Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying. ― Arthur C. Clarke Chaos reigns. - The Fox, Antichrist, Lars Von Trier And I looked, and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. - The Holy Bible, King James Version, Revelation 6:8
“Here you go,” Ellen said, handing a c-machine to the middle-aged woman standing in the doorway. “Now remember not to feed it after midnight!”
“What?” The woman said softly, looking at her.
“Sorry. Bad joke,” Ellen amended. “Make sure to give at least two away to friends and family! Have a great day!” Ellen waved and walked back to the pickup truck, its bed full of stacked c-machines, and climbed inside.
Behind the steering wheel, Evie was listening to the radio. “President’s going to make an address tonight at nine,” she said. “I can only guess at what he’s got to say.”
“I’ll bet you can,” Ellen said, opening the driver’s side door. “Scooch over. Big sister’s driving.”
Evie smiled and scooched.
“On to the next house,” Ellen said. “I’m hoping we can cover most of the North End today.”
JOINT BASE ANDREWS,
MARYLAND, 6:08 PM
They brought Simon in and uncuffed his hands from behind him. Michael was eating soup at a small table, spooning it to his mouth from one of two full bowls; unshackled, Simon went quickly to him.
Michael shook his head, seeing Simon up close. “I can see you didn’t manage to avoid a beating,” he said ruefully.
Simon shrugged and pursed his split and swollen lips. One eye was purple-black and so swollen it couldn’t open beyond a slit. “Yeah, well,” Simon said, sitting down opposite Michael and taking the other bowl of soup for himself. “I fucked up and told the truth.”
“That will often do it,” Michael agreed.
Simon studied his soup, then looked Michael over. “You seem no worse for wear.”
“I told you. I’m protected.”
“Mmhmm,” Simon said, and then winced as the first spoonful of hot soup touched his sore lips. “I thought we were protected?” Simon brushed his lips with his fingers; winced away from his own touch.
Michael shook his head and laughed, then sighed. “This,” and he waved his spoon at Simon’s face. “Is just meat. Rank biology. Unimportant. Secondary. Easily replaced. I keep telling you that, Simon, but you still don’t seem to believe me.”
“Oh, I believe you, all right, Michael,” Simon replied. “Please don’t think that. I just don’t really understand why I believe you.”
Michael made a face somewhere between a scowl and grief. “Patience. This is a strictly temporary situation, albeit a necessary one,” Michael affirmed, and returned to his soup. Then, a little more kindly: “We will either be released later today, or we will walk out free men by ourselves tomorrow. ”
“Really. Those are the only two possibilities. As I said, all this has been thought over in some excruciating detail. And I do mean excruciating: As in atomic-level quantum analysis. Absolutely nothing is left to chance, not even the concept of chance itself, except where it serves His Divine Awakening.” Michael returned to his soup.
“Any more beatings to come before this, uh, Awakening?” Simon asked and tried a painful smile.
Michael laughed out loud. “I hope not! Your face can’t take much more!”
“Amen to that. So tonight..?”
Michael nodded. “In a little while, the Eschaton will deliver His terms to the President, with clear instructions to announce and acquiesce to these terms during his television address this evening.”
“Terms,” Michael repeated. “Non-negotiable ones, as it happens.”
“So why are they letting us eat together?” Simon gave up on the soup. Hungry as he was, it simply hurt too much to eat. He sighed.
“They are listening, of course, in the hope of learning something we haven’t told them,” Michael said.
“Oh, I already told ’em everything I knew,” Simon said. “But since that’s not very much, I guess no harm, no foul. So, we’re in DC?” Simon said softly. “Never been.”
“Neither have I,” Michael said. “But when I asked him, the Eschaton said Bad old town. Never changes.”
Ellen brought a hot plate of fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, and peas to Evie, who was plopped on her couch, watching TV. “Where’s yours?” She said, taking the plate.
“I’ve got it,” Ellen said, retrieving her plate – lasagna with garlic bread and a glass of red wine – from atop the one remaining c-machine. She tottered to the couch on tender feet. She had walked all day, on and off the truck, and even her tough nurse’s feet were complaining. But that was okay. She had the chianti for that.
“What’s on?” She said, sitting in the rocking chair she preferred to the couch.
“Just local news. Mostly about the c-machines. It’s amazing how fast the damn things pop up. There are reports from Alaska, Mexico and just a minute ago from Rome. Rome! How the hell did they get one of those on an airplane? Wouldn’t the x-ray metal detector, show-me-in-my-skivvies devices all freak out?”
“Beats me,” Ellen said, sampling her lasagna, which was still too hot to eat. She had consciously tried to think of a slightly cooler piece of lasagna with the c-machine tonight, trying to see how much conscious control she had over what it produced; but as she was quickly learning, those childhood memories leave a permanent mark, rarely if ever over-ridden, and her grandmother’s lasagna, by far the best she had ever eaten, was always too hot to eat right away.
And so she waited patiently, nibbling on her garlic bread, and watched the news.
“Of course, everyone is expecting the President to address this…what would you call this?
(“It’s a motherfucking paradigm shift,” Evie said softly, and Ellen chuckled, enjoying the warmth the wine was giving her.)
“…this event in his address to the nation tonight at 9 o’clock, Frances. But that expectation apparently hasn’t slowed the spread of these ‘c-machines. ‘C’ for Cornucopia, which is itself a term meaning ‘Horn of Plenty.’ A Horn of Plenty, indeed. Frances, here in St. Johnsbury, people are stacking this devices up on the sidewalks, as they reproduce by duplicating themselves every few hours-”
“I just don’t understand how anyone could even consider for a single, solitary second to put something that came out of one of those things in their body! I don’t care how hungry you are! There’s been no testing, no trials, no FDA approval-”
“I expect him to outlaw these devil-devices! I called the Vice-President myself today and warned him this is the Mark of the Beast, the maker of this unclean thing is none other than Satan himself, and that we stand upon the brink of the End Times!”
“We ran a sample through an exhaustive battery of laboratory tests, the most sophisticated testing available, run by the good people at NIST, that is the National Institute of Standards & Testing, the federal government’s technical regulatory arm and home to one of the most sophisticated laboratory environments in the nation. They ran these tests; the shocking results after the break-”
“-have it on good authority that the inventor of the c-machine, one Michael Profit, is now in federal custody at an undisclosed location–”
Ellen and Evie stood up simultaneously, their dinners falling to the floor, forgotten, and screamed: FUCK!
“There’s no answer. I’m driving over there. Are you coming?” Ellen said, pulling on her jeans, phone scrunched to her ear, while Evie watched.
“Yes, unless you think he’ll come here,” Evie said.
Ellen shook her head. “Simon hasn’t been here. Jesus, Evie, they have Michael, and there’s no answer on Simon’s cell. That means-”
“That means they have Si. Yeah, I got that,” Evie said, her voice subdued. “Or…”
Ellen nodded, looking hard in the mirror. “Or they killed him.” Her heart was pounding so hard she could feel it thrum in her rib cage.
The President left his private office and entered the Oval Office after a brief visit to the most exclusive toilet in the USA. As he sat down, he mused about the speech he would give the nation that night. He was trying to set a commanding yet reassuring tone, and he didn’t feel the speech in its current state achieved that, so he had asked his speech writing team to give him a half hour alone with it. He looked down at the pages of the speech, spread before him on this desk, where he had left them moments ago.
There was a new piece of paper on top of the loose pile. It was old and a dirty, reddish brown; it didn’t feel like paper when he picked it up. He examined it closely. There were close-fitting red characters that looked a little like Yiddish to him stenciled on one side. On the other side, in a spiky left-handed scrawl of red, was written:
Let my children go.
Tell them All to Take the Elixir.
– The Eschaton
P.S. I’m not fucking kidding.
The President’s shouts of rage could be heard thundering throughout the West Wing.
“Come on in, you two, before the mosquitoes carry you both off,” Simon’s mother said from his front door. “Jesus! Don’t either of you ever eat? Well, get in here anyway, you skinny bitches.”
Evie giggled, and mouthed I like her to Ellen over the top of the old woman’s grey head, who nodded agreement. They sat down at the kitchen table.
Priestesses consulting the Oracle, Evie thought, realizing that the three of them there, talking quietly in the dark, was in fact the archetypal shape of human female strength. Men would be swinging a sword or thrusting a lance, she supposed. Women would just sit down and talk it out.
“They took ’em both,” the old woman said, lighting a Marlboro. “Early this morning. FBI, whoever, I don’t know. Fascists pigs in black masks, you know the drill.”
Ellen and Evie exchanged a worried glance. Simon’s mother saw it and laughed. “Oh stop it, you two! You know they’re fine and this is all part of the plan, right? Didn’t he tell you?”
She looked from one to the other, and the two sisters shook their heads.
“There wasn’t time, I suppose,” she said. “But Simon did write you a note over there on the end-table, Ellen.”
Ellen started up, went blindly to the wrong end-table. “No, the other one,” the old woman, knowing mirth in her voice. Now wreathed with cigarette smoke, she guided Ellen a little more: “Under the robot trash-can there. Yeah, that’s it.”
Ellen pulled a card from under R2-D2 and opened it. It said:
Michael says they are coming soon, so I don’t have much time, and I wanted to write this to you now while I can. Michael is being just a tad vague on the details of what will happen next, but he did tell me that this won’t last long. A few days, maybe, and we’ll be back.
Ellen, I feel very close to you, even closer than to Michael, or to Mom or anyone else who drank that shit. From when I first saw you, tending to Michael in the ER, I’ve felt this strong connection to you. At that moment, it felt like I’d always known you. It’s odd to write that, especially because I could never have worked up the nerve to even look you in the eye, much less write a note like this. Not before Michael, but it’s the truth. It’s how I feel, and I thought you should know.
Neither of us understand what we’re doing, or how this whole crazy thing will end, but I hope that there will be a time for us to be together somewhere down the road.
Michael is calling. I have go to.
“Ellen?” Evie asked.
“Yes?” Ellen looked up. Her eyes were bright.
“What does it say?”
“Everything,” Ellen said, and burst into tears.
“Oh come on!” The President snarled. “This has got to be somebody fucking around.”
The Secret Service detail chief shook his head grimly, but firmly. “No sir.”
“Then how do you explain this?” The President extended the wadded up parchment.
“I can’t sir. All I’m saying is that no one entered or left the Oval Office after you asked your staff to leave, approximately twenty-three minutes ago.”
“What the fuck is going on-” the President said, momentarily at a loss.
The Oval Office doors banged open. The Secretary of State and the Director of NASA rushed in. The Secretary of State said in a loud growl: “Mr. President, we have new facts from NASA. You need to hear them now.”
The parchment still crumpled in his head, the President stared uncomprehendingly at the two men, then blurted out in pure indignant rage: “You two can’t just bust in here! This is the White House, for Christ’s sake!”
They waited. “Did you say NASA?” the President asked.
“Mr. President, there has been an extraordinary event aboard the International Space Station,” the Director said.
“In space?” The President said, his expression still blank.
The Director blinked once, and recovered. “Yes, sir,” he said crisply, then extended his iPad out before him, screen facing away, so the President could see it. He tapped ‘play’ at the bottom of the screen and the video of the bottle of absinthe appearing from nowhere played before the President’s eyes, which – squinted and somehow porcine – moved in small, trapped circles as they followed the movement on the screen.
“What? I don’t understand,” The President said, completely mystified, his rage blown out like a summer storm. “This is real video?”
“Yes sir, and, Mr. President?” The NASA Director retracted the iPad, flipped it around, swiped right and extended it back out to the President. “There was also a note.”
The President read the screen briefly, then he looked searchingly at the Secretary of State. “The Eschaton?” He asked softly, the name familiar somehow. “Why does that ring a bell?”
“We’re still, uh, looking into what that alias means, Mr. President,” the Secretary said, obviously embarrassed.
The President looked down at his hand, still squeezing the parchment. “Oh boy. I think I know what it means,” the President said thickly, and then moved to his desk and spread out the wrinkled parchment there, his speech forgotten beneath it. “Give me that thing,” he asked the NASA Director, waggling his chubby, little fingers with impatience.
The Director stepped forward and surrendered the iPad. On it was a single photograph of the note which had accompanied the absinthe. The President set down the tablet next to the parchment, and his gaze jumped left and right again and again as he compared them.
Then he looked up. “You don’t need to be a handwriting expert,” the President said smugly. “To see that these two notes were written by the same person.” Hugely impressed with his own detective work, the President nodded sagely and added. “Gentlemen, we have met our true enemy.”
“Drink it, honey,” Ben Miller said softly to his wife, extending the little silver chalice.
“I don’t want it,” his wife, Erica, said. “I don’t want it.” Her voice was like a little girl’s, petulant and tear-filled. She was curled up in bed, where she had been since they got the diagnosis.
Miller nodded, moved slightly closer to her. “I know. I know. But look, a guy I talked with today said that drinking this cured his mother’s Alzheimer’s so…”
“What’s that got to do with me?” Erica said, her voice rising, terror and dumb animal hurt in her eyes.
“Please, honey…” Miller struggled to express himself, but absent his phone book and the other tools of his trade, all he could manage was: “It might work!”
“This is…wrong. So wrong,” Erica said, and began crying again. “Get out. Get out. You’re not the man I married. Get out!”
She pushed him from the bed, then from the bedroom and slammed the door. Miller went easily. In truth, Erica tended toward drama at the best of times and this was not his first banishment from the bedroom. After the door slammed he shook his head and made his decision.
Then he went to make tea.
At 9:02 PM Eastern Daylight Time, the red light above the camera lens winked on and the President began his address to the nation. The evening’s events had not left him in a good mood and he had serious misgivings about going forward with the address. The notes, both physical and digital, had unnerved him, had clearly shocked them all. The President had decided to continue with his broadcast, over the protests of his staff, because the nation needed to know that he was in charge —
“Mr. President? You’re on!” Whispered a voice from behind the dark camera lense.
“My fellow Americans, I am speaking to you tonight because I feel it is necessary to address the truly extraordinary events of the last few days-”
Alone again, Simon sat in his folding chair, head down. His face throbbed miserably. He looked up at the military guard, standing at attention by the door.
“Got the time?” Simon asked through stiff, mushy lips.
The guard gave no indication he had heard anything.
“Didn’t think so,” Simon muttered.
“Hey, it’s starting! Ellen?” Evie called from Simon’s couch, where she sat next to Simon’s mother, who was already staring at the screen, her glasses perched on her nose so she could “see the cock-knocker nice and clear.”
“Yeah,” Ellen said distantly from the kitchen. “I’m coming.”
“He’s just sitting there like a stunned sheep,” Simon’s mother said. “Christ! What a douche-bag.”
“Sshh…” Evie said, smiling. Ellen came forward to the back of the couch, her features shaded and half-hidden by a wash of LED light.
“Rod? You up?” Dawes asked over comms.
“Go Dawes,” Rod answered. He was just finishing his breakfast. Schedules at the ISS rarely lined up with the 24 hour cycle used on Earth. “What’s up?”
“I’ve got a pressure high reading in the lab, Skip. It’s up 10 psi in the last ten minutes.”
“I’m on my way.” Rod stowed his remaining breakfast and launched himself down the long tubular structure of the station, headed for the lab, an original section of the entire structure. Dawes was already there. He pointed at the closed entryway to the lab.
“What’s up?” Rod asked.
“See for yourself, Skip,” Dawes said and pointed at the screen running the lab video. Rod leaned over to see better.
The bottle of absinthe was floating lazily in the center of the room.
“That’s impossible,” Rod said, then looked at Dawes. “It was secured! Someone took it out.”
“I didn’t touch it, Skip,” Dawes said quickly, shaking his head, hands up in a reflexive sign of innocent surrender.
“Uh-huh. Where’s Morrisey?”
“Other end, Skip. I’ve been here the last half hour. He hasn’t been by. He couldn’t have gotten it out of the locker anyway! You know he doesn’t know the code. Are we going in?”
“How the heck did it get loose then?”
“Skip, you’ll pardon the language, but it beats the fuck outta me.”
Rod nodded his silent agreement and hit the switch; the internal door slid aside with a hiss of air pressure equalization. The bottle loomed.
“Get a bag,” he said to Dawes. “I’ll grab it.”
The President finished strong. “I’ll make it really simple. These boxes are a plague! Do not use them! We cannot guarantee your safety if you do! Please allow us the time necessary to develop an appropriate response, including a national collection effort, and we will put all this behind us, and go on to be a stronger nation for it. Good night. God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.”
The red light turned off.
Dawes was ready with the bag. Rod reached out and – as gently as he could manage in zero-gravity – plucked the bottle from the air. It was freezing cold and shed ice fragments where he touched it.
“It’s really cold,” he said, the bottle stinging his fingers immediately.
The warmth of the Flight Commander’s hands transferred enough heat energy through the bottle-glass to the substance inside – which was not absinthe – to disturb a previously perfectly balanced molecular stasis. Deep inside the bottle, a chemical chain reaction began and pressure began building up at a geometric rate. Rod felt the bottle somehow churn in his grip, twisting like a living thing.
“What is it?” Dawes asked.
“I don’t know,” Rod answered. “Wait.” But after a few seconds, the churning and twisting stopped.
“Okay, it’s fi-”
The bottle exploded.
“Well, that was a big bunch of nothing,” Simon’s mother said.
“‘Collection strategy’?” Ellen said disbelievingly. “They think people are just going to offer them up, no questions asked? Really?”
“No,” Evie said, tapping her phone. “I don’t think they do.” She smiled sadly. “According to CNN, the order has gone out from the White House to mobilize the National Guard. It will take a few days to get all the troops in place.”
Ellen said, “What does that mean?”
The old woman answered. “It means, honey-child, they plan on goin’ door-to-door and takin’ em.”
In the final slow-motion seconds of his life, Dawes saw the top half of Rod’s body rip away from his legs, slamming up to the roof of the lab where his head was crushed exactly like a pumpkin dropped on concrete, accompanied by a soul-withering crunch. In the same instant, a great gout of blood and viscera blossomed, flinging itself in all directions. Then the pressure wave hit Dawes too and instantly turned his internal organs to jelly. Dawes gasped involuntarily and the lab itself tore open with that same exhalation of breath, then Dawes found he was outside looking at the stars, the first human in space not to see them through glass of some sort, and then he died.
“What did you think? Good? Yeah? I did pretty good?” The President asked the Vice-President, who nodded resignedly, in mute agreement that the President had, in fact, done well.
“Are they all here?” The President said, sitting back down at his desk. The camera crew had just wheeled the last of the equipment out the door, and the two men had the room, save for an aide at the door, who responded: “They’re waiting outside, Mr. President. Shall I show them in?”
Explosive decompression in space is every bit as horrific as it sounds, but it has one positive attribute: It is an exceptionally quick way to die. The explosion in the lab caused immediate and severe pressure imbalances throughout that entire section of the I.S.S. These stresses in turn created tiny ruptures in the fabric of the station’s hull, which is mixture of specialized canvas and aluminum. (Think about the walls of a very high-end mobile home and you have a good approximation of how the ISS is constructed.) These microscopic tears spread outward radially to the rest of the station like some kind of fast-spreading cancer so that, less than sixty seconds after the bottle exploded, half the station was already venting atmosphere to space. Alarms and sirens began shrieking.
But nothing could stop was coming now. The Laws of Nature were inevitable.
Filtering through the hull’s micro-ruptures, tiny wisps of escaping oxygen strengthened at once to tendrils, and then again to wild, slicing jets of high-speed channel-carving nothing, all in a matter of seconds. The ruptures extended, widened, and quickly reached certain structural limits. Huge chunks of the hull exploded violently outward (into perfect silence) at three different points at nearly exactly the same time. Equipment was yanked free from duct-taped together frames, bungee cords used to stow gear popped free, and Morrisey, who had been asleep in his bunk, just had time enough to hear the alarms, open his eyes, and to think They’ll probably blame me for this too before a panel in the next room tore free and, in so doing, yanked its power cord from its base. The dangling cord sparked in the high oxygen environment of the station, and flame consumed him in an instant.
The I.S.S. lurched violently, shivered like a wet animal, and began to descend earthward.
“I’m tired, so I gotta kick you both out now,” Simon’s mother said. They said goodbye, made her promise to call them as soon as they heard from Simon or Michael, and then got in the car.
They were on the interstate when Evie pointed and said, “What’s that?”
Ellen looked and saw a strangely bright yellow-white star in the low southern sky. “I don’t know,” she said, watching the star drop slowly but visibly to the horizon and then out of sight.
Erica snored lightly on the couch, the Ambien in her tea doing its job. Miller sat down on the edge of the bed and touched his wife’s dark hair. “I love you, Erica,” he said, and then pulled her chin down with his thumb and poured the Elixir into her mouth.
She smacked her lips once, but her eyelids never flickered. He left her there asleep and then went into the living room to beg God for forgiveness.
“Gentleman, thank you all for coming. It’s critical that we all get together on this and forget, for the moment, any partisan differences that we–” The President began.
“Spare me the platitudes, Mr. President. Where do we really stand on this?” The Speaker of the House interrupted. He was livid. His office had been a scene of barely contained chaos for the last forty-eight hours, constituents had his phone lines completely jammed, people in his home state and elsewhere were killing themselves with these things, and that vague, limpwristed speech was all the Executive Branch had to offer?
“Mr. President, the Majority Leader said, riding in on the Speaker’s coattails. “I have word from two army sources that you have ordered troop mobilizations. Is this true?”
“It is,” the President responded tersely, glaring at the Speaker of the House the whole time.
“Without consulting Congress?” the Speaker shouted, gliding past livid all the way to apoplectic.
“I don’t need Congress’s permission to protect the American Homeland!” The President roared back. The Speaker surged forward, the Admiral of the Navy stepped in his way, the Speaker’s chief of staff tried to pull the old man to the side and caught a Navy jab to his left eye. The Chief of Staff yelped like a puppy and went down to one knee. Above him, the melee continued. Voices raved, curses were exchanged, and it was some time before calm was restored.
The Guidance System aboard the ISS was still trying desperately to compensate for the catastrophic venting when the power died completely and it went dark. It was the last functional item on the station, which was now a flying crypt.
Only a few minutes after the explosion, the larger half of the ISS entered the top of Earth’s atmosphere. Only seconds after that, it began to blacken and glow.
“NA1SS! Copy!” Davis shouted into his headset. “Do you copy?”
“They’re gone,” someone said. “Oh my god.”
Davis blinked, his mind reeling. There had been no warning. No warning at all.
They were just gone.
“Flight,” Perkins said, his voice tight with restraint. “We are descending rapidly in an accelerated free-fall. Main thrusters are burning but there’s no attitude control, so the thrust is pushing the station toward the Earth. The fall is also erratic due to atmospheric interference, but I estimate impact in-”
In her bedroom, Bethany crept out of bed as quietly as she could and pulled her secret heart c-machine from under her bed. The little red heart glowed when it saw her. There were butterflies in her stomach, like she got when she was bad and looked up the word buttsex on Google, but she had decided.
Bethany put her hand on the c-machine and whispered. “Elixir.”
The President extended a tumbler filled with two fingers of Jack Daniels to the Majority Leader, who took it slowly, mistrust all over his face. But he said nothing. The room was filled with angry, confused men, but it was very quiet. The President went back to his desk and sat down. He sipped his whisky.
“Let’s begin again,” he said softly. “I intend to use the troops to collect these c-machines at Redemption Centers in all major U.S. cities-”
“Mr. President, do I have this right? You are expecting people to bring these fucking things to a bottle return?” The Majority Leader couldn’t help smiling at the obvious idiocy of the plan. “You do understand that they can print money with them, don’t you?”
He looked at the Speaker, who shook his head.
“Why would anyone return one?” The Majority Leader said. “Just because you say so?”
“That’s right. They will. They better,” The President growled, jabbing a forefinger at him.
The Speaker of the House shook his head again, more forcefully. “You’re a fool.”
“What?” the President flared.
Little foamy flecks of spit flew from the corners of the Speaker’s mouth. “Some may turn theirs in, but not all of them! Not all of them will! And these things fucking bud off at the limb every few hours so there’s always more! Just collecting some of them will simply make no difference!”
The NASA Director was almost back to his car, his face composed but grim, when his phone went off. He answered it and listened, completely expressionless, for more than a minute, and then said. “Where will it come down?”
“G’Night, Sis,” Evie said and went to her door. Ellen was very, very tired as she pulled back onto the road, scanning the southern horizon, but there was no sign of that falling star. She saw the moon, though, bright and clear, and it made her think of Simon, for some reason she could not name.
Michael lay on the floor, having slipped from his chair. Although the guard saw him drop, he made no movement to assist Michael nor to call out for help. But the guard could see that his prisoner was very sick; even the muggy Maryland weather could not account for his profuse sweating, his fevered, glassy eyes, his wracked posture on the floor.
“Thy will be done,” Michael whispered softly, and his head dipped slowly, and he went limp.
The Director looked up and saw the fireball – it was shedding a series of smaller, bright orange flares from its back – just before he heard the roar. The D.C. night grew brighter by the second. In the distance, he saw the security guard in the booth at the parking lot entrance look up, puzzled.
In the Oval Office: The President, his Chief of Staff, the Vice-President and his Chief of Staff, the Secretaries of State, Commerce and Defense, the Joint Chiefs, the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House. More than a dozen people. All stood silent, each – for the moment – lost in prayer, heads bowed.
“Amen,” the Vice President, ending the prayer, and they all looked up, looking at each other with mild embarrassment. Then the Vice President saw it. “What is that?” He pointed, instinctively backing away, and there was a little grey dot hovering a meter above the presidential desk. All eyes went to it; the President jumped up and back from his chair as the little grey dot swelled in size.
“I smell something burning,” the Speaker said, his voice flat with shock.
There was a sudden, concentrated blast of air that made them all jump, and a single piece of parchment fluttered down from nowhere onto the desktop. They all watched it fall, and no one moved.
Slowly, the President rose and leaned forward, studying the page. From arm’s-length, it seemed to be a piece of parchment, just like the first one, still lying crumpled on corner of his desk.
He crept forward.
“What…what did I just see?” The Speaker said, his mouth wide open. “What was that?”
The President took the parchment – covered in the same neat, ancient printing – and flipped it over. On its other side, he saw the same spiky handwriting in the same red ink:
So long! And thanks for all the fish! -The Eschaton
He sighed with relief and rolled his eyes. “More games,” the President muttered, then to the group: “It’s all right. It’s just another bad jo-”
And the blackened, charred and lumpy remains of the International Space Station, perhaps mankind’s single greatest technological achievement, now several tons of slag, slammed into the White House at something above Mach 7, delivering an explosive punch roughly equal to five kilotons of TNT.
All was white.
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