FICTION: Pillar of Fire 8 – Baptism

It’s human nature to reduce complex ideas to banal simplicity for convenience sake. Nature versus nurture. Which behaviors are learned and which are inherited? How much of our personality is predetermined? Are we born as blank slates? Even the questions are trite.

How does a spider know how to build a web? Spiders hatch from eggs and fend for themselves from birth. They aren’t taught. They just do.

How do salmon know how to return to the stream where they were born after swimming out to sea? How and why? Why is the snail kite a molluscivore? Why do your average run of the mill domestic dogs and cats exhibit deadly enmity on sight? The sight of another dog even of completely different stature elicits a set of reactions. The sight of a squirrel or rabbit another. The sight of a cat? Feral animosity.

DNA, genetics. We accept that our DNA contains the instructions for physical organisms. We know that the DNA of life on earth contains the blueprints to build an organism, the hardware, and the programming, the software, that instructs its constituent parts how and when to function. Engage secondary sexual reproduction organ maturation at approximately one and a half decades. Reduce growth hormones slightly over two decades. Begin termination sequence of self entity at six to nine decades. Every cell in your body, over and over again, every drop of blood or saliva, every skin cell, comes complete with the instruction set on how to build and operate you. Imagine one of the most complex computer programs ever written — it learns and edits itself over time — and then imagine that each character, each letter of each line of instructions, contains a copy of the entire program as well as the description and architecture for the computer that runs it. Miraculous.

What we ignore is genetic memory. We simplify the concept into instinct and drives, but what is instinct if not the inherited memory of how to operate your hardware passed on from generation to generation. The brain is not the sole domain of memory, of stored information. Biological data persists throughout our biology and throughout each species. Reproduction is a time and entropy resistant data transfer.

Somewhere inside the cells of a salmon is a line of code that is set to trigger on a timed delay and in reaction to environmental variables – let’s say water temperature and salinity:

  1. Priority override
  2. Get birth coordinates
  3. Swim while distance to birth coordinates decreases
    Override hunger routine
  4. Swim until distance to birth coordinates is less than x lengths of me
  5. Deposit eggs or semen
  6. Expire
  7. End program

Imagine the chapters in the online manual for your operating system.

  • Chapter 1, Introduction: What am I?
  • Chapter 2, Basic overview of your features and functions
  • Chapter 3, How to recognize your kind
  • Chapter 4, Reproduction: How to ensure there are more like you
  • Chapter 5, What to eat
  • Chapter 6, How to hunt
  • Chapter 7, How to hide, escape and evade
  • Chapter 8, Self defense and combat techniques
  • Chapter 38, Pain and illness
  • Chapter 39, Revolting odors and what they mean
  • Chapter 2,300, Expiration: Making way for the next generation

All of that. Built in. Encoded. In your fingernails, tears, urine, blood, saliva, reproductive fluids, skin, hair, teeth, and organs billions and billions of times over, relaying instructions between one another, coordinating, communicating, scheduling, repairing, building and rebuilding.

Mind equals blown. It’s beautiful and cruel. It forces you to ask yourself, “Am I more than elegant carbon based clockwork?”

How did this all come to be? How will it all end? Is there a progression, a direction to this?

We like to think of ourselves as being the top of the heap. Apex predator. The premiere model of life in the Universe as we know it. Maybe the only and best there will ever be. The most advanced sensory awareness the Universe has managed to propose in order to know itself. Homosapiens, baby. God’s personal pet artisan craft project.

What does it mean for the program to seek out, to know, to question the programmer?

What a friggin’ day. It’s hard to explain these things when you’re only conscious in brief flashes. It can’t be good for my central nervous system. I’m going to call my new “pet” Shadow and assume that it’s a he, which seems like a woefully inadequate concept sometimes.

Running along the track into the station with bullets whizzing, Shadow leaped up on to the platform. I briefly glimpsed muzzle flashes coming from behind a concrete bench, a pillar and the top of an escalator. The noise was deafening in the cathedral like tunnel. Shadow launched himself toward the nearest shooter, roaring with my throat. The shooter, decked out in tactical gear from head to toe,  scrambled back from behind the concrete bench, falling back to a pillar and firing the entire time. Shadow closed on him lashing out, barely missing him and leaving a gash on the tessellated floor.

A thunderous barrage of booms like thunder and I felt it. Large caliber weapon. Physics is flexible to some and transparent to others but it doesn’t stop being the law. Energy is energy. Force is force. Even Shadow was fazed. I blacked out and came to briefly down on one knee. Shadow was not happy. I could feel him revving up and didn’t look forward to what he was about to do with my body as his endoskeleton.

Through the cacophony of battle I heard the thumping of heavy, running footsteps and felt more than heard a low growl. Lights out. The next time my eyes opened I saw something that literally made me lose my breakfast.

I suppose it was what one would call a demon. Inaccurate, considering I had just met a handful of angels and demons are supposedly fallen angels? I guess. Maybe this is what a fallen angel’s fighting dog looks like. It was the essence of predator. Claws, fangs, ropey rippling muscles, spines down its back, ten feet tall walking on two reverse jointed legs. Smooth, black skin, four blazing blue eyes and a predator’s muzzle. A species much older than Earth but no stranger. Like if a carnivorous dinosaur mated with a balrog and its offspring was never held as a child.  I would say that it stank like a sewage plant on fire but in retrospect it was a metaphysical reek more than physical, as if being anywhere near it would leave you somehow broken, defiled and corrupted. Something in my genes recognized it even if I didn’t.

But what terrified me the most was that Shadow was on the verge of panic. I could feel him about to bolt and I didn’t know what that would look like. I found out the hard way.

Other-dimensional soul parasites don’t have much respect for your typical human sense of orientation. Shadow jumped from the station platform high on to the tunnel wall. I was upside down and facing back toward the platform and the monstrous entity loping toward us. Shadow scurried along the wall like a lizard while I strobed in and out of consciousness.

I noticed that Lily and Gabriel had made their way into the station proper. Gabriel made his way from pillar to pillar. A barrage of gunfire chewed up the pillar he crouched behind and a chunk the size of basketball blew off uncomfortably close to his face. Oh, I see. Strategy. Gabriel had the attention of our attackers while Lily edged ever closer to flank them. And holy s— did she flank them.

She started by throwing a grenade at the top of the escalator where the .50 caliber was perched. I love watching super soldiers work – when they’re on my side. She threw it so hard that it crunched the concrete and exploded on impact with a whoomp and a ball of flame. One of the GKS mercs realized what was happening but it didn’t do him much good. He blasted away at Lily from behind a pillar while the other two continued taking potshots at Gabriel.

Shadow proceeded to climb even higher from the demon dog as it unsuccessfully tried to claw its way up. Here’s something to know about demon dogs. They spit flaming acid. Who knew?

And they jump very high.

Crouching, Lily picked up a large chunk of concrete by a protruding length of rebar and used it as a shield. Pock marks appeared in the concrete from assault rifle rounds. She calmly stood and walked directly at her attacker. He fired round after round and the concrete began to chip away. Lily threw it in his direction and it burst into fragments of concrete and rebar projectiles against the pillar her attacker used as cover. The impact caused him to stumble and Lily shot him in the head as he fell.

The final attacker was on his own except for his guard dog from hell. Realizing the gravity of his situation he tried to run. Two quick shots from Lily from twenty yards and he went sprawling, alive, mostly unharmed due to his body armor, and gasping for air. He was a tough guy with a lot of fight in him. He didn’t scream or panic. He grunted with pain with each shot and shakily drew a knife from its holster at his hip so Lily shot him in the thigh and shoulder as she strode deliberately toward him.

Shadow’s hearing is preternatural. I caught audio glimpses as Lily leaned over the downed mercenary and questioned him. He was obstinate, initially. Even when she applied pressure to a bullet wound. But when she indicated that she would throw him to the demon hound like a gravy covered pot roast he caved. We all cave, given the right wrong circumstances.

With gritted teeth he said, “The doors are opening. The first breach of light has shone. The vermin and pests seep through the cracks.”

Lily said, “We don’t have time for bad prose, dickhead. Who, what, where, when, and sometimes why?”

Her captive continued, growing more agitated, “Two thousand years of being unsupervised. It’s over. What’s that mean for us humans. We’re not the bad guys. We fight for human liberty and freedom. You’re on the wrong side, bitch.”

Gabriel looked grim. He said, “You’re wrong, you’re scared, and you’re weak.”

The captive weakly spit bloody saliva in Gabriel’s direction. He said, “Sure. When all you freaks come back after a two millennia layover – your big boss is a bit heavy handed. We won’t be cattle again. We won’t be pawns for your games. We won’t sit around like children waiting for answers. Like sheep being led to slaughter. This time we’ll fight.”

“God Killer Squad,” Lily said scornfully.

“Goddamn right, b—“

Lily launched a quick jab to the side of his head and he passed out violently.

“A little help!” I managed to yell. Lily and Gabriel both looked up in my direction as Shadow skittered up and around the wall and ceiling while the demon dog lashed out and snarled in frustration.

Lily and Gabriel looked at my predicament. They looked at the demon dog, looked at each other, looked back at me, and looked at each other again.

I tried to shout, “Do something!”

I mean, come on. A super soldier and an angel. Take action. Be assertive. Save my ass. They stood there and after briefly discussing options Gabriel said, “Keep it busy.”

Keep it busy? Keep it busy??  How the hell—

Have you ever chased an animal and made the mistake of cornering it? If you corner an animal, regardless of its size it will at some point decide that it has run out of options. Flight being exhausted as an option, only fight remains. Frantic go-for-the-soft-spots flight. As it turns out, Shadow is a brawler. It’s a shame he had to use my body to do it. He launched from high on the wall straight at the demon dog. I blacked out, don’t ya know.

Briefly I came to admits a flurry of slashing, snarling, biting, blood, and acid saliva. I blacked out again.

When I came to I was running on the subway tunnel tracks. I noticed a sign indicating Rosslyn. Behind me I heard footsteps. I chanced a glance over my shoulder and saw Lily running behind me catching up very quickly carrying the unconscious mercenary she had shot over one shoulder like a sack of potatoes. It didn’t seem to slow her down one bit. Farther behind her there was a bright flare of blue-white light. Gabriel, his back to us, was warding off the demon dog which seemed to have an aversion to Gabriel’s flaming staff. It lashed out hesitantly.

Lily caught up to me.

I said, “What happened?”

She said, “Shut up. Run.”

I ran. She passed me and proceeded to leave me in the dust. I lost sight of her as she rounded a bend in the tunnel. I tried to run faster but the strain of the day was wearing on me. I was beyond bone weary.

I noticed that the bright blue-white flare was moving toward me from behind. Gabriel was running toward me and the demon dog wasn’t far behind.

To my surprise I saw Lily running back toward us. She shouted, “There’s another one ahead.”

She dropped her prisoner to the ground unceremoniously and pulled her rifle. I had to shield my eyes from Gabriel as he ran toward us.

I said, “Sooooooo?”

Lily said, “We’re running out of options, Gabriel. You’ve got to do something.”

Gabriel said, “That’s not the best idea.”

“Not much of a choice,” Lily said.

I said, “So what’s going on? Zap something with your light saber or whatever. What’s the holdup?”

The thundering footsteps of a demon dog coming from each direction echoed down the tunnel. There was an occasional spark and sizzle in the air as their oversized clawed feet struck the electrified third rail.

Gabriel said, “Can you swim?”

“Um. What? Not really. Why?”

Lily said “Ever try to drink from an open fire hydrant?”

Gabriel held out his flaming staff nearly vertically in front of him. He said, “I’d back up if I were you.”

Two things happened then. Or one thing but in two directions. A shaft of blazing light shot out from both ends of his staff – one up and one down – boring upward through the tunnel ceiling and downward through the floor at a very steep angle. It dissolved a smoothly walled cylinder with glowing hot edges about three yards in diameter. Then there was a sizzling sound and a marked increase in the humidity levels.

Oh. I got it. I said, “We’re under the river aren’t we?”

The water came.

Previous episodes of Pillar of Fire:
Part 1 – Gathering of Angels
Part 2 – Sisterhood of the Traveling Halos
Part 3 – Lily
Part 4 – Homeless Joe
Part 5 – Infected
Part 6 – Undead Exodus
Part 7 – Into the Underworld

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