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Authors: Robert Kroese

Mercury Shrugs

BOOK: Mercury Shrugs
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MERCURY SHRUGS

A NOVEL BY
ROBERT KROESE

Copyright ©2016 Robert Kroese. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or other—except for brief quotations in reviews, without the prior permission of the author.

 

 

Published by Westmarch Publishing

westmarchpub.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Meredith.

 

..……………………………….

 

With thanks to: Joel Bezaire, Mark Fitzgerald, Mark Thompson and Charity VanDeBerg for their help in improving this book.

 

Thanks also to those who supported the Kickstarter to get this book published, particularly Julia Balitsky, Taylor Burton, Kristin Dexter, Colleen Diamond, Christopher Finlan, Brian and Donna Hekman, Justin Jelonek, Andrea Luhman, Steven Mentzel, Kristi Michels, Chad and Denise Rogers, Sean Simpson and Christopher Turner.

 

This is a work of fiction. If you see any names you recognize,
it’s probably a coincidence.

 

Author’s Preface

Welcome, dear reader. What you have in your hands is a novel titled
Mercury Shrugs
. If you were looking for psych 101, it’s down the hall.

Mercury Shrugs
is the fifth book in the Mercury series, but between you and me it’s okay if you haven’t read the other four. The plot of
Mercury Shrugs
might not make much sense to you if you haven’t read them, but that’s probably true either way, and if you read the books out of order at least you have an excuse.

I think of the first three books (
Mercury Falls
,
Mercury Rises
, and
Mercury Rests
) as a more-or-less self-contained trilogy.
Mercury Revolts
is a separate adventure, taking place a few years after the close of Mercury Rests.
Mercury Shrugs
picks up about a year after
Mercury Revolts
, and—kidding aside—I’ve done my best to make it accessible for new readers and veterans alike. This book also ties up some loose ends from the previous books. Well, maybe it doesn’t so much tie them up as tangle them together.

For those keeping score, the chronology goes like this:

 

“Mercury Begins” (short story)

Mercury Falls

“Mercury Swings” (short story)

Mercury Rises

Mercury Rests

Mercury Revolts

Mercury Shrugs

 

Dramatis Personae

Azrael:
Large horned demon, Lucifer’s second in command. Also in prison.

Chris Finlan:
Former mail-bomber and manifesto writer, currently in federal prison.

Christine Temetri:
Former journalist: Last known whereabouts: Northern Africa, c. 5,000 B.C.

Eddie Pratt (Ederatz):
A cherub who previously worked for the Mundane Observation Corps.

Jacob Slater:
Former scientist for the FBI. Last known whereabouts: Northern Africa, c. 5,000 B.C.

Lucas Jelonek:
A fourteen-year-old boy with a rebellious streak.

Lucifer:
The devil, currently in a prison somewhere below the Celestial City, in Heaven.

Mercury:
A cherub previously employed by Apocalypse Bureau.

Nisroc:
A dim-witted but well-meaning angel.

Special Agent Taylor Burton:
Head of the FBI Task Force on Beings of Indeterminate Origin.

Suzy Cilbrith:
Software tester who worked on the Brimstone Project, now unemployed.

Tiamat:
Demoness and former head of Chaos Faction, currently in a rebuilding phase of her career.

 

PROLOGUE

To Your Holiness the High Council of the Seraphim,

 

Greetings from your humble servant, Ederatz,

Etc., etc.

 

Let’s dispense with the formalities, shall we?

My name is Eddie. I’m stuck on Earth, AKA the Mundane Plane, with somewhere around a hundred other angels and about seven billion human beings, most of whom don’t smell very good.

All things considered, my situation is preferable to never having existed, which seemed to be a distinct possibility for a while there. I suppose it’s still a possibility now that I think about it; once you’ve established the contingency that you may never have existed, anything can happen—or not have happened, as it were. The good news is that if there are any efforts currently underway to erase my existence, I’m unaware of them. That’s the way I like it. If I’m going to not have existed, I want it to happen all of a sudden, so I don’t have a chance to think about it. “I think, therefore I am,” said the philosopher, but he was wrong. Thinking doesn’t buy you anything but worry, and it’s a seller’s market.

It’s not just me that almost never existed, of course. I’m nothing in the scheme of things. Nobody is going to go out of their way to make sure I never existed. My near-nonexistence was a mere byproduct of an attempt to rewrite the history of reality itself. But best laid plans and all that, so here I am, along with seven billion sweaty bastards, most of whom are oblivious to both their precarious hold on reality and, evidently, the existence of deodorant.

How did this threat to reality as we know it come about? Well, as usual, it started with good intentions, and I suppose I’m as much to blame as anyone.

As you know if you’ve read my previous reports, about five years ago the demoness Tiamat attempted to achieve complete mastery over space and time while Lucifer plotted to bring about the destruction of the universe by blowing up the mystical energy source known as the Eye of Providence. Thanks to the intervention of the angel Mercury and a pair of humans named Christine Temetri and Jacob Slater, both plots failed. Unfortunately, due to a fluke accident with a glass apple and a particle accelerator, Christine and Jacob were exiled seven thousand years in the past. Additionally, the primary means of transportation and communication between the Mundane Plane and the other planes was cut off when some knucklehead detonated a nuclear bomb in the planeport.

As a result of this latter event, any angels who happened to be on Earth at the time were stuck here, without any direction from Heaven. With all due respect, though, it isn’t entirely clear that the Mundane Plane was any worse off without Heavenly guidance. On one hand, Tiamat and her minions were very nearly successful in taking over the U.S. government and subjecting the entire population of the world to mind control. On the other hand, we had a solid five-year run during which nobody tried to bring about the apocalypse, which did wonders for property values.

In fact, for some time after Tiamat’s latest plan for world domination was thwarted, things were eerily quiet on the Mundane Plane. Tiamat’s terrorist organization, Chaos Faction, had been disbanded, and Tiamat herself had disappeared. The other prime candidate for the role of global despot, the archangel Michelle, had apparently gone into hiding as well. Lucifer was no threat, as he was still imprisoned in a dungeon beneath the Celestial City of Heaven, completely inaccessible from the Mundane Plane. And the only other angel with the capacity to wreak havoc on a truly epic scale lacked the will and attention span to do so: I hadn’t seen Mercury for months, but if history was any indication, he was probably in a bar somewhere in the tropics, using his miraculous powers to cheat some poor schlub at ping-pong.

Never one to leave well enough alone, though, I began to worry that somebody, somewhere, was up to no good. And that’s where all the trouble started.

“The results of this study indicate that the month of September of the year 1994 is to be the time for the end of history.… Look, let’s put it this way. My wife came to me and said we needed new linoleum in the kitchen. I told her that we should hold off on the effort and the expense of doing it until October or November of 1994.”

 

                                          − The Reverend Harold Camping

 

 

Ah, my Beloved, fill the cup that clears

To-day of past Regrets and future Fears

To-morrow? –  Why, To-morrow I may be

Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years.

 

                                          – Rubaiyat

 

Chapter One

Mentzel Ranch, just outside Elko, Nevada; April 29, 2013

 

The Apocalypse has a way of fouling up one’s plans. To its credit, humanity has done its best to anticipate the End of Days, but lacking any basis for a reliable timetable, they’ve jumped the gun on more than a few occasions. The Apocalypse’s stubborn refusal to arrive on schedule has caused no end of trouble for the people who have volunteered to announce its arrival. Those waiting at the metaphorical arrival gate for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are forced to eat a lot of metaphorical crow. And pay for a lot of metaphorical flooring.

Saint Clement I was one of the first to predict an imminent Apocalypse, around 90 A.D. He went around for several years telling the masses that the end was near. The masses responded by making him into a boat anchor. Once he was out of the way, they were free to replace their old linoleum.

A Roman priest and theologian once used the dimensions of Noah’s ark to predict that Christ would return in A.D. 500. When 500 ended with a whimper rather than a bang, he was forced to admit it was time to retile his foyer.

Later Christian scholars argued that Christ would wait for the odometer to flip before returning in glory. Never mind that they were using the wrong year for Christ’s birth; if it were up to them, there would have been a massive run on flooring materials at the beginning of the second millennium. The Great Linoleum Shortage of 1001 AD was forestalled only by the near universal inability to read a calendar.

Pope Innocent III was convinced that the Apocalypse would arrive on the 666
th
anniversary of the birth of Islam. The Pope’s regard for Mohammed notwithstanding, the mountain failed to arrive. He gave in and replaced the wood flooring in the Vatican with ceramic tile.

In 1669, The Old Believers in Russia barely avoided an expensive flooring upgrade by immolating themselves. This was before the days of zero-interest financing.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses nearly single-handedly prompted the rationing of flooring materials at various points in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with Apocalypses scheduled for 1891, 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975 and 1994.

After two thousand years of this, most people had grown a little jaded regarding the prospect of an imminent Armageddon. Predictions of The End became so common by the dawn of the third millennium that homeowners no longer thought twice about installing new flooring weeks or even days before a scheduled Apocalypse.

Installing new flooring is not in itself necessarily a sign of a lack of faith, of course. A perfectly reasonable argument can be made that if installing new flooring shortly before the End of Days is foolish, then hoarding one’s cash is even more so. After all, if the bill will never come due, then why not live a little?

On the other hand, some people simply don’t have the means to hedge their bets. Such was the case with Emily and Justin Jelonek of Rochester, New York, who had been saving for new carpet in their living room for three years. After catching a late night infomercial proclaiming the impending Apocalypse, Emily and Justin shelved their dreams of knotted pile, withdrew their savings from the bank, got in their 1992 Dodge Caravan, and drove across the country to rendezvous with the Messiah.

Their son, Lucas, like most fourteen-year-olds, was ambivalent about both carpeting and the apocalypse, but he was decidedly opposed to being dragged across the country when he could be at home playing
Call of Duty
. Thus, despite his age, young Lucas had a perspective on the prophesied Apocalypse that his parents lacked.

“It’s all bullshit,” he said from the rear of the Caravan. His parents had roused him at three in the morning, so he was even grumpier than usual that morning.

“You’d better not let Reverend Jonas hear you say that!” his mother snapped from behind the wheel.

“Reverend Jonas can blow me,” Lucas muttered.

“What did you say?” his mother demanded.

“I said Reverend Jonas is a phony.”

His mother glared at him in the rearview mirror, but of course she couldn’t make out his features in the near total darkness. Earlier in the trip Lucas’s outburst would probably have provoked an impromptu roadside prayer session, but he had calculated that they were now close enough to their destination that he could get away with it with minimal repercussions. In fact, as his mother opened her mouth to respond, his father pointed at a sign up ahead, barely legible in the glow from the Caravan’s headlights.

“Mentzel Ranch,” his father said. “Isn’t that the place?”

Emily Jelonek frowned and the minivan began to slow. She put on her left blinker. “Don’t think you’re getting a pass on this, Lucas,” she said. “There will be a reckoning.”

Lucas snorted. His mother liked to use Biblical-sounding language in an attempt to control him, and it occurred to him that this meeting with the so-called “Reverend” Jonas Bitters was a perfect opportunity to call her bluff. His parents would see that this whole Apocalypse business was nonsense, and that Bitters was just some deluded blowhard taking advantage of rubes desperate for meaning in their pathetic suburban lives—people like Emily and Justin Jelonek, in other words.

This belief was borne not merely of cynicism, of which Lucas admittedly had no shortage. On the thirty-hour drive from Rochester, Lucas had spent a fair amount of time on his iPhone researching the man responsible for his current situation: the Reverend Jonas Bitters. Lucas suspected, in fact, that he knew more about Jonas Bitters than his parents did. Either that, or they were even more naive than he thought.

Lucas had learned this was not the first time Bitters had predicted the Apocalypse. A little over a year prior, Bitters was humiliated when he summoned a group of nearly a hundred people—the members of an obscure cult known as The Church of the Bridegroom—to the remote Utah desert to witness the return of Christ. The whole sordid episode had been written up in great detail by a freelance journalist named Christine Temetri. Ordinarily, Lucas wouldn’t have paid attention to the author’s name, but Ms. Temetri’s picture appeared at the bottom of the article, and Lucas found her face oddly captivating in a way he couldn’t explain.
[1]
His research into Jonas Bitters was put on hold for some time while he used Google Image Search in an attempt to find more pictures of the somewhat odd-looking though strangely alluring Christine Temetri, but the results were disappointing. His efforts to determine the present whereabouts of Ms. Temetri were also unsuccessful: it was as if, shortly after writing the article on the Church of the Bridegroom, she had simply disappeared off the face of the Earth.

Frustrated with the lack of data on Christine Temetri, Lucas went back to combing the web for information about the man who called himself First Prophet of the Church of the Bridegroom. He learned that Jonas Bitters was a former recreational vehicle salesman who had, through a combination of spurious scriptural exegesis, excessive reliance on Google’s automated Hebrew-to-English translation service and mathematical errors that could have been caught by a bright third grader, happened upon April 29, 2012 as the date for the End of the World. He had also pinpointed the location of Christ’s return: a plateau on a desolate piece of land belonging to a rancher named Steve Mentzel, just outside of Elko, Nevada.

As Christine Temetri’s article—as well as the continued existence of the material world—indicated, Jonas Bitters and his congregation were disappointed: the Messiah did not return as foretold, and Bitters’s flock dissipated, their faith shaken.

Under ordinary circumstances, Jonas Bitters might have been forced to give up his illusions regarding his Divine Purpose and go back to selling Winnebagos. But over the next several weeks, some very strange events came to pass—namely, a sizable section of the city of Anaheim, California disappearing, and a third of the Moon imploding—that caused Reverend Jonas to think that maybe he had been on to something after all. He holed himself up in a Motel 6 in Stockton, California, while he went over his calculations one more time.

Reverend Jonas emerged three weeks later, claiming to have identified his error.
[2]
He called in to a local radio show, publicly begging forgiveness from God and his followers for his error, which he blamed on his “sinful nature” and “prideful conceit.” He was, he said, “completely wrong” to think that he could predict the end of the world by relying on “human reason.” It was foolish to think the Messiah would return on April 29, 2012. The actual date, he had now been reliably informed, was one year later: April 29, 2013. He insisted that the location, although also presumably determined through the use of “human reason,” remained accurate.

It was a testament to the human need to believe in something that Jonas’s revised date was rejected out of hand by only 99.2% of those listening. Given that the radio program had an audience of roughly six thousand people, that gave Jonas forty-eight people willing to hear him out. Those forty-eight people become the seed of the newly reconstituted Church of the Bridegroom, which at first met in a defunct Krispy Kreme location in Stockton. With the general unease arising from the quasi-apocalyptic events of the next few weeks, the church grew rapidly and soon had to move to the abandoned Pizza Hut next door.

The most recent article Lucas could find on Reverend Jonas, from a few weeks earlier, indicated that the Church had grown to perhaps three hundred people. There was no telling how many of these people would actually show up in Nevada, of course. It was one thing spend a couple of hours on Sunday holding hands and singing hymns in an old Pizza Hut; it was quite another to haul your ass to a desolate spot in a remote desert in the middle of the night. Lucas would have been surprised to see more than two hundred people there.

So when the Caravan crested a hill and its headlights showed hundreds of cars parked in neat rows ahead of them, his jaw dropped. He had seen smaller turnouts at Bills games his father had dragged him to. Lucas had always possessed a deep suspicion for the tribalistic impulses underlying sports fandom—a sentiment that was reinforced by his father’s inexplicable passion for a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since before Lucas was born.

“We’re late!” his mother fretted, pulling into an empty space between two other minivans. “If we miss Jesus because you had four pieces of sausage for breakfast...”

This imprecation was aimed at Lucas’s father, who had insisted they stop at an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet in Salt Lake City two hours earlier. That indulgence had resulted in an extended stop at a rest area shortly thereafter, during which Justin Jelonek’s wife and his digestive system cooperated to remind him that free will is an illusion.

Emily Jelonek turned off the engine and they climbed out of the car. Lucas and his father stood for a moment yawning and stretching in the cold desert air. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around.

“Should we get the—” Justin Jelonek started, gesturing toward the lawn chairs and other supplies they had packed in the back of the Caravan.

“We don’t have time!” Emily snapped. “It could be starting!” She aimed the small flashlight from her keychain on the ground in front of her and hurried off through the sea of cars. Lucas and his father scurried after her, afraid of being left alone in the dark.

The cars were parked some six rows deep. Just beyond them the driveway was blocked by a gate that had been chained shut. A sign on it read:

 

MENTZEL RANCH

TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT

 

Lucas’s mother squeezed through the gate opening, stepping over the chain, and his father followed.

“So we’re just going to, like, ignore the sign?” asked Lucas, pausing in front of the gate. He strongly doubted whether anyone cared enough about this remote parcel of scrub land to waste bullets defending it; his objection was prompted mostly by a desire to irritate his mother.

“Move it, Lucas!” his mother snapped, briefly shining the little flashlight in his eyes before turning and continuing on her way. Momentarily blinded, Lucas scowled and felt his way through the gap. He jogged to catch up to his parents, who seemed more than willing to leave him behind if it came down to it. He’d never seen his mother so worked up.

As they made their way up the low hill beyond the gate, Lucas wondered what it was that his mother thought she was missing exactly. Was she just worried about committing a faux pas, walking in late during Reverend Jonas’s presentation? Or did she really believe that Jesus Himself was going to descend from the clouds and call His followers home? He tried to picture the logistics of this scenario. In his research, he’d run across a painting of Jacob’s Ladder with angels traversing it, some going up and some going down. Judging by the number of cars he had seen, it would take hours to get all the attendees up a stairway like that, even if Heaven was located at a relatively low altitude. So if that’s what she was hoping for, there was no hurry—unless they were only admitting a limited number of people, which seemed pretty un-Jesus-y to Lucas.

The skies were clear, though: no sign of any sort of staircase, elevator, spaceship, or any other mode of transportation that might facilitate the ascension of the faithful. Cynical as he was, some part of Lucas had hoped he would see something, that it wasn’t all just bullshit. But of course it was. If there was one thing Lucas had learned in his fourteen years on planet Earth, it was that
everything
was bullshit.

BOOK: Mercury Shrugs
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