Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Harvest of Souls, Chapter Four

Weeping in Ramah

One of the Secret Service agents moved to answer the phone.

“No! Honey, could you get that please,” Richard said, keeping his gun held steady in the face of the chief of his Secret Service detail. “Back away from the phone, pal!” The other agent did as ordered.

“Hello?” Beth said. “General!” she said, then cupped a hand over the receiver. “It’s General Lind,” she said to her husband. “What’s happening, General? I’m sorry, we have...a situation here, he can’t come to the phone. Yes he’s still here,” she said with a little quake in her voice. “I need you to tell me what’s going on.” As she listened, Beth’s face grew ever more fearful. “Excuse me a moment, General.” She covered the receiver with her hand again.

“Honey...he says it’s happening everywhere…disappearances...not just here...our troops.... One of you, turn on CNN!” An agent slowly crossed the living room to the large high-definition home theater system that took up most of a wall. Careful to make no sudden moves, he turned it on.

“...from all over the world,” Christiane Amanpour said in her delicate accent. “Children…missing from their beds.” Her voice cracked, tears welling in her eyes. “Babies gone from their cribs. Entire elementary schools...suddenly emptied.” Her face was inset against a montage of handheld camera shots.

An Iranian woman in a black dress and hijab pressing a little shirt to her chest, her face aimed at the heavens wailing silently in pure anguish. A shaky, low-quality cell-phone video of small desks in neat rows. Piles of clothes in each chair, pant legs drooping down to empty shoes. A husband and wife in London bawling in each other’s arms, collapsed next to a stroller.

“The...Event appears to be limited to...to pre-teen children. My own son…Darius John Rubin...is among the missing.” A tear broke free and ran down her cheek, trailed down her jawline and dripped from her chin unnoticed. “If you still have your children...hold them. Hold them.” She failed to suppress a hitching sob.

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted...because they are no more. They are no more.” Christiane turned away from the camera and buried her face in her hands just as CNN cut back to the studio.

An immaculately pretty young anchorwoman sat alone behind the expansive, sweeping glass-and-brushed-nickel desk, like a captain going down with her ship. She stared helplessly into the camera for long seconds, her perfect cupid’s-bow lips parted, but unable to speak.

“That’s enough, turn it off,” Deming said, lowering his weapon with shaking hands. “...Sorry.” It was the Secret Service agents’ turn to look shaken. “Go on, call home. I need to talk to the General anyway. There might not be a location secure enough to protect us against this.” He went to the phone and Beth handed him the receiver.

“General, this is Deming.” Probably President Deming, he thought, feeling it hit him like a tsunami. Mike and his whole family, gone...plane crashes...oh God no!

“Sir, the news reports are saying it’s only children, but that’s not true," General Lind said. "It hit our forces too. Hard. Casualty rates in some units may be at fifty percent, or more. We’ve been hit in all theaters of operation. So far as I can tell, the Air Force has been hardest hit, especially among officers and pilots, followed by the Marines and the Army. The Navy is in the best shape, and their command structure is mostly intact.”

“Is it the Christians, General? I mean, the conservative, fundamentalist Christians. Protestants.”

“Mr. Vice President, we don’t even know who’s missing, or exactly how many. I couldn’t begin to tell you what their beliefs were. Right now it’s all I can do to try to find out what forces we still have. Except for Admiral Fallon, I haven’t been able to get a hold of the other Joint Chiefs.

“What about the people in your command? Are the people missing the ones who went to Christian Embassy prayer breakfasts?” The silence on the other end seemed to confirm Deming’s worst fears.

“It seems that way sir...but right now my concern is the men and women who are still here. It’s not on the news yet, but there’s rioting in Baghdad and Basra, and attacks on our troops and installations are on the rise. They’re blaming us. Al-Sistani has called for order and a day of fasting and repentance, but Sadr is blaming us. He’s on radio and the ‘net saying we used a new weapon to exterminate Iraq’s children.

“We’re able to defend our bases at the moment because the so far the attacks are small-scale and disorganized. That’s going to change, and when it does we’re going to be cut off from re-supply, and frankly, I think we’ll be overrun. AfPak is the same situation, or worse. I’m requesting permission to evacuate our troops as soon as possible. If we can get moving before the Iraqis strike in force, I think there’s a chance we’ll be able to get the bulk of our remaining forces out intact, but it won’t be easy.”


“General Trujillo is going to be asking us for more troops, not less, especially if his forces have been hit as hard as ours. But if every child in Mexico has disappeared...sir, I don’t think his government will last the day. I recommend we pull back to the border and do our best to fortify and maintain order. To be frank sir, I’m not sure we’ll be able to do that much. Do you have any contact with National Command Authority?”

“So far as I know, General, I am National Command Authority. The Secret Service tells me that President Huckabee and his family are among the missing. Do what you have to do, General. Get as many of our people out of the Middle East as you can. I think we’re going to need them here at home.”

“Do you want me to put our strategic forces on alert, sir?”

“No. Not until we can do it in concert with Russia, China, and our NATO allies. In fact, I want you to shut off our missile-defense radars in Europe and Alaska, and pull back any subs we have patrolling near Russian or Chinese waters. I want them to know we’re not behind this, and we’re not planning on exploiting it to harm their national interests.”

"Sir, are you sure you want to have those radars off?"

"They didn't warn us about this. General, you know as well as I do that our 'missile defense' systems don't work for anything but Raytheon's stock price, and poking a stick at the Russians and Chinese. If they're thinking we might be behind this somehow, and wondering if they ought to launch, I want to give them something they can see that says we're not."

“Yes sir.”

“I have to go now, General. I’ll get in contact with you as soon as possible. Until otherwise directed, you have overall operational command of U.S. military forces.”

“Yes sir.” The phone slipped from Deming’s fingers to rattle in its cradle.

“My God...the whole world is going to fall apart...” Deming said. The chief of Deming’s Secret Service detail snapped his cell phone closed, his face pale.

“Sir, we have to move...”

“Take me to the White House.”

“We can’t go there sir, whoever did this knew to hit us there.”

“Then take me to the National Military Command Center, I need to get on the Hotline to the Russians.”

“Yes...Mr. President.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

No Hope

Chaim sat in the yacht clubs restaurant, he waited for Buck, quietly counting the seconds, trying very hard to appear at ease in this room. He smelled the perfume and cologne, saw the looks of smug self satisfaction around him, he sat and tried not to gag. His thoughts kept drifting back to when the formula came to being. He had wanted very badly to make things better in the world, to offer people something that could give them hope. If there was enough food they could offer it to help other nations perhaps even find something close to a peace that wasn't a result of mutual fear in the land he called his home. Maybe if there was enough usable land there could have been peace, maybe if there was something they could offer the world his nation would be remembered in history as something great, and, he admitted that he enjoyed the idea of immortality that would come from creating a horn of plenty for mankind to hold. He remembered then the odd dreams, strange images, feeling something...wrong was the best word for it. He remembered making inches of progress, then huge stumbling blocks the soil became infertile, plants dies something always seemed to go wrong. Then...then he appeared. He wasn't sure who the man was but he seemed to know a lot about the project, about him.

He remembered the two of them talking, whoever this man was he knew that the formula kept hitting walls, he offered Chaim the ability to finish the formula, to make it work beyond his wildest dreams. Chaim remembered the conversation that followed, or at least remembered words were spoken but not much else. He went to the labs and suddenly ideas flowed, connections were made that had never even been imagined before, the formula went from a vague pipe dream to a sudden reality in what seemed impossible. The thoughts and connections flowed with a speed and ability that sometimes startled him, looking back he had to admit his own surprise at what he seemed to realize or remember. Then his government decided to focus more on selling food to the rest of the world, it became rich but it also angered the other nations of the world.

Then the event, he remembered Carpathia, the man had been so charming, so charismatic and capable. They had spoken a few times, but it was recently that he began to feel a true fear. Carpathia had spoken with him about the formula, he had first felt relief, Carpathia was going to give it to everyone in this world, after the event and all that followed it people might have something to inspire them again or at least something that offered them some sort of stability. But then...something still felt off he wasn't sure why but something in his mind felt off but he wasn't sure what it was. Carpathia had spoken to him about it and when he mentioned how it would help to consolidate power and what it would mean for the government. He tried to speak to Carpathia saying that such actions are what caused others to want to destroy his own nation, then he saw Carpathia offer a smile and just say that Chaim needed to remember what he had promised. Chaim remembered that conversation that came again, and a moment of realization and fear nearly broke him.

His thoughts went back to the club, he saw the people there, drinking fine wine and eating fine food even as so many were in peril. He saw a room full of cold nothings, he felt as if the whole of the club was full of whores. High class whores, well dressed whores, but in the end these people made their money exploiting developing nations or simply inherited from their families and saw such money as a birthright the pain and suffering others didn't matter a bit to them. He then sighed bitterly, knowing that he was likely a whore of this new government and beliefs he was letting them use his formula to help tighten their grip he kept trying to convince himself that he had done the right thing but he knew that he was as much a whore as any of those here. He had some vague hope, rumors were that Buck was wanted for something perhaps...perhaps Buck knew someone, something, anything of value. Maybe even something that would let him break free of his fear. He had managed to convince Carpathia to make him the one to meet with Buck, and speaking of him, there he was now.

They spoke and exchanged pleasantries...or as close as they could get. Buck seemed more irritated that Carpathia wasn't there. When he asked where Buck was during the meeting, hoping that perhaps Buck remembered something he didn't, that perhaps it would help him get a better grip on the world that he couldn't seem to hold. Instead Buck just asked rhetorically where any of them were, this worried him more, though he kept a happy mask up, mentioning the potential of the formula he was met only with incredulity and fear of the first world nations losing their alleged birthright, sounding far too much like those around them in this smothering club. He had heard some rumors that Buck was part of some new movement, but then he had a moment of great dread and he understood. Carpathia had sent him to meet Buck to dash his hopes, no one who followed a belief of good and virtue would reject helping the needy for fear of no longer being a superpower, no longer holding great wealth and resources. Instead, there was no hope, no great new way. The world would continue on as it had, those who had would want more and those who had not would merely have to grasp at crumbs. He kept a happy face and jovial tone, and all the while he felt his spirit die slowly.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Act of Rebellion

(or Why you shouldn't shoot him)

For a few moments after Hattie left the room there was silence. Buck used these moments to remind himself that the most evil man in history was sitting in front of him and push all doubt from his mind. Then, as quickly as he could, Buck pulled out his gun and shot Nicolae.

Buck didn't fully understand what had happened. Everything had gone according to plan. That couldn't be right. The plan was to kill Nicolae. The plan seemed to have succeeded. Something was wrong here. Nicolae's body was slumped forward on the desk, a pool of blood expanding around it. How the hell was this possible?

The gun was getting heavy in his hand.

He hadn't prepared himself for this. He'd prepared himself for a painful death. He'd prepared himself for martyrdom. He'd prepared himself for inevitable failure. But this ... he didn't even have an escape plan.

"Have to say, I did Not See That Coming."

Buck spun to face the voice, the gun leading the way. There was a blonde man in white clothing sitting in a chair Buck was sure hadn't been there a moment ago, his feet propped up on another chair.

"Do you realize that by pulling that trigger you have derailed a plan the universe has been following since the moment of creation?"

Buck's brain unfroze long enough for him to ask, "Who the hell are you?" and shake the gun to show he deserved an answer. The man made a quick gesture, and the clip fell out of Bucks gun.

"You still have one in the chamber, of course, but I wouldn't recommend pulling the trigger," the man said calmly. Buck started to shake slightly. "Buck, Buck, Buck ... I don't want to hurt you. The truth is I'd be clapping right now if I didn't think the sound of a single person clapping sounded more like sarcasm than praise.

"It is true that you've screwed up my plans, but you also screwed up His plans. For that all your trespasses against me are forgiven. Besides, I'm so curious." The man took his feet off the chair and placed them on the ground. He leaned forward, placed his elbows on his knees, intertwined his fingers, and rested his chin on his hands. "Now that you're in open rebellion against God, what is it you're planning on doing next?"

The man's posture reminded Buck of something, but at the moment his brain wasn't up to the task of correlating it to how Nicolae had been sitting a few minutes earlier. Most of Buck's thought process was devoted to the possibility he'd just screwed up God's plan. So far all it had managed was something along the lines of, "What! What?" He had stopped shaking, but he hardly noticed.

When Buck didn't answer the man sat up straight and asked, "You don't have a plan?" Buck was motionless. "Improvisation is nice, but I think we should have some sort of plan. What to do now that we don't have an Antichrist, that sort of thing." Buck made no response. "Until then, I think we should keep the other side off balance. So, my first thought is that we make Bruce Barnes the head of the One World Religion and allow him to run it as he sees fit." Buck remained completely still. "We'll need a new UN Secretary General, you can have the job if you want it.

"I have to say, I had you figured wrong. I thought you were a shallow narcissist who got by on an undeserved reputation without actually doing anything but this," he stood and gestured to Nicolae's corpse, "was brilliant. To knock God's plans off track with a simple," he gestured as if pulling the trigger of a gun, and made a noise that sounded entirely unlike a gunshot, "is simply brilliant.

"All my plans have to be scrapped, but the truth is I'm loving this. It's as if infinite possibilities have suddenly opened up before me. I haven't felt so alive in thousands of years." The man spontaneously hugged Buck, and Buck was dimly aware that feathered wings briefly surrounded him. Then Buck was released and found himself eye to eye with the man, "I've got a lot of work to do, but I'll be available any time for my new partner. So if you need anything, anything at all, you just call out and I'll be at your side."

The man disappeared, leaving Buck alone, his arm still extended, gun still pointed at the man's empty chair.

At long last pieces started to fall into place in Buck's mind. The man wasn't a man at all. He was Lucifer. Buck's actions had derailed God's plans. Lucifer seemed quite happy with this. He had hugged Buck. God was probably not very happy. Buck had known God's plan, gone against it, and succeeded. Did that mean he wasn't going to Heaven now? Bruce had said that once you were saved you were saved, but Bruce had said that Nicolae couldn't be killed yet.

Good God, Buck thought, Lucifer hugged me.

For a moment he thought nothing at all, then he thought the same thing in a very different way. Lucifer had hugged him. Lucifer. Not that long ago Buck had been a name dropper, impressed by his own ability to say, "I met him," "She and I had lunch the other day," "Interviewed him," "Know her," about assorted rich and famous people. Now Lucifer, the first fallen, leader of all Evil, and ruler of earth until Jesus came back, had hugged him. Had praised Buck's work.

Lucifer had promised to come when Buck called.

And why shouldn't he? Buck had singlehandedly changed God's plans. Who else could do that? No one, that's who. Buck was the most powerful man in the universe.

With that affirmation of what Buck had long believed, Buck's brain returned to it's full functionality.

Friday, October 2, 2009

My Dinner with Evil

Chaim Rosenweig entered the yacht club's dining room, feeling the throb of his master's dark power beneath his skin. This was to be a test, Nicolae said, of his loyalty, his wit, his usefulness. As he crossed the crowded room, candles dimmed slightly, and diners paused uncomfortably, forks midway to their mouths. They felt the presence of evil, like a field mouse senses the eyes of a distant hawk. Cameron Williams was coming, and Chaim's duty was to find out what he knew, and what he suspected. The dark gift of power seemed unnecessary; Chaim had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Cameron when the sky over Israel burned with nuclear fire. And in a world where so many had gone missing, and so many more had gone mad with grief, Chaim knew he would be a familiar, comforting face. Especially in light of "Buck's" recent demotion.

Chaim watched Mr. Williams & his escort walk across the crowded room, saw the effort Cameron made to look relaxed and at home. Oddly, it wasn't the hulking gorilla of a bodyguard Nicolae sent that seemed to make him uneasy, but his travel-rumpled clothes and slightly unkempt appearance that seemed to make him feel awkward. Chaim rose from his seat as Mr. Williams approached.

"Mr. Williams! A pleasure, as always! Millions of people vanish worldwide, and we are fortunate that you were not among them!"

Most reporters cared about the story, but celebrity reporters like "Buck" Williams cared about 'access to important people'. Vanity & pride, Chaim reflected, make such excellent tools. Chaim waited until they were both seated again, waited for "Buck" to pick up the menu before speaking again.

"My friend, I've been meaning to ask you something. The meeting at the U.N., where were you?" A simple question, with one simple answer. Or with a host of complicated but dishonest answers. This was why he was here, Chaim reflected, instead of Nicolae. If Cameron was on the other side, he might tell his trusted friend Chaim Rosenweig, but he certainly would never be so honest with The Beast.

"That's the question of the ages," Cameron said. "Where are any of us?"

Rosenzweig's eyes twinkled, and Mr. Williams lowered his head while raising his menu. No doubt his cheeks were coloring out of shame.

'Well,' thought Rosenweig, 'so much for the camaraderie of shared trials.'

There remained one other matter to resolve. Buck had clearly found God before that meeting, had the Armor of the Lord shielding his mind to the illusions the Beast had woven. But as faith can be found, so too can it be lost, and Chaim has seen in Buck both pride and envy in just the few minutes of this meeting. It seemed that like the atheist in the foxhole, once Mr. Williams no longer felt the threat, he no longer followed the faith.

"It's too early to tell, of course, but if the formula works as well as it has in Israel, Botswana will immediately become one of the most fertile countries in all of Africa, if not the world." Chaim decided to play this out a bit further, to see just how pious Mr. Williams was, how strong his new-found faith might be.

"Oh, Chaim! For what? Billions of dollars that Israel no longer needs? It makes no sense! It's one thing for Isreal to feed herself for pennies on the dollar, but if you turn the African continent into a horn-of-plenty, it'll devastate economies world-wide! The farm belt of the U.S., the fertile crescent of Asia..."

Chaim suppressed a smile. Feeding billions, an end to hunger worldwide, and Cameron's first thought was of the wealthy first-worlders who would be cast down from on high.

"Cameron, please! The formula only works for grains & pulses, the most basic of food stocks. Fruits, flowers, herbs, the world will still need those. It doesn't matter how cheap the grain is when you make beer if you don't have any hops to preserve it with! Those lands you describe are rich and fertile, I'm sure they can find all sorts of budding flowers and herbs to grow." Yes. Flowers and herbs. The cocoa, the cannabis, the poppy, those crops are always in demand, and always fetch high prices.

"But why are you here? I thought I was meeting with Nicolae?" Cameron asked, seemingly oblivious.

"Ah!" Now would be a good time to see how 'Buck' responded to temptation. "We want adequate press coverage of the work we're setting up in Botswana. The impact on both a local and regional level, progress and production, all that. Mr. Carpathia remembered you worked for a global publication, and as an award-winning journalist, you might uncover elements of this story that would get missed by our PR folks. We want people to feel like they're getting the whole story, not just what we want them to hear."

Of course, Chaim knew about Cameron's humiliating demotion from international reporter to regional desk jockey, but a proud man would never admit to such a shame after being given such an offer. Would Cameron take the pious route and decline the story because of his demotion, or would he-

"Well, I understand you coming to me for the credibility my name lends," Cameron said, "but I'd need complete independence. Both you and Nicolae to know that I won't be a pawn for your organization." Cameron smiled at the end, no doubt thinking himself clever for his weak double-entendre'.

"Of course," Chaim said. It was time for the final test. If Mr. Williams was indeed a changed man, a pious servant of the Lord, then the dark powers Nicolae had gifted Chaim with would be unable to touch his mind. But pride... pride goeth before the fall...

"All right. I'll have someone contact you this week to work out travel arrangements. You should try the salmon. You'll love it." There was a near-inaudible difference in the last two sentences. Only those favored by the Beast or his Adversary would have heard the subtle, inhuman inflections.

Mr. Williams had once boasted to Chaim that he made it a habit to ignore recommendations in restaurants. It probably was one of the reasons for his nickname, because most servers would love to rhyme with it. "Buck" ordered what Rosenzweig suggested. And he loved it. Of course he did. Relished every bite. It was clear that some people never truly change. Chaim smiled over his wineglass, looking forward to telling his master that they had nothing to fear from "Buck" Williams.

Harvest of Souls, Chapter Three

A Ray Without Hope

Carrying You-Can-Call-Me-Buck, struggling helplessly in the classic riding-out-of-town-on-a-rail posture, the passengers marched him to the emergency exit. Someone opened the door, and there was a howling rush of wind.

“Awww, come on! You know you want me, baby!” he said, just before they hurled him out into the slipstream. “AAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaa…!” Somewhere far, far below, he hit, producing a little ring-shaped cloud of dust.

Sofia banished her fantasy. Unfortunately, something more practical had to be done with him. For all his towering braggadocio about his exalted position at Global Weekly, Sofia found it impossible to take the man seriously. Had he been born a hidalgo in the time of the conquistadores, he would surely have worn an enormous gold-plated codpiece festooned with tassels and ribbon, while boasting of his heroic exploits as the real Don Quijote de la Mancha.

In this century, he merely sported a rumpled suit at least a couple sizes too big for him. His baby face and head of untamable short curly hair completed the look of some malicious, barely-adolescent class clown suddenly thrust into the grown-up world. Tom Hanks had done it much better and more appealingly in Big.

“Perhaps you could go and see to the passengers in First Class, and investigate any disappearances that happened there?” she asked. Having heard no commotion from that section, she doubted there would be any.

“Yes, I could do that,” he said a little too quickly, avoiding the threatening eyes of the other passengers. “I’ve also got a major cover story I’m working on,” he said with a faltering smirk, then turned and hustled briskly back to First Class as if he was a Busy Man on Very Important Busy-ness.

Sofia sighed and shook her head, glad to see the curtain close behind him. But without him there to provide a comedic, if frustrating distraction, the fearful reality of the situation returned. She snapped back into action, lighting a campfire to keep the beasts lurking in the shadows at bay.

“Sir? Ma’am,” she said to the anxious parents. “Could you please search the airplane thoroughly from front to back? If you see anything at all unusual, like an unfamiliar piece of technology, scorch marks, anything, could you make a note of it and let me know?” she said, tearing off a page from her notebook and handing them her pen.

They nodded. They’d already searched the aircraft thoroughly, but not for anything that might be related to the cause of the disappearances. They headed to the back of the cabin to start their search.

“Sir,” she said picking out another man. “Could you please go through the aircraft and try to find out how many people are missing, and write down the seat numbers with a brief description of the clothes, and if they were with anyone still here?”

“Yeah…I can do that. Do you want me to find out what they ate or drank, things like that?”

“That’s a good idea, but I think it would be best to gather the preliminary information quickly. If you could tell people that I would like to interview them and get their contact information so I can keep them updated on anything I find, I would appreciate it.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Sofia saw the curtain part again. Thankfully, it was the flight attendant, returning with one of the pilots. Sofia felt a little chill when she recognized him. Waiting in the terminal before takeoff, she’d seen the two flirting. That the pilot had been subconsciously fingering his wedding ring wasn’t what bothered her the most.

Now as before, she noticed the stiff tension of his body language, the way he seemed to be enduring the young woman’s presence the way a medieval monk might endure some self-inflicted torture. Why, if he wanted to remain loyal to his wife, he didn’t simply tell the poor girl that and let her find love someplace else, Sofia couldn’t fathom. She’d briefly met his eyes in the terminal, and did so again now. Alarm bells of warning went off in her hindbrain. There was hatred in those eyes.

“It’s a joke. They’re hiding, trying to—“ the pilot said.

“Ray! Their shoes, their socks, their clothes, everything was left behind! These people are gone!” The flight attendant all but clung to him in desperation. He accepted her touch, but returned only indifference.

“Sir, she’s telling the truth,” Sofia said, doing her best to keep her tone clinical and her expression neutral. She’d seen this relationship before, in
a Renaissance painting of Zeus. The god sat enthroned, one hand grasping his royal scepter, the other arm resting on a cloud. His broad, muscular chest was bare, shouting his masculinity to the Cosmos. He looked straight at the viewer with a stern, almost angry expression. A petite, naked goddess crouched at his side, one hand stretched out across his lap, the other reaching up to delicately stroke his chin. Her head was tilted all the way back, looking up at him with entreaty for the tiniest bit of kindness or affection. Clearly, none would be forthcoming.

Sofia led him to her row and pointed to Mr. McGillicuddy’s suit. She gave Mrs. McGillicuddy a smile of gratitude for leaving it intact this long.

“If you look closely, you can see how the cloth was abruptly compressed by air pressure. Apparently the body was dematerialized all at once, rapidly enough that air could not have time to flow in from the sleeves and pant legs before external pressure collapsed the core areas. We’ve had several other passengers disappear in this way. I have some volunteers getting an exact count.”

Sofia watched the man’s world come apart in front of her eyes. In his world there was Order. In his world there was Discipline. People and things knew their Place. Flight checklists were carried out in their proper steps and on time. Arrivals and departures occurred on schedule. And now, Mystery had dared! Dared! To puncture the pressurized cabin of his mental universe and let him know in no uncertain terms that he was not In Control.

His eyes went wide with a fear that looked more like savage rage. The muscles of his jaw clenched, his nostrils flared, and the veins in his neck bulged. A glance down to his hands revealed fists tight in a white-knuckle grip. His whole body vibrated like a tuning fork, as if barely able to contain some violent inner force. The Calista Flockhart-skinny flight attendant seemed to feel it. She looked up at him with big, round blue eyes and slipped her slender arms more around him, pressing against him to give and seek reassurance.

Wrong answer
, Sofia thought. The pilot—“Ray,” she’d called him—bit down on his lower lip, hard. Sofia winced in tune with the man’s own jolt of pain. Blood trickled down toward his jaw line. It wasn’t hard for Sofia to imagine this man whipping himself for the sins of the flesh in some dark monastic cell, muttering prayers to a vindictive god while his raging libido burned within him, demanding some kind of release—and transmuting into a seething fury at any woman who stirred his forbidden desires. Not hard at all. She took an involuntary step back from him, but she managed to suppress a gulp of fear.

“Miss, could you please go and get me a copy of the passenger manifest, any information you might have on what people ordered for food and drink, and a seating diagram for the plane if you have one?” she asked the flight attendant, kicking herself for the tremor she heard in her voice. “And some plastic bags—Ziplock bags if you have them, wastebasket bags and latex or plastic gloves. So I can examine the scene and collect samples for analysis.”

The flight attendant gave a jerky nod and peeled herself off of the pilot. As she passed Sofia, she turned her head to give him what was no doubt a longing glance, her cascade of honey-colored fairy-princess locks flowing over her shoulders in curls and waves.

Sofia resisted an urge to reach out to the captain and offer him solace. Instead, she kept her distance and clasped her arms behind her back, taking a military-grade parade-rest stance. “My name is Sofia. I’m a scientist,” she said, struggling to keep her voice cool and professional. The pilot’s dark eyes looked her up and down, smoldering with resentment. “Sir, could you please find out if there are any reports of this sort of thing happening anywhere else?”

“It was the Rapture…” Mrs. McGillicuddy said in a trembling voice. By now her mascara was streaked down her face, runnels of smeared black twisting their way down her wrinkled skin. Her terrified pallor made her bright-red lipstick look like a bloody slash.

“That isn’t the only possible explanation,” Sofia said, but inwardly, she knew that reassuring the pastor’s wife would be impossible. The woman had probably been eagerly dreaming of a day of inexplicable vanishings for decades, except that her clothes were supposed to be a shed husk, too.

At the sound of the word “rapture,” the pilot flinched.

“Irene was right…” he whispered, backing away stiffly. The dark blue curtain flowed over him as he passed through the bulkhead, and Sofia heard a loud crack. Did he just…slap himself?!