Water dripped in the corners of Alden's cell. Its low even sound, the constant soft drops, drove him mad in the dark. Tomorrow was the day. He was to be banished to The Outside, a lamb offered to Oblivion's Gods. The door was not locked, he was no more prisoner here than the rest of the survivors. He was separated to gather himself, to prepare himself for the coming morning when he would be expelled and, for the first time, see the sun. This duty was named an honor. It was a privilege to be chosen, to help ensure the continued existence of the small colony, of this hovel of humanity lodged deep underground.
He was to be honored, his death feted and celebrated. Yet he felt nothing but dread, but longing.
All the young ones knew the stories. Elders dressed in filmy skins and the rags from clothing of Before recounted the day where mankind's avarice consumed itself and scourged the surface. When fire fell from the sky. When death reigned. When a few desperate, lucky youngsters escaped into a squat bunker deep underground and eked a bare survival in rooms of metal and concrete, and prepared to wait the centuries it would take Earth to heal.
Alas such meager surroundings meant sacrifice, meant forcing some out into the world, where obliteration undoubtedly destroyed them. And so each half year, among the boys and girls just at the threshold of adulthood, lots were drawn. And so each half year, one unlucky youngster was cast into the brink.
This time, Alden was that unfortunate son.
A sound at the door interrupted his reverie. It scraped open, and another young man, tears in his eyes, stood in its frame. Timid and unsure, he refused to meet Alden's steady gaze. Alden's steel countenance in no way matched his feelings. As he watched the young man at the door, his heart broke.
Oh James… why did you come here?
He thought the words, but James could read the feeling in his eyes.
"I had to Al. I-" Tears streaked his face. "I couldn't just… not say goodbye."
He took a step inside, one step closer to Alden, one step closer to weeping.
"It's not fair!"
"W-we deserve more time."
"I know. I know." Now it was Alden's turn to tear up and stare at the rusted metal floor, the moldy concrete walls. Anything but the avatar of longing and beauty that mourned his imminent passing. But even as he avoided James' gaze, the memories of their short time together flooded in.
Stolen glances during the elder's lectures, hidden smiles…
Hands clutched together briefly under the desk, grazing his thigh, the electric thrill of an unknown pleasure.
Lips briefly, furtively brushing against each other as fellow bunkmates slumbered.
Passionate embraces in the few hidden spaces, and those whispered words. Those desperate 'I love you's.
And in remembering, Alden sobbed.
"I'm sorry James. I'm sorry."
Their time for crying done, the two came together on the rickety cot. There making best use of the hours they had before morning. No need for furtiveness on the eve of the end. Eventually they slept: James dreaming of a life of loneliness, Alden imagining a slow, painful death on the wastes, overcome with angry red welts, dwindling into nothingness. He pictured his near-corpse on the sand, no strength left, hand futilely reaching back toward the way he came. Only one word graced his lips as he died.
Eventually they both dreamed of the same thing, the same impossible thing. Their hearts and souls and bodies, together forever. The unimaginable bliss of that union. They dreamed of the world of their forefathers; a world wrapped in life-giving green, drowned in clear blue oceans. They dreamed of the happiness that had for so many decades eluded their species.
The sun rose over a bleak hellscape, though the remaining men were blind to it. Waking instead to a blaring alarm, and the words of the First Elder echoing through the halls.
"RISE MY CHILDREN! RISE AND BEAR WITNESS! THIS DAWN HERALDS SACRIFICE, A BURDEN WE BEAR TOGETHER!"
The halls slowly filled with dead-eyed youths, sickly men and women, the receding tides of once great Mankind. A few dozen malnourished hominids shambled towards the lock. The gnarled hands of James and Alden's matron Clara pushed open the door to the expiatory cell. Face immediately softening as she saw the two still embraced, still sleeping even through the noise. They stirred only as she entered, faces leaving the peace of their dreams.
Alden spoke first, surprised at the boldness in his voice despite his cracking spirit. "It's time?"
Clara could only nod. Of all the boys it was her duty to mind, these two had been her favorite. She sensed that today she would lose both of them. Alden to the surface. James to despair.
James moaned. All words left him, all the light from his eyes, the life from his limbs, consumed by impending loss. They made their way through the crowd, all present giving Alden a wide berth. James' hand gripped tightly to his own. At the entrance to extinction, the eldest of the survivors, the sole adult who survived the surface purge, had already begun the rites of Expulsion. His words, quieted by age, were even further muted by their grief. And they heard little of the rituals they'd heard recited two score times before. Naught but the faint echoes of ceremonies past. Only the final lines reached past their despair.
And so we commit Alden to the light, to the void born from The Heat That Burned Before. We lose him today, but in losing we gain the most important reminder: There is no God but death. His will is sacrosanct. His power absolute. By losing this child, we forestall the day he comes for us all. But not forever, not for long.
With that, the frail looking elder separated the pair with surprising strength. James looked as though stricken, but remained silent. The lock tumbled open, leading to a narrow dark chamber. The outer door would not open until Alden entered, and the rest of man could seal him away, and any encroaching death, on the outside. Al turned to James, eyes dry, but red.
"Good-bye, my… my…"
James tried to smile, though through his despair the expression looked ghoulish. "Good-bye, Al." No need to name it. They knew what they were to each other.
Their eyes locked one last time, and with a sad shrug, Al stumbled into the lock. And the door slowly, painfully began to roll back into place. James' heart stabbed as the man he loved most began to disappear forever.
"NO!" The words escaped his lips before he realized he spoke them. His legs propelling him forward before even his brain realized his heart's need. And as the crowd dumbly watched, as only a horror-struck Clara cried out in protest, James slipped through the disappearing crack and into the vast death.
Alden gaped at James in shock, though hidden on his lips was the hint of a smile. "James?"
"I had to."
"I had to. Besides, 'Death comes for us all', remember? What is life worth if it's not spent how we want, and with who we want it?" James took Al's hand and brought it to his cheek, then his lips. "I'm not letting go again."
This time Al smiled, and as he did, the outer doors rushed open. And both boys rushed to cover their eyes. For the first time they felt the heat of the sun, stood blinded in its light. The world beckoned. Arm in arm, Al and James walked out into the expanse, a void untouched by man or indeed any other life since long before either of them were born.
They looked at each other, and despite the bleakness, they laughed. Perhaps all this brand new world had to offer them was death, a wasteland. But even so…
…they faced that death together.