Candlestick Park looked like a war zone, which of course it was. Some of Gareth’s ninety dead still lay where they’d fallen; others had probably been completely disintegrated. The Ishim weapons were bio-sensitive, so the only damage to the stands had been from the APAFA weapons—shotgun blasts and small bombs. Even now, there was a burnt stench lingering in the chill air. The sun was still high in the sky; only two, maybe three hours had passed since the battle here. Between the decoy mission to Australia and the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Ishim Command must have pulled their troops away from the site, but they wouldn’t be gone long.
It turned out our hideaway had been less than a block outside the Candlestick parking lot. We were there in no time, along with hundreds of Apafans streaming in from all points of the compass. We went immediately to the scaffold tower; there was a sort of block-and-tackle rig attached, and soon Merriman was settling into a sling to carry him to the top. I was being escorted by TJ and another of the turncoat Ishim, but I managed to pull away and grab Merriman by his windbreaker before he was skyhooked away. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Goin’ out in a blaze o’ glory, kid. Blaze o’ glory. Beats dying of cancer all to hell.” He produced a huge cigar and lit it up. TJ pulled me away as Merriman shouted, “Excelsior! Sic itur ad astra! Ad infinitum!” Questionable Latin, but pure Merriman; it amounted to a fancy way of saying “To infinity and beyond!” The faithful in the stands nearby cheered wildly.
As he took this awkward ride up, I turned to my brother. “Are you out of your mind? What’s the point of—”
Gareth reached up and tore off my foil-lined turban, then grabbed me by the brown fabric at my throat and yanked me down to his level. Holding me nose to nose, he whispered fiercely, “You still don’t get it, do you, Gray? Today we start taking back our world. Merriman getting blown to bits while holding a patriot flag, that’s the stuff of legend, Brother. A hundred years from now a painting of that scene will hang in every City Hall in America. Now stay out of the way!” He tossed me into TJ’s massive arms and looked up at the Ishim giant. “Keep him alive, goddamn it, whatever it takes, you hear me?”
There was a sudden shrill whistle from above, then another, then more. I looked up. Merriman was climbing onto the platform, steadying himself by the flagpole. High in the sky three of the Ishim troop transports were dropping like stones, their energy fields ripping apart the air like a thousand bolts of lightning. The sound was completely off the scale. An instant later, one, two, three, they were on the field, doorways irising open. I had never seen these ships before—they weren’t sleek and smooth like a Hollywood flying saucer; in fact they looked like random chunks of scrap metal, all edges and blades and barrels. Everything about them said Weapon.
TJ was carrying me off to some pre-arranged spider-hole or something, but he hadn’t reckoned on how loosely my borrowed robe fit me—I flung up my arms and slipped right of my clothes, out of his arms, and plopped naked onto the ground. Meanwhile, all hell was breaking loose, cliché be damned, because there’s no better way to say it.
TJ’s four remaining brethren were stationed randomly around the stadium, and now fired their Ishim weapons at the troops who poured from the transports. Automatic weapons swiveled on the ships and fired awful blasts at the traitors; I couldn’t see the results, but I’m pretty sure all four went down.
Shotgun blasts thundered from the stands as still more troops jumped out of the ships. There was another sound like a thunderclap as the top of the flagpole derrick exploded, Merriman, flag and all.
As the bloody smithereens that had once been the crazy old man fell around me, I knew that that had not been an Ishim weapon; the platform had been rigged to blow by Gareth. The rickety structure now collapsed completely, the remains of the plywood platform smoldering black, acrid smoke. Blaze of glory indeed.
Now home-made grenades arced from the stands toward the Ishim, but most fell and exploded harmlessly short of their targets. Still, the resulting smoke and dust added hugely to the chaos. I was once again bare-ass naked as I scrambled away from TJ, trying to spot Gareth. Then I saw him, scampering through the chaos he’d created, lobbing grenades from a duffel bag, shouting incoherent words of inspiration to his loyal followers; the mad priest-king in his element. The Prophet. I started to sprint in his direction.
One of the Apafan grenades landed almost at my feet. A huge hand grasped my upper arm and yanked me away in a wild half circle. I felt my left humerus shattering in his grip as TJ pulled me into a bear hug while he swiveled around to put his back to the grenade blast. I felt the impact through his massive body even as I felt the explosion tear through my lower right leg, the only part of me not shielded by the giant.
He staggered a few steps, still clutching me to his chest. I could hear his breath rattle in his ravaged lungs; my ear pressed against him, I could hear his mighty heart falter. My own pain hadn’t begun to register yet. Another step. Another. Then he began to collapse, still holding me. Another blast, maybe a shotgun, maybe a bomb, tore at us again. In his weakening grip I pulled a little away from him in time to see his silly turban fly off his head and blood flow down his brow.
He fell on his right side, carrying me with him, grasping me tightly again. Another grenade landed with a thump a few feet away. Through all of the noise, the screaming, the explosions, the weapons fire, I could still hear that thump. I could hardly see beyond TJ now at all; the field was thick with smoke, and my eyes were blurred with tears. But somehow he knew where that grenade was, and he rolled over me so that once again he took the blast. I was descending into shock; everything was getting suddenly very distant, but I heard and felt this explosion too.
As I blacked out, the last thing I heard was the giant’s low, gurgling whisper in my ear:
“Chosen,” he said. “Forgive me.”