Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Those Who Came Before

by Aaron Bass


The crowd cheered under the dull grey October sky as they brought forth yet another victim for the executionerís blade. The blade whistled through the air in an arc that inevitably ended at the same point in time as the life it took. The blade did not discriminate. It cared not who it killed, killer or king, pauper or priest. It cared not about race or sex or pleas for mercy. Nor did the executioner for that matter. He loomed above the chopping block like a monolith, four hundred pounds on an seven and a half foot frame.

There was a wet shwiiick! as the blade cut through flesh and bone, followed by the dull thud of the head hitting the wooden stage. In between victims the executioner stood motionless with the axe in his hands, the blade dripping blood like a salivating dog, as they exchanged the headless corpses for fresh bodies. The moment before the axe fell the crowd grew silent until the head hit the stage with a hollow thunk! Then there was more cheering and bloodlust. And nearby a murder of crows waited patiently on the gallows, knowing that by dusk their bellies would be full.

Arthur watched all of this with a kind of morbid fascination. He cheered when they cheered and he was quiet when they were quiet. But he was only one of the mob so that he did not become one of the condemned. He tried to hide it but still he winced every time the blade fell. Shwiiick! Thunk!

The monotonous repetition of sounds began to remind him of the big industrial machines that still ran in some of the buildings left behind by Those Who Came Before. Shwiiick! Thunk! Cheers. Silence. Cheers. Shwiiick! Thunk! Cheers. Silence. Cheers. Over and over again. And just like those machines, nobody knew the purpose of the Festival of the Damned. It had just always been there, like the machines. Most of them had stopped running long ago, but there were still a few that ran in the ruins of the buildings that were scattered throughout the forest.

Lord Hawthorne forbade anyone to even go near the machines, let alone to tinker with them, but some nights Arthurís curiosity would get the best of him. He would sneak of to the ruins in the night and press buttons and pull levers on the machines of old. If he were ever discovered he would become one of those who lost their head on October thirty-first.

All of the condemned were criminals sentenced to death by the High Court. Anyone given the death sentence was imprisoned for the remainder of the year until that fateful day in October. In the village of Seattle it did not take much to receive such punishment. In Seattle and the surrounding villages theft was considered a crime worthy of death, as was adultery and of course, speaking ill of Lord Hawthorne or any other person of governmental importance.

Arthur often wondered about Those Who Came Before. As he fiddled with their machines he would daydream about what life must have been like for them. Remnants of their civilization were everywhere. Although no one knew what any of it was for Arthur had his ideas. Once he had come upon an rifle half buried in the dirt. Burned out cars were all over. The ruins of their buildings were still present in many places. Arthur would stand next to the humming machinery and wonder what these things were for. As far as he could figure the rifle had been some sort of cane, and the cars were tiny metal houses but most of it baffled him.

He would wonder, as he went about his day, how much their day-to-day life was like his own. One thing that he liked to imagine was different was the Festival of the Damned. He thought of them as a free-thinking, advanced people, and therefor a peaceful people. Inventors and artists and writers, like him. Arthur was the town inventor and an aspiring artist and writer, even though in the village of Seattle artists and writers had nothing to aspire to. Lord Hawthorne had no use for artists or poets. Paper was in short supply and he considered using paper to draw or to write poetry or stories on a crime worthy of the executionerís blade.

Arthur used the walls of his home to sketch and write on instead. He would use a piece of charcoal to do his work and then scrub it clean when he was done. This was not considered a crime but was frowned upon by the citizens of the village. He did not want to be thought of as an outsider because a single accusation from a neighbor could be a death sentence.

Shwiiick! Thunk! Cheers.

Another head fell to the stage, waking Arthur from his daydreams. He joined in the cheering a little too late and he noticed Leonard, the man next to him, eyeing him cautiously. Arthur gave him a smile and tried to make it look sincere. The sun fell behind the trees of the vast forest that surrounded the village on all sides and the last victim was brought forward kicking and screaming. Arthur knew this man and knew his crime. He had been sentenced to death for making alcohol.

In Seattle marijuana was legal but alcohol was not, unless of course you happened to be Lord Hawthorne or one of his cronies. The smoking of marijuana was actually encouraged. Lord Hawthorne liked his subjects nice and docile. Alcohol stirred up the blood. It caused fights and free-thinking, revolts and revolutions. Marijuana was much safer. No had ever overthrown a monarchy while stoned as far as he knew. So the citizens of Seattle were given a one pound bag of marijuana every month as a gift from their ruler. They were, however, given one drink of what Those Who Came Before would call moonshine once every year -- on the thirty-first of October, just before the beheadings begin. And it was a good sized drink at that. Almost three shots worth, what the good people of Seattle called a squint. This served to prepare them for the dayís festivities.

Arthur made sure to pretend to spill his. He had never liked the effects of alcohol or marijuana. So everyday he burned a small amount of his monthly supply, so that if anyone were to check on him at any point during the month it would look like he was smoking some every day. He didnít like how it made him feel. He didnít like feeling apathetic and lazy, and he didnít understand why anyone else would either.

Shwiiick! Thunk! Cheers.

The last head of the year tumbled off the platform and Arthur cheered, sincerely for once. The spectacle was over for another year.

Before the crowd dispersed, Lord Hawthorne himself stepped onto the stage, after the executioner stepped down, and led the crowd in a prayer to the god of death, Sombra. He announced that those who had been sacrificed that day died in order to keep the rest of them safe for another year.

As he walked home Arthur spotted a six-legged deer standing on the edge of the woods, and his thoughts returned to Those Who Came Before. He wondered if their animals all had the same number of limbs and heads or if it had always been like this. He wondered if sometimes their babies had also been born with extra eyes or with their organs on the outside. He liked to think that it hadnít always been as it was now, that it used to be better.

When he reached his door, he brushed his long black hair out of his eyes and looked at the setting sun, at the orange and pink sky, and wished that he had colors to draw with instead of just charcoal.

He sighed and went inside his one-room hut. He drew the sunset on his wall anyway. When he finished, he stepped back and looked at his creation -- and sank farther into the depression he had felt for some time now. Iíll call it 'A Sunset' (in black), he thinks. Just like his other drawings, 'Landscape' (in black) and 'Woman in Red Dress' (in black).

After starting a fire and tossing in the last of the green herb that had been delivered to him at the beginning of the month he pulled up a loose board in the floor and retrieved a book from the space beneath. He couldn't make out the symbols on the front of the book -- the runes of a long dead people. Before opening the book he stared briefly at the symbols on the cover:

VINCENT VAN GOGH

When he opened the book his face lit up. The colors, oh God, the colors. He wondered what the artist possibly could have used to make such beautiful colors. Plants maybe, flowers. Those Who Came Before must have been a wonderful people to have someone like this artist among them, he thought.

He had been through this book hundreds of times since he had found it as a boy, but it intrigued him every time. Most of the pages had come loose from the binding and were tucked into the book here and there at random -- since he couldnít read the page numbers -- and the pictures were faded and stained in many places, but this book was still his most prized possession. Having a book like this wasnít illegal, but like his drawings, it was frowned upon, and he didnít want to seem different from the others. They already thought he was eccentric enough. They all used his inventions, but they didnít trust where they came from. Many of them believed that he talked to the gods to get his ideas. When he laughed at this and told them that the ideas came from his own head and not the gods they didnít believe him because none of them could ever come up with such ideas.

After he put the book back in its place, Arthur again started to wonder about the people who used to inhabit this land. His curiosity got the better of him and he sneaked off to the ruins of an ancient building with several machines that still worked. It was a four mile trek and the full moon was high in the night sky by the time he reached his destination. He sat on the moss-covered dirt floor and stared at one of the machines that he had never tried before, wondering what it was used for.

He waited until he could stand it no more, then stood and walked over to the machine. He pushed two buttons, pulled a lever, and pushed another green button -- not quite at random, for a combination like this had evoked a response from other machines. Suddenly the machine came to life. Lights flashed on and off on a panel below the buttons he had pushed. Then they all went dim except for four of them that started flashing in sequence. Arthur had an idea and pushed the third flashing button. Instantly the machineís parts started moving and it began to make noises.

Seamp! Whoomp! Blam! Seamp! Whoomp! Blam!

Pistons slid up and down, parts moved in and out. Arthur stepped back, amazed and a little frightened. Then, as quickly as it had started, the machine stopped and spat something out of a curtained alcove at its far end. Cautiously, he went over to it to investigate. He was surprised to find that the machine had expelled what looked like a huge metal egg. Metal was rarely seen except in the hands of Lord Hawthorne or his retainers; like alcohol, it was Ö dangerous.

The object glimmered in the moonlight like ice or sunlight on calm water. Carefully, he caressed its smooth, cool surface, until a coyote howled nearby and he jumped back. When his heart stopped trying to escape from his chest, he smiled and resumed his examination of the machine. It was three feet long and came to a point at one end. The other end was blunt, and had fins like the feathers on an arrow. As he looked closer Arthur saw that there were more of those strange runes on it:

U.S. ARMY

F-872B

SELF-PROPELLED INCENDIARY ROCKET

He tried to pick it up but dropped it on the first try, unprepared for the considerable weight of the thing. The coyote howled again and this time was joined by others from all sides. A chill shot up Arthurís spine and he, very carefully this time, picked up this strange metal egg. As he carried it he felt something that wasnít smooth like the rest of it. After turning it over he found a small panel of buttons and a blank screen. His brow creased as he tried to imagine what it could possibly be for.

He looked to the sky and realized that if he wanted to get back to the village unnoticed he had better get going. After depositing his find behind the remnants of a brick wall, he made his way through the woods towards home. On the way home Arthur wais so lost in thought that he nearly walks into several trees. As the village appeared on the horizon, so did the first hint of light in the sky. Arthur ran the rest of the way home and jumped into bed. Excitement ran through his body like electricity and he was convinced that sleep would be a long time coming. But despite his childlike excitement, the eight mile hike began to take its toll on him and he quickly drifted off to sleep.

The next day it all seemed like a dream to him. Aside from finding his book of paintings, yesterday had been the most interesting day of his life. Until now he had always just assumed that none of the machines still produced anything. He couldnít wait to try out the other buttons and other machines. The opportunities out there were endless! But as for today he had to look normal. He couldnít chance getting caught going out there. Not if he wanted to see another November.

Everyone in Seattle broke the law, except for the bad people, or rather the people that nobody liked. All it took was one accusation, unfounded or not, and it was off with your head. But if you were well liked in the community, you could break the law all you wanted and no one would ever tell. In Seattle the people who were predisposed to stealing and drinking and committing adultery never did. And those who went to church and were friendly with all of their neighbors drank and wife-swapped and did all of the other illegal things that the bad folks wished that they could do. Arthur wasnít disliked, but he was considered slightly off and a little eccentric so he didnít dare do any of the things that well liked people like the Richardses and the Simons did. And of course no one broke the law in the presence of Lord Hawthorne, except of course for Lord Hawthorne.

That morning Arthur went to the market to get horseshoes and a bag of pig feed. His journey took him past the house of Marvin and Janice Halford. The Halfordís had been paid by Lord Hawthorne to live in a glass house for one year. This was supposed to be entertainment for the rest of the community. Any time you liked, day or night, you could go down to the Halford place and watch. Everyone in the village loved it, except of course for Arthur. People would sit in front of their house from dawn till dusk some days and watch them eat and clean and fight and fuck. The Halfords had been in there for six months already and were somewhat used to it by now. So they had no qualms whatsoever about doing all of the things people normally do behind closed doors in front of their friends and neighbors. Arthur however was disgusted by every aspect of it. He thought the Halfords were despicable for taking money in exchange for their dignity, and thought the people of the village were even worse for watching it. As he passed by there were at least fifteen people standing around the house watching the goings on.

"Disgusting," he muttered to himself, "Those Who Came Before would never sink so low just for mere entertainment."

By the time he was on his way back home the crowd had more than doubled. Arthur considered it a disgrace.

That night when the rest of the village should have been in bed Arthur stood before his black wall, charcoal in hand, and began to sketch a horse he had seen on his way back from the market. Little did he know, Lord Hawthorne had grown suspicious of his resident inventor, and had sent one of his men to spy on him. He had received reports that Arthur had been witnessed going out into the woods in the direction of certain ruins containing dangerous machinery. Forbidden machinery.

The spy sat in the pouring rain below a sky filled with thunder and lightning and watched as Arthur sketched. He watched as Arthur sat down while still in the middle of his drawing and pulled a book from beneath his floorboards. Having seen enough, the guard sprinted back the center of the village to make his report to Lord Hawthorne personally.

Lord Hawthorne was a large man. Two hundred and fifty pounds at his lightest and only five foot six. He took his position as ruler very seriously and made sure to always look the part. He wore no crown, but had numerous gold chains around his neck, and a red cape lined with the hair of a wolf he supposedly killed with his bare hands. Although he was shorter that most of the village he still managed to look down his nose at everyone. He, at all times, carried a scepter of gold and silver. The head of which was completely covered with jewels.

Although he had heard rumors of Arthurís drawings for some time he was quite shocked to hear of this book. He jumped out of his seat as fast as a man of his size can and ordered ten of his guards to accompany him to Arthurís hut.

As he stepped back to admire his finished drawing of a horse in motion, thunder boomed overhead and Lord Hawthorne and ten of his men burst through the door ripping it off of two of itís hinges in the process. Arthurís charcoal slipped rom is finger tips and fell to the floor as he stepped back in fear. His first thought was that it was the raiders that lived in the Eastern woods, then he saw the red and blue uniforms of Hawthorneís men.

"Wha-Whatís t-this about?" he stammered.

Hawthorne ignored this question and ordered the spy heíd sent earlier to pull up the loose floorboard and bring him the book. He gasped when he looked inside as outside lightning struck again.

"Arthur," He said in his voice that always seemed to echo no matter where he was, "Do you not know that to meddle with the things of Those Who Came Before is forbidden?"

Arthur puffed up his chest and attempted to match Hawthorneís voice, failing miserably, "it is not forbidden, only looked down upon, is it not?"

"It is forbidden as of now." Hawthorne boomed.

Arthurís chest deflated and he took a step backwards. "But...but, you canít do that." he said, sounding like a small child whoís toys have been taken away.

"Canít I?" Hawthorne said with a kingly smirk. "I will spare your head this time, and for that I expect your thanks, but if this happens again it will be you on the chopping block come next October." and then to his men, "seize all of his charcoal and burn this blasphemous book."

"Nooo!" Arthur shrieked.

For a moment Hawthorne looked shaken by his cries, but only for a moment.

"Yes Arthur, now thank me for sparing your head."

Hawthorne stared deeply into Arthurís eyes, trying to read them with great success.

"Do it Arthur or spend the next year in jail only to loose your head at the end. Do it or die!" he commanded.

"I thank you for your mercy." Arthur said meekly, and then he began to weep fiercely.

Hawthorneís smirk spread to the far corners of his face before he turned and left followed by his men, all of whom looked at Arthur as something to be pitied and one of them even spat in his face. As the door closed Arthur wiped the tears and phlegm from his face and sat on the floor and wept for what seemed like and eternity. When he finally finished weeping he stood up abruptly and was sad no more. He was furious. And he knew of only one place that could calm him.

At that moment it was the worst thing he could do if he valued his head, but he felt compelled to go anyway. His feet seemed to work of their own accord and before he knew it he was out of his home and walking along the path he had walked just the night before it the pouring rain and thunder and lightning. He had plenty on his mind so the four-mile trip seemed to fly by. He found himself in the abandoned ruins of the factory again, back at the same machine. This time when the four lights began to flash he pushed the first button. Out of the end of the machine popped a small green thing the shape of and egg and twice its size. On its top was a small metal ring. Arthur was a fairly smart man and he quickly realized that to activate this device you had only to pull the ring. As he reached out to touch the ring there was a deafening crack of thunder overhead and Arthur jumped.

Always on the cautious side, Arthur ran after pulling the pin and setting down the strange green egg. After twenty yards he stopped and turned around only to see the egg explode in a brilliant flash of fire. He fell backwards to the ground and a small chunk of shrapnel struck him high in his left arm but he didnít seem to notice. He only staggered to his feet and began to approach the smoldering crater. Had the rain not been falling in torrents the entire forest most likely would have burned to the ground. However, only three nearby shrubs caught and Arthur quickly put them out. As he stood there in the rain staring at the crater lightning flashed in the sky and revenge flashed in Arthurís eyes.

Arthur headed for the machine again, but this time when the four buttons started to flash he pushed the fourth button. When he saw what emerged from the end of the machine he realized that he would need a horse and cart to move it. Once again he studied the mysterious symbols on the side of the device, but was unable to decode them.

If Iím right about what this thing does Iíll get my revenge, he thought as he made his way back to his house to get his horse. The hour was still early and if he hurried he could get everything done in one night.

One year later

The executionerís axe glimmered despite the morning cloud cover.

Shwiiick! Thunk! Cheers.

The Festival of the Damned goes on as it has for hundredís of years before.

The wind howled and the rain poured down with bruising force, yet the entire village was present as they always were. Arthur knew this would occur. He also knew that those executed were killed in order of the severity of their crimes, the smallest offenses first, and the worst saved for last. That was why last night he attempted to kill Lord Hawthorne, and that was why he purposely failed.

It was a busy day and there were many offenders. So as the sun sank behind the mountains to the west, Arthur was brought forth to the loudest cheers of the day. Arthur retained his smile in spite of the obscenities shouted at him and the missiles thrown -- vegetables, stones, excrement.

Arthur's smile did not worry Lord Hawthorne. Hawthorne was safe, his would be killer was about to die and he had a front row seat for the dayís last execution. As Arthur was tied to the blood-stained chopping block, Hawthorne watched with a smile.

The crowd fell silent as the executioner raised his axe -- and Arthur shouted, "Behold! I have a new invention to unveil today. It is at this very minute below the st-

Shwiiick! Thunk! Cheers.

His head rolled and no one heard the words he wanted to speak. No one saw the symbols on the side of the barrel-sized device Arthur had hidden under the execution platform after Hawthorne and his men had taken his book -- and his pride.

U.S. ARMY

F-926A-3

THERMONUCLEAR DEVICE

30 MEGATON YIELD

No one would ever read the words Arthur scribbled on his wall before he left it for the last time: What is worse, to create something destructive, or to destroy something creative?

Arthur's brain had ceased to function long before the explosion obliterated Hawthorne, the village, and everything for tens of miles in all directions. He would never have believed the extent of the destruction his final act of defiance had unleashed; nor would he have understood that the stillborn or twisted offspring that plagued man and beast for centuries after his death came from his last "invention". And he would never know that he and his people would someday be called Those Who Came Before.

THE END


© 2007 Aaron Bass

Bio: Aaron Bass is a 24-year old denizen of Everett, Washington, not too far from Seattle (but a LONG way from the Seattle in this story). His story Murderers Anonymous appeared in the August, 2007 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: Aaron Bass

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