Monday, December 20, 2010
Nicolae was staring out the plane window when it happened. He didn't know why it happened. Just that suddenly, the clouds had blurred and lurched right before his eyes.
Rayford had been praying under his breath, from the pilot's seat. There was no reply. Of course, there never was. Nicolae seemed to hear voices no-one else heard, Nicolae seemed to move to the rhythm of a strange and ineffable certainty, but for the Tribulation Force, there was only prophecy from times long gone, and the desperate hope that if they followed along for long enough, maybe this time they'd be given a sign.
They were the last believers, weren't they? The final hope? Surely the Lord wouldn't leave them stumbling blindly. Not again. Not even if there had been no warning, no chance, no time for farewells between those who were gone and those who were not -
No. He couldn't think about that. Emotions hurt too much. Faith would have to be enough, because faith didn't tap on his mental shoulder at the sight of every discarded child's toy and remind him of his son, of how Rayford had put everything off for later, and then 'later' had happened, and there were no more chances -
Stop it, stop it, stop it!
He couldn't break down. Maybe his focus on faith made him seem heartless, but it was the only thing holding him together. If he let himself consider the magnitude of the tragedy, if he let himself see it as a tragedy at all, his guilt and grief would swallow him whole.
And here I am, ferrying the Antichrist about his destined mission.
It was grotesque. Rayford almost swore under his breath - not allowed to say those words anymore. They might keep me from seeing them again.
His eyes hardened. He'd spent so long thinking he was a great and mighty hero, the renowned and dashing pilot. What would that pilot do, right now?
That pilot would do his duty by humanity. "To Hell with prophecy," he whispered, and jerked on the controls, sending the plane diving down toward the earth.
Nicolae opened his eyes. At least, he thought he did. From the sensations racking his body, he wasn't entirely sure he had eyes left to open, or eyelids to cover them.
This is not what was destined! The Malevolence was screaming at him.
"Please. Father. I don't know what happened, I don't know what went wrong, please - ahh - please, let it stop burning..." His words trailed away as he saw the charred skeleton of the plane around him.
Something told him not to look down at himself. He was likely in the same condition as the plane, and there were some things he just didn't want to see.
He looked anyway.
Nicolae screamed, just once.
I will not be denied! This is fated, and it shall not be prevented! You are the instrument of my will, Nicolae, and you will not die. I forbid it.
And then his flesh was creeping back onto his body, even as the plane reconstructed itself around him and rose slowly, painfully, into the air.
It was agony beyond agony. Why could his Father not let him rest? Why could he not find some new tool to carry out his cruelties? Tears coursed down Nicolae's cheeks, stinging flesh still red and raw as it healed with unnatural speed.
"Please... no more..." The words slipped out like the pitiful whimpering of a hurt child.
You will do my will, Nicolae. You will reign, and you will grant me your gratitude and service in all things.
Somewhere deep in his mind, he realised love had never been mentioned in that command.
Rayford writhed in place as his body was restored. How could he be sent back like this? He'd been so close to seeing them all again, he'd been sure he'd destroyed their enemy.
And then he heard it; a great voice, a sensation just like when he'd said the words.
The Presence was not welcoming this time. It was angry. It railed at him for his ingratitude and impiety, for daring to try to prevent what was destined.
"Lord, please, forgive me!" he gasped, eyes filling with tears. He'd been wrong; it was nearly unbearable.
Nicolae heard the quiet pleading and prayers of his pilot. He could almost pick up a sense of rage-filled replies in the air. He listened closer, reaching out with the sense he'd developed over time.
Strange, he thought, though he knew not the source of the chill rippling down his spine.
The voice they both heard sounded just the same.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
People asked for more A World Without God and I have been writing more of the story, after a fashion.
I've got a bunch of disjointed sections of A World Without God. In the end, if I ever get to that, it will probably be the case that some of this is canon, some of it is a apocrypha, and some of it is heresy. I'm not entirely sure which bits fall into which category. I'm trying to sort it into some kind of order, but in a lot of cases I'm not sure about the order.
Some of this is story, some of this is randomly quoting poetry, some of it is massive exposition dump, and some of it is simply random. And I didn't keep track of names so now I have two entirely unrelated Andrews.
Things in brackets are out of story comments.
I thought the link to after the jump was supposed to appear automatically, but it doesn't seem to be, so read it here.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
He didn't want to be having this conversation again. He tried to ignore her. He had something more important to do anyway. In theory clearing the memory card was the easiest thing in the world, put it in the reader, hook the reader to the computer, and tell it to transfer the files, and forget about it. In practice the only part of the process that worked properly was the memory card. If he didn't hold the reader perfectly still, which was nearly impossible in a moving car, the connection would break, and he'd need to tell it to move the files all over again. That might not be so bad, if not for the fact that the laptop's battery was shot and telling him it only had 15 minutes of power left. Given that it would shut down automatically when it got to seven minutes left, which never seemed right to him, it was critically important that he hold the reader steady.
Which was hard when she was saying things that made him so angry his hands shook. Couldn't they spend a day without talking about religion? He was clearing space on the memory card so they could take a thousand pictures of them having fun climbing a mountain. Wasn't that enough? Why did theology have to come into things?
Finally he couldn't take it anymore. “You think I deserve to go to Hell?” He didn't mean to say it that loudly and harshly, and for a moment he felt bad. But not enough to stop focusing on the computer and card reader.
And he was fully angry again. It was silly and self centered to think of it that way, and most of the time he would have recognized it as such, but at the moment it felt like a personal affront. She knew how much he hated people stopping mid thought like that. He had always said that if you didn't know what you were going to say you should take a moment to figure it out before you start talking. She knew that.
He gave her what he thought was a reasonable amount of time. And then more time. Nothing. “What?! But, what?” Nothing. He turned to her.
“Shit!” He didn't have time to think about how it was possible for her to be gone, how she got out, or why he didn't hear the door. He didn't have time to think about the way his computer went flying as his entire body lurched forward and his hand shot towards the wheel. Only one thing mattered: Getting control of the car.
When he turned his attention to the road he found there was no road. The car wasn't going down the interstate at seventy miles per hour. It was parked. In what appeared to be a Walmart parking lot. He didn't understand. Had be blacked out? He picked the computer up off the ground, 14 minutes of battery left, the clock had the same time, it was still on the same file.
No time had passed. Where was she? Where was the interstate?
Where was he?
Kelly was getting ready to lunge for the same hold that had made her fall of the wall twice before. This time it would work, this time she would grab it right and it'd be an easy climb the rest of the way to the top. This would be the day. She just had to go.
Which was a lot harder than it seemed. She knew the rope would hold her, she knew Jen was a great belayer. She'd been caught without problem a thousand times before. But the part of her that knew those things wasn't the part that was keeping her short of breath and making the chalk sweat off her hands.
She closed her eyes to collect her thought. Then everything changed. She wasn't holding onto the wall anymore. She was standing on solid ground. She opened her eyes. She would have been standing next to Jen, if not for the fact that Jen had disappeared.
Michael was looking out the window at the fields below. He loved watching the scenery go by and wondering what was happening down on the ground and today was perfect, not a cloud between him ad the view. Then suddenly everything changed. He said, “Jesus,” but it didn't seem like enough an explicative. The fields suddenly came up to the window and the engine had stopped.
The plane tilted to the left until the wingtip hit the ground. They were in a random cornfield. He later learned that the pilot, copilot, and nine of the passengers had disappeared.
The ambulance wasn't hers. The shift wasn't hers. The supplies laid out on the ground in front of her weren't hers. But the people on the ground were hurt, that made them patients. And she was the only one around who could help, that made them hers.
The explosion had apparently happened mere minutes before she was transported to the scene. No one remembered how they were pulled clear of the wreckage, nor could they explain where the ambulance came from.
It didn't matter. There was healing to be done, the tools were at hand, and the fact that they didn't actually belong to her wasn't going to stop her from using them.
He'd been watching Elizabeth Warren give a lecture, on tv, then suddenly he wasn't. His response was, he thought, understandable, “Where the hell am I?”
The only answer he got was warnings from the equipment monitoring the patient's vital signs. Explanations could wait, there was a surgery in progress. That he was qualified to complete the procedure couldn't have been a coincidence. Somehow, whatever made his predecessor, Doctor Mary Jacobs, disappear decided to replace her with him.
Perhaps she had been needed elsewhere, what little he had seen of her work indicated she was better than he was. Being magically transported wasn't what bothered him later. Nor was it the look in the eyes of woman who, shell shocked, told him that half an hour earlier she'd been 8 months pregnant, though he knew it should be, or if not that the sobbing he heard as he walked passed the maternity ward, infant care, and the children's wing.
What bothered him was that there hadn't been any time for learning on the job. The time it took him to find out what needed to be done the patient should have died. Instead all signs pointed to a full recovery. It was impossible. As if someone had hit the pause button until he got up to speed.
When he had lunch he found several others with similar impossible stories. One told of how he'd been so drunk he needed both hands on the wall to move, and then suddenly found himself sober in the place he was needed most. Another of being transported to the ideal place to catch and treat a man who had a heart attack after witnessing an entire school bus disappear.
She had to divide her attention between the road and the mirror. She wished she didn't have to spend so much on the mirror, but there was bullying going on and she was determined to stop it. Maybe she couldn't stop it everywhere, but she could make sure it didn't happen here. Not on her school bus.
Then, the children were gone. All of them. She didn't think about the fact that the bus had been in motion. She didn't think about what would happen if she let it choose its own way down the hill. She didn't think at all. She stood up and looked at the empty seats.
She called the names of the best students. Then the worst. Then she called every student whose name she knew. There was no response, and no sign of any of them, but it was impossible. Unthinkable. They couldn't simply be gone.
It would be much later that she realized that somehow the school bus had parked itself by the school, though she was nowhere near there when it happened.
Flying Pony wasn't a pony and she couldn't fly, but what she could do was jump and she was good at the steeplechase. Just as she was about to launch herself over a loon themed jump something changed on her back.
The weight of her rider was gone. She turned to look and then remembered the jump. She remembered it too late. She tensed, but never hit it.
She was alone in a field. Her rider, the jump, the course, the audience, the competition, everything was gone. All she could see was open field. She didn't ponder the question. She was a horse surrounded by tasty looking grass. She started to eat.
One moment there were six cheerleaders forming a pyramid. The next there were four cheerleaders all safely on the ground.
The tugboat didn't notice its entire crew disappear. It didn't notice that it was no longer in a crowded harbor, or that it's engine had been turned off.
A set of high definition cameras that a documentary crew had set up in hopes of seeing the Loch Ness monster recorded the tug's sudden appearance. The monster did not show up.
Friday, November 12, 2010
"I feel like I'm going to meet the devil," Rayford told Bruce. "I've never felt as scared as I am right now--and I hate to sound like I'm bragging, but I've never been easily frightened. I feel as if I'll fall apart in there! Buck may have gotten through a meeting with Carpathia, but he's younger and in better shape. I know that I can count on prayer support, but I still just want to turn around and run while I have the chance, and not look back."
On the other end of the line, Bruce listened sympathetically and instinctively nodded at Rayford's words, even though he knew Rayford couldn't see it. He didn't fault Rayford for being apprehensive--"apprehensive" nothing, the proper word would be "terrified". At any rate, it was a perfectly normal and human way to feel. But Rayford would need to keep his panic under control when meeting Carpathia. And even if Bruce were to forget all about the Trib Force's mission, hearing another human being in such distress made him want to ease that distress. It was simply his nature.
"Okay Rayford, try to stay calm. I believe you'll be able to get through this. We all do. And things aren't as bad as you think. First, you're not literally going to be meeting the devil; only if you were encountering the Antichrist in the second half of the Tribulation would you actually be dealing with the person who was possessed by Satan himself. Second, you don't need to be in excellent physical shape for something like this. As long as you're not prone to heart attack, you should be fine. And between you and me, I think you might actually have more stamina than Buck; he might have hit the weights on a regular basis, but the poor guy can't walk very far before he needs a rest."
When Rayford next spoke, Bruce was glad to hear that he did sound a little most composed.
"So what is Carpathia, then, if he's not actually the devil? Some second-rate demon?"
Certainly, Bruce thought, Rayford wouldn't have asked a question like that when he'd first called. When he had picked up, Rayford had indeed sounded like he was on the verge of falling apart. At that point, his focus wasn't on the nature of his enemy as much as it was on securing protection from his enemy. Primal flight instinct, Bruce thought. An animal confronted by a predator just wants to run away, get away as fast as it can. Only when it feels some measure of safety does its fear become replaced with some measure of curiosity, as seemed to be the case with Rayford now.
"Well, no," Bruce answered. "If he were a demon then I doubt he'd be a second-rate one, but that's moot because he isn't. Just the same as Jesus wasn't an angel. And, as I've already told you, Carpathia is not a manifestation of Satan, or even possessed by Satan. The simple answer is that Carpathia is a human being. He's a human being who has been given supernatural abilities by Satan, but human nonetheless. A human whom Satan has spoken to since the day of his birth. You almost have to feel sorry for him."
"WHAT?! How can you say that, Bruce?! I mean, this man is the Antichrist, and for the first time in my life I'm saying that about somebody without hyperbole! He's the embodiment of evil! He's the enemy, and you're saying that we should feel sorry for him for some reason?"
Me and my big mouth, Bruce thought. Sharing that particular opinion with Rayford had him back to near-hysterics.
"Rayford, I'm sorry that I've upset you. Please, let me explain. Imagine if you heard a voice in your head your entire life, a voice telling you to do this or that, a voice that praised you for some actions and berated you for others. A voice that drowned out the voices of your parents, teachers, people you looked up to, and a voice that you could never silence. That is what Satan has done with Carpathia. That's how Carpathia was groomed for the role Satan had planned for him. It's difficult to imagine any normal person not eventually succumbing to such mental conditioning. He had no choice in the kind of human he would grow up to be, and because of that he is doomed to burn for eternity. Jesus told us to be merciful, Rayford, to love our enemies, and a logical extension of that love is to pity them when they are in pain. Nicolae Carpathia may be evil, but I still wouldn't wish the fate that's in store for him on anybody."
Silence, but no dial tone. Bruce wondered if he ought to say something more, and then...
"I can't believe you're actually sympathizing with the son of Satan," Rayford's voice grated through the phone. Bruce's words had apparently fallen on deaf ears. Rayford sounded angry and disgusted with him. "He's EVIL. He DESERVES it."
It's not that simple, Rayford! Bruce wanted to shout into the phone. But he could tell that it would only make things worse.
"Look, Rayford, I have to go, all right?" Bruce lied. "We can talk more about this later. Just try to calm down. Meeting Carpathia while full of rage could be as bad as meeting him while full of fear. I'll make sure to pray for you and get the others to do the same, so you don't need to worry. Good luck."
Click and a dial tone.
Bruce hoped that he hadn't made things worse. Was he wrong, he wondered? Did pitying somebody condemned to suffer for eternity make him a bad person? Did God frown on that?
He hoped not. He couldn't help it. And he wondered, not for the first time, how a loving God could condemn even the likes of Nicolae Carpathia, even Satan himself, to such horrible and neverending punishment.
Monday, November 1, 2010
An ongoing effort to re-write the relationship between Cameron and Chloe; the original scene being re-written can be found here and here with Fred's commentary.
Cameron dragged himself to the airplane gate, glassy-eyed and near-mindless. Dinner with the Steeles was a strange but invigorating affair. On the one hand, he had to stop himself from mooning over the Captain's young daughter; he kept wanting to stare, to drink in the details of her face. On the other hand, if Steele's claims were true, then the internet-based attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities (the Gog botnet) and on the Russian Army (the elusive MaGog computer virus) were connected to The Event, and all of it was really just a warm-up for what was coming next. Cameron had researched conspiracies before, uncovered what powerful corporations and governments had wanted to cover up, and before dinner was done, he had already started identifying sources to contact, questions to ask, and information to research.
Which was why, less than 12 hours later, he was barely conscious as he boarded his flight to Chicago. He'd spent most of the night writing emails, making phone calls, and lining up interviews with trusted sources. What he hadn't done much of was sleep, and his memory of Coach seating at Pan-Con didn't offer much hope of rest. He'd bought a bible at the airport gift shop, and had notes on sections to read and cross-reference with other sections.
"Mr. Williams?" The preternaturally-chipper employee at the gate had keyed in his ticket information and seemed amused. "It looks like you've been upgraded to Business Class. We hope you enjoy your flight."
Cameron blinked groggily before remembering the Captain asking about his travel arrangements the night before. Was Rayford trying to butter him up, make him think better of the Captain and by extension make his Rapture theory more plausible? Cameron smirked at the thought: sure, he'd been offered huge bribes, threatened by third-world dictators, but hey, an upgrade to business class? That changes everything!
(more below the cut)
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
The room was tense, leaders from varied religions had been asked by Carpathia for a conference. There were some curt looks between people, ethnic and religious hatreds died hard. However they came, a mixture of obligation, curiosity and perhaps a desire to meet Carpathia brought them. He entered, eyes drawn to him, the small conversations stopped.
"Gentlemen, I asked you here for a fairly complex discussion, I invited each of you specifically either due to your devotion, charisma or various good works." Privately it was also because many of them had ambitions and prejudices he could exploit, but that was for later. "I ask you here because the situation we face is, for lack of a better term, of a divine nature."
Silence, to be expected, given what happened most people believed that the comment about electromagnetism was a lie but said anything openly. "The disappearances were a declaration of war by an entity that aspires to be the divinity of mankind. It acted as a thief, abducting our children and its most loyal as well as taking those that would cause great havoc if they vanished." He saw the skepticism in their eyes, he paused, this would have to be a more subtle application than usual of his normal powers to manipulate minds, making them mere puppets would be impractical he instead let them feel a kind of awakening, a feeling of living light coursing through them, a growing epiphany as he spoke.
"There is a divinity...perhaps it is the oversoul of the enlightenment perhaps it is Allah, Krishna, I know not. I felt its presence, its voice when the disaster came, I was told of what had happened and what was to come, I pleaded for its aid, it gave me some insight and knowledge of what will come. It has been sensed by others as well, many of the holy men of the past have felt it indirectly and tried to interpret it." And now the rage, many of them shouted now or proclaimed in anger how they had nothing in common with the heathen and 'other' that the other religions represented.
"How Dare you?!"
"You know not enlightenment nor what you speak!"
Carpathia growled out, "LISTEN TO ME," letting himself deflate slightly he looked at them plaintively, "Please..please listen. This being, this false divinity that stole our families and tore this world asunder isn't done. It's going to try to break the back of our societies and turn us into mindless slaves. The divinity that spoke to me, that tried to aid me..I..I can't do this alone. You are all men and women of power, charisma, and influence. If humanity is to have a hope against this threat, then we can't keep battling over the varied texts, we can't let ourselves stand divided against a foe that will try to devour us whole."
He stepped back, tears filling his eyes, crying on cue was a useful trait and one that he had honed. "Please, I wouldn't ask all this of you if I wasn't desperate. Things are far worse than this false divinity, the being that stole children and tore families asunder still has followers here on this world, some coming to bow after the event. What I have seen says that great horrors will be unleashed and that they will be rendered immune! There are too many innocents that will suffer, too many of our remaining brothers and sisters that will entrapped in the coming darkness unless we stand together."
The seed of epiphany had been planted before, and he could sense the gentle nudging of their own desires, some saw a chance for power, others saw a chance to ensure primacy of faith, and more than a few saw a chance to prove that their way was the right way, and each found ways to cloak their selfish aims in the noblest of cloth. It helped that they felt a brush of a powerful hand, and each assumed it was their own. One of them finally spoke, "What would you have us do?"
Carpathia took a deep breath, his face looking pained, "I ask that we call an ecuminical council, claim a grand revelation that shows a united path. If we can do this we have a chance. Faith is a bond that can hold us together even in crisis, and if the true divinity, the one that inspired the true prophets can speak to us we might find protections of our own, at least that much we can hope."
He listened to their words, but more their thoughts, shaping a few simple ideas, and in the end each one had their basic plans, a true unity he reflected. Each one planned to publicly support the unified system but secretly explain that theirs alone was the only right way, plenty more strife and it would make future 'witch hunts' all the easier. Ah, humanity.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
I got the three back to their community this morning. Those there seemed like nice people. It was a refreshing change to meet people who seemed genuinely ... nice. Kind hearted, as if they had somehow avoided the rot that afflicted the rest of humanity. It was the first time since the fall that I'd meet people that I didn't feel I had to be on my guard with. They gave me food, they gave me water, and for much of the day they simply talked to me. They told me of their theory for what happened. They believed that God had caused the disappearances and, haven taken the righteous, would punish the world for seven years before returning in glory to save us all.
There were some points I might have nitpicked in that theory given time, but I was more interested in where they got it. I was assured that it came from the Bible (though I had never heard of such a thing) and they promised to tell me more later. Then they asked about me. I told them about Jessica, and how I hope to save her.
That's when it went wrong.
When the word “witch” was mentioned I realized that perhaps telling them about how I could feel that Jessica was still alive wasn't the best idea. Maybe I should have said that I thought she was alive, or guessed it, or maybe I shouldn't have brought it up at all. The point is, when previously nice seeming people suddenly turn cold and approach you in a menacing way and the first thing one of them says is, “You shall not suffer a witch to live,” something has gone horribly wrong.
The person who ran throughout the entire settlement shouting, “Witch!” probably didn't help either. Soon it seemed that every one of them was roused. I found myself walking backwards slowly, empty hands in front of me, palms facing them, so that they could see I was unarmed and not a threat.
I tried to explain that I wasn't a witch. It didn't work. One said, “That dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death.”
That didn't make a lot of sense to me, but I wasn't going to let it go unchallenged. “Now hang on a minute,” I almost tripped over a root, but caught myself and kept walking back. I didn't want to run for fear they'd chase, but I also didn't want them even one step closer to me. “I didn't dream any dreams.”
They kept on approaching. In unison, which bothered me for some reason. I'm not sure why people walking in lockstep would be more troubling to me than, say, the furry cat sized many legged demon beasts that I once saw devour a live moose, but it was.“There's no dreams here.”
But there was the knowledge that I did have a power that I couldn't explain. I'd used it to save these people's friends, so I wasn't sure why they had such a problem with it. That moment seemed to be the perfect time to test whether or not I could use it on command, considering that I figured I was unlikely to survive without it's help. I tried to call up the feeling I had had.
It worked, things again came into sharp focus. It didn't help. I could see every pore on each of their faces. It didn't help. I was sure that, if I wanted to, I could empty my gun killing one of them for every bullet fired. That was useless. So what if I killed a bunch of them? There would be a hundred more.
From the back of the growing crowd, a chant of, “Burn the witch,” arose. I was pretty sure that wasn't Biblical, but I figured I had to choose my battles. I tried to push my senses further.
I was flooded with information. Of the crowd in front of me three deserved more attention than the rest, they were somewhat closer to me than the others, and would be the first to act when actions finally came. They were each armed with a pistol. The one on the left had an old 22. It was well built, but misaligned. It would misfire three out of every ten shots. If I had to let one get a shot off, having him be the one would minimize the risk. The other two had newer guns, identical to each other and several other guns in the crowd. Standard issue of some kind. They'd probably been looted from the local police. All three had old injuries, but they'd all been healed. Nothing that could help me in a fight. Besides, if I actually tried to fight the crowd would be on me in moments.
I'd backed out passed the buildings, which meant no cover until I reached the trees. I found that I knew the locations of the trees nearest me without looking. I also knew that there was exactly one person behind me. She wasn't a threat. She was standing alone off to my right. She wasn't moving, she didn't seem to know what to do. She was unarmed.
In fact, every single woman in the community was unarmed. That seemed odd. It couldn't be for lack of guns. There were more guns than there were men. The population was split about fifty-fifty along gender lines: one hundred and thirty five men, one hundred and forty six women. There were two hundred and three guns. The oddity wasn't just in guns. Of all of the knives there was only one in the possession of a woman. She was cooking. One of five women who kept working instead of joining the “Burn the witch” crowd. Of the other four, three were washing clothes and one was sewing a patch into the worn out knee of a pair of jeans. No men were still working.
Anyway, I considered using the woman as a hostage, but quickly rejected the idea. If these people were convinced that they would go straight to heaven when they died, the possibility of one of their own dying might not be much of a deterrent. At best she'd be a human shield they might shoot right through.
I tried to find anything useful in the information I had. The ground hadn't been cleared of roots, the fact that I knew where they were and could avoid being tripped up without looking might be some kind of advantage, but not enough to deal with one hundred and thirty five armed men.
I pushed my new found, definitely not in any way satanic, ability further … and learned nothing of value. The buildings they'd set up were somewhat shoddy, they didn't seem to know what they were doing. Critical joints were held together by fraying twine while high quality screws were wasted in places they weren't even needed. They had a somewhat eclectic collection of possessions, the most notable being an apple peeler and corer which couldn't really have much practical value, especially considering the total lack of apples. They had an impressive stockpile of canned food, it was stored in an large basement dug out beneath one of the houses. For some reason they had a lot of canned tomatoes.
By pushing my consciousness outward more I was able to tell how many of them were wearing crosses (one hundred and seventy three) and what metal most of those were composed of (pewter.) That totally failed to help. As did every other bit of similar trivia I discovered.
All of that took three steps to learn. Three steps from when I first called on the ability to when it told me about pewter crosses. On the fourth step back I realized that I was looking at things the wrong way. I'd been dealing with inhuman things too long. Things that were faster than me. Things that could follow my scent and see me in the dark. Things that I couldn't simply run from. And so, somehow, I forgot one of the most important lessons videogames had ever taught me: running away is a perfectly legitimate tactic. When dealing with humans at least.
No one approaching me was especially well trained. They probably weren't the best shots. I didn't have to make it that far. As soon as I was in the trees it should be easy to prevent them from getting a line of sight, and I should also be able to out run them. I could feel the position of the trees, I knew where roots and branches were in the way. I knew that if I could just make it to the woods I could get away.
I spun and ran as fast as I could, guns were fired, but when I made it to the first tree only dirt, rock and wood had been shot. I was steps from being in the clear when someone finally aimed their weapon properly. I could feel that the shot was good, and I could tell that it was too late to get out of the way. I felt the trigger being squeezed, I sensed the hammer fall, and as the primer ignited I started to realize that I was going to die. Then something impacted the gun.
The bullet didn't stay in the gun long enough for it to be pushed too far off course, but it was enough. A tree to my left took the shot and in two steps I was safely out of the line of fire. It was sometime around then when I realized what the something that hit the gun had been. It was whatshername, one of the three I had saved. I guessed there was such a thing as karma. As near as I could tell she didn't face retribution, so no one got hurt. Except the tree, but it could take it.
So, overall an interesting day. I've got a full belly and they've long since given up on chasing me. Now I lay me down to sleep.
[Since the last one the food situation has been resolved and the narrator has set out on his own to rescue his friend]
I could hear people, which so far had never been a good thing. Definitely worth finding out who they were before they knew I existed. I found out that they were in the middle of a quarry, or a sandpit, or something like that. Steep gravelly sides, one of which I was peering over the edge of. I'd played in places like it when I was young, it was impossible to come down the sides and stay in control. You had to run as fast as you could just to keep from falling over forward, and the surface slid out from under you with every step. The only sane way in would be the road, which in this case required a long coverless approach.
As places to be went, it wasn't that bad. You had a pretty good defense against anything that didn't fly. Anything that came in down the road you'd see a mile away, anything that came down the side would be at a disadvantage.
They'd lit torches, in a circle. Seven men with guns were standing, with knives, over three people they'd tied to stakes. You don't need to be told what's going on when you see that. Criminals you shoot in the head. If bullets are scarce then it's a knife to the back of the neck, between vertebrae. The only reason to take time is for fun.
I licked my lips as I thought about all the things I could do with a knife and three helpless strangers.
I shook my head but the thoughts wouldn't leave. I pushed them to the back of my mind. If they had to be in there let them stay in the dark recesses. Let them be confined to the unlit corridors and musty storerooms. Not in the front, in the light, on stage. Anywhere but there.
I was busy, I didn't have time for ... fun.
I had to figure out what to do with the situation in front of me. Really it was simple: There were more of them than there was of me. They might have their knives out, but a glance was enough to see that they were all armed with more. I was pretty sure I saw both handguns and rifles. The victims were strangers. I had things to do. The best course of action was downright obvious.
Except... except that once upon a time it would have been just as obvious, yet completely different. Before I would have known exactly what to do. I would have felt it deep inside. Back then I knew what was right. Ever since things changed I had been trying to get that back. I was hoping that if I went through the motions of doing the right thing, eventually it would become habit and maybe, eventually, something more.
Everything I did was predicated on the idea that maybe, someday, my moral compass would start working again. Until then I was groping at the memory of where it used to point. And that memory said, “You don't leave unarmed people to be slaughtered.”
Problem being, that was suicidal. How was I supposed to regain my humanity if I was dead? I didn't have an answer.
I said, “Fuck it,” to the world, and charged.
My first steps were wobbly. The ground was just as bad as I expected and I was pretty sure that I'd be dead before I had a chance to do anything.
Then something changed. My footing got surer. My vision got clearer. I felt liked I'd just had my glasses professionally cleaned. I chose my target, I imagined that the man lit up like I had selected him in a computer program. I drew my gun, I found I didn't need to aim, I just pointed the gun where it felt right, pulled the trigger, and the man died.
It should have surprised me. Normally I can't hit a target at ten feet if I'm standing still and looking straight down the sight. Yet for some reason it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Normally the sound of my own pistol makes me recoil, this time it washed over me without jarring me at all.
I didn't need to look at where the gun was pointing, I felt it, I didn't need to look at where the men were, I felt it. I knew the feeling. It was the same thing that told me Jessica was still alive. It was what told you someone was watching when your senses told you you were alone. It was what told you to duck just before something jumped out at you. It was everything the eyes can't see and the ears can't hear.
I gave myself over to it, trusted it to show me what to do. I chose another target. Again, I pointed where it felt right, pulled the trigger, and the man died. Time seemed to slow down. Another round fired, another enemy down. A bullet kicked up dirt to my left, some bastard had shot on me, I figured I should return the favor. Unlike him, I didn't miss. It was as easy as point and click. I did it again, I watched as one casing was ejected and the next round moved into place. I found I could feel the action slide, I felt the round as it was positioned, I moved with the hammer, the feeling of the primer igniting was indescribable, almost ecstasy. Expanding gas pushed the round from the gun, and soon another man was dead.
Tension in me released with that of the spring in the magazine as another round was pushed into place. Again I went through the motions of firing the pistol -I dropped with the hammer, ignited with the primer, expanded with the gas- but this time my awareness exploded forward with the bullet. I was flying. Spinning through the air. Flesh and bone tried to stop me, but the best they could do was slow me down.
Then I was back in myself. Standing on the quarry floor. The last of the men falling to the ground before me. Seven shots fired, seven people dead. It was impossible. But it had happened, and there were still the three tied up people to deal with. Two women, one man.
I pulled out my knife and cut them free before I could process the ideas that inevitably sprang into my mind. Before I said anything to them, before they said anything to me, I armed them with weapons taken from the nearest dead guy. They thought it was because I trusted them; they were wrong. How could I trust them? I didn't know them. The truth was that I would much rather find myself shot than have to face what I might do when faced with three people who couldn't defend themselves.
The most terrifying thing in the world these days is having power over another human being.
They offered me food and supplies if I could return them to their people. I would have rather left them there and just gone to find Jessica, but the problem with not knowing where you're going is that you don't know how much food you need to pack to get there. I was running low on food.
So we're going. Together. In the wrong direction.
You could feel that the world had changed, right after the disappearances. Inside of you something changed. Your conscience was weaker. Negative thoughts crept in more often, and were harder to shake out. The suffering of others didn't effect you as much.
I thought it was just a response to the tragedy at first. With so much pain it made sense to put up walls, but that wasn't it. Compassion and empathy deadened. You had to fight to keep feeling them. You had to fight to keep the horrible thoughts from your mind. You had fight with all your will not to become something inhuman. Most people weren't up for the effort.
As things got worse with people, other changes went unnoticed. The sudden problems with sea travel barely made the news, and the reports of monsters were treated with scorn the few times they were mentioned. By the time people realized humanity wasn't the only thing that had been changed it was too late. The oceans belonged to them.
Soon after I saw my first monster. It wasn't one of the coiled sea beasts, it was something else entirely. Some nameless horror from within the earth. The ground rumbled, the earth split open, and the first pieces of it reached the surface. It was formless, a mass of flesh and bone that had never known a designer's hand. It's limbs grabbed buildings, and people, and trees. Some smashed through the ground and acted as anchors, and it pulled itself from the earth. Its own bones shattered and reformed as it moved, that was the only noise you could hear over the destruction.
Once it was out it started eating. It didn't seem to discriminate. People, pets, cars, statues, buildings; it ate them all. It would skewer something or someone on one of its limbs, and then drag its victim back to its central mass, a mouth would tear open, engulf its food, then close and disappear beneath the thing's shifting skin.
I was there when it first broke through, in a field half a mile from the house where I grew up. That was around quarter of eight in the morning. By sunset the town I'd spent my whole life in was gone. Devoured.
Fun fact: the interstate highway systems was created for two reasons. The first was to be able drive a tank anywhere in the country at a speed of 50 miles per hour. The second was to allow the survivors of a nuclear holocaust a way to get far enough away from the cities that they might rebuild along the road. Neither of those things actually requires more than one state to be involved, which is why there are interstates in Hawaii.
Not that I've ever been to Hawaii. What the interstates did not anticipate was that those fleeing the cities might be followed by things that wanted to eat them. There isn't any cover if you're on the road. We lost at least a hundred in the first attack. No one knows what did it; no one who stopped to look survived. We went to the woods after that.
It wasn't safe, but it seemed safer. Things moved in the shadows, at first we thought it was just the wildlife, but it set in, gradually, that there was something else. Something smarter than foxes and bears. There was never a scream, never a struggle. Every so often someone would simply stop being there.
All the while we degraded. A notion would slip into your mind, something you never thought you'd ever think. Something you knew should disgust or horrify you, but instead you'd find it enticing. No matter how you tried to drive it out, it would linger, every free moment it would occupy your thoughts. The urge to simply do it would grow and grow. Some people gave in.
Your perspective on the world is forever changed the first time you dump the body of someone you executed in a ditch, fully aware that you wanted to do the very thing you shot him in the head for doing. That you still want to do it. That your desire to do it keeps growing. That someday you'll give in and then you'll be the one in a ditch. Or worse still, you'll get away with it. That no one will stop you and you'll just keep on doing the same thing.
Several thousand people made it out of my home town with me. Inhuman monsters could only be blamed to bringing that number down to around two thousand, that means that the reason the current population is barely half that can be blamed solely on ourselves.
I came to realize that the religious people were right. It don't claim to know the exact truth, I have no denomination, but it is clear to me that there was some cosmic battle between good and evil. There was some greater good outside of ourselves. Something that kept our darker impulses at bay, something that propped us up and prevented us from ever having to face the true horror of human nature. Something that fought to hold back the darkness. And it lost.
It lost when the disappearances happened. Since then we've been on our own, and everything we were once protected from has come out of hiding, crawling from the darkest cracks of the world, and the darkest recesses of our minds. Things best kept in darkness have started coming into the light.
I don't know what happened to the missing, I don't know where they went, but it can't be worse than here. I like to think that they're evacuees. That whatever was holding back the evil in the world knew it couldn't hang on any more and loaded as many as it could into the lifeboats. Children first. Then some adults. As for the rest of us, there just weren't enough life boats.
Some people still refuse to believe the religious explanation, but any doubts I had were washed away when Danny died. At first it seemed like he had succumb to his baser instincts. He just went hunting, with a pistol. First a teenage boy, then a teenage girl, then those who came to investigate the screams and shots, then random people, then those sent to hunt him.
But when we finally found him you could see something was different, there was something in him, and around him, it made him difficult to look at, your eyes couldn't quite focus, he almost seemed blurry around the edges. He was fighting with whatever it was, he had tied himself to a tree and it was trying to make him free himself. We didn't get a chance to kill him, he did it himself.
Though he put the gun to his head, the wound wasn't immediately fatal. I think he tried to tell us something as he was dying, but it was impossible to understand. Whatever got in him wasn't an alien or an inter-dimensional whatever, it was supernatural. He was possessed.
I don't know how you fight that. I don't have any garlic and I doubt it would work anyway.
Danny was a reminder, I'm just not entirely sure of what. Don't let your guard down? There's always something worse?
Two days later the last person I knew from before was taken. Not killed, taken. An inky black thing appeared behind her in the night. Other than the wings it looked like a poor attempt at sculpting a human. I could have done something. I saw it, I saw its faceless head turn to me, then to her. I should have warned her, told her to run, or duck, or something, but I couldn't find the words. Malformed arms wrapped around her, and with a flap of its wings she was gone.
She's still alive. I can feel it. I don't know how, I don't know why, and I don't care. It's enough to know. Trouble is, I can't get her back right now.
When we were all too busy dealing with foreign thoughts creeping into our minds, missing persons, and the damage left by the disappearances we failed to notice another change. We didn't notice until after we were forced to flee our homes. There was one change more subtle than the rest, which threatened us more than each other, more than any abomination. The land had changed too. Crops started to wither in the fields, fields we had hoped to live off of.
It's clear now that there will be no harvest, so we did the sensible thing. We found a city that hadn't been destroyed. It was abandoned, no doubt for fear of the others, and we looted it. All the food we could carry. Then we went back for more. We got enough that I thought that maybe, just maybe, we could survive. Yesterday it was stolen. Every can. The people guarding it were killed. Not just killed. Whoever did it to them enjoyed themselves.
I don't know a lot about wounds, but a medical student we have told me what was done to them while they were alive. Don't really want to know how she could tell.
It was done with knives, the others don't need knives. They have claws, and teeth, and worse. That means humans did it, that means humans stole it, that means we can get it back. Maybe. Without knowing how many and how armed there's always the chance this is suicide. Hence this.
I realized that I've left nothing behind. The place where I lived my life is gone. I went back once, I told people to see if anything could be scavenged nearby, but the truth was that I wanted to see it. I was hoping something would be left. There wasn't. It was a hole in the ground. A canyon dug by that thing's teeth, heading westward as far as the eye could see. Everything I ever made, or influenced or touched before my hometown fell was gone.
If I die, I want to leave something behind. Something that says that I was here. Something that makes me more than a forgotten casualty. I've never written a diary before, I guess I'm not very good at it, but at least it's something. If I live to write another entry I promise it'll be less scattered.
One other thing. If I don't make it back, if I do in fact die. That means I won't be able to save my friend. You have to. I don't know who you are, I don't know what you think, but it doesn't matter. You have to save her. This is imperative, it is non negotiable.
Finding her is simple. Head north west. When you start to feel like something is wrong, like you shouldn't be doing this, that means you're going the right way. Follow that feeling. As it grows in the pit of your stomach that means your getting closer. Follow it until you feel it in your bones. When every part of you is screaming at you to turn back, to give up, to drop everything and run like hell, keep going.
If you do that I'm sure you'll find her, and I know she's still alive. I can feel it as clearly as I can feel the pen I'm using to write this with. Her name is Jessica, she has green eyes and brown hair. She was wearing a red shirt and bluejeans when she was taken. Find her, and save her. If your conscience has faded to the point you can't see any altruistic reasons for doing it, then consider this: if I had been taken instead of her, she would have rescued me by now and gotten our food supplies back. She's that good. Your chances of survival are much better with her on your side than they'd ever be alone.
Sunday, October 10, 2010
Buck was about to interview the many many thought would be the next Pope, but his mind was entirely on Chloe. They'd touched again last night. Nothing impressive, he just put his hand to her cheek, but if felt right, he wanted to do it again. He'd spent his whole life in a world without literal human contact. He had lived in a bubble only broken by handshakes and those were mostly with people he was pretty sure were trying to screw him over or sources met in dirty cafes and grungier allies. Nothing to compare with the experience of simply reaching out and touching Chloe's cheek.
He wanted more of it, he want to experience that physical connection again. And then again and again. Was he going too fast? To slow? Why the hell hadn't anyone ever thought to explain any of this to him? It was like the world went from thinking him to young, to assuming he already knew. Should they hold hands next time they met? When did they reach the point where they could tear each other's clothes of and have sex?
And where the fuck did that leap come from?
That bothered him. It wasn't supposed to work like that. Or was it? Did it mean that he was mistaking lust for love, or was it natural to think that way about someone you loved?
Why in hell didn't the give out a manual for this shit in high school?
It was time to start the interview and he tried to push everything out of his mind, but the attempt failed and he had to start while distracted and frustrated.
"Why didn't you tell me you were a candidate for the papacy?" Buck began. Some part of him realized it was rude and needlessly confrontational. This was not how they taught him to interview in school, but his mind wasn't on what he had been taught, it was on what his education left out.
"So, we're just going to jump right into it, are we?" Mathews said. "Don't you like a little champagne in the morning?"
When he said, “No thanks,” Buck realized that his tone was unacceptable. He didn't care, he was pissed off and Mathews was there. The fact that he wasn't pissed off at Mathews -that Mathews wasn't in any way responsible for his insecurities or his ignorance when it came to love and dating- didn't matter. Mathews was there, Buck needed to vent, Mathews got to be the target.
"Well, you won't mind if I have a little pick-me-up."
"Suit yourself. Tell me when you're available to chat."
"Thank you, Caryn," he said, as if to an old friend. Apparently she was. When she was gone he whispered, "The Litewski family, from my first parish. Baptized her myself. She's worked this flight for years. Now where were we?"
The reporter in Buck clawed its way back back to the surface and he realized that this was a perfect opportunity to get Mathews to talk about his early career. Talking about Caryn and his first Parish could be used to segway into why he joined the priesthood, what his experience was like being a simple priest, what he his hopes and dreams had been. Whether he ever saw himself as becoming Pope back then, and if he did what he thought he'd do as Pope. From there it would be easy and natural to move on to how things had changed since then in the church and the world, as well as how Mathews had changed.
By bringing up his first parish Mathews had opened the door to a very personal way to approach talking about Mathews entire career. Even corny questions like, “What do you think the Father Mathews who baptized Caryn would say to Pope Mathews?” could be just the kind specific detail needed to differentiate his article from every other “The man who will be Pope” article that would be flooding the market.
Buck could even interview Caryn to get the view from a parishioner and – Buck suppressed a shudder. The last time he took an interest in a flight attendant he wound up getting her a job for the antichrist and hadn't figured out a way to get her back out again. He'd gone through a thousand things to say in his head, and always came back to the same problem. Anything that she would believe wouldn't convince her to leave, anything he said that might have the power to convince her to leave wouldn't be believed. He needed to find something to make her leave Nicolae's employ that didn't resort to things that she would dismiss as religious fanaticism.
Buck wasn't going to risk screwing with Caryn's life.
Mathews had apparently had his fill of silence, "Oh, yes, you were wondering why I didn't mention the papacy. I guess I thought everyone knew. Carpathia knew."
[After telling Buck that he will very definitely become Pope, and that this will mean much more than being in charge of the Roman Catholic Church, Mathews says:]
"It'll be announced later this morning, and if you do not quote me directly, Ill give you the first shot at it."
Buck thought, Gee, thanks. I work at a weekly magazine. You're giving me the scoop a few hours ahead of time so I can report it days after everyone else. I shall forever be in your debt. Just one question, “Why would you do that?”
"Because I like you."
Right, because everyone who likes me gives me exclusives I can't use, besides, "You hardly know me."
"But I know Nicolae."
Buck sank in his seat. "And,” in spite of an ongoing effort to be as rude as I can be without being killed, “Nicolae likes me."
Buck wondered what it would take to make Nicolae lose interest. As long as Nicolae was paying attention he couldn't do anything useful, even the slightest indication that he knew the truth and Nicolae would notice and use his domination of the media to shut Buck down. Possibly have Buck killed while he was at it. If Nicolae would just move on, just see Buck as another of the 40,000 reporters in the US, then Buck probably still couldn't publish an article saying, “Nicolae is the ANTICHRIST!!!” but he could come closer. He could lace his writing with insinuation, implications and inconvenient facts and maybe, just maybe, get his readers to make the final connection on their own.
He'd done everything in his power to make himself the kind of employee you don't want and Nicolae was still interested. He didn't know what to do. The others thought he should take the job, but if he did that he'd essentially be extending his moratorium on actual reporting and evangelizing indefinitely. He could probably get information, but there'd be nothing he could do with it. He'd have the power to reach every human being on earth, with the only catch being that if he ever so much as tried to use that power for good he'd lose it.
It was one hell of a catch.
Buck realized that he'd allowed the silence to draw out for far too long. Perhaps he should use that to say something that would make Mathews think that he was arrogant and incredibly dull. Something that made him look to stupid to employ. Then Mathews might report back to Nicolae that Buck wasn't worth the effort. Time to state the obvious. "So this little ride-along was not really entirely the result of my legwork."
"Ah, no," Mathews said.
Friday, October 8, 2010
A revisiting of the courtship of Cameron and Chloe with, you know, better characters and whatnot. The LB version with Fred's commentary is here and here.Cameron’s head was buzzing as he made his way through the airport. The last time he’d felt anything remotely like this was during the ‘MaGog’ incident. The official explanation then was a sophisticated, multi-tiered computer virus code-named MaGog disabled the entire Russian and Iranian war machines in the middle of a strike against Israel. The reality was planes falling from the sky, missiles detonating harmlessly in mid-flight, and a tiny nation escaping the wrath of a former superpower totally unscathed. Any explanation seemed too small for the scale of what he witnessed. Every attempted explanation just made the whole thing seem bigger and more frightening.
Now, it was the massive, world-wide disappearances of every child, as well as a small number of adults, mostly Americans. All anyone could call it was “The Event”, and while there was some official claim of electro-magnetic radiation, once more, the reality was too big for such a small explanation. And every small answer just showed how big this event was.
Cameron was meeting an airline pilot who was in the air at the time of the Event. Cameron hoped the pilot might have seen something, or heard something, or noticed something on his instruments. Clues about the Event had been scarce so far, and Cameron had a deadline for filing his story. Fortunately, he’d met a flight attendant who knew the captain, trading a meet-and-greet with the new U.N. Sec-Gen for the interview. An uneven trade probably, but if this captain could break the story, no one would care about the U.N. for weeks.
Read the rest
Monday, October 4, 2010
Sam shuffled in to the security line, glad to be rid of her giant suitcase. She craned her neck and attempted to look between the shoulders and heads of the people ahead of her. Every once in a while she caught a glimpse of a shaggy head of hair rising head and shoulders above almost every one else. Once he turned, caught her eye and smiled. She couldn’t help but smile back.
It had been a strange week, that was for sure.
She certainly hadn’t planned on having anything to do with boys during the trip to DC. It had only been a couple weeks ago that she’d decided to take a much needed break. Freshman year of high school was the last time she’d been single, after all.
Not that she’d planned it that way, really. Throughout junior high she’d been ignored. She’d lacked sports acumen and wasn’t exactly surrounded by people who admired her for the A grades that littered her report cards. She was an egghead, everyone had said, a teacher’s pet. It wasn’t a good way to make friends or gain popularity.
Freshman year had been worse. While all her friends were starting to date and go to dances she was overlooked. And it wasn’t just because she was lower than everyone else’s field of vision. Everyone seemed to look past or through her. She was a no one, a nobody. And it hurt. It didn’t matter that she attended Waubonsie Valley, a suburban Chicago school so vast it had multiple campuses, separated by class year. It didn’t matter that it was almost impossible to be noticed in such a place. She wanted to make a name for herself.
She’d spent the summer after her freshman year out at her grandparents’ house in Rhode Island. For reasons she didn’t understand at the time several of the local boys noticed her and spent the summer subtly, at least in their minds, jockeying for her attention. She’d figured out then that boys were actually pretty easy, if you knew what you were doing.
Basically, you needed to do something that made you stand out. After you got some attention you just had to get their competitive juices flowing. Once they were all trying to get past each other there was nothing more to it.
Newly confident, she’d returned to school in the fall with a more open personality, more ready smile, and a penchant for a sexier wardrobe. She hadn’t wanted to go for the slut look, just less plain and more eye-catching than she’d ever worn before. But that was just step one.
Step 2 was about rejection. Specifically of the first few boys who actually did notice her and tried to ask her out. The first time, she’d been forced to admit, felt pretty good. She had power, the feeling of controlling someone else’s emotions and destiny. It hadn’t hurt that the boy in question was Tommy Gilchrist, who she’d had a major crush on in junior high and had rejected her the previous year when she’d asked him to Turnabout.
The next couple after that weren’t nearly so satisfying. One of them was a rather sweet, awkward guy named Ben who probably hadn’t even noticed her change of attitude or wardrobe. But he didn’t fit in with her concept of who she was and what she wanted to be, so she’d just shot him down without giving it much thought until later.
By the time she really took to self reflection, though, her strategy had begun to pay off. There was something about being regarded as a stone cold bitch that got everyone’s attention. Not all of it was good attention, of course, but as the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
She’d made sure to keep up her grades while rebranding herself. By graduation she had the one of the highest GPAs in her class, a mound of ex-boyfriends and a reputation as a slut with a Napoleon complex. Her plan had been to skip most of that during college. She’d figured she’d meet a nice guy and they’d fall in love over poetry and foreign films or some other such stereotypical college romance fantasy.
It hadn’t worked out that way. She’d discovered right off the bat that college boys were just as easy to manipulate as high school boys. Maybe even more so. She’d also discovered that they had no interest in deep discussions of Keats, Kafka, or Kieslowski. At least, not the ones she seemed to meet.
She’d also discovered that the word “slut” wasn’t really tossed around too much in college. Everyone was doing it, after all. It was easier to just keep doing what she’d been doing before. She didn’t have to think about it too much, didn’t have to risk getting her heart broken. And she’d gotten used to always having someone around, even if she was sure she only wanted him for a little while.
Over Christmas break that year she’d run in to Ben. He’d told her that he’d met a girl his freshman year in college and was seriously considering proposing to her. As he’d spoken he’d gotten this faraway look, like there was nothing in the world but his beloved.
A little voice in the back of her head said, “That could be you he’s talking about.”
When she got back to campus she’d tried to go back to her normal life. But in the back of her mind all she could think about was how much she’d fucked up, how in trying so damn hard to be what she wanted to be she’d become someone she didn’t want to be. She found herself waking up in the middle of the night and crying.
One night about a month ago she’d woken her then-temporary-boyfriend. He’d sat up, looked at her, and said, “Wanna fool around?”
She’d kicked him out of her room before he’d managed to get his pants all the way on. Several floormates had been drawn out of bed by the sound of her screaming, forcing him in to what she was sure was a deeply embarrassing retreat. She didn’t care. Six years of bottled up anger and repressed self-loathing had chased him out in to that hallway.
She’d felt lighter, somehow. More flexible. Almost like she could go for a run and lift right off the concrete.
The next morning she’d decided to swear off boys for a while. The upcoming trip to DC had seemed like a good opportunity to make it stick.
That first morning she’d seen the big, awkward kid nervously glancing at her across the room. Something about him had just made her want to go over and hug him, tell him he’d be okay. At lunch time she’d finally figured out why. He reminded her, just a little, of Ben.
It had really just been a mad impulse that had led her to go talk to him on the Mall. His confusion and fright had been cute, in that way that lost puppies are cute. His obvious, stuttering inability to explain why it was strange and disturbing that they had the same name was endearing. Then they’d sat and talked about books and movies and she hadn’t wanted it to end.
What had been a somewhat altruistic attempt to exorcise her own demons and convince herself that she wasn’t just a calculating slut and not a stone cold bitch had become something else. The rest of the week had gone by in a whirlwind of all-day lectures and long night time conversations with Sam. That thought brought a smile as she heard him say her full name, drawing out the second and third syllables as if to draw attention from the fact that the first syllable was the same for both.
She’d taken to calling him “Samuel” as a joke. He’d seemed somehow pleased with that.
Again she craned her neck. Sam was looking for her.
They locked eyes. She winked. He smiled.
But she could have sworn it looked like he was blinking back tears.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Sam stood up and hefted his bag as the bus rolled to a squeaking, rumbling stop outside the main terminal at Dulles. He trudged down the center aisle, staring at the floor. It was, without a doubt, the worst day of his life.
His classmates were noisy, excited, ready to get back to their lives. Tom Jenkins – the closest thing to a friend Sam had in the group – bumped him on the shoulder. “C’mon, man, get moving. The faster you go the faster we can get to one of the parties on Adams.”
Sam obliged, picking up the pace. But he didn’t want to get back, he wanted to stay. He stepped off the bus, hoping and praying for news of a delayed flight. Lake effect snow, perhaps, causing a freak white out. It was a highly unlikely occurrence, though. Even Chicago weather didn’t get crazy enough for snowstorms in late May.
Still, if there was any tiny bit of a possibility that the universe cared about Sam’s happiness, he knew something would happen. And a blizzard in May would be a pretty good sign.
He looked to his left, scanning the knot of students next to where the ISU bus had already nearly emptied out. The face he most wanted to see was nowhere and for a moment he wondered if she was already gone. But, no, that wasn’t possible. He’d seen her get on the bus, waved at her in that last moment before she disappeared in to the dark world of tinted windows and frayed upholstery.
Then, suddenly, the crowd parted and she emerged, smiling, dragging a blue suitcase that was big enough for her to pack herself in and fly home for just the cost of a checked bag fee and an incredibly uncomfortable flight. It was funny, he realized for the first time, how someone so tiny could have a smile so big and eyes that seemed to hold the entire world.
He shouldered his bag and walked towards her. They met between the two busses and he stopped to hug her. She stood on her tip toes and gave him a quick peck on the cheek.
“So this is it, huh?” she said as they drew apart. Her smile faltered for just a moment.
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“Well,” she shrugged, “At least our gates are right next to each other. So we’ve got a little while longer.”
“Yeah,” he smiled at the thought, “I guess we do.”
“Okay, everyone,” Professor Briggs shouted, “Let’s get moving. We’ve got to get through baggage check.”
They parted company. For an agonizing hour he waited in the baggage line and then the security line, feeling every second tick by on the clock while he reflected on every moment he’d spent with her and thought about how unlikely the whole thing was. He still couldn’t believe it had happened, still wanted to deny it was already over.
Sam had grown up in a small town in the middle of the vast corn and soy fields of western Illinois. He’d had his first real growth spurt in the fourth grade and practically overnight found that he was in possession of a body that was far too big for his reflexes to control. He had also instantly lost any chance to excel at sports.
In junior high and then high school the coaches of all the teams had wanted him. They’d seen the kid who stood head and shoulders above everyone else and assumed he would make their team unstoppable. But every time someone threw him a ball he’d drop it. Every time he tried to run and do something else at the same time he’d trip over his own feet.
Eventually he’d stopped trying to be what his coaches wanted him to be. Eventually they’d stopped trying to figure out how to turn him in to what they needed. And with that he’d just kind of dropped off the social radar at his high school.
Sam didn’t really mind. He’d discovered he was more at home tinkering with computers or lost in the pages of books. He might not have gotten invited to parties on Friday nights, but he’d realized at some point that he didn’t much like them, anyway.
Still, there was one problem that came with his glaring lack of a social life. In a school where most of the activities and attention revolved around parties, sports, and the activities of the 4-H Club or the Future Farmers of America, the quiet kid who stayed home and tinkered with computers didn’t get much attention. Especially from girls.
That, of course, didn’t mean that he paid them no attention. Like any teenage boy he’d spent his days in class daydreaming about how to get the attention of the pretty girls in his class. And there had been no shortage of pretty girls to choose from.
The endless cropscape of the vast, long-tamed former American frontiers that stretch across the endless Great Plains and fertile Midwest long ago created a new stock character for the bards of rock, blues, and country music to write endless songs and the writers to pen endless novels about. She is the character known as a “small town beauty.” Born of parents who still work with their hands, corn-fed and healthy, the small town beauty beguiles all who come across her. She might be a blue-eyed blonde or a green-eyed brunette, but she always has the same story.
She grew up in a small town on the edge of that vast frontier wilderness that still exists in fiction. She spent her early years running through the woods, riding horses, and learning to hunt, fish, and cook over an open fire. As she got older she would spend her Sunday mornings properly dressed and in her family’s usual pew in church, smiling to herself about her Saturday nights spent driving too fast and teasing the boys to distraction.
In the songs and in the books the small town beauty is always eighteen going on nineteen. She’s forever immortalized in that place between innocence and knowledge, youth and experience, the small town and the huge world. She is bronzed skin, easy smiles, taught muscles, and wide-eyed wonder.
The big problem with the small town beauty is that she doesn’t exist. She is the amalgamation of the hopes and dreams of men searching for a lost utopia. She is the invention of marketing genius. She is the renewal of the cultural memory of Helen of Troy, that face so beautiful she launched a thousand ships and a ten-year war.
The slightly-less-big problem with the small town beauty is that there is a germ of truth to the story. In those small towns in Illinois there are an awful lot of girls who spent their days outside running, jumping, and working. There are an awful lot of girls who learned how to shoot a deer at eight and replace a carburetor at ten. There are an awful lot of girls who love fast cars and teasing boys with their smiles and bronzed skin.
All of them seemed to make it in to Sam’s integrated school district.
None of them ever noticed Sam.
Sam, unfortunately, never quite managed to push either one of those facts out of his mind.
He’d dreamed about the day Jenny DuBois would notice him. He’d imagined how great it would be if Anne Montgomery one day realized how much more interesting it was to talk to him than the meatheads she usually dated. By the time he graduated from high school he’d had a scenario dreamed up for how he’d gain the attentions and affections of practically every girl in his school. But none had ever come even remotely close to reality.
When he left home for Western Illinois University he’d been excited. It was a chance to re-invent himself. It was a chance to meet girls from all over who had no idea that he was the awkward, dorky kid who never got noticed. He knew he’d take the school by storm, figure out how to prove to everyone how cool he could be.
Unfortunately, however, the dorky, awkward version of himself was the only one Sam knew. He’d been just as tongue-tied as ever in the presence of girls he met on campus. He’d been just as likely to want to spend his weekends with a book or sitting in front of a computer screen.
The upside, though, was that he’d gotten excellent grades and attracted the attention of his professors. So during his sophomore year when a week-long seminar in Washington, DC in cooperation with a group from Illinois State University was presented, Professor Briggs had suggested that Sam sign up. Even though all of the students going were juniors or seniors.
On the first day in Washington the two groups had basically been allowed to meet and mingle. During the introductory breakfast he’d stood back and scanned to crowd from the edges, still a little intimidated by being the youngest there and the only one who obviously didn’t have a lot of friends and acquaintances in the group.
He’d found his eyes lingering on one particular girl from the ISU side for reasons he couldn’t really understand. She was about as unlike those tall, tanned, small town girls he’d left behind. “Short” and “pale,” were, in fact, the words he’d use to describe her. Also, even though he had no idea what the term was really supposed to mean, he kept thinking, “mousy.”
But there was just…something…about her. Perhaps it was the way she smiled at jokes and laughed with a lilting tone that carried even to where he stood. Perhaps it was the way her eyes twinkled when she smiled. Maybe it was the carefree way she threw her dishwater-blonde hair over her shoulder. He didn’t know.
At one point she’d looked right at him as he’d looked at her. She smiled that wide smile of hers at him. He’d looked away, cheeks burning with embarrassment, vowing to not look at the strangely mesmerizing girl for the rest of the week.
It hadn’t worked.
The two groups had spent the morning touring the area around the White House and Capitol Hill. At lunch gathered on the National Mall for prepared box lunches. They contained a sandwich, a bag of chips, and a cookie.
Sam had sat down to eat his sandwich.
All of the sudden she’d been in front of him, brandishing a cookie. “Hey, um, you wouldn’t happen to have an oatmeal raisin cookie, would you? I’ll trade you this chocolate chip cookie for it.”
He’d stared at her for a moment that was probably just long enough to stretch from awkward to uncomfortable. When he’d managed to regain his senses he’d looked at his own cookie. “No,” he’d said, heart falling. “Sorry. I’ve got chocolate chip, too.”
“Oh,” she’d said, “Too bad.” Then she’d sat down. “You win some, you lose some, right?”
“Y-yeah,” he’d stammered out, “I guess.”
“I’m Sam. Well, Samantha. But everyone calls me Sam.”
“Oh,” he said. “That’s awkward.”
“Y’know,” she’d replied, a look made up of equal parts confusion and amusement working its way across her face, “I’m pretty sure you’re the only person who’s ever thought that.”
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
She finished wiping down the outside windows of UnBearably Cute, it was ghoulish how quickly the company had regrouped. But there was a grim kind of hope in it, perhaps if the grinding economics of making it day to day still existed the good and the beautiful did too. Or at least would return in time.
The memos sent in the four weeks after The Event when the company had decided to reopen some of its stores were carefully worded and to the point. Down went the pictures of children posing with the store's selection of bears and other animals, and for the time being the Baby Bear model and all accessories were pulled. Only the basic bear, Peter Ribbit the Frog, and Flip the Flamingo were displayed.
A new model, Doc Bear, had a display in the corner. A sign told lookers that all proceeds from the sale of this item went to The Rebirth Project. The Rebirth Project had been making press as a group of scientists of all stripes coming together to see if humanity was still capable of reproducing, how to protect these possible new preganacies, and in finding out if humanity would survive perhaps uncover a clue to the missing children.
Missing, they were still using that word, but as every day ticked by Ellie saw the look in parents' eyes get more and more hollow. She almost didn't want to come back to work but as time went on she saw that while corporate might have just been interested in getting the bottom line moving again the store gave people a way to face their grief.
People walked in the store now carefully, almost as if they were entering an old graveyard. Some bought animals already made, some took their time making their own, all the little clothes for them had been pulled but when a customer asked Ellie would go and get what they wanted. She saw them leave the toys in lines at the windows, or by the makeshift morgue tents, dotted with candles and flowers. Some walked out with them clutched tightly in their arms.
And then some just cried. They would walk in, almost seeming to not notice where they were. They would walk to a pile of bear skins waiting to be stuffed or the mural of dancing animals and just break down. It was a delicate affair, some wanted to talk, some just wanted to be left alone. It had been one of the latter when he'd walked in asking to use an outlet because his laptop battery was low.
Actually he'd prefaced it "I'm a member, platnium, of the Pan Con Lounge. I have to get this email sent to my editor at the Global Weekly, I'm the senior staff writer." There was a pause were he seemed to expect her to recognize him from this info. Another pause, he was completely oblivious to the woman weeping not three feet away. Ellie blinked, "Of course sir, there's an outlet right by that shelf."
Looking none too pleased that she hadn't recognized him or asked his name he sat on the floor and plugged his laptop in. Ellie glanced at the woman and quietly walked over. "Could I get you something Ma'am? There's a nice cookie place across the hall, would you like a coffee or some tea?" The woman calmed down and dabbed her eyes, "I'll be okay, I've got to get to my gate soon, yes...yes, some coffee would be nice." She opened her purse to fish for her wallet, Ellie stopped her. "It's on me, I won't be a minute."
She was as good as her word and handed the coffee to the greatful woman who soon left. Ellie walked to the register to pick back up her book trying not to look at the man on the floor watching her intently. "Probably wondered why I didn't ask him if he wanted something," she thought, "well I can be petty too." She sat behind the reigster and glanced across the hall at Sheila and waved.
She hadn't really met Sheila until after The Event. She popped in once for a bottled water when she'd started working, and Sheila offered her a free cookie. Explaining she was diabetic Sheila switched the offer to a sugar free drink and Ellie hadn't had to pay for her Diet Sprites since.
But they hadn't really talked until after Ellie had spent hours telling the FBI that she saw her coworker Jane vanish into thin air and her clothes crumple into a pile on the floor. And did she ever wish she had an explanation but she didn't. She really didn't, and she really wanted one. Sheila had gone through pretty much the same thing.
Sheila was the first to spot Donny, and Ellie's heart glowed that some of the good and the beautiful was still here watching Sheila's kindness toward him and how he began to come out of his shell a bit. She thought about walking over there to tell the man off but let it go. He was already sauntering away like some hero who thought he'd won an important battle the woman a few steps behind, looking sumpremely embarassed at his antics.
Ellie pulled down the gate the same time as Donny and they walked towards each other. She smiled, "Kevin at duty free brought in some of his Aunt's amazing lasagna to share, want some?" Donny nodded, "He won't be upset you brought someone else along?" Ellie almost started to cry, "Nah, in fact he asked me to bring you along, let's go."