Voices. Far, far away, voices. Eventually they came closer. First, they were outside, down the block somewhere maybe. Then down the hall, the other side of the house. Then just outside the door. Now they were here in the room with me. I tried to focus on what they were saying: nothing much, it seemed—what’s for dinner, did anyone make coffee, how long are we staying here—I thought about opening my eyes. I could see some light through my eyelids, though, and even that seemed almost too bright right now. I decided to keep my eyes shut. The voices faded away again.
Who knows how long later I came to again. My jaw hurt; my right ear was ringing. There were no voices now. This time I opened my eyes first, before I had a chance to talk myself out of it again. Above me a kerosene lantern hung from a ceiling hook. The room reflected the flickering light oddly. As things came into focus, I realized that the entire ceiling and what I could see of the walls were all lined with aluminum foil.
I was lying on a cot under a window which had a piece of plywood nailed over it, likewise covered in foil. There were some scattered books on shelves nearby. I turned the other way. Over by the door a woman sat in an overstuffed chair. She appeared to be asleep. Strands of red curls escaped from a scarf tied around her head. In my addled state it took a moment, but finally I recognized Millicent. The book she was reading was draped across her chest. I recognized the stylized volcano on its cover—Eudynamics: The Book of Scientificism by J. Hal Merriman.
I felt like an idiot. I had let myself be kidnapped by Gareth and Mils. My brother and my ex-girlfriend. It felt like the plot of one of Merriman’s cheesy pulps.
There is an implicit trust between twins. It’s just part of who we are. The very idea that I could be so fundamentally betrayed by Gareth had left me more shaken than anything the Angels had done to me.
There was something on my head. I reached up and found that I was chained to the bed frame. Great. The noise of the metal-on-metal roused Mils. I swung my feet off the cot and sat up to face her. I realized my silver suit was gone; I was wearing a cotton bathrobe and apparently nothing else.
“Good. You’re awake,” she said, as if she’d been waiting for me to finish my nap so we could go shopping. “Are you okay?”
I said, “Who the hell are you?” I didn’t think I could really convince them I had amnesia, but if I was going to be living out the plot of a bad melodrama I might as well give it a try. I think it worked for about three or four seconds.
Mils sprang to her feet. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Ah. If she was in her full-stress mode, about every third word would be an f-bomb of some kind. I may have let go of a tiny wry smile as she walked toward me. By the time she got there, all of three steps, any slim chance of successful subterfuge was shot. “Nice try, sweetheart.” She grabbed my face and kissed me on the lips, more assault than affection. “Welcome to the revolution.”
“Gee, it’s good to see you, too, Mils. But I never had you pegged for the Madame Defarge type.”
She laughed, then sang out “Guillotiiiiine!” and laughed some more. “And who does that make you? Edmond Dantes, the Man in the Iron Mask?”
“Edmond Dantes was the Count of Monte—oh, never mind.” Mils was famous for these loopy arguments that started with some nonsensical observation and then went south from there. She was fully capable of denying Global Warming one day and decrying Climate Change the next without ever admitting they were one and the same. We once fought for hours when she said, “Well, if that’s what he thinks he’s got another thing coming.” I said, “You mean another think coming.” “Don’t be stupid,” she said. “You can’t have a think, you have a thought. Duh.” Et cetera. I’m sure in her mind the Count of Monte Cristo and the Man in the Iron Mask and the Scarlet Pimpernel are all characters in A Tale of Two Cities or maybe Les Misérables. There was certainly no point in arguing about it.
I reached up with my free hand to touch whatever it was on my head. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, mister; leave that alone, okay?” she said, pulling my hand away. “Don’t make me chain up both your hands.”
It felt like a bulky bandage or some kind of turban. “What the hell is it?”
“It’s your own portable cone of silence, and it stays put, Graham, I mean it.”
“Okay.” She still held my hand. I tugged on it to urge her to sit next to me. “Come on, Mils. Sit. Talk to me. What’s really going on here?”
She sat on the cot and hugged me; leaned her head on my shoulder like we saw each other ever day. “We’re fighting the future, pal, you know that.”
Her head scarf smelled of sweat and pot and maybe a little rancid grease. It wasn’t pretty. I kissed her head anyway. “You know you’re talking suicide.”
She raised her head. Her voice went cold. “Don’t fucking talk to me about suicide, Gray. You have no fucking idea.”
I waited for her to go on. She took a couple of deep, trembling breaths, but said nothing. Finally I prompted her: “What?”
She looked at me. Her eyes were wet with remembered pain. “My mother. She’d been staying with me for a few weeks. It was my turn. You know.” Mils was one of seven kids; for years her widowed mother had been rotating from one of her kids’ home to the next, staying with each for a couple of weeks at a time, twice a year or so. “We’d driven to Vegas. Mom wanted to see Wayne fucking Newton again. We were in the car in the hotel parking lot when it happened.” Some people said “Doomsday,” some “Day One,” some said “when the Trumps sounded.” But some people couldn’t bear to name it at all.
“We both blacked out. When we woke up the car was dead. I tried to start it a hundred times. We had to give up; what the fuck, it was a hundred degrees outside. We went to the hotel, but it was too dark inside to see more than ten feet past the doors.” Of course—clockless Vegas hotels didn’t want sunlight tipping gamblers off to the time of day. “People inside were screaming for help. So many people had just dropped dead. But what could we do? Mom started crying. We sat down out there on a little wall in the shade of the hotel marquee. That’s when we first saw the Angel in the sky. Mom dropped to her knees and started hollering ‘Take me! Take me!’ She thought she was missing the Rapture. I guess maybe she was.
“Graham, I don’t know where you were or what you were doing that day, but for Mom and me… Fucking Hell, I mean it. By sundown, we’d found a little refugee camp set up on the golf course behind our hotel. There were some good people there. They let us in, even gave us some food. People had started bonfires in the sand traps. After the day we’d had, it almost seemed nice. There were plenty of sheets and blankets from the hotel. We fell asleep near one of those fires.
“When I woke up the next morning, Mom was gone. She’d left a note on her purse, sitting on top of her neatly folded blanket.” She sighed. Tears rolled down her face. She cleared her throat, but her voice still broke. “It was a suicide note.” She wiped her eyes with a sleeve. “They found her later up by the hotel. She’d climbed the stairs, I guess. Got to the roof. Jumped.
“Her note said she was going to the arms of Jesus.” She got up and walked over to her chair and sat again. “So don’t talk to me about suicide, okay?”
She picked up her book and pretended to read. I wanted to ask her about her husband, where had he been, did she know where he was now, but I could never remember his name. Barry? Bruce? Keith? Didn’t seem right to ask what ever happened to what’s-his-name. And how had she and Gareth found each other? How had they gotten to San Francisco, and why had they bothered? But I could fill in the blanks; Gareth must have come to that same golf course, when the trains had started up they’d ridden the rails back here, where Gareth had a home. We might even be in it now, but I didn’t think so. The architecture didn’t match. So where were we?
I lay back down. I heard distant booms outside, some close enough to rattle the room slightly. Explosions? Eventually I drifted off.
I was startled awake when the door slammed open. “Aha!” Gareth bellowed as if busting in on a tryst. Maybe he thought he would, in which case he had another think coming, if not another thing. No, it was just his way; he liked to make a big entrance. He had shed his monk’s robe in favor of biker garb; jeans, boots, a black leather jacket over a formerly white t-shirt. “Judas Priest, it smells like a locker room in here. Somebody ought to open up a window. Oh, that’s right, we nailed the windows shut. Sorry. Seemed like a good idea at the time.” When Gareth was worked up, he could keep up a steady flow like this for hours.
I sat up. Mils, still ratcheted up herself, said, “Where the fuck have you been?”
“Oh, you know, going to and fro in the Earth, walking up and down in it.” He looked over at me and grinned. He loved to quote the Bible at me. If I was playing, I’d give him back chapter and verse. Book of Job, Satan’s stock response to the Lord. But I wasn’t playing today.
Instead I said, “You know you’re just going to get yourselves all killed, don’t you? This stupid wrap on my head isn’t going to stymie Angel tech for long. They’re going find us, and when they do there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Oh, I’m counting on it, Mother Brine, I’m counting on it.”
“Don’t Brother Mine me. I trusted you. I was practically wearing a white flag. You used Dad to lure me into an ambush. Unchain me from this bed and I’ll kick your furry little ass.”
His grin widened, which shouldn’t have been possible. He looked like Cheeta about to do a back-flip. “That’ll be the day. Honest, Gray, I’m sorry.” He took on a more sober expression. “But Dad’ll be fine. He’s a long way from here; none of this has to splash onto him.”
Ah, irony’s a bitch. I was sincerely tempted to tell him that Dad had been sent off to the Phantom Zone, but there was no point, unless I actually wanted him kill me. After all, it was my fault, and that little detail wouldn’t be lost on him for a second. Besides, I didn’t want to responsible for adding fratricide to Gareth’s Earthman’s Burden.
He was still talking: “And this was too good to pass up. More people will get our message today than we could reach on our own in ten years.”
“What message, Gare? ‘Live Free or Die’? Or ‘Kill or be killed’? Haven’t you been paying attention? These aren’t Muslim terrorists with one boatload of bombs. It’s not even the Chinese with a billion-man army. You’re the Scientificism expert! These are Merriman’s ‘Angels of Antiquity’! You can’t fight them! Print up ’Fight and Die’ on your stupid fliers and see how many recruits you get!”
“You might be surprised, Gray. You know how many APAFA volunteers have already died today? More than ninety. It ain’t easy taking down even seven Ishim warriors, but we managed.”
“So, proud of yourself? Ninety dead? Keep it up and you’ll have ninety thousand, ninety million. Is that what you want? And those so-called warriors were my bodyguards. I got them killed because I trusted you. If I’d brought the Sevensquare I should have, you and everybody in the park would be dead now. I trusted you!”
“If you’d brought a full complement, we’d have laid low. Sorry if that amps up your guilt, but that’s the truth. I’d have said hello and goodbye, and you’d have beamed back to the Mother Ship. I know you trusted me, Gray. The whole plaster man wouldn’t have worked otherwise.” I wanted to shout him down, but I was frankly speechless.
“And don’t get on your high horse about your poor Ishim, either. Twenty to one you didn’t know their names.” He studied my face for a moment; it was no doubt an open book. “Hell, you didn’t even know they had names, did you?” Damn him. “I have more respect for your Ishim guards than you ever did. They were worthy adversaries. Enemy heroes. If I had my way, I’d put up a plaque for them in the middle of the Stick.”
He took a breath. “Sit tight, brother. There’s someone I want you to meet.” He left the room for a few seconds and came back in leading a giant. “We can’t pronounce his real name, so for our benefit he chose one for himself. Thomas Jefferson. We call him TJ.” The Ishim ducked through the doorway. He wore jeans at least six inches too short, high tops, and a big sweatshirt hoodie. On his head was black turban, no doubt just like mine. The combined effect should have been completely ridiculous, but somehow he retained a definite aura of dignity. He had the typical dark olive skin of the Ishim, a long, handsome, heavy-jawed face, and nearly black eyes, which he now dipped respectfully in my direction.
I said, “Hello, TJ.”
He said, “Chosen,” and bowed his head a little more.
Gareth didn’t seem to notice. He went on talking. Apparently TJ had defected along with six others about ten days ago. Gareth had been perfecting his plan ever since. TJ and the other Ishim defectors—GW, Abe and TR rounded out the Mount Rushmore group, with Ben, AJ, and Ham inspired by paper money—all had been instrumental in pulling off today’s mission. GW and Abe had been the decoys that led the Angels to look elsewhere; they had taken my clothes and eardrop with them in a stolen Ishim Troop Transport rocket and headed for the Australian outback. It was considered a suicide mission, all to buy time for Gareth’s plans.
When I could get a word in edgewise I said, “So you really are in charge here? I thought this APAFA business was Merriman’s show.”
Before Gareth could answer, a new voice growled from the doorway. “No, son. I’m what you call a figurehead.” And J. Hal Merriman himself rolled into the lantern light.