Eliana fixes broken things. Watches. Computers. Earth. And, of course, air conditioners. Precious little life survived The Burning. Those who did are huddled around the Hudson Bay, far to the north. Air conditioning is pretty important.

But the planet is finally cooling down. Population is booming. Some survivors on a space station seize the opportunity to reshape mankind in their own image. They plan on being humanity’s new gods.

Eliana decides to stop them.  She uses her skills and talents to board the station.  But she’ll need to make compromises to pull it off. In the end, she won’t be much better than the villain she’s fighting.

INFERNO OF EDEN, is complete at 128,000 words. It is a post-apocalyptic Western about a young woman struggling against the tyranny of the powerful.  Like every Western, it has a showdown at high noon on a space station. Instead of a trusty horse, there’s a sidekick AI. He’s a teenager. Ugh.

In 2002 I founded GrubHub.com, which I left in 2014 to pursue a literary career. In my 12 years leading the company, I created a brand that attracted 10 million customers as well as 1.2 million Twitter and Facebook followers. By way of my bona fides for writing a science fiction novel, I have a pile of degrees from MIT, where I was often seen hanging around the AI lab.  Which is to say, I’m perfectly aware when I sacrifice solid science in the name of a great story.

Thank you for considering this first installment of INFERNO OF EDEN.

Copyright © 2017 Mike Evans. All rights reserved.

Email me at mevans314159+3@gmail.com. I’d love to talk more about the book.


 

CHAPTER ONE

Eliana’s stomach rumbled, her body trying to remind her busy mind of her growing hunger. She barely noticed. Her head was bent over delicate work, her concentration wholly fixed on a small piece of metal. The last time she’d noticed her physical needs had been hours ago. Vaguely, she had registered that she was both starving and exhausted, but she’d brushed the sensations aside then and couldn’t be bothered by them now.

She held a pair of tweezers in her hand, the tip hovering over an ancient wristwatch. She was focused on a tiny part made up of three components: a steel center rod, a disc, and a finely machined pinion gear that was over a thousand years old. Eliana had created the disc herself. It represented the absolute pinnacle of technical achievement for the modern-day Tinkers of Waskaganish: a nearly perfect circle of hardened steel. The tolerances of machining this disc to within a fraction of a millimeter had been achieved through the dedicated efforts of generations.

Checking her work a final time under magnification, Eliana was satisfied. The disc was as close to perfectly circular as anything she had ever created. It was tiny: only a fraction of the width of her smallest fingernail. Now she would cut the teeth that would turn this disc into a gear.

She had learned about clocks under her father’s patient instruction. Balance wheels and ratchets. Pinions and jewels. The mystery of keyless works. Each aspect of clockwork could be understood through careful examination. Then it was a matter of scavenging from one broken machine to repair another, which was easy enough once the mechanisms were understood.

But scavenging was rarely sufficient. Many half repaired clocks had sat among the benches of the workshop until Eliana’s father had, at last, rediscovered the technique required to create new precision gears. That had been some two decades past. Since then, his technique had been used to repair dozens of clocks, which in turn had been traded to the Academy at Rankin Inlet.

Her father had fabricated his replacement parts from mundane materials like brass and iron. Oldtech alloys would have been better, but even after countless generations of effort, the Tinkerers hadn’t been able to devise methods for working on the materials with any degree of precision. Usually, they just ended up breaking the drill bits. Thus, the replacements were of inferior grade to the original parts.

Those early clocks, made by her father years ago, had been easy in comparison to the much smaller watches that now littered the workshop. No one in recent memory had been able to create a replacement part small and durable enough for a wristwatch. If Eliana could succeed today, she would make history.

She caught a glimpse of herself as she adjusted the mirror on her cluttered workbench to direct more light towards the part. What she saw reminded her that she should probably take better care of herself: Her black eyes, which she usually regarded as quite striking, looked more haunted on account of the puffy skin underneath them. Her face was framed by black hair, the color of graphite, with the same silvery sheen. It was long, straight, and she had to admit, somewhat greasy.

Her sepia skin tone matched her parents’ exactly. Her family proudly traced its descent from the James Bay Cree that had originally called Waskaganish home. The influx of European and American immigrants back during The Burning meant that her skin was paler than her ancestry would suggest: more brass than bronze.

Her hollow cheeks indicated she should eat more. Just a couple of generations ago, this would have been unremarkable. But in this era of relative abundance, it suggested she simply needed to pay more attention to her physical needs.

She brushed the thought aside. The tightness of hunger in her stomach gave way to butterflies as she carefully removed the disc from the steel shaft and prepared to cut the teeth that would make it a gear.

She placed the disc in a chock she’d created specifically for this purpose. It would rotate precisely six degrees with a push of the foot pedal. She did just that a few times and was pleased to see the mechanism work perfectly each time.

Then she turned her attention to the cutting tool. She had created this too — though perhaps created was too strong a word. Really, she had torn a crude tool out of the guts of a mechanism that had once been something much more: a computer operated machine designed to make the most precise of cuts. It had the conflicting designation of being priceless, while, for all practical purposes, worthless. It had been hauled here by the Reclaimer guild. And wasn’t technically hers to take.

Last week, she had used a lavish portion of the workshop’s electricity ration to power up the Oldtech machine for a few short minutes. Rather than doing anything useful, the ancient screen had displayed objections such as “insufficient biometric match” and “BIOS update required to continue”. Frustrating… but not entirely a lost cause.

In an act of sacrilege that still had her in deep displeasure of the council, she had stripped the stubborn machine to pieces. She had separated the mechanical milling and lathing tools from the electrical drive and computer control. This simple act had provoked equal amounts of rage and wonder in the council. To defile a machine retrieved at such a high cost by the old Reclaimer guild had brought disdain and anger down from one quarter. A competing faction had marveled at Eliana’s ability to dismantle a device that had resisted the entropy of decay for hundreds of years. Somehow, her punishment had been lost in the subsequent petty squabbling.

Since then, she had replaced the entire electrical system with a decidedly low-tech solution to bypass the electronics’ cranky attitude. An arrangement of gears, belts, and pulleys connected the lathe to a heavy counterweight suspended two meters off the ground. Once she released the catch, the stone would drop slowly towards the ground. During that descent, the gear ratios would drive the bit to rotate at extremely high speed. The whole setup was attached to a vertical track that slid smoothly up and down, aided by its own counterweight system. All she had to do was lower the spinning blade into the disc. Easy!

She checked the setup a final time. She would have only two minutes before the counterweight hit the ground. To ensure the best accuracy, she needed to do this all in one drop of the counterweight. With a shiver of nerves, she released the catch. The drill bit accelerated to a furious pace, while the counterweight slowly made its way earthward.

Ever so carefully, she slid the bit into contact with the disc. The bit sliced away a tiny spiral of metal. Working quickly, before the counterweight hit the ground, Eliana lifted the bit, pushed the pedal to rotate the disc, and made another cut.

Lift. Pedal. Drop.

Lift. Pedal. Drop.

Each sequence took just under two seconds. She made sixty cuts in total. After just two scant minutes, Eliana lifted the drill a final time and locked it in place. Her arms trembled with pent up tension as much as the effort of working the mechanism.

As if to mark the occasion, the counterweight hit the ground with a dull thud. The cutting surface lost its momentum, whirring down slowly. Eliana fancied that the machine seemed… almost happy. Oldtech rarely seemed happy. The machines’ former masters had taught them to be surly things, stingy with their aid to those who were not blessed with the proper credentials. The guardedness of the information wars prevailed. It was a constant obstacle for Tinkers like her to overcome.

Using her best number five tweezers, Eliana carefully removed the steel disc–no, steel gear — from the chock. She examined her workmanship under a loupe. With her tweezers, she grabbed a flake of oilstone from the desk. Applying it to the grooves between the teeth removed any leftover burrs.

The metal smoothed under her attention.

As the final edges of the gear became more distinct, Eliana paused. This would be the culmination of months of effort. The gear finished, she used a small bellows to blow a puff of air over the teeth, freeing them of any final dust or debris. She careful secured the gear on its post along with the pinion. She wiggled it until it fell into position.

This wasn’t the first watch she had ever repaired, but this was the first time anyone in the Tinker guild had actually created such a small, hard gear instead of scavenging one from another piece. In some ways, creating a mechanical watch was wasteful and unnecessary. It was easy enough to manufacture the simple electronics used in a quartz timepiece. But regaining the mechanical precision that had been casually delegated to computer-controlled machines just prior to The Burning was as much a matter of elegance as it was pragmatism.

Eliana’s attention wandered a moment. She thought about her friend Jacques. He was out in the wasteland somewhere, wearing the watch she’d given him. It was the first she had successfully fixed from scavenged parts. She’d been as happy to have him use it as she had been to create it. He was dear to her, and he had been gone a long while. Where was he now? What was it, mid January? She could never keep track. Jacques was probably headed home by now. She looked forward to showing him her latest masterpiece, with the gear she had created herself.

Eliana was excited to test her results, but she had schooled herself to patience. She methodically reassembled the watch movement, face, hands, and case. She used the ancient clasp to attach the watch to her wrist. It felt like a theft. By law and custom, the device belonged equally to the Reclaimer and Tinker guilds. She would definitely hear about it if she were seen wearing it in public.

The Reclaimer guild often felt more like lawyers these days. They weren’t what they had once been; they had become greedy with their possessions. Oldtech was getting even older. As the centuries passed, it became increasingly difficult to find anything worthwhile in the old abandoned cities to the south.

Eliana permitted herself this small moment of possession of a device on which she had lavished so much attention. She twisted the winding lug a few times. The second hand began its movement. To test the accuracy, she held her wrist up to the working clock on the wall. The second hand of the watch tracked in time. They made their revolutions: once, twice, both timepieces ticking in perfect synchronization.

She experienced a thrill of pride. Smiling, Eliana began to unhook the watch’s band. Jacques would be delighted when he heard what she had accomplished. She couldn’t wait to tell him. She couldn’t wait until he returned.

A commotion from the surface cut through her attention. There was a series of explosions in rapid sequence. It was almost like a belching or coughing. As Eliana listened, the noise became almost regular, more like the clockwork she knew so well. It was unlike anything she had ever heard, but her trained Tinker’s ear recognized it as mechanical.

Eliana felt a pulse of anxiety. She looked around for her apprentice, Misha. When was the last time she’d seen the girl? An hour ago? A day?

The mechanical coughing became more urgent.

Eliana raced to the ladder of the workshop and climbed up the rungs. She opened the hatch. As always, she prepared as best as she could for the blast of heat coming from the surface, but it still shocked her body. Even under the stars on a relatively cool mid-January night, the warmth was oppressive. Immediately, she felt sweat forming on her back. Eliana lived in a nocturnal world. She had heard stories of the old days, before The Burning, when people had done their work in the daytime and slept at night, but she could not really imagine it.

Her workshop was on the edge of Waskaganish. She had an unobstructed view towards the center of town. To her right, her air conditioner nestled close to the ground, humming along contentedly. It inhaled the dusty breeze, filtering and cooling it before exhaling clean, cool air into the living spaces below.

Eliana sneezed. She hated the surface. She wasn’t sure what was worse, the ever-present grit blowing in the wind or the heat.

Though, she loved the sky. The brilliant starscape took her breath away. The multitude of twinkling stars always captivated her imagination. She could look at a single spot for hours, always amazed at how more and more stars appeared, the longer she looked. The Aurora Borealis wasn’t too strong tonight, so the stars were even clearer than usual.

Closer to home, her view was dominated by an enormous hangar building that dwarfed the ground-hugging mechanical life support structures. It housed the nearly completed prototype dirigible that had been the result of a rare cooperation between the Tinkers and Reclaimers. Eliana assumed at first that the source of the mechanical coughing was coming from there. But as she got her bearings, turning in the wind, adjusting to the heat, she realized that the unfamiliar noise was reflecting off the broad surface of the building. It was coming from somewhere else. The echoes made it difficult to pinpoint the source.

Dozens of stunted bushes dotted the landscape, situated among the towns’ vents and hatches. Their branches were raised heavenward, waiting for the short span of daylight that would start in a few hours. It was just past midwinter. Even though Waskaganish was the furthest Southern settlement of humanity, the bushes still only got a few hours of daylight in the winter.

The plants were the product of ever-ongoing genetic botany experiments. Her town had been trying to create low-light heat-resistant plants for generations. There were a few surface farmers out beneath the stars. Most of the townsfolk who did this tough work proudly traced their ancestry to the Cree people of Waskaganish. They were generally a little darker skinned than the rest of the inhabitants, though not by much. But really, that was just because they spent time outside. Really, the once separate races of Waskaganish, had long since blended towards homogeneity.

The farmers were brushing the dust off the plants’ leaves in the relative coolness before the sun came up. Like Eliana, they had all stopped their work and turned, horrified, to the source of the noise.

She followed their gaze. Her eyes slowly adjusted to a landscape illuminated only by the stars and moon. Others were emerging from underground as well, drawn to the terrible noise. It reminded Eliana of the rabbits emerging from their warrens in the hydroponics guild. They were even twitchy. The fear of the other townspeople was palpable.

In the dim starlight, she saw her absent apprentice, Misha. She wore her workshop apron, and her hair streamed behind her. She stood next to the Oldtech diesel engine responsible for the clangor that had pulled Eliana from her workbench. The Oldtech was jumping erratically as flames shot out of a metal pipe on its side. Misha’s small form radiated pride and triumph as she stood beside the long dormant device come to life.

Then she noticed Eliana, and the look of pride faltered. It reflected the fear she saw on her mentor’s face.

#

Graham observed a bloom of carbon emanating from the Arctic Circle. This observation was made from his vantage point on Near Earth Station Carl Sagan. Or more precisely, he was the station. Or maybe just a part of the station’s brain. Or was it that the station was part of him? Really, he wasn’t sure what his exact relationship was to Sagan Station. He was relatively young. His designation was that of an Accelerated Intelligence.

Sagan Station was attached to the Trinidad Space Elevator. The space elevator was the largest thing mankind had ever created. Graham cared little for the technical details. He had subprograms that figured the boring stuff out — smaller aspects of himself that were, themselves, quite boring. He thought of the elevator as an impossibly long rope. The bottom of was attached to El Cerro del Aripo, the tallest mountain in Trinidad. The other end was attached to a big rock far outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The rock on the one end wanted to fly off into space. But it couldn’t because the other side was tied to the mountain.

The rope was constructed of the most advanced material Humans had ever created. Graham wasn’t sure about the details: Carbon nanotubes and helixes and all sorts of fancy stuff like that. He did know it was thicker in the middle than the ends. Like, a lot thicker.

There were three stations along the rope.

The first was at the top, attached to the big rock. It was called, predictably enough, The Rock. A person standing in that station would feel the normal gravity of the Earth. Though, it would be in the wrong direction. They’d look ‘up’ to see the planet. Graham imagined the humans would find that pretty disorienting, if any of them had still been alive.

This weird, opposite gravity was useful. One could simply drop something off the edge of the rock, and it would fly off into space. This, of course, was the whole point of a space elevator in the first place.

The second station was near the end of the rope, pretty close to The Rock. It was called GEO station. A person in GEO station would feel weightless, beyond the bounds of gravity. Looking out the window of GEO, they would see the Earth far below, or above, depending on which way they were floating at the time. Except, just like on the Rock, everyone on Geo was dead, so they didn’t feel or see anything.

The third was Near Earth Station Carl Sagan. It was very close to the Earthward end of the rope. But that still put it at the very edge of the atmosphere, at about twice the height of Mount Everest. Technically, it wasn’t quite in space, but then again, Graham cared little for technicalities. He just knew that his people would die if he opened an airlock at the wrong time.

Don’t do that!

The Trinidad Elevator had been built for a host of reasons a long time ago, cobbled together from a collaboration of interests. Graham had studied the archived news sites quite thoroughly. Unlike space elevators, people were interesting. There had been politicians who waxed rhapsodic about the hopefulness of space exploration. There had been preachers who wanted to escape the evils of the doomed surface. Then there had been others, including the government of Trinidad, brought into the fold by the promise of reduction in atmospheric carbon.

A bold plan had been put in place for reducing the carbon levels in the atmosphere. The gas would be condensed into synthetic diamond crystals, which weighed a lot on the surface. They were manufactured at the base of the elevator, in the city of Valencia. Enormous cargo climbers lifted them into space. They scurried up the rope, past Sagan Station, past the GEO station, and ultimately all the way to the Rock at the end. On arrival, the mass of carbon was simply released on an escape trajectory out of Earth’s sphere of influence.

The plan had been to send up one of these enormous diamonds every few hours. The engineers had intended to replicate this single space elevator a dozen times to do the same thing. After about ten thousand years, give or take a millennium, the atmospheric carbon spewed skyward since the industrial revolution would be harmlessly cast off into space, on a long orbit around the sun. That was the theory, anyway.

The whole project had been ridiculous, conceived at a time when ridiculous plan sometimes happened anyway. The amount of energy involved was far greater than just burying the same synthetic diamond crystals in the ground. The plans to build more elevators had fallen into limbo while policymakers held great debates about the advantages of ejection versus sequestration. Meanwhile, engineers had moved forward on the interesting challenges of developing the technology. All this had happened before The Burning, of course, when change still seemed possible, when technology still worked, when human civilization was flourishing and vibrant, not yet than in ruins.

Graham enjoyed reading about this time. He particularly liked the emails that had been sent by Engineer Alpha. She had written to her colleagues extensively about alternative uses of the diamond crystals. Why waste such a useful reaction mass? Especially when elevator telemetry adjustments were so resource-intensive. She had decided to sheathe a one-megagram crystal in a casing of iron and shoot it out a railgun. She had hoped to maintain the orbital velocity of the elevator’s counterweight (the rock), as well as the tension in the elevator cable (the rope) itself. It was an optimistic endeavor.

But the destructive application of such a device had immediately been understood by minds that were more cynical than those of Engineer Alpha and the host of scientists who had been so excited about her invention. Graham luxuriously wasted a microsecond to read all of their correspondence too. Meanwhile, his subprograms did their math thing and gave him the relevant headline: the kinetic energy of a megagram of dense carbon hitting the ground at terminal velocity was similar to a shell fired from the main guns from an Iowa class battleship, back when dumb munitions were still used. Unwittingly, Engineer Alpha had turned a potential solution for global warming into a remarkably effective killing machine.

Now, so long after The Burning — after the death of Engineer Alpha and all her hopes — the carbon crystals were still in use. Several satellites were armed and ready at all hours of the day and night. This was part of Graham’s purpose. If any of the current surface dwellers were so foolish as to spew carbon into the atmosphere, he had his orders.

The irony of using a thousands kilograms of carbon to obliterate an engine spewing the tiniest fraction of that into the atmosphere was not lost on Graham. But that was his job, after all. He would have sighed, if he had lungs.

Seconds after Graham detected the sputtering of a combustion engine on the surface, high in the Arctic Circle, strategic satellite Iota VIII received a command and telemetry to deorbit half of its eight projectiles. The satellite itself was smart enough to know that it should fire one in the opposite direction at four times that velocity so it would not shoot off into space. Its orbit was polar, currently over the South Atlantic, racing north. The launch window would start when the satellite passed about 450 kilometers east-by-southeast of Waskaganish. That would be in eight minutes.

Shooting something from orbit was actually much the opposite of shooting something on the surface. Rather than aiming at the target, the railgun fired its payload the opposite direction, or “retrograde”. Since the target wasn’t in the direct path of the device, massive computing power would be brought to bear on the exact angle and amount of energy to impart on the projectile. Less scientifically, Graham just thought of it as ‘a little to the left.’

The projectiles would not move at orbital velocity. They’d be speeding along just a fraction slower than that. Without enough velocity to maintain orbit, they would begin their descent towards Earth, decelerating further as they entered the atmosphere.

The heat of that entry would be enough to melt off the iron casing. Unfortunately, this part of the process was notoriously hard to model, even for the very capable unconscious part of Graham’s mind. The unpredictably changing aerodynamic shape of the projectile would make accuracy a problem. It was hard to hit anything within one hundred meters. However, this margin of error was significantly less than the blast radius of the shell hitting the Earth at Mach Three. So the accuracy issues were a problem, but not an insurmountable one.

That’s why he fired four.

#

The people of Waskaganish were fleeing in every direction away from the center of town. No one in living memory had seen a Skyfire blast, but the stories had been handed down with dire warnings. Even now, drills were practiced regularly. Children were warned. Too bad Misha hadn’t listened.

Most of Waskaganish’s sister settlements had been destroyed back at the tail end of The Burning. The settlements of the Hudson Bay had received a terse message from Sagan Station to cease its carbon pollution. The station had assumed responsibility for reverting the climate back to inhabitable levels. Part of that responsibility included the enforcement of a zero carbon emission policy. The command had been ridiculous. How were they supposed to survive without power?

Many towns had refused to stop using combustion engines. One by one, they had been brutally, fatally attacked. These days, people called it Skyfire. Soon after, even the most recalcitrant settlements abandoned the burning of liquid fuels. As surface farming became difficult, and then impossible, the settlements had no way to power their hydroponics, and so eventually they died out from starvation.

The written and oral accounts had agreed that Skyfire strikes were excessive. Orbitals, as their oppressors were commonly called, preferred sheer power over accuracy. Sometimes they would miss the offending engine completely. In that case, retribution would rain continually, pummeling the town again and again until the device was obliterated.

And now Waskaganish would be attacked.

The evacuation technique was for residents to flee radially out from the center of town along pre-assigned routes. Families would split up to avoid having entire genetic lines wiped out. Each person would grab a critical piece of equipment that had been assigned to them: usually solar blankets or batteries. Without these, the underground hydroponics couldn’t be powered. Starvation would follow soon after such a tragedy.

Eliana was among the last to leave. She was moving the slowest. Her assigned role was to collect batteries from the shop, but instead she had gathered as many tools as she could carry in a large backpack. The weight of it dragged her down. She had collected the things that had taken centuries of Reclaimer missions to accumulate — Reclaimers like her friend Jacques, out wandering the wastelands even now.

As Eliana headed south, she could see the incoming Skyfire. A bright red streak across the sky. She paused to marvel at the shining comet whizzing across the starscape. It was as beautiful as it was deadly. The leading edge of the Skyfire glowed a brilliant orange and white. Its tail was a hazy arrow pointing to the south, like an accusatory finger indicating the Orbital’s station. Eliana felt the heat from the thing as it burned through the atmosphere and threw infrared radiation in all directions. This far into the winter, as the hour approached midnight, the artificial comet was the brightest thing in the heavens, even brighter than the moon.

Eliana scolded herself for stopping. She checked her watch and saw that a full twenty minutes had passed since she had first heard the mechanical belch of Misha’s engine. The Skyfire would hit any minute.

She resumed walking at as brisk a pace as she could manage with the weight of rescued equipment strapped to her back. Getting away from the blast center would be her best chance to survive, but her hunger from earlier was now too difficult to ignore. She felt weak and faint, overheated by the outdoor air. She judged she was far enough away and stopped for breath. A rock formation stood between herself and the town center, hopefully strong enough to shield her from any shrapnel.

Glancing back, she could see Misha being ushered along by an older woman. Why were those two still in town? They must have had plenty of time to get out. It looked like Misha was carrying several bundles, much like Eliana. As they came closer, she saw that the older woman was Nuna, one of the hydroponics engineers. She must have stayed in town looking for stragglers and found Misha taking far too long to evacuate.

Maybe Misha’s guilt had led her to carry too much. It was her fault, after all. Because of her hubris, their town would be hammered by the Orbitals.

Returning her attention to the Skyfire, Eliana saw that it was much closer. The scientific part of her mind analyzed the technical details. Without knowing the size of what she was looking at, judging the distance was impossible. The Skyfire was actually several distinct points of light clustered close together. That was surprising. She’d assumed that it would be a single projectile. One of the pinpricks was coming in much lower than the others. A tingle of fear crawled up her spine. Much lower. It was going to hit very close. Very soon.

She checked her watch.

How had another ten minutes passed? Damn, the watch must be broken. The pride she’d recently felt at repairing the device evaporated. If there was anything left of the workshop after the assault, she’d try again.

She returned her attention to the Skyfire. It hadn’t moved. Not one inch. It hung in the sky, as still as the moon.

Eliana had heard stories about near death experiences, but she was surprised that the sensation was so… literal. Survivors talked about a sudden peace, or time creeping slowly along, or even memories of one’s entire life replaying in the mind. She seemed to have all the time in the world. The gentle sounds of night — crickets, the hurried footsteps of her neighbors moving just up ahead, even the wind — had all died to nothing. She knew that the comet streaking above was surely going faster than anything she’d ever seen, but it seemed to progress at no faster than a leisurely stroll.

How interesting.

Too bad she wouldn’t survive this. She’d love to talk about the experience with her father.

In her peripheral vision, she observed that Nuna and Misha were still sprinting. But her mind could not make sense of what she was seeing. Inexplicably, the two of them were moving at full speed, even though the rest of the world seemed to have slowed to a crawl. Actually, they were moving faster than they should. Faster than was humanly possible. Faster even than the splinter of Skyfire that was streaking past just above their heads in the opposite direction. Nuna glanced up, gazing openmouthed in amazement, clearly seeing the same miraculous things as Eliana. Everything in the world seemed to be moving according to its own private time.

Misha was not as observant as her companion. Over the next few — seconds? minutes? Eliana could not be sure — Misha continued running. She did not glance up. She did not see Eliana. She dove for cover behind a rock, achieving a measure of safety, unlike Eliana who was only partially protected.

Eliana felt pinned in an invisible vice. She couldn’t budge. A powerful wave of claustrophobia threatened to overwhelm her as she struggled to move out of harm’s way, to dive behind the rocks. She could not tell what kind of force was holding her. She felt frozen. Time crept by at a snail’s pace. She was like an insect caught in amber.

The Skyfire impacted. Impossibly, Eliana saw the earth erupting in slow motion. Clods of dirt and stones flew in every direction, rising as lazily as soap bubbles drifting on the breeze. She felt the heat from the blast increasing on her face to an unbearable level even as she was unable to move to flinch away. A shockwave of dirt and fire spread out in all directions in a violent explosion, moving millimeter by millimeter.

Last year, for her eighteenth birthday, her father had ‘borrowed’ one of the few working tablet computers to show her a time-lapse video of a flower unfolding. The explosion before her was like that. It was a silent unfolding of destruction. She had not heard a sound from the incoming Skyfire or the subsequent explosion. It seemed removed, separate, silent, slow,

Eliana tried desperately to throw herself behind the rocks, but was still rooted in place. The shockwave continued inexorably towards Eliana. About fifty meters away, she felt the full force of it. The blast launched her backwards like a giant’s hand. Her head hit the ground painfully, knocking her unconscious.