The dead-gray ash felt too soft under Sam's feet. Such a landscape did not deserve this soothing texture. The trees, what remained of them anyway, were dead and gnarled. The branches crooked like arthritic fingers. They screamed with the pain suffered here, of the lives lost. Drab ash coated everything, smothering the earth with its deadly blanket. Sam, a boy of 15, sat on an ash laden hill. This was the first time he had been on the surface since it happened

His dark brown eyes began to weep at the scene that lay before him. The blue sky he remembered was gone, shattered by hate. The broken innocence of the sea cut Mother Natures' flesh. The cuts bled the landscape, draining her. She has bled all she could bleed, and now she has finally quit. She is dead. Sam looked to the sky. The indifferent serenity of the clouds he remembered had been murdered, replaced by a morbid freight train polluting the sky as it made its uncouth way through the heavens.

Sam grew angry, he wanted to jump and stomp and scream in frustration at the stupidity of humanity. How could we have let this happen? And now that it's done, we have forgotten the little things that make life wonderful. We had been sprinting down the road of life, too busy trying to acquire all earthly goods to stop and enjoy nature's wonders. We ran so fast, we couldn't see the flowers, so fast we couldn't see the wall looming ahead. We have run into that wall, and now it's too late for us, and for the Earth.

Sam tried to remember those little things, remember flowers and trees and bushes. Soon the dead landscape melted away and was replaced by a beautiful oasis of life. The rivers and streams ran again, the clear, cool water caressing the rich soil of the banks. Grass sprung up for the first time in years. The greenery brought tears to Sam's eyes. Dew clung to each individual blade of grass, to the leaves of the trees, creating a heavenly pattern of shimmering color like a multi-faceted prism when beams of warm sunlight reflected off them. The glowing shafts of delight pierced the puffy white clouds like cupid's arrows, raining love down on the beautiful creatures of the earth. A sky hung over this scene like a mother guarding here children from the perils of the universe, full of maternal warmth. This mother had failed in her duties, though, by not preventing the petty squabble of sibling rivalry. Her failure became the death knoll of life for her planet.

Sam's reverie was broken by his friends calling to him from their shelter. They shouted to him to come in, because it was going to rain. Rain of this hell on earth is not the cool, tranquil life giving liquid expected of this common natural phenomenon. The poisons released into the atmosphere during the war had caused an acid rain so potent that anything caught in its path would be eaten away in seconds.

Sam ran as fast as he could over the ash strewn landscape, his feet making an inaudible pitter patter. He entered the shelter, ushered on by his companions. They slammed the steel door behind him, the bolt locking into place with a satisfying clunk that shook the entrance room.

Sam panted lightly as he surveyed his artificial abode of 7 years. The shelter was a simple one, providing only the basic necessities of humans, and no luxurious amenities could be found. There were no discernable marks or decorations adorning the chambers, which provided a drab living space. For many of the inhabitants, however, this was the only home they had known, so they did not see it for the bare artificial area void of humanness that it was. It was a chilling testament to the desperation of the final humans.

Most of them were very young when the war started. They could only remember what it was like to be a survivor, what it was like to have to survive through the lucky ones, the dead ones', mess. Sam and his friends walked in through the antechamber to a general recreation room that doubled as a panic shelter in times of crisis. It was sad that the room was used for the latter more often than the former. There were already several families in the panic room, huddled together, flinching at every drop of the wrath-filled precipitation like every impact was the lash from a whip against their backs.

Sam's gaze moved from family to family, dancing across the hard, metal chairs and the scorched, painfully ordinary, flimsy card tables that adorned the room. He took in the grey metal walls, the two board games (both were missing half the pieces) collecting dust on a shelf too high for any children to reach, and the small, torn replica of Starry Night that hung on the wall in the corner. Sam loved that painting. It was the only image he had of the pre-war world, other than of the stories the others told him. Every time he looked upon that painting, he felt himself fill to the brim with human emotion (something not at all common those days) and begin to cry. His brief survey led his eyes to settle on his own family.
The four of them all wore the same one piece, unisex jumpsuits given to all the survivors. They were made out any material found in the wasteland, some pulled from remains of the dead, some with blood stains on them. Blood stained jump suits were held in the highest regard: they granted uniqueness to the wearer that was valued almost high as food.
The family all wore the same looks of desolation and helplessness that were shared among every member of the shelter. They had lost all hope of leading meaningful lives, and it showed in the way the portals to their souls had a hollow, boarded up, empty appearance. Sam's family looked weary and battered, like a leaf that has been buffeted in hurricane winds. They had given up, left themselves to the mercy of the rapids. You could see it in their faces. The absence of vibrancy and life was chilling. They had even lost their individual scents, something that made humans what they were. Sam knew he looked that way, too: stripped of all individuality. They all appeared that way; they were all the same, unique only in life. Life that had become obsolete and irrelevant, yet they continually strove to survive purely by carnal, primeval instinct. Sam shook off the feeling and proceeded towards his family with a forlorn sigh.
They cowered together, praying that the acid would not eat through the metal sell of their house. That thin piece of material was the only thing standing between them and death. Secretly, everyone also prayed the rain would break through, so they could die and be rid of all the problems that plagued them, though no one would ever admit they wished it.

And so the poor huddled mass prayed for salvation and destruction, for mercy and prolonged existence as they listened to the deadly patter of the rain. The sound of the droplets hitting the metal echoed the beating of billions of hearts. The hearts destroyed by war were remembered in the acid raining down on their friends and family, a final gruesome testament to the dead, and their unforgivable acts.

After spending four hours the rain subsided and the congregation left the panic room, the forlorn creatures stood up, stretched, and went back to their business.

Every day in the morning after breakfast, if there was any breakfast, the community would deal out the duties needed to be completed that day. There was a chart that had been made up. Groups had been formed, each with 7 members, and they rotated through all the chores listed on the chart. Each group would receive each duty once a week, so there was an even workload and no fighting. Any harsh feelings could quickly turn to violence, and such occurrences were brutal and often deadly. The Dark Age hath returned.
Jobs around the compound were mostly mundane and mild. Cooking meals was separated into breakfast and dinner categories. The two groups worked together. One would scrounge up any food scraps available, while the other cooked, and vice versa for the second meal.
Keeping the compound clean was one of the most hated jobs in the compound, but the leaders of the group (those with graduate degrees or doctorates) came to a consensus that a civilized looking living area would stem the tide of basic animal instincts from taking over and thus plummeting the survivors to barbaric, violent lives.
The most dreaded, and possibly most necessary, job was scavenging. The community survived mostly on the pure luck of the scavenger parties finding food, water, parts for tools, and other necessities. If the hunter- gatherers were not successful, there would be no food for the community, except for the meager stores they had built up. The people were used to going days without food, so a failure by the scavengers would not mean the end of the existence for the survivors.

Sam's mother asked him to take care of his little sister Rebecca while she helped cook the communities' dinner. It was his fathers turn to venture out with a scavenger party and make a futile attempt to find something left of use in the desolate wasteland they inhabited.
Sam's brother was older than he was, a soldier of the Last Great War. He never spoke much, after he returned home, and everyone wondered what atrocities he had witnessed to kill his once vivacious spirit. Francis, that was his name, had only told one story about his experiences, and it was to Sam. It happened just after their sister, who was 16 at the time, had died. She had gotten cancer from radiation poisoning. On a scavenging expedition she had uncovered a leaking but undetonated nuclear bomb on a scavenging mission. The high concentration of radiation soaked through her primitive Haz-mat suit, completely exposing her to the radiation. She died several days later from radiation poisoning.

Francis and Sam had been in Sam's room one nigh shortly after the death of their sister. The night was still and quiet, the absence of noise still unnerved them. Such a dead night was unnatural. The silence was so loud and profound it could deafen one who listened too closely. Francis began his story with a deep sigh, exhaling his inner turmoil to release himself of the memory. He stared down at a small tear in Sam's tattered bed sheet the whole time he spoke.

"One day I was fighting in North Korea. This was just weeks after Kim Jong-Il launched his nuclear offensive against the US. While their forces were busy fighting a losing war in the Middle East, he destroyed San Francisco. The US was paralyzed, unable to respond. After the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq, they turned and attacked US forces still occupying the country. Thousands of soldiers were held hostage. They demanded Saddam Hussein's freedom in exchange for the lives of the thousands of US soldiers. He was released from prison and reclaimed control."

"Francis, I'm not stupid. I know what happened. I've heard the stories."

Francis ignored him. "My battalion was the only unoccupied force not either defending major cities or fighting Iraq, and we were woefully unprepared. Hell, just getting across the damn border into North Korea cost us 76 good soldiers. We did manage to get in, and our first objective was to take a small village that lay on a major road we needed to transport more troops in from Sol. We approached at night, maybe one or two in the morning. With infrared goggles we had surprise and sight on our side. We all thought the mission would be easy, and maybe we got cocky, I don't know. The village turned out to be better defended than we thought. My unit crawled slowly through the tall grass towards the outer buildings. The first one to go down I hadn't known very well, and now I can't even remember his name. A loud crack echoed through the night, and the man fell, blood spattering onto the man crouched nest to him. A sniper had spotted us. We continued on, crawling then. By the time we got to the edge of the field, we had lost 5 more people. When I was close enough I threw a grenade into the house the gunman was hiding in. The explosion blew the thatch house apart, scattering reeds everywhere. Something landed in front of me, and I moved closer to investigate. It was a child's arm,"
Francis paused a moment, suppressed memories and emotions floated to the surface. A single tear ran down his cheek. "That sniper had hidden in a families' home, and I killed that family, Sam. I killed a women, and children. That's no the worst part, even. That's not what keeps me up at night, not what haunts my dreams.

We moved from house to house throughout the night, fighting all the way. I went into one of the reed houses, and a Vietnamese man was hiding behind the doorway. He had a knife. That's where I got this," he pointed to a scar that ran down his shoulder and across his chest. "He swung at me, slicing me badly. I had dropped my gun, so I just kicked him until he fell. He screamed and screamed, and tried to fight, but I kept kicking him, punching him. Blood spattered everywhere, but I didn't care. He stopped moving eventually, and then I paused. I retrieved my gun and walked out. Just like that. Like nothing happened. Part of my mind was telling me I should feel more sad, but another part, a new part, told me to ignore it. That sort of thing was a fact of life," He sighed heavily, his breath catching in his throat, causing a bizarre stuttering sound.
"Let me tell you, Sam. Life just isn't the same when you've killed a man with your bare hands. You just can't return to a normal existence with that on your conscience. It makes you feel like you stand out, like you don't belong. Like, everyone you see knows. Knows what you did. It scares the shit out of me, Sam. You ridicule others' problems, simply because they seem so trivial compared to what you've been through," Francis stopped at this, choking. He cried for some time before he was able to gain composure.

"After the battle we rounded up the surviving villagers, including civilians, and lined them up. I knew what would happen, but I couldn't believe it. My friends were not the kind of people who would execute anyone. I begged and pleaded with them not to do it, but they just laughed and wouldn't listen. I couldn't watch, so I walked off towards the village center.
"Thatch lay everywhere in the little village. Many of the reeds were stained red. The entrances to all the houses had a reddish colored mud in the doorjamb. All the blood shed inside had run down to the entrance, where it collected in puddles and mingled with the dirt.
"I saw one of our soldiers lying dead, some vultures picking at him. I walked over to shoo the vultures away, and saw it was my friend, Gary. You remember him, right? He used to come over a lot, he had shaggy brown hair. We enlisted at the same time. Well, he had been stabbed a couple of times, once in the eye. And his throat had been cut. I was paralyzed by what had happened to him, blind with rage. When I had regained the used of my legs, I ran back to the soldiers, and the execution line. They hadn't done it yet, and I told them I wanted to help. So we did it," Francis' eyes glazed over and his voice adapted a vacant, hollow quality Sam had never heard before.
"We killed them. We used machetes. I can still feel the blood splash onto my face, and I can hear the screams. Every night as I go to bed, I hear their screams. It drives me crazy. I hate myself, Sam. I can't.I can't believe what I did," he made a frustrated, aggravated noise.
"Why do humans have to do these things to each other? We couldn't look past all our differences, and realize we'd get more accomplished if we worked together! We could be living in normal our house right now, not in the god-forsaken shit hole. We chose to end our lives; we decided to launch those bombs. It's our fault. Humanities' fault. Now the survivors have to pay the price. And who knows how long we will last? I am ashamed of what we've done. Of what I did. I'm sorry, Sam. I'm sorry," Francis hugged Sam and began to cry.
Poor bastard, thought Sam, and soon he was crying, too. They cried all night. They cried for humanity.
Neither of them ever forgot that night.

There were several new temporary additions to the compound's population. Three Korean survivors had been spotted by Sam's father's scavenging party. They had been rushed inside, taken to the primitive medical ward. Francis, who had bee working there during for his shift, saw them. He ran out of the room, going to Sam's room. Sam had been passing by and heard the despairing noise coming from his room.
"Francis," Sam exclaimed in surprise. "What the hell are you doing here? What's wrong?"

"Those Korean people, did you see them? They're here! They've come for me! They know what I did! They're gonna take me away for what I did! Why is this happening to me? I regret it always, every minute of my existence! I don't need any goddamn reminders," Francis shouted, choking through tears.

"Francis, it'll be ok. Don't worry. Just do what you need to do, help them. They aren't here for you. It's all in your head."

"No, no, no, no, no! I can't do it. They blame me, they won't forgive me! They'll take me away, kill me! Torture me! For what I did...what I...did. Can't...Can't face them....them.reminders.torture me!...Koreans.know.," Francis began mumbling to himself, rocking back and forth.

"Francis, they don't know who you are. They don't know what you did."

"No! They know! They will never forget!"

Francis ran out of the room, Sam chasing him. "Francis! Wait! You made a mistake! It's over! You're sorry! They don't want you!"
He slammed the door to his own room.

"Francis! Open the damn door! I can help you!"

There was silence. Sam heard a click.
"That's it, Francis, open the door," He pushed, but it was still locked. The click had not been the lock.
Sam was filled with sense of dread.
"Francis.What the hell are you doing?"
A huge noise erupted, shaking the whole hall and rattling the thin walls of the compound. It had come from inside Francis' room. Sam ran and got a crowbar, what he saw inside made his blood turn cold.
Sam backed away from the inside of the room, slowly, and began to scream.
"HELP! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, HELP!" Sam was doubled over at the waist, screaming at the top of his lungs, his face turning bright red. Sam's parents were nearest. They ran quickly towards the source of the noise.
"What in the hell is--" Sam's father stopped once he saw what lay in his eldest son's room.
The couple stood in the doorway, finding their son lying in a pool of blood, brains spattered against the wall, a gun lying near him. He had shot himself in the head to escape his problems, his crimes. He committed his final act of desperation and escape.
Well, Sam thought, At least now he's at peace. He's happy.
The man-made wasteland consumed all of them eventually. Humanity was doomed, the death of their last soldier foreshadowing impending doom.

Without proper care, the Korean family died the next day.
The recent suicide of one of the most respected survivors shook the compound to its very foundation. The organization dissolved, and all was sent into chaos. Soon humanity would fail. The floundering species' only hope was in their maintaining of civilized habits, and these important traits were soon abandoned in violence that ensued.
Petty squabbles had destroyed a beautiful race, Mother Nature's finest and most complex creation. But every species must die eventually. One can only hope the cockroaches will use the planet better than we did.