Mass Destruction


Author: Jo
Word count : 4,005

Pairing : B/A
Rating: Anyone

Summary: Apocalypses come in all sorts, with all sorts of consequences. Some of them might even be real.

*


Mass Destruction

The Apocalypse was supposed to come from the heavens. Buffy and Angel knew that. They’d fought enough false ones, ones that had been sent by Hell, or brought about by demons. The real one, the one that was foretold, should come from the heavens. And it did, but not in the way that they expected.

For this most final of Apocalypses, there were no Horsemen, no heavenly battalions of angels releasing pre-ordained carnage upon the world. No power of evil rose from The Pit, there were no Hellish Legions, no battle at the end of time. This Apocalypse offered no rapture, no last judgement, and no redemption.

It had long been feared that the Apocalypse might be brought about by man, by the weapons of mass destruction, by nuclear death, by man-made plagues, by climate-fuelled famines. There were none of these. This weapon of mass destruction was not one of mankind’s.

It was a simple asteroid. A planet-killer. It came with almost no warning, plunging out of the Sun, unseen by astronomers until it was only a few hours away. Some hoped that the Moon would stop it, but it grazed past, missing by a cosmic hairsbreadth, rolling and tumbling, and as deadly accurate as a well-thrown slingshot.

Buffy wanted to try and save people. It was Angel who understood how impossible that was. He only had time to knock her out, scoop her up, grab as many supplies as possible, and head for the nearest hole in the ground. For the first time in his existence, he cursed the fact that the Hellmouth was gone. No matter how dangerous, that would have been safer. Instead, he made do with a long-abandoned gold mine, deep in the hills around Los Angeles, finding a tiny rubble-choked entrance to a maze of cramped passages.

Half a dozen strangers had had the same thought, and they followed the tall man who didn’t need a torch, but who carried his awkward burden, the limp form of a small, blonde woman, deep underground.

When she recovered consciousness, secure in Angel’s arms, Buffy railed at him for not letting her save people, then cried as the truth dawned on her. He’d done all he could, all anyone could. He’d tried to save them both. Whether that would succeed had nothing to do with Angel fire or Hell fire, and all to do with the strength of the planet.

Even hunkered down as far beneath the surface as they could get, they knew when the asteroid hit, a fiery cannon ball of rock, twenty miles wide. No-one could possibly not have known that moment. The planet shuddered, and rang like a bell, faltering in its endless dance around the Sun.

By a grimly ironic coincidence, it hit exactly where the dinosaur-killer had hit, on the Yucatan Peninsula. The impact threw flaming, sulphurous rock debris high into the atmosphere, and beyond, and an inferno swept around the world as the atmosphere caught fire. On the opposite side of the planet, the Earth bulged, and its skin cracked open, as fragile as a broken egg. Flood lavas poured out, changing the continents forever. And the Earth burned. Coalfields, oilfields, nation-sized peat beds, even naked rock, everything burned beneath that sky of fire, taking forests and plains, cities and deserts, consuming all the world’s oxygen.

Even though he had no need to breathe, Angel was the first to understand the change in the atmosphere. He scrambled back to the surface, to be met by the sight of Hell on Earth. Quickly, he brought down the entrance until there was just a wall of rock and sand, and the air within the mine was preserved.

Back with the survivors, he took Buffy aside, and gave her the grim news of what he’d seen outside.

“I’m going to have to go exploring.”

“Why?”

“Because everything we have here is all we’re going to have for a long time to come. We need more air and we need more water. I’m the only one that won’t suffer if I break into a cave that has no oxygen at all. You have to keep everyone here calm. Conserve air and supplies. Let me do what I’m best placed to do.”

He set off into the darkness of the tunnels, accompanied by only the occasional sound of scurrying rodents. The first day, he found a small gap into a natural cave system, and widened it so that more air could get through. He squeezed past the rocky gateway, to find a more extensive system of caverns, with a pool of clear water. There were several rocky pinch points in the passageways, but eventually he came to the cave mouth. He had to stand back from the appalling furnace heat, but even above the roaring of the fires, he heard another, deeper sound. He understood immediately, and prayed that he’d found a place that was high enough as well as deep enough. The ocean was too far away to be seen, but a planet-sized tsunami would soon be rolling over the continent.

Fear lent him speed. He snatched up a couple of charred carcasses from the cave mouth, dead and roasted deer that would feed the survivors, and squeezed back through the pinch points, pulling down the rocky ceilings behind him. He had to preserve the sweet water pool at all costs. He might not be able to find another, after the salt water had swept through. If, that were, they weren’t swept away themselves by the power of the tidal wave. At least they were on the side of the hills that faced away from the water.

He dropped the carcasses around the corner from where Buffy and the others had made camp by the light of a single candle. They were as deep in the mine as they could get. There was nowhere else to go.

“Brace yourselves,” he told them, as he sat and took Buffy into his arms, hiding from her his broken and bleeding hands. Minutes later, a tsunami that had girdled the world smashed its way onto the land, obliterating hills and valleys, remaking the face of the continent. Their refuge shuddered from the force of it, and the humans held their ears, trying to keep out the sound that suggested mountains being ripped out by their roots, but the chain behind them held.

When it was over, one of the women was sobbing. All the others were silently curled up, immobilised by fear. Buffy went over to the crying woman, holding her.

“There’s food,” Angel told her, keeping his voice dispassionate. “You’d better all eat while it’s fresh.”

“What about you?”

“I’m fine.”

She gave him an old-fashioned look, and he ducked his head, unable to look her in the eye. He was fine now, but for how long? The tooth-sharpening scents of blood and fear were thick in the close confinement.

He resumed his explorations, glad to get away.

When he went back to the natural cave, the pool of water had survived, but the cave itself had been swept clean. Only the last two rockfalls that he had created still survived. Outside, the land was a featureless plain of sand and mud, mixed with the splintered remains of trees and shattered rock, and great salt lakes. The sky still burned, but the fires on Earth had been extinguished.

He needed to be strong for the people in his care, so he sat and wept alone, grieving for everything that was gone, and for a future that could now never be.

Over the following days, he excavated access points to other mines and other cave systems, always careful to create temporary blockages that would keep in as much air as possible. Occasionally he came across other pools, but these were all contaminated with salt water. And sometimes he came across animals that had sought refuge underground. He hunted these, penning the larger ones into dead end tunnels. When he took them, he always chose those in the worst condition, trying to eke out the living larder as long as possible. The blood sustained him, and the meat sustained everyone else.

He watched the first nightfall, when the oxygen in the atmosphere at last ran out, and the sky fires flickered into darkness, leaving the airborne debris free to fall back to the surface of the Earth. The stars still shone, the Moon still looked down, but it was onto a planet that was shattered and broken. If there wasn’t enough plant life left on land or in the oceans to replenish the oxygen, these few surviving humans wouldn’t make it for more than a very few weeks. Nothing larger than a bacterium would survive. And neither would he. A vampire can go a very long time without blood, but if there was nothing drinkable left in the world? How could that go for him?

After the fires and the tsunami came the rain. Not the life-giving, cleansing rain that was born of clouds of water vapour. These rainstorms were born of different clouds, boiling sulphurous clouds that stretched from horizon to horizon. Sulphuric acid. When it began to fall, he held out his hand to catch it, hoping it was pure, clean water. Instead, his skin burned and sizzled. It might as well have been holy water. The only difference was that humans wouldn’t be able to tolerate it, either. There was an irony in it, he thought grimly.

Soon, he had networked miles of tunnels and caves, blocking in enough of an atmosphere to last for a good while. He brought the humans one starving animal after another, just enough to keep them alive, but at last, there were only rats left. And still the rain burned his skin.

When the rats were gone, or too difficult to catch, even for a hungry vampire, it was still impossible to go outside. He looked around the tiny group, already showing too much stretched skin and protruding bone, and so much blood. He took Buffy aside.

“I’ve got something to show you.”

He took her through miles of tunnels, deep into the mountains, until they came to a shallow lake.

“How are the supplies?” he asked.

“If we keep on just eating a few bites a day, we’ve got enough for about another week. How long will the rain last? Because after that we’ll be eating each other.”

He smiled wanly. “I can see you letting that happen.”

“Don’t kid yourself. I’ll be the first one chomping on a chunky thigh.”

He smiled at her attempt at humour.

“I have no idea about the rain. It might stop tomorrow, or it might keep on for a year. I’m not an astrophysicist.”

“What does your gut tell you?”

“It’ll go on for a while yet.”

He turned to look out across the black lake, but she knew his thoughts were far from there. She didn’t interrupt, and it was a long time before he spoke.

“This water is clean,” he told her, “and as far as I can work out, the river that fed it has changed course or gone altogether. You should be safe from contamination by the acid. And there are fish in here. They’re quite small, but if you’re careful, they will last you for months. There are tiny shrimps, too. It would take a hundred to make a teaspoonful, but you can eat them. Can you remember how to get here?”

“Of course I can. But what about you?”

“There’s only one group of prey around here for me to eat. Maybe only one group in the entire world. And I’m not going to do that.”

He pulled something from his pocket. It was a stake.

“I want you to stake me. If you don’t, I’ll kill you all, eventually.”

“No.” Her voice was very flat and very final.

“Yes. You have to.”

“I’ll feed every one of them to you before I stake you. I’ll make them give you blood turn and turn about. And you’ll have mine, of course.”

He shook his head. “And turn me into The Master? I don’t think so. Besides, you can’t afford it.”

“It won’t be for long! As soon as this rain stops, we can go and look for food and shelter and other people.”

“You think there’ll be any?” He took her by the shoulders. “It’s all gone, Buffy. Everything. There might truly be nothing at all living on the face of the Earth except for us. And it’s hardly the Garden of Eden out there. The only chance you’ve got is if the ocean still has fish in it. Wherever the shore is nowadays, there might be shellfish if they haven’t all been boiled; edible seaweeds; crabs. There won’t be much, I guess, but there’s likely to be nothing on land. I can’t eat fish.”

“It could keep you alive...”

“No, Buffy. It couldn’t. It would be like you trying to live on diet soda. There’s no actual nutrition in it. You need to stake me now, while I’m still strong enough not to eat anyone.”

“Angel, it can’t come to this! Please don’t do this to us. I need you. I can’t do this without you.”

“I’ve done everything I can, Buffy. I’m a liability to you now. Your future lies with these other people.” He offered her the stake. “Please.”

She snatched it from him. “No. Absolutely not.”

His laughter was harsh. “You think there aren’t enough timbers in these mines to find another stake? Or I could just walk out into the rain, but I’d hoped you would give me a quicker end than that. I hoped you’d think I might have earned that much.”

Her sob stopped him. He’d tried to keep his distance, but his resistance crumbled, as he knew his resistance to the call of blood would also crumble. But, for now, he folded her into his arms and held her close.

“Please, Buffy. Or I’ll do it myself...”

“You could turn me. We could fight this thing together. I could be by your side always. Have you thought of that?”

He kissed her.

“There isn’t a day goes past when I don’t think of doing that. But I won’t.”

“There has to be another way,” she sobbed. “There has to be. What have vampires done in the past when they faced starvation?”

He rested his forehead against hers. “They’d go to ground.”

“What do you mean?”

He pulled away and turned back to the lake.

“A vampire can go to ground, and lie dormant until woken again. That can be a hit or miss affair, which is why it’s good to have someone around to do the waking up.”

“Would that work here? For you?”

“It might,” he admitted. “I’d be very hungry when I woke up...”

“So, you could wait here, unharmed, until we’ve established whether anywhere has survived, and whether there’s anything for you to eat. No matter how long that takes?”

“I suppose so.”

“It’s better than being dusted, isn’t it?”

His smile was warm, but his blood ran cold at the thought. He wouldn’t share that with her. Vampires who went to ground were very dangerous if they were left too long, the demon so much wilder, so much more primitive, than it had been before. And what of his soul? How would that manage, in the reconstruction of the demon? It was a ghost of a hope, though, for her, at least.

“Yes. Just don’t leave it too long.”

Together, they dug a hole in the sand by the lake. When it was deep enough, he took her hand and led her a little way along the water’s edge, where he laid her down and made love to her. There was no chance of perfect happiness here, just perfect desperation. And then he lay down in his new grave. Even through the first layers of sand, he could smell her tears, as she pushed the sand over him. It was the last thing he knew, before his body shut down.

When she was done, and she’d dried her tears, she found a beautiful piece of crystal that had been shaken loose in the cataclysms, and laid it on the mounded sand beneath which her lover lay.

“I’ll come back for you, Angel. One way or another, I’ll come back for you.”

She knelt by his grave, and prayed that it would soon stop raining. She came back there every day of their incarceration.

+

Col and Suk wormed their way into the cavern. They’d been following a small scattering of the sun metal, little pieces in the earth. If they could find enough of it, they might be able to trade it for some of the black stone that burns. That was so vanishingly rare that a lot of sun metal would be demanded. But, the black stone that burns was the only thing that would allow them to smelt the sharp metal to make better tools and weapons. So, they would dig until they had enough.

There was no sun metal in this cavern, but there were tunnels leading off, and they would be worth following. Perhaps they would find some old workings from the Last Inhabitants. Or better, perhaps they could find some ancient tools or other artifacts. All of those fetched a good price.

For now, though, there was the lake, and they were thirsty and hungry. They waded out into deepest part, washing off the mud, stirring up the sediment in the crystal water. It slaked their thirst, but the water was quite barren. There was no visible life at all, no swimming things, no scuttling things, not even any dead things to scavenge.

Disappointed, they waded back to the shore. Col pointed to a white crystal that glittered in the single ray of sunlight from their tunnel. Suk picked it up. It was pretty, so he put it into his pouch. Then he knelt down to look more closely. There were some small shards of bone. Just by a neck bone something black lay coiled on the sand. Gingerly, he picked it up and rubbed it. It was a heavy cross and chain, made from moon metal, but tarnished now by age. Perhaps it would buff up.

He stirred the bones around with his finger.

“Something died here, Col.”

Col stood back a little, surveying the shape of the sand.

“It’s a mound. I think something is under the ground. Something of the Last Inhabitants?”

They began to dig.

What they found was a shrunken, mummified body and the shape of it didn’t belong on Earth. They stared at it with interest, and poked it, but it didn’t fall apart on exposure to the air. That might be worth a good price. They bundled it into their groundsheet and set off back to the city.

When they showed the thing to Asha, at the city’s museum, he was more than interested, and he did indeed give them a good price, enough for a few pieces of the black stone that burns.

The next day, Asha set about examining the find. It was a strange and alien thing, with sharp fangs, and the bony plates of its face gave it an angular, predatory look. He’d never seen anything like it.

He measured and made notes, and did drawings. It was important for a scientist to have facts, he believed, and the more facts the better. And all the bones were here. Such good fortune.

Despite the covering of parchment-thin skin, the mouth gaped open in death, as skulls usually did, but there was a shrivelled piece of tissue that might once have been a tongue. He poked a measuring stick down into the throat, but he must have been careless. His wrist scraped against one of the largest fangs, and blood ran down into the cavity. Quickly, he peered at the numbers to get the measurement, and then he pulled out the stick. With his kerchief, he dabbed at the spots of blood on the tongue, and wiped the stained fang.

And then those fangs closed over his wrist, and try as he might, he couldn’t get it off him, and he cried out for help, but no one came, and then he had no strength in him to cry out at all.

Weak and withered, the demon that had once been Angel slid off the table and hid in a cluttered corner until night fell. The food had been familiar, although he couldn’t name it. Not yet. It would take a lot more of these to rebuild his flesh after such a long fast. He wondered how long he had been underground, but only briefly. His thinking processes were slow, his only remaining instinct focused on the need to feed. When darkness fell, he pulled himself painfully down the stairway to the cellars.

The scent of food was all around him. The scuttling little creatures were so free of fear that it took only a few days of hunting to clean them out. Now he had enough strength, enough shape, enough intellect, to venture outside. When he had finished in the cellars, his memory managed to supply the word he had forgotten. Rat.

Out on the street, in stolen clothes that hung on him like a scarecrow, he began to explore. The buildings were timber, roughly gnawed at the ends. Very frontier. He was startled by a cart that rumbled past, drawn by four strong beasts. They weren’t horses, though, or anything that had come from horses. They were rats, giant rats, long-legged and muscular, as tall at the shoulder as he was. What was driving them wasn’t a human, either. That, too, was a rat, with no fur to speak of, two-legged, sharp-featured and sharp-toothed. His nostrils flared. Yes, definitely a rat.

His sight and hearing were improving, but still poorer than they would be when he was well-fed again. His most basic hunting sense, though, was honed by starvation until it was razor sharp. Scent. He sniffed the air, the warm breeze carrying molecules from hundreds of miles away, or perhaps from thousands of miles, tenuous but real, like light from a distant star. Of the warm-blooded world, he could smell nothing but rats. Rats that were evolved, into all sorts of different shapes and sizes, but rats nonetheless.

He must have slept for an unimaginably long time, time enough for the sole survivors of the cataclysm, the rats, to fill the gaps left by every other type of life-form. Walking, crawling, running, flying, they were all rats.

Well, at least he knew that he could eat those. He might get sick of the taste, but they would keep him alive, in all their new shapes. Perhaps there were humans somewhere else on this world, with blood and hormones that were more to his taste. There was plenty of time for him to explore, when he was stronger.

He thought of a blonde slayer, a girl who had once been an obsession of his, and who had put him in the grave, as she was perhaps always destined to do. If she had killed him, then he had killed her. When he had woken, there had been some faint residual scent of her death, in the eternal atmosphere of that cavern. Well, the world turns, and obsessions come and go. The time for this one was gone.

Deep inside, something wailed, and sang a sad, mad song about redemption and a higher purpose. About a better life. About love.

He laughed, and shuffled off to find a suitable lair where he could feed and fatten. And hunt. Humanity had been the sum of their hopes and dreams and nightmares. It seemed that rats were the new humanity. If they had hopes and dreams, then even rats ought to have some nightmares to spice the mix. He would be sure to provide them.


The End
August 2011