In the aftermath of the fall, the American Midwest became the sprawling desert that the early explorers had described. The ground, scorched by the fire that had swallowed the sky, had left the exposed soil dead save for jagged patches of low, pallid plants and the rare tree that had defied its own nature and survived. There was little to guide a traveler, and yet travelers were hardly rare across these parts, and those with wisdom were seldom lost. The secret was in the Wayfinder guidestones placed by the trail scouts who had charted the new landscape in the years following the reemergence. The stones were unremarkable things, but rich in information to a trained eye. Beyond marking safe routes, the subtle coded markings across their surfaces pointed to hidden sources of fresh water or safe places to bed down for the night.
Storyteller had learned early how to follow the trails, how to decode the secrets of the stones and use them to evade trouble. In some cases, though, the state of the trail itself that told a far richer story than the markers. Nature sought to reclaim this particular patch of ground, sending dense red-brown brambles and vines to snare the very sands. No boot had trammeled the grass here, and no blade had cleared the growth, not in many a day. The end of this road was a place ignored by traders, redeemers and raiders alike - an ignored backwater, a purposeless ruin.
It wasn't until he reached the end of the trail that Storyteller truly understood why this place had been forgotten. "Westhigh" was a brick thorn, an austere and institutional building jutting out from a field of splintered and decaying blacktop. No one remembered exactly what purpose it had served - most likely a government building, but this was but a guess. There was little interest in delving further to solve that mystery, as traders had no time for places without tangible value. The crumbling brick of the structure was no good for building, and the interior contained only annihilated books and machines so damaged that their original function was beyond reckoning. The redeemers and merchants swiftly abandoned Westhigh, and the whole area fell into a state of repair and obscurity. For Storyteller, though, this was merely a different kind of guidestone, one bonded to his own memories. He had visited this place once in the age before and understood what passed for its secrets. It was no more impressive then, but it was still a part of his past. Something drew him to this place, something deep inside that he ill understood. He only needed to find the building to reach his destination, but curiosity demanded that he investigate further.
Storyteller squeezed through the doors and into a wide hallway, surfaced in tile. The interior was in remarkably good shape - save the dust and a few exceptionally bold weeds, it looked as though it could have been in use just a few months prior. The metal storage lockers that lined the halls had seen better days, though - those which still stood upright had either lost their doors or been forever sealed by rust. There were intact door frames here and there, gates to rooms that had vanished beneath tons of rubble and debris. Storyteller stepped with deliberate care as he advanced, keeping watch for any spots that seemed in danger of collapsing. Every so often he heard what sounded like footsteps, but they stopped almost immediately - the sound of an overactive imagination, he assumed.
At the end of the hallway, Storyteller found a staircase concealed behind old scraps of plywood. These had not fallen on their own - they were brought here, arranged to leave a gap large enough to accommodate a child. Someone had resided here at some point. Overwhelmed by curiosity, Storyteller reached for one of the wooden planks.
"Hold it right there! Move and you're dead, got it?"
Storyteller spun to the sound of the voice and then immediately came to a halt. There was a girl standing in the shadow of a rubble pile, clutching a toy bow drawn with an ugly-looking metal arrow. She was tiny, scarcely more than five feet in height and certainly no more than ninety pounds on her best day. Her ratty brown hair was a tangled cape that brushed the floor around her. She was only a child, half lost in clothing at least two sizes too small for her spindly frame and massive spectacles that concealed much of her face.
She inched closer to Storyteller, the string on her bow pulled back as far as it would go. "You'll stay put if you know what's good for you. I can kill you with this thing, you know."
"I have no doubt," said Storyteller, raising his hands over his head.
The drawstring slipped off the girl's bow, the weapon clattering to the floor in front of her. She hastily snatched the arrow from the floor, twisting it towards Storyteller like a knife. "Don't get clever, I can still kill you if you try anything."
"That's not my intent," said Storyteller. "I mean you no harm."
The girl lowered the arrow. "You're not a redeemer, are you?" She tensed up, jabbing the arrow in Storyteller's direction. "Then who are you? Why are you here?"
"I'm but a wanderer." Storyteller slowly lowered his arms. "I remember this place from the world before, and I hoped to use it to find my destination."
"The world before?" The girl stepped closer. "How old are you?"
Storyteller stroked his chin. "Well, I've not had the opportunity to keep close track, and the years have lost their meaning, but...I am perhaps eighteen, or a bit older."
The girl's eyes sparkled in the weak light. "And you've been here?"
"In ages past."
The girl cast aside the arrow and flung her arms around Storyteller."Then you remember!" She stepped back as her composure returned. "Sorry about that, it's just that I've never actually met anyone from before the disaster. First thing I remembered was the inside of a bomb shelter, can you believe it?" She bowed to the ground. "Archivist is what they call me. Well, it's what I call myself. There's no one else here, so there's no 'we,' really."
"Charmed. I am called Storyteller." He returned the gesture. "You live here by yourself, I take it?"
"Well, sometimes someone gets lost and ends up here, but the rest of the time it's just me," said Archivist. "Do you know what this place is?"
"It's a ruin, is it not? I was under the impression that no one had any use for this place."
"Oh, that's not what I meant at all! I mean, what was it before? You know, in your day? What did they do here? Research? Was it research? There are all these great books here so I just figured."
"Hold that thought!" Archivist ran to the staircase. "Let me show you my place. I've been building it up for a long, long time now. Come on down, I want your opinion!"
Archivist slipped through a gap in the boards and vanished into the darkness of the basement. Storyteller pulled back the boards enough to give himself access and followed her eager footsteps down. Aside from being dark and narrow, the stairwell had an odor all its own - musky and damp, with hints of some strange growth that had newly spawned in the annihilated ecosystem. At the bottom was what had once been some manner of storage space, remade into a odd little workshop. There were at least a dozen metal tables, some covered in bulging sheets, others holding an assortment of well-worn hand tools. Past the tables was a metal storage cabinet which had been repurposed into a bookcase, holding an eclectic assortment of books and pamphlets, many of which appeared to have been stitched or stapled back into their bindings. The walls were plastered with old laminated educational posters and shattered chalkboards. The whole room was illuminated by blown-out windows near the ceiling, some of which were affixed with mirrors to reflect light onto certain parts of the room.
"Tell me what you think," said Archivist, a big grin on her face. "Does it look familiar? Did I do a good job?"
"Perhaps..." Storyteller studied the surrounding, which were familiar in a way. "Yes. It vaguely resembles a classroom."
"You mean like a school? Oh, wow. I mean, I wouldn't know. Only education I got were some crummy tutorials in the shelter." Archivist walked over to one of the work tables and tugged at the sheet that concealed it. "So was there any truth to what I've read about schools, where the big, strong kids and the good-looking girls and the smart kids and the weirdos were always fighting for control? And everyone was always getting stabbed in the back? Was it that exciting?"
"Sorry to disappoint, but much of that was just cultural mythology," said Storyteller. "Exaggerated for dramatic flavor. We were always prone to lying for the sake of the story."
"Well, I guess you'd know about that. Hey, you hungry? I'm low on supplies, so I've been trying some new food sources. There were these mushrooms down here I tried to cultivate, but they didn't look good for eating, so I burned them. But then I found this pamphlet on preserving meat so I decided to make jerky." Archivist pointed to an open locker facing one of the windows. "First batch is ready. Tell me what you think."
"Thanks for your hospitality." Storyteller walked over to the locker, which had several dozen small strips of dried meat suspended from coat hangers laid across a makeshift drying rack. He popped one of the morsels into his mouth, releasing a salty, smoky flavor. "This is not bad at all. What manner of meat is this?"
"Not a hundred percent sure," said Archivist, moving to the next sheet. "It died outside the door and the buzzards had gotten at it a little bit before I found it."
Storyteller eyeballed the meat. "Well, it died a noble death." Looking at a nearby work bench, he noted an unusual apparatus - a boxy control panel with wires leading to a number of smaller boxes, each featureless save a single red button.
Archivist looked up from her work. "Oh, that thing. There's a bunch down here. I broke one open, and there's not much to it. All that happens when you hit those buttons is that it breaks the circuit so no one else can hit the button. I can't think of anything to do with them. They must have used those for some silly thing or another."
"You're more correct than you know," said Storyteller.
"You know what they did with that? Wow. Why don't you tell me..." Archivist waved her hand in Storyteller's face. "No, later. First things first, and this is first."
Storyteller walked over to Archivist, who was still scampering around the room, examining various gadgets. "These are projects of yours?"
"It’s what I wanted to show you. I'm hoping you can give me some insight." Archivist ran over to the bookcase. "So I've been collecting all these books, right? Most of them are burned up, destroyed, but I've been poking around and I found some that are pretty intact, others I've been able to put back together. But I also keep finding these." She handed Storyteller a small silver disc with a hole in the center. "We had some of these in the shelter. I think they go in a computation machine, but ours were all fried and useless."
Storyteller took the disc by its edges and scrutinized it, studying its reflective side and the assortment of tiny scuffs that marked it. "A bit out of fashion in my time, but...yes, we used these as a storage medium. Pictures, documents, video, things of that nature. I'd not expected to see anything like this, at least not in such good shape." He returned the disc to Archivist. "I can't vouch for the functionality, these sometimes bear invisible decay. And of course, one would need a machine to use them."
"Perfect!" Archivist returned the disc to the bookcase. "I've found dozens of them. Most of the books I have on computation are very incomplete, but from what I've been able to gather, these things could be a gold mine. A whole library's worth of information, or maybe records of the past, the people who lived here. Exciting, right?"
"Indeed," said Storyteller. "I take it you haven't had a chance to study the contents on an actual computer?"
Archivist sighed and walked over to a table which held a number of gray and black boxes, all of which had been pulled apart and reassembled. "No. None of the computation devices I've found worked. So I've been trying to piece a working one together from the pieces." She rested her hand on a computer with a stripped case. "I had really high hopes for this one, you know. Not only did it not work, but it somehow managed to blow out my solar battery. I only had the one that worked, too." She delivered a swift kick to the computer, knocking it over on its side. A moment later, she snatched a pair of forceps off the table and rooted around in the dark interior of the machine. "You see? All of the parts look like they're intact, but there's something else wrong in here."
"That could well be the case," said Storyteller. "I have heard that an electromagnetic pulse can ruin electronics. Perhaps the disaster generated one."
"Maybe." Archivist pulled out a component - a small cube ending in a series of connecting pins. "I think this is the problem. Looks intact, right? But every one here is fried."
"Have you ever considered searching for a new one?" said Storyteller.
"Are you kidding? This building is my world. I don't even think I could survive out there. And it's not like I can ask anyone to do it for me. The redeemers don't..." Archivist's eyes lit up. "What about you? You could...oh, it's too big to ask."
"No need to even make the request," said Storyteller. "I can make no promises, but I will certainly keep an eye open for one like it."
"Fantastic!" Archivist shoved the damaged component into Storyteller's hands. "It looks like this. Be careful how you carry it, because you can't bend those little pins if you want it to work."
"Of course." Storyteller tucked the component into his satchel, placing it gingerly atop his other possessions. "Now, I must warn you against awaiting my return - as they said in my time, don't hold your breath. My journey is long, and I don't know where it will lead me."
"Oh, that's okay. I have time. Yes, sir, all the time in the world." Archivist rose up on tiptoes, leaning towards Storyteller. "Where are you headed, anyway? Give me all the details."
"It's not terribly exciting, I'm afraid," said Storyteller. "My hometown was southeast of the town that once stood here. There was nothing there when I emerged from our shelter, and after wandering for so many years I would like to see what became of the place."
"Southeast? Oh, no." Archivist stepped back, chewing compulsively at her cuticles. "You don't want to so southeast. That's where he lives."
"I'm afraid I don't understand. He-"
"Don't speak his title!" said Archivist, pointing at Storyteller. "...Just don't go there, okay? It's not worth it. Go north, it's much safer. You can get anything you want up north. Don't go south."
Storyteller drew back his comment with a smile and a nod. "Very well, I will take your advice to heart. Now, until we meet again-"
"Oh, do you have to leave so soon?" Archivist had the forlorn stare of an abandoned child. "I was hoping to hear more about the world that once was."
"It's early yet," said Storyteller. "I'd like to reach the next encampment before nightfall. Besides, there is still so much to learn about the world that is, and so much to glean about the world that will be."
"Wow," said Archivist. "Well, I'll get back to work. Good luck."
Storyteller left Archivist's workshop and worked his way through the ruined halls. There were memories here, vague ones but no less powerful. The ghosts of the old world still lurked here, hiding in those buried rooms and those sealed lockers. And yet, as familiar as it all was, it seemed less like a memory than a fable - like a story he'd read ages ago and committed to memory, the details fraying at the edges but the heart of it still true.