Rating for: mild language.

Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets. -Anonymous

Sometime, far in the future

Thunder rumbled in the distance.
Three forlorn figures stumbled across the dusty landscape. Even now, so long after the terrible events that had taken place, the land was parched and barren. No life could be seen skirting among the travelers' feet, no voices heard beside their own. It was dark and dismal, ugly black clouds constantly weighing heavily upon the land, bringing with them only a poison rain.
The smaller one, trailing slightly behind the others, stumbled and landed hard on the ground. A razor-sharp rock sliced through her protective gear and to the soft flesh beyond. Clutching her knee, she set up a cry like no wild beast could.
"Ohhhhh! Owww! Oh, oh, my poor knee! Owwww!"
"Hell, Linda, could you stop making such a racket?" the tallest one said, turning back at the noise and stooping to examine the injured knee. He pulled out some moist cloth from a special compartment in his backpack and gingerly applied it to the cut. Linda breathed in sharply at the sting, but made no other noise. The man nodded slightly to himself, apparently content, and returned the cloth to its bag. "Oi! Brian! Over here!"
A shorter, younger man had been wandering about as the taller man dealt with Linda. Brian trotted over obediantly at the sound of his name. He pulled out a needle and some special thread and set to work. Within minutes the tear was repaired, the tiny stitching almost invisible.
The taller man sat down on a large rock. "We might as well stop while we're here." He drank from a canteen hanging loosely at his side.
Linda remained on the ground, taking off her backpack and rummaging around inside it until she found her food sack. She pulled out an apple and bit into it, chewing noisily. She swallowed and spat on the ground. "Ugh! You can taste the dirt and mud in everything!" When the two men proffered no comment, she continued. "It's this damn weather. We've been here for two weeks, and it's rained every day."
"Twice it was so acidic we couldn't leave the tent," Brian mused thoughtfully.
Linda swallowed and spat again. "Exactly! And then when we do leave all we see is the same stupid dirt and dust everywhere. I'm a biologist, dammit. As far as I can tell, there is nothing living here besides us."
The taller man said nothing. He didn't much like Linda. Brian was the one who had begged she come. He'd agreed without complaint because he knew he would need Brian on the journey through the desert. The survivalist may have been young, but he was the best at what he did.
Many expeditions like the one they were on now had been made to Earth, especially with the public's recent interest in the mostly dead planet. Geologists and environmentalists alike were surprised at how different the place had become from the beautiful pictures and writing that had been saved. Biologists, less whiny and more ambitious than Linda, had sifted through the dirt and found tiny bacterium and single-celled organisms among the never-ending waste. Survivalists boasted of how long they could stay and how well they could live. Politicians clammered over each other, each one arguing about whether or not the rehabitation of Earth was possible, or ever would be possible. Even as the search for new life and planets marched on, people never stopped looking back at the earth, their first homeland.
This expedition was more, however, at least to the tall, withdrawn historian who led it. To him it was also a search for peace, to quench the curiosity that ever was in the back of his mind. Earth was little use historically anymore. What could be salvaged had been long ago when humanity first left its cradle. But he remained restless and uneasy no matter how much he counseled himself that the place held no answers. The questions, the longing to see this bare desert burned a hole in the back of his mind, until finally he'd requested the small expedition.
As his reverie faded, he saw Linda was ready to start off again and never stop, so the man stood up, his back twinging only a bit, and continued to plod through across the rock. "Shut your mouth, Linda, we've got more important things to do. Come on you two, I want to be there by nightfall."
He didn't bother to see if they were coming. His eyes focused on the far ridge, coming nearer with each step. Somewhere in the multitude of caves that threaded their way across the ridge and continued on into the gorge were the remains of the last attempt of civilized life on Earth. He could almost see it in his mind: the thousands of soldiers forced through the roughest boot camp in the history of the world; the barren desert stretching across in all directions; in the south the radiation receding somewhat so that people formed small villages, every person dependent on the others in the community. Historians had nicknamed that time the Tarnished Age, the time when humanity was the closest it had ever come to forming civilization after World War III.
He opened his eyes. The ridge was even closer. He could almost pick out the caves now, small but important in the history of Earth like nothing else. It was this place where the rise of the Tarnished Age had come with one man's dream of unity. And this place also where its fall had come with one woman's conviction of doom.

Peace by persuasion has a pleasant sound, but I think we should not be able to work it. We should have to tame the human race first, and history seems to show that that cannot be done. -Mark Twain

A.D. 2117

James took a step, slowly settling his weight onto the rotting depths of the forest floor, allowing no sound to escape. He heard a rustle in the leaves and froze, his ears perking forward to catch the slightest sound and his eyes roving everywhere, searching for the source. Small, stunted trees and bushes littered the spaces between the tall, towering oaks that formed the bulk of the forest. Many years ago, before the war, the trees had been genetically engineered to withstand the acid rain, allowing the forest to grow lushly despite the poison.
A small drop of water rolled down the edge of a leaf, plopping onto James's ear loudly, but he ignored it. His eyes had caught something. Slowly he pulled out an arrow from the faded green quiver on his back, withdrawing a plastic arrow and fitting it to his bow. Plastic was plentiful in the world, and it refused to break down like organic things. Besides, to kill a tree for wood was atrocious; without the forests, nothing would live for very long.
He pulled the bowstring back to his ear and let the arrow fly. It stole into the green growth and a wild goose shot into the air, honking loudly and flapping hard. But it gained altitude quickly, and James's second air fell short of the fleeing bird. He cursed silently and stood up, looking sadly around. He knew that any more game would have been frightened away, but he hoped he could find something anyway.
That was when he saw it. It stood out among the otherwise drab green and brown of the rotting vegetation on the forest ground. White as a cloud and stuck fast in the mud, for a moment he thought he'd found a butterfly, one of the rarest animals on Earth. But the thing didn't fly away when he approached it, and he realized disappointedly that it was only a slip of paper. He stared at it quietly, but it was meaningless to him: the jumbled words only appeared as a mash of nonsense to James. He thought perhaps Padre would read it to him, and he retired from his hunting early to go find the elderly schoolmaster.
Padre was an old man, but also an icon to the small community James lived in. In his youth he had been the son of a rich man and taken to excellent schools the poorer people could not afford. He had not adapted well to the more barbaric lifestyle the people were forced to lead following the Great War. He was a poor hunter and not very fit. But with the fall of civilization also came the desperation to keep what knowledge they had, and he gladly taught their children science, reading, and math in return for some food or a bit of wood to light his fire. No one could quite remember the old man's name, but the children called him Padre. It had been many years since he founded the school and Padre's white hair and aching bones worried the people. He needed a successor, and James knew he was one others looked to, thanks to his remarkable ability in mathematics.
James trotted slowly through the forest and across the town square where the hot desert began. The small hut looked like a load of plastic slabbed carelessly together. James, however, knew the walls were strong and the protruding pieces on the roof offered shade for those trapped outside. The door was not yet locked, and he walked inside. The older man sat in a large desk, writing slowly and meticulously. He looked up happily as the door opened. "Hello, James. How are you today?"
James dipped his head slightly in respect. "Bien, gracias. I found this in the forest today while I was hunting. I was wondering if you could read it to me." Padre picked it up from James's outstretched hand, squinting as he held it up to the dirty window to catch as much light as possible. A small smile creeped across his features as he sat back down in his desk.
James leaned forward impatiently. "What is it, Padre? What does it say?"
The man shook his head slightly but continued to smile. "What a stroke of luck this is! But it is not for you. I will hold a council meeting soon, perhaps tomorrow. After all, it seems like a good idea." Padre trailed off, gazing quietly upward.
"What is it?" James demanded loudly. Padre started in alarm. The boy looked pleadingly at him, and Padre debated telling his favorite pupil. He knew just how strong the seventeen-year-old was. And the way he could wield the simple hunting weapons! In his hands they were deadlier than the poison air. Perhaps it would not hurt to tell him, Padre mused.
He leaned back in his chair and spread the paper over his desk, paying little attention to the layers of paper that he'd forgotten to put away. Padre cleared his throat and began, his husky voice loud and clear as it was everyday in the classroom. "I'm not sure if this is for you, James. I want you to know that first. But I do suppose you're old enough to make your own decisions now." James said nothing, and Padre continued, "You've heard of the Second United Nations, or UN2. Recently one of their board members, Warren Jeskran, has requested a policy on fighting terrorism and crime, and the UN2 has backed him up. It says here they've given him permission to create a sizeable army."
James's eyes lit up hearing Padre speak. What an honor to be in that army! Leading the way towards unity and peace, fighting the terrorists and rebels that threatened the world. What a sight that would be! He imagined himself returning home, and everyone leaning out their windows to catch a glimpse of him, agreeing to themselves that the new rise of civilization could not have come about with him, James Leroy Matteo.
Padre saw the light in James's eyes and he looked sternly at the teenager as he said, "I know your sense of honor, James, and your sense of pride in your work. But you are not a killer and I can't imagine you would fit in with the other soldiers. And besides, to even join the army you must survive a competition where your every move will be watched and at any moment you could find yourself dead."
James nodded absently, not really paying attention to Padre's wise counsel. "Padre, think about it. I'm the best hunter for miles around! If I back out of this, how can I ever look anyone square in the eye again? It's my...my duty, Padre!" He moved aside suddenly, knocking a chair down, but he didn't notice. "I'll join that competition, and I will survive. But I don't want to stay here, sitting around and wasting my life away. With this, I can tell my grandchildren that I helped in the making of a new world. I have to join Padre." And with that, James strode out of the small hut, looking for all the world like a soldier just returning home from a resounding victory.
Padre shook his head sadly. The old man felt a lump in his throat, but there would be no dissuading James now. He tried to reassure himself of the boy's amazing capabilities, but as he finished grading the children's work and lay down on his small bed in the other room, the only image that came to his mind was that of a very shocked James lying dead in a dark pool of blood.

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