Friday, March 10, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 21 -- It's Walter

Our little serial experiment hits part 21 this week. It's old enough to drink, so a toast to it for reaching this milestone. And a toast to you for reading along, especially if you've been with us since October when this all started.

It doesn't feel like i've been doing this for almost six months,but I guess I have. I'm excited about this story. I'm excited about the new covers. I'm excited that it feels like something that could sell a few copies and find me an audience as a writer. As great as it is to see the number of visits that these posts get, I always wish it'd be more. Same is true with book sales. I don't need to be a best seller, but a better seller would be nice. I do think it'll happen. For some reason I have probably unearned confidence in that.

One last thing. Digi City, the standalone story set in my New Eden universe is free today and tomorrow at Amazon. If you like cyberpunk, dystopian, near-future scifi then you'll like this. It's got all the things of New Eden—data addicts and a corrupt corporate power—plus it features Miller, the possibly-too-earnest-for-his-own-good antagonist from Finding Faded Light. Plus it's got an ending that I love. Grab a copy here then tell all your friends about it.

OK, that's it. On with our story.

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Welcome to the End//Part 21 -- It's Walter 

“So you are a bit of a liar,” I say to Caroline.


“Excuse me?”


We pause at an intersection and I let Caroline pick our path.


“You told me that you couldn’t do any of the magic your mom does,” I say while she decides which way we head next. “You said that was something you left to your mom and sister. Had no interest in it, I believe is what you said.”


“I did say that, didn’t I?”


We go right. It’s a little roundabout if we want to get back to camp quickly, but if it makes Caroline more comfortable then a few minutes detour is worth it.


“I guess my secret’s out,” Caroline says.


“Why is it a secret?”


“Mom doesn’t know.”


“She doesn’t? Why?”


“I made too big a stink about not being interested in it when I was younger. I didn’t know how to tell her I’d changed my mind.”


“So you had your sister teach you some stuff?”


“Her some, but mostly books. I’d study them at night when mom was at work, making sure to be careful about putting them back so she wouldn’t see them disturbed.”


“They have books on this kind of stuff?”


“Nothing you can get at the store. But, yeah, there are books. And real books too. Not some kind of thick leather-bound volume you see in movies with all that frilly handwriting that’s hard to read.  These are book books.”


We pass under the interstate and are nearing camp. The neighborhood turns residential here. Older houses. Smaller. The population mostly lower income. It was an area ripe for gentrification but that never got a chance to push this far east. The homes were small but cute, and being this close to downtown could have gone for quite a bit if the right crowd had ever taken an interest. But they hadn’t, and it was too late now.


The number of bodies in the road has dropped and everything is painted now in a light brown thanks to the mud rain. But there’s something different about the neighborhood. It looks worse. More ransacked. More destroyed. Caroline notices at about the same time I do, and her pace picks up.


“What do you think?” She knows what I’m asking about. Something has happened. Wailers have been here. These houses look torn apart, and it’s only getting worse the closer we get to camp. It’s all visible now. Claw marks. Boards snapped and breaks that are obviously fresh.


Caroline’s walk turns to a jog then to a full run. I’m following behind her best I can, but my pack is slowing me down. She’s a few hundred feet ahead of me.


I call out for her, but she doesn’t stop. We enter Fair Park through a side entrance. She’s so far in front of me that I lose her. She’s turned a corner one way, and I’ve gone another. I turn toward the Ferris wheel, and that’s when I hear her scream. It stops me cold.


I break into as much of a sprint as I can, and that’s when I see Walter. He’s gone. Brutalized and lying in a heap near a planter box. Caroline is sitting near him. She’s holding a scarf that Maggie was wearing before the rain. It’s soaked and dripping water, but Caroline has it up to her face. It’s covering her mouth, but I can still hear her muffled cries.

Friday, March 3, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 20 -- Bodies

Part 20. 20? Yes, 20.
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Welcome to the End//Part 20 -- Bodies

Caroline puts her hand to her mouth and I gently guide her down another block. I still have my gun out. The wailers aren’t visible, but they aren’t gone. We walk quiet for a few blocks then see another body, this one in worse shape. Whoever he is, he went down fighting. We pass wide, on the opposite sidewalk and Caroline finally speaks.


“Who are these people?”


I don’t have an answer for her, as much as I’d like to be able to give her one. I don’t really think she’s expecting me to actually say anything. We turn another corner, to head back toward Fair Park, and things only get more gruesome. Three more bodies, or what’s left of bodies, and there are more past that.


Caroline begins to cry. We stop walking, and I put an arm around her. She rolls her head into my chest and her whimpers turn to sobs. This is all a little overwhelming to me, I can’t imagine what it’s doing to a teenager.


The only way we escaped this same fate was magic. Literal magic. Our little lean-to shelter was nice for a moment, but it had barely been keeping us protected from the elements. Without Caroline’s magic bubble we’d be out here dead in the wet Dallas streets. I whisper a thank you into Caroline’s ear and can feel her nod her response into my chest. Her crying has calmed and she turns away from me.


“Let’s get back to camp,” she says. “But let’s find another way.”


I agree and we turn back and start walking through Deep Ellum. It’s an old warehouse district that’s turned into mostly come-and-go nightspots and restaurants. And, apparently, it’s where many of Dallas’ survivors headed to when they had nowhere else to go because the number of bodies here is worse. They are all over the streets. Numbers in the dozens down each block. We do our best to avoid passing as many as we can. Somehow that feels respectful. Not to pass. To avoid the temptation to gawk. It feels like the right thing to do. Plus, it helps Caroline stay calm.  I also try to distract her with conversation.


“So when you said you weren’t really into the magic thing and your mom told me that you never really took to it, was that some organized campaign to lie to me?”


She smiles, just a bit.


“I’m not into it,” she tries to tell me. “But I know some stuff.”


“Just small stuff? Like how to make a candy bar appear out of nowhere. Poof up a hall pass for a friend at school. Or to create an impenetrable, hard-shelled dome of light.”

“Yeah, stuff like that.”


“Why didn’t you two want to tell me.”


“The magic thing doesn’t always go over well. Some people want candy bars and hall passes. Others want nothing to do with you. I didn’t want you -- we didn’t want you or anyone to cast us off on our own. We had an agreement to not say anything to anyone or do anything that would pull back that curtain unless we just absolutely had to.”


“Basically what your mom said when I asked the same thing.”


We walk in silence, passing fewer bodies than we had before. Fewer, not none. Caroline cuts a wide path around them whenever we come upon them, and I just follow her lead. The number of bodies is surprising. I want to bring it up to Caroline, say that I didn’t know this many people were still alive, or at least around Dallas. I figure that it’s best not to say anything. Still, I’d assumed that because the people I knew about were gathered in little pockets, like at our camp or at the one in Mesquite, then that’s all there were. I hadn’t considered that some would just huddle up on their own. Keep their heads down and try to survive. It adds a layer of sadness to all of this that we are seeing now. Bring these people into our camp and we could have had something of a little society. A community at least. Strength in numbers.


I think back to what J.R. said he heard, about the church in Oklahoma. It feels like a better idea now. At least it’s a proactive one. Trying to build something. Trying to build numbers, build strength.


People like Caroline and Maggie would be valuable in a society like that. They’ve kept me alive so far, and that was the real truth. I’ve had two moments since all of this happened that I shouldn’t have survived. Two moments when the wailers should have gotten to me, but they didn’t. And that’s only because I stumbled into these magic ladies’ camp early on. Dumb luck, destiny, or providence -- I didn’t care.

Friday, February 24, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 19 -- The bubble pops

Part 19, one away from 20.

If you are enjoying the story, would you tell others about it? I'd really appreciate it.

Sometime this week I'm going o put up two new versions of the cover. I'd appreciate your opinions on them. I'll post to Twitter when it's time to vote. Follow me there, if you aren't already: @JarrettRush
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Welcome to the End//Part 19 -- The bubble pops

Caroline is still asleep, and I kneel next to her and rock her by the shoulder. Her eyes resist opening, but she slowly sits up.


“Yeah?” It’s a breathy response, one that it seems to take all of her energy to give.


“I need you awake,” I say. “Once this little bubble you’ve created pops we’re going to be in the same boat as we were before.”


“Yeah. OK.”


She takes in a couple of deep breaths then stands on wobbly legs and looks at me. She’s startled. I’m still in my goofy mask, and I’m sure I appear like some kind of odd monster in this outfit.


I raise my hand, sort of an “I come in peace” gesture. She looks away and starts surveying our position. I can see everything start to come back to her, the fog of confusion beginning to fade. She looks up to the top of the dome above us and sees the rain still coming down.


“How far does this go?”


“Couple blocks.”


“Wailers?”


“Still there. Waiting for us to come back out.”


Thunder crashes outside. We can hear it. Either it was an extra loud clap or the rain is slowing.


The thunder is followed by wailers crying out. It’s the rain. Hard to tell from here, but it must be slowing. I begin to gather the things from my pack that are still in a pile on top of our stack of rubble. I reload everything carefully, wanting to make sure that the backpack is balanced once we start walking back to camp. Just in case.


Caroline has already pulled her pack on her back. She’s holding the machete loose at her sides.


“The stove,” she asks, “where is it?”


I shake my head no. “Leave it,” I shout through my mask. I don’t know that she heard me, but she doesn’t move. So either she’s come to the same conclusion or this mask doesn’t impede conversation as much as I thought it did.


Caroline watches me climb down the pile and asks: “We have a plan?”


“Not yet,” I say. “But we need one.”


“Mine, right now, is pretty simple. Fight.”


“FIgure that one out while you were off dreaming?”


“Like this little hedge of protection? Then you’ll allow me to sleep a few minutes. This,” she rainbows both arms above her head, “takes a lot out of a girl.”


“And I’m forever grateful.”


We are approaching the edge of our dome and the mud rain has slowed dramatically. I am expecting a herd of wailers just outside the dome trying to claw their way through the light and energy, but they aren’t there. None of them.  The city looks wet and empty.


“Where …” Caroline starts but doesn’t finish.


“They were here earlier, just a few minutes ago. They were screaming at me. Crying out. Trying to get in. I don’t get it.”


“And just like that …” Caroline flares her fingers “Poof … they were gone.” She smiles and giggles.


“Glad this is funny.”


“Oh, lighten up old man.”


That’s when we see it, a body. Not a wailer. A human. It’s laying across the middle of the street about a block ahead, clearly beaten and broken. Clearly dead.

Friday, February 17, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 18 -- Scattered

Time for Part 18. I've been playing with the cover to this. I'm thinking I'll put some kind of poll next week to see what you all like best.

We got a good number of reads on last week's installment. Hoping to keep that traffic up, so, if you are enjoying this, I'd appreciate you letting others know. Send them a link. Retweet a tweet. Shout from a rooftop. Take an ad out in a newspaper. Whatever you can do is appreciated.

And if you are new to this series, here's all the posts in one place. Go catch up.

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Welcome to the End//Part 18--Scattered

I scanned the crowd in front of me. That’s the first time it felt small. Not small exactly, but not as big as it should have. This part of Dallas was residential. There should have been more people. We all walked aimlessly.


I tried to form a plan, think of a place that I’d sleep that night. I came up with nothing. The best I could think was to follow the crowd, so I looked up toward the beginning of wherever this mass started. That’s when I saw her, my neighbor. Her blonde ponytail bouncing in a crowd of people who seemed to be leading the way. That’s when the sky screamed and everyone in front of me disappeared, crushed by a rock bigger than anything I’d ever seen.


It buried itself halfway into the earth and glowed red.


Terror filled the air, and the organized retreat that had existed a moment ago disappeared. People scattered like roaches, all directions. I ran north and west for no reason other than there was no one in my way.


I ran for blocks, over, around and through parts of Dallas that were still unfamiliar. I ran through downtown, across what was left of the park the city had built over the highway, and finally stopped near a creek that runs through a part of the city that Dallas calls Uptown for some reason unknown to me.


The water gurgled. That’s why I stopped. That and my legs couldn’t carry me any farther. Trees provided a canopy over the creek. A concrete path ran along the bank. Somehow this little spot of land hadn’t been hit by anything falling. It was still pristine, an oasis in a ruined city. I quit running and quickly collapsed to the ground. I laid in the grass and felt all the confusion and questions come on me. The adrenaline that had carried me this far was all gone. My tank was empty. I couldn’t have gotten up and walked if I’d wanted to.


I wasn’t alone. There were others who’d found this little patch of normal, and we were congregating in small groups. Conversation was everything you’d expect, variations on the same theme: What the …?


There was more speculation. The only other guy in my little group — just five of us, two guys and three women — was certain it was how God was going to destroy the Earth. One of the women lived close. She said she’d been watching TV and this all looked too coordinated to be God.


“Are you saying He’s disorganized?” The other guy was incensed. I chalked part of that up to the situation. “Because He created the world in just a week.”


She put a hand in his face. “Calm down, preacher. I’m just saying that what I saw wasn’t the world falling apart. It wasn’t military either. It’s something else.”


“What else is there?” One of the other women.


There was no response. Either the first woman didn’t want to say it, or she thought it was just that obvious.


“Aliens,” I said. “If it’s not military, and it’s not just the natural order of space pulling us apart, it’s something else. The only other thing is aliens.”


Everyone turned to listen to me, but I didn’t have anything else to say. I didn’t have anything else at all. I was done. My body was shutting down.


“He’s right. That’s what they were speculating on the TV.”


I turned from the group and found a spot that wasn’t too near anyone. I laid down and rested my head on an outstretched arm. I laid there and listened to a city in confusion. I didn’t last long. I was asleep in minutes.


I woke a few hours later. More people had found our little piece of land, and the noise from people talking and speculating made sleep impossible. Since I didn’t want to have another version of the what-just-happened conversation, I left. Truth was, I was still trying to process this whole thing for myself, and that’s something that I was going to do better on my own.


So after I woke, I walked. I kept going northish. I got to Lemmon Avenue, and that’s when the devastation, for the first time, became overwhelming. Everything north of Lemmon was gone. It was all just rubble and ash. I wanted to climb into it and explore just how far it went, because even in my hazy and tired state, I don’t believe that I thought it went north forever. At some point, if I had climbed in, I would have run into someone looking south into the pile and thinking the same things I was.

Instead of climbing in, I turned around. I headed back south toward my apartment and my stuff. All I had was my jacket, and that wasn’t going to be enough to survive.

Friday, February 10, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 17 -- The Start

Time for Part 17. We are about halfway through the story so far. Maybe more. I'm bad at estimations
like that.

I'm playing with covers and titles still, so that may change prior to publication. Not wholesale changes on the title. Just thinking about flipping the main title and subhead, Rubble and Ruin would become the series main title. That's probably a bit to inside baseball. All you want is the next installment, right? OK. Here you go.

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Welcome to the End//Part 17--The Start

Everything fell apart on a Tuesday. A late Tuesday to be technical. I was a few months into my life in Dallas and I was watching a repeat of the 10 p.m. news. I’d had a date with a woman I met through an acquaintance. She was nice enough. The conversation was pleasant. I was thinking back to something she’d said and was considering whether or not I should call it a quirk or a red flag when the first rock hit.
I didn’t know it was a rock at the time. It was just a crushing and crashing sound that drew me to the window. I opened the blinds in time to see two more streaks stream low across the sky and then, a moment later, two more impacts. Then another. Then more until it was raining these things, whatever they were. I ran out the door and into the hall. My neighbor was already there.

“Meteors?” she asked. She was in some sort of loose-fitting pajamas, her blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

I didn’t know her beyond friendly hellos as we were coming or going, but she began following me out to the street. We could hear more of whatever these were tearing apart anything that got in their way. By the time we got to the ground floor, fires were already burning. The sky was filled with crashing rocks, and she began to cry.

“What’s happening?” She wasn’t asking me, just calling out in confusion. She repeated her questions to no one. I wanted to do the same thing.

“Come on.” I grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her back up stairs with me. She cried the whole time.

She followed me into my apartment and we both stood in silence as we watched the TV. The local stations had broken into programming. Some poor late-night worker was in front of the camera stammering and stuttering his way through an incoherent update that didn’t tell me anything I couldn’t learn by looking out my window.

I was angry. Why didn’t they know more? Then the picture went black. I flipped stations, and we watched there. A real anchor this time. The information was delivered smoothly, but still of little help. The news here didn’t know what was happening besides it seemed to be raining boulders.

I flipped again, this time to a national news channel. They were reporting this happening all over. Dallas, Kansas City, New York. It was everywhere, but no one seemed to know exactly what ‘it’ was. My neighbor was balled up on my couch. She was rocking back and forth. The world continued to explode outside the windows.

There was speculation of the apocalypse. That’s what one of the reporters was saying with a straight face. It was hard to argue that it wasn’t a plausible theory. We watched for a few more minutes. Five? Ten? More? Probably more. Then we heard it. A close-by explosion. The light in my window went a bright orange-white.

“We should go,” I said.

“Where?”

“I don’t know, but this doesn’t feel overly safe. At least if we’re moving then we’re not sitting ducks.”

She hesitated then began to nod. “Wait for me,” she said as she got up from the couch.

“I’ll try. But no promises.”

“I’m Mack,” I said as she passed out into the hall.

“Nice to meet you” I heard her shout. I never got her name.

I pulled my coat from the closet and began reaching for some of the camping gear I’d temporarily stored there a few months earlier. That’s when a deafening crash came from the back of my apartment. Half of my building was gone. Light from flames began to peek through cracks and holes that hadn’t been there just a moment before. I turned and ran for the door. I stopped for a moment in the hall, hoping to see my neighbor. Her door was open. I stuck my head in and shouted that I was going downstairs. I waited a beat, then two, for some kind of response, but I never got one. I couldn’t wait.

I got to the street and slipped into the streams of people. Even in the chaos we managed to organize our mad scramble for safety. Everyone on the right side of the road headed one direction. On the left we headed in another. The explosions continued, several of them in quick succession. Like firecrackers popping on a string but turned up to 11.

People were crying and talking. Some, you know the kind, were already speculating with unearned confidence about what had happened. Some thought it was some kind of war, an attack from a foreign adversary. I didn’t know. Maybe so. Others thought it was judgement. Push God far enough, they said, but never finished the thought.

I didn’t say anything. I just kept walking. To where, I didn’t know. Nothing seemed safe. I didn’t know it then, but nothing ever would seem safe again.

Friday, February 3, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 16 -- Once Human

Not a lot of wind up this week. Let's just dive into Part 16. Part 16? Wow. 

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Welcome to the End//Part 16--Once Human

Her face is flush, all the color drained out of it. Her breath is slowing; she’s obviously spent. I don’t want to bother her, but I don’t have much of a choice. I don’t know how long this little bubble has before it pops.

I push her shoulder and tap at my wrist once she turns her head.

“What?” She’s not picking up on my homemade sign language.

“How long do we have?” I’m shouting inside my mask. Makes me feel like she can hear me better, I guess.

“I don’t know. A couple of hours probably, but that’s not a certainty.”

“Then sleep,” I shout. “I’ll wake you in a bit.”

Caroline rolls her head to the side and closes her eyes. She’s gone fast, her breath now a rhythmic in and out.

I listen to the rain batter against our little roof. It’s starting to slow, but only slightly. It’s still coming in waves. A torrent then something less. Then another torrent. It’s those moments of something less that are starting to get longer.

I can’t hear the wailers in here, and with the size of this little bubble -- a couple blocks diameter -- I can’t see them either. My curiosity is getting the better of me, though. I stand and climb down from the pile that Caroline and I ended up on and walk the couple of blocks to where our shelter terminates. It just disappears into the ground in a sizzling blue ring. I can see it before I come to the edge.

I can see the wailers too. They are still stalking out in the rain. They seem to be walking sloppy circles around us. One of them spies me as I approach the edge of the dome. It opens its mouth wide and cries a deep and guttural shriek that I can only barely hear.

These things look like something from a twisted cartoon, one of those underground bits of animation that would be part of some creepy cartoon tour that would hit college campuses. Hands and feet that looked human to some degree, but also not. Toes and fingers were now some kind of extended claws. The face had been stretched long, like someone had grabbed a tight hold of the chin and just pulled with everything they had. That made the mouth bigger, making room for jaws filled with sharp and pointed teeth.

The back had become stooped and their walk was awkward and crouched. The only thing that still looked mostly human were the eyes. They’d gone all black, but they still had the almond shape. Human, it’s hard to believe that’s what these things once were or what these people had to go through to become like this. Was it a living torture? Or had they died before turning to these things? Were these cries meant to terrify us, or were they seeing those of us remaining and crying out for help?

I continue to approach, and the thing swings a clawed arm at the dome. Its hand draws back in a violent motion. Whatever our shelter is made of, it isn’t so much as nicked. I move closer and the thing cries out. Two nearby wailers also approach, crying out the same. They want to get to me, but I’m safe. Or safe enough for now. I’m the animal in a cage. They are the kids at the zoo taunting me.

We need a plan, though. Once this little dome disappears we will be just as exposed as we were before. I have to wake Caroline. We need to be prepared.

Friday, January 27, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 15 -- Dome

A quick update before the next installment. The overall story is almost finished. A few more thousand words and I should be able to type "the end." This thing has been an easy write, and that always makes the process more fun. I've got ideas for the next story in the series, the next steps in the overall tale. I like it. Hope you will too.

So, again, if you've enjoyed the story up to now, tell others to check it out. Share it on social. Evangelize for our zombie aliens.

OK, enough rambling. On with the show.

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Welcome to the End//Part 15--Dome

After a moment Caroline’s screaming stops. She shakes her wrist free from my grip and runs beside me. There are wailers all over, but not as many and I thought there would be. But even one wailer is too many. They all cry out, screaming to each other in a shrieking language that I can’t understand, but can tell that they are communicating. They seem to be converging on us in a slowly tightening circle. They come from behind. They approach from the front. We continue to run.

Caroline points at a pile of rubble a dozen feet high. I can barely see it through the rain, but we make it our target. We each take leaping steps up to the top, not worrying about a misstep or a footfall that will send us tumbling. It’s climbing with confident abandon. We reach the top, have the high ground. From up here we can see that the situation is worse than I imagined it could be. The wailers aren’t stopping. It’s like this rain has caused whatever dormant wailers there were to hatch. They are all out now.

Caroline is turning tight circles as we watch the wailers approach our pile from all directions. The first reach the base of our stack and begin to climb. They aren’t as confident as we were. Or maybe they aren’t as desperate. They climb slowly, carefully. That’s good for us. I pick off those that get halfway up the side I’m watching. Caroline fights off hers off with the machete. I help her if she needs it. She helps me if I need it.

But this tactic won’t be effective forever. This first wave of wailers is scattered, spread out. They are climbing the pile one at a time. But soon they will be coming up in pairs. Then threes and fours and fives. And eventually the pile will be overrun. We can’t hold them off forever, and I start to consider that this is the hill where I die. A pathetic little hill made up of spilled brick and concrete.

I fire a couple of shots into wailers that have just reached the base of our hill. I take aim at another and my gun just clicks.

“That’s it,” I say. “I’m out.”

Caroline swings at a wailer and asks if I still have my gas mask.

“My what?”

“That goofy thing you grabbed from the doctor’s office.”

She grunts through a slash across a wailer’s chest then plants a boot into the thing’s stomach. It tumbles down the rubble, taking two others with it. Other wailers have reached the bottom of the stack on my side. They climb over fallen brothers and begin the ascent up to us.

“It’s in my pack,” I tell Caroline about my mask.

“Put it on,” she says and lays down her machete.

I upend the pack and its content pile up at my feet. I push my hand into the pile and feel around until my fingers brush a cold, brass fitting. I pull the mask out and put it on.

Caroline begins chanting something in fast words that I don’t understand. Her hands begin to glow a bright blue and she speaks louder. Her voice climbs to a shout and at the crescendo she lets out a scream. It triggers some sort of blast from her hands. It’s a shockwave of blue light that runs along our pile of rubble and out to the streets. It cuts down every wailer it touches. They lie silent and still. I can’t tell if they are sleeping or dead, but it doesn’t matter. They are down.

The blast stretches out for a couple of blocks then begins to arch over us, coming together at a point just above Caroline. We are now inside of a blue glowing dome.

Caroline collapses onto the top of the pile. I reach to take off my mask and she grabs my wrist.

“No. Don’t,” she says.

A muffled why comes through the mask.

“It’ll kill you. You aren’t made to breath the air in here.”

“And you are?” Again, muffled.

“Apparently.” Caroline lays back. Her breathing is deep and quick. She’s exhausted, like she’s just run a sprint. And, in a way, I suppose she has.