The LAST ACT
Robert scanned his holoscreen, then mentally net-keyed his weapon. Crouching behind his own cyrex shield not far from other comrades, he not so much waited for the crisis to micro-second up, but edged virtually closer and closer to its volatile precipice.
His elite space infantry squad of 30 volunteers hadn’t battled yet in this worldwide conflagration, but they were now to the blast point. Robert keyed in a mild sedative to his blood stream as he waited, needed a little calm; looked back inwardly at the visual horror of the last few weeks, didn’t need to call up any vids on his helmet’s screen. His own memory abyssed enough.
The first horrific attack of the new world war had come almost simultaneously 6 weeks before--a sudden light-swift missile exchange that had almost simultaneously obliterated Washington D.C. and greater LA including Edwards Space Base--where he had first trained when he joined the Force. And, on the other side, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong blasted to their own fiery hell.
D.C.’s destruction had been so invasive that much of the western Chesapeake Bay vaporized, leaving a strange desert of broiled seascape. The first stark vid images reminded him of southern stretches of Martian desert where he had done his basic 3 years earlier.
Despite the swirling thermonuclear trash in the atmosphere, his whole crew had flown in on the next shuttle from Darkside, the slang term for Moon base 21. He fHe was emotionally numb, knew it was futile for him to accept the offered return pass; for his parents, two brothers and young sister, all of whom lived in LA, were now not even a shade of a shadow. He didn’t mourn; it was too hellishly unreal.
No one knew who had actually started the conflagration. President Sherman and Prime Minister Chi-shek both blamed each other, but yet after that brief billion-human'd holocaust, they had e-stemmed from their mile-down bunkers and forged a nantex-thin truce. Wasn't that the nature of debacled politics to carry on over the scorched bone meal of multi-millions of the innocent?
Both governments were still recovering, when Robert’s space ship touched down in southern Texas, the alternate space port to vaporized Edwards. Some hardened spacers were already gallows-humoring each other--"What's the...
The vids stated that the two nations were dealing with their multi-millions of missing dead, and half a billion severely injured; all hospitals and medvac sites crowded even hallways and closets and storage bins with the wounded.
In Virginia, whole cities had been turned into vast field hospitals. Santa Barbara County in California had become a vast cyrex-mode temp city filled with millions of refugees fleeing the far out edges of the LA basin. Untold numbers were already experiencing radiation sickness.
So the two leaders had agreed to a temporary truce; then some UN negotiator had thought up the tournament and both sides quickly settled on this ultimate game. The U.S. and China would each choose 30 representatives to battle in the ancient way of symbolic war.
Hopefully, this would spare any more civilian casualties. Rather ironic that it was mainly in modern civilized war that multi-millions of civilians got slaughtered, often by the good guys.
Most people on the street made cynical remarks, didn’t think their leaders were sincere. It's only a PR cover, another crap game of political lies. 'They've' agreed to the game, not to solve this holocaust but to delay their chances of losing. 'They' want time to get more weapons ready, to pull a sudden poker move over the enemy.
Yet in the higher realms of political intrigue, the tournament concept was a diplomatic coup, even lowering the belligerent criticism still railing forth from other UN member states. Canadians and Mexican authorities were issuing radiation suits and warning their citizens not to drink surface water.
The two enemies’ harsh diplomatic exchanges continued with their usual verbal war of veiled words, misleading propaganda, and out-wrong name-calling, even while agreeing on the ancient method—the hero’s challenge.
Pop vids reminded the less educated populace that this aged form of battle--"the Tournament"--came from ancient contests, probably the most glorified saga in the ancient Judeo-Christian Bible story where Philistines had challenged Israelites with their taller-than-life champion, Goliath, and dared one Israelite to come against him in single combat. The Israelites sent a young man, David.
Yeah, Robert, thought; I’m now a participant in a modern replay of that ancient way of 'symbolic' war. But glancing down at the vaporizer he held tightly, he wondered who he was, whether David or Goliath or a hybrid mix. And the actual battle wouldn't be symbolic at all, except for the Orwellian politicians.
But he had no regrets. Had volunteered for this ultimate contest—out of the black hole of numbed grief for his family, his friends, his ravaged country. He still couldn't really feel at all--not any hate, no revenge. His family's deaths were suspended in pause mode. He felt only an endless blankness, a bottomless pit within, yet out of that came this call to stop the carnage.
Strangely too, in dark contrast, one side of him actually looked forward to this challenge--for the exciting contest, a real battle, no more fight-sims, no more endless parading about the fields at Camp Pendleton, Cal, or flying to Mars again for another set of wilderness maneuvers in southern craters.
This battle might be his only chance to actually fight--almost face to face-- like soldiers had battled a century ago, a millennium ago, 4,000 years ago. At least it was sure as hell better than getting turned to crisp in a micro-second by another thermonuclear exchange.
Battle strategies and strategic maneuvers from a hundred historic wars Robert had studied lasered back into him now. As a history professor at UCLA, he had taught European history. Sometimes small attacks were the volatile hinges on which the rest of history swung.
Robert's ruminating of this took up only a lesser side of his consciousness. Mainly, he focused on the scree-strewn landscape and the gray enemy shields a few hundred meters away, looking for unusual movement; plus, up-to-the-second news flashed from the net communication unit of his battle suit, the images and word lines in front of his eyes, like strange aliens flitting over the landscape ahead of him.
Now, the instant feed to his cerebral cortex warned him the Chinese soldiers were moving behind their shields. Though his compstat would warn him before any attack, he still watched cat-like, fixed on the enemy cyrex shields across the landscape to the east.
Net: Warning over. False alarm; enemy is only exercising. Robert relaxed his tense muscles and briefly glanced northward where in hazed-distance he could vaguely see the massed bulk of the Himalayan range of mountains, though their peaks were obscured by heavy smog--the aftermath of many missile detonations and smoke from countless fire-storms hundreds of feet high.
Ash fell intermittently, dark twisted flakes. How many contained traces of human DNA? Unconsciously, he brushed his right arm and shoulder. And refused to think of his family.
Huge slashes on the sides of the range were barely visible where whole sections of tmountains had avalanched down in the midst of the bombing holocaust. He avoided looking southwest. One of America’s many missiles had misfired and taken out northeastern India. He tried not to think of the millions dead there.
Strange that this high plateau, known in the past as Tibet, should be chosen as the Tournament site. 3 days earlier, he and his fellow warriors had been space shot to the location in a carrier shuttle. How had the Chinese gotten here? Maybe they had been here all along, though supposedly Tibet had become a neutral independent state in 2025.
Now both sides crouched at the precipice of their own death or victory. And in front of them in time’s future arc lay the possible new life or the imploding nova of their fiery planet’s demise.
Robert suddenly winced and held a hand up to his helmet. Unexpectedly and frightful in its overwhelming allness, a thought-message was blasting into Robert’s consciousness.
A nearby comrade also must have received the message, as he dropped to the ground and removed his helmet and put his hands up to his head. Despite the all-pervasive message, Robert commanded his fellow soldier, "Get your helmet back on!"
The omniscient warning burned too intensely to vocalize or mind print, unless one was to write with a volcano’s explosive power or a cosmic supernova. His instant net feed said that around the globe billions of humans were stopped in their activities, transfixed by the thought-message. It appeared that it was worldwide. But from where?
Immediately, Robert decided to obey. He wasn't a believer, but this Voice wasn't earthly. He stooped and lay his large weapon at his feet on top of the ash-covered scree. About him others lay down their weapons and knelt.
Several Chinese came from behind their shields and also knelt down.
No one made an attempt to pray to whatever gods they believed in. Would a person try and pour water at the bottom of the Pacific?!
Totally immersed, pressured--opened in their consciousness, they humbled before the transcendent omniscient experience. One of his fellow soldiers lay down on the ground so overwhelmed he almost lost consciousness. A Chinese soldier in the distance, to the right threw his weapon to the ground, rushed past his fellow soldiers and, arms raised, ran northward toward the blurred mountains.
In contrast, Robert felt a great sense of peace fill him and the battle-upness of moments before vaporized, the numbness vanished. Calmly, he tabbed deconstruct on his vision screen and his cyrex barrier disappeared. Others were doing the same.
Now they stood face to face with their enemy challengers and walked toward them. His opposite who had briefly knelt now rose, was in a formidable-looking suit, though it seemed old-style, still had visible air tanks and was obviously pressurized—bad old days. His father had told him about those has-beens. His father! Anguish filled him, his gone family...
Focusing instead on the enemy in front of him. Robert walked toward the bulky individual wondering what his opponent was like. The Chinese combatant advanced toward him. Robert realized that he would have difficulty seeing the enemy’s face in the smogged glare of the day and keyed in to his net to see if there was any stat-intel—none yet..
He stopped in front of the cloaked figure, raised a hand to shake, and then felt foolish and dropped his arm. The enemy rubbed one arm across its facial plate.
Robert almost stepped back; it was a young woman! She had a small nose and intense eyes; was probably no more than 21 years old, must be slender with such delicate facial features, and weighed down under all that old suit.
She smiled up at Robert, her eyes like brown velvet, and also extended her hand. They shook, stared at each other for what seemed like minutes, and then both started to talk at once.
First, Robert and she exchanged net code. Her name was Baozhai, from Macau; briefly
Robert recalled the vids—much of coastal China had been turned into a burning chaos, vast amounts of ocean water turned to steam.
Baozhai was a draftee, former biophysics engineer, loved 4--dimensional chess and ancient water color painting. They shared personal vids and a long dialogue ensued. Even though there were 58 others doing so, Robert and Baozhai were, momentarily, as if the only two humans existing.
He told her of his university background, being a lecturer in 17th century European history, then a volunteer for the 15th Martian exploration mission, the one educator on the trip, how later he had become a soldier, why he liked to study ancient battlefields, and his love for historical fiction vids.
Their brief dialogue was interrupted. New orders came screening to him from Central Command. Baozhai’s face disappeared and images of Central Command appeared in his face view screen.
A large man with gnarled hands stood facing him in an underground bunker—“This is General Stafford of Omaha SAC representing the President; no doubt you have also encountered the overwhelming invasive message that has hacked into our systems and invaded our minds. Many religious people are claiming it’s a direct revelation from God. The State Department is doing intensive research as to the message and to its real source. You are cautioned to stay on standby--no hasty action is to be taken to engage the enemy unless directly attacked. Nor are you, however, to halt preparation for the Challenge until more information can be netted. Please standby; more orders will be forthcoming.”
The verbal message ended, the Stars and Stripes waved across Robert’s vision screen, then vanished, and he could again see Baozhai.
She was staring up at him intently, her eyes almost too large for her face and diminutive nose. Evidently she hadn’t been able to access his message, nor had she received one from her government.
“It was a message to us from our President,” he said to her, “the usual standby with notification that everyone seems to have gotten the inner consciousness message we did. Some claim it was God. The higher-ups aren’t convinced though; they think it may be a new hacknet from your government. Me, I’m an atheist. I’ve been to Mars too many times, never seen any evidence of a higher power, only lots of space and rock.”
Baozhai frowned with a slight wrinkling of the bridge of her nose. She ignored his accusation against her government and focused on his skepticism. “I’ve studied plenty of brain matter in my biophysics lab; I never encountered an individual. She then smiled. “If I studied your brain matter, Robert, I don’t think I would find you either.”
He laughed, both at her impertinence and at the insightful twist she had put to his skepticism. “Okay, I see your point; I did study four years of philosophy, Kant and all that about practical reason; I retract my rather hasty judgment. Rather let me say, that based on my study of nature and history—especially wars of the past, and now this last few weeks of apocalypse, I don’t see any Intelligence in the Cosmos—none--but what’s inside our helmets,” he said and tapped her head gear impulsively.
She stepped back.
“Excuse me, Baozhai.”
She looked intently at him for a moment and then smiled. “I see. Me too. Have you traveled to my country? Before the holocaust?” It was such a stupid statement, she reddened. He found himself wanting to see more of her underneath that goliath suit.
“No, except for a bunch of missions to out Marsport, I pretty much hunker down near L.A.” L.A.! The holocaust! He cursed and kicked the scree with his left foot. What was he talking to the enemy for?!
The last few weeks drowned back into him; the brief parley with a Chinese soldier on the Tibetan plateau stopped as he again remembered why they were here, and how the strange message had knocked them out of their battle prep.
Baozhai turned away. They were silent for at least 15 minutes. Robert kept glancing about toward other members of his team but most of them were still conferring with other Chinese soldiers. Several U.S. soldiers had turned and marched back to their staging area; their Chinese counterparts, the same.
Finally, Robert keyed in one of his favorite family vids; one where he and his sister and two brothers had been snorkeling off Santa Catalina Island when they spotted a Great White—He heard words.
“…so, I hope you understand,” Baozhai was talking to him, “that when I lost my whole family--older brother, my parents, and grandparents—“
He blugeoned in, “I lost my family too!" Then he stood not speaking; finally he said, "I’m sorry, Baozhai. How terrible! So much loss for everyone. I didn’t hear the first part of your sentence; I was watching a vid of my family. See." He transmitted the vid to her.
She watched in silence.
"Would you repeat what you first said?” he asked. But she didn't answer.
On the edge of his consciousness, Robert was aware that most of the soldiers on both sides nearby were talking. Above, the gray sky, nothing but intense thermonuclear smog that had lain for many days like a many-bodied snake lair writhing. Now strangely, it seemed to be lessening, swirling in dirty gray eddies, maybe gradually dissipating.
Baozhai looked up to Robert, her large luminous eyes staring intently into him. Finally she said, "I'm sorry for your loss. I've been thinking of mine only."
He stared back at her, both still living in the Message that seemed to fill their inner selves. Robert spoke again, "You think the Message, this warm command to disperse is from your God?"
As if puzzled, Baozhai pinched in her nose slightly. She put a hand up on his left arm and asked, "Don't you?"
Robert chuckled in spite of himself and their climatic situation, paused, and then took her hand and held it. "Remember, I'm the atheist; you're the believer."
He glanced down toward where he had left his weapon. Now the heavy sleek metal of the death-dealer seemed both trivial and shameful. It was like seeing, suddenly, with compassion's eyes.
Several American soldiers and Chinese were actually joking so loudly, he could hear them in the distance. Others were exchanging contact info. The netfeed in his head chattered. All of this reminded him of those strange truces like the one two hundred years ago in the American War Between the States. In the midst of one vicious battle, a truce was called; Union and Confederate soldiers stopped shooting and were suddenly only lonely or brash individuals with curiosity and friendliness who called across the former deadline and chatted like old friends in town for the weekend.
Yes, he thought, maybe, the most dangerous of games had paused again. But would it last? And what about the Presence? Was that all-in-compassing voice really some sort of spiritual reality or only an ingenuous hackjob of the enemy? IF real, why hadn't it spoken before the conflagration that flashed away billions of precious humans?!
He focused and looked deeply at Baozhai who was staring up at him still. Somehow words escaped them. Robert turned away and listened to his net, glanced over toward his line of combatants.
Several American soldiers had already deconstructed their shields, packed up their gear, and he saw them walking southeast--probably going to try and escape through Myanmar, and hopefully find a skimmer-ship--maybe even a shuttle--back to the southern U.S.
Robert considered netting them, then discarded the idea. He noticed a couple of Chinese soldiers headed east into that blank horizon.
Then he looked back down again at Baozhai. She was still staring up at him; her eyes welling, force-fields of caring. She started to speak, but was cut off by blinding light that blanked out everything.
His suit formed a new cyrex shield—this time around both him and Baozhai. She turned, pulled out a laser to cut through the siding. He shouted, “Don’t! Thermos again!”
The sky whitened until his suit closed his view screen and his meds began operating. An enormous sound, deafening even within his protective suit and shield tsunamied across the land. He pulled her to the ground, and switched to full battle mode--netted for a triple shield.
A great thermonuclear wind lashed the plateau, like some cosmic tidal wave. Their cyrex cocoon turned crimson, vibrated, and shrunk. He felt burning inside of his suit. Their cyrex life-pod burrowed deep into the rocky ground and he blacked out. ________________________________
When Robert woke to consciousness, at first he thought he was bivouacked in his cyrex on Mars doing another wilderness battle prep, dug in near the copper nano-mines. But the heat was too intense. Then he felt a suit next to him and the horror all came back to him.
Thermos again! He cursed. Another attack had been launched! By whom?
Baozhai was unconscious curved against him. Robert keyed the net, but only got silence. He tried bringing up a damage report of his comrades, no luck. He accessed direct speak but Baozhai didn’t answer. He rubbed her view screen.
Her face was livid and pinched. Her suit must have ruptured, maybe radiation was vipering in right now. He checked her vital signs; injured but the med must be at work.
He called up Med.
Question: When will she become conscious?
Question: Is her unconsciousness dangerous or permanent?
Med: Near coma; uncertain length; good vital signs.
Question: May I safely remove our helmets for a short time?
Med: Doubtful; keep brief; radiation levels very high even inside of cyrex habitation.
Robert grimaced, then spoke again with sarcasm.
Question: Why didn't they program you with a little personality?
He waited several hours then removed his helmet and hers. Touched her face with his bare hand. No response, but her breathing sounded good and the med-level looked okay. He locked on their helmets again. What had happened?! Obviously another salvo of thermos, but why? Political madness! He spit out curses inside his cocoon. And waited and waited.
Hours past, the Message's allness faded. Robert tried the net again-- nothing. Then he accessed for an outside data report but his local scan showed only a violent wind buffeting above ground, their little underground sub below a typhooned holocaust. The vid showed the sky, dark as obsidian. A black snow, nuclear winter raging.
Besides, aching all over, and being slightly nauseous, he angrily talked out loud to himself. “Who violated the Challenge Pact? What of the mysterious Message?"
Could the latter have been a human construct, a Chinese decept to put us off guard? Was he even now being deceived by HER?”
He twisted his neck and looked again intently at Baozhai behind her face suit bubble.
Her eyes suddenly opened--dark orbs of intensity. She almost shouted, “We'd never do that. You're the ones who attacked!” So she had been conscious and listening to him.
Robert cursed and shouted back, “Sure, we caused it, all of it—the massacre of Taiwan in 2023, the mass murder in China back in the 1930’s, and, hell, we even caused your Taiping Rebellion in the 1850's, yeah right! Get a life; go back to your brain cultures and washed-out paintings!”
Despite their closeness, Baozhai’s heavily gloved fist hit at him.
The incongruity of it all—she had actually punched him. He grinned in spite their dire straits and slid up his hands to his shoulders, like some old 20th century outlaw surrendering.
They stared at each for minutes, finally they started talking again; then they slept as their meds worked, woke and sucked on rations; talked and tried to ignore thoughts of the hellish outside. Then slept again.
When Robert woke days later from a Med induced unconsciousness, he checked the net; still no com to the world. He vidded for a look above ground, outside—but only a dark sky gashed, scaled flakes falling very heavily. A gouging pain still cut into his whole left side. Baohzhai was asleep and medding. He ate and slept again too.
24 hours later, Robert awoke and reviewed the horror of the last few months. No change, though the nausea was reduced and his side felt better. But he lay drifting with the shards of his memory until unconsciousness again blanked him out.
He woke again, and again and again—hovering now between stretches of vivid awareness gashed to his inner self, then to long stretches of time when he only breathed and rolled across time like a battered slug. Several months flew past , while they slept and medded deep underground while in sheol above the thermo winds slashed the sludge of sky as showed on his view screen.
Finally, his comp told him that radiation levels were reduced enough for him to take half an hour outside, but no more. He felt his face brush Baozhai’s forehead as he moved. His beard had grown out. His arm was around her at the shoulder level. She was breathing in and out. It sounded regular. He wanted to jump up and thank someone, but he knew of no one to thank, though the shock of the Message bolted back into his mind.
Robert reconnected his helmet, pushed the rise tab for their life-pod to shift up to the surface of the planet. Then he keyed open their cocoon; the shield pealed back and he looked up to a faded darkened harsh sky flaking down on them and the landscape which blended to the sky was one huge ashen bowl, one horrific crucible. Visibility looked about 25 meters.
Med: Unsafe, return to emergency habitat.
He forced himself up onto his knees, then stood up, his side still aching, and surveyed the stark grayness looking for his fellow soldiers or other Chinese combatants. Nothing.
He closed the cyrex fabric over Baozhai, keyed in continued meds and requested an alert message if she worsened.
Ignoring Med's repeated warnings about radiation, he hobbled over toward where his comrades had been. Surely they, too, must have had time to key in their survival cocoons before that sudden blast nuclear hit them.
His right ankle ached, wouldn’t be walking far, at least for a few days. Ha! Where would he go anyway?
The plateau stretched into one gray shrouded Rorschach revealing nothing to him other than man's insanity. He kept scanning with his compnet--but only silence, a deathly silence.
What about the Transcendent-Message? But when he keyed the question, his comp behind his ear said, "Unknown."
Somewhere to the north in the smoke lay snow-covered Himalayan mountain peaks, blanked out. No color anywhere. He walked until he felt sick. Finally, he found another cocoon, but a large gash rivened it—the damage so severe, he couldn’t bring himself to look into the death to see who it might have been. Images of his dear ones gashed his inner vision.
Since he didn’t believe, there was no prayer to give but only more emptiness, more numbness within him. Vaguely, memories--of his sis, his brothers, his parents, good friends, his squad--tumbled about like many bodies in freefall when cycling toward Mars in a large troop ship.
Several more cocoons lay flattened, white husks 10 yards further; they had not fully deployed. Instant death. The River Styx or Ragnarok for them.
Robert looked at the devastation all around him and imagined countless mega-cities beyond his vision—countless cataclysms so like the Norse one where the gods lose to enemies of chaos from the realm of death. Though the old Norsemen hadn’t figured on the sheer human evil of brilliant tech ingenuity! No god-enemies need apply.
But hopefully, some of his comrades had survived. But for what purpose? Ash continued to fall.
Robert turned and ache-walked back to his new and only comrade. He keyed open the cocoon shell and slid in next to his former enemy. She still lay asleep, breathing evenly.
He no longer had a sense of the Presence. What had happened to It? The other soldiers? Others all the world round? He tried the net again. No answer. How many billions dead? How many alive?
He lay still.
12 hours later Robert woke. But Baozhai wasn’t next to him. He opened the cyrex and scanned the landscape but couldn't see her. Somewhere behind the dirty sky reared the Himalayas, blanked out now by gray. To the east lay a fire storm.
He walked northward, favoring his sore ankle. That’s when he came upon her about 100 meters away, inert as stone. He rushed over to her. Her face was grimy and blood was seeping out from an obscene cut mixed with countless gray flakes like cancer cells. Another bad gash in her arm opened almost to the bone. Obviously, she had been attacked, slashed with a laser. Baozhai’s face stared up into the holocaustic sky, blank and untelling.
Evidently one of his buddies, misunderstanding, had attacked her. But where was he now? Robert ignored his own question and flung himself onto Baozhai commanding Med for extreme measures. He couldn't bring himself to ask Med for a report. Instead, he hugged her close, his lungs a searing fire and a loss so abyssed, but he couldn't weep. Finally, though he slept
When Robert awoke, Baozhai was still unconscious, cradled in his arms, though breathing evenly. The long slits of the wound--from whom?--were sutured, the flesh a pink glaze looking like frosting from a birthday cake of his little sister's. Hell! Family memories and the question of Baozhai's survival drowned him. He wept.
The first time since he was 7 and his school chum had died in a family skimmer accident. The funeral burial came back to him more starkly clear than any tragic vid. He could feel the cold fog of that morning as the robotic undertaker slivered ground and that thin flat capsule with his buddy's ashes zipped unbidden into the wet greenery of the mortuary ground south of LA.
Robert drifted with his sorrow until sleep came. He woke, slept, woke, and slept again. Then he woke and reflected on his situation and on Baozhai. He kept eating, followed warnings of Med and exercised within their shelter, didn't venture out anymore; maybe his and Baozhai's doses of radiation hadn't been toxic.
Days and nights etched past. His beard now touched his faceplate. How many days, weeks, had passed? He didn't bother to summon the net anymore. He could easily have ordered a shave when Med gave him his daily scrub, but he let it grow. Something to do. Robert sort of smirked at that.
Some Goliath he'd turned out to be. He coughed and then hugged unconscious Baozhai closer.
Who knew if it was day or night? How long did they have before the End?
Or would the damned world survive?
Were there any other humans left?
There must be someone, at least the cursed laser-wielder.
Where would he have to travel to find other survivors?
South, for sure.
Finally, one day/night, probably months later, maybe even a couple of years, Med told him, "The human being Baozhai will survive. Radiation damage has been reduced. Wounds are healing. She is statistically--"
"Oh, shut up!....uh, sorry; thanks." Robert yelled into the netfeed.
Med didn't respond.
Robert gazed down at Baozhai and wondered how much time they had before the next thermo blasts or the beginning of nuclear winter and their own demise, the planet's end.
Despite the gray death still flaking down, and the endless abyss of a world-less, dying future, Robert, the unbeliever, felt a glimmer of transcendent hope, a remembrance of that Presence.
He looked down at sleeping Baozhai where she lay, medding toward health.
And being an inveterate story-catcher, as well as an historian, Robert couldn’t resist smiling when he suddenly thought of a very old, oh so fair story--
what would happen if he kissed her?