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PRESENTS

PURITY PUBLICATIONS
 

ENHANCED
A Futuristic Tale of Transgenic Beasts and Tribulation Saints
By Ralph L. Jones, Jr.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Prologue: The Last Thing Debra Saw
I. Debra at the Lighthouse Eleven Weeks Earlier
II. Final Exams
III. Bad Henry Cracking Up
IV. On the Rocks
V. Enhanced
VI. Pilgrims
VII. “Surprise!”
VIII. Down the Mississippi without Huck and Jim
IX. The Eagle
X. Battle Hymn
XI. Forever Early
Epilogue: The Abomination that Causes Desolation

 

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

C. S. Lewis

 

Prologue: The Last Thing Debra Saw


      Debra Sterling ran all the way up the concrete steps through the silent forest. She emerged from the trees at the top of the hill, crossed the gravel road and stopped. Panting, she held her sides with both arms and scanned the carnage before her. It would have been more natural to see the sun and moon snatched out of the sky. Her church was flattened like something gargantuan squashed it. She even checked the horizon for a mountain-sized behemoth but nothing was there. The sky was clearing and the late afternoon sun shined down on dozens of mutilated transgenic corpses spread out before what had been the front entrance to her church.

     She caught her breath and kept going. As she ran past a medusa’s severed head, one of the six cobras that looked like rope-hair reared up to bite her. Debra leapt away from the poison fangs then gingerly dodged around the other hacked-up creatures. She climbed into the rubble of the church and made her way to the spot that filled her heart with foreboding.        

     Debra tore at the debris, lifted then tossed aside a huge support beam. She found her parents dead under the bits and pieces behind the crushed pulpit.

     “No, no, no,” she whispered, caressing her parents’ broken bodies with her splinter-pierced hands.

     The trees behind the church parking lot were green with summer and the hazy air should have been full of the droning of cicadas but only silence and stillness surrounded her. As Debra climbed back out of the rubble she wondered if this was the reward for her faithfulness. How could this horrific day be the day of deliverance? Dropping to her knees, she put her bleeding hands together but instead of praying broke down.

     “I’m alone, oh God, I’m alone. Lord please, take me too!” She shouted out into the silence over and over and when she lost her voice she screamed it inside her head. After just a little more time the sobbing subsided. Something rose up from under her crushed spirit. After all, she had been shown this was going to happen.

     The hymn “It is Well with My Soul” came to her and Debra stood up. The eighteen-year-old girl still felt emptiness smashing down on her but managed to walk over to the ruins of the tool shed to find a shovel. A massive winged shadow passed over and she looked up. The giant, owl-shaped silhouette with a whiplash tail three times the body length flew down at her. She hit the ground, the transgenic piasa bird swooped past, intentionally missing her, and she got up running for the tree line behind the parking lot. Halfway across the open ground the flying monster swooped down again, knocking her off her feet with a bump from one of the great wings. She got up running as fast as she could and made it into the woods.
     Debra ran stooping through a thicket. Big branches snapped off the tops of trees above her as the monster flew over. Frantically she searched for a place to hide. She spotted a secluded tunnel of underbrush made by a small animal and crawled into it. Curling up with her face pressing down on the ground, she covered her head with her arms. A hideous groan came two seconds later as the Great Pecan Tree crashed down right next to her hiding spot. She got up and ran again.
      Debra kept under the trees as long as she could but finally was forced out into the open ground behind the lighthouse cliff. It’s almost over now, she told herself. As she ran across the short distance of open ground, the piasa bird gave an infrasonic scream so powerful it vibrated her sternum, stunning her. She collided into the cool bricks on the shaded side of the abandoned lighthouse and slumped down. She wanted to crawl around to the entrance but couldn’t move. The transgenic monster landed almost on top of her. Its heavy breathing filled up the dusk.
     Debra’s adrenaline rush was over. Soaking with sweat, hands throbbing in pain from the big splinters, chiggers itching across the skin of her arms, she rolled over to face the eight-foot-tall beast that was part human, part owl, part stag, and part who-knows-what.
     “Deb-ra,” the piasa bird spoke slowly with grotesque lips that should have been a beak.
     “You’re never going to get what you want!” she yelled at the antlered, feathered monstrosity even as calm descended on her. She knew who it was now and felt sorry for it.

     Out of nowhere Jimmy Owens appeared holding a hatchet above his head. Had he been inside the lighthouse? The overweight, freckled-face teenager yelled, “Leave her alone!” then threw the hatchet into the monster’s face.
     The hatchet blade flipped into one of the dinner-plate-sized eyes. The monster screeched like a jack-knifing semi-truck. The long tail lashed out as precisely as a giant’s bullwhip, snapping into Jimmy’s chest and knocking him off the edge of the cliff.
     “No! Jimmy!” Debra heard an ear-splitting sonic boom then felt herself rising off the ground. Someone called her name, a strong and beautiful voice, not the transgenic piasa bird monster, and she fell up into the sky. The stars seemed different and a slow-motion lightning filled the eastern horizon. Across the river above the bluffs hovered unidentifiable transgenic creatures with condor wingspans the size of small airplanes. Tumbling far above them, she got control of her hands and pushed her mid-length blond hair away from her eyes.
     The last thing Debra saw looking down at the twilight earth was some kind of bizarre giant wading up the Mississippi River. She felt pity for all the people remaining. In the most infinitesimal split-second her living body transformed. Debra ceased to merely feel; she became a fountain brimming over with profound and reverent joy, her peaceful face glowing like a lightning bolt inside a cloud as she ascended out of the universe.

 

I. Debra at the Lighthouse Eleven Weeks Earlier
 

     “Someone’s at the lighthouse already, Jimmy,” Debra Sterling said as she led her five teenage friends up the path from their church. This Sunday morning the forest was raucous with birdsong even though the trees were just starting to bud. Violets and other early spring wildflowers still covered the damp ground.

     Jimmy Owens didn’t ask how Debra knew someone was already there because she could see things nobody else could. He hugged the portable sound system and hurried past her. He rounded the last bend in the trail, past the Great Pecan Tree, and stopped in the clearing behind the old brick lighthouse on the edge of a steep cliff facing the Mississippi River.
     “Tyler!” Jimmy’s face broke out in a huge smile. “How’d you get up here so quick?”

     Tyler Pandav stood there in jogging sweats not Sunday clothes. His walnut brown face and hands glistened with sweat from his run up the steep hill to get here. He greeted Jimmy and then everyone else as they strolled out into the clearing behind the small lighthouse.

     “Why didn’t you go to church this morning?” Debra asked with a stern look. Tyler’s Indian Christian Church was three miles away in the little town of Riverton.
     “Got some big news,” Tyler said. “Heard it on the radio this morning.”
     “We better sit down for this,” Davy-Jake Diamond said. He and Lydia Machado were holding hands and the couple sat down together at the big log.
     Jimmy, still cradling the portable sound system, sat down next to Davy-Jake. This news, Jimmy figured, was going to be important. He was all ears.

     “Has Secretary-General Sebastiao come back?” Rick Machado sat down on the tree stump. Auburn-haired Kim Lemon stood behind him. Jimmy could tell Kim wasn’t happy.
     “Nope, it isn’t that.” Tyler sat down on the remnant of a brick wall that once ringed the lighthouse.

     Jimmy watched Kim walk away from Rick. She went over to the log and sat down next to Lydia. Debra just stood there in her favorite floral print Sunday dress, holding her guitar and facing Tyler. Jimmy felt static in the air. It seemed any moment someone was going to yell at someone. Jimmy hated it when people yelled at each other.

     “We need to pray and sing first,” Debra said. Her features softened a little. “We’ll raise our voices to heaven and then we’ll hear the news, okay?” They always started this way, but Tyler usually arrived after they were already listening to gospel music from the underground Christian radio station.
     Debra recited the Lord’s Prayer. Jimmy said, “Amen” the loudest. Debra began softly playing her guitar. She sang two current gospel songs alone then asked them to all to sing “Amazing Grace” with her. After the last refrain Debra ceased strumming her perfectly tuned guitar. She nodded to Tyler and he stood up clearing his throat.
      “Yeah, um, they said on the Global Radio News that a big group of multibillionaires is going to sponsor anybody that wants to get enhanced.” Tyler paused and then went on in a stronger voice. “Not only people disfigured in a bad accident but anyone who wants to become something special.”
     “How could they afford to do cosmetic enhancements for everybody?” asked Lydia.

     “It must have something to do with Secretary-General Sebastiao’s New Prosperity,” Rick said.

     “Could you get changed into anything you want?” asked Kim.

     All three spoke at the same time. Tyler put his hands up. It took a minute before everyone calmed down. Jimmy shook his head. He didn’t really understand what they were talking about but he didn’t want them to notice.

     “What does Reverend Mandal say about massive injections of animal stem-cell DNA changing the architecture of a human body?” Debra asked Tyler.

     “He doesn’t like it, any more than your father likes it.”
     “But you’re thinking about it, aren’t you?”

     “Deb, I’m thinking about it because it’s the only chance I’ve got to make a professional team. This year enhanced people are running faster than ostriches. The only reason our soccer team got into the regional championship is because nobody can afford to get enhanced here like they do in the Pacific Rim. I have to think about my future. I don’t want to change what I look like, just maximize my speed and agility.”

     “Trade in your humanity for that?” Debra looked angry at and sorry for Tyler at the same time. Jimmy had never seen her look that way before.

     “They say it causes big personality shifts,” Lydia said.

     “It’s a long, painful eight-month process,” Davy-Jake added.

     “God created man in his image,” Debra said. “Think of the honor for us. People always coveted the power of animals. They used to worship statues of human-animal combinations. Those false gods were all over the ancient world. But He came in our form. That has to mean something to us.”

     “I’m ready to listen to some music!” Jimmy stood up. He didn’t want someone to say something that would hurt someone else’s feelings. This was supposed to be the best day of the week.
     The others chimed in to agree. Debra leaned her guitar upright against the brick wall then finally sat down next to Tyler.
     Jimmy unfolded the portable sound system. It looked like a notebook computer. He plugged it into the ground and into the log, pointing the tiny dish antenna to the south. He turned it on and found the station. The device turned the log and the ground into speakers.

     In a second a deep, pulsating electronic music rose up through their feet. The station broadcast Christian music from somewhere to the south. The station was called Christian X and was illegal on the public airwaves but the authorities had not bothered to jam it.

     Jimmy was overcome with the music of the first song. He got up and danced in jerky movements, singing along, almost in tune, with the singer who rap-sang about Jesus in the wilderness.
     “Yeah, Jimmy,” Lydia sang out.

     “Jimmy’s a song-and-dance man!” Davy-Jake started clapping his hands.

*                                              *                                             *

     Rick Machado sat back and observed. Here was a person illegally allowed to be born, singing and dancing to illegally broadcast music. Jimmy must be one in a million. He sure was the only one of his kind in Moreau County. Still, there was no reason to idealize him. Jimmy could be annoying like no one else. He often burst into fits of rage, sometimes out of frustration at not understanding something, but more often for no reason at all. But Rick was used to him. Jimmy was just another human being trying to get through this confusing life.

     When the first song ended, Jimmy turned to Debra and begged her to predict songs.

     “No, Jimmy. I don’t feel like it yet.” But Debra said the title of the next song right before it came on. She did it for the next song and the next and the next and the next.
     When she first started doing that in front of them five years ago it had astonished Rick. The astonishment had worn off some but still this was the only uncanny thing he had ever experienced, and she did it over and over again. He asked her one time if she heard a voice. “No,” she had replied. “It’s just a feeling with information, like knowing what an echo is going to sound like.”

     Rick was beginning to have some mechanistic-universe doubts. Did Debra really have the gift of prophecy from the Holy Spirit or did she just have some ultra-rare genes that formed her special brain so she could do that? Either way, he knew Debra Sterling was one in ten billion.

     Out on the Mississippi River sailboats and pleasure boats cruised up and down the winding highway of bronze water. The clear blue sky shined high above the lighthouse but across the river a strong wind sculpted white clouds over the hardwood forest covering the enormous bluffs. A big bird, probably a vulture, soared over the near bank downriver.

     Rick daydreamed about meeting his absent father somewhere beyond dull, staid Moreau County. The roaming gambler had left the family the day before Rick’s younger sister Lydia was born, when Rick was a little over one year old. The man had never written a letter or called in over seventeen years. His mother Sara believed his father was dead but Rick believed he was still alive.
     Rick needed a ticket out to find him. The economy in this part of the North American Free Trade Realm was getting a little better but the money supply was still tight because of the reparations the citizens of the former United States had to pay to the rest of the world. No bank would loan money to a kid for extended travel unless he was already rich. He had a plan, but it would mean giving up going to church and pretty much everything else in Moreau County. Right now that didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice to Rick.

     Jimmy kept it up; he was tireless. Maybe it takes an outlaw existence to really have joy in this life. Jimmy sang and danced like he was getting away with something. Did the Christian doctor who falsified Jimmy’s mother’s amniocentesis report have that kind of joy too?

     It suddenly came to Rick that Jimmy would no longer have to accept his fate. If what Tyler said about the multibillionaires sponsoring cosmetic gene therapy was true, Jimmy could certainly get a “normal” IQ with human stem cells for free. It was the non-human stem cells that turned you into a “terato.” But to get into a university law school, which was an important part of Rick’s secret plan, would require a major nervous system overhaul because of the enhanced competition. On the net-cast center at school he learned that they used cockroach proto-nerve stem cells to increase thinking speed. Something to do with the thicker nerve fibers cockroaches had made their nerve impulses faster. It made him a little squeamish to consider it but there was no doubt those academic elites in the Pacific Rim were far ahead of the game.

     Rick watched Jimmy spinning too close to the badly eroded cliff. He was about to say something but then noticed Kim talking close up to Tyler. Rick smiled. It did make him a little jealous.

     “Jimmy’s gonna fall,” Debra suddenly said quietly to Tyler. She anticipated him tripping, but only by a second. Tyler lunged backwards and grabbed Jimmy by the front of his belt just as his feet went off the ground. He would have gone over the edge of the three-hundred-foot cliff.

     “All right, that’s enough music for Jimmy.” Lydia turned off the sound system.
     “Good stop, goalie,” Rick said. Tyler smiled and helped Jimmy get back on his feet. Rick stood up. Everyone seemed ready to start down the path.

     “Hold up,” Debra said. “This is the last Sunday we’ll all be together. Before we go there’s something I have to tell each of you. In private.”

*                                               *                                                 *

     Lydia Machado crossed her arms and frowned. How could this be the last time they would all be together? She watched Jimmy sheepishly brush off the leaves and dirt from his arms. Jimmy always turned her frowns back into smiles.
     “What’s up, Deb?” Tyler asked.

     “I have to see Lydia first.”

     “Okay, Deb.” Lydia uncrossed her arms and smoothed her purple dress. She followed Debra through the open doorway of the empty lighthouse. There was no stairway or ladder left inside. Somehow the floor was a dirt floor. Over two hundred years ago this lighthouse had been an important warning beacon for steamboat pilots trying to avoid the sandbars on this side of the river. Now it was an empty, dark husk except for the two young women facing each other in the shadows.

     Debra took several deep breaths then began.

     “The Spirit of the Lord says: You are faithful, but not as passionate towards me as you once were. Yet it is good you still hate those perverse acts committed by many around you. Repent and climb back up to the lofty heights of love for me you have fallen from.”

     Lydia stood silent for a few seconds. This never happened before. Other than saving Jimmy from accidents, Debra never made personal forecasts. Something deep inside Lydia made her want to know what Debra meant.
     “Is this from the Bible? Are you talking about a passage from the Bible or is this for me personally?”
     “This is for you to obey.”
     “All right, Deb. I’ll work on loving God more.”
     “Don’t leave, sister.” Debra reached out and held both of Lydia’s hands before Lydia could move. “The next one is for me.”

     “What is it? I’ll stay, don’t worry.”

     “Oh, Lord, I can feel it hitting me even now. I don’t want to see anymore! I don’t think I can stand it. Please, Lord, don’t let this anguish happen!”
     “What do you see? I’m right here, Deb.”

     Debra squeezed Lydia’s hands with a grip so tight it was painful. She tilted her head back and began.

     “The Spirit of the Lord says: Do not be afraid of the test I will give you. Be faithful even to the point of death and you will receive the most glorious reward!”

     Debra let go of her hands. In the dim light inside the small lighthouse Lydia could see tears shining in the blue eyes of her friend.

     “It’s going to be all right,” Lydia said. “You’re going to get a glorious reward.”

     “You don’t understand. Thank you for staying with me.”
     Lydia walked out of the lighthouse. Everyone had backed away. They stood in a row watching her come out. She stared at her boyfriend Davy-Jake with her intense, olive-green eyes. He didn’t get it. He looked relieved Debra hadn’t said something about the mistake the couple had made the night of the dance last month.

     “She wants Tyler to come in next.” Lydia felt like her best friend Debra just heaved a giant weight onto her shoulders. The last thing she wanted was another burden.

*                                                 *                                                 *

     Tyler walked into the lighthouse. The wind picked up from the west and whistled through the place. They looked at each other for a few seconds. He started to ask her what this was about but before he could she began.

     “The Spirit of the Lord says: Repent! You are in league with this world, not with me! Worship those idols no more or when I return the words from my mouth will strike you like a long sword.”

     It took a few seconds for him to take it in. When he understood he turned on his heel and jogged out of the lighthouse. He slipped on something right outside then ran past the others without a goodbye and kept running when they called after him.

     He ran fast down the path and thought about how she was just like his parents and just like Reverend Mandal and all the others at his church. Nobody cared about his dreams, nobody but him.
     Pastor Sterling, Debra’s father, was in the church parking lot searching for gum wrappers and other litter. The silver-haired man gave a friendly smile. He waved but Tyler barely returned it as he sprinted by. He ran across the gravel road and kept running down the broken concrete steps that seemed to go endlessly downhill. He had effortlessly run up these same steps this morning but now had trouble putting his feet where they needed to go.
     It’s all a psych-out, he told himself. She’s just trying to psych me. Tyler convinced himself to believe it. He made it to the bottom of the hill and ran through the old church cemetery then past the small ranch house where Debra and her parents lived. He got out onto the paved road and kept running all the way back to Riverton.

*                                          *                                          *

     “What did she tell you, Lid?” Rick asked his younger sister. She shook her head. Rick dropped his gaze down to the ground and saw the squirming mass of big earthworms. Hundreds of nightcrawlers covered the open ground around the lighthouse. Last night it had rained; the damp soil plus the vibrations from the powerful sound system must have driven them out of the earth all at once.

     “Look at the worms!” Kim almost screamed. Rick knew the way worms coiled around each other disgusted her.

     “Rick,” Debra’s voice called from inside the lighthouse.

     Rick shifted into his toughest stance. This was getting out of hand. What did she say to Tyler? He wanted to know. This was freaking everybody out.
     Across the river storm clouds, dark as soot, were blowing in from the west. Rick walked over the squirming mass. The earthworms covered his most expensive dress shoes, some smashed bloody from Tyler running over them. Weird that worm blood was red, looked like human blood. He tried to ignore it and slipped twice.
     He entered the dark lighthouse with an angry face. Debra stared at him like no one ever had before. Rick always thought Debra’s face was radiantly beautiful but he wasn’t interested in dating her and he knew Davy-Jake wasn’t interested either. They both agreed she was too detached, like she was just passing through. But right now her blue eyes focused on him in an unnerving way. Before he could speak she began.

      “The Spirit of the Lord says: You cannot combine worship of the world and worship of the Lord! Do not listen to the teaching of the wicked woman who will seek you out or you will suffer agony. Then you will know I am He who fathoms the depths of the mind and the heart.”

     The wind keened through the lighthouse as he went out the doorway. He turned to look out across the river and saw lightning then heard thunder. The few boats left struggled to get through the whitecaps and back to the safety of the marina a mile upriver. All around them tree limbs violently shimmied with the blowing wind. He wanted to get this done and get everybody out of here.
     “No, I don’t want to go in there! I don’t want to step on those things!” Kim backed away from him like someone afraid of terrible news.
     Rick walked up to her, picked her up and carried her to the lighthouse doorway. He let her down but she hesitated. Still sunshine on this side of the river but the gusting wind moving tree branches made strange fluid shadows inside the lighthouse. Kim smoothed her lime-green dress, pleading with her hazel eyes as he backed away. She finally went inside and quietly faced Debra.

*                                             *                                             *

     “The Spirit of the Lord says: You are spiritually dead. Awake and repent. See the light of divine truth or my wrath will stealthily descend upon you and you will not perceive it until it is too late.”
     Kim marched out of the lighthouse with a confused and perturbed look. She tip-toed through the ankle-deep nightcrawlers to Jimmy and told him he was next. The wind died down momentarily but the wall of rain and dust was moving fast into the river valley.

     “Rick, take me home.” Kim couldn’t believe this. This had to be the most humiliating thing she had ever gone through. It was all Rick’s fault; he should never have made her go in there to listen to that psycho-girl.
     “I will as soon as she’s done.” Rick didn’t even look at her when he answered. He just stared out at the river with that gone-away look again.

*                                              *                                                *

     It was like night was falling at noon. Rick hoped they could all get out of here before a tornado hit. The wind was picking up again. He saw an intense lightning bolt strike the river and it blinded him for a few seconds. A giant thunderclap shook the ground like an earthquake.

     “You have Mom’s car keys?” Rick called out to his sister Lydia.
     “Yeah, she went with Dan. They went to Percy’s.” She tossed the car keys to Rick. “You want to go with us to meet Mom and Dan at Percy’s?” Lydia shouted above the din. “Dan said he would buy lunch for everybody.”

     “Rick, I want to go home now.” Kim sounded ready to cry.

     “What did she say to you?” Rick cocked his head close to her face so the others would not hear her answer.

     “I don’t know. It didn’t make any sense. I think she’s gone schizoid. She’s hearing voices that are telling her what to say.”
     “Go on inside, Jimmy.” Davy-Jake noticed Jimmy fidgeting beside the lighthouse, looking like a badly frightened little kid. “Go on now. We have to get going. It’s just Debra in there. She’s gonna talk to you, give you some advice; that’s all.”

*                                                 *                                                *

     Jimmy entered the darkness and Debra immediately began.

     “The Spirit of the Lord says: While your strength against your sin is small, your faith is great. All who have humiliated you I will humble before you and command them to say out loud that my love for you is the greatest. Because of your patience in the trials of this life I will also keep you from the final terrors.”

     Jimmy had never been afraid of Debra. Unlike the other kids she had never tried to hurt or make fun of him. Now she was talking about final terrors. It didn’t sound like Debra talking at all. He didn’t like the thunderstorm and was scared Debra was turning into someone else. Jimmy wanted to go home right now too.

*                                                 *                                                *

     As soon as Jimmy stepped out, Davy-Jake strode up to the lighthouse. DJ Diamond the second highest scorer on the varsity basketball team. He stopped and patted Jimmy on the back. He threw down the sassafras twig he had been chewing on and straightened out his tie. His six-foot seven-inches ducked through the doorway into the blackness inside.

     “Debra Sterling, if you would have soothsaid a worm ranch was going to be conjured up right here today, I could have brought my fishing buckets and a couple cans of coffee grounds.” Another gigantic thunderclap exploded and lightning flashed inside the lighthouse illuminating Debra’s face for a split second. Davy-Jake thought he heard his name in the thunder and a chill went up his spine.

      “The Spirit of the Lord says: You do not oppose the truth, but you do not support it either! You are self-sufficient in this evil world but a dependent baby in knowledge of the Spirit. Redeem yourself by attaining knowledge of the truth in the fiery trials I will send to you.”

     The storm hit. It was hail, not rain, big hail that quickly covered the ground. Davy-Jake carried Debra out of the lighthouse. He moved fast to the trail and Lydia ran up next to him.

     “She fainted!” He yelled so Lydia could hear. Lydia put his jacket over her and Debra’s heads but Davy-Jake was just too tall and got clobbered by the huge hail. It was like being hit by dozens of fists.

*                                                  *                                                  *

     Rick ran with Kim under his suit jacket. Jimmy was right behind them. Everything looked sinister, suddenly seemed like unexplored territory even though they had all been coming up here for after-church walks since he was old enough to remember.

     As they ran past it, Rick hoped the ancient, one-hundred-fifty-foot-tall tree known as the Great Pecan Tree wouldn’t topple down on top of them. People said that tree must be over 600 years old. Rick figured it wouldn’t stay standing many more storms, if it made it through this one.

     They ran into Pastor Sterling halfway down the trail. He led the six teenagers back into their warm, dry church. When the pheasant-egg-sized hail changed to sleet, Rick and Kim left in his mother’s car.

     “What exactly did she say to you?” Rick steered the car carefully down the slippery and steep winding road from the church.

     “She said I was ‘spiritually dead.’ What exactly did she say to you?”

     “She said I can’t worship this world and God at the same time.” Rick kept his eyes on the road. They made it to the paved road but conditions were still bad so he concentrated on driving and didn’t say anything for a while.

     “Listen, I’m sorry I’ve been distracted lately,” he finally said.

     “It’s okay. I guess I’m a nag. So what do you think? Is she crazy?”

     “Debra is a person with an amazing mind. But people with amazing mental abilities can have amazing mental breakdowns. Maybe there’s something to what she’s saying. We have to keep an open mind. And you’re not a nag.”

     By the time he drove the car up into the long driveway in front of her family’s almost-mansion the sky was clearing. He stopped to let Kim out at the front walk. She opened her car door before he could say anything but then turned and wrapped her arms around his back and kissed him on the lips. They necked for a minute as she ran her slender fingers through his wavy black hair. She got out of the car and ran up the walk to the steps leading to the big front door.

     Rick watched her go inside then drove on home. Before he went inside his modest house he took off his shoes and socks, walked through the wet backyard barefoot to toss his worm-guts-stained shoes into the dumpster. It was sunny and warm again.

*                                              *                                             *

      “Boy that was a hoot.” Lydia was sitting between Jimmy and Davy-Jake in the cab of Davy-Jake’s old pickup truck. She held a big chunk of hail ice wrapped in a rag up against Davy-Jake’s knot-swollen head as he navigated the pickup down the slippery, winding church road.
     “Thanks for letting us use your giant hail ice, Jimmy.” Lydia patted Jimmy on the shoulder with her other hand. Jimmy had picked up the softball-sized hail from the lawn in front of the church as they hurried inside. It melted down to baseball size before they left so he no longer wanted to save it in his mom’s freezer chest. Lydia had to suppress a smile when he complained that now he wouldn’t become famous showing people the iceberg that fell from the sky. 

     “Are ya hungry, Jimmy?” Davy-Jake asked. Jimmy was always hungry of course so he forgot about the giant hail and quit pouting. Davy-Jake turned left to get onto the paved road and headed for Percy’s Catfish Restaurant which was two miles past Riverton on the county road running next to the Mississippi. “Yeah, darling, that was a hoot. I just hope Debra’s all right.”

     “That wasn’t good she didn’t remember talking to us inside the lighthouse,” Lydia said.
     “No, it’s not good,” Davy-Jake said. “It’s also not good that some people left all horn-mad at what Deb had to say to ‘em. I’m afraid some friendships were lost tonight. I mean today. Seems like nighttime.”
     “Why did everybody get so upset? What she said to me wasn’t that bad.” Lydia still felt the weight of an invisible burden. How could she explain it? The words Debra had said to her were not that bad.

     “Remember she told us this was the last time we’d all be together? When she spoke to me privately she said I was going to go through some ‘fiery trials.’ I guess the others didn’t care to hear that kind of soothsaying coming from her. The thing about our Debra is she has a lot of real nice features, but one feature that can go either way is she’s never wrong when she says something is going to happen. And everybody knows she’s never wrong when she says something’s going to happen. It’s like having to stand there still when somebody’s aiming an arrow at your chest.”

     “What do you think it means?” Lydia felt weighed down and desperately wanted to understand Debra.
     “I don’t have a clue,” Davy-Jake answered.
     “Well, we shouldn’t act like this.” Lydia frowned. “Our Christian faith says we’re supposed to love each other.”

     “I hear ya. Sometimes it looks like we’re just as bad as the rest of the world, teratos included.”
     “Debra’s going to be all right.” Jimmy was ready to start talking again. “Everything’s going to be all right.”

 

II. Final Exams

 

      Later that Sunday evening the dark clouds returned. Wayne Browner parked his maroon sports car in the driveway of one of his family’s many houses in Bluff City. Today was his birthday. Earlier he had been celebrating out on the Mississippi River in a big pleasure boat with sixteen of his high school friends. They had been drinking homemade wine and he knew he reeked of it.
     The hailstorm forced them back to the marina but that didn’t stop the partying. Wayne and the other revelers kept at it inside the private clubhouse at the marina all afternoon. Right when he picked out a suitably intoxicated girl, the man everyone thought of as his father sent an encrypted text message ordering him to report to this house immediately.   

     The house was located in the largest town in Moreau County. Bluff City was an old river town, the county seat, and the man who summoned him had recently been appointed the chairman of the county board.

     Wayne entered the house quietly. He had to stay on guard around this man. The two-hundred-year-old house was just used as a business office now. The rotund man with the shaved head and big sideburns did not look up from his desk when Wayne creaked the door shut.

     “I trust the boat and four jet skis were adequate for your needs,” Dean Browner said.
     “Yes, they were,” Wayne said without a smile. “The river was a little cold but everybody had a good time.”

     Dean’s intense blue eyes flashed up at Wayne. He finally finished signing the papers he was working on and glared up at the young man. The house stood silent for a moment. Dean never played music or participated in or viewed holographic net-cast entertainment. He stayed up late every night working or hatching schemes. After Dean’s recent trip to the new E.U. capitol of Lisbon, Portugal, Wayne observed that the man never seemed to go to sleep. 

     “It’s your birthday,” Dean said. “Almost nineteen years ago I risked an extended prison sentence so that you could be born.”

     “What do you mean?” Wayne asked.

     “First, what have you accomplished?” Dean asked. “You know who we worship and what we believe.”

     “Yes, I know,” Wayne said. “We worship the ruler of this universe. He is the all-powerful Angel of Celestial Light.”
     “And what have I taught you to believe?”
     “That a force from outside this universe is fighting against us. Someday this force will be defeated and we will rule the lesser people.” Wayne made sure he recited this correctly.

     “What will the lesser people be then?” Dean asked.

     “Our slaves and our sport,” Wayne answered.

     “That day is almost here, right at the doorstep, and what have you done?” Dean gave a sneer. “You get straight A’s and play on a basketball team with Christians.”

     “Davy-Jake and the others know better than to mess with me.” Wayne stood stiff like a soldier at attention.

     Dean leaned forward and glowered up at Wayne, contempt in his eyes.
     “Davy-Jake Diamond is a Christian who should be terrified to the point of paralysis at the thought of your presence. Your ineffectual attempts at even bullying those pathetic creatures make me want to send you to another fate. You don’t deserve the power I am about to give you.”
     “I’ve been working on a plan with the teacher,” Wayne said. “I know a lot of their weaknesses now.”

     “Then it’s almost too late to act. Three weeks until graduation.” Dean rose from his dark green leather desk chair and went to the bookcase. He took five books from a lower shelf and there was a safe. Dean opened it. Inside was a box of surgical gloves. He put on a pair then tossed the box to Wayne.

      As Wayne put on the surgical gloves, he watched Dean pull out a spiral notebook from the back of the safe. It was thick and had a faded red cover that was torn and stained.

     “Eighty-eight years ago there were two brothers who lived in this town, in this very house. One, Nick Browner, was my grandfather. The other brother’s name was Leonard Wayne Browner.

     “These two teenage brothers ruled this community and they believed as I have taught you. They used many illegal substances referred to as ‘psychedelic’ back then and one particular combination of those drugs caused Leonard, the eldest, to begin writing in this notebook. He continued writing for more than a week straight, without sleep.

     “When he completed what he had to write, he obtained a handgun then went to the high school and executed two Christian students and one teacher who tried to intervene. He would have accomplished more but was shot in the head by a bushwhacking sheriff’s deputy named Frank Diamond.
     “Read this now. It is preparation for your real final exam. You watched the news this morning. The bait has been set out. Very soon now the world will be transformed.”

     Wayne sat down on the dark green business office couch and read through the yellowed pages of the Notebook. When he came to the end he looked up with reverence at Dean.
     “So the blood saved in the freezer was used?” Wayne asked. “The blood that became me was kept frozen by our family all these years because of this prediction in the Notebook?”   

     “Yes,” Dean said. “You are the exact twin of a Browner born over one hundred years ago. Now come with me.”

     Wayne followed Dean up the creaking staircase to a room on the second floor. He had never come up here before. He felt a voice whispering something to him but nothing was there. Dean opened the door to a bedroom furnished with late twentieth century antiques.
     “This was his room,” Dean said. “Except to clean, nothing has been touched in here in eighty-eight years.”

     Wayne entered the bedroom and gazed up at the posters of heavy metal bands. Depraved-looking men with long, blow-dried hair and outlandish leather costumes stared back at him. It wasn’t played anymore but Wayne knew the legends about heavy metal music. There was a bed and in the corner an antique stereo system with a pair of huge box-like speakers and a turntable. A plastic milk crate contained record albums with gaudy artwork covers. They seemed familiar even though he had never seen a vinyl disc before.

     “Spend some time here. You’re back home. But heed what I told you earlier. It stands. And another thing, I had your dogs taken up to Chicago. It’s still illegal for now, but humans are not the only ones that can get enhanced.”

     Wayne smiled in front of Dean for the first time in his life.

*                                    *                                    *

     The alarm rang and Rick Machado dragged himself out of bed. Lydia was up already so he had to wait to get into the bathroom. Christian families didn’t have holographic netcast centers so he turned on the kitchen radio. His mother, Sara Larson, came in. She looked sleepy but perturbed.
     “Why didn’t you sit with us at church yesterday?” she asked.
     “There wasn’t room,” he said. “I had to sit with Kim. Can I use your bathroom? Lydia’s in there shaving her legs or something.”
     “Why didn’t you come over to Percy’s? Dan and I had a big announcement and you never showed up.” She followed him into her master bedroom.
     “I’m out, I’m out.”  Lydia came out of the main bathroom, her luxurious sable hair thoroughly brushed.

     “Did Dan propose again?” Rick asked his mother.
     “Yes, he did,” Sara said.  “The only reason, which you know very well, that we’re not married right now is the way you acted when he proposed the first time.”
     “I was eleven, but it was all my fault,” he said.

     “Dan has been a father to you as long as you can remember. When we’re not dating you two get along great. I don’t understand why you don’t want me to be happy.”
     Rick was at the main bathroom door again. Lydia, wearing her solar system print pajamas, stood at their small kitchen table. She stared at him as she poured her favorite cereal into a bowl.
     “You’re going to do whatever you want to do. Why are you putting your happiness on me when what I think isn’t even considered?” He went in and shut the door.
     “We’re a family!” He heard his mother’s raised voice through the door. “That’s what families do. We’re supposed to put our happiness on each other. You’re eighteen now, what’s wrong with you?”

*                                    *                                     *

     The new day was bright and cold. As their mother drove them to school, Lydia talked about how funny Davy-Jake was and bragged about his heroic actions during their escape from the hailstorm.
     “Remember at Percy’s when you asked how many bumps he had on his head, and he said, ‘Before or after the hail hit me?’ It was a hoot.” Lydia started chuckling.

     “Why do you have to say that?” Rick asked.
     “Say what?” Lydia asked.
     “’Hoot’. You’re starting to talk like him.”

     “Don’t you start with me, boy. I’ll hit you so hard you’ll wake up next week and think it’s last month.”
     “Stop it, you two!” Sara shouted. “I’ve had enough this morning.”

     When they got to the high school in Bluff City ten miles later, Lydia was still fuming. She had a temper and was a tough physical fighter, Rick knew from experience.  Even worse she was a stubborn verbal brawler and this perceived insult could fester for days.
     “I’m sorry, Mom, Lydia. Forgive me, all right?  Both your guys are great. I don’t know what to think about graduation, I guess. A lot of changes are coming up all at once.”
     “Listen, Ricky, honey, whatever you do, promise me you won’t even think about putting that animal DNA into your body. Promise me.”
     “I’m not going to do anything freaky, Mom. You know that.”

     He got out of the car into the fresh spring morning. It was starting to warm up. The high school had tulip trees in bloom in front of the campus and the scents from the white flowers greeted him as he walked by. Lydia should be over it by lunch, he figured. If not then it was her problem.

     It was day number 583, the digital display read under the life-sized statue of Secretary-General Alfonso Fernando Nogueira Sebastiao, the leader beloved around the world. Sebastiao and his U.N. administration instituted the treaties and international law that were said to have brought two decades of peace as well as the Global Guaranteed Minimum Wage that ended hunger, but not quite poverty yet, in the former Third World.

     The heroic statue stood thirty feet in front of the high school office. The school administration had erected the space-manufactured metal-alloy statue barely a week after Sebastiao’s last public speech in which he had promised that a transforming event would take place when he returned.

     “Everything else the human race has accomplished will be just a dock for the launching of our bold new ship of limitless human potential.” Sebastiao’s words were inscribed at the base of the statue.
     Speculation concerning Sebastiao’s disappearance swirled around the globe. Would the great leader return with a new limitless energy source or a plan for space colonization? Would he announce that there had been contact with space aliens? Maybe a medical breakthrough that would end aging and death? Rumor of a new economic system, “The New Prosperity” that would make everyone on earth wealthy, was probably the most discussed. Did this constellation of E.U. multi-billionaires suddenly offering to sponsor millions of citizens to become transgenic have something to do with it? 

     Rick stood in front of the statue thinking about it. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Debra Sterling kneeling over something under a big oak tree about forty feet away. He looked up into the branches of newly emerging leaves and saw that yesterday’s storm had blown apart a squirrel’s nest. Debra was kneeling over and talking to a dead baby squirrel.  He heard her now.  She was telling this dead dumb animal that it and all of nature were going to be reborn and given voices to praise God someday.  He knew she wasn’t an anthropomorphizing nutcase but it sure must look like it to everyone else.  The stark contrast between pipe-dreaming Christians like her and the undeniable accomplishments of the man this statue represented could not be more apparent.

     Now it was even worse. Five of the Scary Clown Club overheard her as they walked by. He knew all five of them, muscle-bound Doug Strapman, Mike Pitcher, Marsha Harris, Cassie Brosh, and smart-mouthed little Lenny Davis. Mike, Lenny, and Marsha sat behind him in his first-hour international law class. About one-third of the seven hundred students in the Moreau County high school were Christians and about one-third were openly hostile to Christians. The S.C.C. was the clique most openly antagonistic to people of faith and the five stopped to laugh and jeer at Debra.

     Rick steeled himself to intervene but then Lydia walked up beside Debra. All five S.C.C. lowered their voices and started walking. Lydia really is something, he thought as he walked on past the statue. People were awed by her unique beauty and her moxie. And she was a loving person. He knew she was a loving sister who would face down anything to protect him or their mother or anyone else she loved. He liked Davy-Jake, they used to be best friends, but he felt she deserved better. Of course she was a long way from getting married. She was only seventeen. It wouldn’t last, he decided.

     After home room he walked into his first hour class and sat down at his desk in the front. This was his favorite class. He used to like art, was talented with an old-fashioned paint brush. He had won first place at the county fair art show two years ago but now he was into international law. Both the subject matter and the teacher were the best. The three S.C.C. came in and sat down at their desks behind him. They were still giggling about Debra but kept it down so he ignored it.

     Angela Starr strolled in and sat down on the front of her teacher’s desk. She faced the class with a bottle of drinking water in one hand and her wall-screen remote in the other. She started right in with a presentation that summarized the entire semester, reviewing for the practice final exam she would give them the second half of the hour.
     Rick couldn’t help it, he stared at her. She was a dazzling, mature beauty to him. She was twenty-six, had glossy blond hair that fell in waves to the middle of her back, keen bronze eyes, and a white smile with just a hint of mischievousness. Of course her lavender dress suit was form-fitting, but not too revealing. There was no ring on her left hand.
     “Mr. Machado, would you please summarize for the class the history of human transgenic experience and the resulting development of the bioethical law that regulates this phenomena.”
     Rick was caught off guard. She picked him too quickly this morning. From behind he heard Cassie whisper, “Mr. Machado.” Lenny was already snickering.

     “Sure,” Rick finally got out. “The first real example of successful transgenic manipulation of established human genomes happened twenty-eight years ago in Asia and Africa. Those areas were in the midst of the second AIDS pandemic.  There was a new wave of drug-resistant HIV viruses and the world health community was desperate. Researchers used a controversial new gene therapy technique to convert two hundred patients’ immune systems from human genome to a human-mandrill baboon transgenic genome. The volunteer patients were men and women who felt they had nothing to lose.”

     “Tell us what happened to those patients.” Angela stood right in front of his desk.

     “About ninety percent died of tumors that formed rapidly and some died of AIDS before their new immune systems could kick in.”

     “’Kick in.’ I like that, Rick. But what about the rest?”

     “Nine were successful,” he said. “Six in Thailand and three in South Africa. Their new immune systems defeated the virus. But the local people in their villages believed they had been cursed or bewitched and all nine were publicly murdered.”
     “Community intolerance,” Angela said. “One of the most important ethical justifications for creating the legal designation of Protected Group Status. Tell us the rest, Rick.”

     “Well, later the same year the transgenic patients were murdered, new anti-viral, small-molecule drugs came online so the emergency transgenic research was ended. Then, sixteen years ago at the summer Olympic Games, investigators for the Olympic committee discovered that athletes from the Pacific Rim were not completely human, or their genomes were not completely human to be more accurate. The games were cancelled and the nine other free-trade realms banned transgenic manipulations of their citizens. But the Pacific Rim held out for legalizing what they called ‘enhancements’ and it went to the World Court. The decision finally came down two years ago giving transgenic persons full civil rights and Protected Group Status.”

     “What does the word ‘terato’ mean, Rick?”

     Rick was caught off guard again. To even say that word was a class-1 ethics violation. He guessed that for teaching purposes she could get away with it.
     “It means a degenerate who chooses to be turned into a freak of nature.”

     “Words are powerful, class,” Angela said. “Terato originally meant ‘wonder’ and is used in the word teratology, which is the study of malformations of embryos. That scientific term has been transformed into a welding torch of hate aimed at transgenic persons. Some words are more subtle but equally damaging. Saying ‘manipulations’ instead of the correct word ‘enhancement’ is a good example. I’m not picking on you, Rick. You did a great job and I think this was a fantastic lesson for the class.” She started walking back and forth across the front of the classroom. Her voice became more and more passionate.
     “We need to keep in mind that we are going through the most exciting time in the history of human evolution. Some parts of this community are openly opposed to this evolutionary leap. They will come up with tragic anecdotes or maybe even statistics designed to strike fear in their fellow citizens about, let’s say what this is about: the liberation of humanity from our inherited genes. This genetic inheritance is a prison for the human race, just like class, race, gender, and sexual orientation were shackles previous generations had to fight to remove. And just like those other struggles the road to empowerment can be messy. You may very well see some choose frightening morphologies in order to gain this empowerment. It’s the healthy thing to do. You can compare it to the weird haircuts, body piercing, and militant rhetoric previous counter-cultures employed.”

     Ms. Starr stopped and gazed at the class. She looked at Rick with an extra sparkle in her eyes as she asked if anyone had any questions. Everyone seemed awed into silence so she passed out the practice final exam. Before she left the classroom for the teacher’s lounge, she leaned down and put her arm around Rick’s shoulders. She spoke closely into his ear. “I’d like to talk to you about something very important after school this afternoon.”
     “Okay.” He tried hard to sound nonchalant.
     She left them to their practice final exam. Rick was on cloud nine taking the test but then overheard Lenny and Cassie making obscene comments about his sister and Davy-Jake and his number 2 pencil broke.

*                                              *                                             *

     During lunch Rick avoided the table with Lydia and Davy-Jake and Debra. He couldn’t find Kim but then noticed the back of a familiar head at one of the two-seat tables tucked away in an alcove.

     “Are you going to bolt if I have a seat, Pandav?” Rick asked.
     Tyler smiled and gestured for him to sit. Rick sat down and started eating his chicken tacos. Tyler stared at him. He waited for Rick to ask but he kept eating.

     “You’re the first one I’ve talked to since last night, and you’re going to be the first I apologize to for my rudeness,” Tyler finally said.

     “You mean yester-day,” Rick corrected him. “Everybody talks like it happened last night but it was the middle of the day.”

     “That’s funny, huh?” Tyler’s ebony eyes became serious. “Did Deb talk to everyone?”
     “She did,” Rick said.

     “Did anyone else run?” Tyler asked.

     “Not until the hail.”

     “You’re not going to ask me what she said to make me take off?” Tyler gave an exasperated look.

     “No, I’m going to ask you to pass the ketchup,” Rick said. “Okay, it’s true. I’m dying with curiosity. What did she say?”

     “It wasn’t what she said.” Tyler leaned forward. “I’ll tell everyone what she told me but I’ll only confess this to you. I am in love with that girl. She might as well be a million kilometers away but I love her.”

     “Oh,” Rick managed to say after he stopped chewing and swallowed.
     “My parents are strict evangelical Christians, as you know, but they are also traditionalist when it comes to whom I should marry, especially my mother. The forms of torture she would inflict on me if I brought home a blondie have always made me curious. Would she start with electroshock? Perhaps a little flailing? Finish with bastinado of the feet, or the fingernails pulled out one by one?” Tyler got a mock pondering look on his face.

     Rick laughed and had to stop eating to keep from choking. He took a sip of his chocolate milk and leaned back to recover.
     “You’re thinking about doing it, aren’t you?” Tyler asked.

     “Doing what?” Rick suddenly looked guilty.

     “You know what I mean, get enhanced.”

     “It’s crossed my mind.” Rick shrugged. “But like you I wouldn’t want to change my morphology. I’m thinking about trying to get into a university, maybe go for a law degree.”
     “It’s evil, pure evil, just like they say.” Tyler started eating again.

     “You think God cares if we get new genes from animals?” Rick stared at Tyler to emphasize his logic.

     “God does not want us to put anything before Him,” Tyler said. “He is very possessive, in His holy way. But He lets us choose. And for us it is the worst time of life to be given this choice. Children and older people at least like what they are or are comfortable with what they’ve become. At our age we hate what we are. We want to be all-powerful but we feel helpless. I’m telling you, this is the mark of the Beast.”
     “Revelation?” Rick scoffed when he said the word. “This bio-tech stuff has been going on for decades. The mark of the Beast is an end-times prophecy. It has to do with tattooing people on the forehead with a code number as a requirement to participate in the economy. This isn’t that.”

     “We don’t know where this is going or what is really going on behind the scenes right now,” Tyler said. “These laws that you admire so much are not coming from a democracy accountable to the people.”

     “History proves elections are always corrupted by big money.” Rick shrugged again. “Besides, if you think it’s evil why are you considering doing it?”

     “Maybe I am evil,” Tyler said. “The Holy Spirit, through Debra, warned me if I didn’t stop worshipping idols God was going to come after me with a sword. So what do I do? I run back home, go to my room and pick up a book about Pele, the greatest soccer superstar of the twentieth century. You’ve seen my room. It was full of posters of athletes until this morning. When I woke up the Global Radio News reported they’ve enhanced people to grow wings and fly. Fly under their own power!”

     “That’s incredible,” Rick said. “I hadn’t heard that.”

     “And giants!” Tyler said. “You can become a giant of up to five metric tons! Team sports are finished. How can you have professional games that would allow all these, these beasts to participate! So I tore down all my posters. I didn’t repent having them; I just tore them down because now they’re obsolete. I’m a worthless, disrespectful son who fantasizes about a blond prophetess all night. God is going to be coming for me with a sword so I might as well go become a giant that stomps around and gets attention while I can.”
     “Maybe you just need a vacation,” Rick said and the bell rang. Tyler got up and thumped Rick playfully on the back of the head. They took their trays to the conveyer belt and Rick went to his next class.

*                                               *                                               *

     Ms. Peacock liked owls. Photographs and small statues of owls and other large birds decorated her classroom. But it was the huge poster of the “piasa bird” that gave Debra Sterling the creeps. The image of the winged, antlered monster had been taken from a mysterious painting the French explorers discovered on a cliff overlooking the Mississippi River. Debra sat at her desk and tried to think about higher things as this late-thirties woman with lank brunette hair lectured about the end of fiction.

     “This class is called language arts,” Ms. Peacock said to start the class this afternoon.  “A century ago you would have been required to take ‘English literature’. Why the change? The answer is simple. Six decades ago the human race began rejecting the static concept of fiction as they began embracing interactive art. Video games and then the rise of reality television were the beginnings of this cultural rejection of scripted plots that reeked of pretension. In their egotism those old writers believed they had something to teach us. Now we take it for granted that we are free to act out the truth of our inner selves in the entertainment and mythic stories that we ourselves create. This class was designed to give you the language tools most useful to these ends. I hope I have succeeded.

     “I want to have some class participation now. Deb-ra, we would like to hear about your assignment to take part in the interactive holographic netcast of ‘Leda and the Swan’. You were assigned to be Leda, record your spontaneous interactions, and then take the part of the Swan and do the same.”

     “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I didn’t complete the assignment.” Debra fidgeted in her seat and looked away from Ms. Peacock.
     “Why not?” Ms. Peacock looked personally hurt, her over-sized lips pouted. “What were you doing when I sent you to the holographic netcast center?”

     “It’s against my religion to play-act in a story about a giant swan that rapes a young girl,” Debra said. “So when we were at the netcast center I read my Bible instead.”

     “That’s an ethical violation. Mentioning that book in this classroom is a class-2 ethics violation.” Ms. Peacock looked like a boxer who had taken a hard punch but was coming back swinging.

     “It’s a class-2 ethics violation to not tell a teacher the truth, ma’am, and you asked me.” Debra looked the teacher in the eye.

     “That doesn’t give you the right to insult me and pollute this classroom by mentioning that out-of-date, ridiculous, historically inaccurate, and contradictory assemblage.” Ms. Peacock’s furious face flushed a deep red.
     “Ma’am, it’s the only up-to-date interactive source of truth we have. Everything else is dated the second it’s uploaded onto the net.”
     Ms. Peacock went to her desk and got out a write-up slip. She sent Debra to the dean’s office with a class-1 ethics violation accusing her of undermining a teacher’s authority in a classroom. That afternoon Debra was expelled from high school with less than three weeks to go before graduation.

*                                              *                                             *

     Rick walked into the international law classroom after school. Angela Starr gave him a big smile. She was sitting on her desk but next to the desk in her chair sat Wayne Browner. The principal of the high school, Mr. Woodruff, sat by himself in a student’s desk halfway across the classroom.
     Wayne locked eyes with Rick. Rick nodded a greeting but Wayne kept the eye contact too long and didn’t nod back. Wayne was lean in a muscular way and his angular but handsome face showed layers of experience of things Rick could not imagine. Davy-Jake used to play on the basketball team with this guy but had always despised him. It had something to do with an old family feud. Rick never had a confrontation with Wayne but it was well known that he was the leader of the Scary Clown Club. Rick didn’t trust him.
     “I’m so glad you came, Rick,” Angela said.

     “What’s this about?” Rick tried to act uninterested. “My mom and sister are waiting for me in the parking lot. I have to get going.”

     “Rick, the reason I wanted you to stop by is that I am requesting your participation in a very special committee that will meet here at the auditorium this Saturday at two o’clock. I’m inviting you and Wayne to be the student representatives.”
     “What’s this committee’s purpose?” Rick couldn’t help staring at her.
     “It’s an advisory group that will assist the general public in the cultural transition that’s coming,” Wayne answered. “Transgenic persons will be commonplace in just a few short weeks.”
     “We know there is likely to be fierce resistance from the Christian community and we want to do what we can to make this transition violence free.” Angela went on. “I know you are a Christian, Rick, even though you’ve been very strict in adhering to the anti-proselytizing ethic codes here at school. I respect your devotion to the law.”

     “Well, I appreciate that but I’m afraid I can’t participate,” Rick said. “I’ll probably be helping to organize a demonstration against this school.”
     Angela looked puzzled and Wayne suddenly looked hostile. He had never really disengaged his aggressive eye contact and now Rick returned it.

     “You’ve never acted like this before.” Angela looked hurt.

     “My friend was never expelled before,” Rick said. “The only other student expulsion since I’ve been attending this school was Henry Moore. He committed violent assaults on teachers and students for two years before they got around to kicking him out. My friend was just trying to defend herself from a teacher’s harassment.”

     Angela still looked puzzled and hurt. She turned to the silent principal and asked him to explain the reason for the expulsion. The man cleared his throat several times before he answered.

     “That Christian girl was being disruptive in Carla Peacock’s classroom,” Mr. Woodruff said. “I can’t afford a sanction from the teacher’s union.”
     “Carla Peacock…” Angela managed to suppress a laugh but a quick smile flashed out and then she went back to serious. “Something can be done about this, right?”

     Mr. Woodruff the principal cleared his throat one more time. He promised that Debra Sterling would be reinstated tomorrow morning. He would call the girl’s parents himself. Debra would get a C in Peacock’s class without having to attend it the rest of the school year or take the final.

     “You see, Rick?” Angela said. “When basic reason is adhered to reasonable outcomes can occur. Please tell me you’ll come to the meeting.”
     “I don’t have a ride,” Rick said after a pause. “My mom works double shifts on Saturday and she takes the car.”
     “Rick, give me your cell phone number and directions to your house and I’ll pick you up myself.” Angela slipped off the desk.

     “Okay,” Rick said after a shorter pause. He walked over to her face to face to give her the information. She told him with a gleam in her eye that she didn’t need to write it down. He turned to go.

     “Can I get Tyler Pandav’s cell phone number?” Wayne asked out of the blue. “I’d like to give him a surprise call to congratulate him on that great championship game, even though we lost in the end. He really is a fantastic goalie.”

     “I don’t give out my friends’ cell phone numbers,” Rick said. “Just congratulate him when you see him tomorrow.”

     “He sticks pretty close to the other Indian Christians, and with you,” Wayne said. “I guess it’s a comfort-zone thing.”
     “Well, maybe you should step out of your comfort zone,” Rick said.
     “Wayne, this isn’t necessary,” Angela said. “Rick has to get going.”
     “It’s cool,” Wayne said.

*                                         *                                            *

     Right after Rick left, Angela told Principal Woodruff, “You may go now.” When he left the classroom the real meeting began.

     “You really are inexperienced when it comes to the basics of real-world intelligence operations,” she said. “You should have known if I have his cell phone number then we can get any number he’s called.”

     “I’m not sure you can deal with him,” Wayne said. “Christians don’t react like normal people.”

     “You leave him to me. Don’t concern yourself with my end. You just make sure you and your friends don’t blow it when it is time to act. If you manage to botch this mission there will be severe consequences, I promise you.”

*                                              *                                            *

     When Rick got into the front passenger’s seat of the car, his mother complained she was going to be late for work because of him. The afternoon sun slashed down through the windows. Rick just squinted and smiled as he buckled his seat belt.

     “I’ve got good news about Debra,” he said. “I helped get her reinstated. She can come back tomorrow.”

     “Since when do you have clout in that place?” Sara asked.
     “There’s a teacher, one of my teachers, a friend of mine now, who helped me get her reinstated.” Rick kept smiling. “She invited me to a special committee meeting this Saturday at two. She’s going to come over to pick me up.”

     “You’re supposed to go with Kim into Saint Louis on Saturday.” Lydia’s left eyebrow arched upward. “It’s going to be her birthday next month and she’s wants to pick some things out so you can choose what to get her.”

     “I’ll have to postpone that,” Rick said. “Hey, Mom, have you ever heard someone use the word ‘cool’ for something other than temperature?”
     “What do you mean?” Sara asked. “Bad or good? Back in the urbano days anything good we used to call suave.”
     “Just now I heard Wayne Browner say, ‘It’s cool,’” Rick said. “I’ve never heard anyone use the word “cool” in the context I think he was.”

     “’Cool.’ Sounds like something my grandmother would have said.” Sara gave a nostalgic smile.

     “What was that Browner creep doing in there?” Lydia asked.
     “I don’t know.” Rick replied.


III. Bad Henry Cracking Up 

                                 

     When Henry Moore was six years old he earned the nickname Bad Henry. Henry had bullied other kids ever since he could walk but one autumn day he became notorious in Moreau County when his first grade class took a field trip to the Bluff City Riverside Park to celebrate United Nations Day. The park stood on the Mississippi riverfront and Henry’s class lined the road to watch a small parade go by. Costumed people walking on giant stilts and then ten floats representing the ten free-trade realms rolled past as U.N. representatives handed out U.N. flags to all the small children.

     After the parade Henry started acting up on the big sliding board ladder. The tall lanky kid above him named Davy-Jake Diamond was climbing up too slowly so Henry grabbed the back of his belt and pulled him off. The kid hit the ground hard and broke his left arm. Henry slid down smiling as the kid lay there wailing.
     When he got to the bottom a tattletale kid named Ricky Machado was jumping up and down yelling at the backs of the grown-ups circled around Davy-Jake. “Henry did it! Henry did it!”

     Henry was only six years old but was big enough to be a third-grader. He walked over to the kid, spun him around, and jammed the pointed end of his U.N. flag pole into the kid’s hollering mouth. Blood gushed out of Ricky’s mouth and Henry ran away. He knew the grown-ups would stop him and he wanted to find another victim before it was too late. Hurting something was the only thing that made him feel calm.
     Next he tried to tackle the skinny brown kid named Tyler but that kid was fast. He tore out across the green grass, weaving between the big cottonwood trees until he was out of sight. It would take the grown-ups over an hour to find him.

     Frustrated, Henry snuck back to the playground and ducked under a play-bridge.  Under there a little blond girl with big blue eyes named Debra Sterling held a magnifying glass in one hand and something green in the other.
     “Surprise,” Henry said.

     “Look it this, Henry. It’s like a tiny little forest of Christmas trees.” She handed him the magnifying glass and a clump of moss. He took them before he could think up anything mean to do. He looked at the moss under the magnifying glass. It did look like a miniature forest of pine trees.

     “Little people are living in the forest,” he thought he heard Debra say and he was hooked.
     When they dragged him out from under the play-bridge he was still looking for the little people in the moss with the magnifying glass. The grown-ups yanked at him and yelled at him to say he was sorry to Ricky standing before him red-eyed holding a gauze pad under the roof of his mouth. But they couldn’t get Bad Henry to say he was sorry or get the magnifying glass or the moss out of his hands.

*                                          *                                         *

     Bad Henry held a stick of home-made dynamite as he waded through the marsh water. All around under the shallow water carp were spawning. He lit the fuse and threw it too close behind Doug Strapman. Doug cursed as the explosion blew dirty water and pieces of fish onto his back. Bad Henry laughed. He was wearing his third-favorite tee shirt, the one that read “Cruel & Unusual” on the front.
     It was early Friday evening. Doug and Mike Pitcher had driven out here to Bad Henry’s house after school. The ugly three-room house stood on stilts in the marsh water. Henry had to rent this dump in the middle of nowhere from Dean Browner because no one else, not even his mother, would let him live with them.

*                                    *                                    *

     Mike Pitcher had wisely stayed out of the water. He watched the dust cloud moving towards them up dirt road. The sun painted glowing red edges on the white clouds in the western horizon as Wayne’s sleek maroon sports car pulled up behind the shabby-looking camper and the big dark green sedan. The other two waded out of the water. Doug was still screaming obscenities at Bad Henry. Mike spoke quietly to him to calm him down until Wayne told them all to come up to the road.

     “He’s moving. Let’s get going.” Wayne wore dark clothes and expensive leather gloves. He led them to the four-door sedan. They all got in. In the morning Dean Browner would report that the car had been stolen from his used car lot.
     Wayne drove off calmly as an acrid smoke wafted through the air and dead carp floated on the surface of the marsh water. Mike thought about what he saw chained up inside the back room of the stilt-house. He could still hear Wayne’s two transgenic weredogs growling and scratching at the floor with big clawed hands. The explosion had riled them up. One howled now in an unearthly human-canine combination and then the other joined in loud enough that Mike thought the stilt-house would collapse into the marsh.

*                                        *                                         *

     Debra was reading her Bible when she knew a call from Tyler was coming in. It was Friday night so most of the Christian kids her age were out on dates to the Ice Cream Shack in Riverton or to the one-hundred-and-nineteen-year-old drive-in restaurant called Cosmo’s in Bluff City. They would all cruise around the town square in Bluff City for an hour or two and then go park on the top of the bluff next to the museum to gaze out at the lights of the town and the boat lights out on the Mississippi. They would do a little smooching and then the boys would get their dates home before eleven o’clock. But nobody ever asked Debra Sterling to go. She knew she was pretty. She figured they were all chicken because she was a pastor’s daughter. It never occurred to her that her well-known powers of divination gave just about all her potential suitors the heebie-jeebies. So she was surprised Tyler’s cell phone number would be on her cell phone screen in just a second.

     “Hi, Tyler,” she answered.

     “Hi, Deb. I’m on the Rush ferry. I borrowed my mom’s car. She thought I was going to pick up Nasarine.”

     “Why did you lie to them, Tyler?” she asked.
     After a short silence Tyler spoke again.

     “Deb, the truth is I was running away. I was going to Saint Louis to get enhanced.”
     “Why, Tyler?” she asked. “Why would even think about doing that?”

     “I’m not happy with my life, Deb. My dreams have all crashed to the ground. Nasarine is a nice Christian girl but it’s too contrived. It’s the next thing to an arranged marriage.
     “Listen, Deb, I’m not going. What you said to me outside and inside the lighthouse last Sunday is the truth.”
     “Praise God,” she said. “Oh, praise God, Tyler.”
     “Deb, please pray with me now,” Tyler said. “I want this curse of idols and enhanced power out of my life forever.”

     Debra and Tyler prayed together over their cell phones. Then he asked her to meet him at the Ice Cream Shack in Riverton so they could talk some more.

     “I have to tell you something right now, Debra,” Tyler said. “I know it’s late but I have to talk to you face to face.”
     “Okay, I’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” she said.
     “We’re pulling up to the dock now,” he said. “I’m the only vehicle on the ferry so it should only take me fifteen or twenty minutes at the most to get there.”

     She hung up and started getting ready. She told her parents she was going to meet Tyler at the Ice Cream Shack. Her parents smiled at each other as her father handed her his car keys.

     “We knew something was going to happen before you did,” her mother said.

     “What are you talking about?” Debra put her hands on her hips. Her mother didn’t answer. Debra ran back into her room to see if she had forgotten anything. Her cell phone rang again but she was too distracted to know who it was before she answered.
     “Hi?” she asked.

     “Deb, it’s me again,” Tyler said. “Hey, I must have been speeding. There’s a cop car coming up fast behind me with his lights on. I know it’s me he’s after so I’m pulling over right now. I’ll be a little late.” Tyler parked on the shoulder of the county road and turned off the ignition.

     “Tyler, that’s not the police! Get out of there! Get out of the car and run away right now!”

*                                             *                                          *

     Tyler almost hung up. But Debra kept screaming so he kept talking to calm her down. He turned on the tiny video camera on his cell phone and held it outside the car window to show her the flashing light speeding up too fast.
     The big green sedan with the flashing light swerved and plowed right into the driver’s side of the compact car shoving Tyler over to the passenger seat. He tried to get out the passenger door but the blood dripping from his forehead into his eyes blinded him and he moved in slow motion. He wiped the blood out of his eyes and saw for an instant the lumberjack visage and the black tee shirt with the white letters.

     “Surprise,” Bad Henry said. “You’re not getting away this time.”
     He dragged Tyler out of the car. The three of them took turns beating him as Wayne watched. When Tyler finally went unconscious Bad Henry threw him into the trunk of the big four-door sedan. Bad Henry and Mike Pitcher got back in the back seat and Doug Strapman got back in the front passenger side. Wayne took off the magnetic flashing light from the top of the car and then backed the big four-door sedan up. They headed north on the county road.

*                                           *                                         *

     Davy-Jake didn’t answer right away when the secure satellite phone rang in his basement apartment. He lay in bed with his eyes wide open thinking about what he was going to ask Lydia tomorrow when they went rock climbing. His mother and little brother were asleep upstairs so he finally reached under the headboard to the phone’s hiding place.

     “Yeah, Uncle Dan,” Davy-Jake said.

     “How are you, son?” Dan Diamond asked. Dan was really Davy-Jake’s father’s cousin, not his brother.

     “A little restless tonight to be truthful,” Davy-Jake said.
     “I heard on the scanner thirty minutes ago that they found a wrecked car belonging to the Pandavs down on County 2. Hit and run. Someone T-boned that little car and then took off.”

     “Were Tyler and Nasarine in there?” Davy-Jake asked.

     “Didn’t find any bodies but they did find blood,” Dan said. “I’m afraid it might be a snatch.”

     “You don’t think some drunk coming back from the Tenderloin Tower in Saint Louis hit them?” Davy-Jake asked. “Maybe they all went in the car that could still run to the ER in Jerseyville.”

     “No,” Dan said. “Right before I called you I talked to Judson on his secure phone. He’s on patrol tonight on the north county roads. About an hour ago he saw a big green sedan with one headlight smashed out and a damaged front grill heading north on County 6. He called it in but dispatch said to leave ‘em alone.”

     “Sheriff Otto,” Davy-Jake said.

     “That’s right,” Dan said. “I don’t know what’s going on but it may be that the same perps who murdered your daddy nine years ago are active again.”
     Davy-Jake went silent. His father’s murder was the last one in Moreau County and was unsolved. Everyone assumed the murderer had been someone from Chicago or Saint Louis, a traffic stop gone bad. His father, like most males in his family, was in law enforcement. Ray Diamond had been a sergeant in the county police. Just over nine years ago he was struck and dragged down the road one rainy night in March. It looked like he was ambushed as he checked out an abandoned car at the side of County Road 4; there were two sets of tire tracks at the scene.
     The worst part was the morning after the funeral someone put his father’s blood-stained cap on the family’s front porch. Davy-Jake was only nine at the time but he hurried to hide it before his mother and toddler brother could see it. Dan Diamond knew the murder was an internal set-up as soon as Davy-Jake showed it to him. Dan was a lieutenant in the county police at the time but when the detectives under sheriff Otto Galloway purposely botched the investigation he quit the force and started running his organic farm full time. But he quietly investigated his cousin’s murder himself over the years and was now sure who was behind it.

     “You watch your back, Davy-Jake, but don’t overreact,” Dan said. “The Browner people probably behind this might just want to make all the church-going folks here look bad somehow.”

     “I hear you, but I’m gonna hope for the best,” Davy-Jake said. “Tyler’s been working through some issues lately. He might have been at fault somehow and just took off running like he does sometimes.”
     “Praying, not hoping, is the thing to do now,” Dan said. “I’ll let you get back to your restless ponderings about Lydia Machado.”

     “You’ve been taking lessons from our Debra,” Davy-Jake said.

     “You don’t need the gift of prophecy to know what’s on your mind, boy.”

*                                                 *                                               *

     Forty-nine-year-old Sara Larson was one of three nurses working the second shift at the Sunnyland Nursing Home. Sara was in the Pharmacy by herself when she had the sudden urge to get on her knees and pray for her two teenage children, Rick and Lydia, especially Rick.

     It was close to 11:00 pm, the end of the second shift, but she would not be leaving on time because a hundred-and-ten-year-old resident was dying and she would have to stay to do the paperwork.

     She got down on her knees and prayed for her children and then prayed for her fiancé Daniel Diamond. Her man, Daniel. He had been too patient with her over the years. He still saw her as a teenage beauty with reddish-blond hair but the grey was coming in fast now.

     They had been teenage sweethearts. Both “home schooled” at their church together with two dozen other children, which was allowed back then in the old United States. But when they turned fifteen the Red Counties Rebellion hit and a strange new civil war, brother against brother, happened all over again.

     That was the year the President of the United States was turned over to the World Court in the European Union for crimes against humanity. Investigative reporters produced documents proving the President approved a clandestine operation to attack the drug crops in Latin America and Asia with genetically-engineered root-rotting fungi. The man-made drug crop plague worked, but the once ruthless and powerful narco-states plunged into mayhem within a month. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives to violence and starvation and over two hundred million were brought down into poverty. The carnage broadcasted night after night on high-definition television, night after night of starving or murdered innocent-looking peasant villagers.
     When the Supreme Court of the United States ordered the extradition of a sitting President and the superseding of the U.S. Constitution with international law drafted by the U.N., the rural “red” counties rose up in rebellion. Dan was only fifteen when he joined the insurgency. He fought for over a year and it had looked like the Red Counties would prevail. Just as the Red County forces were about to march in and take the major cities, the U.N. approved a peacekeeping intervention. Millions of troops from China, Latin America, and the E.U. invaded both coasts. It was true that the urban half of America supported the integration of the U.S. into the world legal system, mostly for economic reasons. The rebellion was crushed and under the oversight of the ultra-progressive Supreme Court what was left of the U.S. government was merged with the Canadian system of lawlords that rubber-stamped U.N. resolutions.
     By the time Sara turned eighteen she had become ashamed of her heritage. She renounced her faith and ran away. She headed south to Miami, Florida, and went to work in a gambling tower on the beach. She learned Spanish and danced in a chorus line. Strictly speaking she never became a prostitute but she believed she might as well have been one. She pursued most sins with relish.

     After over a decade working in the towers, Esteban Machado came into her life and she began to come back from the brink of jadedness. They moved in together and she became pregnant with Rick. She gradually came to want a traditional family life but the pull of the towers was too strong for both of them, especially for Esteban. By now anything short of murder was allowed inside those places, including designer drugs and prostitution.
     Sara ran away with baby Ricky to the only place she could go back to, Moreau County, Illinois. Esteban reunited with her there for a few weeks and that produced Lydia, but he didn’t stay to see her born. He was probably a suicide, she thought. She had not heard from him since the day he left. Every year millions of people committed suicide in those towers that were now all around the world. It was rumored to be the second leading cause of death.
     How could God bless me so much after all I have done? Sara wondered. She had never quite accepted that all her sins could be forgiven. She knew she was supposed to believe that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses completely.

     Sara felt a deep foreboding about the coming new day. She had read and believed the underground report circulated by the Christian churches, the secret report written by a secular psychiatric team who evaluated the first transgenic persons in the Pacific Rim. It documented the withdrawal from friends and family, the narcissistic, borderline sociopath behavior and violent outbursts. The report concluded by stating that all of the hundreds of transgenic athletes studied “were no longer conjoined to the collective unconscious of traditional humanity.” It was a class-1 ethics violation to distribute or even discuss that research paper, but to millions of Christians around the world like Sara it was clear that to get enhanced was to cut off your antenna connecting you with the Holy Spirit, with God.

     After she prepared the painkiller she went back to the room with the dying resident.  The ancient, shriveled old man was in the last stages of dementia from a prion disease.  The most common cause of death in the world now was certainly the growing variety of incurable nervous-system diseases caused by self-replicating proteins called prions. Some of the residents in this facility were her age or younger and victims of these strange afflictions.  There were rumors that the younger victims were getting the disease through promiscuous sex, but unless you were cleared to discuss it, that again was a class-1 ethics violation. Every other communicable disease had been wiped out, even at last the dreaded AIDS viruses, by artificial-intelligence designed small molecule drugs. Eighteen years ago the U.N. authorities sterilized all the wild hoofed animals and destroyed all of the hoofed livestock in the world in an effort to end the spread of the “mad cow and chronic wasting disease” prions. Cow milk now had to be produced by vats of transgenic bacteria with cow genes. But the prions kept on slowly multiplying in the environment.

     I will never see those beautiful whitetail deer grazing with cows in the misty fall mornings like I used to when I was a little girl, Sara thought. It was so very sad. This world is getting used up fast now.

     The worst part was the vivid, nightmarish hallucinations the patients had in the final stages when the prions ate holes into their brains. They would be paralyzed lying there in bed and if they could still speak the images they screamed about were horrifying. She prayed for the man and then prepared to give him the injection of painkiller. She was certain death would be a relief for him.

     Suddenly the old man screamed. She watched the man’s eyeballs moving under the eyelids. It wouldn’t be long now. Then he spoke.
     “That’s not cool; that’s not cool.”

*                                              *                                            *

     “Whew, that was hot-as-sun!” Doug shouted. They were in Wayne’s car heading south. They had just finished pushing the green sedan into a strip mine lake two counties north of Moreau County.

     “Boy, I’ll be dogged if I knew someone could still be alive after losing that much blood.” Bad Henry sat next to Mike in the cramped back seat. He was completely at ease, no hyperactive fidgeting with his black baseball cap. He looked almost thoughtful to Mike.

     “What’s next?” Mike asked.

     “We got to call Cassie and Marsha!” Doug shouted too loud.
     “We don’t have time for that.” Wayne gave Doug the evil-eye to keep him in line.
     “Those two are in Saint Louis at the all-night Lancelot Arcade.” Mike wasn’t in the mood anyway.
     “We’re going to get ready for tomorrow,” Wayne said. “We’ve got traces on their cell phones so we can follow them wherever they go. I heard the ridge-runner make a date with Lead-Head to go rock climbing at the big sink hole, so we’ll be ready. Keep Lion and Steelteeth muzzled so they don’t lick Pandav’s blood off, Moore.”

     “Check,” Bad Henry said.
     “Lydia, whew, she’s hot-as-sun,” Doug said. “I can’t believe she’s a J-freak.”

     “What we did to Pandav tonight is just the beginning.” Wayne couldn’t stop talking about the torture session. “Hey, what was that last thing he said, Mike? You were closest to him.”

     “He said, ‘Father, forgive them.’”

     “That was weird,” Doug said. “J-freaks say weird things. Whew, Lydia!”
     “Shut up about her!” Wayne hollered.
     “When are we going into town to do it?” Bad Henry asked. “After you guys graduate?”

     “No,” Wayne said. “We’ll be done by Sunday morning and then we’ll drive straight into Saint Louis to the enhancement center at Aztec Stadium.”

     “We’re not waiting until after graduation?” Mike asked. Something inside him wanted to rebel against this.

     “There isn’t going to be any graduation,” Wayne said. “All that’s history. This is a revolution and when it’s done we’re going to run things. When all of these Christians are slaughtered and enslaved then a new kind of ruler is going to be in charge and it’s going to be us. Whatever we want we get.”
     “I know what I’m going to get changed into.”  Doug’s voice was starting to get back to normal.
     “I wonder if I could get changed so as I could explode and then get put back together again?”  Bad Henry seemed to be asking no one in the car.

     “You mean blow yourself up like those old suicide bombers?” Mike asked.

     “Yeah, blow yourself up like a bomb but then come back together or grow back or something,” Bad Henry said.
     “That’s not possible, Moore,” Wayne said. “You’ll have to think of something else.”

     “Whew, Henry, you’re cracking up!” Doug spoke too loudly again. “Just like when you see the little people in the dirt!”

     “I haven’t seen the little people yet, but I know they’re hiding in the moss.” Bad Henry’s face flushed with rage and his eyes bored into the back of Doug’s head. Doug didn’t look back at him again and kept quiet the rest of the night.

 

IV. On the Rocks

 

      Rick walked into the living room and saw that Lydia was almost ready to go. He watched her put four bottles of drinking water and a packed lunch into her backpack. Her hair was swept back in a ponytail and she wore a comfortable but flashy outfit that made her look like a female matador. He just kept watching as she laced up her rock-climbing shoes.
     “That outfit is too nice to go rock climbing in,” he finally said.

     “No, it’s not. It’s made of special fibers that feel like silk but won’t wear out or tear very easily.”

     “They make men’s dress shoes?”

     “Rick, did you call Kim?”
     “Yeah. She didn’t take any of my calls though. Her dad said she’s been sick all week.”
     “You’re going to the meeting with that teacher this afternoon?”

     “What’s it to you?”
     “What do mean ‘What’s it to you?’ I know what’s on your mind, Ricky.”
     “You don’t know anything.”

     “She’s too old for you, Ricky.”

     Rick stood facing her. He sighed and then shook his head. The whole house became quiet and seemed to hold its breath for a second.
     “You’re so immature, Lydia.” He put his fists on his hips.
     “I know what you’re thinking.”

     “Is your name Lydia or Debra?”
     “What did Deb say to you in the lighthouse?”
     He remembered what Debra had said to him and his face went ashen. All of sudden the fire in his belly to argue with his sister went out.

     “You had better mind what was told to you, Rick. I know it must have something to do with this teacher.”

     He saw that she meant it with her whole face. He couldn’t think of anything to say back but then Davy-Jake drove his pickup into the driveway and she went out the door.

*                                            *                                            *

     As Davy-Jake was filling up the hydrogen fuel tank in his pickup, the first transgenic person he had ever seen in real life stepped out of the store and into the bright morning sunlight. The female creature was pale with long turquoise hair, had a perfect hour-glass figure, and had eight arms. Her face was mysteriously beautiful. She noticed Davy-Jake and Lydia staring. All her eight arms bent up or down at the elbows and each hand started doing an intricate Balinese-style hand dance as the face moved sideways rhythmically like a lizard warmed by the sun. When the octopus-lady finished the dance all eight hands paired together gracefully and the turquoise-haired head bowed. The creature got uncomfortably into her mid-sized car and drove away.

     “Did you see what was just in this store?” the cashier, an old man, said to Davy-Jake when he went in to pay.

     “I sure did. She was a sight. Gave us a little show.”

     “She left a business card,” the old man said. “She’s a masseuse. She’s going up to the Mile-High Tower in Peoria to work.”
     “I would have to say Peoria’s a good place for her.”
     Davy-Jake got back in his truck and started it. Lydia asked him to keep the heat on. It was warming up fast though and he knew she wouldn’t need her jacket by noon.

     “You’re not thinking I need to change hair color and grow six more arms are you?”

     “No, my darling, Lid. Your two hands hit hard enough.”

     “That’s right.”

     “Did you see her face, her purple eyes?” he asked, suddenly serious.
     “Yeah, it was like looking into a black hole where a star used to be.”

     “By the look of her face I’d have to say, and I’m not someone who wants to judge, but I’d have to say she looked capable of anything that crossed her mind. Whatever sort of mind is in there now.”

*                                            *                                            *

     Davy-Jake turned onto a dirt road that ran above wooded ravines for a little more than a mile and then parked in an open area. They were on the backbone ridge of Moreau County. All around were blue flowers and white flowers under oak and maple trees. The air held the scent of healthy humus. They were only about four miles away from Daniel Diamond’s organic farm and Davy-Jake felt safe.

     The giant sink hole was two hundred yards away through a patch of saplings. They arrived at the edge of the enormous natural pit that was nearly the size of a football field and began setting up. When they had both strapped on their harnesses he held Lydia’s rope and she repelled down first. He secured the rope on the trunk of a small tree close to the edge and then came on down.

     “Better watch out for snakes,” he said after he reached the bottom. They almost always saw copperheads and an occasional timber rattlesnake. The temperature was rising rapidly this morning and he was sure some would be out basking on the hundreds of limestone ledges soon.

     Lydia climbed first. It was a complicated wall of jutting rock she had attempted many times last summer but had never quite made it. He smiled as he belayed out her rope. He knew somehow she would make it this time and she did. As he slacked out the rope she walked back down the rock wall sporting a big smile. He loved to see her this way. She worried about other people too much and it kept her from smiling.

     “What?” she asked after she unhitched herself from the climbing rope. His grey eyes were twinkling. He was holding something in his right hand and when she came over to see what it was he kneeled down on one knee. He put the ring in her hand and her mouth opened but no words came out.

     “Davy-Jake, this is crazy,” she finally said. “I just turned seventeen in March.” She was actually a February 29th leap-year baby but this year like most years she had to celebrate her birthday in March.

     “The good thing about it is you’re getting older every day.”

     “Why? I mean why now? Does this have anything to do with our making a mistake after the country-salsa dance?”

     “Well, it would be nice to not have to worry about making mistakes anymore,” he said. “The real reason is I love you and I think our time is short. ‘ Fiery trials,’ remember?”
     “No, no, we have time. They say if we stay out of those towers we’ll live another hundred years. Everything is going good in the world. We don’t have to worry about cancer or heart attacks or wars anymore.”

     “I’m not so sure about that last one. But anyways I’ve decided on joining the force after graduation. Old Sheriff Otto will be gone soon. Lid, it’s in my blood. I was born to protect people.”

*                                            *                                            *

     Lydia thought about his proposal as emotions whirled inside her. Every day she was with Davy-Jake she learned something new about him and she felt closer to him. Lately she found herself distressed to the point of being sick if he was supposed to be with her but couldn’t make it for some reason. She felt revulsion mixed with pity for the secular girls she knew at school. Those girls had been having sex since middle school and the acrimony and backbiting that went on around their “group dating” was constant. The “cuddle huddles,” groups of girls openly groping each other in the hallways at high school, sometimes blocking the girl’s restroom door, disgusted her. Even though those girls went out every weekend to the all-night holographic arcades they just grew bitter and more alone.

     Davy-Jake was tall and she liked tall guys. His face was handsome to her and he was athletic without being a braggart. He was mature for his age and she loved the way he would surprise her and make her laugh when she least expected to laugh.

     “You were thinking about a fire department.” She tried to change the subject.

     “They don’t pay anything in these rural counties. The income tax rate plus the reparations is eighty-per-cent and we could never live independently even if you worked too. I know you don’t like the thought of getting that call late at night, like my mom and so many of my relations have gotten over the years, but I’m going to be honest with you. It’s what I was born to do.”

     “I’m not really a good person, Davy-Jake. I’ve got a terrible temper and you’re easy-going. I’m a clean-freak like my mom and you’re going to want to go fishing every weekend.”
     “I thought you liked going night fishing with me. You know how you always like to star gaze. And have I ever run away just because you’re in a little mood?”

     “My brother, what about Rick?”

     “Dang it, girl, I’m not asking for your brother Rick’s hand in matrimony, I’m asking for your hand.”
     She laughed and then chuckled. She bent down the short distance to his face.

     “Praise God for that,” she said and then kissed him on the lips. “I love you, you crazy beanpole. Yes. The answer is yes, on one condition.”

     “I’ll do anything, Lydia.”

     “We have to do this for God. I mean we have to live for God more than for each other. We have to love God more than we love each other. That’s the only way we’re going to make it a century. And I want every second of it.” She put her hands on his face and they kissed passionately. Neither heard the camper driving up the road and then parking behind some trees.

*                                            *                                             *

     Later after they ate their turkey salad sandwiches they started climbing again. Davy-Jake was a natural. He could stretch around the rock outcroppings and find handholds in awkward spaces. He came down after hammering in the last piton-with-karabiner on the top edge of a new rock wall.
     Lydia showed him the first snake she noticed, a small copperhead that had been born last autumn. The little snake still had the yellow tail the juveniles twitch to lure prey. They let it go. But now she was a little nervous to climb.

     She went up the new rock wall that he had just come down from. Twice she lost her footing and hung by the hands. He almost belayed her down but both times she recovered and kept going up. She finally made it to the top and peeked up through the bushes. After a second she squealed and fell backwards.
     “Get me down, get me down.”

     He belayed her down quickly. She was upside down. Lydia flipped herself upright and then unhitched the rope from her harness.

     “There’s a big black animal up there.”
     “What kind of animal?”

     “It had a big muzzle. A big fluffy black animal. It was right there looking down at me.  It had bright blue eyes and was standing on two hairy legs.”
     “A big fluffy animal? Was it a skunk?”
     “No. I know what skunks and raccoons and all those other little animals look like.  This thing was bigger than you and it was standing on two legs.”

     “Like a bear? Lydia, there aren’t any bears in the wild any more.”
     “No, it’s not a bear. I’ve seen bears at the zoo. It’s not a bear. This thing is bigger than you and has a big fluffy mane like a lion.”

     He scanned all around the top edge of the sinkhole fifty feet above them with his keen eyes and then walked over to his backpack. He squatted down and unstrapped the main compartment. As he reached inside he realized that all the birds had stopped singing.

     “That thing is like a small sword.” Lydia said.

     “It’s just a little Bowie knife, otherwise known as an Ozark toothpick.”  He let her hold the heavy but perfectly balanced knife that had a fourteen-inch black blade. It was manufactured from composite metals and as sharp as a scalpel. He went back into his backpack and retrieved a sleek-looking stun gun and then a road flare. He gave her the stun gun and flare and took back the Bowie knife. He looked around and found a ten-foot-long, straight stick.
     “Where‘s our friend gone?” he asked as he sharpened one end of the stick. Lydia found the little copperhead snake and he came over and caught it behind the head.

     “What are you going to do with it?” she asked.  Her olive green eyes were wide with seriousness. “You’re not going to hurt it are you?”
     “No, I’m not going to hurt it. I’m just going to borrow something from it. The good thing about the little ones is they’re always juiced up.” He made the little snake open its mouth and then carefully put the sharpened point of the spear inside.

     “Don’t scratch yourself with that,” she said after he finished covering the point with the snake’s venom.
     Davey-Jake let the snake go and then showed her how to use the stun gun. She practiced and when he was satisfied he explained what he wanted her to do with the spear. She practiced with the spear for a few minutes while he kept watching for movement in the bushes above them.

     “Use the flare if it gets on top of me or there’s more than one.”

     “I’ve got my cell phone. Why don’t we just call the police? We can hide down here until they get to us.”

     “I would if Judson was on duty but I’m afraid I don’t trust most of Sheriff Otto’s boys.”

     “Let me call Dan then.”

     “Lydia, someone’s tracking us by our cell phones. Dan talked to me last night on my secure line and he told me something happened to Tyler. They found his car wrecked and nobody around. I didn’t want to tell you about it until what happened were known for sure but now it’s for sure. Somebody high-up with connections means to do us harm. I don’t want to risk any more cell phone calls. This is probably a set-up to snag even more of us.”

     She waited by the rope at the sheer rock face closest to the road. He went to the far end of the sink hole and climbed freestyle up the rock face fifty feet to the top. He made some noise tying a rope to a shrub and then waited. Soon he heard something big coming through the undergrowth. He whistled and rustled the bushes. When the thing got close he started climbing down the rope. He got ten feet above the rocky ground and let go. He hit the ground running, covering the space fast with his long legs. Lydia’s eyes told him the thing was in full view at the other end of the giant pit but he didn’t look back. He got to Lydia and started climbing as she tied the rope to her harness.

     “It’s a different one,” she said as he climbed fast up the rope.

     The six-foot-tall, two-legged beast followed Davy-Jake down the rope but he wasn’t good at climbing with his clawed hands and fell thirty feet to the rocky ground. He got right back up roaring and charged. The creature was covered with short white hair and had short, pinned-back ears.
     Lydia waited until the thing was right on top of her and then lifted the spear up. She braced it against the rock wall and the weredog ran right into it. The beast yelped like a dog and then broke the spear with his clawed hands. The weredog came at her growling and she shot him with the stun gun. He backed up but recovered quickly and lunged at her again. She screamed when he knocked the stun gun out of her hand and then like a miracle she was lifted off the ground. She kicked at the huge, powerfully muscled snapping jaws for a second and then was clear. Davy-Jake pulled her up to her feet and she untied her harness.

     “Oh, Lord, please help us,” she said when she saw the fluffy black one standing behind the small trees a hundred feet away. This beast was between them and the pickup truck.

*                                       *                                       *

     Davy-Jake slowly walked out to meet the beast. He held the Bowie knife behind his back with his right hand and in his left hand he waved the piton hammer. He whistled at the beast but the thing just stood still looking at him.

     Without a roar or a growl the beast finally came out of the trees. The ice blue eyes studied both of them with a menacing intelligence Davy-Jake had never seen in an animal before. If the beast had stood up straight he would have been seven feet tall but he walked towards them with the massive head down even with the shoulders and the ears pressed back. When he got close the whole forest seemed to fill up with his heavy breathing.

     The two-legged, black maned beast walked right up to Davy-Jake and swiped at his face with the clawed right hand. Davy-Jake whipped out the Bowie knife and the blade met it before the claws connected. The entire hand was cut off. Enraged, the hurt beast snapped forward but Davy-Jake struck down hard with the hammer on the top of the muzzle. The beast snarled in pain but the hairy left hand snatched out and now grasped Davy-Jake’s left arm so powerfully he dropped the hammer but he was already plunging the long, wide blade into the open jaws. He pressed forward against the beast, his face just inches from the muzzle. He watched the eyes fade and the beast collapsed at his feet. The strange human-dog combination lay there twitching for a minute.
     Lydia met him halfway with a bottle of drinking water. He drank and then she washed off the cuts on his arm and the blood from his face and hands. The front of his flannel shirt was soaked with the creature’s blood but he had an old sweater in the truck.

     “Its head looks like a giant chow-chow,” she said as she applied antiseptic on his forearm wounds.

     “It was a dog, I believe,” he whispered, still breathing hard. “Wayne had a chow and a pit bull and I’m positive that’s what these are.”
     “Davy-Jake, it’s like they don’t even care if we know they’re doing this.” She was keeping her voice low now too.

     “Well, he might not know I know he has them. One night about six months ago Judson got a video from a security camera of Wayne and Dougie and Bad Henry dropping these dogs over the fence at the police dog kennel. These dogs chewed up a good one-year-old police dog trainee and then they called them back and lifted them out  Of course the sheriff wouldn’t do anything about it so Judson never mentioned it to him. But you may be right, Lydia, maybe they got it figured it doesn’t matter if we know it’s them.”

     “As long as it wasn’t a human. A transgenic person, I mean.”

     “It might as well have been,” he said. “It’s sure got human DNA in it now. It’s illegal to enhance a pet animal with human DNA but somebody did and what’s the difference once it’s done? It’s as much a trans-genic terato now as if it had started off human.”

     “What are we gonna do? They’ll probably say we’re murderers.”

     “The worst part is both of these things have a lot of dried blood on them.”

     “You mean they…” She couldn’t finish.
     “I’m afraid so. One thing’s for sure, I’m not about to let that other one stay alive, hurt somebody else.”

     “Tyler…I can’t believe this could happen. How could that happen to him?”

     “Lydia, chances are our friend Tyler is with our Lord now. I’m not shrugging off what he went through but we might be headed for worse. We need to pray and then I’m going down into the sink hole.”

     “Let me kill it. I want to kill it.” She leaned forward like she always did when she got mad. She reminded Davey-Jake of the image of a heroic woman carved into the prow of an old sailing ship. He could see she meant what she said.

     “Lydia, vengeance isn’t ours, even when it comes to monsters,” he spoke softly but his grey eyes were still hard.

     “I want to go down there with you.”

     “All right,” he said and he reached out to hold her hands. “You lead us in prayer now.  You remember the prayer from the Book of Joshua?”

*                                       *                                          *

     Down in the pit the beast named Steelteeth watched them climb down the rope. The creature saw in black-and-white but smelled a rainbow of odors. Right now the strongest smells were blood and fear and the unique smell that humans got when they were hunting something. The beast was enraged and in pain. Since the metamorphosis his master had forced on Steelteeth he could experience more pain, especially below the neck, and he was full of new emotions. Resentment at his master and the other humans he considered in his pack was there but it was the old mauling instinct transformed into hatred by an alien presence that wrenched his being like nothing else ever had. The alien spirit possessing Steelteeth hated them and everything else.

     They were down now. Steelteeth was ready to charge. He wanted to kill the female, the one that had stabbed with the sharp stick. The wound in its chest was on fire. He could smell that Lion, the dominant one, had been killed. The male human had done it; the story was all over him. Steelteeth was wounded and alone, there would be no help from the pack. He snarled and charged.

     He went after the female but she suddenly held out a thing with fire and sickening smoke in front of her. Steelteeth tried to swipe it away but a cutting thing slashed out and his right arm was badly wounded. He turned to swipe at the male but was wounded badly again. He turned and attacked the female one more time. The snapping jaws were met with burning fire; Steelteeth accepted the burns on the muzzle and kept charging but was knocked forward down to the ground and then came darkness when his skull was pierced and his head pinned to the ground by the big sharp thing.

*                                    *                                  *

     After Davy-Jake and Lydia buried the bodies and his blood-stained shirt with loose dirt and leaves and rocks they climbed back out of the sink hole. They drove back to the hydrogen station and cleaned up in the restrooms as best they could. He came out first and asked the old guy at the counter if he could use the phone. He made a quick call home and talked to his little brother Roscoe. Davy-Jake spoke to his brother in pig Latin. Roscoe understood what he wanted done so he hung up.

     When she came out he drove them across the county to Percy’s Catfish Restaurant. They got their favorite booth under the wall-mounted one-hundred-and-ten-pound blue catfish. Their meals were served up quickly because it was between lunch and supper and hardly anyone was in the place.

     “We have to act normal,” he whispered into her ear.

*                                    *                                       *

     Lydia was not hungry and had managed to eat only a few bites of her grilled yellow perch with lemon butter sauce when Bad Henry walked into the dining room a half an hour after they were served. She scowled and Davy-Jake turned to watch the hulking but surprisingly agile figure saunter up to their booth. He had on his black baseball cap pulled down tight on his square head. His tightly curled brown hair needed to be cut and he was wearing his second favorite tee shirt, the custom one with a faded faked photograph of himself holding a round anarchist bomb with a lit fuse while beside him a girl in bikini looked up at his face in a send-up of the classic American Gothic painting.

     “Surprise,” Bad Henry said. “How’s your arm, Diamond?”
     “Only hurts when I see you, just like the rest of me. I see you’re still sporting the same wardrobe.”

     “Oh, you know me, I don’t change.” He started fidgeting with his cap.
     Lydia knew what Bad Henry was trying to do. She reached out across the table and held Davy-Jake’s right hand, which had already become a fist, in both of her hands. More people were coming into the dining area to be seated and the noise was growing louder in the place.

     “Don’t listen to him,” she said in Spanish. “He’s trying to provoke you. Please, my love, don’t listen to him.” She knew Bad Henry didn’t understand Spanish. When he had finally been expelled from high school it was because he had severely beaten up the Spanish teacher after a bad test grade.

     “Dean Browner was talking about you the other day when I went over to pay rent. He said you were the tallest midget he’d ever seen.” Bad Henry shook his head and laughed sardonically but Davy-Jake kept looking into Lydia’s olive-green eyes. “Looks like you both been rolling around on the ground. I guess when you holy-rollers start rolling together you don’t care what you roll on!”

     “He’s a small man, you’re a big man, don’t listen to him, please,” she said in Spanish.

     “Boy, I heard a story about the way your daddy sounded when he got run over. I heard from a good source he was squealing like a stuck pig almost a quarter mile down the road that night.”
     “I beg you. Don’t listen to him. I love you. He doesn’t know anything.”

*                                  *                                  *

     Lydia’s soothing, perfectly pronounced Cuban Spanish was starting to annoy Bad Henry. What was this? Didn’t Davy-Jake understand English anymore? He kept pulling his black baseball cap up and down. The waitress walked up behind him and he scooted over for her. He started pacing back and forth mumbling obscenities in front of the neighboring booth.

     The waitress shook her head and rolled her eyes. She set Davy-Jake’s lemon meringue pie slice in front of him and gave a perky smile.

     “Try it,” she said. “You’re going to say that’s the best piece of home-made lemon meringue pie you’ve ever tasted.”

     He picked up his fork and tried a bite. He chewed and then swallowed with a thoughtful look.
     “Well?” the girl asked. “Isn’t it the best?”

     “It’ll do in a pinch,” he said.
     The waitress gave him his check and left in a huff. Bad Henry stepped back up to their booth.

     “Boy, I have to say your girlfriend here is something else, Davy-Jake. She really the by-product of a prostitute and a whole army of tower-johns?”
     “I beg you, man, not for me, for God. Don’t do anything. What he says is nothing. Remember, we love God more than anything else. They’re trying to trap us.”

     When Bad Henry realized this hadn’t worked he turned on his heel and marched out of the restaurant.

*                                           *                                                *

     Doug Strapman was waiting outside in his car. He watched Bad Henry walk past and go down into the wooded ravine next to the parking lot. Doug had hoped to watch the fight out here in the parking lot. He got out and followed Bad Henry down into the woods. When he found him Bad Henry was sitting on the ground looking through a naturalist’s hand lens at a clump of moss on the base of a tree.

     “What are you doing? The cops are waiting for you.” Doug proceeded to call Bad Henry some names indicating that he was unmanly and an idiot.
     Bad Henry ignored it for a minute but then got up like a roused grizzly bear and chased Doug. Doug had muscles, mainly over-sized biceps from lifting weights all the time, but was clumsy and slow compared to Bad Henry. He caught Doug as he was running up the hillside. Bad Henry’s punches were like blinding lights. Even when Doug couldn’t fight back any more Bad Henry kept pummeling his face with his fists. Doug cried and begged like a little kid but Bad Henry kept punching until he was knocked out. He rose up and marched out of the woods, across the parking lot, and back into the restaurant.

*                                         *                                             *

     When Lydia saw Bad Henry come back in she knew he was going to attack Davy-Jake no matter what they did so she picked up the full glass bottle of ketchup and hurled it at him. The bottle hit Bad Henry right on the forehead, knocking off his black cap. He stopped for a second and shook it off. Davy-Jake jumped up and the fight was on.
     They exchanged punches and then grappled, overturning the booth. Bad Henry slammed Davy-Jake up against the wall and the mounted giant catfish fell on his head. Lydia jumped on Bad Henry’s back and tore out a hand full of his unwashed curly hair with one hand and ripped the front of his tee shirt with the other. He spun around and knocked her off. She saw he was going to kick her with his muddy boots, but then Davy-Jake clubbed him in the face with the four-foot-long, stuffed catfish. It was a heavy blow but was good for only one hit because it broke apart. Bad Henry went down but got right back up and charged. They were grappling again when the sheriff’s police stormed in. They broke it up and arrested all three of them.

*                                      *                                        *

     Rick was sitting right next to the stunning Angela Starr at the long lunch table in the mostly dark high school auditorium. The committee was made up of eighteen members from all over Moreau County and many neighboring counties. The meeting had been going on for over three hours and only six people had spoken so far. Rick was starting to get hungry. It was strange to him that no one was taking minutes. During a break Angela had told him this was just an informal first meeting and she didn’t want to scare anyone by putting them on record yet. Still it was strange.
     “To get to my point, ladies and gentlemen of the committee, for us in East Saint Louis the sudden appearance of a new minority group is problematical at best. Will they be cooperators or competitors? Allies or enemies? We are still an economically underpowered minority and many of us are afraid that the oxygen of tolerance is going to be sucked out of this society’s atmosphere by the appearance of a new special-needs group that will certainly take the focus away from us.”

     “Thank you for your insights into your community, Ms. Jackson. Next, I would like to turn to our student representatives. First, I would like to hear from Wayne Browner, a non-Christian student here at Moreau County high school.”

     Wayne stood up and began speaking like he was at a podium. Everyone else that had spoken so far had remained seated.

     “Ladies and gentlemen, I am not a Christian, as Chairperson Starr has stated. But the truth is my family has some very strong celestial and spiritual beliefs which are just for us. I would never attempt to force them on anyone else or even try to explain them. My beliefs are truly personal.

     “I have been one of the many victims in this school of Christian intolerance. This bigotry has been increasing over the decades and I have seen it grow rapidly the four years I have attended this school. Everything from sitting at separate tables in this cafeteria to disruptions of class and even fights. Outside of school I’ve been victimized as well. My two dogs have been missing for three weeks and just last night a car was stolen from my father’s used car lot.

     “Since the Red Counties Rebellion was thankfully put down, the shrinking Christian population has become more fanatical, more hysterical, in their attempts to overwhelm students, young people with vulnerable minds, into accepting a fading doctrine that has caused so much suffering in the world.

     “Just one more example before I finish. This is something that is hard for me to talk about but I feel I must for the greater good. Most students and teachers know that I live in a household with no mother. My father is very active with his business concerns and political activities, not to mention his many trips abroad to support orphanages. The Christians started a rumor that I was born to a surrogate mother. Well, whether the rumor is true or not is no one’s business. Put yourself in my place when, after a hard-fought game of basketball, I open up my gym locker and find a note taped on a test tube which read, ‘Say “hi” to your mother.’” Wayne paused and actually looked like a noble sufferer as he gazed at the committeepersons one by one. He sat down and everyone seemed moved but Rick fought hard to suppress a smile. Could Davy-Jake have really done that?

     “Thank you, Wayne,” Angela said with a maudlin tone Rick hoped wasn’t for real.  “Now I’d like Rick Machado, a Christian student who attends this high school, to give us his views.”

     Rick decided to stand and deliver. He had always considered himself the sharpest male dresser of the Christians in Moreau County and tonight he was decked out in an aquamarine suite with power tie and his wavy black hair was jelled and combed straight back.
     “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for allowing me the chance to speak. I would like you all to know first thing that I am a rational Christian who deplores any insults to the self-esteem of any citizen, whether that citizen is considered at the bottom of the social strata or someone from the richest, most privileged background.” He paused to let that sink in. He gazed around at a few faces but not Wayne’s because he already felt the fuming glare and he didn’t want to crack a smile.

     “Again, I want to assure all here that I am a rational Christian. A rational person of whatever spiritual persuasion can see that rational authorities making and enforcing rational international law have helped the world recover economically, created the guaranteed minimum wage and the beginnings of a universal healthcare system that will increase longevity across the board, and brought world peace. Democracy, the old U.S. Constitution, would not have allowed these achievements. International law intelligently applied along with the universal acceptance of capitalism and regional free trade did. No one can dispute this.

     “Now it is true that some Christians, mostly older ones, still wish for the old guarantees they thought they had under the Bill of Rights, but the majority of us accept and even embrace the global laws that have been put in place.

     “What I want to suggest to the committee, and I realize that I’m only eighteen and do not have the authority to speak for anyone else but me, is that Christians be given Protected Group Status.”

     “That’s outrageous,” Wayne interrupted.

     “Rick, every group can’t be given Protected Group Status,” Angela said.

     “Why not? There’s a long history of intolerance and persecution against Christians. We’re a minority population now, even in most of the old Red Counties. The truth is most of the mayhem and mass murders committed against specific groups of people the last four thousand years have been committed against people who worshiped the Judeo-Christian God. From Babylon, Egypt, Persian Empire, Greek and Roman Empires, Huns, Mongols, and Muslim empires like the Ottomans and the Moors, Hindu extremists, Nazis, communists, the Japanese Empire, all of these powerful, organized civilizations were merciless towards Christians and/or Jews.”

     “What about what you did to the Native Americans?” Wayne shot back.

     “It was tragic what happened to the Native American populations but it was probably inevitable. Human beings have always moved around this planet and they’re still moving around this planet. If Europeans hadn’t inadvertently introduced smallpox and those other diseases then the Chinese or Polynesians or Africans or someone else from the Old World would have.
     “My point is not to wave my bloody shirt higher than everyone else’s. All of us here are concerned about intolerant or even violent reactions to transgenic citizens. I know there is a small minority of my fellow Christians who are capable of extremism and I want to do everything I can to prevent any tragedies, both for the transgenics and for the vast majority of Christians and Jews who reject this kind of extremism but who will pay the price if it happens.
     “All I’m suggesting is that the powers that be, the lawlords who write the laws and the Supreme Court and the World Court that enforce them, make a public effort to be inclusive to people of faith. If not Protected Group Status then maybe give us some concessions so there is buy-in to this new reality.”

     “What would you suggest in the way of ‘concessions’?” Angela asked.

     “Off the top of my head I can think of two examples. First, legalize the broadcast of Christian radio programming.”

     “Legalize the public broadcast of religious propaganda on government owned airwaves?” Wayne asked. “That’s insulting.”

     “Why?  Secular broadcasters are not even using most of the radio airwaves anyway.

     “Second, end the criminalizing of women who go ahead and have their babies even if the fetus doesn’t pass the amniocentesis test.”

     “It’s not a crime for them to have the baby if they want to,” Angela said. “They just can’t get the birth of a defective child paid for by the government.”

     “They’re going to break the law because they have to falsify the report because no one can afford the medical cost without government insurance. What is the big deal? If they want to cure the child with human stem-cell therapy it looks like that is affordable now and even if they choose not to, society is going to be dealing with feeding and housing five-ton giants and high-energy flying transgenics so dealing with a tiny percentage of um, ah, the differently-abled should be a piece of cake.”
     “So by giving the Christians something you make it harder for the extremists to operate within their sanctuary.” Angela was starting to look impressed and he got warm glow. “That’s an impressive treatment of the realpolitik of this situation.”

     Rick sat down happy even though almost everyone else in the high school auditorium had grown uncomfortable during the debate. Wayne was livid with animosity, but what else was new? He just wished they had catered in some food.

*                                     *                                      *

     After the last committeeperson finished speaking, the high school auditorium emptied out. Rick waited outside Angela’s office as she made some quick private phone calls. He was just about famished and wanted to get out of there.

     Angela came out looking radiant and flashed him a dazzling smile. She took his arm as they slowly walked out the front doors of the high school and then past the statue of Sebastiao. It was dusk with no breeze and the air was heavy.

     “You were brilliant tonight, Rick. Did you do much preparation?”

     “A little. I had to balance it with studying for your final.”
     “You’ve already aced my class.” She slowed the walking pace. “You have to know that.” He didn’t say anything and she continued. “I really like your hair with a wet look. You wear that suite really well, too.  Is it tailor-made?”

     “Yeah, I got it done at Montale’s in Saint Louis. It was a birthday present from my mom.”

     “I have to say you create a presence.”

     “Thanks. My sister says I’m a fop and that I try to act too big.”

     “You’re not a fop. You’re a dynamic, well-appointed young man who just needs the confidence to reach out and take what the world wants to give him.”
     She stopped and looked into his eyes. He felt her hand on his hand and it was like an electric current running up his arm. He cleared his throat. After all, this couldn’t be happening.

     “I need to get going.”

     “Why? You’re eighteen. You don’t have to be anywhere you don’t want to be. Rick, you want to make an impact on the world, but to do that you have to obtain power. With power you can make things happen, with power you can help the people you care about, help yourself. You only get power by learning how to take. Taking isn’t bad; taking is good. You’re on the way to becoming a great man; you’ve repressed yourself too long.”

*                                     *                                      *

     Kim Lemon was waiting in her car in the high school parking lot. She felt bad about avoiding Rick’s calls and a little embarrassed about taking to her bed all week. After her father told her Rick was going to this meeting, she decided to drive over and surprise him when he got out. She had been waiting here for hours. Finally she watched about a dozen people including Wayne Browner come out and get into their cars. After they all drove away she figured Rick hadn’t been able to get a ride but then noticed the couple standing in front of the statue.

     Right as they began making out Kim recognized it was Rick and the international law teacher. She violently turned the key in the ignition and threw the car into drive. She sped out of the parking lot not knowing where she was going at first. Hypocrites, they’re all hypocrites, ran through her mind. Snakes. Worms. Then she decided. She drove to the Mississippi ferry and then south around Saint Louis to the Aztec Stadium.

 

V. Enhanced

 

     Kim kept her face down and didn’t respond when he started talking to her like she was his girlfriend. When the five security guards left she started to dart out of line to run back to her car but he reached out and grabbed her hand. Holding hands with Bad Henry! In public! Her hand felt clutched by a huge slab of meat. When it was finally her turn to go inside an office for consultation he hugged her and then planted a big wet kiss on her lips. His face was bruised and his breath smelled like a shellacked fish. She ran into the office wiping her mouth.

     Kim sat down in the chair in front of a young man who had a middle-aged man’s expression on his off-white face. His eyes weren’t blue they were indigo and seemed too intelligent, too discerning, like x-ray eyes.

     “Do you have your smart-card?” he asked with some kind of European accent.

     She gave him her smart-card which held all of her medical and genetic information.  He swiped it into the artificial intelligence portal and handed it back to her. He double-checked her information to insure she was the person on the card.
     “Your genetic lineage is standard North American Caucasian. English, German, a little Dutch, one Semite ancestor ten generations ago, surely an illicit affair. So Ms. Lemon, what would you like to become?”

     She lifted up her key chain and dangled the plastic red-haired girl that had a dolphin’s tail. She had won the key chain herself at the county fair.
     “A very common request. Care to change anything else?”

     “Eye color, I want blue eyes,” she said.

     “No difficulty there,” he said. “Anything else?”

     “I want to be placed with other mermaids, merpeople,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to find me.”

     “Certainly, but you will have to be fresh water,” he said. “There are already too many millions of mermen and innumerable other transgenics going into the oceans.”

     “Okay,” Kim said after a pause.

     “Here is the contract for you to sign. I see you are still only seventeen. Do you have parental permission?”

     “Of course, sure I do. I’ll be eighteen next month anyway.” Kim signed the contract and then sneaked a quick picture with her cell phone camera. She sent the picture of the contract with an insulting message to her father’s cell phone and then to Rick’s. She hated her parents for isolating her all her life and she hated Rick for being a dog who was just after her money. “Is it going to take eight months?”
     “Oh no, only fourteen days for a basic metamorphosis like yours. We don’t use viruses to transfer the stem-cell DNA like the standard technique a few years ago. We now use specially designed nano-particles that are very fast, very efficient. Using hormonal injections we deceive your body into behaving like it’s a gastrula again. It’s all very easy to do with the A.I. system controlling everything, very safe. DNA makes protein, and a mermaid’s body is made of protein just as the body you have now is made of protein.”

     “Is it painful?” she asked.

     “Just a slight discomfort,” he said. “The only permanent effects will be some minor memory loss and of course you will not be able to bear children.” 

     “I don’t want children. I don’t want to think about what those phony religious moralists want me to do anymore.”
     “When your transformation is complete you will be free from any concern about what other people expect, Ms. Lemon. No more shame or self-reproach, a bargain, no?”
     “Yes, it is,” Kim said after a long pause.

     Two orderlies put her on a gurney and gave her an injection that induced paralysis except for her breathing. They told her she would be only semi-conscious but she felt fully aware as she was carted into the stadium packed with thousands of naked, immobile people and bizarre, sometimes gigantic figures hanging from wires as far as she could see. They put her inside a round chamber, one of hundreds. Something clamped down on her forehead and then the machine injected tens of billions of custom designed DNA nano-particles into her brain.

     There is no one to pray to, she kept telling herself as the horrific pain set in.

*                                    *                                   *

     Bad Henry sat down in front of the slight man in the white lab coat. He was wearing his favorite tee shirt, the dark green one that simply read BAD HENRY. It was also his last tee shirt. He sure hoped all of this was going to pay off.

     The man in the lab coat looked up and grimaced. He asked Bad Henry why his face was black and blue.

     “Got into a little scrap with a big catfish this afternoon.”

     “Are you quite ready to begin this process, Monsieur Moore?”

     “I was born ready. You seem kind of young; you know what you’re doing, um; I didn’t catch your name.”

     “I am Cuthbert Starch. I am a graduate of the Pasteur Institute and I am more than capable of…”
     “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s all great Mr. Cootie-Scratch, but I’m here to get special consideration. I know people high up, are you following me? I want to get some special, custom work done.”

     “You will get no special consideration and unless you address me correctly,” Cuthbert Starch was instantly worked up into a frenzy. He stood up pointing his finger in Bad Henry’s face. “Unless you address me correctly you will be removed from this facility. What are you doing here anyway, egh? Look at you; you are already an American bogey-man. You need no enhancement for that. You Americans will learn your place soon enough…arrrgh!”

     Bad Henry bit down hard on the man’s index finger. Cuthbert slapped Bad Henry’s face but the teeth just clamped down tighter. He should have bitten the finger off by now but something was different about Cuthbert’s skin and bones. Bad Henry had been biting people since he was a toddler. Just last month he bit the nose tip off of a man during a brawl in an illegal bar up by Goofy Ridge, but this guy’s skin tasted like silicon caulking. Bad Henry seized both of Cuthbert’s arms, his big hands gripping like vises, and then rose up to his full six-foot five-inches, glowering down at Cuthbert until he finally released him.
     “Surprise,” Bad Henry said.

     Cuthbert fell backwards cursing in the “Chunnel” dialect, an admixture of French and English and Arabic. Bad Henry spat and waited for the security guards to rush in and drag him out, but no team of big bruisers materialized to do battle. Cuthbert’s supervisor, the same one with indigo eyes who had advised Kim, walked in smiling. He was taller than Cuthbert and wore a different lab coat. He exchanged words in Portuguese with Cuthbert who complained of damage to his index finger but the supervisor sternly warned him that unresolved incidents like this could cause a drop in production and were unacceptable. The supervisor ordered Cuthbert to go to his line. The supervisor shook his head and then sat down at the desk in front of Bad Henry.
     “Sit, sit, my friend,” the supervisor said with an amused smile. “Have no fear, there is no reproach.”

     Bad Henry sat back down. His eyes still glanced around for any blindside attacks but no one else came in to the office.

     “Listen, I’ll drop the charges if I get what I came for,” Bad Henry said.
     “Drop the charges?”

     “Yeah, that Mr. Cootie Scratch stuck his finger down my throat.”
     “Don’t worry, my friend. I will discipline him later. Now for what you came for. Do you have your smart card?”

     Bad Henry gave him his smart card. The supervisor swiped it into the Artificial Intelligence portal. He handed it back and waited for the information to come up on the 3-D monitor. The A.I. took several seconds longer than usual to analyze his genetic data.

     “Where you from?” Bad Henry asked.

     “I live in a chateau outside of Luxembourg City.”

     “What country is that town in?”

     “Luxembourg, a member state of the E.U,” the supervisor replied.

     “That’s convenient,” Bad Henry said.

     “And where do you reside?” the supervisor asked.

     “I live in a stilt-house in the marsh about forty miles south of Pittsfield.”
     “A scenic place I’m sure.” The supervisor suddenly squinted his indigo eyes and stared intently at the 3-D monitor.
     “There’s a lot of carp there but not as much bass and channel cat as there used to be,” Bad Henry said to make conversation. “I heard most of them got wiped out by somebody fishing with home-made dynamite.” Bad Henry’s eyebrows went up and down to emphasize this valuable fishing information but the supervisor kept at his intense study of the 3-D screen.
     “Mr. Moore your genome is incredible. Forty-eight percent is classic Gaelic peasant, you can see that, but there is an astonishing discordance of ancestry here. Greenland Eskimo, Basque, did you know you are one-one-hundred-and-eighth Chinese?”

     “My ancestry got around, if you know what I mean,” Bad Henry said and his bushy eyebrows moved up and down again. He proceeded to tell the man the story of the celebrity Chinese Siamese twins who toured America in the early 1800s. Each twin married a beautiful southern belle and they all settled down in Tennessee on a plantation.  They each had one son but when the Civil War broke out one son joined the Confederacy and one son went north to join the Union. The story was true. Bad Henry read a lot, especially in the winter. He couldn’t afford a holographic netcast center so he had time to read the collection of freak magazines his biker-gang-leader grandfather had left him as well as the bomb and booby-trap making manuals. The Chinese Siamese twin really was his ancestor but Bad Henry didn’t know it. He had no real idea of his heritage on either side of his family; he was just trying to play the indigo-eyed man to get better service.
     “Look at this: Berber, Corsican, Algonquian, Cossack, Serbian, Latvian, Hungarian, and Semite. It goes on and on. It is fantastic.”

     “Now that you’re clear on my royal background I want to get down to business,” Bad Henry said. “I have regal roots so I need to get some regal service; you follow me?”
     “Certainly,” the supervisor said. “I have clearance to utilize genomes of prehistoric animals that my underlings do not have access to.”
     “Listen, dinosaurs and all that is way too retro for somebody as up-and-coming as me,” Bad Henry said.
      “You have something unique in mind?”

     “Now you’re cooking,” Bad Henry said as he rubbed his thick hands together. He proceeded to tell the supervisor what he wanted to be changed into.
     “You admire the jihadists, no?” The supervisor asked with a sinister smile Bad Henry liked.

     “The Kamikazes were better, they had class.” Bad Henry could hardly stay seated he was so excited. “The problem is none of them were able to tell anybody what it was like to do it.”

     “I will honor this request,” the supervisor said. “Make no mistake, this is a supreme bioengineering design challenge, but I will put a team on it and cut some special A.I. time to project a model of how this could be done. I am so sick of fairy story mermaids and unicorns and satyrs. So infantile, so lacking in imagination. You, my friend, are a genius.”

     Bad Henry settled himself down. He posed with his profile chin up like he was being sculpted by a great artist. The supervisor left and came back several times with different lab workers. He finally came back in with an A.I. printout the size of a telephone book and then proceeded to go over the design parameters with Bad Henry.
     “You will become a polymorphic organism. This means that your body will take on a different form under the proper circumstances. There are some examples of this in nature; what you would call pond scum. You will be given the ability to produce an explosive gas. No, not methane, what you want is explosive power far greater than that. That part is easy. The central core of your body will explode on your command with a force powerful enough to destroy a large building.

     “Here it gets difficult. We will have to reinforce your skull, as robust as it is now, and also your brain with multiple layers of redundancy. We have never done that for anyone else, my friend. But the most biotechnologically sweet aspect of this design is how you will be regenerated. Soon after the blast some friend will have to locate your head and then immerse it in stagnant water. After the immersion of your head in this large body of oxygen deprived water you will begin producing amoeboid cells that will enter into the water to feed independently and rapidly reproduce. As the weeks go by you will call the single-cell amoeboids back to your head to re-differentiate and build up your body again.”

     “What’s an a-me-boid?” Bad Henry asked.
     “It is a tiny organism that you need a microscope to see,” the supervisor replied.
     “I like that microscopic stuff.  Do you really think my head will make it alive through a blast like that?”

     “The projection can not guarantee it, but I believe you will be able to perform this feat at least once. Of course you must sign a form swearing not to use this ability for any nefarious purpose.”
     “Sure,” Bad Henry said.
     “Would you like any other modifications?” the supervisor asked. “Facial structure perhaps?”

     “Why would I want to change a classic, what did you call me? A classic garlic pheasant? That’s a positive thing, right?”
     “I referred to you as a…right.  Just as you say. It is definitely a positive. Any other requests?”
     “Yeah, fix my deaf right ear, and send all this paperwork into the A.I. and pipe it into my ears while I’m changing. And make sure it’s in English.”
     “An excellent time saving idea,” the supervisor said. “Anything else?”

     “You know that girl that went into your office just a minute ago?”
     “A Ms. Lemon,” the supervisor said. “Very charming.”
     “That’s right,” Bad Henry said. “Ms. Kim Lemon. She’s my girlfriend. Is it really true everybody is strung up naked out there while they’re changing?”
     “Correct, so that the body transformation can be monitored. Unfortunately to monitor the effects on the nervous system we must keep the patients fully conscious. The pain is spectacular, I’m afraid. Of course we don’t tell most patients these facts. We don’t want statistical imbalances when it comes to class ratios.”
     “I see your point,” Bad Henry said. “My request is to hang me up right next to Kim.”
     “How thoughtful,” the supervisor said with another sinister, knowing smile. “I am sure she will be comforted a great deal by your presence.”
     “You bet. My being there right next to her will make a big difference to her and to me.”
     “You are not troubled at all about the pain coming, are you, Mr. Moore?” the supervisor asked.

     “It’ll just be like meeting an old friend,” Bad Henry said.

*                                              *                                              *

     “Get up, Rick,” Angela said early Sunday morning. “Hurry, get dressed. We have to leave right now.”
     Rick rolled over. He had fallen asleep on the living room floor in her apartment. He was cold and felt a gnawing hunger that had never been in his body before. But what a night, he couldn’t believe she brought him to her apartment. He wasn’t a virgin anymore.
     “What’s the hurry?” he asked as he got dressed. She didn’t answer and he went into her bathroom. When he came out he went to her kitchen to look for something to eat. The cupboards were bare and to his great puzzlement he found nothing but a dozen bottles of what looked like dietary supplements labeled with strange names and bottles of drinking water in the refrigerator. Angela came into the kitchen. She had on a long-sleeved beige teachers outfit nothing like the glamorous blue dress she had worn last night.

     “Rick, we have to get out of this county now. I’ll tell you why once we get going.”
     As she drove them out of Bluff City in her scarlet sports car, Rick began to feel guilty. He should be in church right now. Why did he have this queasy morning-after feeling? Last night she made him feel like everything that came before in his life was unimportant.
     “Do you have my cell phone? I need to call my mom, let her know I’m all right.” She didn’t answer. They were coming up to Riverton now. He squinted from the sunny morning glare and then noticed the smoke rising from the riverfront. He stared at the billowing black smoke. “There must be a big fire down by the Indian Christian Church.”

     “It is the Indian church,” Angela said. She kept her eyes on the road.
     “I wonder how it started.”
     “It was arson,” she said. “Someone planted a timed incendiary device inside the church last night. But that’s not the worst thing that’s happened.”
     “How do you know all this?” Rick suddenly realized he did not know this woman.
     “I’m not exactly a teacher, Rick, although I did a pretty good job of instructing you last night.” She glanced over at him with a quick smile.
     “What are you?”
     “I’m a special agent for a U.N. anti-terrorist agency. I’ve been working undercover this school year. A teacher is the only new face in this county that wouldn’t arouse a lot of curiosity. I was sent here to prevent a tragedy, but I’m afraid it’s too late.”
     She stopped the two-seat sports car in front of the ramp to get onto the Mississippi River ferry. As they waited she showed him her official badge, identification smart card, and law enforcement stun gun. The dashboard entertainment controls looked normal but when she pressed a hidden button the police and fire department frequencies came on. They listened to the fire chief talking to the crew at the scene. It sounded like everyone had made it out of the church.
     “Your friend Tyler Pandav is dead, Rick.”

     “What happened to him?”

     “The sheriff’s police found a camper burning in the woods about fifteen kilometers northeast of here. After they put it out they noticed a lot of blood in and around the vehicle. They followed the blood trail to three shallow graves down in a big pit. One of them was Tyler.”
     “My sister and her boyfriend were rock climbing in that sink hole yesterday.” Rick held his breath.
     “The other two bodies were a pair of unidentified transgenics, Rick. But I’m afraid your sister and her boyfriend were involved.”

     “Not Lydia, no way. Not Davy-Jake either.”

     “They’ve both already admitted to murdering the transgenics. Of course they claim it was self-defense. Her boyfriend has their blood and Pandav’s all over him even though he tried to clean up at a hydro-station.”

     Rick said nothing for a minute as she drove onto the ferry. He looked out at the wide bronze river and watched the white gulls soaring high above and the dark grey swallows swooping down to skim the top of the water. He wondered if he would ever see home again.

     “Where did they pick them up?” he finally asked.

     “They were eating at Percy’s Restaurant yesterday afternoon. They were behaving strangely, very agitated. Your sister threw a ketchup bottle at a customer and then her boyfriend started brawling. He not only battered the guy he tore up half the dining area.  He had to submit his smart card when they got him to jail and his DNA was matched to blood on the two transgenics.”
     “I can’t believe it.”
     “Look, Rick, I’m sorry reality is crashing down on you like this but you’re going to have to deal with it. The county you grew up in is not the friendly Mid-western every-body-loves-his-neighbor place it tries to look like. It has a long history of bigotry. It was an anti-draft copperhead county way back during the American Civil War. There were KKK rallies in the 1920s and for the next one hundred years almost no one inside the county would sell property to someone from outside the county. That’s why the suburbs never moved out this way. And of course there was the Red Counties Rebellion.”

     “The Rebellion was not bigotry,” Rick said. “Rural America was outraged at the Supreme Court for ruling the U.S. Constitution was superseded by U.N. resolutions. To them it was crazy logic that Canadian laws followed the U.N. resolutions so the U.S. had to comply with Canadian law. Basically the Supreme Court gave the country away to Canada. It was patriotism to oppose that, not bigotry.”

     “How many atrocities in the name of defending the U.S. Constitution are enough?  Hiroshima?  Nagasaki?  Vietnam?  The Wars for Oil? The list goes on and on, Rick.”
     “Why would Christians murder another Christian?”

     “The well organized terrorist group that is behind this knows that for an insurgency to be successful it has to be ruthless. They’re backed by a very cunning Zionist power base and they know their stuff. Remember your history, Rick. The Christian Indian immigrants didn’t participate in the Red Counties Rebellion. They’ve sent a message.”
     “Zionist power base?”

     “That’s right, Rick. You’ll learn more about them later.” She was now driving them down the road to the freeway that ran south into Saint Louis. She shifted gears and the ride got smoother. “I want you to know that last night was not part of my assignment. Undercover work is lonely, very isolating. You’re the only person in that place I could relate to.
     “I promise you that I will do everything I can to protect your mother and your sister, but I need your help. We need to understand the relationships that power the Christian underground in Moreau County. Only you can do that for us.” She gave him a vulnerable look and then reached over and held his hand. She took his hand and brought it up to her mouth and kissed it. “Tonight is another night,” she said.

*                                            *                                            *

     Angela drove up to a tan twenty-story building with no windows. Rick guessed they were in a north suburb of Saint Louis. She said some coded gibberish into the back of her right hand as she drove straight at a wall. He braced his arms on the dashboard, but the building opened into a garage door that quickly shut behind them. She navigated the little car into a parking area and within thirty seconds handed him over to a six-person interrogation team.
     The four males and two females interrogated Rick for hours. Two males and one female would act hostile and the other three would seem friendly but then without reason the trios would switch. Finally someone came in and gave him loaf of white bread, a jar of pre-mixed peanut butter and grape jelly, and a liter of milk. When he wolfed down the pbj sandwich he made with his fingers they all looked at him like he was doing something disgusting. He didn’t care. He cooperated, answered all their questions which they repeated over and over. He was infuriated at Davy-Jake for getting his sister into this trouble and believed Angela when she promised to help his family. But when they began focusing their questions on Daniel Jeremiah Diamond he felt sick in his soul. Sometimes Angela would step in and converse rapidly in Portuguese with the others then leave without even looking at him. If he would have tried he probably could have understood some of what they were saying but he just spaced out.

     He was sure it was past midnight when Angela finally came in and got him. He grabbed the jar of peanut butter and jelly, and the half a loaf of bread and the half empty liter of milk. She marched him down a flight of stairs and then through a maze of hallways. He tried to memorize all the twists and turns in case he decided to get out. Finally she unlocked a door to an apartment with no windows. It was nicely furnished with multi-colored furniture and a plush orange carpet.
     “This is my real place,” she said as she led him inside.

     He hurried to put the milk in her kitchen refrigerator. Once again, there was no real food in her refrigerator, just the dozen bottles of what looked like dietary supplements and bottles of water. Just when he stepped out of her kitchen with a bottle of water he felt the ground move under his feet for the first time.
     “It must be an earth tremor,” she said.

*                                         *                                           *

     Rick woke up on the living room carpet again. Just a few hours ago he had collapsed on the floor. Angela was sitting in her luxurious crimson-striped black chair, no evidence of sleep depravation on her beautiful face. Her bronze eyes held no emotion, just intense scrutiny. He didn’t say good morning.
     “You don’t sleep. You don’t eat any real food. What kind of transgenic enhancements did you get?”

     “None, I’m not transgenic,” she said.

     “What are you then?”

     “That’s kind of blunt, Rick.”
     “I guess we’re past all the formalities, right?  I haven’t kept anything from you.”
     “I’ve been sitting here for three hours watching you sleep. It’s fascinating how you toss and turn, the way your eyes move under your eyelids when you’re dreaming.”
     “You don’t dream because you don’t sleep.” He wanted to laugh but couldn’t.
     “It’s like you’re plugged into some kind of video system that’s playing meaningless garbage inside your head.” She paused and a kind of smile spread across her face. “I need to ask you one more question and if you answer truthfully and correctly I’ll tell you anything you want to know about me.”

     “All right, ask away.”

     Angela didn’t say anything for a minute. She leaned forward and the tips of her slender fingers started caressing the coffee table in front of her. She made little caressing circles with her fingers as she stared into his eyes.

     “You don’t have any illusions about going back home or going back to church, do you?”

     “No. I can’t go back home. I’m done with church. It used to mean a lot to me but it doesn’t mean anything any more.” His initial guilt from the previous morning was gone but his admiration for her had disappeared too. Rick knew now that she had no real affection for him or for anything else. He already detested her, but at the same time felt more alive than he ever could have imagined because of her fiery skills.
     She leaned back into her chair. Her silk kimono was loose so she tightened the sash around her wasp-waist and then crossed her arms.
     “I am enhanced. I’ve been enhanced for almost a year and a half, but not with animal DNA or any other DNA. My body doesn’t have DNA anymore. I love that look on your face, Rick.
     “Here’s the truth. I’m neogenic not transgenic. Only ruling meritocrats get this enhancement. My DNA was replaced by a vastly superior genetic code designed by our A.I. system. I’m not made of protein any more. My bones are immensely stronger and more durable than calcium bones. I can’t get sick from viruses, bacteria, protozoa, or even prions. I can live for days or longer under water or without air. I can walk out of a burning building or jog through a blizzard. I could hike from pole to pole and never get tired. As long as I avoid massive brain core trauma I really can’t be killed. It would probably take a direct hit with an atomic bomb to do me in. But the best part is this body is good for a thousand years at least. I’m a superwoman, Rick. What do you think about that?”
     Rick got up and got dressed. He couldn’t even ask himself how he had gotten in over his head. This was over anyone’s head. He felt hungry and nauseous at the same time.
     “Mr. Machado, I asked you a question.” Her voice sang with amusement.
     “So what does it feel like?” he asked.

     “I don’t feel; I am. I am inexhaustible. Before I went through with this I thought I was pretty much beyond worrying about good and evil but now I really really really am beyond them. I am a superwoman.”

     “Was it a painful process?”

     “It was excruciating beyond your wildest nightmares, Rick. Thirteen months of it. They’ve got the process down to three or four months now.”
     “Progress, huh?” he said.

     “That’s probably as quick as it can be done.”
     “So why are you interested in me?” he asked. “I mean what can someone like you get from being with someone like me?”
     “Well, there are a couple of things. Long term I am going to need a protégé to help build my power base. He would be enhanced neogene too. If you play your cards right it could be you, Rick. It’s an honor an extremely small percentage of the population is going to get.”

     “What about short term?” he asked.

     “I guess I have to admit there is one drawback to being a superwoman. Without any inhibitions you develop super-cravings. Having twenty-four-seven access to an eighteen-year-old young man such as you is about the closest thing to getting what I have to have when I have to have it.”
     “There aren’t any nice neogenic guys around?” Rick tried to smile.

     “There are no ‘nice’ neogenic guys. They’re all occupied developing their own power bases and their obsessions are even wilder than mine. In fact they are all turning out downright bizarre. You would probably still say they’re depraved, but who are you to judge true supermen.
     “I know you think I haven’t been taking good care of you, not letting you sleep and not giving you balanced meals, but the truth is I don’t have time for that. You’re just going to have to endure it, Rick.”

     “So it’s not to soften me up for questioning?”

     “No, we can get the truth out of you any time we need to. I know you’ve told us the truth so that won’t be necessary. We’re all done with that. The question now is: Do you want to join us?”

     “What do I have to do?” he asked without looking at her. “What’s involved?”
     “What’s involved is you have to dedicate yourself to crushing Sebastiao’s enemies. The black ops security agency I belong to is called the G.O.G. As we speak the G.O.G. is in the process of seizing control of this free-trade realm’s security forces so that the terrorist groups here can be effectively dealt with.”
     “So the G.O.G. is Sebastiao’s power base?” Rick asked.
     “Right, very good,” she said.

     “I was on the cross-country team for three years. I guess I’m just going to have to start running.”

     “That’s the spirit, Rick.”
     “When do we get started?”

     “Tomorrow.” Her face beamed with a mischievous smile.

*                                              *                                              *

     The next day Angela brought in cold Chinese food for his breakfast. Rick wasn’t sure but it must have been late afternoon. She didn’t seem to need a clock in the apartment. He sat at her kitchen table stuffing egg rolls and chicken fried rice into his face as she lectured about Sebastiao’s enemies.
     “Zionists,” she saved for last.

     “I’ve been curious about this one,” he said. “Is it some kind of Israel revival cult?”
     “The truth is that the Zionist entity still exists.”
     “What do you mean? Sebastiao negotiated the de-nuclearization of Israel and the return of the descendants of the Palestinian refugees. Palestine is a peaceful member of the Arab League free-trade realm.”

     “No, I’m afraid that’s not true. Sebastiao did, as you stated, negotiate that peace accord thirty-one years ago, less than a year after the integration of the U.S. into the world community. The racist Jewish wall finally came down and all the secular Jews evacuated. But three-and-a-half years later millions of right-wing Zionists were still there, living separately in privileged, guarded enclaves and oppressing their Arab neighbors, just like always. Something had to be done.” Angela became quiet. Her face had never looked this way before. “My father was an E.U. Special Forces veteran of the war here and before that many internal operations in Turkey that finally solved the Armenian and Kurdish problems. He met my mother when he was fighting in Minnesota. I changed my morphology to look more like her; she had the classic Nordic blonde look that opens a lot of doors. I’m actually thirty-three not twenty-six. You were worried I was even older, weren’t you? Anyway, my father became an intelligence operative for the G.O.G. after the war here. It was an exciting time. Two dozen Islamist nations were set to attack the Zionists, with organizational assistance and direction from G.O.G. operatives like my father who helped organize the supplies pouring in from the Russian Federation and the Pacific Rim. There were close to one hundred million Alliance soldiers secretly massing at Palestine’s borders.

     “When Iran launched the first nuclear missiles from submarines in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean there were millions of people celebrating in Tehran’s streets. They weren’t celebrating for long.”

     “Wait a minute,” he asked. “Why would they nuke Palestine when the majority of people living there were Muslim?”
     “The strength of jihad is the willingness to sacrifice even hundreds of your own to get one infidel enemy,” Angela replied with a smirk.
     “So what happened? This isn’t on the history net.”

     “No, it can’t be on the history net. The nuclear missiles from the Iranian submarines and missiles from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were redirected somehow. The Zionist scum used some kind of computer warfare to re-target those missiles on the Alliance capitols. In the field the armies from the different Alliance nations started attacking each other with tactical nukes after they learned their capitols had been incinerated by the other members’ nuclear missiles. Everyone thought they’d been double-crossed. All across the Middle-East tens of millions of soldiers lay dead. The Jews let the birds eat their bodies. They used the gasoline from the abandoned military convoys for years.”
     “Was your father killed then?” Her voice mesmerized him.

     “No, he was brought home from a military hospital a couple of months later. He was one of the few survivors. He was blind and badly scarred from radiation burns, was unrecognizable. As soon as he got his wheelchair inside the house he found his pistol and killed my mother and then himself. I was just four years old when I watched him do it. Suicides were rampant that first year after the defeat.
     “Of course it was this defeat, not Sebastiao’s peace accord, which brought on the Islamic Reformation. Woman so vastly outnumbered men they had to take control of government and corporate jobs they had not been allowed to enter before. It was a matter of survival. There is no sense in sacrificing your children to jihad for Allah if he answers the simultaneous prayers of a billion devout believers with a total catastrophe. Almost the entire Islamic world became very secular overnight. The shining new mosques in Europe are as empty as the mildewed old cathedrals now. The new Arab League capitol south of what used to be Bagdad is the most wide open, anything goes place on earth these days.”
     “So what is the status of Palestine now?” Rick asked.
     The Zionist murdered or drove out the Arab population that wasn’t traitor Christians. The Zionist state now controls seven times more territory than before Sebastiao’s peace accord. They have atomic weapons again and are developing new types of destructive devices. They’ve smuggled in over a hundred thousand right-wing Christian mercenaries from all over the world but mostly from southeastern North America, stationing them in their new border buffer areas. They are provisioning the terrorist groups here as well.”
     “How could they keep all that a secret? I never even heard a rumor that had happened.”

     “What journalist is going to go up against Sebastiao and the G.O.G.?” Angela sneered.  “Besides, the Zionist entity agreed to keep its existence a secret, but that may be coming to an end soon. If they do go public with what happened it will be a great humiliation to Sebastiao and his administration.”
     “Sounds like the Zionists are the most formidable force opposing the G.O.G.”
     “That’s right. They’re diabolical geniuses. Not just them either, the local terrorists here are masterminds too.”

*                                              *                                              *

     Twelve-year-old Roscoe Diamond stood outside in the backyard as the foreign men in suits tore up the inside of his house looking for something. Dressed in bib overalls, shirtless, and barefoot, he stood there in the afternoon sun with a foxtail weed protruding from his teeth.

     The three men finally came out of the house and ordered him to show them the rest of the property. Their white faces with sunglasses zoomed in on him.
     “I reckon we could stroll on down to the bullfrog pond ifing y’all’d like to,” Roscoe said.

     He led them down the path between the trees to the one acre pond surrounded by cattails and reeds. His feet hurt; he had to try hard not to flinch when he stepped on pebbles and twigs as he walked down the hill.
     “Does anyone reside down here?” one of the blue suited men asked with a Scandinavian accent.
     “Just Bonny and Clyde.”
     “Who are they?” asked the man with a Welch accent.

     “There’s Clyde over yonder in the mud.” Roscoe pointed to what looked like a dark brown boulder in the mud. He threw down the weed he had in his teeth and led on.
     When they got to the edge of the pond Roscoe burped a big burp and began reciting his ABCs as the soda pop gas was expelled out of his mouth. The three men in blue suits stepped back with repulsed looks on their faces. This was just fine with Roscoe because these E.U. guys creeped him out. He made it to the letter V.

     “Excuse me!” Roscoe said after he ran out of burp.
     “Where are the two you said live down here?” asked the leader who had a German accent.

     Roscoe stretched and then started scratching himself on the back of the neck and the belly at the same time.
     “I done told y’all that there’s Clyde sitting right in front of your faces.” Roscoe finished scratching and then picked up a long stick. He poked at the thing that looked like a boulder and a gigantic snake-like head with furious eyes struck out of the turtle shell. Its beaked mouth hissed like a punctured car tire.
     “That turtle is enormous,” the German said. “Is it enhanced?”
     “Oh no; this here’s a one-hundred-per-cent alligator snapping turtle. They’re the biggest four-legged wild critters left around these parts. This one here has been in my family almost twenty years. We breed ‘em for turtle soup.”
     “What’s in that box on the pole in the middle of the pond?” asked the one with the Welch accent.

     “That there’s a wood duck nesting box. It’s for wood ducks to make nests in.”
     “We must be allowed to look inside that box,” the German ordered.

     “Well, you’re welcome to it. But the thing is our little john boat done sunk in the pond after the last storm and Bonny is buried in the mud under the water there some where’s.” Roscoe stuck out his lips like a thinking chimp.
     “The alligator snapping turtle can cause damage?” asked the Scandinavian.
     “Oh, you bet your blue suit an alligator snapping turtle can do damage,” Roscoe said with sudden intensity. “The thing is you all can probably wade out there. I don’t believe it’s over y’all’s heads. But if you stepped on Bonny, well… See, she’s a lot bigger and meaner than little Clyde here. Heck, he’s only about fifty kilos. Bonny runs him out of the pond pretty regularly. He has to come out here and live in the mud for a couple of days. It ain’t natural for an alligator snapping turtle to live out of the water but ol’ Clyde’s pleased to do it when Bonny gets in one of her moods.”
     The three men in blue suits decided it wasn’t worth it. As they started up the path Roscoe’s eyes were watering. He could barely keep himself from exploding with laughter. Then the Welshman turned around.
     “You don’t speak like the other people in this region.”
     “What?” Roscoe asked back too quickly.

     “You talk like the Anglos farther south.”

     “Well, I ain’t ever been outside this county much. I was in Pittsfield last year. They say there’s nine thousand people living in that one town.”

     “They do not have holographic netcasts in their households,” the German said. “This is an isolated area.”
     “Their educational system is abominable,” the Scandinavian said.
     They left and Roscoe almost felt like rolling around on the ground. He knew he could not have pulled this off with someone from the capitol Ottawa. Now he just worried about his big brother Davy-Jake. He went on inside to help his mother clean up their ransacked house.

*                                              *                                              *

     That same Sunday afternoon Pastor Sterling spoke to the crowd at the high school in Bluff City. The funeral for Tyler Pandav that morning had been private but then hundreds of people, both Anglo and Indian Asian, came down to the high school to hear what their community leaders had to say about the crisis.

     Pastor Sterling spoke about the history of the Indian Christians in Moreau County and how much good had come from these mostly wonderful new neighbors. They had been river people in India and after they left their homeland forty years ago to escape the intense persecution from the Hindus and Moslems they became river people here. They worked on the barges and tugboats and were now the recognized experts on navigating the Mississippi River.

     Pastor Sterling could not make any references to God on school property but he finished by offering the use of his Baptist church to the Indian congregation until they could build a new church. He left the podium to go sit down next to his wife and his daughter Debra who held a life-sized poster of Tyler in front of her.
     Reverend Mandal held a remote control as he walked up to the podium. He was seventy-one, had wavy silver hair and young eyes. He thanked Pastor Sterling for the offer, but it would not be necessary. His congregation would meet in house churches for the time being.

     “I have seen hatred in India and I have smelled hatred in India. I witnessed the burning alive of my father and most of his congregation inside our church forty-two years ago by the Hindu extremists. That smell is branded into my soul. I tell you all now, one week ago today I smelled that terrible redolence here in Moreau County.

     “Permit me to show you two videos. Sorry to say they are only 2-D, but once these have both been shown you will be able to come to your own conclusion as to who is responsible for the murder of Tyler Pandav. And after you have seen these videos I will ask you all, in the name of our lord and savior Jesus Christ; yes, I said it out loud in this school and I will say it again: Jesus Christ is our lord! And I ask you in his mighty name to march with us to the county jail where we will demand justice.”
     He turned and pointed the remote at the auditorium wall screen behind him. A gigantic, smiling Davy-Jake appeared on the screen. He was in a dark green sweater and was holding a hammer. He was two years younger and two years skinnier and a little bit gawky as he and a half a dozen other Anglos and a dozen Asians worked on repairing the Indian church roof after a wind storm. When the video clip finished Reverend Mandal explained that Davy-Jake and the other Anglos spontaneously showed up to help repair the roof.

     “Now this second video will be especially difficult for some here to watch. Forgive me for making you suffer more my brother and sister Pandav, and all you others who loved Tyler. This was sent from his cell phone camera to Debra Sterling’s cell phone right before his car was struck the night of his death.”

     Reverend Mandal pressed the button on the remote and headlight glare exploded out of the wall screen and then the video paused at the split second when the driver and front passenger were caught in clear view right before impact. Everyone could see it was Wayne Browner behind the wheel and Doug Strapman next to him in the front passenger seat.

*                                               *                                              *

     Daniel Diamond climbed up the steps in front of the old courthouse that was next to the county jail. Behind him was Judson Hawkinson and behind Judson was a crowd of five hundred Christian citizens.

     Sheriff Otto Galloway came out and stood at the top of the steps with his five most effective commanders, including his son Willy and daughter Hillary. They looked confident in the late afternoon sunlight. Dan walked up so close to Otto’s face it looked like they were going to collide. They didn’t greet each other.
     “Looks like you saved me the trouble of coming to collect you, Diamond.” Otto was sixty-six, tall and lean. He looked twenty years younger. “There are some important operators that are going to be here any minute to pick up Davy-Jake and they want to talk to you too.”

     “Well Otto, the thing is you need to see this before you go making promises to important operators that you can’t keep.” He handed Otto the documents. Otto just smiled as he casually looked them over.
     “This man left the bench twenty-one years ago. He must be ninety-five years old.”

     “You can almost count, I’ll give you that. But you’re wrong about him not being on the bench. He doesn’t have to run a court full time. He’s the emergency on-call judge. Since this is Sunday and the other judges are all up in the Mile-High Tower in Peoria or the Tenderloin in Saint Louis doing their business he’s next in line. It’s all legal. Read them and then you’re going to get Davy-Jake out of that jail then you’re all going to turn in your badges.”
     Otto now scrutinized the documents. When he was finished he looked at the other five and they all moved to get back inside the courthouse. They tried to push their way past Dan and Judson but Dan stopped Otto. The former sheriff had his hand on his stun gun.

     “Please go ahead and pull that thing out,” Dan said in a calm voice. His eyes were like blue-grey lightning and Otto stepped back. He handed over his badge and police gear and ordered the other five to do the same.

     “This is just temporary, Diamond,” Otto said.

     “The thing you just can’t seem to get is your whole situation is temporary. I’m this close to getting you indicted as an accessory to first degree murder, both for Tyler and my cousin Ray.”

      Otto Galloway and the other five skulked to their cars and then drove out of the county. Judson went into the jail and came back out five minutes later with a blinking Davy-Jake. The crowd cheered when they saw him, and Lydia ran up the steps into his arms. They had let her go after three days. Davy-Jake kissed her and then the hundreds of brown and white faces cheered again. Dan led them down into the crowd.

     Judson put up both hands to silence the crowd. After they grew quiet he read the warrants for the four suspects in Tyler Pandav’s murder. Then he read a proclamation based on the Declaration of Independence that stated Moreau County was now back under the jurisdiction of the Constitution of the United States. He read off the Bill of Rights, starting with the First Amendment. After Judson finished the crowd was clapping and cheering and he had to put up both hands again.
     “Just one more thing, if anybody has an American flag, Old Glory, you’re welcome to fly her again.”

     The crowd went wild. But as the news of the day spread out from the courthouse, over fifteen hundred of the county’s population of seven thousand began packing their belongings. Driving his shiny SUV, Dean Browner led the convoy of protesting secular residents out of Moreau County.

*                                              *                                              *

     Angela Starr was looking over the shoulder of her senior operative, the German Wolfgang Honecker. He was sitting in front of a 3-D monitor deep inside the operations center of the Tan Building. They were listening to the recorded phone conversation between Davy-Jake and Roscoe from that Saturday Lydia and Davy-Jake were arrested for fighting with Bad Henry.
     “He told the boy to hide the big phone at the pond.” Angela was instantly infuriated at the incompetence of her operatives.

     “How did you decode what he said?” Wolfgang asked. “The A.I. system could not decode or decipher it.”

     “It’s not a code or a cipher. It’s a jargon called Pig Latin children use when they don’t want adults to understand what they’re talking about.”
     “I was not instructed to translate jargon. This cannot be held against me or my team.”
     “Oh, you’re wrong about that. You should have realized when you were at the property that the Zionist communication device was in that wood duck house. These rural throwbacks are sentimental about baby animals. They would never have allowed ducklings in a pond if they were going to be eaten by giant snapping turtles.”
     “I was not briefed properly on the culture here. This is not my fault.”

     “You could not even pick up the prisoner from the jail,” she said.
     “There was a hostile mob of at least a thousand in front of us,” Wolfgang pleaded.  “The security authorities friendly to us there had just been relieved of duty.”
     “I will discipline you and your team later. And it will be severe discipline.” Angela needed to say no more. Wolfgang’s pleadings were silenced so she turned and walked out of the operations room. She went straight up to her apartment where Rick was sleeping.

*                                               *                                              *

     For the last two weeks during the few hours when Rick could sleep long enough to dream he dreamed about food. He felt guilty about not dreaming about his family, but vivid sights and tastes and aromas of his favorite foods kept recurring. It was just food, no family.

     Now he was dreaming he was back home. His mother and his sister Lydia were in the kitchen together talking in Cuban Spanish that sounded like poetry. His mother was making chocolate fudge from powdered cocoa and Lydia was stuffing green peppers with freshly grilled pheasant and spotted paca steaks. Dan was outside grilling more paca and pheasant from his organic farm. It all looked and smelled just like home. Suddenly a blinding pain woke him up.

     “Get up,” Angela said and kicked him again.
     He had been kicked in the side first and then the side of his head. He felt a little trickle of blood right next to his eye and he had had it. Rick got up from the sofa and charged her. Angela let him get close then feinted away from his punches. She was just a little stronger than him but it was her ultra-fast reflexes and martial arts training that sent him flying into a wall head first.

     “What’s wrong with you?” he shouted as he tried to get back up but couldn’t.
     “What do you mean? This is just part of a relationship. I come home from a bad day at work and we get into a fight and now we’re going to make up.”
     “I’ve got a headache,” Rick answered with all the hatred that his voice could produce.  He lay there against the wall breathing hard. His eye was already swollen and he was holding his side. He wasn’t sure if he had a broken rib.

     “Oh no, you don’t get to use that excuse. Your mother never lived with a man that you can remember, isn’t that correct? You don’t know anything about relationships, one always dominates. In this case it’s me.”
     “I know you’re warped,” he said still breathing hard.
     Angela stood there staring at him for a couple dozen seconds. Finally a smile came on her face. She pointed at him and then her index finger curled up and down.

     “Crawl to me, Ricky.”

     I’m just an animal, he thought then. I’ve got to stay alive; I’ve got to stay alive. He started crawling.

*                                              *                                             *

     During the next three weeks Angela kept instructing Rick on the inner workings of the G.O.G. She told him that he would have to make a decision as to whether he was going to become neogenically enhanced. He would have to choose by his own free will, for some reason the process was always fatal to people who were forced to undergo it.
     One day Angela was gone for hours. After a while he finally overcame his fear and backed into the door, reaching behind his back to turn the knob. It wouldn’t turn. Enraged, he turned and kicked the door as hard as he could, again and again. He didn’t care if she had cameras watching the apartment. He had to get out now. Nothing seemed to happen to the door no matter how hard he kicked it. But as he desperately searched the apartment for something heavy to ram it with, logic slowly overcame him. Where would he go if he got out anyway? He hit the door one more time with his fist and then closed his eyes and pressed his forehead on it. To escape from this building was impossible.
     When Angela returned she gave him a folio of papers labeled “TOP SECRET” and titled First Fifty Years Plan. He studied the papers after she left. She was gone for many hours again and when she returned he was ready to talk. Even all that had happened so far had not prepared Rick for what was in the Plan.

     “How could everyone go along with this?”
     “Who wouldn’t go along with it?” she asked back. “You think the ruling meritocrats; the lawlords, the heads of multi-realm corporations, not to mention the security forces commanders would be against consolidating more power into their hands?”
     “Some of them must be against this,” he said.

     “Some of them are definitely going to be dissatisfied with their place in the new dispensation. I’ve already briefed you on Sebastiao’s enemies. None of those groups would go along with the Plan because they aren’t included. None of them know what the Plan is anyway, or they only know portions. It is the most closely guarded secret in the G.O.G.”
     “It’s a plan to enslave the entire population of the planet. It’s worse than the feudalism of the Dark Ages.”
     “You read the reason,” she said. “You know as well as I do that the vast majority of human beings are nothing but a heard of chimp-lemmings. If this ten-billion-strong heard finds out the truth that a horrible, incurable disease will soon wipe them out they will go on a nihilistic rampage that will destroy the work seven millennia of civilizations have built up.”

     “How do they know for sure?”
     “The A.I. model of the spread of prions cannot be wrong. It would take a solar flare burning this planet to a crisp to stop it.
     “The prions are a great mystery. Not only do they spread like germs, they spontaneously emerge from the central nervous systems of mammals for no apparent reason. They somehow form different varieties even though they contain no DNA or RNA. Some unexplainable force other than Darwinian selfish genes is creating this plague. No drugs, no radiation treatment, no sterilization with heat at any practical temperature is effective. Prions are self-replicating proteins that are going to wipe out the entire human race within the next one hundred years. Rats and coyotes are the mammals with nervous systems most resistant but they’re not going to last much longer. Probably after ten centuries any creature with a central nervous system will be extinct, except for us.”

     “The Global Minimum Wage, the offer of free transgenic enhancement; they both were just ruses to create dependency in the world’s population.”

     “That’s right. Ten years ago many parts of the globe still had too much self-sufficiency in the rural areas, but that’s mostly gone now. When about a hundred million people become transgenic the agricultural and economic systems are going to collapse because it will be as if forty to fifty billion new dependent people have been added all at once to the Earth’s ten billion. After a brief period of hyperinflation and predation the Earth’s population will demand this weak world federation be replaced by a central world government that is uncompromisingly strong and ruthless. The Plan is moving events as we speak. It was formulated by the most powerful A.I. system ever developed and nothing can stop it.”
      Rick sat down in a kitchen chair and put his head in his hands. He had emotions no one had ever named for him. He feared for the planet Earth and for the human race. The Plan, he wished he never heard of it. This was too much.
     “Look, the Plan is working,” Angela said. “Europe was always meant to rule the world and soon it will. The E.U. has the strongest of the four remaining currencies and once the global economy collapses it will be the only one left standing. Nothing can stop us. There is no moral force in the universe but once we gain control we’ll be just as powerful as the gods of Greek mythology.

     “I need to know now if you are going to accept becoming neogenically enhanced. We have to go in tomorrow morning if you agree to go through with the procedure. Someone very important will be waiting for you at the neogenic enhancement center.”

     “Who?”

     “You’ll have to wait to see. I need to know now, yes or no.”

     “Yes, I’ll do it,” he finally said. Rick forced himself to accept it. If I become neogenically enhanced I won’t let myself descend into depravity, I’ll become a force that will set things right. They won’t be able to stop me. No more sickness, accidents or old age to worry about, almost an immortal. Watch out, universe. Everyone including Angela will pay for what they’ve put me through. Anyway, I don’t have a choice; she’ll kill me if I don’t go through with it.

*                                              *                                              *

     Before he woke up Rick had a terrible nightmare. He seemed alive, walking and talking, but his body was full of maggots. When he woke up cold and terrified he wanted to weep but couldn’t. Angela was sitting in her chair watching him as usual.
     The early morning air was warm and humid as she drove them away from the windowless Tan Building. The secret neogenic enhancement center was only fifteen minutes away, she told him.

     “I have to eat something,” Rick said.

     “There’s no fast food place with a drive-thru on the way.”

     “I need to eat something or I’m going to pass out.”

     She did a U-turn and after a few miles drove into the parking lot of a convenience grocery store. Dawn was still a half an hour away and a deep blackness surrounded the lit windows of the little convenience store.
     As soon as they got out a large male form lunged out of nowhere and tried to tackle Angela. She was up and the creature was on the pavement cursing and shrieking before Rick could get around the car. She had an intense, narrow light beam from her stun gun in the creature’s face. The weapon had shot out multiple self-moving wires that acted like tentacles. The wires penetrated the chest and right arm of a satyr.
     Rick looked the creature over. He had never seen a transgenic person in real life. He was naked from the waist up, had coarse goat hair covering his bare chest and head. Only the face with the pointed chin, pointed ears, and the pug nose were bare. There was a pair of curved-back goat horns rising from the top of his forehead, cloven hoofed feet, and a violet eyeshine reflecting from the furious purple eyes.

     “You going to call the police?” he asked.

     “No. I think I’ll just play with him for a while.” Angela manipulated her weapon and the satyr screeched as smoke rose from his chest and arms. She was using a high voltage setting to burn off patches of skin and hair. The stench made Rick nauseous.
     “I’ll be right back,” he said and started walking.
     “You’re not going to watch?” she asked but she kept her focus on the prostrate satyr.
     Rick didn’t answer her and walked on into the convenience store. A craving for chocolate drove him to buy a dozen chocolate frosted donuts and a liter of the transgenic-bacteria-produced cow’s milk. He paid for the food and sat down at the counter stool, wolfing down donut after donut until two young girls walked in. He put his head down and quit eating. He didn’t want to be noticed by any normal people, especially girls his age.
     The two girls shopped their way to the back of the store and he hurried to finish off the donuts and milk. He got up and asked the nervous-looking middle-aged male clerk for the key to the restroom.
     While he was washing his hands he looked up and saw his gaunt reflection in the dirty mirror. He looked back down at the sink as his hand slowly turned off the faucet. Rick dropped down to his knees and clasped his hands together.

     “Oh Heavenly Father, forgive me. I am a pathetic wretch. You gave me warning. I knew what was happening because you warned me. Hundreds of millions of people could have changed if You had given them that warning, but not me. I’m worthless, but now I reject everything she teaches and offers. Kill me, but don’t let me fall into her hands again, please. In the name of Jesus Christ I ask this, amen.”

     A small window was cracked open above the toilet. He noticed it as he stood back up. Rick started to step on the toilet seat to climb out but at that instant the ground shook violently. He fell on his back and then tried to get back up but the shaking intensified and he watched cracks appear in the wall in front of him.
     The shaking subsided. Rick got up and attacked the window. He pushed out the screen and pulled himself up through the opening. If he had been his normal weight he never would have squeezed through. He barely managed to hold on long enough to get his legs out so he wouldn’t fall head first. He flipped his legs out and dropped just as another tremor shook everything.
     Rick Machado rose up and ran so fast the wind stung his eyes. It was dawning now. The sugary food and the fresh air were giving him strength. He had been locked inside for four weeks. The back of the store was surrounded by a ten-foot-tall, razor-wire-topped fence. For a terrible second he believed he was trapped but he kept running, straight into the gate, and it fell over. He stumbled over it and kept running. All around burglar alarms sounded and police sirens screamed in the distance.

     As Rick ran down a sidewalk away from the convenience store, he watched in horror as headlights on his back made his running shadow loom out in front of him. There were fenced-in warehouses on each side of the street and nowhere to go. The vehicle pulled up alongside him and a girl’s voice called out.
     “Hey, you can stop running. The earthquake’s over with.”
     The voice wasn’t Angela’s. He looked over and saw a pretty girl with an amused look sticking her head out of the passenger window as the small car paced him.

     “I need a ride,” he said.  “Somebody’s after me.”

     “Who’s after you?”

     “Back there in the store. In the parking lot. She has a… two-seat sports car. She’s after me.”
     “The lady standing over by the screaming drunk guy?”

     “He’s not drunk. I need…help.”
     The car stopped. The car door opened and he squeezed into the back seat.

 

VI. Pilgrims

         

     The back seat of the car was messy with empty cups, papers, and plastic bags full of groceries but smelled like jasmine. Rick gave the girls a serious look as he slouched down in the seat. In a few seconds he rose back up to peek out the back window.
     “I’m Jill.” The passenger girl sported an amused half smile.

     “Chin,” the driver chirped. Both were pretty Eurasian girls. They were wearing short skirts that were more feminine than the Scary Clown Club girls’ clothes so he decided to trust them.

     “Call me ‘M’,” Rick said. “Try to take some side streets.”

     Chin obliged. She did several sharp turns onto side streets and then drove down an alley. Jill kept the amused half smile as she studied Rick. Chin got them out onto a main road busy with morning traffic and Rick began to relax. The sun was up now and they were heading west.
     “That’s a nice suit.” Jill gave him a full smile now.

     “I’ll sell it to you.” Rick kept his serious face but she made him want to smile back.
     “So who’s the scary lady?” Chin asked.
     “Someone I had a relationship with.”

     “How long?” Jill asked.
     “About a month. Seemed like a prison sentence.”
     “She’s older than you?” Chin now looked him over in the rear view mirror.

     “Yeah, she was one of my high school teachers. She taught, well never mind what she taught.”  Rick sat up and turned his head to look out the back window one more time then turned back to Jill.
     “Uh-huh,” Jill said like a doctor. Her entrancing green eyes showed no surprise. “So she was hot-as-sun and you got burned.”

     “Yeah, I got burned all right, but everybody’s going to get burned real soon.” The weight of the future clouded Rick’s mind again.

     “Who was the guy screaming on the ground?” Chin asked.
     “He was a transgenic, a satyr. He tried to jump her when we got out of the car, but she has a special high-voltage stun gun that put him on his back quick.”

     “Oooh, a sexy satyr; hold me back, Chin!” Jill laughed.
     “Teratos are a syndrome,” Chin replied. “A satyr, how pathetic.”

     “You’re not afraid of them?” Rick asked.

     “We’re both black belts in tae-kwan-do and three other martial arts,” Jill said. “We’re cousins, our mothers are sisters. They run a martial arts school that teaches self-defense to women.”

     “You both out of high school?”
     “Graduated three weeks ago,” Chin said. “How about you?”

     “No.”  Rick changed the subject. “What brought you two out so early? You going to work?”
     “We’re on the way to the Lancelot Arcade,” Chin said.

     “We’re gamer-girls,” Jill said. “We get the guaranteed min-wage because we’re classified as artists now. It’s not much but it’ll cover the car and fuel and food, and most importantly the arcades. We’re creative so why work? We’ve got better things to do.”

     “Here we are,” Chin said.

     The black domed building was massive. Chin parked the car relatively close in the parking lot but it was still a three block walk to the arched, sixty-foot-tall doorway and there was already a line to get in. Rick had never been inside a holographic arcade before. He knew some of the popular games from hearing the secular kids talk about them. He decided to go inside. This part of the culture wouldn’t be around a few weeks from now, he knew. He figured that took away whatever sinful allure the experience might have. He needed time to think about what he was going to do next and this place seemed as likely as any to keep him anonymous.

     “You’ve never been to a holographic arcade before, have you?” Jill asked as they walked towards the line. It was hot and humid already. The early morning sun was beating down on them.
     “Nope, I’m from out in the country, about a hundred and thirty kilometers north of here. It’s still the boonies out there. Hey, do you two have anything sharp?”

     “Why?” Chin gave him a hard look.
     “I need to do something to my face. There are biometric scanners at most all public places and I bet they have them here.”
     “What kind of trouble are you in?” Chin stopped walking and then Rick and Jill stopped. Both girls waited for him to explain. 

     “Sorry, I can’t tell you any details. The more you know the worse it could be for you.”

     “Well, I’m not going to let you mutilate your face,” Jill said. “I like it.”
     Jill reached into her purse then up to his face. Chin, the taller of the two girls, went to work on his hair. They changed his wavy black hair to wavy blond and his complexion from olive to fair. Jill helped him put in contacts, changing his eye color to blue and then they stepped back to look him over. Chin held up a small mirror and he was amazed.

     “Not bad, huh, Chin?”
     “One of your best creations,” Chin replied.

     “You two really are artists.” Rick finally got rid of his serious face and smiled.

     “You haven’t seen anything yet, ‘M’,” Jill said. “Ready to go in?”
     “Ladies first,” he replied.

*                                            *                                            *

     As the summer sun was rising, Angela Starr followed the fading thermal footprints on the cracked cement of the sidewalk. They were left by someone running away from the convenience store. At first she thought Rick had been knocked unconscious somewhere inside. The clerk was too terrified from the earthquake to talk for a minute so she searched under the fallen shelves and debris. Finally he blurted out that the young guy had been inside the restroom when the quake hit.

     The restroom door was jammed because the ceiling above the door frame partially collapsed. By the time she got the door off she realized he had escaped. She ran around to the back of the store and found his three-minute-old heat trail using the thermal sensor built into her stun gun.
     Now the trail led out into the street. There had been a car here. Rick had gotten into the vehicle and left. His defiance brought on a paroxysm of rage that almost immobilized her.
     Angela went back into the store and shot the wires from her weapon into the clerk who was just starting to put merchandise back on the shelves. She demanded access to the video surveillance record on the store’s A.I. monitor. She didn’t have time to identify herself as a security official. She zapped him once with a strong electrical shock and he screamed out the password and the access code that brought up the black and white video of the parking lot. She could just barely discern herself torturing the satyr at the edge of the monitor screen and then watched the small car pull up and park right in front of the store. Angela studied the two young girls that got out and then ordered the clerk to make the video monitor focus in on the car license plate.

     She spoke into the back of her right hand and immediately Wolfgang answered, his voice emitting from inside her left ear. She gave him the license plate number. He would have to hack into the No-Am central security system because the purge of Ottawa’s security forces had just started and there would be some resistance for a day or two.

     “When you locate them send the two sasquatch you just hired. They can do what they want to the girls but I want him brought back alive. Do you understand me? I want him alive.”
     “Yes, Commander.”

*                                              *                                              *

     The girls paid for twelve hours. Rick saw no patrons that looked transgenic in the crowded hallways and wondered why. They felt their way through winding dark passageways and he wondered if he could find his way out by himself. Finally Chin led them into a domed theater deep inside the immense arcade.
     He sat down at a comfortable black recliner next to Jill. There were ten of these recliner chairs in the room along with a couch and a table with a microwave oven. Under the table was a refrigerated drawer and under the refrigerated drawer was a small blast chiller. Rick put some of the frozen chicken with oriental vegetables into the microwave. The chicken and vegetables came out a few seconds later. Jill gave him a lemon flavored tea in a cold glass to put in the small blast chiller.

     Rick sat back and watched the black dome turn into a blue sky with white clouds.  They were now in the courtyard of Chin’s castle. 

     “She’s been building her holographic world up since she was thirteen,” Jill whispered into his ear. 
     Chin wore a rainbow colored cloak as she strolled through her beautiful courtyard garden of amazing flowers and trees full of pink blossoms. A tranquil wind blew in, moving the 3-D flowers and tree branches. The complex, ultra-baroque castle with rainbow walls was like nothing he had ever seen before. The structure rose up organically, grown instead of constructed, stretching up endlessly into the sky.

     Four mighty knights came out of a tall door and kneeled before Chin. She bid them to rise and they all greeted her with old English accents. Each had his own personality. Chin had a favorite, the tallest knight whom she called Valiant. His personality was so well developed and rich that Rick couldn’t believe it was just an A.I. program.
     Rick watched with Jill as realistic battle action, palace intrigue, and romance played out complete with scents and breezes and even a raging sea storm. During the final battle with an old rival, someone on the net calling himself the Wizard King, Jill assisted Chin. Rick shook his head in disbelief when he remembered that all of this creative energy must disappear into oblivion in just a matter of days.

     Nothing prepared him for the artistry of Jill’s project. She had created a self-developing program of art and music. Prehistoric animals from the Alta Mira Cave paintings to pop art portraits came alive with beautiful, living colors he hadn’t believed an A.I. system could produce. French impressionist ballerinas became three-dimensional living beings that beckoned him with more fluid beauty than he could drink in. And then the power went out.
     Chin left to go check on the problem while Jill and Rick sat in the dark with only the faint red glow of the exit sign above the door. Rick rose up out of his chair and went to Jill. He knelt down and took both of her cool, smooth hands.
     “You are a serious artist.”

     “So you really like it? You’re not just dazzled?”
     “It’s amazing, inspiring,” he said. “I think what you’re attempting with this is a salvage operation. You want to collect and protect every scrap of living art you can. Whatever has moved your heart you can’t stand to let go of.”
     “How did you know?  You’re the only one, not even my cousin Chin understands it.  I’ve been working on this for years…”

     “I have to go. Listen, Jill, you saved my life. Literally, you saved my life. I have to warn you now. You need to take steps to protect yourself. This life, the arcades, this whole culture is about to end. What’s going to replace it is going to be more brutal than any barbarian society ever was in all of history.”

     “What?”
     “This global civilization we’ve grown up with is going to dissolve into mayhem and then it’s going to reconstitute into a global-wide totalitarian regime that no one in this world will be able to defeat. You and Chin have got to get to a safe place with stockpiles of food and water and you’re both going to have to get born again.”

     “Look, I can take you to a clinic to get medication or stem-cell therapy or whatever you need. You’re not rational. What you’re saying is crazy.”

     “Listen to my voice. I’m not irrational. I am desperate to get you to understand. When all of this ends what are you going to have left?”
     “My art.”
     “That’s not enough,” he said. “You need three more things.”

     “What else is there?”

     “Faith, hope, and love. They’re the only things that can help you take what’s coming.”

     “Where can I get ‘faith, hope, and love’?” she asked. “I don’t deserve them.”

     “You’re right, nobody does. But you can still get them through accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.”

     “You’re a J-freak? You’ve just run away from an affair with your high school teacher and now you’re going to preach to me?”

     “I know it seems hypocritical. I always hated that saying about how ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven’. We are supposed to be salt and light to this world, no excuses, and I haven’t been. But I have repented what I did with her. I truly have.”

     “I don’t care if you’ve repented or not. So where are you going? Why can’t I come with you? We can help each other.” Her face became thoughtful and troubled. Deep down he could see she was really of two minds about her existence. “I used to have a lot of friends in middle school. I don’t even know what’s happened to most of them. I get a new boyfriend every month and by the next month I dump him. It’s like everybody’s exploding out into the universe, getting farther and farther away from each other. Even my cousin Chin, we’re not as close as we used to be. It’s like you know me. I know I want to be with you.”
     “I have to go somewhere you can’t go,” he said.  “I have to find something out. I have to stay away from the people I care about so they don’t get hurt.”

     “What do you have to find out?”
     “I have to find out what God wants me to do. I have to be alone to pray.”

     “No, not alone.” Jill reached up and held his face between her hands. He bent down and kissed her on the lips. She kissed him back passionately. His hand started stroking her slender throat and then he moved his hand away but she moved his hand back to her throat and they kissed again. He finally broke away and then the lights came back on.

     “I have to go. Give me a pen and piece of paper.” She did and Rick wrote down three names and a phone number. “You’ll have to go to a church for sanctuary sooner or later. The most common Christian church in town here is the Catholic Church, but don’t go to the New Reformed Catholic Church, their leader is a left-wing nutcase that’s rewritten the Holy Bible to make it politically correct. Go to a traditional Catholic Church. Tell the priest you know a member of Pastor Sterling’s congregation and Pastor Sterling is friends with Cardinal Greene.”
     “Who’s Rick Machado?”
     “Just some guy. I have to go.”

     “Wait, your makeup is messed up.”

     “Great.”
     Jill smiled as she fixed his face again. When she finished she gave him a small case of cosmetics with an application brush and a small mirror and then explained what he needed to do every morning to keep his disguise.

     “Bye,” she said as he backed away. Rick shook his head and then put his right hand over his heart.

     “No byes.  I’m taking you with me, in here. Have faith.” He turned and walked out the exit.

*                                              *                                              *

     A few minutes later Chin came back in. She sat down next to Jill and started cursing government inspectors. She told Jill some government inspectors tried to shut the building down and evacuate it because they wanted to make sure there wasn’t any structural damage from the earthquake.
     “The cyberpunks chased them out. It was funny. Almost was a riot. The management gave us three more hours free.”

     “You always said the cyberpunks were retro-scum,” Jill said.

     “They are, but it was funny to watch them chase out those inspectors. Hey, where did that guy go? Where’s M?”

     “He left.”

     “Why did you let him eat half of our food? You know I’m guy-positive, Jill, but you were weak with him. The next stray you pick up better be a cat.”
     They started playing again. When the two cousins finally left it was close to midnight. They trudged to their car in the dark parking lot. Neither girl could remember the parking lot being this dark before. Jill got in the driver’s side. Chin started to get in but a gigantic hairy hand snatched Jill out of the car and she screamed.

     Chin came around the car whipping a baseball bat through the air in front of her like it was an electric fan blade. The nine-foot-tall, pointed-head creature with glowing amber eyes held Jill with one hand like a doll. It jabbered curses at Chin as she attacked it. She expertly aimed for the knees and in fifteen seconds the sasquatch hit the ground shrieking.

*                                              *                                              *

     Jill got up and ran back to the car. She got in and started it but there was no Chin. She kept the lights off and drove around the rows of parked cars. This is crazy. Why are they attacking us? We didn’t do anything to them. She finally found another pointed-head, shaggy shadow carrying a limp Chin towards the back of the parking lot. Jill did a three-point turn around and then backed right into the eight-foot-tall hairy beast at thirty-miles-an-hour. It went down and Jill started to get out retrieve Chin but then saw she was surrounded by four regular-looking men in suits.

     “Stop her! Get her! Don’t let her escape!”

     Jill had no choice. She stomped on the accelerator and navigated out of the huge parking lot maze. She turned down side streets and alleys, looking back every two seconds. The car suddenly jarred to a stop when the rear axle finally collapsed. Jill got out running with tears in her eyes. Chin never had a chance, there was nothing she could have done, but guilt hit Jill head-on. She wanted to scream, to tear her own hair out.
     She ran around the streets of a neighborhood of large houses with no sidewalks for many hours before she found a church. A severe man in street cloths opened the door after she banged on it for twenty minutes. When he was satisfied she wasn’t a vandal or worse he called the minister. This is a Lutheran church, not a Catholic church, he told her. He gave Jill a bottle of water and she sat on a pew bench inside the dark worship area. She had never been inside a church before.
     The minister arrived and introduced himself. She told him she needed sanctuary and showed him the paper Rick had given her.

     “Are you Catholic?”
     “No, I’m nothing. But my friend was trying to teach me. He’s not Catholic either. He told me it was the most common Christian church around Saint Louis.”

     The minister told her the Catholic churches were all full already. This church was the only one for twelve kilometers. They were getting about one family a night. He offered her sanctuary with three dozen other people who were sleeping down in the basement. They had a bigger place they would be moving everyone to in four days.
     Jill accepted and was led downstairs to where many snoring people were on cots or sprawled on the floor. She sat down on the floor with her cell phone and sent encrypted text messages to her mother and then Chin’s mother. She dropped the phone and put her face in her hands.

*                                              *                                              *

     Chin watched the gorgeous blonde walk through the doorway. The interrogation room was very bright and sparse. Chin was strapped down on a table that could be moved vertically or horizontally and she was now almost standing up. The blonde studied her with piercing bronze eyes. She wore a crisp uniform that was mostly black with red trim, on her head a scarlet military-style beret. She stopped to read the report from the two interrogators. She looked up at Chin now.

     “Tell me your father’s name.”
     “I told them I don’t know my father’s name. He was some Anglo guy and my mother started hating his guts before I was born so she never wanted me to know it.”

     “You don’t know your own father’s name?” the blonde asked.
     “Most of my class didn’t know the names of their fathers. You going to put them in jail too?”

     “You see what I had to put up with from these mouthy teenage throwbacks?” She said to Wolfgang and the interrogation specialist code-named “Jolt”.  She turned back to Jill.  “You Americans should have learned by now that fathers are important.”
     “What are you going to do with me? I need to see a doctor and a lawyer.”

     “Your attitude is too parochial, Ms. Chin Kim, way too parochial. We focus on the big picture here. Now what did he tell your cousin? I want to know the specifics of everything he said to her about me and this operation.”
     “He didn’t say anything about anything except he was running away from you and you used to be his teacher.”

     “Where did he say he was going?”
     “She said he said something about going off to find God.”

     The blonde and the other two burst out laughing. It was the most sinister laughing Chin ever heard. Now she knew she would not get out of this room alive. She steeled herself to resist giving them any more information.
     “Oh, he’s going to find a god all right,” Angela said after she finally got a hold of herself.  “Actually a goddess is going to find him. I’m a goddess, did you know that? A real immortal, all powerful goddess, and when I catch him he’s going to wish he was never born and he’s going to wish it for a long time, I promise you. You know what you are to me, Chin? You’re not going to talk to us any more, are you? I’ll go ahead and answer for you. You’re an inferior little throwback trollop and you made the biggest mistake of your life taking something that belongs to a goddess.”
     Angela got Wolfgang and Jolt aside and informed them in Portuguese that Ottawa’s security forces were now completely under the control of the G.O.G. Central Command. They were now cleared to dispose of prisoners as they saw fit. She turned back to Chin.
     “You know, you just can’t trust guys,” Angela said with an impish smirk as she began slowly pacing back and forth across the small room like she was teaching her high school class again. “You take them places, you entertain them, feed them, give them carnal pleasures they don’t deserve, a place to live, teach them things, and what do they do? They run away to find a God that doesn’t exist. No goodbyes, nothing.
     “I think I’m going to have to take a break from relationships for a while. I think what I need is a hobby. A lot of gods and goddesses like me become collectors. We like to collect special items no one else can get. I have to find something, something special nobody else I know is collecting. 

     “You know, Chin, you have really lovely skin; it’s like an exquisite pearl necklace.”  Angela’s impish smirk left her face and she stopped right in front of the strapped down girl. She picked up a shiny scalpel from the tray next to the table.

     God help me, Chin thought.  She never asked for help from God before and was not sure there was a God. She didn’t know where inside her this pleading came from because it clashed with her martial arts training.

*                                               *                                              *

     Rick followed the exit signs out into the muggy, hazy afternoon. Some county building inspectors were trying to leave but were blocked by a growing mob of metal-spike-headed hoodlums. He avoided the mob and then started asking around for a ride. After a few rejections he offered a loner guy his last fifteen Amero dollars to take him into Saint Louis proper, which was more than fifty miles away. Rick knew the city much better than the endless maze of soulless suburbs and exurbs that all seemed to look alike. There were six million people living inside the Saint Louis city limits and over thirteen million in the sprawl to the west and south. Many suburban neighborhoods were ruled by warring ethnic gangs and were dangerous to even drive through in the daytime.

     The guy drove him halfway then started complaining the fifteen Ameros wouldn’t cover the rising price of fuel. Rick offered to trade his suit for the guy’s street clothes and the ride, and he accepted. He dropped Rick off at the park under the Saint Louis Arch.

     Rick sat down on the steps leading up to the Arch and watched the people and transgenics go by. He saw a pterodactyl-winged gargoyle practice taking off and landing on the sward of grass fifty feet away up the hill. He gawked as a grotesque giant rumbled down the hill right next to him. The thing stood at least twenty-feet-tall, the upper half human with a face like a Picasso painting and the lower half a tyrannosaur complete with stiff balancing tail. The enormous being waded out into the Mississippi and headed downstream.
     “Hey, throwback,” someone said behind him. Rick turned and saw a green suited creature with a big head and a chinless face. He watched the miniature humanoid jump down the steps towards him. The creature was less than three feet tall and had a pair of large bony ridges above the eyes. Rick remembered anthropologists recently discovered a pigmy race of Neanderthals survived on the rocky coast of an isolated Irish Sea island until only a few thousand years ago. They must have used that DNA to transform a man into a leprechaun.

     “What did you call me?”

     “Throwback, you’re a throwback, not enhanced.”

     “I’m not a throwback and you’re sure not enhanced,” Rick said. “What benefit did you get from being changed into an ugly runt anyway?”
     “You gonna call me a terato next? You want me to shout out that you’re anti-transgenic down here?”

     “No, forget it, sorry. Just leave me alone.”

     “Listen, bud, maybe we could work together.”

     “What do you mean? Work at what?”
     “See, brains like mine have special powers,” the leprechaun said. “Excel at gambling for one thing. Only trouble is they’ve kicked my kind out of the all the towers. We win too much. But that’s okay. See, I’ve got other angles.” The leprechaun moved close to Rick’s face. It had grey skin and clumpy blue-black hair; the bulging eyes were mauve and the strange odor emanating from its sweaty body was almost too rank for Rick to stand. “You can go places I can’t. A couple of jobs and we’d be rich.”

     “No thanks, not my line of work. I do need a job though. Any businesses around hiring that don’t need to see id?”

     “You could go work at a feeding station.”

     “Feeding station?”

     “They have government feeding stations set up all over for us transgenics.  A lot of us need the vitamins and nutrients from fresh raw meat and blood and we need a lot of it.  There’s one about three blocks south of here in one of the old restaurants.”

     Rick stood up and started walking towards the old warehouses-converted-to-fancy-restaurants district down by the riverfront. The leprechaun tried to run next to him to keep up for a while. He kept telling Rick they could make a killing as a partnership and to look him up when he got tired of shoveling ostrich guts and cleaning out troughs of rancid chicken blood.

     “Lucky Duck’s the name.” Lucky Duck was panting and finally halted. “You can go places I can’t,” he shouted after Rick one more time.

*                                               *                                              *

     Rick got a job preparing food for transgenics at the feeding station. The place had been a popular Italian restaurant in a converted warehouse. He remembered coming here once when he was small but no families would be coming down here any more. Almost all the tons of food processed daily were raw chicken, emus, ostrich, turkey, and other fowl. Some of the transgenics could eat dried pellets that were basically dog food. They paid Rick and the thirty to forty other human crew members hot meals two times a day and all the dog food pellets they wanted plus a place to sleep. They also got to keep tips from the transgenics.
     Rick’s main job was to clean and fill the troughs with raw bird blood five times a day. The flying transgenics needed to consume a lot of blood to keep air borne. In the mornings he also rode with five other crew members in a dump truck down to the river to feed the aquatic transgenics a couple tons of fresh fish. The first in line at the river was always Og the river dragon. The creature’s size amazed Rick. He rose up out of the brown water until the horn-crested head leered impossibly far above the crew members in the truck on the river bank. The only thing human about this blue-scaled, serpentine being was the pair of extra-long arms hanging alongside its body. He had no legs.

     “How much do you weigh?” Rick asked the first time he met him.

     “I am seven metric tons,” Og responded in a cavernous voice.

     “You’re incredible,” Rick said.

     “There are serpents in the oceans more than ten times my size!” Og roared back jealously.

     His fellow human workers warned Rick to stay away from the river mermen because they were extremely aggressive and unpredictable, but none ever came to the feeding station while he was there. Rick did get to feed and talk to smaller river dragons, centaurs, trolls, giants, werewolves, satyrs, ogres, ogresses, chupacabras, wyverns, banshees, goblins, hobgoblins, gargoyles, sasquatch, rocs, cockatrice, pixies, nymphs, kelpies, and unique chimeras he couldn’t begin to identify. The good thing was they had a ten-man security team armed with high powered stun guns and at almost every feeding time they had to go into action. Two city policemen watched over all food preparation to make sure the transgenics were not poisoned.
     Days and then weeks passed. As he worked Rick saw the natural fauna, the real wild animals, being replaced by artificial creatures that nature could not support. He wondered how long this could go on one morning as he trudged down the stairs to fetch the hose to clean out the blood troughs. There was a new guy bent over a cutting board butchering emus. He looked familiar even with his scarred face and shaved head. Rick got a good look at him now and recognized Mike Pitcher. Mike stood up straight after he saw the recognition on Rick’s face.
     Was Mike a spy? What should he do, run, or for a split second the idea flashed into Rick’s mind to silence Mike for good and feed him to the transgenics. Rick kicked that thought down and silently asked forgiveness for thinking it.

     The two former classmates started talking and Mike told Rick that he was on the run from Wayne and Bad Henry. He decided not to go through with getting enhanced and knew Wayne would sic the Scary Clown Club on him. He too was afraid of the biometric scanners and actually went through with cutting up his own face. Rick didn’t explain anything about his own situation and went back to work.

*                                              *                                               *

     That night a trio of wan vampire girls paid Rick to mix special blood cocktails. When he brought out the freshly mixed blood in warm glasses they drank with straws and flirted with him.

     “You should let us bleed you a little…what’s your name again? Rick, yeah. We’ll just bleed about a fourth of a liter out. It won’t hurt much. Then we can have some fun.” The black-haired girl was languid but still looked ravishing in a spidery black dress.

     “We have fun with throwbacks,” said the red-haired one who carried a teddy bear with a wooden stake driven through its chest. The third vampire girl was a blonde who just smiled showing her fangs as if they were alluring.

     “Sorry, ladies, I’ll have to pass. I need my blood.”

     They gave him a huge tip anyway and Rick made the mistake of bragging about it to the guys during the next break.
     The next night between feedings his coworkers dragged him into a poker tournament. He refused to play. Rick feared gambling. His mother had told him that was the sin which had hooked his father. They finally gave up trying to get him to play but knew about his monster tip and he reluctantly loaned money to the two human players who happened to be Mike Pitcher and Shelby Crouch. Shelby was the leader of the security team, a big African-American guy who spouted hilarious insults at the transgenics all night long. He made Rick laugh so hard his sides got sore.
     The transgenic players were a wild boar man named Eddy, a jackal-headed man named Bert, and Lucky Duck the leprechaun. They all sat together at a booth deep inside the old restaurant. A bright light shined down on the table and cigar smoke wafted through the air as the dealing began. Rick sat on a bar stool with nine other human feeding station crew members to watch the game. It was hard to follow at first but he soon learned what hand would beat another.

     The first to go out was Eddy. He grinded his upper and lower tusks together then got up from the table. He snorted belligerently and didn’t seem to want to leave.

     “Get your pork chops out a here!” Shelby hollered at Eddy and he finally went out the door.

     Then Shelby got in trouble when Bert fell into a winning streak. Bert had a great poker face, but had trouble speaking with the canine muzzle. Shelby shook Rick down for more money. Rick watched that investment disappear and when Shelby finally went out Rick marveled at Shelby’s extremely creative profanity aimed at “that ugly, dog-faced, behind-end smeller.”
     The game went on. Mike went on a hot streak and made Bert quit. Shelby chased Bert out of the place with a grating laugh that made the hair stand up on the back of Rick’s neck.

     When the game slowed down Rick went outside with the other nine workers to do the 3:00am feeding. Almost no transgenics showed up. Rick came back in and asked Lucky Duck where everyone was.

     “Most of the transgenic children went to the festival in the big cemetery,” Lucky Duck answered.

     “What are the ‘transgenic children’ doing having a festival at a cemetery?” Rick asked but the leprechaun didn’t answer.

     “I don’t get how pygmy Neanderthal genes could give someone good luck,” Mike said. “I mean your genome came from a tiny population of seagull-egg-eating runts barely making it on that little Irish island. It doesn’t make any sense.”
     “What I don’t get is why they call us throwbacks,” Rick said.
     “See, if you have the opportunity to advance yourself genetically but choose not to you’ve thrown yourself backwards in life,” the leprechaun explained without looking up from the game. “Therefore you become a throwback.”

     Mike laid down a full house, two nines and a three fives. He started to rake in the money but Lucky Duck had not shown his cards yet. The leprechaun caressed each card as he laid them down one at a time revealing four eights. They were playing five card draw with nothing wild and he had been dealt four of a kind.
     “You’re a cheater,” Shelby said. Even though he wasn’t in the game any more he took it personally. He moved in close to Lucky Duck’s face. “I know you cheated somehow.”

     “You’re violating my personal space,” Lucky Duck said calmly and patted Shelby on the wrist. The leprechaun stared strangely into Shelby’s eyes and the big man seemed to lose his intimidating voice. “Show me how I cheated.”

     “I don’t know how you did it but I know you’re a reeking little cheat.”
     “I have to go. You throwbacks are some sore losers.”

     Lucky Duck slid down from the booster seat at the booth and Shelby moved aside to let him pass. The leprechaun sported a brand-new orange suit with a matching top hat and a little ivory cane. He strutted out of the place with its chinless face held up triumphantly  After he went out the door they all heard the faint patter of little running feet. A minute later Shelby realized his gold wristwatch, a present from his deceased father, was missing.

     “He thinks I’m a dumb throwback!” Shelby sneered and sprinted out the door. They immediately felt the earth shake from a giant running down the street, but by the time Rick and the others got outside no one was there. After searching around a few minutes they found a crumpled human form down the street. It was Shelby with a massive wound in the stomach from being kicked by a giant’s clawed tyrannosaur foot. No one knew if it was intentional or not but Shelby was in a bad way. He looked up at them for a second as Rick knelt down beside him and then lost consciousness.

     They worked to stop Shelby’s bleeding and Mike ran back to the feeding station to tell the two cops stationed there that night. The cops called for an ambulance but didn’t assist Rick and the others with first aid for the man and did not seem interested in investigating what had happened.

     It took until after sunrise for an ambulance to show up.  Rick got Mike aside while they waited.  All thirty-five of the feeding station crew members were outside and they became more and more agitated, finally shouting profanities at the two cops for not taking any action. Rick didn’t want to get into any conflicts that might get him into trouble with the authorities and figured Mike wouldn’t either.

     “We need to get out of here,” Rick said to Mike.

     “We?” Mike replied with a quizzical sneer.
     “Yeah. I think I know what was going on at the cemetery. If it’s what I think, things are going to get worse around here quick.”

*                                               *                                              *

     When the ambulance finally arrived Rick and Mike talked the lady EMT into letting them ride with Shelby. As they left Rick could hear the other security team members shouting that they were going to go on strike. The new dawn was so hot Rick was already sweating as he sat next to Mike in the back as they watched the lady EMT work on Shelby.

     “Which hospital are we going to?” Rick asked.

     “We’re not going to a hospital. We’re going to a triage center out past Warrenton. The hospitals are all full. We’ve gotten more calls this last week than all of last year, and then that arcade collapsed yesterday afternoon.”

     “Which arcade?” Rick asked.

     “The Lancelot Arcade,” she said. “Over a thousand dead already and they’re still digging.”

     “You’re talking two hundred and fifty kilometers to get out past Warrenton,” Mike said. “He’ll never make it.”
     “Maybe that’s lucky for him,” she said. She was a plump woman in her forties named Kathy Akhmatova. She had premature grey streaks in her red hair and serene brown eyes.  Rick noticed a small crucifix hanging around her neck. She noticed and smiled.
     “What denomination?” Rick asked.

     “Russian Orthodox.”

     “You seem dedicated to your work but maybe it’s time to take refuge somewhere.”

     She looked away from Rick to work on Shelby because his vital signs were crashing.  She got him stabilized and then turned back to Rick.
     “You’re right. That’s what I was thinking. So what about you two?”
     “We’re heading out to the countryside to get some fresh air,” Rick said.

     “I never thought I’d do it, but I think I’m going to call my ex in Kansas City. In Saint Louis the churches are all full of people hiding out. Maybe things are better out there.”

     Rick and Mike got out at the triage center. The immense parking lot was filled with emergency response trucks. Beyond the parking lot as far as they could see were tents full of injured people. The day was blistering hot and muggy. They were not allowed to go in with Shelby so Rick quietly said “Godspeed” to Kathy; and Mike said “Good luck,” and the two young men started walking north along an old highway.

*                                                *                                             *

     Rick and Mike walked alongside the old highway for hours under the hot summer sun until they came to a truck stop. Inside they shopped to spend the last seventy Amero dollars between them. The grocery store had almost nothing left. All the canned foods were gone and there was no cooking oil or milk and a loaf of white bread now cost twenty Ameros.

     They bought a loaf of bread and a packet of sliced pepperoni Mike found under the bottom grating of a refrigerated display case. They had enough money for two large bottles of drinking water from the vending machine and then used the change to wash their clothes at the coin-operated launderette. They took turns taking showers and then they were broke.
     Some people coming into the truck stop looked like they would take off running if anything made a noise behind them and some people walked around grumbling out loud about the lack of merchandise and the high prices and the weak government. One burly truck driver came in whistling. Rick picked him out to ask for a ride. The man agreed to take them as far as Hannibal. It turned out the driver was hauling pellets for the new transgenic feeding station there.
     In Hannibal they couldn’t find any work other than the feeding station so they walked south out of the city. They camped in the mouth of a cave that Rick knew about from Dan Diamond. Dan had told him that for decades this cave was a tourist attraction because of its association with a famous American writer. When the writer’s major works were banned, tourists stopped coming. The mouth of the cave was cool and brought welcome relief from the stifling summer heat.

     Rick set up a campfire right outside the cave. He got it started with one match and Mike was impressed. Rick had been a secret member of an illegal organization called the Cub Scouts up until he was eleven. Dan Diamond was his troop leader and had taught Rick which plants were edible. Rick set out to find some and returned a little while later to roast the cattail cores he collected from the nearby creek. They sat down to eat to the pepperoni, bread, and roasted cattail cores. Rick prayed over his ration before he ate.
     “Why do you do that?” Mike asked.
     “I’m thanking God for the food.”

     “Why?  Why do you talk to yourself every night before you go to bed?”

     “It’s called praying. I’m thanking God for something or asking for my needs to be met or I’m telling Him I love Him. Mostly now I’m asking Him for direction.”

     “You ever hear a voice?”

     “No, but I do feel better just about every time I do it.”

     After he finished eating Mike went outside to look for a weapon. Rick finished and started looking around in a different area. On the property were several abandoned buildings overgrown with weeds. Rick found an axe handle in one and Mike brought back two mop handles. Mike sat down and sharpened the mop handles with a carving knife he had stolen from the feeding station.
     When nightfall came they put out the fire and hunkered down in the mouth of the cave. The sounds from deep inside the cave were spooky and they both talked quietly about how this was probably a bad choice. They stayed silent for a long time and listened. Frogs and katydids chirped and cheeped outside. It became quite a racket.

     “I noticed back in Saint Louis that whenever the transgenics were around the birds stopped singing.”
     “So you think they can’t be out there now?” Mike asked.
     “No, I don’t think so.” Rick got up and went deeper into the cave. He knelt down on his knees and started praying quietly out loud. When he finished he came back and lay down in the dirt at the mouth of the cave.
     “There is no God,” Mike said.

     “Then why are you afraid of death?” Rick asked back before his mind could even react to Mike’s statement and he shuddered at where the words had come from. Mike didn’t respond.
     Eventually Rick went to sleep. It was a fitful sleep. Now that he wasn’t working twelve-hour shifts he missed being with Angela. He was too afraid of her to ever try to go back but if the three vampire girls showed up tonight he would have gladly let them bleed him. He dreamed about them. Then he tried to dream about Jill but couldn’t. The conflict inside his lucid dream woke him up with a start. Outside was still, no more insect and frog sounds.
     Rick lay there shivering and clutching the cracked axe handle. He prayed through gritted teeth the rest of the night. No sounds but the eerie wind blowing through the cave and outside what sounded like the enormous bat wings of the blood-drinking flying transgenics circling above in the sky.

*                                             *                                              *

     At dawn Rick rose first. He made sure the birds were singing and then scrounged around to find something to boil water in. He finally found an old metal bucket that could still hold water. He started another fire and then kicked Mike’s feet. Rick carefully hung the bucket at just the right height so that it wouldn’t burn.
     Mike didn’t wake up but started making whimpering noises like he was having a nightmare. Rick kicked his feet harder this time.
     “Get up. It’s your turn to fix a meal.”

     Mike awoke with a frightened look and then cursed. He got up to go relieve himself far inside the cave. When he came back he went out to collect some cattail cores then came back in and boiled them. He gave Rick his breakfast on a large leaf and watched Rick pray over the food. They ate the starchy cattail cores in silence for a while.

     “So what was it like with our teacher? Angela is hot-as-sun.”

     “How do you know about me and her?”
     “The last day I was with them Wayne told us she was going to get you. You were talking to her in your sleep last night. So what was it like?”

     “If it was any of your business I’d tell you it was a nightmare.”

     “I don’t feel sorry for you.”
     “I do.”
     “Who is Jill? You were talking sweet to a Jill too.”

     “She’s a girl who’s probably dead now. Which way do you want go, Mike?”
     “The guy we talked to in town said they were restarting an old munitions factory up by Fort Madison.”
     “I don’t want to work for the government anymore.”

     “Well, I’ll take their dirty Ameros if you won’t.”

     “They’re not going to be paying with Amero dollars much longer.”

     “That’s where I’m going. God tell you which way to go yet?”
     Rick got up without answering. They both collected everything they wanted to take and started south. Mike’s plan was to go south, find a road going west to the mega-freeway and then try to hitch a ride north into what used to be Iowa. Neither of them wanted to go through any towns or cities again. The locals were all forted up and Rick could feel their hostility towards transient humans. Transient humans did not have Protected Group Status.

     The morning was muggy and hot again. The road they walked on ran alongside the Mississippi River. Everything looked normal except there was no traffic at all on the road and no boats out on the river. But the birds were singing so Rick and Mike kept walking. Rick decided to part ways with Mike today but wanted to get somewhere first.

     “Why do you believe there is a God?” Mike asked.

     “We believe, have faith, from reading the Holy Bible and praying,” Rick answered after thinking about it for a minute.

     “What does that mean? Can you explain to me what ‘faith’ means?”

     “No, I can’t. If you don’t have it I can’t explain it. But there are some things to consider.”

     “Like what?” Mike asked.

     “Well, like this place, these trees, this planet, the sun shining down on us just right for life to flourish, all of that is possible in too narrow a range for it to be an accident.”

     “If you have an infinite amount of time anything is bound to accidentally happen sooner or later.”

     “An Infinite amount of time is not possible,” Rick retorted. “If there was infinity before us there would be no way the universe could ever reach this point or any other point in time. The cosmologists all say both the universe and time exploded out of nothing, and they both began together. If you want someone to believe in an extraordinary occurrence you have to present extraordinary evidence for it. There is nothing more extraordinary than claiming the universe and time exploded out of nothing but that’s what some scientists say happened and they have no evidence anywhere that something can ever come out of nothing. There has to be a creator outside of time and space. Think about how mathematical time is. It’s so mathematical it’s inexorable. Never makes mistakes, never loses or gains a millisecond. But it had a beginning and someday it’s going to end. Only a mind can create mathematics and only a perfect mind can create something perfect and inexorable like time.”

     Rick stopped talking and took a drink of water. The air was hot and hazy already but shade from the big leafy hardwood trees along the road gave them some relief. He was using one of Mike’s spears as a walking stick; the old axe handle had given him splinters so he had left it. They walked on in silence for half a mile down the dusty road and listened for any changes in the droning of the cicadas and then Mike started in again.
     “Maybe there is something, some kind of higher intelligence or Supreme Being or whatever you define it as, but that doesn’t mean it’s your God.”

     “That’s right. You’re right; it doesn’t. Some people are what they call deist. They believe God created the universe and then just let everything go by itself. No interference, no help.”

     “That sounds right. There’s too much random stuff that happens. There’s no plan behind all the stupid accidents people have.”
     “Christians do believe in accidents and free will that goes bad. Things do get chaotic, no doubt about it. We’re not puppets and the weather isn’t a puppet. But all real Christians believe in miracles, that God can intervene directly or through people that are indwelled by the Holy Spirit. That’s why we pray; we’re trying to change something in this world by appealing for help from outside of it.”

     “What’s the Holy Spirit?” Mike asked.

     “The Holy Spirit is a limited form God takes by indwelling Christians so that they can do His will. There are three forms of God, kind of like the three forms of water. You know, vapor, liquid, and ice. It’s called the Holy Trinity. The Father is the unlimited, omnipotent form of God. The Son is Jesus Christ, who is God in the form of a man. The Holy Spirit is the form, like I said, that operates through Christians to change things for the better in this world and bring glory to the Father.”

     “Who was Jesus Christ?” Mike asked.

     “Who is Jesus Christ is the right question. Jesus was born a flesh-and-blood man from a virgin woman, but He was God in the form of a man. He is the only human being who never sinned. He was perfect. It was necessary for Jesus, who was perfect and sinless, to be sacrificed for the human race to have the possibility, the choice really, of reconciliation with God the Father. There is no other way for evil creatures like us to be accepted by a perfect, righteous God unless all of our sin can be taken away somehow. If you pray to God the Father and say out loud that you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, confess and repent of your sins, and believe that He rose from the dead, that He defeated death, then you can be born again. You’ll have salvation and eternal life. You’ll be a new man that’s in the process of becoming more and more like Christ as time goes on. It’s called sanctification.
     “Jesus is a revolutionary. You really do have to read the Holy Bible to understand what I’m talking about. He preached against the petty social engineering the religious leaders back then tried to make the people live by.”
     “Like the 50 ethics codes we had to memorize in grade school,” Mike said.

     “Right, but especially He preached against social Darwinism. He was a warrior, but He took the battle inside. Outside, all the evil of fallen humanity and fallen nature, the outrages people do to each other, evil governments and people preying on each other, all of those are just symptoms of original sin. Jesus understood that the battle is inside.”
     “So how is your battle going?” Mike asked.

     “My battle is going bad. I thought I repented what I did with Angela, but the truth is I haven’t. I just want the same thing but under different circumstances, get some beauty under my thumb. I’m not sure I can beat it.”

     Mike chuckled and then told Rick he was sorry. They walked on in silence for another half an hour. The road veered away from the river and the sun kept beating down.

     “Tell me some more about what Jesus did,” Mike asked.

     “I’m the wrong person to be educating you about Jesus.” Rick didn’t want to talk about religion any more.

     “You’re all I’ve got,” Mike said back. “You went to church for eighteen years; you must know something.”

     “My mother didn’t start going back to church until after I was three.”
     “Just tell me what he did to make you and the other Christians believe he was God in a man’s flesh-and-blood body.”

     “He said He was God. That’s what He told his disciples. Only someone very evil or insane says something like that. But the other things He said and did were not insane or evil. They were the opposite.
     “One time these officials, I guess you could say they were like prosecuting attorneys for the religious leaders back then, these official men brought a woman before Him who had been caught committing adultery. In that culture anyone caught committing adultery was supposed to be stoned to death in public. Jesus was teaching a big group of people and these officials brought this woman before Him and said she had been caught in the act. They asked Him what should be done with her. They were trying to trap Him with a yes-or-no question. They knew He was preaching love and mercy but He also said He was here to enforce the laws of God. So they knew if He said, go ahead stone her to death, it would go against His message of forgiveness and if He said, don’t execute her, it would look like He was approving of a vile sin.

     “Jesus didn’t say anything for a few minutes to let them stew and then told them, ‘Go ahead and execute her. But only the man without sin can throw the first stone.’ One by one this mob that had circled up with rocks in their hands dropped them and walked away. But Jesus didn’t let the woman off either. He told her to go but ordered her never to commit adultery again. Only Jesus could have given that answer. No one else, no religious leader or philosopher of any kind in all of history before then could have given that answer. There is no one like Jesus. He is the son of God.”
     Mike was nonplussed. The rest of the morning he only spoke to ask Rick to tell him more about the Holy Bible. Rick taught him about original sin, the Ten Commandments, the miracles and some of the parables of Jesus, the conversion and teachings of Saint Paul, and finally the prophecies in the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation.
     They came to a crossroads with a sign for a small hamlet called Saverton. On the left a mile away was the hamlet on the bank of the Mississippi and on the right ran the road 13 miles to mega-freeway that ran north-south all the way to Mexico.
     Mike stopped. He looked at Rick in a way Rick never saw before. His blue eyes were different. His scarred face and his head had a three-day brown suede stubble. He looked old from the neck up. Rick stopped and they faced each other.
     “Hell is real. I’ve seen it. I’ve dreamed it every night for over a month. I just didn’t know there was a heaven too.”

     “Why are you telling me?” Rick dropped the bucket onto the road.
     “I helped murder Tyler. Me and Doug and Bad Henry went with Wayne. He had it all planned out with your teacher. She had her agents hack into the phone system and they got Tyler’s cell phone number from your cell phone records. She could track all of you after you gave her your cell phone number.

     “We took a car from Browner’s used car lot and followed him that Friday night. We almost lost him at the Rush ferry. It was like he couldn’t make up his mind about where he was going to go. He was talking to Debra Sterling when we rammed his little car. We had a magnetic flashing police light on the top of our car and he thought we were cops so he had pulled over.
     “We took him to an old camper we had parked out at Bad Henry’s place. Dean Browner had gotten Wayne’s two dogs enhanced into monsters and we let them tear Tyler up.”
     “Why?  What brought you down to that?”
     “I wanted to be on the winning side. I liked the parties Wayne had. You Christians get picked on a lot, except for Davy-Jake and your sister. I sure didn’t want to be on your side after what Wayne told us was going to happen to all the Christians and Jews.

     “There’s more. The next day we set the two terato dogs out on Davy-Jake and your sister when they were rock climbing in the big sink hole. Davy-Jake put them both down. It was something. After they got out we buried Tyler next to where they buried the terato dogs. We framed them, got them arrested.”
     Rick aimed his spear at Mike’s chest. Mike brought his spear point down and aimed at Rick’s chest. They were about fifteen feet apart.
     “What do you think you’re going to do now?” Rick asked.
     “What you said about a sinner’s heart becoming too hard to repent; that’s happened to me.”

     “You can’t tell God who to give grace to.”
     “You’re pointing a spear at me and at the same time you’re telling me about God’s grace. Pretty conflicted, Machado.”
     “I guess that’s how it is. I almost killed you when I first recognized you. I got conflicted then, too. I’m a lot less now.”

     “Just in case you win, I want you to do me a big favor.”
     “I’ll put it at the top of my list.”

     “I want you to go find my sister and tell her about salvation. I want you to tell her everything you told me and make sure she gets a Holy Bible she can read.”

     “You’re conning me. You don’t have a sister.”

     “I have a half sister. She lives in Bluff City. My dad’s old girlfriend lives on 54 South Thrush Street. My sister’s name is Melissa Harris. She’s eleven years old.”

     Rick gradually put his spear tip back up and Mike did the same. Rick took some deep breaths. He felt like he just escaped a trap.
     “I have to get back to Moreau County alive. I don’t want to be like that rich man who died and then couldn’t warn his brothers about hell.”
     “I’m going with you,” Rick said. “Once we get done talking to your sister, I’m going to turn you in to whatever law enforcement is left down there. We need to get my sister and Davy-Jake out of Jail.”

     “Okay, I’ll shake on it,” Mike said.
     The two cautiously shook hands and then started south. Mike estimated they were about eighty miles upriver from the Moreau County Mississippi ferry dock. Mike started jogging south of the crossroads and Rick began running too. Rick had been on the cross country team in high school and had better lungs than Mike but Mike kept trying to run even after he was out of breath.

     The road south became more and more winding. On the right was the cool shade of the tree covered hills and on the left was the scorching, flat river floodplain. They rounded a curve and came upon two bicycles lying in the middle of the road. In the weeds nearby were two bodies, one man and one woman, who had been bled to death. Rick knelt down and prayed over them. He looked up at Mike but he just shook his head. He couldn’t pray.

     Mike decided to take a bike but Rick worried they would be blamed by the locals for the murders. After hesitating a few seconds he got on the bike anyway and started riding to catch up with Mike.
     One time a pickup truck sped around a curve and roared past them going north. It was a close call so they slowed down around the curves. They stopped once to finish the pepperoni and drink water and then rode hard.

*                                              *                                              *

     Seven hours later Rick and Mike rolled up to the ferry dock south of Riverton. They left the bikes and walked over to the wide river’s bank. Through the late afternoon haze they could barely discern that the ferry boat had sunk close to the Moreau County side of the river bank. The ferry was on its side, waves lapping onto the side protruding out of the water. The river stank worse than Rick could remember.

     Rick told Mike that Dan Diamond probably sunk the ferry and probably sunk the one on the Rush River too. Moreau County was like a long skinny island sandwiched between two rivers with no bridges. The pair looked around for something floating and soon Rick spotted a canoe stuck in some weeds in shallow water. When they waded out to get it they discovered the little boat swarming with flies and covered in dried blood.
     Rick and Mike looked at each other but then washed the canoe out as best they could. They dragged it out of the water onto the shore then carried it upriver a couple hundred yards. Rick found some tangled fishing line and they used it to tie pieces of board to their spears to make paddles.

     It was still light out when the pair took to the river but evening was coming within the hour. They paddled out to the middle of the river channel but then both the boards came off and they had to scoop the brown river water with their hands to make progress.
     “How did you say a person knows he’s really saved and not just deluding himself?”

     “If you have a special love for other Christians,” Rick answered. “If you have love for them and want to help them even if you’ve never met them, you’re saved.”

     “Make sure you tell her that.” Mike splashed river water onto his face to get the sweat off his forehead.

     “You’re going to tell her.”

     They kept paddling with their hands to get out of the channel. Rick thought he saw a beaver or muskrat a hundred feet downriver. It dived. They finally were more than two-thirds across the half-mile-wide river but the current was picking up. If they didn’t make it to the Moreau County bank before the sunken ferry they would be swept downstream past the confluence of the Mississippi and Rush Rivers towards Saint Louis.
     As they neared the river bank Rick saw the animal again, about forty feet away this time. It was the top of a head with long reddish hair trailing behind. The wake behind it was too big even for a beaver. It disappeared again without Mike seeing it.
     “Listen,” Mike said. “I don’t hear anything. There aren’t any birds in the sky either.”

     “I know. There’s a transgenic following us. It just dived under us.”

     They were reaching for their spears when a girl’s head emerged from the silt brown water in front of them. The hair was in the face at first but then her hands parted the hair revealing a familiar face but with blue eyes. Rick shuddered.

     “Well, well, well,” Kim said and smiled showing her new peg teeth. “Looks like I’ll get a birthday present after all. It’s Ricky Machado, blond now, huh? And is that Mike Pitcher? What a funny combination to be canoeing together this late afternoon.”

     “What did you do to yourself?” Rick’s voice was breaking. Kim looked like an aquatic ghoul. She rose up out of the water revealing herself even more. The breasts and the rest of the upper half of her body were splotched with black leeches.

     “You don’t like my new look? I didn’t do this to myself; you did it to me. Where’s your teacher girlfriend? I saw you two in front of school going at it. You really did a number on me and look at the result.”
     “You’ve got leeches on you,” Rick said.
     “You were the biggest parasite!” Kim’s shrill voice seemed to bounce off the top of the water.

     “Get out of here!” Mike shouted. “Rick, keep paddling. This is a trap. She left the canoe floating over there so someone would try to cross. There’re probably more of them. Get out of here!” Mike jabbed at Kim with his mop handle spear and she moved back. They were about twenty feet from the sunken ferry.
     “God, please forgive me,” Rick pleaded. He felt paralyzed.

     “Nobody’s going to forgive you, Ricky,” Kim said.

     “Rick, help me paddle!”
     Rick carefully stood up pointing his spear at Kim. “Whatever you are, you’re not Kim Lemon any more.”
     “What a thing to say, Rick. Oh, here’s my new boyfriend. Guys, meet Neptune.”
     Rick and Mike turned around realizing it was too late. Right next to the canoe a merman three times larger than a normal man emerged from under water. The transgenic’s pointed head looked like a sasquatch, purple eyes with no whites, and the rest of him, except for the red beard on the face, was covered with short, reddish brown seal fur. In one of his oversized hands he held a trident made out of scarlet stainless steel.
     Neptune stabbed at Rick with the trident but he dodged down just in time. The beast reared up over him but Mike jabbed at the aquatic monster with his spear and the canoe capsized.
     Rick swam under water to the sunken ferry. He touched the ferry and surfaced. Kim was right behind him. The thing whose upper half still looked like his former girlfriend snatched at his legs as he climbed up out of the water onto the side of the ferry.

     Rick watched in horror as Neptune lifted up Mike impaled through the back on the trident. Neptune gave an unearthly scream revealing sea lion fangs as he held Mike high in the air with one oversized arm. Mike’s lips moved and then blood gushed out of his mouth. His eyes rolled back in his head and his lips stopped moving.
     “No! You got the wrong one! I wanted this one!” Kim looked back at Rick with complete menace in her eyes. But Neptune turned and swam towards the channel still holding Mike’s body high above his head. Five other ghoulish mermaids closely followed the merman.

     Kim swam back and forth in front of Rick for a while. Rick had to be careful because the side of the ferry protruding from the river was tilted and slick. He stabilized himself then turned away from Kim.
     “Look at me! Look at me!”

     “I rebuke you,” Rick said as loudly and calmly as he could. “By the blood of Christ I rebuke you.”
     In the distance Neptune roared again. Kim finally dived, splashing water on Rick with her river dolphin tail. He turned to watch Kim surface forty feet away then quickly disappear out into the darkening river.

     Rick carefully crawled on the sunken ferry towards the bank. He almost made it but then slipped off and hit the water. It was neck deep and he ran in slow motion through the muck on the bottom to get to shore. He stumbled out without any shoes or socks and jogged across the ferry ramp to the paved road. He ran about a mile along the road past abandoned houses until he got to a grove of trees next to an old antiques shop. He hid behind the trees and dropped to his face. He prayed for Mike and for himself and then blacked out.

 

VII. “Surprise!”
 

     There were over three hundred people at the double wedding of Dan and Sara and Davy-Jake and Lydia. Reverend Mandal was there with forty-five other Indian Christians. Everyone cheered when the two couples came out of the church. The reception was held outside in the big open area between the parking lot and the tree line.

     After Lydia shoved the piece of cake up into Davy-Jake’s face, the fiddles and guitars and drums came out and everyone danced. The music was a combination of bluegrass and salsa.

     After dancing half the morning with most of the males including twelve-year-old Roscoe Diamond, Sara Diamond sat down with some punch to cool off. It was the last day of June, hot and muggy. Through the morning haze and heat waves she watched a gaunt male figure walk up next to the church from the gravel road that wound down hill.

     Sara realized who it was before she could make out the face. She got up from the picnic table, kicked off her shoes, and ran. She picked up the hem of her wedding dress, running as fast as she could.

     When she got up close to Rick she hardly recognized him. On his face was a three-day stubble of black fuzz. He now had blond hair with black roots and his eyes were blue instead of brown. He wore cheap blue denim filthy with dried mud and was barefoot.
     Sara took his face into her hands and looked deeply into his eyes. She could see and feel some of what had happened to him. He seemed dazed by the aroma of barbecue chicken and the sight of hundreds of normal-looking people on the church grounds decorated with red, white, and blue American flags. American flags displayed out in the open.

     “Rick, is that you?” she asked, but she already knew. She just wanted to hear his voice.

     “Yeah, it’s me, Mom,” he said and she wrapped her arms around him. She praised God over and over sobbing at the same time.

*                                              *                                              *

     The music stopped and a hundred people gathered around. Rick noticed his sister Lydia and Davy-Jake hanging back. His mother finally let him go and the crowd started welcoming him but then Sheriff Dan Diamond dragged him inside the metal tool shed. He stationed Judson Hawkingson outside to keep everyone including Sara out. He shut the door and started interrogating Rick.

     “Are you really Rick Machado?”

     “Yes, it’s me.” After just a few seconds inside the shed Rick was sweating profusely.
     “Why do you have blue eyes now?” Dan asked.
     “They’re contacts. I had to change my appearance to fool the biometric scanners.” Rick tried to get them out but had difficulty because he had left them in too many days. He finally got them both out and looked his new father-in-law in the eye. Dan grunted and continued.

     “Did they give you any injections? Were you exposed to any sick animals? We have to know if they exposed you to any diseases that might infect the rest of us.”

     “No and no, I wasn’t exposed to anything like that.” Rick sat down on the seat of the riding lawn mower.
     “You didn’t go through any kind of transgenic procedure?” Dan asked.

     “No,” Rick said. “I ran away from her when we stopped at a convenience store right before I was supposed to get it done. I’m not transgenic or neogenic.”

     “I’m sorry I had to drag you into this hot shed to question you like this, Rick, but I had to make sure you weren’t sent to do us more harm. So she was neogenic?”

     “You know about the neogenes?” Rick asked.
     “Oh yeah, Israeli intelligence keeps us up to date on all that.”
     “They have incredible abilities,” Rick said.
     “What they’ve lost is even more incredible,” Dan said. “Tell me, do animals act strangely around the neogenes like they do around the transgenics?”

     “No, I think animals just ignore the neogenes,” Rick answered. “Dan, I have to do something here and then I have to leave. I have to talk to Mike Pitcher’s half-sister about salvation through Jesus Christ. He’s dead now but I swore I would do that for him. After I talk to her I have to get out of this county so you all aren’t targeted.”

     “Listen, Rick, we’re all targeted anyway. Your mother is a strong woman but your disappearance almost killed her. If you leave again it probably will kill her. Whatever we have to face we’ll be better off facing it together. You’re home, son.”

     Dan came out with Rick and gave him back to Sara. They hosed him off and found him some clean clothes and shoes that fit. After he ate two paper plates full of barbecue chicken and potato salad, Sara preened and fussed over him for a half an hour and then Pastor Sterling took him inside the church. He gave Rick a Holy Bible then left him alone.
     Rick sat down on the pew and randomly opened the Bible to Genesis 6. He read about evil beings from the spirit world ravishing beautiful human women, producing offspring that grew to be abominable giants. God was angry because of this wickedness and prepared to destroy the world with a great flood. Rick closed the Bible and put his face in his hands.

*                                              *                                              *

     Pastor Sterling came back in and sat down next to Rick. He asked Rick to tell him what he knew about Kim Lemon. Rick told him everything.

     “I have more faith now than ever before, but I’m more confused than ever,” Rick said. “I believe Mike Pitcher was saved and I believe Kim is damned. I don’t understand it. Kim never hurt anybody before in her life. She went to church. She was kind to people. She was kind to me. Mike was a murderer. He helped murder my best friend.”
     “You think you’re the only one confused?” Pastor Sterling spoke in a stern voice Rick wasn’t used to hearing. “What about Kim’s parents? After she sent them an insulting text message telling them she was getting enhanced, they both had breakdowns. They couldn’t even pray for her. They knew it wouldn’t do any good. They sold their house and their stocks and donated the money to this church but of course that didn’t change anything. And what about me? I baptized Kim when she was a twelve.”
     “Why doesn’t God look at it like an illness?” Rick asked. “Like someone with a drug addiction or a mental illness?”
     “I don’t know. I can’t answer you, Rick.”

     “If she hadn’t seen me with Angela that night would she still have a chance?”

     “I don’t know,” Pastor Sterling repeated. “No one but our Heavenly Father can answer your questions. I do know this: This life is serious. It’s a serious business. How we treat each other matters and how we treat ourselves matters. The Eastern religions teach this existence is a sham but it doesn’t feel like a sham does it?”

     “No,” Rick answered.

     “It’s not a sham,” Pastor Sterling said. “It’s not all there is, but it is real. Our Lord said that the road to hell is wide, the path to salvation hard for most people to find. It may be that most people are too mediocre for salvation.”

     “Mediocre?” Rick said and shook his head. “What about evil? I’ll take mediocre over evil any day.”
     “You’re not God,” Pastor Sterling retorted. “Consider this: People who cannot stop themselves from doing evil are pretty rare, maybe one in a hundred? They’re a small percentage of the population. Then how is it that so much evil gets done? It’s because the mediocre masses allow it. They allow people to starve or mass murders to happen so long as it doesn’t affect them directly. They appease evil because inside they are evil. Their thought life is just as evil as the mass murderer, but they don’t express it, probably out of fear for their own safety. At least the people who are evil have passion. Sometimes evil people can leverage their passion into accepting salvation, if their hearts don’t harden first. You have to have some kind of intensity of spirit to knock on His door.”

     “But we all have bad thoughts,” Rick said.

     “True, but Christians who are born-again have the Holy Spirit, which teaches us what thoughts are evil, and gradually trains us not to think them.” The pastor ran his fingers through his white hair and looked away from Rick. After a minute of silence he turned back. “Listen, Rick, I need your help.”
     “You need my help?”

     “Yes, I can’t face Kim’s parents alone with what you’ve told me,” the pastor said.  “They have to be told what their daughter is now and I just can’t face them by myself. I want you to come with me tomorrow. We’ll go visit Mike Pitcher’s little sister together too.”

     “Okay,” Rick said after pausing for a second.
     “I know this is going to be painful for you, and I’m not sure what reaction Kim’s parents will have after you tell them the sequence of events, but I’m sure facing them will help your healing process and mine. Whether it helps theirs will be up to them. Oh, one more thing.” Pastor Sterling pulled out his cell phone, unfolded it, and went through his messages. “I just got an encrypted text message for an ‘M’, then a phone number, and then it spelled out r-i-c-k--m-a-c-h-a-d-o. You know who this could be from?”

     “Yes, it’s from Jill.”  Rick said quickly. “She and her cousin were the girls who gave me a ride, helped me get away from Angela. I thought they were both dead.”
     “Well, here, use my phone. Send her a message back telling her you’re safe. Dan wants to talk to you again in a few minutes.” Pastor Sterling gave Rick his cell phone and left. Rick sent an encrypted text message to the phone number Jill had given and she immediately text-messaged back.

     c-h-i-n--i-s--g-o-n-e-.--y-o-u--w-e-r-e--r-i-g-h-t-.--t-h-e-y--a-t-t-a-c-k-e-d--u-s--t-h-a-t--n-i-g-h-t-. (Jill)

     i-‘-m--s-o-r-r-y-. (Rick)
     y-o-u--t-r-i-e-d--t-o--w-a-r-n--m-e-.--i--h-a-v-e--a--b-i-b-l-e--n-o-w--a-n-d—i--w-o-r-k--h-e-l-p-i-n-g--o-u-t--w-i-t-h--r-e-f-u-g-e-e-s--a-l-l--d-a-y-.
(Jill)

     w-h-e-n-? (Rick)
     w-h-e-n—w-h-a-t-? (Jill)
     w-h-e-n--f-a-i-t-h—h-o-p-e—l-o-v-e-?
(Rick)

     f-a-i-t-h—h-o-p-e—l-o-v-e—n-o-w-. (Jill)
     a-m-e-n-.—i—d-r-e-a-m-e-d—a-b-o-u-t—y-o-u—l-a-s-t—n-i-g-h-t-.—i--h-a-v-e—t-o—g-o-. (Rick)

     i-f—y-o-u—d-r-e-a-m—a-b-o-u-t—a—s-o-n-g—s-p-a-r-r-o-w—s-i-n-g-i-n-g—o-u-t—o-f—s-i-g-h-t—i-n—t-h-e—b-u-s-h-e-s—t-h-e—s-p-a-r-r-o-w—i-s—m-e-.—b-y-e-. (Jill)

*                                              *                                              *

     Rick didn’t look up from the phone until Sheriff Dan Diamond stood in front of him in the quiet church. The sheriff asked him to tell the entire story of his time away from Moreau County. Rick told it in detail and then Dan filled him in on what had happened locally.

     “It must be that Kim and her little gang of river monsters have been active at that crossing for about five days, starting just one day after the ferry was sunk,” Dan said. “We’ve had reports of three or four people missing down there.”
     “Any other attacks?” Rick asked.
     “No, but our citizens are reporting a lot of big, weird things flying around at night. They’re probing us. Tell me some more about Angela and the other neogenes.”

     “They don’t sleep but she was obsessed with staring at me when I was asleep dreaming,” Rick said. “All she ate were these dietary supplements she kept in refrigeration.”
     “Do they have any religious beliefs?” Dan asked.
     “No, they’re materialist atheists, but they’re about to start a phony multi-media religion combining Santeria, Druidism, Obi, other occult-type religions. She said there are a lot more adherents to those kinds of religions than most secular people realize. Dean and Wayne Browner are going to be big-shots in the new priesthood. Part of their Plan is to get everyone hooked on watching real human sacrifices on live netcasts.”
     “You’ve actually seen the Plan?” Dan asked.
     “Yeah, I read it all,” Rick said.
     “You don’t say? That sounds really valuable, Rick. Did she have any artwork with symbols? Any books?”

     “No artwork but she had some books in Portuguese by Sebastiao, some English translations of a German philosopher named Nietzsche, and she had a Turkish translation of a book by that dictator of Germany during World War Two. The Nazi guy, I forget his name.”

     “Oh, yeah, that guy,” Dan said. “That book has been a best-seller in the Middle-East for the last one hundred and forty years.”
     “I guess it was her father’s.” Rick swallowed hard because his mouth was dry. Suddenly the grim reality that Angela was hunting for him right this second hit and he swallowed hard again.
     “She really thought she had you beat down but you got back up and motivated yourself right out of her world. You know, Rick, I’ve seen a lot of guys stir up hornet’s nests with females before but you take the prize. Think about it. Of all the women on this planet you picked the worst one to get tangled up with. The very worst one. Think about the odds.”
     “It’s not funny,” Rick said.
     “Then why are you smiling, boy?” Dan’s blue-grey eyes twinkled.

     “You’re making me.” Rick’s smile grew larger.

     “She’s going to boil you alive like a lobster if she catches up with you,” he said.
     “It’s not funny; she’s a fiend.”
     “Well, no matter what happens in the future you’re going to strike a blow against her and all the rest of those demigod wannabes today. First, I want you to detail on paper what the Plan says. Next, you’re going to sneak back to her apartment in Bluff City to see if you can collect some of her food tablets. I just bet she left them in there. Make sure you keep them in a cooler with ice. Probably there are some rare ingredients in them. We have people all over the world that can disrupt their supplies once we know what their critical control points are. We can hit them where it counts.”

     “Where are you going to take them to get analyzed?” Rick asked.
     “I’m taking your mother on a honeymoon down to a little bed and breakfast in the Shawnee Forest. Things are still pretty normal down in the South. After our honeymoon I’m going to report to the secret tunnel complex we have built up down there. We still have Special Forces who never surrendered living in and guarding our massive complex. They’re down to less than five hundred men and women now, but this past thirty years they kept expanding the tunnels. Thanks to them you can drive a truck underground all the way from western Maryland to eastern Kansas. We learned quit a bit from the Chu Chi and Tora Bora tunnel complexes, and we improved on them considerably.”

     “So we are going to war?” Rick asked. “The Israelis are going to help us get our country back? Is that why the American flags are flying out in the open?”
     Dan looked away from Rick. To Rick he had always seemed a big man even though he was really just average height. His badge was shining in the church’s bright light. Rick had always seen him standing up straight but now the man’s shoulders slumped. He turned back to Rick.

     “I know you’re in a hole right now, Rick. What happened to Kim, it’s horrible. But I was in a deeper hole. I killed over eleven hundred of my fellow countrymen during the war. Did you know that?”

     “No,” Rick answered. “You never talked about the war.”

     “I was a sniper and I set remote-controlled bombs,” Dan said. “Those boys and girls from the blue cities thought they were tough but we just slaughtered them. They didn’t want to be trained militarily so they marched out with their U.N. banners and their AK-47s and got slaughtered. One day in January I shot and killed over a hundred college students who marched out from the University of Wisconsin. It was at a bridge up north on the Rock River. From my position on a hillside above the river the blood puddles growing under their heads looked like red roses blooming in the snow. When I close my eyes I can see it clearer than I see you now.
     “As you know, right as we were about to take the cities, the E.U. invaded the East Coast with a million European Moslem jihadists hot for our blood. The Chinese hit the West Coast but we were still holding our own in the South and West and most of the Midwest but then the people, our rural people, gave out on us. They agreed with the rest of the world that our Constitution was too rigid, that we needed to dump it to fit in.
     “I was seventeen when my commander surrendered. They wanted to send me to The Hague to the prison with the President but I was under eighteen so they kept me for a year and then turned me loose. They couldn’t even put it on my record, so I was still eligible to work in law enforcement. I was classified as a ‘forced child soldier.’ Any way, I was in this reintegration camp the E.U. was running at the old prison up in Joliet, and I swore to myself that I would never again shed human blood to give pearls to swine. Democracy is never enough. You have to have moral Judeo-Christian people, people filled with the Holy Spirit, to make democracy work, and we just don’t have enough of them any more.”

     “So what are we going to accomplish by fighting them?” Rick asked.
     “Probably what is going to happen is we’ll have to move all the Christians and whatever religious Jews we can find into the tunnel complex. Over three years ago Sebastiao made a secret peace treaty with Israel to keep them quiet, but it looks like The U.N. is launching military satellites armed with microwave and particle beam weapons, so the Israelis are planning to go ahead and announce to the world that they’re still alive. It’s going to be a world war.”

*                                            *                                               *

     Later that afternoon Rick borrowed a bicycle and peddled the eleven miles north into Bluff City. There were no cars on the roads just like everywhere else. He was surprised at how many houses sat empty in the county seat. The few people he saw either looked frightened or hostile. When he got to the Browner-owned apartment complex he had second thoughts. What if Angela or her agents were inside waiting?
     Rick laid the bike down and took a long drink from his bottle of water. The late afternoon sun beat down and everything was still. He was just going to kick the door in but at the last minute decided to try to talk to the apartment manager. An elderly lady answered when he knocked on the office door. He showed her his new deputy sheriff badge and explained that he was part of the team investigating a possible connection between the teacher that lived in apartment 118 and the high school students who murdered Tyler Pandav. She agreed to let him in.
     The apartment was the same as when Angela had hurried him out. Had it really been ten weeks ago? He found that she left most of her dietary supplement bottles in the refrigerator. He put ice from the freezer compartment into his small cooler chest and then carefully packed the bottles of tablets inside.

     Rick decided to look around in the bedroom drawers and by chance found his cell phone. The cell phone battery still had a charge so he turned it on and scrolled down the long list of frantic messages from his mother and then saw Kim’s message. He paused for a second then went ahead and read it. It was like she was cursing him from beyond the grave. He dropped the phone, sat down on the bed and covered his face with his hands. After a few minutes he got up and left. He had to get all the way out to Dan’s farm and didn’t have much daylight left.

*                                              *                                               *

     Dan Diamond’s organic farm was ringed with his sheriff’s police and posse members. Rick had no trouble getting through the three security checkpoints but the men’s faces were all grim. When Rick  rode up into the driveway in front of the garage next to the  big two-story farmhouse, Dan’s two closest friends, Judson Hawkinson and Noah Johnson, a husky fifty-three-year-old African-American, welcomed him. Rick parked the bike then looked inside the open garage and saw Dan sitting on his seventy-seven-year-old Harley Davidson. The sheriff got off the motorcycle and walked over to Rick.
     “She left most of them,” Rick said.

     “Good work,” Dan said. He opened it to look them over then stuffed the little cooler into one of his motorcycle’s saddle bags. Rick handed him his nineteen-page summary of the Plan. Dan took a few minutes to look it over then carefully folded it and put it into the other saddle bag.

     “Listen, Rick,” Dan said and put his hand on Rick’s shoulder. “I’m putting you in charge of all the young posse members. Anybody under twenty-one will have to answer to you.”

     “What about Davy-Jake?” Rick asked.

     “Davy-Jake’s your number two,” Dan said. “I just want you answering to Judson and Noah while I’m gone.”

     “Why me?” Rick asked.

     “I’ll tell you why,” Dan said. “Their little conspiracy almost worked. We were this close to having a bad split between the Indian Christians and the Anglo Christians. You have the best relations with the Indian Christians and you know what’s been going on outside of this county. Almost no one else does. You don’t have any illusions. Just about everybody including that hard-headed brother-in-law of yours thinks this is going to be like a spring flood where we get cut off from the outside for a week and neighbors have visits and everybody eats canned food. You and I know this is no adventure. It’s the Tribulation or it’s the nearest thing to it yet. Try to communicate that to your troopers and especially to Davy-Jake.
     “Rick, Davy-Jake has built up a wall around himself ever since his daddy got murdered. He thinks he’s safe behind his little wall but I’m afraid reality is going to come crashing through. If something ever happens to his mother or little brother or God forbid his beautiful new bride, I’m not sure he’ll be able to stand up, and we’re going to need him. The young Christian guys we have here are great but they just don’t have any background for fighting. They’ll have to fight only with their hearts and what little training Judson and Noah can give them this next week.”

     “When are you coming back?” Rick asked.

     “A week at least, probably more,” Dan said. “I might come back in a surprising way with some special presents no one has seen around here for a long time.”
     “Guns?” Rick asked.

     “We’ll see. Maybe the Forth of July fireworks will come just a few days late this year.” Dan turned and called for Sara to come out and see her boy again.

*                                              *                                              *

     A beaming Sara Diamond came out of the big farmhouse. Real joy had ambushed her this day. She looked around at the pheasants and the spotted pacas grazing inside the fenced-in area around the main barn then came down the steps and hugged Noah and then best-man Judson.

     “I love you!” she said to both men. “I love those beautiful birds and I love those over-sized guinea pigs. This is the happiest day of my life.”
     “Oh, you don’t love us; you just love that old grouch over there,” Noah said and nodded towards Dan.
     “I love everybody!” Sara said and then pointed at Judson. “You’re next.”

     “You’re going to marry me next?” Judson was a thirty-two-year-old confirmed bachelor.
     “No, but you are going to get married, and I know who the bride’s going to be too.” She looked confident but Judson just stood there shaking his shaggy blond head.

     “Come on, girl, get on back,” Dan said. “We’ve got to get where we’re going before dark.”

     “Your motorcycle?” Sara said. “It’s illegal to ride those things on the roads. You’re going to kill me on the happiest day of my life.”

     “You’ve got to go two hundred and forty kilometers south,” Judson said. “That old thing is going to break down for sure.”

     Sara went to Rick and hugged him. He noticed she held a rolled up paper. She smoothed his hair and held his face again then gave him his high school diploma. Principal Woodruff and most of the teachers left the county with Dean Browner after Judson read the Declaration of Independence in front of the county building. The schools closed a week before graduation but the school janitor who was Christian secretly took all the diplomas from the school office and passed them out. Rick had no idea this piece of paper called a diploma would mean this much to him.
     “Don’t you go any where with any older woman while I’m gone,” Sara said.

     “I’ll be here when you get back, Mom,” Rick said.
     Dan Diamond kick-started the motorcycle and the old gasoline engine roared to life. Sara got on back and wrapped her arms around her groom’s waist.
     “I’ll take good care of your mother,” Dan shouted above the revving motorcycle engine.

     “How do you know the Shawnee Forest isn’t swarming with transgenics?” Rick shouted back.

     “There’s a plague of rabid raccoons in the Shawnee,” Dan shouted. “Has been for over a month. Everybody knows to keep out of there.”
     “A plague of rabid raccoons?” Rick shouted.
     “Must be some rabid raccoons somewhere!” Noah shouted and they all laughed.
     “There are about a hundred teratos in Carbondale,” Judson shouted.
     “I intend to avoid that little university metropolis,” Dan shouted and then the motorcycle engine roared and they rumbled off. Everyone waved as Dan and his bride headed north on a little county road that wound through the marsh. They got into the next county then turned east to cross the bridge over the Rush River and headed south.

*                                              *                                              *

     Three days later the power went off all up and down the Mississippi River Valley. That night the power was still off. About midnight a gang of forty-three flying transgenics attacked the Sunnyland Nursing Home. They swooped down from the pitch black sky and overpowered the two guards Judson stationed outside. They burst into the nursing home with echoing screams. The creatures killed and feasted on the blood of all ninety-eight helpless people inside except for one nurse who hid in a broom closet. Helen Gunther was Sara’s best friend, and she managed to keep her head and use her cell phone to quietly call for help.

     Right before dawn Rick Machado and all seventy of the under-twenty-one posse members, minus honey-mooning Davy-Jake, rode in on bicycles. They stormed the nursing home and caught two chupracabras still drinking blood from a dead elderly man who had tried to hide under his bed.

     “We found the old man dead,” the dominant half vampire bat-half man said. He did not seem concerned about being caught. “You’ll get prosecuted for this!” he screamed when Rick tried to capture the hideous, one-hundred-pound creature with a stun gun. The weapon just wasn’t effective on the thing so Rick unsheathed the Civil War sword he had taken from the museum. The dominant chupracabra pounced, clawing down Rick’s chest as it bit into his left hand. Rick finally managed to plunge the sword into the transgenic’s chest, killing him. He ordered his posse to attack the other one with axes and sharpened spades.

     After it was over Rick admonished four of his troopers for responding too slowly when he ordered them to attack. After he chewed them out he ordered the burning of the chupracabra bodies and the collecting of the human dead for burial. When they were all busy he walked outside into the pre-dawn darkness, found a tree uphill away from everyone and threw up behind it. He stumbled back down to the nursing home to find Nurse Helen inside the flashlight-lit house of death.

     “You’re lucky you didn’t lose this finger,” Helen said as she stitched around the base of his left pinky finger. He marveled at her calmness and wondered if the hand would ever work the same again. “Who gave you the black eye? Was it Kim Lemon’s father?”

     “No, it was her mother. Mr. Lemon and Pastor Sterling could barely hold her back so I could get out of there.”

     “Good for her.” But Helen finished bandaging his chest with a comradely smile then left to help with the burials.

*                                              *                                              *

     Four days after the massacre at the nursing home, Debra Sterling woke up with a start. She had been having a very bad dream but could not remember it. As her usual morning grogginess faded away she felt relief. In fact she became elated at the thought of this new day. Debra knew something extraordinary and beautiful was going to happen this day.
     Debra threw off the covers and got out of bed. The house was quiet. Her parents must have taken the refugee family from Springfield up to the church. One, a nine-year-old girl named Sonia Kitay, was in bad shape. She had lost a lot of blood from an attack by flying transgenics. The Jewish family had somehow found their way to the Sterlings’ house yesterday evening. Debra knelt down and prayed for the refugee family and for her parents and friends.
     Debra stood up and then saw the giant grotesque face staring at her through the glass patio door. She had never seen a transgenic being before. It was over eight feet tall, a combination of feathers and long brown hair on a huge round head that sported a strange, complex pair of antlers. The enormous feathered wings spread out and there were two human-like arms. It was roughly the same shape as a barn owl, the yellow eyes the size of dinner plates, but where there should have been a beak was a pair of oversized human lips that were moving. The monster exposed itself with its hands and she saw it was both male and female. It beckoned her by name to open the patio door.
     Debra felt sadness and revulsion. She walked over to her patio door and pulled the Venetian blinds across to block its view. She went into the bathroom and shut and locked the door. After a few minutes she heard people outside. She came out of the bathroom and recognized Davy-Jake’s shouts as he chased the transgenic monster away. Debra quickly dressed then opened the door for Davy-Jake and his hand-picked squad of nine scouts, all armed with newly fashioned crossbows.

     Debra greeted everyone and hugged Davy-Jake and some of the others. She locked the house and they left in a hurry. Nobody talked as Davy-Jake and Debra led the scouts past the church cemetery and then up the steep hill on the broken concrete steps. The early morning sky was filled with clouds and the humid forest pressed down on them with foreboding. As they emerged from the trees Davy-Jake told her in a quiet, low voice that during the night flying transgenics had firebombed the five other remaining churches in Moreau County. The Catholic Church in Bluff City was still burning. Their Baptist church was the last one left standing in the county.

*                                              *                                              *

     Debra’s father stood outside the church with Reverend Mandal and a crowd of elderly people. During the last several days all the elders of the church as well as many other elderly people from other churches and people who had not attended church in many years all made their ways up here to the Heritage Baptist Church. 

     For over an hour Davy-Jake tried hard to convince Pastor Sterling to evacuate to the museum in Bluff City but all one hundred and forty-two people declined. The Pastor told him in no uncertain terms that they were not going to end their vigil. Finally Davy-Jake offered to come back with guns to defend the church but Pastor Sterling declined that offer as well.

     “No guns, Davy-Jake, do you hear me?” Pastor Sterling said. “I don’t want any guns on this church’s property.”
     “You know what they did in Sunnyland,” Davy-Jake said.

     “I know about the massacre. If God is going to deliver us today it’s not going to be with guns. Listen, son, remember what I taught you. This temple,” Pastor Sterling pointed to their church, “and this temple,” he pointed to his heart, “are just temporary. Neither was meant to last. We always thought of America as the ‘Shining City on a hill’, but at its best it was only a taste of the real heavenly city that’s coming. Have faith, deliverance is coming.”

     “I’ve been put here to protect people,” Davy-Jake said.
     “You go protect those young people with whatever weapons you can get your hands on,” Pastor Sterling said. “You have my blessing for that, Davy-Jake.”

     Davy-Jake reluctantly turned to lead his scouts down the hill. He called for Jimmy Owens who was inside saying goodbye to his elderly mother. He looked down at Debra but she shook her head.
     “I’m not leaving, Davy-Jake,” she said. “Today is the day of deliverance and I have work to do here.”

     Davy-Jake wanted to just pick her up and carry her down the hill but when he looked at his pastor the white-haired man quietly said, “No.”

     “Debra, girl, you’re breaking my heart,” Davy-Jake said.

     “In this world a true child of God has to learn to let go,” Debra said. “I love you, brother.”
     “I love you too,” he barely managed to say.

     “You give my love to my sister Lydia.”

     “I will, Debra,” Davy-Jake said. He turned to lead his scouts down the church hill road.

     Two widower farmers in their late seventies volunteered to go halfway down the gravel road to stand guard. The eldest was Lloyd and the youngest by five months was Floyd. Both had been rivals all their lives and had actually married each other’s sweethearts. Lloyd brandished his bullfrog gig and Floyd held an old-fashioned pitchfork.

*                                                *                                             *

     Jimmy came out of the church with his obese mother. He hugged Debra and his mother again then shook hands with Pastor Sterling.
     “I sure am sorry about what happened to that little girl,” Jimmy said wiping his eyes. The girl was almost dead. He started to follow Davy-Jake and the scouts but suddenly lost control of himself. Most of his life he hid from the authorities at his church or on Dan Diamond’s organic farm to protect his mother from prosecution for having him. He never went to school but understood what was going on. Some secular kids told him he could be cured or even get turned into a superhero like in the comic book netcasts. He had been tempted. But now he screamed out: “I don’t want to be turned into a beast! God made me right, no matter what anybody says!”

      Jimmy confronted Davy-Jake about the teasing he and Rick and some of the other kids used to do to him. One of their favorite games was to suddenly act like Jimmy was invisible when he was standing right next to them. It had frightened Jimmy badly that all of a sudden the other kids seemingly couldn’t see or hear him.
     Davy-Jake stopped. He turned around and his six-foot seven-inches looked a little shorter. He apologized to Jimmy in front of everyone and then said, “You know, Jimmy, God always loved you the most.” Everyone around chimed in to agree and they started marching down the church hill road.

*                                              *                                              *

     When they were half way down the road a swarthy man with a beard and a turban rounded a curve in front of them. Davy-Jake saw the man carried an ornate saber. He made sure that the birds were still singing and even noticed a chipmunk scurrying across the gravel road behind the stranger. He signaled for his scouts to halt and then walked down alone to talk to the man. The bearded man didn’t speak much English. One of the two scouts of Indian background named Johnny D’Soussa recognized the dialect from the Punjab and came down to translate.

     They learned that the man had walked all the way north from Memphis. He wanted to help guard the last church. The demons, he said, had publicly announced that they were going to wipe out all the Christians in this county for murdering transgenics.
     “Is he a Moslem?” Davy-Jake asked.

     “No, he’s a Sikh,” Johnny said. “It’s a different monotheistic religion. They think it’s their duty to protect vulnerable people no matter what religion they are.”

     “Okay, give him some food and water and put him with Lloyd and Floyd if that’s what he wants,” Davy-Jake said.

     Jimmy Owens started shaking his head. 

     “No, I’m not leaving. I’m going to stay and protect my mother and Debra and my church.”      
     Davy-Jake then told Jimmy all the horrible things the transgenics would do if they captured him. Jimmy gulped. Then he told Jimmy they believed evil spirits possessed most of the transgenics and were now sure Wayne Browner was really a resurrected murderer of Christians from the Twentieth Century, but Jimmy wouldn’t give in.
     Davy-Jake patted Jimmy proudly on the back then gave him a hatchet. He led his scouts the rest of the way down the church hill road to their bicycles hidden behind some trees. They had a long way to ride to complete their reconnaissance of the river borders.

     As they rode north along the road to Riverton, one of his sharp-eyed scouts named Zeke Johnson, Noah Johnson’s son, noticed three tiny specks far out on the Mississippi River. They halted and Davy-Jake used his powerful binoculars. The three tiny specks soon became three big pleasure boats packed with hideous transgenics. Davy-Jake called it in, expecting Judson to send him back to guard the church. But Judson ordered him and his ten scouts to immediately return to their base.

     “There’s over a hundred-and-forty people inside our church,” Davy-Jake said.  “They’re helpless, over.”

     “That’s understood, DJ. We have over two thousand here and you are defying a direct order. We can’t be strong everywhere. You need to get back here pronto, over and out.”  

     After a long pause Davy-Jake finally signed off. He ordered his scouts to ride all-out back to their base at the museum in Bluff City.

*                                              *                                               *

     Debra Sterling said goodbye to her parents. She hugged them and her father kissed the top of her blond head. She let go of her mother’s hands and backed away.

     “If we have a victory today you’ll have to share credit with a girl,” Debra said.

     “You always were our victory,” Pastor Sterling said.
     Debra walked down the broken concrete steps alone. It was a long lonely walk. How she had lived her life suddenly seemed futile to her. She wanted to tell Davy-Jake that she was not the innocent, spacey girl he and Rick thought she was. She alternately daydreamed about being married to each one of them since she was eleven years old. She thought all four were handsome, including Jimmy. Debra imagined Jimmy a normal guy coming home from work and she would be waiting with a big meal. She imagined talking intimately with husband Rick Machado about his latest painting. Next she imagined watching the sun rise on a fishing trip with husband Davy-Jake Diamond. And she vividly imagined wildly cheering for her husband Tyler Pandav and his professional soccer team at a giant stadium.

     Daydreams are for little girls, she told herself then, time to leave childhood things behind. Out of nowhere a crisis of faith hit Debra but she kept walking. She finally got to the bottom of the broken steps. As she walked past the church graveyard it felt the worst but she kept going.

     When Debra got to her one-story ranch house she noticed the birds suddenly stop singing. She unlocked the front door and closed it behind her but didn’t lock it. The house was dark. She went into her room and got her guitar. She took the guitar into her father’s office, lit a candle, and sat down in her father’s reading chair.

     She ran her fingers across the dents the hail left on the guitar’s wood surface. Strange something so fleeting as hail could leave permanent marks. The hail was like this life and the guitar is like my soul, Debra thought. She started playing a song from over a hundred years ago called “Fire and Rain.” It was secular but one line in the lyrics asked Jesus to look down upon the singer.
     When Debra knew they were outside she stopped playing. She heard voices that were not human and then the front door was kicked open. She smiled imagining their surprise it wasn’t locked and barricaded. She put down her guitar and stood up facing the office doorway. She knew who was going to come through the doorway.

     Henry Moore walked in with a machete in his right hand. He looked the same in the flickering candle light, the same lumberjack body and square head, the same six-feet, five-inches, and the same curly brown hair. He still had brown eyes and the tee shirt that read BAD HENRY was the same.
     “You’re really stupid,” Henry said.
     “That’s not your usual greeting, Henry,” Debra said.
     “I don’t have time for hellos or goodbyes.”

     “I know,” she said. “I just want to ask you one question.”
     “Ask it fast.”

     “Why have you been looking at moss with a magnifying glass all these years?”

     “You told me there were little people living in the miniature forest,” Henry said. “I wanted to find them.”

     “I never told you there were little people living in the moss,” she said with a smile. “I said, ‘What if there were little people living in the moss?’”
     Henry suddenly looked like a little kid who just found out there is no Santa Claus. His face changed into pure murderous fury.
     “You know my hearing’s not that good!” Henry shouted.
     “But why did you believe me?” she asked. She knew smiling was a mistake now.

     “Because you never lied to me even when I was going to hurt you.”
     “And I’m not lying to you now, either,” she said. “You’ve seen things that don’t have any rational explanation. Out on the marsh at night, even back when you were five years old and your mother’s boyfriend kicked you down the stairs and you lost hearing in one ear. You saw something then, didn’t you?”
     “I’ve seen things; none of them were good, so what?” he said. He gripped the machete tightly to begin chopping.

     “You’ve read the Old Testament, haven’t you?” she asked. “You read it for the wrong reasons and you were too afraid to read the New Testament, but you believe those miracles, don’t you?”
     “I’m not afraid of anything,” he responded. He wanted to end this and end her but something kept him from doing it.

     “Tell me you don’t believe in those miracles.”  Debra’s suddenly angry voice would have startled anyone else.
     “All right, I believe them,” he said. “But that’s not going to help you now.”

     “This isn’t about me,” she said. “I have Jesus in my heart and I’m not afraid to die. This is about you, Henry. You’ve changed. There’s something different inside you that you’ve never had before.”
     “You’re right,” he said. “I’ve changed. I’m not human any more.”

     “No, you’re wrong,” she said. “You’re more human now than you’ve ever been.”
     “What are you talking about?”
     “Whatever they did to you changed you,” Debra said. “You were born hard-wired wrong. Human warmth repulsed you and cruelty made you happy. It’s because your parents and your grandparents and your great-grandparents used drugs that robbed you of your soul, Henry. Doctors with more drugs couldn’t help you. But what man can’t do God can. That same hideous technology millions of people have chosen to curse themselves with God has used to give you a chance to choose life.”
     “You’re wrong,” Henry said proudly. “I’ve already made my choice. I have created what I am. I am the master of my own fate.”
     “No, you know that’s a lie, Henry. You know you’ve always been a slave to every evil spirit blowing in on the wind, but the living God has given you a chance to be free so that you can choose to be His child. I know you never really had a mother or father in this world but God loves you and wants you to be his son. He has worked a miracle just for you to make you see that He loves you.”
     “Nobody could love me,” Henry said matter-of-factly.
     “You’re wrong,” she said. “You know I’m telling you the truth. You’ve changed. The old Bad Henry would have killed me by now. It’s proof that God loves you. The truth is you were supposed to be one of us. You were supposed to be our champion, our Samson, but you were cheated out of loving us and we were cheated out of loving you. Don’t let this evil world cheat you any more.”

     “So God doesn’t care what I’ve done?” he asked.
     “You’ve hurt people all your life,” she said. “You’ve done evil things to so many people. What you did to Tyler hurt me real bad…hurt me real bad. God hates the evil you’ve done but still He loves you so much He worked a miracle to give you a choice.”
     Waiting outside were sixty-six other transgenics and they started chanting for Henry to finish and come out. The eerie chanting filled up the little house so they could barely hear each other.
     “Red blade, not shiny blade, red blade, not shiny blade, come out, Bad Henry!” They repeated over and over. Wayne Browner had sent Henry inside so he could finish off whoever was there quickly. Wayne knew the others would have taken hours, especially with Debra, and wanted to get going up to the church before dark so their conquest could be netcast live.

     Henry hated being indecisive. He looked this way and that, ready to start pacing back and forth, but Debra quickly told him what to pray to obtain salvation. She told him he would have to get off by himself away from the others to do it. If he didn’t do it soon his heart would harden.

     “I’m ready now,” she finally said. “I’d rather you did it quick. I don’t want them to get me.”

     “No,” Henry said. “Go hide. “I’ll tell them something. I want to talk to you later.”

     “One way or another you won’t be talking to me again in this world,” she said. “Remember what I told you to pray. And Henry, if you do, you will get to see God’s angels in the moss. I’ll be praying for you.”

     Henry turned to walk out.
     “God bless you, Henry,” she said. He stopped with his back to her for a second then walked out on of the house.

*                                               *                                              *

      Henry walked out of the house without saying anything. The other transgenics jeered when they saw his shiny machete blade. Wayne Browner, now a flying demon with giant hummingbird wings, kept stroking the striped lizard scales on his arms as he studied Henry for a few seconds. The realistic tattoo of a .38 caliber bullet wound on Wayne’s shaved head seemed ready to bleed.

     “What were you talking to her about?” Wayne finally demanded in an amplified voice. The demon’s cobalt blue eyes were so intense the other transgenics could only glimpse the radiant face for a few seconds before turning away.
     “She hid in a crawl space,” Henry said. “I was trying to get her to come out.”
     “Let’s burn it down!” a multi-legged hobgoblin shouted. The others joined in and they all began chanting. “Burn it down! Burn it down!”
     “We can come back later,” Henry said. “No sense in wasting a virgin, right, Doug?”
     “Yeah!” Doug Strapman yelled. Doug was now a bucentaur possessed by a lustful spirit obsessed with rape.

     “To the Church!” Wayne shouted and raised its arms. “Rock on!” Wayne led them up the curving gravel road towards the church. The other transgenics looked at each other and shook their heads. They followed, rocking back and forth, as they walked up the road behind their demon leader.

*                                              *                                              *

     “You been farming long?” Floyd asked Lloyd. It was an old inside joke having to do with Lloyd being older than Floyd.
     “Your pond is the one the coots visit every migration,” Lloyd replied. “Those birds know enough to stop and talk to one of their own.”
     “Hey, where is this bearded fella from again?” Floyd asked.

     “He’s from Memphis,” Lloyd said.

     “That’s how they dress in Memphis now?” Floyd asked.

     “He’s a Sikh,” Lloyd said.

     “He’s a sick?” Floyd said. “Why didn’t he stay home then?”
     As Floyd and Lloyd chattered on the Sikh man tried to talk to Jimmy Owens. When they all noticed the forest suddenly become quiet Jimmy’s face lost all pallor. Dark clouds covered half the sky, stillness in the afternoon half light dappling down through the leafy branches of the big oak trees lining the road. Now Jimmy and the other three men heard something coming from down hill.

     “We kill the demons when they come,” the bearded man said to Jimmy.
     “We sure will,” Jimmy said back. They heard strange voices coming up the hill now. Jimmy froze when Wayne and the small army of transgenic monsters rounded the last bend between them. He couldn’t take it. Jimmy panicked and ran cradling the hatchet. He disappeared into the trees of the steep hillside. The other three did not blame him.

     “Look at them,” Lloyd said.
     “Lord,” Floyd said. “Nightmares made out of flesh and blood. I wonder why the ones behind the leader are rocking back and forth like that.”
     “I guess this is it,” Lloyd said.
     “I guess so,” Floyd said. 

     “See yuh,” Lloyd said.
     “See yuh in the funny papers,” Floyd said, and Lloyd wanted to stab him first with the bullfrog gig but decided to save his strength.

*                                              *                                              *

     Debra Sterling crawled out of her hiding place in the basement. She got down on her knees and clasped her hands together. “Heavenly Father, forgive me my worldliness on this day. Lord, I have been a failure with your special gift of prophecy from the Holy Spirit. I squandered your mighty power amusing people when I should have used it to bring them to your truth. I failed Kim utterly. I failed Tyler, I couldn’t prevent his murder, and I failed to convince Rick to change course to avoid feeling the anguish from what he has done. Father, I confess all this but I ask you now, in the name of Jesus Christ, I am pleading that the words I spoke to Henry Moore will bring him into your light.

     “Lord, we know that our true battle is not with flesh and blood mortals. We know it is against the invisible satanic beings and powers of the evil spiritual kingdoms that rule this wicked world. Father, please help him stand strong. Give him the full armor of your salvation, the helmet of salvation, the shield of faith, and the sword of the Holy Spirit. In the name of Jesus Christ I ask this, amen.”

*                                               *                                              *

     The other transgenics avoided the Christian cemetery so Henry Moore prayed there. He stood up and walked between weathered headstones to the shaded hillside next to the church cemetery. Henry knelt back down with his hand lens and after a short pause began studying the moss on the trunk of a large walnut tree. He suddenly stood up and put the hand lens away. He could not stand still so he started up the steep, broken concrete steps.

     Screams, shouts, and inhuman shrieks now echoed ahead. Henry kept climbing and soon found a bearded man crushed to death in the ferns near the steps. Crawling through the underbrush close by a mortally wounded, eight-foot-tall sasquatch tried to hide. Henry knew what the other transgenics would do if they found one of their own unable to defend himself.
     Henry picked up the bearded man’s saber with his right hand. He still held the machete in his left. He kept climbing up the steps running parallel to the gravel road a hundred yards away through the trees.

     When Henry got to the top he saw the bucentaur that once was Doug Strapman, a pitchfork stuck in his flank. Doug cursed and bellowed, running in a circle vainly trying to reach the pitchfork handle. Henry walked past the wounded bucentaur to join the half circle of transgenic monsters around Wayne. The radiant demon spoke to them only fifty yards in front of the church.

     “This is their last church,” Wayne’s eerie voice reverberated loudly. “From now on for the next thousand years this will be our temple and we will sacrifice their children in it!”
     Wayne’s dreadful gaze scanned across the faces of the sixty-four transgenic monsters. He stopped and pointed a taloned index finger at Henry. “You! Lead them into the church. No mercy for any one. Do you understand me?”

     “Check,” Henry said. “No mercy for anyone.”
     Wayne ordered a trio of bug-eyed transgenics to set up 3-D video cameras to netcast the slaughter. Without hesitation Henry started towards the front entrance of the church. The late afternoon sunlight streamed down between two massive black clouds in the western horizon. Henry noticed the American flag hanging in front and the cross on the steeple. He wondered what it looked like inside a church. There were many people watching him approach through the big windows and he felt their terror.

     “You know somebody’s going to get it bad when Bad Henry’s quiet like this,” the twelve-foot-tall ogre that used to be Lenny Davis said to the spidery, glowing white hobgoblin as they came on behind Henry. When Henry got forty feet in front of the church door he spun around facing the other transgenics.

     “Surprise!” Henry shouted. Lenny and the dozens of other transgenic creatures stopped and started backing up as Henry practiced slashing the air with both bladed weapons.
     “This isn’t supposed to happen!” Doug shouted at Wayne. “The Notebook said once they change a person can’t be on their side.”
     “The Notebook is a crock.” Henry spoke loudly so all of them heard.
     “You blaspheme the portents in the divine Notebook!” Wayne screamed with a contorted face. “We will butcher you and paint our new temple with your blood!”

     “I don’t have blood any more,” Henry said with a smile no one ever saw before.  “And none of you are going to touch this church.”
     “You’re gonna die!” Doug yelled and shoved his way to the front of the crowd of transgenic monsters.

     “Bring it,” Henry said.

     Doug charged, the massive bull body galloping slowly, the pitchfork still in his flank. Blood already covered the horns on its lowered head. Like a matador Henry side-stepped away at the last second and the machete came down on the back of Doug’s neck. The bucentaur halted, stood there motionless with the horned head hanging down until Henry pushed the body over.
     Wayne sent them after him one at a time at first. The demon leader wanted to give an individual the honor of killing Henry but the bodies of the slain transgenic beasts piled up forming an arc-shaped wall around the renegade battling to protect the last church.

     The eleventh transgenic beast to attack was the multi-limbed hobgoblin. Henry had known the man before the transformation. He had no second thoughts about killing him or any of the other transgenics. To Henry they were just walking and talking brambles and poison ivy bushes that had to be chopped down. His normal summer job of clearing underbrush from beneath the giant netcast antennas stationed throughout the countryside made him an expert with the machete. After he chopped into the glowing white hobgoblin three times the creature wailed pitifully then begged Henry not to make him leave this body.

     “Who are you?” Henry asked. He had no remorse or even nostalgia that this had once been a petty criminal he had worked with for over a year. He was just curious; the guy he knew would never have talked like this thing.

     “We are legion,” the hobgoblin said and Henry finished him with a quick chop that split open the oblong head.
     The twelve-foot-tall ogre that used to be Lenny Davis was almost on top of him now.  Henry somersaulted under the ogre, got up behind him, chopping down into the tendons in the back of the thick, elephantine ankles. Lenny fell sideways as he tried to turn around and Henry plunged the saber into one of his over-sized eyes.
     The nine-foot-tall sasquatch with knee braces came at him next. Despite the knee braces he moved fast, much more agile with the peculiar bent-legged charge than the clumsy ogre. He managed to strike Henry hard once. He clacked his bared white teeth and jabbered curses in his demonic language until Henry recovered and chopped one hairy hand off and then brought the beast down with more stabs and chops until he finally hacked off the hairy coned head, which was a feat because the creature seemed to have no neck.

*                                              *                                              *

      Inside the Heritage Baptist Church Pastor Sterling, Reverend Mandal, and dozens of the grey-haired parishioners watched the battle through the two big front windows. Reverend Mandal confessed he had lost faith God would deliver them until Henry spun around and started fighting to protect them.
     “Should we go out to help him?” Reverend Mandal now asked.
     “No, we’d just be in the way,” Pastor Sterling said. “What I’m going to do now is what I should have done a long time ago. I’m going to lead everyone here in prayer to ask God to help Henry Moore.”

     The only young people inside the church were the couple with the dying child. The little girl woke up one more time and her father told her God had sent a deliverer to fight for them right in front of the church. Sonia Kitay asked to see the deliverer so they carried her to a window. She looked out and saw Henry chop down a female transgenic monster that had six cobra snakes for hair.
     “He’s beautiful,” she said with a smile as they carried her back to her cot on the floor. She died then and her parents and many of the elderly parishioners began weeping.

*                                              *                                              *

     Outside Henry was starting to get into trouble. Number sixteen was a panther-woman who leaped thirty feet onto his back and clawed him badly before he managed to put her down. From then on Wayne sent groups of transgenics to attack Henry. He got knocked down several times but never let go of either weapon. He kept getting back up to chop more transgenic monsters to the ground. Their mostly red blood covered his old name on his tee shirt. Even though he didn’t have blood any more he started feeling the loss of his new vital fluids.

     The second-to-the-last group was a gang of five chupracabras who flew down on him. They cursed him in Spanish as they clawed with six-inch-long talons and beat him with their giant bat wings. Henry finally managed to hack them apart then faced the last group.

     Wayne’s personal bodyguard, a trio of muscular satyrs each waving carving knives in front of them, slowly circled him. When they finally rushed in they stuck out their overlong tongues and screamed in unison. This battle took the longest. Wayne’s mouth became an enraged circle as he watched Henry break his machete blade in the skull of one satyr and leave the blade of the saber in the stomach of another who ran off past Wayne into the woods to die.

     Wayne whirled around and saw the three bug-men transgenics start to fly off with their video cameras. The demon leader forgot to tell them to stop filming. They ignored his orders to come back, their giant dragonfly wings beating as loudly as three lawn mowers. When Wayne turned back around he saw the last satyr fall to the ground with his hands clutching its throat. Henry spat out the satyr’s blood and then reached around to his back to pull the big knife out.

     Black clouds covered the sky with no sign of rain as Wayne rose up, his wings beating so fast they looked invisible. Wayne could fly faster than most people could see. He was transgenic, not neogenic, but was a very advanced transgenic creature. The only problem was his thirst for blood to keep his new metabolism functioning was difficult to quench. He needed to feed on at least a gallon of fresh blood every hour and was now very hungry.
     His mouth still in an enraged O, Wayne the demon flew around Henry faster than a blur then attacked, knocking Henry out with one blow. Wayne stood over the prostrate Henry for a second then bent down and clawed his eyes out. He pulled Henry up by the hair and an arm, flying up over the church. Higher and higher he flew Henry into the dark sky, ten stories, thirty stories, fifty stories, eighty stories above the two-hundred-and-thirty-year-old church. Wayne intended to drop Henry from about a hundred stories. Henry would crash through the roof of the church and then Wayne would fly through the hole to attack and feed.
     The huffing and puffing demon didn’t notice Henry regain consciousness. Henry reached up and grabbed the base of one of Wayne’s wings with both vice-grip hands and they started falling in a circle like a giant one-winged moth.

     “You said it couldn’t be done!” Henry shouted over the rushing air and panic screeches from Wayne. Henry couldn’t see with his eyes but did see remotely somehow, saw clearer than his own eyes could have Wayne’s demon face succumb to terror. Henry sent an electrical impulse down the nerve fiber to the explosive gas housed in his stomach. He exploded and a bright flash and thunderous boom went out that could be seen and heard for miles. Directly below the blast wave hit the church collapsing the roof, killing instantly all one hundred and forty-one people inside. 

 

VIII. Down the Mississippi without Huck and Jim 

 

     “Everybody heard the sonic boom about 8:42 PM our time,” Johnny D’Soussa said.  He and Judson Hawkingson stood on the church battlefield an hour after a grey sunrise.  Judson led a hundred men armed with crossbows; most of them now busy using meat hooks to drag the sixty transgenic carcasses into a pile to be burned.

     “But the explosion up here was heard an hour before the Big Boom?” Judson asked.  They already knew the “Big Boom” was heard all over the world.

     “That’s what they’re saying in Riverton,” Johnny said.

     “This battlefield doesn’t make any sense,” Judson said.  “It seems like just one fighter put all these crazy-looking things down.  The church looks like some giant just stepped on it.  It must have been a powerful air burst that went off right above it.”

     “Maybe that Sikh man we met coming up the road had some serious martial arts training.”

     “Might just be possible,” Judson said.  “It sure wasn’t Floyd and Lloyd that did all this.  But where are they?  Where are all the rest?”

     Rick climbed out of the rubble to report there were bloody clothes but no sign of bodies and no evidence any bodies were dug out.

     “Was there radio chatter about prisoners taken from here last night?” Judson asked.
     “No,” Rick answered.  He had been up all night monitoring radio frequencies and netcasts.  “In fact they’re accusing us of massacring transgenics here.  They did a short interview with Dean Browner and he said Wayne came up here with two hundred other ‘transgenic children’ and only three got back.  Mainly they’ve been talking about the currency crisis and the banks closing.  The bottom fell out faster than I think even the neogenes were planning for.  There were bread riots all over the world starting last night and pro- and anti-transgenic riots in the suburbs around Saint Louis and a lot of other cities too.  The network of feeding stations is broke down and the transgenics are going hungry.  The one thing everybody agrees on, whether they’re transgenic or secular human, is that Christians and Israel are to blame for the chaos and no food in the stores.”

     Judson’s walkie-talkie vibrated, Davy-Jake was on the other end.  He and Lydia and nine of his scouts were up at the lighthouse cliff overlooking the Mississippi River.
     “There was a skirmish over here,” Davy-Jake reported.  “From the tracks it looks like that humongous flying thing we saw prowling around the Sterlings’ house yesterday scuffled with two people.  I found the hatchet I gave to Jimmy.  I’m sure it’s his tracks; he got knocked off the edge of the cliff but never hit the ground.  The other human had to have been Debra Sterling.  No sign of either of them.”

     “Understood.  Keep searching until I call you, over.”  Judson heard the angry edge in Davy-Jake’s voice.   He was still upset about the order to come back to base yesterday.  During the long night guarding most of the county’s population in the Bluff City Museum fortress, Judson almost put Davy-Jake in shackles for insubordination.  It was going to be hard keeping that kid inside the command structure.  Judson wiped his hands then walked over to the pile of transgenic bodies to start the bonfire.

*                                     *                                   *

     Lydia checked underneath the branches of the downed Great Pecan Tree, looking for anyone trapped.  The wind changed direction and blew in smoke from burning flesh and hair for a few minutes.  It gagged her until she thought to tie her purple bandanna across her face to filter out the stench.   She put the crossbow down then crawled between the branches under the enormous trunk.  When she parted some small leafy branches she came face to face with Henry’s head.  It hung from a branch by the curly brown hair.
     She called out to Davy-Jake and then Henry’s head with the horrible gouged-out eyes started speaking to her!  It took a second for her to accept what she was seeing before she screamed.

     Davy-Jake scrambled between the tree branches to get to her.  She scooted backwards pointing her finger at the branch as she edged past him.  He unsheathed his Bowie knife and crawled forward.  When he found Henry’s head he cut the branch off then dragged it out.

     “Is that you, Diamond?” Henry whispered.  He was dried out and could barely speak.

     “Yeah, it’s me, Moore,” Davy-Jake said as he carried the branch and head past his nine scouts who had different mixtures of revulsion and grimness on their faces.  He brought Henry’s head to the edge of the cliff.  “You did it.  You blew up our church.”

     “I had to.  You gotta help me or I’m gonna die.”
     “I’ll help you,” Davy-Jake said.  He flung the branch with Henry’s head over the cliff and far out towards the river.  It landed hundreds of feet down with a muddy splash in a small stagnant pool next to the river bank.  “Bon-appetite, crawdaddies.”

     Judson called a few minutes later.  Davy-Jake ordered his nine scouts back to the church ruins but he kept looking up into the grey sky long after they marched down the path.  Lydia walked up behind him and put her arms around his waist, nuzzling her face into his back.  Then they both noticed the croaking toads and the buzzing insects.

*                                   *                                  * 

      Back at the destroyed church Judson took Rick and Davy-Jake aside to give them a special mission.  They couldn’t quite believe what he wanted them to do but they took two spades and trudged through the woods down the concrete steps to the church cemetery at the bottom of the hill.  Neither said anything to the other on the way down.

     Rick was exhausted and nauseous.  When they got to the church cemetery he picked the grave of a Mary Welch, born 1909—died 1972, over a hundred years ago.  He knew no one with that surname and hoped if there was still family in the county they wouldn’t find out. 

     “Let’s dig up this one,” Rick said.

     Davy-Jake turned his back towards him and said, “Yes, sir.”

     “I’m getting sick of your attitude,” Rick said. He felt like clubbing Davy-Jake with the spade.
     “Yes, sir,” Davy-Jake answered again, insolence dripping from the two words.
     Rick dropped it.  What good would it do to fight him here anyway? Of course sooner or later they were going to collide.  He wanted to put it off until after everyone was safe.  Just last night he overheard Davy-Jake tell someone it was his degeneracy that caused Kim’s transformation into a river-haunting ghoul.  Davy-Jake was in a noisy rage at Judson now; Judson was almost ready to replace him with Johnny D’Soussa as commander of the scouts. But Rick knew since the day he walked into the wedding party that Davy-Jake was quietly and deeply furious with him, blaming him for just about every bad thing that had happened.
     Rick stood guard with his crossbow while Davy-Jake took off his shirt and then plunged the sharp spade into the grave.  They took turns digging into the hard, compacted dirt.  It took half the day but they finally reached the coffin.  They looked at each other, shrugged, and then pried it open.  They both stared inside the open coffin a long time.  Without saying anything they re-buried it then slipped back up the hill to report to Judson.

*                                *                               *

     Three days later at dawn a big green helicopter landed on top of the Moreau County Museum.  Judson, Rick, and five others were waiting.  Colonel Daniel Diamond jumped out to direct the unloading of eleven heavy crates from the helicopter.  When they finished dollying the crates down into the museum they climbed back up to the roof to send off the helicopter.  Dan saluted the grey-bearded pilot then the sputtering old military helicopter took off.  Despite the smoke and noise the power of the old chopper still amazed Rick.  He had never seen a military helicopter in real life.

     “Where they going?” Judson asked after noticing the helicopter heading northwest.

     “The munitions factory in Iowa,” Dan said.  “They won’t be coming back.”
     “They carrying a tactical nuke?” Rick asked.

     “No, they’ve got a chemical explosive device almost as powerful.  We have to save our nukes.  Spread the word to the field commanders that there will be a mandatory meeting at 11:00 hours in the museum conference room.”

*                                 *                               *

     “We believe the rapture has occurred,” Dan said to begin the meeting.  There were seven men and two women in the candle-lit conference room, all that was left of Moreau County’s Christian community leaders.  “When the Big Boom happened the dead in Christ went first and then a small number of living Christians who actually had enough of the Holy Spirit in them to impact this world were called up to His heavenly Kingdom.”
     “We know for certain this was not an attack with satellite weapons that vaporize people?” asked Captain Chaudhuri, the senior barge pilot for the river barge transport company headquartered in Bluff City.

     “Rick, tell them what you and DJ found when you dug up the grave in the church cemetery.”

     “We opened up the casket and there were musty clothes but nothing else.  No body, no bones, nothing, nada.”

     “Why so few of us?” asked Marianne Lewis, the thirty-two-year-old mayor of Riverton.  “Out of over two thousand Christians in this county, witnesses say only a half a dozen people disappeared.”

     “Other than what I just said, I don’t want to speculate, Marianne,” Dan said.

     “’And wherever the carcass is there the vultures will gather,’” Rick quoted.  “We still have our carcasses so we’re in bad trouble.  I’ve been talking to other Christian communities on the short wave radio and it looks like less than one percent of practicing Christians worldwide were taken.  Maybe a half a million people, all adults, most of them from the poorest areas.”

     “I never believed our Lord would cause planes to fall out of the sky, cars to crash, and all that,” Judson said.  “But I always thought innocent babies would be called up.”

     “It’s not going to do us any good second-guessing God’s judgment, ladies and gentlemen.”  Dan’s military commander voice boomed out.  “The truth is it is our own actions that have brought us to this point.  And when I say our own I mean everybody, believers who didn’t use the Holy Spirit’s gifts, as well as non-believers.  If the human race had lived by the Ten Commandments this planet would have been a near paradise, am I right?”
     They all agreed.  Next Colonel Diamond reviewed the world situation.  “Less than one percent of the world’s ten billion people are practicing Christians.  Intense persecution of Christians and Jews is already occurring in the rest of the world, and now the last backwater for Judeo-Christian people, North America, is being targeted.  Their Plan states Christians are to be annihilated first and Israel saved for last.  This enemy is the most powerful, most technologically advanced totalitarian regime in history.  Soon, according to the Plan, this dictatorship regime with world-wide resources will be compelling all citizens to get worker-insect transgenic enhancements.  These enhancements will give an individual resistance to prion infections but also make that individual a compliant slave for the neogenics’ economic enterprises. 
     “There is no way we can defend this county,” Colonel Diamond went on.  “They are positioning satellites with microwave and particle beam weapons above us as we speak.  In their mass media they’ve branded us as bigoted murderers and declared open season on us.  Any transgenic has a license to kill any citizen from this county it can catch.  It’s just a matter of time before they overrun us.”
     “So we all have to evacuate?” Rick asked.

     “Yes,” Dan answered.  “That’s what the rest of this meeting is going to be about.  We’re moving everybody to the cave complex in the Shawnee Forest.  There’re already about nine hundred refugees in the Ozark cave complex next door; they’ll be helping to get ready for us.  Once we’re safe we’ll go to work getting ready for more refugees from all over the Western Hemisphere.  Any Christian or religious Jew that can get to us we’ll take in.  We’re going to create a new underground railroad.”
     “What about secular people opposed to the new world government?” Mayor Lewis asked.  “We have over a thousand of them in this county.”

     “I’m afraid we don’t have resources for anyone that’s still sitting on the fence, Marianne.  Maybe some will convert later.”
     “That still means we have over two thousand to move, Dan,” Captain Chaudhuri said.
      “Two thousand three hundred and fifty-two by my last count,” Judson said with a tired smile.
     “How are we going to move that many people almost two hundred kilometers with no fuel for our vehicles?” Rick asked.

     “We’re not going by land.  We don’t have time to dribble everybody out by bicycles and on foot.”  Dan’s old wry humor reappeared in his twinkling blue-grey eyes.  “We’re going down the Mississippi, and this ain’t going to be no going down the Mississippi with old Huck and Jim, either.”

*                                *                              *

     “Operation Q-boat,” Captain Chaudhuri said to his four hand-picked Indian barge pilots.  Colonel Diamond and liaison Lieutenant Rick Machado were also in the museum conference room an hour after the initial meeting with the community leaders. 

     “What’s a Q-boat, Captain?” one of the pilots asked.

     “They were Allied merchant vessels during World War One that were secretly armed,” Dan answered.  “They would lure German submarines to surface and then open fire on them.  We’re going to use the same tactic.”
     “All five barges will hide about five hundred people in the grain holds,” Captain Chaudhuri still spoke with a remnant of an Indian English accent.  “If we make it past Saint Louis and on down past Kaskaskia we will stay peaceful.  If we are blocked we’re going to barge our way through.”
     “We are going to make one stop in Granite City,” Rick said, authority now natural in his voice.  “We’re going to pick up two congregations, one Latino and one African-American.  The African-Americans will board Q-3 and the Latinos Q-4.”

     “Gentlemen, I know there are still some in both the Indian and the Anglo communities who boast they’ve never set foot in Granite City,” Captain Chaudhuri said.  “We are the last Americans.  The time has come for us to live out our nation’s creed and our Lord’s commandment.  If we can get this right maybe He will say this was our finest hour.”

     “So how are we to be armed?” one of the other barge pilots asked.

     “I will distribute twenty-five firearms to the passengers I’ve picked out on each barge,” Dan said.  “Almost all of our young people never held a toy gun before, let alone shot a real one.  There isn’t enough time or ammunition to practice.  I’ll demonstrate how to load, point shoot, and unjam the weapons right before we leave.  Everyone issued a firearm gets a hundred-and-twenty rounds of ammo.  If it comes to a fight, and I think it will, then we’ll have friendly-fire casualties.  Try to get your troopers ready for that.  They’ll have to wait and fire point blank at the heart or the brain.  The transgenics have reinforced nervous systems that resist stun guns and they’ll be hard to kill with bullets, too.  Fifty more on each barge will have crossbows.  It should scare the living daylights out of them when they hear those first shots.”

     “I will have command on the river and when we dock south of Kaskaskia to unload the passengers Colonel Diamond will command on the ground until we reach the tunnel complex,” Captain Chaudhuri said and looked around the room.  “We begin boarding at 19:00 hours.”

*                                   *                                *

     Rick stood over a display case inside a hallway of the exhibition floor in the candle-lit museum.  Inside the display case were artifacts and the journal of Doctor Philippe Moreau.  Four hundred years earlier Doctor Moreau had been the physician-naturalist for the first European expedition through this part of the Mississippi Valley.

     “Hey, Lieutenant Machado,” sang out a female voice behind Rick.  He turned to watch Lydia walk up the hallway.  His sister had not said much to him since his return and now Rick fought a sudden urge to pour out his heart to her.
     “What is it?”
     “Supper’s ready,” she said.  “Where’s Dan?”

     “He went with Noah and Judson out to his place to harvest and process the rest of his livestock.  They didn’t have room for me in the truck.”
     “So you’re not hungry?”

     “Yeah, I’m coming, Mrs. Diamond.”

     “That’s Mrs. Diamond-Machado.”

     “Okay, Mrs. Diamond-Machado,” Rick said.  He walked beside her down the dimly lit hallway towards the museum snack bar.  They passed display cases full of artifacts from Indian villages and coal mine disasters without speaking and then Rick stopped her.
     “Lydia, I’m lucky to be your brother; I just had to tell you.  I’m truly sorry about the way I acted when I took off.  I know it cost some other people everything.”

     “You are lucky and you are sorry.  It’s about time you realized what you did hurt all of us.”  Lydia spoke brusquely but with a twinkle in her eye.  Rick gave a half smile and turned away to look inside a display case detailing a major steamboat wreck.

     “Davy-Jake is pretty angry Dan commissioned me to out-rank him,” Rick said.  “I didn’t want the job.  I’m not the right man for it; that’s for sure.”

     “Davy-Jake is angry about a lot of things,” Lydia responded darkly.  “I never knew how angry he could get about things that can’t be changed.  I thought I would be the one with the bad temper.”
     “Are you two all right?” Rick asked.  “Are you all right?”  He couldn’t believe the tone of her voice.  His old gut instinct rushed back at his fragile conscious like an ocean tide, the gut instinct that for two years warned him Davy-Jake was really a boorish, crude, cruel customer behind the joking, nonchalant façade.

     “Yeah, I’m all right.  He’s getting better, thanks to my persuasion.  Last night he even admitted you’ve done a good job as liaison.  I trust Dan’s judgment and so should both of you.”

     “That’s nice to hear, Lid.  The thing is we’re evacuating in less than three hours.  All our eggs in five baskets.  I agree it’s what we have to do but if we get caught anywhere near Saint Louis they’re going to overrun us, even if we have some guns.”

     “So?”
     “So I never got a chance to talk to Debra again.  If something happens to me I don’t want to think I missed out on telling the only sister I have left that I love her.”
     Lydia came to him and they hugged for a long time.  “I love you too, you big jerk.  Promise me when the time comes you and Davy-Jake will fight together like brothers.” 

     “We will,” he promised after hesitating a split-second.

     When they separated she got a look of indignation on her beautiful, grown-up face.  “Hey, who is this girl that’s been text-messaging you every day on Dan’s satellite phone?”; “What’s her name?”; “How old is she?”; “Is she even a Christian?”; “Maybe you need to take a break from this stuff for a while.  I’m not sure you’ve learned your lesson yet…”
     Rick tried to argue it was none of her business but the sisterly interrogation and advice kept coming.  Finally he gave up and put his hands over his face but his mouth was smiling.

     “Okay, okay, let’s go eat,” he said.  He took her by the arm and led her down the hallway to the snack bar.

*                                  *                                  *

     Colonel Daniel Diamond checked the refrigerated trailer full of freshly butchered pacas and pheasants.  His pickup truck was the last vehicle in Moreau County with fuel.  He hoped there was enough left to haul this trailer the thirteen miles into Bluff City.  They would need all the food they could get.
     Time to go.  Barely five minutes ago Davy-Jake reported thousands of transgenics massing in the marsh just three miles north of his property.  About five hundred converging on the other side of the Mississippi at the marina too. 
     Without saying anything Dan walked away from Noah and Judson into his three story farm house.  In his right hand he held a fist full of rich black dirt from the garden.  This land had been in his family since they had moved here from Kentucky almost two hundred and fifty years ago.  He walked down the stairs into the fully furnished basement.  There was nothing left to do so he let the black dirt fall onto the carpet.   He dropped to his knees and prayed aloud.
     “Heavenly Father, this is the hardest thing I have ever had to do.  Lord, you know I refused to eat the corrupting food the world wanted me to devour.  I have praised you for your many blessings, especially for bringing me through the fiery furnace of war unsinged.  Lord, give me my old power back, the skill I once had with firearms.  They are the only tools I have left to protect this remnant of your people.  Help me to lead them into the safe place prepared for them in the wilderness.  In the matchless name of Jesus Christ I ask this, amen.”

     He rose and went to an antique table where a pile of road flares waited.  He picked one up, struck the cap on the end and tossed the burning flare onto the pile on the table.  Without looking at result he turned and hurried up the stairs of the basement and then out of the house.  His two best friends waited for him inside the truck.  Daniel got behind the wheel and turned the ignition.  He drove off without anyone speaking.  Smoke already billowed up from the two main barns.  It was starting to rain now, just a light drizzle.  No chance it would stop the coming infernos.

*                                        *                                       *

     The drizzling ceased at midnight and the Mississippi River disappeared into cool, foggy shadows.  Eighteen-year-old Maria Elena Cordova left her three sleeping friends to check their situation.  She noticed the five burly guards were gone so she cautiously slipped outside the office door of the abandoned factory.  Yes, the barges were going past.  Three of the guards had gone down to the river to signal them.  The larger of the two guards standing right outside told her to quietly pass the word to get ready to move fast.
     Would they actually stop for them?  Some of the adults, almost all of them women, were apprehensive.  There were bad rumors circulating that the Anglos and Asians would sell them to the demons or enslave them to work in the wilderness somewhere to the south.  Maybe it would be better if they didn’t stop.

     Maria Elena glanced up into the sky but the fog blocked the stars.  She wanted the comfort of seeing them up there.  Ever since she witnessed the old woman disappear into thin air she was afraid her mind was going or worse that the natural laws of the universe had broken down.  The old woman was a nobody who only existed to prepare meals or watch babies for people she didn’t even know.  The woman had been very devout in a quiet way and when she vanished right in front of Maria Elena it almost put her into shock.  It happened in the blink of an eye.  Some of the African-Americans said they witnessed their pastor ascend up into the sky while singing a hymn.  Almost everyone agreed it was what was called the rapture, and was supposed to be a joyous event but was only frightening and perplexing to new Christians like her.
     Maria Elena went back inside the dilapidated factory building.  Her three teenage friends were sleeping on the floor of the old front office.  Hunger pangs stabbed again inside her stomach, moving around always made them worse.  She had eaten nothing for the last two days and not very much the two days before that.  Everything was a wreck here in the North just like it had been in Mexico City five weeks ago when they decided to become Christians and leave the once prosperous Mexi-Caribbean Free Trade Realm.

     A Middle-aged woman came in and meekly asked Maria Elena what was going on outside.  She told the woman to spread the word then bent down and shook each of her three teenage friends until they woke up.  Veronica was the prettiest, Yolanda was the wisest, Salina was the strongest, and of course Maria Elena was the leader.  They all got up and collected their paltry belongings.  But the biggest guard told them the Latinos would have to wait; the barge stopped now just had room for the African-American congregation.
     After the two-hundred-and-ten African-Americans left, the Latinos stood around and spoke in quiet voices.  Finally the last two guards came in and told everyone to hurry.  The two-hundred-and-fifty-three mostly women, some children, and a few older men filed out of their hiding place of the last four days and marched in silence down to the dock a hundred yards away at the bank of the wide river.  The water stank now, Maria Elena noticed.  The sewage treatment plants shut down because the power was off and every day the river smelled worse.

     The fog obscured the features of the dark men moving around on the barge.  Maria Elena and her friends led the way.  Commands in English from above directed them to go down a ramp into the dimly lit front hold of the barge.  After everyone got inside, the ramp lifted up and ominously clanged shut.  Bright lights came on and as everyone’s eyes adjusted a rusty metal door opened and then a lovely young girl with an amazing figure stepped out. 

     “Good evening,” she greeted them in perfect Spanish.  The lovely young girl looked Latina but was tall and carried herself with a lot of self-confident poise in her purple denim outfit.  The aroma of hot food wafted from behind the metal door and Maria Elena’s mouth instantly watered.
     “My name is Lydia Diamond-Machado.  Welcome to the United States.”
     Many people gasped because that disgraced nation, like Israel, was not supposed to exist anymore.  What would come next if the two most despised nations in the history of the world had been resurrected?

     “Follow me.”  Lydia led them into the next hold where the hot food was waiting.  “As you can see, we have only the finest accommodations here in the North,” Lydia said as she backed up kicking a dead rat behind her.  Everyone smiled and several children ran up to her.  She pretended to be a tour guide for a luxury cruise liner and many laughed in relief at the put on.  Dark-skinned Asian men served up delicious tamales and cooked meat on tandore bread.  A  few of the refugees from the rural areas south of Mexico City recognized the rare, rich taste of spotted paca meat and shed tears with each bite.  It was the finest meal Maria Elena had ever eaten.  Lydia circulated around to make sure everyone had enough.  She held babies for mothers and took turns holding hands with the half-a-dozen admiring young boys who followed her everywhere.
     “Hey, Lydia Diamond-Machado, we like you!” Maria Elena shouted.  Lydia came over and Maria Elena introduced her to her three friends.
     “Girl, you’re too young to be wearing that thing,” Yolanda said, pointing to Lydia’s wedding ring on her left hand.  “What’s he like?”

     “He’s handsome and he is very tall,” Lydia said.

     “She likes handsome and very tall, I’m telling you,” Veronica said.

     “What’s it like to be married?” Maria Elena asked.

     “It’s like a lot of things in life.  There are good days and there are bad days.  But I know that he loves me and that I will always have a Godly household.  Our common goal is to love and obey God.”
     “He’s an Anglo?” Salina asked.  “I would never marry outside of my race.  Everything for my race and nothing for anyone else.”
     “I know what you mean,” Lydia said smiling.  “We are both part of the body of Christ and that makes us the same race.  Besides, my mother is Anglo.”
     Maria Elena regretted what Salina said but Lydia did not seem offended and they went on talking for half an hour.  Despite the excitement this huge boat cutting smoothly through the river water and the big meal made her groggy for more sleep.
     “Why are there so few men with you?” Lydia asked right before she left.
     “They were killed fighting the demons,” Salina answered.  “Most of them died trying to protect the big church we were hiding in five days ago.”

     “Yes,” Lydia said.  “We have been fighting too.  We lost one hundred and one at a nursing home and about one hundred and forty at our church.”
     “This whole world is cursed,” Salina said.

     “We have all earned our misery,” Maria Elena added.

     “Christ is there for us no matter what misery and curses,” Lydia said.  “Those of us who are strong have to keep our faith so that those with us who are not strong will have hope.”  The time came for Lydia to go serve food on the Anglo-Asian side.  “I will come back and talk to you later, girls,” she said and left.
     Maria Elena and her three friends continued talking about Lydia with admiration.  Even Salina said she was all right.  They finally spread their sleeping bags and lay down to go to sleep.

*                                        *                                    *

     The seven-foot-tall gargoyle named Pike squatted in the darkness on the top edge of an old high-rise office building near the Mississippi River.  Next to it slept a winged sphinx named Nana Porsche.  Suddenly the electricity came back on and the city lit up all around them.  Pike stood up, securely gripping the edge of the building with its bird-like, clawed feet, and scanned down the fog draped river now reflecting back the city lights.

     “What is it?” Nana asked in a sibilant voice.  It rose up on its four legs and stretched itself awake.  Only Nana’s head appeared human.  The face had the high cheek bones of a statuesquely beautiful woman, the top of its head crowned with a tawny Mohawk, but its mouth contained the fangs of a lioness.
     Pike didn’t answer.  It spread its great pterosaur wings and flew down to the bridge closest to the Saint Louis Arch.  Nana followed and landed next to Pike on the top beam in the middle of the bridge.  Nana folded the feathered wings against its tawny lioness body and peered downstream into a hole in the fog to the river below.

     “A barge,” Nana said.  “That’s the first one in weeks.  The lights back on too.  The G.O.G. is finally restoring order.”

     “That’s the third one to go by.  Maybe the fourth.”

     “A convoy for protection?”
     “If they were authorized they wouldn’t need protection.”

     “If they’re not official then maybe we can feed,” Nana said as its leonine tail twitched methodically back and forth.  “Who do you think is trying to get by?”
     “I don’t know.  There’s a little town about a hundred-and-ten klicks upriver that has a big barge dock.”
     “You mean the county with the Christian throwbacks that’s quarantined?  The one we’re supposed to hit tomorrow night?”

     “Yeah.  Where’s the special phone?”
     “Back at the roost hidden underneath the bone pile.”
     “Go get it.”
     “I need to feed.”
     “Go!” Pike’s raised, ocean-deep voice sent Nana flying off.  A minute later the sphinx returned carrying a travel bag by the handle with its mouth.  Pike retrieved the satellite phone from inside the travel bag and speed-dialed Wolfgang Honecker, quickly informing the new G.O.G. commander there was a barge convoy passing through Saint Louis.
     “There is no barge traffic authorized at night that I am aware of,” Wolfgang said.  “There are too many transgenics in the water.  You will fly down to the lead barge and talk to whoever is in charge.  I want to know who they are and why they are traveling down the river tonight.  I am ordering a Code Yellow assembly of the remaining transgenic militia in Saint Louis.  You have thirty minutes to report back.  Understood?”

     “Yes, thirty minutes, understood,” Pike said then signed off.  The gargoyle gave an eerie, bone-vibrating howl, the signal for its two flying transgenic bodyguards to come immediately.  It waited perched on top of the bridge next to Nana.

     “Is he going to inform his commander, Angela, the female neogene?” Nana asked.
     “She’s not his commander any more.  He turned her in for letting a throwback prisoner escape with secret information.  They zapped her and took her to the torture center for two weeks straight.  She got demoted and they reassigned her to be an underling to one of the priests in their new official religion.”
     “That’s interesting,” Nana said with a sly smirk.  “Who was the throwback prisoner?”

     “Her private slave boy.”

     “That’s too rich,” Nana chuckled.

     “Neogenics are superior beings, right? Sure.  Can you believe how stupid she was to let a throwback punk like that get away from her?”

     Before Nana could answer the two squash-headed flying transgenic bodyguards arrived.  Pike stepped off the bridge beam without a goodbye to Nana and flew off in the lead, down over the misty river and out of sight.

     “Stay here until I call you!” Pike’s voice boomed back to Nana Porsche.  “All the transgenic children will feed soon!”

*                                        *                                    *

     Barge crewman Dinesh Ray stood on the darkened deck of Q-1 barge and smiled as they cruised downriver past the lights of the last exurb south of Saint Louis. Behind them now were the city’s forty-six-thousand bloodthirsty transgenics and six million hostile-to-indifferent humans, but then the tall, hump-backed gargoyle with impossible broad shoulders followed by two vulture-winged, hairy yetis sporting misshapen gourd-heads silently emerged out of the river mist and landed on the deck of Q-1.  The gargoyle walked up to Dinesh and demanded in an inhumanly deep voice to talk immediately to whoever was in charge.

     When twenty-year-old Dinesh climbed up into the barge pilothouse, Captain Chaudhuri saw terror in the young man’s eyes.  The Captain, as serenely as he could make himself, climbed down the metal stairs to the deck and confronted the three transgenics.

     “Who authorized you to come down this river at night?  You’re putting hundreds of transgenic children in danger.” 

     It was the first time the captain had seen a transgenic up close.  The presence of the incredible-looking beings shocked him in a way he thought nothing could.  Most surprisingly, instead of animalistic the reptilian gargoyle spoke bureaucratic, a nightmare traffic cop policing a newly annexed suburb of the infernal regions.

     “I assure you we are authorized and that we are taking every precaution to prevent any tragedies.  My pilots are all running at no more than half speed.  We use sonar and know exactly what is in front of us and underneath us at all times.”

     “Who authorized you?”

     “I am not at liberty to tell you who, but I will say that some of our cargo is vital for our friends from the EU.”

     “Answer the question!” Pike boomed out.  The gargoyle started taking deep breaths, working itself up to attack.
     “There are certain essential dietary supplements that are in short supply down south.  Only the enhanced Europeans require them and the supply has been cut off due to sabotage.  We have been authorized by the highest level of the world government in Lisbon to do this top secret run from Davenport to Memphis.”  Captain Chaudhuri surprised himself at the calmness in his own voice.  Maybe when this was over he could afford to become a terrified wreck, but he could not afford it now.
     Pike slowly backed away from edge of violence.  It looked over its shoulder and signaled to the two bodyguards to relax, then moved closer to the Captain, giving an open mouth sneer revealing fangs caked with rancid blood.  Captain Chaudhuri nearly retched at the putrid breath.  The Captain’s reaction made the gargoyle’s face beam into a horrifying full smile, all its fangs exposed above the chisel-point chin.

     “What other cargo are you carrying, Captain?” Pike demanded.

     “Just grain and other agricultural commodities.”

     “Any passengers other than crew?”

     “No, we just have crew aboard.”

     “Individuals under my command are very hungry, Captain.  Are you carrying any livestock?”  The gargoyle’s eyeshine was bright amber.  Its breath grew worse.

     “No, no livestock aboard.  But we may be able to negotiate compensation that will allow you to buy any kind of fresh meat you want on the black market in the Tenderloin District.  In exchange for providing security to protect us from sabotage from the Christians, we’ll pay for the feeding of hundreds.”
     “Amero dollars are defunct.”
     “Euros are not.”

     “You have the means to pay in Euros?”  Pike the gargoyle looked incredulous as Captain Chaudhuri produced a hand-held wireless A.I. unit.  Pike produced its A.I. unit and they dickered for a few minutes, the gargoyle soon agreeing to a five-figure number.  Pike punched in its E.U. bank account number then watched the small monitor as the symbol for the Euro, the princess Europa represented as a nude Caucasian woman riding on a scarlet bull, traveled to his account site and appeared to deposit the hard currency.  Pike chuckled after reading the apparent confirmation.
     “Perhaps you can provide security for us again sometime,” said Captain Chaudhuri.  He meant it as a farewell.

     “One more thing,” Pike said.  “I demand permission to check for stowaways from that Christian county that murders transgenics.”  

     “Certainly, be my guest,” the Captain replied.

     Pike and the two squash-headed flying yetis started literally sniffing around the large plastic barrels surrounding the pilothouse.  Their sense of smell was nearly as sensitive as a hound dog’s and could pick up the scent of blood from miles away.

     “Open this one,” Pike commanded.
     Captain Chaudhuri ordered Dinesh and another crew member to pry open the barrel.  He barely suppressed a smile as the yellow powder from inside wafted out of the container.  All three transgenics began coughing and one of the flying yetis finally retched.
     “What is this?” Pike roared out between violent sneezes as well as gagging and coughing.

     “It’s curry powder.  We’re going to sell it to the Asian community in Memphis for an extra profit.”

     “You foreigners eat the most disgusting stuff!” Pike yelled at the Captain then spread its wings and flew up into the black sky.  The two flying yetis followed closely.
     “Sorry about that, old chum,” Captain Chaudhuri replied as he watched them disappear into the misty night.

*                                              *                                           *

     Wolfgang Honecker stood in his new black and scarlet uniform listening to Pike’s report on the satellite phone.  Surrounding him under the Saint Louis Arch were over two thousand transgenic monsters looking and acting very hungry.  Wolfgang ordered Pike to stay back out of sight but to keep following the convoy of five barges until he could check out the story.

     “Banshee Leader 1, come in,” Wolfgang said into the satellite phone after signing off with Pike.  Banshee Leader 1 was the commander of the transgenic militia poised in the marsh on the northern border of Moreau County.

     “Banshee Leader1 here, over.”

     “Any enemy activity along the Mississippi River tonight?”

     “My agents across the river at the marina reported the loading of some barges with large crates.  I assumed it was grain for bartering, over.”

     “Fool!  You should have reported it.  The timetable for action is now moved up twenty-four hours.  You will attack from the north and from across the river immediately.  I want the two major river towns taken and a report back from you within the hour, understood?”
     “Yes Commander.”

     Wolfgang ordered a Code Red assembly of the transgenic militia.  The nightmarish creatures gathered tightly around him, becoming even more agitated and restless with anticipation that their hunger would soon be satiated.  It was certainly for the best, anyway.   Everyone in the G.O.G. North American Command would soon see the success of his blitzkrieg strategy.  Angela’s overly sophisticated conspiracy to arouse suspicion between the Christian factions in conjunction with targeted assassinations of Christian leaders was nothing but a pathetic valentine to her Jihadist icons.  Wolfgang called in for a spy satellite report and waited for twenty minutes, pacing back and forth with the satellite phone up against his right ear. 
     In contrast to Wolfgang’s frantic pacing, Nana Porsche lay calmly against the south base of the Saint Louis Arch, gazing intently at its front paws.  The winged sphinx never grew tired of watching the claws retract and extend.  When Wolfgang suddenly halted the sphinx looked up from its claws.  With intense green eyes Nana watched the neogene rub his crew-cut head anxiously with his left hand as he listened to the report on the phone. 
     The satellite report astonished Wolfgang.  The heat signatures of over two thousand people had been loaded into five barges this evening.  Fools! Incompetent vermin!  The Christians were attempting a total breakout, not the partial escape of a few dozen that he suspected.  What would happen to his status?  What would North American Command do to him if so many escaped?  It was unthinkable. Before he could call it Banshee Leader 1 reported in.

     “The river towns, Bluff City and Riverton, as well as their museum fortress are empty, Commander.  The prisoners we’ve taken and interrogated all say the Christians sneaked out of the county tonight, over.”

     “Attack!” Wolfgang shouted out into the throng of ravenous monsters.  “Go down the river and find the five barges.  Kill everyone who resists and bring the rest to the Aztec Stadium Pyramid Temple.   Each flying transgenic must carry one non-flying transgenic.  Go, schnell!  Schnell!”
     Nana leaped up first and flew off.  Like a swarm of giant locusts the rest of the transgenic militia lifted off together behind the winged sphinx and headed downriver.  Wolfgang busied himself coordinating the Satellite weapons attack on the barge convoy.  It was now 02:11 hours, already a long night for the transgenics.  Like most predators they needed long periods of rest and this made the beasts even more repugnant to Wolfgang since he did not require any base thing like sleep.

*                                       *                                     *

     Colonel Daniel Diamond was praying on his knees inside the back grain hold of Q-5 barge.  Dan suddenly ceased praying and stood up. 

     “This is Rooster.  It’s time.  I’m coming up now,” Dan said into his radio headset.  He collected his weapons, shouldering two rifles.  One was a modern sniper rifle and the other was an old-fashioned flintlock.  Johnny D’Soussa roused the other troopers to get their weapons.
     “Let’s go,” Dan ordered.

      The troopers followed him to the ladder to get onto the deck.  As Dan climbed up the metal ladder the barge seemed to come alive with shouts and unearthly screams.  When he emerged on deck there were already dozens of transgenics fighting with axe-wielding crewmen.  Out of the misty black sky upriver what seemed like thousands flying down at them.

     The Colonel drew his two .40 caliber autopistols and put precisely aimed hollow point bullets into the skulls of two winged monsters about to kill a prostrate crewman.  He started firing at some in the air and dropped four more.  Other firearms started going off all around him.  The familiar stench of cordite and blood and the deafening burping of semi-automatic rifles engulfed everything around him once again.  The transgenics kept coming straight at the troopers as if they believed the blasting guns were just a trick.
     When the .40 caliber clips were empty Colonel Diamond switched to his night-vision-scoped M-14 sniper rifle and began taking long shots.  The flying transgenics started backing off, finally realizing the troopers were not shooting blanks.

     “Don’t you take long shots!” The Colonel had to remind several troopers.  They were wasting too much ammunition already.
     When the pilothouse and derrick were secured, Colonel Diamond and Johnny D’Soussa climbed onto the hoisted platform.  The Colonel spoke into his radio headset and the derrick operator began hoisting them 360 degrees around the barge.   He shot two dozen more bizarre creatures crawling up out of the murky river onto the sides.  When Q-5 was cleared and the shooting slacked off, his hands started shaking a little.  It would be best if he could keep firing so he ordered the derrick operator to position them as far in front of the barge as possible.  Dan took some mile-long shots at the monsters swarming the Q-4 barge.  He dropped many more but could tell that barge was already in trouble.  All five vessels roared their barge horns, revving up to full speed down this straight stretch of river.  Through the clearing mist he saw multiple muzzle flashes going off lighting up all the barges ahead like fireworks.  The troopers on Q-4 were firing furiously but they were getting hit the hardest for some reason.
     “Come on, woolly-bully, lift that pointy head up just a little higher,” Dan whispered.  The enormous, shaggy sasquatch finally rose up full height trying to bust through the barricade of steel barrels protecting the steps to the Q-4 pilot house.  Dan shot and the formidable creature that was part man, part Gigantopithecus crumpled to the deck.

     The warning signal came on the special Israeli-made anti-satellite rifle Johnny D’Soussa was carrying for him.  He traded Johnny his M-14 for the shiny chrome weapon.  The blocky rifle was bulky with its giant telescopic site but somehow well balanced.

     “Let’s see what this thing can do,” the Colonel said.

     Eighty to ninety miles above the river battle G.O.G. satellite spies and weapons were converging.  Dan located his first satellite target and the old-fashioned built-in computer inside the weapon helped line up the shot.  It took into account everything from the curvature of the Earth to the temperature differential between the surface and outer space.  He carefully pressed the button that fired the special projectile at close to the speed of light.  It was a near miss.  He waited thirty seconds for the weapon to power up again, aimed and fired.  There was a direct hit this time, confirmed by the telescopic site.  He made five more shots and confirmed that each destroyed a satellite weapon or spy.  A big smile spread across his face as he turned to Johnny.
     “I’ve got to tell Judson and Noah about this satellite hunting.  Taking out a half-a-billion Euro satellite is way more fun than shooting skeets or even flushing a covey of quail.”

*                                      *                                    *

     When the attack began on the vanguard barge Q-1, Davy-Jake Diamond emerged first with an Uzi submachine gun in his left hand and his seventeen-inch-long Bowie knife in his right.  All around the spotlighted deck the Asian-American barge crew were fighting transgenic monsters with axes and sledgehammers.  The barge horn blared like a colossal bagpipe, hopefully preventing the transgenics from using their infrasonic screams.  The huge, mostly flat vessel accelerated up to full speed, slamming dozens of aquatic transgenics under as they speed downriver.

     Davy-Jake aimed at a dive-bombing griffin.  He squeezed the trigger for the first time sending a belch of fire out the barrel.  The part-man, part-falcon fell out of the air twenty feet onto the deck.  A pair of wet werewolves climbed up over the side of the barge in time to see him shoot the gun.

     “The throwbacks have guns!” one of them shouted.
     “They’re not supposed to have guns!”  The other shouted then both turned and jumped back overboard.
     “We have guns!” Davy-Jake hollered then gave a war-whoop like one of his distant Shawnee ancestors. The tall, sinewy youth plunged into the fray as the twenty-four other troopers emerged from below. Gunfire erupted from the growing circle of troopers expanding out from the manhole as they began clearing the deck of screaming monsters.

     The last transgenic beast to fall was a ten-foot-tall troll that had webbed feet and hands.  It looked half-man, half-bullfrog, but was covered with short, filthy white hair.  Davy-Jake and the other troopers surrounded it.  He fired multiple shots into its chest, but the thing wouldn’t go down.  Finally Davy-Jake rushed in, avoiding swipes from the enormous clawed hands, jumped up and in like he was making a slam dunk but instead of a basketball he plunged the Bowie knife between the troll’s bulging eyes. It fell as dead weight and the rest of the troopers along with the barge crew cheered.

     Judson Hawkingson and Rick Machado came out of the manhole last.  Rick had to carry the heavy .50 caliber machine gun and ammunition.  Judson fired a 12 gauge pump shotgun up into the sky and a seven-foot-tall wyvern crashed onto the deck with a broken wing.  Judson finished the screeching thing with another blast from the shotgun.  They moved on fast to the derrick platform and climbed into it.
     “That was the biggest flying one I ever saw,” Rick shouted over the deafening racket of blasting guns, screaming transgenics, and blaring barge horn.
     “Davy-Jake said he saw one way bigger than that at the Sterlings’ house,” Judson shouted back.  They went to work setting up the .50 caliber machine gun.  When they finished Judson ordered the derrick operator to hoist them up. 
     The river fog had dissipated but an acrid gunpowder smoke hung low around the boat.  When they rose above it Rick saw the surprisingly entrancing sight of multiple muzzle flashes erupting from the other barges behind them upriver.  The reflections on the black river water were beautiful and ominous at the same time.  He wanted to try to paint what he was seeing on a memorial mural some day, but when Judson started firing the .50 caliber he forgot about artistic inspiration. 

     The earsplitting machine gun made Rick want to jump off.  The vibration went directly into his bones and rattled his brain inside his skull.  After Judson dropped eight or nine flying transgenics out of the air the monsters flew back out of range.  Rick tapped Judson’s shoulder and pointed downriver.  Hundreds of flying transgenics were dropping other transgenics into the water in front of their barge.  Many were already swimming up to the sides of the vessel to climb aboard.
     Judson ordered the derrick operator to swing them far out over the water on each side of the barge.  He fired patterns into the water and single shots into the monsters climbing up the sides. 

     Rick fired the shotgun for the first time at a one-eyed goblin scurrying up the back of the barge.  The creature shrieked and fell into the river.  Rick gave a grim smile then glimpsed the huge serpent humps undulating in and out of the river water behind them.

     “Hey, back there!  It’s a river dragon.”  Rick shouted but Judson didn’t respond.  Rick looked closely at the man and saw that his shoulder had been torn open by a rifle bullet.  “Let’s take care of that,” Rick said.

     “No time,” Judson replied, coming back from the shock of being hit by one of his own troopers bullets.  He ordered the derrick operator to swing them behind the barge.  Judson fired at the humps and the monster dived completely under the murky river water.  They were passing through a narrow part of the river channel.  The river dragon knew what it was doing, if it could wreck the lead barge here then all the barges would be blocked.
     The one-hundred-foot-long, seven ton river dragon surfaced alongside the Q-1 barge then immediately dived again.  Judson and Rick followed, shooting their guns down into the water where they thought it would be.  They crossed over the barge many times but Judson couldn’t get a direct hit at the monster’s head.  Finally Judson ordered them to be hoisted down close to the water on the rear starboard side.
     “What are we doing down here?” Rick asked.  He had a bad feeling about being this close to the water.
     “Bait,” Judson replied.  At that instant he started firing the machine gun at the foaming wake close to pilothouse.  Out of nowhere a hideous merman surfaced right under them and almost skewered Judson with a trident.  Rick managed two shotgun blasts into its face and the monster sank down in a cloud of blood.

     “You don’t have to say thanks,” Rick quipped, but then Judson quit firing.  Neither of them noticed Judson got hit with another bullet, this time in the leg, the wound hemorrhaging lots of blood from the femoral artery.  Rick used one of the tampons he had been issued to stop the bleeding in the unconscious man’s leg.  Rick kept his eyes on the river dragon rising out of the water.  When he finished the first aide he tore the radio headset off Judson’s shaggy blond head and ordered the derrick operator to hoist them directly at the beast.  The serpent rose out of the murky water like a gigantic S, moving faster than an animal that size should have been able to move, just seconds away from crashing its jaws through the pilothouse windows.
     “Og, you’re a runt!” Rick shouted then fired the .50 caliber machine gun.  The monster turned its horned head, bellowing louder than the barge horn.  Rick kept firing, screaming in rage as the derrick hoisted platform swung in and the furious river dragon charged straight at the source of its pain.  Rick fired into the open fanged mouth about to engulf him but right before they collided the beast reared back and dropped into the river.  It gave a final great moan and sank under the water.

     Rick waited until they were safely through the narrow channel then ordered the derrick operator to set them down on deck.  He waited with Judson until Helen Gunther got to them.  As the nurse tended Judson’s wounds, Mayor Marianne Lewis climbed onto the deck.  She frantically shouted out for Judson.  When Rick answered her she ran to the unconscious man and dropped to her knees, cradling his head in her lap.  Judson was supposed to be a confirmed bachelor but it looked like he and the mayor had been carrying on a secret romance.  It surprised Rick because those two were about as far apart politically as Christians could be.

     No more transgenic monsters could be seen in the water ahead.  They were about ten miles from the river island town of Kaskaskia.  Downriver another thirty miles was the dock where they would all disembark.  Amazingly none of them on board were dead but two crewmen were missing and presumed dead.  Almost everyone who fought was wounded and eleven including Judson were severely wounded and had to quickly get to a hospital to survive.  Five of them, like Judson, were hit by their own comrade’s bullets.

     Rick sat down on the deck away from everyone, holding the shotgun straight up in his hands.  There was relief but it had come too suddenly.  He wished he could talk to Jill.  It was the only thing he could think about that wasn’t something crazy.  He prayed he would see her soon and that this barge had the most casualties of the convoy.

*                                       *                                        *

     Inside the pilothouse of Q-4, Lydia held her crossbow taut, ready to fire if anything came through the cracked glass of the large front window.  Beside her Salina aimed her crossbow at the barricaded door.  In the center of the pilothouse the wounded barge pilot slouched over the controls.  Everyone else who had fought on deck was gone.  Three times Lydia climbed down into the holds to get volunteers to fight.  In all, over a hundred mostly women and a few old men climbed up the metal ladder to back up the original seventy-five troopers and nineteen crew members.  Now all those volunteers were dead except bitter, tough Salina.
      Why did the transgenics swarm this barge?  Could they smell more fear here?  Did they hear more children crying in the holds?  Or did they know this barge had fewer men?  Dan put most of the skilled fighters on the first and last barges of the convoy.  He had made a mistake.  The realization caused Lydia to say a quick prayer for him.

     No monsters on the barge now except for the dead and dying.  Before retreating inside, Lydia and Salina dumped out the heavy barrels of curry powder onto the deck around the pilothouse.  The fiery powder gagged the monsters until they flew off, but Lydia knew they were still out there in the darkness.  Black silhouettes circling like a flock of giant buzzards waiting for the irritant to dissipate; they blocked out the stars.

     The Mississippi River here took some sharp turns.  They couldn’t see either the barge ahead or the last barge, Q-5, behind them.  For some reason their radio quit working, probably from a stray bullet, but the other barges knew they were in trouble.  Lydia kept watching out the cracked glass of the large front window for any movement.
     Rifle shots rang out from in front of the barge.  After a few minutes Lydia saw two shadowy figures bent over running.  Occasionally the pair stopped to shoot but mostly they just dodged away from the dive-bombing transgenics as they made their way towards the pilothouse.  Lydia recognized Noah Johnson and his son Zeke.  She spoke quickly to Salina in Spanish and they both worked hurriedly to open a space in the sandbag barricade at the pilothouse doorway.

     Noah Johnson huffed and puffed a little with his extra weight but he was still a robust and welcome presence in his floppy U.S. cavalry hat and authentic blue uniform that had been his father’s. He carried the same lever-action Winchester he sported as a teenager thirty-nine years earlier when he participated with his father in the last Buffalo Soldier reenactment in Arizona.  Dan had stashed the rifle and bullets away for him right before the ban on the private ownership of firearms.  The rifle felt good in his hands after all these years and he gave Lydia a half smile.  Right beside him his son Zeke held a modern-looking M-16 rifle Dan issued to most of the troopers.  Zeke was on the basketball team with Davy-Jake and was one of his scouts, not to mention being the best man at her wedding.  Lydia welcomed him with a big hug.
     “I’m glad to see you but I wish you weren’t here,” she said.  “Any more coming?”

     “Were five others with us, but they made it to the Kingdom, not this barge,” Noah responded.  He turned to his son.  “I’m down to two shots.”

     “My clip is empty, Pop.  I’ve got one left in the chamber, I think,” Zeke said.

     Noah passed two extra .223 caliber bullets to Zeke then pulled out a pistol with a long barrel.  It somehow looked familiar.  He reached out to hand it to her but Lydia waved it away.

     “It’s a Colt revolver, a cowboy six-shooter.  Go on, take it.  It’s still got six bullets.”
     “No, you keep it.  I don’t know how to shoot a gun. I’m afraid I might shoot one of you.”

     “Why they hitting your barge so hard?” Noah asked as he holstered the revolver.
     “I don’t know.  They must have figured out we were the weakest.”
     “Your husband on Q-1 and your father-in-law on Q-5 did some good work, knocked ‘em down out of the sky until they couldn’t take any more and just flew away.  Your brother Rick too, they said he put down the biggest terato-freak-of-nature in the whole Mississippi River Valley after Jud got hit by one of our own.  I’m sure by the Grace of God Jud’ll pull through.  That man’s too mule-headed to stay down, anyway.”

     “You said it right, Pop.  Judson’s too tough to die from something dumb like that.”
     “Dumb or not, if the Lord wills it anybody can die, son.  I just don’t think it’s his time yet.  Miss Marianne the mayor has plans for old Judson and that may have something to do with it too.”  Noah flashed an insider’s smile then grew serious. “We lost eight troopers and it took us awhile but we finally cleared off Q-3 about twenty minutes ago. We heard you all were in trouble, so I got Zeke and five volunteers. We tried to row over to meet you but they hit us as soon as we got the little boat close to you. They’re thick over this barge, ain’t no lie. Don’t anybody worry though; Diamond Dan and his boys on Q-5 will get over to help us. We just got to slow down to let ‘em catch up.” Noah strode over to the barely conscious barge pilot still manning the controls in the center of the dimly lit pilothouse. They talked in whispers as Noah checked the wounded man’s dressings.

     “You have any water, Lid?” Zeke asked.  He licked his lips then swallowed hard.

     “Sure.”  Lydia handed him her bottle.  Relief spread across his face as he drank.
     “Who’s your cute friend?” he asked.  Just a minute ago his keen almond eyes held a mixture of fear along with pride at fighting beside his father.
     “Her name is Salina.  Sorry, she doesn’t speak English so she didn’t catch your compliment.”  Lydia wondered at the ability of guys to recover so quickly from terror.  To think about romance when surrounded by ravenous, cannibalistic monsters amazed her.  Something beyond terror and horror branded Lydia tonight. She knew she would never be the same again after witnessing dozens of neighbors mauled to death or sometimes eaten alive as they screamed to God for help.  The horrific creatures attacking them were also once her neighbors.  Her mother-in-law lay dead out on the deck.  How could she tell what happened to Roscoe her twelve-year-old brother-in-law still down below with five hundred other terrified women and children?  Dear God, they just wanted to live.  Davy-Jake always complained that she worried too much about other people but loving concern for other people was all that was left of the girl he married.  There was no Lydia anymore if you took that away.
     “What’s a matter, Lid?” Zeke asked then handed back the almost empty water bottle.
     “Nothing.  Hey, thanks for leaving the backwash, Zeke Johnson,” Lydia said, managing a slight sarcastic grin.  Zeke smiled back.  Maybe she could pretend to be the fun girl she used to be, if that’s what people wanted.  Right now she felt so close to the survivors on this barge and especially here in the pilothouse that she would do whatever it took to help them.  If only Mr. Johnson would keep talking to them, tell them stories in that reassuring voice. 

     Lydia felt the barge slow down.  She turned to Salina, intending to translate Zeke’s complement even though his flirtation with the proud Latina probably wouldn’t go anywhere.

     “Something is outside,” Salina interrupted, whispering rapidly in Spanish.

     “She heard something,” Lydia said just loud enough for everyone inside the pilothouse. 

     Noah sidled away from the barge pilot, aiming his Winchester rifle at the large front window.  Salina slowly moved away from the barricaded door on their right side, keeping one eye on it even as she glowered at the large front window.  Zeke backed into the wall, pointing his rifle at the smaller window on the left side.  Lydia got down on her hands and knees and crawled to the bottom edge of the front window--that much too large window a car could drive through.  She started to turn her face up to peek through the cracked glass to see the sky directly above.
     What happened next seemed so finely detailed to Lydia.  Something big flew down and the front window exploded glass.  A seven-hundred-pound, hairy cinnamon colored beast crashed through head first.  Noah and Zeke emptied their rifles before realizing the thing was already dead, had already been shot through the brain.  Before anyone could look away from the corpse, a winged beast with a woman’s head and a lioness body flew through the busted out front window.  It lunged faster than Lydia ever saw any living thing move, swiped at Salina knocking her backwards before she could fire her crossbow.  Next it attacked Noah, slamming his face with its clawed front paws until he went down.  The sphinx gave a human-big cat snarl then pounced on the barge pilot.

     The sphinx tore at the barge pilot with its claws as it held him by the throat with its fangs, at the same time knocking Zeke back with incredibly powerful wings.  Lydia swatted the broken glass off of her face in time to clearly see Noah shoot the cowboy pistol, fanning the gun’s hammer with his right hand to make the bullets come out faster.  Though now blinded, the man still hit the monster with four shots.  The last bullet pierced the heart and the sphinx released the barge pilot.  The monster screamed like a terrified woman but louder and in a higher pitch than any human woman could have.  Zeke gave an enraged battle cry as he leaped onto the sphinx.  He pulled its head back by the tawny Mohawk and cut the scream short with his big knife.

     Before Lydia could get up more shots rang out.  She stared dumbfounded as Noah and Zeke went down from gunshots.  A seven-foot-tall gargoyle with a rag covering its face stooped to come inside through the broken out front window.  It carried one of their black M-16 rifles that looked like a toy in its huge clawed hands. 
     Pike cursed and moved to the sphinx’s prostrate body.  Lydia aimed the crossbow and pulled the trigger before it noticed her.  Her arrow pierced the gargoyle’s lower left arm.  It whirled around to shoot her but then the barge hit a sandbar.  The collision made Pike miss its last shot.  Instead of attacking Lydia, it threw the rifle at her then reached down with its one good arm. Pike pulled Nana Porsche’s body up by the scruff of the neck and embraced it. The Gargoyle went out the way it came in.  Cursing and jabbering, it spread its great wings and flew, barely able to carry the three-hundred-fifty-pound dead weight.  The airborne transgenics backed off temporarily from the barge when they saw Pike fly off with Nana Porsche’s limp body.

*                                            *                                           *

     Dan Diamond was out of ammunition for the sniper rifle so he used his black powder horn and loaded his back-up flintlock rifle.  He and Johnny arced back and forth slowly in front of the pilothouse in the derrick-hoisted platform.  No more mist but no targets presented themselves in the roving spotlight.  He sent orders for no one but him to shoot for now. 

     “Ammunition’s too short to fool around,” he said into the headset.  No new transmissions from Q-4 and it worried the colonel.  The Kentucky rifle loaded for a long shot, he readied himself for more work once the out-of-communication barge was in range again.  The Mississippi River aggravated him with its sharp bends.  “We’re going to meet ourselves coming and going,” he said to himself more than to Johnny.

     “Colonel,” Johnny said, interrupting Dan’s concentration on the river ahead.  “Look over on the left bank behind us.”

     Dan looked back, straining to see into the blackness.  He heard then saw the giant, a twenty-foot-tall silhouette shaped like Tyrannosaurus Rex stalking along the bank.  A stiff tail protruded behind it for balance, the only difference its long arms proportioned more like a human’s.  The spotlight hit it and Dan saw the misshapen face clearly and then saw it held a tube-shaped object in its arms.  Fire came out of the tube and an explosion sprayed water onto Dan and Johnny.

      “It’s got a cannon!” Johnny shouted.  “We better use the Israeli gun on it.”

     “I’ve got him,” Dan said, leveling his flintlock rifle on his shoulder.  He knew who it was now.  Shooting the black powder gun required a different aiming skill because there were two explosions instead of one.  He pulled the trigger and the .50 caliber hollow-point bullet slammed into one of the giant’s knees.

     “DIAMOND!” bellowed Otto Galloway.  The giant stumbled down the muddy bank and into the water as it tried to reload the recoilless gun.
     Dan ignored the booming cursing from the enormous monster and reloaded his Kentucky rifle.  He brought the rifle up and took aim again.  The second bullet went deep into the giant’s other kneecap.  It fired the recoilless gun one more time as it fell forward into the river.  The missile went over the barge and hit the tree lined river bank on the other side.  The big explosion uprooted a tree.  As the barge sped away, Dan and Johnny watched the giant flounder pitifully, unable to get its head out of the water to take a breath.  Dan thought how strange it was that this monster had once been a normal human baby cooing to his mother.
     “You know the problem with being a giant?” Dan asked.
     “What would that be, sir?”

     “Nobody can help you if you fall down and can’t get back up.”
     “I think you’re right, Colonel.  Is that who I think it is?”
     “Yeah, that was old Otto Galloway.”

     “Where do you think his kids are?”
     “You know them, they always slick out of any real trouble.”

*                                               *                                          *

     “River King, this is Rooster, come in.”

     “River King here, over.”

     “Request permission to take ten volunteers to help evacuate Q-4, over.”
     “Permission denied, Rooster.  Radar has thousands more uninvited guests driving down Old Man River Road to crash our Sunday morning potluck.  Whoever stops will be lost and we can’t afford to lose our sunscreen or we’ll all get sunburned tonight.  I know who is on Q-4 but I can’t let you stop.  I’m sorry, over.”

     “Americans never leave a man behind,” Dan whispered sarcastically.

     “Say again, Rooster.”
     “Nothing,” Dan said after a long pause.  “Roger that, over and out.”
     Dan saw the stranded barge now.  The lights were out and in the blackness the barge looked abandoned.  Q-5 slowed as they passed by.  The derrick operator extended their platform out towards Q-4 as far as it could go.  As their spotlight slowly slid across the dark pilothouse of Q-4, Dan saw the busted out front window then at the edge of the spotlight caught a glimpse of a familiar pony-tailed girl crawling out of a tipped over barrel.

     “Hey, come over to the side and jump,” Dan called out in a low strong voice that didn’t carry any farther than her ears.  “I’ll throw you a line and have you out of the water in five seconds.”
     Lydia stood up straight with her crossbow.  She waved slowly at Dan and Johnny with her right arm then disappeared down into a manhole.
     Dan couldn’t help it, despite the death and suffering of his relatives and long-time friends he just felt sorry for himself.  People who had not really accepted God’s grace, that were not truly born-again, often had a bottom line with God.  One church-going man he knew as a boy rejected God after his stock portfolio crashed.   Sara, his wife, was like that in a different way.  Every night the woman prayed fervently for her children.  Sara believed God sent her children to save her from the depravity of life in a tower.   If she knew something happened to either Rick or Lydia this “salvation by motherhood” would seem nothing but a mockery to her.  Sara would turn her back on God and on him.  His marriage was probably over. 

  

IX. The Eagle

 

     “There are only seventeen lifejackets; there should be nineteen,” Lydia whispered desperately in Spanish to Maria Elena.

     “Who will get to use the lifejackets?” Maria Elena whispered back. What had happened to Lydia? It registered then. They were all lost; it was the end. She could see it in Lydia’s blood splattered face, in her runny nose from the hot spices she had covered herself with. “Where is Salina?”

     “She’s unconscious. I hid her with my friend. He is also unconscious and badly wounded. Everyone else who fought outside is dead. There is no time to explain. Choose eight children that you know can run fast.” Lydia broke off the conversation. She hurried through the doorway into the English-speaking hold.

     When Lydia returned with the seven Anglo and two Asian-American children three minutes later, Maria Elena was waiting with a tightly packed group of eight Latino children. Lydia ordered each of the seventeen children to choose partners and then commanded them to follow her up the metal ladder. Maria Elena ran over to Lydia, seizing her arm before she started climbing.

     “What are the rest of us to do?” Maria Elena whispered.
     “When I return we will reinforce the doors,” Lydia spoke softly so only Maria Elena heard. “We will try to hold them back until help comes. If they break through we will surrender. If we stop fighting then maybe some of us will be taken prisoner.”

     Twelve-year-old Roscoe Diamond followed Lydia up the ladder. He was the oldest boy left. It was about time they let him fight. Surely his mother would be up top and he would be joining her. Were there even any monsters left? But something made him and the other children keep quiet. Lydia’s face told him they were in deep trouble.
      On deck a blood smell like rusty iron greeted them. Lydia didn’t give the children time to react to the carnage. She ordered them not to look at the bodies, busying them with strapping on the lifejackets.

     “You’re in charge,” Lydia said to Roscoe. “Lead them down the river a least a mile and then swim over to the Illinois bank. You’re going to make sure the older ones help the smaller ones. You’re going to be a Christian paladin; you’re not going to leave any behind even if they can’t run as fast as you. Dan will send some soldiers back upriver to find you once he gets the rest of the people into the tunnel complex.”
     “Where’s my mom?” Roscoe asked plaintively.
     “Your mother is dead, Roscoe,” Lydia said.
     “I want to see her.”
     “No, you don’t want to see her,” Lydia said harshly. The boy started sobbing. Lydia shook him, staring him in the eyes until he stopped.
     “Come on, Lydia, come with us,” the boy pleaded.

     “No, I’m in command of this barge now. As long as there are people here I have to stay.” Lydia hugged him. “Tell Davy-Jake I’ll always love him. Make sure you tell Dan that Zeke and a girl named Salina are hidden in a locked storage cabinet inside the pilothouse. Now, everyone, hurry, jump.”

     Roscoe jumped into the river first and then eleven-year-old Melissa Harris followed. The other children, aged twelve down to seven, held hands in groups of two or three and jumped over the side. After they all splashed into the river, Roscoe gathered them together in a tight ball like a mother wood duck. Lydia watched over them with her crossbow as they swam together downriver. When they were out of range of her weapon she climbed back down inside the barge.

*                                *                                     *

     Pike dropped the sphinx’s dead body in front of Wolfgang Honecker. The hazy, muggy dawn seemed stillborn. They were under the Saint Louis Arch in front of the stairs that used to lead down into a museum that was now the command center for the transgenic militia. Wolfgang crossed his arms and slipped his right hand inside his black and scarlet uniform jacket to his stun gun as he stared up at the wounded, enraged gargoyle.
     “Do you know who this was?” Pike asked menacingly.
     “I’ve seen your companion before but I didn’t get her name.”

     “This was Nana Porsche! Before she was enhanced she was the number one attraction at the Mile-High Tower for three years straight!”

     “She is so much refuse now. There are fresh attractions from New Babylon coming in every day. What is your point?”
     “You neogenes promised us weapons. The Christian throwbacks had guns. We were slaughtered! Half of the flying transgenics in this region were killed because of you lying neogene foreigners!”
     Wolfgang started to explain that the new munitions factory had been sabotaged, destroyed in an enormous explosion, but Pike lunged for his throat. Honecker drew his weapon and discharged a massive electrical current into the seven-foot-tall gargoyle. In a split-second Pike was electrocuted to death.
     “Hang both their bodies from the top of the Arch,” Wolfgang ordered his Scandinavian neogene subordinate. The one trait the Americans seemed to keep after enhancement was insolence. Wolfgang intended to send a message.

     Presently a very confident Wolfgang Honecker walked down the stairs to monitor the prisoners being flown to the Aztec Soccer Stadium. Hundreds had already been delivered from the captured barge. Why the satellite weapons were nonfunctional was disturbing but was probably only a minor technical glitch. The other Christians pathetically trying to reach their outlaw underground lairs would soon be incinerated. But the neogene commander did not get to relish any victory. Within the hour his superior arrived by helicopter to demote him and take him into custody. Wolfgang was deemed responsible for the loss of over five-and-a-half-billion Euros worth of military satellites.

*                                   *                                   *

     Eleven-year-old Melissa Harris was wide-eyed with terror and could not speak. Her mother had taught her to hate religion, but yesterday Melissa ran away to join the Christians because last week handsome, eighteen-year-old Rick Machado had told her the gut-wrenching news that her half-brother Mike had been killed by a transgenic merman while they were crossing the Mississippi River. According to Rick, Mike had converted and was fighting to get back to Moreau County to see her so that he could tell her about Christian salvation. Now look where she was: in the middle of this nasty river surrounded by floating corpses of monsters. The only good thing was the current here was fast and they were already two river bends downstream from the horror of the stranded barge. It was long out of sight. Still, she imagined any second some slimy thing from underneath the murky, maple syrup colored water would grab her by the legs and pull her under or something gruesome flying out of the sky would drop down and pluck her out of the river like a helpless fish and eat her! But maybe the worst part was being stuck with that know-it-all joker Roscoe Diamond in charge. She knew him from school and had been the victim of his stupid pranks many times.
     The hazy light grew brighter. Melissa and the other sixteen children quietly paddled on. Suddenly they all heard a friendly female voice hailing them from upriver. Melissa watched Roscoe turn slowly around with recognition on his face, but his eyes screamed that he did not want whoever it was to catch up with them. She did a quick glance back and saw the sky upriver was full of growing dots.

     “Children, wait!” the soothing female voice called out much closer now.

     “Kim,” Roscoe whispered. “Nobody answer.” Though exhausted the children all began swimming faster. He led them out of the river channel towards the left bank.

     It was Melissa who saw it first. The giant eagle cast a shadow the size of an airliner. She managed to point her finger straight up as it blocked out the sky directly above. The younger children started crying when they looked up.
     The flying behemoth soared low over them then plunged, talons outstretched, straight down at the voice from the river. Roscoe and Melissa watched as the giant, crested raptor splashed into the water, immediately rose up and flew at the flock of transgenics coming downriver. The Eagle’s scream was deafening and all the air borne transgenics scattered, most flying back upriver.

     It’s probably just fighting them so it can get all of us, Melissa figured. But it did seem like the giant, beautifully multicolored creature was trying to protect them. Right now it didn’t matter. Maybe they had a chance. Roscoe ordered them to swim all out and Melissa did, tugging along a seven-year-old blond boy by his lifejacket as she swam as fast as she could.

     “We’re almost there,” Roscoe lied. It was still a long way to the bank. “Don’t look back.”

*                                      *                                      *

     Forty-five miles south of the stranded barge the last of the Christian refugees from Moreau County disembarked into the hazy morning light. Colonel Dan Diamond walked his old gasoline powered motorcycle out from its hiding place in the bushes uphill from the road to the barge dock. He called out to Rick and Davy-Jake. They hurried over and Dan briefed them on the situation with the stranded barge.
     “The transgenics are taking prisoners, flying them southwest of Saint Louis to the Aztec Stadium. I got good reports on both of you last night. It’s almost always bad tactics to send relations on a mission to rescue their family members but I’m making an exception this time. There’s no way I could keep you two Sons of Thunder from trying something anyways.

     “Your primary objective is to rescue anybody that made it off Q-4. Your secondary objective is to snatch any neogene you go up against. If you can get one restrained and get him back here, maybe they will agree to a secret prisoner exchange. It’s Lydia’s only chance if she’s alive.”

     “How can we restrain a neogene?” Rick asked.
     “With this,” Dan said and reached deep into one of his cargo pants pockets. He retrieved a silver stun gun that looked kind of like an electric razor, just like Angela’s. Dan handed it to Rick. “It cost Israeli Intelligence the lives of twenty operators to get this weapon. It’s the only one our forces have in this hemisphere. I don’t have to tell you I’m risking a court marshal letting you take it. The weapon has a trigger button here,” Dan pointed to a small dot on the bottom of the handle. “It’s the setting they use to torture each other. It disrupts their nervous system.”
     Dan gave them two sets of composite handcuffs and ankle bracelets then ordered them to get going. He watched Davy-Jake and Rick ride off together on the motorcycle. When they were out of sight he kneeled and said a quick prayer for them. He rose up and ran back to the convoy. An old six-wheeled Cougar armored transport vehicle was waiting and he climbed on top. They had twelve more miles to go to get to the closest entrance into the secret tunnel complex and most of the refugees would have to walk. Now resupplied with ammunition, Dan and his troopers would be covering the rear. Dan would get to use the Israeli anti-satellite rifle again but the thrill of shooting it was already gone.

*                                           *                                             *

     In the morning haze the bridge across the grey Kaskaskia River was empty of traffic. Davy-Jake put away his binoculars and gunned the engine. The old motorcycle accelerated forward with a lot of stalling. It was breaking down for sure. He intended to drive himself and Rick fast across the bridge but when they got halfway, eight men climbed up from the embankment on the north end and ten men stepped out from hiding places in the thick shrubs on the south end to entrap them. All the men held weapons, mostly bludgeons and weed-cutting blades, but a few had rough-hewn long bows and one on the north end held up a large chainsaw. Davy-Jake stopped the motorcycle.

     “Looks like we got us some Moreau County J-freaks, boys!” a shirtless man with skinny arms and a pot belly yelled out from the south end.
     “We’ll collect a reward big enough for a week at the Mile-High Tower,” the stringy-brown-haired leader of the gang of vigilantes on the north end hollered back. The guy next to him revved the chainsaw engine and gave a big depraved grin while the rest of them hooted approvingly.
     Rick got off the back of the motorcycle and pulled out his twelve-gauge shotgun from the scabbard on the side of the bike. He was used to the feel of the weapon now and had plenty of ammunition.

     “I’ve got the ones behind us,” Rick said quietly to Davy-Jake.

     “I’ll just be a skinny minute,” Davy-Jake said back.
     “Try not to wreck the bike.”
     “Yes, sir,” Davy-Jake said without sarcasm. He pulled out his Uzi sub-machinegun with his left hand and roared the motorcycle to life with the throttle in his right. Rick was already walking towards the south end.

     “What’re you gonna do with that antique, boy?” the shirt-less, pot-bellied man yelled out.

     Rick suddenly ran, weaving back and forth as he charged across the narrow bridge. An arrow whizzed past his head and he heard Davy-Jake unleash the Uzi behind him. Rick fired low at the vigilante’s legs, the twelve gauge drowning out the motorcycle and nine millimeter submachine gun. He fired four rounds of buckshot and six of the men went down. The rest ran off into the shrubbery as the six wounded men held their legs and screamed. Rick halted, aiming the shotgun at them while they slowly dragged themselves off the dusty road.
     “Are there any other questions?” Rick shouted out. He watched them for a few seconds more then turned and ran across the old steel bridge.

     When Rick got to the north end, Davy-Jake was standing next to the motorcycle, covering two standing old men with the Uzi. Four men were on the ground, two were moaning and two were silent in the middle of growing puddles of blood. The one moaning loudest had accidentally cut off his right kneecap with the chainsaw after Davy-Jake started shooting. Two others had escaped uphill into the trees.

     “Easy now, young man,” the oldest-looking old man said to Davy-Jake. “We don’t want nothing with you.”

     “This is a mistake,” the younger-looking old man chimed in.
     “’Mistake’ is what you call it?” Davy-Jake hollered at the old men.

     “We just joined up with them so we could protect our property,” the oldest one said. Both stretched their arms up as high as they could.
     Rick scanned the road uphill from the bridge and noticed a dump truck partially hidden behind some trees about two hundred yards away. Davy-Jake’s furious gaze never left the prisoners. The two old men shut up and stared down at the ground.

     “Anyone make it off that stranded barge about three miles upriver?” Rick asked.
     “Yeah,” the younger old man hurried to give the information first. “There are a bunch of kids trapped in a hollow on Turkey Island. Some giant terato bird keeps flying over them. Won’t let nothing get near ‘em.”
     “Where’s Turkey Island?” Davy-Jake’s harsh words almost knocked the elder man down. He immediately gave the directions.

     “We’re going to need your dump truck,” Rick said. “Who has the keys?”

     “Keys!” Davy-Jake bellowed when the two didn’t respond quickly enough.
     The pair of old men pointed to one of the silent men on the ground, the stringy-haired leader. Rick walked over and bent down to search the pockets. This was a human being lying dead on the ground from DJ’s bullets, not a transgenic monstrosity. Rick found the keys and looked up at Davy-Jake. Davy-Jake stared back with a so-what look in his grey eyes.

     “You two tend to these wounded men,” Rick ordered.

     “We don’t care about them.” The youngest-looking old man gave a faint smile.
     “Get busy,” Rick commanded then turned to Davy-Jake. “Let’s go.”

     Davy-Jake picked up the motorcycle and kick-started it. The pair of old men hesitatingly knelt down next to moaning one with the chainsaw injury. They really did not care to help their wounded comrades. Rick shook his head and climbed onto the back of the motorcycle.

*                                        *                                       *

     Roscoe aimed his powerful slingshot at the ugliest transgenic coming up the path from the river. The creature looked half man, half catfish. Roscoe’s smooth, perfectly-sized rock slammed into the nix’s forehead. The transgenic gargled out a cry, grabbed his forehead with slimy webbed hands, turned and lumbered back towards the river. But the next transgenic creature, a banshee, coming up the path was more nimble and Roscoe missed. From a distance the banshee could have passed for a woman but close up Roscoe saw short, mink-colored hair covered the body and the round nocturnal eyes were twice the size of a person’s eyes. The banshee let out an eerie wail that grew in volume until all seventeen children hiding in the thicket of sandbar willows covered their ears. Where had that giant eagle gone? Roscoe was now sure it had been protecting them. The banshee’s wail grew until it was like an electric shock vibrating his sternum. He dropped the slingshot and clutched his chest.
     The banshee wail suddenly ceased. Out of nowhere something smaller than Roscoe seized him. Although half his weight, the creature had many times Roscoe’s strength and shoved him face first down onto the sandy ground that smelled like dead fish. He struggled but the leprechaun on top of him couldn’t be budged.
     In the distance Roscoe heard a big engine sound getting closer. He lifted his head up and saw the banshee and a familiar man in a blue suit dart into the thicket to hunt down the other children who had scattered.
     Melissa Harris sneaked up behind Roscoe and the leprechaun. She found the slingshot and got a rock loaded into it. She hesitated shooting at the leprechaun, afraid she would hit Roscoe instead. The banshee appeared, chasing a nine-year-old Hispanic girl around a half grown cottonwood tree. The banshee’s mouth opened like a snake about to eat an egg, but Melissa shot the rock on target into the gapping mouth and the infrasonic scream was cut short. The banshee covered her bloody mouth with her shiny fur-covered hands and dropped to her knees.
      Roscoe managed to glimpse what had happened. He wanted to cheer but heard someone calling his name in the distance. He yelled out to answer but the leprechaun pushed his face hard into the sand. Davy-Jake yelled back but Roscoe not only couldn’t answer back, he couldn’t even breath. The leprechaun intended to suffocate him. For too long everything went quiet as Roscoe futilely struggled for air.

     The sandy ground vibrated from running feet and shots rang out. Davy-Jake’s voice called out close by and one of the smaller kids answered. Lucky Duck the leprechaun leaped off of Roscoe and ran. Coughing and gasping for air, Roscoe raised his head in time to watch his older brother shoot at the ugly little monster but somehow miss. After Lucky Duck escaped into the underbrush, Davy-Jake helped Roscoe up and brushed him off. Melissa was kicking the dead banshee, now a crumpled brown-haired heap in the weeds a dozen yards away.

     “Get away from that thing,” Davy-Jake ordered and she reluctantly obeyed.

     A few minutes later Rick came out of the thicket with the rest of the children. Melissa ran over to Rick and hugged him, stabbing him in the back with the slingshot. She wanted to say his name but couldn’t speak.

     “Your new girlfriend’s pretty spunky.” Davy-Jake sported a smart-aleck sneer. A couple of the seventeen bedraggled children giggled and Rick’s face flushed.
     “Give me a break, Diamond.” Rick said and pried himself loose from the mute girl.

     At that moment Davy-Jake shot the Uzi right past Rick’s head. Rick whirled around with the shotgun and saw a man in a blue suit charging incredibly fast out of the thicket. The pale-faced man with straight black hair moved his head and upper body so rapidly DJ’s first bullets completely missed. The man had something in his right hand but Melissa managed to fire Roscoe’s slingshot, the rock hit the silver stun gun just right and it flew out of the man’s hand. At the same time Rick knocked the man’s legs out from under him with an on-target shotgun blast. He and Davy-Jake riddled the man with bullets and buckshot but instead of staying down he kept getting back up.
     After Rick emptied the shotgun, the man leaped high off the ground and flipped fifteen feet backwards to retrieve his stun gun weapon. Right as he got his hand on it, Rick shot his stun gun and the man in the buckshot-shredded blue suit went down in convulsions.
     “We’ve got one,” Rick said. The neogene wasn’t bleeding but a sap-yellow fluid was leaking out from all the wounds on his face and torso and limbs. The fluid became a protective foam when it hit the air. A powerful feeling of revulsion came over Rick as he and Davy-Jake shackled the froth-covered neogene. Not so long ago he almost had chosen to become an abomination just like this thing.
     “But for the Grace of God there goes I,” Rick said under his breath.
     “He was one of them that ransacked our house, Davy-Jake,” Roscoe said.
     “You don’t say? Look’s like he’s bleeding out dog vomit now,” Davy-Jake said.
     Davy-Jake dragged the frothing neogene up the narrow path to the dump truck. Rick reloaded his shotgun and covered the rear. After the kids climbed into the bed of the dump truck, Rick gave them bottles of water and paca jerky to share. He had never seen children with terror-stricken faces like these; the trauma etched so deep the little faces appeared old. Most of them were long past crying or complaining.
     “Try to get some sleep.” Rick jumped down from the back of the truck.
     Down in the dirt the neogene’s convulsing slowed. Able to speak again, he began hatefully cursing them in a loud, Welch-accented voice. His body rapidly energized with enraged fury. Rick shot him with the stun gun again, the invective immediately ceased and the convulsions returned. Davy-Jake taped his mouth shut with electrical tape and secured him behind the front seat inside the cab.

     “About every twenty minutes we’ll have to stun him again,” Rick said.

*                                  *                                  *

     Davy-Jake slowed the dump truck as they approached the small bridge over the slough between Turkey Island and the mainland. Wary of another bridge ambush, he scanned the area ahead with binoculars for any movement or reflected flashes. Like a vivid dream out of the hazy sky, the gigantic Eagle landed effortlessly on the road on the other side of the bridge. The wing span was well over one hundred feet across and his standing height was over seventeen feet tall.
     Davy-Jake stopped the truck. He left the keys in the ignition and jumped out of the cab. Rick climbed out of the passenger side with the shotgun. The Eagle seemed to ignore them. His spectacular, varicolored plumage streaked from metallic green to orange to purple to silver to a blue so dark it looked black, the ivory crest on his majestic head streaked with blue-green. Casually the giant feathered manifestation began preening himself.
     “What are we doing?” Rick asked, the site of the incredible raptor making him forget he was in command.

     “Listen.” Davy-Jake walked forward without bothering to bring his Uzi. No birds were singing but all around them in the slough small frogs and insects chirped and buzzed. The animal noises were subdued but definitely happening in the presence of the magnificent being blocking the road ahead of them.
     “Maybe the natural wildlife is getting used to them,” Rick said. “Get back in the truck.”
     “He’s not a terato. Roscoe told me this giant eagle saved their lives. He’s not an artificial monster; he’s from another world. He’s a thunderbird.”
     “I said get back in the truck. That’s an order, second lieutenant Diamond.” Rick stared at the giant bird of prey again. The astounding creature sure wasn’t native fauna James Audubon forgot to paint; on close scrutiny Rick could see no evidence of corruption from human DNA. His movements were too graceful, too natural to be transgenic.
     Davy-Jake ignored Rick’s command and kept walking towards the Eagle. Rick flew into a rage. The insubordination, the insults, the overheard perceived slander against him, along with the verbal abuse he knew DJ had given his sister, all that was bad enough. But now this smart-mouthed, undereducated string bean was putting the rescued children in danger by walking away from him. One thought raced across his mind: I’m done taking it. He ran after Davy-Jake, stretched up and clubbed the side of his head with the butt of the shotgun. DJ didn’t get knocked back or turn to fight, he merely sat down on the cracked pavement, holding the side of his head with his right hand.
     “Your dirty fighting would make old Bad Henry proud.”
     “I gave you an order. What do think you’re doing?” Almost immediately Rick regretted his impulsive violence. All of a sudden his hard-won leadership confidence evaporated and his stomach churned. Instead of making any more decisions he just wanted to crawl into the nearest hole.

     “It’s all about you, isn’t it, first lieutenant Rick Machado? Always was just about you and who you can impress. The teachers at school, the richest girl at church, Dan, Judson, the daddy you never saw. I’m curious, who are you trying to impress now?”
     “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not trying to impress anyone.”
     “You don’t really feel anything for anybody else, do you? What Lydia’s going through right now, you don’t care one iota.”

     “She’s my sister; don’t tell me what I feel.”

     Davy-Jake laughed softly and took his hand away from his head. A little trickle of blood ran down the side of his haggard face from his right temple. He gazed up at Rick with grey eyes full of sarcasm and worry. “I sure can’t tell what you feel for your sister when you don’t feel anything for anybody but yourself.”
     “This is wasting time. We’ve got a neogene prisoner. Dan said…”

     “Dan’s just keeping us busy. I’m a little more aware of what’s going on than Dan thinks I am. They’re not going to give her up. I feel it, this polluted river and these sick trees and these ugly weeds and the dirty sky are all screaming it. They’re not going to trade her for anybody.”
     “What good is killing yourself and getting all these kids killed going to do?”
     “I’d let a million people die if it saved Lydia. That’s what loving someone else is like, in case you were wondering.”

     The Eagle’s powerful golden-eyed gaze turned on the pair before Rick could return the insult. There was a fantastic intelligence behind that penetrating stare and both the young men suddenly knew their hostilities were unacceptable. The Eagle cocked his head and studied them for what seemed like a long time. Rick fought to keep standing up under the Eagle’s scrutiny.

     “Why are you here? What do you want?” Rick finally managed to blurt out.

     “I AM HERE TO DELIVER A MESSAGE OF WOE TO THE PEOPLE OF THIS WORLD,” The thunderous voice emanated from somewhere deep inside the Eagle’s throat. The beak did not move when he spoke. “AND I AM HERE TO ANNOUNCE THE TRIAL BY FIRE TO THE SON OF DUST BEFORE ME KNOWN AS DAVID JACOB DIAMOND.

     Rick wanted to drop to his knees. The voice gave him the cold, hollow feeling that he was not as real as the Eagle, that he was a partial apparition. He trembled like one of the Old Testament prophets who just heard a terrifying angelic voice and feared he might die. Rick looked down at Davy-Jake. He had wrapped his arms around his head and his body shook with loud, uneven sobs.
     “I know who he is… I know what he wants.” Davy-Jake’s voice broke from the sobbing.
     Rick always secretly admired Davy-Jake despite their numerous and often severe conflicts that began when DJ started dating Lydia. During the fifteen years he had known him, DJ calmly and often humorously handled every stressful situation that came up. Rick had to admit DJ used a guile he didn’t have when dealing with anti-Christian bullies or rallying the basketball team when they were down thirty points. Just like the rest of the universe, men once solid as mountains were crumbling to pieces. Even though Dan had tried to warn him Davy-Jake might become emotionally unstable, it shocked Rick to actually see the breakdown. Now he believed it really was the end of the world.

     “How do you know him? Why does he want you?”

     “I heard him call my name in the thunder…when Debra talked to us that last Sunday at the lighthouse… Just leave me here and get Roscoe and the other kids into a tunnel!”
     “I’m sorry, Davy-Jake; forgive me for hitting you.” Rick backed away, stooping under the weight of the Eagle’s gaze. “Godspeed, hermano.”
     “Vaya con dios.” Davy-Jake forced a little more control into his voice.

     Rick got Roscoe out of the bed of the dump truck to help him unload the motorcycle. After they climbed into the cab, he showed the boy how to use a stun gun on the neogene prisoner. He started the truck but had trouble working the clutch. The big truck moved haltingly across the bridge as Rick ground the gears. The Eagle spread his wings and lifted off to allow them to pass. The thunderbird soared off towards the Mississippi River. Roscoe stuck his head out the passenger window, calling out as they passed Davy-Jake but he didn’t answer. The boy sat back on the passenger seat with crossed arms, too infuriated with Rick to speak to him.

     Rick drove on and got better working the clutch. Obsessively he kept checking the froth-covered prisoner behind the seat. Exhaustion soon overcame Roscoe and he fell asleep. Somewhere inside Rick his self-satisfied celebration at finding the children alive inexorably gave way to horror at what was happening to his sister. Despite feeble efforts to focus on driving, he vividly pictured Lydia being raped and tortured by dozens of gruesome, cackling monsters. DJ was right; nothing they did was going to work. Something like a dam broke inside Rick. He wept out loud for the first time since first grade, when Bad Henry had jammed the pointed end of the little U.N. flag pole into his mouth.

     Twice Rick crashed the dump truck through road barricades but that just seemed extraneous. He couldn’t even remember the details of exactly where and how many men tried to stop them. They made it to Cedar Lake inside the Shawnee Forest and he called in with his two-way radio. The ancient Special Forces commander of the area sent an old HUM-VEE full of white-haired soldiers to escort them into the tunnel complex. Rick couldn’t remember anything but loudly weeping for his sister and brother-in-law Davy-Jake, and for the father that had abandoned him.

*                                           *                                         *

     The Eagle flew back and landed on the bridge. A huge buffalo fish looked like a sardine protruding from the great hooked beak. The gigantic raptorial bird gulped down the fish and commenced to preening his feathers again. On the side of the narrow paved road full of potholes, Davy-Jake struggled to his feet and stood before the Eagle.
     “THE FISH IN THIS RIVER WERE MUCH LARGER WHEN LAST I WAS HERE.
     “You’re right. We’ve done a pitiful job protecting God’s creation.” Davy-Jake barely managed to speak at first.

     “YOU KNOW WHO I AM.
     “Yes, I sure do. A story about you was passed down to me from almost 270 years ago. One of my ancestors was a Shawnee brave who talked to you on a cliff overlooking the Wabash River. His captive white wife convinced him to come to Christ and he changed his name to Joshua. For that crime and for talking to you he was burned at the stake by Tecumseh’s evil brother Tenskwatawa, the Prophet. I was told you gave my ancestor knowledge that helped our family prosper and become warriors of renown, and that you would return to test one of my family at the end of days.”

     “YES, I SPOKE TO YOUR ANCESTOR. HE REJOICED AT HIS TRIAL BY FIRE. THE PROPER TIME HAS NOW ARRIVED FOR YOUR TRIAL BY FIRE AND IT WILL BE YOUR SALVATION.

     “I thank you for protecting my brother and the other children. I want to ask your help before my trial begins. I understand that you battle the Great Serpent in the Spirit World to protect us from evil in this part of the earth.”
     “THERE ARE MANY BATTLES IN MANY KINGDOMS AND PRICIPALITIES THAT YOU CANNOT PERCEIVE. I PROTECTED THIS SPECIAL NATION UNTIL THE CREATOR WHO KNOWS NO BEGINGING AND NO END REMOVED THE RESTRAINING POWERS ON THE GREAT SERPENT. HIS TIME ON EARTH HAS NOW COME.
     “Yes, I know evil days are here. I am speaking to you on the saddest day of my life. Last night my mother was murdered and my beautiful wife carried off by a horde of demons. Before my trial begins I want to plead with you to rescue her from the demons. I will gladly face any fire when she is safe.”

     “I ONCE HAD A MATE.” The Eagle gazed off into the eastern horizon. “MANY AGES AGO I WAS CALLED TO PROTECT THIS NATION AND SHE WAS LOST TO ME.

     “I am sorry to hear that. I truly am sorry. It’s just that I’m at the end of my rope. I’m all used up. I want to help protect God’s people but I don’t believe I’ll be able to do any good for anybody if I lose her too.”
     The Eagle seemed to ignore Davy-Jake’s pleading. He went back to preening himself for the next hour. When the sun rose to its full height the Eagle ceased grooming. His intense golden gaze focused on Davy-Jake like a magnifying glass concentrates sunlight on a helpless bug.
     “YOUR REFLECTION OF THE SACROSANCT SHINING SPIRIT OF THE CREATOR IS WEAK. ASK FOR STREGNTH, FOR PEACE AT WHAT MUST BE. DO NOT FEED YOUR WEAKNESS.

     “You’re right, I am weak. My reflection of the Holy Sprit is weak, I admit it.”

     “IF I BRING HER TO YOU HER SUFFERING WILL BE EXTENDED, NOT ENDED.
     “Then I withdraw my request. If that’s true then I want no part of making her suffer more.”

     “THE SHINING SACROSANCT SPIRIT OF THE CREATOR HAS SPOKEN. I WILL BRING HER TO YOU. THIS TRIAL BY FIRE WILL COMMENCE!” With that the Eagle spread his enormous wings and lifted off.
     Davy-Jake collapsed. Face down on the hot pavement he prayed for hours, until the burning sun began sinking into the west. After offering himself and everything that a man could think to offer, he wrestled with the Spirit of the living God. Sun burnt, dazed, rebuked, and defeated; he finally rose to his feet. He stumbled back down the road until he found the motorcycle. Through the late afternoon heat waves and haze he rode until the machine broke down and he was forced to walk fifteen miles to get to a tunnel entrance.

 

X. Battle Hymn 


     When night fell they dragged the nineteen zoo cages out into the middle of the Aztec Soccer Stadium. Inside each box-car-sized cage over one hundred prisoners, all women and children, were packed like livestock. The stench of sewage and vomit gagged the back of Lydia’s throat as she came to. No one had been given food or water or allowed to use restroom facilities since their capture. At least she hadn’t been raped; covering herself with the residual curry powder had worked.

     Lydia was groggy from her concussion but with the help of Maria Elena stood up. Desperate pleading and mournful cries of anguish from nearly two thousand women and children filled the humid night air. She looked around at the glowing eyes of hundreds of transgenics guarding the dark field around them. The menacing presence of the monsters paled to the horrific realization that tens of thousands of human spectators crowded the stands. Everyone in the world with any power stood against them. They were helpless.
     Multicolored spotlights came on from the looming, flat-topped pyramid at the south end of the field and a droning musical beat blasted up from the ground. Daht daht daht daht da-da-da, daht daht daht daht da-da-da! The theme music repeated over and over as a rotund, bald clown-man with big orange sideburns lewdly danced around the stage on the top of the Aztec-styled pyramid. Simultaneously a one-hundred-foot-tall, 3-D projection of the scary clown-man danced around on the field between the cages full of horror-struck woman and children.

     “Live from Aztec Stadium, home of the Aztecs, it’s the Sacred Scary Clown Show! Here’s your sacred scary host, Deeeean Browner!” The announcer’s voice rolled smoothly up out of the ground.
     “Hot as Lightning! More than three billion viewers have logged in!” The scary clown-man’s familiar voice erupted out of the ground as he kept at his lewd gyrations.
     Lydia never heard of the singer Elvis Presley, but a handful of very ancient viewers now recalled when that obese singer had mocked his adoring fans during his last concert tour nearly one hundred years ago. It reminded Lydia of an old television news program about late-twentieth-century drug addicts that Dan had showed to the older kids one Sunday after church. She vividly remembered a young prostitute who looked old, a “crack” addict, mockingly flaunting her emaciated body to male passersby even though she was covered with open sores. This repulsive clown-man was mocking his audience too and they seemed to relish the mockery.

     “Veronica is dead.” Yolanda’s numb voice somehow penetrated the din rising up from beneath their feet. “They made us watch as they abused her for hours and then they devoured her while she was still alive. Her beauty cursed her. We are doomed and there is no God of love.”

     Maria Elena reached out and embraced Yolanda. “I’m sorry I brought you to this living nightmare. It’s all my fault.”

*                                           *                                      *

     The theme music stopped. The giant projection of the scary clown-man walked around the field and stood over each cage, the hideous face leering down at each one in turn. The stadium audience cheered each time the captives inside screamed. Although he never watched netcast entertainment, let alone worked in show business, for many years now Dean Browner had practiced this act on helpless orphans around the world. He perfected his malevolent clown character to terrify children into submission and now he was making it work on adult women too. When the last cage full of captives stopped screaming, the giant projection vanished. Everyone’s attention turned to the eleven stories tall, high-definition screen on the front side of the pyramid.

     “Welcome world, welcome! Look at these pathetic creatures. Finally social justice is coming to these murderers, these sanctimonious hypocrites that used to strut around acting like they’re better than you and me. These phony moral tyrants attacked the self-esteem, the personhood of each one of us for too long. Yeah! Yeah! That’s right! Tonight you’re going to see what no live netcast has ever shown before. Yeah! And after we’re finished here we’re going on the road! We’ll do it in Chicago! Minneapolis! Toronto! Montreal! Boston! New York! London! Paris! Berlin! Stockholm! Rome! Madrid! Lisbon! Yiieeeeeeeeeaaah!” When the scary clown-man finished screeching the entire stadium roared its approval. The cheering, shrieking, and applause went on for ten minutes.

     Presently a spotlight shined down on a part of the stage that had been dark. A family of four: father, mother, and two boys were shackled in a pillory. The scary clown-man held his bulbous red nose as he walked up to them. Both the mother and father slowly looked around dazed and nauseous while the dark eyes of the eldest boy froze in a terror-stricken gaze and the younger boy kept his eyes shut.
     “Someone had an accident! Whew, do they smell!” the scary clown-man said in a funny pinched nasal voice. Still holding his nose, he stood waving his other hand in front of his face, waiting for the laughter to trail off and then put his hands down. “By now you’ve all seen the messages the Zionist hackers illegally sent through the net. They claim that ‘Israel lives.’ Hah! How dare those filthy creatures use our internet to lie, pathetically trying to embarrass our divine leader. They are a slimy plague on the world, and right here are four of them!”
     The stadium erupted in hisses and boos. Lydia prayed for the family as the scary clown-man slowly circled around them.

     “Until our divine leader returns; and it won’t be long!” He had to wait for the cheering to die down again. “Until he returns, on our show, you the audience, the victims of their oppression, will be the judge! The charges are espionage, building an Apartheid wall of exclusion, genocide against any other ethnicity that dared oppose them, fomenting intolerance and murder of transgenic persons, treason, brigandage, and last but not least sabotage of our infrastructure that left us powerless for eighteen days. You name the crime, these vermin have committed it! What is your verdict?”
     “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” the stadium screamed in unison.
     “Guilty is the verdict! And now my lovely assistant Angela will spin the Wheel of Justice. What will the sentence be?”

*                                                *                                               *

     A glamorous blonde in a black evening gown stepped out of the shadows to stand next to the scary clown-man. Her perfectly symmetrical face looked familiar but Lydia didn’t recognize her at first because of her different hair style and turquoise eye shadow. She walked gracefully to the wheel, reached up and spun the thing with an almost disguised, amazingly enraged power. Now Lydia recognized the former high school teacher, the seducer and kidnapper of her brother Rick. The wheel kept spinning. The scary clown-man looked impatiently at Angela but he let it spin until the dial finally stopped on DOUBLE-HEADED AXE.
     The crowd hushed as a tall transgenic with a bull’s head and a man’s muscular body walked out onto the stage holding an ornate, double-headed axe. Lydia averted her eyes until the amplified chopping and screaming ceased. When she looked up again Dean Browner was shuddering with pleasure. The theme music blasted out and the fat, neogenic clown-man cart-wheeled across the stage. He halted upside down in a handstand in front of the pillory. Somehow he kept his legs straight up in the air, brought his face down to the floor and slowly lapped up blood with his tongue like a cat. The audience exploded in wild applause.

     “Oh Lord, why have you forsaken us?” Lydia whispered. She felt a trembling hand on her arm and turned around. Cassie, one of her Scary Clown Club enemies from high school, looked up at her with wet blue eyes. Behind stood Marsha, another mean S.C.C. girl who had constantly tormented Debra. Lydia now realized that half the prisoners packed inside her cage were citizens of Moreau County who were not Christians and had not been on a barge. Most of the barges must have escaped. They probably emptied out the rest of Moreau County in order to have enough victims for this spectacle.

     “I don’t want to go to hell.” Cassie’s mouth trembled and she fell to her knees.

     “Get away from that J-freak!” Marsha grabbed her by the arm to pull her away but for once in her life Cassie resisted, repeating over and over “I don’t want to go to hell!”
     “Let her go, now.” Lydia tensed, ready to plunge headlong into a brawl. Maria Elena and Yolanda turned to glower at Marsha too. The pretty but jaded-looking girl with pink and purple streaks in her hair released Cassie but then stood there holding up her middle finger in an obscene gesture.

     “Please tell me what I have to do to not go to hell!” Cassie begged. The girl desperately grasped Lydia’s arm like a drowning child fighting for air.
     “Shut up, Cassie. We’re S.C.C. If we tell the ‘genics we’ll do anything they want, they’ll let us go.” Marsha held her middle finger higher.
      “No! I know I’m going to die! Lydia, please tell me what to do.”
     “Get out of my sight.” Lydia clenched her fists. Marsha backed away with her middle finger still up, turned and slipped out of the circle of prisoners who had noticed the confrontation.

     “I’m still in command here!” Lydia shouted out. She knelt down to her knees with Cassie. She looked Cassie in the eyes for a few seconds as many women and children gathered around. “Everyone pray with me.” Soon Lydia had organized nearly all the prisoners inside the cage into prayer groups.
     Meanwhile, Angela in her tight-fitting evening gown began picking out prisoners one or two at a time from each cage. She roughly escorted them to the top of the pyramid as Dean Browner cavorted around and told anti-Christian jokes.
     “What do you get when three Christians are in the kitchen and one of them disappears?” He paused for effect. “Rapture Stew for two!” The theme music blasted out after each punch line. The scary clown-man danced around as the audience roared with laughter. When the next prisoner would arrive on stage, Dean Browner read multiple charges against her. The accusations included murder, incest, cannibalism, arson, and hate-crimes against transgenic persons. The crowd would always scream “Guilty!” Angela would spin the Wheel of Justice and then the prisoner would be executed or tortured in some grisly fashion. Wild applause and cheering would erupt from the stands. The body of the victim, sometimes still alive, was slid down a chute to the ravenous transgenic monsters lined up for a free meal eleven stories below. Angela would go down to the next cage and begin the process again.

     Sometimes Dean Browner would offer non-Christians the option of social-insect transgenic enhancements. Most accepted but a few didn’t and were executed. Those who accepted were immediately placed into a transmogrification machine that injected massive doses of social-insect stem-cell DNA into the victims’ foreheads, through their skulls and into their central nervous systems, transforming them into compliant slaves.
     “We all know there are service jobs the multi-realms need done that no one else will do!” The scary clown-man went into an auctioneer’s rapid-fire voice as the neogenic representatives from the multi-realm corporations bid against each other for the new slaves.
     This went on for hours until Angela got to cage *17, Lydia’s cage. Angela immediately saw the prisoners in this cage were different. Instead of wide-eyed desperation, wailing, and begging for mercy, the women and children inside were praying together or softly singing hymns in small groups. Angela scanned the population until she noticed the standing teenage girl with sable hair leading a group of twenty kneeling prisoners near the middle of the cage.
     “You, Lydia Machado. You, come to the cage door, now.”
     Lydia ignored the shouted order and continued leading the prayer group. Angela entered the cage, making her way towards Lydia. Suddenly, Shelly McKenna, a heavy-set, middle-aged woman from Sunnyland who had baby sat Rick and Lydia for many years when they were little, got up and attacked Angela. Within a split-second she fell back against some other prisoners, electrocuted to death. Her smoldering body hit the floor and many screams cut through the muggy air. Angela smiled wickedly and stood there holding the stun gun over her head.

     “Don’t resist her!” Lydia shouted out. She turned and whispered quickly to Maria Elena, “I’m still in command. Keep them praying. When the Holy Spirit tells me what to do I will give the order and you must do what I say with all of your heart.” Lydia turned and made her way through the crowd. She couldn’t help but stare at the electrocuted body of the gentle woman who had read her to sleep so many times. Tears wanted to flow but she fought them off. She walked straight and tall up to Angela with all the defiance she could muster.

     “Good girl,” Angela said when Lydia stood in front of her. She seized Lydia by the arm with a powerful grip. Once outside the cage, she threw the girl face-first to the ground and handcuffed her arms behind her back. She grabbed a handful of Lydia’s hair, yanking her to her feet. They started walking across the field towards the Pyramid. “Reminds me of the time I made another Machado crawl to me.”

     “My brother walked out on you. You were dumped by a teenager. Must make you feel as hot as dry ice.”
     “Oh missy, your mouth. I really don’t want to make this offer but I have no choice. When I catch your brother, I promise you he won’t get any deals.” Angela paused for a few steps then began in a new tone. “Someone high up in our organization is very close to you even though you’ve never met him. He’s now the CEO of the biggest tower in North America and he’s a lot more substantial than that gun-toting dirt farmer your mother finally married.”
     Lydia kept walking, taking one step at a time. She gulped but tried with all her being to ignore what Angela was saying. Unlike Rick, she never wanted to meet the man who had abandoned their family. Still, to imagine an actual face-to-face meeting made the offer more intriguing than she would have thought possible. My real father is in heaven, she kept saying inside her head.
     “We have video that a transgenic named Henry Moore turned on Wayne Browner and sixty-five other transgenics at that last church. He slaughtered the sixty-five transgenics to protect the church and then blew himself and Wayne up. If you give us pertinent information on the behavior modification techniques the Jews used to get him to fight for them, I will turn you over to your biological father at the Mile High Tower. You won’t die if you tell me something useful.”

      “Henry Moore fought to save our church? Praise God. Hallelujah.”
     “At least tell me the names of the Jews who did the behavior modification.”

     “It was only one Jew.”
     “What’s his name?”

     “You already know his name and sooner than you think you’re going to bow down to him.”
     Angela stopped. She turned and looked Lydia in the eye. It was Lydia’s last chance. When Lydia didn’t speak Angela gave a satisfied sneer. She took two handfuls of Lydia’s thick black hair and shook her head savagely until she fell to her knees. “That’s not too likely, is it, girly?” She kept shaking Lydia’s head by the hair until she fell backwards. Angela dragged her upright to her feet and they started walking again. “No, I won’t bruise or tear your lovely skin. You have a rare butterscotch complexion that’ll make a great addition to my lampshade collection. What I am going to do is microwave your insides. There is no more excruciating way to die, I promise you. It’ll take about three or four hours. You’ll flop around like a fish out of water for most of that time and it’ll be great entertainment for our billions of viewers.”

     Lydia stumbled forward, head hung down, all defiance gone. Blood seeped from her scalp and trickled down her forehead. She didn’t care anything about prophecy even though her pastor preached almost one-fourth of the Bible was prophetic. For the last two months all the Christian men she knew debated with fascinated passion how the prophecies were being fulfilled before their eyes but it never interested her. Only people interested her. She was no hero. Why did she tell Maria Elena that nonsense about still being in command? Just a seventeen-year-old girl, I’m just a girl. I didn’t want to hurt anybody.
     Lydia tried to forgive all the people and monsters about to kill her. It came to her that they were like the baboons the teacher talked about in second-year biology class. They torture us because, like a baboon attacking another baboon of lesser rank for no or little reason, it reduces their stress. And now there was so much stress, there was stress avalanching on top of everyone beyond a battle-hardened soldier’s endurance. They torture women and children because they show more terror so they get more original-sin bang for their buck. This generation most men and women in the world were indoctrinated by the public schools to avoid becoming parents, so there was no empathy for little children. It all made sense. Was understanding their behavior forgiveness? At least she couldn’t blame them anymore.

     Where is the God of love? No angels visiting her before the martyr’s execution. She knew she was not a saint and didn’t deserve angelic comforting. Her premarital fooling around with Davy-Jake, her constant fighting at school with the anti-Christian kids, the escalating conflicts with her brother Rick, she knew they had made her mother miserable.
     The loneliness of her life’s defeats dragged her down to the dirt but at that instant hit the worst revelation of all: inside her a human life was growing; she was pregnant. Somehow she knew she was pregnant. She tried to stop walking, to drag her feet, but they were already standing in front of the big elevator door decorated with a macabre frieze of an Aztec sacrifice. She stared at the temple priest cutting out the heart of a screaming victim. The doors opened and Angela shoved her forward into the belly of the pyramid.
     Inside, two fashionably dressed girls descended on her with a make-up kit. A half man, half Komodo dragon standing at the control panel pressed the up button with a clawed, scaly finger and the elevator lurched upward. At first Lydia couldn’t believe it. Was the whole thing some kind of sick joke? Were they applying makeup for phony executions done with special effects? The elevator slid up too quickly. The Chinese girl brushed Lydia’s hair with great skill without pulling too much on her tender scalp while the white girl applied cosmetics to her face.

     “Look at her facial bone structure. The video cameras are going to love this Sheila’s face,” the white girl said.
     “I’d kill for her hair.” The Chinese girl also spoke with an Australian accent.

     The white girl paused to take out tweezers from the make-up kit. She rapidly removed bits of glass from Lydia’s left cheek then resumed applying the cosmetics. “You must have been a naughty girl so someone took you by the hair and threw you through a window.” She cocked her head and winked at Angela.
     “I believe it’s our Angela who’s the naughty one,” the Chinese-Australian girl quipped. She finished brushing and stepped back.
     “There now, deary, you’re ready for the world.” The white girl gave a big smile as she looked Lydia over.
     “I believe I’m going to take a break and go get in the queue for this one.” The Komodo dragon-man flicked his forked tongue out at Lydia. The two make-up girls snickered. “You’re rather spicy, aren’t you? Just the way I like them. See you for dinner, luv.”

     The elevator doors opened and “Daht daht daht daht da-da-da!” roared out. Dean Browner finished his dance with a standing back flip but when he came down on a puddle of blood his feet slipped out from under him and he fell hard on his rump. He got up rubbing his wide backside and the audience let loose with sympathetic applause.
     Angela shoved her out onto the stage filled with sickening, multicolored lights. Dean Browner casually turned to face his next victim but when he saw Lydia his face twisted into a hideous grimace. He slowly raised his right hand to point a blood-soaked, gloved finger at her. The sixty thousand spectators grew quiet. Dean’s fat face continued contorting into a visage of hate no regular human being could ever produce. The white grease paint began to ooze off his double chin from the friction of his facial contortions.

     “This is one of the murderers of my adopted son. My only son. She is one of the Christians who attacked him when he returned to Moreau County to protest their treatment of transgenic persons. She’s one of the Christian vigilantes that murdered my son Wayne and three hundred other peaceful, innocent, transgenic children at that accursed church. It was the biggest anti-transgenic hate crime in history until last night!”
     Lydia stood there blinking from the spotlights. Did Dean Browner really have some familial love for Wayne or was this just part of the act? He claimed three hundred transgenics were killed at their church, but last week on the radio interview he had claimed two hundred. She wanted to argue it was even less than that, only sixty-six, and that she hadn’t even been there when it happened. She wanted to beg for her life and for the life of her unborn child, wanted to scream that executions and torture were illegal under United Nations law written by Sebastiao. Finally Lydia swallowed her own futile words, closed her eyes and prayed.
     The grimacing clown-man walked up to her. The entire stadium hushed to silence. Angela, standing behind her clutching the back of her neck, poked hard into her ribs with the stun gun.
     “Open your eyes,” she hissed.

     “Tell us why you’re a self-righteous murderer. I want you to tell the world why you think you’re forgiven after you’ve helped destroy the lives of thousands of unique persons you’re not good enough to be a slave for!” Dean’s face roiled like hundreds of maggots squirmed under his skin. He halted less than six inches from her face.
     Lydia was puzzled as she opened her eyes. Dean had not offered to let any other victim speak tonight, but somehow she knew she would get to talk. The bright spotlights behind Dean’s ghastly face were no longer blinding. In the corner of her eye she saw another figure standing on stage. The stranger was a tall, very handsome young man with startling eyes that shined like blue stars. He had a strong chin, mid-length golden hair, was about her age and wore a blue uniform. Somehow she knew no one else could see him. She turned her head slightly to see him better and the angel with the face too handsome for this world smiled a smile of pure light that cascaded into a warm blanket overpowering the gaudy spotlights. It enveloped her in comfort and safety and she no longer was afraid for herself or for any of the other prisoners.
     Angela prodded her ribs again. “Talk, now.”

      Lydia gave a beautiful smile seen by almost five billion people. She began speaking words that came from somewhere else and Dean Browner stumbled backwards as if he had been punched in the face.
     “The Spirit of the Lord says: This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan and the unclean spirits who are his offspring.” Lydia’s voice came up loud and clear from the under the spectators’ seats. Immediately catcalls and boos surged out from the crowd but her amplified voice overwhelmed them and her radiant smile hushed many of them. “Our God is a consuming fire and all who reject His redemption will be consumed!

     “Tonight both heaven and earth will be shaken. Only he who embraces righteousness and love will not be thrown into the fiery furnace. You who harm these little children, it would have been better for you to not have been born.
     “Sisters and children in Christ!” she shouted out in English and then Spanish. “We must all sing together. Do not be afraid of them! We will sing into their faces. Before dawn rises we will all be together in paradise!
     “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

     He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,

     He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword

     His truth is marching on.

     Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!” At this point Angela shot her in the back with the microwave setting of her stun gun. Lydia gagged with the burning pain and dropped to her knees.
     Angela glared at Dean Browner and mouthed out “@**! spinning the @**! wheel.”

*                                     *                                        *

     “She has lost her mind.” Maria Elena’s despondent voice broke the sudden quiet.

     “No, we have to do what she says!” Her eyes streaming with tears, Cassie pressed her face against the bars of the cage. “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!”
     “It is no good!” Yolanda screamed out in broken English. “It is useless!”
     A woman holding her dying three-year-old grandson started singing along and then some mothers and their small children joined in. Maria Elena broke down and joined in. The last to join the chorus was Yolanda and then the entire population of cage *17 except one holdout was singing “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!”

     The prisoners in cage *14, then cage *12 joined the chorus. Simultaneously almost all the rest of the prisoners in the other cages joined in. Their amplified voices drowned out the booing from the tens of thousands of spectators. Suddenly afraid, the transgenic monsters guarding the field began backing away from the cages.

*                                      *                                   *

     On stage the scary clown-man looked indecisive. He tried to order the amplification from the cages turned off but none of the stage crew knew how to do it.

     Lydia was on her knees and couldn’t sing but managed to smile up at the video cameras as the overwhelming voices from the cages sang out “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!” Their voices grew stronger and stronger.
     “This is a fiasco!” Angela shouted at Dean. “You’ve got to stop this now, right now. This is a live netcast. Half the people in the world are viewing.”
     “No! You go down there and punish them. This is my show!” The clown-man wrung his hands, his eyes darting around as if he expected something invisible would strike him again.
     “They’re making us look like fools! She’s infected them with a martyr’s complex. They’re Christians singing as they’re being thrown to the lions. The throwbacks and teratos are both superstitious about death. This defiance is going to undermine their supernatural fear of us. You have to end this now.”
     Dean reluctantly went to the studio engineer booth to retrieve his satellite phone. He gave his special code to the G.O.G. Satellite Weapons Command Center and the precise target information. The scary clown-man pulled himself together then walked back onstage with both arms stretched high in the air.
     “In the sacred name of Sebastiao, I command the fire from the sky to rain down on these Christian criminals, these enemies of social progress!” The coordination with the Satellite Weapons Command Center was off and he had to recite his mumbo jumbo three more times before the particle beams, like straightened-out lightning, screeched down from satellites in outer space and finally hit the cages. As the rancid smoke cleared from the field and the burnt air reeked of ozone, three unrecognizable teenage girls rose up from the blasted corpses in what had been cage *17. “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!” the three sang out together again.

     The clown-man took off his gore-drenched, formerly white gloves and looked at his chubby hands. “Useless, useless,” he mumbled out loud. He had been planning this first sacrificial event for so long. This had been his best chance to gain the publicity he needed to impress Sebastiao. Out of the ambitiously ruthless thousands vying for the title of Most High Priest of the Global Religion of Peace, he was the first to netcast live sacrifices. Time was short and now this interference. He loathed the source of it with all his being. They were losing ratings, he could feel it. His hands closed to become fat fists. He shook in rage as the three teenage girls who should have been dead kept singing. “Go down there and shut them up,” he ordered Angela.

*                                       *                                             *

     “Turn it off.” Davy-Jake stood up behind Sara and dozens of other refugees and soldiers seated in a circle around the netcast center. The holographic projector inside what looked like a huge crystal ball simulated detailed 3-D images. “I said turn it off.”
     The leather-faced soldier at the control panel didn’t look up. “Any relatives and whoever else can’t take it leave. We need to record what’s happening.”

     Davy-Jake strode up to the netcast center and in one motion unsheathed his Bowie knife, stabbed through the glass, piercing into the holographic projector. The images warped among sparks and disappeared. Four soldiers leaped up to tackle him. He put up a ferocious struggle, punching and kicking several to the ground, but eventually nine more guards ran inside the chamber and swarmed on top of him.

     Sara’s tears became sobs as she watched her son-in-law subdued.

     “I’m on fire!” Davy-Jake screamed.

*                                           *                                            *

     Rick paced outside, far up the path from the camouflaged tunnel entrance. Another tremor moved the ground beneath him as he speed-dialed Jill for the twentieth time. Once again the call didn’t go through. Just this afternoon she had been approved for a transfer to the Shawnee Forest tunnel complex. Seven hours ago she and five other medical aide workers began the dangerous journey through the tunnel that ran under the Mississippi River from the Ozark complex. She should have arrived by now.
     The muggy night pressed down on him with its inky blackness. No lights out here amongst the fragrant pines and cedar trees. He looked up at the stars. In a netcast earlier this evening, an astronomer, who looked ready to faint, reported strange gravitational forces were causing the seas to surge with tides never seen before. The stars and other heavenly bodies were, in minute increments, accelerating away from each other and it appeared that some galaxies on the far edge of the universe had sped off into a blurry smear and vanished.
     Animals scurried in the black forest around him. Raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, foxes, opossums, snakes, skunks, woodchucks, and wild turkeys moved unnaturally together in large groups as if desperate to find safe shelter. Amid the tumult of small feet in the underbrush, a large branch snapped. Rick crouched down to pick up his shotgun. He switched on the powerful flashlight attached under the barrel and stood up scanning the path and underbrush.
     “It’s me, Rooster.”
     Somehow the intruder had gotten behind him. Rick knew the voice but was so edgy he whirled around aiming the flashlight beam and shotgun at Dan.
     “Easy, Rick. It’s me. What are you doing out here in the dark, son?” Dan’s stooped posture and exhausted voice made him seem like an old man. He held a hand in front of his eyes to block the strong flashlight beam.
     “I’m trying to call someone.” Rick pointed the weapon down at the ground and switched off the flashlight.
     “Your gal?” Dan waited for Rick to walk down the dark path to him.

     “Yeah, she got her transfer. She was supposed to cross under the river and be here by now. I’m worried an earthquake might have collapsed that tunnel.”
     “You’re supposed to be monitoring the netcasts for information on the barge prisoners.” Dan and Rick started walking together down the path to the cave entrance.

     “I know. I couldn’t take just sitting down any more; I had to try to get through to Jill. There are plenty of people in there watching it. Dean Browner and Angela are on. They’re torturing and murdering women and children for the whole world’s enjoyment. They haven’t showed Lydia yet. Did you have luck finding any more survivors?”

     “We opened up on hundreds of the stubborn ghouls as they were feeding on the corpses on Q-4 barge. They’ll eat a human or a transgenic, they don’t care which. We finally got inside the pilothouse and found Noah’s boy and that Mexican girl Roscoe said your sister hid in the lockers. Zeke had been shot and lost a lot of blood. I don’t know if he’s going to make it. The girl should be all right.”
     “Rick! Rick!” A girl’s voice screamed his name out of the blackness with shrill agony that made Rick’s skin crawl. “Where are you?”
     Rick and Dan ran down the path. The girl, Tyler’s sixteen-year-old former girlfriend Nasarine Ishmael, had been orphaned the previous night. Her father had been the pilot and her mother a crew member on Lydia’s barge. She sat down on the path and couldn’t say anything more, just covered her face and wept. Rick left her with Dan and ran on into the tunnel.
     When he got into the netcast viewing chamber he found his mother staring at the busted out holographic projector with tear-filled eyes. She looked like an animal about to be run over. An eerie keening noise rose from someone splayed across the floor. Rick couldn’t see who it was because a mob of guards was holding him down.

     “That woman did something to Lydia.” Sara noticed Rick standing there. “That teacher did something to her. I don’t know what it was but she hurt her.”

     Dan came into the chamber with his arm around Nasarine.
     “Where have you been?” Sara shouted at Dan. “Why didn’t you negotiate the prisoner exchange?”
     “The neogene’s commander is being tortured for failure by his own interrogation team. There was no one to negotiate with so we gave our neogene prisoner to the Israelis. He’s on a small jet over the Atlantic by now.”
     “You care more about them than you do your own people. What about us? Why didn’t you save my daughter?” Sara’s eyes squinted from deer-in-the headlights to furious blue pinpoints aimed at Dan.
     “Sara, this is war. We did everything that could be done. It must be God’s will.”

     “’God’s will’? What kind of ‘God’s will’ gives me back my son then takes away my daughter? What kind of cosmic sadist is He?”
     The men restraining Davy-Jake slowly got up. The young man’s keening reduced to a low moaning as a strong sedative took effect. He lay there in a straight jacket, rolling his eyes and bobbing his head as if to an angry music no one else could hear.
     Sara pointed to Davy-Jake. “Look what He’s done to this boy.”

     “Lydia is a hero, Mom. She saved twenty kids from that barge. Her life was a victory.” Rick felt a strange sense of being out of synch, of already being past the first stages of mourning for his sister. He knew it was too soon.
     “Victory? You’re delusional. As we speak your sister is being tortured to death for the amusement of billions of sick goons. We’re hiding out in caves. We’re cowering in holes like rats waiting to be exterminated. There is no victory in any of this.”
     “We’ve witnessed the rapture, Sara. God’s promises are coming alive right before our eyes.” Dan’s voice, normally strong and reassuring, wavered.

     “Don’t talk to me about God’s promises! He’s weak. He took His favorites, His perfect pets, and abandoned the rest of us. I’m tired of a weak God and I’m tired of weak men. You lost the country and now you’ve lost my daughter.”
     “What else could I have done?” Dan’s voice echoed back from the rounded walls of the chamber. He released Nasarine and clutched one of the orange plastic chairs as if to rip the back off. The guards were bringing Davy-Jake to his feet. Everybody else had backed away from the family and were starting to leave the chamber.
     “You should have used nuclear bombs on those blue cities thirty-three years ago. None of this would have happened if you had.”

     “Nuke our own cities, Sara?”

     “Listen, Mom, I love you and I love Lydia. I hate what’s happening to her; I wish I could take her place. But we’re not the only ones suffering. What’s going on is bigger than our family. I never told you what really happened to me when I was Angela’s prisoner. She put me in a pit of living death so far down and black no light could ever escape. I even forgot your face and everyone else’s face I loved. All I could think about and feel were waves of hunger. None of you could help me. But Jesus Christ lifted me up out of that pit and I am never going to turn my back on Him no matter what anyone does to me or to you or to Lydia.”

     “Well said, M.”
     The girl’s voice was right behind him. Rick slowly turned around and feasted his eyes on Jill’s face. Her green eyes were full of beauty and strength, her mouth a line of loving admiration. She had grown up so far past the mixed-up gamer-girl in a short skirt who had inadvertently rescued him almost two months ago. Her presence gave off the assurance of one who has learned fast the best human occupation, the art of taking care of other, weaker human beings. He put down the shotgun and reached out his hands. She took them and then they embraced, Jill pressing the side of her head down onto his chest as he stroked her now shoulder-length black hair.

     At this happiest moment of his life, his mother’s voice scolded out behind him. “Don’t love anyone, Rick. Don’t be a fool.” Her words fell onto his fast beating heart like drops of sulfuric acid. A split-second later the most powerful earthquake in the history of planet Earth hit and everyone was thrown to the ground.

*                                            *                                              *

     When Angela returned to the top of the Aztec pyramid, Dean Browner pointed at Lydia. “Make a spectacle out of her.”

     Angela pulled out her skinning knife and walked over to the girl. Lydia was still on her knees in the spotlight. Funny, she should have been writhing on the floor by now. She was breathing fast, very near to struggling for air, but still holding the agony inside. Something wasn’t right. Angela checked the setting on her stun gun. Yes, it was set to microwave. Then she noticed Lydia whispering something.
     “Thank you. Thank you.” The girl kept repeating between her desperate gasps.

     Angela’s experience with eight previous victims taught her there was a special relationship between the torturer and the tortured, a perverse intimacy she was beginning to crave. Many times her victims would cling to her and one called her “momma” before he finally died. This girl was cheating, going outside the relationship. Maybe there was an entity beyond the universe whom these Christians worshiped that was helping her. It would have to be defeated too. Whatever had created this shabby world couldn’t be invincible.
     “After about a half an hour of torment there is going to be nothing left of you but a lampshade in my collection. Centuries from now I’ll be alive, growing more powerful and more beautiful, and you’ll be stuck in a morass of nothingness, oblivion.”

     “You, a-ha, a-ha, a-ha, are, a-ha, a-ha, wrong. You, a-ha, a-ha, a-ha, will, a-ha, a-ha, a-ha, be, a-ha, a-ha, dead, a-ha, before, a-ha, a-ha, a-ha, me.”

     Angela snickered. She looked down at the pathetic Christian girl and shook her head. She waved the shiny blade in front of Lydia’s face.

     “I, a-ha, a-ha, a-ha, forgive, a-ha, a-ha, you.”

     “Not if I can help it.” Angela grabbed a handful of Lydia’s hair, pulled her head back and brought the knife down to begin skinning, but then felt an enormous presence descending out of the black sky. Before she could even look up her reflexes took over. Faster than any Olympic gold-medal gymnast, she back flipped away. At the front edge of the pyramid she stood up and watched the gigantic Eagle land over Lydia. The astounding creature blasted out a scream that blew out the amplification system for the entire stadium. With wing beats as strong as a gale, the Eagle slowly rose off the pyramid with Lydia clutched in one of his taloned feet.

     “Send Peacock to get the prisoner back, now!” Angela yelled into her sleeve. She held her stun gun high over her head and watched the grotesquely antlered transgenic with an eye patch fly up from the base of the pyramid after the Eagle. Within seconds the eight-foot-tall, owl-like piasa bird fell back down onto the stage like a rock, its heart torn out.

     Angela’s mind raced. The Pacific Rim Free Trade Realm must be responsible for the creation of this giant raptor. Harmony with the “Divine String of Pearls” indeed. Beijing would pay for this. She looked around to find Dean Browner.
     Dean had run to the back of the stage. A flying yeti bodyguard stood right behind him. At the instant the catastrophic mega-earthquake hit, Angela watched the clown-man stretch out his arms and the flying yeti lifted him off the stage with slow flaps of powerful condor wings.
     Angela didn’t have time to curse Dean. She kicked off her stiletto high heels and leaped out over the front edge of the pyramid just as it collapsed. As she fell eleven stories the air pulsated with the screams of sixty thousand people mixed with and rapidly overwhelmed by the groaning earth. The stadium collapsed before Angela hit.
     Angela landed on the fleeing Komodo dragon-man who was killed instantly. She was damaged, her left leg broken. Despite having to hobble she was one of the few who made it to the VIP parking lot. The ground beneath her feet moved like the waves of a stormy Lake Superior. She managed to find her scarlet convertible and get the door open. The dust plume from the collapsing buildings engulfed the small car as she tried to drive away. Angela saw nothing but a few glowing orbs, headlights and taillights from other cars floating helter skelter through the lake of dust.
     The enormous wave of liquid-like ground hit her from the side and flipped her convertible into an opening chasm. A new volcano was being born. Smoke with sulfur and other noxious fumes billowed out of it. The car landed in the lava and exploded. Three times Angela clawed her way up out of the burning liquid rock and three times she was knocked back in. The last time her skin and even her protective foam had been melted off. Blind, without sense of hearing or sense of smell, feeling only a universe of burning fire, Angela Starr sank back into the eruption.

*                                        *                                          *

     Kim the freshwater mermaid swam quietly across the pitch-black Mississippi River. She was dragging the carcass of a man-sized transgenic through the water behind her, the freshest meat she could find. The river had been full of bodies this morning but almost all had been scavenged or were now putrid and bloated.
     What was she supposed to do? She was hungry and too afraid of guns and giant eagles to lure human children into the river any more. She had to keep her strength up. It was going to be hard to find another dominant merman and even harder to fight her way up the pecking order of a new harem. The government needed to do something about the scanty food supply and lack of health care for transgenics, and had better clean up this nasty river, too.
     Kim kept swimming, hauling the body by a leg, feeling her way through the dense vegetation into the secluded oxbow lake that was her lair. Suddenly, without any warning at all, the entire river began violently sloshing from bank to bank. It took her by complete surprise when the current sucked her out of her lair and rushed her backwards upstream.
     A tsunami wave hit and carried Kim up over the west bank. The giant wave knocked over trees and houses, carrying her and hundreds of tons of debris miles over formerly dry land. The earth rose south of Saint Louis and the once great Mississippi River was cut in two, never to flow south again along its ancient course.

     After the flood from the mega-earthquake finally receded, Kim was left hanging from an evergreen tree in a small hillside cemetery many miles from the old river valley. The invisible demons infesting her central nervous system fled her broken body. They left her full of self-revulsion and deep sorrow. Covered with muck, half her bones broken and struggling to breath, Kim tried to form a word with her mouth, a word she had not spoken for a long time. But her lungs were full of brown water and all she could produce was a gurgle. She lost consciousness hanging upside down from the old arborvitae tree.

*                                            *                                               *

     Wolfgang Honecker was strapped down onto a torture table deep inside the bowels of the windowless G.O.G. building when the mega-earthquake hit. Jolt the punishment expert had been enjoying his work for many hours now and Honecker was still screaming. Neither had noticed the earth tremors but when the monster quake struck the building shook with enormous violence and abruptly collapsed. Tons and tons of debris smashed down on Wolfgang and Jolt and dozens of other neogene G.O.G.

     Wolfgang could not move and the pain from tons of debris crushing down on him made him long for death but death ran away from him like a healthy pronghorn antelope dashes away from a lame coyote.
     Three weeks later a G.O.G. salvage team searching for portable A.I. devices excavated part of the ruins. Once they obtained the valuable intelligence information they abandoned the site without bothering to free Wolfgang and dozens of other neogene operatives crushed alive in the lower levels under tons and tons of concrete and steel.

*                                               *                                                *

     “What happened on the river?” Sara stood to the side, a little ways off the path as if she might turn to run away from Dan. Yes, the dark forest beckoned her. It seemed familiar. The aftershocks had finally subsided. No major damage in their section of the tunnel complex and most everyone had already gone back inside out of fear of the lethal satellites. But she no longer felt afraid of the satellites or the intimate gloom.
     “They attacked all the barges, but concentrated on the lead barge and the last barge, just like we expected. After they found resistance was weakest on Q-4, they broke off the attacks on the other barges. It doesn’t make sense militarily; I guess they were living out Darwin’s law, find the weakest to bring down.” Dan paused. Sara could tell he was looking at her like he didn’t really know her. He looked away and continued. “We were ordered not to stop to help them. When we went past Q-4, I saw Lydia alone on the deck in front of the pilothouse. I called out for her to jump but she just waved and climbed down into the hold.”

     Sara slowly turned away from the darkness to face Dan. She reached out and he snatched her up in his arms.
     “Forgive me for what I said to you in there. I just am never going to get over not being able to see her again.” Sara thought she was done crying but she started up again as he held her tight.

*                                                 *                                                   *

     Rick stood next to Jill on a rock ledge jutting out over Cedar Lake, far from the tunnel entrance. For so long he had wanted nothing more than to have her in front of him to talk to. Now that he had her alone in this dark forest no words came. She seemed to be in the same state. Finally Rick laughed and she did too. He took her hand and started to lead her back down the side path but she resisted. When he turned to her she was staring up into the pre-dawn sky. The moon was rising above the trees, a moon no one had ever seen before. The big harvest moon had been transformed into liquid, a gigantic oceanic disc of blood, gargantuan waves visible to the naked eye.

     “They always said there was a lot of iron on the moon.” Rick’s voice held no terror or even apprehension.

     “A volcano south of Saint Louis. The Saint Louis Arch collapsed, the Mississippi River running backwards, and now a moon of blood. Is this it, Rick; is tonight the end of the world?”
     “If it is then I’m happy because I’m with you.”

     Jill clasped her cool hands across the back of his neck. “That’s sort of corny but I still like it.” She stood on tiptoes to kiss him. But before they kissed Rick saw something enormous fly in front of the blood moon.
     “What is it?” Jill turned and saw it too.

     They both stared at it for a few seconds then Rick recognized the silhouette. Running as fast as he could through the hanging branches, Rick led Jill up the trail.
     Dan already had his rifle pointed at the giant shadow descending out of the sky when Rick ran into the small open area in front of the tunnel entrance.
     “Don’t shoot! It’s the Eagle!” Rick shouted out just in time.
     Dan hesitated then lowered his rifle. Without landing, the enormous feathered being gently deposited a girl onto the ground. The Eagle lifted off, majestically moving the tree branches with wind from his wing beats. He turned and flew away towards the glow of dawn painting the eastern sky.

     Rick and Sara and Dan ran up to the girl on the ground. Rick recognized Lydia even before she saw her face. Sara knelt down and with trembling hands caressed her daughter. Lydia moaned with every touch. Her face was an expressionless mask, blood from her disintegrating internal organs swelled under her skin all over her body. Only her eyes looked alive.
     “Help me get the handcuffs off! Lydia, can you hear me? It’s me, your mother.”
     Rick could only watch as Dan removed the handcuffs and gently put Lydia on her side. He ordered no one but Sara to touch her.
     Sara kept repeating “My queen, my queen,” in Spanish.
     “What happened to her?” Rick quietly asked Dan.

     “She’s been hit with a microwave weapon. The Pacific Rim used them on our boys on the West Coast at the end of the war. There’s nothing anyone can do for her now but pray.”

     Rick stood over Lydia. He felt Jill take his arm. Nasarine knelt down beside his mother. For a second he caught Lydia’s eye. He could tell she recognized him but at the same time was bewildered by the burning agony inside her. He turned to Jill. “She’s my sister Lydia.”
     “I’m so sorry, Rick.”
     “I never deserved a sister.” Rick watched helplessly as his mother grew hysterical. She prayed then cursed God then prayed and cursed some more. Some soldiers brought Davy-Jake out and laid him down next to Lydia. DJ was still in the straight jacket and was nearly unconscious.

     “She has no pulse, oh God help her she has no pulse!” Sara looked imploringly at her husband and then Rick and the rest of the people gathered around. “Why can’t somebody do something?”
     Lydia’s eyes were still alive. She reached up a shaking hand and held Nasarine’s hand. She moved the girl’s hand to Sara. Her mother took the dark-eyed girl’s hand. Lydia’s arm dropped. Black blood gushed out from her mouth, nose, ears and eyes. She gave one last moan and then her eyes were no longer alive.

     “Oh God, I sinned. I was the vilest sinner in the world for thirteen years. My daughter is only seventeen, never even got started. She was good person. Why didn’t you take me? Please, take me! Take me!”

     Rick watched his mother break down but at the same time she embraced Nasarine, both of them weeping and wailing onto each other’s shoulders as the new day began.

    

XI. Forever Early

 

     Rick finally collapsed onto his cot. He slept for nearly twenty hours. Right before he awoke, he felt himself floating away from his body. After a journey in which time has no meaning, he found himself hovering above a highway paved with gold. There were clouds but no sun or stars or moon in the royal purple sky. The golden highway ran next to a mile-wide river of crystal clear water. He had never known water so clean; huge fish could easily be seen cavorting from the shallows to the depths. The clouds in the sky, river bank, fish, as well as the beautiful trees lining the road, the grass, flowers, rocks, and birds each gave off their own light as if they were filled with stars.
     Down the highway was an ugly black mist. Rick watched a girl with a sad expression walk out of the black mist. He did not recognize the girl, but at the same time was sure that he knew her. The girl stopped and gave one quick look back into the mist. She shivered then turned and walked on up the golden highway.

     Rick rooted for the girl to be happy, to forget the ugly black mist from where she had emerged. Hovering above her, he followed until she stopped to stare at a pair of tawny animals lying together beside the highway. A big male cougar lay with his front leg over a spotted fawn. At first Rick was appalled, wanted the girl to dash away. But she knelt down and petted both creatures. She sprang up from the friendly animals with an astonished smile. Joyfully, she dashed up the golden highway. Rick followed above her, shared in her happiness as she found she could run up tall hills and rock climb sheer cliffs without tiring.
     An angel appeared from nowhere. He looked like a tall young man in a blue uniform and he escorted the girl to a high spot overlooking the crystal river. Here were thousands of men, women, and children standing around a great tree with dazzling fruit something like giant pecans. At the highest point stood a towering lighthouse made of alabaster blocks. The lighthouse shined a warning light too powerful to look at directly, too powerful to ignore.
     “Oh Sovereign Lord, holy and true!” the thousands shouted out together with one voice. “How long will it be before you judge the people of the earth for what they have done to us? When will you avenge our blood against those living on the earth?”
     A resplendent female being emerged from the lighthouse. Her face was as bright as lightning and she wore shining white linen. On her shoulder sat a glowing baby squirrel and behind her came two angel-like assistants.

     “Rest a little longer, until the multitudes of your brothers and sisters, fellow servants of The Son of Man, have been martyred on earth and join you here.” The resplendent female being and her two angelic assistants passed out white robes to each man, woman, and child. The last in line was the girl from the black mist. The resplendent female being embraced her warmly then handed over a shimmering white robe.
     “My faithful sister, the Redeemer of man and nature has seen fit to give to you a special welcome. For you gave everything to defeat the wicked nations of the world, therefore all and much, much more will be given back to you.” The resplendent female being reached out her hand. In her palm a tiny human fetus glowed with life. “Soon we will return to earth to rule with Him!” The resplendent female being pointed across the mile-wide river to the constant lightning flashing across the purple sky.
     The girl from the black mist lifted up her arms in praise as she received her child back into her womb. Suddenly a great chorus of voices sang out a song of victory and glory. People from all ethnicities and animals from all epochs, trees and even rocks sang out with silver voices Rick never heard the likes of.
     Suddenly Rick was no longer just a watching eye. Now he stood before an enormous royal throne inside a city of shining diamonds and other jewels. Thunderous crashes and lightning bolts emanated from the man who sat on the throne. He had reddish woolen hair, skin the color of brass, his eyes platinum lasers that could see through anything. In front of the throne stood four beings that could only be aliens of incredible intelligence from another planet. Behind the throne, an army of angels stood like a mountain range, ready for battle.
     “YOU ARE TO BE THE LAST LEADER OF MY PEOPLE, MY FLOCK, BEFORE MY RETURN. TAKE CARE THAT YOU WATCH OVER MY LITTLE SHEEP.
     Rick fell on the ground and worshiped the Son of Man who sat on the throne. Eventually he blacked out. He woke up in a cold sweat and rolled out of his cot. In the darkness of his little chamber deep inside the tunnel complex he stood up dazed, elated, confused, and burdened. He knelt down to pray.
     “Thank you, Lord, that I can still dream.”

 
Epilogue: The Abomination that Causes Desolation

 

    Three days later Rick could barely stay awake after ten hours of monitoring netcasts deep inside a dimly lit chamber. Circled around the holographic netcast center with him sat two dozen refugees. Because these new arrivals had to constantly stay in front of the netcast center, Rick suspected them of not really being people of faith. Things were very chaotic on the outside and many people were running anywhere and saying anything to get into a safe place. They reminded Rick of the days he had been a homeless wanderer.

     Suddenly the 3-D projection of a dour-looking cosmologist giving his tedious official explanation of the blood moon was cut short. A stunning view of the Mediterranean Ocean off the coast of Italy replaced him. As always Rick saw that the number of days since Secretary-General Sebastiao disappeared was in the corner of the projection. Rick woke up when he noticed what the number was today.
     From beneath roiling white waves a gigantic scarlet beast emerged from the ocean. Was it five hundred feet long or a thousand feet long? Rick couldn’t tell because it shape-shifted right before his eyes. Certainly the Abomination was larger than any other living thing in Earth’s history. It stayed mostly in the form of a centipede; appendages of every kind lined the undulating body. Ten horns protruded from the largest of the beast’s seven cat-skull faces. Upon close-up Rick saw that the horns were really ten torsos with the heads of men. One armless head and torso shouted out obscenities and blasphemies in Mandarin Chinese, at the same time one shouted out blasphemies in Urdu, one in Spanish, one, the largest, shouted in Hindi, one shouted out in the Malay-Indonesian language, one in Swahili, one short one in English, one in Russian, one horn energetically harangued blasphemies in both French and German right next to the bearded one spouting out curses in Arabic.
     The neogenic Abomination should have weighed hundreds of tons but it levitated out of the blue Mediterranean as if it controlled gravity. From under the English-speaking horn another small horn grew out and replaced it. The head had a seeping bullet wound but began screaming out profanities and blasphemies in English that drowned out all the others. Rick thought he had seen enough to never be horrified again but when he recognized Wayne Browner’s face he stood up and gasped. He watched paralyzed as the Abomination snaked through the air towards the shore where a crowd waited. Rick now recognized Dean Browner waiting at the head of the crowd of genuflecting people on the shore.
     “What is that thing?” a bedraggled man sitting next to Rick asked.
     “Why doesn’t Sebastiao come back and end this?” a pale woman pleaded and covered her face with her hands.

     “That is Sebastiao.” The instant Rick said the name the projection of the Abomination turned and spoke into his mind.

     “I HAVE YOUR MOTHER.”
     Rick reeled backwards as if he had been struck. Bracing himself against the cave wall he rose back up and witnessed five of the twenty-plus people in the chamber bowing down to the projection of the Abomination. The others were all screaming or had fainted. Rick stumbled out the chamber door and ran. He meant to reach his mother’s chamber as quickly as possible. Around a bend in the tunnel he slammed into Nasarine and knocked her down.
     He helped her up and she put a note into his hand. He saw in her sleep deprived eyes more confirmation that the sixteen-year-old girl dwelled in an orphan nightmare she could not wake up from. Still, she stood with him as he read the note.
Rick,
By the time you read this I will be gone. Last night I found out from your uncle Angel that your father is alive. He is a high-ranking neogene but I don’t care. I’m going to him. Dan and the rebel leaders in here are suppressing the truth about what is really going on. Outside of America and Israel there is no war. Officials in the new world government are bringing the dead back to life and performing many other miracles to help people that are loyal to them. They are the stronger. Don’t believe in the Christian victory; it’s a lie. Get out of this hole and live for yourself. Forget the god of the Jews and Jesus and get what you want before it is too late!
Sara

     Rick never felt this desolate before. He crumpled the note but then stuffed it into his pocket. He saw Nasarine to her chamber and used her speakerphone to contact Dan.
                       *                                              *                                              *
     “It’s my fault. I drove her to this by the way I acted.” Rick took back the crumpled note from Jill.
     “What are you going to do?” Jill put her hand up to his cheek. He took her hand and held it for a long time.
     “I want to pray for her. But it has to be outside. I don’t want to pray down here.” He started to lead her up a tunnel.
     “What difference does it make to God where you pray for her?”

     “I just want to be outside.” Rick stopped to check out a scoped rifle at a guard station near a portal in the side of a sheer cliff. Rick was now a captain in the intelligence section and was able to get clearance relatively fast.

     Before they walked out onto the narrow limestone ledge he had no idea what time of day it was. It turned out to be noon, but cold and crisp like late autumn even though it was mid-July. The soot and dust in the upper atmosphere from the mega-earthquake blocked out a third of the sunlight. The dim sun still made him squint. He handed Jill the rifle and after her eyes adjusted she used the rifle scope to scan the wooded limestone ridges and columns facing them.

     Rick knelt down and closed his eyes. “Heavenly Father, thank you for showing me that my sister Lydia is reaping her reward in your kingdom. Lord, I will let the dead bury the dead and follow you no matter who falls by the wayside. All the same, I beg you not to allow the enemy to take my mother. I know the hour is late, but in her heart she is still your child and will come to her senses if she has a chance. Please, Lord, give me a sign that she is not lost. Amen.”

     “Rick, there’s something big moving through the bushes right below us.” Jill tensed her finger on the rifle trigger as she followed the moving branches two hundred feet down and less than fifty feet away.
     “None of our guys are supposed to be down there.” Rick stood up and drew his .45 caliber pistol. He peered down into the underbrush. Jill saw the pair first as they moved out into the open.
     “Amazing,” Jill said plainly. Rick had long since ceased to be curious of the variations that the transgenics could take. Whether walking or flying or crawling or slithering, they were all obscenities to him. He almost told her to shoot before he saw what they were.

     The whitetail doe followed by the yearling buck stepped out into the open. Rick couldn’t help but give a sad smile.

     “I thought they sterilized all the wild deer a long time ago. There shouldn’t be any left.” Jill looked at Rick. She questioned him with her green eyes if this was what he was looking for.

     “Praise God, she would have loved to see them.” Rick felt lighter. Almost as if he could step off of this ledge and fly.

*                                              *                                              *

     By the time it was winter in the Northern Hemisphere, two and one half billion people had been killed by starvation, war, prion disease, and by the wild transgenic beasts that prowled the abandoned cities and wastelands. Pro and anti-Sebastiao factions began a war in the Southern Hemisphere using missiles and satellites to burn each others grain crops and tree farms. A gigantic meteor crashed into the Pacific Ocean ending shipping and fishing for five months. Finally, a strange comet the Chinese astronomers named “Bitterness” hit the earth and poisoned one-third of the fresh water.
     Still, most of the thousands of Towers around the world stayed open and the global economy that depended on them kept dragging forward. The vast majority of the seven and a half billion people remaining did not repent of their murders, or sorceries, or thefts, or sexual perversions, or slanders, or insults to their parents, or the coveting of their neighbors property; instead their hearts hardened and they hated the righteous God of the Holy Bible. As the Abomination traveled the globe methodically replacing every sacred shrine, temple, mosque, and church with his statue, he grew even more popular. The people proclaimed him unstoppable and gladly accepted his mark.
     At the same time around the world flew the gigantic Eagle. The Eagle spoke out loudly over the desolate lands so that every remaining human heard him at least once. “WOE, WOE, WOE TO THE PEOPLE OF THE EARTH BECAUSE OF THE TERRIBLE JUDGMENTS THAT WILL SOON RAIN DOWN UPON YOU.”

*                                             *                                               *

     Spring came reluctantly next year. One early morning in a puddle near the old Mississippi River bed, the transgenic creature formerly known as Bad Henry rose up from the muck. The last follower of Jesus Christ in Moreau County gave a great shout of victory even though his eyes had not grown back. Even so he could somehow see remotely.

     After he fashioned rough clothing out of burlap bags, he hiked up the bluff to the ruins of the Baptist church. He was very puzzled. What did God want him to do now? Near some church debris he found a black device that turned out to be a solar-powered audio New Testament. He sat down and listened to the voice of Pastor Sterling reading from the Book of Mathew until the first paragraph of Revelations 11 was finished. He shut off the device and stood up.

     “Yes! I know who I am now!” he shouted out into the twilight. “But who is the other one? Where will I find the other one like me?”
     From the dark trees now walked out an entity almost too gruesome to describe. It was a windigo, thirteen feet tall, something like a hairy sasquatch but the yellow-haired head was round instead of cone-shaped and its gapping mouth could easily swallow a man whole. All over its black hair-covered body the faces of other windigos budded out. This was no demon-possessed transgenic wretch but a real nephilim.
     “You know me,” it spoke with a snagged voice.
     “I’ve seen you before. In the marsh.”

     “Our time has come to rule this portion of the Earth. I will consume you now and you will be reborn as one of my children.” It stretched out its long arms as its young gave off eerie howls.

     “No, I know who I am. I am one of the Witnesses!” He stepped back not sure what to do. He saw no choice but to blow himself up again. So be it. But when he tried to explode, flames shot out of his mouth like a blast furnace and burned off the tarantula-like hands about to grab him. Howling, the windigo dodged away. It tried to get back into the trees but the Witness was fast too and caught it in the back with an accurate burst. Black smoke and demonic wails echoed up into the night sky as the windigo was engulfed in the flames thrown from the Witness’s mouth.
     “Praise the living God! His Spirit is in me! All power and glory to Him! He is a consuming fire! Hallelujah!” The Witness turned around many times in the darkness. Which direction was Jerusalem? He had no idea. He finally decided to go north. He sang loudly as walked down the dark road. This was no funeral. This was time for celebration, like a wedding and the birth of a child put together and multiplied billions and billions of times. All things made new. The end of the world was going to be fun.

Faith                          Hope                           Love                        Now                       Enhanced

 

The End

 

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