a tragedy in six evolutions/
an evolution in six tragedies
Laura Anne Gilman
You accept the absurdity of the situation because it is said so seriously. It’s only later, when you’re out of the scenario, when you’ve had time to cool off and calm down, you can type up the report and get some distance from it all.
Religious hysteria. Post-millennial delusions. Things were easier back when it was only drugs. You just had to hold their hands, keep them from jumping out the window until they came down.
“Hear you had a good one.” Molly leans over the partition, sleepy blue eyes barely visible under the brim of her gimmie cap, the trooper logo covered with a fine layer of red grit.
She’s been off-roading; must have been in on that pursuit-of-suspect I heard over the radio. Nice job — money went into the river, perp tried to off himself with a cop-induced suicide. No great loss to the gene pool. She’s pulled the dust mask down, and it hangs around her neck, government-issue trendy, what all the best cops are wearing.
One word speaks a multitude. Wheelies aren’t the worst of the god-needies, although I’m not fond of any of them. The RV-loaded caravans of holy rollers — wheelies, for short —will at least pack up and go away, eventually. Just not before they’ve riled the locals with their Bible thumping and lamentations. Like there wasn’t enough of that home-grown, they have to bring it across state lines?
“Something about dragons?” She isn’t going to go away. This is more interesting than Wheelies usually get. We overlap shifts; first-source story will get her an audience for the retelling, later on.
“Teenager took the Rapture, middle of the 7-11 parking lot. One of theirs, thank god.”
Hell to pay when a local decided to go Wheeling. “Screaming about dragons rending the flesh from his bones.”
“Bleeding?” All the details, man. All the gory details. I oblige her.
“Oh, it was a bonafide Rapture, yeah.”
Raptures started way back before anyone knew what was up. Before the air started souring, before the red tides and blue tides and whatnot washed up on shore. Before the babies started being born wrong. Maybe Wheelies and their ilk came up around them, maybe it was a case of like finding like, and feeding on each other. Suddenly everyone knew someone who’d been in on a Rapture. It was a fad. A passing insanity. Only it didn’t pass.
“I see them.”
I know the signs: eyes wide, staring at something I don’t want to see. Arms uplifted, twitching like a marionette, face scrubbed-clean fresh, mouth slack jawed and smiling like it wants to scream. He’s fourteen maybe, max. Carrot-topped, cut brush-short. Sharp nose, tanned skin, jeans and a football jersey in blue and red, number 7. Lucky seven. He should be in school, or ditching school, not riding the roads looking for some glorious ending always over the next hill. A plastic bottle of pop lies at his feet, a dark puddle staining the gray-white of his sneakers.
“See them! See them!”
Every Rapture’s different, I’m told. Some see angels ravaging the world, others demons, others plain old fire and brimstone. It’s all about cleansing, apparently. Only the means are different. I wonder, sometimes, if they ever just see god pouring in some bleach and flushing us down the drain.
“Can you see them?”
Across the parking lot his gaze targets in on me, enough to make sweat jump out under my collar. I pull the dust mask down off my face, wanting to make sure my words are clear. My gun feels heavier, somehow, and my hand goes to it instinctively, one finger resting just below the strap, aching to flick upwards, release it.
Rapture makes us non-believers antsy.
He dances in place, slow rising steps like those horses they show in parades. His arms rise higher, white-fleshed forearms blinding in the sunlight, palms up, beseeching something on behalf of humanity that can’t follow him.
“Can you see them?” he asks again, turning, directing the question to me.
“No, son, I don’t.” Never lie to a Rapture. Bad Things happen. If you believe nothing else, believe that. “Now son, let’s get you somewhere you’re not scaring the ladies.”
No ladies here, just a tired-eyed clerk who could be anywhere from eighty to dead for all the curiosity she shows, dragging on her cigarette and not watching the show, two pre-pubescent females with the boy’s red hair who were clearly enthralled with their brother’s contortions, and a couple of the local girls slouching with what they thought was style with their boys of the week against a rust-ridden Volvo wagon older than they were.
“The sky,” he says, a conspiratorial whisper, as though he expects me to do something about it, then looking upward with that same slackjawed, slightly unhinged look. The one people get when reality tilts and slides off the table. “The sky is full of dragons.”
One of the kids leaning against the car snickers, but I risk taking my attention from the Rapture long enough to check the sky. Blue, clear — not even enough cloud to create a dragon-image.
I look back, just a second, and he’s in my face, looking up to stare me in the eye, his breath hot and rancid, like onions and mud. “The sky is full of dragons… and the dragons are filled with stars. Fear them, oh fear them, for they are no friend to man.” And then he starts to scream.
He’d bled then, nose, mouth and ears. I had him down on the ground, cuffed so he’d stop tearing at himself, when the other Wheelies showed up to cart him away. They hate arriving after the fun. One, older, male, intent-eyed, had grilled me on everything the rapture had said, word for word, until it was set in his mind. He’d still be questioning me if another call hadn’t come in over the radio that I had to respond to.
“All Raptures are nuts.” I’ve finished the story, make a gesture of dismissal, telling her to go away, leave me the hell alone. Molly finally takes the hint. Two hours left on my shift, and I’ve a day’s worth of paperwork to do.
This, though, I could close easy. “Subject was taken by authorized family members.
On his behalf they refused medical treatment.”
I initialed the report, put it in the “finished” stack. No follow-up, no documentation required. Wheelies took care of their own. Not that it took much. Raptures went splat ten times out of ten. The only question was how long it would take, and how they’d do it.
Rapture was the partying ground of adolescent boys. The theory was a post-millennial gender hysteria, founded and fed by Wheelie rhetoric. If I were a Wheelie kid, I’d probably start babbling too. Easy to dismiss in a world filled with crazies and needies.
The rest of the files — open cases, on-going investigations — practically vibrated under my hand. Normalcy. Stability. Humanity. People I could actually help. Or at least give closure to.
Wheelies have told us what the Raptures mean. God’s coming, and He’s pissed. The blood of the lamb isn’t a hall pass; repent and pray the afterlife won’t be too horrifying. You dismissed them because that’s what sane people do. But the look on the Rapture’s face — on the boy’s face — it’s going to stay with me.
“… dragons… the dragons are filled with stars.”
At home, the air filter on high, I unload my gun, put it and the bullets and the holster into the drawer. Dying for a drink, something to ice over my brain for a couple-three hours.
When you catch a Wheelie case, you’re supposed to go for debriefing. Homeland’s high on tracking them, like they’re some big threat. Catch a Rapture, and you go for a full shrink-down, no excuses, no avoidance. Most cops shrug it off; if it doesn’t require digging and stitching, it’s not supposed to bother us. Macho bullshit. I couldn’t wait to scrape my brain off and hand it to someone else.
“… they are no friend to man…”
Why the hell did he pick me, my shift, my town.
Life’s a bitch. I put the bottle down, unopened, and went to bed.
And dreamed of red skies in the middle of the night, fire and smoke and screaming. The moon was cast in red shadows, silver scales glinting in the reflected flares. Woke sweating, swearing. Clock glowed dim in the pitch of the room: 3 a.m.
A surge of my body got me off the bed, padded bare-assed to the window. Blackout curtains for when I was on night shift; I push them aside like there will be fresh air on the other side and stare through the glass up into a still, silent sky. The stars hung clearly, stable, secure in their place.
“… full of dragons…”
“… they’re clawing at me, tearing… they’ll tear us apart.”
I stopped going to church sometime around the time I started drinking. Nothing to do with each other, just a happenstance of timing. Most of what I know of the Bible comes from the leaflets the Wheelies, Thumpers, or local Baptist do-gooders all put in the station foyer. They want to save us. Now is not a good time to be godless.
Something wiggles against my memory, skates through my brain. It’s not quite there, not quite real.
The smart thing would be to go back to bed, dump it all tomorrow morning, be given mental absolution with talk of dream symbolism, the subconscious, emotional defenses working themselves out in dreamtime.
But there’s an itch I need to scratch.
The computer’s already on. Pull up a search engine, enter keywords: dragons, destruction, stars. Toss anything biblical on principle. Science; medical, physics. Computers; viruses. Literature; poetry, prose. Close eyes, push a button. The coffee mug was refilled and half-emptied, then left to cool while the results scrolled down. Paydirt. A news report: brief, factual, followed by half a dozen stories one more extreme than the other. Almost a year old; I must have been on a Science Times kick back then, otherwise I would never have seen it to remember. Chinese researchers found it first, called it Lóng, the dragon, for the way it curled around the embryos’ chromosomes like a winged snake.
Attached sequences of amino acids, but without any discernible pattern of attack. No one sequence was singled out; everything was at risk.
The few infants born alive were bent, twisted; the word “fluidity” came up in a couple of case studies. Homeotic mutant phenotypes. Not that I knew what any of the science babble meant, but a few indigestible facts stood out. It messed with the genetic structure from the inside out. And it was spreading. Four examples were found ten years ago. Four hundred last year.
Every racial type. Almost every continent. No known cause. A foreign protein, maybe. Human-created, maybe. Or just god, throwing dice. Infecting us, warping us. Tied into our genetic code, from here on in.
No known treatment. No idea where even to begin.
I crawl back to bed, curled the blankets around me, slept until the alarm clock dragged me back. Shower, shave, dress, drive. More god-delivered chaos waiting for me: this time it’s Thumpers holding another rally outside Town Hall, waving heavy-looking Bibles and chanting. “Awake, awake, the Lord has spoken. Awake, awake.” They clear the way for my car, having learned manners the hard way. A wide-eyed young woman leans against my window; her lips form words I’m not listening to.
If Wheelies are gnats, Thumpers are wasps, or hornets. They’re the radicals, the pushers and the callers. Every year further we went into the new millennium they seemed to get more and more het up, like waiting for the bride to walk down the aisle so they could get to the bar at the reception. Wheelies were mellow, comparatively speaking. They knew the secret: you can’t rush revelation.
I’ll go talk to the shrink. I’ll tell the Homeland brass everything the kid said. I’ll scrape it off me and give it to them. It won’t make any difference. The Thumpers were right. The Wheelies were right. In the way that right is completely wrong.
You accept the impossible when it becomes the obvious. The kid — the Rapture — looked skyward for his dragons of destruction. But they were already inside.
Tuesday, July 6th, 2027
…Dr. Yanir reported to the Pan-American Medical Association this week they have seen a 41% increase in the number of fetuses carrying the mutated gene Lóng since its discovery in Suiyuan Province fifteen years ago.
Dr. Yanir admitted that inconsistent reporting from countries where many of the fetuses are aborted and not reported makes it difficult to be certain, and that the numbers may be considerably higher. However, he does not see a cause for long-term concern.
“Worries over a potential change in the human genetic markup are, in my opinion, overstated to the point of hysteria,” Dr. Yanir said in an interview after his presentation.
“The Lóng gene is not viable. Most of the infants who survive, die within days of birth. It is a genetic dead end. I see no reason to expect that the mutation will not burn itself out as quickly as it appeared.”
What happens next?
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