If you’re a new reader, please visit the ‘Serials’ tab at the top of this page, to read parts 1-21 of this story, before you continue below.
* * *
Once more, he stood in the crater, in the between place, remembering the last moments of Before.
Even before that, before the ruining, before the refugee camp, our enemies were clear — they were named after places that no longer exist. They were unlike us, savage and uneducated, warring amongst one another, stupid and backwards, full of old superstitions and ridiculous notions. They were not like us. They had savage notions and savage customs. They were foreigners, and they were different, and they were wrong.
The Captain knew that; he was raised in the army, built to be the perfect soldier, trained to defend his people, skilled in a judgment and justice so swift that none could get in his way.
He rose in ranks like none other, beloved by his sergeants, respected by his generals.
Brilliant and daring, he offered up a plan to his commanders that would ensure the complete destruction of the enemy. He was the one who asked the agricultists to make their final, perfect weapon. In the end, tearing secrets from the fires below, and the heavens above, all they needed was a drop of blood and a promise to bind their dark science; ever the perfect soldier, the Captain gave it without hesitation. How could he not? It was the salvation of the world.
At last, after generations of wars that could not see an end, we were going to take our horrors and unleash them across the seas — our enemies would reap one last harvest, and then starve forever, but we… We would win. Our armies would conquer, and we would reign. How could we not? The natural order of things was on our side. The heavens agreed with us. Our power made it so. Our Captain would lead us to victory.
Our armies were ready. Our eyes gleamed with joy.
And so the the Captain had his orders — and he was a perfect soldier.
He brought the systems on line. He commanded his units to take their places in Central City; if there was to be retaliation of any kind, they would be needed to keep order. He gave the orders. He held the next breath of the world in his hands.
He stood, staring at the monitors, hand over the button, waiting.
Time stretched on, as though forever, a yawning chasm between Before, and After.
His finger touched the button.
Time s t r e t c h e d further.
He pressed it.
He stared at himself, at infinite himselves, all of them weeping, and felt the world come undone around him. He could hear music. He was held in strong arms, and looked into the face of the feathered thing that fell from the heavens, and the face of the beast of fire, and they were his face, and he Knew them
– but he hadn’t met those creatures yet, and yet he had, and he knew of them, and their cry, and their power, and their rage –
and they showed him life itself, and how it moved through all things, from each blade of grass to each beating heart.
They showed him how he was no different from crawling ant, swimming fish, digging farmer, spinning weaver, laughing child. They showed him all that would come. They showed him all that would fall. They showed him the unending moment of not just humanity’s collapse, but a sucking void of murderous hunger that would swallow all things, devour each and every moment of time and space, and rend all that had been or would ever be… into nothing.
Crushed as he came to understand the depth of the coming destruction, heartbroken to know the part he played, The Captain begged for some method of salvation, some way to make things right.
They whispered to him secrets, and the sacrifices for salvation that seemed almost worse than destruction itself. There was no way to undo what had happened, but the smallest chance that humanity could live, could move forward.
It must be blood.
Give up one whole life.
When the dust settles, before the world is entirely consumed, let the weapon cut through one pure heart, and the song can be finished, and the beam that drank in all the life around it would be extinguished.
When he came back to himself, in the very instant his finger pressed the button, no one else knew what he had done.
The rest of Echelon followed their orders to a T — when the device exploded, it did so perfectly.
An anti-pulse of redwhite light, burning and pure, and then the shockwave. Life itself, the critical breath given by whatever it was that granted it, for each cell, each being, never breathed, but pulled from everything surrounding it, gathering and gathering and folding in, like some kind of new star.
The only problem was, the bomb had never left the facility. It never launched. Just below ground, in a secret silo, it detonated. The blast leveled buildings, dug a crater from the world, and what breaths or beings were not vaporized in the immediate vicinity were irradiated with anti-life. The bunkers of food storage, seed banks, and an emergency facilities full of every conceivable animal were half-obliterated.
The sirens barely had time to sound before shockwaves moved through the earth. Buildings fell. The seas boiled. Straight through, a blade of light plunged into the earth, coming out the other side. There, the world erupted violently, sending steam and stone into the sky.
When the smoke lifted, and the dust settled, those of us who had been unaffected by chance or a miracle of biology began to walk the earth, looking for food, for water, for life, for anything, anyone at all. Sunlight filtered through the grey dome of sky. Everything alive began to wither once it had reached its prime, and nothing new grew again.
The earth itself became the Desolation, as The Captain had seen.
The Captain walked through this place, having seen it in his feather-dreams, in the red dark, where he had agreed the children would be sent, until one of them was deemed fit. Until the blood that was required of the sacrifice had been shed. Until then, the world would exist only in its half-life state, its beating heart impaled by humanity’s last weapon, diseased and dying, barely breathing.
He drew closer to the light, the pulse, the beam that pierced the world and the heavens both, ground zero of the anti-life that he had unleashed on his own people.
Caught there, a reminder, the abandoned child spun slowly, pierced as the earth was, ever obliterated, never dying, whole and yet wholly annihilated within the beam. His eyes did not accuse; his lips did not blame. He did not reach out for The Captain; he simply Was.
He looked into the child’s eyes and in the blindness there, he saw reflected the darkest part of the night, back at camp. He saw Riesa, and the birth of his son. He saw the child take his first breaths, and howl into the night, a shriek of rage and triumph that only those just born can know. In that instant, he knew why the child here had not been consumed, why the blade had not dissipated. This boy, this abandoned child, was merely a placeholder, waiting and waiting, fed little bits of life by the other children, kept alive and never dying, because otherwise, humanity’s last weapon would be loosed upon everything, would consume all, and leave nothing in its wake.
Without realizing it, he had condemned this one lost child to agony, and all the rest of the children to prolonging it, waiting for the right time.
In his mind’s eye, in a dream within the dream, in the red dark, he saw his son’s future, how sunrise would tear him from his mother’s arms, how he would be brought here, how the other children would hold him to the light.
He saw how once his son was offered up, the light would take him, newly alive, his pure heart, and the blade that pierced the world would cleave him from himself, and send him into the heart of the earth, where he would be made one with the fire, and send him also into the heart of the sky, where he would be made one with the music, and the world would finally be allowed to heal. He saw how that was the final consequence of his choice, how the world required it, how they had said it must be blood, and because it had been his blood that began the bomb, it would be his blood that ended it — not a child, all along, as he had thought.