Authors: Christine Pope
Really, he was so domestic in a completely ordinary way that Madison once again had a difficult time convincing herself he really was a djinn and not just another regular survivor like she was. His robes were still MIA; today he had on a pair of jeans identical to the ones she’d first seen him wearing and another T-shirt, this one in a dark khaki green. The sleeves of that T-shirt seemed in jeopardy with every movement because of the way his muscles strained against the fabric, and Madison had to force herself to look someplace else in the kitchen so he wouldn’t catch her staring. Jacob had been fit and athletic enough — he biked and ran, and the two of them would often spend their weekends hiking in the mountains around town — but he’d certainly never had muscles like Qadim’s.
“So,” Madison ventured, thinking she’d better do something to fill up the silence, “why the fancy xeriscape?”
“‘Xeriscape’?” Qadim echoed. He frowned slightly as he took in the unfamiliar word.
“It just means landscaping for dry climates. Like what you’ve done outside.” She made a vague gesture with one hand as she motioned toward what she thought was the front of the building.
“Ah.” After dropping the bread he’d sliced into the toaster, he leaned against the counter and crossed his arms while he seemed consider her question. “This land will not support true greenery, and so I chose specimens I thought would survive here and still create a pleasing landscape.”
“It is beautiful,” she said, eliciting a smile from him. “So is this your plan for Albuquerque? To get rid of the buildings and have plants everywhere?”
That could cause problems for her. Clay’s house and the bomb shelter it hid were more than a mile from downtown, and so it would probably take Qadim some time to make his way over there. Still, what in the world would she do once he’d razed that entire neighborhood and planted it with wild grasses and cactus? His demolition efforts might not do much to the shelter itself — the door that protected the bunker was supposedly rated to survive a five-megaton blast only a mile away — but once the gazebo was gone, the metal door to the bomb shelter would stick out like a sore thumb.
She decided to leave that problem aside to worry about later. Anything she said to dissuade him from expanding his planting efforts would surely lead to inquiries as to why she should care one way or another.
“How do you get the plants to grow so fast?” she asked next, since that question had been bothering her ever since she’d first laid eyes on his handiwork.
“A little djinn encouragement,” he replied, the glint returning to his dark eyes. He pushed himself up from the counter and went to tend the eggs. “It is one of the gifts earth elementals share.”
“Handy.” Madison blew on her coffee one last time and then sipped some. By that point, it had cooled enough that she could manage a large swallow. Which she did, relishing the much-needed rush of caffeine to her nerve endings. “So what can the other djinn do?”
Qadim made rather a show of pushing the eggs around in the skillet, and Madison wondered if he was going to answer at all. Then he said, “We all have a number of skills in common, but water elementals can also cause a spring to flow up out of the ground where there was none, or make a river change its course, while air elementals can make the clouds and the wind and the weather do their bidding.”
“And fire elementals?”
His face was in profile to her, but Madison could see the way he frowned. “You seem to know a good deal about us already.”
“Not that much,” she said quickly. “I tried to look up a few things, after — well, after it was pretty clear that the beings who were hunting the streets of Albuquerque couldn’t possibly be human.”
Something about his mouth tightened, but he only nodded. “Yes, I suppose that would have become obvious soon enough. Fire elementals can bring forth fire from the air and light a forge, but they can also hold back a fire before it consumes a forest.”
Light and dark, yin and yang. Powers that could be used to heal…or destroy. It sounded as if the djinn might be more complex than she’d first thought, although Madison also had the impression that there was a lot more going on here than Qadim had told her. Now that she’d begun to get past her initial fear of him, she wanted to ask more questions. Why had his people destroyed humanity? What were their plans for the now-empty planet?
And maybe the most pressing, and also the most frightening to her.
Why am I still alive when everyone else is dead?
“It’s ready,” Qadim said, breaking into her thoughts. “I have already set a table in the dining area. Go and sit down, and I will bring out our breakfasts.”
She almost protested and offered to help, then realized she wouldn’t be of much use to him with her arm in a sling. So she slid off the stool and took her coffee with her one good hand, saying, “All right.”
He’d chosen a table by one of the windows. Madison sat down, trying to ignore the pang that went through her as she remembered the last time she’d eaten here. It was right after Jake had been offered the teaching position in Bellingham. They hadn’t fought, but the tension was already thick between them. He’d wanted her to come with him to Washington, saying she could just as easily find work at the college there.
Part of her had really wanted to go, to try living someplace green and damp and with the ocean nearby. But she knew she’d never leave her father alone in Albuquerque. True, by then she wasn’t living at home anymore. Still, she’d been only ten minutes away from the house where she’d grown up. And she was the only family her father had in New Mexico. Everyone else was either in California or in Illinois, thousands of miles away. Even more than ten years later, her father still mourned the loss of his wife. If Madison left, too, he wouldn’t have anyone.
She didn’t want to reflect on the irony of her staying, just to have him leave her when the Heat took over the world.
Qadim approached the table then, hands laden with plates of food. Somehow he also managed to keep a grip on his coffee cup with two of the fingers of his left hand while he lowered the plates to the tabletop.
“Sorry I couldn’t help more,” Madison told him as he took the seat across the table from her.
“It is fine. The important thing is for you to be careful of your arm. There is no point in you hurting it again, just to help me do something I can manage very well on my own.”
Any other apologies would have been belaboring the point, and so she just nodded and picked up her fork. One bite was enough to tell her these were probably the best eggs she’d ever had — light and fluffy, and with exactly the right amount of salt. Judging by the dinner she’d eaten last night and the food set before her now, she was going to be extremely well fed during the time she was here. Good thing she’d dropped around fifteen pounds over the last year, between spending a lot of time in the home gym Clay had set up in the shelter, and not being all that interested in the nourishing but bland food with which the shelter had been stocked.
She helped herself to some more eggs, then set down her fork. Across the table from her, Qadim had been similarly occupied with eating the main part of the meal before it got cold. He seemed to sense that she wanted to say something, though, because he also put down his fork and gazed at her expectantly.
“Why?” Madison couldn’t seem to get out more than that one word.
The djinn didn’t ask her to explain herself, however. He reached for his mug but then paused, as if he knew he had only meant to drink the coffee as a way of delaying his reply. “That is…rather a difficult topic for breakfast discussion, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Is it?”
Again he hesitated. “I want you to know that I had no part in what happened, save perhaps by inaction. I suppose there are some who would say I was complicit because I did nothing, but I would still argue that is not the same as actively seeking the destruction of your kind.”
Her stomach churned, but she ignored it and instead reached for her toast, thinking that might help to calm things down. She’d asked, after all. So she would listen to what he had to say, no matter how much it might hurt.
Qadim seemed to be waiting for some sort of response, though, and so she said quietly, “Just tell me what happened.
At least he didn’t blink, watched her with a steady gaze, dark eyes sorrowful. This close, she could see the thickness of his lashes, the way their shadow made his eyes seem almost black, as if there was no real difference between iris and pupil.
“That is a tale with its beginnings back at the very creation of your people. The djinn were the first race created by God, but he cast them aside when he created Man and gave this world over to your race as their own. The djinn were banished elsewhere, to a place we think of as the otherworld, when we refused to acknowledge the superiority of God’s new creation.”
Was he really talking about God as if He actually existed and had done all these things? Madison couldn’t detect any hint of irony in Qadim’s tone, so apparently he meant for her to believe what he was telling her.
Since she didn’t quite trust herself to speak, she only nodded.
“We resented mankind but could do nothing to change our situation. As the millennia wore on, we became more dissatisfied with our lot. The otherworld is not like this world — we djinn can survive there, but it is a harsh place. A faction began to grow among the djinn, one that called for the destruction of mankind so we could take back the world that had once been ours.”
A few sips of coffee helped to steady Madison somewhat. Fingers wrapped around the mug she held, she said, “So…somehow you cooked up the disease that killed everyone?”
“Some of the djinn did, yes. And then they set it loose upon the world.”
“And none of you did anything to stop it.”
A curious expression flitted across Qadim’s features and then was gone. Madison couldn’t say exactly what it was, however. Regret? Annoyance? Anger?
Maybe a little of all three.
“There were those who made their disagreement with the decision known. And so another decision was made, so that the protesters would be able to save one each of the Immune, and — ”
“Wait,” she broke in, heart beginning to beat a little faster with terrible hope, “you mean there are more people like me out there? People who survived the Heat?”
“There were,” he allowed, then stopped.
“What do you mean, ‘were’?”
“They were hunted down, just as you saw people hunted down and killed here in Albuquerque.”
Even the warmth of the coffee mug she held couldn’t dispel the chill in her fingers. “So I’m the only one left?”
“Not precisely.” This time he did drink some of his coffee, then set the mug back down. “As I was trying to tell you, those among the djinn who protested mankind’s destruction were allowed to save one person from among the Immune. These humans are called Chosen. They dwell now with their djinn.”
Qadim didn’t say anything beyond that, but Madison got the feeling that the relationship between those dissenting djinn and their Chosen must be closer than merely protector and protected. She wished she could ask for more details, but she worried that Qadim might think she was inquiring about human and djinn relations because of a particular personal interest in him, and that was the last impression she wanted to give.
“So how do you get to be Chosen?”
This time his gaze lingered a little too long on her face. He seemed to realize he was staring, and returned his attention to the plate before him. “As I said, you must be Immune. All the Chosen were twenty-five of your years old or younger, mainly between twenty-two and twenty-five, I think.”
Well, that explains it,
Madison thought, not sure whether she should be irritated or relieved.
A handsome djinn didn’t come sailing along to my rescue because I was too old.
“Why so young?”
“Djinn are nearly immortal. Our appearance does not reflect our true age. A human who is Chosen also becomes ageless. So it makes sense that the djinn would want their Chosen to be at the peak of their appearance.”
“Because we humans really start to go downhill at twenty-six.”
He looked up then, frowning. “You are offended.”
Well, yes, she was. But since Qadim clearly hadn’t been the one to determine who was good “Chosen” material and who wasn’t, Madison didn’t think there was much point in being angry with him. “But you didn’t want to ‘choose’ anyone?”
“At the time, I did not think it was the correct path for me to take.”
A good non-answer if she’d ever heard one. But she also realized that it really wasn’t her place to be asking him those sorts of questions. She barely knew him. He’d saved her, but she still didn’t really know why. Maybe he was bored with planting cactus and manzanita and thought a human project might be an interesting change of pace.
Deciding it was better to move on to something a little less personal, she said, “Then the only surviving humans are Chosen?”
Except me, that is….
“There is a small community in Los Alamos of survivors who are not Chosen,” he replied.
“Really? Why haven’t they been hunted down?”
“One of the scientists there created a device that repels djinn and robs them of their powers. This is what protects the Immune who live there.”
Qadim delivered this astonishing news as if it was of no real import, but again Madison experienced the sharp shock of unlooked-for hope. A community of real people, not djinn. True, Los Alamos was almost a hundred miles from Albuquerque, and she had absolutely no idea how she would get there if there were still djinn roaming the world, looking for the last survivors. But to be around people again….
She realized Qadim was watching her closely. To cover up her distraction and make it seem as if Los Alamos wasn’t that big a deal, she picked up a strawberry and bit off the end. The fruit was sweet and lush, and she wondered where in the world the djinn had found it. “How does that even work?”
“I have no idea. I’ve only suffered the effects of the device once, and that was enough for me.” Mouth grim, he picked up his fork and stabbed a piece of egg with it.