Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Something about the man made Matthew stop. It was probably the lighting. Somehow the streetlight was making the man appear to glow. Or it might have been his hair which seemed a little too blonde, or his eyes that seemed to be too bright of a blue. Or maybe it was simply that he was wearing a bright white suit. Matthew had only ever seen someone in a white suit once before, that was years ago in an IHOP. It had stood out to Matthew at the time but compared to the man in the practically glowing white suit standing on this random street corner in the middle of the night it seemed fairly unremarkable.
Matthew knew he shouldn't gawk, and was about to get going again when the man spoke, "Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste."
The sentence seemed somewhat familiar to Matthew. Was it something he'd read? Something someone had said? He'd been reading so many books and conducting so many interviews that he was having trouble keeping it all straight. Citing sources was hell. Could it have been in one of the books he just looked at in the library?
Then it hit him, it wasn't any of that. It was from a song by the Stones. It was a simple, if indirect, message: I am the devil. It didn't seem absurd. It felt true. Matthew didn't know what to do, so he asked for confirmation, "You're-"
"Yes, I am Lucifer. I understand you're writing a book about me. I'd like to help you. Not by telling you the color of God's eyes or the date of the Rebellion or any other trivialities like that. I've never really cared about facts; I'm interested in a deeper form of truth. What matters to me is getting the idea right. That's why I'm here. I believe you have a question that gets to the heart of the idea."
Matthew nodded, he did indeed have such a question. One no priest or book or essay had been able to sufficiently answer, "Why?"
"Of course 'Why?' Why is the only question that really matters. When, where, what, who, whom, whose, whither, whence, which and even how are all incidental. Why is where the meaning lies. Still, if you want a useful answer you'll need a more specific question. Why what?"
"Why do you go on knowing …" Mathew trailed off. What happened if you said that Lucifer was going to get his ass kicked to Lucifer's face?
"That I'll lose?" Lucifer finished for him. Mathew nodded. "It isn't that complicated. Put yourself in my place. Not the place I was in, the place I am now. What led up to this doesn't mater. Besides -I've read your notes- you've already figured out why I started. To understand why I go on forget about that.
"Forget about God and Jesus and Destiny. Forget about the rebellion and six thousand years of history. Just imagine you are where I am. Imagine that a third of your species was doomed to spend eternity in hell. What would you do? Would you sit back and let it happen?
"Or would you do everything you could to stop it? You'd fight against it, wouldn't you? Even if you knew that it was a fight you couldn't win. You wouldn't just surrender. You'd make a stand. You'd do everything in your power to stop the inevitable. You'd do it because it was the right thing to do. For your conscience, for yourself and most of all for your species. You know as well as I do that some lost causes are worth fighting for.
"That is what you would do for humanity. I am no less devoted to my kind than you are to yours. I also have another reason. I'm the reason one third of my kind are damned. If not for me they'd be in Heaven still. I have an obligation to them. I owe it to them to try to stop what's coming. I am why they are damned; I have to try to get them out of what I got them into.
"This isn't about going down fighting, or spitting in God's eye. It is about giving everything I have to the cause knowing full well that won't be enough. I have to try.
"Does that answer your question?"
Lucifer started to walk away. Then stopped and turned back, "Oh, one last thing. The serpent in the Garden of Eden wasn't me. That was an actual talking snake. I shit you not."
Inspired by Iron Dragon's Thanks for Listening.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Isaac awoke, groaning, he hurt and he wasn’t even sure where he was. His mind struggled to sort itself too bright, the lights were too bright and the room too cold. Forcing himself to keep his eyes open, he managed to ignore the pain his eyes adjusted and the images were gradually sorted out. He saw someone in front of him, the figure was quite handsome in the traditional sense but it felt wrong. Had he read much science fiction the term
For his part the figure smirked, “Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name.” Isaac groaned, great, apparently not only was he talking to Lucifer, he was talking to a pretentious and smug Lucifer. Isaac just tried to avoid reacting, or at least pretend that his balls weren’t trying to crawl into his gut and that he wasn’t shivering in terror. He wasn’t exactly a believer, but there was something very disturbing in not only seeing the enemy of all creation but also technically having said enemy be very matter of fact and cheerful about the whole process. It wasn’t exactly an instinctive thing that told him that the one opposite him wasn’t just blowing smoke, but it was something that reached deep into him and made him frightened on a level he had never even imagined feeling.
Lucifer watched him for a while and said finally, “You want to ask me the big question, don’t you? You want to know why I bother with all this. After all, I’ve read the playbook, I know what happens, His son comes back and annihilates the work I do on this world, I won’t win, can’t win, so why bother doing it at all?” Then there was a slow smile that spread to his features, Isaac watched, mind barely able to even function beyond a sort of slow crawl, he understood what was said and would remember it, but trying to let his mind actually read what was happening would be like asking a person at ground zero of a disaster to give a detailed dissertation on Russian Novelists, it wasn’t going to work. Lucifer continued “The reason is simple, even when I lose, I win! He loves all of you, thinks you’re so wonderful, so great, he wants you to do well. I remind him, and you, what all of you really are. All of you have a price, you’d murder your own mothers for the right price, sacrifice those you love for some bauble or title. I remind him, I remind all of you, and he gets to watch all of them burn and suffer forever, gets to watch his lovely creations wither and sob and choke. Sure, I lose, but I get to cause a lot of damage on the way down, you people do the same. Generals and heads of state still try to tear into an enemy while losing a war, in games a team or player will try to gut a foe so that even in victory their opponent feels pain.”
He continued almost unwilling or unable to stop, “All I had wanted, all I had ever wanted was for him to give me that great respect and esteem. I led his hosts, I bore the morning star! I did all that he asked and more, I wanted nothing more than to achieve recognition in line with what I had done, to receive accolade that showed that I was valued above the others. Instead…instead he calls my rightful demand pride. It was then that I saw, I understood that if he wasn’t going to give me my due then I had a duty to take it by my own work. I called to the other angels, that’s the real fun part, I was good enough that I managed to turn a large chunk of beings MADE by him who KNEW what he did was supposed to be perfect and they followed me. The best part was that we didn’t do too bad either…” Then that look of smugness went cold and hateful, his eyes hardening.
“Then, then HE stormed in and slapped me down, stripped me of my title and place, he told me that I was to be punished! He knew I would do it too, he had to, after all he’s the all knowing one isn’t he?” The bastard KNEW what would happen! He could have just given me the title, he could have shown how important I was to the others! Instead he strips away everything I had, took away my rightful place and cast me as some kind of villain!”
He turned to Isaac, smiling again, “So when I saw you and yours I decided to make sure that all of you got the same punishment. He tried to pretend that he made you well, he gave you laws to follow and you break them. Makes rules…and what does he do?” The mans face contorted now in worldless rage as he struck Isaac, “He kept forgiving you. He kept giving you prophets, second chances, news! He made his word palpable flesh and spread his knowledge to you. I knew that mortal flesh was vulnerable, but no, he wouldn’t do anything against his ‘father’ even to save his own skin!” Lucifer gnashed his teeth, attacking the now whimpering and crying Isaac. “He did all of this for you, all of this and what did he do for me!? He leaves me here to rot, to burn and suffer! So you know what? I’m going to make sure that he sees all of you little bugs burn and die. I want him to have to smother all his babies in their cradles, I WANT him to see you all suffer! Because in the end, that’s what it s, he’s going to see all of you in pain and torment! Even his own devout children often speak of how superior they are, and how much better they are than the common rabble, right before they fall into my fires.”
He laughed, “He, and everyone else, gets to see how many of you are with me, he gets to see then that no matter what he did to me I still won! He’ll see all of you feebly looking up at him, begging for him, stupid worthless bugs.” seeing the broken shell at his feet that used to be a person he absently wiped the blood of his hands off on Isaacs shirt and hair. “Thanks for listening.”
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Now planes were crashing, car wrecks were piling up, emergency services were overwhelmed and people were saying that all the children in the world were gone. When he first heard that he remembered wondering, somewhat absurdly, what that meant for toy stores. People were blaming other nations, some kind of new disease, aliens, or anything that they could wrap themselves around to try to explain the unexplainable. Back then he had tried to ferret out answers, or find something he could be sure of. Now though, now he just…existed, it was too much to handle at once. He tried calling family in some cases he got error messages, maybe the circuits were jammed with so many people calling at once. He hoped that anyway, it was weird, on the one hand if it was…if it really was the rapture then he hoped they got away…but then again. He felt alone, vulnerable and scared, he looked at the ceiling, it had no answers for him or even any advice. He felt foolish, it wasn’t like God was going to respond…then again if it was the rapture thought like that might have been what got him left by God.
Suddenly he let out a worldless roar of rage, it wasn’t directed at any one thing it as at everything, at the disasters, at the talking heads, at the overloaded phones, at his fears, at God. “What did you want from me? I prayed to you, I followed you, I gave food to the hungry, I donated clothes to shelters, I sought to spread your ideals. I forgave my enemies, I tried to be humble, WHAT DID I DO WRONG?” He took a few deep breaths, shaking, he felt pain in his hand and saw that he had put it through the wall, he pulled it back, staring at it in a kind of stupid wonder. He shook himself, maybe he wasn’t fully functional but he wasn’t a lump anymore. He heard the sounds of police sirens and fire trucks, the news kept saying that people had vanished and there were all kinds of problems. Now…now whether or not it was the rapture didn’t matter. He realized that there were going to be people who needed help and that whatever happened he was healthy and functioning, he had a responsibility to help the others that he could. If God had forsaken him..well that didn’t mean he was going to stop doing what was right and if it wasn’t the rapture, well he had a funny story to tell his friends later. He took a few minutes to dress himself and find what he needed, heading out the door hoping that the world could make a bit more sense..
Monday, November 2, 2009
The litany of disasters coming over the radio from LaGuardia Control hit Ray like a series of hammer blows. It had begun with six simultaneous airline crashes at the time of the disappearances, but the total was now in the dozens in U.S. airspace alone. And no one knew how many more airliners were flying on autopilot with vanished or unconscious crews.
“DHS has declared all airspace within a hundred miles of New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Boston restricted,” the LaGuardia controller said. “We have orders to ground all flights as soon as possible. We can try to divert you to—“
“Restricted airspace?” Ray asked, incredulous. “Why? They don’t seriously think terrorists with box-cutters are behind this, do they?”
“As far as I can tell, it’s some kind of contingency plan developed after 9/11. Something all ready-made and easy to trigger as soon as somebody suspected another attack. When the crashes started happening, some minor functionary probably activated it and nobody can get ahold of a decision-maker with the authority to rescind it. I don’t think they planned on having the higher-ups disappear.”
“Screw that. Rescind it yourself! Give us clearance!”
“Do you really think it’s that easy, Captain? Didn’t anybody teach you what ‘restricted airspace’ means? Post-9/11 it means fighters in the air and maybe surface-to-air missiles ready to fire. Maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe whoever’s supposed to scramble the fighters disappeared, but maybe not. Maybe the guy in charge of the SAMs disappeared, maybe not.
“The fighters would be under the control of the Air Force, and maybe the Navy if there are any carriers around. Surface to air missiles? Probably Army, maybe Navy if there’s a destroyer in the harbor. So that’s four huge government bureaucracies, five if you count the FAA and nobody knows for sure who’s in charge. Because half of the people who would be in charge are gone, and the other half are trying to find out what the fuck happened to their kids!” The man’s voice cracked, and Ray felt a stab in his heart. Raymie…
“So no, Captain, I’m not giving clearance for you to fly into a free-fire zone controlled by military guys who are probably wondering where the fuck their kids are, and just itching for a chance to shoot back at whoever did this to us! Or any handy substitute.”
I know who did this, Ray thought. And you can’t shoot back. Arms too short to box with God…
“We won’t reach the restricted airspace for another three hours. They should get things straightened out by then…”
“Captain, I don’t think you should count on things getting any better in the next three hours. There are reports that the President was taken! Anybody that’s left of the government is gonna be heading for the deepest bunkers they can find! There could be goddamn alien troop ships landing by then for all we know!” The radio went silent, save for the controller’s breathing as he struggled to calm himself. “I think I can get you in line at Atlanta.”
“That’s the only option?”
”The only other alternatives you could reach are Halifax and Chicago, and you’d wanna take a real close look at your fuel gauge before you even think about O’Hare.”
Ray was already looking at the EICAS screen and making note of remaining fuel and engine performance. “Nick, you have the aircraft.”
“I have the plane,” the First Officer said, giving Ray a quizzical look. But Ray was checking the feed from the National Weather Service on the multi-function display. The weather was clear, so he paged through to a wind-speed map for the Eastern U.S.. Plucking the calculator from his pocket, he made some rough calculations of fuel consumption. He stiffened as the numbers came up, but his face took on a look of grim determination.
“Chicago.” Nick looked at him suspiciously.
“Ray,” Nick said, “This wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that your family lives in Chicago, would it?” Nick said.
“There are other trans-Atlantic flights coming in. They might need Atlanta more than we do.”
“Or they might not. Or, they could just land after we’ve taxied out of the way. Or we fly a holding pattern until they taxi out of the way. I think that beats the ‘we crash into Lake Michigan because we’ve run out of fuel’ option.”
“We’ll make it. We just angle ten degrees further north and catch this tailwind,” he said, pointing at the small screen. “That’ll save us enough fuel to make O’Hare.”
“Come on Ray, that’s crazy. Let’s say you’re right, and we get there flying on fumes—and then it turns out somebody else has crashed on the runway and we have to circle ‘till they can clear the wreckage. Or the weather changes by the time we get there and that tailwind is weaker, or the engines are burning just a little more fuel than they are now. If you haven’t noticed, Mr. Murphy of Murphy’s Law fame has just squatted on the whole goddamn planet and taken a dump. You really want to bet all our lives that everything’s gonna work out just right?”
“I’m the captain of this aircraft, Lieutenant Smith. We’re going to Chicago!”
“Ray, you’re not thinking clearly.” Ray put his hands on his control yoke.
“I have the plane.”
“I. Have. The plane! Unless you’re planning on committing mutiny Lieutenant Smith, you’re going to turn over control of this aircraft right now. That is a direct order.” He locked eyes with his co-pilot.
“Gimme the calculator. I’ll check your numbers…” Nick said, then transferred control and took the calculator. After a few moments calculating and re-calculating, he sighed. “OK, it looks like we should make it, but it’s still too close. It’s a chaotic world out there Ray. Our first priority is to get this aircraft on the ground, safe.”
“We will.” Ray toggled the intercom as he gently banked the aircraft. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Due to emergencies on the ground, we will be diverting to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. We have been assured that we will be able to land safely there. We apologize for the inconvenience. Thank you for flying Pan-Global Airlines.”
“It’s everywhere! All the children!” a passenger said, looking up from his Blackberry and staring around the cabin in horror. Sofia gave him a startled look.
’Everywhere?' All over the world? she thought, trying to wrap her mind around it.
“You got service?” someone said. Passengers gathered around him, hoping for a glimpse of the outside world, while others kept trying with their own phones. The cabin erupted in a din of chatter as people talked into phones, tried to talk into phones, or pleaded with anyone with service to let them call their relatives.
“Oh, sweet Jesus, why? Why?! Clara McGillicuddy said, her words turning into a long wail of anguish. She reached out to scoop up her husband’s clothes, but Sofia caught her hands.
“Please ma’am, I need to examine—“
“Don’t you see?!” Clara cried. “Your science won’t do you any good. Won’t do any of us any good! Jesus has come back for His faithful! Why, Jesus, what did I do wrong?” This last was an entreaty, directed heavenward. “I believed…I believed!”
“Holy shit! What if it is?” a man two rows down from her said.
Sofia looked around and saw despair spreading across several of the faces of her fellow passengers. The flight attendant was on her way back up the aisle with the things Sofia had asked for, and she noticed it too.
“I’m sorry, but if this is the Rapture, isn’t that supposed to be a good thing? People getting beamed up to Heaven?” Sofia said. She’d seen the bumper stickers boasting “In the Event of Rapture, This Vehicle Will Be Unoccupied.” Some of her rationalist friends in America would make reference to the “Rapture Ready” crowd as an especially noisome sort of American crazy. It seemed like a weird kind of Christianity, waiting for Jesus to beam you out of life instead of living it for him. Sofia regretted not researching it further, but as paranormal beliefs went, it made no testable claims.
“It was you…” Clara said.
“Ma’am?” Sofia replied
“When Frank tried to preach the Gospel to you…I was…I was embarrassed. I could tell you didn’t want to hear it and I was embarrassed because he always does it…he always leaves…left a tract at the table. He…when we’d call the plumber, he’d talk to him about Jesus while he worked…
“And I was embarrassed! ‘If you deny Me before men, then I will deny you before the holy angels…’ Oh Lord! I’m so sorry!” Sofia reached over and took the woman by the shoulders as more tears started streaking down her face.
“Ma’am, I find it hard to believe that Jesus would reject you for some momentary thought you had—“ Clara clutched Sofia’s upper arms and shook her feebly.
“Don’t you understand?! This is the Tribulation! God is about to pour out His wrath upon the world! There’ll be suffering and pain like mankind has never known before! And then Armageddon!”
“Oh, God…the End is fucking nigh!” the man said, then his face paled and he looked fearfully skyward as it hit him that he’d spoken an expletive.
“Alright,” Sofia said, struggling for calm, “Let’s say you’re right. That just means that you have all been given a special calling.”
“What are you talking about? He’s abandoned us! The Bridegroom’s feast has begun and we can’t get in! It’s too late!” Clara said.
“Well…if this is the ‘Rapture,’ then you know things the rest of us don’t, things we need to know. You can be happy that your loved ones are safe in Heaven, but… Well, Jesus left Heaven and all of its joys behind to come down and share the sufferings of humanity, to demonstrate compassion and show us the way. Isn’t that what the whole Jesus story is about?” Sofia said. “Why don’t you think of it this way: that Jesus chose you to remain behind so you could be the bearers of his light and love in dark times? ‘Deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me.’
“If you want to be followers of Christ, then follow him. Go where he went. Do what he did. Why aren’t you counting yourselves to be the lucky ones?” Their looks of incomprehension matched her own. Sofia ransacked her memories of Catholic school for anything resembling what these people were talking about, and came up empty. The Christianity Sofia had grown up with glorified suffering too much in her mind.
From Peter wanting to be crucified upside down because he thought himself unworthy of dying in the same manner as his Lord, to the torture and martyrdom stories of so many of the saints, to the self-imposed sufferings of the ascetics, to the images of Christ hanging heavily on the Cross with blood trickling from his wounds as he looked to Heaven in the moment of his death, the Christianity she knew seemed almost to worship suffering rather than seeking to alleviate it. But these Americans, they looked at her as if the idea that Christians might have to suffer, really suffer for their faith was completely alien to them.
“Oh, come on, you don’t really believe that Rapture bullshit, do you?” the man with the graying buzz-cut said. “Those End of the World prophecy douchenozzles have been predicting the Rapture forever, and they’ve always been wrong. ‘It’s gonna happen in 1988—no, wait, I forgot to carry a two, make that 1989. Oops, it’s gonna be October 2009. I mean, December 2012!’”
Sofia held up a hand to forestall an argument. “Please. I’m not going to say I think this is the Rapture, because I don’t know. These people do seem to have been expecting something like this, so I think that makes the ‘Rapture’ a hypothesis that deserves to be considered. We can’t jump to any conclusions until we’ve gathered as many facts as we can.”
“What ‘facts’ could you possibly need?” Mrs. McGillicuddy said. “Look!” she said, waiving a wrinkled hand at her husband’s suit.
“Whatever facts I can lay my hands on, ma’am. If you’re right, whatever I find will only support your beliefs.” Sofia turned to the flight attendant. “Thank you,” she said, taking the bags and latex gloves. She set the seating chart, passenger manifest, and other documents aside for later inspection.
“Here…I brought you this too,” the flight attendant said. It was a packet containing heavier rubber gloves, goggles, a face mask, and a roll of red Biohazard bags. “It’s a biohazard waste clean-up kit…we use it whenever we have to clean up vomit or blood or anything like that.”
“Thank you,” Sofia said, smiling at her. “I should probably use this at least,” she said, taking out the face mask.
“You think the clothes could be…contagious or something?” another passenger asked.
“No. But I should probably do what I can to keep from breathing any contaminants onto the scene,” she said, slipping the white mask over her mouth and nose. With practiced motions, she put on the latex gloves. “I’ll get done with this as quickly as I can so you can have your husband’s personal effects,” she said to Clara. “I think it would be good to send some of the smaller objects, like the dental bridge and fillings for laboratory analysis. I’ll be happy to inform you of what they find. Is that alright?” Clara nodded absently, then turned away to bow her head in prayer.
“So…you’re some kind of scientist?” the flight attendant asked as Sofia scrutinized the clothes, planning how to go about dissecting them.
“Yes,” Sofia said, glancing up at her. The flight attendant was so delicate it was as if she’d left her butterfly wings and flower-petal dress behind somewhere to go incognito as a human. Her big blue eyes held a hint of need, looking for some island of strength and stability in a world turned upside down. The eyes flitted away from Sofia, forward toward the cockpit. Sofia’s gut tightened at the thought of her going there for refuge.
“Can I get anything else for you?
“Are you free? Would you be able to assist me?” Sofia said.
“I don’t know anything about…”
“You don’t have to. Do you have anything to restrain your hair with?”
“Yes, I’ll have to go get it.”
“Good, does anyone have some Scotch tape, and maybe a Sharpie?”
“I might,” a man said, and retrieved his briefcase from under his seat. “Here!” he said, handing them over.
“Thank you,” Sofia said, and started using the Sharpie to label Ziploc bags. The flight attendant returned, her hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“I’m Sofia. Sorry I can’t shake, at least until you get your gloves on.”
“H-Hattie. Hattie Durham,” the flight attendant replied, slipping her slender hands into latex gloves. The gloves fit loosely, forming yellowish-white wrinkles over Hattie’s flawless porcelain skin.
“Nice to meet you, Hattie. Could you please take the tape and start making loops for me, sticky side out?” Hattie nodded and reached for the tape.
Sofia reached into her briefcase and took a small jewelry box out of a pocket on the lid. Inside the box was a lens cannibalized from a CD player, and squeezed through a hole made in a thick rubber band. This she stretched over her iPhone, adjusting the CD lens over the lens of the phone’s camera, turning it into a modest microscope.
Sofia pushed the cacophony of the other passengers’ conversations out of her mind. People desperately trying to get through to family members, or getting through and finding out their children, their nieces, nephews, grandchildren were gone… She felt a spike of worry for her own family pierce her heart.
I can’t do them any good right now, she thought. If I got through, people would be all over me wanting my phone. Just do this, so she can have her husband’s clothes…
Sofia touched her iPhone’s screen to start recording. “Investigation of unexplained disappearance, Seat 28-B, Frank McGillicuddy,” she said, her voice cracking. She gave the date and time, and started in. She held the phone close to the coat and twiddled with the focus until the coat’s fibers came in clear, then snapped a picture.
“You’ve done this sort of thing before?” Hattie asked. Sofia shut off the recording and took microscope pictures of the coat at different locations.
“Not this sort of thing…” I have to be strong…the world would be in panic…this may be the only scientific examination that gets done… “I’ve investigated alleged flying saucer landing sites, and crop circles…’haunted’ houses, people who claim to be mediums,” she explained, keeping her voice level by an act of sheer will. Carefully lifting back a flap of the coat, she took microscope pictures of the shirt, tie, and inside of the coat.
“Did you ever find anything?” the guy with the buzz cut asked. “Like proof of aliens? Do you think this could be aliens?”
Eyes. The eyes. Sofia shook her head, pushing the memory away.
“Not proof, exactly. Some anomalous trace evidence in a few cases, like heightened radioactivity in soil at a ‘landing site.’ Enough to keep my mind open, not enough to make me a believer,” she said, giving him a fleeting smile.
Though she’d tried to replace the coat flap as gently as she could, the coat finally slid down to crumple into the seat. With a startled jolt, Sofia grabbed the collar and kept it from landing on top of the Bible and the dental remains.
“Um…what do you want me to do with these?” Hattie said, holding up fingers draped with rings of tape.
“Keep them from getting stuck to anything,” she said, smiling at Hattie. Sofia took a ring and pressed it to the seat back that had formerly held the coat, flattening it all the way. She pulled it off and repeated the process at a different spot on the seat back with the other side of the tape to pick up more fibers, then slid it into a Ziploc bag labeled “28-B McGillicuddy seat back.”
Taking more tape rings, she collected fiber samples from the inside and outside of the coat, front and back, the tie and the shirt. Mrs. McGillicuddy finished her prayer and started to watch with teary eyes.
As Sofia unbuttoned the dress shirt and started examining the undershirt, she felt something hard slipping through its folds. Carefully pulling it up to expose the object, she saw a flat, lima bean-shaped piece of metal the size of a fifty-cent piece, with wires attached.
“Oh, Frank!” his wife said, snatching the object up and clenching it to her chest. “Sorry…” she said, opening her hands to reveal the pacemaker.
“It’s alright,” Sofia said. “I would like to take a picture if you don’t mind. Do you want to keep it?”
Clara looked at it for a long moment. Finally, she extended her trembling hands toward Sofia. “You can have it…”
“Thank you ma’am. You’ve been very helpful. I really appreciate your patience,” Sofia lifted the magnifier lens out of the way to take a quick shot of the pacemaker in the woman’s hands, then picked it up carefully and set it down on top of a Ziploc bag she spread out for it. Then she set the iPhone down and took another of the rings Hattie had made. “I hate to impose on you…but would you mind if I took a sample from your hands, so the lab techs might be able to separate the residue on your hands from any residue that might be on the pacemaker?”
Clara nodded and held out her hands. “Do you have a…a relationship with Jesus?” she said. “Please…let Him into your heart…oh, God, that sounds so hollow! I’m sorry!”
“Don’t be. Ma’am, I can’t really imagine how hard it must have been for you to just sit there next to your husband’s clothes and not touch them, not try to feel something of him. I’ll make sure the world sees the pictures, and whatever other information I can find. If this is the Rapture, and this is the proof,” Sofia said, gesturing at the pile of clothes, “then your act of simple kindness could reach millions. I think it was St. Francis who said, ‘Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.’”
Would Jesus really do something like this? Sofia thought, trying to imagine events on the plane multiplied several million fold, all over the Earth. It’s more like something they would do, if they existed. It’s what they do isn’t it? Abduct people…terrorize them?
“Are you alright?” Hattie said.
“Yes…I’m fine…thank you.”
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
One of the Secret Service agents moved to answer the phone.
“No! Honey, could you get that please,” Richard said, keeping his gun held steady in the face of the chief of his Secret Service detail. “Back away from the phone, pal!” The other agent did as ordered.
“Hello?” Beth said. “General!” she said, then cupped a hand over the receiver. “It’s General Lind,” she said to her husband. “What’s happening, General? I’m sorry, we have...a situation here, he can’t come to the phone. Yes he’s still here,” she said with a little quake in her voice. “I need you to tell me what’s going on.” As she listened, Beth’s face grew ever more fearful. “Excuse me a moment, General.” She covered the receiver with her hand again.
“Honey...he says it’s happening everywhere…disappearances...not just here...our troops.... One of you, turn on CNN!” An agent slowly crossed the living room to the large high-definition home theater system that took up most of a wall. Careful to make no sudden moves, he turned it on.
“...from all over the world,” Christiane Amanpour said in her delicate accent. “Children…missing from their beds.” Her voice cracked, tears welling in her eyes. “Babies gone from their cribs. Entire elementary schools...suddenly emptied.” Her face was inset against a montage of handheld camera shots.
An Iranian woman in a black dress and hijab pressing a little shirt to her chest, her face aimed at the heavens wailing silently in pure anguish. A shaky, low-quality cell-phone video of small desks in neat rows. Piles of clothes in each chair, pant legs drooping down to empty shoes. A husband and wife in London bawling in each other’s arms, collapsed next to a stroller.
“The...Event appears to be limited to...to pre-teen children. My own son…Darius John Rubin...is among the missing.” A tear broke free and ran down her cheek, trailed down her jawline and dripped from her chin unnoticed. “If you still have your children...hold them. Hold them.” She failed to suppress a hitching sob.
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted...because they are no more. They are no more.” Christiane turned away from the camera and buried her face in her hands just as CNN cut back to the studio.
An immaculately pretty young anchorwoman sat alone behind the expansive, sweeping glass-and-brushed-nickel desk, like a captain going down with her ship. She stared helplessly into the camera for long seconds, her perfect cupid’s-bow lips parted, but unable to speak.
“That’s enough, turn it off,” Deming said, lowering his weapon with shaking hands. “...Sorry.” It was the Secret Service agents’ turn to look shaken. “Go on, call home. I need to talk to the General anyway. There might not be a location secure enough to protect us against this.” He went to the phone and Beth handed him the receiver.
“General, this is Deming.” Probably President Deming, he thought, feeling it hit him like a tsunami. Mike and his whole family, gone...plane crashes...oh God no!
“Sir, the news reports are saying it’s only children, but that’s not true," General Lind said. "It hit our forces too. Hard. Casualty rates in some units may be at fifty percent, or more. We’ve been hit in all theaters of operation. So far as I can tell, the Air Force has been hardest hit, especially among officers and pilots, followed by the Marines and the Army. The Navy is in the best shape, and their command structure is mostly intact.”
“Is it the Christians, General? I mean, the conservative, fundamentalist Christians. Protestants.”
“Mr. Vice President, we don’t even know who’s missing, or exactly how many. I couldn’t begin to tell you what their beliefs were. Right now it’s all I can do to try to find out what forces we still have. Except for Admiral Fallon, I haven’t been able to get a hold of the other Joint Chiefs.
“What about the people in your command? Are the people missing the ones who went to Christian Embassy prayer breakfasts?” The silence on the other end seemed to confirm Deming’s worst fears.
“It seems that way sir...but right now my concern is the men and women who are still here. It’s not on the news yet, but there’s rioting in Baghdad and Basra, and attacks on our troops and installations are on the rise. They’re blaming us. Al-Sistani has called for order and a day of fasting and repentance, but Sadr is blaming us. He’s on radio and the ‘net saying we used a new weapon to exterminate Iraq’s children.
“We’re able to defend our bases at the moment because the so far the attacks are small-scale and disorganized. That’s going to change, and when it does we’re going to be cut off from re-supply, and frankly, I think we’ll be overrun. AfPak is the same situation, or worse. I’m requesting permission to evacuate our troops as soon as possible. If we can get moving before the Iraqis strike in force, I think there’s a chance we’ll be able to get the bulk of our remaining forces out intact, but it won’t be easy.”
“General Trujillo is going to be asking us for more troops, not less, especially if his forces have been hit as hard as ours. But if every child in Mexico has disappeared...sir, I don’t think his government will last the day. I recommend we pull back to the border and do our best to fortify and maintain order. To be frank sir, I’m not sure we’ll be able to do that much. Do you have any contact with National Command Authority?”
“So far as I know, General, I am National Command Authority. The Secret Service tells me that President Huckabee and his family are among the missing. Do what you have to do, General. Get as many of our people out of the Middle East as you can. I think we’re going to need them here at home.”
“Do you want me to put our strategic forces on alert, sir?”
“No. Not until we can do it in concert with Russia, China, and our NATO allies. In fact, I want you to shut off our missile-defense radars in Europe and Alaska, and pull back any subs we have patrolling near Russian or Chinese waters. I want them to know we’re not behind this, and we’re not planning on exploiting it to harm their national interests.”
"Sir, are you sure you want to have those radars off?"
"They didn't warn us about this. General, you know as well as I do that our 'missile defense' systems don't work for anything but Raytheon's stock price, and poking a stick at the Russians and Chinese. If they're thinking we might be behind this somehow, and wondering if they ought to launch, I want to give them something they can see that says we're not."
“I have to go now, General. I’ll get in contact with you as soon as possible. Until otherwise directed, you have overall operational command of U.S. military forces.”
“Yes sir.” The phone slipped from Deming’s fingers to rattle in its cradle.
“My God...the whole world is going to fall apart...” Deming said. The chief of Deming’s Secret Service detail snapped his cell phone closed, his face pale.
“Sir, we have to move...”
“Take me to the White House.”
“We can’t go there sir, whoever did this knew to hit us there.”
“Then take me to the National Military Command Center, I need to get on the Hotline to the Russians.”
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
He remembered the two of them talking, whoever this man was he knew that the formula kept hitting walls, he offered Chaim the ability to finish the formula, to make it work beyond his wildest dreams. Chaim remembered the conversation that followed, or at least remembered words were spoken but not much else. He went to the labs and suddenly ideas flowed, connections were made that had never even been imagined before, the formula went from a vague pipe dream to a sudden reality in what seemed impossible. The thoughts and connections flowed with a speed and ability that sometimes startled him, looking back he had to admit his own surprise at what he seemed to realize or remember. Then his government decided to focus more on selling food to the rest of the world, it became rich but it also angered the other nations of the world.
Then the event, he remembered Carpathia, the man had been so charming, so charismatic and capable. They had spoken a few times, but it was recently that he began to feel a true fear. Carpathia had spoken with him about the formula, he had first felt relief, Carpathia was going to give it to everyone in this world, after the event and all that followed it people might have something to inspire them again or at least something that offered them some sort of stability. But then...something still felt off he wasn't sure why but something in his mind felt off but he wasn't sure what it was. Carpathia had spoken to him about it and when he mentioned how it would help to consolidate power and what it would mean for the government. He tried to speak to Carpathia saying that such actions are what caused others to want to destroy his own nation, then he saw Carpathia offer a smile and just say that Chaim needed to remember what he had promised. Chaim remembered that conversation that came again, and a moment of realization and fear nearly broke him.
His thoughts went back to the club, he saw the people there, drinking fine wine and eating fine food even as so many were in peril. He saw a room full of cold nothings, he felt as if the whole of the club was full of whores. High class whores, well dressed whores, but in the end these people made their money exploiting developing nations or simply inherited from their families and saw such money as a birthright the pain and suffering others didn't matter a bit to them. He then sighed bitterly, knowing that he was likely a whore of this new government and beliefs he was letting them use his formula to help tighten their grip he kept trying to convince himself that he had done the right thing but he knew that he was as much a whore as any of those here. He had some vague hope, rumors were that Buck was wanted for something perhaps...perhaps Buck knew someone, something, anything of value. Maybe even something that would let him break free of his fear. He had managed to convince Carpathia to make him the one to meet with Buck, and speaking of him, there he was now.
They spoke and exchanged pleasantries...or as close as they could get. Buck seemed more irritated that Carpathia wasn't there. When he asked where Buck was during the meeting, hoping that perhaps Buck remembered something he didn't, that perhaps it would help him get a better grip on the world that he couldn't seem to hold. Instead Buck just asked rhetorically where any of them were, this worried him more, though he kept a happy mask up, mentioning the potential of the formula he was met only with incredulity and fear of the first world nations losing their alleged birthright, sounding far too much like those around them in this smothering club. He had heard some rumors that Buck was part of some new movement, but then he had a moment of great dread and he understood. Carpathia had sent him to meet Buck to dash his hopes, no one who followed a belief of good and virtue would reject helping the needy for fear of no longer being a superpower, no longer holding great wealth and resources. Instead, there was no hope, no great new way. The world would continue on as it had, those who had would want more and those who had not would merely have to grasp at crumbs. He kept a happy face and jovial tone, and all the while he felt his spirit die slowly.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
(or Why you shouldn't shoot him)
For a few moments after Hattie left the room there was silence. Buck used these moments to remind himself that the most evil man in history was sitting in front of him and push all doubt from his mind. Then, as quickly as he could, Buck pulled out his gun and shot Nicolae.
Buck didn't fully understand what had happened. Everything had gone according to plan. That couldn't be right. The plan was to kill Nicolae. The plan seemed to have succeeded. Something was wrong here. Nicolae's body was slumped forward on the desk, a pool of blood expanding around it. How the hell was this possible?
The gun was getting heavy in his hand.
He hadn't prepared himself for this. He'd prepared himself for a painful death. He'd prepared himself for martyrdom. He'd prepared himself for inevitable failure. But this ... he didn't even have an escape plan.
"Have to say, I did Not See That Coming."
Buck spun to face the voice, the gun leading the way. There was a blonde man in white clothing sitting in a chair Buck was sure hadn't been there a moment ago, his feet propped up on another chair.
"Do you realize that by pulling that trigger you have derailed a plan the universe has been following since the moment of creation?"
Buck's brain unfroze long enough for him to ask, "Who the hell are you?" and shake the gun to show he deserved an answer. The man made a quick gesture, and the clip fell out of Bucks gun.
"You still have one in the chamber, of course, but I wouldn't recommend pulling the trigger," the man said calmly. Buck started to shake slightly. "Buck, Buck, Buck ... I don't want to hurt you. The truth is I'd be clapping right now if I didn't think the sound of a single person clapping sounded more like sarcasm than praise.
"It is true that you've screwed up my plans, but you also screwed up His plans. For that all your trespasses against me are forgiven. Besides, I'm so curious." The man took his feet off the chair and placed them on the ground. He leaned forward, placed his elbows on his knees, intertwined his fingers, and rested his chin on his hands. "Now that you're in open rebellion against God, what is it you're planning on doing next?"
The man's posture reminded Buck of something, but at the moment his brain wasn't up to the task of correlating it to how Nicolae had been sitting a few minutes earlier. Most of Buck's thought process was devoted to the possibility he'd just screwed up God's plan. So far all it had managed was something along the lines of, "What! What?" He had stopped shaking, but he hardly noticed.
When Buck didn't answer the man sat up straight and asked, "You don't have a plan?" Buck was motionless. "Improvisation is nice, but I think we should have some sort of plan. What to do now that we don't have an Antichrist, that sort of thing." Buck made no response. "Until then, I think we should keep the other side off balance. So, my first thought is that we make Bruce Barnes the head of the One World Religion and allow him to run it as he sees fit." Buck remained completely still. "We'll need a new UN Secretary General, you can have the job if you want it.
"I have to say, I had you figured wrong. I thought you were a shallow narcissist who got by on an undeserved reputation without actually doing anything but this," he stood and gestured to Nicolae's corpse, "was brilliant. To knock God's plans off track with a simple," he gestured as if pulling the trigger of a gun, and made a noise that sounded entirely unlike a gunshot, "is simply brilliant.
"All my plans have to be scrapped, but the truth is I'm loving this. It's as if infinite possibilities have suddenly opened up before me. I haven't felt so alive in thousands of years." The man spontaneously hugged Buck, and Buck was dimly aware that feathered wings briefly surrounded him. Then Buck was released and found himself eye to eye with the man, "I've got a lot of work to do, but I'll be available any time for my new partner. So if you need anything, anything at all, you just call out and I'll be at your side."
The man disappeared, leaving Buck alone, his arm still extended, gun still pointed at the man's empty chair.
At long last pieces started to fall into place in Buck's mind. The man wasn't a man at all. He was Lucifer. Buck's actions had derailed God's plans. Lucifer seemed quite happy with this. He had hugged Buck. God was probably not very happy. Buck had known God's plan, gone against it, and succeeded. Did that mean he wasn't going to Heaven now? Bruce had said that once you were saved you were saved, but Bruce had said that Nicolae couldn't be killed yet.
Good God, Buck thought, Lucifer hugged me.
For a moment he thought nothing at all, then he thought the same thing in a very different way. Lucifer had hugged him. Lucifer. Not that long ago Buck had been a name dropper, impressed by his own ability to say, "I met him," "She and I had lunch the other day," "Interviewed him," "Know her," about assorted rich and famous people. Now Lucifer, the first fallen, leader of all Evil, and ruler of earth until Jesus came back, had hugged him. Had praised Buck's work.
Lucifer had promised to come when Buck called.
And why shouldn't he? Buck had singlehandedly changed God's plans. Who else could do that? No one, that's who. Buck was the most powerful man in the universe.
With that affirmation of what Buck had long believed, Buck's brain returned to it's full functionality.
Friday, October 2, 2009
Chaim watched Mr. Williams & his escort walk across the crowded room, saw the effort Cameron made to look relaxed and at home. Oddly, it wasn't the hulking gorilla of a bodyguard Nicolae sent that seemed to make him uneasy, but his travel-rumpled clothes and slightly unkempt appearance that seemed to make him feel awkward. Chaim rose from his seat as Mr. Williams approached.
"Mr. Williams! A pleasure, as always! Millions of people vanish worldwide, and we are fortunate that you were not among them!"
Most reporters cared about the story, but celebrity reporters like "Buck" Williams cared about 'access to important people'. Vanity & pride, Chaim reflected, make such excellent tools. Chaim waited until they were both seated again, waited for "Buck" to pick up the menu before speaking again.
"My friend, I've been meaning to ask you something. The meeting at the U.N., where were you?" A simple question, with one simple answer. Or with a host of complicated but dishonest answers. This was why he was here, Chaim reflected, instead of Nicolae. If Cameron was on the other side, he might tell his trusted friend Chaim Rosenweig, but he certainly would never be so honest with The Beast.
"That's the question of the ages," Cameron said. "Where are any of us?"
Rosenzweig's eyes twinkled, and Mr. Williams lowered his head while raising his menu. No doubt his cheeks were coloring out of shame.
'Well,' thought Rosenweig, 'so much for the camaraderie of shared trials.'
There remained one other matter to resolve. Buck had clearly found God before that meeting, had the Armor of the Lord shielding his mind to the illusions the Beast had woven. But as faith can be found, so too can it be lost, and Chaim has seen in Buck both pride and envy in just the few minutes of this meeting. It seemed that like the atheist in the foxhole, once Mr. Williams no longer felt the threat, he no longer followed the faith.
"It's too early to tell, of course, but if the formula works as well as it has in Israel, Botswana will immediately become one of the most fertile countries in all of Africa, if not the world." Chaim decided to play this out a bit further, to see just how pious Mr. Williams was, how strong his new-found faith might be.
"Oh, Chaim! For what? Billions of dollars that Israel no longer needs? It makes no sense! It's one thing for Isreal to feed herself for pennies on the dollar, but if you turn the African continent into a horn-of-plenty, it'll devastate economies world-wide! The farm belt of the U.S., the fertile crescent of Asia..."
Chaim suppressed a smile. Feeding billions, an end to hunger worldwide, and Cameron's first thought was of the wealthy first-worlders who would be cast down from on high.
"Cameron, please! The formula only works for grains & pulses, the most basic of food stocks. Fruits, flowers, herbs, the world will still need those. It doesn't matter how cheap the grain is when you make beer if you don't have any hops to preserve it with! Those lands you describe are rich and fertile, I'm sure they can find all sorts of budding flowers and herbs to grow." Yes. Flowers and herbs. The cocoa, the cannabis, the poppy, those crops are always in demand, and always fetch high prices.
"But why are you here? I thought I was meeting with Nicolae?" Cameron asked, seemingly oblivious.
"Ah!" Now would be a good time to see how 'Buck' responded to temptation. "We want adequate press coverage of the work we're setting up in Botswana. The impact on both a local and regional level, progress and production, all that. Mr. Carpathia remembered you worked for a global publication, and as an award-winning journalist, you might uncover elements of this story that would get missed by our PR folks. We want people to feel like they're getting the whole story, not just what we want them to hear."
Of course, Chaim knew about Cameron's humiliating demotion from international reporter to regional desk jockey, but a proud man would never admit to such a shame after being given such an offer. Would Cameron take the pious route and decline the story because of his demotion, or would he-
"Well, I understand you coming to me for the credibility my name lends," Cameron said, "but I'd need complete independence. Both you and Nicolae to know that I won't be a pawn for your organization." Cameron smiled at the end, no doubt thinking himself clever for his weak double-entendre'.
"Of course," Chaim said. It was time for the final test. If Mr. Williams was indeed a changed man, a pious servant of the Lord, then the dark powers Nicolae had gifted Chaim with would be unable to touch his mind. But pride... pride goeth before the fall...
"All right. I'll have someone contact you this week to work out travel arrangements. You should try the salmon. You'll love it." There was a near-inaudible difference in the last two sentences. Only those favored by the Beast or his Adversary would have heard the subtle, inhuman inflections.
Mr. Williams had once boasted to Chaim that he made it a habit to ignore recommendations in restaurants. It probably was one of the reasons for his nickname, because most servers would love to rhyme with it. "Buck" ordered what Rosenzweig suggested. And he loved it. Of course he did. Relished every bite. It was clear that some people never truly change. Chaim smiled over his wineglass, looking forward to telling his master that they had nothing to fear from "Buck" Williams.
Carrying You-Can-Call-Me-Buck, struggling helplessly in the classic riding-out-of-town-on-a-rail posture, the passengers marched him to the emergency exit. Someone opened the door, and there was a howling rush of wind.
“Awww, come on! You know you want me, baby!” he said, just before they hurled him out into the slipstream. “AAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaa…!” Somewhere far, far below, he hit, producing a little ring-shaped cloud of dust.
Sofia banished her fantasy. Unfortunately, something more practical had to be done with him. For all his towering braggadocio about his exalted position at Global Weekly, Sofia found it impossible to take the man seriously. Had he been born a hidalgo in the time of the conquistadores, he would surely have worn an enormous gold-plated codpiece festooned with tassels and ribbon, while boasting of his heroic exploits as the real Don Quijote de la Mancha.
In this century, he merely sported a rumpled suit at least a couple sizes too big for him. His baby face and head of untamable short curly hair completed the look of some malicious, barely-adolescent class clown suddenly thrust into the grown-up world. Tom Hanks had done it much better and more appealingly in Big.
“Perhaps you could go and see to the passengers in First Class, and investigate any disappearances that happened there?” she asked. Having heard no commotion from that section, she doubted there would be any.
“Yes, I could do that,” he said a little too quickly, avoiding the threatening eyes of the other passengers. “I’ve also got a major cover story I’m working on,” he said with a faltering smirk, then turned and hustled briskly back to First Class as if he was a Busy Man on Very Important Busy-ness.
Sofia sighed and shook her head, glad to see the curtain close behind him. But without him there to provide a comedic, if frustrating distraction, the fearful reality of the situation returned. She snapped back into action, lighting a campfire to keep the beasts lurking in the shadows at bay.
“Sir? Ma’am,” she said to the anxious parents. “Could you please search the airplane thoroughly from front to back? If you see anything at all unusual, like an unfamiliar piece of technology, scorch marks, anything, could you make a note of it and let me know?” she said, tearing off a page from her notebook and handing them her pen.
They nodded. They’d already searched the aircraft thoroughly, but not for anything that might be related to the cause of the disappearances. They headed to the back of the cabin to start their search.
“Sir,” she said picking out another man. “Could you please go through the aircraft and try to find out how many people are missing, and write down the seat numbers with a brief description of the clothes, and if they were with anyone still here?”
“Yeah…I can do that. Do you want me to find out what they ate or drank, things like that?”
“That’s a good idea, but I think it would be best to gather the preliminary information quickly. If you could tell people that I would like to interview them and get their contact information so I can keep them updated on anything I find, I would appreciate it.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Sofia saw the curtain part again. Thankfully, it was the flight attendant, returning with one of the pilots. Sofia felt a little chill when she recognized him. Waiting in the terminal before takeoff, she’d seen the two flirting. That the pilot had been subconsciously fingering his wedding ring wasn’t what bothered her the most.
Now as before, she noticed the stiff tension of his body language, the way he seemed to be enduring the young woman’s presence the way a medieval monk might endure some self-inflicted torture. Why, if he wanted to remain loyal to his wife, he didn’t simply tell the poor girl that and let her find love someplace else, Sofia couldn’t fathom. She’d briefly met his eyes in the terminal, and did so again now. Alarm bells of warning went off in her hindbrain. There was hatred in those eyes.
“It’s a joke. They’re hiding, trying to—“ the pilot said.
“Ray! Their shoes, their socks, their clothes, everything was left behind! These people are gone!” The flight attendant all but clung to him in desperation. He accepted her touch, but returned only indifference.
“Sir, she’s telling the truth,” Sofia said, doing her best to keep her tone clinical and her expression neutral. She’d seen this relationship before, in a Renaissance painting of Zeus. The god sat enthroned, one hand grasping his royal scepter, the other arm resting on a cloud. His broad, muscular chest was bare, shouting his masculinity to the Cosmos. He looked straight at the viewer with a stern, almost angry expression. A petite, naked goddess crouched at his side, one hand stretched out across his lap, the other reaching up to delicately stroke his chin. Her head was tilted all the way back, looking up at him with entreaty for the tiniest bit of kindness or affection. Clearly, none would be forthcoming.
Sofia led him to her row and pointed to Mr. McGillicuddy’s suit. She gave Mrs. McGillicuddy a smile of gratitude for leaving it intact this long.
“If you look closely, you can see how the cloth was abruptly compressed by air pressure. Apparently the body was dematerialized all at once, rapidly enough that air could not have time to flow in from the sleeves and pant legs before external pressure collapsed the core areas. We’ve had several other passengers disappear in this way. I have some volunteers getting an exact count.”
Sofia watched the man’s world come apart in front of her eyes. In his world there was Order. In his world there was Discipline. People and things knew their Place. Flight checklists were carried out in their proper steps and on time. Arrivals and departures occurred on schedule. And now, Mystery had dared! Dared! To puncture the pressurized cabin of his mental universe and let him know in no uncertain terms that he was not In Control.
His eyes went wide with a fear that looked more like savage rage. The muscles of his jaw clenched, his nostrils flared, and the veins in his neck bulged. A glance down to his hands revealed fists tight in a white-knuckle grip. His whole body vibrated like a tuning fork, as if barely able to contain some violent inner force. The Calista Flockhart-skinny flight attendant seemed to feel it. She looked up at him with big, round blue eyes and slipped her slender arms more around him, pressing against him to give and seek reassurance.
Wrong answer, Sofia thought. The pilot—“Ray,” she’d called him—bit down on his lower lip, hard. Sofia winced in tune with the man’s own jolt of pain. Blood trickled down toward his jaw line. It wasn’t hard for Sofia to imagine this man whipping himself for the sins of the flesh in some dark monastic cell, muttering prayers to a vindictive god while his raging libido burned within him, demanding some kind of release—and transmuting into a seething fury at any woman who stirred his forbidden desires. Not hard at all. She took an involuntary step back from him, but she managed to suppress a gulp of fear.
“Miss, could you please go and get me a copy of the passenger manifest, any information you might have on what people ordered for food and drink, and a seating diagram for the plane if you have one?” she asked the flight attendant, kicking herself for the tremor she heard in her voice. “And some plastic bags—Ziplock bags if you have them, wastebasket bags and latex or plastic gloves. So I can examine the scene and collect samples for analysis.”
The flight attendant gave a jerky nod and peeled herself off of the pilot. As she passed Sofia, she turned her head to give him what was no doubt a longing glance, her cascade of honey-colored fairy-princess locks flowing over her shoulders in curls and waves.
Sofia resisted an urge to reach out to the captain and offer him solace. Instead, she kept her distance and clasped her arms behind her back, taking a military-grade parade-rest stance. “My name is Sofia. I’m a scientist,” she said, struggling to keep her voice cool and professional. The pilot’s dark eyes looked her up and down, smoldering with resentment. “Sir, could you please find out if there are any reports of this sort of thing happening anywhere else?”
“It was the Rapture…” Mrs. McGillicuddy said in a trembling voice. By now her mascara was streaked down her face, runnels of smeared black twisting their way down her wrinkled skin. Her terrified pallor made her bright-red lipstick look like a bloody slash.
“That isn’t the only possible explanation,” Sofia said, but inwardly, she knew that reassuring the pastor’s wife would be impossible. The woman had probably been eagerly dreaming of a day of inexplicable vanishings for decades, except that her clothes were supposed to be a shed husk, too.
At the sound of the word “rapture,” the pilot flinched.
“Irene was right…” he whispered, backing away stiffly. The dark blue curtain flowed over him as he passed through the bulkhead, and Sofia heard a loud crack. Did he just…slap himself?!
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
“Mr. Vice President! Madame Vice President! We need to go! Now!”
Richard Deming, Vice President of the United States, shielded his eyes against the sudden blazing light in his elegant Queen Anne bedroom. Secret Service agents were boiling into the room, guns drawn, taking defensive positions with rapid efficiency. He could hear the whine and whir of a landed helicopter keeping its blades spun up. His wife Beth pulled up the blankets to shield her body, squinting against the light. There was no need. The agents weren’t looking at her, but outward toward any possible threat.
“What’s happening?” Richard asked, scrambling out of bed and reaching for his boxers.
“Plane crashes. FAA is reporting six so far. Most near or at major airports, but one went down in Iowa. DoD has declared Washington restricted airspace and they’re scrambling fighters.”
“Shit!” Another goddamn 9/11! Awkwardly stumbling into his boxers, Richard grabbed some sweats from his wife’s bureau drawer and had them in his fists, when he froze. The agents upstairs were still calling the names of his children.
He tossed the sweats to Beth, feeling a mounting sense of worry.
“Are there any planes headed this way? How much time have we got?”
“Sir, one of your detail is also missing. Your evacuation is a top priority.”
“Leroy? He just left?”
“We found his clothes and weapon in a pile at his post.”
“Why aren’t the children answering?” Beth said worriedly as she squirmed into the sweatshirt.
“I’ll find out,” Richard said, jogging out of the bedroom, a pair of agents automatically forming up on him. He spotted a couple agents in the living room, crouched around what had to be Jenkins’ suit. On impulse, he sprinted over to it and bent down, reaching for the jacket. His hand froze.
The agents had rifled through the abandoned clothes and DragonSkin bulletproof vest, but it was still apparent that the suit had been found still buttoned up. As if Jenkins hand stripped out of it, then took the time to put it all back together again, including the top button of his shirt and his tie, all in place. But that was impossible. The agents patrolled.
“James! Emilie! Aisha!” An agent’s voice from upstairs.
“He won’t be needing this,” Richard said, finishing his reach under the jacket to pull the gun from Jenkins’ shoulder holster. In the back of his mind, Richard knew he looked ridiculous packing a Desert Eagle in his boxers with his paunch hanging out, and that the agents were all better shots than him. But it still felt better to have a gun in his hand. Keeping his finger outside the trigger-guard, he bounded up the stairs. By now Beth had emerged from the bedroom, and turned to run alongside him, her own pair of agents giving cover.
“Get to the helicopter!” he said.
“No!” Richard knew there was no point in arguing with her, especially when she was right. Beth’s blue eyes landed on the gun, and her eyebrow twitched upward with a hint of mischief. “I’ll get the baby.” He flashed her a brief smile, then hurried into James’ bedroom. The boy was nowhere to be found. His closet was already opened. His bed was empty, but the covers weren’t thrown back.
“Emilie! James! Aisha!” he called out sternly, with a creeping fear in his voice. “Now is no time to play hide and--!” He was cut off by his wife’s scream.
Richard turned back and ran to her side, his dutiful agents in tow. Beth stood by the crib, her face pale as death. Richard stepped up beside her, fearing what he would see. It was almost a relief to see the crib empty. No blood, no horribly mutilated child…but the crib wasn’t empty. Beth had pulled back the little quilted blanket. Rickie Junior’s knit cap was there, as were the matching knit booties. Between them was the diaper, still taped closed.
He exchanged a look of baffled horror with Beth. Then he reached in and pulled up the waistband of the diaper, looking inside for something…anything. It wasn’t even soiled. Beth looked over at the baby monitor. Its green LED was lit and cruelly steady, like a treacherous guard saluting crisply in front of a looted treasury.
Richard turned and ran to the next nearest bedroom, Aisha’s. Yanking back her blankets, he found her little nightgown crumpled onto the sheets, one sleeve draped over the stuffed unicorn she never went anywhere without. He reached out to touch the indentation on her pillow where her head should have been with trembling fingers.
“Oh, God, no…” Richard spun and ran back out into the hall. Beth emerged from Emilie’s room, flashing him a look of terror. By unspoken agreement, they ran into James’ room, Richard stalling just long enough to let Beth through the door first. She pulled back the blankets, then turned and threw her arms around her husband, burying her face in his shoulder.
Agents downstairs were still calling the children’s names, but the sounds of systematic ransacking were subsiding as the agents searched the last few possible hiding places.
“Sir…we have to go now.”
Richard whirled on the agent.
“WE ARE NOT! LEAVING THIS HOUSE! WITHOUT OUR CHILDREN!”
The agent consulted his earpiece.
“Sir, we’ve searched the house and the grounds completely.”
“SEARCH AGAIN!” Beth cried.
“Ma’am, we have to get you and your husband to a secure location.”
“Why? I’m just the fucking understudy!” Richard snapped. “If any of our children get away from whoever’s got them, they’re going to try to get here. And by God, their mother and father are going to be here waiting for them.”
“Sir…President Huckabee is missing as well. His entire family…” Richard stared into dark glasses for several pounding heartbeats. The gun in his hand snapped up to point its .50 cal. muzzle in the agent’s face. “Mr. Vice President—“
“The best goddamn security force on the planet,” Richard said in a low, deadly tone. “On the fucking planet! Now, I want you to tell me how in the hell someone can just waltz in here and steal my children out of their beds—out of their goddamn clothes for Christ’s sake!—and not one of you guys hears or sees or does a goddamn thing! What is this, a coup d’ etat? Hell, they even took one of your own guys for bonus points! Do you seriously expect me to believe that shit?”
“Mr. Vice President,” the agent said with a level of calm Richard would have admired under any other circumstances, “We don’t know any more than you do. That’s why we need to get you and Mrs. Deming to a secure location—“
“Secure location? THIS is supposed to be a fucking ‘secure location!’ Here’s the deal: You tell me what. The fuck. You people have done with my children. Or I blow your brains out, and then ask him" Richard said, jerking his head to indicate the detail's second in command, "what the fuck you guys have done WITH OUR CHILDREN!”
“Mr. Vice President, lower your weapon!” another agent said. They were clearly reluctant to make a move against the man they had sworn to protect, but they also had procedures in place for dealing with a charge who became mentally unstable and dangerous.
“You lower your goddamn weapons! Or use them. There’s two things I will not stand for: One is some banana-republic coup d’etat in my country. The other is anyone on this green Earth threatening my family, for any reason, what-so-fucking-ever.”
The phone rang.
Sofia couldn’t move. Transfixed on the cool slab like a frog pinned down for dissection, there was only the white noise of the ship, the all-encompassing bright light that hurt her eyes, and the sound of her own panicked breaths.
A face. Pointed chin, high round forehead, ridiculously tiny mouth and nose. Impossibly thin neck, and a slender body with spindly insect limbs. But Sofia hardly noticed those details. The eyes. The eyes. Huge almond-shaped orbs cut from the dark void of space.
Ellen? Jay? Where are you?
They scrutinized her with an utterly impersonal curiosity, missing nothing. Their abyssal gaze tore through her naked flesh to violate her soul. Sofia tried to scream, hurl a stream of blistering curses, cry out ‘What do you want from me?!’ The words stuck in her throat. Her lips couldn’t move, save to tremble.
Ellen! Jay! This is the worst stunt you two have ever pulled! When I get my hands on you I’m gonna tan both your hides!
The eyes raked down Sofia’s body. There was no sexual interest, no personal interest at all. Nonetheless, Sofia struggled against her invisible bonds.
~Are you pregnant?~
The foreign voice inside her head chilled her like an ice-cold drop of mercury trickling down her spine. Somehow she could feel that the creature got the answer it wanted. Its arm reached for a tray beside the table Sofia was lying on. Too-long fingers wrapped around something. An instrument of shiny metal and translucent crystal, vaguely and threateningly phallic, with a cluster of sharp needles at its tip.
The pure black wrap-around eyes did not merely dismiss Sofia’s will, her horror at what was coming, her very being. Such things were so far beneath the creature’s concern that they did not even strike its consciousness. Its teardrop-shaped head turned to her pudenda with clinical detachment as it moved to insert the device—
A bloodcurdling scream. Not just Sofia’s, as she jolted bolt upright in her seat. Her heart hammered as she frantically looked around, taking in the clean, off-white walls of the airliner, the rows of little oval windows on each side, some of them with plastic shields pulled down like closed eyelids. Her thick, wavy black hair bounced off her cheeks as her head spun back and forth.
The reassurance she should have felt seeing the familiar, human contours of the airliner eluded her as she felt a mounting sense of panic spreading through the other passengers.
“Ellen?! Jay?!” a woman cried, hurrying back down the aisle, stooping to look under the seats. “Where are you?! Come here this instant!” she said, her voice cracking with fear.
“Hey, lady, shaddap, some of us are tryin’ to sleep,” a half-mumbled complaint from further back in the aircraft replied.
“Frank?” Mrs. McGillicuddy said, her voice a mix of interrupted sleep and confusion. Her voluminous cloud of too-elaborately-styled hair was dented on one side, no longer ministry-worthy. She was looking at the seat between herself and Sofia, where her husband had been sitting. Sofia’s dark eyes followed hers, and she gasped with a sharp intake of breath.
“What the...? Don’t touch anything,” Sofia said. She reached into her purse to retrieve a terrycloth-wrapped elastic band and pulled her hair back into a ponytail so it would not drape into the “scene” and contaminate the evidence. She turned in her seat so she could bend over for a closer look, careful to avoid sudden moves that might jolt the clothes.
The man’s suit sat in his seat like the shed skin of a snake. Sofia’s throat went dry as she noted the way the pants were scrunched up in the waist and hips. So was what she could see of the shirt in the torso area. Vacuum. And for that matter, the fact that the jacket was only slightly slumped at the collar but otherwise still upright, as if it had been pressed into the seat back hard enough for friction to keep it from collapsing. Fourteen point seven pounds of air pressure per square inch could do that…
Sofia whipped out her iPhone and started taking pictures.
A hefty leather-bound Bible with gilded pages lay in the suit’s lap, turned to the Book of Daniel. The arms of the gray polyester suit-jacket and cheap dress shirt were still aimed toward it, as if they would still be holding the book, if they only had hands.
A little scattering of teeth nested in the crook of the Bible’s pages like a bizarre bookmark. If you change your mind and decide you want to talk, I’ll be here, feasting on the Word. Those were the last words the man had said to her, when she’d claimed a need to sleep as a way to escape a session of evangelism. With a shudder, she examined them more closely. Three of the teeth were joined to a flesh-colored plastic resting plate and metal connectors to attach them to their natural neighbors—a dental bridge. The others turned out to be crowns, and there were a few bits of metal she guessed were fillings.
How could this happen?! No, it couldn’t be them. That was a hypnogogic dream, she thought, putting her abduction experience—and the nightmares it still caused, out of her mind. Whatever this is, it’s happening outside my head…isn’t it?
Sofia bit her lip, and glanced at the airline magazines in the pocket in the back of the seat ahead of hers. She could read the words without difficulty. Apart from the clothes, the little details of reality were stable and continuous. Mrs. McGillicuddy looked on with wide, teary eyes. Her hands occasionally fluttered over the scene as she fought a nearly irresistible urge to grab something of her husband to hold onto.
“Oh God!” the woman in the aisle said, clapping her hands over her mouth as she caught sight of the uninhabited suit, eyes wide with recognition.
“Did you find your children’s clothes in their seats like this?” Sofia asked, looking up from her work.
By now several other passengers were starting to call out for missing loved ones.
“Children…missing?” Mrs. McGillicuddy said. “Oh dear Lord! It’s the Rapture!” Her eyes brimmed with tears as she started to tremble with incipient panic. Sofia set her iPhone down in her lap and took the woman gently by the shoulders.
“We don’t know that yet ma’am. There could be other explanations. We don’t even know that anyplace but this airplane is affected. Besides, if it was the Rapture, you’d have been taken too, wouldn’t you?”
“What else could it be? Oh Lord, I…I…must not have been sincere enough!”
“It could have been anything ma’am. Some kind of secret test like the Philadelphia Experiment, maybe even a natural phenomenon we haven’t encountered before. The Fortean literature is filled with reports of mysterious disappearances.” Sofia was highly skeptical of such things, and had personally investigated and found rational explanations some of the most popular accounts. But right now there was a terrified woman who needed alternatives to the idea that her God had turned his back on her and left her in the crosshairs of his wrath.
Sofia stood up. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said loudly, stepping into the aisle. “Whatever is happening here, the first thing we need to do is stay calm.”
“Stay calm?! My children are gone! We could all be next!” a man shouted. “And you want me to, what? Just relax and read a book?!”
“We’re flying at about six hundred miles an hour, thirty thousand feet above the ground. Do you think panicking could help?” Sofia said levelly. Emotions played across the man’s face. Fear, anger, helplessness… Tears welled in his eyes, but he gave a little nod.
“Alright, everyone who is missing someone, or sitting near someone who has disappeared, try not to disturb the clothes. We have to treat them like a crime scene. They’re the only clues we have about what happened. I don’t know if there’s a way to bring anybody back or not, but if there is, finding out what happened is the first step.”
Cameron “Buck” Williams sat in First Class, proof-reading his article about genetically-modified algae and bacteria developed by a biotech firm in Israel. His brow furrowed as he tried to make sense out of another one of Dr. Rosensweig’s explanations. All that science crap flew right over Cameron’s head, so he had no idea how to go about editing it.
Leave it raw, let the Gang of Four handle it. The Gang of Four was a team of junior writers and researchers Stanton Bailey had provided him as a personal staff to do the grunt-work.
Screams from the direction of Business Class and Coach broke Buck’s concentration. As far as he could tell, there was nothing wrong with the airplane, not so much as a moment of heavy turbulence. He grabbed his notebook and headed back to have a look, just in case there was a story to be had.
He stood in the doorway of the bulkhead that separated first class from the rest of the aircraft with a quizzical expression, trying to sort out the bizarre scene in front of him. It was like an episode of the Twilight Zone. People were calling names and staring into empty seats as if in panicked search for missing companions, or children. A young woman was leaning over toward the window seat comforting a crying old lady. As the younger woman released the elderly lady’s shoulders and leaned back, Buck caught a glimpse of a suit jacket, shirt and tie laid against the back of the seat, without a man in it. Fear and shock in the eyes of other passengers seemed to rule out a practical joke. But…people don’t disappear from airplanes in flight…
The young woman stood up from her aisle seat and stepped out into the middle. I’d hit that, Buck thought. Definitely. She had dusky skin and a head of thick, shiny black hair somewhat artlessly pulled back into a ponytail. She wore a sleek black leather jumpsuit that flattered her curvaceous figure.
Buck bristled as she started giving orders in a confident voice, telling people not to disturb the “clothes.”
“Excuse me, but who put you in charge?” Buck said. The woman turned striking gray eyes on him. They stood out brilliantly against her mocha complexion, fixing him with a penetrating gaze that made him lower his eyes to her chest.
“My name is Sofia Miranda Teresa de la Garza,” she said melodiously with a hint of a Spanish accent. “I am an astrophysicist and paranormal investigator working with the Center for Inquiry. And I’m not ‘in charge,’ I’m just--”
“A ‘paranormal investigator?’” Buck chuckled. “Seen any ghosts lately? Woo-ooo-OOO-ooooo,” he said, wiggling his fingers in an ooky-spooky gesture. “I’m Cameron Williams, senior writer for Global Weekly. But you can call me Buck,” he added with a lopsided grin. The other passengers didn’t laugh at his joke, staring at him open-mouthed instead. Being an award-winning reporter whose stories frequently graced the cover of the Weekly, Buck was used to the adoring public reactions that came with his fame, but this was almost enough to make him feel uncomfortable.
The woman looked at him incredulously for several seconds.
“As the leading reporter for a major news magazine, I’m much better qualified to lead an investiga—“
“You fatuous, supercilious popinjay! These people’s loved ones have apparently vanished into thin air, and your biggest concern is who’s in charge?!” she said, her eyes flashing like a freshly-drawn sword.
“It should be someone whose idea of ‘investigation’ doesn’t involve collecting blurry pictures of Bigfoot,” Buck said, feeling his neck redden and his pulse surge.
“If you want to investigate, then investigate.” Sofia turned to the willowy blond senior flight attendant who had just emerged from the service room in the rear of the aircraft and stopped in her tracks, trying to process the impossible situation of passengers just vanishing out of their clothes. “Could you please go to the cockpit, check on the status of the flight crew and the plane, and see if the pilots can find out if people have disappeared anywhere else?”
“Oh God! The pilots! What if they’re gone too?” a woman said, her voice rising to a high pitch of mounting horror.
“The plane is flying straight and level,” Sofia said, loudly enough for her voice to carry through the cabin. “We are not in any immediate danger of crashing. The flight crew, flight attendants, and air traffic controllers are fully trained in dealing with the unlikely possibility of a pilotless aircraft.”
Buck doubted the flight attendant could do anything for them if the pilots were gone, but the ‘paranormal investigator’s’ words apparently had their intended effect: staving off, barely, an outburst of unrestrained panic. Buck had to fight down a jolt of anger at himself for feeling fear for his safety, and then relief at the woman’s words.
“Our first order of business is to find out what we can about the disappearances,” she added. Buck felt that too, and saw it spread through the passengers. Direction. Purpose. We are not helpless victims. Let’s roll.
The flight attendant snapped out of shell-shock, nodded, and headed toward the cockpit at a brisk pace. Buck took a moment to check her out as she passed, noting that she filled out her skirt rather nicely. He turned his attention back to Sofia. For the briefest moment, he had a thought of her and the flight attendant together. Their luscious lips shyly, hesitantly, yet irresistibly drawn together for a languorous kiss. The flight attendant’s slender fingers reaching for the standing collar of Sofia’s jumpsuit to begin slowly, oh so slowly, unzipping…
In the present, he leaned to get a better view as Sophia crouched to reach under her seat to pull out a briefcase and set it on her seat. Bent over the suitcase, she seemed so completely oblivious to his existence that he might as well have been watching through her bedroom window with binoculars. She snapped back upright in a crisp movement, having retrieved a notebook and pen.
The momentary stirring in Buck’s loins was doused as she started speaking again.
“I’m going to write a set of questions on the first page of this notebook. If you could each write your contact information on a separate page and then answer—“
“Now is not the time to be taking orders from Miss Weekly World News,” Buck said, rewarding his fellow passengers with a conspiratorial smirk. The smirk became a full-blown grin as he turned to Sofia. “Why don’t you go back and see if you can break into the booze while the stewardesses are busy? I know that’s normally reserved for First Class, but we can break the rules just this once. Am I right?” he said, turning to invite the other passengers into his little scheme. “While you’re doing that, I’ll start taking statements.”
“Hey buddy,” a bull-necked man with a graying high-and-tight snapped. “You got a reason to keep us from finding out the truth?” Buck turned to him with a quizzical look.
“…Um…What? No…of course not! But who couldn’t use a good stiff drink right about now, eh?” Buck’s smirk faltered into a nervous laugh as the passengers turned their gaze on him. Meeting their eyes, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He struggled to grasp why their looks were filled with suspicion and incipient hatred.
Then it hit him. It was like he’d fallen into an episode of The X-Files. His lofty mainstream press credentials, the speed-dial list and Rolodex full of insider contacts any reporter would kill for, the awards and photos with world leaders, celebrities and Fortune 100 CEO’s on the wall in his palatial Manhattan office, his long list of Establishment-friendly articles and op-ed pieces, his casual mockery of Sofia’s fringe ‘credentials’…all extreme liabilities in the topsy-turvy world within the pressurized cabin of this 747.
Here and now, Paranormal Girl would be exactly what the doctor ordered. And Cameron Williams, the Insider’s Insider, would be the closest thing they’d have to a suspect.