No one thought the Fields of Shantara would be the decisive battle against the tyranny of the Verbeni. For a dozen generations, the invaders of the colony world of Grazoria had ruled the human race with cruel efficiency, and although the resistance fighters were outgunned and out manned, they were courageous. Their harassment of the enemy gave the populace hope, until their exploits became legends for their children and their grandchildren.
“The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.” Elisa Gutierrez realized they only had a few seconds between the flash and the heat wave that would incinerate the both of them as they stood on the ridge overlooking what used to be greater Los Angeles. But she still turned toward Harvey Bowman, her boyfriend and co-conspirator, looking at his face, mostly hidden by the light suppressing lenses she also wore, amazed that he could wax poetic moments before they died.
“Are you nuts?” She grabbed his arm, feeling how perfectly still he was compared to her trembling. “We’re about to die and…”
Her voice, nasal Bronx accent and all, were cut off abruptly as the blast of heat, exceeding a hundred million degrees Celsius, reached them. They were both instantly rendered as dry, black ash. Seconds later, the shock wave hit them and they exploded, their remains scattered like autumn leaves in a hurricane. Amazingly, she could still see.
“Well, it’s about damn time.” She was more provocative than beautiful, though her piercing brown eyes, dark chestnut-colored hair, and burgundy-painted lips were definitely alluring. She was leaning over her tucked in legs, the skirt of her short, deep, Prussian blue dress hiked up, revealing ample, pale-skinned thighs and just a little more besides…and she was barefoot. Her expression was expectant with a dash of mischievousness.
Since my divorce, I’d been living in a flat on the third floor of a converted Victorian in Boise’s counter-culture North End. Having parked my car around back, I was walking up the front steps, a sack of groceries from the Co-Op balanced in my right arm, while thumbing through my keys with my left.
“I beg your pardon?” I paused on the ancient concrete steps, a cold January breeze blowing from the north chilling me. I thought I wouldn’t be out very long and so only put on a light jacket, and now I was shivering.
William Blake knew he was in trouble when he saw the zebra unraveling like a ball of twine, especially since there shouldn’t be any free roaming zebras in the high desert southeast of Boise.
“Get a grip, get a grip, get a grip,” he muttered to himself, pressing his hands on each side of his head. The vision wouldn’t go away, but neither did the zebra seem to mind its condition.
“Of all days, why did it have to happen today?” Every New Year’s morning, the forty-eight-year-old electrical designer took a walk in the open fields south of his home, symbolically welcoming a year of new hope. “But I have to be at Edna’s in an hour for breakfast. I can’t go like this.”
The zebra moved on but then the clouds started turning themselves inside out, swirling and shifting from white to silver, then to magenta and turquoise. The grass around his ankles and then all across the field. writhed like serpents and rubbed against his legs like affectionate house cats, while the trees in the distance grew and expanded to Pellucidar-like proportions. Then the sky became granite and the ground turned to vapor, but neither did the atmosphere collapse upon him, nor did he fall through the mist.
Gray-haired, burnt-skinned Santos had forgotten the number of times he had appealed to the Glow for an end to his journey through the hell lands. He couldn’t fool himself with the placebo anymore, and so as he put out the campfire and slipped on his rucksack, the dull pain in his right knee became his rough companion with each step, thanks to the oblique scar left by the direwolf last Fall.
The old woman he encountered in one of the shelters reclaimed from a flatlands hell crater had tried to minister to him, but the scar tissue had already formed, and her potions were far too weak to repair damaged cartilage. Being maimed didn’t bother him as much as the fact that having to leave her alone again, she died two days hence, probably by the same pack that had struck at him, as evidenced by the sign of the carrion birds circling above her hut.
But heartstrings weren’t something he could afford. She had refused to go with him when he asked. The reluctant ranger told her the plague to the East was spreading by rats and sand hares, had consumed his community, and that the only safety was his destination, the half-mythical city beyond the western foothills. But she said she’d made her peace with the high desert and the hell lands. Her husband and five sons had died during the first disaster, and being of prairie stock, she chose to stay, to tend their graves, living off of a meager garden, wearing sackcloth and ashes.
She never said her name or how long she’d been alone, but he kept seeing her face, cut and grooved with wrinkles like a river delta as step by step, limping, praying to the Glow with each gasp of pain, he kept walking.
Aging widower Shannon Hart remembered the sound of the crackling of burning logs in the fireplace at home in the middle of a dark, quiet night as he stared across the low, rolling hills, watching fog freeze onto the widely spaced pine trees, a faint, unending dawn resting on the eastern horizon. Three weeks ago, his youngest grandson Drew came up here to perform the solitary winter solstice ceremony at the family’s wilderness wickiup. He was due back late last week but never returned.
The twelve clans all sent volunteers ready to search for him, but Shannon respectfully declined, and as a clan head, it was his prerogative. The secrets of the wickiup had been jealously guarded for untold generations. Even his own clan, the Tromsø, didn’t know what was hidden in the sacred acres owned by the Harts.
The eighty-year-old had been worried, and even tried to dissuade Drew from performing the ritual that the old man normally observed, but the twenty-eight year old had become a father earlier in the month. He claimed the right of a single boon from the clan elder as a birth gift, and Shannon had no choice but to grant it.
“Oh come on, Dave. Certainly during this Yuletide holiday you can celebrate with your family a little, put a present or two under their tree, herald the coming of your Savior. I’ll even wear mistletoe on the front of my waist tonight the way you like it.” Suzanne, winking naughtily, was pulling out all the stops to get her husband out of his recliner in front of the smoldering fireplace in the cozy living room so they could drive the fifteen miles to his brother’s house.
Instead, he just looked up at her with a forlorn expression on his forty-five year old face. “We sent Bob’s family a card, and they know we don’t celebrate Christmas. I mean, they do the whole Santa, reindeer, stocking thing.”
“Get up.” She grabbed his arm forcefully, and he let her pull him to his feet. They both were already dressed for the festive meal his younger brother and their family had every Christmas Eve, so it was just a matter of her getting him to the car. “I don’t care if they put Christmas pudding in the ears of all their elves on their shelves, we’re going.” The forty-two year old software developer gripped Dave with all the strength her gym weight training produced.
Middle-aged American Eric Holloway was thinking that it must be almost time for the miracle to happen again. He sat in a camping chair near the section of the shore of Loch Lomond facing Ben Lomond, one of the lochs someone wrote a song about, while chewing a mouthful of his onion bagel smothered in lox and cream cheese. Mark’s Deli in nearby Glasgow certainly lived up to its Yelp reviews. He was glad they opened early on a Sunday so he’d have the time to eat his breakfast. The retired electrical engineer would have hated to be reduced to the one he’d visited last Friday in the mall, and he only went there because he had to buy some fresh clothes Barry’s size and a small pack to put them in.
As he continued to maul his exquisite deli purchase, Eric used his free hand to wave away several locks of his salt and pepper hair off of his forehead. He always neglected getting a haircut until his mane became unmanageable.
The weather forecast called for morning showers and temperatures in the upper 30s F, but so far he could still see thin rays of sunlight through the overcast sky. Putting the half-consumed bagel on the napkin gracing his lap, and without looking down, he retrieved his thermos from on top of the grass to this right next to his rucksack. Unscrewing the lid and stopper, he poured himself a cup of streaming, hot coffee. It, along with his thick, woolen pea coat, would keep him warm on this morning in late December, just two days before Christmas, while he waited.
Finishing the coffee, he screwed the lid back on top of the thermos, and as he picked up the bagel again, he felt the Lazarus Stone begin to heat up in his shirt pocket.
Today was the day that Stefan Günther determined he would finally speak to his own personal Mona Lisa. Everyday for weeks, she sat across from him on the S-train as he made his evening commute home to his one-bedroom apartment outside of Wiesbaden and she went to who knew where.
“Hi. My name’s Stefan.” The twenty-seven-year-old accountant leaned into the aisle hoping she could hear him over the train noise and all the other conversations around them. “Since you smile at me every time I see you, I thought I should introduce myself.”
“Ludovica. Pleased to meet you, Stefan.” Her accent was unmistakably Italian and the same, subtle smile she had been wearing throughout all of their silent encounters never left her lips.
“Pleased to meet you.” He took her hand and remembered not to apply too much pressure. Her skin was warm and smooth, and her scent was slightly earthy speaking, he hoped, of seduction.
“I don’t mean to be too forward, Ludovica, but why do you always smile at me?”
“I like to smile. Besides, you remind me of someone.”
He chuckled nervously. “Anyone in particular.”
“If I like you, I might tell you someday.”
Vanessa struggled to climb out of the Salubrious Pod, sickly yellow and greenish jelly oozing off of her smooth, dark skin. She rolled over the low rim of the tub onto the cold metallic floor of the eight-by-twelve foot featureless chamber, her nude body dimly illuminated by the few flickering light tubes in the ceiling ten feet above. She shivered as the gel evaporated, and she watched a thin mist rising overhead from her body, though some of the goo clung to her short-cropped black hair, and she blinked as one drop fell from her lashes into her left eye.
“Good morning, Captain Chapman. How are you feeling?”
They’d made Sophia’s voice feminine, but the echoes coming from multiple speakers in the ceiling still made her sound inhuman.
“Like shit, Soph.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” The AI’s reply was meant to communicate concern, but of course, as a machine, she felt nothing at all. “It is important you recover from hibernation quickly. There is a situation.”