Samuel lay on his back, gasping for air like a fish out of the sea. They had done all they could. Now the burden rested with their descendants. His gaze lingered on the house he loved, covered in ash, the sun no longer a bright orb in the sky, but shrouded in gray. A hush fell over the pewter wasteland. Cold seeped into his marrow inch by insidious inch. Many would enter the spheres constructed by the Guardians. Their saviors spoke of selective population, which rang false to Samuel, or true, as the case might be. His grandchildren were safe and beyond the pale of this time, this world he was leaving.
He let his head roll limply on its side, where his gaze captured Mae, also prone with a strange contraption with hand-hammered copper and a complex, inky black netting covering the greater part of her nose and mouth. Leather straps braided and wrapped her skull, pushing strands of hair around like lost silver. She made odd, whistling noises as she breathed.
“Samuel, wear it.” Mae’s voice was distorted as she lifted the matching mask the Guardians had fashioned in the preceding months.
“No, Mae. I wish to enjoy this fore-night without the chains of their advances.”
Samuel knew his stubbornness would cost him his life. The Guardians, who were equal part savior and bearer of terrible news, had made concessions for the elders. But those who survived would be the strongest, most virile, agile, and smartest among them. Samuel and Mae both understood at their advanced age of sixty and one years that they would be excluded from the mercies of the sphere.
With blurred vision, Samuel saw a familiar figure approach.
“Father! Why do you not take rest in your own bed?” Stella’s comely face was a salve in his approaching death. Her wool skirts swirled as she knelt and set an illuminated candle, hissing steam from its seams, beside him.
Raising his hand, he cupped the loveliness of her face, knowing the time had come for her to enter the sphere the Guardians had constructed for the select. Her eyes brimmed with tears. “Papa, the Guardians have told you that you might survive… All is not lost.”
Samuel put a finger to her lips. “Silence now, child. This is your place now. Do not forget the things you have been taught. Take this, Dear Heart. Hold it safe to your breast. Guard it. It is our history.” Samuel handed her a slim leather book bound with a black silk tie.
Stella pressed it to her chest, tears overflowing down unprotected cheeks. Mae’s eyes met hers. “Go now, Stella-girl. Take the opportunity you have been given.”
Her knuckles whitened as Stella clutched the book. Misery etched its path on her countenance. “It will never be the same without you both.”
A clear bell-tone pealed, reminding Stella of duty, her duty to leave her parents behind. The knowledge of her future, the safe environment of the sphere, was a burden on her heart.
Stella turned to look at the sphere shimmering in a watery iridescence like a giant cloche. But people were not plants. Their future safekeeping was a promise of a life with a family fractured by separation.
Stella bent to kiss Samuel and Mae goodbye. Gently unwinding the facemask the Guardians had constructed, she placed a kiss, soft as butterfly wings on the woman who had nurtured her. The skin gave way like tissue-thin silk under the pressure of her lips. Turning to her father, she saw his pale blue eyes watering. She cradled his head while she pressed a kiss to his forehead. She lowered his head and took a last lingering look, knowing this was the final time she would view her parents in this realm.
Lifting her skirts, she pivoted away, dropping them as she walked—no, as she ran—brushing tears from her cheeks, the book clutched tightly in her other hand, the candle hanging from its copper loop in her squeezed finger. Approaching the doorway to the sphere, she was the last select to be ushered inside. Casting one final glance, she saw her parents’ supine forms, their clasped hands held tightly, her mother’s mask forgotten beside her.
Stella whirled toward the entrance, losing hold of the book, dropping it on the ash-laden earth. She picked it up, her last gift from Father. Seeing the title, she peered closer: Asteroid: A History of When the Rocks Fell.
Stella moved forward as the hole closed behind her. A fierce idea bloomed in her consciousness to remember who they had been. An indeterminate future stretched before her.