3. Wormwood

And the third angel sounded, and there fell 
a great star from heaven, burning as it were 
a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of 
the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;
And the name of the star is called Wormwood.
    - Revelation of St. John, 8:10-11, 
      King James Bible

Gravity explains the motions of the planets, 
but it cannot explain who sets the planets in motion.
    - Sir Isaac Newton

“Houston, this is NA1SS.  Do you copy?  Over.”

Flight Controller Davis looked up from his iPad and tapped in.  “Go, NA1SS.  What’s up, Rod?”

“Houston, I’ve got a story to tell you, and you aren’t going to like it.”  Rod was the current NASA Mission Commander aboard the International Space Station – call sign NA1SS – and was roughly halfway through his tour.  He had an astronaut’s calm demeanor, so it was hard for Davis to tell how serious this was.  He had been pranked before.

“Go, Rod.”

“Gene, we have an unclaimed bottle of alcohol on board.” Rod said, and there was menace in his voice.

Davis smiled to himself.  Rod was a devout Mormon, and had very specific views on alcohol, particularly in space. Not that Rod was wrong about that, but if Rod had been around NASA as long as Davis had, he would also know just how many gallons of hooch had been smuggled skyward over the years.

“Am I correct in assuming that this stowaway is as of yet unopened?” Davis asked wryly.

“Roger.”

“And so … what?  Are you looking for my okay to open it?”  Manny Perkins, a row below him in F.A.O., snorted and shook his head, then looked back and grinned.  Davis winked at him.

No, Gene.  Of course not.  Be serious.”  Rod actually sounded a little petulant now.

“Roger.  So what’s the problem:  No one owned up?”

“It had to be Morrisey,” Rod said in a low voice.

“He ‘fessed up?”  Davis was now serious.

“No one confessed, just like you said.  But I know it was him.”  There was a fair amount of hate in that last sentence, Davis thought grimly.  These guys had spent the better part of three months locked together in a bunch of aluminum lego blocks, with a few millimeters of canvas and metal between them and instant death.  It wasn’t unusual for things to get tense from time to time.  But Davis was wary; these kinds of feuds could (and had) ruined missions in the past.

“Pray tell,” Davis said grimly.

“He came out of node one with a bottle of – what was it Jimmy? – oh, right:  Absinthe.”

“Jesus,” Davis muttered, and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

Language.”  Rod was ready to pop his cork.

“Uh, Roger that, Rod.   Apologies,” Davis managed.

“It’s like 120 proof!”  Rod said, scandalized.

Perkins ripped off his headset and, doubled over by a series spasmodic laughing fits, hurried from the control room.

“Yeah, I hear that absinthe can be nasty stuff.  I’m more of a Bud man, myself, to be honest.  But it certainly doesn’t belong on the ISS.  Let me talk to Morrisey.  I’ll straighten this out.”

“He’s on, Gene,” Rod said flatly.

“Hey Gene,” Morrisey, a young planetary scientist, said glumly over the line.  “I’m here.  I don’t blame Skip for being upset.  I wouldn’t believe me, either.   He’s upset ’cause what I told him doesn’t make any sense.”

“Run it by me,” Davis said, certain in his bones that Morrisey was pulling a stunt.

“I was in Node 1, checking the vents.  You can check with the F.A.O.  It’s on the schedule.”

“Acknowledged.  I’ve seen the schedule.  You were where you were supposed to be.  Continue.”

“Anyway, I was working and then I smelled something.  It took me a second, but then I realized it was a short circuit, it smelled like burning plastic or insulation maybe. So I started looking around the air lock to see if I can see anything burning, and…”  Morrisey trailed off, then went ahead.  “- Then there was a little fuzzy grey dot hovering there in the center of the air lock.  It didn’t look like anything much.  It was small, maybe the size of a quarter, and really hard to see clearly.  It didn’t seem to have a clearly defined edge; it was kind of hard to focus.  I wouldn’t have seen it at all if it hadn’t had a white background behind it.”

“A grey dot?”

“A fuzzy grey dot.  Yes, sir.  And then it got bigger, all at once.  Grew to maybe ten centimeters in diameter.  And, uh, Houston?”

“Go.”

“This bottle of booze floated down out of it.  Damn thing bumped me right in the chest.  I grabbed it in both hands, took a look down at it  to see what it was and then looked back up, and the little grey dot is gone.  And right then I felt a little breeze.”  You could hear the dry click in Morrisey’s throat as he swallowed.

“A breeze?”  Davis’ eyes widened.  Breezes on the space station were really bad news, for obvious reasons related to atmospheric pressure (and the sudden loss thereof).

“Roger that.  But we’re okay.  This happened almost an hour ago now, and we show hull integrity 100 percent. Press is stable.”

“Press is stable,” Davis agreed, looking at it projected in large green letters on the corner of his screen.  “Tell me about this magic, apparating bottle.”

“Well, I’m no expert but even Skip here can tell it’s really old and probably pretty expensive-”

“Let me ask you a serious question,” Davis said, watching a freshly washed and chaste Perkins return to his post.  “How in the hell did you get Rod of all people to go along with this crap?”

“You don’t believe me either,” Morrisey said softly. “Okay.  Okay.  I get it.  But there’s one more thing, Flight.”

“Go.”

“There’s a note attached to the bottle.  A hand-written note.”

“Well, don’t keep all of us down here on Earth in suspense,” Davis opined.  “What does it say?”

“It says:  Have one on me.  And it’s signed the Eschaton,” Morrisey reported.

“Who the hell’s the Eschaton?” Davis said.

Perkins cut in on the line.  “Actually, the word eschaton doesn’t refer to a person, but to a time period.”

“Which time period, FAO?” Davis asked, going along with this little farce against his better judgment.

“End times, Flight.  The End Times,” Perkins said, and tapped off.

“Well, you asked me.  I told you,” Morrisey said.

“It’s gonna be End Times for someone all right,” Rod said tersely.

“Skip?”  It was crew member Dawes, a fiesty young marine and a mechanical engineer, coming online.

“Go, Dawes,” Rod said.

“Have you guys checked the film?” Dawes asked innocently.  Dawes was in charge of the internal video system on the ISS, among other things.  “Uh, you know?  Our video system that’s pretty much always on?”

Perkins exploded again in laughter, and slumped over his workstation, quivering; even Davis snickered.


Simon carried Evie,  asleep like a child,  to the back of Ellen’s car and deposited her there as gently as she could, then came around to the driver’s side window.  He smiled down and in at her.

“So,” Ellen said matter-of-factly.  “Now we’ve done it.”

“Oh yeah,” Simon said and nodded seriously.  “Everyone who came to the show got themselves a little black box of chaos tonight.  Even the stage crew, even your little sister.”  Simon noticed that Ellen’s profile was quite beautiful.  “Especially your little sister.”

“Box of–?”

“Well, think about it.  The c-machine makes money – makes wealth – irrelevant.  If you can just print whatever you want whenever you want, then modern finance and banking, which are built upon the certainty that the more scarce something is the more value it has…well, those institutions are just done.  Complete financial collapse.”

They heard Michael approaching from the far side of the parking lot, his steps making little snapping splash noises on the damp macadam as the came.

“More correctly, money has always been something of an illusion, an agreed-upon artifice that is now ending,” Michael said, coming and coming at them.  “We’ve now moved past the first Inflection Point.”  His hands went up from his sides in an expression of relief and joy.  “The Annunciation is now behind us.  Hallelujah.”

“The Annunciation?”  Ellen asked, tilting her gaze up at Simon, silhouetted above her.

“That creepy text message,” Simon answered from shadow.  “Apparently, our new minor deity takes liberties when naming things.”

Simon and Ellen shared a small laugh.  Then Simon’s expressive shadow stood up into the light.  “Uh, just who got that text message anyway, Michael?”  Simon asked, his voice different.

“Given that the Eschaton was the One Who Sent it, I would imagine that everyone did.”  Michael was glancing through the rear window at Evie.

Ellen snorted.  “Um, yeah!  Every phone in the studio went off, even mine.”

“Everyone.  On the planet,” Michael said softly, tapping on the glass speculatively.

Ellen and Simon exchanged glances.

“That text went to all active cell phones, everywhere. The Big E is not given to understatement.   And so, be happy!”  Again, he raised his arms heavenward.  “The word is now irretrievably out!  And we have pulled the first of their fangs: Wealth.  Now everyone will just have to make their own way into the light.”

Simon stepped away from the car door, coming a little closer to Michael.  “It’s those remaining fangs I’m worried most about, Michael. If that little message actually went everywhere, the government will develop a sudden and intense interest in us very, very soon.”

Michael nodded.  “Government intervention is indeed coming, and soon.  It won’t be pleasant, either.  But it is, as it happens, also quite necessary.”  He shrugged indifferently.  “In the end, it will be pointless.”

“Well, that’s comforting,” Simon said sourly, crossing his arms.

Ellen did something strange to Simon then:  She reached out of the open car window and hooked her index finger in the belt loop at the back of his pants and gently tugged him back closer to her.  He came willingly, a small, strange smile suddenly on his face.

“So, what do we do?”  Ellen asked.  Having reeled Simon back in, Ellen released the belt loop.  Then she gently patted his ass. “What’s next?”

Michael explained.  “We just issued the fifth c-machine generation tonight, which means we have at a minimum two-hundred and fifty-six c-machines active in the world. That, as it also happens, is just enough.  The equation balances, yes?  So we wait and see what happens next. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!‘”

“What?” Simon and Ellen said in unison, but Michael just smiled and started back to Simon’s car.

“We won’t have to wait too long, I’m guessing,” Simon added.   Then he smiled good night to Ellen and went with Michael to his own car.


The pope’s iPhone went off 5:32AM.  Already half-awake (he rarely slept through the night any longer), the pontiff glared at the damned, evil thing.  He had silenced it last night when he retired, having first plugged it into the charger, just as he did every night. Greedy little thing.  Pocket-sized demon.  He thought.

Minima daemonium,” he said playfully, his voice gravelly with sleep, reaching out and bringing the phone closer so he could see it.  “Why do you chirp so early this morning, little bird?”

Then he read the text.


Bethany came back early the next morning to see whatever was left besides ashes.   Because she really did want to see, she knew.  She’d thought about it as she fell asleep last night in her own cozy bed, and that scary memory, shot through with fire and shouts, became almost a dream – albeit a bad dream – now that the sun was rising warm and steady and it was a bright and wonderful spring morning.

She came then to the smoldering pile in front of the church.  Bethany stopped short and put a hand to her nose and mouth involuntarily; the ash pile smelled unexpectedly like a summer barbecue and her stomach flipped over all at once.  Something dead cold reached down and touched the very bottom of her stomach.  She dropped to her knees and promptly barfed up her breakfast into a neat, colorful little pile amidst the ashes. Well, duh, you big dummy, she thought resignedly, vomiting the whole while, eyes squeezed shut in sudden pain and disgust, what did you expect?  

When her stomach stopped heaving, Bethany rocked back on her heels and, wiping her lips, opened her eyes again.  There before her, almost exactly at eye-level, was the charred skull and sizzled, friable hair of Emily Meyers, the top part of a limned skeletal collapse of a corpse, grisly wrists still pinioned behind it.

“Hunnnh!” Bethany said, and scrambled back like a crab, eyes wide and unblinking.

Then Bethany noticed that Emily’s black skull wasn’t doing anything.  It was just there, still and stupid and gross.  After a moment more, Bethany felt that she had looked long enough, had proved enough, and so looked away, to her left side and down.

Her breath caught in her throat.

A c-machine was just sitting there, unburnt, unmarked, like nothing had happened to it at all last night.  Like it hadn’t been burnt up. But she saw it burn up!  And then Bethany saw another black box, a little further back into the ashes where it was still too hot to go. And another.  And Another.

All of them!  She thought, filled with both fear and wonder.  They were in the fire! She was standing on them!

The boxes had been in a semi-neat stack last night, but now Bethany saw they had been distributed at varying distances from the source of the blaze.  It’s like someone moved them, she thought.   Why would…

As if in response to her half-formed question, the c-machine at her feet suddenly flipped over on its side, ending up slightly closer to her.

“Uh…” Bethany said.  “Uh…what?”  She had long heard the phrase don’t-believe-your-eyes and she obviously knew what that meant, but she had just watched the squat, matte black box just turn itself over, as if a heavy weight inside it had suddenly moved, and her brain was telling her eyes that was impossible.  She felt all cold and empty inside now. The sweat, formed by the vomiting, felt all at once like ice on the back of her neck.

Something moved from deep within the pyre, causing a small, somehow obscene poof! of human ash to spout upward. Bethany jumped in-place, startled like a deer, ready to bolt. But something – she didn’t understand what – held her in place.

And then the one at her feet flipped over again, positioned right in front of her.  She thought she must have screamed, but the sound never left her throat.  Bethany suddenly had to pee really badly.  The sun went behind a cloud for a moment, then came back out. Bethany watched the box closely.  The top of it was free of ash, and the black plastic-y material there seemed to be, well, moving somehow, a slow miasmatic current of blackness.  Bethany watched unblinking as a small red heart appeared on the flowing surface, solidifying and turning red all at once.  The heart just pulsed there, waiting for her to decide.

“All right,” she said after a minute, something akin to determination in her voice.  “Let’s see.”

Bethany put her small hand on top of the c-machine and said, in a calm, firm voice: “Instructions.”


On to 4. Entropy

 

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