Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 3
Stories
Dream Engine
by Tim Pratt
The Adjoa Gambit
by Rick Novy
Xoco's Fire
by Oliver Dale
Small Magics
by Alethea Kontis
Fat Town
by Jose Mojica
From the Ender Saga
Cheater
by Orson Scott Card
Audio Bonus
Cheater
Read by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Hats Off
by David Lubar
Running Out of Air
by David Lubar
Senior Paper
Special Software Bonus
I-Wei's Amazing Clocks
by I-Wei Huang

To Know All Things That Are in the Earth
Artwork by James Owen

To Know All Things That Are in the Earth
    by James Maxey

Allen Frost assumed the first cherub he spotted was part of the restaurant's Valentine's decorations. He and Mary sat on the enclosed patio at Zorba's. He'd taken a pause to sip his wine when he first saw the cherub behind the string of red foil hearts that hung in the window. The cherub was outside, looking like a baby doll with a pair of pasted-on wings.

A second cherub fluttered down, wings flapping. A third descended to join them, then a fourth. Allen thought it was a little late in the evening to still be putting up decorations, but he appreciated the work someone had put into the dolls. Their wings moved in a way that struck him as quite realistic, if realistic was a word that could be used to describe a flying baby.

Then the first cherub punched the window and the glass shattered. Everyone in the room started screaming. The cherubs darted into the restaurant, followed by a half dozen more swooping from the sky. Mary jumped up, her chair falling. Before it clattered against the tile floor, a cherub had grabbed her arm. She shrieked, hitting it with her free hand, trying to knock it loose, until another cherub grabbed her by the wrist.

Allen lunged forward, grabbing one of the cherubs by the leg, trying to pull it free. He felt insane -- the higher parts of his brain protested that this couldn't be happening. Nonetheless, his sensory, animal self knew what was real. His fingers were wrapped around the warm, soft skin of a baby's leg. White swan wings held the infant aloft. A ring of golden light the size of a coffee cup rim hovered above the angel's wispy locks. The whole room smelled of ozone and honeysuckle. The cherub's fat baby belly jiggled as Allen punched it.

The angel cast a disapproving gaze at Allen, its dark blue eyes looking right down to Allen's soul. Allen suddenly stopped struggling. He felt inexplicably naked and ashamed in the face of this creature. He averted his eyes, only to find himself staring at the angel's penis, the tiny organ simultaneously mundane and divine and rude. He still had a death grip on the cherub's leg. Gently, the cherub's stubby hands wrapped around Allen's middle and ring fingers. The cherub jerked Allen's fingers back with a SNAP, leaving his fingernails flat against the back of his wrist.

Allen fell to his knees in pain. Mary vanished behind a rush of angels, a flurry of wings white as the cotton in a bottle of aspirin. Her screams vanished beneath the flapping cacophony. Somewhere far in the distance, a trumpet sounded.

#

The Rapture was badly timed for Allen Frost. He taught biology at the local community college while working on his doctorate. This semester, he had a girl in his class, Rachael Young, who wouldn't shut up about intelligent design. She monopolized his classroom time. Her endless string of leading questions were thinly disguised arguments trying to prove Darwin was crap. He'd been blowing off steam about Rachael when he'd said something really stupid, in retrospect.

"People who believe in intelligent design are mush-brained idiots," he said. "The idea that some God --"

"I believe in God," Mary said.

"But, you know, not in God God," Allen explained. "You're open-minded. You're spiritual, but not religious."

Mary's eyes narrowed into little slits. "I have very strong beliefs. You just never take the time to listen to them."

Allen sighed. "Don't be like this," he said. "I'm only saying you're not a fundamentalist."

Mary still looked wounded.

Allen felt trapped. Most of the time, he and Mary enjoyed a good relationship. They agreed on so much. But when talk turned to religion, he felt, deep in his heart, they were doomed. Their most heartfelt beliefs could never be reconciled.

Allen lifted his wineglass to his lips and took a long sip, not so much to taste the wine as to shut up before he dug his hole any deeper. He turned his attention to the cherubs outside the window. Then his brains turned to mush.

Because, when you're wrestling an angel -- its powerful wings beating the air, its dark, all-knowing eyes looking right through you -- you can't help but notice evolution really doesn't explain such a creature. The most die-hard atheist must swallow his pride and admit the obvious. An angel is the product of intelligent design.

#

A year after the Rapture, Allen tossed his grandmother's living room furniture onto the lawn, then whitewashed the floor.

When he was done, Allen went out to the porch to read while the floor dried. It had been four hours, eleven minutes since he'd put his current book down. He'd grown addicted to reading, feeling as uncomfortable without a book in hand as a smoker without a cigarette. He purchased his reading material, and the occasional groceries, with income he made reading tarot cards; he was well known to his neighbors as a magician. He always informed his hopeful visitors he didn't know any real magic. They came anyway. The arcane symbols painted all over the house gave people certain ideas about him.

The books that lined the shelves of his library only added to his reputation for mysticism. He was forever studying some new system of magic -- from voodoo to alchemy to cabala. Much of the global economy had collapsed after the Rapture, but supernatural literature experienced a boom.

He did most of his trading over the internet. The world, for the most part, was intact. It wasn't as if the angels came down and ripped out power lines or burned cities. They had simply dragged off God's chosen. No one was even certain how many people were gone -- some said a billion, but the official UN estimate was a comically understated one hundred thousand. The real hit to the economy came in the aftermath of the rapture; a lot of people didn't show up for work the next day. Allen suspected he could have found a reason to do his job if he'd been a fireman or a cop or a doctor. But a biology teacher? There was no reason for him to get out of bed. He'd spent the day hugging Mary's pillow, wondering how he'd been so wrong. He spent the day after that reading her Bible.

He hadn't understood it. Even in the aftermath of the Rapture, it didn't make sense to him. So he'd begun reading books written to explain the symbolic language of the Bible, which later led him to study cabala, which set him on his quest to understand the world he lived in by understanding its underlying magical foundations.

Jobless, unable to pay his rent, he'd moved into his grandmother's abandoned house where he'd studied every book he could buy, trade or borrow to learn magic. So far, every book was crap. Alchemy, astrology, chaos magic, witchcraft -- bullshit of the highest order. Yet, he kept reading. He tested the various theories, chanting spells, mixing potions, and divining tea leaves. He was hungry for answers. How did the world really work? Pre-rapture, science answered that question.

But science, quite bluntly, had been falsified. The army of angels had carried away his understanding of the world.

Allen now lived in a universe unbounded by natural laws. He lived in a reality where everything was possible. Books were his only maps into this terra incognita.

#

The whitewash dried, leaving a blank sheet twenty feet across. It was pristine as angel wings. Allen crept carefully across it, having bathed his feet in rainwater. He wore pale, threadbare cotton. He'd shaved his head, even his eyebrows. The only dark things in the room were his eyes and the shaft of charcoal he carried. He crouched, recited the prayer he'd studied, then used his left hand to trace the outer arc of the summoning circle. The last rays of daylight faded from the window. His goal, before dawn, was to speak with an angel.

With the circle complete, he started scribing arcane glyphs around its edges. This part was nerve-wracking; a single misplaced stroke could ruin the spell. When the glyphs were done, Allen filled the ring with questions. Where was Mary? Would he see her again? Was there hope of reunion? These and a dozen other queries were marked in shaky, scrawled letters. His hand ached. His legs cramped from crouching. He pushed through the pain to craft graceful angelic script.

It was past midnight when he finished. He placed seven cones of incense along the edge of the circle and lit them. The air smelled like cheap after-shave.

He retrieved the polished sword from his bedroom and carried it into the circle, along with Solomon's Manual. He opened to the bookmarked incantation. Almost immediately, a bright light approached the house. Shadows danced on the wall. A low, bass rumble rattled the windows.

A large truck with no muffler was clawing its way up the gravel driveway.

Disgusted by the interruption, Allen stepped outside the circle and went to the front porch, book and sword still in hand. The air was bracing -- the kind of chill February night where every last bit of moisture has frozen out of the sky, leaving the stars crisp. The bright moon cast stark shadows over the couch, end-tables, and lamps cluttering the lawn.

Allen lived in the mountains of southern Virginia, miles from the nearest town. His remote location let him know all his neighbors -- and the vehicle in his driveway didn't belong to any of them. It was a flatbed truck. Like many vehicles these days, it was heavily armed. A gunner sat on the back, manning a giant machinegun bolted to the truck bed. The fact that the gunner sat in a rocking chair took an edge from the menace a gun this large should have projected. Gear and luggage were stacked on the truck bed precariously. A giant, wolfish dog stood next to the gunner, its eyes golden in the moonlight.

The truck shuddered to a halt, the motor sputtering into silence. Loud bluegrass music seeped through the cab windows. It clicked off, and the passenger door opened. A woman got out, dressed in camouflage fatigues. She looked toward the porch, where Allen stood in shadows, then said, "Mr. Frost?"

Allen assumed they were asking about his grandfather. The mailbox down at the road still bore his name -- his grandmother never changed it after he died, nor had Allen bothered with it after his grandmother had vanished.

"If you're looking for Nathan Frost, he died years ago."

"No," the woman said, in a vaguely familiar voice. "Allen Frost."

"Why do you want him? Who are you?"

"My name is Rachael Young," she answered.

The voice and face clicked. The intelligent design girl from his last class. "Oh," he said. "Yes. You've found me."

The driver's door opened and closed. A long-haired man with a white beard down to his waist came around the front of the truck. "Well now," the old man said, in a thick Kentucky accent. "You're the famous science fella."

"Famous?" asked Allen.

"My granddaughter's been talking you up for nigh on a year," said Old Man Young. "Says you're gonna have answers."

"We looked all over for you," said Rachael. "The college said you'd gone to live with your grandmother in Texas."

"Texas? I don't have any relatives in Texas."

"No shit," the gunner on the flatbed said. "Been all over this damn country, chasin' one wild goose after another. You better not be a waste of our time." The dog beside him began to snarl as it studied Allen.

"Luke," said Old Man Young. "Mind your language. Haul down the ice-chest."

"Sorry we got here so late, Mr. Frost," Rachael said, walking toward him. She was looking at the sword and book. "Have we, uh, interrupted something?"

"Maybe," Allen said. "Look, I'm a little confused. Why, exactly, have you been looking for me?"

"You're the only scientist I trust," she said. "When we used to have our conversations in class, you always impressed me. I really respected you. You knew your stuff. Since your specialty is biology, we want you to look at what we've got in the cooler and tell us what it is."

Allen wasn't sure what struck him as harder to swallow -- that she'd spent a year tracking him down, or that she remembered the tedious cross-examinations she'd subjected him to as conversations.

Luke, the gunner, hopped off the truck carrying a large green Coleman cooler. It made sloshing noises as he lugged it to the porch. Luke was middle-aged, heavyset, crew cut. Rachael's father?

Luke placed the container at Rachael's feet. Rachael leaned over and unsnapped the clasp. "Get ready for a smell," she said, lifting the lid.

Strong alcohol fumes washed over the porch. Allen's eyes watered. The fumes carried strange undertones -- corn soaked in battery acid, plus a touch of rotten teeth, mixed with a not-unpleasant trace of cedar.

"We popped this thing into Uncle Luke's moonshine to preserve it," Rachael said.

Despite the moonlight, it was too dark for Allen to make out what he was looking at. Rachael stepped back, removing her shadow from the contents. Allen was horrified to find these crazy people had brought him the corpse of a baby with a gunshot wound to its face. The top of its head was missing. The baby was naked, bleached pale by the brew in which it floated. There was something under it, paler still, like a blanket. Only, as his eyes adjusted, Allen realized the baby wasn't sharing the cooler with a blanket, but with some kind of bird -- he could make out the feathers.

When he finally understood what he was looking at, his hands shook so hard he dropped his sword, and just missed losing a toe.

#

Allen lit the oil lamps while Luke lugged the cooler into the kitchen. Allen only had a couple of hours worth of gasoline left for the generator; he wanted to save every last drop until he was ready to examine the dead cherub. While Luke sat the corpse in the sink to let the alcohol drain off, Allen gathered up all the tools he thought he might need -- knives, kitchen shears, rubber gloves, Tupperware. Rachael was outside, taking care of the dog, and Old Man Young was off, in his words, "to secure the perimeter."

"That means he's gone to pee," Rachael had explained once her grandfather was out of earshot.

To take notes during the autopsy, Allen found a black Sharpie and a loose-leaf notebook half filled with notes he'd made learning ancient Greek. As he flipped to a blank page, he said, "I can't believe you shot one of these. I thought they were invulnerable. I saw video where a cop emptied his pistol into one. The bullets bounced off."

"Invulnerable?" Luke asked. "Like Superman?"

"Sure. Bulletproof."

"You think a brick wall is invulnerable?" Luke asked.

"Is this a rhetorical question?"

"Suppose you took a tack hammer to brick wall," Luke said. "Would it be invulnerable?"

"Close to it," said Allen.

"How about a sledgehammer?" asked Luke.

"Then, no, of course not."

"A cop's pistol is a tack hammer," said Luke, as he freed the rifle slung over his shoulder. "This is a sledgehammer. .50-caliber. Single shot, but one is all I need. This thing will punch a hole through a cast iron skillet."

He nodded toward the cherub draining in the sink. "This pickled punk never stood a chance."

"Not a particularly reverent man, are you Luke?" said Allen. "That's pretty harsh language to be calling an angel."

The back door to the kitchen opened and Rachael came in, followed by Old Man Young.

"Whatever the hell this is," said Luke, "it ain't no damn angel."

"It looks like an angel," said Allen. "I got up close to one during the Rapture."

"Shut your fool mouth!" snapped Old Man Young. To punctuate his sentence, he spat on the floor. "Rapture. Rachael, I thought this fella was smart."

"He is smart," said Rachael.

"He's a mush-brained idiot if he thinks the Rapture has happened," Old Man Young said.

Allen was confused. "You think it hasn't?"

"I'm still here, ain't I?" Old Man Young said. "I've been washed in the blood of the lamb, boy. I'm born again! When the Rapture comes, I'm gonna be borne away!"

Allen cast a glance at the sink. "Maybe Luke shot your ride."

"Naw," said Luke. "I was at the Happy Mart when this little monster started dragging off some Hindu guy. I ran to the truck and got Lucille." Luke patted the rifle. "Saved that fella from a fate worse than death."

"But --" said Allen.

"But nothing!" Old Man Young said. "Second Samuel, 14:20, says that it is the wisdom of angels to know all things that are in the earth!"

"A real angel would have known to duck," said Luke.

"And it wasn't the Rapture," said Rachael. "The creatures took people at random. Yeah, they grabbed some self-proclaimed Christians. But they also took Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Scientologists. They took Tom Cruise right in the middle of shooting a film."

"Yeah," said Allen. "I saw that."

"Heaven ain't open to his kind," said Old Man Young.

"So how do you explained what happened?" asked Allen.

"Demons," said Old Man Young.

"Aliens, maybe," said Rachael.

"Government black ops," said Luke.

Allen had heard these theories before, and a dozen others. The Young's weren't the first people to disbelieve the Rapture. None of the alternative explanations made sense. Genetic manipulation gone awry, mass psychosis, a quantum bleed into an alternate reality -- all required paranoid pretzel logic to work. He was still scientist enough to employ Occam's Razor, cutting away all the distracting theories to arrive at the simplest conclusion: God did it.

"I admit, what happened doesn't match popular ideas of the Rapture," Allen said. "I've studied Revelations in the original Greek, and can't make everything line up. I'm no longer convinced any ancient text has a complete answer. But I get little glimpses of insight from different sources. Maybe God used to try to communicate with Mankind directly. Maybe he spoke as clearly as possible, in God language, but people weren't up to the task of understanding him. They all came away with these little shards of truth; no one got the big picture."

"Son, I'm up to the task of understanding," said Old Man Young. "The good ol' King James Version spells out everything. If you don't understand, you don't want to understand."

"If you think it was the Rapture," asked Rachael, "why would God have been so random? He took rich and poor, young and old, the kind and the wicked. It makes no sense."

"To us," said Allen. "But when I was a senior at State, I helped out on this big study involving mice. We did some blood work, identified mice with the required genes, then separated them from the general population and took them to a different lab. I wonder if the mice left behind sat around wondering why they weren't chosen. They would never understand our reasons."

"That's your theory?" asked Rachael. "We're lab mice?"

"No. But maybe the gap between our intellect and God's mind is larger than the gap between man and mice. Our inability to understand His selection criteria doesn't mean He acted at random."

"Son, you're proving what I always say," said Old Man Young. "Thinking too much makes you stupid."

Allen nodded. "Thinking too much hasn't made me any wiser or happier."

"Don't pay attention to Grandpa," said Rachael. "We need a thinker. We need someone who can study this body and tell us what it is."

"Why didn't you take it to the cops?" asked Allen.

"If the government knew we had this, we'd already be dead," Luke said.

Rachael frowned. "I think we might be endangering the world by not showing this to the government. Not that there's much government left."

"Which is more proof it weren't the Rapture," said Old Man Young. "No Antichrist."

Which was true. America had been through eight presidents in the last year. Anyone displaying even modest leadership skills quickly became a target of the legions of Antichrist stalkers roaming the capitals of the world. What was left of day to day civilization was staggering on more due to momentum than competent leadership.

"This is what the Illuminati want," said Luke. "Chaos. When they seize power, people will kiss their asses with gratitude."

"Since Uncle Luke shot it, he gets to decide who sees it," said Rachael. "Also, it's his cooler."

"I'm not the trusting sort," Luke said. "But Rachael says you're a good guy, and smart."

Allen rubbed his temples. "You think I'll know the difference between an alien, a demon, or a black-ops sci-fi construct?"

All three Youngs looked at him hopefully.

"Okay," he said. "I'll go power up the generator."

"I'll come with you," said Rachael. "Jeremiah's stalking around out there and you don't want to run into him alone."

"Jeremiah?"

"Our dog," said Luke. "He's killed more men than I have."

For a second, Allen considered whether the oil lanterns might not provide enough light after all. Then, he clenched his jaw and headed for the back door. If you're going to cut open an angel, you may as well do the job right.

#

The corpse looked slightly yellow under electric light. Allen weighed the angel on his bathroom scale and found it barely topped ten pounds. Aerodynamics wasn't his specialty, but the cherub's wings seemed slightly more plausible. Swan-sized wings could support a swan, after all, and they weighed more than ten pounds.

Allen started his exam in the obvious place -- the hollow bowl of the skull. He'd never dissected a human before, but what was left of the cranium looked normal. It was bone. He recognized bone. Somehow, he'd expected angels to be crafted of material more grand.

His first real clue he was well outside the realm of known biology was when he took a close look at the torn skin peeling away from the skull. He found a visible, subcutaneous layer of something that shouldn't have been there, on a human body at least. It was a thin, fibrous material, like cloth. He tugged on a frayed thread carefully with his tweezers. He couldn't pull a strand of the tightly knit material free. He could see, though, that it was porous -- blood vessels and nerve fibers ran through it. Whatever this was, it had grown under the skin, rather than being implanted.

"I've never seen anything like this."

"I've eyeballed it up close," said Luke. "It looks like Kevlar. Sort of."

"Score one for black-ops," said Allen, pausing to jot a few notes.

"Aliens could use Kevlar too," said Rachael. "Stuff better than Kevlar."

Allen moved on to the wings. After twelve months soaking in moonshine, they had a dull, grayish tone to them. It wasn't difficult to pull a feather free. Without the body on the butcher's block, he would have supposed he was looking at a seagull feather. Intuitively, this made sense. If God had designed feathers as the perfect tool of flight, why not use the same blueprint for both angel and bird?

But flight wasn't simply a matter of having feathers, as any chicken could attest. A cherub's chest didn't have the depth to support the muscles to power these wings, did it?

He flipped the cherub over and felt its breasts. The muscles under the soggy skin were rock hard. He noted the cherub had nipples and a belly button. Was God simply fond of this look? Or was there a cycle of life in Heaven? Angel fetuses developing in angel wombs, angel babes suckling at the breasts of angel mothers?

He tried to cut open the cherub's chest. It proved impervious to the butcher knife.

"Try this," Luke said, handing him a folded knife. Allen flipped the knife open to reveal a ceramic blade, black as onyx and razor sharp.

"Fancy," said Allen. He tried it against the skin. The knife's edge scraped away the surface easily, but the subcutaneous material thwarted further advance. Whatever it was, it couldn't be pierced.

Not willing to give up, Allen tried a different approach. He peeled back the torn flesh of the skull and slipped the knife along the edge of the fibrous layer. To his delight, the torn edge yielded to the knife as he applied steady, firm pressure. Slowly, he worked the knife forward, peeling the flesh from the cherub's face, working his way down the throat. He discovered cherubs had tracheas and jugular veins. He confirmed they had collarbones. After a long, tedious operation, slicing the flesh a millimeter at a time, he peeled the angel's skin back from its torso and found . . . muscle. Bones. Fatty deposits.

Ordinary matter.

He stepped back from the table and stretched his neck. He'd been bent over the cherub a long time; his muscles were stiff.

"Want some water?" Rachael asked, breaking the silence.

"No, thank you," Allen said, staring at the flayed thing before him. It was a relief, in a way, to know what his nightmares would be for the rest of his life. An angel opened, peeled like the fetal pigs he'd taken apart in freshman biology. He had taken something divine, an occupant of Heaven, and treated it with all the respect he might show a frog in formaldehyde.

If he wasn't damned before, he certainly was now.

And yet . . . and yet he couldn't turn back. Blasphemous as it was, he was going to keep cutting. His need for knowledge overrode his fear of offending the divine. Who knew what his next cut might reveal?

The muscle of the chest looked like meat, but was dense and unyielding, even to the ceramic knife. He managed to scrape off several strands of the tough muscle fibers -- he would have traded every book in the house for a microscope at that moment.

He tried the stomach. The muscle here was also impervious, but a thin gap of ligament beneath the ribs showed good results when he sawed at it with the knife. In less than five minutes, he'd cut a hole into the chest cavity.

He leaned over to peer inside, seeing nothing but gray, bleached tissue -- the angel's lungs? Of course, if it had a trachea, it would have lungs. As near as he could tell, with the exception of the bulletproof skin, the cherub was constructed like other animals. It had breathed air. It had fed its muscles with a complex network of arteries and veins. It commanded its body with a nervous system. What did this mean?

In frustration, completely ignoring any rational, measured approach, he dug his fingers into the cherub's chest and began to feel around. His fingers sent indecipherable signals as they pushed against objects both slimy and leathery, both hard and yielding. Was this the liver? His hand was buried to the wrist. These had to be intestines. This hard thing . . . a kidney? Feces in the gut? Clear fluid suddenly gushed from the penis. He'd found the bladder.

He turned his hand up, in search of the heart. Where the heart should have been, he found an egg.

At least, it felt like an egg, smooth, oval, hard, of a size that might earn it a Grade A Large. He wriggled his fingers around it, trying to get a better understanding. The angel gurgled as his efforts freed some last teaspoon of air from the lungs.

And then, with a POP, the egg came free. He closed his fingers and pulled it out with a sloppy, wet, farting sound.

His hand was covered with gray goop.

He opened his fingers to reveal something beautiful.

An ovoid object, gleaming yellow in the lamplight.

A golden egg.

Allen placed it in the Tupperware as everyone came over for a closer look.

"Told you," said Luke. "It's a cyborg. This is the power source."

"It's alien technology," Rachael said.

"The devil's handiwork," said Old Man Young.

Allen didn't know. Allen felt completely empty of opinion, thought, or emotion. Confronted with something so far beyond his understanding, he felt unreal. The egg, he'd held it, he could see it, it was reality. He must be the thing out of place.

Then, to compound his sense of unreality, the egg moved on its own power, rocking lengthwise, coming to rest upright on its small end, seeming, almost, to hover.

The lights flickered. Allen's skin tingled as the air began to smell of rain.

"What's happening?" Rachael asked.

The lights went out.

There was a terrible hush. No one breathed. Slowly, Allen's eyes adjusted to the dim starlight seeping through the window. The faces of his guests were pale and ghostlike.

At last, Rachael whispered, "I don't hear the generator."

Allen breathed. Right. The generator. "It must have run out of gas," he said. "I thought I had enough for a couple of hours."

"It's been a couple of hours," said Luke. "You needed more gas, you shoulda said something. I got a five gallon can in back of the truck."

"I'll help you get it," said Old Man Young.

"I'll come too. I need some fresh air," Rachael said.

Allen didn't know if the Young's were trying to ditch him, but he wasn't going to play along if they were. He didn't want to be alone in the kitchen with . . . with whatever the golden egg was.

They went out to the front yard. He waited with Rachael on the porch while Luke and the grandfather walked down to the truck.

He could tell she wanted him to say something. She wanted him to say there was nothing to be afraid of.

He couldn't bring himself to speak the words.

The moon was low on the horizon; fingers of shadow grasped the yard. The still air carried the footsteps of the men walking across the gravel. The winter night was silent otherwise. Except . . . except, from a distance, a soft beat, like a muffled drum being struck. Then another, somewhat louder, then louder still when it repeated an instant later. A shadow grew across the yard and Allen understood he was listening to angel wings.

Luke heard them too. He looked up, freeing the big rifle from his shoulder. He was looking at something Allen couldn't see, something hidden by the roof of the porch. The first angel floated into view, descending as gracefully as an owl coming to rest on a branch. This was nothing like the cherubs. This was an adult-sized angel on wings the size of a small plane. The angel's body was covered in silver armor, but enough of the face showed through the helmet that Allen judged the angel to be female. The sword by her side showed she had come for war.

Luke fired. The bullet smacked into the angel's breastplate. She didn't flinch, continuing her descent to earth, landing mere feet in front of Luke, who was hastily reloading. With a casual gesture, the angel extended her arm, catching Luke in the chest and throwing him backward, far past the end of the truck. Luke landed limp and didn't move.

With a sudden flap of wings, a second angel swooped down, kicking Old Man Young as he scrambled onto the truck bed, perhaps going for the mounted gun.

Allen grabbed Rachael by the arm and pushed her toward the door to the living room.

"The circle!" he said. "Get into it!"

He stooped to retrieve his sword and the Manual of Solomon from where he'd left them on the porch. He heard the angel wings behind him, beating once, twice. The light faded as the shadows cast by the angel's wings approached. Not daring to look back, Allen dashed through the door, leaping for the circle. He was relieved to find Rachael had placed herself inside the protective drawing without smudging the edges. Then he realized she was still moving; she had wound up in the circle purely by accident.

"Stop!" he yelled, and to his relief, she froze. "We're safe here. They can't touch us!"

"Are you sure?" she said, spinning around, looking panicked.

"No," said Allen. "But if we're not safe here, where can we run?"

He turned to face the doorway, and found it filled with the bright form of the angel. The angel walked calmly toward the circle, her eyes fixed on Allen. She approached to arm's length before stopping. Rachael clung tightly to Allen's arm, digging her nails into his biceps. Allen gripped the sword tightly, then thrust it forward and said, "I . . . I command you in the name of --"

The angel smirked, and swatted the tip of the sword with her gauntlet-clad hand. The force of the blow twisted the weapon from Allen's grasp, sending it clattering across the floor.

"You have no idea what you are doing," the angel said, walking around the circle, studying the symbols. Her voice was deep and operatic, heavenly. "You've copied this without understanding it."

"Yes," said Allen, seeing no advantage in lying.

The angel completed her orbit of the circle, nodding appreciatively. She asked, "If a shaman from deep in the jungle were to be transported to a modern city, would he think of writing as magic? He would have no idea what the letters spelling 'KEEP OUT' or 'EMERGENCY EXIT' might mean, only that people respected them, and stayed away. He might even learn to copy the strange symbols. Tell me: would that be magic?"

"If it isn't magic," Allen said, "I think you would already have killed us."

As he spoke, there was a distant sound of barking.

"Jeremiah!" said Rachael. "They'll kill him!"

Glancing back to the door, Allen saw the second angel stepping onto the porch. She had Old Man Young draped across her shoulder, and was dragging Luke by the collar. The barking grew closer by the second.

The second angel stepped through the door, tossing her limp passengers roughly into the corner. Allen saw Jeremiah round the truck and turn at a sharp angle, skidding in the gravel before bolting toward the house.

The angel closed the door with seconds to spare. Jeremiah collided with a THUMP. A brief instant of silence followed before the dog resumed his frantic barking, clawing at the door.

The first angel said to the second, "Get the body."

The second angel nodded and vanished into the kitchen.

The remaining angel drew her sword. The weapon burst into flame. Allen cringed from the heat, holding on to Rachael to keep her from leaving the circle.

"Let us pretend I can't enter your little drawing," the angel said. "Does that make you feel safe?"

"No," said Allen. "I haven't felt safe for a long time. I've been frightened. I've been lost. I want . . . I need answers."

"Answers?" said the angel. "You're drowning in answers. Every molecule of your body vibrates with answers. You don't lack answers. You lack the wisdom to recognize them. Tonight, you've cut open an angel. You've held its soul in your hands. What did you learn?"

"I don't know," said Allen.

"You have a few more minutes to think it over," said the angel, moving toward the interior wall. "Before the smoke kills you." With a solid thrust, the angel pushed her flaming sword through the wall. On the other side there was a bookcase. Allen heard books and papers crash to the floor. Instantly, the air smelled of smoke. Allen clenched his fists, wanting to run and pull the sword free, but fear nailed his feet to the floor.

The room took on an eerie hush. Old Man Young groaned in his unconsciousness. Rachael began to sob.

Allen noticed Jeremiah had stopped barking.

The living room window exploded inward, shards of glass flying, as a gray snarling streak of fur and teeth smashed through. The angel turned, quickly, fluidly, and a second too slow. Jeremiah buried his teeth into the angel's left wing at its junction with the back, an area free of armor.

The angel gasped, stumbling in pain, trying to knock Jeremiah free. Allen held his ground in the circle, reaching back to grab Rachael's hand.

But Rachael wasn't there.

The door to the living room slammed against the wall as she dashed down the porch steps.

Allen watched the fight between dog and angel. The angel reached back, grabbing Jeremiah by a hind leg, tugging. The angel's face twisted in terrible pain. Jeremiah hung on as long as he could, snarling, struggling, but the angel was too strong. Allen winced at the sound of bones cracking. Jeremiah yelped as the angel yanked him free. The angel spun, swinging the dog in an arc. Allen ducked to avoid being knocked over. Then, by accident or design, the angel released Jeremiah in mid-swing and the dog sailed cleanly out the broken window.

By then Rachael was once again beside Allen, aiming the .50-caliber rifle.

"Nobody hurts my dog," she said, and fired. It was like lightning struck the room. The shot knocked Rachael off her feet, and left Allen with ringing ears and spots before his eyes.

A bright red circle appeared on the wall behind the angel's neck. The bare, armorless area just below her chin was dark and wet. The angel's eyes closed as she fell to her knees and sat there, slumped against the wall, her head drooped at an unnatural angle, her arms limp and lifeless by her side.

The room was filling with smoke. The second angel came back from the kitchen. Rachael fumbled with the bolt of the rifle, her hands trembling.

The second angel grabbed the body of the first, pulled the flaming sword from the wall and moved back into the kitchen. Allen heard the back door open. By now, the smoke was blinding.

Rachael slipped the new round into the chamber and closed it with a satisfying clack. "Ready," she said.

"I think . . . I think you chased them off," Allen said.

"I'm willing to take that chance," she said.

"Get outside. Watch the skies. I'll get your grandfather and your uncle."

By now, Old Man Young was coughing, and his eyes fluttered open. He whispered, "I heard . . . I heard Jeremiah. Is he okay?"

"Come on," Allen said, helping him rise. "The house is on fire!"

"Weren't we outside?" he asked, sounding only half-awake.

"Follow me," Allen said, dragging Luke toward the open door. To his relief, Old Man Young obeyed. Soon, Allen had dragged Luke down the front steps, down to the truck, where Rachael now manned the machinegun. Luke's breathing was ragged, but Allen didn't know how to help him. The main thing he knew about first aid was not to move a person who might have internal injuries, and he'd just dragged Luke fifty feet.

Allen scanned the skies. Bright white sparks flew into the night as flames nibbled through the roof. It wouldn't be long before the house was gone, taking his collected books, his months of notes and sweat and theories, to say nothing of his family history.

He took a deep breath and ran back inside.

The living room was oven hot. There wasn't much in here to burn, though -- just the floorboards and the wall studs. It was lucky he'd stripped the room down to drywall. He pushed forward, trying to reach the library, but it was no use. The heat from the open door was unbearable. The hair on his arms began to singe.

Allen stepped back, then staggered toward the kitchen. The back door stood open. Burning wallpaper lit the room a flickering red. Dark smoke rolled along the ceiling. He could see the butcher's block, now empty. The golden egg was gone.

Allen crouched, searching for fresher air. He noticed the wet red spot on the wall next to him. Angel blood.

Walls appear solid and impervious through most of daily life. In reality, most drywall is only an adult male fist and a surge of adrenaline away from having a good-sized hole knocked through it. Allen punched that hole, then a second, then a third. His knuckles were bleeding. He grabbed the edges of the punctured drywall, grunting as he tried to break free the section splattered with angel blood. The drywall wasn't on fire, but it was crazy hot. Allen wouldn't let go. He tugged with all his strength but the nails held tight. The wall was winning. In frustration, he screamed -- a primal, animal howl of rage and pain, a sound that frightened him.

With a crack, the drywall twisted free. Allen stumbled outside clutching a three-foot chunk of the stuff to his chest.

Allen sat on the frozen ground as the house behind him roared into the night sky. He was dimly aware that Luke was awake now, sitting next to the trunk, drinking something from a thermos. He was also distantly conscious of something walking toward him, limping, panting, smelling like dog.

It was a dog. Jeremiah sat beside Allen. Allen looked into the dog's eyes. They were full of emotions, far more recognizable than what he'd seen in the eyes of the angel. Jeremiah was in obvious pain. Yet, Jeremiah looked concerned, as if worried about Allen's health. What's more, the dog had a cocky tilt to his head, and angel pinfeathers stuck between his teeth, which combined into reassuring vow of, "I've got your back."

Allen had angel blood all over his hands and chest. Or maybe it was his own blood after punching through the wall. He couldn't tell where his blood ended and the angel's began.

Blood. He'd expected angels to be full of divine secrets, to be filled with miraculous matter. Tonight he'd seen a hint of this, of things beyond his understanding. But, he'd seen far more things he'd understood intimately as a biologist -- muscle and bone and blood.

Every molecule of his body vibrated with answers. Did he have the wisdom to understand them?

Jeremiah left his side to greet Rachael, who was approaching. "You okay?" she asked.

"I think so," said Allen.

"I guess it's still an open question," she said. "Whether those were aliens, I mean."

"I don't think so," said Allen.

"Black ops?"

"No," said Allen. "I think they were angels. I think they were created by God."

"Oh," said Rachael.

"I thought they would be full of divine material," said Allen raising his bloody hands. "Of strange and wondrous stuff. And what if they were?"

"What do you mean?"

"What if they were made of divine material? What if we all are? You, me, Jeremiah. The ground under us, the sky above . . . what if what we think of as ordinary matter is actually the building blocks of the divine? The laws of biology, of physics, of chemistry -- these are the rules God follows. These are the ways He works His will. Science turns out to be the study of His divine mechanics."

As he said the words, he believed them. He didn't know if it was deduction, intuition, or simply faith, but he felt a powerful calm settle over him. He would probably never know the "why" of God. Why the Rapture? Why take Mary? Why create angels and men and dogs? Why the world? But the how -- the how was knowable. Before the detour of this past year, he'd learned with some detail the "how." He'd thought that angels falsified science. But, studying the angel blood on the drywall on the grass, he understood, in their ordinary matter, angels confirmed science as the path to understanding the mind of God.

"Uncle Luke thinks he's broken a couple of ribs," said Rachael, apparently not knowing how to respond to his little epiphany.

"There's a hospital in Roanoke," said Allen. "We can be there in an hour."

He stood up and carried the chunk of drywall carefully, hoping not to contaminate it more than it already was. The next step in understanding the angels was beyond Allen's expertise. But part of the fun of being a scientist was talking to people who knew a lot more than you did about their specialties. In retrospect, he'd botched the autopsy of the angel, big time. If he'd gone to experts, asked for help, who knows what they could have learned? At least he had a shot at redeeming himself. You can collect a lot of DNA from a blood-spattered chunk of drywall.

He walked toward the truck, Jeremiah limping beside him. Allen knew of a vet down the road. Hopefully Luke could survive a detour to drop off Jeremiah. In the battle between man and angel, the dog had made his loyalties clear, and deserved whatever care could be provided.

Old Man Young already had the truck revved up. It was decided that Luke and Jeremiah would ride in the cab due to their injuries. Allen and Rachael would have to ride on the back. Rachael abandoned the rocking chair and pressed up next to Allen against the cab as the truck began to pitch and sway down the driveway. From the jumbled mounds of gear, she produced a heavy quilt and pulled it over them.

It was disturbingly intimate, to be sharing a blanket with a woman with whom he'd shared such an adventure. He'd not thought about women at all since Mary was taken. He had a lot on his mind, as he watched his house burn, filling the heavens with a plume of sparks and smoke. He was, in the front of his mind, still trying to figure out what the night's events meant. But something in the back of his mind was more concerned with whether or not he should put his arm around Rachael, who was leaning her head on his shoulder.

Rachael, her voice soft and caring said, "I'm so sorry about your house."

Allen shrugged. It was what it was. He knew, deep in his gut, that the chapter of his life the house represented was over. The house for him represented magical thinking -- the notion that there were things that could happen outside the laws of science. He was almost glad to be rid of it.

"Things will be alright," he said. To his own ears, his voice was tired and thin, battered by stress and smoke. His lungs felt sandpapered, and his hands were starting to blister. To show that he meant the reassuring words, he put his arm around Rachael, and drew her closer. It felt right. More importantly, the world felt right. The night had brought him a newfound faith in the essential sensibleness of the universe.

"Can I ask you a question?" Rachael said, her face inches from his.

"Sure."

"Why did you have that circle drawn on your floor?"

Allen rolled his eyes. "It'll sound stupid."

"What?"

"I was trying to summon an angel."

"Guess it worked," said Rachael.

Allen's mouth went dry. Rachael's arrival with the cherub had just been a coincidence, hadn't it? Old Man Young turned the truck onto the road and gunned the engine. Allen pulled the quilt tighter around them, to fend off the chill night air.


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