Written for Flashversary. This week’s writing prompt was simply the image shown.
Four tours of duty in that godforsaken desert hadn’t killed me, but this was a total Charlie Foxtrot. My platoon was dead, my rifle was out of ammo, and now flames from the city surrounded the baroque cathedral where I was holed up.
I raised my canteen to fallen friends. “Don’t storm the gates of Hell without me.” But when I lifted it to my lips, only steam poured out. I basted in my own sweat: this place was an oven.
Just the way the dragon planned it.
Another unholy roar rattled the great stone walls. Outside the broken window, the beast flapped its wings. Upon seeing me, it licked its scaly lips.
I stared back, into the creature’s yellow eyes. “Tonight you’ll work for your dinner.” Clutching my bayonet, I sprinted for the window and leapt. Stained glass fragments shattered against me as I flew through the air.
Flames flickered on the horizon; ashes flew like snow in a blizzard. Within the concrete walls of the monastery, Dom Exos folded four of his tentacles in prayer. “Miserere mei, Deus.”
Nearby, Teuthida peered through the barred window, weeping inky tears. A flurry of demon ash, unleashed by terrible new weapons, threatened to bury Sepiidan civilization. “If we receive His mercy,” she said as a sudden gust blew debris through the window, “it will not be in this life.”
The Monastic Order of the Seraphim had long studied this fundamental paradox. From the ruins of the Seraphim, the Sepiidan had recovered ancient writings that now guided their beliefs — and terrifying technologies that had led them, by all appearances, to complete destruction.
“If such is God’s plan,” Exos said laconically, bowing his bulbous head and genuflecting on six tentacles to resume prayer.
“That Savior from the Seraphim’s holy writings died for their sins,” reminded Teuthida. “Not ours.”
When the Blackout hit, things went downhill fast. On the first day, I stayed home from the office. While waiting for a 4g signal, I cleared out my refrigerator. My smartphone battery died the next day. The water pressure dwindled to a trickle.
As days became weeks, inconvenience blew up into disaster. A flood of humanity spilled from the city like the sewage backflow from the toilets.
No food. No news. Just disease, gunfire, perpetual hunger. So many dead.
Long ago, this place was a plantation. We discovered plenty of rusty equipment in the old barn. The fields had lain fallow for a generation. The draft horse that James rescued from the hungry mob pulls the plow through the brick hard ground.
The river waters lap onto the shore. I hum a cheerful tune as I crank our laundry through the wringer. Beside me, Mary drapes it across a rock face to dry in the bright sunshine.
I’ve heard it said the English slow waltz is the most beautiful to behold. Dancers in constant motion, pairing, twirling to the music. They swirl across the dance floor like snowflakes in a winter breeze.
Thorium-232 has the slowest of waltzes. Invisibly, infinitesimally, its nuclei dance to the rhythm of the weak nuclear force. With a half-life of fourteen billion years, the nuclei step out their slow, patient Geiger rhythm.
Impatient men failed to see the natural beauty of the slow waltz of atoms. Impatient men upped the tempo, changed the dance, taught Thorium-232 to tango. Nuclei whipped into a frenzy, gyrating helter-skelter across the landscape.
I’ve heard it said the English slow waltz is the most beautiful to behold. In the aftermath of the last dance, the nuclear beat goes on. The snow falls furiously now. There’s no one left but the atoms, and me; all dressed up to enjoy the dance in quiet solitude.
The Senator stepped out of the train and marveled at Mile Deep Station. “The electric bill must be astronomical!”
“The light is Cherenkov radiation,” explained the General. “Our nuclear reactors produce enough electricity to light up Pittsburgh.”
“Harmless. It’s to keep humankind alive, after all.” The General pointed to a storage area. Pallets stacked four stories high. “Food to feed ten thousand for a lifetime. Seed banks. Hydroponics. Textbooks. Spare parts.”
“I hope it’s enough.”
“Earth’s surface should be habitable again within two centuries.”
The last of Mile Deep’s new inhabitants disembarked the train. The Senator patted the General’s shoulder. “Time to go.”
“Senator, are you sure you won’t stay?”
He shook his head. “Our way of thinking is what made this place necessary.”
They boarded the train. As the doors closed, and the train began its slow return journey to the surface wastelands, the Senator took a final look at the future he would never know.