By Emily Weber
Homer plunked the moon-shaped object into the ancient music playing device. He held his breath unconsciously as his armored finger hovered over the button labeled with a small right-facing triangle. He glanced at his pet firg, “this may be it my friend.”
The firg, whom he’d named Coda brushed by his leg. It didn’t understand what he was saying of course, but it felt Homer’s excitement. Homer hit the button and sound emitted briefly from the music player. A tune began to play, but then there was a hard scratch and it stopped.
Homer inhaled sharply and disappointedly. Coda felt his irritation and whimpered, coiling its plump, red, hairless, warm body about his shins.
Homer looked down at his pet sadly through the window of his protective helmet. “Another dud. But it’s okay, Coda. We’ll find it eventually.” He took the flat, circular object out of the playing device carefully. It was an ancient device—thousands of years old, and it had to be handled with utmost care. It was silver-colored, round, and labeled with the unreadable symbols of the ancients: “CD PLAYER”. There weren’t many left in existence and Homer was the proud owner of one.
He placed the flat, circular shaped object (which his race referred to as a music moons) back into its damaged, square case. Even though it didn’t play, it was still an artifact and there was always the chance someone in the world might be able to repair it. He then placed it on the shelf he now stood by—it was covered in music moons he’d collected during his travels.
A howling arose from outside Homer’s quaint hideout. Night was falling and the beasts were prowling. Coda’s back arched anxiously. “Relax.” Homer said, picking the firg up off the floor. “They can’t get in here.” He then made his way to his bed, getting ready to settle down for the night.
He considered taking off his helmet, but thought better of it when he saw the radiation detector sitting on his nightstand. The needle was swinging slightly, indicating poison in the air; it was almost time to leave the area again. Luckily, Homer had many hideouts dotting the overgrown countryside, and he rotated through them as the radiation ebbed and flowed throughout the year.
Homer lay down, and turned his collar up to the cold and damp. Coda curled up in a ball next to him. The little firg relaxed when its master did, ignoring the grunting and sniffing of the beasts outside—it was merely white noise to them, and actually tended to help them sleep.
The next morning, Homer packed up his music moons, and began heading east toward his favorite hideout—one in the mountains. At this time of year it would be poison-free, the weather would be nice, and what’s more: the path that lead to the mountain hideout held many ancient ruins in which he could search for more music moons.
Homer enjoyed walking. Sometimes in the morning his knees would hurt, but movement always helped them feel better. As he and his firg strutted through the grassy plains, he listened to a music moon in his ancient device. He had a favorite band he particularly enjoyed and whose music moons he was always on special look out for. He couldn’t read ancient human and so didn’t know what they were called; he only recognized them by symbol and by the sound of their voices.
He was deep in thought about this particular band as they traveled. He was very disappointed by the broken music moon he’d tried in the device last night because it was marked by the symbol of this band. And it was from a case he’d never seen before. What magic was on that music moon? Would he ever get to hear it?
Eventually, the two came across a familiar sight. To their right was one of many non-toxic zones—a large city contained within a massive structure, protected from the poisoned lands he and Coda now traversed. Homer stopped just before the giant shadow the nearest wall cast before their path. It was many degrees cooler in the shade, and he knew his joints would act up, so he took a moment to enjoy the sun. Though his armored suit and helmet blocked radiation, it was not environmentally controlled.
Finally, his firg got tired of standing still and made the first steps into shadow. Homer followed. It would take many hours if not the entire day to pass the city, and as they traveled through the cold shade Homer reminisced about his time within the city borders; how he’d been a valued member of society until he was deemed useless and “released” into the toxic world. Not that it was abnormal to be released—all members of non-toxic zones were released when they were no longer needed.
Even though Homer missed the city and was often very lonely, he had kept busy on the outside and time had passed easily. The singing voices in his headphones kept him company, and his hobby of preserving music moons gave him purpose.
A few days later Homer found himself sifting through useless junk at a crumbling ruin of the ancients. It was a large place with many smaller alcoves within, and each alcove held different artifacts. There were remnants of ancient human footwear buried in mud, a cooking outlet with a few steel pots that had somehow not been looted (Homer eagerly added these to the pack on his back to add to his next hideout) and finally his destination—an alcove marked by the symbols he recognized but could not read; “ELECTRONICS”.
Most of the items within were useless. Homer speculated that at some point these items had been of importance to the ancient humans, but their purpose was unknown. In the alcove, there were hundreds of black, square, flat boxes with strange screws and wires within and a black length of cord running out the back. Homer had tried to discern the purpose of such a box once, but he found that anything with black cords running out the back were impossible to make work anymore. His music playing device on the other hand, ran on two small cylinders made up of simple chemicals and minerals which were easily reconditioned or replaced.
Homer made his way to the back of the alcove, looking for the familiar cases of the music moons. He found them without trouble and began testing them carefully in the music player. Coda watched for trouble. These cold, shady places of ancient humans were often home to beasts.
One by one, Homer piled the moons up by his side. None were working—the cold damp and dirt of ages had scarified them beyond use. After a while, he took a break and searched the other items of the cave-like structure. Suddenly, his eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light: it was a sign encased behind glass reflecting a pinprick of colored sunlight, somehow preserved in the environment of the alcove.
He couldn’t read it of course, but he recognized pictures of music moon cases sporting his favorite band. His eyes stopped on a picture of one particular moon case—the same one he’d found days earlier that didn’t work: the one with music from the band so loved and that he had never heard. It was just a sign, but in the picture there was also a map to another ancient human structure. He could only assume this sign was advertising where these moons could be found.
Homer quickly took the pack off his back and grabbed his writing utensils, jotting down the coordinates. Luckily, ancient roads were easy to follow, even though they were often encrusted with dirt and vegetation.
His journey had taken an unexpected turn, which he liked. Homer had never ventured down these particular roads before and it made him giddy that he might soon find his missing music.
As the morning passed into afternoon, the rain came on, pouring buckets for hours. Homer was so excited that he would have continued through the rain if he wasn’t worried about Coda who was sloughing through the mud to keep up with him. He scooped the firg up and placed it atop the back of his shoulders. Once they found shelter in a small grove, he glanced at his radiation detector. The needle was still ticking ever so slightly, but less so now that they were moving east.
As he sat, his knees began to ache in the cold. It bothered him, and he wished to keep moving but Coda needed rest. Luckily, the firg sensed his discomfort and curled up over his thin limbs to keep them warm.
Silence crept over the world except for the pitter-patter of rain on the leaves and the wind sweeping through the brush. Before Homer had found music moons it was these simple sounds that kept him company. He always strived to be in the presence of noise as silence made him desperately lonely. During his first few months on the outside he’d stayed in areas that were silent, knowing that if a beast were tracking him he could easily hear it coming. But silence had grown like cancer in his mind, and he found he’d rather traverse the dense woods and risk being caught than staying within the sound of silence.
Despite the state of the world, there was still abundant beauty in it—Homer watched the deep green vegetation sway and even saw a wild cat with its kittens bound by. This reminded him of the many children back in the city he’d been released from. It made him sad he wasn’t with them anymore, but more sad that they wouldn’t be able to see these wonders until they were thrown out into the wild as he was. And then they’d be alone.
Those released from the city rarely lasted long in the wild. Homer had been lucky enough to survive encounters with enough radiation, beasts, infections, and weather to have learned just how to stay alive. On occasion he would cross paths with another of the released, but they never stayed in each other’s company long. Once outside the city it seemed people were content to die alone, missing the conveniences of the non-toxic zone and the company of other humans too much to care about living on the outside.
But not Homer. Back in the city his job had brought him a great deal of companionship, and he hoped he would find friendship with another of the released someday.
He shook his head, trying to banish these thoughts from his mind—they reminded him of his loneliness.
A few days later they arrived. Homer looked carefully over the building from the shadows of dense trees. He was always extremely cautious in new places, and he waited many hours before striding out into the sunlight, confident that no beasts were watching.
The ancient structure was one of the largest he’d seen; it must have been a place of grand commune. Not sure how things would shape up inside, he stowed his pack with the precious music moons between some boulders, but kept the player with him so that he could test whatever he found within on the spot. Then he made his way to an entrance, stepping lightly. Before walking in, he made sure his armor was on tight and held his weapon—a staff with a sharp sheet of metal bolted solidly to the end—before him in the ready position.
It was a damp place, but thankfully not too cold. He could hear water dripping somewhere, and it echoed endlessly throughout the overgrown ruins. It was difficult not to make noise as he moved over the loose dirt. He envied Coda’s padded paws: the little critter made no noise as it slinked about, prepared to defend its master at a moment’s notice.
There was no alcove with the symbol “ELECTRONICS” at this place, but he did find an even better symbol which made his heart leap with joy, “MUSIC”. Whenever he found that particular symbol, music moons would turn up in abundance.
As excited as he was, Homer hadn’t survived this long on the outside for no reason; he still tread carefully and quietly. The entrance to the niche had caved in long ago, leaving only a small hole by which to crawl into the space beyond. That made Homer nervous. If there were beasts on the other side it would be difficult to make a quick escape.
But there was nothing else for it. Music moons had become his purpose, and he was willing to take a risk crawling into the dragon’s den to get its gold. Dutifully, Coda entered first, its snout twitching worriedly. Homer followed, his armor scraping against the rock too loudly for his liking.
He nearly lost his breath with excitement when he reached the other side. Though heavily covered in dust, the relics were in astoundingly good condition. Hard wire shelves full of music moon cases lined the walls. He couldn’t believe his find and he immediately wished he had someone to share it with.
He glanced at his radiation meter. The alcove must have caved in a very long time ago—there was more radiation here than he’d seen in a while. Ever cautious, Homer checked his armor and then stood silently for a few minutes. All he heard was the same echoing of water somewhere within the ruins.
Without further ado, Homer began searching for the symbols of his favorite artists. While looking, he also tried a few new music moons he’d never heard before. He turned his player as low as it would go, and had to press his headphones to the side of his helmet in order to hear it.
As he moved along the shelves, he stashed music moons he liked into the various pockets of his suit. Every single moon he tested worked and his heart bounded with joy. But still, Homer was wary and took off his headphones between each moon to listen for the drip-drop of the water sprinkling somewhere in the building.
The day waned on and Coda fell asleep next to the entrance. Homer was getting ready to leave for the day when he finally found them—music moons by his favorite artists. “I can’t believe it.” He couldn’t help but mutter happily. There were several moons he needed to replace some of his partially damaged ones and… he held up one with quivering hands; the missing one from his collection.
He gave it a quick listen, but only for a few seconds. He had to get out of the building before night fell. He then stashed it in his front chest pocket giddily and nudged his sleeping firg awake with a heavy boot. Coda snorted drowsily. “I found it.” He told the animal the good news. The firg picked up on his joy and pranced about his feet.
But the celebration was cut short. Abruptly, Homer realized something was amiss. He stood quietly, and his limbs grew cold with apprehension. The sound of the running water had stopped.
The two stood silently for many minutes, and then finally they heard the familiar echo of water falling again. Homer had lived amongst the beasts long enough to know that there were very few reasons water in the wild might stop running—and the fact that it had only stopped for a few minutes signaled to him that it was most likely because something was drinking it as it fell.
As if on cue, a snort was heard loudly on the other side of the barrier, along with the scratching of heavy paws. Homer crouched very slowly so that he could peer through the entrance, his cold limbs aching as he did so. He couldn’t see much through the dark, but he could tell it was a beast. To be certain, he then looked at his radiation meter. The needle swung wildly.
Luckily there was only one entrance into the alcove and it was too small for the monster to get through, but unluckily it was also the only way out. Homer weighed his options. Preferably he’d like to keep his firg, but if he had to he could always order it to run out—perhaps making the beast chase it long enough for him to escape. Alternatively they could wait and hope that the beast went away, but that was unlikely as beasts on the hunt tended to attract other beasts. Or…
Homer took his music player in his hands. He could turn it up as loud as possible, slide it out as far as he could over the loose dirt and then make a break for it.
With the threat of more beasts arriving on the scene, Homer made a decision and ran to the music moons on the shelves. He found the loudest, most annoying one possible and plunked it into the player. He then patted the device lovingly with an armored hand—it was the last time he would see it. It was inanimate, but having lived alone for many years caused him to bond with things that brought him joy.
Without wasting any more time, Homer and Coda began crawling out through the hole and paused near the end. The beast growled hungrily; it could hear them coming closer. Homer closed his eyes and breathed deeply, enjoying what might be his last minutes alive. Then he cast the dice.
Loud, angry music erupted from the player as it slid past the beast. Homer heard the monster run after it and he deftly maneuvered his way out of the narrow opening. As he stood up and began to sprint away, he caught sight of the beast. It was about one and a half humans high and one human thick with green, matted, moss-covered hair. It clawed about on four thick legs. It tore at the player with two small but long arms which came directly out the front of its body. The head was small and mounted on a long neck that also protruded completely forward from the creature’s frame.
Homer sprinted for the entrance of the structure, Coda hard on his heels. The beast wailed in anger as it ripped the player apart to find no meat inside, then turned when it heard his armored boots scuffling across the concrete floor.
Homer’s heart pounded rhythmically in his chest. He didn’t need to turn to see that the monster was pursuing him—he felt the vibration in the floor as the behemoth gave chase. The gap was closing quickly between predator and prey and he knew he wasn’t going to make it to the entrance before it caught him.
There were many things Homer knew about beasts from his experiences outside the city: they were fast and unusually smart, too massive to be tripped or stopped by small barriers, and they were too tall to climb away from in most cases. There weren’t many options and again he briefly considered sending Coda to die in his stead.
A moment later he saw salvation in sight. He glanced to his right and saw a rectangular hole built into the floor that used to lead to a lower level. Now it was flooded with water. Wherever the water drip was occurring in the building, it seemed to all run to the same place, creating a massive pool.
Without hesitation, Homer scooped up his pet firg and leapt over the railing guarding the rectangular aperture. He heard the beast cry with anger and hunger as he fell, then he hit the water and it closed over him.
Although he had saved his firg, now Homer found himself in a new predicament. With his armor on, he couldn’t swim. He let Coda go so it could swim itself to safety, and then got to work as quickly as he could, unbuckling the heaviest parts of his suit: the shoulder pads and the chest plate. A minute later, he resurfaced to yips of joy from his pet.
It wasn’t difficult to find a way out of the building after that, and soon the two found themselves back at the pack hidden between the boulders. The main entrance was too small for the beast to follow him out through, and so he was confident he could recover in the sun for a bit before finding shelter for the night.
Homer was lost in thought; though he’d gained new music moons, he’d lost some of his most precious items. He felt quite vulnerable without his armor, and devastated over the loss of his player. Coda was a great pet, and it made him feel less lonely, but having music was almost like having someone to talk to.
He picked up his bag and gently placed his new music moons within. If he ever found another player, he would return for more music at this place. The losses of the day would take him some time to get over, but for now he was hungry. He pulled some nuts and seeds from his pack and sat on one of the rocks, taking in the sunshine so that his knees would stop aching.
Though he was now devoid of music, he listened carefully to the silence of nature about him. Just as when he’d first been released, he found the sounds of leaves, crickets and birds to be comforting. He was beginning to calm down, but he still chastised himself for not listening to the special music moon before using his player as a getaway vehicle.
Suddenly, Coda looked up, its ears swiveling to the left. Homer bolted upright, having learned long ago to watch his firg’s movements. He whirled about to see what Coda had heard, his weapon at the ready.
His eyes met with those of another of the released—a human being, standing not a stone’s throw away at the edge of the brush. Seeing that the other person didn’t raise their weapon, Homer slowly lowered his spear and took a relaxed stance.
“Hello, released. Beautiful day.” Came a woman’s voice from inside her set of armor.
“Hello, miss.” He noticed she also had a firg—not unusual amongst those living outside the city. It sensed the calm the scene had took and went to greet his own firg. They sniffed each other’s faces as their owners approached one another.
“I saw you come out of the building.” She continued when they were an arm’s length apart. “Is it safe in there?”
“No. There’s a beast. A human and a half high—one of the bigger ones.”
“That’s too bad.” She remarked with a cadenced voice. “I hoped to scavenge. Is that why you were in there?”
“Yes. Less so for survival gear. I was looking for music. I collect them.” He took the special music moon—the one that had been missing from his collection—out from his pack and showed it to her.
She was silent for a moment. Homer couldn’t guess what she was thinking until he saw her firg prance about giddily, picking up on her emotions. “You collect music circles?” She asked.
“For almost as long as I’ve been out here.” He replied, and Coda joined the stranger’s firg in its frolic.
“Me too.” She said excitedly but within a safe decibel, and she pulled her own music player from a large pack at her side. Homer almost reached for it but then recalled his gloved hand, not wanting to seem invasive.
“May I—? My player was destroyed in the building. I just found that music moon missing from my collection and I haven’t been able to listen to it.” He hadn’t spoken this much in many years and he felt his throat going a bit dry.
She stared at him through the dark visor of her helmet, and though he couldn’t see her face, he could tell she was smiling. “You may. On one condition. I get to listen to it too.”
“I’d be honored.”
She knelt down and placed the player on a flat rock. She positioned his music moon inside and reached back into her pack, bringing out something he’d never seen before; two little black boxes attached to a cord. She plugged it into the player, and he assumed it was something similar to his headphones. “What are those?” He asked.
“I don’t know what they’re called, but they play music so that many people can hear. I’ll turn it down so that any beasts nearby won’t be attracted.” She turned a dial on the player, lowering the volume. “Ready?”
“Wait a second.” Homer said, looking at his radiation detector. It was ticking very slowly. “I want to be able to hear it with naked ears.”
He took off his protective helmet. He closed his eyes briefly as the sun hit his face for the first time in weeks. He had a shock of white, wild hair that fairly glowed in the sunlight. He opened his sunken but clear eyes. He wasn’t sure of his exact age anymore having been released from the city for twenty years, but he was around sixty.
The woman took off her helmet as well. She was similarly aged with white and grey peppered hair tied back in a messy bun.
“What were you in the city?” She asked, the music momentarily forgotten, “I was an architect—released early when my dominant hand was damaged.”
“I was a breeder. Released once my fertility declined.” He replied softly.
She nodded. “It’s not often I meet another released I have something in common with.” She gestured to the music player. “Would you like to travel with me? At least, until we run out of music to exchange?”
He smiled. She smiled back. Nothing more needed to be said. She pressed the button with the right-facing triangle.