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Synopsis

The art of speculative fiction is not a lost art; we were introduced to the genre through such masters as Rod Serling but in recent years have not seen those smash-and-grab shorts that leave us wanting more. This first volume of stories compiled in “Reality’s Edge” brings back the knuckle-biting, heart-racing experience.


Chapter One

The Meek

The reports from JPL’s latest probe were not encouraging. Preliminary evaluations were varied related to time-until-impact and expected survival rates. The global community of scientists agreed however that something had to be done, and quickly if any portion of the human race was to survive. They set the doomsday clock at 25 years.

T-Minus-25, One. Josh and Marilyn

“Did you see this?” Josh poked the paper with enough venom to rip through. Marilyn had taken to nodding affirmatively since immediate agreement tended to mitigate anger. He turned to her with a lowered voice. “C’mere, honey.”
She came to him. “What are you reading?”
He snapped the paper straight and read. ” ‘Pasadena: the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in conjunction with the global scientific community, have discovered an asteroid with an anticipated trajectory that will bring it directly into Earth’s path. It has the potential to cause major and irrepairable damage. At this point they will not reveal the anticipated date of impact’–” Josh turned to her with a strained look. “See? They only tell part of the story. This could be something a thousand years away or something that will kill us all tomorrow.” He turned the page and continued, ” ‘–but indicate that there is ample time for a large portion of the population to react.’ Did you get that? ‘A large portion,’ you see? They don’t have a plan for all of us. Check this out: ‘For the first time in history, leaders representing every country have come together to work with three of the largest private development corporations to offer a unique, reasonable, and sustainable solution. More details are forthcoming, but below is what you need to know now.”
The article, which took up most of section B of the daily paper (“Why not section A? This is important,” Marilyn asked. “Why not indeed,” Josh replied mysteriously), went on to describe the underground communities that those development corporations were building. A website address was listed; the article closed by indicating that visitors to the website would have the opportunity to pre-register for an undergraduate space. Marilyn squinted into the fine print. “Hey let’s go on that sight and see if we can register.” She grabbed her laptop and navigated to the page.
“What does it say?” Josh had not told her that one of the guys at work had shown him the site yesterday, having discovered a similar article on social media. He already knew what she was about to discover.
A few clicks and Marilyn looked up. “Am I seeing this right?” She pointed to a figure on the screen. “Just to reserve a space is $250,000 and once confirmed it’s another $150,000 per person?!” Josh nodded. “We don’t have a chance of getting in there.”
Josh pushed back his chair. “C’mon,” he said. ” Come shopping with me.”
“What?” Marilyn thought it was an odd time to go buy groceries. Josh pulled a piece of paper from a back pocket and handed it to her; he had worked up a list of items they could use to survive. “She looked deeply into his eyes. “What if it hits close?”
Josh hugged her. “Let’s tackle that when we have to. In the meantime, we’ll prepare as best we can.”

T-Minus-25, Two. Nathan and Cassandra

On the other side of town and up in the hills, Nathan cut his filet into tiny squares and wondered if such tender morsels would be available when they went underground. As if reading his mind, Cassandra spoke from across the room. “Nate–what do you think we’ll have to eat once we’re down there? Do you think they’ll have free-range eggs?”
“I doubt it, darling.” He adored her, but sometimes he felt that she gave new meaning to the term ‘airhead.’ “Besides, I don’t taste the difference; I’m sure you’ll get used to regular eggs.” He dipped another square of beef in au jus and savored it.
“It’s not about you or your tastes.” Cassandra loved Nathan, but sometimes she found him clueless about holistic living. “Free range is about the chickens; free range allows them to live more naturally, rather than in those cramped cages.” She wrinkled her nose with remembrance of her trip to a traditional chicken farm and did not like the idea of living underground with caged fowl.
Nathan changed the subject but only slightly. “I’m glad we registered early. I was talking with Michael, remember him? From acquisitions; he’s been trying to get on the list for the past two months. He and his family are on some kind of waitlist for the second phase, but they told him that it won’t be done for five to ten years.”
Cassandra was suddenly pensive. “Can’t you help him? Did you give him that number you used to get us in?” She was unaware of Nathan’s more nefarious contacts.
He gave her a hard look. “No, I did not give him the information I used.” He put down his fork with a bit more force than intended; it bounced off the bone china, landed directly on the mahogany tabletop after missing the placemat, and settled in a smear of au jus with a ring. He held out his palms in submission. “Look, honey, that number cost me quite a bit. It was given–er, sold–to me in confidence.” He stood, went to her, and held her shoulders gently. “I would love to help Mike out. Really I would. But you’ve got to look at this from an objective position. This is about accessing and using resources. I called in mine and like I said it’s costing me big to make sure you are safe.”
“And that you’re safe, too.”
He released her and returned to his meal. “Of course; I wanted to make sure we’re both safe. The deal is, Mike doesn’t have connections like me and my connections are selective about who they do favors for.”
Cassandra chilled at his words. “Favors? I thought you said you paid for us to get in. I mean, paid for some special section or something.”
Nathan wiped the corners of his mouth, dabbed up the greasy smear left by the fork, and refolded his cloth napkin. I paid in more ways than one, he thought. “You know what they say, ‘No good deed goes unpunished,’ and the people I know who give out deeds as good as an early spot for underground housing certainly dole out their punishments as well.”
Cassandra came to him and kissed him gently on the lips. “Thank you dear, for all you do.” She disliked having too many details of Nathan’s dealings and found it best for her sanity to leave it alone.

T-Minus-20. Josh and Marilyn

“Hand me another board, wouldya?” Josh mumbled around a mouthful of nails.
Marilyn poked the board up the ladder and into his eager hands. “Don’t you think it’s a bit early to be boarding up windows?”
Josh pulled another nail from his mouth and proceeded to hammer the board in place. “I’m just getting started with these windows in the back; I heard that there has been looting over on Willow Drive and that’s a bit too close to home for me.” Willow Drive was five blocks over and close to downtown. Josh placed a third nail and after making sure the board was not going to slip, he turned carefully on the ladder to face her. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Can you come down to talk about it? My neck is starting to hurt.”
He walked down the ladder. “Sorry,” he spit the remaining nails into his hand and dropped them into his pocket. They walked to the living room and sat. “You know all the boxes out in the shed?” Josh had been stocking up; he had purchased winter clothes, boots, long underwear, rechargeable batteries, gallons of water, a rainwater filter, face masks, gas masks, oxygen tanks, gloves, dehydrated food, seeds, tools, bows and arrows, two crossbows, a rifle, three pistols, and a case of ammunition for each.
Marilyn tried to make light of the situation. “Of course! How could I not? You’ve got enough stuff to fill a warehouse store in there!”
He didn’t smile. “I want to move it in here, where we can keep an eye on it.”
It was her turn not to smile. “Where in here?”
Josh lowered his eyes to the floor. “The nursery.” They had been trying to get pregnant and after not being successful had been talking about going for fertility treatment but once the doomsday message started they had not discussed it further. He knew she would be hurt at the suggestion to do anything else with the room they had set aside for a baby.
She stood there, breathing. Every part of her wanted to shout, to rage at the seemingly insurmountable conflicts within her heart: she wanted a child very badly but felt the doomsday message had rendered such desires reckless and insensitive. How could any sane person want to bring a child into a world in which he or she would never grow old? She shrugged a finality and walked toward the back door. “Let’s go.”
Quietly Josh replied, “Where are we going?”
She opened the door and took a step out. “To the shed. It’s just gone dark, which is the best time.” As she clenched both hands into fists against her sides, her face held a light that he read as desperation. “Isn’t that what you told me?” Without a pause for a response she blurted, “I know that’s what you said, that we shouldn’t show what we’re buying or what’s in the stockpile. That we should shop outside of town and empty the car in the dark so the neighbors won’t see.”
Marilyn’s voice had gone up three octaves. Josh gently grabbed her hand; the muscles in it loosened at his touch. “You’re right. I did say that. Let’s do it.” He chose his words carefully. “Let’s put the stuff in the nursery until we can clear another space–”
“It can stay in there. Not like we’re going to use it,” she interjected.
“Look,” he turned her and took her in his arms. “Hush now; let’s be easy about this. We don’t know what’s going to happen or when.”
She hugged him tightly and smiled in the darkening evening. “Thank you. Now let’s do this.” Hand in hand they made each trip to the shed and quietly relocated their survival supplies into the house.

T-Minus-15. Nathan and Cassandra

Nathan helped Cassandra from the passenger compartment; she took three steps, stumbled, and bleated an expletive. “I told you not to wear heals.”
“Unlock the door,” she said, defeated. The flats she had brought along did not match her outfit as closely as the pumps. She deftly changed into them and returned to Nathan. They made their way to a ramp which ended far beneath the surface. At the head of the ramp stood the imposing figure of their underground housing contact, a certain Mr. Hargrove.
“Hello, friends!” Hargrove bellowed. He had only two volume settings–loud and off. “Follow me–we’re going to take a ride down to see your new digs.” He handed them each an apparatus that looked like a modern gas mask; instead of a filter it carried a miniature oxygen tank. He noticed their looks of concern. “Oh, no worries about the oxygen masks. Since this is your first trip under, you’ll need them to keep your equilibrium. Just like people need a boost when they go to much higher altitudes. I’ve spent too much time down there and going back and forth I don’t need one.” Nathan and Cassandra held their masks and stepped into the truck. They marveled at the flurry of activities at the bottom. Hargrove steered the truck down, around, and through the goings-on; eventually they reached a high-ceilinged space. “We are now four miles down.” The temperature was not unpleasant at this point and both Nathan and Marilyn were intrigued; within the unmeasurable space was a city. There were streets, houses, and community spaces. Many of the structures were still at the framing stage but it was shaping up. Hargrove motioned them to a set of larger frames that were strategically located near the largest community space. He took them to number 27. “Well, here she is!” Hargrove’s voice boomed and bounced off the curved ceiling far above their heads.
“Is!” The ceiling called back.
Cassandra grabbed Nathan’s arm. “I think it’s going to be perfect.”
“Oh, you betcha!” Hargrove shouted before Nathan could say a word.

T-Minus-10. JPL Laboratories

The asteroid was a light in the sky; its surface reflected some of both sun and moon so it was now a constant presence. The JPL team and the group of scientists from around the world whose only function was to monitor the asteroid and its effects on the planet were confused by the fact that at its present distance of 6 A.U., it should be clearly visible via the Hubble but it was consistently obscured. They first thought there might be dust on Hubble’s lens but that was quickly ruled out. Changes due to the asteroid’s own gravity affecting the asteroid belt was suggested and for a time that held. The idea was that as the asteroid barreled its way through space, its push and pull was disrupting the already chaotic orbits within the belt. As the paths of those bodies became more erratic, the asteroid itself was being blocked from clear viewing. The scientists and JPL staff members would themselves be underground before the truth was discovered.

T-Minus-Five, One. Josh and Marilyn

“You can’t put anything else in there, hon.” Josh barely heard Marilyn’s voice as he stood in the hallway outside his study; as they had amassed more supplies he quickly realized that the nursery would be too small. He had emptied his study, a larger room right across the hall, and moved the supplies there. They threw away the couch that had been his workspace and put the bookcase and computer in the living room. He strategized how he would fit his most recent acquisition, a generator, into the room. Marilyn came up behind him. “That thing shouldn’t even be in the house,” she said as she wrapped her arms around his waist.
Josh turned to hug her back. “I know, but I haven’t figured out where to put it so it will be secure.” He had a stash of gas buried in the yard but was hesitant to put the genny down there too.
“But what about residual fumes?” Marilyn asked as she placed his hands on her swollen belly. “We shouldn’t be exposed to the fumes, you know.”
He smiled and rubbed. “I know, but since there’s no gas in the house or in the generator, I think you both will be okay.” He didn’t often show how thrilled and blessed he felt about Marilyn being pregnant; for so long they had tried and not found success. And then without warning she had missed two periods; after a visit to the doctor, their dreams were about to come true. He knew she was concerned, not just about keeping herself and the baby healthy through the pregnancy, but philosophically she had been troubled by the idea of bringing a child into a world that was destined to be severely damaged before he or she had a chance to finish kindergarten.
Marilyn’s expression changed. “How much more stuff will you get? I mean, we’re out of space.”
He observed her, then regarded the room. Since he had started stocking up, he had added wardrobe cabinets to the room to hold adult and child clothes that would be age- and season-appropriate, more pre-cooked and edible canned goods and hand can openers, more tools and weapons, hand-crank radios and other electronics, and a miriad of other things that, in the heat of the moment, seemed appropriate to have if surviving the end of the world was the goal. “You’re right–there’s not much more I can do. My calculation is that we’ve got between three and five years’ worth. Since we’re on this, I gotta question for you.” She nodded for him to go on. “Are you planning to breast feed?”
“Why?”
“I’m trying to consider if there are any other things we need to get and formula came to mind. But if you breast feed, we can commit to you doing that, which will save room space. Formula cases are not exactly small.”
With hands on hips, Marilyn considered Josh’s logic. “Well, the formula I bought–and I didn’t buy a lot because I do plan to breast feed but wanted to have some formula in the event of an emergency. I got a few cases of the small cans.” She grabbed Josh’s hand and pulled him into the narrow path that he had left for access. After pointing to the floor under the stool, she said, “I put them there. In case something happens.” Josh tried to read her expression but other than the determination in the hard setting of her mouth, she was a blank slate to him. He backed out of the room and once they were both in the hall he took both her hands. “We will all be fine.” She smiled and did her best to believe.

T-Minus-Five, Two. Nathan and Cassandra

“Where are you going with that?” Nathan questioned as Cassandra waddled across the room with her arms trembling; she pushed the television cart from their bedroom across the foyer.
She straightened her back and turned away from him to dab sweat off her upper lip. “Mr. Hargrove said we should outfit our underground home with familiar things and that we could start taking stuff down there as soon as our homes were done.”
“And?”
“And ours was finished more than a week ago.” Nathan fixed her with a blank stare. She rolled her eyes. “I went, picked up the key, and scheduled a date–today–to start taking a few things down.”
Nathan looked at her like she had lost her mind. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?!”
She went to the counter and picked up his phone. “Check your calendar app,” she said as she tossed it to him.
He pawed at the screen and located the appointment Cassandra had posted to his calendar over a week prior. “Okay, so I missed that. But you don’t need to take our TV.”
“Why not?”
Nathan smiled. “I was messing with you. I knew the place was finished; I went over there last week myself. In fact, I spoke with Mr. Hargrove and he connected me with a designer–someone discreet who’s already on his payroll–and I got the place decorated and furnished already. Want to go see it?”
Cassandra was shocked. “And you didn’t think it was important to get my input? It’s only the house I’m going to live in probably forever!” Nathan brought his phone to her and showed her a picture which made her even more upset. “Why are you showing me a picture of the foyer?”
“It’s not the foyer,” he smiled.
Cassandra took the camera from him and squinted. “Yes, it is. There’s that Ming vase you got me seven years ago. Wait–why is it so dark outside those windows? Did you take this at night or something?”
“That is the foyer of your underground house. If you want to see how well the designer was able to replicate this house, we need to call off your delivery truck and get going.”
Cassandra’s eyes were as big as saucers. “You did all that for me?” Nathan nodded. “But what will happened to all this stuff if we aren’t going to take it with us?” She waved across the house broadly.
Nathan helped Cassandra into her coat and shrugged. “Who cares? Leave it for the apocalypse.”
As they walked out, Cassandra called to cancel the delivery truck. “I can’t wait to see our new-old home,” she said as Nathan locked the front door.

T-Minus-One, One. Josh, Marilyn, and Minerva

Minerva would not stop crying. She was a most insightful child and after hearing about the asteroid while at preschool had become inconsolable. “But Mommy, what will happen to us?” She had consistently wailed the question for the past hour.
Marilyn was furious. Minerva was her primary experience with child self-determination and efficacy but there were limits. She could not understand why the asteroid had been a preschool topic; such things, in Marilyn’s opinion, fell into the realm of ‘things we talk about at home,’ like sexual preference, menstrual cycles, and religion. A visit with Ms. Carrolson, her daughter’s teacher, had proved to be less than satisfactory. “Well, Mrs. Samuel, the asteroid is truly a current event. Every television and radio program and internet story for the past six months has been about the arrival of the asteroid. I would suspect, given the gravity of the situation, that such news coverage will only increase. We decided to talk about the asteroid during our science module. Most schools are following a similar curriculum.”
Marilyn had been careful about how much news Minerva was exposed to, but this morning she had not changed the television channel. When she came out of the bathroom she found Minerva sitting on her bed, transfixed by the coverage of the asteroid. Marilyn grabbed the remote and switched the channel to children’s programming but the damage had been done. “Mommy, did you know about this?” Resigned, Marilyn nodded. “For how long?”
“What does that matter, dear?” Marilyn tried to sound nonchalant, but Minerva was not to be dissuaded simply by the comforting voice of her mother.
She crossed her arms strongly. “I want to know why you didn’t tell me about the asteroid, Mommy. I want to know if you just found out or if you knew for a long time.”
Marilyn sat on the bed near the child. “Minerva, honey, Mommy knew about the asteroid for a long time. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to worry. Mommy and Daddy love you and will do everything we can to keep you safe.”
Minerva pulled her legs fully onto the bed and absentmindedly picked at her toes. “You and Daddy can’t keep me safe,” she said with a pout.
Marilyn wanted to jump up and call Ms. Carrolson to find out what exactly had been said in that science module about the asteroid. “Why would you say that, honey?” She tried to keep her voice level.
“Johnny said so.”
Marilyn knew exactly who Johnny was, having volunteered with his mother Patsy on the parent’s club at the preschool. Word among the other mothers was that Patsy’s husband Stewart had been a real estate broker; for a while their family had been quite wealthy. Stewart brought home the money and Patsy spent it. Their lives had become a bit more mundane after the housing bubble burst but Patsy’s attitude was no indicator. She continued to carry herself above the local crowd and raised Johnny to do the same. Marilyn did not go in for gossip but vaguely remembered hearing that Stewart had called in a mark in order to get underground housing for the family. After hearing just this one little statement from Minerva, Marilyn suspected that it was more than hearsay. “What else did Johnny say?”
Miverva’s eyes filled. “He said he was the only one in class who was going to live. He said that even Ms. Carrolson would not live. He said that his mommy and daddy had gotten an underground house. He said to the rest of us that our mommies and daddies didn’t love us as much as his mommy and daddy loved him.” She paused to take a breath and what she said next chilled Marilyn’s heart. “He said we all were going to die.”

T-Minus-One, Two. JPL Laboratories

Members of JPL’s Asteroid Trajectory Unit were frantic. They had of course been monitoring the asteroid’s path as it traveled into the solar system once it cleared the asteroid belt but they had calculated its general speed and direction based on the typical behavior of such celestial ordnance. However as it came closer, the scientists’ calculations suggested there was nothing typical about this asteroid. And while no one said it out loud, every man and woman working on the project was afraid.

T-Minus-One, Three. Nathan, Cassandra, and Barry

“Thank you so much, Barry,” Cassandra said to the postman. “How long before you stop delivery?” She was not asking out of concern for the man but rather was concerned that a particular package she was expecting might not be delivered.
Barry lifted the front of his cap and thoughtfully scratched his graying crew cut as he tried not to look annoyed. He and two colleagues had pulled the short straw for local underground duty and he hated it. The area covered by his route was already 90% full, with additional families coming in daily. The postal service had been delivering mail and packages down to the subterranean oases for the past three months; their work had essentially tripled when the other big three delivery companies refused to service the wealthy communities. Leadership at those companies had been willing to provide services, but employee unions stepped in and protested. Barry and his colleagues had not been told how long deliveries would go on or how close it would be until doomsday when they would stop; all carriers had been told to politely deflect service questions until the Postmaster General had announced a firm date. None of Barry’s coworkers, or Barry himself for that matter, had been able to afford underground accommodations and as nonessential personnel they could not get waivers like their police and fire colleagues. Barry planned to quit a soon as the stop delivery date was announced; he and a couple buddies had scouted out an old mining shaft and were going to move their families down there before the asteroid got too close. “I wish I knew, Ma’am,” he said with as much cheer as he could muster. Daily he wondered if he should just walk off the job but the asteroid’s impending arrival had not stifled commerce; rather, the economic engines of the world were rolling at a break-neck pace. The wealthy of the world, all of whom except for those whose philanthropic interests kept them from using their money to save only themselves, fully expected to remain wealthy; they continued to trade heavily and the market was moving upward with more regularity than it had after the economic restructuring of the past. Barry could not quit because if he did, his family would starve, even as they faced the possibility of a worse demise. He was angry, but had to do his best to contain it, particularly when talking to a customer who gave tips. “But we’ll keep right on until we can’t, don’t you worry.”
“Rain, sleet, snow, and asteroids; right, Barry?” Cassandra smiled as she handed him a $20. She felt so bad for the poor man.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said behind clenched teeth as he tucked the cash in his pocket and walked away.

Zero. International Space Station

The crew on the International Space Station were on high alert; the high-res imaging through which they peered at the surface of the planet had them tense. At 17,500 miles per hour they whizzed diagonally over South America; sensors indicated that the asteroid had struck in the Mediterranean Sea. As they hurtled toward the impact zone, an ominous layer of clouds was making its way around the atmosphere; it came at an estimated speed of 25,000 miles per hour so by the time the Station had traveled 30 minutes the clouds had engulfed the planet. Thirty minutes after that, the Station had gone far enough that the sensors should have been in position to view the Mediterranean but they were unable to penetrate the thick cover.

Day One. Earth

Beneath the cloud cover, the surface of the planet was eerily still. There was no movement to be found; no animals roamed and no birds flew. Beneath the oceans farthest from the impact area, confused fish and mammals tried to regain their bearings as the waters swirled angrily at the large disturbance from the day before. The entrances to the various underground enclaves of the wealthy had been sealed three days before doomsday. The rest of the populace remained in bomb and storm shelters, abandoned mines, and secured homes; the ones on the surface who survived the impact were afraid, having heard the sounds of devastation around them.
Such feelings and actions were warranted. The scientific calculations had been correct and the ordnance made landfall in the Mediterranean; the ensuing tsunamis wiped out most of the 21 countries immediately surrounding the sea.
The people in the underground communities went about their business, since most of them had moved in months before doomsday; they were unaware of the destruction above, beyond the reports being broadcast on the underground news network. They were the only ones with some semblance of active communications and were patched in to a relay station in the midwestern region of the United States, where most of the JPL and community of global scientists had been taken for safety. They were busy monitoring planetary shifts and such; just as the NASA station had broadcast in times gone by, the JPL station was being broadcast into the underground communities. A few shortwave experts were tuned in from their perches of safety as well.
In addition to the devastation in the eastern hemisphere there was massive seismic activity along all the major fault lines in the western hemisphere. Seven new faults were created. Most of southern California, up through the Bay Area, was decimated; those who had been able to relocate to underground housing–which for that region had been placed in and around Eastern Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico–mourned the loss of friends and family left behind.
The object was not an asteroid but that would not be discovered for some time. It had burrowed beneath what had been Greece, where it would remain until the atmosphere stabilized.
As historians would later piece together the events that unfolded after doomsday, the story of the world would begin again at Year Zero.

Year-Zero-Plus-One, One. International Space Station

The atmosphere remained a solid and impenetrable cover; the astronauts on the International Space Station were, despite their desperate situation–or perhaps because of it–focused on and maintained their schedule of contact with ground control. Each attempt was met with static and silence but not a single duty rotation skipped their turn at transmitting. They took photos of what they called the storm clouds which never seemed to change. It was noted in the log book that the stationary nature of the cloud cover was unnatural; storms always moved with the currents of air in the atmosphere but these clouds were unmoving. They called it a storm because they had no other words for it under the circumstances. However, the strange nature of what they witnessed was encouraging to the astronauts; because none of them had ever seen a weather phenomenon that was so uniform they stayed near the viewing areas and looked for changes. Every 92 minutes one or more of the scientists was glued to a section of the Cupola in hopes of being the first to see a break in the clouds. Everyone on board hoped they would survive to see it.

Year-Zero-Plus-One, Two. Josh, Marilyn, and Minerva

“Okay, okay!” Josh tried to keep from screaming at the top of his lungs in order to one-up Minerva, who at five years of age had an impressive set of lungs. For the most part she reserved her incredible vocal capacity for the occasional ear-splitting, high-pitched screech. It was almost a bark in its brevity, for which Josh was grateful; he suspected they would have been raided had anyone heard a session of extended screaming. Josh had been outside for brief stints and refused to let Marilyn and Minerva out there.
It wasn’t because of anything in particular, like toxic atmosphere (although he had no way of knowing that the carbon dioxide levels were increasing); it was actually quite peaceful out there. They lived in a region of south-central New Mexico that had not been affected by the wind and water like those who lived on the coastal plains, in the mid-west, or who were in the impact area. He had waited a week after doomsday before he encouraged anyone in his house to speak above a whisper. He himself waited two weeks before he went outside for the first time and had found a very quiet world. Nothing was moving and no one was about; he had walked a circuitous round to avoid being followed since there was no way of knowing if marshall law or a state of lawlessness prevailed. The silence was like that found on a rainy fall day: the gray clouds were high above and created a dampening stillness. Josh didn’t like it. He never went far but chose different streets and sections of the neighborhood to explore each time and changed the time of day he ventured so as not to develop a pattern. Only once did he meet someone; Mr. Thompson, the octagenarian microfarmer who lived on the street behind Josh had come out to clear some blowing debris from his sidewalk. They chatted quietly and Josh promised to check on him from time to time. “I’ll be fine,” Mr. Thompson said. “My greenhouses are well-hidden in and around the property. I’m well-stocked. But if you all need anything, don’t hesitate to come by. Let’s say no later than 6:30 in the morning. Mostly young folks don’t move at that hour, especially now.” They parted as quietly as they had met. Beyond Mr. Thompson, Josh saw no one within the seven block radius he had explored over the course of the year since doomsday.
He held his hands up as a sign of resignation. “How about you just come and take a look.” Minerva did not look convinced. “I bet you’ll hate it,” he added.
Minerva’s left eyebrow shot up. “What do I get if you lose the bet?” She had unwittingly took his bait.
Josh feigned ignorance. “What do you mean?”
“You said, ‘I bet you won’t like it’ which means I win the bet if I do like it.” Minerva’s tone suggested that she was the adult and was talking to her five-year-old instead of the other way around.
“What do you want if you win?” Josh played along.
Minerva grinned. “If I win, I get to go outside!”
He had figured that. “Okay,” he answered.
They had made it part way to the back door. “Daddy, isn’t Mommy coming?”
Josh had hoped she would not ask after Marilyn, who was in bed. Despite all of his ministrations it seemed that she had gotten very sick. When he checked her earlier that morning she had only a low-grade fever which gave him a small measure of relief; the week before she had held a temperature that was just below 103 degrees. “Mom’s tired honey.”
“She sure has been tired a lot lately,” Minerva mumbled. “Mommy hasn’t read me a story in over a week.”
“But I jumped in and read to you.” Josh took pride in his storytelling.
She glanced at Josh. “I kinda like her stories better. She does voices.”
“Voices, huh?” He tried not to sound disappointed. “I might have to try that next time.” He had thought she liked his storytelling.
“Whatever.” Minerva had reverted back to her five-year-old self and was anxious to know where they were going. “So where’s the surprise?”
Josh left off feeling hurt about not being the favorite storyteller and pointed to the back door. “There,” he said. Minerva squealed and grabbed for the knob but Josh held her back. “Whoa! Go easy!” He carefully opened the door for her and walked her into the new backyard. He had partitioned off part of the space behind the house and essentially created an indoor/outdoor play space. From the outside it looked like a natural extension to the house; Josh had begun to slowly work on it before doomsday and completed the inside afterward. He had installed opaque skylights and florescent lighting to give some semblance of growing light for the grass and other greenery and had done what he could to soundproof the space. He had moved Minerva’s swing set and other toys into the space to hopefully create something of an outdoor space for her. He knew the world would need a long time to heal but Josh wanted to provide as normal a childhood as possible for his daughter. That, and making sure he got Marilyn back to health, was all he had.

Year-Zero-Plus-One, Three. Nathan and Cassandra

Nathan had gone golfing over at the club; he often lamented that it wasn’t a PGA-level establishment like the one they had had topside but that, considering the circumstances, it was a good substitute.
Cassandra had finished her hot yoga class and was waiting for her table at the massage clinic. She listened to the murmur of the JPL communication station–it was the only thing that seemed to play in places like the spa–and tried to imagine what life was like on the surface. Regardless of what she heard on the reports, her mind fixated on the conversations she had at the club house. She did not know where the other club wives got their information about what was going on up there but the comments were filled with horrifying tales of death, mayhem, marshal law, and violence. Just the day before at brunch, Bridgitte shared. “Did you all hear about that place in southern Ohio?” Her six companions shook their heads in unison. “Well,” Bridgitte leaned in close, “I heard that they ran out of food.” She paused dramatically to take a bite of her finger sandwich; the salmon had been frozen fresh and was too tempting to let get warm. “They’ve gone cannibal.” Gasps resounded and three ladies excused themselves from the table after beginning to feel faint upon hearing the story.
Cassandra reclined on the massage table and tried to stop thinking about life, or what now substituted for it, on the surface and instead focused on the hot oil being spread across her tired back.

Year-Zero-Plus-Two, One. International Space Station

For 746 days, the view from the Cupola had been the same. The clouds below were unmoving, unbroken, just as they had been on the first day. Their complement was down to three; Officer Majorski and Crewman Chang had died during a space walk several months prior.
One of the stabilizer units, which helped maintain orbit, had gone on the blink; without it, the station would begin to spiral toward the surface. The five of them had discussed letting nature take its course, with the strongest voices suggesting an off-trajectory re-entry burn out would be a more favorable way to go than waiting out the end of rations, succumbing to space madness, facing disease, or dealing with the end of the oxygen supply. The quieter voices likened death by orbit loss to be akin to suicide if they did not try to affect repairs. A secret vote was called, with “repair” and “no repair” on the ballots; “repair” won and Majorski and Chang suited up, having both completed space walks on previous missions. Suit checks passed and all was well, but the crew had no way of knowing that the lining in Majorski’s suit had begun to dry rot, as had one of the interior seals on Chang’s right glove. The two had been outside for nearly four hours before any problems surfaced. Dr. Victoria was monitoring them and noticed changes in Chang’s telemetry then moments later Majorski’s went flat. Before she could call the others to discuss the possibility of a rescue, the two were dead. Officer Delany and Crewman Sykes reviewed the doctor’s work and determined she had followed protocol. There was nothing they could have done, save not sending the two out there, that would have made a difference. Since neither Delany or Sykes had ever had a space walk assignment (and the doctor was not an astronaut per se) and they could not determine the condition of the back up outside suits, it was decided that a retrieval mission would not be taken. They gathered in the Cupola and Dr. Victoria, who was also ordained, spoke a few universal words of prayer. They adjourned to their respective duties, each thankful that since none of them was going out to retrieve Majorski or Chang that the remains of their colleagues were tethered to a section of the Station that had no windows.

Year-Zero-Plus-Two, Two. Barry

Marcus was screaming; he had been at it for the past two days, which surprised the others. Considering his predicament, it was a wonder he had anything to scream with. It was frightening, creepy, and terribly sad because there was nothing they could do to make the situation any better.
Marcus was the one who had discovered the additional passageways and who had suggested that they explore. “It will be good to know where the other passages go,” he had said. “It might be safer to go deeper into the hill. I mean, deeper laterally; I don’t want to go too deep down in case there’s a change in water levels or something.”
Evan was afraid. “We don’t know what’s down there. I mean, we’ve come in this far to an abandoned mine. Dude, the keyword in that sentence is abandoned. That must have happened for a reason, right?”
“Are you really saying this right now?” Carlos said. “You were here, what, three years ago when we started fixing this place up, yeah? You didn’t say nothing then. And when we brought our families and stuff down about a month before doomsday, you were right here. You walked off the job with us, you helped like everybody else when we were ready to move, you did it all.” Carlos used his fist to pound out each item. “You voted that this was a good place to set up because it was big enough for each of us to set up camp for our families and have some privacy, even though we were in the same space, but we were close enough to help if one of the others was in trouble and far enough to not be under each other’s feet. We don’t know if there are tunnels out there that are just waiting to collapse on us if we walk in them. Now you want to leave the place we agreed was safe?”
“I just thought it might be a good idea.” Marcus put up his hands and looked at Barry for help.
“I don’t mind taking a look,” Barry cut in. Carlos looked like he was choking, Evan looked even more frightened, and Marcus looked pleased. “But I don’t think we need to explore far. We checked out everything pretty good before settling in and I would be concerned about running into an unstable area or getting lost. Our wives and the kids were scared to come down here but seemed to have settled down. Do you want to wreck that?”
Marcus was not to be swayed. “Okay, I hear you. But don’t be surprised if I find a good path on my own.”
“Don’t go off on your own. Like Carlos was saying, we don’t know what’s stable and what’s dangerous.” Barry did not like the look in Marcus’ eyes. “And whatever you do, don’t go out by yourself.” He emphasized every word.
“Tsk!” Marcus sucked his teeth. “You had to say that twice, huh?”
“Sure,” Evan piped up. “He knows how hard-headed you are.” The four laughed and went back to their usual daily activities.
That was how two days ago began.
Later in the day the group was preparing to come together for lunch and Marcus did not show. Joyce had not seen him since right after breakfast; Marcus and Joyce were newlyweds, having completed pre-marital counseling and nuptials under the tutelage of Rev. Dr. Bernard Williams of the Holy Redeemer Church of Christ, Inc., just five months before doomsday. They were inseparable, at least until that morning. Barry and Carlos volunteered to go search while Evan stayed with the women and children.
“Where do you think he went?” Carlos asked as they checked their third passageway; the first two they checked dead-ended and appeared to have been closed for many years.
Barry hoped that Marcus was already back in the central tunnel and giving Evan a hard time, but his heart told him otherwise. He kept those thoughts to himself. “Not sure, Carlos. After the way he’s been talkin’, I just don’t know.”
As they advanced farther into the third passage the moaning started. “What in the world is that?” Carlos looked like he had seen a ghost. His question bounced off the tunnel walls and the volume of the moaning increased. Carlos looked at Barry. “Do you think that’s him?”
“Who else would it be,” Barry said in resignation as he quickened his pace to a trot. The tunnel curved to the left and began a slow ascent. Barry’s flashlight beam bounced off the craggy walls and as he approached what appeared to be a sharp turn the beam disappeared; Barry pulled up short and looked down just in time. The tunnel dropped off sharply; one more step and Barry would have fallen into an abyss. At the bottom of the 15-foot-deep pit was Marcus and from the looks of things he was hurt badly. Barry handed his flashlight to Carlos and knelt down. “Hey, Marcus?” he called; there was no response beyond the unintelligible moans and noises of scraping. “Marcus–can you hear me?” Barry leaned in, causing a small avalanche of pebbles to dust down onto Marcus, at which point he responded by screeching in pain; Barry got down on his belly after retrieving his flashlight and thoroughly swept Marcus with light. His friend was in terrible shape: he had most likely not seen the drop and stepped off into darkness. Both legs were bent at unnatural angles. The left one appeared to have a double compound fracture at the thigh. He was covered in what looked like milk chocolate and smelled like blood.
“What do you see, man?” Carlos was beside himself. It’s Marcus, right? How far down is he? Can we get him out?”
Barry knew it was bad. He turned, got up, and dusted off the front of his jacket. “We can’t get to him, Carlos. And even if we could there is no way we could treat those breaks. He’s already bled out pretty much.”
“What are you saying, we just leave him like that?”
“We can’t do anything.” Barry gave Carlos his flashlight. “Take a look.”
Carlos got down on the tunnel floor and peered over; Marcus had managed to turn so that his head and upper torso was facing up. There was minimal sign of life in his eyes and his once rich and vibrant skin color was like chocolate chalk. His rib cage rattled with death. Carlos slid back from the edge and got up. He looked at Barry with new understanding and nodded. As they turned from the funereal pit, Marcus began screaming.
As the sound wafted through the mine, Sarai and Lucy exchanged glances. “Anne, why don’t you and Joyce take the twins over there and read to them?” They heard the screaming and knew something was wrong; Anne looked haunted while Joyce appeared to jump out of her skin each time the sounds of misery reached them.
Lucy put an arm around both women and urged them to stand. “Yeah, girls; you know I ain’t got no patience and right now you two are the best to work with kids.” Anne and Evan’s boys were four; Barry and Sarai had one older daughter (no one had mentioned her out of respect; the couple had not heard from her after she had called them two weeks before doomsday, when she let them know that she and her husband had gotten into underground housing since he was a firefighter and she a nurse’s aide. She had begged her parents to come but Barry and Sarai were both too proud to accept); Marcus and Joyce had followed the Rev. Dr.’s instruction and had waited until their wedding night to become intimate (although they had no children, Joyce was knowledgable about them; for eight years she had worked as an elementary school teacher and she had been promoted to unit leader seven months before doomsday); and Carlos and Lucy had decided not to have children (neigther had had very positive childhoods and had no desire to pass on that uncertain gene pool).
Anne and Joyce stumbled to their feet as Sarai talked to Fred and Frank. “Hey guys, your mom and Auntie Joyce are going to take you over there for story-time, okay?” She followed Lucy and the other two women; Fred and Frank remained silent as they shuffled along.
Sarai heard the sound of familiar footsteps and turned to see her husband and Carlos emerging from a tunnel on the other side of their common space. He gave her a look and her pulse quickened. She got the boys settled with Anne and Joyce. “Lucy, I hate to ask but would you mind keeping an eye on them for a sec?” She motioned toward Joyce, Anne, and the two boys.
“Hey, what’s going on? What is all that noise?” Evan said from behind a large armload of firewood; before the screaming started he had left to go get more wood for the stack they kept close to the cooking fire. What was supposed to be a quick trip had turned into an extended affair: after finding a cave filled with growing but leafless trees and cut wood when they first arrived, the group figured the miners must have burned fires while underground also with such a great and ready source of fuel; when Evan got to the cave he discovered that they had gathered the last of the split logs and set himself to the task of splitting more.
“I’m sure the fellas will fill you in,” Sarai moved toward the returning men. “Say Evan–mind staying here with Lucy? Thanks.” She was gone before he could protest.
Barry was so thankful to see his wife. “Hey, honey.” He kept his voice low. “I guess you all heard the yelling?” She nodded and he closed his eyes. “It’s Marcus; he went exploring on his own and evidently fell into a pit. He’s busted up something awful and there’s nothing we can do, especially since he’s lost enough blood to be dead already.”
Carlos piped up. “We basically gotta leave him, but figured Barry and me could take turns walking folks down there, you know, to say good-bye.”
“Who’s gonna tell Joyce?” Sarai was mortified. She suspected things were bad but that was not the news she thought the men would bring back.
“Figured I would. Take her to the side while Carlos told his wife, Evan, and Anne.” Barry looked like he was growing older by the second. Sarai squeezed his hand as the three of them rejoined the rest of the group.
Joyce took the news surprisingly well; she did not cry until Barry took her down the tunnel to see Marcus. By the time they got there he had turned over again and was blowing blood bubbles into the sand beneath his cracked lips. He never acknowledged that he knew they were there. Sarai came along and when they got back to camp kept Frank and Fred while Carlos took Lucy, Evan, and Anne. Anne had some sleeping pills so they made sure Joyce got a dose and went to bed. While Carlos and his group were there, Evan began to recite part of the Talmud. Marcus moaned and shivered in a mixture of blood and excrement; it was horrible and they left him, expecting him to be dead by morning. But he hung on, his screams and moans echoing through the mine.
By his wind-up watch, Barry noted the time as 1:30AM. For the previous two nights, Marcus’ yelps and whimpers resonated but now it was silent. Sarai was sleeping fitfully and he quietly left the tent; to his surprise he found Joyce sitting by the cooking pot. “Coffee?” she handed him a fresh cup. “He’s gone; I went to look and to say a prayer for him and he was dead. I know he was because he wasn’t breathing or making any noise. I dropped a stone on his arm and got no response.” She looked at Barry and smiled. “Between me and you, I’m kinda glad; there were two Marcuses–you all saw the good one. I knew the bad one.” Barry sat and listened; Joyce had obviously carried a heavy load for quite some time. He was grateful, all things considered. As she talked, Barry wondered if they should have a memorial or if they should just block the tunnel and move forward with their lives. I’ll ask Joyce what she’d like, he thought as she told him the story of her life.

Year-Zero-Plus-Three. International Space Station

Dr. Victoria sat in the Cupola with her eyes closed and tried not to think. She opened them, looked at the planet and wondered what it looked like beneath the never-ending cloud cover. She missed the others and wished they were here to see the coming dawn; the sun would be cresting in 15 minutes.
She estimated the last of the oxygen would pump into the Cupola in about 10.
“Delany, Sykes–boy are you both missing it.” Sykes had died eight months earlier and Delany went two months after that; both had suffered with dysentery and had asked the doctor to give them last rites before it had gotten close to the end. They each died during a sleep cycle. Victoria had somehow been spared and often wondered why. Thoughts of her faith background seemed eerily distant in those moments and were when she felt most afraid and alone. She had packaged her colleagues in the government-issued body bags and jettisoned them to space. It was during the ceremony for Delany (at which she served as officiant and sole attendee) that she realized something was wrong with the Station. After closing the hatch and pausing to watch Delany float out of sight, she returned to the instrument bay. The Station had been running on full auto-pilot since Sykes had taken ill; tending to the two of them, plus trying to get some sleep occasionally, had kept Victoria away from the more technical aspects of the Station. One glance at the panel gave her the answer: whatever Majorski and Chang had done during their four-hour walk, they had not repaired the stabilizer.
An alarm filled the Station with sound and signaled that all the oxygen had been expended. Dr. Victoria turned on the portable tank and relaxed as much as she could. She flipped the dark visor on her helmet to shield her eyes from the sun as it rose off the edge of Earth. At that moment, the entire Station rocked as the Canadian Mobile Servicing System brushed Earth’s atmosphere; had the sky been clear, the people living in the southwestern region of North America would have been treated to the most spectacular meteor shower of their lives.
The Cupola began to melt but Dr. Victoria remained seated. She grimaced as she faced her end accompanied by thoughts of the Great Beyond, the Earth below, and how she was about to enter both.

Year-Zero-Plus-Four, One. Nathan and Cassandra

Nathan adjusted his left cuff link and gave himself one last look in the foyer mirror. “Darling,” he called up the stairs, “we are about to be late!”
“She is almost ready, Mr. Nathan.” Maria had been working for Nathan and Cassandra for the past 15 years, having come to them right after they got married. She had come to the United States alone as a teenager after escaping a war-torn Kosovo. Nathan pulled a few strings and after gaining an audience with the members of the Underground Housing Authority, he explained how important it would be for certain groups of service professionals to be considered among the essential worker population. He listed general statistics on how each family relied on an average of one to three servants, how vital they were not only to individual homes but to the consistent care of public spaces as well. His suggestion was put to a vote and was unanimously approved.
“Yes, here I am, Nate.” Cassandra was resplendent in one of her Dior gowns; Nathan suspected it was that last big purchase he had seen on the credit card before they moved underground. She floated down the stairs and hooked her arm through his. “Don’t wait up for us, Maria. This will probably be a late night.” She had spent the day at the spa and salon in preparation for the evening. Nathan and two others had been appointed by the mayor to serve on the newly formed alderman board for their underground city; they were being sworn in at a public celebration which was also the community Christmas party. Cassandra was enjoying their new life underground; events such as this one would have been a tedious balance of public recognition of new appointed officials with private celebration by the upper crust of the community. Since everyone in the city was part of that former upper crust, there was no need to designate who could and could not attend.
“Yes, ma’am.”
“What will you be doing for the evening, Maria?” Nathan asked. Other than the people who had been hired to serve at the party, there would be no service professionals in attendance, even though the decisions made by the alderman board would ultimately affect their lives also.
Maria looked up at him and gave the sign of the cross. “I have a few friends who work on the other side of the development.” Nathan had never considered that Maria had friends, or a life, for that matter, beyond his wife and him. “We are going to church to pray.”
“That’s nice Maria,” Cassandra said as she pulled Nathan toward the door. “C’mon, Nate; you were the one trying to push for time. Let’s go.”

Year-Zero-Plus-Four, Two. Josh, Marilyn, and Minerva

“…and I can’t believe how well she reads; her essays are brilliantly written!” Marilyn was gushing. After another five minutes of exposition on how well Minerva was doing in her studies and Marilyn realized that Josh was not listening.
Josh had in fact not heard a word his wife had uttered since they woke up. He had nodded at all the right pauses and smiled to fill all the right gaps but his mind was occupied with thoughts of the impending holidays. The time had passed and again they stood at the edge of what should have been the most joyful season of the year; instead of sitting for hours online at work, shipping pre-wrapped packages to relatives or home to be hidden away from Marilyn and Minerva, Josh was couped up in their house, unable to buy gifts for anyone.
Marilyn broke the sudden silence. “If I was boring you with tales of our daughter’s brilliance, you should have said something.” The guilty look on Josh’s face confirmed that her attempt at humor had fallen flat. She reached over and squeezed his arm. “Oh, honey, you’ve been so distracted for the last few days. What’s up?”
He softened. “You know what’s coming in a couple weeks.”
“You have to go help old man Thompson harvest something in his greenhouse and you’re afraid he’ll want you to taste it?”
He gave her a look. “Ha ha. No, that’s not it.” Josh sat back and let out a breath. “It’s Christmas, Marilyn. I envisioned that by the time my child was Minerva’s age I would be able to buy him or her a computer, or we’d be putting together model trains.” He turned to her. “I wanted to be able to buy you a new car or a big ol’ diamond ring. And look–I can’t do anything.” He crossed his arms in a huff.
Marilyn came over, sat in his lap, and grabbed his face with both hands. “Are you serious? Look at all you’ve done for us! Since doomsday we haven’t wanted for a thing. We’re safe. Our daughter is growing and healthy. You helped organize the neighborhood. Those are all incredible things!” She kissed him.
“Ew; Mom, Dad. Really.” Minerva whizzed by the kitchen, throwing out disparagements as they laughed in the brightening day.

One.

The western hemisphere slept and except for the late-night work of a few nocturnal creatures, everything was still and quiet. A wolf hunting on the Alaskan plain paused briefly, allowing the snow rabbit it had been chasing to escape down an auxiliary burrow hole. A flicker high and to the north had distracted the wolf; it was the first Aurora Borealis in five years.
The sun was shining some 5500 miles away from the wolf, who as quickly as it had been distracted had forgotten about the lights in the sky and returned to the hunt of its recently escaped meal. Those who had been eeking out a semblance of life in the hills above the rubble that once had been Parga emerged into a hazy light from the sky that frightened the children born after doomsday for whom tales of non-white skies and balled-orange sun had been history and rumor.
Throughout the region, squinting people came out into the brightest day since before what they had labeled the end of the world. The sun set there and rose on the other side of the planet, causing similar reactions to those above ground to notice.
Above the remains of Parga, the young were not chased off to bed but sat outside with the adults who were enjoying the sea breeze and waited for a night-dawn of stars.

Two.

In the tunnels that had become JPL headquarters, scientists scrambled to make contact with the International Space Station; they wanted to get visuals of the atmosphere piped down. They had lost audio contact three years prior but for almost a year the station had continued to send them photos of Earth’s atmosphere. Those assigned to the stations with the primary purpose of remaining in constant contact with the Station had been re-assigned after the images stopped coming but were back on now that Earth-side instrumentation suggested a change in the cloud cover. As their transmissions grew more frantic, the realization came to the program directors that their eye in the sky was closed for good.

Three.

“We have to make a decision, and I’m not just saying that for myself and my family, you understand.” Evan sounded slightly desperate. “Fred and Frank have gotten on everyone’s nerves–and as their dad, I take ownership of that–”
“That’s the truth,” Carlos mumbled quietly. Lucy nudged him in the ribs hard enough to make him yelp. Sarai and Joyce hid their laughter behind coffee cups steaming with fresh-made.
Evan continued. “–and want to figure out a way to help us all out here.” He looked at Anne’s grateful face and sat.
Barry cleared his throat and all eyes turned toward him. “We’ve been down here a good long time and have all contributed to Fred and Frank’s growth and development. I for one have enjoyed being an uncle!” Anne and Evan looked relieved. “But Evan brings up a good point. The boys need more.” He walked to Sarai and handed his coffee cup to her. “I’d like to go topside, just to see what’s doing.”
“You can’t go by yourself,” Joyce said. Everyone knew from where her sentiment came.
“I’ll go,” Carlos spoke up.
Evan put his hands on his hips. “I was about to say that.”
Barry held up a hand. “Evan, you need to stay here with Anne and the boys.” He turned to Lucy. “You understand?”
“Of course!” Lucy answered with enough extra cheer that Carlos squeezed her hand.
The group busied themselves and tried to act nonchalant as they each gathered their own thoughts about what might be found on the outside. Despite the uncertainty and emotional stress of life underground, they had made it home; the thought of stepping into a new world was difficult to process.
Carlos and Barry were silent as they made their way to the surface. Over their time in the mine since doomsday, the two had traveled to the entrance almost every day to make sure that the hatch was firmly sealed. By doing so they were able to assure the group’s safety: a sealed hatch meant no intruders. Together they spun the hatch wheel and after a few hard pushes they sweatily emerged onto the incline that led to the surface. The logs and brush they had placed on the incline to give the appearance of overgrowth had died and crunched around their legs as they moved toward the light. Both men squinted into the bright day; it looked like a typical day except as they looked down toward center city Albuquerque and at the fog that hung low over the city hall area, there was no discernible movement–no sights and sounds typical to a bustling city of over 500,000 people.
Barry and Carlos returned the way they had come and made sure to sweep away any tracks they had made in the dust that had carpeted the incline. After securing the hatch once more, they slowly walked back to the central tunnel chamber. “You know we need to go down there, right?”
“Why you wanna go into Burque, man?” Carlos looked concerned. “We don’t have the stamina to make the trip down, scout it out, and get back, either before dark or before somebody sees us.”
“We need to try.” Barry turned to him. “What do we do, Carlos? Stay hidden here while the world rebuilds without us?”
Carlos considered Barry’s point. “I’m just sayin’ maybe we can go just inside the city limits. Just past the big houses–those folks went underground as we know. But a few blocks in, rather than try to get downtown.”
Barry agreed and they discussed the idea with the group once they reached the central tunnel. They decided a group of four should go; after drawing straws, they started packing provisions for Joyce, Evan, Fred, and Carlos. “But isn’t he too young?” Anne was afraid; the boys had never been separated from one another.
“Anne, don’t worry–Evan will be there,” Lucy said, which calmed her a bit.”
“Man, I wish you were coming, Barry,” Carlos said in a low voice.
Barry had wanted to go, but the straws had spoken. He looked at Frank. “Yeah, well Frank and I need to be here to look after Anne, Sarai, Lucy, and this place.” Frank grinned broadly at the thought of responsibility. “Besides, that stretch of older homes just below the hill development was your route anyway, wasn’t it Carlos?”
“No, it was mine.” Evan interrupted.
“I have an uncle who lives over there though,” Carlos added.
Barry nodded. “And that’s why you two are a great pair. Joyce knows the city well because of her students and can help if any planning needs to be done, and Fred will be there to keep you straight, Evan.” Fred’s grin mirrored his brother’s. “We’ll get on chow duty and bottle you up some water; after being down here all this time, you’ll need to stay extra hydrated.” He looked at Carlos and said, “It felt extra-warm out there to me.” Carlos nodded in agreement.
“Hey Lucy,” Sarai called. “Remember those slings you made us for carrying wood? Could you modify them a bit so those guys can carry their supplies in them?” Barry was so thankful for Sarai; she thought of all the things he usually forgot.
Lucy got up. “Sure; that’ll be easy.”
Each person got to task. The group would leave at dawn.

Four.

Alix had left his cave without telling anyone after the excitement of seeing the sun and watching and seeing the stars, the grown-ups had continued the joyful celebration by sleeping in; it was the first time in Alix’s 11 years that his parents had stayed in bed past first light.
He lifted his head and smelled the morning sea breeze. It seemed sweeter and beckoned him. Alix made his way downhill toward the sea, but his escapade was interrupted by a deep grumbling. He reached an opening in the trees which gave him a clear view of the water; from what he could see, the ocean was boiling.
Alix halted in the little clearing, transfixed by the events unfolding before him. As he watched, a large object began to rise from the water. Despite having just come out of the ocean, the surface of the thing looked dirty from where Alix was standing. He could see no openings, doors, or windows; it appeared to be a giant rock, a moving piece of Gibraltar. He jumped at a touch on his shoulder. “What are you doing here, Alix?” It was his grandfather.
Alix looked to the ground. “Grandfather, please forgive me! Yesterday was so beautiful I wanted to come outside again to smell the air and look for the sun; we have been in the caves for so long.” He ventured a glace upward. “Please, do not punish me, Grandfather,” he whispered.
Pietre looked at his grandson then out at the object that hovered over the water. “My child, I think we have bigger issues. Let us go back and wake the others.”

Five.

The arrival of the cosmic ordnance had disrupted much of the lightning-fast global communications network but news of the now-floating object spread quickly throughout the region. Once word reached the United Kingdom, it was shared through high-level military transmission to the restructured United States installation in Western Pennsylvania, where it was sent off to the JPL facility. The scientists there examined the reports and grainy imagery; they worked with Propulsion technicians to realign satellites over the region now that the cloud cover had broken. After four days of nearly 24-hours of study, JPL sent a communication back through the channels that sent the information to their people. The message was clear, succinct, and chilling: “Based on new diagnoses of data related to the cosmic ordnance which made landfall into the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, JPL has determined that assessment of ordnance as asteroid was incorrect. Repeat: the ordnance is not an asteroid.”

Six.

“Dad, can I have more water?” Fred asked for the third time since they had emerged from the mine into the bright morning; they had decided to head out at first light and had been walking for a while.
Evan wanted a drink too but held his ground. They all had taken water with breakfast about a half hour into their mission; Fred had asked for more when they had cleared the foothills and were approaching the edge of the large hill communities. Evan had explained how they had developed a schedule that would allow them to conserve their resources and denied the boy more water. He was about to reiterate his conservation speech when Joyce spoke up. “We can pause for the cause.” Evan and the others looked relieved. “Let’s get a cup each. The trick is not to guzzle but to sip, hold it in your mouth and swish it around, then swallow. Do that as you drink the whole cup.”
“How do you know this stuff?” Carlos whispered to Joyce as he sweatily pulled out his cup. He forgot how much energy hiking and walking took, having been off a foot beat for six years.
Joyce smiled as she poured for everyone. She had volunteered to carry the water, figuring it would be the best way to ensure it did not disappear before they reached any sort of destination. “I used to do this for my students over at San Clemente Elementary,” Joyce replied as she poured herself a cup. “The nursing staff were the ones who taught us teachers how to make sure the students stayed hydrated and that the water lasted all the way through a full-day field trip.”
They packed their cups and helped Joyce to stow the water, then continued on their way. They had decided to walk in a (generally) straight line in the direction of City Hall; the rising smoke Carlos and Barry had seen was still visible and served as their guide. Evan and Carlos kept the trip interesting by their whispered bickering about the best and quickest shortcuts through the foothill neighborhood. They whispered because it was so quiet and so as not to attract attention to their group which, despite the silent and empty streets bordered by the huge empty homes of the wealthy who were most likely living it up in their secret underground cities, stuck to the alleys and shadows as much as possible. “Look, man, we are about two blocks away from part of my route. I’m telling you we should take a left onto Myrtle and follow it to Broadway.” Evan was hissing angrily at Carlos, who had different plan.
“Why would we go left at Myrtle? That will take us away from City Hall.”
Evan rolled his eyes. “Only for about a block. It runs diagonal.” He found a stick and drew a crude map in the dirt alongside the gutter.
Carlos consulted the dirt map, the smoke pillar from downtown, and the general path they had taken. “But if we go a block that way,” he pointed vaguely to the right, “we’ll land on Baker Street. From Baker it’s one block south to Turner and Central. If anything is going on around here, it will be near Central.”
Evan blanched. “No way I’m walking over there.”
“Oh, so you gotta problem with ‘over there’?” Carlos raised his voice.
“Shh!” Joyce and Fred both hissed in unison.
Carlos furiously whispered, “Sorry. It’s just that my friend and co-worker here seems to have a problem with a part of town that he drove on a daily basis. Shoot, he even delivered mail to my Tio’s shop at Central and Marin.”
Evan looked embarrassed. “It’s not that. Well, not exactly anyway.” Everyone leaned in as his whisper got quieter. “To be honest, I was intimidated by the neighborhoods all along Central, but I was always in the truck so I didn’t really think about it.”
They were all contemplative for a moment. “Yeah, man. I get it, I know how you feel.” Carlos whispered back and put his arm around Evan’s shoulder. “I felt like that every time I drove to your house for carpool.”
They all broke into welcomed and unexpected laughter, but quieted quickly. “All right, you comedians,” Joyce smiled. “Let’s make a decision here. We have to make up about 20 minutes of travel.”
“You all need some help?” The four jumped at Josh’s unfamiliar voice.

Seven.

They needed water. “I’ll go!” Minerva piped up. Having had similar discussions many times, now Josh and Marilyn simply shook their heads. “But why not? One or the other of you is going over to the pump at Mr. Thompson’s; I’ve been with you and carried the jugs to and from.” She crossed her arms. “I know the way.”
Marilyn sighed. “Yes, darling, you have gone with us. A couple times. But you don’t know the different ways we go and all that.”
“Why do you go different ways?”
Josh gave her a serious look. “Just because we get along with the neighbors and the people between here and Mr. Thompson’s now doesn’t mean that everybody out there is okay.”
Minerva would not let up. “But Daddy, you’re one of the people on the what’s-it-called–”
“Council,” Marilyn supplied.
“Yeah, Council.” Minerva nodded. “That means you help set the rules and stuff. You help make it safe.”
Josh grabbed his hoodie. “Yeah, I try to help make it safe but there’s no way we can keep people from outside the neighborhood from coming in.” He moved toward the door. “Our job is to keep you safe until things are back to the way they were before the asteroid.”
As the door closed behind him, he heard Minerva talking to her mother. “Right. Then I guess I’ll never get out of here. Things will never be the way they were before the asteroid.”
He made his way to old man Thompson’s. “Hey there Josh,” Thompson called from his second floor front room.
“Hello Thompson; mind if I get some water?”
“Never a problem. But before you do, you better come take a look at this.” Josh waited for him to come down and open the door. He followed him upstairs. “Here,” Thompson handed him a pair of binoculars. “Look up toward Oak Street.” Josh focused the binoculars up at the street that separated their neighborhood from the hill communities. He could make out four people. “You recognize them?” Josh shook his head. “Do you think there’s more of them?”
“I guess I’ll go find out. I’ll be back for the water in a little while, okay?” Josh headed toward the stairs.
“Okay, you be careful now. I’ll keep watch through the binoculars. If it looks like trouble, wave towards me and I’ll round up some folks to come help.”
Once outside, Josh cut through the yards he knew were safe and got to Oak Street in about 15 minutes. He circled around the group; he kept a lookout and confirmed for himself that they were just four: a boy, a woman, and two men. He kept hidden and listened to them talk.
“We have to make up 20 minutes of travel,” the woman said. Josh could not grasp where they had come from; since he had not been passed by anyone, it stood to reason that the foursome was headed into town. From his vantage point he could see that they were traveling relatively light; it looked like they only had food and water.
“You all need some help?” Josh stepped out into the street with his arms wide so they could see that he was unarmed. Despite his attempt at goodwill ambassadorship, they all looked startled by his sudden appearance.
Evan stepped in front of Fred protectively. “Who are you and where did you come from?”
Josh thought Evan looked vaguely familiar. “My name is Josh Samuel. One of my neighbors spotted you with his binoculars and I came to check.”
“So much for our stealth moves,” Carlos murmured under his breath.
“Wait a minute. Did you say your last name is Samuel? Is your wife’s first name Marilyn?” Josh nodded. Evan looked relieved. “Cool! I’m your postal carrier!”
Josh squinted at Evan in an attempt to picture him inside a boxy postal truck wearing a blue hat and button-down shirt. It worked. “I thought I recognized you from somewhere,” Josh smiled and shook Evan’s hand. Marilyn was the one who knew everyone–the garbage collectors, the people who drove the street sweeper, and of course their postal carrier. “I’m sorry, but I can’t recall your name. It’s something like Aaron, but I know that’s not it.” He saw Carlos rolling his eyes. “My wife is the one everybody meets.”
Evan had seen Carlos’ look also and ignored it. “No problem. My name’s Evan,” he gestured to the others one by one, “and this is my son Fred–he’s a twin; his brother is back with the others–and Carlos here is one of my co-workers.” Carlos gave a small nod. “And this is Joyce; she’s keeping us in order.”
Everyone shook hands. “So Josh, other than serving as the Albuquerque welcome wagon, what else do you do around here?” Joyce asked. She was hoping he would take them nearby to meet more people.
Josh smiled. “Well, I was on a water run before comin’ up here.” He looked at Fred, who seemed tired. “My wife is going to come looking for me soon, I’m sure; why don’t we head down?”
“Hold up a minute, Josh. How do we know you and your friends down there ain’t gonna ambush us?” Carlos looked suspicious.
“Carlos, really? Did I not just get through sayin’ I know him?” Evan’s eyes were bugged out.
Josh held up his hands. “No. That’s fair. We don’t know each other. Quite frankly, you all might be some kinda ambush scouting party yourselves; Evan did say his other son was ‘back with the others’.”
“Okay, so we don’t really have time not to trust each other.” For the first time since asking for water, Fred spoke. “Mister Josh, about how far do you live from here?”
“Fifteen or twenty minute walk.” Josh thought that Fred would be an interesting match for Minerva.
The adults stood by while Fred continued. “Well, since your family is going to be worried about you and ours will be worried about us, why don’t we each go back where we came from and plan to have two people from our place,” he turned to look at his dad, “like Uncle Barry and you, Dad, since you know Mister Josh, come back at this time tomorrow.” He turned to Josh. “And Mister Josh, you bring one other person here. Then you all work it out.”
Everyone agreed and they parted to return to their respective homes. Evan was proud of Fred, who was growing to be a very insightful young man. Before they got too far from one another, Josh turned back to Evan. “Hey Evan? Would you mind telling me something? Whereabouts are you all living?”
“We’re in one of the abandoned mines up above the big houses,” Evan answered. Josh nodded in understanding and left them.
“Why did you tell him that?” Carlos struggled to trust people under ordinary circumstances so in this situation it was nearly impossible.
Joyce took him by the arm. “It’s only fair, Carlos. Evan already knows where Josh lives. And besides, he didn’t say which mine we’re living in.”

Eight.

The scientists as JPL were frantically working to track the object; it had left the Mediterranean region and according to the latest reports from the British military installation had traveled to South Africa, New Zealand, China, and a far corner of Siberia. According to various sources, the object was taking a meandering path east. The scientists were working overtime to get satellite surveillance on it to calculate trajectory. They needed to get an answer about the object to the leaders of the world all who wanted to know who or what they were dealing with.

Nine.

Barry had the beginnings of a tension headache. He was thankful that Anne had some pain killers left. He thought about all that Carlos, Joyce, Fred, and Evan had shared; what were the chances that they would have run into someone known to one of them? He hoped that the meeting would go well because he was tired of living underground. He wanted to go home.

Ten.

If the light outside the kitchen window had had a touch of warmth to it, Nathan might have been sitting at his old–above ground–breakfast nook. As it was, he was sitting at his underground breakfast nook, in which there was no breakfast. He folded the paper and called for Maria on the intercom. “Hey, Maria; any chance I can get my breakfast? I’m going to be late.”
As he released the intercom key, Cassandra came in, chewing on an apple. “She’s not here.”
“What do you mean? Where’d she go? When’ll she be back? I need breakfast; it’s going to be a very busy day!”
Cassandra tossed him a pear. “If you took time to read more than the stock page and sports column, you might just have a clue as to what’s going on in the rest of your world.” She opened his folded paper and re-folded it with a particular story facing up. “All the domestic help is on strike.” As she left for her yoga class, Cassandra snickered at the string of crude vernacular her husband was tossing about the room. She shut the door behind herself and stepped into the artificially bright morning, which was lit by florescents placed high up in the top of the cave. On days like this, she loved living underground.

Eleven.

Marilyn was waiting for him. “Where in the world have you been?” As he opened his mouth to speak, she cut him off. “No, don’t answer that.” She knew he had set off alone to meet four strangers because she had gone over to see Mr. Thompson while Minerva power-napped upstairs and he let her check the scene through the binoculars. “What were you thinking? How could you go out there all alone? What if there had been a gang of people who kidnapped you or forced you to come back here? Where did they come from anyway?” She fired off her questions without taking a breath.
Josh ticked off responses on his fingers. “You already know I went up to Oak Street. I was thinking ‘Wow, those four people look lost’. I didn’t consider taking anyone with me. I did consider that there might have been more people, which is why I hung back to hear their conversation. They came from the mines up the hill; and one of ’em knows you.”
“Get outta here! Who knows me?” Marilyn figured he was joking to keep her from being angry.
Josh sat on the couch; the adrenaline associated with meeting the people from the mine had worn off. “The one guy is our mailman.”
“You’re telling me you met Evan up there.”
He nodded. “Him, his son, a co-worker, and a friend. There’s more of them up there. I’ve gotta grab Tommy and go back up to meet Evan and another guy tomorrow morning.”
She looked concerned. “Just the two of you?”
“It will just be the two of them.”
She sighed. “You going to tell Tommy now?”
He leaned back and closed his eyes briefly. “As soon as I rest for a minute.”

Twelve.

The beings inside the object surveyed the planet and busily studied their findings. On a view screen they had a collage of pictures: people of Alix’s village outside the caves above the Mediterranean Sea, steppe-dwelling nomads in Northern China, shanty-town dark people in South Africa, migratory peoples in the Siberian Region, and more. They took atmospheric readings as they traveled east. As the JPL scientists scrambled to get their satellites on the object, it continued its leisurely flight toward North America.

Thirteen.

“Is there anything I should know about the Samuel family or their neighborhood?” Barry questioned Evan as they made their way out of the mine and over to the designated meeting place.
Evan shrugged, which had the convenient effect of shifting his backpack and conveying a lack of knowledge. “Nothing I can think of. Josh is a quiet type, Marilyn knows everybody that comes through, they’ve got one kid–a girl. The neighborhood is like ours; lower-middle class.” He smiled in an attempt to lighten Barry’s mood.
It did not work. “So I shouldn’t be on guard against this guy then?” Evan shook his head. “What about his second? Do we know who he’s bringing?”
As they rounded the corner onto Oak Street Evan pointed toward two approaching figures. “I guess we’re about to find out.” As the foursome drew nearer to one another, Evan raised a hand. “Hey there, Josh!”
“Hey, Evan,” Josh raised a hand in return. “That’s our mail guy–recognize him now?” He asked Tommy. They met up in the middle of the street. “There’s a little park thing about a block east; why don’t we go there and sit at the picnic table?”
“I know where you mean,” Evan replied. “Josh this is Barry. He’s a co-worker and it was his idea for a few of us to go into the mine when we got word of the asteroid.” Josh and Tommy nodded at Barry. “Aren’t you Tommy Andrews?” Evan asked.
Tommy smiled. “You’re good! Yea, that’s me.” He looked at Josh. “Josh tried to get me to remember you but his description didn’t help me. Now that I’m lookin’ at you, I know you’re my mailman.” He lowered his eyes. “Sorry.”
“It happens all the time,” Barry said. He felt comfortable with the two men. “My route was up there,” he pointed to the big hill homes, “and one time I ran into a lady I made regular deliveries to in that big mall–”
“You mean ABQ Uptown?” Offered Tommy.
“Yeah, the ABQ! Anyway, I spoke to her and the woman didn’t recognize me. I guess if I’d been wearing blue it might have been different.” Barry rolled his eyes and the four men laughed as they made their way to the table at the park. The four shared stories of life after the asteroid; Barry and Evan were interested in the fact that life above ground had not changed much since the object had made landfall.
“We’ve got a guy who’s a shortwave whiz,” Tommy shared. “There isn’t much on it but he heard something from some military base out in Nevada. The thing hit off the Mediterranean coast. The east and west coasts of the Americas, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, along with the islands–out in the Pacific and down in the Caribbean–are pretty much gone. He picked up something crazy a few days back.” He leaned in close. “The big wigs are saying that whatever crashed was not an asteroid.”
Evan stammered, “Well, what is it then?”
Josh frowned. “They don’t know, or so it seems from what we can pick up from the shortwave. JPL’s got some kind of underground base–under ordinary circumstances we’d have never picked up the signal but I guess they’re limited too.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Look, even though we made it whole, the weather was crazy for a while.” He was suddenly angry as he remembered the initial days of fear and uncertainty when no one was willing to go outside, there was no electricity and he thought it was the end.
“So nobody knows what the thing is or what it’s doing at the bottom of the sea.” Barry was trying to wrap his head around the situation.
“Not exactly. The object’s not at the bottom of the Mediterranean anymore,” Tommy shared. “One of the last transmissions we caught–and they’re talking around the clock now–said it came up out of the water and has been studying the planet.”
“Is it still there? I mean, near Greece?” Evan was obviously shaken by the news. He was known as a practical sort and had never had an interest in science fiction; it was difficult for him to comprehend what was going on.
“They think it’s on the way to the US,” Tommy answered.
Barry looked around and realized that four hours had passed. “I am sure there’s so much more you could share with us, but each of us probably needs to get back to our families and friends; I’m pretty sure my wife is pacing a track into the bedrock.” He winked in an attempt to lighten the mood and then turned sober. “We need more time to talk. Might there be someplace in town we could come stay until we can get to our own houses to see if we can move back?”
Josh rubbed his chin. “You could stay at the Best Western. If you want, go gather up your folks and come back this way.” He turned to Tommy. “Tommy, go on over and tell Mr. Brahmani to get–” he paused to count in his head, “–four rooms ready.” He turned back to Evan and Barry. “I’ll go to my neighbor’s in three hours; come back this way, then follow Oak to the left down to Baker. Another block south will take you to Central. I’ll be able to see you with the binoculars. Tommy and I will meet you on Central and can help you get situated. Take tomorrow to rest and we can all get better acquainted. We can map out where you all live and figure out how to get each of you there.”
“Okay, but five hours sounds better. It will take us time to get back, gather the others and our stuff, and get back.” Barry tried to calculate.
Josh shook hands with him. “Sure thing. I’ll look for you all in about five hours.”
As they started back up, Evan shook his head. “What’s wrong?” Barry asked.
“Wait until Carlos finds out we have to go down to Central after all.”
Josh and Tommy watched Barry and Evan as they laughed. “We better get moving too,” Josh commented.

Fourteen.

Nathan and Cassandra were at odds. “We need bright color to offset the gray,” Cassandra said; she thought she had an eye for such things. After all, Nathan paid designers and decorators. She had taken a design class.
“I checked with some of the guys while we were golfing yesterday; evidently the committee has already decided to hire someone to decorate.” Nathan was one of the first to approve the suggestion, knowing that his wife would want to volunteer. He smiled at reading her thoughts. “I know you want to help but these two are professionals.”
Cassandra was not so quickly convinced. “And exactly where did the committee find professional decorators?”
“Remember that couple–the husband and wife went by first names only. Sounded like letters of the alphabet.”
She nodded. “Oh! Eee and Zee; they owned that lovely boutique in the ABQ Uptown Mall. Didn’t they live in that art deco house on Briar Wood Canyon?”
“Yes; they came down on the last day.” Nathan figured Cassandra would stop trying to join up with every artistic committee now that she know her idols were ready and available. Even if they hadn’t been, there was no way he was going to allow his wife to help with the upcoming cotillion; it was just too important for her amateur hand.
Cassandra grabbed her purse; she had to leave or she would be late for her pedicure. “Well, that’s different. I am certainly not in their league,” she said as she went out the door.
“Not by a long shot,” Nathan mumbled into his cup of tea.

Fifteen.

Lucy did not remember bringing so much stuff; she was thankful that Carlos had insisted on carrying everything in a wheelbarrow. She cut her eyes across to where Sarai was helping Joyce to bag up Marcus’ belongings. They had all helped her build a sled for the stuff; Evan had suggested putting the items with Marcus, but Joyce refused, citing their promise on arrival that they would leave only organic waste when and if they left the mine. “But clothing is organic,” Evan had said gently.
“Maybe yours are, but Marcus was the king of polyester.” Even through the difficulty, Joyce kept her sense of humor. She secured the bundle to the sled, piled her tent and belongings on top, and set off for the mine entrance. Barry extinguished the crank lights while Evan and Carlos held flashlights, and then they made their way out. As they all stood in the late afternoon light, there was silence as each of them thought about their experiences of living in the mine all that time and what it was going to be like to re-enter society.
“Well,” Barry broke the silence. “Thank God for this shelter and thank Him for keeping the world spinning.” He gathered Carlos, Evan, Fred, and Frank to close off the entrance to the mine. They then began moving down toward Oak Street.
About 40 minutes later, Josh spotted them. He put the binoculars on the desk next to the window and went down to the kitchen. “All right, Mr. Thompson,” he called as he entered.
Between sips of coffee, Thompson said, “You just refuse to call me Herb, huh?”
“It just doesn’t feel right,” Josh smiled as he passed by and out the kitchen door. “I see them. Just like Evan and Barry said, they are nine people.”
Thompson nodded wisely. “You can almost always rely on a mailman to tell you the truth.”
As Josh stepped off Herb Thompson’s side porch he heard the approach of what sounded like an electric cart. Tommy drove up with one of the 12-passenger carts the Business Association had purchased a few years back when the town had considered creating a Rose Parade float; the float was never built but the carts had come in handy to shuttle visitors and dignitaries. “Get on, man!” Tommy called. “This will lighten their load!” Josh got into the passenger seat and they drove up to meet the group.
“You are both my heroes!” Carlos happily put their items on the back bench of the cart.
Joyce handed Carlos her pack and tent, then pulled the sled over to Josh. “Excuse me,” she began. “I’m Joyce.”
“Yes, you were keeping Carlos, Evan, and Fred in order.” Josh could see she had something serious on her mind.
“Is there a dumpster close by?” She gestured toward the sled. “I need to dump this.”
Tommy came around. “Name’s Tommy, Ma’am. I’ll take care of it for you.” He took the sled from her and headed toward the little park where he and the three others had met the day before. After a time a dull thudding sound reached them as Tommy dropped first the bundle of Marcus’ things and then the makeshift sled in the trash. He returned, red-faced and rubbing his hands together. “Let’s get you all over to Casa Brahmani.”
“I thought we were going to the Best Western,” Carlos turned to smile at Evan, “on Central.”
Evan stuck out his tongue. “The Brahmani’s own the Best Western, man.”
They laughed genuinely as Tommy pulled off and on the ride introduced everyone to Josh and Tommy. There was a small crowd gathered when they pulled into the circular drive in front of the Best Western office: Mr. And Mrs. Brahmani and their four young children, Marilyn and Minerva, Herb Thompson, and Mayor Johnson. They were so engrossed in meeting, getting acquainted (and reacquainted–Joyce had had two of the Brahmani children in her classes) that no one noticed the rock-like object that floated low in the darkening east sky.

Sixteen.

Dr. Severenson, lead scientist at JPL, sent a message to the Joint Chiefs: “The object is over New Mexico.”

Seventeen.

Frank was the first to hear the low rumbling; he ignored it and tried not to stare at Minerva, who was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. The fact that the only females he had seen for the past five years were his mother and adopted aunts was irrelevant. Eventually he could no longer ignore the sound that vibrated his wisdom teeth. He turned and saw a smudge partially hidden behind the eastern treetops. “Hey,” he said. After a moment of no responses he reiterated, “Hey!” This time there was a reaction; his mother and father turned.
“Franklin, I know you bet–” Anne used his full name but stopped talking as she turned and spotted the object on which her son’s eyes were fixed. Her sudden abruptness caused the others to turn; the Brahmani’s ushered their children inside and pulled the shade.
“What is that?” Carlos asked. Before anyone could offer a guess, the group was engulfed in a bright white light.

Eighteen.

Barry blinked once. Twice. He sat up and looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings. His friends, old and new, and his wife, lay sprawled about him. He turned at the sound of a moan; it was Miverva who was waking. One by one they each woke up. Evan cleared his throat and jumped as the sound reverberated off the walls. “Where are we, Barry?”
A voice came from all around them. “You are inside.”
“Inside where?” Fred and Frank asked in unison.
“You are inside,” the voice repeated. The floor beneath them turned opaque and they were suddenly looking down on the Best Western. Mr. Brahmani was outside with Sergeant Jacobs, the chief of police; they were pointing upwards.
As the floor again went dark, an image began to take shape before them, much like an old television picture coming into focus. The shape solidified into a shrouded figure; somewhere from the darkness beneath the hood came another voice. “Welcome, dear ones. I am honored to greet you.” The figure then bowed low to the ground. “Who is the leader of your clan?”
Everyone turned to look at Barry. “Oh, no; don’t look at me!” He pointed at Mayor Johnson. “If anything, he’s in charge!” The mayor cowered next to Tommy and shook his head. Barry rolled his eyes in response.
The shrouded figure turned toward Barry. “We have been watching your kind. As we traveled from our galaxy a conclave of the greatest leaders in the universe was being held. A decision was made to destroy this world before its inhabitants spread poison beyond its atmosphere. Your people have a very bad reputation.”
Barry found his voice. “So why are we having this conversation?”
The voice continued. “We were sent to explore. We have been watching closely for the past five years. We saw the sea people who took to the hills after our ship landed, the wandering people of the highlands and the sands, and others. We saw your people here, how you pulled together, helped one another. We reported back and were told to give this message to your rulers.” The creature handed a small box to Barry.
“But I’m not anybody’s ruler,” Barry protested.
“Of this we are aware. Your rulers are cowards; they ran to their underground palaces at the first sign of what they perceived as trouble. Their hilltop palaces were not enough!”
Evan spoke quietly. “The rich people of the world are the ones who lived in what you called ‘hilltop palaces’.” He thought it over. “Actually, our global rulers live in some pretty fancy digs too. And they also went underground back then.”
The creature nodded. “That is why your leader,” it pointed at Barry, “must take them this message. In order to save this world, changes must occur. Will you comply?”
“Do I have a choice?” Barry murmured. Sarai patted his hand encouragingly. “Okay, what do I need to do?”
They felt a slight motion and after a few minutes the floor went opaque again. Below them sat what looked like a military installation. The creature spoke to Barry. “Choose one of your party who will go with you.”
“Gimme a minute.” The creature disappeared and Barry leaned in to speak with the group. “What do you all make of this?”
“I have no words,” Carlos whispered.
Anne spoke up. “Why don’t you take Josh or Tommy? They both seem like take-charge kinda guys. Or maybe Joyce; she’s the smartest one here.”
Joyce smiled at the compliment. “I think Mayor Johnson should go; since he holds a government position–or whatever–he’ll probably be the most welcomed at a place like that.”
Johnson tried to back pedal but Josh and Tommy each caught him by an arm. “That’s an excellent point, Miss Joyce,” Tommy said. He was no fan of the mayor who in his opinion was the perfect embodiment of a cowardly ruler.
“It is decided,” called the disembodied voice. The bright light came again and once it dissipated, Barry and Mayor Johnson were gone.

Nineteen.

“Dr. Severenson–you better come quick!”
“What is it?” Severenson had been up for nearly 24 hours, sitting with the technicians who had been tasked with tracking the cosmic ordnance as it moved steadily eastward from the Asiatics. His temper was short.
The young cadet saluted the unranked JPL scientist out of habit. “Sir, the object just appeared outside and seems to have discharged two humans, sir!”
They hurried to the surface, where a contingent of soldiers surrounded two ordinary-looking men. Above them all floated the ordnance, silent but menacing in appearance. Severenson pushed his way into the center and confronted the two men. “Who are you and from where have you come?”
Barry replied, “Now don’t get too excited; this is Mayor Johnson–he’s been running things over in Albuquerque. My name is Barry; I’m a mail carrier over there. I think we all got picked up by accident or something. I don’t know. Some of our friends are still in there.” He pointed toward the object. “Anyway,” he handed the cube to Severenson. “They say there’s an important message for the President and all the other leaders on that thing. You all better pass the word, pronto.”
Severenson motioned to the young cadet and handed him the cube. “Get this down to Area One immediately. I’ll be right there.” He turned back to Barry and the mayor. “As for you two, we have many ques–” but before he could finish, they dematerialized and the cosmic ordnance vanished.

Twenty.

The Joint Chiefs had gathered and the world’s leaders were patched in; the scientists at JPL had outdone themselves, having managed to get the two groups connected. Dr. Severenson spoke into the microphone: “Can you both hear me?” After a one-second delay, he received affirmations from both. “Please listen carefully to the recording which will follow. It comes from the beings who sent the cosmic ordnances that are currently positioned above various locations around the world. What we have been able to determine from the positioning of the ordnances is that they have set up power centers near the villages and towns that remained occupied when the first ordnance touched down in the Mediterranean. If you check your fax machines, you should have received a written transcript and summary of the recording. Please have a staffer make copies and distribute them; when you have done that let me know and I will start the recording.”
Dr. Severenson waited; he soon heard the rustling of pages. “Dr. Severenson,” the voice of the President of the United States came through. “Am I reading this correctly? These…beings…are putting the people they call ‘the surface dwellers’ in charge of the planet? They say all of us–the scientists, politicians, the wealthy–who went underground are only fit to serve those who stayed above?”
“Yes sir, Mr. President.” Severenson heard the grumbles from both groups.
“What happens if we refuse? Do these things know how human society works? That the rich and powerful will always do what they can to protect their interests? This time, we all moved underground and rebuilt our systems of power as best we could.”
Severenson cleared his throat. “Yes, Mr. President. The recording will clarify their position.”
“I want you to clarify.”
“Yes, sir. The visitors–”
England’s Prime Minister broke in. “Visitors? Is that what they are then? Bloody marauders and bullies, more like it.”
“–see those who stayed topside as powerful and those of us who went under as meek.” Severenson finished.
Severenson heard a sigh followed by the voice of the US President again. “Play the recording, Doctor.”

I.

The sun rose over the western hemisphere into a clear, beautiful, and blue sky. If the International Space Station had still been orbiting, the replacement crew for Delany, Majorski, and the others would have most likely reported that it was shaping up to be another perfect day over Cape Canaveral. As it was, satellite surveillance showed thousands of objects that looked like rocks floating in the sky. Barry, Josh, and the topside residents in Albuquerque and other Earth communities watched and waited, while Nathan, Cassandra, and thousands of the world’s former power brokers cowered underground, now powerless and afraid.

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Andree Robinson-Neal

San Bernardino, USA

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