Baptisms of Fire
By Anna McLain
In olden times, when wishing still helped, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, which had seen so many things, was always filled with amazement each time it cast its rays upon her face.
She had hair like curling fire and eyes like a hurricane-whipped sea. She lived in a place called New York City.
"The City of Light, Grandpa?"
The old man smiled and brushed a raven curl from the little girl's face.
"Yes, Lisann, The City of Light. We called it the Big Apple then." He took her into his lap, scanned the eager faces of the other children and continued, "One day she met her Prince at a ball, the Going Away Ball, the day before the people left for the new cities. They fell in love at first sight.
Now, these were the days before the Change, the 'fire from the sky' the Bible called it. Before the Second Dark Age and the New Beginning. Plants grew all over the land and the sea was filled with fish."
"What's a fish, Grandpa?"
"An animal that swims, Ben, but that's another story. Animals like you've never imagined roamed the Earth. And there were so many people, if they stood side by side and held hands they would wrap around the planet several times."
A chorus of "oo's" erupted from the children.
He felt a small rush of happiness. He loved the past, even if it was a pain in the ass to live through.
"And no domes?" piped a frail red-haired boy. "No domes, Max. They lived under the open blue sky and the stars that twinkled overhead every night -- many more than those we can see through the dust clouds. Someday, when you tell this story to your kids, maybe you'll see them all."
A faraway, happy look suffused his wrinkled face. "The party was huge. The room was decorated with green pine boughs, gold garland and white lights so tiny they looked like the stars in the sky.
She was drop-dead gorgeous, shrouded in forest green velvet with gold dust sprinkled throughout. Mike stared for twenty minutes before she noticed him. Lenny had abandoned him long before to dance and perhaps, finally reconcile, with his daughter. The beauty answered Mike's rakish grin and insolent flop of raven hair, which hid one eye, with a shy, lopsided grin of her own. Even from a distance he could see the intelligence and humor twinkling in her blue-gray eyes.
The game began.
They watched each other. The circled each other like chess pieces making reciprocal moves. And when he knew he couldn't stand it any longer, he forced his way to her as though the crowd wasn't even there.
They danced and talked softly, their heads close together. The party vanished around them, the din of voices muted until they only heard each other. Perhaps, it was the impending Exodus that stirred their emotions. Perhaps, it was two years of bone-deep soul-searching, coming to grips with the disaster still a few months away and finally realizing what was really important that drew them together like magnets. Whatever it was, neither could imagine never seeing the other again. And when she, Alannah, refused to go home with him, he knew he was hooked.
And he was lost because she left him there, alone, with just her name and a hole in his heart.
The next day was the beginning of the Exodus. Alannah and her family went by private coach to the New York Center, built very far from the coast and from the original site of the city. They were among the first. Mike went a week later, along with the police force. Old New York City was slowly abandoned, along with the rest of the world, to those who refused to move; the religious fanatics, the disbelievers, the conspiracy nuts, and the regular nuts.
The dome filled quickly and the chaos was terrifying. The city struggled to enforce conformity upon residents used to chaos. The military wanted to take over, but the police retained control.
Many months later, when the system was starting to work, the ultimate test was imminent...impact...
"I dunno, Lenny. You think this'll go down for real?" Mike Logan asked his partner as they walked to the latest crime scene. Watching the older man, he was thankful once more that the Powers that Be sent him to this dome of the new city and Lenny's last partner to another. It felt good to be paired up again after so many years apart.
"It better. We probably couldn't wrestle the Big Apple back from the junkies and messiahs now with the entire Army covering us," Lenny quipped, scowling at the distant passing rail car. He could just make it out through the narrow alleys as it circled down the block.
Mike followed his gaze. "Man, I miss driving. You'd think they'da built roads in a city this size. Or at least let us have bikes."
"Hey, they split the Big Apple in half and left the seeds behind to choke in the dust or get washed out to sea, what more do you want?"
"A winning Lottery ticket?" Mike wiggled his eyebrows and gave his partner the smile that melted many a woman's resolve. He surveyed the graffiti decorated walls of the buildings around them. "Yeah well, Johnny Appleseed came to the New World before us."
"What's the matter, you don't like art?" Lenny laughed.
Mike's retort was cut off by a woman's scream.
The two men bolted down the labyrinth of narrow passages. For the thousandth time each cursed the designers of the domed city for making most of the alleys only as wide as two sidewalks. Everyone had to exit the monorail and walk between the rows of buildings. The buildings rose on either side of them, fifteen stories tall to the transparent dome above. They got progressively taller, mirroring the height of the dome. Every rooftop held a hydroponics food garden encased like a greenhouse.
Their footsteps echoed from the concrete walls. Ringing the thick wall that supported the interior base of the dome was a twenty-foot wide park, with trees, grass, flowers and food bearing plants.
They were running directly toward it.
The scream came again, echoing from concrete and glass.
Lenny skidded to a halt on the rye grass. "There!" He motioned toward a struggling couple. A man tried to drag a female into the bushes in the twilight.
"Police! Let her go!" Mike ordered a second before he tackled the assailant. They hit the ground hard, sliding on the grass into the low bushes. Lenny pulled the woman to safety, ensured she was unharmed and jumped into the fray.
They rolled over twice. Branches scraped Mike's face. He cursed at the pain and punched the man. The perp head-butted Mike in the nose and rolled over onto his back, pinning Mike beneath him.
Lenny grabbed the man's ankles and yanked them to a sitting position. Mike got him in a chokehold and flipped him over, using his size to pin the man, spread-eagle on the ground.
It was over in moments. The man gave up.
He was cuffed and read his Miranda rights before Mike glanced at the victim.
Their eyes met and held; mercurial hazel to stormy blue-gray. His breath caught in his throat and he almost smiled. What stopped him were the bruises on her face and her disheveled appearance. Giving the perp a hard shove, he went to her and comforted her, thanking God that he found her again.
"Alannah, are you okay?"
"Sure, I do this all the time," she quipped, gripping his arms tightly. "I need a good workout before dinner." She gave him a shaky smile that made his knees go weak. Biting her lower lip, she reached up and brushed away a small trickle of blood from his lips.
"You sure know how to get a guy's attention, lady," he said softly, giving her a devastating cocky grin.
She wiggled one eyebrow and kissed him deeply without warning.
The next night, they stood in the crowd, arms wrapped around each other, on top of one of the buildings to watch the end of the world as they knew it. The scientists all agreed they would be able to see it, even though the North American impacts would be in Kansas and Canada. Similar impacts would occur in the Atlantic and China, devastating the entire planet. They clung to each other as if that would stop the horror to come.
A blazing light suddenly appeared overhead, larger than Mike had expected. It streaked by quickly and a few seconds later a glow filled the distant sky. It turned a surreal, hazy orange. Alannah kissed him sadly and looked up at the stars for the last time. The dust cloud reached them. They could hear tiny bits of debris, blown on the shockwave, pelt the exterior of the dome. A collective gasp went through the crowd as all waited to see if the dome would hold as they'd been promised.
Mike felt Alannah shiver in his arms as the stars slowly faded and winked out, leaving only a feeling of isolated claustrophobia. It was almost anticlimactic. He stared down at her, cheeks wet and eyes closed. If he didn't look up, he could almost imagine he was in a regular garden in Manhattan. Deep inside he knew he couldn't fool himself.
A few weeks later, the door to the small apartment slammed. Mike shrugged out of his favorite brown leather jacket and hung it in the tiny closet by the door. Knew it would fit; they had been allowed only three bags per person. The smell of vanilla and old candle smoke enveloped him. With a smile he remembered the candles spread around the bedroom. The image of her body bathed in the soft orange glow was burned into his memory. He was surprised how the candle smell made him feel at home. The small, Spartan apartment felt more like home to him than where he'd spent his childhood and it wasn't even his, it was Alannah's. His was a tiny cell in the singles dormitory.
He took a deep breath, stretched the aching muscles in his neck and went to shower the blood and pain from his body. It had been a long day. The world really had gone nuts. He wanted to linger in the tiny shower, but everything was rationed, including water.
After dressing, he made a quick pb&j to take the edge off his hunger while he prepared the rice and meager supply of vegetables for the stir-fry that had become a staple of their diet. It was one of the few dishes that made the most of the rationed food and still tasted great.
He finished the rice just as the door opened behind him. Alannah breezed in, tugging off a sweater and throwing it onto the overstuffed chair. "They need to turn up the heat in the streets," she muttered, kicking her shoes under the small davenport and padding over to kiss him hello.
"Gotta reserve power so we don't all turn into popcicles," Mike said with a grin. "It's nearly the Arctic out there."
She scowled, plucking at the buttons on his thick shirt. "We can make some heat of our own," she murmured suggestively, arching one eyebrow as she peered up at him and molded her body to his. He could feel every soft curve, every beat of her heart. He swallowed in a suddenly dry mouth. Staring down into those half-lidded eyes, so like storm clouds in the fall, he made a decision he thought he would never make in his lifetime.
Mike Logan had an epiphany.
Bending to kiss her with heart-wrenching tenderness, he scooped her up and carried her the few feet to the tiny bedroom. The rice sat on the stove and got cold.
The next afternoon, Lenny sat on the park bench, legs crossed, staring up at the huge mall. It stretched to nearly the top of the dome and the muddy brown sky that should have been blue. No sun came through the Plexiglas. The sign on the building listed the names of hundreds of stores contained inside its twenty-five stories.
He shook his head in amazement. All that shopping in one spot. If there were a fire the entire city would have one other mall to shop at. The city was basically a series of circles. The outermost ring was a park, then the singles dormitories, then the family apartments, and then the business district. All were clustered around this small park; complete with a large pond they dubbed Manhattan Lake. The monorail was the only mode of transportation. Here and there the maintenance facilities popped up to filter everything; the air, water and waste products.
All very neat and tidy, he thought. So why are there ten homicides or more everyday? Utopia this ain't.
He drummed his fingers impatiently on the top on the bench and watched the people pass him. The park was never deserted since the dome relied on artificial light and was never completely dark. The second most traveled area of the dome was the stables where the small supply of milk-bearing animals was kept. He watched a woman pass with a Rotweiler and shook his head. Food was rationed and the government still let people bring pets.
He jumped up when Mike left the mall and jogged under the raised monorail tracks.
"You look like the Cheshire Cat, so I take it you found it?"
"Yep," Mike waved a small box. "And it only cost a year's pay."
Lenny raised his eyebrows. "That's it? I thought they'd ask for your first born since no one will be diggin' any of them up for the next twenty years or so. Okay, let's see it."
Mike popped open the box. Lenny whistled at the contents. "You sure?" he asked.
"Yeah, I mean, there's not much else, is there?"
"That's a lot to base it on," Lenny said sarcastically. "Come on, lunch break is over."
They started toward the monorail station. Halfway up the steps they heard a strange muffled noise.
They stopped, disoriented.
The alarm siren went off, signaling possible problems with the dome, calling all emergency personnel to the Maintenance Crew buildings. The two Detectives exchanged looks then glanced at their surroundings.
"Crew six or seven?" Mike asked.
Lenny shrugged. "Same difference either way." A monorail car approached on the tracks above them. Lenny checked his watch. "We can take this one to seven."
They sprinted up the steps and jumped on the monorail. It filled quickly with fire and police personnel and maintenance crew answering the call.
Lenny scowled as he was shoved against his partner. Sardines have more fun, he thought. He saw the sentiment reflected in Mike's mercurial eyes. He hoped a small shake of his head would keep his volatile partner from saying something stupid in a car full of scared people who might just toss them out before the car stopped.
The door opened and they joined a crowd filing into the squat building near the dome's outer edge. The conference room was packed.
A man with a radio against his ear stood and silenced the room. "The city is under attack," he said in a strong baritone. "You have all been well-versed in your emergency procedures. At present, the dome has withstood the assault. We believe they're using dynamite and grenades. We're sending negotiators outside, but we must be prepared for the worst. Return the people to their homes as quickly as possible."
Lenny muttered in Mike's ear, "Great a party in the streets."
"We will broadcast updates on the police band. Keep your radios on. Good luck."
They left the room quickly and headed to the Precinct for a specific assignment. Staring out the monorail windows, they saw the panic begin. Below them, people ran in confusion. Some had their arms full. Looting had begun in the business district.
The glass exploded beside Lenny. The shock wave tossed him six feet. He sat up, dazed but unhurt, in his thick riot gear. The city around him reminded him of a war movie, people running every direction, smoke and screaming. His ears rang.
"Come on, Lenny," Mike ordered, dropping to his knees to check on his partner. "We gotta go."
"The building," Lenny mumbled.
"Toasted. We gotta find Alannah. The army's taking over. Radio said for the cops and medics to bail. We're on call now." He pulled Lenny through the foliage of the park around Manhattan Lake. The building Alannah worked in towered in front of them. They just had to circle the lake to reach it.
Behind them they heard the "thoop" of tear-gas canisters being fired. The screams of the looters echoed around them. People dove through the bushes.
A man smashed into Mike, trying to wrestle the police issue Tazer from his hand. Mike whirled and backhanded the man. Lenny grabbed his arm and tugged him into a sprint.
"They're friggin' nuts!" Mike shouted over the screams of panic. "Firing tear-gas in a closed dome. It'll get us all!"
They fought their way to the door. Mike turned the knob and stubbed his fingers when it didn't open. For a split-second, he stared at it. Then he threw all of his weight against it. Finally, he was satisfied to hear the wood frame splinter. The door swung open loosely.
A voice emanated from the overhead speakers. "This is General Porter, US Army. You will return to your quarters immediately. Anyone found in the open will be arrested, tried and ejected from the city. You have thirty minutes."
The two men paused on the stairs, listening. They looked at each other in disbelief, their thoughts running in tandem. Expulsion was a death sentence.
"If they don't croak of hypothermia they'll starve in a month," Mike said as they took the steps two at a time.
"No wonder they want in."
"All they had to do was ask."
They were panting when they reached the fifth floor. There was angry shouting in the hallway on the other side of the door. Catching their breath, they took up positions on either side of the door and readied their Tazers. Opening the door slowly, Lenny ducked his head out then back. "One perp in the hall, two doors down, with a knife."
Mike nodded. Holding Lenny's gaze, he counted to three soundlessly and plunged into the hall. "Freeze, police!" he shouted.
The man turned and threw the knife at him. Mike ducked and fired. The Tazer struck the man. His body jerked and he went down.
The knife pierced Mike's leg, spinning him around with the force of the blow. Pain seared his thigh and he fell.
Lenny vaulted his fallen partner and roughly handcuffed the man. "Mike, you --"
"Yeah, yeah. Find Alannah!"
At the sound of his voice two women and three children crept from the second doorway.
"It's okay, we got him," Lenny assured the sobbing children.
Alannah ran to Mike, falling to her knees beside him. "You're bleeding! Janice, get my first aid kit!"
He sat up gingerly, taking her into his arms. "It's just a flesh wound, sweetie. I'm fine."
"We had a long run up the stairs," Lenny added while she bandaged Mike's wound.
"We have to get home," Alannah said, "there are twenty minutes left."
"What about the kids? They can't go out there. We gotta stay here," Lenny said.
She shook her head, a long shining curl falling loose from the clasp at her neck to drag on the floor. "No food or water."
"Let's go, then."
She helped Mike to his feet while Lenny explained to the children what they were going to do.
"I live in the next sector," Janice said, "the children can come with me."
Outside, Mike held up a hand to stop. Lenny shoved the perp forward and passed him off to a soldier near the monorail. A quick glance up the street showed soldiers posted at intervals as far as the eye could see. Lenny waved the small group over to the station.
The railcar glided smoothly over its circular route. Beyond its soft clacking they heard automatic gunfire and muted explosions. Alannah buried her face in the rough fabric of Mike's shirt beneath the open riot vest. He held her tightly.
Suddenly, they heard a loud CRACK! Alannah's head shot up and she looked at Mike in horror. He pressed his cheek against the cool glass and looked up. Tiny bits of Plexiglas rained down on the distant buildings. Dust, like cigarette smoke, puffed through an opening to dissipate into the air.
"We've got a breach!" a voice shouted from Mike's radio.
He felt Alannah shiver.
The loudspeaker overhead said, "Do not panic. Return to your homes and stay inside. You have ten minutes. We have control."
The railcar stopped. Mike took her hand and pulled her out, running toward their building as fast as his injured leg would allow.
They had only five minutes left.
Alannah tripped. "I can't see, Mike! My eyes are burning. What is that?"
"Tear-gas," he said. "If you squint you can see."
A scream echoed nearby. The narrow passages were like a maze. Alannah stopped. "You have to help her, Mike. They'll throw her out."
"I won't leave you here."
"I'll go with."
"We don't have time."
He gave up, knowing she would argue until they ran out of time. Holding hands they ran in the direction of the screams.
They found a young girl huddled in front of a housing building.
"They locked me out," she sobbed.
Mike scooped her up and limped toward home. The sound of mopeds filled the air. The military were the only ones with motorized vehicles.
They sprinted for the door. A moped turned the corner of the building down the block, headed straight for them. Mike threw himself, frantically, against the door, not knowing if it was locked. It opened and they slipped inside as the scooter passed. The soldier slowed and glanced at them before they shut the door.
Hearts racing, breath coming in ragged gasps, they waited for the elevator to take them to the twentieth floor; home.
The little girl was fast asleep on the tiny loveseat in the living room. Mike and Alannah huddled together on the window seat in the bedroom. Beside them, a portable air filter purred. He rocked them back and forth, gently caressing her clean, still damp hair. Through the window they saw the dust proliferate the air creating a hazy smog over the buildings. The blurred explosions outside the dome created an eerie effect.
They watched as night fell for the first time on the new city of New York.
Mike kissed her ear softly and pulled the box from the pocket of his clean shirt. This was as good a time as any. He gathered his courage and said the words, "I want to be with you forever. Will you marry me?" He presented her with the box. The ring twinkled in the soft candlelight from the dresser beside them. The smell of flowers, vanilla smoke filled the apartment.
He heard her soft intake of breath and felt her smile. She slipped the ring on her finger, holding out her hand to admire it.
"Of course," she whispered, bending her head back to kiss him.
They held each other until they dozed off, helplessly watching the final power struggle of a dying way of life.
"The morning brought a new world, children," the old man said. "That was the worst attack and we survived them all. It took months to get rid of all the dust."
"And the Prince and Princess?" Lisann asked with a yawn.
"Who?" he said with a smile.
"Grandpa!" the children chorused.
"Oh, they were married and had four children and lots of grandbabies. And those grandbabies are the ones who'll leave the dome and take back the Earth."
"Is it still there?"
"Of course it is, Ben. It just needs a good dusting and Johnny Appleseed. Now, children, it's time for bed. Off with you."
The reluctant children kissed him goodnight and tumbled off to bed.
Watching them, the old man smiled and tossed a lock of silver blue hair from his hazel eyes in a gesture three quarters of a century old.
He limped a little as he followed them and watched his wife tuck them in and kiss them all good night. She was still beautiful. The fire had faded from her hair but not from her stormy blue-gray eyes.
She smiled when she saw him watching, took his hand and led him down the hall to their bedroom. Lighting a vanilla placed beside a vase filled with old dried flowers, she wrapped her arms around him.
He kissed her tenderly. "Good night, my Princess," he whispered against her lips.