Dreg walked through the years like one who walks through a dream. The scenery changed with subtle shifts, battered by winds and violent dust storms under a cooling ochre sky. The people around him and their faces remained stationary, a constant.
Forever young. Forever living. Forever dying.
He felt stuck in limbo, his life a static eternity of mindless repetition and boredom.
He preferred the company of the Suicidals, those who had given up long ago. He found their silence preferable to the endless prattling of the mindless worshippers crowding the shore of the fountain. He understood the Suicidals. In fact, if not for his ceaseless curiosity, Dreg would have joined their ranks long ago seeking a permanent way out.
But the mystery of The Fountain kept him alive. It kept him going. It gave him purpose.
He knew he had to be careful. He has seen what The Counsel did to those who question, to those who investigate. He heard the cries of the tortured souls tied to the rock above. He heard the moans of those locked tight below.
Daily, tortured screams echoed into the desert plains—an ever-present reminder of his need for discretion. He had to blend in to avoid notice.
He did this by covering himself with dust, by drinking enough of The Fountain to keep alive—no more, no less. In appearance, he was just another Suicidal, quiet and resigned to a life without end. Like many of the other Suicidals who had long ago given up, he allowed himself to age and maintained an elderly appearance. He hid in this shell—a thin pile of bones and wispy grey hairs clothed in liver-spotted skin. But despite appearances, despite his many years, he still felt young. He felt like a child inside his shell—insecure and frightened while retaining an optimism nearing insanity.
At night, The Counsel ventured down from their perch on top of the rocky ridge where they tortured dissenters and displayed power. He saw them as they entered the pool, watched them sink under, and—if he listened hard enough—could hear the mechanical vibrations from the earth below. Once or twice, he ventured to the water’s edge and looked down. He saw nothing except the Light Man’s luminescence wavering like an artificial star far beneath the surface of The Fountain.
At dawn they would emerge together—the Shadow Woman, the Light Man, the Old Crone, and the Wizened Shaman. The water glistened the light of the rising sun against their strengthened bodies. Their various followers, the four sects, would chase after The Counsel shouting out prayers, revealing desires and wants and needs. Some asked for food, some asked for a renewed Earth, some asked for children, and all of them asked for hope in whatever guise it may appear. Dreg pitied their devotion. True, The Counsel had power, but that power was limited. Keeping the people desperate, keeping them in fear, it was easy to control the crowd. Together, The Counsel shepherded them like cattle.
But to what end?
He had vague memories of The Counsel from long ago, from after The Shift, from after the calamity, after the disaster when The Morning Star faded against the sky and left them behind. They were people just like him, he remembered. It was a wonder so many forgot.
But every day that passed, his memories faded. They, too, seemed to be battered by the winds and sand. Like a temple ravaged by time, many of his memories lost shape, lost clarity, and lost all meaning.
He felt an encroaching senility, and knew he had to take action. He had waited long enough.
One night while the others slept, he crept to the edge of the fountain. He stepped into the water, felt his skin tighten, his joints loosen, and all pains dissipate. He felt young, numb, and free. He dove into the water and swam downwards with awkward strokes. With his eyes open, he followed the luminescence of the Light Man. Running out of breath, but refusing to surface, he gasped in a lungful of water. After an initial convulsion—a thought of drowning—he began to breath and felt renewed.
He could hear a rumbling, a mechanical hum. He looked and beyond the glow of the Light Man he saw impossible gears grinding. Instead of metal, the machine was flesh, bone, and fiber. The waters seemed to take on a life around him—roving, investigating. He could feel currents of various temperatures running over his body. The water grew warm and then hot. The gears stopped grinding and The Counsel turned in alarm.
The Counsel swam to meet him. Distorted by the currents flowing over him, Dreg saw their forms sway in the water. They no longer appeared human. Their faces were stretched too taught. Their bodies seemed transparent, as if they were made of clear film. He saw through them and into them. He saw the depths of The Fountain, saw the terrible machine beneath him, and fought against the currents pulling him down. The waters boiled in apparent anger, searing him.
Dreg fought to swim upwards to where the small green crescent of the moon billowed against the underside of the surface of The Fountain. The arms and legs of The Counsel shot forward like tentacles, ensnaring him. He felt their limbs snake around him. Their flesh burned. He cried out, fighting the tug of the inevitable, refusing to give up. He kicked behind, tried to pry himself free from their snaking limbs, but their inhuman grip was too strong.
Dreg looked up to the surface, saw pinpoints of stars, the green crescent of moon, and remembered The Morning Star. In truth, his life had ended once that ship left their atmosphere, leaving the remnant of the populace to face their demons.