A Class-X solar storm, the likes of which humankind had never seen, erupted from the Sun on April 18, 2112.
They had nineteen minutes.
Nineteen minutes until the geomagnetic wave washed over the Earth, frying every man-made electrical device, blacking out entire continents and every satellite in their sky.
Nineteen minutes to say goodbye to the world they knew forever and prepare for a new Earth, a new way of life.
All digital data was lost, all the knowledge of the centuries past gone in an instant. Unable to feed themselves without technology, humans began to die of starvation and disease. At first thousands, then millions, and, finally, billions died. The survivors fought amongst themselves for the scraps until there were almost none left.
Part I Alana
Master Dine’s kick sent me sprawling into the wall. Pain bloomed in my shoulder. That was nothing new, but my billa slipped dangerously close to falling off. I grasped at the awkward headgear, a giant tent designed to hide my ugliness.
No one must see, I thought.
“It’s too hot, you stupid chit,” Master Dine yelled.
At seventeen, I was officially a woman and had been for a while, but no one gave a slave girl that recognition.
“Now look what you’ve done,” he said. The clay teapot I’d been using to pour water over Master’s feet lay shattered on the floor. “Clean it up, chit.”
I silently seethed as I collected the pieces. I wasn’t a chit. I was Alana, a name I’d given myself and no one else used. I cursed him under my billa, something he’d never hear through the dark, black drapes shrouding me from everyone. I prayed Mother Sun would do terrible things to him, something that didn’t make me feel any better.
“When you’re done with that, go help Master Tow. He’s expecting you.”
“But your bath?”
“I’ll do it myself,” Master Dine spat at me, as if he didn’t trust me, as if I hadn’t been washing his feet every morning since I was old enough to hold soap.
Master Dine was one of the oldest men in our village at almost forty, too mean to die of flu fever like most old men. He’d caught it once or twice, but it only seemed to make him more determined to live.
“Yes, Master,” I whispered and ducked out of the room with the remains of the teapot. I threw them in the garbage pit behind the house as I left for Master Tow’s. I’d have to make a new one later. I wondered when I would find the time to gather the clay from the riverbank, which was a fair walk from here. Where was here? Master Dine’s village was called Roma.
Master Dine reminded me constantly I wasn’t from this place—my eyes too almond-shaped, my hair too black, and my skin too yellow to be from Roma. My looks didn’t stop him from slinking into my room in the darkness to have his way with me. I was his, bought from my own parents in a faraway place, he always said. Even in the dark, he made me cover my face. I closed my eyes anyway. Maybe if I couldn’t see Master Dine with his lazy eye and crooked teeth, he’d cease to exist. Please, Mother Sun, make it so.
I walked down the dirty footpath toward Roma’s center market square, past the mud and stone houses scraped together with whatever the inhabitants could find. It was early yet; fog still clung to the base of the mountains and dripped off the trees’ new leaves. Winter was breaking at last. Mother Sun had saved us again, but we always knew she could destroy us if she wanted to.
I didn’t mind wearing the billa so much when the weather was cool or misty like this morning. It trapped my own warm breath around me like a cocoon. It made doing chores outside awkward, though. Master Dine kept me primarily for house chores, although I was allowed to shop on market day, and he occasionally lent me to Master Tow. Tow had no wives and probably needed his house cleaned.
Master Tow was a young man in his twenties, still undecided on a wife. Suitable women were rare in Roma, so he was faced with the prospect of waiting until certain girls came of age or traveling to the next province for a wife. The expense of a wife was more than Tow really wanted, so he borrowed me from time to time. It was an arrangement he had with Dine, made possible by Dine’s first wife, Mistress Shel. Shel hated my position in her house as a sort of third wife, a standing I could never truly attain even if I wanted to. It was Shel who had disfigured the right side of my face years ago. It hadn’t stopped Dine’s visits to me, just made him more discrete.
Master Tow was chopping wood in the small yard next to his house. His clothes, littered with fine shavings of fir, made him smell better than usual. He was stripped to the waist, his pale chest glistening with sweat even in the morning cold. I stopped and waited. I could never address anyone without first being addressed myself. I learned that very young.
Master Tow continued his work, perhaps enjoying the fact that I was his audience. He often flirted with me, even though he had no reason to tease a slave. I think he was quite proud of his own blond hair that fell to his shoulders. Taunting all the unsuitable women in town seemed to please him tremendously. And so I stood perfectly still, watching the breeze blow the fabric in front of my face until he finally spoke.
“Hello, chit,” he said, taking a break from his chopping.
“Master Dine said you were expecting me.”
“So I am.” Tow breathed heavily, his ribs showing under his creamy skin with each exhale. He dropped his hatchet in the dirt at his feet and held up two fingers beckoning me to follow him behind his house. I hesitated. Wasn’t I doing housework? What did Tow have in store for me?
“C’mon, chit! Haven’t got until sundown,” he called, his tone good-natured as always.
I couldn’t shake the feeling he was playing a trick on me, but I followed him down the hill behind his house through a thicket of small aspen just beginning to bud. I soon saw it was a shortcut he used to reach the square rather than taking the main path that switch-backed down the mountain. Although it was easy for him, the trees snagged the fabric of my billa.
“Come on!” his voice urged. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard him muttering under his breath about my ridiculous garb. None of the other slaves wore what I wore. I stood out wherever I went—a black ghost in a crowd of humans. Everyone knew it was my punishment for tempting Dine. That’s what Shel told them and most believed it.
I did my best to keep up with Tow. Once out of the shrubs, it was easier to match his pace. He headed for the crumbling castle perched on a precipice over the wide green valley on the edge of Roma. Eons ago, before the Great Death that wiped out billions, some strange unknown race had built castles all across this region. Most were rubble now.
No one lived there, but the people of Roma sometimes stored things in some of the rooms or held meetings there. Windows long gone, the arches still stood in places, the stone thick with moss and lichens silently feasting on the remains of the beast. It was a forgotten place, somewhere I rarely went because I wasn’t invited to public affairs. As Tow and I got close, I heard the sound of someone singing a sad melody in a cool, clear voice. Even the birds in the trees were drawn to it, flitting away only when we came near.
As I followed Tow down a stone stairway littered with last winter’s dead leaves into the ruins and closer to the voice, my fears melted away and curiosity overcame me. Tow couldn’t walk fast enough now. Who was it? And why were they here? The singing suddenly stopped.
Deep inside the castle, where little sunshine could penetrate, Tow stopped at an old door with a small slit for a tiny window. A boy’s face, not much older than mine, with dark hair and eyes like mine, peered out of the opening.
“You can’t keep us in here,” the boy said, his voice angry.
“Don’t worry. It won’t be long before the authorities come for you. A week at the most,” said Tow. He turned to me. “These two were caught last night stealing. You need to feed them at least once a day, no more. Just enough to keep them alive for their trial.”
“Trial?” I asked.
“The Reticents have been summoned. They’ll send someone to pick them up.”
“But what do I feed them, Master Tow?”
Everyone’s winter stores were running low and few spring crops had been harvested yet. Master Dine wouldn’t allow me to use his food for such a purpose.
“Hog feed will do.”
“Hog feed?” shouted the prisoner. “We’re not animals!” I flinched and backed away from him.
“Never you mind that, chit. Do as you’re told. Put the food in here.” Master Tow pointed to a small slot near the floor with the toe of his boot. “Don’t open the door, no matter what.”
“Yes, Master Tow.”
“Have they been fed today?”
“No. Better get to work.”
Master Tow turned and bounded up the stairs. I stood motionless, watching the black-eyed boy watching me. I’d never seen anyone like me before. He looked hard at the billa like he could see underneath.
“Do you have any water?” he asked in an accent I didn’t recognize. “He’s very weak.”
The prisoner backed away from the door so I could creep up and peer inside. The oldest man I’d ever seen, maybe fifty years or more, lay on the floor. He groaned as the boy knelt down and touched his arm.
“I’m here,” he said to the old man. Before I knew it, I’d loosened the water bag I kept tied at my hip and pushed it through the hole in the wall toward them.
“Take this. I’ll be back,” I whispered before hurrying to find food.
Normally I fed the hogs caysha roots I dug up in the forest. A person could eat them and survive, but they weren’t kind to the stomach. They were a last resort, eaten only when all else was gone. I’d eaten them myself when the winters were hard and Master Dine saved all his food for his family. Slaves weren’t supposed to forage for their own food. It was a sign a family wasn’t wealthy enough to support them, but Dine looked the other way quite often. He allowed me to find other means of sustenance when times called for it, which was more often than not. The less of his food I ate, the more wealthy he fancied himself.
I walked as quickly as I could without attracting attention to a meadow below the castle where the caysha had started to bloom, blue lilies on tall stems. I dug a few roots to satisfy Master Tow, but I had no intention of feeding them to the prisoners. I dropped them in my basket and slung it over my shoulder, heading for the river. Checking my traps, I found a snared rabbit and smiled for the first time that day. Not that anyone knew or cared. I spent my days alone in a tent made for one, seldom speaking to anyone. But something in that boy’s eyes reached out to me behind the curtain. I wasn’t going to serve him hog feed. My decision risked a beating, but it wouldn’t mean my death. Though I didn’t fear death anyway.
An hour had passed by the time I returned to the ruined castle dungeon with food, water, and fuel. Midday was approaching yet the prisoners made no sound. I hoped to hear his song again the way I longed for the lark song after winter. Like a mouse cleaning up crumbs, I silently cleared away the leaves in a dark corner near the stairs and built a cooking fire. The smell of roasting meat brought the boy’s face to the hole in the door once more.
“You’re torturing me,” he complained, although his lips smiled.
“It won’t be much longer,” I said, crossing the room to the door between us. “I brought more water. Give me the water bag, and I’ll refill it.” He scrambled to retrieve the bag and return it.
“How is he?” I asked, looking at the impossibly old man.
“Better. Some real food will do him good.”
I handed the boy some jake nuts through the slot in the wall. “Chew these. They’ll help keep the food down.”
He shoved the handful into his mouth.
“Save one for him,” I said, pointing to the old man. The boy chewed hard but managed to spit out one nut for his friend. He knelt by the man again and shook his arm.
“Kinder? Wake up. It’s dinner time.” The old man sat up with the boy’s help, leaning against the stone wall. “Eat this,” he said, giving him the nut.
I refilled the water and retrieved the rabbit from the spit on the fire. It had started to burn, the grease glistening on the meat. Too big to fit through the slot, the rabbit had to be torn into pieces and slipped into the cell. The boy snatched it from my fingers and rushed to the old man, who suddenly came alive, devouring it. The boy returned and snagged a second piece for himself, ignoring me as he inhaled his food. I waited by the slot with the rest of the meat, holding it until they were ready for it. The sounds of eating, chewing, and licking made me hungry, but I didn’t eat any. The rabbit would’ve been my lunch, but I’d eat wild carrots instead.
I gave them the remains of the rabbit and returned to the corner to put out my fire. Master Tow mustn’t know I’d cooked, so I hid my hearth as best I could with damp leaves and rubble. The moss on the stone walls would hide any sign of smoke. I turned to go.
“Wait,” called the boy. “What’s your name?”
The words I’d never heard directed at me, the words I dreamt of every night, came from his lips. Was he speaking to me? Of course he was. There was no one else here.
“Is it Chit?”
“No. I’m Alana.” I’d never told anyone the name I chose for myself. It felt good to say it out loud.
“Thank you, Alana. I’m Recks, and this is Kinder. We’re grateful for your kindness. May Mother Sun shine on you.”
I stopped breathing for a second. No one had ever blessed me before. It just wasn’t done. I waited as if the sky might fall down. There was nothing but the sound of Kinder sucking the marrow from his rabbit bones.
“Is something wrong?” asked Recks.
“No,” I said. “I should go.” I suddenly remembered the bones. “Hide the bones when you’re done.”
“Kinder will eat them all.” Recks smiled at me and snickered at the thought.
“I’ll bring more tonight,” I told him.
“But Tow said once a day … “
“What Tow doesn’t know won’t trouble him.” I hurried up the steps.
“Be careful,” warned Recks, as if he might actually be concerned for my safety. Hidden tears leaked from my eyes.
As I walked back to Master Dine’s house, I had an overwhelming urge to throw the billa off and feel the sun on my shoulders. Mother Sun could bless me too, even if she never had before. But if I did, I knew I would never see Recks again. Instead, I clasped my hands together under my billowy tent in happiness, knowing the feeling could escape me like mist in the sunlight.
I left the house again at sunset, making Shel smile. Dine would assume I went foraging, which I did, but not so much for myself this time. Recks and Kinder needed me. I was thankful for the billa, which allowed me to stow extra supplies—flint, a blanket, and some socks—without being noticed. The goods were mine, the cast-offs of others, and wouldn’t be missed.
I openly carried my caysha basket still filled with the roots I had collected that morning. Carefully wrapped underneath those were three sunflower seed cakes made with the last of our honey the summer before. Shel had thrown them in the refuse because they were too hard for her taste, dried out from a long winter in storage. Recks and Kinder were in dire need of fattening up. I worried Kinder might not last the week, even with a bit of honey. I stopped by one of my snares on my way through the forest, lucky to have caught a partridge. I plucked its soft feathers inside the billa as I walked to the ruins, my fingers working without me looking down. I couldn’t be gone long or someone would notice.
At first, the prisoners were so quiet I thought perhaps they had escaped. I used the flint to light a small torch so I wouldn’t fall down the steps.
“Alana? Is that you?” came Recks’s voice from the darkness.
“Yes.” Alana? He said my name. My heart raced in my chest faster than when I was sneaking around, faster than from my fear of Dine or Tow. I held the torch up to see inside the door.
“You shouldn’t have come, but I’m glad you did,” said Recks. “I have something for you.”
“For me?” Was he mad? He had nothing but an old man. I set about building a fire to roast the partridge.
“I may not look like much, but I’m a gifted performer.”
“A teller of tales, singer of songs—”
“Stealer of goods!” yelled Kinder. He obviously felt better. He had at least found his voice again.
“What?” I asked, blowing gently on my fire to make it grow.
“Recks has sticky fingers, which is what got us into the fix we presently find ourselves,” said Kinder.
“I don’t hear you complaining when you’re enjoying the spoils, old man.”
“What did you take?” I asked, skewering the bird and laying it over the flames.
“Only a heel of bread,” Recks insisted. “We’re seldom paid for the service we provide.”
“Is Kinder a performer too?”
“In a manner of speaking. He is an academic, a man of studies.”
“What does he study?”
“I’m right here, you know,” Kinder grumbled from behind the door.
“Be more polite to the woman who saved your life, fool. Don’t you know how close you are to death’s embrace?”
“Better the devil you know than the one you don’t,” muttered Kinder.
“What?” I approached the door again.
“Never mind him,” said Recks. “He’s overly fond of proverbs.”
“I’ve brought some things that will help with the chill,” I said, pulling out the blanket and the woolen socks. I’d have to find replacements for myself for next winter. Recks gasped in pleasure at the sight of the gifts.
“What is it?” Kinder demanded, unable to see. I fed the blanket through the slot to Recks, who laughed as he pulled it through. As before, he rushed it over to Kinder, spreading it out over him.
“You’ll have to hide it when Tow comes,” I said, stuffing the socks through the same hole.
“Of course,” said Recks, pulling the socks onto his hands and admiring them. “What else have you got under there?”
I flinched under the billa as if Recks saw right through it. He could never see me. No one could.
“Nothing,” I said. “Is there something else you require?”
“A key to the lock would be dandy.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know where Master Tow keeps it.”
“Ah well, he’s not a stupid man, is he? He caught us. Not an easy thing to do.”
I retreated back to tend the fire and the little roasting bird, which smelled delicious.
“So my gift to you, Alana, is a tale,” said Recks. “It’s not much, but it’s all I have.”
I sat down, making myself as comfortable as I could considering the rubble that littered the room. I’d seen street performers from time to time, but I’d never been so close or had the time to really listen. For a minute, the only sound was the popping of the dry sticks in the fire. Then Recks cleared his throat.
“You’ll have to forgive me. This isn’t the best place for telling stories.”
“Never stopped you before,” grumbled Kinder.
“Shush,” Recks told him. “Your dinner’s coming. Do you have any favorites, Alana?”
The few stories I knew were ones told by Dine’s first wife to her children. They were short and generally brutal, told to teach some lesson when they misbehaved. They weren’t the kind of tales I wanted to hear.
“I don’t know any stories.”
“That’s impossible. Did your mother never tell you ‘The Fox and the Hen’? And everyone knows ‘The Ruby Quiver.’”
“No, no one’s ever told me any stories.”
“Recks, you nitwit. Can’t you see the girl’s a slave?” barked Kinder.
“How can that be? She walks freely.”
“Ask her yourself. Not all are enslaved by chains. Who would wear that willingly?”
“Is it true, Alana?”
“Yes,” I said, turning the meat with my fingertips.
“But why are you here? Why don’t you run?”
“And go where? It’s all like here, isn’t it?”
“No. The world is a wide, wondrous place. It’s not all like Roma.”
“Thank Mother Sun for that!” exclaimed Kinder. “Is the meat done yet?”
“Done enough, I suppose,” I said, pulling the stick of roast partridge away from the flames. “It’s not much,” I said as I walked it over to the men in the cell and put it in the slot.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!” Kinder said, clearly delighted. They both devoured it eagerly, even as it burned their fingers and tongues. They groaned in pleasure and pain, but they didn’t stop eating until every bite was gone. When I dug the sunflower seed cakes out of the basket, they both smiled as if I’d presented them with the key to their freedom.
“We should get arrested in Roma more often,” said Kinder, crunching on the sticky cake. “I can’t remember when I’ve eaten so well.”
“Me neither,” said Recks, licking the honey from his fingers. “Just for that, I’m going to tell you the best story I know.”
“I can’t stay much longer. I’ll be missed.”
“Then I’ll be quick about it,” said Recks, wiping his hands on his shabby tunic and then holding them palms up toward the sky. “Mother Sun knows the hearts of all men. May they all please her.”
That I’d heard many times. It was the traditional prayer before beginning any work. One never knew what might displease Mother Sun, so it was customary to let her know your intentions were good in the hope that she would take pity on you.
“In the Time of Great Darkness, there lived a young boy. He had lost everyone and everything he’d ever known: his mother, his father, and his sister dead with many thousands of others. His village overflowed with the dead. No one was left to bury them all. Mother Sun willed it so, but she let this one boy live. He was special, wise beyond his years, and Mother Sun knew he could found a new race of men. She guided him to a sacred valley, high in the mountains, far from his home. On his journey, he met others like himself—thinkers, artists, healers, poets, and storytellers. They banded together and sought to create a world better than the one before the Time of Great Darkness. They built their city on the cliffs above a valley, where they live in comfort. To this day, they grow all they need. Everyone helps, none go hungry, and there are no slaves.”
“No slaves?” I asked, incredulous.
“Ask Kinder. He’s actually been there,” said Recks.
“Many moons ago. Then I got a crazy notion about wanting to study the peoples of the West. Now I wish I’d never left.”
“No fool like an old fool, huh, Kinder?” teased Recks.
The call of an owl outside reminded me I was in Roma, not a magical, shining city of freedom.
“I have to go,” I said, standing up. I doused the embers of the fire with my water bag, sending steam hissing into the air.
“Alana?” Recks whispered through the hole in the door. Two of his fingers poked out, reaching for me in the darkness.
“Did you like the story?”
“Like” seemed too casual a word for how I felt. Overwhelmed was a better choice. It stretched my imagination, showed me how much I didn’t know about the world. I trembled, knowing I’d remember this story for the rest of my pitiful life. Now in the cover of darkness, I reached out of the billa and touched his two warm, rough fingers with one of my own.