Sunday, August 19, 2012

Left Behind: with Hackers!

I thought I'd have some fun with Freds idea of Hacker!Chloe. It's actually strangely cathartic to write some truly terrible fiction.

Note: the following is not intended as an accurate portrayal of hacking. Of of keyloggers. Or of piggybacking. Or of ip addresses. Or of Rayfords manliness. Or of firewalls...

* * * * * * * * * *

[The following takes place in the small underground bunker underneath New Hope church.]

"Dammit," Chloe muttered under her breath, leaning closer to the computer screen, the blue light showing her profile in high contrast. Rayford, just closing his seventh phone call in the last hour, slammed the handset down on the reciever with extreme manliness and turned to his daughter.

"What is it, honey? You've been on that machine for hours."

Chloe leaned back in the office chair, closing her eyes wearily. "I was trying to find a backdoor into Nicolae's private net through the FBI's system. With the number of security camera's his forces are installing, I thought for sure he had to be using the existing infrastructure."

"You hacked the FBI?"

She raised an eyebrow at him. "Sure. They've got a direct link to the traffic camera system. Just piggyback a keylogger virus through the camera's wireless, have it record someone's password, and I can log in remotely."

"And you made sure that couldn't be traced back to us?" asked Rayford, his brow creasing in worry as he wondered what pigs had to do with hacking. "If they find out where it came from..."

"Obviously I used a proxy, dad. I'm not thick. As far as they know, I'm based in Ethiopia."

"A proxy. That makes sense," Rayford said, nodding knowingly. He couldn't let his daughter realise the he didn't have the slightest clue what she was talking about. Manly men never let women think they knew more than them. "So what does that mean?"

Chloe threw up her hands in frustration. "I can get the FBI's printers to print out your resume if you want, but there's no sign of Nicholae at all. I've also checked NASA, the DOD, and a bunch of other sites. Either he's building his entire net completely from scratch, or..."

Chloe trailed off, and her eyes widened as they returned to the computer screen, which was scrolling through reams of code Rayford couldn't make sense of. Her fingers flew to the keyboard.

"Or what?" prompted Rayford.

"Gimme a minute, need to bring up the IP list" said Chloe distractedly. Different images and code windows popped up and vanished as her fingers based sharply at the keys. A large list of numbers appeared on the screen, and she scrolled to the very bottom, where there was a number separated from the rest of the list: It was flashing red.

"Ahah! Got you!"

"Got what? What is it?"

Chloe looked at her father triumphantly. "Web Two Point Oh. He's not building it from scratch, he's copying it. The sites I were hacking were just figureheads, filled with information after he'd had a chance to censor it. The real sites are stored on a private network. And now that I know where it is..." she grinned evilly. "... I can hack it. Give me a few hours to DDoS the firewall ports and write some java trojan C++ viruses in x86, and I'll be able to tell you anything and everything about Nicholae's operation."

She leaned back into the screen, typing furiously, the light from the screen reflected off her determined face.

Rayford shook his head as he walked back to the couch, striding with fatherly manliness. It was good for Chloe to think she was doing something useful, playing around with her computers, but what hope could there be for her technology against the antichrist himself? It would be up to the men to do something useful.

He picked up the telephone handset for the eighth time, and dialed Bucks number again.

* * * * * * * * * *

Note (cont): ... or of DDoS attacks. Or of programming. Or of the internet. Or of doing anything at all with a computer ever. However, Java trojan C++ viruses are totally real and they will make your computer melt.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Until the Rainbow, Part Five

Among the things the old man left behind, I found some paper. I've been writing this while the others work -- and despite my expectations, they've encouraged it. I thought someone would rebuke me for not helping out, but no one did. Part of that, I'm sure, was because I'd made the climb into the boat... but I think that another part of it is a desire to be remembered, to have some record of who we were, and what we did when the waters rose. Our final project is as simple to describe as it is difficult to complete: to rip the roof off the old man's house, whole and intact, and invert it. With any luck, and a lot of work, we can make an impromptu boat and put the children inside. When the old man and his sons lowered me out of their boat, they gave me a length of rope. Once our own boat is ready, I'll make that climb again, and tie that rope to his ship. The other end will be attached to our boat, the life raft we're crafting from his roof, tying it to his floating barn. I doubt the raft will last long. It might not even survive the arrival of the waters, but there's nothing I can do about that. Still, if it lasts until daylight... my last, great, burning hope is that the old man and his family will be forced to choose between bringing the children aboard, and watching them drown. I hope -- and, yes, even pray -- that they'll choose the latter. But if they don't, let them have my curse: let their descendents be just as we are now. Just as varied, just as selfish, just as petty and greedy and warlike. If God can curse the world to death by water, surely I can curse the old man's descendents to be human and imperfect. And if my curse has any power, then you -- eventual reader, the person who finds this record -- will know how the old man chose. None of the adults will go with the raft. There's only barely room for the children, and the old man will absolutely ignore any vessel with any of us in it. We've resigned ourselves to dying, to give them a better chance to live. If we are truly part of the sin and iniquity that brought about the end of the world, then we'll pay for it now. I have an empty bottle here beside me: dry, discarded. When I finish, I'll put these papers inside and seal the top as best I can. If there's any justice in the world, someday someone will find them and learn what we did. And if there isn't, you can at least consider this my last defiant act: spitting in the eye of a god who would wipe us all from the face of the Earth for being what he made, rather than what he hoped for.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Until the Rainbow, Part Four

I gripped the wet, slick wood with trembling fingers, and pulled myself up to the edge so I could see in the window. It was a ridiculous position: I was fifty feet in the air, balanced precariously on an unstable structure, in the midst of the worst downpour the world had ever seen... and I was doing this mere hours after a cross-country hike (also in the battering rain) which had taken most of the day. We'd tried to build a ladder, using anything available: bits of furniture the old man and his family had left behind, wood from a couple of outbuildings that we'd disassembled, bits of fence post, even some scrap lumber that looked to be left over from the construction of the old man's crazy boat. What we got wasn't really a ladder, let alone anything as useful as steps. It was just a very steep pile, held together by whatever we could find: bits of clothesline, belts, and as much of our clothing as we could spare. I was the third one to try to climb it. The first attempt had been made by one of the teenage boys. Two-thirds of the way up, the pile had shifted and he'd lost his grip. The second attempt was made by the father from a young couple who had arrived with their small children on their backs. He'd made it halfway up, then came back down and refused to try again. He said that with all the rain he couldn't get a grip on the wood, but he'd also helped us with the boy who fell; he'd seen the bone sticking out of his shin, seen us force it back in and splint the leg. If his nerve had simply given out, I really couldn't blame him. The whole attempt was suicidal. Even if one of us made it up there, we'd never get anyone else up unless the old man and his family were willing to open the door, or at least lower ropes. I couldn't blame him, but I couldn't afford to wait for daylight, either: the ground was giving the first faint hints of trembling, precursors to the unmistakable vibration that would herald the arrival of the devouring waters. So I climbed. The gathering darkness may have helped, forcing me to feel for my next hold as I labored my way up. There was, at least, enough angle that I could stop and lean into the slope when I grew tired. And now there I was, balanced against the driving rain, standing atop the pile and gripping the edge of the old man's ship. The exposed deck was covered by a massive roof, which was supported by a central structure (little more than a blacker area of the darkness) that probably held the stairs down to the lower decks. The edge of the roof was just above my head, forming a sort of window that went all the way around the boat. It was about a foot and a half high: enough room to squeeze through. I shifted my arm, and got an elbow on top of the wall. Then I pulled myself up, feet scrambling against the slickness of the hull. If this didn't work, I wasn't going to be able to climb back down. I got my head through, hooked my other elbow over, and pushed myself out over the deck. I tilted forward, then began to slip down; fortunately, it was in the direction I wanted. I crashed onto my forearms, barely shielding my head from the impact, and let the rest of my body slide down the low wall and flop to the side. For a long moment I could barely move; I just lay there on the deck, aching all over and trying to breathe. I'd done it. Then there were voices, and a flare of light that seemed shockingly bright. The old man's sons were spilling out of the central structure. They were just starting to spread out across the deck when one of them saw me and cried out. Then they were all approaching. I flopped over and forced myself up to my hands and knees. I got a foot under me, then looked up. Kneeling was about as far as I was going to make it: they were standing around me now. The one in front of me held a shovel, and think one of the others had something else, but I didn't have the energy to turn my head and see. "We need--" I said, and began to cough. They just stood there, uncertain or maybe waiting. "We need your help," I said. "There are people down there. You have to get them onto the boat." "I have to do no such thing," said a voice. The younger men parted to make way for the crazy old man. "I couldn't even if I wanted to." I started to say, "You can--" but he cut me off. "The Lord himself has closed up this vessel. He has determined to cleanse the evil from this world, and only we are to be spared. You and all your kind must perish." "What?" I shouldn't have said that; I saw his expression harden. I took a deep breath and tried again. "You know me. I run a restaurant. What have I done that's so evil that... I don't know... the only solution is to kill the world and start over?" "That is between you and God," he told me. "I know only what He has chosen to share with me: that the world has grown full of sin and iniquity, and that He will wipe it all away." I couldn't believe this. All this way, all this effort to save my family, and this monster was going to stand there and let us die. Anger flickered briefly through my veins, but I was too exhausted to support it. Instead, I begged: "My daughter just turned two. She's too young to be wicked. You can raise her, teach her the proper ways of worship and obedience and..." I trailed off, uncertain of what else God might find us lacking in. "Whatever else God requires. At least save the children." But the old man shook his head. "I would not dare. If the Lord Almighty intended to save them, they would already be aboard. To bring them on now would risk the safety of the ship. If I do not abide by His commands, none of us will survive." I put a hand on the railing and managed to stand. With nothing left to lose, I asked: "This is your idea of righteousness? To stand by and save yourselves, while all around you children die? What good and loving God would have you make that choice?" "No." The old man shook his head. "Your mockery did not shake my faith. Your whispers did not shake my faith. Your questions will not shake it now. Go back to your family. Enjoy what time is left to you." "Enjoy...?" I looked at his sons, and knew I couldn't take them. They were too many, and I was too weak. I had nothing left. I hadn't even brought a weapon; I didn't dare try to climb with one. "You know what? Fine. But you're going to have to lower me down." I paused, looking around me. "Or you can throw me off, and have my blood directly on your hands. I'm honestly too tired to care, at this point." The old man stiffened. He was silent for a long moment, but finally he said: "Fetch some rope." One of his sons hurried away. A short time later I was bumping my way down the side of the boat. They'd tied a sort of basket or harness around me, and helped me squeeze back out the window. It was not a comfortable trip, but after everything else I barely noticed. Then I was lying in the mud, with the rain steadily battering my body: defeated, fallen, and utterly damned. There was a slight tug on the rope, and then it went slack. A moment later it began to pour down on top of me, coil after coil. They'd released it entirely rather than risk that I might try to climb back up. Hands found me, touched me, helped up. I couldn't see the figures beside me; it was too dark for that. I could barely hear their voices over the rain. But they put their arms around me, and carried me back into the old man's house. I should have been broken by the knowledge that we were all going to die, but I wasn't. It was as if, with my death assured, my body gave up the last of its hoarded energy. Suddenly, I had enough strength to be angry. The others were looking at me as they carried me in the door: expectant, hopeful, sure that nobody would knowingly leave us to die in the rising waters. I stood there, not answering, and saw the knowledge and despair spread across their faces. "One final effort," I rasped. "One last thing to try." I knew even then that I was lying. I would keep trying one last thing until the waters claimed my corpse, or until the Almighty himself rose up to strike me down. I was only sorry that we lacked the tools to put a hole in that ridiculous, oversized nightmare of a boat. If God was really out to destroy the world, maybe that would have forced Him to renegotiate. But we couldn't do it. So instead we tried something else. One last thing, before the waters took us.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Until the Rainbow, Part Three

We gathered in the crazy old man's home. The sound of the rain was muffled here, but we still had to raise our voices in order to be heard. The air was still damp, and we had no dry clothes - but at least we were out of the rain. I was surprised by how few people were here. Including the children, twelve of us had escaped together from the town, and we were easily a third of the overall crowd. Most of the others had come in smaller groups, and ours were far from the only children. There was one older couple, a group of four children who seemed to have come on their own, a handful of individuals, families of various sizes... and all of us wet and miserable, bedraggled and profoundly lost. We stood or sat, with barely enough will to speak, and looked at each other. We knew this shelter was only temporary. The situation hadn't changed. If we didn't keep moving, we'd die where we sat. I forced myself to stand back up, and started a circle of the room. I asked for names and gave my own; I asked questions, knowing already that I wouldn't like the answers. The old man wasn't in the house. His family wasn't in the house. All those animals and supplies that they'd spent months collecting -- after months of laboring on their crazy project -- were in the structure outside, and we had no doubt that the old man and his family were in there, too: safe in their ridiculously oversized boat. Of course we'd made fun of him. Who decides to build a boat miles away from the nearest water? Who makes a boat that's too large to navigate the river, even if you could get it there somehow, and it didn't collapse under its own weight when you put it in the water? We'd called him crazy because the entire project was crazy. When he filled the boat with animals, we called it the world's most elaborate barn, and went to gawk at his madness. When he told us the world was going to end, and loaded his boat-shaped barn with enough supplies for a year or more, we laughed -- or we nodded gently and helped him on his way, humoring him. What else could we have done? But now that boat was our only chance of survival. If the old man had known that the rains were coming, maybe he'd also known how to build a boat that could withstand the rising waters - and who knew how long they would rise? I kept thinking of the river, covering more and more of the landscape as it rose and spread, following us here a few hills and valleys at a time. How much time did we have? Some of the others had tried pounding on the hull, hoping someone would let them in. Nobody had responded; either the old man and his family were ignoring them, or they couldn't hear them over the rain. So I went back outside and looked at the old man's crazy boat. It was a giant block of a thing, a good fifty feet high. There was only one door that I could see, and that was sealed and too high up to reach. I thought again of the river, rising to devour everything; and I wondered how much time we had. We were going to have to get up there, somehow. Despite the height, despite the merciless downpour, despite our exhaustion... somehow. We had to find a way to get on that boat.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Until the Rainbow, Part Two

The countryside was better. There were people here, too, but they were doing the same thing we were: fleeing the city. I only hoped that we didn't all share the same destination. We staggered along for only a few minutes before we left the road. I don't know who suggested it, or if we all just realized it at once, but the road was hopeless: the hard surface lost beneath a stream of mud that sucked at our feet and slowed our steps. The grass was better, the trees better still -- though there was no escape from the merciless rain. The water was just as deep here, but roots and grasses held the soil in place. I took a guess at our direction, and we staggered on: away from the town, towards the crazy old man in the hills. We splashed across a field that was now a shallow lake, scrambled up hillsides that were trying to dissolve into mudslides. The rain pushed against us at every step. It was a horrible, monstrous thing -- I hated it as if it were alive. The deluge left us half blind and nearly deaf. It weighed down our clothes and sucked the heat from our bodies. We carried the children, now: they were exhausted and shivering. Our weapons were our only supplies, and we carried them only from fear of more bandits. If we didn't make it to shelter, we would starve -- or drown, whichever came first. By midday we were well into the hills, alternating between walking on thankfully-solid ground and carefully crossing the impromptu streams and cascades that had grown between the high places. We stopped to rest, huddling together like a herd of sheep for warmth; there was no way to start a fire in this, and no shelter to be found. It wasn't courage or determination that kept us going. It was simply the knowledge that there was nothing else to do. We could either keep going, or die where we sat. The children surprised me. They were colder and more tired than the rest of us, but they staggered to their feet when we started to move again. Those who could, walked; those who couldn't, we carried. Somewhere in the afternoon, our path took us close enough to see the river. Or, rather, to see what the river had become. Once slow and tranquil, it was now raging and wild. Once narrow enough to swim across, it was now as wide as the greatest of lakes. Once safely contained within its banks, it was now reaching out to tear away anything it could reach. We could feel its presence as a steady, rumbling vibration in the ground. The docks could not have survived this. The town could not have survived this. Fortunately, it curved away as we continued on. We hurried, and I felt that we were not so much avoiding the river as trying to escape it. I couldn't see it through the steady rain, but I knew it was back there: growing, spreading, climbing. Reaching. We hiked on, eager to stay ahead of it. And, finally, we saw it: the high hill where the crazy old man had done his work. With the rain, we were nearly on top of it before it came into view; but the massive wooden construction was unmistakable. Better still, there were only a few other figures crowded around it: only a few that had made it here from the town, or from the surrounding countryside. With our goal is sight, our steps grew lighter. We hurried forward to safety.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Until the Rainbow, Part One

The end was near. We all knew it, though some still screamed denials. I led my family down the center of the street, staying away from the sidewalks and alleys. We kept the children in the center, while the adults encircled them with weapons ready. We'd fought twice already, once with another family and once with a group of men. My brother lay dead three streets back; when his wife wouldn't leave his side, we left her behind. The steady rain hid their forms from sight, but I carried that last glimpse with me. Once, I would have prayed that she would be safe. Now... I could only hope, and I hoped with all my heart that her end would be quick and painless. The rain continued its relentless descent, weighing us down, trying to drive us into the earth. The street was a steady stream, as deep as my ankle. We struggled against it, up the hill and away from the docks. One of the children slipped; another helped her up. Nobody slowed their pace. The forecasters hadn't predicted this downpour. They had been as surprised as anyone when it came - maybe more so, not that it mattered. Surprised by its appearance, surprised by the way it covered everything, surprised by the way it never let up. We'd had stormy weather before, to be sure; but this was different. A week of storms was one thing, but this was one unbroken storm, and it had been going on for nine days, now. None of the forecasters could say when it would end; at least one swore that it wouldn't, not until it had consumed the world and everything in it. We passed a shattered church and kept going. Two days ago, the steady flooding had chewed through the foundations and collapsed the building, crushing the minister and a crowd of devout worshipers; but still there were people clambering over the rubble, screaming for rescue and salvation. Their wails were audible even over the steady roar of falling rain. No place was safe. Houses and places of business were targets, not shelters. The streets were even more dangerous. The docks... everyone wanted to get to the docks. Everyone wanted passage on a boat. Never mind that half the ships were gone, swept down the river and splintered by floating debris or underwater obstructions. Never mind that the docks themselves were half-shattered and sagging. Never mind that the remaining boats were overwhelmed with passengers, packed almost too tight to breathe. The docks were a steady riot of desperate violence. We wouldn't stand a chance there. So we went in the only direction we could: the crazy old man in the hills. It was madness, but what choice did we have? There was no other way to go, no other way that we might survive. Not unless the rain stopped, and it showed no sign of doing that. So the old man was crazy - so what? So we'd all laughed at him - so what? If he'd done what he said he was doing, he was our only chance.

Friday, January 20, 2012

They Are Legion, Part Six

The smell of coffee drifted tantalizingly through my room. Maybe that was what woke me up, even. For a time I just lay there, being awake... but, well, not awake enough to actually move.

There was sunlight on the blankets, and on the wall behind me. It was bright enough that I knew I wouldn't be able to go back to sleep. That realization brought me another small step closer to wakefulness, but it was so nice to just lay and drift until I was actually ready to move.

I'd been dreaming about a roller-coaster, I remembered - an improbably massive structure that wound around an entire mountain, and even dipped through tunnels inside. There had been someone... no, that was gone. I couldn't remember anymore. I was too awake.

I sat up at last, cracked my neck, and yawned. My room was the same as always, decorated with posters for a couple of movies and another for the Marine Corps, which I'd briefly considered joining after High School. The bookshelves still held my old favorites, but the computer desk was empty - I'd taken its contents off to college, and left behind an empty shell. I remembered telling my parents that they could do whatever they wanted with my room, but either they hadn't heard me or they'd just decided to leave it alone...

Once things had settled down last night, I'd sent Tina and Mom off to bed and sat down to watch a little television. The news reported looting and other violence. At least some of the violence seemed to be a product of people trying to loot houses and stores that were still occupied. A lot of the rest seemed to be people who were convinced that the world was ending, or just taking advantage of the social disruption. I doubted that the troubles were anywhere near as widespread as the talking heads implied; for one thing, we hadn't seen anything like that around here, and for another the TV news programs had been getting ever more hysterical in their attention-seeking for as long as I could remember. Still, I made a note to go and find a couple of guns in the morning... just in case.

One guy they interviewed said that God had clearly turned His Face from us. Since he knew he was damned, he said, there was no reason not to do all those things that he'd always wanted to do. That was right before the police stuffed him into the back of a patrol car. I found myself reminded, very uncomfortably, of Anna - and I realized that I should call her. Probably not then, though - it was after midnight.

Instead, I'd shut off the television and wandered up to my room. I didn't exactly remember collapsing on the bed, but since I'd woken up there I was prepared to take that part for granted...

Now I paused in the hallway outside the kitchen. I could hear voices inside: Mom and Tina, talking. I stopped where I was, just out of sight. It wasn't a desire to eavesdrop, exactly; it was more that I wanted to know what I was about to walk into. And I wasn't quite awake enough to make conversation myself, so I waited... and listened.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

They Are Legion, Part Five

I told myself a story, about a young man who took an unexpected turn and found a strange set of ruins, where some evil genius had hidden away the world's children and covered his tracks by taking a few of the adults. In this story, the young man found his way into the hidden laboratory, and happened upon a death ray, and destroyed the evil genius and freed the children.

Then I told myself another story, about a young man who woke up imprisoned on a spaceship. He tricked his captors, took control of their weapons, and brought the abducted children - and the others, his own father among them - back to Earth.

That got me as far as Memphis. On the way to Little Rock, I told myself a story about a young man who came home to his father's funeral, and found that he'd inherited a book and a sword: the book to explain what had happened and what was coming, and the sword to fight against it. The Demon Lord commanded powerful forces, but in the end human stubbornness prevailed. With the Demon Lord vanquished, the ties between our worlds were severed - but the dead were still dead, and the missing, missing.

They were vague and grandiose fantasies, though I took some pleasure in filling in the little details: how the ruins look, why the villain had bothered with a death ray, how the aliens differed from humans... It was comforting, to imagine a world where good would triumph and evil would be defeated. It pleasant to think that, with the right combination of wit and insight, things might still be set right. And it was, ultimately, just a fantasy. I knew that, but I indulged it anyway.

I stopped in Little Rock to eat. I don't remember what I ordered. I don't remember my waiter. I don't actually remember eating the food, but I must have done so. I have a vague memory of latching my seatbelt on the way back out of the parking lot. Presumably someone would have stopped me if I'd forgotten to pay...

Mom called me just as I was leaving Little Rock. I pulled over to answer the phone, then assured her that I was fine and still on my way. She said she was glad that I was coming home, and I told her I was, too. And when she was done, I put the phone on the seat and got back on the highway.

It was starting to get dark, and I was tired. But I thought about it, and decided that I'd continue on; I wasn't too tired to drive. (This may not have been the wisest decision I've ever made.) So I drove, keeping the Jeep in its lane and watching the mile markers go past, and eventually I hit Texarkana. An impossibly long time after that, I drove into my parents' house in Grapevine.

By then I'd gotten my second wind, which was a good thing: Mom and Tina were still awake, waiting up for me. I barely made it in the door before they they were holding me. I was worn out from the drive, and maybe still in shock, so all I could do was wait through their tears and their relief, and assure them that I was glad to see them, too.

It was the worst homecoming I ever had.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Courtship of Meta-Chloe: I did it all for the cookie!

Cameron was used to Chloe being the more talkative one, and he was resigned to the fact she was probably the more clever one as well. She knew just how to tweak his ego, make him flustered and off-balance. So the drive to the airport was odd and unsettling, but not for the usual reasons.

Chloe was chattering, nerviously at times. It seemed like silence was the last thing she wanted in the car. Buck knew she was anxious, but didn't want to press things. They'd only managed to make up the night before, when she realized his article on the Event was a smokescreen. Things felt good to Cameron, but delicate, and he didn't want to foul anything up before his flight to Isreal.

The treaty signing was confusing. It was obvious that Carpathia had manipulated events to literally turn the entire world against Isreal, but why? He'd been successful, so why seek a treaty now? Cameron was so lost in thought he hadn't registered that Chloe had parked the car and was unloading his luggage from the trunk. Cameron found himself walking briskly to catch up with Chloe as she headed towards the ticket counter.

"Hey, remember me? The one who's actually flying out?"

Chloe blushed and looked embarassed.

"Sorry. I was just nervious that you'd miss your flight, and I didn't want you to be late, and..."

"Woah woah woah! You're with experienced world traveller Buck Williams! We've got enought time to get checked in."

Chloe smiled as his self-depreciating use of the nickname, but she still looked tense and nervious. Cameron got his boarding pass, and they walked along the concourse.

"I overheard you talking with Dad. Carpathia's offered you a job?"

"Not formally, but it looks like it. I don't know if Steve Plank put in a good word, or if he was just impressed by my recent turn to bland propoganda."

"I know you want to help the cause, I know you want to serve the Lord, but last night you said you wanted to protect... people from danger, and I just-"

"Cookies! That's what I want right now!" The conversation was headed for dangerous territory, and Cameron wanted to defuse it as quickly as possible, so he hooked his arm in Chloe's, spun her to the side, and marched into Ms. Fieldsworth's Cookie Shoppe.

"Cameron, could you please be serious for a minute?"

"I am serious, Chloe. Look at this place? There's a Ms. Fieldsworth's Cookie Shoppe in every major airport in the United States, and every airport in Europe, eastern and western!"

Chloe looked at him pleadingly, but Cameron wouldn't slow down or stop to let a word in edgewise.

"I've flown out of a dozen airports in Africa, and there's only two things that all of them had: a Pepsi vending machine, and Ms. Fieldsworth cookies. Once, I was stuck in the North Korean airport for three days; it was Ms. Fieldsworth or kim-chi. At least, I hope it was kim-chi, but I wasn't going to risk it."

"I hope this is important enough to talk about instead of taking a job for-"

"Yes, as a matter of fact it is. I'm flying to Isreal; I hope to interview the Two Preachers, and I'll be standing on a dias next to the Antichrist when he signs a treaty that will start the end of the world as we know it. There aren't a whole lot of things you can count on in this world, even less in the End of Days. Small comforts are important, even better when they're shared..."

Cameron walked up to the counter. A sullen teenager stood with an apron, visor, and nametag. His face was bleak, like so many others. Briefly, Cameron wondered who he had lost in the Event. One parent? Both? A little brother? Cameron blinked, and looked closer; the kid was young, possibly still in high school, but the grief on his face was deep. Maybe it was a son or a daughter he'd lost.

"Excuse me, sir, but I need two oatmeal chocolate chip cookies."

The kid shuffled, bagged the cookies quickly and rang up a total.

"Oh, could I get two bags? One for each cookie?"

The teen had almost no affect at all.

"Store policy is one bag per purchase, sir. I'm sorry..."

Chloe must have noticed the kid's grief, and she piped up.

"Can I get a cookie? What's your favorite kind?" Buck eyed Chloe warily. Had she seen the same grief he had?

Chloe happily bought the cookie, removed it from the bag, and handed it back to the kid behind the counter with a quick peck on the cheek before leading Cameron out of the store.

"What? He looked like he needed a pretty girl to cheer him up a little. Here's your extra bag. Now what's with the cookies?"

"I wish I could share more time with you. But since I can't, I'll share what I can."

"Medeocre baked goods found across the globe?"

"When I eat this," Cameron gestured with the cookie, "it's something I know is real, something I know wherever in the world I am, it's there. I know faith is supposed to provide that for me, but faith doesn't come with a little sugar rush between meals. When I eat this particular cookie, sometime while I'm in Isreal, I'll let you know, so you and I can share a snack, even if I'm on the other side of the world."

"Bucky... I think you're trying to make eating a cookie over the phone sound romantic..."

"Is it working?"

"...let's get you to your plane, Bucky."

Friday, January 6, 2012

They Are Legion, Part Four

There really wasn't much left to do. I'd put most of my stuff in storage before Anna and I went camping, and it took very little time to load the last few bags and boxes into the Jeep. It would have been nice to stop and eat, but I didn't want to keep my family, and Mom in particular, waiting any longer than necessary. I could find a drive-through on the way...

I called again when I was on the road. I didn't stay on the phone for long; I didn't like talking while I was driving, and this seemed like a good time to stay alert. I just told them that I'd left, and when I'd call next. Tina told me to be careful, which was advice I didn't need.

The trip was remarkably uneventful, though. I mean, the end of the world is supposed to involve massive chaos, right? The highways should be littered with wrecks, city streets should be full of rioters or looters or partiers, and bands of cold-eyed survivors should be retreating to the wilderness with canned food and extra ammunition. Instead, I got... nothing. If anything, traffic was lighter than usual. But the roads were neither empty nor blocked with wrecked and abandoned vehicles.

From Sewanee, Tennessee to Grapevine, Texas is about thirteen hours by car. Call it fourteen, since you'll want to make stops for gas, food, and sanity. The easiest route goes up to Nashville, then swings down through Memphis, Little Rock, and Texarkana. I found an eighteen-wheeler doing a respectable speed on the highway, and settled in behind him. Eventually, he turned off, and I found another. Their presence was reassuring: it meant that an awful lot of our economy was probably still in place. I didn't need to be spot-welding weapons-mounts to the outside of the Jeep just yet.

I left the radio off. For a while I tried listening to one of my playlists, but it clashed with my mood and after a while I shut it off. So there I was, following the big trucks, driving in silence.

And realizing that my father was dead.

It didn't seem real. I couldn't make it real. Dad was a vibrant, living figure - he couldn't be dead. Not dead dead. He was still fixing up that old Karmann Ghia, for fuck's sake. No way he could die before he had it working again. It just wasn't possible.

I could imagine a world without my father in it, sort of, abstractly. I mean, I'd been in college in another state for three years, now. Yeah, I came home for summers and holidays, but holiday visits were just visits, and summers were always a shock. My parents were trying to figure out how to handle a kid who was basically out on his own, and I was trying to adjust to having parents again. So the idea of not seeing my dad wasn't all that strange. I spent a lot of my time not seeing him.

The idea that he wasn't out there, anymore... that it wasn't just that I wasn't seeing him, it was that he was really gone... That was something else altogether. I couldn't process it.

And after a while I gave up trying. I thought about Anna for a little bit, and realized that I should call her... and then realized that I wasn't sure if I wanted to. We balanced each other in some important ways, but her insistence that the disappearances had been The Rapture... and that we'd missed it... was strange and unwelcome. It made me realize that maybe I didn't know her as well as I'd thought I had. That maybe we weren't as... connected... as we'd thought we were.

But that was something else I wasn't ready to deal with. So I left it alone and kept driving, losing myself in the simple act of keeping the car on course. I wasn't thinking so much as waiting, letting my brain absorb the new information and giving it time to adapt, to formulate new responses.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

They Are Legion, Part Three

My mom answered on the second ring. I'd been considering what she most needed to hear, so when she said, "Hello," I said:

"Mom, it's James. I'm still here. I'm fine."

There was a brief, choked sob, and then a moment of silence. I said, "Hello?" but nobody answered.

I tried again: "Hello?"

Then I heard my sister's voice: "James?"

I said, "Yes... are you guys all right?"

"Jesus," said Tina, "We thought you were dead, too. Why didn't you call us?"

Something cold and tight curled in from my shoulders and settled in my guts. "I was camping. There's no reception. What do you mean, you thought I was dead, too?"

There was a long pause. Then Tina said, "It's Dad." She hesitated, but I didn't say anything. I couldn't. "There was an accident. The driver beside him disappeared. The car drifted into his lane, pushed him off the road. He's... dead."

You hear that, Anna? I thought. It's not the Rapture. Because if that was the Rapture, your God just murdered my dad.

There was sound of fumbling, and then my mom was speaking into the phone. "James? James, honey? You have to come home. You should be with your family."

"I'm on my way," I told her. "I'll call you when I'm on the road. I love you."

"I love you," said Mom, and cut off the call.

Monday, January 2, 2012

They Are Legion, Part Two

A park ranger picked us up not five minutes after we got back to my Jeep. We'd left the parking area beside the trail head, but we hadn't even made it back to the main road. He filled us in a little - told us that there had been mass disappearances, world-wide, and that nobody was sure what had really happened - but mainly he took down our names, addresses, and family information. He said he was going to radio it in, so someone could put it in the big national database that everyone was using to search for missing family. It was something that FEMA had come up with, apparently.

The radio wasn't much help. Everyone broadcasting assumed that everyone else knew as much as they did. They didn't give us any new information about what had happened, and we didn't understand the significance of what they did have to say. It wasn't until we got back to campus and found my roommate, Andrew, that we could get any real information about what had happened while we were away.

And that was when Anna realized - or decided - that we'd been left behind. The Rapture, she said, had come. Jesus had claimed His own, taking them directly to Heaven to avoid the judgements that were about to be poured out upon the Earth.

And I, in my usual I'm-withholding-judgement-until-I-get-more-and-better-information way, said: "That doesn't seem very likely."

It didn't occur to me until much later that Anna would see that as a slap at her beliefs, or that she considered those beliefs so personal that rejecting them was rejecting her. She just went very still, the way she does when she's angry but doesn't want to show it, and then she told me that she was going to find her parents, and that Andrew and I should do the same.

And then she left. It seemed a little abrupt, but I didn’t think much about it at the time. We’d just found out about a disaster, she needed to check on her family, and we’d been together all weekend; of course she’d want to get going. I wanted to get going, too.

So I went back to my room, and picked up my cell phone, and called home. And what I learned then made me forget all about what Anna and I had said to each other.