On warm mornings I like to sit at the edge of the Plateau of Man. The smog glows softly in the city below as the sunshine dawns upon it. Though I can imagine all the cars honking on the stagnant freeway, I can’t hear it up here. There’s only the sound of the wind, the hush of the waterfall, and my own heavy breath.
Ever since the ancients arrived in the valley, people have been trying to climb up the Plateau of Man. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have fallen to their deaths, wishing to see the valley from above. Over time a city grew at the foot of the cliffs, full of people who failed and vowed to try again, someday.
Nowadays, most people wander around the city streets aimlessly. The plateau’s steep obsidian cliffs loom in the distance, its mere presence a reminder of what cannot be truly conquered. In this city, the sun sets a few hours early, disappearing behind the shadowy shard. If our tallest manmade structures scrape the sky, the plateau slams right into it.
Brave souls who wish to scale the plateau first spend a week sitting at the foot, staring into the smooth black rock, getting used to the dark, warped reflection of themselves. At first, the reflection is a friend. But as the wall grows rockier the higher the climbers go, it becomes distorted beyond recognition, slowly driving the climbers to insanity.
The city folks are used to the more polished reflections in streetside windows. To their own horror, their arm reaches out for a piece of sharp volcanic glass, and they stab themselves midair. Strings still attached, an entire climbing team dangles off the side of the cliff. All they succeed in is killing an unfamiliar side of themselves.
For those who skip the climb, the view is unfulfilling. Rich folks step out of their helicopters expecting a glorious city of shiny spires, not a pea soup smog in the shadows of a rock formation. Turning around, their eyes fall on a lifeless dirt plain, a better mirror than the volcanic glass. And then the government drones make them leave.
My wife and I live up here, on the Plateau of Man. While most people pay with their lives to climb this high, we instead betrayed the future we once had. Like all who gaze upon it, the view is unfulfilling for me. I push black cubes of obsidian off the edge and watch them fall, but I sit alone. My wife can’t sit next to me.
There used to be a glassy lake atop the plateau, but that’s gone. There used to be a waterfall so tall that at the bottom, the water had been blown into a fine mist. But that too has run dry, dumping its life into a canal that aimlessly wanders through the city. In a better time the surface thrived, but it no longer does.
Ten years ago, the government offered to pay for our living expenses for as long as we were fertile. They had built a massive fallout shelter into the Plateau of Man, and they chose us to be the designated survivors to carry on the species. We accepted. Everything we need to live off of is free, but I have found that I am not.
On warm mornings, I leave the shelter alone, because only one of us is allowed outdoors at a time. Stepping outside, weaponized quadcopters patrolling the area approach me. My fatigued arm raises my ID from my neck, where it hangs with the weight of a million lives. And after that, I’m sit down with a view of a crumbling city, alone.
There’s not a lot to do in the fallout shelter. You can check up on the few dozen militarized drones, tend to the hydroponic farm, and watch the news. My wife and I end up having a lot of sex, but it’s kinda hard to enjoy in the gray dreadfulness of the fallout shelter. Reminders surround us that maybe, just maybe, our world leaders will screw us over too.
Food choice is between prepackaged rations and greens from the hydroponic farms. The rations flake into dusty bite-size detritus, and the sprouts are the vegetable equivalent of mud. Any flavor it may have, I can’t taste it anymore. I wish I was down there in that city, choking on that smog. At least I would breathe free.
I push a black cube of obsidian off the edge and watch it fall past some birds heading their own way. My legs dangle over the three thousand foot drop, swinging in the gentle breeze like the corpses below. Conquered by my own warped reflection, I know that I chose this life. I sit alone, peering out at the glowing city, wishing that my wife could be with me.
In these moments I wonder, what if I just scooted myself off a little bit? Slide down the obsidian cliff, and join the birds? My wife would be waiting steps away in the shelter, waiting until she joins me in the afterlife. Maybe then we can finally share a view from the skies together. Maybe it’ll take a nuclear war to finally free us.
Ah, be careful what you wish for.
When she dragged me out of the rubble of a collapsed column, it wasn’t because I couldn’t get myself out, it was because I had given up. I decided I would take the easy way out, just like our world leaders. I lay there, likely the last man on the face of the planet, surrounded by enough food for a city, but I wished I was among those who had died free.
In the aura of the red siren I didn’t notice the blood running along my arm. Pain had vacated, replaced by a dull numbness. What previously were red flags were now just flags, fried in the nuclear blast, lined up one by one outside the legislative building. I was intimidated by the task ahead. The weight of a million lives hangs around my neck.
My wife refused to be crushed by the fallen pillars that held up our society. She verified that the city was indeed gone, that the towers that took humanity so long to construct had indeed been reduced to nothing but dusty bite-size detritus. But I could see the same thing in her eyes when she pulled me out: the lifeless, hopeless surface of the Plateau of Man.
As dozens of weaponized drones guarded each of sixteen entrances, we sent out radio signals on all frequencies, with nothing in response. No contact whatsoever with any other city, state, or nation. We just hoped that maybe someone would receive our signals, our voiceless duet. But a quick glance at the city told me that there would be no survivors.
I was wrong; a few showed up. They stumbled in from the lower entrances, slaves to the drones. They surrendered their weapons in return for a place to live and some food to eat. They were pale, ghast, eyes as lifeless as the Plateau of Man. They came in with their hands behind their heads, frail criminals because they were the ones who survived.
Those who wish to enter the shelter have one vow to make: to follow the Doomsday Bible after it is opened. The Doomsday Bible is a set of instructions on how to carry on with civilization, written much like a constitution. More laws to look forward to after the destruction of society! Survivors are killed by the drones if they don’t agree.
The Doomsday Bible is sitting inside a black cube in the shelter, ready to open at noon today. When the Committee was writing it, some men pondered so hard that they grew white beards like Aristotle. Others contemplated so hard that they went bald like a skinny Buddhist monk. Right now, I’m so anxious all I feel is numbness.
The Committee arrived at three options for the content of the Doomsday Bible.
One. The book describes the history of the world. It tells the human story, spanning several thousand years of gradual progress. It describes the sociopoliticoeconomic structures that stood before, which we are to follow in the footsteps of. With option One, we stick with what worked best in the past, despite whatever flaws it may have.
Two. The book intricately describes a Utopia that the world before was not able to achieve. “Hey, maybe the people of the future won’t mess up what they had as bad as we did,” the Committee thought. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, because us survivors are human too, after all.
Three. The book is blank. A blank slate that stares back at you. A dark, warped reflection of ourselves. With options Two and Three, we are to never speak of the world before us. The children will grow up not knowing a world other than the fallout shelter, the Plateau of Man, and the ruins of the city.
The Committee put it to a secret vote and sealed the Doomsday Bible in a black cube. The cube was lowered into the shelter, and mostly forgotten about. They resumed their normal lives as world leaders and university professors, wishing that that they would never have to see the day it opens. Well, they died. They won’t make it to our appointment for noon.
But right now, I’m up here with my wife. Our legs dangle together over the three thousand foot drop. A team that tried to climb to the top, but failed. Dangling, with strings still attached, are two million lives. I push a little black cube of obsidian over the edge, and watch it disappear into the patch of forest below.
The still smouldering skeleton of the city sits in the valley below. So much that our species has worked towards, and it’s all gone. Maybe down there you can hear the screams for help of those still stuck under collapsed columns. Maybe down there you can hear cars honking on the stagnant freeway, but where my wife and I sit together, it’s silent.
Our power to destroy far exceeds our capacity for progress. But like the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, we will eventually recover. And we will then fall again, and the cycle will continue until a new species climbs to the top. One that won’t make so many mistakes. One that won’t mess up what they had as bad as we did. Us, we’re just human.
As the sun hits its zenith, we scoot off the edge of the obsidian cliff, eyes lifeless and glassy, past some birds heading their own way, together, failed but vowing to try again, someday.
There’s nothing quite like the Plateau of Man. It’s a flat highland, a mesa, whatever word suits you. It stretches for miles in each direction, bounded on all sides by cliffs of at least a thousand feet. It rises up abruptly with vertical walls, and is topped with a flat layer of dirt and basalt. There’s the occasional shrub or brush on the plateau, and not much else.
The top of the plateau is barren. No city bird ventures this high. Foolish for them, because up here there’s a vast reservoir, taking up around half of the plateau. It’s a beautiful crystal blue. It would make for a great tourist attraction, but instead it provides the water for the entire city at the foot of the cliffs.
Every time it rains, which is fairly frequently in this cold dreary place, the reservoir overflows a little, spilling some of its wealth like coins rolling out of someone’s pocket. The runoff joins other small streams to make a steady but persistent river. It’s etched a small crevice into the rock. It’s made its dent in the formidable plateau.
The eastern face of the plateau is a three thousand foot drop of granite and obsidian. The steep slopes are a challenge for climbers to conquer, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it anyways. Some sacrifice their lives in the process. I will always marvel at the fact that a part of being human is to forever endeavor.
The stream at the top of the plateau makes for a decent waterfall. By the time it reaches the bottom of the cliff, it has been blown into a fine mist, where it joins a little manmade canal. The canal weaves its way into the capital city, carving out its own little liquid highway. The lifeless plateau provides the very lifeline of the city.
The vein of our city flows through some pretty important and noisy places. Places where people chatter and cars honk and little kids have conversations they shouldn’t be having. Places where couples eat and flowers grow and strippers dance to support their college debt. By the time the canal reaches its outlet at the city port, it flows a murky brown.
It’s a busy place down there, the capital city. The streets may be noisy, but it’s only noisier in their heads. Yet up here at the top of the plateau, looking down at the city, it’s silent. There is the sound of the wind, maybe the faint hush of the waterfall, but there is no life. No birds, no squirrels, no gods, no daddies.
The Plateau of Man overshadows the capital city each evening as the sun sets behind the western face. It falls a few degrees colder, and the nightlife begins a few minutes earlier. From Main St, the plateau looms in the distance, sometimes its top hidden in the clouds. If our tallest manmade structures scrape the sky, the plateau stabs right through it.
I like to sit on the edge of the eastern face, where you can see the valley in which the city is cradled, the valley in which the smog collects and smothers its citizens. It’s quite enjoyable to watch each morning as the fog rises and rushes into the valley. Down there, they’re suffering, but up here, it’s dead silent.
Only a handful of people actually live up here on the plateau. Most of them are temporary workers at the reservoir, leaving their families for months at a time so that the rest of the city can shower their stinking bodies and wash their stinking clothes. They cheat on their spouses while three thousand feet above them, doing their duty to the city.
Anyone else up here is probably a tourist, rich white folks who got up here on a helicopter for $300 a person. Rich white folks who have probably never climbed a mountain in their lives because they were born at the peak. People who have made no sacrifice at all. At least the climbers deserve the view when they make their way up here.
My wife and I live on the plateau, relatively isolated. Above the surface, you see an unsuspecting shack in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it’s a restroom shack like the ones you see in wild west movies, you don’t know. But you notice militarized government quadcopters flying around and so you decide that entering might not be a great idea.
Inside the shack is an elevator down to a fallout shelter. Why live in a fallout shelter? The government offered to pay for housing, food, and utilities for as long as we were fertile, in order to repopulate the world if needed. Just in case. As a young couple, free everything sounded like a deal. But as much as I have, I’m not free.
Each time I step out the shack for a breath of fresh air, I’m greeted by a delightful quadcopter that’s gonna shoot me to death if I don’t hold up my ID for it to see. My ID hangs around my neck like the weight of a million lives, and I regret my decision ever since I made it. Why did we ever decide to give up our livelihoods for material stability?
My wife and I are invisible. We watch movies, learning about the world outside us. We watch the news, but we can’t participate in making the world any better. We spend our time consuming what the world has to offer, and producing nothing. I wish I was down there in that city, choking on that smog. At least I would breathe free.
Since only one of us is allowed to be outside at any given time, in case the world blows up, my wife and I get to have sex in the gray dreadfulness of the windowless fallout shelter, surrounded by reminders that maybe, just maybe, the leaders of our world will fuck everyone over with a couple of nuclear launch codes.
The food is a dusty mouthful of death itself. We sustain ourselves off of prepackaged rations, or greens from the hydroponic farms. You’re either eating flavored cardboard, or if you want something a little fresher, tasteless bean sprouts. Bean sprouts! The vegetable equivalent of mud, that makes you feel like vegan Satan is bursting out of your stomach.
But all I really would like is to just sit at the edge of the eastern face alone with my wife. My legs dangle over the three thousand foot drop, the sound of the waterfall is faint, and she isn’t next to me. I look out at the city, knowing that my wife is just a few steps away in the shelter. But I wish that she was here. With me.
I push a black cube of obsidian off the edge and watch it disappear into the patch of forest below. Some birds are flying about a thousand feet below me, in a V formation, heading their own way. And in these moments I wonder, what if I just scooted myself off a little bit? Slide down the obsidian, and join the birds? Embrace death?
The reason I haven’t done it already is the knowledge that my wife would be waiting for me in the fallout shelter, waiting for me until she joined me in the afterlife. It’s in these times that I wish a nuclear war would happen, just so that after the fallout, we could safely sit together and admire the view, together.
Ah, be careful what you wish for.
When she dragged me out of the rubble of a collapsed column, it wasn’t because I couldn’t get myself out, it was because I was so deeply scarred that this is what happened to our world. Our leaders had chosen to take the easy escape. And I had given up. I had decided that I would just die there, that I would take the easy escape, too.
The klaxon blared and in the aura of the red light I didn’t notice the blood on my fingers after I wiped my face. Or perhaps I didn’t care anymore. I lay there, likely the last man on the face of the planet, surrounded by enough food to sustain a small city, but I wished I was among those who had died free.
My wife refused to be crushed by the fallen pillars of our society. She verified via indestructible camera that the city was indeed gone, that the towers that took humanity so long to construct were indeed nothing but dusty bite-size detritus. My wife turned off the klaxon, and finally turned to me to pull me out.
She has her priorities set straight. After I finally decided to get up from the heaped mess that I am, I helped my wife out with the protocol that I'd never thought we'd actually one day follow. As dozens of weaponized drones guarded each of sixteen entrances, we sent out radio signals on all frequencies to search for any survivors.
And a few showed up. They stumbled in from all sixteen entrances, slaves to the drones. They surrendered their weapons in return for a place to live and some food to eat. They were pale, ghast, eyes as lifeless as the Plateau of Man. They came in with their hands behind their heads, frail criminals because they were the ones who survived.
The survivors trickled in over the past three days. And I never thought that we would come to this moment, but there’s one last thing that needs to happen. The opening of the Doomsday Bible. It’s housed in a black cube at the core of the fallout shelter and guarded by another dozen drones. And it opens today at noon.
My wife and I, with our two IDs, are supreme emperor and empress of the fallout shelter, with our vast army of drones. But that all ends with the opening of the Doomsday Bible. The concept is explained to any survivor wishing to enter the shelter: follow the Doomsday Bible after it is opened, or you have no place amongst us.
This is the same promise we made to the Committee so many years ago. And this is the same Committee that wrote the Doomsday Bible. A Committee that included some people very close to me. A Committee that doesn’t exist anymore. And so to not let them down, I will be surrendering all power to follow the Doomsday Bible.
The Doomsday Bible contains the rules about how we should structure the postapocalyptic society, which after three days numbers 24 and one in the womb. Our own little happy family. The Committee deliberated long and hard for several years, figuring out exactly what to put into this Doomsday Bible, for us.
Some men pondered so hard that they grew white beards like Aristotle. Others contemplated so hard that they went bald like a skinny Buddhist monk. The topic of nuclear Armageddon apparently isn't that uplifting. In the end, the Committee came up with three options for the Doomsday Bible.
One. The book describes the history of the world. It tells the human story, spanning several thousand years of gradual progress. It describes the sociopoliticoeconomic structures that stood before, which we are to follow in the footsteps of. With option One, we stick with whatever worked best in the past, despite whatever flaws it may have.
Two. The book intricately describes a Utopia that the world before was not able to achieve. “Hey, maybe the people of the future won’t fuck up what they had as bad as we did,” the Committee thought. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking. Because us survivors are human too, after all.
Three. The book is blank. A blank slate that stares back at you. With options Two and Three, we are to never speak of the world before us. The children will grow up not knowing a world other than the fallout shelter, the Plateau of Man, and the ruins of the capital city. I still haven’t decided which option I want it to be.
The Committee put it to a secret vote. They convened for one last time where the winning option was announced, and the members walked away vowing upon their lives to not breathe a word about it ever again. They resumed their normal lives as world leaders and university professors. And my wife and I? We made the ultimate sacrifice.
The Doomsday Bible is sitting in the black cube is sitting in the bulletproof glass case is sitting in the center of the blood red hall is sitting at the bottom floor of the core of the largest fallout shelter in the world. It’s approaching noon. The other twenty-two and counting people have gathered in the blood red hall, waiting.
But right now, I’m up here with my wife. Our legs dangle together over the three thousand foot drop. Our hands touch, both of us feeling the texture of each other, and the texture of the glassy obsidian under us. I push a little black cube of obsidian over the edge, and watch it disappear into the patch of forest below.
We peer out at the still smouldering skeleton of the capital city. So much that our species has worked towards, and it’s all gone. Maybe down there you can hear the screams for help of those still stuck under collapsed columns, but up here it’s all quiet. Maybe down there the canal flows a toxic green, but up here all we have is the white foam of the falls.
We are not forever. Our power to destroy far exceeds our capacity for progress. We will try again, and it may take several hundred years to get back to where we were, like the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. But eventually, we will fall again. Us twenty-four and counting founders of the postapocalyptic society. We are human too.
It’s the natural life cycle of society. Build, and inevitably collapse. It’s a brutal, vicious cycle, that hopefully will one day be broken, as a more advanced species rises out of the ashes of us. One that won’t make so many mistakes. One that won’t fuck up what they had as bad as we did. One that is as forever as the rising and setting of the glorious sun.
And as the sun hits its zenith, we scoot off the edge of the eastern face, down the lifeless Plateau of Man, past some birds heading their own way, feeling the texture of each other, together, with the weight of a million lives around our necks.