Prologue: The Beginning of the End
Giant skyscrapers pushed their sharp points into the sky. A perpetual cloud hung over the city, a combination of automobile exhaust, factory waste, and dirt. Even at night, the city lights were so bright that it seemed like day. In the early morning hours, smog prevailed, threatening to smother everything. The weather was completely unpredictable.
People pushed and shoved at each other on their way to and from work. Loud, honking cars traversed the roads, often colliding with each other in incredible masses of twisted metal and injured flesh. Crime ruled the streets, resisting any attempts by city police to put it under control.
Computers reigned over most people's lives, in a manner of speaking. In addition to personal computers that existed in every household, computers were also used for such menial tasks as cooking and cleaning. When people returned home from work, the government required that they jump directly into the Internet, which was a worldwide collective offering endless and mindless pursuits.
Artificial intelligence had been created almost two hundred years before. A.I. units had been all the rage, and then had been summarily destroyed after a huge uproar in the government. The computers began to take on more human attributes, and it came to a point when the A.I. units expressed a desire to reproduce themselves. The humans began to fear the A. I. and so the computers had been quietly, humanely euthanized.
Two children from different families had recently moved into a suburb outside the polluted city limits. The air was somewhat cleaner here, and more vegetation grew here than was ever seen in the city. There was an abundance of wildlife, and prolific woods flourished. The summer days were warm, and the nights were cool. Away from the city, everything seemed perfect.
It was under these perfect conditions that the two children met by chance while exploring in the woods near their home. The girl had wandered out a little farther than her mother may have liked, and came across a boy about her age just south of some ancient, undiscovered ruins.
"Hi," she said, a little shyly.
"Hi. I'm James."
"I'm Sarah. Nice to meet you."
"Did you just move here?"
"Yeah," she replied. "I was just looking around."
"My parents just moved us here, too. I wanted to see if there was anyplace cool to play in around here."
"Let's go a little bit north," Sarah suggested. "I haven't been any farther than this."
Five minutes later, they arrived at the ruins of some ancient civilization. "Look at this!" James exclaimed. "I wonder what happened here?"
The ruins had long ago stopped smoking, but they were preserved almost perfectly. What the children saw was nothing more than a pile of rubble, with pieces of furniture scattered here and there among rotting heaps of clothing. Remains of what appeared to be a huge barn lay to one side of the ruins. Rotted wood fences were still standing in some places, lying buried in the ground in others.
Sarah started to rummage about in the clothes that were lying around. She pulled out a lacy, green dress that only had a few holes in it. The dress seemed to be made of some material that Sarah had never seen before. The fabric was incredibly soft and smooth. "Look at this stuff! Talk about expensive! This stuff is fit for a princess to wear."
"Yeah, you could be a princess," James remarked. "Here, put it on." She looked at him in shock. "I meant put it on over your clothes."
"Oh." She laughed. She slipped the satin and lace dress on, twirling this way and that, showing it off.
"My lady," James said, bowing to her. "May I have this dance?"
"Why, certainly," she agreed, holding her hand out. They danced around for a few moments; they swayed to music only they could hear. When they tired of the game, she took off the dress and they continued to dig through the ruins.
Several minutes later, Sarah squealed, bringing James running. "What is it?" He asked, thinking that she had found an ugly bug or maybe even a snake. He gasped when he saw what she held reverently in her hands.
It was a book, a very old book, by the looks of it. It was bound in leather with no inscription or markings of any kind on its cover. The pages were stiff parchment, dried and yellowed with age. Remarkably, the book seemed to have survived without any water damage from rain or dew. Each page was meticulously and individually sewn into the binding. Someone had spent a great deal of time and loving energy to create this book. It creaked when Sarah opened it. She began to read.
"'I begin my life here as I began it in life: I begin with the day that I met my love.' How romantic! 'I am Susan, and I knew for a long time that I was destined to marry a man named Joseph. I had sworn to hate him, and yet the day I met him, I knew my true life had just begun. We were betrothed and bonded very young, because my mother was ill and was not expected to survive.' How sad! 'How little was I to know that my entire family was not to survive, nor was Joseph's. We were to be the only survivors of the horrible disaster that destroyed our lands.'"
"Wow!" James said, awed. "It must be a diary of sorts. Maybe it tells the story of what happened here."
"Yeah, maybe. She writes so perfectly, look. Her writing is very neat."
"This had to have been written at least five hundred years ago," James said. "Books like this haven't been made for at least that long. Keep reading."
"'Joseph and I had become friends before the ceremony, although no one was supposed to know that, of course. At first, I thought he was arrogant and conceited. How wrong I was! He was the kind of person who had two faces: a public one that his subjects saw, and a private one, reserved only for me. It took a great deal of time for me to master that; as a queen-to-be, I was expected to behave in the same way. It was a hard lesson learned.'"
"They were royalty!" Sarah gasped. "I knew they had to be! 'After the ceremony that bound us together for life, I noticed that I could sense Joseph in the back of my mind. I came to realize that this was what I had been missing all my life. I had never discovered what the empty space inside me had been, and to have that space filled at long last was amazing! Although I must admit that it was a little awkward at first. Someone else was in my head at all times?! What if I wanted some private time, like when I was bathing? But Joseph respected me in that, and we grew accustomed to the change in our minds quickly. I had no idea that the chain of events our parents had begun would take us to such trials!'" Sarah thumbed through a few pages. "Look, here she starts all over again, from the beginning. It's like a story. She's got a name here, Once Upon a Western Way, at the top of the page. Then, it says: Book One: The Younger Years. It's like she took the diary and converted it into an entire book!"
Sarah was becoming so excited at the prospect of reading the diary that she was gripping the pages tightly. James took the book gently from her. "Better watch out, these pages seem quite fragile. You don't want to tear them."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so rough."
"I know," he replied. "Do you want to read some more, or do you want me to?"
"I will." She replied.
At that moment, Sarah could hear her mother calling her to come in for dinner. She sighed, not wanting to put down the story of a much simpler life and return to her world filled with complicated machinery and computers.
"Take it with you," James suggested. "But meet back here tomorrow so that we can keep reading it. I want to know what's going to happen too!"
"Sure, what time?"
After dinner, Sarah sat at the computer, taking her required turn at the Net. She knew that, if she missed a day, somebody in the government would notice and come looking to punish her. Everyone was required to spend so much time in the pursuit of the mindless virtual reality games that the government had used for years to control its subjects. She spent the minimum time possible on-line, however, and retired to bed early. She settled in under the covers with a flashlight and the book, eager to return to the life of Susan.
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