The cabby pulled over on Mission Street as his dashboard clock flashed "12:00 PM" correctly for the first time in 24 hours.
He stepped victoriously out into the sun to greet his next passengers: two old women, a bony but otherwise well-preserved, possibly Jewish woman with curly, bright red hair wearing a pink track suit, and a scowling African in a white mu-mu with white hair spun into eight cornrows and a bun. She hunched over a walker, her round bottom sticking out behind.
"Hi ladies, thanks for choosing Sunshine Cabs!" Said the cabby, tipping his baseball cap with all the enthusiasm he devoted to every customer, even as he started to realize that something was wrong. "Name's Mark. Need any help with that walker, ma'am?"
"What's it look like?" Snapped the lady in white. "Pop the trunk."
"Yes, ma'am!" The cabby did as he was told. Without touching her fingers, he took the walker. Her disguise was good - no passing psychic was going to spot the angel hobbling around San Francisco, but he could still feel her aura thrumming through the metal.
The redhead helped her friend into the car, and the cabby slipped into the driver's seat soon after. "Where to?"
"Oh, we just want to take in the city one last time," said the redhead.
"Just a wander, then?"
"That's what you're good for, isn't it?" Said the lady in white.
"Nice name, 'Mark,'" said the redhead as her seatbelt clicked into place. "Been a while since I've seen a Mark."
"Cute," the cabby chuckled, "suppose you go by Lucy? Or is it Sammy again?"
"Please don't," she said.
"Guess you're here on business, then. What's up?" Said the cabby, keying the ignition.
"Oh, just the usual," smiled the redhead.
"That bad, huh?"
"What's up is your kids, baby-daddy," said the white-haired woman.
"Yeah, shame about Bangladesh," said the cabby.
"You mean how part of it's an irradiated ruin?" Said the red-haired lady.
"Yeah, that. You do what you can to discipline your kids while there's time, but then they grow up and you retire, so..."
"What can you do?" Said the redhead.
"Exactly. Kids grow up, they start making their own decisions, sometimes they wind up nuked. You know that."
"You mind closing the sunroof?" Asked the redhead.
"For any other passengers? Not at all."
"So that's what you call ... this?" Asked the white-haired lady, giving the cab ceiling a disapproving glance. "Retirement?"
"Yeah man! Look at this, living the dream! Steady job, get to meet lots of interesting people, plenty of sunshine! Just concentrate for a second every night and skim a drop of blood off the kids and no one notices. Work all day, sleep all night, and in the evening, find a nice sports bar, and watch sports. Strike up conversations with whomever's there. And all it took was discipline. There's got to be one vampire who gets to do what all the others want, right? Otherwise what's the point?"
"I honestly have no idea," said the redhead.
"But you know it's not going to stop here, right?" sneered the lady in white.
"That so? Seems like you're the one knows more. Maybe you should save the day, Spider Lady." He paused for a reaction, and then continued. "But why bother? If it happens again, they'll just nuke it again."
"Most likely," said the red-haired lady, "that doesn't mean it will work again."
"Come on, positive attitude," said the cabby.
"'Specially not on the one in New York," mused the white-haired passenger.
"Fell in with the wrong crowd, that one," agreed the redhead.
"Told him to stay out of the deep end," said the cabby. "Nothing interesting, really."
"There are those who disagree," said the redhead.
"What, so he got cursed again. Or sick or whatever. At least it's not as bad a curse as the one that makes you immortal and gives you superpowers."
"You know that neither of those things were intended as curses, right?" said the redhead.
"Oh no of course not -" said the cabby, turning toward the redhead and steering with one hand as he began an aimless loop through North Beach, "- don't worry, got this – of course not, it was all a big experiment. You – what's the PC term? – "realigned angels" wanted a workaround for the whole death problem so there would be someone to preserve knowledge from generation to generation without continuous angelic interference -"
"Yes -" the redhead started to sigh.
"No no, hold on. But you couldn't come up with anything so boring as written language, so you made a whole mess of pocket dimensions to store the souls of anyone who opted to stick around and teach instead of being reincarnated. But when that didn't work out like you planned -"
"Come on, this is the best part. You wanted to try an experiment where you shot up a human with some of Azrael's blood, so as to either destroy his soul permanently, or stop him from dying –"
"We didn't know -"
"Exactly! So you picked the guy who killed his brother, thinking he'd make a relatively ethical test subject. But the Man Upstairs – wait for it -" the cabby was speeding past the Bay Bridge now amid honking horns, but still steering perfectly, "- disagreed! But what God – and this has to be the best phrase in any language – what God didn't know was that what you had done was contagious. But it horrified Him so much that He decided to punish you by decreeing, in His unparalleled wisdom, to avenge your test subject seven times against anyone who harmed him further, not knowing that your only contingency had been to make it so that everyone to whom the infection had spread would be destroyed the moment your test subject was destroyed!"
He looked at the redhead, watching for a reaction as a semi hurtled toward his windshield.
The redhead spoke up. "No, 'Mark', that's not exactly what -"
Her companion put a hand on her thigh. "Don't."
"Whatever," said the cabby, turning back toward his lane and casually swerving to avoid the truck. "Hope no one calls that number on the bumper. Might have to change cities again."
"No you won't." the white-haired lady snarled.
"It's good to play fair," said the cabby. "So back on topic, how is old Tzim?"
"Okay, I'll make this quick -" said the lady in white.
"That's more like it."
"Thank you. The entity called Tzimisce – that really is the best name for it; there isn't much distinguishing the clan from the thing under New York anymore – was infected for a reason -"
"You mean apart from condoms being uncomfortable?"
The white-haired lady continued. "On his travels, your child encountered an Entity called the Eater-of-Souls, who infected Tzimisce with a disease."
"You mean it wasn't that Andal kid who caught it?"
"No," said the white-haired lady.
"Figures," said the cabby. Yeah, that's what Tzim called the thing. The Soul-Eater. Same as the head of the Wyrm?"
"One of the leaders of that faction, yes. The thing is, the Eater-of-Souls isn't an angel. The only angel who has even seen the Eater-of-Souls up close is sitting to my left. This is because the Eater-of-Souls is a genuine capital-G God -"
The cabby slapped his steering wheel. "So there are more than one. Called it."
"Not that should have been a concern for anyone in this manifold universe, if anything had gone according to our God's plan," said the white-haired lady.
"Thing is, it takes a lot of energy to make a whole universe and our God didn't have enough to be as ambitious as He wanted, so the first part of His plan was taking out a loan," the redhead finished.
The cabby leaned over the steering wheel, struggling to stifle laughter. He'd run out of ideas and the conversation was getting more interesting, so he was just driving back and forth over Telegraph Hill.
"You can laugh all you want -" said the white-haired lady.
"It's okay, you don't have to fill it in: now the Eater-of-Souls is trying to collect Its debt."
"Yes. Ever since God's murder -"
"That actually worked? Condolences."
"- at the hands of another of your wonderful progeny."
"Good old Cap'n Doc. What ever happened to that bastard? Why don't you go bother him at work if this is all his fault?"
"Fortunately, your great son did not," said the white-haired lady. "Anyway, since your child murdered the sole Creator of all that we know, a faction has arisen in the Heavens and Hells which believes that since God is dead, the right thing to do is to liquidate His Creation and return the remaining capital to God's Creditor."
"Now you're talking about that 'Wyrm' bullshit again?" Asked the cabby.
The red-haired lady answered, "As foretold in your prophecy, the dragon Belial the Defiler is one of the ringleaders –"
"That one's right-hand man," the white-haired lady interrupted, gesturing to her left.
"- Former." Continued the redhead, "The other is Michael, God's eternally loyal Beast of War. All Belial and Michael need is a big enough and resilient enough physical vessel to channel a God, and they can bring God's Creditor here to eat what It is owed."
"How big is that?" Asked the cabby.
"Apparently, a little bigger than New York City," said the redhead.
"Crosswise, anyway," said the white-haired lady, "it's miles deep."
"Wait, Lucy," said the cabby, "this sounds like what you were going on about when you came around back in the sixteenth century, having hysterics about how those sick werewolves needed killing in... Must have what they call North Carolina now?"
"Yes, 'Mark'" she responded, "that was a different strain of the infection, modified to target Devourer-spawned nephilim and act much faster. The Croatan would have been a puddle within months."
"So you're sure this won't all just fizzle again, like it did in Roanoke?"
"Are you trying to tell me," asked the white-haired lady, "that you will vouch, as a father, that you see it in your child Tzimizce's character to willingly sacrifice itself in order to avoid merging with a God and consuming all life on Earth?"
"You never know. So is this the same deal? Kill the monster, save the world, make sure not to die, go back to work?"
"This is different in that the time to nip it in the bud is over," said the white-haired lady, "it's unlikely that you could destroy Tzimisce now through normal means, even by your definition of normal. It's also different in that our side's agenda has come a long way since the sixteenth century."
"That would be your side's agenda, Spider Lady," asked the cabby, "as opposed to that of the 'loyal' Beast of War, making you what kind of angel these days?"
"You really have been out of the loop, haven't you?" said the redhead.
"Things have gotten complicated," explained the white-haired lady. "God didn't tell us any contingency plans He had in case He got killed before He paid off His debts, so it's open to interpretation. Most of the spirits you've met are still loyal, as far as the automatic damnation mechanisms God left in place are concerned. They can't bear to remember God, so they blindly follow the standing orders and chain of command that were in place when God died, and just say it's their 'nature' without remembering that the orders were given for a purpose or Who gave them. There are only seven of us loyalists left, including Michael, who still recall what we are. A lot of the rebel angels actually think they're repenting when they join Michael, and even I can't quite say they're wrong."
"Of course," said the redhead, "there are also those in my camp who don't like the direction the movement has taken since I agreed to stop leading it."
"And to stop lying," said the lady in white, "but don't forget the loyalists that jumped ship after you 'accidentally' mentioned how to raise Belial to our chauffeur's darling Moloch back in Carthage, and Belial went and talked Balor into falling, leaving anyone in the Choir of the Fathoms who wanted to stay loyal without an archangel, and starting the Second War!"
"Wait, slow down," said the cabby.
"You heard me! That's why we had to let your dad's ex on the team!", the white-haired lady continued.
"Oh, Lily! Haven't seen her in ages, and everyone who says they know anything is full of shit. How is she doing? Is it true you two hooked up?" Said the cabby, gesturing back at the redhead.
"You shouldn't believe such rumors unless you intend to pay attention to anything else," she answered.
"That sounds like a 'yes'," said the cabby. "So why don't you have your kids do this job?"
The redhead stayed silent.
"They didn't make mules when they inbred," the white-haired lady answered. "Could've done like your Cappadocius after a few generations. God saw it coming, and my companion here didn't want to fix them like I did when I adopted my children."
"Condolences," said the cabby. "Anyway, what did happen to old Lily?"
"God needed a new archangel, and He didn't have the resources to make one or train one, so He brought in an independent contractor," said the white-haired lady.
"Well it's good to hear she's successful. Tell her Mark said -"
"It was strictly a political move." said the redhead, "give the humans some token representation by appointing someone born human to an executive position, but put her in charge of a jurisdiction where humans can't even breath. Gerrymandering."
"And then I guess He politicked Himself to death! Is that your side of the story?" The lady in white shouted across the back seat.
"Okay," said the cabby, "before this goes any further: Is this a dying gig?"
"A what?," asked the white-haired lady.
"Forgive a man for assuming too much, but back in the sixteenth century, Lucy tried to call a truce, said Azrael's old kill switch was jammed or something, and until it was unjammed, Final Death was out of the question for me. Just wanted to make sure that it was still, you know, jammed, before you two stay in here another minute."
"It was never jammed," said the redhead, "but if you were destroyed at this moment it would be ignored. Michael's position as the highest loyal angel gives him authority to interpret the divine laws upon which the Wormwood contingency relied. If you die now, Michael can spare your children."
"And there's no hope of a regime change, correct?"
"All we need you to do is confront Tzimisce," said the redhead, "we don't care how."
The cabby stopped. They were in front of Golden Gate Park. "There's something you're not telling me. Get out."
"We don't have time for this," said the white-haired lady.
"Good. Get out."
"Alright," said the redhead, placing a hand on her companion's arm to stop her from leaving. "We only want you to die if my colleague here succeeds in usurping the throne of Malfeas. You'll know if she does. In any case, we would be thrilled if you would just see what you can do about Tzimisce and take any safety precautions you like. It would be wonderful if you could destroy Tzimisce and survive, and if you don't, nothing will survive."
"And how can one tell if Michael is still in office?" Asked the cabby.
"Does this mean we're still driving?" Asked the redhead.
"Close the door," said the cabby.
The white-haired lady complied and they sped off. "How many of your customers have complained about that clock?" She asked.
"If you took the throne, how could one tell?" Asked the cabby.
"I see you're not using a GPS device yourself, so just ask the occasional customer if it's still working," said the redhead.
"If what is still working?"
"The theory of relativity," said the redhead, without which the Global Positioning System will not be possible."
"Explain." Said the cabby.
"That could take a while," said the white-haired lady.
The cabby kept driving.
"I was the Lightbringer, first of the angels," said the redhead.
"Yeah, we've met," the cabby grumbled.
"God made me in the house of the One Who would be called the Eater of Souls," the red-haired lady continued, pretending not to hear.
"I was to take the energy that the Eater of Souls had lent our creator and ferry it across the Abyss to the building site where we now stand. I was to then organize that energy so that lesser angels could conveniently access it.
"Michael was the second of the angels. Before God made him a general, Michael was more of a theorist. Michael designed the matter solution that God used: a method of binding raw energy into a stable form that was suitable for the creation God wanted to make. Michael alone held the keys to unlocking that light. That is, until Albert Einstein came along.
"But you see, murderer, there is one sphere of power that hardly any on Earth have unlocked, and not one in the Heavens has known since God's demise. This is the power to redefine nature itself, and not just command its elements. A handful of individuals in this city whose lives I've interfered with in no direct way happen to have unlocked this power.
"This would have threatened Michael little before atomic energy entered common human understanding. But now the unity of matter and energy is a part of public reality, and not a divine secret running under the hood. This may make it possible for some dedicated and enlightened people to take Michael's foothold in reality and forcibly relocate it to the realm of fantasy, no matter what anyone believes or what any theorem says."
"So the idea is to have some aging goths flood fairyland with comic book radiation?" Asked the cabby.
"No, that's the collateral damage," said the white-haired lady. "The idea is to have some archmages prevent nuclear war on Earth, while scattering Michael's forces long enough for me to usurp the throne of Malfeas."
"And you're sure this won't just cause reality to unravel in a gigantic nuclear explosion?", asked the cabby.
"Not in the slightest," the red-haired lady laughed. "We're hoping Michael's solution will revert to running with private access like before, but there's no telling."
"But we are fairly sure that it will kick Michael and a lot of his cronies out of reality proper, at least for a while," her companion said.
"'Mark' is cleared to die -" said the red-haired lady."
"And blood of all his children will rain down on Malfeas to make my inaugural banquet," said her companion.
"And a simple cabby is really the only man qualified? For the dying? Asked the cabby.
"You call yourself a man?", said the redhead.
"So what if I - !"
"Exactly. So what if you killed your brother?" She continued, "You're older than the current paradigm's definition of "time". I could argue that your age is infinite, since there's no consistent way to measure it, but even I'm not sure. You could probably destroy us both right now if you wanted. Do you suppose I'd be a human if I took a job as an electrician or something, and swore off killing people? Individuals like us have more to worry about if we want to be responsible."
"Almost figured the murderer knew better once he started nicknaming angels after comic book characters in their own presence," commented the white-haired lady.
"Huh? Oh no, you're thinking of Spider Woman," said the cabby.
"He called you 'Spider Lady', dear," said the redhead.
Ananasa sighed. "My mistake."
"Anyway!" The cabby almost shouted in frustration as he broke before a stoplight, "What do you two glorious apparitions want that I have, your majesties?
"Just a spot of divine vengeance," said the red-haired lady.
"Just sevenfold, not eight. It takes the power of a God to kill a God," said Ananasa, "and that's what you have in you: a little trust fund of divine vengeance waiting to smite whoever kills you."
"But if it destroys at least a seventh of me, let alone a good fifth, shouldn't that be enough to kill it?"
"It takes a lot of killing to end a God," said Lucifer.
"Yeah, I know you want me dead."
"What?" The redhead spat, holding back laughter, "Oh, well yes, I suppose, but only for a specific purpose. We really wouldn't care whether or not you died otherwise."
"But why does Tzimisce have to do it? If I just do myself in on my own terms, won't the kill switch get Tzimisce anyway?"
"We're not sure," said the redhead. "Tzimisce has devoured angels very different from the one whose blood was used to augment you. It's not exclusively a vampire anymore. In any case, killing you alone will merely leave the Eater of Souls to find another host. God's promise to you is our only plan for destroying It that won't take a few more centuries and a lot more luck."
"So this is my redemption?"
"No, Cain" said the red-haired lady, "this is your murder-suicide of someone older and wiser than even I can imagine, on whom may depend a thousand realities worthier than our own, just to save this miserable spawn of an incompetent deity that you call home.
"The only reason we are even thinking about you in these times is because, for a variety of absurd reasons including no unusual merit or fault of your own, you are the only thing left on this Earth with the power to stop the thing that has every right to devour it before we makes our next revolution around the sun.
"As far as I know, there is exactly one being in this universe or beyond who truly cares whether you are redeemed of anything, and he will never be satisfied. Furthermore, no one in our cosmos will ever be redeemed of anything ever again since an individual whom you helped achieve godlike power ripped the life out of this world's Creator.
"Our world should be condemned in the moral sense, but there is no One to do that for us now, so we have been condemned in the real estate sense, and you are the only person who can save everything you have ever known from being bulldozed and sold to the highest bidder.
"So if I were you," she finished "I'd be worrying about my responsibility for that, if anything, since the statute of limitations on fratricide is rarely set at more than a few human lifetimes. Deicide is different. At least if you ask me. Not that my opinion matters. I'm just the Devil."
"Sammael, everyone!" Said Cain, "Seraph of Butthurt."
"That's funny," said Ananasa, "try that one on the black hand."
"What?" Said Cain, "Where do those idiots come in?"
"Not them. It." Said Lucifer, "The five ash-covered tendrils stretching out of the crater? Like a great black hand, crushing all who oppose it? You even saw 'some statue of a goddess holding a torch off in the distance,' but that didn't make it into your book."
"Oh, no," said Ananasa, "boy's only human, remember? Can't expect him to recall his own prophecies after so many long years."
"And I guess that would make you the Crone, Ananasa?" Said Cain.
"Senior citizen. Mind your manners."
"Well, this looks like your stop," said Cain, pulling over in the Tenderloin.
"Gotta be," said Ananasa, "she said this would take two minutes."
"That was an estimate," said Lucifer.
"Well, thanks for choosing Sunshine Cabs!" Cain looked at the dashboard clock. It read '12:07 PM'.