Jeezus! Chapters six and seven
NORAD had an almost-proud history of intercepting suspicious aerial objects. It had intercepted golfer Payne Stewart’s doomed jet within fifteen minutes of its going off course, and had conducted hundreds of interceptions on similarly short notice, before and after that incident. NORAD had not, however, lived down its inexplicable failure on September 11th, 2001. So there was some determination to be ‘on the ball,’ when a very large object, easily the size of a Soviet Bearcat nuclear bomber, was detected heading towards Greenville, South Carolina.
It had appeared on the radar at 80,000 feet, at a speed of Mach 10, which was simply unheard of, aside from ballistic missiles, and it had slowed to a near-crawl. It responded to no transceiver hail. Whatever it was, there was to be no delay this time, no matter what confusing messages came from the White House. This called for the Big Response. Eight NORAD F-16 fighter jets scrambled, fully armed, from three nearby bases; their afterburners roared like thunderstorms, and people near the airbase stared out of windows at the screaming, thunderous racket.
Bible students at Bob Jones University stood agog, as they watched a vast glowing Cross appear over the megaphone-shaped Rodeheaver Hall Auditorium. The Cross was six hundred feet long if it was an inch, and it glowed with a golden light. There was no sound emanating from it-- though the campus itself soon became riotous, as hundreds of students burst into the open, from classrooms and dorms. Concordances gaped unattended on Library desks. Jello wiggled luridly on cafeteria tables, uneaten.
Most fell to their knees immediately, staining their newly pressed Levis with the dark green St. Augustine grass, waiting with heads bowed, waiting breathlessly for the inevitable. Some wept with fear, others with joy. The Time had come. Indeed, from the inner circle of the crowd, persons began to disappear, and the ring of disappearances was spreading outward.
The “Deceptronic Mighty Cross of Jesus” idea had been Bing’s. She had visited Bob Jones U., as Auntie Sister, and had seen it as a great hatchery of devotees. It would save energy to send an atmospheric shuttle directly to the University, from the cloaked Mother Ship in orbit.
Bing had programmed the shuttle’s computer to cause the ship to reflect light and radar in the form of a cross, knowing that its appearance could only lead to greater hysteria among the American Earthlings. Given the fanaticism of the students, there was no need to keep the radar cloaking on. They would question nothing. As it began its abduction cycle, she watched the shuttle’s relayed images with satisfaction from Portland, from within her Auntie Sister suit. The response of the religious students had been exactly as expected. This would surely lead to a promotion.
Commander Al Slancio had been designated by NORAD as flight leader. He had run out of the ready-room so fast, he had strained his left Achilles tendon. He ignored the persistent ache. His F-16 was on full afterburners, closing on the now-stationary object at Mach 2. His radio command went to the other interceptors. “Arm air-to-air. Engage, I repeat, engage object at maximum range.” The previous speed of the intruder had been noted, and the strategy was to strike with the Sidewinder air-to-air missiles from three angles simultaneously. Slancio knew that they would be in range within minutes. When his radar showed that all of the interceptors were inside the computed range, he gave the order to fire. It was unnecessary; the other pilots had fired the instant they had broken the circle. We would see if those Saudis, or, uh, Russ--ah--whatevers-- would pull a fast one this time!
"Arm cannon, and engage intruder!"
Bing, comfortably watching the action on a screen inside her Auntie Sister Deceptronic suit, was instantly notified by the shuttle computer of the menacing approach. The shuttle commander was nearly hysterical; he said they were being targeted on several sides by a primitive form of radio-frequency. Bing wondered--had she made an error? Surely these atmospheric craft were only coming to verify the miracle, and to televise the good news to the other primitives.
True, they had launched smaller, faster craft towards the Cross, but these were doubtless some sort of television camera carriers. The armed forces of this particular Earth nation were known for their religious devotion, and this display of enthusiasm was to be expected. The shuttle commander, claiming the launches from the aircraft were probably some sort of weaponry, demanded authorization to use force; but Bing evenly told the shuttle to maintain its position. The commander responded with a surprisingly crude invective, but loyally held his fire.
The Bob Jones students never saw the Sidewinders hit the Cross, though residents of Greenville saw the rocket exhaust contrails converging on the object. Deafening explosions rocked the campus and the town. Everyone looked up. For a moment, nothing changed, save for the falling shrapnel from the missiles. Then a loud and irregular hum began to emanate from the badly dented Mighty Cross of Jesus, as it began to slowly yaw and pitch.
Bing was horrified. How could she have miscalculated so? Why had the jet pilots betrayed the symbol of their Lord and Master? She had learned enough about jet pilots to be sure that they were all, or almost all, Christians, and surely commanded by Christians. But they had damaged the Cross of their Savior!
Bing held her head in her paws (the Auntie Sister suit holding its head), her heart pounding madly. She could have –should have--disabled or destroyed the aircraft with the shuttle’s lasers—as the shuttle’s commander had suggested, and as (she shuddered) her superior, Blarg, would surely point out. And now the gravitic drive on the shuttle was loudly overheating, giving out. Soon it would slump to the ground, overcome by this planet’s gravity, its technology laid bare to the Earth apes. There was only one thing to do. She gave the signal to self-destruct.
The Mighty Cross of Jesus, Bob Jones University, Greenville, and eight of NORAD’s finest pilots disappeared in a superheated plasma.
Sarah Belham decided to start at the Christian start, but swiftly found that the kick-off date of Christianity was not, quite exactly, to be pinned down to One A.D. Though the abbreviation stood for Anno Domini, or Year of Our Lord, the phrase had not been used until some four or five centuries after the birth of Christ. It was if, except for the (very) odd cloistered sect here or there, Christianity had taken a few hundred years’ vacation.
And that was another funny thing: the Birth of Christ turned out to be pretty much exactly the same as the Birth of Mithra. Mithra, who had been popular with Persians and later with Romans, had been born about three hundred years before Jesus—on December 25th, in a cave, with shepherds in attendance. The Magi, a class of Persian mystics who had predicted Mithra’s birth, had showed for Mithra, to confirm his Persian holiness. Why would Persian mystics have showed up again, just for the birth of some Hebrew demigod?
Mithra could have sued Jesus for trademark infringement. So-- was Jesus Mithra, and the time-line lost to history—or was the legend ripped off from Mithra devotees, and applied like a decal to Jesus? Or was it a "paradox," Sarah thought, snickering out loud, drawing resentful eyes in the library stacks.
There was more to be gleaned from Mithra: He had twelve disciples, he was called the “Good Shepherd,” he came back to life after three days in a tomb, and his resurrection was celebrated on the feast of Astarte/Eostre/Easter, at which time Mithra said, “He who shall not eat of my body nor drink of my blood, so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved.”
So—Jesus was quite the copycat. -–Though, at least, the butch piercings on the Cross seemed original. He could have answered the question, "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" --"Whooffff!"
But then, Sarah learned, Mithraism was not the only mystery cult, around at the time of the emergence of Christianity. There was Zoroastrianism-- which had nothing to do with a guy with a mask and a fencing sword, as it turned out. Zoroaster was born of a virgin, baptized in a river, and tempted by the devil in a desert; he cured a blind man, and even had a Holy Grail. He’d done everything but appear to Pat Robertson as a 400-foot giant.
All these ideas were cooking in the Roman Empire around 300 A.D, Sarah discovered. But it seemed that they required a master chef to create a religion of state control, and that chef was Constantine. The Emperor Constantine had decided to get right into the helmets of his soldiers, to make them more loyal. Who needs the Praetorian Guard, when you can lead an army of devoted religious nuts? Constantine had stirred in his religious melting pot, not only the tenets of Mithraism and Zoroaster, but also the Syrian cult of Sol Invictus, to serve his imperial designs. His troops already had the Chi Rho (XP) of the Sol Invictus cult on their shields, so it all tied together neatly. Chi Ro ...ist. Handy.
It worked great, anyway. The soldiers enthusiastically whacked, sliced, speared, shot arrows, and gutted their opponents for Jesus. Territory after territory fell to the Roman sword. Unfortunately for Constantine, the fanaticism he promoted took on a life of its own, so much so that he was himself converted to Christianity on his deathbed, whether he wanted it or not.
Sarah had not considered herself religious by nature, but the bloody military origin of Christianity was a bit of a shock. She had always considered religion to be a mostly harmless set of self-delusions—or else a helpful aid for community-building-- and had not realized how effective it was for creating fanaticism and empire. Now she remembered how she had always seen an American flag upon the altar of the church she had attended as a child. It was there for a reason.
Well, whatever, right?—every culture has its quirks.
But now someone, or maybe something, had decided to make off with young, strong, fanatic Christians, and furthermore, they had done it in a way that was inexplicably reminiscent of nerdy science fiction TV episodes. Who had such technology? What did they want—some sort of major hostage leverage? And what did Shapes have to do with it?
Gladison’s bar was a roomy place in Southeast Portland. It did not display the trendy themes of other bars in the area—no calaveras, or amateurish portraits of Jerry Garcia—but its staff made the place comfortable. Sarah had gone to the bar the evening of September 11th, 2001, to get drunk while watching the buildings fall over and over and over on the monitor. Getting drunk had seemed the only reasonable response. She had gotten staggeringly zombified, and had felt like a poisoned rat for two days afterward, but she still felt that it had been the only rational thing to do.
Sarah walked in the bar, and then ran to the embrace of her friend, Annie Moss, almost knocking her over. They held each other for a moment; the cruise had interrupted a decade-long, almost daily interaction between them.
“You feel like a sumo wrestler,” Sarah laughed, stepping back from the embrace.
“I been workin’ out,” Annie said, “unlike some people.”
“You’re so chunky-dunky, the bus flips over when you step on.”
“You’re so skinny, your mama made you a pair of pajamas with one stripe.”
“Your mama was rotten to the Corps—but great to the infantry.”
“Ooh! Your mama checks with God for recall notices.”
“Oh yeah?” Sarah made as if to punch Annie in the gut; Annie twisted Sarah’s arm behind her back.
“Oof!! Butt-head! I’m gonna stomp your bitch ass!” Sarah said, defiantly.
She flipped Annie neatly off her hip, depositing her dangerously close to a family-occupied table. Now they were both giggling, and the restaurant staff was lining up to watch. Annie feinted with her left heel at Sarah’s instep, and whipped her right foot around to kick Sarah’s hip with a slap.
“Ow!! For that I’ll break your arm, Head of Ass!” But Sarah opened her arms instead, and they embraced as they laughed and sashayed to a table. They sat at a table with a view of the television and the street. They ordered Lemon Drops. Then they ordered Long Island Ice Teas. Then they started on straight malt whiskey.
“Howzat teaching gig been goin'? Tha, ahr, classes, I mean,” Sarah asked, lurching forward and looking over Annie’s muscular body. “You have a Ph.D. in elementary, um, school, ah, I mean, part'cle physics-- and you want to make chump change teaching self-defense classes?” They had gone over this topic many times before, and Annie knew Sarah was going to make trouble.
Annie smirked. “I’m makin' the bucks, loser,” she said defensively, glaring briefly at Sarah—“there are plenny a' clients—but," she said, one eye meandering drunkenly, "they just don’t get it, dumb fucks. Well. I mean...Women have difficulty convincing themselves that they have the right to be violent in their own defensh.”
Sarah snorted. “Maybe you should teach men.” Sarah tended to think of men in the same way most people think of reptiles. “Duuuude! Wash me break this fence post!” Sarah said, in a stoner-boy voice. She backhanded the unlit oil lamp off the table, gesticulating.
The bartender watched them warily. Last year they had wrestled right through the door glass; they would have been banned, but they had ponied up immediately. And Lord knows, they were profitable.
“Dude! Maybe you should kish my big wide ass,” Annie retorted. She looked out the window and sighed. “You can bring a woman to a black-belt level, let 'er smash th' boards an' everything, and then she’ll let her husband punch her right in the face,” Annie said, grimacing ruefully. “And it seems nothin' I say can really change that. So fuck 'em! Joke 'em if they can't take a fuck. Hey! Barkeep!"
“Yeah. Well,” Sarah began, taking a breath, “Look, (urp) I wanna to pick your brains about these, y'know, disappearances. I had a number of them on that cruise liner, and now I’m obstetric. Obseshed. Do you think it’s supernatural? Do you think it’s the End Times—the Rapidture?”
“ Pfftchhhhh!,” Annie snorted, rolling her eyes. “C'mon. I’ve never heard of people (belch) disappearing like that, right in plain view, unless it’s on some science fiction show,” Annie said. “It does seem impossible, 'r at least beyond the reach of science this year. Y'know, physicists like Michio Kaku think it might evench'ly be possible to do such stuff, though it would take a lot of energy—more than we produce on this continent, he sez.”
Sarah lurched appreciatively.
“But there’s no way, just ‘cause of this shit, I’m going to start believing in some foul-tempered, Middle Eastern thing, um, deity. That bozo is Creator of the Freakin' Universe? Just 'cause"--she was on a roll now--"'cuz a few people have vanished like--like the bunny inna magician's shat. Hat. Right. I'm soooo sure."
Sarah slumped back in her chair, relaxing her shoulders, and releasing a fart that sounded like a bicycle horn. She was relieved to hear Annie make her pronouncement, because like many others, she had begun to wonder if her worldview had taken a wrong turn at the age of-- oh, let’s say, six and a half, when she had begun to doubt that Jesus, or Superman, or Santa, or anyone else, had a license to egregiously violate the laws of physics.
Annie pointed to the bar television. “Check this out,” she snickered, “Fox Newsh has caught up with the times.”
The background for the news commentators had been changed to the Christian flag, and the commentators had been replaced. A Pat Robertson look-alike-- and a young woman with big hair and lip gloss-- soundlessly mouthed the news on the screen, as a captions program delivered the news stories, now frequently punctuated with “praise the Lord” and “hallelujah!”
They watched silently for a moment. Sarah was aghast.
“This calls for a drink,” Sarah said. Annie nodded vehemently. They signaled the waitress, who had been wondering why they were taking so long.
"And turn the audio on, OK?" said Annie.
The news story then turned to an overhead view of Greenville, where something like a nuclear detonation had gone off. A shaky, distant airborne camera showed a towering mushroom pall of black, roiling smoke over the area, with fires burning out of control at the edges. NORAD had reported an incoming object, but denied using nuclear interceptors. The Pentagon had ordered a nuclear red alert, but was already in stand-down mode-- and the Russian president was shown smirking incredulously at the camera, saying “of course we had nothing to do with it” --but they had gone briefly to a red alert as well. The French president could not be reached for comment. China denied any part, and the North Korean UN ambassador loudly denounced “scheming imperial hegemonists” for attempting another anti-Korean provocation. The US President was intimating that Iran was probably to blame.
Sarah and Annie watched as a TV correspondent held a microphone to two gas station attendants, who turned from watching the blaze, some ten miles off, to answer a questions from TV journalists. “It was the Cross of Jesus that came there,” said the smaller one. “I saw it, moving fast. It was as big as a barn, and entirely gold!”
“I seen it, too,” said a larger man, who by his grease-smeared overalls appeared to be the station mechanic. “I seen it, all right. It was a great big cross, bigger than the one at First Baptist. Me and Jake run out to pray at it.”
“Entirely golden!” Jake exclaimed, waving his arms in the air. “Yew already said that,” the larger man chastised. He looked at the cameras. “My name’s Ned, tell Jesus I love him too—uh—like a kid loves his daddy, you know.” Ned paused for a moment, then turned again to the distant blaze. His eyes rose to the top of the giant smoke cloud. He took his Dale Earnhardt gimme cap off, and held it tightly in both hands. “You ask me," said Jake quietly, "they was gays in there. God hates gays, says so in Lavittlecuss.”
“You know, the Bible.” He pronounced the word “bahble.”
Smoke drifted from the distant explosion, swirling around the TV crews.
“Smells like somebody’s cookin’ coney, and didn’t invite us!,” Jake said. Ned sniffed. “Tad overdone, though,” Ned said, under his breath.
The scene then switched to the interior of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Ex-Senator Santorum stood at the podium before Congress, his eyes glittering with victory. This was his moment; he had been invited to return for this address. He had tried to warn his fellow Americans of the sinfulness of their ways, but they had rebuffed him again and again—or worse, they had led him and his followers on, in order to gain votes, and then had flip-flopped on the important issues like abortion, and gays in the schools, and the Ten Commandments in the courtroom, and—well, he’d show them now. Now certain people, people who were so ungodly as to have made his name synonymous with a certain intercourse-based effluvia—certain people were going to pay.
“Mr. President,” he said, addressing the President of the Senate, “I stand before you to urge passage of the Omnibus Anti-Flag-Burning and Righteousness Act. We have seen the evidence of the coming of our Lord in the land and in the skies. It is time for America to turn its back on homosexuals, feminists, anarchists, flag-burners, and blasphemers-- and abortion providers. This bill provides adequate funding for Christianization camps across our great land, where the unbelievers will be brought to Jesus through righteous correction and hard labor.”
"Oh fuck!" exclaimed Sarah.
Annie slammed her Lemon Drop and signaled for another. “You know, that -–this sucks. Hard.”
“Brilliant analyshis, Professor Chomsky.” Sarah looked grimly into her drained Long Island Iced Tea, and thought grimly for a moment about theocracy, and smug believers, and re-education camps.
“I’m gonna dig into it--into the Rapture.”
“Oh, Inspector Gidget takes on God,” Annie snickered, then stopped short as she saw the look on Sarah’s face. “Oh. Sorry. You’re sin--sincerious. But why get in the way of the government’s spooks? They’re the professionals—they’ve got the funding an' infrashtructure and stuff.. Hey, you got a toothpick in your hair.”
Sarah snorted, pawing for the offending toothpick. “They’re professionals at telling us what they want us to hear,” she said. “They may be behind this whole scam, if history is any guide. I, on the other hand, (hic) I actually want to know who’s yanking the Christian Apocalypse chain, and what they have to gain from it.” She looked up at the newly altered newscast again. The woman newscaster was obviously unused to beehive wigs.
“Great expletive, lousy deity,” Annie snorted.
"Watch your mouth, we're in the Dark Ages now."
Sarah looked deep into her drink, as if seeking a vision. “I still have enough cash to do what I want for a while. So I’ll investigate—starting with Shapes Gymnasiums, Incorpora-lated. Hey,” she said brightly, lurching back into the booth, “Guess who else was born on December 25th?”