Emperor Asmodeus set up a perimeter with some of John Glenn’s DECON troops stationed at the four points of the compass armed with shoulder-launched SAMs, in case any of the remaining sandwich fighters returned. Inside that perimeter the half-bubbles of many pressurized tents dotted the plain here and there, scattered too far apart for a single strike to take any two of them out.
The tents were psychologically important. They permitted the troops to get out of the vacuum suits they wore on the way down, or at least take their helmets off for an hour or two. No one could spend all their time inside a spacesuit, no matter how disciplined they were, not even the disciplined officers hardened by the constant violence of Barbelo.
Asmodeus’ command tent was identified by gold and black banners. When John Glenn and his two senior officers entered it and passed through the vestibule sealing the air inside, they found the Emperor in the middle of a meeting with his son Apollyon and the surviving nephilim officers.
“Good, Glenn, you made it,” Asmodeus said. “You’re the last one to come in. Give me your report.”
“Our transport took hits from fighters and from the city but we landed with no casualties.”
“Then we finally have a complete picture of what happened. Give him the latest figures, son.”
Apollyon rifled through his papers, did some figuring, then he said, “Punisher and five troop ships are total losses. A sixth transport was attacked on the ground and we only saved nine human troops troops from that one. We have a total of forty-four human troops stuck in orbit aboard the Conqueror and Brutalizer who can’t land but six nephilim officers from those two ships are here now. All told we now have just forty-three nephilim troops and one hundred eight-five human troops ready for action.”
There was some shocked gasps and murmuring from Glenn and his two men at that. Casualties were at forty-three percent! Asmodeus cut them off harshly, and barked, “This mission has not failed. The carrier Trespasser remains out of danger, and stands ready to pull us out when we achieve our objective. As long as one soldier lives this mission goes forward. Is that clear?”
The nephilim and men blurted their assent. Then the forces split up.
John Glenn took command of the human forces, the bulk of their remaining strength, and departed to assemble them for the assault up the eastern face of the North Massif mountain.
Emperor Abizeel planned to assail Taurus with his nephilim from another direction along a small rille which crossed the mountain to the west. Leading his forty-two nephilim soldiers, Asmodeus started marching cross-country over what Buzz Aldrin once called the “magnificent desolation” of the Moon.
After the Emperor had forayed north into the Sculptured Hills for an hour the Yellow Rille (so named because of the many sulfur outcroppings found in it) became a steep canyon. Asmodeus veered right. They climbed to a small plateau called Yellowbanks on the B’nei Elohim moon map, and let the rille go it’s own way for the time being.
As the Moon went this was high and rugged terrain, a combination of a classic crater rim and the extensive volcanism in the wake of the large asteroid that created the Sea of Serenity over three billion years ago. The rille itself was a steep channel carved by a river of lava after the impact and undisturbed all that time except from micro-meteoroids which pitted the whole surface of the Moon.
They stayed on the high ground, walking on black gravel and sand and dust as fine as the ashes left over in a barbecue. Their backpacks and various portable weapons were enormous loads for each of them but the seventeen percent gravity helped. They made good time.
Presently the rille finished its wide bend and rejoined them from the west. Dull red and green minerals formed layers in the walls of the gorge, dotted by bright yellow sulfur deposits. There was a certain stark beauty to it all, Asmodeus thought. Io didn’t have a monopoly on this.
Twice during the march they buried themselves under gray camouflage at the sight of sandwich fighters. It wasn’t a concerted search. Asmodeus hadn’t made his dent in this country yet and the B’nei Elohim probably didn’t have a clue he was up here. Still, the fighters seemed to be either using the rille for a navigational guide or they were actively patrolling it. He decided to march overland away from the rille again, so they began peeling away from it.
Returning to the edge of the rille again some hours later, Asmodeus cast his gaze “upstream” and noted that the rille had shrunk to just a third of its normal depth yet was still coming out of the north and a little east of north. If they stayed on this side of it, it would continue to bend east and take then away from Taurus rather than toward it.
Consulting his map, he said to his troops over the radio, “The rille has forked. This is just a feeder gully. We cross here.”
There was a dirt road at the bottom of the gully, the main road to Taurus, but traffic was sparse.
The problem of fording a chasm without specialists, even a relatively small one such as this North Fork of the Yellow Rille, was going to have to be overcome with a little creativity. There was no question of hiking down one side and up the other, the pumice stones littering the whole area would make it like walking on marbles. Most of the officers paced around, at a total loss for ideas.
Asmodeus asked around if anyone had packed some cable. There was a flurry of searching and finally someone produced a coil with about four hundred yards of it. The cable wasn’t very thick or heavy, but it would be strong enough to support the weight of a nephil in the lunar gravity, Asmodeus decided.
The Emperor attached the long cable to a surface-to-air missile and took aim at the far side of the rille, aiming near the top where it began to flare out and become level with the land on the other side. He chose his target carefully, trying to get as high as possible but not too high, lest the missile skip off the soil instead of diving into it. Then he pressed the firing stud.
Success! The rocket dug itself deep into the lunar regolith before burning out, taking the cable with it. The tunnel it made collapsed behind it. Asmodeus tugged hard on the cable to make sure it was snugly anchored. He ordered his men to anchor this side of the cable around a boulder and snip the excess off.
The next part was easier. Asmodeus repeated his trick with the rest of the cable, but this time he aimed about four feet below where the first cable had buried itself, making doubly sure it was snug because this was the one that would bear the most weight. Soon he had two wires stretched tight across the gap, one wire for under the boots and another at chest level for balance.
Asmodeus hymself made the first crossing to prove it was safe. An hour later the entire group had made the crossing. The last nephil to come over cut the two cables and let them fall slack against the steep western wall of the tributary rille.
This was virgin land, inaccessible to all without taking extraordinary measures. They had placed themselves far beyond reach.
After another mile following the small tributary rille on its west bank Asmodeus authorized an hour of such rest as could be taken while wearing a pressure suit.
On the next march Asmodeus continued to follow the North Fork of the Yellow Rille again, ever higher toward its source. It curved needlessly, often back almost on itself, but it gradually and inexorably drew nearer to the high volcano in the north which they had begun to glimpse from the hill-tops.
These were the doldrums of B’nei Elohim territory. The combination of the terrain and the angle of the sun and Earth gave the land the appearance of being moody, as if the Moon itself were taking a nap. The heavy shade, almost totally black in parts, made it seem secretive, even gloomy.
The dull thumping of artillery could not be heard in the near-vacuum of the Moon, but it could be felt as bursts of vibration under their feet. The light-flashes of warfare never lagged far behind. It had to be Glenn who led the bulk of the surviving troops on a frontal assault along the main road to the city. Asmodeus was feeding Glenn’s forces through the shredder to keep the B’nei Elohim from checking their back door.
For the American invaders the net effect of wearing their heavy suits and the small lunar gravity was to be fighting under roughly the same gravity as Mercury, which was a major consideration when the Emperor planned this raid and chose Glenn to participate.
For protection their spacesuits were covered entirely with mirrored reflective surfaces, but some joints and parts of the life-support backpack, despite the best efforts of design engineers, were vulnerable to a laser hit.
Glenn personally led an assault with all of his men across the open while Ambe Omphal and a force of Fallen Angels with company strength hid behind rocks at the top of a gray slope and took leisurely potshots at them.
For the invaders the trick was to present a moving target, hustling to the left or right, jumping up, flipping through the air, tucking and sliding to the ground, never the same sequence of moves twice. Troops who fell into the error of patterned movement were awarded a laser hit and quick death.
Glenn’s troops dropped like flies as the scored hit after hit. Heedless of their losses, Glenn and his DECON forces just kept coming, each trooper dancing and ducking to avoid being hit. The random movement came as second nature to them. Presently some forty of them overran the Fallen Angel position, led by Glenn himself.
Ambe grappled with Glenn and placed her faceplate against his so he could hear. “You took our position but it was awful, just awful! You lost a third of your boys, easy! Godspeed John Glenn!”
Then with her knife Ambe ripped the fabric of Glenn’s spacesuit from crotch to sternum, letting him deflate like a tire.
While they remained hidden here in the highlands, Asmodeus could see the gully road about two hundred feet below was now busy with the traffic of war, mostly B’nei Elohim armored trucks all climbing slowly in single file.
Asmodeus scrambled up a small rise to get a clear view back the way they’d come. From there he could see all the way to the plain where they began this little hike. The entire area was intermittently lit with reflected laser flashes. Binoculars revealed B’nei Elohim vehicles exchanging colored lightning with unseen adversaries.
On the eastern side of the North Massif summit plateau B’nei Elohim defenders began popping up out of the woodwork to stall the DECON forces with a vast confusing hodgepodge of engagements. They fired their big towed five-inch guns, which had a range of an incredible 49 miles in the lunar gravity. Each gun, standing well off, could shoot three rounds per minute, and these shells began raining randomly down on Glenn people.
Artillery was called the “troop killer” for good reason. Within eighty feet of an exploding shell half of the DECON personnel were injured, on average, and one-third of these injuries were fatal. Even a little schrapnel that would only cause a minor injury on Earth was sufficient to puncture their pressure suits here. So it became a grinding war of attrition, with almost all of the losses on the American side.
If Glenn was detained for some time or even defeated that would suit the Emperor just fine. At that point he didn’t know Glenn was already dead. The Americans were just cover all along. Asmodeus’ objective was to seize or destroy the Ark of the Covenant, and if the raid became a huge suicide run, he would still consider it a success if the Ark was taken out of the picture.
Asmodeus had given the front door of the city to Glenn after pretending reluctance, but the Emperor knew it would be defended ferociously. So he and his nephilim plunged on, heading north, and gradually the road and Asmodeus’s party began to come together. The rille was getting more and more shallow as they approached its source. Asmodeus felt high, in elevation as well as in spirits.
Finally they had gone as far as they could possibly go while remaining out of view. This was the very source of the North Fork rille: a single unremarkable fumarole, nearly the same in appearance as every other crater on the moon, but different in that it lay sideways and hadn’t been created by impact. Now they were forced to take the road.
Far above them the road wound its way up a set of switchbacks to the broad summit plateau of North Massif. There were no straightaways longer than three hundred feet. Three light APCs ascending the mountain rounded a corner just then. It was too short a distance between the time they saw Asmodeus and the decision point where it would be surrender or ram.
Forty-three nephilim soldiers aiming lasers and rockets swayed them to pull over peacefully. The girls in the three trucks were stragglers of the big caravan Asmodeus had seen from the edge of the rille.
Asmodeus didn’t take any time to ask questions and he wasn’t interested killing them. The girls, still wearing their vacsuits, were simply bound with plastic tie-wraps and left on the side of the road. Then Asmodeus’s platoon found itself with transportation. They were all thinking how good it was to be moving while sitting on their ass and dangling their poor abused booted feet.
The APCs had a 1.5 inch main gun, a 30-caliber machine gun, and an anti- tank missile launcher, but the nephilim would encounter no more enemies on that road. Taurus lay just beyond a stony fault scarp looming above them.
The road made a final turn and Asmodeus was staring at a darkened tunnel drilled right through the final jagged wall. A trap? Asmodeus no longer cared. Whooping it up, without a second thought, Asmodeus led his company plunging through the tunnel. They were the first (indeed they would be the only ones) to crack Robyn’s final line of defense.
Asmodeus and his nephilim drove right out onto the roof of Taurus and parked. They quickly found a walkway hemmed by a guardrail, and this walkway led them to an airlock big enough to take all of Asmodeus’s men in two groups. It was all very easy. Perhaps it was too easy.
131 – THE SEARCH BEGINS
In the morning Robyn and Hope reached a great bend of the Green River, a thumb of land that was the center and source of all the strangeness of the odd corner of King County, Washington that Victoria called Gonorrhea Gulch. Robyn felt a little confused, as though she were walking inside a dream, and knew this to be fallout from the many changes to the timeline that had been made using the Sacred Pool. It was as though reality itself was getting fractured and worn out here.
Deputy Dog had sensed the same thing and refused to venture out there.
Long ago this bend of the river had been the site of a village of Original Inhabitants too small to be a tribe, but too large to be a clan. They called themselves simply the People. And here they had built a little grassy mound that looped nearly all the way around the Earthly side of the Sacred Pool.
Robyn took her blade and cut the remains of Hope’s tattered Girl Guard uniform from her and laid it partly inside the water of the pond and partly on the ground along its edge. Then she pointed at her. “Hope, take off your panties and let them fall to the ground.”
“Why?” Hope was not naturally body-shy but she had been socialized to something akin to embarrassment at a request like this.
“Because I want the people who are looking for us to think that I was a bad person who hurt you and left you in the water. That will give us the time we need to get away from here.”
Hope had quickly come to trust Robyn because she immediately answered every question Hope had, without a hint of holding something back. Children were naturally talented at detecting lies. Hope accepted this answer, but she said, “Momma Vic is going to wonder why I didn’t scratch the bad person.”
Robyn looked at her. “Ah yes, you have a little surprise for bad people, don’t you, Hope? Razor blades for fingernails, eh?”
Hope nodded and complied with the command to strip. Robyn saw that Hope was absolutely blank between her legs, like a Barbie Doll. Hope herself showed a few signs of being self-conscious, but it was only a thin layer, like a tradition she never fully bought into.
“I know why you’re looking at me, Momma Robyn. I don’t look like the other girls down here between my thighs. Or even like a boy.”
“I played ‘Doctor’ when I was your age too, Hope,” Robyn told her. Then she broke into a sudden smile, thinking of how it must have went, when Hope was revealed to possess no trace of labia. “I bet the kids were scared and ran away, didn’t they?”
Hope nodded and smiled in return. That was the crucial time in Canterwood when Hope found out who and what she really was. And when Hope’s mind survived that revelation without entering a spiral of depression, when Hope emerged on the other side of that knowledge with greater strength, Robyn knew it was time to make her move.
So no genitalia for Hope at all. No front door, no back door, nothing to offer a molester. The scenario originally envisioned by Robyn was that a child rapist killed Hope in a frustrated rage and cast her body into this pool to hide it. And if any searchers tried to dredge the pond (the surviving searchers, that is), Yeshua could take care of that.
To replace Hope’s own clothing, Robyn gave Hope another garment, a camouflaged man’s shirt that came nearly to her knees, and so served as a kind of dress. “You’ll have to wear this, honey.”
“Where are we going, Momma Robyn?”
“Not far. Right up there, see?”
She pointed to a small mountain with an elevation of 1,460 feet above sea level, rising 880 feet above the forested plateau it sat upon. A narrow “V” shaped valley separated it from the wall of the very front of the Cascade Range.
“They call it Cumberland Quad 4 these days on the map, and also Doll Hill. But not before.”
“What did they call it before?”
“End Dome? Why did they call it that?”
“Well, it’s like a little round footstool here where the Cascade mountain range ends. End Dome, get it? And like many other things here in your backyard, Hope, it is wrapped up with a lot of history, and not much of that history was good.”
When it was light enough to safely proceed, Sheriff Victoria Shybear and DECON Special Agent Danica Fawn returned to the house of Mark Felton and went into his back yard. They could see a detachment of DECON personnel attempting to retrieve the body of Kurt Delany from the mine shaft and Danica monitored this activity for a minute or two, then turned to Sheriff Vic. “I’m ready.”
“It’s going to be a little rough going at first, Danica,” Vic said. They both agreed it would be better to drop the formal titles for the duration of the search. Vic led the way plowing through brush and Devil’s Club and bidding Danica to trust her. The route was flagged with orange and black plastic ribbons. “Not many people know about these trails. We use them and we maintain them but we don’t fully connect them to anywhere.”
“Who’s we?” she asked as she picked her way along behind her.
Before she spoke, Vic emerged onto an actual trail where their walking could finally be unobstructed.
“The local Native American community keeps this clear. The ‘Red Wing’ of the ‘Church.’ We use this trail network for hunting and for . . . religious purposes. If anyone else knows about them, it’s only by accident.”
They saw a bucket left behind by somebody when they did some work on the trail. “It is a nice trail,” Danica admitted. “A luxury Cadillac of a trail, even.”
“This one runs along a former railroad bed so it has no sharp turns or steep inclines, at least for the first mile or so.”
“Why do you work on it?”
“For safety. You saw what happened to your Agent Kurt. This whole land is . . . sick. Rotted through with holes like Swiss cheese. The land around here has suffered the heavy hand of man upon it for more than two hundred years. See that big cedar stump?”
“How could I miss it, Vic? Big is not the word for it. Ten feet across, easy.”
“All the big sticks were taken out in the Nineteenth Century, say about 1887 or so. There was a second wave of cutting in the Twenties, and a third wave in the Sixties. By now so much nitrogen has been taken out of the ground in the form of lumber that the land can only grow this junky red alder crap you see all around, fit only to be pulped for paper mills.”
“What about all the holes in the ground?”
“They were from gold mining at first. When the gold ran out, they fell back on coal. See all those strange hummocks covered in fallen leaves and ferns? Those were debris piles created during coal mining operations more than a century ago. You’ll see huge rock slabs with right angles, covered in moss. They’re really concrete foundations. We Ponies have been up one side of this land and down the other for many decades.”
“Yes, we know all about how you ‘Ponies’ have to wear their hair long and in a ponytail, but that is the least troublesome thing about them. It seems that End Dome Church family reunions were also meat markets.”
“We weren’t the wackiest religion to come out of Nineteenth Century America, Sheriff. Every church rides its own hobby horse. One church might say no card playing, another might say no dancing, another says no Demon Rum. This church says worship only on Saturday, that one over there says wiggle on the floor to be saved from the fires of hell.”
As she spoke, Vic and Danica passed a nameless bog with a large vine maple that formed a canopy of twisting small trunks. Vic’s trail spanned a finger of this marsh on a giant fallen cedar which had been converted into an ad-hoc bridge by many axe-strokes which made a flat path along the top.
“Be careful here, Danica, one slip into that muck and I won’t be able to get you out.”
Danica picked up the thread of the conversation again. “You forgot that you also have to handle snakes, go door-to-door with tracts, roll in the saw-dust, babble in tongues, rock back ‘n’ forth with your eyes rolled inside your head, beat your wife and kids, make anti-Semitic remarks, burn flatpacks that have Satanic messages when you clock the data backwards, watch for black helicopters, look for commies under every bed, preach that ONE is going to invade the country, join a militia, and take textbooks out of schools if they so much as mention evolution.”
“I’m right with you there, Danica, but for some reason, no one could abide the kissing cousins of our branch of the Dunker Church.”
“It’s one thing to allow people to marry their cousins, sometimes, but the Ponies are required to marry only their cousins, their first cousins, or maybe their second cousins in a pinch, and no others. And who knows how such a thing like that got started?”
“Some say it’s when deacon Mark Lange of the Sharpsburg Dunker Church got the hots for his cuz, right around the time when Marse Robert invaded Maryland and the Dunker’s little white church building became a landmark for the artillery of both sides in the worst one day battle of the war. Others say it was when Mark Lange became the pastor of a Dunker offshoot church in Gettysburg by folks who wanted to get away from the shooting.”
Their journey began to be slowed by the presence of many blown-down trees which had been knocked over recently in the Armistice Day storm and lay directly across the trail. Sometimes they could roll over them, but other times they had to crawl under them, which was exhausting work, and they could not avoid getting their uniforms soiled.
Until this moment Vic had been reluctant to lay it all out for Danica. For too long she had been covering things up herself, hiding her association with the Girl Guard to avoid giving her opponents something to use against her in an election campaign. Maybe now it was time to offer herself to the public as simply herself, Victoria Shybear, elected Sheriff of Prince County, and if someone wanted to play dirty politics next time and tie her to the Church of End Dome, so be it.
So she said, “Time for a full disclosure, Danica. The reason I won election to King County Sheriff was with fund-raisers and Get Out The Vote Drives organized by the B’nei Elohim. That’s not something I’d like to get out there for general knowledge, but I trust you, Danica. And besides, the issue now is my missing daughter. Everything else takes a back seat.”
“Thank you very much for telling me that, Vic. I can imagine why you’d want to think twice before revealing something like that. There were rumors around the office, of course, but now I know.”
“And you know about the Change. But you may not know about the Artifact that brought the Change. Well, Sheriff, if you look through that little window in the trees you can start to see End Dome, where the Artifact was kept.”
It was a teddy-bear tummy of a hill, bristling with a dull carpet of alders which had already shed their leaves. Vic knew that for the Red Wing of the Church of End Dome, this place had always been their home. She though about that for a moment, and said, “But you said the Church of End Dome was a ruse.”
“We don’t marry our cousins anymore but we still have the stories and scriptures and have historical continuity with the End Dome Church, it was the Ponies of the old days who made all the holes in the ground around here, with something we call the Golden Gift.”
And Victoria removed her own copy of the Golden Gift from her utility belt and lit it off, sliced a branch off a tree. It was an indication of where Danica was coming from that she didn’t resort to the usual DECON instinct of attempting to subdue Vic and seize the weapon.
Danica and Vic passed a large duckpond so serene that it reflected the sky and the branches of the trees above the water like a mirror. The trail skirted the edge of this pond with a small but calm diversion before resuming its course.
They entered a small stand of fat virgin pines that draped the slope down to the edge of the canyon, and here the character of the hike changed dramatically. Vic thought it was a magic place that had escaped the ax in the first, second, and third waves of cutting, as though by an oversight.
Vic went on. “America in those days found the practice of marrying so close within the bloodlines to be taboo. Who knows why? Superstitions about babies born with three eyes maybe. So a few months after Mark Lange and some of his his Gettysburg Dunkers moved to Waverly, Ohio and started a new church that was all about first cousins getting married, they forced the quick passage of a law in Ohio forbidding marriage between first cousins. Then two hundred and fifty members of the Five Corners Free Congregation picked up and moved over the river into Kentucky.”
“I guess breaking that taboo raised a lot a bad juju among the locals and their preachers,” Danica put in, but she winced as soon as she said it.
“Well, the following year the scene repeated again,” Vic said, knowing Danica was just being a little corny, “and two hundred members moved to Missouri. The year after that one hundred and fifty members lit out for the Nebraska Territory. Pastor Lange refused to compromise one little bit. He was certain that consanguineous marriage was an imperative from God Almighty to His One True Church. As their exodus went on and on they got smaller and smaller, and left a swath of states in their wake which forbade cousin marriages.”
“That explains why cousin-marriage is prohibited by some states and not others,” Danica said. “I do know it’s a curious prohibition which exists in only a few places abroad.”
“I think something like a quarter of all marriages in the world are between cousins,” Vic said. “It’s no big deal, really, but for some reason it was a big deal here in the Sates, and especially back then. Pastor Mark’s group was whittled down to just a little remnant of forty hard-core members trekking by wagon across the west to a place where they could make a stand and grow to such numbers and influence that no one would dare raise a statutory hand to them again. And so the future White Wing of the Church came to the foot of that hill right there named End Dome, driven clear across the country by religious bigotry.”
Now the sheriff and Agent Fawn reached a large outcropping of stone that Vic called Picture Buttress which offered a marvelous view down a high cliff to a forest glade. Danica thought it was beautiful but dangerous. The trail actually wrapped around the parapet here, and a thoughtful person, probably even Victoria, had provided a rope for them to hold on to.
“Did you realize, Danica, that this area is the very epicenter of the ‘Bigfoot’ phenomenon?” Her voice resonated around the area strangely. There was some funky trick of acoustics here.
“The legend that a seven foot tall half-man, half-ape roams this forest? Who hasn’t?”
“Probably half of the economy of the Green River Gorge is Bigfoot tourism. Right here where we’re standing now, Danica, the Picture Buttress, this is where the Bigfoot legend began. Way down in that glade back in about 1924 there was a little cabin where some gold prospectors lived for a while, but you couldn’t see it, because it was hidden by the trees. And up here some girl scouts were having a little fun throwing rocks down into the glade.”
“Naughty girls, they should have known better, you could never know if someone was down there camped amid the trees.”
“Well they were screaming and giggling, and the acoustics of this place distorted and morphed their voices into a sustained unearthly howl. And the sunrise was behind their backs, which revealed only their silhouettes to the miners when they looked up to see who was throwing rocks at their cabin. They had heard the Native American legends of Sasquatch which predated 1924, of course, and being superstitious men, they told everyone who would listen to them in the saloon that they were attacked one morning by angry rock-throwing monkey men with horrible inhuman screams.”
“Surely that wasn’t the only sighting.”
“No way. There’s been one or two spotted every year since then, and in the Sixties one gentleman even made a famous 16mm film of a Sasquatch walking across a clearcut on the back side of Franklin Hill. All this is money in the bank for the tourist trade around here, of course.”
“What about you, Vic? Do you think there’s anything to Bigfoot?”
“I do, Danica. Our scriptures call them the nephilim. We know their whole history. They’ve had many dealings with humans. That’s one of the reasons we maintain these trails. But that one film is fake. It’s supposed to show a female sasquatch. Looks like a walking gorilla with tits. Nephilim females are tall but they’re also lovely. They have less body hair than you do.”
Now they entered an area Victoria called the Gorgeous Gorges, all tributary to the Green River. There was Jackstraw Gorge, Nurselog Gorge, Stormwater Creek Gorge, and Hairpin Gorge. And it was here that Agent Danica Fawn saw the first of Hope’s little snowmen made of stones.
“A trail marker?”
“I didn’t make it, Danica.”
“If your little girl made it, it shows she’s thinking.”
“Hope is an extraordinary little girl, let me tell you.”
132 – SECOND BIG BLUE
For a week DECON had been making raids on Round Robyn’s macro power plants across the midwest with precisely the same result every time. The plants were sabotaged by its operators in such a way that it could never be started again. Still, DECON continued to come, time after time, performing the same assault and hoping for a different result each time, until six of them were offline. That was the very epitome of insanity under the definition once held forth by Albert Einstein.
Dory was fairly certain that the Kansas City plant was next on the list. She invited Diane Sawyer and a handful of employees who remained loyal to her to travel to Missouri to tour the plant, with a high probability of covering the impending raid, which Ford continued to assure everyone were merely routine safety checks.
President-elect Henry “Scoop” Jackson had joined Dory and Diane Sawyer to tour the macro power plant, and a federal district judge named Ryan Wustner had also joined Dory’s party by invitation to see for himself what Dory promised would be some pretty anti-American shit.
The power plant was located in an industrial park south and west of downtown Kansas City on the Blue River, near the site of a Civil War tussle in 1864 called the Battle of the Big Blue, after the Union tendency to name battles after the water that was nigh at hand. A second battle was destined to ensue on the same site. Sure enough, before Dory could even give Sawyer, Wustner, and Jackson the standard tour of the plant, DECON came calling with guns drawn.
Since the Great Leap Backward for women that began with the New Righteousness the potential combat abilities of half of the human race had been held of no account. So the sight of teenaged girls and young women burning anything that moved was an awful shock. Any hesitancy on the part of the agents storming that entrance therefore was forgivable. Or at the very least understandable.
But weapons from Barbelo, even in the softer hands of women from Earth, were not forgiving in the slightest, nor understanding, but rather very lethal. At a certain point panic set in among the attackers and the DECON guys started to shoot at motion, or even sound, not bothering to identify their targets first. In the hailstorm of bullets they did manage to shoot down Noelie and Paige, as well as three of their own people.
The sight of Noelie and Paige falling in battle merely drove the surviving B’nei Elohim girls to new levels of ferocity. For some of them this was their first Church campaign, their baptism by fire. Since it was almost possible for a member of the Church of End Dome to truly die, they truly did not fear death. No one could have withstood such a suicidal assault, and DECON’s numbers were steadily whittled down to a manageable number. But to deceive the remaining agents, Dory and her fighters slowly edged back into the power plant as Diane Sawyer and her crew edged back behind them and filmed the entire firefight, the Second Battle of Big Blue, in the Second American Civil War.
Two other girls died, but their souls were saved to the Swarm as a data stream. Only Cheryl and Karen were left to fight with Dory as they made their way to the corridor outside the cafeteria. One DECON agent remained alive, but he managed to grab Karen and manhandle her around with a pistol pointed at her head.
“Drop your weapons now!” he warned, looking both smug and guilty, simultaneously scared and full of bluster. “I guarantee I can finish her before you make a move.”
“Fuck you,” Cheryl sneered, whipping up her rifle to bear.
The agent’s self-preservation instinct took over. In a split-second he realized they were willing to write Karen off if they pressed. He shifted his aim to Cheryl and caught her mid-stride with two bursts, blowing the tiny nineteen year-old back into Dory’s arms.
With an underhand swing Dory hurled Cheryl’s body right back at him and pinned his gun against him long enough for her and Karen to descend on him like vultures.
“Don’t kill him,” Dory ordered. “We’re not butchers.”
With the muzzle of Dory’s piece nudging him the agent went slack and released his pistol. Dory kicked it away while Karen began securing his hands behind his back with tie wraps.
“If he moves blow his dick off,” Dory advised her.
“What if he doesn’t move? Can I still blow his dick off?”
When pressed the man identified himself as DECON Agent Phillip Shields.
“I’m Dory, Agent Shields. This is Scoop Jackson, who was chosen by the voters of this country to be its President. And this is Diane Sawyer. Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.”
“There’s a bulletin out on you,” Shields said. “Jackson and Sawyer both need to come in for questioning.”
“We can talk right here,” Diane replied, but the agent himself had nothing to say.
Dory said, “Well, let’s see, you’re up to power plant number seven now, aren’t you? The first one in West Virginia you came in with guns blazing and that power plant doesn’t work anymore. And I think you will find it will never work again. At the second one in Kentucky you came in nicely enough but you didn’t let the employees go and so that power plant don’t work anymore either. Now you’re back to the gun thing.”
“We’re prepared to let the people go this time.”
“Great! Agent Shields, there are ninety-one Church employees who work in this plant, and I ask that they be allowed to go without being hindered or followed.”
“Will the plant continue to operate if they go?”
“Yes, of course. You’ll find that everything is quite automatic, as long as you don’t shoot things up that do need to be in good working order.”
“In that case we have a bargain. I’ve already been given the authority to negotiate. So with your permission?”
Dory nodded to Karen, who cut Agent Shield’s hands loose. The man got on his radio and issued a few orders before assuring Dory, “I give you my word, my men will stand fast while your people go.”
Dory nodded. “Fair enough. Oh, Agent Phillips, don’t even think about doing anything to them after they’re out of eyeshot or this tour will be over pronto. Believe me, I will know if anything goes wrong, the instant it goes wrong.
He was a little annoyed at Dory now. “I gave my word.”
“Well, this is a war and a lot of bitterness has spread everywhere since 1943. I’m sorry to have to say this but I don’t fully take your word to be your bond. If any of my people are accosted or harassed after they leave I can shut this whole place down hard and I won’t even need to be near a control panel to do it.”
Presently a train of people straggled out, crossing the lobby. They went out to the parking lot to get in their cars. Some of the employees were full members of the Church, some were catechumens, and some were merely local employees hired to help run the plant.
It took about ten minutes before everyone was accounted for. None of the DECON agents detained them, so Dory smiled and said to Shields and Sawyer and the others, “Very well, folks, then let started.”
Shields was surprised. “Started doing what?”
“Started turning the plant over to you. I’m going to give you the standard tour of the plant, so you know where everything is.”
“Why would you cooperate with us?” he asked as she led them through a set of double-doors to a long white passageway.
“It’s good business, Agent Phillips. Okay, so you’ve nationalized our power plant, but we won’t take that personally. You win, we acknowledge that. So let’s have an orderly transition. Can you get on board with that?”
“Like I said, I was told to make a deal with you.”
“That’s good. Now, those people of ours you saw leaving the plant will have to be replaced. People are actually very important to the continued operation of this plant. There’s a lot of preventive and corrective maintenance that needs to be done every day. For instance, you will see that the lights are out on a few generators here and there. Those are ones that are currently off-line to be lubed or adjusted. And the lubers and adjusters like anyone else anywhere you go in this country will expect to be paid. I don’t know whether you intend to bring your own people in here or not, but if you hire back our people, the government is going to have to take over the payroll.”
“I’m not an accountant, I don’t know how that’s supposed to work. What I really want to know is, how long can everything run without being attended?”
“I’d say you would have a good twenty-four hours before you started to have problems.”
“In that case, Dory, I’d like to ask you to stay and tell our people coming in what they have to do to keep everything going.”
“Uh, no, sorry Agent Shields, that’s not part of the deal. I’m sticking around just to give you a quick familiarization tour. That should take about an hour. After that, I expect to be allowed to leave just like the rest of my people were allowed to leave.”
“But I can see there’s going to be a steep learning curve involved here. What if our people can’t figure everything out in only twenty-four hours?”
“Well, Agent Phillips, that’s a risk I suppose you should have been prepared to take when your people decided to take over our plant. If you don’t have some really sharp fellows who can come in here and figure everything out in less than twenty-four hours, my advice would be to leave our other forty-three macro power plants in the United State the hell alone.”
“So you won’t comply with my request and that’s that?”
“Then Dory, you leave me no choice but to instruct my people to take you, the President-elect, Diane Sawyer and her people into custody. That means the deal’s off as of right now.”
And at that precise instant the lights flickered. There were ninety simultaneous thumps as breaker switches snapped off and the high pitched whir of the generators began slowly, slowly running down. Now none of them were illuminated, indicating they were off-line. The lights overhead got dimmer and dimmer. A cacophony of thumping began under the floor of the powerhouse. Large steam pipes burst free of the deck plating, howling and screaming as they filled the entire space with water vapor. Soon it grew difficult to see, and the entire vast space grew uncomfortably warm.
“Damn, you DECON people are slow learners,” Dory said, shaking her head in disbelief.
“What happened? What did you do?”
“Agent Phillips, my recommendation is that you flee. You should get your men at least as far away from here as my people hope to be by now.”
“Well the words that come to my mind are ‘Hiroshima’ or ‘Nagasaki.”
It was a bluff. There was no danger of an explosion. But her bluff worked well enough for Shields and his people to leave, not even waiting for orders from on high.
Dory turned to Jackson and said, “We’ll never get you close to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, sir, but you already knew that. Fortunately, the oath of office for President of the United States doesn’t require the Chief Justice to administer it.
Jackson glanced at the federal judge and at Diane Sawyer’s team standing their rolling cameras. “Then I shall take the oath at once.”
Judge Ryan Wustner held up a document on a clipboard. No Bible was used. The oath of office was carried out over the written affirmation itself. Henry “Scoop” Jackson put his left hand on the clipboard, his right hand in the air, and repeated after Judge Wustner, “I Henry Jackson do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.”
“Mr. President,” said the judge, “please attach your signature.”
And so the President signed the paperwork on the clipboard and it was done. Jackson was now on a collision course with his own Vice-President pick Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was being groomed by the Congress to be President of the United States herself.
133 – INFILTRATION
When the pressure came up to the three pounds of pure oxygen that was standard inside the city of Taurus, the High Lord Patriarch Asmodeus, his son Apollyon, and the forty-one officers accompanying them stepped out and dropped a flight of stairs to the main floor below. All of them longed to shed their spacesuits once and for all but they dared not, fearing that they would all be suffocated by Robyn with the touch of a button. Soon Asmodeus and his nephilim found themselves in a labyrinth of passageways without a clue of where they went.
The maze of corridors opened up into a roomy area, like a food court in a shopping mall, and there Asmodeus’s commando team ran into the first members of the B’nei Elohim prepared to stop them. It was a small squad led by Chuck, the son of Chayn and Gordon and the cousin of Victoria. Chuck and his three Girl Guards pointed their weapons directly at Asmodeus face, and no wonder, his elaborate regalia clearly marked him as the most senior nephilim present.
Chuck made signs for Asmodeus to lift the faceplate on his helmet so he could see who he was. When Asmodeus complied, Chuck recognized his fuzzy face and uniquely braided white beard. He said, “Well, well, it’s the Gerash Patriarch himself. Tell your team to let their guns drop to the floor, Asmodeus, or you’ll get it. Now!”
Asmodeus carefully complied. He and his team did nothing which might make Chuck or his girls squeeze the trigger on their weapons.
“Good, Sire, now reach over and slowly unsheathe your sword halfway out with your right hand. Halfway out only, mind you Sire. That’s perfect. Okay, now grab the hilt with your left hand so that when you pull it out, the sword’s tip is pointing back your way and not my way.”
When Asmodeus had done all this Chuck motioned for him to pull the sword the rest of the way out of its sheathe.
“Slowly, Sire. Slowly now! I know you’re tricky, Lord Asmodeus. Okay, now hand it to me.”
When he was about to give Chuck his blade, Asmodeus’s thumb hit a switch on the hilt and the cap on the very bottom flipped up to reveal a lens. Chuck looked at it in astonishment. A powerful laser in the hilt instantly blinded him. Her eyes slammed shut, but there were bright spots dominating his vision, and there was also great pain. “Ah, dammit! Damn you! I’m blind!”
What followed was a fierce tussle where Chuck’s three squad members had the better of it at first because they were still armed, while Asmodeus’s people had to scramble on the floor for their weapons. Asmodeus ducked and rolled and swerved to avoid being burned.
Eventually Asmodeus’ sheer numbers prevailed, as they must. Seven members of his group were hit before Dory’s three girls were shot. As for Apollyon, he was hiding behind an obstacle.
Chuck was still alive, but he groped around in his blindness. None of his girls were left alive to provide imagery of the scene to Dory via the Swarm. Asmodeus decapitated Chuck with his sword without a word of warning while he was crawling around on the floor, blind as a bat. Then he put his still-living head, dripping with blood, into a gray translucent metallic bag and closed it with a yellow sticker.
“I know you can still hear me, man of the B’nei Elohim,” he said to him through the bag, not knowing precisely who he was, “but as you have discovered by now, it’s hard to upload your memories with neutrinos through the material of this bag. You’re my insurance. So let’s see what extraordinary lengths your friends will go to in capturing your final memories to let you avoid the True Death.”
And he gave the bag containing Chuck’s head to young Apollyon to carry for him while some of his other officers carried took point and rearguard.
Obviously the whole area was rigged for sound, because now doors magically opened in front of them, indicating the way the B’nei Elohim wanted the Emperor to go. The thick doors they already passed through refused to budge. The weapons of the Imperials would take too long to cut through them and they would run out of power at any rate. Grenades could do it, but there were too many doors and too few grenades, and it might break the air-tight integrity of the city. Only two floors separated the bulk of the city with its park-like flora from the hard vacuum of the surface of the moon.
As they proceeded through the doors they were silently bidden to use, Asmodeus noticed a scarcity of girl scouts along the way. Instead of presenting themselves for slaughter they seemed to back off as if on orders. The only exception to that rule was Chayn Shybear, the mother of Chuck, who approached Asmodeus with arms raised and palms forward to show she had no weapons.
Asmodeus thought she closely resembled the woman named Joy who served him long ago on Barbelo, but her hair was very different.
When she had drawn near, she sank to one knee, lowered her face, and said, “I am Chayn, Lord, the daughter of Robyn. Command me.”
Asmodeus thought the resemblance to Joy extended even to the woman’s voice. He said, “Command you? Would you attempt to deceive a god?”
“Deceive you, Lord? Far be it from my mind. Not all of the B’nei Elohim share the same aims of El Shaddai and Bat-El, as my Lord has already discerned by the service of my brother Edgar. Name the thing you seek, Lord, and I shall try to get it for you with no further violence.”
“I have come for the Ark of the Covenant.”
Chayn suddenly raised her face to see if Asmodeus was serious. “The Ark? My Lord has been tragically deceived if he thought the Ark of the Covenant to be here on Luna.”
“Then where is it?”
“In a space station we call Midway, Lord, which is in orbit some four thousand miles above the second planet of this star system.”
“I don’t believe you!”
“I speak only the truth to my Lord,” Chayn protested. “He will not find the Ark of the Covenant in Taurus City.”
“And yet, I would see the tabernacle, the meeting tent where El Shaddai always insisted the Ark should be kept. Where is this tabernacle, woman of the B’nei Elohim?”
“I can show you that, Lord,”
And there was a place in the two-story thick structure that comprised the ceiling of Taurus where the floor had been replaced by thick glass, such that one could look down past one’s feet at the floor of the city. It was easy for Asmodeus to identify what he was seeking.
The Tabernacle, or Meeting Tent, was constructed by materials and labor which was donated by artisans from Israel, Hamar, and Nath. The required materials were gold, silver, brass, fine linen, goats’ hair, rams’ skins dyed red, badgers’ skins, shittim wood, oil for the light, spices for anointing oil and for sweet incense, onyx stones, and stones to be set for the ephod and the breastplate. With these materials, craftsmen made the tabernacle, the staves to carry the Ark, the altar and its staves, all the altar’s vessels, and the showbread. They made the candlestick for the light, the incense altar, and the hanging for the door at the entrance of the tabernacle.
There was a glass elevator leading to the floor of Taurus but it was only large enough to hold two nephilim, laden as they were with weapons and spacesuit backpacks and a bag carrying Chuck’s head.
Asmodeus hesitated for a moment to think. Then he stepped inside accompanied only by his son Apollyon, who carried the head of Chuck. For a delicate few moments they would both be trapped at the mercy of B’nei Elohim operators who if they chose could run the capsule to a dead stop halfway down the tube, then kill both of them with laser light fired through the glass tube. But nothing like that happened because Chayn was being covered by the officers Asmodeus left behind, as the Emperor’s life insurance.
The forest sector of Taurus City was arranged around 300 foot tall Green Hill, the highest point on the surface. Asmodeus could see foot trails spreading out like a web from the summit as they descended. One side of the hill had a farm with 13 acres of fruits and vegetables plus a ten acre fruit orchard with room for about thirty head of cattle among the trees.
On the other side of the hill were tall pines and about a thousand foot long stretch of whitewater in a deep chasm. This was a part of Taurus deliberately sculpted to be wild, which was quite a valuable commodity in space. There was a deep human (and nephilim) need to be immersed in chaos periodically to balance the sterile order of technology.
The scenic drop ended with a gentle stop in an abandoned station on the hilltop. The castle of Robyn was at the far end of Taurus’s central park perched on a slightly lower hill. Beyond the castle was a small “downtown” modeled after small cities on Earth, and beyond that was the far end of the city.
Asmodeus and his son zigzagged down Green Hill on paths between a creek and a stretch of road on another piece of rugged “wild” land between the two mile-long walls, which were more than five hundred feet apart. Soon they found themselves surrounded by perhaps fifty well-armed members of the Girl Guard in a large level area at the base of the hill, where the Tabernacle had been set up. A tall, muscular woman with short hair was at the center of the ring of women, and she pulled a sword from a sheath held in the hands of another woman and stepped forward to meet the intruders.
“I’m Hunky,” she said. “Robyn is indisposed at the moment, Emperor Asmodeus Gerash, so if you came all the way here because you want a piece of B’nei Elohim ass you’ll have to settle for Number Two.”
Asmodeus hesitated. He was nearly exhausted, for one thing. And for another, while Hunky was no substitute for Lilith or Del as a commander on the field of battle, in a one-on-one situation Hunky was said to be far more fierce than either of them. Still, despite Hunky’s nephilim Amazon body frame, in Empire dogma she was nothing but a silly and weak female. The Emperor could not back down in the sight of his son without contradicting many centuries of patriarchy bluster, and Hunky knew it full well. This situation was reinforced when the rest of the officers in the party of Asmodeus arrived to observe, with Chayn in tow, after having come down to the city floor two-by-two.
Humans, demigods, and Fallen Angels arranged themselves as spectators on balconies and alcoves, in nooks and crannies all around the open space. Whatever happened, it was going to be even better than a game of Freeball, which was the official sport of the B’nei Elohim.
Intrepid television journalist Andrea Mitchell rushed to the scene with a crew bearing lights and camera gear, yelling “Wait!” Immediately she had her Interworld crew set up their equipment, while a half-dozen girls attended to both Gordon and Abaddon with make-up.
“Asmodeus’ divine and imperial dignity was at a breaking point. “What is this?” he yelled.
Andrea gaped at hym. “Do you realize how many people are watching this war, Sire? Do you want to look like hell on camera? And she motioned for the girls to continue to make Asmodeus and Hunky look good but ridiculous.
Finally Asmodeus and Hunky were left unmolested by the make-up crew. In a sign of contempt for his foe, Asmodeus bypassed the traditional opening formalities of salute and counter-salute. He set down the macro and simply stood there with his blade in hand and tried to stare Hunky down. Few could withstand the withering gaze of the Patriarch of the White Beards.
So Hunky, in reply, also bypassed the traditional opening formalities. She skipped the stupid alpha-male bluster that always reminded her of rams beating their heads together. She was thinking of that crap where the opponents circled around one another and talked trash while they made little quick thrusts and parries to gauge their opponent and tried to shake loose an opening. Don’t men always have to do that? she thought. Even in a fist fight they will always begin by throwing their open palms against each other’s chest, saying “Come on!” over and over again until they make each other angry enough to start throwing fists.
But the B’nei Elohim Girl Guard knew closed fists were lousy weapons and open hands even more so. At Shangri-La in the Green River Gorge, also known as Boot Camp, they were trained to grab their foe immediately and actually pull them closer, bringing surprised male face (or testicles) into raised female knee or lowered female skull.
So it was that Hunky, in her very first move, simply threw her sharp steel blade into Asmodeus’ chest like one of those oriental throwing stars. No fanfare. No boasting. No playing with her food which from much past experience even her B’nei Elohim associates expected her to do. In fact, Hunky’s move was totally unexpected, therefore it could not fail. Some of the women gathered there were disappointed, but when Del reviewed this memory later on the Swarm she would have high praise for Hunky indeed. The point was to kill the emperor, not jerk off.
Standing there with Hunky’s sword penetrating his heart, Asmodeus’s face was a grimace of pain and shock. He could not believe what had just happened to him, yet the agony was so intense he could not even speak.
It’s not fair! I wasn’t ready! Hunky cheated and skipped all the customary preliminaries!
Apollyon saw that his father’s wound was mortal. Asmodeus turned to his son and tried to speak, but no words came out. Before he could die, Apollyon was determined to let his father see that his son was determined to complete the mission. He pointed a gun at the bag containing Chuck’s severed head and stood forth so everyone could see him. Bring forth the Ark of the Covenant or this man’s final memories will be lost forever.
Chayn caught Hunky’s eye. “I tried to tell them the Ark wasn’t here.”
Hunky, for one, was not willing to allow Chuck to suffer the True Death. She yelled, “Everyone hold! Point your weapons at the deck. Nobody try anything.”
“Excellent,” Apollyon growled. This move was the only way he could save his life, but he also saw a chance to at least salvage his father’s mission, now that his father’s life was forfeit.
134 – THE SEARCH CONTINUES
While the greater Puget Sound megasprawl was almost totally shut down and asleep early on a dreary gray and cold Sunday morning, little Hope Felton and Robyn Shybear ascended Doll Hill, formerly known as End Dome, and for both of them the climb was a joy.
On the lower slopes the underlying brush was suppressed by bark shed by cedar trees, which over many years had been compressed into a strange rubbery surface that Hope dubbed Brown Land, framed by intricate staircases made of exposed tree roots. Even when she occasionally slipped and fell, there was little chance of injury in a forest that seemed to be fashioned like a giant trampoline.
At another point higher up, Hope found herself in a small shady field of baby pine cones, a clean surface she could roll in and even pretend to swim.
Robyn led her up the western flank of End Dome on an unmarked track she had practiced several times and committed firmly to memory. This Hope-smuggling operation was years in the planning.
Presently they were come to the summit, nearly nine hundred feet over the rim of the Green River Gorge and twelve hundred feet above the river itself, but views were screened by the gray leafless branches of many maples and alders.
There was a large concrete slab here and the remains of a giant stone fireplace and chimney. Robyn told Hope these were the ruins of the End Dome Temple which had been razed to the foundation by the American government in the years shortly following World War II. Robyn held living memory of that time but to Hope the War was just boring stuff she had to memorize from school books.
Much of the slab was covered with a stack of thin black fabric folded in many layers. A half-dozen large metal tanks were sitting nearby, painted to blend in with the trees. These were so heavy they had to be craned off a flatbed deuce-and-a-half when this material was recently put in place by Dory and a handful of other trusted allies who were relatively new to the B’nei Elohim, untainted by the Bunners.
Also lying about were hoses and wires and various packages of every size. And there was a big lump under all the fabric that would later reveal itself to be a small snub-nosed space plane with stubby folded wings. It was a craft only large enough for a single pilot with a little girl sitting on her lap.
Immediately, Robyn set about conducting an inventory of all her supplies to make sure everything she needed was present. All of these preparations were deemed necessary because if Robyn tried to take Hope off the planet in Exiler Sidekick, the lander belonging to her nephilim allies patiently waiting in orbit above, their life-expectancy after getting airborne would be measured in mere minutes.
When Hope asked her Momma Robyn what all this stuff was for, Robyn said, “You like balloons, don’t you, Hope? Well, this will be the biggest balloon you ever saw in your life.”
Round Robyn called the whole Black River Gorge area “Booger Holler”. That Sunday the good folks of Booger Holler watched their police procedurals and hospital dramas and went to bed at ten o’clock. The rest of the population of Booger Holler was split evenly between a good old-fashioned, hellfire-and-brimstone big tent revival in Franklin or playing pull-tabs and drinking Bucky Beer at the “Y” Tavern in Black Diamond.
Robyn was a virtual zombie from a week’s worth of sleep deficit, but she knew she would be able to thoroughly catch up during the upcoming balloon ascent. By nine PM the balloon was erect and completely inflated with hydrogen. It was a silvery bulb 180 feet tall that poked dangerously high above the alders and maples bristling the summit of End Dome, but it had been too dark for anyone to see it for three hours.
The living space of the mini-shuttle hanging under the balloon was about as roomy as a coffin. This balloon-drop trick had never been tried before, but Lilith had assured Robyn years ago that the math was perfectly sound. She had been confident enough to risk the lives of Hope and Robyn in the attempt.
The Bunners who definitely were searching for Hope (with bad intent), and Sheriff Vic, who might be searching for Hope (with good intent) would be completely taken off-guard by this move, but the debris Robyn left behind on the hilltop would soon be discovered, probably in the morning.
Robyn felt a twinge of regret that it was not possible to advise Vic and Mark Felton of this move beforehand. She could only let them know what happened well after the deed was done. Stealing Hope and the Ark was going to bring a long simmer to a head and cast the entire B’nei Elohim organization into a state of open civil war. But it wouldn’t really matter since a lot of bigger things were moving to their conclusion as well. It was also very likely that Vic or some of her deputies would be hurt or even killed by the numberless dangers lurking around in every corner of these dark woods. That, too, could not be helped.
Around ten when Robyn finally cut the mooring lines and went aloft with Hope sitting on her lap as a rather light burden, Robyn thought they probably looked just like a small cloud on radar.
During the endless planning sessions seven years ago Hunky told her, “The Oregon Air National Guard has velocity discriminators so they don’t scramble F-15’s every time a flock of birds goes by. Good thing it’ll be a nighttime ascent, Robyn. Otherwise, by the time you get up into the jet stream and out over the Great American Desert you will have started a dozen UFO religions.”
So safely in the air, and with her equipment set to give alarm if anything went wrong, Robyn drifted off to the first good long sleep she had obtained in a week.
As the balloon quietly rose into the night and drifted east with the prevailing winds, Hope watched the muted red, green, and yellow lights dancing randomly on the flight control board and fell asleep. And once having fallen asleep, she did dream.
Victoria and Danica found more rock markers and followed them downhill when the trail forked. They descended to a beautiful area of deeply etched sandstone ridges and gullies that came one after the other until the trail straightened out and intersected a nameless creek. It was precisely here that Vic encountered the first of the trail markers that had red strips of fabric with them. She looked at one of the strips closely. “This could be from Hope’s uniform, but it’s not proof. All the girls at Shangri-La wear the same thing.”
“Shangri-La being Boot Camp for B’nei Elohim.”
“More like a school where we teach the brats how to follow orders and how to protect themselves. We are somewhat upriver from there.”
Danica treaded carefully here. “But it seems your daughter was a complete washout, I’m sorry to say, Vic. She certainly wasn’t following orders when she visited Aliwe, and she hasn’t protected herself from her abductor.”
Something didn’t make sense to Vic. “If she is being taken against her will, why would her abductor allow her to leave trail markings?”
“Is Hope merely wandering around down here alone, lost, and just trying to help someone find her?” Danica ventured.
There were more rock snowmen with shreds of Hope’s tunic. The creek formed it’s own canyon and tumbled over sandstone, sculpting little potholes. And when they followed Hope’s markers they came upon some some poorly-constructed switchbacks that made for rough going. Vic said the switchbacks here were not part of her own trail system and that he had never come this way before.
After another quarter of an hour Vic and Danica emerged from the woods to reach the river’s north bank. They had dropped a total of four hundred feet in elevation.
Two women were already on the stony riverbank wearing dark blue DECON jackets with big bold yellow lettering, exactly like the one worn by Danica. They looked very different, but Vic and Danica noticed something creepy about the absolutely coordinated way they moved, the way they seemed to complete each others’ thoughts. As they sifted through the debris left behind by Robyn, they were saying:
“We always suspected of course.”
“But now we know.”
Then Vic noticed they both had their hair back in buns and she knew who they were. She could even make a very good guess of their first names. The women looked up at the approaching sound of Vic and Keith. One of them said, “Hello, Special Agent Fawn. And you are Sheriff Victoria Shybear, of course.”
Vic nodded. “And who are you?”
“DECON. I’m Special Agent Jill Masters, and this is Special Agent Jill Watterly.”
So two Jills. Vic’s guess they were Bunners was confirmed. Just as the ponytail people of the End Dome Church were called Ponies, Victoria knew the Jills were in turn called Bunners. Just never to their face. “You moonlighting, ladies? What? They don’t pay you enough at Astrodyne?”
They just stared at her for a moment, then put on sheepish grins. They remembered that Vic was Begotten herself. Finally one of the Jills asked, “Is this going to turn into the usual pissing contest over jurisdiction, Sheriff?”
“It will not,” Danica said, “because the Sheriff and I have come to an arrangement, and I’m in charge of this investigation.”
“Actually, Danica,” Jill Masters said, “you’re not in charge of anything.”
“Says Yellow Mountain. Check with them if you don’t believe me. Your job was to watch the girl and you fucked that up, Danica, you and poor Kurt, so you’re out. You sure as hell aren’t authorized to go looking for her. I’d cuff ya and bring you in myself, Danica, but as you can see, we’re busy.”
“Unless you know something I don’t,” Vic said, “this is not a kidnapping across state lines. So I’m still in charge. And I’d like to see your identification, please. Both of you. I think you’re playing dress-up, girls. I can’t imagine Yellow Mountain actually accepting applicants from the C. o’ E.D.”
“Actually, this matter does cross state lines,” the other Bunner said as she handed Vic her identification. Vic felt that it didn’t seem to matter which one spoke. “National lines, in fact. We traced the micro of a Barbuda national to your backyard and then right to here.”
Jill Watterly. Her identification was real, these things could not be duplicated. The other Jill was authentically DECON as well. Their last names were probably made up, however. I’ll be damned, Vic thought. They accepted Jills at Yellow Mountain. And they graduated too. She said, “I wonder how Roland bought it, before he bought it.”
The agents did not tell Vic that the B’nei Eloah’s micro was tracked downstream where it stopped somewhere around the Lincoln Bridge. There was another DECON team looking into that, and both of those agents, coincidentally, were also named Jill. But they could not keep Vic and Danica from observing the plastic boat oar that was lying on the ground together with a large amount of other debris.
Victoria asked the Bunners the name of the owner of the micro and about the evidence they had uncovered at this site, but Jill Watterly ignored her and said to her partner, “You know what sucks about Washington State, Jill? They elect their sheriffs here, so any Jane Doe can run. And sometimes a county gets a sheriff who lacks a certain sensitivity to the finer points of professional ethics.”
“I think I know what you’re getting at,” Gina Masters said. “Like sometimes you get a sheriff who ends up immersing herself in the investigation of her own daughter’s disappearing act when by every accepted standard she ought to recuse herself.”
“After all,” Gina Watterly said, “what is it, seventy, eighty percent of these cases the kid is abducted by someone she knows. Maybe even by a parent in a custody dispute.”
The Bunners had accomplished their purpose. Vic turned beet red, then returned up the trail with Special Agent Danica Fawn in tow without making any farewells to the Bunners, leaving them alone to methodically catalog the discarded items they had found on the side of the river.
Vic asked him, “Did you see it?”
“The oar? Yes.”
“Whoever took my baby girl came in by boat, and they’re already downstream. That’s where I want to look next.”
“Whoever took my baby girl came in by boat, and they’re already downstream. That’s where I want to look next.” But Vic had begun to relax just a little bit. “Barbuda national, they said. That meant they were looking for a B’nei Eloah, and if the Jills were looking for him or her, then it wasn’t a Jill.”
So her Robyn theory was panning out after all. Vic sighed a little at that. She knew this day was coming from the very beginning, seven years ago. Robyn gaveth Hope to her and Bayard, and now Robyn taketh Hope away. But all Robyn had to do was ask. Why the drama of a kidnapping? The implications of finding DECON-affiliated Jills conducting a parallel search for Hope threw Victoria’s mind into turmoil.
With many coal-mining relics found along the way the trail crossed a plateau of knee-high ferns dotted with islands of oak, maple, alder, and young fir. The country was so airy and open here a person with phone-glasses linked to SATNAV could strike off cross country and possibly reach the embankment marking Interstate 86, but with so many hidden dangers it would be a fool’s errand.
Paralleling a beautiful creek on a narrow ridge high above it, the trail passed an ancient section corner marker and enormous Douglas firs before reaching a fern covered boulder about the size of a two-car garage which Vic said was an erratic deposited here during the ice age by a great lobe of the Canadian glacier.
Beyond the erratic the trail seemed to end at a cul-de-sac. But Sheriff Vic to the rescue. To the northeast a hidden connector trail switch-backed down to a forgotten mine road that continued due east through salmonberry bushes all the way to the property of the Church of Racial Holiness, formerly the White Wing of the End Dome Church, and thence to the highway.
Vic called the office and told them to send a squad car to pick her and Danica up along the roadside. Her immediate destination was the Lincoln Bridge.
Built in 1914, the Lincoln Bridge was a one-lane structure that spanned the deepest and most beautiful part of the Green River Gorge. At Victoria’s behest, the light which regulated traffic was disabled, requiring two deputies to be stationed at both ends of the bridge directing traffic. The real purpose was permit them to look inside each vehicle for Hope.
It was a great idea in theory, but in practice, there was the problem of what to do with commercial trucks, which had no windows to peer into the back. While Victoria was checking out this operation, one such truck presented itself at the bridge, and she decided to check it out personally.
His driver’s license identified him as Carl Wustner, and he was a local resident of Cumberland.
“What are you hauling?” Victoria asked.
“Artifacts for Hitlers museum.”
“Hitler’s museum?” Danica asked, entirely puzzled by the answer.
Vic helped her out. “Here in the Gorge area we have a local gentleman who calls himself Adolph Hitler. He runs a…I guess you would call it a museum, on the same property with the Wells Battlefield Memorial.”
“Mind if I take a look in the back?” Danica asked Carl. She had no probable cause, but she was doing what the law enforcement community called “flushing rabbits”. If the trucker had Hope back there, he’d look and act suspicious.
In the back of his truck was a pillar of salt in the shape of a woman.
Carl showed them an automobile engine that ran on tap water, a lead-to-gold converter, and several perpetual motion devices. He picked up a dinosaur skull to show them a bullet hole in it. Then he pointed to a bunch of flowers in pots. Here are some plants from the Sang’ha rain forest that can cure just about anything.
Next to that was an plain old dirty plastic Coke bottle. Carl said, “This was shown to the Chinese emperor around 300 BC, which caused the inventor to be executed to keep the glassblowers in business.”
Victoria struggled to keep from laughing.
Wustner let Vic and Keith fan through what he called undeniable authentication documents for the Shroud of Turin, which lay there folded neatly. Vic said, “Mr. Wustner, do you know why a story down at the Sheriff’s Office is just like something in Adolph Hitlers museum?”
“At the office a story begins, ‘Now this is a no-shitter’ and something in Adolph Hitlers museum has ‘undeniable authentication documents.’”
Wustner didnt seem to understand that he’d just been insulted. Danica cleared her throat and asked, “So Mr. Hitler is paying you good for this stuff?”
“A very pretty penny.” He pointed to an opaque box sitting on top of several cases of the original Coke (the ones with cocaine in it) and invited them to look inside. “This is Schroedinger’s cat. No one can tell whether it is alive or dead.”
Vic turned to Danica. “This museum is just down the road on the other side of the bridge, if you want to take a look.”
Danica nodded. “Okay, Mr. Wustner, you are free to go, but we’re going to follow you to your destination. I’ve half a mind to meet this Adolph Hitler.”