July 31, 2010

A Moment of Reprieve

By 2173, only a few very small groups of human beings remained. The rest had vanished, taken in the devastating waves of the Great Dying. War, disease, flooding, famine ... these and other calamities had all killed off vast numbers.

Somewhere in the blasted, bleak plains of what had been called North America, a tiny tribe sat huddled around a small fire. The fire was so weak that it threatened to go out at any moment. They had no more wood to add to it. Almost no trees survived by this time. Great fires had consumed them, along with much else.

"Paper!" rasped one of the creatures. "Put the paper on fire!" His dirty, scarred fingers jabbed toward the stack of crumpled, crumbling pieces of paper clutched in the hands of the acknowledged tribal leader, the only one of their small group who seemed to have any answers. Not that they knew what the questions were any longer. That would have been quite remarkable under the circumstances, as I'm sure you'll agree.

"Never!" rumbled Owblep (don't ask). "They will save us! These are the only papers found in the Great City. The only ones kept in the Safe Place. This information must be the most important of all!"

Clukt dropped two black bugs that had been crawling up her arm onto the fire, where they gave off a soft, sizzling sound. "Then tell what they mean," she demanded. "You've had them since the great storm. You keep looking and looking, but you can't tell what they mean. So why keep them?"

"We will figure out," Owblep said in his most hopeful tone. He could see they weren't buying it. He needed to give them all a task to perform, give them a purpose. "Let's try to figure it out together." Clukt flicked another black bug (on her other arm) at Owblep. A few of the others sneered and spit on the ground.

"Okay, okay," Owblep muttered. "This will be the last time. If we still can't tell what they mean, we'll burn them. Just one last time?" He understood he'd better leave the decision up to them, or he might be what got burned. "Yeah." "Get it over with." "This is it, Owblep." In the darkness, in the bitter cold, the voices reluctantly indicated agreement one by one. The youngest of their group waited until everyone else had answered or grunted, and he finally said, making sure he sounded as if he couldn't have cared less (which wasn't hard, since he couldn't have), "Whatevs."

They'd found that word in an earlier stack of papers in another Safe Place. After three great storms and four great floods, they'd realized it didn't seem to mean anything at all, which is why the youngest liked it. So he said it again. "Whatevs." They'd burned those other papers long ago.

"Let's go over the explanations we've come up with," Owblep announced in his serious voice. "C'mon, Blowt, don't say 'crap' like that. This will be the last time. Let's make sure we don't forget anything." Owblep waited until the muttering faded away, as three or four more black bugs sizzled on the fire.

"Maybe it's the name of one of the diseases from the time of the Great Dying. Or maybe it's a cure for one of the diseases."

"I remember another," said Clukt. "Maybe a secret weapon!"

The youngest sat up. Well, he scrunched himself up a little bit. He didn't want to seem like he actually cared. "Or maybe the name of one of their gods!" He'd said that with a little too much interest. So he lowered his voice and muttered a followup. "Not that we know what gods are." Which they didn't, so that was actually true, which made his contempt more effective.

Owblep nodded as each of the possibilities was identified. "And remember," Owblep said, adding a little grunt to each word to emphasize just how important this might be. "They asked their tribal leader about it and then wrote all these stories about what he said. So it might even be the Answer of Answers. Maybe the key to everything."

Silence descended on the groveling group of lost souls. The key to everything. What was a "key"? It didn't matter. It sounded awfully important.

"Yeah," Clukt finally acknowledged. "The key to everything. Wow."

The youngest slumped back down. He wasn't about to be taken in. "Uh-huh. Wha--"

"DON'T!" shouted Owblep. The youngest suddenly sat up all the way. Owblep almost never shouted. Maybe it really was important. Maybe it mattered. The youngest felt a strange feeling in his stomach. Could it be ... a small flicker of hope? "That's a bunch of crap," he thought. "I'm just hungry. Again. Still." But he knew not to say it out loud. Owblep had shouted.

"And 'key' is part of the word they kept repeating. Look!" And with great reverence, Owblep slowly smoothed out the wrinkled papers in the light of the fire. After a few minutes, when all the papers were spread out so they could examine them, they saw that what Owblep said was true.

"Is that how you say it?" asked Blowt. "The last part is 'key'?"

"That's what we finally decided," Owblep said very softly. "See, the first part means something new. 'Snew...' And the last part of the word is 'key.' 'Snew ... ki.'* The new key ... maybe the new key to everything. Their leader said he didn't know what it was, but we know that leaders lie."

The dirty heads gathered around the dimming fire slowly turned to Owblep, suspicion gathering in their narrowed eyes. "Well, not me," Owblep declared. "You all know that I don't lie. Not anymore, anyway. What the hell's the point now? There's nothing to lie for. But then, leaders lied all the time, about everything. So he must have known what it meant, but he didn't want anyone else to know."

"Yeah, I see," Clukt agreed. "It must have been really important."

"Exactly!" Owblep exulted. "Now we just have to figure out what it actually---"

They heard a sudden great noise in the sky above them. The heads turned upward, and their mouths fell open in astonishment. Even the youngest gasped. He began to ask, "What the fu--," when the world turned black.

A huge roar thundered over hundreds of miles, and an enormous cloud of dust and dirt rose up from the battered earth and began to spread across the world.

Finally, silence descended. It was complete, unbroken by even the gentlest of sounds. Blessed, peaceful silence. It went on for a long time.


"I think that was the last of them," the First Being Above said. "I surely hope so. What a horrible mistake."

"Maybe your worst. Well, live and learn. Practice makes perfect, and all that jazz. Whatevs." The Second Being Above chuckled merrily.

"Please. Please don't. I'm a little sensitive right now. There were moments, just a few here and there, when they seemed to have such promise. But it's over now." The First Being Above gravely looked upon the silent, still globe. Although the great cloud already covered much of North America, the First B.A. still could see the other land masses, and the enormous seas.

"It's such a beautiful world. The world itself was one of my best."

"Oh, it was great. And it will be again. As long as there aren't any more of them."

"I don't think we need to worry about that. I haven't picked up any human vibrations in the last few minutes, have you?"

"Nope. Very peaceful now."

Unfortunately, the Beings Above were wrong. No, they weren't gods. C'mon. They were Beings who just happened to be Above. That's all. And they may have had a lot more powers than humans, but that isn't saying all that much, is it? And even the powers of the Beings Above were limited. The gambit with the meteorite was a very hard one to pull off. The First B.A. had only done it once before, and then only because the Second B.A. had tricked him into it. The Second B.A. had dared the First B.A. to do something genuinely impressive, and suggested the First B.A. make a meteorite smash into the earth. So the First B.A. did it. Aside from the obvious local destruction, he hadn't understood what would happen exactly. Boy, was the First B.A. pissed. He had liked the dinosaurs. A lot.

But back to where we were. The Beings Above didn't know that somewhere in the middle of Asia, a struggling little band of humans had just come upon a Secret Valley. For some odd reason of geography (and maybe the first tendrils of that great cloud), their vibrations didn't reach into the sky above.

And the Secret Valley was a wonderful place: full of vibrant forests, creatures of all kinds, fertile land, refreshing rivers. The small group of humans would do very well there. In no time at all, there would be hundreds of them, and then many thousands.

And these humans would come to believe they were very, very special. They had to be. After all, it was they who had found the Secret Valley, and no one else. It might even be that they were specially favored by the gods. Oh, yes, they'd remember what those were soon enough, particularly when they realized how extra special the gods' favor made them.

In time, they would conclude that it was their obligation, their mission to spread their civilization across the world. But they didn't know -- and neither did the Beings Above (geography and that cloud again) -- that another little band of humans was going through a similar experience somewhere in Africa, with their own wonderful valley. This other group would also thrive. But they wouldn't come to believe they were special, or favored by the gods. They would find great joy in the simple fact of being alive, and they would desire nothing more than to be left alone. That was not to be.

So before you knew it, before the Beings Above knew it, the trouble would be starting all over again.

But right now, neither group of humans knew about the other one. And the Beings Above didn't know about either of them. At this particular moment, everything was very peaceful. Quiet. Uneventful, dull even, but in a good way.

As things turned out, it was just a moment. A very lovely one.