“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” - Epicurus – Greek philosopher, BC 341-270 "The Lord is subtle but not malicious. God does not play dice." - Albert Einsten "Stop telling God what to do." - Niels Bohr
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON /
4:59 PM /
POST-PRIMARY REPRODUCTIVE CYCLE
Stephen Landry, 20 years old, sat in his car, his face tear-streaked and smeared a dark red from the bloody nose Angela’s father had given him not twenty minutes earlier. It was raining and grey and the entire world was ending. His fiancee Angela had dumped him on the spot when he had shown her the c-machine, had screamed at him that it was the Devil’s work and to get the fuck out of her father’s house with it.
This reaction had surprised Stephen – Little Stevie to this buddies at Microsoft – since he had never known Angela to be particularly religious. He had initially protested, a little offended, tried to get her to listen to him, but she just screamed louder, and soon harsh words of finality, of scorn and worst of all, phrases of regret were exchanged until Angela’s father and brother Trevor had ‘escorted’ Stephen and the c-machine to out his car, where Trevor threw Stephen onto the passenger door and kicked him just once, viciously and as hard as he could, in the ribs. Stephen shivered, doubling over at the memory; his ribs hurt intensely when he took anything other than a very shallow, panting breath and he wondered with the strange lucidity of shock if Trevor had actually managed to crack a rib or two.
The c-machine appeared to be undamaged (not a scratch, not a single dent) even though Angela’s father had slammed it to the street with all his two-handed force, shouting: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” but he didn’t know if it still worked.
Remembering the c-machine slam, Stephen noted that Angel’s father’s religious conversion was very recent as well, he having admitted to Stephen last summer at a family barbecue that he was squarely in the “I’m-not-saying-there’s-no-god-but-I-am-saying-he-hates-our-guts” camp. This whispered, beer-warm warm and fizzy, into Stephen’s right ear, her father having perhaps had one too many. What a great day, he remembered.
Stephen doubted that Angela’s father was a drinking man any longer, and anyway it didn’t matter now because Angela was gone. Gone. He clutched his ribs, wanting to cry but not crying to avoid the pain. Looking through the wet windshield into the early night, he saw nothing in front of him but darkness and rain.
Stephen put his right hand on top of the c-machine, feeling it warm to him like a greeting, and said: “A painless way out.”
Rain on the windshield, tapping like an army of angels, a rhythm too late.
Stephen reached into the c-machine and took out the syringe, full and primed. He knew at once what was in it; sat there stock-still in his car staring at it and a moment later, nodding softly in affirmation, he put the syringe down on the dash and removed his belt to tie off with.
CORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS /
1:23 PM /
ONE HUNDRED SIXTY-EIGHT HOURS
POST-PRIMARY REPRODUCTIVE CYCLE
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!” Bethany Tillinghast screamed, her usually dulcet, good-girl voice torn ragged and harsh from shrieking. Her heart pounded in her chest. Her mind was fogged with terror.
Her parents were there behind her, also screaming, their faces upturned and flushed. “Demon! Get back to hell!” Bellowed her father.
Bethany, just thirteen, had never felt closer or more proud of her father than she did at that moment. He was tall, strong, and angry. She moved closer him, and felt her father’s left hand – the one not bunched into a fist over his head – on her shoulder. She felt warm all over.
Before them, on the pyre in front of them and now being liberally doused with gasoline by Timmy Palmer and Alan Watts, was an ungainly stack of c-machines, some scrawled with graffiti curses. Bethany could see the gas dripping down the side of the dark matte black boxes and she smiled to herself.
Dirty, evil things.
As if she had read her daughter’s mind, Bethany’s mother, who was apparently waiting for the crowd to lessen its shouts, suddenly let out: “The Devil’s Playthings! BURN THEM!”
Their minister, the Reverend Wilson, came forward between the crowd and the pyre, his face grave. He scratched open a road flare which cast a rose-glow, hellish over his lined, weathered face as he held it out before them. “Thus we cast Satan from our midst!”
With careful aim, he threw the sputtering flare onto the pile. Bethany looked up, her wide eyes following its arc as the flare reached the top of the pyre, where, beaten unconscious and bleeding profusely, Emily Meyers was strapped, the one who had brought the first c-machine home from her trip back east. On her right hand was large, beautiful diamond ring, now half-covered in blood. In an instant, she and the stack were engulfed in rabid yellow flame, consumed whole by the conflagration; the entire congregation screamed in unison and drew back, with those nearest the pyre – including Bethany’s parents – doing so with singed eyebrows.
“Well,” Bethany’s father said matter-of-factly, patting his beard for burns. “That’s that.”
But it wasn’t.
“And now a word from the Surgeon General of the United States…”
“Good evening. I’m speaking to Americans tonight about combating a plague, about saving the United States and yes – the world – from chaos and death, and – most of all – to save each one of you.”
“We are broadcasting this message on all channels in the hope that -”
“These devices apparently function via some unknown new technology, one that’s clearly never been subjected to any testing for safety. We don’t even know who built it or how it works. I mean, how you can eat something that came from a magic box? –”
“No, I can’t say with certainty that L. Ron Hubbard created the c-machine, but he may have. After all, he created the e-meter, didn’t he? That’s all I’m saying-”
“-pitals and morgues are overflowing in Boston, Needham and Burlington, Mass, Peter. Deaths are occurring in the hundreds and thousands, an unprecedented human event-”
Michael was sitting on Simon’s front porch, reading something. Simon came and sat beside him. Inside, Simon’s mother was merrily making lunch, singing an old Stevie Nicks song.
She knew all the lyrics.
“What are you reading?” Simon said, feeling – as he had since the day he took the Elixir – calm and centered and very much in control of himself. “Private?”
Michael shook his head and handed the wrinkled and dirty piece of paper to Simon. “Not at all. Just a message from the Boss.”
Simon took what was clearly parchment, not paper, he realized. It was covered with an exquisite series of hand-drawn letters, beautifully detailed but undecipherable to him. “The Eschaton sent you this? How?” Simon sniffed at it, wrinkled his nose at the decrepit smell of fungus and age. “What language is this written in anyway? Sanskrit?”
“Aramaic. It’s a page from the Aramaic Bible.” Michael said this while looking thoughtfully at the trees across the road, then glanced at Simon’s hands. “The Eschaton has a…unique sense of humor, as you will no doubt come to understand. Oh, sorry. Turn it over. The message is on the other side.”
Simon flipped the scrap of parchment over. This side had none of the pretty characters; it clearly had been blank once but someone had scribbled on it in red marker just one word: Ellen.
“Did you get this from the c-machine? Is that how He communicates…?” Simon handed it back.
“No, the Eschaton doesn’t play with such small toys. This was direct delivery.” Michael pointed a bony finger up to the sky.
Simon looked up at the sky involuntarily and didn’t know what to say. “Well, he has lousy handwriting,” he finally said, shrugged, then pressed his palms together in a parody of prayer. “Don’t zap me out of existence, E!”
Michael actually laughed out loud.
Simon smiled, happy that, at least momentarily, he had lifted Michael’s somehow-defeated mood. “What does it mean?”
Michael said. “I think we need to go back to the hospital.”
“Oh,” Simon said softly, then a little louder. “Oh! Ellen…the nurse from the ER?”
“The very one. She apparently has a part to play too.”
“What part?” Simon asked.
“I don’t k–” and all the hair on Simon’s arms stood up on end in unison, a fluttering of toxic butterflies exploded in his gut, a million tiny wings beating in there and something akin to terror rose like bile in his throat. Simon stiffened and, without understanding why, he looked back up at the sky, the skin on his face tightening as he did so.
Before them, more or less centered over Simon’s front yard – the dooryard as Vermonters knew it – and perhaps eight meters above it, something odd was happening.
Simon smelled ozone.
There seemed to be an object hovering above the lawn.
Well, not exactly an object, Simon realized, because if you looked straight at it you saw nothing, but a quick series of sideways glances revealed a small grey, fuzzy sphere, grey-white worms writhing on its surface, somehow grainy and integral to it.
There was a brilliant white flash, and Simon’s ears popped at the same time. A stiff breeze appeared from out of nowhere and promptly rearranged his hair. The Simon of just a few days ago would have been on his feet and bolting for either the basement or his car at this point, but now he just sat still and waited.
Something fell out of that now-gone grey bubble and hit the lawn will dull lump.
Michael sighed and stood, then ambled to the spot in the lawn where it had landed and picked up what had deposited there. Simon glanced back up and the whatever-it-was now wasn’t. It smells like just after a lightning strike, Simon thought, blinking at the afte-image of the flash.
“Okay, I’m impressed,” Simon said, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles. “That’s a pretty good magic trick.”
“One of His favorites. He’s used it before, albeit using a larger light cone. Takes tremendous gobs of energy to do it. The larger the light cone, the more energy it takes. Turns out to be a logarithmic scale.” Michael said as he returned to the porch, then he noticed Simon’s honest, confused expression, and added: “Sorry. That was a micro-wormhole. Instantaneous inter-dimensional quantized information exchange.” He extended his arm and handed Simon something: It was Simon’s coffee mug, the one he had first printed when asking for tea.
“He’s a little theatrical, if you ask me.” Michael said, handing the mug to Simon. “But I’m pretty sure this message is for you.” And with that, Michael went into the house, accompanied by the happy music of Simon’s mother chanting prettily about the Edge of Seventeen.
Simon turned it over in his hands; it looked correct to him, just like the first one (which Simon had sequestered on a high shelf in his kitchen), but when he peered inside the mug there was more of that sloppy red writing in that same spiky, somehow left-handed, scrawl. Four words this time.
She is your heart.
“Gobs?” Simon said, sitting to lunch with his mother and Michael.
“Sorry? Gobs?” Michael said, lifting the bread off the top o his BLT to check for mayonnaise. “Oh, you mean as in gobs of energy? Yes, that’s a technical term.”
“What you two need to do, other than to pass me the ketchup over there,” Simon’s mother said, sitting down with her scrambled eggs (her favorite meal) and waving vaguely at a plastic bottle of Heinz. Michael handed it to her and winked at Simon. “–Is to get more exposure.”
Simon said, “Mom, I think we’ve got plenty of exposure already! C-machines are popping up all over the country just an outbreak of the flu. The TV sounds worse than on 9/11! The government is freaking out talking about nation-wide manhunts for those distributing c-machines; I have to admit I’m actually a little surprised they haven’t come to visit us already, to be honest. Seems to me the last thing we need is to shine more light on this!”
“Son,” his mother said sternly. “You just shaddup a minute. I marched on Washington long before you were born, and if there’s one thing my generation knows how to do, it’s how to get the Good Word out. Handing them black boxes out in church is all well and good, but people don’t understand them things, how they work, and most of all, who made ’em, so of course they’re scared and freakin’ out. You got to get on TV and tell people what this is all about–”
“Mom!” Simon said, arms folded. “I created a Facebook page already and everything!”
“No one believes anything the see on the Internet, and you know it. They will believe a TV broadcast, a little more anyway. As long as certain conditions are met.” Doing her best to look wise, Simon’s mother lit a cigarette and squinted pointedly at Michael.
Michael laughed. “She’s right, Simon. TV is our best option, although later we will simply stream directly to reduce the risk of censure. TV works because it’s the most familiar, the least threatening way to –”
“Prophesy!” She interjected, stabbing with her cigarette at the air. “Rapture’s coming!” And she cackled happily and bit into her eggs.
“-Explain things to people,” Michael finished. “And prove to them that the Eschaton is very real, and very determined.”
Simon threw up his hands. “So, okay. Fine. I don’t know anyone in TV. Mom, do you know anyone in TV?”
“Not a friggin’ soul,” his mother said cheerfully around her eggs.
“And I’m pretty fucking certain you don’t know anyone either, Michael, so where does that leave us?”
Michael watched Simon take a bite of his sandwich and chew smugly. “Come on,” he said, waving the sandwich. “What do we do now?”
“We finish lunch, and then we go to the hospital,” Michael said.
“Do you think she’ll remember me?” Simon said, pulling into the parking lot by the Emergency Room entrance to the Medical Center. The rain that has persisted over the last forty-eight hours had broken and patches of blue sky began to pull apart the clouds. “I mean, you know, us?”
“I’m pretty sure she will,” Michael said and got out.
They went through the sliding doors and Simon showed his ID to the security guard (a different guard this time, who looked unimpressed and waved them past). Then they were in the main ED bay two roles of semi-private beds, all empty at this moment. Simon looked around the corner at the nursing station, but didn’t see Ellen.
“I don’t see her,” he said. “Let’s try the break room.”
When they walked into the small break room, Ellen was sitting, feet up on a chair, eating M&M’s one-at-a-time while she read a magazine. She looked tired. Then she looked up and blinked once, twice, and then stood too quickly, scattering her M&M’s off the Formica table top to the floor, skittering and scratching away.
“Uh, hello,” Simon said and tried a smile. “Can, uh, can we talk to you for a minute?”
Ellen”s darted left and right, and she looked as if she was about to bolt from the room. Michael put up his hands. “Just talk, Ellen. We’re sorry to startle you, but it’s important that we talk.”
A moment. She took a breath, gathered herself. “I’m sorry. I never expected to see you two again. What did you want to talk about?”
“The end of the world,” Michael said earnestly.
Ellen shook her head. “I am sooo not listening to a bunch of religious nonsense-” and she started to walk out. She was passing Michael’s high right shoulder when he held out his hand, which held a small, capped plastic cup of the Elixir. “What is that?”
Michael let her take the cup from him. She turned it slowly over in her hands, then held it to the light. “I’ve seen this shit before. You puked it up. Called it what was it? oh yeah…voiding the colostrum or something.”
“Drink it,” Michael said softly. “You’ll see.”
Ellen’s eyelids drooped with open contempt. “You are out of your mind if you think there’s any way I’m touching this stuff!” And she handed it back to Michael.
“Please,” Simon said, interceding. “I know you don’t know us, and I know you have no reason to trust us. I get it; twenty-four hours ago I was right where you are now. But I’m telling you, there’s some next-level shit going on here. ”
“You just don’t seem to get the point: I don’t give it shit what’s going on. I am not interested! OK? Have I made myself cl-”
“Ellen! Another nurse called from behind Simon, out in the hall. “We have two coming in!”
Ellen shoved Michael aside and hustled into the hall. “What is it?”
“A man and a little girl. Car flipped on I89. Ambo’s two minutes out.”
“Set up four and five,” Ellen said, and heard the siren. She rushed to entrance, Michael and Simon forgotten for the moment behind her.
The father died in the ambulance, his chest crushed in as if an elephant had slammed his foot there with its weight. One of the ambulance crew shook his head and said he frankly didn’t understand how the guy had held out as long as he did. The little girl, however, fought bravely for the next forty-five minutes, receiving CPR and oxygen the entire time. She was clearly bleeding badly internally in her abdomen: Her belly was distended, rigid and reddish-blue, and her throat had partially compressed and her airway compromised, so as much as they fought (Michael noticed that there were at least four people working on or around the little girl the entire time, Ellen one of them, spelling each other pumping or working on her, cutting clothes away, examining her eyes, her ears. All of them moving rapidly with a clinical, detached calm. And all of them with tears in their eyes.) he heart stopped and they “called it.”
“Why are they stopping?” Michael asked Simon, from a reasonable distance.
Simon wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve. “She’s gone. It’s over.”
Simon looked at Michael startled. Down the hall, Ellen pulled a sheet over the little. Everyone else who had worked so hard left right away, their faces blank and hard as concrete. “She’s dead. You saw they did everything they could, but, you know, she’s gone.”
“Like hell she is!” Michael pointed. “She’s right there.” Michael marched angrily to the little girl’s bedside with such sudden ferocity that he had pulled the sheet back down, exposing the little girl’s bloody face and vacant, utterly empty expression. “The pattern can be re-established, but not for long!” He yanked the cover off the cup and, just as Ellen turned and shouted, lunging for him, unceremoniously splashed the Elixir into the little girl’s half-open mouth, where it sank instantly out of sight.
“What the FUCK DID YOU JUST DO?” Ellen screamed at Michael. “What was that?”
“I just saved her life!” Michael stormed back, clearly furious. “I forgot what a bunch of savages you all were!”
Simon was silent, and continued staring at the little body separating them as they shouted. It looked like–
The vitals monitor beeped loudly. Once.
Ellen’s gaze snapped to the monitor. “Did that just–”
And it beeped again. Then again. And finally, after another few moments, it established a weak, but steady, rhythm. The little girl’s chest began to rise and fall. The skin of her exposed stomach already seemed less purple, less angry.
Michael sighed. “Terrifying. Medieval,” he muttered to himself.
Ellen put fingers to the girl’s neck, frowned, felt gently around there. “I could have sworn–”
The little girl’s eyes opened. “Daddy?” she croaked.
Called back by Ellen, the crash team took turns being astounded. “She’s stable,” the resident said. “I can’t believe it, but she is.” He turned to Ellen. “She’s got a long way to go, but she’s stable. Did she just … uh … wake up?”
Ellen was staring evenly at Michael, now back out in the hall. “Uh, yeah,” she said, then smiled ruefully. “Scared the shit outta me.”
“I’ll bet,” the resident said and went back to the girl.
Ellen stripped off her rubber gloves and walked slowly toward them, a strange kind of half-smile on her face. “All right,” she said. “You have my attention.”
“I am simply not drinking that shit,” Ellen said flatly, her empty beer in front of her. Michael had just poured the Elixir – in one sickening glop! – into the bottle and now it was sliding down the insides. The three of them were at Moe’s, a local watering hole that predated the Simpson’s rendition by nearly a decade.
Simon looked around excitedly; he had never been here before, but of course he had heard stories. It was supposed to be a “rough place,” but, Simon mused, it didn’t seem that they were in much danger given the tavern’s current clientele, which consisted of an old drunk woman slumped to one side in the back of the dimly lit, pungent room, and two nervous young latino men, clearly foreign farm workers and in the country “illegally.” The last thing they wanted was for the police to come.
And the three of them there, alone at the bar; the bartender was lost in the TV above his head, his face rapt, a monk experiencing an Ecstatic Vision.
But it was just the Celtics.
Michael shook his head tiredly. “You need to drink it. Now. We simply do not have time for this.”
“Michael, it’s quite a bit for anyone to grab hold of, okay? Let’s give her a minute to work through this,” Simon said earnestly, meaning every word and honestly disturbed by Ellen’s leaden stare at the beer bottle.
“We don’t have time.” Michael’s forehead was now resting on the bar.
They sat in silence, each one of them staring straight ahead, and no one’s gaze crossed another’s. Then Ellen sat forward, creaking her bar stool to attention. “One question.”
Michael turned his forehead along the bar, and looked at her sideways expectantly. Then he raised his eyebrows.
She plunged ahead with it. “What if I don’t like it? What then?”
Michael tossed up his hands. “What do you want to hear? This isn’t exactly a penicillin shot. I-absolutely-fucking-guarantee-you-it-will-work, okay?”
She looked at Simon. “You drank it?”
She nodded once and then tipped the beer bottle up and to her lips.
“How long will she sleep?”
Michael looked a little better than he had in the bar. “It’s different for everyone; every mind is different, but the average is twelve-to-eighteen hours. I was under for ten-and-a-half.”
“You can remember? ‘Cause I can’t,” Simon said, driving back to Middlesex, Ellen snoring lightly in the back seat. He felt wonderful; he was tired but pleasantly so.
“Oh no, but I can look it up,” Michael said, straightening a little and shivering.
“Are you doing okay? You didn’t look too good in the bar,” Simon asked.
“I’m better now; well, you see, it takes considerable energy to–” Michael stopped and looked at Simon. “What?”
“You’re sick?” Simon’s eyes were wide in the car’s evening light. “As in dying sick?” There was a terrible, childlike terror in his voice.
“I’ll get sicker, but I won’t die,” Michael said, his voice matter-of-fact. “But, for now, I”m on the mend. Home, James. We must feast whilst the Lady sleeps!”