around him. Enraptured, they all nodded. At least they’d all had a taste of fresh water, he thought to himself before going on.
“Now then, to really get to know the sort of blue I swear to you I’ve seen with my own eyes, I want you to close your eyes and imagine you can feel it on your tongue or upon your forehead as if it were the freshest, bluest water you’ve ever tasted. Can you do that?” Eep’s voice was deep and smooth with compassion.
Again, the underlings nodded, their eyes wide enough to show a thin margin of white around the extra large pupils. The darkness had its influences over the highly adaptive species as did the light which came before it. Eep marveled at man’s resilience, but still he wondered how humans would ever rise to a level of wisdom that would allow them to live on the surface of earth again while still living in the dark.
Eep’s given name was Daniel Wellborne, but no one had called him by it since his first year in the caves. Owing to his show and tell storytelling methods and the over-zealousness of an unknown underling living in a network of burrows deep in the Ozark Mountains, he was now simply, Eep.
Daniel had been telling a story to the Ozark tribe about the Sun in all its golden glory before the darkest days after the burning was complete. He fumbled to describe the iridescent gold color radiating from the star. Quizzical faces urged him on. Then, in a flash of memory and inspiration he snatched the cap off his head, which was embroidered with the word Jeep in yellow-gold thread, and jabbed a finger at the colored letters. “Here — like this,” he told them.
That night, while Daniel rested alone in the visitor’s chamber, a young underling stole into his room and cut away the dirty yellow thread of the J with his teeth till it was gone. The underling probably believed possessing the colorful thread was like having the magic of the sun in his hands. Maybe the child thought he could use it to cheer up his family when their spirits flagged. Daniel saw the shadowy back of the thief just as he left the chamber, but he did nothing to raise the alarm, feeling as desperate as the underling must have felt to give his family something more to hold on to than mere stories. Since the name Wellborne sometimes raised pointed questions and sharp accusations of class and unchecked power he wished to avoid, Eep was happy to ditch the Wellborne name.
Eep had an excellent memory for details and was an expert storyteller. He was also one of the few remaining Storykeepers alive who had lived on the surface of the earth before it was lost. Occasionally he was forced to travel outside the tunnels in order to get from one burrow system to the next. The cost to his radiation limits and his survival was a price he paid without hesitation. The people waited for his visits with great anticipation as he made his way around the connected circuits. He’d actually seen the sky before it had been smudged out with billowing rifts of ash belonging to anything on the planet that could burn, including human beings and this made him a kind of celebrity. He had yet to find his descendant apprentice, the next Storykeeper in his line who would carry on the repository of stories he’d been entrusted with, and he was running out of time.
Most of Eep’s journeys were made underground in the dark network of passages, but from time to time he was forced to go topside to traverse a land bridge before descending back down to a new set of catacombs and its inhabiting tribe. The Storykeepers were the only people who had a key to the portal hatches leading to the outside, and Eep had to constantly watch his back lest he pick up a worm so overcome with curiosity and determination it was willing to kill to see what was “out there”. Worms were disfigured underlings destined to go quietly mad in the damp shadows. The only defined instinct a worm had was an insane urge to escape to the surface. They couldn’t speak, or understand that going to the surface would mean certain death. Worms were driven by something everyone understood, but most people were still able to repress in order to survive.
As Eep prepared to leave the safety of the burrows below, he anticipated these dangerous treks with his heart and resolve caught somewhere between hope and dread.
Dumping his rucksack on the floor of the visitor’s chamber, Eep took inventory. A pouch of dried verminite (rat jerky), a buck knife, a hand drawn map, folding shovel, one long sleeve shirt, spare pants in need of stitching, a small cosmetic mirror that had belonged to his youngest sister, a collapsible canteen (empty), a heat reflective thermal blanket, a notebook and pencil stub, and one, two, three tent pegs he’d carved from a branch of maple, and a small compass. He turned the bag upside down and shook it. The fourth tent peg was missing, not a critical loss but definitely an inconvenient one. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out where the fourth peg had gone.
Unfouled wood was a rare find and he’d been lucky to score a length long enough to carve out four tent pegs. Now, if he got caught in a flashover, he’d have to secure the last corner of the makeshift shelter by putting a stout rock on the thermal blanket to hold it down while the solar winds whipped debris all around him. A flashover event happened when lightning struck too near a drifting cloud of radiation. The result was a sudden thunderous boom followed by poisonous heat and cyclonic winds. Preparing to shelter in place involved hard labor at a pace even young men found arduous, but Eep was not a young man, and digging a swale deep enough in the parched earth to accommodate his long body and secure the thermal blanket over it would be iffy. He hoped he would not encounter the occasion to test his resolve and stamina.
Finding the exit portal was always challenging in the dim light of the tunnels. The secret symbol would sometimes be obscured or eroded by moss and water, but this time Eep found the symbol he was looking for easily and wiggled the flat stone nearby it. A dim light illuminated a vertical set of rungs set deep in a fold of the tunnel walls. Eep took a deep breath and began the climb to the surface.
Arriving at the rusted underside of the portal gate, Eep fished the key from inside his shirt by the tether around his neck. It was warm from body heat. He slipped it into the portal lock and turned it. The latch gave way but he did not immediately push it open. He dropped the key back down into his shirt and felt in the rucksack for the compact mirror and withdrew the pink plastic artifact. He lifted the portal cover about half a foot and wedged it open with one of the tent pegs. Carefully, Eep opened the mirror and took a peek outside by rotating it around as best he could.
Nothing had changed since he was last topside months before. The sky, once the kind of blue that could make you gulp air like it was blue cotton candy, still boiled with radioactive ash and atoms. The heat, nearly unbearable, drilled into his nostrils but, more than this, there was no relief from the constant darkness below, save for the occasional flash of lightning in the distance. Eep allowed himself to feel the disappointment only for a beat or two before dismissing it to focus on safely exiting the tunnel.
After locking the portal hatch, Eep held the small compass steady until the needle stopped spinning erratically and settled on South. A sudden wind gust got under the bill of his hat and threatened to steal it. Eep removed it and stuffed it into the rucksack. Hoisting the pack onto his back he set out with an eye on the dark horizon. The lightning was a safe enough distance but Eep knew how unpredictable it could be and the hairs on his arms were already telegraphing a warning to his brain.
He’d hiked approximately a mile when the air above him began to crackle and hum and the light, what there was of it, dimmed to a further desolate pall. Eep knew a bad sign when he saw one, so he quickly surveyed the unforgiving landscape for a place to shelter. He headed for a slight dip in the topography in hopes of finding softer ground. Throwing his rucksack off his back, he grabbed the folding shovel from it and began scraping at the hard ground. The already ominous atmosphere grew darker and the flashes of lightning more brilliant as he dug. Seizing the tent pegs from the sack, he spread the thermal blanket out and used the back of the shovel to hammer in two pegs at the top corners. Looking around for a hefty rock his eyes registered only smooth terrain as far as he could see. Surrendering to fate, Eep slid under the makeshift tent feet first and pounded the third peg into the corner off his right hand. With his left hand he gripped the last corner and slammed his balled fist into the ground. As if in agreement with Eep’s frustration, the thunder followed immediately in a sudden crash followed by a radioactive cloud bank exploding directly over Eep’s head in a brilliant flash of light.
At first, it was like being in the eye of a hurricane. Eep found it easy to hold the loose corner of the tent blanket down, but when the storm of radioactive ash and debris began to move, the outer winds that followed it had no mercy or water to give the already parched earth. A determined gust of wind got under the shelter and ripped the corner from Eep’s fist, then one at a time while the tent flapped wildly, each tent peg popped free and sailed off.
Eep knew barring a miracle, his goose was cooked, so he stood up with great effort and defiantly leaned into the wind. He turned his eyes upward hoping for a rare glimpse of the sky before he died. He tightened the straps on his rucksack so that when he was found, if that be the case, they would know who he had been. No longer Daniel Wellborne of the Wellborne Oil Magnates, but Eep, Master Storykeeper of the people.