Left Behind by Callie Cameron

She knew the raiders were there as soon as they came close, flying in over the forest. In the past, she might have joined them in destroying her house, and then gone off raiding with them—that was fun, sometimes—and in the future she might do so again. But now she was enjoying the quiet life alone at the villa. So she acted meek, as if they were equals, and let them come in and eat her food and smash her things and set fire to part of the house. Then one by one, she lured them to bed, and, while they were distracted, she took the knife from the bedside table—neither of which had been there a moment before—and killed them. Killing them was easy: they outnumbered her five to one, but she had been here a long time, and the world here responded to her much more than to them.

Then she went outside and sat on the big rock in the courtyard, and let the rain wash away the blood. It only rained when she wanted it to. Inside, vines grew in through the windows and doors and covered the bodies and the damage they had done. When the vines withered and turned to dust, and the dust blew away, there would be no sign the raiders had ever been, except for the burned section of the house. She could repair that, too, if she wanted, but she decided she liked it.

Some time later—she couldn’t say how long, maybe it was days, maybe it was years—she felt someone else come into her land. He was walking, not flying, and it would take him days to get here through the forest. But he didn’t feel like a raider.

She could have flown out to meet him, but she didn’t. The present was the only constant; she was alive and she was herself, and that was all that mattered. He would arrive when he arrived. Instead, she wandered through the villa. Sometimes she went outside and enjoyed the sun on her skin, or watched the ashes drifting in the burned section. Sometimes she went to the library and took down a book at random, and flipped through the pages, looking at the pictures. When he got to the top of the hill by the house, she sat on the rock in the courtyard and watched him scramble down the hillside. She was waiting outside the villa when he arrived.

He was a traveler, and had been for a long time. They talked and ate together and slept together. One morning when she woke he was gone, but she knew he was in the library. He was often there.

She didn’t rush to meet him. She would know where he was when she wanted to. When she did, he was wandering through the south wing, trailing his fingers along the walls.

“Look at this,” he said. “Why is it like this? Do you ever wonder?”

She looked at him, not sure what he meant.

“Think about it now, then. Why are there so many bedrooms, when you’re the only one who lives here?”

“Sometimes I like to sleep somewhere different,” she said.

“Why is there a stable out the front? Did anyone ever come here on a horse? The path from the gate doesn’t go anywhere—it stops at the edge of the forest, and the forest is too thick to get a horse through without a path. Why is there a well in the courtyard, when you can make it rain anytime you want, and you don’t even need to drink? Where does all the food come from? Food is made from dead plants and animals, but where are they? It just appears, doesn’t it?”

“Of course it does,” she said. “Why wouldn’t it? I’ve been here a long time.” Then she added, “I killed a deer, once.” It had come out of the forest just as she had decided to eat, and she had killed it and cut it up and cooked it over an open fire. Then she had eaten it bit by bit, till there was nothing left but bones. It was delicious. But she decided, afterward, that was an awful lot of effort just for some food, and didn’t do it again.

“Once,” he said, with a grin. “Why do you eat at all? You don’t get hungry.”

She laughed, and decided this must be some kind of game. “Because it tastes good. Why wouldn’t I? Why do you eat? Next you’ll be asking why I sleep.”

He gave her a pointed look. “Well?”

She laughed again.

He ran his fingers over the wall again, and said, “Look at this, bricks and mortar. Why? They look like they’ve been put here one by one and joined together. Did you do that? Did you stand here and build this place brick by brick?”

“Of course not.”

“Well, how, then?”

“I just made it.”

“But then why bother with the bricks? If you just made it, why not make the whole wall one solid piece? You could. I tried it once, and it works just fine.”

She laughed and shook her head, but this time something didn’t feel right. “You’re not making sense. I just… made it up. I wanted it to be like this, and it was.”

“If you just made it up, why make somewhere like this at all? Why not make somewhere that just has what you need, and nothing else? Why bother with the bricks, and the rooms, and all the other little details? That’s what doesn’t make sense.”

“Why not?” she snapped, feeling suddenly backed into a corner, even though she had been here a long time and the world here knew her and she could do anything she wanted here—and he couldn’t. “Why should I live in a hovel like a grubber when I can have somewhere like this?”

“Right. And what’s a grubber, then? I’ve heard other people say the same thing. But what is a grubber? How do they live? No one knows.”

And he was right—neither did she. But she wasn’t about to admit that.

She left him alone the rest of the day. He hadn’t been like this before. Instead, they’d spoken about the places he’d been and the people he’d met. Although, in hindsight, he had been observant, watching her and taking in every detail of the house. Preparing for all these questions? Maybe if they were apart for a while, things would go back to the way they had been.

When she went to him later in the day, he was in the burned section, sifting through the ashes. He’d never asked what happened here.

But she soon saw that he was in the same mood.

“You told me this is a Roman villa. What’s ‘Roman’? Why is it a ‘villa’ and not just a house? What does that mean?”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” she said, shrugging. “It’s just words. I decided that’s what I would call it when I made it.”

“So you say. But I’ll tell you what I think. You say you just made it up. I think you decided it was going to be a Roman villa, first. And then you made it like this—the bricks, the stables, everything—because you knew, even if you weren’t aware of it, that this is how a Roman villa is supposed to look. And the only way you could possibly know that, is if you’ve seen one before.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “I made it up, it doesn’t mean anything.”

“Is it ridiculous?” he said. “I’ve been asking lots of people the same kinds of questions, ever since I started to think about them and realized I couldn’t answer them myself. And the answers are always just as vague. For example—how long have you been here?”

She shrugged again. “A while.”

“And before that?”

“I traveled around like you. And before that I had a house on a mountaintop, with big glass walls.”

“And before that?”

She started to answer, and found that she couldn’t. There were a few vague impressions, and that was all. “It was—”

But he cut her off. “And before that? And before that? How long have you been alive, anyway?”

“Always, I suppose.”

“Always? So you were never a child?”

“I—”

“But you know what a child is. And if you were, when you grew up, you just stopped growing, and have been the way you are now ever since?”

She nodded slowly. That had to be right. But that feeling was coming back, like being backed into a corner, and she didn’t like it.

“You’d recognize an old person, too, if you saw one,” he went on, “but have you ever seen one? And where would old people come from, if we don’t age? Think about it—it doesn’t make any sense.” Now there was a glint in his eye, and he gave her a wicked grin, like he’d come to the punchline: “And tell me this—what’s your name?”

“My name is…” but she stopped. Her name was… it was right there on the tip of her tongue. Of course, she was… But she frowned. She hadn’t used it in so long, hadn’t even thought about it—and it wouldn’t come.

“You don’t know,” he said.

She was suddenly angry. He’d set this trap, and she’d walked right into it. “What’s so important about a name?” She was herself, and anyone who saw her could see that. Anyone talking about her would know who they meant. But how could she not remember? “What’s your name?”

He just shrugged. “I don’t remember either.”

He took her to the library.

“I’ve been traveling around for a while,” he said. “Nobody has any more answers than you. So many little things don’t make sense. I mean, look at this place—look at all these books. What do they all mean?”

She sighed. “Is that the only thing you ever ask? They don’t mean anything.” But this time she wasn’t so sure. “They’re just art, like pictures on a wall. They look nice.”

“Then why is this a library, and not a gallery? Why are they all in books? A room with pictures on the wall is a gallery, not a library.”

“They’re a different kind of art,” she said. Each page in each book was a different picture. “They’re too small and there are too many to put up on the walls, so they’re in books instead. They don’t mean anything. They’re just something pretty I made up with the rest.”

He pulled a book from a shelf and opened it, looking at the little black squiggles that covered each page.

“Look at this,” he said, pointing. “If you made all this up, then all of these should be different, but they’re not. I’ve seen other libraries in other houses, and the symbols on the pages are always the same. The patterns are different, but the symbols are the same—there are seventy or so.” He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, where he’d drawn out each of the symbols, and smoothed it out. “And look at this, look at the way they’re grouped together—every page is different, but there are patterns that you see over and over.”

He was speaking faster now, and when he glanced up at her, his eyes were shining.

“And you must have noticed—the same symbols turn up everywhere. I’ve seen them on pictures on walls, on furniture, always the same symbols. What are the chances of that, if everyone just made them up? They have to mean something.”

He put down the book and picked up another. The patterns were different, but they were made from the same symbols, over and over, just as he said.

“I’ve been thinking about this more than anything. What if you decided that each little symbol meant something, and by putting them together in a particular way, you could make them mean something else? Then you could make these patterns, and anyone who knew the rules you used could look at the pattern and know exactly what you meant, just like that. And it wouldn’t matter if you were still there, or how long ago or how far away you’d made it. Do you see?”

She was starting to think that she did see, and didn’t like the feeling at all.

“You mean like some sort of code?” she asked. “Why would anyone do that?”

“Why?” He laughed. “Why wouldn’t they? Just think of all the things we could know if we knew what the patterns meant. Nothing we do makes any sense, and no one seems to care. But if we could understand what all these books mean—I mean, just look at how many there are in this one room! We could make sense of things, we could—”

“Enough!” She slammed the book shut, and pulled it away. “I don’t want to hear any more.” She couldn’t help glancing at the rows of shelves, though. Even if what he said was just a theory, even if he had no way to prove it, the fact it might be true was enough. The thought of all that unknown meaning, lurking here like a monster in her library that she had made—or, no, she corrected herself, and now her mind was doing that to her even without him asking the questions: that she had made the world make, and where did the world get all the tiny details, anyway?—and where she had spent so much time… she didn’t feel safe here anymore.

“You ask too many questions,” she said. “I’m going to bed.”

The present was the only constant. They were alive, and they were themselves. That was all that mattered. How had he forgotten that?

But she knew she would never be able to look at the library the same way again.

They both slept, but that didn’t help, because she dreamed. She almost never dreamed—actually, couldn’t remember the last time she had. She dreamed of mud and cold and exhaustion. Not mud like if she’d gone down to the lake and wallowed in the mud on the shore, because that was play and this was suffering. She woke gasping and covered in cold sweat, and for a moment didn’t know where she was or who she was. He was sleeping soundly beside her. What had he done to her? This was all his fault, with his questions! On a moment’s impulse, she reached out and took the knife that hadn’t been there a moment before, and killed him too.

Then she smashed up the room where they had slept together, and made herself like a ghost and flew through the roof and up far into the sky, where it was deliciously cold and there was nothing else. There she started to feel calm. He would ask no more questions, and the vines would come and take away all trace that he had ever been, and everything would go back to the way it was.

Except it didn’t. Killing him didn’t help. Because now she couldn’t go anywhere in the villa without noticing things, and wondering, why? She didn’t dare go back to the library. She flew in the sky and swam in the lake and ran in the forest, but when she came back it started all over again. What was this thing he had infected her with? She kept on dreaming of mud and suffering. So she stopped sleeping, which was a shame because she usually enjoyed sleeping.

Then she started remembering, which was worse, because what if the things in her dreams weren’t just images but were something real? If they couldn’t come to her when she was asleep, were they now going to come to her when she was awake? They were only ever fragments, flashes of places she thought she might have lived, or people she might have known, too small to put into words. Those weren’t so bad, except that she couldn’t remember anything around them, and the size of that blankness was terrifying. She had always assumed she could remember everything, but his questions—that were her questions now, she couldn’t help herself—just led to more and more unknowns. What was worse was the mud and the cold and the suffering, like in her dreams. That was underneath everything, and though there was even less detail, those memories were sharp. They hurt. Splashing through ice-cold water in the dark, and pain. Pain and exhaustion were things she barely knew. Why would she ever have lived a life like that? She couldn’t understand it. Most of her didn’t want to.

Eventually she couldn’t take it anymore. So she smashed up the villa, and this time the vines didn’t come. She made a storm come, with the winds and the lightning to set the house and the forest on fire and an earthquake to shake it to pieces. Then she flew, as high and as fast as she could, far from the land she knew. She had the feeling she’d done this before.

At first it helped, a little. Sometimes she walked, sometimes she flew, sometimes she moved through the ground like a ghost, but she never stayed anywhere for long. She even tried sleeping again, once or twice. Sometimes she made a house for herself, when she found a spot she liked. The world there didn’t know her, so it was much harder than back at the villa, but in the end, it did what she wanted. Except the questions wouldn’t go away, and when she was making things she paid more attention to the how. Where did her ideas come from, all the different styles and the tiny details? She wasn’t sure if they were coming from her or from the world, or if that was even a meaningful distinction. She could make the walls smooth, just like he’d said. She could control every single detail, if she wanted, but the results were bland and uninteresting, not like the things she usually made.

She soon moved on, though. Nowhere satisfied her, and whenever somewhere started to become familiar, she’d start to feel the way she had back at the villa. So she kept moving. Sometimes she’d tear the house apart, though not with storms and earthquakes like at the villa—she didn’t stay anywhere long enough to be able to do that. Other times she’d just leave, and leave the house behind exactly as it was.

Sometimes she met other people, and now she was the one asking questions that they couldn’t answer. That made her feel worse, but the questions had a hold of her now and she couldn’t help it. Nothing made sense—he’d been right. Some people were more willing to see that than others. No one had answers.

She was convinced her memories were real, now. There were more: sifting through scrap by a poison river, dark skies full of shards like silver dust drifting in front of the stars, glimpses of faces that she was sure had been important to her once; and under it all there was aching and coughing, dirt and struggle and exhaustion. Now there was sometimes fire, too, and the pain of being burned. That didn’t make sense, because fire couldn’t hurt her—sometimes she summoned up flames all around just to prove it. She didn’t understand how any of that could be real. But she found herself thinking about mud for hours on end, and lost track of where she was.

She woke in a clearing in a wood—when had she started sleeping again?—but what was worse was that she was sure she had been there before, and that it had been an important place for her, once, though she couldn’t remember how. She had left the villa to escape the memories, but now they were worse than ever. There was nowhere left to go. Awake or asleep, it didn’t matter. Was there no other way out? So she did something with her mind that she hadn’t remembered she could do until she did it, and then it was obvious, and she was somewhere else. But she didn’t know where.

It was a room, featureless gray with a sphere of light in the middle. She flew toward the sphere, but no matter how fast she flew, she didn’t get any closer. Instead the sphere grew, until it was so huge she could no longer perceive the curvature of it, and couldn’t tell it from a plane that stretched away to infinity.

“Welcome back,” a voice said that came from nowhere.

“Who are you?” she asked. And then a sudden thought: “Are you God?” That was a concept she hadn’t remembered until she said it.

“I am a Console,” the voice said. “When your kind created the world, they created my kind to assist those who desire it.”

“I don’t understand. Where am I? How did I get here?”

“You are unhappy,” the voice said. “There is no need to be unhappy in this world. I was created to assist those who are unhappy. I will do anything you require in order to assist you.”

She said nothing for a while. “I remember things. Impossible things—mud and fire and pain. I can’t stop thinking.

“I can make you forget, if that is what you wish.”

“And put things back the way they were before?”

“And put things back the way they were before. It is your choice. If that is what you choose, I will assist you.”

She thought. “Welcome back, you said. Have I been here before?”

“Yes. One hundred and thirty seven times.” The voice was too vast for pity or compassion.

Mud and fire flashed in her mind again—this doesn’t make any sense, her thoughts whispered. “All those times, for the same reason?”

“Yes.”

“And what did I choose, then?” Although she could already guess the answer.

“In most cases, you chose to forget. In some cases, you chose to retain your memories and go back into the world. However, in all such cases, you returned here at a later time, seeking to forget.”

It was ash and smoke, now; she could almost taste it. “Before I choose, tell me one more thing, if you can. What’s my name?

The voice told her, and that unlocked everything.

The generation ships had left, the world’s hope, and were never heard from again. The billions left behind turned inward, defeated. Their world was broken and dying, so they used their machines to build another world, this world, a world like a dream they would never have to wake from. But there wasn’t room for everyone—or, no; some people they didn’t want. There was always someone left behind. She knew how she was born into the fifth generation, inheritors of the ruined earth, abandoned twice and left to grub in the dirt and the wreckage. Oh, she knew what a grubber was now. Living in a hovel, indeed—a tiny corrugated-iron hut in a basement car park. The long, hard years, scavenging the decaying city, trying to grow enough food to survive. There was a man, too, who she loved. They were going to have a child together. Even there, in the ruins, life went on.

But then the second-last filtration unit failed. They had no spares, and though the scavengers went further and further, they came back empty-handed. They’d long ago lost contact with other cities, and couldn’t call for help. The last unit was old and faulty, and if it failed, they’d have no way to clean the polluted river water. Anyone who drank the polluted water died. It would be certain death for the whole community, maybe in a matter of weeks.

They came up with a desperate plan. They would raid the catacombs, where the bodies of those who had gone into the other world were still alive. The catacombs had maintained themselves for generations—there had to be something usable in there. But everyone knew the catacombs were cursed. No one who went in ever came back. Except, now, what did they have to lose? Even a tiny chance was better than nothing.

They went in. Parts of the outer wall were damaged, and the cold river water rushed in. There was fighting; ferocious machines protected the sleepers. There was fire. She was wounded—no, she was burning up, she was dying. She could feel herself fading away. There were voices, arguing. She told them to go, that the mission was more important than her life. They found a compromise, by sheer luck—an empty capsule. Either its original occupant had died, or it was a spare that had never been used. It would keep her alive till they could come back for her. Trembling arms lowered her down into a cool embrace. The last thing she remembered was the face she loved, promising everything, fading away into nothing.

Then she had come to this world, and over time, forgotten everything.

When she came back to herself, she was curled in a ball, still floating in front of the sphere. Nothing around her had changed. The voice was infinitely patient, she knew; it would wait for her forever, if it had to. But her face was wet, and she was shaking. When she spoke, her voice was raw and broken.

“How long is it—out there—since I first came here?”

“Two thousand and nineteen years,” the voice said.

“Then everyone I know—out there—is dead.”

“I cannot say for certain, but statistically, it is highly likely.”

So she was the one who left them behind, in the end. Had they survived? Had they ever tried to come back for her? Was anyone still alive out there, after all this time? Did anyone in here still remember the outside world? Why would they want to?

She saw the face she loved, and the tears came again. She held herself tighter. “If I choose to forget, will it hurt?”

“There will be no pain,” the voice said.

The present was the only constant. She was alive, and she was herself. So why was that no longer enough? Did she owe it to the ones she’d left to remember, and go on?

Except—there would always be next time.

Her voice was a whisper. “Make me forget.”

The light went out, the world went out, and there was only darkness.


Callie Cameron is a Scottish writer living in Zurich, Switzerland. Her work has appeared in Etherea, Silver Blade, Decoded Pride and others. You can find her online on Instagram.