Julia- Day 1
The mountains haven’t always been there. The Elders will tell you otherwise, but it’s the truth. I’ve never known a time without them, but I know the story all the same. One morning, the town woke up and there they were- purple shining majesties, or whatever that song lyric is. I never did pay much attention in music class. Music is boring when you’re tone-deaf.
I like the mountains. They’re far enough away to not be threatening, but close enough to break up the monotony of empty sky and emptier dusty land. They don’t provide shade, they don’t provide shelter, and they certainly don’t provide food, but they sure are pretty to look at.
Prettiness ain’t worth much in this place, though. The people here just concern themselves with day-to-day things- like what they’re going to eat and where they’re going to sleep and who has what to trade. Once people realized the mountains weren’t good for anything but looking at, they stopped caring. Then the Elders started claiming that the mountains had always been there, and trying their best to keep quiet anyone who said any different. Now the mountains just sit there, staring down at us.
I reckon they’re as bored as we are.
It’s another dust-filled day. Just like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. The weather never seems to change here in Dignity.
Dignity. What a stupid name for a town. It’s like naming a kid after a virtue- it sounds real pretty but only insures that it’s the last trait that kid will ever develop. As a kid, I used to walk to school every morning with a girl named Chastity. She’s got five kids now and still no man. Dignity is like that- nobody here has any dignity left. It’s a hard thing to hold on to when you’re trying to hold onto life.
I reckon the weather ain’t that bad today, though. At least the sun is out. Maybe the crops will start growing straight again. The people out across the street at the market look a bit straighter. They’re milling around in the road, trying to trade what little they have for what little someone else has. You can tell a lot about a person’s kind by what they’re willing to part with. I used to go to the market each week and watch the trading. Then Elder Dyson swooped in and gave me this damn job.
You see, I see things that others don’t. I don’t mean that mysticism pseudo-science bullshit. I see real things- details that most people around here are too preoccupied or too stupid to see themselves. Like how the baker’s boy used to always straighten up when the saloon owner’s pretty daughter walked by. Went on for a year before I took pity on the poor boy and pulled the girl aside. A week later, the two of them were engaged and I was hauled up in front of the Elders and “tested.” She got a husband and I got a job that makes me more of a social pariah than our old buzzard of a head Elder.
Speaking of Dyson, he’s out there now, flapping around the market in his ridiculous black coat and sticking his abnormally large beak into everyone’s business. I’d take more pleasure in him being out there rather than in here if I didn’t know that he’d be in here within the hour. The market’s getting ready to close, and when that happens, that crow will come over here to discuss his “findings” with me. He’ll perch his oily bony self in my favorite chair and offer hours of theories the townsfolk’s behavior, while I sit on the broken chair and dutifully record every word in the official Watcher journal.
We do this every week, because I am the town Watcher. I hate myself for agreeing to it, but I never have to worry about putting food on the table or keeping the roof over my head.
Like I said, ain’t nobody in this town got any dignity left.
Last night went almost exactly as expected. Precisely at 4 pm, Dyson stalked across the street in full view of the market, once again reaffirming for the town just who I work for. He glared at my porch for a moment, as if he expected it to move out of his way, before doing his weird bird-hop up the steps and tapping on my door. Yes, the harbinger of doom taps. His fossilized talons are incapable of exerting enough force upon anything to make more than an annoying background disturbance. Worse still, he’ll hover there all day if you ignore him. Believe me, I’ve tested this theory. The record is 9 hours. I only stopped the test because I didn’t want to move a dead body off my porch.
As soon as I opened the door, he started expounding on his latest observations and theories. When he finally paused for breath three hours later, things got strange. His beady black eyes narrowed. He yanked the Watcher journal from me with a ferocity I didn’t think he was capable of, and started quoting entries and demanding to know more details. Specifically, what I knew about people’s plans to leave.
Leaving. That’s the thing. We’re not allowed to leave the town without a permit and an Elder guide. The Elders say that it’s for our own good. The next village is about a hundred miles away, on the other side of the mountains. It’s a full week to the mountains, and then another week to get over them. In my 27 years, I can only remember one group ever getting a permit and leaving the town. None of them returned.
Despite all this, every once in a while some kid gets it in his head that he wants out and he convinces his friends that they do to. Slowly more and more people will realize that they can’t stand another minute in this god-forsaken dust bowl. Murmurs turn into conversations, which turn into debates, which turn into arguments in the street. Finally, the Elders will call a mandatory village meeting.
There, the impassioned will get their chance to rant, the Elders will pretend to listen and confer, and then they will issue the same ruling with new wording- nobody leaves without a permit. Everyone will go home, and by the next morning all their get-up-and-go will have got up and went. They go back to their daily tasks, and life in Dignity returns to its dry sameness.
Last night, I answered Dyson’s questions the same way I always do- as realistically untruthfully as possible. The whole town may think I’m Dyson’s pet rat, but if someone is bold enough to take a chance on a better life, I’m certainly not going to stand in their way.
Especially since I’ve just about decided to take the same chance myself.
The cows have always bothered me. They don’t get fed enough and yet they don’t die. What’s more, they wax and wane like the moon. They start out healthy and slowly waste away. Just when I’m sure that they’re going to die out this time, they’re back to fat- out in the fields chewing their cud and staring at each other.
I spent the last couple of days out in the fields, staring back at the cows and talking myself in and out of leaving. Dyson hates it when I go out to the fields- he calls the cows a waste of both physical and paper space- but the Tender, Marty, is just about the only person in this town who doesn’t seem to mind my presence. He’s got one eye and half a tongue from some kind of an accident as a kid, so he understands. His face unsettles people as much as my job title does.
Marty acts like he listens to me, but I know he doesn’t hear a word I say. He’s too busy listening to the cows. He’s got an odd way about him, like he can sense what the animals are feeling. Sometimes I feel like it’s Marty’s pure determination that’s keeping the herd alive. He takes it real personal if I comment on the state of the cows, even if it’s to say that they’re fattening back up, so I usually stick to my own troubles.
I’d been rambling on, about where I’d go and what I’d do when I left and then listing out excuses and reconsidering it all, when Marty turned to me this afternoon and spoke the first words I’ve heard out of him in nearly a year.
“Get off the damn fence.”
I’d stared at him in confusion before I noticed the hammer in one hand and the new boards at his feet. I climbed down off the rickety rails and let him get to repairing the warped wood. Recognizing that I’d worn out my welcome, and with no place left to sit, I trudged back towards town. Marty’s words kept pace with my feet, though. He’s never struck me as a philosophical type, but I can’t be sure that there wasn’t a deeper meaning to his words.
Maybe that’s my problem. I can’t ever make up my mind. Maybe I just need someone to force me to get off the damn fence.
At least, that’s what the townsfolk are saying. All anybody knows for sure is that ain’t nobody seen him in three days. That by itself isn’t unusual, but yesterday the cows arrived at the market without him.
As soon as I saw the loose bovines, I made for the fields. The Elders had already beaten me there, and one of them tried to turn me away. I’d grabbed the Watcher journal on my way out, and I held it up and told him that he was more than welcome to record the Tender’s disappearance for me. He stood back with a sneer and let me pass.
The fence had a gap nearly five feet wide. The grass on both sides had been trampled and churned into mud by the weight of 400 passing hooves. It would have looked like a simple case of rotten railings, except the splinters in the mud were still the bright yellow of unweathered wood.
As I was pondering that, Dyson swooped down behind me.
“Hello Julia.” He said in his cold sniveling voice.
I turned to face him. “Elder Dyson.”
“You shouldn’t be out here.”
I held up the Watcher journal again. “It’s my duty to observe the going-ons in the town. This seemed like something with observing.”
“And what are your observations?”
Something in Dyson’s tone made me hesitate. The cruelness was gone, replaced with what could have been curiosity, if I thought the old crow was capable of feeling such an emotion.
I decided to start with the obvious. “The wood was new, it wouldn’t have been easy for the cows to break through.”
Dyson didn’t fall for my ploy. “Yes, we managed to notice that without your help. Perhaps you could offer some new information, as you were the last one to see him alive.”
His words were cold but his tone was still wrong. I studied his face, trying to decide what to say next. Dyson is old, but he’s not the eldest. The lines on his face aren’t as pronounced as the other Elders. As I stared at him though, I realized that the lines around his mouth were deeper than normal, and that his eyes changed focus every few seconds. I realized that Dyson had no more idea about what was going on than I did. He was fearful, and I knew from experience how quickly fear could turn into anger.
“He didn’t say anything to me.”
Dyson’s eyes narrowed further. He thought I was making fun of Marty. I backpedaled quickly.
“I mean that he seemed perfectly normal. He watched the cows, surveyed the tree line, and inspected the fence. In fact, he was replacing boards when I left.”
Dyson’s eyes widened and his talonized finger pointed to the fence. “You saw him replace the boards here at this section?”
“Not the exact act, but he had a hammer, a handful of nails, and three new boards. It don’t take much brainpower to figure out his intent.”
“But you didn’t see him actually place the boards.”
Now it was my turn to be confused. “No.”
Dyson made a noncommittal noise. “Thank you Julia. That will be all. Go back to town.”
He turned his back on me and strode off to the other Elders. His voice was back to normal, and I knew I’d been dismissed. I wanted to stay and investigate, but I knew it would do me no good to get on Dyson’s bad side. Like the obedient rat that I am, I went back to town.
Later last night, I was sitting in my favorite chair by the fireplace, trying to make sense of Marty’s disappearance when there was a knock on my door.
The porch was empty, save for a small brown package with a note on the mat. I took them both back to my chair and unfolded the note. Dyson’s looping scrawl was instantly recognizable, as were the ink splotches where he’d gripped the pen too tightly.
The time has come for you to know the truth. In usual circumstances, you would be nominated as an Elder, despite your young age, and initiated properly. However, these are not usual circumstances. I’m putting us both in danger by giving you these, but it is the quickest way. You see, time is of the essence. I need you to take these and the Watcher journal and run.
Run right now. Get as far away from the town as possible before daybreak, and do not return. All else will be explained to you in time.
I set the deeply confusing note aside and opened the package. Inside were two leather-bound notebooks, identical in size to the one sitting on my desk. One was labeled Watcher and the other Observer. Even more confused by why there would be a second Watcher journal, when I was the town’s only Watcher, I opened that one first. I read the first page.
And then I ran.
It’s now nearly daybreak, and I’m as far from the town as I could get before my legs gave out. Nothing is clear to me but my direction. I’m heading for the mountains.
I travel at night. I can sleep better in the daylight, when noises aren’t unknown and I can see my destination.
When I’m not resting, I’m reading. The second Watcher journal is just like mine- full of daily observations of the people of Dignity as they go about their lives. There’s mentions of marriages, births, thefts, and deaths- the same things I keep track of in my Watcher journal. But this second journal talks about events and people that I don’t remember, which is very unsettling as I’m the one who wrote about them.
It’s my handwriting on these pages, my doodles in the margins, my words scrawled across the lines, but none of it is familiar to me. I wrote it all, and not more than a year ago judging by the age of the pages. The memories attached to the words are missing.
The other book, the Observer journal, only offers more questions. It’s written in an unknown yet somehow familiar hand, and describes a world far different from the one I know. This other place has things I’ve never dreamed of, but the author, a woman named Eliza, talks about them like they’re commonplace.
The only thing she and I have in common are the mountains. She speaks of them in soaring phrases, painting mental images that I can’t replicate without copying her words. At first, her entries were full of mentions of the mountains. But as I read further, her words are becoming harsher, her handwriting more cramped, and the pages themselves seem to be more brittle. The passages on the mountains are getting scarcer, but they are what keep me reading every day and finding my way down the trail every night. The mountains are the key to all of this. They have to be.
Eliza- Day 18250
I’m getting older. I can feel it in my bones, even if I can’t see it on my face. A hundred resets have worn me down. Watching a hundred of my colleagues start to succumb to old age, arranging for their replacements, and serving as a witness to their final moments is a burden that grows heavier by the day. Now I am the last of my generation- the last to need a replacement, the last to be granted reprieve.
It is just ten days until my culmination. I’ve started creating the guide for my replacement. It will tell her everything she needs to know about how to do her new job. I should have created it many resets ago, but I wasn’t ready to do so. I am ready now.
The mechanics are the easiest- the day-to-day operations, the overseeing of the different projects, the general ensuring that everything keeps on keeping on. My replacement’s training has prepared her for that. She’s attentive to detail, yet not to the point of missing the big picture. She will be fair but firm, permissive but progressive. I have complete faith in this.
What I am less certain of is how she will accept her new job. How she will react to the discovery of our base, the artificial heart of what she has always regarded as natural? She will feel betrayal and shock, and perhaps anger. She will be confused as to why we’ve made the choices that we have, and why we have chosen to establish such an existence. But with time, she will understand. With time she will become the leader that I know her capable of being. After all, I did. And I helped create her.
Part of me had hoped that my replacement might be here early so that I could meet her, but I know that the hope is ridiculous. Replacements are never allowed to meet their predecessors. It makes acclimation difficult. It has been this way for thousands of resets, and it will be this way for at least one more. The heart rarely listens to logic, however.
Julia- Day 16
My mind races with questions as I read. Eliza mentions replacements other times in the Observer journal, but in quick phrases- “Dr. Johannon’s Replacement ceremony was this afternoon. The new boy seems a quick learner. The cake was awful.”
It seems that when a person in Eliza’s society grows old, they are replaced with a younger person, who assumes their duties and responsibilities in society. There is no mention of where the replacement people come from, or mentions of the replacees after the ceremony. I don’t understand how a society can view people as so easily interchangeable.
Eliza’s mentions of her own Replacement ceremony seem to be mixed with fear, yet she says that she’s seen hundreds of these ceremonies. If there’s no unknown for her, what could be left for her to fear?
I find that I think better when I am in motion. The questions chasing themselves around my mind can’t keep time with my feet, and my head clears for a few blessed moments.
Traveling further each day has another benefit- the mountains are getting closer. With each mile, I can make out more details. They’re not barren rock like I had assumed from the town. Instead, there are dense patches of forest that soften the edges of sheer cliff faces. The mountains are also broader at the base than I realized. I’m still two days from the steepest inclines, but the ground has already started to rise up beneath my feet. When I look behind me, the path back to Dignity slopes downward. The town that had been my entire world until last week sits in the shadow of what is in front of me.
Looking at the mountains now, I understand how Eliza could have felt two emotions at the same time. My emotions are at war with each other, but I must soldier on.
Eliza- Day 18253
I have removed all my personal effects from the office. No trace of how I conducted my job and myself can remain. The replacement must come into a blank office as a blank slate of potential. The only thing in the room now is the leather-bound notebook that will serve as my replacement’s guide. An identical notebook awaited me on the day that I arrived as the replacement for the eighteenth person to hold my job, a single reminder of my life in the town.
I’ve been here for fifty years, and the scope of the time loop still amazes me. It’s been six centuries since the Center was built, and the town hasn’t gained more than a decade. For over 3,000 resets, the Center has been here above the town. We’ve made substantial progress towards achieving our mission during that time, but now the future of our mission lies in a different set of hands.
Many discoveries await my replacement when she arrives. The most amazing will be the time loop. The least pleasant will be what lies on the other side of the mountains. I wish I could see her reaction, as I imagine my successor wished he could have seen mine. I have watched hundreds of replacements take in the desolation of the planet, react with horror, but take comfort in the continued survival of the human race. They rejoice that the race that invaded our beautiful Earth all those centuries ago has been eradicated, and they support our mission to reverse their radioactive pollution and reclaim our planet. Each time, I have felt confident that we have succeeded at least once more.
I will not be there to watch my replacement’s face as she experiences this, and her reaction is the only one I truly care about.
Beyond our mission, I hope she will understand the necessity of the time loop. Its protection blocks the effects of the pollution, providing us with generations of pure replacements. The true brilliance is in the manual resets, however. Every time a person is selected as a replacement and removed from the town, the time loop is reset to a point before their birth. The townsfolk remain the same, but all memories of the replacement are erased from their minds. Trying to understand the passage of time within Dignity is an informal initiation for the new scientists at the Center.
The important part is that the townsfolk see time as passing normally. This keeps them complacent. Getting a replacement to the point of departure can sometimes cause quite a stir. Resetting the time loop removes the feelings of ill-content and rebellion. It would be a perfect process if we could just figure out how to reset those damn cows properly. This isn’t the first time they’ve almost tipped off a replacement too early.
The catalyst for my replacement leaving the town involves deception and careful timing. I do not approve of the deception, but her personality analysis suggests that she will fare better if allowed to arrive at the truth on her own terms, and I have faith in our science. Moreover, the plan does let us finally replace Dr. Hanner in the zoonotics laboratory. Two replacements for the trouble of one.
Once my replacement leaves the town, we’ll have to trust in her determination to carry her forward to us. She cannot return to the town. No one there will have any memory of the young red-haired Watcher named Julia.
Six hundred years ago, our actions would have been deemed reprehensible. Six hundred years from now, I hope we are judged by our true intentions- simply survival.
I suppose there is some small comfort that there is no one left to judge us.
Julia- Day 18
I am here. The mountains stretch endlessly above and in front of me. I can rest my hand on the rock face in front of me. The road ends at this flat-faced cliff. It appears to have been worn smooth by untold decades of wind patterns, but it is totally and completely fake.
The mountains are artificial. They are designed to look real from a distance, say from a tiny town full of people who never notice anything, but here the truth is revealed. Human hands and human tools built these. I can see riveting in the cliff face, the evidence of sculpture tools on the man-made rock. Now that I see them up close, I wonder how I ever fell for the ruse.
Before I can fully process this discovery, a fissure appears in the rock face and it splits in half. A man stands before me in a long gray coat, similar to the white lab coats of the doctors in my schoolbooks. He smiles at me and I feel a faint stirring of memory at his face.
“Welcome, Julia. We have been expecting you.” He says. He stands aside as if to let me pass, but I hold my ground.
“How?” I ask.
The man’s smile never falters. “Please come in. The answers you seek are all in here.”
As with every other step I’ve taken on this journey, I move forward simply because I refuse to turn back.
I do understand it all now- the reason for the time loop, for replacements, for keeping the truth from the townsfolk. I can even understand Dyson’s obsession with knowing everyone’s business. Charged as the Elders are with continued survival of the colony, his life depends on the continuation of every else’s.
None of that understanding has come from the orientation I’ve received here at the Center. That has been a waste of three days. Even the guide my predecessor left me has been unhelpful. Everything here looks to the future, as if everyone forgot where they came from as soon as they saw the other side of the mountains.
I saw it yesterday. I won’t describe it here. Someday, my replacement may read this account and I want him or her to be able to take it in without bias. I will only say that it is a true test of determination.
Rather, my understanding and acceptance have come from finishing the Observer journal. My old Watcher journal finally makes sense too, as I am introduced to the people from its pages that had been wiped from my memory. From reading the guide, I know that neither book was ever supposed to fall into my possession. The disappearance of Marty (who I have realized is alive and training in the zoonotics lab) was supposed to drive me out of the town and towards the mountains. I’m not sure if Dyson thought I needed an extra shove off the fence or if he was genuinely trying to help me find the answers I sought, but that is a mystery left for another day.
The smiling man from my first day, Jack, is at my door. It is time for yet another tour of the facility. The Center is really something. We’ve been touring it for three days, and we still haven’t covered it all. Jack has kept up a running commentary as we walk. It must be exhausting for him, but I find that I enjoy the sound of his voice. Social isolation in the town and a week on the road alone notwithstanding, he has a pleasing voice, one that I think I would like to hear as often as possible. I reckon it’s a good thing that he is my chief advisor.
I am now the Observer and I am responsible for 5,000 souls- 500 here in the Center and 4,500 in the time-locked town of Dignity.
Eliza- Day 18260
My replacement has arrived and her acclimation has been successful. They have come now to take me to the Respite Center. Along the way, I will walk the same hallways that I have walked every day since the day I arrived at the rock face, confused and exhausted. I have watched a hundred members of the Center be replaced, and I have seen just as many small lives be added to the town. I leave this center in excellent hands, but I still cannot shake the sadness.
I am ready for respite, but not ready to leave. I feel unfinished without seeing my replacement.
Jack leads me down one final hallway and pauses on a bridge. He leans on the railing, and looks down. I do the same, taking in the roughly circular canyon below us. Bridges criss-cross at all angles, and people in gray coats walk along them with their noses buried in papers and electronic screens. The view is dizzying, yet empowering.
“This was your predecessor’s favorite place. I’m not supposed to talk about her, but she would spend hours standing here, just watching her people go about their lives.” Jack says.
The bridge immediately under us runs at a 90-degree angle to our own. As I watch, the door in the wall opens, and three men and a woman step onto the bridge. Jack takes my hand. I look at him, but he nods at the people, directing my attention back to them.
The men look straight ahead, keeping the woman in between them. As they pass under us, the woman looks up and meets my eyes. The memories all come back in a rush, and Jack grips my hand as if he knew this would happen.
I remember the woman below us.
I am complete. I have seen her.