The Structure was all that was left, all that the people needed. Or so they thought.
The humans flocked to the Garden, which was fertilized by human waste, and picked their share of food. Seeds were collected and a new Garden began each spring. The people then rushed to a single, clean freshwater spring that their home had been built around. The sprawling maze of stairways, boardwalks and buildings that were the Structure spread for miles and miles, until the haze of distance concealed its outer fringes. Here, the last of humankind lived their simple existence.
The eager young boys and girls would foray into the Structure’s far reaches, searching for discarded pieces of the hodgepodge of materials it was made of to fashion into toys. The adults would do the tasks that needed to be done, like caring for the Garden or fixing components of their homes that were damaged by acid rain.
For storms were the only thing in life that inspired fear. The acid storms that caused their houses to slowly disintegrate, the droplets that did insidious damage to their rooftops. The remnant of an ancient horror that lived on in the stories passed down among the adults. The horror of the outside world. For the grownups, when the rains were infrequent and they had little to mend, spoke of the land beyond the Structure. A land where long-dead humans’ remains lay among the mounds of metal and plastic and charred earth. Shattered glass was heaped in the skeletons of cities. Thick smog permeated the air. A world that had once been humankind’s home, before the last survivors had used scraps of all they could find to build a shelter against the apocalypse. They chose to create it around a freshwater spring, deep-rooted and unsullied by pollution.
Thus the Structure grew and grew until it engulfed all they knew. The grown folk still knew these shreds of history, keeping them hidden from the children until they could handle it. For it would scare them, the adults thought, to know the deadly reality beyond their pleasant illusion of an uneventful but safe life.
All that the children knew of the world beyond was that the acid rain came from there, and that it was somewhere they never needed to go. They had their plants--beans, grains, fruits and vegetables. They had their toys, and adults could occupy themselves with card games or repairs.
Still...in the youngsters’ hearts, there was a longing. An unconscious memory rooted in their deepest dreams.
Dreams of a better Earth than the one they had inherited.
Swaths of beautiful forests, wildflowers blooming and four-legged creatures darting among the trees. And feathery beings flitting in the air, borne on wings that were soft but strong. Streams of water that didn’t have to be rationed out from a small pool. Broad crimson deserts and majestic, snow-capped mountains, mild, grassy hills and sparkling turquoise seas. A pristine natural world that was lost to the ages. And yet...could there be a way to bring it back?
. . .
Seikatsu was eating a plate of red beans. The bland, almost flavorless food was more appetizing to look at than to taste. Unfortunately, it was one of the only forms of sustenance in the Structure Garden. Some beans were kept uneaten to be planted, and a new crop would grow. This was a custom that could not be abandoned, or all would perish.
Seikatsu was full of nervous energy. As she lay on her mat of woven flax from the Garden, spooning the beans between her dry lips, she wondered. Much of the Structure was wood. Where did that wood come from? And what of the other substances?
Sighing, she rose, setting her empty plate beside the mat. Naturally inquisitive, she wanted answers. To know why she was here. Know why they were all here, in the ancient labyrinth they called home.
She opened the door and looked out. Beyond the firelight that streamed through the doorway, she could see the dawn, which was partially obscured by clouds. A wind stroked her hair, evoking a strange longing in her. It was a harbinger of a storm, meaning indoor confinement until the acid rain passed, as well as more work for the grownups. They would have to cover the spring to keep it safe to drink, among many things. Despite this, storms always stirred something in Seikatsu. A half-forgotten instinct to rush out into the torrent and dance and laugh and rejoice at the coming of rain.
She wondered if there had ever been a time when rain wasn’t dangerous. Had it once been clean and fresh, like the spring they drank from?
Seikatsu stepped out into the wind, welcoming it as a friend. Soon, she would have to retreat behind the threshold to shelter her from the elements. Now, however, she let the distant precursors of thunder grumble without cowering by the fire. For, unlike her family, she was not afraid.
. . .
“They say it’s crumblin’. That after all these years, the foundation o’ the Structure is crumblin’.” Although Marvin, Seikatsu’s grandfather, was often gossipy, this time his words did not seem like just another rumor.
Disturbed, Seikatsu’s parents leaned in closer over the fire they sat beside. “You really,” said Joseph, the father, “think it’s going to cave in? Will we all have to go...outside?” He said outside like it was a curse, repulsive and ugly. He feared the tales he had heard of it, and didn’t like the thought of even going near it, let alone living there.
Seikatsu’s mother was still more afraid of the outside world, because she knew more about it, having studied the ecosystem when unoccupied. Knowledge does not always conquer fear.
“That’s what they’re sayin’,” said Marvin, sinking onto his chair’s flax cushion as it rocked creakily, back and forth. His wrinkled face seemed to grotesquely undulate as the shadows of the firelight played over it. Behind him, through the open doorway, a whoosh of air forboded the storm that was advancing, far off.
“S-so,” Joseph said unsteadily, “when would this cave-in happen? And where did you get this news?”
“The people are talkin’ about it, all over town. They say it’ll happen soon. It’s been a danger for a long time, we just didn’t know. They just found it days ago, a collapsed section to the left o’ where the children go to play. They looked into it, and saw that it was goin’ on all over. It’s crumblin’.”
And it was true. The countless pillars, the innumerable networks of scaffolding that supported the Structure-- they were threatening to give way.
What if they all, gradually or even in an instant, fell away, and everything they had ever known would be gone?
. . .
When the storm passed, Seikatsu stepped outside. The clouds were pulling away and the wind was dying down, so the neighbors’ voices were now audible above the fading gusts. The air was filled with a heavy vapor that was slowly lifting. The weather didn’t seem like the wake of a natural terror. More like the remnants of a natural wonder.
Seikatsu stepped into the emerging daylight. She inhaled the fresh air, air the more scientific adults were surprised was still clean, what with greenhouse gases in the outer world. They assumed the Garden exhaled it, creating a pocket of air to shield them from smog.
Having eaten long before the sun rose, she was ready to do what she always did. Wander the Structure.
Her steps took her past the warped banisters to the Garden staircase, down the long flight of steps, and across a wide platform. They led her away from the Garden, skirting the central spring to avoid the crowd that would undoubtedly be there. She was not thirsty. As she walked around it, she saw her mother and father. Their faces were worried. Probably just thirst, Seikatsu told herself.
She trudged down the long pathway into the less traveled regions, then turned in a new direction. Left. Usually she took the middle or right path, but today, she ached for something new. As she went, she grew absentminded. She had had a dream. What were the details? Green, everything was green. What else?
In the midst of her pondering, she failed to see the sign.
DANGER! CRUMBLED FOUNDATION!
DO NOT ENTER!
Seikatsu was beginning to recall more of the dream. There had been water in it, curtains of it cascading into a pool like the spring back home. From there, it tumbled down a long stream until it disappeared. And the plants! They were everywhere! Not just vegetables and beans and fruits, either. There were towering brown shafts, topped by hundreds of glistening leaves, and winged feathery creatures which flew, chirping, among the branches. Were those trees? The living towers that were cut into logs, which were then used to create some of the Structure?
Behind her, while she racked her memory for more, the sign vanished in the distance, and she was beyond hope of realizing her predicament. Until it was too late.
Seikatsu looked at the path ahead. A thin ramp lead upwards, and then the boardwalk went down and could no longer be seen. She stepped to the top of the ramp.
Suddenly, she was teetering on the edge of an enormous drop, and below her were the remains of the rest of the walk. The gulf she threatened to topple into was massive, and beneath, a vast heap of cracked bridges, smashed buildings, bent stairways and snapped railings all lay about. A huge portion of the Structure had collapsed, leaving it crumbling on the earth far below. Far off, Seikatsu thought she could see something more than the broken shards.
What it was she could not register in that frantic moment. All this she took in in an instant, as she precariously wobbled on the edge. Then she flung herself backwards, narrowly avoiding a fatal plunge. She landed painfully on her back, bruising her head on the planks. Her relief at surviving melted when she heard the wood groan under excessive weight, then snap with a crack. Seikatsu and the whole mass broke off of the Structure and plummeted down, down to the ravaged ruin under her. Then darkness enveloped everything.
. . .
If she was on her mat, why was the ground so jagged and rough? Why did every bone in her body ache? Seikatsu opened her eyes. And closed them again, believing that in a blink it would vanish. It didn’t.
She was alone, on a bed of mud. She sat up, brushing off her filthy clothing, and surveyed her surroundings. She couldn’t believe what she saw.
A real live tree was growing in front of her. It was scraggly and withered, its leaves brown and sickly. Still, several green shoots peeped from its branches, signifying life blossomed in it yet.
Seikatsu rose to touch the tree. She immediately stumbled, dazed from her long fall. She was lucky to have survived it--she had slipped from the boardwalk in midair as it dropped, and landed, by good chance, in a pile of mud. She realized this mud must have been created by the acid rain. As it had saved her life, however, she felt indebted, oddly, to this toxic sludge. So far from trying hysterically to clean herself, she grasped the tree to steady herself and looked beyond it.
What she saw was a wasteland. Past the corona of destruction that radiated from the Structure, there was even more wreckage. Dented trucks lying on lopsided highways and lofty spires rested among demolished buildings, their glory devoured by time. Wheeled contraptions she guessed were cars were scattered throughout the roads, peppered with rust. It was a scene of ancient carnage.
Yet all around it, plants were growing. Hope and life in the midst of all this sorrow. She had heard, in snatches of phrase from the grownups, of the deathly world beyond the Structure. And some of those words were true. But maybe there was something left over from that older world she dreamed of. Something remaining that could be cultivated. For across this scene of death there were more trees, lichen and moss covering them, and shrubs and grass and bushes rooted among the ruined buildings.
“Seikatsu!” came her father’s voice, eerily loud over the silence that had burrowed into every inch of the scene. “Are you all right?”
Astonished, Seikatsu looked up. Her father, her beloved father, was far above her, right behind where the boardwalk had snapped a second time.
“Don’t just call down to her, Joseph! Let’s climb down and help her!” said her mother Lana, joining her husband. “You don’t need to,” Seikatsu answered. “I’m fine.”
“I knew they were right,” said Marvin, shuffling from behind the couple. “It really was crumblin’.”
Then all three adults stopped and stared. Their attention shifted from the girl on the ground to what was behind her. The world beyond.
A wind blew, and they all flinched, thinking of acid rain and being caught far from home in the midst of a corrosive downpour. Instead the wind merely tousled their hair and the trees’ leaves.
Perhaps the outside world was not as bad as they had suspected.
At that very moment, they heard an odd noise, like a short, inhuman yelp. A furry, four-legged creature poked its long-eared head from behind a caved-in skyscraper, sniffing enthusiastically. Seeing the unfamiliar, two-legged newcomers, it growled. Then, hesitantly, it sniffed again and wagged its tail, approaching them cautiously.
The four humans did not know then that this was a dog. Soon, they would guess it from history passed through the Structure’s inhabitants.
Suddenly, another creature appeared. It flapped effortlessly through the air, chattering animatedly. It rode on long, feathery limbs that Seikatsu remembered were called wings. A bird, she thought.
An ecosystem still thrived on their planet, persisting despite the pollution.
“But how?” Seikatsu asked. “How did they survive with the acid rain and the smog?
“It seems,” said Lana, “that they found their own ways to adapt to the ancient climate crisis. Maybe the trees stretched their roots deeper to reach safe underground water, or developed their leaves to repel the toxins, and then the animals discovered how to tap into the trees’ resources.”
“And the sky!” said Joseph. “It’s not smoggy--it’s clean! What happened to the poison in the air?”
Lana was about to give a lengthy answer on the absorbance of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and the greenhouse effect, but her daughter spoke before her.
“Does it matter?” Seikatsu asked. “What does matter is we have a world to live in. A world filled with wonder and joy and life. We can mend this wreckage and care for the animals. Our lives will have a purpose: to preserve all life.”
“Maybe we can even stop the acid rain,” said Marvin.
“Let’s get the others,” said Lana. “Humankind will leave the Structure and be itself again.”