From The Ashes of Babylon

Part I

Shattered Ceiling

I. Falling Stars

15:54 December 24 2021

Washington D.C.

The streets of Washington D.C. were filled with civilians as a man lead himself out of the White House. The man had an aged face marred with slight wrinkles and minute scars that would only be noticeable at a close distance. His hair was black with signs of greying working their way up from the sides of his scalp. The weathered veteran stood almost seven feet tall and wore a beige trench coat, and if one looked closely he could see the camo uniform hidden under the looming winter wear. The sun glistened on the horizon in sterling colors of illuminating sunlight on a winter day with stormy clouds gradually consuming the atmosphere above. The man pulled out a lighter and prodded a cigarette into his mouth. He grumbled something under his breath while he lit the cancer stick, a steady flow of warmth coursed through his body and glowing relaxant took over his body. Any man with common sense could see that a snowstorm was coming in a few hours and John Chambers didn't want to be caught in the thick of it. John hastily stuck his hand out into the oncoming traffic until a taxi stopped on the side of the street, prompting him to toss the cig.

As the cab driver came to a halt, he exited the vehicle to help John with his bag, "Where to sir?"

"Take me to the nearest subway station."

John could've easily walked the few blocks to the underground, but the gunshot wound he received in Poland was having a disagreement with him. The fact that his visit to the White House had in fact been a meeting about him being so called 'honorably discharged' didn't help settle his body down.

"What branch did you serve in?"

John's concentration on his thoughts broke and a surprised look struck his face. "What?"

"In the military, ya know what branch did ya serve in? Where were ya stationed? What rank are ya? All that stuff, just wonderin' cause I noticed your uniform under that coat," the cabbie asked in a thick Brooklyn accent.

"Oh, well I'm a Lieutenant Major in the Army. It's hard to answer where I've been cause we haven't got a long ride, could take a while."

"Ah don't worry about it, you ever meet any Navy SEALs? Cause I gots a brother serving overseas, name's Tommy."

Tommy, the name rang a bell, but he couldn't quite place a face to it. It was difficult to remember a single operative in all the operations John had been a part of. When he looked up, John noticed a photograph on the dashboard of the man's family. There was a man with a muscular build who John could tell was a military man, but he didn't recognize the face.

"Met plenty, not sure if I ever met him though,"

The car came to skidding halt, and John almost hit his head on the seat cushion in front of him. The snow had already begun to fall with a rush of wind backing it up. The city had already been blanketed in a sheet of ice, but the coming storm promised to cover the island in a seemingly perpetual winter. John painfully lifted his right leg as if to exit the cab, but he stopped when he realized that he hadn't paid for the ride.

"How much do I owe you?"

"Don't worry about it man, no charge for veterans, especially the one's that've taken a bullet for his country," a friendly smile crossed the cabbie's face as helped John out of the cab, "Besides a minute long ride ain't gonna pay my rent."

"Thank you that's very kind of you, we need more men like you in this country. I didn't catch your name by the way."

"It's Frank, Frank Graves, it's an honor drivin' ya sir."

"Likewise, drive safely Frank, don't let the storm catch you, don't wanna get stranded in a blizzard."

"Don't worry about me pal, you just take care of that leg. In fact I've got a just the thing to help you out with it," after taking out John's bag, Frank reached deeper into the trunk and pulled out a walking cane. The handle was a sterling silver lion with an elongated mane and neck, the eyes were crafted with blood red rubies.

"Woah woah I don't wanna feel that old yet. Besides I think it's a little fancy for our first date."

"Check this out," Frank gave the pommel of the cane a tug and pulled out a glimmering blade that was nearly a meter long. "It was a gift for my dad back in New York but he passed away recently, had the big C. Anyways I don't got a use for it so go ahead and take it, he'd have wanted a military man to have it."

"I'm sorry to hear that, was he a soldier?"

"Tried and true 101st Airborne he was the greatest guy in the world."

"I'm not sure if this is really legal son, but I'm honored that you're giving this to me, I don't know what to say," John paused for a moment and shook Frank's hand, "Thank you, may he rest in peace."

They both stood on the side of the street for a few moments sharing a cigarette and some warming conversation until they decided to part ways.

Frank started to open the his car door, "Well I've gotta make the rounds, cab ain't gonna drive itself. You have a blessed Christmas Major Chambers," He entered the cab and they both waved farewell.

"I think I've just met the kindest stranger in D.C."

John steadily walked his way down the stairs towards the underground with the new cane in hand. He found it was extremely helpful and just the right height for him to walk comfortably. Fortunately, there weren't any metal detectors in the subway system and he could move freely without harassment.

The tunnels of D.C. reeked of rat infestation and urine. Unsurprisingly the capital's tunnels hadn't been in very high maintenance since the economic collapse that nearly shattered the American infrastructure took place a few years earlier. A glance at the TV gave John a glimpse of the news, there was a report on the somewhat recently reinstated NASA's pursuits. The reporter was well dressed and present at the launch of one of NASA's new flagship spacecraft.

"I'm live here at NASA's premiere spacecraft launch event waiting for the countdown to reach zero for the delivery of supplies to the recently successful moon colonization event," the crowd was lively with energy and could be heard yelling out salutations to their friends and family that were now living on the moon. "As you can see, this event is extremely important to test the progress of future livelihood on the moon and will determine whether or not the colony will truly be able to sustain itself."

John watched in disgust and murmured to himself wondering how so many funds could be poured into a space program when the clear problems were on earth itself. A sudden whoosh by and push of air notified John of the arrival of the light rail train. It was suspended in mid-air and was held up by perfectly balanced reverse magnetism, along with some other techno jargon that John didn't understand perfectly. "And we can afford these too, should've let the President know that his budget manager was pissing his money away."

The doors opened to release a swarm of civilians caught in rush hour, and it was by far the worst time that John could've arrived. He crammed his way past the other pedestrians, no longer feeling like a military officer, just a civilian in uniform. John took a seat by the door of the train, the insides were surprisingly hygienic and shined with liveliness that the passengers didn't seem to reflect back. Once the train began moving, a boy next to John was caught off balance by the sudden jerk and tumbled onto the floor by his feet. For a second John waited thinking that the child's supervisors would help him to his feet, but no one made any forward movements, so he offered his hand out in kindness. John cleared his throat and put on the least hostile attitude that he could muster, "You alright buddy?"

"I'm alright mister, keep your wrinkly hands to yourself," the boy lifted himself up and turned away in a pout as if to not even acknowledge that he had fallen.

A sigh escaped John's mouth, "Kids these days."

It was odd the boy had no adolescents to take care of him, it was somewhat unusual for a lone child to be in the underground by himself in the middle of the day, let alone at all. He must be an eloper trying to go AWOL on his parents, or maybe he was just a young thief making rounds in the station. A quick glance around the room didn't explain the boy's absence of adult supervision, but someone else did catch John's eye.

A man stood in the corner, perfectly balanced, despite the speed of the railway. He had no support and just stood solemnly alone and appeared to be staring in John's direction. Even stranger, the man was hooded in broad daylight and wore jet-black robes that spanned down to his ankles nearly covering his feet. They were an elegant design with the fabric weaving smoothly and crafted to perfection. John couldn't pinpoint what culture the robes were representative of, they certainly weren't any that he knew, but his best guess was that they were of some kind of ancient Asian and Egyptian design. John was a trained expert at reading people, he could tell where every single person on the train was going, but this stranger had no tells, nothing about him could be made sense of.

"Someone desperately wants to be in a staring contest," John watched the man for a few moments and felt the eerie presence of the stranger. Deciding he had been creeped out enough for one day, John turned away from the man and redirected his attention to the boy in front of him. This boy was a little odd as well, though not in the same caliber as the man in the corner, he wore the trademarks of an average youth, baseball cap, a hoodie, jeans, and was probably about twelve years old. "Hey kid why don't you take my seat, seems like you could use it."

"Keep it old timer, wouldn't want you falling over that leg of yours," When the boy glanced over his shoulder, his eyes fixed onto John's cane for a split-second, as if the kid was admiring it with hungry eyes.

"Welcome to First street, you may exit now," the station's robotic voice didn't help with the busy, zombie-like atmosphere, but the dreary D.C. civilians probably didn't care much. John got up and exited the station, he noticed that the boy followed him onto the street and began to prepare himself for a possible confrontation. What he hadn't realized was that the hooded stranger had exited at the same stop and was already at the side of the street when John came to a halt next to him. As he stood there watching his back, he felt the same powerful aura that was present on the train and his face paled. A heart attack nearly struck him when he realized whose neck he was breathing down. "Jesus Christ!" John pulled his body back and his voice shot out of his mouth, but the stranger didn't seem to notice. The man appeared to be more concerned with something else, when he suddenly began walking out into the street.

It was as if he could predict the movement of every single car in the busy traffic and moved gracefully from spot to spot, it didn't even look like he was trying to dodge them to John, but more like he was casually strolling. The man made his way into the center of the intersection without causing any trouble and came to a stop. He glanced around curiously, eyeing his location, but John's curiosity couldn't be subdued. Never in his fifty-odd years had he ever seen something so perplexing, he began to wonder if what he was seeing was even happening. John glanced at his swiss military watch, the time read 16:57:13. The man had to be waiting for something to happen, because he had been standing there for two minutes already. With his attention focused on the stranger, John had no awareness of the boy's movements behind him and couldn't preemptively prevent the confrontation he had predicted.

In a sudden flurry of movements, the young thief snatched John's cane right from under his grasp, almost causing him to collapse in surprise. The kid immediately bolted out into the street, aided in his escape by the red light at the intersection. He was old and felt as though he had spent too many years doing his country's bidding, but John could still muster the energy to explode in pursuit after the child. Almost in unison, the two scrounged through the traffic and slid over cars in a tight race for possession of the cane. The boy was surprisingly nimble and fast on his feet, he climbed over the roofs of cars when no other options presented themselves, and was small enough to squeeze between the areas that forced John to find other ways around. This wasn't enough to demoralize a special operations officer who had been in the service for nearly thirty years, John had been on the receiving end of near losses and had come back from the brink of death and he wasn't about to be bested by some mere twelve year old. In mere moments John's experience and resolve managed to get him a few feet away from the boy, giving him the opportunity to make a final lunge forward, tackling the boy and causing them both to tumble onto the ground.

"Alright that's enough son, hand it over," John grasped the boy by his jacket collar and held him firmly pinned to the ground.

"HELP!" The boy screamed in a pitch of fear that nearly handicapped John's ears. "This mans trying to kidnap me!" He struggled to wriggle himself loose but his small body frame didn't give him the strength to escape the death grip.

John's head rose to eye the spectators around them just in time for him to be sacked by a good samaritan. The man wrestled with John and brought a resounding fist into his face that caused his ears to ring and his senses to cloud. As he struggled with the civilian, John could see in the corner of his eye the boy stood with pedestrians crowding him, asking him if he needed help and if he was okay. The boy, however, made no reply and simply stood still watching the fight ensue with a cheeky smirk running across his face. After taking a few knuckles to the face, John decided that he had no other choice but to hurt this man, regardless of whether or not he was a good guy. When the next punch flew towards his face, John lifted his arm to block it and smoothly wrapped around the civilian's thrust, entrapping the man and leaving him at the mercy of John's immediate blows to the ribs, sternum, and one to the temple for good measure. The stranger was knocked unconscious and collapsed to the ground with no fight left in him. Shock struck the boy's face and his jaw opened for a second until he realized he would be next.

John was panting under his breath when he confronted the boy with, "Now, give me my walking cane it was a gift," none of the civilians were brave enough to stop him and some even left the situation at hand. In a union of discord, every civvy on the street seemed to be getting message alerts. The sounds of notifications filled the streets overpowering the noise of cars as people stopped their daily schedules to check their phones. John saw it all, the expressions of surprise on people's faces, the alarm that he could recognize without words, and most noticeably, the holographic screens that lined the sides of the cities buildings suddenly tuning into the news.

"We have received breaking news from our sources that, what appears to be a meteorite, is heading straight to earth and will collide in a matter of seconds," John's eyes widened and it seemed as though all movement in the city had stopped for a few seconds, like the world was united and frozen in fear. "The objects trajectory has been calculated by specialists on the moon and it appears it's on a collision course towards…our capital, Washington D.C…Ladies and gentleman if you are in within a 2000 mile radius of the city, you are suggested to find immediate shelter in the next thirty seconds and wait for the event to subside. That is all we can say at the moment, may God watch over us," the news broadcast shut off and an uncomfortable feeling turned John's stomach as if telling him he would never watch the news again. He looked down next to him and realized that the boy had been gone for a few moments already. The streets of D.C. broke out in panic and fear, people ran for their lives screaming bloody mary, but John knew that there was no way that this situation was survivable. There had been prototypes of planetary defense for just this scenario, but there was no way they were ready, they were top secret and had only been in testing for a few days before John was discharged.

John looked at his watch, 16:59:30, exactly thirty seconds before the hour and possibly the world would end. He didn't understand, with such uncanny timing and suddenness there was no way this was a coincidence. Suddenly, a thought struck him and he turned his whole body towards the intersection. There he was, still, the black-robed stranger, except now he was holding his arms up as if in praise of the coming apocalypse. It didn't quite make sense to John, but neither did the sudden appearance and incapability to detect the incoming meteorite from space, so he did the most sensible thing a person could do.

He ran towards the robed figure.

There had to be something, some logical explanation of what was going on. How could earth's Space Defense Program not have seen the object coming? How long has this meteorite been on its way to earth? Where did it come from? Why was it so precise? Was it a weapon sent by someone? Or something? But the most important question he had to ask himself, who was this strangely clothed man looking into the sky in preparation for imminent death?

The panic in the streets proved difficult to maneuver through, hindering John's movements by the second. He pushed and shoved every panicked civilian in the streets, nothing mattered more right now then answering the questions that filled his mind. One more look at his watch showed that he had less than ten seconds to capture the stranger and he gained a sudden burst of adrenaline. Everything in the world could depend on the next few seconds, John's body had never felt so revitalized and there was no pain holding him back from reaching the stranger, with every fiber of his being motivated to capture this man. John reached his hand out and grabbed the mysterious figure, pulling his hood off in the act and shattering John's conception of reality itself.

What stood in front of him couldn't be human, yet it couldn't be scientifically alien. Nowhere in any textbook or hypothesis of extraterrestrial life was there ever a mention of a mystical being. Yet the creature that stood in front of John broke his ignorance plenty. It's skin was whiter than the coldest winter and it certainly had all the features of a human, but it's face was covered in blackened tattoos that lifted out of the skin, taking a holographic technological form as if some sort of energy was flowing through them. But the eyes of this thing, they couldn't be described, John found that he was almost hypnotized by the ethereal presence that they gave off. They flowed with every conceivable color of the spectrum and some that humanity had never even imagined. It was as if those eyes had seen all of the universe and had scoured its depths, like they knew everything that had and could happen, like they could answer any question that could be thought, or predict every question that would be asked. It was the most powerful presence that John had ever felt and those eyes just stared into his, almost like they wanted to tell him something, but couldn't.

As he gazed into those transcendent eyes, a meteor pierced through the planet's atmosphere and plunged itself into Washington D.C., exactly where John and the stranger stood.

The shockwave rattled the world, echoing throughout time, and in a single moment, half of the Western hemisphere was silent.