“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened. - Douglas Adams Until you travel to that place you can't come back. - Black, by Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi, featuring Norah Jones, lyrics by Brian Burton & Daniele Luppi Lo duca e io per quel cammino ascoso intrammo a ritornar nel chiaro mondo; e sanza cura aver d’alcun riposo, salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo, tanto ch’i’ vidi de le cose belle che porta ’l ciel, per un pertugio tondo. E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle. - Dante Alighieri, L'Inferno, Canto XXXIV
Simon found that he enjoyed driving the Humvee. Yes, it was very wide, but what struck him most was that it was so tall it loomed over the road with a kind of weird, mechanically-elevated omniscience, and besides, the damned thing just kind of trundled on. It could probably trundle on through just about anything, Simon suspected.
Over the eastern shore, a bloody red sun rose. It’s orangered light flooded the Humvee’s cockpit, like God’s own flashlight.
“I am the Lord of Roads,” Simon said suddenly in his deepest voice, his bad eye squinting and swollen shut, his mouth raw and still seeping blood at the corners, but momentarily numbed to it all by his joy at being free. “Watch me power on!” He pumped a fist in the air.
Michael was way over in the other side of the vehicle, riding a distant shotgun. They were perhaps thirty minutes from Andrews AFB, on Interstate 95, north-bound. They plodded along in the far right lane at a hopefully unremarkable 95 kmh, although both of them felt somewhat safe. It was obvious from the burning, screaming metropolitan landscape they trundled through that the police had far bigger issues to deal with than two random guys in a Humvee. They both wore the army fatigues they had found in the vehicle. Michael never cared what he wore, but it made Simon feel downright sacrilegious to wear a military uniform. Mom would kill me if she knew, he thought to himself in a little inward trickle of bad-boy glee.
“Lord of Roads, the Deceiver of Mankind must piss,” Michael said then and yawned. “Power us onto the nearest pissing station.”
“Biology! Ain’t it a bitch?” Simon said cheerfully, still relishing his freedom, barely feeling his mashed lips.
“As it happens, that hag biology is indeed a bitch,” Michael agreed sagely, then winked at Simon. “I suggest we leave her behind.”
“Easier said than done,” Simon remarked, and then chuckled.
“Not for some,” Michael intoned solemnly.
Simon stared, then laughed again, but louder. “Aw, you know, Michael, you make go all rubbery inside when you say shit like that. Ah ha! Look! A yonder pissing station!”
And Simon rotated the enormous steering wheel, feeling vaguely like the pilot of a ship, and barreled the Humvee into the highway rest stop-cum-restaurant-mini-mall that was approaching on their right.
“–untold death and destruction all throughout the nation’s capital, with multiple fires burning out of control–”
“– Some are reporting that what really happened was that some unknown terrorist group blew up International Space Station and crashed it into the White House.”
The Senator issued a short, bitter bark of laughter.
“While it certainly sounds like a stretch to me, I’d like to know what you think, Senator?”
“Come on,” the senator said, his florid jowls quivering with indignation. “Is that a serious question?”
“So, for the record, you’re denying–?”
“Absolutely! The idea is preposterous! Sir, you are proposing that our enemy is so sophisticated he can blow up the ISS with sufficient accuracy and timing so as to take out the entire Washington D.C. metro area, precisely when the President was conferring with the heads of the Congress and the Joint Chiefs? Really?”
“Some people claim a divine–”
“I believe that to be absolutely impossible not to mention downright sacrilegious,” the senator growled. “But I’ll you what: If that’s what our enemy is capable of, then…”
“We are looking for donations of food, water and clothing. Please, anything you can spare will help. You can drop these items off at one of the following locations–”
“–tican will not come out and call this what it may very well be: The Apocalypse. However, I can tell you it is the subject of intense scrutiny in Vatican City at this very moment-”
“Can I come with you?” Evie said. “Guilford’s a couple of hours away.”
“No,” Ellen answered, not looking up. “That’s silly. I’m a big girl-”
“I’m coming too,” Evie said firmly, and sat down across from Ellen.
Ellen nodded and looked at her phone. “Thanks, Sis.”
“No more texts?”
Ellen shook her head. “Nope.”
Once Ellen would have checked her watch, but she didn’t need to any more. Now she always knew exactly what time it was, along with a bunch of other ironclad information that she just had instantaneous access to. This was disorienting at first; in fact, it felt fucking strange as hell for about a day-and-a-half, and then it became just, well, normal, as in how did I get by before this? normal.
And it was time to go, if they were going to make it to Guilford Welcome Center by dusk.
“I’m driving,” Evie said, and grabbed up the keys. It was three-oh-nine p.m.
“It’s good that we have a little quiet time to talk,” Michael said as the sun set blood-red in the western hills of New Jersey. “Before things get really weird.”
Simon looked over, but Michael was looking the other way.
“I don’t like that sound of that,” Simon said.
Michael looked around. “I keep telling you-” he said tiredly.
“-To have a little faith. I know,” Simon said. “So, what do you have to tell me?”
“Because of the current timeline’s course of events, it will become necessary in the very near future for us to present three broadcasts for the world to watch,” Michael said softly.
YouTube, here I come, Simon thought wrly, then: “No problem.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Michael said slowly. “At the last broadcast, you will have to do something awful.”
Simon felt suddenly cold, as if he had swallowed some frozen iron bar. The hair on the nape of his neck and on his forearms horripilated strangely. An angel passed, he thought, and the idea suspended itself oddly in his consciousness. He waited, looking straight ahead at the darkening highway.
Silence. After another moment, Simon looked over at Michael, who – to Simon’s shock – was weeping silent tears. “Michael, Jesus…wh-what is it? What exactly do I have to do?”
“Something awful,” Michael said in voice sadder than any Simon had ever heard.
The bloody sun dipped behind the hills as the world turned itself toward the dark; to Simon, it seemed that doom walked the heavens.
Miller finally got home late that afternoon, just before sunset. His gut churned with self-loathing. Nearly twenty years in the service and he’d never once abandoned his post, had never gone AWOL, not until today. First, you betrayed your wife, and now you’ve betrayed your unit and your country. You’re a coward.
After he waved them – the Antichrist and his Acolyte – through the east gate, he went looking for a commanding officer, for someone to report to, but he could find no one. It’s as if everyone just vanished, he thought dully, returning to the parking lot in complete confusion. Miller could not fathom any situation would lead to the complete abandonment of a military, never mind one just a few miles from the capital.
“HELLOO!” He yelled, and waited. Then he repeated it, louder and longer this time, and it was while he was waiting again when he thought of Erica again. Miller made one styptic blink, and then went back to his car like a robot.
Now he was home, several tortured hours later. He stopped twice on the way back to check on people who were injured; the second time was in front of an Elder Care facility where a cohort of half-naked elderly people, all blinded by the explosion wandered back and forth in front of the blasted facade of their facility. After that, Miller didn’t stop again.
When he got home, he summoned the very last of his threadbare courage and then walked into the apartment, prepared for whatever would come.
His wife was sitting at the kitchen table, head tilted and eyes downcast, facing the front door.
“Erica? I’m home,” he said gently. “How do you feel? Better?”
She didn’t look up. “Better? All better. All better now.” She nodded slightly in childish confirmation of her words.
His heart knocked in his chest. “Really? You really think so? We should go see the doctor to be sure.” he said, unable to keep an awful, creeping excitement out of his voice. He began to approach her somewhat timidly, as if his wife were a small deer that might startle at the slightest wrong move.
She shook her head in the negative version of the little-girl nod she had just executed, her gaze never straying from her lap. “No. There’s no need. What you gave me worked. I can tell. I know.” She extended a single index finger, board-stiff, a gesture she always used to convey surety, and then shook her head in subdued disbelief. “I mean, how can I know it…How?”
Miller felt tears start in his eyes. “That’s wonderful, Erica. That’s really–”
Erica’s head snapped up in a single, vicious snap of movement. He saw at once that her eyes were red and there were long, deep scratches down both her cheeks, where she had wounded and scarred herself. Miller had one second to take it all in, then she gave it to him, raw and on-target: “Infernal knowledge. I have infernal knowledge, thanks to you. Now I’m damned to Hell, Chris, thanks to you. Just like you’re damned yourself. Damned. All damned.” Her gaze fluttered to one side of him, as if hearing a voice in that direction.
“Wha-?” Miller said.
At the sound of his voice, Erica turned her face, suddenly contorted with feral rage, back on her husband, a gorgon striking at some poor Greek. While she held him transfixed, his wife lifted her right hand from her lap. In it, she held a .38 special revolver. In one smooth, continuous movement, Erica placed the pistol’s barrel inside her wide-open mouth, angled it up and back, and pulled the trigger.
“Jesus, Ellen. Look at the moon!” Evie exclaimed and pointed skyward at the low-hanging orb, glowing an unnatural deep maroon.
Ellen looked and saw the moon, but it didn’t seem to touch her. She stared at it blankly over the wheel as she drove. “From the fires down south, I suppose,” she said, after studying it for a minute.
Evie nodded, and looked at her closely. “Are you all right? You seem-”
“I don’t think you are, Sis,” Evie said, letting her concern show.
Once, Ellen would have been annoyed at Evie’s ignorance, but now she heard her genuine concern and understood at once that what was happening was not as clear to her little sister as it was to her. But still…geez, she was slow sometimes!
“Don’t you feel it?” Ellen said, her jaw square.
“Feel what?” Evie said, mystified.
Ellen started to answer, and realized she couldn’t explain what she was feeling; she simply was unable to give it a name. “Well…I, uh, I can’t explain it, but…well, we’re running out of time. We, as in all of us. People, I mean.”
“You mean the end of the world?” Evie said. “Isn’t that just a bit, well, paranoid, Ellen?”
“When you are in a safe environment, paranoia is an unhealthy mental condition to be in. When you are not safe, like we are not safe right now, paranoia is an asset.”
Ellen looked at her sister, saw that she didn’t understand. Ellen mentally spat on her hands and tried again.
She pointed at the red moon. “Things like that: Pretty sure that’s straight outta the bible, Evie. And I’m betting that’s no accident, and that the Eschaton or whatever-the-fuck-he’s-called knew that when He thought this shit up.” Ellen shook her head, her thoughts coming at her like little injected bullets of logic, then continued. “The deeply religious will go headfirst and singing off the Deep End over this, and a whole bunch of previously agnostic or lapsed religious people are gonna find their Faith real fast. Hell, you saw so this morning on the tube! Fox News is openly stating this is the Apocalypse and holding on-camera prayer sessions!”
“Well, yeah…but, you know, that’s Fox News–” Evie ventured, Ellen’s point-blank gravity disturbing her deeply. Ellen never took anything this seriously; Evie had never heard her speak this way before.
Ellen was having none of it. “A sizable percentage of the American public watches Fox, right? And if that percentage comes to believe they are experiencing the end of the fucking world…well, it gets downright ugly from there, Sis. Real ugly.”
It’s like she’s not quite my sister any more, Evie thought slowly, trying to understand what had changed about Ellen. It’s more like she’s some highly distilled version of my sister.
Evie tacked back to humor. “Like what? Human sacrifice? Dogs and cats living together? Mass hysteria?” She tried a smile.
Ellen made an exasperated groan, unwilling to have her mood lightened, then continued on: “I took this history course when I was at UVM,” Ellen said. “It was a historical overview of plagues.”
“That’s right. Plagues…you know, the ten plagues of Egypt, the Black Death, Swine Flu…” Ellen offered.
“I know what a plague is. Boy, you are just full of cheer tonight.”
“It was actually pretty interesting stuff. This Italian guy named Boccaccio wrote about the Black Plague in a book of his, and talked about how people behaved while the plague consumed their cities: Some partied their asses off; some carried out vengeance on their enemies; some embraced religion and spent their days in prayer…”
“I’m sorta with the partying group, myself,” Evie observed, but Ellen shook her head sharply.
“You don’t get it: It didn’t matter. That’s Boccaccio’s whole point, Evie! No matter what they did, no matter how they spent their remaining days, they all died.” Ellen grimaced. “If people come to think the end of the world is really happening — even if only some of them believe it — then society is over.’ Again, she pointed at the blood moon. “That plus the c-machine equals the end of humanity. Simple math.”
Corpus Christie, Texas, 11:31 PM
Bethany waited until her alarm clock said 11:31 PM before she slipped out of bed and pulled her knapsack out from beneath it. She hadn’t heard any grown-ups noises for a while, and she knew her parents never stayed up this late anyway, and they had both had quite a bit drink tonight, which helped, but she was extra careful anyway.
She really didn’t want a scene.
She smirked as she slung the knapsack across her shoulder. I sound so grown-up!
Then she picked up her best walking shoes (a nice pair of Nike’s that she had left over from track the prior fall and that somehow still fit), tiptoed out of her bedroom, down the stairs and out of the only home she had ever known, with nary a backward glance.
“I’m on my way,” she said to no one at all and headed more or less east.
Guilford Vermont Welcome Center, 2:35 AM
“I see them,” Simon said, pulling into the Welcome Center.
Michael nodded tiredly. “Yes, they did well, better than us, in terms of travel time,” he said softly.
“I’m sorry,” Simon said, his voice muted. “I needed some time with it.”
Michael nodded. “I understand. And anyway,” Michael smiled and opened his door to the cool night air. “It isn’t me you’ll have to explain it to.”
Simon got out and came around the front of the steaming Humvee. She was there, just outside the light, the most real thing he had ever seen. It was then — just then — something inside Simon awakened, bloomed and some prior limit was reached and then exceeded, and he knew that Ellen was there, had been there, and would always be there. Simon knew with a certainty set deep in the marrow of his soul, had always known this, would know this forever.
As if by some prearranged signal, an enormity of detailed information, entire histories of knowledge (each its own cascading torrent of emotion) washed over him, drowned and consumed him, all in an instant, but he did not stagger and he did not waver as he grew closer to her.
“So…uh, hi,” he said, coming to a stop before her, but she said nothing back. She looked at him with eyes that knew him and didn’t look away, even burdened with that new-found knowledge, a knowledge they now shared. She just smiled in relief and joy and put her arms around him, embracing him like faith.
And the Bright Time began.