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Authors: Robert Kroese

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“For like the tenth time, Pazusu,” Drekavac groaned, “
it’s not your turn.

“I know,” said Pazusu. “But I just wanted to say, for the record, that when it’s my turn, I intend to attack the owlbear.”

“So you’re not going to backstab me?” said Gurien.

“Nope,” said Pazusu. “Pongo has had a change of heart. Much as it pains his chaotic evil heart, he has decided that in this case it is in his interest to cooperate with Valbard to kill the owlbear. Pongo advances to stand alongside Valbard. I mean, he will, when it’s his turn.”

“For real?” said Gurien. “You’re not just saying that?”

“Don’t be so paranoid, Gurien,” said Pazusu. “I was just fucking with you. I’m not going to backstab you while you’re facing down a ravenous owlbear. That would be stupid. If you die, the owlbear is going to attack me next.”

“Yeah...” said Gurien doubtfully.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, Gurien. I’m not going to backstab you. It was a joke. We’re fighting a goddamned owlbear.”

Gurien turned to Drekavac. “You heard him. He’s not going to backstab me. He’s going to attack the owlbear.”

“I heard him,” said Drekavac.

“Okay, then it’s settled,” said Gurien. “No more infighting and backstabbing. We’re all going to cooperate, at least until the owlbear is dead. Right, Pazusu?”

“Yes, Gurien. Just do your turn.”

Gurien nodded and took a deep breath. “I attack the owlbear with my pike.”

“Good,” said Drekavac. “Roll to see if you hit.”

Gurien rolled a die. “Seven,” he said.

“Miss,” said Drekavac. “Pazusu, your turn.”

“Sweet,” said Pazusu. “I backstab Gurien
.”

Chapter Three

Berkeley, California; October 12, 2016

 

The little red rented Chevy Cruze pulled into a vacant parking space in front of an old Victorian house in residential neighborhood not far from downtown Berkeley. The car’s two occupants sat for a moment regarding the house. It wasn’t what they expected.

“You’re sure this is the address?” asked the slight, nervous-looking man in the passenger’s seat. If their intelligence was correct, this was the home of a very old, very rich man.

“It’s right there on the house, boss,” said the purple-haired woman behind the steering wheel.

The slight man nodded. “So what do we do now?”

“This was your idea, Eddie,” said the woman. “I just wrote the algorithm.”

“Yeah,” said Eddie unenthusiastically. It was true; this whole thing had been his idea. Somehow when he had devised his plan, he had pictured someone else executing it. But it was still just him and Suzy. Suzy was nearly as socially inept as he was, and she was even less personally vested in the project. Eddie suspected Suzy was helping him primarily because she had had trouble finding a job after the Brimstone Incident.
[6]
Half of the companies she’d interviewed for thought she was a hero and the other half thought she was a traitor, and evidently HR departments frowned on both qualities in their software developers.

“It’s fine, Eddie,” Suzy said, and Eddie smiled. Coming from Suzy, that sentence counted as enthusiastic encouragement, and for a moment he felt better. But then she added, “I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?”

Eddie shuddered as he thought about the worst that could happen.

“Sorry,” said Suzy. “It’s just something people say.”

Eddie nodded. “They say it when the worst that could happen is something less extreme than being burned alive. Or eviscerated. Or turned inside out. Or—”

“I get it, Eddie,” said Suzy. “I know what demons are capable of. I’ve met my fair share. But to be perfectly honest, you’re just not terribly threatening. Nobody is going to go to the trouble of turning you inside out. And even if they do, you’re immortal, right?”

“Being immortal is not actually a selling point when you’re inside out,” said Eddie.

“I’m just saying, eventually you’d be okay. It might take a few days for your internal organs to slowly work their way back inside, but—”

“Okay, pep talk over!” said Eddie, who was starting to get nauseous.

“Seriously, Eddie,” said Suzy, putting her hand on his shoulder. “You’ll be fine. Whoever this guy is, if he was up to no good I seriously doubt he’d be hanging out in a residential neighborhood in Berkeley. We don’t even know for sure that he’s an angel.”

“True,” said Eddie. “He could be a perfectly ordinary two-hundred-year-old.”

“Maybe our information is wrong.”

“It’s not,” said Eddie. “You checked it.”

Suzy nodded. “Do you want me to come with you?”

Eddie sighed. “No,” he said. “Too dangerous for a mortal. I’ll take care of it. Park down the street a ways. If I’m not back in half an hour—”

“You will be, Eddie. It will be fine.”

Eddie nodded. He threw open the car door, took a deep breath and stepped out onto the sidewalk. After taking a moment to calm himself, he walked up the steps to the house and rang the bell. A minute or so later he heard footsteps, and then the door opened. A gaunt, pale, wispy-haired young woman answered the door. She had an anxious, almost desperate look about her, like someone in hock to the mob opening an envelope from Publisher’s Clearinghouse.

“Hello?” said the woman, blinking in the afternoon sunlight. “Can I help you?”

“Hi,” said Eddie. “My name is Eddie Pratt. I’m looking for Marcus, um, Uittenbroek?” Suzy had told him how to pronounce the name, but he still wasn’t sure he was getting it right.

“What for?” the woman asked. She glanced behind her nervously.

“Um,” said Eddie again. “I’m a journalist doing some research on a company called Hermeticorp. Mr. Uittenbroek seems to be the biggest shareholder of the company, and I was hoping to ask him a few questions. I’d have called, but—”

“No,” said the woman. “That won’t do. Your name is Glibber Gabilard and you’re a palm reader from Neptune.”

“Um,” said Eddie. “What?”

“Look,” replied the woman impatiently, “do you want to see Mr. Ottenbocker or not?”

“Uittenbroek,” Eddie corrected.

“Yeah, him. If you want to see him, you’re from Neptune, and your name is Bamber Nuttershoots.”

“Not Glibber Gabilard?”

“Ooh, that’s even better!” the woman exclaimed, suddenly hopeful. “You’re good at this. There’s a spare room upstairs if you can keep him occupied for a couple of hours. Tony is working on a puppet show for this afternoon. Please, come in!”

Eddie followed the young woman inside. “I’m afraid I don’t—” he started.

“My name is Rhonda, by the way. I’m on after the puppet show. I’m going to eat a live eel.”

“Good heavens, why?” asked Eddie.

“Boredom,” said Rhonda. “It’s why we do everything around here.”

“You’re going to eat a live eel because you’re
bored
?”


I’m
not bored,” said Rhonda. “I’m just lazy. What was your name again?”

“Eddie.”

“No!” Rhonda snapped. “You’re Gooey Gooblegurkin! Eddie is a
boring
name. You’re not allowed to do anything boring. Okay? I know you’ll slip eventually and eat a bowl of Cheerios or watch an episode of
The Big Bang Theory
, but try to do it with a hubcap on your head. It doesn’t have to be a hubcap. You get the idea.”

Eddie didn’t get the idea. At all.

“I think there’s been some sort of misunderstanding,” he said. “I need to see Mr. Uitten—”

“Yeah, I heard you,” said Rhonda impatiently. “You want to interview Mr. Boringname about something boring with Boring Company, Limited. It’s not going to play, okay? We’re right on the edge here. You know what happened the last time Mr. Curry got bored.”

“Mr. Curry?” Eddie asked. He didn’t think he knew anybody named Curry. Why did that name sound familiar?

“I assume he’s your Mr. Neuterbook. People show up once in a while looking for him. He’s got a lot of aliases. Usually I just send them away, but frankly I’m a little desperate right now. I mean, Mr. Curry is always a little demanding, but lately—”

“Who was at the door, Rhonda?” called a man’s voice from the next room. “Does he have Twinkies?”

“He’s got something even better!” Rhonda yelled.

“I do?” asked Eddie.

“Look, you just need to bluff him until the puppet show. Hey, do you play ping-pong?”

“Not well,” said Eddie. “Wait a minute. Why do you ask?”

“Mr. Curry loves to play ping-pong. It doesn’t really matter if you’re any good. He cheats anyway. Of course, it’s better if you can make it a challenge for him. Challenges make him drink. And he likes to nap after he drinks. Naps are our friends.”

This was all starting to seem oddly familiar to Eddie. “Do you work for Mr. Curry?” he asked.

“Work,” said Rhonda, as if she had heard the word somewhere before. “Not unless keeping him entertained is work. And honestly it’s getting to the point where I’m thinking it might be easier just to get a real job.”

“So that’s what you do all day? Try to keep Mr. Curry entertained?”


Entertained
isn’t really the word,” said Rhonda. “Distracted, maybe. He gets in trouble if he has too much time to think.”

“I think I know this guy,” said Eddie.

“Yeah?” said Rhonda, unimpressed. “Look, if you’re going with the journalist ploy, I’m telling you, it won’t fly.”

“It’s not a ploy!” Eddie protested. “I really do want to ask Mr. Uittenbrook—that is, Mr. Curry—about his interest in Hermeticorp.”

“You’re not hearing me,” said Rhonda. “Maybe Mr. Curry is your Mr. Otterbox. Maybe he does own this Hermit Company. But he’s not going to want to hear about it. You’re going to bore him, and that’s a problem, because if he gets bored, he’s going to leave. Or worse. And then me and Tony have to find another place to live.”

“That’s what this is all about?” asked Eddie. “You’re freeloaders?”

Rhonda shrugged. “There was a party here like three weeks ago, and some of us just never left. Mr. Curry has been mopey ever since, and he keeps threatening to leave. Or blow the place up. That would actually be better, because then I wouldn’t have to get a job. He’s done it before, you know. At least that’s what my friend Mickey says. They said it was a natural gas explosion, but Mickey was there. We’ve been trying to keep him distracted.”

“Mickey?”

“What?” Rhonda said. “No, Mickey is in Long Beach. We’ve been trying to keep Mr. Curry distracted. Anyway, you have to leave now.”

“Rhonda!” yelled the man from the next room. “Twinkies!”

“I’m telling you,” said Eddie, “I know this guy.” He made to move to the door, but Rhonda blocked his path. He could easily have moved her out of the way by harnessing interplanar energy to give her a little push, but Eddie tried not to use miracles when it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

“Look,” he said. “Just let me talk to him for one minute.”

“Not if you’re going to talk about Boringstock in Boringcompany. We can’t risk it.” She made an elaborate gesture that somehow communicated the idea of a house exploding.

Eddie sighed. He figured there wasn’t any point in trying to be subtle. “Fine,” he said. “I wasn’t going to do this, but you’ve forced my hand. Rhonda, I’m an angel. My real name is Ederatz. I used to work for the Mundane Observation Corps. Maybe I still do. It’s hard to say, because communications with Heaven have been cut off since Mercury blew up the planeport with the Wormwood nuke. That’s your boss’s real name, by the way. Mr. Curry is actually Mercury. You know, the Roman god? He got in some trouble with the Apocalypse Bureau for that. They like their agents to keep a low profile, but Mercury has never been very good at that. Not since that business with those oily Trojans inside the wooden horse. He’s the one who wrecked the Moon, you know.”

Rhonda stared at him for a moment. “Hmm,” she said, “I think this just might work. If you can keep up this angel business for a couple of hours, the spare room is yours. At least until...” She made the house-blowing-up motion again.

Eddie nodded and slipped past her. Taking a deep breath, he turned the door handle. He hoped he was right about Mr. Curry. If Mr. Curry wasn’t who he thought he was, he was obviously some kind of very dangerous psychopath. Actually he was probably a dangerous psychopath either way. Hopefully the thing about blowing up the house was just his idea of a joke.

The door opened into a large room with a badly scuffed oak floor and walls that were painted a depressing pale grayish-blue. The room was devoid of furniture except for a ping-pong table in the center. It would have been impossible to play ping-pong on the table at present, however, because the table was almost entirely covered with a towering model of a Babylonian ziggurat built out of Twinkies. Leaning over the model, making minute adjustments to the third tier of the impressive structure, was a very tall, silver-haired man.

Mercury.

Chapter Four

Mentzel Ranch, just outside Elko, Nevada; April 29, 2013

 

The top half of Reverend Jonas’ body seemed to have shifted a few inches to the right, so that it was out of sync with his lower torso. Lucas blinked several times, but the strange effect remained, like a picture that had been torn in half and then sloppily taped back together. From the audience’s horrified gasps, it was clear they were seeing the same thing. Reverend Jonas seemed to be puzzled and in some discomfort, but was keeping it together remarkably well for a man who was being split in two.

Between the upper and lower halves of Reverend Jonas, just above his waistline, a sort of rift now appeared, like the ragged edge of the taped-together photo. Through the rift came a glaring white light, like the glow of an acetylene torch—a hundred times brighter than the aura that still lit up Reverend Jonas’s face. The rift continued to grow, both in length and in width, and there was a sound like hurricane-force winds tearing through a window. But the air was still, and soon the sound morphed into something like the shearing of a hundred steel beams. Reverend Jonas seemed to be screaming, but it was difficult to make out his face against the glare of the widening rift, and Lucas could hear nothing but the deafening tearing-metal sound.

Transfixed by the scene, Lucas realized he was viewing it through the cracks in his fingers, as some part of his brain had registered the danger of staring into a light of such intensity. Many of those in the crowd, even closer to the phenomenon, had shut their eyes and clamped their hands over their ears. But as Lucas watched, the intensity of the light seemed to diminish a bit even as the rift continued to expand, enveloping more and more of Reverend Jonas, who was now frozen in place, like a character on a paused video. The volume of the shearing sound faded as well.

Soon the figure of Reverend Jonas had been obliterated completely. It was unclear what had happened to him exactly; it seemed to Lucas as if he had been staring at a photograph of Reverend Jonas behind which someone had been holding a match. The flame had broken through the paper at Reverend Jonas’s torso and burned outward, erasing Reverend Jonas and everything in the vicinity. Lucas didn’t get the sense that Reverend Jonas had been killed; it was more like he had just stopped
being
. Lucas found himself shuddering at the thought.

“Run!” someone below screamed, and the crowd below began to split up. Lucas was puzzled at first, but he soon realized what was happening: if the rift continued to grow, it would soon engulf those in the front rows of the audience. Evidently having decided there were some limits on the extent to which they were willing to emulate their leader, the assembled members of the Church of the Bridegroom had begun, en masse, to flee. Already some on the periphery had tripped on the uneven ground and were scrambling to avoid being trampled by those in more imminent danger.

Lucas viewed the scene with some amusement. If this really was the end of the world, what did these people hope to accomplish by running away? Did they think God or the Devil had opened a matter-obliterating rift in the cosmos only to spare them if they could manage a respectable time in the hundred-yard dash?

As the terrified congregants began to work their way back to the road, though, Lucas’s detached cynicism gave way to concern for his own survival. If he was going to be obliterated by a rift in the space-time continuum, so be it, but he wasn’t about to be trampled by a stampede of terrified fanatics.

“Run, Lucas!” his father cried. Lucas nodded and the three of them set off running back to the car. His mother still had her flashlight out, but it was practically worthless, as the road was lit from behind them by the dazzling glow emanating from the rift. Their shadows stretched out before them, obscuring rocks and dips in the road, and the flashlight seemed to do nothing to dispel them. Lucas tried to be cautious, but the crowd was gaining on them, and he made the mistake of glancing back. His foot struck a jagged rock sticking out of the road and he fell.

It was a few seconds before his parents noticed, and the wind had been knocked out of him, preventing him from calling after them. He managed to get to his knees, but as agitated shadows washed over him, he realized the throng was almost upon him.

And then, suddenly, the shadows were gone. Or, more precisely, they were lost in a sea of even bigger shadows: the light behind them had gone out.

The fleeing throng, now blinded, lost its momentum and devolved into a mass of individuals trying to get their bearings in the near-total darkness. Lucas got to his feet and turned to look behind him. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, but after a few seconds he could make out several dots of light in the distance. He realized it was the lanterns ringing the plateau; from his vantage point higher on the hill, he could just see over the heads of the congregants.

“Lucas, come on!” his mother yelled. She sounded frightened and, Lucas thought, guilty—like a mother who knew her family was in mortal danger, and that it was her fault.

But Lucas felt no need to do her bidding and even less need to reassure her. While his mother continued to bark at him from behind and the crowd milled about confusedly in front of him, he kept his eyes on the area in between the torches. The rift had disappeared, but as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he could see three figures standing there, in the exact spot from which Reverend Jonas had just vanished. What the hell was going on?

“Lucas!” cried his mother again, now closer to him. Lucas continued to ignore her. He dived into the crowd, his small frame dodging congregants left and right as he worked his way back toward the plateau. Confusion reigned in the crowd; no one seemed to know whether to continue fleeing, return to the plateau to see what had happened, or simply wait for something else to happen. Lucas managed to navigate the chattering masses of people and soon emerged from the other side of the crowd. It was far easier than he expected; apparently the congregants had taken the most direct route away from the plateau rather than try to escape via the road. In the distance, Lucas saw vague shadows of hundreds more people scattered across the desert, apparently just as confused as the group on the road. Some of them seem to still be trying to put more ground between them and whatever had just happened; others had paused to talk or assess their situation. Only one person was walking boldly back toward the plateau: Lucas Jelonek.

Lucas thought that he might find, when he got through the crowd, that the light had been playing tricks on his eyes, but to his surprise he now saw four figures on the plateau. He couldn’t make out their features, but he was certain that none of them was Reverend Jonas. All four appeared to be men, but three of them were much taller than Jonas and the third was too short and squat. They had appeared from out of nowhere.

The four figures stood uncertainly, peering into the darkness. The crowd had dispersed too far to be seen from the plateau, but presumably the four figures could hear the uncertain murmuring in the distance. Lucas imagined that wherever they had come from, it had to be rather unsettling to suddenly materialize in the middle of a ring of torches on a desert plateau, surrounded by the confused murmurs of hundreds of people.

A strange sort of cold clarity came over Lucas. Sensing the fear of the people behind him and the fear of the three strange men who had just appeared below, he realized that something momentous was happening, and that whatever happened over the next few seconds would determine how it played out.

“Lucas!” he heard his mother call again from behind, but he pressed on, not listening. He stopped a dozen paces from the base of the plateau and, before the nagging doubts at the back of his mind had a chance to take over, opened his mouth to speak.

“Hey!” Lucas called. “Who are you?”

One of the tall men peered out of the darkness at him. Lucas was just now barely inside the penumbra of light cast by the torches. The tall man turned toward the others and the four conversed for a moment. Then the tall man turned toward Lucas again and took a few steps his direction. Lucas took a deep breath and clenched his fists at his side, expecting at any moment to be vaporized by some powerful alien death ray.

But the man simply walked to one of the lanterns, removed it from its pole, and held it out in front of him. Lucas breathed a sigh of relief: this man was definitely human. He was very tall and his hair had a weird, silvery sheen, but the latter might have been an artifact of the unnatural blue-white light of the lantern. Peering at Lucas, the man cleared his throat and said, “Is this planet Hooston?”

Lucas frowned, unsure how to respond. The crowd murmured uncertainly in the dark beyond the lanterns.

“Um, what?” said Lucas after a moment.

“I asked if this is planet Hooston,” said the tall man. “It’s a joke.”

“Oh,” said Lucas. “I, um, don’t get it.”

“Can’t you see the kid is like twelve?” said one of the other tall men, coming up next to him. Lucas couldn’t see the second man very well, but judging from his frame and his voice, he could very well be the first man’s brother. The second man went on, “When
Superman II
came out, he wasn’t even...” He trailed off and the two men exchanged glances. Then they said, in unison, “Wait, what’s the date?”

“April 29,” replied Lucas.

“The year!” cried the first tall man. “Tell me the year!”

“Um, 2013,” said Lucas.

The two men were visibly relieved by this information. A third man came up alongside them, and they briefly exchanged words. The three had uncannily similar builds. Triplets?

“Then it worked,” said the third tall man.

“That was the easy part,” said the first tall man.

“Why are all you people on our land?” said the shorter man, coming up behind them. His face was shrouded in shadow as well.

“It’s not ours yet,” said the first tall man.

“Get out of our yard!” yelled the shorter man, ignoring him.

The first tall man turned and said something to the shorter man, and the shorter man grumbled and walked away. The first tall man held the lantern out in front of him again, peering at the throng of people that was slowly beginning to re-coalesce around the plateau. “Say, what’s going on out here?” he said.

“Some kind of campout?” asked the second tall man, as if completing the first man’s thought.

“Um, it’s a kind of religious thing, I guess,” said Lucas. “Supposed to be the end of the world. But I think it’s over now.”

“Oh yeah,” said the third tall man. “The big Apocalypse scare. I almost forgot.”

Where did you guys come from?” Lucas asked.

“Not
where
,” said the second tall man. “
When
.”

“We’re from the future,” said the third tall man. “But don’t worry, we don’t intend to stay long. This is just a pit stop.”

“We’ll be out of your hair in a jiffy,” said the first tall man, “and you can get back to your apocalyptic ritual. Although, spoiler alert: the world is still here four years from now.”

“We can’t go on,” said a man’s voice behind Lucas.

“Sure you can,” said the first tall man. “Seriously, we’ll be gone as soon as we get the shard adapter connected to the portal generator. Twenty minutes, max. Then you can get on with your primitive dumbfuckery. Not that I’m judging.”

“You killed our leader,” said the man, emerging into the light to Lucas’s right. “First Prophet Jonas Bitters. I’m his brother, Noah. Technically I’m Second Prophet, but he was entrusted with divine secrets to which I am not privy. We can’t continue the ceremony without him.”

“Well,” said the third tall man, “That sucks. Usually the portal generator will adjust its target location to avoid solid objects. The universe must have had it in for your leader.”

“If it’s any consolation,” the first tall man said, “killing him was an accident. We honestly thought this whole area would be uninhabited.”

“Who are you people?” demanded Noah Bitters.

The first tall man, still holding the lantern, walked to the edge of the plateau and stepped off. Gasps went up from the crowd. It was only fifteen feet or so down, but a fall from that height could easily break a leg. The man floated gracefully to the ground, landing a few paces in front of Lucas. The other three men stepped off a moment later, the second tall man on his right and the other two on his left.

“Behind me,” said the man with the lantern, indicating the shorter man, who was still on the plateau, “is the famed inventor Balderhaz.”

The shorter man gave a wave from the plateau.

“My name is Mercury.” Then he moved the lantern in front of the tall man on his left and Lucas saw that there was good reason he suspected the two tall men were brothers: they were identical. The man with the lantern said, “This is my friend Mercury.” He moved the lantern in front of the tall man on his right, and Lucas saw that he was identical to the other two. “And this,” said the tall man, “is my other friend Mercury.”

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