Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favourite episodes. A different member of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2016 each week in January.
We hope you enjoy assistant editor Katherine Inskip’s favorite story from 2016, Twenty-One by Michael Merriam, narrated by John Meagher. The story originally aired April 2, 2016 as Cast of Wonders 204.
Theme music is Appeal to Heavens by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
by Michael Merriam
Wednesday, January 6th, 2009, dawned bright and clear for the twenty-first time.
“Are we ready?” Aaron Burnett asked the group surrounding him, all of them cold and shivering in the pre-dawn light.
“Yeah, yeah. We can do this,” Thomas Pinchly said. The short, thin teenager chewed nervously on a plastic straw.
Aaron’s older sister, Sharon, gave him a reassuring smile. “We don’t really have a choice, do we?” The smile on her plump face widened. “And if we screw it up—”
“We start over at December 23rd and take another crack at it,” Sharon’s friend Teri finished.
Aaron nodded grimly. “It’s just that some of us might not make it if we do succeed, that’s all. Those guards are going to be playing for keeps, at least until we get out of their sight and they go back to their original day. Some of us are probably going to die.”
Lukas Witt was three days shy of his fifteenth birthday, a birthday he desperately wanted to see. “We can’t keep living like this. We know the risks.”
Aaron turned at his sister. “Are all the other groups ready?”
Sharon frowned. “Yeah. Everyone knows what they have to do.”
Aaron gave the group of over a hundred teenagers and pre-teens, several of whom were his friends and schoolmates, a long last look.
“Okay, then. Time to save the world.”
The first time the world came to an end, fifteen year old Aaron Burnett did not notice.
Aaron checked his watch. Nine hours left.
“We’ve got almost five hundred waiting to storm the White House,” Sharon said. She was coordinating communications as best she could with a handful of cell phones, email, and instant messengers.
Aaron nodded and looked back down at his map. “I’m more concerned about our friends overseas.”
Teri took a long sip of her herbal tea, and then added her opinion. “Any number of things can go wrong. Our job is stopping those bombers from taking off.”
Aaron nodded, his face grim. “Yeah, I know.” He glanced at his sister. “How many more kids do we have?”
“At least a three dozen have shown up since dawn. Others are coming from the outlying countryside.”
Sharon smiled without humor. “Several of them are coming into town on tractors and any other heavy equipment.”
“What about Lukas and Kyle?”
Teri smirked. “Don’t worry: If Lukas says he can get it, he can.”
Aaron sighed. The tanker full of jet fuel Lukas promised to steal from the airport would be their last line of attack.
“Fine,” he said. “When all the heavy equipment gets here, we’ll form up, assign tasks, and hit the base full-out with everything we can.”
The third time the world came to an end, Aaron had a very strong sense of having been here before as the first blinding flash destroyed his vision.
“Patience,” Aaron said, watching the mob of young men and women who had decided to follow him. “We have to time this right. We want all the other groups to hit their targets at the same time.”
“Who put you in charge, geek-boy?” a tall, blocky young man called out from near a tractor.
“Look,” Sharon said, stepping forward. “We need to make sure we stop the attacks before they start, period.
The adults will keep trying to go through their day like always. They’re locked in; they can’t change except for a few minutes at a time. They’re going to continue trying to destroy the world, so we have to make sure they can’t.”
She glared at her assembled peers. “If you can’t follow orders, go home and wait to die. Again.”
The fourth time the world came to an end, Aaron realized what was happening, and remembered everything that had gone before; including the past three experiences of the two weeks of December 23rd to January 6th lived one after another, culminating with the end of the world at 7:24 in the evening. He panicked, not that it did him any good.
Aaron checked his watch. Two hours before they struck. Two hours before he and Sharon had to coordinate attacks on political and military targets around the world. Aaron tried to keep the soda and chips he had just eaten from making a re-appearance.
“Where’s Sharon?” he asked, looking around for his sister.
Teri looked up from where she was manning the computers, radios, and cell phones at their temporary headquarters, located in the garage at Thomas’ house. If you climbed onto the roof of the house, you could see onto the airbase. It was a good spot to watch the impending attack on the airbase unfold.
Teri looked nervously away from Aaron, and typed something into the computer.
“What?” Aaron asked.
“She–um-well, she went to spend some quality time with Chris.”
“Chris? Chris Radamaker?”
“Yeah, Aaron. Her boyfriend. Her boyfriend, who’s going to be driving one of those tractors through the fence of that airbase and into the path of a B-52.”
“Oh, okay. Well–”
Teri gave him a small smirk, her brown eyes filled with humor. “She said she’d be back in an hour.” Teri smiled brightly at him. “Wanna go make out in Thomas’s room? His folks won’t even notice us, and Thomas is down directing the tractors to their attack positions.”
Aaron gave her a surprised, almost frightened look. “What?”
“You’re still Sharon’s geeky little brother, but–” she shrugged. “What the hell.”
Aaron tried to suppress the nervous shaking of his body as Teri took him by the hand and led him out of the garage.
The fifth time the world came to an end, Aaron tried to convince his parents something was wrong. They smiled vaguely at him and continued to watch the television, even as the sirens wailed and the first explosion rocked their house.
Aaron followed Teri back into the garage. Sharon was sitting in front of the computer, brushing out her blonde hair. Aaron noticed that she was slightly sweaty and her clothes were rumpled. Sharon glanced from Teri to him, scrutinizing his own appearance. They locked eyes, and the siblings decided by mutual silent accord to pretend nothing was going on and not ask awkward questions.
“How long before the communication breakdown?” Aaron asked.
Sharon looked at her watch and checked her notes. “An hour. We’re going to have to move soon.”
Aaron picked up the binoculars he had taken from his father’s camping gear, and stepped outside the garage. A moment’s climb on the aluminum ladder brought him to the roof of the house. He looked out at the base, seeing several tractors, heavy construction vehicles, and a couple of large trucks lined up on the side streets and open fields leading toward the base. He pointed the binoculars up a fraction. Several of the big bombers were out of their hangers and had begun to taxi around the runway.
Aaron blew out a breath he had not realized he was holding. He lowered the binoculars and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket.
“Sharon, it’s a go. Let everyone know.”
Three minutes later heavy equipment roared to life on all sides of the airbase. Aaron watched the first tractors smash their way onto the base.
The guards, startled from the repetitive routines they had been locked into for the last twenty-one cycles, began to fire sporadically at the attacking teens.
The seventh time the world came to an end, Aaron sat on the roof of his house and watched. There was a blinding flash and a lot of heat.
Black smoke rose from the airbase, obscuring his ability to direct the attack. Aaron did not know how many of his friends might be dead now, no idea if their plan was working or not. All he could do was wait for 7:24 pm to come. If the world went on as “normal,” they had succeeded.
He raised his cell phone.
“Sharon? Any word from anywhere else?”
“There’s lots of dead at the White House. I’m getting nothing from China anymore. The teams trying to stop missile launches haven’t checked in.”
Aaron clambered off the roof and trotted into the garage.
Sharon, Teri, and four others were working the phones and sending instant messages, trying to get some news.
Sharon looked up as he entered. “Lukas is in position. He says he can make a run at the bombers if we need it.”
Aaron nodded. “I’m going to the base. I can’t see what’s happening.”
Sharon stood. “I’ll drive you.”
Aaron waved at the makeshift command post. “What about–”
“I’ve got it,” Teri said.
Aaron nodded. “All right then, let’s go.”
As Sharon started the car and turned toward the airbase, she looked at her brother.
“Chris pointed out that the submarines will still fire their missiles.”
Aaron sighed and rested his forehead on the passenger side window.
The eighth time the world came to an end, Aaron stood outside the chain-link fence surrounding the local Air Force Base, tears of frustration rolling down his cheeks. He watched the big bombers, one after another, lift off with their deadly cargos. Later, there was a high, whining noise, then nothing.
“Shit,” Sharon said softly.
Aaron could not have agreed more.
The airfield was covered in smoke and flames. The wrecks of tractors, large trucks, snow plows, and other heavy construction machines were mingled with the broken frames of bombers, each machine swarming with people as the teenagers tried to stop the flight crews from acting out their programmed destiny.
There were bodies scattered across the airfield. Aaron tried not to look too closely at them. In a surreal scene, soldiers guarding the airfield continued to patrol the perimeter, ignoring the chaos behind them. Occasionally one would turn and look, maybe even raise his rifle and fire into the battle. After a few minutes, the soldier’s reality would reset and he would go back to his patrol, locked into what he was doing on the day the world ended.
A hundred yards to their left, Lukas sat in the tanker truck, its engine running and ready.
Aaron and Sharon did not want to be too close to that truck, just in case a stray gunshot or piece of debris reached the vehicle and its explosive payload.
Aaron watched as one of the bombers slide along on its belly, sending sparks and flames into the gathering twilight as the crew continued to attempt to lift off. It reached the end of the runway, spun around as the plane’s belly dug into the soft, snow covered earth beyond, and came to a halt when one of the wings tore off.
Flames started to engulf the plane. Aaron hoped whatever ordnance it carried was not nuclear, otherwise they were all screwed.
Aaron smiled slightly as the thought occurred to him that, should the plane explode in a mushroom cloud, he would not know if they had succeeded. If they failed, he would wake up at home, fourteen days previous.
The ninth time the world came to an end, Aaron decided to attempt to break someone out of their routine. Minutes before the blast, Aaron forcibly pulled his seventeen-year-old sister Sharon into the street to watch the world die.
“Any news?” Aaron asked.
Sharon lowered the cell phone and looked out at the carnage in front of them. “Teri says they’ve lost contact with almost everyone. The last she heard, London was on fire, and there had been a nuclear explosion on the ground in Russia.”
“We don’t know,” Sharon said, her voice shaky.
Aaron turned toward her. Tears ran freely down her round face. She sniffed hard and wiped her nose on the sleeve of her wool coat. “I’m sorry.”
Aaron reached out and put an arm around his sister. “Don’t be. This is terrible.”
Sharon pointed across the airfield at a tractor on its side and burning. “That’s Chris’ tractor,” she said in a small voice.
“Maybe he got out. Maybe he’s fine.”
“No,” Sharon said. “He didn’t.”
Aaron looked closer at the tractor. A burned body lay half way out of the tractor’s cab.
It was too much: Aaron let go of his sister, doubled over, and threw up.
The tenth time the world came to an end, Sharon cried and cursed him for making her understand.
Aaron wiped his mouth and spit again. He felt Sharon’s hand on his back, steadying him.
“I’ve got a soda in the car. You want me to get it?”
Aaron nodded. “Please.”
He stepped away from the mess on the ground and looked back toward the airfield.
“Here,” Sharon said, handing him the bottle. “Teri’s on the way down. All the communications have failed.”
“How much longer?” Aaron asked, wanting to know how long until they knew if they had succeeded or failed.
Sharon checked her watch. “Twenty-minutes.
At the far end of the runway, the bomber exploded.
They did not die in a mushroom cloud.
Aaron and Sharon looked at each other, actually starting to hope.
The fourteenth time the world came to an end, the siblings had figured out that anyone over eighteen-years old simply could not break free of the repeating pattern for more than a few minutes. As the sirens blared and existence winked out, they sat on the hood of their father’s Buick, planning.
Aaron turned toward Sharon’s car. Sharon followed and the two sat on the hood of the little Honda.
“Nothing to do now,” Aaron said.
“Except wait,” Sharon completed.
Sharon looked behind her and over the top of her car. “Headlights coming.”
“It’s probably Teri.”
The explosion came from their left, brilliant and hot. The shockwave washed over them and bits of hot metal fell around them. Aaron grabbed his sister and rolled them both off the hood, away from the blast.
After a few moments, Aaron poked his head up and looked over the hood of Sharon’s car. Sharon followed suit. The tanker truck was engulfed in flames.
“Lukas?” Aaron said. “Aw, no.”
Sharon put her hands to her mouth and gave a tiny gasp.
Teri pulled her car up next to them. Leaving the engine running, she stepped out and looked around, first at the flaming tanker, then at the chaos of the airfield. She turned to Aaron and Sharon.
The sixteenth time the world came to an end, they had convinced hundreds of teens and pre-teens of the threat.
“How much longer?” Aaron asked.
Sharon checked her watch. “Anytime now.”
As quickly as the words left her mouth, sirens started to wail.
“This is it,” Sharon whispered.
Aaron watched the airfield carefully. If the next few minutes passed and they were not obliterated, they would know it was all worth it. If the world ended and they had to start over, Aaron wanted every detail locked into his memory for their next attempt.
Looking at the death and destruction, Aaron could not tell which outcome he was hoping for more.
“Here we go,” Sharon said, staring at the hands moving along the face of her watch.
Aaron looked into the pensive face of his sister. He suddenly wanted very much to live.
The sirens stopped wailing. The world continued on as usual. Sharon turned and hugged him. It had worked: They had saved the world.
The twentieth time the world came to an end found Aaron, Sharon, and thousands of their friends around the world almost ready to act.
Below them, the guards on the perimeter started yelling and firing. Aaron could hear orders being shouted as the sounds of small arms fire filled the air.
“We need to get out of here,” Teri said, pointing at a group of soldiers who were charging up the hill at them.
The first rounds ripped through the trees and dinged off Sharon and Teri’s cars, blasting the headlights out of Teri’s old Ford and plunging them into darkness.
The three teens dived into Teri’s vehicle, Teri getting behind the wheel while Aaron and Sharon slipped into the back seat as bullets hissed and whined around them. Teri put the car in reverse and sped away, finally tuning around and putting the car into drive as they reached the road near the airbase.
“We did it!” Aaron cried. “We did it!”
“Yeah,” Sharon said in a soft, tired voice. She slumped over, her head landing in Aaron’s lap.
Aaron reached down. “Sharon? Sharon, are you–” he felt something hot and sticky on his hands. “Sharon?”
His sister’s wide, staring eyes looked up at him. She smiled. “My brave, sweet, geeky little brother,” she whispered, then she exhaled and her eyes lost their focus forever.
The world went on. Not all the missiles or bombers could be stopped, and millions of people died, but the world still managed to limp through its disaster and continue.
In the wake of the war, all the major powers withdrew behind their borders, licked their wounds, watched their neighbors with a growing sense of paranoia, and restocked with weapons of greater power and range.
In the end, humans beings acted just like they always did.
He reached out and touched the fading photo of his sister and the more recent holograph of his late wife. Teri had finally succumbed to the cancer and slow radiation poisoning, just as so many others had. Aaron sighed. He wondered why he had bothered.
The twenty-first time the world came to an end, thirty-seven year old Aaron Burnett sat on his porch and watched the pretty lights.
About the Author
Michael Merriam is an author and spoken-word performer living in Hopkins, Minnesota. His novella, Should We Drown in Feathered Sleep, was long-listed for the Nebula Award in 2010, and his novel, Last Car to Annwn Station was named a Top Book in 2011 by Readings in Lesbian & Bisexual Women’s Fiction. Michael has appeared on stage in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Minnesota Storyfest, Story Slam Minnesota, and over the air on KFAI Radio and Minnesota Public Radio. He’s also the co-organizer of the Minnesota Speculative Fiction Writers.
About the Narrator
John Meagher is a graphic designer and voice-over artist, who started writing Tales of the Left Hand as a side project to give himself practice narrating longer pieces of work, such as audiobooks. The demo he put together using excerpts from Book One has led to a number of professional narration jobs, now available on Audible. But he also discovered that Left Hand had taken on a life of its own, and there were more stories in the Frees to tell than could be covered in just one book.
He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife (and is about to add fatherhood to his job description in early December) and two cats, satisfying the minimum required feline ownership for fantasy writers.