Guantanamo Bay isn't such a bad place.
I haven't seen the sun in months, but when the wind is just right I can smell wet salt in the air when the guards open certain doors, in a certain order. I have not heard the cry of tropical birds, but I can imagine it. It's like spending summer vacation trapped in a library.
My cubicle is barren, but humane. The meals remind me of camp. I spend a lot of time reading the Qu'ran. I am not a muslim, but the selection here isn't wide. They offered me a Bible, but I'd already read it so I asked for a Qu'ran, instead.
How sweet this world would be if men lived in the islam of Mohammed's dreams, I think to myself. Poor Mohammed! No doubt, he sits now one nimbus to the left of Christ while they both shake their heads, cluck their tongues, and wait for the End of Days.
I am also waiting for the End of Days. And, while they have deprived me here of both calendar and watch, I'm pretty sure the day is drawing nigh. This is something I have pointed out to my interlocutors on several occasions, but they don't act like I've passed them a hot tip. Instead, they shake their heads and cluck their tongues and tell me to "stop playing games."
The world may already be gone, for all I know. There might be nothing left of civilisation or nature but this prison, and my wardens. If my wife is dead, I miss her. If she is alive, I both miss and pity her.
I hope she's dead, because what's coming isn't pretty.
Now that I have told all my secrets I am at peace. I feel like Francis of Assisi, except without all the animals.
I used to have a lot of secrets. I used to be a different man.
I used to work for Rosewood Media -- the big green glass job just off the interstate outside of Seattle, with the logo made of five interlocking red blades. I'm sure you've seen it from the freeway. At night, the rose glows like an angry cyclopean eye.
Rosewood had its corporate fingers in many pies, but our principle truck was in processing and encoding photography and video for distribution through the clogged pipes of the World Wide Web. My specialty: compression engineering -- that is, making sure we got the clearest picture possible with the least data. I had a modest team of socially backward, hygienically-challenged post-teens coding at my beck and call, writing the lines that would gauge the pixels and tear away the fat. They were smart and shy, and -- for the most part -- very good workers.
But we developed a problem with Peter Rastling almost as soon as he came on board. Pimply, skinny and sweet, the poor kid had a real problem with pornography.
I began to find him at his station, staring hypnotically at an image on his screen. "Peter," I'd say gently. "Peter!" I'd say more loudly. Finally, I would clap my hands. "God damn it, Peter!"
"I'm sorry, Mr Hulver," he would say, blushing, eyes flittering around.
I should make it plain: Peter wasn't exactly neglecting his work. Despite what I had been telling my wife at night, our biggest clients were pornographers. It was Peter's job to look at pornographic images, but it was also his job to check them for undesirable artefacting from the compression process and then move on to the next batch. "What's the hold up?" I asked him.
"There's something here," he said, eyes back on the screen, away from my gaze. His hand moved loosely in the air, as if trying to stir disparate thoughts together into something he could express.
"So? Clean it up and move on," I said.
"It's really putting a spike in the file size, whatever it is," said Peter, continuing to stare into his monitor. On it, an Asian girl was smiling in an unconvincing way while her enormous false breasts were grabbed savagely from behind by a white girl with heavy bags under her glazed eyes.
Later, I decided to review Peter's work in my office. He was a smart kid, and I was having trouble believing his periods of inactivity were wholly defined by nursing an erection for the insipid images we'd been sacked with. I hired him because he could tell you at a glance which parts of image would give the compression process trouble, and filter them in a pinch. He was an amazing pattern recognition machine, intuitive and fast.
The image of the implanted Asian came up on my screen. I spent some time zooming in to the problem areas -- some of them were typical, like between the leaves of the ferns in the background, or around the edges of her hair; others were less so: a seemingly blank field of wall, for instance, flagged by Peter's custom algorithms as dense with detail. "Aw, shit," I said to myself, slapping the page button on the phone. "Can you come in here for a second, Bhoti?"
Bhoti was already leaning on my doorframe. "What's up?"
"Remember those idiots from Spunkers that handed us ripped off images to process for them? Well, I think it's happening again. I'm pretty sure I've got copyright watermarks embedded in this whole batch."
"Aw, shit," said Bhoti, drawing his long hand down his brown face. Making sure licencing agreements were all kosher was Bhoti's bag, and he wasn't looking forward to another black mark on his reputation. "Those fucks! Are you sure?"
"You tell me. I'll forward the batch to you, and you can run your watermark plug-ins on 'em."
"I was going to leave early today," sighed Bhoti, shaking his head. "Shit."
"My heart bleeds for you," I laughed.
"Fuck you, Hulver," said Bhoti, not unkindly.
I don't look at pornography recreationally. I don't take my work home. My wife is beautiful, and a generous lover, and our evenings together are the best part of every day. We have no children, so our time is our own.
As I sipped a desert wine the waiter had recommended I listened to my wife outline her day: research students with sloppy methodology; an envious dean with his endless stream of crisis minutiae; an office window painted shut, depriving my wife of the smells of spring. "So, it looks like we won't make the journals this month," she sighed. "Again."
In case you don't read the papers, my wife is the much ballyhooed environmental scientist Dr Clair Humphrey. (She doesn't go by "Hulver" professionally.) I'm sure you all remember when her results finally were released, and what the reaction was -- but I'm getting ahead of myself. The groundwater will just have to wait.
"I have to drive to Canada this weekend," she told me. "I'm being interviewed by David Suzuki." She paused. "Ed? You're somewhere else."
"I'm sorry," I said, blinking. "Vexing problem at Rosewood. It's nothing."
"Tell me about it," she said, leaning back and unclipping her hair.
"Well," I began slowly. "We got a batch of images today that seem to have some noise buried in them. I thought it was watermarking at first, but Bhoti tells me they're clean. You remember Bhoti?"
"Yes, of course."
"Anyway, I could live with the file sizes as they are, but the problem is the images seem to be just about hypnotising that new kid, Peter. He can't ignore the patterns he thinks he's seeing."
"But you think it's just noise?"
"I don't know what it is," I said. "But it's costing me Peter's time."
Clair shook out her long, red hair, and let it fall to her shoulders. "Maybe they're secret messages," she said, smiling playfully. "Didn't the 9-11 terrorists send each other messages encrypted into pictures?"
"Yes. In pornography."
"So, what are your pictures of?" she asked, pouring the end of the bottle into her cup.
"Architectural renderings," I lied.
"You never know," she told me, raising an eyebrow. "Maybe al Qaeda has a hard-on for Frank Lloyd Wright."
"It's just an eyesore of a condominium complex."
There was a palpable tension in the air for a moment, but it dissipated when the waiter came to bring the bill. I wondered if Clair had detected my lie, which caused me to wonder why I'd lied at all: surely, our relationship was strong enough to tolerate my hands being sullied by a bit of commercial smut -- but I felt my dignity would be diminished in my wife's eyes, if she knew the shit I shovelled. When your wife is a world famous scholar, sometimes whatever shreds of self-respect you have become elements dear to your ego.
A smarter man than I would've known that Clair had her own secrets, too.
For the weekend the house was my castle, but once Clair had driven off for her interview I descended to my ramshackle workroom in the basement (I had initially called the room my office but Clair had insisted that "office" was too haughty a term for a computer on a card-table beside the furnace). I don't do a lot of work over the weekends, so the computer and card-table alike were covered in a fine down of dust.
I connected to the Rosewood VPN and called up the questionable batch of limp pornography. I spent an uncomfortable moment staring down a series of close-ups of labia majorae before I found the image that had stopped Peter in his tracks on Friday: the dull eyes of the extended Asian, the frightening thinness of her sleepy cracker companion...
There was a day, long ago, when I wasn't such a bad coder myself, and so I set to parsing the image with a custom filter I'd written in my spare time. The results were conclusive, but unedifying. "Well, it's not noise," I said aloud.
I put in a call to Peter and he replied immediately, his pale face looking out at me from a small window on my screen. Behind him in the webcam picture I could make out the shadows of a grubby basement apartment. "Mr Hulver?" he greeted me uncertainly.
"It's Saturday, son. Call me Ed," I told him.
Peter had already pushed his investigation far beyond mine, and was busily crunching the "noise" through a couple of filters of his own. He was sheepish at first, hedging around the fact that he had unauthorised access to the VPN, but he relaxed when I said nothing about it. "It's a message," he said emphatically, pausing to drain a can of Coca-Cola. "I'm sure."
"How can you tell?"
"Have you ever read Godel, Escher, Bach?" he asked.
"Sure," I lied.
Peter explained how under the press of his computer the anomalous data was differentiating itself into two distinct sets: the noise he had noticed by gestalt, and then a layer of noise within the noise. "The outer wrapper defines a key that can be used to decode the inner message," he concluded.
But the key was incomplete.
And so Peter and I spent the day pouring over several gigabytes of high resolution pornographic photography, earmarking those afflicted like the first. I lost all track of hours and meals, but by the time we'd found a complete key the narrow window by the stair was black.
I drained a cup of cold coffee, leaving a flattening slug of sugar at the bottom. "Weird," said Peter, squinting at something on his screen I could not see. "It's text, I think."
"Show it to me."
"Standby," said Peter, focusing on his keyboard. "It's all squiggly," he added, rubbing his eyes.
Squiggly text? My heart went cold. "Arabic?" I prompted.
But Peter was gone.
The suburbs of Seattle are a lonely place at night: row upon undulating row of dark houses, motion-detecting lights winking on briefly to shine at branches swaying in the wind; expanses of empty parking lots, shadowy monuments of big box retail in stately clusters...
I pulled the Volvo up against the curb at Peter's address, grinding the rubber against the asphalt in my haste. An unfinished gate falling off its hinges led to a muddy path around the back of the house, where I found a door and a buzzer marked Basemint. I rang.
The moon was full and naked. I shivered. I rang the buzzer again and then tried the door, which was unlocked.
I'm not sure what I was thinking. I'm not sure why I was suddenly so desperate. But every inch of my fibre told me that Peter had not severed the connection idly. A thousand images flashed through my mind, and I dismissed most of them as absurd: I wanted to assure myself that Peter had not been "rubbed out" for "knowing too much" by some clandestine clan of violent fundamentalists, haunting Olympia by dark.
As I started down the unlit hall, I felt myself smile. Mad Arabs swooping in to strike Peter in the middle of the night? Balderdash.
I knocked on the inner door to Peter's apartment. I waited a moment, holding myself quiet. Noticing a switch on the wall I tried to turn on a light, but it didn't work. Maybe the power is out, I thought to myself -- that would explain everything...except why Peter hadn't answered his cellular.
I listened to myself breathe, and felt my heart throb in my neck. It occurred to me that I had been waiting for some minutes.
So I tried the door. I let myself in. "Peter?"
I don't know what I was expecting, even if Peter had been executed by midnight terrorists. A blood-stained box-cutter? The expended shells of an automatic weapon searing the carpet? A totally empty room, robbed of every shred of evidence or life?
Maybe I imagined nothing amiss in the flat at all, except for a tell-tale spot of blood drying on his computer chair. Maybe I expected to hear him humping a girl in his bedroom.
Instead, I found Peter right away. He was nailed to the wall.
"Jesus Christ!" I cried, reeling back against the door, the dirty knob pushing painfully into my kidney. Before I knew what was happening, I had thrown up all over the front of my shirt. But I dragged my eyes back...
Peter's arms were bearing most of his weight, and so the thick, industrial nails had torn his wrists and left long, yawning wounds that exposed air-dried sinew and muscle. Both ankles had also been pinned by a single spike, but it hung loosely from the spattered wall. Peter's running shoes -- his lucky Nikes -- were black with blood.
His face I only glanced at, because I could not stand the sight. Suffice it to say he did not depart this Earth in a moment of epiphany: an expression of abject horror was pressed into his features like a stamp. His eyes looked like they belonged on a doll, or a reptile.
"Peter..." I said softly, after I had gone to the washroom to throw up some more, heaving against my empty gut.
I picked up the phone to call the police, and then set it down again. Then I picked it up again and started to dial before hanging up quickly. My ability to make decisions dissolved, and I made several false-starts to leave the basement apartment altogether. Then I sat down on the floor, and burped.
I picked up the phone at last, and held it to my ear. It was dead.
I tried to turn on a lamp but it was dead, too. The computer would not boot. If it were not for the wan light coming through the window from the streetlamp out front, I would not be able to take in the grisly scene at all.
"They didn't just kill Peter," I mumbled to myself. "They killed his whole fucking apartment."
They. They who? And then: am I in danger?
I fled before I knew what conclusion I'd reached. I jammed the Volvo into gear and sent it hurlting back toward home, my shaking hands gripping the steering wheel wetly. By the time I arrived I had found enough sense to kill the headlights and coast quietly up to the house.
Inside, flashlights swept across the windows. Every light was out. On the whole block. I noticed several black SUVs parked along the street around me. Then the Volvo's passenger window shattered, and a ragged hole appeared appeared in the headrest of the passenger seat. "Hell!" I cried, blindly pawing at the gearshift as I hunkered down below the gaping window.
The car jumped again, with a ping of metal. A couple of sparks flew off the hood. I hit the accelerator and tore backwards along the street, scraping along the black SUVs and snapping off their mirrors as I fishtailed in panic. I wrenched the Volvo around and floored it, cutting across two empty intersections and around the next corner, all the while muttering "Hell, Hell, Hell!" under my breath.
I gassed up at an automated service station, and then turned north to Canada.
At the border, no one accused me of fleeing a murder scene. No one accused me of being murderer, either. The plump, melancholy customs official simply handed my identification back to me and waved the Volvo through. It didn't take me long to hit Vancouver.
At daybreak I parked at the Wall Centre Sheraton and asked for Clair at the desk. As I waited, the evening's events played out again across my mind. By the amber light of the rising sun they acquired a dream-like quality. I considered what I would say to my wife. "I think I need a CAT scan," held a certain promise, I thought.
Clair would bring me down to Earth. Clair would know what to do.
But Clair wasn't there. "I'm sorry sir, but she hasn't returned to the hotel since check-in last night."
At the police station I was very blunt: "I think my wife has been kidnapped and -- possibly killed." Exhausted and bewildered, I confess that I might have cried a little, too. But the police were not sympathetic. People weren't "missing" until they'd been missing long enough to have been murdered six ways over, apparently. The police were keenly interested in evaluating my mental state, however, so I spent the lion's share of my time at the station calming down and trying to sound as rational as possible.
"Who do you think would want to kidnap your wife, Mr Hulver?"
"I'm not sure."
"Are you and your wife getting on alright?"
"Of course we are."
"What first alerted you to a potential problem, sir?"
"Maybe I'm over-reacting."
"Are you feeling alright, Mr Hulver?"
"I'm exhausted, actually."
"Have you visited any animal shelters, bird sanctuaries, or zoos recently?"
"No, no I haven't -- why?"
"Do you drink bottled water, sir?"
"Bottled water? What the hell is all this about?"
"Let's not get excited, Mr Hulver."
After that bewildering interview I went back to the Sheraton. Clair still hadn't returned, so I booked myself a room. I needed some time to gather my thoughts. When I looked at myself in the mirror I wondered why the police had let me go so easily: I certainly looked insane -- haggard, drawn and blood-shot, with a couple of overlapping coffee stains on my shirt. "Nice," I said to my reflection. "Really nice."
I booked some time in the hotel business centre, and plunked myself in front of a computer. I tickled the Rosewood VPN, but there was a note from IT explaining that remote access had been disabled temporarily for maintenance. Feeling impotent and lost, by rote I checked my e-mail. In a free, web-based account normally reserved for handing out to only the most dubious sources I was surprised to see an actual message amid the spam. The subject grabbed me immediately: GEB.
Godel, Escher, Bach.
The mail came through a similar, free e-mail host, but I quickly took in Peter's name at the bottom of the message. The rest of the body read:
PHASE 5 COMPLETE: INDIA BACK ON SCHEDULE
PHASE 6 TEAMS ON MARK MAY 10
ELIXIR DAWNS, ASCENDING CHALICE IS NIGH
PHASE 7 BEGINS JUNE 22
BLESSINGS FROM THE MOTHER
I sat back, my brow furrowing. Obviously, Peter had managed to transmit the decoded message before -- before whatever happened to him. Cryptic as the content was, it didn't sound very much like it came from Osama bin Laden, or any of the other mad princes of thrashing Islam.
From my room I called the FBI. "We'd like you to come in to see us at our Washington field office," said the agent on the phone.
"I don't have copies of the images with me -- and I'm afraid to go back to my house. I'm afraid my wife is in danger, too. I don't know what to do."
"Please, Ed, try to stay calm. We'll do everything we can to help you, once you get here."
"Okay, okay," I said. "I'm on my way."
I left a message for Clair at the Sheraton's front desk and got in the car. As soon as I was on the street I started to notice the birds -- first the dead ones, littering the road; then the live ones, pinwheeling crazily through the sky in chaotic, amorphous schools. "The birds have gone crazy!" shouted a hysterical woman, flashing a magazine over her head defensively as a brace of birds careened into the building behind her, dropping dead to the sidewalk.
Horns honked and tires skidded as drivers were startled by birds crashing into their windshields. A group of schoolkids were standing outside of an art gallery, screaming. They scattered as a fleet of pigeons charged out of the park on foot, resolutely marching into traffic to be wiped out row by row.
I conducted the Volvo carefully around the fender benders, threading my way out of town. By midafternoon I was in the States again, and an hour later I was finding my way to the address the FBI agent had given me. The Seattle radio was babbling about crazy birds, and traffic accidents. They interviewed an ornithologist from the zoo, who confessed that he was "plain dumbfounded" by the phenomenon.
I switched off the radio, and got out of the car. In the lobby of the nondescript office block I surveyed the business registry on the wall while I nervously waited for the elevator. I found the 400-series suites, which were my destination. But the offices weren't identified as FBI -- the sign said Rosewood Legal Services.
A cold sweat broke out across my back.
I jumped as a falcon slammed into the front of the lobby, jamming itself into the revolving door and flailing there violently. Feathers drifted everywhere. The elevator dinged, and opened.
But I was already running.
The spring nights were still cold, and so in the mornings I had taken to climbing my tree to the highest peak, to touch the branches already warmed by the rising sun. When you're an animal, you always get up with the rising sun. When nature is protecting you, you play by her rules.
When the sun rose above the treeline, it heated the canopy and cooked the soil, which exuded a languid blue fog until the cold of night had burned away. I prowled these fleeting clouds of the forest while I gathered my breakfast: my nuts, my berries, my crabapples, my larvae and leaves.
Though I cannot account for anybody else, I am safe.
I sleep in a hallow tree. You can trust a tree. A tree feels rough and real, and smells genuine. (The birds may be off their rockers, but the trees are still solid enough.) My clothes were awfully dirty, but I had come to think as them as more like fur than anything else.
"You can trust a man who smells," I said to myself inexplicably often. I was beginning to feel that my mouth had a mind of its own. Sometimes it sang long, sad songs about pornography. Sometimes it just howled and cried.
(Sometimes it ate the dead birds, even though I told it not to.)
Though I had been pretty sure I was sleeping in the same hallow tree every night, I began to notice that the landscape was changing around me. I knew that I must be travelling, through I did not know how or to where. I suspected that my legs had developed a mind of their own, too. "If you can't trust your legs, who can you trust?" I asked a dead bird.
One day I woke up and found a shack in a clearing. The shack was very familiar, and it made me happy. I didn't know what the shack was for, but my heart throbbed in my chest to look upon it. After two days of cautious creeping around, I decided to walk inside, tall like a man, and see what it contained.
I was half-way across the field from the safety of the trees when I heard the ominous growl of a car approaching. I flattened myself into the grass, licking the dirty pebbles between the blades for comfort and reasurrance from their base, musky aroma. I wormed my hands and feet under the dirt -- so that they would not remain exposed.
The car stopped by the shack, its dust-trail catching up and overtaking it lazily. The engine died. A woman got out of the car and looked around vaguely before disappearing inside the shack. I wondered if the woman smelled strongly enough to trust, so I began to slink closer.
I peered inside the door, half-ajar.
The woman had her back to me. She sat by a computer, which was off. She was crying, which made me start to cry. She whirled around at the sound, her face frightened and then just shocked. "Ed!" she cried.
I leapt backward. I picked up a rock, and readied it. I pawed a wide circle in the dirt, watching the door anxiously as she slowly came out. For comfort, I ran my free hand under the soil.
"Ed!" she repeated. "Ed, are you alright? Oh, Ed!"
I growled and paced. She went on, imploringly: "Ed, it's me -- it's Clair!"
But it wasn't. She looked like Clair, that was true. Her hair and her features were a very close match -- perhaps even a perfect match. But the more I looked at her eyes, the more certain I was that she was an imposter. An imposter who had mastered Clair's motions and voice, her shake of the shoulders while sobbing, the way she chewed the inside of her cheek when distressed...
"Imposter!" I screamed.
But I was hungry and weak. I allowed myself to be coaxed closer. I buried my face in her lap, and decided that even though she was an imposter she smelled enough like Clair for me to trust her -- if only a little. She patted my head, and made soothing sounds. I took my hand out of the dirt and touched her leg. She felt like Clair, too.
"You've been missing for a week, Ed. You're sick. Everybody's sick," she told me. "It's the water," she explained, squeezing my shoulders. "We have to get you some good water."
"Elixir," I mumbled.
"We have to get you to a hospital," she said, trying to pull me up. I stood with her, leaning into her, smelling the almost-Clairness of her hair. "They can flush you out, and make you alright again."
She put me in the passenger seat, and then got in herself. I cradled the chisel-like rock in my right hand, hoping I would not have to use it to smash her. She started the car and pulled out of the clearing. "Is this the field station where I proposed to Clair?" I asked.
"Yes, Ed-baby, that's where you proposed to me," she said quietly.
"To Clair," I corrected, staring out the window.
Clair started to cry again, but she kept driving.
Seattle was a zoo. National Guardsmen conducted the traffic in place of lights, directing us around many areas defined by police tape, or rubble. Smashed cars of all kinds had been gathered in rude piles by larger, yellower machines: dead birds were being burned in other rude piles, gathered by somber people with plastic bags and tongs.
The hospital was overcrowded and loud. The regular wards were filled to capacity, so a bed was found for me in the children's ward. The bed ended at my knees, so my legs hung off awkwardly. Orderlies kept bumping into my feet.
I didn't know it was a ward for children, at first. I thought that part of the catastrophe that had apparently engulfed the world had been a sinister plan to miniaturise certain segments of the population. "He's an adult," said a red-headed six-year-old girl, peering seriously into my face. I thought she was a very small doctor.
"Doctor, help me," I begged. "I don't know what's real, or important."
"Welcome back to the fold, Mr Hulver," said the girl, though her lips were no longer moving. Her voice was not sweet like a child's, but nasal like a dwarf's. She had pig-tails. Her somber pixie-face looked drawn, and tired.
I groped around blindly for some mud to sink my hand into for comfort, but all I found was starched sheet upon starched sheet. "Hell," I muttered. "You're everywhere."
"Who are you?"
"I'm a concubine and nun of the Ministry of Mary Magdalene, a whore-in-training to take over this weary world and save us all." She licked her lips.
"Of course!" I cried.
"He's still cwazy," the six-year-old girl reported over her shoulder, her lips moving naturally again. An audience of other kids nodded, and they all withdrew. From my point of view, it was like living in the Village of the Damned.
I noticed that I was strapped to my half-bed. "Clair?" I ventured, feebly.
Later on, of course, the kids and I would all exchange our "Crazy Days" stories, echoes of which we could hear going on in all the wards. I heard about a ten-year-old whose bike turned into a silver sea-serpent, and an eight-year-old who barricaded himself in his house for days in an effort to keep his delicious brains safe from a neighbourhood of marauding zombies. "Even my mom was a zombie," said the eight-year-old brightly. "But not now."
"What's your story, Mr Eddie?" asked the pig-tailed six-year-old, a brash and confident girl who had become the ward's impromptu leader despite the presence of older kids. Her name was Moira. (I was still a little bit scared of her, but I felt silly about it.)
"Well," I started, shifting in my tiny bed (now free of straps, since I'd awoken again); "I thought I saw secret messages inside of pictures, and the secret messages were all about how bad people were going to do something to the water. I think."
"What kind of pictures?" asked Moira.
"Pictures for mommies and daddies," I told her.
"Then what happened?" asked the ten-year-old who'd been attacked by the aquatic BMX. His name was Win.
"Well, Win," I said slowly, "I thought bad people were coming to hurt me, or hurt my wife, so I...went to live in the woods." All the kids burst out laughing, which made me smile.
Dinner was grilled cheese and chips. The nurse brought me a newspaper, and I read about the world's harrowing week at the mercy of a tainted water supply. Experts from all over the world, including Clair, were duelling hypotheses. Everyone agreed that it was unthinkably complicated to arrange to simultaneously spike the groundwater resevoirs of every community on the planet, and everyone agreed that the chemical precursors required to mix the witch's brew would require the resources of all the world's top billionaires put to a common pool. As I said, "unthinkable" was the word of the day.
The Pentagon had issued a statement the day before Clair found me: according to "top men in the field" global warming had unthawed a deposit of the strange toxin, heretofore locked away inside one of Greenland's glaciers since time immemorial. A freak occurance, a natural taint bled from a rare endothermic bacteria found only in the Arctic. The White House had quickly concurred: "This administration pledges to make reversing the damaging effects of global warming a top priority, through a series of aggressive tax credit initiatives."
It seemed to me that the proper authorities were on top of the situation. Something terrifying had happened, and now it had passed. I had hallucinated a crucifixion, and become devoured by paranoia, but now everything was going to be just fine.
I, Ed Hulver, would confess to my wife that I worked with pornography all day, and then we would both live happily ever after. I chuckled to think of the fool thoughts I had entertained while mad.
In the morning Clair was there with a change of clothes and my electric razor. The kids all thought my razor was pretty cool. "I could put it in my dog, and then my dog would growl," said Zombie Boy, showing me the hollow hideaway he'd torn open in his stuffed dog's rump. "This is where I keep my stuff, Mr Eddie," he told me.
"I have to go now, kids. It was nice meeting you all," I said. Clair handed me my jacket, and hung on to my arm. Little red-headed Moira stood by the door of the ward, watching us leave, her pixine face dour. "Bye, Moira," I called, but she did not reply.
I held Clair's arm as we walked. "What kind of a week did you have?" I asked her. "I mean, other than worrying after me."
"Actually, it was my department that developed the blocking solution. I never had to go crazy," she said. "I feel a little guilty. Everyone has a Crazy Days story but me."
"I thought that --" I began as we followed a blue stripe on the floor down a corridor through swinging doors. I stopped speaking because a horrified wailing erupted on all sides us. Instinctively, I threw my hands over my head and spun around, looking for the source of the noise and/or the source of the danger. "Holy Hell!" I yelled.
In the rooms with open doors along the corridor were black people, sitting in their beds, clutching their sheets, staring at Clair and I as if we were on fire, eyes wide, mouths agog, stricken, panicked. The incoherent bleat of collective fear was broken by the voice of one plump woman who pointed at us and began to screech over and over: "White devils! Helter Skelter! O lord Jesus save me, Helter Skelter!"
Two black orderlies appeared at the end of the hall, looking surprised. "Get out of here!" one of them called urgently. "How did you get in here? Get out of here!"
"White devils!" cried a chorus of bed-ridden blacks, keening like a call to mourning. "Helter Skelter!" they collectively sobbed, like a clutch of children all woken from the same nightmare, seeking solstice from the same magic mantra: Helter Skelter, the War of the Races.
Clair and I stumbled back out of the corridor, the swinging doors alternately admitting and muting the screams in striated rhythm. I was shaking and shocked, but Clair regained her poise quickly. "Let's get you home," she whispered as I caught my breath.
"My God," I commented.
"There's a lot of healing to do," she said.
Clair drove the Volvo. I watched the sun splash across her face as we slipped beneath gaps in the lead-bottomed rainclouds. Many streets were altogether closed, and many buildings blackened from the fingers of many fires. "I don't remember a lot," I said to Clair.
"That's common," she said shortly, eyes on the cop directing traffic ahead.
"There's something I have to tell you," she said. The skin under her eye twitched. She gripped the wheel hard.
That's when I noticed that we weren't heading toward our neighbourhood. At the next roadblock Clair pulled around to the side, nodded to the National Guardsman, and then proceed to circumvent the block. "I'm going to have a baby," said Clair. She still did not turn to look at me.
"Wow -- Clair -- that's...I don't know what to -- wow," I stammered. I didn't know how to feel, but my dumb heart was starting to falter automatically toward joy.
"It's not a simple situation, Ed," she continued. "The baby isn't yours."
Joy sputtered, guttered, and went dark. I furrowed my brow. I blinked. My stomach heaved. "I would very much like my life back," I said quietly. "The way it was two weeks ago." I coughed, and undid the uppermost button on my shirt. "Why are you telling me this now? Why not just let me assume the baby is mine?" I paused. "Or is this more than a passing affair?"
"It's not like that, Ed. You'd know right away -- the father's ethnicity, I mean -- in the baby."
Helter Skelter, I thought, ruefully.
"I love you, Ed. That's why I'm telling you this now. I want you to be the baby's father. If you keep calm, you can stay with me through all of this."
"Where are you taking me?" I asked, my mouth dry. I was numb inside. It was obvious to me that I was still mad, and that my perceptions could not be trusted. I tried to sit still, and kept reminding myself to avoid deluding myself into believing under any circumstances that I could fly. What else could I do?
"It's not the elixir, Ed-baby," said Clair, as if reading my mind. "This is real. I'm sorry. I know it hurts, but you have to face it."
I started to say something, but she turned to me quickly and hissed, "You have to face it if you want to live."
Clair manoeuvred the Volvo into an underground parking garage, its entrance flanked by two rifle-armed gentlemen in camouflage fatigues with sharp stares and churlish sneers. Down below, the lot was empty. Clair stopped the car. "Let's go, honey. And remember: follow my lead."
We stepped into the elevator. Clair opened a small maintenance console with a key from her purse, and then typed in a long string of numbers into the exposed keypad. Predictably, the elevator lurched and began to descend, deeper into the city. "Are you Batman?" I asked Clair.
"What?" she asked, squinting at me quizzically.
"Being nuts is more fun than it's cracked up to be," I said, and then giggled.
She slapped me, quick and harsh. "You have to pull yourself together, Ed, or this isn't going to work. They'll kill you, darling."
The elevator opened. A cloth bag was put over my head. Clair gave my hand an affectionate squeeze, and then disappeared. I was roughly ushered by strong hands down a long corridor, turning several times. I was lead down a flight of steps, and then across a wide open, echoey internal space. More corridors, more turns, more heavy-handed shoving...
At last I was plunked down onto a hard chair, and my hands were tied behind my back. Retreating footfalls and then silence. Near silence: I could hear someone else breathing. "Hello?" I ventured.
"Who's there?" barked the breather.
"My name is Ed," I told him. "Ed Hulver. I manage compression engineering for a large media company."
"Rosewood," said the breather, barely a whisper.
"You've heard of us," I said, surprised.
"You're an idiot," said the man.
That garnered a bit of an awkward silence. "Listen, I'm sure you're just going to call me an idiot again for asking but...do you have any idea what's going on?"
The man sniffed dismissively. "We're about to be interrogated by the Order of Pythex. Does that scare you? If you knew anything about anything it would."
"I suppose ignorance is bliss," I supposed.
The man sniffed again. "Ignorance! Ignorance is their most powerful weapon -- ignorance and incredulity. I've spent my life chasing down every half-lead they've left. I've spent forty years learning enough to finally become dangerous."
"Because you only get interrogated if you're dangerous. I'm going to die, but I'm going to die knowing the truth," he said, his voice no longer a whisper. "I've been preparing for this day since long before you even suspected the world wasn't run by politicians."
"The world isn't run by politicians?" I echoed.
The man swore quietly. "You don't have any idea, do you?" After a moment he continued, "You honestly have no clue." He sounded amazed.
"If I'm dangerous, it's by accident," I told him.
"Un-fucking-believable," said the man. "You fucking Rosie Ruiz," he said, his voice bitter and hard.
We enjoyed a couple of minutes of silence. Then we heard the sounds of people shuffling into the room. They were all around us. No one spoke. When the bag was pulled off my head I was surprised to see that there were three of us, not just two -- tied to chairs, hair mussed, blinking like moles. On my right was a scruffy, unshaven man with bright, cold eyes. On my left was a heavyset, older gentleman bathed in sweat, who looked on the verge of passing out. Feeling doomed, I became punchy. "Nice to meet you," I said to the sweaty man. "My name's Ed."
"Silence!" commanded a voice from the darkness.
And that, my friends, is when the leprechauns arrived.
The lights came up. My two captive peers and I were attached to the chairs at one end of a long table. Along the sides of the table were all manner of guests: two young monks in burlap cassocks, two women in men's suits with roses pinned to their lapels, five old men in scarlet robes wearing ebony masques, my wife Clair, and an old Louisiana bloodhound with sorrowful eyes and a lolling tongue. The dog, which held rigidly still aside from the lolling tongue, looked like it was made of melting pudding.
At the head of the table was little red-headed Moira from the childrens' ward, flanked by six tiny men with pinched faces, leather jerkins, and belts hanging with small, jingling charms.
While I had been relatively certain that my capacity for surprise had been filled, a new height was reached as it was revealed who had silenced me with such authority. It was, of course, the bloodhound. "This meeting will now come to order," said the dog, his voice wet and loose around his panting tongue, slurring like a drunk.
"The new candidates, milord," said Moira, her nasal voice ringing out in the dark chamber. "Ralston Devonworth the Third, Edward X. Hulver, and Carston Troth."
The dog hopped off his seat and ambled over to us. He shoved his nose into Carston's crotch -- the life-long pursuer of truth -- and snarfed there experimentally. (Personally, I doubted that Carston had ever employed such methods in the course of his own investigations.) Next, the probing muzzle explored my own nethers. Then the old bloodhound inspected the bunched lap of the fat, sweating man who began to moan quietly, his eyes rolling back in his head. Finally, the dog trotted back to the conference table and pulled himself up to his seat, where he posed, panting, saying nothing. He licked his lips and put his muzzle on his paws.
"I see," said Moira, after an interval. "Yes, of course," she added, nodding to the dog. "You're quite right, milord."
She made a quick sign to one of the monks, who stood up and produced an impressive firearm from within his cassock. He walked up behind us, and an ear-blowing bang sounded. The life-long pursuer of truth slumped forward, the back of his head shiny, red and misshapen. "Oh my," I said, involuntarily.
The fat man passed out with a windy groan. "Let's do him first," said Moira. The monks showed surprising strength as they hoisted the fat man onto a second table, which became visible only as it was illuminated by a harsh shaft of light. They cut away his clothes with scissors, and strapped him face-down to the cold, metal surface. I tried to catch Clair's eye, but she didn't respond. "What's happening?" I whispered, and she glared at me angrily.
"Activate his inoculation bead," commanded Moira.
One of the monks manipulated the fat man's arm until he found the telltale scar of a polio inoculation. A long hypodermic was applied to the scar, and the plunger depressed. The fat man jerked a little, but remained unconscious.
"Make the incision," Moira ordered.
A horrifying tool was unsheathed from beneath the table, like a cross between a blender and a branding iron. The monks placed it on the small of the fat man's back, just above his rump. The tool began to hum. A whisp of smoke and the smell of boiled blood and bacon filled the air. When the skin around the tool began to blister and burn the tool was pulled away, revealing a neat hole about the size of a football to the left side of the fat man's spine.
One of the leprechauns beside Moira hopped down off his stool and walked over. He took off his clothes, and his belt of charms. He was scrawny and lean, his pale skin bristling in places with red hairs and freckles. His wee eyes were dark pinholes, his wee mouth drawn and tight. One of the monks knelt down to offer a boost, and so hoisted the naked leprechaun up onto the table. The leprechaun bowed solemnly to the collected audience, and then walked over the fat man's body and put his head into the hole in the man's back. He squirmed a bit, and then put in his arms. After some careful wriggling, the leprechaun's little pale legs vanished inside of the hole, and he was gone.
I felt the taste of bile surface at the back of my throat.
After a moment the fat man began to move. The monks unstrapped him, and helped him to sit up. He blinked, and yawned, and stretched out his limbs. "The link is sound," said the fat man in a calm voice with a faint Irish lilt.
"Excellent," said Moira, who then turned to look at me. "Next!" she called.
As the second leprechaun began to pull off his clothes, I realised what was about to happen to me. I looked searchingly to Clair, but she would not meet my gaze, her attention riveted on the folder of papers before her. Hell!
In a spasm of rage and panic I bellowed, "Who the fuck are you people?"
"We're the Illuminati," the dog said evenly. "Please refrain from swearing."
I tensed as the monks headed toward me. But they stopped in their tracks as a wild klaxon sounded, filling the chamber with peeling echoes. A small red light at the centre of the conference table began to flash insistently. "My Goddess!" cried Moira anxiously, her face drawn into a rodent-like expression of fear and dismay. "They've found us! I don't know how -- but they've found us!"
"Impossible!" countered the dog, hackles raised.
But the bloodhound was wrong. A collosal thump sounded, making my ears pop and dust fall from the ceiling. A split-second later the darkness beyond the conference table revealed itself as a wall as it burst outward, broken cinderblocks rolling over one another in an avalanche of sliding and skittering debris. Light poured in through the broken wall, blinding us. Even the leprechauns threw up their hands to shield their eyes.
Blurrily, I saw the monks made a break for it. The gentlemen in robes disappeared before I had thought to look for them. The dog ran past me, his claws clicking on the concrete floor of the corridor behind me. I swung my head around to the bright breach, and saw silhouetted against it a platoon of soldiers, hopping through the litter. "Nobody move!" they shouted over one another.
I found myself at the centre of a flower whose petals were the muzzles of firearms aimed at my head. "Don't shoot," I suggested.
The soldiers scanned me with a battery of hand-held devices that beeped and chirped and whistled. "He's clean," one of them announced, folding away his toys.
"If you mean I don't have a leprechaun up my ass then yes, I'm clean," I confirmed, my voice husky and sounding distant in my own ears.
The soldiers fatigues were all white, crisp and pleated. Their equipment was made of some kind of white metal. Their white boots were slightly tarnished. One of them had written across his white helmet in neat script: What is Jesus Due?
They untied me wordlessly, and then most of them fanned out down the wide, dark corridor behind me, their devices meeping purposefully. The soldier beside me snapped suddenly to crisp attention, so I turned to follow her gaze back to the gaping wound in the wall through which they had first entered. "My liege," said the soldier.
A tall man in white armour strode over the fallen bricks, a cape trailing behind him. Glimpsing his noble bearded face in profile, I saw at once that he was beautiful. It felt like my heart evaporated inside my chest, diffusing away across the air to meet him via ether. Though I am sure it was my imagination, it seemed to me that the air around his head did faintly twinkle. "Jesus --" I managed to croak. "Jesus Christ!"
He surveyed the room quickly, and then his gaze fell on me, his mud-coloured eyes piercing me. "Aw, shit," he said, his brown face breaking into a wide smile.
"Bhoti?" I asked, bewildered.
He walked over to me slowly, his face glowing with a strange kind of love. Overcome with an urge to sudden affection, I took up his hand and kissed it. He smiled down at me, and then offered his hand to help me to stand. "Are you alright, Edward?" he asked.
"I think...so," I said. "I feel overcome with love."
"That's common," he said, touching my face with compassion. "I love you, Edward, man and child and wounded unwitting warrior."
I started to cry. "I don't understand anything, Bhoti."
"Please," he said. "Everyone calls me Jesus."
"Oh lord," I said.
"You're going to be okay," he assured me, giving my bicep a squeeze. He called out to the soldier beside me: "See that Mr Hulver is delivered safely to the surface, won't you?"
The soldier saluted. "Yes, my liege."
"Listen, Ed, I'm sorry but I really have to run," said Jesus apologetically. "Unless we act now, the war between the Order of Pythex and the Priory of Scion will rob us of our greatest weapon, just as we stand poised on the brink of the return of the Sky Lords."
"Okay," I said, nodding. "Good luck."
Jesus ran off down the long, dark corridor after flashing me one last smile. The soldier beside me cleared her throat. It was time to go. "This way, Mr Hulver," she said, leading me over the cracked cinderblocks and toward the floodlights shining through the ragged hole.
We stepped through, into the light.
It was a day before the second wave of elixir wound its way into every home that I was picked up by the FBI. Therefore, in retrospect, my arrest isn't something I really have a right to regret. Being caught out in the sick world would be worse then the comparatively mild tribulations of interrogation and sleeplessness.
"Mr Hulver, the knowledge you demonstrated before the elixir's release was accurate and specific. How did you come by this intelligence?"
"I've already told you a hundred times," I repeated. "Secret messages embedded in pornography being processed by Rosewood Media."
"We can't find any record of a corporation by that name ever operating in this state, or any state."
"Yes, you've mentioned."
"How do you explain that?"
These conversations went on interminably, cyclically, dreamily. I knew I wasn't going to make any progress until I uttered a magic word -- a word that would instantly transform my story from bullshit to intelligence gold. "I came by this information through my association with al Qaeda," I told them.
Predictably, my story was considered with a new seriousness. I was loaded up on a plane, and flown to Cuba. I was removed from the United States for more delicate inquiries to take place. I was given shots and pills and twenty-four hours of light, and soon enough my ability to lie dissolved: I told my interlocutors about the war for the Holy Grail, and about how some people secretly had mind-controlling leprechauns up their asses.
(I couldn't help it -- those interrogators are good at what they do.)
And then yesterday when I woke up our world was unusually quiet, and dim. The eternal sunshine of my cubicle had been switched off, but I had memorised the walls so finding my way to the door was perfectly straightforward. The lock was unpowered, so jimmying it open took less than hour of creativity.
We prisoners wandered the black halls, occasionally bumping into each other and mumbling apologies in English or Arabic or French or Farsi. Before sundown a group of us found our way out, and we propped the door open with a truncheon from the security station, for the others.
The beach was empty. The surf yawned and lapped in and out, in and out. Tropical birds cried. Insects chirped, and the air was heavy with water and salt and freedom. I walked along the water, one foot in the ocean and one foot in the mud.
The other prisoners wandered around aimlessly, too. Nobody knew what to do. Some of them were trying to knock coconuts out of trees. Many of them were praying. A couple of them were trying to pull down the barbed wire fence, to escape even further.
I did not panic. You've got to have faith. Everything ends eventually.
The setting sun was turning the world amber. Quiet double pops sounded, far away and airy. Then the clouds began to throb, and hum. Finally they parted and evaporated, falling out of the way of the broad prows of a fleet of gleaming flying saucers as they cut through the reddening sky.
Some of the prisoners screamed. Others simply gaped. A few kept right on praying.
The bellies of the great saucers yawned open in concert, and disgorged a fleet of massive zeppelins, their insectile drones falling lazily down to us on the ground as their shining hides winked in the setting sun. The zeppelins were golden, and they were shaped like calves.
"Behold," I said. "The rule of glittering veal has come."
I got busy arranging rocks on the sand. Eager to be directed, I enlisted the help of other prisoners. Whether or not they understood the letters we were forming, I knew their spirits had been broken sufficiently for them to unquestionably accept our new pledge of loyalty. When all hell breaks loose, sometimes you've got to get with the winning team.
WELCOME SKY LORDS is what we wrote, in letters ten feet wide.
I sunk my hand beneath the warm sand, and waited.
The Red Dart of Destiny
||IF YOU HAVE ENJOYED READING THIS STORY, PLEASE CONSIDER LEAVING A SMALL TIP. A PAYPAL ACCOUNT IS NOT REQUIRED. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. YOURS TRULY, C. BROWN.