The boy had been digging in the trash for some time now, knowing he wasn't going to find much. He was hoping for something to sell at least - the food was most likely gone by now, taken by hungrier foragers or the pervasive stray animals. It was then that he heard the noise. He fell to the ground reflexively, looking carefully around. These were hard times for any outsider, times of anarchy, when if you didn't look out for yourself there was no need to worry about tomorrow... and people kept becoming outsiders. Maybe their tribe ran out of food (assuming they had been lucky enough to belong to an agricultural area in the first place) and they had to move to the edge of a city. Or else their gang lost its territory and/or was swallowed by another (that being the "privilege" of those who ruled over the ruins of former cities). That was when people lost even the shred of stability they still had post-Fall.
The boy no longer thought about the Fall. Maybe he never had. He had been too young when it happened. Besides, why worry about the past? Right now he had to find something to eat, and a hard-to-spot shelter for the night. Getting into trouble at night was quite unpleasant, as "incidents" had a tendency to end in bloodshed. An outsider was fair game for any group large enough to take on an isolated opponent without risk. All in all, the boy had to be extremely cautious everywhere -- even at the trashcan area, which being at the periphery was frequented by very suspicious-looking individuals.
The boy had redoubled his usual precautions before going near the trashcans, yet the noise had taken him by surprise. He lay down, listening, but he could hear no other sounds. Had it been a hallucination? Another would have gotten up at that point, but not him. He took zero chances when it came to his own safety. So he lay there, listening, watching, like a cat ready to jump claws forward and run at the first sign of danger.
In the end, he heard the sound again. Duller, this time. Then again, closer. The boy tensed, sensing the danger. But he needed to know what the danger was, so he chanced a move. Ever-so-slightly, he crawled to a position that would give him a better view. He didn't see anything at first, but then something moved, and he blinked, thinking he wasn't seeing well. Something moved... and yet it didn't. He forced his eyes to better focus on the trashcan in question, trying hard not to blink again, though it was starting to hurt. Then he saw the movement again, and there was the sound, too. Someone was there... someone invisible.
The boy's jaw fell. It was the first time he had witnessed such a thing.
"Must be some sort of Mythian device, no doubt," he thought. The thought came as a shock. There had been no talk of the Mythians in years. Some even said they hadn't existed at all, that they had been a collective hallucination, a product of government propaganda, from back when there was such a thing as a government.
The person/creature moved again in front of the trashcan. This time the noise was clear and loud in the boy's ears.
"Can't be an outsider," he thought, "too noisy."
*But... what if it's a Mythian?*
The very thought paralyzed him. He had seen a poster depicting Mythians once, in his childhood. He had also seen old newspapers, with headlines such as "Government to test goodwill of people from outer space", "The world - where to? Are aliens our salvation, or a ticket to Hell?" Later, after the Fall, everybody agreed that the Mythians had bought us front row tickets to the Apocalypse. An end to the world 21st-century humans took for granted.
How the Fall came to pass, only old people knew, and they didn't like to talk about it. The boy had tried to ask an old beggar once...
"There was a time, my boy, when we dreamt of their coming. You know, the little green men from beyond Mars. Those we'd read about in books or seen in science fiction movies. I didn't know whether to be afraid or not, but I sure was happy. I kept telling myself: we're not alone after all!
"But to what avail? It did not matter. The human race deserves loneliness. We're too cowardly to admit that, deep in our souls, we want to be the gods. And when the real masters come to teach us... we run like dogs. We're no civilization, just a pack of animals. We've been living an illusion, and now all we can do is bite each other to death."
The boy had seemed confused.
"But didn't they destroy us? I asked the pawnbroker the other day, and he said the Mythians attacked and flattened Earth."
"The Mythians, us?" laughed the beggar. "Dear boy, if the Mythians had wanted us destroyed we wouldn't be having this conversation now."
That had been all the boy had managed to learn from the old beggar, whose elevated vocabulary belied his miserable condition. In fact, much of his explanations had been incomprehensible to the boy, who knew just one thing: the Mythians had been truly powerful, and the toys they'd left behind could be very useful if one knew where to look for them.
Oh, he had asked the gang-brothers he still had back then how to find a Mythian. Their leader had thought him crazy.
"Ya wanna die young or whut? Don't we have enough trouble with those knife-swingers on the city edge, now you wanna bring the invaders down on us?"
The invaders. That's how the Mythians were seen in many neighborhoods. Kids at play would often set up mock battles in which one of the camps was that of the alien "invaders". Even the gangs, during their many incursions in "enemy land", not to mention the battles for influence, would use the word "Mythian" as an invective. Even their gang's motto was about them: "We do it like Mythian scum."
Or so it had been, until that spring night when the knife-swingers from the east side had attacked. They owned the neighborhood now, while survivors of the former gang had taken refuge at the periphery. As outsiders. Nobody's people. Kings of the trash heaps.
Now, the boy looked at the suspicious trashcan and thought of what the old beggar had said.
"It's clearly someone using a Mythian toy. If I could get one of these..."
Passing unseen, day or night, was the dream or any outsider. Heck, it was the dream of anyone who lived in that metropolis of misery.
The boy came up with all sorts of ideas, none of them realistic. He looked around for a weapon, anything that would give him an edge over the invisible opponent. It was ridiculous: "You expect to defeat, more or less bare-handed, someone whose weapons you can't even see?"
He heard the noise again, more discrete this time, as if the invisible one knew he was being watched. The boy nodded to himself, and finally stood up.
"I know you're there. No need to hide. I'm unarmed."
No answer came. Nothing else moved. And yet... someone was there. Listening? Watching?
"You have nothing to fear from me," added the boy, "I couldn't hurt you if I wanted to."
He kept his hands where the other guy could see them. Still no answer.
"Look," he stammered, "maybe I acted all wrong. Maybe I meant to hurt you. But I didn't DO anything."
He looked down, suddenly bitter.
"If I could, maybe I would have tried to kill you, but I can't, and we don't have to handle this like animals."
Now he remembered the words of the old beggar: "now all we can do is bite each other to death." He wondered, despite himself, how a dog who has wronged his master might feel.
"You can kill me if you want. It's not like I can stop you."
"It is not necessary in this case." The voice was a lot more pleasant than the boy would have thought possible.
A humanoid shape appeared right in front of the boy, and he blinked, unable to believe his own eyes. The Mythian standing less than a meter from him looked just like one of the newspaper illustrations he had seen as a child. Except for the eyes, which were soft and disarmingly expressive.
"What... will you do to me?" asked the boy.
"Nothing." Answered the alien. "I do not see why I should affect your existence at all. You have enough trouble as it is," he added, looking around.
The boy swallowed.
"You won't... execute me? I know it's what you invaders do."
The Mythian blinked.
"We have never executed anyone."
That was hard to believe.
"Can't be true, " protested the boy. "So many people died. So many others are starving and... there's been so much fighting."
The Mythian blinked again.
The boy fell silent. He didn't have to add anything, for there was nothing more to add. It hadn't been the aliens' fault. There had not been any invasion. Everything that had happened was the humans' fault. It was they who had destroyed everything. It was they who had murdered their own.
"Why didn't you stop us?" he asked simply. "From destroying ourselves."
"But we tried," answered the alien, "tried all we could. Who do you think stopped the nuclear missiles in their silos?"
The conversation with the beggar again: "Dear boy, if the Mythians had wanted us destroyed we wouldn't have this conversation now."
He felt like crying. He had never understood the dimensions of the disaster until now. Now he understood the sadness in the beggar's eyes. *We've done it to ourselves, and we deserve our fate.*
"Are we going to be well again?" he asked, hopelessly.
"Most likely," answered the Mythian. "Maybe not for the next couple of generations, but you have the resources and the technology. By our analysis, the most chaotic period has already passed. We have monitored the situation over time, in an attempt to shorten the dark times."
The evening was falling, and the boy knew the surroundings were about to become unsafe.
"Got to go," he pointed out.
"I know," agreed the Mythian.
"Will I see you again?"
The alien thought for a while.
"Unlikely. I am not supposed to intervene in your lives. Our council thinks the first contact was not beneficial. It led to what you call The Fall. Your economic system was too fragile, not to mention the already unstable political situation..."
The alien's words became difficult to follow. Besides, words like "ethnicity" and "global crisis" were not helping the boy at that point.
"What I can do is give you a clue that could boost your life expectancy by several decades. There is a city east of this place. It is prosperous, and they have laws. Harsh laws, to tell the truth, but these aren't good times for you humans."
"East of here? Can't be." The boy started in surprise. "There are only mountains there, and wilderness."
The Mythian smiled a tolerant smile.
"OK, I believe you. One can see better from up in the sky. But... it's far, isn't it?"
"Yes, you will have to walk for several day/night cycles."
A real city, civilization... it all seemed so remote to the boy as he listened the alien's precise instructions.
"Like a dream, " he heard himself saying.
"It is time to live your dream," added the Mythian before vanishing again.
The boy stood up and started moving, watching his surroundings. If he made it through the night, in the savage metropolis teeming with savage gangs, then he was going to go east. To fulfill a dream.