"So when's she due?"
"I guess around the middle of July."
Emily Gibson sipped her Coke, breathed in the delicious scent of early spring. The bright sun had not completely driven the chill from the air, but every table in Giersbergen Park was occupied. It was so good to eat lunch outside after the dreary confinement of the cold gray winter.
Helen Underwood leaned forward, lowered her voice conspiratorially, as if they were still students at Magellan High sharing gossip across the cafeteria table. "Do you think it's really Steve's baby? I heard -"
A shadow passed over the park. Fifty years before, no one would have noticed. An airplane. A cloud. Now only a madman would attempt an unscheduled, unauthorized flight. And clouds often held more than silver linings.
Both women bowed their heads, their eyes shut, a parody of prayer. Their actions were imitated across the park, across the city of Barrington. Traffic came to a halt as drivers obeyed the law of survival: Shadowed skies/avert your eyes. A single glimpse of fire-eyed, tentacled Frosty or the scaly, tattered Yellow Kid striding through the heavens was instantly, brutally lethal. No one knew why. Some spoke of deadly blasts of telekinesis; some invoked the legend of the Gorgon; some mentioned the old story of Lot's wife.
None of the theories changed the facts.
The shadow passed beyond the horizon.
No one suffered stigmata; no one was encased in ice; no one exploded in sparkling, strangely colored fragments.
Impatient horns blew as the city returned to life.
"Look." Helen held out her soft white hand, watched it tremble with detached interest, as if it was a laboratory specimen. "Every time that happens I shake like this for an hour."
You can't let it bother you." Emily fumbled in her purse for a cigarette.
"And in the last few days it's happened a lot."
"You afraid of lightning?"
"Lightning. Are you afraid of lightning?"
"No." She had been eight years old, in the back yard of their Pennsylvanian home, taunting her brother David. Holding the plastic ball just out of reach, laughing as the four-year-old angrily jumped and grabbed at it. Secure in her position as big sister.
Without warning, the sky erupted.
Colossal spheres of neon brilliance stretched from horizon to horizon. Blinding, burning columns of energy smote the ground again and again as noises like angry words rumbled down to shake the earth. Helen ran and screamed and could not hear herself screaming, surrounded by flashing light and stifling ozone and the stench of burning flesh.
Then, just as suddenly as it began, it was over. Her father was there, holding her, comforting her.
Somewhere in the ravaged, smoldering distance, her mother was calling David's name.
There would never be an answer.
In half a century The Globes, whatever they were, had appeared only three times. Once to level an Asian mountain range, once to disintegrate fifty square miles in the Antarctic, and once in devastating response to Amy Giersbergen's valiant attack on the invaders' Pacific island stronghold.
Giersbergen had flown her tiny plane straight into the huge stone structure that had risen from the ocean depths, straight into the tentacled maw of the monstrosity that dwelt there, the thing whose constant telepathic assault drove one in every five hundred people to madness and death.
Every history student knew the harrowing recording of her final transmission:
"All the angles are wrong. I can only depend on the instruments. John, it's getting through the shielding. Only another mile to the center... I can feel it in my head, oh God no, no, no ygnaiih, I can't-can't-"
Then the shrieking started, but the aircraft was locked on course. The great green horror rose from the ancient stones, stretched its glowing, formless mass into the sky and seized the plane in half-liquid claws, facial tentacles lashing the air.
Whether Amy Giersbergen had activated the bomb herself, in her last sane second of life, or whether the alien set it off accidentally was a matter of endless debate.
The island disappeared in a cloud of flame.
The psychic barrage ceased. Humanity was free.
Freedom lasted almost an hour before the mental bombardment returned with renewed fury. Simultaneously one of the Black Angel's Ambassadors informed the human race what they already knew. The attack on Arliah had failed. The undersea city was crippled, but the dweller within could not be destroyed. Now there would be punishment. Humanity must learn that disobedience would always bring punishment.
And The Globes appeared in the sky.
All of New York City and its immediate surroundings were reduced to an expanse of gray, crumbling ash. The peripheral destruction spread across several states.
Twenty years had passed, but still nothing grew on that barren, gray wasteland.
"No," Helen lied, remembering the voice of the thunder, the spheres in the sky. "That's silly. I'm not a child."
"Well, it's like lightning; either it gets you or it doesn't. I quit worrying about it a long time ago." Em raised a Marlboro Light to her lips. "It's part of life."
The cigarette fell from her nervous fingers, rolled under the picnic table.
They exchanged a glance and laughed. It was part of life, and life went on.
"Like I was saying, it might not be Steve's baby. Cliff's taking bets on its color. He's pretty sure it's Carl Hines' kid. Tara had a thing for him since day one."
"You bet. Cliff caught them together in the break room one day."
"I mean, together together. Hines paid him not to tell."
"He told you."
"He told everyone. You know Cliff."
"Yeah, I know Cliff. He lies when the truth sounds better." A horn blew. Helen smiled, waved as the car passed them. "That was Patricia Andrews. She's expecting too. It always seems like everybody gets pregnant at once. You ever notice that?"
"I guess." Another sip of Coke, another bite of sandwich. A calculating smile. "Steve's gonna be pissed if he ends up with a black baby."
Helen's eyes narrowed. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, I'd like it. And you know why? Because Tara Bodes is everyone's little darling. Watch Dahlberg sometime when he walks through the office. He always says something to her, some remark about her hair or her clothes or how pretty she looks this morning."
"Dahlberg's an old man. A dirty old man."
"He's not the only one that plays favorites. If my terminal goes down, I catch hell. If she blows the whole damn network up, no one says a thing."
"Meow. Did I hit a nerve?"
"And Steve's too stupid to realize she plays the field. Everyone on the planet knows it but him."
"Maybe he loves her too much to care."
"Give me a break. You've been reading Woodiwiss again."
"Nothing wrong with that." Helen dabbed the corners of her mouth with a napkin, drew a deep breath before she continued. "You know an Ambassador came to see Tara before she left, don't you?"
Emily almost choked. "You're kidding."
"Sure did. We were in the middle of the weekly sales meeting and he walked right into the office like he owned the place. Not that anyone was going to stop him, of course."
"An Ambassador." Em took another drink, considering. "What did he look like?"
Helen laughed. "I don't believe you, Em. Who cares what he looked like? He was an Ambassador. You want his phone number, too?"
"I was just curious."
"You need to get out more. I guess Winton didn't work out?"
"I can't believe I went out with him. Winton's a full-fledged creep."
"I just wondered."
"Yeah. So do I. What'd the Ambassador tell her?"
"How should I know? He took her outside. They were gone a while. The next day she was on maternity leave." She smiled. "Dahlberg was furious."
"That's wild. Are you sure he was the real thing?"
"Oh, yeah. He was the real thing." For a split second revulsion showed through Helen's constantly cheery facade. "No doubt."
"Maybe he's the father."
"Right. And maybe I'm the Virgin Mary. Get serious."
"I am serious."
"Nobody would do something like that. They aren't even human any more.
"Speaking of inhuman..."
Darting through the sidewalk crowd, Winton Bainbridge was rapidly approaching. His toupee was somewhat off-center, his garish power tie askew. Apparently no one had felt it worthwhile to tell him.
Emily shook her head. "Am I that desperate?"
"Be nice." As the man walked up to their table, Helen favored him with a smile she didn't feel. "How you doing, Winton?"
"I'm fine." An annoying edge to the overconfident voice. No wonder no one could get along with the man. "But you girls are in deep. Real deep."
The smile, fragile at best, collapsed.
Winton retrieved it. "An Ambassador'll be here in thirty minutes. Everyone who worked with Tara has to talk to him."
Helen's face went white. "Jesus." It might have been an oath. Or a prayer.
Emily said nothing. Her beautiful spring day was becoming uglier by the minute.
Pleased with the results, Winton continued his sermon. "Man, I'm glad I transferred to Accounting last year. You two can tell me all about it later. Maybe you can even write a book. There's a reward if you help them. They made that very clear. But if you don't help, there's going to be trouble."
"They didn't say. They like to leave things open. Keep everyone on edge." He motioned toward the statue in the centre of the park. "She had the right idea. Blow them all to hell and gone. Too bad it didn't work."
The bells of St. John's Episcopal began to chime. Lunch time was over. It was time to go back to work. Time to meet the Ambassador.
Returning to the office, they felt the sidewalk shudder beneath her feet, stopped in their tracks until the tremor ceased. Something deep underground, burrowing beneath the old buildings of Barrington, cutting through earth and rock like a red hot knife through butter.
Or maybe it was only an earthquake. The news at six would tell more.
Nothing to worry about.
It was impossible to tell if the Ambassador had been male or female before the Black Angel's alterations. Now it was an amalgam of human and alien, a literal liaison between the world of men and that world's new masters. It turned its head slightly; imbedded symbiotes raised feathery tendrils into the air, brought them down to lightly touch Emily's forehead. Instinctively she tried to brush them away; the restraining straps held her fast.
"We cannot read your mind, but we can read your emotional state." Ropes of oily black tissue extended from its misshapen shoulders, seeped through Emily's clothing to painlessly invade her flesh, fusing with neurons at a submolecular level. She closed her eyes, tried not to think of it.
"A lie will bring immediate punishment."
"You were an associate of Tara Renee Bodes."
"You know that already."
"You know her husband, Steven Marshall Bodes."
"Were you her friend?"
"I worked with her. She did her job and I did mine."
It paused a moment, gathering new data from cells, hormones, all the living chemistry that was Emily Gibson. "Why do you envy her?"
"That little bitch?" Emily's eyes snapped open, bright with fury. "I don't envy her. I -"
Arthur hit her in the stomach as hard as he could.
She screamed in pain and rage and struck out at him, but he was drunk and didn't feel it, didn't care.
She tried to get around him; he caught her by the arm, yanking it painfully from the socket, and hit her again.
She broke away, ran to the window, screaming for help.
He dragged her back, hit her in the face, kicked her when she fell.
She convulsed and vomited, writhing slowly on the floor as Arthur staggered from the trailer, still cursing her, cursing everyone.
As her consciousness faded, she realized two things:
No one cared if she lived or died.
And she was damned either way.
Emily came to, gasped, struggled violently in the straps.
"That was a lie," said the composite creature. "You were warned. We demand the truth."
She couldn't answer, couldn't catch her breath. Her heart hammered in her chest, her stomach churned acid. She tasted blood in her mouth, realized she had bitten her tongue.
"Men punish with pain. Pain is too easily endured, too quickly forgotten. Nyarlathotep, whom you call the Black Angel, has taught us otherwise." It bent down, brought its nightmarish visage close to hers, looked deep into her eyes. "Memories are always fresh, always savage. Easily triggered. They cannot be endured. Do not lie to us again."
"Please. Please let me go. I don't - I can't tell you."
"Why do you envy Tara Bodes? What do you know?"
"Don't." She was sobbing now. "Don't make me. I can't."
"You will." Its voice cold as killing frost, distant as the stars. "Or there will be more punishment."
And, suddenly, like an dam exploding, she burst out in tears and rage: "Because she has everything I want. Because she has Steve, damn you, and she has a family, and she has people who love her. Because it isn't fair, isn't fair. She's pretty and she's happy and she - she has it all."
The Ambassador watched and listened without response. Emily wanted to stop, tried to stop, but the words kept pouring out.
"It isn't fair. It isn't fair . Steve loves her. I've never had that. I've been married twice and I've never had that. So I hate her. I hate her and I hate you. Monsters, all of you. You punish me for lying and she punishes me by living. So punish me, damn you. Do it." She caught her breath, closed her eyes, waiting for drunken Arthur to return, or lying, philandering Charlie, or some other hellish moment from her hellish, wasted life. "Do it!"
The creature withdrew its tentacles from her body, disengaged its neural mesh. "Your fear and hatred of us is acceptable. Your answers are inconsequential. You know nothing that will help us."
It released the straps with a human hand. "The interrogation is over. You may go."
She staggered to her feet, stumbled out the office door without another glance at her inquisitor. Jim Bassham from Receiving steadied her, helped her to a chair. Behind them Winton Bainbridge, loud, confident Winton Bainbridge, was begging and pleading with two implacable officials as they forced him into the office.
She smiled weakly and closed her eyes. Evidently Winton hadn't transferred to Accounting quickly enough. He'd have lots of interesting memories for the Ambassador to draw on.
"Is she all right?" Old man Dahlberg's voice, concerned. Angry.
"She'll be ok," said someone. "Just let her rest."
"We're paying people for resting. Christ, this sort of thing could bankrupt us."
"Tell the Ambassador, sir."
"You tell it." Retreating footsteps, the slam of a door.
Dahlberg always did have a talent for delegation.
Emily dozed off in the chair, only to wake with a start. Helen stood before her, smiling as always. "Do you still need a ride home?"
"Yeah. Sure. Thanks." She slowly got to her feet, her back stiff, a dull pain in her side. "Jeez, I'm glad I don't work tomorrow."
"You get all the breaks."
Outside it was dark, chilly, beginning to rain. Typically crazy April weather.
They didn't talk about the interrogation, or the Ambassador, or Tara. They didn't talk much at all. The only sounds were the squeaking of the windshield wipers, the muffled muttering of the old engine.
Until the siren startled them both.
Helen glanced at the speedometer. "I'm only doing forty-five."
Emily twisted in her seat, looked back at the approaching lights. "That's an ambulance."
It passed them, wailing. As they turned south on Trigaux Avenue, they saw more emergency flashers just ahead. Beyond them, flames.
A man in a raincoat stopped them; Helen rolled down her window.
"You'll have to go back, ladies. This road's closed."
The thing men called Inferno had descended from the sky with a dozen of its kind, surveyed the area and departed, leaving holocaust behind. If not for the rain, things would be still worse.
"Anyone get hurt?"
Of course someone got hurt. Quite a few people got hurt. Some of them children.
There would be no explanation or apology for the destruction. The invaders had their own agenda and mankind existed only by their sufferance.
The car backed up, turned around, drove off. Back to Nyman Street, to take the long way around. The little car fairly flew through the deserted back streets.
"Slow down, will you? I want to get home too, but in one piece."
"Damn, damn, damn."
"Calm down, Helen. Jeez."
"Do you ever wonder what life was like before the Occupation? When you could enjoy a day out without worrying about the invaders? When you could go to work without getting the third degree from monsters?" She looked at Emily, fury in her hazel eyes. "How easy life must have been before these damn things came."
Someone darted from an alley, straight into their path.
The squeal of brakes, a sickening thud.
Helen threw open her door, ran toward the sprawled body. Emily followed.
They looked down on Tara Bodes.
Tara was not pretty now. Bruised, bleeding, shivering. Half conscious. The soiled and tattered robe she wore barely concealed her swollen belly or the biomechanical technology that had been grafted to it.
"Not this," whispered Emily, watching the target of her secret envy, secret jealousy, secret, secret hatred. The woman who had never done her any wrong. The woman she despised. "Tara, I didn't want this."
Helen glanced oddly at her friend, but before she could speak, Tara's eyelids fluttered; she looked up, recognition in her eyes.
"Help me," she said, and tried to raise herself. Fell back with a groan. Something swept down from the night, something not human at all; something closer to an giant insect or crustacean than a human being. It approached them on its many-jointed legs, slimy membraneous wings trailing behind it.
Tara screamed, crawled painfully away from the alien horror. It reached down with four clawed limbs to seize her. Two more came from the skies, folded their wings, watched the tableau without eyes to see.
"Don't let them take me! Helen! Em! They're doing something to my baby! "
Three pairs of wings spread as one; bearing the screaming, pleading woman, the creatures flew off into the darkness, leaving Helen and Emily alone.
"She is important to the Old Ones. The experiment will continue."
They spun around. An Ambassador stood beside the car.
"Experiment?" Emily heard herself say.
"It is the will of Nyarlathotep. The details are unimportant. She misunderstood our intentions and fled; we have recaptured her. She shall be returned to her husband and the experiment shall continue."
"Where? Where are you taking her?"
It paused as if listening to commands. Walked toward them.
"We have what we need. The incursions will cease. We will no longer manifest ourselves to the degree of the last seventy-seven hours. You will be free to live as before."
It turned to leave.
"Will we ever be free of you bastards?" Helen screamed.
Without looking back, it answered. Helen Underwood fell to her knees in the rain, sobbing. Emily helped her up, got her back to the car.
The tears would end, but her smile would never return.
The Ambassador walked on, ignoring the drizzling rain, and its thoughts were its own. In the clouds above, the first hint of dawn. The sun was rising, the bright yellow sun. The only sun Emily and Helen and Tara had ever known.
But Earth had once known another.
"Yes," was the Ambassador's response. "When you die."
There was, truly, no escape.