Postapocalyptic Fiction

– Postapocalyptic Fiction –

By John C. Wright

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Ever the Perfect dwells in whatsoe’er
Fair souls conceive and recognize as fair!
Borne on your daring pinions, soar sublime
Above the shoal and eddy of the time.
Far-glimmering on your wizard mirror, see
The silent shadow of the age to be.


— Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805)

Table of Contents so far

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1. A Dying of the Light

It was near the dusk of a long and brilliant day. What brightness there had been was gone, and the red sunset gleamed off of the broken tops of ancient skyscrapers, and from the one-armed, noseless Statue of Liberty crowned in the harbor.

The patients were being led in chains through Central Park to where the stakes had been erected. A large crowd of Earth-husbands had been allowed in through that wall (erected by the Warden’s father) which now blocked off all the streets and avenues to Central Park.

Ian Runnymede, seated to the Warden’s left, heard the Warden say to his Mindreader on the right, “Notice how the Providers for the Commissariats make more noise than the farmers do…”

“We call them Earth-husbands, now, Warden. They do a task no less noble than your own,” Cautioned the Mindreader.

“Whatever…” shrugged the Warden. “Look there! The Providers try to out-shout the farmers, and why? Because they know they might be the next to burn! As they say, ‘one penny too many, and Providers turn to Patients’, eh? Eh?”

The Warden looked back and forth. “It’s taking too long to get the patients shackled up. Look at how that young pregnant one struggles! Almost as if she wants to live! Its amazing what a sick mind will descend to.” Then he bellowed to the Chief Instructor: “Hit her again! Harder! Aha!”

The Mindreader cautioned: “Be careful, my lord. You might look as if you are enjoying yourself. And rejoicing in pleasure is the same as rejoicing in life. There would have been no Apocalypse if our ancestors had been content to live within their means…”

The Warden rolled his eyes. “Oh, come now. You know I am motivated only my an altruistic concern for the psychological and spiritual well-being of my charges, my orphans, I like to call them. What will they think if I don’t seem to be involved in the spirit of the thing, eh?”

“Are you asking me to mind-probe the crowd?”

“No, no, no. Why do you Didactic types always take things so seriously? However– ” He turned to his left and gave a thin smile to Ian Runnymede the Sleeper. “You could tell me what our visitor from the past is thinking…”

Runnymede was garbed in a trousers, coat and tie, and was clean-shaved, in what tradition recalled of Twentieth Century fashion. There was something stiff in his posture, as if he were not used to wearing mufti.

The Warden was heavyset, drooping with lard, draped in lavish purple trimmed with gold.

The Mindreader was shave-skulled, in hooded robe of white, lean and hot-eyed. The trident-shaped insignia of his order was at his throat, a wand of office in his hand.

The Mindreader said, “You know the limits of the True Science, Warden. I am only able to reach clearly the more animalistic and subconscious structures of his nervous system. He is disgusted; he comes from an unenlightened age, and is fixated on the apparent destruction of illusionary material bodies as if it were an evil. More I should not say while he is listening; such psychic readings create a disturbance in the patient’s neuro-chemistry.”

Runnymede leaned forward and addressed the Mindreader: “Sir! I’m thinking of a number between one and one hundred…”

The white-robed Mindreader held up a pale and slender hand. “Excuse me, but your skepticism is creating negative emanations in the psychosphere. It is little wonder that the True Science was never discovered in your crass, materialistic age! Even a few hundred negative mentalities like yours could create enough spiritual pollution to block off and smother all psychic emanations. I faint to think of what whole cities of creatures like you might have done!”

The Mindreader turned to the Warden: “My lord, the flow of his emotions becomes turbulent and aggressive. You may wish to send him to one of my Order’s Contemplation Camps for readjustment.”

Runnymede said mildly, “No, sir. No hostility. Merely curious.”

“He says he is not hostile, yet he dares to disagree with me! Disagreement is hostility!” said the Mindreader to the Warden.

Runnymede did not point out that agreement, in this case, would also be an admission of hostility. He said, “So you say you read subconscious thoughts. You pick up only those thoughts the thinker is not aware of? How you can confirm your accuracy? I am curious about that, too. Curious about a lot of things.”

The Mindreader said, eyes hot, “Curiosity is a selfish intellectual aggression, tantamount to raping nature of her secrets. It does not exist in a man who has no love of life.”

“I don’t understand you,” said Runnymede in a carefully neutral voice.

“Our civilization, because of the horror and suffering imposed upon us by you and your generation, has been granted an insight earlier civilizations did not perceive,” said the Mindreader in a haunted voice. “Prior ages denounced sin, but did not know the origin of sin. They told themselves fairytales of the source of sin, but those tales were invented by the powerful as an opium for the unwary. Sin comes from love!”

Runnymede tilted his head. “Did I hear you correctly? Love?”

“What is pride but self-love? What is greed but love of money? What is gluttony but love of food? They all come from love of life: a craving, a mad yearning, for life and more life! It leads to overpopulation, overconsumption of resources, individualism, nonconformity! Love of life causes greed and violence; greed and violence cause war; curiosity, the curiosity of scientists, made it an atomic war. Surely we, the victims of you and your generation, have a right to condemn the insanities which created the world-holocaust!”

Ian Runnymede frowned in thought for a moment. “I have not been briefed on the intervening events. The other sleepers date from later years than I do: Most of them are from late Twenty-First Century, when the technology was declassified. Project Dormouse was not known to the general public in 1999. The Soviet Union had fallen. Who fought whom? No one seems to be able to answer my questions.”

The Mindreader ignored the question. Instead, with a brusque gesture, her turned to the Warden: “My lord, I sense no repentance or guilt or humility in him. I recommend radical therapy. You cannot trust him to lecture to the students tomorrow; he will stir up the mob spirit in them; we cannot afford more riots at this point! You cannot afford more riots! The Regional Director will not tolerate more reports of disturbances. Radical therapy is the cure!” And with this, he turned his gaze back at Runnymede with a uncouth, hungry look.

Seeing Runnymede’s blank stare upon him, the Mindreader raised a forefinger to his temple, making a hissing noise, as if mimicking the sound of a bone-needle puncturing the cerebral cortex.

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2. A Birth of Fire

“Ah…” the Warden took a long drink from the goblet of crudely hammered metal he held in one fist. He was clearly pondering the Mindreader’s request.

Then he said, “Radical therapy does produce certain results. But it leaves the patient unable to speak or care for himself. We should be wary of imposing more wardens on the state, should we not?”

The white-robed Mindreader said in a ponderous tone, “Elevating social cooperation is a prime concern, Warden.”

The Warden returned a genial grin. “Undoubtably! But if I don’t have him lecture, who will crush this rebellious spirit out of the youth? Excuse me, I mean, cure them of their paranoid delusions? If they hear all about the evils of the Twentieth Century, as described by a Cold Sleeper from that era, they will see that all their fine talk and ideals lead nowhere.”

He rolled his eye toward  Runnymede. “Watch the proceedings today carefully. I want them to have a good influence on your lecture. I want you to take facts into account tomorrow, Mr. Runnymede; hard, cruel facts. Do we understand each other?”

Ian Runnymede was saved from the need to reply, as they were interrupted by the Chief Instructor, who held up a torch and called out to the Warden. The Warden stood, made a brief speech, and then had the Proctor read a list of the Patient’s Maladies. The Proctor spoke in a rich and ringing voice which echoed through Central Park. Then the Diagnostician, brilliant in his scarlet robes, called across the crowd to the raised box where the Mindreader sat with the Warden and other dignitaries, asking if any of the Patients could yet be saved.

The Mindreader stood and raised his hands. The crowd’s murmur fell to a quieter level. “Beloved patients! Everyone is insane and must be cared for! Everyone is a ward of the State! But these poor creatures here have passed beyond the pale of recoverable insanity! They have indulged in exploitation! Try to imagine the ruthlessness, the lack of fellow-feeling and community-spirit which might tempt someone assigned to the Commissary to make and injurious and usurious profit off the sufferings of others! Especially now, during this time of desperate emergency! Fortunately, these poor souls, deep, deep in their subconscious minds, have recognized their own depravity, and have agreed (if only subconsciously) to volunteer to serve the community as vivid examples to deter others from being likewise tempted; and they recognize that their continued lives will place an intolerable burden on limited community resources!”

There were shouts and cheers and applause.

With a grand gesture, the Mindreader turned toward where the patients slumped, shackled, against their stakes. He paused while the Chief Instructor beat one or two of the noisier patients to silence. Then the Mindreader called out: “Remember that the only capital crime is love of life! Is there any one of you who wants to live?”

And, really, of course, it did not matter what they answered. The condemned had already been drenched in the oils that had been prepared for them, made out of the fatty tissues of earlier generations of victims.

The Warden was watching Ian Runnymede with an eager, almost a hungry look. But Runnymede sat stony-faced, and he did not hold his ears when scream after scream rose up from the columns of oily smoke, and he did not hold his nose when the smell struck.

The Warden leaned close to Runnymede and said, “You needn’t feel sorry for anyone. There aren’t any widows or orphans. Marriage was abolished long ago as a sexist institution abusive to women; and children, well, even in your own day, governments could take children away from parents accused of wrongdoing. And since we make marriage illegal, of course, they’re all wrongdoers now. It is our version of that old, outdated doctrine of Original Sin. Everyone is guilty whenever necessary or convenient. And the crowds love the spectacle.”

He said this with considerable relish. But Runnymede’s face showed no reaction. The Warden leaned back, looking sullen.

The Warden said softly, “My father, Warden Smuglard IV, started the practice of thawing scholars and intellectuals he found in the hibernation vault, to set educating the young.”

Runnymede showed an expression now, a look of curiosity of interest. “To help you recover lost technology? That seems unusually … practical.”

The Warden smiled a thin, bitter smile. “Don’t be absurd. It is good for morale — good therapy for the masses — to be reminded how bad things used to be, how wicked and vicious. Eyewitness from your days are best.”

The Warden smiled again and drank from his cup. He smacked his lips with relish. In a confidential tone, he said to Runnymede, “Do you know what one of them said? One of your fellow Sleepers. He said that the best thing that ever happened to the environment was the loss of nine-tenths of our population; solved the overpopulation problem in one fell swoop, eh?

“Another one, a woman, used to lecture that your entire culture was engaged in a continual gang-rape of all women everywhere. Hah! I used to have daydreams about that one!

“And all the institutionalized racism! Imagine pretending that you had fought a Civil War over slavery, just to rob Harriet Tubman of her credit! Or inventing a character like Abraham Lincoln! One of you Sleepers kept himself alive for twenty years just lecturing on the ‘Historical Lincoln’ — he convinced us to tear down Mount Rushmore. I forget what he was eventually found guilty of.

“And now there is you. I am sure you will come up with something good, something to keep the students in line. You Sleepers are a fine resource!”

There was a hideous commotion from one of the burning figures jerking and shrieking, chained in the flames. The shock of the pain, Runnymede saw, had made the pregnant woman give birth. Covered with the blood of the afterbirth, a premature child had fallen down his mother’s legs into the coals. The guards, leaning on their pikes near the bonfires watched this horror without much curiosity, their eyes dull.

Runnymede looked up at the buildings. He said in a voice of mild curiosity, “Why are these buildings still standing, anyway? How bad was this Atomic War that I slept through?”

“Actually, only two cities were destroyed. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But then the Americans began to realize that their war had just been a racist aggression against the Japanese, who, after all, were only defending their way of life against American cultural imperialism. The enlightened thinkers and intellectuals kept telling your people how sick your culture was, and how it did not deserve to live. And then, well, what happened next is obvious, isn’t it? No culture, and no person for that matter, can survive for long once convinced it has no right to live.”

Runnymede was silent, looking thoughtful. There was something about his face which looked unusual to the Warden; something strange. The Warden could not put his finger what it might be. It was not such a look as he was likely to see in the present generation, and the old faces prominent on old monuments were largely gone.

“Come now, Mr. Runnymede!” said the Warden in a jovial voice. “None of the other intellectuals from your day and age gave us any problems at all.”

“Don’t worry,” said Runnymede. “I know exactly what I’ll say in my lecture.”

Later, once the revolution had engulfed Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and Manhattan was besieged, the Warden had the Mindreader executed by immolation for his failure to intuit Runnymede’s intentions. The Warden himself perished leaping from the burning roof of his besieged mansion in Westchester County. The Regional Director escaped to Quebec.

In later years, the stirring words of the oration Runnymede gave that fateful day were chiseled into the marble base of the bronze statue erected in his honor by the newborn republic.

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Watch this space next week for another tale of wonder, fancy, or phantasmagoria!