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Duke Bushido

Origins, practice, and recaps

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--When the experiments were finally abandoned, Martin Power's growth was either completed or substantially slowed.   Considering his early demise, we will never know for certain.  The last recorded information claims that at age thirty, he stood seven feet, nine-and-one-quarter inches tall and weighed nine hundred and eighty pounds.  No test devised was ever capable of exceeding his physical strength; many who have viewed the research have speculated that it is a very real possibility that there simply were no limits to his strength.--
    --"This isn't good for you, young man."
    "It's not bad for me either, though, is it?"  A twenty-three-year-old Martin Power beamed down at the representative from the Department of Parahuman Registration.  He felt rather guilty doing it: the desk jockey was already a rather smallish man by normal standards.  Likely he'd have been intimidated by just about anyone standing up and telling him "no."  Maybe the two deputies weren't standard procedure, after all.  Maybe he'd asked them to come with him just for the psychological assurance of having "the law" on his side.  
    The idea made Martin laugh in spite of himself, though he kept his amusement of his face.  He'd discovered of late that he was, for reasons he didn't understand, becoming unsettling to people.  He didn't care for the idea, and had no idea why people were suddenly so nervous around him, but the fact was that no matter how nice, polite, or downright helpful he tried to be to someone-- even someone he'd known since he was a kid!-- his very presence clearly worried them.  Most were just nervous, but complete strangers would often get downright spooked.  Well, no matter, best not to laugh at the small man in front of him or the two deputies (who had made a point of keeping their holsters unflapped, even though their arms were crossed on their chests).  No reason to escalate this any more than need be.
    "Yes, Mr. Power; this is _very_ bad for you!  Do you not understand what it means to refuse to comply with federal law?  You are not only committing a criminal act, you are committing a felony!"
    "No; I'm not doing anything.  I'm just minding my own business."
    "Mr. Power--"
    "My friends call me Martin."
    "Martin--"
    "Not you.  Just my friends."  This pulled a chuckle from one of the Deputies, and Martin tossed him a wink and a cock-eyed smile before turning back to the man from the DPR.
    "Very well, Mr. Power--"
    "I'm just trying to lighten the mood.  Seriously.  'Martin' is fine.  Really.  Mister....?"
    "Agent Thaddeus Johnson."
    "Well TJ, the fact is that there is no reason for me to register with the DPR.  None.  And I'm not going to do it."
    "There's plenty of reason, Martin.  You can't play it off this time.  You've been seen doing too many impossible things--"
    "That doesn't make sense.  Things are impossible because _no one_ can do them."
    One of the deputies stepped forward.  "Martin, play time's over.  You really need to listen to the man.  This isn't like those little stunts you and the football team used to pull.  This is serious stuff."
    Martin's face turned dour as he put on his "serious" look.  Agent Johnson began speaking again.  "Martin, everyone in the county has been talking about you and the things you do.  Your neighbor says you lifted his tractor out of a washout single-handedly, and without tools.  There's a little girl who told everyone she could about the giant who got her cat out of a tree simply by jumping up high enough to grab the cat.  Several people have seen you out on the plains racing against horses!  There are dozens of people who saw you set Earl McCumber's truck back on its wheels after his flipped it trying to avoid another car.  Martin, you have no secret!  Everyone knows that you are a Parahuman.  Even if we had no proof of your speed or strength, your sheer size alone--"
    "And that's the problem, Mr. Johnson!  That's the problem right there!"
    "What's that?"
    "This entire thing is just re-invented McCarthyism!  The whole Parahuman Registration Act smacks of nothing more than a way to control people and get votes by making them feel safe at the expense of a minority few who don't make a large enough group to swing an election.  That's the problem, and I refuse to go down to the courthouse--" Martin propped his elbows and knees out and mimed a hayseed swagger-- "and just waltz in singing 'A-here I am, Mister Govermit Man!  Yessirree, I'm one of them there dangerous subversive types, and you bes' be keepin' yer eyes on me, Yessirree, Bob!'  It's not going to happen.  Not now; not tomorrow, not ever."
    The first deputy-- the one who spoke earlier, spoke again.  "Martin, at least think about it--"
    "I'm sorry, Mr. Bristol, but I've been thinking about it since that day at the bank.  I've been thinking of precious little else.  I've researched it, looked into it, read it, studied it, and I find it to be so completely, utterly disgusting-- so incredibly un-American-- that I absolutely refuse to acknowledge that such a thing was allowed to happen, let alone participate willingly in it."
    Agent Jackson had finally gotten his wits back around him: "Martin, we can have you arrested for felony, for _treason_ if we must!  Please listen!  I don't know if you're aware of it, but you would not be the first person arrested for refusing to register--"
    "I'm well aware of it, Mr. Jackson.  And the only thing arresting me is going to do is make it that much easier for me to let those political prisoners out."
    "Martin, do you know what it's like in prison?"
    "Mr. Jackson, you make whatever threats you want, but before you threaten to put me in a cage, make sure you've got one big enough to keep me there, will you?
    "Martin--"
    "I told you," He fired back as he turned away, "My _friends_ call me Martin.  I don't even want you calling me long distance."
    "Son--!" called Deputy Bristol.  "You're not the only one in danger here!"
    Power turned and looked toward the deputy.  "Mr. Bristol, you're kind of messing this up for me.  I mean, I had a great 'walk away' opportunity there...." he said sheepishly.
    "Son, listen.  You know me.  You've known me since I coached your baseball team when you were what-- fourteen?  You know that I'm not some faceless Washington man shoved into a little office in the middle of Texas trying to make myself feel important.  You and my son were always close.  I always felt like out of all the kids he took up with, you had the most potential to make something of yourself.  You've got a good mind, a good heart, and apparently a much stronger body than most folks would ever dare dream of.  I'm not pulling something here, Son. 
    "I feel it's only fair to tell you that you're a lot more right than you think with that crack about McCarthyism.  Folks that don't register, well it's not just them that gets trouble.  Their whole family starts having trouble.  We've already got standing orders that if you refuse to come down and register  that we are to begin researching your whole family to see just what  connection they might have to foreigners, other governments, or anything that might be considered "subversive."  Even the most squeaky-clean people don't get through that without losing things: credit ratings, business contacts, you name it.  Be worse for your folks, Martin: you already know that the government thinks most all of Peace Corps is nothing but hippies looking to establish drug trade routes, and your folks were in South America for a very, very long time before they came here."
    "What are you saying, Mr. Bristol?"  Said Martin, suddenly shaken.
    "What I'm saying is that before you decide that you are taking some big step for you or for 'all parahumans everywhere' or whatever statement a fired-up young man might think he should make...  well, before you do that, think about what you should do for your family, Son."
    "That's all right, Roy."  Jeff Curtis had come to the field to see just why there were two deputy sheriffs on the property talking to his son.  He had heard almost everything.  "We're a family.  More than any illusions of a concerned government or 'public protection,' we owe our most powerful allegiance to each other.  If my son has seriously researched this enough to make him refuse to participate, then we will support him."
    "Jeff--" Bristol started."
    "It's okay, Roy.  There is nothing you can do to us that would hurt us as much as being used against him."  He put his hand on his son's back and looked up at him.  "Martin, if you've made up your mind, then we'll stand behind you, no matter what they throw at us."
    Martin looked relieved, then resolved.  He put a massive arm around his stepfather's shoulders.  "Dad, I swear to you that whatever they throw at me, I can handle.  And whatever they throw at you--" he looked pointedly at Agent Johnson "will get thrown back at them, ten times over, and twice as hard."

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

 

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    As deputy Roy Bristol had warned, the family was subjected to unending embarrassment at the hands of their own government.  Their finances were frozen, business licenses revoked, and Claire lost her job as an economics instructor at the community college.  Still, the family stood completely behind their son and his right to be left alone.  Their credit evaporated, and the government seized the family farm.  At least, they tried.
    Martin began daily patrols of the property.  The first time he saw a sign advertising the land for sale at government auction, he took it down.  The sign re-appeared, and he again took it down.  Fences would appear, and he took great satisfaction in not only removing them, but destroying them into unsalvageable bits. 
    At this point, Jennifer had begun to use her various contacts to draw publicity to their plight.  Within weeks, the local news began running a five-minute segment at the end of every program summing up the plight of the Curtis farm.  Martin himself made it national news.
    
    The day of the auction came, and many developers had arrived to view and assess the property.  As they neared one of the numerous disused buildings left from the farm's days as a large-scale commercial concern, Martin Power appeared from behind a barn.  "You don't want this property."  He stated flatly.
    "Might should have thought of this before you tried bucking the government, Freak!" yelled one of the developers, safely hidden in the crowd.  A slight nervous chuckle rose from a few others in the crowd.
    "Listen, this is just business.  The government's selling it, and someone's going to buy it.  It's too big a spread on too prime a location.  You can't stop the government, and you can't stop progress."
    "That may be," said Martin, walking casually over to an empty grain silo. "But you don't want this property.  You see, buildings on this property--" he let fly a rhythmic barrage of roundhouse punches, shattering a large section of the concrete tower.  It shivered, rumbled, and fell backwards in a line of dusty rubble.  "-- don't tend to stand up too long."  He looked menacingly at the crowd.
    The auction house representative tried to regain control of the situation.  "Very nice, Mr. Power, but let's face it: it's just a matter of time until the government roots you and your family off of this squat and puts you in prison.  Let's not pretend that you're going to be haunting this place, knocking over shopping malls and office complexes."
    "If that's the case, then you're going to have a _very_ hard time selling poison land."
    The auctioneer offered nothing but a perplexed look.
    "Nothing short of an atomic bomb is going to get me off this land.  And I expect it's going to take more than a few of those.  How much are you guys willing to pay for a few thousand acres of radioactive glass in the middle of Texas?"
    No one said a word.  Within ten minutes, they were gone.
    The entire incident had been taped by local news, and by seven that night the footage was being played on every major news program in the country, along with a summation of the plight of Martin Power and his family.  The Curtis farm was being overrun by newsmen and camera crews and magazine reporters and it was all the family could do to keep up.  Finally, Martin instructed them to assemble on the front lawn and he would give them three hours of question and answer, during which time he did his level best to detail everything that had happened, why he was doing what he was doing, and what it was costing his family.  The turning point came at sunset.
    As Martin was fumbling for a closing statement a red flare streaked in from over the eastern horizon.  He bellowed at the people in front of him to take cover, fearing that the federal government had tired of his rebellion and had opted instead for a real war.  The red streak moved closer and closer, a roaring sonic boom following two seconds behind it.  As it approached, it slowed, moved lower, and hovered a scant thirty feet above the crowd.  "Are you Martin Power?"
    The flare dulled, and there, floating gently in midair, was a well-dressed black man, noticeably  beyond middle age, ziggurats of red energy crackling about him.  "Are you the next wave?" Martin roared up at him.  "They send you to try and run us from our home?  Force me to register?"
    The older man laughed, long and hard.  "Not hardly, Big Fella!  What do I mean, 'not hardly'?  ‘Not hardly?!’  Not at all!  I'm with you, young man.  I'm with you all the way."  The man drifted toward the ground.  As his feet touched the firmament, the energy about him disappeared.  "If you don't mind," he began politely to one of the younger newsmen, "could I have that chair?  I just flew in from New York, see.  I'm no comedian, but I _am_ tired." He grinned.  Not knowing what else to do, the young newsie gave up his chair to the older gentleman, who took it and placed it near Martin, then unceremoniously dropped himself in it.
    "You see, Mister Power, I'm sixty-four years old.  I manifested parahuman powers nearly fifty years ago. The laws came about-what?  Reckon I was in my twenties. I never registered."  Flashbulbs quickly began to go off and older man was careful to keep his face turned toward Power, away from the cameras.  Dozens of people began screaming for his attention, shouting questions-
    "ENOUGH!" Power bellowed, in his most fearsome timber.  The crowd stopped as if frozen.  Martin's sheer size came with long vocal cords, gigantic lungs, and hog's head of resonance.  His voice was normally somewhere just below baritone-- felt in the bones as much as heard, and gave him a commanding roar that would give pause to a grizzly bear.  "Sorry, guys, but give this man a break.  Let him catch his breath."  He turned back to the older man.  "Go ahead, Mr...?"
    "I can't tell you that anymore than I can let them take my picture.  I've kept my abilities a secret my _whole life_.  You see Big Fella, I'm like you: I got family duties.  I got a wife.  I got children.  I got some beautiful grands, too.  Only they don't have someone like you to watch out for them if the government finds out I ain't registered.  And if I _do_ register...  Well, my biggest fear is that they won't have someone like _me_ much longer, either."
    "So why'd you come here?  To me?"
    "Call me 'Red,' young man.  You know: like 'Red Rocket.'"
    "Okay, Red.  Why here?  Why now?"
    Oh, I've been following your story for a while now.  Word gets around, even when the news don't tell us anything.  There's a lot of us been locked up for not registering.  But there's still a lot of us who ain't gonna register, either.  We just keep it all secret; keep everything to ourselves.  We join all the little causes, but let's face it: that ain't goin' nowhere.  But what you got here, Boy-- what you got here is the most successful stand against the Registration ever launched.  I just couldn't let you keep fightin' it by yourself.  Fighting for yourself, by yourself-- that'll make you _old_, Boy.  Look at me?  Old, ain't I?”  He paused for a chuckle and a quick, almost-devilish grin.  “But the government says I'm dangerous, even when I ain't.  Says I'm dangerous because I can _fly_.  That's it, Boy, just fly.  That's all I can do.  I ain't strong; I ain't bullet-proof, and I'm too old to give a _damn_ who sits in that Oval Office.  But then they gotta so far as to  _force_ me to fight just to prove that I will!  Ain't that something, Son?  Ain't that something stupid?"
    "Yeah.  Yeah, it is."  Martin turned to the crowd before him.  "I want some good lights up here, now!  Are you people hearing this?  It's not just me!  This is a family man, a grandfather!-- that is being _forced_ to hide his gifts lest he be destroyed by the very same government that is telling all of you that this is for the protection of everyone!"  One by one, spotlights were brought forward, illuminating Martin Power’ colossal form and Red Rocket's back.  
    Power began to speak "I want to close here tonight with this:  Enough is enough!  This man has risked his life and his family's future to throw in with the fight against the Registry!  All he wants is to be able to rest comfortably without the fear of being arrested for being different, or being dragged off in the middle of the night because he wanted nothing more than privacy!  So right here, right now, I am offering an invitation and, as best I am able, protection to all those like myself and like Red Rocket.  If you are an unregistered parahuman, and you are living in fear and want the insanity to stop, then get your butt to Texas.  Get here to me--" he paused and looked down at Red- "to _us_-- as fast as you can.  No one here wants to know your name.  We just want a little bit of help being left alone."  He looked down again at Red.  "You get in the house and get some rest, Old Timer.  I'm keeping watch."

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

 

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17 hours ago, Amorkca said:

Really enjoying your story Duke!!

Well thank you, Sir. 

 

As tempting as it is to just post it up all at once and be done with it..... 

 

Well, I thought it would be better to break it up into quick bites for those without a lot of stare-at-the-screen time. 

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    The rest, as they say, is history.  Within three months, the Curtis farm was 'home' to over three thousand people, all of them with parahuman abilities.  Some were extremely powerful: Shroud, with the ability to create an impenetrable darkness that covered over a square mile; Trace, who would go on to become one of the most capable Speedsters on earth with the ability to run in excess of two thousand miles per hour; Kilowatt, who could create massive arcs of electricity, strong enough to liquify steel and burn concrete.  
    Despite the hype that powered the Registry, most parahumans, however, were 'gifted' with little more than parlor tricks: a man who could create a flame like that of a matchstick; a woman who could telekinetically move any object within twenty feet so long as it weighed less than four ounces; a young teenager who could breathe underwater; a girl who could jump nearly twenty feet straight up.  These were the majority of the people that the federal government had taught us to fear.  These were the people who had spent the bulk of their lives living in the terror caused by the Registry.
    Ironically, it was the Registry itself that caused its own undoing.  When the head of the DPR arrived at the Curtis farm with a deployment of National Guard infantry to issue an ultimatum,  Martin Power met them at the entrance to the property.  No one knows precisely what was said, but there is little doubt that the conversation was heated and long.
    The entire threat had been a simple diversion.  A column of infantry was rolling up from the south fields, and Red Rocket had been dispatched to notify Martin.  He tore through the sky and as he approached Martin and the militia men, he was met with a burst of machine gun fire, whereupon he fell from the sky. "South, Son! They at the south-!” were the last words he would ever say.
    Martin Scooped up the old man in his arms and burst into a rage.  He ran through the small contingent in front of him and in minutes destroyed every weapon in the military's possession.  He then leapt into the air and hit the ground running three-quarters of a mile away, heading for the south fields.  He arrived, still carrying the man that he knew only as Red Rocket.  He stood defiantly in front of the armored column, cradling the lifeless form of the old man before him.  
    The column stopped, swiveled weapons to bear.  A jeep raced to the front of the column and a military man looked at Martin Power and demanded his surrender.  One of the Paras had been filming the approach of the military with the hopes of giving it to the news outlets to draw more attention to their cause.
    Martin was captured on camera responding to the demand. "You created the Registry because you were afraid that someone would gather up all the Paras and turn them into some sort of Army.  And now you arrive to terrorize twenty-eight hundred homeless people with a _real_ Army.  Why doesn't any of this sink in?  Why am I the only person who sees how incredibly backwards this is?  All the threat, all the danger, all the terrorism: it's all coming from _you_, the people who hold all the cards, stack every deck, and deal every hand.  You sit here and _do_ the very things that you wave in front of our faces as the potential evil that _we_ could do.  Yet none of us are doing it.  Only you.
    "That's okay, I suppose.  Because apparently I'm also the only person who has noticed just how this whole thing has blown up in your faces: you created the Registry to prevent anyone from coercing Paras into becoming a private army.  In doing so, you've created such a threat to us that you've forced us to become our own army.  You were worried about the potential of a group of us fighting for profit.  Well now you've forced _all_ of us to fight for our right to be treated as human beings.  If you think about it, I bet you'll find that to be a whole lot scarier.  For you, anyway."
    He looked down then at the face of his first ally, then looked back at the army in front of him.  "I am going to go bury my friend now.  If you're still here when I get back, you are all of you, to a man, going to spend the rest of your very short lives wishing that you weren't."

    The entire incident had been broadcast continuously the next twenty four hours.  Within a day, Red Rocket had been identified as Albert Hawkins, a Baptist preacher at a church in upstate New York.  He had spent his life preaching a gospel of servitude and pacifism.  The first and only casualty of the Registry War had been a pacifist, loved by hundreds, and had lived a life dedicated to helping others.  And he-- an American citizen-- had been killed in cold blood by American soldiers on American soil, doing nothing more than defending his right to exist.  Albert "Red Rocket" Hawkins had become the catalyst that would end the Registry forever.


    The Registry became a hot-button topic that year during elections.  During the most sweeping seat-change in Congressional history, all but one supporter of the Registry was removed from office.  The Registry itself was done away with, over-ruling even a Presidential veto.  The President did not survive the impeachment that followed his veto, however.  Paras around the globe cheered, as did a shocking majority of non-Paras.  The over-all jubilation might have been taken merely at face value, had not Martin Power held a press conference the day that the Paras began to leave the Curtis farm.  "...in conclusion, I want every man, woman, and child in this country to notice _who_ was celebrating when the disgusting Registry Act was struck down.  I want you to notice that a _majority_ of Paras and a _majority_ of non-Paras danced in the streets when the Act was destroyed.  How does this happen, people?  How do we end up with a law that a clear _majority_ of American citizens does not support?  How does a paranoid minority end up setting policy?
    "I can't say that I'm an expert on politics or the Constitution or government, but I _can_ say that this should serve as a clear and perfect example of what government can and will do when you aren't watching!  I'm not a paranoid; I'm not a crank.  The simple fact is that these people will do anything for votes.  If someone screams, they react.  They don't think; they don't ask; they just react: 'make the noisy ones happy to get the votes.  The others will vote for me for something I'll do when they start making noise.'  This is how they operate.  And they operate like this because you let them.  You don't watch them closely enough.  You forgive them for pandering.  And you let them get away with doing something that _none of you_ wanted in the first place.
    "Being a citizen in this country comes with responsibility, and part of that responsibility is doing the job of making sure that your government is doing the job that you built it for, and nothing else!"


    While it would be nice to attribute the radical changes in policy over the next few years to Martin Power and his challenge to America, it was more likely that others had noticed precisely what he pointed out: there wasn't enough public oversight; too many things were kept out of the view of the people, and they were tired of it.  The idea that the Registration Act had passed in spite of an opposed majority of citizens-- that fact that it persisted for nearly forty years in spite of being almost universally hated-- was a wake up call to the average citizen, and he began the process of waking up the government.
    What we have today may not be better; it may not be faster or more efficient.  But it is more "by the people" than it has been at any time in the last hundred years.  Perhaps we will become lazy again in the future.  We can only hope that there will be another Martin Power, protecting our rights as well as his, to wake us up again. 

        There is something else that came from this, something often overlooked by other biographers, and certainly by students of American politics.  Martin Power made it a point, for the rest of his life, to travel to upstate New York every year on or near September the twenty fourth.  There is no great historical event celebrated on this date, at least not of which this author is aware,  but it the date upon which Albert Hawkins would enjoy an anniversary dinner with his wife, Lydia.   Martin would sit with her, and listen for as long as she would talk, and he would learn what a devoted and loving human being had been lost to the world. The next day, Martin would visit each of his children and remind them that not only had their father been an amazing person, and not only did he love them with all his heart, but that he had  loved the whole world enough to want to save it.  He had become a preacher to spread salvation to all who would hear, and in the end, he died an absolute hero, saving the land in which his family lived from itself, saving it from its fear of kind-hearted old men, and in doing so, made it a better, safer place for his family.
    As Albert's grandchildren grew old enough to appreciate the message, Martin would include them, too.  For as long as he lived, he reminded them every year that not only was their father and grandfather a hero, but that Martin himself--a relative stranger to this family--had loved him as much as they had, and missed him as painfully as did they. 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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    As most people close to him were aware, and as this biographical work has consistently demonstrated, Martin Power had no interest in becoming any sort of freelance savior, and rarely used his staggering abilities publicly for anything other than a marketing ploy.  He would periodically stage some small demonstration of his abilities and use his fame to draw attention to a cause or raise money for a charity, but even these things were exceedingly rare.  He truly preferred anonymity.  In fact, he never stopped working his family farm, and always considered that to be his primary source of income, even though the revenue the farm generated, while comfortably substantial, was far outstripped by the few endorsement contracts he had taken with a few select companies.  
    Who can forget the commercials he used to do for Harrington Truck and Coach?  Perhaps the two most memorable were the one that featured a handsome young actor, dressed as a contractor, who drove onto the set of a construction job in the latest model Harrington pick-up truck while Martin, playing the role of a foreman, berated him for being late to work.  The young contractor attempted to explain away his tardiness as being the result of car trouble, and Martin proclaimed "It can't be _that_ truck!"  Then he drew back a massive fist above his head, made a huge show of smashing it down onto the hood of the truck, which rocked on its springs but did not show as much as a simple dent in the hood.  Martin turned back to the camera and announced "It's a Harrington."
    Equally as popular was the commercial that opened with Martin leaping out of a helicopter onto what we were lead to believe was a runaway train. He ran along the train to last car, then grabbed the hitch as he jumped to the ground and used his incredible strength to drag the "runaway train" to a stop.  Just as the engineer came into the frame to thank him, a policeman rushed up, gasping "Thank goodness you're here!  The jewel thieves!  They're getting away!"  as the camera panned out to a wide shot of a highway running near the tracks, a windowless gleaming black van races past, dust and leaves swirling behind it.  Martin takes on a shocked look, as as the camera zooms in closely on the trademark grille ornament, he states, sadly, "We'll never stop that.  It's a Harrington."
Certainly they were fairly standard as such things go, but the public seemed to get so much amusement from knowing that whatever Martin Power was capable of doing, there wasn't an actor on earth in any danger of losing a job to him.    
    Perhaps most satisfying to him was his work on behalf of the Beef Industry.  While it was almost self-serving, as he made what he felt to be the most important part of his living raising cattle, his association with the Beef Industry lead to what is now officially the longest-running commercial in television history.  I am speaking, of course, of the one television commercial in which Martin Power appears, but has no speaking part.  The picture is meadowland hilltop in morning sun.  The soundtrack starts softly, and slowly picks up volume.  Footsteps, quick but well-paced.  A moment later, the rhythmic panting breaths of an endurance runner.  The sun rises slowly as the sounds get louder ("closer," if you watched the commercial on a surround-sound capable television set).  Soon, a pair of black angus bulls are seen to be walking up the hill from the far side.  As they get closer and larger, they crest the hill, only to reveal that they are being carried by none other than a sweatsuit-clad Martin Power. He casually jogs up the hill, bulls raised over his head, then continues to jog down the near side of the hill and out of frame.  As Martin becomes visible in the shot, a voice-over by Sam Elliot announces "Beef."  As Martin passes below the camera, Elliot states "It makes you strong."
    He tried twice to get into film acting, but the closest thing he ever got to success in film was as a special effect, as noted in this interview with GQ:

 

 

    GQ: So you really thought this was going to be your big break, then?
    
    MP: Well sure!  I mean, it was a film adaptation of the Impossible Hulk comic books.  Seriously!  Who else could they have _possibly_ picked to play the strongest living thing on earth?    
        
    GQ: [chuckles] it does seem like a natural choice.  I won't lie; I think we all expected that you would get the part.  Though I have to ask, why didn't they pick you? I don't think anyone has ever made a formal statement about that.

 

    MP: Well 'formal statements' aren't really part of show business.  We're not setting policy or anything like that.  Directors like who they like; they want what they want. That sort of thing.  What you're asking-- it's like asking why Herrington doesn't make a formal statement for making a new truck instead of a new car.  They were making what they wanted to make; they made it the way they made it.  That's it in a nutshell.

 

    GQ: So you think they were looking more for a Hollywood type from the beginning?  Or have you given it much thought?

 

    MP: I didn't have to think about it.  By the time I got over the shock of being passed over, they'd already announced that the part of the monster was going to be played Eric Larsen.  As soon as I heard that, I knew why I didn't get picked.

 

    GQ: And why is that?

 

    MP: Well, as you know, Larsen's a Para.  A Brick, specifically.

 

    GQ: Yes but...  No disrespect to Larsen, but the Impossible Hulk, he's supposed to be something like ten feet tall, and Larsen....

 

    MP: Larsen's an honest-to-God dwarf; yes.

 

    GQ: And it made sense to you?

 

    MP: Of course.  They were casting for a body type.  Even though I'm nearly tall enough, I'm not shaped right.


    GQ: And Larsen is?  Even at three-foot six? 

 

    MP: Height has nothing to do with it.  Remember that really tall guy that played a dwarf in that fantasy movie a while back?  They can do some pretty amazing things with perspective and computers and the like.  Larsen, though-- he's actually shaped like the Hulk.  His diminutive height, combined with his more-typical Brick build-- they combine to create a look that is dead-on Impossible Hulk.  Think about the comics: the Hulk looks like a trunk with limbs so thick as to look almost stubby.  He's nearly as wide and as thick as he is tall!  Larsen's got that.  I don't.  Let's be honest, by the time they shaved that beard off and painted him blue, he pretty much _was_ the Impossible Hulk! [laughs]

 

    GQ: But you were in the movie?

 

    MP: Sort of.  Mostly I was special effects.  I got a cameo as myself being tossed aside by the Hulk, but for the most part, I just threw stuff.

 

    GQ: "Threw stuff?"

 

    MP:  Oh yeah.  Almost all the scenes where Eric's lifting or breaking or throwing something, that's actually me.  Eric'd study the film for an hour or two, then they'd film him going through all the motions and green screen him over me.  It was actually really interesting to be a part of.

 

    GQ: As you said, they can do a lot of stuff with computers nowadays.  Why go to all that trouble when they simply could have animated the destruction?

 

    MP: Appearance.  It doesn't look right.  If you have a real guy interacting with animated objects, it just doesn't look right.  If you have an animated guy interacting with animated objects, it just looks cheesy.  If the whole thing had been animated, sure, but going from animated to real and back-- no matter how good a job the animators do with detail, it doesn't look right.

 

    GQ: How so?  

 

    MP:Well, either they get too much detail, or not enough detail, or--  and this is the worst-- the speed is wrong.  

 

    GQ: "The speed...?"

 

    MP: They go for the dramatic, of course, but the dramatic is things falling too slowly or things having impossible hang times relative to how hard they were thrown or-- well, you get the idea.  Even if the person watching doesn't get physics, you can't fool the brain when it just looks wrong.  And since that cartoon movie of the Impossible Hulk a couple of years ago was such a huge hit, they really wanted to do something different-- something as completely live action as they possibly could.

 

    GQ: [laughter] and if you want it to look real when a character throws a freight car through a brick building---

 

    MP: you hire a guy who can throw a train car through a brick building! [laughs]

 

    GQ: So based on your experience, do you think you'll continue to pursue a career in movies?

 

    MP: No; I really doubt it.  I learned a lot just being on set, and I have to tell you that it's just as far away from doing TV spots as night is from day.  You really have to dedicate your life to what you're doing, and in a way that I just don't have time for.  I can't take that much time away from my family or my business.  TV spots-- advertisements, guest star shots-- that's all different.  Really, it's easier, less involved, and, well, it’s just more compatible with my life right now.

 

    GQ: Well I guess that wraps it up then: Martin Power, with no hard feelings toward Tinsel Town, goes back to the small screen.  Thank you for the few minutes you've spent with me this afternoon, Martin.

    MP: No problem at all, Elliot.  It's been a real pleasure, and I'm glad we got to do it.  And be sure to check out "The Impossible Hulk" when it hits the screen in six weeks.

 

    GQ: Oh, we will!

 

     Fortunately for the viewing public, Martin really didn't do many television spots.  Owing to his notoriety, however, they did tend to get a lot of air time.  Martin Power was a strikingly handsome man.  He wasn't on a par with the popular film stars, to be certain, but it wasn't unusual to see his name on any "this year's hottest celebrities" list in the tabloids.  Moreover, he was pleasantly proportioned.  Given that as a Para he was an extremely high-level Brick, and a simple Brick at that, this was almost unheard of.  As the public is aware, high-level simple Bricks tend to manifest as freakish parodies of physical development, with torsos so large as to make their owners' appear pinheaded, or fists as large as their chests, and muscles that appear so hyper-inflated that they may well rip free of the limbs to which they are attached.  
    Martin Power, the single most powerful Brick to ever live, somehow managed to avoid that.  While he was ruggedly broad shouldered, even for his relatively "heroic" proportions, the only thing at all "freakish" about Power's physique was his stature and disproportionately-high weight, which wasn't visible on camera anyway.  His physique may have been that envisioned by the Greeks when they told tales of ancient Hercules.  While he was startlingly muscular, the proportion of his development was such as to enhance his overall appearance.  The combination of his "look" and his fame made him briefly sought after as a model for a wide variety of products, men's clothing in particular.  He dabbled with several companies, but eventually settled on long-term contracts with only three: Harrington Coach and Motorworks, with whom he already worked as a television spokesperson, Bilt-Rite Tool and Die and a then-unheard-of family operation called "Rawhide Leatherworks."
    It's interesting what celebrity can do.  While Bilt-Rite Tool and Die is one of the nation's oldest and most reputable manufacturers of tools, Rawhide Leatherworks was little more than a hobby turned into a subsistence family business.  That is, until the day that Martin Power, during a televised interview, was asked about his by-then-trademark leather jacket and "Buddy Holly" style sunglasses.  The glasses, he said, were simple over-sized novelty shades that just happened to fit him, and he bought them in gross.  They weren't really a "style choice" so much as rather important to him, as he spent so much time in the Texas sun when he was working the farm.  He then explained that he had in fact been through numerous jackets, and that they were all hand-crafted replicas of the original jacket that his father had commissioned, which had been destroyed in the famous bank robbery that "outed" him as a Para.  He then continued on, explaining that he would trust no one else but the craftsmen who created the original jacket to make such a perfect reproduction.  Within a week, Rawhide Leatherworks had received more orders than the owners could fill in a lifetime.  By the end of that year, the operation had ballooned, growing from a converted service station to a full-scale production facility.  Martin Power kept wearing his jacket, and every now and again he would be seen in a custom-stitched bit of leather wear for an event or occasion, and he never failed to casually mention that this piece, too, was an example of the excellent work of Rawhide Leatherworks.  The general public never knew that in all that time, Martin Power never asked for or accepted one thin dime from Rawhide's owners.  He simply requested that the company always have one or two spares of his signature jackets available.  His lifestyle, he declared, was difficult on clothes, and he was extremely hard to fit.

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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    Scarcely a decade before the end of Martin Power's life, humanity entered the interstellar age.  Certainly earth had been in contact with aliens for generations, but for the first time in history, the existence of and long-standing interaction with extraterrestrial life forms became a matter of public record.  What we did not know; what I myself did not know during the original writing of this work--

    [I need to take an aside at this point to enlighten the readers of this work:
    I have spent most of the dozen years (as of this writing; I have no way of knowing 
    how many years may pass before this book becomes public.  Truly, I do not know
    that it ever will.  As I was shopping for publication of this original manuscript, I was
    approached by members of a government agency that I am bound by oath and 
    contract to never name.  I was encouraged to abandon this book, but I have 
    sunk a great deal of my life and energy into it, and so far as I know, there is 
    no more complete a repository, no more detailed an account of the life of 
    Martin Power in all the world.  After much negotiation, a deal was struck that I
    would not publish nor mention even a single detail of this work, nor even allude
    to the existence of such a work, until the day that the death of Martin Power is
    absolutely decided, either by longevity of absence or, preferably, the finding of
    his remains.  As a compensatory measure for my discretion in this matter, I have
    been given unprecedented and unparalleled access to hundreds of top-secret 
    files relating to many previously-unknown details of the man Martin Power, his life,
    and a shocking array of his exploits.  Certainly, what I see is unashamedly edited
    for reasons of security, but there is simply such a wealth of information here that
    I could not, in good conscience, forego re-writing this work so as to include many
    of the more fascinating things contained in these files.  Forgive this interruption,
    please; It is my own excitement at this new information that prevents me from
    being able to more fluidly incorporate this information into the original work.]  

 

 

 

 

    What we mere citizens of earth did not know was that the existence of alien cultures may well have continued to have been kept from us were it not for the direct demand of Martin Power.
    While there have been those that for years maintained that aliens existed, that our government carried on secret dealings with them, searching for greater political, financial, or military leverage over other governments here on earth, and while there have always been far more people that have maintained this was all madness and delusion, or perhaps the work of creative minds with little else to do, one unshakeable, undeniable fact is that there came a single moment-- a single period of eleven hours and forty-eight minutes-- in which there was not a man, woman, or child who could ever again doubt that we absolutely were not alone in the universe.  I am of course, speaking of that day when over twelve million people were completely, totally annihilated.  I shan't go too deeply into the events leading up to the Pit or the actions of the world in the weeks and years afterward.  It wasn't even twenty-five years ago as of this writing, and most people alive today lived through those terrifying times.  There are other books- volumes and volumes of them- that chronicle the Pit far better than I could ever hope to do.
    Instead, I will focus on the events that allowed  two-hundred and forty-three people to survive the Pit at ground zero.  Never before has so much information about their survival been available to the public.  Most of the survivors were taken into government custody and released after two weeks of medical treatment and evaluation, but none ever spoke of just what happened, beyond attributing their survival to the unstoppable Martin Power.
    During the research and interviews of this work, I was able to convince many of them to break their silence so as to allow the public at large to understand what they went through, and to honor Martin Power for his incredible devotion to his fellow man.  While much of what is contained here may be suspect in the eyes of the reader, I have made the actual interviews available on my website, so that the questioning reader can see that, suspect or not, the details written here are corroborated by multiple survivors.  Mass hypnosis?  The power of suggestion?  We may never know beyond all doubt.  However, it is clear that one man, already known for the incredible, spent the next few days doing the absolutely impossible.

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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    Jennifer was taking her vacation back at the Curtis farm, as had become her custom since Claire Curtis had first fallen ill.  Her family had always been very precious to her, and she needed to reassure herself more and more of her place among her family since Claire's illness had begun to take its toll.  Most all of her vacations were spent at the farm, wrapped in the comfort of home and the security afforded by the presence of her adopted parents and brother.  She usually managed to swing three vacations a year, and there were often shorter visits scattered in between.  Her life in Pennsylvania seemed to very much agree with her, and her family was proud of her rapid climb to success.
    This particular vacation, she brought back news of another person familiar to the family.
    "Sister's been transferred to Philly, you know" she commented off-handedly as she rummaged through the cabinets in the kitchen.  She had found pots, filled them with water and set them to boil.  She had found pans, and filled them with seasoning.  Now she was hunting for something to actually put in them to cook.
    "You still do things completely backwards, don't you?" teased her brother.
    "Martin, you know how she is." Jeff drawled, more teasing than reprimanding.  "You're sister's a bit of a free spirit, and sometimes she gets a bit ahead of herself."
    "Free spirit?  I did okay in Latin.  I didn't take Greek, though.  'Free spirit' must be Greek for 'screw ball.'"
    "Actually," she fired back with a laugh, "it's Greek for "smarter than her brother, and a better cook, too."
    "Really? All that with just those two short words.  Makes you wonder why we ever developed any more languages."
    "Well," she was on a roll with her favorite sparring partner. "there was a problem with subtlety.  When you pack that much into three little syllables, you really don't have any ability to shade increments of scale.  For example, it _probably_ meant "much, _much_ smarter than her brother, and a _way_ better cook," but without extra words, it was hard to tell.  So you know: new language."
    Martin shook his head and grinned, and Jeff laughed.
    "Anyway," she said, getting back to the subject after having found a few reasonable items for the meal, "Sister's been in Philly.  I don't know if she was transferred or how that works, but she's been running an orphanage up near Mechanicsburg.  I saw her a few days ago."
    "Oh yeah?  Sister Sara Cataclysm?"
    "You shouldn't make fun of a nun, Martin.  God'll getcha." She winked and giggled, recalling some particular memory of their time in the orphanage.  "She asked about you.  I told her I'd let you know she asked."
    "So how is she?"
    "She's looking tired.  Starting to get old, I suppose."
    "Starting?" he said in mock shock, eyebrows threatening to disappear under his coal black hair.
    "That's it.  I'm going outside.  I don't want to be anywhere near you when the lightning starts." She teased.  "Seriously, though, she really does look a lot more weary and put-upon than I ever remember her being.  I think you should go see her.  It might be good for her to see one of 'her children' all grown up and famous.  Besides, the other kids'll probably get a kick out of it."
    "I'll think about it." 
    "No; you'll _go_.  And you'll go in two weeks.  You've got a photo shoot for Bilt-Rite and a commercial for Harrington right there in Harrisburg where they're building that monstrous new bridge.  There's no reason in the world you can't take a little time to do something nice for a tired old lady."
    "How did you know all that?" He was genuinely surprised.  It wasn't exactly secret, of course, but it wasn't something that had been pushed out into the public, either.
    "My company's into everything." She just grinned up at him, eyes twinkling.  He tried to turn it into a staring contest, but the attempt made her snort a tiny laugh through her nose, then burst out into peals.  "That's not fair.  I heard you don't have to blink if you don't want to."
    "Where'd you hear a crazy thing like that?"
    "You really should get out more.  You wouldn't believe some of the things they say about you."
    "Oh yeah?  Like what?'
    "One article claimed that you can go for weeks without eating or drinking.  Is that true?"
    He made a big show of methodically studying the various dishes while they simmered and sizzled.  "Man, I hope so."
    "You jerk!" she threw her shoulder into his stomach in play fury, he balled up and pretended to be hurt, and soon everyone was laughing so hard that supper nearly burned.

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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Gotta break it here, even though that last one was pretty short.

 

The next one is a _long_ one, and thought it might be better to put some kind of small post as a bookmark of sorts, should either of you prefer one.  Seriously: the next part is one of the longer parts.

 

So here ya go: short post to look for when you're skimming through.  :)

 

 

Duke

 

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    Three weeks later, Martin Power was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, standing on a construction site where a massive new bridge was being erected.  As he posed in various places, appearing to use a number of Biltmore tools at various places around the job site, occasionally simply tossing aside a competitor's tool and handing a construction worker the Biltmore equivalent, a man stood just off camera, coaching him over and over again for the truck commercial he would be filming later that same day.
    "...and then you look up where it needs to go and you tell the guys 'yeah, I can handle it' and start toward the base of the bridge carrying it on your shoulder.  When you get to your mark--"
    "I know; I know.  When I get to my mark--"
    "Okay, Mister Power, I think that wraps this location.  Let's see if we can get clearance to shoot up in the scaffolds." The photographer began capping lenses and speaking to an assistant.
    "Sure thing, Lenny.  Just let me know.  I've got about three hours before shooting starts on the truck commercial."
    "Okay, you find your mark--"
    "I know.  I find my mark, and I look toward the other side of the bridge, and I see that a cable has snapped.  I tell the guys I need a truck--"
    "You look at the foreman and you _say_-- you have to use the script, because it has to sound like you're really talking to them.  You have to look at the foreman and you _say_ 'I've got to go.'  Then you nod to the concrete support beam you're carrying and you say 'put this on a truck; I'll be back."
    "Right.  And a guy backs up a dump truck and I tell him--"
    "You _say_!"
    "Right.  I say 'move that wimpy thing out of here' and I point at the pick-up truck.  Then I tell them-- say!  Say!  Then I _say_ "get that Harrington over here, now!"  Then I put the beam down and jump up to the top of the bridge and leave the rest up to your computer guys."
    "Right.  Any problems with that?"
    "Kind of.  I don't think I can jump that high.  That's what?  Two hundred, two hundred and twenty feet?"
    "I don't know.  I can ask."
    "Either way, I'm only good for about a hundred and forty feet in a vertical leap.  Sometimes I can get a hundred and fifty or even sixty or so.  Got one-seventy-seven once, but I never managed to do it again.  I don't think I'm going to make that."
    The director was stunned.  This wasn’t the first commercial he shot with Power, as he had an exclusive contract that ran for another three years.  Eventually you get used to the idea that the man you’re filming is a giant, and you don’t think much more about it, other that the occasional hope that you don’t have to coach him long enough to get a crick in your neck from staring up at him.  But every now and then there was one of those moments where it would just sort of hit home that this was a man who was going to be carrying a very real concrete bridge beam.  This was a man who could casually discuss "only" being able to jump a hundred feet into the air.  He shook himself back to the task at hand.  "Look, it doesn't matter.  All that matters is that we get you out of the shot so we can show the truck with the concrete beam on it.  Or at least, the truck.  The effects guys'll put the beam in there later.  Take the elevator or something; we just need a quick shot of you holding the cables like they're broken and a couple of guys making like they're fixing them.  Easy-peasy.  No problems.  You got your lines?"
    "Sure.  All two of them."
    "Good.  See you in about an hour."
    "I thought it was three?"
"It was.  We moved it up.  Your photographer wants some late afternoon shots, and we'd rather film this thing while the work crews here are knocked off for lunch.  Seems OSHA gets nervous when a guy starts slinging concrete beams all around the place.  Anyway, our guys are talking to his guy; it's as good as done."
    Martin wasn't sure he'd ever understand how these people thought.  Or _if_ they thought.
    "Martin."  The sharp, shrill, curt quality of the voice snatched an old and dormant reflex that ran the length from his tailbone to the scruff of his neck and brought it instantly to life.  He jerked to attention, ramrod stiff, arms at his side.  He caught himself and turned around to see the face from which it had sprung.
    "Sister!  Sister Sara!  Now this _is_ a surprise!" he said, genuine pleasure beaming from his face.  He leaned down and carefully wrapped one arm around her.  She was older and appeared far more frail than he had remembered her being.  He was genuinely afraid that he might hurt her if he wasn't very careful.
    "Martin Power, you unhand me this instant!" she roared indignantly.  As before, he jerked back to attention, eyes wide behind his signature sunglasses.  The sound of soft snickering drew his attention, and for the first time he noticed the children.  Five young boys were standing behind Sister Sara Catechism, all of them around twelve or thirteen years old.
    "I'm teasing you, Martin.  Of course I'm happy to see you!"  She stepped forward and embraced as much of him as she could.  It reminded him of the one thing he hated the most about being as big as he was: his family's hugs.  Such a minor thing, it might seem, but for an orphan boy who knew no home until he was halfway to adulthood, it was a powerful symbol of so many things.  For most people, reaching around even to just his flanks was quite an accomplishment.  The aging Sister in front of him had always been a slight woman, and  was smaller now than she had ever been, and contented herself simply to lean against him, her arms splayed across his abdomen.  After a moment, she stepped back and looked up at him.  "I am delighted to see you again, Martin, and I am very pleased with the fine young man you have become.  However, it was very important that these children see something here today."
    "And what was that?"
    "That you, Martin Power, are scared to death of me."  She stood stone-faced.  She held it just long enough for Martin to feel his cheeks warm, then the stone split with a warm grin.  She stepped forward and hugged him again.  Softly, she whispered "these are my reprobates, Martin.  These five boys are perhaps the most troubled of all my charges, and I have tried every form of discipline in my repertoire.  I refuse to believe that they are incorrigible, and when your sister told me that you would be here--"
    "She told me she had seen you; I had plans to come and meet with you tomorrow, after the shooting-- the day after at the very latest."
    "I appreciate that, Martin; really I do.  But it really isn't necessary.  Besides, this way, I may have accomplished what I set out to do here."
    "I think I can help you a bit."
    "You already have" she said, stepping back amongst the boys.  "They have seen the way you jump at the mere sound of my voice."
    "Yeah," one of the boys spoke up.  "You looked real tough, standing there scared of an old lady!"
    "I know!" snorted another.  "I think it's all a con anyway.  I think Cataclysm here--" evidently, Martin noted, the nickname was eternal "--is tryin' to scam us.  Brought us all the way up here to see some actor dressed up like a famous Para so she could have him jump through some hoops and try to put the scare in us.  What a load!"
    "Oh, I very much am who you think I am, Son."
    "Prove it." the skeptical youth dared.
    Martin was unruffled.  He took one single, gigantic step forward, and towered over him.  He dropped low in one hip and reached down and grabbed the boy about the middle, preparing to toss him into the air a time or two, they way his little sister had so thoroughly enjoyed years before.
    "Martin!" snapped Sister Sara.  He stopped and deliberately turned toward her.  "Yes, Ma'am?"
    "Martin, try to keep in mind that there will be no peace for this young man should he wet his trousers in front of his associates."  She smiled slyly.  "Other than that, don't let any harm befall them."
    He released the boy and turned toward the dump truck that was being warmed and readied for the commercial shoot.  He glanced back over his shoulder to the group of boys. "Could an actor do this?" Then, one-handed, without even looking, he reached under the truck, found the frame, and causally lifted it over his head.  Then he tossed it a dozen yards or so into the air and caught it in both hands over his head and casually lowered it to the ground.  The door opened and a string of profanity spewed into the atmosphere.  The driver oozed out of the cab, fell to his knees, and vomited copiously, much to the approval of the five young boys.  
    "I'm sorry!"  Power stammered.  "I didn't know there was someone in there!"
    The driver choked something vaguely insulting back in reply, then seemed to shrug the whole thing off.  "Sorry, Guy.  You scared the crap out of me!”  He turned and wretched again.  “and the breakfast.”  He grunted without looking back.

    "Okay, fine."  A third boy spoke.  "So you're the real deal; you're Power.  So why you scared a' her?" He thrust his chin toward Sister Sara.
    "It's just good sense to be scared of her."  He bent way, way down, until his colossal face was the only thing the boy could see.  Then he turned his head carefully to the left, showcasing his right cheek.  "Do you see that?"
    The boy looked.  There, running fully the breadth of Martin Power's cheek was the thin silvery line of a scar.  It was so fine a line that it rarely showed in snapshots, and was usually made over for studio shots.  Few people knew it existed.  Fewer still had bothered to attach any significance to it.  This young boy, however, was a pretty quick study.  A man who bounced bullets off his eyeballs, a man who had let firemen shatter axes against his chest at a fundraising show, had a scar.  A thin, fine scar, to be sure, but a very long scar.  Something had done what bullets and axes and who knows what else could never do.  Something had caused the indestructible man to _bleed_.
    When he heard the boy gasp, Martin turned, showing his cheek in turn to each boy, letting them see and even touch the scar, just to prove to themselves that it was real.  He then removed the sunglasses.  This was something of a surprise to not just the kids, but to everyone watching: Martin Power was almost never seen without his sunglasses.  Once the boys looked at his right eye, up close, they understood why.  The scar got larger and more obvious closer to the eye socket, where it became an almost-ragged pink gash running across the lower eyelid, across the tear duct, and finally stopped abruptly on the side of his nose.  The “Buddy Holly”-framed sunglasses made perfect sense; they hid the scar perfectly.
     When the boys began marveling to each other, he stood back up and made a broad and deliberate point to Sister Sara Catechism.  "She did it." he said bluntly.  Ten eyes bulged outward in the direction of the woman they knew as Cataclysm.
    "No way!" one breathed.
    Sister Sara was laughing inside, just close enough to hear Martin's stage-whispered reveal to the young boys.  Years of raising children had taught her not to let it show.  Her face remained gravely expressionless, her eyes sharp.  "No pointing!" She barked, and Martin snapped his arm back to his side, staring above the boys with mock fear playing across his face.
    "Now come along, boys.  If we are civil enough and quiet enough, perhaps Mister Power will allow us to watch the filming of his television commercial."  She strode away from the dump truck and to an open area behind where the film crew was setting up.
    Martin leaned in toward the boys, hand shielding his lips.  In a coarse whisper, he added "with a _ruler_...."  One of the boys swallowed, hard.
    "No love for me, Big Brother?"
    "Jennifer!"  He whirled around to greet her, just in time to catch her as she threw herself forward and leapt up into his arms.  In a single deft motion born of long practice, he swept her up with one arm, spun her lightly behind his back, and left her perched on one impossibly large shoulder.  "What are you doing here, Jen?"
    She bent down to kiss his head, then tousled his hair.  "Who do you think told Sister Sara how to get here?  I rode with her and the boys.  Besides, I've never seen a camera crew in action.  I figured a day off and quick run out here might be fun."
    "Well I'm glad you came."  He pointed beyond the camera crew. "Sister's over there with her boys.  That's probably the best place to see everything."  Then he set her down lightly and watched her jog toward the others. 
    "Thanks, Bro!" tossed lightly across her shoulder and she was  off the set.
    "We gonna shoot this thing, or what?!" The director wasn't known for patience.  "Okay, Power-man, look up.  You see the concrete beam hanging on the crane...  Okay, you see the crane stop...  All right, operator, you gesture for the foreman; you're crane is broken.  You can't raise the beam to the top of the bridge...  Okay, lower the beam; foreman, you wave for Power to come closer....  Camera Two, tighten in on the three of them together...   and....   LINES!"
    Martin instantly went wooden.  Certainly it was no secret that he was a contender for worst actor in history, possibly almost as bad as Keanu Reeves.   "Yeah...  I can handle it."  Then he thrust his arms straight up and outward as if waiting for the Rapture while the beam descended.
    "Cut!  Come on, Power-man; let's try to look a little more casual here, okay?  This is just you, doing your everyday thing...  Okay, once more from the tight shot....   Ready Camera One....Action!"

    Thunder.  Unbelievably, indescribably, loud.  The ground just a few yards from the crew erupted, sending a wave of dirt and construction debris; the lightning strike was just beyond the dump truck, which had been thrown a brief distance toward the crew, but probably saved them from the violence of of exploding debris on the other side of it.
    Everyone on the set was shaken, and nearly deafened by the violence of the thunder that accompanied the blast.  The new pick-up truck, however-- the star of the commercial-- was a distorted and charred ruin.  There was a huge flurry of activity as everyone on set ran to assess the damage to the set and the equipment.  Sister Sara, Jennifer, and the boys spoke back and forth in excited rapid-fire exchanges.  Martin looked up.  Everyone was unharmed, and there was nothing he could do to help but right the dump truck, which he had done.  So when he sat the truck back on its wheels, he did what any farm boy would do: he checked the sky to see if more violent weather might be on the way.  Oddly, the sky was unusually clear, only a few wispy-thin patches of clouds high in the atmosphere to decorate the otherwise endless browned-out blue that the local pollution painted the sky.
    Intrigued, he brushed a finger casually across his temple.  Martin Power always worse sunglasses, even before he had picked up the scar.  He lived most of his life outdoors in the brilliant Texas sun; it only made sense to protect his eyes.  They had become such a familiar part of his face that the public had from time to time failed to recognize him in pictures that featured him bare-faced.  They were as much a part of his image as his characteristic brown leather field jacket.  That recognition alone had made them one of the most popular models of sunglasses in the world.  What the public has never known is that he hadn't worn simple sunglasses in many years.  
    Early in his career as a subversive public servant, Martin's handlers placed him in a situation in which he and his team had been pitted against the Para known as Laser.  When it became apparent to Laser that his apprehension was imminent, he unleashed his ability to create a violent flash of light, blinding everyone else on the field of battle.  In the ensuing confusion, Laser made his escape.  Martin Power had never felt helpless before.  Perhaps the confidence for which he was so famed was based mostly on his belief that he was truly indestructible.  Perhaps it was based on the fact that he had never encountered a situation in which his abilities hadn't placed him totally in control.
    Whatever the reason was, Martin Power did not well handle being flash-blinded.  In fact, he handled it rather poorly.  He panicked, lashing out blindly at every noise, every obstacle, every perceived threat, real or imagined.  In the end, he inadvertently destroyed millions of dollars worth of equipment and rendered most of his own team insensate.  In order to prevent a recurrence of such an event, Martin Power was given a small gift.  He was given what appeared from the outside to be his traditional sunglasses.  
    They were, in reality, much more than just sunglasses.  They featured light-intensifying technology, and a near-instantaneous ability to darken from crystal clarity (even at their clearest, they gave the impression of being tinted nearly jet black) to completely opaque if necessary.  The combination of these two features helped to forever make the glasses as much a part of his face as his dour countenance: there was simply no longer a reason to remove them, and it was more convenient to leave them on his face rather than keep removing and replacing them.  This was fine with him: the scar  under his right eye was somewhat more obvious than the one on his cheek, and he was always concerned someone might be staring at it.  The glasses hid it nicely.
    Given that Martin's size meant that even his sunglasses were twice normal size (and, for reasons of durability, he has always preferred thicker, heavier frames than were generally stylish), the designers found that they had a great deal of volume available in which to place their micro-miniaturized wonders, and continued on to add a variety of features to them: passive sonar and a limited radar function that allowed him, via a switchable HUD display, to keep tabs on movement even behind him.  He could send and receive secure radio transmissions, broadcast low-resolution video (with the aid of a booster relay), record short video clips-- his glasses could even, through the HUD, provide thermal imagery.  The only function of which he was always unaware was the audio recording.  When the glasses received a coded radio signal, they would record everything the audio sensors perceived, and would continue to do so until they were signaled to stop.  They could also be signalled to broadcast a data dump of everything in their rather limited memory.  Martin remained blissfully unaware of these functions, much to the relief of his handlers.
     His favorite feature was the telephoto function.  He wasn't a voyeur by any stretch of the imagination.  What he was was a former baseball hero, now possessed of such great strength as to be able to throw a baseball-- or even a manhole cover, for that matter-- further than he could actually see.  To a man who was always careful not to accidentally hurt anyone, this meant that he rarely got to actually relive his memories with a hard fast pitch.  As an unintended but fortuitous bonus, the world's strongest man was no longer limited to opponents that he could get his hands on.  With a simple squint, he could see nearly thirty times as far as he could with unaided eyes.  Having spent over half of his life playing baseball, he had a devastatingly accurate pitch.

As he looked up, his glasses adjusted, removing the glare of the sun but leaving his view unobscured in a way that normal sunglasses simply could not do.  There was nothing to indicate that today was anything other than perfect beach weather.  For a tiny instant, he wished there was a beach within driving distance.  Then his HUD kicked on.  Just by habit, as he glanced skyward, he squinted.  The sensors in the glasses cued, and the processor had brought up the HUD.   A small red circle-- the tracking cursor-- flared across the display.  Then there were three.  Then there were thirteen.  He called up telephoto and drove his perception deep into the sky.  The dots grew to circles-- dozens of them-- and inside each one was a fireball, roiling, writhing through the sky, and racing toward the ground.  Though he didn't know it-- no one would ever know it; the government spun it as an impossible freak asteroid shower-- Martin Power became the first individual human to be targeted by starship fire.  Fortunately for him-- for the entire earth-- it wasn't a traditional warship, or there would be no history left to record in this work; there would be no one to write it, and no one to read it.  The earth lived, but roughly twelve million people did not.  The only people in this half of the state of Pennsylvania to survive the assault were on a construction site at ground zero, either working with or simply watching Martin Power.
    He had become quite experienced with handling crises and reacting quickly, decisively.  His missions on behalf of the nameless agency had given him more combat experience than even the most battle-hardened soldiers would gain in a lifetime.  He snapped toward the set, pointed toward the incomplete bridge and bellowed with the rage and fury of a full stampede.  "MOVE!"
    These people were not soldiers.  They were not trained.  Most of them were already lost in thoughts related to the job at hand, and how to compensate for what they still thought was a lightning strike and the damage it had done to the set.  However, there is a primal instinct inside every living thing.  An instinct to seek safety whenever possible, to stay alive at all costs.  While most everyone who knew Martin Power characterized him as a gruff teddy bear, clumsied by his own over-exaggerated caution when close to other people, on another level, everyone knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he had the ability to accidentally crush a grizzly bear.  Further, his very presence was generally unsettling, even if you truly believed that you were in no danger.  He was easily four times as massive as the next-largest man.  His broad shoulders and massive musculature spoke to those primal instincts inside those who laid eyes upon him.  His gigantic size gave him a vocal timber that was felt even more than it was heard.  When he leaned in and barked at the top of his voice, the steel cables of his neck tendons writhed like pythons.  Even before they knew what he had said, they were running full tilt, fueled by sheer terror.
    In a single move, he ripped the bed from the dump truck and leapt across the field of the set.  "GET IN!" he hollered to Jennifer, Sister Sara, and her juvenile entourage.  It was more explanation than command, as even the moment he landed he scooped the entire group into the steel container as though it were a shovel.  A few more people were standing nearby, hoping to see the world's strongest man in action as he filmed his commercial.  Power simply shoved the dump body a bit further and scooped them as well.  With his free hand, he grabbed what other people he could and simply tossed them over the top.  He jumped again, cratering the ground where he stood with the force of his launch.  As he flew through the air, he folded the dump bed into a make-shift box in an attempt to increase the meager protection it offered those inside.  This leap carried him and his parcel under the distant bridge.  As the others approached on foot, he took no pause, but leaped again up into the air, grabbed a support tower and though brute strength ripped hand and footholds into it, leapt again to the next support, making his way higher and higher.  There, at the top of the bridge, where the construction was newest, were the things he sought: colossal steel girders that served as the initial structure.  He began ripping them free of their bolts and welds and stacked them aside.  When he could remove no more without fear of collapsing the bridge, he took careful aim of the ground below and began to hurl them into the ground below.
    Even before the last girder struck home, he grabbed the edge of the bridge and _launched_ himself toward the earth.  Several people had begun to cram themselves into the various steel containers used to store construction materials and supplies and were busying themselves throwing out what equipment they could, trying to make room for as many people as possible.  Seizing the idea, he grabbed one that was still packed and emptied it through the simple expedient of upending it.  "In here!" he commanded, and the people rushed to climb inside as he turned to empty another, then another. He ripped open the truck body that held Jennifer and ordered them into a container with the others.
    The missiles began to rain down then.  The first was far more distant than the initial strike had been, the next few centered near it.
    "Martin!" Jennifer screamed, unashamedly terrified. 
    "Jennifer, I swear to you, I will protect you!”
    "I love you, Big Brother."
    "I love you too, Jen."  And with that, he closed the container doors and twisted the pole mechanisms by which they latched so that they could not accidentally be opened.  He ran down the line of containers and did the same to each one in turn.
    The missiles were coming down faster now; it was as if the heavens had opened and a huge stone had replaced each raindrop.  The sound was continuous, deafening.  One long constant drone of explosion on top of explosion, dozens of them occurring simultaneously.  The air itself was getting hot, and it was impossible to see with the amount of dirt and dust swirling about.
    Power set to his work.  His mind was whirling, searching for a way out, for some guarantee that he could keep these people alive.  He had nothing more than his first idea, and single-mindedly set about doing it.  Quickly, he grabbed girder after girder and wrapped them around the containers, attempting to fashion some sort of armor to protect the people locked inside.  He pushed the containers together and began attempting to join them together into a single piece.  He had no time for tools or equipment, and fell to simply crimping the girders together with the crushing force of his hands.  Not the best, but all he had available.
    Having run through his supply of girders, he grabbed the distorted bed of the dump truck and crimped it to a container.  He picked up generators, tools-- anything he could find, and began crushing them into the layered girders.  He tried and tried, but he could not drown out the screams of the people he was fighting to save.
    The ground fell out from under him.  So intently was he focused, he hadn't even noticed the destruction of the city around him.  He hadn't noticed the flaming foundations where once stood massive buildings, warehouses, and skyscrapers.  If he had taken a moment to use his telephoto glasses, he would have seen that same sight in every direction, well to every horizon.  Great flaming craters where once stood thriving cities and dense forests.
    The ground fell away under him, and he grabbed the containers and pulled himself underneath them.  The ground continued to fall away, and he fought for purchase, using his strength to hold back the containers as best he could.      For the first time he looked about himself to assess the situation.  The sky was strangely far away.  He and his charges were sliding down the side of a massive crater, the dust made it impossible to tell how deep it was.  It obscured the crest of the cliff as well, and he was left with the vague impression that he was staring back up at earth from Hell itself.  He noticed that the bombing was continuing, unrelenting.  It seemed to actually be intensifying, somehow.  He also realized that even the edge of the cliff itself seemed to be receding; the crater was widening at an impossible rate. 
    No longer content to merely slow the container, he threw it skyward with as much force as he could muster given his slippery footing.  As the container spun away from him, he saw that his hastily-fabricated armor was working, but not as well as he might have hoped.  The constant barrage of debris had beaten it badly, and glancing blows from the bombardment itself had torn large chunks here and there.  He didn't know what to do; he couldn't be on all sides of the container.  He couldn't even shield a single side effectively; he simply wasn't that large.
    Heavy equipment and large chunks of the earth itself drifted passed.  He and his charges were in complete free fall.  There was a surreal quality to the entire event.  A bulldozer drifted slowly by and he reached out his hand to grab it.  He pulled himself on top of it, drew himself into a ball and launched himself skyward in an attempt to regain the container.  As soon as he began to overtake it, he slammed into it and pushed, imparting what energy he could while, due to the cruelties of physics, pushing himself away again.  He passed an eternity in this way: leapfrogging back and forth, up and down, doing everything the could to convince himself that he was somehow managing to move the container up and out of the growing pit.  He activated the GPS of his glasses and picked a direction: south.  Every chance he could, he attempted to push the container in that direction.  The debris couldn't last forever; the falling material was bound to run out.  Maybe, just maybe he could get to the edge of the crater before it did.  

    He was terrified for the people inside.  He knew how much of a beating the containers were taking.  He knew how tightly they were packed, and that inside, these containers were simply empty boxes.  The people inside were being rattled like pinballs.  The containers themselves were taking a beating.  The impromptu armor he had so hastily and poorly fashioned was peeling away, and the the bodies of the containers were splitting here and there, small chunks of the panels had been ripped away or-- he tried not to think about it-- shot through by the maelstrom of debris.  He watched in impotent horror as one of the containers broke loose.  

    He had no idea how long he'd been at it.  It began to feel as though he had never done anything else.  He had never worked harder for anything in all his life.  For the first-- and perhaps only-- time in his life, Martin Power was beginning to tire.  The intense focus and endless need for absolute perfection in every move-- the fact that his own sister's life was in his hands...  The sheer scale of the situation around him, the intense heat, the non-stop bombardment he was enduring...  It was wearing on him in a way that nothing else had ever come close to matching.  His leaps weren't as strong or as true.  He began to forego bracing himself against impacting the containers and simply slammed into them.
    It had become a juggling act.  At some point, another container had broken loose, and he was now trying to coordinate three moving targets, keeping them as close together as he could, finding enough opportunities to jump up to each of them.  The inevitable happened.  One of the containers drifted too far away from the other two.  There was nothing he could do to prevent it; there was simply nothing massive enough for him to launch from until it was too late.  Even the motion trackers in his HUD yielded no hope of footing.  His heart exploded, and he focused his mind on the two remaining containers.  They were harder to work with now, his eyes almost blinded by tears.  Perhaps his remorse was misplaced: he realized that the screaming from within them had stopped some time ago.

    His glasses were beginning to fail; they had never been used at such capacity for such an extended length of time.  They were running out of charge.  He cut everything but motion tracking, which he needed to find free-falling footholds.  They were becoming more and more scarce, and he was being forced to leap larger distances and use more oblique angles for his work.  The motion sensors, filtering the smallest bits of the seemingly solid mass of detritus whirling about, flickered now and again, tracking the lost container's retreat into the distance.
    Seconds before his glasses died completely, the proximity alarm went berserk.  He had just gained a massive chunk of concrete and was preparing to heave the containers up and southward for what seemed like the ten millionth time.  He stared up, dropped the motion tracking and brought up the light intensifier and telephoto.  The bridge was headed directly for them.  Well, _a_ bridge, anyway.  Given the inconceivable volume of destruction, it was impossible to tell just what bridge it was.  He grabbed the two containers before him and jumped with all his might toward the bridge.  As he neared the bridge, he shoved the containers as hard as possible in his generally-southward direction.  The inertia of his leap carried him to the bridge.  He had no footing massive enough to leverage himself against the bridge.  He couldn't move it.  He attempted to punch his way through it, and succeeded only in pushing himself away from it.  It was simply too massive to attack without leverage.    Then, over the hellish din, he heard the crash.  The containers had hit...  something... the bottom?  The side?  The ground clear of the crater?-- and had come to rest, one precariously balanced atop the other.  Debris was raining down upon them and they were rapidly disappearing.  A shudder shook the bridge.  It, too, had come to a stop.  Power's glasses flickered on for a brief moment, the light intensifier revealing that the containers had come to rest in what appeared to be a cliffside crevice roughly sixty feet below him.  Only one end of the bridge section (the light intensifier revealed that it was a ripped-free section of bridge, only perhaps two hundred feet long) had struck solid ground; the other end was whipping toward the containers below.  
    Power pulled himself along the bottom of the bridge section, seeking what he hoped to be the strongest support amongst the steel and concrete beams underneath it and braced for the impact.  At the moment when he was undeniably at the weakest point of his life, he spread his arms as far as he could, preparing to shoulder a load far bigger and heavier than anything he had ever attempted to lift.
    Mere heartbeats after he had resigned himself to Fate, the bridge section drove him into the ground.  He landed across the chasm from the already-grounded end; some cruelty of the universe had placed him so that he could watch his massive burden crush the containers he had fought so hard to save.  His knees buckled; he felt his feet crush deep into the hard earth beneath him.  The weight of the bridge crashed down upon him, folding him forward.  He fought back, trying to keep the weight as balanced as he could across his back and arms.  The center of the bridge bowed and sank, racing violently downward toward the containers wedged below.  Weak, tired, eyes burning with sweat and the taste of his own blood in his mouth, he roared defiantly.  "No!  They... will... not... die!" He raged fury at himself, fighting back, lifting against the weight he carried.  As he stood, the small space between the bridge beam and the containers below widened.  He pressed himself harder, straightening as much as he dared, stopping only when small cascades of debris started filtering around the massive slab of concrete and steel he carried on his shoulders.
    "Jennifer!" He shouted, fear painfully plain in his voice.  "Jennifer!  Jennifer!"  His glasses failed again, and the tiny little pocket of air that was now the minuscule entirety of his universe went utterly dark.  "Jennifer!"
    For the second time since his arrival in Hell, he wept.

    A creak. His mind, blank for untold hours now, raced and fought against stripped and slipping thoughts, desperate to regain the here and now.  'The bridge!' he thought, panic rising.  'It's not sound in this condition.  The span is too great; I'm not big enough to brace all the supports!'  Visions of the massive chunks of reinforced concrete and other detritus were raining down--
    He could see!  Out of absent habit he called the HUD and noted the status meter showing a nearly-charged battery-- miracle with no explanation.  Right now, he didn't care what the reason was.  He could see again.  Quickly he inspected the bridge.  It seemed stable, certainly more sound than he had any reasonable prayer of finding it to be.  It felt heavier, though. Much heavier.  He gave a tentative heave, eliciting complaining groans from the structure that added an eerie, demonic soundtrack to the Hellish environment.  He called up the HUD again, briefly.  One hundred and thirty six degrees.  Random thoughts flooded through his mind.  One-hundred thirty six degrees.  Four degrees higher than the hottest temperature ever recorded in Death Valley.  Tied with Libya for the world-record hottest temperature in recorded history.  Why did he know this?  Why was he thinking about it now?  Exhaustion.  He shook his head, hard.  In his weakened state, he succeeded in making himself very, very dizzy.  He willed himself to remain perfectly still less he stumble and drop his load.  Likely none of his charges in the distant containers had survived this far, but so long as he did not let the bridge and its staggering load of debris crush the containers, there was still a tiny chance.  He had gone from being the irresistible force to a twisted mockery of Damocles, save that his was not the only neck in danger... 
    It was unbelievably humid.  It took some focus before he realized that a lot of what he had thought to be dust in the air was in fact steam.  Not that there was any lessening in the dust; it was simply there, along with the steam, coming together to make a miserable aerosolized 'mud soup' that coated him and everything it came into contact with.  Water?  That should be significant, he knew, but he was too exhausted to focus.  He had little doubt that this was the way he would meet his end.  At least, when he got to the Beyond, Jen would know that he had done his best.  Sister Sara, too.  She had been an exceptionally strong and surprisingly kind woman.  She deserved her rest.  The men, too; they knew the dangers inherent in their job as bridge builders.  The photographers and camera crew, he was sorry for them.  He took little solace in knowing that the location had not been his decision.  They boys, though.  He wanted to be mad at someone-- Jennifer, Sister, anyone-- for the presence of the boys, but he couldn't.  Partly, he knew that they were all gone, and there was no reason to blame them, and partly because he knew that it was he himself that had drawn them here.  Had Sister approached them with a trip to anywhere else, likely they would have been 'too cool' to be caught traveling with an old lady in a van.  But a chance to see the miracle man?  
    He prepared himself.  He tried to recall the prayers and rites that had been taught to him years before in the orphanage.  Slowly, he let the weight of his burden bend him forward, and made ready to fall forward onto his knees, then---
    "...."
    He froze, ears straining.  "mmmmmrrrrr...."
    He pulled one foot straight up from the bedrock into which it had been driven, adjusted his arms and heaved, with all his might, stepping forward and raising his arms high above his head.  The howling of the tortured mass of the bridge drowned out all hope of hearing anything else for a few moments, but it was a calculated risk.  He strained, breathing stilled, trying desperately to stop even his heart as it pounded deafeningly in his ears.  He could hear the sweat running down his skin, but could not find the source of scratchy, crackling sound he might have heard.
    Minutes trickled by.  He kicked on the telephoto, scanning as best he could through the cloud of earth floating around him.
    "...mmore...."
    "Jennifer!" he shouted, hoping against hope.  "Jennifer!  Jennifer, where are you?"
    "more....    "  It was definitely a voice, a man's voice.  For the third time, Martin Power was devastated; for the third time since this began, he had lost his sister.  Still, there was a survivor.  He was reinvigorated.  It hadn't all been for nothing.  
    "Hello?" he called.  "Can you hear me?"  He tried to draw a deep lungful of air, confident of the projection his voice carried, but choked hard on the contaminants in the air and the dryness of his own throat.  He coughed, recovered, drew a slower breath, through his nose, and tried again.  "Can you hear me?  My name is Martin Power.  I can't find you.  Where are you?"  He fought hard not to give in to convulsions of coughing; he was terrified he might lose contact with the only other human being, perhaps the only other living thing on the whole of the earth.
    "...hot...   more air...."
    "Where are you?"
    "...."
    A flash of inspiration, remembering what seemed to trigger the first cry, and finding no better option, he lowered the bridge slightly, letting it settle back to his shoulders.  The bridge bellowed it's long eerie bleats again, and he could hear the glissading crashes and rattles of a thousand tiny avalanches skittering as he shifted his load.  He raised the bridge, then lowered it again, slowly, over and over again.  The movement wasn't great, but compounded across the size of the bridge span, there was a net effect of air movement, a sort of tidal breeze.  It didn't seem to do anything to the all-pervasive dust, but the air movement was a godsend.  
    "Can you hear me?"
    "...hear you..."
    "Where are you?"  He strained, still letting his eyes play, finding nothing.  Then there was a single clang.  It rang clear and loud.  It was coming from ... the containers?  No....  Behind them....  He couldn't see much further; the air was simply too thick, too opaque with swirling grit and grime and steam.  Still, someone was alive, at least for now.  One hundred and thirty six degrees.  He pulled up the HUD again.  One-hundred thirty four.  He fanned the bridge again, slightly faster, with a renewed vigor.  Whoever he was talking to, they were human.  They wouldn't be alive long in this temperature.  For now, at least, his life had a purpose.

    One hundred and nine degrees.  He couldn't feel his arms.  He couldn't feel his legs.  He fought himself against checking the HUD again, and lost.  Thirty-seven hours ago, he had chased his sister off the set so he could start filming a television commercial.  Then the world came to an end.
    He continued to fan the bridge, his muscles beginning to burn.  He had never in his life truly known what it was to strain to do something physical.  Perhaps that was why he so much preferred intellectual pursuits, or putting together the odd charity function.  It was more like work from his perspective.  A clear, off-key bell tone rang through the murk.  A few moments later, another.  Then another.  He stopped fanning the bridge and waited for the noises to abate.
    "Hello?" he called.  "Can you hear me?"  Two rings.  "Are you hurt?"  Two rings again.  "Can you make your way to me?" A ring, then another and another and another, breaking into a flurry of erratic hammering.  He had no idea what to make of it.
    Then two words, weak, but coherent: "Sing out."
    "My name..." he started.  It was as if he had been here, in the middle of Hell, stoking its furnace, for all eternity, dreaming of human contact.  Now he had no idea what to say.  "Is Martin Power.  I own a farm..." The dust.  It made speaking-- even breathing-- difficult.  "...in Texas.  I was making a TV commercial...." 
    He continued on, coughing, hacking, stumbling over his own words.  He fanned the bridge in slow rhythms, stopping periodically to call out.  "Can you tell me... where you are?"
    Another clang, this time closer, much closer.  He flipped on the light intensifiers again, barely noticing that the battery was showing low again.  Something...  Moving?  "Can you find me?"
    Two rings.  Martin shut down his glasses and resumed pumping the bridge, pausing every few minutes to check the temperature and to call out.

    A light!  Tiny, weak.  At first, he thought it was simply another of the flashes his sensory-deprived vision center was using to remind him of the pain in his arms, his legs.  But it wasn't as intense; it was almost ephemeral.  He watched it dance for a few seconds, then wink out.  He stopped working the bridge.  Now a habit, he checked the temperature.  One-hundred two.  Same as it had been for some time now.  He glanced at the time.  Forty-two hours since the world had come to an end.  Forty-two hours since the last time he had demanded no less than one-hundred percent performance from his body.  Forty two hours since he could feel his thighs and his spine and his upper arms.  "Is that you, with the light?"
    Two rings, much closer than before.
    "I"m over here!  I'm over here!"  He paused again, wracked with coughing.  "I'm... over..."    The light shined in his face; his glasses compensated nearly instantaneously.  He looked down and stared, almost not comprehending what he saw.  Three men-- man-like things-- stood in front of him.  They were covered in filth, as he imagined he was.  He wondered briefly why his glasses were still clear.  Gah--- exhaustion; his mind was wandering again.  He refused to shake his head; he was afraid that perhaps these men were simply figments of his imagination.  One hundred and four.  He began to fan the bridge again; the men in front of him jumped at the noise.  The light flickered back on.  A penlight. One of the men had a meager penlight.  This was all they had to navigate by through the lethal terrain.  He glanced out at the uncountable jagged outcrops and untold pitfalls in the dark.  He wondered how many had set out.
    Three men.  One carried a rock and piece of painted steel-- a chunk of road sign, perhaps?  This must have been the make-shift gong they were using to communicate.  The second man carried a penlight and a hardhat.  The other man carried two hardhats.  He pushed them up to Martin, and he realized they were filled with water.  Muddy water, but water nonetheless.  Never had he wanted anything more than he wanted that water.
    "I can't." He said, forcing himself to keep both hands on the bridge, to keep the air moving.  "I'm creating the breeze.  There's an enormous piece of bridge above us, and I'm the only thing holding this end of it from crushing us all.  I've been fanning it to create the breeze.
    "Water."  Said the third man.  "We found it.  There's a stream.  It's hot, and it's dirty, but it's water.  Drink.  You need it."  The clipped sentences told him that they, too, were fighting against the dust, but they seemed to be breathing slightly easier.  Then he noticed the wet rags wrapped around their faces to serve as makeshift filtration masks.  All three of them were bandaged.  The man with the gong appeared to have a splint on one arm.
    "I can't let go of the bridge.  If I do, you will all die."  It was flat; a simple summation of what his life had become.  He existed now only as a machine, and one day he would wear out.  There was no emotion left.  None was needed for a machine.  He scissored his body up and down, pumping the air back and forth.  "You have to find a way out of here...  If there's anywhere left to go.  I have to hold the bridge.  If I don't, you will all die.  Maybe me, too.  Someone should survive."  Flat.  He wasn't really even aware he was speaking anymore.  He didn't want to look foolish in front figments of his own imagination.
    He glanced down to see  the men busying themselves about his feet.  They had carefully set the hardhats down, balancing them with stones and bits of wood and whatever they could find.  Then one man picked up a hat while the other two fought to lift him.  Martin didn't even notice as the third man's elbows walked up his chest, bracing against him for balance.
    The water reminded his lips how dry they were; the grit that was ground into their cracked and peeling surfaces.  His tongue was almost too thick to let him swallow.  It was hot, and tasted mostly of mud, but at that moment he could imagine wanting nothing else more.  He sipped long and deep.  Slowly, the men raised another hardhat to his lips, then started for the third.
    "No." he refused.  Finally, with the taste of water, he accepted that the men were real.  That, even more than the water, was the realization of dream.  "No; you need that.  You have to find a way out.  Take the water, and thank you."
    "We have more.  This is for you.  We'll be back.  We have to get the others out."  We'll be back when we can."
    "Thank you.  Thank you for the water."
    "Thank you, Mr. Power.  For everything."  Martin didn't respond.  He barely even heard it.  It didn't really sink in until the men had almost disappeared into the dust.
    "Len...?" he coughed, hocked dust from his throat, then bellowed out "Lenny!  Is that you?  Lenny?!"
    Two clangs of stone on steel.  Lenny!  The cameraman.  He had been on the site when it happened, yet he hadn't come from the containers that Martin could still see.  The third container!  Someone had survived in the third container!  His pains subsided and strength flowed fresh into his limbs.  He pumped the bridge again.  There was still hope-- still hope for his sister...

    Forty-nine hours after Armageddon, six men stood in front of him.  As before, they worked together to lift water to his mouth.  At some point, they had found an almost-intact five gallon bucket.  Greedily, he consumed half of it, then refused the rest.  "No more.  Not now."  The men set the bucket down near him.
    "Is this..."  he didn't want to ask, but he had to know.  He had to know what his efforts had been for. "... is this... all of you?  Six?"
    One shook his head, unwilling to waste his hard-won breath in the pitch black and dust-filled inferno.  "There were eighty of us in the container when you closed the doors.  sixty-nine of us made it."  
    He was elated, saddened, and dreadful of the next question: 'Why did you close the doors?  There were so many people....'  How could he explain to them, make them understand that he had seen this coming minutes before?  How could he make them understand that the people already in the containers were the only ones he could save?  Mercifully, the question never came.  Perhaps, somehow, they knew how painful it was for him to have to make that decision, to seal the doors and continue to work while more people poured in from all over the area, desperate for any shelter they could find.  Perhaps.  It didn't matter.  They didn't ask.
    "Sixty-nine?"  So many.  So many had survived.  He was all but certain that he was engaging in a fool's errand.  But he had to do something; he couldn't simply run away.  At the time, he was still certain that he would be okay.  He chuckled in spite of himself, and choked for his efforts.  He shook his head at their efforts to raise the water back to him.  It was funny.  He had been so sure that no one else would live; that he would forever remember their deaths.  It had never occurred to him that he was going to die here, exhausted, unable to move lest he condemn them all.  Then another pain shot through his soul: had it been the crash?  The loss of control he had over the containers during free fall?  Had the occupants simply been unable to handle his repeated tossing and slamming of the containers?
    "How...?"  He asked softly.
    "Joey Ceepha was the strawboss for the welders.  He had a bad heart.  The heat got him before we could get out.  The others....   Something tore through the container.  A lot of things did, really, but this was...  it was like Hell fire: it just blasted through one side, bright as Salvation, hot as Damnation.  Tore a hole clean through the box.  Good thing it did, I suppose.  Men shouldn't have to die like that, but we were able to get out that hole when the world stopped spinning.  We..."  He choked.  "We... we wanted to bury them.... we've got no tools... there's just no way to tear through the wreckage with bare hands....  They're...  they're still in there...."
    "I'll take care of it."  Martin stated, without elaborating.  Eventually, he would give out.  He knew now that he could get tired.  He knew now that he could become exhausted.  And he knew that when it happened, he would fall, and everyone still under the bridge would be sealed in the tightest tomb Creation ever knew.

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver 2019

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    "Look," Martin started.  "you guys...  Your box separated...  There's more containers-- There’s more!  They're-"
    "Lenny and his guys found them on the way back to get more water for you.  The rest of us are trying to get the boxes open.  We could really use you..."
    Martin said nothing.  He couldn't let go of the bridge.
    "I can see you're kind of stuck here...." he trailed off, wishing for all the world-- what was left of it-- that he hadn't said that.  He could only imagine how the giant man was torn inside.  
    He tried to change the subject.  "Jesus, Mac; how'd you do that, anyway?  You've got to have forty tons or better of steel just wrapped up around those things!"  Wrong thing again.  He saw in the soft glow of his own flashlight the lines of Martin's face tighten at the thought that he had with his own hand entombed those who were inside.
    "It's not as bad as it sounds, Power.  Really it ain't.  Lots of that stuff took a big beating; it's all twisted and peeling.  There's several small holes and a couple of split seams, too.  We'll get in there.  We just gotta find the right set of holes and splits to get a man through..."
    "Are they....?"
    "Yeah; sure!  At least, we know that some of them are.  We've been steady passing water.  Someone found-- well, we got a little bit of food, too.  As soon as we can figure out how to cook it up, we're going to get it shoved in there and make sure everyone's okay.  We'll get you some, too, Big Man.  We'll get you some more water, something to eat-"
    "Just the water.  I just need some water.  I won't need to eat until long after you're out of here.  Don't waste what you've got."
    "Okay.  Look, we gotta get over there and help get those guys outta them boxes.  You want we should get you some more water before we go?"
    The giant shook his head.  In an awkward silence-- what do you say to man who knows that he will die where he stands, and simply accepts it as the right thing to do?-- they turned and shuffled off cautiously into the dust.

    Martin let his mind wander.  He stopped thinking.  He just kept pumping the bridge, up and down, doing what he could to keep the air moving.  Perhaps it was his imagination, but he was beginning to think that maybe the dust was starting to settle, just a bit.  He watched lights play and flicker, dancing and winking on and off as the men worked in the distance.   He rarely used his glasses now.  He was making peace with his tomb.  It was only the automatic reaction to the flashlight in his face that kicked on the HUD.  Fifty-four hours ago, he was standing on earth, with no idea then that he was only minutes away from Hell.
    "Power?"
    He grunted, too tired to speak if there was another option.
    "We brought you some food, Mr. Power."
    He shook his head and grunted again, letting his focus slowly drift back in from the furthest reaches of his mind.
    "You need'a eat this; you gotta keep ya stren'th up."
    "I don't need it.  You need to get out of here.  You need to find a way out."
    "We ain't leavin' wif'out you, Mr. Power."
    "Can't let go.  Stuck here."
    "The Hell you are!"   A different voice.  Gravelly, gruff, and clearly full as full of itself as was its owner.
    Martin finally had his focus centered on the men in front of him, and the agony of his body came pouring back.  He could feel the tearing of his muscles, the inflammation of his joints, the lightning flashes in his bones.
    The new voice spoke again.  "You with me, Big Guy?"
    Power grunted and offered a slow nod.  He was vaguely aware of men climbing his torso again, bringing him the remains of his water.
    "Name's Pollak.  Stephan Pollak.  I've been looking at this set-up for a couple of hours now, running some numbers in my head.  I'm one of the architects.  I wish I had a calculator, or even a pencil, but I think we can get you out of here.  I've been running some ideas with Jester here--" he rolled his head toward the first man "and we've got something we think is going to work."
    Power shook his head.  "No good.  As soon as I stop moving the bridge, the temperature goes up.  You all die.  All of us, probably."
    "look, we got a plan.  It's not a good one, but--"
    "MAR-TIN!!"
    In an instant he jerked to life, so energized that he nearly leapt from his post.  It's a fair bet that the only reason two-hundred and forty-three people didn't die in that instant was because his legs were too stiff to move.  "JENNIFER!  Jennifer!  JENNIFERR!!" his joyous roar trailed until he was out of breath.   Blood surged through his body.  His pain was not forgotten, not reduced, but it no longer mattered.  He could see a small pinprick of light bobbling toward him and heard his sister’s sincere attempts to muffle her swearing with every clatter of debris she stumble across.  She was coming to him!  She was alive!  Power turned toward the man called Jester.  "What do we do?"

 

 

 

 

    "...But you've got to _twist_ them; don't forget that.  You've got to twist them, or it's not going to work.  If they don't hit exactly crossed to brace each other, we're all done."
    "No."
    "What do you mean, 'no?'  You can't do it?"
    "Listen, I buried everyone in this chamber three times today.  I can't do it again.  I just can't.  I can't lose my sister again."
    "Martin..."  Jennifer spoke, softly, moving close enough to splay her arms across him in the dark.   "Martin, it's okay.  It's more than okay.  There isn't any other way.  We're not going to make it out of here without you."
    "I won’t do it.  I _can't_ do it, Jen!  I told you that I am going to protect you, and the best way I can do that is to hold this thing up while you and the others find a way out of here.  I am not going--"
    "Martin." she whispered.  "This is it, Grumpy.  This is how you protect me; how you protect all of us--”
    “Don’t you understand?!  This is all guessing; this isn’t a sure thing, Jen!  If Pollack’s wrong-- if he’s right and I just screw it up-- if the structure is worse than we think and it just collapses-- God, Jen-- it shouldn’t even be here!  Just leave!  Please, Sis; just _leave_!  Take the lights and the water and find a way out.  This is too risky, and…. “ He paused, his mouth moving but his voice failed him.  He was grateful for the darkness that hid his tears.  “Jen….   You died today.”  She said nothing.
    “Don’t you get it?  Don’t you get it?!  I did everything I could think of; I used everything I have to fight to protect you and in the end all I was able to do was _watch you die_…    And now…”  He choked, deep and ragged and there was no doubt that it had nothing to do with the all-pervasive dust.  “Now you’re back.  Right here.  And it hurts just as much--- but in such a wonderful, beautiful way-- to see you-- alive, safe…   I can’t take the chance.  Dear God, Jen…  if I have to watch you die again…. “  his voice fell away in chunks, ragged, gasping, like a betrayed child.  Finally, he collected enough control to sob out “I’ll die, too.”  He took a long pause while he forced himself back into control of his mind.  When he began again, his voice was soft, innocent and childlike.“One of us has to live, Jen.  For Mom.  For Dad.  One of us has to live.  And it has to be you.  Kid--” he tried to lighten himself with the long-forgotten nickname he had given her at the orphanage, when she first started tagging around with him at the orphanage.  “-- I need you to understand that if I know I stayed here and held this thing up while you-- and all these other people-- got out, it doesn’t matter what happens to me.  Just knowing you’re safe, Jen, and that you’ll get back home…  I’ll be happy, Kid.  I can die peaceful and proud.  One of us has to live, and it has to be you, because if I move from this spot, none of us will.”
    She threw her face against his body, trying to hug him tighter.  No matter what, she couldn’t let him know how scared she was, or how much she was crying.  Calmly, she looked up toward him.  “This is the _only_ thing that you can do, Martin.  This is the only thing you can do to protect me or anyone else here.  And you know that it's something that only you can do.  It's something you have to do.  Every person in here should have died when the meteors started."  Slowly, the story had come out.  He had explained to them what he had seen, and why he was able to save as many as he had, and why he could save no more.  "But we didn't die, Martin.  We're still here.  We're still here because you saved us.  We can't leave without you, Big Brother.  We don’t know what else we’re up against.  We won’t make it without you."  She knew it was killing him inside to consider what they were asking, the risk they were asking him to take.  "But we can't stay here.  We'll die, and soon, if we don't get out.  We're not safe yet, Big Brother."  She knew the pain she was putting him through, and fought hard against the sobs racking her chest.  "We need you to save us, Martin.  We're not out yet."
    He couldn't think about it; he refused to think about it-- even an instant's hesitation... He roared in pain, a terrifying bellow of both resolve and agony from long-disused and over-used muscles shrieking at the sudden shift that ripped through every fiber of his body, filling his senses.  He rolled his arms and crushed his fingers into concrete, seeking the familiar smoothness of steel and the texture of rebar.  Finding it, and having only one chance, even before the others knew he was in action, he threw the weight of the bridge up, completely off of himself and into the air out of even his reach while he jerked down hard on the support rails as instructed.
    The moment he started moving, the bridge shuddered and roared.  Everyone ran for the false safety of the crevice in which the two containers had landed.  Martin ripped and pulled against the upward motion of the bridge, breaking loose two of the critical supports.  Then he snapped them, massive beams of solid concrete flexing and cracking like whips under the force of his strength, tearing loose from the bridge for perhaps sixteen, eighteen yards.  His fingers continued to dig into the concrete, seeking any purchase, knowing that there was only one chance to get this right...
    As the supports tore loose, he twisted his body, snapped his arms around each other, bending and twisting--

    And then it was over.  There, behind where he had stood for the past sixty-one hours , were four massive pieces of the supports that had replace him under what he believed to be his final burden.  Perversely enough, they were stacked almost neatly.  Atop them was the platform of the bridge section that even moments before, Martin Power had resigned himself to be buried under.  The sounds of debris falling from the platform didn't abate this time; there had been too much shifting.  The bridge groaned.  It continued to groan, soft but long and deep lowing moans.  With his light-intensifying sensors, Martin could see it slowly-- so very slowly-- twist.  The structure was too weak, and the load on top of it was steadily shifting.
    "It won't hold long!" he bellowed, scooping up his sister and crushing her to him.  It was so good to know that she was alive, that he hadn't lost her.
    "It doesn't have to!" Jester barked back.  "It'll only take a couple of hours to get to the other side of the gully!"  Weak flashlights  stabbed off and on, picking out a path while conserving the remaining power available to them.  They were sickly brown-yellow, and those wielding these precious commodities were rationing them with as much frugality as possible.  
    Power scanned the area around him. The dust _had_ begun to settle.  It was still bad, but he could see to the far end of the bridge section and the solid wall of rock shining through the runs of debris and dirt that filled the recesses.  A couple of hours?  Even in the dark, --
    Then he saw the gully.  A short distance ahead, the containers he fought to protect lay in a ravine.  Just  beyond that, there was a second small valley that disappeared down behind the edge of the ravine.  It was enormous, but the mouth lay at such an angle as to make it almost invisible, looking like another of the many shadows.  Power could see fine, but couldn't make any better time than those around him: his legs were too stiff; his body too sore.  It took twenty minutes to make the eighty feet to the crevice. 

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

 

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    "It doesn't get much deeper than this the whole way back."  Pollack offered over his shoulder. They had walked through the gully and entered a cave of sorts.  Under the circumstances, it was impossible to tell if it was an actual cave, or if the Hellstorm had simply deposited massive chunks of earth and rock in such a fashion as to create a sort of tunnel.  The entire bottom ran with water, only a few inches deep. "I have no idea how our box ended up squeezing straight through here. Miraculous."

    "I never stopped praying." offered Sister Sara, breaking her exhaustion-induced silence long enough to give Him His due.  "Before Martin closed the doors, I was praying. When you men got us out, I was praying." With that, she returned to her silence and focused on feeling her way.

    "We didn't find any holes, and the whole bottom is glass smooth." Offered Jester by way of encouraging the others to pick up the pace.  His voice was almost a caricature. Martin couldn’t tell if the man smoked twelve cigars a day or simply ate them. "It's fresh water, too.  I don't know if it's from the table, or maybe the river, but it comes out of the rocks up ahead, and runs turns off just before the crevice the others landed in.  We didn't have time or energy to follow where it goes, but the steam got thicker the closer we got to the bridge. For all we know, it pours into magma somewhere beyond the bridge.  Who knows? It doesn't matter. We know that we're under a pile of crap, and we know that this way has to be up, right?" He grinned, trying to inject cheer into the group. The groans of the bridge echoed loudly in the cave.  No one felt cheerful. Martin noticed a twisted bridge beam jammed into the right wall of the cave. He wondered if it had peeled off of the container the men had ridden through the cave.

    Periodically, everyone would stop and just lie in the shallow water.  It was hot, but it was cooler than the air. The only air movement had been the bridge, and the temperature had been steadily rising since shifting the bridge onto a stationary support.  The water was hot, but it did offer a perverse sense of refreshment. Martin simply soldiered on, concentrating on keeping upright. His body was an enemy; it had been strained to one limit for too long.

    Soon, they reached the end.  The container was there, smashed against the wall.  The water poured from the numerous fissures that spiderwebbed away from the point at which the contsiner had smashed into the wall..  

    "There's more water coming through than there was before." Noted Jester.

    "Is that bad?"

    "I don't know.  I think it's good."

    "Why?"

    "Look at it.  The fissures run up... twenty, twenty-five feet.  The water's only running through the bottom four feet."

    "Why's that good?"

    "I don't know that it is, but here's what I'm hoping:  I'm hoping that it means that the water behind the wall is only as deep as the leaks, maybe a little deeper."

    "Isn't it also possible that the water's a hundred feet deep and the fissures only go all the way through in the last four feet?"

    "It is.  However, look at the way the water is coming out.  The volume is consistent all the way to the top of the leaks.  It doesn't taper off like I'd think it would if the fissures were tapering out."

    "And you think that indicates that the fissures run all the way through, higher than the water level?"

    "Young man, I'm an architect.  I'm not a geologist."

    "So you're betting on a guess?"

    "What were you doing to get us this far?"  he winked. "Besides, I have to believe this, or there's no reason to try.  I'm not big on quitting, how about you?"

    Martin shrugged.  He didn't have an answer.  His sister's steady talk throughout the walk convinced him that they had to try something.  Frankly, he had no ideas of his own. He knew that, given time, he could simply burrow up through the rubble, eventually.  That didn't keep anyone else alive. That didn't keep his sister alive. Thus, it was completely unacceptable.  Somehow-- his efforts? Sister's prayers? Dumb luck? Somehow, two hundred and forty-three of the people that fate and circumstance had placed in his care had cheated death.  He decided that not a single one of these survivors would die so long as there was breath in his own body.

    "So what do you want me to do?"

    Jester rapped the rock wall with his knuckles.  "Think you can get through it?"

    "I don't know.  Eventually, certainly.  Quickly? Before we drown?  I don't know." He studied the wall.  "Isn't that bedrock?"

    "I don't think so." came a voice from the middle of the crowd.  Gregory Owens was a demolitions engineer. His crew had helped set the foundations for the bridge supports a lifetime ago.  "I don't know what it is, though. It's like it's part igneous, part glass, part-- I don't know what it is. It's like a whole bunch of something else got unbelievably hot and sort of turned into...  whatever this is. If I had to guess, I'd say the fissures were probably the result of the water rushing in behind it, super-cooling it. That would certainly explain why the water's so damned hot."

    Power took in everything he was hearing.  Then he walked over to the container and unwrapped one of the many girders he had used to fashion the layered armor.  He bent and twisted until he tore free the longest straight section he could find and folded it back and forth until he had managed to roughly tear a point on one end.  He tossed it lightly in his hands-- a funny sight, no doubt, as this piece he was so casually tossing about was easily thirty feet long and seven feet thick. He drew back, planted his feet, and heaved the beam forward low into the closest fissure.  

    The beam struck home, chipping and shattering the stone far more easily than he expected.  The cavern rang with the sound of a train hitting a mountainside, and a series of spiderweb fissures radiated out from the point of impact.  The water flow increased visibly.

    "Yeah."  He said, staring at the results.  "Yeah. I can get through it."


 

    He listened for the clang of the make-shift gong to come ringing down the through the cave.  He had insisted that everyone be outside the cave and clear of the gully, just in case the guesses about the water level were wrong.  There was no guarantee that there wasn't enough water behind that wall to completely fill the chasm and the small chamber he had made from the section of bridge, but he felt better for trying to keep them out of harm's way.  The clang of stone on steel rattled across the hard walls and through his teeth. He drew a deep breath and heaved. More cracks, more fissures, more water. He struck again, again, and again.

    Five minutes.  Ten minutes. He checked the HUD, just out of curiosity.  Sixty-nine hours, roughly a full day since the last of the meat had been eaten.  No one asked. Martin turned back toward the cave. "Get ready!" The gong sounded.  He paused, focused. He was becoming light headed. Not from hunger, not from the heat.  From pure exhaustion. He had performed far greater feats of strength, but the non-stop assault of the last three days had pushed him to levels he had never dreamed of.  He set himself, psyched himself, stretched, and rolled his shoulders. He gripped the steel beam so tightly as to crush his handprints into it. This time, one way or another.  He couldn't keep on chipping away. It was all he could do to stay on his feet. He ran forward, the beam high over his head, and threw it at the wall, continuing to push and drive it into the wall with all the force he could muster.

    The enormous spear found its mark and he twisted and he forced it, pushed it, twisted it, pried, and kept forcing the steel beam into the fissure, tighter and harder, doing his best to pry open the earth itself.  If he and his charges had indeed fallen into Hell itself, he was going this instant to rip open a new exit.

    The water came.  It began to pour from the fissure, more and more, faster and faster, until the force of it threatened to knock him off his feet.  Worried that he might be swept away forever if he were caught up in it, he climbed up the wall, wedging his fingers into the fissure and using his great strength to pull himself up, further and further to the top of the cavern nearly forty feet above.  The faster the water came, the more the wall spiderwebbed and cracked. The more it cracked, the more it flaked away, widening the fissure, letting more water through.

    As he had feared, the cave flooded.  The force of the water was impressive, and the roar was deafening.  It was some time before he noticed that the water was considerably cooler than it had been.  Still warm, but nothing like it had been before. The air in the chamber began to cool. The water closed in on him, the level rising to twenty feet, thirty, eventually reaching halfway up his thigh.      It ran for some time.  According to the HUD, he had been clinging to the wall for nearly four hours before the water receded away from him.  Seventy three hours in Hell. No sign of the devil. Maybe, just maybe, they'd get out of this alive. The current had slowed.  He took a breath and dropped into the water.

    Martin Power had only been teasing his sister a lifetime ago.  What she had heard was true. Martin Power could go for five or six weeks without food, almost a month without water.  He could hold his breath for up to twelve days, if he didn't want to talk and was careful about exerting himself. That last came in handy, given his unusual density.  For all of Martin Power's physical and athletic prowess, he couldn't swim. It was a simple matter of his inhuman mass. He sank like a stone. He walked along the cave, letting the remaining current assist him as moved.

    Eventually, the water level dropped and he walked up out of the gully.  The bridge chamber had changed considerably. The force of the water had blasted through the up slope of the gully and changed the course of the water toward the crevice that once held the containers.  They had been swept away, and were lodged under the bridge section, which had also shifted, but appeared to be more stable now. Certainly that couldn't hurt matters. The shift of the bridge had spilled an untold amount of rubble into the chamber, but the force of the water had continued to wash that, too, under the bridge, serving to help bolster the roof against the debris that formed the roof of the cavern.  The entire chamber was filled with steam, so thick as to be a fog. Wherever the water was going, it was undeniably hot. Here, though, the chamber seemed to be considerably cooler. He resisted the urge to check. Not only had he not found Satan, but the results of the impossible gamble were taking on the trappings of the Divine.

    The group had taken refuge on the wide ledge above the gully in the hopes that the water level couldn't rise higher than the roof of the cave, assuming the runoff was sufficient.  It was another gamble, and it, too, had paid off. Power turned toward the voice of Sister Sara. He could hear her praying. He could also hear the frailty in her voice. The boys were hovering around her.  The adults weren't fully taking the entire situation in. The boys had been completely dazed since the first explosion on the construction site.

    Jennifer moved away from the group and toward the edge of the ledge and toward Power.  "Martin, she can't go any further."

    "She'll make it."

    "She can't.  I don't think she has another step in her."

    "She doesn't have to.  I do."

    "Big Brother, I know you want to, and I know that any other day of your life, you could, but I've been watching you.  I don't know how you're still going."

    "Jen," he said, with a failed effort at enthusiasm, "I just punched a hole through a stone cliff with a steel girder the size of a bus.  I've got plenty of strength left in me to carry one old nun."

    "Don't give me that, Martin.  I've been watching you. You're moving like a zombie.  You can hardly lift your head and your arms just flop at your sides when you walk.  You might have enough strength in you to carry one old lady, Martin, but how much strength do you think it takes to keep your big ass moving?  Hunh? Big Brother, we have no idea why you are the way you are, but we don't know what happens when you get exhausted, either. Can you die of exhaustion?  'Cause, dammit, Martin, I think you are!"

    "I'm fine, Jennifer."

    "No you're not!"

    "Look around you, Jen.  Look hard. We have no idea where we are, why we're here, or if there's anywhere on earth that survived what happened.  Right now, we've got two hundred people who need a way out of here and to somewhere they can live. We've got problems way bigger than whether or not I need a nap, okay?"

    She didn't say anything else.  He could see the quivering of her lip.  She knew he was right. He knew she was right.  Impasse. They let it drop.

 
 
 
copyright D.E "Duke" Oliver

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    Power, Jester, Pollak, and three more men from demolitions and architectural backgrounds had come through the opening Martin had created in the fissured wall.  The new opening was large enough to walk through easily, even all six abreast.  Martin had gone through first, just in case there was danger of falling rocks or debris.  While he had become excited when he noticed that the air was noticeably cooler here (the HUD confirmed it was ninety-eight degrees here), his heart sank when he found not a single glint of light anywhere.  He switched to IR, hoping that perhaps a heat image might reveal something.  He studied what he saw, but he simply lacked the skills to interpret the complex data the HUD fed him.  There was too much sameness in the heat patterns of the walls of this next cavern.  The only thing he could discern for certain was that this cavern was much larger than anything they had passed through thus far.  There still was water here.  He wondered at its possible depth.  The ceiling seemed impossibly far away, but he noted that it showed to be considerably cooler than the lower walls of the cavern. Curious, he picked up a stone and hurled it into the blackness.  A moment later, he was rewarded with the soft echoed "ploimp" of a rock falling into the water.  He felt for a second stone, drew back to deliver what he hoped would be his greatest fastball ever.  He checked his stance, and then fired the stone forward, arcing it slightly to keep it aloft as long as possible.  A moment later there was a definite but very faint cracking retort that echoed across the water.  To be certain that the noise was not a coincidence, he felt for two more stones and checked his results.  Each time the clatter of a stone-on-stone strike was carried back to those waiting on the edge of the water.
    "So..." opened Pollak, breaking the silence.  "What have we got?"  Martin remembered that even though he could sense next to nothing, the others were completely blind.  The few flashlights that some of the constructioneers happened to have in their pockets or on their tool belts had been a stroke of luck early on, but there had simply been too few lights and no spare batteries.  The three that produced any light at all were now preciously guarded, and no one wanted to use them unless there was simply no option.
    "Water." Martin answered.  "Lots of it.  I figure there's something solid on the other side, but I don't know if it's a place to stand or just a solid wall.."  He took a moment to be grateful for the complete darkness.  No one had seen him stumble with his last pitch.  It had become an effort even to stand, to force his voice to sound full and steady.
    "How far out?" Pollak seemed to be a natural leader for most of the constructioneers.  Martin had no way to know what his actual position had been in the arrangement of the many crews involved on the bridge, but they seemed to respect Pollak.  Age?  Experience?  Who knew what motivated men to follow one another.  Maybe it was simply the way he always managed to sound like he knew the punchline was coming any second now.  Perhaps that simply had a calming effect on them.  The others-- the few camera and photo crew who had managed to make it through the disaster--- simply followed directions.  The men from construction and engineering backgrounds-- they knew that while the other men may have been completely out of their element, they themselves at least had skills and knowledge that might lend to their chances of survival.  Jennifer and the boys tended to Sister Sara, who had become too weak to speak, and seemed to drift in and out of consciousness.  They continually wet her lips, and tried to keep her clothes damp with whatever water they could find.  She wasn't quite delirious, but there was no telling how far there was left on this quest for safety.  No one was sure that there was anything other than this left of the entire earth.  Sister Sara simply mumbled incessantly.  In rare moments of enunciation, it was apparent that she still continued to pray.
    "I'm not sure.  I can't see anything.  On a guess, I'd say six; maybe seven miles."
    "How do you make that out in the black?  You part cat or something?"
    "I threw some rocks.  They hit something solid.  I'm just guessing by how long it took them to hit, but the echo in here...  I could be wrong.  It can't be more than nine miles, though.  That's about as far as I can throw."
    Jester chuckled.  "Oh, is that all?  Just nine miles?  Well, you keep at it, Mr. Power.  You'll be ready for the big leagues in no time; I'm sure've it."  There was a pause before he spoke again:
    "So what do we do?  Swim for it?  How deep's the water?"
    "I don't know.  I can't see any better than you can." He neglected to mention the various equipment built into his glasses.  The glasses were his most closely-guarded secret.  He was never certain when their surprise advantage might mean the difference between life and death.
    "You can see the water." Pollak noted.
    "Yeah; I can." He offered no explanation.
    "So what are we waiting for?" Pollak was all enthusiasm again.  Let's go!"
    "We don't know how deep it is."
    "What's it matter?  Those of us can swim just swim.  We help those that can't.  I'm sure we can find enough floaties in all this God-forsaken junk we're crawling through to let us help any of 'em that can't swim."
    "I'm not going to leave you people to go it alone.  Not anymore."
    "What?  You can't swim?"
    "More than you know."
    "Big strong guy like you?"
    "It's not the skill.  I used to be on the swim team, back when I was a kid.  I've become too big.  It's not physically possible for me to swim, and short of a passenger ship or a Navy destroyer, I'm pretty hard to float, too."
    "So then if you'd fell off'n that bridge--" Jester started--
    "No big deal.  I'd have just walked out.  The river's not that deep, and the bank was climbable.  Suppose I drop in here and sink three hundred feet?  No big deal.  I can walk to the other side.  Suppose there's no slope?  Suppose it's all sheer and there are no handholds?  Don't get me wrong.  If I knew it would get you people to safety, I'd do it in a minute.  But if it's a dead-end for you, and I'm trapped down there...  Well, you people are on your own.  I can't let that happen."
    "How high can you jump?"
    "Not much more than you can, I don't think." he lied.  His legs had been lead weights for he didn't know how long.  His knees would barely bend these last few hours; he walked by the simple expedient of dragging his feet and plowing through any obstacle that might have been in the way.  If pushed, he'd jump.  Until then, he was quite content having no idea just how weak he had become.
    A new voice, distant: "We got something!" A second, closer voice repeated: "We got something!"  Then a third, in the room outside the cavern: "We got something!"  After the water had receded enough to start making their way up the cavern, Pollak had put men to work in the area in which Power and the bulk of the survivors had first arrived.  These men had two of the last three flashlights.  An impromptu relay network of men, stationed every few hundred feet, just close enough to hear the echos of one another, kept the two groups updated on each other's progress.  This was the first suggestion of good news since the scouting party had been arranged.
    "Fire!" rang a distant voice, and the word was repeated, louder each time, back toward them.

    Eventually, the entire tribe of survivors was gathered about the antechamber through which Martin had punched a hole into the water-filled cavern.  Even the scouting party and the relay team had pulled in, though Pollak had prepared them for the possibility of having to scavenge for materials to build rafts or floats.  In the center of the group, arranged carefully across the floor and illuminated by firelight, were piles of wood, foam, fabric, and other flammable debris, a battered metal container with perhaps six pounds of charcoal briquettes still inside, and a propane tank with hose and regulator still attached.  Though there was no way to be certain of its state of charge, it did hiss strongly when the valve was cracked.  Everyone who smoked was shaken down for lighters and matches.  A plan was being formulated.
    "We've got light; we can explore the water cavern." noted Martin.
    "How we gonna do that, Son?  Swim around with a torch in the air?"
    "Won't have to.  Those sofa cushions will float.  If we can light a small fire on them, I can push them across the water with stones, at least to a point."
    "How you gonna push them back our way?"
    "I won't be able to do that; you know that."
    "Then we'll be short some fire makins, won't we?" Jester giggled dismissively at Pollak’s concern over the fate of a few of burning detritus.
    "Pollak, “ Power interrupted, to tired to chance an squabble between the two men, “it's a hundred and six degrees in here, and rising every minute the air stays still.  The outrush of water bought us a lot of time, temperature-wise, but the way it's going, we'll all bake before we run out of fuel for fire.  Now help me get something that burns as slow as possible, but still gives some light."
    "As luck would have it, you're talking to the right guy."  He grinned up at Power in the firelight.  Martin was too tired to return the gesture with anything but his usual sour look.  He simply bent to the black lake before them and dipped his bucket in.  He drank his fill, filled it again, and walked around the crowd, offering drinks to anyone who wanted one.

    The soft glow of the fire seemed for all the world to simply hang in space.  In the perfect darkness of the distance, away from the torches, it was impossible to judge it's scale.  Was it a tiny, flickering candle flame, hovering just out of reach?  Was it a raging inferno off on the distant horizon?
    "I don't know about you, Mr. Power, but I don't think that helps much." Pollak said as he watched the floating flame drift away.
    "It's enough." Power grunted, ending the conversation.  It didn't take much, given the technology packed into the sensor arrays of his "sunglasses,” but there had to be _some_ light.  In the perfect blackness before, there had simply been nothing to intensify, save the dark itself.  Certainly there wasn't any way to make that more intense than it already had been.  He grimaced with dark humor at the thought that the entire perfect darkness experience had been intense enough for his lifetime, thank you.

    The first thing he noticed was that there was no steam in this chamber.  The scavenging crew had reported that the steam was still fog-like and pervasive back in the first chamber.  If nothing else, this appeared to be the way away from the heat.  Curiosity struck him, and he toggled his GPS.  Nothing. He could still get a directional reading from the micro-gyro compass, but there was no contact with the satellite system that made navigation possible.  He wondered if they even existed anymore.  That idea segued to another, and he flicked on his radio receiver.  
    Nothing.  Not even static.  He was shaken with an ominous sensation, but he willed it down, providing the more logical explanation that they were still too deeply entombed in...  in whatever this was, stone, or debris, or dumping ground, or some combination of the three.  Then it occurred to him that perhaps the battery was too weak.  He quickly flicked off everything except the light intensifiers, hesitant to use even the telephoto function.  The little fire had almost stopped moving, and he fired off a pebble.  Missed.  Another, then another, and finally the forth pebble struck home, and the tiny foam raft scooted slowly away.  For the next few minutes, this scene repeated itself until finally the raft stopped moving.  It was scarcely a mile away.
    Martin Power was perplexed.  Had the echo been so deceptive?  He flicked his light intensifiers back on, and started visibly.  The raft had come to ground on what appeared to be an island of some sort.  It was perhaps six hundred feet across, sloping into the water.  It appeared to be composed completely of debris, large chunks of pavement, soil, huge pieces of buildings, cars, and every possible kind of trash mankind had ever produced.  In this, it was much like what they had discovered in the first room, and much like what had steadily rained down on the bridge that Martin had been so resolute in supporting.   The island had been well off to the right of where he judged himself to be throwing his stones when first trying to test the size of the cavern.  What held his attention, though, was the center of the island.  At the very center of the island he could see some sort of ruin.  It appeared to be a huge section of a massive building.  He couldn't make out much detail; while he had plenty of light for his glasses, there were simply too many things obscuring the light.  The details of what he saw faded into shadows within just a few feet of the ground.
    Was this the only island?  Were there others to be found?  Did it indicate that the water was actually shallow and the floor of the cavern rose above the water in places?
    "Get me that propane tank!"  He barked.  It appeared in his hand.
    "What we doin' with that?" Jester asked.
    "Can you rig it to make light?  To stay lit if I throw it?"
    "That's a mighty tall order, what with no proper burner, nor even a mantle.  I can probably make it spray fire a bit, what with that regulator, but without a proper orifice I ain't sure that it won't snuff out the instant you heave it.  I could make it blow up pretty easy, if that'd help." he offered flatly, curious to see what the giant had in mind.
    "I'd rather not, at least not now.  Glad to know that, though.  We might need a little bomb before this is all over."
    "Been thinkin' that myself, but probably not the same way you are." Pollak interjected flatly, with the hint of resignation in his voice.
    "I hope you're being funny." Martin threatened, on edge with the veiled suggestion.
    "I hope so, too."  Almost no inflection.  Oh, don't worry;" he started again, after a pause, his chipper self again.  "I didn't mean for me.  No; I'd rather fight to the bitter end.  But some folks, they might want an easier option.  Eternity's a long time.  Almost as long as we've been down here."
    Power called up the HUD.  Eighty-one hours.  There was no way they could make it.  Not like this.
    "FOOD!" came the echo from the tunnel.  Everyone turned.

    The scavenging crew had found the rear half of a produce truck sticking up from the matted layers of debris of the main cavern.  While many of the more delicate fruits had not survived the oven-like conditions, more apples and vegetables than they could eat were still to be had.  A fire pit had been concocted with the steel container of the charcoal and the metal signaling gong, dropped and forgotten perhaps a lifetime ago, was given to Power, who bent it into a massive bowl.  Soon the vegetables were boiled enough for even the weakest among them to eat (Sister's had been nearly pulped, but she was able to eat something.  For the first time, she seemed to become visibly stronger).  Apples were tossed around like delightful toys, and everyone ate their fill.  Martin couldn't help noticing how little it was taking to make them full.  The heat and the exhaustion might force them to starve to death, if they didn't boil or suffocate first.
    While he tried to decline the food Jennifer offered him, she pointed out that in terms of exhaustion, he was perhaps the weakest among them.  That, and there was more food than they could eat before it went bad anyway.  Grudgingly, he accepted.
    Throughout the meal, everyone bantered about ideas for a torch that would stay lit when thrown at great force.  There was even the talk of simply throwing one of the flashlights, which Jester shot down immediately.  Too likely that it would simply break upon landing, then they would no longer have it.
    Finally, Sister Sara, leaning on Jennifer and one of the boys, came toward him.  "Martin, if you have been living right with God, the way we tried to teach you, then you know there is nothing for us to worry about.”  She looked up at him with her disappointment almost-- but not quite-- hidden behind her eyes.”
    “Sister, there are so many things on me right now--”
    “Don’t motorboat, Martin Power!  Accept your failing and resolve to do better!”
    Jester cast a low-eyed questioning glance toward Jennifer.  “Motorboat?” he mouthed soundlessly.
    “But-but-but-but-but…!” offered Jennifer.  Ah; Jester nodded his thanks.  The thin and frail nun continued berating the most powerful man in the world.
    “...I have been praying that we get out of this, that we all be strong enough to survive this.  Mostly, I have been praying that you keep your faith and your strength long enough to help us through this.  And by doing so, I have learned this:
    "There _is_ a way out of here.  God has prepared for us a tower out of Hell, and He has told me that you have found it."
    Martin was shocked.  He had mentioned to no one the skyscraper that seemed to actually have fallen _through_ the cavern ceiling.  He didn't want to get anyone's hopes up.  Still, he felt obligated to say something, out of respect for Sister Sara.  "I see, Sister.  Thank you, Sister.  What else did He tell you about the tower?"
    "Do not take these words lightly, Martin Power."  Her voice was youthful again, strong.  Commanding.  It was almost as if it was no longer the slight, aging nun speaking at all.  "You will lead these people to the Light."  It wasn't a reassurance.  It was a command.

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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    "Sister," he began, hoping to calm her down, expecting the exhaustion to have brought on a psychotic episode. "I have not done anything less than my best.  I will not do anything less than my best.  I am going to keep trying, keep looking."
    "I see, Martin." She said.  WIth that, she straightened up off of the both Jennifer and the boy who was helping to steadying her and strode purposefully, powerfully to the lake.  As she passed the last torch, Martin noticed that Sister Sara, unlike anyone else, was perfectly clean.  Her clothing was as tattered as anyone else's, but free of even the slightest smudge.  The he saw her step into the lake--
    No.  She stepped _onto_ the lake.  As if it were merely a reflection, or a spill on a sidewalk, she strode out across the surface of the water.  He could still see her; they all could.  It was as if she cast her own glow against the gloom of the lake cavern.  He realized that she was no longer on the surface of the lake, but walking _above_ it.  Each step seemed to carry her just a tiny bit higher, as if she were walking a glass ramp straight out over the lake.  The she stopped and turned, staring at them, simply hanging in mid-air.  Not a soul on shore was so much as breathing.  She spoke, her voice now booming out over the water:
    "Then I suggest, Martin Power, that you look HERE!" With that, her arms flew above her head, and the entire cavern was bathed in light.  It was a pure, white light that caused the survivors to cry out in pain, so long had it been since they had seen even a simple reading lamp.  His glasses compensated and he stared out into the room.  The glasses had come to life, every sensory function pouring in data.  The cavern was much smaller than he had estimated, but the tracking equipment in his glasses placed the roof at over four hundred feet above them.  The cavern was actually a tunnel; all told, it wasn't quite  a mile wide.  It was artificial, as well, having been constructed, as everything else seemed to have been, of the unimaginable amount of rubble and debris that had been blasted away from the surface of the earth and left to rain back down where it may.  Here and there he could see more of the strange 'glass-rock' with which the first cave and the antechamber had been lined.  He could see all the way across the water.  The water ran for perhaps seven miles, but the tunnel continued on, eventually turning upward.  What Martin Power had bounced stones off was the far wall of the tunnel.
    Most of all, he could see the island.  Sister Sara hung suspended in the air directly over the little island like a floating torch.  The island-- which was indeed cast from rubble-- was bathed in harsh pervasive light.  Behind her, centered on the island, was an enormous skyscraper.  It disappeared down into the island itself, and it appeared to run completely through the glassy stone ceiling of the tunnel.  He had been right; there was indeed a ruin here, but it appeared as though it were almost completely intact. The windows had all been smashed, and it was clear that the building had been completely submerged, but his mind raced at what it might contain: food stores, clothes, possibly even medical supplies or at least first-aid kits.  Certainly there should be no shortage of furniture that could be fashioned into rafts to aid in crossing the water.  Maybe, just maybe...
    He turned toward Jester, who was carrying a heavy, waterproof flashlight.  He had intended to snatch it from him and throw it into the water, watch it sink, so he could gauge the depth of the water.  As soon as he looked away from Sister Sara, however, the glow filling the room faded.  He turned back toward her, his hand still on Jester's flashlight, and watched the light that had been radiating from her body fade, slowly, her body gently drifting lower as the light faded, slowly descending toward the surface of the lake, her neck and limbs limp.
    "Sister!" he bellowed, snatching Jester's flashlight from his pocket.  He sprinted toward the edge of the water, forcing his legs to work, half-stumbling as he demanded that they work too hard against the pain they were in.  As he reached the water's edge, she began to sink beneath the surface, still possessed by a faint glow.  He leaped, throwing himself into the air, forward, desperate to make it to where she now sank.  In a former life, at an athletic fundraiser for an inner city youth club, he showed off for the crowd and the cameras with a running leap of nearly a full mile.  He had trained for that.  He had exercised and stretched and spent a lot of time focussing purely on that one goal.  Today, exhausted, wooden-limbed, near-panicked, he wasn't even close.  Perhaps he leapt a hundred yards before splashing into the water.  He fumbled with the flashlight-- he hated having to use anything with switches or finger-sized holes; his hands were simply too big to make them practical.  After an eternity, the beam of light stabbed outward into the black water.  
    The water was surprisingly clear.  He hadn't expected that.  It was so much cooler than the air he had become accustomed to.  It was almost refreshing to be here, this far under it.  He noticed he was still sinking.  He swiveled the beam downward and saw that it was perhaps another thirty feet before he struck bottom.  So be it.  He waited the precious moments it took to hit, drew his legs beneath him, and leaped again.
    The water at this point was only sixty feet deep.  He broke the surface, flew forward, sank again.  This time the water was less deep, perhaps only fifty feet.  Another leap.  He landed face-first in the water.  In his state of exhaustion, he simply couldn't keep his legs underneath himself.  He had launched poorly, and had come out of the water too straight up and failed to correct himself.  He began beating at the water furiously with great slices of his arms.  Even though he would sink in a few moments, the propulsion principles of swimming were no different for him than for anyone else, and he wanted every forward inch he could get.  The water was twenty feet deep here.  He could see the glow from Sister Sara and shoved the flashlight into his only remaining pocket.  The maelstrom had beaten and ripped apart his jacket and shirt, and cost him most of one entire pant leg.  He began to walk across the bottom of what he now knew was a small lake, scissoring his arms and using their strokes to help pull himself forward, his legs shoving his feet down for footing, moving as hard as he could against the water.  Soon, he had Sister Sara in his arms, and he leapt for the surface, toward the island.

    He patted her back, pushed gently on her abdomen, attempting to clear her lungs.  She spat no water.  It wasn't at all like television and movies had taught him to expect.  He bent down to listen for breathing, putting his ear against her face--
    "Martin...." she coughed softly, as if she had just woken from a pleasant nap-time dream.  "What do you suppose you're fussing about?"
    "Sister Sara?"  He was stunned, more than a little confused.  So much of the last few minutes had been shocking, baffling-- he was having trouble grasping the things he had taken in since they had arrived here, and this latest wonder with Sister Sara… it was straining his comprehension.
    She chuckled a world-weary laugh and grinned.  "Don't you worry, Martin.  He has plans for all of us, for all of the survivors.  He will take care of us all.  He told me that we are to trust in you; that He knows you will endure.  Each of us has an important role to play in His plan, and for all the suffering we endure, He has granted each of us gifts that we will know when the time comes.  My time, Martin, was a bit sooner than the others, I suppose."  She grinned again, laughed lightly out loud, and coughed a bit, spitting up just a small amount of water.
    "Sister!  You should rest--"
    "I'm fine, Martin.  No _you_, on the other hand... You need to get busy, boy, and see whatever it was He wanted you to see..."
    "I will, Sister.  You rest."  With that, he flicked on the flashlight and turned to forage the area for anything that would burn.  He returned with an armload of material and set to work nursing the flame from the small cushion-torch until he had a tiny campfire to provide light for Sister Sara.  Satisfied, he turned off the flashlight to conserve what remained of its failing batteries, picked up the torch from the cushion he had earlier pushed with stones across the water, and began to walk toward the skyscraper.

    He had first tried to gain entrance through a missing window near the "ground," but found the interior of the building too packed with rubble from the catastrophe.  He leaped up to the second floor, and found it, too, had been too packed to navigate.  Finally, he had been forced to scale up two more floors to gain entrance.
    The building was remarkably intact.  Whether this was a testament to the builders, a freak stroke of luck, or Divine intervention, he didn't know.  He didn't much care, either.  He was simply grateful for the possible materials he could gain.  Luck was against him for maneuvering, however.  The building had landed more or less upside down, and was canted at an angle that seemed exactly opposite of what might have made the fire stairwells navigable.  He managed, but it was slow going.  After what seemed like days, he was again outside with Sister Sara, layering table tops and tying them together with electrical wire.  He tried not to notice that it was hotter.  He convinced himself that he didn't see the HUD telling him it was one-hundred and nine degrees.  Periodically, he would carry  Sister to the edge of the water and splash some  on her clothing.  For whatever reason, the water was still fairly cool.  They had that much in their favor.

    Some time later, he had finished his raft, and laid Sister Sara carefully on it.  He found dozens upon dozens of heavy extension cords from janitorial closets all over the building.  He estimated he had more than enough, and had tied them into a single long line.
    "Pollak!" He hollered back to the torches on the shore, doing all he could to amplify his already thunderous voice.
    A loud slow clanging on the makeshift gong drifted across the water in reply.
    "Clear the shore.  I want everyone in the cave.  I'm throwing a line."
    "A line?"
    "Clear the area.” he roared toward the survivors, as clearly and distinctly as he could.  “It's weighted."
    While he waited for the signal gong, he set about securing the line to a fire hydrant he had found near the water's edge.  As soon as he heard the faint "All clear!" he prepared himself.  This had to make it.  He couldn't miss.  There was too much debris under the water.  If he had to drag the hydrant back, it would snag and snap the cord.  He had taken these people as his charges the moment he sealed them into the containers, ninety-two hours ago.  He would not fail any of them so long as he was alive.  He steadied himself, calmed his breathing, and let fly.  He was momentarily surprised at how easy it had been, how little pain there had been.  The line played out from near his feet, and the hard ring of cast iron on stone rewarded him.  He waited a few minutes for word from the other side.
    "Well?"
    "We're looking.  We've got torches, not floodlights!"  Jester’s screamed retort drifted back.  "Got it!  Jesus, Son!  How'd you throw that?"
    He ignored the question, too tired to frame a reply.  "There's a raft on the other end.  When I give the word, reel it in.  There are some first-aid kits on it.  Keep the line tight; the water's full of snags."  He set about tying a second line to the other end of the raft and, with a push to set it adrift, gave the order.  "When you're ready, put as many people on it as it will hold and sing out.  I'll pull it  back in.  Leave your end tied up so you can retrieve the raft."
    He had something of a plan.  He wasn't sure it would work, but perhaps with more manpower it stood a chance.  He had been studying the building, and noted how it disappeared through the ceiling.  There was a good chance that the fire stairwells could be used to ascend the building, through the ceiling, and back to the world that Sister Sara had been so confident remained.  In that moment, he envied her for her convictions.

    Three hours to drag two-hundred and forty-three people to the island.  Three hours and four degrees.  He had laid out what non-perishable foods he had found in the building, and the survivors had the foresight to bring what remained of their own stores.  They ate in shifts, taking turns pulling the raft back and forth across the water.  Amazingly, the entire operation had gone quite smoothly.  Those who weren't eating or dragging the raft were put to work clearing a path through the the building toward the fire escape.  With Martin's help, they had ascended to the fourth floor and began to tunnel inward.  He himself, along with Pollak and Jester, had gained the fire escape from the fourth floor and were beginning the arduous process of ascending.  The others would shout up when they too gained access.  It took a great deal of work, and lots of climbing, pushing, and even using some of Martin's extension cords braided into makeshift rope, and there were frequent forays out to find a window to check their progress, but all three of them were soon staring out a window perhaps eight floors below the ceiling of the cavern.  This should have been great news, but there were new problems.
    The stairwell had been wet for the past twelve floors or so, and wetter the higher they ascended.  Here, roughly eight floors before entering the stone ceiling of the cavern, the fire escape had become impassable with debris, and the water flowed freely from the various openings of the material plugging their pathway.  They had scouted for some time.  There were a total of four stairwells, and the others couldn't even be opened.  Even after Martin had ripped the doors from their frames, the stairwells were simply too tightly plugged.  And all of them showed rivulets of free-flowing water.
    "Well." commented Jester, ready for a fresh take.  "We have found one way that doesn't work.  Where should we look next?"
    "This doesn't look good." Pollak offered, simply voicing what the other two were thinking.
    "I can clear this." Martin offered.
    "Wouldn't do any good, Son." Jester sighed, patting the giant on the flank.  "Wouldn't do any good at all.  Might put us a lot worse off."
    "How do you figure?"
    "It's readily apparent to us old guys, Mr. Power, that you're pushing yourself.  You're beyond exhausted.  I have no idea how you're still going; I really don't.  I've seen men looked a lot better than you just fall out, have to be dragged to the medic or the ER."
    "I'm fine." Martin stated.
    "As you want, Son.  As you want.  But here's the problem: even if you were two-hundred percent of your normal self-- and don't get me wrong!  A team of men couldn't do what you're pulling off, even in their tip-top condition-- and you cleared this pathway for us, you'd be condemning us all to death."
    "He's right." Pollak chipped in.  "Look at the evidence.  See the water?  Jester and I have been talking.  In your state, it's completely understandable that you weren't listening.  But we think we know... well, we don't know where we are, and only you know how we got here, but we think we know how this place was formed."
    Martin stared at him, waiting.  It was awkward for Pollak, even after going through all this together.  The clearance in the stairwell required Martin to bend way down, almost squat, putting his gigantic face in uncomfortably close proximity to his own.  Even though he trusted the giant completely, there was still something deeply unsettling about being this close to him, and he caught distant thoughts of fleeing and held them from running wild with his body.
    He cleared his throat and continued.  "During whatever it was that happened, there was unimaginable energy release-- nuclear-bomb level stuff, maybe higher. All the wind, the debris, the heat---"
    "What he's getting at" Jester interrupted, is that there was probably a Hell of a lot of igneous rock here, and a lot of sand.  Something here took a direct hit-- probably more than one. Everything got super-hot and the winds and shock waves mixed it all together into a bubbly glass soup, chock full of whatever debris flew into it as it cooled.  
    But here, at this place, it was super-cooled, too.  Probably hit the water table or maybe even the whole damned ocean; I don't know."
    "Fresh water." interrupted Pollak.  "But yes; a massive enough source of water that it wasn't boiled away instantly seems to have poured in while this material was molten, super-cooling it, making it thin and brittle, but trapping massive pockets of water within a honeycomb-like structure."
    "Is that possible?"
    "Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't think so.  But given a constant bombardment, and the winds, the heat, and who knows what other energy was unleashed, that's what seems to have happened.
    Something seems to have ruptured the membrane holding the water in the antechamber, and it drained and created the steam in the first chamber when it hit...  well, when it hit whatever the heat source is.  You broke the second barrier, and here we are."
    "So then you suspect that the ceiling here is another membrane?  That somehow this building just poked through it, but didn't break it?"
    "Seems reasonable." Pollak agreed.
    "Seems damned unlikely," burst Jester, "but so does our bein' here.  We figure that the water was likely draining into the chamber we're in now full-force, right through the building, but the debris being sucked along with it eventually piled up and made sort of a stopper.  At any rate, I don't think we need to be uncorkin' this bottle.  Don't much suspect we'll like the genie."
    "Agreed."  muttered Pollak, defeated.
    "So we wasted our time? All this was for nothing?"
    "Don't think like that, Boy." Jester spoke, reassuringly.  "It was a worthwhile effort.  It might have paid off.  We wouldn't know anything if we hadn't stopped for the nickel tour.  Don't give up yet, Mr. Power.  Today, I have seen the world's strongest man, the end of the world, and a flying nun turn into a miniature sun.  Personally, I'm holding off on judgement.  I'm a bit out of my element."
    "One-hundred and two hours." Power muttered.
    "Come again?"
    "One-hundred and two hours.  It's been four days."
    "The world's strongest man, a flying nun, and the longest day I never got paid for."  He grinned at the two of them.

    Back outside, on the island, Martin walked over to  find Jennifer tending to Sister Sara who, in the light of the two-dozen torches the survivors had managed to had assemble and light, appeared to be a bit healthier-- at least a bit more focused and energetic.  The others were plundering, ripping up everything they could find to make more torches, rafts and anything that would work as paddles.  It looked as if the only way out was going to be further up the tunnel.
    "How is she?"
    "Asking about you, strangely enough."
    "Really?"
    "Yep."  She smiled up at him, hoping he couldn't see the disappointment she felt turning slowly into fear.  "Not what we'd hoped for?"
    "Nope." he replied.
    "I'm going to go check on the boys and see who can use a hand.  For your own sake, Martin, stop for a minute.  Rest.  I don't care if you take a damned nap!  You're going to kill yourself."  With that, she patted his arm  and trotted off into the busy group on the far side of the upended skyscraper.
    He didn't tell her that there he couldn't have rested if he wanted to.  The temperature was going up.  Slower, it seemed-- perhaps it was the water.  But slow or not, it was still climbing.  He stepped toward the older woman.
    "Sister Sara.  How are you feeling?"
    "Alive, Martin, and supremely confident."  She beamed up at him.  It was unsettling: the more she beamed, the more she seemed to glow.  Nothing like before, but there was a distinct sense of "not dark" when he looked at her.
    "I'm glad you have such high spirits" he smiled back at her, not letting his own worries creep onto his face.
    "Of course I do, Martin.  You are going to see all of them safely out of here."
    "I wish I shared your faith, Sister."  In his exhaustion, he had missed the significance of what she had said.
      "You should, Martin.  It's the truth."
    Martin said nothing.  He had no idea why, but suddenly, at this moment, everything came crashing down upon him: the destruction, the loss, the people he couldn't save, the exhaustion, the hopelessness he felt.  He slumped, visibly, suddenly weak and numb.  Sister Sara only stared into his eyes, smiling.
    “You see?  Motorboats run on gas, and gas runs out!  God doesn’t need motorboats; he needs faithful believers.  Excuses don’t work, and never will.  You need God.  Only God is with you forever, and Martin, he is with you in particular in beautiful and glorious ways you have only begun to touch!”  She paused, physically sinking as her fervor played out.
    When she spoke again, she sounded almost surprised.  "You don't know what you are, do you, Martin Power?"
    He said nothing.
    "I have been praying non-stop, Martin, and I have learned a great deal.  I also have much to tell you.  You see, you are an instrument of God."
    "As are we all, Sister." he muttered, the words rattling hollowly from his schooling at the orphanage.
    "No, Martin.  That is not what I mean.  The Old Testament is filled with the stories of God's retribution, the punishments He meted out upon the wicked so as to lead the righteous to Him.  He cast us from Paradise for disobedience.  He destroyed families, cities, and eventually, there was so much wickedness in the world that he destroyed it all.  Only one man and his family were judged worthy of redemption; only Noah and his family would settle on the reborn earth."
    Martin was beginning to realize that her seeming recovery was looking more and more like a psychotic breakdown.  "What does that have to do with me?" he asked, thinking if he humored her a bit, he might be able to get her to lie back quietly and rest a bit more.
    "Remember your education, Martin.” Sister Sara chided lovingly.  “When Noah and his family set foot on dry land, they fell in prayer to the Lord God.  On that day, God made a covenant with them, Martin.  He swore to them that this was the final start.  He sent forth a rainbow and vowed to them that He would not destroy the earth again."
    "By flood." he muttered in reply, only half-listening.  "He promised that He would never again destroy the earth by flood."
    "Yes; that is the way that the story is told.  But we don't really know.  Noah didn't have anyone to whom he should write a letter; every living soul on earth had witnessed it.  Who was there to tell?  Later, it would be written down and passed on, over and over... 
    "Yes; even the Bible has errors.  Think of just how many there are, the translations, even today.  Then think of language changing, evolving.  Even today, we know there are errors, mistakes.  Some may have had vile motive, but I have to believe that the hand of God would prevent abuse to His Word.  Others..." Her voice trailed off, her face blanking for a moment.  A handful of seconds passed, then she was back: "...there are simple mistakes. Think just of the King James, Martin.  Perhaps the most popular version in the Western World.  We know of several errors, the most glaring being "thou shalt not kill."  The original text read ‘murder.’  Thou shalt not _murder_.  On the surface, to a translator, they are very much the same.  But only one is unlawful, and only one was the original Word of God.   Do you understand, Martin?"
    "God vowed that He would never again destroy the earth." he offered, hoping that playing to her wants would ease her growing excitement.
    "That's right."  She beamed up into his face.  So peaceful, so content.  So happy.  She seemed to truly be at complete peace.  "At least, not until the Armageddon, when His people will battle the ultimate evil.  But that's not for now."
    She paused to catch her breath, her desire to share her thoughts stronger than her body.  "In making that promise, He changed Himself.  He reached into His own being and grasped His Wrath as though it were  a physical thing, and then he cast it out from Himself, cleansing His perfect self so as to meet His promise."
    "How will Armageddon happen?  How will He wield his power against Satan?"
    Don't be silly, Martin.  You are no schoolboy.  I know that perhaps you didn't take your lessons as seriously as you might have, but even you know that God is all-powerful and perfect.  On the day that He truly needs His wrath, He will reclaim it."
    "And in the meantime?"
    "In the meantime, Martin, it is _yours_."  She smiled up at him as if this explained everything.  The look on his face confirmed that it very much did not, but she only smiled broader.
    "You, Martin.  You.  Your strength, your incredible power.  You have only begun to unlock what you are capable of, Precious Boy….”  her eyes looked beyond him for a moment, then her smile grew even brighter as she locked her eyes back firmly to his.  “You, Martin-- _you_!  You are the living embodiment of the Wrath of God."

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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    He wished Jennifer would come back.  His head was beginning to pound, and he was becoming deeply concerned for Sister Sara.  "No, Sister.  That can't be.  I have never intentionally killed anyone.  I will not willingly kill anyone.  I have spent most of my life being especially cautious around others out of fear of accidentally injuring them--"
    "You don't understand.  God's Wrath is not the power of death.  It is not anger, it is not hatred.  Certainly, it can be used for all of those things, but I suspect he chose far better than that.  God's wrath is pure power, Martin.  pure power.  Only His perfection can wield it for retribution, and you, I'm afraid, are no more perfect than any of us.  However, you have been given the gift of His wrath, the Divine source of unlimited power.  I know this, Martin.  He has told me this.  And because I know you wield His power, I know that you can do anything.  Because he trusted you among all the living, I believe in you.  You _will_ get them home, Martin.  There is absolutely no doubt."  She never stopped smiling.
    Somehow, he was even more exhausted.  Simply listening to her descend into lunacy had taken the last bit of wind from him.  He wanted to fall to the ground and weep.  This was the beginning.  Soon, one by one, he would lose them all.  Worse still, he might survive, and be cursed to remember it forever.  At that, he almost envied Sister Sara.
    "--and I don't blame you for not believing me.  It _is_ a lot to take in."  She was still speaking.  "Let me help you, Martin.  Let me offer you this, so that you will understand."  
She held out her hand to him.  "In my talk with God, I learned so much.  Your parents were good people, Martin-- your biological parents.  When you were born, an angel appeared to them and told them that you had a purpose, that you were to be a living vessel in the service of God.  They tried so hard to raise you, but an infant with the strength of a charging bull was more than they could bear.  They surrendered you to the angels, who bound your power and brought you to us."
    At this, he was stunned.  Not because he believed it, but a mention of his past--- the true past, his blood parents--  he had always choked back his pain at not knowing who he was, or where he was from.  When he found Jennifer, it didn't seem to matter as much.  When the Curtises adopted him, he had allowed those wounds to scab over and, he had thought, heal.  He always believed he could view his past as little more than faint scars of injuries no longer felt.  It wasn't until he heard Sister-- even though she was clearly delusional-- speak of the idea of his blood parents, that he realized just how much that pain still hurt.
    Sister Sara continued. "They could not take your strength from you, Martin.  That was a gift from God, and it is His power alone that can tamper with yours.  The angels were experienced, however.  You were not the first vessel to bear His power.  You are the first to bear it alone, however.  There have been others.  They were all angels, Martin, or deceased saints, all serving merely to be the vessel of His wrath, to keep it from being used for Evil.  They would hold the power as long as they could, eventually yielding it before its very presence within them drove them to madness and destroyed them, mind, body, and soul.
    You _are_ the first human to serve as His vessel.  That, Martin, makes you very special indeed, even among the saints, the angels, and perhaps in the eyes of God Himself.
    The angels made you unable to draw too deeply into the wellspring of His power until you were more balanced.  The Lord God would not give such power to one who would use it to ravage His Creation.  Thus, the angels were tasked with ensuring that you were as balanced as possible, and as in love with His creation as is He.
    First, you had to have wisdom.  That is why you were given to us, I suspect.  Living in not just a school, but a school devoted to the study of His Word and His Law.  You thrived academically; do you remember that?"
    When he gave no answer, she continued on.  "They had to be sure that you would love His people as He did.  You had to develop your heart.  When you showed no inclination on your own, the angels sent you Jennifer."
    His mouth gaped.  "Sister, I think you need to rest--"
    "Have you never wondered," she asked, smile unwavering, "how a little girl from California ended up with _us_, Martin?  So very far away?  It was His plan.  He knew what you needed to grow, and he knew where to find the help you needed.   She was destined to go to a home very far away from us, but she ended up in our care.
    "You blossomed with her in your life.  You didn't know how much she helped you; you couldn't have.  Suddenly, you had someone to share your heart with.  You developed friends.  You became interested in the world outside your books.  As you grew, you were tested.  You were given a little more power, every day, from the first day you arrived.  When Jennifer came, you were given much more.
    You were to love all of His Creation, and not just the people he placed within it.  The Curtises would likely have stayed in South America the rest of their lives, without a Divine nudge.  They came and took you into their lives and made a home for you and your sister.  You became a family.  They taught you their love for people thousands of miles away, for people far, far different than any you might have ever known on your own.  They taught you to love His earth, to tend his beasts.
    "You loved it, Martin, and in so doing, you grew.  Each time you worked good into His Creation, you grew.  Today, your power is unlimited.  You merely have to learn how to tap it when you need it."
    He stared at her, agonizing inside.  While a very hungry, lonely part of him wanted to believe her, wanted to have a real past, a connection to who he really was, he hurt with equal pain at the thought of Sister Sara-- his first teacher, his first mother-- suffering here, losing her mind.  Perhaps dying here.  It was too much to bear.  Too, much.  Too, too much.  He picked her up and held her close to him, wishing there was something he could do, some miracle her could perform.
    "Martin..." she chided.  "Don't be afraid.  I was, but then I began to pray.   I have prayed the last five days.  I always wondered how you did after you left us; I worried so about you.  I suppose we all knew that you were different.  Now I _know_, Martin.  He showed me.  He showed me everything about you.  It's so beautiful, Martin.  Don't be afraid of it.  Don't be scared for me.  I am fine."
    He put her down and sobbed.  "Sister...  Sister, I am so, so sorry.  I wish...  I wish I could..."
    She held out her hand again.  "Martin, don't be silly.  Take my hand; I wish to show you something; I want to help you understand."
    Gently, nervously, he put his massive hand on top her delicate one.  She giggled at how his hand trembled.
    "Don't worry, young man.  This won't hurt a bit."  In the fireight, her eyes laughed into his.  "I told you that we-- all of us here-- have been blessed with His gifts.  There has been a need for my gift, and it has come forward.  I have been blessed with the Light, Martin.  I would like to share it with you."
    With that, she placed her other hand on top of his, closed her eyes, and bowed her head in soft prayer.  His hand warmed to her touch, then a light seemed to grow from within her own flesh, focused in her hands.  It grew stronger and brighter, moved into his own hand.  Slowly, it began to splinter into streams of light that raced and danced across his body.  Instantly, it was done.
    "You see?" she grinned, coyly.  "Didn't feel a thing, did you?"
    "I...  I don't....  I feel...."
    "I know." She winked again.  "Now find Timothy.  He needs me now."
    He had no words to explain what had happened.  It was as if he had just awakened from a dream, freshly rested.  His pain was gone, his limbs were light and limber.  His energy was back.  It was as if the last few days had never happened, as if he had been miraculously healed.  There was no time to wonder about it now, however.  There was still work to do.  For the first time since he had fallen out of the maelstrom, he felt clear, strong, focused.  He couldn't waste it; there was too much at stake.
    He looked back toward the crowd working on the rafts, where he noticed one of the boys hobbling about, using a broom as a makeshift cane.  "What happened?" he asked Sister Sara.
    "That's Timothy.  He twisted his ankle helping to pull the raft in.  He got his foot caught in a fissure, but he couldn't let got of the line quickly enough--"
    "Fissure?"  His mind was racing.
    "Yes; where you first broke through into this cavern.  The floor is badly splintered near the water's edge."
    His eyes widened and thoughts poured into his mind; his body animated, and he nearly panicked trying to pick a direction in which to move first.  Flummoxed, he scooped up the elderly woman and kissed her on top of the head.  "Thank you, Sister!"  Placing her back on the ground, he added "stand back."  Then he grabbed the flashlight from his pocket, shined it over the pond, and brought up his light intensifiers.  He could make out the shoreline, just barely, with the available light.  He focused, killed the light and shoved it back into his pocket.  He trotted to the other side of the island and came racing back, moving with the speed of a runaway train.  As he neared the shore, he squatted deeply and leaped.  
    He flew into the air, arcing over the water.  He tried to fold himself over in a jumper's profile to maximize his range.  With a deafening thump, he landed on the dry floor of the antechamber.
    He thought perhaps he had heard the faint snap of splintering crackle through the floor of the cave-like passage when his mass, propelled as it was, slammed to the floor of the chamber.  He retrieved the flashlight, toggled on his light intensifiers, and let the beam of the flashlight play about the floor.  He couldn't be certain, but it did appear that his impact had left a vague depression across a very large area of the floor.  There was some spider-webbing where his feet had struck.  He walked to the edge of the water and studied the length of the area where the thin wall had once been rooted.  For the first time, he took note that the water level was nearly four inches below the level of the ground on which he stood.  Had this floor been truly the ground, that should not be possible.  Many things whirled about in his mind, supporting the idea that Timothy's injury had given him, but he didn't want to let his hopes get up again.  Not yet.
    Over and over he studied the edge of the floor, letting the meager beam play across the reflective black/brown material, washed clean by the deluge he unleashed.  Finally, he found what he had been seeking: a fissure large enough for a small man to lodge his foot.  He followed it back into the antechamber perhaps seven feet until it had shrunk to the point that it simply ceased to be.  He followed it again back to the edge of the water, squatting down to lean out over the water and peer at the face of the bank upon which he stood.  The fissure ran down into the water.  Curious, he called up the telescopics and played the flashlight beam into the fissure itself.  He couldn't be sure, but it seemed as though....
    He stuck the flashlight between his teeth (a feat that would have been impossible for a normal-sized man) and reached into the crack, fishing his hand along the solid back edge upon which he stood.  Finally, he laid prone to extend his arm as far down as possible.  There was something-- a tantalizing sensation just at the tips of his fingers.  Finally, options exhausted, he cut the light, returned it to his pocket, and turned to lower himself feet-first into the water, careful to keep a secure grip on the edge of the fissure at all times.
    He scraped himself along the face of the wall that formed the bank, constantly probing the fissure with his hands.  When he had reached a depth just a foot or so below what he could reach from the dry floor above, his hand would no longer fit into the fissure.  Again he toggled on the light intensifiers and reached for the flashlight.  He let the beam play down the length of the fissure, watched the light as it glinted back from the weird glassy surface of the stone-like material.  There, right at the point that his hands could no longer probe, the reflection disappeared.  He reached forward with the flashlight, pushing it slowly into the crevice.  He continued to probe with it until  there was only just enough remaining on his side of the wall to maintain his hold.  Satisfied, he bit down on the light, grabbed the edge of the fissure with both hands, and threw himself straight up into the air and back onto the dry floor of the antechamber.  Here he paced the room, looking for more signs that his hunch might pay off.  There were other fissures through the edge of the floor, but these were smaller.  He noted that the large one he had just explored was the base of the fissure that had received the bulk of his labors when he had first set out to demolish the wall.  He turned again to scan the floor anew-- and the flashlight finally died.  He simply shoved it back into his pocket.  If nothing else, it made a convenient probe for a man with fists larger than most skulls.
    As he turned back toward the island, a thought struck him.  He arched himself as straight and tall as he could muster, raised both fists over his head, and then smashed them to the ground.  He listened closely.  This time, he was certain that there had been the hint of cracking from the floor.  He drew back and punched harder, unleashing far more strength than he had been able to deliver in his previous exhausted state.  There was no doubt about it.  The floor reflected the treacherous sounds of thin ice.  And there had been an echo.  Not from the pond cavern or the cave behind him, but from within the floor.  Satisfied, he allowed himself to hope again.
    He strode toward the edge of the water, shuffling his feet so as not to fall in, then bellowed "Clear the shoreline!  I'm coming back!"  While he waited for any sort of signal, he turned and strode across the room, carefully measuring his strides.  A few moments later, he saw a small ball of fire on the island spinning in a large circle, as though a torch had been roped and spun overhead.  Satisfied, he burst into a sprint and leaped back to the others.

    Whatever Sister Sara had done, it had been a miracle.  They had been here-- wherever "here" was; he wasn't willing to discount Sister Sara's notion that there was a home to which they could return-- for one-hundred and sixteen hours now, and there was no sign of the exhaustion he had felt before she took his hand in hers.  He felt completely like he should have.  It was as if she had somehow taken the fatigue away.  In helping the others, he also noticed that Timothy had abandoned his crutch and was sprinting back and forth between groups, carrying material, as if he'd never been injured.  Curious, he looked about, and noticed that no one who had been bandaged or splinted seemed to be suffering any impairments.  The entire group even looked rested, energetic.  All except Sister Sara.  As he looked at her, she looked exhausted, on the edge of collapse, more frail than even her years should have made her.  He immediately moved to her.
    "She won't let you help, Martin."  Jennifer appeared beside him.  I've been trying."
    "Sister, you've got to rest.  I have an idea to get us out of here.  I don't know what else lies ahead, but it has to be better than this.  It has to be."
    "Martin," she rasped in reply "I know you will get us out of here.  But you can't waste your time tending to me.  You have many people here who are counting on you."   With that, she fell to sleep, too tired to even refuse the small comforts they could offer her.  Martin listened intently until he was satisfied that her breathing was unlabored.
    "Big Brother."  Jennifer nudged.  The giant stood up without a word and marched to the other side of the island.

    "I want every person here on a raft in one hour.  That's all we've got.  It's too hot, and it's getting hotter.  The water is helping, but it's getting warmer, too.  It'll be useless before too long.  I have a plan.
    "Jester, Pollak! where are you?"
    The two men appeared from the building carrying armloads of salvaged materials, including a number of coffee cups.  They handed them to the boys, who had been waiting for the next load, and the boys began distributing the material to the scattered work groups.
    "Yo!" replied Jester.  "What's up?"
    "Get a party up that tunnel.  We need to know if it leads out."
    "Way ahead of you; they just got back while you off wherever you were."  He paused, his face dropping.  "It's no good.  They say it runs up a good long way, but after a mile and a half or so, it starts climbing fast.  Not too far after that, it's nearly straight up.  We could climb it of course, but the higher they get, the hotter it gets.  We'd probably roast before we ever found the top of the tunnel.  They tried with the flashlights" he paused to reach into his pocket and pull out a handful of batteries, no doubt scavenged from the building. "But even then, they couldn't see the top.  Mr. Power, I am starting to wonder if maybe we should just start heading down.  I think Australia might be closer." he spat the last, clearly dispirited by what the scouting party had discovered.
    "I'll be back." Martin announced. "I won't be gone long.  Remember, one hour to get every person on this island onto a raft.  Make them as sturdy as you possibly can.  I've got a plan, and I need everyone here to be part duck for it to work."
    "It'll happen." Pollak reassured him.  With that, the two men walked toward the shoreline.  They jumped, startled, when Martin came racing past them at what they estimated to be fully fifty miles an hour, on foot.  They watched as he reached the water's edge and leaped into the air.
    He sailed like a catapult missile, eventually crashing into the water and disappearing below its surface.  Moments later, he leaped again, this time landing beyond the range of the torches.

    The scouting party had been right: the tunnel soon became vertical.  He had been able to leap well up into it, and from there began scaling the sides, grabbing whatever bit of debris projected from it.  It had been slow going, as most items, while likely suitable for the scouts, simply would not bear his weight.  Periodically, he would get lucky and stumble across something making a platform big and study enough for him to leap again.  Finally, convinced he had travelled perhaps two vertical miles, he pulled the flashlight and shined it into the dark.  Finding nothing, he turned on the image intensifiers.  There still seemed to be no end.  Clearly, though, there had to be an end.  If the cavern opened _anywhere_, the heat could not accumulate here like it had been.  Disappointed, but not discouraged, he began to climb back down.  He was tempted to save time and simply fall back to the floor, but if his theory was correct, he didn't dare risk it.  He carefully wound his way back down to level footing, then, with a sprint, he started leaping back toward the little island.
    He walked straight past the rafts and the crews putting final efforts into re-checking material and the lines lashing it together.  Once he was beyond them, he sprinted across the island and made his way back to the antechamber on the other side of the water.  He lowered himself into the water, back along the same crevice, searching for his previous handholds.  There was no doubt about it; the water was slightly lower.  Not much-- not even an inch, but it _was_ lower.  There was somewhere for it to go.
    Martin unleashed a rare grin as he rocketed through the air back toward the island.  So far, everything was coming together.

    The raft, filled, carried Sister Sara, with Jennifer and the boys tending to her.    A rickety angled cot of sorts had been fashioned and firmly secured, the head elevated so that she could see what she might.  A stash of winter jackets had been found and were used to pad it against her old bones.  She was secured to the cot, and everyone made sure that they were lashed to the raft and to each other, per Martin's demands.  Four burly men from the bridge construction site (concrete workers, it turned out) accompanied them to help offset the lesser strength of the young adolescents.  Power had insisted that there was going to be a lot of hard work ahead, most of it paddling.  After one last meal, floating on the edge of the water, Power announced it was time to move.
    As each raft captain announced his crew secure and ready, Martin sent them on their way with a mighty push, hurrying them toward the the distant tunnel.  The distance he sent them sailing had made the various ramshackle makeshift paddles seem pointless, as most of the rafts simply coasted until the water was shallow enough that they could be poled.  However, he insisted that every person on every raft, save Sister Sara, have a paddle of their own, and that spares be lashed to the rafts themselves.
    Power watched the rafts drift away, easier now since the continuous salvage operation into the building had unearthed dozens of flashlights.  They were lashed directly to the rafts to make it easier to locate each other should one raft become separated on the trip, or should one or more of the crafts prove less seaworthy than expected.  He watched them pole to the far shore of the cavern and then drag the rafts as tightly together as possible.  As the rafts landed, the crews scattered onto the dry cavern floor and began dragging their rafts as far away from the water as they could.  When they could go no further, the men waited for the next raft, and helped drag it next to the previous one.  Each raft was lashed to the next as soon as they were touching, turning the fifteen small rafts into one large, flexible floating floor.  Some of the flashlights were turned then, to face inward onto the big raft, providing illumination for the crew to see each other and study the raft for possible problems. Finally, they turned to the few remaining provisions of food, perhaps enough for one more meal-- two if they ate  lightly-- and lashed the various containers securely to the deck.  

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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Very kind of you, Rravenwood.

 

Honestly, with the lack of criticism and suggestion (remember, I'm trying to get the rust off here), I was concerned that perhaps either it was worse than I thought, or it had generated no interest at all, meaning I had blown it from start to finish.

 

What would you like to see improved?

 

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    Martin waited, watching through his telephotos and light intensifiers, until he was satisfied that each person was secure, and that each person had drunk his fill of water.  He picked up the propane torch-- Jester had rigged the bottle so that it would spray a small steady amount of flame, but had asked that Martin not light it until everyone was away.  Even with the regulator, there was the chance that they had built a potent bomb.  He tossed it into the air three times, the agreed-upon signal, and waited for the three winks of a flashlight: 'Ready when you are.'  Then he turned to work.
    He paused then, wondering.  He had pitted his incalculable strength against a number of things in his life, but he had never actually tried to destroy an entire building.  The architectural guys had studied the building as best they could, given the more immediate concerns of survival, and had offered some suggestions, but going through it in his mind again, he wasn't entirely sure how he was going to pull it off.  Well, there was certainly no time like the present, and thinking never moved so much as a pebble.  He walked the island, lighting fires here and there through the expedient of opening the regulator and using the makeshift torch as a flamethrower against anything that looked flammable.  He didn't want the smoke, but he would need the light.  He shot flames into the lower levels of the building, hoping to set as much debris alight as possible.  Finally, he turned toward the antechamber, adjusted the regulator, and hurled the propane container across the water.
    This part was iffy.  Jester had told him to turn up the regulator to help ensure the flame wasn't blown out, but he argued that this might cause an explosion should the canister crack.  Jester retorted that any amount of flame would cause it to blow should it leak.  Martin then worried about running out of fuel and losing the light before he was able to carry out his plan.  Jester explained that if the torch went out, he wouldn't have any light to begin with.  Mollified, he had agreed to open the regulator.  He didn't turn it wide open, but it shot a healthy jet of flame before he hurled it across the cavern.  The flame had guttered, even appeared to go out for a split-second, but when the clang of impact rang across the water, he could see a healthy glow on the other side.  Now if it hadn't split, and if he had enough fuel...
    He caught himself thinking again, and shut his internal conversation down.  Time to smash things.
    With little real direction, and no understanding of just how to best go about it, he simply began using his strength against the first part of the building he came to.  He had leaped easily to the fourth floor again, deciding that moving the rubble on the lower floors would simply slow him down too much, and set to work.  He smashed a hole through the wall, then proceeded to walk the outer perimeter of the floor, ripping away great chunks of the moulded concrete as if stripping bark from a tree.  In moments, he had ripped a gash through the outside of the building.  Nothing.  Large pieces of the outer wall fell away, but the damage was localized, and the wall remained otherwise intact.  
    He turned toward the center of the building and began to jog toward the center of the building, simply ripping his way through the intervening walls.  If he found sheet rock he simply plunged forward, through it, and kept moving.  If he found masonry or steel, he stopped long enough to destroy it's connection between floor and ceiling, and kept moving.  He was working against the heat, for the sake of the others, and the unknown amount of fuel left in the propane torch across the pond.  
    Eventually, he found a massive pillar, steel and concrete, larger than even the smallest offices.  This, he decided, was good.  He hammered blow after blow into the pillars, crushing the concrete as another man might shatter window glass.  Each strike of his fists ripped torso-sized chunks of masonry free from the pillar.  When he encountered reinforcing rods, he simply grabbed them and twisted his wrist until the steel snapped.  When he found steel beams, he beat the concrete away from them until he could fit both hands on the beam and then simply tore them in half.
    Finished with this pillar, and now having some idea of what he was looking for, he moved faster, with renewed purpose.  He sprinted straight through the building, consciously following a grid-like pattern he felt would help him best search the entire floor.  Walls were meaningless; he didn't even break stride as he blasted his way through decorative brickwork and failed to even register drywall or glass.  He was focused on the pillars.
    Each one went down faster than the one before.  His blows became stronger and stronger, the devastation released with each impact more and more terrifying.  His hands were bloody; his body was cut and scraped.  Bruises began to form on the backs of his fists and across his knuckles, yet he felt nothing.  His arms were pistons, pivoting across his shoulders, hammering back and forth until each blow was doing more damage than an explosive charge.  The eighth column he simply ripped apart with a dozen roundhouse swings.  The ninth went down in six.  The survivors across the lake could hear the deafening sounds of destruction carried through the still air of the cavern.
    He had resumed searching, looking for the next column, when the floor lurched out from under him.  He fell prone and smashed his hands into the deck to create handholds.  The floor tipped further, and a massive groan from the structure rattled through his body.  The ceiling began to rush toward him, and he knew he had done enough.  Releasing his grip, he let himself slide across the floor, the momentum of his slide ejecting him through the wall he had ripped apart and to the ground below.  He regained his feet and wasted a precious second wishing he had some way to warn the others, but he had done all he could.  He glanced briefly that way, wasting more precious time, to ensure that they had all lashed themselves back into the raft.
    The vibration of the collapsing building shook the entire island, threatening to tear it apart.  He sprinted toward the water, stumbling as the island shook, and threw himself toward the antechamber.  The stumble had cost him; he fell short of the antechamber.  He was worried now, as he had no idea how much of the bottom of the small lake was actually an extension of the fragile island, how well it would hold together, or what would happen if it didn't.  As soon as he sank to the bottom, he vaulted again, relieved to fall onto the elevated ledge of the antechamber.
    The noise of the skyscaper's collapse was so loud and so pervasive in the echo that it was almost impossible to register as noise.  It was as if he had been struck deaf and had replaced his ability to hear with a constant vibration through his chest.  He turned toward the island, and as he had hoped, as the building fell, water began to pour in through the ceiling.  At first it was if someone had opened a fire hydrant, and then ten, and in seconds it was like all of Niagara Falls was pouring through the roof of the cavern.  He didn't stop to watch; he had more to do before the water level made it impossible.
    He picked up the same steel girder-cum-pickaxe with which he had first broken through into the lake cavern.The torch gave him light by which to see, and he leaped into the air, knowing that momentum and weight were the only leverage by which he could take advantage of his strength.  Close to the ground, he drilled the point of the girder into the crevice, smashing it home with every ounce of strength he could muster.  It wedged in and sank deeply.  His hands and teeth rang with the impact.  He had sacrificed grace for accuracy, and fell to the floor in a heap.
    As soon as he picked himself up, he checked the beam and found it to lean off at a tight angle to the left, coinciding with the fissure into which it was jammed.  He ran beneath it and began to push it up straight, lifting and straining, attempting to lever open the fissure against the strength of the rock itself.  The girder was no match for his strength, and began to bow under the strain.  He eased off, and settled into a pattern of rocking it up and down, back and forth.  He hung on dearly as a wall of water, released by the sudden flood, beat across him and down through the cave.  Finally, the lever gave.  He pressed it further and further up, and was rewarded with the definite crack of splitting stone.  The water level was knee-deep now, and rising quickly.  It was starting to push against him with no small amount of force.  Fortunately, his unusual mass was more than enough to keep him in place, at least for now.
    He wrenched the girder free from the now-widened crevice.  He drew himself tight, and leaped into the air again, this time, driving the point of his gigantic pry bar  into the solid floor a few feet behind the edge.  As he had hoped, it hit home, cracked the floor, and passed completely through it.  When he landed, the thirty-foot-long girder projected less than six feet out of the floor.  There was no doubt about it: there was at least one more chamber below him.
    He wrestled the girder from the hole through the floor, pulling, snatching, wiggling-- anything to retrieve it and to expand the hole itself.  Finally, he broke it free of the floor.  He tossed it straight up into the air and caught it by the sharpened end, then swung it down, in a knife-edged manner, toward the floor.  It hit, and he felt the floor sink beneath him.
    The water was now up to his hips, and with no more options available to him, he began to stab the girder, over and over and over, into the floor.  Finally, he stabbed it into the floor and held tightly to it to keep himself in place against the current.  The water was nearly at his throat.  He took one last look across the lake, and in the distant flashlights (enhanced through his glasses) he could see the survivors on the raft, fighting to keep the raft off the walls and headed deeper into the tunnel.  He wished he could join them.  He wished he could be there, lending his strength to their battle.  Most of all, he wished he could be there when this resolved.
    But he couldn't swim, and even if he tried to walk across the bottom, the current was simply too strong; it would sweep him far, far away from them.  The he scaled the girder, watching them for as long as he could.  The the ceiling in the lake chamber gave way, and he drew in one long breath and waited.

    He didn't have to wait as long as he had thought.  When the ceiling caved, it was as if some gigantic hand had turned an ocean over into the chamber.  The massive deluge hit with such a force as to send a physical shock wave through the water that threatened to crush the breath from him and rip him free of the girder.  The water was now pouring in faster than the cave could drain it, and the lake cavern was completely filled.  
    The thin, brittle wall that Martin Power had first shattered through to discover the lake held back a volume of water equal to perhaps one one-hundredth of what was now in that chamber.  Even then, it had strained and cracked.  It wasn't long before the remnants of that wall gave way completely.  At first there was a series of clicks and snaps, then what sounded like a gunshot, followed by another and another and then a short run of firecrackers.  Instantly, the sound of rushing water redoubled his ears.  So far, everything was as planned.  If only--
    The floor fell out from under him.  The destructive force of the out of control flood had destroyed the thin cliff face holding the floor, and the weight of the water on top of, combined with the roiling of the water beneath it, had done the rest.  Instantly he was falling into the water.  He fished for the flashlight in his pocket, renewed with batteries that Jester had found in the building.  He thumbed it on, hoping for a glimpse of the bottom of this chamber, or a wall to which he could cling.  Impossible.  The water washed along everything in its path, and was filled with a maelstrom of the debris that formed the floor of the previous cavern and everything that was washing in from the upper reservoir.  
    He threw his arms  around his head to protect his glasses and his eyes and resigned himself to the fact that he had already accepted that this was a suicide mission.  He hadn't told the others his suspicions, however.  Jennifer would never have let him do it.  Still, if his hunch was right, two-hundred and forty three people would live, if only just a little bit longer.  He had no way of knowing what lie ahead for them, but he knew that they would die an agonizing, roasting death if they stayed in the chambers.  For the rest of their trip, they were on their own.  He had no regrets about his decision.  He wondered what it was like to drown, then drove the thought from his mind and settled on remembering his life on the farm, his sister and his adopted parents.  He wondered about the afterlife.  He knew what he had been taught in the orphanage, but his sister had taken it more to heart than he had.  He knew that his parents had held their own beliefs, different even from each other’s in some ways.  He wondered what would happen to his father and the farm.  He wondered if he would see his mother, or if she was seeing him.  He wondered if they would be proud of the way he had lived, even though he knew there were so many lost opportunities in the past in which he could have done a great deal of good.  He wondered if they would understand why he had not.  Mostly, he just wished he had had the chance to tell even one of them good-bye, to thank them for the life they had given him... to tell them how much he had loved them.
    He closed his eyes against the sting of the dirt in the water, and tried with all his heart to spend whatever moments remained to him remembering the four of them together, so many lifetimes ago....

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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1 hour ago, Duke Bushido said:

Very kind of you, Rravenwood.

 

Honestly, with the lack of criticism and suggestion (remember, I'm trying to get the rust off here), I was concerned that perhaps either it was worse than I thought, or it had generated no interest at all, meaning I had blown it from start to finish.

 

Only speaking for myself, of course, but the relative lack of response may mostly just be due the volume of what you're posting - I just hadn't had the time to give it even a portion of the attention it deserved until yesterday.

 

As far as constructive criticism goes, well - honestly nothing has jumped out at me that screams for attention.  Certainly - if it were to be submitted for publication - it would need some formatting/layout work and the correction of a few minor typos here and there, but in terms of actual content and/or story structure I would really need to read through it all against a second or even third time before I felt like I might be able to offer valid editorial feedback.  It's a hell of a lot better than I could do, that's for sure! 🙂

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I see.

 

Well certainly I thank you for your interest. :D

 

Typos are the bane of my existence: i get wrapped up and start letting the story run out, then I have to go back and hunt the little devils....

 

gah.

 

Might be what drove me to Champions, way back when:  it just felt so comfy, what with all those typos.... :lol:

 

 

 

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    Joshua Fienberg was a lighting manager.  Whatever set you wanted shot, he could give it precisely the mood you wanted.  It wasn't the most marketable or broadly-sought skill, but it had gained him some notoriety in the right circles, and had allowed him a reasonably comfortable bachelor lifestyle.  If you wanted light, and you wanted it done perfectly, you called Joshua; that's all there was to it.  He _knew_ light.  And when he felt it burning through his eyelids, he thought perhaps it had all been a bad dream.  Then his body began to report aches and pains on all fronts, and he knew that it had been real.  He also knew he was alive.  He had to be alive; it would be far too cruel to force a dead man to haunt this hellish place.
    He couldn't open his eyes.  He didn't know how long they'd been in the caverns, living by flame and flashlight, but it had been long enough that his eyes had apparently become unable to cope with anything brighter.  He lay there for several moments, hearing nothing, feeling nothing that didn't report to his brain as some form of pain.  Then his thoughts slowly came back to him, and he leaped to his feet.  "We're alive!"  he shouted.  "Alive!  That big bastard did it!  We're alive!"  
    He slowly forced his eyes open to a blinding amount of light, noticing that his cries had roused some of the others lashed to the raft.  Or at least, lashed to what was left of it.  It hadn't completely survived the trip.
    So many things had happened at once, and so quickly.  He tried to remember everything from the moment they got the signal from Power on the island.  Everyone was so quiet, watching, listening.  For a long time, there was nothing, then there came the sounds of things being broken, and they became harder, louder, faster, more violent.  Everyone was transfixed, imagining what the giant was doing, what he was really capable of.  Everyone had seen his various publicity stunts, and even the odd bit of footage of him helping some group of Paras contain a threat too big for them to handle.  But there was still something different between seeing something on television and actually experiencing it first hand.  It was unbelievable.  Even the construction site at the bridge hadn't been so noisy.
    One moment there was nothing but the noises of things being smashed and ground as if by massive pieces of machinery, and the next the skyscraper was collapsing, dropping down through the ceiling of the cavern and falling over on its side.
    The water really started pouring in then, and Pollak had begun barking orders.  Everyone braced for the water to come, and come it had.  Even before the building had completely fallen, the water was lapping the raft.  As it floated, everyone worked on keeping it at the edge of the water, keeping it pushed as much to shore as possible.  It was difficult, but they managed.  Then the ceiling collapsed, and a massive wave washed over all of them, briefly filling the tunnel, only receding when he thought his lungs would burst.  The raft was battered, and everyone had suffered, some losing their oars and scampering to free new ones secured to the raft.  But the raft had held together!  Some of the lines had stretched, and water lapped here and there onto the decks, but they were afloat.  Anyone who could reach did what they could to tighten the lines, but no one stopped rowing.  Power had told them to stay in the tunnel until the water dropped.  He had hoped the giant knew what he was doing.
    The raft rose into the tunnel, finally bumping against the wall at the point the floor became too vertical to let the water pass.  Then they began to rise straight up.  The tunnel was now a shaft, and the raft floated up as if on some kind of elevator.  They fought here, too.  There were so many snags jutting from the walls!  The raft would snag here and there, but the water continued to lift.  Men would struggle to free it from one snag and it would catch somewhere else.  It was nightmarish to watch, panicked people struggling to free their section of raft before the water passed them, while other men watched closely, waiting for the need to cut the snagged section free....
    It was getting hotter by the minute as the raft rose.  It was already unbearable, even in the "cooler" lake room, at least by his standards.  He was gasping for breath, panting and weakening.  He scooped handsful of water from the edge and drank over and over again, trying to cool himself.  His ears popped.  That was odd.
    Someone across the raft shined a flashlight straight up, and was rewarded with a reflection.  "I hope" Jester said, matter-of-factly, "that we're almost out of water.  Otherwise, those of us without gills are going to be extremely uncomfortable."  He held the flashlight up, and slowly, the blind end of the tunnel came into view.  It was getting closer.  Much closer.  No one spoke.  They simply continued to stare.  Vaguely, he could hear the old nun praying.  It seemed like she never stopped.  Whatever worked for her at a time like this, he thought.  He briefly envied her conviction, if only for the solace it seemed to bring her.

    "Look!" Someone shouted.  Silly, really, since everyone was.  They could reach up and touch the ceiling here.  There was no debris in it; it was just that weird glassy brown-black stone.  It took a minute for anyone to notice what was being pointed out.  The heat had become so oppressive.  Each breath was a struggle.  In the tiny little pocket of air that remained, it seemed as if even oxygen itself was in short supply.
    "Oh my God!" Someone finally gasped.  Eventually Joshua noticed it, too.  There, almost hidden in the shadows, was a small opening in the ceiling. 
    Pollak stabbed his flashlight over the opening.  "This must be it!  This must be what Big Man wanted for us.  When he came in here, he must have somehow found this, all this way up...." his voice trailed off as he began untying himself from the raft so that he could climb up into the opening and explore it further.
    "Pollak."  Jester's flat tone betrayed his exhaustion.  The heat was wearing them all down, and fast.  Even the wood of the raft seemed to hot to touch.  "He weren't no damned bat.  There's no way that he...  could have...." He simply stopped talking.  Breathing was too much of an effort.
    Pollak had freed himself and was carefully stepping onto a container of food stores to boost himself into the opening.  "What the Hell--?!"
    He had slipped out of the small cave-let.  He reached again, but this time he had to reach over his head.  In another second, he could no longer reach it.  It took his heat-addled mind a moment to realize that the ceiling was moving up and away from him.
    "Someone" Jester wheezed, "tie that idiot down before we lose him."
    The raft was dropping.  The raft was dropping _fast_.  At first it was almost impossible to detect, but when they hit the first snag, it became apparent just how fast it was descending.  The raft had tilted to a sickening forty-five degree angle before they had managed to pry it loose.  It was much more difficult this way, with the snags under the raft and the weight of the raft coming to bear against their efforts.  "Keep her centered!" someone shouted, and everyone frantically paddled to do just that.
    "Cut us loose!  The rafts are smaller separate!"
    Jennifer was on him before he had finished speaking.  "You cut one line, and I'll cut your throat." She held her paddle, a jagged piece of aluminum, menacingly.  "I don't know what my brother had in mind, but he got us this far, and he trusted this idea enough-- " she choked on the words, but she knew the odds.  "Enough to die so that everyone here-- even you-- had a chance to live.  He trusted it with his life, and I'm going to trust it with mine.  If you can't trust it with yours, then jump."  There was a fierceness about her lithe frame and steel-grey eyes that quieted any argument he had.
    "Good."  She said.  "Now paddle!"  With that, she turned back to work.  
    The water was dropping so fast as to give the illusion of falling.  It weakened several stomachs, but everyone held firm to their task.  It became easier within minutes: the raft seems almost to center itself, spinning lazily, dead in the center of the strange vertical tunnel.  Then came a grim sucking noise.
    "Everyone hold tight!" Jester roared.  We're on the spin cycle!"  The water was draining so quickly that the need for air below had created a whirlpool beneath them.  The raft sank sickeningly to one side and began to spin faster.  Joshua had closed his eyes then, and wished he could clench his stomach as tightly.  He didn't know what really happened over the next few minutes, but there were no more snags.
    Water washed over the raft, a huge wall of it.  Suddenly the raft was a waving carpet, up in places and down in others as the roar of fast water deafened him.  He looked about, praying for any sign of relief, but there was none to be seen.  The raft was turning out of control, and everyone was paddling for their lives to keep it straight, to see what was coming.  They shot through the lake chamber, noticing that the water was low enough now that they could see the skyscraper's remains, lying on its side.  But the water was moving, and violently.More water continued to pour down on them-- far less than had been coming in before, but still enough to do real harm to them should they pass under it.  Broken necks, perhaps.  Swamping most definitely.
    Joshua joined the others in trying to move the raft to the edge of the room.  Briefly, he envied the senile nun, who seemed to be oblivious to everything.   The water above was like ice: cold and hard when it hit.  The raft rushed through the lake room and blew into another cave, this one almost completely made of that same glass-rock.  There was far less debris here, but the rock itself seemed to have been frozen in turmoil, causing the water to pitch and roll as it crashed its way through.  The next leg of their journey seemed like an eternity, and endless endurance match to push off from one trap and spin around the next.  He had no idea how much time had passed.  Eventually, they were through, and the water smoothed out.  The raft had taken a beating.  Two of the sections had snapped free during the violent rollicking, but they drifted nearby, their flashlights lazily spinning on the water.  
    "Throw a line!" someone hollered.  The rafts were quickly tied back together.  Not neatly or tightly as before, but the best possible under the circumstances.  At least they were together.  It was cooler, Joshua noted.  Much, much cooler than it had been.  He looked at his companions, who were slumped around the raft in various poses of exhaustion.  No one spoke.  He, too, relaxed, feeling his abused muscles complain for the umpteenth time since this whole thing had started.  He casually noted that the food stores had been washed away, perhaps when the raft broke up.  Oh well, he thought.  Too tired to eat anyway.  He closed his eyes for a moment....

    He was the first one to recover, and was overjoyed at what he found.  They had washed out into sunlight.  A greasy, yellow-tinted sunlight, filtered through dust and rubble not unlike the air they had first encountered, but it was sunlight nonetheless.  "We're alive!"  His jubilation turned into coughing.  As if it were now an old habit, he tore off his one remaining sleeve and soaked it in the thin trickle of water that had once been the river they rode to their salvation.  He noted that the exposed areas of his arm were considerably redder than the skin exposed when he removed the sleeve.  Evidently they had been out here for some time, the entire group of them too exhausted to do more than sleep.  He shook the tattered bit of cloth a bit to clean off as much dirt as he could.  Satisfied, he gave it a twist to squeeze out the excess water and wrapped it around his face to filter the air.
    Pollak freed himself from his tethers to the raft and climbed shakily to his feet.  He looked around at the survivors, clearing his head.  He found Jester lying nearby and nudged him with his boot.  “You alive, Jester?”
    “I must be.” Jester grunted, slowly working his eyes open.  “God wouldn’t let a dead man hurt this damned much.”  He, too, rose to his feet and surveyed the survivors and the immediate surroundings.  “Well, we seem to be better off for the moment.  But where the Hell are we?"  He looked around a bit more.  He saw the ragged maw through which they must have drifted-- a jagged low cut across a cliff face, perhaps eighty yards wide, but only a few feet high.  Still, it would provide shelter if they needed it.  There was water here, too.  The river wasn't the same mighty flood they rode out of Hell.  It was little more than a reflecting pool, perhaps two feet deep, and barely sixty feet across.  Still, it would remain for at least a few days, as the only runoff seemed to be a tiny trickle near which they now found themselves.

    The rafts had ridden out evidently entirely on flood water, and were now high and dry, the miniature stream of runoff ran directly under them and on again to the other side.  It was amazing that they hadn't all been killed.  Scarcely thirty yards away was the edge of this platform.  He walked to it and looked down.  Dust.  Smoke.  Steam.  Fire?  Intrigued, he looked closer.  He was no geologist, but he had seen enough television to believe that there, perhaps a mile and a half below them, was cooling molten lava.  The characteristic glowing red-orange streaks tracing through a black field certainly suggested it.  He didn't think this was a volcano, though.  It just didn't look like any volcano he'd ever seen on television or in photos, but what did he know?
    He walked the platform's perimeter.  At this point, his nerves would settle for nothing less than making sure nothing was going to crumble, fall, flood, or otherwise wreak havoc with his environment.  The flood waters pushed out everything in their path, and their erosive force unearthed more rubble and pushed it outward.  Evidently the entire cliff face was nothing more than dust-covered rubble and debris.  Bits of earth here and there, chunks of a tree or two, massive pieces of asph--
The bridge!  The damned bridge that had threatened to be their tomb  now appeared to have been their salvation.  It was easily two-thirds of this platform.  Must have been one _Hell_ of a flood! he thought to himself.  He continued to take stock, no longer surprised by what he found.  A massive concrete lamp post.  The battered hulk of a school bus.  The fuselage of an airplane, nose buried into the cliff face.  The world's biggest refrigerator.  No; scratch that.  Some kind of battered steel box, though.  Maybe a commercial freezer?  Hope drew him closer.  His spirits were crushed before he got there.  As he got closer, what the dust had lead him to hope was a freezer was in fact a badly battered elevator.  The cables and attachments were on the far side, hanging over the edge, and he couldn't make them out in the dust.
    He turned back to the group, stretching, rousing, exploring, but mostly excited at their new status.  Outside!  Outside was as good as home, at least for the moment.  "Hey, Pollak!" he called.
    "Yeah?"  Pollak had been checking on the nun and started towards Jester.
    "What do you know about volcanoes?"
    He was near the edge now, almost to Jester.  "Not much.  Why?"
    "Take a gander down and tell me what you think."
    He did.  He stared for a long time.  Finally, without taking his eyes away, he said "I don't know.  I have no idea."  He continued to stare, trying to focus on something that had caught his eye.
    He moved over to Jester, speaking in a whisper, just over his shoulder.  "Have you taken a head count?"
    "Not yet.  Been kinda scared to.  Why?"
    Pollak glanced back toward the edge of the bridge/platform.  "I don't think we all made it." he said, somberly.

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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    Jester turned slowly to the edge and peered over.  Finally, he saw it.  A limp form, dangling perhaps two hundred yards below.  Someone was dangling over the bottom, tangled in the elevator cables.  Jester's heart fell.  They had come through so much.  "Do you think...  Do you think there's a chance?"
    "I can't see how."
    "It ain't right to leave 'em there without knowing.  We gotta at least check."
    Pollak was trying to come up with a feasible way to scale down the elevator cables and back without putting anyone at risk.
    "All present and accounted for, Jester." came a chipper voice.  "I can't believe we made it.  I just can't believe it!"  He nearly raced back to the others, who were already brainstorming methods to scale the apparently sheer wall above them, or signal for help, or any of a dozen other plans.
    Pollak and Jester stared at each other.  All hands accounted for.
    "Pollak, that man might be another survivor!"
    "He's been hanging there for-- for days, at least.  There's no way he's still..." his voice trailed off.
    "Maybe not!  Suppose he was washed out with the flood?  Suppose he was someone we left for dead in the shipping containers, and he managed to get out and got caught up in the flood?  Suppose he's just a lone man who got lucky?  Suppose he just fell down there while checking on us?  Can you do it, Pollak?  Can you leave him there without at least trying?"
    Pollak shook his head.  "No.  I know we should; we've gotten by on nothing but pure miracle so far.  But I can't do it.  Still, we need to look at this rationally."  Pollak was clearly torn.  He wanted to do the right thing, but the risk involved, the odds of the person hanging from those cables being alive...  it was unthinkable.  Still, it was all he could think about.
    Jester stared at him, through him.  "Mr. Pollak, there was a young man that could have walked away unscathed at the very start of this.  But he didn't.  He stayed and he saved a Hell of a lot of us.  He had more than one chance to simply leave, and our ghosts would've been none the wiser.  But he didn't.  He stayed, and he gave us the only chance we ever had of living through this nightmare.  In the end, even when there's little doubt he could have simply taken care of himself and gone on, he sacrificed his own life so that we would have one last chance.  Think about that, Pollak.  Think about that long and hard.  Now Mr. Pollak, as far as I'm concerned, I died ten times in that hole.  But I'm still walking.  If I die today, trying to help that man, then I haven't lost a damned thing.  Way I see it, we owe it to the Big Man."
    Pollak simply nodded.  He was a good man, and it was what he wanted to do, inside.  He just needed someone to make the risk worthwhile.
    "Don't worry about it, gentlemen." a curt voice spoke behind them.  They turned to see Sister Sara Catechism, looking fresh, invigorated, wearing her contented smile, the unearthly glow returned to her.  "You will not be so foolish as to risk your lives going to help that man."
    "Sister, he's not in any condition to climb up here."
    "No, Mr. Pollak; he is not.  Moreover, he has no idea that you are up here.  I intend to remedy both of those situations.  With that she stepped lightly off the edge of the platform.
    "SISTER!" they hollered in unison, reaching for her.
    "Do not worry for me, gentlemen."  She stood there, hovering over the abyss.  I will be fine." She turned to the crowd that had begun to form.  "We all will be fine.  Right now, I have a purpose to fulfill.  I am sorry to say that I will be resting long before you are, however.  I apologize if this seems gluttonous, but I would ask that you find it in your hearts to forgive an extremely tired old woman for looking forward to it."
    With that, she drifted slowly downward, unhurried, for all the world like a dandelion seed on a fall breeze.  As those gathered at the edge watched, she slowly dwindled in the distance until she was floating just an arm's reach from the person trapped in the lines.


    There was a breeze in Hell.  Hot.  Dry.  Just a light breeze.  Not enough to heat or to cool, but it didn't matter.  Hell itself was warm enough.  Spiders.  There had been spiders.  Gigantic things they had been.  He had been tossed back and forth as they fought over him, each snatching him in turn, then getting snatched away again by an unseen combatant.  Over and over, being beaten and thrown and smashed and repeatedly tossed to the side.  Finally, a victor had emerged.  Perhaps they had simply set him to the side, waiting for some other method of determining who would devour him.  At least they had stopped.  At the end, he had been thrown into an enormous web, too weak and disoriented to free himself.  He struggled weakly at first, but succeeded only in getting himself further tangled and quickly gave up.  There was no reason to make himself more miserable.  The spiders would return.  Perhaps they wouldn't.  Perhaps they were quarreling already over some new prey and he would be forgotten, left to die.  Did they let you die in Hell?  Did you die again?  Over and over?  In moments of lucidity, he wondered what happened if a person died and went to Hell, and died again in Hell, what then?  Reboot?  Start over again in Hell?  Was there a Hell's Hell?  
    Those moments ceased to be entertaining, and he began shutting his mind down.  When the end came, he didn't want to be aware enough to savor it.  He had done all he could do.   As he allowed his thoughts to vanish, he spent just an instant wishing that they hadn't left him upside down....

    "Martin"

    There was a noise, distant, but sharp.  Spiders?  No; likely not.  It was drier than it had been when the spiders were hunting.  How long had he been...  Had he been out?  He was reasonably sure that he was out now.  Was there a deeper out?  Death was weird.  Perhaps that was it-- perhaps he was out now, but had been dead before.  Something brought him back to just being out.  It was gone now.  Very unpleasant thing to do, interrupting a man's death.  His head was pounding.  He was vaguely aware that there was a reason for that, but didn't care enough to remember what it was.  Besides, his head hurt enough.  He didn't bother listening, but when he realized that the noise was gone, he let himself drift off again.  Clearly he wasn't dead enough yet.  He had to get busy with the dying before the pain in his head drove him crazy.  Wouldn't want to die the second time only to wake up too crazy to appreciate the third.

    "Martin Power, open your eyes this instant!"

    The noise was back.  It was almost familiar.  Definitely not spiders.  The pain in his head was unbelievable.  He couldn't fully comprehend it.

    "Martin Power, if you don't answer me, I shall crack you with a ruler!"
    
    It was a grating, unpleasant noise.  It was nothing next to his head, though.  He began to think again.  He had to find words to describe it, or he would never be able to understand it, control it.  The noise was starting to irritate him.  Yet there was something strangely fearsome about it.  Strange.  He was certain that it couldn't actually hurt him, yet it stirred something primal inside of him.

    "Martin, they need you.  You did exactly as you were supposed to.  Everyone has survived, Martin, but only for now.  They cannot complete their journey without you.  They need you."

    There was something....  something he had been doing before he died.  Something important.  At least, he thought it was important.  It was definitely the reason he had died; that much he remembered.  He had to make sure it was done, and there wasn't any other way to do that...  What was it?  Trying to remember was brutalizing his head; it made the pain even worse--
    No. Not 'worse.'  More intense.  More vivid.  More...  real.  He was remembering....  the spiders.  The spiders had left him upside down...  The pain....  the blood in his head...  how long... how long had they kept him here?
    Spiders?  No...  Not spiders.  Rocks?  Maybe rocks. That didn't seem right.  Rocks don't move.  They couldn't have thrown him about....

    "Martin, your sister is alive.  Right now her heart is crushed.  She is weeping the last of her life away, thinking she has lost you, Martin.  You have to wake up.   You have much work left to do."

    Something about...?  Water.  There had been water.  Water...  and people...  There were people-
    Jennifer!  Jennifer had been there!  He had been....  the people, they needed...  they were...  His eyes snapped open.  He remembered everything.  His sister, the caverns, the end of the world, the flood he had created, bashing out a cavern wall to create a drain path-- everything.

    "Hello, Martin.  Welcome back to the Land of the Living."  Sister Sara beamed her reassuring smile at him.
    "nnn... Nice to be here.  I think.  Was I... Did I...  Was I dead?  Really?"
    "No, Martin.  You were not dead.  You would have been, however, had I not awakened you.  You had already given up your spirit, and trussed like this, gravity and physiology would have done the rest.  It would have taken considerably longer for you, of course, but even you, Martin, have your limits."
    "I'm  not sure I understand what you're talking about Sister, but if you've got something for a headache, I'd be forever grateful.  And Sister?  Why are you upside down?"
    She laughed lightly, full of peace and happiness.  "I think you should take a look around yourself, Martin.  You have managed to get yourself into quite a predicament."
    Martin was still groggy.  He tried to look about himself, but the world was just too bright.  he groaned a bit in spite of himself.
    "Here." She held out here hand.  "You may find these helpful."
    He forced himself to focus on her hands.  In them, for reasons he couldn't begin to understand, were his glasses.
    "At least until your headache clears." she finished.
    He took the glasses and carefully slipped them around his pounding head.  "Thank you, Sister."  The glare was instantly gone, though his headache had not abated.  He squinted a few times, still having trouble focusing.  "I still feel... " lacking adequate words, he simply left the thought hanging.
    "You should right yourself, Martin.  That can't possibly be good for your brain." She chuckled.
    He looked around, trying to understand the images flashing before his eyes.  It took some doing, but he finally managed to put together a rough image of the universe, or at least his part in it.  Evidently he was floating over something that seemed to be a massive pit, parts of which appeared to be cooling from a superheated state.  He was hanging upside down, trapped in a tangle of steel cables.  For some reason, the idea that Sister Sara was floating in midair struck him as the most normal part of his current situation.
    He flexed his body, tightening and relaxing muscles, bending and straightening joints, and then set about righting himself.  He folded his abdomen, bringing his hands closer to his feet, then grabbed the cables.  A short series of hand-over-hand movements and he was upright again.  The world spun sickeningly while his circulatory system adjusted.  Spots swam before his eyes, and he reached a level of dizziness so intense as to be physically painful.  He kept his grip on the cables, but it was difficult, as intent as the world was on bucking him off.
    The universe stabilized eventually, but the process had left him dazed, tired.  His head still pounded.  Nothing like it was, but it was still pretty bad.
    "Well, thank you for waking me up, Sister."  He said, partly to buy time to finish taking in the situation, and partly because he felt a need to say-- something.
    "You are welcome, Martin, but I confess, it was necessary.  The others need you.  Your sister needs you."
    "Jennifer!" He snapped to focus, clear, and ready to continue.  "Where is she?  Where can I find the others?"
    She grinned playfully.  "It's fairly simple."  She pointed to the cables.  "Just take the elevator.  You can't miss them.
    She watched him climb for a few moments.  He moved slowly at first, gingerly, while his head was still cloudy.  Soon he had fallen into a rhythm, and as soon as she felt his mind was again clear, she floated up beside him.  "I have to go now, Martin."  There was something final, suggestive in her tone that made him uneasy.
    "Go...?"
    "I have fulfilled my purpose.  There is nothing left for me to do.  There is nothing that they need of me, either, so I would appreciate it if you would get the boys to Dallas for me.  Sister Mary will look after them.  And thank you for your help with them, Martin.  They will grow into fine young men.  Good-bye, Martin Power.”  Her face softened, and a smile far warmer than any Martin would have ever thought her capable of wearing spread pure, joyous pleasure across her features and she reached out a hand to caress his cheek.  “I have thoroughly enjoyed knowing you, and I am honored to have played a part in your life."
    With that, she began to drift away from him and up, away from the molten stone below them.
    "Sister!" He called, panicked.  "Why?  Why can't you stay with us?"
    "Martin," she chided, "they cannot reach you where you are; they cannot reach you where they are.  Even when you get to where you can be reached, they will not know that you are there unless I go on."  She began to float upward.  "Your sister loves you, Martin.  You must take care of her now, and let me do what I have been called to do."
    She continued to float upward, staring straight toward Heaven.  She passed the survivors on the platform and softly announced "He is alive, and will be along shortly."  She offered no other explanation as she continued skyward, extending her arms and gently gaining speed as a soft wind began to stir and carry her aloft.  Her mysterious glow increased, getting brighter and brighter.
    Soon, she was two hundred feet above the top of the cliff, blazing a brilliant light that cut through the swirling dust.  Brighter and brighter, the light intensified until it seemed to burn the dust itself, the intensity itself pushing away everything but the air.  A wave of fire radiated out from around her in every direction as every speck of dust within a mile burst into flame, and leaving the light amplified ten fold.
    The survivors below averted their eyes; Martin's glasses went fully opaque.  It was like looking through a telescope at the heart of the sun.  There was no heat, no litteral flame, only an indescribably brilliant white light.
    The light begin to fade, slowly, like an after-image slowly disappearing from a viewer's retinas.  When it had finished fading, Sister Sara was gone.

    That was it, then, he thought.  She had made the same sacrifice that he thought he himself had made.  Like his own, her sacrifice would not be for nothing.  He ripped his arms loose of his fetters, then reached down and tore his legs free.  The heavy steel cables popped like twine.  He began to haul himself up the lines toward the platform.  He chuckled to himself.  He knew how it must look to an observer: dangerous, heroic.  He felt for a moment that it should be more challenging, or at least difficult.  His strength and power were still with him, and they let him ascend as though he were a monkey.

    The survivors had all seen Sister Sara float by.  Fascinated, curious, they crowded the edge of the platform, watching the figure scaling the cables toward them.  The sun glinted off his glasses.

 

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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    "MARTIN!" Jennifer shrieked, an ecstatic, indescribable relief flooding through her body, charging her muscles like an electric shock.  "Martin!"  Without a thought, she leaped over the edge toward him, arms outstretched.  The others looked on in horror, reaching for her moments too late.
    "Martin!" she  screamed, falling towards him.
    He looked up and his jaw fell open.  Without thinking, he snapped the cable, wrapping it around his leg, and trapped it in place by scissoring his legs together over it.  He leaned back and braced himself, arms outstretched.  Even has he reached out, she fell into his arms, crashing against his chest, her arms wrapped stranglingly tight around his neck.  
    "Martin!  Oh Martin!  Martin!"  She showered his cheek with kisses, tried to speak, over and over, but she was too racked with sobs of relief.
    "Have you lost your mind?!" he raged at her.  
    She ignored him and continued to squeeze his neck, continued kissing his face.  "Big Brother, I thought.... I thought....   I was so scared, Grumpy..."
    "Jennifer you could have _died_!"
    "Oh no." She said, nearly crazed with relief.  "No way, Big Brother.  Not with you here.  You wouldn't let me fall.  Not ever."  She fell against his chest again and resumed sobbing, raining blows of anger and frustraion against his chest.  "How could you?!  How could you do that to me?!" She fell to crying again, sobbing silently as he resumed his climb.  Twenty minutes later, he was hauling himself up over the bank of debris at the edge of the platform, Jennifer's arms wrapped around his sizable neck, her head resting on his shoulders.
    "Good afternoon, Mr. Power." Jester greeted him.  "Good to have you with us again.  I see you found your sister."
    "You... you made it?  All of you?" He knew what Sister Sara had told him, but to see them all with his own eyes, and remember the gamble he had taken, uncertain of anything except that the water was going somewhere.  It was powerful, seeing all those faces, grinning relief and appreciation at him.
    "Every last one, to a soul.  Except... well... the Sister...."  There was no need to finish.  There was no doubt that anyone within line of sight had seen what had occurred.
    "Yeah; I know."  He stared down at his sister, who was still holding tightly to his neck, dangling nearly three feet off the ground.  "Jennifer?"  he nudged.
    She kissed his face once more and slipped to the ground.  "We missed you, Big Brother."  She grinned unashamedly, tears of elation still running fresh from the corners of her eyes. 
     Jester and Pollak, with periodic commentary and assistance from some of the others, filled him in on the events after the skyscraper had collapsed.


Many miles away, near a cliff face, a large camp was buzzing with activity.  Trucks and jeeps and men scurried back and forth; airplanes landed on makeshift runways while bulldozers cleared debris from the ground to make room for more planes and more men.  Fuel trucks scurried between the landed planes, pumping them full while the crews turned them over to waiting pilots on the ground.  Generators growled, feeding spotlights and powering equipment.
    In one of the many tents, a young soldier stared at a computer screen in confusion.  He flipped a switch, sending the feed to a larger monitor in front of many gathered men and entered a series of commands that would begin recording what he saw and sending signals to the many other camps spread across a thousand miles of precipice.  "Sirs," he interrupted.  "I think you should all see this."
    The large monitor, and many others like it at tents all along the military line, glowed to life.  "We have no idea what it is yet, Sirs, but it could bear investigating."

    
    Martin took stock of his surroundings, noting the sheer cliff face.  He noted that it was primarily the glass-rock material and earth.  While there was plenty of debris, it was nothing like the caverns: this was free of random elements of earth and metal, a nearly pure glass-like wall whose only features were the ripples from the cooling liquid that formed it.  Perhaps anything out here that could be burned had done just that?  He had no way of knowing, and it really didn't matter.  What mattered right now was that there was nothing threatening to crush them; they had made it outside.  The only thing between them and freedom was the almost sheer cliff face, which his glasses estimated to be roughly four miles high.  He  glanced down below toward the floor, curious about just how high this cliff was.  Unfortunately, there was simply too much dust and steam for the equipment in his glasses to get a proper fix.  Oh well; they didn't have to go down, so down wasn't important.  It was clearly more than enough to be a fatal fall for his charges; that was all that mattered.
    His gaze fixed on the small pool of water in the shade of the maw-like rip into the cliff face.  Jester's hand appeared before him, offering him a coffee cup.  "Funny thing, ain't it, Son?"  the old constructioneer chuckled.  "Seems it was only us old fellas that had sense enough to fasten the cups into our tool belts.  Here.  Get yourself some.  Got no idea how long you been danglin' in the sun.  Can't imagine you not bein' a bit parched." he winked.
    Martin accepted the cup and strode toward the pool.  Jester's comment piqued his curiosity, and he toggled on his HUD.  One hundred and fifty-six hours.  He was surprised to note that the clock function was displaying again: Thursday, 3:30 PM.  Six and one-half days after the world came to an end, they seemed to be very close to leaving their nightmare behind.
    He instantly regretted having thought that.  How many of the survivors would make it to the top?  It would be treacherous for even an experienced mountain climber; the glass-smooth surface afforded few handholds.  Of those who did make it to the top, how many had lost their homes, their jobs?  Their friends?  Their entire families?  No; this would never be over.  For many of the survivors, returning to the world-- if there was anything left of it-- would simply end this surreal adventure.  Then the nightmares could begin.
    He forced himself to stop thinking this way, and distracted himself by checking his glasses to see what other functions had returned.  The GPS function seemed to work, but it was iffy.  He was finally getting a signal, but evidently there was simply too much interference here; the signal was sporadic, and the data changed randomly as it flickered in and out or reception.  He toggled on the radio receiver and was met with ear-splitting static, followed by signals stacked one on top of the other.  Strange, for secure frequencies.  Evidently there was either a great deal of random radio noise, or the atmosphere was very, very busy.  He killed the radio-- his head was pounding hard enough already, but left the GPS up in the background.  The full HUD disappeared, replaced by a tiny tag in the corner of his vision that displayed estimated coordinates.  In a few moments, he managed to tune the distraction out.  Thirst slaked, he mulled over his thoughts.

    "Okay, it's nearly five o'clock." He announced to the group assembled before him.  There's no food left, but we're in far better shape than we have any right to take credit for.  We don't know how much light we're going to have left, or what we're going to find on the way up.  Right now, we're not even sure how we're going to get up.  However, we won't be trying it tonight.  I suggest that tonight, we get as comfortable as we can, and we get some rest.  Once we start climbing, I can't imagine that there will be any place to stop."
    He looked about the faces before him.  While all were still relieved to be free from the caverns, the way their faces fell when he mentioned the climb told him that many of them had purposely avoided thinking about the reality of their current situation.  They were safer than they had been in days, but they were still far from truly "safe."  Still, his survival had seemed to reassure many of them, most of all his own sister, Jennifer.
    "Drink your fill tonight and tomorrow morning; we may not find water again for some time.  For the first time in a long time, though, we do have a small luxury.  We have the chance to sleep.  I suggest we not waste it."  He watched as they busied themselves trying to get as comfortable as the platform would let them, or passing drinking vessels around, or simply stretching out and relaxing, making small talk.
    He had other reasons for wanting to wait.  His head was still throbbing, too much so to consider focusing on an intensive project like getting these people up a glassy cliff.  And as of right now, he still had no idea how he was going to do it.   He paced the perimeter of their tiny shelf of flatness for the hundredth time, trying to think.  Finally he gave up, and headed for the shade of the cave.  He passed the hulk of a small car jutting out from the debris.  Absently, he tore the trunk lid free, folded it into a crude tub, and walked to the pool.  He dipped it into the water and poured it over himself, cooling himself briefly and washing away some of the omnipresent grime he had gathered hanging from the cables.
    With nothing left to do, he propped himself against the wall of the cave, darkened his glasses, and went to sleep.  Some time before he dropped off completely, he noticed that Jennifer had come and laid down across his chest, her small arms wrapped tightly around an upper arm the size of her torso.  He placed his hand over her back and drifted to sleep.

 

 

 

copyright D.E."Duke" Oliver, 2019

 

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Thanks, Chris--

 

and I will, but it's a bit awkward.

 

As it's stored in Google, and I don't use Chrome as my primary browser....  well, when I open Google, it tries to supplant my preferred browser, and it's rather a PITA to get it up here (hence the larger and larger sections of late).

 

But I'll get it all posted in due time.  As Rravenwood pointed out, it's a bit largish to digest all at once anyway.  :lol:

 

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