Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Elephants’ Crematorium

Liyana had seen elephants form into protective circles when calves were threatened, but this was different. These days, animal behavior was all but impossible to predict, of course—prey turning to predator; trees turning to stone in moonlight—but this didn’t feel random. There was intent in the way the elephants moved. The seven of them—she counted three juvenile males, two juvenile females, and two adult females—plodded into a loose formation a dozen or so meters from where Liyana crouched in a blind nestled deep in a thick copse of thorny bushes. Moving in unison, the elephants faced inward, heads turning slightly, inspecting one another as if making sure they were all ready.

Lower back beginning to ache fiercely, sharp twinges shooting up her spine, Liyana wanted more than ever to shift position, to stand up and stretch. To pee, even though it seemed like she’d just done so moments ago. To wipe the sweat pooling in her lower back and between her breasts. Without speaking, she mouthed an apology to the baby inside her. Just a few more minutes.

The largest adult called, a low rumble that Liyana felt more than heard, her heart vibrating, pressure rising through the soles of her feet despite her thick boots. The rest joined in, a basso profundo chorus.

For almost a full minute, the elephants sang a low note that Liyana couldn’t help but think of as mournful, though she was always reluctant to anthropomorphize the animals she’d studied and protected. Abruptly the sound cut out, leaving behind an even deeper silence. One by one, like a string of firecrackers, the elephants burst into flames.

• • • •

Liyana gingerly lowered herself into the sagging remains of what had once been an overstuffed armchair in what had once been the lounge of what had once been the Amboseli Adventure Safari Lodge, where tourists had once paid extravagantly to live in comfort while pretending they were bush explorers, seeking lions and leopards and elephants. Sometimes, even though it had been years—seven as best Liyana’s people could tell—it still amazed her to think about how people used to live. At one time, someone had probably complained that the lounge was too cool from the air conditioning. Even with the windows long broken and a breeze riffling through the room, Liyana sweated through her clothes.

“I found out what’s happening to the elephants,” she said to James. She grimaced. “Sort of.”

“How are you feeling?” James asked. “You look pale.”

She tried to smile at him. Just like James to worry about her more than the elephants. Though she knew he’d never really love her, that he couldn’t, he did care. That was enough. “You’re not going to believe this—well, maybe you will, things are crazy—but the elephants seem to be spontaneously combusting.”

He ignored her. “I’m serious, Liyana. Are you okay?”

“Did you hear me? They’re practically exploding. Fire everywhere. I saw it myself.” When he leaned forward, an expression of concern on his face, she waved him off. “I’m fine. My back hurts from crouching in the blind so long. It’s nothing.”

He leaned back, but his brow remained furrowed. “Okay then. The elephants are spontaneously combusting. Is it just happening? Or are they inducing it somehow?”

“Why would they do it on purpose? And how?”

James shrugged. “Why does anything happen anymore? A week ago, I saw a pack of hyenas surround a zebra. The hyenas melted into some sort of amoeba and absorbed the zebra. When it was gone, they reformed and took off running like it was the most natural thing in the world.”

“I guess it is, now.”

“My point is that the world is dangerous and unpredictable. You shouldn’t be trying to have a child at all, and you certainly shouldn’t be going out alone right now. Who knows how an animal would react if it could somehow tell you’re pregnant.”

“You’re sweet that you try to protect me,” Liyana said. “But I hate it.” She stood up. “Anyway, I’m going to lie down, but first I need to talk to—” Her voice snapped off into a sharp intake of breath as pain stabbed her stomach and she doubled over. In an instant, James was on his feet, his hands on her elbows. She couldn’t stay on her feet, so she let him guide her to the floor, first on her knees, but even that was too much, and she curled onto her side.

“Stay here, stay here,” he said, looking around frantically, though there was no one in the lounge. “I’m getting Charlotte.” For a moment, Liyana thought he would kiss her as he leaned forward, but he turned away and sprinted for the door, shouting already for the doctor, for help from anyone.

As Liyana lay on the floor, hands clutching her stomach, teeth gritted and eyes watering, she thought the same words over and over. Please. Please, not a miscarriage. Not again.

• • • •

Before the world ended, she’d never actually been in a hospital for anything other than to visit a sick family member, hadn’t needed to. She had her tonsils, her appendix. Had never broken a bone or had a terrible fever. Now, as she lay sweating in bed in what had been a tastefully appointed hut for the tourists, Liyana was grateful for that. She had no idea what she was missing.

“You need to take better care of yourself,” Charlotte said, sitting next to her, stethoscope on Liyana’s belly, that barely-visible bump that said she was with child. She nodded, removed the cold scope. “Baby’s fine, though. Not to jinx anything, but . . .”

“Seventeen weeks. I’m farther along than I’ve ever been,” Liyana said.

“Well, now you’ve gone and done it,” Charlotte said, but she smiled. “Farther along than anyone since . . . you know.”

Liyana nodded. There was no name for it, not really, the thing that had ended the world. A war, some new weapon, bombs that ripped a hole right in reality. Some author had once said that any far-enough advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. Well, they’d gotten there. The little they’d seen before the internet and TV and radio all stopped working showed cities and people imploding, disintegrating, blinking away into air. Reporters just as mystified as everyone watching. Everything broke, the world became surreal. Nothing to do, Liyana thought, but to forge ahead, to will the world back to normalcy.

But most of humanity was dead, and the survivors couldn’t have babies, and the elephants were spontaneously combusting.

• • • •

“You know this was your idea, you can’t pretend that it wasn’t,” James said. “Every time, I tell you that you shouldn’t do it, that it’s too dangerous, that you could die. Every time you ignore me.”

“I don’t ignore you,” Liyana said quietly. But she knew she did. “This is too important to stop. I could have a baby. Humanity could keep going.”

James shook his head. They’d had the argument so many times before, Liyana could predict each beat of it. Now would come the part about how they didn’t know that people couldn’t have babies, that it could just be them. It was too dangerous to really travel anymore; they never heard from anywhere more than a hundred miles away; maybe there were pockets in the world that weren’t as twisted and ruined as Amboseli.

Liyana wouldn’t say, but would think that James needed the delusional belief in those safe havens, needed to imagine that his wife—his love, lost when the war began while he was in Kenya with the Elephant Preservation Project—and children were safe. She wouldn’t say, but would think that San Francisco was surely gone completely. Like Mombasa, like Durban, where her parents had lived. She wouldn’t say, but would think that she wasn’t forcing James to be with her, after all, hadn’t forced him into sleeping with her. That she was the pregnant one. That all the risk was hers.

Instead, she said, “I can do both. I’m just watching the elephants, and now that I know where they go, I can get a spot farther away, somewhere comfortable.”

Sighing, rubbing his fists into his eyes, James said, “Fine. But I’m coming with you.”

Liyana knew that James was well aware he couldn’t make demands of her, that no one could. But just the fact that he knew that, the hitch in his voice when he said he would come along, softened her stance. She nodded.

There was affection between them, she thought, if not outright love. And he would make a good father, if anyone in the world became parents again. Four pregnancies, nothing to show but bloody and miscarried fetuses. Other women had gotten pregnant as well, but none with the determination of Liyana. She hadn’t seen any evidence that animals of any kind were breeding. The world was winding down, but she would bring it back. If need be, thrashing and squalling and fighting her the whole way.

• • • •

Liyana’s cousin Nandi had been the first girl Liyana knew to have a baby. As Liyana held her cousin’s month-old daughter in her arms, cooing and making faces at her, she talked to Nandi about her upcoming trip to Kenya, her first time visiting Amboseli, a research trip for grad school, tracking elephants. She supported the baby’s head while chattering away about elephant social structures, the importance of the matriarch.

“That’s what you’re talking about?” Nandi asked. “Elephants? Look at the baby, Liyana. Pretty little Inyoni. You can’t say you don’t want one for yourself.”

“Sure, sure,” Liyana said. “Someday. But I have so much to do now. I can’t be tied down by a baby.” Immediately, she stumbled over her apology, but Nandi laughed it off.

“You’re too funny,” Nandi said. “Give it time.”

Inyoni began crying then, and Liyana handed her back to her cousin, her fingers lingering on the soft skin of the baby’s neck.

Durban was gone now. Nandi and Inyoni and everyone else, gone or warped beyond recognition by forces Liyana could never understand. But the elephants remained, at least for now. And Liyana’s baby was past what would have been the dangerous time before. But now, there was no longer any time that was safe. Not in this world.

• • • •

As they watched fourteen elephants silently burn to death, their massive bodies hissing and crackling as flames leapt into the sky above them, James cried.

“There’s only fifty-three left now,” he whispered. “There were almost a hundred in the bond group when we started. They’re just dwindling away.”

“Just like us,” Liyana said, and he shot her a horrified look. “It’s true,” she protested. “When’s the last time you saw a baby elephant?”

Weeks earlier, when Liyana had told the others back at the lodge that she was going to find out what was happening to the elephants, where they were disappearing to, they’d joked that she was off to find the fabled elephants’ graveyard. Half the people there had been part of the Elephant Preservation Project; they knew that was a myth. And yet here she was. The same spot as a month ago, and almost weekly more elephants came, in groups of twos and threes and larger, and caught fire.

The fires burned out, leaving behind nothing but piles of gray ash. On their second time out together, James had noticed that the elephants touched their trunks to the ash before they began singing, each animal in the circle lowering its trunk to each ash pile, then touching the tip of their trunk to their forehead. Remembering the dead.

Now, with the elephants gone, he and Liyana walked down. No, she thought. James walked, Liyana waddled. Twenty-two weeks. Her stomach bulged under her t-shirt like she was trying to shoplift a melon.

They circled the ashes, still steaming in the afternoon heat. Each time they inspected the ashes, and each time gleaned no new information. If this had been before the war, before the great change to the world, they could have brought the ashes to a laboratory, had someone analyze them for bacteria, viruses, some evidence of what could be causing the elephants to combust. Of course, if it were before the change, the elephants wouldn’t be combusting in the first place.

“They come to the same spot every time,” James said. “Does that mean something? With the touching the ashes beforehand? Like how they’ll stand watch over their dead relatives?”

The ashes smelled of char and copper and something almost sweet. The combination made Liyana think of old candy, a caramel that had been forgotten between the seats of a car, left to rot in the sun. Bile rose in her throat and she spit it onto the ground next to the ashes. Spitting directly into the ashes seemed disrespectful. The elephants surely knew that these ashes were the remains of their family members, their friends. Smart animals, they understood death, understood the cycle of growth and decay.

“We’re in the wrong place,” she said.

“What? You think they have more than one spot?”

“No, no.” Liyana shook her head, looking in the direction the elephants had come from. “We’re seeing them die. If we want to know what’s causing this, we need to see them live.”

• • • •

Her whole life, Liyana rarely cried, and never in front of people. As a little girl, she fell off her bike riding around the neighborhood with some cousins, and as the pain traveled from her bloody knee to her eyes, she swallowed it back, rushed into her house, up to the bathroom, and shut the door behind her before she finally allowed a whimper to escape.

When she lost her first pregnancy, she didn’t cry. She knew it was coming, knew academically that she wouldn’t be the woman to miraculously carry a pregnancy to term when no one else could. But she felt hollow afterward nonetheless, emotionally scooped out like a pumpkin.

That night, she and James lay in bed, turned on their sides, back to back. Liyana couldn’t sleep. She listened to birds calling in the night, insects chirruping in the bush. She tried to clear her head, to think of nothing at all.

The mattress wobbled. A new sound joined those filtering in from outside. Breathy sobs, sniffling. James, her man, lamenting the loss of the baby. Lamenting the loss of his family, his wife and children, the whole world. He shook the bed and gulped air. He snorted and wiped away mucus.

She cried then, holding her body stiff, letting tears flow through ragged controlled breaths. Scalding tears of frustration and sadness and anger. She continued even after James petered out, fell into regular shallow breaths as he fitfully slept. Liyana cried and cried, but she wouldn’t let him see.

• • • •

The matriarch of the clan huffed and trumpeted and called in distress. Even someone who hadn’t studied elephants, even someone who’d never even seen an elephant until that moment, would know those sounds didn’t portend anything good.

Liyana knew just what the noises meant, and James certainly did, too. She wanted to rush to the elephant, but she knew she couldn’t help it. No one could.

No other elephants were in sight, keeping away from the struggling matriarch out of fear or respect. Maybe sheer fatigued depression. It was the middle of the night, and she pictured them out in the bush, trying to sleep, pretending they couldn’t hear their matriarch’s anguished cries.

The elephant loosed a bellow from deep within and a milky balloon fell from her underside, followed by a rush of blood and amniotic fluid. The broken, half-formed body of a baby elephant came with it.

The matriarch cried anew, reaching down with her trunk to sniff and prod and poke the fetus. But it was premature and deformed, and never had a hope of survival.

Liyana watched the matriarch attempt to lift the body, to place it on its feet, to will it alive. She did some quick math in her head. Twenty-two-month pregnancies, a few months off between. And they wouldn’t even last the full twenty-two months. Seven years had passed since the war had turned the world inside out. How many times had this matriarch miscarried or delivered stillborn fetuses? How many times had she felt life inside her and hoped that this time would be different? Three? More?

The matriarch sat down heavily, and Liyana laid herself on the ground as well, propped on her side, watching the elephant mourn. She felt James’s hand on her shoulder, heard him whisper, “We should go.”

She shook her head. “I have to stay,” she said, and felt a surge of gratitude when James didn’t ask why or insist upon leaving. Instead, he sat down next to her, a hand slowly stroking from her hip to her knee and back. Eventually, the stroking stopped, and she realized he was sleeping. But Liyana stayed awake, sitting with the elephant that didn’t know she was there.

• • • •

Her name whispered in her ear, a hand jostling her shoulder. With a start, Liyana woke up, and realized James was speaking to her and pointing at the spot where the matriarch had miscarried.

Groggy, Liyana sat up, and it took her a moment to realize the sun had risen and the elephant was gone.

“Where did she go?” she asked. “Did you see her leave?”

James shook his head, but turned. “Tracks show her heading that way.”

“Oh, god.” Liyana got to her feet as quickly as she could, hands on the back of her hips, back cracking and bladder throbbing painfully. “They really are doing it on purpose. We have to help her.”

James didn’t ask how, which was good, because Liyana didn’t know. But he went with her, taking her by the elbow and helping speed her along to the spot where the elephants burned.

• • • •

The matriarch had been joined by four more elephants, all young females. They’d begun circling the ash pile already, the tips of their trunks dusty and gray-black.

Liyana skidded to a stop, her sneakers gouging into the hard dirt, sending a spray of gravel and sand flying, but the elephants ignored her. James stopped alongside her, letting go of her elbow and putting his hands on his knees to suck deep breaths. She hadn’t imagined she could run at all this pregnant, let alone so fast.

“It’s a ritual,” James said. Liyana nodded, though he may as well have been speaking to himself.

Clearly it was a ritual. There was no doubt about that. But what Liyana hadn’t realized was the purpose, which now glared right at her, as obvious as the bright sun shining in the open sky above. Elephants’ graveyards weren’t real, but they remembered their ancestors, understood the passing of generations. Of course they would understand when that cycle ground to a halt. The sadness she saw now in the matriarch’s eyes wasn’t just for her lost calf, it was for the loss of every elephant in the world, the end of life. How many people had killed themselves in the last seven years? The cataclysm had somehow given these elephants the ability to burn, and they’d come to the conclusion that self-immolation was the best remaining option.

These thoughts swirled through Liyana’s mind, touching her consciousness then flitting off, barely cohering. She couldn’t think of what to do. Couldn’t think that there was anything to do. Something thudded against the inside of her stomach, and she looked down, confused, her hands instinctively cradling. The baby kicked again.

Liyana turned to James. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “Please stay here.” And without waiting for a response, she ran as best she could into the center of the circle of elephants.

They shuffled backward and forward, their trunks flailing, but Liyana held her hands out, kept her head down, trying to appear submissive and unthreatening. As if she could threaten a creature of this size.

Heat radiated off the animals, baking Liyana’s skin as if she was standing in front of an open oven. This close, splotches of pink and red danced across the elephants’ wrinkled gray skin. Shimmery heat waves blurred their edges.

“Please,” she said. “You don’t need to do this. The world isn’t over. It’s going to go on. We’re all going to go on.” The elephants calmed at her tone, but the temperature still rose. Liyana smelled ozone, and worried that her hair would singe if she didn’t move soon.

Such heat couldn’t be good for her baby, or for Liyana herself. Her head swam, and she feared she’d swoon, that if she fell she’d be caught up in the conflagration when the elephants set themselves alight. “Don’t,” she whispered. “Don’t go.” Her eyelids fluttered.

They shot back open when she felt the air cool and something warm press against her distended stomach, and she found herself staring into the face of the matriarch, the elephant’s massive ears flapping slightly, fanning the sweat from Liyana’s forehead. It was the closest she’d ever been to an elephant in all her years studying them. Both before and after the destruction of the world, she’d always been at a distance. The matriarch’s eyes gleamed with deep intelligence and curiosity. She probed again with her trunk, then used it to lift the hem of Liyana’s shirt. Liyana removed it the rest of the way. Around her, the other elephants pressed closer, their bodies cooling, but still giving off residual warmth. She imagined herself in a cocoon of elephant hide, and laughed.

The matriarch lightly pressed her trunk against Liyana’s belly and the other elephants joined her. As if sensing them, the baby inside her kicked once, then again and again and again, a rapid tattoo like she was happily stomping her feet, dancing to some inaudible music.

An array of calls sounded from the elephants around her, high and low, a rippling melody that thrummed through her whole body. Trumpeting sounded in the distance, the more distant members of the clan joining in. They sang to her baby for what felt like ages, before they suddenly stopped, turned, and exited the clearing, the matriarch the last to go, her trunk lingering on Liyana’s stomach for a long moment before she, too, left, pausing to turn back only once, catching Liyana’s eye as she stood frozen to the spot in the middle of the ashes. The matriarch blinked slowly, then walked away.

In an instant, James was at her side as Liyana sagged into the ashes of the dead elephants, breath hitching in a combination of laughter and relief. She still wasn’t sure what she’d done, but she believed she’d made a promise to the elephants. She prayed she could keep it.

• • • •

After the screaming and the unimaginable pain and the gritted teeth, the contractions and pushing, a little girl fell into the world. Crying and slick and sparkling with some unreal internal glow, since nothing in this world could be the same as it had once been. But Liyana held her daughter, and cried unabashed tears of joy. This was her girl. She was alive and in the world, however warped that world had become. She was human. She was magic.

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Timothy Mudie

Timothy Mudie. A youngish white man standing outside with trees in the background, smiling crookedly.

Timothy Mudie is a speculative fiction author and an editor of every genre from serial killer thriller to hiking guide. His fiction has been published in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Podcastle, LeVar Burton Reads, and various other magazines, anthologies, and podcasts. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and sons. Find him online at or on Twitter @timothy_mudie.