KUNLUN

Deep below the ocean, it slept. Was it an animal? Was it a monster of the sea? Or was it a god? No matter the categorization, the enormous creature slumbering under the ocean was an aberration of nature.

A tremor disturbed the creature's sleep. It saw the ocean floor light up from far above - an extraordinary thing, underneath three miles of water - and then it heard the thunder to match the lightning: a concussive sound rioting through rock and water. A roar as loud as the surface of the sun.

There was more searing lightning and more seismic thunder. Very slowly, the creature felt the water growing warmer. The bedlam went on for hours. And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the cataclysmic thunderstorm ended.

The creature cut through the water at unnatural speed. It reached a continental shore and climbed onto the land. Waterfalls streamed off of the creature's dark, towering frame. Steam billowed searing out of what must have been nostrils. The creature, a brutish mess of spikes and muscles, might have looked less out of place in the Cretaceous period.

The sky was red. The creature stood on hind legs and observed from a vantage point hundreds of meters high. The creature loosed a furious roar to rival the preceding thunder. The land was littered with pillars of smoke and ash as far as the creature could see. At the base of every pillar was debris of smouldering metal and concrete and glass and wood.

The creature's arrival was different from the last time, however long ago that may have been. There were no small creatures fleeing from its appearance, nor trying to attack it. Humans. The creature had not liked humans. There were fools among them, who came running toward the creature rather than away from it. Sometimes their spears lodged in inconvenient places.

The appearance of the land and sky tugged at the creature's ancient memories. Many millions of years ago, it awakened to a similar landscape. In that case it had been one incredible bang and rumble, instead of many smaller ones, and it had occurred on the opposite side of the world. Life on Earth had barely survived that incident, and this one appeared to be even worse.

The temperature continued to rise, and the air tasted of beta particles. The sky cycled through an alarming gamut of vivid oranges and reds. The most portentous omen was the dearth of panicked birds taking to the sky. What few birds in flight that the creature could see did not remain airborne for long; they shed their feathers at a frightful rate and then dived unconscious into the ground.

The creature watched a sambar doe emerge from a grove of dying trees and limp in its direction. Its horns were magnificent. It was followed by a fawn. Both were missing fur in large patches. The fawn fell down a short distance out of the trees and it didn't get back up. The doe stopped and allowed a moment of grief for the loss of its child, and then it continued on. It came to the creature's feet, slowly, and laid at them. The creature stood there and watched over the doe until it, the last sambar, slept.

The skies were no longer red. They were gray. The sun was barely visible during the daytime. In fact, sometimes the creature was uncertain which was day and which was night. The excessive warmth which followed the event had given way to chilling cold. The creature struggled to maintain its heat as it moved along the coastlines. It found only death, in land and ocean alike. The waters tingled with absorbed radiation. It had been a long time since the creature had seen anything green.

It journeyed inland though, for the creature, movement across land was much slower than movement through the ocean. The creature found vast lifeless barrens and deserts. It found rubble where once there had been human cities, extravagant in their use of minerals. In and around the cities were crowds of bipedal skeletons, all black and coated with ash.

The creature crossed dried riverbeds. Rain was as a forgotten memory. The creature walked where grand forests had once stood. Now these sites were chilling images of death and decrepitude. What trees still stood upright were lifeless, gray and black in color. Not even the insects survived. It smelled like mummification. There was nothing left here to decompose the dead.

The creature traversed mountains. In the higher altitudes, it fought to respirate the sparser air. In one place, a thousand miles inland, it found promise. In a volcanic field with nearby lakes, small organisms thrived. There was even a little macroscopic life. Plants, very small, colored deep black and crimson, but growing and healthy. Lizards, congregating on the warmest rocks, heated by energy from within the Earth. Insects, buzzing around and pointedly avoiding the lizards. There was an outlier, too, a single tortoise. Perhaps it had trekked the continent like the creature had and, finding life, had settled down here.

Decades passed. The ash was falling out of the sky, leaving a more blue and transparent firmament behind. The creature worked its bellows lungs to blow away and divert the ash that would blanket and suffocate the oasis of life that it had found.

The surrounding mountain landscape, covered in ash and lifeless but once again illuminated by sunlight, was eerily beautiful. It even began to rain again.

One day the ash would become rich soil, but only with the help of the right bacteria. And so the creature transplanted microorganisms from the volcanic field into the lifeless areas nearby, until more of the land was suitable for the surviving plants. The plants expanded into it and their chemical signals were as shouts of thrill and gratitude. With the flourishing plants came more insects, and with more insects came more lizards. The lizards, cold-blooded as they were, particularly thrived in the sun's returning heat and radiation. The old tortoise, still watching over its fellow life along with the creature, remained by the lakes.

The pinprick of life expanded ever so slowly across the mountains and plateaus and down into the plains. It wasn't the same life that had come before that destructive event, but it was life nonetheless. The creature worked tirelessly to spread this life across the continent and onto surrounding islands.

It was fortunate that the creature had so hastened the spread of life around the volcanic field, since one of those volcanoes which had sheltered life through the fallout trembled and then erupted. A piece of hot debris spewn by the eruption fell upon and annihilated the tortoise. The lava flows and plume of ash killed much of the life in the volcanic field. Once the lava had cooled and the ash had settled the surrounding ecosystem was able to reclaim it, but the last tortoise could never be recovered.

When the creature next returned to the volcanic field and saw the destruction, it howled. Lizards scattered and fled, uncomprehending of the creature's thunderous expression of pain and loss.

The creature, in its efforts to spread the life from the volcanic field, never found other surviving life. It had been too hard, too unlikely for life to survive such a cataclysm. It was a disruption of the atmosphere, of the oceans, of the water cycle, of day and night. No environment on all of Earth went unchanged. The event had heralded a mass extinction unlike any other in Earth's history.

The humans had been responsible for the event. It had been the raucous nuclear culmination of at least a century of more gradual destruction. Were the humans animals? Were they monsters? Were they demons? No matter what they were called, they were an aberration of nature. And, to nature's great relief, they could do no more harm.

Written by Sophie Kirschner