A man stands on a small pedestal. Children circle around him, sitting cross-legged. It’s dark out, but the light of two full moons is plenty for everyone to see the man as he speaks. One moon is a bright white, the other, a deep silver.
“When the bells ring,” the man says, “you’ll know the time has come.” The man points to the sky, “You’ll hear them ring no matter where you are, and they’ll be loud enough to wake you. When they do, the metal moon will hang low, and we’ll be able to leave.”
The children get excited by this idea.
“Yes children, we’re close. I know you are anxious to leave, but we must wait for the right time.” The man pauses, “Do you remember what happened to Ariby when he tried to escape early?”
The kids whisper to each, “he fell off the side,” one says, “he was eaten by the machine,” another mutters, “there’s no air outside so he suffocated,” said a third.
After the children calm down, the man continues, “Yes, outside of this place is dangerous, and none of us would survive. Ariby knew better, but chose death, because he’d lost hope. I still have hope, and I believe you should to.”
The man steps down from the pedestal, and walks through the children, “We were trapped here five years ago,” he points to a wall with daily markings on it, “yet we survived. We have no food, no water, and no contact with anyone, yet we persevere. I do not pretend to understand how this works, but I do know it is a blessing to us.”
The children start to shuffle around, rocking back and forth, eyes wandering. They’ve heard this before—hundreds of times at this point—and they’re ready to get back to their duties. The only part of the story they want to hear is about the bells. Beyond that, they’d rather live in their doldrums.
“We have not aged, nor have we progressed,” he grabs his face, showing the lack of progress on his beard, “yes we carry on.” He trails off. The children aren’t paying attention anymore, and why should they? He’s delivered this speech every day, trying to keep their hopes alive. Trying to keep them occupied. Trying to keep himself from losing hope.
Five years ago, the man, a scout leader, took his pack into the local state park for a weekend of camping. They set up camp in the same place they did every year, ate, then fell asleep. When they woke up, they were in a new place. This place felt like a void, with two full moons hanging low in the sky. The moons never moved. The days never progressed. When the man walked the perimeter of the campsite, he found nothing. Not nothing as in nothing useful, but nothing as in nothing. Beyond the camp simply wasn’t.
Within the first few days, Ariby, a boy with the hubris of a victorian explorer pushed outward into the void and never returned. He told his friends he was, “fed up with waiting.”
After that, the man had to create hope for the kids, because otherwise they’d follow Ariby. He remembered reading about how coffins once had bells inside of them so the coffin’s occupant might ring for help if they turned out to be alive. So, he mythologized the bells. He made it their rescue story. The bells ring, and one of the moons descends down, revealing itself as not a moon, but a spaceship. It carries them away, back home, safely to the right time and place.
He’s told this story every day since Ariby left. Nothing has changed.
The children disperse from their circle. The man continues muttering, walking between the kids as they draw in the dirt, or play cards. He pauses at the edge of the campsite. Looking at the nothing. His head aches. His ears ring. He steps out into it.