(NOTE: A hearty shout-out goes out to Deref and Thea Zara in this fic; I reference the events of their series All My Children within.)
ZERO HOUR: 00:07:00
Claire Defoe ambled down the hall to the bedroom she and her soon-to-be husband, Anthony Demartino, had only begun to share six months ago. Talk about timing. The first night we spent together in his – our – house, I catch the silver bullet. Maybe I shouldn't talk about bullets...
The gently beautiful woman's thoughts drifted to Anthony's basement – far, far larger than anyone would have imagined, and set up to act as a long-duration bomb shelter – and the cache of weapons he had down there, along with ammunition and the means to handload his own ammo. The war made him more fearful than people realize, not crazy; no wonder he never seemed to have money – he put in all in the house, pun certainly intended – and after his book sold last year, he added more. If people actually knew what he has twenty feet below the surface – or how we could probably live for years down there...
Blushing as she thought about the actor Brendan Frazer (who she'd always been attracted to and had all of his films on DVD, even bootlegs), Claire thought about the comedy where his family lived underground in a bomb shelter. Thank God my baby won't ever have to live like that, she said, breathing a sigh of relief. I'll be able to talk some sense into Tony, after the baby's here. He'll see that there's protective, and overprotective-
A look of surprise crossed the former teacher's face as she looked to the other end of the hall, where a morbidly obese woman stood. "Claire, there's isn't much time. I – you're the only person I felt I should warn."
"Hilda? Hilda, what are you doing here?"
The look on Hilda Johanssen's face was confused for a moment. "Oh! That's right – the Glamour! Sorry-"
Claire almost fell over as the appearance of Mrs. Johanssen changed dramatically; the obese woman suddenly became a tiny, classically beautiful brunette with crystal-blue eyes (that reminded her of Jane Lane, she thought) and a figure the frumpy jumpsuit she wore couldn't hide. "I'm sorry, Claire," the young woman said, her accent that of a young woman raised in Southern 'high society' as a 'young woman of means and distinction'. "South Carolina."
The young woman's eyes widened. "Yes – until I turned fourteen and I was sent to Grove Hills. It's the curse of being beautiful and intelligent in equally, and astoundingly, large measure. I came to help you – and we only have a couple of minutes. Listen closely."
The young woman held out her right hand - on which she wore a plain silver ring – and the entire area was suddenly engulfed in a purplish-white light! "What's happening?" Claire said, stumbling and almost falling when she felt something holding her up.
"I'm sorry I've scared you," the young woman said, and Claire's fear immediately dissipated as a blue flash came from her ring. "Look, this won't last long and you've got an open mind. Please listen and don't talk much. Your life and the lives of Anthony and your baby are on the line."
"Who are you?"
"My name's Vidalia Johannsen – like the onion. Just call me 'Vi'. In another universe, I'm one of the nieces of the woman you know. I took her place almost two years ago to watch over things here in Lawndale."
The dinner that she recently had with Jane Lane immediately came to Claire's mind. "You're here to watch the Legion. They all have powers like Jane?"
"You always were quicker than people believed," Vi observed.. "The world as you know it is about to end, Claire. The people I work for – the ones that sent me here to watch the Legionnaires – have said that we can't stop it from happening, but we can help to save as many people as we can, and that 'we can act to save the species'. As far as I'm concerned, the best way for me to do that is to do this."
Vi held out her clenched fist, and when she opened it, a ring identical to the one she wore rested on her palm. "You were always kind to me, Claire," she said. "In the time I was here – I took my aunt's counterpart's place here; I used my Ring to give her a new life on another world, you'd be surprised what the Elixor of Life can do – you were the only person who made an effort to see beyond the weight and to who I was as a person. Not that being overweight is okay, but you know what I mean. You were the only person who tried to be friendly to me."
"You were – are – a nice person."
Vi smiled as she held up the Ring. "Thank you. This... is a Defender Ring. It's going to allow you to do a world of incredible things. You'll be able to protect Anthony and the baby and many other people; you'll be able to heal them, feed them, provide them with shelter and help them in so many ways – if you have to, you'll even be able to take them to a safe place on other worlds. If you take it."
"What's the downside, Hilda – Vi?"
"For you, I don't think there will be," she told the pregnant woman. "You're going to be busy helping people survive and rebuild on this Earth, so you won't be called to go anywhere else. You'll find out that there are things that you can't do, even with the Ring, and that sometimes, Hobson's Choice tars and feathers Murphy's Law before running it out of town. If you take the Ring."
Claire looked around the hallway. "What's happening right now?"
"A trick I learned – right now, we're just outside space and time, riding the edge between seconds," Vi said. "I can do this for about three hours, if my Ring's on a full charge – it uses up energy like crazy – but right now, the entire planet, except for other Ringbearers – is in a state of temporal stasis. Whether you take the Ring or not, I figure I have more than enough time to make sure that you and your new family will always be safe."
The Ring sat in Vi's outstretched hand; Claire reached out and took it. "I won't let anything hurt my family."
ZERO HOUR: 00:06:59
The underground chamber Vi had created was the size of two football fields set side-by-side; the DeMartino house was seated near the middle, surrounded by trees and other vegetation, with a large pond at the north end of the chamber, one easily big enough to swim in.
Claire saw a fish flick its tail as it dove under the waters; she turned and looked upwards to see the glowing orbs that lit the entire chamber. "You'll learn how to make the orbs," Vi said, running her left hand through the cool waters of the pond. "They're perfect for the plants, and they'll brighten and dim automatically to duplicate the Sun moving through the sky. You'll be safe down here – no one can get in unless you let them in, and with your Ring, you can always maintain the entire area – more water, keeping things healthy... you know, if there's anyone else that you trust, you can let them live down here, too. You can maintain a number of people here, and with the Ring, you can maintain the peace."
The two women looked back at the house, where Anthony DeMartino still lay asleep. "I've got about five minutes more before I have to drop the stasis field, Claire," Vi said, looking around. "The Ring will teach you all you need to know about what it can do."
"No; it gives your subconscious a voice and access to what it can do, so you're really teaching yourself," Vi said. "It's kind of funny that way; different Ringbearers can use their powers in different ways, because they put their own little spin on things. I mean, it's variations on a theme..."
"Could you show me again how you made me calm earlier?" A smile went across Claire's face, a smile she allowed, knowing that there wouldn't be much to smile about soon enough. "That's going to be important, with Anthony the way he is... I actually can't wait to see how he reacts when he sees how you brought the house down here – and everything still works?"
"There's a young woman in almost every universe – Sherrie Klein – who works with technology, well, with anything she touches. I made a deal with her for a device I put under the field. It'll provide water and control the environment, act to regulate waste – I fixed the waste disposal and the trash compacters, by the way... there's also a fusion generator. You'll be able to get rid of any waste you have and get additional power."
She took a dark-red apple from a low-hanging tree branch, and smiled as she saw Buster – Anthony's beagle – drinking from the pond. "Now, don't start brewing a lot of hard cider, okay?"
Vi looked at the house. "Everything in the house works just as it did before. There's a device she gave me that I placed beneath the house that will act as a generator, and as a conduit for water and waste – of course, you'll need to go shopping for things on other Earths...I've already, ah, borrowed a lot of baby supplies from the Lawndale Smarty-Mart – diapers, bottles, clothes, cribs – lots of baby stuff, and other supplies you'll need, are in those storage sheds and your barn." She pointed to the west wall of the cavern, where a line of garage-size medal sheds sat next to several large mobile homes, and shrugged at the look on Claire's face. "You might need to have a place for somebody else to live down here – they're already hooked up and ready to live in, each one has a device hooked in – and besides, all of that would have just gone up in the fire, anyway. It's not exactly stealing."
Claire looked over at Vi. "Why are you doing all of this, Vi?"
"Well, I figure that you'll eventually run into something that needs a barn – you should get a couple of cats."
"Why, Vidalia? Not that I'm not grateful-" She looked at the Ring she now wore. "Why?"
Vi grasped Claire's hand. "Because you're my friend. Because I can."
The purplish-white light faded away, and Vi hugged Claire. "I have to go," she said, opening up a purplish-white ring of energy in the air next to her. "Need to go recharge this thing – don't forget that, either. You have to recharge the Ring by exposing it to natural sunlight every twenty-four hours. If you don't you can still use it, but it'll run off your body's energy – that's why you'll need these."
She handed Claire a small pouch; the older woman opened it to see eleven small stones inside. "Hold your Ring to one of the stones, and it'll release the energy to recharge it. Each stone will give your ring a full twenty-four hour charge, and you can recharge the stones by letting them sit in the sun for a full hour. I'd stay down here at least six of seven months after you have the baby before you try to go to any inhabited areas on the surface – you might want to wait a year or so. It'll still be very rough out there – of course, you'll be able to travel to other Earths and other worlds now, so it's not as if you guys are trapped down here."
"If I need to do a recharge, I can always go to a mountaintop," Claire said. "I doubt anyone's trying to live on top of the Devil's Tower in Montana, or any of the mountains on the East Coast to ski."
"Now you're thinking."
Vi smiled as Claire pulled her into a hug. "See you soon?" the older woman asked.
"Count on it." Vi replied. "Call me if you need anything, and there's going to be other Ringbearers on Earth from now on, setting up safe places for people to live. Considering what I've been told, there's going to be a number of underground cities coming to life in the next couple of years. You might be getting a visitor or two from now on."
The young Ringbearer stepped through the portal; as it vanished, Claire turned and began to make her way back towards the house. In her mind, she went over how she was going to tell her – husband, yes, that was now the proper term for who he was, all things considered - what was about to happen, and about the gift that they both had been given.
ZERO HOUR – 00:05:39