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Igms issue 3, p.9

IGMS Issue 3, page 9

 

IGMS Issue 3
 


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  Allen lived in the mountains of southern Virginia, miles from the nearest town. His remote location let him know all his neighbors -- and the vehicle in his driveway didn't belong to any of them. It was a flatbed truck. Like many vehicles these days, it was heavily armed. A gunner sat on the back, manning a giant machinegun bolted to the truck bed. The fact that the gunner sat in a rocking chair took an edge from the menace a gun this large should have projected. Gear and luggage were stacked on the truck bed precariously. A giant, wolfish dog stood next to the gunner, its eyes golden in the moonlight.

  The truck shuddered to a halt, the motor sputtering into silence. Loud bluegrass music seeped through the cab windows. It clicked off, and the passenger door opened. A woman got out, dressed in camouflage fatigues. She looked toward the porch, where Allen stood in shadows, then said, "Mr. Frost?"

  Allen assumed they were asking about his grandfather. The mailbox down at the road still bore his name -- his grandmother never changed it after he died, nor had Allen bothered with it after his grandmother had vanished.

  "If you're looking for Nathan Frost, he died years ago."

  "No," the woman said, in a vaguely familiar voice. "Allen Frost."

  "Why do you want him? Who are you?"

  "My name is Rachael Young," she answered.

  The voice and face clicked. The intelligent design girl from his last class. "Oh," he said. "Yes. You've found me."

  The driver's door opened and closed. A long-haired man with a white beard down to his waist came around the front of the truck. "Well now," the old man said, in a thick Kentucky accent. "You're the famous science fella."

  "Famous?" asked Allen.

  "My granddaughter's been talking you up for nigh on a year," said Old Man Young. "Says you're gonna have answers."

  "We looked all over for you," said Rachael. "The college said you'd gone to live with your grandmother in Texas."

  "Texas? I don't have any relatives in Texas."

  "No shit," the gunner on the flatbed said. "Been all over this damn country, chasin' one wild goose after another. You better not be a waste of our time." The dog beside him began to snarl as it studied Allen.

  "Luke," said Old Man Young. "Mind your language. Haul down the ice-chest."

  "Sorry we got here so late, Mr. Frost," Rachael said, walking toward him. She was looking at the sword and book. "Have we, uh, interrupted something?"

  "Maybe," Allen said. "Look, I'm a little confused. Why, exactly, have you been looking for me?"

  "You're the only scientist I trust," she said. "When we used to have our conversations in class, you always impressed me. I really respected you. You knew your stuff. Since your specialty is biology, we want you to look at what we've got in the cooler and tell us what it is."

  Allen wasn't sure what struck him as harder to swallow -- that she'd spent a year tracking him down, or that she remembered the tedious cross-examinations she'd subjected him to as conversations.

  Luke, the gunner, hopped off the truck carrying a large green Coleman cooler. It made sloshing noises as he lugged it to the porch. Luke was middle-aged, heavyset, crew cut. Rachael's father?

  Luke placed the container at Rachael's feet. Rachael leaned over and unsnapped the clasp. "Get ready for a smell," she said, lifting the lid.

  Strong alcohol fumes washed over the porch. Allen's eyes watered. The fumes carried strange undertones -- corn soaked in battery acid, plus a touch of rotten teeth, mixed with a not-unpleasant trace of cedar.

  "We popped this thing into Uncle Luke's moonshine to preserve it," Rachael said.

  Despite the moonlight, it was too dark for Allen to make out what he was looking at. Rachael stepped back, removing her shadow from the contents. Allen was horrified to find these crazy people had brought him the corpse of a baby with a gunshot wound to its face. The top of its head was missing. The baby was naked, bleached pale by the brew in which it floated. There was something under it, paler still, like a blanket. Only, as his eyes adjusted, Allen realized the baby wasn't sharing the cooler with a blanket, but with some kind of bird -- he could make out the feathers.

  When he finally understood what he was looking at, his hands shook so hard he dropped his sword, and just missed losing a toe.

  Allen lit the oil lamps while Luke lugged the cooler into the kitchen. Allen only had a couple of hours worth of gasoline left for the generator; he wanted to save every last drop until he was ready to examine the dead cherub. While Luke sat the corpse in the sink to let the alcohol drain off, Allen gathered up all the tools he thought he might need -- knives, kitchen shears, rubber gloves, Tupperware. Rachael was outside, taking care of the dog, and Old Man Young was off, in his words, "to secure the perimeter."

  "That means he's gone to pee," Rachael had explained once her grandfather was out of earshot.

  To take notes during the autopsy, Allen found a black Sharpie and a loose-leaf notebook half filled with notes he'd made learning ancient Greek. As he flipped to a blank page, he said, "I can't believe you shot one of these. I thought they were invulnerable. I saw video where a cop emptied his pistol into one. The bullets bounced off."

  "Invulnerable?" Luke asked. "Like Superman?"

  "Sure. Bulletproof."

  "You think a brick wall is invulnerable?" Luke asked.

  "Is this a rhetorical question?"

  "Suppose you took a tack hammer to brick wall," Luke said. "Would it be invulnerable?"

  "Close to it," said Allen.

  "How about a sledgehammer?" asked Luke.

  "Then, no, of course not."

  "A cop's pistol is a tack hammer," said Luke, as he freed the rifle slung over his shoulder. "This is a sledgehammer. .50-caliber. Single shot, but one is all I need. This thing will punch a hole through a cast iron skillet."

  He nodded toward the cherub draining in the sink. "This pickled punk never stood a chance."

  "Not a particularly reverent man, are you Luke?" said Allen. "That's pretty harsh language to be calling an angel."

  The back door to the kitchen opened and Rachael came in, followed by Old Man Young.

  "Whatever the hell this is," said Luke, "it ain't no damn angel."

  "It looks like an angel," said Allen. "I got up close to one during the Rapture."

  "Shut your fool mouth!" snapped Old Man Young. To punctuate his sentence, he spat on the floor. "Rapture. Rachael, I thought this fella was smart."

  "He is smart," said Rachael.

  "He's a mush-brained idiot if he thinks the Rapture has happened," Old Man Young said.

  Allen was confused. "You think it hasn't?"

  "I'm still here, ain't I?" Old Man Young said. "I've been washed in the blood of the lamb, boy. I'm born again! When the Rapture comes, I'm gonna be borne away!"

  Allen cast a glance at the sink. "Maybe Luke shot your ride."

  "Naw," said Luke. "I was at the Happy Mart when this little monster started dragging off some Hindu guy. I ran to the truck and got Lucille." Luke patted the rifle. "Saved that fella from a fate worse than death."

  "But --" said Allen.

  "But nothing!" Old Man Young said. "Second Samuel, 14:20, says that it is the wisdom of angels to know all things that are in the earth!"

  "A real angel would have known to duck," said Luke.

  "And it wasn't the Rapture," said Rachael. "The creatures took people at random. Yeah, they grabbed some self-proclaimed Christians. But they also took Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Scientologists. They took Tom Cruise right in the middle of shooting a film."

  "Yeah," said Allen. "I saw that."

  "Heaven ain't open to his kind," said Old Man Young.

  "So how do you explained what happened?" asked Allen.

  "Demons," said Old Man Young.

  "Aliens, maybe," said Rachael.

  "Government black ops," said Luke.

  Allen had heard these theories before, and a dozen others. The Young's weren't the first people to disbelieve the Rapture. None of the alternative
explanations made sense. Genetic manipulation gone awry, mass psychosis, a quantum bleed into an alternate reality -- all required paranoid pretzel logic to work. He was still scientist enough to employ Occam's Razor, cutting away all the distracting theories to arrive at the simplest conclusion: God did it.

  "I admit, what happened doesn't match popular ideas of the Rapture," Allen said. "I've studied Revelations in the original Greek, and can't make everything line up. I'm no longer convinced any ancient text has a complete answer. But I get little glimpses of insight from different sources. Maybe God used to try to communicate with Mankind directly. Maybe he spoke as clearly as possible, in God language, but people weren't up to the task of understanding him. They all came away with these little shards of truth; no one got the big picture."

  "Son, I'm up to the task of understanding," said Old Man Young. "The good ol' King James Version spells out everything. If you don't understand, you don't want to understand."

  "If you think it was the Rapture," asked Rachael, "why would God have been so random? He took rich and poor, young and old, the kind and the wicked. It makes no sense."

  "To us," said Allen. "But when I was a senior at State, I helped out on this big study involving mice. We did some blood work, identified mice with the required genes, then separated them from the general population and took them to a different lab. I wonder if the mice left behind sat around wondering why they weren't chosen. They would never understand our reasons."

  "That's your theory?" asked Rachael. "We're lab mice?"

  "No. But maybe the gap between our intellect and God's mind is larger than the gap between man and mice. Our inability to understand His selection criteria doesn't mean He acted at random."

  "Son, you're proving what I always say," said Old Man Young. "Thinking too much makes you stupid."

  Allen nodded. "Thinking too much hasn't made me any wiser or happier."

  "Don't pay attention to Grandpa," said Rachael. "We need a thinker. We need someone who can study this body and tell us what it is."

  "Why didn't you take it to the cops?" asked Allen.

  "If the government knew we had this, we'd already be dead," Luke said.

  Rachael frowned. "I think we might be endangering the world by not showing this to the government. Not that there's much government left."

  "Which is more proof it weren't the Rapture," said Old Man Young. "No Antichrist."

  Which was true. America had been through eight presidents in the last year. Anyone displaying even modest leadership skills quickly became a target of the legions of Antichrist stalkers roaming the capitals of the world. What was left of day to day civilization was staggering on more due to momentum than competent leadership.

  "This is what the Illuminati want," said Luke. "Chaos. When they seize power, people will kiss their asses with gratitude."

  "Since Uncle Luke shot it, he gets to decide who sees it," said Rachael. "Also, it's his cooler."

  "I'm not the trusting sort," Luke said. "But Rachael says you're a good guy, and smart."

  Allen rubbed his temples. "You think I'll know the difference between an alien, a demon, or a black-ops sci-fi construct?"

  All three Youngs looked at him hopefully.

  "Okay," he said. "I'll go power up the generator."

  "I'll come with you," said Rachael. "Jeremiah's stalking around out there and you don't want to run into him alone."

  "Jeremiah?"

  "Our dog," said Luke. "He's killed more men than I have."

  For a second, Allen considered whether the oil lanterns might not provide enough light after all. Then, he clenched his jaw and headed for the back door. If you're going to cut open an angel, you may as well do the job right.

  The corpse looked slightly yellow under electric light. Allen weighed the angel on his bathroom scale and found it barely topped ten pounds. Aerodynamics wasn't his specialty, but the cherub's wings seemed slightly more plausible. Swan-sized wings could support a swan, after all, and they weighed more than ten pounds.

  Allen started his exam in the obvious place -- the hollow bowl of the skull. He'd never dissected a human before, but what was left of the cranium looked normal. It was bone. He recognized bone. Somehow, he'd expected angels to be crafted of material more grand.

  His first real clue he was well outside the realm of known biology was when he took a close look at the torn skin peeling away from the skull. He found a visible, subcutaneous layer of something that shouldn't have been there, on a human body at least. It was a thin, fibrous material, like cloth. He tugged on a frayed thread carefully with his tweezers. He couldn't pull a strand of the tightly knit material free. He could see, though, that it was porous -- blood vessels and nerve fibers ran through it. Whatever this was, it had grown under the skin, rather than being implanted.

  "I've never seen anything like this."

  "I've eyeballed it up close," said Luke. "It looks like Kevlar. Sort of."

  "Score one for black-ops," said Allen, pausing to jot a few notes.

  "Aliens could use Kevlar too," said Rachael. "Stuff better than Kevlar."

  Allen moved on to the wings. After twelve months soaking in moonshine, they had a dull, grayish tone to them. It wasn't difficult to pull a feather free. Without the body on the butcher's block, he would have supposed he was looking at a seagull feather. Intuitively, this made sense. If God had designed feathers as the perfect tool of flight, why not use the same blueprint for both angel and bird?

  But flight wasn't simply a matter of having feathers, as any chicken could attest. A cherub's chest didn't have the depth to support the muscles to power these wings, did it?

  He flipped the cherub over and felt its breasts. The muscles under the soggy skin were rock hard. He noted the cherub had nipples and a belly button. Was God simply fond of this look? Or was there a cycle of life in Heaven? Angel fetuses developing in angel wombs, angel babes suckling at the breasts of angel mothers?

  He tried to cut open the cherub's chest. It proved impervious to the butcher knife.

  "Try this," Luke said, handing him a folded knife. Allen flipped the knife open to reveal a ceramic blade, black as onyx and razor sharp.

  "Fancy," said Allen. He tried it against the skin. The knife's edge scraped away the surface easily, but the subcutaneous material thwarted further advance. Whatever it was, it couldn't be pierced.

  Not willing to give up, Allen tried a different approach. He peeled back the torn flesh of the skull and slipped the knife along the edge of the fibrous layer. To his delight, the torn edge yielded to the knife as he applied steady, firm pressure. Slowly, he worked the knife forward, peeling the flesh from the cherub's face, working his way down the throat. He discovered cherubs had tracheas and jugular veins. He confirmed they had collarbones. After a long, tedious operation, slicing the flesh a millimeter at a time, he peeled the angel's skin back from its torso and found . . . muscle. Bones. Fatty deposits.

  Ordinary matter.

  He stepped back from the table and stretched his neck. He'd been bent over the cherub a long time; his muscles were stiff.

  "Want some water?" Rachael asked, breaking the silence.

  "No, thank you," Allen said, staring at the flayed thing before him. It was a relief, in a way, to know what his nightmares would be for the rest of his life. An angel opened, peeled like the fetal pigs he'd taken apart in freshman biology. He had taken something divine, an occupant of Heaven, and treated it with all the respect he might show a frog in formaldehyde.

  If he wasn't damned before, he certainly was now.

  And yet . . . and yet he couldn't turn back. Blasphemous as it was, he was going to keep cutting. His need for knowledge overrode his fear of offending the divine. Who knew what his next cut might reveal?

  The muscle of the chest looked like meat, but was dense and unyielding, even to the ceramic knife. He managed to scrape off several strands of the tough muscle fibers -- he would have traded every book in the house for a microscope at that m
oment.

  He tried the stomach. The muscle here was also impervious, but a thin gap of ligament beneath the ribs showed good results when he sawed at it with the knife. In less than five minutes, he'd cut a hole into the chest cavity.

  He leaned over to peer inside, seeing nothing but gray, bleached tissue -- the angel's lungs? Of course, if it had a trachea, it would have lungs. As near as he could tell, with the exception of the bulletproof skin, the cherub was constructed like other animals. It had breathed air. It had fed its muscles with a complex network of arteries and veins. It commanded its body with a nervous system. What did this mean?

  In frustration, completely ignoring any rational, measured approach, he dug his fingers into the cherub's chest and began to feel around. His fingers sent indecipherable signals as they pushed against objects both slimy and leathery, both hard and yielding. Was this the liver? His hand was buried to the wrist. These had to be intestines. This hard thing . . . a kidney? Feces in the gut? Clear fluid suddenly gushed from the penis. He'd found the bladder.

  He turned his hand up, in search of the heart. Where the heart should have been, he found an egg.

  At least, it felt like an egg, smooth, oval, hard, of a size that might earn it a Grade A Large. He wriggled his fingers around it, trying to get a better understanding. The angel gurgled as his efforts freed some last teaspoon of air from the lungs.

  And then, with a POP, the egg came free. He closed his fingers and pulled it out with a sloppy, wet, farting sound.

  His hand was covered with gray goop.

  He opened his fingers to reveal something beautiful.

  An ovoid object, gleaming yellow in the lamplight.

  A golden egg.

  Allen placed it in the Tupperware as everyone came over for a closer look.

  "Told you," said Luke. "It's a cyborg. This is the power source."

 
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