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The Cradle of Avalon

When the rain began to fall, we were confused, shocked, and relieved. The drought had gone on for so long that most of the soil had turned barren, the once-rich dirt changing from nutrient-filled dark brown to worthless grains of sand. Rain had become something of a myth over the years; the idea of water falling freely from the sky seemed preposterous to the younger members of our tribe, the hunters who bled and killed and died over barely enough water to fill a cupped pair of hands. The stories of the elders suddenly painted vivid new pictures in all of our heads, even though I was no longer a young man and had seen rain a few times in my youth. So many dry years, so much conflict and blood.

A week passed and the rain did not relent; if anything, it came down harder. Our hovels had quickly collapsed and our tribe had taken to living in a cave partway up the mountain where the younger men hunted small animals, occasionally finding one or two. The cave was cold and dark and the echoing sounds of footfalls or unknown creatures gibbering in the shadows made our hearts race. Our only light was when one of the moons was shining: Geb, the red orb of destruction, or Nut, the glowing white ball of creation. The moons would take turns illuminating the sky or casting it in blood light, and I confess that I often wondered if the end of days were upon us, when it was prophesied that both moons would shine together and all things would die. Through it all, the rain kept falling.

After three months, strange new animals began to appear outside of our cave. We lost several of our younger, more eager hunters, and most of our experienced ones, when a huge hairy creature with long white tusks slowly climbed the side of our mountain, seeking refuge from the growing water levels below. A group of our young hunters disobeyed our elder and tried to kill the unknown animal. They argued that animal would provide food and warmth for all of us for many months, and honestly they were not wrong, but their chance of victory was very small, so the elder said. As the young ones ran out of the cave, spears raised high above their heads, their ululating screams a declaration of war, the tusked animal bellowed like a god. The first to fall was a boy of about 16 years, who was ripped from the ground by the animal’s trunk and hurled down the mountain. Soon, another was pierced by a tusk, and the blood sprayed from the wound, coating the already-wet rocks in liquid red. The animal’s hide was peppered with spears, but it hardly slowed as it fought the hunters off.

The remainder of our hunters responded to the sounds of violence so close to our cave, and even the most loyal and obedient of them rushed out to try to save our kin. I admit that my hands itched to hold a spear once more, but I am old now, and my leg, injured in a hunt long ago, hardly allows me to walk, let alone run. The combined strength of our remaining men was enough to eventually fell the massive animal, but there was no time for celebration or for mourning of the dead. A second unknown creature leapt from behind a shadowed rock, its orange and black stripes blurring with ferocious speed as it pounced and growled at the men who still stood. Like the first animal, this one also had tusks, smaller, but very sharp, and they glinted in Nut’s light. As the creature opened its mouth and roared, I gasped at the rows of thick, pointed teeth from my hiding spot inside the cave. It leapt at another of our hunters and sent him flying backwards down the mountain despite the spear that he had buried in the creature’s flank. I realized with horror that all of our hunters were motionless on the ground, some of their bodies torn apart by the hideous newcomer. The animal snarled, victorious, and loped toward the first animal that our hunters had foolishly attacked, about to make a meal of its corpse.

Silently, I backed away, already wishing that the blood pounding in my ears were louder so that I wouldn’t have to hear the inevitable sound of the animal feasting on our kin. At that moment, we knew that we were truly lost. With all of our hunters dead on the ground, there were only five of us left, and none of us could be counted on to provide food and protection for the others. The rain fell, echoing off our rocky walls, and I buried my face into my arms and wept for the first time since I was a small boy.

I somehow fell asleep and was startled to realize it when I awoke. The grey world outside of the mouth of the cave looked the same as it had every day for the past months. A woman in our tribe, older than any save the elder, was the first to venture toward the opening of our cavernous shelter. After a few quiet minutes, she looked back and caught my eyes, then motioned me to join her. Together, we stepped out into the rain-soaked morning and slowly made our way toward the giant animal that our now-dead hunters had managed to slay. We removed the spears from its flesh and stacked them neatly nearby, then each grasped our stone-blade knives and began to scrap away the hair from a part of the dead creature. It was slow work, but after some time, a third joined us with her knife and we were able to carve a few large chunks of flesh from the corpse. These were carefully carried into our cave and wrapped in the giant paperleaves that our tribe depended upon to store and preserve meat. We worked, trying not to notice our dead scattered around the battlefield, and the rain fell.

It was hard to tell when day ended and night began. It was always dark, wet, and cold. We were forced to rely on the amount of exhaustion in our bodies to know when to try to sleep and when to wake, when to eat and when to rest. We had food, now, and the hide of the giant animal would provide warmth, but we all secretly knew that we had no future as a tribe. There were two women, both well beyond their childbearing years, and with no hopes for new life, we were simply trying to survive as long as we could.

That night I was awoken when the woman who I worked with on the carcass suddenly screamed, her voice reverberating in the walls for what felt like hours. By the time I reached her, she was convulsing on the ground and I could see a look of terror in her eyes as foam rose from her lips. She died in moments. The other three of us that remained had gathered behind me, and as I rose from my crouch, I felt something thick slither against my foot, the rough scales of whatever it was rubbing against my skin. I jumped into the air in spite of my injured leg, my body anxious to be away from this new, unknown creature, the thing that may have been the reason I just watched the woman die. My leg gave out on the landing and I hit the ground hard, slicing open a wound on my hand. I felt the warm blood fall quickly from my hand, rushing out to meet the rocky ground below. Immediately I felt weak, my vision blurred and clouded. As my head thumped heavily on the stone below, my eyesight cleared long enough to see outside of the cave and into the blackening night, where Geb and Nut floated side by side, seemingly laughing at my fate – Destruction and Creation reshaping our world.

3,000 Years Later

“The Empire is indestructible!” the Emperor bellowed to the assembled crowd below, which erupted in an echoing roar. “While the world weeps at The Endless Drought, we conquer!” Another roar from the crowd. In my heart, I never was a particularly fervent supporter of the Emperor, but even I had to admit that he knew how to control a crowd and build morale. As his personal soothsayer, I saw the sides of the Emperor that no one else did, the anger, the sadness, the malevolent cruelty. Perhaps it was becoming Emperor at such a young age, not even 10 years old, that shaped him into this monster, but in my heart I believed that the man was born a monster. I did my job to the best of my ability and never lied to him, and in public I would shed tears whenever his hedonistic gluttony finally caught up to him, but I had no doubts that the world would be a better place without this man in it.

The drought had been stretching well past forty years now, since long before I was born into this dry world, though lately I had seen things in my visions that I believed meant the world would soon change again, my mind’s eye seeing the land drown and suffer when the red moon of Exitium and the white moon of Pacem would fill the sky together. I told the Emperor of these portents during our last council, of the danger that threatened his Empire, and the fool laughed! He said that not only have the moons never appeared on the same night, but that my prediction was clearly not a flood of water, but a flood of wealth and influence, a true vision of the indestructible nature of the kingdom. It took all of my willpower to not slap the man across the face for being an imbecile.

“The Endless Drought has hardened our men into the fiercest warriors!” the Emperor continued, his voice reaching a fever pitch by the end of the line, and the crowd strove to match his fervor. I would have another counsel with the Emperor after supper tomorrow, and I would try again to convince him of the imminent danger that he and the entire world faced, and I knew that he would laugh again. He truly believed himself to be a God King, an indestructible and timeless legend, and nothing I said could ever put a dent in the wall of ego that surrounded him. For my own sanity and possibly for future generations to discover, I kept a journal of my dealings with the Emperor, its location as secret and private as I could make. A thin sliver of hope that my words might be a counterbalance to the infallible declarations of the God King, that someday perhaps the truth might be known, was why the journal existed. I had no doubts that I would pen scathing words in it after our next counsel.

Eleven days later, I clung to the window frame of my home, desperate to reach the rooftop in the hope that somehow the water would cease falling, and I reflected on the Emperor’s speech to the citizens of the capital city. Were the entire city not flooding and the palace not on a hill in the center of the city, I believed that the citizens would have drowned the Emperor with their own hands. In times of prosperity, the Emperor was beyond all law and fault, but during disasters such as this, the peasantry could rise up and take justice into their own hands if they felt sufficiently compelled. At that moment, I felt something bordering on sympathy for the foolish God King, though those feelings were quickly doused by angry indignation when I remembered his dismissive nature toward my predictions.

It had been raining for four days already, the water pounding from the sky so hard that it felt like nails being driven by hammers, strong enough to leave welts on flesh. The residences in the kingdom were surprisingly well-built, and perhaps the rain would have been seen as nothing more than a freakish anomaly, but the cisterns that lived beneath the city streets, in turn helping the city to become the heart of the Great Empire, had overflowed with water by the end of the first day. Bad enough to deal with endless rain from above, but when the water rises from beneath one’s feet, many a strong man’s will breaks. Bodies floated down cobblestone streets like discarded and bloated firewood, the purple-red of their skin standing out unnaturally even in the shadowed air.

When the rain began to fall, there was something akin to wonder and celebration in the streets. By the end of the first night, as the water rose in the city and in all of the homes, including my own, the celebration had deteriorated into looting, then into pure anarchy as the Emperor remained stoic and hidden in his palace. I cared not for the man, and though I tried my best to have a heart for my fellow citizens, my own survival took selfish precedent. When I was finally able to scramble onto the slippery roof of my home and I could properly survey the streets that surrounded me, I felt heart-wrenching despair.

I lay down on the roof, my mind already defeated, and stared at the sky even as the rain drops plummeted toward the earth, striking my face and body with shocking ferocity. I was not so calm as to say that I was at peace, but I recognized inevitability and had mentally accepted my fate, and the fate of my brethren. As I began to truly internalize the realization that I would not survive the night, my heart suddenly froze in my chest at what I saw: Exitium, the burning red orb of destruction, sharing the sky with his shining white sister moon, Pacem. I had foreseen that the city would fall, the Empire crumble, but I had hoped it would not be so soon in my lifetime. I knew that the water would rise, and even the Emperor on his hilltop palace would succumb, but how I wished that I could have lived a full life first. Twenty-two years, with eight of those in service to a fool, was simply not enough time.

3,000 Years Later

“…but the big news tonight comes to us from the skies above,” the newscaster said over the telescreen. Yeah, I thought, anybody who can open their eyes knows that there’s something weird going on. Irritated, I flipped off the telescreen and looked out the window. Thick, bilious grey clouds hovered in the distant horizon, clear above the grey-brown skyscrapers that filled the city. From my 52nd floor window, I could see the affluent splashing in their rooftop swimming pools, and not for the first time, I wondered where they got so much water when the rest of us have to ration every drop. In this city, similar people tended to populate a handful of apartment towers in close proximity to other similar or like-minded people. The religious zealots had a block of five buildings a few blocks to my left, easy to pick out with the banners that hung from windows proclaiming that the drought was caused by sins against the gods, that the end was coming and we should all repent. I sighed and turned my attention away from the window.

It would be getting dark in a few hours, and I was going out with some friends tonight. Our group would be heading down to the 11th floor of my building, where the entire floor had been gutted and redesigned as a club. The club quickly became the place to be on any given night, to the degree that reservations for admittance were scheduled weeks in advance. I had never been to the club. I told myself that the hard pit in my stomach must have been from something I ate and not nerves. I was not convinced.

As dusk settled, I took a quick glance out the window again and was startled that the heavy clouds, faintly illuminated in the red light of Arsu, the moon of the evening star, were so close that they seemed to be on the edge of the city. Arsu and Azizos, the evening star and the morning star, though one of my history professors sometimes called them Exitium and Pacem, which he said meant Destruction and Creation. The question that I was trying to avoid thinking about, though, was would the drought really end tonight? Forty-seven years of dryness had turned most of the world to sand, yet we as a species had found ways to survive, building elaborate systems of dredging water up from deep underground. Some people said that there never was a drought high in the mountain ranges to the West, but I didn’t know anyone who had ever seen it for themselves. A knock at my door brought me out of my introspection and I answered it to see my assembled friends, some already partially intoxicated, ready to go to the club.

The music pounded through my body even before stepping inside, and the atmosphere was electric. The noise, the crowd, the carefree dancing and drinking drew me and my friends in like iron filings to a lodestone. We paid the cover charge and stepped into the craziest party I had ever seen, though we had only been there a few minutes when the music abruptly stopped. The crowd began jeering immediately, some of them even threatening physical violence on the club employees, before the owner stepped up on stage and made an announcement. The announcement. It had started to rain.

Most of the people in the club stood silently, myself included, with our mouths wide open in surprise. What did it mean? Why would it start raining now, after so many years? My friends looked just as confused as I felt, just as uncertain and, if I’m being honest, just as scared. Someone said something about us being safe in our buildings, though he didn’t sound so certain. No one really knew what to expect, what would happen, or what we could do about it.

As the days passed, the rain didn’t stop. Rumors began to circulate about some distant city or other collapsing from the water, but no one could ever find confirmation on the telescreens, at least at first. After the third week of rain, actual reports began to show up in the daily news broadcasts, hundreds of thousands dead as skyscrapers sank into the sand, giant sinkholes swallowing entire cities, and we started to wonder when it would be our turn. How many more days of rain would it take before our city fell into the earth? The water was not seeping into the sand fast enough, and the levels kept rising. The oceans, briny and salty and acidic, quickly overran the coastal cities. I lived a few hundred miles from the ocean, so I didn’t worry about that, but even looking out my window it was obvious that the whole world was drowning. The water level had not reached the height of the club that I was at the night the rain started, but it wasn’t far below it, either. What really frightened me were the moons, Arsu and Azizos, sharing the night sky, destruction and creation hand in hand. The religious section of the city seemed to be excited about the rain and the moons, claiming that the Day of Judgment was at hand.

I watched the rain from my window, and I shivered.

Our city finally collapsed during the fifth week. A few of the older buildings crumbled as the water, patient and deadly and endless, ate away the walls, causing the entire structure to tip. The religious section of the city was actually the first to collapse, and I wondered, as I stared at the hole in the skyline where their buildings used to stand, whether or not they felt vindication as they fell to their watery graves. I wondered how many days the rest of us had left. My city didn’t even make it through the night, and the last thing I saw before my body crashed through the window as the building seemed to tear free from the ground were Arsu and Azizos, glimmering gleefully in the rainy night sky.

3,000 Years Later

“The way that I see it,” the tall man said to the assembled leaders, “we have two options.” He was Colonel Rogart Clavis, a man famous throughout the world as one of the most brilliant strategists alive today. “We could follow Dr. Stellus’s advice, which is to pack as many of the people that are alive on this planet into shuttles and abandon it before the rain starts,” he continued, letting the words extend into the loudest silence I had ever heard in my life, “or we can execute a swift strike, based on the hypothesis of Dr. Altus, and not give up and lose our home!” Clavis had made it painfully obvious which plan he supported, and despite my personal fondness for the man, I disagreed with his assessment of our situation.

Dr. Stellus rose, and I admired his bravery in standing up for his position against such a formidable man. “With all due respect, Colonel,” Stellus said, unconsciously dry-washing his hands nervously, “Destroying the moons will almost certainly throw our planet off of its established orbital axis and send us catapulting into space. I suppose it is theoretically possible that our world falls into an alternative orbit and prevents us from smashing into another celestial body, but the mathematical probability of such an event is miniscule at best. By far the most likely scenario is that we spin off into space and smash into an asteroid belt, almost certainly freezing to death beforehand.”

Suddenly seeming aware of all of the faces looking at him, a red flush filled Dr. Stellus’s cheeks before he hastily sat. I watched the man after he sat, saw him look furtively at his folded fingers that rested on his lap. He didn’t think it, but he really was brave. After an extended moment of silence, another man stood, this one well known to all of us who had assembled on this fateful day.

“My dearest Planetary Governors,” the man began, slowly rubbing his hands together, his voice holding the familiar cadence of the preeminent religious lecturer in the world. Inwardly, I sighed, already knowing where the man’s arguments would be headed. “Three millennia ago, the world and life as we knew it was obliterated in The Floods, where months of rain pummeled the soil, overran the banks of our rivers and oceans, and wore down the skin of the world. As some, like Dr. Stellus, might argue, billions of innocents died in The Floods, but I say they were saved. Saved! The Floods were a product of cosmic divinity, a method to shepherd the flock toward their true homes! The time is upon us again, brothers and sisters, to ascend to our destiny,” he paused, the full-throated sermon reaching a crescendo, before adding, “to ascend to Paradise!”

I was surprised when a few of the people actually applauded. The Preacher was only at this meeting to appease egos, something that I internally protested but kept silent on. The Speaker of Governance, however, was not as cordial as I was, and he rose from his seat in the place of prominence at the front of the hall, where the rest of the Planetary Governors gathered. The Speaker was a young man, firm of jaw, with piercing blue eyes. I could almost see the calculations in his mind as he surveyed the room coldly. “Does anyone else have anything worthwhile they feel compelled to add?” the Speaker asked finally, imbuing his words with just enough scorn to be noticed without being outright unprofessional. Of course, the wilting look he shot at The Preacher spoke louder than any of what he said. “If we’re finished with the arguments, then it is time for a brief recess for the Presidents to discuss the options and make a decision. We will reconvene in two hours.”

Nearly two hours later, I found myself back in the same seat in the Hall of Governance, a hidden face among the masses. I reflected on the conversation I had participated in with the other two Presidents, our identities concealed from all but a miniscule sliver of the population. Three Presidents of the Governors, who had final executive say on global matters, who hid from the people they represented. There was something about that arrangement that tugged at my conscience, and I couldn’t help but wonder if we were doing the right thing, even if I argued in favor of our course of action.

The Speaker stood at the table’s helm, gesturing for silence. When the room grew quiet, he looked down at the portable telescreen that held the words that we, the Three Presidents, had written. “The decision has been made. By a two-thirds vote, the Presidents of the Governors have determined that the planet will be evacuated, starting immediately.”

The uproar that rose from the Hall, mixed between joy, derision, and disbelief, was deafening. Evacuation was by far the most challenging option to execute properly. The simplicity of a dozen interplanetary missiles, targeting Arsu and Azizos, certainly held some appeal, and the science hypothesized that the Flood cycle was caused by the imbalance in tides, but also projected that the destruction of one or both of the moons would almost certainly send our planet spiraling off its axis into the unknown. Ignoring the historical documents was simply not an option to be considered, even if the Flood 3,000 years ago might prove to have been an anomaly. The data that survived from all those years ago showed the same weather pattern that we had been experiencing: a seemingly endless drought, stretching 47 years. We were 45 years into our drought, the world a dusty mess except where the domed cities stretched like enormous snow globes on a barren, rocky beach.

The Speaker hadn’t moved from the head of the table, instead he was still staring down at the screen. Even from my distant seat, I could see the white lines around his knuckles, the stress vein pulsating at his temple. A few minutes passed before others in the audience realized that The Speaker was not finished with the declaration. “In order,” he began in a voice cracked with strain, before stopping to regain his nerve and posture, “In order to manage this unimaginable task, we, the Three Presidents, have determined that the only chance for the survival of our race is to implement a screening process for the evacuation. We are a planet of 11 billion people, and relocating that number is impossible. Therefore,” The Speaker began before his composure dropped again, and his fingers tightened even harder on the portable telescreen. I closed my eyes, my heart heavy with the burden of what I and the other two Presidents were about to unleash on the world. The Speaker tried again to continue, but once more his voice gave out before the first word was uttered. It was painful, knowing how unnerved we had made this man, a man known for his stoicism and strength.

Finally, The Speaker was able to announce the rest of the decision, and he said it in a rush, probably in part to get all of the words out before the rioting began. “Therefore, any man or woman over the age of 50 will be eliminated from the evacuation procedure, and any man or woman between the ages of 40 and 50 will be entered into a lottery to determine their fate.” As Presidents, we knew that this was an unconscionable action, though we took some solace in the fact that both of my counterparts were over 50 and would therefore be left behind. I, as the youngest at just 38 years old, would attempt to lead our civilization after the evacuation.

Thirteen months later, I was standing in front of a bank of telescreens in a starship, monitoring the planet that I had abandoned. We had been unable to find an alternative world on which to settle and the three billion people who were still alive had become despondent and violent, the terrible isolation and survivor’s guilt driving insane many of those that we rescued from the floods. Murders were an everyday occurrence on all of the starships, as were ejections from the airlocks for those found guilty of such crimes. Reflecting on the horrors that we had unleashed upon our world in our attempt to save our civilization, then coupling them with the devastating rain that manifested in all its digital terror on the screens in front of me, was enough to drive me mad as well.

I didn’t mean to kill them. I was just as surprised when I saw my hands covered in their blood as their shocked eyes implied when I stared into their faces. I had offered no defense at my trial, had simply stared at the metal flooring that I had been magnetized to, and imagined their faces. So many faces, covered in surprise and fear and blood, all dead at my hands. I continued to watch the bank of telescreens even as the door to the airlock opened behind me, my final thoughts as I was sucked out into the black void of space were of relief that my inability to be the leader that my people needed would hamper them no more. Then, at the final moment before I was crushed under the weight of the universe, I saw Arsu and Azizos fill the telescreens, unmistakable even in my madness, hovering side by side over my world, washing the planet clean of our hubris and depravity.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Fiction, Sci Fi

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Responses

  1. Really enjoyed The Cradle of Avalon. Emerson pens an ominous tale shrouded with impending doom alongside undertones of hopelessness and regret. Wonderfully written, I appreciated how theme of this short held together well through different time periods and I was able to connect with each character. Look forward to reading more from Emerson!