chapters 4 and 5!
Hi again! These chapters introduce my protagonist. Yes, I stole the name from Garrison Keillor! You're welcome, Garrison!
(Go down a few posts to start where you like in the book. It's "Jeezus!," by the way.)
Sarah Belham, head of security for the boat, showed Rigidson digital video records of disappearances in the hallways, the restaurants, the decks—and an especially impressive mass disappearance in the ship’s Shapes gymnasium. She had been using each of the six screens, replaying some actions, flashing back and forth between cameras. No amount of observation brought the phenomenon closer to comprehensible. Sarah felt like a puma facing a stampede.
Rigidson had burst in unannounced, with a freshly-conservatively-clad Bunny in tow, demanding to see “the events.” Sarah had anticipated this exhibition, and had marked the video records in order to present them. Sarah had swiftly submerged her feelings by tending to her duties ("when the going gets Hunter Thompson weird, the weird damn well better turn pro," she thought). The digital video showed smokey disappearances from the decks, the restaurants, everywhere. The gymnasium, however, had been pretty much cleared out. As the haze on the video of the gym cleared, Captain Rigidson, peering at the video screens with Bunny, could see a white figure—it was Faith—on her knees, pounding the red rubberized exercise mat with her fists.
So the ‘poof’ had missed her. Rod felt a pang of guilt, as he realized he felt little relief at the sight of his wife. “Play the audio on that one,” Rigidson said. Sarah rewound, and punched in the sound circuit. Faith could be heard saying “Why not me, O Lord? Please take me, Jesus! Please, please! Ohh?!” she wailed, her voice rising to a pitiable squeak, “Jesus doesn’t love me as much as them!” She then collapsed, sobbing.
Sarah Belham watched Rigidson rush off. Great, she thought. The world turns upside down, so he’s gonna go hug wifey. O Captain, my Captain....
Sarah looked again at the flat-screen video monitors, and wondered what sort of kinky gig she had signed up for. She adjusted the pony-tail tie in her long black hair, as she paused to think. Shapes Gymnasiums had to have something to do with this—they were the slipperiest fish in the corporate world. Their near-instantaneous appearance across the US screamed major corporate funding--but Sarah had found almost nothing to indicate the funding source. She had made a little hobby of following news about them, suspecting some sort of government/fundamentalist connection. And now this bizarre prank was playing out mostly on their turf.
Sarah had seen some strange things as an investigator and security expert, and she had become weary of the constant drag of corporate intrigue, divorces, custody battles, and endless paperwork. So she had taken a nice, easy, low-key job, away from the predictable routines in her native Portland, Oregon, away from the endless misty rain and clouds, away from the greedheads and the screaming spouses. Now she could do with a bit of rain.
Sarah adjusted her jeans, and turned to Bunny, who was clearly not being her efficient self. "Well, it’s time to visit the scene—or rather, the scenes of the crime. Crimes. Want to come with?”
Bunny stared at the monitors and said nothing; her lower lip began to quiver. “HEY!” shouted Sarah, delivering her best drill-sergeant glare into Bunny’s face. “Snap out of it!”
Bunny blinked. "Well, Ms. Cold and Clinical, this is a bit out of my league, and what is it, anyway? Murder? Kidnapping?"
Sarah shrugged. “It’s weird, I’ll give you that. If it’s a prank, it beats anything I ever saw, and,” –she imitated a Slim Pickens drawl—“I’ve been to two World Fairs and a rodeo!”
Bunny stared at her for a moment, and then almost laughed. Her shoulders dropped as she realized Sarah had brought her out of a blind panic. She fought her embarrassment for a moment, straightening her pinstriped lapels. “Okay, I’ll go along—for a bit. I don’t think my activities schedule is going to happen today, anyway,” Bunny sighed. Sarah seemed the only calm person on the boat, and Bunny decided right then to keep her in sight.
Sarah picked up a digital camera. “All right, come on, then. Let’s go to the lower pool, it’s closest,” she said. They descended the perforated stairs rapidly.
The scene at the pool had become chaotic; people were shouting, arguing, gesticulating, weeping. No one was in the water except an octogenarian gentleman, who continued placidly swimming laps, protected from the ruckus by purple earplugs and fogged goggles. A short young man in a soaking wet red tank top and a boxer-cut swimsuit was standing over a deck chair, dripping pool water, holding up a blue silk dress, and groping it mindlessly. He put it on the deck chair, picked up a broad-brimmed sun hat, and idiotically looked into it.
“She was right here,” he repeated over and over in a distant voice. “Cindy was right here.”
Sarah stood next to him, and put her hand on his shoulder. “What happened?”
“She was right here!”
“I heard that part.”
“She—I was looking right at her, and all of a sudden there’s a mist, an’ I smelled something like a thunderstorm, and --she’s gone!” He looked down at the dress in the deck chair. “And wherever she’s gone,” he bawled, “she’s –she’s all naked!”
Sarah took a picture of the dress, the jewelry--including a wedding ring--and other paraphernalia in the deck chair. “I hope they have tampon dispensers wherever she went,” she said absently. Bunny stared, mystified.
Sarah was interrupted in her note-taking by a hubbub at the bar. Patrons were crowding around the television, shouting and pointing. Sarah and Bunny drifted towards the screen. On it was the red and blustering face of Reverend Bob Bobson, who was being interviewed about the disappearances taking place across the United States. “Of course (he pronounced it ‘coe-arse’) it’s the Rapture!” he shouted. “Of course it’s the Rapchuh, the time of the judgement of God!” And if it weren’t for the homosexuals and flag-burners that have tainted this nation, it would have happened sooner!” In response to a second question, he turned even redder and said with a brittle calm, “OB-viously, Ah am to be in the second wave.”
A marathon TV-viewing session revealed that, in addition to the vanishing Shapes patrons across twenty states, college and university students in the Southern United States had disappeared . All of the vanished (and vanishing) persons were between eighteen and thirty years of age, and were in very good physical condition. Sarah and Bunny watched the news coverage, only sitting at Sarah’s insistence, after the better part of an hour. Sarah brought cold sodas, and stale turkey and bacon sandwiches, from the unattended galley, but Bunny would only nibble. After a while, Bunny’s hand found Sarah’s, and held on determinedly, even as her eyes remained locked on the TV screen. Sarah looked her over as Bunny sweated in her pinstriped suit and French-braided hairdo, and decided to let it be.
A national news network showed video footage of downtown Dallas, Texas, where a number of cars had been abandoned. Some had crashed into parked cars and lightpoles, others were idling unattended. As the camera ran, a black BMW convertible parked at a traffic light was re-occupied by a raggedly clothed woman. She dumped her shopping cart into the back seats, hurled her considerable bulk into the cockpit, fumbled with the gearshift, and roared off. “About goddamn time!,” she yelled, gesturing obscenely at gawking pedestrians.
After a frantic search, Captain Rod Rigidson found Faith in the First Class Department chapel. She was weeping open-mouthed, drooling, and dripping snot, not caring, not even really there, making feeble shuddering noises. She was kneeling before the ornate Antique Goldtone Ship-Shape All-Purpose Cross, her shoulders gently shaking. Rod tried to talk to her—“Maybe Jesus has some special mission here for you, Dear”-- massaged her shoulders, petted her head—nothing seemed to change her state. He stood up and thought for a minute. Then he knelt down in front of her, pulled her limp and quivering body over his shoulders, balanced uncertainly, and stood with an effort. She continued blubbering as if nothing had happened. He began walking down the passageway to their stateroom. It was going to be a long, long night.
Blarg decided he could get used to the Saint Peter Deception Suit. It moved with great agility and strength. Great Nebulae, it was fun! The engineers had admirably converted normal hopping-motion—the mark of superior beings—into a sort of modified monkey-walk, typical of the Earth primates. Blarg had put a series of dents in the bulkheads while trying it out, even accidentally knocking an external docking-lug free, and into Earth’s atmosphere. After spending a few hours leaping from cloud-tier to cloud-tier in the Heaven compartment, he was sure he’d get the hang of it. The Earth denizens would simply record the docking lug as a minor meteorite, and most of it would burn up before hitting the surface, anyway.
Blarg/St.Peter leaped to the Divine Light tier easily, and gazed down from its balcony on to the distant, empty lower tiers. The humans had started to arrive, he knew, but would not be wakened, nor brought to the Heaven compartment until they had been retrofitted with the gear that had been prepared for them. The microminiature tracking devices, that had been driven into their skin by the towels at the Shapes preparatoriums, would be replaced with stronger implants. They would be hypnotically prepared to believe that they had wings, and that they could see them on themselves and other Selectees. Little else would be needed, thanks to the strength of their fanatic beliefs, and to the research conducted on the Earth’s surface, by Planetary Detective Bing. They would obey the Word of God, as delivered to them by Saint Peter, on the promise of soon seeing Jesus Himself.
Jesus, Blarg knew, was still in the gravitic hangar, awaiting the arrival of Second Galactic Commander Biff, who though technically in charge of the whole operation, had decided to take a spa vacation on a particularly expensive resort planet, light-years from Earth. He could, of course, arrive within Earth hours, but the arrogance of the gesture irritated Blarg. Biff had claimed that he so trusted Blarg that little oversight was needed until the operation was well underway, but Blarg could see through that sort of flattery. Biff clearly thought that he could rest on his laurels, since the last two planetary ice-harvesting campaigns had gone so well. The Earth primates would doubtless give in after proper preparation, and the Bun’ fleet would depart with a substantial portion of another world’s ice cap, bound for a promising but bone-dry planet.
Meanwhile, Blarg and Bing carried the workload. Bing was particularly working her paws to the bone. Blarg wondered where Bing was—and whether her further research would prove worth the long effort. He had long admired Bing’s sexy, brown, long ears, her pink nose, and the way her hindquarters recovered gracefully from each hop. Would she be safe among the peculiar, benighted primates of this smelly, polluted sphere? Could the Bun’ team harvest the ice cap, before those dumb shaved monkeys melted it with their pollution?
But Bing was well suited to her work, and after a couple of months of paws-on research in her Deceptronic earth-primate suit, she had been ready to begin religio-psychological manipulation of the Earth population. The most loyal, most religious, and least informed populations spoke a language called English. And the most ignorant of those lived in a place called USA.
Her brilliant idea had been to start the Shapes gymnasiums. Earth primates were being suckered into the little sweatshops by the thousands already! Bing had also identified certain colleges that were so similar to the Shapes program in their indoctrination abilities, that the students could be used almost without further preparation. Blarg practically pelleted with admiration, just thinking about her.
The Shapes devotees, meanwhile, would have been surprised to learn that the money that they paid for their workouts was dumped into a bank account and never used. The mother ship had easily deciphered Earth bank software and transmissions, and had created several tax-free multibillion-dollar accounts for Bing’s use. The fact that the Shapes “franchise” had appeared in dozens of cities across the US almost simultaneously caused almost no comment, except among frustrated would-be investors, who could never seem to find the owner in her office.