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“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”
October 16, Evening
Aahana Chavan stood with billions of people inside an immense sphere. Around and above her, filling every space inside the enormous ball, silent men, women, and children of every race stared up at the center. She looked past the center to the other side, but the heads and shoulders of people miles away blended into a blur of tan and gray.
She could see farther, hear better, and think sharper than ever before, but the only movement her muscles could muster was a momentary quiver as the end rushed to meet her.
A blink of a second earlier, Aahana had placed a pot of potatoes on the bunker stove and turned to help Niki wash the lettuce.
Where was her sister now? And their friends? She hoped they stood beside her, but she couldn’t lower her head or move her eyes to find out.
Can I blink? Before she could try, a floating mist demanded her attention. Someone is out there.
The fog narrowed into the shape of a person sitting on a throne. His garment was foggy white, but his face and hands turned tan as his hair shifted darker to brown.
He turned his head to look at her.
It’s the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Prince of Peace.
Beatrice was right. Jesus ruled the world. What happens to me now?
Until this moment, Aahana believed Gruesome Geebor and his invading aliens caused the earthquakes, famines, and plagues they called “The Misery.” That’s what the Secretary-General and Apollo told everyone. They promised they’d defeat Geebor, return the children, and restore life to what it should be.
But now she knew. They made-up the story about invading aliens. They lied to us.
Was it too late to become a Christian? But Aahana couldn’t remember the prayer.
Her Plan B? She’d declare herself a neutral civilian and ask Jesus not to regard the small, misled mother of a little family hiding in a bunker. Can I go back to my garden now?
Jesus looked at her, then spoke in a waterfall of voices, overlapping words in hundreds of languages. Two languages stood out—English and her parents’ Hindi.
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
I’m in the wrong group. I did none of that!
Voices rose around her, echoing her thoughts. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
“I tell you the truth,” He said. “Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
He means Beatrice, Lynne, and Mary. But they were never sick or in prison. Yes, sometimes Aahana fed them, but just as often they cooked and fed her. She didn’t understand what was happening.
Then He turned His face and spoke to the crowd on the other side of the sphere. “Leave Me, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons, for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you—”
Cursed ones? She hoped Matt wasn’t over on the other side. But if anyone in her family was at risk of eternal fire, it was Matt. But he was the first of them to welcome Troy, Beatrice, and their daughters when they showed up with nothing. There wasn’t enough food for nine people, but Matt said they’d make it work, and somehow it did.
Jesus finished speaking, His image blurred and faded, and everything dimmed.
* * *
Aahana stumbled. Nobody pushed her and nothing moved beneath her feet, yet everything changed in an instant. Fading Jesus and the blur of tan and gray melted into soft orange clouds lit by a setting sun beyond a canopy of low redwood branches.
She lowered her face to view a graveled clearing in front of her. A hundred people stood around her, but she quickly found Niki beside her and grabbed her sister in a joyful embrace.
Niki gripped her in return. “Was Jesus talking about the Goodwins?”
Aahana nodded her head, closed her eyes, and swayed with Niki in delighted relief. “Don’t leave me.”
“I think we’re okay again.” Niki gave Aahana another tight squeeze.
An arm rested on Aahana’s back, and a hand gripped her shoulder. Another hand rested on her other shoulder.
She opened her eyes to see Divya and Neel hugging them. “Is Matt here too?”
“I couldn’t move,” he said. “I’m glad you’re . . . we’re all here.”
Aahana smiled and closed her eyes. We all made it. Even Matt. It was a group decision, but when the time came, Matt was the one who pulled the trigger.
But we’re not safe here. “Where we are?”
Matt and Neel stepped back to look around.
She stood in the front row of an outdoor amphitheater in the middle of a forest. Several hundred strangers mumbled behind her, standing among long wooden benches.
Aahana caught the familiar scent of redwoods and damp dirt. A single owl called in the distance. She didn’t recognize this place, but it reminded her of the forest around their bunker home in the hills north of Santa Cruz. She hoped her horses would find grass to eat tonight.
In the center of the clearing, a stack of freshly split firewood sat in a pit, ready to light. If that’s for us, someone knew we were coming.
Aahana glanced again at the strangers behind her. Their conversations grew louder as they compared Misery stories and the Christians they sheltered. Scanning the crowd, she didn’t see any Earth Defense uniforms or Committee patches.
Did Jesus defeat all of Earth Defense? Or were Apollo’s forces only in a temporary retreat while they planned their counterattack?
We need to get out of here. Aahana wanted to go back to the bunker. Back into hiding. But what direction should they run?
She inhaled and blew out cautiously. Don’t panic. I can figure this out if I don’t panic.
Niki still held her arm. She was Aahana’s rock, her counselor, her best friend . . . and her little sister. Except Niki was twenty-nine years old—she stopped being little a long time ago.
Divya and Neel Mukherjee stood close on her other side. Aahana had watched over them for eighteen years and was in charge the horrible night little Kanisa went missing. When their mother died in the big quake, Aahana became Divya and Neel’s guardian. Now twenty-two, Divya accepted Aahana’s gentle mothering, but twenty-year-old Neel was increasingly difficult to manage. Luckily, he still listened to Matt.
Matt Denisson was their friend and owner of the homestead and bunker. Matt was amiable, not much of a leader, but always a good protector. He was like a dependable cousin.
Today, again, he wore his favorite jeans and pink t-shirt. The pink didn’t contrast enough with his blond hair and beard. He said it was light red, but it was pink. Blue would look better on him. Even a plain white t-shirt would be an improvement.
The Goodwins were the reason Aahana’s family wasn’t among the cursed ones, but only now did she suddenly wonder why Beatrice wasn’t standing beside them. She looked around for Beatrice, Lynne, and Mary.
Beatrice Goodwin was her religious friend. She and her daughters were some of the most loving and helpful people Aahana knew. They weren’t like the stubborn Christians who deserved arrest and assignment to re-education camps.
Beatrice would often read aloud from her Bible while Aahana cooked breakfast, stories about Jesus’ first coming at Christmas, his resurrection, the Tribulation, his second coming, and the future “Million.”
Aahana grinned. The word was “Millennium,” and Beatrice never actually said it wrong, but Aahana often pretended she heard Beatrice say, “Million.”
Besides that little tease, Aahana was careful to appear interested in what Beatrice said. She liked Beatrice, but Aahana didn’t believe much of what she said about Jesus or the end of the world.
But the sphere proved Beatrice was right about everything.
Is this a re-education camp for unbelievers?
That made as much sense as anything else she could imagine.
Aahana glanced around again for uniforms, patches, or name tags. She didn’t see anyone to stop them from leaving.
A warm twilight breeze moved through the trees, sending dry redwood needles to the ground. Darker shadows filled the undergrowth, obscuring the buildings and guard towers she imagined just out of sight.
A trail entered the fireside clearing on the left, passed behind the fire pit, and continued down the hill to her right. Like a river flows downhill to cities, Aahana guessed the main camp buildings were down the trail. She squinted in search of lights from buildings or guard towers, or a gate, for any hint of what was down there.
She jerked her head back to the clearing to see a tall, solid-looking black man standing next to the campfire—the burning campfire.
Behind her, gasps and hushed voices asserted the fire lit itself and the man appeared out of nothing.
Light from the rising flames flashed across his dark, bearded face. He looked to be in his late twenties, younger than Matt, but with more muscle. If Matt looked like a surfer, this big guy looked like a pro football player.
“Hee-haw, folks!” The man beamed and spread his huge hands and thick arms wide in what she assumed was his gesture of welcome.
The fireside crowd stilled as everyone stared at him.
He wore a coarsely woven brown robe over a loose beige linen shirt, tan linen pants, and leather sandals. He looked like a poor shepherd in a Christmas play, albeit one who ate well.
Aahana didn’t see an insignia or a belt that might hold a scanner or weapon. He was big enough to be a camp guard, but he didn’t dress the part.
It didn’t matter. She wasn’t staying for re-education. She was getting her family away from here. But she had to wait for a diversion. Someone else needed to run first.
When the big guy chased after the first runner, Aahana would grab Niki and Divya and run in the opposite direction.
She looked to Matt to see if he was thinking what she was thinking, but he was busy smiling at the man beside the campfire.
She shook her head. Matt wasn’t a planner, but he was vigilant and faithful. When she ran, he’d run too. Go! Someone go!
“You can all sit down,” the big man said.
Their escape window was closing. Somebody run!
It would be harder to break loose if everyone sat down, but the rustling of sitting people swept toward her, forcing her to sit to avoid becoming the new center of attention.
“We have much to say before dinner, but first, Prima has a word for our Hispanic families.” He moved two steps away from the fire.
They had lost their best chance to run, but there was still time. She hoped someone on the left side would run up the hill. Anybody?
The crowd mumbled, “Prima,” then dropped to whispers.
Aahana looked back to the clearing to see an attractive young woman standing between the man and the campfire. Another guard appeared out of nothing? But this Latina didn’t have the authoritative stance of a guard.
Are these projections?
Projections couldn’t stop them from running, but projections had projectors, projectors had operators, and operators were guards who might have weapons aimed at them right now. Weapons? Aahana slumped. Running no longer seemed a good idea.
If Beatrice was here, she’d say the two guards are angels. But don’t angels have wings?
Prima’s thick black hair and olive skin matched her name’s heritage, though she could be Italian . . . or Indian? If Prima wore salwar pants with a kameez tunic, like Aahana’s, the average westerner might think they were sisters.
Instead, Prima’s beige linen tunic, tan linen pants, and brown leather sandals looked pitifully poor. She had one delightful piece, a bright red scarf with yellow fringe, but it did little to improve the overall peasant look. No, these aren’t angels.
Prima addressed the crowd in Spanish.
“We can’t hear you back here!” a man shouted.
What’s crawling— Aahana’s adrenaline spiked. Oh, it’s Matt. She exhaled and closed her eyes.
He leaned across Niki and tapped Aahana’s leg again. “Prima asked the Hispanic families to meet her on the side. She’s going to interpret for Jay.”
Aahana offered him a small smile and nod. She understood his excitement. He spoke six languages, so anytime he saw another interpreter, he . . . What? Hold on.
Who said the big guy’s name is Jay?
* * *
Matt’s mind flipped the moment Jay appeared. The guy up front gestured and spoke exactly like his old friend Jay. And he looked like his friend Jay . . . almost.
The problem? His friend Jay disappeared seven years ago. He should look seven years older, not thirty years younger.
This Jay had lots of thick black hair—not the bald head of his Jay.
This Jay had the beautiful Prima standing beside him—his Jay was a good wingman, but couldn’t talk to the ladies himself.
All reasons this Jay couldn’t be his Jay.
But he used that “Hee-haw” greeting. Nobody said hello with a “Hee-haw” like his friend Jay.
The big man gestured to the pretty gal standing beside him. “Prima and I are your Guides, assigned to your care by King Jesus.”
He placed his hand over his chest. “My name’s Jay.”
Wow! This IS my Jay?
Jay smiled wider. “We were like you, but King Jesus upgraded our bodies.” He held up a hand. “Don’t go away. We’ll be right back.”
Jay and Prima disappeared then reappeared holding hands.
The crowd gasped. A man behind Matt stammered, “Aliens. Geeboran aliens.”
They’re a couple? He’s married now?
Jay turned to the fireside crowd on the left. “I used to live a few miles from here and my lovely partner lived in eastern Nevada.” He turned to the middle and glanced across the faces. “Seven years ago, King Jesus evacuated us and other Christians. Now we live in the New Jerusalem, our heavenly home.”
The crowd mumbled louder, some saying, “I told you so,” while others shook their heads and lamented, “This is bad, really bad.”
He lived a few miles from here?
Matt looked around the fireside. The redwood trees. The campfire smoke drifting away from the setting sun. It matched the trees and coastal breeze they had at their bunker home—a bunker his friend Jay built before he disappeared.
“These higher dimension bodies allow us to travel between here and our heavenly home. We’re here to guide and serve throughout the next millennium.”
Niki tipped away from Matt, yanked into an urgent conversation. Aahana didn’t hide her excitement. “Who else was evacuated seven years ago?”
Niki straightened up and glanced behind her. “Kanisa? You think . . .” She turned to search the crowd behind her.
“What about Kanisa?” Divya asked.
Voices to the side and behind Matt mumbled questions about a “Miguel” and a “Stuart.”
Aahana half-turned to scan the crowd.
As Matt had heard the story, Aahana was with the Mukherjee kids when seven-year-old Kanisa walked into her bedroom and never came out. Two other kids in the county were also reported missing, but since tens of thousands of Christians vanished that night, the sheriff’s office assumed the three missing kids were secret Christians.
Aahana was right. If his friend Jay was back, Kanisa might be back too.
Matt took a quick glance behind him. He saw babies to early school-aged kids, but no middle school or high school kids. He guessed Kanisa would be fourteen or fifteen now.
Jay glanced at Prima, then back at the crowd. “You see an image of us when we move into your dimension, and you don’t see us,” Jay disappeared again, “when we move beyond your dimension.”
Prima’s hand lowered to her side, but her expression didn’t change, as if Jay was still standing beside her.
“I’m not gone.” Jay’s voice came from no single direction. It was eerie. But hearing Jay’s voice without the distraction of his younger body, his voice sounded even more familiar.
Jay reappeared holding an apple. He took a bite, chewed a few times, and swallowed. “We aren’t ghosts. These bodies are like yours. We eat like you, and we pee like you.”
Prima scowled, poked him in the side, and shook her head.
“If anything injures us,” Jay continued, “we can move out of this dimension and return with a renewed body—all back to normal.”
That piece of information got the crowd talking again.
“Listen, please!” Jay waited for the crowd to quiet. “We’re not here to entertain. We’re here to help you adjust to new ways of living.”
Prima raised her hand to catch their attention. In perfect Mexican Spanish, she invited the Diaz and Garcia families to come forward and join her by the trail. As they followed her to the side, she explained why Jay disappeared and ate an apple.
Aahana leaned across Niki’s lap and tapped Matt’s knee. “Don’t run. We’re staying to search for Kanisa.”
Matt grinned and gave Aahana a “thumbs up” gesture of agreement, though he never heard her “run” plan and wanted to talk to Jay as soon as possible.
He looked back to the fire pit and sighed. Aahana was afraid of Jay because she was afraid of strangers. But she was less afraid when they followed her rules. That made sense, and since she usually made fair rules, it was easy to go along with what she said. Everyone was happier that way.
He remembered a sunnier, maybe even a prettier Aahana, the woman he met a few days before Kanisa and Jay disappeared. Losing Kanisa changed her. The Misery changed her more. After years of asking, she finally agreed to move out to his homestead and bunker, but only because she had no other options. Maya was gone and trips to the grocery store were becoming too dangerous.
If Jay’s return meant the Misery was over, would Aahana drop some rules? Stop expecting bad things to happen? Would he see her sunshine smile again?
He leaned forward and glanced her way.
No, her worries still drove her eyes from Jay to Prima to the whispers behind her and back to Jay to start the circle again.
He leaned back. In a couple days she’d accept Jay, Prima, and everyone else here as good, generous folks like us. Then she’d let go of her rules and smile more.
Am I being too optimistic . . . again?
Jay held up four fingers. “We go by four principles at my camp. They’re our rules to live by. With trust, truth, service, and honor, we’ll enjoy harmony with our Prince of Peace and everyone in our community.”
Niki elbowed Matt and gave him a smiling nod.
Niki was everyone’s favorite aunt. She was smart, funny, and made every day better. She cooked fancy desserts, told imaginary stories about embarrassing moments in their childhoods, and listened when someone needed to vent. Niki believed your side, but helped you figure out how to handle it better next time.
She was busy like Aahana, but Niki always stayed positive—probably because Aahana already carried the imaginary weight of the world.
Niki helped Matt avoid upsetting Aahana too much. When Aahana had a new rule to avoid an imaginary danger, Niki told him, “Be patient with her, but never compromise yourself.” She also warned him, “You can say she looks nice, but never say she’s beautiful. Never. Ever.”
Aahana talked to him more when he followed Niki’s advice.
“Honor? Honor your prince?” A man in a cowboy hat stood up three rows back. “That’s ludicrous. Who’s in charge here? Are you in charge?”
Matt vaguely recognized the man’s grizzled beard, cowboy hat, and leather vest. He used to manage something in town. Is he the FEMA worker who hit on Divya?
Only the crackling fire broke the awkward silence.
Jay raised his open hands above his shoulders. “I am only a Guide. Jesus Christ is our King of kings and Lord of lords.”
“I bow to no one, not to you or to Jes—”
Cowboy man changed into a gray shape that dissolved and fell like ash to the ground.