by Rudolfo A. Serna
It was a hulking wall, a giant spine, half-buried in the desert sand.
Dust from the asteroid’s collision had encircled the planet. Blinding and suffocating, the sands never stopped washing over the wall’s ruins that pierced twilight and dawn in an auriferous sky that the moon had taken into its swollen arms. The moon loomed half-broken and crumbled, anchored among belts of debris formed from the meteor’s impact.
The wall was too high to pass, and the caravan of Pilgrims that wandered its length wore the goggles, air masks, and cloaks that protected them against the sandstorm. They followed the carriages pulled by the modified camelus that were smaller than their extinct predecessors, bred for food and burden, designed to last longer and breed faster, as were the Pilgrims who had been modified in the laboratories of the Engineers’ cave. The yelping animals pulled the carriages, made of wood and rotted canvas, pans chiming against the wooden frames. Inside one of the carriages, a dying infant slumbered, tucked in blankets.
The caravan stopped beside the massive wall, and the sentries set up their watch for the night, digging in the sand for protection against the winds or attackers, while the others stretched out their canopies against the megalith. Cinched, the canopies snapped with each gust that pulled at the knots and fasteners.
The camelus, staked to poles in the sand, knelt and nuzzled their snouts into each other’s musky flanks looking for comfort.
In dull lamp light, Mesah dropped back the hood of her cloak and removed the goggles, her eyes glowing the same dull orange light as that of the lamp. She leaned over her child and placed her hand on the infant’s feverish brow, taking a small silver box from under the bundle of blankets she opened it.
The vial of green solution gave off a faint glow. Mesah broke the seal and drew the green serum into a syringe and injected her baby, hoping that this one injection would keep her from having to sever the child’s head.
Mesah felt Salem breathing behind her in the dark while she hovered over their child with the empty syringe.
“He will live,” Mesah said.
Salem looked at the infant struggling to breathe.
“It will save him,” she said.
“It’s not the infection that is killing him,” Salem said. “He is immune.”
“Then why is he sick?” Mesah said. “The Engineers did not finish the experiments.”
“The world is . . .”
“He will live,” she said.
“He will live,” she insisted.
“You shouldn’t have given it to him,” Salem said.
It was the only sample of the antidote that had been created too late to save the old race from the global pandemic.
Scientists had engineered the cure hoping that the Pilgrims would deliver it to those who were still trapped in the monastery bunkers. The Pilgrims had barely escaped the caves, and when they reached the wall, they were unable to cross over or go back–all they could do was follow it.
Mesah gave their dying child the last of the antidote, not caring about the dying old world or the new one coming into being.
The new world had begun under streaks of falling lunar rock and bits of the shattered, cratered moon, that seemed close enough to touch. The debris orbited just at the edge of the atmosphere, falling and exploding in the orange night sky.
From the hole dug out of the sand, the sentries scanned the desert, the glow in their eyes brightening and dimming with the light from the moon.
Recognizing the temperature signatures of the lumbering Humans through their ocular implants, the Humans’ spectrums registered cold. They grabbed the handles of the blades fashioned from broken-down machines they’d encountered abandoned along the wall, the occupants long gone.
Through blowing sand, the Humans staggered towards the camp, burnt by wind and particle, skin dry and paper-thin, driven by hunger.
Mesah and Salem heard the sentries’ shouts.
Mesah swept the child into her arms, strapped him to a carrier, placed it on her back and stepped outside to the glaring moonlight. Salem stepped out beside her, then, hearing the frantic bleating of the camelus, he ran towards the sounds of the sentries calling.
The Pilgrims’ battle cries mixed with the wind and groans of the camelus. From her position outside the tent, Mesah saw, under the bright crumbling moon that crossed the high rim of the ruins, a group of Humans emerge from the haze.
Mesah pulled free one of the coiled ropes from the side of the carriage and unraveled it. She took the grappling hook and swung it with all of her strength to the top of the wall. Desperately she hoped that the metal barbs would catch hold, but instead the hook bounced off the side of the wall.
She pulled the gaff from the ground and swung it again. Its tip scraped the surface before it cratered in the sand next to her.
The Humans lurched towards her.
Mesah threw the grappling hook one last time with all of her strength, and watched the tip take hold in some unseen crack high above in the darkness.
She started to pull herself up the wall, feeling the strain in her arms, the heels of her boots against the rough concrete face of the monolith as she reached up, feeling the straps of the pack digging into her shoulders with her dying child as she pulled. Getting away from the hands of the snarling Humans that reached up for them. She pulled herself further out of their reach. She could see the rotted-out eye sockets of the faces burnt by the sand and wind, their clothes long ago shredded from their skeletal frames, exposing the bellies of the terminally starved.
She pulled harder with her arms that had been modified for greater strength, and dangled above the ravaged Humans, suddenly unaware of her child crying or the Humans bellowing beneath her, as she felt the grapnel breaking loose of its hold . . .
She plummeted into the waiting hands, the long dagger-like nails and the black teeth. She felt their bony fingers grasping at her and the child.
Salem was jamming his blade down through one Human head after another, and beating them off the camelus, when he heard Mesah scream. He looked back toward the tent where he had left Mesah and the child.
Humans were swarming over her and the baby, trying to get at the meat. They bit into her arms and scratched at her face. They piled on top of her and blocked out the moonlight. All was going pitch black. Mesah’s eyes stopped glowing, and she screamed louder, realizing that her child was still beneath her, but she couldn’t move with the weight of them on her chest, and the stench of desiccated flesh everywhere.
Salem and the others ran towards Mesah and the pack of Humans on top of her. The Pilgrims pulled the Humans’ heads back, slashed their necks, left the heads dangling sideways by strips of skin. The empty sockets opened and closed; the mouths kept gnawing at empty space, still hoping to feed.
They pulled the Humans off Mesah and the child, but it was too late. The crying had stopped. The child had been crushed under his own mother’s weight.
They pulled her bloody body up from the ground, she could still feel him on her back. She stared at the wall. The long giant casting its shadow, the pieces of moon sparking and disintegrating as they skittered across the edge of the planet’s atmosphere.
The child looked unharmed, except for a scratch across its face. A possible point of infection, Salem thought. He could see the temperature of the body already cooling. He expected the tiny body to rise, even though it shouldn’t. Even if it hadn’t been modified to resist the inhospitable conditions of their world, it was still their offspring. It was born immune, and would not rise from the dead. Salem knew that the antidote would not have the effect Mesah had hoped, and that it could only be given to those that had the mutative gene. The child did not move. It would remain dead, he thought, thanks be to their makers, the Engineers.
Mesah began wailing a tortuous sound.
Salem was afraid that it would bring more of the Humans, but the winds picked up and her crying echoed against the wall, and after a while it just sounded like the wind.
Samson, Salem’s younger brother, sat out in the dunes with his hood up over his head, watching the camp and the spine of the wall snake across the desert, his eyes glowing with the moon. “The baby, the baby,” he kept saying to himself.
In the orange daylight, Salem surveyed the wall.
A hill of rubble rose above the Pilgrims, and above the rubble, the moon, poised bright, close enough, it seemed, that they could climb to its broken surface. It hovered over them, but soon the illusion of proximity dissipated, and the ring of debris that entered the atmosphere began glittering.
Mesah slept in the carriage, she was designed to heal quickly from her wounds. Like the other Pilgrims, she was immune to the infection, and the bite and scratch marks were already closing. But the child had died in the fall, and Mesah would not be able to heal from his death as easily.
Crying in her sleep, Mesah fell again into the putrefied hands reaching for her, the infant still strapped to her back, the moment made vivid by the implants that replayed the image again and again, driven by trauma in a kind of psychic high-def.
The Engineers’ science had worked after all, Salem had thought–there was no resurrection of the flesh. Salem had hoped to preserve the corpse, to keep the antidote inside the child, to make of his body a kind of vessel to be delivered to someone who could extract it.
Salem could neither weep nor mourn for the child; his programming did not allow it.
The child had been wrapped in blankets and separated from his mother. The body would have to be prepared and mummified, rewrapped in burlap and carried with them to the sea.
Salem climbed the rubble to the first breach they had found since walking the length of the great wall, hoping to find a place where they could cross to the other side, maybe even find something green—a tree, some grass—but all he saw were sandstorms to the horizon, and he realized that there was only more desolation on the other side.
“Salem, what do you see?” his little brother Samson called out hopefully from the foot of the rubble.
“Nothing!” Salem called back.
“Nothing? Nothing?” Samson crawled up the ruins.
“There’s nothing,” Salem said, rubbing dust from his eyes.
“Nothing,” Samson said. “Nothing. Climb and climb, but we never find what we need.”
“No. We don’t, it seems.” Salem placed his hand on the young Pilgrim’s head as he passed him on the way back down.
“The ocean is wet, sad and sweet, green,” Samson said. “It will cool our feet.” His shoulders began shaking. “It will cool our feet, brother. I cry . . .”
“Yes. Cry, Samson. Go ahead.”
Salem left his brother sobbing and made his way to the base of the wall.
The other Pilgrims gathered, dressed in their tattered cloaks. When they removed their goggles and air masks, they resembled what the Humans once looked like, before the modifications made them preternaturally strong with eyes that glowed at night.
The ridges on the other side of the vast crater could not be seen in the blowing sand, and the rest of the wall that had once crossed the continent disappeared in a red haze of blowing dirt from the crater.
The Pilgrims donned their air masks and goggles, and Samson climbed down from the rubble. It was as if the others did not want to see the desert world they had inherited. They lined up to descend into the giant crater gouged out by what could only be a part of a falling moon, an asteroid, or missile, set loose by one government or the other that shared the border. Desperate to stop the walking plague, and break open the surface of the earth, and shatter the desert and a section of the giant wall that traversed the landscape.
They would have to find a way to the other side of the deep crevasse, to cross the crater to find the other end to the wall’s ruins which they could then follow to the ocean.
They watched for anything that moved in the red haze below them.
The animals were herded down a steep slope. The animals had been designed for such conditions, but they could only last so long without food or water, and the feed pellets were running low, as were the near empty canisters of water they carried.
They would all starve.
They had lost three from the herd to the Humans that had jumped on the animals’ backs, grabbing their legs, bringing them down, crawling over them, biting and slashing, until the camelus bled to death, while being eaten. A fourth one was barely saved, but strong enough to keep up with the rest of the herd, healing quickly.
The Pilgrims would need the herd to survive, or they would all eventually perish, to be eaten by the old race or covered by the desert sand.
At the bottom of the immense canyon size crater they were protected from the winds. They stopped to rest in the red dust, but one of the pack animals got loose and wandered away from the rest of the herd, running free into the red haze among the rocks.
The shepherd chased after it, following its tracks into a crevice that was just wide enough for the animal to fit through.
The shepherd followed. Slipping through the crack, she could see the camelus’s tail, and then its head reaching up and biting into the tentacles that protruded from a purplish, faceless, malformed body attached to the end of a long fleshy green stalk that sprouted from the stone and red soil.
The shepherd continued to stare at the aberrant life forms that covered the crater floor, the languid sway of the fish skinned tendrils that grew from the purple torsos, the tops moving in waves, the gleaming skin changing colors, and the shepherd almost didn’t notice the cold water soaking though her weathered boots.
Salem heard the voices of the other Pilgrims who had followed the shepherd through the break in the crater.
When he arrived, he found them reaching out to the tentacles that flickered with translucence. Salem could not recognize the life form, nor did he recall seeing them depicted in the old books he had studied.
The tentacle forest fluctuated between purple and green, shimmering in the orange light, and it was unclear to Salem whether they were plants or animals.
But the shimmering of their flesh did not deter the Pilgrims, who dropped on their stomachs and plunged their faces into the shallow stream flowing from somewhere beyond the morphon garden.
The starving pilgrims began ripping pieces of flesh from the creatures’ limbs, stuffing it into their mouths.
A soft crying began to echo through the narrow gorge.
Salem panicked, thinking it were Humans moaning from somewhere nearby, but then he realized that the sound was different, high and melodic, like a song he had heard from old recordings of a choir not Human at all, but angelic. The sound seemed to be coming from the glimmering creatures.
Salem pulled some spongy flesh from a tentacle and felt the minute hairs. He bit down lightly on the velvety surface, hoping that his modified digestive tract would process the organism should it be poison.
Salem chewed the bitter flesh. When he swallowed, he could feel the tiny hairs going down his throat. He reached down to the clear flowing water at his feet, cupped a handful and drank. He could feel the grit, but the water was clean, and it did not have the stale metallic taste of the canisters.
The other Pilgrims fed and splashed water on their faces, laughing and acting as if there were no more roving Humans to threaten them. They ignored, too, the cries of the creatures they ate alive.
Salem dug a piece of flesh from the purplish limb of one of the morphons to carry back to Mesah as an offering to his mate who had been chosen for him.
He turned to leave, but through the haze, he saw a large black stone embedded in the red rock of the crater wall, the onyx stone’s surface pockmarked with shimmering purple and blue crystallinity. And like the purplish green bodies that the Pilgrims ate, the black crystalliferous stone was, to Salem, of an unknown origin.
He was surprised to see Mesah through the haze.
Her arms were bandaged and she was carrying the corpse of their child, still wrapped in a blanket, towards the wailing garden.
“Mesah!” Salem called, but she walked past him and laid the body of their child on the rocks at the foot of the alien field that swayed and wept under the bright moon and orange sky.
She knelt before the creatures.
“Save him!” she begged. “I know you can. Save him!”
The rest of the Pilgrims stopped plucking at the purple-green stalks, stopped drinking the water from the trickling stone.
Salem watched Mesah kneel.
Slowly, one by one, the rest of the Pilgrims began to kneel before the wailing beings. These were children of the new age, not Human, something more, yet still they prayed and believed in the supernatural.
“Save him!” they said, their voices merging with the cries of the morphon. ”Save him!”
Salem watched the Pilgrims wishing the infant would live again, to smile and laugh as children were meant to.
Salem and the others had been designed by the Engineers to replace the old race, but it was not known whether their offspring would survive without further modification.
“Save him.” The words almost sprang from Salem’s mouth, but he resisted. He knew that the infant would not return, that the Engineers’ science would keep the child from wanting to return and destroy them.
Though it carried the antidote within its body, the child had been too weak to survive. It had not been modified to exist in the new world. Maybe if they had more time to grow him, make him stronger, Salem thought.
“Save him,” the Pilgrims continued to chant, “save him,” and Salem continued to feel the urge to say the words, but he did not.
Mesah picked up the child and felt the bundle in her arms move.
Her eyes glowed with the moonlight. She looked down at him.
“See! I knew you could save him!” she cried to the tentacled creatures. Their tendrils rose up to the clouds that sparkled with lunar debris.
The infant had worked itself free from the blanket.
Mesah held him and put him to her breast to nurse.
His cold lips broke the skin, drawing blood that mixed with her breast milk, yet she still cuddled the child, fed him, the wet sounds gurgling up from his throat.
Behind Salem, Samson began to sob and mumble to himself, “sad and sweet, sad and sweet.” He shook his head and sobbed, his eyes beginning to glow. “They were wrong, Salem, they were wrong . . .”
The Engineers and their science had failed. More modifications were needed.
The wailing garden continued singing its angelic song, the moon rained down over the ruins of the last world, and the Pilgrims found out that they were all too Human still.
Salem reached for his blade.
About the Author
Rudolfo A. Serna has a penchant for 70’s horror B-movies, psychedelic doom metal, permaculture, and nature worship. A native of northern New Mexico, his previous occupations have included carpenter, landscaper, wildland firefighter, and adjunct professor. He lives with his wife and daughter in Albuquerque, NM, writing dark fantasy sci-fi. His short stories can be seen with Brick Moon Fiction and Bewildering Stories. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico, and he is the creator and digital steward of the Mutantroot Art Collective.
More of his work can be found at https://www.mutantroot.com/rudolfo-serna