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The Cult of the Sleeping Elders

by Julia Marsiglio 9 months ago in Sci Fi
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Science-fiction

Image created by author using Canva Pro

Alicia was surrounded by a soft grey calm as she slipped into consciousness. She felt no pain and no fear. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard Vivaldi—Spring—the rift one minute in on repeat. At first, it was comforting, but then irritating and shrill. She wasn’t sure if she couldn’t move her limbs or simply wouldn’t. And then suddenly the pain of hot and cold stretched through her, and her body was confronted by a myriad of sensations and sounds. Moans, cries, splooshing fluids and the suctioning noise of people rising from their cryogenic baths.

She shot up. Ooff, her muscles were granular and thick, like curdled and seized chocolate. The gelatinous, yet fluid blue slime of her opened pod clung to her skin and snaked into her mouth and airways. She choked, hacking up a bitter green substance before gasping for breath.

From the corner of her eyes, she saw Evan helping someone up. A child. Artemis was his name, or was it Arthur? No matter—it was Artie for short. Only ten years old—his parents the last people he saw when he closed his eyes. His mother had given him her spot in the chaos and Alicia had watched them die. He didn’t know. Regardless, they wouldn’t be here for him now. Whenever now was.

The room was thick with shivering naked bodies. Alicia wanted to be helpful, but everything was moving too fast. Suddenly, she felt a strong hand grasp her forearm tightly, snapping her out of her daze. It was Nina. She heaved her up and supported her as she tripped out of the pod. Alicia focused and took in her surroundings.

The vault was trashed. The concrete floor was stained brown and maroon, possibly with blood. Alicia recoiled and jumped as she realized her bare feet were touching the sticky redness. Yes, it felt like blood. Not fresh but not old either. But whose was it? Alicia scanned her surroundings. No bodies. No bleeding.

The walls, where guns, supplies and clothes had been stored were stripped bare of cabinets and shelves. Some kind of mural had been painted there but it had hastily been white-washed over and tagged in large green letters: Fuck the Cult! Long live the Renaissance!

What cult? What renaissance? A chemical odour lingered in the thick air.

“Alicia!”

It was Evan calling—his eyes lit up when she smiled at him. Evan—who had professed his undying love for her right before they went under. Evan whose love she had been unable to reciprocate, at least not in the way he wanted.

She rushed over and hugged him, finding her feet. He was her closest friend and felt warm and strong next to her body. She lingered, until suddenly aware of her nakedness, she pulled away and held him at arm’s length.

“Evan! Are you okay?” He was blushing. “Yeah, I’m fine. But what the fuck? What year is it?”

Alicia didn’t know.

Evan looked around — motioning to the debris littering the floor. The door to the vault was ajar. The indestructible door was meant to withstand a nuclear blast and could only be opened from the inside. Already some of the others were shuffling through the arch into the antechamber beyond. The room reeked of urine. They’d all pissed themselves.

Alicia followed, grabbing Evan by the arm. The antechamber was empty save for a pile of grey tunics, climbing gear, dry bread, cured meat and water. All rudimentary. There was a mad rush for the clothes and someone was taking a role call. Ellis, Omar and Cassira were missing. On further inspection, their pods were clean and empty but adorned with golden trinkets and silk flowers. Alicia sucked on a crust of bread.

“We have to go down the cliff,” she said, at first quietly but louder on repetition.

Alicia tied herself to Artie. Only one rope reached the ground — a loop, knotted at intervals to break the fall should one slip. Alicia hooked her carabiner to the rope and slipped over the edge, following Artie. He was crying — silently. She knew the questions on his mind, on her mind. When was it? Was everyone dead? Had it been a decade? 100 years? The old-growth forest at the base of the cliff gave her a hint. It had once been farmers' fields.

The descent was tough. Alicia wished she had eaten more of her share, but she hadn’t felt hungry. Her muscles ached from god-knows how many years of suspended animation. The sleep hangover lingered and consumed her. After what seemed an eternity, they neared the bottom.

Suddenly, without warning, she felt the sudden torque of Artie’s rope as he slipped and fell with a scream, careening below her.

Alicia tried to hold on, but her hands couldn't compensate for the dead weight. Burned raw from holding the rope in near free-fall, she was forced to let go to protect herself from hitting her head, relying on her connection to the rope to save her.

When Artie hit the knot, Alicia felt herself being relieved of his weight and for a split second she believed he had fallen. Then she too hit the knot, her weight colliding into the small boy. He was unconscious and dangling a mere few metres from the bottom. Binding him to her, she continued her descent.

There were bigger problems now. As soon as they were below the treeline, Alicia looked down to see a ragged group of people with guns. She opened her mouth to shout up a warning when she heard a rush of clicks. There were at least a dozen weapons trained on her, ready to fire. Cognizant of Artie’s unconscious form, she stayed silent as several of the aggressors rushed to help them down.

Before long, Artie was on the ground. Shaking herself free from the ‘helpers’, Alicia rushed to him. His chest moved up and down. He was alive! There was bleeding at the back of his head and bruises just beginning to form all over his body. Concussed—certainly—but also alive.

As the others arrived, they too were intercepted by the armed band. Some of them fought and were subdued with the butt of a gun, or a couple of strong arms and some rope, but most of them were too taken aback to fight. Alicia noted that Evan was smart enough to realize the futility of resistance at that moment. Good, she thought. Save your energy.

When all twenty-one of them were there, their captors seemed to know. Someone forced Alicia to her feet. Someone else heaved Artie over their shoulders. In a mess of wailing, gun-waving and curt shouts, the whole group retreated into the forest.

The undergrowth of the forest scratched Alicia’s bare feet and legs. She felt exposed and unsteady like she had woken from one dream into another—unsure if this was reality or the cruel joke of an imaginative mind at night. Terror hadn’t sunk in yet. She felt fear, but not to the point of overwhelm. Cognitively, she knew the situation merited terror, but there was a dampening of emotional awareness and a heightening of her sensory experiences that muted everything, even fear.

Before long they reached a small clearing at the base of a hill. It was still under the cover of the forest, but with space to gather. Alicia found herself being herded towards the centre along with her companions. A tall broad-backed fighter held Artie gently, almost tenderly. Nina was beside her, tears running down her face but silent. Alicia squeezed her hand.

A woman—short, black-haired and sharp—addressed the group.

“We are not your enemies.”

Her tone was emphatic. Almost emotive. Alicia thought to herself that it didn’t match her countenance. It was disorienting. Her accent was strange and unplaceable. More melodious than English ought to be. Her cadence more rhythmical.

“You have questions. I know you do, but there isn’t much time. They will come soon.”

As she spoke, Alicia heard the buzz of aircraft hovering over the forest, fading towards the direction they had retreated from. The woman continued.

“I’m just going to say it. It’s the year 10,304”.

Shock descended over the group. It wasn’t possible. Alicia did a quick calculation. 7,741 years. They had been in cryogenic sleep for almost 8,000 years. Alicia felt sick—unrooted from anything close to sense. This much was clear from this disclosure: their captors knew they were from an earlier age. The question was—what did they want? And why were they awake now.

Alicia flashed back to that eventful evening. The bombs had been going off for days. Beijing, Manilla. San Juan. Geneva. Johannesburg. Toronto. New York. Rio de Janeiro. Total annihilation. Billions dead under clouds ballooning into themselves. Then all communication ceased. Everyone fleeing to the countryside. Those who could into space.

She remembered watching spacecraft being shot down from orbit. The debris raining down in a deadly fire.

Alicia wouldn’t have made it if it hadn’t been for Evan. There were twenty-four cryogenic beds. In the days leading up to the end of the world, Belus Corp had scrambled to find people to bring to the other side of the conflict. Artie’s mom had been the doctor they’d chosen. An MD/Ph.D., she’d been one of the developers of adaptable vaccines.

Evan had a spot—as the bio-engineer who had been essential to perfecting cryogenic sleep, it was no surprise. He’d brought Alicia there at the end.

The antechamber was also a bunker, he’d said. And there was a chance that not everyone would arrive. Maybe there’d be a pod. That was before he told her he loved her.

Artie went under after Toronto was hit. He was the third one to go into cryogenic sleep. There was fighting, and his father was killed after Artie went under. Belus Corp wanted to wake him and force his mother in instead, but she took her gun to her own head and threatened to kill herself if they tried. And they tried.

Someone grabbed Alicia’s arm and ushered her up the hill, away from the group. He was a tall and skinny man—bald with brown skin and a curly dark red beard.

At the top of the hill, the man pulled her down beside him as he crouched behind a bush.

“Look,” he said, his voice softer than she expected. Alicia’s eyes followed as he unfurled his unusually long index finger. She could see the cliff-face in the distance where their cryogenic vault had been located. A smooth oblong vehicle was stationed at the entrance.

She looked at him, and he answered her inquisitive gaze. “A hovercraft. It’s them—the authority, the Cult”. He handed her what appeared to be a pair of glasses but were in fact, high-tech binoculars. They brought into focus a flurry of activity at the vault. There were heavily armed soldiers in white uniforms and people wearing long white robes with black lace collars and cuffs. All the robed ones were bald.

Much further away Alicia could see what looked like giant mechanical daddy-longlegs climbing over and through the forest with ease. It was close to dusk and they had searchlights trained on the forest floor. On seeing these robots, her companion exclaimed suddenly: “We have to get moving! Go! Tell your people what you saw!”

They moved fast after Alicia explained that someone else was looking for them—someone clearly even more powerful. Midnight saw them at their destination—an ingeniously disguised hatch at the base of a tree, nestled in its roots and covered with a thick layer of creeping thyme.

They funnelled into the bunker. It was large enough to play a game of basketball in, thought Alicia. She wondered if these people knew what basketball was. The woman was speaking again. In the background Alicia heard people barking questions and answers, but she was looking for Artie.

The broad-shouldered woman who had carried Artie through the forest was walking out of an interior door with something in a bag. Alicia watched her. Yes! She was going towards Artie, who was crumpled up in one of the bunks along the wall and starting to stir.

Alicia ran to him, holding him in her arms. The bag was filled with ice and the woman held it to a big bump on his forehead. Artie was awake but despondent.

“You okay?” Alicia asked him. He mumbled in reply. He could at least acknowledge her. That was something.

Alicia noticed that the woman was looking at her strangely. She looked back at her defiantly, causing her to blush.

“Sorry for staring,” the woman muttered. “It’s just that you were always my favourite one growing up. Seeing you — it’s like...”

Her voice trailed off. She bit her lower lip and appeared distant and dreamy.

“Like what?” Alicia snapped.

Hearing this woman state that she had some kind of knowledge of her sent chills down her spine. There were some one hundred-odd heavily armed people down in the bunker with them. Many of them were staring at their captives in a voyeuristic, consuming way. The sharp black-haired woman who seemed to be in charge was snapping orders at others as they distributed food and drink. Evan was seated on the floor with the others.

The woman beside Alicia snapped out of her daze and continued. “I was raised believing in the cult you know. Most of us were. I mean… sorry…of course you don’t know about the cult, which is ironic”.

“Spit it out!” Alicia was growing impatient.

The woman looked hurt. She was very young. Maybe even a teenager. She was large — likely over six feet tall and broad, but her face was childlike — round and youthful, and she tugged at her hair nervously. Alicia regreted her harsh tone.

“So the cult… it’s about you. You are the Sleeping Elders. You are the only people who survived the nuclear winter on earth. The radiation and the cold killed everyone else, even in the bunkers. The rest of us, we come from the people who survived in space.” Alicia listened intently.

“They couldn’t stay up there forever, and when they came back, it was still cold and life hard and short. People died young and painfully for a long time. There was feudalism for thousands of years. And then, when the sensor detected that it was warm enough and the radiation levels low enough, King Ellis emerged from the vault like a god and raised his castle from the ground.”

Ellis was the head engineer, who had designed the workings of the vault. They were supposed to wake up consecutively—one per day—when conditions were right. If something was wrong there was a manual override. But Omar and Cassira were not next, and they were also missing.

Evan had told Alicia about the fortress too. Ellis had designed and built it in secret deep underground on his property in the Laurentians. It was designed to raise out of the ground and serve as a base of operations post-war. Ellis, Evan had said, was an eccentric.

“King Ellis changed everything in his lifetime. People worshiped him and worshiped you too. He wrote down all your stories. You were my favourite. The love story between you and Evan is the most romantic story of all time. I used to pretend-play as a child that I was you.”

Alicia did a double-take. Ellis certainly had embellished that love story quite a bit. There was nothing of note: a hurried confession of unrequited love. Alicia couldn’t look at him that way.

“Omar? Cassira?” Alicia asked.

“King Ellis founded the Cult of the Sleeping Elders. Most people—they didn’t really know how it all works. Cryogenics that is. They thought it was magic. Even now—we know it’s tech—but the cult of personality is so strong.

You’re people, but you’re not. You’re gods too—to us. You have to have your eyes open to walk away from the cult, and once your eyes are open, there is no going back. But the story goes that the elders will wake just when the world needs them.

About five hundred year years into the dynasty that King Ellis founded, King Alexander III faced resistance. There was a faction that did not believe in the Cult and was challenging the right of rule. Cassira, well she was young and beautiful and well-loved. He woke her and married her, parading her around to tell stories of the old earth. Her children were gods too to the people, and her eldest was kept from her and raised to be king. He was cruel.”

“Oh, Cassira!” Alicia cried, tears collecting in her eyes. She remembered her from a party she had attended with Evan. She was bubbly and entertaining. Sweet too, unless you tested her. And yes, she was uncommonly beautiful. Her hair was a gorgeous halo of tight brown curls, and her eyes large, round and piercing.

“Omar was woken up only last year. They have him. They’ve made a priest of him or at least robed him as such. They parade his holo image in the cities, but he never speaks. He’s written volumes of testimony and instruction, or so they say. They’re scared again. Because a lot of people aren’t buying it now. They are tired of this unending regime.”

The story went that Evan had pronounced his undying love to Alicia as the world burned, and they had pledged eternal love for each other. Then after making love for the first and last time, Alicia had drifted off to sleep in his arms.

He had then carried her to his cryogenic pod and given her his place, resigned to his death along with the rest of humanity. Some factions believed that she had been impregnated and that her child would one day free all of humanity. Some believed that their child would start a new era and usher in utopia.

According to legend, Evan had unexpectedly gotten the chance to save himself when one of the chosen didn’t make it. That wasn’t true. It had been Alicia who had been given that chance. And it had never come to him having to offer her his spot. But star-crossed lovers, the ultimate sacrifice, a latent baby—it made a far better story. Alicia knew that.

There was dissent amongst the twenty-one. Some believed in their captors, or as they called themselves “The Harbingers of the Rennaissance”. Some didn’t. This caused conflict in the bunker. Nina was actively planning an escape. Georgia mused over the idea of trying her luck with the Cult instead. She thought it better to be worshiped than tolerated.

Alicia told her she was naive. Evan studied everything he could get his hands on about their new world. He wasn’t optimistic either way, and Alicia shared his concerns.

They spent hours huddled together trying to make sense of it, trying to understand what was going on and what might happen to them. Their captor’s plan was to ally with the ‘gods’ they had woken, to expose the Cult as imposters—power-hungry despots that had used a bizarre situation to cement their rule for millennia.

They had managed to infiltrate the system in place to guard the ‘Sleeping Elders’ and exploit their defence weaknesses by disabling the AI, attacking and killing all human guards, removing their bodies and deactivating cryogenesis.

To Alicia, this resistance seemed too small and fringe to succeed. She wanted to escape, but not yet. Not into the arms of the Cult.

They had spent a week in the bunker when the short woman with black hair, (the commander and also allegedly a descendent of King Ellis) announced that it was time for the twenty-one to chose a side.

“You know our mission and our goals. We know that this fight was never chosen by you but that you are tied to it. If you choose to stay and fight with us, to use your status to better this world, we welcome you as one of us. If you choose to go, we will escort you away from here. You can try to run from the Cult on your own or return to them. All we ask is that you do not give away our position and intent.”

Nina and three others chose to leave. They were set to leave in the early morning, under the cover of darkness, given that all was clear. Armed scouts would escort them and ensure them safe passage to the south. After they were well away from the bunker, they would be on their own. Alicia chose to stay and feigned excitement for the cause. She felt anything but. It was better to be trusted than to be honest with enemies.

That night Alicia woke up in a cold sweat around midnight. Evan was asleep in the bunk across from her but Artie wasn’t in his. She searched silently and frantically for him, but she couldn’t find him. The four who had chosen to leave were gone. Terrified, Alicia feared he had gone with them.

The bunker was eerie and still. The one guard on night shift was fast asleep with a half-smoked blunt beside him. Alicia crept past him, up the long narrow stairs that crawled towards the surface and opened the hatch. Blindly, she headed south and then changing her mind returned to the hatch to look for any signs.

They had given Artie a teddy bear on the first night, and Alicia found it nestled in some poison ivy to the north. Her heart sunk and pounded within her chest. She began to run. After about five minutes she heard voices and slowed her pace. There they were. Artie. Nina. Jim. Georgia and Simone with two heavily armed guards. Nina was holding Artie who was sobbing. Georgia was wailing and begging. Until she wasn’t. The tall man with the red beard shot her in cold blood. Then the remaining three adults in quick succession.

Alicia shoved her fist in her mouth to stifle her sobs. Artie. Not Artie. But no other shot came. They were arguing.

“He’s just a kid.”

“He’s not a kid to them, he’s a god.”

He was paralyzed with fear. Stay still Artie, she thought. Don’t act like a threat.

But then she heard another shot fired and couldn’t look. She heard Artie scream and choke. It was over.

Alicia ran as fast as she could back to the bunker, down the long steps and into her bed: spending the night in quiet, seething anger, pretending to sleep and waiting for morning. She had never felt so powerless, so at the mercy of everything and everyone, not even when the world burned around her. She needed to gain back some power, and she knew exactly what she had to do.

The man with the red beard returned close to dawn, his hands stained with earth and sat down to breakfast with the commander as everyone else began to wake up. Evan was waiting in line for his breakfast porridge when Alicia felt collected enough to get out of bed.

She rose, walked silently up to Evan, and wrapped her hand in his. He started, shocked by the gesture, and turned to look at her face. He saw the horror in her eyes that was hidden from everyone else, and when she shook her head ever so slightly his eyes grew to reflect her own terror.

“Evan,” Alicia whispered, almost inaudibly, looking away from him. “We need… I need you to get me pregnant. We need to have a baby”.

Sci Fi

About the author

Julia Marsiglio

Loss parent. Canadian poet. Fiction and nonfiction writer. Intersectional feminist. Writing on trauma, grief, mental health, marginalization, neurodivergence and more.

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