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The year 1999 brought the good people of the planet Earth the discovery of Millennium, a rogue planet the size of Earth's moon hurtling through space and bound for spectacular collision with the farside of Jupiter . . . or so the experts thought. But the rogue planet's position, speed, and distance from Earth proved too treacherous a basis upon which to build solid predictions; Millennium missed the gas giant and was instead destroyed by its gravitational pull. What was left spiraled through space in hundreds of pieces, some as wide as small eastern states and all bound, like a string of deadly celestial bombs, for our home planet.
Plans to divert the largest of Millennium's remains were thwarted again and again by zealots, bureaucratic denial, indecision, and misguided budget considerations, and in the most desperate of days an explosion at an orbiting space station crushed the final hopes of salvation for the world. As Millennium's remains sped toward Earth, only the most determined, the most cunning, and sometimes the most brutal survived the death-filled pre-Impact Days as people and governments around the world went crazy with fear and ruthlessness.
On July 2, 2000, existence as mankind had known it came to an end.
The Impacts continued for nine days. Those who survived the catastrophic pelting faced life in an utterly different world, some armed with newfound and wondrous survival mechanisms, others possessed by unstoppable instincts for self-preservation.
As for the planet itself . . .
Hammering at the edge of the Earth for more than a week, Millennium accomplished what no one had ever thought possible: The Earth's rotation slowed and finally stopped, forcing the planet to always show the same face to the sun as it follows its spatial orbit around our star. Mountains thirty miles high and more were birthed along the planet's fault lines as a result of the earthquakes and tectonic plate subduction, pushing far into the mesosphere and gifting the Earth with the only thing that would continue to sustain life amid the oceans and disappeared lands: the Valley of Air. Trapped on all sides by the monstrous mountain ranges, spared the bulk of poisonous debris spewed into the air by the Impacts, life continues to struggle onward in an area divided into light and dark and gray.
This is the story of the strongest and darkest of those people . . .
August 25, 2021
The outskirts of Columbus, Ohio
Adilah Travers was a strong, hard woman, and she would've never admitted to the tear that trickled down her cheek as she aimed, then carefully squeezed the trigger of her rifle and watched the side of her target's head shatter.
The 30-06 Sako bucked in her hands and she felt the stock slam backward into the meat of her shoulder, ground her teeth against the pain at the same time as her spine scraped against the wood of the tree in which she was perched. A woman this time, and how many did that make this morningten? Or was it fifteen? Through the last four days she'd lost count, but surely there couldn't be that many more alive in the settlement who were capable of trying to get up and walk out.
Adilah just couldn't let that happen.
Something else she'd lost count of was how many times she'd checked her own skin, peering carefully at the roughened areas between her fingers and toes, examining the bends of her elbows, straining to see into the softer areas beneath her arms and at the back of her knees when she hiked her jeans down and attended to her body's needs. She was okay so far, still free of the black-red bruising that would mark her as one of the plague's victims and eventually spread to blotches seeping across the surface of her skin like moss on the trunk of a wet tree. So she'd left in time, trucked on out of this small settlement of people living on the southeastern fringe of what had once been Columbus, and left everyone else behind while she moved on pure instinct.
In retrospect she didn't think it'd been so hard to see the plague coming. After all, the rumors were there and only a fool ignored tales that had as much of an edge of fear to them as the constantly recurring ones about
By choice, the folks in Columbus hadn't had much contact with the outside world. They were a territorial bunch: They did irregular supply runs to the interior of the city and weren't particularly eager to share what they found, though God knows they'd sure open their hands if someone new showed up and wanted to give. Well, someone had given them all right, and it was only the fact that Adilah hunted up her own supplies and kept to herself most of the time that had probably saved her from catching the sickness. No telling how long or how far the disease had spread before people admitted its presence and started showing their faces, the skin smeared with ugly scarlet, openly on the streets. Coughing and spitting blood, touching everything and everyone else and saying it would pass, while Adilah regarded them from behind the shutters of her small house and stayed away, grimly watching as the settlement started to die. She'd grown up in Columbus proper and had stayed after the Impacts because it was familiar, taking a bit of comfort and a sort of reluctant security from the people who lived around her. But at her core she'd always been a loner and always been lonely; in the end it was her solitary ways that saved her.
She shifted on her perch, minding her position because her legs were half-numb from sitting for almost six hours. The last radio transmissions had been at least a week ago, warning people away from the town unless they had a cure. There'd been nothing but silence in return, and Adilah could well imagine the reaction on the other end: No one had a cure, and no sane person would risk coming in and exposing themselves without it. Like everywhere, Columbus had had its share of the crazy folksshe'd heard about a town in the Lightzone where they were called The Lostwho'd freaked out either about the Impacts or something horrible that had happened to them since then. Another disease for which there seemed to be no cure, this time in the head, but at least these folks weren't contagious and didn't do more than kind of wander around town and stare at nothing. Not that it mattered now, anyway; these Lost people seemed to be immune to Red Shadows and boy, hadn't they become the scapegoats for the misery and terror the people of Columbus were going through? All of them disease-free, and not a single one of them had lived past the third week of its appearance.
Adilah swallowed, then coughed, wishing she could get out of this tree and just move on, be done with the dirty job at hand. It'd been at least an hour in between this latest target and the one before that; surely most of the people in the settlement were dead or too weak to try to escape by now
But no, here came another one, staggering down the path that led out of town and so feverish he was barely uprightdidn't even have a pack of supplies, for God's sake, and he thought he'd just head on out of town and give Red Shadows to the rest of the meager civilization.
Not while I'm alive, Adilah thought and shouldered the Sako Classic Grade again, carefully sighting the dying man in the view through the weapon's scope. She knew this one, not by name but by sightsomebody from one of the trading posts she'd gone to so infrequently. For a moment her vision blurred and she blinked, angry at herself, angry at the nameless man she was about to kill, angry at God, for crying out loud. There was so little left of the world already, between the Impacts and the killings afterward, then the run of post-Impact diseases with no more medicine. Did He have to come down and stomp out the rest?
Adilah's eyes cleared and she ground her teeth and squeezed the trigger, seeing once again the result of her long-ago military training. This time the bullet went low and she had to watch as his throat tore open, live through it with her victim for just over a minute as the man's hand came up in surprise and tried to stop the flow of his lifeblood from his vaporized carotid artery. A bad shot and she'd have to be more careful; she wasn't out here to torture people.
It'd been almost eight weeks since she'd had true physical contact with anyone in the settlement, exchanging goods, shaking hands, whatever. Still, she couldn't stop herself from checking her fingers again; what she wouldn't give for a mirror, though the little that she could see of her reflection in the rain puddles showed her a complexion clear of the marks and healthy, if not a little worn around the edges. Taking a deep breath, she adjusted her seat once more in the tree and leaned back to wait; she figured she had at least another hour in her bed before she'd need to come down and take a break.
In the meantime, Adilah Travers, who'd gotten out of Columbus before being touched in the flesh by the horror that was Red Shadows, was just doing her part to try and keep what was left of humanity safe. Maybe God would forgive her.
But she wasn't betting on it.