Fourth Light

February’s theme was End of the World.

Synopsis

A photo of mysterious lights over Guatemala City circulates on social media, prompting rumors that a fourth light will bring about a major global catastrophe. Sharon Finch, a paranormal investigator, works hard to control the rumors even as tragic events happen in the exact spot of the three lights.

Fourth Light

by Jessica Wren

March 3, 2002

Dr. Kevin Finch looked on nervously as he prepared to address the crowd. To calm himself, he looked at the front row at his seventeen-year-old daughter Sharon, an honor student at Northside High School who was following in his footsteps as an astrophysicist. Next to her, a more maturely beautiful version of Sharon, was his wife Linda. Sharon had also shown an interest in geology, which his wife taught at Mercer University. Dr. Finch prayed that the crowd in front of him would hear him out before bombarding him with questions.

“My partner, Dr. Phillip Goldwire, and I discovered a comet that is roughly ten miles in diameter just outside of Neptune’s orbital path. Our computer models have shown this comet has a narrow semi-axis minor, even more narrow than that of Halley’s Comet, which means it will speed up as it gets closer to the sun. Its predicted perihelion is exactly eleven years from now, on March 3, 2013. That’s if it lasts that long.” Dr. Finch looked for the crowd’s reaction. They were on the edge of their seat, awaiting further news.  The comet, if it continues on its path, will pass by Jupiter in the fall of 2009 at a distance of a quarter astronomical unit. In the unlikely event that the comet survives the massive gravitational pull of Jupiter, then it will pass Earth at 0.004 AU, grazing the exosphere.” The people in the crowd gasped. Sharon looked on in wide-eyed interest.

“Is there any danger to Earth?” someone asked. Dr. Finch stealthily glared at Dr. Goldwire out of the corner of his eye. It was his partner’s brilliant idea to alarm the public with the news of a close-passing comet. Dr. FInch’s opinion was that there was nothing to be gained by sowing panic over an event that was extremely unlikely to happen, but Goldwire had insisted that the public had the right to know. They had studied the worse-case scenario—Comet Finch-Goldwire escaping the clutches of Jupiter with a narrower semi-axis minor, putting Earth right in its path. For once, Phil, keep your huge trap shut, Dr. Finch mentally begged his partner.

“We have no reason to believe that Comet Finch-Goldwire will collide with the earth,” Dr. Finch said to the crowd.

“However, we thought it wise to be prepared for the worst-case scenario,” Dr. Goldwire interrupted to say. “If it appears that there is even the slightest danger of a collision, then we have plans to blow it up with drones carrying nuclear missiles.” Wait, who’s ‘we?’ Dr. Finch thought. This was the first he was hearing of any plans to blast the comet. “Our precise computer models have shown us every outcome of Finch-Goldwire’s interaction with Jupiter’s gravitational field. The most concerning one for Earth shows the comet being pulled inward by Jupiter, but not into its atmosphere. There is less than one in a million chance of this happening, but if it does, then Finch-Goldwire will strike Earth in the early morning hours of December 21, 2012.” The crowd burst into excited murmuring. Dr. Finch wondered when Goldwire was planning to tell him exactly when the new date was calculated

“Where will it hit if it hits Earth?” someone asked.

“It’s very difficult to tell at this point,” Goldwire said. “We have calculated various points of contact ranging from Southern California to the border of Peru and Chile. Our east-to-west calculations have placed it anywhere between sixty and one-hundred twenty degrees west. This means smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or eastern Brazil. Anywhere in that square range is fair game.” Please shut up, Phil. The epicenter of our scenario seems to be northern Guatemala, just outside of Tikal.”

Sharon raised her hand, an action that was met with a furtive smile from Goldwire. The combination of his manly build, his boyish but rugged facial features, and his charming mannerisms made him irresistible to many woman. It was this light-hearted charm, combined with Goldwire’s penchant for seducing young women, that struck fear in the hearts of fathers and husbands everywhere. He had stated an interest in ‘mentoring’ Sharon, a plan Dr. Finch immediately shot down.

“You put one hand on my daughter, and I’ll cut your dick off and feed it to you,” Finch had told him laconically. Goldwire already had his eye on Linda, one of the few women who seemed immune to his charm.

“Ah, yes. Ms. Finch. My partner’s beautiful daughter,” Goldwire said smoothly. “Your dad tells me you plan to major in astronomy and physics at Mercer. Is that so?”

“Yes, sir,” Sharon said coolly. Finch breathed a sigh of relief. Sharon, like her mother, seemed uninterested in Goldwire’s attention. “Just a few questions about your worst-case scenario. First, how do you intend to carry a vessel stocked with nuclear warheads millions of miles in ten years?”

The question has a sobering effect on Goldwire, and he snapped into professional mode. “I don’t know the precise details,” Goldwire said. “Your mother is the one who put me touch with Dr. Marvin Brookshire, the nation’s most respected nuclear physicist. He will act as our liaison with NASA. Your father and I are simply monitoring the comet’s speed and direction.” Finch caught his wife’s eye and gave her a “what the hell” look. Linda pointed her finger up in a gesture that said ‘we’ll discuss this when we get home.”

Sharon acted as if she didn’t hear Goldwire’s answer. “Even if you do successfully land a craft on Finch-Goldwire in a timely manner, wouldn’t the nuclear warheads simply blow the comet into smaller but still dangerous pieces whose individual trajectories are harder to follow?” Nervous chatter ensued.

“As I said,” Goldwire said, an edge in his voice that revealed his more dangerous side, “this is only a back-up plan should we need it. And most likely we won’t.

June 2009

Sharon sat in the exact same spot as she had more than seven years ago, next to her mother. The empty spot on stage was a painful reminder that her father was no longer there to cut off Dr. Goldwire’s lustful gaze with his piercing glare. As she sat there sweating in the Georgia heat, she began to question her career path. Determined to continue her father’s study of Comet Finch-Goldwire after his sudden death at age fifty-three, she had graduated a month ago with a master’s degree in astrophysics, and had been accepted into a doctoral program. Phil Goldwire was as sickening as ever, but she had developed an uneasy respect for Marvin Brookshire,with whom she seemed to have a type of telepathic bond, and a serious crush on Jason Raines, computer analyst contracted by Brookshire for the Learning Institute for the Extraterrestrial, a branch of Brookshire’s Research and Understanding of Supernatural Events.

Although a nuclear specialist by trade, Brookshire’s primary passion was researching parapsychology. He seemed to be a natural at it as he intruded on Sharon’s psyche in a way that felt licentious and made her feel violated. She hated to think how it would feel if Goldwire had that type of psychic hold.

“My primary interest is atoms and molecules,” Brookshire said. “The neurotransmitters in your brain are the ultimate miracle chemicals. I believe they can be tweaked to revive humans’ inert telepathic, telekinetic, clairvoyant, and pathokinetic abilities.”

Ok, so when are you going to tell me what the hell this has to do with the comet. “So a drug to give us psychic abilities,” Sharon said, unbelieving.

“Absolutely,” Brookshire said, so sure of himself that Sharon found herself starting to believe him. “I have a contract with a major pharmaceutical company. I had to marry the company’s vice-president to get the contract, but I got it.”

“I’m sure marrying a beautiful thirty-year-old was such a hardship,” Sharon said. Oh, wow. Hiring an unqualified person as a consultant for drug research. Fantastic and oh-so-responsible.

“Yeah,” Brookshire said. “Kathleen may not have loved me for my godlike good looks or my massive wealth, but she still believes in my project. Part of our divorce agreement was that my contract would still be binding with the company. In fact, Kathleen offered to forgo alimony in order to keep the research project going. A little strange, but better than losing the contract, and sure as hell better than paying alimony until Kathleen lures some other poor sucker to the altar.”

Goldwire entered. Having long since given up his attempts to seduce Sharon and her mother, he was all business. “Finch-Goldwire passed by Jupiter with only a slight pull inward. Barring any other interference, it will pass by Earth at 0.00038 AU. Very, very close for comfort, but no danger. Afterwards, once the comet reaches perihelion, it will approach the sun and be obliterated.” Goldwire’s mouth tightened. “I will be recommending to NASA that we not attempt to destroy the comet.”

“Dad would be proud of you,” Sharon muttered under her breath.

“Of more immediate concern,” Brookshire said, “is that ten pounds of enriched uranium has disappeared from the Learning Institute lab. Did Kathleen tell you that? Or is she as quiet when you’re fucking her as she was with me?”

“Marvin!” Goldwire said, scandalized. “There’s a lady present! Besides, I’m not seeing Kathleen. How many times do I have to tell you that? She’s crazy. You are aware she’s on some weird kick about the Mayan Long Count Calendar, aren’t you? It started when we were in Tikal at the potential launch site.”

“Oh, something she’s more interested in than you?,” Brookshire said sardonically. “Did you tell Kathleen you could make her explode like a supernova? I recall you using that same line on Kevin’s widow.”

“Shut up!” Sharon screamed in a sudden uncharacteristic rage. “Both of you! Just shut the hell up! Stop talking about my parents like that, and for the love of God, keep your sex lives to yourselves!”

Goldwire stared at her, amused. “You certainly have your daddy’s temper. I apologize, Ms. Finch. Marvin and I will conduct ourselves in a professional manner in your presence from now on.”

December 14, 2012. One week until #FourthLight

A group of Sharon’s colleagues snickered at her ‘Bad Romance’ ringtone. The Lady Gaga song was the ringtone for her mother’s incoming calls, an inside joke. Almost immediately after her father’s death, his creepy partner starting romancing her newly-widowed mother. But her mother didn’t call her daughter at work during a normal week unless there was an emergency; Linda Finch, herself a respected geology professor, understood how busy Sharon was in the midst of the upcoming Mayan Doomsday date.

Sharon decided to let the call go to voicemail. Linda’s calm voicemail, simply asking Sharon to call as soon as she could, indicated there was no life-threatening emergency. It was Friday afternoon after an extraordinarily stressful week, and after a quick trip to Walmart, Sharon would be headed home for a weekend of TV, pizza, and beer with her boyfriend, Jason. Even if she and her boyfriend were on less-than-great terms, he was still familiar and comfortable.

“Ga-Ga-Ooh-La-La,” one of her coworkers called after her in a singsong voice. Sharon rolled her eyes and continued walking. At that point, the last thing she cared about was her coworkers’ opinion of her ringtones. As head astrophysicist at the Learning Institute of the Extraterrestrial, she had been bombarded all week with questions from the public about the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy, which according to ancient prophecy—or one dumb bimbo trying to stir paranoia—was a week away. Sharon, on behalf of LIE, made several public statements that no evidence had been found that world would be ending next week.

Extensive studies have proven that Comet Finch-Goldwire was a safe distance away and, especially now that it was safely away from the gravitational pull of Jupiter, would not be curving inward in a week. Sharon remembered as if were yesterday; in 2009, Sharon and her team at LIE, and its parent organization, RUSE, held their breath as Finch-Goldwire entered Jupiter airspace. A gentle pull inward a slight one million miles would have spelled doom for Earth’s inhabitants, and there wouldn’t have been a thing anyone could do. But Finch-Goldwire  had a strong willpower and was able to resist the siren call of the Gas Giant. Just like her mother had resisted the advances of the admittedly handsome and intelligent Phillip Goldwire.

Sharon’s mistake was in adding that any extinction-level-event, which again had only a infinitesimally small chance of occurring, would be sudden and instantaneous with no way to see it coming. Rather that allaying fears, paranoia, and calls to LIE increased. Sharon had received threatening letters, many of which accused Sharon and her late father of lying about Finch-Goldwire. Want to verify my findings? Think you can calculate the estimated speed of a comet billions of miles away, and predict its potential deceleration in the presence of gravity, and how said deceleration will change its course? Be my guest, smartasses. Sharon, raised by her parents to be modest, scolded herself for her arrogance but was also tired of having her professional competence into question.

“Take it with a grain of salt,” Jason advised. “Ignorant people think that reading an Internet article makes them an expert.”

“I ought to tell them to direct any questions about the Mayan Doomsday event to Kathleen Brookshire. I know she’s the one who started all this shit. God only knows why, but she did. And the worst part is that I think she believes it herself.” Kathleen Brookshire was prone to bizarre obsessions, and was someone whom Sharon would have dismissed as another passenger with a first-class ticket on the Nutjob Express, but her cunning and her connections made her dangerous. Something that had already been proven by her incessant stalking of Phil Goldwire,

“Where is Kathleen these days? Still in Guatemala?”

“In Bumfuck Egypt for all I know or care. She just needs to stop lying about my dad.”

“And to Dr. Goldwire.”

“Oh, well, Goldwire’s getting what he deserves.” They both had a good laugh.

 All Sharon wanted to do was shut herself up in the apartment she shared with Jason and not come out until Monday morning. The decision when finalized when she barely stopped herself during her last speech. Anyone who believes this Mayan Doomsdays shit deserves to fall to the center of the earth, she almost said. It was only the warning glance of her boss, Dr. Marvin Brookshire, who had an uncanny knack for predicting people’s reactions, that stopped her.

Sharon went to Walmart. Even though it was normally busy on Friday afternoon, the crowds were ridiculous. Whether it was Christmas shopping, Doomsday stockpiling—as if stocking up on toilet paper and peanut butter would do one single bit of good if the world came to a sudden, catastrophic end—or a combination of both, Sharon wasn’t sure, but she had no desire to battle the crowds. As she started the car to go to the drugstore instead, she was stopped by the ping of a text notification.

“What’s up with the Fourth Light?” The text was from her mother.

“IDK. What do u mean?”

“It’s going around all over Twitter.”

“Just got off work, Mom. Haven’t been on Twitter all day.” As she pressed ‘send’ she worried she sounded too cranky. Linda was understanding, but any time Sharon got snappy with her mother, she could feel her father’s disapproval from beyond the grave. “Going to CQS. Need anything?”

“No thx. U really haven’t heard about 4thLight? I thought for sure Dr. B. would have told u something?”

“I’m not talking about the MDDP crap right now, Mom, if that’s what it’s about. Bye Love u.” Sharon turned her phone to ‘silent’ and went into the store. She found her selection: some allergy medicine Jason needed.

She and Jason had been in a tense truce since he embarrassed her at a Thanksgiving Day function. Jason, completely inebriated, made a slurred speech in which he made his opinion of Brookshire known to her coworkers.

“He’s a pompous little dumbass who writes about ghosts and UFO’s and shit to get people to open their wallets. You know what UFO stands for? It stands for Unintelligent and Fucking Obsessed.” Sharon was furious, and had threatened to break up with him after their lease expired, or any time after the 21st and the world turned out to still be on its axis. Sharon wished that a meteorite would fall out of the sky and take out both Jason and Brookshire. Killing two knuckleheaded jokers with one stone. Even better if it could knock Phil Goldwire out, too.

“You do know that pompous dumbass pays the rent, right?” Sharon said, resisting the urge to add  “…while you sit on your ass behind a computer all day.” Jason was extremely brilliant, one of the things that attracted her to him, but wasted his talent designing video games since RUSE decided not to renew his contract. As if people needed more reasons to be technology-addicted. He made half her salary—Brookshire may have been a pompous dumbass, but no one could accuse him of being stingy—forcing Sharon to shoulder most of the household bills. Lately, almost everything Jason did irritated her.

“Yeah,” Jason, barely able to stand, said nonchalantly after they left the party. As she parked the car, Jason started kissing and rubbing on her. Fending off his drunken advances, Sharon led him to bed and began searching for single-room apartments. Jason, after he sobered up, spent the last few weeks doing all he could to get their relationship back on track and win Sharon’s unconditional love back. His efforts, while well-intended, were too much sometimes.

The thought of Jason’s horny hands on her doubled her tiredness. Driving home, she began giving serious consideration to checking into the Hyatt and spending the weekend relaxing in a jacuzzi. She understood that Jason was making a genuine effort to repair their relationship, but she was craving some alone time. But the thought of even packing an overnight bag seemed daunting. Besides, she didn’t want questions from her nosy mother. She would just stick it out at home.

Jason was lounging on the couch, IPad in hand, when she walked in. “Oh, hey, babe,” he said with a smile.

“Hey,” Sharon said as she forced a smile. “I’m ordering pizza.”

“Want me to go get it?”

“Sure” Sharon said. “I’m going to call my mom real quick. Hey, Mom texted me and asked about something called Fourth Light that’s going around on Twitter. Mom doesn’t even get on Twitter very much, so whatever it is must have rattled her.” Sharon wondered as she picked up the phone what made her think of Fourth Light at that moment.

“Oh, yes!” Jason said, jumping up from the couch. “I was just about to show this to you. There’s a photo going around on not just Twitter, but every social media site, under the hashtag #FourthLight. A tourist in Guatemala City shot a photo and posted it on Twitter. You know, what people normally do when they go on vacation,” Jason said, pointing to a photo of a panoramic view of a metropolitan city. In the middle were three lights. “Some clown started the rumor that next week, a fourth light will appear and along with it, the world will end.” Jason shook his head. “The things people believe.”

“Yes, and this type of rumor-spreading isn’t helping,” Sharon said. “Now I’m going to order the pizza. If you don’t mind, I don’t want to talk about anything related to work.”

“I get it ” Jason said. “But Brookshire is probably going to ask you about it. You should probably look into it.”

“l’ll do it Monday morning. A thousand bucks says Kathleen started it,” Sharon said absently. He’s right, Sharon thought. Better to be one step ahead of the pompous dumbass. Most of the time, her boss was just a humongous pain the backside, but harmless. It was Goldwire she wished to keep at arm’s length. Anything she can do to keep him out of her office she would gladly do.

After ordering the pizza, she sent Jason out so she could look through the hashtag in peace. The circulating photo looked innocuous enough. Why anyone would think anything in the photo was a bad omen was no more than more of the same hysteria that she’s dealt with in the last few weeks. There were three bright lights in the center, it was true. They appeared to be no more than the reflection of a street light or a bad camera flash. Certainly nothing to get worked up over. Sharon saw no reason to believe that another light was going to appear in that specific spot? Sharon, again resisting the urge to speak her mind, did not add her input to the rumor. Instead, she texted her mother. “Sorry 4 cutting u off earlier. It’s been a long week. TTYL.”

****************

Sharon woke up in her bed next to Jason. She did not remember going to her room. Jason was holding her in his arms, instead of sleeping with his back turned as he usually did. Sharon gently tried to slip out of his arms, and Jason, still sleeping and sensing her movement, tried to kiss her. Great! Sharon thought tiredly. She settled back down and tried to go back to sleep, but sleep did not come. Sharon closed her eyes and saw the three lights from the #FourthLight photo. I can’t get away from this bullshit no matter what, she thought irritably. She glanced at the clock. It said 4:44. Of course. Even the fucking clock is mocking me. She realized she needed to go to the bathroom, so she pried Jason’s arms off of her and got out of bed.

*****************

An ear-splitting noise accompanied by screaming. Sharon opened her eyes and saw the earth open up and swallow everyone who had the bad luck to be in the way. A woman diving into the hole in a desperate but vain attempt to save her young son, who had fallen in. An entire apartment building sliding back into the opening. This is the first light, a booming voice from the sky told her.

***********************

Sharon could hardly believe the scene in front of her. Reporters in Guatemala City swarmed the damaged area, a sinkhole that was around eighty feet across and two hundred feet length-wise. According to one reporter, the sinkhole was the largest manmade disaster in recent Guatemalan history. The underground plumbing system, overstressed by unusually heavy rains, had been slowly degrading. The contaminated water had been seeping into the underground pumice stone for months. “Guatemala is sitting in quicksand,” one reporter said, adding that reports of a woman known only as Guadalupe H. dove into the hole after her three-year-old son had fallen in. Another reporter stated that the fall of the Azucenas Apartment Complex occurred late at night when most people would have been asleep. “At least they didn’t feel any pain,” the reporter said as her colleague glared at her. The general consensus was that no one inside of Azucenas or any of the other residences along the block in Zona 3 would have survived the plunge into the three-hundred-foot hole.

It was her nightmare, viewable from the safety of her living room. All that was missing was the ominous voice.

She hadn’t noticed Jason had left until he came in with coffee, fruit, and some cheese pastries. “Thought you could use something to eat,” Jason said, smiling sheepishly. “I got your favorite: peppermint hot chocolate.” Invigorated by the breakfast and Jason’s kindness, Sharon logged on to her computer to investigate the latest #FourthLight updates. It was more of the same but as the hour progressed, the news of the sinkhole near the area where the lights appeared picked up traction. By noon, it was all anyone was talking about. How was I able to dream about this? But she already knew; her gift of prophecy, passed on to her by her father, was both a gift and a curse.

“I’m going to see what Brookshire wants me to do about this,” she told Jason as she called him up.

An hour later, she was standing on the steps of LIE’s headquarters. Dr. Brookshire was on her right. Although Sharon in general not only believed in the paranormal-having experienced it personally from a young age-and enthusiastically supported RUSE’s studies, she believed Dr. Brookshire was more an expert at getting young, dumb gold-diggers to keep him warm at night. Since Kathleen left, her boss had become as much a skirt-chaser as Goldwire. Shouldn’t he be here? Sharon thought. Not that she was eager to see her father’s partner. It was just strange that he was apparently unavailable to address the #FourthLight trend.

“The unfortunate incident in Guatemala City is indeed tragic,” Sharon said to a crowd-of paranoid imbeciles—surrounding the stairs of the RUSE headquarters. “However, after making some calls, I learned that the sewer system under Guatemala City had been so badly degraded that a collapse was inevitable. More interestingly, the Director of Public Works, Oscar Quintanilla, was found dead in his office today, with a single gunshot wound to the head. The only other comment I could get from my contact in Guatemala was that Quintanilla may have been involved with corruption, but he declined to elaborate. We will of course keep you up-to-date on anything we find. In the meantime, please get your Christmas shopping done because I can personally guarantee that we will all still be here after the 21st.” Without looking back, Sharon passed the microphone over her shoulder. Brookshire would have something to add, no doubt, but Sharon’s part was over and she had no intention of lingering any longer than needed. Maybe some of her weekend could be salvaged.

Brookshire cleared his throat. “I apologize, folks, that the stress of recent events has diminished the capacity of Dr. Sharon Finch, our most valued researcher, to speak with more tact and grace.”

“Excuse me?” Sharon turned sharply and met his cold gaze.

“Dr. Finch is not normally this lacking in basic compassion. She has been under tremendous stress trying to vet the evidence presented to us, and I do take responsibility for putting the task of sorting through such an enormous mountain of information on her and her dedicated team. I have been giving serious consideration to naming a co-chair to relieve her of some of the burden,” Brookshire’s cold eyes reflected his intended message clearly: shape up or you’re out on your ass. She tried to recall exactly when the breakdown of their professional relationship occurred. She never felt fully comfortable in his presence, but attributed that to her association of Brookshire with her father’s untimely death. He had been a constant presence at her house in the days leading up to his death, but it wasn’t in an intrusive way. It was like he was holding a vigil. She wondered if Brookshire had dreamed of her father’s death in the same way she’d dreamed about the sinkhole. And if so, why hadn’t he warned them? “Nonetheless, based on our preliminary findings, the information is factually accurate. The sinkhole in Guatemala City does appear to be the result of an infrastructure failure, and the Director of Public Works was found dead in his office by what local police say it is self-inflicted gunshot wound.” Brookshire flushed deeply, as if admitting to a shameful secret.

I’ll be evicted before I let that asshole push me around, Sharon, suddenly furious, thought as she firmly took hold of the microphone. “Actually,” she said to the crowd, “The Guatemalan government has authorized me to release the news of the cause of the disaster, and the news of Mr. Quintanilla’s death, to the public. We do not know at this time what were the circumstances that caused him to decide to take his life, but on behalf of RUSE, I have sent my condolences to the family. We are not without heart, nor do we take the concerns of the public lightly. My purpose for coming out here today is to assure everyone that we have no reason to believe that the sinkhole or the #FourthLight photo is indicative of impending disaster.”

Someone in the crowd raised his hand. “Have you traced the source of the photo?”

Sharon gave her silent thanks to Jason for the warning to arm herself with information. “Yes,” she replied. “RUSE has traced the original poster to a tourist in Guatemala who took the photo from Carraterra a El Salvador. We are declining to release the tourist’s identity. To do so, we fear, would lead to the individual being harassed.” You owe me, you bastard, Sharon said in her mind to Brookshire. She had decided to save the poster’s identity—Kathleen Brookshire, her boss’s ex-wife—for a more opportune time, though she suspected he already knew. Kathleen had been living in Guatemala for a few years now. “We have not yet had the chance to find the source of the #FourthLight rumors. But folks,” Sharon ignored Brookshire’s glare and spoke from the heart. “If we all work together and resist the urge to participate in rumor-spreading, we can go a long way towards preventing the spread of false information and fear-mongering.” She granted Brookshire a slight smug grin. She had put him in his place. But her victory was short-lived.

“It looks like you had a long night. Bad dreams?” Brookshire matched her smugness. Sharon jumped back as if her boss had transformed into a deadly cobra. Sharon suddenly wished she had a magic carpet so she could get the fuck out of that place. She felt a shudder of revulsion as she imagined him tapping into her unconscious mind. Suddenly, she longed to be back in Jason’s arms as she was last night. Safe. In her own bed. Where no one had access to her private thoughts.

“I don’t dream,” she replied tersely as she watched the crowd disperse.

“Ok,” Brookshire said innocently. “Your dad told me you’re an Aetheros. A prophetess whose gift was given by the power of the cosmos. Just like he was.” Sharon fought back tears; Brookshire’s mention of her father was like ripping the scab off a wound that had only begun to heal. Yes, she knew she was an Aetheros. She also knew Brookshire was, too. The Aetheros could identify each other on sight. Aside from her father and Brookshire, Sharon had never met another one.

“Dad made me promise not to use my psychic energy except in emergencies,” Sharon said, and it was true. “I have no intention of breaking my promise to Dad, so kindly stay out of my dreams.”

“Unlimited psychic potential energy,” Brookshire elaborated with a look of admiration that appeared to be peppered with a hunger Sharon’s couldn’t pinpoint. Is this a line he uses to get women in bed? Because if it is, he needs to call Goldwire for some pointers.” But Sharon wasn’t detecting lust. There was something else, something had seen many times in RUSE’s benefactor.

He was viewing Sharon as a subject to be studied. In a way, Sharon wished he was picturing her naked instead.

“Actually, we may have a bit of a situation on our hands, Sharon.  If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to interview you today. Maybe over lunch if you have time. My treat.” Ah, hell no! First he invades my dreams, then he makes me look stupid in front of a crowd. He name-drops my dad, and now he asks me on a date? This fucker’s got some nerve. Well, guess what? Dad taught me to manipulate dreams, too. Let’s see how much you like dreaming about being trapped in a locker room with Jeffrey Dahmer. “Let’s get a few things straight, Dr. Brookshire,” she said angrily. “First, you and I are not on a first-name basis. And second, I am not a project or a case study, and I am certainly not one of you side chicks. And if you ever embarrass me like that again, or try to bring up my dad to manipulate me, you’ll have more than a ‘bit of’ a situation on your hands. Your bits and your hands, along with the rest of your body, will feel like they were burning in fire hotter than Hell every second of every day. I’m sure Dad also told you I was pathokinetic.”

“He did,” Brookshire appeared completely unfazed by her threat. “We do have a major threat, and you should know that your dad—“

“And another thing: if you knew about these events ahead of time, why didn’t you warn anyone?”

“I didn’t. I can only read dreams, not cause them, and only after the dreamer is awake, when the dream is stored in short-term memory.”

“Whatever,” Sharon said as she turned her back and walked off. She couldn’t believe she was having this conversation. “Just stay out of my dreams, will you?”

“You’ll change your mind,” Brookshire said coolly. “And when you do, come see me.”

*****************

Monday afternoon Sharon left the RUSE office in inexplicably high spirits. Her nightmare, the humiliating press conference, and her confrontation with Dr. Brookshire seemed like nothing more than a distant memory. Walking away from Brookshire on Saturday had granted her a strange sense of release. The #FourthLight photo, of which rumors were spreading faster than ever, was nothing more than another item in her to-do list. When she got home, she checked her voicemail, and heard a message from her mother expressing her understanding at the stress of the situation and offering to take her and Jason out to dinner. She found that discussing the #FourthLight rumors or other Mayan Doomsday topics didn’t invoke the same sense of unease that it had before. The thrill of gaining the upper hand on Dr. Brookshire was exhilarating, and only tempered by the sinking sensation that, again, her victory would be snatched from her as embarrassingly as it had at the conference. She decided to let it go for the present and for once, enjoy a relaxing dinner.

Monday, Brookshire was out of the office. His secretary explained he had an emergency that required him to be out of town for the week. Sharon was irritated at his cowardice but more than that, she was relieved that she could get through the remaining days until the Doomsday event without his interference. Before leaving for work on Monday, she asked Jason to use his computer skills to trace the source of the #FourthLight photo, knowing full well that she was potentially compromising the investigation. In spite of her high spirits, she was anxious to get home so she can see what Jason found out. She was also preoccupied thinking of a way to keep Jason from the legal consequences of his snooping.

Her good mood came to a screeching halt the moment she walked in the door and saw the expression of helplessness on Jason’s face.

“Which do you want first? The good news or the bad news?” Jason asked.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“I have to be straight with you, Sharon. It appears that Marvin Brookshire himself started the #FourthLight rumors?”

“That doesn’t surprise me.” Sharon knew there was more to the story. If this was the only bad news, Brookshire would soon be exposed as a fraud and the whole thing would be over by next weekend.

“The first #FourthLight posts were started by seven Twitter accounts within minutes of each other. I can’t trace the IP addresses, unfortunately, so my guess is a proxy server. Though whoever used it and the sock-puppet Twitter accounts isn’t very skilled. I was able to trace the general location. Two originated here in town, three from Guatemala City, and two from Japan. I can’t directly link the original Twitter posts under #FourthLight, so if Brookshire is behind it—and I’ll explain in a moment why I believe he is—he is working in cahoots with someone in other countries.

“What else did you find?”

“An email, dated December 10th. Someone is posing as the mayor of Guatemala City. He emailed Oscar Quintanilla and asked him about the inspections on the city’s sewage system,” Jason pointed out the email in question. “Here you can see that Quintanilla responded that the pipes were in catastrophic condition and recommended the evacuation of the city block so the city could make the needed repairs. I was able to identify the IP address of the mayor’s office by sending him an innocuous email. That email was sent by a web-based email address connected to one of the false Twitter accounts. It originated somewhere in Guatemala but not the mayor’s office,” Jason said, shaking his head. “How did the Guatemalan authorities miss this?”

“Jason, it’s only been two days. A full investigation hasn’t been conducted. What else?”

“Here, on the 11th, the same person, still posing as the mayor, offered Quintanilla 100,000 quetzales—that’s about 12,000 US dollars—to ignore the findings, citing the potential for panic and the cost of replacing the damaged plumbing. But that’s not all. Whoever sent that email paid the money directly from Brookshire’s personal account. Either Brookshire is incredibly stupid, careless with his finances, or he’s part of the scheme. Which do you think?”

“Shit, Jason, you know what? Screw it. I don’t care if I go to jail. Somebody has to stop him.”

“That’s what I’m saying. We can stop him and keep our own noses clean. As it turns out, Brookshire may be just about to hang himself. He bought a plane ticket to Guatemala City. He landed there early this morning, based on the flight number.”

“What can we do?” Sharon asked, fighting to control her panic. She had known Brookshire to be a bombastic ass-clown, but not a murderer.

“I’ve already leaked the news about Quintanilla’s corruption and the involvement of identity thieves,” Jason said. “And I’ve specifically directed my anonymous tweets to Guatemala City’s administrative staff, and notified the mayor— discreetly. I can use web proxies, too—of the illegal activity taking place under his name. At this point there is nothing more we can do, unless he attempts another mind-fuck on you tonight. If he does, tell me and I’ll tweet out the warnings that he’s about to do something horrific.” Sharon froze. Mind-fuck. More like mind-rape. That was exactly the term she’d been looking for to describe Brookshire’s invasion of her dreams. For the present, she was grateful that Jason was taking her seriously. He was no believer in the supernatural, and as such, Sharon refrained from telling him about her and her father’s status as Aetheros. Maybe there is hope of restoring this relationship after all. “Right now, I don’t think there’s much else we can do.”

“So what’s the good news?” Sharon asked flatly.

Jason looked slightly hurt. “If all goes well, I may be able to reverse the damage Brookshire or whoever is hiding behind him has caused, and help you put an end to the #FourthLight bullshit. And something else. Based on her Facebook profile, Kathleen Brookshire is currently in a relationship with a Guatemalan man named Enrique Flores. Geez! You know what they say about birds of a feather.”

“Or about killing two with one,” Sharon said, smiling, remembering how just days earlier, she had wished Jason dead by blunt-force trauma of cosmic origin. “What about Phil Goldwire?”

“I wish I could say I’ve found a butt-load of evidence of his involvement, but unfortunately, there’s nothing connecting him.”

“Where is he?”

“There’s no telling with him.”

“Thanks, Jason. You’re a fucking genius,” Sharon said to hide her disappointment.

“Well, I don’t know about ‘genius’ but I really like the ‘fucking’ part,” Jason replied with a lascivious grin.

*******************

A blinding flash, followed by an intense heat wave that nearly knocked her over onto the pavement. Sharon, watching from the curb across the street, stood paralyzed as the building burst into flames. A few people, wrapped in bed linens, managed to escape, but others who were not so fortunate ran screaming from the building, their bodies engulfed in flames. One person—Sharon couldn’t tell if the person was male or female—got about twenty feet before collapsing on the ground and writhing, rolling around in a desperate attempt to put out the fire. Sharon looked at the building sign: The Auto-Hotel Omega. This is the second light.

*****************

“Why didn’t you wake me?” Sharon tried not to sound accusing.

“Sorry, I fell asleep,” Jason said. It was just past three in the morning. They watched the terrible scene stream live as firefighters struggled to contain the blazing inferno that engulfed the Auto-Hotel Omega. The cause of the fire was still uncertain, according to reporters. It was estimated that two hundred people were inside. Sharon knew that going back to sleep wouldn’t be happening, so she started a pot of coffee.

“And…the news of the fire has already gone viral under #FourthLight. Holy crap! It hasn’t even been fifteen minutes. How many people are up at this hour to watch this trend?” Jason said from the living room.

“Apparently, all of Brookshire’s hysterical followers.”

“Yep. Photos, videos, you name it. It’s all here for the world to see. Hey, did you know that an auto-hotel in Guatemala is specifically for customers wanting to meet secret lovers?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“It’s the exact kind of place where people like Kathleen Brookshire hook up with their boy toys,” Jason said. “Might explain why Brookshire would have wanted it burned to the ground. It was a bad reminder of how he got, well, burned.”

“Is it known if Kathleen was a guest there?” Even as Sharon said it, she realized the awful truth. The person she had seen drop to the ground to be consumed by the flames was Enrique Flores, Kathleen’s much-younger lover. The vision was as clear in her mind as it was when she was experiencing it. Enrique looked into Sharon’s eyes just before the life went out in them. “Guatemala’s still dealing with the sinkhole corruption scandal. This is not just insult to injury. It’s like kicking someone in the ribs after you’ve punched them to the ground.” She poured two cups of coffee and took them into the living room, where the carnage was displayed before her on the laptop screen. Just like with the sinkhole, the scene was completely identical to how it played out in her dream.

“What do you think of getting the word out that Brookshire burned down the Omega?” Jason asked.

“I would hold off,” Sharon said. “You’ve accused him of bribing an official, something that resulted in the latter’s suicide, and yet he’s barely been mentioned under #FourthLight. Let’s get something more substantial before we start adding to the madness.”

“What do you have in mind?” Before Sharon could respond, Jason said, “Son of a bitch!”

“What is it?” Sharon called out, panicked.

“Uh…you may want to take a look at this.”

***********************

December 20th. Twenty-four hours to projected doomsday event.

“Let’s be logical about this,” Linda said as the first light of dawn illuminated the sky. “A nuclear bomb is not something anyone, let alone a little weasel like Marvin Brookshire, can just strap on his back and hike up a mountain with.”

“Why would Brookshire and his ex-wife be working together on anything, let alone a maniacal plan to bring about the end of the world. It’s just not adding up.”

“Honey, putting a nuclear bomb in a volcano–” Linda began before letting out a horrified gasp. “That crazy son of a bitch!”

“What?” Sharon asked anxiously.

“A nuclear bomb in the Pacayo Volcano, one of the major players of the Central American Volcanic Arc,” Linda said. “Do you know what type of seismic chain reaction that would cause if his plan were to somehow come to fruition? We’re talking volcano eruptions, super-volcano eruptions like the one in Yellowstone, earthquakes, tsunamis. And all over the globe, extending north and south from Central America. That would be a true doomsday event.”

“But again, how would Brookshire be planning to drop a bomb in a volcano? As you said, those things aren’t exactly travel-sized,” Jason said.

“I don’t know,” Sharon said. “But he was able to bribe a government official into letting hundreds of people drop into the earth and then set fire to the Omega. Although rumors are going all over the Internet, Brookshire has yet to be implicated for any crime. The comet that was giving a butterfly-kiss to the earth before speeding on by has almost become secondary. Brookshire’s got everyone talking about the Omega fire and the comet has barely been mentioned….oh, fuck!” Sharon felt her chest tighten, but managed to get the words out. “Brookshire’s plan is for the widespread earthquakes to knock the earth off its axis, right back into the path of Finch-Goldwire! And somehow he’s coerced his ex-wife into being his accessory.” A vision of her father in his last days flashed in her mind. She fought to maintain her composure as she saw him in her mind’s eye. In his life, Kevin Finch had been an imposing man who commanded respect. He had been average-looking, especially compared to Goldwire, but he more than made up for his unmemorable appearance with his charisma. By the time he died, he was a wild-eyed man, barely 120 pounds, with large purple bags his eyes who sat babbling incoherently. “How did Dad die?”

“Heart attack,” Linda said. “An autopsy revealed he had taken massive doses of amphetamines. Your dad never did drugs in his life. I always suspected the Brookshires poisoned him, too, but I couldn’t ever prove it.”

“Not poisoned,” Sharon said softly. “Dad was trying to stay awake. The prophetic dreams of things to come, and the betrayal from those in his inner circle, must have been torture for him.” Sharon, emotional, allowed herself the luxury of a few tears for her deceased father as Linda and Jason comforted her.

“All of this sound so outrageous. How would it benefit Brookshire to end the world?” Linda said.

“The last word,” Sharon said.  “He’d been an object of ridicule among the scientific community for years. This way he can go out with a literal bang and take the rest of the world with him. I don’t know if he actually plans to drop a dirty bomb into the volcano or he’s just giving his poor ex a delusional rant, but considering all the people he’s already killed with his own hands, I would rather err on the side of assuming the mega-eruption of Pacayo and the subsequent widespread loss of life is the Third Light, and that Comet Finch-Goldwire is the Fourth Light. As for Kathleen, I’m not quite certain of her motivation to play along, unless he’s got something on her that she’d rather die than have anyone know about. Mom, did you bring that Ambien I asked you for? It’s time to fight hellfire with hellfire.”

***********************

Sharon was a little concerned that the sleeping pills would diminish her psychic energy. She’d left her mother and boyfriend behind as she entered the dream domain, confident that they were carefully monitoring all activity under #FourthLight and trying to dig up as much evidence of Brookshire’s Armageddon antics as they could. Linda was also looking into current seismic activity of Pacayo to see how feasible Brookshire’s alleged plan really was, and if so, who was going to help him.

Sharon doubted that Brookshire would be asleep. He usually wasn’t at this hour of the morning on a normal day. Something like tossing a nuke into a simmering volcano that required coordination on a large scale would leave him with no time for a nap. The dream-hunt quest was a long shot and she knew it already. But fortunately she had a back-up plan.

Her father, an Aetheros much more powerful than Brookshire, had taught Sharon the art of pathokinesis. He could use his psychic energy to make people feel what he wanted them to feel, a key factor in NASA’s decision not to blow up Finch-Goldwire. Sharon wondered as she fell asleep why he didn’t use his pathokinesis to make Brookshire fall into a suicidal depression, and wondered if the drug use and lack of sleep reduced his psychic capacities. She was hoping against hope that she hadn’t trapped herself in the dream domain at the mercy of Brookshire and anyone else who would care to torment her. She wasn’t taking the chance that the emails Jason had discovered were mere fantasy on Brookshire’s part, and if he were truly capable of such destructive acts against humanity, which Sharon believed him to be, then this was her only chance to stop him.

Pathokinesis was much more effective when the dreamer was asleep and thus free of distractions. The electrical activity in the brain during the third stage of sleep was optimal for the task that lay ahead of her. The sleeping pills had the added benefit of delaying REM sleep, before her physical body became paralyzed and her mind’s eye filled with surrealistic visions. She had to act quickly.

Once in Stage 3 of her sleep cycle, the next step was to select her target and use her psychic energy to manipulate the target’s neurotransmitter levels. It didn’t take long for her to locate Brookshire in what her father had called her mental address book. She had to decide quickly what she wanted to do. Bottom out his GABA levels so he suffered a debilitating panic attack? Cut his serotonin so he was so overcome by guilt and hopelessness that he lost the ability to plan? Block his dopamine receptors so he felt no motivation to do anything? Sharon had never done anything like this before. Her father had taught her the ways of pathokinesis after making her swear she would never use them in a vindictive manner.

Acting before guilt could stop her, Sharon decided to do all three. Using all her psychic energy, she cut off all the neurons in Brookshire’s brain and for good measure, sealed off the neurotransmitter receptors. He would be essentially in a vegetative state until Sharon released him, if she ever did. Sharon watched in pleasure as electrical activity in Brookshire’s brain slowed so it was only sufficient to keep him alive. It may already be too late—the bomb may already be en route to the volcano, if not inside it—but Brookshire would never have the pleasure of seeing his well-coordinated plan put into action. As her vision became more fuzzy, indicating REM sleep was approaching, Sharon cut off the last of Brookshire’s neurotransmitter supply. At the last minute, she decided to repeat the process in Kathleen. As Sharon only met her twice, years ago, it took longer to find her in her address book, but she did so on time, albeit clumsily. Kathleen would be more coherent. Before succumbing to the paralysis of REM sleep, Sharon put one final touch on her masterpiece: she made it so Kathleen would see the vision of Enrique burning alive for as long as Sharon held her neurons hostage. Satisfied, she allowed herself to give in to the haze of REM.

*******************

“Wake up!” Jason and Linda were shaking her roughly.

“What’s the matter?” Sharon asked sleepily.

“Here, honey,” Linda said as she shoved another sleeping pill in Sharon’s mouth.

“There’s been new developments,” Jason said, showing her his Ipad screen, allowing her to read through it quickly. “You need to get to Brookshire and demand an explanation for why he didn’t go to authorities. And why he’s trying to stop them himself.”

“If there is a bomb inside of Pacayo,” Linda said, shaking the bottle of pills. “We’re screwed. It’s better if we split up this bottle and sleep through the inevitable end.”

****************

“Dr. Finch! Please!” Brrokshire said groggily. Sharon had temporarily released him from his neural bindings.  Brookshire’s haughty demeanor had abandoned him. Well, well, well. The Almighty Marvin Brookshire is begging for my help. Let’s see how he plans to talk his way out of this one. “You have to let me go. Otherwise, you’re the only one who can stop them.”

“I came to stop you,” Sharon said. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“I was thinking about stopping Kathleen from placing the homemade bomb she made from the stolen uranium into Pacayo,” Brookshire said. “She may be crazy, but she’s no idiot. All the time she was working in my lab, she was studying my every move, and learned how to create a crude nuclear bomb. When someone on staff informed me that someone was posing on Twitter as me, I knew instantly Kathleen was behind it, so I kept a discreet eye. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want her to know I was onto her. She thinks I’m the biggest fool, and I let her think that. It would make it more likely she would walk into a trap.”

“I don’t get it,” Sharon said. “Why would Kathleen want to destroy the planet?”

“Phil tried to dodge her. I don’t know if he was trying to end a previous affair or rebuff her advances. I tend to believe the first; it’s not like Phil to pass up such an opportunity. Not that it matters now. In any case, Phil got tired of her continuous stalking and harassment. He finally told her, in front of everyone at the office, ‘If you and I were the last two people on Earth, I wouldn’t be with you.’ Your dad laughed his ass off. You should have seen it.”

“How long after that did Dad die?”The pieces were starting to slowly come together in Sharon’s mind.

“It was a while later. Kevin and Phil were contracted by NASA to find a way to avert the disaster. Kathleen went along. We were already divorced by that time, but she still worked as my assistant. I entrusted them with ten pounds of pre-enriched uranium to build very small versions of nuclear missiles to conduct field tests. That was my first mistake. They set up a small scale-lab in Guatemala, which would have been the launch site if needed. Because of the sensitive nature of these tests, they had to be conducted in secret. And less than a month into the trial, the uranium vanished. I don’t believe your father or Phil stole it. I believe Kathleen did it. ”

“And when exactly were you planning to tell authorities about this? Jason found out easily just by hacking the fake email accounts. Which brings me to the crux of the matter: who is Kathleen working with? Unless she is emailing herself, she has a partner in her grandiose schemes.”

“I would say Enrique Flores, but he was confirmed dead in the fire at the hotel,” Brookshire said. “Sorry, but I don’t know.”

“Marvin, please tell me the truth,” Sharon was almost begging.

“I swear to you, I am.” Should I believe him? The look of pain in his eyes told Sharon he was telling the truth.

“Anything else you want to tell me?”

“Yes,” Brookshire said. He did, and Sharon returned him to his neural lockdown. She quickly looked up Phil Goldwire in her mental address book.

“Sharon!” he screamed in stupefied terror.

“You poisoned my father, you bastard,” she said. “You couldn’t stand that my mother chose him over you. Of all the women you seduced, you couldn’t stand the one who got away.”

“No!” Goldwire said. “Look, I’m an arrogant asshole. I’ll be the first to admit it. But kill your father? No way! Aside from the fact that I have the utmost respect for both of your parents, Kevin was too valuable to our mission to prevent the comet from colliding with the earth to kill him.”

“Who do you think you’re fooling? Finch-Goldwire was deemed by NASA to be no danger to Earth and all plans to destroy it with nuclear weapons were abandoned after Dad died. If I recall correctly, the decision to call off the nuclear blast was at your recommendation. Why is that? So you could use the stolen uranium for yourself?”

“I don’t have the fucking uranium!” Goldwire shouted. “Jesus Christ! How many fucking times do I have to say it?” He pounded his hands in frustration. “Her pussy wasn’t even all that great! Now I got stuck with this crazy bitch up my ass all the motherfucking time!” He’s a complete psychopath, Sharon thought, preparing her mental energy to put him under mental lockdown.

“That’s Kathleen, right?” Sharon asked.

“You have no idea how long I’ve been trying to get rid of her,” Goldwire said. “But I couldn’t just ignore her. Soon after we came back, she poisoned Kevin. Bought a shitload of Adderall from Enrique Flores. She told me ‘Linda’s next, and then Sharon.’ I have no family, Sharon. Your father was like a brother to me. I couldn’t risk your lives. It was no big secret that your dad and I did not agree on the best way to deal with the comet threat. That made it easy to believe I killed him so I would have the final say in the recommendation to NASA.”

“Oh. I’m an only child, as you know. So please enlighten me: is it normal for brothers to hit on each other’s wives?”

“Sharon, that was fake. Linda had the idea that if I pretended to lust after her, we could make Kathleen go berserk and expose herself as the psycho she really is. But…she just walked off. Which was odd. Until she turned up in Guatemala, where I was living until the matter of the missing uranium was resolved.”

Sharon chuckled. “Marvin has the uranium. He hid it in a safe place and replaced what Kathleen had stolen with inert natural uranium. Her bomb is going to be useless, and she’s going to prison for murder for both the sinkhole incident and the Omega fire. If you don’t want to share her fate, you better speak up now.”

***********************

March 4, 2017.

Sharon was sitting at her favorite restaurant in her favorite booth, sipping wine. Jason was on her right, her mother on her left. Brookshire and Goldwire, having been granted immunity in exchange for their testimony in the inquest, were sitting across from them.

“You know, today Finch-Goldwire reaches perihelion. In less than an hour, it will dissolve into vapor and no longer exist,” Brookshire said. “And the best part is we’ll get a beautiful light show when it happens.

“Good riddance,” Goldwire said. “I never thought a ball of ice and gas would cause so much trouble.”

“Phil, it was your own balls that got you in trouble,” Linda said.

“Mom!” Sharon said in a protesting tone. “So the FBI completed the investigation into the #FourthLight hashtag and the sock-puppet emails. They’re certain it was Enrique Flores and Kathleen Brookshire acting alone? Who was the sender in Japan?”

“A gullible follower of mine whom Kathleen tricked into playing along,” Brookshire said. “No worries. He isn’t being charged with any crimes. Neither is my secretary, whom Kathleen tricked into sending the false emails from here in town and paying Oscar Quintanilla to ignoring the report of the dangerous plumbing.”

“I think Kathleen got off too easily,” Jason said. Sharon tensed, hoping to God he would not go off on another tipsy rant.

“I agree,” Goldwire added. “Taking the coward’s way out instead of answering for her crimes.” Kathleen’s purse was found on the edge of Pacayo. Her body was never found, and it was presumed that she had had jumped into the volcano when her bomb failed to detonate. Further evidence suggested that she had built a fallout shelter in Guatemala for herself and Goldwire. It appeared she took his comment about them being the last two people on earth as a challenge.

On her third glass of wine, Sharon gave in to the luxury of one of her favorite memories of her father. She was eight years old, and he had taken her to see Aladdin. Because he was always away from home, spending time with him was a rare treat.

“That’s who I want you to be like, Sharon,” Kevin told her. “Aladdin may be rough around the edges but he’s loyal, kind-hearted, and true to himself. This world will have plenty of Jafars, who will come at you like giant snakes and try to bring you down. Just be yourself, and you will see right through people like that. You understand?”

“Yes, Dad,” she said softly as she finished her wine.

“What?’ Linda said.

“Sharon, you’re crying. Are you alright?”

“Yes, I’m fine. Just a little emotional.”

“Hey, look!” Jason said. “They looked out the window and saw a spectacular cosmic firework display. When other patrons of the restaurant stepped out on the restaurant’s outside deck, Sharon and her group followed. Watching Comet Finch-Goldwire go out in a fiery display was the most beautifully breathtaking thing Sharon had ever seen. From somewhere deep in the cosmos, she heard her father for the final time. Always follow your heart, Sharon, and everything will be okay. You’re a shooting star.

“Goodbye, Dad,” she whispered. “I love you.”