by Matt Wallace
A grey pallor hung heavy over the landscape. Heaven’s fire had long gone out, leaving the sky a cold hearth. The ashen soot that covered it might once have been the burning ember of eons, but now its livid color irradiated the early dawn. It soaked every molecule of air like a pale leaden necrosis, existing independently of the season, fostering neither cold nor heat.
A caravan of old cars rambled through the grey morning, balding tires rolling over the broken disrepair of State Highway 24. Chrysler Imperials and winged hatchback Newports, Chevy Chevelles and Novas and flatbed El Caminos, Dodge Darts and Coronets, Ford Fairlanes and Falcons, Lincoln Comets and Continentals, Olds Eighty-Eights and Cutlass Supremes; early 1960’s vintages, all. They traveled toward Oneonta, the Northern New York town whose name was taken from the Iroquois word for a place of meeting.
The Earth’s reclamation of its wilderness in post-nuclear North America continued. Lush foliage blurred as the cars headed deep into the rural upstate, creating rich green wraiths in their murky windows that danced and swooped and curved. The lead car, a Dodge Charger that outshined the rest by miles, would reach Gilboa around breakfast time.
There the wind blew warm through the world’s oldest forest. There they’d been called.
There they’d find the Answer.
The demon’s name was Malphas, and he cursed them all in a foul stream of half-a-dozen dead and dying languages. His voice sounded like strands of steel wool being pulled through intestines. After a treatise in multi-lingual blasphemy that lasted almost half-an-hour, he began speaking to them in English.
“Pig-fucking whore masters of a Gomorrhan slum! Corroded cock-peeling corpus cavernosum! Your libation is the sour milk of hermaphroditic mares!”
He struggled against the meaty, Kevlar-wrapped footmen holding him to the base of the fossil tree, but earthbound demons are among the frailest of creatures. His milky, ink-veined arms looked utterly childlike encircled in the gloved hands of his captors.
“You stimulate hemorrhoid-ridden goat ani with fingertips dipped in placenta butter! The cur tongues of your mothers are the mercy strummers of harpy clitorides!”
They’d unearthed Malphas some time before noon. Maxon’s crew were hours splitting the bark of the forest’s ancient inhabitants, cracking the trunks where demons made their homes. They liked the old things, the decaying things.
Father Kilbride mixed tea with a porcelain travel kit he kept tucked away under the shoulder cape of his Catholic priest’s cassock. “Corpus cavernosum?” the Irish priest asked the assemblage at large, absently.
Most of his concentration was aimed at sprinkling petrified leaves the color of jaundiced flesh into a doll-sized cup.
“In males the corpus cavernosum is spongy erectile tissue that functions as capillaries during the arousal process,” Meta explained.
Father Kilbride nodded, only half-hearing. His swollen, liver spotted hands shook as they attempted to manipulate the dried tealeaves. They did not simply shake; they were wracked with junkie tremors. Into the miniaturized teacup he poured water from a heated thermos. Ghostly fingers of steam curled up as it hit the leaves. Instead of sugar cubes, Kilbride dropped custom-pressurized balls of codeine and oxy and hydrocodone into the sweet concoction.
Maxon watched as the priest sipped, two-handed, like some dehydrated desert creature lying at the lip of an oasis. He shook his head, sharing the same expression as Dozier, his hulking second-in-command.
Maxon looked to Meta then. The androgynous information officer retrieved the Demon Index from the holster slung across the peaks of his/her genetically engineered chest. The Index was a digital tablet molded into the shape of an ancient Roman scroll, unfurled and ready to be decreed. He/she jacked the tablet into a diamond-shaped port at the base of his/her brain.
They called Meta Larsson “Metaverse” or “The Meta-conscience” because he/she housed one of the few remaining eidetic implants in his/her skull. The Vatican never could quite get them to integrate with their host properly. The implants amped the host’s brain with endless stores of memory and unlimited interface capabilities. They also caused hemispheric shifts and divides, a common side effect of which was split-personality. In Meta the distortion was more focalized and led to gender confusion, hence his/her perpetually half-finished persona.
“You have a read on him?” Maxon asked.
“Malphas,” the transgendered archivist began. “He was Great President—“
“I was a mighty prince of the vestal Underworld!”
Dozier snorted at that.
“He’s said to have had forty legions of demons at his command.”
“I commanded forty thousand legions!” Malphas hissed.
“He builds houses, high towers, and strongholds, and can bring artificers together from all places of the world.”
Maxon glanced at the upper branches of the tree. Crude birdhouse structures hung from them, fashioned from twigs and held together with pigeon crap. They spun slowly in the breeze, creaking and splintering.
“You’ve fallen far from high towers and strongholds, old man,” Maxon said.
“Sloth suckling!” was the demon’s only reply.
“Malphas accepts willingly and kindly any sacrifice offered to him—“
“Yes, mortals, make tribute unto me.”
“—but he will then deceive the conjurer.”
“Bah! Mongrel he-bitch!”
Maxon crouched low. He sought the demon’s restrained level. He spread the folds of his duster behind him, folds that had been battered by everything from the harshest elements to the sharpest swords. He lit an unfiltered cigarette with a pearl-encrusted lighter that bore a golden fleur-de-lis upon it. The Pope himself gave the lighter to Maxon.
“Mountebank!” Malphas taunted him to his face. “Tin god’s general! You are the collector for a snake oil salesman!”
“Bona fide demon royalty,” Maxon marveled in his own subdued way. To Malphas he said, “We’ve been searching for the likes of you a long time, old man.”
The demon “prince” spat at him, hocking a wad of green and brown bile directly into Maxon’s face. It splattered against the aviator shades he wore and ran down the lenses in stinking webs that seemed to bubble slightly. Maxon had no reaction. He simply removed the sunglasses and shook them out, wiping the surface of each stained lens against the non-porous material of his duster.
He replaced the shades over his eyes and turned their black pools back on Malphas.
“Chains,” Maxon said, the word meant for Dozier.
His second-in-command gave a familiar hand signal to their men that sent the ranks scattering into action.
The single, seemingly benign word also struck Malphas dumb. He fell completely silent for the first time since he’d been uprooted kicking and screaming and swearing. The vertical ovals of his thick-lidded eyes widened. His frail, pencil-thin body went rigid. Brief, phantom struggles overtook his limbs, and they pulled with futility against his captors. But it all seemed merely an afterthought.
Seconds later a dirt-filmed AMC Rambler Wagon backed into the grove of petrified trees. Footmen opened its rear door. The chains were coiled inside, stacked high and menacing upon themselves in four different piles. They were heavy and thick as bull rope, forged from the steel of smelted holy artifacts kept for centuries in Vatican vaults.
The barbs dangled from each bone-hard link, tiny things that were diamond-shaped and razor-edged. They were cured with holy water and sacred salt that was no doubt originally used in facial wraps at Herod the Great’s Dead Sea health care spa. Four barbs were affixed to each link in the chains.
When Malphas saw the chains being uncoiled from the cargo floor of the wagon, Hell’s Prince all but vanished, replaced by the sniveling, ground-dwelling creature he’d become.
“Please, o’ great general!” the demon begged Maxon. “Take pity on the poor, loathsome fallen! Mercy! I beseech you, Great Maxon, Peter’s own avenger! Mercy!”
A high-ranking lord of Hell’s hierarchy calling him by name did not faze Maxon. His name might’ve headlined an entry in the demons’ own index, for all he knew. In the last ten years he had risen as the greatest general of the Answer Crusades. When seismic charges erupted, shaking California loose of the mainland, it was he alone that remained in the Grove of Titans as the entire state sank into the Pacific Ocean. Maxon refused extraction until the final flock of winged demons was driven from the tops of the ancient coastal redwoods. He personally chased the last one past the flytrap jaws of the great sanctified steel cages that dangled from Blackhawk helicopters like great crab pots in the sky above.
Maxon was a Knights Templar in the purest sense. He was Rome’s soldier.
They looped a length of chain thrice around the lank form of Malphas, and around the fossilized bark of the tree to which his scaly spine was pressed. The other end of the chain was attached to an industrial wench the size of a howitzer that was erected on the flat track of a 1961 banana-yellow Chevy Corvair Rampside. Footmen clad in Kevlar crawled all over the oddly angular vehicle like fat black widows, preparing to raise the wench.
“You can save yourself the discomfort, old monster,” Maxon urged the demon, gently.
It might’ve been impossible for a demon to drain any paler, but somehow Malphas had gone from milk-white to virtually transparent. And yet he was still Great President. However far he’d fallen from grace, however removed from the fiery thrones of Hell he found himself, Malphas still felt the duty of a prince. Maxon could see it in his eyes, the last remaining black-jeweled glimmer of the station the demon had left behind.
“You get nothing from me but rancid jism, you hairless primate,” Malphas spat.
Maxon sighed. He flashed the high sign to his men. A moment later the massive pre-war wench kicked on with a grinding metal groan of protest. Soon the chains encircling Malphas and the tree began to constrict.
“You know what we want,” Maxon bade the demon.
“Pllllllleeeeeaaasssse!!!” Malphas screeched as the sanctified barbs seared the dry husk of his body.
Burning demon flesh smells like an oil fire and stains the eyes and tongue with acid. The others wore clean air masks or turned their heads. Father Kilbride held a monogrammed handkerchief over his nose and mouth. Maxon merely stood there, waiting, welcoming the bitter almond-tasting sting of the fumes emanating from the demon’s scorched hide. He relished the diluted sample of the suffering he was inflicting upon the creature; not in a sadistic or masochistic capacity, but because it instilled within him a dull illusion of atonement, the sense that he shared his victim’s fate.
Maxon tried to hold that feeling deep in his belly, but eventually it began to fade. Loathing rushed to fill the empty reservoir it left behind.
“Give me the fucking Answer!” he raged, cursing Malphas for the first time.
“It is not for the minds or hearts of men!” the demon shrieked.
“Then you can whisper it in Meta’s feminine ear, but today’s the day you cocksuckers fork it over!”
The flaying continued for hours. Eventually the chains broke Malphas in half, severing the demon’s torso from his waist. His screams were reduced to deft mewling whines, but his black heart kept pumping while whatever brimstone he retained continued to fire his neurons. Demons were not unkillable, but they possessed the compartmental resiliency of arachnids.
The earth surrounding the base of the tree was fouled to its bedrock with the demon’s poisonous juice. Maxon sat crossed-legged in the dead grass, eating a meatball marinara sandwich half-wrapped in cellophane and washing it down with cheap grappa straight from the bottle. The rest of his men, save for Dozier and Father Kilbride, had long turned their eyes from the scene and their backs to its horrors. Dozier kept a vigil. Father Kilbride was sprawled upon the ground with tea marinating his cassock.
“I’m tired,” Maxon said through a mouthful of tomato-soaked ground beef. He swallowed, wiping his hand against his duster. “I’m so damn tired. Aren’t you, old man? For me it’s only been half of one measly lifetime. How long have you been at this?”
It took Malphas long moments and agonizing effort to answer him. “I . . . held aloft Lucifer’s woolen locks . . . after the fall . . . as he . . . as he vomited the bile that created the underworld.”
“Long fucking time,” Maxon confirmed, speaking into the mouth of his grappa bottle before taking a long pull from it. He smacked his lips. “I’m willing to bet that more than wanting the pain to stop, more than anything else, what you want is release.”
“Yours . . . is . . . a wearying world. His . . . is an arduous creation.”
Maxon nodded slowly, sympathetically. He leaned in close, until he was practically nose-to-nose with the demon.
“The Answer,” he whispered. “It buys your release. A release not even God was willing to grant you. A release Lucifer denied you. Small price, if you were to ask me.”
He thought he detected the subtlest of nods. Malphas, with a gnarled spade of a hand that trembled violently, removed a small fold of burlap-thick parchment from his filthy frock. With great effort he laid it flat in the stained dirt. The talon at the end of the demon’s index finger pierced the stump of his lower torso, drawing trails of sickly green/black blood down his wrist.
Maxon only watched. He could feel his heart beating upon his ribcage like a fist.
With the razor tip of his nail, and using his own blood as ink, Malphas scratched a few words across the piece of parchment. The script was spastic and uneven, but it was clearly Latin, and a basic dialect at that.
One phrase scrawled in Latin on a piece of parchment.
“Release,” the demon gasped, a barely audible plea, or perhaps a demand, or both.
Maxon almost didn’t hear him. For the first time his eyes were not affixed on the demon. They were zeroed in on that rotted, stinking scrap of material emblazoned with demon’s blood.
“Release,” Malphas repeated, and this time the pleading there was pure and distinct.
Maxon nodded. He seized the parchment between two fingertips and stood. His other hand drew the machete sheathed from Dozier’s belt. He never took his focus from the demon’s note, not even as he decapitated Malphas, not even as he cleaved the severed head in twine. The footmen immediately set about sealing the pieces in blast jars with small incendiaries and burning them down.
Meta wheeled a mobile bomb scanning station in front of Maxon. He spread the scrap of parchment over the lighted monitor in the center of it. Meta stood at his side. Dozier and a few of the senior footmen gathered around, packed shoulder-to-shoulder behind Maxon.
As they read the demon’s words the sun broke through the trees for the first time. Not a single soul noticed. They existed solely in the Answer they’d sought across years and continents scorched by the fires of jihad and holy war. It was the Answer that would cure the ignorance and settle the blood debates threatening to raze the rest of the globe.
A single sentence, set down by a creature as old as every god prayed to on Earth.
The current pope practiced paraphilic infantilism—a fetish based around acting and being treated like a baby—and he retained the services of a seventy-eight-year-old Italian “nanny” named Nedda (although not after Pagliacci’s adulterous wife, she was fond of pointing out). She bottle-fed His Eminence, changed the Holy Father’s Venetian silk diapers, and always cooked fresh risotto for his loyal crusaders when they were brought before His Grace to be debriefed.
Maxon awaited Innocent IX in the sitting room of the Pope’s private offices. While the Bishop of Rome changed out of his embroidered diapers and bonnet, Maxon swallowed a 2018 Barolo by the violet-scented glassful and savored every creamy bite of Nedda’s fresh Italian rice. An experienced soldier took his meals where and when he or she could, regardless of the circumstance.
He was beginning to digest his last bite when His Holiness finally appeared, decked out in his most flowing robes, gold-laced mitre shining atop his wrinkled, pulpy head.
“At last!” the old man rejoiced. “At last! The Answer!”
Maxon didn’t bother to rise. He was thoroughly unmoved by the Pope’s elation. He knew where it came from. The old man had inherited the Answer Crusades from his predecessor, Pope Godfrey II, who fell to a protestant assassin’s bullet less than a month after the tri-fire obliteration between America, North Korea, and China. It was decided amongst the Council of Bishops that a quest must be undertaken to find, and definitively prove, the answer to the question that had divided and set man against each other since the dawn of reason.
Pope Innocent IX offered his greatest general a warm benediction. “Blessed are you, my son. Your sainthood is assured for all time. Now, please, the Answer. Finally.”
“I think you should burn it,” Maxon said. “Or have Nedda wipe your ass with it and toss it out.”
His Holiness froze.
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s the nuke we’ve been waiting for,” Maxon explained. “Or dreading, I should say. The one whose fallout touches every corner of the fucking world. It’s here. Instead of racing against it we’ve been racing towards it the whole damn time.”
“Surely whatever the Answer is it cannot be—“
“Fidelio,” His Holiness began, the only man to know or invoke Maxon’s given name. It was a name given by the Pope himself, in fact. For just as Leonore’s Fidelio served to rescue her love, Florestan, from prison, His Grace’s Fidelio would rescue the world from itself. “I know you have always been a man of duty rather than faith. I accept this about you. But I ask you now, in this, our moment of deliverance, have faith. Just this once.”
Maxon nodded, more to placate His Eminence than anything. He removed an airtight plastic vial from his breast pocket. The demon’s blood-scrawled parchment was sealed inside, rolled into a tiny scroll.
The Pope took it with a child’s Christmas morning giddiness. He unscrewed the cap, casting it and the vial aside like torn wrapping paper, and removed the rolled up scrap of material. His stubby, withered fingers unfurled it delicately. There was something almost disturbingly eroticized about the motion.
Maxon watched Pope Innocent IX experience the Answer just as he had. At first the words meant nothing. Translated they read like nothing more than bad ecclesiastical poetry. Then the script began to burn. It burned on the parchment, it burned behind your eyes, it burned in the center of your brain. It was somewhat like staring up at the night sky and realizing, for the first time, the vastness of creation, and being crushed to Earth by the sheer awesome weight of it.
There was nothing glorious or door-opening about this revelation, however. Maxon saw it, the moment the truth of Malphas’ words infected His Holiness’ entire being. It was the final and ultimate inverse epiphany.
He tossed the parchment at Maxon’s feet. “Lies!” he shouted to the rafters. “The vile fiend’s forked tongue has given forth lies!”
“Demons don’t lie, not in the chains,” Maxon said. “You know that.”
Pope Innocent IX, the Holy Father, spiritual leader of countless millions, began wailing like he was seconds out of the womb. He fell to the priceless Louis XIV rug and curled into a fetal ball. Nedda, plump and wart-faced and wearing an apron the color of dead flowers, emerged into the sitting room. Maxon waited while the matronly old woman soothed His Grace’s colic with an intense session of rocking.
“Very well,” the Pope resigned himself, sniffling. “Very well. If it truly is the Answer then it is the Answer.”
“Not the answer we need.”
Nedda helped His Eminence back to his feet and fixed his hat, smoothing the old man’s rumpled robes.
“Not the answer we wanted, perhaps, but the Answer is needed. It must be given unto the masses that the people of this world might come together, unified under one truth, one universal understanding of creation.”
“Understanding isn’t a shield, Your Grace, not in the hands of men. It’s a sword.”
“What are you saying, Fidelio?”
“I’m saying look what happened the second men understood the atom,” Maxon said. “I suspect this time we won’t even need to build a bomb.”
“Faith, Fidelio,” the Pope urged his Templar. “Faith. Remember?”
“Faith,” Maxon repeated. “Faith is what we should’ve stuck with.”
The Vatican cryptographer who authenticated the parchment’s translation was shot to death as he tried to destroy The Answer. The Swiss Guard pumped over fifty rounds of magnesium ammunition into his body, the last fifteen bullets as he continued to crawl toward the demon script with a torch in his hand. His dying words were a warning in a language no one but he himself could’ve deciphered.
A summit was held in the radiation clean-up center erected among the ruins of Geneva. The heads of the dozen religious states responsible for destroying three-fifths of the world sat within arm’s reach of each other for the first time in close to a century. Pope Innocent IX presented the Answer to the collection of priests and prime ministers, sheiks and shahs, rabbis and reverends. After a full sixty seconds of complete silence, the head of the Mossad attempted to incinerate the meeting table with a C-4 packet concealed in his wristwatch.
Maxon was forced to knife a protestant bishop and use the Ayatollah of Iran as a bullet shield just to get Innocent IX out of the melee alive.
The Pope’s official spokesman hung himself from the most beautiful terrace in Vatican City on the day the announcement was to be made. First he’d gouged his eyes from their orbits with an egg spoon taken off His Holiness’ own brunch table. His suicide note was written on the fine linen napkin upon which the fork had rested and was pinned to the spokesman’s chest. It consisted of an Old Italian word repeated over and over again that translated loosely into “know not.”
The Vatican contracted the Global News Network to beam the Answer into every home in the world. The producer of the segment took the entire newsroom hostage. After a twenty-hour stand-off he shot the anchor, three production assistants, a camera man, a make-up artist, and himself before British SAS breached the studio.
Finally, His Holiness the Pope appeared before the masses himself to give them their Answer. The ground split open on that day. The cobbled courtyard of the Vatican broke apart like a million tiny egg yolks and sucked half the Pope’s audience underneath it.
It was the first manifestation of the Answer’s effect on the world of mortal man, and it would not be the last.
By the end of that first year Maxon was fighting on the front lines of a new war. He realized exactly why he’d trucked with the Answer Crusades for so long. The goal was ultimately attainable, the enemy a tangible force to be battled and conquered. They’d long learned the folly and futility of battling a belief, any belief. Beliefs were what had brought the world to the brink.
But ideas and beliefs were child’s play. Battling a truth was the unwinnable war. A truth was absolute, impervious, undefeatable.
A single truth could unravel anything.
The knowledge was a solvent injected in the glue of the world. It was a razor slashing the fabric of space and time.
The ecosphere spanned half-a-mile in diameter. The bottom of its interior was anointed with ten million gallons of water drawn from the last vibrant sea in the Western hemisphere. It was enough to sustain life within the sphere for a century or more. Maxon commissioned it shortly before the final fall of Rome, although not as any kind of last chance ark. He had no intention of becoming Noah, nor the slightest desire to try. It was simply an elaborate life raft constructed for men and women who’d fought hard and deserved a finer ride to glory than being sucked into the bowels of an unmade world.
There was no means of navigation built into the sphere’s design. There hadn’t been time, and even if time wasn’t at such a dire premium Maxon didn’t see the point. Not anymore. There no longer remained a sustainable point to navigate towards. All the maps had become meaningless. Global Positioning Satellites shot invisible rays of light that pointed at nothing. Even the needle of every compass now simply sagged like a dying man resigned to his fate.
Day in and day out they floated atop a misshapen world coming apart at the seams. The land and the sea became an indistinguishable muck that swallowed cities and mountains whole. The sky that surrounded it blazed golden amber. It ate away at the blue of day and black of night like fire curling the edges of a photograph. The stars were all wrong now, and there fewer each time they shined. The sun began to break apart like a dying ember.
Inside the eco-sphere the old soldiers commiserated amidst a perpetual Indian summer. Dozier grilled an endless supply of steaks and burgers and dogs. Meta checked and rechecked the motion stabilizers that kept them all on their feet. The others told their war stories and drank just enough to fuel their laughter and made love to their men and women whom they’d brought with them.
Maxon, meanwhile, reclined in a battle-torn Lay-Z-Boy outside one of the many tract houses they’d had sealed inside the sphere. His Charger sat on concrete blocks and the tires hung on thick ropes from the sturdy branches of a hunchbacked oak in the front yard. Children would often swing on them joyously. He liked watching them.
The weary crusaders didn’t speak, not aloud, not to one another. There seemed to be no more words. Maxon kept a pair of canaries in a brass cage there beside his chair, a female and a male. He named them Leonore and Florestan out of some unexpected and out-of-character burst of nostalgia.
Entire days and nights passed during which the canary song was the only sound to fill the sphere’s interior, and they sang maudlin tunes that often seemed like conversation between the two.
About the Author
Matt Wallace is the author of The Next Fix, The Failed Cities, and the novella series, Slingers. He’s also penned over one hundred short stories, some of which have won awards and been nominated for others, in addition to writing for film and television. In his youth he traveled the world as a professional wrestler and unarmed combat and self-defense instructor before retiring to write full-time. He now resides in Los Angeles with the love of his life and inspiration for Sin du Jour’s resident pastry chef.
About the Narrator
Mat Weller is the servant to a lovely family in eastern Pennsylvania. After his wife and kids go to sleep at night, he sometimes re-watches old episodes of X-Files on Netflix and other times retires to his basement booth where he records noises that get played on the Internet. Rumor has it he also makes delightful chocolate chip cookies.
Oh, and in October 2014, he beat Metroid II for the first time since 1991.
Mat had the honor of producing for Escape Pod from 2010 to 2016. He is also a graphic designer, an amateur voice actor, an amateur father, and he narrates a growing catalog of books for ACX.