The Price We Pay
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It is over.

There are but a few of us left, and it is good. Our purpose in this world was to protect it from things it could not understand, things that defied comprehension, things that we all secretly believed would one day overcome our meager defenses and consume everything. But then, one day, they were all gone. Just like that. At first, we were relieved, but as time went by, we began to understand what it all truly meant. Without the storm clouds of the anomalous to cast their sheltering shadows over our empire, it soon began to crumble, dissipating like the remnants of some primordial night before the new light. The light of quiet days. Still, a few of us remain, flesh-and-blood ghosts watching over what is left. Over those left behind.

He is, to all outward appearances, the very image of a respected academic. Clean-shaved, neatly dressed, infallibly polite. It all fits his image like a well-tailored glove, all but that ever present glimmer of panic, just beneath the surface of his eyes. He is sitting in a lecture hall, surrounded by students thirty years his junior, absentmindedly scribbling with his pen in his notebook. The only notebook in a room full of laptops. A few years ago, he was a senior researcher, one of the best of us, the world's finest expert in the new, groundbreaking field of Applied Hydrabiology. He had spent most of his adult life studying this field, learning all that is to know about it. As a young man, he headed massive symposiums, traveled all around the world. His name was respected. His life had a calling. When the anomalous world disappeared, so did all of that.

The professor throws a question at his direction, and to his horror, he discovers that he doesn't know the answer. While he was studying a field that no longer exists, that to most never existed in the first place, the rest of world marched forward, and he was left in the dust. He wilts under the professor's critical gaze, and mumbles something about cells. A subdued laughter echos throughout the hall. The professor simply shakes his head and moves on to younger, more promising students. The aging researcher returns to his notebook, knowing that he will never lead again. He sighs. At least he has his pension.

There are many like him, you know. Careers destroyed, bright minds dulled, curiosity riven. That's the price he pays. That's the price we pay.

He sits embalmed in starched uniform, sweating like a hog as he looks out the window, eyes squinting in the blinding light of midday. Air conditioner must be broken again. The dry expanses of the savanna pass slowly under the wheels of his armored jeep. In the seat next to him, a subordinate drones on and on about this morning's attack. It seems like the Ubyd Tribe once again assaulted the village of the Muthu, targeting, as is the way around these parts, mostly the women and the children. The man scratches at the rash slowly forming around his neck, and asks for a death toll. The subordinate says it's too early to say. They haven't finished sorting the bodies. Tomorrow, the Muthu will most likely counterattack, and the man and his score or so of soldiers will most likely spend that next day doing much the same as they did today. All of this for a dispute over two hundred years old. A dispute over which hill the Sacred Sow of Nys crossed on the first day of her holy pilgrimage.

The man remembers other days. Days in which he fought for something greater, for the good of all mankind. For something he believed in. In those days, when the Abyss gazed up at him, not only did he gaze back, but did so through the scope of an anti-materiel rifle. Things were simple back in the Coalition. Life in the Peace Keeping Force was anything but. It made sense, he supposed. When one encountered a twenty-tonne, fire breathing sloth with thirty eyes and a nasty temper, one usually knew what to do. Not so much with a host of desperate, starving people locked in the midst of a civil war. That the GOC killed the Sacred Sow of Nys ten years prior with an air-to-surface missile only made things so much worse.

There are many like him, you know. Knights left in a world with no more dragons. Knights in a world of windmills. That's the price he pays. That's the price we pay.

A dark study, in the middle of the night. Someone flips the light on. Slippered feet glide over the soft, carpeted floor, a form sinks into a comfortable chair stationed before a work desk. The room is lined with shelves, covering every wall, and on the shelves, toys. The soft light shines over bright red firetrucks, over plastic guns and glass chemistry sets, over large boxes where, if one looks closely, vaguely humanoid figures can be seen, blank smiles plastered over faces no longer animate. The owner of the slippered feet rises again, approaches one of the boxes, one hand caressing the glossy cover. "Introducing Dr. Wondertainment's Mr. Motion!" the box exclaims in big, bold letters, "Multiple grip action! Unique high-voltage pseudo-transmogrification! Fun for all ages, just twist his shoes and watch him move!". The hand drops from the box, from the motionless figure within. Not anymore. Sighing, the owner of the slippered feet turns off the light and leaves the study, returning to the desktop computer in the living room, to the Excel sheets that needed to be filled by tomorrow. One had to make a living somehow, after all.

There are many like them, you know. They tried to keep faith to what they once were, but in the end, it didn't matter at all. What was once was, was, and never will be again. They will make no more toys. That's the price they pay. That's the price we pay.

If he was anything other than what he was, you could say he was just a face in the crowd. Nothing about him is all that memorable, unique or interesting. If he was anything other than what he was, he might have upset because of that. But he isn't. Instead, he just feels that it isn't enough. He knows that if he speaks to someone, they'll hear him, and remember, if for a while. That if he does something, people will notice, and they'll remember, if for a while. That for the first time ever, his actions will have repercussions. He is now a prisoner of the cruelest of all jailers. Permanency. And it's a life sentence.

There are many like him, though no two are quite the same. He knows that every little things he does will last forever. He knows that every move he makes can be observed, and thus controlled. He knows that he will never truly be free again. That's the price he pays. That's the price we pay.

A young woman, sitting on a seemingly empty subway train. We can try and be poetic, say that the train is heading from nowhere to nowhere, but that would be a lie. She's returning from the hospital, where she visits the fertility clinic once every week. The doctors keep telling her that she shouldn't come back, that they've long given up on trying to understand exactly what's wrong with her. She won't, though. If it were up to her, she might have, but she's thinking on the man waiting for her at home. She's thinking about the warmth in his eyes every time he sees her, about how safe he makes her feel, safer than she ever remembers feeling. How the nightmares become just a little bit more bearable when he's around. She thinks about the box of old toys he keeps in the garage, about how he always wanted kids. About the disappointment he kept trying to hide every time she came back. So she still goes, every week, just to hear the same reply over and over again. He doesn't know she's still doing it, and she's not about to tell him.

There is only one like her, and for that we are thankful. Knowing that lets us sleep at night. Sometimes. We had to make sure, you see. It was hard enough to make ourselves release her to begin with. The risk was too great. We had to make sure. She'll never be whole again. That's the price she pays.

That's the price we all pay.

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