The 200,000-Year Blowout

Blow Out

Aelomar stood inside the entrance to the cavern, letting the soft breeze swirl around him and envisioning the chaos that would replace it in the morning. With corpses of a previous battle still hung from sticky stalactites, it wasn’t difficult. It was a place of burned memories. The endless mask of heat and decay rolled with the odor of dewy meat and pools of ancient chemicals. He’d seen defenses like this before. In fact it seemed to be the only defense his tribe had ever fought through — a forest of massive thorns meant to ensnare all who dared to pass. It’s why the sheer size of their army mattered, why they needed to send in thousands so that hundreds could prevail. It was what they were good at. Bleeding and breeding. It’s also why Aelomar was awake and wandering, instead of blackened by pre-dawn revelry.

They’d always been a kamikaze culture, and Aelomar wondered if there could be another way. A new strategy that would lower the cost. Why should their sole fighting tactic require survivors to press against the warm corpses of fallen brothers in order to push on?

It was said that those who got tangled in the caves were chosen by the gods, but as he moved through the expectant night, he felt chosen for another reason — one that would be blasphemy if uttered out loud. He had beaten back the odds, survived countless wars and felt gloriously invincible, yet he understood that his opinion carried exactly as much weight as the slimy newcomer who was wide-eyed for a first taste of a new home. They were an even and equal society, and it had served them well, but without a concentrated voice to imagine the promise of progress, his tribe would continue to thrive by making profound sacrifices. He, like no other before him, wanted them to evolve.

He journeyed down and out, leaving behind the awaiting tomb in order to get a sense of the rest of the word. In the Bright Season he reveled at all the colors of a swirling skyline, but it was dark now, and that made him feel hopeful but alone. He looked out over his camp in its foolish stillness. If he succeeded tonight, it could mean banishment. If he failed, thousands would happily die.

And for what? They would prevail against any forces they met inside, eat every bit of food, occupy every micrometer of space, and then they’d be forced to move on to the next day’s war. Or worse, they could be slaughtered by an even stronger force taking advantage of their forbearance. Every hungry hunter knew what a cave full of corpses meant. Depleted tribes — even one that reproduced as feverishly as Aelomar’s — were no match for an opportunistic group of cutthroats. They’d be overrun, and even if they weren’t, it would always be a temporary peace before they’d exhausted the natural resources and had to scout again for another cave.

Suddenly, he was tired of moving. He wanted to sit, to rest just for a little while, but his task wouldn’t let him. The ground beneath him quivered as he crossed over into a lowland steppe where hobbled brush attempted needlessly to grow into taller trees. Maybe all of this was hubris or vanity. Maybe he feared that his fortune would run out tomorrow. Maybe it wasn’t thousands, but his own life, he was trying to save. Regardless, his midnight quest had ensured he wouldn’t be fit for the fight. Aelomar thought about his children. How many hundreds were there? He couldn’t say, but he had done his part. He’d also seen family factions split, form their own tribes and flourish in the old ways just as heartily. It was perfectly likely that a son or daughter was raiding on the other side of the world right now, and the thought made him so happy that he refused to think of how many of his offspring had been chosen by the gods to decorate dark places.

It was then that he saw it, a large chasm that had opened in the ground. A fissure running east to west where it seemed a million creatures were living and eating and drinking and dying. It was an explosion of life that made Aelomar’s old whiskers turn up. He wandered along the cut in its enormity, watching small skirmishes break out and die back down. The land was wet here, and it yielded to Aelomar’s movements like a bride awaiting a kiss. He leaned down to it, looked back toward the cave for a moment, then smiled. Here was his salvation. Here was the salvation of his people. If only his people would listen.

He took a clump of the earth into his mouth, and it tasted like blood.

Phillip Larkin woke up before his alarm with a scratchy throat and a head full of daggers. The coughing started when he stood up and continued as he let thick, yellow green masses dotted with blood slide down his shower drain. The hot steam felt nice, but it wouldn’t be enough. He held a thumb to one nostril and blew. He anticipated the clammy pain of swallowing and turned off the water.

Another violent coughing fit hit him when he grabbed his cell phone, and for a moment — a flawed nanosecond of delirium — he thought he heard the last battle cry of an aging warrior. He dialed his boss and wondered if he had any soup in the pantry.

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