I sat at the edge of the crater. Some of us had started travelling to the Zone recently – a pilgrimage of sorts. We were the first that could. For a whole generation, the area around the crater had been an unceasing inferno, spewing radioactive smoke into the atmosphere. But finally the fire had died and the few children of the survivors could approach this cataclysmic monument, peer into its blasted depths, see the very earth burned to black glass, carefully wrapped in protective gear salvaged from the previous civilization. We knew, to some extent, what had been lost, but we regarded it without the sentimentality of our parents and grandparents. They had lost their world, we had merely inherited one. It was a world of hardship, where crops grew only with great difficulty, roads were all but non-existent and humans had been knocked down a few pegs on the great chain of existence, but it was the only world we knew. The previous world, the old world, was a ghost story.
And yet, here I was, trying to connect it to my own. This was the site of that connection, that great kinetic turning point that had pushed us backwards or forwards, depending on your views. It somehow seemed appropriate that there was nothing here. It was, quite literally, an absence. Perhaps one day it would become a lake, or a verdant valley, but not yet. For now, it was still a barren wasteland, a giant hole in the ground.
I had been warned not to stay in the Zone for too long. Besides the poisonous radiation, the Zone was home to wasteland raiders, outlaws that had not wanted to be yoked by even the minimal amount of control the survivors could exert over their Enclaves. Small children were told tales about the raiders to keep them obedient and safe – monstrously mutated people who had rejected their own humanity, regressed to a primal state of violence and frenzy and lived at the edges of the Zone, eking out a living by attacking trade caravans or ganging up in great hordes that could, it was said, wipe out an entire Enclave in a single afternoon.
But I had met no raiders, nor seen any sign of them. I wondered briefly why our elders, already living in a world of traumatic horror, would need to make up stories to compound that horror. I let the question flit away on the wind, forceful and unceasing on the treeless plain. Even though I had been camping with some other pilgrims I met on the way here, I felt completely and blissfully alone at that moment, the abyss yawning before me, saying nothing. I might just stay here, I thought, become a figment of the imagination. I could see myself slipping into the landscape, becoming a part of it, letting go of all individual thought or desire, merely being without the stories, the shadows, and the constant pressure to rebuild. Rebuild what? Why? For who? I had seen much on my way to the Zone that made me think that the old world wasn’t such a utopia after all. Mostly what I saw was a world of malevolent junk, the abandoned fortifications of an occupying army.
Strangely, in this location of tremendous violence, I felt calm for the first time. The Enclave, apparently peaceful as it was, was beset by violence at all times. The constant, looming threats from without and within that required around-the-clock vigilance, the somber faces of the elders as they warned against the neighboring Enclave or the raiders or the traitors in our own ranks, or worse, the traitor in our own minds, the pervasive sense of living on the edge of a blade held by a madman – it had all seeped into me like radiation seeped into the earth, and I had grown crooked and stunted. I had become callous as the sharp earth around the crater.
The sun was blurred behind a haze, but shone powerfully nonetheless. I felt uncomfortably warm in my protective suit. It was time to return to the camp-site, a few kilometers west, in the shade of a rocky overhang. I walked, squinting at the blazing ground, and saw a weed, some precocious and foolhardy plant that had pressed its head through a crack in the devastated earth, reaching imperfectly upwards.