Island State of Malta
The residents of the ancient walled city of Mdina rose that morning to a clear sky and gentle sun. Beyond the towering walls and rocky hillsides, the sea lay flat with the occasional ripple running from any one of a number of lazy oars pulled by rugged men in colorful fishing boats.
Elias Spartan rowed his boat just far enough that he could easily see the red tile roof and balcony of his family’s home. Locking the oars to the boat’s gunwale, he reached deep inside his wool coat and produced a two-handed flask filled with bajtra. Not seeing the small form he was waiting for on the distant balcony, he took a heavy swig and savored the magical remnants of fermented prickly pear. If one sip hit the spot, Elias thought, two would finish the job. So he took another mouth-filling slug. He glanced at his phone, stuck with Velcro to the inside of the hull: 6:20 a.m. He had at least ten minutes before she would shuffle outside, rotate the telescope his way, and wave. A tradition he’d shared with his father from this same spot and now one he played out each morning with his youngest daughter.
He glanced at the fishing nets on the deck and instead grabbed the coffee-stained newspaper that was smaller, thinner, and more expensive than it used to be. Printed words felt right on a fishing boat. Elias stretched out and for the first time read the front-page headline: North Koreans Militarize Space Lab! USA, China, and Russia Follow. He scanned the paragraphs and a chill rolled over him. According to the Maltese National, the North Koreans had smuggled a dozen nukes into their “space lab” over the past decade. The USA and Russia quickly amassed nukes onto their own space platforms.
“Always finding new ways to threaten the world,” Elias mumbled. “Maybe we should talk more and terrorize less.” Weathered hands crumpled the pages into a ball and tossed it near the stern just as figure moved across the distant balcony and traipsed toward the telescope.
Elias rolled on the bench, found his binoculars, sat upright, and focused them. A curly black mop of hair appeared behind the telescope and Lela’s small hands rotated the copper cylinder toward the sea. A smile broke across his face as she waved then followed with a spastic throwing of more kisses than Elias could catch while still trying to hold his binoculars. The kisses stopped. Lela spun back toward the house, where a woman ran out, scooped her up, and ran back inside.
The boat’s hull rattled and buzzed, the phone rocking back and forth while its screen flashed red and white with anemergency alert symbol followed by:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO MALTA & SURROUNDING AREAS. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
Surely this is a mistake… His wife’s image appeared on the phone, and Elias ripped it off the hull, staring up at his home. “What is happening—?”
“ROW ELIAS! ROW FOR YOUR LIF—”
The line went dead and was replaced with a flashing alert.
Elias snatched up the oars, dropped them into the locks, spun the boat around with one oar, and then ripped them through the water’s placid surface. Other boats small and large raced and rowed from all around him. Thunder boomed and echoed above from the cloudless blue sky. As Elias pulled harder, shiny streaks appeared from the west. Reddish, blurry dots that left white trails raced in from the east. “Oh God! No, no, no!” His arms were numb, the oars skipping, losing their rhythm. Directly overhead, a field of white dots erupted.
A bright flash exploded in the north, followed by a towering fireball and the unmistakable shape of a mushroom cloud. Sicily, Elias thought; he had friends and family there. More clouds climbed high into the graying-sky from all directions—some close, some distant. Spain, the United Kingdom to the west, and possibly Turkey or Syria to the east? The shapes kept appearing, growing into one another as they reached for the sky.
The sea pulled his fishing boat away from the approaching shoreline. His body spent, chest pounding and lungs burning, Elias dropped the oars. His fishing boat was dragged north. He flipped onto his back, chest heaving, and he spotted the outline of his wife and three children on the fading balcony. He tried to raise an arm, a final farewell, but he could not move.
A shadow covered his boat. The sky darkened and the sound of rushing wind grew to a deafening roar. Elias Spartan’s fishing boat disappeared into a fifty-meter wave churning with bodies, boats, and buildings—and heading toward Mdina’s walls.
Chapter 2. –Batal & Danu–
Four Hundred Years Later
A gentle knock sounded on the woven grass and hide door.
“Batal, are you awake?”
The thick stone walls of the small room held the early morning heat at bay.
“Yes, Mother.” Batal sat up, spun his lean, tanned legs over the straw mattress, and yawned. “Ready in five minutes.”
The shadow remained under his door.
“Blessed eighteenth birthday, my son. You are an elder now. I’ll leave so you can use the light.” Steps echoed down the hallway, and the shadow disappeared.
Batal stood, stretched, dropped his shorts to the limestone floor, and opened his bedroom door. Natural light and growing heat poured in from the shaft that ran from the roof to the foundation at the center of the structure. Naked, Batal started with his feet, spreading the space between each toe.
“Check,” he mumbled and ran his hands up each calf, both thighs, then moved to his man-parts. Relieved, he angled his back, so its reflection was lit on the wall-mounted mirror. Fine, white lines started at his shoulders, cascaded serpentine downward, and ended in a large mottled patch above his ass. “Scars look bright today.”
He then squinted at a small dark spot sitting just under his left shoulder blade. “You may be new.” He shuffled closer to the wall. “Shit. Almost made it to eighteen without a single one.” He raised a hairless eyebrow. “Still, a record.”
Batal rotated in the light, looking down at his thin, but muscled chest and found a single hair. “Ha! How you like that!” he exclaimed, fluffing the lone follicle the best he could. Grabbing a small hand mirror and using it in concert with the wall mirror, he checked his smooth scalp, neck, and ears. Batal stared into his own golden eyes. Even your eyes weren’t safe; radiation seeped into everything. “Check.”
“Breakfast is ready!”
Batal caught the strain in his mother’s voice. She’s lifting something heavy. Bread! he thought; dense, beautiful, and as important as clean air: Birthday Bread. “Coming!” He stretched toward the pile of clothes on the cold floor, sniffed for the cleanest ones, and was on the move, getting dressed as he hopped, stumbled, and bounced toward the kitchen.
Reaching the tall arch that led into the open space with the cob oven in its center, Batal pushed his arm through the shirt’s final sleeve and appeared out of the dark corridor. Batal stood wide awake, the scent of bread swirling up into the vaulted beams bracing the stone-slabbed ceiling. He then stared at his mother, a broad shit-eating grin covering his face.
“Birthday Bread!” Batal hugged the small woman, his arms wrapping around her slight frame, which disappeared within his broad embrace.
“Sorry, Mother.” He released her, his gaze falling on the many lesions covering her arms, neck, and smooth scalp. Her skin was much darker than his and hid her wounds from a distance. She was getting old, already in her early forties with a healthy chance to make it to sixty, which was rare these days, but not as rare as it was during the early generations.
No wife or children, Batal was already older than when most healthy fathers had their first child. He had the start of his first radiation lesion at eighteen when average men were covered in them. His family, the Spartans, were the most successful breeders in all of Skye Stone. This also made Batal’s pairing crucial to his family’s future and that of the island fortress they called home. Skye Stone’s vast walls kept the fire and waves at bay, but the radiation continued to flow, silent and deadly. It was carried by the wind, pushed through the ocean currents and filtered by every living creature left on earth.
Batal sat heavy on one of the four small stools set around the wooden table. The grain ran smooth and tight; oil from generations of Spartan hands permeated the table’s surface. The scent of fish, herbs, and blood emanating from the table hinted at the skill and trade that kept Batal Spartan, and the ancestors before him, in luxury. Fishers fed the community’s survival and provided immense economic might to the island nation of Skye Stone. But Spartans were as much fisherman and warriors.
A mighty loaf of steaming bread thumped on the table before him.
“You’re somewhere in that head of yours.” His mother sat at the stool next to him. “The bread is cooling, let’s eat it before the aroma fades, and the fish no longer swim at the surface.” She reached under the table and rested a small earthen container with a shiny lid in front of Batal.
His face lit up. “Is it?”
She laid a small, flat knife next to the container. “Open it and see.”
Batal’s hands were on the container before she finished. “Butter! Fresh butter!” He tore off a chunk of bread, slathered butter on it, passed it to his mother, and repeated the action for himself.
“Batal?” She leaned in and kissed his butter-covered cheek. “I love you. Your father would be so proud of who you have become.”
His hands stopped, and as chunks of bread fell from his mouth, he ran his arm across his mouth to clear a path. A shine covered his eyes. “I love you, too… I miss Father. I miss them all.”
“But we are still here and you, my son, must carry on the Spartan name and improve upon the Spartan family line,” she replied. “We only hope to find others that resist the radiation better than those lost to it, with bodies hardened to its effects, and its poison. Your father has given you a longer life, and you must do the same for your children.”
Batal stuffed more bread into his face, added more butter, and tore larger-size pieces from the shrinking loaf. “The aroma is fading.” Another smile appeared and Batal handed his mother the last piece with extra butter. “First, Mother, I must pull in the nets and deliver the catch to the market”—he pushed the last piece into his mouth—“and then we can speak of finding me a wife without lesions.” Cheeks filled, mouth covered in glistening grease, Batal stood, bent down, and hugged her. “I adore you, Mother, and there’s no better Birthday Bread than yours.”
She looked slyly to her son. “And how would you know I have someone in mind?”
“You are a baker—the best on the island. And you trade with those from beyond the wall. You are also the most cunning of creatures and the smartest person I know.” Batal opened the exterior door and turned back toward his mother. “And you always have a plan that begins long before the rest of us learn of its existence.”
“You know your mother well,” she replied as she tossed him a warm sack. “On your way. Plenty to discuss later.”
He smiled, slung the bag over his shoulder, closed the door, and headed toward the outer wall and his fishing boat.
Batal looked skyward. The walls of Skye Stone were legendary long before missiles rained from the sky and changed the Earth forever. Twenty meters tall and twenty meters thick, the original protective barriers crafted of massive blocks of limestone withstood the first nuclear blasts four centuries ago. But that was only the beginning. The Book told of winds made of fire turning the island’s inhabitants who were living above ground to ash and that the waves that followed washed away the few who still lived as well as the endless corpses of the dead. The ancient island formerly known as Malta was left for those poor souls who toiled in dank basements and cellars. These survivors rose by the hundreds and took control of what was left and called it Skye Stone.
Quickening his pace, Batal still could not fathom the image of the original walls at only twenty meters tall. Generation after generation used those walls as a foundation to build higher and higher until the outer wall now stood at over a hundred meters tall. The entire city was in its shadow. A mirrored tower in the island’s center stood at one hundred twenty meters tall and provided fresh air and extra light for the city’s five hundred inhabitants.
Batal reached the reinforced Iron Gate and the armored Guardians who controlled it. Two Scottish deerhounds sat at attention; their lean gray forms followed Batal’s every move. Curiosity filled their noble gaze and just enough ferocity to remind those that the deerhounds had a purpose to their watch, one that would end badly for anyone that crossed their pack. After the Descent, the deerhounds were the only dogs to survive in Skye Stone and adapted faster than their human companions to the new, harsh environment.
Jenna, the biggest of the four Guardians, leaned down until Batal could smell the homemade wine on her breath and see the patchy stubble on her head. “Leaving late today, aren’t we, Batal?”
“Birthday. You know what that means?” He unslung the sack over his shoulder and offered it to the four women who had become his good friends over the years.
“Birthday Bread!” They shouted in unison and tore the loaf into pieces. The gate opened, Batal walked through, then it closed behind him to the ravenous sounds of those hungry but working on being hungry no more.
In the distance, white-topped waves broke on the stone jetty surrounding the deep, but small harbor facing the Mediterranean Sea. The sky was hazy but clearer than most days and its pinkish hue appeared a softer shade than usual. Batal glimpsed the towering pinnacle of rock in the distance. The lone remains of Sicily. Much of the European continent lay covered in water after the land split and collapsed during the quakes, but a piece of Sicily rose to towering heights. When other survivors chose new names for what became new lands, the proud few of Sicily kept its name. They numbered less than one hundred and were renowned for the finest sea salts.
Colorful wooden boats bobbed in the protective zone. Harvest yellow blazed over their gunwales, Skye Stone blue on the first planks, coral orange and sun yellow followed until the final planks of blue disappeared into the sea without showing where the boats stopped and the sea began. Each sail sat rolled at the bottom of a tall wooden mast. A commotion spilled out from around the curving outer wall. A large, drunken man with his back to Batal was kicking at something substantial in the shadows. There’s always one, Batal thought as he walked away from the brute and toward his fishing boat.
A guttural bark boomed from behind, and then a sickening yipe, followed by a sorrowful howl.
Batal froze, spun back toward the thug, and before he realized it, had covered the twenty meters between them and was standing behind him as the bastard continued to kick the furry mass still snarling and snapping at his boot.
As the bludgeoning boot reloaded for another go, Batal hooked it with his foot, grabbed the back of the man’s shirt, and pulled back as hard as he could. The man’s lone remaining boot lifted off the ground, his head flung back, and he fell headfirst into the gravel. In dazed amazement, the brute was back on his feet and hammering wild punches in Batal’s general direction.
Batal blocked the first few, but one got through and sent him sprawling to the ground. He kicked up hard when he saw the wild-eyed man lunging downward, Batal’s foot sinking in the ample fat around the brute’s midsection. He was now on top of Batal; the stink of the man was everywhere, the weight crushing the breath out of him. Batal kept up his elbows, hands shielding his face, but he was losing, and it was about to get much worse.
“AAAHHHHH, ya fuck’n bastard!” the brute howled. The punches stopped and the man reached back to seize the neck of the bloodied and matted Scottish deerhound biting his leg. The dog snarled, the man gripping its neck tighter, but the hound didn’t let go. Instead it clamped down harder. The man cried again and shifted his weight.
Batal seized the opportunity and thrust up his hips, throwing the man off to the side, then rolled with him until he was now on top, unloading short, powerful punches. One after another, Batal alternated his hands with the shift of his weight until the man was silent, alive, but unconscious. Batal pushed off the man’s bouncing belly and staggered a few steps away and dropped to a knee. The deerhound shook its head a few more times and let go of the meaty calf it had shredded.
“It’s OK.” Batal huffed, blood running from his nose and the corner of his mouth. The dog was tall, its matted silver fur formed twisted lumps, but its eyes were bright. Injured, but alive. “Aren’t we a lovely pair? How’ve you survived without the protection of the wall?”
He stood, put his hands on his knees, and looked again to the brute-size heap of shit that lay in a pool of blood and piss, snoring with frothy red bubbles simmering through broken teeth. Batal moved toward the dog, which stood its ground even now, and kneeled next to it. Keeping his eyes down, Batal offered his hand for it to sniff.
The deerhound limped forward to Batal’s extended hand and clamped its teeth down on it. Batal flinched but did not pull away even as its grip felt close to breaking skin.
“Fair enough.” He looked into the hound’s eyes. Even up close the majesty of this ancient breed was humbling; its mistreatment infuriated Batal. “I’ll never lay a hand on you, and as long as I draw breath, you will have my protection.” He saw something else in its stare, too: strength and fearless loyalty. “And I’ll have yours?”
The deerhound released his hand and sat, panting, exhausted. Batal caught the hint of steel under its matted neck. He reached for the collar buried in tangled fur. The hound showed its teeth but allowed him to uncover the small piece of scrap-metal shaped like a heart that hung from a threadbare material with a thin piece of wire.
“Danu,” Batal read. He then glanced at its belly to check if it had man- or lady-parts. “Hello, girl.”
Her ears perked up, back straightened. She was a magnificent creature, and Batal would not forget it. As soon as he pulled in the nets, and if she allowed it, he’d clean her up and offer Danu a new home within the mighty walls of Skye Stone.