by Noel Denvir
Quon Alton climbed the sandy hill on the third evening of the project. He was the leader of the archeological team trying to find any remains of the ancient civilization said to have flourished — and perished — here long, long ago.
The glowing sunset was a time when he liked to be alone with his thoughts. The other, younger, members of the team were relaxing and probably whispering doubts about the expedition which had so far turned up nothing — par for the course on any such quest.
Suddenly, he stumbled and fell, creating a cloud of dust which, after clearing, revealed a small hole in the ground where the top layer of sand had subsided. Quon took out his pocket lamp and examined the spot. On pressing, the lower level collapsed creating a hole about one foot stride across. He shone the lamp and could dimly make out the floor of the underground cavern about three body lengths below.
His descent into the cave was more a clumsy sliding undertaking, but he arrived safe at the floor. As the air cleared, he directed his torch into the dark abyss. It was the moment all archeologists wait for: a treasure. Stacks of boxes, items rolled up, strange shapes emerging out of the darkness of the distant past.
He then noticed on the left that part of the collection was buried under piles of rock. Some containers bore scorch marks suggesting a fire or an explosion. He bent down to take a closer look and drew back sharply when he saw the skeletal fingers stretched out from below the rubble. There had been a cave-in and this poor individual had been under it. Beneath the boney digits was a sheet of parchment with markings on it.
Father John felt a surge of pride — and yes — even optimism as he surveyed the row of empty handcarts standing outside the great cave. They had been emptied of their precious loads the previous night and then there had been the festivities to celebrate the enclosing. Not that Father John partook in it much. One cup of punch was enough for him.
Oh, precious load indeed. Here were the manuscripts, scrolls and illustrations created, collected and compiled over the last decade. A chronicle of the events that had lead to — well, let’s say it — the end of the world: the last great nuclear holocaust. All that had been left was a few ragged survivors. No electricity, no machines, no digital technology. Even the animals had gone, perished or disappeared into the wilds.
Here in this small community, they had literally started from scratch again. Not so much to build a new society. No, that wouldn’t be possible. They were all slowly dying of radiation; the women infertile, the men impotent. All the other communities that they knew of had already succumbed. There was just a handful of them left. Father John had created this project to give them a sense of something to live for, even if only for a limited time. To record, illustrate and preserve, so that one day a new race or civilization might discover these writings and learn from them.
He turned to see the figure of Isaac marching purposefully up the hill towards him. At least someone had managed to get up this morning!
Isaac, the great collector. The man who had worked tirelessly to see this great endeavour reach its conclusion. He had travelled far and wide gathering any writings and chronicles from the other fading communities who were only too glad that their stories would be kept and passed on. It was Isaac’s dream to bring it all together into one magnificent archive to be placed safely into the great cave to be preserved for millennia. It had been Isaac’s singleness of purpose that had help bring this great day.
Isaac was carrying something in his hand.
* * *
Isaac sat beside Maria watching the dawn.
“I like this time of day best,” she said.
“Yes, I know,” he replied. “Like being reborn.”
He saw the sadness come into her eyes; he should not have said it. Here she was, a beautiful woman, barren and dying, savouring the precious days. Every dawn was a day closer to the end.
She recovered quickly, like everyone else. “It’s very quiet this morning.”
“They’re all sleeping it off, that was quite a celebration last night.” Neither of them had stayed to the end. A night together was their ultimate celebration. “Isaac, I can’t face it.”
“What, the official enclosing of the archive today?”
“No, that’s a wonderful event — our legacy. No, it’s the slow decline after this, the lack of purpose.”
“You’re afraid of the end?”
“Afraid of waiting.”
“We’ll be together, Maria.” He smiled softly at this woman he loved. Maria, the great artistic talent who had illustrated and lettered the scripts. She had brought all the skills of her previous life to bear on this project.
Isaac, however, was totally different. A former army officer, an organiser, a man to get things done. Isaac the co-ordinator, Maria the artist, John the writer. This executive had led the team that had brought it all together.
As she stared into the distance Isaac unhurriedly took an old mechanical pistol out of his canvas bag and shot Maria in the head. She died instantly. The swift, painless death she had probably wished for. The silencer kept the shot to a dull thud. This had been important to Isaac. More noble. There was almost no one to hear it anyway.
He had put the special poison into the celebration punch only after he John and Maria had drunk from it. A product of one of his travels, this tasteless, easy-working poison needed only the addition of sleep to deliver its final gentle stroke. They simply didn’t wake up; again, noble. He then made his way to Father John.
Father John looked at Isaac understandingly. And then simply nodded.
My name is Isaac. My mission is completed. I have to thank all the people involved, especially the wise Father John and the beautiful, talented Maria. The project certainly gave everyone a sense of purpose, especially me.
As a former military man, I fully understand the futility of war and the cancerous effect of historical documentation. History teaches us nothing, except how to keep the fires of hate burning. Who needs our story, our prejudices, our mistakes?
No. If a new humanity is to arise, then let them discover for themselves, let them learn by not getting it right. I am writing this only to formulate my own thoughts and, I suppose, as a scriptural prayer to John and Maria.
But this writing will go on the pyre which I shall light to destroy all traces of our existence. In a far distant future, someone will think and write these words anew — without my prompting.
So I raise my cup of poison wine to you, children of the future.
Long may you stumble!
Quon stared at the document he had just read. He had understood most of it, having studied dozens of ancient scripts and heiroglyphics as a student. A slight rumbling and a billowing of dust warned him that it would be better to get out of here soon. Back at the camp they could organise and undertake a more secure excavation at daylight.
But the document? It wouldn’t survive another cave-in, or simply get lost forever. With a sharp intake of breath he delicately moved the skeletal fingers aside and carefully lifted the page, hoping to slide it safely into his flat back pouch.
Another subsidance shook the room and a blast of sand-dust whisked the document out of his hand. It danced like an autumn leaf before him and as he tried to retrieve it, it dissolved and crumbled into tiny beige stars.
Another hefty tremor left him no time to mourn this loss; he would be mourned if he stayed here any longer. He climbed nimbly back up to the evening sky aperture, and then with his long shadow escorting him, marched back to the camp to deliver the great news.
Copyright © 2013 by Noel Denvir