Dreams of Lost Things

Man in creepy gas mask - illustration for post-apocalyptic short story Dreams of Lost Things

A Post-Apocalyptic Story

“Are you sure the coyotes are gone?” Miki asked. She peeked out of the bus window, sure a snarling animal would jump at her at any moment.

“We can’t wait any longer,” Lotus said. “It’ll be dark in a few hours, and then worse things will come out. We might run into people, too.” She and the other scavengers climbed out of the rusting bus, watching for approaching animals. Nothing but trees and the sound of wind. They continued walking to the city ruins.

The pavement was cracked and broken. Tree roots and time had destroyed much of what once had been a six-lane highway. Some of the overpass had collapsed, but what remained looked solid enough to walk on.

They passed a peeling billboard for Realitease, the virtual reality universe. Faded illustrations contrasted the gray office buildings of reality with the bright colors of the AI generated fantasy world. Users looked eerily happy, their smiles stretched too wide under their neon pink goggles. Someone with a can of gray paint had climbed the billboard and sprayed the words “it’s just as empty.”

As they walked on, Lotus thought about the stories she had heard from grownups at the camp. The decline of the old world began when corporate artificial intelligence systems and robots started taking over everything. People found themselves with less and less to do. Companies reduced their skilled workers to little more than software babysitters. Their only task was to watch for the occasional mistake and press a button to tell the AI “no, try again.”

Even their hobbies were taken away from them. When their grandparents had retired, they took up painting or photography or writing novels, but in the age of AI, there was little point. Why bother spending years perfecting a skill when a computer could create faux art in an instant? So instead, they did nothing.

When Realitease first appeared, it promised to fill the void. It offered a world where life still seemed meaningful, visions of a simulated past, romanticized and sanitized beyond recognition, and fantasies of an excitement-filled future that would never be. An AI called Demiurge monitored how long each VR sim was used and constantly reworked them to keep people using the system. It downloaded users’ social media feeds, shopping records, and internet search history and used the data to customize their sims. Virtual worlds evolved to be more personalized and engaging. They became far more captivating than anything you could do away from your chair. The real world was abandoned and left to rot.

The grownups at camp always claimed they had seen the disaster coming and were far too clever to get trapped in some silly, plastic fantasy. They weren’t like the “vidiots”, playing pretend as everything collapsed. But Lotus suspected that most of the grownups were only still alive because they hadn’t been able to afford such fancy toys. Otherwise, they would have escaped to dreamland like everyone else.

As the scavengers crossed a bridge, they passed around a couple of canteens. It was mid-August, and even hotter than usual. “Remember to take it easy and not finish the water too fast,” Lotus said. “There is an old water tower in the ruins, but it’s still a couple of miles away.”

At nineteen, she was the only one in the group old enough to have fuzzy memories of the world before everything fell apart. The next oldest, Zero, was seventeen and built like a football linebacker. He barely remembered lunch the day before, let alone his early childhood. Ash and Cinder were fifteen-year-old twins, excellent archers and handy in a fight. Miki was only thirteen and small for her age, but she was already training to be a group leader like Lotus. And then there was Grub.

Grub was Miki’s eight-year-old brother. When the teenagers had left for the ruins, he had slipped away from camp unnoticed. By the time they realized he was following them, it was too late to turn back without wasting the whole day. He had spent most of the journey pestering Miki for snacks. He was skinny and small for his age, but he ate just as much as the bigger teenagers.

The ruins ahead were mostly apartment buildings, the old world’s solution for storing too many people in too little space. There had been more people in one building than in their entire camp. Apartments reminded Lotus of the cages at the markets, with chickens and rabbits all crammed together because it was more convenient for their owners. Back at camp, everyone had their own space as soon as they were old enough to hammer a tent stake. Even Grub lived by himself, although he wasn’t allowed to pitch his tent in a bat-filled cave like he wanted.

Lotus pushed back a strand of red hair and checked her map. She had drawn most of the surviving buildings, plus sketches of interesting trees, and the phrase “Here There Be Dragons” in large, fancy letters at the top. Every map looked better with mysterious warnings. She found a building on the map that they hadn’t searched on their previous trips. “That’s where we’ll go! The Gnarled Oak! Just another quarter mile.”

While they were making their way through the remains of the city, the twins spotted something in the distance. “Anteaters!” Ash called out, pointing.

“We better hide,” Cinder gasped. “Mom said they’re the reason people go missing out here.”

The scavengers ducked behind a half-collapsed newsstand and watched. The anteaters had earned their nickname by always wearing gas masks with long tubes leading to filters clipped to their belts. No one was sure why. There were no more plagues or pollution. There weren’t enough people left for either to be a problem.

There were a lot of rumors, but no real facts. People said the anteaters were everything from the remnants of the military to highwaymen to blood thirsty cannibals. Whatever the truth was, it was probably best to avoid them.

“Don’t make a sound,” Lotus whispered. “Just keep quiet and let them pass.”

The anteaters drew closer, turning and scanning the area. There were eight of them, mostly males. One of them took off her mask, revealing a teenage girl with a mane of purple hair. She pulled a small package of food from her pocket. Another anteater smacked the food from her hand and barked at her to keep her mask on. His voice sounded like a teenage boy’s.

“They’re not monsters,” Lotus thought. “The anteaters are kids like us, probably just trying to scare away competition for the best scavenging spots.”

“Did you see that brown wrapper?” Zero whispered, sighing. “I haven’t found any chocolate in years.”

“Is it good?” Grub asked, his voice far too loud. “Let’s ask them for some!”

The anteaters turned, yelling. “Someone is here!” They spread out, drawing knives and hand axes from their sheaths.

“Or maybe they do more than just scare people,” Lotus thought, chewing a fingernail. The other scavengers looked ready to bolt. “Stay put,” she hissed. “They don’t know where we are.”

One of the anteaters lifted a weapon from his shoulder – a long pipe with a handle. He took aim and pulled the trigger. The pipe made a loud whoosh, and something silver struck the newsstand, clanking onto the pavement nearby.

White smoke rose from the object. Lotus and the scavengers coughed, choking. She yelled at them to stay hidden, but they scattered, desperate for air.

Zero picked up a handful of rocks, tossing them at the anteaters. Grub tried to help, but couldn’t throw the rocks far enough. One of the anteaters threw a knife, grazing Zero’s shoulder. The twins drew their arrows, quickly taking down two of the enemy.

The other anteaters screamed, running for cover. Hiding behind abandoned cars, they launched another gas canister. Zero hurled bottles across the street, flying shards of glass keeping the anteaters from advancing.

Lotus slipped behind rubble and rusted cars, the cloud of gas hiding her from view. She crept across the street and found the anteater with the gas launcher. Up close, it looked homemade, like a potato cannon. The gas was probably a cocktail of household cleaning chemicals.

She sneaked up behind him and punched him in the back of the head. The anteater turned, a knife in his hand, but Lotus had a revolver aimed at his face. “Why did you attack us?” she demanded. “We didn’t do anything to you!”

The anteater laughed. “What are we supposed to do for fun, keep digging through trash forever? We have tons of stuff already. We got bored, so we decided to play army.”

“Play? You tried to poison my friends!” Lotus pistol whipped him, shoving him to the ground. She kicked his knife away. “Tell the others to get lost, and stay out of the ruins. This place is ours now.” She cocked her revolver. “Got it?”

He blanched. Nodding, he raised his hands and made the order. Lotus pulled him up and gave him a kick to hurry him on his way. The other masked teens sheathed their weapons and followed him up the road. They didn’t even glance at their fallen friends.

The twins were the first to find Lotus. They stared at the gun in her hand. “Were you really going to shoot them if they didn’t leave?” Cinder asked.

“No,” she said, putting the pistol away. “I haven’t found any bullets for months. Are you two okay? You dropped three people.”

“We’ll be fine,” Ash said.

“We just pretend they’re deer,” Cinder said.

Lotus helped Zero clean the cut on his shoulder and then bandaged the wound. The twins searched the fallen anteaters, finding a few military surplus knives and compasses, but no food or medicine. Grub grabbed the discarded chocolate and reluctantly split it with the others.

The scavengers continued on, following Lotus to a crumbling apartment building. A weathered brass plaque on the wall noted the name of the architect and the local historical preservation society in raised lettering. Both the man and the society were long gone. Someone with a red marker had scrawled above it, “mom and dad are dead and there’s nothing to do.” The facade showed some signs of fire and water damage, but the building looked safe enough to enter.

Once inside, they split up and began trying doors. Grub was left to stand guard in the hallway. Most of the doors had already been pried open and the apartments picked clean by other scavenger groups. They were empty, nothing but decaying furniture, the corpses of their owners, and the plastic goggles that had killed them. No one ever moved the corpses. The grownups said they were cursed.

“There’s food in this unit,” Lotus called, poking her head into the hallway. “And another vidiot.” She wiped the sweat from her face. The crumbling apartment complex was full of holes, but the gaps didn’t seem to let in any air.

“Can I help search this one?” Grub mumbled, his mouth full. He threw a protein bar wrapper on the floor.

She shook her head. “No, we need you to be our lookout and warn us if the anteaters come back.”

He folded his arms. “There’s nobody around but us and you know it! Why can’t I come inside any of the ‘partments? Is there a dead guy? Is he stinky?”

“No smell,” she said, forcing a smile. “Nothing scary, just a few flies and a skeleton.”

“Bones? I want to see bones!”

Miki put her hand on his shoulder. Her lips spread in a crooked grin. “You couldn’t handle it. You get grossed out cleaning trout for dinner.”

“Do not! Let me see the dead guy!”

Miki glanced over at Lotus, her eyes silently asking what to do. Lotus shrugged and nodded. “Fine,” Miki said, “but if you tell Mom, I’ll sneak in your tent while you’re sleeping and put a fish butt on your face.”

“Eww!” he laughed. “You better not! I won’t tell, promise!”

The scavengers followed Lotus into the dusty, dilapidated apartment. They them spread out, grabbing canned goods, rice, dry noodles, honey, and anything else that hadn’t spoiled. Miki and Grub found some bags of candy and had to be reminded not to open them. Everything was to be carried home and shared with the rest of the camp. Cinder went to the bathroom to search for bandages, medicine, and “girl stuff.”

The dead vidiot’s remains were on the living room couch, still wearing the neon pink VR sim goggles. Like billions of others, he had grown bored with real life and starved to death in a fantasy world. Realitease users had the choice of being dashing space pirates and powerful warrior princesses or taking off their goggles and going back to a world where they sat in a box and proofread spreadsheets. Nearly all of them chose to stay in their imaginary lives, even as their real lives faded away. Humanity had survived wars and diseases, only to be devastated by monotony. After the drama and excitement had gone, the world ended with a yawn.

Lotus searched the coffee table next to the couch and found a paperback book that was still in good enough condition to read. The cover said it was a “cozy fantasy”. She wasn’t sure what that was, but it sounded nice. She slipped it in her pack, making sure it was safely tucked between boxes of food. Books were rare treasures.

Ash opened the door to a musty bedroom. From the hall, she could see a hole in the ceiling and fallen plaster. The camp didn’t have buildings with plumbing, but she knew sometimes pipes froze and burst. The hardwood floor was water damaged, and the white walls were covered in mold. However, a plastic package on the bed looked to be mostly intact.

“A crossbow!” she yelped. She knew she had to grab it before her sister claimed it for herself. She stepped into the room. The floor creaked, groaning in protest, and collapsed.

The others rushed toward the sound. Miki grabbed Grub’s arm, holding him back from the unknown danger. Lotus leaned over the hole while Zero held her belt to keep her from falling. “Ash! Are you okay?”

“I think so!” she called. She had landed on a mattress in the bedroom below. “Oh, wait, that’s blood… I think a piece of that broken wood got my leg.”

“Stay there! I’ll be right down!”

“I’d better come too,” Zero said. “She might not be able to walk.”

“Good idea,” Lotus said.

“Me too!” Cinder said.

“No, I need you to help Miki keep people away from the hole.” Grub didn’t seem to realize that “people” meant him.

Lotus and Zero headed down to the apartment below. They returned a few minutes later, Zero giving Ash a piggyback ride back upstairs. She had a bandage wrapped around her thigh, and a bandanna wrapped around that to keep it clean.

“Are you okay?” Cinder asked.

“My bow is cracked, but the crossbow I found survived the fall!” Her sister pointed to her leg. “Oh, that. It hurts, but I’ll be fine. I hope I get a cool scar.”

Zero carried Ash to a kitchen chair. Cinder gave her some painkillers and water from the canteen. The others searched the rest of the apartment, staying clear of the bedroom and other suspicious spots on the floor.

Grub carried his pillowcase full of food into the living room and stared at the skeleton. “Who were the ‘partment people? What happened to them?”

Lotus sighed. Parents were supposed to handle the big This Is How the Apocalypse Happened talk, but least he wasn’t asking about the birds and the bees. “You know how your Uncle Jack lights a lantern and makes shadow puppets?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I love movie night! Sometimes I help cut the cardboard for the puppets and glue them on the sticks.”

“The pink goggles were like the screen for a shadow play. Most people in the old world were unhappy most of the time. Since their real lives felt so empty, they decided to live in a shadow play. They sat and watched their favorite one until they died.”

He frowned, waving his arms at the room. “But everybody had big ‘partments! And they got to eat package noodles, instead of a dead fish with its eyeballs still looking at them! Why were they so sad?”

She chewed a finger nail, thinking. “A good story is about someone fighting obstacles to get what they need. If someone fights but never wins, the story just feels tragic and meaningless. That’s also true in real life.”

“Oh! That makes sense.” He looked down at the pillowcase. “We won today, right?”

Lotus nodded. “Sure, but real life isn’t like one of Uncle Jack’s stories. It won’t always be big fights and dramatic rescues. Sometimes it’s just people finding food and then sharing it with each other. That’s important too.”

“As long as I get snacks, that’s a great story to me!” His eyes widened. “We got to get back home! I just remembered tomorrow is Pancake Day!”

Lotus laughed. “Okay, let’s head home and get some sleep. We need to rest up for all the excitement tomorrow.”

As they headed outside, a smile spread across Lotus’s face. She was looking forward to sharing their stories and a big meal with the folks back at camp. She would do her best to make this a cozy apocalypse.

Let's keep in touch.

Get my newsletter for the latest posts, book releases, and free stuff!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy at https://dnschmidt.com/privacy-policy for more info.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *