By David Farnell, (c) 2000
“Yet helpless it lay like a Worm
In the trembling womb
To be moulded into existence”
–Blake, “The Book of Urizen”
“Keep not thou silent, O God; hold not thy peace, and be not still, O God.”
She was less than a year out of Quantico. She shouldn’t have gotten a case like this. Too much responsibility. Still on probationary status. She was only twenty-three. Too green.
“For lo, thine enemies make a tumult, and they that hate thee have lifted up their heads.”
Wiz kid, they said. She denied it. She was just in a hurry. Driven. Joined the Bureau on the Diversified program, after two years teaching at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her master’s thesis, completed when she was twenty, was the core of a database on religious cults that was being adopted by the FBI. Interpol was taking an interest in it as well. The government was offering a scholarship for her to start a PhD, conducting her research part time. She’d caught a lot of attention. The rumor mill said the boys upstairs were already referring to her as the “cult profiler.”
“They have taken crafty counsel against thy people, and have consulted against thy hidden ones.”
Her psych evaluation suggested that she had buried issues, related to the death, under mysterious circumstances, of a childhood friend. Circumstances that she knew more about than she was willing to say. And that this somehow related to her almost unhealthy focus on heterodox religious groups, or “cults,” particularly those which were “pathological,” potentially dangerous to their members or to society. These misgivings, combined with her inexperience, should have kept her off the assignment. Yet, for reasons she did not yet understand, she got it.
“As the fire burneth a wood, and as the flame setteth the mountains on fire, so persecute them with thy tempest, and make them afraid with thy storm.”
She had a reputation in the small-but-growing New Religion Studies circle as a cynic, intolerant, “anti-cult,” that she revealed secrets entrusted to her, that she lied and betrayed. But she had her defenders. They pointed out that she did not attack new religions as a whole; she merely focused on those she perceived as dangerous, and hadn’t she turned out to be right in the case of the Family Universal and Triumphant? In her thesis research, she had infiltrated several cults and seen them in a way that most academics never could. She had seen things that never would have been revealed to her had her identity been known. Some good things–some beautiful things. Some not.
“Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek thy name, O Lord; let them be confounded and troubled for ever; yea, let them be put to shame and perish!”
She had even presented a paper, speaking out against the blind persecution of cults. But that was not her goal. Encouraging fair treatment was all well and good; ferreting out and exposing corruption and abuse and fraud was better. But even that was only by the way.
“That men may know that thou, whose Name is not to be spoken, art the most high over all the earth and stars!”
The psych guy had almost seen it. She had bigger fish to fry.
“Brothers and Sisters, let us pray.”
She bowed her head, cast down her eyes, ignoring the sweat that ran into them. Summer in Montana could be as hot as Texas. She wore the simple white shift and head-cloth of a Sister of the Brotherhood of the Living God. Millenialist, apocalyptic, syncretic, primarily Christian but picking select bits of the texts and forms of Jewish, Muslim, and Gnostic faiths, along with dark hints of hidden teachings, too dangerous and mind-altering for the uninitiated to withstand. She had looked into the Brotherhood three years ago, and they were in her database, but they had seemed rather conventional in their heterodoxy, comparatively harmless.
Something had changed. Their leader, Reverend Thomas Maccabee–formerly Jimmy Fitzwater, a small-time grifter before he “found God”–had always been charismatic, but now he was attracting converts at a much higher rate. He had moved out of California to a compound in the badlands of Montana. He was buying an arsenal and hiring professionals to train the faithful in the arts of guerilla warfare. A reporter who had been writing a story on them had disappeared.
In the weeks before he had stopped broadcasting his weekly public-access tirades, his appearance had been changing: thinner, red-eyed, boils on his neck, a scraggly beard, ruining the angelic good looks that had helped win him followers before. And he had made a startling claim, something almost unheard of: Instead of telling his followers that the Messiah was coming soon, or that he himself was the Messiah, Rev. Tom claimed to have the Messiah in his possession.
“The Holy One, Maccabee, Hammer of God, found the Blessed Mother one year ago. Though she was slain by the forces of the Evil One, our humble leader saved the Holy Babe and bore Him away to safety. He doubted at first, but God has shown him the signs, as we show you.”
Deacon Jacob was a big man, with an excellent, booming voice, and led most of the meetings at the compound now that Rev. Tom had gone into seclusion. Jacob had once been one of the “security specialists”–he claimed to be ex-Special Forces, but the file on him showed that he had never finished Basic Training. His attempted sexual assault on a superior officer had landed him in Leavenworth for two years and earned him a dishonorable discharge. Originally a hired hand, he was now one of the Brotherhood’s most fervent believers.
Two attendants brought out a young woman. Sister Alice had been worshipping alongside Maria only two weeks before. She had been a lively, eager girl of nineteen, but naive, insecure. Then she’d been judged sufficiently pure, and had been taken away, outside the compound, to a secret location. She was to be a Nurse to the Holy Infant.
Maria suppressed a gasp of shock. Alice was a palsied wreck. Her dark brown skin now had an unhealthy mottled-yellow cast; her beatific smile showed missing teeth and bleeding gums; her red-rimmed eyes dripped a sticky-looking discharge. Her straightened hair was thinning, her scalp showing through the strands. She had a look of ecstasy about her. She looked like she was dying.
Others who had gone to be Nursemaids had never returned. Maria had assumed they were serving in the bed of Rev. Tom; earlier members of the Brotherhood who left had reported on His Holiness’ sexual urges. More recently, anyone who left was never heard from again.
“See our Sister, Nursemaid to this millenium’s Manifestation of God on Earth. See her holy joy. Though she be weakened in body, she is lifted up in spirit! Through the punishment of the flesh comes the strengthening of the pneuma! Sister Alice, have you looked upon the face of God Himself?”
“Yes!” Her voice was a shriek. “He is beautiful–beautiful and terrible! He–he takes from me, and I give–I give to him with all my heart!” Her screams became moans at the end, and she collapsed, sobbing. The attendants hurriedly lifted her from the floor and placed her on a pillow on the stage.
“Sister Alice! Surely you are one of the Blessed of these, the End Times. Show us a sign, now, to reinforce out faith so that we shall never waver in our devotion!”
Weeping now, she raised her face toward the audience. Smiling through her tears, she raised her arms. Darker mottlings formed, then flowed. Blood dripped from a dozen sores on her hands, all along her arms, her face, her throat. Her while shift blossomed with a score of red blooms.
The audience launched into a frenzy of exclamation. Maria joined in without hesitation, her true thoughts deeply buried beneath her undercover mask.
“Do you believe, Brothers and Sisters? Do you believe?”
“Do you believe?“
“You asked to see me, Deacon?”
She had been weeding the garden when two of the security men had come to take her to Jacob’s office.
“Yes, Sister. I noticed your devotion at this morning’s meeting. Please, sit.”
She did. He came around the desk to sit on the front edge. He was before her; the goons were on either side. She didn’t like it. She was almost ready to pull out–bugs had been planted, conversations recorded, records photographed, all at great risk. They had more than enough evidence for a warrant. The only thing left was to find out where Rev. Tom was hiding out. She noticed a large, wooden packing crate in the corner.
“Sister Dolores, are you willing to sacrifice yourself to help the Living God? Are you willing to share the same holy task as Sister Alice? Are you willing to shoulder that burden, and that honor?”
“Yes. Oh, yes, Brother Jacob! Though I am unworthy, I will do any–“
“Yes, you are unworthy.” He smiled unpleasantly. “Even so, you will serve. You see, Sister Fed, you’re not the only one who can snoop around.” He held out a handful of tiny microphones, bugging devices she’d placed herself, before he threw them in her face.
For a crucial second, she hesitated. Talk her way out or fight? His smile decided her–she tried to launch out of the chair, get on her feet and out of the encirclement. Just as she started to move, a hammer blow to her cheek sent her to the floor. Jacob stepped forward and, with a quick snap-kick of a steel-toed boot, smashed her nose to a bloody ruin. The shock rang through her skull ahead of the wave of pain, and she could do nothing but try to cover her face as the blood flooded her sinuses and mouth. She felt something break from another kick, to the ribs. Then a flash of light and the beginning of pain at the back of her skull.
Two miles away, a man in a car was listening on a headset. The Brotherhood had found all the FBI bugs. He wasn’t FBI. He was alone. Among other things, he had a laser set up on a hilltop, bouncing its signal off the window. The criminals in 1986 weren’t savvy to that one yet.
He heard the beating and cursed. He liked Villanueva–she had a lot of potential. Still, he didn’t call her FBI watchers. If they weren’t tipped to the situation, that was their problem. He didn’t need the complications. He had a job to do. If a sacrifice had to be made, he’d live with it.
Keeping her alive would be nice. But it was by the way. He had bigger fish to fry.
That’s what he told himself.
He started the car.
She awoke to excruciating pain through her head and body. She was bouncing; it sounded and felt like she was in a truck or a van, on a dirt road. Black–no, a little light coming through a crack. But was it far away, or just in front of her face? Her left cheek pressed against splintery wood. Not much air–she remembered the packing crate. Her arms were behind her back…she felt ropes on her wrists–and a sudden flashback to ten years before had her thrashing like a fish, hyperventilating and screaming in terror. A jab of pain from her ribs and a heavy boot kicking the box brought her back to the awful present.
“Shut up, bitch!” Laughter. A different voice now, Jacob’s, close to the thin wall of wood separating them: “You know, I wouldn’t have minded giving you the ride of your life and then putting a bullet in your head, but this is better, really. I mean, Baby is hungry.” More laughter, but nervous. There was one security goon in the van with Jacob, unless someone else was being very quiet.
Jacob kept on. “There is nothing I hate worse than traitors and spies. You are gonna pay, you fucking little government cunt. Did that hurt when I messed up your pretty little face, bitch? You’ll be begging for old Jacob to knock your fucking teeth in, just to get away from Baby. You’ll be begging for a good, stiff–“
She tuned him out–it was just noise. She didn’t know what Baby was, but he’d convinced her that the risk of a fight was worth it. She had to assume that her monitoring team had been given the slip, that there was no rescue on the way, that she would be dead soon, anyway. She started to work on the ropes. The knots were tight, and she didn’t have much room to move around, and every movement brought knife-plunging pain, but she ignored all that. Her wrists were covered in sweat. After a little struggle, there was blood, too. With the pain in her face, head, and ribs to occupy her, some ripped skin around her wrists was nothing.
The knots were tight, but not expertly tied. She was making a little progress. The lubrication helped. The pain in her wrists got worse, but she didn’t fight it–just tuned it out, too. One part of her mind was gnawing on the enigmatic “Baby.” The Living God? Was she finally going to reach her goal–perhaps only to die?
As if in confirmation, she felt a pressure in her breastbone, as of something lodged in there. A tiny fragment of metal. It was warm, throbbing but not painful. An old, unwanted friend, it came to her sometimes on certain lonely nights when the moon rose huge and yellow over a fantastic, impossible cityscape that faded to the mundane as the moon rose higher. It happened more often near lakes, and in the early summer, tormenting her with hopes and fears unspoken. It throbbed in time with a patient vibratto tone that always lurked, just out of hearing. Now that throbbing matched the tides of pain washing through her, the beating of her heart.
It was getting stronger. She struggled harder, and almost without warning, one hand ripped free, shedding bloody skin to the rope. Her arm hit the inside of the crate and she froze, but with all the bouncing, she thought they didn’t notice. Almost sobbing in mixed pain and relief, she got her other arm out from under her and went to work on her ankles, She could just barely reach them, but she was small and flexible. She soon had them free, though the broken rib nearly made her scream.
The truck stopped. They lifted the crate and carried her out. The changing light showed it was afternoon outside, then she was inside a dark room. The vibration was creeping more deeply into her bones. Through another door. They set her down, none too gently.
She could hear the breathing of the two who had carried her, the same goons who were in Jacob’s office. Jacob was ahead of her, she thought. There was another person in the room, someone breathing with difficulty, liquid, tubercular.
There was a sloppy, gelid cough, and a mustard-gas-victim voice said, “Is it her?”
“Yes, Most Holy,” Jacob said. He seemed to be kneeling, or even prostrate.
“Bring her out.”
The two security goons got crowbars and pried off the lid. Maria held still until one reached in for her arm.
She had the fear of certain death to give her speed. Her right hand grasped the man’s elbow joint, digging her thumb into a nerve cluster there, and simultaneously pulled him toward her. Her left hand went straight at his face. In the low light of the room, he couldn’t see it coming, so there was no instinctive flinch until her fingers were curling around his ear and her thumb plunging into his eye. He jerked back in reaction, lifting her out of the box, and she was on him like a rabid monkey, biting viciously at his face. She got his nose between her jaws and did her best to tear it off. A clinical part of her mind noticed his right eyeball pop free, and the way his scream reverberated through her aching head by way of her teeth in his nose.
He fell over backward, still screaming and thrashing, fists ineffectually hitting her back. She immediately rolled him over on top of her so they couldn’t grab her and lift her off. She released his arm, and groped at his belt. Couldn’t reach his right side, but–yes, he had a backup weapon in a small-of-the-back holster. She got it free, found the safety with her thumb, and fired off three quick, blind shots around the room to make them duck, then put two into the side of her opponent’s chest, muffled contact shots that stopped his thrashing almost instantly. Mouth full of mucus and blood, screaming like a goddess of death, she rolled him off her and saw:
Another target–she tried to pull the trigger again, but the slide was locked back. She hurled the gun at the third target and dove on Jacob, who was gurgling and feebly scratching at his shattered chest. She found his gun near his hand, some huge, macho hand cannon she could barely hold with both hands. The shaking was setting in; she staggered to her feet and took aim, swaying drunkenly.
“Please, no!” The liquid voice. The man tried to protect his face with empty hands. She didn’t pull the trigger. Training.
“Raise your hands!” Her voice shocked her–rough, shaking, full of rage.
He did. His flinching face was barely recognizable, but it was Thomas Maccabee. The skin–she stopped breathing for a moment when she saw that the skin was hanging in the same melted-looking folds she had seen ten years ago. Keeping the gun trained on him, she quickly scouted out the room. Two doors, opposite each other. She moved to lock them. One of them, the inner one, vibrated as she touched it.
“Who else is here? Tell me!”
“No one, please, you–you killed them all.”
“Bullshit! Where are the other guards? Where are the Nursemaids?”
“They’re all, all in there.” He pointed a wasted claw at the inner door. “Soon, I’ll join them. We all will.”
The vibration suddenly strengthened and changed. Pulsing waves beat through her, staggering her, nearly driving her to her knees. It was not a sound, but as it pounded through her exhausted body, her brain tried to interpret it as sound, and she recalled a recording she had listened to in her early studies of world religions. The tape was of a Tibetan Buddhist chant, an atonal, inhuman, multinote sound made deep in the throat. This was a little like that, but combined with the angry cries of a baby. It crashed through her, hitting her from left to right, obviously emanating from the inner room. It terrified her, while hypnotically drawing her.
“Make it stop!”
“I can’t. No one can. The Child is weak now, but He will devour this wicked world. Embrace Him! He is our–“
Without thinking, she shot him. The gun was like an artillery piece, the way the slide slammed back and forth. It made her stumble back.
In shock, she looked at Maccabbee for signs of life. She’d hit him square in the face with a very large-caliber round. His head was splashed all over the wall. For a moment, she couldn’t believe she’d done it–she’d gunned down an unarmed man just because he’d annoyed her. She was supposed to arrest him, take him to trial, uncover his crimes and make him pay. She’d just blasted half his skull off.
The Child’s cries shook her again. She hefted the gun and weaved to the inner door. She unlocked it, paused, took a deep breath, and opened it.
He’d lost them, of course. You just couldn’t follow closely in the Badlands–you could be spotted from too far away. Even the transponder he’d planted on the truck hadn’t been working well; the signal would get bounced all over among the rocks and mesas. But now he had a good signal; he was closing in. He only hoped it wasn’t too late.
Nearly a mile before he reached the bunker, he saw someone ahead of him, walking down the middle of the road. He slowed. It was her. He stopped twenty yards from her, at an angle, passenger side toward her.
In one hand, she carried a Desert Eagle, the distinctive slide back, apparently empty. Her face was a mass of blood–she had cuts and a huge bruise over one entire side, and her nose was seriously broken, misshapen and swelling. Her hair was floating wildly around her head, like a kabuki dancer’s. She was barefoot, and her formerly white dress was filthy and stained with blood.
He stepped out of the car, keeping it between her and him. The gun might just be jammed, still loaded. He called to her: “Special Agent Villanueva! Maria! I’m Agent Jerry Smalls–FBI! We’ve been looking for you! Please–put away your weapon!”
She took notice of him only halfway through his greeting. She stopped walking, looked at him uncomprehendingly. Then she racked the slide home and drew a one-handed bead on him.
Oh shit, he thought. Was it loaded? Even from this far away, the opening looked life a fucking train tunnel. Probably a .44 magnum. He doubted the intervening bulk of the car would do any good.
“Agent Villanueva–please! You’re making me nervous! I’m your friend!”
“Who are you? How do you know my name?” Her voice was terrifying–this was one seriously pissed-off woman. The broken nose made her sound like she had a bad cold.
“We both work for the FBI, Agent! I’ve been trying to find you! I’m glad to see you’re all right!” He heard his voice shake. His balls were trying to crawl inside his abdomen.
“Screw you! Show me your ID!”
He began slowly reaching for his coat pocket, then stopped. Oh shit. He’d left his fake FBI badge in the hotel room. Ohhhhh shit! He took out his wallet and held it up, open. Maybe it would fool her. But those FBI badges were big, easy to distinguish, and they had special holders.
“That’s not an FBI ID! Who are you?”
He couldn’t believe it. He was going to die because he left his goddam fake ID in his other suit.
“Uh, actually, I’m with the DIA.”
He thought about going with that, but then decided he would take a new policy of honesty when faced with shell-shocked women armed with .44 magnums. “No, the Defense Intelligence Agency.”
He sighed. If he had a nickel for every time someone said that…. “Uh, we coordinate–“
“I know what you do! What are you doing here? Why did you say you were FBI?”
“Uh–well, I lied.”
She made a noise–she could have been laughing or choking–then she collapsed in the road. He winced at the sound of her skull hitting the pavement.
The gun had been empty. He had it on the seat beside him. She was in the back, on her side, shivering under a blanket. She needed a hospital. It would have to wait. But he knew she wouldn’t have argued if she’d been awake. She was a tough one.
She was perfect.
He arrived at the bunker. The door was open, the truck still outside. He could feel it, the thing inside. His guts were turning to water. Three billion years of evolution had programmed him to be more afraid of this than anything else in the universe. And he was going to walk right in and try to kill it. Send it away. Whatever.
“No.” A harsh whisper from the back. “No, you can’t.” Volume rising. “No, what are you doing?” Almost screaming now.
He turned. She was rising and he took her shoulders and helped her up, making shushing sounds. “Calm down, Maria.”
She stopped, looked at his face. “I know you….”
“Yeah, we’ve met. Anyway, I’m glad you’re awake. See, I’ve got to go in there.” His words were matter-of-fact, but his voice trembled. “But I wanted to ask you–did you shoot it? Did you hurt it?”
“Wha–I, yes, I emptied the magazine into it. It–it screamed. I hurt it. But I couldn’t kill it. I ran.”
“Obviously. Anyway, that’s good news. If you can hurt it, I can kill it. Now, listen. This isn’t the first time I’ve done something like this, but it is the first time without backup. So your job is this: if I don’t come out, you get the hell out of here and call this number.” He took out a card and wrote a phone number on it. His jaw was clenched so hard, it hurt. “You tell them everything–the truth. They’ll decide what to do next. And they’ll take care of you. Under no circumstances do you–” he swallowed, his throat dry, “do you go in after me. Got it?”
“I can–give me a gun, I can back you up.” Her voice was slurred, dreamy. The Tex-Mex border accent was stronger than it had been in years.
He was half in love with her already.
“No fucking way. Frankly, condition you’re in, I don’t want you behind me with a loaded weapon. And someone needs to get the report out if things go bad.” Talking like a tough guy helped him ignore how terrified he was.
He got a tube out of the glove compartment. It was made of twisted, blown glass, which caught and reflected colors in a way that was subtly unsettling. Inside, it contained a chalky white powder. Each end was stopped with a cork.
“It’s uh–well, I don’t know. But the reason you couldn’t kill that thing in there is that it’s only partly in our world. I think. If that’s right, then this stuff will make it vulnerable, for a short time. If it doesn’t, call that phone number.”
He opened the trunk and got out a heavy satchel. He didn’t explain that it was full of plastique. If he talked any more, he might stay outside until nightfall.
Not a good idea. He went in.
She dragged herself into the driver’s seat, started the engine. She waited. Every breath was pain–she thought she would black out again.
The Child screamed, worse than ever. She gripped the wheel and gritted her teeth until she thought they would break.
The man, Smalls, came running out. He almost fell, then vomited. He straightened and ran at the car.
“Move over!” Tough guy–just had to be the driver. She moved.
They sped out to the gravel road. After half a minute of fast driving, he stopped the car. Checked his watch.
The plastique blew right on time.
They listened, very quiet and still. The vibration was gone.
Later, he visited her in the hospital. He had flowers. Her nose was taped up; it felt like a potato sitting on her face. It should be a good conversation starter in the future. She had a chipped front tooth that would need a cap, and she’d have a couple of interesting scars. The pain killers let her breathe.
“I’ve contacted my people. They’re cleaning it up, giving you a cover story so you don’t have to explain the whole truth to your superiors. We’ll go over it before you make your report, so the stories match. Most important thing: I wasn’t here.”
“Who are your people?”
“Well.” He put the flowers in a vase. “We’re from different agencies in the whole alphabet soup mix. We’ve seen things, like what you saw. We know there’s some unimaginably weird shit out there. We call these things the Outsiders. We don’t know what they are–just that they’re bad. We have theories, but that’s all. We cooperate, running around, putting out fires.”
“Fucking cowboy ops. You sure you’re not CIA?” Her voice was tight.
“They’re all cowboy ops these days. Psychotic operas. We were sanctioned once. Something happened in ’69, and we got disbanded. A few of us, true believers, stuck with it. All on the QT, of course. We’re fragmented, no resources to speak of, no coordination. Flailing about like idiots. But sometimes we stop something, like today.”
She stared at the wall. “Did you get me that assignment, undercover?”
“Not me. A friend. I know–it almost got you killed. Or worse. But it was necessary. You know that better than anyone. And I think you’d do it again.”
She shuddered, and didn’t answer.
“We’re like a family. The most dysfunctional family there is, I guess, but once you’ve looked at the Outside, it changes you, and you find out that nobody else understands you. It’s a common bond that’s stronger than blood or love.”
She closed her eyes, trying not to hear.
“You know I’m right, Villanueva. I’ve read your reports. This is not your first time, is it? You’ve been living with it for ten years, no one to talk to–“
They were quiet for nearly ten minutes. Smalls checked his watch–he’d have to leave soon, to avoid the FBI debrief team.
Maria said, “OK, I’m in.”
Smalls took both her hands in his. She turned to look in his eyes. He said, “You always were.”