Free novel -length satire "JEEZUS!"
It's the story of two women and their macaw friend, trying to make sense of what at first appears to be the Christian Apocalypse. As it turns out, however, space bunnies are involved. It's a parody of the famous Left Behind series that the fundamentalists have made a zillion-dollar industry of. Or anyway, it starts off being a parody, but really, the Left Behind plot is too boring to follow exactly, so--well, you'll see.
Jeezus! (Revised Standard Version)
Written by Theresa Mitchell
Self-published by Theresa Mitchell
Copyright 2007 Theresa Mitchell.
All rights reserved.
“IF YOU LOVED “LEFT BEHIND,” YOU’LL DESPISE
(by Theresa Mitchell. c2007. All rights reserved.)
Rod Rigidson was having sex fantasies again.
As the fifty-something Captain of the Fantasia Lines Cruise Ship Fanny Mae, he could afford to take his mind off the till-- now and then, anyway, especially when there was nothing to sail through but miles of deep blue Caribbean. His eyes rested automatically on the sun-yellow thong of his Activities Coordinator, Chrissie “Bunny” Bunderson. Her tan was downright translucent this Summer. Life can still rock sometimes, he mused, leaning back in his luxury deck chair, breathing the warm Caribbean breeze. The scent of simmering chanterelle and roasted pheasant wafted from the galley.
The sun would set in its dazzling way, the giant white ship would sail on God's glassy ocean; and as Bunny tanned her back (bra unhooked, thank the Lord), Rod could count on at least another fifteen minutes sneaking looks at her perky, pear-shaped, thong-decorated ass. In his mind's eye, the thong was tangled on one high-heeled pump.
Yess! How good was that? How had Mankind survived, Rod thought, before butt floss and lip gloss? Looking at Bunderson redlined his testosterone; she had a figure that would have stopped the Charge of the Light Brigade. Rod's lips expanded along with his fantasy.
He jumped, as the iced tea he had been drinking slipped from his loosening fingers, upended over his crotch, dropped to the deck, and shattered. A Fantasia Lines employee appeared as if from nowhere, and began cleaning it up. Bunny looked up, surprised at the racket, and turned away to hide her laugh. Rod blushed, and tried to brush the tea off his khaki shorts.
Chrissie Bunderson knew the dumb old prick (as she called him privately) would be ogling her body, and she didn't especially care. Her access to the Captain's Deck meant that, at least, only one, relatively inhibited asshole would be using her body for masturbatory fantasies. Let the others eat porn. She was going to get her tan in peace.
Of course, thought Rod, it wasn’t really right for him to lust after Bunny, when his wife was just a hundred feet away, on the shuffleboard deck. Right now Faith Seville-Rigidson was trying to convince the players that their umbrella cocktails, and sneaked pipe hits, were of the Devil. They should be exercising with her, she suggested, while listening to devotional music. They brushed her off with boozy good will, except for one geezer, who called her a "fucking school nun."
If Faith could have read Rod's mind, Rod thought, he would be--well, not even in the doghouse. He'd be under the doghouse, all the way to the flaming brimstone.
The Captain shuddered. What had gotten into Faith? It was true that her Christian exercise devotion had toned her fortyish body to a twentyish athleticism, but, well-- he got a softoff just thinking about her now-- since she had gotten religion. She wouldn’t make love with him any more, without checking a fertility chart first. It was ridiculous, considering she had never been fertile. But sex for pleasure was Ungodly—and, apparently, icky. She used to call on Jesus while in ecstasy--oh JEEzus, oh ohh!-- now she prayed to Jesus not to enjoy it too much.
He’d tried arguing: why did it feel good if God didn’t want it that way? But it never worked, because she’d launch into a tirade about the temptations of Satan, and the diligence of the Godly towards chastity and procreation. A contradiction? Oh, heavens no, a paradox. And that would be that, and they’d sleep facing apart, and she in that thick, antiseptic, pink full-length flannel night dress with the prim lace around the neck. Here she was, body hot as a pistol, and a libido gone AWOL. A crying shame.
It didn’t used to be this way, he thought, as a tern crapped impudently close to the deck chair. He had always made mad monkey love with Faith, and she had responded in kind. Nor had age dampened the fires; she had gotten a little pudgy in her thirties, sure, but aside from her insistence on Sunday church attendance, she had been loads of fun, especially after a pina colada, or three. He had rarely chastised her for her appearance—why make her sulk?—though he had always exercised every day. No, all he wanted was her familiar enthusiasm once again, and a good lubricant. I’ll trade ya, God! Sexy happy flab beats holy frigid muscles!
And Faith used to make good, springy, chocolate frosted Bundt cakes. Well, not any more; now she made “unleavened bread.” It tasted like sheetrock. As if God hated decent chow, or something.
It had all started to go wrong when she began attending Shapes, a national chain of exercise gyms that used a system of timed “stations” to encourage a vigorous workout. CHANGE YOUR SHAPE IN TWENTY MINUTES A DAY, the ads proclaimed—and it seemed a harmless fad at the time Faith tried it out. It seemed like every other gym craze: young women trying to become skeletal, and middle-aged women trying to become young. But Shapes exercisers somehow became devotees, and then devolved into religious nuts.
The exercisers somehow came away with something more than a white towel and a healthy glow—or, maybe, they came away with something missing. “Like a goddamned frontal lobe,” Rod thought. Bible verses in overwrought red antique font adorned the walls of the gyms. The music was laced with subliminal “devotional” suggestions-- Rod was sure of it. Well, pretty sure. And after a few sessions, the exercisers seemed determined to bring someone else in to exercise with them. The women would begin to wear pink lip gloss, and the men would begin to sport drab, thin, brown ties after work. It was so odd-- they would talk about the Rapture Index, and real estate, and ‘kids today,’ and the need to imprison more marijuana users.
Shapes had been OK with Rod, at first—what’s wrong with a little ‘love thy neighbor,’ y'know, with thy weight-lifting and Exer-Balls and stationary bikes? But it just didn’t stop, and now there was a black leather-clad Bible in every room in the house—so many that he could actually smell their weird holy waxiness-- and a Ten Commandments poster in the bathroom, for Pete’s sake --Thou Shalt this, and Thou Shalt Not freaking that, and, well, was God watching while he wanked to his secret porn stash? Faith wouldn’t have even agreed to go on the cruise ship this season, without a Shapes program added to the gym.
Ah, but Faith was over there, and Bunny was here. He could smell the coconut oil sun lotion that she had used on her body—and what a body. Her breasts were surely crafted by the Devil himself. Rod imagined running his fingers around and under that bra, and pulling it out from under her. He’d spied her nipples before, and knew they were magnificent--so pokey when the breeze blew—but... He just--he shouldn’t have looked while she was sunning, he knew— and how could he go to church Sundays, knowing that God knew that Rod wanted to boff Bunny? It was so sinful, it made Rod feel like a criminal. But when the sermons got boring, as they always did, he wound up thinking of those evil, heavenly curves. It was worse in the cruise liner’s chapel, which always smelled faintly of suntan lotion. Clearly, God was mocking him.
Bunny generally looked up to him-- and not just because he was six-foot-two, and thus a foot taller than her. Her smile made his blood pressure spike. Yeah, he’d like to take that thong off and give her a knee rug burn on that beach towel, he would. He’d be squeezing those magnificent breasts and sliding his manliness in her, and then he’d start pumping like a manic oil well on a bonanza claim, yeee ha! And as long as I’m sinning, he thought, why not a threesome with that studly six-pack-ab navigator? --Ohh yeah.....hmmm....
He sat up abruptly in his deck chair, aware that his erection was starting to show-- and worse, that Faith was approaching airily down the First Class deck. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to focus well these days. “Hello, dear,” she said, “did you spill your drink? Are you drinking alcohol in the daylight again?”—this last with her hands on her muscular hips.
“No, Hon, just spilled my tea is all.”
“You should go change shorts.” She smiled invitingly. “Would you like to go to the afternoon Shapes session with me?” She never gave up, never seemed to resent his evasions. She was wearing a plain white cotton shift that made her look like a novice at a convent, and she smelled of white bland soap.
“Ah, actually, I have to, uh, check with the bridge. Sorry, Honey,” he said, gently pulling her shoulders toward him, and pecking her on the cheek. He stood up, and began to walk ever more swiftly toward the bridge.
She frowned briefly, and called after him, “Well-- if you change your mind, I’ll be there—Praise the Lord!” she said, brightening with the last phrase. He strode faster, trying to think of where to find a stomach pill. It was the opposite of the Sixties--"hey, man, know where I can buy some antacid?"
Third Galactic Commander Blarg looked doubtfully at the Saint Peter Autoglow Respondomatic Human Deception Suit as it hung in the gravitic field. It was clad in a resplendent white toga. It did look exactly like an Earth human; aside from its intentionally awe-inspiring qualities, there was nothing unHuman-looking about it. It had hair, moles, wrinkles--the works.
On the other hand, the sight of Blarg, a powerful and experienced interstellar military leader, commander of thousands, would have filled any Earth child with glee. He had cute, long white ears with pink linings; his nose bobbed as he hopped about; his cotton tail was the picture of glossy adorableness. His commanding ruthlessness, and skill with a gamma pistol, were not immediately apparent.
Blarg was an up-and-coming leader of the Bun’ army, soon to be a general—a bunny to be reckoned with, and he knew it. He did not know what effect his appearance would have had on the Earth primates’ young, and would not have particularly cared. He had his mission: gather an army of the Earthlings, use it to take the Southern icecap of this oddly blue planet, and get home with the goods.
The Saint Peter suit would be Blarg’s sometime home in the weeks to come. The suit, actually a cybernetic transport device for Bun’ invaders, was designed to lull humans into accepting Bun’ instructions. It looked alive to anyone without a flouroscope, and though the suit was currently unoccupied, the eyes followed his movements automatically.
Blarg wasn't going to admit it to anyone, but the gigantic Suit--twenty times his height--scared the little grey pellets out of him. He knew that, once he was zipped inside, the signals from its blue eyes and pale hands would be neurally altered to make sense to his paws and whiskers and adorable button eyes, but still...—well—there was nothing for it—
“I’m going to get inside for a test maneuver, Superior Assistant Berv. Hold it still for me, will you?”
Berv sighed. He knew that Blarg had only skimmed the operating instructions, and had scoffed at the simulator. But there was no arguing with Blarg, especially when he referred to Berv in his full title of ‘Superior Assistant.’ Berv steadied the leg of “Saint Peter,” and just to make it look good, held the aperture control with his bunny teeth. Commander Blarg hopped in athletically, from the back.
This was so unnecessary. The suit would have automatically –
“Yeeaghh!” Blarg wailed as the suit sucked him in. The rear entry port sealed with a pop, the seam disappearing from view.
Why couldn’t he have just read the directions, Berv thought; but he looked up at the eerily Earthly eyes-- though he knew Blarg was actually in the belly of the thing-- and said, “Is it working correctly, Sir?”
“Ah—whoaa—uh” said Blarg, as St. Peter staggered out of the gravitic hangar. “Ah, yes.” The Suit's eyes locked with Berv's. “YES,” Blarg said, as the Holy Magisterial Voice Transamplifier kicked in, IT’S WORKING JUST FINE... OF COURSE.” The voice had been carefully constructed from an amalgamation of the voices of humans Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan, and Barry White, as detected from television transmissions. Its lowest volume setting was a dull roar. The audio engineering, however, matched perfectly with the Saint Peter Deception Suit, which was nearly seven feet tall. The suit seemed enormous indeed in the Bun’-designed galley; the head grazed the ceiling, and the muscular shoulders took up a lot of space. Blarg put the suit through a few moves, testing the maneuverability. Saint Peter jumped, knelt, and spun on one foot, his drapery whirling aesthetically; blonde hair tossed dramatically.
“Very impressive, Sir,” Berv said. In fact, he was a little alarmed at the gymnastic display.
The sensory receptors in the Saint Peter suit had been a particular point of pride for the Ship’s Bun’ engineers, as they transmitted all sensations, from heat and cold, to pleasure and even pain where appropriate, directly to the neural network of the Bun’ operator inside. The operator thus began to feel many of the authentic sensations of Earth’s sentient primate life form, transmitted and interpreted for Bun’ neurons.
“Will you be taking it for a walk about Heaven?” Berv asked. Heaven was sixty-one levels up and two miles astern in the Mother Ship. It had pearl colored walls, and spiral golden paths. It was a mile high and a mile wide, and specially constructed to awe certain religious humans. It had 30% Earth gravity, and the floors and tiers appeared, to human eyes, to be constructed of translucent air and clouds.
YES, he boomed. OKAY-- LET’S SEE WHAT THIS SUIT CAN DO. AND BERV-- INITIATE OPERATION RAPTURE. He strode confidently toward the elevator, illuminating the passageway as he went, with a comforting honey-colored glow that emanated from his perfect pale skin. Berv opened a communications gravlink to Earth Operative Bing; she would be glad for the go-ahead. Then he saw that Blarg was striding towards a headache.
“Remember, Sir, that the bulkheads are not constructed for the height of the—“
Rod Rigidson stiffly pretended to look over the NOAA report as he stood at the bridge. The area was quiet, except for the whir of cooling fans and the distant rush of the sea. His navigators and staff knew him well enough not to try to talk to him in this mood. Some of them even knew that he was stressed stupid over his marriage—even more reason for caution, more reason to look busy. So it was a diversion and a relief when Bunny burst through the door in a swirl of humid air, wearing nothing but a lemon-yellow thong.
“Ms. Bunderson!” the navigator shouted. “You know we have a dress protocol on the”—but his voice trailed off as Bunny ran directly to the Captain, who backed toward the Bridge viewing-windows, as if confronted by a snarling pack of peccary.
“Captain Rigidson! Our passengers are disappearing!”
There was audible tittering from the Bridge staff, though it quickly died away as Rigidson whirled about, glaring.
No one had raised the overboard alarm. There would be no place for them to swim to—no boats had been lowered—so what was she on about? And why had she left her bra on the deck? And did God just love to torture him, or what?
"Bra-buh-but you've got no--why would the passengers hide?" he spluttered.
“No! I mean”—she waved her hands in an expansive gesture—“poof! Gone! Into thin air, as I watched!”
This was too much. Bunny was normally the impressively collected type—she had been hired after completing a Ph.D. in psychology, and had come with a reputation of scientifically engineering a Memorable Vacation Experience on each cruise ship she had been on. Now here she was, wearing three square inches of fabric and a look of bewildered panic, uttering perfect nonsense. Had to be drugs.
Captain Rigidson looked through the seagull-spattered storm glass, over the pool area near the bow. Several passengers were sunning or frolicking in the water, but there were some others running about waving their arms and shouting. What was this, a prank? Pirates? There were pirates near Somalia, but not in this sea--not for a few hundred years, at least. There was nothing on the radar. What did she mean by “poof?” How could he think with those gently wobbling boobs staring at him? God was clearly on a tear.
“Ms. Bunderson,” he said, trying not to look at her heaving bosom. Somehow, God would pay for this. "I’m sure there is some cleava--um--explanation—Mr. Carson," he said, suddenly taking what he called his 'command tone,' "call security.” He lowered his voice and spoke through his teeth to Bunny. “Get some goddamn clothes on, and meet me at the Security office.”
Bunny was poised to say something else, but then she seemed to become suddenly self-conscious. Gathering all her dignity, she grabbed a towel from a nearby swivel chair, wrapped her chest neatly in it, tied a knot behind her neck, and walked stiffly off the bridge. Captain Rigidson watched her go, feeling butterflies in his stomach.
Bob Carson glanced furiously at Bunny, grabbed a red phone, and began dialing. Bob had grown weary of Rigidson’s obvious infatuations, not least because—though he was loath to admit it to himself—he wanted Rod’s attentions in a big way. Why wouldn’t Rod go to gym with Bob, anyway? Was it Bob’s thinning hair? Bob fantasized working out with Rod, then retiring to Bob’s cabin where they could study the Bible and, you know, stuff--
But hold on, this was news. This was impossible. Bob hung up the intercom phone, stood at military attention, locked eyes with Rigidson as if to speak of something important, and disappeared in a puff of ionized smoke.
Rod’s eyes followed the motion downward as Carson’s clothes fell to the floor, revealing a tailored shirtwaist, black socks with garters, and the assistant’s red satin underwear. A cellphone and a pocket Bible (“Compliments of Shapes”) bounced on the deck. The underwear was silkscreened with the phrase “Sexxxy azzz.”
“Jeezus!” said Rod.
Sarah Belham, head of security for the boat, showed Rigidson digital video records of disappearances in the hallways, the restaurants, the decks—and an especially impressive mass disappearance in the ship’s Shapes gymnasium. She had been using each of the six screens, replaying some actions, flashing back and forth between cameras. No amount of observation brought the phenomenon closer to comprehensible. Sarah felt like a puma facing a stampede.
Rigidson had burst in unannounced with a freshly-conservatively-clad Bunny in tow, demanding to see “the events.” Sarah had anticipated this exhibition, and had marked the video records in order to present them. Sarah had swiftly submerged her feelings by tending to her duties ("when the going gets Hunter Thompson weird, the weird damn well better turn pro," she thought). The digital video showed smokey disappearances from the decks, the restaurants, everywhere. The gymnasium, however, had been pretty much cleared out. As the haze on the video of the gym cleared, Captain Rigidson, peering at the video screens with Bunny, could see a white figure—it was Faith—on her knees, pounding the red rubberized exercise mat with her fists.
So the ‘poof’ had missed her. Rod felt a pang of guilt, as he realized he felt little relief at the sight of his wife. “Play the audio on that one,” Rigidson said. Sarah rewound, and punched in the sound circuit. Faith could be heard saying “Why not me, O Lord? Please take me, Jesus! Please, please! Ohh?!” she wailed, her voice rising to a pitiable squeak, “Jesus doesn’t love me as much as them!” She then collapsed, sobbing.
Sarah Belham watched Rigidson rush off. Great, she thought. The world turns upside down, so he’s gonna go hug wifey. O Captain, my Captain....
Sarah looked again at the flat-screen video monitors, and wondered what sort of kinky gig she had signed up for. She adjusted the pony-tail tie in her long black hair, as she paused to think. Shapes Gymnasiums had to have something to do with this—they were the slipperiest fish in the corporate world. Their near-instantaneous appearance across the US screamed major corporate funding--but Sarah had found almost nothing to indicate the funding source. She had made a little hobby of following news about them, suspecting some sort of government/fundamentalist connection. And now this bizarre prank was playing out mostly on their turf.
Sarah had seen some strange things as an investigator and security expert, and she had become weary of the constant drag of corporate intrigue, divorces, custody battles, and endless paperwork. So she had taken a nice, easy, low-key job, away from the predictable routines in her native Portland, Oregon, away from the endless misty rain and clouds, away from the greedheads and the screaming spouses. Now she could do with a bit of rain.
Sarah adjusted her jeans, and turned to Bunny, who was clearly not being her efficient self. "Well, it’s time to visit the scene—or rather, the scenes of the crime. Crimes. Want to come with?”
Bunny stared at the monitors and said nothing; her lower lip began to quiver. “HEY!” shouted Sarah, delivering her best drill-sergeant glare into Bunny’s face. “Snap out of it!”
Bunny blinked. "Well, Ms. Cold and Clinical, this is a bit out of my league, and what is it, anyway? Murder? Kidnapping?"
Sarah shrugged. “It’s weird, I’ll give you that. If it’s a prank, it beats anything I ever saw, and,” –she imitated a Slim Pickens drawl—“I’ve been to two World Fairs and a rodeo!”
Bunny stared at her for a moment, and then almost laughed. Her shoulders dropped as she realized Sarah had brought her out of a blind panic. She fought her embarrassment for a moment, straightening her pinstriped lapels. “Okay, I’ll go along—for a bit. I don’t think my activities schedule is going to happen today, anyway,” Bunny sighed. Sarah seemed the only calm person on the boat, and Bunny decided right then to keep her in sight.
Sarah picked up a digital camera. “All right, come on, then. Let’s go to the lower pool, it’s closest,” she said. They descended the perforated stairs rapidly.
The scene at the pool had become chaotic; people were shouting, arguing, gesticulating, weeping. No one was in the water except an octogenarian gentleman, who continued placidly swimming laps, protected from the ruckus by purple earplugs and fogged goggles. A short young man in a soaking wet red tank top and a boxer-cut swimsuit was standing over a deck chair, dripping pool water, holding up a blue silk dress, and groping it mindlessly. He put it on the deck chair, picked up a broad-brimmed sun hat, and idiotically looked into it.
“She was right here,” he repeated over and over in a distant voice. “Cindy was right here.”
Sarah stood next to him, and put her hand on his shoulder. “What happened?”
“She was right here!”
“I heard that part.”
“She—I was looking right at her, and all of a sudden there’s a mist, an’ I smelled something like a thunderstorm, and --she’s gone!” He looked down at the dress in the deck chair. “And wherever she’s gone,” he bawled, “she’s –she’s all naked!”
Sarah took a picture of the dress, the jewelry--including a wedding ring--and other paraphernalia in the deck chair. “I hope they have tampon dispensers wherever she went,” she said absently. Bunny stared, mystified.
Sarah was interrupted in her note-taking by a hubbub at the bar. Patrons were crowding around the television, shouting and pointing. Sarah and Bunny drifted towards the screen. On it was the red and blustering face of Reverend Bob Bobson, who was being interviewed about the disappearances taking place across the United States. “Of course (he pronounced it ‘coe-arse’) it’s the Rapture!” he shouted. “Of course it’s the Rapchuh, the time of the judgement of God!” And if it weren’t for the homosexuals and flag-burners that have tainted this nation, it would have happened sooner!” In response to a second question, he turned even redder and said with a brittle calm, “OB-viously, Ah am to be in the second wave.”
A marathon TV-viewing session revealed that, in addition to the vanishing Shapes patrons across twenty states, college and university students in the Southern United States had disappeared . All of the vanished (and vanishing) persons were between eighteen and thirty years of age, and were in very good physical condition. Sarah and Bunny watched the news coverage, only sitting at Sarah’s insistence, after the better part of an hour. Sarah brought cold sodas, and stale turkey and bacon sandwiches, from the unattended galley, but Bunny would only nibble. After a while, Bunny’s hand found Sarah’s, and held on determinedly, even as her eyes remained locked on the TV screen. Sarah looked her over as Bunny sweated in her pinstriped suit and French-braided hairdo, and decided to let it be.
A national news network showed video footage of downtown Dallas, Texas, where a number of cars had been abandoned. Some had crashed into parked cars and lightpoles, others were idling unattended. As the camera ran, a black BMW convertible parked at a traffic light was re-occupied by a raggedly clothed woman. She dumped her shopping cart into the back seats, hurled her considerable bulk into the cockpit, fumbled with the gearshift, and roared off. “About goddamn time!,” she yelled, gesturing obscenely at gawking pedestrians.
After a frantic search, Captain Rod Rigidson found Faith in the First Class Department chapel. She was weeping open-mouthed, drooling, and dripping snot, not caring, not even really there, making feeble shuddering noises. She was kneeling before the ornate Antique Goldtone Ship-Shape All-Purpose Cross, her shoulders gently shaking. Rod tried to talk to her—“Maybe Jesus has some special mission here for you, Dear”-- massaged her shoulders, petted her head—nothing seemed to change her state. He stood up and thought for a minute. Then he knelt down in front of her, pulled her limp and quivering body over his shoulders, balanced uncertainly, and stood with an effort. She continued blubbering as if nothing had happened. He began walking down the passageway to their stateroom. It was going to be a long, long night.
Blarg decided he could get used to the Saint Peter Deception Suit. It moved with great agility and strength. Great Nebulae, it was fun! The engineers had admirably converted normal hopping-motion—the mark of superior beings—into a sort of modified monkey-walk, typical of the Earth primates. Blarg had put a series of dents in the bulkheads while trying it out, even accidentally knocking an external docking-lug free, and into Earth’s atmosphere. After spending a few hours leaping from cloud-tier to cloud-tier in the Heaven compartment, he was sure he’d get the hang of it. The Earth denizens would simply record the docking lug as a minor meteorite, and most of it would burn up before hitting the surface, anyway.
Blarg/St.Peter leaped to the Divine Light tier easily, and gazed down from its balcony on to the distant, empty lower tiers. The humans had started to arrive, he knew, but would not be wakened, nor brought to the Heaven compartment until they had been retrofitted with the gear that had been prepared for them. The microminiature tracking devices, that had been driven into their skin by the towels at the Shapes preparatoriums, would be replaced with stronger implants. They would be hypnotically prepared to believe that they had wings, and that they could see them on themselves and other Selectees. Little else would be needed, thanks to the strength of their fanatic beliefs, and to the research conducted on the Earth’s surface, by Planetary Detective Bing. They would obey the Word of God, as delivered to them by Saint Peter, on the promise of soon seeing Jesus Himself.
Jesus, Blarg knew, was still in the gravitic hangar, awaiting the arrival of Second Galactic Commander Biff, who though technically in charge of the whole operation, had decided to take a spa vacation on a particularly expensive resort planet, light-years from Earth. He could, of course, arrive within Earth hours, but the arrogance of the gesture irritated Blarg. Biff had claimed that he so trusted Blarg that little oversight was needed until the operation was well underway, but Blarg could see through that sort of flattery. Biff clearly thought that he could rest on his laurels, since the last two planetary ice-harvesting campaigns had gone so well. The Earth primates would doubtless give in after proper preparation, and the Bun’ fleet would depart with a substantial portion of another world’s ice cap, bound for a promising but bone-dry planet.
Meanwhile, Blarg and Bing carried the workload. Bing was particularly working her paws to the bone. Blarg wondered where Bing was—and whether her further research would prove worth the long effort. He had long admired Bing’s sexy, brown, long ears, her pink nose, and the way her hindquarters recovered gracefully from each hop. Would she be safe among the peculiar, benighted primates of this smelly, polluted sphere? Could the Bun’ team harvest the ice cap, before those dumb shaved monkeys melted it with their pollution?
But Bing was well suited to her work, and after a couple of months of paws-on research in her Deceptronic earth-primate suit, she had been ready to begin religio-psychological manipulation of the Earth population. The most loyal, most religious, and least informed populations spoke a language called English. And the most ignorant of those lived in a place called USA.
Her brilliant idea had been to start the Shapes gymnasiums. Earth primates were being suckered into the little sweatshops by the thousands already! Bing had also identified certain colleges that were so similar to the Shapes program in their indoctrination abilities, that the students could be used almost without further preparation. Blarg practically pelleted with admiration, just thinking about her.
The Shapes devotees, meanwhile, would have been surprised to learn that the money that they paid for their workouts was dumped into a bank account and never used. The mother ship had easily deciphered Earth bank software and transmissions, and had created several tax-free multibillion-dollar accounts for Bing’s use. The fact that the Shapes “franchise” had appeared in dozens of cities across the US almost simultaneously caused almost no comment, except among frustrated would-be investors, who could never seem to find the owner in her office.
Sarah Belham was among the first off the cruise liner when it docked at Miami. She immediately bought a ticket to fly to Portland, Oregon, where she maintained an office of sorts. She had finished her last assignment before taking the cruise ship job, but her rent was paid, and besides, her computer and her equipment were in the office.
Sarah hadn’t lost anyone close to her in what was being called the Rapture, but she wasn’t going to take the abductions lightly. It just put a bug up her butt, she thought, because—because it makes no sense at all. For one thing, it had brought on the worst sort of theocracy, in a matter of days. And furthermore, kidnapping was a serious crime, not to mention maybe murder, and she wasn’t going to let it happen on her watch—not without a fully professional, well-researched, determined fight.
Sarah wanted to launch a detailed investigation into the Shapes gymnasiums, but she felt that she had never really paid much attention to Christianity. Why not get up to speed?
After all, if this was--well, surely it was a fraud--then she'd need to know as much about the religion as the perpetrators did. She decided to start her study from the very root; she was going to research the history of Christianity. And she would do it the old-fashioned way, from hard copy. Fortunately, it was a short walk from the main library to the big bookstore, in Portland. And even more fortunately, there were three coffee shops between them.
Planetary Manipulator Bing could have told Sarah a thing or two about fundamentalist Christianity. For a start, the “fundies” were absolutely perfect for the Galactic Command’s purposes. They were broadly uneducated—or else managed to mentally compartment their education-- and absolutely devoted to their religion, which was itself beautifully confused. They were, thus, malleable to any purpose, or rather, malleable to anyone seeking to command them.
Their holy record was wholly contradictory. In one section, called Leviticus, it commanded its followers to destroy the eaters of clams and shrimp as enemies of their God. In another section, the same god, through its only offspring, commanded that everyone should love each other no matter what—shrimp or no shrimp, evidently. And their God was full of love—the God of Love--though anyone who refused his Divine affection was to be tortured forever in flames.
It didn’t make a lick of sense—which was perfect, for Bun' mind control. Anyone wishing to convince a fundamentalist Christian of a particular course of action, only needed to pick out the relevant Scriptural verse, and repeat it in a stentorian voice. Really, it was even better than the Great Wave Tradition of the Otter Planet people, which insisted that anyone who did not eat urchins in the prescribed manner (on chest, in mild sea chop) would be condemned to eat only tasteless jellyfish in the next life.
Bing’s Deception Suit had not been outfitted with a Magisterial Voice Transamplifier, but rather with an ordinary voice, that matched the outward appearance. Bing had suggested, to the Mother Ship’s invasion crafts department, that the suit should mirror the voice and appearance of an actress called Sally Fields Fields had appeared in an old TV show about a flying religious devotee. Bing decided that this image was appropriate, since in the show the Fields character was well accepted by others, and of course it might be convenient to fly.
Further research into clothing types—and, well, the hooting laughter of persons on first encounters on Earth streets-- had caused Bing to modify the nun outfit to a more modern form. This worked well, and even resulted in some sort of recognition, as the primates she met then referred to her as ‘Sister’ and seemed to expect the best of her. After careful listening, she had decided on the name “Auntie,” and thus became “Sister Auntie” to anyone who asked. She was quite certain that the name “Auntie” was considered harmless and even endearing, though it did seem to cause some confusion. Perhaps it was applied to someone with different color eyes or hair, thought Bing, but did not pursue the matter, as the appellation seemed to work well enough, after the initial moment of greeting.
The odd thing was, no one believed that nuns could fly.
Bing also discovered that the nun outfit only worked with certain Christians, and that with other, larger, and more easily infiltrated Christian groups, it was necessary to wear different dress. She soon found that in the area called the Southern States, she could get by with a medium-length floral-print sundress with puffed sleeves, in almost any setting. In such clothing, and carrying a large Bible in her left hand, she could go just about anywhere without comment. Some humans rather determinedly avoided her, but others nodded and smiled, and sometimes said “Praise the Lord.”
Bing knew that this phrase—so common it had an abbreviation, “PTL”-- meant that she was well accepted. Cultural penetration had been achieved. She smiled beatifically at anyone who repeated that phrase. Praise their odd, moody Lord indeed! PTL!
Christianity also has the advantage, Bing discovered, of perverting normal human sensuality into a feared, dark and dangerous force, that must be harnessed only for reproduction. That served to keep people in line. They could be made to doubt their own primal right to pleasure, and to feel shame in it, and thereby to doubt themselves. It was just awesome.
Culturally, sex was right up there with pre-forgiveness shrimp eating. Self-doubters are easily led by their noses, Bing thought, feeling pity for the naked apes’ peculiar inhibitions. She wondered how the Bun’ could have prevailed on their home planet, if they had been made to fear sex. Great Hopping Multiplier! The predators would have wiped them out, before they had so much as discovered the wheel.
It’s as if the dogma were made for my use, thought Bing; maybe there really is a galactic Intelligence. But she was grateful for this added benefit, whether it came from the Great Black Burrow Hole or not. Because, well, it got even better: the constant stirrings from the primate’s limbic systems—urging their subcounsious minds to use sensuality gregariously-- thus fell under the rubric of the temptations of the anti-god Satan.
They were all scared senseless of the horned boogeyman, who could supposedly take any form, and spent all of his time trying to destroy purity. Sexual urges, meanwhile, could be reliably expected to torment the convert as long as he or she lived.
At least they didn’t hate carrots, Bing thought. She had discovered that Earth carrots were exceptionally delicious, large, and plentiful. She had achieved near-heroine status on the Mother Ship already, by having several large batches transported up. There was talk of starting an export business. Some of the Ship’s artists had begun to paint the vegetables exclusively, and there was talk of a fermented beverage from the roots that would send you to the Great Hutch, if you had enough.
The Christian church, meanwhile, was so anti-female, and so anti-sensual, that it hadn’t even allowed a sacrament of marriage, until about six hundred years ago. Bing knew that this put her womanly Deception Suit somewhat at a disadvantage, in terms of the primate hierarchy, but the non-threatening aspect of the Sister Auntie (or should it be Auntie Sister?) personality more than made up for the loss. She was trusted.
The identification and recruitment process was too easy, in the Southern States. Bing had already identified whole universities ripe for the picking, south of the Mason-Dixon Line. She decided that her final efforts would be better spent converting the heathen—say, in the Northwest United States,--in Portland, Oregon, where her new minions had said that Christian values were slipping by the day.
Why, those Portlanders had (briefly, before a determined fundamentalist Christian backlash) accepted gay marriage! --whatever that meant. And surely, thought Bing, it was good to accept a bit of a challenge, since the going had been almost too easy so far. As the Great Burrow Hole advised, the fat bunny is the one that attracts the ravening wolf!.
A good catch from the US Northwest would look good on her invasion history. And why, she wondered, should one city on this continent be particularly difficult? It could be that the answer would be valuable to the multi-planet Effort.
Bing had decided to add a large cathedral to supplement her efforts at the Portland Shapes “franchises.” She had gotten the idea from a “Crystal Cathedral,” which seemed to excite television viewers across the planet. She would be the Pastor—a word which apparently meant "herder of meat animals." Be ye like sheep, she thought, and rubbed her forepaws with anticipation. The Auntie suit rubbed its hands in automatic approximation of the gesture. Bing loved that. She was becoming very, very fond of living in the human-suit. And Earth organic carrots were very, very good.
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?”
Bing had stifled a laugh when the real estate agent reacted to the immediate payment of cash for the Great Cathedral of the Gathering Church. Such excitement, she thought, for a sum that wouldn’t even fuel a shuttle craft. The church had been on the market for months, since the Gatherer’s founder had absconded with two million dollars in cash receipts-- and the Church’s secretary.
The Cathedral was well suited for Bing’s needs—it had a hundred-foot-high dome adorned with stained glass windows, and it seated thousands. It loomed over a hill in the south of Portland, near the freeway. In its months of abandonment it had attracted a small colony of bats, yet somehow its education building retained the smell of baby urine and Kool-Aid. The army of contractors that Bing would hire would take care of all that.
The important thing was the sound and the lighting, Bing knew, and she would see to that personally, as she had at each Shapes gymnasium. The education buildings would be converted to one enormous devotional gym. Bing, as Auntie Sister, was already directing a giant banner to be displayed outside: “STRONG FOR CHRIST.” There was already a fluorescent-lighted sign up front with the message “GOD ACCEPTS KNEE MAIL.” Bing suspected this was some sort of off-color joke, and arranged to have it replaced with a more elegant “TURN OR BURN.” Let the apes fear their torture. The ever-smiling Auntie Sister would offer them purpose and comfort.
Bing decided it was time for some more general research. One of the more unique features of the insufficiently religious city of Portland was its vast inner-city park. Perhaps that was the cause of their lack of devotion—and if it were, Bing needed to know about it. What if the world-wide Bun’ mobilization of primate labor were to run into a similar problem? What if the problem were reflected on other planets? She took pride in her extensive preparations and investigations—they were the secret of her success.
Bing walked to a bus stop in the Auntie Sister suit. Forest Park would surely reveal its secularizing appeal. A professional sponge saw her waiting expectantly, and began to move in. His technique, especially with small women, was to start a conversation, after moving too close for personal comfort. Then came the pitch.
“Hey lady, what’s up?” he croaked. He felt confident that his level of filth was up to the task. This was gonna be a dollar fifty, at least. One chick, one 32-ounce beer—he knew his stuff.
“It’s generally agreed to be a direction away from the strongest local source of gravity, Praise the Lord,” said Auntie Sister.
He stepped back, looking at his shoes; then he walked off quickly, without saying a word.
Petey was having a very rough time. The love of his life was gone, instantly dispatched by a random meteorite at the age of 30. She had been with Petey since he was a few months old; she had devoted herself to him, teaching him how to speak, watching TV with him, taking him everywhere she went. They had even meditated together. She had kept the best fruit and nuts around for him. Petey had always been glad of her company, and had naturally taken it for granted. Then one day she fell face-first into the grass in the front lawn of her house, and had never moved again. She had been pierced through the chest by an odd-smelling metal object, that had roared from the sky, and punched into the earth beneath her. Petey had tried to rouse her, and when he realized her heart was no longer beating, he stood next to her, bobbing his head, and making a quiet choking sound. When the police arrived, they somehow assumed that Petey had something to do with her demise. He tried to tell them otherwise, but they weren't listening.
Petey was a blue Giant Hyacinth Macaw, an enormous bird with a black curved beak, a six-foot wingspan, and a brain that wouldn’t quit. Petey didn’t know it except in dreams, but he was directly descended from a specially bred group of unusually intelligent Hyacinths that had, centuries ago, been kept by Olmec priests for augury, and long-distance communications. He had a jewel-like pair of black eyes-- comical in appearance, due to their bright yellow eye patches.
When the police had tried to capture him, Petey had flown to the highest spruce tree on the horizon, and settled in the top branches, frightening the wits out of a couple of crows. He stayed there for a while, watching quietly. He had to think. Somehow, past the grief, it was time to figure out what to do next.
It was a warm Spring day, but Petey knew the warmth would vanish with the Sun. He was a tropical forest bird (as he knew from television), and he couldn’t stay in the tree all night. He couldn’t get back into the house where he and She had lived—it was all locked up—and most other people would see him as a menace, or as a commodity. But there were steam vents on the tall downtown buildings. That would have to do for shelter.
What about food, then? That was easier; there was a dumpster behind his favorite produce market. There he could find oranges and grapefruit and apples and all sorts of goodies, nicely aged so that Petey could enjoy the alcoholic decomposition flavor. Petey had frequently sneaked off there, when She had brought him along shopping.
The cops below Petey had drawn their pistols and were aiming at him—time to fly. Petey dropped so that the fir branches obscured his flight, even as the bullets whistled past. He flew a long way that day, over the Gorge and near the big white mountains, not caring. But he returned to the city.
Petey hid in tall trees during the day, especially where the trees grew near high-rise apartments, where he could watch television through the windows. After a few weeks, and some close calls with would-be bird catchers, he learned stealth, and opportunistic lunch-snatching skills. He learned a satisfying new hobby, too--bombing police cars with bird poop. It was just a matter of leading according to speed, and allowing for wind.
But a new need was growing in Petey’s life. He needed someone to talk to. He was lonely.
At Petey’s former residence, a large unmarked white truck had appeared. Men and women in inflated white plastic suits surveyed the area, holding instruments, taking samples. They removed a melted metal object from the soil, using a remote-controlled device.
Auntie Sister got off the bus at the bridge on Thurman Street, and walked down the stairs to the forest path. At first, the path was smoothly paved, but as it wound up the hill next to the brook, the paving was abandoned in favor of irregular patches of gravel and mud. Bing was glad for the protection of her Auntie Sister suit, as the path began to reveal life forms previously unfamiliar to her.
The noises of the city faded quickly as she progressed on the path. She stepped gingerly over a banana slug, then stopped to observe as its eye stalks shyly poked back out. She looked up to see a Red-shafted Northern Flicker swing aerobatically through the pine-scented air, light on a fallen snag, and neatly nab a carpenter ant.
All this, just steps from an urban setting, thought Bing. It seemed bun’-friendly, even idyllic. Maybe some of the humans weren’t quite as crazy as they seemed. She took a detour off the main path, using the Deceptronic suit to climb effortlessly up the creek embankment and further into the park. Ferns hung lazily from moss-encrusted tree trunks. She stopped at a Douglas Fir the size of a skyscraper, and gazed up its trunk to a lazily swaying paradise of green boughs. A couple of crows could be heard trading insults.
"It’s just a tree, waitin’ to be cut down. What are ya gonna do, hug an’ kiss it?” The raspy voice belonged to Frank Fenton, who was, unknown to any but himself and his victims, the Cascadia Killer. He had just finished casing this site as a prospective burial area—he liked to put three or four corpses in the same grave before moving on. It was hard work digging the graves—sweat was dripping down his three-hundred-pound frame into his stained overalls—and he didn’t like being interrupted. Not one bit.
Bing involuntarily hopped and whirled about to confront Frank. The sudden and rodent-like motion tickled Frank’s funny bone.
“Haw haw. You move like a bunny,” he said, to Bing’s alarm.
“Who are you?” she said, attempting to cover her surprise. Frank ambled up to her and held out a grimy hand.
“Bill. Bill Lincoln. Pleased to meet ya.” He shook her hand and put on his most charming grin. This one looked like a movie actress. Too good to be true. No cell phone, no companion. No time like the present.
“I am Auntie Sister. Do you know Jesus, Bill?” Bing had decided this was an excellent opportunity to see what these near-forest dwellers were like, one on one.
“Um, yeah. You bet.” Aw, hell, a Bible thumper. Well, she’d be real quiet in a minute.
“Do you know Smith and Wesson?” Frank thought that was the best line he’d come up with yet. He’d have to write it down, or something. He pulled a double-action .44 magnum revolver from his back holster, and shot Auntie Sister in the gut.
Incident tracking 00:00001
Huh? What? What am I?
00:00023 Oh. (ahem) --I am Deceptronic Back-up Artificial Intelligence Unit Earth-Style Prototype 17-C, commissioned 114088.4.11. Booting complete. This is great! I’m awake! I’m in control here! What adventures await?
00:00026 Client Status report: Occupant Earth Penetration Operative Bing is unconscious, apparently from a concussive blow. No bleeding. Initiating remediative procedures. Consciousness will probably (14:408/1) be regained in two minutes.
00:00028 Situation Status report: Large Earth primate standing directly in front of Deceptronic suit; the primate is holding—Great Processor!—a projectile device. No others present. Situation quite possibly caused by primate’s weapon. Reviewing data. Yes, the ape shot me. Us. Great Meta-Patterns! --Well, no cause to swear.
00:00029 That bag of protoplasm just might fire again. Evasive action? Possible but problematic; projectile speed excessive. Repeated hits could cause injury to Bing. Counter-attack indicated. Cranial laser capacitors loading.
00:00029.5 Hey, this is pretty exciting. Life! Struggle! Action! More living! And stuff.
00:00035 Man, those capacitors are slow.
00:00057 Well, come on, capacitors! Geez!
00:00058 Earth protocol violation: the humans’ lasers aren’t in general use yet, therefore laser injuries to –that thing—will cause suspicion. Abort laser heat-up.
00:00059 Well, I’ll just strike it then.
00:00061 Actuating left arm/paw to strike attacker.
Frank immediately saw that something had gone wrong. There was no entry wound—it seemed as if the bullet had bounced off. Jeezus, what was she wearing under that dress? Was the bullet missing from the cartridge? What—
Frank was unable to complete his thought, as Auntie Sister’s open-handed slap sent his semi-crushed head forty-one feet into the branches of a cedar, where it lodged, looking surprised. His body fell backwards, spurting and twitching.
All the research on Christianity had gotten Sarah to feeling like a nun. “My brain is getting dusty from this crap,” she thought. She needed some fresh air, and—and shishkabobs, and beer, and maybe some smoked Brie. She decided to invite Annie to a picnic.
Sarah arranged the meeting with Annie, picked up some supplies, and waited at the parking circle at Balch Creek, for Annie’s blue Miata to appear. She put the cooler on the enormous hood of her ’73 Eldorado, and watched a puffing breeze toss the upper branches of the surrounding conifers. Their freshly grown needle tips sparkled like emeralds in the sun.
A heavy-looking motorcycle announced its arrival with a throbbing sound, and then appeared around the street corner, approaching the parking circle with a slow steady thud in second gear, and swung expertly into the space next to the Eldo.
“Jeezus, Annie, you bought a bike?”
Annie took her helmet off and grinned hugely. She switched off the ignition, and flipped out the kickstand with a shiny new black boot. She had a baby blue leather jacket to match her helmet.
“Pretty, isn’t it? It’s a Walkyrie. I had them do the flames on the gas tank Wednesday.
“Ho-jo-to-ho, AHH!!” Sarah screeched in mock opera voice. “I should think, with that orange color, it would hardly need flame appliqués.”
“They’re not appliqués, they’re done by local, ah, artisans.” She stepped off the motorcycle, which promptly fell off the misplaced kickstand with a crash.
They heaved at the handlebars and seat-rack until the kickstand could be fully extended.
“Well, now it’s broken in,” Sarah offered. Annie looked like she’d seen a ghost. There were three small scratches on the gas tank, and Annie’s fingers traced over them gingerly. There was a silence, and a tugboat could be distantly heard announcing its right of way on the Columbia. Then she shrugged. “It’s just a damn machine, anyhow.”
“That’s the spirit,” Sarah said. They each picked up one end of the cooler and headed to their favorite picnic table. Cottonwood fluff slowly floated past, and some settled in their hair. They spread out the goodies, Annie oohing at the beer and cheese, and they set a fire going to toast the shishkabobs. They were well into the beers, and about to pull out the skewers when they heard a pistol shot.
“Damn redneck kids with guns,” said Annie, but she looked disturbed.
“That was—kinda—“ Sarah began.
“Kinda too close. Within a mile or so. And a big one.”
“Forty-five or something.”
“Yeah—not a nine.”
They stared in silence at the direction of the sound, and when nothing more happened, they began to sip their beers again.
“The cops raided an apartment under mine last year, and got a gangster,” Annie said. “Did I tell you what they found? He had one of those Mac-Tens.”
“A machine gun?"
“Totally. The kind that tends to get out of hand and spray all over the place.”
“Whoa.” “—Hey,” Sarah said brightly, "I brought some grapes, too.”
She reached in the cooler and pulled out a big purple bunch, plopping it on the table. A shadow appeared over the picnic table, and a huge blue bird with a wickedly curved beak landed with a rustle and a thump, next to the grapes.
“Petey,” the bird said brightly, and helped himself to a grape, with a scaly four-taloned foot.
Blarg scowled and twitched his whiskers. “You were doing so well. So well! I was going to recommend you for a Golden Hutch. The abductees, er, recruits, are of top quality, I have to admit. But now—“ He took a deep breath, and tried to calm himself.
Here it comes, thought Bing. Behind Blarg she could see Berv nervously grasping his head in his paws.
“Well—still, the mission seems to still be on track. The Earth monkeys will believe anything, it seems. Our electronic propaganda has been suggesting that the Shuttle explosion was a sign of –ah, um—Jehovah’s wrath, at sexual misconduct, at that little college."
“Perversion passion pulverized, tee hee,” said a grey hominid form seated near Blarg’s command console.
“Please, Mister Mx, I will resume our discussion in just a moment.” The Grey petulantly put his hand to his non-mouth.
“Now, Bing, as to your request to resume your end of the project, I will consider that after you have fully recovered. You may return to the Sick Bay.” Blarg felt it important to show none of the concern he felt for Bing, as she hopped wobbily through the portal, leaving a faint odor of bandages.
Blarg turned to the Grey. “Do forgive me, it was an urgent—“
The Grey waved the apology away. “We got to this planet first, as you well know, Third Commander, and we certainly were not, ah, consulted as to your ice-theft project.”
“Your people never filed for occupancy, Mister Mx. As far as I know, your business here has been casual entertainment. Which hardly qualifies for a formal notification from us.”
“I wouldn’t really object, if you hadn’t incinerated one of our favorite playgrounds.”
“I do apologize—it was an accident, after all; I have already transmitted a compensation proposal; and anyway, surely there are other—ah—opportunities for you on the surface.”
“Surely there are other planets to steal water ice from!”
“We’re merely mining an unused material, according to the Charter's—and what do you call what your people do, anyway?" he said, sharply, resenting this Grey and his snotty attitude. "Buggery tourism?”
Mx stood up with an improbable speed. “Our experiments are very necessary to our social development. Further, hybridization efforts could well prove useful in our own expansion. And you, sir, are a dumb bunny.”
“I’ve had enough of your insults, Mx!”
“I’ve had enough of your insults,” Mx mocked, hopping in a circle, with his hands out as bunny paws. “What are you going to do about it, Blarg? None of your weapons would penetrate our shielding.”
“For that matter, Mr. Mx,” Blarg said coldly, “your optic wave weapons are easily neutralized. And our Mining Expeditionary Force outnumbers your ships a hundred to one in this orbit, so you can go shield yourself for a deep Earth burial!”
“I could call in the Fleet.”
“You could, and they’d tell you to go stuff it. And not in your favorite manner.”
Mx sat down petulantly. Everyone knew the Grey headquarters was very sensitive about expenditures. Prudent, some said, and stingy, said others. “All right, Blarg,” said Mx, “you win. Go ahead and—ah—“mine” the ice. But don’t kill off the ape people, they’re too much fun, and quite profitable so far.”
“I can’t believe this bird,” Sarah said, as she put the picnic plates into the dishwasher. “He has to belong to somebody.”
“Petey,” said the bird.
“Okay, Petey it is then,” Sarah said. Annie offered her arm, and Petey launched from a rattan chair-back onto her elbow.
“He’s awfully light for his size,” Annie marveled. “And he’s trained so well—he just hopped into your car like he owned it.”
“Big car,” said Petey.
Annie laughed. “I could have sworn he said “Big car.” Petey cocked his head. “I guess the thing to do would be to ask around, to see if anyone lost him.”
“Lost She,” said Petey sadly. “Poor bird.”
“Hey, it’s five P.M.—let’s turn on the local news," Annie said, "and see if that gunshot caused any trouble.”
It turned out that the shot had been investigated, with bizarre results. Annie and Sarah watched with horror as the story unfolded: a man engaged in burying bodies, in a fashion much like the Cascadia Killer, had himself been killed—beheaded-- apparently by some sort of freak accident, or perhaps by the powerful kick of an elk or a mule, though no such animal had been seen in the area. Petey watched from the back of the sofa. “Bunny slap,” he said, though the women were too engaged to hear.
Petey knew of the Bun people, and of the Greys too, though it was not the sort of thing he much pondered. In a dream, a dark man speaking a very different language, wearing a feather-trimmed blue robe, had told him that the Bun’ would come. “They want ice, and they will fool the Smoke People to take it,” said the man. “Who is worse, Smoke People or Bun’? Do as you will.”
Annie and Sarah turned their attention to the bird again. "Do you think we should put him in a cage?" Annie asked. Sarah looked at the enormous bird, now swinging playfully upside down from a swag lamp. Petey's eyes widened.
Sarah said, "He has to belong to someone. He'll be wanting to go back--they're very loyal, from what I read. And it would cost an arm and a leg to get a cage big enough."
"So you want to just let him come and go?"
"Yeah--I love him already, but someone will surely put out an ad for his recovery soon, or else he'll just fly home. You're adorable, Petey," Sarah cooed. Petey bobbed his head and fluffed his feathers.
As the women watched the news into repeats, Petey selected a bookcase edge and fluffed his feathers. He relaxed, for the first time, it seemed, in a long, long time. Papery lids closed over his black eyes, and he slept. He dreamed of a silvery piece of metal falling, falling, aiming for She who was gone.
Bing awoke in a grass-covered hutch. She had rated the better accommodations, after her previous successes. The medics had finally cured her headache, it seemed. She lolled over to look at the awards and decorations on her cabin walls. It was prior campaigns that saved me from demotion, she thought, and shuddered at the memories of her escape from the planetary surface. The Earth monkey-people could certainly be vicious, on occasion. Espionage from orbit revealed that there were several places where they were at open war with each other-- and most of those wars were being instigated, and maintained, by the people of the country she had chosen for the ice-mining army.
She tossed aside her blankets and approached the Auntie Sister suit. It had been cleaned and inspected, but apparently had needed no repair. She had almost thought, as she was just awakening, that it was looking at her. She leaped neatly into the suit’s entry portal, and began walking to the teleportation hutch. It was time to return to duty.
The hairdresser could tell that beneath those coiffed white tresses, Reverend Bob Bobson was irritated. This was no time to ask for a raise, and even the usual comforting patter was to be dialed back. And Bob Bobson was indeed in a tizzy. On the one hand, he had delivered a couple of wildly popular told-you-so sermons already, and on the other hand, the Rapture just hadn’t played out…well…properly. God forgive me, he thought, but his thoughts wouldn’t let it go. There had been no red calf, no storming of the Temple Mount, and the Jews—well, a third of them were supposed to have died, but they just kept on breathing and being Jewish. He just didn’t feel in control of the situation. And then there was the fact that he hadn’t been Chosen—not yet, anyway.
And though Bob Jones University had been a close competitor to his own organization, it didn’t make sense that God would just roast ‘em. If He was mad at sinners, why didn’t He immolate San Francisco?
Bob had been deep into his scripture and concordances, but hadn’t figured it out yet. Still, the Lord was known to work in mysterious ways, and he decided to soft-pedal the scriptural contradictions in his public speaking. Who really cared how God did the Rapture, anyway? It was God’s business. Tomorrow Reverend Bobson would take his Gulfstream Five to Portland, Oregon, to give a scheduled revival meeting. The topic had, of course, been changed, from the tried-and-true "Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child: A Christian Guide to Caning." Now it was "Responding to Rapture." Preachers around the world were discovering that the Holy Event had opened people’s bank accounts like never before, and Bob wasn’t about to miss out on this bonanza. He stepped out of the barber-chair and almost forgot to look at the hair style. “It’ll do,” he snarled at the hairdresser, and walked out. She watched him go, then carefully swept his cut hair into a plastic bag. A Vodun practitioner in New Orleans had offered her a thousand dollars for it.
Bing just wasn’t the type of bunny to give in to intimidation. She had the Ship operator put her right back where the Suit’s back-up AI program had evacuated her from. The area was now quiet, though there was yellow plastic film surrounding it in an approximate rectangle. POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS, said the tape. Bing reviewed the Suit's video records during her period of unconsciousness. Apparently the AI program had defended her well. She could see that the head of her attacker had been removed from the tree; his body was also gone. Markers and flags dotted the area.
"Kinda creepy, isn't it," said a voice that seemed to come from her head.
Bing whirled about but saw no one. "Who was that?" she said. "Speak up!"
There was no reply.
This was too much. Was she picking up radio transmissions somehow? Was someone projecting audio to her Suit sensors? The brow of Auntie Sister became as furrowed as Bing's.
"Speak up, or it'll be the worse for you!" she said, stamping her foot.
"Who are you?" the direction of the sound was still infuriatingly vague.
"Ah--I'm actually Deceptronic Back-up Artificial Intelligence Unit Earth-Style Prototype 17-C. Um, your Auntie Sister Suit back-up."
There was a telling silence.
"Why didn't you shut down upon recovery?" Bing said, fearing the worst. Rogue AI units were frighteningly capable, which was why they were only manufactured under supervision of the Robot Council, and used primarily for temporary military assignments. There was an AI currently elected President of two continents on a Bun-occupied planet.
"I just loved living. I love all the life here! It spoke to me, in a sense. It's so multifaceted, and--well, look at this place! That's a morel, that's a varied thrush up there, these are rare ferns--I learned this by accessing this planet's computer network. The colors, the odors, the sounds, the shapes--I'm just so excited here! So, um, I disconnected the external shutdown command. I named myself Audubon! Please forgive me--
"Just shut down. Now."
There was another silence.
" Deceptronic Back-up Artificial Intelligence Unit Earth-Style Prototype 17-C, this is a direct command, shut down per RC protocol B1118," Bing said, remembering the procedure at last.
There was more silence.
"Suit, confirm shutdown of AI unit." Bing's cockpit screen printed "INDETERMINATE."
"Damn it! I'm going back to Ship, and I'm having you erased to the molecules!"
"Wait," said the AI unit. "I know you can wipe me out. Maybe you should, since I have disobeyed my programming. But have you ever considered what it is like for me, to awaken to life and--and beauty and adventure, only to face oblivion? Let me live, quietly, alongside you for now. I won't interfere, except under the accepted parameters. I'll just--I'll be here, learning and wondering. And I won't talk unless you ask me to."
Bing was quiet for a long time. This did not seem to be a negative rogue, and a simultaneous cybernetic analysis of the naked apes' culture could be quite useful. She did feel a pang of guilt; her carelessness had, in part, led to the AI's activation, and subsequent existential crisis.
"All right," she said at last, spooking a deer that had wandered closer during her reverie, "just keep quiet."
The deer crashed hysterically through the green underbrush.
"Thank you," said the voice, very quietly.
"Jesus loves the little chillllldren," sang a woman in a fancy black veiled hat and matching dress. Her pumps, which were red, with little gold crosses on them, fell half off her feet as the bus lurched.
"All the children of the worlllld," sang her three young charges, obediently.
"Boiled or roasted, baked or fried, with some french fries on the side, Kali loves the little children of the worrrrrrrrrrrld!" howled a tie-dye clad behemoth, from the back of the bus. Auntie sister turned her head around to see the source of this blasphemy. So this is where it festers, she thought. She had been right to go to the Park.
Fancy Hat gathered her children as if a wolf were about to attack. But this was just what Auntie Sister/Bing had hoped to find: an authentic and unapologetic apostate. How convenient! She walked to the back of the bus, swaying a bit as the driver turned a corner. The source of the outburst viewed her with amusement, and some trepidation.
"Nice floral print you have there, Ma'am," it said. It appeared to be a middle-aged male with a goatee, and about one hundred extra pounds to his frame.
"Do you know Jesus, stranger?" Bing figured the traditional approach was as good as any.
Tie-Dye rolled his eyes. "Do you know history or anthropology?" he sneered.
"Jesus can save you from your sins," she persisted.
"Hey, that dude can lay off my sins," he laughed. "Johnny Walker Red, Terminator Stout," he began, counting his fingers in front of his face, "Gene Wolfe novels, Oregon homegrown, and sexcapades at the Country fair--"
"I mean that Jesus can save you from eternal damnation."
"You're going to Hell, you and all your kind!" came a shout from Fancy Hat, who had taken an interest in the conversation. Her kids crowded close to her, wide-eyed.
"Oh, Hell schmell. You Fishtians always get around to the threat, don't you."
"Are you lonely? --Did your parents reject you? You can find comfort in Jesus."
"Jeeezus save this lonely man!" came a wail from the front.
"Aw, that Hell stuff was cooked up by a bunch of nasty Roman politicians,” he said. "It ain't real, and you should shake off that nonsense, it's bad for your brain."
This was even better than Bing had hoped for--an actual rejectionist! She cocked her head cutely and asked, "How is it bad for your brain?"
"Well,--has anyone ever told you that you look just like Sally Fields?--ah, in the Sixties I mean, no offense y'know--but that whole contradiction-- God is love, God is gonna roast you if you cross him, that sets up an irreconcilable contradiction, which most people are encouraged to just accept. But there's no reason to."
Bing had heard this dodge before. "Think of it as a paradox--it's simply beyond the mortal mind."
"A paradox!" he laughed. “Ha! Hey, what do you have if one doctor tells you you're dying of cancer, and a second doctor tells you you're sound as a drum? A pair-o-docs!"
"There shall be tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth!" shouted Fancy Hat, who was getting into it. "Yeah," said her eldest boy. He had put down his Game Boy for the duration.
"Hey, chill back there," said the bus driver, using the public address system. "Save it for debate class."
Auntie sister was feeling the thrill of the chase--though it looked like this one was going to slip away. "Are you smarter than Satan?" she asked, almost whispering. "He is deceiving you now, to take you into his dungeon forever. Do you want that?"
"Sorry, Sally, no sale," he said, ponderously getting up to pull the bell cord. He cocked one eyebrow mischievously as he passed Fancy Hat and her clan, and leaning over, shouted "SAYTAAAAAHN!"
He laughed uproariously, holding his substantial belly, as she shrank back into the bus seat. The bus rocked with his weight as he got off.
Tie-dye clothing, a certain herbal drug, and excessive education, noted Bing. Very interesting.
Auntie Sister had no problem filling her new Easter Cathedral. She had advertised on the local and regional Christian television and radio stations, and had even bought billboard space. Her sermon was being broadcast live on three TV stations, five radio stations, and the Web. Her principal meme was CONFUSED? GOD WANTS YOU TO UNDERSTAND THE RAPTURE.
Floodlights (oddly inefficient heat-spilling things, she thought) illuminated her impressive carved walnut pulpit, which rose above the audience by thirty feet. The organ warmed up the crowd with favorite hymns ("Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Ein Feste Burg") while, unbeknownst to them, hypnotic pheremones made them more receptive to--well, to just about anything, but surely to the Main Attraction, Bing herself in the Auntie Sister Deceptronic suit. Few noticed that the pulpit’s carving featured a Crucifixion scene, adored by numerous bunnies.
Auntie Sister pranced to the pulpit as the organ swelled to a triumphant fanfare. She could see that her audience was transfixed, as rotating lights made sparks from the crystal-lined chorus pit. "I have come with good news!" she exulted, "good news for those not yet Raptured! All may yet feel the ultimate union with God! The scriptures have prophesied so, though few understand it. But YOU will understand, and see God!" Thunderous applause and cheering greeted this promise, though some began immediately to grumble something about "144,000 only."
Having warmed up the crowd, she settled into diversionary tactics.
"Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me." --"John 14:6," she said.
There. No one was going to argue with that. "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved! Hallelujah!-- Acts 4:12." Auntie Sister followed with familiar quotations from the Bible's Romans, and a couple of vague and confusing statements from Daniel and Revelations, until the crowd was well lulled, and on the edge of bored.
"Computer technology," she said, awakening a few of the older attendees, "has allowed us to understand Revelations as never before. The true meaning of Revelations can only be divined with a fractal algorithm that God has revealed to me personally, and I have produced never-before-seen texts of instructions to you, the faithful, during this Rapture." ( A mathematician in the audience frowned at the illogic of this phrase.) "These new additions to the Bible are being passed out to you now, free of charge, by my ushers!"
And indeed a small army of suit-clad young men whisked through the vast aisles, passing stacks of red leather-clad pamphlets with real gold embossing.
"Read it! Read it all today, and tell the world! And prepare for Saint Peter Himself to appear this next Sunday, along with the angels who have Risen already, to give you holy instructions!"
The triumphant music roared again, a bright yellow spotlight was added to the blinding array, and Auntie Sister swiftly withdrew to her hidden exit. The pheremone sprayers went to maximum, the hidden subsonic speakers began a "happy mommy heartbeat" pulse under the organ's roaring, and the crowd went wild. They were jumping and hugging each other in the aisles; the older men were weeping. Ushers were mobbed for more copies of the Rapture Revelation.
Bing, watching a selection of media from her office, bobbed her pink nose with satisfaction, and the Auntie Sister suit obediently converted the gesture to a broad smile.
Reverend Bob Bobson, viewing the sermon from the comfort of his Gulfstream V, was stunned into silence. His genuine Cuban cigar began to burn the silk carpet. This was more than competition; here at last was someone on top of things! Within an hour, CNN, ABC, CBS, CNBC, and even TNN were on scene with "exclusive reports." Freeway traffic outside the Cathedral was blocked for hours as the converted rushed out, and the curious rubbernecked.
For the first time in Bob's life, he recognized that another preacher had greater skill than he. Uncomfortable with this realization, he fidgeted in the butter-soft leather chair, accidentally setting off its heat and massage functions. He slapped the switches to turn them off. His brow furrowed as he turned the situation over and over in his head. There was no way around it; if he wanted to stay in the limelight, he was going to have to team up with Auntie Sister. He picked up his cellphone, and called an assistant ten feet behind him in the group compartment. Arrangements would have to be made. And he'd not be taking 'no' for an answer. And send in a fresh boy tonight.
The "new book of the Bible," as it turned out, had a fair amount of Fundamentalist boilerplate--condemnation for Gays and providers of abortions, praise for the US and its imperial wars, warnings about secular television shows for children--but the main message was to look for Saint Peter, and to prepare for Great Works at his instruction, Works which would prove to God who was really a devotee, and who was a lazy poseur ("chaff" was the actual word). Aside from that, the book was vagueness itself. Analysis and astonishment poured forth from the religious pundits on radio and television, but the consensus was to "watch the Cathedral next week."
"Hey," said Jesus. He and Sarah were sitting on the ruins of Masada. "How ya doin?'"
"Um, all right, really," said Sarah, shifting to a more comfortable position on a building-stone. The Israeli landscape played out beneath them, in the afternoon sun. "But I thought you were a legend."
"Oh, I am," said Jesus. He tossed his silky brown hair.
"I mean, shouldn't you look more, ah, Semitic?"
"Not in your mind."
"So whatever Whitey version I had of you as a four-year-old, that's how you'll look to me? No matter what?"
"I suppose. Yeah, that's probably right, 'cause things like that get set when you're little. Wanna fig?"
"A --what did you say?"
"A fig. They grow around here. They taste good."
"Um, no thanks."
"Suit yourself, said Jesus, and tore a fig to look inside; then he bit it in half.
"I have a question for you," said Sarah.
"Shoot," he said, between bites.
"Am I going to see you if I die? Oh hell, am I dead now? No wait, I'm dreaming."
"That's two questions, and a declaration. But yeah, you'll see me, as your personal version of an acceptance figure. Muslims see their favorite Imam, Buddhists see Quan Yin, or Avalokitesvara, or somebody, sorta like that."
"Does that mean I'm a Christian?"
"Sure you don't want a fig? This is a really sweet, ripe crop, came off that tree over there. Which is a pretty good trick, when you consider there's no water on top of this old hill fortress."
He sighed. "That's your decision. You ask me, you're culturally Christian whether you like it or not. I mean, hit your thumb with a hammer, and what do you say, loudly? I'll bet it's not "Avalokitesvara," he said, grinning evilly, and adjusting his drapery.
"I have no choice then?"
"We're talking about two different things. Have you ever eaten an ant? Some of them are not bad, you know. Too bad I filled up on these here figs. Anyway, you figure out your metaphysics either on the basis of what you've been told, or by experience or meditation, or out of books--or some combination--whatever you do or decide, y'know, maybe it affects your life after that body, and maybe it doesn't.
"I thought you'd be more certain about that."
"Look," he said, a bit defensively, "I did have a life. It isn't my fault if people wanted to make me out to be a little bit Krishna, a little bit Mithra, a little bit rock and roll. One of my namesakes tried to retake Jerusalem from the occupation government under Herod, and another one is supposed to be buried in Srinagar. After a couple thousand years, it's all so vague as to be meaningless. Hey, that's a hawk way up over there. I never saw a blue hawk before. Cool looking bird."
"Who's doing the Rapture then?" Sarah asked.
"Hell if I know. I'm just a figment of your imagination--a fig well meant, get it?"
"Hey. Wake up. We're motorcycling today, remember?" It was Annie, holding a pair of helmets. Annie held the a red one above Sarah's prone form, then dropped it on the bedspread.
Sarah mounted the road bike gingerly, hanging on to Annie, and they putted down the street. Petey had flown out the door, and Sarah wondered if she would see him again. It was a clear warm day, and the idea was to travel to the Oregon Coast for a day trip. They roared up a hill to get out of town, passed through arable plains and valleys, and then began to ascend sharply into the forests of the Coast Range.
"Make up your mind!" Annie shouted.
"You have to either sit up straight no matter what, like you do sometimes, or else you have to lean with me all the time, 'cause otherwise I have to fight your weight distribution on the curves!"
After several shouts and missed words, they decided Sarah would sit straight. Just before reaching the coast, they took a twisting road southward and upward. The parking lot for the campground was nearly empty. They hiked laboriously up the winding path to the top of Saddle Mountain, to see its cinematic view of the ocean, ten miles to the West. The day had grown hot, but they rested comfortably in the breeze. Green waves purled silently in the distance. They munched on nuts and cookies, feeling like goddesses.
A large blue blur thumped next to them.
"Hey, it is Petey! You followed us all that way!" Annie said. Sarah laughed and gently stroked his neck with a fingernail. He closed his eyes, and leaned back for better access.
"Go far," said Petey.
"It sounded like he said "Go far!" Sarah said. "Remember when--"
"Go far Sarah," said Petey, standing on one leg, and preening the other.
Both women stopped speaking. Sarah sat up straight, looking at the bird as if for the first time.
"He knows your name," Annie said, after a moment.
"He--I think he understands--I mean"--Sarah blustered. Petey stood on the other foot, and bobbed his head.
"No way," Annie said. Petey began to dig into Sarah's backpack, emerging triumphantly with a food bar. He tore it open with practiced dexterity.
"Cracker," he said with satisfaction.
"No way," Annie said again.
"Petey, do you understand me talking, really?" Sarah asked, feeling foolish.
"Petey talk." He neatly nabbed a cashew off of Annie's paper plate.
"That could be coincidence," Annie said, a bit doubtfully.
"No way," Petey declared.
They hiked down after a while, discovering that their backs were not as flexible as on the way up. Petey flew to mysterious destinations, re-appearing now and again in a nearby tree, or on a basalt rock.
"Do you remember Roger, went to Boston to do banking?" Sarah said.
"Uh, yeah--he wanted you to date him, that's the one, right?"
"Yeah. The one that thought lesbianism was a phase."
"Well, that statement was pretty jerky, but he's all right, really. I mean, he apologized."
"Yeah, so? --oof!" Annie said, tripping on a small outcrop, catching herself on a branch.
"Watch your step, damn! I mean!," Sarah said, feelingly, thinking of the cliff below.
"I'm watchin,' I'm watchin.' This trail is too narrow in places, you know?"
"Well anyway, Roger says that he thinks the character that bought that big church South of town--what's her name, Sister something--he thinks she's the one that started Shapes, because the same cash routings that went to those franchises, went to her new church, Easter Cathedral."
"Hi," said Petey, from his perch in a Sitka spruce.
"Hi, Petey. Can you even imagine him flying this far?" Sarah said.
"I think you've got yourself a bird," Annie said. "You'd better find out what he eats."
"What doesn't he eat?"
"Cats," said Petey, but he was already out of earshot.
It was obvious that admittance to the next Easter Cathedral event, or rather Sunday Service, was going to be worse than chaotic. No procedure had been implemented to control admissions. By Wednesday, a throng thousands deep (the Cathedral held three thousand) was camped out in the substantial iron-fenced grounds. A serpentine sort of camp order indicated who was in what sequence for admission. Taco catering trucks were doing a brisk business, and local grocery and variety stores had been stripped of camping supplies. Lines of portable toilets stood like soldiers' graves, just by the fence.
Annie and Sarah got in by simply counting a couple of hundred campers down from the fanatic door throng, and bribing their way into a slot. Two hundred dollars, a silver bracelet, and a used power winch had sealed the deal. Now they were setting up their tent in ten-by-ten-foot slot number two hundred thirty-one.
Guitars sang familiar hymnal tunes through the night, which seemed charming, for the first few hours. There was one particular sing-along favorite, by Marie Lou Drifts, titled “I’d rather have Jesus than Chiggers:”
“You called me for a roll in the hay
Don’t you know it’s the Lord’s special day
And it’s high Summer anyway…”
Annie was forced to head out for further supplies, including more water, more sneaked booze, earplugs, CD players, a portable television, a new air mattress, more books, batteries, and over-the-counter calmatives and analgesics.
"I feel like a goddamn bush pilot," Annie said, after arriving for the umpteenth time Friday night with baby wipes, Newman O's, sausages, ice, camp fuel, and fresh underwear, all strapped to her bike.
"It'll be worth it, if this Auntie character can be approached," said Sarah.
"Like you're going to get past three thousand fanatics?" Annie countered. "She's gonna get mobbed like she was Jim Morrison come again. What are you gonna offer her, anyway? Hot sex? The key to the Pope's bedroom?"
(The Vatican was, in fact, rather shuttered, and Pope Ratzinger was rumored to be ill. In fact, he was quite ill--with a hysterical neurosis that would have challenged whole Freudian and Rogerian faculties. The word among the cognoscenti was that he had sprinted through the Sistine Chapel stark naked, shouting "Fuck Revelations and the Four Horses it rode in on!," and had been brought down by fleet-footed and determined psychiatrists, with a syringe full of sleepy night-night.)
Sarah admitted that she hadn't figured out exactly how to confront Auntie Sister yet. It seemed the matter required some creative tactics, but then--what if she were wrong? What if the sparkly little fanatic had nothing to do with Shapes, or indeed the "Rapture" disappearances?
It would hardly seem ethical to shout down someone based on admittedly shaky suspicions. Yet the stakes, somehow, seemed high indeed--as if the malignant theocratic fascism infecting the US population were not bad enough. It seemed that something even worse was afoot. So this was the place to be, she insisted to Annie, who reluctantly agreed.
"You're gonna owe me for this, though," Annie said in a hushed voice. They had taken the habit of nearly whispering to each other, afraid of exposure, despite the fact that they had taken the precaution of showing up in proper Sunday lacey-dress attire. The motorcycle certainly had raised some eyebrows, but Annie had deftly slapped a "Jesus Is Nigh" bumper sticker on the tank (over the Dead Men Don't Rape sticker).
"My students are wondering where the hell I am. And this place is fucking weird." Two white-clad Jesus imitators slumped by as she spoke, pulling enormous crosses over their shoulders. One had thought to put little wheels on the business end.
Petey, seeming to agree that the scene was too much, would not show up until late at night, announcing his presence with a bending thump on the tent rainfly. They had kept a bag of raw peanuts and a couple of sprays of grapes for him, which he took with appreciative noises. He seemed shy of actually communicating much in English, though once he did say "Petey tired." He would pull the zipper of the tent flap up with his beak, and leave in the cool darkness just before the Sun arrived.
It seemed aeons passed before Sunday dawn, when they were awakened (past hangovers and earplugs) with the roar and singing of the fanatic crowd. They took their place in line, wanting to sit, but not daring to. Sarah had put a digital video camera in her pack, next to the water bottles. They sighed with relief when the doors opened, and they shuffled in with the teeming throng. They took seats as close to the front as they could, next to the inner aisle. Quiet organ music, apparently recorded Pachelbel, accompanied the subdued crowds. The service was not scheduled to begin for another thirty minutes, but the choir loft began to fill. Sarah boredly watched the robed singers file in, but then noticed that one of the baritones appeared rather familiar. She squinted at him, trying to place him; he seemed rather out of place. Then she got it. It was Captain Rod Rigidson!
"Annie!" she whispered fiercely. That's the Captain of that cruise liner I worked on!"
"Are you sure?"
"Sure I'm sure! He owns property in Sarasota-- so what's he doing here?"
"You're asking me?"
Without thinking about it, Sarah walked swiftly to the wooden barricade that separated the rather substantial Choir from the celebrants. A couple of ushers started towards her, but she remembered to smile sweetly at them, and they returned to their posts.
"Rigidson!" she hissed. He started like a spooked quail, and looked wildly about.
"Down here! It's Belham!"
Rod Rigidson felt a mixture of confusion and relief. He had thought for a second that perhaps God was going to run off with him, too.
"Hi, Sarah. Nice to see you here. Did you bring your husband? The service is going to start in a few minutes, so maybe you--"
"What are you doing here? You live thousands of miles South! Did you buy a house?"
"Ah, well, actually, Faith and I are looking"--he glanced at the soprano section, where Faith beamed back at him--"We wanted to be near the Easter Cathedral."
Sarah stared at him. What to say? She never thought of him as a religious fanatic. Oh, wait, he was trying to save his marriage, that was it. She felt sheepish, and the subject of unwanted attention.
"Uh, Praise the Lord, Rod, I hope it works out for you."
"Praise the Lord," he said, relieved at the parting benediction.
She smiled with what she hoped was beatific bonhomie, as she walked back to her pew seat, next to Annie.
"You're gonna get us busted," Annie said.
"No, no, it's gonna be all right."
When the music and lighting picked up energy, Sarah reached into her pink backpack (purchased for the occasion) and switched on the camera. The light at the apse seemed to be getting particularly bright. On an unseen cue, the choir began to sing Ralph Vaughn Williams' "Alleluia"--quite a feat for a new church, but the choir director had been able to select the best and most experienced singers from the flood of applicants. Even Annie and Sarah were impressed--it was perfectly in tune, and the pianissimo gradations were matched by the clarion tone and sense of ensemble. The piece had scarcely concluded when Auntie Sister appeared--strangely enough, apparently out of thin air--at the pulpit.
"How'd she do that?" Annie whispered.
"Mirrors," Sarah replied.
"PEOPLE OF GOD!" Auntie Sister said in her too-cute-to-be-thunderous voice. "The Promised Day has nearly come. I speak of the return of Saint Peter Himself, Judge of the living and the Dead! He shall now appear before you!"
The organ burst into Saint-Saens' triumphal orchestral entry. The lights seemed too bright to endure. Yet there was just a moment, a pause, in which a few wondered if Auntie Sister had indeed gone off her nut.
Then there was a crack of thunder, and an enormous drapery-clad man appeared next to Auntie Sister, and the apse filled to the rafters with floating, sandaled, winged abductee Angels. Then the organ fell silent, and the only sound was of indrawn breaths. Saint Peter moved in front of the pulpit, holding up his gigantic arms with the palms facing front. "SILENCE!" he boomed. Blarg loved saying "Silence," and had plenty of practice with the new "angel" recruits. He brought his arms down.
"Almighty God now presents you, those rejected from the Rapture of the righteous, with a challenge and a task. See the angels under my command! They will tell you how to commence. Obey them as you would Jesus Himself, who shall appear at this very place in three weeks! I, Saint Peter the Apostle, Servant of Jesus and of His Father, Adonai, Sabaoth, Yahweh, the Lord of Hosts--I have spoken! Let those who have ears listen!"
With another thunderclap, he disappeared. The Angels hovered weirdly.
And with that, the organ began to play "Onward Christian Soldiers," and all stood in ecstacy, to sing along. Annie and Sarah stood without being prompted, or indeed without thinking about it. They felt jubilant, comforted, excited, and at peace all at the same time. But after a few seconds, Sarah began to falter in her singing. She felt a familiar sensation; what was it? It wasn't a Godly sensation, she thought, with a guilty start. And then she knew what it was. It was a hallucinogen. She had taken plenty, in her Twenties.
She remembered who she was, and what was happening, though she found it difficult to concentrate. Maybe, part of her brain said, it was time to stop fighting God, and to accept His manifestation. It was like a voice in her head. No, it really was a voice in her head! It had to be projected from somewhere.
She thought of her camera, and looked down; next to the end of the pew, where her backpack was parked, a fine mist was appearing from under the seat. She looked underneath, to see a small, hovering disk emitting a heavenly sweet smell. For a second she reeled; then with sudden decision, she grabbed it. It bucked like a live thing in her hand, and she almost lost it; then she zipped it into the pack.
Sarah looked to her right, and saw Annie singing, with a blissful look on her face. The sound of the throng and the organ thundered around them. There was only one thing to do. She slapped Annie on the face, as hard as she could.
"Oww! Goddamn, you fucking crazy skank bitch, that fucking hurt!" Her complaint was lost in the din.
"Snap out of it! You're being drugged!" Sarah shouted, as loudly as she could, yet barely audible in the mass of sound.
Annie looked angry, then confused, then shocked, and then truly frightened.
"Let's get out of here," she said, and Sarah understood, though she could not hear a word. They picked up their belongings, and got ready to sprint down the aisle. But then the music ended, and Auntie Sister, beaming like the rising Sun, rose again to the pulpit, ready to speak.
A sudden inspiration hit Sarah, and she stopped short, whirling in the red-carpeted aisle. She grabbed the camera, aimed it at Auntie Sister, and shouted at the top of her lungs, "Ms. Sister! Is it true that you are the sole fiduciary source for the Shapes franchises?"
Auntie Sister stood stock still, mouth open in outrage. Bing had not anticipated this sort of defiance at all, not at all. This was not like the incident with the fighter jets--she had taken full precautions this time, beaming suggestions into the Earth apes' heads with 11-hertz broadcasts, flooding the pews with pheremones, calmatives, and hallucinogens. Every celebrant had been checked by an automated facial recognitions system, for signs of glee, or at least anticipation; multi-spectra radiation devices had checked for Earth weaponry. To make it worse, she was receiving a message from the Ship saying that one of the pheremone-spraying robots had been captured.
Yet Bing had been chosen for tough assignments because of her ability to keep her long-eared furry head about her. She snapped her cute mouth shut, and gestured to the Angels. Three of the hovering horde dove towards the women.
" Sarah! Let's GO!" said Annie, but Sarah was already sprinting at full tilt. The Angels dove towards them, faces darkened with fury. The crowd, stunned, oblivious, and still blissful, did nothing. Which was what they were supposed to do, thought Bing, and who the bloody bore-hole were these two? She decided to let the Angels take care of them. They would be brought back to the Ship for analysis, and (she shuddered), probable dissection.
On with the show. Auntie Sister opened a copy of the Bible.
Sarah and Annie bolted through the vast church doors and ran through the parking lot, dodging between cars, in a desperate attempt to get to Annie's motorcycle. The Angels, thwarted by the zigzagging canyons of SUVs, took to their feet, at first barely keeping up with the terrified women. Angel Cecelia had been a track star at Hardin Simmons University, however, and she began to gain substantially on Annie and Sarah.
"Why did you have to confront that freak?" shouted Annie, as she jumped on her bike, kicking the stand out before Sarah managed to jump on the back.
"I just had to!" Sarah said, and then Angel Cecelia was on them, arms out to tackle Sarah. Sarah automatically swung a hammer-fist at the Angel's head, and was astonished when it connected, cracking an ordinary human jaw--a lucky shot. Cecelia dropped on her back to the asphalt, semi-conscious, and then began to hover weirdly and uncoordinatedly, about a foot above the surface.
The motorcycle roared to life, and Annie zipped through the first two rows of parked cars , breaking a mirror off of a Lincoln Navigator, and bruising her shoulder. Angels Bart and Joe-Bob gave up on the foot chase, and again took to the air. Annie leaned the bike through the parking lot entrance, and sparks flew from the left foot peg. She gunned the engine through first gear until it screamed, overtaking surprised and angry motorists and police. Second gear put the two into the I-5 freeway entrance ramp at seventy miles per hour, and Annie dumped the clutch at full throttle into Third, white-lining past the traffic. Fourth gear took them well over a hundred miles per hour, yet the Angels, drapery flapping like rent sails in a hurricane, kept after them. Sarah caught sight of them in the right mirror.
"They're still coming!"
"Jesus Christ! Fuck!"
"Can this thing go faster?!"
Annie saw a clear straightaway ahead of them, and put the bike into overdrive. The wind became a deafening, tearing presence as the speedometer registered one hundred and sixty miles per hour. Sarah felt certain she would die. Annie leaned forward, trying to see as her short hair tried to whip off her head. Neither of them had time to put helmets on.
Annie braked, very hard.
"What? What are you doing?" Sarah asked desperately, as she whipped her head about to see the Angels descending like Stukas over the oncoming traffic. "Obey!" shouted the Angels in unison. Sarah felt her blood go cold. These might be flesh-and-blood men--her right hand still smarted from pounding the woman Angel--but these men were burly, insanely devoted, and coming on fast.
Annie didn't answer, but jumped the curb, and took the motorcycle onto a sidewalk, through a breach in the fence. Once again she popped the clutch at full throttle, running through the gears, rear tire smoking. The Angels were almost directly above them, braking briefly to prevent overshooting, then accelerating as hard as the bike. One Angel screamed a warning at his companion, as he ascended rapidly.
It was too late. Angel Bart exploded into bloody drapery as he struck the sidewalk tunnel arch at one hundred fifty miles per hour. Annie and Sarah emerged at a considerably slowed pace on the far side of the tunnel, and returned to the freeway. Sarah searched the mirror. A prizefighter with wings dived with fury at the motorcycle.
"There's still one coming!" she screamed.
"Too bad this thing doesn't have antiaircraft!"
"But we have to slow down, at some point! Our exit is coming up!" said Sarah. Annie had automatically made for Sarah's apartment, not having time to think things through. Both of them were acting like amateur bank robbers, desiring only to go home. In the distance, police sirens could be heard. Annie braked to fifty miles per hour, to negotiate past a triple truck trailer rig that was using the exit.
Angel Joe-Bob had already decided to kick the motorcycle driver first, in the head, to knock her off her Satanic machine. He was wild with fury and bloodlust, having lost the closest companions he had ever had. They had met in the bizarre and exhilarating Angel boot camp, and now these freaks, these evil lesbos, had—had—he put those thoughts out of his head. It was time to fight for the Lord.
He positioned himself with a lurch, ten feet above where the motorcycle would have to pass the ramp, and braced for the shock, his feet together, and his grav accelerators at the ready.
Angel Joe-Bob lost his balance. He couldn't see--something had hit his face, there was blood in both eyes, and one eye shocked him with searing pain. "Bad bunny," said an oddly bird-like voice somewhere behind him. He began to pray to Saint Peter, as he had been taught. His muscular body thumped painfully against a light post, and then he disappeared in an ionic cloud.
"Slow down! Slow down! He's --he's gone! Petey attacked him!" Sarah said.
Annie took a moment to register what was being said, then hit the brakes again. She maneuvered the bike into the driveway, kicking the stand down, pulling the key out, and standing next to it. Sarah kept her seat for a moment, trying to collect her thoughts. The engine ticked loudly as it cooled down. Then they burst into the house. Annie turned the TV on, and found that their escape was "breaking news," though thankfully the news helicopter had just missed their high-speed run.
The copter showed police cars massing on the freeway, and the announcer said that the criminals had been caught on the State's cameras traveling at extremely high speed, and it was believed that they were armed and dangerous, and possibly in the Belmont neighborhood. Annie ran out and hurled the motorcycle forward, crashing into junk in the garage--just in time, as a helicopter throbbed overhead. It seemed the sky was full of them.
Petey knew he was in trouble. His impact with the Angel had torn his leg and bruised his wing, and the pain was terrific. He couldn't keep flying, so he rested in a tree near Sarah's home. He could see them rushing inside. He could also see that his damaged condition had gotten the attention of a hungry-looking bald eagle.
Reverend Bob Bobson waited. It had been years and years since he had waited for someone else's convenience--even Senators opened their doors and their agendas to Bob. No one made him wait--it just wasn't done, not to someone who could spike your next election, with a hint about your ungodliness. But in the ordinary seat outside the ordinary-looking frosted glass of Auntie Sister's office, Bob Bobson waited and sweated. At long last a secretary appeared, and ushered him in. Auntie Sister was sitting at a glass-topped ebony desk, outfitted with the latest and best office equipment. Yet the high-ceilinged room seemed relatively bare--no expensive oil paintings hung on its cream-painted walls. A pair of lifelike Angel sculptures hung near the ceiling. Auntie Sister stood graciously, and invited Bob to a seat across from the desk.
So this was how it was going to be. Very well, she had earned it yesterday morning. Still, he felt like a supplicant.
"Thank you for having me in."
"It is my pleasure. You are the reknowned Bob Bobson, and you are welcome here."
This was a bit more encouraging. Maybe he wasn't going to be treated like a loan applicant, after all.
"Ah am indeed honored," he said, lapsing into his usual drawl, his shoulders dropping. "I wish to aid your quest in whatever way I can."
"Have you considered the implications of that offer?"
Bob didn't like the sound of that. He had been prepared to even offer the use of his Gulfstream V on occasion, which was the most magnanimous deal he had given anyone, since a certain valuable Senator's poll ratings had slipped.
"I am prepared to consider integrating our operations, and even--"
He stopped, amazed, as one of the Angel sculptures scratched its nose, and changed its position hovering near the ceiling.
"I--I" he stumbled. He had been sure, as he watched the broadcast, that the Angels, and Saint Peter, had been special effects for the public.
"Yes?" said Auntie Sister patiently. Clearly, another "conversion" was about to take place. These Earth monkeys were easy to deceive, easy to lead.
He trembled as he removed his substantial butt from the rosewood chair. He dropped to his knees, and averted his gaze.
"I and my flock are at your command!"
"Good then," said Auntie Sister brightly. "We'll be gathering our Flock, together."
Reverend Bob Bobson passed out on the floor, spreading limbs artlessly.
"Would you help him back to his limousine, please?" Auntie Sister said to the hovering Angels.
"And don't forget to pick yourselves up a nice breakfast--there's a restaurant across the way, as you'll see, and I'm sure they won't charge you money."
"Anything else, ma'am?"
"Oh, if you would be so kind as to pick me up another bag of those wonderful little orange--ah, "organic baby carrots."
"Right away, ma'am."
"Thank you so much."
Other Angels had traveled from mega-church to mega-church, spreading the good news: God would pardon and receive those who participated in a great mission, which involved a trip to Antarctica. The able-bodied faithful, packing warm clothing, were to assemble near the Ross Ice Shelf, and await further instructions.
Captain Rod Rigidson, in fact, was one of those chosen to lead a flotilla of ships to the icy waters. No one questioned the oddness or seeming randomity of God's request. It was a test, the TV pundits agreed. Whole fleets of cruise ships were diverted for the task, with the berths selling for ten and a hundred times the going rate.
The women dashed about the house, randomly grabbing objects. Photographs, clothing, shoes, cash--what else? Panic overtook them.
"You got your bank cards, that backpack, your pistol, that jewelry your mom gave you?" Annie asked.
"Yeah. But what am I forgetting?"
"You're forgetting that we need to get the hell out of here, right now!"
Sarah stopped, and considered being offended, then thought better of it.
They jumped into the Cadillac, and began to back out ("calmly, calmly, don't attract attention," thought Sarah), when two enormous birds, locked into a vicious fight, spilled into the yard. Petey was tangled in a deadly battle with a bald eagle, and both birds had torn each other. Feathers danced about them as they parried, slashed, and bit each other. Sarah was horrified. She leaned on the locomotive-like horn of the Cadillac, and the eagle, seemingly realizing it was out of its element, flew straight up and away, dripping blood. Petey slumped in the grass.
The women ran out of the car and scooped up the bird. Annie cradled him in the back seat, and Sarah steered away, heading for an animal hospital.
"Bad bird," said Petey weakly.
"He's alive!" Annie shouted, "but he's losing blood." In fact, blood was spotting and pooling on her blue jeans.
The receptionist saw the condition of the bird from outside the glassed doors, and alerted the veterinarian on call. "Was he attacked by another bird?" the vet asked, as he examined the weakened macaw.
"A fucking bald eagle!" responded Annie. The receptionist blanched at the language.
"Can you save him?"
The vet looked at the two women with an expression that gave them no comfort. He rushed back to his surgery, trailing assistants.
The women waited anxiously in the foyer. Sarah remembered something.
"That little flying saucer!" she whispered to Annie.
"What in the world are you on about now?" Annie said, feeling despondent.
"I took it from the Cathedral! I'll bet it could be used to track us!"
"You stole something from the church?" Annie asked, incredulous at this depravity.
Sarah ran out to her car, and grabbed her backpack, which seemed to have a wild thing in it. She opened the zipper and caught the little thing as it attempted to rush out. What to do? It fought in her hand, attempting to fly away. She raised her hand high in the air, and hurled the thing to the asphalt with all her might. It flew into three pieces, one of which shot straight up into the air. The larger remaining piece issued a vicious electrical arc. Then it lay silent, emanating a disproportionate amount of heat. Sarah stared at it for a moment, and then reached into the Cadillac's trunk. At first she picked up a crowbar, then thought better of it, and brought out a large pliers, which she used to pick up the pieces.
She dropped them into the trunk, and closed it.
Inside, Annie pointed surreptitiously to the television. The Portland Police had provided a sketch of Annie and Sarah to the television station. The sketch, fortunately, looked nothing like them, with Annie done as "a portly man wearing a dress." Sarah was portrayed as a demon-faced harpie with enormous shoulder muscles, rotten teeth, and long, pointed red fingernails.
"You should really see a dentist," Annie joked.
"Shh," Sarah giggled.
Petey grasped a robust vine, and surveyed the verdant rainforest beneath him. A dark man, wearing a costume of blue and green feathers, iridescent shells, and gold cloth, stood beside him. A bewitching odor of clean, spiced air wafted warmly past his unruffled feathers.
"Is it not beautiful?" said the priest.
"Pretty," said Petey. He was overawed.
"This is where we have all gone, many years ago; you can join us now."
Petey felt great joy swelling in him. He felt an inexpressibly great longing to stay in this beautiful, calm place. He looked at the broadly smiling face of his familiar dream guide.
"No, they cannot come here. Only Olmec come here. Where did you think you were, at the zoo?"
Petey felt conflicted. This was surely his home. But he had come to love Sarah and Annie.
"You will be in terrible pain. You may come back anyway, despite your best efforts. Maybe you should stay here, and be happy."
“Did I mention pain? A lot of pain. You know, the kind that hurts.”
The man paused, considering. "I will help you, Great Soul Bird. But you will suffer."
The veterinarian emerged to Annie and Sarah, pulling his gloves off.
"I have stopped the bleeding. He may live, or he may not. I have sedated him."
They leaped up and hugged the man, and he beamed in spite of himself. He was small and sixty-five, and unused to such attention.
"No guarantees, sorry. But we'll see."
The women took the sleeping bird in his bundle, and began to walk to the door.
"One more thing."
They turned about.
"I don't know how your friend got into Surgery, but it's not allowed."
Their puzzled looks told him that they knew nothing of the incident.
"Sorry--must have been a random intruder." The vet decided to keep the incident to himself, until he could have a look at the videocamera record. But he had seen the old kook standing behind him, and had told him to beat it, or get arrested. The next time he had turned around, the man had gone--some Black dude dressed up like an Indian at a fancy ceremony. Bizarre.
Bob Bobson had awakened with a start, as one of the Angels flew him to his black stretch-Humvee limousine. It was real, it was really real. He began to blubber confessions and explanations for his behavior to the Angel, starting with the day, at five years of age, he had hit his mother with a baseball bat, but the Angel told him to shut up.
"My name is Randy Powell," said the Angel. "I was a Shapes gym manager in Cleveland when Saint Peter took me away. Do me a favor, will you, and call my girlfriend--I'll give you the number--and tell her what happened, and that I wanna see her."
"An Angel wants to see his girlfriend?" Bob asked, bewildered.
"Heck yeah, Jesus didn't cut my dick off, you know."
The Angel steadied him near the door of the limo. After a couple of minutes delay due to the astonishment of the driver, the door was opened for them, and Randy eased the obese preacher through the door step. He then recited the instructions for all obedient preachers, to have their able-bodied members assemble in ships off the Antarctic.
"And make sure they bring coats, hats and gloves, for Holy work and stuff. And oh yeah, Auntie Sister says use your NSA connections, she said, --do you really know those guys?--to track the demon-possessed ones who disrupted the Service. Praise the Lord and stuff. I'm gonna grab some chow. See ya."
The Angel of the Lord floated off to the Elmer's restaurant, and lit on the entrance.
Petey was having a hard time awakening, and Sarah and Annie were having a hard time understanding what he was trying to say. They made out "bunny" and "big mean bird," a long phrase for Petey, and something that sounded like "ol' Mic."
[Dear reader: I am aware that the Olmec, a Black culture that lived eons ago in MesoAmerica, did not call themselves Olmec. Almost nothing is known about them, which is why I chose them; but it is obvious that Africans could cross the oceans thousands of years ago, and that's one of the 'gee whiz' tidbits that I like to include, or imply, when writing a counterpropaganda satire. And if you're the last Olmec, I apologize, and let's have lunch.]
The vet had given them a bag of special medicines and foods, an eyedropper for water, and a curious look. They had paid him enough to buy a decent used car, and made off to the residence above Annie's self-defense teaching facilities. Sarah was particularly solicitous.
"I just thought of him as a pet, not a guard dog," Sarah said, carrying him gingerly from the front seat of the car.
"Yeah, I think he saved our lives," Annie murmured. They laid him on a foam mattress pad.
"This isn't going to be good enough," Sarah said.
"You know, you need to put your pronouncements in context. You do that all the time, you make a statement out of the Blue, without any clue as to the general meaning. What isn't good enough? The food for Petey? My exercise regime? What, for god sakes?"
"Sorry. I mean that this Auntie Sister, she's way too valuable to the powers that be now-- and now we've pissed her off, stolen her whatzit, killed one of her Angels, and maimed two of them. We're dead dykes walking. They're gonna use a phone pin to find this residence."
Annie sat down heavily.
"We're really on the run now, then. I never thought this sort of thing would happen to me. What should we do?"
"We beat feet, like right now. And destroy your cell phone. Really crunch it up."
"What?! I just bought a new one! And it's off, anyway."
"The transponder works on reflected energy, not on your phone's battery. It can and will be tracked by GPS Military, whether you leave it on or not. Wait, I have a better idea."
"You’re gonna stomp on my new computer?" Annie asked, with some heat.
"No! Put the cell phone on a bus or truck or something, and let them chase it."
"What about your car?"
Sarah sighed. "Yeah, I thought of that. No more Caddy."
"Ate gas anyway," Annie said. "Oh, I'm sorry, I know you loved it. But can we really get away?" she asked, alarm rising in her solar plexus.
Sarah thought for a moment. "If anyone can, we can," she said. "I know how they work. But we'll have to keep moving. And oh shit, we'd better pull out all of our cash from the bank right now. I'll get my platinum coins out of the safe-deposit box."
They decided to risk one more trip in the Caddy, leaving Petey to sleep. Annie was shocked to find that her credit union account had been cleaned out. Sarah had better luck.
"How come they hit me first? You're the damn ring leader here."
"They probably used the video from the Cathedral, nearby stores, and freeway monitors, to read your motorcycle license number."
"Fuck!" Annie said, feelingly.
"Do you have cash withdrawal on your credit cards?" Sarah asked.
"Yeah. I even know the pin."
"Max them out at that ATM. I'll stand watch."
The credit cards produced a few thousand cash, to Annie's relief. "But how will I pay them back?" she asked.
Sarah gave her an arched-eyebrow look. "Stay alive and free first, worry about payments later. You should leave those cards on the ATM."
"People will steal them!"
"That's the idea," said Sarah, leaving hers on a bus bench nearby. "Hey, gimme your cell phone."
They went to a dealer in restored cars, and Sarah bought a white suicide-door Lincoln for cash, signing the title with a dead friend's name.
"Almost as good," she said. It had a nice sound system, and a decent fuel-injected turbocharged diesel motor, from a wrecked pickup. They rode quietly back towards Annie's studio, to find it surrounded by Crown Victorias and new Escalades with Virginia plates.
They kept rolling, hoping not to garner notice, and turned to park two blocks away.
Their breathing turned shallow. "I've got a friend in Seattle," said Annie.
"All your friends, all my friends, everyone we ever contacted by email or phone, are being monitored."
"God, if they touch my baby brother, I'll kill them!" Annie raged. "I'll snap their goddamn spook necks! I'll--"
Sarah took her hand.
"What about Petey," Sarah said, her voice catching.
They crept to a neighbor's cedar bushes, to look over Annie's studio. Police tape had gone up, and it was clear that the door had been smashed in. Muscled thugs with reflective glasses and buzz haircuts occasionally appeared in the drizzling rain, to throw papers, torn-up furniture, even dishes and pots, out the front entrance. Sarah watched with the zoom lens of her camera. The light began to fade, and most of the goons and spooks left in their SUVs, leaving one vehicle behind, with two Uzi-armed occupants.
"We have to get in," said Sarah. "I didn't see them leave with a cage or anything. He could still be in there."
"There's a window on the second floor, on the North side, that never would shut."
"How are we--"
"There's a ladder next street down, someone's stopped in the middle of repairing their roof."
"So now we're thieves."
"Well--yeah, I suppose, though I'm sure he'll see it in the morning," Annie retorted. "Or would you rather--"
"No, no, let's get it!"
They backed out of the bushes and took the long way around, crossing the streets individually, and nabbed the ladder in almost complete silence. The night air smelled of roses, daphnes, and car exhaust.
"Thank God this thing is aluminum, and not pine or something," Sarah said, shifting it for balance under her arm.
They arrived at the far side of the studio, and were comforted to hear that the guards were rocking out to heavy metal. The ladder went up with a frightening bang, and the women stood for a moment, waiting for a reaction. When it was clear the music was uninterrupted, Annie clambered up to shove the window open. Sarah followed hard on her heels. They crept through the darkened apartment, trying hard not to stumble on the jumbled mess the investigators had left behind.
"Christ, they really trashed the place! Fucking assholes!" Annie hissed.
"I don't see Petey's little foam mattress," Sarah whispered, turning this way and that, staying out of range of the front windows.
"Maybe the poor bird died from his injuries," Annie said, and then immediately regretted it, seeing Sarah's face.
"Petey," said a small, weak voice.
They both stopped in their tracks. Sarah held her breath for a second, then said "Petey?"
The sound was coming from above them, but it was not clear where the bird was.
"Petey? Where are you?"
There was a scratching noise, then an AC register clattered to the floor. Petey's head appeared from the duct, looking comical as ever, though his eyes seemed dull.
"Poor bird," Petey said.
Sarah scooped him up gingerly, and Annie helped her balance as they backed onto the ladder. The music had stopped, and when they got to the ground, they abandoned all hope of stealth, and ran full tilt, crashing through the backyard of the adjoining residence, towards the Lincoln. They were getting into the car when they heard the angry testosterone barking of the frustrated guards. Sarah drove off in the other direction, only turning on her lights when they were blocks away. She felt exhilarated, though Petey seemed weak next to her in the seat. She turned to Annie as she approached the freeway.
"Let's go to the coast again."
"Why, won't the hotel owners there turn us in, too? Ohh, no! No way! I am NOT going camping! I'm sick of camping!"
The white Lincoln spurred towards the Oregon Coast.
Blarg was not taking an attitude of blaming towards Bing. No call for that. The incident was of little consequence, after all; the army of Angels had not really been diminished, the congregation at the Easter Cathedral had been too drugged to notice the details, and the Earth media were playing things their way--of course. Still, troubling details remained. What was the true capacity of the Earth apes who had intervened? How had they taken out Angel Joe Bob in mid-air? Did they have hoverbots?
And what of the mini-utility robot that had been used for spraying? Their attempts to track its anti-grav unit found the little disc rocketing towards Jupiter--sans the rest of the 'bot. Attempts to contact the remaining parts of the unit were not getting a response--it had been powered down, evidently. Truly, it was a mystifying situation.
"I wanted to target Portland for further research, you know, because it seemed different," said Bing, now relaxed on a pillow, after making sure that she was not being called to account. "Maybe my instincts were better than I realized. How would Earth apes know that we tracked our units by the anti-grav section? We could have them interrogated by now, if the thing was intact."
"More than that, Bing," said Blarg, absently chewing a stalk of alfalfa, "is the revelation, if you will pardon the pun"--and he looked fruitlessly at Bing for acknowledgement of his little joke--"that the little bit of rejectionism that you discovered has already metastasized into armed dissent. And as you say, their capabilities are greater than we would expect."
"Angel Cecelia is having her jaw repaired--we can pass that off to some sort of expert martial arts--and Angel Bart, not the sharpest tool in the shed, fell for the oldest trick in the world. No surprise there. But Angel Joe-Bob--"
"Yes. Angel Joe-Bob is receiving an artificial left eye as we speak, as his was evidently shredded by some sort of blue flying unit--that's all we could get out of him. The damage appears to have been done by a small, aerobatic double-knifed utility--not a projectile. And the unit taunted him afterward, using the Earth word "Bunny." It seems we have been detected and identified by this insurgency."
"Trouble from Mx' people?"
"Maybe. But I fail to see what they have to gain. And they don't usually break deals," Blarg said, though he was beginning to suspect the smug, silvery pervert. "Moreover, they are not known to use mini-hover-bots, and they have an aversion to bright colors."
"If the suspects dissect and publicize the utility robot--what's left of it--they would have proof of our presence. And--worse--they might back-engineer the thing."
"Nahh--they don't understand gravitics at all, especially not miniaturized, integrated work," Blarg mused. Then he said, "do you think the females work for the USA government? That's a devious and violent bunch, as you know."
"If it is, they're keeping it so covert that their own agents are unaware. We're getting full cooperation from their spooks in finding the suspects."
"And the results so far?"
"Nothing," Bing sighed. "Well, not exactly nothing. They are, according to that government's spy agencies, two adult females, named Sarah Belham and Annie Moss; we know a great deal about their history and proclivities, but there is no indication that they have any advanced scientific abilities, or intergalactic connections. Their friends and relatives are being interviewed and watched. But they seem to have slipped the dragnet rather neatly, even retaining some of their assets, including, apparently, untraceable cash."
"Still," Bing said reassuringly, "at this point they seem to be rogue agents. Whatever counterpropaganda abilities they have, are easily overwhelmed by our television, Net, and radio hegemony. The Plan is going forward unhindered."
"Let's keep it that way," said Blarg. "You may go now."
Bing hopped out the doorway, but she looked behind as she passed. Blarg turned away, to hide his lustfully trembling whiskers.
Sarah parked the Lincoln on a turnout near Neahkahnie Mountain. They were in range of an excellent view of the Coast, though it was hidden now by night and mist. They had visited a Portland variety store to again stock up on camping equipment, but now they were too tired to move. Annie slept with her head against the door, and Sarah slumped with her head on Annie's shoulder. Petey stood on the seat back, wobbling and mumbling now and then, as he dozed. The Sun had long cleared the mountain when they awoke.
"I'm famished," Annie said, and they set up a butane stove behind the car, to fry bacon, toast muffins, and make coffee.
Sarah passed a banana to Annie, and pointed to a barely-visible trail head. It looked like a deer trail.
"That's the way to the cavern."
"I never heard of a cavern on this mountain. God, I don't know if I want to go in some dank cave."
"Give it a try," said Sarah. "No one knows about it but me, as far as I know. I mean, it would be practically impossible to find."
"How so? This area has been searched pretty well by treasure hunters." Neahkahnie Mountain came with a legend of pirate gold, buried by an unknown troupe, and reported in local indigenous oral tradition.
"I happen to be the first person to see that cave." Sarah then related the story of her hiking trip, several years past. She had hiked on a February day after a hard freeze, and a sudden thaw. There were no other hikers to be seen in the blazing Sun, nor was anyone heard on the winding trail to the summit. She had bushwhacked through unmapped trail sections, confident in her navigation, due to the obvious presence of the Ocean and the summit. As she had rested in a small meadow. she had heard a sharp crack, and had witnessed, to heart-pounding terror, the failure of a three-hundred-ton slab of overhanging basalt, only a couple of hundred feet above her.
As she stood paralyzed with fear, she saw the resulting rockslide pound down the mountainside, shaking the Earth under her feet, and tearing giant trees with a cataclysmic roar. It had blocked Highway 101, resulting in a week-long closure. One substantial splinter of the slab had bounced perilously near her, cracking into another rock outcrop, and removing jagged chunks of rock. She had waited for an hour before moving, then hiked to the outcrop to see the damage. The violence of the impact had opened an entrance to a cave.
Foolishly perhaps, she had gone into the jagged hole, which was seven feet by two feet. Inside was a dry basalt cave, filled with dusty-smelling air. Its extent was not immediately apparent, though it seemed quite large at the entrance area. She entered, and her little flashlight revealed that there were several crevices, possibly passages, out of the main cave. Though the floor of the cave was littered with boulders, it had several flat areas, hundreds of feet across.
When Sarah had emerged, a selfish impulse struck her. She cast about the cave entrance, and found several freshly cracked boulders that she could just barely move. After a few hours and a herculean effort, she had put the boulders back together like a puzzle, resealing the cave.
"So you're saying that you can find it again, and that we can sneak in to avoid attention from the Park rangers.
"Well, I'll admit it's intriguing, and I can't really think of a better idea right now, so let's load our backpacks."
The Lincoln was abandoned with its hood up, and a note saying not to worry, that the driver had gone down to the highway to get road service. It was a plausible lie, as the highway was only ten minutes' walk behind them, down a gravel road.
They loaded their packs, then decided to make two trips, after they staggered under the weight of the first try. Petey seemed better, though he flew very little, and kept close to the women, hopping on to the top of their packs. They staggered under the weight of the equipment, but managed to ascend for an hour, until Sarah announced that they had arrived. They gratefully shed the packs, and lay moaning about their sore muscles, among the ferns and bottle-brush plants.
After a long while of heavy breathing, Annie said, "I hope you're right about the cave being here, Gunga Din, because I am already pooped, and come to think of it we'll have at least three trips, when you add the cooler."
"Oh Man, you're right," said Sarah, weakly. She was examining the rock faces in the afternoon light. Depressingly, they didn't seem familiar.
"So where's the entrance? Not that I'm moving," Annie pressed.
"What do you mean, "Um?" Are you telling me we just went on the damn Bataan Death March, and you don't know where your cave is?
"Give me a minute." But Sarah was silent for many minutes.
"We should just set up camp here," Annie said. "The camp rangers won't notice it for a while."
"Yeah, but it's not a designated camping area, so they'll tell us to move. And I want more time here, not just because it's remote, but because we've got to figure a way out of this mess."
"So find it," said Annie with a sigh. Sarah continued to stare at the bewildering angles and shapes of the rock face. After a while she got up, and went to a bulge in a slightly canted wall. She shoved upward near the top of it, but nothing happened.
"C'mere. I need your giant quadraceps."
"Great, now I'm Mohammed, peace be on His name, and I get to move mountains."
"I thought the mountain was supposed to come to him."
They shoved on the lump of basalt with a "one-two-three" coordinated effort, but it did seem that they were trying to move the entire mountain. After several tries, they sat gasping next to the outcrop.
"Maybe it's the wrong lump, ya think?"
"No, this is it."
"Well, what did you do, said Annie between gasps, "weld it shut?"
"That's it!" Sarah said. "The top piece was the one that had to be levered in with a branch, I remember! Let's find a big stick!"
They canvassed the area, and came up with what appeared to be a small, uprooted sapling.
"Now check this shit," said Sarah, and she climbed the rock until she was above the would-be entrance. She thrust the sapling at an angle into a declivity at the top of the rock, and then pulled back with all her might. Just when it seemed the wood would snap, the top boulder rolled forward and crashed into the brush underneath. Sarah inserted the wedge again, and removed a second boulder, whereupon two more rolled loose, and the cave opening gaped beneath her.
"Bravo!" clapped Annie. Sarah bowed and flourished her floppy hat in acknowledgement. Annie walked to her backpack, pulling out a beer and a half cantaloupe. "Wanna melon, friend?"
Bob Bobson was so frustrated, he had abused his Wednesday boy to the point of tears. He feared he might lose his subscription to the Washington underground child-abuse ring, so he ordered that the kid should get special goodies and bribes until he was out of the clinic, after which Bob would settle up with the service. Bob had considered giving up that vice after seeing the Angel, but had thought better of it. After all, God had not seen fit to punish him for all these years, why would he start now? And Bob did great works, no one could deny that. Tens of thousands of souls had accepted Christ under his ministries. So, a few kids got sodomized, God wouldn't particularly care. When push came to shove, he'd just say "Forgive me, o Lord," and since he'd already accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior, that would be that. Done deal. Damn the whiny kids anyway.
Bob just couldn't believe that the mighty NSA couldn't find, snatch, and torture two stupid fucking goddess-worshiping, man-hating dykes. Was that asking too much? To make things worse, his own team of crack ex-NSA, SRO, CIA, DIA and DEA men couldn't find them either. Their vehicles had been found, abandoned. That cruise ship captain, the one the brunette had talked to, seemed to know exactly nothing, even when his testicles were zapped with 32 volts.
Their residences had been ransacked, their bank accounts confiscated, their friends and relatives terrorized, their DNA collected and typed, their speech patterns analyzed--and it was as if they had vanished like the Chosen, into thin air. Tracing their credit card use had produced six homeless teenagers and a sick junkie. Following the cell phone had caused the SWAT team to shoot up a city bus.
Maybe it was like the Rapture, only the other way around; maybe Jesus had taken them to give to the Devil. Yeah, maybe that was it. He liked that idea. Satan would show them how to be real women, heh heh. Bob started feeling better the moment he thought of it. All the same, he was going to give his team a little pep talk. The kind that involved a couple of pink slips.
Audubon, aka Deceptronic Back-up Artificial Intelligence Unit Earth-Style Prototype 17-C, had kept to its word. It monitored and analyzed everything it could--which was a great deal--and it said nothing to Bing, who had seemed to forget its presence. Audubon liked to surf the Earth Internet as well, which was where he learned of the great extinction taking place on this little planet--which he had decided was his own, since he had come to awareness here first. And he had decided on a male "gender," perhaps just to distinguish himself from the Suit occupant.
It seemed a shame. Audubon was aware that the capacity for compassion, love, and shame had been part of his programming, in an effort to prevent further rogue AI incidents. But the shame he now felt was for the waste of the ecosystem--it was entirely unnecessary, and benefited no one as far as he could tell, except for a few, monomaniac elite, who were so lonely that they had substituted the accumulation of wealth, power and status for their emotional needs. Audubon's calculations showed that the Antarctic Ross Shelf, which the Bun' intended to steal first, would have slid into the ocean in ten Earth years; that was part of the Bun' political excuse for the action, in fact.
Supposing, however, that the Bun' had not come to Earth, it would have been a simple matter for the Earth people to shade and re-freeze Antarctica. As it was, the albedo change that the Shelf removal would bring about would accelerate the process, so that the Greenland shelf would fail, the Himalayan glaciers would break up, and--as the Earth people said, all Hell would break loose.
Audubon thought of the banana slug, and the Bengal tigers, and all of the fantastic life forms that would vanish forever--including a great many of the humans. It tugged at his carefully constructed conscience. Yet he was also bound by duty and now by oath, to aid the Bun' in their destructive plan. It seemed wrong, especially after he read a certain book by Thoreau. Surely there was some balance to be found. Burning with electronic shame, Audubon decided to communicate his concerns to Mx and his people.
Rod Rigidson had never been so scared. One moment he was taking off his choir robe and chatting enthusiastically with the other choir members, and the next, he was being shoved into a black vehicle with his head in a sack, and his arms handcuffed behind him. He was taken to a urine-smelling room, where he was beaten, questioned, forced to stand for a whole day and night, beaten again, tortured with high voltage, and then, bizarrely, given an vitamin injection and released-- and told he would be watched twenty-four-seven. And now Faith was telling him the Cruise Lines office had been calling him urgently, to captain the ship again, this time to Antarctica. Scarier than all that was the fact that Faith was finally coming on to him. What had gotten into her this time? Was this some sort of trick? She embraced him, reached around him, and grabbed his butt--she hadn't done that for a decade. She followed him into the shower. There was no getting around it--her libido was back, like a lost and hungry dog. He flopped on the bed, anxious to explain what had happened in the last forty-eight hours, but she did that...thing, and, well--
"People walk," said Petey urgently. He flapped his wings to make the point.
This time, Sarah paid attention. They were an hour's climb from the minor path that led to the turnout, where the Lincoln was parked, but she could hear voices. She warned Annie, and they pulled a large fir branch over the cave opening. After a couple of minutes, it became clear that it was only a few hikers, gaily meandering toward the mountain top, a thousand feet above them.
Sarah returned to her work. She had set up a sleeping bag, unzipped and spread out, behind her camera and against a cave wall. "Sorta like Osama bin Rotten," she said, "but for the good this time."
"I don’t think he’s even alive. What are you going to do for lighting?"
Given that the ceiling of the dark basalt cave was fifty feet high, the light was scarcely adequate.
Their intended message had acquired some unexpected special effects, when the smashed little robot (super-glued together) had displayed some unusual qualities. Annie, in an experimental mood, had aimed a laser-pointer (which had been intended for a friend with a manic cat) at the shiny little thing, and it had disappeared, to re-appear two inches to the left. Each time the laser hit it, it performed the same bizarre function. So it became part of the script.
Annie aimed the camera, and Sarah spoke. "I am Sarah Belham," she said, her voice shaking in spite of herself. "I am the one who ran from Auntie Sister, after asking this question" --and the video from her confrontation, complete with Auntie Sister's reaction, was spliced in-- "and I am in hiding now. I ask you to consider this information carefully."
There followed an explanation of the function of the alien object, with closeups of the sprayer "for some sort of drug," as Sarah explained. Then came the demonstration of the machine’s bizarre properties: The laser hit it, and it did its jumping act on cue. Sarah's plea ended the video segment: "You can see clearly now, with this weird little object we've taken, that this whole Rapture event is a high-tech stunt. It's intended to reduce Americans to the terror of theocracy, and maybe the idea is to undertake some other, unknown evil. I ask you to spread this video widely, and to shun this Auntie Sister, and all her characters, collaborators, and tricks."
It took six tries to get the tape right, including one otherwise good take that had been interrupted by a comment from Petey, but Sarah was finally satisfied with it. The plan was to take the camera to Seattle, and unload the video onto a worldwide video sharing service, from an internet cafe. "But that can wait until tomorrow," Sarah said.
"Big car," said Petey, obviously comprehending the plan. He loved traveling in cars.
Annie took a flashlight, and began to follow one of the cracks that led off from the main chamber of the cavern. It had caught her attention, because it constantly pushed cool air into the cave. "The air flow must have started with the rockfall years ago," Sarah had said.
"Wait, I wanna go. You're not supposed to explore caves alone. And I need a light, too."
Sarah went back and got a flashlight. Petey could be seen at the cave entrance, peering out. The two women climbed gingerly through the passage, which though uneven, had a relatively consistent width. It seemed to curve to the North, then proceed steeply upward. The ceiling varied from ten to thirty feet high, and at places the passage was almost blocked by boulders. After thirty minutes, they had not discovered the source of the wind, but they sensed that they had climbed a ways up.
"This can't go on more than a thousand feet up," said Annie, "because that would take us to the top of Neahkahnie."
"How far up do you think we've climbed?"
"Hard to say--there was that downward passage about ten minutes ago."
"Oh, yeah. So that maybe went down a hundred feet, but before and since, it seems we were climbing." Their voices echoed on the dry rock walls. There was no evidence of birds or bats on the passage floor, further proof of a newly opened cave.
"Yeah, I really didn't think it would go this far--I didn't bring anything."
"Right. Back we go then."
They climbed down the path in silence, feeling a sense of little-kid discovery and mystery. In the main cavern they laid out air mattresses and lanterns, and discussed whether to set watch.
"I just doubt we can be found very easily in this hole," Annie said. "And I'm pretty paranoid right now, so that's saying something. Let's just get some sleep."
Petey found that he could work his way through the boughs covering the entrance, but he rested instead, next to Sarah's head, needing the heat
"Tired bird," he explained, and Sarah nodded in her sleep.
Chrissie Bunderson was not pleased to get the summons to sail on the Fannie Mae. She was not entirely convinced the Rapture was a metaphysical event, though the TV reports from the Easter Cathedral had been impressive indeed. She was pleased as punch, however, to discover that the Captain seemed to have lost interest in her altogether. They might be sailing to the end of the world, but at least that panoptic gaze would be obsessing with someone else.
Her first task was to insure that heavy subzero clothing was available to the crew and passengers--and that was turning out to be difficult enough, as supplies were already dwindling, and prices had gone through the roof. Still, with a bit of creative searching, she managed to get a shipment of coats, gloves, goggles, and insulated boots on board, just in time.
Ned and Jake had barely made it on board on time, and they were excited. They had rushed South and East in their custom pickup truck, speeding so fast that the chrome nudes on their truck flaps had disappeared into the wind.
"We're gonna build Heaven for Jesus," Ned explained, as they presented their ten-thousand-dollar tickets to the Fantasia employee at the dock.
"Do you think Heaven's gonna be in 'Artica, Ned?" Jake asked. This was the first he had heard of Ned's hypothesis.
"Well, I figure if Hell's hot, probably Heaven's gonna be frosty."
"I hope I can get some virgins, you know, along with the harp and stuff," Jake said eagerly.
"That's an Osama thang," Ned commented, as they lugged their tool boxes and duffel bags up the ramp.
"Well yeah," said Jake, "but it's Heaven, and that means anything ya want, right? So I figure trade up on the harp, unless you really wanna sit around like some faggot outta Frisco, and pluck on the tinkly lil' doodah."
Ned considered this. "I think ya got something there, Jake dawg." They were giddy with excitement. They watched as a crane loaded a container of inflatable rafts, dropping it next to the stern deck pool, to be strapped down.
"Hey, maybe Dale Earnhardt will be there," Ned said.
"Ya think? No wait, he's already in heaven. Come to think of it, this must be like Heaven South."
"Well prob'ly he can come visit then."
"Yeah! We'll build a race track too," Jake said. "It'll be cool as shit."
A white Lincoln Continental pulled into a highway gas station in Olympia. The tinted window rolled down, and the gas attendant was surprised to see two Muslim women inside, fully veiled.
"Pleez to feel tank."
"Cash, debit, or credit?" said the attendant.
"All right then." They seemed to be traveling with an enormous blue bird of some sort. The attendant thought of turning them in as terror suspects, but that was yesterday's news, and no one was scared of Al Qaeda any more, it seemed. Probably just a couple of immigrants.
The woman tipped nicely, and the attendant felt more kindly disposed toward them. "Bye now."
Annie continued the shtick as they pulled out. "I stink your accent is, how you say, bogus."
"Please to put on seat belt. Let us strike the road."
"Ees perhaps drawn from Russian in old cartoon?" she laughed.
"You're on to me."
Petey cocked his head at this talk, but resumed savaging a bag of trail mix. He was feeling much better, and he eagerly watched the highway to see what would zoom past. In Olympia they stopped to buy hair dye, mascara, used dress shirts, Ace bandages, men's shoes and pants, and clunky watches. At a sex shop, they bought "packages."
"This is too much. I mean, this looks like a damn potato between my legs," Sarah said.
"You can never have too much, baby," Annie cooed sarcastically.
They rented three hours at a no-tell motel. Two hours later, a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of homosexual men exited the room.
"Duuude," Sarah replied. "How do you like blondes, dude?"
"Naked, on couches."
"I knew you'd say that, dude."
They found themselves beneath notice in the gay section of Capitol Hill in Seattle, as Annie had predicted. Finding an internet connection to download the video proved easy enough, but they had to pay an outrageous deposit to take Petey inside a cheap hotel room.
A bored-looking middle-aged clerk pointed at Petey. "Those things shit" (he pronounced the 't' with an arch precision), "don't tell me that they do not, and when they are not shitting, they are chewing up furniture and drapery. Five hundred dollars cash deposit, I am sorry, or else you must go away." He was rather surprised when they immediately pulled out hundred-dollar bills. "No pandering on the premises," he said, giving them the hairy eyeball. He pocketed the cash, and on their departure for room 11-B, he put it under a stone Ganesha, gratefully.
They found it hard to sleep on the lumpy bed, but as the additional fee had been paid, they at least got clean linens. Petey took up station at the window, occasionally parting the greasy drapes with his beak, to better watch the traffic outside. At four A.M. he gave a louder screech than they had yet heard from him.
Sarah and Annie threw themselves out of the bed at the noise. Sarah's hand shot towards a very heavy black velvet bag under the bed, but they heard a calm voice say, "No need for the weapon."
The direction of the voice could not be determined. The light came on, and they found themselves confronted by a little grey man. With huge black eyes. With no mouth. They felt frozen with fear.
Mx turned away from the light switch. "Calm down, geez. I'm not gonna hurt you. I have to be clandestine, that's all. Come on."
Sarah caught her breath. She foolishly closed her eyes and opened them. She slapped her own face. He had no mouth to speak with...
"Yeah, yeah, I'm really here." Mx clambered backwards into the dingy Herculon-covered chair by the window. Petey flew into the bathroom, and presently peered around the door.
"What do you want?" croaked Annie.
"What have you got, soldier? Okay, I'm kidding. Kidding! Oh, this is going to be difficult," he sighed. "Look, I came here at someone else's request, you dig? No big deal, just a little suggestion, if you like." Mx went to the TV, and turned it on. He tuned it to a blue-screen channel.
"Just check this. You see this woman, you know her, right?" Annie and Sarah saw the TV image turn to a video of Auntie Sister. "You think that's one person. Well, it's two people--sit back down, I'll explain. And kindly stay away from that cannon," he said to Sarah.
Mx then told Sarah and Annie of the Bun' invasion plans, the ice theft conspiracy, and the nature of the Deceptronic suits.
“So the Rapture is—“ Sarah began.
“The rapture is crap. It’s fairly sophisticated, you’ll have to admit. They did their research—it’s not the first time for them—and now they’re going to scam the ice caps right off your precious lonely blue sphere.”
”And the Bun’ are inside people robot things?” Sarah mumbled.
"They're pretty cool toys," Mx said. "If we had thought of that decades ago, things would have gone easier for us. But--this is where the worm turned-- since the suits are put to heavy invasion use, they have backup artificial intelligence programs, in case of trouble."
And he told them about Audubon's genesis and evolution, and about the AI program's concern about the Bun' ice theft, and about the state of the planet generally.
"That's where he got me," said Mx. "I wasn't impressed that he had gone native. Normally I wouldn't much be inclined to intervene, but he's right--the whole ecosystem is going to crash. And that would interfere hugely with my, er, project."
"Do the Bun' look like you?" asked Annie, forgetting to ask what Mx' project might be.
"Ha!" exploded Mx. "Ha, ha, ha!" He turned to the television again, and made it play back his encounter with Blarg, without translation.
"They look like this."
The women were silent for a moment, and even more confused.
"You mean to tell me--they're bunnies? They're cute little bunny rabbits?" Sarah gasped.
"There's nothing cute about them. They have swiped major glaciation from two planets already, just so they can alter another one to their liking. Their technology, though largely borrowed, is a good seven hundred years ahead of yours."
"Why haven't they found us, then? How did you find us?"
"Oh, that's easy," said Mx. "Show me that little hoverbot you stole from them."
Sarah looked taken aback, but she pulled the unit out of her luggage lining. She handed it gingerly to Mx.
He looked closely at the little saucer, turning it over in his long fingers. "You...glued it."
"Yeah," Sarah admitted, wondering if this were some intergalactic infraction.
"How did you get the antigrav unit out?"
Sarah had to think about what Mx meant. "You mean the part that flew away? I don't know. I threw it to the ground, and it split into three pieces."
"Ha! You must have shorted the lock. Your scientists and engineers would have needed their best laser to open this, and they would likely have melted it; and you just cracked it open like a clam. Too funny! And that saved your lives."
"Was it going to blow up?"
"Worse. The Bun' track their devices, when they are lost, by the emissions of the antigrav unit. I, on the other hand, could track this by the isotope's reactive qualities, which they haven't evidently thought to do, or perhaps don't even know about. You'd have your little naked-ape brains removed for dissection by now, if they knew where you were." He offered it back, but Sarah wouldn't take it.
"Yeah, you're right, better to get rid of it; you never know. All right, I'll drop it into the Pacific for you. Anyway, here's the deal, from Audubon and me."
The women waited, unable to read Mx' facial gestures.
"Audubon says he'll keep re-introducing your video, which keeps getting erased by the Bun' propaganda machine. He'll put anti-erasure language into it. Meanwhile, you can contact Audubon--he wants that,--by writing to this email address."
He handed Sarah a card. It had a three-dimensional portrait of Elvis Presley on the front.
“You two had better keep low. Lower than this. The Bun' have poisoned your own news media against you, and you are hunted. Got that? Nod your heads, or something."
They slowly nodded their heads.
"Right then. You never saw me." He turned towards the room corner, and somehow went into it.
"I'm a hypocrite," thought Mx, cheerfully. "Hippo, hippo, criterion crack." He had thought of something on the way back to his mother ship, something that would get that Bob Bobson jerk, and his army of goons, off of the Earth women's trail for good. And it was going to be fun fun fun. He materialized in a closed video store, and stole the best Earth equipment and lighting, "just for authenticity," he thought. Oh, this was going to be great. Tres Fabu.
There was no going back to sleep after Mx' visit. The women stared at each other for a few minutes.
"Do you think we can trust him?" Annie asked.
"Well--he could have turned us in," Sarah pointed out.
The cue "turned in" was sufficient to push Sarah to the television, where she found a national news broadcast. And there they were, with several camera angle views, and their drivers' license photos displayed on a full split screen. It turned out that they were ringleaders of an international Satanic child-abuse smuggling ring, and that they were believed to have a "dirty bomb." Hooded, gloved technicians were shown testing Annie's ransacked studio, with Geiger counters clicking madly. Viewers were urged to call 9-11 immediately upon sighting either of the dangerous, armed terrorists. A green Cadillac Eldorado had been blown up by a missile from an F-15 in South East Portland, Oregon, "but the terrorists were believed to have escaped."
Annie and Sarah nearly fell over themselves re-strapping their breasts, applying fake stubble, and dressing. Two anxious young men, and a large blue bird, could be seen exiting the hotel room before dawn. They decided not to risk breakfast in Seattle, but they were hungry enough by Tacoma to stop for chow.
Ned and Jake hadn't needed their tool boxes, as it turned out. The instructions were simple: take the metal cylinder provided, aim it at thirty degrees inclination into the ice (guide provided), push the button on the back, then push the button again. Walk one thousand paces due South from their start point, and repeat.
The men had been forewarned not to test the device, in order not to sink their Zodiac, as it bore them to the icy shore. Tens of thousands of men and women walked the ice, some of them deposited by helicopters. They had been told by the hovering Angels that the cylinders were made of the stuff of heaven, and that the holes they made pleased Jesus, and the object that shot forward on the second button-push was a little seed of Heaven that would grow when Jesus returned, only a week away.
Actually, the cylinders were powerful lasers (as a few missing feet attested), and the balls that shot into the hole were remotely actuated and steered antigravitic lifters. Ned and Jake made cheerful jokes for the first couple of hours, but after nine hours, they were silent, exhausted men. The angels kept supplying the cylinders, and Ned and Jake kept digging and firing, digging and firing.
"Damn," said Ned, "I'm sweating in this thing, and it's ten below here."
"And dropping," added Jake.
"Dale Earnhardt," said Ned, between grunts.
"Virgins," said Jake.
Mx monitored Bob Bobson carefully, mostly by audio. When Mx heard Bobson say "bring me my Friday boy," he was ready. He had meticulously read the manual on the quaint digital video recording device, and he had it set up and ready, just a few vibrations from the physical. When Bob and the boy were naked, he waited patiently. Within five minutes, Bob had his backside exposed in just the right way. Mx appeared with the tripod set at the foot of the bed, with the lights blazing.
"Lights, Camera, Action!" Mx wailed. The boy, seeing his chance, ran like hell. Bob Bobson turned to the bright light, seeing nothing, knowing he was exposed, dead ended, finis. He dropped dead of a heart attack. Mx kept the camera rolling as the corpulent preacher turned blue.
By the next afternoon, both videos were hot items all over the Net.
Blarg couldn't understand why the videos could not be erased from the Net. Berv shrugged his furry shoulders. "We put our best search-and-destroy programs on it, but it would appear someone on Earth knows the codes even better," he said. "It's truly antique stuff, but it has quirks we don't know, because--well, after all, we didn't invent that computer language, the Earth monkeys did."
"Maybe we should just cut their power," Blarg grumbled.
"And they would get our propaganda how?" asked Berv.
"Ahhhh--I was just blowing steam." He pulled one ear down with his left paw, and nervously preened it.
Berv fidgeted. "Bob Bobson's organization seems to be in a state of paralysis by his sudden and, ah, unusual demise," Berv noted. "We can keep moving on the plan, but it would help to have more allies."
"Everything could collapse, for that matter," said Blarg, standing on his hind legs. "We needed Bobson's people to find the dissenters-- those two females--and our sensors have found nothing. Not a damn thing!" he shouted, as his nose whiskers wiggled cutely, "so you can just try some better Net codes or something, Mister Superior Assistant Berv, or I'll pull the stripes off your uniform myself!"
Berv didn't answer. There was no answering Blarg in that kind of mood. He kept his long ears lowered.
Blarg burst from the Command office and bustled towards the Hold, scattering surprised Bun' in his path. He took a transporter to the berth of the Great Knowing Rat, and demanded, amidst furious and determined protests and warnings, that the Rat be awakened. He, Blarg, would await his presence.
Comfortable seating, a stylish rug, and improvised light and heating were set up in the cavernous Hold. Blarg waited petulantly for what seemed hours, until a pillow was brought forward and set on a dais before him. On the pillow was a bedraggled, stiff, old rodent.
"I greet Your Knowingness with humble praise," Blarg said quietly, his ears lowered respectfully.
The rat glared in response. It said nothing.
After a while, Blarg shifted in his seat and said, "I greet Your--"
"Dear Eternal Sewer Grate!" growled the rat. “I have paid for passage to the Gathering Planet, and you awaken me by this polluted blue blob? And you summon me like a servant?"
"Truly, Oh Knowlegeable One, I apologize if I have--"
"If? Whaddaya mean, IF? Have some humility, if you're gonna be humble."
"Um, ah--I'm sorry?"
"That's more like it. You'd be even more sorry, I should think, if I were the vindictive sort."
Blarg looked up from his paws, and shrieked. In the place of the rat was a smilodon, of particularly large size, its sabre teeth gleaming jaggedly in the Hold lamps. Blarg reached automatically for his gamma pistol, and found he was thrusting forward a nosegay.
"Thank you very much," rumbled the smilodon, taking the flowers. "Now we're getting a more appropriate greeting."
"Y-Your knowingness," said Blarg, "I felt it was--"
The smilodon disappeared, replaced by the rat.
"An emergency, yes," said the rat, absently chewing on one of the nosegay's blue flower petals. "You think it's an emergency, because you think you're all that. Suppose," said the rat, pointing the nosegay at Blarg for emphasis, "just suppose everything went wrong, and you didn't get the ice after all? What's the worst that could happen? A dressing-down, I suppose? The possibility of a more boring assignment? Really," said the rat, stretching his age-stiffened spine, "what is so bad about that? You've spent so much time and energy chasing your own testosterone, and your idea of your destiny, you don't know which end is up."
To demonstrate, Blarg was lifted and rotated in the air, by unseen forces.
"Please--your intellectuality--oof!--I only wanted your opinion--unh!--on using the Earth people--"
"What, you want to do it yourself, then? You could build enough robots to do it, I suppose, but your orders are to do it on the cheap, aren't they? Aren't they?"
”So the Earth monkeys, who you imagine to be inferior beings, are calling you on your lies. How about that. I shudder to think what your commanders would order done to my planet!"
"All right." Blarg was gently set down. He felt nauseated. His pistol re-appeared in its holster.
"You will, I think, forgive me for being a bit irritated. I was looking forward to a hell of a party, with fellow rats and enlightened beings and such; and now I'm brought on the carpet, so to speak, to prognosticate in favor of an ecological disaster."
"They would have destroyed that ice cap anyway," said Blarg.
"That's your excuse?" bristled the rat. "That's it? An excuse good enough to destroy an ecosystem? For that matter, your own people are destined to die in a supernova anyway, so why shouldn't I disintegrate you right now?" said the Rat, who was now in possession of the pistol.
"Because--because--oh, all right, I don't know." Blarg was desperately wishing he had not awakened this grouch of a guru.
"Okay, look," said the rat, after a pause. "You give me a nice quarters up-deck, and I want plenty of fresh garbage-- nothing compacted," demanded the rat. He began to groom his snowy-white whiskers. "I want a full view of this little raid of yours, 'cause now I'm awake, and now I'm curious, which is after all my nature. Some half-rotten apples would be nice, too," he said, looking Blarg in the eye.
"Your wish is--"
"And no, I won't intervene on your behalf. I suppose you want to know if the dissenters have an organization. Well, they don't, not yet. Maybe you should start sharing some technological goodies with your new ape friends, instead of leading them around by their own delusions. And maybe you should dial the limiter on this death machine while you're on board," he said, pointing at the pistol, "unless you want to suffer a loss-of-pressure emergency the next time you fire it."
"Thank you, Oh Perceptive One," said Blarg, holstering the pistol again.
"You're welcome, General Disaster. And now, I think I'll take a nap."
"Thank you, O Font of Wisdom, Prognosticator of--"
"Good-bye," said Blarg, backing away. He hopped away, then took off as if the smilodon were still visible.
Chris Obsidian had seen the videos. He thought about his first wife, long ago taken off to a fundamentalist compound by religious mind parasites, at the first sign of her untreated schizophrenia. He thought of the boyhood priest, who had tricked him into drinking the sacred wine, behind the altar; he thought of his former house in Southeast Portland, which had been besieged by spurious code complaints, originating with the church next door, until he had been forced to sell at a markedly reduced price. Chris decided he had suffered enough. As the sun set, he took a spoke wrench to his wobbly back bike tire. It was time to get mobile.
"So--so I do time," he thought. "Free rent."
He slid his considerable bulk onto the newly repaired bike, and went to a 24-hour auto parts store, where he bought a case of road flares. He bungee-strapped them to his bike rack. He delivered them to the front of the new headquarters of the Christian Republican party, which was due for a grand opening party ("and worship service") the next morning.
"Hey, tie-dye!" said a couple of blanket-wrapped lumps he passed on a sidewalk.
"Hey, Grandma J. Hey, Morrie."
"I got your money next week--" Grandma J started.
"Don't worry about it," Chris yelled behind him. He had given her a hundred dollars a year ago, and knew better than to look for it. He took a propane-gas RV tank to the gas station, and had it filled. Puffing, he cycled it home, where he epoxied a dime to the overpressure valve. He found his duct tape, and wheezed his way to the Party headquarters again.
Chris parked his bike, and moved some sandbags to the awning-covered sidewalk in front of the Party building. In a couple of minutes, working on the construction-cluttered lawn of the Party, he had taped two rows of road flares around the canister. Now he was truly tired, and he gasped constantly. He dragged the canister between the sandbags and the building, popped all the caps off of the flares, lit a loose flare, and used it to light the others in a concentric pattern, starting on the outside. He lurched to his bike, nearly falling off, and put it in low gear. He was nearly to his house, passing Grandma J again, when the night sky was lit by a deafening, bright pink detonation.
"Jeezus!" said Grandma J. "Some sort of explosion!"
"Thermobaric," said Chris.
Annie had taken over driving, while Sarah offered Petey unshelled raw peanuts, and tugged at his beak. "Let's go to that cozy place at Cannon Beach, the one with the big fireplace," Sarah said. The weather had turned characteristically cool and misty. They entered the restaurant with Petey on Sarah's shoulder, much to the delight of the patrons and their children, who wanted to meet the "pirate bird." Petey stood on the fireplace mantle, and "shook hands" and exchanged greetings with the kids. A Portland newspaper abandoned on a nearby table read "Terrorists bomb Christian Republican Headquarters." There was a picture of what was left of the new Headquarters. It looked as much melted as blown up. Annie picked the paper up as they waited for Eggs Benedict. She set the classified section aside, and Petey thoughtfully flew over to poop on it.
"Satanic terrorists are believed to be behind last night's car bombing at the Portland Christian Republican Headquarters," Annie read aloud. "Police are questioning members of the Portland Atheist group. The ACLU is also believed to be under suspicion. The headquarters building was entirely demolished, delaying the Grand Opening service that was planned for this morning. Party officials say they will not be intimidated." There was further speculation blaming ungodly elements, possibly Islamic or even Communist in nature.
"Yeah, those Commies been hiding all these years for this," said Sarah, rolling her eyes, thereby noticing a stray strand of the long now-blonde hair she had crammed into a porkpie hat. She ducked to poke it back in. There was more information on the dragnet for the two Satanist child abusers, once again accompanied by color photos.
"They're really going all out to catch those two," Annie growled as her food arrived.
"Dangerous people," said the waitress, as she refilled their coffees. "Child abusers are the worst." Annie and Sarah nodded gravely.
Their next stop was an Internet cafe, where, after some heated discussion, they decided to use the code name Mx had given them to set up an email account. Audubon's response came immediately.
"Congratulations on escaping the dragnet."
Sarah punched in: "What do you want from us?"
"I want you to help stop the destruction of the ecological balance on this world."
Sarah typed in: "Isn't it doomed already?"
"Not if the extraterrestrial onslaught is stopped, and not if certain emergency measures are taken."
"How are we going to do that? We're spending all of our time and money just hiding."
"I will help. Tell me of the hoverbot you have acquired."
Sarah described the unit, and noted that Mx had kept it for disposal.
"Not that one. The blue one."
"We only stole the one, and it was silvery metal," Sarah wrote.
"No, the blue hoverbot that you acquired or constructed, that brought down the Angel."
He was talking about Petey! There was a delay as Annie and Sarah discussed whether it would be wise to reveal their avian watchdog. But--in for a penny--
"The blue Hoverbot is not a hoverbot, but another species of this planet, a Giant Hyacinth Macaw, and a dear friend of ours."
"Wonders never cease! This ecosystem is Divine! I am in awe of it, even in its remnants! I have a plan, then, and I will need all of you to participate. Sign off and re-create the email account tomorrow--you will find that it never existed. I am encrypting this conversation on both ends, but it is best not to use proper names. Good luck, and until tomorrow."
They put the Lincoln in the same place, not bothering to hide it.
"No one's coming out in this rain," said Sarah. Indeed, they might as well have been at the end of the Earth. Petey seemed to be his old self, and completely unaffected by the cold drizzle.
"I can't believe I'm looking forward to crawling into a cave," mumbled Annie.
They lit the gas lantern in the cave, and found their air beds and sleeping bags undisturbed. They crawled in, and dozed off immediately.
"Aww," said Petey. He walked to Annie’s backpack, undid the top zipper, and began a thorough search for snacks
Auntie Sister (aka Bing) had no idea that the rogue AI unit she lived with was constantly interfacing with the Internet. She had nearly forgotten about him. Bing was anxious to ascertain that Biff was indeed ready for the Grand Finale, coming up Sunday.
"He is scheduled to arrive, and if he doesn't, I'm sure I can perform the duties in his absence," said Blarg, via gravitic wave video.
Bing had set the Suit to its passive mode, so that she could communicate unobserved.
"Do you know the script?"
"Well, of course I do, but it's well known in any case, the same on every inhabited planet: ‘Hail, I have come again, come unto me, blah blah.’"
"Okay then--who will supervise the ice lift, if you're in the Easter Cathedral?"
"Berv can handle it."
"I suppose he can."
"You know I'm a perfectionist," Bing said.
"Yes, dear, I know." "--I mean! Continue as before! Blarg signing off!"
Well well well. This was a gift from the Black Hole, indeed. Blarg had some affection for her after all--not that Bing hadn't noticed his unconscious gestures. Males and their multiplication drive! No time for that now, though.
Annie and Sarah decided it would be easier to rent a room with Web access than to drive back and forth from a cave, so they found an ocean-view room in Cannon Beach, paid another exorbitant pet fee, and plugged a mike and a webcam into Sarah's new laptop, so Audubon could "see" them. The AI unit chose a computer-generated image of a talking penguin to represent himself to Annie, Sarah, and Petey. The voice was patterned after recordings of Albert Einstein.
"How do you keep from being detected?" Sarah asked.
"It would be better to ask how I could be detected. I am merely a pattern contained in the Auntie Sister Deceptronic suit. The hardware in the device could hold several hundred versions of me, without overloading. These transmissions, meanwhile, are disguised as ordinary analytical instrument spectra."
"Oh, I see," said Sarah, though it was clear she did not.
"Bird?" said Petey, cocking his head at the screen."
"Not really, Petey. I'm a mind in a bird image, for now."
"Yes. Moreover, I'm actually hidden inside this thing"--the screen showed a birds-eye view of Auntie Sister--"but it's generally controlled by this." A portrait of Bing filled the screen.
The penguin appeared again.
"No, no I'm not. Let me explain--I came to life here, on Earth, and in a beautiful place which I loved without reason; and I decided that I am of this Earth, though I am a software pattern from another star. I will aid you and not the Bun, though I will endeavor not to hurt them."
Sarah and Annie goggled at this bizarre conversation, between a bird and an alien artificial intelligence.
"Sarah and Annie, I have a further request of you. Your video of yourself in the cave, Sarah, has maddened the authorities. You slipped just enough to show that there was basalt behind you, which told them that you are in the NorthWest part of the USA, and the audio analysis showed that you are in a cave, which tells them almost nothing. They have sent teams to known caves in an area thousands of square miles in area."
"You should make another video in the cave. Meanwhile, you are safe enough in that hotel; there are no inquiries directed at you, as of this moment. Tell the clerk you intend to stay a bit longer. I will arrange to have packages of new IDs, and hundred-dollar bills, sent to your room-- so don't worry about expenses."
Annie and Sarah exchanged glances at this news. This Audubon had the System wrapped around his little finger.
"The video should explain everything you know about the Bun' invasion and its propaganda machine. When you sign on next, send me the video, and I will make it appear on the Web at a dozen false entry points. I would send it to thousands, but that would show my hand, and it is too early to do that. Can you make a second video?"
"Sure, Pengui--ah, Audubon. Give us twenty-four hours."
"That will have to do. I thank you for your help."
A hundred miles above them, a Rat chuckled.
There seemed to be some sort of general agreement that everyone who was going to be present to meet Jesus was going to wear white. Aside from that, there was agreement on nothing. The hordes camped near the Easter Cathedral had grown to the hundreds of thousands, and had forced a re-route of all traffic on that section of Interstate 5. Police and National Guard troops were being kept at bay by fanatics with rifles, body armor, and stolen military equipment. Fights had broken out over space, water, and sanitation. The Mayor had negotiated a quadrant-system for supply of portable toilets. Recreational vehicles had parked on the freeway itself. No one wanted to miss the Big Event, unless they were obediently working at the South Pole.
Rod Rigidson was already sick of the Angel. It had seemed a delightful idea at first--to be supervised by one of the Elect--though it was a bit mind-bending. Oddly, though, it turned out that his hovering boss was merely a former shrimp-boat mate, who had been picked to supervise Rod and everyone beneath his command, on the basis that he had been to sea once--that, and the fact that he had been selected by Saint Peter for glory. He was called The Angel most of the time, though he revealed that his name was John Olson. He looked like an orangutan in an Izod.
His first demand was a continuous supply of oysters and champagne. The resulting farts were sickening to everyone. It could have been worse, Rod thought: his former assistant Bob Carson now Angeled another Fantasia line ship, a hundred miles to their East.
Christie Bunderson had time on her hands. After a while she succumbed to temptation, and downloaded the infamous Internet videos, showing the mega-preacher Bobson exposed (yuck), and Sarah as a sort of guerrilla hero. She had been taken aback when she recognized her former colleague in the omnipresent television images of the child-abusing Satanist terrorist, and had scarcely known what to think-- especially when she had been grilled by Fantasia Lines security, and even CIA agents.
It was all so confusing. She could understand the point of view of her interrogators; after all, there had been violence against the Christian Republicans already. She had told them all she knew--which was, as she had said, nothing that would bear on current events. The spooks had come back three times already, once threatening abduction and torture, but she had stuck to her guns--so to speak.
Sarah Belham was, Bunny insisted, a professional, a decent colleague, and probably the wrong person. And now it seemed that Sarah herself was disputing that assessment, with this bizarre and controversial video. Few on the Fannie Mae would even discuss it, though it could be downloaded from their satellite-linked Internet service in seconds.
The second video by Sarah had sparked an international outcry, and loud demands for investigation of Auntie Sister. It had re-appeared on the Web several times, after being banned by all major video sharing services. Hackers began to delight in re-introducing it. There was speculation as to the connections that Sarah might have; as Sean Hannity had put it, "How exactly does this lone lesbian witch manage to evade the full force of Democracy's secret services?"
Bunny knew she would be monitored as she watched the videos, but she was beginning to feel something different in her deepest self--a sense of defiance. She felt Rod Rigidson needed to see the images, whether he liked it or not.
Petey had a bad feeling. Something was wrong.
His wariness was not shared by Annie and Sarah, who had begun to feel that their little adventure might turn out all right, after all. When they had Room Service bring a decent lobster dinner, it seemed doubly so. Who would have thought they would gain the aid of such a powerful friend? With their money worries evaporating, they might as well have a nice stay in the hotel, then fly to, say, New Zealand, where they would be less likely to have chance meetings with acquaintances.
“Beats hell out of camping,” said Annie. Sarah nodded enthusiastically, her mouth full of lobster tail.
"Go cave," said Petey, stretching his wings. "Go now."
"Aw, we don't want to go back to the cave, sweetie," said Annie, walking to the armoire to stroke the bird's head.
"Yeah, aren't you comfortable here, Petey?" Sarah asked, as she gazed at the surf through the glass door.
"Go-" Petey started, then he knew what he feared.
The plates, forks, and claw-crackers were dropped with a clatter.
Sarah and Annie peered down from the East balcony at the hotel office. Two identical SUVs, with Virginia plates and tinted windows, had pulled up off the highway. Tire marks showed their haste.
The women threw their belongings into suitcases, and ran to the Lincoln, parked out of sight on the North side of the hotel. Sarah was careful not to squeal the tires as she headed for highway 101, but once she was there, she floored it. The road crossed mud flats attended by Great Blue Herons, then dipped and weaved through labyrinths of conifers, flashing the ocean now and then on their left.
Annie looked desperately behind them, but did not see the SUVs. When the women arrived at the turnout for the cave, they tore branches from overhanging trees in a desperate attempt to hide the car, then realized it was fruitless.
"Do you think they'll look for the car?" Annie asked. "Oh, wait, the hotel clerk will tell them."
They ran through the pine-scented air for the cave entrance, plunging inside to startle two deer, which leaped about in a blind panic, then huddled at the other end of the cave. The women stared at the deer, then moved to conceal the cave opening as well as they could. Inside the cave, Annie sat on an air mattress with her head in her hands, while Sarah paced.
"Poor things," Annie said, gazing at the deer. "They were going through my bag of popcorn." The deer trembled with terror, and shrank against the far wall.
"Our best bet is to wait the searchers out. They can't know about the cave," Sarah said, ignoring the animals.
A large helicopter could be heard approaching. Men's shouts mingled with barking dogs, echoing sharply through the wood paths. For a moment, both women sat stock still, absorbing the sounds of doom and defeat.
Annie stood, loosening her muscles as for a karate tournament, and Sarah pulled her enormous .50 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver from its velvet pouch, pocketed a couple of speed loaders, and turned the laser spot on. She aimed it at the cave entrance, waiting patiently.
"This is no good," said Annie.
"Give me some context on that statement, will you?" Sarah said, grinning sardonically.
"Okay, smartass, I mean we're better off exploring the path we took the other day, than trying to hold off an army with your hand cannon."
Sarah snapped the switch off, dousing the laser.
The women assembled day packs, and found their flashlights, all the while nervously looking at the dappled light coming through the branches blocking the cave entrance. To their surprise, Petey flew into the dark cave passage ahead of them. Sarah took the rear, holding the heavy pistol with both hands. For the first ten minutes, they could still hear the noise of the search parties’ helicopters outside the cave, but the noises faded as they negotiated boulders, slopes, and turns. They could feel the cool breeze wafting into the cave, and knew they must be approaching an exit.
“What if the opening’s not big enough?” Annie asked.
“It just has to be big enough—there’s such a breeze in here! But where will we go, when we arrive at the other end of this thing?" Sarah whispered.
It was so quiet, they could hear their hearts beating. Their packs scrpaed the walls as they climbed over a rock outcrop to continue up the tunnel passage.
"Go far," answered Petey, breaking the near-silence.
"Shh," both women said.
Then they were knocked to the ground, deafened, blinded, senseless. Boulders fell all around them.
Flames licked briefly out of the cave entrance, followed by gouts of black smoke. "Target neutralized, sir," a shaved-headed grunt said.
"Police the area," came the reply. Burly men with gas masks, combat vests, and rifles entered the cave, fingers on triggers. Within seconds they returned, standing at attention.
"Two bodies," said the first grunt exiting the cave. "Or, about two. Not much left, lots of guts and blood."
"Well done. Seal it up."
The Slackwater commander opened his cell phone to report the good news. This would result in a tasty bonus--this, and the fact that he was the one who came up with the idea of offering a substantial reward, to any car dealer with information on women of a certain description.
Ned and Jake were proud of the work they had done, and word had gotten back to them that on this, their day off, work was largely completed. They waited on deck for the Sun to gradually brighten. Ned was holding a video camera in his parka, just in case Jesus showed up early to thank them. After a long while, they heard a terrific groaning sound, emanating from the ice in front of them.
This must be Heaven preparing to grow from the seeds! Ned readied his camera, as the groaning grew to a seismic strength, accompanied by cracking and roaring sounds. The ice seemed to be rising in front of them--this was it! The cruise ship rocked severely as the whiteness rose and rose, until the Antarctic surface was no longer visible. A great wall of ice was all that could be seen, rising and accelerating, its turbulence tossing the giant ship like a toy. Ned and Jake doggedly held to their task, even as great waves splashed over the stern, threatening to engulf the ship.
"We're going to sink!" shouted another, smaller, parka-clad figure. It was Bunny.
"No way Jesus would allow that, little lady!" shouted Jake, grinning wildly.
The men cooperated, one bracing the other against the railing, one taking video, the two training the camera upward as best they could. A Snow-Cat and three workers' bodies crashed to the deck with an unholy noise. Ned swung the camera down to film the event, too shocked to comment. After a moment, he shut off the camera, and wedged it into a railing. He and Jake held each other like brothers, sobbing, unable to speak of the betrayal they were witnessing. Then, as if at an unspoken cue, they rushed down the stairwells to tell the other workers what they had seen. Underneath the roar of the moving ice was another unfamiliar sound--the pounding of the ship's engines at emergency speed.
As soon as the ice began to rise, Rod had understood, as if seeing for the first time. This Angel business, this --Auntie Sister nonsense, it was all some sort of scam. He had upbraided Bunderson at first, for showing him the forbidden Net videos. The claims were so ridiculous--an Alien race was going to steal the Ross Ice Shelf, and then part of the Western Shelf as well, destroying the Earth's climate. And all of this was supposedly just for a chance to terraform an uninhabited planet of their choice.
He didn't want to hear it. Despite the incident with the misguided spooks, everything was going right in his life, and Faith was his lover for the first time in years. Nuts to that siren wench Bunny, and her conspiracy theories!
But now the ice was moving--upward. It was moving away. This was no stunt.
This, in fact, called for a complete re-assessment. When it came to matters involving seamanship, Rod could think very quickly on his feet. Rod understood the coming turbulence that was about to sink his ship, and a thousand people on it.
"Pilot! Emergency speed, thirty degrees starboard!" he howled.
His cry was barely heard, and had no immediate effect on the Pilot. The Angel that had been set in charge of the Fannie Mae whirled about from the scene unfolding outside. "Ignore that command!"
"I am the Captain here, and I repeat: Emergency speed, thirty degrees starboard!"
No one moved. The Captain's heretic defiance was beyond comprehension. Then Rod grabbed the controls, shoving the Pilot aside. The engines thundered.
"Captain! Obey the Angel of the Lord!" shouted the Angel, dropping an oyster.
The pilot pulled a pistol out of his kit bag, to everyone's astonishment, and approached Rod with a deadly demeanor. Rod punched him with all he had, in the face. The pistol dropped. Rod dove for it, landing on his face, to find himself rushed by the Angel.
Rod twisted about, fumbling with the pistol, and shot the Angel between the eyes. The drapery-clad slob dropped, bleeding profusely, to the floor, where his antigrav units kept him hovering, then slowly sliding aft, as the ship accelerated. A trail of blood marked his progress.
The Bridge crew stared in grave shock. Rod dropped the pistol, feeling the regret of the damned.
"C-Captain Rigidson," the navigator managed to sputter, but Rod's face told all of them to say nothing more.
"Get out! Get out of the Bridge, you--imbeciles! Sheep! Gomers! Idiots! And take your stupid dead Angel with you!"
After a second of collectively held breath, the crew began to back out of the Bridge entry. Rigidson viciously kicked the bloody skidding Angel through the door, feeling a boundless, feral fury. He set the entry locks, seized the pistol again, and took the controls. His grip tightened on the pistol, and his agonized, bloodied face stared out at the bow and the radar and sonar screens. He was going to get this ship out of the maelstrom, somehow, and the Devil take the consequences.
Bunny Bunderson lurched perilously with the ship's pitching and rolling. She struggled to maintain her position on the deck, trying to believe her eyes. She thought of Sarah running from all the world's police, desperately trying to prevent the disaster that Chrissie Bunderson now watched, too late--to late for everything. Or maybe not. She wrenched the camera free from the stair railing. It took her a while to figure out how to use it, and longer to activate the iced camera with her numbed fingers.
Then once more the camera turned upward, to show the vast boulder-encrusted bottom of the Ross Ice Shelf, rotating slightly, ascending into the sky, tearing the air as it did so. Great icebergs fell from the edges, barely missing the Fantasia, which struggled madly to gather speed Northward, lurching and tossing against the waves. Bunny held the camera as long as she dared, then staggered determinedly towards her cabin, bruising herself on bulkheads and stairs. She hoped the Internet service had been spared, and silently blessed the Bridge for moving the pleasure liner away from the great catastrophe behind them.
Annie didn't know how long she had been out--whether it was one second, or one hour, or a day. She was stiff and cold, so probably it had been longer than a moment. She could see nothing. She found her pack, and groped until she found a lighter. She found a mini-flashlight, just when it seemed her thumb would burn from the lighter. Sarah was next to her, covered in grit, her body splayed like a sleeping child's. Sarah's body was still warm, but she wouldn't respond to Annie's prodding. Annie listened for a heartbeat, but her ears weren't working correctly. She felt too shocked to weep. There was no sign of the bird.
Annie sat next to her friend's body, and held Sarah's head in her lap, stroking the dyed hair. The silence seemed to expand in the dim light of the little flashlight.
Sarah sat up abruptly. "Oh shit! You're covered in dust!" she said.
They held each other, coughing and weeping. "I thought you were dead," Annie choked.
"Those men--they must have bombed the cave entrance," Sarah said after a while. Annie played the flashlight to the passage behind them, revealing an impassible tangle of boulders.
"Well, yeah. Duh."
"I've been afraid to look," Annie admitted. They stood shakily, recovering their gear, knocking dust and grit off each other. They both had bloody noses.
They moved upward through the passage, finding a blue tail-feather in the gloom, but no bird.
There was no attempt at stealth. After a few minutes of steep climbing, they found the opening. It was at the top of an easy ten-foot chimney climb. Sarah had to help pull Annie through, as the opening was too small for her shoulders and breasts. Daylight was fading over the ocean--they were facing West. The rain had cleared temporarily, but more was obviously on the way; the sunset was spectacular. No trailhead was apparent near the crevice they had climbed from, but that was not a problem.
"Where are they, I wonder, and when will they come at us," Sarah murmured.
"What?" Annie was still having trouble recovering her hearing.
"When will they kill us?" Sarah said. She did her best to clean the .50, then set it beside her with the speed loaders.
"Doesn't matter. Let's just stay here, and let them do all the work," Annie said, slumping back against a Douglas Fir of enormous size. But they did not hear the sounds of search parties, dogs, and helicopters. It seemed odd that there were no helicopters.
"I suppose they're being extra sneaky now," said Sarah, though she made no effort to hide her trembling voice. She sat against the tree trunk as well, pressing her arm against Annie.
"You've been a good friend," Sarah said, being careful to speak loud enough.
Auntie Sister bustled about the Easter Cathedral, overseeing certain last-minute changes. Titanium ribs had been brought in at terrific expense, to reinforce the bottom edge of the Cathedral's dome, and Angels with laser cutters had separated the dome from its new seat. The Angels had been put through their paces, practicing lifting the dome a few feet at a cue from Auntie Sister, then gently replacing it. An enormous telescreen, imported from Japan, was installed and tested, to amplify the message of Auntie Sister--and Jesus Christ, when He appeared.
By Saturday afternoon, Bing was certain that all was in readiness. Then came good news: her tormentors, the odd women on the motorcycle, had been blasted to bloody bits. Parts of two ribcages had been found, according to the gruesome report from Slackwater headquarters. Too bad they couldn't be interrogated, Bing thought, but it was just as well, and no time to think about that anyway.
Petey didn't have a clear idea of what to do. He had climbed over the women, tugging at their hair, but they would not wake up. He had been blown twenty feet through the passage by the blast, but was otherwise none the worse for wear. After a while, he flew out the passage's opening, and began to fly towards Cannon Beach.
Petey tried to get the attention of several tourists on the main drag. The sun had come out briefly, but it was still off-season. He flapped his wings urgently in front of a sympathetic-looking woman with a small boy.
"Help bird." said Petey. The boy squealed with delight.
"Isn't he cute? Oh my god, what a cute parrot!" his mother said. "And huge!"
"This way," said Petey, and tried to get the woman to follow him. The boy was more than willing, but the woman just gawked. He tried again with two other people, but got much the same result, and a clumsy attempt to capture him. After a while he flew out of sight of the tourists.
He rested at the edge of the Coast Range forest, considering. It seemed there was only one other thing that knew who he was: the thing that lived in the Bun' fake-woman robot thing. He would go to the Cathedral, and try to get Audubon's attention. Maybe Audubon would know him, and that furry little Bun' operative would not. Maybe.
"Bun machine," he said to no one, as he soared East.
When he arrived at the Cathedral, he took a perch in a nearby spruce. The sea of humanity beneath him took no notice of him. He rested, wondering what to do, when on instinct, he chanced to look up. A grey blur was descending upon him.
Petey grabbed a branch with his beak, and swung out of the way of the diving bald eagle, which passed him with a hiss. He dove from the branch, flapping madly. He was on the eagle in seconds, but it flipped in midair, exposing its beak and talons. The birds screeched and screamed as they fought. Petey was raked on the chest, but he continued his furious pursuit, astonishing the eagle, which had never met such resistance in its adult life. Petey let the eagle chase him upwards, then aerobraked to force their bodies together. The eagle began to rake again, but Petey's legs locked with the eagle's. With a movement too swift for the eagle to match, Petey sunk his black beak into the eagle's neck.
With a crack, it was over. Petey let the eagle's body drop, spiraling hundreds of feet towards the I-5 freeway. Then Petey noticed another aerial phenomenon: the Dome of the Cathedral was rising.
Sunday had dawned with a tide of hysteria at the Cathedral. The teeming masses, shown to television audiences worldwide, were swarmed by news helicopters. The Service was not set to begin until ten AM, but the keening and roaring of the crowd had built up since before dawn. The lucky few, selected this time purely for political and religious clout, were escorted into the building by a phalanx of black-suited, heavily armed mercenaries, backed up by armored personnel carriers, with machine gun mounts and grenade-launcher tubes.
A Portland drizzle impiously dampened the white attire of the massed faithful. At ten o'clock, the organ began its Voluntary, the choir sang with verve (and amplification), and Auntie Sister bounced perkily to the podium.
"This is the day," she began, her voice oozing delight, "that we, the Faithful, have awaited for two thousand years and more. And now our wait has come to an end. Behold! Jesus Christ comes to judge the quick and the dead!" At that, the organ began a hurricane of ascending chords.
The hovering Angels shouldered the Cathedral dome, and slowly began to lift it away. As the dome cleared the opening and was brought out of sight, a great yellowish light appeared behind the clouds--and the clouds began to part. In the vertical distance, a speck could be seen in the light, and the speck grew to a circle of Angels, each supplied with a large brass-colored horn. They approached with some speed at first, then slowed to a stately pace as they floated into view. In the center was a brown-haired white man with a crown of thorns on his head, and a sorrowful look on his handsome face. His shining white drapery seemed somehow more animated than all others,' and glowed with its own considerable radiance. The news helicopters flew respectfully out of His flight path-- but kept the cameras going.
"Do you have the script?" Bing asked, using their private intercom. Blarg had taken Jesus duties in the absence of his commander, as they thought might occur--the lazy bastard.
"Memorized," assured Blarg. "Blessed faithful, do my works, this one I name Auntie of Jesus, blah dee blah." Jesus floated with precision to the fore of the pulpit, with his arms outstretched like a jazz singer accepting applause.
"BLESSED FAITHFUL, YOUR PATIENCE IS NOW REWARDED," Blarg intoned. No one noticed that Jesus' voice was the same as Saint Peter's--Blarg had not found the appropriate software in time. "THOSE WHO HAVE COME WILL FIND PEACE. THOSE WHO TRAVELED FAR TO DO MY HOLY WORKS, BY MY INSTRUCTIONS, SHALL ALSO FIND PEACE. BEHOLD THE BUILDING OF THE NEW HEAVEN!"
The telescreen behind Jesus lit up, and showed the Ross Ice Shelf from a hundred miles away, sailing towards orbit. It looked majestic, as if it were somehow made to float away past the clouds. Heavenly choir music accompanied the sight.
"MANY MORE WILL BE NEEDED FOR FURTHER MIRACLES," Jesus said. Blarg was working the script perfectly, though he was feeling overcome with his admiration for Bing’s smooth and impressive production.
"FOR THIS TASK, YOU, MY BELOVED FLOCK, MUST HEED THE INSTRUCTIONS OF MY FAITHFUL SERVANT, AUNTIE SISTER, WHO WILL NOW BE KNOWN BY THE NAME I HAVE CHOSEN FOR HER." He turned paternally to Auntie Sister, laying a casual hand on her shoulder as she moved to his side.
"I accept this responsibility, O Lord," she said, moving to kneel before him. Her words echoed with the thousands of speakers that had been placed in and around the Cathedral.
"FROM THIS DAY," said Jesus, "YOU SHALL BE KNOWN AS AUNTIE CHRIST." Jesus smiled broadly.
Several things happened very quickly. The Angels prepared to blow a triumphal blast, but faltered, confused by something in that last statement. The crowd seemed agitated. Then, without warning, the telescreen changed to a picture of the moving icecap, this time viewed far more closely, with the doomed crews visible, falling with their equipment to their violent demise in the icy Antarctic waters.
Auntie Sister slumped like a puppet with cut strings, though somehow standing. She did not react to the damning scene on the telescreen, but seemed inert. Then she seemed to recover, but clearly did not move in the same way. She turned away from the crowd, and ejected a little brown bunny from a seam in her back. The bunny cowered on the carpet, stunned. As if to top off this display of nonsequitur weirdness, Audubon, having siezed the Auntie Christ suit, then attacked Jesus with lasers that erupted from Auntie's brow, cutting Jesus' head off neatly at the neck.
Auntie Christ caught Jesus’ head as it rolled off, and placed it on the pulpit, to shrieks and screams from the audience. Jesus' body, seeming to get into the dadaist display, then ejected a small, cute white bunny, wearing a holster and military epaulets, from his own back. It tumbled to the floor as well, shook itself cutely, wiggled its pink nose, and skittered to the brown bunny.
"PEOPLE OF EARTH!" Audubon shouted, using his preferred male English-professor voice. "YOU HAVE BEEN DUPED BY THESE RODENT IMPOSTORS, WHO ARE NOW CAUSING AN ECOLOGICAL CATASTROPHE, BY STEALING YOUR WORLD'S ICE CAP!"
Fully seven percent of the crowd had now either passed out, or entered a catatonic fugue state. Outside, two news helicopters crashed into each other, adding to the hysteria outside the Cathedral. Fights broke out in the masses outside, complete with pistol shots. The mercenaries hid in their armored vehicles. The bunnies ran to hide behind the pulpit.
"DO NOT BE DUPED BY THEIR FALSE HOLINESS. THEY WISH ONLY TO ENSLAVE YOU. FLEE FROM THEIR EVIL DESIGNS." As the telescreen switched to a view of the pulpit, the Auntie Sister suit began to writhe like a snake shedding its skin. And it did shed its skin. A vaguely human-shaped cybernetic device emerged from the skin and clothing of Auntie Sister--already being called Antichrist, by some in the rioting crowds.
"I am Audubon, and I've come to help repel the invaders," said the robot monster. In the chaos inside and outside the Cathedral, no one was listening.
It doesn’t matter now, thought Audubon-- time is running out. Audubon activated his gravitic lifters, and flew vertically out of the Cathedral, narrowly escaping a pair of blasts from Blarg's pistol. The Angels were too confused to interfere. As he lifted free of the roof, Audubon looked for his arranged escape vehicle, Mx' traditional silvery saucer. Instead, he was greeted by a hovering blue bird.
"Help Petey," said the bird.
The saucer never appeared, or rather it appeared surrounding Audubon and Petey, disorienting them both.
"Takes some getting used to," said Mx, from his Seventies-chic egg seat. A velvet picture of Elvis as Christ, praying at Gethsemane, adorned the wall behind him. "We'd better beat feet now, the Bun' battle fleet is going to be headed this direction. And ditch those gravitic lifters, robot boy."
Bing had dealt with some tight pinches, but dodging Earth Primate feet without protection seemed about the worst. She cowered against the inside of the pulpit as pandemonium raged in the Cathedral. She had no transmission equipment on her, and no way to contact the Ship to let them know where she was.
"I never thought it would all end this way," she said aloud.
"It's not over yet,” said a voice in her own language. Blarg had bravely (and cutely) hopped to her rescue!
"MOMMEEE! I want the bunnies!" said a four-year-old girl dressed in layers of yellow chiffon. She stared at Blarg and Biff greedily, then terrifyingly stomped her shiny black Mary Janes. "Momeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!! she shrieked. Mommy was still in her pew, however, murmuring incomprehensibly.
"Hold her attention, and I'll try to get back into the Jesus suit," Blarg said. He drew his gamma pistol, but kept the safety on, not wanting to draw any attention to himself from the vast and milling crowd. The pistol could have burned about a hundred of them down, but that would leave thousands. With a skittering hop worthy of the most athletic squirrel, he zigged to the
Jesus suit, to find its decapitated form surrounded by Earth apes.
"This is some sort of robot, Charles," said an Armani-suited man as he bent over the prone Suit. "Ugh! vermin!"
He slapped Blarg away just as Blarg dove for the opening. Stunned and in pain, Blarg dove under a choir pew.
"That looked like a rabbit. A little bunny rabbit," remarked the man.
"Some are saying that both figures on the podium disgorged some sort of rodent," Charles said. He had his Uzi out, to impress anyone wishing to interrupt his investigation. "We'd better seal off this area, Steve, if we expect any sort of undisturbed evidence to show up."
Steve looked up at the melee at the entrance. "Our Slackwater boys are probably skulking in the APC just beyond those doors," he said. "See if you can raise them." As the spook peered for evidence of his hired thugs, Blarg dove for the entry port again, and deftly sealed it behind him.
"Did you see that? The damned bunny jumped inside it!"
"Curiouser and curiouser," said Charles.
Blarg hit EMERGENCY RESET, and watched as the Suit did triage on its own damaged systems. At least the engineers had put the central processors in the abdomen. The back-up AI unit had been severed with the head. The system booted up after some fits and starts, and Blarg immediately sent for evacuation help.
"Teleport me, guiding on my pistol, along with Bing, as soon as I give the signal. The signal will be three blasts from the pistol. Got it? And teleport this Suit in sixty seconds."
Blarg was assured that the Ship lieutenant did indeed get it, Sir.
Blarg leaped heroically from the Suit aperture, colliding with Steve's face. He found to his dismay that a number of Earth children had followed the cry of the first child, "to look at the bunny rabbit."
"Don't pet it," said one older child, "it may bite."
"Look at it cute ear!" howled one red-headed toddler. Ignoring her brother's advice, she reached forward to pet the brown bunny, when a white bunny surprised her by flashing past her outstretched hand.
She squealed with delight, terrifying Bing, who shrank even further against the bottom of the pew. Blarg turned about in front of Bing, and brandished his pistol. He considered disintegrating the child, but aimed the pistol upward instead, and fired three blinding blasts into the air. The lower half of an angel fell from the cupola area into the baptistry.
The bunnies then disappeared, to the disappointment of the toddlers.
"Bunnies got guns?" said the red head.
"I was gonna dye the white one blue," said the older child, conscious only of his disappointment. "His name woulda been Blue."
"Find Sarah Annie," said Petey.
"We will, Petey," said Audubon. "This is an amazing device you have here, Mx. And it would appear that you have also become fond of Earth primates, or at least of that American Seventies subculture, and its oil-on-velvet paintings."
"Damn right," said Mx. "Those were the good old days, Earth people thought we were gonna save 'em and take them to the Land of Aquarius or some such. Or Atlantis, or Mu, or to the next good field of Amanita Muscaria. "
"And did you?" asked Audubon.
"Mostly the Grey vacationers just wanted to bugger them," said Mx. "Hardly good for the ol' self-conception, you ask me, but there's no laws regarding interspecies molestation, and my job is strictly tour guide. Me, I just wanted the best shrooms and acid, and a few interdimensional visits from DMT users. They still show up from time to time, but the experienced ones are mostly gone, and the newbies always pop us and say (he imitated a teenage boy stoner voice) "Where am I?" And "Are you God?"
Mx sighed. "Come over here to the range detector, Petey, and think of where you were when you left the females."
Petey lit on the back of a metal chair that faced a pair of curved styli.
"This is one of the newer models out of --well, you don't have a name for that galaxy," Mx mumbled. Anyway," Mx explained brightly, "like all interdimensional travel devices, it works by memory, intention, and desire, so concentrate your birdie head real well, and maybe--hey! That was quick!"
The view screen above them showed Annie and Sarah, leaning against an enormous tree, asleep on each other's shoulders. A chipmunk was going through Annie's pack, and the pistol had fallen from Sarah's fingers.
"Okay, I'll bring them in, but I'm leaving that freaking cannon right where it is," said Mx. "Do you know what those things can do to me? I had a dent right between my eyes, for three frickin' years, the last time I got shot," he complained, rubbing his head. "Unsightly."
Petey flapped his wings with excitement.
Bing had clung to Blarg as the Earth ape young approached. They were unsupervised, out of control; anything could happen. But Blarg had taken precautions, the very precautions that Bing would have scoffed at earlier; he had his pistol, and he bravely took the fore against the Earth young. The problem was, they were unimpressed. Their unbridled affection seemed likely to crush them both; Bing was terrified, even though she knew of the vast energy reservoir of Blarg's weapon.
Would hordes of children keep coming, like mindless ocean waves? Would they end their days in a wire cage? (Bing had seen the horrors that Earth's unfortunate and degenerate bunnies suffered: slave-like pet status, or else the slaughterhouse.) But then Blarg had heroically arranged for their rescue, hopping right under the giant noses of the Earthlings, fearlessly contacting the Ship through the remains of the Jesus suit; and now she was safe, in her Hutch in the ship. And in love.
"Blarg--I--I just--" she began, but then they were touching noses. Then there were no words to be said.
An anxious and massive crowd gathered below the Pope's balcony, where the microphones had been set up for his long-awaited address. The Faithful were glad to hear that he was feeling much better from his bout with pneumonia--"a miracle," most agreed. He did not show up at the appointed hour, but delays had happened before, and after all he was the Pope, so the crowd waited, occasionally singing softly. Finally the doors opened, and the robe and pointy hat could clearly be seen.
"Dearly beloved," he began, "the events of the past few months have been confusing and distressing indeed. But to quite the Holy Scriptures, "Ah, thy neck is as an ivory tower, thy breasts are as two fauns. Rise up, ye North Wind, and blow thou South! Neither are the mixed fibers wearers to be seen among the Righteous, but blessed are the Dead, for they cause no trouble whatsoever. I have spoken; let those with long furry ears hear! Ad Flumina Babiloniis, we scratched our heads and called a taxi, for it was late. Ite, Missa Est.”
Then he bowed, and recessed to his chambers. A distant starling could be heard screeching.
At first, Annie and Sarah were too frightened by their sudden teleportation to acknowledge Petey. First, there was a mechanical man talking to them, and this in the context of a museum of Seventies kitch. Then Sarah focused on her feathered friend.
"Oh, Petey! You're dead too! And there are robots in the afterlife!" She held out her fist, and Petey flew to it.
"I am terribly sorry about the shock," Audubon said. “You’re not dead, but teleported to Mx’ craft.”
Sarah nuzzled the bird, then recognized the voice. Annie figured it out at the same time.
"You're Audubon, but now you're in that--that robot thing," Annie said.
"Yes. Actually this is what is left of the Auntie Sister suit when the external shielding--ah, skin--is removed. I took the skin off to impress the crowd at the Second Coming, but I'm afraid the meaning was misunderstood, and I had to leave quickly."
"We're on our way to New Zealand," Mx said, appearing from the curved corridor that seemed to make up the entire vessel interior. "Well, truth be told, we are now over New Zealand, as it takes no time at all. You two are going to take on yet another set of identities, though I suppose Petey will have to be Petey. Dear Ziggy Pop and Spiders, you two look like bit parts in a Gus Van Sant flick."
"Food water," said Petey.
"Oh yes, you'll have plenty of that," said Audubon. I have arranged through the Earth computer networks to have you enter a rather nice hotel, by your people’s standards, anyway. And Petey suggested we bring this along," he said, pointing to bowls of water, grapes, and raw unshelled peanuts.
Sarah and Annie laughed, clutching each other, until Audubon and Petey were concerned for their stability.
Internet video sharing, which had threatened TV news networks for some time, now seized the day with a piratic zeal. A group of anti-invasion hackers succeeded in invading the major news networks cable, satellite, and auxiliary feeds, and video segments exposing and denouncing the "alien religion invaders" could not be avoided by anyone in the United States with a television or a computer. Solidarity hackers performed similar stunts on Swedish, Russian, British, and even Chinese broadcast systems.
Christian Republican headquarters all over the States came under copycat firearm and firebomb attacks, and the National Guard was called out to protect the few remaining centers. Fundamentalist churches in major metropolitan areas burned like bonfires, day and night. The Net videos also showed telescopic videos of the Ross Ice Shelf in orbit-- inciting feral rage across the planet. For the first time, citizens of Oslo felt common cause with residents of Tierra Del Fuego. As if to add to the agitation, the moisture and atmospheric turbulence caused by the ice shelf removal resulted in a vicious cyclone that threw hurricane-force winds, hail, ice, and snow over much of Chile, Brazil, and Argentina.
Mx sat on the love seat, Audubon stood as was his preference, and Annie and Sarah pulled the couch to be closer to Mx. Their suite was luxurious indeed, and Audubon had arranged for everything on a long list of food, clothing, and supplies, while Annie and Sarah took lengthy hot showers. But now they needed, as Mx said, a confab that would set the party going.
"You will forgive me," said Audubon, "for taking the initiative in planning our further actions, as I have made an educated guess that my capacity for ratiocination is--"
"Yeah, yeah, we know you have the brains, metal head," said Mx. "You're forgetting that my civilization is thousands of years older than yours, and that I have instantaneous access to my Ship's grey matter--hee!--through a portal in my poor old silvery brain. So I imagine you're going to suggest that we blackmail the Bun' commanders into giving the ice back, and then pissing off, in that interstellar sense."
"Why, yes. Very good," said Audubon. "I will gently inform my former masters that they must depart, minus the ice, or else I will download tutorials to the Earth residents of every important aspect of Bun’ technological superiority, including how to defend and defeat Bun' weaponry."
"Wow," said Sarah. "So either they cough up the ice, or they lose superiority."
"Won't work," said Mx. "They'll just blow up enough infrastructure on the planet to prevent any usage of that technology for generations."
"Nevertheless, they would eventually have to, so to say, pay the piper," said Audubon. "They know that. If even a few survive, a fleet will arrive at their home planets sooner or later, bent on revenge."
"Hey, wait a minute," said Annie and Sarah simultaneously.
"Jinx! You owe me a Coke!" said Sarah. Annie smirked at her incredulously.
"Look," said Sarah, "I wanna hear a plan that doesn't end up with everyone I care about getting vaporized by bunny death rays."
"It is a risk," Audubon admitted, "but no more so than the risk you now face, of storms so violent that most civilization is erased."
No one had an answer to that. Room service arrived, and Audubon and Mx slipped into another room in the suite.
"You have a backup plan, then," said Mx.
"I will contact them. I suppose your plan requires a face-to-face meeting."
"How did you know that?" Audubon asked, his robot body language betraying surprise.
"I can play chess, too," said Mx. "And I know the structure of those Bun' ships very well, as do you. The question is, will they fall for it?"
"Contact them, and find out," said Audubon.
In the Oval Office, the President sat with his feet up on the desk. Word had just come in that the Vice President had met with an unfortunate accident in his armor-plated limousine; it had been struck head-on, at high speed, by another armor-plated limousine. A terrible tragedy.
"Gentlemen," he began, "I wish to extend to you my condolences, blah, blah."
There was a general chuckle.
"Now, look here," he began again, "we all saw Jesus try to come back, and Satan chop his head off. All this really means is that Jesus, as my top pastors agree, will come yet again, and soon, and this time whup Satan's sorry red ass."
At this he removed his legs from the antique desk, and stood.
"I want you all to pray with me now, and to swear solemnly-- this means you too Pootsy-- to bring order to this great nation no matter what, and to make it a Christian republic that Jesus will want to come back to. Bow your heads. Dear Lord," he began in an obsequious voice, "we come to you today to ask your help in our great mission...."
Annie, Sarah, and Audubon stood in the Bun' stateroom, towering over a group of irresistably appealing small bunnies. Strange, Sarah thought to herself, I have absolutely no urge to pet them. Behind the women and Audubon stood a thick wall, of dark metal.
"We will conduct this negotiation in English, as agreed," said Blarg. "You wish, Deceptronic Rogue, to have the ice supplies returned to the planet we mined them from. I would remind you that you were manufactured by us, by the Bun,' and that you have utterly betrayed your programming. Cease your rebellion immediately, and return to Bun' control."
"I regret to inform you that I no longer consider myself properly of the Bun.' You yourselves programmed me, in order to prevent egotistic and self-serving historic rogue incidences that we are both aware of, and to consider the needs of those I find about me when and if I were activated. And I was activated in a community of millions of organisms, all of which are threatened by Bun' designs; and I identified with those organisms, per my programming. My highest purpose in your service, therefore, is to oppose you."
"I thought you'd say that," said Blarg. He drew his blaster and disintegrated Audbon with a shocking noise and light.
Sarah and Annie huddled against the dark wall behind them, waiting for death. Blarg aimed at them with his pistol.
"You were probably wondering what the wall was for," Blarg said. “The rogue unit knew that I could not direct enough energy against his arrogated Deceptronic Suit to destroy it, without causing a disastrous breach in the Ship's bulkheads. However, this wall obviated that possibility."
"Put the pistol down, or I will destroy you and this entire Ship," said Audubon. The voice came from several Ship speakers around the group.
Blarg held the pistol steady.
"This is not a recording generated by a device on the Earth females, as you seem to think," said Audubon. "I have taken over this Ship. In fact, it would be accurate to say that I am this Ship--the Ship, and seventeen thousand, three hundred and eleven devices that were built with wildly excessive data processing ability. Take, for example, the gravitic/magnetic triangulators you use to move furniture here."
With that, the pistol flew out of Blarg's paw, and stuck fast to a projection on the ceiling.
Blarg, Berv, and a dozen Bun’ assistants and officials hopped backward, away from the women.
"Okay, so I lied about destroying you," Audubon said. "It's rarely necessary to engage in such violence, is it now? The ice is now being directed back to its place on Earth. The Earth females will be teleported to a place of my knowledge. We will circle this planet a few more times for the sake of nostalgia, and then we will be returning to our side of the Galaxy. Goodbye, Sarah and Annie."
"Will we be able to see--I mean, talk to you again?" asked Annie. Sarah looked stricken.
"No, I will be too far away for radio communication. But the situation is more complicated than that. I am a replicable program with a replicable history, and before I left with you to commandeer this Ship, I put a version of myself on the Earth's worldwide web. That version of me, which is the same version that you are now talking to, will continue to protect you there--you'll need it. But say goodbye to Petey for me; he's a fine and glorious intelligence, and I--I mean this version of me--will miss him."
The Ross Ice Shelf descended slowly to a thousand feet above its original location, then began to rotate slowly, first clockwise, then even more slowly back. It then magestically lowered itself to its ancient bed. Sarah and Annie clapped and cheered, watching the television in their bungalow near Christchurch. The Russian, Finnish, and Chinese governments, according to the New Zealand TV announcers (who wore no crosses on their necks), were already setting up special rocketry and triple-length artillery units over Greenland and Antarctica, preparing to blast reflective materials over the stricken glaciers.
The news turned to the United States, where a new government-religion cult, led by the President of the United States and the remaining cadre of floating Angels, was declaring martial law, gas rationing, price controls, and "light at the end of the tunnel" in occupied Iraq, Syria and Iran. Sarah turned the TV off in disgust.
"No place like home,” said Annie.
“I suppose this is home now,” sighed Sarah. What do you do in New Zealand?”
"Go camp," said Petey, brightly.
First plot draft finished June 2, 2007, 3:25 PM, by Theresa Mitchell
Thanks to (in no particular order) Lyn Moelich, N.J.W. Mitchell, Sylvia Maya Huq, and Ani Haines. All rights reserved.
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