Aahana Chavan stood with billions of people inside an immense sphere. Around and above her, filling every space inside the huge ball, silent men, women, and children of every race stared up at the center. Aahana looked past the center to the other side, but the heads and shoulders of people miles away blended into a blur of tan and gray.
She could see farther, hear better, and think sharper than ever before, but the only movement her muscles could muster was a momentary quiver as the end rushed to meet her.
A blink of a second earlier, Aahana had placed a pot of potatoes on the bunker stove and turned to help Niki wash the lettuce.
Where was her sister now? And their friends? She hoped they stood beside her, but she couldn’t lower her head or move her eyes to find out.
Can I blink? Before she could try, a floating mist demanded her attention. Someone is out there.
The fog narrowed into the shape of a person sitting in a large chair. His garment stayed foggy white, but his face and hands turned tan as his hair shifted darker to brown.
He turned his head to look at her.
As surely as Aahana knew her name, she knew this figure on the throne was Lord Geebor. Without hearing a word, she understood Earth Defense had lost. Geebor ruled the world. Geeborans—people like Beatrice and her family—said this would happen.
How did President Apollo lose? He had his personal IT-troopers and Earth Defense. They won every battle to unite the world, growing larger and mightier with every campaign. The battle against Geebor was to last two days, three at the most. Apollo would end The Misery and put everything back the way it used to be.
That’s what everybody expected. That’s what Apollo promised.
Instead, Aahana found herself in an arena with billions of people and a huge image of Geebor floating in the center. What else did Beatrice predict?
Aahana wasn’t a Geeboran, but Beatrice was her friend. If that didn’t count, maybe Aahana could convince Geebor she was a neutral civilian who didn’t mind if he ruled the world.
Floating in front of her, Geebor spoke in a waterfall of voices, overlapping words in hundreds of languages. Two stood out above the others—English and her parents’ Hindi.
Geebor spoke to Aahana, “Welcome, my guest.”
Then he turned his face and spoke to everyone. “Into exile, all ruthless and wicked.”
Ruthless? Was he talking about Matt?
Geebor blurred and faded, and everything dimmed.
Aahana stumbled. Nobody pushed her and nothing moved beneath her feet, yet everything changed in an instant.
Lord Geebor’s fading shape turned into soft orange clouds lit by a setting sun beyond a canopy of redwood branches.
Aahana lowered her face to view a graveled clearing. She found Niki and grabbed her sister in a grateful embrace.
Niki gripped her in return. “What was that?”
“Don’t leave me, ever.” Aahana closed her eyes and swayed with Niki in delighted relief.
“I think we’re okay again.” Niki gave Aahana another tight squeeze.
An arm snaked across Aahana’s back and a hand gripped her shoulder. Another hand rested on her other shoulder.
She opened her eyes to see Divya and her brother Neel hugging her. “Is Matt here?”
Niki moved her head. “Yeah. He’s here.”
“I couldn’t move,” Matt said. “I’m glad you’re . . . we’re all here.”
Aahana smiled and closed her eyes. We made it. Even Matt.
The adults agreed someone should do it, but Matt was the one who pulled the trigger. But that didn’t matter now. Matt made it.
We’re still together.
But were they safe? Where are we now?
Matt and Neel lowered their arms and stepped back.
Aahana looked around. She and her family stood in the front row of an outdoor amphitheater in the middle of a redwood forest. Several hundred strangers stood behind them, scattered among the long wooden benches.
She caught the familiar scent of redwoods and damp dirt. A single owl called in the distance. She didn’t recognize this place, but it reminded her of the forest around their bunker home. Home! My horses! What will they eat if they can’t get out of the pen?
A stack of firewood stood in a pit in the clearing’s center. It would be dark soon. How long are we staying here?
Aahana looked again at the strangers standing behind her. Their conversations grew louder as they laughed and greeted family and friends. She didn’t see any Earth Defense uniforms or Committee patches.
Did Grim Geebor execute the remaining Earth Defense soldiers? Or were Earth Defense troops in a temporary retreat while President Apollo planned a counterattack?
Aahana wanted to go back to the bunker. Back into hiding. But what direction was that? Fear filled her head and confused her thoughts.
She inhaled and blew out cautiously. Don’t panic. I can figure this out if I don’t panic.
Niki held onto her arm. She was Aahana’s rock, her counselor, her best friend . . . and her little sister. Except Niki was twenty-seven years old—she stopped being little a long time ago.
Divya and Neel Mukherjee stayed close on her other side. Aahana had been their nanny for thirteen years. She was there the horrible night their little sister Kanisa went missing. After their mother died in the big earthquake a year and a half ago, Aahana took over the role, though with Divya now twenty and Neel eighteen, they didn’t officially need mothering anymore.
Matt Denisson, their roommate, friend, and owner of the bunker, hovered close, guarding them. The always amiable Matt wasn’t much of a leader, but Aahana was glad to have him near. Today he wore his jeans with the pink t-shirt. He called the color light red, but it was pink. It matched his lips, and didn’t contrast enough with his blond hair and beard. Blue looked better on him. Do we get new clothes here? Even a white t-shirt would be an improvement.
The Goodwins! Aahana turned to search for Beatrice and her two teenage daughters. The Goodwins lived with them at the bunker, hiding from Earth Defense. They were Geeborans—followers of Geebor. Sometimes Beatrice talked of the legends and prophesies, of Geebor’s Pyramid, The Misery, and the end. Aahana had always smiled, nodded, and listened politely—she liked Beatrice—but she hadn’t believed much of what Beatrice said about Geebor or her version of the end of the world. But maybe Beatrice right. Are they here?
A Geeboran slogan declared Lord Geebor king of the universe. The whole universe? That was unlikely. But after that scene in the sphere, Aahana couldn’t argue that Gruesome Geebor was at least king of the earth.
She glanced around again for any uniforms or name tags. There’s nobody to stop us from leaving? What direction is our bunker?
A warm twilight breeze moved through the trees, sending dry redwood needles to the ground. Darker shadows filled the undergrowth, obscuring the buildings or guard towers that might surround the fireside. If they were Geebor’s prisoners, a fence stood out there somewhere.
A trail entered the fireside clearing on the left, passed behind the fire pit, and continued down the hill to her right. Like a river flows downhill to cities, Aahana guessed the main camp buildings were down the trail. She squinted into the shadows for a fence, a guard tower, a light—any hint of what was down there. Movement!
She jerked her head back to the clearing to see a tall, solid looking black man standing next to the campfire—the burning campfire. He must have stepped from the shadows and lit the fire while Aahana looked for a guard tower.
Behind her, gasps and hushed voices asserted the man appeared from nothing and the fire lit itself.
Light from the rising flames flashed across his dark, bearded face. He looked to be in his late twenties, younger than Matt. But he had fifty pounds of muscle on Matt and was built like a pro football player.
“Hee-haw, folks!” The man beamed and spread his thick arms and big hands wide as if offering everyone a hug.
The fireside crowd stilled as everyone stared.
He wore a coarsely woven brown robe over a loose beige linen shirt, tan linen pants, and leather sandals. He looked like a poor shepherd in a Christmas play, albeit one who ate well.
Aahana didn’t see an insignia or a belt that might hold a scanner or weapon. He was big enough to be a camp guard, but he didn’t dress the part.
It didn’t matter. She needed to get her family away from this man. But he stood only twenty feet away. He’d surely catch her if she was the first to run.
She might escape if somebody else ran first. She’d wait for the man to give chase, grab Niki and Divya’s hands, and lead her family in the opposite direction.
Aahana looked to Matt to coordinate her plan, but he was too busy smiling at the man beside the campfire.
She shook her head. Matt didn’t develop strategies or make plans, but when she ran, Matt would be close behind her.
All she needed was for someone else to run first, before more guards showed up. She hoped the camp fence wasn’t electric.
“Please sit down,” the big man said.
Their escape window was closing. Now! Somebody run!
It would be harder to break loose if everyone sat. A rustling arose as people sank to the benches. To avoid standing out, Aahana had to sit too.
“We have much to say before dinner. Prima has a word for our Hispanic families.” He moved two steps away from the fire.
They lost the best chance to run, but there could be another moment. Running downhill would be easiest. Someone on the end should run. Get going, somebody!
The crowd mumbled, “Prima,” then dropped to whispers.
Aahana looked back to the clearing to see an attractive young woman standing between the man and the campfire. Another guard appeared out of nothing? But this Latina didn’t have the authoritative stance of a guard.
The big guy is still smiling. He was expecting her.
Are these projections?
Projections couldn’t stop them from running, but projections had projectors, projectors had operators, and operators were guards.
Guards had accurate, long-range weapons.
Prima’s thick black hair and olive skin matched her name’s heritage, though she could be Italian . . . or Indian? If Prima wore salwar pants with a kameez tunic, like Aahana’s, the average westerner might think they were sisters.
Instead, Prima’s beige linen tunic, tan linen pants, and brown leather sandals looked pitiful poor. She had one nice piece, a bright red scarf with yellow fringe, but it did little to improve the overall peasant look.
Prima addressed the crowd in Spanish.
“We can’t hear you back here!” a man shouted.
Aahana’s adrenaline spiked. What’s crawling on my . . . oh. She exhaled and closed her eyes to calm herself. It’s Matt.
He leaned across Niki to whisper, “Prima asked the Hispanic families to meet her on the side where she’ll interpret for Jay.”
Aahana offered Matt a small smile and nod. He deserved a glare for scaring her to death, but he wouldn’t understand. Matt spoke six languages and enjoyed interpreting . . . wait.
Why does Matt think the big guy’s name is Jay?
Matt’s mind flipped the moment Jay appeared. He sounded like his friend Jay and looked like his friend Jay. Kinda like Jay.
One problem with that—Jay disappeared five years ago, soon after The Square arrived. His Jay should look five years older, not thirty years younger.
This Jay was in his mid-twenties—not the mid-fifties of his Jay.
This Jay had lots of thick black hair—not the bald head of his Jay.
This Jay had the beautiful Prima standing beside him—his Jay was even shyer than Matt around the ladies.
All reasons this Jay was not his Jay.
But he used that “Hee-haw” greeting. Nobody said hello with a “Hee-haw” like his friend Jay.
The big man lifted his open palm and gestured to the pretty gal standing beside him. “Prima and I are your Guides, assigned to your care by Lord Geebor.”
He placed his hand over his chest. “My name’s Jay.”
Wow! This is my Jay?
Jay smiled wider. “We used to be human Geeborans, but Lord Geebor upgraded us. Now we’re Guides. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back.”
Jay and Prima disappeared then reappeared holding hands.
The crowd gasped. A man behind Matt stammered, “Aliens. Geeborans are aliens!”
Jay has a girlfriend! Or a wife?
Jay turned to the fireside crowd on the side. “I used to live a few miles from here and my lovely partner lived in eastern Nevada.” He turned to the middle of the fireside and glanced across the faces. “Sixty-six months ago, Lord Geebor evacuated us to The Pyramid with other Geeborans.”
The crowd mumbled louder, some saying, “I told you so,” while others shook their heads and lamented, “This is bad, really bad.”
This Jay lived a few miles from here?
Matt looked around the fireside. The redwood trees. The campfire smoke drifting away from the setting sun. It matched the trees and coastal breeze they had at their bunker home—a bunker his friend Jay built before he disappeared.
Is this my Jay?
“As we traveled to The Pyramid, Lord Geebor gave us these higher dimensional bodies. We started Guide training as soon as we arrived.”
According to Beatrice and her husband Troy, The Square was the bottom side of Lord Geebor’s Pyramid.
Niki tipped away from Matt, yanked into an urgent conversation. Aahana couldn’t hide her excitement. “Who else was evacuated five-and-a-half years ago?”
Niki straightened up then leaned back into Aahana. “Kanisa? You think . . .” She turned to search behind her.
“What about Kanisa?” Divya asked.
Voices to the side and behind Matt mumbled questions about a “Miguel” and a “Stuart.”
Aahana half-turned to make a slow scan of the crowd behind her.
As Matt had heard the story, Aahana was with the Mukherjee kids when seven-year-old Kanisa walked into her bedroom and never came out. Two other children in south bay cities also disappeared. But thousands of Geeborans went missing that night, so the missing children were assumed to be secret Geeborans.
Aahana was right. If his Jay was back, Kanisa might be back too.
Matt took a quick glance behind him. He saw babies and preschoolers, and older kids like Neel and Divya—seventeen and older—but he didn’t see any children between six and sixteen.
Jay glanced at Prima then back at the crowd. “You see an image of us when we move into your dimension, and you don’t see us,” Jay disappeared again, “when we move beyond your dimension.”
Prima’s hand lowered to her side, but her expression didn’t change, as if Jay was still standing beside her.
“I’m not gone.” Jay’s voice came from no single direction. It was eerie. But hearing only Jay’s voice—without the distraction of Jay’s younger look—his voice sounded even more like the old friend Matt knew.
Jay reappeared holding an apple. The crowd quieted to watch what he’d do with it.
He took a bite, chewed a few times, and swallowed. “We aren’t ghosts. Our bodies are like yours. We eat like you, and we pee like you.”
Prima scowled, poked Jay in the side, and took hold of his hand.
“If anything injures us,” Jay continued, “we can move out of this dimension and return with a renewed body—all back to normal.”
That piece of information got the whole crowd talking again.
“Listen, please!” Jay waited for the crowd to quiet. “Our main purpose here is to provide what you need to restart your new lives.”
Prima raised her hand to catch everyone’s attention. In perfect Spanish, she invited the Diaz and Garcia families to come forward and join her by the trail. As they stood, she explained why Jay disappeared and ate an apple.
As the Diaz and Garcia families followed Prima to their new seats, Aahana leaned across Niki’s lap and tapped Matt’s knee. “Don’t run. We’re staying to look for Kanisa.”
Matt grinned and gave Aahana a “thumbs up” gesture of agreement, though he never heard her “run” plan and had his own reason for staying. Matt needed to talk with this Jay.
But he wouldn’t tell Aahana. She needed to believe everyone followed her plans. She felt safer that way.
He remembered a happier, sunnier Aahana, the woman he met a few days after The Square arrived. The captivating woman he got to know over four years of deep conversation while the world fell apart around them. The woman who finally agreed to move to the bunker for shelter after the big quake. Most of Aahana’s family was now dead. She and Niki were alone to protect the remaining Mukherjee kids.
Aahana took her job seriously. She was confidently assertive their safety depended on everybody following her rules and plans.
Matt chuckled at his understatement. Assertive? No, Aahana was downright bossy. But he let it go. Feeling in control was how she dealt with her fears.
If Jay’s return mean The Misery was over, would Aahana now calm herself and stop imagining all the bad things that might happen? Would he see her sunshine smile again?
Matt leaned forward and looked.
No, her worries still drove her eyes from Jay to Prima to the whispers behind her then back to Jay to start the circle again.
He leaned back. She might need a couple more days to get a feel for this place. When she calmed down she’d realize their life would be better here . . . assuming this Jay was his Jay.
Was he being too optimistic? Was he depending too much on his usual good luck?
Jay held up his hand showing four fingers. “We go by four principles at my camp. Consider them rules to live by. With trust, truth, service, and honor, we’ll enjoy a smooth path of harmony with Lord Geebor and everyone in our community.”
Niki elbowed Matt and gave him a big smile.
Niki was everyone’s favorite aunt. She was smart, funny, and made every day better. She cooked fancy desserts, told imaginary stories about embarrassing moments in their childhoods, and listened when someone needed to vent. Niki believed your side, but helped you figure out how to handle it better next time.
She was busy like Aahana, but Niki always stayed positive—probably because Aahana already carried the imaginary weight of the world.
Niki helped Matt avoid upsetting Aahana too much. When Aahana had a new rule to avoid an imaginary danger, Niki told him, “Be patient with her, but never compromise yourself.” She also warned him, “You can say she looks nice, but never, ever say she’s beautiful.”
Aahana talked to him more when he followed Niki’s advice.
“Honor? Honor Geebor?” A man in a cowboy hat stood up three rows back. “That’s ludicrous. Who’s in charge here? Are you in charge?”
Matt vaguely recognized the man’s grizzled beard, cowboy hat, and leather vest. He used to manage something in town. Is he the FEMA worker who hit on Divya last year?
For several seconds only the crackling fire broke the awkward silence.
Jay lifted both of his hands slightly above his head. “I am only a Guide. Lord Geebor is King of the World!”
“I do not recognize Geebor! I only recognize me, and—”
Cowboy man changed into a gray shape that dissolved and fell like ash to the ground.