He stared at the back of her head, fearing to look left or right, but also living with the realization that this was the only contact that was allowed. He savored the view and ignored the bleeding blisters that even now caused him to occasionally stumble. Taking his eyes from her hurt him more that the pain in his feet, and he tried hard not to fall. She is limping as well. They must let us rest; we can’t go on much longer at this pace, he thought. The guards rode quietly on their horses, and had no particular sympathy for those who couldn’t keep up.

The couple had been caught less than six hours before and was forced to join a column of about 300 people heading towards a “re-education center.”

It had been 35 years since the effective surrender to the Clan, but some small groups and individuals still had managed to hide in the mountains, living on stored food, making no fire, fearing the heat-seeking sensors that made hiding nearly impossible. The fact that they had managed to hide for so long was remarkable, partly due to their use of small “space blankets” that masked their body heat during the scans, but mostly it was that the Clan was busy elsewhere. For the first dozen years the “gleaning” had been taking place, where it was estimated that 70 percent of the world’s population had been eliminated. According to the Clan’s doctrine, only ten servants were required per Clan member; anybody else was superfluous.

No one is alive now that could tell the entire story. No one left is even sure when the war began. Of course, the Clan could tell if they wished. History is written by the victors, but only if the victors have the desire. What little information that the fugitives had came from first-hand survival experience.

After the major powers abandoned their nuclear strategy, they went back to the conventional military warfare that had been such a disaster in the first few months. It didn’t work the first time and it was no better now. The Clan had been armed with a small handheld laser device. After a target had been hit for more than a second, it simply disappeared. It seemed to have a range limited to light and the curvature of the earth. In other words, it was the ultimate personal weapon. No country was known to have made such advances in laser technology, certainly nothing that resembled the lasers, or “light wands” as they were called by the Clan.

Thousands of “light wands” were captured in the early years and analyzed by the best weapons labs on the planet. Nothing of value was discovered. There didn’t appear to be a power supply; it weighed about eight ounces; it didn’t appear to be made of parts, but was instead one single piece; it was impervious to weather, X-rays, electrical and magnetic impulses. And it was rugged enough to stand up to several direct hits from sledgehammers. The best guess was that when the unit was first powered up, it somehow linked to the holder’s DNA, drawing electrical power from the living tissue of person holding the unit. Kill the Clan member who owned the weapon, and the weapon becomes useless to anyone else. More importantly, the laser beam had no effect on people that had operational “light wands.” There was no such thing as “friendly fire” casualties for the Clan. In battle skirmishes, the Clan only had to continually sweep the field, with no danger to their own men and complete devastation to everyone else. There were some accidents; the manufacturer of the wands had made very little distinction in the details, so there was a centrally place trigger indent and little else. In a panic situation, it was possible to point the wrong end at a target with the result that thousands of the Clan accidentally eliminated themselves until a mounting device was attached that assisted in keeping the laser beam pointed at their enemies. No one noticed that the original design remained unchanged; only a mounting bracket was added.

Unlimited range and unlimited firing were not the only advantage, however.

Focusing the laser beam on any barrier for more than a few seconds allowed the beam to pass through the barrier, almost as if it wasn’t there. 25-inch composite armor on battleships couldn’t stop one individual from patiently eliminating the entire crew. The one effect that no one was quite prepared for was the indiscriminate use of the beam. Long after the battlefield emotions were over, the killing continued. Perhaps it was because it was so sanitary, so clean.

After being hit by the beam, all that was left was an undamaged pile of warm clothes. Every living cell of the target disappeared. No ghastly wounds, no bothersome corpses lying around. In some cases, all that was left was the gold fillings, a few pacemakers, or orthopedic hardware. Unfortunately, transplanted organs also did not vaporize. Generally, there was nothing to remind the Clan that a human being was once there. Killing had never been easier.

The first Clan seemed to come from Southeast Asia, and within months, every major city reported thousands of missing citizens. Then reports came in from India and Australia. At this point, a surgical nuclear strike may have worked, or maybe even then it was too late. The supply of lasers could never be found and the recruiting of the disenfranchised of every country was nonstop. Ultimate power was given at the flip of a switch, and most succumbed to that power. If the new recruit didn’t go along with the Clan agenda, then conventional weapons could take care of the reluctant recruit. Thousands tried to desert and provide information to the major powers, but there was little they could do. The “light wands” wouldn’t work on the Clan and very few of the deserters knew any information of value. When the major Asian nations began crumbling from within, in desperation, the Western powers began a nuclear assault. No one knows how many died in the initial futile nuclear exchange, but vast areas of the planet were now completely contaminated. Eventually, it had to stop, realizing that further attempts would only poison the entire world. They simply couldn’t target the Clan because there wasn’t an identified base or homeland to punish. The Clan had taken great pains to disperse widely; any attempt of using nuclear weapons meant that millions of innocent civilians would die. It might have been better to sacrifice a continent in the beginning, but by now, it was too late. Like a virus that invades the entire body, there was no chance of amputation. How could the nation’s leaders know that the Clan intended to kill most of them over time?

The decision to fight with conventional weapons was the humanitarian choice, but it was a complete tactical failure. Within weeks, there was little ability to mount any practical assault; the last bastions were the nuclear submarines and the remote missile silo teams. The silos were eventually taken, but the submarines, for the most part, continued a cat and mouse game, trying to survive in several island bases. The nuclear weapons still active, but useless except in extreme defense. The Clan considered the submarines their last threat and were relentless in their pursuit and elimination. Perhaps a few still exist, slowly running out of places to hide, believing that there were still millions of innocent lives at stake.

With most military resistance eliminated, it was fairly easy to “glean” the survivors. People were needed to produce the food and work in the factories. Historians would have said that the entire world reverted back to the early Roman Empire, except that there were no historians. The Clan differed greatly from the Romans in one major respect. They were not interested in cultural or artistic pursuits. They were only interested in power and control.

The couple continued their relentless march to the camp. The couple and five of their friends were taken without much of a struggle. Two of the refugees were eliminated before the rest surrendered. They were captured just below timberline, forced to lay traps for the tribe, to lay in food for the winter. This was their undoing because the traps had been found and so the Clan only had to wait.

There were only about 50 young people in this group, all of them heading to a camp that would train them in their new careers as herdsmen. Most of the Clan members were busy interviewing the older members of the captives, the ones that had training in the areas that they required.

In general, it didn’t take too long to adapt, and the slaves got used to the new system. Most of them had only known slavery, but some of the new captives, the “outsiders,” did not adjust.

This area of the country was primarily used to graze cattle. The local citizenry were required to provide a quota of quality beef, and “outsiders” had to adapt or be eliminated.

There were still families, and a few homes, but nothing was privately owned. Anyone with a wand took whatever was wanted and eliminated any resistance. It was a life of abject slavery. Wholesale slaughter had slowed because the Clan had begun to be concerned that there might not be enough “slaves” to do the actual work. Of course, troublemakers were always expendable, and if a dozen or so were eliminated daily, then life would be a lot easier. The refugees could not be allowed to be free because it made it harder to control the “slaves.” If ordinary people had hope, then control was harder to enforce. It was better to bring everybody in line and eliminate the problem. And if the slaves had children, then fine, so long as they replaced the dead and were kept docile and ignorant.

It was one foot in front of the other, eyes upon the heels of the person in front of you. Relentless heat, thick moist air surrounding you, a river of sweat running between your shoulder blades, rough cords tying your elbows together behind your back. You were lucky: the Clan needed you.

Mia was only 24, so she had only known the current reality. A lifetime of avoiding heat scanners, moving quietly, always undercover, away from drones, on a constant hunt for food. Having a plot of land to farm for produce was unthinkable. It was hunting quietly for small game, setting traps and snares, gathering seeds, fruits, and random vegetables.

There was an underground network of trade among the outsiders, people that raided the Clan farms and brought the produce to safe “markets” in the hills. It was always a bit risky, because there was a bounty on wild “outsiders.” It seems that the Clan had eliminated so many people that there were not enough slaves to maintain their lifestyle.

Mia had no way of knowing that well over seven billion people had already been vaporized in the last 35 years. By the time that she was a teenager, she had personally witnessed thousands of deaths. When she was very young, there were still groups of armed resistors that attempted to resist the Clan.

The conflicts were very one-sided. The outsiders had conventional weapons, semi- and automatic weapons from army depots, and a few shoulder-based rockets. A respectable force against a similarly armed enemy. Unfortunately, the Clan was armed with wands.

Organized bands of armed resistors disappeared. Individual snipers took out as many of the Clan that they could find, but the Clan retreated behind their agents in the field.

The slaves were controlled by capos. Capos had privileges: they could have families, they had reliable food sources, they could possibly have long lives. Nearly every slave desired to become a capo. The Clan rarely came out in public, surrounded by their personal capo bodyguards.

Mia did not have firsthand knowledge of this. The outsiders had very little systematic knowledge of what had happened in the world. Mia could read, but very little had been written and distributed about the original “event.” What was known is that some southeast Asian drug cartels were the first to have wands. Eventually, they had secretly imported Clan members to every major city throughout the world. A dozen Clan members could eliminate entire armies, and they did! Within a year, the conquest was complete, and the survivors went into hiding.

The standard books of her tribe were several versions of the Bible, reference books on medicinal plants and plant identification, living-off-the-grid manuals, and several well-worn copies of Earth Abides by George Stewart. The entire tribe knew pages of this book by heart. In the first years after the collapse, the books were referenced quite a lot. But now, they were honored, but the youth had mastered the skills mentioned and were able to improve the techniques offered in print.

The real danger for the Clan was that there began to be a shortage of trained individuals in order to keep the lights on. In fact, in many areas of the world, electricity had disappeared, so that Clan members became isolated from other Clan members. This led to areas on the planet that became controlled by individual Clan warlords.

The entire area of Southeast Asia was a radioactive hellhole. Much of Europe was depopulated. India and Africa had been given back to the jungle. Only China and North America still had centers that might be seen as cities, populated with powerful Clan families supported by thousands of slaves.

A few Clan members had tried to expand their territory at the expense of other Clan members, but this was mostly unsuccessful. When it did happen, it was done through negotiations. Certain Clan members had resources that other Clan members did not. In general, the resources were in trained slaves that had particular skills.

The world had collapsed so quickly that the outsiders had not organized schooling or training for the next generation. The focus was on surviving, not mathematics. Even the information learned in the first few years were lost to myth and fables. The Clan seemed like demi-gods. And of course, the Clan did not bother to educate themselves; all they needed was their wands.

Mia was heading down to what used to be the Central Valley of California. Heading to the farms where she would work the fields, herd the cattle, and dream of the possibility of becoming a capo. She thought that perhaps exchanging freedom for a constant, reliable food source might be a good exchange. But freedom was the only thing she knew. Perhaps stepping out of line and being shot, or vaporized, was better.

Her partner in life was behind her; she knew that he would follow her lead and support whatever decision she made.

There were about 300 individuals marching, and there were about a dozen Clan members that had joined them. The Clan members were interviewing the older captives, looking for advanced training in transportation, communication, or technology. The capos used whips and prods to control the marching slaves.

Mia thought seriously about what was better: being shot or being vaporized. It seemed to her that being shot had more pain involved. In fact, it had become a practice that any permanent capital punishment would be vaporization. Not having a body left to dispose was a major factor. Mia thought she would have to do something very dramatic in order to guarantee vaporization.

Mia’s tribe was very small and they lived in the band of the Sierras between the High Sierra and the valley. It was right at the lower snow level in the winter and above the swelter in the summer. She had gotten used to retreating to the High Sierra in the summer, even crossing the Sierras to gather pine nuts periodically. She did not know that she was retracing what the natives had done hundreds of years before.

Even bound and shackled, she still had endurance to descend into the valley. The capos and Clan members had rode horses; perhaps they were short on gas or battery-operated vehicles. Indeed, this was the main areas of interest in the interviews of the older slaves.

Mia was particularly skilled in edible nuts and fungus; perhaps the Clan would find that useful. Mia was still unsure of her future. Nearly her entire family was vaporized during her capture. They had all resisted with their own weapons, and the Clan members feared for their lives, so their choice was to vaporize. This was difficult, thinking that they would lose too much knowledge. The Clan tried to save the older ones, but Mia’s parents, and grandparents went down shooting.

Mia realized that her destination was only about an hour’s hike away. It was best to make her move now, when there was still a chance that she could survive and make it back to the hills. And if she didn’t make it, she could hope for a quick vaporization.

The noose on her left leg was loose. She could use her other foot to push the rope down. The cords binding her elbows were the most difficult. Without being able to see, it would be hard to find the weak spot. Mia then realized that the capos probably used the same knot on everyone, so she focused on the slave in front of her. It was a familiar knot, something that she had used in the field setting snares. Pulling on one loop was a sort of quick release, but she couldn’t reach that spot herself. But she could turn and untie the person in front of her, then perhaps that person could free her.

She didn’t know the person in front of her and couldn’t trust that he would go along. She knew that her only hope was her partner marching behind her, and the amazing quality he had of knowing her thoughts before she spoke. He had often shared the same ideas of escape, choosing to be an “outsider,” freedom over slavery. At the next stop, she would ask him to turn around and she would loosen his knot and slip the noose on her ankle.

Things went as planned, except that the young man’s ankle noose was too tight, and Mia was forced to leave. Her partner demanded that she attempt freedom. She was near the middle of the single file of 300 people. Mia ran at 90 degrees to the left and slightly backwards towards the hills. There was a line of trees that might give her cover from the bullets. The beam of the wand could easily hit her, but at least she would be out of sight. She made the tree line before anyone noticed.

The capos mounted their horses to give chase. The Clan member looked at his paperwork to find out the slave’s age, then he grabbed his wand. A faint laser beam began sweeping the tree line. It was silent.

The capos returned and said they had found a pile of clothes that were warm and damp with sweat. The line of people moved down into the valley.

Mia woke up, remembering running behind a large valley oak, and now she was on a circular disk in a different valley, under a different sky.

She was surrounded by professionals who were working very fast. Some strapped on devices that monitored her vital signs. Some checked her teeth and her joints; some had wrapped her in blankets and were now replacing them with clothes. There were people asking questions and using checklists. Other people seemed to be walking away to go to other circular disks on either side. There were buildings nearby with people entering and leaving. It was very busy, with more people that she had ever seen in one place.

As Mia continued to answer basic questions, she looked around trying to understand what had happened. To her left, she saw a group of people that looked familiar. It was her parents and grandparents! And a few others from her village. They were smiling broadly and waving wildly. Mia was even more confused. Apparently, it was true: your loved ones were waiting for you!

What Mia didn’t understand was that heaven had a slightly green sky with a binary sun. And the plants seemed different. And Mia seemed lighter and stronger.

Days later, Mia had more information; not everything was explained, and maybe some things would never be explained. But the basic points were covered in a auditorium with hundreds of new arrivals.

The first truth was the most shocking. The wands were not weapons. They were created by a sentient race several light years distance away. They did not have the technology to come themselves, but they could send “lifeships,” or pods, loaded with wands that could teleport the entire population to a safe planet. They had discovered a comet coming to Earth that would end all life on the planet. They had the technology to teleport only sentient life. Oddly enough, it included most primates, fish, and other animals, even a few insects. No bacteria, no viruses!

Unfortunately, only a few pods made it to the surface. Some missed the planet, most were shot down by defense networks, but a few made it to the surface in areas controlled by drug warlords. The directions were either destroyed or ignored. The wands became weapons.

Mia was now on a planet that had plant life and some animals, but nothing that resembled sentient life. It was a new start, with people that shared a completely unique experience.

Each person on the planet completely remembered their past. More than that, it seems that for some reason, the memory of the moment of their “death” by vaporization was burned into their consciousness. Everyone who experienced this shared knowledge of being unjustly executed. And instead of rage or anger, they also knew that they had been saved from a planet-killing comet.

Books would be written for years exploring the ramifications. The range of experiences were so numerous. Some embraced death rather than slavery. Some went to great lengths to survive at all costs. Most had great sorrow concerning those who clung to a life of slavery over the freedom of being teleported. If only they had known. Crime may not have been ended, but this shared experience for this generation would change things for a thousand years.

One thing was noted: there was a great gleaning. The worst of humanity was left on the planet, in charge, with power over innocent individuals. The coming comet was the judge and the sentence.

Mia found out that the aliens had left the circular disks linked to the pods of wands that were shipped. There were over a hundred disks in the local area. There were other places with disks on the planet, but none were active. The instructions that were found had helped with some medical devices and some vaccinations for this particular planet. But apparently, the only people transported came from the single pod that landed in Southeast Asia. 100,000 wands were distributed to the worst gangs and cartels on the planet, and seven billion people were “murdered.”

Mia also found out that the death comet would be visible on Earth within the next year. At some point, there would likely be a massive number of people being murdered as the world crumbled. And perhaps even numbers of the Clan committing suicide as the comet neared.

Mia wanted to be there when they came through.