by Diana Hockley
Mystery author Diana Hockley shares with KRL an original short story that has a touch of mystery & sci-fi, and an unusual cast of characters.
“Sorry, Boss. I get bored and it helps to pass the time. Besides I like hearing ‘em wail.”
Much as I liked listening to them squeal, too, the little creep irritated the hell out of me. Everything about him was small and neat, from his beady, shoe-button eyes to his narrow, scraggy feet and his squeaky voice. He moved the cursor again and the monitor in front of us erupted in a flurry of movement. A scuffle of somewhat biblical proportions was taking place; the Pentecostals were having a brawl. I enlarged the screen and turned up the sound.
“I say we must repent of our sins! God is punishing us!” screamed the bearded leader, as he confronted his placed-waving congregation who were denouncing everything from the Cloud to the cost of living and, idiotically, a couple of skinny little men carrying posters advocating the abolition of women’s rights.
“Bulldust!” shouted his opponent, a massive woman who would have made a good front-row forward in a rugby scrum. “It’s nothing more than global warming, you idiot. We’re not to blame!”
Things went downhill from there. By the time the ambulances hauled the last of the wounded away and police cleared the battlefield, quite a crowd of technicians were gathered around the monitor. Bets had been taken on the front-row forward, but the pastor won, protected by a brace of the constabulary.
“Okay, the show’s over!” I said, shooing them to their work stations. “We’ll let you know next time there’s live entertainment.” Benny returned to his monitor, smirking as he slipped a wad of cash into his lab coat pocket. He reminded me of a fat, satisfied brown mouse.
I settled behind my desk and watched the increasingly nervous citizenry of Las Vegas living in the gloom created by the Cloud, unaware they were under our surveillance. I switched to a section of screens displaying an area of the city with lots of empty shops, their shutters bolted down because the proprietors had gone broke. People moved fearfully, gathering the necessities of life and scurrying into their apartments, possibly thinking that, if they couldn’t see it, it couldn’t see them. But we could see everything going on under the shadow of the Cloud, every variety of crime, romances, and adulterous trysts—people preying on their own kind.
One monitor revealed a little group of tourists peering skyward, accompanied by their gesticulating guide. Like most of the curious lured to Las Vegas by hysterical reports of the media, they wouldn’t be brave enough to remain under its menacing presence for more than a couple of days. Hotels were laying off staff, people were packing up and fleeing the city, but there were plenty left for our purposes.
We’d worked long and hard on the project, a black cloud of ectoplasm parked over Las Vegas. Each morning, when the city woke up, we enjoyed the chaos. I leaned back, rejoicing as cars and trucks thundered along the freeways, belching smoke into the air making the atmosphere even thicker. Not long now before I, an Australian exported forcibly to America, was actually designated to bring the final destruction down on these miserable creatures.
Then one of the cameras focused on children riding the swings in a children’s playground, their parents nearby, then onto a small kid sitting on a rug, playing with a puppy. The tech controlling it zoomed close enough for us to hear her laughing and tickling it along its back. The room remained silent, as we listened to her babble happily and watched her mother scoop both kid and pet into her arms.
“Come along, darlings,” she said softly, “it’s really too dark to stay out any longer.” As she spoke, lights around the area flicked on, though it was mid-afternoon.
Suddenly, the camera swung to a prayer rally being held in a park a couple of miles away.
“Friends, neighbors, God will not desert us in this, our hour of peril!” intoned the pastor, a wholesome, well-scrubbed man, with hair standing up like a cockatoo’s crest. As the congregation crossed itself and murmured, I saw Benny smile and jerk the lever.
The monstrous shadow swooped low across the crowd, swirling like a giant cloak slung around a witch’s shoulders. Some people screamed, others beseeched and many took to their heels, knocking each other down in their haste to escape. Just as I was beginning to enjoy the spectacle, Benny swung the camera back to the kid and the puppy, who were about to get into a car.
“Switch back to the religious lot a moment, mate!” I shouted. Benny glanced at me over his shoulder with a sheepish look on his face and reluctantly returned to the congregation. The pastor stood, eyes piously closed, beads of sweat trickling down his cheeks as he urged his flock to pray harder.
I was about to make a cynical comment when Benny turned to me, distressed. “Boss, did you ever think maybe about the good people we’re going to annihilate along with the bad ones?” he asked hesitantly, his ears flattening to the side of his head.
“There are no good ones, Benny. All humans are rotten. That kid’ll grow up to be one of the mob, mate. Is that what you want?”
He looked at me defiantly. “I’m sorry, I don’t agree, Boss. We all saw that she’s a good person, Boss. Doesn’t that count? What about the people who work in hospitals, clinics, schools and animal shelters?”
“Benny–all of you,”—I raised my voice—“if we are to keep the faith and make our point, we need to ignore everything but the matter at hand. The good have to die with the bad if we’re to complete our mission. Nothing else matters! Anyone who bucks the system is a traitor to our cause.”
They listened to me intently, some unhappy, others nodding in steely-eyed agreement. But Benny turned back to his monitor, shoulders slumped. I wanted to wring his fat neck for throwing in an “eleventh-hour” hitch, but something inside me couldn’t let it go. “So what’s your point, Benny? You saying we shouldn’t bring destruction down on them?”
He turned around and the look on his face made me feel guilty. “No, Boss. But I wonder if there’s a way we can save the good ones? The newborn babies and the animals of the city who didn’t do anything wrong.” His mouth quivered, but he met my gaze squarely. I like that in my subordinates, it means I can trust them. Even him.
“No animal will be harmed in this experiment,” I assured him. “The Cloud will only affect humans.”
But then he made a point which stopped me in my tracks. “Boss, when we annihilate those, what about the caged animals and the ones in the zoos? They won’t have anyone to feed them. They’ll die of starvation.”
A chorus of startled agreement echoed around the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Cloud jerk as a technician accidentally bumped a switch. On one of the monitors, someone started screaming.
“Ah.” During our planning and preparations, we hadn’t thought of that outcome and I felt bad. How could I have missed it? “I’ll see what I can do, Benny. Now, back to work, everyone. George,”—I called to my assistant—“how about coffee all around? Thanks, mate.”
Benny’s concerns tugged at what passed for my conscience, a disturbing development, because normally I don’t have one. A new, unfamiliar feeling entered my heart: Remorse. But how to sort the good from the bad? The kind from the cruel? It was a hard call. We couldn’t go back on our plans, because our brethren throughout the country were looking forward to the catastrophe. After all the advertised hype, we couldn’t let them down.
I spent the next couple of days in uneasy and urgent cogitation before the solution came to me. Firstly, I needed to clear it with our King, a huge, dark-whiskered individual with bold black eyes who, on hearing what I proposed, immediately threatened to abdicate.
This would have caused a catastrophe of our own, because the Prince Regent was a sniveling streak of weasel-piss who didn’t deserve to lead a mob of cockroaches, never mind us. When his time came to rule, I intended to raise a private army from the ranks of our members, mount a military coup and take over the radio station.
“You expect me to save humans? Just as I was about to kill them all?” roared the King.
“Quite a few actually, Sire. The good ones.”
“There aren’t any good people, you nincompoop!” he shrieked, hurling a yogurt candy at me. It bounced off the wall and clattered to the floor. I backed out of range and for about the twentieth time, explained the problem. I didn’t dare tell him about the kid in the park who started it all.
Our honorable monarch blustered, but he weakened after I produced a couple of bottles of grog distilled from the flower of a Drunken Parrot Tree, which one of our scouts discovered growing in a back garden. After some time spent arguing, His Regalness scribbled a somewhat wobbly signature on a hastily-written edict and I beat a retreat before he sobered up.
The necessary orders were sent to our people on the assembly lines in the vast subterranean caverns underneath our complex. They began making the manufacturing tools and when the goods arrived for them to work with, they manned around-the-clock shifts. Die-stamps hammered, lathes twirled, drills whined and kilns baked. Finally, everything was ready. The Good would live, the Bad die.
There were only five days left and I was worried we’d run out of time. That afternoon, my minions lugged hundreds of cartons into the Parley Hall, and in the evening I mounted the podium, as thousands of our numbers shuffled in. When the chattering and twittering died down, I picked up the microphone.
“Brother and sisters, a valid point has been raised.” I announced Benny’s concerns and explained what the subterranean workers had been slaving over for the last few days.
I waved at mountain of boxes stacked at the side of the stage.
“These cartons hold millions of tiny pellets. You will all be issued with one carton containing two hundred thousand of the devices. You are required to move throughout the city, dispensing them to our people. They are the ones who can identify the murderers, the predators, child molesters, the adulterers, the animal abusers, all those who don’t deserve our mercy.”
I paused, to make sure everyone was listening intently. “As you empty each carton, come back for another. The instructions are in the packets. Our people will slip a pellet into the ear of each of these despicable beings. Only they will be eliminated in the coming catastrophe. Our scientific gurus have re-programmed the Cloud to zero in on the devices. The catastrophe will occur just before dawn, so many of the Bad will be sleeping, stoned or in a drunken stupor. Those whose way of life means they work at night will have their pellets implanted while they’re asleep during the day.” I paused. “Do you follow me?”
A thousand voices roared in agreement.
“We have five days left. Wherever there is an animal or child in a household, an adult must be saved to care for it. If both adults in the home are Bad, we will have to trust that there’ll be enough Good ones to look after them. The minute size of the device will ensure the recipient won’t know he or she has been targeted. Now, my brothers and sisters, away to work with you, for there is little time to spare.”
They scurried to retrieve the cartons and disburse the contents throughout the city. All our people would be equipped within hours. I went to the Observation Room and looked up at the monitors. Now that the Good would be saved, an unaccustomed feeling of peace swept through me. As I watched, another prayer meeting broke out in the far end of the city. It was so noisy, we all stopped to watch as the chorus started up, with much beating of breasts.
“Repent, I say! God, save us from the Cloud! Send us rain!” the vicar shouted, flicking what appeared to be an experienced eye over the jiggling breasts in the front row, as the women waved their arms and jumped up and down.
“We’re not going to save that one!” I announced, dryly. “He can’t even say ‘please’ when he speaks to Him.”
“Why not, Boss?” asked one of the team. “He is a ‘Man of God,’ after all.”
“Man of God nothing! The Whitney Sector section manager reported just yesterday that this creep beats his wife and daughter senseless almost every night, and duffs the President of the Mother’s Guild in the vestry before Evensong.”
“Oooooooh,” they gasped, gazing at the monitor.
The evening of the fifth day arrived. We cranked the Cloud into position. I could hardly wait for daylight, when the citizens of Las Vegas realized the ectoplasm was darker and larger than ever. An hour before dawn, I took my place on the podium alongside our King who would give a victory speech, then announce I had been given the honor of completing our project.
Thousands of our kinfolk crammed into the Parley Hall. Much pushing, shoving and muttering ensued as they claimed seats. Hundreds lined the walls or leaned over the edge of the galleries above. The King stepped forward and adjusted the microphone, frowning as it shrieked.
Sound technicians rushed over and twirled dials; somebody tripped over the cable. At the side of the stage stood The Machine, black and shiny, with lights winking on its panels like the cockpit of a jet plane.
“I congratulate you all on your diligence, strength of purpose and utter dedication to the cause. Soon our race will conquer the earth! The means to carry out our project are all ready to be activated. The orangutans and tigers of Asia, the moon bears in China, the marsupials of Australia and badgers of England are just a few examples of what Man is doing to Nature and now those animals will thank us.” He paused for effect and a sip of what he wanted us to believe was water.
“Many years ago a Prophet came amongst us who preached of freedom and strength, advising we should work toward facilitating the arrival of the Sign—the Cloud. Firstly, he announced, we needed to send out emissaries to every country in the world, to teach our people how to conjure up the manifestation which would enable us to conquer the world. Deep in the bowels of the earth, generations of our people wove spells and heaped curse upon curse, until each created a cell which became a mass of black ectoplasm, now known as The Cloud.”
He stopped to glare at some of the younger members of the audience who couldn’t stop giggling and punching each other on the arms. They blushed and fell silent, so he continued.
“Kept in the largest cavern each tribe could make, every ball hovered silently until the signal came to join as one. But there were some false starts. The storm which closed down Las Vegas not so long ago, for example. The scientists blamed computer breakdown for that one! How we laughed. It was merely an incantation gone wrong, but it struck the fear of their God into them! But I drew strength from it, and weaved a spell so powerful that we were almost afraid of it ourselves.”
He flashed his teeth in a vicious smile. “But not quite! When we maneuvered the Cloud into place, the humans at first thought it was emissions from the buildings in the city. But now they understand it’s more than that. You’ve watched their businesses go bankrupt because tourists refuse to visit. Many have fled the city. The prayers and beseechings of those remaining echo throughout Las Vegas. They demand their leaders do something about the Cloud. With much wringing of hands and flashing of expensive, taxpayer-paid-for teeth, their politicians promise all manner of things, but to no avail. Our ‘smog’ darkens the city and blocks out the sun.”
The King paused, beaming, as cheering thundered throughout the Hall. Rows of feet stamped approval until the floor vibrated and walls cringed. He waited patiently for the applause to die down.
“And now my brothers and sisters, we come to the culmination of our plans. I have invited our Australian colleague, who has worked so hard for the cause, to drop it on the city” He waved his arms like a game-show host and shouted, “Let’s hear it for—The Catastrophe!”
Beady eyes glowing excitedly, thousands of rattie throats burst into song: “Come ye, come all, come stand and FIGHT! Let the rodents of the world UNITE!”
Watch for a review of Diana’s novel, The Naked Room, in an upcoming issue of KRL.
Both pieces of rat art in this story were done by Drusilla Kehl of The Illustrated Rat. To see more of her work go to her website.