THE FIRST YEAR

“Learning to do things with patience, and without any expectations; to do things slowly, and just for the sake of doing them. That’s one of the hardest lessons to learn, and one that a person could spend their entire life trying to get their head around.”

BOMBED

“Where do we go from here?” he asked, running a gloved hand over his oil-slicked hair. The air was filled with an acrid smoke that bit the sinuses and carried the faint smell of burned meat. Weak shafts of sunlight lanced through the lumpy clouds above and drew their illuminating caresses over the battlefield. Nothing moved down there, not a damned thing. It was as though the bomb had sucked all of the sound and color from the scene, leaving only a charred horror behind. A still life in soot and sculptures of coal and carbon.

“Go?” I asked, fishing in my uniform breast pocket for a cigarette. I knew that I’d left one in there when we’d deployed from the forward base, but it was gone. Maybe I’d smoked it. The last few hours were a swirling mess of thunder and death, and it felt like I was waking up from napping for too long in the afternoon. A low and distant whine was ringing at the edge of my hearing. “Do you hear that?” I asked.

“Hear what, captain? It’s as quiet as a tomb here.” He thumbed the hammer back on his revolver and peered into the breech. “Well fuck me sideways. No wonder the damn thing didn’t fire.” He picked what looked like a sliver of metal from inside the gun. “Shrapnel. Piece like that coulda done all sorts of bad things to a body, guess it’s a good thing it ended up in there. Probably slipped right in there when I was firing. Of all the things, eh cap?”

I gave him a nod. “You think we’re safe up here?” I asked.

“Safe, sir?”

“From the radiation. Or chemicals. Or whatever was in that explosion.”

“Wouldn’t have been no radiation or chemicals, captain.” Boots crunched behind us, and I turned to see Steveson approaching. He still had the crumpled remains of the radio strapped to his back. “At least, no chemicals that didn’t get consumed by the fire. Clean bomb, that one.” He adjusted the thick black frames of his standard-issue glasses and I saw that one of the lenses was missing a big shard.

“Clean,” I said, and spat. “This is one of the biggest god-damned messes I’ve ever seen.”

“Ain’t that the truth, cap. Ain’t that the truth.” The private’s voice was flatter than the dead plain below us, and I wanted that cigarette more than ever.

PROPHESIED

Her birth had been unremarkable. No signs in the heavens, no omens, no witches screeching prophecy. History would later embellish her coming into the world with all kinds of portents, and revise certain ancient texts to include details that made her coming an event foretold. It was quite a thing to have that kind of power, and in that circumstance it helped, rather than harmed, the fabric of the future, for how else could such a creature as she be explained? No science existed then or now to provide reasonable theories, and the humanities possessed no case studies from which to extrapolate even the simplest of philosophical analysis. No, she had been unique among humans, and in a time where the concept of the alien, the outsider, was limited to invading hordes of horsemen from the East and the occasional caravan up from the deep South, it made far more sense to derive her origin from the divine, rather than the otherworldly.

It was then ironic that a great host of opposing forces had been arrayed against her coming, prepared for generations by secret cults who possessed crumbling scrolls that contained true prophecies, ones penned by the hands of immortal beings in ichor and blood upon cured skins, in a separate reality from the base mortal revisions of kings. These shadowy cabals of worshippers had long known of her impending birth, and had moved mountains to prevent it. But the age and countless reinterpretations of the scrolls had profaned their meaning, making precise augury impossible. Thus she had been shielded from their machinations long enough to take her first breaths. The event of her birth had happened in a regular hospital, on a Wednesday morning just as the sun was rising, to an ordinary couple whose occupations are now lost to the vagaries of time and the rewrites of history. She weighed seven and a half pounds, had brown eyes and a very fine floss of auburn hair, and she did not scream when the doctors cleared her throat. As no one knew who she would become, she was released on schedule and went home with her parents, to lead an average childhood. The agents who sought her didn’t locate the hospital until she was in her twenties, and by then she’d become far too strong to be assassinated in her sleep. The fact that they’d missed the birth was one of the key contributors to the renewal of their discipline and vigor, and their coming to prominence once more in political fields. It would only take them half a decade to re-secure their hold on parliament, something that had been relaxed over the centuries, as there’d been little reason to have a direct influence on the populace. Maintaining influence over the bureaucracy of nations was expensive, both in material assets and in the dilution of their ideology, so it was an endeavour that was pursued only in times of great need.

Her birth and subsequent growth into a young adult had been classified as a “great need”.