Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and happy other seasonal holidays from Right Behind!

May your Christmas be nothing like a holiday as written by Jenkins!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

How Firm A Foundation

Yup, it's me, here at last. I've succumbed.

A couple of things that most of you probably know, but that I should get out of the way for anyone who doesn't know me very well. I belong to the Church of Christ, and I'm writing what I know, as they say. While the CoC is fundamentalist in a broad sense, we're amil rather than premil, and don't believe in salvation by faith alone or use the Sinners' Prayer. (We do require baptism by immersion.) As a result, though we're sometimes allied politically with other fundies, we've been at odds with them for a very long time. (There may be other concepts you don't recognize. Feel free to ask. We can be wacky at times.)

How Firm a Foundation

Rating: PG (some bad language; cosmic horror, by some people's definitions)

Crossposted at my LiveJournal

That Janice was waiting for him at home was the final straw. Nathan broke down and cried like a baby while she held him. It didn't help, really, because her attempts to whisper comfort to him--"We don't know. It could be...well, something else. Aliens. A government plot..."--were such blatant lies. She didn't believe in aliens any more than he did, and what sort of government plot could make people vanish into thin air? Finally she gave up the pretense and just wept with him, which helped. A little.

"How?" she said, at last, scrubbing at her reddened eyes.

"You remember Ralph Hardeman?"

Of course she did. Janice said nothing, only nodded. It was hard to forget a man who hadn't been to visit in ten years.

"That argument we had, where I finally lost my temper. I told him, no, I didn't believe he was going to heaven, I was sorry, but it just wasn't what the Bible taught. I was looking right at him, thinking of that, how it was never the same after that between us. It's the code, you know? I'd broken it. The Baptists don't turn on the Assemblies of God folk, the Nazarenes don't tell the Presbyterians they're going to hell. Not usually, anyway, not any more. And they don't understand why we don't follow it. They don't see how we're different.

"I was thinking about that--no, dwelling on it, wishing I had the guts to try inviting him to dinner one more time, maybe iron things out at last. And I blinked, and he was gone, and I was seeing his clothes collapse into the seat. I guess I sort of expected him to look smug, you know? But there wasn't time.

"That's how we're different, Janice. We were wrong. They were right and we were wrong. And I don't...don't...I don't understand!" That last came out almost in a wail. "I've been a deacon ten years. I've explained this subject a thousand times. Hell, I was on that panel back in college. I'm not some asshole making fun of things he doesn't understand; I know the Scriptures on the subject backwards and front. Damn it, I thought I did."

"Nathan, don't--"

"Don't what? Don't curse? What's it matter? What's anything matter? We're still here, Janice. We're still here and we're damned, so what the fuck does it matter if I curse? What..." he grasped frantically for something, anything, "...does it matter if I hit you? Or go screw your sister? Or anyone I want? It's over. It's all over."

"It matters," she said simply. After a moment... "Do you want to hit me? Not that that's an invitation, you understand."

"No," he said, trying to keep the sharpness out of his voice. Trying and failing. "But I want to hit someone. I want answers, and if I had to beat them out of someone.... But not you. Never you."

"Then that's a reason, of a sort, isn't it? You don't want to."

Nathan took a quick, heaving gulp of air. A little calmer. "How'd it... I mean, can you talk about it yet?"

"I...I suppose. I was on the phone with the branch manager, and he stopped talking in mid-sentence. I thought, well, he's been cut off, and I rolled my eyes and redialed. You know how those things are. And then I heard Kathy scream, and I got up and cut off the call before I had time to realize it was still ringing, because you know she was going to have her baby in another couple of months, she was so excited, and I was afraid something had gone wrong. I was going to dial 911 for her. She was standing in front of her seat--she'd jumped up--with her pants around her ankles. I'm afraid I nearly laughed--there's Kathy half-naked in the bank, for no reason!--only then I realized she was, her stomach was flat as a board."

Janice ran a hand straight down her stomach at this, indicating. "The baby, she was just gone. As if Kathy'd never been pregnant at all. And then this man started shouting, 'Danny! Danny, where'd you go?' His son's clothes were on the floor, and a balloon, one of those we give the kids, and I thought for a moment, is he crazy? But he didn't know, of course, not like we did. He didn't know, and he was scared to death. And I wanted to fall back into my chair and, I don't know--just sit there, or cry, or something. But I made myself go over to Kathy and sit her down. She started mumbling to herself--in shock, I suppose--and I went ahead and called 911, but the lines were all busy by then. So I talked to her, tried to keep her calm, until finally her husband came in and picked her up. The roads weren't that badly jammed out by the bank, and I was able to drive home."

Janice fell silent. Her eyes were red, but dry, as if she'd run out of tears. Nathan stepped into the empty space. "I guess I hadn't really thought about after. All those cars.... There was a pileup right in front of the office when I came out to look. I didn't think anyone was hurt bad, because I didn't see any ambulances, and then I realized they weren't coming. There was this guy screaming--his arm was just hanging--and I thought I should help him, but..." His voice failed him for a moment. "I couldn't do it. Just the idea of trying to do anything with his arm, I nearly threw up. It looked jelly. I never saw an arm look like that. Do...d'you think that's the real reason? The folks who could've made themselves help, maybe they're all gone."

"I'd be gone," she murmured, and Nathan nodded. She'd done what she was best at. It was just him, then. He'd failed, and that was all.

"We had to walk home," he said at last. "That's what took me so long. No one could get their cars out of the lot, past the wrecks, but there wasn't going to be any more work that day, not for us. Some of my co-workers were afraid there'd be riots, so we got together and walked each other home."

"Well, then," she said. "That was something. You did what you were able to do. You're not so bad. And I didn't see anyone else with you, so you were the last, weren't you? You finished the trip alone."

"I suppose I'm bad enough. We both are. I keep asking myself, how many people did I stick here with us, teaching them what I did. I thought we were right, for...for Pete's sake. I thought I was telling them the truth. Only I wasn't, and it's my fault."

"Nathan," she began, and the telephone rang. He picked it up, hands shaking. "Who's this?" he asked, more roughly than he'd meant. Then he didn't say anything else for a long while, not even before finally dropping the receiver back into its cradle, or afterwards either.

"Nathan," Janice said again, finally. "Who was that?"

"It was the university," he said flatly, unable to find anything left to put into the words. "About Christine."

"Oh," she said. " she gone?" She sounded hopeful, and ashamed to be.

"They were having the students, the ones who were able, try and help. Getting people to the hospital, talking some of 'em down, looking for people who might be trapped...I don't think it's going to be enough, you know. And they took names as they went, trying to get a sense of who was still there. That was...that was a volunteer, she said it looked like less than five percent of the students were gone. Maybe much less. Most of them, ah...not us. Other churches. And--oh God!" He dropped his head into his hands and began to sob. "She was in her room. She'd taken some pills. They tried to revive her, but she was cold, Janice. She'd been in there for hours. God, Janice, our little girl. Our daughter." Nathan fell to his knees, not praying, just...helpless.

He felt her arms go around him. It was all they could do.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Meta-Hattie Comes Out to Play

[Author's Note: For anyone who wanders in here uninitiated, one of the common themes of Left Behind Fridays is that every once in a while Chloe and Hattie transcended Jerry Jenkin's atrocious writing and inhuman characterizations. We named these unintended characters Meta-Hattie and Meta-Chloe. Since these are the only two sympathetic characters and few people love hot meta-girl-on-meta-girl action more than Slacktivites, we often rooted for them to hook up, knowing it would not happen. Still, you can imagine what it would be like if they did, right?]

Hattie stared at the dark ceiling. She couldn't sleep most nights, at least not without the help of a couple glasses of red wine. Too many flights across a half-dozen time zones, too many nights in a lonely, empty bed. Too many memories. Too many ghosts.

It was cold in Chloe's room. The air settled on her flesh, raised it in a vain attempt to hold in heat and life. The only warmth came from the flesh pressed against hers and the warm breath Chloe exhaled rhythmically across her shoulder and neck. The leg wrapped around hers and arm encircling her chest were heavy, but not oppressively so. They were warm, comfortable, familiar, desperate.

Chloe held her like a drowning woman, terrified even in her sleep that she'd awaken alone and adrift. Hattie understood. She'd been there, too.

"I'm not going anywhere," Kate had said one night while they lay in their bed listening to the radiators pop and fizzle, keeping the cold outside at bay. "You don't have to worry."

Hattie propped herself up on an elbow. "What are you talking about?"

Kate turned to face her. The moonlight streaming through the window flashed in her brown eyes and lit her black hair with rich, midnight hues. "You talk in your sleep sometimes. It wakes me up."

"What?" Hattie half-smiled at her in confusion. "What do I say?"

"Most of the time it's something like, 'No, don't go. Don't leave me here.'"

"Oh." She flopped back on her pillow, somehow afraid to face Kate. "What do you do?"

"I hold you." Kate's hand found hers under the covers, squeezed it. "Whisper in your ear that it will be okay, that I'm not going anywhere."

Hattie blinked back tears. "Would it make you feel any better if I told you it's not you I'm worried about?"

Her father had left them when she was eight. Just walked out one day in a flurry of f-bombs and tears. It had left a hole in her heart that she'd always felt wouldn't close. The only place that hole was ever filled was in that bed with Kate, surrounded by popping radiators and moonlight.

It was the only time in her life she wasn't afraid of the dark. She'd never believed in ghosts or worried about the things that went bump in the night. It was the inactivity, the time spent staring at the ceiling, the place where the real hauntings arrive. The scariest ghosts aren't those of dead men and women from long ago, but the dead dreams that had to be left behind.

Around the time Hattie began to discover both girls and boys, her mother decided that they all needed some god in their lives. She'd dragged Hattie and her older sister to a church down the street and introduced them to the junior high and high school youth pastors.

Hattie took to the pastor immediately. He was kind, funny, patient, and seemed filled with more wisdom than her thirteen-year-old brain could comprehend. Once, after he delivered a youth group night message on dating and relationships, she had approached him. "I like boys," she'd said, "I really do. But I like girls, too. What's so wrong with that?"

He'd offered to counsel her, help her understand that what she felt was against the Bible and how to fix it. Then one night he told her he had a secret therapy and that he'd share it with her as long as she promised to never, ever tell anyone about it. Then he'd unbuttoned his pants.

Hattie begged her mother to find a new church, to never go back to that one again. She'd assumed it was just some bit of teen angst and dropped her vulnerable daughter off at the church the next youth group night. Now when the pastor approached she shrank away, afraid to talk to him, afraid to let him touch her.

That night she'd noticed that she wasn't the only one. Other girls had that trapped, frightened look. Other girls shrank away when he approached. Her fear gave way to fury. That night after youth group the words tumbled out of her mouth and her mother had listened with mounting horror and fury.

"Honey," she'd said, picking up the phone to dial the police, "I don't care if the sign on his door says pastor or President. You never, ever have to let anyone hold that kind of power over you."

The next day they'd gotten a call from the head pastor of the church. He asked them to come in at their convenience, but as soon as possible. Please.

"We have a way of approaching issues of marital infidelity and sexual sin," he'd said, leaning forward intently in his chair. He was a kindly man, one who had taken his role as shepherd seriously and honestly regarded those who attended his church, even once, as his responsibility. "We usually allow those who have committed such sins to admit their transgressions and submit to the rules of conduct as handed down by Paul."

Hattie didn't understand what he was saying, but began to get worried. It sounded an awful lot like he was saying that she was somehow at fault and that she would receive equal blame, that she'd have to stand up and confess her sins of being raped in front of the whole crowd.

"However," he continued, "In cases such as this we turn to worldly authorities. What Tom did was wrong and he deserves punishment both before god and the law." He'd turned and looked directly at Hattie. "I know it will be tough, but if you want to continue coming to this church we would like to show you that Jesus didn't come to take advantage of anyone, but to offer healing and love."

She went to the next youth group night. It was a somber affair as adolescent minds attempted to cope with the loss of their pastor on so many levels.

She'd gone in to the bathroom at one point, looking for a chance to be alone, convinced that all of the other kids knew what she'd done and hated her for putting herself and her needs above theirs.

The bathroom door opened. "I hoped you'd come back, at least once."

Hattie found herself standing in front of a dark-haired girl she'd never met. She was still in that awkward space between girl- and womanhood. Her legs were too thin, her chest too big, her movements slightly awkward, like the motors that told her body what to do were growing slower than the rest of her. Hattie recognized her immediately as one of the girls who'd shied away from the pastor, one of the girls who'd given her the strength to stand up.

The girl crossed the room, put her hand on Hattie's cheek and stared at her for a long second. Then, suddenly, she'd pulled her face to Hattie's and kissed her.

"My, uh, my dad told us last week that he has to move for his job," she said, long before Hattie could recover the ability to speak, "But I've still got a month or so before we have to go. Maybe, uh, maybe we could spend some time together...?"

For a brief moment Hattie believed in god. "Uh, sure."

"Cool," the girl smiled, her teeth too big for her mouth but beautiful nonetheless. "I'm Kate."

When Kate left they'd promised to keep in touch, promised that those days and nights of fumbling, awkward teenage experimentation weren't just the activities of two girls who had been forced to grow old faster than they grew up. They'd promised to be friends, that what they'd found had meant something, hadn't just been therapy. So they sent each other letters, talked on the phone, chatted on AIM, made plans to cross the vast gulf between them and visit that were more fantasy than reality.

Then, the summer before their sophomore year the news had come. Kate was moving back.

Pictures are a funny thing. Sometimes they're the best thing about a person, a captured moment of happiness that serves as a trigger to a better time that will never again return. Sometimes, though, they don't do their subject justice. Some people need to be seen in the flesh, captured in motion, appreciated in the moment.

Even though Hattie had seen pictures of Kate in the time they'd been apart, she was wholly unprepared for what she saw the first time they were again in the same room. The awkward thirteen-year-old was gone, replaced by a dark-haired beauty. She'd filled out in all the right places and at fifteen could have passed for twenty and been on the cover of fashion magazines. She was the sort of girl, too, who looked like age would only help her, refine her, continually smooth out the girlish lines in to those of a sculpted, confident woman, the sort who would break hearts by the dozens without ever realizing it. This was helped in no small part by the fact that the girlish awkwardness had disappeared, replaced by a smooth, confident grace.

As unprepared for Kate's appearance as she was, Hattie was shocked by the first words to come out of her mouth. "My god, Hattie," she'd said, "The pictures don't do you justice. You're gorgeous."

Kate would go on to the varsity dance team and end up as one of the most popular girls in school, every red-blooded American boy's wet dream. But Kate carried this distinction with a twist. She'd made a vow to herself after her terrible experience in that junior high pastor's office that she'd never try to hide her sexuality, never be ashamed of it, never tell anyone that she thought she should change. "Besides," she'd said once with a wink, "All the boys in school want to imagine that the girls' locker room is a big girl-on-girl orgy, anyway. I don't ruin their expectations, I fulfill them."

Some people simply carry within themselves the strength of character to overcome all obstacles, push past all pain, turn the negative in to a positive. It was to Hattie's eternal regret that no matter how much time she spent with Kate, no matter how many times Kate had told her to believe in herself, she simply couldn't.

"You know what your problem is?" Kate asked. They'd just finished and were lying in knotted, soaked sheets, basking in the afterglow.

"No, what?"

"You don't know how goddamn awesome you really are."

"Okay." Hattie knew she didn't sound convinced.

"Seriously, girl, you've got to project it." Kate hopped out of bed and stood, naked, in the murky light of her dusky bedroom. "Like this." She walked across the room, the picture of poise and confidence, her legs working rhythmically. Hattie studied the way the muscles in her thighs flexed, the way her ass cheeks raised and lowered in piston motion, the way her breasts bounced ever so slightly. She crossed the room, turned, crossed again. "Now you do it."

Hattie obeyed, rising out of the bed and crossing the room, doing her best to project confidence she didn't feel. All her confidence came from Kate. Without her there was nothing.

"Good job, girl." Kate put her hands on both sides of Hattie's head, pulled her close enough that their foreheads touched. Hattie grabbed Kate's waist, reveling, as always, in the closeness of her touch. "Project that confidence and you'll eventually realize that it's coming from inside you." Kate kissed her, lightly. "You're amazing. You know that, right?"

"I guess."

"Now, can you do something for me?"

"Sure, anything."

"Be my date to Homecoming."

Hattie wilted. Kate had asked her to Homecoming last year, then again to their junior prom. She'd said no, that she couldn't. Kate had said she understood, said, "Hey, that's cool, we'll stay at home, watch a movie, you know. Girl time."

The thought of going to Homecoming terrified her. It wasn't even about the fear of being found out, since if Kate and Hattie's relationship was a secret, it was the worst-kept secret in history. Hattie's mother referred to Kate as her third daughter. Hattie had even gone on a vacation with Kate's family over the summer. They regularly held hands while at school and had even engaged in the time-honored high school tradition of making out at their lockers between classes.

In a flash Hattie realized that she had nothing to fear, not from the staring eyes of her classmates. The only thing she really had to fear was that look of hurt, disappointment, and confusion in Kate's eyes. She couldn't handle it again.

"Yes. Yes I will." Kate's smile lit up the room. It's warmth should have been enough to keep the cold away from Hattie forever.

The cold air mocked her, pulling her back to Chloe's unfamiliar bed.

That Homecoming Dance had been one of the happiest nights of her life. She and Kate had gotten dressed to the nines, rented a limo, and spent the night in each other's arms. Towards the end of the night the senior class president had grabbed the mic from the band and said, "I know we picked the court a couple weeks ago, but I'd like to make a special recognition." A spotlight suddenly descended on Kate and Hattie. All eyes turned towards them. "I know it can be tough to be different, and to try to fit in even if you don't want to. For having the courage to be themselves, I'd like to declare Kate and Hattie our honorary Homecoming Queens."

As the applause washed over them, the two girls might as well have been the only ones in the room. Hattie had vowed then and there to never hurt Kate again. It was a vow that lasted until she met Rayford.

He'd been a dashing, handsome Captain. She was just starting out her career and eager to please.

He'd taken her under his wing, so to speak, showed her the ropes. He'd been there for her, watched out for her, made sure she was okay.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, that old hole in her heart began to open again. Somehow in Rayford's presence she became an eight-year-old girl again, wondering where daddy went, if he would ever come back again, if he really loved her.

She knew now that he'd just been using her, working out some sort of kink. But at the time she'd believed him when he told her that his marriage was falling apart, that Irene just wasn't doing anything for him anymore, that he respected her too much to simply see her as a mistress, that they'd be together some day, but the right way.

Kate had delivered an ultimatum, and for the first time since meeting her in the bathroom all those years ago Hattie had seen doubt and fear in her beloved's eyes. It turned out the fear was justified. Kate had told her to go to hell, to never talk to her again.

Hattie's purse was lying next to the bed. She let her arm flop off the edge, reached in, found her cell phone. She opened the contacts list, went to K.


The word stared at her, bathing her face in its luminescence.

She wanted to hit the call button, wanted to put the phone to her ear, wanted to hear Kate's voice. She wanted to say, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I was an idiot," over and over and over again. She wanted Kate to hear the words that constantly flooded her brain, threatening to drown her.

Ever since she realized Rayford was nothing but a lying bastard she had spent her nights in an empty, cold bed, staring at her phone, imagining where Kate was. Maybe she was somewhere else, maybe she was still in that apartment, listening to the popping radiators, wondering what had happened, staring at a cell phone, wondering why it didn't ring. She'd probably moved on, though, found solace in another woman's arms, hopefully a woman who deserved her this time. Hattie certainly didn't.

Chloe stirred, awakened by the light. Hattie turned the screen off, dropped the phone back in her purse, hoped Chloe hadn't noticed.

"Hey," Chloe mumbled, "You're awake."

"Yeah. Couldn't sleep."

"You wanna, you know, go again."


Chloe smiled, blissfully unaware of what she was getting herself in to, unaware that she was only going to get herself hurt, that Hattie wasn't worth a goddamn thing. Chloe unlocked her legs from Hattie's and turned over in the bed as Hattie spread her thighs. A moment later Hattie's view of the ceiling was eclipsed and her world reduced to a small cavern of flesh.

She grabbed Chloe's ass, directing her to the proper placement, and gave in to the moment, hoping it would last forever.

She didn't want to think about anything else any more.

Ged's This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours

One of Right Behind's authors, Geds, has a series of posts up that might be interesting to readers of this blog. Although we do offer links to our author's blogs in the sidebar, I found these particular posts to be very well written and thought they deserved a special shout out. They're about Ged's perspective on various aspects of modern Christianity from his current position outside the movement, and ending with an essay about his current beliefs.
If you find exceptional works that might be of interest to Right Behind readers, you can always use the email link in the sidebar to bring it to my attention, or if you're already an author, you can post it yourself.

Speaking of which, if you are an author of Right Behind and have another blog that you'd like to highlight, let me know; the ones posted are the only ones that I was able to find for our authors. Similarly, if you just read Right Behind and want to list a blog in our own "Cloud of Witnesses" let me know and I'll start a section for that as well.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

RB RPG Tradition Teaser: Not Just Another Ambulance Call

Swindon, Wiltshire, UK

Lucy Sinclair lay in bed, trying to sleep. She couldn't escape a sense of foreboding though. Bob, the Ecstatic who hung out at her favourite club hadn't been seen in days, and his mates said he'd been acting increasingly erratic before he vanished. Jimmy, a Lakshmist from her Marabout had also been acting oddly for quite some time. Both of them were convinced that something horrible was coming, but nobody had been able to pin them down on what. All that was clear was that whatever it was would make the Holocaust look like a Guy Fawkes Day bonfire. That was not something she wanted to think about. She tried to think about the ribbing in that sweater, instead. It was a fairly complicated pattern, and she'd been having trouble with it.

Eventually, she managed to fall into a fitful sleep, only to wake up screaming. Something had invaded the ambulance company. Something implacably hostile to her and everything she stood for. Something that sought to smash the Wheel and replace it, with what she wasn't sure. Elisabeth Watson, the other woman on the shift, jerked into a sitting position. She threw off her covers and came over to Lucy's bed.

'Lucy, are you all right?' she asked.

'I had a nightmare,' said Lucy, 'At least I hope that's all it was. That would make quite the headline wouldn't it. "Ambulance attendant goes mad."' She was shaking badly.

'Tell you what dear,' said Elisabeth. 'How about we have a nice soothing cuppa, and you can tell me all about it.'

Lucy agreed that this sounded like a good idea, although she didn't think there was much to tell.

They had just put the water on to boil when the alarm went off. An accident with injuries at the Magic Roundabout, multiple ambulances needed.

'At this hour? Did an American tourist get lost after having a few drinks too many at the pub?' Elisabeth wanted to know. At five o'clock in the morning, the traffic was light, and almost everyone who drove through the roundabout knew its quirks.

As people were suiting up for the run, Painter looked up. 'Oy, where's Walton?' Everyone looked around. Walton was a light sleeper and usually one of the first to respond, but this morning he was nowhere to be seen. Painter went back to the men's bunk room to check up on Walton. When he came back, he looked puzzled. 'He's not in the bunk room, an' he left his pager and his clothes behind. His pyjamas are still on the bed. I pulled the covers off them.'

They didn't have time to go looking for him, but Lucy called in the disappearance to the police who sounded more harried than usual, and told her rather brusquely that he wasn't the only one.

When they got to the scene, it was a mess. It was the time of day when lorries made their deliveries to the local shops, and the people responsible for opening said shops had to get in to work to meet said lorries. In addition, they found a man who'd been trying to get his pregnant wife to the hospital when she'd unexpectedly gone into labor. Both man and wife were hysterical.

Lucy had been doing triage which had gotten to be her unofficial duty since her mates had discovered that she had a knack for it. She hadn't explained to them that she was a mage from a group that specialized in triage, both medical and spiritual. As she looked at the woman, she saw something odd. There was only one life, and nothing in the patient's life pattern to show that she ever had been pregnant. But there was an odd magickal signature that matched the presence that had woken her before the alarm came in. Lucy felt a chill. They had to be connected, but how?

'Pardon me ma'am, I thought your husband said were pregnant,' said Lucy.

'I was,' she said, gulping. 'Then as we entered the roundabout, all of a sudden I wasn't. I think my scream is what caused the accident. Harry jerked the wheel when he heard me.'

Lucy looked around. 'There's no blood,' she observed. 'And miscarriages aren't usually instantaneous.'

'I know,' the woman said. She looked around wildly. 'I don't know what happened.'

Lucy got Elisabeth to reassure the patient and do a more detailed examination while she finished the triage. She was even more puzzled when she completed the job. One of the lorry drivers was nowhere to be found, and his clothes and fillings were stacked on the driver's seat with his trouser legs hanging over the edge. The lorry had run over a car, and killed the driver. Just as she finished verifying that, the driver's cell phone started ringing. She grabbed the phone and muted it quickly. There was no time to explain matters to the caller, but its directory would likely contain numbers for people who would need to be notified when things settled down. She straightened to hear other cells going off, along with the lorry's radio.

The mystery deepened when she called the findings in to the hospital. The physician on duty turned out to be Rowan, a Verbena she occasionally had lunch with. He took the information, issued instructions, and then told her 'It's a zoo, here. Billingsley's gone missing, and I've been hearing rumors of disappearances in Maternity.'

Lucy cursed softly in Gaelic, then relayed instructions to the rest of the crew, then got to work. When she found time to catch her breath, she noticed a larger than usual police presence. She also heard the sounds of people hysterically calling names. She didn't have the attention to spare to find out more. Her patients came first.

The scene at the hospital was as Rowan described. One of the duty nurses took charge of the patients, and got the ambulance report. She didn't have time to talk to Rowan before going out on another call. Shite, she was supposed to be getting off duty soon. In fact, getting off duty that morning consisted of returning to base after the second call long enough to swap crews before the ambulance headed out again.

She took the opportunity to look in the men's bunk room. Yes, the same magickal signature marked Walton's bed. As far as she knew, the only thing that Walton and Billingsley had in common was their church, a radical American import that had scared her with its theocratic ranting. That couldn't be it, could it? She called the hospital to find out if Rowan was available. He wasn't, but she was informed that he'd probably be able to make his escape in an hour. Fine. She'd meet him then.

She intercepted Rowan as he left the hospital, and invited him to breakfast, explaining that she wanted a chance to compare notes. They couldn't find an open breakfast shop, so they ended up at her flat while she scrambled some eggs and fried some bacon. While she cooked, she talked to the Verbena.
'Do you think this is what's had the probability and Time specialists so worried for the past year?' she asked him.

'If it isn't,' replied Rowan, 'then I don't want to know what is.

'I've confirmed it. Every child in Maternity vanished, and every woman in for delivery abruptly lost the child or children she was carrying with none of the usual signs of a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion. That woman you brought. On a magickal level, she didn't look like she'd ever been pregnant, but yes, she had that odd signature you told me about. I called up her records, by the by. She had an ultrasound showing a nice healthy baby boy that was taken just last week.'

'What about Billingsley?' asked Lucy.

'One of the nurses swears blind that she saw him just vanish in front of her leaving behind his clothes and his glasses. There's been a few other adult disappearances in the hospital too,' said Rowan

'Now, here's the scary part. It seems like every child below a certain age and some portion of adults have vanished. Nobody knows what happened. Where the adults are concerned, some areas have been hit harder than others. America seems to have been hit worst.'

'Rowan,' said Lucy hesitantly, 'Walton and Billingsley belonged to an American church. Do you think there's a connection?'

'This Rapture thing that Billingsley was always on about?' asked Rowan. He opened his mouth to say something probably sarcastic then stopped. When he finally spoke, he sounded thoughtful 'Maybe. I don't believe in the Rapture, but if enough people believe in it, maybe one of the things that inhabit the Darkness beyond the Horizon was able to use that belief to, ah, simulate it. Whatever it was, it definitely didn't like me.' He shuddered.

'It didn't like me, either,' said Lucy, as she served breakfast. 'But then again, the Christian god wouldn't, would it? "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" and all that. Verbena, Euthanatos, you think they can tell the difference? And the masters of the Nephandi don't like anyone who opposes them, so that doesn't give us much to choose from does it?' She settled down to eat.

'Right, if you can't co-opt them, destroy them,' said Rowan, picking up his fork. 'Well, if you're right it's going to get much, much worse, but not right away. I vote we get some sleep while we can, who knows how much chance we'll get to do so later. I can brew up a potion for us.'

'Oh could you?' she said gratefully. 'I'm too exhausted to be any good to anybody, but I don't think I could sleep a wink without help.' Lucy turned on the radio, and they continued eating while listening to reports of disasters all over the world. Finally, Lucy said, 'I think we need to call a pan Traditional meeting. I want to know if any of the Chorus vanished, and if so what religion were they. I also want to know if any other mages vanished. I don't think anyone local is an Evangelical unless they're in the Chorus, but it wouldn't hurt to find out. Also, I want to know what everyone felt when whatever it was hit.'

'Hold on a moment,' Rowan held up his hand. There was now a report on the radio that the Pope and several of his staff had gone missing. 'Somehow, I don't think the Pope is an Evangelical Christian. You may have to rethink your theory.'

'Oh pooh.' Lucy got up and put the dishes in the sink. 'I think I could really use that sleeping draught right about now. And I'll rethink my theory when I have more information.'

Crossposted to rbrpg.

Well, this seems excessively long. I hope I didn't mess up writing Brits too badly here, I spent about three and a half months in the UK in 1980-81, and that doesn't seem to be adequate preparation. I wanted to do a non-US Traditions Teaser, and was inspired by the "cell phones of the dead ringing" comment from the "In Case of Rapture" thread.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Meta-Chloe Comes Out to Play

[Author's Note: For anyone who wanders in here uninitiated, one of the common themes of Left Behind Fridays is that every once in a while Chloe and Hattie transcended Jerry Jenkin's atrocious writing and inhuman characterizations. We named these unintended characters Meta-Hattie and Meta-Chloe. Since these are the only two sympathetic characters and few people love hot meta-girl-on-meta-girl action more than Slacktivites, we often root for them to hook up, even though we know it won't happen. Still, you can imagine what it would be like if they did, right?]

"Jesus god," Chloe whispered to herself as she pulled back the curtain. Hattie was just pulling up in front of the house. "By the blood of Christ I command you demons of temptation to go away from me." The words she'd secretly laughed at her mother for came out of her mouth easily. It had happened a lot since she'd started attending New Hope Village Church.

"Demons are everywhere, trying to lead you in to temptation, my child," her mother had told her all those years ago while giving her hair one last tease right before Johnny showed up to take her to Homecoming. "You mustn't let them. They hate hearing about the blood of Jesus, so make sure they hear it as much as possible."

Chloe had just rolled her eyes.

"And don't you go giving them any openings, either," her mother continued. "I know all about those underwear catalogs. I know you're mad at me for throwing them out, but when you start thinking about putting on those little lacy panties you just start thinking about letting some boy take them off. God doesn't want that for you."

"Yes, mother," Chloe sighed. It was easier to let her think that she was planning on buying the stuff in her stack of Victoria's Secret catalogs than admitting what she actually used them for. That would probably lead to an exorcism. It would probably get Johnny in trouble, too. He had just as much to lose as she did if their cover was blown.

Hattie got out of her car and shut the door behind her. She slung her purse over her shoulder and flipped her long, blond hair over her shoulders. She walked around behind the car with long, purposeful strides atop her high-heeled boots, her long, khaki-encased legs rhythmically thrusting through the opening of her knee-length, black coat.

At the curb Hattie hesitated slightly and flipped her hair again. Loose flakes of the gently falling snow shook loose as her hair cascaded over her shoulders in long, luscious strands that curled up ever so slightly at the ends.

Chloe's mouth went dry.

She closed her eyes.

Hattie stopped for just a moment, gently kissed her belly button. Then her nose continued to trace its gentle, meandering path up her stomach, stopping every once in a while for a quick, gentle kiss. Everywhere Hattie's nose and lips went her hair followed slightly behind. Chloe felt every strand as they caressed her flesh.

The nose reached her left breast and continued on, straight, true, purposeful this time. It traced its way up past her nipple. Stopped.

Warm, soft lips enclosed her nipple. A wet tongue slipped out from between them...

"BythebloodofChristIcommandyoutoleave. BythebloodofChristIcommandyoutoleave," Chloe whispered quickly, desperately. But the words were powerless, just like when she whispered them to her ceiling at night. She had wanted Hattie from the moment she met her at the restaurant, known she was perfect when Hattie had grabbed her wrist under the table and said, "C'mon. Bathroom. Girl time," and rescued her from her father's arrogant discourse about the truth of things he'd once mocked and the uncomfortable leer of the ever-so-creepy Buck.

A hand on grabbed her shoulder. She jumped.

"Whoa, sorry, kid. Didn't mean to startle you," her father said. "Who are you talking to?"

"Uh, Jesus," she replied. "I was, uh, I was praying that he'd reveal himself to Hattie and she would come to know the truth."

"Good for you, kid," he replied. "Pray that Jesus works fast, though. She's late and I'm going to have to leave for the airport pretty soon."

"Uh, okay." Chloe turned to her father just as Hattie passed the front window, smiled, lifted her arm and made one of those cupped-hand waves. Was she imagining things, or had Hattie's smile been directed more at her than her father?

Then she caught the look on her father's face. She recognized it immediately and hated it with a passion.

She hadn't known what the look meant the first time she saw it. It was in third grade and her parents had come to her school for Parents' Night. Pretty Miss Kent had been at the front of the room, explaining what the class was doing that year. Chloe had turned to see her father studying her teacher, intently watching every move. At the time she'd thought it was great that her father was so interested in what she was learning.

A few weeks later her father had announced he was going to a parent-teacher conference. Her mother was out of town, setting up some sort of Women's Retreat with the church, so he had to go alone. He'd left her with the neighbor and been gone for hours.

Two months later Miss Kent stood in front of the class with tears in her eyes and told her students something had come up and she had to leave. Bitter Old Mrs. Bingham had taken over the class and school wasn't nearly as fun from then on, especially when the rumor started that it was Chloe's father who sent Miss Kent away and everyone made her life miserable.

In high school her friend Jamie had come over once and only once. When Chloe finally asked why, she'd said she felt creeped out whenever he was around.

She'd gotten her parents to let Erin stay over on her first holiday break from Stanford. The first night, after a round of hushed, giggly lovemaking, heightened all the more by their inexperience and the real risk of discovery, Erin had propped herself up on an elbow, begun tracing abstract forms across Chloe's stomach with a finger, and said, "So I notice you and your dad have the same taste in women."

Chloe had batted Erin's hand away, rolled over to face the wall and cried herself to sleep.

Her father's hand leaving her shoulder surprised her nearly as much as its arrival had. "I should probably let Hattie in," he said, walking over to the door. "Can you, uh, can you leave us alone for a minute, kid?"

"Sure, dad." She turned from the window and headed for the stairs, but not before the door opened.

"Hey, Ray," she heard Hattie say. Then she threw a, "Hey, girl," over his shoulder.

"Hi," Chloe practically yelled the word over her shoulder as she ran up the stairs, terrified she was about to burst in to tears.

She reached the second floor and quickly crossed the hall to her room, careful to control her emotions long enough to avoid slamming the door behind her. Then she turned and faced the full-length mirror attached to the wall.

"You're only kidding yourself, Chloe," she told her reflection. "You don't have a chance with Hattie, even if she is in to girls." She ran her hand through her hair, then down her cheek. "Your hair is all flat and stringy. Your face is too round." She scanned down her body, picking out all the other problems she could see. Her breasts were too small, her middle too big, her hips too wide.

Hattie was...well, she was perfect. She had that long, blond hair, those clear blue eyes and full lips and the sort of complexion that never required makeup. Then, just because an amazing face wasn't nearly good enough, she had those perky little tits, that flat and toned midsection, that infinitely grabbable, perfect ass, and those long, amazing legs that always looked perfect emerging from a pair of stiletto heels.

Besides, she was a professional woman in her mid-twenties, about to take a job working directly for the most powerful man on Earth. Hattie was no college girl, on her own for the first time and looking to experiment. She was in a completely different league, possibly on another plane of existence.

Erin might have been the closest Chloe would ever come to a woman like Hattie. She, too, had been a tall blond. But where Hattie wore her hair at its natural, strawberry blonde color, Erin was a platinum bottle blond. She'd traded Hattie's lean, athletic proportions for the slightly top-heavy look of a would-be porn star.

Chloe knew at the time that most of the people on the planet would be happy to share a bed with Erin. She'd admitted that her disappointments were petty and stupid and that Erin really was a wonderful girlfriend. She'd even taken that first night visiting the Steele home in stride, apologized profusely, and made up for her mistake in creative and enthusiastic fashion.

Then their second year at Stanford began with The Talk.

"Over the summer I met a guy."

"You what?"

"I met a guy. His name is Sam, he's studying to be an electrical engineer. He's a great guy. You'd like him a lot."

"But what about us?"

"Come on, Chloe. You know what this was. A little experimentation. We're away from home for the first time, looking to have some fun. But, you know, we're going to have to go back to the real world sooner or later."

The real world. Those words echoed in her mind.

Chloe tore herself away from the mirror and collapsed on to her bed. Her real world sucked. Her lecherous bastard of a father was downstairs with the woman of her dreams, lecturing her about Jesus and the end of the world. Even at that, Hattie might as well be in another universe for all the chance that Chloe had with her. The first woman she'd ever loved had walked away one day, acting like all those nights in her arms didn't matter, all those long, slow, Saturday afternoons making love had just been quick and meaningless fucks between strangers because, hey, it was all a crazy experiment.

The worst thing was that all this Jesus shit was supposed to make it all better. Pray the prayer, go to church, tell others how awesome it all is. Jesus will make you all better. It sure wasn't turning out that way.

She collapsed on to her bed in a spasm of sobs.

The door opened. "Hey, Chloe, you still here?" It was Hattie.

Chloe sat up, wiped the tears from her cheeks. "Yeah. What's up?"

Hattie closed the door, crossed the room, and sat down on the bed. "Hey, girl, you okay?" she asked, concern written all over her face. "Those pretty green eyes of yours shouldn't be all red like that."

Chloe sniffed and managed a weak smile. "I'm just having a bad day, that's all."

"Oh." Hattie reached up and gently brushed a strand of hair behind Chloe's left ear with the back of her fingers. "Well maybe this will cheer you up."

Hattie's hand continued to the back of Chloe's head and held it in place as Hattie leaned forward, tilting her head slightly to the right.

Their lips met. Chloe closed her eyes and soaked in every detail. The feel of the hand at the back of her head. The smell of Hattie's skin. The warm, soft lips pressing against hers, parting ever so slightly. The tip of a tongue poking out, beginning to explore.

Two sharp knocks on the door.

Hattie jumped back. Her hand dropped to Chloe's shoulder.

The door opened.

"Hey, I'm out of here. I'll be back on Friday," Chloe's father said, sticking his upper body in to the room. He paused for a second and a puzzled look crossed his face. "What, uh, what's going on here?"

"Girl stuff, Ray," Hattie said. "You'd probably rather not know."

"Ah," he said. "Thanks, Hattie. It's been hard on Chloe and me since her mother disappeared. I'm sure it will be good to have another woman around."

He pulled back out of the room and closed the door behind him. Hattie and Chloe stared silently at each other, afraid to even breath, counting footsteps down the stairs.

"Don't take this the wrong way, Chloe," Hattie finally broke the silence, "But your father is a dumbass."

"Oh, believe me, I know. But you came here to talk to him, so what does that make you?"

"Silly girl," Hattie smiled, "I wasn't here for your father. I was here for you."


"And it's my understanding that he's going to be gone for four whole days."

"I, uh, I believe you're right."

"Good, then." Hattie's right hand crept up Chloe's neck and returned to its spot at the back of her head. Her left hand crossed from her lap to Chloe's thigh and began moving up and down, spreading warmth along the inside of her leg.

Chloe closed her eyes and smiled.

"Now, then," Hattie said, "Where were we?"

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Jim MacDonald Responds

Jim Macdonald from Making Light was kind enough to allow Right Behind to post his responses to the accident scene that Chloe stumbles upon in the third section of the Left Behind movie.

Apologies for the delay in posting.

Also, I took the liberty of adding a link in point 6 for understandability.

Jim says:
As multiple-vehicle MVAs go, that wasn't much of one.


1) Don't use your cell-phone while driving. Accident stats for hand-held cell use make it look like the equivalent of drunk driving.

2) That wasn't much of an MVA. The vehicles were widely spaced; there wasn't much body damage (one with a crumpled hood, nothing else). There was quite a lot of smoke, but it was the wrong color. Gasoline fires have black smoke. There seems to be quite a bit of sparking, much like what you see on the bridge in Star Trek when the engines canna take any more. What exactly is causing that I don't know. I'm not aware of anything on an ordinary car or truck that'll do that. If any vehicles are on fire, stay well clear and keep others well clear.

3) Stop your car as safely as you can. Turn on your four-way flashers. Grab your bag and boogie off the road, 45 degrees, heading upstream toward the flow of traffic, so the guy who slams into your car doesn't send debris into you.

4) Call it in to 9-1-1. Take the flares from your go-bag and flare out the scene. One flare at 100 feet (20 double paces), one at 200 feet, one at three hundred feet.

5) A police officer is on scene (or, at least, a cop car with its lights going is on scene). Find the officer; report in and ask for an assignment.

6) Go into a triage mode. I've discussed this in some detail elsewhere.

7) I note that the young lady first comes to a guy with a head injury who is guarding his left arm. That generally means he has some kind of arm injury. She grabs him by that arm. This is contraindicated.

8) There don't seem to be any serious injuries. Stay safe yourself.

More interesting posts about medical and emergency issues by Jim Macdonald can be found here at Making Light.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Lead Thoughts and Lost Horizons, Part 4

"So what do we do now?" she asked quietly as she pulled in to the spot next to Rob's gifted Acura.

"What do we do about what?"

"You know," she turned the car off, "Us. Um, assuming there is an us to talk about."

"Well," he said, hitting the seat belt button and opening the door, "Since there is a you and a me, that technically means there's an us." He got out of the car.

"You know that's not what I mean," she replied, head popping up over the roof of the car. "You really can't be that dense, can you?"

He didn't respond immediately, far more focused on checking the RSX to make sure nothing had been disturbed. He'd left a small arsenal in a parking lot for a week, and even though it was hidden and the car didn't look like it had been disturbed he wanted to be sure. "No," he finally said, peering through the back window, "I'm not that dense. I just don't see what the big deal is here."


"Yeah." He looked back at her. She was standing behind her car, hands crossed over her chest, waiting. "This might not be the ideal way to start a relationship, but it's what we've got. Hell," he laughed, "This might be the most sensible beginning to a relationship I've had yet."

"That's pathetic."

"I don't know," he shrugged, "I've picked up my fair share of girls in bars. That's pathetic, really."

"So you're saying I'm better than a bar skank? Thanks. That's a high compliment."

He walked over to her and gently gripped her shoulders. "That's not what I'm saying at all, Dawn. I'm saying," he sighed, "Hell, I don't know what I'm saying. It's just that you're focused too much on the fact that this whole thing is pretty unconventional. I'm trying to say not to worry about it too much."

"Okay." She put her hand behind his head and pulled it down. "Thank you," she whispered right before their lips met.

"You're, uh, you're welcome?" he replied when he could finally speak again.

She laughed, then turned and lead him in to her building. "So am I allowed to ask you about your past now?" she asked over her shoulder.

"Yeah. I don't know that you'll like the answers, though."

"Try me."

"I enlisted right out of high school. There was nothing for me at home and no money for college, so it was the only way to escape from my shitty life." He stopped as she opened the door of her apartment.

"Keep talking," she said, pointing at the couch, "I'm hungry."

"What's on the menu?"

"I can make you anything you want as long as it's a turkey sandwich."

"Guess I'll take a turkey sandwich, then," he said, flopping down on the couch. "Anyway, I signed up, then I went for the Rangers as soon as I got the chance. I spent some time in Iraq and some time in Afghanistan. I got a reputation as the guy who worked the hardest, shot the straightest, and had the biggest pair in one of the most elite fighting units in the world. That got me some attention and I was given the chance to take a new, special assignment. I took it without asking too many questions. Turns out that Delta Force was knocking on my door."

"What's Delta Force?"

"It's one of the most elite special forces units in the world. If the United States needs someone killed or something destroyed and it has to be done with the minimum possible force and the maximum amount of deniability, Delta Force gets the job."

"Oh. So you were a good soldier, then?"

"Uh, yeah."

"So what happened?" she came out of the kitchen with two sandwiches on a plate.

"I was in some backwater town down in some backwater country where the United States officially had no military presence and, according to official records, I've never actually been."

"That's a neat trick."

"I know," he smiled. "Anyway, some local warlord was apparently getting small arms and ammo to nearby Al Qaeda cells in the area. They, in turn, were going to topple the America-friendly government, install the warlord as the supreme ruler, start perpetual Jihad and do all that junk. It was our job to make sure that this didn't happen."


"Indeed." He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "We went in at midnight. The warlord, his family, and some of his top lieutenants were in a walled compound at the center of a little town. We weren't officially there, so we had to get in and get out before any police or army units could respond and do it with the minimum possible collateral damage.

"Everything went smoothly until my buddy Garb and I hit one of the rooms. I went high, Garb went low. I swept the room and stopped when I found a young woman clutching two kids. If I'd tracked about three more feet I would have found the guy with the AK-74 hiding in the corner, ready to spray me with bullets."


Rob nodded. "Fortunately, Garb was more on top of it than I was. He dropped the bastard.

"It, uh, it shook me up a little bit. But I figured I'd shrug it off. I hesitated once, I wasn't going to make the same mistake twice.

"About six months later we were in Africa, acting as military advisers to some insurgent group. Me and Garb and a couple other guys were riding herd on a group of guys who were making a quick attack on an ammo dump. They fucked it up real bad and we ended up in a running firefight against some militia unit."

He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed them hard. "I, uh," he opened his eyes again and sighed heavily. "I came around a corner and found a couple of kids. They couldn't have been more than 12 and I swear they were smaller than the AK-47s they had pointed at me."

"I just stopped." He looked down at the couch and bit his lower lip. "All I could see were kids. It was like they weren't carrying AKs. They were just fucking kids. I forgot my job, I forgot my training, I forgot that they could kill me. And then one pulled the trigger."

He waved his hand over his right shoulder. "The shots went wide. That was when my training kicked in. The kid was tiny, probably didn't get enough food, and the gun's kick nearly knocked him over. I put three rounds in to his buddy, then killed the first kid. Then I turned around.

"Garb was there. He'd been following me, watching my back. He'd come around the corner at the wrong time. One of the kid's bullets hit him in the elbow, the next blew his jaw off, and the third took off the top of his head."

Rob chewed on his lower lip for a moment, blinking back tears. "I had to carry my best friend back to camp, bleeding all over my uniform. Then I accompanied the body back to the States. I had to stand there and lie to his mother and his wife about where we'd been and how he'd died. Admitting we'd been in Nowhere, Africa destabilizing some pissant government for the enduring glory of Uncle Sam would have been bad PR."

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault." He shook his head. "It just pisses me off. I was watching some commercial right before the funeral. Some fucking organization or another had trucked out the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq so she could beg people to keep fighting over there to make sure her son hadn't died in vain. I stood up and shouted, 'Samuel Joseph Garber died in vain, you stupid shit. Shut the fuck up!' then stormed out of the room.

"Garb's brother followed me out of the room. He had this look like he was going to beat the shit out of me for daring to say such a thing. I told him that if he really wanted to honor his brother's memory he'd best think about what sort of insane system justifies the death of one person by sending in another one to die.

"Then, just to add insult to injury, that damn church that protests at all the military funerals showed up. That motorcycle group that protests the protesters showed up, too. Then the media showed up and it was just this big circus. I had to stand in front of that casket, next to Garb's wife and mother and father with some dipshit screeching about god hating fags outside and cameras waiting to capture all the grief for the six o'clock news." He sighed.

"I just couldn't take it any more. I was given leave and recommended for psychiatric evaluation. But I just disappeared. The government couldn't let a guy with my skills and knowledge run free, so they chased pretty hard. I stayed one step ahead until, well, until you."

"Oh." She squeezed his knee. "I'm sorry."

He shook his head. "It had to happen eventually. And I guess it worked out. That Smith guy didn't want to lock me up, he wanted to offer me a job."

"Are you going to take it?"

"Hell, no."

"Good," she smiled, "Stay here with me."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

We Interrupt this Broadcast

This post was inspired by the Slactivist post "That's our Buck." It's another case of something being more plausible in the World of Darkness than in the original. It also provides a bit of background for the Right Behind RPG.

Date: 24 April 2011

"This is Marlowe Keller continuing a series of special reports on new technologies being developed to combat Global Warming and meet growing demand for food, biofuels and bioplastics. Today, we are visiting the Eden Project in Israel, one of the more successful efforts to make the desert bloom." The camera panned from his face across the field of grain they were standing in.

The camera shifted to the man with Marl. "Dr. Ismail Khalidi is the researcher in charge of the outdoor portion of the project." Marl held the mike out to the Palestinian researcher asking, "Doctor, what can you tell us about the grain growing here?"

"This is a particularly drought and salt resistant strain of triticale," said the researcher. "The grain is edible, and the stalks can be used to manufacture bioplastics, although we won't be doing that for a few years, because we need to plow the stalks into the soil to condition it."

"Pardon, me," said Marl, "What do you mean by 'conditioning the soil'?"

"Two things," said Dr. Khalidi. "One is that plowing the stalks into the soil helps to fertilize it and provide a feedstock for the the microbial mix we're cultivating as part of the project. The other is that it helps the soil to retain water which is a particularly critical detail when trying to grow crops in a desert. We have to keep the water from either running off into intermittent streams or draining so deeply that the roots of the plants cannot reach it. Plowing will stop the runoff, but it takes water absorbent material to keep it from draining. The triticale stalks will help with that."

Marl seemed to consider that. "What's so important about the micro-- Shit what's that?" He broke off staring at the sky. Something up there was glowing in the distance. Suddenly, pagers started going off all over the place, including his and Dr. Khalidi's. When they checked theirs, they found that the CO of the Construct had ordered everyone inside.

Dr. Khalidi grabbed Marl by the hand and started to drag him toward the entrance to the lab building while one of his assistants did the same for Marl's cameraman. Once inside, a security guard informed them that everyone was to transfer to the Horizon aspect of the Construct. Once again, Marl found himself being dragged to the transfer Portal. After the usual moment of disorientation, he found himself on the other side where another, apparently identical, security guard checked their IDs and told them to report to the CO in the Situation Room.

"This way," said Dr. Khalidi, heading down the corridor to the right. At least this time, he wasn't dragging Marl, which allowed the Watcher keep some of his dignity. Soon they were presenting their IDs to a third of the seemingly interchangeable guards in black suits and mirror shades. This one took DNA samples to verify their identities before buzzing them into the room.

"Clones?" asked Marl.

"Of course. It's cheaper that way," replied Dr. Khalidi. Then they came to attention, at least as much as anyone from their respective Conventions ever did.

The Situation Room could have been any military command center except that the tactical displays were all holographic, and with one exception, the uniforms came in two flavors: bright orange jumpsuits for the Void Engineers who ran this part of the Construct, and dark gray suits for the New World Order agents assisting them. The exception was the white suited NWO Observer. Of course, as Marl knew full well, "Observer" was a polite term for "Political Officer." Not his problem. All he had to do was avoid blatantly unmutual behavior and he'd be out of there with his standing intact. The Voids, on the other hand, had to step carefully around him.

"Dr. Khalidi, Dr. Ben-Meir, Marlborough Man and Eagle Eye Hawkins reporting as ordered," said Dr. Khalidi. "May I ask where Reuven is?"

"Dr. Even-Zahav just finished securing the hydroponics lab," replied the CO. She looked over the new arrivals. "I don't need to see him, anyway. I need reports from the personnel who were outdoors when the alarms went off. Also, I would like Eagle Eye to download the data from his camera into our computers in case it recorded anything important."

Marl, in the meantime, had been watching the images in the main holodisplay. "Holy f--" He broke off, suddenly very conscious of the White Suit on the periphery of the room.
"I thought I was imagining things when I saw a dragon outside. Where'd that come from?"

"Russia," said the CO. "It was visible on the Front Lines?"

"'Fraid so," said Eagle Eye. He tapped a couple of keys and a new image appeared in the main tank. It showed the dragon quite clearly, along with some other unidentifiable specks.

The CO muttered something that could only be a curse in what sounded like Hebrew. "On top of that small swarm of RDs, we have a major incursion in Jerusalem. We're not sure where that came from, but this Construct isn't big enough to handle both at once, and it's all we've got to cover this section of the Middle East."

One of the other Voids spoke up just then, saying something in Hebrew that made the CO look relieved. The only thing that Marl caught was the patently un-Hebrew sounding "Qui la Machina."

Dr. Khalidi confirmed that a moment later, explaining that one of the huge heavily armed Voidships was going after the dragon and its associated RDs. That left the Construct free to respond to the incursion in Jerusalem.

The CO had the four men give full reports to one of her officers, then dismissed them.
As they left, the White Suit got up to single Marl out from the group. Uh, oh. Marl's immediate first thought was "What did I do?"

"Relax, you haven't done anything wrong," said the White Suit, although the word "yet" hung unspoken in Marl's mind, if nowhere else. "It's just that while you're in this Construct, you're under my authority and I have a job for you."


"The Union will want a full report on this incident of course, but if anything spilled into mundane perception, a cover up will be needed. That's where you come in. You're the Watchers' man on the spot and you have a public career as a reporter. That makes you the ideal person to spin this incident for public consumption. So, that's what I want you to do."

"Of course sir." Marl straightened up, managing not to show his relief. "I'll get on it as soon as possible, sir."

"Oh, before you go. How did you get the nick 'Marlborough Man'?"

"Well sir, in my early career, I had a reputation for being something of a cowboy. I also smoked Marlboroughs. It kind of went from there. By the time, I was settled enough for a public role, the nick had stuck."

"Ah. I'd wondered."



"Could I get some kind of briefing on how Russia figures into this?"

"Of course. I'll send a Gray Man to explain matters to you."

The White Suit directed him to a conference room, then returned to the Situation Room.