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Past after Future

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***

He didn't remember who he was or where he came from.

But there was something familiar about it. As if one day, long, long ago, in some other life, he had already woken up completely alone, opened his eyes and seen only the blue sky overhead.

Maybe he himself was a fragment of this sky that fell from above? A shining star thrown out of orbit, drawn by gravity of the beautiful blue planet beneath. The one so close and so far away.

The one that he must protect.

He didn’t know where this feeling, this absolute knowledge at the level of instincts came from. Who and when told him this, who was the one who asked to protect the world?

Maybe... maybe someday he would find the answer.

 

***

They named him Pace. 

Quite fitting - for his size, he was surprisingly fast and could outrun even trained adults. There was something unnatural, almost mystical in the way a small nimble hedgehog rushed like a swift lightning through the corridors, urging everyone around to join his game with a cheerful laugh. Some wondered if it was worth picking up this strange child at all. Too bright against the dullness, too noisy for those who wanted to remain unnoticed. Too... abnormal, inappropriate for their devastated world.

But the Law was unambiguous, and everyone in the Shelter strictly adhered to its main rule: "Life is above all". So Pace became a full-fledged member of their group, despite his oddities.

And he was happy. The little hedgehog was unspeakably grateful to his rescuers, who, having found a lost and oblivious child in the Wasteland, immediately accepted him into their ranks. They explained to him everything they knew about the world: about the Flash that destroyed the previous civilization, on the ruins of which they now live; about the Law, passed from generation to generation, telling them to honor and protect any life; about the Wasteland - scorched plains with rare patches of greenery and the remains of settlements and cities - in which was impossible to survive if you didn’t know where to go.

And most importantly, they told him about the Collector. And how lucky he was that it didn't get to him first.

Unlike other children's horror stories that warned of the dangers of the outside world, the Collector was real. Although no one had ever seen it, everyone knew that the metal machines that were scouring in search of any sentient life were its. It was not known why the Collector… collects. But its flying robots were ubiquitous - as soon as you leave a well guarded and hidden from prying eyes shelter you instantly found yourself at gunpoint. One mistake - and the cold steel would close at your throat, drag you into the mechanical bowels and take you to a distant lair, to a monster waiting in the dark.

At least, this is how the children retold each other the dry words of adults.

Pace listened to these stories with bated breath. Something inside him responded to them - the dark tales of artificial products of technology seemed so real, so close, as if he had seen such robots more than once himself. Of course, this couldn’t be true. How could a six-year-old child, who never left the safe area of the Shelter more than a couple of meters from the entrance, know what killer robots look like?

But maybe he saw them in a dream?

His dreams were full of very unusual things. Things that he had never heard of before and that he definitely couldn't see: wide fields covered with green grass, high mountains, whose peaks were hidden under a sparkling cap of snow, an endless surface of water stretching beyond the horizon, glittering with the sun reflected in it - wonders of nature, in all their splendor, which their desert world was deprived of. He dashed through them at a mind-blowing speed, sometimes stopping for a couple of minutes to appreciate an especially breathtaking view, and again broke into a run - in a dream there was no limit to his abilities, no obstacles or boundaries. He felt like he was about to lift off the ground and fly high into the sky, somewhere above the clouds, into the airless cosmic space, to the distant, sparkling stars, which, with their twinkling, echoed the golden sparks running through his quills…

He also dreamed of faces. Hundreds of different faces: joyful, dissatisfied, smiling, frowning, sometimes screaming, sometimes laughing, but always distantly familiar, as if he had already met their owners before. From the gaze of a few of them - especially those piercing blue eyes, looking at him with admiration and adoration, as if they had no one more dear to them in the whole world - sadness filled his small, very lonely heart.

He didn't know who his parents were. He had no brothers and sisters. The other kids avoided him, as if they felt that he was different, not like them. Occasionally he managed to join one or another company, but he didn’t stay in any one for long. He simply didn’t know what to talk to them about: his own thoughts were wandering somewhere far from here, they were striving outward, into an open and dangerous world outside the narrow corridors and concrete walls, pressing on him with their isolation and constancy. He already knew them far and wide, every nook and cranny and inconspicuous recess, and a couple of closed doors in the most distant places annoyed him so much that he repeatedly (and so far - unsuccessfully) tried to break through solid iron with an urge to find out what was behind them.

...shouldn't his quills be able to cut through metal?

He was attracted by the unknown. The spirit of adventure called him. For some reason he longed, simply needed to hit the road and run. Where to? It didn't matter. An itching, almost painful feeling in his chest pushed him forward, literally screaming that he had to do something. Find something, change something.

Save someone.

But who could such a little hedgehog save? Weak, defenseless, with the only advantage of his speed - slightly higher than that of others, but still not enough to, for example, overtake a bullet. This was not enough, he understood it, and that is why he still remained in place. If he grew a little more, became a little stronger, then, perhaps, he would be able to survive in the unfriendly Wasteland, and would have something to oppose the Collector’s machines.

Until then, he had nothing.

Yes, the Shelter provided its residents with everything they needed, but how much did the child need? Boots to keep his feet safe, gloves to keep his hands clean, and a buckled protective cape in case of going out into the fresh air - that was all his personal belongings were.

No, there was one more thing. Dull, translucent stone, dirty gray in color. It was expertly cut, but its symmetry was broken by a deep crack that snaked from the sharp base to the center of the flat top. An idle trinket, garbage, worthless in the eyes of others, for Pace this stone was the most important thing in the world - it had been with him for as long as the hedgehog could remember. They were found together, and Pace suspected that the stone held the answer of who he was and what was in his fog-covered past. But the stone remained silent and steadfastly kept its secrets, no matter how much Pace peered into its dark depths.

Otherwise, the little hedgehog was content with his life. Children of his age didn’t have any special worries, only a few obligatory daily tasks that were not burdensome and usually took a couple of hours at most. Three times a week they went to classes to study the basics of reading and writing to continue the transfer of knowledge from a lost civilization. The rest of the time they were on their own and wasted time playing.

Although no one chased Pace away (kids were especially glad to see him on their side in team games, where speed of reaction was crucial), he still felt like a stranger. Sometimes he could suddenly lose interest, realizing how illogical the rules of some games were, and at such moments he seemed much more mature to himself than he really was. This feeling quickly passed, but still left him discouraged, and as a result he left the game under the disgruntled cries of his team and joyful - of rivals.

That’s why he tried to stay closer to older children, at least to those who were willing to tolerate his presence. Most often, he found himself in the company of Adam and Beta - twelve-year-old twin wolves, brother and sister, who were the main instigators of various pranks and somewhat of local rebels. They seemed to know everything about everyone, and they always were the first to find out all news and rumors coming along with the scouts returning from the ruins of the nearby city and the depths of the Wasteland. So no surprise that Pace, hungry for knowledge of the world outside the hideout, was their honorary listener. And also a supplier of various little things, which they persuaded him to snatch from storehouses, unnoticed by adults. Pace considered it a fair exchange, especially since he himself became filled with excitement before each such sortie. Although he didn’t experience any special difficulties with them - the twins didn’t need much, and with his speed it was easy to take a couple of screwdrivers and cogs and vanish without attracting attention. In return, he received information and the opportunity to be in the forefront if something interesting happened. 

For example, like on the day when his life completely changed.