“What happened to them? Did they make it?”
I couldn’t help but smile. I’d finally netted the wandering imaginations of at least some of my little daydreamers.
I’ve always loved history, and I’ve always taken great deal of satisfaction in sharing it with young people, but oftentimes the fact that I’m lecturing to a captive audience who would rather be anywhere but in my classroom is painfully apparent.
“You’ll discover the answer to that question and perhaps many more you might think of in the text of tonight’s reading assignment, Iliana.”
The little girl frowned, sighed, and looked at the clock that hung above the exit door. I saw her eyes light up as she realized that freedom was only moments away. She began to gather up her things and stuff them into her book bag.
The rest followed suit as I raced against the upcoming ring of the bell to squeeze out some parting words.
“Chapters forty-seven through forty-nine; come ready to discuss them tomorrow, and have a splendid afternoon.”
Half of them had already reached the door by the time “afternoon” started to form on my lips. By the time I’d spoken said word, they’d already begun pouring out of it and into the hall, where their subdued sense of classroom decorum was immediately dispensed with.
I couldn’t blame them one bit. I myself must confess to an occasional late-afternoon preoccupation with the prospect of taking off my bra, stretching out across my bed, cracking a good book and savoring the warm, sweet haze of the jungle billowing in through my open bedroom window.
I watched the last of the children exit the room and began preparations for my own escape.
I was conducting a quick search of my desk when I heard it. Felt it.
Then came the screams.
In my haste to reach the door, I banged my hip against the corner of my desk. Hard.
I sprinted down the hallway, my shoes squeaking on the freshly-waxed floor as the shouts and cries outside intensified.
The exit doors whooshed apart as I approached, and warm, purple sunlight flooded the hall.
It only took a moment for my eyes to adjust. The children were gathered together on the lawn, looking at the sky. I followed their eyes…
When I was a child, my father took me on a trip to see the fabled Typhon Sea, from the shores of a little resort town off the Ananta coast.
They say the creature that dwells beneath those grey, misty waters is a myth, but I saw it.
At first I mistook it for an island, due to its immensity, but when it rose from its murky, black domain, its long, outstretched tentacles squirming and glistening in the light of day, I found out different.
The way I stared at that thing, it was the same way those kids now stared at the thick black trails of smoke reaching upwards from the center of town like the contorted shadow of a man’s hand. They were stupefied, their minds unable to process the image their eyeballs were receiving.
I ran to them, shouting at them to get back inside. I seized one, a young boy by the name of Niklas, by the arm and opened my mouth to speak when the lot of us were showered with–and in my case momentarily blinded by–a wave of gritty black ash.
“Back inside!” I implored them, dragging Niklas and another student back towards the building.
The clearing of my vision directly coincided with the sailing of a mangled steel girder over my head. It plowed through a row of houses behind the school like a giant battering ram from earth’s Middle Ages.
I turned around when I reached the doors and beckoned the students to hurry along. “Get to the shelter! The shelter!”
They followed me down the hall to the stairwell, where my heart sank into my stomach.
There was a crowd outside the doorway, made up of students and faculty clamoring and clawing to get inside, clogging it up in the process.
I screamed as a child of about five was sucked beneath this maelstrom of panic and trampled.
“Stop it! Calm down! Stop it!” My own students ran past me and scrambled over the limp form of their fallen fellow student. I rushed over to check the child’s pulse when the doorway was finally clear, but I already knew.
I slid his little body over to the wall so that no one else would trip over it and joined the others in the shelter which, fortunately for all present, was designed to accommodate several hundred people in the event of a terrorist attack.
My heart hammered in my throat as I gasped for air in a room that reeked of hot breath and sweat.
The ground shuddered and I placed a hand on the wall to steady myself.
My kids had instinctively begun to gather around me, just as their peers from other classrooms gathered around their professors as well.
Everyone was accounted for. Well, everyone in my class, anyway. I didn’t envy whoever was going to get the job of informing the parents of that boy out in the hall what had happened to their beloved son.
We screwed up. We were responsible. Not just us, the school faculty, but all of us.
When the data stored within the DNA of Earth trees on board the Effigium –and likewise the DNA of all of its seedlings–was first decoded and made public, we devoured and assimilated it into our culture without discernment; we became human.
The peaceful utopia we’d cultivated over the centuries very gradually gave way to a world rife with hatred, division and paranoia. Our entire society patterned itself after one that ceased to exist millennia ago.
We wanted to know who we where; where we came from. Well, we found out, didn’t we?
We found that we were race of deceitful, opportunistic, and self-centered people who solved petty squabbles with violence. We congratulated ourselves on our ingenuity, lauding our great progress as we built bigger and mightier towers that reached higher and higher towards the heavens, even as the foundation beneath them crumbled to dust.
Greed. War. Religious fanaticism. Nationalism. Bigotry. No one understood any of these concepts. Apples were simply apples.
Our historical knowledge of Earth had, up to that point, been limited to stories passed down from generation to generation over centuries, embellished to the point of becoming folklore.
Upon discovering just how much of what we believed about ourselves was was myth, everything changed.
I loved history, the history that I learned in school, the history of a thousand years of peace and harmony, of original thought and original ideas unique to us as a people. Hopes and dreams that drove us forward with an insatiable hunger for achievement and discovery… “The Age of Bliss” as it eventually came to be referred to by the dangerously progressive minds behind the textbooks I was now expected to indoctrinate our children with.
We stopped making history a long time ago, though, and started imitating someone else’s.
“Whaddaya think? Fundies again?”
I crinkled my nose at Professor Bevin, who I could scarcely pretend to like on a good day, much less one such as this. I wasn’t in the mood for small talk.
“What was his name? The boy in the hall?”
Bevin tilted his head. “What?”
“He was one of yours, wasn’t he? The one who died?”
Bevin’s chubby, pink-cheeked face went white. He ran from student to student, grabbing them, counting them, asking them questions.
“Jonal,” he spat between heavy breaths upon his return. “His name was Jonal. He was, ah… He was a good kid.”
He rubbed his clenched-shut eyes with his thumb and forefinger; sniffled. I started to say something comforting; stopped myself. It’d just be bullshit, anyway, I decided, and probably be taken as accusatory, given Bevin’s notoriously sensitive disposition.
It’s all bullshit. Bull. Shit. I’ve used that expression nearly my entire life, and it means nothing to me. I’ve never seen a bull, as they’ve been extinct for thousands of years. I’ve only seen images. Why wouldn’t I employ some expletive representative of the fecal output of an animal native to Galen VI? We have plenty of them, after all–dense, beautiful jungles positively teeming with native wildlife, but we instead often instinctively default to “bullshit” and “hogwash” and “stubborn as a goat” and “elephants never forget.”
We wear clothes like they wore. We eat tacos and pizza. We don’t have the luxury of polluting our planet with fossil fuel exhaust, but we drive electric cars designed to look like earth’s fabled “gas guzzlers” of yore.
We used to make our own art, sing our own songs, design our own clothes, pray to our own gods… we used to have a culture.
Now we’ve got someone else’s, and all of the senseless death and misery that necessarily accompanies it.
Centuries ago, we named this world after the astronomer Galen the Sixth, who discovered it through a viewing port onboard the Conduit.
As a child I marveled at the story of his descendant Galen the Sixteenth, who constructed a vehicle with which to traverse the wastelands in search of the Creators, who it was believed dwelled in castles made of light.
I looked at my children, who had calmed down somewhat, a few of them even smiling and joking with each other while the adults in the room huffed and paced and talked to themselves and tapped frantically at the screens of their phones.
“Boys and girls, come here,” I said, beckoning then with both arms. “Come on, we’ve got a good solid hour or two before they they come and get us. Anyone have their reading pad?”
Philomena did. She was the only one who hadn’t dropped her bag outside.
I smiled. “May I borrow that, dear?”
She handed it to me, and I activated it, swiped to the appropriate page.
“I’m going to read tonight’s assignment aloud to you, because I think it’s a story you need to hear, at a time like this. It’s a story of hope, and of the resiliency of the spirit of our people.”
The heads of a other children outside of my circle began to turn and pay attention.
“Everyone’s welcome to come listen, of course,” I said, addressing the room.
Professor Navuluri, a tier two, stood against the wall opposite me with tightly folded arms, rolling her eyes. As a staunch revisionist, she’s never liked me, viewed me from day one as an obsolete relic of a forgotten age, though a mere twenty years my junior.
Nearly two centuries have come and gone since the discovery of the so-called “truth” hidden within the vast orchards our ancestors planted in the fertile Galenian soil, but the most dramatic of seismic cultural shifts didn’t start to take place until late in my childhood.
Navuluri was born into a much different era than I and as such represented the culmination of generations of progressive social conditioning. She wasn’t taught to value our true history as I was.
“Now,” I said, “where did we leave off?”
Little Iliana piped up. “Galen the Sixteenth was about to fly into the wastelands to meet the Creators.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” I pretended to search for the passage.
“Ah! Here we are. Chapter forty-seven.”
The children, and a good portion of the faculty, as well, listened with rapt attention as I began to read from the original, unaltered passage about Galen’s journey into the hands of the Creators.
At one point, Navuluri interrupted me, an unthinkable act of insolence coming from a tier two, but I let it pass without so much as a reprimanding glare.
“Is this First Edition you’re reading from? You do know Edition Twenty-three was recently released, don’t you?
I smiled. “I don’t like the way that story ends.” I held up the reading pad. “I prefer the one with an ending yet to be written. Now please, be quiet and let me tell it.”