Enhanced (Chapter 10)

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Chapter 10

When night fell they dragged the nineteen zoo cages out into the middle of the Aztec Soccer Stadium. Inside each box-car-sized cage over one hundred prisoners, all women and children, were packed like livestock. The stench of sewage and vomit gagged the back of Lydia's throat as she came to. No one had been given food or water or allowed to use restroom facilities since their capture. At least she hadn't been raped; covering herself with the residual curry powder had worked.

Lydia was groggy from her concussion but with the help of Maria Elena stood up. Desperate pleading and mournful cries of anguish from nearly two thousand women and children filled the humid night air. She looked around at the glowing eyes of hundreds of transgenics guarding the dark field around them. The menacing presence of the monsters paled to the horrific realization that tens of thousands of human spectators crowded the stands. Everyone in the world with any power stood against them. They were helpless.

Multicolored spotlights came on from the looming, flat-topped pyramid at the south end of the field and a droning musical beat blasted up from the ground. Daht daht daht daht da-da-da, daht daht daht daht da-da-da! The theme music repeated over and over as a rotund, bald clown-man with big orange sideburns lewdly danced around the stage on the top of the Aztec-styled pyramid. Simultaneously a one-hundred-foot-tall, 3-D projection of the scary clown-man danced around on the field between the cages full of horror-struck woman and children.

"Live from Aztec Stadium, home of the Aztecs, it's the Sacred Scary Clown Show! Here's your sacred scary host, Deeeean Browner!" The announcer's voice rolled smoothly up out of the ground.

"Hot as Lightning! More than three billion viewers have logged in!" The scary clown-man's familiar voice erupted out of the ground as he kept at his lewd gyrations.

Lydia never heard of the singer Elvis Presley, but a handful of very ancient viewers now recalled when that obese singer had mocked his adoring fans during his last concert tour nearly one hundred years ago. It reminded Lydia of an old television news program about late-twentieth-century drug addicts that Dan had showed to the older kids one Sunday after church. She vividly remembered a young prostitute who looked old, a "crack" addict, mockingly flaunting her emaciated body to male passersby even though she was covered with open sores. This repulsive clown-man was mocking his audience too and they seemed to relish the mockery.

"Veronica is dead." Yolanda's numb voice somehow penetrated the din rising up from beneath their feet. "They made us watch as they abused her for hours and then they devoured her while she was still alive. Her beauty cursed her. We are doomed and there is no God of love."

Maria Elena reached out and embraced Yolanda. "I'm sorry I brought you to this living nightmare. It's all my fault."

The theme music stopped. The giant projection of the scary clown-man walked around the field and stood over each cage, the hideous face leering down at each one in turn. The stadium audience cheered each time the captives inside screamed. Although he never watched netcast entertainment, let alone worked in show business, for many years now Dean Browner had practiced this act on helpless orphans around the world. He perfected his malevolent clown character to terrify children into submission and now he was making it work on adult women too. When the last cage full of captives stopped screaming, the giant projection vanished. Everyone's attention turned to the eleven stories tall, high-definition screen on the front side of the pyramid.

"Welcome world, welcome! Look at these pathetic creatures. Finally social justice is coming to these murderers, these sanctimonious hypocrites that used to strut around acting like they're better than you and me. These phony moral tyrants attacked the self-esteem, the personhood of each one of us for too long. Yeah! Yeah! That's right! Tonight you're going to see what no live netcast has ever shown before. Yeah! And after we're finished here we're going on the road! We'll do it in Chicago! Minneapolis! Toronto! Montreal! Boston! New York! London! Paris! Berlin! Stockholm! Rome! Madrid! Lisbon! Yiieeeeeeeeeaaah!" When the scary clown-man finished screeching the entire stadium roared its approval. The cheering, shrieking, and applause went on for ten minutes.

Presently a spotlight shined down on a part of the stage that had been dark. A family of four: father, mother, and two boys were shackled in a pillory. The scary clown-man held his bulbous red nose as he walked up to them. Both the mother and father slowly looked around dazed and nauseous while the dark eyes of the eldest boy froze in a terror-stricken gaze and the younger boy kept his eyes shut.

"Someone had an accident! Whew, do they smell!" the scary clown-man said in a funny pinched nasal voice. Still holding his nose, he stood waving his other hand in front of his face, waiting for the laughter to trail off and then put his hands down. "By now you've all seen the messages the Zionist hackers illegally sent through the net. They claim that 'Israel lives.' Hah! How dare those filthy creatures use our internet to lie, pathetically trying to embarrass our divine leader. They are a slimy plague on the world, and right here are four of them!"

The stadium erupted in hisses and boos. Lydia prayed for the family as the scary clown-man slowly circled around them.

"Until our divine leader returns; and it won't be long!" He had to wait for the cheering to die down again. "Until he returns, on our show, you the audience, the victims of their oppression, will be the judge! The charges are espionage, building an Apartheid wall of exclusion, genocide against any other ethnicity that dared oppose them, fomenting intolerance and murder of transgenic persons, treason, brigandage, and last but not least sabotage of our infrastructure that left us powerless for eighteen days. You name the crime, these vermin have committed it! What is your verdict?"

"Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" the stadium screamed in unison.

"Guilty is the verdict! And now my lovely assistant Angela will spin the Wheel of Justice. What will the sentence be?"

A glamorous blonde in a black evening gown stepped out of the shadows to stand next to the scary clown-man. Her perfectly symmetrical face looked familiar but Lydia didn't recognize her at first because of her different hair style and turquoise eye shadow. She walked gracefully to the wheel, reached up and spun the thing with an almost disguised, amazingly enraged power. Now Lydia recognized the former high school teacher, the seducer and kidnapper of her brother Rick. The wheel kept spinning. The scary clown-man looked impatiently at Angela but he let it spin until the dial finally stopped on DOUBLE-HEADED AXE.

The crowd hushed as a tall transgenic with a bull's head and a man's muscular body walked out onto the stage holding an ornate, double-headed axe. Lydia averted her eyes until the amplified chopping and screaming ceased. When she looked up again Dean Browner was shuddering with pleasure. The theme music blasted out and the fat, neogenic clown-man cart-wheeled across the stage. He halted upside down in a handstand in front of the pillory. Somehow he kept his legs straight up in the air, brought his face down to the floor and slowly lapped up blood with his tongue like a cat. The audience exploded in wild applause.

"Oh Lord, why have you forsaken us?" Lydia whispered. She felt a trembling hand on her arm and turned around. Cassie, one of her Scary Clown Club enemies from high school, looked up at her with wet blue eyes. Behind stood Marsha, another mean S.C.C. girl who had constantly tormented Debra. Lydia now realized that half the prisoners packed inside her cage were citizens of Moreau County who were not Christians and had not been on a barge. Most of the barges must have escaped. They probably emptied out the rest of Moreau County in order to have enough victims for this spectacle.

"I don't want to go to hell." Cassie's mouth trembled and she fell to her knees.

"Get away from that J-freak!" Marsha grabbed her by the arm to pull her away but for once in her life Cassie resisted, repeating over and over "I don't want to go to hell!"

"Let her go, now." Lydia tensed, ready to plunge headlong into a brawl. Maria Elena and Yolanda turned to glower at Marsha too. The pretty but jaded-looking girl with pink and purple streaks in her hair released Cassie but then stood there holding up her middle finger in an obscene gesture.

"Please tell me what I have to do to not go to hell!" Cassie begged. The girl desperately grasped Lydia's arm like a drowning child fighting for air.

"Shut up, Cassie. We're S.C.C. If we tell the 'genics we'll do anything they want, they'll let us go." Marsha held her middle finger higher.

"No! I know I'm going to die! Lydia, please tell me what to do."

"Get out of my sight." Lydia clenched her fists. Marsha backed away with her middle finger still up, turned and slipped out of the circle of prisoners who had noticed the confrontation.

"I'm still in command here!" Lydia shouted out. She knelt down to her knees with Cassie. She looked Cassie in the eyes for a few seconds as many women and children gathered around. "Everyone pray with me." Soon Lydia had organized nearly all the prisoners inside the cage into prayer groups.

Meanwhile, Angela in her tight-fitting evening gown began picking out prisoners one or two at a time from each cage. She roughly escorted them to the top of the pyramid as Dean Browner cavorted around and told anti-Christian jokes.

"What do you get when three Christians are in the kitchen and one of them disappears?" He paused for effect. "Rapture Stew for two!" The theme music blasted out after each punch line. The scary clown-man danced around as the audience roared with laughter. When the next prisoner would arrive on stage, Dean Browner read multiple charges against her. The accusations included murder, incest, cannibalism, arson, and hate-crimes against transgenic persons. The crowd would always scream "Guilty!" Angela would spin the Wheel of Justice and then the prisoner would be executed or tortured in some grisly fashion. Wild applause and cheering would erupt from the stands. The body of the victim, sometimes still alive, was slid down a chute to the ravenous transgenic monsters lined up for a free meal eleven stories below. Angela would go down to the next cage and begin the process again.

Sometimes Dean Browner would offer non-Christians the option of social-insect transgenic enhancements. Most accepted but a few didn't and were executed. Those who accepted were immediately placed into a transmogrification machine that injected massive doses of social-insect stem-cell DNA into the victims' foreheads, through their skulls and into their central nervous systems, transforming them into compliant slaves.

"We all know there are service jobs the multi-realms need done that no one else will do!" The scary clown-man went into an auctioneer's rapid-fire voice as the neogenic representatives from the multi-realm corporations bid against each other for the new slaves.

This went on for hours until Angela got to cage #17, Lydia's cage. Angela immediately saw the prisoners in this cage were different. Instead of wide-eyed desperation, wailing, and begging for mercy, the women and children inside were praying together or softly singing hymns in small groups. Angela scanned the population until she noticed the standing teenage girl with sable hair leading a group of twenty kneeling prisoners near the middle of the cage.

"You, Lydia Machado. You, come to the cage door, now."

Lydia ignored the shouted order and continued leading the prayer group. Angela entered the cage, making her way towards Lydia. Suddenly, Shelly McKenna, a heavy-set, middle-aged woman from Sunnyland who had baby sat Rick and Lydia for many years when they were little, got up and attacked Angela. Within a split-second she fell back against some other prisoners, electrocuted to death. Her smoldering body hit the floor and many screams cut through the muggy air. Angela smiled wickedly and stood there holding the stun gun over her head.

"Don't resist her!" Lydia shouted out. She turned and whispered quickly to Maria Elena, "I'm still in command. Keep them praying. When the Holy Spirit tells me what to do I will give the order and you must do what I say with all of your heart." Lydia turned and made her way through the crowd. She couldn't help but stare at the electrocuted body of the gentle woman who had read her to sleep so many times. Tears wanted to flow but she fought them off. She walked straight and tall up to Angela with all the defiance she could muster.

"Good girl," Angela said when Lydia stood in front of her. She seized Lydia by the arm with a powerful grip. Once outside the cage, she threw the girl face-first to the ground and handcuffed her arms behind her back. She grabbed a handful of Lydia's hair, yanking her to her feet. They started walking across the field towards the Pyramid. "Reminds me of the time I made another Machado crawl to me."

"My brother walked out on you. You were dumped by a teenager. Must make you feel as hot as dry ice."

"Oh missy, your mouth. I really don't want to make this offer but I have no choice. When I catch your brother, I promise you he won't get any deals." Angela paused for a few steps then began in a new tone. "Someone high up in our organization is very close to you even though you've never met him. He's now the CEO of the biggest tower in North America and he's a lot more substantial than that gun-toting dirt farmer your mother finally married."

Lydia kept walking, taking one step at a time. She gulped but tried with all her being to ignore what Angela was saying. Unlike Rick, she never wanted to meet the man who had abandoned their family. Still, to imagine an actual face-to-face meeting made the offer more intriguing than she would have thought possible. My real father is in heaven, she kept saying inside her head.

"We have video that a transgenic named Henry Moore turned on Wayne Browner and sixty-five other transgenics at that last church. He slaughtered the sixty-five transgenics to protect the church and then blew himself and Wayne up. If you give us pertinent information on the behavior modification techniques the Jews used to get him to fight for them, I will turn you over to your biological father at the Mile High Tower. You won't die if you tell me something useful."

"Henry Moore fought to save our church? Praise God. Hallelujah."

"At least tell me the names of the Jews who did the behavior modification."

"It was only one Jew."

"What's his name?"

"You already know his name and sooner than you think you're going to bow down to him."

Angela stopped. She turned and looked Lydia in the eye. It was Lydia's last chance. When Lydia didn't speak Angela gave a satisfied sneer. She took two handfuls of Lydia's thick black hair and shook her head savagely until she fell to her knees. "That's not too likely, is it, girly?" She kept shaking Lydia's head by the hair until she fell backwards. Angela dragged her upright to her feet and they started walking again. "No, I won't bruise or tear your lovely skin. You have a rare butterscotch complexion that'll make a great addition to my lampshade collection. What I am going to do is microwave your insides. There is no more excruciating way to die, I promise you. It'll take about three or four hours. You'll flop around like a fish out of water for most of that time and it'll be great entertainment for our billions of viewers."

Lydia stumbled forward, head hung down, all defiance gone. Blood seeped from her scalp and trickled down her forehead. She didn't care anything about prophecy even though her pastor preached almost one-fourth of the Bible was prophetic. For the last two months all the Christian men she knew debated with fascinated passion how the prophecies were being fulfilled before their eyes but it never interested her. Only people interested her. She was no hero. Why did she tell Maria Elena that nonsense about still being in command? Just a seventeen-year-old girl, I'm just a girl. I didn't want to hurt anybody.

Lydia tried to forgive all the people and monsters about to kill her. It came to her that they were like the baboons the teacher talked about in second-year biology class. They torture us because, like a baboon attacking another baboon of lesser rank for no or little reason, it reduces their stress. And now there was so much stress, there was stress avalanching on top of everyone beyond a battle-hardened soldier's endurance. They torture women and children because they show more terror so they get more original-sin bang for their buck. This generation most men and women in the world were indoctrinated by the public schools to avoid becoming parents, so there was no empathy for little children. It all made sense. Was understanding their behavior forgiveness? At least she couldn't blame them anymore.

Where is the God of love? No angels visiting her before the martyr's execution. She knew she was not a saint and didn't deserve angelic comforting. Her premarital fooling around with Davy-Jake, her constant fighting at school with the anti-Christian kids, the escalating conflicts with her brother Rick, she knew they had made her mother miserable.

The loneliness of her life's defeats dragged her down to the dirt but at that instant hit the worst revelation of all: inside her a human life was growing; she was pregnant. Somehow she knew she was pregnant. She tried to stop walking, to drag her feet, but they were already standing in front of the big elevator door decorated with a macabre frieze of an Aztec sacrifice. She stared at the temple priest cutting out the heart of a screaming victim. The doors opened and Angela shoved her forward into the belly of the pyramid.

Inside, two fashionably dressed girls descended on her with a make-up kit. A half man, half Komodo dragon standing at the control panel pressed the up button with a clawed, scaly finger and the elevator lurched upward. At first Lydia couldn't believe it. Was the whole thing some kind of sick joke? Were they applying makeup for phony executions done with special effects? The elevator slid up too quickly. The Chinese girl brushed Lydia's hair with great skill without pulling too much on her tender scalp while the white girl applied cosmetics to her face.

"Look at her facial bone structure. The video cameras are going to love this Sheila's face," the white girl said.

"I'd kill for her hair." The Chinese girl also spoke with an Australian accent.

The white girl paused to take out tweezers from the make-up kit. She rapidly removed bits of glass from Lydia's left cheek then resumed applying the cosmetics. "You must have been a naughty girl so someone took you by the hair and threw you through a window." She cocked her head and winked at Angela.

"I believe it's our Angela who's the naughty one," the Chinese-Australian girl quipped. She finished brushing and stepped back.

"There now, deary, you're ready for the world." The white girl gave a big smile as she looked Lydia over.

"I believe I'm going to take a break and go get in the queue for this one." The Komodo dragon-man flicked his forked tongue out at Lydia. The two make-up girls snickered. "You're rather spicy, aren't you? Just the way I like them. See you for dinner, luv."

The elevator doors opened and "Daht daht daht daht da-da-da!" roared out. Dean Browner finished his dance with a standing back flip but when he came down on a puddle of blood his feet slipped out from under him and he fell hard on his rump. He got up rubbing his wide backside and the audience let loose with sympathetic applause.

Angela shoved her out onto the stage filled with sickening, multicolored lights. Dean Browner casually turned to face his next victim but when he saw Lydia his face twisted into a hideous grimace. He slowly raised his right hand to point a blood-soaked, gloved finger at her. The sixty thousand spectators grew quiet. Dean's fat face continued contorting into a visage of hate no regular human being could ever produce. The white grease paint began to ooze off his double chin from the friction of his facial contortions.

"This is one of the murderers of my adopted son. My only son. She is one of the Christians who attacked him when he returned to Moreau County to protest their treatment of transgenic persons. She's one of the Christian vigilantes that murdered my son Wayne and three hundred other peaceful, innocent, transgenic children at that accursed church. It was the biggest anti-transgenic hate crime in history until last night!"

Lydia stood there blinking from the spotlights. Did Dean Browner really have some familial love for Wayne or was this just part of the act? He claimed three hundred transgenics were killed at their church, but last week on the radio interview he had claimed two hundred. She wanted to argue it was even less than that, only sixty-six, and that she hadn't even been there when it happened. She wanted to beg for her life and for the life of her unborn child, wanted to scream that executions and torture were illegal under United Nations law written by Sebastiao. Finally Lydia swallowed her own futile words, closed her eyes and prayed.

The grimacing clown-man walked up to her. The entire stadium hushed to silence. Angela, standing behind her clutching the back of her neck, poked hard into her ribs with the stun gun.

"Open your eyes," she hissed.

"Tell us why you're a self-righteous murderer. I want you to tell the world why you think you're forgiven after you've helped destroy the lives of thousands of unique persons you're not good enough to be a slave for!" Dean's face roiled like hundreds of maggots squirmed under his skin. He halted less than six inches from her face.

Lydia was puzzled as she opened her eyes. Dean had not offered to let any other victim speak tonight, but somehow she knew she would get to talk. The bright spotlights behind Dean's ghastly face were no longer blinding. In the corner of her eye she saw another figure standing on stage. The stranger was a tall, very handsome young man with startling eyes that shined like blue stars. He had a strong chin, mid-length golden hair, was about her age and wore a blue uniform. Somehow she knew no one else could see him. She turned her head slightly to see him better and the angel with the face too handsome for this world smiled a smile of pure light that cascaded into a warm blanket overpowering the gaudy spotlights. It enveloped her in comfort and safety and she no longer was afraid for herself or for any of the other prisoners.

Angela prodded her ribs again. "Talk, now."

Lydia gave a beautiful smile seen by almost five billion people. She began speaking words that came from somewhere else and Dean Browner stumbled backwards as if he had been punched in the face.

"The Spirit of the Lord says: This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan and the unclean spirits who are his offspring." Lydia's voice came up loud and clear from the under the spectators' seats. Immediately catcalls and boos surged out from the crowd but her amplified voice overwhelmed them and her radiant smile hushed many of them. "Our God is a consuming fire and all who reject His redemption will be consumed!

"Tonight both heaven and earth will be shaken. Only he who embraces righteousness and love will not be thrown into the fiery furnace. You who harm these little children, it would have been better for you to not have been born.

"Sisters and children in Christ!" she shouted out in English and then Spanish. "We must all sing together. Do not be afraid of them! We will sing into their faces. Before dawn rises we will all be together in paradise!

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword His truth is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!"

At this point Angela shot her in the back with the microwave setting of her stun gun. Lydia gagged with the burning pain and dropped to her knees.

Angela glared at Dean Browner and mouthed out "@#*! spinning the @#*! wheel."

lory! Glory! Hallelujah!" mes. or PBS?

an be used witheue for publication.

ook info enan just ignore it since you already d wit "She has lost her mind." Maria Elena's despondent voice broke the sudden quiet.

"No, we have to do what she says!" Her eyes streaming with tears, Cassie pressed her face against the bars of the cage. "Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!"

"It is no good!" Yolanda screamed out in broken English. "It is useless!"

A woman holding her dying three-year-old grandson started singing along and then some mothers and their small children joined in. Maria Elena broke down and joined in. The last to join the chorus was Yolanda and then the entire population of cage #17 except one holdout was singing "Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!"

The prisoners in cage #14, then cage #12 joined the chorus. Simultaneously almost all the rest of the prisoners in the other cages joined in. Their amplified voices drowned out the booing from the tens of thousands of spectators. Suddenly afraid, the transgenic monsters guarding the field began backing away from the cages.

On stage the scary clown-man looked indecisive. He tried to order the amplification from the cages turned off but none of the stage crew knew how to do it.

Lydia was on her knees and couldn't sing but managed to smile up at the video cameras as the overwhelming voices from the cages sang out "Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!" Their voices grew stronger and stronger.

"This is a fiasco!" Angela shouted at Dean. "You've got to stop this now, right now. This is a live netcast. Half the people in the world are viewing."

"No! You go down there and punish them. This is my show!" The clown-man wrung his hands, his eyes darting around as if he expected something invisible would strike him again.

"They're making us look like fools! She's infected them with a martyr's complex. They're Christians singing as they're being thrown to the lions. The throwbacks and teratos are both superstitious about death. This defiance is going to undermine their supernatural fear of us. You have to end this now."

Dean reluctantly went to the studio engineer booth to retrieve his satellite phone. He gave his special code to the G.O.G. Satellite Weapons Command Center and the precise target information. The scary clown-man pulled himself together then walked back onstage with both arms stretched high in the air.

"In the sacred name of Sebastiao, I command the fire from the sky to rain down on these Christian criminals, these enemies of social progress!" The coordination with the Satellite Weapons Command Center was off and he had to recite his mumbo jumbo three more times before the particle beams, like straightened-out lightning, screeched down from satellites in outer space and finally hit the cages. As the rancid smoke cleared from the field and the burnt air reeked of ozone, three unrecognizable teenage girls rose up from the blasted corpses in what had been cage #17. "Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!" the three sang out together again.

The clown-man took off his gore-drenched, formerly white gloves and looked at his chubby hands. "Useless, useless," he mumbled out loud. He had been planning this first sacrificial event for so long. This had been his best chance to gain the publicity he needed to impress Sebastiao. Out of the ambitiously ruthless thousands vying for the title of Most High Priest of the Global Religion of Peace, he was the first to netcast live sacrifices. Time was short and now this interference. He loathed the source of it with all his being. They were losing ratings, he could feel it. His hands closed to become fat fists. He shook in rage as the three teenage girls who should have been dead kept singing. "Go down there and shut them up," he ordered Angela.

"Turn it off." Davy-Jake stood up behind Sara and dozens of other refugees and soldiers seated in a circle around the netcast center. The holographic projector inside what looked like a huge crystal ball simulated detailed 3-D images. "I said turn it off."

The leather-faced soldier at the control panel didn't look up. "Any relatives and whoever else can't take it leave. We need to record what's happening."

Davy-Jake strode up to the netcast center and in one motion unsheathed his Bowie knife, stabbed through the glass, piercing into the holographic projector. The images warped among sparks and disappeared. Four soldiers leaped up to tackle him. He put up a ferocious struggle, punching and kicking several to the ground, but eventually nine more guards ran inside the chamber and swarmed on top of him.

Sara's tears became sobs as she watched her son-in-law subdued.

"I'm on fire!" Davy-Jake screamed.

Rick paced outside, far up the path from the camouflaged tunnel entrance. Another tremor moved the ground beneath him as he speed-dialed Jill for the twentieth time. Once again the call didn't go through. Just this afternoon she had been approved for a transfer to the Shawnee Forest tunnel complex. Seven hours ago she and five other medical aide workers began the dangerous journey through the tunnel that ran under the Mississippi River from the Ozark complex. She should have arrived by now.

The muggy night pressed down on him with its inky blackness. No lights out here amongst the fragrant pines and cedar trees. He looked up at the stars. In a netcast earlier this evening, an astronomer, who looked ready to faint, reported strange gravitational forces were causing the seas to surge with tides never seen before. The stars and other heavenly bodies were, in minute increments, accelerating away from each other and it appeared that some galaxies on the far edge of the universe had sped off into a blurry smear and vanished.

Animals scurried in the black forest around him. Raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, foxes, opossums, snakes, skunks, woodchucks, and wild turkeys moved unnaturally together in large groups as if desperate to find safe shelter. Amid the tumult of small feet in the underbrush, a large branch snapped. Rick crouched down to pick up his shotgun. He switched on the powerful flashlight attached under the barrel and stood up scanning the path and underbrush.

"It's me, Rooster."

Somehow the intruder had gotten behind him. Rick knew the voice but was so edgy he whirled around aiming the flashlight beam and shotgun at Dan.

"Easy, Rick. It's me. What are you doing out here in the dark, son?" Dan's stooped posture and exhausted voice made him seem like an old man. He held a hand in front of his eyes to block the strong flashlight beam.

"I'm trying to call someone." Rick pointed the weapon down at the ground and switched off the flashlight.

"Your gal?" Dan waited for Rick to walk down the dark path to him.

"Yeah, she got her transfer. She was supposed to cross under the river and be here by now. I'm worried an earthquake might have collapsed that tunnel."

"You're supposed to be monitoring the netcasts for information on the barge prisoners." Dan and Rick started walking together down the path to the cave entrance.

"I know. I couldn't take just sitting down any more; I had to try to get through to Jill. There are plenty of people in there watching it. Dean Browner and Angela are on. They're torturing and murdering women and children for the whole world's enjoyment. They haven't showed Lydia yet. Did you have luck finding any more survivors?"

"We opened up on hundreds of the stubborn ghouls as they were feeding on the corpses on Q-4 barge. They'll eat a human or a transgenic, they don't care which. We finally got inside the pilothouse and found Noah's boy and that Mexican girl Roscoe said your sister hid in the lockers. Zeke had been shot and lost a lot of blood. I don't know if he's going to make it. The girl should be all right."

"Rick! Rick!" A girl's voice screamed his name out of the blackness with shrill agony that made Rick's skin crawl. "Where are you?"

Rick and Dan ran down the path. The girl, Tyler's sixteen-year-old former girlfriend Nasarine Ishmael, had been orphaned the previous night. Her father had been the pilot and her mother a crew member on Lydia's barge. She sat down on the path and couldn't say anything more, just covered her face and wept. Rick left her with Dan and ran on into the tunnel.

When he got into the netcast viewing chamber he found his mother staring at the busted out holographic projector with tear-filled eyes. She looked like an animal about to be run over. An eerie keening noise rose from someone splayed across the floor. Rick couldn't see who it was because a mob of guards was holding him down.

"That woman did something to Lydia." Sara noticed Rick standing there. "That teacher did something to her. I don't know what it was but she hurt her."

Dan came into the chamber with his arm around Nasarine.

"Where have you been?" Sara shouted at Dan. "Why didn't you negotiate the prisoner exchange?"

"The neogene's commander is being tortured for failure by his own interrogation team. There was no one to negotiate with so we gave our neogene prisoner to the Israelis. He's on a small jet over the Atlantic by now."

"You care more about them than you do your own people. What about us? Why didn't you save my daughter?" Sara's eyes squinted from deer-in-the headlights to furious blue pinpoints aimed at Dan.

"Sara, this is war. We did everything that could be done. It must be God's will."

"'God's will'? What kind of 'God's will' gives me back my son then takes away my daughter? What kind of cosmic sadist is He?"

The men restraining Davy-Jake slowly got up. The young man's keening reduced to a low moaning as a strong sedative took effect. He lay there in a straight jacket, rolling his eyes and bobbing his head as if to an angry music no one else could hear.

Sara pointed to Davy-Jake. "Look what He's done to this boy."

"Lydia is a hero, Mom. She saved twenty kids from that barge. Her life was a victory." Rick felt a strange sense of being out of synch, of already being past the first stages of mourning for his sister. He knew it was too soon.

"Victory? You're delusional. As we speak your sister is being tortured to death for the amusement of billions of sick goons. We're hiding out in caves. We're cowering in holes like rats waiting to be exterminated. There is no victory in any of this."

"We've witnessed the rapture, Sara. God's promises are coming alive right before our eyes." Dan's voice, normally strong and reassuring, wavered.

"Don't talk to me about God's promises! He's weak. He took His favorites, His perfect pets, and abandoned the rest of us. I'm tired of a weak God and I'm tired of weak men. You lost the country and now you've lost my daughter."

"What else could I have done?" Dan's voice echoed back from the rounded walls of the chamber. He released Nasarine and clutched one of the orange plastic chairs as if to rip the back off. The guards were bringing Davy-Jake to his feet. Everybody else had backed away from the family and were starting to leave the chamber.

"You should have used nuclear bombs on those blue cities thirty-three years ago. None of this would have happened if you had."

"Nuke our own cities, Sara?"

"Listen, Mom, I love you and I love Lydia. I hate what's happening to her; I wish I could take her place. But we're not the only ones suffering. What's going on is bigger than our family. I never told you what really happened to me when I was Angela's prisoner. She put me in a pit of living death so far down and black no light could ever escape. I even forgot your face and everyone else's face I loved. All I could think about and feel were waves of hunger. None of you could help me. But Jesus Christ lifted me up out of that pit and I am never going to turn my back on Him no matter what anyone does to me or to you or to Lydia."

"Well said, M."

The girl's voice was right behind him. Rick slowly turned around and feasted his eyes on Jill's face. Her green eyes were full of beauty and strength, her mouth a line of loving admiration. She had grown up so far past the mixed-up gamer-girl in a short skirt who had inadvertently rescued him almost two months ago. Her presence gave off the assurance of one who has learned fast the best human occupation, the art of taking care of other, weaker human beings. He put down the shotgun and reached out his hands. She took them and then they embraced, Jill pressing the side of her head down onto his chest as he stroked her now shoulder-length black hair.

At this happiest moment of his life, his mother's voice scolded out behind him. "Don't love anyone, Rick. Don't be a fool." Her words fell onto his fast beating heart like drops of sulfuric acid. A split-second later the most powerful earthquake in the history of planet Earth hit and everyone was thrown to the ground.

When Angela returned to the top of the Aztec pyramid, Dean Browner pointed at Lydia. "Make a spectacle out of her."

Angela pulled out her skinning knife and walked over to the girl. Lydia was still on her knees in the spotlight. Funny, she should have been writhing on the floor by now. She was breathing fast, very near to struggling for air, but still holding the agony inside. Something wasn't right. Angela checked the setting on her stun gun. Yes, it was set to microwave. Then she noticed Lydia whispering something.

"Thank you. Thank you." The girl kept repeating between her desperate gasps.

Angela's experience with eight previous victims taught her there was a special relationship between the torturer and the tortured, a perverse intimacy she was beginning to crave. Many times her victims would cling to her and one called her "momma" before he finally died. This girl was cheating, going outside the relationship. Maybe there was an entity beyond the universe whom these Christians worshiped that was helping her. It would have to be defeated too. Whatever had created this shabby world couldn't be invincible.

"After about a half an hour of torment there is going to be nothing left of you but a lampshade in my collection. Centuries from now I'll be alive, growing more powerful and more beautiful, and you'll be stuck in a morass of nothingness, oblivion."

"You, a-ha, a-ha, a-ha, are, a-ha, a-ha, wrong. You, a-ha, a-ha, a-ha, will, a-ha, a-ha, a-ha, be, a-ha, a-ha, dead, a-ha, before, a-ha, a-ha, a-ha, me."

Angela snickered. She looked down at the pathetic Christian girl and shook her head. She waved the shiny blade in front of Lydia's face.

"I, a-ha, a-ha, a-ha, forgive, a-ha, a-ha, you."

"Not if I can help it." Angela grabbed a handful of Lydia's hair, pulled her head back and brought the knife down to begin skinning, but then felt an enormous presence descending out of the black sky. Before she could even look up her reflexes took over. Faster than any Olympic gold-medal gymnast, she back flipped away. At the front edge of the pyramid she stood up and watched the gigantic Eagle land over Lydia. The astounding creature blasted out a scream that blew out the amplification system for the entire stadium. With wing beats as strong as a gale, the Eagle slowly rose off the pyramid with Lydia clutched in one of his taloned feet.

"Send Peacock to get the prisoner back, now!" Angela yelled into her sleeve. She held her stun gun high over her head and watched the grotesquely antlered transgenic with an eye patch fly up from the base of the pyramid after the Eagle. Within seconds the eight-foot-tall, owl-like piasa bird fell back down onto the stage like a rock, its heart torn out.

Angela's mind raced. The Pacific Rim Free Trade Realm must be responsible for the creation of this giant raptor. Harmony with the "Divine String of Pearls" indeed. Beijing would pay for this. She looked around to find Dean Browner.

Dean had run to the back of the stage. A flying yeti bodyguard stood right behind him. At the instant the catastrophic mega-earthquake hit, Angela watched the clown-man stretch out his arms and the flying yeti lifted him off the stage with slow flaps of powerful condor wings.

Angela didn't have time to curse Dean. She kicked off her stiletto high heels and leaped out over the front edge of the pyramid just as it collapsed. As she fell eleven stories the air pulsated with the screams of sixty thousand people mixed with and rapidly overwhelmed by the groaning earth. The stadium collapsed before Angela hit.

Angela landed on the fleeing Komodo dragon-man who was killed instantly. She was damaged, her left leg broken. Despite having to hobble she was one of the few who made it to the VIP parking lot. The ground beneath her feet moved like the waves of a stormy Lake Superior. She managed to find her scarlet convertible and get the door open. The dust plume from the collapsing buildings engulfed the small car as she tried to drive away. Angela saw nothing but a few glowing orbs, headlights and taillights from other cars floating helter skelter through the lake of dust.

The enormous wave of liquid-like ground hit her from the side and flipped her convertible into an opening chasm. A new volcano was being born. Smoke with sulfur and other noxious fumes billowed out of it. The car landed in the lava and exploded. Three times Angela clawed her way up out of the burning liquid rock and three times she was knocked back in. The last time her skin and even her protective foam had been melted off. Blind, without sense of hearing or sense of smell, feeling only a universe of burning fire, Angela Starr sank back into the eruption.

Kim the freshwater mermaid swam quietly across the pitch-black Mississippi River. She was dragging the carcass of a man-sized transgenic through the water behind her, the freshest meat she could find. The river had been full of bodies this morning but almost all had been scavenged or were now putrid and bloated.

What was she supposed to do? She was hungry and too afraid of guns and giant eagles to lure human children into the river any more. She had to keep her strength up. It was going to be hard to find another dominant merman and even harder to fight her way up the pecking order of a new harem. The government needed to do something about the scanty food supply and lack of health care for transgenics, and had better clean up this nasty river, too.

Kim kept swimming, hauling the body by a leg, feeling her way through the dense vegetation into the secluded oxbow lake that was her lair. Suddenly, without any warning at all, the entire river began violently sloshing from bank to bank. It took her by complete surprise when the current sucked her out of her lair and rushed her backwards upstream.

A tsunami wave hit and carried Kim up over the west bank. The giant wave knocked over trees and houses, carrying her and hundreds of tons of debris miles over formerly dry land. The earth rose south of Saint Louis and the once great Mississippi River was cut in two, never to flow south again along its ancient course.

After the flood from the mega-earthquake finally receded, Kim was left hanging from an evergreen tree in a small hillside cemetery many miles from the old river valley. The invisible demons infesting her central nervous system fled her broken body. They left her full of self-revulsion and deep sorrow. Covered with muck, half her bones broken and struggling to breath, Kim tried to form a word with her mouth, a word she had not spoken for a long time. But her lungs were full of brown water and all she could produce was a gurgle. She lost consciousness hanging upside down from the old arborvitae tree.

Wolfgang Honecker was strapped down onto a torture table deep inside the bowels of the windowless G.O.G. building when the mega-earthquake hit. Jolt the punishment expert had been enjoying his work for many hours now and Honecker was still screaming. Neither had noticed the earth tremors but when the monster quake struck the building shook with enormous violence and abruptly collapsed. Tons and tons of debris smashed down on Wolfgang and Jolt and dozens of other neogene G.O.G.

Wolfgang could not move and the pain from tons of debris crushing down on him made him long for death but death ran away from him like a healthy pronghorn antelope dashes away from a lame coyote.

Three weeks later a G.O.G. salvage team searching for portable A.I. devices excavated part of the ruins. Once they obtained the valuable intelligence information they abandoned the site without bothering to free Wolfgang and dozens of other neogene operatives crushed alive in the lower levels under tons and tons of concrete and steel.

"What happened on the river?" Sara stood to the side, a little ways off the path as if she might turn to run away from Dan. Yes, the dark forest beckoned her. It seemed familiar. The aftershocks had finally subsided. No major damage in their section of the tunnel complex and most everyone had already gone back inside out of fear of the lethal satellites. But she no longer felt afraid of the satellites or the intimate gloom.

"They attacked all the barges, but concentrated on the lead barge and the last barge, just like we expected. After they found resistance was weakest on Q-4, they broke off the attacks on the other barges. It doesn't make sense militarily; I guess they were living out Darwin's law, find the weakest to bring down." Dan paused. Sara could tell he was looking at her like he didn't really know her. He looked away and continued. "We were ordered not to stop to help them. When we went past Q-4, I saw Lydia alone on the deck in front of the pilothouse. I called out for her to jump but she just waved and climbed down into the hold."

Sara slowly turned away from the darkness to face Dan. She reached out and he snatched her up in his arms.

"Forgive me for what I said to you in there. I just am never going to get over not being able to see her again." Sara thought she was done crying but she started up again as he held her tight.

Rick stood next to Jill on a rock ledge jutting out over Cedar Lake, far from the tunnel entrance. For so long he had wanted nothing more than to have her in front of him to talk to. Now that he had her alone in this dark forest no words came. She seemed to be in the same state. Finally Rick laughed and she did too. He took her hand and started to lead her back down the side path but she resisted. When he turned to her she was staring up into the pre-dawn sky. The moon was rising above the trees, a moon no one had ever seen before. The big harvest moon had been transformed into liquid, a gigantic oceanic disc of blood, gargantuan waves visible to the naked eye.

"They always said there was a lot of iron on the moon." Rick's voice held no terror or even apprehension.

"A volcano south of Saint Louis. The Saint Louis Arch collapsed, the Mississippi River running backwards, and now a moon of blood. Is this it, Rick; is tonight the end of the world?"

"If it is then I'm happy because I'm with you."

Jill clasped her cool hands across the back of his neck. "That's sort of corny but I still like it." She stood on tiptoes to kiss him. But before they kissed Rick saw something enormous fly in front of the blood moon.

"What is it?" Jill turned and saw it too.

They both stared at it for a few seconds then Rick recognized the silhouette. Running as fast as he could through the hanging branches, Rick led Jill up the trail.

Dan already had his rifle pointed at the giant shadow descending out of the sky when Rick ran into the small open area in front of the tunnel entrance.

"Don't shoot! It's the Eagle!" Rick shouted out just in time.

Dan hesitated then lowered his rifle. Without landing, the enormous feathered being gently deposited a girl onto the ground. The Eagle lifted off, majestically moving the tree branches with wind from his wing beats. He turned and flew away towards the glow of dawn painting the eastern sky.

Rick and Sara and Dan ran up to the girl on the ground. Rick recognized Lydia even before she saw her face. Sara knelt down and with trembling hands caressed her daughter. Lydia moaned with every touch. Her face was an expressionless mask, blood from her disintegrating internal organs swelled under her skin all over her body. Only her eyes looked alive.

"Help me get the handcuffs off! Lydia, can you hear me? It's me, your mother."

Rick could only watch as Dan removed the handcuffs and gently put Lydia on her side. He ordered no one but Sara to touch her.

Sara kept repeating "My queen, my queen," in Spanish.

"What happened to her?" Rick quietly asked Dan.

"She's been hit with a microwave weapon. The Pacific Rim used them on our boys on the West Coast at the end of the war. There's nothing anyone can do for her now but pray."

Rick stood over Lydia. He felt Jill take his arm. Nasarine knelt down beside his mother. For a second he caught Lydia's eye. He could tell she recognized him but at the same time was bewildered by the burning agony inside her. He turned to Jill. "She's my sister Lydia."

"I'm so sorry, Rick."

"I never deserved a sister." Rick watched helplessly as his mother grew hysterical. She prayed then cursed God then prayed and cursed some more. Some soldiers brought Davy-Jake out and laid him down next to Lydia. DJ was still in the straight jacket and was nearly unconscious.

"She has no pulse, oh God help her she has no pulse!" Sara looked imploringly at her husband and then Rick and the rest of the people gathered around. "Why can't somebody do something?"

Lydia's eyes were still alive. She reached up a shaking hand and held Nasarine's hand. She moved the girl's hand to Sara. Her mother took the dark-eyed girl's hand. Lydia's arm dropped. Black blood gushed out from her mouth, nose, ears and eyes. She gave one last moan and then her eyes were no longer alive.

"Oh God, I sinned. I was the vilest sinner in the world for thirteen years. My daughter is only seventeen, never even got started. She was good person. Why didn't you take me? Please, take me! Take me!"

Rick watched his mother break down but at the same time she embraced Nasarine, both of them weeping and wailing onto each other's shoulders as the new day began.

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