I wasn’t sure at the time why Gehenna was nigh. In fact, from the moment the message arrived to the moment I inelegantly slammed the airship onto the tarmac in Biddeford, the idea that the end of the world was upon us was not at the forefront of my mind. You might think it would be. After all, the message was only to be sent when it was guaranteed that the end had come and all those who had purchased a slice of safety at New Eden would be spared. As I turned off the rotors and secured the airship I would probably never see again, I thought about all the things that could bring about such a massive, tragic event as was about to dawn on humanity.
There were smaller conflicts on the world stage, such as the one between the Ottoman Empire and some revolutionaries in the Midwest looking to create a new country. The hot spot for that conflict, however, appeared to be confined to the Rocky Mountains. Anything west or east consisted of nothing more than loud protests and the occasional suicide bomber taking out an embassy or two. It was highly unlikely that escalations in that conflict would have worldwide repercussions.
Same too with the bad words and occasional mortar shells lobbed over the northern border of the British Americas at those pesky French Canadians and their Prussian allies. Any skirmishes which happened in that conflict were relegated to the waters of the Great Lakes with no one winning anything because they usually fought in the winter when it was too damn cold. Maybe if they waited to fight until the summer, someone might win something. Then again, no one really had any idea what they were fighting for or about. It could have been a disagreement over a pig crossing the border, for all anyone knew.
As I pulled my survival bag from the airship’s hold and threw it over my shoulder, I watched Portia struggle with hers. Although I was in no mood to help, that’s precisely what I did by grabbing the bag myself and walking away with it. Unsurprisingly, Portia did not protest or thank me. Perhaps after so many years of marriage, my natural reaction was to cater to the needs of my companion. I justified my assistance by claiming (to myself, of course), that I was merely speeding up the process of getting the bags to the rendezvous area to be loaded on the passenger airship that would take us to New Eden. In reality, I was probably so beaten down by years of marriage that I felt I had no other choice.
As I walked across the tarmac, my mind ignored Portia again and swirled around with other possible ways Gehenna could be nigh. Larger wars existed and had done their fair share of planetary damage for several centuries. For example, there was a huge fight between the Ottoman Empire, British Empire and Prussia over the disputed natural resources available in Mexico but claimed by the Spanish crown since the 1500s. That war had started in the late 1800s and showed no signs of stopping. There had been treaties signed and then broken. A league of nations once existed that tried to portion Mexico into equal parts, but no one was happy with the result and wanted more. After the league of nations disbanded, the borders which had been drawn were scrubbed out. Meanwhile, the Spanish maintained their claim of dominion and fought back with whatever they had: rocks, sticks, the occasional grenade and every once in a while, a well-placed tactical atomic bomb that would wipe out one or two regiments of whatever empire pissed them off that day. Tuesday was usually focused on Prussia. Wednesday was reserved for the Ottomans. And Thursday through Saturday, Spain directed their hatred toward the British Empire. Sundays and Mondays were apparently days of rest, as no conflict had ever started or ended on those days. The trivia cards in the bars said as much.
As violent and longstanding as that war was, however, it was so engrained in the daily life of everyone in the Western Hemisphere that anyone could hardly expect it to escalate to world-ending destructiveness. A stable cancer is just that: stable. Unless it suddenly metastasized, it was only going to ruin one part of the body.
The nearest possibility to a harbinger of doom was likely Chinese imperialism, which had so far claimed roughly forty-five percent of the world. Granted, much of that was water, but there had been over the years several dramatic battles. Formosa had been reduced to a radioactive wasteland about four decades ago when the Ottoman Empire said they wanted the island. If China couldn’t have it, however, it was clear no one was going to have it and the best way to ensure that remained true was to remove it as a habitable landmass. Chinese influence had travelled as far west from Beijing as Tehran and as far east as the Hawaiian Islands, but there had never been an indication that the Chinese government wanted to expand much further. Logistically, I suppose, it was difficult to govern such a large geographic area. Sure, the sun shined longest on the Chinese Empire, but that did not mean they were inclined to grab so much territory that it would never set. What country or monarch would ever want that kind of responsibility?
To be fair, all of my own musings were likely tainted by the fact that I learned everything through state-controlled broadcasts and newspapers or during scotch-influenced conversations with my neighbors in smoke-filled dens. There could have been some favoritism in the reporting, and whatever event or set of events which preceded the end of the world had been covered up altogether or washed to make the Crown look good.
In short, I had no clue what would bring about Gehenna.
Free of bags, Portia was far ahead of me on the tarmac. Rather than enter any building together lest people think we were a couple (unless being a couple provided a benefit), it was customary for Portia to go into any place first. A brute of a man greeted her at the door, and I swear she looked him up and down like a side of prime beef perfectly aged for the eating. She held out her wrist so the brute could scan her identification bracelet. He said a few words to her, smiled, nodded once, then let her pass. I appeared a full minute later, exhausted from carrying the two bags and ready to find a complementary drink at a terminal bar.
The man waited a moment—rather impatiently, I might add—for me to set the two bags down and pull up my shirt sleeve so he could scan my bracelet. He was taller than me by a foot, which wasn’t exactly impressive given that I was just over five feet myself. He had to be over eighteen stone, however, which was over twice my weight. With a cropped head of black hair and pocking on his face, this was one man I wouldn’t want to meet in any alley at any time of day in any city. Although intimidated by the giant man and his affect, I still tried to start up a conversation.
“Been busy today?” I asked.
The man grunted and grabbed my wrist. Before he held the scanner up, he paused. “What are these?” His voice sounded like he had a Prussian upbringing. He indicated the scars on my arms by poking them with a thick, sausage-like finger.
I swallowed, uncomfortable with the question. Like I said before, those scars were highly personal. Luckily, I always had a lie prepared as a cover story, one unverifiable and fitting of the situation. “Accident when I was younger and learning to fly. Fire in the cockpit.”
The man looked at me with eyes that said “liar” or “idiot.” I couldn’t tell which. His eyebrows rose as he looked out at my airship, slightly off-kilter, and certainly not level with the horizon any longer. As smooth as I believed my arrival at the airfield was, it was probably a sight to behold from his vantage point at the entrance to the terminal. “You learned to fly?”
“Never was very good at it.”
“Obviously.” The man grunted again and dutifully scanned my bracelet. After releasing my wrist, I noted with some foreboding that my skin felt bruised. “Take the bags to holding room Beta to the right as soon as you enter. Afterwards, take the third door past the room on the left, turn right at the intersection, down a flight of stairs, through the door, left again at another door marked with a dot. There you’ll find the others waiting.”
“Marked with a dot?”
The man blinked. “It’s like a circle, but filled in. You know: a dot.”
“Don’t you have a more direct route?”
“I do not.”
I shook my head, picked up the two survival bags, and entered the terminal. A dot. Of all the ways to mark the entrance to the rest of my life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I would not breathe fresh air again for a while.
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