Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Last Act

The dark possibility of humankind's future...

Robert scanned his holoscreen, then mentally net-keyed his weapon. Crouching behind his own cyrex shield not far from his comrades, he not so much waited for the crisis to micro-second up, but mentally edged closer and closer to its volatile precipice.

His elite space infantry squad of 30 volunteers hadn’t battled yet. The darkness of the screaming sky above in this worldwide holocaust weighed down on them, but they were ready, now to the blast point. He keyed in a mild sedative to his blood stream and waited; looked back inwardly at the visual horror of the last few weeks, didn’t need to call up any vids on his helmet’s screen. His own memory of images abyssed enough.

The first horrific attack of the 4th world conflagration had come 6 weeks before--a sudden light-swift missile exchange that had almost simultaneously obliterated Washington D.C. and greater LA including Edwards Space Base--where he had first trained when he joined the Force. And, on the other side, Tehran, Qom, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong blasted down to their own fiery hell.

D.C.’s destruction had been so invasive that much of the western Chesapeake Bay vaporized, leaving a strange desert of broiled seascape. The first vid images reminded him of southern stretches of Martian desert where he had done his basic three years earlier.

Despite the swirling thermonuclear trash in the atmosphere, his whole crew had flown in on the next shuttle from Darkside, the slang term for Moon base 21. He was emotionally numb, knew it was futile for him to accept the offered return pass; certainly his parents, two brothers and young sister, all of whom lived in LA-plex, were now not even a shade of a shadow. Robert didn’t mourn; it was too unreal.

No one knew who had actually started the conflagration. President Sherman with a first-strike or the leaders of Iran-China, especially Prime Ministers Chi-shek and Khamenei. Both sides blamed each other, but yet after the brief holocaust, incredibly they had e-stemmed from their bunkers and forged a nantex-thin truce.

Wasn't that always the nature of politicians to carry on over the scorched bone meal of millions of the innocent?

Both governments were still recovering, when Robert’s space ship touched down in southern Texas, the alternative space port to vaporized Edwards.

Security was Code crimson. Robert, even at his regimental best, was scanned at least 7 times as if he was a possible belligerent. Even before receiving orders, everything was in lock-down. No pscyh-doc showed up to debrief and neutralize any angst, wrath, or anxeity his team might be experiencing returning to millions of dead including their own gone loved ones.

The vids said that the two super-powers---their government representing the western half of the smoking sphere against Chin-Iran were dealing with their millions dead, and half a billion injured; all hospitals and medvac sites were loaded down.

Sarcastic people were already gallows-humoring each other. Robert disciplined his rage and squashed his sorrow.

In Virginia, whole cities had been turned into vast field hospitals. Santa Barbara County, California had become a vast cyrex-mode temp city filled with refugees fleeing the far out edges of the LA-plex. Untold numbers were already experiencing signs of radiation sickness.

So the leaders had agreed to a temporary truce; then a UN negotiator had thought up 'the Tournament' and both sides quickly settled on this ultimate game. U.S./Canada versus China/Iran. The superpowers would each choose 30 representatives to battle in the ancient way of symbolic war. Hopefully, this would spare any more civilian casualties. Rather ironic that it was mainly in modern civilized war where millions of civilians were slaughtered, often by the good guys.

Most people on the street made cynical remarks:"It's only a PR cover, another crap game of political lies." "'They've' agreed to game, not to solve the slaughter but to delay their chances of losing." "'They' want time to get more weapons ready; next it's bio for sure, that's what I heard." "We're pulling a poker move over the Chinks and Camel-jocks."

Yet in the higher realms of political intrigue, the tournament concept was a diplomatic coup, even lowering belligerent criticism still railing forth from other UN member states. The two enemies’ diplomacy continued with their usual verbal battle of veiled words and misleading propaganda, even while agreeing on the ancient method—the hero’s challenge.

Thousands of pop vids reminded the less educated populace that this aged form of battle--a tournament--was most glorified in the ancient Judeo-Christian Bible story where Philistines had challenged Israelites with their taller-than-life champion, Goliath, and dared one Israelite to come against him in single combat. The Israelites sent a young man, David.

Yeah, Robert thought, I’m now a participant in a modern replay of that ancient way of symbolic war. But glancing down at the vaporizer he held tightly, he wondered, Who am I really? David or Goliath or a hybrid mix? And the actual battle wouldn't be symbolic at all except for the politicians. Besides, David wasn't an innocent shepherd boy and good king like the popular legend goes. If he really existed, (historians debated), David had been a cunning, ruthless slayer of whole villages, killing everyone in sworded massacres, just so he could rob them of their possessions.

But despite the ridiculous political lies, Robert had no regrets. He had volunteered for this ultimate contest—rising up out of the black hole of numbed grief for his family, his friends, his ravaged country. Robert still couldn't really feel at all--not any hate, no revenge. His family's deaths were suspended in pause mode. He felt only an endless blankness, a bottomless pit within, yet out of that came this call to stop the carnage.

Strangely too, in dark contrast, one side of him actually looked forward to warring--for the exciting challenge, a real battle, no more fight-sims, no more endless parading about fields at Camp Pendleton, or flying off to Mars again for another set of wilderness maneuvers.

The Tournament might be his only chance to actually fight--almost face to face--like soldiers had battled a century ago, a millennium past. Battle strategies and plans from a hundred wars Robert had studied lasered back into him now. As a history professor at UCLA, he had taught European history. Sometimes small attacks were the volatile hinges on which the rest of history swung.

His ruminating of this took up only a lesser side of his consciousness. Mainly, he focused on the scree-strewn landscape and the gray enemy shields a few hundred meters away, looking for unusual movement; plus, up-to-the-second news flashed from the net communication unit of his battle suit, the images and word lines in front of his eyes, like strange aliens flitting over the landscape ahead of him.

Now, the instant feed to his cerebral cortex warned him the Chin-Iran soldiers were moving behind their shields. Though his compstat would warn him before any attack, he still watched cat-like, fixed on the enemy cyrex shields across the terrain to the east.

Net: Warning over. False alarm; enemy is only exercising. Robert relaxed his tense muscles and briefly glanced northward where in the distance he could vaguely see the base bulk of the Himalayan range of mountains, though the mountains were obscured by heavy smog--the aftermath of the nuclear detonations and smoke from many countless after fires. Ash fell intermittently, dark twisted flakes. How many contained traces of human DNA? Unconsciously, he brushed his right arm and shoulder.

Huge slashes on the sides of the range were barely visible where whole sections of mountains had avalanched down in the midst of the bombing holocaust. He avoided looking southwest. One of America’s many missiles had misfired and taken out northeastern India. He tried not to think of the millions dead there.

Strange that this high plateau, known in the past as Tibet, should be chosen as the Tournament site. Three days earlier, he and his fellow warriors had been space shot to the location in a carrier shuttle. How had the Asians gotten here? Maybe they had been here all along, though supposedly Tibet had become a neutral independent state in 2025.

Now both sides crouched at the precipice of their own death or victory. And in front of them in time’s future arc lay the possible new life or the imploding nova of their fiery planet’s demise.

Robert suddenly winced and held a hand up to his helmet. Unexpectedly and frightful in its overwhelming allness, a thought-message was blasting into Robert’s consciousness. A nearby comrade also must have received the message, as he dropped to the ground and removed his helmet and put his hands up to his head.

The omniscient warning burned too intensely to vocalize or mind print, unless one was to write with a volcano’s explosive power or a cosmic supernova. His instant net feed said that around the globe billions of humans were stopped in their activities, transfixed by the thought-message. It appeared that it was worldwide. But from where?

Immediately, Robert decided to obey. He wasn't a believer, but this Voice wasn't earthly. He stooped and lay his large weapon at his feet on top of the ash-covered scree. About him others lay down their weapons and knelt.

Several Chinese, or more probably Iranians, came from behind their shields and also knelt down.

No one made an attempt to pray. Would a person try and pour water at the bottom of the Pacific?! Totally immersed, pressured--opened in their consciousness, they humbled before the transcendent omniscient experience. One of his fellow soldiers lay down on the ground so overwhelmed he almost lost consciousness. An Asian soldier to the far right threw his weapon to the ground, rushed past his fellow soldiers and, arms raised, ran northward toward the mountains.

In contrast, Robert felt a great sense of peace fill him and the battle-upness of moments before vaporized, the numbness vanished. Calmly, he tabbed deconstruct on his vision screen and his cyrex barrier disappeared. Others were doing the same. Now they stood face to face with their enemy challengers and walked toward them. His opposite who had briefly knelt now rose, imposingly large in a formidable-looking suit, one that looked old-style, still had visible air tanks and was obviously pressurized—bad old days. His father had told him about those has-beens. His father! Anguish filled him, his family gone...

Focusing instead on the enemy in front of him, Robert walked toward the bulky individual wondering what his opponent was like. The Asian combatant advanced toward him. Robert realized that he would have difficulty seeing the enemy’s face in the smogged glare of the day and keyed in to his net to see if there was any stat-intel—none yet.

He stopped in front of the cloaked figure, raised a hand to shake, and then felt foolish and dropped his arm. The enemy rubbed one arm across its facial plate.

Robert almost stepped back; it was a Chinese young woman! She had a small nose and intense eyes; was probably no more than 21 years old, must be slender with such delicate facial features, and weighed down under all that old suit.

She smiled up at Robert, her eyes like brown velvet, and also extended her hand. They shook, stared at each other for what seemed like minutes, and then both started to talk at once.

First, Robert and she exchanged net code. Her name was Baozhai, from Macau; briefly
Robert recalled the vids—much of coastal China had been turned into a burning chaos, vast amounts of ocean water turned to steam.

Baozhai was a draftee, former biophysics engineer, loved 4-dimensional chess and ancient
watercolor painting. They shared personal vids and a long dialogue ensued. Even though there were 58 others doing so, Robert and Baozhai were, momentarily, as if the only two humans existing.

He told her of his university background, of being a lecturer in 17th century European history, then a volunteer for the 15th Martian exploration mission, the one educator on the trip; later how he had become a soldier, why he liked to study ancient battlefields, and his love for historical fiction vids.

Their brief dialogue got interrupted. New orders came screening to him from Central Command. Baozhai’s face disappeared and images of Central Command appeared in his face view screen. A large man with gnarled hands stood facing him in an underground bunker—“This is General Stafford of Omaha SAC representing the President and the Prime Minister of Canada; no doubt you have also encountered the overwhelming invasive message that has hacked into our systems and invaded our minds."

He paused, then continued, "Many religious leaders are claiming it’s a direct revelation from God. The State Department is doing intensive research as to the message and to its real orign. You are cautioned to stay on standby--no hasty action is to be taken to engage the enemy unless directly attacked. Nor are you, however, to halt preparation for the Challenge until more information can be netted. Please standby; more orders will be forthcoming.”

The verbal message ended, the Stars and Stripes and the Mapleleaf waved across Robert’s vision screen, then vanished, and he could again see Baozhai. She was staring up at him intently, her eyes almost too large for her face and diminutive nose. Evidently she hadn’t been able to access his message, nor had she received one from her government.

“It was a message to us from our leaders,” Robert said to her, “the usual standby with notification that everyone seems to have gotten that inner consciousness message we did. Some claim it was God. The higher-ups, of course, aren’t convinced; they assume it must be a new hacknet from your government. I don't know. But me, I’m an atheist. I’ve been to Mars too many times, never seen any evidence of any higher power, no deity, only lots of space and arid rock.”

Baozhai frowned with a slight wrinkling of the bridge of her nose. She ignored his accusation against her government and focused on his skepticism. “I’ve studied plenty of brain matter in my biophysics lab; I've never encountered an individual. She then smiled. “If I studied your brain matter, Robert, I don’t think I would find you either.”

He laughed, both at her impertinence and at the insightful twist she had put to his skepticism. “Okay, I see your point; I did study four years of philosophy, Kant and all that about practical reason; I retract my rather hasty judgment. Instead, let me say, based on my study of nature and history—especially wars of the past, and now this last few weeks' apocalypse, I don’t see any Intelligence in our solar system or the Cosmos—none--but what’s inside our helmets.” Robert tapped her head gear impulsively.

She stepped back.

“Excuse me, Baozhai.”

She looked intently at him for a moment and then smiled. “I see. Me too. Have you traveled to my country or to Iran, our aligned partner? Before the holocaust?” It was such a stupid statement, she reddened.

Despite the utter horror of their situation, Robert found himself wanting to see more of her underneath that goliath suit.

“No, except for a bunch of missions to Mars-port, I pretty much hunker down in Southern California." LA-plex, Pendleton, San Diego--gone with the ripping wind. And my family! He cursed and kicked scree with his left foot. Why was he talking to the enemy who had slaughtered millions including his family?!

Sorrow from the last few weeks drowned back into him. The brief parley with an Asian soldier on the Tibetan plateau stopped as he again remembered why they were here, to kill each other, except a strange message had knocked them out of their battle prep.

Baozhai turned away. Robert glanced up at the unending smogged sky. They were silent for at least 15 minutes. Then he kept checking on the other members of his team, but most of them were still conferring with other enemy soldiers. Several US/Canada soldiers had turned and marched back to their staging area; their Asian counterparts, the same.

Finally, Robert keyed in one of his favorite family vids; one where he and his little sister and two brothers had been snorkeling off Santa Catalina Island when they spotted a Great White—

He heard words. And paused the vid.

“…so, I hope you understand,” Baozhai was talking to him, “that when I lost my whole family--older brother, my parents, and grandparents—“

Robert bludgeoned in, “Good!! You slaughtered my family too!" Then he stopped, stood stuffing his rage down, not speaking. Finally said, "I’m sorry, Baozhai. How terrible. So much loss for everyone! But I didn’t hear the first part of your sentence; I was watching a vid of my family. See." He transmitted the vid to her.

She watched in silence.

"Would you repeat what you first said?” he asked again. But Baozhai didn't answer. She had lowered her privacy screen in her helmet.

On the edge of his consciousness, Robert was aware that most of the opposing soldiers nearby were still talking. Above, the gray-blasted sky, nothing but thermonuclear smog that had lain for many days like a hydra-bodied snake lair writhing. Now strangely, it seemed to be lessening, swirling in dirty gray eddies, maybe gradually dissipating or only twisting.

Baozhai opened her helmet, looked up to Robert, her large luminous eyes staring intently into him. Finally she said, "I'm sorry for your loss. I've been thinking of mine only."

He stared back at her, both still living in the Message that seemed to fill their inner selves. Robert spoke again, "You think the Transcendent Message, this warning but warm command to disperse, is from your God?"

As if puzzled, Baozhai pinched in her nose slightly. She put a hand up on his left arm and asked, "Don't you?"

Robert chuckled in spite of himself and their extreme situation, paused, and then took her hand and held it. "Remember, I'm the atheist; you're the believer."

He glanced down toward where he had left his weapon. Now the heavy sleek metal of the death-dealer seemed both trivial and shameful. It was like seeing, suddenly, with compassionate eyes. Like his little sister's.

Several North American soldiers and Asians were actually joking so loudly, he could hear them in the distance. Others were exchanging contact info. The netfeed in his head chattered. All of this reminded him of those strange truces like the one two hundred years ago in the American War Between the States. In the midst of a vicious battle, a truce was called; Union and Confederate soldiers were suddenly only lonely or brash individuals with curiosity and friendliness who called across their former deadline and chatted like old friends in town for the weekend.

Yes, maybe, this most dangerous of games had paused again. But would it last? And what about the Presence? Was that all-in-compassing Voice really a spiritual reality or only an ingenuous hackjob by a demented enemy genius?

Looking deeply at Baozhai who was staring up at him still, Robert knew they had no answers. Somehow words escaped them. He turned away and listened to his net, looked over toward his line of combatants. Two Ameri-Canadian soldiers had already deconstructed their shields, packed up their gear, and were walking southeast, probably going to try and escape through Myanmar, and hopefully find a skimmer-ship--maybe even a shuttle--back to the southern U.S., probably Texas, one of the few areas not burning. He considered netting them, then discarded the idea. On the other side, a couple of Chin-Iran soldiers were headed east into the blank horizon.

Then he gazed back down again at Baozhai. She was still staring up at him; her eyes welling, force-fields of caring. She started to speak, but was cut off by blinding light that blanked out everything.

His suit formed a new cyrex shield—this time around both of them. Baozhai turned, pulled out a laser to cut through the siding. He shouted, “Don’t! Thermos again!”

The sky whitened until his suit closed his view screen and his meds began operating. An enormous sound, deafening even within his protective suit and shield tsunamied. Robert ordered their cyrex shelter to the ground, and switched to full battle mode--netted for triple shield-thickness.

Checking his virtual feed, he saw that a great thermonuclear wind lashed the plateau, like some cosmic tidal wave.

Their cyrex cocoon turned crimson, vibrated, and shrunk. Robert felt burning inside of his suit. Then the cocoon auto-botic took over and burrowed deep into the rocky ground and he blacked out.


When Robert woke to consciousness, at first he thought he was bivouacked in his cyrex on Mars doing wilderness battle prep, dug in near the copper nano-mines. But the heat was too intense. Then he felt a suit next to him and the horror all came back. Thermos! He cursed. Another attack had been launched! By whom?

Baozhai lay unconscious curved against him. Robert keyed the net, but only got silence. He tried bringing up a damage report of his comrades, no luck. He accessed direct speak but Baozhai didn’t answer. He rubbed her view screen. Her face was livid and pinched. Her suit must have ruptured, maybe radiation was vipering in right now. He checked her vital signs; injured but the Med must be at work.

Question: When will she become conscious?
Med: Unknown
Question: Is her unconsciousness dangerous or permanent?
Med: Near coma; uncertain length; good vital signs.
Question: May I safely remove our helmets for a short time?
Med: Doubtful; keep brief; radiation levels very high even inside of cyrex habitation.


He waited several hours then removed his helmet and hers. Touched her face with his bare hand. No response, but her breathing sounded good and the med-level looked okay. Robert locked on their helmets again.

What had happened?! Obviously another salvo of thermos, but why? Political madness! He spit out curses inside his cocoon. And waited and waited.

Hours past, the Message's allness faded. Robert tried the net again--nothing. Then accessed for an outside data report but his local scan showed only a violent wind buffeting above ground, their little land sub below a typhooned holocaust. The vid showed the sky, dark as obsidian. A black snow, nuclear winter.

Besides, aching all over, and being slightly nauseous, he angrily talked out loud to himself. “Who violated the Challenge Pact? What of the Transcend-Message? Could the latter have been a human construct, an Asian decept to put us off guard? Robert twisted his neck and looked again intently at Baozhai behind her face suit bubble. Was he even now being deceived by HER?”

Her eyes suddenly opened--dark orbs of intensity.“We'd never do that,” she almost shouted. “You're the ones who attacked!” So she had been conscious and listening to him.

Robert cursed and shouted back, “Sure, we caused it, all of it—the blitzing of Israel in 2027, the massacre of Taiwan in 2019, the mass murder in China back in the last century, and, hell yes, we even caused your Taiping Rebellion, yeah right! Get a life; go back to your brain cultures and washed-out paintings!”

Despite their closeness, Baozhai’s heavily gloved fist hit at him.

The incongruity of it all—she had actually punched him. He grinned in spite their dire straits and, with difficulty, slid up his hands to his shoulders, like some 19th century outlaw surrendering.

They stared at each for minutes, but finally started talking again; then they slept as their meds worked, and woke and sucked on rations; talked and tried to ignore thoughts of the hellish outside. Then slept again.

When Robert woke days later from a Med induced unconsciousness, he checked the net; still no com to the world. He vidded for a look above ground, outside—but only a dark sky gashed, scaled flakes falling very heavily. A gouging pain still cut into his whole left side. Baohzhai was asleep and medding. He ate and slept again, too.

Twenty-four hours later, Robert awoke and reviewed the horror of the last few months. Senseless. As for his wound, no change, though the nausea was reduced and his side felt better. But he lay drifting with the shards of his memory until unconsciousness again blanked him out.

He woke again, and again and again—hovering now between stretches of vivid awareness gashed to his inner self, then to long stretches of time when he only breathed and rolled across time like a battered slug. Several months flew past with the thermo winds, but the dark sludge of sky stayed on his view screen.

Finally, his comp told him that radiation levels were reduced enough for their life-support pod to return to the surface. It did so. He removed their helmets and touched her unconscious face.

The asked the auto-pilot, "Is it safe to go outside briefly?"

"You may take half an hour outside, but no more. It would be better to remain encased."

Robert felt his face brush Baozhai’s forehead as he moved. His beard had grown out. His arm was around her at the shoulder level. She was breathing in and out. It sounded regular. He wanted to thank someone, but knew of no one to thank, though the shock of the Trans-Message bolted back into his mind.

Robert reconnected his helmet, keyed open their cocoon; the shield pealed back and he looked up to a faded sky flaking down on them and the landscape which blended to the sky, one huge ashen bowl, one horrific crucible. Ashen. Visibility looked about 25 meters.

Med: Unsafe, return to emergency habitat.

He forced himself up onto his knees, then stood up, his side still aching, and surveyed the stark grayness scanning for his fellow soldiers or enemy combatants. Nothing. He closed the cyrex fabric over Baozhai, keyed in continued meds and requested an alert message if she worsened. Ignoring Med's repeated warnings about radiation, Robert hobbled over toward where his comrades had been. Surely they, too, must have had time to key in their survival cocoons before the sudden blast hit them. But no one.

His right ankle ached, wouldn’t be walking far, not at least for a few days. Ha! Where would he go anyway? The plateau stretched into one gray shrouded Rorschach revealing nothing to him other than man's insanity. He kept scanning with his compnet--but only silence.

What about the Message? But when he keyed the question, his comp behind his ear said, "Unknown."

Somewhere to the north lay the snow-covered Himalayas, blanked out. No color anywhere. Finally, Robert found another cocoon, but a large gash rivened it—the damage so severe, he couldn’t bring himself to look into the death to see who it had been. Burned beyond anything.

Since Robert didn’t believe, there was no prayer to give but only more emptiness, more numbness within. Vaguely, memories--of his little sis, his brothers, his parents, good friends, his squad--tumbled about like bodies in free-fall when cycling toward Mars in a large troop ship. Only now, only charred bodies came into his scarred imagination.

Several more cocoons lay flattened, white husks 10 yards further; they had not fully deployed. Instant death. The River Styx or Ragnarok for them. Robert looked at metamorphic devastation all around him and imagined the cities beyond his vision—countless endings, a cataclysm so like the Viking last age where the gods lose to enemies of chaos from the realm of death. Though the old Norsemen hadn’t figured on the sheer human evil of tech ingenuity! No god-enemies need apply. And they had imagined ice, not fire.

But, hopefully, at least a few of his comrades had survived. But for what purpose? He couldn't even summon the anger to curse Chin-Iran.

Robert turned and ache-walked back to his new and only comrade. His Med kept flashing crimson--WARNING! He keyed open the cocoon and slid in next to his former enemy. She still lay asleep, breathing evenly.

He no longer had a sense of any Presence. What had happened to It? The other soldiers? Others all the world round? Tried the net again. No answer. How many dead? How many alive? He lay still.

Twelve hours later Robert woke. But Baozhai wasn’t next to him. He opened the cyrex and scanned the landscape but couldn't see her. Somewhere behind the dirty sky reared the Himalayas, blanked out now by gray. To the east lay a fire storm.

He walked northward, favoring his sore ankle. That’s when he came upon Baozhai about 100 meters away, inert as stone. He rushed over to her. Her helmet had been blasted. She was grimy and blood was seeping out from obscene cuts in her face, burn marks, and mixed with countless gray flakes like cancer cells. Another bad gash in her arm opened almost to the bone. Obviously, she had been attacked, slashed with a laser. Unconscious, she faced up to the holocaustic sky, blank and untelling.

Evidently one of his buddies, misunderstanding, had attacked her. But where was his comrade now? Robert ignored his own question and dragged her back to their survival-shelter. Inside, he ordered Med for extreme measures. Couldn't bring himself to ask Med for a report for hours. Instead, he hugged her close, his lungs a searing fire and a loss so abyssed, but couldn't weep. Finally, though unconsciousness came.


When Robert awoke, she was still unconscious, cradled in his arms, though breathing evenly. The long slits of the wound--from whom?--were sutured, the flesh a pink glaze looking like frosting from a birthday cake of his little sister's. Hell! Family memories and the question of Baozhai's survival burned him. He wept.

The first time since he was 7 and his school chum had died in a family skimmer accident. That funeral burial came back to him more starkly clear than any vid. He could feel the cold fog of that morning as the undertaker slivered the ground and the thin flat capsule with his buddy's ashes zipped unbidden into the wet greenery of the mortuary ground south of LA-plex.

Robert drifted with his sorrow until sleep came. Then woke, slept, woke, and slept again. Then he woke and reflected on their situation, and on Baozhai. Would she live?

He kept eating, followed the warnings of Med and exercised within the shelter, didn't venture out; maybe his and Baozhai's doses of radiation hadn't been toxic.

Days and nights etched past. His beard now touched his faceplate. How many days had gone? He didn't bother to summon the net anymore. He could easily have ordered a shave when Med gave him his daily scrub, but let his beard grow. Something to do. Robert sort of smirked at that. Some Goliath he'd turned out to be. He coughed and then hugged unconscious Baozhai closer.

Who knew if it was day or night? He ignored his local netfeed. How long did they have before the end, or would the world survive? Were there others? There must be someone, at least the laser-wielder.

Where would he have to travel to find other survivors? South, for sure.

Finally, one day/night, Med told him, "The human being Baozhai will survive. Radiation damage has been reduced. Wounds are healing. She is statistically--"

"Oh, shut up...thanks." Robert yelled into the netfeed.

Med didn't respond.

Robert gazed down at Baozhai and wondered how much time they had before the next thermo blasts or the beginning of nuclear winter and their own demise.

Despite the gray death still flaking down, and the endless abyss of the world-less, dying future, Robert, the unbeliever, felt a glimmer of transcendent hope, a remembrance of the Presence. He looked down at sleeping Baozhai where she lay, medding toward health.

And being an inveterate story-catcher, not only an historian, Robert couldn’t resist smiling when he suddenly thought of a very old, oh so fair story—what would happen if he kissed her?

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