A cluster of voices whispered to one another in the brightly lit room in front of the cold steel gate.
“The last group they sent never returned.”
“What exactly do they hope to accomplish with this group of newbies?”
“They’re goners, I swear.”
“Well, we don’t have much of a choice at this point, do we?”
A knock on the door cut the chatter short. A woman with close-cropped greying hair was the first to walk through the door. Following closely behind her were three other women. Together, they strode forward in a diamond-formation. Sidearms were strapped to their thighs, and each woman wore a backpack. The guns were a precaution that everyone carried into the Wastelands to feel a little more secure, but explorers who’d already been there knew that guns couldn’t help you much. It was your brain, not your brawn, that could save your life.
Rumor had it that some previous explorers had actually gone mad from the horrors of the Wastelands and put bullets through their heads.
The four women stopped in front of the gate. The commander at the front nodded to the program director seated next to the controls.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” he said just before pressing a button and keying in a password, signaling the opening of the gate and an oncoming rush of bitter cold.
“With all due respect, sir,” the commander replied, “neither you nor whatever higher power you believe in has any influence in there.”
The team of four secured their helmets and marched through the gate, leaving only the closing of the gate to penetrate the silence of the speechless on the other side.
Humans could not remember a time before the Wastelands appeared, but they had proof that this world had only appeared to them two years ago. Whether this land had always existed in parallel to their own was still a controversial topic, but researchers had concluded that some kind of weapon—the current theory was a new kind of nuclear warhead—had ripped open spaces between the normal Earth and the Wastelands, killing much of the living organisms on Earth. Thanks to advancements in genetically modified organisms, scientists and what remained of the government had ensured people were still receiving nutrition. Livestock and plants still had yet to be fully reproduced, but people were surviving. Global communications had yet to be reestablished, however.
However, people had no memory of the attack. They did not know who instigated the conflict, and they did not know why.
After eighteen months of fraught reconstruction, people had built new identities for themselves and moved on, accepting that this was life now. However, they were a curious sort; they desired to know more of the Wastelands. Surely it had some sort of purpose, many scientists concluded. And so, they began a program of volunteers to explore it. The first to travel there were ex-military—or so those people assumed based on personal and governmental records—and only one made it back through the gate. For months, he refused to speak about what he’d seen.
Three other teams had ventured in with little success. One brought back materials they’d scavenged, but they refused to make another trip. Sometimes explorers returned with strange illnesses or serious wounds that no one could explain. The only common experience everyone could report was that they felt constantly lost.
No one else dared enter.
The researchers feared that to further explore the Wastelands, they would have to petition the government to conscript the populace—or else drop the matter entirely.
However, Caroline Davis, a 61-year-old woman who had been working as a researcher, announced to her coworkers that she had put together a team of volunteers: three other woman who had the guts to go in despite hearing all the stories. She would be their leader and promised them that they’d all return safely.
People had laughed at first. Caroline wasn’t unfit by any means—she was bright and in shape—but every other person who’d traveled into the Wastelands was under 40 years old, and most had been healthy men in their twenties, many of whom were presumed to be dead now. She’d rolled her eyes and ignored their initial jeers. Then she’d issued the challenge, “Fine, then. Now, which of you shall be going?” No one had replied.
They were always quick to tear people down, but women were the targets they most swiftly descended upon.
The three teammates Caroline had found were also from within the company. Martha was a 39-year-old woman who cleaned the office. Caroline had talked to her several times when she had been working late and struck a quick friendship with Martha, who was quiet on the job but a chatterbox outside of work. However, it was Martha’s big heart which had most impacted Caroline.
After Martha joined, Caroline had asked Leia, the youngest researcher in the building at 24 years old. She was small and skinny, like a strong gust of wind in the Wastelands would topple her over. Her seniors often asked her to fetch coffee and tea for them, but Caroline had seen Leia scribbling away on napkins at lunch, working through theories and equations. Sometimes she just stared into space. Most of their coworkers found her odd, but she did lots of odd tasks for them without complaining, so no one necessarily disliked her. When Caroline had asked her if she was interested in seeing the Wastelands, Leia had replied in a monotone voice, “Isn’t everyone?”
The last to join was Julie, Caroline’s wife. The pair had been married before the Wastelands, but they remembered nothing from before the Incident brought about that mysterious world’s appearance—as if those memories had been erased. They woke up one day, both on the ground in their partially wrecked home, at a loss of who the other was. Finding photos in broken frames at the foot of the stairs to their house—photos in which younger versions of themselves were both wearing white dresses—they concluded they must have been in love and married each other. However, with their personal memories erased—for whatever reason, the supposedly nuclear attack had messed with everyone’s personal memories but not their skills or vague knowledge about how the world worked—they were in an awkward situation. They had lived together for the last two years, slowly getting to know each other again. They both loved each other, but perhaps not in the same way as before. However, Julie didn’t want Caroline traveling to the most dangerous place they knew. When Caroline refused to back down from her self-imposed mission, Julie resolved to accompany her. A 57-year-old doctor working at the same company as the rest of the team, Julie had seen firsthand the horrors of the Wastelands without having set foot inside.
Caroline believed in all of them.
That was why the first bizarre attack they fended off, which hurt only Julie, had shaken her sincerely.
Julie was holding back tears while she used her right hand to clamp down on her limb, severed a few inches above her elbow. Caroline held her in her arms, unable to cry from the shock but still speechless. Julie barked out instructions to Leia and Martha to go through her pack for a tourniquet.
Martha took out a black looped strap with a windlass attached. “Is this it?”
“Yes, yes, now slide the damn thing a couple inches above the cut,” Julie directed.
Leia took the device from Martha’s shaky hands and did as she was told, pulling the tourniquet tight and twisting the metal windlass until Julie’s blood stopped flowing as intensely. Then she took out the gauze and wrapped it around the severed arm. She did so with the minimum of conversation. Martha looked away during it, and Caroline, although watching the whole time, found herself silent. Julie was the only one who spoke, wincing as she did so.
It had all happened so quickly—too fast for any of them to notice until it was too late. They had been walking in a straight line with Caroline at the front and Julie at the back. Visibility was poor in the Wastelands, and their protective suits made them sluggish. Caroline was tossing small pebbles one at a time a few feet in front of her to discover invisible barriers. She went around a corner, and Leia and Martha followed. Julie had been right behind them, but then she’d suddenly let out a guttural scream, and when everyone looked around, a part of her arm was on the ground, and she was bleeding so, so much—far more than the three of them had ever seen before.
“What the hell happened?” were the first words out of Caroline’s mouth, nearly ten full minutes after the incident.
“Wish I knew,” Julie said with a grunt. Her face under her helmet, just barely visible through the visor, was covered in sweat.
“Julie, you’re breathing a lot deeper than you should, and you’re going through your oxygen too fast,” Martha cautioned, staring at the gauge.
Julie just nodded, not having the strength to offer a witty comment in exchange.
Leia had been staring into the distance while the other three rested, fixating on something in the distance. She held one hand up to her helmet as if she was resting it on her chin when she finally said, “We need to move. Now. Carefully.”
“Wait, why all of a sudden?” Caroline asked.
Leia pointed ahead, but all Caroline saw was a vast, empty space akin to a desert. The dirt had a warm tint to it, and it was densely packed; only loose bits on the surface were picked up in the occasional gust. However, looking closely, Caroline saw bits of loose dirt be picked up in the air and blown across the expanse until it suddenly hovered in the air, as if there was a barrier in place.
“Ah, I see it now,” she mumbled. “So I guess that’s another way of finding these invisible walls without throwing pebbles at them. But what about it?”
“That barrier has been getting closer to us for the last five minutes,” Leia explained. “I don’t think it’s going to stop. I also have a theory as to what happened to Julie’s arm.”
Everyone snapped to attention, even Julie, who picked her head up.
Leia continued, “I think one of the invisible walls shifted closer to us on our left side and severed her arm as it appeared, as if it rose from below the earth.”
Julie nodded. “It’s a fairly clean cut, so that makes more sense than some kind of invisible monster tearing it off and then running away.”
Caroline took a quick glance inside her pouch of pebbles. It was already close to empty. Each of them had a pouch, which they’d have to make sure lasted the whole trip. They hadn’t planned on staying here long to begin with, but if mysterious barriers were more of a problem than they’d heard about from previous explorers, then she wanted to get everyone out as quickly as possible. Of course, she didn’t want to return empty-handed, but everyone’s lives were more important than new materials.
Julie was going to be without one arm for the rest of her life; Caroline already had that weighing on her conscience. A woman she loved, found inspiring, and had prompted to join a dangerous mission was suffering and doing her best not to show it. Every now and then, Martha’s gaze wandered down to the bloodied gauze around what remained of Julie’s arm. Caroline kept staring at it, too.
“I recommend we head that way,” Leia said, pointing at a silvery object in the distance. There was little light in the Wastelands, yet the object seemed to glimmer.
Caroline didn’t want to get her hopes up too fast, but her heart jumped before her brain could demand caution. She’d seen that shining silver before. Their company hadn’t established a name for the material yet, but there were a few samples of it back in the labs as scientists attempted to determine what it was. All they knew was that they had no records on it from before the Incident and it was molecularly complex. Out of this world, as many had described it so far.
When Julie motioned that she wanted to stand, Caroline helped her to her feet. “I’ve still got both my legs, I’m fine,” Julie mumbled. “Looks like they’ll need to find a new surgeon to replace me, though… At least I’ve got my head, right?”
Martha and Leia strained smiles, but Caroline didn’t look amused. She knew Julie only broke out humor for self-deprecation. She held Julie’s hand in her own.
“We’re going to get through this,” she whispered at first, and then repeated louder: “We’re going to get through this, dammit.”
And so they continued onward in a line, Caroline tossing a pebble every few steps in front of her, Leia at the back tossing one behind occasionally, and both Martha and Julie holding out short metal poles to the sides, checking for anything that might sneak up on them.
Time meant nothing in the Wastelands.
Distance meant nothing in the Wastelands.
The only reason Caroline knew that she truly had been placing one foot in front of the other for however long was due to the lightness of the bag she was holding. The first bag she’d picked pebbles from was empty. Martha, who held the second bag, had just announced hers was empty as well. The third bag, which Caroline was now holding, was around half-empty.
And the glimmering object in the distance seemed farther away than it had than when Leia had first pointed it out.
Caroline glanced over her shoulder at her team. Julie was pale. Leia’s eyes were shut longer and longer between blinks. Martha was walking unsteadily.
These women had done their best, and that was just going to have to be enough.
“Let’s break and set up camp,” Caroline announced to the weary group. Their eyes wandered to the far-off goal, and Caroline could see their spirits breaking. “I don’t want to mess with these shifting barriers, so once we each get some rest, we’re going to back track to the entrance and resupply. Julie is lower on oxygen than the rest of us, too. We can try again.”
While Caroline, Martha, and Leia set up insulated sleeping bags and spread out the four metal poles they had around the sleeping area, Julie attempted to contact the program director back home.
“This is Doctor Julie Davis. Again, do you read me?” she asked through a receiver in her helmet. “Hello? Are any of you there?”
There was only static in response.
“Excuse me…,” Martha hesitantly cut in. She was staring at her compass. “I think we have another problem.”
The compass needle spun wildly, stopping occasionally just to whirl around in the other direction. Martha turned herself, but the compass refused to find North.
“We were walking north the entire time, yeah?” she asked. “Does anyone remember which way is south from here?”
The other three cautiously exchanged glances. Caroline looked around for where the far-off object was, but it had vanished, leaving them behind.
Lost. Exhausted. Utterly confused.
“Let’s just get some rest for now,” Caroline cautioned. “We’ll figure out what to do in the morning. Or, well, whatever time it’ll be.” She glanced at the time display on the wrist of her protective suit, but the numbers were flickering; it was impossible to read.
Martha volunteered for the first watch shift. No one knew how to measure how much time was passing, so they’d agreed that once she felt herself becoming drowsy, she would wake Caroline and get some sleep herself. They would all need to be alert to make it out safely.
They’d probably need a helping of luck, too, Martha figured.
Julie interlaced her fingers with Caroline’s and lightly tapped the toe of her high heels on the ground as she readied for their first dance. Their friends and family were watching, but it was as if the only one in the room was Caroline, who smiled so wide, the wrinkles around her eyes became even more pronounced.
The music began, and the pair swayed to the beat of their shared favorite tune.
“Why don’t you love me anymore?” Caroline asked. Her gaze was hard, and her hair was significantly greyer.
“Wh…what?” Julie let go of her.
The venue went dark, like they were in an abyss, and as Julie’s eyes adjusted, she saw she was standing on hard dirt in a lifeless space.
“Why don’t you love me anymore?” Caroline repeated, crying. “Have you forgotten everything? Our first date? First kiss? Our trip to Paris?”
Julie racked her brain, but she couldn’t remember any of those things. “I’m sorry… Who are you?” She took a step backward, but her heel got stuck in the ground, and she stumbled.
Caroline grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you remember?!”
Leia was sitting on a swing with her best friend on the seat next to her. They both sipped on blended coffee drinks and dug their feet into the worn-away grass below the swings.
“I’m sick and tired of Mr. Howard calling me ‘sir’ this and ‘sir’ that. I’m not even a sir!” Leia kicked up a spray of dirt and aggressively twirled the straw in her cup.
“I know what you mean,” her friend said. “Half of my class still calls me my deadname, and my teacher doesn’t give a crap.”
Leia slurped her drink, and in the pause, her friend added, “You’re normally so quiet, but when you’re angry, you’re quite the talker,” and then laughed.
Leia smiled sheepishly. “I don’t really have anyone else I can open up to.”
“That’s what best friends are for.”
Something about the conversation felt vaguely familiar, like she’d talked with someone about this once before. She couldn’t remember who or when. She couldn’t remember having another friend before meeting… Wait…what was his name?
“You don’t remember me, do you?” he asked.
Leia stared at him harder, but the details of his face were going out of focus.
“Will you remember me if I show you this?”
Leia’s stomach dropped before she even saw it: this boy, five or six years older than he appeared now, slowly disintegrating before her eyes while he stretched one hand to hers, which she clutched for as long as she could—until he was gone forever.
Never to be thought of again.
Caroline gazed in awe at the tall structure in front of her: the Eiffel Tower. “Honey, do you want to walk all the way to the top?”
Julie rolled her eyes. “They invented elevators for a reason. Look, they’re right there.”
“But wouldn’t it be so romantic to take a stroll to the top?”
“It’s less of a stroll and more of a climb.” Julie craned her neck backward to see the top of the structure.
“But think of all the calories you’ll burn just so we can treat ourselves to those pastries by the hotel.”
“I don’t need an excuse to treat myself to dessert.”
Caroline laughed heartily, and her partner couldn’t stop herself from giggling, either. They continued to lovingly bicker while they walked over to the queue and quietly poked and elbowed each other all the way through the elevator to the top. Caroline was the first to exit, and when she turned around to take Julie’s hand, her partner pulled away in shock and disgust. Her eyes were wide as she stared at the woman who just tried to touch her.
“Who are you?”
Before Martha knew it, she was starting to nod off, but three simultaneous screams shocked her from her dozing.
Caroline, Julie, and Leia all woke up, yelling, staring at things in the distance. Martha called their names one by one, but none of them responded. They kept talking, as if they were each having separate conversations with people Martha couldn’t see. They didn’t take notice of one another, either.
Martha turned to the voice behind her and saw a young adult man. Next to him stood a shorter girl and boy. Behind the three was a dashing gentleman. “Martha, dear, you’re home.”
Martha blinked, but when she opened her eyes, the four of them were still there. They all bore a similar resemblance.
“Mommy doesn’t remember us,” the little girl said, voice barely above a whisper as tears began to fall from the corners of her eyes.
“Shhh, that’s not true,” the older man replied. “Momma would never forget about you or any of us, and she’d never let anything bad happen to you.”
Martha thought she should have been scared, but she couldn’t put her emotions into words. They were spilling out of her. She smiled, and she cried. She ran over to the four and wrapped them in a big hug. “I’m so sorry, honeybear. Mommy’s having a rough day and is struggling with names, but she remembers that she loved you all more than anything.”
They were warm. She could have sworn they were all glowing.
The man cupped her cheek and kissed her briefly. “You can’t stay here,” he whispered into her ear. “You all aren’t meant to be here for extended periods.”
She didn’t want to leave this.
“You have to go,” he urged.
She didn’t want to return to her empty home.
“Be happy you’re alive. You’ll get through this.”
“I miss you all so much. Why can’t I remember you?”
“Get home safe.”
Then the four of them vanished, and everything was dim once more.
“What the hell were you to me?” Julie roared, bringing Martha’s attention back to the group.
Julie was holding her gun out, pointing it in the distance. Martha’s hand immediately went to her own pistol, but she couldn’t bring herself to hold it.
“Julie, it’s not really happening!” Martha cried. “Wake up!”
“Everything hurts so, so much,” Julie continued, shifting the gun to her own head. Martha darted forward grabbing it from her hands, getting into a scuffle with her. They both fell to the ground and tumbled, rolling into both Caroline and Leia.
Martha pulled the gun from Julie’s grip, and only then did Julie slowly get onto her knees and look up. “Wait…where am I?” she asked.
Caroline and Leia were in a similar daze. Martha took all of the guns and placed them in her own bag, zipping it shut.
“We have to get out of here,” she declared. “Are you all ready to head home?”
Suddenly, a gust of wind buffeted them, and all four women fell to the ground. Their sleeping bags flew through the air, and bits of sand and dirt slapped against their helmets. Martha pressed herself against the ground, praying that nothing would fly into them. She dared not look up.
After a few minutes, the strong gusts ceased. When they opened their eyes, the Wastelands didn’t seem quite so dark anymore. In fact, there was a silver glow.
One fist-sized chunk of glimmering, silver ore caught their collective attention. Caroline swiftly pulled out a pair of tongs to pick up the mysterious material and seal it in a canister. Once it was secure in her backpack, she checked her compass. The needle pointed north, nice and steady.
“Let’s go home. And let this be the last mission to the Wastelands.”