by Raven Blackmane
Sara pulled her legs close to her chest, wrapping her arms around them in a meager attempt to warm herself. She would be more comfortable inside the cabin, she knew, but it somehow felt right for her to be out here, up on the hillside, looking up at the stars.
Or she would have been looking at the stars, if there had been any to see. But all the stars were gone now. There was only darkness -- courtesy of a uniform blanket of ash-laden clouds -- and the moon, hanging above all, glowing dull red through the smoke and soot that filled the upper reaches of the air. Its bloody visage stared down from the heavens like an accusing eye, warning the human race of its fast-approaching judgment.
Beneath her, Sara felt another of the mild aftershocks that had been running through the valley all day. It grew slowly, a faint rumble that was felt more than heard, peaked suddenly, and dropped off sharply.
It would not be long now.
A cool wind blew through the forest, rustling her hair and chilling her bones through the thin grey uniform she wore. Thoughtfully, she looked down and traced a finger over the numbers that had been tattooed on the underside of her right arm: 958-09-3845. Once, long ago, it had been a Social Security Number. More recently, it had been her prison ID. Turning her arm over, she smiled as she saw the back of her hand. There was no marking on it, no subdermal transponder beneath that skin. The government had ordered all citizens to receive the transponders when martial law was declared -- a way, so they said, to increase the efficiency of food distribution during the chaos of the "national emergency", while ensuring that everyone remained safe and accounted for until the crisis was resolved.
Sara, and millions of others like her, had not believed a word of it. They had refused to accept the transponders, and so had been 'relocated' for their own safety -- to work camps that the government had been constructing in secret for the previous three and a half years. Herded in like cattle, surrounded by ten-foot fences with barbed wire and guard towers, stripped of all possessions, and treated like chattel slaves -- cut off from the outside world, without help, without hope.
And yet, they had not lost hope. Despite every effort to drive them into despair, they had survived with spirit and body intact. It had baffled and frustrated their captors to no end.
Sara wasn't sure how long she had spent in the camps -- it had taken a while for them to find her and her husband and bring them in, after the order was given, and every day in that cramped and dismal prison was very much like the last. But it had to have been a very long time indeed, because the time was drawing short. She could sense it. The blood-soaked moon whispered to her, the dark and sunless days murmured in her ears: It will not be long now. Not long...
In truth, it had been nothing short of a miracle that had granted them this one, last breath of freedom. The news had come into the camp and spread like wildfire among their prison keepers: An asteroid had been spotted, heading for Earth...
And they had less than five hours left before impact.
Sara remembered vaguely, from news reports in a time long past, that scientists had warned of this possibility for decades now: a rogue asteroid, missed by the few telescopes that searched the night sky for such objects, come suddenly upon the Earth on a collision course that left no time to prepare. More than ninety percent of the asteroids that crossed Earth's orbit had never been tracked, and it was only a matter of time before one of them caught the world by surprise.
Time had finally caught up with the human race.
There had been bunkers built under the prison camp, which served as a home to the personnel that ran the base. The bunkers, of course, were hardened against the possibility of aerial attack, and as soon as the message had reached the base the soldiers had retreated to their underground lair.
The prisoners had been left above ground for whatever fate awaited them.
That fate, it had turned out, was so freakishly improbable that none of the prison camp's soldiers had thought to guard against it. The asteroid had apparently broken into hundreds of fragments as it entered the atmosphere, though whether that was sheer happenstance or the result of some last-ditch missile launch could only be guessed at. One such fragment, a rather small one, had struck in the forest not a hundred yards from the edge of the camp. The resulting blast had blown down the fencing and two guard towers at that corner of the base, but not one of the prisoners' barracks had been damaged. When they realized what had happened, Sara and the others had quickly fled into the woods, spreading out in all directions and disappearing into the mountains. The camp had been empty before the soldiers even realized what had happened.
Sara and her husband Matthew had headed north, deep into the Appalachians, and after three exhausting days of travel they had come upon the small, dilapidated cabin that now served as their place of refuge.
And here, for better or worse, they would make their stand. Matthew had fallen ill from the strain of their flight -- he had served on one of the timber crews, and was weaker than she when they made their escape. Now he lay in a small cot inside the cabin, sleeping fitfully through a fever that she had no means to treat, unable to walk another mile through the harsh and trackless mountains.
Sara's hand drifted to her forehead, rubbing absently at the mark she could not feel but knew was there. In addition to the prison ID, everyone brought to the camps had been branded on the forehead for easy identification, should any of them escape.
The brand was in the shape of a cross. Sara wore it proudly as a badge of faith.
Off in the distance, Sara saw bright lights appear out of the hills, float this way and that, sometimes hovering, sometimes descending, continuing their work through all hours of the night. The lights were drawing nearer each night; tonight Sara could hear the low chopping sound of helicopter blades. They would find her and Matthew soon -- of that she had no doubt. The search teams would find them, and then...
Then their trials would come to an end. Sara felt a certain peace about that. Just a little while longer, and their struggle would be over.
Not long now. Not long at all...
Standing, Sara made her way carefully back down the hillside to the cabin. There were no candles or lamps for them to use, and even if there had been they would not have risked someone seeing the light. The moon cast a soft red glow through the cabin's single window, granting just enough light to move around by. Matthew looked up when he heard Sara shut the door behind her.
"How close are they tonight?" he asked, rather casually. It was the sort of voice one might use to ask what the weather would be like tomorrow.
"Pretty close," Sara admitted, walking up to kneel at her husband's side. "Tomorrow, maybe, or the day after that. It won't be long, anyway."
Matthew smiled weakly, placing a comforting hand on top of Sara's. "Let them come. They can't hurt us anymore."
Sara nodded, returning the smile. "I felt another earthquake again tonight. I don't think it can be much longer now."
"No," he agreed thoughtfully, gently rubbing the back of her hand with one finger. "No, I don't think there's much time left now. I wonder if He'll get here before the soldiers do..."
With that thought, he drifted off into sleep again. Sara looked over her husband's features, so gaunt and emaciated where they had once been healthy and strong. A beard unshaven in more than three years hung from his face like a bit of wool tied to the jaw of a skeleton. She looked at her own arms, so weakened and thin -- and yet these arms had somehow found a way to half-carry her husband to this place of refuge. They will run and not be weary, they will walk and not faint... How true that promise had proved itself in the last three days.
Kneeling beside her husband, Sara closed her eyes and prayed.
She awakened to the sound of helicopter blades.
Slowly, still half-asleep, Sara sat up on the floor where she had, at some point during the night, fallen into slumber. Rubbing her eyes, she looked up at the roof of the cabin. The helicopter, she realized. It was very close now, to judge from the sound, and it seemed to be getting closer.
"Honey," she said softly, touching the cross on Matthew's forehead. "Wake up, honey. They're here."
Matthew slowly opened his eyes, moaned softly at some pain Sara could not guess, and stretched a little on the old worn-out cot. He smiled at her. "Good morning," he said softly.
"Good morning," she answered, without irony. "Are you ready?"
"As ready as I'm going to be," he said, wearily swinging his feet over the side of the bed.
Sara sat beside him on the cot and they held hands, looking long and deeply into each other's eyes. Somewhere outside, the helicopter engine had spun down to idle.
"I love you," Matthew said.
Sara smiled, as two tears filled her eyes. "And I love you."
They kissed, fervently, passionately, with as much energy and strength as either had left to muster. The depth of emotion they poured into that one gesture of affection would have filled the most hardened, cynical observer with a sense of awe... for they knew it would very likely be their last.
There was a loud crash, as a soldier in a black Enforcer uniform kicked down the door. He ran into the room with his weapon at the ready, followed by five others. All wore face masks that hid their features.
"Federal agents! Freeze!" the leader shouted.
Slowly, Sara and Matthew broke their kiss and turned to face their hunters. They gazed at the Enforcers calmly, passively, with no emotion save peace... and, perhaps, pity.
One of the agents ran up to Matthew and Sara, grabbing the right arm of each in turn and reading off the numbers to a second agent, who entered the IDs in his handheld computer. After scanning through some unseen record for a moment, he handed it to the squad leader. The man looked at it for only a moment before handing it back, his eyes cold and determined.
"More escapees from Schuylkill," he muttered. "Damned fundies have had us on a hunt through three states looking for 'em."
"What should we do with them, sir?" one of the agents asked, sounding a little uncertain.
The lead Enforcer cast an appraising glance at them. At last, he nodded at Matthew. "That one's at death's door already," he said. "He's of no further use."
At that, two of the soldiers raised their rifles. They were shredders, a portion of Sara's mind calmly noted -- a weapon that had come into use only in the last decade or so, it fired a cloud of micro-bullets at very high speeds for a relatively short distance, over an area of perhaps two feet in diameter at optimum range. As the prison guards had demonstrated on more than one occasion, the weapons quite effectively lived up to their name.
Matthew did not flinch. Instead, eyes cast upward, he spoke in a strong, clear voice: "Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing."
The squad leader's eyes narrowed. "Fire."
Sara did not scream, nor even move; a strength greater than her own and a peace beyond imagining kept her still, as her lifelong mate dissolved beside her into a black-red mist. Matthew did not make a sound. Then, seconds later, the whirring of the guns fell silent, and he was gone.
Sara kept her eyes fixed on the lead Enforcer's face the entire time.
The man held that gaze for a long, silent moment. Then he spoke, in a low, soft voice.
"Will you surrender, and consent to obey Executive Order 41-666 as required under the rules of martial law?"
Slowly, she stood to her feet, the Enforcers tracking her every movement. She squared her shoulders and looked the leader in the eye.
"I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith."
And then, into the moment of silence that followed, a sound echoed across the heavens -- a tumultuous report that sounded from horizon to horizon.
The sound of a trumpet.
The soldiers, panic written in their eyes, looked up at the ceiling, then out the windows, as a brilliant shaft of light shot down through the dismal, ashen twilight all around them. The dark and heavy clouds began to roll back, scroll-like, shrinking from the light that burned its way to the ground. And high above them, a voice like thunder shouted in triumph across the heavens:
"It... is... finished!"
One of the Enforcers dropped his gun in fright, babbling incoherently, while another swore fiercely and repeatedly, shaking his fist out the window. Sara saw the eyes of the leader grow wide, and she turned to look at what he was seeing.
Behind her, on the cot, a glowing light was beginning to form, a ball of radiant yellow energy that pulsated and hovered over the spot where Matthew had died. Then, small bits of matter like glowing sparks began to leap from the cot, the wall, the surrounding air, joining together in the swirling orb of light. The particles flew up from every blood stain and every bit of charred and powdered ash, growing and coalescing into the radiant form of a man. Familiar features took shape in the face, and Sara saw Matthew, looking young and strong and healthy again, dressed in a dazzling white robe and glowing with the light of heaven. He looked at her and smiled, then gave one last look of pity at the chief Enforcer. Then he rose into the air, swift as the wind, passed through the roof of the cabin and was gone.
Gathering his astonished wits about him, the soldier lifted his rifle towards Sara. But even as he pulled the trigger, a light that came from everywhere surrounded Sara's body, flowing into her and filling her to the depths of her soul. She saw her weakened, emaciated form suddenly strengthen, flesh filling out her arms, legs, every part of her body that was sick and malnourished from abuse, exposure and hunger. The light flowed through her like a warm, gentle touch, healing and restoring her whole being. In a flash her threadbare prison clothes changed to a pure white robe, and the light that had filled her radiated through every pore of her being.
The cloud of bullets from the shredder ran up against Sara's glowing body and fell to the floor, utterly harmless. She could feel the divine power that had transformed her, coursing through glorified flesh and blood, and she could hear the sweet and gentle voice of the Master above, calling her home.
But before she answered that call, she spoke to the soldiers before her, her voice echoing around the room with a sound like a hundred songbirds singing as one.
"Time's up," she said.
Then she flew upwards, faster than the speed of mortal thought, rising into the open sky above. All around her, across the countryside, across the world, she saw others rising into the sky along with her. And then, looking up, she saw a radiant figure standing in midair above it all, His shining arms stretched out in welcome. And then He looked down, right at Sara...
And she saw the face of the Master.
Smiling at her tenderly.
"My Lord!" she called out, her heart bursting with inexpressible joy. She urged her body onwards, ever faster, like a child running to her father's arms. "Master! Savior! Jesus!"
And then they were together, and He caught her in His arms, somehow finding the time to embrace her individually among all the others rising to meet Him.
"Welcome home, Sara," He said, in a rich, warm voice that only she could hear. "I've been looking forward to this for a long time."