Showtime, thought David as he crested the hill. Through the faceplate and the shimmering waves of heat coming off the broken concrete, he could see the half-collapsed bridge. A faded red flag hung from a pole tied to the middle support; as it moved in the breeze, he could see a V painted on it in a darker color. He activated the suit’s cooling plant, thought about putting it all the way to MAX, knew better.
Of course they’d have the rawest recruits on the least important gate, but even so, he was surprised that a guy in a full-body, lead-lined hazmat suit leading a laden mule could make it to within a stone’s throw of the bridge before a guard showed his face. Skinny kid, a full head shorter than David, loincloth and sandals, sweat-slicked in the November heat. He carried an ancient hunting rifle whose ammunition couldn’t possibly still work.
The kid waved. “Hey, where’d you come from, man?”
“South. You got a captain I can talk to?”
“He’s back up the road, keepin’ cool. Hey, what’s south of here?”
The captain was more formally dressed, in shorts. He pulled a cotton tunic, faded to pink, over his rubbery torso as the kid left the room, but David had already learned what he needed to from the man’s tattoos. “Ain’t nothin’ south of Dosta but the ocean. Farm or two.”
David nodded, exaggerating the motion because of the suit. “Where I bought the mule. I came from the sea.”
“Bullshit. You get ten miles off that coast, you’re a dead man.”
“Fifty years ago? Maybe.” He used one gloved hand to pluck at the other sleeve. “Now, you’re careful, it’s safe enough. You know there’s islands out there, what used to be hills? There’s plenty of treasures there, from Before.”
The captain’s mouth went wide; he made the sign of the cross. “Islands of the damned.”
“No, sir. They were people just like us. They just had better tools.” David unsnapped a pocket, took out a milled steel cylinder. As the man slid his chair backwards, David said, “It’s not sorcery, and it’s not dangerous. Here, go on: take it.”
Unwilling to be seen as a coward, the man gingerly took the cylinder and examined it. “There’s glass.”
“Yes. Pull on the narrow bit.” The man did, and almost dropped it when it expanded into four segments. “Don’t worry. Now look out the window through it. No, through the small end.”
“Holy…” The captain moved his head back and forth, contrasting his naked-eye vision with the view through the spyglass. “How…?”
“You ever see a minister wearing glasses? Same basic principle. Look through two lenses at once, and you’ll see things magnified. Someone’s willing to give up a couple of glass bottles, I could teach you to make one. No, no: keep it. There’ll be more people going south, now that they know they can, and they’ll all have to come back through here. Now, you want to take me to your boss? I hear tell there’s a duke here.”
“Naw, he’s just the Chief. His name is Duke.”
They scuttled up the street from one patch of shade to another toward City Hall. Before they could get very far, a reedy man came stomping up to them. Squinty eyes, too much clothing, all soaked with the sweat of the righteous. He wagged a finger at the captain. “Why you lettin’ this man walk our streets?”
The captain gave David a flicker of eyeroll before saying, “Why, hello there, Rev’rend Dylan. Nice day for a stroll.”
“You want to watch your mouth.” The finger shifted to David. “Take off your mask, demon.”
“I’m afraid I can’t, sir,” said David, striving for subordination. “I don’t want to risk making y’all sick.”
“He came from the South,” said the captain.
The minister crossed himself. “Then he best move on, lest God burn us all.”
David smiled at him through the faceplate. “That’s my plan, sir. Just wanted to be polite.”
The minister smelled a trap. “Dosta’s a clean town. We don’t want nothin’ from the deadlands here.”
“And I’m only bringing goodwill. I wouldn’t bother y’all none, except for I have to come through here, if I want to walk back up Sendyfive.”
The minister’s eyes narrowed further. “Where you goin’ to, anyway?”
David showed them his left shoulder, used the other hand to point at the patch on the upper sleeve. “Home.”
The captain’s jaw dropped. “You’re from Lanna? Is it true, there’s a dome over the city?”
“Just one small part. More trouble than it’s worth, you want my opinion.”
“God sent the heat,” intoned the minister. “It’s our duty to endure it. Man drew down His wrath for seeking forbidden fruit. God sent the Flood and the Fire.”
The captain bowed his head. “And we suffer in atonement.”
The minister looked over at the mule. “What deviltry did you bring back from the dead?”
David opened one saddlebag. “Gifts.” He took out a book bound in gilt and leather, held it out to the minister. “Here, have a Bible.”
The man drew back. “I touch it, I’ll die.”
“No, you won’t. It’s been in an underground library for a hundred years. Wasn’t touched by the Fire nor the Flood. Here, take it.”
The captain reached for the book, flipped it open. “Man, that’s–”
The minister snatched it from him. “Blasphemy.”
“It’s just a Bible,” said David. “There are hundreds. Look, take me to your chief, listen while I explain it to him.”
The chief was about what David had expected: a brute, but by no means a stupid one. “I guess that’s nice, you trying to stop us from getting sick. But how can you live in there, man? I’d be dead already.” He gestured to the slaves to pull harder on the ropes leading to the fans.
“Insulation, Mr. Duke,” said David. “You wrap a cold drink in a blanket, it’ll stay cool a lot longer.” Especially if you have a cooling plant inside.
The chief nodded. “Sure; just don’t ask me to get in there. So you’re from Lanna, hunh? And there’s more of you?”
“There will be, later. My varsity—my church, I mean—will send a whole team, once I get back. Why I’m showing my respects to you. Easier to use Dosta as our base for exploring, and we can pay you for the privilege.”
“Well, I’m listening.”
But just then, the minister came back into the room, sweating under an armload of thick books. “Chief, this man’s a liar and a demon.” He dropped the books on a table, wagged the finger at David. “You put a Bible on top, but underneath was nothing but deviltry.”
The chief turned to David, raised an eyebrow. David said, “I didn’t lie to you. I said gifts. A Bible for you, these books for… my church.” He pointed at the spines of the books. “Biology, physics, chemistry. Knowledge, nothing more.”
“Knowledge is forbidden,” said the minister. “Knowledge brought the Fire and the Flood.”
“No, it didn’t. Well, misused knowledge brought the Flood. Greed, really. But the Fire? Here, let me show you.”
He went to the courtyard, got another book and a small but very heavy box from the saddlebags. Once back inside, he put the box carefully on the table, then opened the book and spread the pages. “Y’ever seen an atlas? A book of maps? Well, this one’s a map of the stars.” He used fingers clumsy in their gloves to flip pages. “Y’all recognize–”
“Orion,” said the captain.
The minister gritted his teeth. “Christ the Warrior.”
“Right,” said David. He flipped more pages. “Now look here: see this cluster, with the funny-looking N beside it? Eta Carinae, they called it. A star—two stars, really—a million times the mass and energy of our sun. Star that big is real unstable. Scientists knew it was going to blow, but they didn’t reckon on how big it would blow. Then one day a hundred years ago, it did. They saw it right away, but it was already too late. Bathed the earth in gamma rays, X-rays: invisible fire that had people dropping dead in the streets. And they were the lucky ones. Everyone else, took about a week for their bodies to fall apart.”
The chief said, “The Fire.”
“It was just nature,” said David. “But look on the map. Eta Carinae is just shy of sixty degrees south. So everyone living south of thirty degrees north got hit with radiation. Here in Dosta? The rock of the Earth is in the way. Go fifty miles south, into what used to be Florida?”
“The land of the dead,” said the captain.
“The luck of the draw,” said David. “Half the Earth’s population dead in a week. Things collapsed pretty quick after that.”
The minister intoned, “And then God sent the flood.”
David wagged a gloved finger at him. “No, that was us. People. Two separate events; just a coincidence. It was the people up North who were mostly doing the burning that started the Flood; you’d think God would’ve blown up a star in the northern sky, he wanted to teach us a lesson.”
He turned to the chief. “But you kill the people with radiation—with Fire—and they stop burning other things. Y’all ever hear old-timers say the summers used to be even hotter? They’re not wrong. The waters are going down, very slowly. What was an island is now a hill. And in one of those hills—Gainesville, they called it—there’s an archive, sealed underground, untouched by Fire or Flood. That’s what my people want.”
Before the minister could speak, David picked up the box. “And as a token of our gratitude for your support, we’ll bring you back more of this.” He handed it to the chief, who almost dropped it, surprised at its weight. “Here, open it: I can’t manage the latch with these gloves.”
David took a few steps back to look at the star chart while the chief opened the box. “Holy shit,” he heard the man say.
“Yep,” said David. “Those are real gold coins, from before. Bite one: yeah, see how soft it is? All yours.”
Both chief and minister ran their hands through the gold. “Well,” said the chief, “this is more than fair. You go on up to Lanna and bring your friends down.”
“Thank you kindly, Mr. Duke.”
“Wait,” said the minister. “He can’t take those books with him.” “Rev Dylan, our friend in the suit here is a real gentleman.”
“Do you really want a conflict with the church?”
The chief groaned. “You’re really gonna… aw, shit.” He looked at David and shrugged. “Politics.” David slumped a little. “Well, you’re the chief. You let me get my bag of tools, you can–”
A handwave. “Take what you need. We’ll put y’all up when you come back.”
An hour later, David was trudging north again. He turned and waved farewell to the captain, who stood on the better-manned bridge that formed Dosta’s northern gate, then faced north and started picking his way up the concrete. Once out of sight, he could take off the suit: he was used to the heat. Cache of camping gear, then the long walk back up Sendyfive. Nothing but open country until Macon, and he’d already paid the tolls there. In the woods near the marked tree, he stripped off the suit and enjoyed the breeze for a moment before unstrapping from his leg the real treasure: a miniature computer, still working perfectly after all this time.
It was a pity about the books, he thought as he changed clothes. The printing and diagrams were beautiful, but they were all scanned into the computer, and they’d been the distraction he needed.
It was a pity about the captain, he thought as he unsealed the instrument and made sure that even the outside of the suit was free of traces of radioactivity. The man seemed like a decent sort, if afraid of the ghosts of Eta Carinae. But just as predicted, the radiation was long gone, and Florida was rising from the sea as a lush and fertile jungle.
It was really a pity about the mule, he thought as he wrapped the suit in an ancient plastic sack and buried it near the tree. It was a docile beast and didn’t deserve its fate. But the Varsity was going to make a lot of trips to Gainesville, and the last thing they needed was interference by greedy dukes and ministers. When they returned after the winter rains, Dosta would be empty: the perfect forward base. There were so many treasures sealed underground, and one of them was a lab containing samples of Polonium-210, which he’d used exquisite care to paint on each of the gold coins before placing them in the lead-lined box.
He found himself whistling as he walked up what had once been a road, imagining himself some ancient god from before: up from the Flood, the bringer of Fire. What a beautiful day.