Death stalked the lands outside its walls. But what stalked within?
|Marcu pulled the reins, and Graymare shook her mane out as she came to a stop. The horse stamped and ducked her head to crop a tuft of grass that thrust from between two broken stones. But her rider craned his neck to stare up with awestruck eyes at the cyclopean wall that towered over him. "They were giants who built it," he whispered in a hoarse voice.
"In art and wisdom," agreed his cousin Luco, who rode up to join him. "But it is said they were no more than three hands taller than the tallest man in our village."
The blasted heath stretched dozens of miles in each direction, and only this wall—itself but one side of the glass-smooth cube of stone that thrust skyward like an immense molar—showed sign of workmanship. Magic too, perhaps, for atop the cube, like an overturned bowl, rested a great crystal dome. But only the great birds of the air could soar high enough to peer down through the glass roof of Prosperium Prime.
PROSPERIUM PRIME! The name itself was a phrase of awe and dread! Raised at the time of the last and greatest Plague, by arts lost to the herdsmen who now scratched out an existence on the withered plains of the continent, it was a civilization's last refuge. For a thousand years its brazen doors had been locked against a world scoured by disease and ignorance, and in that long millennium, never had those who dwelt within the world's last and greatest Arcadia shown face or foot outside its protective walls.
Luco nudged his cousin. "Your offering," he said, and Marcu spurred Graymare forward. At the foot of the wall he laid a bowl of hammered copper, adding it to the mountain of offerings already heaped there. But never yet had these humble pleas for admittance, some carried from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away been accepted or acknowledged by the the lords of the domed arcology.
His pilgrimage completed, Marcu rode back to the village with Luco. Yet every few minutes he turned to cast his eyes back on the inscrutable city. For two score miles, the dome remained visible over the curve of the blighted earth.
The motorized velocipede barked and coughed as Dr. Srivais pulled to a stop. The machine shuddered once and was still as he killed the kerosene feed. He pulled off his travel goggles and peered up at the autogyro that buzzed at the foggy dome of the stone-and-glass-enclosed city.
"Hoy!" called one of the workmen. "Perfesser!" The man held up a pneumatic drill. "Tools ain't no good against this stonework! Drill bits just keep breaking!"
The ground shifted and slid beneath his feet as Dr. Srivais dismounted the velocipede. Beneath the thin and fragile crust it was a garbage pile—a two-thousand-years' deep heap of scrap—deposited by his (and the Empire's) superstitious forbears as offerings to the unseen inhabitants of Prosperium Prime.
PROSPERIUM PRIME! The name itself was a thing to conjure with! Final refuge of civilizations' perfection, home to men who at the time of its erection had lofted themselves to a state little short of godhood! For two thousand years it had stood silent and reproving of the diseased and ignorant world without.
Dr. Srivais examined the broken drill bit in a distracted state, for his mind was on the arcology. He and the Empire were but children beside the men who, two thousand years before, had lifted its walls and capped them with the great, crystal dome. To what greater glories had their children ascended in the meantime? It was with a dumbstruck but envious awe that philosophers such as Dr. Srivais regarded the silent city, particularly as the Empire's own tentative arcologies were meeting with little success. (Its citizens mulishly refused to let themselves be herded and locked within them.) No answer came to their knocks, and the brazen gates remained steadfastly shut.
"I don't care if you have to use nitro-gel!" the professor barked at the workman. "Find a way in! I want to talk to those people!"
As his assistant rooted through the excavation kit for an air nozzle, Aaken-10 craned his neck to watch a rocket-bus as it arced through the soft, evening sky atop a pillar of coppery flame. Ring City, the Universal Federation's oldest satellite colony, hung beneath the moon like a glittering jewel.
The archaeologist used the blower to blast a fine layer of dust off the bowl he had pulled from beneath the crushed remnants of a primitive autogyro. "Look, River Tribe workmanship," he told 7-Proot. He pointed to an inscription along the bowl's rim. "Hearken unto the prayer of Marcu, O Great Ones. Open your gates to my soul."
"Famous last wishes," 7-Proot grinned back. "Imagine having to spend all of eternity in there." He jerked his chin at the cyclopean wall that loomed overhead.
PROSPERIUM PRIME! The name itself was a horror to the ears. Raised by the despairing hands of a faltering civilization, the silent necropolis was now a monument to death inexorable. When at last its walls had been breached, the dead air rushed out in a wave, carrying on it the dust of its millennia-gone builders. Perhaps they had unknowingly locked themselves in with corruptions more insidious than the Great Plague they had sought to escape, or, once locked within their magnificent tomb, they had fallen prey to a madness brought on by confinement. No history they left behind, nor art nor science. Only their own blackened bones, still strewn about the empty streets between their crumbling homes.
One gift only had they bequeathed the descendants of those against whom they had locked their brazen doors—the refuse of three thousand years of civilized life, abandoned at the foot of their walls: treasure for the antiquarians!
Winner: Writer's Cramp, 10-13-20
Prompt: Write a story either for or against renewing the COVID lock-down measures.