Aftermath

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

This is a companion piece to another story, “Fallen,” which you can read here.

When the Invaders were defeated, we thought the war was over. Once again, we were our own masters, capable of determining our own destiny. But now, here we are more than a decade later, and the world is just as cruel, just as barren as it was when our former conquerors remained in power.

I stare at a shimmering sky, the sun a blot of crimson fire, and dream of what life was like before the war. Before we learned of other worlds and the beings who inhabited them.

Before the Invaders.

I remember movies. TV. The Internet. I remember hamburgers and french fries. The ocean. The simple joys of leaving work before sunset or strolling by the courthouse in Downtown Long Beach after lunch. There are a million other things, all random creature comforts I never had the foresight to appreciate until the Invaders wiped them all away.

The sight of a bloated sun suspended over the horizon makes me sick, and I turn my back to it, my body casting a long, razor-sharp shadow across the crumbled, overgrown sidewalk. I try to think on happier times, but evidence of the Invaders surrounds me at every turn.

Ruined sky scrapers jut into the blood red sky like monster’s teeth, broken glass glittering, twisted support beams looming. In the movies, we used to imagine precisely this scenario, munching on our popcorn, our malt balls, and our Sour Patch Kids, secure in the belief that Armageddon was only a distant fantasy, that there was no way the universe could conspire against us in such a severe and irrevocable way.

We were like children: simple, naive, and oblivious to the horrors reality had yet to spring on us.

The sun begins to set; the world is on fire once more. The brackish light assaults me, unleashing a rapid-fire succession of memories, each more grisly than the last. I push them away with some effort, back into a dark corner of my mind where they’ll emerge later to haunt my dreams.

Our settlement is close, only a half mile. One of the few dilapidated apartment buildings that survived the war, it’s where my friends and I spend the night. It isn’t much, but shelter is hard to come by, and it’s a comfort just to have somewhere to call your home.

I hear a harsh gurgle below and recoil. Laying on the broken cement beside my feet is a creature, grasping at a splotched and bloated neck. My God! How could I have come so close to it without realizing?

Cast in the fiery light of sunset, the broken Invader still appears menacing, a looming specter ready to pounce the moment my back is turned. I shake my terror aside. It’s dying. It can’t possibly be a threat.

“Not so powerful now,” I say, and then I stop to stare.

Its misery conjures in my heart the tiniest pang of sympathy. But the emotion is short lived. This thing, along with the rest of its kind, stole the world from us, murdering hundreds of millions of people in the process. It deserves all of its anguish and more.

But the sight of its swollen, puffed up eyes reminds me of my mother, whose life was mercifully (or not so mercifully) cut short before the Invasion began by an aggressive form of breast cancer. During her last days, her eyes looked the same: red, swollen, and tear-streaked.

I cannot help myself. Pity blossoms in my heart like a sorrowful flower.

I see, in this filthy creature’s eyes, something like remorse. I want to insult it. I want to make it feel hated in its final moment of life. But I cannot. My weary, war-torn heart won’t allow it.

I kneel beside the creature, cautious. Pity doesn’t make me stupid. I know what it’s kind inflicted on the world and I maintain a safe distance. But I cannot leave it alone any more than I could leave a human stranger.

When our scientists released into the atmosphere the gas that ended the war for good—an otherwise harmless compound that was lethal to the Invaders—we celebrated.

The world was broken, but for the next few nights, at least, people lined the streets, shooting fireworks into a bruised and swollen sky, while one by one, the Invaders fell, clutching at their useless, air-starved throats.

At the time, I rejoiced with everyone else. Now, faced with this pitiful creature, I find in my heart only a dull and weary ache. The world has known enough war for a hundred generations, and if our species is to survive, we’ll have to embrace love and forgiveness going forward.

At this pivotal point in human history, Earth teeters on a precipice.  So I stay, long into the night, and I clutch its withered hand in my own and wait with the Invader in silence until it breathes no more.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

Fallen

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

I cannot move any longer.

I slow.

Stumble.

Fall.

My eyes droop, and darkness seeps into my vision like moldering water. I try to look up, but I have so little energy left, and all I manage to do is scrape my too-pale skin against the sidewalk.

People pass by all around me. Like a dammed up river, they flow to either side, unwilling to acknowledge me as I lay on the ground, gasping for breath.

I don’t blame them. If our roles were reversed—if I were human instead of them—I would do the same.

My kind arrived on Earth almost two decades ago. We didn’t mean to stay. It was only supposed to be a stop during the long exile from our own world. We were malnourished, weak, and near death, and Earth was an unexpected paradise.

It was not our world, and we always told ourselves that when we were better, we would leave. But days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. We came to view Earth as our salvation, a gift from the gods of our ancestors and therefore ours by birthright.

We began to resent humanity. We were stronger, we reasoned, and more intelligent. Meanwhile, humans only ever seemed to take the Earth for granted. We decided to seize control. We told ourselves it was for their own good, but in truth, we were jealous—jealous of their abundance, jealous of the relative comfort and security they inherited by virtue of being born.

I crack my eyes open long enough to spy a woman standing over me, staring. I beg her with my eyes to have pity, but the hatred that blazes beneath her stern features is all too clear. She makes a grating sound in the back of her throat, then spits on me before moving on.

We were so confident, so sure we could win. But the humans were a proud race, and they refused to be ruled by outsiders. Hundreds of millions died, but in the end, victory was theirs. Those of us who survived fled deep underground, where the majority were hunted down like dogs and executed.

I myself survived for almost five years. But the humans, in their desire to root out every last one of us, released a toxin into the atmosphere: harmless for them, fatal for us.

That very poison flows through my veins, depriving me of the ability to breathe. I want to be angry at them, but I cannot. They were only defending themselves, and I’m unable to find fault with their actions.

We could have been better. Our own world had been conquered by an outside race, turning us into cosmic refugees. The ordeal should have made us more compassionate. Instead, we tried to do the same to Earth.

I consider the commandments of our people’s gods and how far we strayed from them before losing the war, and as my vision narrows and my heart stammers to an increasingly irregular rhythm, a wild terror grips me.

Soon, I will stand before those very same gods for judgement. And with the faces of all the humans I murdered flashing before my dying eyes, their horrifying verdict seems all too clear.

I wrote a companion piece to this called “Aftermath.” You can read it here.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.

The Game

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Life surrounds me. Thousands of spectators, crammed into seats stacked ten stories high, encircling a field of green where two teams engage in a sport the humans call baseball. A player swings a heavy wooden bat, which smacks into a tiny white ball, producing a loud crack. The ball sails somewhere into the third level. The crowd cheers.

Seated on the second floor, I watch it pass overhead and smile.

I can feel the heat of living blood, throbbing all around me like sonorous African drums. With a crowd this large, I can do anything.

Some people think the greatest magic lies in words, that if they recite a certain combination of sounds a certain number of times, they’ll compel the cosmos to give up its secrets. But words are weak, crude expressions whose meanings invariably drift with time. Magicians skilled in the art of spelling might amass small scraps of power, but their deeds rarely amount to more than parlor tricks.

Life, on the other hand, is the great untapped reservoir, a fount of limitless energies. One must only possess the secret of its use, and in all my thousands of years, I can count such knowledge among my achievements.

I send out tiny tendrils, like runners from a creeping vine, and probe my closest neighbors. When they make contact, a warm power flows into me. Ecstasy. I’m careful not to draw too much at once, feeding only on the surplus energies that this game has so conveniently produced. Then, using my neighbors as proxies, I send out more tendrils, until they’re slithering through the stadium like snakes, harvesting energy in a vast, intricate network that feeds back to me.

The people cheer once more, and this time a wave of power washes over me. I bask in its brilliance. I channel it, weave the individual flows around themselves until they form a rope-like column that towers toward the sky.

What I accomplish today will fundamentally and irrevocably change the world. I lick my lips, savor the captivating notion of a world on the brink.

I close my eyes and unleash my magic.

Enter your email address and click "Submit" to subscribe and receive Rite of Passage.