About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood. - W.H. Auden, Musêe des Beaux Arts You can call on God in the morning once you're sober, And you can talk to me when you're all fucked up tonight. But if it just has to wait, If it's something I won't understand... Well, I understand we all deserve the light. I understand we all deserve the light. - The River Whyless, We All Deserve the Light You’re lookin’ at it wrong...the sky thing. It used to be all dark. If you ask me, the light’s gainin. - Rust Cohl, True Detective
Ellen was flying, floating, possessed by a thrilling, vibrant energy and a kind of timeless, liquid bliss. There was no fear, no anxiety, no doubt. She skipped a delicious frictionless dance across the morning sky, fed by the new Sun and twisting effortlessly on a warm wind. She was free; the kind of freedom that comes from flying wherever and whenever she wished: unconstrained, loosed; but Ellen found that she wished most for the sweet and continual murmuration of her Flock: A deep, spectral thrumming of human essence, the singular chantsong of humanity, a one billion-piece orchestra playing beautiful music in her mind. Ellen flew with the music – a feather of consciousness adrift and aloft with them all – and she felt a sense of kinship, of community, of connectedness she had never experienced.
Not even in her dreams. Before now. Before this lucid dream of her Flock.
Next she saw the world far below her, withering away, writhing in pain and terror and confusion, entire cities wiped blind. She saw the days and months and years in an eye-beat, as if Someone had his thumb jammed down on Life’s fast-forward button: Green hills wilted and rusted, turned black, fell to ash. The wind took the ash and salted the globe with it. The seas died first; fire took the rest. It made her sad, watching the Sixth Extinction sweep the planet so far below, and Ellen hovered there in a rare moment of doubt as she hung suspended in the shimmering, crystalline oneness of the Flock.
Then she heard his voice.
He called her name and told her to come to him. Her heart leapt and Ellen looked skyward again, the light taking her whole now.
Saw that he was there, smiling at her.
Waiting. For her.
We’re all waiting for you, he said in wonder and warmth, and then laughed. And, called now by a billion more voices to come, to come to the Light–and she went.
Ellen surged upward in joy.
When Bethany came down to breakfast the next morning, her mom was crying as she shook cornflakes into a bowl.
“What’s wrong, Momma?” Bethany asked, sitting down with a happy little plunk at the table.
“Oh, honey…” her mother said. “Something really sad and terrible happened last night.”
Bethany’s eyes grew wide. “Is it Daddy? Is he okay?”
Her mother saw Bethany’s expression and quickly nodded. “Yes, he’s fine, Sweetheart. Daddy’s just fine. He’s at work. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you…”
“Oh,” Bethany said, instantly relieved. She eyed her cornflakes hungrily. “So what happened?”
“The President and a whole bunch of other people got blown up,” her mother answered, as Bethany’s self-control broke and she shoved a heaping teaspoonful of cornflakes into her mouth and crunched.
“Blown up?” She said through the cornflakes. “How? By who?”
“Nobody is really sure yet, Beth. It was a really big explosion, though. The news said it wasn’t a nuclear bomb, so I don’t want you to worry about that. Okay?”
“Okay,” Bethany scowled. “And no one knows who did it?”
“Oh,” Bethany chewed thoughtfully for a moment. Then, noting the time, said: “I’m going to be late for school.”
Her mother sighed. “There’s no school today, Beth. I don’t think there’s going to be any school for a while. Because of the attack, the new president-”
“There’s a new president already?” Bethany said, honestly surprised. “Wow! I did sleep in today! Who is it?”
“The man who was the Secretary of Agriculture before,” her mother said.
Bethany barked a laugh, sending a little cornflake storm out over the kitchen table. “Who? Why that guy? Did you and daddy vote for him?”
“It doesn’t work like that. This man is president now because everyone more important than him is dead. They, uh, died in the explosion. They were all meeting–”
“So we vote later on?” Bethany was perplexed.
Bethany’s mother shrugged. “I don’t know. But the new president has declared martial law, so school’s cancelled for a while anyway.”
“Marshall? Is that the new president’s name?” Bethany asked.
Fires burned throughout D.C., creating huge billows of thick black smoke to rise and mushroom, becoming trapped in the lower atmosphere, where it mixed with existing particulates and smog. The sky grew ever darker as the fires spread; the nation’s capitol was taken completely by toxic shadow.
Firefighting crews, police and the army worked to save lives and to contain fires, but tens of thousands were dead already. Aside from the hundreds who died instantly upon detonation, the resulting shockwave shattered every window in a one kilometer radius from Ground Zero (the White House); travelling at 300 meters per second (roughly the speed of sound), the shockwave snapped power lines and pushed over walls. Vehicles near the White House were thrown as far half a kilometer. Human beings in that range were vaporized.
Worse, there was also a massive spurt of molten slag ejected from the target at detonation. This slag, white hot, emitted great quantities of sulfur into the sky, which bonded with the oxygen in the atmosphere to form sulfuric dioxide at toxic levels. In hours, poison black rain would slash up the eastern seaboard, killing fish and livestock, and poisoning the lungs of tens of thousands. Some of the larger chunks of slag got high enough into the upper atmosphere so that the trade winds grabbed them and subsequently rained fire down on the mid-Atlantic states. Annapolis vanished in a glut of flame, the people there reporting seeing flaming hail which fell in driving waves throughout the city.
Back in D.C., hospitals were running on their backup generators, overflowing with casualties. The nature of the injuries varied greatly (from burns to lacerations and broken bones), but there were a disturbingly large number of people who had been blinded by flying glass when the windows – through which they were watching falling from heaven – exploded into their eyes.
The White House was simply gone, replaced by a smoking, black crater more than thirty meters wide and fifty meters deep. Around it in all directions was blackened foliage and leveled infrastructure. And ash. No one could go anywhere near the impact site itself; temperatures were still far too high and would remain so for days.
Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey sent everything they had to Washington – fire, police, EMTs, hospital volunteers, elements of the already-mobilizing National Guard – in a desperate attempt to halt the burning before it spread through the metropolitan sprawl that snaked up the East Coast.
Most of them would die too.
“-don’t believe that it was a nuclear device, Kevin, but one Pentagon expert I spoke with just a few minutes ago suggested that this could have been a terror attack using a weapon called a Rail Gun-”
“-will address the nation tonight at 8pm-”
“Rioting and looting have been reported in parts of Washington, D.C. and Glen Burnie, Maryland. Police fired tear gas and anti-riot jellybag projectiles at looters-”
“–at this darkest of times, we must look to the Lord to protect us. May we be worthy of his protection–”
“–explosive decompression resulting in a loss of atmosphere–”
“-high velocity projectile which blows the target to plasma, vaporizing pretty much anything in range instantly, much like a nuclear explosion but lacking both the electromagnetic pulse and, of course, the radiation associated with-”
Evie looked worriedly at Ellen. Ellen saw her concern and smiled at her sister. “It’s okay, Evie. They weren’t in D.C., Ellen said softly, then looked down, a little embarrassed. “At least, I don’t think so.”
“Why not?” Evie asked her, eyes all innocence. Oh what, the Eschaton wouldn’t sacrifice them? Come on, if the Eschaton did that-” and she pointed at the television which was now displaying a bird’s-eye view of D.C., crushed and burning. “He’ll do anything.”
“It could have been terrorists,” Ellen ventured and added defensively: “It could, Evie.”
“Go back a channel.”
Ellen flipped the TV back to the Science Channel, which was gloomily reporting that the International Space Station had suffered a “catastrophic failure” with all hands lost. To Ellen, it seemed small news.
“That,” Evie jerked her thumb contemptuously at the screen, “is not a fucking coincidence, Ellen. Nobody’s put it together yet, but I think the Eschaton just threw a fucking space station at the White House and He threw a strike.”
“Um,” Ellen said.
“Don’t you see? He just decapitated the United States government, Ellenore.” Evie only called Ellen by her full name when she thought her big sister was being especially dim. “Why? Huh? Why would He do that?”
“To make them let Michael and Simon go,” Evie said. “Don’t you see?”
Ellen’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She pulled it out:
It was noon when Miller returned to Andrews. Erica was still deeply asleep when he left early that morning, but he supposed she would be up by now, healthy again and beginning to forgive him, Miller hoped. Beyond his windshield, the city was tearing itself apart at the seams. Fire bloomed and raged and the beltway traffic out of DC was was intense. Twice he thought he heard gunfire.
There was very little traffic headed into the city, however. Miller was stopped by a lone state trooper at the exit and was told the inbound lanes to D.C. were all closed except to emergency vehicles. Miller showed his ID and the trooper let him pass with a nod and a wave.
Now he was at the base, and it was time to settle up. The base itself was largely deserted, as the majority of the military stationed there were engaged in battling fires, evacuating citizens and mobilizing for counter-strike operations, but the two hastily-constructed interrogation cells were still guarded, albeit by a single soldier.
“Anything?” Miller asked him.
The guard shook his head grimly. “No, sir.” Then: “Sir? Is it true, what happened last night? The President..?”
“It’s true,” Miller confirmed, watching the solder closely. “They’re all dead. The city’s in flames.”
The guard shook his head, his eyes wide in disbelief. “Holy shit. Holy fuckin’ shit-” then he caught himself and went silent, his eyes pleading.
Miller couldn’t help smiling a little. “How long have you been on duty?”
“Since 23 hundred hours, sir,” the guard said.
“You’re dismissed. Go call your family.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you sir.”
And he was gone.
Miller waited a moment, then went into Michael’s cell.
“Did she take the Elixir?” Michael asked, hearing footsteps.
“Yes,” Miller answered, approaching, as always, from behind. Then he frowned. “Well. In a way.” He stepped in front of Michael, who looked up at him calmly. Miller had his handcuff key in one hand. With the other, he motioned for Michael to stand up and rotate.
“Is she still asleep?” Michael stood and pivoted at Miller’s gestures, extending his arms behind him.
“She was when I left his morning,” Miller said, removing the handcuffs. The ratchets on the cuffs seemed very loud.
“She’s still asleep,” Michael confirmed. “She is very sick. It will take longer than usual for things to complete. But when she wakes…” He turned and faced Miller silently, his hands folded before him, his manner relaxed and confident, and smiled.
They might have been discussing sports.
Miller swallowed hard, intent on keeping his voice low and calm. “Can you tell me something?”
“Just you?” Michael said softly, looking purposefully at the door.
Miller followed Michael’s gaze and shook his head. “There’s no one else listening. The base is pretty much deserted. Everyone’s out trying to save lives. A whole lot of innocent people died last night, you know. More are dying right now,” Miller said, clenching his jaw to fight off the nausea he felt. “So it’s just between you and me, asshole.”
“All right,” Michael said placidly. “Yes. I. Am.”
“You think I’m the Devil or the Anti-Christ or some such Boogeyman, yes? Here to bring about the End Times, Armageddon and the Apocalypse and such?”
Miller felt a cold cinching in his testicles, took an involuntary step backward, and then said: “Well, are you?”
“Why, yes,” Michael said calmly. “Of course I am.”
Simon’s door opened and Michael came to him, all smiles, with keys jangling in one hand.
“Hey, Cowboy,” Simon said, his voice ragged, his lips scabby and puffed-up. “Your spurs jingle jangle jingle.”
Michael uncuffed Simon, then dropped the keys on the floor. They looked seriously at each other for a moment, and Simon saw something in Michael’s eyes. “What? What happened?”
Michael was visibly uncomfortable. “The Eschaton struck back last night. Things are a bit more complex now.”
Simon said. “Struck back–?”
“Later,” Michael said. “I can explain on the way, but now we should go before our window closes. Lieutenant Miller has left a…Humvee I think you call it? outside on the airstrip with fatigues in it for us to put on.”
“So we can get past the gate,” Michael said, leading the way out.