Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
“You should see the Bay,” said Bruce, his lean silhouette braced on the railing of the patio deck.
Warren warily studied the eaves over his head and rolled a bit further into the open. He craned his head to glimpse the Bay below; it was black, a depthless, velvety black with vibrant violet highlights that burned his eyes.
“The water looks like it’s radiating in the ultraviolet,” Bruce added. “I wonder what that means.”
His head lifted again toward the sky.
“Christ, those fires must still be burning,” he added. “I’m not surprised, considering it hasn’t rained in months and there’s probably no fire department anymore. You can smell the smoke.”
Warren sniffed. Beneath the smell of burning a faint whiff of something sweetly minty tickled his nostrils; he did not bother mentioning it, since Bruce never smelled the weather. He took another spoonful of the warm beans from the can that rested on the dome of his stomach. He heard high heels approaching across the kitchen floor several seconds before Kellea reached the door behind him.
“Ooh, it’s pretty tonight,” she said at his back.
“It’s not night,” said Bruce, twisting around.
In the glow from the kitchen, Warren glimpsed Bruce’s face, framed by lank blond hair, white light filling the round lenses of his glasses. Now Bruce’s eyebrows jumped before his expression congealed in faint distaste. Curious, Warren glanced up as Kellea brushed past his chair, but saw only her oversized coat of ragged pocker patchwork.
“It feels like night to me,” she said, joining Bruce at the patio deck rail. “This is the nicest weather we’ve had in a while. Pink and black is one of my favorite combinations. Much better than that brown and yellow gunk yesterday. That looked like — baby shit.”
Warren forcefully swallowed a chewed mouthful.
“Going somewhere?” Bruce queried.
“Dolfo and I are heading over to the City.”
Kellea stepped back and spread her arms, inviting the gaze of both men. She wore a peach-colored chemise that fell to her navel, pale glittery stockings that came up to her thighs, and a tiny black lace thong.
“You think I’m overdressed?” she asked.
“Hardly,” said Bruce.
Pelvis swinging, Kellea sashayed toward Warren.
“How about you?” she said.
Glancing from her thong to her short black haircut, Warren shoved another spoonful of beans into his mouth.
“You feel like joining the fun?”
“I don’t go out,” he puffed between chews.
As he wiped sauce from his lower lip with the back of his hand, she grazed his round shoulder with her fingertips.
“You’re not still worried about flying away, are you?” she said. “Nothing like that has happened in months.”
Warren peered down into the can on his stomach. He scraped at the sauce in its bottom.
“You never know,” he muttered. “You can’t be sure of anything anymore.”
“Right,” she said brightly. “So you might as well live for the absolute present.”
“Crap,” said Bruce. He reached behind himself to grip the rail. His blue-gray plaid shirt swung open over a tee with some logo on it. “Mindless pockie bullshit.”
“You could afford to live a little too,” she said, an edge in her voice.
“I’m trying to help understand the present,” Bruce replied, pushing himself forward. He poked the air with a forefinger. “So we have an absolute future to live for.”
Kellea barked out a syllable of laughter. As she waved an arm toward the boiling magenta sky, Warren watched her breasts jiggle freely beneath the chemise.
“There’s your future,” she said.
Scowling, Bruce opened his mouth, but found his response quashed by a baritone voice booming from the house.
“Kellea! Where are you?”
“Here, Dolfo!” she sang out. “On the patio!”
A large man appeared at the door seconds later, wearing a loose patchwork shirt and long dredlocks.
“Hey trues,” he saluted. He peered past Bruce at the sky. “Another bug night, eh?”
Bruce folded his arms. “It’s not night,” he said. “It’s daytime.”
“We’re going,” said Kellea, squeezing past Dolfo.
He pivoted in the doorway to stare after her, his frizzy goatee framing a grin. “She’s one dizz leyley,” he said. He gave a deep-chested chuckle. “So dizz she fizz.”
Having licked up the last of the sauce in the can, Warren fingered the smooth disk at his throat.
“Next,” he piped.
Warren peered into the window of the past, the window of souls. He watched a bedded couple, discreetly sheeted up to the armpits, quietly converse, obviously having just made love.
“Next!” he barked.
Men dressed in clothing of the last century chased each other through decaying city streets, shooting guns.
A family argued across a kitchen table, while an audience punctuated the argument with laughter. He recognized it as a sitcom from the decade of his childhood.
“One-seven-three!” he called.
The television hissed with gray chaos. Warren sighed, disappointed.
The head and shoulders of a man in a somber suit filled the wall-sized screen.
“– not listen to the skeptics and sinners!” he brayed. “The voice of skepticism is the voice of Satan. These are the days of judgement that the Lord warns us of in Rev –”
Another channel came up electric snow.
Warren was mildly surprised that a televangelist could still command an audience, considering the horrific embarrassments that had attended the Rupture. But then everyone had to believe in something, he reminded himself, touching the disk at his throat. Especially now.
He watched the screen flash one image after another: dancers in a dance club, a desert landscape, a Latino soap opera, a cooking show…
It had happened over a year ago. Maybe two. It was hard to tell how long when you never saw the sun.
The day when the heavens shattered and time ended had begun calm and sultry. Warren had slept late, and had just turned on the bedside clock-radio to catch the weather and news when it popped to silence. Reaching out to pivot its blank face toward him, he realized the power was off. In that instant the skies exploded with staccato thunderclaps — two per second. Warren had buried his head under his pillows against the deafening cacophony. Minutes later, fingers in ears, he roused from his bed to peer out of the window of his downtown apartment.
The sky was strobing, rapidly alternating brilliant violet and green. After the first nightmare flash of horror, he had turned to the television to find out what was happening, but the power remained off. Nothing worked on that first day of the Rupture Hours later, or so it seemed, the rapid-fire thunder had become almost tolerable, the strobing maroon and gold. Warren gathered with his neighbors on the sidewalks and streets, huddling for mutual comfort as they stared upward at the suddenly alien heavens.
Sometime the following night — according to mechanical and biological clocks — the noise ceased, and with it the throbbing skies. Instead charcoal clouds boiled overhead, laced with bright, hellish orange. The next morning the clouds had turned a lumpy mucus green, a nauseating hue reflected in the waters of the Bay. Electricity was working again, however, so Warren spent the day absorbing whatever news he could find. Meteorologists, physicists, astronomers and other experts, military and government spokespeople — none had answers. But there were others who did.
“Stop!” said Warren. He stared at the nearly life-sized figures on the wallscreen: two well-dressed women sitting in a studio. He felt his throat remote, noting its body warmth, its lens-like smoothness.
“We’ve had television for over a hundred years,” said the interviewee, a middle-aged woman with long brown hair and a red pants suit. “And movies for a hundred and fifty.”
“That’s a lot of hours of video, Barbara,” said the interviewer, a black woman in dark blue.
“Yes, Meg. Some experts estimate that over five billion hours of video records exist world-wide.”
Warren admired the precise way the women talked, as though they had memorized word for word everything they were saying.
“There’s a good chance,” Barbara continued, “that everyone alive today has at least one past life partially preserved somewhere in those records.”
Meg glanced out of the screen at the viewer. “Makes sense to me,” she said.
“The challenge is knowing how and where to channel for these past lives on TV.”
“Are you going to do this much longer?” asked Bruce, approaching the long white couch on Warren’s right.
“Ssh!” Warren hissed. “Jus’ moment.”
Eyes glittering at the screen, he hung on every word until Barbara recommended her own video on the subject, Channeling for Your Past Lives, which could be downloaded for a price on the spot. Warren thought he might own it already, but hollered “Mark!” and “Save!” anyway.
He followed these commands with “Mute,” then turned to Bruce. “What did you want?”
“I wanted online for a while.” He nodded in the direction of the wallscreen.
Warren stared at it, at the conversation that continued in silence.
“There’s no telling how long we’ll have power this time,” he said at last.
“I know,” replied Bruce. “That’s why I’d like to get on soon.” When more mute moments elapsed, he added, “What are you doing that’s so important?”
“Jesus,” Bruce muttered, dropping his head and shaking it. “You don’t really believe that garbage, do you?”
Watching the women gesture, Warren sat through one breath, two. “I’ve seen the proof,” he said.
“Oh, god.” Bruce wheeled away. “I guess I’ll just head to the university.” His voice echoed off the phosphorescent walls as he stalked through the cavernous room. “At least there I’ll find some human intelligence.”
When Bruce had gone, Warren cried “Sound.” A woman with graying hair beamed out at him, her round face nearly filling the screen.
“After viewing Channeling for Your Past Lives,” she said, “I was able to discover that in my last life I was a talk-show host.”
As he listened to the testimonials, Warren’s mind drifted. He had witnessed onscreen, with his own eyes, the wheel of souls cycling through the past. He had watched the procession of video gods and goddesses: the lives cancelled, to resume again under different name and guise, but with the same face, voice, and mannerisms. He remembered when it came together for him: seeing that pretty, fluffy, bitchy blonde from that primetime soap of the 90s, who had earlier been another woman connected with a Texas oil family, turn up in yet another show as a cop with that guy who had in a different life been the swashbuckling captain of a starship and later an official in some future that never happened directing the interdiction of an electronic drug.
Both the woman and the man had their cults now, worshippers who religiously followed them and others across the airwaves through their various avatars, seeking their own past lives in the process. With such visual proof of reincarnation, who needed faith?
Alone in the great white room, a fat Buddha in food-stained shirt and trousers, Warren called out, “Next!”
An Apocalypso group was reaching climax, the syncopated, raggedly complex beat of many percussion instruments backing the piecemeal destruction of everything on and around the stage. A handful of twentyish men and women representing a spectrum of racial hues — wearing the uneven braids and torn, patchwork clothing of the pocker subculture — led the audience in nihilistic celebration of the end of the world. Warren idly wondered if this event were being recorded live, if in fact Kellea and her friend Dolfo were somewhere in that crowd at this very moment.
Suddenly the screen died, taking the crashing music with it. Warren sat in a silence illuminated only by the taupe phosphorescence from the walls.
“On,” he said.
He pressed the remote to his throat.
“On,” he repeated.
He faced the darkness of the wallscreen. Moments passed before he tried the controls of his wheelchair.
Electricity had stopped working again.
Propelling his chair by hand and foot, Warren stopped two paces from the broad rear window that faced the Bay. The sky still glowed fuchsia with black blossoms.
He remembered when it had been blue, sometimes with gray or white clouds, and at night deep indigo with the crystalline points of stars.
After the Rupture, virtually every evangelical religious leader, prominent or not, declared this to be the Apocalypse. Churches filled. There — as on the airwaves, through television, radio, computer networks, and other communication media–preachers preached judgement, repentance, Doom and Rapture. In large cities worldwide, those who were not cleansing their souls in preparation for the Final Days were rioting; those who were not rioting were participating in other revels, or fleeing (though there was nowhere to get away from the alien sky), or cowering in hiding, or killing themselves, individually and in apocalyptic groups.
In the United States thousands of True Believers, exhorted by their religious leaders, prepared for Rapture: their bodily ascension to Heaven before God visited his full wrath upon the sinners left behind. Warren remembered how, under ever-changing, always unpredictable skies, Rapture camps sprouted up all across the country — anywhere two or three hundred gathered together in His name. For days the spiritually prepared lived and slept in jury-rigged tent communities, praying, preaching, and waiting. Warren stayed indoors, at home or at the video store — where he had worked before work stopped making sense — following the story on TV when there was power.
And to his shock, and that of millions if not billions of others, on the seventh day Rapture came. The sky that day was blue-hued silver, laced with reddish gold. News cameras were on hand to record the ascent of thousands — though far from all — of the Believers, floating heavenward over the course of an hour. Some of them boldly endeavored to look beatific as they rose bodily into the air, though most appeared panicked, and some even screamed and writhed with second thoughts. Warren particularly remembered the poignant sight of a woman grasping at the hands of her pubescent daughter as the latter hovered off the ground, both of them sobbing more with fear than ecstasy.
Oddly, however, when that first Rapture ended, the numbers did not add up. Little more than a third of the self-confessed Believers in North America had ascended, but worse, a good quarter of the general population had left the earth’s surface as well, including select populations over the globe with no Christian traditions whatsoever. In fact, even animals — from cats and cows to squirrels and whales — had been noted among the elect. Some individuals had been saved from Salvation by being indoors, though injuries had resulted from bouncing into ceilings or falling back to earth when that first Rapture concluded.
Warren woke up in his chair calling “Next!” It took him scant groggy seconds to realize that he had fallen asleep, but that the television was in fact working again. Onscreen was a talk show from a couple of decades ago; he could tell because the celebrity guests appeared in the “come-as-you-are” or “undressed” style current during Warren’s teens: the man, a then popular comedian, wore a sport jacket and boxer shorts, and shaving gel on his face; the woman, a television actress of that time, wore a slinky, thigh-length robe and a towel wrapped around her hair. It occurred to Warren that Kellea, who would also have been in her teens then, had never entirely abandoned the undressed style.
“Next!” he said.
“– from apokalypsis, meaning literally ‘an uncovering’ –”
A pair of automobiles from the last century chased each other through a decayed American city.
Kellea smeared soft cheese on a round cracker. She wore a loose kimono, pink with white and red and green butterflies. Sitting to her right at the kitchen table, Warren eyed the canyon of cleavage where it yawned open and chewed on a stale roll.
“So what else have you heard?” she asked him before shoving the cracker into her mouth.
“I heard that someplace — in either Africa or South America — the jungle is actually crystallizing.”
“Yeah,” said Warren. He thought about biting again into the roll, decided it could wait. “Some parts of the jungle are solid crystal already, with people and animals trapped in it. They’re worried about how far it might spread.”
“Hope it doesn’t get this far.”
“And they say there are places on each continent, including North America, where whole communities are mutating.”
“Mutating! Oo! Like how?” She reached for another cracker.
“People just mutating. Becoming — alien. Some say it really is aliens taking over human bodies, in preparation for taking over the earth.”
Bruce’s voice yanked Warren and Kellea’s attention toward the door to the hallway.
“Just rumors and superstition. Where are you getting this stuff?”
“From the television.”
“Where else?” Bruce crossed to the pantry, opened it. “Next thing you know, you’ll be telling us that angels and fairies have sprouted up all over the planet.”
“Angels have been reported,” said Warren. “Just the other day in, uh — Utah. Or was it Iowa.”
Bruce made an exasperated hiss and shook his head.
“That’s all nonsense. Crap.” He took a can off the shelf and frowned at its label, which was mostly torn off.
“How do you know it’s crap?” asked Kellea, spreading cheese on another cracker. “I haven’t heard you come up with any explanations for all that’s happened.”
He turned, can in hand. “Then you haven’t been listening. I’ve given you plenty of explanations — rational, scientific ones that are now widely accepted in the global science community.”
Bruce stepped forward to loom over the table.
“The photoscopic effects we see in the sky are probably being caused by exotic matter bombarding the upper atmosphere — particles showing an array of unusual momentum, charge, and energy signatures. There’s a credible speculation going around that a compact black hole, maybe even — some say — a naked singularity, passed at near the speed of light through the solar system, spinning off waves and eddies of chaotic spacetime that produce nonlinear quantum gravity effects. Essentially, what we see sweeping our space are magnified vacuum fluctations, in a sense mini-creations which operate by different physical rules. These cosmic blobs — pocket universes, really — can’t survive for long in our universe, but they can interact with it before blinking out.”
Kellea glanced vaguely up in Bruce’s direction, her eyes glazed. Bruce jerked the can, counting off another point.
“As for the ocean,” he continued, “the dominant theory is that this exotic matter, or the atmospheric disturbances caused by it, have somehow altered the conductivity and viscosity of sea water. As a result –”
“God,” grunted Kellea, stopping him. “I think Warren makes more sense.”
“You asked for the explanations,” said Bruce, pointing the can at her.
Kellea dragged a sigh of boredom through her rejoinder. “I’ll know better next time.”
“Not if you refuse to listen this time.” His face brightened with a harsh, blanching light. “Wouldn’t you like to know what happened to — what was the name of that friend of yours — Patsy?”
Kellea’s face slumped.
“I know what happened to Patsy.”
“But not why,” Bruce said.
Kellea dropped her hands to the table’s edge and pushed back.
“Where is she, by the way?” With a grim smile, Bruce pressed into Kellea’s silence. “I haven’t seen her around in a while.”
“Fuck off,” said Kellea. She stood, whirled in silken swirls of kimono, and headed for the door. At the last minute she paused, her eyes on the portable radio/disk player on the counter. She turned it on. A man’s voice came on amid a hiss of interference.
“Hed, pinwall gad benty hattle.”
Kellea adjusted the tuning and volume until the voice sounded clearer. It spoke crisply, forcefully, as though delivering an emergency message.
“Forwoth ne sook credfitch peth widda bol. Enke–”
“Explain this,” said Kellea. She turned and leaned back against the jamb, folding her arms over her chest.
“– du noff reel wettle stilfor –”
“It’s kind of funny, don’t you think?”
“Turn that off!” growled Bruce.
She turned the radio up.
“– soog nor herwell ithack –”
“We don’t want to listen to that shit,” Bruce shouted over it. He glanced at Warren. “Do we?”
Kellea followed the glance. After a moment, Warren shook his head.
“Well, all right,” Kellea said. “If Warren says so.”
She turned the radio off but remained standing beside it, staring at Bruce, who swung back to the pantry. Scowling, he slammed the can onto the shelf and extracted another, all naked metal. Kellea smiled at his back. As the silence stretched, Warren grew uncomfortable. He cleared his throat and spoke.
“Some people believe that’s the aliens trying to communicate with us.”
“That’s crap too,” said Bruce, twisting the can to study its top. “If it’s aliens trying to communicate, why doesn’t any of it make sense? You might as well say, like the Revelationists, that it’s speaking in tongues.”
“So what is it really, Bruce?” asked Kellea. “You’re the man with the scientific explanations. Tell us.”
He shot a glance over his shoulder at her.
“That’s not my specialty,” he answered. “That’s one for the linguists. It’s probably some language they simply haven’t identified yet. Or maybe a code. Or a hoax.”
“You don’t know,” she said, “so it could be aliens. Couldn’t it?”
“That’s not the most likely explanation.”
“But if you don’t know, isn’t one explanation as good as another?”
He turned on her. “Absolutely not! Some lead to testable theories and conclusions, while others lead to mere fantasies and dead ends. We have to stick with the former, or we’re going to slip back into the Dark Ages.” He took two quick steps forward, shook the can at her. “If we don’t come to understand how the new rules operate, they’re going to kill us.”
“They who?” said Kellea.
“They — the rules!” sputtered Bruce. “The laws of nature that have been — that have –”
“There are no rules,” said Kellea, smiling before she slithered out to the hall.
“That’s the ignorant attitude that –” Bruce strode to the door. “You’ll be the next one to get it!” he shouted after her. “Just like Patsy!”
He returned to the kitchen table, his face red, and slammed down the bare can.
“Fuck her,” he growled. “Just — fuck her. There’s no other way to get to her.” He glanced up at Warren. “What’s she doing living in this house anyway?”
“I thought you invited her.”
“I don’t remember inviting her.”
“She got here the same time we did,” said Warren. “You didn’t seem to mind in the beginning. In fact, you thought she was hot.”
Bruce grimaced toward the hall door.
“In the beginning none of us knew what was going on.”
In the beginning Patsy had also lived in the house, having arrived just after Kellea. One night or day — Warren recalled — the sky was burnt orange and smelled like it. Evanescent stalactites hung down from the colored layer, occasionally forming knobs at their tips that bloated until they popped free, turning into blobs that ponderously wobbled in place until they followed the stalactites back into the layer. The process was reminiscent of a slow motion movie of a drop hitting a liquid surface, but in reverse.
At that time Warren still went outside. He had accompanied Kellea and a handful of her friends, including Patsy, to the bayshore. The Bay had come to look like one vast marsh. Like the seas, it now consisted of something more sluggish than water, which sucked slowly in and out like some great pseudopod. On that day it glowed with silky fluorescence: floating polygons of magenta and orange with bubbles of white, some concave, some convex — it was hard to tell. A smell like fetid cheese wafted onshore. Now and then he heard a mucusy blooping in the thick fluid.
Patsy, dared by Kellea, had approached the sick bay, tested the sludge with a bare toe, then stepped gingerly into it. She did not get more than ankle-deep before she began to scream. Warren saw her struggling, without success, to yank her feet out of the glowing muck. He thought he saw steam.
“Help me!” she shrieked when she could form words. “Oh god, help me!”
While others — after a moment of frozen shock — rushed to assist her, Warren turned and heaved himself over the glassy, slippery obsidian pebbles that now covered the beach, putting the entire scene as far behind him as possible. He did not want to know what had happened. Later, when they dragged her onshore, he had accidentally glimpsed the smooth stumps that terminated Patsy’s legs, shiny as kneecaps. Fortunately, someone else took her home, and he had never seen her again.
With his fingers Bruce fished a pear half, dripping with syrup, out of the labelless can.
“You know, we’re running out of food again,” he told Warren. “If you’re going to eat all the time, you’re going to have to do some foraging like the rest of us.”
“I don’t go out,” Warren said. He picked a fallen flake of bread crust from the dome of his stomach and popped it in his mouth.
“I’ve told you.” Bruce set the can on the counter and wiped his fingers on his shirt. “There’s probably nothing to worry about. It was some sort of temporary tidal event that only affected people and things within specific ranges of mass-volume ratio. And it hasn’t happened since…” Squinting in thought, Bruce brushed lank hair from his face with the fingers he had just wiped. “Well, for a long time.”
“It happened just after we moved into this house.”
“Did it? Okay, that’s a long time. Months, at least.”
“I have to stay in my chair,” said Warren.
Bruce stared at him. “What the hell happened to you?” he asked. “It wasn’t just the fall, was it?”
Warren’s hand drifted absently to the disk at his throat.
“Scan,” he said.
Not long after the first Rapture, Warren and Bruce had moved separately into the large, well-furnished, but vacant house in the East Bay hills — each warily wondering who had gotten there first. But there was plenty of room, and the two soon found themselves chatting like college dormmates in the bedroom Bruce had chosen for his on the second floor. That day the sky had writhed slowly in a dizzying dance of zig-zag lines, cerise and chartreuse — scented, to Warren’s nose, of lemon and motor oil.
“They say over two billion people disappeared,” Warren recalled remarking as they compared notes on the ascent. “Not to mention the animals.”
“They hardly disappeared,” said Bruce. “Power was on long enough for instruments to track them as far as the ionosphere. Reports indicate that a substantial band of organic matter now orbits the earth at about 200 kilometers.”
It was on the patio deck that day or night — the zig-zags had blurred into vibrating, dimly iridescent bronze — that they had watched meteors streak down out of the heavens at the rate of a handful per minute. Over the next few days the whole world observed the same phenomenon.
Those who had ascended were coming home.
Bruce was just finishing up the pears when Kellea reappeared at the kitchen door from the hallway. She wore a wide-brimmed black hat with netting over her face and a high-necked, sleeveless dress of fine, shiny black mesh that fell almost to her knees and barely concealed the nicely curved torso beneath. Just below the dress’s draping hem, black nylon stockings terminated in large satin bows, the color and sheen of her short hair. While Kellea pulled on long gloves, Warren tried not to stare at the dark circles of her nipples or the black delta just above the hem. Bruce gawked openly.
“Have you seen Dolfo?” she asked.
“No,” said Bruce, dry-throated. “Should I have?”
“I told him this morning he could sleep here,” she said, “but I couldn’t find him upstairs.”
Warren glanced up at Bruce, who leaned over a chair, clutching its back with tense, bony fingers.
“Well, I didn’t tell him he could sleep here, so maybe he didn’t,” said Bruce. “Besides, it’s only just morning now.”
“Shows how much you know, asshole.” Kellea finished tugging her gloves to her elbows. “When did you last look outside?”
From the patio deck, the sky looked inky black and littered with the hard twinkling points of stars. Except for the absence of a hazy wash of light from the cities, it could have been a night before the Rupture.
“It’s magnificent.” Braced on the railing, Bruce panned the heavens. “Perhaps the worst is over. Perhaps we’re going to survive this after all.”
“Look at the Bay,” said Warren.
The flat expanse of water showed tight moire patterns of purple and electric blue, standing waves of closed concentric lines.
“I noticed that,” said Bruce. “It looks sort of familiar, like a — what is that called? — a BZ reaction.” He glanced in Warren’s direction without actually looking at him. “Not that that means anything to you.” He peered out over the Bay again. “I wonder what’s happening.”
“Do you think this will last?” asked Warren from his chair. Glancing over his shoulder, he realized with some disappointment that Kellea had left.
“I don’t know. I hope so.” Still scanning, Bruce remained silent some moments longer.
“Hell,” he said at last. “Those aren’t our stars.”
“I don’t see any of the old constellations,” answered Bruce. “And some of them are moving.”
He pointed. Warren tried to follow his stiff arm to its target, but the hand dropped too soon.
“I have to get online,” said Bruce, “or better yet get to the campus.” He pivoted and swept back to the sliding door. “Somebody must be working on this.”
Alone, Warren watched the stars, carefully keeping the eaves overhead, until he found one slowly drifting in a lazy curve. He noticed a scorched scent in the atmosphere, the smell of wood smoke. He fingered the warm disk at his throat.
“Next!” he hiccuped.
The evangelists of the Apocalypse did not predict the Second Rapture. In fact, if they were saying anything at all after the first, few listened.
The last day Warren walked to work had been an eye-searing gold marbled with silver veins and had smelled faintly like the inside of a new car. He was among the many who still found it comforting to keep up old habits in the first weeks after the Rupture, though the season for old habits was rapidly passing. Business stayed brisk in videodisks, though Warren’s co-workers had mostly stopped charging for the rentals; since the store manager had not shown up since the first Rapture, there was doubt anyone would either be reprimanded or paid again. Few disks were left, and the day loomed when there would be little reason to show up any more.
But Warren never made it to the shop that day.
He was a block away when a female shriek froze him midstep. The woman a few paces ahead of him had left the sidewalk and was slowly floating upward. Still screaming, she swung arms and legs in a blind, wild search for purchase. She revolved almost gracefully, as though dangling on a plumbline, until her horrified eyes fell on Warren. She was in her forties, he guessed, and slightly plump, with a nimbus of dark hair around her head. She vainly tugged her loose skirt down over her pantyhose as her mouth stretched open again.
“Help me!” she shrieked, so loudly and hoarsely that it took him a moment to understand her. “Please help me!”
She was already two meters off the sidewalk when she stretched her arms toward him. He hesitated, not certain what to do. He could do nothing, as it turned out.
His head suddenly felt as though it were inflating like a balloon. He gripped his skull with both hands, teeth clenched. It was as if all the blood was rushing into it, as though he were hanging upside down. He felt himself stretching, his head pulling away from his feet. And then, horribly, he realized his feet were following, and he knew it was happening to him. He was leaving the earth.
A yell burst from him; he flung out his arms, wildly grabbing at nothing. As soon as his lungs emptied, he filled them and yelled again. His throat was already dry and raspy when he grazed an ornamental tree growing from the curb and grasped at it. The first twig broke off in his fingers; he clutched a thicker one that held. He stopped hollering long enough to drag himself into the lacework of branches. The woman took a swipe at the far side of the same tree as she ascended, but failed to achieve a hold. She broke into vertical flight, her skirt around her waist, arms and legs outstretched like a parachutist’s, then pumping in a frantic parody of treading water as she gradually accelerated. He had never imagined that screams so piercing could come from a human throat.
Other cries, male and female, sounded distantly in Warren’s ears as he desperately embraced the yellowed foliage. Leaves and twigs snapped free and fell, taunting him with their gravity bond to the planet. His own mass sought the open abyss overhead; his bones and organs dragged skyward, and it was not long before the muscles of his arms burned. Those in the open who still could ran for cover. A woman carrying a young boy passed under Warren on their way into the nearest doorway, briefly turning up at him identical masks of terror.
Repeatedly Warren’s grip slipped, and he clutched again and again at the slender tree filaments until he was able to work one leg around a substantial limb. He hugged it, eyes closed, fighting the bite of jagged wood and the vertiginous churning of his stomach, feeling the emptiness tug at him. He discovered that he had voided his bladder. When the strain and pain grew unbearable, he remembered that giving up meant a hopeless ascension, the lonely certainty of cold and asphyxiation, the oblivion of space, and then an atmospheric cremation. He grimly wondered what the woman was experiencing at that instant, but fended off more detailed images.
He grew dizzily aware, later, that a couple of men had appeared under his tree, attempting to speak to him and to toss him one end of rope. He could not move or respond. They walked away some time later, having left some patio furniture cushions under the tree.
Warren did not know how long the agony lasted.
When the end came at last, it was quick. At the first hint of gravity reverting to normal, Warren squeezed his eyes shut and held his breath. His brief fall ended half on the welcome cushions, with his head pounding the pavement. He had no time to feel pain. He felt no time. He was knocked unconscious.
As he recovered afterward from the head and back injuries in the motor-powered wheelchair that Bruce had salvaged for him, Warren knew he would never go out again.
The sky was a hot vermillion, almost blood orange. Hazily visible some distance above the horizon glowed a pale disk, like the sun or moon behind a fog, but smaller. Glittering sparks of blue and green occasionally streaked earthward, much more like falling stars than the objects conventionally given that name. The Bay looked like a sheet of metal, grimly reflecting the red from above. Brown fumes billowed up from here and there on the long slope below the house. The dead hills were definitely burning. The scene resembled a suburb of hell.
The view through the broad window could have been a wallscreen’s, except that it could not be changed. Warren had caught himself trying with calls of “Next!” He dipped another spoonful of the white, creamy slurry from the small plastic tub in his hand and slipped it into his mouth.
Vast rooms and a foyer away, the front door opened and slammed shut. Bracing one foot against the champagne-colored carpet, Warren shoved his wheelchair around just enough to watch Bruce slouch into sight. He dragged across the room and stopped near Warren at the end of the long white sofa that faced the wallscreen; sitting on the arm of the sofa, Bruce peered out the window. Even in the ruddy light, Warren could see the weariness in his features, the bleary, bloodshot cast to his eyes. After a long silence, he glanced at Warren.
“What are you eating?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Warren. “It’s creamy, and it tastes sort of like flowers. It was all I could find in the fridge.”
Bruce rolled off the arm and threw himself prone on the sofa cushions.
“Is this morning?” Warren asked after a long silence.
“What does it look like?” said Bruce.
Warren ventured another glance out the window. “It sort of looks like morning.”
Bruce heaved a deep sigh.
“I don’t know,” he said huskily. “I don’t know anything.”
“Weren’t you at the university?” asked Warren.
“Yeah. But with electricity not working most of the time it was impossible to keep the Net up. What little new data was going around shot down most of the old theories.” Bruce’s glasses rose in one hand, lenses glinting red from the window, while with his other hand he rubbed his eyes.
“That glimpse of stars we had shook things up. There’s a speculation going around now that the earth may have been captured by a heavy gravity source, like a black hole.” He sighed again. “Some scientists — respectable ones too — think now that we may have slipped through a good-sized wormhole into a different part of spacetime. Since it’s unlikely a stable wormhole can stay open in normal space, this one has probably been held open by that exotic matter that’s been raining down on us for the last several months.” He yawned. “That suggests to some it was created artificially.”
Warren paused, a scoop of white stuff just short of his mouth.
“So aliens have kidnapped the earth,” he said.
Bruce craned his head to shoot Warren a scowl. “Not necessarily. In fact, no one has seriously suggested that.”
“But I heard on television that –”
“I stand corrected,” Bruce broke in. “No one serious has suggested that.” He let his head drop again, draped an arm over his face.
“Oh hell,” he said, “I don’t know what to believe.”
Warren sucked up the spoonful and rotated back to the window. Brown clouds thickened over the vermillion sky.
“The fire’s getting closer, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yeah,” answered Bruce. “It’s burning uphill from the Bay. If it doesn’t burn out soon, we may have to leave.”
Warren let several moments pass before remarking, “But I can’t go out.”
“You may change your mind when the house catches fire.”
Holding the small plastic tub on his stomach, Warren thought about it.
The front door slammed again.
“Dolfo!” came Kellea’s voice from the foyer. Her footsteps approached. Reaching the room, she paused at the foot of the stairs.
“Dolfo!” she yelled again.
“He left with you, remember?” Bruce grunted. “Hours ago.”
“I lost him somewhere,” she explained. “I thought maybe he’d come back here.”
Warren shoved sideways to look at her; she still wore her outfit of translucent black mesh, stockings and gloves, with dark wraparound glasses under her hat’s netting. She swayed toward them as though gassed on something, stumbling to a halt beside Warren’s chair. The crimson light from the window highlighted the naked curves beneath her dress as she wobbled in place. She removed her glasses.
“God, what a morning!” she drawled. “And what an all-night rage! We never did get as far as the City. The Bay Bridge was jammed, and jammin’.” She rested a hand on Warren’s shoulder, pressing it for balance. “You should have come along, Warren. You need to get out and have some fun.”
He would have reminded her that he did not go out, but he had just shoved another spoonful into his mouth.
“Hey!” she cried, only now glancing down at him. “You’re eating my yogurt skin cream!”
“It was in the refrigerator,” he said, lips a slimey white.
“It keeps better that way.”
She seized the cup from his grasp. Licking his lips, Warren scrunched down in his chair.
“It was the only thing in the refrigerator,” he added.
Kellea set the cup on a small table along with her dark glasses.
“Where’s all the smoke coming from?” she asked.
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” said Bruce, “the whole fucking hills are burning up. It’s not serious, though. Probably just some fucking pockie rage that got out of hand.”
“Jesus Christ, Bruce.” She turned sideways against the window, offering a perfect nude silhouette. “I mean, get loose or get fucked.”
“Get loose?” He sat up from his slouch. “The oceans are dying. Green plants are dying. Therefore, the entire biosphere is dying. If we don’t come up with some answers soon and a way to fix things, we’ll be dying.”
“Right,” said Kellea. “So we might as well live in the moment. Do whatever feels good in the absolute present because there is no future. Time no longer exists. Cause and effect no longer exist. There’s no chronology, no narrative. So get your head out of your butt, Brucie baby, and be spontaneous. There are no rules.” She tottered to the stairs and started laboriously up. “If Dolfo gets here, send him to me. Tell him I’ll be in bed.”
The last they saw of her was her shapely bottom beneath its black veil, swinging like a pendulum over her stocking-sheathed legs. Warren glanced at Bruce, whose pinched face was redder than it would have been in the vermillion light.
“Spontaneous!” he snarled. “I’ll show her spontaneous.”
He lunged to his feet, paused to recover his balance, and lurched toward the stairway. His long legs bestrode the first two steps.
“Fine, we’ll have it your way!” he shouted, following his voice up the stairwell. “Let’s live for the absolute present.” His words continued to reverberate in the room below. “There are no rules! No consequences!”
Seconds later, Warren heard Kellea hoarsely screaming.
“Take your hands off me!” She let out a guttural shriek. “What the — You asshole!”
Warren dug his heel into the carpet and turned his chair. He sat facing the stairway, hand automatically reaching for the disk on his throat. He heard blows, grunts, something falling and crashing. He heard Bruce’s voice, drowned out by Kellea’s cries. Bodies fell over furniture.
After a while, Kellea came running down the stairs. She still wore her stockings with bows, but nothing else behind the pocker coat clutched to her chest. At the bottom of the stairs, she turned to yell, “You’ll be sorry you tried that, you fucker!” before dashing out of the room. Warren clutched at the image of that flash of bare flesh until he heard the front door slam.
Many moments passed before he heard Bruce stir upstairs. Outside, the green and blue sparks still fell around the misty white orb in the red sky, though the thickening brown smoke had begun to obscure them.
It was some time later that a low hum commenced, soon filling the entire background. Recognizing the sound, Warren tested the controls of his chair. It revolved. Electricity had started functioning again.
“On!” he piped.
A guy in a wet suit bobbed in surf as he attempted to breath life into an unconscious man. Warren touched the warm disk at his throat.
He was watching a recent talk show dealing with the epidemic of agoraphobia when Dolfo showed up in his ragged apocalyptic patchwork.
“Where is that bastard?” Dolfo demanded.
Warren blinked at him a couple of times before answering, “Who?”
“That Bruce deek. Who the fuck else could I mean?”
Warren pondered. “I haven’t seen him since he went upstairs.”
Dolfo swung around and sped up the stairs with long strides.
“Next!” he called.
An attractive woman flipped her hair around in slow motion. Probably a commercial for shampoo. On the upper floor of the house, a door crashed open.
A group discussed something in Arabic. Dolfo was yelling.
A cluster of lions gnawed a gnu. Warren heard a second voice, much quieter — Bruce’s.
A cartoon cat chased a cartoon mouse in the animation style of a hundred years ago. Dolfo shouted; Bruce shouted back. A body thudded against a wall. As the cat passed through a doorway, a kitchen pot dropped on his head. Warren almost smiled. Upstairs, the yelling got louder, the other noises more violent.
“Volume up!” called Warren. The sound from the TV increased until he said, “Stop.”
Warren watched the entire cartoon. When it ended, he said, “Next!” Then, seeing it was only a government hearing of some sort, he called, “Scan!”
He heard Dolfo shouting, “And don’t you ever lay a fuckin’ hand on her again! Or anything else. You hear me?” A pause. “I said, you hear me?”
There was a mumbled response.
“Good!” said Dolfo.
A Mexican news program. Two people in a studio making pottery. A riot in some city in India.
Heavy footsteps ran down the stairs. Warren glimpsed Dolfo dash past. Seconds later, the front door slammed. An Apocalypso group was swinging their instruments and destroying their stage.
Warren rolled across the room and stopped at the foot of the stairway.
“Bruce?” He realized he had spoken too tentatively, not loudly enough for his voice to carry. Then he heard halting steps in the upstairs hall, and finally the chortle of water in the bathroom sink. He wheeled around and returned to face the wallscreen.
During a documentary on late twentieth century fighter jets, electricity stopped again.
Warren stared out of the window. The brown billows all but eclipsed the alien sky. After a long while, he turned away. Using hands and feet to wheel himself, he scudded across the room, through the shadows of the kitchen, onto the patio deck. The smell of burning was particularly strong now.
Grunting, he pushed the arms of his chair until he heaved his bulk to its feet. He teetered forward one step, two, like a toddler taking its first walk. He let out a breath of relief when his hands reached the rail. Placing most of his weight on his arms, he leaned forward and peered through the smoke. He could not yet see flames on the hills below, but it was just a matter of time. If time meant anything anymore.
Warren realized his mouth was frozen open and tears were dribbling down his face. His round gut spasmed, but what should have been a sob came out a strangled gasp.
He had no idea what he was going to do now.
He wondered if this season of cruel miracles would ever end.