Authors: Christine Pope
The parking garage came down in a flurry of dust and pulverized concrete. There was very little in it he thought worth salvaging, except perhaps some of the metal infrastructure that had given it strength. Qadim used his power as an earth elemental to extract that metal, to draw it out of the concrete and have it form into neat bars, which he lined up along the sidewalk next to the hotel. He also made sure that the foundations of the buildings were smoothed over and covered by soil, since he would need all of it for what he had planned.
Having the parking garage gone helped somewhat, but its collapse only revealed more buildings on the other side. Frowning, he wondered if he should continue the demolition in that direction, or whether he should destroy the tall building directly across the street from the hotel.
He went out and stood in the middle of Copper Avenue, surveying his surroundings. There seemed to be something of an open area abutting the building in question, so he walked over and took a look around. Yes, there were plants in large pots. Some of them even seemed to have survived their year of neglect, and he noted that he should do what he could to revive them, since his connection with the earth also gave him some small gifts in encouraging the growth of plant life.
Beyond that little arcade was a small park with red rocks and grass, and that should definitely be preserved. But the building itself served no useful purpose.
Again the earth shuddered, and the building collapsed much in the same way the parking structure had. Qadim made sure that all the debris fell away from him and the park where he stood. When it was all gone, the space felt far more open, the bright sun pouring down and making the red rocks and the grass around them more vibrant.
Yes, that was much better.
* * *
in the lee side of a building that had once housed Albuquerque Health Partners and stared, not sure she could believe what she was seeing. Kitty-corner across the street was the Convention Center…or at least what was left of it.
Chalky dust still filled the air, but she could see clearly enough. The enormous building that had once stood there was basically gone. For some reason, the garden area outside was still intact, unharmed except for the fine white dust drifting over it.
Then her heart seemed to skip in her chest, because standing in the middle of the grass in the garden was a man.
No, not a man,
her mind quickly corrected her.
His back was to her, so she couldn’t see his face. But he wore long flowing robes in shades of gray and black. She’d seen other djinn wearing more or less the same sort of thing, although in brighter colors. His hair was long and nearly as dark as his robes, rippling in the breeze. Even at this distance she could tell he was extremely tall, maybe six and a half feet or more.
He hadn’t sensed her. Maybe he was so focused on the destruction of the building that he wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings. Madison had never been entirely sure how close a djinn needed to be before he could tell that a human was in the vicinity. Most of the time, though, they hadn’t picked up on her presence until they were within ten yards or so. Which meant they weren’t omnipotent. If she kept her distance, she was safe. Well, unless they actually saw her, and she’d always taken care to prevent that from happening.
What this djinn was doing here in Albuquerque, blowing up buildings, she had no idea. The elementals she’d evaded during the past year had clearly been on the hunt, chasing down the city’s few survivors, but that didn’t seem to be this djinn’s objective. As she took a quick glance down Copper Avenue, she realized that the parking garage next to the Hotel Andaluz was gone as well. That must have been the first “earthquake” she’d felt.
So did he intend to knock down every building in the vicinity? That would take a while.
He turned then, and she was able to catch a faint glimpse of a strong profile with a long nose, his chin and cheeks partially obscured by a closely trimmed beard. At the same time, she shrank back against the wall, praying that he hadn’t noticed her hiding there and staring at him.
Apparently not. He crossed the street and disappeared inside the Hotel Andaluz, and she let out a breath. She knew it was time to go. Her luck had held so far, but pushing it would only get her into a world of trouble. This strange djinn and the mystery he represented would have to wait for later.
She hurried back the way she’d come, staying in the shadows, heart racing the whole time. Deep down, she knew she really didn’t need to have ventured out here at all, that she’d done so to fill a far different need than mere food or water. After all, the shelter had enough supplies stockpiled to last for five years or more. These prospecting missions were her only way of keeping herself from dying of boredom.
The last thing she wanted to admit to herself was that they were a test as well. She’d survived when so many countless others had died. Getting through yet another expedition in dead Albuquerque was a way of proving to herself that she deserved to live.
Or maybe it just proved that the universe wasn’t quite done with her yet.
he bomb shelter
was located under the property that had once belonged to Dr. Clay Michaels, her father’s boss at Sandia National Laboratories. Madison’s father had never talked much about his work. It had something to do with nuclear weapons safety, but that was all she knew. He couldn’t discuss his work because it was classified, and Madison never asked. She knew better.
Despite the secrecy surrounding his work at Sandia, Dr. Michaels had always felt like another uncle to her, one she actually got to spend time with, since both her parents had come to Albuquerque from elsewhere, her mother from Sacramento in northern California, her father from Chicago. Madison had few opportunities to see her relatives, except on the rare occasions when her parents had made the effort to travel out of state.
But Clay had treated Tom and Sarah Reynolds, Madison’s parents, like the brother and sister he’d never had, and Tom and Sarah had only been too happy to reciprocate. At least, until Sarah got sick and wasn’t up for entertaining, or much of anything else.
Madison closed the shelter’s hatch behind her, making sure it was locked securely. The shelter had all sorts of failsafes in place to guard against radiation, chemical weapons, and biological contaminants, but none of that was really necessary now. There hadn’t been a nuclear attack; no one had rained down sarin gas or weaponized anthrax. That the Heat had been some kind of biological weapon, she was sure, but obviously she was immune, or she would have died more than a year ago along with everyone else she’d ever known or loved.
Still, she followed all the procedures, locking the outer hatch, double-checking the decontamination filters before she headed into the shelter itself. The electric bike had a charging station just inside the final door, and she plugged it in before heading toward the kitchen. Her mouth was dry, maybe from inhaling too much of that dust.
Just what the hell had that djinn been up to? The only destructive behavior she’d seen djinn indulge in before had been directed solely at humans. Even now, many months after she’d seen the man who was apparently Albuquerque’s only other survivor meet a violent end at the hands of those otherworldly foes, her sleep still rang with the screams of those who’d been brutally murdered.
She opened the refrigerator in the kitchen and poured a glass of filtered water from the pitcher she kept in there. The first swallow made her feel a little better, but her heart was still beating hard, far more than the slight exertion necessary to pilot the electric bicycle would have required.
When exactly had been her last djinn sighting? Sometime in March, she thought. Ever since then, Albuquerque had been a ghost town, and now it was early October. She knew she was the only person left within the city limits, or surely she would have seen at least a hint of another survivor’s presence.
The only reason she wasn’t dead was the shelter where she now stood. Bunker. Whatever you wanted to call it, the place had been designed to withstand a nearby nuclear blast, chemical warfare, civil unrest, or any other of a long list of additional catastrophes. Madison had no real idea how much the shelter must have cost, but she knew it had to be a lot. Maybe more than a million dollars. One wouldn’t have thought a scientist at a government laboratory could afford that kind of extravagance, but Clay Michaels never had any children or anything much to spend his money on. From the street, his house had looked modest enough…if you didn’t know what was hidden underneath the backyard.
Madison left the kitchen and headed toward the media room. Cable TV and streaming services were things of the past, vanished along with the world that had created them, but Clay had made sure that the shelter’s media servers were stocked with all sorts of film and television classics, as well as an eclectic assortment of music. In addition, he’d done a credible job of backing up a number of scientific journals and reference texts, along with what appeared to be a data dump from Wikipedia as it had existed right before the Heat wiped out the internet, in addition to databases from a number of noted universities.
It was from studying those resources that Madison had eventually realized those human-looking but inimical creatures stalking the streets like a squad of angels of death were djinn.
At first she’d had no real idea what a djinn even was. Genies were something from
not men of intense beauty with doom in their eyes. But after entering keywords in a variety of combinations into the shelter’s database, she’d come to the conclusion that these entities had to be djinn. They had control over air, or earth, or fire. Probably water, too, but standing bodies of water were in short supply in Albuquerque. The strange beings could pop into existence from nowhere before they rained death upon any unlucky humans they might find.
Her research also explained why the djinn would want all humans dead. They desired this world, believing it had been denied them in favor of giving it to the human race.
Well, it was theirs now.
She sat down on the couch and set her glass of water on the coffee table in front of her. If anyone had been shown a snapshot of this room and not been told where it was, they probably would have said it was an image of a high-end model home, or maybe a very expensive hotel. The sofa was leather, the coffee table burnished juniper lovingly carved to preserve the twisted shape of the original wood. Alabaster sconces held in place by old bronze fittings hung on the wall, bracketing original oils by local artists.
Actually, several of the paintings in the shelter were hers. And not ones she’d created after she’d hidden herself away here, but
pieces Clay Michaels had bought from her to decorate the space. She’d always wondered if he’d done so because he truly appreciated her art or whether his installation of the paintings here was more or less the equivalent of a parent sticking his child’s stick figure drawings on the refrigerator door.
As she stared without really seeing at an oil of the Rio Grande gorge near Taos, all brooding purples and grays and blacks, she couldn’t get the image of the djinn she’d just seen out of her mind. If she’d been thinking, she would have pulled the slim camera she carried with her everywhere from her pocket and taken a couple of quick snapshots, if only to reassure herself that he actually was real and not something a mind fevered with too much loneliness might have conjured up.
Well, she’d have to settle for the next best thing.
She had sketchbooks and pencils and charcoals stashed away in most of the shelter’s rooms, although one of the secondary bedrooms was the only place where she had an actual easel set up so she could work with her beloved oils. Now, though, a sketchpad would be enough. Madison picked up the one she’d left on a side table and then selected a charcoal pencil from the stoneware cup she used to store her drawing supplies. His looks cried out for charcoal, with his long nose and heavy dark hair and sweeping night-colored robes.
The profile first, with its severe but elegant lines of brow and nose and chin. She had to obscure that chin with the shadow of his beard, but it couldn’t quite hide the shape of his jaw. Whether she was remembering those details correctly, she didn’t know for sure. She’d been so startled by his being there at all that all she had was the sudden, shocked imprint of his appearance on her mind’s eye, and that was what she consulted now, sketching quickly, the face and figure of the djinn taking shape on the paper beneath her charcoal pencil.
When she was done, she paused for a moment so she could stare down at her handiwork. Was he actually that handsome? Madison supposed he must be, or close to it, anyway; there wasn’t much point in romanticizing a member of such a murderous race.
But although she’d consigned his appearance to paper, she still wasn’t any closer to discovering what in the world he was doing here.
She stared down at the sketch for a long moment, then murmured, “Who are you?”
She didn’t say the next words out loud, but they echoed through her mind just the same.
And what do you want?
* * *
his arms and surveyed his handiwork. The buildings in a quarter-mile radius had all been leveled, including a cinema and a train station. Now the Hotel Andaluz stood proudly alone, a faded American flag still flapping above the entrance. That was better, and enough work for one day. If he was diligent, perhaps in a year he would have cleared enough to make all his efforts worthwhile.
Fighting back a scowl, he slapped the dust from his robes and went inside the hotel. Although the power had been out in Albuquerque for more than a year, a djinn had no need of something as limiting as electricity. All djinn had the ability to influence matter and energy, although their alignment with one of the four elements gave them additional talents when it came to interacting with earth or air, water or fire. At any rate, his inborn powers were enough to light the sconces on the wall, to let water flow once more down the waterfall in one of the grottoes that ringed the lobby area.
There had been some looting in the city before the last of the survivors were picked off, but none of them apparently had thought to come here. The food in the refrigeration units had long since spoiled, and Qadim disposed of it with a flick of his finger, but the wine cellar had survived completely unscathed. He poured himself a glass of shiraz and went back out to the lobby so he might sit in the grotto with the waterfall and congratulate himself on a good day’s work.
The Council had most assuredly wished to punish him by making this town his new home, but he doubted they’d known of the existence of this hotel. Otherwise, they might have made a different choice.
The soothing sound of flowing water filled the silence, and he let his eyes close halfway as he sampled the wine, the dark fruit of the vines, the spice of the oldest grape in the world. He’d been drinking wines made with this grape for millennia, although it had been called something quite different back then.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad after all. In time, once he’d transformed this barren cityscape into a garden, he should be able to find someone to share it with him. Djinn had long memories, but even so, he thought that eventually his disgrace would be forgotten.
In the meantime, though, he thought he could enjoy himself well enough and learn to embrace his solitude.
* * *
leep had been
one of the most difficult parts of her solitary existence in the shelter. At first Madison’s sleeplessness had stemmed from worry and grief, and nothing more. Her mind hadn’t wanted to grasp the enormity of what had happened to her, to the entire world. It had all happened so fast — within a few days of the first reports of the mysterious disease known as the Heat, the world had ground to a halt, its people dying in numbers so overwhelming that it was almost impossible to grasp the situation.
At the time, she was living in an apartment about fifteen minutes away from the house where she’d grown up. Unlike a number of her fellows in her master’s program, she actually had been making a living from her art, although most of her income came from illustration work rather than the landscapes she loved so much. But that was all right; the freelance work still proved she could make it, that her decision to get a master’s in studio art hadn’t been complete insanity.
The Heat had begun to strike at the population while she had her head down, feverishly trying to finish a commission for a card set, an expansion pack to a
Magic: The Gathering
sort of game. When she was under deadline like that, she didn’t turn on the TV or go on social media. She barely checked her email, and that was only because she didn’t want to miss anything work-related. So although the disease had already begun to take its toll, only two days after it was detected, it wasn’t until she got a phone call from her father late on the second day that she realized anything was wrong.
His voice had been hoarse and weak. She hadn’t heard him sound like that since her mother’s funeral. All he’d said was, “I need you,” before the phone went silent again.