by Steven Mace
There was a small lake below, nestled in a valley. Beyond the lake, the hills rose up again, forming a bowl-shape around the valley perimeter. Beside the lake an impressive old church had been built in a European Gothic style, which had evidently fallen into some disrepair. Despite that, it was still a magnificent construction- built from stone that had blackened with the effects of time and damage, perhaps from fire. A huge pointed spire rose up from the top of the church tower. Clyde guessed that the entire structure – including the tower’s spire- was about two hundred feet tall.
More pertinently, next to the church there was a circular tarmac area, which looked like a launch and landing pad for a helicopter. And next to that, there was a large grey metallic building. Sunlight reflected off the surface, dazzling Thea and Clyde when they focused their eyes upon it. Blinking, Clyde shaded his eyes. He turned to make eye contact with Thea. He was smiling.
“Well”, she said quietly. “You were right.”
She still felt cautious. They had no indication of what was down there, no real idea of how things worked out here in the outside world. If there were people there, they could be associates of the military and scientific people at the facility that they had escaped from. In contrast, Clyde was elated by the discovery. She could see he wanted to go down there and meet whoever inhabited the buildings there.
As he began to make the descending route down to the lakeside, Thea hung back. Moments later, he realised that he was clambering alone down the steep slope. He turned back to look at her, shading his eyes against the sun.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“We don’t know who is down there”, she said. “We don’t know who these people are.”
“They’re our only chance”, he told her firmly. “That’s what they are.”
“What if they’re not friendly? What if they send us back to the facility?”
“Well, if you want you can stay up here and worry about that. You can try and get some food and water. I’m going down there.” Clyde turned away from her and continued walking. “Good luck with that. Or you can follow me.”
“Arrogant bastard!” Thea muttered under her breath. Then, audibly to Clyde: “Wait! I’m coming!” She began to scramble down the slope after him.
It took them fifteen minutes to descend the heights and reach the flatter ground of the lakeside. They walked slowly toward the silver-grey building, the shadow of the enormous church looming over them. It was completely silent, and so far they had seen no sign of life.
“Do you think there are people here?” Thea asked. “Or do you think this place is abandoned?”
“There are people here”, Clyde said. “Look.” Thea looked in the direction of where he was pointing, and saw a small Hispanic-looking child crouching in the entrance to the church some fifty metres away, watching them carefully. Thea resisted the temptation to call out, and instead met his curious stare with her own.
Clyde looked as if he was going to walk to the church to speak to the boy, but at that moment their attention was caught by something else. They heard a small whirring noise, like that generated by a machine. They were coming close to the large silver-grey windowless building, and exactly at that point something came around the perimeter of the building and into their view. It was a something, rather than a someone. It looked like a metallic, electronic creation of some sort, a robot perhaps. They had seen similar devices used at the facility. The frame was humanoid in nature, with what looked like a radar or sensor atop the ‘head’. The main body, or torso, of the machine was set upon a wheeled platform, which allowed it to move. The machine stopped abruptly, and after a few moments, began to move in their direction. Thea threw an anxious glance at Clyde.
Just as Clyde was wishing he had a weapon of some sort, the machine stopped moving. Almost at the same time, a door opened in the side of the silver-grey building. Thea and Clyde had not noticed the outline of the door upon the surface of the wall until now.
A woman stepped out and began to walk toward them, her heels clicking on the concrete surface that surrounded the perimeter of the building and adjoined the circular tarmac pad. She was a tall, slim woman with dark brown hair tied back in a bun, and wearing glasses with prominent brown frames. Thea was alarmed at her attire. She wore a red blouse and a very tight grey pencil skirt with an open long white coat. It was the way that female scientists at the facility might dress, which worried Thea. Immediately the thought came to her that this woman could be an associate of the doctors who monitored them at the facility. Thea threw a nervous glance at Clyde but he was impassive for the moment, giving nothing away.
As this woman drew closer to them, Thea realised that she would be extremely attractive if it were not for the unflattering glasses and the hair tied back so severely. Even as she was, she was a very attractive, intelligent looking woman. As she drew close to them, she smiled at them in greeting and Thea relaxed a little.
“Hello”, she said. “It’s unusual for us to receive visitors.” She was well-spoken, in keeping with her appearance.
“I suppose it must be”, Clyde said dryly. He glanced at the building and the church behind them. “What is this place?” he asked.
“I apologise”, the woman replied. “You must be confused. This is Haven, or Safe Haven as we like to call it. It’s a place for refugees. I’m Dr Jane Elliott. And you two are…?”
“Doctor?” Clyde gasped. He and Thea exchanged alarmed glances. “Do you know…a Dr Walton? Do you know…The Director?”
Dr Elliott frowned, lines creasing her unblemished forehead. She was evidently bemused by their reaction, unless she was a fine actress. “No, I don’t believe I do…who are you? Where are you from?”
Thea and Clyde looked at each other. Thea willed him to speak. When he didn’t, she decided she would be the one to take the plunge and reveal their identities. “We’re from…the facility. They made experiments on us there. I’m Thea Van Brandt, and this is Clyde Baxter.”
Dr Jane Elliott smiled. “Wherever you have come from, you’re very welcome here, I assure you. We take in all kinds of waifs and strays. I’m very glad to have you here. I don’t have anything to do with any of the government institutions or installations that have been set up in the ruins of our country.” There was a note of bitterness in her final remark.
Clyde relaxed and gave Thea a satisfied grin. “That’s wonderful to hear. I’m so glad we found you.” His relief was palpable.
Dr Elliott was distracted by something behind them. She was frowning and peering over Clyde’s shoulder. “Julio! Julio, come here. The service ended ages ago, what are you doing out here?”
The small Hispanic boy that they’d seen hovering near the archway entrance of the church was now loitering behind them. At Dr Elliott’s words he ran to her and buried his face shyly in her white coat, leaning against her hip. Laughing, she took his hand and began to lead him toward the door that she had previously come from. “Follow me”, she said over her shoulder to Thea and Clyde. Thea saw that Jane Elliott’s gaze had been travelling down to the clothes that they were wearing and she had noticed how dusty and battered they were. “You can wash and we’ll find you something to eat- perhaps some fresh clothes.” Delighted by this seemingly wonderful stroke of good fortune, Thea and Clyde followed the doctor inside.
The Perfect Apocalypse
Stain of Scarlet in the Long Ago
by Maria Selke
A faint buzz of grow lamps fills the air. A solitary scientist, clad in the white coat that is the mark of laboratories everywhere, slips into the room. Humming softly to herself, she tugs on her long brown braid as she approaches a single robust plant. The clusters of alabaster blossoms and succulent leaves are a stark contrast to the dozens of yellowed, wilting plants that surround it.
“Greetings, my darling” she whispers to the plant. “Let’s get you ready for the real set of tests, shall we?”
Grasping the base of the plant gently, she upends the pot and taps the bottom gently. Suddenly, her hand jerks back and the plant drops onto the countertop, shattering the pot.
“Dammit!” she exclaims. “When did you grow thorns, my lovely?” Her hand leaps to her mouth as she sucks on her fingers while looking down at the plant. Several drops of her blood glisten brightly against the deep green of the thorns on the stem. As she watches, the drops appear to be sucked into the stem of the plant itself.
“Well now, that’s strange.” She murmurs to herself. Quickly and efficiently, and with no more lost blood, she divides the plant into three sections.
One pot, filled with sand, she places into a chamber with blazing heat lamps. A second pot, filled with thick clay soil, she places into dark chamber with swirling gases. The third plant, without a pot at all, she slips into an aquarium. It floats for a moment before sinking into the silt at the bottom of the tank.
Slowly she shuffles through the room, gazing sadly at many shelves filled with dying plant life.
“This better work,” she whispers, “because we are running out of time.”
As she closes the door to the lab behind her, a small bubble escapes from the tank. If she had returned to the plants at that moment, she would have seen the alabaster blossoms changing. From the base of each blossom a blush of color crept toward the tips. Moments later, not a single white flower remained. In their place were lush, scarlet blossoms.
The Perfect Apocalypse
by Michelle Lloyd
Aeryn had heard many fantastical tales of Sunlight. She had heard of its’ brightness and its warmth. She had heard tell of how it could burn your skin to a bright red, and how it could burn your eyes to look directly at it. She had also heard tell of how it could bring life – or deny life.
As she pushed open the heavy metal door to the outside, she gasped at the intensity of the light. But the sudden warmth of it caressed her like a gentle touch, and she found herself turning her face up to greet it. She had never felt anything like it, not even an artificial duplicate of the sensation. She could smell something foreign to her, but it was strong, and somehow it automatically spoke to her of freshness and of life.
“What is that smell, Arthur Watchman?” She breathed in wonder. Mentor Watchman seemed mildly amused as he watched her initial reactions.
“Oh.” Aeryn smiled slowly. “They smell wonderful. Like….light, and air, and life.” Aeryn put one hand out towards a thick vine, touching it with her fingertips. It was moist beneath her touch, and slightly rough.
“There used to be buildings here, in the Long Ago. Now there is barely rubble.” Mentor Watchman commented. “The world has reclaimed itself from the humans. We were always the intruders in the Above. Some say that the world has simply been restored to its’ natural state.”
Aeryn released a small burst of joyous laughter at the feel of a sudden breeze on her face. It played with her hair and teased her skin, making the leaves of the trees whisper secrets before it died away.
She ran over to a nearby tree, a large tree with thick branches. She dropped her supply bag and jumped up and grasped the bottom branch, pulling herself up. The bark was rough beneath her palms, and even though she’d never climbed before it was something that she knew how to do from instinct. It was as though something primal had been awoken in her, some sixth sense that told her body what to do. Her limbs flexed and worked as she continued to climb, all the way to the top.
The top branch swayed ever so slightly beneath her feet as she looked around. She felt the bark against her back, gently grasping her clothes. There were treetops as far as she could see, a lush carpet of rustling green. The mountains were to the north, capped with snow and jutting up angrily against the horizon.
Aeryn drank in the sight for a few minutes before making her way back down, using the roughness of the bark to control her descent. The leaves of the jungle floor rustled beneath her feet as she dropped lightly back to the ground.
Even though it had only been two minutes, if that, Aeryn knew in her heart that she could never return to the Below. Not after seeing the energy and abandon of the Above. She knew, instantly and completely, that she was one with this place. “I am home, Arthur Watchman.” She laughed again, something which she had never done in her life before coming to the surface. “I am home.”
Mentor Watchman was looking at her strangely, with some sort of mixture of disbelief and wonder. “He was right. The Soothsayer was right. I never would have believed it, but….he was right.”
“You speak in riddles, Arthur Watchman. I dislike riddles.”
“Never mind, it’s not important. So Aeryn Soma, I must assume that you came up here with a plan, and a direction. Lead, and I will follow.”
“South.” Aeryn spoke without thinking, and yet somehow she knew it was right. “We must go south.”
“South?” Mentor Watchman looked at her sceptically. “Forgive me, but…the Hulks of the jungle. I have heard tell they are mighty fierce, and that they will remove the flesh from a man.”
“Go back to the Below with the People of the Shade, Arthur Watchman. Go back home and hide beneath your bed like a quivering child.” Aeryn challenged.
“I will do no such thing, child.”
“Then leave your bleating at the door, for I will have none of it.” Aeryn picked up her supply bag and shouldered it, heading into the thickest part of the jungle.
The night sounds of the jungle were so unlike the daytime that Aeryn would have sworn she was on a different world. She could now hear the larger nocturnal animals calling to one another, in hunger and in lust. Even the plants and trees made a different sound, a more enigmatic and sensual sound.
As Aeryn walked back to the campfire with dead branches for fuel, she could hear the smaller animals around her feet, moving and chattering, but she felt threatened by none of them.
Arthur Watchman was waiting for her. She was still confused about why he was even here. His manner and purpose were too delicate for the Above. He had no connection with this world, and no obvious desire to be here. She sensed from him a deeper motive, but was unsure of what it was. All she knew was that her trust was something which needed to be earned – and he had thus far done little to earn it.
Aeryn sat opposite Mentor Watchman at the campfire, making her perch on a fallen tree. The flames warmed her skin, countering the cool night air.
“I cannot fathom something, Aeryn Soma.” Mentor Watchman began as she sat down. “I have taught you to be a hunter. With the training you have you could have killed any animal in this jungle, large or small. Yet you provided vegetation for supper.”
“And what have the animals of this jungle, large or small, ever done to deserve my killing them? You would have me sully my blade with the blood of an innocent creature just to fill your belly. If you wish such a thing on your conscience, Arthur Watchman, then foul your own weapon to do it.”
“I was curious as to your motives.”
“And I am curious as to yours.” Aeryn countered.
“What do you mean by that?”
Aeryn tossed two branches onto the fire, watching the flames lick at them before slowly consuming them. “The Soothsayer would have you betray me, for motives you have yet to explain in a satisfactory manner. I have no evidence that you will not do his bidding and slit my throat in my sleep.”
“You will watch your tongue, child.” Mentor Watchman’s tone was even, yet somehow dangerous. This was the man who had taught her how to handle a blade. This was the man she thought that soft duties had destroyed. She saw now that he was not destroyed – only buried and forgotten. “If I were to take your life, Aeryn Soma, it would be while you were awake and facing me. And you would know why.”
“Forgive me, mentor. I did not mean to accuse you of dishonour. But I would know why our Father would wish me dead.”
“Why?” Mentor Watchman repeated. His smiled as though I were a brainless, naive creature. “Because you would destroy all he has built up. If the People of the Shade saw or heard of your love of the trees and the sunlight and the Above – he would lose his disciples. For what is a Leader without those who follow? You are The One, Aeryn Soma. And nothing is more dangerous to him than that.”
“Then I can never return to the Below.”
“Would you wish to?”
“No. After I find Katsura and see her safely back to the Below, I will make my life here.”
“As I suspected you would, Aeryn Soma. As far as the Soothsayer is concerned, I will have fulfilled his request and you will be dead. But as for the actual act? I have no quarrel with you. Let someone who does bury their blade into your heart.”
Aeryn considered her mentor for a long moment, weighing his words against her own knowledge and judgement. “Very well, Arthur Watchman. I accept your explanations, and I wish you good night.” Aeryn stood up, brushing herself off before finding an appropriate place to settle for the night. She stretched out on the forest floor, settling amongst the leaves and foliage.
“Good night, Aeryn Soma. Sleep well, for tomorrow will bring new challenges for us both.”
The Perfect Apocalypse
Scratching The Surface
Arthur crept in the shadows attempting to keep watch on Aeryn. She had already begun her climb up the Grand Staircase toward the faint light in the expanse above. The Soothsayer’s Warchief watched her ascend slowly, almost as if she was more nervous than she had led on. A warrior she may be, but hardly the heart of a lion. The stairs were a rusted metal, flaking in some parts with hints of its original form in others. They rose eight steps, plateaued and turned to the left, rose another eight steps, plateaued and turned to the left, and repeated the process for six flights in all. Aeryn had made it almost five flights before feeling the unease of being followed or watched. Her hand raced to the hilt of her blade in anticipation of a blindsided attack.
Arthur gazed in amusement as she seemed to jerk right and left, look up and down, anticipating an unsuspecting spy.
“Show yourself, fool!” Soma cursed at the echo from her shout that reverberated off the cavern-esque walls. After a few moments she took a deep breath and reassured herself she could continue her ascension. No sooner had Aeryn regained her composure only to be spooked once again.
“The surface is not what you think.” Arthur immediately evaded the incoming blade, fully aware of Soma’s abilities. “You might not be so successful hitting me, since, well; you know…I mentored you.” The blade caught a piece of the wall, snagging a mess-like fabric and tearing through a cylindrical banister.
“The Soothsayer sent his watchdog to check up on me? How remarkably expected.”
“He believes that I do his bidding, but we all do what we have to in order to survive. Put the sword away, you can stop playing the ‘hero’ now.” Slowly Aeryn’s massive blade made it back into its sheath. “Ah, waiting for an explanation? I forget how outspoken you are sometimes.” Arthur looked her over awaiting her to regain her calm. “Before you tried to carve me up I mentioned how different the surface actually is from what you’ve been told.”
“You’ve been to the surface?” A befuddled expression came over Aeryn’s stoic face.
A wry smile came over the Warchief while he continued with his story. “You heard the great and powerful Soothsayer mention that nobody goes up willingly. Well…who do you think he sends up unwillingly? He’s not going to send diplomats or couriers or even traders to the top. No, no, no. His best blade should be able to handle whatever is above.”
“I beg to differ.” Aeryn interjected insulted by his claims as “best blade”.
“Ah, yes, you are the best blade now. Terribly sorry for the confusion. To the point, no one has seen the top more than I. Thus, who better to chaperone you than CERN’s most loyal and trustworthy soldier?”
“No one has seen it more than you? Others have been up there?” Again, confusion flushed over Soma’s fierce features.
“It’s really quite amazing how well we have kept the ‘People of the Shade’ in the dark. Do you really believe the blabbering of a filthy, old man? And yes, he really does reek. Primarily of sewage and wet leather, trust me. The man is simply telling the people what he wants them to hear. And blindly, the people depict it as fact. The old seer is undoubtedly a ‘soothsayer’ but not the ‘all-knowing’. You see, the prophecy is exactly the reason we are underground in the first place. Our beloved master saw the outside world decay around us and deemed himself fit to lead a civilization. Very inspiring words convinced all of those you see below to heed everything that senile clairvoyant spews.”
“Why do you speak this way? You degrade our father and speak of treachery.”
“No, silly girl. Not treachery. His intentions were noble. He wanted to shield humankind from the devastation that was happening above. Our beloved Soothsayer wanted to start over, begin anew down here until the surface was ready for us to once again roam. I want you to be ready girl. When you come to the top of this staircase I want you to understand just what exactly we will encounter.”
Arthur began past her and up the stairs. Still she stood there, unsure if she was enraged or intrigued. Perhaps it was both. What could the Soothsayer possibly gain from folktales and fiction? She began after Arthur, hurrying to catch up.
“If our leader speaks lies, what is truly wandering up above?”
Watchman continued climbing, within steps of the dim light coming from the surface. He finally came to a halt at the top of the Grand Staircase and waited for Aeryn to join him.
“You wonder what is out there, girl. The rest of the world.”
The Perfect Apocalypse
Scarlet Blossoms in the Long Ago
by Maria Selke
A slow trickle of murky water drips from a rusty pipe into a small lake with slimy algae coating the surface. In the distance, a squat gray building mars the landscape. At the water’s edge nearest the pipe a small bush grows, rooted in a mound of ash. Scarlet blossoms release a hauntingly sweet aroma. Several vines have grown into the water, and the submerged blooms are swarmed by small fish nibbling. At the opposite shore, the slime is thick, and it has congealed around a floating bass.
Small gusts of wind lift puffs of the ash, scattering them into the distance.
In a silent glade, scarlet blossoms are being nibbled by a trembling fawn. The bush grows entwined with a fresh doe’s carcass. A drift of ash at the base mingles with a puddle of Mt. Dew spilled from a litter of cans.
Nearby, a glimpse into the shadows reveals a pair of wolves creeping near the fawn. One crouches lower, lower, then pounces.
A snarl, a flash of sharp white teeth, a splash of blood drips into the dirt.
A lone wolf darts away from the carnage, while the fawn rips into her kill.