God Bless the UPS • August 10, 2000: 11:56 • The A-10 • August 10, 2000: 11:57
Soundtrack: “The Outsiders” by Eric Church
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
God Bless the UPS
As the ruins of Skidmor House lie smoldering, a lone UPS truck is flying toward the fortress of DimCor, Inc. More Caregivers have appeared, joining in a high-speed chase: dozens of them, streaking after this one truck, oily mechanical voices amplified: “BY THE COMMAND OF DIMCOR, INCORPORATED, YOU ARE ORDERED TO—” Belying its clumsy shape, the truck flips around, looping nimbly back and forth between outstretched, grasping tentacles, before any Caregivers can even reverse course.
As the pursuit nears the Factory, an errant dash of rose-colored light breaks off from the pack: one Caregiver has apparently gone rogue. “YOU ARE BEING VERY—BAD!” Inside the cockpit, the oozing voice ends in a squawk as lean, strong hands punch the controls. “YOUR ACTIONS ARE BEING REPORTED TO—”
A boot heel smashes the panel housing the thing’s speech center. A substance like black snot dribbles down the front of the console.
“YR FLESH WII-ILL RRRO-OT OFF YR BONES IN REHAB!” Another well-aimed blow and the voice is silenced for good.
“Last time I take orders from a goddamn cyborg jellyfish.”
An instant later, another sound fills the air. It is the deep bass of an air horn. It is joined by a second horn. Then a third and a fourth. Several Caregivers alter course, searching for the origin of this new sound. High alongside the foremost tower of the Factory, another UPS truck blasts into this world from the invisible mouth of the A-10. The two trucks jet upward in tandem, then shoot off in opposite directions, circling above the Caregivers, sending them into confusion. A third truck bursts into existence, horn blasting; then another, and another. The trucks streak back and forth, up and down, circling the towers of the Factory. The cacophony of horns mingles with the futile commands of the agitated Caregivers as they buzz everywhichway. Two Caregivers collide in mid-air, flaming ichor trailing down after the wreckage.
The hijacked Caregiver has reached the warehouse’s solitary dock at the back side of the Factory’s base, where the slaves are unloaded and housed. Where the Jukebox’s reactor churns. On the vessel’s underside, a hatch swings down, and a slender figure drops to the ground. At the dock door, Marissa produces the key from Virgil’s cowboy days.
Moments later, the Caregiver is gliding down long corridors of transparent coffins, hundreds of still faces wreathed in silvery vapor, coming to rest in the rotunda of the crank room, directly beneath the armored reactor vault of the Jukebox, where the skudder coil blazes on, cartwheeling lazily. Marissa is now under the Caregiver’s belly, activating the timer.
Her job completed, she straightens, steps out into the warehouse, gauging. There are many long aisles between the crank room and the dock. She will have to be very fast.
A faint giggle echoes through the passages and intersections of the warehouse.
Far away down a yawning corridor, a petite figure is strolling, hands in back pockets. In the same moment, the lights gutter low, turning the pillars and stone floor a dim sepia, more shadow than light. Muzic explodes from above. As one, the frosted glass lids slide open on the dozens of pods, and dozens of pairs of eyes flick open, shining through the gloom like nickels. “Man, oh man, look what the cat dragged in.” In a flicker of space, Kelley is suddenly much closer, her grin widening, viper-like. “All skanked out like death warmed over! Finally had to come back and beg for your fix, huh?”
Kelley’s grin now occupies her entire face, rows of jagged teeth gnashing, eyes twinkling with jolly humor, full of crawling blackness. She sighs. “Just been hangin’ out here, waiting for your koolaid to run out.” In the opened pods, the enchanted Organics spring simultaneously into sitting positions and turn as one to stare at Marissa. Their legs swing out, every movement synced to the muzic.
“You killed my father.” Marissa’s words are quiet, but they reach Kelley just fine.
“You’re actually pissed about that? I did it for you. Geez, I didn’t know you still cared about that loser.”
Marissa stares past the mercury eyes of the slaves, into the maniacal gaslight of Kelley Robadu’s, her anger igniting into rage. “You misunderstand me. As usual. I wanted him. I wanted to be the one to do it, you fucking idiot, and you took that away from me.” Slowly shakes her head, smiling calmly. “And I’m not here for your junk. I’m clean. Girlfriend.” Flips the double high hard one before breaking into a run, aiming for the warehouse dock.
Tendrils of dark slime are fanning out from crevices in the pillars as Kelley walks along, faster, and now faster, it crawls like mold along the stones in all directions. The shape of Kelley expands into a blackness, surging up through the throat of the chamber. From its center comes a dark chuckle, penetrating all other sounds, carrying with it the clotted stench of aeons.
It trails off into a high, girlish giggle.
The warehouse dock is a million miles away. The slithering sound of the black rot eating its way up and down the pillars and across the floor and ceiling is just barely audible between the swelling beats of the muzic and the pounding of feet. The song crescendos into a rhythmic anthem Marissa has never heard before, and as a single mass the slaves charge forward, arms outstretched and snatching. The rhythm accelerates, her strength is dwindling, the bots steadily closing the distance. They are only yards away when Marissa bursts out onto the dock and swings up into the cab of the waiting UPS truck. Hands slap against the sides, and then a young, empty-eyed woman in a Patriots jersey is climbing the steps on Marissa’s side, clawing at her legs.
The driver, the big one with the long braid down her back—and now a big grin on her downy face—throws the truck into gear as the swarm encloses them. “So you’re the one got ol’ Virgil all freaky-deeky, huh. Knew there was somethin’ different about ya.”
Many more bots are yanking at Marissa now, and she grapples with them, sliding part-way down the steps before kicking loose from their hands, clambering back up into the cab. “Pleased to meetcha,” she replies, fastening her seatbelt as they rumble down the runway, picking up speed.
“Ready to burn some proverbial rubber?”
She is. God bless the UPS.
From behind them comes a giant ripping sound as the bomb explodes, plowing asunder the Heart of the Jukebox, mercifully ending the sad existence of those who marched to its terrible song. The foundations of DimCor tremble, then quake, and then great rifts begin to appear, the massive energy of the atomized skudder coil shrieking out in blazing white jets.
At the same moment, two trucks lead a gaggle of Caregivers on a merry chase, spiraling upward to the very top of the Factory, then switch off their lights and dive out of sight, causing several bomb-laden machines to smash straight into the high tower containing the chamber of portraits and the Forge. The explosion is seen and heard for hundreds of miles as the wreckage rains down the face of the Factory and burning fuel and molten metal rage down through its core. The entire stronghold of DimCor, Inc., much of it already crumbling or engulfed, shudders ominously. As the truck carrying Marissa zooms out into space, the other trucks flank it, and the fleet banks right, arcing up and around the quaking fortress.
“You said you loved me.” The ancient, rotten voice that is the true voice of Kelley Robadu rises above the pandemonium below. Then Marissa is staring through the wide panes of the windshield at the thing that had waited here, sealed in its subterranean prison for millennia, for just the right prey to come along. At the thing that has now shed its human guise as it boils from every crumbling tower window, every buckling archway, out of the rupturing bowels of the doomed acropolis. The seething mass of urschleim rises from below with antediluvian appendages like some great beast risen from beneath the mountains under the ocean, stretching higher and wider, yawning to devour them all.
For a split second, another truck pulls level with theirs, Virgil is behind the wheel, the torment of her sins mirrored in his own eyes. She will never forget being taken out of this life into a sunset field of fireflies, washed clean in light and wonder, innocent once more; as far below blue arcs of lightning explode in the final collapse of the Factory, shredding asunder the phony sun-bubble of the Division, shattering this perpetual night with a brief and blinding daybreak.
She does not blink.
There is a shuddering roar as the A-10, having briefly expanded to admit the entire fleet of trucks, slams shut behind them.
A monstrous shriek of wretched fury spirals up, reverberating throughout the underground kingdom of Robadu, extinguishing light, cracking pavement, crumbling walls and towers with the force of its wrath.
At 9:15 p.m. on August 10th, 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey registers a magnitude 5.1 earthquake in eastern Nebraska.
August 10, 2000: 11:56
“What.” I jammed the lid on a coffee pitcher, then tried to slow down, taking a deep breath and letting it out before turning towards Marki. “Sorry. I’m just having kind of a shitty night.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Marki squeezed my shoulder, her eyes soft. “You’ve got a new customer. He asked to sit in your section, for some reason. Might want to go easy on him, looks like someone cleaned his clock.”
I grabbed a tray, set a glass of ice water on it, and—
I staggered, grabbing the glass before it could fall. I shook my head to clear it, unable to believe what I’d just felt—what I was still feeling. For the first time since that snowy afternoon all those years ago in the Bloodmobile, the forecast was changing—into what I had no clue. The air seemed to suddenly leave the room as the wind-rattled windows grew still.
The blast from the A-10 closing on the demon’s rage propels the fleet of square brown trucks forward as they touch down on a freeway wider than the Platte River, a few sparks flying as tires bounce, then even out.
Marissa grips the armrests, fingers sunk into the cracked vinyl, eyes closed. Just breathing.
After ten years, the underworld of Robadu is behind her, falling away fast.
The driver shifts into a higher gear, and the ride smooths out a bit. “Lookin’ pretty scrawny there, since last we met,” the driver observes in her gravelly voice.
Marissa finally opens her eyes.
About a dozen UPS trucks are scattered in front, behind, and abreast of them. She cannot tell which one is driven by Virgil. She pushes herself up in the seat, now, really looking.
Whatever geography lies beyond the edges of the road is masked in shadow, as if night has fallen. Occasional lights come and go, lights that appear set far back from the road, as if they are perhaps driving past scattered farmsteads on a Nebraska night. The highway stretches away into darkness, illuminated only as far as the trucks’ headlights will reach, yet all of them streak along at top speed.
A flash of white crackles overhead, briefly illuminating what appear to be walls of towering, leafless trees lining the margins of the road, before plunging them back into darkness.
Seeming not to notice this, the driver gestures toward the glove box. “Open that up, honey. Your man left you somethin’.”
Marissa leans forward and unlatches the metal lid with a shaking hand, trying not to imagine a silver vial. Shimmering gas swirling inside. No. Sitting on top of a pile of rags, a small toolkit, and grease-stained leather gloves, is a sandwich. “Why’s everybody shoving food into me?” she mutters, nonetheless grabbing the sandwich and taking a huge bite.
“’Cause you still got work to do before you can rest, Miss Marissa,” growled the driver. “We need you strong.”
Another white flash, longer this time, and jagged branches of what could be lightning walk spiderlike along the highway’s edges. The trees, or whatever they are, arch over the road on either side, bare limbs writhing as though trying to penetrate some invisible barrier and grasp at travelers.
“Merrich.” The driver holds out a black-gloved hand.
Marissa gives the hand a firm shake. “Marissa,” she says through a mouthful of sandwich.
Merrich grunts, returning her attention to the road ahead.
“This doesn’t look much like a tunnel to another universe,” Marissa remarks.
“What—no transwarp subspace wormholes?” Merrich chuckles. “Channels’re too big for you to see their shape from here.”
August 10, 2000: 11:57
I turned towards the dining area again, a soft ringing in my ears. The air seemed thin, my head a balloon, the conversations at the surrounding tables fading as I approached the figure in the booth.
The big windows to the west, south, and east now displayed strange motion beyond the city lights—vast but unidentifiable. Like a dream in my periphery, the clatter of tableware gradually stilled as people turned in their chairs to look out.
He was facing away, towards the back of the restaurant, his dark, wavy hair swirling up in a rooster tail.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.