The Last Gamble


by Clay Waters


Luna Luxor stirred from shallow dream-sand, rose from Concave 2048 of the enemy’s citadel, and put an unblinking eye to the tiny shard of still-unclouded glass that remained in the warped window frame. As the sun crept to its cruel height in the pinkening sky, Luna watched for a glint from a particular window in the decrepit building to the South.

Finally, a flicker. The same flicker, three days in a row. A crooked grin crossed Luna’s time-rutted features. Surely the last Migum alive would sleep in the ruined Tropicana citadel for one more day.

On Level 20, by Luna’s reckoning.

20??

Don’t fret, Luna – it’s mere chance, the Luxor tribe, long dead, responded. The mounds of the dead had been rising for 10,000 moons, forcing the few living souls to higher ground.

Luna wore one of the last of the Luxor symbols. The colors had long faded, the golden symbol of Luxor faded utterly. The colors had been necessary, not for protection from the harsh sun or the chilly nights — the brittle rags offered precious little in either case — but because every member of every tribe looked alike and without symbols it was hard to tell friend from foe.

Sleep had not come easy within the green, glassy ziggurat of the MGM, headquarters of the Migum. Luna sipped the last of the water from the cracked cup with the Luxor‘s sharp black insignia and returned it to the grass-weave satchel that slung over the chest. Luna missed the convenience of the rainwater collected from the Luxor‘s fountain. 10,000 moons ago rockroaches had kept the soothing waterwheel spinning, and Luna had slept secure among the tribe crammed together on the concrete. But Luna was the last Luxor, and could not spare the time or patience to maintain such opulence, with the last Migum lurking. For so long they had anticipated the other’s move as if they shared a single mind.

Until today. The last day.

Out the window, sunlight glinted off the towering fortresses of the surrounding citadels, some still half-sheathed in warped glass, some knee-deep in shifting sand. Enormous birds perched in pairs on top of the citadels, tucked under each other’s vast pink plumage in shelter from the sun. MGM. Gold Dust. Q. Oyster. Play, Rut, Bellagio, Tropicana. All just containers of sand and bone now, save Phoenix. Luna had never dared to venture there, not even after 10,000 moons (too many, Telling no lie) with no one to raise alarm and the Phoenix right beside the Luxor on the far southern tip of the citadels.

Further North stood a crop of buildings, never explored. Even further North, a puzzling set of whirring red figures stood on a solitary platform.

Luna descended, threading through the vast yawning spaces of the Migum citadel. Luna had visited such spaces while deep in dream-sand, the sawdust and metal stirrups resurrected as tables and games and noise and colors and flashing lights.

Some days, after a night of fierce battle, when Luna would drop deeper and linger in the dream-sand, the noises would corrode into shrieks, not of delight but confusion and terror, before dying down into anxious silence and occasional sobs.

And always, near the end, in that netherworld between sleep and waking, the same strange but strong and comforting hand would find Luna’s own, a rougher, heavier one, with dark curly hairs at the wrist…..

No time for tears!

Luna took a wrong turn before finding the back escape — the citadels had surely been built to trap invaders — emerging under a suffocating pillow of thick, balmy air. Gnarled palms spouted from the rusted metal path running behind the citadels. A congregation of knee-high furry gray spiders had secreted a thick frosting of web, the rusted rails serving as a gruesome trellis to capture rockroaches and smaller birds. They usually rested in the heat of the day, like every other creature of sanity.

Still, Luna moved on quickly, the high whistling of the snoring spiders raising hair on the arms.

Across the gravel zone, sharp against the sky, stood the black shape of Luxor, a glorious place for burial.

For 10,000 moons an army of cohorts had been laid to rest in that sanctum. Now even that vast space was almost filled, the weight of Luna’s dead tribe pressing down during uneasy sleep.

Luna passed the squat citadel, unique among the smaller outcrops for still standing and never being raided or burnt. The negative image of two bell shapes, the original metal long rusted away, could still be faintly seen in shadowy outline over the opening. Tribals that never shed tears would leave them there, along with bandanas of killed compatriots, necklaces of warped glass, dolls carved of palm that resembled tribals just enough to make one ponder what was different about them.

No time for tears!

Luna gained the opposite side of Tropicana, shielded from view of the Migum who had so foolishly betrayed position. Luna had never seen the last Migum face to face — only flashes of green every full moon or so. Luna had to get close enough to use the knife, for cowardly Migums fought from a distance, with metal-tipped spears that glistened with green poison.

My stomach is shaking.

We’re with you, whispered Luna’s dead tribe. Together they had fought in hordes, then packs, then edgy knots of humanity, down at last to Luna alone. Luna would not fail them. The long, long game was nearly over.

At Last to the Phoenix!

Luna took the steps three at once, impatient now, stepping past the floors where the tombs of the Tropicanian dead lay. Luna could feel their departed spirits whispering across the stiff hairs on the skin, pebbled with nerves. Luna stopped briefly on 19 to crack the betraying joints smooth, but couldn’t stop the tremor in the hand that held the knife in a slippery grip.

Luna mounted level 20, counted the openings….halting in shock at the concavity that marked the Migum’s hiding place.

2048! The Luxor’s sacred figure!

But Luna never crossed the threshold into Concave 2048 to throttle the mocking Migum for the blasphemy, never registered the silent shadow rising behind, the spear poking out of 2047 — until with a thick thump it wedged, poison-brined, in the back of the neck. Luna emitted a soft groan, and two syllables, dredged deep from dream-sand, emanated from the pierced throat–

wellplayed

***

Silver Migum washed the fallen Luxor’s blood away, then stood cautionless at the window, peering at the great red metal bird Phoenix — the last citadel, brighter than the rest, left unscarred by battle. Silver looked into the Luxor’s face, slack with peace at last — the same face Silver saw in mirrors, absent a scar or two.

With a tell-tale twinkle from a rare piece of such a mirror, held close to the window, the Migum had lured the overeager Luxor to death, ending at last the grand game of spider-and-rockroach. In Concave 2048 no less, the Migum’s sacred figure. So why was the Migum weeping for the fallen foe?

No time for tears!

Silver lifted the Luxor’s frail, aged body and carried it to ground, across the gravel zone, toward the Luxor, to bury the warrior in the proper place. Telling no lie, the sharpened black shape, pocked by time and battle but mostly intact, was a glorious place for burial.

Silver Migum never arrived.

The ground began to tremble, the shivers spreading upward until the very tops of the citadels rattled, making the brittle, trembling glass tumble down in ragged shards — as if the towers had been held up solely by the rockroaches, now scurrying in wavery black lines into the empty desert, pouring into the cracks emerging in the parched earth.

Like long-hemmed water abruptly loosed behind a massive dam, time was having its way again, vengefully. Strength-sapped, Silver lowered the burden and prostrated at the foot of the Great Lion, clutching the enemy’s hand. Forever the Lion had brought fear to the enemy but comfort to Migums. Silver Migum felt that comfort now, tried to pass it to the dead Luxor; assured, even as the sky empurpled and blackened, that they would both find peace under the Great Lion’s roar.

***

In a desiccated laboratory deep in a bunker under a halted digital clock, a marble memorial sat unbattered by the elements, its inscription still sharply incised:

The Phoenix Project, founded 2050 AD. Dedicated to Dr. Chelsea Anne Tompkins, Clone Mother of the New World, and her beloved husband and partner Dr. Phillip Tompkins 2018-2048.


 

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