Tom sat on the windowsill, staring out at the hills. He could just make them out, those large, square lumps. They were difficult to see tonight and he had to squint, to get an idea of where they were. It could be difficult to track them, you never knew when they were going to move, they might stay in the same place for a week, even a month, but then the next night they’d be no where to be seen. He had only seen them moving once, and that was from a distance. It was a good thing according to his father, the less they moved the better, after all, they were the last line of defence.
Tom was never quite sure what they were defending against, in fact, no one seemed to really know. Sure there were theories, legends and stories, but the fact of the matter was, no one knew what was true. He had heard them all, a great war against another nation that left behind nothing but twisted freaks, perversions of humanities, a great disease that swept through the land leaving the dead to rise and feast on the flesh of the living, evil creatures that came at night and drained their victim of blood, leaving nothing but an empty husk. The stories were endless and endlessly entertaining, but Tom didn’t really believe any of them. Some people did, they cobbled together their own version from all the legends and stuck to that if asked. No other theories would sway them. Tom suspected that it was a war, one that had torn the world apart, the protectors were there to, well, protect. But they were protecting against men, men who were cruel and heartless and wouldn’t think twice about gutting you if it meant they survived for just a little longer. There were other defences, three in fact, but no one had ever seen the other two. Well, that was a lie. There were plenty of people that must have seen them over the years, but they could never return with their stories. The rules were clear, everyone knew them. If you approached one it would carry you back to the city, gently of course, and ensure that no harm came to you. Occasionally there were reports that someone had been left at the Depository, sometimes they had injured themselves and the protectors had returned them, other times they were trying to leave. If you approached one three times, you would be carried back each time but at the end you would go before a council and they would decide if you were ready and able to go. The council rarely stopped people from going. Once the council made its decision, and assuming you were allowed go, you could pass by the protectors. In some instances they would even offer you aid in getting to the next line of defence. After that though, no one really knew. It was assumed that the second line knew about the travellers arrival and let them passed, same with the third, but there was no real confirmation. For all any one still in the city knew, the travellers could have been killed once they were out of sight. There were rumours and Tom sometimes wondered if they were true, after all the protectors were keeping them safe, maybe they had to kill one to keep everyone safe. What if the person got outside and they were captured and tortured and told whoever it was about the city?
Tom sometimes wondered what it was like outside, what those who looked at the first line of defence thought. They must dream of it at night and wonder what lies beyond, just as he does. It had been a long, long time since they had to move to the city, Tom didn’t know how long exactly and he wasn’t sure if anyone really knew, but he suspected that what ever had happened outside must have ended by now. If it was so terrible that they needed the three lines of defence, then surely what ever was out there couldn’t have survived for so long. Perhaps the creators of the protectors thought that one day their descendents would know when it was safe and so they’d turn off the protectors and leave the city, strike out for new places and rebuild.
Tom stood from the windowsill and looked around his room, if things went to plan he wouldn’t be spending much longer in here. Tomorrow he turned sixteen and that was the cut off age, once you were over sixteen you were allowed leave if that’s what you wanted. The regulations used to be strict, but over time they became lower, after all, no one ever really left anymore, why would they? Things were great in the city, they really were but Tom wanted to see what was outside, he wanted to explore the world, walk on ground that hadn’t felt human feet for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. It had been his dream since he was a child. His father didn’t approve, but he accepted it. His sister and brother didn’t think he’d do it, he knew that much. They joked or made snide comments. His mother knew, when she was still alive, she knew that he’d have to go one day. His father had tried to convince him to stay longer, to try and learn some survival skills, but Tom knew enough to survive. He couldn’t particularly hunt, but he knew the basics of it and he knew how to set traps. He could forage for berries and fruits, assuming the same ones were in the rest of the world, he could make shelters and build fires, he knew how to filter water. He knew he would be ok. He had been building a collection of supplies too, ever since he was a child. He had his pack ready to go. Sometimes he trained with it, sneaking out of the house with his empty backpack, filling it with rocks and then just going for long walks. He was ready, he could do it. Tomorrow morning he’d wake up, eat breakfast, then he’d walk out to the protectors, he’d watch is it unfurled itself from its box and he’d be carried back to the city. Then, he’d do it twice more. The council would convene and he’d be allowed leave and he’d be able to start his life, the moment he’d been waiting for since he was old enough to walk. He looked at the empty spots on the walls, where there had been pictures of family and friends, they were now secured in his bag, he knew it was sentimental, that something else could have fit in that space, that they were just excess weight, but he couldn’t leave it behind. He had to bring something with him to remind him of why he was doing it, of the life he chose to leave behind.