A Minotaur 2000 dwelled at the heart of the subterranean labyrinth that Destiny World used for operations control. The crew of young technicians manning the ultracomputer's command space worked in a virtual free-fall, tethered to the real world by coffee, a control pad, and the air exchanger's perpetual hum.
Above the techs, above ground, in the balm of a spring evening, fifty thousand tourists swayed to the hymns of The True Believers, a neon rainbow coloring their upturned faces as lasers reflected off low clouds over Earth's largest amusement park.
The Destiny World Easter Spectacular was precisely on schedule.
"Cue Seraph," said a voice in operations control. Keys clicked at one of the workstations, opening a hidden door on the roof of Neptune's Castle, through which Ezekiel ascended, unnoticed by the tourists in the pandemonium of light and sound. As The True Believers launched into one last, rousing chorus of "Lord, We Will Follow," the beams converged to form a giant red cross. Inside the projection hovered the robed angel, his wings washed crimson in the laser glow, silken hair cascading over his shoulders, arms reaching toward the throng below.
The crowd roared its approval and appreciation, then continued to roar as the Seraph launched himself upward. He receded into the dark gray evening sky, a lonely figure clad in white.
From his seat in the VIP booth, Carson McCullough watched with disbelief as the angel went AWOL.
The Destiny Ambassador's smile was fading. Carson faced her in the living room of his suite at the new Herald Resort, waiting for the next appeal.
She said, "I'm certain Ezekiel has very good reasons for his absence, but I've got six hundred guests who were expecting to meet him tonight."
Her tact infuriated him. As Zeke's personal liaison, he knew the importance of the Seraph's appearance at the Herald Party fund-raiser. He just didn't know where the angel was.
He watched the ambassador tuck an errant blond wisp into her chignon. She wore a black velvet sheath, which he imagined peeling like a banana to expose soft, creamy flesh. The fantasy sparked a hot backlash of anger and shame.
"This is difficult, isn't it?" he asked, gazing into her green eyes. They glittered, reflecting the twenty candles of the chandelier. "But we're doing our best, all of us, and I'm sure your guests will understand the delay." Behind her, Juan Perez emerged from one of the suite's bedrooms. He was a sharp man, perpetually frowning, dressed in khaki slacks and a white mesh shirt.
The ambassador pressed her pink lips into a resigned smile. "Of course. Please join us as soon as you can." She left, trailing cinnamon and gardenia.
The bodyguard's Cuban accent abraded his words. "Won't be soon enough for Alden," Juan said, after the suite's door had closed behind the ambassador. "He's on the vid, for you."
Carson sank into a striped armchair and flipped the screen on. The British priest's digitized image peered at him. Age had creased the pale skin around the Herald Party leader's eyes and mouth; now anxiety deepened the lines. His thin white halo of hair stuck out in tufts. It occurred to Carson that Ocean City, floating in the mid-Atlantic, was three time zones ahead of Florida.
"How could he do this?" Alden asked, in his stately English. "There's less than two weeks till the UN vote." He ran a hand over the halo. The tufts sprang back.
"Maybe he had a pressing appointment with God."
The priest winced. "Carson, please."
"Well, they say the messiah's coming any day now." He checked his watch. "Two hours until Easter. You'd think if he's going to show--"
"He will," Alden said, sternly. "Hold on."
The screen blipped and Vance Torrington, the Party's sallow chief of security, appeared in a window at the bottom right corner. Over the sat-con, Torrie sounded like he was barking. "No press, no press!"
Carson muttered, "Give me a break." Then, "It's quiet, okay? Destiny's people are tight. Everyone else thought it was part of the grand finale. They loved it."
"Just make sure it stays that way," the security chief said. "So where is he?"
Carson said, "I don't know. Which of those three words can't you understand?"
Torrie snarled, "Cut the lip, McCullough. I'll ask the questions. Did he say anything?"
"Was he drinking again?"
He lied, "No." The suite was complimentary; the Party wouldn't see a bar bill.
"What did he do today?"
Carson thought back to before the seamlessly orchestrated Easter Spectacular. "He took a shower. He ordered room service. He watched Freak Follies on virtual."
Alden gasped. "He was watching that filth?"
Carson shrugged. "He said it was good distraction. He told you he didn't want to do the spectacle. Maybe he's just--"
Torrie cut him off. "Forget it. We'll ask the other 'Phim. Meanwhile, tell Perez to get his team ready." Torrie and Alden were replaced by a pair of cherubs waving a banner that read WAIT PLEASE.
The Cuban was leaning over a desk at the far end of the living room, staring intently at the screen of his laptop. Carson crossed to him and peered at the scrolling lines of amber text. "You scanning emergency response?" When Juan nodded, he scoffed, "Why don't we just try the missed connections on LoveNet?"
The corners of Juan's thin mouth twisted, deepening his scowl. "You're the liaison. Isn't it your job--"
"Right, right." Carson swung around. "I'm the liaison," he said, introducing himself to his reflection in a floor-to-ceiling window. "So when some angel decides to go on a joyride, it's my fault. Just who does he think he is, anyway?" He pointed at Juan. "Wasn't it your job to shoot him down or something?"
The Cuban was one of two bodyguards permanently assigned to Zeke. Carson had worked with him for three years, and in that time he had never heard the tone the man used now. "Don't push it too far," Juan said.
Carson detected concern and danger in the warning, both genuine. "What's that supposed to mean?" He caught the Cuban's dark gaze.
Juan shrugged. "Just be careful, Carson. You've been on the edge lately. I'm not the only one to notice." His tone mellowed. "Usually we check known associates and hangouts. Of course, in Ezekiel's case . . ."
He decided to ignore Juan's comments. "Yeah. He never goes anywhere or sees anyone unless we're with him."
"You two talked a lot. Maybe he said something?"
Carson snapped, "Torrie asked me that."
"Okay. Now I'm asking."
He went to the window, cupping his hands against the glass. A full moon lit the flat green landscape punctuated by man-made ponds, clustered palm trees, and the distant spire of Neptune's Castle. "No." It was the truth.
"You grew up here, didn't you? Where would you go?"
A seagull glided past.
Carson said, "Where all Florida escapists go: the beach."
Juan actually smiled. Then the vid beeped.
When Carson answered it, Torrie appeared on the screen. "Gabriel's linked from Tokyo. He's gonna tell us what he sees."
The Seraphim had an extrasensory awareness of each other. Zeke once described it to Carson: "It's similar to memories, but they didn't happen to you, so there's no particular reason to recall them, and when you do, they don't necessarily make sense."
"Can you talk to one another?"
Zeke smiled, his silver eyes narrowing in amusement. "What would we say?"
Carson wanted to ask what the voice of God sounded like, but the question seemed irreverent.
Three years before, Earth Militia terrorists had kidnapped Uriel. That memory had been vivid for the other five Seraphim and had led to their brother's rescue. As the self-appointed steward of the angels, the Herald Party had milked it, stating that evildoers couldn't hide from the sight of God.
Omniscience, however, presented its own data-retrieval problems. How, Carson wondered, would Gabriel pick out the memories belonging to Zeke? He asked Torrie.
The security chief said, "Destiny World. It's pretty hard to forget. Now tell Gabe about that shindig today."
Gabriel listened patiently as he described the Easter Spectacular. The Seraph was taller than Zeke, with pale skin, gray-blue eyes, and white hair that blended into the wings peaking over his shoulders--striking, as were they all. But he lacked Zeke's air of vulnerability, and Carson always perceived a coldness about him. It was a small relief when Gabe shut his eyes to concentrate.
"Yes, this is familiar," he said. "I see the crowd. Many lights. I am rising up. In the distance is the city, but I avoid it, rejoining the highway on the other side." He continued to describe what Zeke saw as he took flight. The Seraph had made good time; Gabe's last images were of the beach.
"Recognize anything?" Torrie asked, every fifteen seconds, as Carson listened to Gabriel's account.
He ignored the question until the Seraph was finished. Then he shook his head. "Sand, hotels--he could be anywhere along the Florida coast."
"No. He is at Daytona," Gabriel said, fixing Carson with his cool gaze.
"How do you know that?"
"God sees all." He added, "You will find him."
Carson wasn't sure if it was an order or a statement of fact, but the Seraph had disconnected, leaving Torrie's dour face to fill the screen.
The security chief nodded to Juan and said, "Give us a minute here, McCullough. Then you can go collect Zeke."
Carson wondered what orders Torrie wanted to impart to the Cuban out of his earshot. The security chief and his subordinates were all agents of ICARUS, the international military-industrial consortium responsible for relations with Earth's Special Visitors. Their presence was a necessary evil the Party endured, a provision of the United Nations Planetary Security Council resolution that gave the Seraphim their autonomy, and the relationship between ICARUS and the Heralds was one of cooperation based on underlying mutual distrust. After all, the Party existed solely to spread God's word as witnessed by His host of Seraphim, in person and through their testimony, The Seraphic Revelations. ICARUS, on the other hand, had come into being to save the world from invasion by aliens that turned out to be angels.
"I'll be downstairs," Carson said, grabbing his windbreaker off the suite's sofa. He let himself out into the hall. A cloud-puff motif in blue and white papered the walls and ceiling, and repeated on the tightly looped carpet, giving him the odd sensation, as he walked to the elevator, of passing through a tunnel of sky.
The lobby furnishings were upholstered in a peach damask woven with more grinning cherubim. He sat and contemplated the main decorative feature, a two-story, idealized depiction of the Rising of the Seraphim from the Atlantic, nearly a decade before. Zeke rose first, so he was shown at the center and largest, arms reaching toward the viewer, a beatific smile on his handsome face. Small silver-green fish leapt from the waves around his feet. Behind him, his five brothers were in various stages of birth. Some drifted between rosy clouds; others, still partially encapsulated by their floating eggs, stretched their winged torsos skyward.
A sunburned young mother sat down next to Carson on a gilded settee. She lifted a pudgy little boy to her lap and pointed at the mural.
"Angels!" the child said.
"That's right," she cooed. "God sent his angels down in shooting stars, and they stayed in the ocean for a long time. Then, when it was time for them to tell us that Jesus was coming, they hatched, like chicks. Do you remember when you saw the chicks hatch at Aunt Mary's?"
Carson spied Juan approaching from the elevators. He met him in front of the mural.
The Cuban said, "Team's ready. We'll take the resort's helijet."
Carson was staring up at the oversize image of Zeke.
"You coming?" Juan asked.
"Yeah." He stabbed his finger toward the drape of white cloth across the Seraph's hips. "You know, as I recall, he was butt naked with a hard-on."
The Cuban scowled. "This is what I mean," he said, as they left the lobby. The shuttle that would take them to the landing pad waited at the curb. "Why are you jeopardizing your position with these remarks?"
Carson shrugged. "What do you care? You're just here to guard the aliens, right?"
"The aliens?" Juan turned his words on him. "I thought you believe they are angels. Or are you losing faith?"
Carson didn't answer. He couldn't.
The eggs had arrived three decades prior to the Rising. News reports of the unexpected meteor shower and its accompanying starburst phenomenon were sporadic. Rumors of a shocking find by a French astronomical survey team boiled to the surface of the media, then plunged back into the murky depths of obscurity. Had it not been for Déjà Vu, the world might have slumbered in blissful ignorance during the thirty years it took the Seraphim to gestate.
Vu was the darling of tabloid video, an amalgam of sexual ambiguity, psychic prowess, and theatrical flair--just the right feather to titillate the dulled sensitivities of a jaded audience. When the androgyne appeared on Hot Topics in a gold lamé space suit and announced that aliens had arrived, the story exploded. After one of the show's hackers pilfered the survey team's logs off the net, reporters schooled to the ocean site like sharks drawn by fresh blood. Shortly thereafter, the truth was made public: Earth had unhatched extraterrestrial visitors.
Carson had been born in the wake of that first, infamous tidal wave of hysteria.
As time passed and the eggs didn't hatch, the hysteria subsided, but the fear remained, the specter of alien invasion hanging over the planet like an invisible cloud, a nascent storm that gave rise to periodic gusts of panic and destruction.
The summer of his eighth year, one of those gusts carried his father away. Through the remainder of his childhood, through the invasion drills and endless videos warning of a poisoned, lifeless world, his mother told him to have faith in God.
And he had tried. Tried and failed.
"That's why you have big ears," she'd said. "So you can hear the Lord calling. You hear him, don't you, Carson?" And, oh, how he'd wanted to hear, had waited for that call, had known it would come; for when it did, the fear that seemed to have entered him at birth, as if through a psychic umbilical cord, would drain from him, drain from everyone.
But the call never came.
He went to the seminary anyway, sure that he'd hear it if he spent enough time on his knees, not intending to spend most of it underneath the coconut palms outside the refectory, vomiting bourbon into Brother Todd's impatiens bed.
He'd wanted to save the world, but he hadn't been able to stay saved himself.
So he left, got married, exhausted the patience of a good woman, and drifted, ever seeking.
Then, the Seraphim rose.
The day of the Rising, martial law had been in effect for almost seventy hours, part of the panic-prevention measures the government had had thirty years--Carson's entire life--to perfect. It didn't matter to him; he could telecommute to his job at the International Refugee Alliance. But the thought of displaced Zairean children held little poignancy for him when they might all be refugees soon.
Kara had gone to be with her folks. The marriage was over, just not the formalities. He didn't bother to dress that morning, sat around in boxers, drinking whiskey out of the bottle and watching NewsNet. They split the screen between the eggs floating on the Atlantic's surface, the Planetary Security Council updates coming out of Geneva, and the running odds in the prediction lotteries. Payout was four hundred to one for anyone lucky enough to guess the exact moment the first egg cracked.
At 11:02:43 Greenwich time, betting stopped.
The heart attacks and suicides attributed to that moment never saw the alien that emerged. For months afterward, as every possible angle of the "where were you when" report was exhausted, people described reactions ranging from hysteria to euphoria to relief.
Carson had laughed. He had watched Zeke rise on his vid screen, watched the unnamed alien, with his massive wings and engorged penis and exquisite smile, rise above the Earth, and he had laughed until his face was streaked with tears, thinking his problem solved.
Faith was no longer necessary because proof had arrived.
He wasn't surprised when he learned that the aliens introduced themselves in perfect English, insisting they were angels, and after two years of quarantine, the Planetary Security Council had given in to the campaign, spearheaded by the newly formed Herald Party, to let them assume their rightful place.
The Seraphim promised the emergence of a messiah and the salvation of man. It was a prophecy that Carson embraced, freeing him as it did from the need to do the job himself. A significant percentage of the world embraced it as well, and under the Herald Party's leadership, prepared themselves spiritually for the coming of their savior and the new Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, the Israelis liked the old Jerusalem. The closing of their borders three months prior to the Easter Spectacular was, at the very least, inconvenient, especially with the messiah due to arrive any day. And so the Heralds had requested a UN mandate for universal access to the holy city. As the first-risen, Zeke's appearances were crucial in raising the support needed to win the vote on that mandate, less than two weeks away.
And now, Zeke had disappeared.
As the shuttle parked in front of the landing pad, Carson remembered Gabriel's flat assertion, "You will find him."
He hoped Gabe was right. He hoped he was right about that--and everything else.
Destiny World was the spider at the center of a very big web of RTV tracks called the Link. Strands radiated north to Orlando, west to Tampa, east to the Space Coast and Port Canaveral, and south to Miami. From the air, Carson saw the trains speeding along their routes as frantic, noctilucent bugs.
They landed in Daytona, on a pad adjacent to the airport Link station, terminal point for the Dolphin line, where Spring Break Specials disgorged the annual influx of college students.
Juan called Torrie for an update while they drove to the city in a rented Toyota minivan.
"Gabriel has nothing more to tell us, except that he thinks Ezekiel is holed up somewhere," the Cuban announced, as he put away his phone. "No reported sightings. He's
Probably waiting until everyone is asleep or too drunk to notice. I want to start searching; the Hyatt will hold our rooms."
They parked the Toyota and split up, the five of them sectioning off the main drags of the city. Carson wandered aimlessly at first, thinking: This is not what I signed up for. But already the Seraph's desertion was a given, something he accepted as part of his reality, just as mankind had accepted aliens, and then angels.
He bought a Coke and headed toward the ocean. He couldn't hear the water, only the crescendo of traffic moving through the gauntlet of stoplights on Atlantic Boulevard. Sunburned bodies swarmed out of the hamburger joints and T-shirt shops closing for the night, but there was no real darkness here: The city dispelled it with holographic beacons, flickering from every billboard and rooftop.
He kept walking. A fitful breeze stirred trash littering the sidewalk. The crowds dwindled. Around two, a prostitute emerged from a doorway between barred storefronts. "Lookin' for somethin'?" she asked, running painted nails along the curves of her red spandex dress.
He watched with an odd mixture of pity and lust. It had been that long.
She draped a hand on his shoulder, seeing as she did the silver crossed-wing insignia pinned to his jacket. "Herald? Huh. Baby, I can take you to heaven."
When he said no, she shrugged and moved off.
He looked for Zeke in the alleyways, on the rooftops under the garish projections, behind the chain fences. Eventually everything closed except the bars. They were all the same, gaping mouths exhaling smoke and the aroma of stale beer, sickening him in his exhaustion.
A block from the beach he passed a low-slung building. Beautiful men clustered around the entrance, their muscular bodies cased in black leather. Two of them mounted a Harley, the machine springing to life like a sleek chromed jaguar and roaring off into the night. He tried to muster the requisite indignation. They were sinners, after all, standing between mankind and its salvation.
He found a concrete ramp, buckled and cracked from the relentless sun, and skidded down the incline to the wet sand. Hotels crowded the waterfront, their UV canopies rippling with the breeze. Stumbling along the beach, he wove between stacks of chaise lounges, past the big luxury resorts to a stretch of smaller ones with names like The Sand Dollar and Pirate's Inn. He'd forgotten the old pier, but there it was, reaching over the water on crusted pylons. It was darker underneath, and the air seemed liquid, tasting more strongly of salt. He looked around. A giant concrete drainpipe protruded from the seawall, spewing a stream of decayed garbage into the surf.
Enough was enough. Climbing up the beach, Carson sat down in the sand, leaning against the pipe's cold, rough surface, and folded his arms across his knees, resting his forehead against them.
He'd stay here, for a little while.
Dawn. The sun rising, leaving a fiery afterburn across the seamless gray vista of sea and sky. Behind him, he heard condensation dripping within the concrete chamber. Then there was another sound, familiar, and a soft breath of air from inside the pipe. It carried with it an odor of seaweed, rot, and gasoline.
He knew without looking. Pulling himself up onto stiff legs, he brushed the sand from his pants and got out his phone.
Juan's voice rasped in his ear. "Carson? Have something?"
"Yeah." He stooped and looked into the pipe. "I found Zeke."
Juan and the others arrived in the Toyota. They drove it down onto the beach, stopping a dozen meters short of the pier. Carson watched them climb out, holding a hand up to shield his eyes from sunlight ricocheting off the van's polished surface. They marched toward him. One of the guards carried a coil of rope.
Carson ducked his head to check on the Seraph. Zeke was still asleep, crumpled within the cylindrical interior of the drainpipe. He'd used his white robe from the Spectacular as a pillow and wore only the matching pants. One wing was tucked against his body; the other extended over his torso, sheltering him.
They reached the pipe, and Carson moved out of the way so the others could see. Crouched before the opening, they looked inside, then glanced at each other and shook their heads.
Juan stood up. "Wake him," he told Carson.
They made way. He climbed into the conduit and squatted beside the sleeping form. The air within the pipe was damp, cooler, but pungent.
"Zeke." The Seraph didn't stir. "Zeke." He reached out. Zeke's shoulder was covered by the wing. Carson grabbed his knee instead and shook him.
The Seraph moaned and the wing retracted. He clutched a whiskey bottle in his long, slender fingers.
Carson frowned and shook harder. "Come on, wake up."
The Seraph's eyes opened. They were silver-gray, matching his hair. The pupils were dilated and the whites veined with red. Zeke turned his head and focused on Carson.
"Come on, Zeke. Get up."
Zeke's gaze moved past him, to the opening. Something flashed across his face. He yawned and propped himself up on a bony elbow. "Reporters out there?" His voice was low and graveled.
"No, just us. Come on, let's get you to a hotel. We'll talk later."
The Seraph lifted his other hand, which still clutched the bottle. He stared at it, considering.
Carson took it from him gently.
Zeke groaned, then folded his legs underneath him and shifted to a kneeling position. "Why did you come with them, Carson?"
"What did you expect me to do?" He reached out a hand, but the Seraph shook his head.
"Go on," he told him.
Carson obliged, scooting backward out of the pipe. Zeke grabbed the robe and followed on hands and knees. They emerged into the semicircle of guards. One had moved beyond the shadow of the pier, stationing himself as lookout.
Zeke straightened, the wings spreading involuntarily to steady him. He turned to Juan. "You're here to take me back?"
The Cuban's face was impassive. He said, "That's right."
"Then let's go."
Juan stepped aside. "Bring the van over," he told one of the others. The man walked toward the vehicle.
Zeke sighed and unfolded the robe, shaking it out. Then, in one smooth movement, he tossed it over Juan's head and shoulders and broke into a run.
The Seraph charged toward the open air, wings spreading with each step. The other guard took off after him, shouting to the lookout and knocking Carson out of the way. As Carson reeled backward against the pipe, he saw Zeke launch himself. Not soon enough. The lookout reacted, leaping upward and catching him by the ankle. They hung there for an instant, suspended, as the powerful wings beat at the hazy air. Then both Seraph and his captor tumbled to the sand.
Carson staggered after Juan, toward the fallen angel. Two more guards were already on top of Zeke. Carson saw white wings flashing in the tangle of bodies. There was a spurt of red, and Zeke howled. The sound was unearthly, keening, an animal wail of pain. It sliced into Carson's psyche, severing his connection to the moment, the cry, the men wrestling an angel in the sand. He reached them, shaking. Zeke was still thrashing. The pristine feathers were splattered with red.
"Shit," someone said. Zeke howled again. "Gag him." "I'm trying."
He stood over them, watching as they subdued the Seraph, his stomach writhing, bile splashing up into the back of his dry throat. They bound the wings to Zeke's slender torso with the coil of rope, then carried him to the van. Carson followed, ice inside, but sweating, his clothes moving with him, glued by perspiration to his body.
They put Zeke in the back on the floor. They'd stuffed a handkerchief into his mouth, and Carson heard him wheezing, struggling to breathe. As they moved away to shut the doors, the Seraph's gray gaze locked onto his own. His eyes were dull, like iron, but they held Carson with magnetic intensity. Two words formed in the vacuum of his mind, soundless, clearer than sound.
The white-enameled door of the Toyota slammed.
He still heard them.
And as he walked through the sand, sinking heavily with each step, the words echoed, an inverted echo, louder as they returned again and again.
He climbed into the passenger seat of the van, still hearing, not wanting to hear, but they wouldn't leave him, not as Juan revved the engine, not as the Toyota wheeled up the ramp and onto Atlantic Boulevard, and not as they drove, without speaking, to the hotel.
He put his hands to his ears, but in the absence of outer sound, the inner voice was only clearer.
Two words. Over and over.
Order The Seraphim Rising now!